Wednesday, October 28, 2009

SAM PECKINPAH - It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding

Sam Peckinpah: His way, or the highway

The one thing that many of the great directors have in common is their unique vision. However, the pressures of trying to get your pure artistic vision onto the big screen can be considerable. Movie-making is and always will be a commercial business, where the bottom line rules supreme. As a result the relationships between studios and the people they hire to bring movies to life is often characterized by a great deal of angst, which usually leads to excessive drug and alcohol abuse and other erratic behaviour. One individual who wore the 'difficult' genius mantle like he invented it was Sam Peckinpah. Notorious for his heavy drinking and fits of rage on set, Peckinpah was a true outsider - and one of the great maverick directors of the 70s. His films are intensely personal statements, very often conveying stories of men who are no longer right for this world. They feature a unique combination of beauty, melancholy, nostalgia and extreme violence. They are truly unique in every sense of the word.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writer: Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah
Players: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Robert Ryan, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez

The Wild Bunch
is widely regarded as Peckinpah's masterpiece, and it has several outstanding qualities that lend weight to that claim. Chief among them is the central performance by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Robert Ryan. Call me nostalgic, but they don't make 'em like this anymore. Not a pretty boy among them, the lines and wrinkles on their well-used faces only adds to their believability. Wild Bunch became notorious for being the first film to depict actual blood spatter as bullets hit home. It was also the first to slow the action down, so you see the dying as it happens. But the violence is only a small part of what makes this film so magnificent. The wonderful music, fantastic set pieces and awesome camera work by longtime collaborator Lucien Ballard are also a part of it. But Wild Bunch is much more than the sum of its parts. A serious contender for greatest Western ever made.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Rudy Wurlitzer
Players: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Jason Robards, Chill Wills, John Beck

Peckinpah's other great contribution to the western oeuvre is an elegaic eulogy to one of the great legends of the old West: Billy the Kid. The message is similar to that of The Wild Bunch - the west is changing and outlaws like Billy have no place in it. The movie also deals with themes of loyalty and friendship, and how money rips the ties that bind asunder. Replete with a haunting soundtrack by Bob Dylan (and his first acting role), PG&BK is beautifully shot by John Coquillion. James Coburn does a magnificent job as the conflicted Pat Garrett and Kris Kristofferson manages to produce a very respectable performance as Billy, despite his relative inexperience at the time. Supporting roles are uniformly sublime. When the film was first released the studios chopped a big chunk out of it to get the pace up or some other deluded reason. This new release offers both a 122 minute version that was released in 1988 and a new 115 minute version that was edited by Peckinpah biographers Nick Redman and Paul Seydor, based on Peckinpah's shooting journal and notes.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Sam Peckinpah and Gordon T Dawson
Players: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber, Gig Young, Emilio Fernandez

BMTHOAG is strong medicine and not for the faint of heart. Working with one of his regular stable of actors, Warren Oates, Peckinpah produced a bizarre and unique piece of story-telling that combines elements of love story, revenge epic, epic western and hard-boiled crime saga to memorable effect. Oates plays Bennie, a piano player in a Mexican bar. Bennie's life is no picnic, but he has a woman he loves that he plans to marry. In a cruel twist of fate, the one good thing in Bennie's world is taken from him and, mad with grief, he sets out to take his revenge and honour the memory of his loved one. Many of Peckinpah's signature techniques are in evidence here, and once again his life-long fascination for the mysteries of Mexico is evident. A truly bizarre and unforgettable movie and one that was very close to this great director's heart.

The Getaway

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Walter Hill
Players: Steve McQueen, Ali McGraw, Al Lettieri, Ben Johnson, Sally Struthers

Jim Thompson was one of the most original voices in crime fiction. Texas-born, he lived a hardscrabble life, doing all kinds of different jobs while he attempted to become a commercially successful writer. Like many great artists, he was only really discovered late in life and his highly original talents were seized on by several film-makers who brought his work to the big screen. Sam Peckinpah brought in famous action star Steve McQueen to bring the story of an expert bank robber and his wife on the run to life. As Doc McCoy Steve McQueen is, well, Steve McQueen - at his best when driving, running and shooting. Although the original story by Jim Thompson included a much more surreal and downbeat ending, the script is written by Walter Hill, who put more emphasis on the action and pace of the first three quarters of the book. As such, the movie is best viewed as a pure actioner, with some great set pieces and stunt work from one of the great action stars of the 60s and 70s.

Straw Dogs

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: David Zelag Goodman, Sam Peckinpah
Players: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Dal Henney, David Warner, Peter Vaughan

One of the stand-out films in a decade packed with memorable releases Straw Dogs ran into trouble right out of the gate. The movie was violent as hell, yes indeed, but violence has never really been that much of an issue for censors. The real controversy revolved around sexual violence towards the female lead, British actress Susan George, in a highly charged rape scene. As a result Straw Dogs was banned in the UK and gained notoriety for all the wrong reasons. Viewed today, Straw Dogs is remarkable for many reasons. Its study of intellect versus brute strength and man's inherently violent nature is still highly fascinating. The superb editing, score and effective use of location ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels. Dustin Hoffman and Susan George both deliver career-defining performances. An intensely visceral experience that once seen will not be forgotten in a hurry. The cinematic equivalent of a kick in the groin.

Friday, October 23, 2009

THE COEN BROTHERS - Crazy like the Ferret

Joel Coen (L) and Ethan Coen (R) : One directs, the other writes. But which does which?

The Coen Brothers have managed what is usually an extremely difficult task in the high pressure world of movie-making. In most cases directors start off making cool movies that get earn critical praise, get people talking and get the attention of the Hollywood heavies. Said heavies then proceed to co-opt them into the system and crush any maverick spirit or creative spice that made their movies interesting in the first place (case study: John Woo). The Coens, however, have somehow managed to avoid the trap of sacrificing their obvious talent for the big money deals, retaining their independence and unique qualities that endeared them to lovers of independent cinema and other fanboy geeks. In the process they have managed to keep churning out critically lauded flicks that somehow also earn them enough money so they can retain creative control of their next project. A rare animal indeed in today's bottom line driven world.

Miller's Crossing (1990)

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen
Players: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney, John Turturro, Jon Polito

There are occasions when one has a transcendental experience in a movie house, much like some people experience in churches. For me this happened when I caught Miller's Crossing on its commercial release. I didn't know much about the Coen brothers then. I had seen the trailer for the movie and knew I had to see it. It was one of those perfect movie-going experiences when the theatre is near empty, the projectionist was in his booth to make sure the film was loaded properly (a rare occurrence nowadays) and I was in the right frame of mind to watch something meaty.

As the movie opens and the hat is picked up by the wind and blown into the distance and the music swells, I realised Miller's Crossing was going to be something special. What I didn't know is that it would prove to be the beginning of a life-long love affair with the movies of the Coen brothers. It was so rare to see a film that fairly bristled with intelligence and looked as if the people who made it were truly in love with movies themselves.

The labyrinthine plot involving a mysterious individual who whispers in the ear of a local Irish mob boss is loosely based on the Dashiell Hammett novel The Glass Key. But in addition to literature the Coens were also pouring dozens of movies into the mixing bowl, chiefly gangster flicks from the 20s and 30s where guys like James Cagney spoke in rapid-fire and blasted dirty coppers with their tommy guns, always getting their just desserts in the end. Of course, when asked why they'd made Miller's Crossing, the Coens replied with the deadpan humour that would become their trademark that they'd always wanted to make a movie where everyone wears a hat. Hence the hat becomes a central icon in the film, the sort of running joke they delight in.

Resplendent with rich art production, costumes, set design and fantastic photography from their long-time collaborator Roger Deakins, MC is so chock full of vivid characters its hard to know where to begin. Gabriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden are both flawless in the lead roles and their snappy dialogue is one of the highlights of the marvellously dense script. Each supporting character is perfectly etched. From Albert Finney's blustery Irish blarney as Leo to John Turturro's slimy unctuousness as Bernie Bernbaum to woefully under-used character actor Jon Polito as the demented Italian mobster, Johnny Caspar - there is much to enjoy.

Throw in a bit of bed and gunplay and even some sterling advice on how to get a really close shave and you have a piece of timeless art that never loses its appeal.

The Hudsucker Proxy

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen
Players: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman

Long before The Coen Brothers were a household name and racking up little golden statues on a regular basis, they were obscure geniuses who made movies that true cinephiles hoarded like Easter eggs. Following on from Miller's Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy was meant to be the brothers' big commercial debut. It was supposed to make lots of money but for some reason it disappeared from view with barely a murmur. Which is something of a mystery as Hudsucker is a tremendous entertainment, no matter how you slice it. Possibly the Coens' most upbeat film tonally it features several superb comedic performances, notably Tim Robbins as loveable goof Norville Barnes, Paul Newman as the villain and a crackerjack turn from Jennifer Jason Leigh (furiously channeling Katherine Hepburn) as Amy Archer. The script is Coen brothers at their most playful and the yucks flow fast and furious. The sets are superbly realised and the spoofing of the 1950s is a sheer delight. Good comedies are much harder to make than anything else and Hudsucker Proxy is one of the finest ever.

Fargo (1996)

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen
Players: William H Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare

1997 would prove to be the year of the big breakthrough for the Coens. Fargo would go on to win several Academy awards, including best actress for Frances McDormand and best screenplay. It picked up another five nominations including best picture, best cinematography, best editing and best supporting actor for William H Macy in addition to a total of 50 other awards around the world. The Coens may well have been puzzled by all the fuss over what is in many ways a far less dazzling picture than the two that came before it, but Fargo has many quieter attractions of its own. The frozen winter setting of Minnesota (not to mention the bizarre accents), the banal nature of the horrific crimes committed by the two kidnappers, and of course, the stand-out performances by McDormand and Macy, not to mention Peter Stormare and Coen staple Steve Buscemi all add up to a perfect little cocktail, laced through by the blackest of black humour.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen
Players: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, David Huddleston

Its hard to be objective about Big Lebowski, one of my all time favourites. Settling in to watch it is like catching up with great and slightly crazy friends you haven't seen in years. Featuring two of the most immortal idiots ever created for the big screen, the Coens created a comedy that is so passionately loved, hordes of fans get together every year in the USA to celebrate it at an event called Lebowski Fest, where they dress up as characters from the film, bowl a few rounds and drink vast quantities of White Russian beverages. Suffice to say it is near impossible to resist the charms of the Dude and Walter as they bumble their way through life. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman are just outstanding in their roles and every detail of their characterizations is perfect. As usual there is a bizarre collection of supporting characters including a gang of Swedish nihilists, a soulful pornographer, a performance artist stroke landlord, a fine artist who's work has strong vaginal content and a philosopher cowboy. There's never been anything else like it - before or since - and there probably never will be.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen
Players: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta Jones, Richard Jenkins, Cedric the Entertainer, Julia Duffy, Geoffrey Rush

At first glance Intolerable Cruelty doesnt seem like a typical Coen brothers movie at all. With its 'rom-com' vibe and disgustingly good-looking leads, it seems like the Coens had sold out to the studios and were chasing the big bucks like everyone else. Oh ye of little faith! If anything Intolerable Cruelty is one of the most enjoyable Coen flicks since Hudsucker Proxy. Set among the shark-infested waters of Los Angeles' divorce lawyers, Intolerable Cruelty is as cynical a rom-com as you'd ever expect to see, with Catherine Zeta Jones excelling as the professional gold-digger who eventually falls for divorce attorney Miles Massey, played with great comedic zest by the disgustingly good-looking AND talented George Clooney. The script is packed with gems and repeated viewings are necessary to catch every little barb and quip. It is also rich with highly entertaining supporting roles by the likes of Geoffrey Rush, Richard Jenkins, Billy Bob Thornton, Cedric the Entertainer and Julia Duffy, not to forget Jonathan Hadary as the inimitable 'Heinz the Baron Krauss von Espy'. Whenever I need a belly laugh, I simply pop this or Lebowski into the machine and sit back - the results are guaranteed.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen
Players: Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Kelly McDonald, Woody Harrelson

A few years would pass before the Coens achieved similar success to Fargo. This time they would take a story from literary giant Cormac McCarthy that seemed custom made for them. The Coens profess a great love for the speech rhythms of the deep South and Texas in particular, which was one of their motivations for wanting to film this novel. Set in the bone dry wastelands of east Texas NCFOM is indeed replete with some truly wondrous accents. The Coens also make the most of the scenery, their long time collaborator Roger Deakins rising to the occasion to deliver some beautifully rendered landscapes, among other desolate scenes of motels, trailer parks and other familiar features of Texas' vast open spaces. NCFOM also yielded one of cinema's great villains, Anton Chigurh. Played with utter conviction by the great Spanish actor Javier Bardem, Chigurh marches through the movie like the Terminator with a funny haircut, using a pneumatic cattle gun and a silenced 12 gauge to carve a path of destruction a mile wide. No Country reaped awards aplenty at the Academy awards, including the much coveted Best Picture and catapulted the Coens from critical darlings to major A-list heavies.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

DAVID FINCHER and the Decline and Fall of Western Civilisation

David Fincher: Dark horseman of the apocalypse?

David Fincher is undoubtedly one of the most exciting directors at work today. When he first came to the attention of the world as the director of the ill-fated Aliens3, he was struggling to escape the control of the studio executives, who weren't about to let a rookie director impose his vision on a highly lucrative franchise.

The resultant mess left Fincher badly bloodied but unbowed and he took his revenge by going on to achieve the level of success with his next feature - Se7en - that guarantees creative freedom. Since then he has gone on to make two more films - Fight Club and Zodiac - that form a sort of loose trilogy, united by a common thread of an unquestionably grim and pessimistic view of the world.

While representing the greatest achievements by this formidable creative talent to date, the message throughout is undeniably nihilistic: Western Civilisation has crossed a line and is in rapid decline. They could even be described as apocalyptic. Let's take a closer look at each movie.

Se7en (1995)

Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Andrew Klein Walker
Players: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, R Lee Ermey

The fight between good and evil has always preoccupied artists and many of the greatest have spent their lives depicting it. With Se7en Fincher's message is clear - evil is in the ascendancy and man is in danger of losing his soul forever.

Morgan Freeman as Lt William Somerset is the old warrior in the story. He is battle weary and haunted by the thought that despite the years he has put in as a homicide detective, the never-ending war against evil is no closer to being won. If anything, evil is winning.

On the verge of retirement, he is dragged back into the fray by a murder that is puzzling in its complexity. He realises that this is no ordinary homicide and begins to feel the tendrils of panic in his heart. The knowledge that he is up against an opponent who may defy even his considerable abilities threatens to defeat him before he has even begun.

Entering the fray is David Mills, played by Brad Pitt. Mills is a relative rookie, still feisty and fresh to the fight. Unlike Somerset, Mills is a man of little imagination. He doesn't bother with the larger ramifications of these terrible deeds, but prefers to stay focused on the details of the case at hand. Together they sally forth, two white knights in search of a dragon the dimensions of which remains largely hidden from view until the final apocalyptic act.

As the full horror of the killer's plan begins to reveal itself, the detectives and their families are drawn into the web and Somerset begins to realise that they may not emerge intact. But he seems powerless to prevent the inevitable from taking place. Despite all his experience and intellect, the stage is set and the killer, known only as John Doe, has been the puppet master all along. But his warnings to Mills go unheeded and the brash young detective plunges on, until both are confronted by the bottomless depths of John Doe's insanity.

Se7en is worthy of repeated viewings for the very fine performances of its central cast, particularly the outstanding contribution by Morgan Freeman. However, even he is eclipsed by the laser-like intensity of Kevin Spacey, in his first major role. Although slight of stature and physically non-threatening, Spacey is totally believable as the serial killer.

His life's work is a statement about the condition of modern day society that will not easily be forgotten - represented by a nameless, rain-soaked city that apparently represents every large metropolis on our planet. It is among these faceless grey canyons and dirty streets where sin find its most fertile ground.

Se7en is a technical achievement of the highest order, from the now-famous opening credit sequence to the incredible detail of the set designs and the stunning cinematography. The chase scene - one of the few pieces of action in an otherwise very static film - is done with great imagination, offering startling angles, superb sound effects and brilliant editing to bring the tension to an unbearable level.

Despite its coal-dark theme and distinctly downbeat ending Se7en has been the biggest commercial success of Fincher's career, although it is arguably the lesser creative achievement than either Fight Club or Zodiac, the second and third parts of the trilogy.

Fight Club (1999)

Director: David Fincher
Screeplay: Jim Uhls
Players: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Jared Leto, Meat Loaf

The second instalment in the great Fincher trilogy is an artistic triumph of the highest order. Taken almost word for word from the pitch-black debut novel by cult author Chuck Palahnuik, Fight Club is not so much a movie as an experience.

Released as the new millennium was about to be launched it perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the time, where young men are caught up in a world so commoditised and demeaning they have to resort to punching each other out to gain meaningful experience.

The film was so original and startling it went way over the heads of most cineplex viewers and had very little commercial success as a result. However, over the years it has gained a true cult following on DVD and is now widely acknowledged as a work of unique and twisted genius.

Packed full of impish mischief and demonic glee, it is obvious that Fincher thoroughly related to the central message of the film and took great delight in exploring every nuance of Palahnuik's ground-breaking work.

Indeed it is difficult to separate the book from the movie, so closely do they cleave to each other. So successful was he in rendering the story to celluloid that it is one of the rare instances where the movie actually improves on the book. What Fincher has done is give the story of Tyler Durden a near-perfect visual life.

And what a story it is. Many people describe the movie as 'life-changing' and the essence of the message that Palahnuik conveyed in his book can indeed be taken as a life philosophy. Its anti-consumerist stance and contempt for authority has became increasingly relevant with each passing year. Every time the world leaders gather for a G20 summit, one can almost hear the echoes of the space monkeys as they gather to spread mischief and mayhem: "his name was Robert Paulson, his name was Robert Paulson...".

Given the quality of the material they are working with, the players rise to the occasion. Brad Pitt delivers the performance of his career as Tyler Durden and in the process creates a persona that is as iconic an image in cinema history as Darth Vader. Norton and Bonham Carter are equally effective. That it is impossible to imagine anyone other than Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter in these roles is a testament to their achievement.

While Fight Club has on the surface an even darker world view than Se7en it is far less dreary, due to the script which is frequently hilarious, as well as the visual gags which appear throughout the movie.

Although Fincher obviously still believes that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, he realises that we must still laugh at the insanity around us, or risk going insane ourselves.


Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: James Vanderbilt
Players: Jake Gyllenhal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr, John Carroll Lynch, Chloe Sevigny

The final instalment in Fincher's epic dark trilogy on the decline and fall of modern civilisation differs in that it is not a work of fiction but is based on the true life events of the Zodiac killer, who hunted his victims in and around San Francisco.

The movie opens on the 4th of July 1969 with a stunning panoramic shot of fireworks over the city - an unforgettable image. From there we are introduced to the shadowy figure that is the Zodiac killer, as he brutally slays a young couple about to celebrate the occasion with some good old fashioned car sex.

The killer stays in the shadows throughout, and we never really see his face, no doubt because his true identity was never determined. As in Se7en, the evil is not brought to justice and in the end remains an active force in the world. In Fincher's eyes, there are no neat endings where the heroes prevail and sanity is restored. Despite fresh DNA evidence which was taken from one of the envelopes sent to the SF Chronicle, the killer's identity was never determined to a certainty and the case remains open to this day.

Fincher's movie is based largely on the book by Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who became obsessed with the case. Given that the Zodiac case as depicted in the movie takes place over two decades, Zodiac does a fantastic job of conveying the frustrating and exhaustive nature of the investigation, without boring us to tears.

Unlike the fantasy world of TV shows like CSI, many cases of this nature are never solved or may take decades to close. Fincher takes us on this journey and we watch as the principal players in the Zodiac drama are forever altered by the case. Although the movie is two and a half hours long, it never feels that way.

The players are uniformly superb, in particular Jake Gyllenhal as Graysmith and Robert Downey Jr as Paul Avery, as the Chronicle's crime reporter. John Carroll Lynch gives an amazing portrayal of Robert Leigh Allen, the man whom Graysmith believes to be the killer.

A special mention must be made of the art production, which is of the highest standard in order to deliver a convincingly authentic 70s-era San Francisco. Every little detail is taken into account and Fincher's legendary perfectionism is very much evident here. Cinematography is also outstanding and the film is beautifully rendered in suitably muted tones to evoke the feel of the times (look out for the recurring cobalt blue and ochre themes).

With Zodiac Fincher reaches the very height of his considerable powers as a visual stylist and story-teller.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

TV review: The Shield Seasons 1 - 7

It's very true that some of the best entertainment these days is found on the small screen, not the big one.

One of the shows
I've been following on DVD is The Shield. This is powerhouse stuff. Right from the pilot, you are drawn into the action and it never really lets up. I'm into Season 5 and its still holding my attention.

One of the benefits of the small screen is that it gives time for the characters to develop. They are therefore a lot more rounded and multi-dimensional than movie characters.

The stories themselves are allowed to spool out, and there is time to explore other sub-plots. All these things are true of the Shield, which has a very effective formula to prevent boredom from setting in.

Firstly, it is filmed on location, and maximum use is made of the gritty streets and ghettos of Los Angeles. Secondly, it is filmed with handheld cameras, and has a very grainy texture, like it was shot on a handicam. This adds to the authentic feel, although it did make Glenn Close's skin look terrible in Season 4.

But the strength of The Shield, and the other series by its creator Shawn Ryan, The Unit, is the scripting. It is extremely well written, with maximum use of local vernacular and argot, which again adds to the overall reality of the piece.

Finally, the characters are extremely well sketched and acting is uniformly excellent. Particular kudos should go to the lead, Michael Chiklis, who inhabits the character entirely. Although Vic Mackey is a brutal, corrupt cop, Chiklis gives him a real humanity and appeal. He is a complex and fascinating character. Even though you know he's rotten, you can't help cheering him on.

The detective team of Dutch and Claudette played by Jay Karnes and CCH Pounder respectively also deserve special mention. Their cases provide a degree of relief from the adrenaline charged exploits of the Strike Team and the intelligence of the two characters is genuinely engaging.

The police drama has had several highlights on television since it became a full-blown cultural phenomenon with Hill Street Blues in the 80s. The likes of Homicide, Life on the Street and The Wire have taken it even further. The Shield rightly deserves a place among the pantheon of the greats.