Monday, September 28, 2009
Days of Heaven
Monday, September 21, 2009
After the success of Seven (1995) expectations were high for David Fincher’s next film. He had risen from the ashes of the Alien 3 (1993) debacle and produced a critical and commercial hit when everyone least expected it. What would he do next? Never one to take the easy route, Fincher confounded critics and audiences alike with The Game (1997), a fascinating film that plays around with the conventions of the thriller genre like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone. Critical reaction was fairly positive and the box office returns were decent but not as good as Seven’s. Even among fans of Fincher’s films, The Game is somewhat underappreciated but worth revisiting if only to explore the shadowy alleyways and nightmarish scenarios that torment its protagonist.
Deborah Kara Unger’s test reel was a two-minute sex scene from David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Douglas remembers that he thought it was a joke. When he and Fincher met her in person they were impressed with her abilities. Christine is a rather enigmatic character. She starts off with an antagonistic relationship with Nicholas but she appears to become his ally after being drawn into the game along with him. However, like Conrad, and pretty much everyone Nicholas meets, appears can and are deceiving. The strikingly beautiful Unger imbues her character with a sarcastic common sense that plays well off of Douglas’ privileged businessman. She is quite good in The Game and it’s a shame that she didn’t do more high profile films after this one.
Friday, September 18, 2009
DVD of the Week: Homicide: Criterion Collection
The film begins with an explosive situation. The FBI raids an apartment of a known drug dealer but in the ensuing chaos, one of the suspects – an African American (Ving Rhames) – escapes. The mayor is facing all kinds of heat about the nature of the case and it’s up to the police to track down the fugitive. Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) is a hostage negotiator who uses his powers of persuasion to convince the fugitive’s mother to cooperate. At a briefing, Bobby gets into it with a city official who is a blunt, tough-talking type a la Alec Baldwin’s ballbuster in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Things get heated and the man calls Bobby a “kike,” which really sticks in his craw because he’s never thought about his religious heritage much.
While en route to apprehend a known associate of the fugitive, Bobby and his partner, Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) come across a homicide. The owner of a convenience store has been murdered. Intriguingly, the old woman was Jewish and her store was located in a predominantly African American neighborhood. A couple of local kids claim that she was killed for a fortune she had stashed in her basement. Despite his protestations, Bobby is put on the case and is told that the deceased woman’s son has a lot of pull downtown. He specifically requested that Bobby be put in charge of the investigation. The woman’s family is quite affluent and very devout in their faith. They feel persecuted and that this murder is just another example of the continued discrimination against their race. The more time Bobby spends on this case and gets to know the Klein family, the more in touch he gets with his own heritage.
Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy are very believable as tough talking cops. They’ve got the lingo and the swagger down cold. They are experts at delivering Mamet’s stylized dialogue. But this is Mantegna’s show and he is excellent as a man who is ignorant of his own tradition. He is forced to confront it head on. The case gets its hooks into him and he discovers that there is much more to it than meets the eye.
Homicide takes an unflinching look at racism, from the casual epithets that the cops throw around to the feelings of persecution that the Klein family feels. Not many American films have the courage to address this topic with such frankness but Mamet has never been known to be timid about any topic. The film is also an engrossing mystery and a character study as Bobby gets in touch with his faith and begins to question his own identity. He is faced with a troubling conflict: where do his loyalties lie – with the Jews or with the cops? Mamet doesn’t give us any easy answers but there never are when it comes to complex issues like race and religion.
There is an audio commentary by writer/director David Mamet and actor William H. Macy. The actor mentions that he hung out with homicide detectives and said that they saw the worst aspects of humanity. Mamet points out that many of the actors playing cops worked with him during his early days in Chicago theatre. Macy says that this was his first major role in a film and talks about how his style of acting changed when he met Mamet. The filmmaker talks about the origins of the project and how it started as a book but after hanging out with his cousin – a New York City cop – it gradually turned into a screenplay. These guys banter back and forth like the old friends that they are on this highly enjoyable track.
“Invent Nothing, Deny Nothing” features five Mamet regulars talking about their experiences with the filmmaker and their work on Homicide. Joe Mantegna says that many Mamet protagonists pursue excellence and that this was his take on Bobby Gold. He also describes Mamet’s dialogue as hyper-real. Steve Goldstein describes Mamet as a generous director and talks about the filmmaker’s take on acting. Ricky Jay says that he feels most comfortable with Mamet’s dialogue and tells a story about how he struggled with a scene in Homicide. J.J. Johnston and Jack Wallace point out that Mamet writes for specific actors and tailors to their personality. They also talk about how they met and first worked for Mamet.
“Gag Reel” is an amusing collection of blown lines and actors goofing around on set.
Finally, there are four T.V. spots.
Monday, September 14, 2009
The Good Shepherd
Here is also an excellent review of the film over at Ferdy on Films, etc.
Friday, September 11, 2009
DVD of the Week: United 93: 2-Disc Limited Edition
The inevitable question a film like United 93 raised at the time of its release was, it is still too soon for a film like this to be made? And if you do make a commercial film about 9/11 what kind of approach do you take that doesn’t exploit such a sensitive event and do a disservice to the people who died tragically on that horrible day? What about the families of the people who died? How would they feel about a movie dramatizing what happened to their loved ones?
And so it was with much trepidation when United 93 was announced but some of the concerns were put to rest when it was revealed that Paul Greengrass would be writing and directing the movie. He had previously directed the powerful Bloody Sunday (2002), a gut-wrenching docudrama of the Derry massacre in Ireland on January 30, 1972. If anyone could keep true to the facts and not pander to sappy sentimentalism or flag-waving patriotism it would be Greengrass.
United 93 begins with the hijackers, showing them praying in their hotel room and getting ready for their mission. We see them enter the airport and mingle with hundreds of other travelers just like on any other day. There is a certain amount of dread as we see the flight crew and passengers board the plane, overhearing their trivial conversations with the knowledge that they only have a few hours left to live. With that knowledge it makes the film that much harder to watch.
The first half of United 93 shows how the air traffic controllers in New York (and other cities) dealt with the events that occurred on 9/11. We see the systems in place to deal with crisises but nothing on this level and communication begins to break down. The question you find yourself asking is why didn’t they ground all flights after the first hijacking was identified? United Flight 93 might not have taken off or, at the very least, turned around shortly after take off. Of course, this is easy to say in hindsight and it is a credit to these men and women that they were able to piece together the various hijackings as fast as they did. They come across as very professional and competent considering the incredible amount of stress and pressure they were under dealing with the chaos of events on that day.
The second half of the film depicts the actual hijacking of United Flight 93 in real time. We see one of the terrorists assemble a bomb in one of the plane’s washrooms while the others are apprehensively biding their time until they’re ready to make their move. The tension during these scenes is almost unbearable even though we know what’s going to happen next. What does happen is extremely upsetting as the terrorists start killing some of the flight crew in a brutal, savage way that is messy and horrific. This atmosphere never lets up from that point on as we watch the poor passengers calling loved ones, seeing their sweaty, scared faces and making desperate plans to attack the terrorists and take back control of the cockpit.
What makes this film work so well is that it was made outside of the Hollywood studio system and this allowed Greengrass to cast unknown actors, character actors and even actual people who were witness to what happened that day. By doing this we aren’t distracted from what is going on in the film like an easily identifiable movie star would. Another element that stands out is the use of hand-held cameras to give a sense of immediacy commonly associated with cinema verite. It also gives a documentary feel early on when we see the plane being boarded and all the work done to get it ready. It is this kind of attention to detail that gives United 93 a certain level of authenticity.
United 93 is a film you don’t watch, you endure. It is very upsetting to watch (as it should) but is an important film nonetheless because it shows, with unflinching honesty, what might have happened on that plane based on phone conversations from passengers before they died. United 93 is an important film because we must not forget what happened on 9/11 and what these people went through and the sacrifices they made. This film is a fitting tribute to them.
There is an audio commentary by writer/director Paul Greengrass. He mentions that the film originally had a different opening that took place in Afghanistan with a meeting between Osama Bin Laden and the man who planned 9/11. Greengrass has a tendency to speak slowly and ponderously but is very articulate when he explains his intentions for a given scene or talks about the events of that day. He points out that several of the air traffic controllers in the movie are the actual people who were working on 9/11. Greengrass tends to spend a little too much time talking about “the systems” that were in place on that day and how they broke down (in terms of communication) because what was happening was so unimaginable. He gets a little pretentious at times but does speak knowledgeably about the film.
“United 93: The Families and the Film” focuses on the families of the people who died on United Flight 93. Greengrass felt that it was the right time to make a film about what happened on that plane and went to the families to ask if it was okay with them. Several of them are interviewed and talk about their thoughts on the film and how they feel about their loved ones being depicted by actors. To that end, we see some of the cast meeting with the family members of the person they portrayed in the film and it is obviously an emotional moment for all involved.
“Memorial Pages” provides brief biographical sketches and moving tributes to each flight crew member and passenger on United Flight 93. This is a great idea and a fitting tribute to these people, amply illustrating how each and every one of them were unique and memorable with their own distinctive lives.
Finally, on the 2-disc Limited Edition, there is an additional extra – “Chasing Planes – Witnesses to 9/11,” a documentary about the men and women who tracked all the planes on that day and how they dealt with the crisis as it was unfolding. There are interviews with many of the air traffic controllers working that day some of whom played themselves in the movie.