The Weather Man (2005)

August 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

An underrated comedy-drama, Nicholas Cage stars as a Chicago weatherman who does his best to predict unpredictable weather, even as he tries to deal with the odd and unexpected emotional currents in his own life, and those close to him. Michael Caine plays his award-winning writer father who knows President Carter, and appears to have lived a flawless and stoic life, for the most part. Living up to that isn’t easy, particularly when your marriage has fallen apart, and people will chuck a taco at you on the street for getting the weather wrong. Both Cage and Caine are excellent, in subtle and understated performances — it could have been a disaster if they’d gone over the top, but reigned in, they’re both believable and likeable people. As David Spritz, Nicholas Cage manages to relate that he has a good heart, even as he’s capable of being self-centered and petulant from time to time. As if to demonstrate the kind of negative karma his remarkably easy yet frustrating job generates (he reads the weather, without actually doing the work to predict it), the film flashes to a disatisfied middle-aged couple saying things like “What kind of name is Spritz,” and “I don’t like his face.”

As much as this can be taken as an example of our tendency to make self-satisfied snap judgements, it illustrates the kind of negativity Spritz is swimming against, making us want to root for him all the more. As his father, Michael Caine could easily have turned in a performance that made the character impenetrable, or he could have barked his lines, overdoing the idea he’s intimidating — and certainly a lesser actor would have done that — but his character stands there looking at his son, completely bewildered, asking “Why would someone throw a frosty at you? And what is a frosty?”

Aside from an excellent supporting cast, the film has a lot of style and even manages some exquisite moments and beautiful shots. It’s a film that apparently did quite poorly at the box office, maybe because at first glance it doesn’t look like anything terribly special, and certainly it’s only in the last ten minutes the film manages to reward to viewer for sticking it out through some very difficult and awkwardly funny moments, but the trip is undoubtedly worth it.

Watch the trailer here.

Gran Torino (2008)

August 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

At 78 years old when this film was shot, Clint Eastwood is a blazing-eyed, elderly version of the persona he has reproduced from time to time since A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Directed and co-produced by Eastwood, it’s an interesting film before the first frame has been shown, simply because it feels like an attempt to give his long acting career a coda, of sorts. 

The film itself has mixed results — as Walt Kowalski, a permanently grumpy veteran that dislikes all the different ethnicity in the neighbourhood, Eastwood can make “Get off my lawn,” sound like a death threat. But as Kowalski starts to get to know the neighbours and develop something of a community around him, it becomes clear some of the supporting cast of younger actors don’t seem terribly comfortable in their roles. The film could’ve been a joke, but it isn’t thanks to Eastwood’s solid central performance — it’s a shame some of the other performances are so wobbly. The writing is a little wobbly too. All the material about how some of the younger generation lacks reverence and appreciation (particularly in the Kowalski family) struck me as valid, but the film is overly heavy-handed about it. The central themes are clear — that beneath ethnic differences and the turmoil of certain daily struggles, we sometimes have far more in common than we think. And yet, there’s a scene that feels like something leftover from a Dirty Harry film, a scene where Eastwood is able to easily diffuse a situation, but only because he’s armed. It’s a contradiction at the heart of many American films, but it seems a little more pronounced when the main character is a gun-wielding 78 year old man.  In short, the film mixes heartwarming moments with head-scratching ones.  

Eastwood has had a fascinating career.  Aside from the films he directed, he’s among thos actors that became an American icon. Dirty Harry (1971) is a stylish and entertaining film, but also very conservative at heart — at it’s core it knocks the pesky civil rights that get in the way of a good cop blowing away someone that deserves it, and there’s even a scene that manages to suggest it’s common sense for police to shoot first and ask questions later. Generally a supporter of Republican politicians, Eastwood endorsed McCain in the recent presidential election. And yet, this is the man who directed the award-winning Unforgiven (1992), where as aging gunfighter William Munny, he has the lines “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away everything he’s ever had, and everything he’s ever gonna have.” And in A Perfect World (1993) also directed by Eastwood, there’s a quick scene of a rifle that seems designed to make the viewer hate it, considering the character that was just killed.

Perhaps it’s just fair to say Eastwood is… complicated. It’s a career that almost seems to unintentionally represent a nation accepting, but then beginnng to reconsider its attachment to guns. Even aside from the gun issues, there’s the much-admired car as central image, at at time we’re finally increasingly aware that sustainable living will be key to our survival. It may not be entirely fair to impose all this on the film, but I can’t help but think of it. Gran Torino is a curiously transitional early twenty-first century film: nostalgic even as it’s progressive, sincere but dated. Judging by the reviews on amazon and elsewhere, Americans loved it. What the rest of the world might appreciate about it is that it could be the final acting bow from a man with a remarkable career. And maybe everyone recognizes somehow that it’s a film about how the country is changing, or needs to change, even if it stars a man who grew up in a very different America.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

August 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

Loosely based on Hamlet, but set in the Japanese corporate world, The Bad Sleep Well is one of the films by Akira Kurosawa that doesn’t appear to be as celebrated as some others. The director is a legendary one — Kurosawa made thirty films that have had a far-reaching influence in the film world, including various Samurai films I’ve found particularly memorable. Seven Samurai (1954) about a small band of samurai deciding to defend a village from bandits was translated into gunslingers and remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960), even as Yojimbo (1961) was remade as A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The Hidden Fortress (1958) is a film George Lucas acknowledges as an influence — there’s a scarred villain who wears a mask, a princess, and a couple of bickering harmless men caught up in the narrative would eventually be translated by Lucas into R2D2 and C3PO.

The film has a handful of remarkably intense performances as Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) investigates the death of his father, an apparent suicide from the seventh floor of the construction corporation where he worked. During his investigation there are no literal ghosts, but he does corral one passive, nervous participant in the affair to saunter out and make appearances after he’s believed to be dead. The performances are almost over the top, but don’t quite go too far, instead managing to convey the intensity of shifting alliances and uncertain times.  The score mixes powerful, dramatic music with strangely chipper music that seems oddly inappropriate during dramatic moments. The settings in the film manage to include both current, living corporate environments and the industrial desolation left behind.

The trailer remarks “This towering masterpiece is a must-see for today’s public,” and while I’m not quite sure I’d use those terms exactly (and that’s a hell of a statement for a trailer that precedes public reaction to the film by two weeks) I do think it’s an impressive and timeless film, and an engaging one despite a two hour, thirty-two minute running time. Kurosawa is undoubtedly a director who created films that have remained relevant whatever subject he tackled. The end of The Bad Sleep Well may be a subtle and quiet one (and in that sense at least, isn’t much like Hamlet), but it’s also a remarkably powerful ending.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)

August 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Imagine a character with such relentless good luck even a hired assassin can’t put a dent in his day. Nobody understands why, he just seems to be at the epicentre of good luck somehow. The X-Files TV series had some great stand-alone episodes, probably stories that are among the best ones I’ve seen on television. At the same time, the series fumbled the romance between Scully and Mulder — it was as hesitant and slow-moving at the ongoing, increasingly convoluted conspiracy plot that seemed to devote entire episodes to Mulder and Scully poking around a warehouse with a flashlight. To complicate matters in the last few years of the show, David Duchovny became part-time on the series, and producers had to introduce two new agents, Doggett and Reyes (Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish) to carry the show. The new actors did an admirable job of being real, likeable and interesting, but took a backseat (and with all hell breaking loose, don’t even get a farewell scene) in a fairly muddled 2-hour finale that sees Duchovny return, and once again hammers away at the conspiracy story. After an entire TV series, it seemed as if the producers didn’t know how to properly resolve the conspiracy, or do anything other than take one step forward and two steps back, resolving a few things even as other questions are raised. Whatever happened to Doggett and Reyes, fellas? Hello?

Perhaps it’s better that The X-Files: I Want to Believe simply ignores all this, in favour of a film that’s also a stand-alone story, and could almost be about any retired agents coaxed back into service, not Mulder and Scully. The film begins with at least fifty agents marching in a straight line, all stabbing at the snow in search of a body part, though an priest — his long white hair loose in the wind — is capable of racing ahead to fall on the spot where the body part can be found, buried in the snow. Billy Connolly plays Father Joe Crissman, a priest who believes God sends him his visions. At the same time, he’s a priest defrocked for pedophilia. It’s an interesting quirk in the writing — give a character an appalling characteristic, and then challenge the viewer to believe he might also have visions from God. It isn’t the only examination of belief in the film — the central villain passionately believes in what he’s doing, and there’s a subplot with Scully deciding what to believe in an entirely different matter — a subplot that ends the film in an unexpectedly touching moment. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in a way, the entire film builds up to her one word answer to a simple question before the credits roll.

The TV series had always handed Mulder evidence and took it away — Mulder sees an alien body, the viewer sees an alien body too, but government conspiracy lackeys take it away by the end of the episode (and they even get the videotape!). This film takes a different route, declining to present any absolute evidence about Father Joe either way. The conspiracy story in the TV series became tiresome because it didn’t amount to much more than a long game of hide and seek, but Frank Spotnitz and series creator Chris Carter have written a story where the viewer gets to decide, this time around. In an almost courageous move these days, chases and shootouts are kept to a minimum in favour of style, and story. And yes, this does mean the film is a little slow. Certainly, it could be a little shorter. Certainly, it didn’t need a scene where Mulder and Scully wait in a hallway to be admitted to a meeting, and there are a few scenes of awkward, expository dialogue. But I was pleasantly surprised with it by the time the credits rolled, accompanied by a new remix of the X-Files theme. My only complaint happens to be because I took time out to watch the TV series over last few years — couldn’t they have had two lines explaining what happened to Doggett and Reyes? Or even one line: “We’re running a restaurant now, we’re fine!”

At the Earth’s Core (1976) and The Creeping Flesh (1972)

August 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

“You cannot mesmerize me, I’m British!”  It’s a little hard not to enjoy Peter Cushing in this low-budget but fun adaptation of At the Earth’s Core. And while the story by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950) is yet another thinly veiled older story about white people parachuted into a situation to set it straight, or naturally dominate somehow (much like Tarzan of the Apes), some of the humor manages to offset this antiquated idea. In a film designed for children, Cushing plays a Victorian scientist who tests out his Iron Mole drilling machine along with his American financier friend, played by Doug McClure. On arrival, they discover a human population that’s too fragmented to form a proper rebellion against enslavement by the Mahars, telepathic vulture-creatures, though on first arrival they’re chased by a tremendous monster which is really just a guy in a chicken suit.  Cushing plays the passionate professor well here, and more or less revives what he did for Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks Invasion of Earth, 2150 A.D. (1966), two films that were produced the previous decade as a result of the immense popularity of Doctor Who, and the brief Dalek craze. But it hardly matters, the important thing is that Cushing is as adept at humour as he is playing less erratic, more dignified characters. His Dr. Who is often overlooked in histories of the program because his stories are bonus remakes of a couple of the TV stories, and they have their own continuity. But it hardly matters when they’re colourful fun as well. Drop any child in front of the second of those two films in particular, and they’ll be… well, mesmerized.

Looking at his career as an actor, Cushing is a rare actor — a little like that person in high school that was popular and talented, but didn’t care much what crowd he hung around with. He was talented enough for anything, but in decades of horror and fantasy films (beginning with films like Horror of Dracula (1959) never turned in a performance that made it appear he was bored or doing anything less than trying to create a believable character. The same can be said for Christopher Lee, reunited with Cushing for The Creeping Flesh. In fact, the two actors made over twenty films together. Here they play brothers competing for prestige and financial success — Lee runs an asylum, and Cushing is a scientist who brings a remarkable skeleton back from an expedition. Not only is the skeleton unique in appearance, it appears to be  able to grow flesh and regenerate when something as simple as water is poured on it. The Cushing character is likeable, but not perfect, and it is revealed that when he reluctantly sent his wife to the asylum, he hid it from his daughter, telling her instead that her mother was dead. The character repeatedly states that he only wanted to protect his daughter, but remains resolutely stubborn about it, and after a few more misguided decisions the retribution the creature brings makes a certain amount of sense, though only in the unforgiving context of horror films. The Lee character is worse, but predictably enough by the end the creature is revived and walking the earth, and though it’s open-ended as to exactly what this will mean for humanity, maybe that’s all the creature does wherever it goes — tip the balance in favour of a morally unsatisfying result.

These aren’t even career highlights for Cushing. In the 1970s, he’d go on to play a supporting role as a villain in Star Wars (1977) and introduce himself to a whole new audience, and a new generation.

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