Friday, 13 February 2015

Bye, Bye, Blackbird: "Public Enemies"

Ending Spoilers Ahead

With Michael Mann's latest film Blackhat being released- and subsequently bombing with critics and audiences- I decided to take a look back at Mann's previous film, 2009's Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp as Depression-era gangster John Dillinger, who was killed by the FBI in 1934, at the age of 31.

Like 2006's Miami Vice-the film Mann made before this- I think some distance is needed to truly appreciate what Mann is doing aesthetically and thematically in this film. Public Enemies exists in a weird purgatory between art film and mainstream entertainment, between crime film archetypes and characters more deeply felt, and between action and something more slow-burning.

What stood out for me on this viewing  is its vision of the time period is possibly the most un-romanticized version of the past I've ever seen in a mainstream film. Or maybe I should say the least Hollywood-ized. Usually in films like this there's a very prestige feel to the look and production/art design. In this film 1930s is a living, breathing world and way of life, free of any kind of nostalgia. I think this particular mood comes from Mann's use of digital photography. By applying a modern aesthetic to a period piece Mann removes the barrier between past and present, myth and man. We're put right in action, whether it be a gun fight or an interaction between two characters. The 1930s- while the distant past to us- was to these people the modern world. It was immediate and the future was uncertain. The Depression was in its fourth year and anew kind of criminal had emerged. and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) declares "America's first war on crime. This line not only speaks to the time period but to the wars North America would fight against drugs and terrorism in later decades.      

Public Enemies isn't so much a biopic of Dillinger- it only chronicles the last year or so of his life. During the course of the film Dillinger begins a romance with Bille Frechete (Marion Cotillard). At first Billie says she can't begin a relationship with a man she hardly knows. Dillinger then tells her: 

"I was raised on a farm in Moorsesville, Indiana. My mama died when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn't know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you...what else you need to know?"

This isn't just directed at Billie but at the audience as well. The film is telling us it's not interested in exploring Dillinger's backstory or psychoanalyzing him. It adds to the immediacy of the film that we meet Dillinger fully formed rather than seeing him as a child and then as a teenager, etc. Mann doesn't want to unlock Dillinger, maybe because he feels there's no reason to. Dillinger was just a man when all was said and done. Dillinger gained mythic stature after his death- and was a public icon even before  then but behind that myth was a ordinary man.

"Time is luck" is a phrase Mann has used in his films. While it's not spoken in Public Enemies, the sentiment runs through the film. Dillinger lives in the moment, knowing he may  not be alive tomorrow. I noted that the time period of the film was un-romanticized but Mann is still very much a romantic. The relationship between Dillinger and Billie epitomizes the doomed romance Mann explored in Heat and Miami Vice. This love affair can't last. It's "too good to last," as Colin Farrell's Sonny Crockett says to Gong Li's Isabella in Miami Vice

When Dillinger is killed the film ends with Billie. Mann is compassionate towards Billie and views her loss as the tragedy of the film. Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), one of the FBI agents who killed Dillinger- and who heard Dillinger's last words- tells Billie "He said 'Tell Billie for me: Bye, bye, Blackbird'," which was the name of the song Dillinger and Billie first danced to. Similar to the endings of Heat and Miami Vice, this conclusion sneaks up on you with how emotionally devastating it. It rises above the archetypes and tropes of the genre and achieves something transcendent.  

This is one of  Depp's most restrained performance- particularly in comparison to everything from 2003 onwards. He plays Dillinger with a folksy charm and charisma, winning the public over to his side even while pitting the FBI against him. Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who led the man hunt for Dillinger. Bale doesn't get a lot to work with but he plays the part with conviction and subtle nobility, with a dash of arrogance when Dillinger is arrested earlier in the film. I do wish the film had given us more insight in regards to Purvis- especially when the coda informs us Purvis committed suicide in 1960. I would say Cotillard is the heart of the film. It's her final shot in the film which makes the ending so emotionally affecting.

Coming back to digital photography, aesthetic choices influence us in conscious and unconscious way- and Mann wants us to be conscious of the digital aesthetic and the difference between it and film. Mann challenges the way we think movies should look and feel. And I feel your opinion and reaction to this kind of aesthetic determines whether you like these latter day Mann films. Most notably Mann utilizes digital filmmaking to make his action sequences vividly realistic and hard-hitting. The opening prison escape establishes the rhythm of the action and the "in the moment" feel of the film. 
While other modern action sequences don't have much personality, Mann's set pieces feel distinctly and organically part of his overarching aesthetic.

Public Enemies has grown in stature in my mind after re-watching it. Mann understands the romanticism and the inherent tragedy beneath the conventions of the genres of which he explores. And Public Enemies is a tragedy about the people that are left behind, the survivors of the world Dillinger and others after him have inhabited.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Thoughts on Spider-Man Joining The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Well, it finally happened. Late Monday night it was announced that Spider-Man will now be part of Marvel Studios' shared universe. Marvel and Sony (who have produced the previous five Spider-Man films and retained the film rights to the character for over a decade) reached a deal in which Spider-Man will first appear in a Marvel film in 2016 and then get his own solo film in 2017. And as part of this deal Sony will still finance and have creative control over the films.

First off, I feel Spider-Man being in the MCU would've been better a situation if  it had been a clean break. With Sony still having a major role in making these films there's a huge chance Marvel's plans could get muddled. Still, this is a game-changer for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I've long believed it was odd that a shared universe based around Marvel characters didn't include Spider-Man- being Marvel's most iconic character. It's almost equivalent to not having Batman in a shared DC cinematic universe. I understand why Spider-Man couldn't appear in a Marvel movie- rights issues and all- but it still felt like something was missing. So I'm glad that the MCU- while already fleshed out- now feels a little more complete. That, and the prospect of Spider-Man interacting with the other established characters is pretty exciting. Sharing zingers with Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, sharing his experiences with Chris Evans' Steve Rogers- it'll be fun to see.   

I had mixed feelings on the Amazing Spider-Man films- directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield. I wanted to love those films but I think the backlash against the original Sam Raimi films starring Tobey Maguire soured me on that franchise even before the first film came out. Ideally we can finally get pass the bile spewing towards Raimi's films now that we're one more step removed from his trilogy. 

I initially liked elements of the first Amazing Spider-Man but in retrospect I don't feel the film really works. It has major  structure and thematic issues as well as too much studio manhandling. These same problems plagued its sequel as well. While I think Marc Webb is a competent director I don't believe he ever had much creative control over these films- contrary to the claims made by some fans that Webb has a distinct vision for this franchise. At the same time it's unfortunate that plot threads left hanging at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will likely never be resolved.  Also, is it possible to get Felicity Jones in the MCU as well? If you remember she played Felicia (Hardy) in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It was only a small role but the film was clearly setting her up to be Black Cat in a later film. She's a lovely actress and I was looking forward to seeing her take on that role.

It's believed that Spider-Man may show up in Captain America: Civil War, since Spider-Man was a major character in that storyline. Though I don't think Peter Parker can reveal his identity to the world in the character's first MCU appearance. Peter revealing he was Spider-Man was impactful because the character had so much history in the comics leading up to the reveal.  However, it's not a bad place to bring Spider-Man. I assume this Peter Parker will have only been Spider-Man for a short period. He's still learning the ropes- or the webs- and he'll be caught between two giant figures- Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America. He'll have to decide who he wants to side with- or maybe he'll choose further independence rather than any political ideology. Then again, his role in the film may only be a cameo of sorts.

I know many people want Miles Morales to be Spider-Man in the MCU. Miles became Spider-Man after Peter Parker's death in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. I haven't read any of the comics in which Miles appears but many fans love him. Personally- whether they bring in Miles Morales or someone else- I feel Peter should be always be the first Spider-Man.  I understand the need for diversity in these kind of films- something Miles would bring, being Black Hispanic. Still, there's no reason Peter couldn't be African American. That way we can have the original Spider-Man while also having a major hero be non-Caucasian.

As major a deal as this is, it's still hard for me not to feel a tad cynical. This will be the second time Spider-Man has been rebooted and the third cinematic incarnation of the character in only 15. While it's good to keep things fresh- can you imagine going on Spider-Man 6 with Maguire still in the role?- we need a Spider-Man series that can continue beyond 2 installments.  Ideally this deal between Marvel and Sony will help Spider-Man thrive on screen again.  

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.