Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Thoughts on the "Fantastic Four" Teaser Trailer

So, it's finally here: the first official trailer for Josh Trank's Fantastic Four reboot. With the exception of the notorious and unreleased 1994 version, 20th Century Fox first brought Marvel's First Family to screens with 2005's Fantastic Four and then with the sequel, 2007's Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, both directed by Tim Story. Both films were met with negative reactions from both critics and fans. Now the studio, along with Trank, the director of the found footage superhero film Chronicle (2012), is attempting to reignite the franchise, likely hoping for this to be the Batman Begins of the franchise.

In an era where we knew the entire story of The Amazing Spider-Man before the films were even released, info on Fantastic Four has been sparse, and the production incredibly secretive. Principal photography on the film finished without any set photos of the actors in costume. It was only yesterday when we first got a picture of Michael B. Jordan (who plays the Human Torch/Johnny Storm and who starred in Chronicle) in his costume. And now, with the film coming out in August, we finally get our first trailer. August is still months away but it's rare it's taken this long for a superhero/franchise film to debut a trailer. Not that I'm complaining. I'm thankful we haven't been bombarded Amazing Spider-Man-style with too much marketing. I would keep as much info as possible close to the chest.

Trank and his film has had an uphill battle for some time now. Many fans have a vendetta against the film, trashing it every chance they get. This is due to comments from the cast which suggest the film is going to take departures from the source material, most notably in regards to the Fantastic Four's main adversary. Toby Kebbell (Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) takes the role of Dr. Doom in this film.  Kebbell said the character- who in the comics is the leader of the fictional country Lavernia- will be an "anti-social programmer," whom on blogging sites is known as "Doom." This information on Dr. Doom's new origin caused controversy. And rumours about back stage trouble between Trank and the studios added fuel to the fire that the film would be a complete misfire.

With the teaser finally released, I feel the tide may be shifting slightly, even though there's still  skepticism about the film. I know many want the Fantastic Four film rights to go back to Marvel so they can put them in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I understand that desire- and admittedly it'd be cool to see the Fantastic Four interact with Rocket Raccoon- but I already know what a Fantastic Four film made by Marvel Studios would look and feel like. I'm more attracted to the idea of a Fantastic Four movie that exists outside of the Marvel Studios formula.

I would agree with anyone who said the Fantastic Four aren't inherently dark characters. Aside from the tragedy of Ben Grimm being stuck as a giant rock monster they are, in many ways, the most light hearted heroes in the Marvel universe.  The trailer have a more somber tone than what people would expect. I do hope this isn't going to be another Man of Steel. I like Zack Snyder's Superman reimagining more than others but I do consider it too oppressively serious.

That being said, I hesitate to fall back on "It's ripping off The Dark Knight," "It's trying to be too realistic," or using words like "dour," "grim." and gritty." I don't want to label the film and pretend it can only be one type of film. I like to think Trank will blend multiple tones instead of being monotone. What I personally inferred from the teaser is the film will have a similar tone to Bryan Singer's X-Men films- also produced by Fox. I see Trank's vision as low key and less colourful but still having humour and some exciting action sequences. The teaser is somber but I don't envision the film as "gritty" or the characters as "brooding."

In the trailer we get our first glimpse at the new iterations of the foursome. Miles Teller plays Reed Richards. Reed is typically the dad figure of the group- with Sue Storm as the mother and Ben and Johnny being the squabbling children. In this version the filmmakers are clearly going for a younger version of Reed- more of an eager young scientist than a established family man. Supposedly this version of Reed will be close to the Ultimate universe version of the character.

Kate Mara plays Sue, Johnny's sister. Much has been made of the fact that Johnny is African American in this version, and Sue and Johnny are said to be adopted in this film. Fans have taken issue with Sue and Johnny not being blood relatives, an important aspect of their relationship. I understand that criticism but I don't feel making the two adopted is an unreasonable change. What's most important- to me at least- is Mara and Jordan having strong chemistry That, and the script providing material that allows them to create a believable and emotionally tangible relationship.

The most unusual casting is Jamie Bell as Ben/The Thing. Bell looks a more muscular in the trailer but his previous roles don't suggest large similarities with Ben. However, Bell is a fine actor and I'm looking forward to what he brings to the role.


Coming back to Jordan, I think he has the right blend of cockiness and charisma to pull off Johnny.

This teaser is more about mood than it is about telling us what the plot/story is. And most of the superhero shenanigans are kept in the background. Moreover, costume-wise, the film is foregoing the traditional blue suits with the 4 emblems and going down the Singer X-Men route with plain black. There's also more a sci-fi vibe to the teaser than a superhero one, which I'm not against, considering Fantastic Four comics always leaned towards the sci-fi.

I am a little skeptical about them doing another origin story. As with The Amazing Spider-Man the film may be locked in to the constraints of being a set-up film. Ideally, Trank has transcended the mechanics of the origin story and craft something more than a simple origin story.  

Not being as passionate about the Fantastic Four as others, maybe I'm the real audience for this film. The best case scenario for Fox is if it can win over fans and non fans alike. We'll see how things turn out on August 7, when Fantastic Four will finally be seen by audiences.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

My Musings on the 2015 Oscar Nominations

It's the day that causes both joy and rage in the hearts of cinephiles around the world. Yes, it's Oscar nomination day. As to expected, there were sure things, glaring omissions, and some pleasant surprises. But this is also one of the Academy's most controversial years. The big snub everyone is talking about is the almost complete shutout of Ava DuVernay's Selma, the film about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fight for the right for African Americans to vote. Selma did manage a Best Picture nomination, as well as Best Original Song, David Oyelowo's acclaimed performance as King did not make it in to the Best Actor race, and DuVernay did not receive a Best Director nomination. If she had gotten the nomination she would've been the first African American woman to be nominated in the category. I haven't seen Selma so I can't give my opinion on the film but it is a shame that a film which is so relevant to America right now doesn't have more of a presence in the nominations. And the fact that all the acting nominees are white is a big step backwards after last year's most diverse line up.  

The Best Supporting Actor category didn't offer any surprises. The nominees are Robert Duvall for The Judge, Ethan Hawke for Boyhood, Edward Norton for Birdman, Mark Ruffalo for Foxcatcher and J.K. Simmons for Whiplash. Hawke has grown on me over the years and Linklater has gotten what may be the best performance from him in Boyhood. Ruffalo continues to be an underrated actor and I'd love to see him win one day but I think Simmons is a lock for the win. His performance as the drill-sergeant-like music instructor Terence Fletcher is terrifying, pathetic, and compelling.

The nominees for Best Supporting Actress are: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood, Laura Dern, Wild, Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game, Emma Stone, Birdman, and Meryl Streep, Into The Woods. Admittedly, I don't bang the drum for Emma Stone like others do. I was hoping she'd be left out. However, she's been a lock for a nomination for a while. Though to be fair, she is good in the film. Canada's own Jean-Marc Vallee has for the second consecutive year directed two actors to lead and supporting nominations. Last year his film Dallas Buyers' Club garnered nominations and subsequent wins for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. His follow up film Wild not only got Dern an unexpected nomination but Witherspoon is also nominated for Best Actress. Streep is here because she's Streep. 

As with Supporting Actor this category is already sown up by this point. Arquette is the frontrunner and will walk away with the Oscar. She played the part of Olivia Evans over 12 years As with everything about Linklater's Boyhood, this provides a rare authenticity to her performance. But putting aside Boyhood's narrative conceit, Arquette gives a lived in and emotionally honest performance. And like Simmons Arquette has a hard working and reliable actor for many years. I thin many feel she's due for Oscar's recognition.

In Best Actress we have: Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night, Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore, Still Alice,  Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl, and Reese Witherspoon, Wild. It's great to see Pike nominated here. There was a question of whether her role as Amy Dunne was too unlikable and evil to get a nomination but it's a challenging role and Pike deserves acknowledgement for pulling it off.. Cotillard sneaked in this year, after getting boatloads of for her performance in both this film and The Immigrant. I think pundits were expecting Amy Adams to get in for Tim Burton's Big Eyes but Cotillard took that spot. It appears it's a "due" year for Moore. She's received five Oscar nominations- including today's- but has never won. In Still Alice, Moore plays a woman who's diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It feels like not many people outside the critic community has seen  or heard about the film. But the role sounds like the type that wins actors Oscars. If Witherspoon hadn't won already for 2005's Walk The Line, she'd be more of a threat. But I think this is Moore's year.

For Best Actor it's: Steve Carell, Foxcatcher, Bradley Cooper, American Sniper, Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game, Michael Keaton, Birdman, and Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything. Cooper was a big surprise, upsetting Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler and the aforementioned David Oyelowo for Selma. I'm disappointed that Gyllenhaal didn't get nominated. His performance as Lou Bloom- a psychopathic cameraman who becomes obsessed with documenting grisly crimes, is a career best from him. While The Theory of Everything was certainly a conventional biopic I thought Redmayne gave a convincing performance as Stephen Hawking. Some expected Carell to get shut-out but his against-type performance as Olympic wrestling coach John Du Pont deservedly made the cut. But his role is somewhat a supporting role, which may hurt his chances at winning. I predict Keaton will win. He's the comeback story of the year, playing an actor who's striving for a comeback. Keaton has been one of our most underrated actors his entire career. The Oscar will be a bittersweet reward for both Birdman and decades of strong work It also helps that Birdman is one of the most acclaimed films of 2014.

The five Best Director nominees are; Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman, Richard Linklater, Boyhood, Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher. and Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game. The Best Picture nominees are: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash. Anderson and Linklater- two of the finest American directors of the past twenty years- received their first career nominations for Best Director, so congratulations to these talented guys. Miller is the only nominee in the Best Director category whose film wasn't nominated for Best Picture. It's saddening that such a rich and intelligent work such as Foxcatcher wasn't nominated for Best Picture. I know many hate Inarritu and feel he's a pretentious fraud and Birdman is heavy-handed and empty- but I loved the experience of watching that film and am keen to see it again. Tyldum's direction in The Imitation Game is decent but I wouldn't his work above Whiplash's Damien Chazelle or Inherent Vice's Paul Thomas Anderson. And again, it would have been amazing for DuVerney to be included.

I'm happy my two top two favourite films of 2014, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash are Best Picture nominees but Boyhood and its director appear to be the frontrunners. The Academy loves a good narrative to go along with their winners and Boyhood has the most daring and incredible narrative of all this year's nominees. Shot over 12 years, showing one actor- Ellar Coltrane- age from 6 to 18, Boyhood was a passion project for Linklater, who also made the Before Trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). Those films explored the relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) over nearly twenty years. Linklater didn't initially plan to make the latter two films of that series but he had a clear vision for Boyhood from the outset. The resulting film is the most critically adored film of the year. If it wins Best Picture/Best Director then it's something critics and the academy can actually agree on.

In Original Screenplay, I'll go with Birdman and in adapted I'll say Whiplash (adapted from Chazelle's short film)

Like many, I'm disheartened The Lego Movie wasn't nominated for Best Animated feature. That's a truly joyous and inventive film. In Best Visual Effects, I think Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes it due to the outstanding motion capture work. In Cinematography, Roger Deakins may get snubbed again for his work in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken. Emmanuel Lubezki won last year for Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity and may nab a repeat win for Birdman and it's "one take" camera work. CitizenFour, Laura Poitras' documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, is the only nominated documentary I've seen. For me, it's a sharp character study of Snowden as well as film about the big issues of privacy and government spying. I'd like to see it win. 

So, that's it for now. The 87th Academy Awards will be held on February 22nd. See you there.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Thoughts on the Bond 24 Announcement

It was an exciting day for James Bond fans as the title, cast, and synopsis for the 24th Bond film was announced. The title will be Spectre, which I found the most exciting piece of info gained from the announcements. Calling the new film Spectre is the Bond movie equivalent of the next Captain America film being labelled Civil War. Even without seeing a trailer, fans know to be excited.

For those not acquainted with the Bond mythos, SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) was the shadowy terrorist organization that was a consistent presence in the early Sean Connery Bond films (and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with one-timer George Lazenby).  But the Bond films were not able to use SPECTRE and its bald leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld (the inspiration for Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies) for several decades. This was due to producer/director Kevin McClory (who died in 2006) and his estate owning the film rights to the organization and character of Blofeld. In the late 1950s McClory worked with Fleming on a screenplay for a James Bond film. This was several years before the first James Bond film- Dr. No- in 1962. When that project fell through Fleming turned the screenplay in to the novel Thunderball. McClory was not credited. This is what led to the legal troubles. In November of last year MGM and McClory’s estate came to an agreement and now the Bond films are free to use SPECTRE and Blofeld.

Here is the official synopsis for the film:  A cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organisation. While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind SPECTRE.

The big question I have is what does this mean for Quantum, the organization that was behind the scenes in Casino Royale (the first Daniel Craig Bond film) and was the focus of its sequel, Quantum of Solace? I’ve theorized for several years that Quantum was this continuity’s version of SPECTRE. But if Spectre refers to the literal organization from the original films does that mean Quantum is just an offshoot of SPECTRE? I think there’s a good chance that’s the direction the film (and series) is headed. I know Quantum of Solace is not one of the most beloved Bond films but I don’t think the film can be ignored, particularly when its events are so closely linked with that of Casino Royale, a film most fans want to keep canon. And if Quantum is just one arm of SPECTRE, then it makes the loose ends regarding Quantum at the end of Quantum of Solace work a little bit better. Quantum isn't the big picture like we thought. There’s something- and someone- even bigger behind them.   

Another question on people’s minds- is Christoph Waltz playing Blofeld? The Oscar winning actor was rumoured to be playing a villainous role in the film and this it was confirmed today. The character he will be playing is named Oberhauser. It’s been pointed out that Oberhauser was the name of a character from the literary James Bond. Hans Oberhauser was Bond’s ski instructor and surrogate father after the death of his parents. Waltz is reportedly playing Franz Oberhauser, Hans' son, which would give the battle between Bond and Waltz’s character a more personal edge. Though many believe Oberhauser will just be a cover name for Waltz’s character- and he’ll eventually be revealed as Blofeld.

We’ve been through this song and dance several times with Hollywood blockbusters, most notoriously with Star Trek Into Darkness. Benedict Cumberbatch was said to be playing a villain named “John Harrison.” This character was in fact Khan Noonien Singh, arguably the most iconic Star Trek villain. Marion Cotillard was supposedly playing “Miranda Tate” in Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. Miranda was Talia Al Ghul, the daughter of Ra's Al Ghul, in disguise.  This sort of misdirection usually backfires because audiences- and fans- are so speculative.  Also the internet makes it easier to discover spoilers.

Some are speculating that Waltz is just a red herring and fellow new cast member Andrew Scott (James Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock), whose character is an MI6 agent named Denbigh, may be playing Blofeld. Though with all this speculation, maybe Blofeld won’t be in the movie at all. Maybe he’ll just be a spectre, a presence that will be teased for the next film, like the Joker in Batman Begins. What I love about the film’s ending is we only seeing the Joker's calling card, which is more exciting then actually seeing him.  

Most of the new cast members were rumours waiting to be confirmed. Waltz and Scott I already mentioned. Professional wrestler Dave Bautista playing a henchman named Mr. Hinx. Bautista was a standout in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy. He has natural charisma so I hope this role doesn't waste him. Lea Seydoux, who played a femme fatale role in the last Mission Impossible, will be playing the new Bond woman Madeline Swan. Seydoux is one of those actresses who epitomizes the glamour and exoticness of the Bond woman. I think she’ll be great. I believe Monica Bellucci will be playing the secondary Bond woman, named Lucia Sciarra. Bellucci just turned 50 in September, making her the oldest actress to play a Bond woman, which I think is awesome.

Craig returns for his fourth appearance as the iconic secret agent. Ralph Fiennes will be playing Bond's superior, M. This will be the first Bond film in 10 years not to feature Judi Dench as M. M. Dench’s M died at the end of the previous film, Skyfall, being replaced by Fiennes’ Gareth Mallory. Ben Whishaw as Q, Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny, and Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner also reprise their roles.

Skyfall director Sam Mendes returns to the director’s chair. Skyfall- while not my absolute favourite Bond film- is probably the best directed film in the franchise so I have no problem with Mendes directing another Bond film. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot Skyfall and provided gorgeous imagery for the film, won’t be returning. Hoyte van Hoytema will be the cinematographer for Spectre.  Hoytema has shot Spike Jonze’s Her, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, David O. Russell’s The Fighter, Let the Right One In and Christopher Nolan’s latest, Interstellar. Judging by his previous work, I’m confident his work on this film will be stellar.

Thomas Newman wrote the score for Skyfall and he’ll return to score this film. There’s no confirmation on who will sing the theme song, though rumours say it’s going to be Sam Smith. John Logan and long time Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade wrote the screenplay. Logan also wrote Skyfall with Purvis and Wade.    

Spectre will begin shooting next week and will be released on November 6, 2015. As always, James Bond has returned.

PS. The teaser poster for the film is an homage to the classic Spectre logo:

Thursday, 13 November 2014

For Noirvember: "Time is luck:" Some Thoughts on Michael Mann's "Miami Vice"

Spoilers Ahead

When Michael Mann's Miami Vice- based on the 1984-89 series he executive produced- was released in 2006, the reaction from audiences and critics was mixed. It's not too surprising that the film didn't completely hit off with audiences or critics. For one, The film doesn't satisfy genre expectations of a crime thriller. There's not a lot of action, the story is slow paced in many sections, Farrell and Foxx trade nary a one liner, and most of the characters come across as flat and uninteresting. But since its release, the film has been embraced by critics and toted as a masterpiece. I'm not quite prepared to give the film that label; but I do feel the film is a beautiful and singular work that only could've been directed by Michael Mann.

I think Mann used the title so he could then subvert audiences' expectations of what a big screen Miami Vice remake would look and feel like. While it does borrow elements from the series, this is not a homage to the show. There are no cheeky references and it's not interested in being meta like the 21 Jump Street films that came later. Mann and his actors play things straight. Mann uses digital photography (As he did with 2004's Collateral and 2009's Public Enemies) to create a real world atmosphere and puts us in the midst of the action throughout the entire film. The movie exists between the real and the romanticized, resulting in something truly sublime. Instead of a throwback to the style of the 80s, Mann forges a visual landscape that's thoroughly modern but also transcends its era and becomes timeless.

If haven't seen the film yet then try to get your hands on the theatrical cut. In North America, the director's cut is the only version of the film available. The director's cut begins with a prologue that sets the stage for a prostitution ring bust by Miami police officers Sonny Crockett (Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Foxx). This set-up takes away from the theatrical cut's opening, in which we're shoved right in to the night club, where the bust is to happen, music blaring, the camera giving us close-ups of our main players.

Sonny and Rico soon become involved in a undercover operation to take down a drug cartel. They meet up with Jose Yero (John Ortiz), the second in command to the cartel's leader, Archangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar).  Montoya's financial adviser and lover is Isabella (Gong Li), with whom Sonny becomes romantically involved.

After seeing the film three times, I still couldn't tell you every aspect of the plot. But with many noir and noir-inspired films, I don't think the plot is what really matters. Mann uses the plot to further create a feeling of authenticity. When characters on screen about what's going on, we feel we're getting a first hand view at the way these kinds of operations go down. What really matters to Mann is the existential dilemmas for the characters, which I find is also the most noir aspect of the film. As Sonny and Isabella begin their love affair, they're both very conscious it has no future. Again, this is a very noir-like sentiment. Noir characters exist in a fatalistic world where there's usually only one outcome, and it's usually tragic.

Ricardo and fellow police officer Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris) are also in a romantic relationship. While their relationship has a more optimistic future, Trudy is kidnapped by the Aryan Brotherhood who is working with Montoya's cartel. Trudy is rescued but then nearly killed by a bomb detonated by Yero. This incident makes real to Rico the fact this job can get Trudy killed. Rico tells Sonny: You know what gets me. The prospect of her losing her life over this bullshit line of work."  When Sonny asks if that's what Trudy thinks, Rico says "No, it's what I think." It's a nice character moment for Rico, showing his vulnerability but his anger in the face of violence.


While the characters in Miami Vice seem at first glance to be a little flat, after a few viewings they become more textured and interesting than on an initial viewing. The aforementioned scene is an important one in showing the warmth and openness between Crockett and Tubbs. Then there's the scene between the two before the final shootout which Rico asks if Sonny is ready for his relationship with Isabella to end. Sonny says he's "most definitely not ready." That Sonny is able to be this honest- and like Rico earlier, vulnerable- with his partner further highlights the strength of their partnership.

Similar to the noirs of the classic studio era, Miami Vice creates a heightened language of its own. "Why do I get the feeling everyone know we're 15 blocks out?" asks Sonny as he and Rico are on their way to see Yero. "'Cause everyone knows we're 15 blocks out" replies Rico. The film's dialogue is also what helps give the characters texture. One of the best scenes in the film is the first meeting with Yero, in which Sonny and Rico have to convince Yero to use them in the cartel's operations. Sonny and Rico turn the tables on Yero, asking him if he's a cop. And Rico says to Yero: "[W]e didn't come down here to audition for business. Business auditions for us." This scene showcases the tightrope undercover cops have to walk when entering in to this kind of world and working with criminals. And the scene questions how much is this the real Sonny and Rico, and how much is just play acting.

Mann employs music to sell the emotions of the film. A major example is the use of Moby's "One of These Mornings." Mogwi's "Auto-Rock" plays over the final passages of the film and is another example of how the perfect song can enhance the emotion of what's on screen. Miami Vice has what may be one of my favourite closing shots in any film. Sonny comes back to the hospital where Trudy has just woken up from her coma. Sonny has sent Isabella away but there's still hope for Rico and Trudy. The long shot of Sonny entering the hospital is so simple but- with "Auto-Rock playing over it- so sadly beautiful. Just as how the film opened right in the midst of the story, so the story ends just as abruptly, highlighting the matter-of-factness of these people's lives. The fatalism of the story comes not from things ending, but things having to continue on almost without change- but with the memory of what could've been.  

Friday, 7 November 2014

For Noirvember- "Marx wasn't a German, Marx was a Jew:" Some thoughts on Orson Welles' "The Stranger."

Spoilers Ahead

Orson Welles' 1946 film The Stranger takes place in what is- stylistically speaking- a self-contained noirish universe. But its story and theme concern real world events: the Holocaust and Nazi war criminals who hid after the end of World War II. 

Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator from the War Crimes Commission, releases a former ally of  the fugitive Nazi Franz Kindler's (Orson Welles) named Konrad  Meinike (Konstatin Shayne) in the hope he'll lead Wilson to Kindler. Wilson follows Meinike to the town of Harper, Connecticut. Kindler has assumed the identity of Charles Rankin, a prep school teacher.  Kindler is to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice Adam Longstreet (Philip Merivale). Kindler hopes his marriage to Mary will offer his further protection against any attempts to reveal his identity.       

The Stranger reminds me of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, released three years prior to this film, in which Joseph Cotton plays a serial killer who comes to stay with his family in California. The film was about the juxtaposition of an idyllic town and the monster hiding amongst its people; the fear of evil invading America. The Stranger deals with similar themes but with more historical significance. A Nazi war criminal would be an invader and corrupter of America. But Harper in the perfect place for Kindler to hide, he tells Meinike. Who would look for a Nazi war criminal in a small Connecticut town? Kindler also creates an ideal identity: a kindly teacher who will marry in to a respected family. But Kindler only sees his life as Rankin as temporary; an interlude until there is another war and the Nazis rise again. Kindler is hiding from his past- as film noir characters often do- but he's also ready to embrace his former identity when the time comes. Kinder then kills Meinike to protect his identity.  

Wilson is more of an outsider than Kindler- who has become a intrinsic part of the community. Wilson becomes is the primary suspect, the only suspect in Meinike's murder. Wilson is posing as an antiques collector and one theory is he killed Meinike over a priceless antique. Kindler's false identity makes him part of the community, whereas Wilson's gives him a possible motive for murder. Robinson's rough features makes him feel more like an "other" than Welles' debonair looks.         

In one of the film's pivotal scenes, Wilson has dinner with Kindler and the Longstreets. There is discussion about German culture post WWII. Kindler doesn't believe the German people can be reformed post-Holocaust. Kindler says "The will to freedom has been voiced in every other tongue- ''All men are created equal," liberte, egalite, fraternite- but in German."  This leads Mary's brother Noah (Richard Long) to mention Karl Marx and his quote about the working class starting a revolution. Kindler replies that Marx wasn't German, he was a Jew. This gives Kindler away to Wilson. [W]ho but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German because he was a Jew?" asks Wilson later. Despite Kindler's best efforts to hide his true identity, this one remark is a subtle but crucial clue to his true self.  It's the smallest thing that can reveal who we truly are.    

What The Stanger is most notable for is its use of footage of the Nazi concentration camps, a very daring scene for what was a mainstream Hollywood film. Wilson shows Mary this footage as he reveals the truth about her husband. Wilson is not only telling Mary her husband is a Nazi but is showing her the reality of who the Nazis were, illustrating something Americans had at the time only heard about. The scene isn't just about Mary's reaction but the audience's as well. Mary refuses to believe Wilson. Wilson tells Mary's father that her denial is about not wanting to believe she could ever love a monster. Mary eventually confronts her husband about his true identity. He attempts to kill her but is prevented by Wilson and Noah.

Kindler's fascination with clocks leads him to repair the timepiece in the town's clock tower, which is where the film's climax occurs. The clock tower has a claustrophobic atmosphere. This is highlighted by Wilson telling Kindler the world closed in on him, then the town, now this clock tower.

While Welles considered The Stranger to be his least favourite among his own films, it was in fact the only film of his to be a box office success upon release. It does feel more audience friendly film than some of Welles' other films, it's style- while Wellesian- is in tone with other noirs of the time. But despite being a conventional noir thriller in some ways, The Stranger is still an important and daring work in the Welles' oeuvre. It wasn't afraid to confront the subject of the Holocaust and the aftermath of the war. It blends the stylized world of film noir while injecting it with footage of the locations of actual atrocities. The Stranger is a splendidly made film which has a social significance that's still relevant today.  

Sunday, 12 October 2014

What Have We Done To Each Other? What Will We Do?: "Gone Girl"

Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead

Throughout his career David Fincher has been attracted to stories that begin as straightforward thrillers but then become something more existential and haunting. Se7en and Zodiac aren’t just police procedurals about the hunt for serial killers. Se7en explores themes of confronting a force of evil beyond human imagination and whether it’s worth fighting for good in an apathetic world. Zodiac is about the affect the Zodiac killer's crimes had on the American psyche and how the search for his identity became a self-destructive obsession for one man. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo- another film about a serial killer- is a character study of Lisbeth Salander- someone who’s a genius hacker but is socially maladjusted. And Gone Girl, Fincher’s 10th film- based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, who also penned the screenplay- starts out as a missing person/murder mystery but transforms in to a story about perception and identity- media perception, the way people in a marriage view each other and who they pretend to be. I don’t think Gone Girl reaches the heights of Zodiac but it’s an involving, expertly paced and strongly acted film. The film blends the pulp with the prestige, making it an adult drama that’s also very entertaining.

It’s difficult to explore what Gone Girl is about without divulging its central twist. So, I’ll give you the basic set up and then jump to the spoilery parts of the story. The initial premise is that on the fifth anniversary of their marriage, Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing and Nick soon becomes a suspect. Nick is not arrested and he does have the support of his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) and detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens); but he becomes guilty in the court of public opinion. A sensationalistic media personality in the style of Nancy Grace named Ellie Abbot (Missi Pyle), is also out to crucify Nick. Part of the reason why Amy’s disappearance becomes a big news story is because she was the basis for a series of children’s books written by her parents. These books are exaggerations of Amy’s own life and “Amazing Amy” succeeds whenever Amy fails.  

Okay, now I’m going to enter spoiler territory. I’ll give a little space to allow you an opportunity to leave if you haven’t seen the film yet.

Around the midpoint of the film it’s revealed that Amy is still alive. She faked her death to get revenge on Nick for his adultery. Nick was having an affair with Andie Fitzgerald (Emily Ratajkowski).  Andie is  a former student of Nick's (he lost his job after the recession). Throughout the early parts of the film- similar to the novel- we hear Amy’s narration as she writes in her diary, recounting her marriage to Nick and the supposed violence he inflicted on her one night. We then realize that the Amy we thought we knew is as much a construct as Amazing Amy. When it’s revealed that Amy is alive, we hear a monologue about the “Cool Girl” myth. A Cool Girl is someone who likes all the things a man does. But as Amy says, this Cool Girl doesn’t exist. She’s just pretending to be something she's not to win over a man. Through the character of Amy the film explores the allusiveness of identity, how carefully constructed an external identity can be. Even with Amy’s narration, we’re never explicitly told how Amy became the way she is. She’s an enigma, one that can never be solved.

It’s a difficult role to play and Pike plays it remarkably, showing us the ways in which Amy changes her identity and manipulates others, including her former boyfriend Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris). Pike has been on the edge of stardom since her turn as femme fatale Miranda Frost in Pierce Brosnan’s final James Bond film Die Another Day. She’s been a reliable supporting actress for ages but I think her performance as Amy is what will make her a major actress in the coming years. What I admire most about the performance is despite Amy’s cruelty I never disliked her. There’s almost something admirable about how methodical and cunning she is. Flynn was very bold when she constructed the Amy character, particularly when we’re led astray about her in the early parts of the story. As I mentioned earlier, Fincher is interested in digging deeper beyond genre tropes. Amy isn’t just the archetypal femme fatale. She’s a messier, more challenging character.

On the other side of things, I think Affleck is perfectly cast as Nick, in what may be his most autobiographical role to date. Affleck has never been accused of murder or kidnapping. But heknows how harsh media public and perception can be; how difficult it is to win people over once they’ve made up their minds about you. Despite Affleck’s success, including a major comeback after the Gigli debacle; and reinventing himself as an acclaimed filmmaker, you only have to look at the reaction to his casting as Batman in the Batman vs. Superman to see his name still carries negative connotations. The most fascinating sections of the film- to me at least- where the scenes in which Nick attempts to win people over to his side. It all comes down to saying the right words in the right way. When he discovers that Amy is alive he enlists the help of attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry).

Gone Girl was shot by Jeff Cronenweth- who also photographed Fincher’s Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In the opening scenes I didn’t think Gone Girl felt like a David Fincher film. But as we see glimpses of the past via Amy’s narration and more scenes set at night- including a gorgeous reminiscence by Amy about seeing Nick with Andie, set during a snowy evening- the film becomes as distinctly Finchery as the other Cronenweth photographed Fincher films. 

Fincher even in his first film, the compromised Alien 3, has always been a strong visual stylist, creating distinct worlds that seem to swallow us- and the characters-whole. There’s a murder scene here that’s- even if you’ve read the novel-more shocking and violent then most modern horror films. Fincher is also arguably the most precise filmmaker, in terms of composition and camera movement, since the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. In my review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I mentioned that Fincher was maybe too restrained for such pulpy material. But it's Fincher restraint that works here. Fincher communicates the absurd humour of the book's premise but is also to make the film play like an authentic drama 

The preciseness of Fincher's films doesn’t just come from his camera work. It's also a result of whom he picks as his editor. Kirk Baxter- who won back to back editing Oscars for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with Angus Wall- does a masterful job of making the sections of the film narrated by Amy feel fluid and organic, taking a literary device and making it work cinematically. The montage in which we see Amy devising her plan, with her narration playing over it, is some of the best work Baxter has done for Fincher. Despite being close to 2 ½ hours, I didn’t feel the film dragged or anything was rushed, except for the ending which needed a few more minutes to bring its themes home. But I think that’s more of a writing issue then an editing one.

Speaking of the writing, Flynn does an impressive job of adapting her own novel. While there were certain elements- including a subplot involving Nick and Margo’s Alzheimer’s stricken father- that I feel should of been fleshed out more, Flynn is able to get across the major themes of the story and creates a compact retelling of her intricate novel.

Coming back to Fincher, not only is he a meticulous technician, but he also has a keen eye for casting. Aside from Affleck and Pike, the crucial supporting roles are filled by actors who may not have been another directors’ first choice. I haven’t seen any of Perry’s Madea films but I think Perry shows a new side of himself here. He’s convincing as a charismatic lawyer who knows how to sell people an image.  Kim Dickens brings a certain low key Southern charm and intelligence to the role of detective Boney. And Patrick Fugit (from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous) conveys lot in an almost wordless performance as officer Jim Gilpin, sceptical of Nick's innocence. Carrie Coon- who is mostly known as a stage actress- makes an impressive film debut. While Coon’s doesn’t look like Affleck’s twin sister, from her first scene she’s totally believable as someone’s sister. Coon makes Margo someone both stern and caring. She loves her brother but isn’t afraid to point out Nick’s screw ups. Neil Patrick Harris, known for his comedic chops, nicely plays Desi’s creepiness just above the surface. I did feel that Ratajkowski as Andie came across as a plot device rather than a fully realized character.

Some will dismiss this film as ridiculous nonsense, and will wonder why Fincher is wasting his time directing an adaptation of an “airport novel.” Gone Girl isn’t a completely realistic story and does have some trashy elements. But if you get beyond the surface level plot mechanics, the film does have something to say about marriage and creates a complex portrayal of a toxic relationship in the form of Nick and Amy. Amy comes back to Nick when she realizes he’s finally become the man she wanted him to be. Amy tells Nick that the only time he really liked himself was when he was attempting to be someone Amy would like. There’s something truthful- regardless of what you think of Amy- in that statement. We constantly try to be someone else to win peoples' affection. Nick can’t win the public over unless he manipulates them. And Nick eventually decides to pretend- for what may be the rest of his life- that he and Amy are happy together. Gone Girl isn’t just about how people perceive each other; it’s also about how we create those very perceptions, in both conscious and unconscious ways. It then leaves us with an important question: Once we create those perceptions, how do we escape them?    

Friday, 26 September 2014

Good Job: "Whiplash"

Mild Spoilers

It’s rare that a film leaves me as emotionally drained and left with a genuine sense of “wow” as Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which I saw at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax. I don’t know if Whiplash is a great film but there’s no doubt in my mind it's a visceral experience that stayed with me hours after the film ended. If you still believe that films can shock and hit you right in the stomach, then go see this film when it’s released  this October.

Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is an ambitious young drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan who becomes a player in the studio band run by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). But Fletcher isn’t merely a conductor. He’s a tyrant who pushes his students beyond their limits, verbally abusing them and even threatening physical violence . Andrew is soon caught in a whirlpool of obsession. An obsession with greatness, whatever the cost.

Not since R. Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket has an authority figure been portrayed with such terrifying conviction. And Simmons truly is terrifying in this film. You don’t want to be in a room with this guy when he explodes. And even when he’s not verbally abusing his student, he’s so intimidating that the film becomes more suspenseful than most thrillers. Even if the scenario of a music teacher essentially being a drill sergeant isn’t completely believable, I always believe Simmons.

In movies like this the bigger performance gets most of the attention. And while Simmons deserves his praise, Teller is also worthy of notice. In certain ways Teller has the more difficult role to play, needing to balance being a sympathetic protagonist and displaying Andrew’s crueler side. He breaks up with his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) because he believes she’s preventing him from achieving greatness. And when he does call off the relationship he does so with so remorse. He’s also quite arrogant at a dinner get together with his family. Teller plays both sides of the character very well. I never hated Andrew but I didn’t always like him either. What I admire about the film is the dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher isn't black and white. Fletcher is black but Andrew is a shade of grey. 

While these two men feel opposed on the film’s surface I think both Andrew and Fletcher need each other in a twisted kind of way. Andrew wants to be broken down an built back up by Fletcher. And Fletcher wants Andrew to be thick skinned enough to prove Fletcher’s philosophy- which he lays out near the film’s end- that "[t]here are no  two words in the  English language more harmful than 'good job.'" The only way to truly be great is if someone viscously criticizes you. Fletcher recounts how Charlie "Bird" Parker had a cymbal thrown at him by Jo Jones after messing up while playing with Jones. In Fletcher's view if that  incident never happened Parker never would have become a legendary sax player. Even Andrew believes that Parker dying at 34 doesn't matter since Parker is still remembered for achievements.

The film takes on a “art imitates life” quality. Not only is the film is about pushing artists to the edge but Simmons and Teller had to sweat blood to make this film. Simmons has never been as ferocious as he is here and Teller gives a physically draining performance. Teller was already a drummer before shooting this film. There are sequences where Fletcher is driving Andrew to perfect his drumming. In these sequences Teller is committed to making the audience feel Andrew's exhaustion. Credit also goes to Teller’s stunt man and drumming instructor for performing some of the drumming.

While the film is very much about the two central performances, Chazelle’s direction and Tom Cross’ editing are also stellar. The climatic musical performance is cut to perfection and Chazelle makes us feel the sweat and drive of performance. Sharone Meir’s cinematography places the film in between reality and some kind of nightmare. And even though we don’t see much of the city in this film there’s something very “New York” about that brown and shadowy music room. It instantly reminds us of those images and sounds of the jazz greats. And those great artists populate the soundtrack as well.

There are some issues with the film however. Andrew’s relationship with Nicole it didn’t develop enough before Andrew breaks it off. I like Benoist’s natural and sweet performance but I wonder if the film needed the subplot at all. There are also moments when Fletcher comes across as too one-note of a character. Even a scene where Fletcher mourns over a former student- in retrospect after a certain plot point- feels like just another way for Fletcher to manipulate his students. But maybe the film is stronger because Fletcher is such an absolute and unrelenting character. I think that people will feel the film takes Fletcher’s side and believes in his ideology. I can’t speak for Chazelle- who also wrote the screenplay, based on his short film- and what he believes. I do think that Andrew eventually sides with Fletcher’s philosophy, even though he questions it. I like that the film is bold enough not to say “It’s okay. We don’t agree with what this guy believes.” It ends on a darker note, a perverted take on the inspirational final music performance we would see in another film.

Despite certain issues Whiplash is an expertly orchestrated film. Like a great musical performance it knows how to build and slow down. It  completely washed over me. Whatever you think of Fletcher’s ideology- and whether the film agrees with him- the film itself achieves a kind of transcendence that we rarely see in movies these days.