Tuesday, October 25, 2011

RECH JF Pour Court-Métrage Rémunéré

We don't usually get in to short films on here so lets switch things up a bit. In September I got a nice surprise message from another Pinnland Empire favorite: Alice Houri. 'Rech JF' is a short film from 2009 that she starred in about an aspiring actress/movie theater employee who responds to an ad that turns out to be something she wasn't looking for. Even though the video is below, I gave that brief summary because...there are no English subtitles (sorry). But even if you cant speak french (LIKE ME), its still surprisingly easy to follow even if you cant understand what's exactly being said (pretentious, I know, but whatever). I showed 'U.S. Go Home' (another film starring Alice Houri) at my birthday party at Anthology Film Archives this past August without any English subtitles for an all American audience and it turned out surprisingly well, so I'm gonna try it again. Something about the vibe of 'Rech JF' reminds me of 'Variety' (Bette Gordon's no-wave classic that we covered a while back on Pinnland Empire). Naturally this type of story is something any actor (or artist in general for that matter) can identify with and relate too. Although the short is fiction, I'm sure the director drew from real life, as some of the films mentioned in this short are actual movies Alice has acted in like 'The Pornographer' (another film i wrote about on here a few months ago).
Anyway, enjoy the short...

Friday, October 21, 2011

PUBLIC ENEMIES: I really wanna like this

Is it me, or did this movie just kinda disappear REAL quick? It feels like this came out YEARS ago when in fact its barely been 2 years since its release. How is that possible? 'Public Enemies' shoulda been epic. It shoulda been one of the last great films of the decade. Christian Bale and Johnny Depp under the direction of Michael Mann in a film about John Dillinger. How could that have failed? Maybe in 10 years I'll come around like I did with 'Ali', but right now this feels like one of the biggest letdowns in recent years. Have the 'Pirates Of The Carribean' movies become THAT popular and THAT big that it makes people forget about and/or ignore anything Johnny Depp has acted in since 2003? It sure seems that way. In a lot of ways 'Public Enemies' feels like Mann was trying to recreate 'Heat' for this era: Two extremely popular actors at the moment (Deniro/Pacino in the mid 90's & Depp/Bale in this era) face off against each other in an epic crime drama where the lines between who's the "good guy" and who's the "bad guy" are blurred. Lets face it, Michael Mann LOVES to make good guys out of bad guys. We cheered for James Caan in 'Thief' knowing that he was a jewel thief. Everyone thought Tom Cruise was a total "badass" in 'Collateral' when in fact he was the "bad guy". In 'Heat' we found ourselves rooting for Deniro's character (the bank robber) just as much as Pacino (the cop). And the same thing applies with 'Public Enemies'. Michael Mann makes John Dillinger out to be more of a suave robin hood-esque antihero than he does a criminal (although from what I understand, that portrayal of Dillinger is somewhat accurate). There's also subplots in both 'Heat' & 'Public Enemies' involving love interests (the scene in 'Public Enemies' where Marion Cotillard is picked up by the police at the bank is very reminiscent of the scene when the police are trying to set Val Kilmer up with Ashley Judd in 'Heat'). And there are pivotal shootout scenes in both films that draw comparison to one another as well.
But for some reason, 'Public Enemies' didn't have the same vibe as 'Heat'. It actually felt boring at times. I understand focusing on detail, especially in a biopic, but not everything that Mann focused on was needed. Half way through the movie you kinda go; "ok ok, John Dillinger was good at breaking out of Jail. How many prison break scenes is Michael Mann gonna show us?!"
And I'm sure the relationship between John Dillinger and his girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) was strong, but something tells me it wasn't as passionate as Mann made it out to be. You're telling me at no point that a guy like John Dillinger didn't rough his girlfriend up? Or smack her around? C'mon now...
The cinematography was another major downfall. I've watched 'Public Enemies' numerous times with people (both in the theater and on television) and its always the same complaint: "why does the movie look like that" or "I don't like the camera being used". That famous Michael Mann "look" worked for stuff like 'Miami Vice' and 'Collateral', but it was kind of a mess at times in 'Public Enemies'. Not all the time, but sometimes. Take the motel shootout scene for example. After a while I had no idea who was who, who was shooting at who, who were the good guys or who were the bad guys, I didn't even know if i was looking at Christian Bale or Johnny Depp...

And whats strange is that for a film that goes in and out of looking great to looking like it was shot on the latest camera phone, when you pic out individual stills from 'Public Enemies' and look at them, they look beautiful. Really great images that convey amazing cinematography and lighting just like almost anything else Michael Mann does...
another similar shot of the sky found in other Mann films like 'Miami Vice', 'Ali' and 'Thief'
But in between some of those beautiful stills, the cinematography just looks chaotic and disorienting (as you could see in the video above). 
And as far as imagery & cinematography are concerned, Michael Mann continues to shoot his signature "close-up" shot of his actors faces, just like he did in 'Miami Vice', 'Collaterl', 'Ali' and 'Heat' with that almost fish eye lens effect...
'Public Enemies' (above) Vs. 'Miami Vice' (below)

'Public Enemies' (above) Vs. 'Collateral' (below)

'Public Enemies'  (above) Vs. 'The Insider' (below)


'Public Enemies' is the story of the "cat & mouse" game between notorious gangster John Dillinger (Depp) and FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (Bale). Other portrayals of famous figures include; J Edgar Hoover (Billy Curdup), "Babyface Nelson" (Stephen Graham) and "Pretty Boy Flloyd" (played by Channing Tatum in a short appearance). At BEST, this movie is "meh, ok" (sorry to sound so harsh, but its true). Even before I saw 'Public Enemies' I loved the idea of Johnny Depp playing Dillinger. I guess maybe my one complaint was that Christian Bale's presence wasn't very memorable. Its almost like anyone couldve played his part and you wouldn't have noticed the difference. There were other  distractions as well. Don't get me wrong, the supporting cast was great, but at the same time he had SO many recognizable actors in bit parts & extended cameos that it threw me off. People like Lili Taylor, James Russo, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi, Leile Sobieski, etc. Their characters would be introduced, they'd have about 5 minutes of screen time, and then you'd never see 'em again. A new character gets introduced so often you start going; "wait, who is that again and whats his or her purpose in the story?" 
Maybe I just prefer Michael Mann's films to be set in the present day. After all, I'm not too crazy about his other 2 films that take place "back in the day" ('The Last Of The Mohicans' and 'The Keep'). In a film that's set in the 1930's you cant get a lot of the same Michael Mann-esque imagery that we saw in 'Heat' or 'Collateral'. Mann didn't have any nighttime city landscapes too shoot or scenes set around water or beachfront property like half of his work. No images of modern architecture, city landscapes or cars speeding on the freeways. I hope what I'm about to say makes sense and doesn't sound like I'm reaching, but Mann's digital filming style is so modern and up to date that even when you watch a film like 'Public Enemies' that takes place in the 1930's, you cant help but think about all the new technology and modern "look" of his films that it subconsciously makes us think of the present day. 'Public Enemies' doesn't really feel like its set in the 1930's all the time. 
I know I'm typing a lot and expressing a lot of passionate opinions, but I love Michael Mann and I feel like we missed out on what coulda been a really great film. 'Public Enemies' could have been this generation's 'Untouchables' when you think about it. All the pieces were there but everything seemed flat. How is it possible to make a borderline boring movie about the life of John Dillinger?
This past decade has been a strange one for man. 'Ali' and 'Collateral' seem to be loved by most people, but his last 2 films left people scratching their heads. In 2011 I STILL cant convince people that 'Miami Vice' is actually a very good movie and 'Public Enemies' kinda failed with critics, fans and at the box office. I hope his next film (which is supposed to be a period piece staring Andrew Garfield) can redeem him. In the meantime we got quite a few filmmakers using his style to make names for themselves (Christopher Nolan and Nicolas Winding Refn to be exact) so I guess that will have to do for now.

Monday, October 17, 2011

THIEF: REQUIRED VIEWING FOR FANS OF 'DRIVE'


We're giving Claire Denis a break for the next few blog entries and focusing on another Pinnland Empire favorite: Michael Mann (see my recent reviews of 'Ali' and my revamped review of 'Miami Vice'). Everything i read about 'Drive' (my review included) mentions Michael Mann's 'Thief' (a personal favorite of mine). And rightfully so. 'Drive' and 'Thief' have similar plots, vibe, soundtracks as well as very similar opening and closing sequences. Hell...both films even use a similar font in their opening credits (as i noted in my review of 'Drive' last month). Even the main characters in both films have their own specific set of rules that they go by in their criminal activities that are embedded in our minds. With James Caan's character in 'Thief' its; No furs, no coin collections, no stocks certificates, no treasury bonds, no nothin'. Just diamonds and cash. With Ryan Gosling its; you give me a time and a place, I give you a 5 minute window. I don't sit in while you're running it down, I don't carry gun. I drive. And I don't have an issue with Nicholas Winding Refn borrowing from 'Thief' at all. 'Drive' is in my top 3 of 2011. But I'm just a little concerned that a lot of people reading all these reviews of 'Drive' aren't familiar Michael Mann's early crime drama. In 'Thief' James Caan plays a professional ex-con jewel thief/safe cracker ("Frank") who's hired by a big time gangster ("Leo") to do a series of heists. Things go great at first, but when Frank and Leo butt heads over their agreement (Frank made it clear at the beginning he only wanted to do one or two more jobs, but Leo has other plans) he has to save himself and protect his family (his wife, played by Tuesday Weld, and their adopted baby) from Leo and his henchmen. 'Thief' might be Michael Mann at his most gritty (right down to the 12 bit synthesizers used by Tangerine Dream who scored the film). Many older fans of Mann's work who aren't happy with the direction his films have taken in the last decade consider 'Thief' to be one of his best works.
What's so great about this film is that it's a great example of Mann's evolution as a filmmaker. This was his second film (first to be shown in theaters). There's no digital handheld cinematography, no fish eye lens close-up shots of his actor's faces, yet you could see little bits of the Michael Mann we know today slowly peeking its head out.

By now, anyone familiar with Mann's work should know that you're almost always gonna see a few shots of our characters around water and/or beachfront homes (sometimes during sundown or sunset). 'Thief' was his first feature to show this...
'Thief' (1981)
'Manhunter' (1986)
'Heat' (1995)
Miami Vice (2006)


In 'Thief' we also saw the birth of 2 other signature Mann shots. Not only does he love to place an actor or an object on the far right or left of the frame with the backdrop of city lights taking up the rest of the image, but he also has a fetish for intentionally out of focus, blurry streetlights...
'Thief'
'The Insider' (1999)
'Collateral' (2004)
We also saw the birth of another similar shot that Mann loves to use which is the overlooking of a city from the inside of a building (usually an office building with large windows). This wasn't exactly the case in 'Thief', but in these images below you can see how the shot slowly evolved over the years...
'Thief' - Chicago
'The Insider' - Mississippi (i think)
'Collateral' - Los Angeles 

And regardless of the shots in 'Thief' what would eventually become some of Mann's trademarks, there's plenty of other great imagery in 'Thief' that put it ahead of all the other 70's & 80's crime drama's...

The biggest Mann trademark in 'Thief' is something that doesn't need to be conveyed visually. He loves to explore the idea of making a criminal the "good guy". And if not a good guy, someone the audience will root for. James Caan in 'Thief' isn't that much different from Deniro & Val Kilmer in 'Heat', Tom Cruise in 'Collateral' or Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in 'Public Enemies' (even Gong Li in 'Miami Vice' to a certain extent). In fact, all of these characters are an extension of the characters in the french films that Mann is influenced and inspired by like 'Circle Le Rouge' (and other Melville crime dramas like 'Un Flic'), or 'Rififi' in Thief's case (2 films about anti-hero jewel thieves with tragic endings). Caan's performance is great and his character in the film is pretty interesting. When it comes to his job as a jewel thief, he's one of the best at what he does. He has everything down to a science and is quite meticulous. But outside of his work, he's very naive (almost dumb). At certain points in the film Caan is cool, calm and levelheaded, then at other times he's out of control and a hothead. He's quite believable when he delivers a line like: I am the last guy in the world you wanna fuck with. 
And in true Scorsese fashion, Mann loves the idea of showing crooked (or at the very least, imperfect) police. There isn't a single cop character in 'Thief' that's actually a "good guy". They're all crooked. With 'Thief', in addition to Caan fighting Leo and his gangsters, he also has to deal with crooked cops trying to shake him down for money. 
This film is an underrated classic. To put it in to an analogy; If other movies in the same vein like 'French Connection' or 'Dirty Harry' are Denrio in his prime, then 'Thief' is like Harvey Kietel in his prime. If you liked 'Drive' i don't see how its possible for someone to not at least appreciate 'Thief'. Drive even shows how 'Thief' was ahead of its time in terms of film score. These days, all anyone talks about is the soundtrack for 'Drive', yet 'Thief' had a very similar soundtrack 3 decades earlier, and many critics felt the music was out of place and didn't fit with the movie (over the time that opinion has changed). 
In my opinion, not only is this a great starting point for people curious about Michael Mann, but its also a great film to get someone interested in classic french crime films from the 50's, 60's and 70's.

THE CINEMA OF NICOLAS WINDING REFN TOLD THROUGH IMAGES & STILLS


Now That 'Drive' is out and Nicolas Winding Refn has blown up, lets take a look at the rest of his filmography and explore the common themes, shots and inspirations that link all his work together just like we did with Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, Lars Von Trier and many more. I must admit that I've been sitting on this one for a little while. I wasn't sure if i was ever gonna post this. Refn is the youngest director out of the list of people I've done so far. And not only that, his career as a director hasn't reached the status of Haneke, Von Trier (whom he currently has "beef with), Tarkovsky, etc. But there's something so great about his film making style. His work has grown on me over the years. I was never a huge fan of the first half of his career, but since 2004 I've been hooked.

VIOLENCE:
Nicolas Winding Refn's (recent) films may be very atmospheric, trippy and (sometimes) slow, but there's plenty of blood and violence to counter all of that. Naturally his earlier work that dealt with drug dealing and gangsters (Bleeder and The Pusher Trilogy) had plenty of bloodshed, murder and shoot outs (which should be expected in movies like that), but his more recent work like 'Valhalla Rising' and 'Drive' feature some of the most extreme scenes of violence in recent years like disembowelment & scalping (valhalla) or face smashing & neck stabbing (drive). 
Bleeder
Pusher 3
Bronson
Valhalla Rising
Drive
Only God Forgives
Only God Forgives




HALLWAY SHOTS, THE "GLARE" & STANLEY KUBRICK'S INFLUENCE:
Somewhere between 'Fear X' (2004) & 'Bronson' (2008), Refn started to draw inspiration form Stanley Kubrick's work. Most people compared Bronson to Clockwork because they felt the lead characters were very similar in that they were charismatic & funny yet unstable & violent. But the comparison to Kubrick goes way beyond 'Bronson'/'Clockwork'. In all of Refn's latest films he often incorporates a "glare" shot (where the character stares off intensely, almost zoning out for a moment) similar to the ones in Kubrick's films. Additionally, Nicolas Refn seems to have a fetish with filming long corridors and hallways just like Kubrick did in his films...

The "Glare" Bronson

Nicholson's "Glare" in The Shining



Drive



2001





Fear X



The Shining





Fear X



2001


Pusher 2



The Shining



Bronson



The Shining





ADDITIONAL INFLUENCES


'Thief' (1981) 





1. Ad for 'Drive'





'To Live & Die In LA' (1985)





2. Ad for 'Drive'




the calm before the storm - 'Sonatine'





the calm before the storm - 'Drive'





violence erupts in elevator










steve mcqueen in 'Bullit'





Gosling in 'Drive'





Willis w/ hammer in 'Pulp Fiction'





Gosling w/ hammer in 'Drive'





Scorpion Jacket from Kenneth
Anger's 'Scorpio Rising'



The Dirver's scorpion jacket that he
wears all through out 'Drive'


ATMOSPHERE & THE COLOR RED:
Some of Refn's films have an indescribable mood or feel to them. A lot of this has to do with choice of lighting and his emphasis on the color red. As we all know, if used in certain way, red can convey an unsettling feeling. Sometimes he does it in a super obvious way like in 'Bronson' & 'Fear X' or a more subtle way like in 'Drive' & 'Valhalla Rising'. Refn's dark lighting mixed with that specific color has become his trademark in the last 5 years...
Fear X
Fear X
Fear X
Bronson
Bronson
Valhalla Rising
Valhalla Rising
Valhalla Rising
Drive
Only God Forgives
The Neon Demon



SYNTHESIZED SOUNDTRACKS:
'The Social Network' ain't the only film score to feature dirty sounding synths and atmospheric tones. In recent years, Refn has obviously drawn inspiration from stuff like 'Thief' and 'To Live & Die In LA', right down to the synthesized soundtracks. 'Bronson' & 'Drive' feature some very retro sounding music reminiscent of Tangerine Dream, Nine Inch Nails and Vangelis. And whats also interesting is that the music featured in his films all seem to come from the same record label ("Italians do it better").

used during the closing credits of 'Bronson'


used in 'Drive'

used in 'Drive'






SELF-REFLECTION:
Another common shot found in Refn's films (and other filmmakers') is a shot of self reflection. This is a pretty typical shot just like kissing in the rain or someone falling to their death in slow motion, but for some reason I don't seem to mind when Refn does it.
Pusher 2
Drive
Bleeder
Only God Forgives
The Neon Demon