Friday, January 23, 2015

Recommended!: Nighthawks (1981)

As the blockbuster mentality began to dominate Hollywood studios in the 1980s, auteurs established in the New Hollywood of the 1970s often found their ambitions thwarted, and their artistic control challenged, if not overruled. Potentially gritty movies were saddled with improbable happy endings, powerful ambiguity would give way to unsatisfyingly solid conclusions. The input of other directors, hired to make problematic (read: potentially less-than-profitable) movies more friendly, plus the interference of studios now more mindful of blockbuster profits to be made, would neuter many an otherwise interesting and gutsy movie around this time.

1981's Nighthawks, starring Sylvester Stallone, Rutger Hauer (in his Hollywood debut), and Billy Dee Williams, and directed by Bruce Malmuth (with an uncredited assist by Stallone) is certainly one of these movies. It was wildly cut by Universal, who found the movie's notion of urban terrorism hitting New York City unrealistic. Many character-driven scenes were also cut in favor of a leaner, more action-oriented approach. To this day all involved seem to lament the loss of a novelistic, engrossing thriller that would anticipate the terrorist attacks of September 11.

And yet for all of this interference there's still quite enough to recommend Nighthawks as is. Stallone seems to have taken on the project as his own personal Serpico: his Detective Sergeant Deke DaSilva is a surprisingly liberal policeman, and between his politics and his first appearance in the movie in female drag is the complete opposite the stolid, right-wing muscleman that Stallone often projects today. There's some of Stallone's finest acting on display here too: DaSilva initially clashes with British counter-terror expert Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport), and yet the moment when the two finally do find a common understanding forms a very strong bond between them, and the scene is beautifully played by streetwise Stallone & stage-trained Davenport both.

The action scenes Universal chose to emphasize over such moments do deliver, from a dizzying chase in the New York subway to a tense standoff on the Roosevelt Island tram. Hauer shows enormous presence as Wulfgar, the movie's main villain (a character modeled on Carlos the Jackal, still very much in public consciousness in 1981). Hauer turns 71 today, and revisiting his initial Hollywood bow in this compromised yet still engaging movie seems an ideal way to celebrate. The movie also remains a fascinating portrait of a city often shown as urban hell on earth, yet one that found the notion of terrorism within its limits merely a nightmare.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Recommended!: 99 River Street (1953)

The Noir City festival is in full swing in San Francisco, exhibiting a variety of classic movies and lesser-knowns in the noir genre. The subgenre of crime movies, spotlighting desperate heroes and femmes fatales in shadowy black-and-white urban nightmares, enjoys a strong popularity today (clear in the large and enthusiastic audiences attending Noir City screenings), but like many classics they can be difficult to find on line. Pleased as Jaman is to connect you with whole new worlds of viewing on line, we're going to be the first to tell you that not everything ever made can be streamed. And older movies can be especially hard to find, given that the studios don't see much value in making them available (an oversimplification of a very complex issue, but we're willing to bet you've had a hard time finding that obscure, known-only-to-you classic anywhere on line).

Happily (and maybe surprisingly), one of our favorite noir classics can be found on Netflix & Amazon. 99 River Street is the story of washed-up boxer Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) whose wife becomes involved with a murderous jewel thief (Brad Dexter). When Driscoll is accused of his wife's murder at the thief's hands, he tracks the thief down aided only by a desperate but resourceful stage actress (Evelyn Keyes).

On paper a fairly straight-ahead yarn, 99 River Street is delivered with both knowing grace and high impact by Phil Karlson, a tough-guy but left-leaning auteur who churned out a number of tough, gritty crime movies during this time. There's something genuinely unsettling about the night-time settings of this movie. You share each character's desperation, and when violence does break out, as is usual with Karlson, it's sweaty, genuinely dangerous. Karlson's as good with actors as he is with noir atmosphere; John Payne (who enjoyed a second wind post-Miracle on 34th Street in a number of 50s thrillers) is a believable and rootable antagonist. Dexter played a number of heavies in this period, but no other movie took as much advantage of his soft-spoken menace or his moray eel teeth as this one. And Keyes is just dynamite throughout a number of challenges to the actress, including a gorgeous monologue that Karlson lights as starkly as Bergman.

The whole thing is well worth your time, whether you're an afficionado of classic films or a movie modernist ready to be surprised by just how tough a mid-50s movie can be. 99 River Street is a prime example of the film noir celebrated by Noir City (who've shown it at least once in their 13-year history), and as entertaining a picture as you'll find from any year, in any genre.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Jaman's 2014 Top Ten List

Let's just do it.

BEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR: Boyhood (review here)

THE TOP TEN (in order seen):

Under the Skin
Jodorowsky's Dune/The Dance of Reality (review here)
The Rover (review here)

Goodbye to Language
Inherent Vice (review here)
The Babadook
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night


Live Die Repeat/Edge of Tomorrow (review here)
The Purge: Anarchy (review here)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Recommended! (sorta): Batman & Robin (1997)

And what a qualified recommendation this is. Batman & Robin is an absolutely execrable piece of moviemaking, killing the 80s/90s Batman franchise with ghastly color schemes, wooden action, stale villains, and director Joel Schumacher's addled camp excesses. (You could even argue that it wrecked the Batman franchise twice, as it paved the way for Christopher Nolan to reinvigorate the character with a pompous, overcompensatingly serious and self-aggrandizing trilogy.)

But goddammit, Michael Gough is fantastic in Batman & Robin. This incredibly accomplished actor racked up many credits in his nine-plus decades on Earth, working with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Powell & Pressburger in his early years. He made a strong impression in a number of British horror movies of the 50s and 60s, and then in his late career diversified wildly, working for such disparate directors as Wes Craven, Derek Jarman, and Tim Burton (becoming a company regular for those latter two). Always bringing solid characterization, a mellifluous voice, and a steady but never overbearing presence to everything he did. And that includes the four Batman movies by Burton and Schumacher.

As Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's loyal butler and Batman's closest ally, Gough is exceptionally fine, and across all four movies is a supportive presence in the Wayne/Batman corner, the quintessential right-hand. Gough's Alfred is a man who knows when and where to step in when assistance is needed, but also when and where to address his employer man to man. Look at his scenes with Michael Keaton in Burton's Batman; addressing Master Bruce regarding the new woman in his life, Gough effortlessly balances the employee, the close friend, and the knowledgeable elder.

In the otherwise perfectly wretched Batman & Robin, Gough retains and even builds upon Alfred's previously established gravitas, his own debilitating illness juicing a personal stake in the threats facing Batman and Gotham City. It's a profound and unearned contrast to the otherwise gaudy action of the rest of the movie, but Gough makes it work. If he thinks that the whole thing is otherwise a mess but is at least tending to his own corner of that mess, it doesn't show. He remains the human heart of the franchise here. His humanity even accounts for a certain impishness that manages to account for the implication in Barbara's line "Suit me up, Uncle Alfred" that he's responsible for the pervy latex Batsuits affected by Wayne & associates.

One of the indelible and reliable pleasures of cinema is watching classically trained actors giving their all in lower-brow, even trashy, genre material. Gough developed a preference for supporting roles, playing all of them solidly, and if his work as Alfred in these movies, even Batman & Robin, is what he's best remembered for, then no shame. Gough's presence grounds and lends dignity to even the wildest, most overbaked trash he appeared in, and if his presence isn't quite enough to solidly recommend Batman & Robin, at least it's a lifeline that sustains us as even as the movie's gaudy atrocities threaten to overwhelm.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Rohan Takes Flight With Birdman

(Probable-Oscar-nominee Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance [hereafter referred to simply as "Birdman"] has received thunderous praise from many corners in recent months, and our friend Rohan Morbey with a considered, but no less enthusiastic review below. The review appeared in its original form as always over at Rohan's site Closing Credits - do follow him on the Twitters!)

Birdman both is a film lover’s wildest dreams realized in one two hour film and a sharp, witty and sad commentary on all things Hollywood.  Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is just as kinetic as any of the actual superhero films it takes swipes at and has an unrelenting energy and creative spark unparalleled by any other cinema experience of 2014. I wouldn’t call it the year's best film but it’s undoubtedly one of the most original experiments I’ve seen in this, or any, year.

The film takes place over a few frantic days where Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), a former A-List
Hollywood star who had his own comic book movie franchise (the titular ‘Birdman’) is preparing to open a stage play which he has adapted and directed, and is starring in. The project will make or break Thomas financially, morally, and mentally. His subconscious, taking the form of the Birdman character, torments him throughout the film asking why he has sunk so low to appear on stage rather than give audiences ‘what they want,’ namely a fourth movie in the Birdman series.

Things get worse for Thomas when one of the play’s cast members has to be replaced and in comes Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a famous Broadway actor and notorious pain in the arse. Many of the film’s best scenes come from the sparring between Keaton and Norton, two actors who have both been at the very top (Keaton commercially with Tim Burton’s Batman and Norton who emerged as, in my opinion, the best actor of his generation in the late 1990s) but in recent years have been absent from the commercial money-making hits. Iñárritu has always enabled his casts to deliver strong performances and in Birdman everyone has an equal chance to shine, regardless of screen time.

The film is Keaton’s, however, and he allows nothing to get in the way of the performance of his career; from the opening shot of him in his white Y-fronts with his love handles and slightly flabby physique (by no means fat but he’s not still trading on his body, unlike many leading men) to dissecting the words in his own script with Norton, to taking point-blank criticism from his recovering drug addict daughter (Emma Stone), to challenging the number one theatre critic in New York over the merits and value of Hollywood versus theatre, Keaton shows a range which perhaps he’s not been given the chance to show in any film to date.The casting of Keaton of course adds weight and realism to the character, given the parallels of Keaton’s own career, but thankfully there isn’t too much association in the film with actual comic book movies because Lord knows we don’t need to see another film about that.

Iñárritu taps into a comedic and more playful tone than in his earlier work and perhaps is commenting on the perception of his own career as a director of bleak, depressing ensemble dramas. I have huge admiration for his previous films (21 Grams is still his most accomplished work to date for me) and to see him take a change of direction yet produce a film as captivating and engaging as this.

Each scene in the film plays out in essentially one single shot which is more than just a neat trick, although there are plenty of clever edits along the way. The ‘one shot’ makes these few frantic days feel all-encompassing for there is nowhere for any character to hide, be it the theatre audience, stage hands, angry managers, autograph hunters, or us, the cinema audience. Much like the life of any ‘celebrity’, very little remains personal - unless it’s a vendetta from a theatre critic. Moreover, Iñárritu and DOP Emmanuel Lubezki (whose work in Hollywood film over the past 15 years in simply outstanding) do not keep all the action confined to one location; the camera roves around every room and hallway inside the theatre, into a crowded Times Square at night, into bars and cafes, and even to the top of tall buildings. The camera never appears to stop and takes us on a rollercoaster ride like no other live action film this year, with a screenplay and characters which are actually worth our time listening to.

If Birdman falters it’s in the lack of depth of the themes. Everything is up there on the screen; the dialogue tells us everything but leaves little to really think about once the film is over. There are a few quiet moments for reflection (a rooftop exchange between Norton and Stone offering the film’s most poignant scene of what is lost in youth and what cannot be regained) but I didn’t get that moment of utter wonderment that I got from Boyhood or Under The Skin, two films which are equally as original in their creativity but left me utterly compelled. Birdman takes us on an exciting journey but doesn’t offer anything deeper than what is on the screen.

Minor criticism aside and more than merely a gimmick, Birdman is a milestone in narrative storytelling with what can be done with ‘one shot’, the same way Hitchcock’s Rope was in 1948. Could I bestow a greater compliment than that?

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