Film of the Week: Do the Right Thing (1989)

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Spike Lee directs himself, Danny Aiello and Ossie Davis in this hyper reality snapshot of life in an impoverished New York City black community on the day leading up to a tragic death. 

We watched this yesterday as prep for our upcoming New York trip, only to read about Bill Nunn’s (Radio Raheem) real life death almost immediately after. Double tragic happenstance as there are other blatantly obvious reasons why this is still achingly timely for Americans. His is one of a plethora of great performance in Lee’s didactic, frantic, colourful, experimental work which jibes at everyone’s own inherent racism by making you pick sides and form bonds (or reject with laugh raising ridicule) with all manner of directionless predjudice, hate and anger in a setting that is both recognisable yet theatrical. A powerful work currently sitting stylistically in that weird limbo where the visuals and risks feel a little dated rather than classical. Still it is funny, engaging and complicatedly honest. Back to the brilliant ensemble; Aiello is the stand out as the white man business owner who does not recognise his own hidden racism as he openly loves the community he profits from until the heat gets too much. An early Samuel L Jackson role is also blisteringly cool. In a decade’s time this will be back on top as many people’s favourite movie about race and city life and just being human. And that’s the triple truth, Ruth!

10

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Gangs of New York (2002)

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Martin Scorsese directs Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz in this sprawling epic and Marty’s longheld dream project set around the tribes of criminals and influencers in early America.

At times brilliant, other times frustratingly simple – much like Cameron’s Titanic; this is a big budget monster that you admire as often as you enjoy, are stunned by when you aren’t being stupefied by it all. The much discussed longer cut has never come to light so you can see great character actors weaving around in the background like glorified extras and entire sequences that feel more like trailers for their own feature length movie rather than complete set pieces as intended. Some lines of dialogue literally fadeaway mid sentence, no doubt in an attempt by Scorsese to brutally edit it down to Miramax’s contracted length. Another Titanic-a-like flaw is Leo has not yet being matured into the fine leading man he eventually became, meaning he is carrying a big fucking movie on narrow, young shoulders. There’s moments where he looks as swamped as we are by the shuddering narrative especially when being blasted off screen by Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher; one part Godfather, one part psycho ringmaster, three parts Bobby DeNiro in Cape Fear. Still the opening act feels almost like some horrific fantasy sci-fi, the finale has the sweep and guts to end on a high, while the middle two hours grab away at any issue or genre they can lay their scrabbling hands on. The effect is like channel surfing through some terrifying 1800’s public access TV shows rather than watching a consistent film. If you get lost, the set design and costumes dazzle the eyes with outlandish accuracy. A big rotten buffet of masterful movie making, but you would struggle to call it perfect.

7

The Two Faces of January (2014)

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Hossein Amini directs Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac in this 60s set Highsmith adaptation of a trio on the leisurely run in Greece.

A classy little thriller at its best when it just lets the three stars grate against each other rather try to outrun or outfox whomever they are currently mistrusting. It all looks gorgeous but the languid pace and the waste of the usually excellent Dunst, in an ambiguous and oft offscreen role, means it never really pays out on its promised value. There is a wonderful moment where the initially impeccably turned out tourists find themselves wandering the dusty, scrubby countryside, their clothes dirty and sweaty and any vestige of being civilised (Greece, hey?) far behind them. Visual metaphors, no matter how strong, do not a gripping night out make though. At least this prestige adaptation gifts you a new book to give a try now the source material has some beautiful faces and places for your brain to already hook onto.

5

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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Antoine Fuqua directs Chris Pratt, Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in this crowd pleasingly efficient update to the classic blockbuster Western.

Saloons go quiet when a stranger enters. Heroes emerge through the blurry desert haze. Horse riders are silhouettes on a hill top ride. Eyes before gunfights fill the entire screen. The Magnificent Seven has nothing new to add to the Western genre except the enthusiasm to remind you just how endearing it can be if done right. Don’t worry this doesn’t shit on the classic as feared, merely celebrates its strengths and updates the visuals and cast for a current crowd. Fuqua understands gorgeous landscapes, star power, comradery and staring down and standing tall against relentlessly unbeatable odds are what works here. So he mounts it all handsomely with an admirably straight enthusiasm (a career best for the often uninspired action director). Hell, it should really be called The Magnificent 9 if you keep track of how many heroes show true grit in the blistering 40 minute closing battle. And that battle is relentless, in a 12 rating kinda way. Bullet wounds are only shown from a safe distance, blood barely glimpsed but it’s a gripping massacre all the same. Mag 7 2.0’s casting works so well it is genuinely hard to pick a man of the match. Denzel grounds the whole thing with the most genre faithful turn. Chris Pratt has yet to see a script where he doesn’t feel a little 21st century Han Solo impression couldn’t just be perfect (him grinning like a schoolboy as he runs around banging his revolver’s hammer reveals a lovely abandon in the current megastar.) Ethan Hawke mines the most value from the most fully fleshed character but one that is easily the most charming too. And then there’s Vincent D’Onofrio’s strangely captivating turn that might win him an Oscar if the Academy is feeling particularly quirky this year. Saarsgard’s villian is something else too – super creepy and almost as if he is being filmed at a different frame rate in his languid reactions and sleepy threats. That’s a pretty packed roster of eye catching work and I still want to mention that Byung-Hun Lee and Haley Bennett probably haven’t hurt their Hollywood careers either. And Yee-haw, we even get Bernstein’s iconic score at the end to send us off back to reality on a high. I went twice this weekend.

8

The Infiltrator (2016)

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Brad Furman directs Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo and Diane Kruger in this true story of an ageing undercover customs agent who poses as a money launderer to cripple Pablo Escobar.

Possibly the best undercover movie away from the more fantastical stylings of The Departed / Infernal Affairs series. Sure, the true story basis means we hit the standard Serpico, Donnie Brasco, Blow et al beats but Cranston is the far more convincing lead as a man who exists in two jarring lives and the surrounding cast hum with a uniformily sexy premium quality. It is handsomely shot and has the added advantage of ending on a unique if almost surreal set piece rather than the merely cliched standard “mixed emotions about the bad guys arrest” that often ends these affairs on a lull. If you like crime cinema there is enough variation in this to make it a worthy addition to your collection.

7

 

I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

 

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Robert Zemeckis directs Theresa Saladana, Nancy Allen and Wendy Jo Sperber in this day in the life of a group of teens trying to see The Beatles in person on the historic date of their Ed Sullivan Show appearance. 

A popping little screwball teen comedy where the energetic direction and mugging (but sincere) performances match the youthful beat of the iconic band this centres around. It shares a shocking amount of its DNA with the later smash Back to the Future… and not just in the talent in front and behind the camera or in the beautiful recreating of a nostalgic moment of teen history that manages to be accessible to a more modern audience. By the end we have a prototype of one of BTTF’s most famous scenes, a generational changing pop performance, characters precariously hanging off structures in lightning storms, automobiles racing against the clock down empty streets and unlikely teen soul mates finding each other. Stand out performances include Sperber as the most gawkily obsessive Beatles fan and Allen as the good girl dragged along, who after the most intimate encounter with barely glimpsed but terribly accented Fab Four realises there is more to life than just being some boy’s fiancée. Yet everyone hits good laughs and sweet moments, no plot threads dangle about long enough to snag the forward propulsion. The soundtrack is unsurprisingly excellent too. A forgotten treat.

7

 

 

 

Blair Witch (2016)

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Adam Wingard directs James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez and Brandon Scott in this late legacy sequel to the found footage horror classic.

About an hour into Blair Witch I had all but tapped out. We had dutifully trodden over old ground but without the sense of dread. No local giving us impromptu ghost tales on trailer park corners and no character you got the feeling existed outside the first and last page of the screenplay (all annoyingly played). The moment I (almost) abandoned the film is where a character climbed a tree for a drone she had never shown an interest in before… when she had yet to give more than one human facial expression about her now long missing boyfriend. Why not look for him instead? It betrayed an ensemble more concerned with their updated filming tech than each other. And these were no thrown together strangers… so let them break and die and disappear as quickly as possible I say. Put me out of my midpoint misery! The original terrified as you genuinely shared the amateur filmmakers confusion and paranoia about being lost in neverending woods with something intangible toying with them/us. This update foolishly attempts to introduce rules to the Burkitsville mix. E.G.Time and space loops into a trap when you sleep in the woods, the witch is only lethal if seen directly. The first is wasted – delaying us in one forest clearing for too much of the running time. The second has merit but does this premise thrive on logic? No, mystery and our brains filling in the blanks with our own imagined fears should be the order of the day. But then we finally get to the rotting old house and Wingard finds himself and delivers. 20 minutes of sustained spookiness, tension and cursed glimpses of the Black Hills babe herself. If we reached this exciting gear shift twenty minutes earlier and then moved onto another new step for the cherry on top, Blair Witch might be a worthy sequel. Given this is the second cash-in on the phenomenon, I’m more disappointed in Wingard than the tainted series itself. You’re Next and The Guest showed a scrappy young craftsman wanting to obliterate your genre expectations. This unexpected follow-up merely passes by the skin of its teeth.

5

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

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Taika Waititi directs Sam Neill, Julian Dennison and Rima Te Wiata in this comedy where a naive delinquent and a closed off misanthrope hide out in the New Zealand wilds.

The kind of naturally funny and utterly charming movie that I know I’ll struggle to put into words quite why it is so successful. Like Groundhog Day, Stand By Me or Tremors it is so gently seductive and lovingly crafted you’ll forgive the occasional lurching shifts in tone and moments where the budget does not quite match up to the ambition. We are talking about a pure, unadulterated crowd pleaser. The ambition is worn openly on this film’s sleeve – no wasted moments or lazy shots when something impressive can be attempted. If you’ve seen Waititi’s What We Do In the Shadows then you’ll know of his ability to cast perfect improvisers effectively into seemingly broad parts and pace mundane dialogue to become quirkily warped for consistent laughs. The adventures of odd couple Ricky Baker and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill is always great value), plus dogs Tupac and Zag, will no doubt become a cult favourite you’ll relish recommending to the uninitiated.

8

2 Guns (2013)

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Baltasar Kormákur directs Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg and Bill Paxton in this action throwback to 80’s buddy cop movies.

A welcome blast of stale air – so nothing overly original happens, and who cares? The leads have chemistry and thrown into the testtube is the right mix of shootouts, explosions, twists, banter, bonding, callbacks and even old school R-Rated titties. It all feels on point, satisfying if never excellent. Humour might not be Denzel’s forte but the script (originally developed for Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson) carries him while Wahlberg, who is a dab hand at being goofy beefcake second fiddle by now, keeps him in rhythm. In fact, if you just judged this on the opening act I might even say it holds a candle to Midnight Run or The Last Boy Scout… yet over its full course 2 Guns makes the mistake of keeping its many, many villains all in play until the end. Meaning although pleasingly chaotic, their comeuppance and the heroes victory feels one note in the closing Mexican stand off. A smile inducing entertainment and right up my street.

7

 

 

Film of the Week: Captain Fantastic (2016)

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Matt Ross directs Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay and Frank Langella in this road trip that follows a survivalist / humanist family reentering modern American society to attend their matriarch’s funeral.

Summer’s gone and with all the blockbuster disappointments out of the way we get yet another small scale, emotionally resonant adult movie (the second in two weeks). Is this the future? September is now the only month where anything without FX shots but maybe containing a good story and a decent ensemble gets penned into together to fight it out for scraps of audience? Either way this funny, moving little picture told with intelligent confidence has much to say about parenting, capitalism, modern society, death, grief and what it takes to be an adult. Viggo is better than he has been anytime else as the hardline but loving Dad, committed to raising his children with a holistic value system even it means cutting them off from luxuries and other people. He’s always felt like an awkward actor outside of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy so it is a delight to see him carry a movie with his intense, manly presence. But it is MacKay, as the eldest son struggling to see what his next step in the world is now he no longer has to stay in the family commune lifestyle he has wholeheartedly embraced, who stays with you after. He hits great laughs in his fish out of water interactions with girls his own age and you care about the quiet turmoil he faces in trying to align his long held belief system with wanting to venture away and experience life. The colourful, well read, feel good flick of the Autumn.

8