Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Heat”

In Tinseltown, all that glisters certainly ain’t gold

The Sound of Music is one of my favourite films.  Years ago I went on the movie tour in Salzburg, which was enlightening enough, but destroyed so many of the illusions that I was literally depressed for a day. I’d already read a book that said Christopher Plummer hated the kid actors in real life, but to see they shot the lakeside exterior of the family home miles away from the house they used for the scenes out front was crushing.

Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, so I felt better prepared as I turned up at Paramount Pictures on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood to take the studio tour. A bunch of foreigners from Russia, Chile and NZ, we were ferried about in an open-air, battery-powered cart by our guide, Chris (an aspiring TV writer, not actor) and learned a variety of insights about the likes of ex-Studio head (and one of only three women to run the studio in its 100 year history) Lucille Ball, and how if we encountered anyone from the cast of Glee, they don’t like to be asked for an autograph (sorry, Gleek friends back home!).

Perhaps because I am older and more jaded now, it was less disappointing and more impressive to see a shopfront on Paramount’s purpose-built “New York Street” and then be shown a clip from the latest (awful) Indiana Jones movie which shot a scene on that corner, and to realise Shia Leboeuf actually is a good actor after all. We saw where Woody Harrelson left drunken handprints in wet concrete, and the sound stages where the studio’s Oscar-winning Godfathers were shot. The biggest plummet of disbelief came from seeing a metre-deep carpark, painted light blue, which is periodically emptied of cars, filled with water, and used in films as disparate as The Ten Commandments (Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea right there) and the Jack Black vehicle Orange County.

Plenty of studio history, the odd anecdote, a look at a couple of sets for TV shows we haven’t seen. I even helped the guide with his commentary by giving a bit of background to the old Hollywood studio-contract system (I bet tour guides just love people like me).

As I write, I am sitting with a 920-calorie chocolate milkshake (hey, I’m in America!) in Downtown Los Angeles, where the bank robbery scenes from Heat were shot in 1995. Two separate, very patient, bank employees were complicit in my finding the right building. Unfortunately a lot has changed since filming, and it turns out I am 4 years too late to see the bank exterior as it was shot, before they renovated the outside and added benches, flowers and a fountain. Not to worry. There is a familiarity in the slope of the streets and the natural lighting that satisfies my pilgrimage.

And finally, a quick brag about the film we saw last night. USC’s film school puts on free weekly screenings of unreleased or seriously indie movies, and last night’s was a revelation. Bobcat Goldthwait (that’s right – the chap from Police Academy with the Grover voice) has written and directed an undoubtedly personal tirade against all that is wrong with America. God Bless America (all in lower case in the film’s titles) has Mad Men‘s Joel Murray playing a beleagured, loserville kinda guy who despairs at the reality TV, the materialism, consumerism and Kardashianism of contemporary America. Pushed to the limits by work, family and health, he embarks on a spree of cathartic madness with Tara Lynne Barr’s teenage “Heather”. The film delivers all its shocks in the opening scenes (the audience was in fits) then takes you on a heckuva ride. It has done Toronto and some other festivals, and is released locally in LA this Friday, but it’ll be interesting to see whether it makes it to NZ.  Here’s hoping – I think audiences there will love it.

Skyped in my film review to Radio Wammo from a room of Hollywood movie posters at the LA Public Library (God bless free wi-fi).  Universal Studios got deferred to tomorrow, so I will write about that after!

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Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

This Brazilian crime drama, overflowing with corrupt cops and well-meaning criminologists, is a fresh, relentlessly fast-paced two hours of cinematic inferno in the spirit of The Departed (originally the Hong Kong classic Infernal Affairs) and Heat.

Setting the tone, we are thrown right in to a prison riot that turns into a botched raid, ending in bloodshed and political recriminations for the police at the helm.  Nascimento (our flawed cop) takes the hit, stood down then swiftly “promoted” to government intelligence, while his nemesis (and new husband of his ex-wife) Fraga appears on national TV issuing scalding criticism of the police’s conduct.

So there’s the emotionally complex personal story.  On top of this we have gun battles in the anarchistic streets, where it’s hard to keep up with who’s a goodie (there aren’t many) and who deserves what he gets.  It’s exciting, endlessly noisy (the soundtrack composer clearly worked hard for his paycheck) and the story punctuates shocking executions with twists and turns that keep us guessing.  Echoing the quality of TV’s The Wire, the characters are sufficiently fleshed out, and the acting universally convincing, that we believe in their agony and we in turn care about the outcome.

Elite Squad 2 is allegedly better than its predecessor, which screened in the 2008 NZFF, and thankfully acts as a standalone film.  Put your earplugs in, sit back and soak it up.

Best laid plans

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

With all the brilliance of an early Danny Boyle film, this low-key British indie flick is at risk of passing under most people’s radars, but then becoming a cult hit.  So take my advice now: I urge you not to miss it. 

The opening scenes eschew credits or a film title, and immediately take us into the criminal underworld of Victor and Danny, two ex-cons who appear more than capable of committing the perfect crime.  With the detail of a heist film like Heat or Le Cercle Rouge, we watch the men purchase their hardware essentials and gradually renovate a shabby council flat into a fortress-like den in which they will imprison the eponymous Alice, while they demand her ransom.  With scarcely a word spoken, the set-up is gripping and fascinating.  We aren’t quite sure what’s going to happen, but we know it ain’t good.

Eddie Marsan (from Happy Go Lucky and Vera Drake) and the lesser-known Martin Compston, whose career boasts a slew of well-regarded arthouse films, are soon joined on screen by Gemma Arterton (a “one to watch” apparently, with a heralded performance in Tamara Drewe coming our way soon).  These three work together in a game of cat and mouse – and cat – and mouse – for the duration of the film, as the plot twists and turns, and we can never anticipate exactly how things are going to turn out.  Writer/director J. Blakeson has scripted a superb thriller (his first feature) that is both clever, realistic, and utterly engaging.  Set in one principal location for most of the movie, it’s a feat of tight, efficient filmmaking that suffers not a jot from what must have been a modest budget.

There are echoes of Shallow Grave (not just the jaunty young Scottish protagonist) and a real feeling of dread throughout, as we watch the pair’s impeccably prepared plans unravel.  It allows the audience to consider fleetingly what they might do in such a situation – until the next unavoidable twist throws everything off course yet again.

All three actors deliver terrific performances, truthful and in some instances touching, and because it is impossible to foresee each development, the tension is ratcheted up until the very last moments.  A sparing soundtrack completes the effect, producing one of the best independent films of the year – and one which is destined to stick around for quite some time.

An American in Europe

The American

Anton Corbijn, celebrity photographer, music video maker and latterly film director, has followed up the brilliant, breathtaking Control with this superb addition to George Clooney’s body of work.  Set in Italy – that is, the real-life Italy of small, hillside towns and wrinkled folk, as opposed to Julia Roberts’ Rome and its glamorati – Clooney plays a hitman who’s preparing to do “just one last job” before retirement.  It’s a set-up we know well – Robert De Niro in Heat, and again in The Score, latterly Ben Affleck in The Town, and numerous other examples.  But it’s the way Corbijn spins this familiar tale that sends The American straight to the top of your must-see list.

Of course it looks great.  As evidenced in Control, Corbijn understands lighting, composition and cinematography better than most more experienced directors.  The film also plays with sound perfectly – just the right amount of musical soundtrack (nice use of “Tu Vuo Fa L’Americano” which was used in The Talented Mr Ripley – another film about a docile, gentlemanly killer, set in the beautiful parts of one of the world’s most intoxicating countries), and subtle use of strings to anticipate a moment of danger.  The sound is so unobtrusive, yet the mood so frequently tense, that it clearly works.

Most of all, it is the immaculate pacing that marks The American out from other assassin/thriller fare – no jump cuts, no explosions, and a car chase that is actually more of a Vespa + car pursuit.  There are long shots, held for a long time, and slow close-ups, yet we are captivated throughout.  Clooney puts in a serious performance, admittedly one we’ve seen from him before but still authentic and engaging nonetheless (his character is a taciturn chap, and we know next to nothing of his past, or indeed his motivations).  His main interactions are with a fellow assassin played by Dutch actress Thekla Reuten, who sports a different (fabulous) hairstyle for each of their meetings, and a far-too-gorgeous and unbroken prostitute (Italian actress/singer Violante Placido – whose name curiously evokes both violence and calm).   The local priest lectures our hero on sin and tries to offer him a means to absolution, but Jack/Eduardo is having none of it.

Other joys include a clip from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (also a masterpiece in languid cinematography and exceptional sound design) and the butterfly motif throughout.  Watching Clooney create and assemble a bespoke rifle is fascinating.  And all the while it is impossible not to root for him, ignoring his profession and the body count, and long for him to find happiness at last.  As the titles rolled I was practically gasping at how terrific the film was – a flawless piece of cinema, a superb night at the flicks.

My kind of town

The Town

I like a good heist movie.  Readers will know by now that Heat features very high up my all-time-greatest-films list, and rightly or wrongly has become something of a benchmark for films of the genre.  The bank robbery scene and ensuing escape across central city LA are superb, and Michael Mann oft-applauded for his accomplishment.  As it happens, Ben Affleck’s directorial follow-up to the terrific Gone Baby Gone (which set his brother Casey up as an extremely fine acting talent to watch – don’t get me started swooning over the exquisite The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford…) evokes plenty of Heat, as well as elements of Inside Man, and even Enemy of the State.  Given Spike Lee and Tony Scott brought us the latter films, Affleck can consider himself in good company.

Afflect casts himself as the protagonist, Doug MacRay, son of an imprisoned bank robber (a brief piece of Chris Cooper) who is carrying on the family business.  Along with his best friend Jimmy (a hardened Jeremy Renner, plausibly sociopathic and alarmingly unpredictable) and a couple of other mates, they subscribe to the tradition that has rendered their native Charlestown the real-life bank robbery capital of America.  With that kind of expectation, what other lifestyle choice is a guy to make?

As in so many bad-guy movies, Doug meets a nice girl and wants out.  One last job, then a flight to Florida and (presumably) a crime-free, guilt-free life sipping cocktails with little umbrellas.  How often have we heard criminals talk wistfully of this very thing?  Robert De Niro tried to hang up his SIG P220 in Heat, and again in The Score, and we know it usually ends in tears.

Doug’s girl in this instance is the bank manager of their first job, still suffering from PTSD when he “meets” her in the laundromat and persuades her to go out for a drink.  This is where the film suffers a little in its unrealism – Doug’s charisma must be potent off screen, because Rebecca Hall’s Claire opens up to this stranger immediately, convenient since he initially just wants to know what she’s told the police, but soon he’s sharing deep, painful childhood memories with her and, uh oh, falling in love with her for real.  (Again, this is similar to Neil McCauley meeting the lonely Edie in Heat, and needless to say there are echoes of the trajectory of their doomed romance.)  Add to this Doug’s inability to simply say “I quit”, and you have a genuinely frightening dilemma at the heart of the second act.

The Town has strengths in many areas: cinematically and directorially it is a fine piece of work, with some exciting camera moves (a particular favourite being to circle the actors in the middle of the street as they have some sort of revelation) and uniformly good performances.  Blake Lively (from TV’s “Gossip Girl”) does a good job of playing the skanky ho (if you’ll forgive the parlance), which admittedly is probably an easier role to inject life into than staid bank manager, Claire.  Jon Hamm, everybody’s favourite Mad Man, plays the hunter FBI agent without a hint of parody, and Pete Postlethwaite clearly relishes his role as the head-honcho Irish criminal who sends the boys out on their jobs.

One could criticise the slightly predictable plot and dialogue, but there are clever moments and the various heist scenes are gripping and well-executed.  I do feel that if Doug and the boys had watched Heat as many times as I have, they might have avoided some fundamental errors (Plan your escape route! Don’t rob a bank in a tiny, narrow backstreet that it’ll be hard to drive away from!) – but mostly they did an excellent job.  And despite the disclaimer at the end of the credits assuring the audience that Charlestown is actually full of decent, law-abiding citizens, the film still makes Boston my kind of town.

The Criminal Family – an enthralling species

Animal Kingdom

This debut feature film by Australian filmmaker David Michôd is pure, unadulterated, exhilarating brilliance. With hints of Scorsese (to my mind Goodfellas and Casino) and Michael Mann (evoking Heat and The Insider), he had me at Hello.  Well, in this instance, the understated opening scene of a suburban heroin overdose in front of “Deal or No Deal”.

A crime drama which centres around a dysfunctionally engaging (or should that be engagingly dysfunctional?) family, we are swiftly brought into the cocoon of a matriarch and her three sons (to different, absent fathers) and orphaned grandson, Josh (J).  As he moves in with his doting grandmother, he is instantly sucked into the vortex of a family constantly on the run from the Armed Robbery Division of Melbourne’s police force.  As the police draw in, tensions are heightened and loyalties are tested.  (Gosh, with those clichés I could have written the press notes.)

Except that the film is anything but clichéd, and the rewards are manifold.  Every character is well-rounded (if a little, ahem,  morally stunted) and there is great pleasure to be had from watching the four brothers’ very different personalities.  The acting is universally superb, nuanced and naturalistic – from timid, silent Darren, to warm charismatic family-man Barry, to agitated tattooed Craig who cries in his mother’s arms when one of his brothers is shot.  However, Ben Mendelsohn steals the show as the multi-layered Uncle Andrew, known as “Pope”, who is introduced as a furtive, somewhat weasly character, and whose slight speech impediment and nerdy checked shirts belie a sociopath who will do anything it takes to stay out of jail.  Similarly, newcomer James Frecheville deserves special praise for his incredibly subtle performance, managing to convey the teenager’s conflicting feelings with scarcely the raise of an eyebrow.  Add to this Jacki Weaver as “Mama Smurf” and a gaunt Guy Pearce as the gentle but determined cop, and you have everything you need for a superb gangster flick.

As director and writer,  Michôd has tackled a major genre, the complexities of representing true crime stories as drama, and handled the realism of a contemporary setting with aplomb.  But it’s the style of his film that has you sitting on the edge of your seat – fantastic photography, a perfectly pitched soundtrack (echoing Lisa Gerrard’s work on The Insider, herself Michôd’s original choice for composer), and extraordinarily gripping dramatic tension marks every single scene, right from the opening titles.  I was particularly thrilled with a Goodfellas-esque sequence blasting Air Supply’s ’80s hit “I’m All Out of Love” while the camera circles to finally focus on Pope, setting up perfectly the sense of just what this man is capable of.  I could watch this scene again and again, but nothing will be like the first time.

The phrase “white-knuckle ride” comes to mind, and in fact few films actually manage to keep the tension going for two hours.  But Animal Kingdom leads us like the best of dance partners, not allowing us to tire but keeping us riveted and on our toes the whole time, before ending with the ultimate lift.  I won’t fall out of love with this film for a long time.

Some Must-Sees – movies boys will like, and girls ought to

Some excellent choices for a Saturday Night In

Heat – absolutely Top 10.  De Niro and Pacino play cat and mouse/cop and robber, with a brilliant supporting cast including Val Kilmer (the only thing I’ve ever liked him in), Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Natalie Portman et al. It’s simply exhilarating – Michael Mann brings us the greatest bank robbery scene since Dog Day Afternoon, but not until he’s laid out a story so engaging and characters so multi-dimensional that I never wanted the film to end. So he made it 3 hours long! I’ve never been so ecstatic in all my movie-going life.

Goodfellas – one of Scorsese’s best. A gangster flick with the perfect voiceover; star turns from Ray Liotta, Robert De  Niro and a frightening Joe Pesci; the wonderful Lorraine Bracco (later playing the ultimate in-joke as Dr Melfi in The Sopranos) and cameos from Scorsese’s own mamma and papa. Also one of the longest and most accomplished tracking shots in film history. Right from the opening scene, it has you by the throat and you don’t even want it to let you go.

Children of Men – from a filmmaker’s point of view, this is just incredible. The photography is notable for its ability to drag you into the action and carry you along, and to elicit a “how the heck did they do that??” response on several occasions. Clive Owen carries the story of a dystopian future where no children have been born for several years, and the planet is clearly in a crisis of gradual extinction. Amazing, exciting, wonderful stuff.

The Insider – more Michael Mann. This time it’s Russell Crowe who stacks on the weight and goes grey to deliver a superlative performance as a tobacco scientist who turns whistleblower.  Al Pacino spars with him as the journalist who takes up his story.  It’s beautifully shot, scripted, acted and completely gripping to the end.

Casino – another Scorsese masterpiece, more De Niro and Pesci. But this time they share the screen with a luminous Sharon Stone, giving the performance of her career as the manipulative, drug-addled wife of a casino boss (De Niro) who’s trying to go straight, but can’t leave the gangster life behind. Another amazing soundtrack, too.

Carlito’s Way – Brian De Palma follows up Scarface with Pacino playing a different character with similar leanings. Sean Penn and Penelope Ann Miller provide excellent support to Pacino’s Carlito Brigante, an ex-con trying to go good, who gets entangled in the dubious business of his lawyer, friend and ex-colleagues. It’s violent and exciting, and romantic too.

Infernal Affairs – the original Hong Kong police thriller that Scorsese made into the Oscar-winning The Departed.  The original is better though – and stars the stunning Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu Wai as a cop undercover in a criminal gang, and a gangster who has infiltrated the police. Let the games begin.

(Needless to say this list could go on and on, but this will do for now.)

Films that are too good to miss

A friend has asked me to compile a list of films he “simply must see”.   And he’s a filmmaker, too! he ought to know already…

Well, there’s nothing like being asked for a list to get a FanGirl going, but I admit to feeling quite knackered just thinking about it. The perils of list-making are manifold: You don’t want the list to be taken as a ranking – how could you possibly say that Singin’ In The Rain is better (or worse) than Heat?? What if you forget to include your absolute favourite? Will the list make you look like a pleb? (or worse, a film-snob??) What if it’s too contemporary?

To that end, we thought I should try and categorise some great movies according to what a viewer might be wanting in any given video store visit.  So – try this on for size…

Films to watch when you wish you lived in another life

The Talented Mr Ripley – Italy! The 1950s! Scooters, yachts and cute swimsuits! Intriguing characters with more money than morals! and several of the best performances you’ll get out of Matt Damon, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman et al.

Amelie – France! (more precisely, Montmarte in Paris); living in a beautiful apartment on a paltry wage;  having the cutest darn haircut and clompy black lace-ups you ever saw on a beautiful girl; romantic yet quirky – and good deeds are done along the way. Formidable!

Goodfellas – wanna be rich? successful? intimidating and powerful? Actually, I’d recommend Casino for the same reasons. It’s all going so well, until it isn’t… still, I enjoy the life this film evokes until it (the life) unravels. Needless to say Goodfellas pops up on several lists, it’s just that good.

Sense and Sensibility – just because life seemed simpler back then (OK, so it was harder too, but the men were so much more chivalrous!) and the frocks are all empire-line, and they drank a lot of tea and did peaceful recreational activities like needlework while gossiping. I’m sure the novelty would wear off eventually, but…

Atonement – despite its showing the good and bad sides of 1930s/1940s Britain (well, WWII for starters), this film is a wonderful evocation of a time gone by, perfect for losing yourself in for a couple of hours. And some of the scenes (including the lengthy steadi-cam shot on the beach at Dunkirk) are literally breathtaking.

It didn’t hurt a bit, but is it really a Best Picture?

Well done, Kathryn Bigelow.

I loved Point Break back in the day (and even on DVD last week, nearly 20 years since I first saw it in the cinema and felt completely exhilarated). And I thought she did a superb job with the under-appreciated Strange Days (what a brilliant and ghastly concept! Angela Bassett an inspiration! and has Tom Sizemore ever been more sinister?? – this was pre-Heat, of course…). As much as I hate to play the “Go women directors!” angle, she sure can produce a good action flick – no question about it.

So then she was suddenly nominated for an Iraq war film, best director and best picture Oscars among others, up against her ex-husband, the polarising James Cameron. He was up for Avatar, as we know all too well, and the inevitable taking of sides began. I hadn’t seen The Hurt Locker (we only just got it here in the last couple of weeks) but I knew Avatar sure as heck wasn’t deserving of Best Picture, and so (playing the “Go women directors!” angle) I was happy to support Bigelow, sight unseen. After all, since when does the Academy reward truly excellent films or superlative film-making anyway? not often of late…

Well, I’ve seen it now. And let’s put aside the Best Picture and Director wins for the time being. The Hurt Locker is a good, well-made film – it’s gripping, gritty, well-acted, the script is largely simple and non-sentimental, the characterisation is sufficiently engaging that you do care about whether the bomb disposal team live or die, and there are some pretty exciting cameos from Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes (the latter eliciting a *gasp* of recognition and a frisson of excitement from this viewer – mopey Ralph, all tanned, tough and Alpha-Maled up!!).

Jeremy Renner is our main guy throughout, a slightly caricatured devil-may-care kinda soldier Staff Sergeant William James (well, that’s my 2 favourite boys’ names right there).  Will clearly relishes his role as the most successful member of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) squad – he’s defused 873 bombs in his short career – and his attitude to the task at hand makes for incredibly exciting viewing.  Leave the fear and apprehension to the others in the team (a particularly nice performance from the little-known Brian Geraghty) – Will is seemingly fearless, preferring to discard the special armoured suit in favour of working in shirt sleeves once he establishes there is a high likelihood of failure anyway, so he’d rather die comfortable.

The set-pieces are all superbly crafted. The photography juxtaposes close-ups of the actual bombs, so that we understand the intricacies of removing wires and detonators, with wide shots that bring home the context of each suspenseful situation – local Iraqis watch from their balconies with curiosity rather than fear, people go about their commerce in the streets, while the EOD team stands tense, alert, mindful of the potentially devastating outcome.  To its credit, the film doesn’t overdo the jerky, handheld camerawork now emblematic of the Bourne school, yet the movement still brings you right into the action. Needless to say, the trick is in the editing – and to that end, every deployment keeps you gripped until Will James sits back in the truck and lights a cigarette, signalling all is well.

The film’s one difficulty is its ending. I sympathise somewhat with the writer – short of blowing up your protagonist and leaving us at a military funeral, how to round off over 2 hours of such drama? The answer is: drag us from the dusty heat of Iraq and throw us into Will’s claustrophobic rainy world “back home” with his wife and new baby. He struggles to reconcile the endless aisles of breakfast cereal with what he’s experienced at war, and following a slightly cringy and disappointingly banal monologue to his infant son, we see Will re-deployed to the Middle East, patently happy to be back doing what gives him purpose.

But Best Picture? Annoyingly, the Academy upped the shortlist to 10 films this year, not really leading the charge for separating wheat from chaff, but there you go. I was just so glad Avatar (in all its technical splendour, but laden with a rubbish script, story, characterisation, and all the other things that should really a Best Picture maketh) didn’t win. And given The Blind Side was also a nominee, clearly we weren’t shooting for the stars in 2009. The Hurt Locker is not quite Best Picture material in the way that No Country for Old Men, The English Patient and (my favourite) Silence of the Lambs were over the last 2 decades. But in the context of previous winning films, it’s actually pretty in keeping with the Academy’s taste. And I can’t honestly put one of the other 9 nominees as my preferred choice, so I guess I’ll just have to enjoy the film for its own merits, and hope for a more exciting, worthy Oscar race next March.

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