Movie of the Day: True Romance

Every time I watch True Romance, I can’t help but wonder, “What if Quentin Tarantino directed it?” What would its legacy be? Would it be held in the same esteem as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction? The story goes that Quentin Tarantino penned two scripts, Reservoir Dogs and True Romance and gave them to Tony Scott, who had previously directed Top Gun. Scott read them both, told Tarantino he wanted to make both and Tarantino told Scott he can make True Romance but he was saving Reservoir Dogs for himself. Scott got True Romance, and he made a very good film, but I can’t help but feel like under Tarantino’s direction, it could have been legendary. Tony Scott is a very respectable filmmaker, but he’s no Tarantino.

Patricia Arquette

The script is fabulous and has very witty dialogue, as you would expect from Tarantino. The heavy involvement of Elvis in the script, even from the opening sequence is just more evidence supporting Tarantino’s obsession with pop music, which I touched upon here. Tarantino describes the protagonist, Clarence, as his stand-in but he has mentioned that Scott’s vision of Clarence was much “cooler” than Tarantino envisioned. Christian Slater plays Clarence, and he plays it pretty well, capturing a little bit of the oddball character Tarantino was going for. Patricia Arquette plays Alabama, the hooker with a heart of gold although Tony Scott really wanted Drew Barrymore for the role, which I think would have been perfect, but she was unavailable. Slater and Arquette have unbelievable chemistry together which really aided the film, as I was truly convinced of their love.

“I know I’m pretty, but I ain’t as pretty as a pair of titties.”

Gary Oldman portrays Drexl, Alabama’s white pimp who thinks he’s black. It’s is a bit of a weird role to see him in, given his recent turns as the good guy, playing Jim Gordon in the recent Batman movies and George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. Samuel L. Jackson played a bit role, appearing in less than a minute of the film, but he continued his trend of featuring in almost all of Tarantino’s work. Even he had the good sense to avoid Death Proof though.

“I’m the Anti-Christ. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood.”

Christopher Walken plays mafioso Vincenzo Coccotti in a role portrayed so well and so powerfully that Empire Magazine named him 85th greatest character in movie history despite only featuring in the film for one scene. The late Dennis Hopper plays Clarence’s father, a recovering alcoholic and Walken and Hopper combine for what is without a doubt my favorite scene in movie history.  Controversial due to the racially charged nature of the dialogue, the scene features Walken pseudo-interrogating Hopper wabout the whereabouts of his son. Long before his iconic role as Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini played one of Walken’s henchman. Of the scene, Gandolfini says, “I was glad to just be observing Hopper and Walken. We were crowded into this little trailer when Hopper gets shot, so everyone was offered earplugs. I remember Walken didn’t ask for any, so, being very cool, I didn’t ask for any either. I couldn’t hear for three goddamn days.”

A young Brad Pitt

Michael Rappaport plays Dick Ritchie, a struggling actor and Clarence’s friend in Los Angeles. A young Brad Pitt plays his stoner roommate. With Reservoir Dogs just coming out, Tarantino was becoming a commodity in Hollywood. Pitt, who had just appeared in Thelma and Louise, called Scott and asked to play the role. Regarding the dynamics on the set, Gandolfini remarked, “Everybody was young and nuts. Brad Pitt was around, too. I don’t think he was “Brad Pitt” then, but he was great. I just had to watch him and say, “What a fuckin’ flake.” He improvised a lot.” Val Kilmer had initially wanted to play Clarence but Scott was not keen on the idea so Kilmer ended up playing Elvis.

Tarantino had actually written the great scene at the amusement park to be at a zoo but Scott changed it, thinking an amusement park would be more exciting. Rappaport and Bronson Pinchot, who plays Elliott, are both actually scared of roller coasters in real life, and Rappaport needed to take Quaaludes to get through the scene. The late Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore, before all his legal troubles, play two cops and are very effective in their roles.

One of the most violent scenes of the movie is Gandolfini’s character beating the hell out of Alabama (full scene below). The dialogue in this scene was particularly good, with Gandolfini recalling his transition into a killer in a menacing and incredibly believable way. Of the scene, Gandolfini said, “It was a little rough. There was a lot of throwing. You didn’t see that often with a man and woman. I ended up doing it a lot on The Sopranos for some reason.”

In the original script, Tarantino had Clarence die at the end and the innocent characters, Alabama and Dick Ritchie remain alive. Scott, who had fallen in the love characters, decided Clarence should live at the end. Tarantino later remarked, “I tried like hell to convince Tony to let Clarence die, because that’s what I wrote and it wasn’t open for conjecture. I made this big dramatic plea: “You’re losing your balls. You’re trying to make it Hollywood shit. Why are you doing this?” He listened to the whole thing and then convinced me 100 percent that he wasn’t doing it for commercial reasons.”

True Romance actually flopped at the box office but in the last decade it has achieved cult status. Saul Rubinek, who played Hollywood producer Lee Donowitz, had said, “The movie bombed. I don’t think the studio knew how to market this kind of movie. If they released it today, it would be a hit,” while Dennis Hopper remarked, “I was surprised. The movie had no theatrical life—it came and went in a week. Were people expecting a traditional love story?” Bob Dole, who ran against Clinton in the 1996 Presidential election, lambasted the film and regarded it as an example of a movie that “revel[s] in mindless violence and loveless sex.” After hearing Bob Dole’s comments, Tarantino said, “I knew Dole hadn’t seen True Romance or Natural Born Killers. I couldn’t believe that a guy running for president of the United States, the land of the free and the home of the brave, was condemning art he hadn’t even seen. You fucking asshole, you’d say anything to get elected.”

Don’t be confused by the title, this isn’t some sappy love story. It is a love story, but a different type of love story, a Tarantino love story. A love story disguised with tremendous violence, action, and profanity. I mentioned at the beginning that I thought it was only “very good” but over the course of writing this, I’ve convinced myself otherwise. It’s a great movie, but just not quite legendary. Tarantino later declared, “True Romance and Reservoir Dogs were the growing pains for Pulp Fiction’s success. Audiences were seeing something they hadn’t seen before—comedy and violence switching on a dime. They’d be horrified one second and laughing the next.”

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Music in the Movies: (500) Days of Summer

In the last segment of Music in the Movies, I focused on Quentin Tarantino’s use of music and his penchant for presenting songs as diegetic sounds. In (500) Days of Summer, the music is presented as non-diegetic but it still effectively serves the filmmaker’s goals. (500) Days of Summer is a quirky, clever, and incredibly honest romantic comedy that was released in the summer of 2009. Very witty, often quite humorous, and paced extremely well, the film was lauded by critics and landed on a number of “Top Ten” year-end lists of 2009.  It starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom, a hopeless romantic, and Zooey Deschanel as the oft-distant Summer. It featured a soundtrack filled with the best that the indie rock, alternative rock and folk rock genres have to offer. More important though, instead of just being thrown into the movie randomly, these songs were employed extremely effectively, enhancing the emotionality of a number of scenes. The soundtrack fully captures the “hipness” and offbeat postmodernism that (500) Days of Summer so embodies.

The entire track listing of the soundtrack is below, but there are a number of songs that were featured in the movie which were not on the soundtrack. Belle and Sebastian’s “The Boy with the Arab Strap,” which I wrote about here, was featured, as well as Spoon’s “The Infinite Pet,” The Black Lips’ “Veni Vidi Vici,” and “The Music” by Paper Route. Several of the songs were used particularly well to increase the sentiments of a number of scenes. Regina Spektor’s “Us,” during the opening credits in conjunction with the home movies on the screen helped set a cautiously hopeful tone for the entire movie. “There Goes the Fear,” employed with a well-shot montage, also stood out to me as it almost symbolized Tom falling for Summer.

The use of “Sweet Disposition” on the train to the wedding also worked well as it reflected Tom’s hope for a second chance with Summer and instilled similar hope in the audience who at this point is already rooting for Tom. Feist’s “Mushaboom” in the very next scene was utilized similarly and it continued to echo Tom’s hopeful sentiments. The extremely clever split-screen shot that compared Tom’s expectations to reality was accompanied by Regina Spektor’s “Hero,” a perfect complement as the song starts out hopeful but ends in a dizzying disappointing tone, mirroring Tom’s feelings. “Vagabond” was utilized flawlessly, probably the best of any of the tracks. Tom had just hit rock-bottom and he was slowly recovering and picking up the broken pieces of his life. “Vagabond” conveys an inspiring feeling of re-creation, and its involvement in the scene completely enhanced its effect. “She’s Got You High” was played during the closing credits and really almost tied up the loose ends of the story, instilling confidence in the audience that Tom has truly found love this time and is happy.

(500) Days of Summer is a perfect example of effective use of music in a movie. Never overshadowing the action unfolding on screen but always providing a boost, the music helped communicate both the ecstasy and the heartbreak that Tom experiences over the course of the movie. While there were good performances and an extremely witty script, an impeccable use of music was one of the integral reasons why (500) Days of Summer was one of the surprise movies of 2009.

  1. “A Story of Boy Meets Girl” – Mychael Danna and Rob Simonsen
  2. “Us” – Regina Spektor
  3. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” – The Smiths
  4. “Bad Kids” – Black Lips
  5. “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” – The Smiths
  6. “There Goes the Fear” – Doves
  7. “You Make My Dreams” – Hall & Oates
  8. “Sweet Disposition” – The Temper Trap
  9. “Quelqu’un m’a dit” – Carla Bruni
  10. “Mushaboom” – Feist
  11. “Hero” – Regina Spektor
  12. “Bookends” – Simon & Garfunkel
  13. “Vagabond” – Wolfmother
  14. “She’s Got You High” – Mumm-Ra
  15. “Here Comes Your Man” – Meaghan Smith
  16. “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” – She & Him

Movie of the Day: Mesrine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few weeks ago, I was scouring Netflix when I came across the two-part 2008 French gangster biopic Mesrine. Mesrine chronicles the life of arguably France’s most notorious modern day criminal, Jacques Mesrine, an anti-hero akin to John Dillinger. The film is split into two parts, Mesrine: Killer Instinct (L’instinct de mort) and, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (L’ennemi public n1). It is meant to be watched as one 4 hour epic, but on Netflix it is split into two films. It is directed and co-written by Jean-François Richet, whose only U.S. credit is directing Assault on Precinct 13, the 2005 remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 film starring Laurence Fisburne and Ethan Hawke. Part 1 is based on Mesrine’s autobiographical book L’instinct De Mort, while part 2 details Mesrine’s criminal career following his escape from prison. While a bit messy, Mesrine is certainly entertaining and while in my opinion the first part really outshines the second, it’s certainly worth a watch if you have a long attention span and 4 hours to spare.

Just as Saturday’s Movie of the Day featured  an underrated actor in Brendan Gleeson, Mesrine features the oft-underrated French actor Vincent Cassel in the title role. Cassel’s career has been extremely distinguished but in my opinion, his best roles have been in French films. I haven’t seen La Haine yet but his performance has been critically praised and he was nominated for a César Award for Best Actor, the French equivalent of an Oscar. In 2000, he starred alongside Jean Reno in Crimson Rivers and in the very next year his role in Sur mes lèvres (English title: Read My Lips) was nominated for another César Award for Best Actor. In 2002, he starred alongside his real-life wife Monica Bellucci in Gaspar Noé’s experimental film Irréversible. Irréversible was presented in reverse chronological order and while the idea was original, the novelty wore off quickly. In the end it came off a bit gimmicky and just didn’t do enough to enhance the power of the story to justify its use. I found myself wanting to like it a lot more than I did. With that said, Cassel’s performance was enthralling and his portrayal of a vengeful boyfriend was absorbing and at times, even haunting. His American credits include Ice Age, Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen, a brilliant turn as the unstable Kirill in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, and most recently as the ballerina instructor in Black Swan. Out of the movie’s I’ve seen of his though, Mesrine is his crowning achievement. He is absolutely riveting, his intensity comes through in every scene and his performance is truly masterful. He deservedly garnered the César Award for Best Actor his role as well as numerous other accolades.

As I mentioned earlier, I found part 1 to be the far superior film. It was much more character-driven than the second which relied more on action to carry itself. Some people prefer action but I favor the first part which developed Mesrine very well and truly delved into his shortcomings and complexities. Part 1 was based on Mesrine’s book and part 2 seemed to lack the storytelling ability of the first film. I found the movies to be messy and in a way a bit unconnected. Richet’s transitions were interesting as he didn’t seem to document any time passing (i.e. “Two years later”) and just jumped from scene to scene. While it certainly helped with the pacing and kept the movie going, in the end it resulted in a product that was slightly disorganized. In the same vein, the transition between both parts of the film is missing and time elapses between the end of the first part and the beginning of the second without the viewer being informed as to what happened. As a whole I felt the first part was a bit more focused, the second wandered a bit and the first part was paced much better and as a result, towards the end of part 2 my interest began to wane. I found the movies to be very good but not great as there were a number of faults. Still, not enough could be made of Cassel’s powerhouse performance. He had such a charisma and was so captivating that his role makes Mesrine well worth your time.

Music in the Movies: Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction

I find the personality of the piece through the music that is going to be in it… It is the rhythm of the film. Once I know I want to do something, then it is a simple matter of me diving into my record collection and finding the songs that give me the rhythm of my movie.” – Quentin Tarantino

The soundtrack is often one of the most overlooked aspects of a movie. Songs have this powerful ability to often say more than dialogue. Music can communicate emotions much more effectively than actors can. With that said, music in movies shouldn’t tell us how to feel, but rather enhance the sentiment of the scene. Trainspotting, which I mention previously in a previous post, is an example of an excellent movie soundtrack. Boyle’s use of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” during Renton’s overdose is simply on point. Quentin Tarantino is a master of using song, more specifically popular music, to convey messages, often presenting them as diegetic sound. His attention to detail in compiling his soundtrack is unparalleled. In Pulp Fiction, there a number of examples of Tarantino using songs as diegetic sound allowing the music to naturally complement the action unfolding on screen.

As the opening credits roll, Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” plays before suddenly transitioning into Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.” It’s then revealed that the song is actually coming from Jules & Vincent’s car radio and as Jules and Vincent discuss Amsterdam, you can still here “Jungle Boogie” but it’s at a much lower volume. Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” is playing in Jack Rabbit Slim’s as apart of the dance contest. Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon” is only included when Mia turns on the stereo in her house. “Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Brothers is playing on Butch’s car radio and the lighthearted nature of the song creates a perfect contrast as in only seconds, Butch will proceed to run Marcellus over. As Butch enters the pawn shop, Maria McKee’s “If Love is a Red Dress” is playing on a small portable radio. By incorporating songs as part of the narrative sphere of the film, Tarantino supports and enhances the emotion of the scenes without disrupting the natural flow of the story.

“Although the story is very much present day, it has a ’50s feel but I used music from the ’70s. In one scene, the audience learns that a local radio station is hosting a Super 70’s weekend and that’s why I am using and referencing the bubblegum music that was popular during that period. I found that the music was a terrific counterpoint to the action on screen” -Quentin Tarantino on Reservoir Dogs

In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino uses a mock radio show, “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of The Seventies” as means of distribution of the number of “bubblegum pop” songs included in the movie. The up-beat sound and innocent nature of the songs seems like a peculiar pick for a movie noted for its copious profanity, stunning ferocity, raw power, and strong violence but as Tarantino notes above, it creates a stark counterpoint and contrast to the action unfolding on the screen. None of the uses of song are as memorable or distinguished in Reservoir Dogs as the use of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” during Mr. Blonde’s torture scene of Officer Martin Nash.

“If a song in a movie is used really well, as far as I’m concerned, that movie owns that song, it can never be used again” –Quentin Tarantino

You can no longer bring up “Stuck in the Middle With You” without someone bringing up this iconic scene. Once again Tarantino presents it as diegetic sound as Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, goes over to the radio, turns it on, and then increases the volume. “Stuck in the Middle With You” comes on, and its cheery and happy-go-luck sound seems to clash with the seemingly psychopathic Mr. Blonde. He starts dancing and singing and the upbeat nature of the song is almost contagious. As the viewer you start tapping your foot and almost want to start dancing too. Tarantino is making the audience choose which emotion they want to feel. The disgust, horror and sympathy for Office Marvin Nash or the foot-tapping, lighthearted ecstasy inspired by “Stuck in the Middle With You?” After cutting off Nash’s ear, Mr. Blonde steps outside to his car to get gasoline and leaves the music in the warehouse. Suddenly, silence and the sounds of a sunny afternoon. As a viewer you get a bit of break and you begin asking questions, wondering what’s next. Mr. Blonde walks back into the warehouse and the music returns. Mr. Blonde is dancing maniacally, Nash is pleading for his life and Stealers Wheel continues to confound and conflict the viewer. Classic Tarantino, a truly iconic scene, magnificent directing, squirm-inducing action, and all set to the backdrop of a”Dylanesque, pop, bubble-gum favorite” as described by the K-Billy  DJ voiced by Steven Wright.

Close Scene Analysis: Trainspotting

Trainspotting, the 1996 British satirical drama film, is one of the most realistic and honest portrayals of illicit drug abuse in film. While there isn’t a very well defined plot, the movie follows a group of Scottish youths in Edinburgh who turn to heroin to escape the dreary monotony of everyday life. The protagonist, Marc Renton, is portrayed by Ewen McGregor and decides to give up heroin and the movies illustrates how this decision affects his relationships with his former using buddies. Danny Boyle, who garnered an Academy Award win for his direction of Slumdog Millionaire, directs the movie and the script, based on Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name, is adapted by John Hodge. The scene that is being analyzed is called “Cold Turkey” and portrays the aforementioned Renton in his bedroom alone withdrawing from heroin. Very rarely will you find a scene that communicates so much to the viewer with so little dialogue. To understand this scene it should be put in some context. Up until this point we see Renton struggling to kick his addiction. He gets arrested and is spared of jail time as long as he agrees to go to a methadone clinic and try to get clean. He attempts to get one more hit and in another unbelievable scene, which utilizes music perfectly, Renton overdoses. Boyle uses Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” a song etched with irony as the somber tone doesn’t match the rather the nostalgic and sometimes menacing lyrics. His parents pick him up from the hospital with hopes of cleaning out his system and the scene “Cold Turkey” begins at 49’ 59”. This scene is important because for the first time, we see some genuine regret from Renton for his actions and its one of the most truthful portrayals of drug withdrawal ever shot.

The scene begins with Renton’s father carrying him into his bedroom. This is the first in a series of actions carefully planned by Boyle to portray Renton as helpless as a young child. We hear “Perfect Day” in the background, which is just a carryover from the previous scene, and it quickly fades.  His father removes his shoes while his mother removes his jacket and unbuttons his shirt, again reinforcing just how vulnerable he is at this point. His mother then tucks him in, continuing with the theme of depicting Renton as a child. The staging of the scene perpetuates the theme as the wallpaper in the room is of trains, something that most would associate with a child. The viewer then takes on Renton’s subjective point of view as he watches his parents leave the room. The next shot is a close-up of the lock on Renton’s door, which his father pulls and the sound is exaggerated and amplified to emphasize the feeling of being trapped.

Right after his parents leave, instrumental music begins with short staccato beats. Music plays a vital role in the scene. The music continues and Renton’s voiceover is added to the mix. Voiceover is utilized throughout the film to guide the viewer. The camera slowly zooms in on his face and McGregor does a really terrific job at not just conveying fear, but rather a combination of the anticipation of the oncoming sickness coupled with fear. The camera then moves to behind Renton’s head and a wide-angle lens is employed, giving the room a distorted sense. His bed then appears to be moving backwards, making the room appear larger and Renton smaller in comparison. Slowly more sounds are added to the cacophony and the beat begins to speed up, alerting the viewer that something is going to happen. The camera returns to a close-up of Renton’s face, slightly off center in the field of view, sweating and twitching and once again another sound is heard, this one the voice of a girl Renton had slept with earlier in the film. We are now on Renton’s subjective point of view as his dad enters the room. Again, a wide-angle lens is utilized to make the distance from Renton’s bed to the door seem longer, to make the room and impending sickness feel inescapable.

His mother brings him food and Renton turns away, unable to even look at it as the first dialogue of the scene is heard. Renton says that “maybe I should go back to the clinic” and the desperation is so palpable. After the dialogue, which switches off in subjective point of view camera work, we experience a close up of Renton with the camera under the covers. The viewer now sees a number of Renton’s imaginings started with his pal Begbie. The close-up continues and follows Renton very intently, employing rapid zoom-ins and zoom-outs, which make the camera unsteady, adding to the chaos of the scene. The viewer now hears the sound of a baby crying softly and as Renton turns his head we take on his implied subjective point of view and see the baby crawling on the ceiling. For some background, earlier in the movie, Renton was awoken to the sound of screaming at Mother Superior’s, his drug dealer’s house, and found that the baby of one of his friends had died. The camera flashes back to Renton, visibly disturbed, zooming in and out sporadically and as his level of panic slowly increases, we hear the sound of a cymbal crashing three times, another effective use of sound as the cymbals work with McGregor’s expression to increase the tension.

As this montage continues, the viewer now sees a game show being played with Renton’s parents as the contestants answering questions about HIV. This was the 1980s when the HIV epidemic was at its height especially among intravenous drug users. This also helped foreshadow the next scene where Renton is tested. It flashes back to the Renton, the camera once again under his covers with him, the wide-angle lens creating a visually striking image. The acting by McGregor towards the end of this scene is absolutely fantastic as he truly illustrates the feeling of wanting to jump out of his own skin, an incredibly difficult emotion to portray. The babies crying returns and now a tracking shot is used but the camera actually appears to be on the ceiling and it gives the impression that the baby is moving closer to Renton which allows the audience to connect the growing fear and guilt with the baby. Once more we are returned to Renton, enlarged in the frame, the camera following him around shakily complementing the utter chaos of the scene. Another figment of Renton’s imagination appears and again sound is employed as we see Spud, Renton’s friend who is in jail for committing the same crime as him, banging his shackles against a door. Once again the sound allows us to connect Spud with Renton’s dormant guilt. The game show reappears and another question is asked about HIV.

Another figment appears and it is Tommy, another one of Renton’s friends, who is looking pale and much like an addict. Tommy was one of Renton’s friends who didn’t take part in heroin until left by his girlfriend and the juxtaposition between his muscular body at the beginning, and his thin frail look now help to illustrate the effects of the drug. Fill light is used here to cast a shadow behind Tommy to make him appear menacing. As has been evident through the scene, the theme of guilt is once again prevalent as Renton’s reaction illustrates. As if the images didn’t depict the theme of guilt enough, we are brought back to the game show host who asks “is he guilty or not guilty?” The final shot is a worm’s eye view shot of the baby on the ceiling in Renton’s subjective point of view as the babies head rotates and we now see its face for the first time, which makes the experience more personable and the guilt more real.

This scene was chosen because it has an unbelievable ability to express a powerful message to the audience without the use of dialogue. The camera work was extremely influential in reinforcing the disorder and the chaos of the scene and the use of sound, both diegetic and non-diegetic, was vital as it complemented the lighting, powerful acting and cinematography. Boyle and his cinematographer Brian Tufano staged a masterful scene that accurately illustrates the horrors of withdrawal and vividly expresses the extreme guilt Renton feels due to his past actions.

Movie of the Day: In Bruges

One of the surprise movies of 2008 was the dark comedy In Bruges, written and directed by Martin McDonagh. This was his first full-length feature although in 2006, he won an Academy Award for Best Short Film for his movie Six Shooter. In Bruges chronicles two London hitmen who seek shelter in Bruges, Belgium following a hit gone wrong and await instructions from their ruthless boss. It stars Ralph Fiennes as the aforementioned ruthless boss in an effective albeit absurd role with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell starring as the hitmen. Farrell plays Ray, who’s guilt-stricken and would rather be anywhere else in the world but Bruges. It’s the best I’ve Farrell in any role by a fair margin and prior to this I never really took him seriously as an actor. Brendan Gleeson, one of the better actors who seem to have flown under the radar, portrays the other hitman, Ken. He has depicted Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter series but his list of credits is quite impressive and includes roles in Braveheart, Troy, and Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York. His depiction of Winston Churchill in the TV movie Into the Storm garnered him an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe nomination. Gleeson’s character was the more experienced hitman but at the same time, a more optimistic and romantic character than Farrell’s Ray. Despite killing people for a living he is able to sell the audience on the idea that he is a good guy who reluctantly does bad things. Gleeson starred in the lead role of the The Guard alongside Don Cheadle in one of my 5 favorite movies of 2011 and was particularly effective. The Guard was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, the brother of Martin.

Gleeson, left, and Farrell

In Bruges had a pretty good box-office showing in the UK and a mediocre showing at the U.S. box office but I’d argue that was due to poor advertising. If you watch the trailer you’d think that this was a light crime film in the mold of a Guy Ritchie movie and thus lacking any sort of significant depth. On the contrary In Bruges is far from shallow, and with an extremely witty script, explores issues of racism and views on life and death. I think it is a bit similar to Adventureland in terms of marketing failures. After viewing the trailer, you’d think Adventureland was a film akin to Superbad, but in truth Adventureland is only moderately funny and that humor is in the end superseded by a coming of age story and Jesse Eisenberg’s search for identity.

As I mentioned prior, the script was fantastically witty and clever, the dialogue especially poignant, and McDonagh received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He does a good job as he navigates seamless shifts from light to heavy and silly to sincere. There are some truly stunning and eloquently beautiful shots in the film but more of that is due to Bruges picturesque natural beauty than any cinematic technique McDonagh employs although there is one truly brilliant nearly 5 minute tracking shot of Ken on the phone that McDonagh directs with supreme confidence. The score was also particular effective and helped cue the audience on which parts are light and which are serious and also aided in the effortless transitions between these phases. In Bruges was really a surprisingly great movie, truly unique and a prime example of the genre of dramadies, utilizing dark wit and an astute screenplay. In Bruges represents an extremely successful foray into feature films for playwright-cum-screenwriter and director, Martin McDonagh.

Close Scene Analysis: Man on Wire

In 2008, James Marsh’s Man on Wire took the festival circuit by storm winning the Special Jury Award and Audience Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and then capturing the Jury Prize and Audience Award in the World Cinema: Documentary category at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. A few months later, it took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 81st Academy Awards. Man on Wire chronicles Philippe Petit’s wire-walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in August of 1974. Constructed like a classic heist film and utilizing interviews, blow-by-blow re-creation and re-enactments as well as archival footage even including Super 8 footage from Petit’s personal camera, Man on Wire transcends the label of documentary. With this strong underlying narrative, Man on Wire comes to a head during a fantastic climax scene that mixes together still photographs, interviews and archival footage to simultaneously tell parallel stories and leave the audience in awe.

A still-photo of Petit

In order to comprehend how this scene serves the filmmakers goals, it’s important to first examine what the filmmaker’s goals are. Given that the film is not advocating a social cause, the goal reverts to telling a great story. Marsh sets out to tell a story about a man, but more importantly about an attitude towards life that refuses to acknowledge limits and boundaries and to tell it a nostalgic way as opposed to sentimental. Marsh wants to introduce the audience to a world where anything is possible and uses the film as his medium. With the prevalent theme of the consequences of human relationships, Marsh crafts parallel stories that trigger excitement, suspense and sweaty palms for the audience.

To fully understand the scene in question, its vital to briefly put the scene in context within the larger story. Up until this point, Marsh chronicled Philippe Petit, a French wirewalker and street performer who had previously performed a high-wire walk between the towers of the Notre Dame in Paris as well as between two pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. Having seen a picture of the Twin Towers in a magazine, Petit became obsessed with wire walking between them and begins to plan his strategy, which included numerous trips to New York. Following a tumultuous build-up, Petit and his crew finally set up the wire, which leads to this scene.

A still photograph of Philippe Petit, as seen in Man on Wire

The scene begins with a still photograph of Petit’s first step out onto the wire, accompanied by the sounds of nature and Petit’s voiceover, “death is very close.” The frame remains on the still photograph for a long time, which becomes a theme throughout and we slowly zoom out to gain perspective of a small man against the massive backdrop of the building. While Marsh is not present in the movie, you could still tell his stance towards Petit is one of awe and marvel. He keeps the still frames of Petit on the screen for what most would consider far too long to give the audience the feel that something is happening and we need to pay close attention. No live footage of his walk exists and while re-enactment worked in other times of the movie, in this instance it would seem unsatisfactory so the montage of still images seemed to be the way to go. The photographs helped to capture how ephemeral this moment was and how dream like it was and watching it, it almost conjures up visions of some sort of miracle.

The score also complements the scene perfectly as the gentle piano seems both menacing but jubilant, evoking either a foreboding feeling or a triumphant feeling. Marsh effortlessly mixes in an interview with Petit as he recalls his experience and then an interview with his companion who set up the cable. The companion breaks into tears and it is now apparent that Marsh successfully transmitted a classic story of a hero going on an impossible quest with all the setbacks and impediments along the way and succeeding nonetheless. The still frames continue and he includes a shot from the ground of a microscopic Petit in between the two towers and slowly zooms in. It was a perfect juxtaposition between Petit’s idealist artistry and the towers, which represented the financial and capitalist center of the world.

One in a series of still photographs that Marsh employs so sucessfully

One of Marsh’s goals was to not romanticize the event but rather tell stories from many different perspectives and use the overlapping accounts and parallel stories to make the story dynamic. The editing here really lends itself to that as we now move on to an interview of his then-girlfriend who was at the base of towers as she recalls her experience. The amazement in her voice helps illustrate how incredible this moment was. We revert back to still photographs while still hearing her interview and now Marsh edits in a still photo of people at the base of the towers looking up in wonderment and then another interview from a different companion so he presents the audience with 4 distinct accounts from that day.

The score becomes more intense and Marsh zooms out on one of the still photographs and the audience sees in the corner a pair of Port Authority policemen watching Petit from the roof. Marsh edits in archival footage of the media interviewing Charles Daniels, one of the policemen who witnessed Petit. Marsh wanted to tell a story, one that is part of New York City folklore but wanted to give an honest all-encompassing tale of the event and he succeeded admirably. By effortlessly splicing present-day interviews, complementary sound editing, still photographs and archival footage, Marsh not only presents 5 distinct accounts of the events that transpired that day, he makes the audience feel present at an event that occurred over 30 years prior with no live footage available and does it in such a way that there is massive poetic undertones.

The climactic scene of Man on Wire is one of the more memorable scenes in recent documentary history. Combining a flawless use of still photographs, a fabulous score and perfectly edited archival footage, Marsh is able to recount these iconic moments from multiple perspectives. The scene comes together perfectly as he seamlessly blends the content and beautifully serves his goals. It is the perfect conclusion to a free-flowing story that built excitement, suspense and anticipation and like Marsh wanted, makes the audience feel like anything is possible.

Levon Helm, The Band and The Last Waltz

With the passing of legendary drummer Levon Helm, I began to reflect on one of my first true obsessions in music, The Band. Helm succumbed to throat cancer two weeks ago leaving Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson the only two remaining members of The Band left. Helm was known for his country-accented voice and creative drumming style and he remains one of my top 5 favorite drummers along with Ginger Baker, John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell and of course, the timeless Keith Moon. My earliest memory of The Band was on a family trip to Canada coincidentally, given that four-fifths of The Band was Canadian. Also ironic was that a band made up almost entirely of Canadians can so perfectly embody the idea of “Americana,” although admittedly that has so much to do with the sole American Helm, his presence and his Soulful-Southern voice.

From left to right, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson

I heard the song “The Weight” on a CD and every time it finished I just kept asking my dad to play it again and again until everyone else in the car wanted to kill me. The simple but soulful track almost overwhelmed me and from there I was hooked. When I got home, I bought their Greatest Hits and I just kept uncovering more gems. The Band remain one of the most underrated performance artists of all-time and despite a number of accolades including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, a Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award and being named the 50th greatest artists of all-time by Rolling Stone, it seems like they are remembered more as Dylan’s backing band on the legendary Dylan goes electric European tour. There was something incredibly admirable about the band and their simple roots and uncomplicated lifestyle living in upstate New York. They didn’t live the excessively lavish lifestyle of many of their contemporaries although it should be said, they did indeed party and party hard. According to Helm, the multi-instrumentalist Richard Manuel was consuming eight bottles of Grand Marnier per day in conjunction with an exceptional cocaine addiction.

Levon Helm during The Last Waltz

In truth, I wasn’t aware of The Last Waltz until a friend’s dad introduced me to it. For those who are unaware, The Last Waltz is a music documentary directed by Martin Scorsese that chronicles the final concert of The Band at Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. The movie tagline, which so perfectly captures the essence of the night, is “It started as a Concert. It Became a Celebration. Now it’s a Legend.” The concert, while fantastic musically, sticks out to me for its almost unfathomable collection of legendary talent on one stage. When The Band performed “I Shall Be Released” as its closing number, on stage was all five members of The Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Ronnie Hawkins and Neil Diamond who always seemed out of place to me. Think about that, try to get your head around it and let that sink in for a little. While Rolling Stone is obviously not the end all-be all, if you take their 100 Greatest Artists of All-Time list just as a matter of reference, on the stage was the 60th (Joni Mitchell), the 53rd (Clapton), the 50th (The Band), the 42nd (Van Morrison), the 34th (Neil Young), the 17th (Muddy Waters), the guitarist of the 4th (Wood, The Rolling Stones), the 2nd (Dylan) and the drummer of the 1st (Starr, The Beatles). As they all join together singing “Any day now, any day now, I shall be released,” you can’t help but get chills as it perfectly captures that end of an era feeling. This night was a once in a generation kind of thing and one that I feel lucky that someone recorded so at least I can feel a bit part of it. A fitting final performance from one of the more underappreciated groups of all-time and the special guests complemented The Band perfectly, but never overshadowed them.

Movie of the Day: Undefeated

A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to see the documentary Undefeated. Chronicling the underdog story of the Manassas High School’s football team in North Memphis, Undefeated appeared on the public radar at South by Southwest Festival where it caught the attention of Harvey Weinstein who closed a reported 7-figure deal for the distribution and remake rights. Undefeated was also very well received at the Toronto Film Festival.

Filmmakers T.J. Martin, Left, and Dan Lindsay

Undefeated is directed by Dan Lindsay, 33 and T.J. Martin, 32. Neither had extensive experience prior and they met in 2008 while making Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong, which Lindsay directed and Martin edited.  While the film sounds juvenile, it is actually very well reviewed and is a story about a beer pong champion who has to grow up but is desperately clinging on to his past. That was Lindsay’s first full-length film while Martin had previously directed a film A Day in the Hype of America, which was about Y2K. Reading interviews, it was quite apparent that neither Lindsay nor Martin expected the film to receive as much publicity as it did.

Undefeated is the story of the 2009 season of the Manassas Tiger football team. Historically a very weak program, Lindsay and Martin follow as the Tigers seek to end their 110-year stretch without a playoff win. Manassas is almost all African-America and the majority of the players come from impoverished backgrounds.

Bill Courtney

There are four principal characters who Martin & Lindsay chronicle. The character that receives the most attention is Bill Courtney, a former high school football coach and current lumber salesman who began volunteering at Manassas as the head football coach in 2003. There were three players who received most of the attention. O.C. Brown, raised by his sister and his grandmother, was the most talented of the players. With a chance to play college football, Martin & Lindsay document O.C.’s struggle to qualify academically and his quest to improve his ACT score. O.C.’s story is actually what drew Martin and Lindsay to Manassas. Needing the help of a tutor, O.C. lived with an assistant coach during the week in a more affluent part of town because no tutors would travel to his neighborhood and one of their producers had seen a story of O.C. and his double life and presented it to them. It was only when they met Bill Courtney that they decided to broaden the scope of the film. Montrail, or “Money” as he was called, lost his father at a young age. Very intelligent, “Money” damages his ligaments and we watch as he attempts to recover in time to play his last game. The final spotlighted player is Chavis. Having returned to high school after 15 months at a juvenile penitentiary, Martin and Lindsay paint a portrait of a very angry troubled young man and take us through his transformation to a mature young adult.

O.C. Brown

Undefeated struck me as resembling a Hollywood feature film more so than a documentary and it is very easy to forget that you are watching a documentary. As evidenced by the trailer, Undefeated featured very quick cuts. To shoot the film, Martin & Lindsay rented an apartment in Memphis for nine months and shot intensely for about four or five months. Over the course of those four or five months, they shot over 500 hours worth of footage. That’s an insane amount of footage, over 3 weeks worth and a shooting ration of 250:1. They rented an apartment in Memphis for 9 months, came to school everyday and even shot things they knew they wouldn’t include in the movie like a school talent show to gain the trust of the kids and to show a commitment to them that they were there to tell their story honestly and truthfully. This strategy pays dividends and as a result, the kids act so natural and camera because they were so used to its presence. Undefeated features two different kinds of styles. The first is an “observational” style where Lindsay and Martin take on a “fly-on-the-wall” persona and the camera is not acknowledged. The other style is type of implied interview scene where an individual is speaking to the camera as if they were answering questions but you never hear the questions asked.

Martin, Lindsay, and producer Rich Middlemas accept the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature

As mentioned previously, Undefeated was very critically acclaimed. It currently has a 94% rating on RottenTomatoes with 65 positive reviews to 4 negative reviews and an 88% audience rating. Undefeated also won the Academy Away for best documentary feature in what was considered a bit of an upset. Some of the negative reviews contended that Martin and Lindsay focused on football too much instead of delving further into the compelling personal stories although they claim that was far from their original intention but once they began shooting, the drama was too much to ignore.

Montrail

Given that the film didn’t circle around a social problem, deciphering the filmmaker’s goals is rather difficult. While it was a narrative, the filmmakers definitely tried to inspire conversations about race and class and the relation of them. We wanted a celebratory narrative in a community that often times would never have it,” Lindsay say of their original intentions for the film. “Hopefully we could show the potential in a place where a lot of people think there isn’t any potential, but never shy away from the reality, so that a conversation can happen.”

Chavis Daniels

Martin says that he wanted people to appreciate and value the opportunities that he’s had in my own life but he never set out to make an issues-based film or have an agenda. Really though, the main goal was to share a narrative, to give people an experience and make them get lost in the movie. I think they were rather successful in these goals. The story does not seem like a documentary and it’s easy to get lost in. While I’m not sure it elicits conversations for me, it certainly made me think about class and race relations.

In conclusion, I really quite enjoyed Undefeated. While I believe some of the critics were justified, Martin and Lindsay struck an impressive balance between sport and personal tale. While on the surface it seems like its about football, it chronicles the lives of three adolescents on the cusp of manhood as well as the unlikely relationships they form with their coach. It eventually builds into a coming of age film of a different type. Martin and Lindsay were concerned because when you hear the description of the film it is easy to say, “well I’ve heard that before,” but they took a story that sounds familiar and turned into a riveting, fresh experience.

Arrested Devlopment and Party Down: Better off Dead?

“Look, for the tenth time, it’s pronounced ‘a-NAL-rap-ist’”

Earlier this year it was announced that Arrested Development would be returning for a season and then a movie. Former Starz show Party Down will also apparently be getting a feature film. And while part of me in definitely excited, another part wonders if these two shows shouldn’t be revived. The fact that they were cancelled too soon, Arrested Development after 3 seasons and Party Down after 2, only adds to their allure. We live in a society where we hold people in higher esteem after death. It’s taboo and not kosher to speak ill of the dead. When people die, their faults are immediately forgotten and their accomplishments are greatly magnified. With television shows, it is no different. While Arrested Development and Party Down were great shows, their reputation was enhanced by an early exit and that led to their immortalization in recent television history.

“Are we having fun yet?”

Artistically, these two shows went out on top and didn’t last long enough to get inevitably stale. While Friends and Seinfeld went out on top in terms of ratings, passionate supporters of both shows would contest that the later episodes paled in comparison to the older episodes. Entourage, which was great for a few seasons deteriorated into an inadvertent commentary on the materialism and other social ills of American culture.

“STEVE HOLT!!”

The Office isn’t going to go out on top artistically or ratings wise. Every Thursday night I sit down on my couch, temper my expectations and prepare for the disappointment as I come to the conclusion that The Office of old is not coming back. What started as a smart workplace comedy devolved into a show that relies on ridiculous gimmicks to get a few cheap laughs. I know Steve Carell; Ed Helms, you’re no Steve Carell. I’m still a bit dumbfounded that they didn’t replace him with a strong personality and take the show in a new direction seeing as though the style has stagnated since Season 5. Instead, they chose Helms who has his merits as a supporting actor but doesn’t have a strong enough presence to carry a show. This season is pretty awful and is in a fight with Season 6 for worst season of The Office ever. It experienced a brief resurgence in Season 7 with the novelty of Michael leaving but once he was gone, the show sputtered. How I Met Your Mother is a show whose premise really didn’t lend itself well to longevity. It’s Season 7, and Ted, I no longer give a shit about how you met your wife. Like The Office, the writers are resorting to cheap plot gimmicks in vain attempts to keep people interested and further prolong the show. With an arc that never felt forced, Arrested Development and Party Down avoided similar fates and joined Judd Apatow’s early series Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks as cult classics.

“Today this boat isn’t just a boat it’s a fairy tale fantasy land where every boys a playa and every girls a bitch”

As a society we have a fascination with things that die too soon. Something about the untapped potential is thought-provoking and it creates this aura, much like we saw with James Dean who was a good actor, but his body of work doesn’t quite match the attention that he still receives today. With these shows being cancelled after only a few seasons, it allows us to hold on to those “what if’s” that truly add to the mystique that surrounds them. In Chuck Palahniuk novel Choke, he writes, “The unreal is more powerful than the real. Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it.” Expectations are going to be ridiculously high and if they fail or don’t quite meet expectations, their cult classic status is compromised and their place in television lore is put at risk.

“Has anyone in this family ever even seen a chicken?”

There is something incredibly admirable about going out on top, perhaps because so few people do it. A number of legends are tarnished by overstaying their welcome. A boxer will generally receive a few unnecessary knockouts before he finally realizes it’s time to hang up the gloves. If Brett Favre retired when he should have, he’d be known as a warrior, an MVP and a Super Bowl Winner. Now he’s known as that creepy dick-pic sending guy who just wouldn’t go away. I know there is plenty of temptation and money for these shows to come back, but why ruin a fabulous legacy. The early cancellations of Arrested Development and Party Down, while disappointing, led to its placement on a pedestal and I’d be saddened if it follows the same path as the aforementioned shows who didn’t quite know when to go away.

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