Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Mercenary (Il mercenario)

The Western is one of my most unfamiliar genres of film, I have seen a few, mostly modern, but none the less have enjoyed what little I have invested into this vast spectrum of movie watching. A personal interest in the Spaghetti Western more specifically has been present since I discovered the incredible music of Ennio Morricone, and traced the specific tracks that Quentin Tarantino incorporated into his Kill Bill, and most recently Inglourious Basterds films. Unfortunately over the past few years I haven’t really tried my hand at too many. In fact I can shamefully admit that the only Spaghetti Western I had ever watched was The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The Mercenary (Il mercenario) marks the second entry I have made into this amazing genre, and I have to say, I LOVED it!

Tony Mustante plays Paco Roman, a peasant who after being poorly treated by his rich boss publicly humiliates him, and finds himself about to be executed, only to be saved at the last minute by a few of him friends. (Admittedly this was probably the one moment I found a bit too ridiculous and a bit cringe worthy.) Now an outlaw he decides to begin a revolution against the Mexican army, but needs steal money to fund an army of his own.

Meanwhile, Franco Nero plays Sergei Kowalski, a Polish mercenary who offers his loyalty and skills with a gun only to anyone who has enough cash in their pocket. He is originally hired by two of the three Garcia brothers to help them carry their silver safely across the border. Their meeting is noticed by the menacing Curly (played so very awesome by Jack Palance) who eventually tracks the two brothers down to find out why they were hiring the Polish, and kills them. When Kowalski gets to a mine to meet the third Garcia brother, he finds his new boss and his men dead, and instead runs into Paco and his revolutionary army instead. After a brief hustle they are all ambushed by a Colonel Alfonso Garcia (Eduardo Fajardo). Paco instantaneously puts his differences aside and hires Kowalski to help defend against the invading army. His investment pays off and the rebels are victorious. The next day Kowalski leaves the group, only to be ambushed by Curly. Paco's group arrives to his rescue, and though they don’t kill Curly, he still swears revenge as they strip him of his entire wardrobe and send him off to the dessert. Paco rehires Kowlalski to teach him how to properly lead his revolution. However the two men seen to have an entirely different opinion on what it means to be loyal, an indifference that could lead to a very rough relationship.

There is certainly nothing groundbreaking about the films storytelling, but it’s everything else that makes this a truly amazing film. As I stated, I am a big fan of Ennio Morricone. His music, especially the famous L’Arena which acts as a theme for Kowalski, is nothing short of amazing. That theme alone plays such a huge role in setting the tone of the film. There is a particular scene later in the film that highlights that song in such a beautiful way, the theme is played in very effective ways throughout, but is brought out in full force, a real highlight.

There is a lot in this film that is unfamiliar to me; this is of course the first Sergio Corbucci I have seen, a director who I have heard compared to Sergio Leone, understandably. I was also very pleasantly surprised by the cast, primarily our three leads. Of course Jack Palance I know of, and thought he was fantastic in his small but important role. Tony Musante was really fun to watch, his Paco was a good combination of difference characteristics, including some well place comic relief. The man of the hour (and 50 minutes) though, Franco Nero! How have I not heard of him before? His presence in the film is so strong! He was a whole lot of badass! Looking through his catalog it would seem I have seen him before, but never to the same degree as his role in this film. The Kowalski character is an instant favorite, and has some very noteworthy characteristics, from his huge handlebar mustache, to the recurring joke of always lighting his match on some unsuspecting sap.

From what I have been able to find The Mercenary goes by a few different names, Il mercenario of course, A Professional Gunman, and an alternative (and pretty poor) US title Revenge of a Gunfighter. Either way the biggest crime of all is tha absolute lack of a decent DVD or Bluray release in North America. In fact in my efforts to track down a decent DVD I was only able to find a German and Japanese release. This is a real shame that this film has had such minimal exposure, as I said my only means of discovering this film was from tracing back the Ennio Morricone track on the Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds soundtracks.(Thanks Quentin)

The Mercenary has taught me two valuable things, I love Spaghetti Westerns, and, I need to watch more Spaghetti Westerns!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Red State

[Editorial note: This review was originally written in October 2011, when I first watched the film. Since then I have come to learn that this was not very well received, and earned its way on several "Worst of 2011" lists. That said my stance stays the same, I really liked Red State, and when watched it thought it would have been very well loved. I was wrong, but that's okay. I am not going to allow the almost unanimous negativity for this film influence me to revisit and rethink my opinion, it stays. I really liked Red State, see below to find out why. Maybe you agree, maybe not. To each their own right?.]

If you would have approached me ten years ago and said, “Hey, did you know that quite possibly Kevin Smiths best film he will ever make is going to be a horror film that may carry a heavy likeness to a Tarantino or Coen Brothers work?” I would have probably have first said “Clearly no because you are from the future and I am not”. Then I would have called you a crazy person, then stopped to really think about it and decided it was entirely possible. Well is it entirely possible? I have been a big Kevin Smith fan for many years, I love every one of his films (yes that includes Jersey Girl which actually ranks pretty high in my books). However it has always been his writing that has made his films so good, and he himself has even proclaimed that he is not a very good director. Now I would never go as far as to say that, clearly he is being modest. He has blossomed over the years into a very good director. His films however have always been a vehicle for his amazing writing talents, and have always lacked any kind of exceptional style. So how does Red State stack up? Has he managed to give us something that can actually be held in the same respect as a Quentin Tarantino or Coen Brothers film? Well…

Where to begin with Red State? When the credits began to role, and I started to recount the events that just played out for the last 90 or so minutes, I realized that writing about what I just watched is going to feel like tip toeing through a field of spoiler mines. There is so much that happens in such a short playtime that even by explaining the opening moments I feel I may spoil the potential experience for anyone who has yet to watch it. So I will try my hardest to avoid spoiling any of the many, many twists and shock moments, and believe me there are “oh my god” moments a plenty.

Red State primarily focus’ on a severely fundamentalist religious group called Five Points Church, who are a very well known and despised group of religious, anti homosexual fanatics who believe the world is a lost cause and the end of mans existence is coming. They have also shut themselves out from the rest of the world by tearing down barns, and building a fortification around their church that the locals come to call “The Great Wall of Bullshit”. They only find time to leave their sanctuary to protest the funerals of dead homosexuals as they believe they are going to burn in hell and do not deserve a religious ceremony. This “family” is led by the mighty Pastor Abin Cooper (Micheal Parks). There is a good number of followers who reside and believe in the teachings of the Pastor, including a few very young children who represent the most uncomfortable and sad element of the film, as their innocence among the pure evil of this small society shines very bright. There is a very sad and tender moment when during one of the Pastors dark and ritualistic preachings we see a young girl who is playing on one of the church pews while singing “I’m good at climbing, I’m good at climbing”

One of the Five Points methods to cleaning the evil from the world is using the internet, which they call “The Devils Playground” to lure potential homosexuals and adulterers to their grasps by posting phoney wanted adds on classified sex sites. When their unsuspecting victims answer the adds they are drugged and captured to be tortured and executed in one of the Pastors sadistic services. As you may have seen in the trailers, this is exactly how the three unsuspecting teenage boys Travis (Micheal Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner), and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), find themselves in captivity. They answer an add on a site for older women seeking sexual encounters with younger men. The add in question is placed by one of the Five Points women, and the Pastors own Daughter Sarah (Melissa Leo). She invites the three teens into her trailer to have sex with her, but they must all do it at the same time. She greets them and insist they each drink two beers. Soon after they pass out and find themselves tied up in cages, and under the church floor. They have become examples to be set by Pastor Cooper, unless they can find an escape route out of course. This is about all I am going to say about this element of the film, and even though I fear I may have already said too much, there is so much more to this story then the above synopsis.

Now you may also have noticed in the trailers, and posters that there are some government agents, and heavy gun fire in the film. Now I will not mention the circumstances that led to the arrival of the government agents, and heavy gun fire, but I assure you they are there for a reason, and its important. You will soon be introduced to ATF Special Agent Keenan, played so very well by the great John Goodman. He and his team are sent to the church with a warrant to search the premiss under suspicion they may have possession of illegal fire arms. Stop! I have officially said enough, I can’t stress enough that there is nothing more I can say in good conscious that won’t spoil the element of shock and surprise. You will just have to see for yourself.

I will however talk about the cast, what an ensemble. Kevin Smith managed to wrangle together his best cast of actors since Dogma, and they are all at their best. You will find John Goodman(of course), Kevin Pollock, Stephen Root, Melissa Leo as I mentioned, Kerry Bishe, and of course Micheal Parks. What can I say about Micheal Parks? He is absolutely brilliant. I can say with no doubt that his performance is the best I have seen all year, maybe two years. He is perfectly cast, and its impossible not to hang onto every word that comes out of his mouth, as horrifying as they are. As I stated before John Goodman is really great as well. Its the kind of cast that when put on a project, and given a great script such as this one and they can shine, and they certainly do.

So this now brings us back to the first question, is Red State Kevin Smiths best film? Has he given the world a top notch film that can stand tall among the likes of a Tarantino orCoen Brothers film? Well…that’s not my call. I can’t answer that for you. I can easily tell you that Ketchup tastes good on Mac & Cheese, or that watching baseball live can be exciting. But until you experience that for yourself, you really won’t know for sure. It is a film that will recieve vastly different reactions across the board, many positive, and many negative. However I will tell you my personal opinion, because that is pretty much what I have been working to, and this is my review. Red State is a phenomenal film that I loved very much. Is it my favorite Smith film? No, that will probably always be Clerks 2. Do I think it stacks up against a Tarantino, or a Coen film. Yes I very much do. But why do we need to compare this to anything? Who cares if it holds a candle to those films. The important thing is that it is a great film, and we shouldn’t be calling it “as good as a Tarantino film” we should be calling it “a great Kevin Smith film!”

(originally Written for www.cineawesome.com)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

2011 Academy Award Nominations are in

The nominations are in, and they arrived with a few surprises, and a few more disappointments.

First of all, I am deeply saddened that both Ryan Gosling, and Leo DiCaprio were left out. J.Edgar may not have been a well received film, but DiCaprio's performance was a clear stand out. Then Gosling, between Drive and Ides of March he seemed to be a guarantee, but nothing. In fact it would seem that the majority of the Academy members didn't have the same feeling towards Drive as the rest of us, because it didn't get any nominations in any of the major categories. They did surprisingly seem to like Bridesmaids.

Ever thought you could say this "Academy Award Nominee Jonah Hill"? Well, you can say that now as he was given a Supporting actor nomination for Moneyball. That was probably the biggest surprise of the morning, even the crowd reaction suggests nobody saw that coming. But, I gotta admit that it was well deserved. Speaking of Supporting Roles, no Albert Brooks for Drive was a sad surprise. Nick Nolte getting a nod for Warrior was a nice surprise. I haven't seen the film, but I love Nolte!

So who are the big from runners this year? I am VERY pleased to say Hugo, and The Artist! My two favorite films of last year have cleaned up, Hugo especially with 11 nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture. The Artist faired better in the major categories by claiming a nomination for Best Picture, Art Direction, Director, Actress, and Actor.

Another big surprise was the best picture nomination going to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. A film that I have not yet seen, but thought it looked pretty good. Though it wasn't very critically acclaimed, it was apparently beloved by the Academy.

A big relief for me, and a first in many years, was the absence of last years Pixar film. The major-misfire sequel Cars 2. It was the first Pixar animated film to be poorly recieved (I have not seen it, and plan not to as it looks terrible). For years I have been jokingly calling the Best Animated Feature category the "Pixar Award", but all joking aside they have always deserved their awards. This year however if Cars 2 was even nominated, then I would have seriously lost a lot of faith in the academy's judgement. Combine that with the fact that Bridesmaids, a ranchy comedy that is a sort of film you would never see anywhere near golden statue, receiving a couple nominations and there is a small sign that the academy is either lightening up, or getting younger.

Other than that, I must admit I am not completely surprised with rest of the nominations. A lot of what I expected is present. All bias aside I really do expect Scorsese to earn his second Oscar for Hugo. As for best picture I am torn, I love The Artist a lot, but I want Hugo to take it home. However both these major players need to watch their back, because I would not be surprised if The Descendants jumps in "Shakespere in Love style" and steals it from underneath them. I guess we will all find out February 26th when the 84th Academy Awards airs...

Here is a few of the more major categories, and highlighted are who I WANT to claim the prize, not necessarily who I think will.

"War Horse"
"The Artist"
"The Descendants"
"The Tree of Life"
"Midnight in Paris"
"The Help"
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"

Demián Bichir, "A Better Life"
George Clooney, "The Descendants"
Jean Dujardin, "The Artist"
Gary Oldman, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy "
Brad Pitt, "Moneyball"

Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"
Viola Davis, "The Help"
Rooney Mara, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo "
Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"
Michelle Williams, "My Week With Marilyn"

Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"
Alexander Payne, "The Descendants"
Martin Scorsese, "Hugo"
Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"
Terrence Malick, "The Tree of Life"

Kenneth Branagh in "My Week with Marilyn"
Jonah Hill in "Moneyball"
Nick Nolte in "Warrior"
Christopher Plummer in "Beginners"
Max von Sydow in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"

Bérénice Bejo in "The Artist"
Jessica Chastain in "The Help"
Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids"
Janet McTeer in "Albert Nobbs"
Octavia Spencer in "The Help"

"A Cat in Paris" Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli
"Chico & Rita" Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal
"Kung Fu Panda 2" Jennifer Yuh Nelson
"Puss in Boots" Chris Miller
"Rango" Gore Verbinski

"The Artist" Production Design: Laurence Bennett; Set Decoration: Robert Gould
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" Production Design: Stuart Craig; Set Decoration: Stephenie McMillan
"Hugo" Production Design: Dante Ferretti; Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo
"Midnight in Paris" Production Design: Anne Seibel; Set Decoration: Hélène Dubreuil
"War Horse" Production Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Lee Sandales

See the full list of Nominees here

Monday, January 23, 2012

My Week with Marilyn

I went into My Week with Marilyn with very little knowledge about the source material. I know very little about Marilyn Monroe aside from what I have seen depicted in other films, and shows. And what little I have read or heard about her over the years. I have never seen any other her films, and have seen very little actual archival footage or interviews. I was walking into a learning experience, something I often like to do. Watching a biographical film on a topic I know very little about can be very entertaining and enlightening. This was a little different, this is not a biographical telling of the life of a tragic screen goddess, it’s a story of a young man’s brief brush with greatness, a week that would change his life forever.

My Week with Marilyn is based originally on a journal kept by a young 3rd assistant director who worked on the Sir Laurence Olivier’s (Kenneth Branagh) production “The Prince and the Showgirl”. He was a young film/literary fanatic who wanted nothing more than to break into the film business. Luckily he had himself the connections needed to get his foot in the door, though a little persistence was also required. He eventually landed a job on set, which even though 3rd Assistant Director sounds like a great title, he was really just a “gofer”. He had a pretty routine job until an unexpected thing happened; he caught the attention of one of the biggest stars of in the world. When Marilyn Monroe arrived to shoot the film she was a wreck. She was confused with her character, couldn’t understand the direction, and had no confidence in the acting ability. Shooting was just one disastrous day after another. Olivier was getting more and more frustrated, and was venting his frustration directly at her which would only make things worse. Nobody could seem to help her, until she met Colin Clark. He treated her different than anyone else, including her own husband (of a clearly loveless marriage), who saw her depressed state as nothing more than material to drive his writing from. She found instant admiration towards him and wanted to spend all her downtime between shooting with him. The time she spent with him helped, he seemed to bring about a new found confidence in her.. However their late night visits, and quite moments together didn’t go unnoticed. The more time they spent together the more uneasy Monroe’s management grew. However the fact that it caused her to be able to complete her scenes was enough for Olivier himself to not be too bothered.

Can’t write too much about this film without talking about Michelle Williams’s performance, she displays one of the finest performances I have seen in a long time. She disappears into this complicated role and from the moments she first steps into frame all you see is Marilyn Monroe. This is probably the best biographical depiction I have seen since Jamie Foxx’s uncanny portrayal of Ray Charles in 2004’s Ray. All this really came as a surprise. When I began reading about this film is was originally reported that Scarlett Johansson would be playing the part, she seemed to be perfect for the role, as she has always been considered an actress who carries a certain “glam” that resembled a 1950’s Hollywood actress. However she ended up turning down the role. Then suddenly, it was Michelle Williams, and though she has appeared in several films since her long running stint on Dawson’s Creek, aside from a couple good performances in Shutter Island, and more notably 2010’s Blue Valentine (which got her a well deserved Oscar nomination) she never really stood out to me as being a ‘great actress’. Well that stance has clearly changed; I couldn’t picture anyone else playing the part. She proved that Blue valentine wasn’t a fluke, and that she will most likely have a great acting career going forward.

What makes this film more interesting that a simple biopic is the perspective it’s shown from. Marilyn Monroe was a very complicated woman, who led a very complicated and tragic life. There are so many varying reports about the kind of person she was from so many different perspectives. It was often said that she was manipulative, and that she would often present herself to men in her life, and use her beauty to control them. The story in the film does very much suggest that this might be going on; Colin Clark was a very young and naive man, and who’s to say that Monroe wasn’t simply keeping him wrapped around her finger the whole time they knew each other. That said, what we are shown is a completely different perspective, and how are we to say it’s not the truth? Clark remembers her as a sweet and gentle person who only needed someone to be her friend, and to treat her like a person and not the icon she had become. Maybe that was all it was, yes he fell madly in love with her and though that she might have felt the same, and they could run away together and leave her fame behind. There are moments that come across as her putting herself out for him, but being from a young man’s point of view maybe it was just her simple act of kindness and comfortability with him that he was taking out of context. A lot of the moments shown were shared between them and them alone. We the outside perspective will only ever have these moments from Clarks young mindset, so I guess even though they may be documented in his journal, and novel. For all the rest of us, it will always remain a mystery what really happened during that week with Marilyn.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Police Story

If you’ve never seen a Jackie Chan film, and you asked any fan what to watch they would probably say "If you’re going to watch any Jackie Chan film in your life, make it Drunken Master 2" That is a great martial arts action classic, but I may have to concur and say, Police Story (Directed by Chan himself) is arguably his greatest achievement as an actor, and director, to date. It truly set a standard in Hong Kong action films, and action films around the world for that matter. From the fantastic opening scene which ends with a car chase down a mountain, and through a small town, that could have been the climax to any other action film. To the even better mall/motorcycle barrage that earned the film its nick name "Glass Story".

Jackie plays a police officer who is part of a group of officers trained to fight against organized crime in Hong Kong. While in the process of bringing down a convicted crime lord, he gets framed for the murder of another cop, and now has to fight to clear his name. Also at the same time he has to save a very critical witness who has been kidnapped by the Boss’ men. It must be noted as well for those that have not seen this film, that Jackie’s on screen girlfriend, who’s character is put through emotional (and physical) hell throughout the story, is played wonderfully by internationally renowned Chinese/British actress Maggie Cheung.

The huge success of police Story did have its price. That car chase scene mentioned above in the beginning of the film cost a whopping HK$5000,000 (This was a lot of money during those days in Hong Kong) and it also caused very serious injuries to four stuntmen. Also for Chan himself, his finale stunt at the end, and maybe his most amazing stunt to date, he is to jump and slide down a pole covered in Christmas lights. He pulls the stunt off beautifully, but in the end rips all the skin off his hands. It should also be noted, that the power used to light the lights were now hooked to a car battery like it was supposed to, but was hooked to the buildings power. This could have easily killed him, and it goes without saying, but he received a far larger shock then he expected.

If you’re going to watch any Jackie Chan film in your life, make it Police Story!