Thursday, November 11, 2010


Burt as the Bandit, with mustache

It's no secret I dig movies from the 70s but strangely enough I haven't ever spoken about Burt Reynolds. A major oversight many of you would say. Others might say I've lost my cotton-picking mind or finally come out of the closet. No doubt about it Burt is a polarising figure. He's practically a parody of the hairy-chested 70s stud, a role he's been happy to play on more than one occasion, even doing a centerfold for Cosmo magazine. In fact there was a time when Burt was the 70s. He was omnipresent and omnipotent all at the same time. 

Some of that had to do with his incredibly successful series of Smokey and the Bandit, which made bundles of dough in practically every movie outlet on the planet. For us shorties back in the day, when we had to rent a reel on a Friday night, it was either Burt and his Pontiac or Clint's Every Which Way franchise, or something by Bruce Lee...... nothing else even came close.

Burt in his breakthrough role as Lewis Medlock

But Burt was more than just a comedic figure with incredible facial hair, the dude had serious acting chops. I'm talking about Deliverance of course, the movie that blew a lot of people out of the water. People who had no idea that Burt could bring it when he was given material worthy of his abilities.

Burt's role of outdoor fanatic and general he-man Lewis Medlock was a touchstone role for the actor. In many ways it defined the 70s man and created a blueprint for the tough guy role that so many in the 80s would attempt to emulate. The great thing about it is that the movie turns this stereotype on its head when Lewis breaks his leg and becomes as helpless as his city slicker buddies who look to him to save their lillywhite asses from the rampaging hill-billies.

Original poster for Deliverance

As it turns out it is fellow 70s icon Jon Voight who gets to play hero and pull the group out of the very tricky situation they have landed themselves in. The movie is based on the equally powerful book by James Dickey, for many years America's poet laureate. Dickey wanted to show what it means when the trappings and niceties of civilised society are ripped away and man is pushed to extremes. 

So what is meant to be a pleasant weekend of enjoying nature's beauty for a group of friends gets turned into a nightmare of epic proportions, when the group are confronted by a duo of backwoods in-breeds who clearly have taken their relationship with their livestock to a whole new level.

Deliverance is also interesting because its a movie about the vanishing wilderness, and man's dwindling respect for his natural heritage. Lewis persuades his friends to undertake the canoe trip because the river is going to be dammed and he wants them to experience it in its true glory before the dam reduces it to a mere shadow of its former self.

Lewis was indeed a curious anomaly for the time. An ultra-macho bowhunter who really gave a crap about the environment. Something of this dichotomy can be found in James Dickey himself, a hard-drinking womaniser who wrote ultra-violent books like Deliverance and To the White Sea but was also a celebrated poet. 

Burt and co-star Ronny Cox on the set

Burt's role in Deliverance was a tremendous breakthrough for the young actor. After Deliverance was nominated for 3 Oscars his future was pretty much set. Unfortunately the material that he chose after that would never quite rise to the level of his breakthrough performance. It would appear that Burt chose popularity and box office appeal over critical approval, and while we cannot blame him for that, perhaps that legendary moustache should take some of the blame. After he sprouted it, it was a lot more difficult to take him seriously. 


Saturday, October 30, 2010


John Carpenter: creeping people out since 1976

It's October, the month of Halloween of course, so naturally I figured who better to feature than John Carpenter, the B movie maestro? Whether or not Carpenter should be relegated to second tier status could be the subject of an endless debate among film geeks. He's not considered a serious film-maker in the same vein as some po-faced European artiste like Lars Von Trier or Michael Haneke but the guy has made some truly memorable movies and influenced a ton of aspiring film makers. Halloween, the original slasher flick, has spawned so many sequels, remakes and imitators it's impossible to count them all. And yet the film itself is remarkably simple, features hardly any blood or gore and seems almost quaint compared to what passes for 'horror' today. (In fact, most of his movies are pretty tame in the blood and gore stakes.) And yet they endure.... perhaps because Carpenter has the magic touch when it came to story telling. He just keeps the story moving along, no stopping to dilly dally along the way. Keep it lean and mean and let the action tell the story. And it's precisely by vitue of that simplicity and discipline and a huge dollop of serious craftsmanship that he has managed to create unforgettable classics in the three most popular genres of Action, Sci-Fi and Horror. And at the same time he has entertained the hell out of his audiences. How many other directors can lay claim to that?

Halloween (1978)

Director: John Carpenter
Screenwriter: John Carpenter
DOP: Dean Cundey
Players: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, PJ Soles, Kyle Richards

One of my most vivid memories as a kid is being told I wasn't allowed to watch Halloween under any circumstances. This was very upsetting to me. There was quite a buzz around this film. It upset a lot of people. Apparently, it was some real heavy shit. All of which was irresistable for a young kid. Watching it would no doubt be a life-changing experience. But the lockdown on cinemas was pretty tight in those days and I had no way of breaching the walls to gain access to this cultural phenomenon. Movie age restrictions were strictly enforced back then (the maximum 2 - 21 was imposed for Halloween and I was a long way from 21 in 1978) and there was no such thing as video, DVD or satellite television. So it was the cinema or nothing. In any event, I didnt get to see this film until MANY years later - for some reason the original is hard to find in DVD rental stores - so I finally just bought a copy. Suffice to say I was a little dumbfounded as to what all the fuss was about (a LOT has changed in horror movies since 1978) but on my second viewing I finally began to appreciate what Carpenter had achieved with Halloween, and why the movie has spawned so many imitators.The beauty of Halloween lies in its simplicity. The rest is atmosphere. From the moment the now famous score (composed by Carpenter, who wrote the music for most of his films) kicks in you know that nasty things are going to happen. Carpenter keeps the story tight, no messing around. Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance do sterling work, as do the rest of the cast. The other force that comes into play with palpable effect is Dean Cundey's amazing camera work. Its nothing fancy, no trickery or whoop de doo but its never less than mesmerising. The POV effect is still gripping and probably influenced a lot of video game designers. The location just works a treat. It's a totally wholesome, whitebread small American town, and like the best work of Stephen King, that only makes what happens in it all the more shocking.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Director: John Carpenter
Screenwriter: John Carpenter
Cinematographer: Douglas Knapp
Players: Austin Stoker, Darwin Jonston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Charles Cyphers

Carpenter brought his ability to do a lot with very little to another drive-in classic - Assault on Precinct 13. In it he used a plot device that he would return to with even more success in sci-fi classic The Thing - a group of disparate individuals trapped by circumstance with the pressure piling on as the minutes tick by. In this case, it's a soon to be abandoned police station on the outskirts of LA that becomes the target of a coordinated attack from a vicious street gang. The scumbags even have silenced revolvers! Carpenter ratchets up the tension as the gang, hell-bent on destruction, tries every which way to get into the building.  The movie owes a huge debt to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo and Carpenter freely admitted that he wanted to re-make it as an urban western. Naturally there has to be a hero, and in this case its Lt Ethan Bishop (Austin Stokes) who's been given the job of watching over the building and the few remaining people in it. His main charge is a prisoner named Napoleon played with sardonic wit by Darwin Jonston. The interplay between the two leads provides an amusing diversion from the tension, as the grimly silent gangbangers do their best to find a way in. Carpenter uses the desolate urban setting to maximum advantage and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep it interesting. A tidy little potboiler with plenty of laughs (some unintentional) and action to keep you interested... 

Escape from New York (1981)

Director: John Carpenter
Screenwriter: Nick Castle, John Carpenter
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Players: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes

Undoubtedly one of Carpenter's top two outings (along with The Thing) and starring his favourite lead dude, Kurt Russell, Escape From NY is one of the all-time B-movie classics. The plot set-up is fantastic, the characters brilliantly sketched and Snake is a truly wonderful creation that turned Kurt Russell from a little known B-movie character actor into a pretty well-known B-movie character actor. Hey, don't get down on Kurt, the guy can bring it when he needs to. Just check out 1997's Breakdown, for example, where he holds his own against the late - and very great - J.T. Walsh. In Escape from New York Kurt plays Snake Plissken, a bank robber who is given a free pass by government flunkeys if he agrees to break into NYC and rescue the US Prez, who's plane has 'gone down' into the city, which has been transformed into a maximum security prison. Well, I guess folks who live there now would say its not far off, but that's the subject for another discussion. So naturally Snake agrees but the catch is he gets this explosive device injected into his neck. Once false move and the device explodes, leaving Snake with a very bad headache and minus one head. So Snake gets into a glider plane and gets dropped into NYC and numerous adventures ensue. All the way through there is a very funny running joke about whether he is dead or alive and he gets to hook up with some pretty bizarre characters played by the likes of Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton. For good measure, there's also a busty broad played by Adrienne Barbeau. It's all great fun and Kurt Russell plays it for yuks extremely well. Plus he has an eye patch so you know it's gonna be a winner right off the bat.

The Thing (1982)

Director: John Carpenter
Screenwriter: Bill Lancaster
Cinematographer: Dean Cundey
Players: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, David Clennon, Thomas G Waites, Charles Hallahan

Carpenter's finest hour would be another remake of a movie from one of his favourite directors, Howard Hawks. The Thing also showed how effective he was at spotting talent. One of the crowning achievements of The Thing is its special effects, none of which were computer generated and which still stand up to scrutiny today. This was the work of both an established legend, Stan Winston, and a young 21-year-old kid called Rob Bottin, who practically lived on the set of The Thing for two years while he devised some of the most fantastic creature effects ever committed to screen. Bottin used some truly 'creative' methods to achieve the end result and one of the real highlights of the interviews that can be found on the Special Edition release of the DVD is hearing him recount how he pulled it off. The story of The Thing is classic Carpenter material. A bunch of dudes are stranded in a remote scientific research station in the Arctic circle while a very scary creature from outer space, which has the handy ability to imitate anything, decimates their numbers one by one. Kurt Russell plays MacReady, the base's helicopter pilot, who assumes a leadership role almost by default and attempts to outwit the creature, which always seems to be one step ahead of him, until the explosive finale. A great ensemble cast of B-players pretty much serve as cannon fodder as they get taken out in increasingly spectacular fashion. The atmospherics of the station are brilliantly realised, through canny use of the location and sets. It's a true classic that combines both paranoia and claustrophia in equal measure. Sits right up there with Alien (to which it owes no small debt) as one of the two great sci-fi classics of the 80s.

Monday, August 9, 2010

SEAN PENN - Bad Boy Made Good

Sean Penn: bringing back weighty

Sean Penn is one high energy dude. Not only does he pick up Oscars like some people catch colds, but he also finds the time to write and direct classic movies in between jetting around the globe to various disaster zones - natural and man made - to keep us mere mortals updated on the conditions there. The guy is so talented (not to mention disgustingly good-looking) that he makes the rest of us look like one-cell organisms who've barely crossed the starting line of the evolutionary curve. But we'll try not to hold that against him and take comfort in the fact that he wasn't always this wonderful. He did marry Madonna, after all, among other rash and anti-social acts in his youth (although punching out papparazzi should have earned him a medal rather than a suspended sentence). But after winning a ludicrous number of awards for his acting and directing four very fine movies, not to mention the afore-mentioned charity aid work, it's safe to say that he's more than made up for it. For the purpose of this post, we're going to focus on his directing work, which in my opinion is growing in stature with each film. It's just a matter of time before he makes something that blows everyone else out of the water. In fact, with Into The Wild he's pretty much already there, although I feel his best work is yet to come. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, if we want to tell Mr Penn's story it's best to begin at the beginning...

The Indian Runner (1991) 

Penn's first film as a director was inspired by a Bruce Springsteen song - Highway Patrolman - one of many great tracks on the Boss' first solo album, Nebraska. Its about two brothers, one is a highway patrolman and the other is someone with considerably less self-control and a penchant for hard likker and violence. What the bad brother has done exactly is never made clear but Bruce lets us know that things are going from bad to worse and its going to be up to the cop brother to put a stop to things. This could involve violence, and it's a dead cert its going to take place on a long, lonely highway in a fast-moving vehicle, because most great Bruce songs involve these things. Here's a sample of the lyrics....

Well the night was like any other, I got a call 'bout quarter to nine
There was trouble in a roadhouse out on the Michigan line
There was a kid lyin' on the floor lookin' bad bleedin' hard from his head there was a girl cryin' at a table and it was Frank, they said
Well I went out and I jumped in my car and I hit the lights
Well I must of done one hundred and ten through Michigan county that night

And then the chorus:

Me and Franky laughin' and drinkin'
Nothin' feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria as the band played "Night of the Johnstown Flood"
I catch him when he's strayin' like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain't no good

Clearly these words resonated strongly with Penn and no doubt the whole Cain and Abel thing must be close to his heart because he decided to take this story and make a film out of it. Now making a film based on a song can't be an easy thing to do but Penn is more than capable of writing a script himself and so he waded right into it. There's not much more to the story than what the Boss sketched out in his song. Except Penn does add an interesting dimension by making Viggo's character a Vietnam veteran, although this is not really explored in any great depth. He's also has more tattoos than a carnie sideshow freak, which is never a good sign. He's not necessarily a bad guy, but he's having a lot of trouble fitting in, settling down, starting a family, all that good shit. And his brother being such a pillar of society doesn't help much. Basically, he's conflicted. Hence the tattoos.

It quickly becomes apparent as Indian Runner unfolds in its leisurely way that Penn is a student of the 70s school of film-making. The pace is unhurried, characters are given time to develop, the canvas is large and the acting is natural and note perfect. Scenes are good and long. Of course, Penn recognises great acting talent and in David Morse and Viggo Mortensen (long before fame found him with Lord of the Rings)  he finds two towering talents who manage to perfectly encapsulate the two sides of the brotherly coin. Penn also managed to get another major talent - Charles Bronson - to deliver his last great performance as the father of the two boys, so devastated by the loss of his wife that he can no longer manage the members of his family who are still among the living.

The Crossing Guard (1995)

For his next outing Penn would embrace themes that he would return to again later in his career, both as an actor and director - the untimely death of a child and the devastation it wreaks on everyone involved.

In The Crossing Guard, Jack Nicholson plays Freddy Gale, the owner of a jewellery store who's toddler daughter was been killed by a drunk driver. The film opens as he learns that the driver (played by David Morse) is about to be released on probation after serving 5 years for culpable homicide. In the interim, Freddy's life has fallen apart. He's divorced from the child's mother, is drinking himself to an early grave and can barely go through the motions of dealing with customers in his store. (In one hilarious scene he demonstrates to a woman just how to get a tight-fitting ring on her finger.) Still consumed by grief he plans to kill the man  and by doing so he hopes to gain some release from his unrelenting torment. Freddy feels that by trying to get on with their lives everyone else has betrayed him and the dead child. He cannot let his pain go and carries it around like a blazing torch, even though it is destroying him in the process. Nicholson takes the role and squeezes every last ounce of juice out of it, and his amazing abilities are equal to the task. It is an incredibly detailed portrayal of a man consumed by grief and crippled by an event that consumes his every waking moment, until at last he achieves some kind of closure.

As the plot would indicate the movie is no barrel of laughs, and no doubt could have used a bit of tightening up in places but working with actors of the caliber of Nicholson, Morse and Anjelica Huston as Nicholson's ex-wife Penn creates a movie so filled with moments of human truth that you are prepared to forgive it its minor faults. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for the film that is so incredibly affecting you'd have to be made of stone not to be moved to tears when it kicks in. Not an easy film to watch but no less compelling for it.

The Pledge (2001)

After The Crossing Guard Penn took a long break from directing but it was clear on his return that he's lost none of his passion for difficult subject matters that strike at the core of things. This time round he had a novel (by Swiss writer Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt) to use as his starting point and The Pledge does benefit as a result, having a better structure and a more involving plot.  Penn chose to work with Jack Nicholson again, and this time Nicholson plays Detective Jerry Black who is about to retire when he catches one last case. Unfortunately for Black, the case is a homicide of a young child and the distraught mother makes him promise that he will never give up until he finds the killer. Other detectives shrug it off as the rantings of a woman driven mad with grief but Black has given his word, which is his bond. This honourable act in the end proves his undoing as he slowly succumbs to the obsession of catching a killer at the risk of losing everything else in his life, including his sanity. The Pledge marked a shift in Penn's direction. While the subject matter and choice of actors was a return to familiar territory, the use of the camera and music showed that he had moved beyond the obvious influence of John Cassavetes to include another giant maverick of the 70s - Terrence Malick. The sheer beauty of Penn's vision and his obvious affinity for the remarkable diversity and vast spaces of North America lift The Pledge out of the realm of just another detective potboiler and into something else entirely. Particularly in the use of music, clearly a great influence on Penn, The Pledge becomes a lyrical journey. A road movie almost, and a peaen to a world that remains beautiful, even when monsters can move through it with seeming impunity.  Nicholson once again delivers an impeccable performance as Jerry Black, possibly the finest of his entire career. He's assisted very capably with sterling support performances by the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Clarkson, Robin Wright Penn and Aaron Eckhart.

Into The Wild (2007)

Penn's most recent feature is also his most accomplished. This time out Penn chooses the story of Christopher McCandless as his subject matter. McCandless was a free spirit (to put it mildly) who became the subject of a book by Into Thin Air author Jon Krakauer after he donated his college fund to Oxfam, abandoned his car and became a professional tramp in the style of Woody Guthrie. His final act after some pretty spectacular cross-country rambling was to head into the Alaskan wilderness with a bag of rice and a .22 rifle and a book on edible plants in order to live off the land for as long as possible. Unfortunately he didn't realise that living on squirrel meat alone is a slow road to starvation and that the Alaskan wildnerness is no place to learn from your mistakes. What Penn manages to do with what seems like a rather prosaic story of a footloose dude with a death wish is nothing short of remarkable. Not only does he make McCandless come across as a person of deep spirituality and remarkable wisdom for one so young but he makes us care deeply for him and mourn his passing as if we knew him. And by the end of the film you do feel as if you knew the guy, so thoroughly does Penn explore his thoughts and the vagaries of his short but remarkable life. This is thanks in no small part to the extensive research undertaken by Jon Krakauer. Perhaps due to Krakauer's powerful work, or the fact that McCandless was a big reader and inveterate journal keeper, Penn's movie has a strong literary quality to it (he even has extracts from McCandless' journal appearing on the screen and chapters that mark the major milestones of McCandless' journey). It's a terribly sad story of course and the ending is heartwrenching, even when you know its coming but Penn nevertheless makes the story soar and the cinematography by Eric Gautier is never anything less than riveting. Eddie Vedder's beautiful songs add another layer to the total and make this a feast for eyes and ears and a truly thoughtful study of what it is that compels people to abandon the safety of their families and careers and embark on wild adventures.

(Since the book was published and again with the release of the film McCandless has become a controversial figure and much debate has raged around whether he was a self-centered nut or a modern day visionary with Christ-like qualities. Many have commented that Krakauer's work has ignored some of the facts that cast McCandless in a not so favourable light and basically put the boy on a pedestal. Many find his actions foolhardy and irresponsible, and believe that he had a death wish, and indeed anyone with even basic knowledge of living in the wild would know that McCandless was setting himelf up to fail. He simply did not have enough knowledge or equipment to prevail in such a harsh environment. Whichever way you slice it, McCandless made his choices and paid the ultimate price for his actions. No doubt he had his reasons. If anything else, his actions serve as a valuable cautionary tale for anyone else who may be foolhardy enough to take on the Alaskan wilderness - or any wilderness for that matter - without the proper experience or preparation.)


Thursday, July 29, 2010

THE PLASTIKI EXPEDITION - highlighting the perils of plastic

Everybody knows that plastic sucks, but how do you live without the stuff? Practically everything we consume is packaged in plastic. It's everywhere: in our cars, the music we listen to, the furniture we sit on, the clothes we wear.

It's also in our oceans, hundreds of tons of it. And it's killing dolphins, whales, turtles and God knows how many other creatures that live in the sea. Consider for example the phenomena of garbage islands, such as the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island of trash twice the size of Texas located between California and Hawaii. And that's just one of them.

De Rothschild

David de Rothschild, an environmental campaigner and adventurer, decided to do something different to get the message out about plastic and its impact on the oceans. He and his mates crossed the Pacific - on a sailboat built entirely out of plastic. 12,000 plastic bottles to be precise.

The Plastiki crew

De Rothschild is not your average tree hugger. He's part of a seriously wealthy banking family so when he decides to launch into a new venture, he's got the moolah to pull it off. What's unusual about the dude is that he doesn't spend his days flitting around the globe pursued by hordes of paparazzi, partying it up and starring in his own reality TV show. Instead he gets involved in the big issues of the day, planning and executing expeditions and adventures around the world that highlight environmental issues. Yeah, I hate the bastard too.

Naturally the Plastiki is a monument to green living, including solar panels and a bicycle-powered generator to create power, a hydroponic garden, and salt water showers.

De Rothschild was joined on the Plastiki by 5 other crew members, including a female skipper and a dude from National Geographic who is shooting a documentary of the expedition. Six people on board a tiny boat made of plastic sounds like a recipe for disaster but so far the Plastiki seems to have managed quite well, despite the constant threat of being bulldozed by one of dozens of vast container ships that plough the ocean lanes which the Plastiki is also using. Yes, even on the ocean there is traffic.

The trip was officially completed on July 26 when the Plastiki sailed into Sydney Harbour , having traversed 8,300 miles across the Pacific. On their website the crew estimated that during the 40 days it took them to complete the journey, approximately 8,3 billion plastic bottles had been used in the USA alone.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN - Never a Dull Moment

William Friedkin: well dressed, but difficult

Cinephiles can argue about anything but most agree that the 70s was one of the most fertile and fascinating periods in cinema history. So many legendary films were made in the 70s it's as if there was something in the water. (In his excellent book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind explores this period in great detail. I recommend you read it.) The reality is that the movie industry is very much a product of the times. Following the cultural revolution of the mid to late 60s, the Vietnam War and Watergate, there was a powerful drive to tell stories that had meaning beyond box office profits. Plus people were snorting a lot of cocaine and that really helped to loosen things up. Whatever the reasons, movie-makers weren't ruled by the bottom line, and seemed to be given a longer leash than they are today. Films were dark, gritty, powerful. There was a humanity about the stories, something real. Most of the actors weren't even that good looking (who would cast Christopher Walken in a leading role today?). This in particular was a great boon to the younger generation, the up-and-coming auteurs who had something to prove. One of these young knights was William Friedkin, a brash, outspoken and extremely bright cinephile with some big ideas about how pictures should look. Friedkin was out of television and had done a couple of features, including a documentary that won some attention, but nothing major. But he still had the chutzpah to turn The French Connection into one of the most powerful movies of the decade, or any decade for that matter. Some say that early success is never a good thing, and it's certainly true that he never managed to duplicate the massive critical and commercial success of his earlier work. But talent is talent, and I believe anything Friedkin touches is worth a look. No matter what Friedkin feature you're watching, its guaranteed to entertain, and sometimes be so insanely entertaining, you totally forget the world around you. And when it comes to movies, I can't think of much higher praise than that.

The French Connection (1971)

It seems amazing now that Friedkin was in his 30s when he helmed this film, particularly as it swept the boards at the Academy awards that year, walking off with no less than 5 statues, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Actor for Gene Hackman. Truth be told, the movie is just as startling and relevant today as it was then, and its influence has not abated, and can be seen in groundbreaking television series like The Wire and The Sopranos plus any other number of gritty crime dramas. NYC itself really sets the tone, and Friedkin scoured the city to find exactly the right locations - the desolate vacant lots and trash-strewn streets, the all night bars and nightclubs, even the famous subway, these things are a palpable presence in the film. Combined with the documentary style camerawork and rapid-fire editing, it made for a galvanising experience, like being wired on too little sleep and too much instant coffee. Front and center of the whole saga is a gigantic performance by the amazing Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle, the maniacal and unhinged narc. Doyle rampages through the streets like a runaway Panzer tank, glowering under his pork-pie hat at the world and going off like a half-cocked IED at the drop of a matchstick. It's one of most memorable performances of modern day cinema and it made Hackman a star, although lucky for us, he was too intelligent an actor and just plain wierd looking to ever settle for dopey lead man roles. Amazingly Hackman topped even this achievement in French Connection II (directed by John Frankenheimer), which is one of the very few sequels to give the original a run for its money.

The Exorcist (1973)

This is one of those films that have become a legend in the industry. Possibly the quintessential horror movie, it is still talked about in hushed tones and only recently was made available in all its full gory glory. Despite the limitations of the time in terms of special effects, the makers managed to create enough atmosphere through canny choice of locations, excellent casting and the memorable score (critical to any horror flick). The movie made tremendous amounts of money and firmly established horror films as box office crowd pleasers of note. The plot concerns a teenage girl (Linda Blair) who has begun to behave very oddly. So what's unusual about that you say? Well, the odd behaviour includes crawling around on the ceiling and speaking in ancient languages, so even for a teenager it's a little bizarre. The mom (Ellen Burstyn) tries the psychiatric route but that proves to be a bust, so in desperation she goes to a Catholic priest (Max von Sydow). The good padre doesn't need much time to figure out he's dealing with a major case of demon possession. After that, things get really hairy, with several now infamous scenes involving projectile pea soup vomit, head-spinning and crucifix abuse, as the good Father battles mightily to rid the girl of the demon and restore the household to normalcy. The Exorcist may seem a little quaint in the light of what passes for horror today but it remains a powerful and riveting experience (especially if you watch it alone). The trick of a deep masculine voice spewing obscenities from a young girl's mouth is remarkably effective, so much so that whenever you see a 'haunted house' movie these days they inevitably trot it out for good measure. At bottom, however, Exorcist has become a novelty, a curiosity from the past. 'Just how bad is it really?', seems to be the main motivation to watch it now. And due to its reliance on special effects and transparent attempts to 'shock' its audience, it has not aged as well as other films from the period. Although its notoriety has almost certainly guaranteed it will live on as an enduring cult classic.

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

If anything this underrated classic can be viewed as French Connection III, The West Coast Connection. It conveys the same intensity as Friedkin's first big movie, transposed to the sun-bleached highways and over-sized airports of Los Angeles. Once again Friedkin uses the cop on a mission as his vehicle. This time it's Detective Richard Chance, played by a very young William Peterson of CSI: Vegas fame, and instead of drugs its a counterfeit gang lead by Rick Masters, played with suitably oily charm by Willem Defoe. The gang killed his ex-partner (we'll forgive him the cliche and you'll see why in a minute) so he's hellbent on nailing Masters. Friedkin turns up the heat big time in this one and has the perfect foil in Petersen, who acts his little heart out playing Chance. Despite being hampered by the dubious fashion choices of the era (tight jeans and cowboy boots, which highlight Petersen's bandy legs), he gives a scorching portrayal of the near psychopathic cop, willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to nail his guy. Friedkin once again makes excellent use of the Los Angeles locations and a truly hair-raising car chase is an obvious choice (strengthening comparisons with French Connection). However, just as you think you've got the thing all figured out, Friedkin gives his audience - no doubt far more jaded in 85 than they were in 71 - a savage wake-up call that lets him neatly off the hook for all the cliches that have come before. A riveting thriller that has lost none of its power despite the passing of time (although the soundtrack by Wing Chung might seem a little odd at first).

Rules of Engagement (2000)

I must confess, until I happened to catch a re-run of this on cable the other night, I didn't even know it was a Friedkin film. Suddenly it all made sense. At first glance, RoE comes across as another turkey in the style of A Few Good Men (don't ask me why people love that movie so much). The military court room drama has been a staple of cinema ever since the days of Billy Budd. Lately, however, we've been cursed by quite a few feeble efforts, including the aforementioned Cruise vehicle among many other numb-nutted outings, one of which featured John Travolta for some incomprehensible reason. But Rules of Engagement is a definite cut above these feeble attempts. For one thing it features Sam Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, two of the finest character actors at work today. For another, its extremely topical. As of right this minute, the US Army's rules of engagement are a super hot potato that is causing no end of problems to fighting men in the Afghanistan theatre. The problem has become more profound in today's wars because insurgents don't wear uniforms. They blend in with the local population and are very often supported by the local population. But the wars of today are fought in the public eye and when civilians are killed by a military strike, asses are usually in a very big sling. This dilemma forms the basis of the plot for RoE, and it starts with a bang, as Sergeant Terry Childers, played by Sam Jackson, is called in with his company of marines, to rescue the US Ambassador to Yemen who is under siege at the embassy. Friedkin handles the attack with considerable aplomb and the violence is real and gut-wrenching, conveying the so-called 'fog of war' very accurately. This is crucial to the plot, as Childers' decisions in the heat of battle are later brought into question when the Yemenis cry foul at the dead civilians piled up in front of the embassy building. The US political machine decides to make a scapegoat out of Childers and thus the courtroom component of the story comes into play. Childers decides he wants an old army buddy to defend him, Colonel Hayes Hodges, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Turns out Childers saved Hodges' ass back in Vietnam and now its Hodges turn to repay the debt. Naturally there is a fire-breathing prosecutor to wind up the ensemble and Guy Pearce does a fine job of playing the hatchet man. Much of the pleasure though comes from watching Sam Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones at work, as these two very fine players can really bring it when they have to. Friedkin gets fine performances from both of them, and thereby manages to elevate the film beyond the limitations of the genre.

The Hunted (2003)

I had high hopes for this one but unfortunately it wasn't quite up to Friedkin's usual standards. Much of the blame must surely be laid on the feeble script. The premise is undoubtedly an interesting one, but its vast potential is never fully realised and some aspects of the story are simply very difficult to swallow. The plot concerns a highly trained operative in some secret squirrel branch of the army (exactly which unit this may be is never made clear but it's most likely Delta Force) who's job it is to dispatch troublesome people when other more 'conventional' methods to get them to quit their murderin' and rapin' have failed. The movie opens in some distant hellhole (I believe it's Bosnia-Herzogevina) with just such an action about to be carried out. The operative, Aron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro) performs his duty admirably, but appears to suffer some major post-tramautic stress disorder as a result and the next thing a pair of hunters turn up dead in a very remote region of the Pacific North West. Except they're not just dead, they've been skinned alive. In a truly remarkable deduction, the investigating officers figure out that the crime has been committed by someone with highly specialised skills of the type only taught by the military. Enter LT (Tommy Lee Jones), a former instructor who for many years trained said operatives in the dark arts of war, including our boy Hallam. From that point on we enter familiar territory for those who have seen Tommy Lee's 'Fugitive' pictures and The Hunted pretty much degenerates into a chase film. Although it is very slick material with enough to hold the interest in terms of pace, scenery and two superb craftsmen in the form of Tommy Lee and Benicio, it never manages to rise above the limitations of the story. The guilty parties are undoubtedly the script writers, possibly because The Hunted was not born from a novel but rather started out as a movie idea. Whatever the reason, the story is simply very thin. There are a great deal of unanswered questions, and Hallam's character in particular is very one dimensional. He remains a mystery right up to the inevitable conclusion, but not in a good way. Where the movie does succeed is in keeping the tension high, making excellent use of locations, including some stunning wilderness and an amazing water-logged setting for the final confrontation, as well as a nicely-executed chase sequence through an urban setting. To be sure, when it comes to action, Friedkin hasn't lost his touch. It's worth a look but don't expect anything too deep. For a lazy Saturday afternoon, however, it's just about perfect.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A World of Men - The Brass Balls of DAVID MAMET

It takes brass balls to make a decent movie

In a world dominated by chick flicks and rom-coms there are precious few directors out there who specialize in content for men. Sure, there are plenty of action movies and war movies but these are often big picture extravaganzas that are excruciatingly long, incredibly dumb and embarrassing to watch. The likes of Michael Bay and Tony Scott are usually the guilty parties behind these yawn fests. These are not movies for men, these are movies for morons.

One of the few directors making movies for men is David Mamet. Mamet started out as a playwright and his films have the dynamic of good theatre in that you have to pay attention or you will get lost and not know what the hell is going on. The plots are often labyrinthine with many red herrings and duplicitous characters that are meant to lead you up the garden path and generally make you feel like a chump, which is more fun than it sounds. Mamet clearly takes a special delight in this cinematic sleight of hand and indeed the world of movies is nothing if not smoke and mirrors. The other distinctive trademark of a Mamet film is bizarrely mannered language and unique speech patterns. It is a masculine language, filled with expletives and the kind of inane banter that men take pleasure in. It also has a curious rhythm all of its own, a kind of signature style that has now become instantly recognisable and (in)famous in its own right. Like it or not, it is always interesting to listen to and, like a good play, reveals something new each time you experience it. Quentin Tarantino tries to emulate his technique but usually fails. So distinctive is his writing style that some of the best Mamet movies were not directed by Mamet, but belong to him nonetheless by virtue of his unique talents.

Mamet's films are often explorations of secret societies, largely hidden from view, and seldom encountered by ordinary individuals. Whether it be the criminal world of the conman and the homicide cop, or the physical culture of the special forces operative and the martial artist, Mamet brings a documentarian's approach to each of them, providing a rare insight into a little seen corner of society that more often than not lives by its wits. In these shadowy worlds, the ability to think on your feet is the ultimate skill.

House of Games (1987)

Mamet's first film as a director introduces us to the world of the con man, a subject he would return to again and again throughout his career. The life of the confidence artist, where nothing is as it seems, is perfect Mamet material. In order to explore the shadowy world of the con man, he takes a foil in the form of psychiatrist who gets a taste of the action and is drawn to these mysterious and exotic criminals like a moth to a flame. Mamet uses this as an excuse to roll out some of this favourite long and short cons and much of the pleasure of the film lies with watching how the marks get taken in one elaborate ruse after another. In the process, the shrink, played by Lindsey Crouse, gets an education she won't forget in a hurry. The movie featured some of Mamet's favourite players, including Joe Mantegna, William H Macy and Ricky Jay, himself an illusionist of some repute, and introduced the world to his trademark staccato dialogue.


This time round Mamet uses the police procedural as his template but again it is the pitfalls of assuming anything that lie at the heart of this intriguing drama. Mantegna plays a homicide cop who loses his objectivity when he is called to the scene of a murder that may or may not have racial overtones. As he gets sucked into the world of right wing extremism, his cultural heritage takes over from his training and he is conned into doing something completely against his code. An intriguing story that keeps you guessing right up to the end, featuring all the usual hallmarks of a tightly written Mamet piece and fine performances from Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna and William H Macy as the leads.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

The cinematic equivalent of a punch in the gut, the screenplay for Glengarry Glen Ross firmly established Mamet as a writer of some repute, earning him several nods from the big-wig Hollywood establishment as well as the Pulitzer Prize. The story concerns the dog-eat-dog world of the real estate salesman, where humanity and dignity are sacrificed daily in order to get on 'the board', which keeps track of the sales you have racked up for the month. Things get even more Darwinian when the head of sales, in a scorching cameo by Alec Baldwin, comes down to give the team a little pep talk which basically boils down to: "the top two guys stay, everyone else is out of a job." The resulting scramble as the stunned group try to top each other and keep their jobs is heart wrenching to watch. The film featured a dream cast, including then little known future stars like Ed Harris and Kevin Spacey, as well as established heavy weights Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin and Al Pacino. Its a gruelling experience, laced with deadly black humour that makes you laugh in spite of yourself. Anyone who has ever had to swim through the shark tank of the corporate world will recognise all the characters here in an instant. The truly sobering thought, of course, is which one is you?

The Edge (1997)

Helmed in muscular fashion by Kiwi director Lee Tamahori, The Edge remains very much a Mamet piece, with all his favourite themes in place. Thanks to the typically unreliable single engine airplane, three very different men are thrown into a situation that will push them to the limits and reveal their true selves. Anthony Hopkins plays a bookish billionaire with a very hot wife who has to battle the elements in one of the most remote wildernesses on the planet in the company of two fellow survivors - a pro photographer played by Alec Baldwin and his sidekick Stephen (Harold Perrineau). Stalking the men is the fourth main player, a 10 foot grizzly bear with a taste for human flesh. Naturally as this is a Mamet movie, the bear is not the most dangerous thing in the wilderness, as we soon find out. A little more straightforward than most of his films, The Edge nevertheless contains several characteristic Mamet twists and turns, enough to keep things interesting anyway. It is enjoyable chiefly for its stunning location in the Alaskan wilderness and the interplay between the very fine Anthony Hopkins and the hugely underrated Alec Baldwin. The bear is pretty damn good too, particularly when ripping limb from limb in a most convincing fashion.

Spartan (2004)

Possibly the quintessential Mamet film in that it utilises all of his strengths with equal aplomb, Spartan enters the opaque world of the special forces operative - highly trained individuals frequently called upon to lay their lives on the line for total strangers without question. The plot concerns the kidnapping by white slavers of a young woman who just happens to be the president's only daughter. The identity of the victim originally remains unknown to the slavers (a bit of stretch to be sure) and this means there is a brief window to allow the black bag operatives to get to her before she is spirited away and eventually killed as too great a liability. Enter Bobby Scott, a man of particular skills and singular mindset who is set loose to track the girl down. What follows is a finely crafted thriller, packed with delightful Mametian dialogue and short, sharp episodes of violence as Scott uses his unique talents to track the girl down. Spartan is largely satisfying due to the twisty plot, gritty action sequences and excellent work of the players, as Mamet draws lead Val Kilmer to new heights while squeezing superb cameos out of the likes of Tia Texada, Ed O'Neill and Kristin Bell as the hapless victim. Mark Isham's score is also highly effective, driving the action along with a theme that is both haunting and urgent. Look out for the commentary by Val Kilmer on the DVD, which is good for several chuckles. Mamet was so taken by the special forces that he went on to create a TV series about Delta Force called The Unit, starring Dennis Haysbert, Scott Foley and Max Martini, several episodes of which he has written and directed himself, stamping his own unique signature on it in the process.

RedBelt (2008)

For his latest outing Mamet again chose to examine a world that is largely unknown, that of competitive martial arts. A long time Jiu-Jitsu practitioner himself, Mamet's film turned out to be oddly timeous, as the MMA phenomenon continues to grow in popularity, with the big pay-out as supplied by TV viewing rights potentially set to undermine the sport in the same way that boxing eventually lost all credibility due to the influence of shady money men. The plot focuses on the honour code that has long been the backbone of the martial world, choosing a highly accomplished Jiu-Jitsu practitioner as its foil. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays MikeTerry, who despite being a world-renowned martial artist has instead chosen to own a small dojo, where he teaches Jiu-Jitsu and barely scrapes a living. When a rape victim comes into his dojo one night to ask for directions, it sets off a chain of events that will have major consequences for Terry. Ultimately his world begins to fall apart as everyone around him tries to get him to employ his unique skills for their own devious ends. In the end Mike turns the tables on them and we are treated to a spectacular display of martial arts courtesy of the highly convincing Ejiofor and renowned Jiu-Jitsu fighter John Machado. The film could possibly be construed as a commentary on Hollywood, another high pressure environment where good people are often corrupted and tempted to betray their finer artistic instincts by the promise of large sums of cash, gorgeous women and a writing credit.

Monday, April 19, 2010

THE WAR ON TERROR - Reports from the front lines

The terror attacks on September 11, 2001 sent shockwaves around the world

You have to hand it to the USA, when it comes to marketing, they are the world leaders. The War on Terror. Great campaign title isn't it? I wish I could claim to have come up with that one, but it was some anonymous speechwriter in the Bush administration who dreamed it up. I hope he got a good bonus that year.

The War on Terror has been tripping along for quite some time now. The attacks on the Twin Towers took place, as we all know, on September 11, 2001. Almost ten years ago. Like many, I consider the event to be the defining act of this decade, much like Woodstock and the moon landing defined the 60s and Disco and the Vietnam War defined the 70s. It changed the world in no uncertain terms and set off an extraordinary chain of events that continues to unfold to this day.

I was lucky enough to be in the Middle East when the first strikes were made against Iraq. Shock and Awe they called it - another great bit of marketing. It was a hair-raising moment as we sat and watched the green images on our TV set. We could see people in Baghdad strolling around, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were being targeted by god knows how many smart (and not so smart) missiles.

Since that day (March 31 if memory serves) I have tried to follow the whole story by grabbing whatever material I can find that shines a light on these events. We are lucky in that there are many fine war correspondents who are willing to risk their lives to bring back eye-witness accounts of these events that take place on the other side of the globe. There are also many great investigative journalists who spending hundreds of hours poring over documents, interviewing little known bureaucrats and attending congressional reviews to compile books that tell us what was really going on behind the scenes.

Beyond the daily news reports that tend to paint a chaotic and confusing picture of events, these accounts are invaluable if we are to obtain an understanding of what these events mean to the world in the greater scheme of things. They also have the invaluable benefit of hindsight.

These are some of the pivotal publications that I can recommend unreservedly if you want to obtain a better understanding of the War on Terror. I will add to the list as I myself absorb more literature in time to come. At bottom is a list of further reading that I haven't gotten around to (time and funds are always limited) but is also highly recommended.

The Looming Tower, Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

An indispensable account of how AQ got to the pivotal point of flying planes into the World Trade Center. This account contains some astonishing revelations about the loosely organized collection of extremists who planned and executed a devastating attack on one of the most symbolically powerful institutions in the western world. Wright traces the origins on AQ and includes a great deal of biographical information on its leader, Osama Bin Laden, that provides revealing insights into his motivations for forming AQ and his hatred for the Great Satan and all things western.

The other fascinating character that emerged from the ashes was FBI Agent John O'Neill who's obsessive pursuit of Al Qaeda was unfortunately waylaid by his superiors who took exception to his unconventional working methods and messy personal life. One can speculate whether O'Neill may have succeeded in preventing the disaster if he had been allowed to remain as chief of the New York bureau but that would have been a real miracle. The simple truth of the matter is that the plan was simply too audacious and incredible for anyone to have guessed at it in time to stop it from unfolding. Not to mention the now well-documented rivalry between the CIA and FBI which prevented vital intelligence from reaching the necessary ears and allowed the terrorists to slip through the cracks. The book was justly rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize.

Al Qaeda - The True Story of Radical Islam by Jason Burke

Where Wright's book reads like a novel (not that there's anything wrong with that), Burke's investigation into the origins and development of AQ takes a more traditional approach. His aim is to provide unique inside views of the organisation's history and operations in the desolate and primitive regions of the world where they ply their trade and in the process dispel some of the myths that have arisen around the AQ since its meteoric rise to fame. He unpacks their modus operandi and goes into some detail about their origins and how their infamous hydra-headed structure came about. In the process it becomes clear that combating this organisation is an extraordinarily difficult task. Cut off one head and another grows in its place - only under a different name and in a different location. Burke's book is even more valuable because he didn't come by the information sitting behind a desk but traveled into the belly of the beast and went in search of his subjects in the back alleys and mountain passes of Sudan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

Fiasco - The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 - 2005
by Thomas E. Ricks

A devastating and brilliantly summed up account of the piss-poor planning that went into the Iraq war by a senior war correspondent at the Wall Street Journal and more recently the Washington Post. Hicks doesn't mince words (as the title would indicate) and lays the blame squarely at the feet of the neocons in Bush's administration - Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney - who accurately foresaw a glorious and resounding defeat for the Hussein administration but failed dismally to plan for the post-war scenario and then stood by and watched helplessly as insurgents turned Iraq into an ongoing disaster area in the months and years following the invasion. The real tragedy behind the whole mess is that the USA went from being welcome liberators to despised occupiers in a matter of weeks and created a massive strategic disaster that set back their efforts to combat Islamic extremism by decades. Instead of being hailed as heroes, they became an object of hatred for millions of Iraqis who prior to the invasion probably had no feeling one way or another towards the USA. Hicks provides a totally convincing account of why the Iraqis have good reason to feel the way they do.

COBRA II - The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael Gordon & Bernard Trainor

COBRA II is a work of serious and intimidating gravitas but once you get into it, the pages turn rapidly. The authors are heavyweights who know what they are talking about and together they deliver massive amounts of incriminating detail and mind-boggling revelations on how the Bush administration threw up a smokescreen of unmitigated BS in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. The whole weapons of mass destruction myth is dismantled here and the book also shows how the press were complicit in creating the atmosphere of mass hysteria that led to the invasion. The authors don't only dwell among the upper echelons of command to obtain their material but get down in the trenches with the invading forces, providing a gripping account of the initial invasion and the problems they encountered due to the US forces' insistence on using heavy artillery and armour at all costs, despite the unique conditions presented by the geography of Iraq.

Generation Kill by Evan Wright

The Iraq War created the strange phenomenon of the embedded journalist, a reporter who was placed with a particular battalion and lived with them as they embarked on the exhilarating and terrifying journey into the war zones. This resulted in up-to-the-minute reporting for the news channels and websites of the large newspapers who could afford such luxuries but also gave reporters unprecedented access to the grunts who fought these wars. Incredibly young, highly efficient killers and often tremendously naive, these soldiers had immense firepower at their disposal but they were less well-equipped to deal with the insanity and tragedy of the scenes that confronted them every day. Wright traveled with First Recon, an elite group of fighters who's job it is to venture behind enemy lines and report back on hostile activity and movement. In all their infinite wisdom the US Army instead reassigns this battalion to spearhead the invasion of Iraq, and they find themselves on point, racing ahead to encounter scenes of a distinctly surreal nature. Wright paints an unforgettable portrait of the unit's colourful characters and shows that for all the grand schemes hatched by the generals and politicians, more often that not, it is the grunt behind the wheel of the humvee and the trigger of the .50 cal who determines the outcome of the battle.

The Forever War - Dexter Filkins

New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins has crafted a book of strange and surreal beauty in The Forever War. Far removed from a typical account of war in foreign places, it has a remote and serene quality to it that belies the horror it reports on. Like a sober and serious-minded version of Hunter S Thompson, Filkins inserts himself into almost every scene and in a lucid and deceptively simple style creates a series of vignettes that are greater than the sum of their parts, adding up to provide an overwhelming sense of the intractable nature of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. A truly haunting work that will go down in history along with Michael Herr's Dispatches and Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down as one of the great works of war reportage.

Further reading:

House to House by David Bellavia - an eyewitness story of the battle for Fallujah by the soldiers who fought it. Highly praised account of that incredibly tough and costly campaign
No True Glory by Bing West - another well regarded account of the Fallujah dust-up
The Good Soldiers by David Finkel - Another well-respected work of war reportage that follows the much debated troop surge that was meant to turn the tide in Iraq
Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton. A boy's own tale of Special Forces in Afghanistan
Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. An eye-witness account of life in the surreal and infamous US base of operations in the heart of Baghdad.

[Images courtesy of Barnes&Noble]