Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Fried Green Tomatoes

Or depending on which country it was released in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Unfortunately like so many adaptations I haven't read the 1987 novel by Fannie Flagg from which the film iis based. Suffice to say that as usual, because the film is good enough, the novel has been added to the impossibly long line of books I would like to read before I fall off the perch ( as they say! ). This particular film has been sitting under the telly for ages before I pulled it out last week and finally watched it. When I had finished it I did my usual background research on the film and was aghast that it was made in 1991 hence is now a staggering 20 years old!

 I couldn't believe that it was that old as I re-call this playing here in NZ and the fact it was so well received. Isn't it terrible how time slips by so quickly?! But what this shows is how a good film, no matter how old it gets, will stay in our collective memories whilst the chaff fades away. Fried Green Tomatoes whilst not a truly great film must rate as one of the last two decades best films because it still manages a reaction whenever it is mentioned. Most people who saw it 20 years  ago still say how much they loved it. I even know of some who have watched it a multitude of times since. After my recent viewing I can see why it was and still is popular.

 Of course what a film grosses is no indication of a films quality but it can show its popularity. Fortunately Fried Green Tomatoes was popular because of it being based on a popular novel and for the fact it was a well made film. On its budget of US$11 million it went on to gross just shy of US$120 million world wide which is nothing to be sneezed at. As an indication of its popularity in the US alone it ran for a whopping 20 weeks in 1,331 theatres State wide. Not bad figures are they?! Critics of the time liked the narrative and the performances especially that of Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy. Overall it was positively received by critics but conversely they found it ' conventional '  'predictable' with the use of flashbacks ' clumsy ' .

 I agree up to point on it being  'conventional '. But in all reality I don't think it could have been made any other way, which leads me to agree that the flashbacks were a bit clumsy at times. Again though these are central to the story and in all reality couldn't be done any other way. Flashbacks in film I have found is a difficult technique to get right. So often it doesn't work as the film flits between two time frames. And yet I though overall Fired Green tomatoes done it quite competently. I certainly didn't feel myself getting lost in wondering which era I was in and enjoyed the tale as told from Tandy's character to that of Bates '.

 So conventional maybe, predictable? Again maybe. But overall they are minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent and memorable film. But what is it about?! It centres around Evelyn Couch ( Bates ) a timid, unhappy, overweight housewife who meets and befriends elderly Ninny Threadgoode ( Jessica Tandy ) in a Alabamian hospital. There, over several encounters, Ninny tells the story of the now-abandoned town of Whistle stop and the people who lived there. It is the story of a Depression-era friendship between two women Idgie Threadgoode ( Mary Stuart Masterson ) and Ruth Jamison ( Mary-Louise Parker ). Ninny knew both women and she relates to Evelyn the story of the two and the murder of Ruth's abusive husband and the accusations that follow.

 The film though is a bit deeper than just a conventional tale of murder ( it in fact touches on racism during the Depression and the more than friendship between Idgie and Ruth ). At one stage the local sheriff asks Idgie and Ruth to keep their ' coloured ' cooks hidden from the sight of the white customers in their cafe. Later on Ruth's husband turns up with the local KKK and whips one of the pairs cooks. It is this cook who is implicated in the disappearance and supposed murder of Ruth's husband.

 But what the film copped most criticisms over was the toning down of the novel's lesbianism between Idgie and Ruth. Many reviewers criticised the films removing of the novels lesbian content and yet the film won an award from GLAAD for ' best lesbian content '! Now as I stated I haven't read the novel and knew nothing about the film before I watched it. But as I did I immediately picked up on the fact that there was more to the ' friendship ' than the film went into it. Any viewer with any modicum of intelligence would be able to pick up on the underlying lesbian theme that is present.

 Whilst I understand the critics sentiments in the film underplaying this element, it must also be pointed out that if it was too obvious the less open minded in our world would have avoided seeing the film, and hence it would have failed commercially. I personally think the film found the right balance in not removing the lesbianism totally and yet leaving in just enough in regards to the novel. It may not be perfect but then our world's views towards such things aren't exactly perfect are they? But criticisms aside the script was nominated for an Oscar in Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. So it can't have been all that bad!!

 Fried Green Tomatoes then may be slightly flawed then in its novel to film delivery and its toning down of certain themes. But what it cannot be faulted on is the acting which is the films absolute highlight. If for nothing else the film will be remembered for this aspect. And even though Jessica Tandy was the only actress nominated for an Oscar ( Best Actress in a Supporting role ) in any respects her nomination spoke for all four leading females who are just superb. I cannot speak highly enough of the four of them. What makes this so is that they all gel onscreen. I mean the chemistry between Masterson's Idgie and Parker's Ruth is superb whilst subtly lesbian in nature. And then in the modern era that of Bates' Evelyn and Tandy's Ninny is just as good. The film may have its flaws but the acting is not one of them.

 I like this film. The criticism of it being conventional is somewhat founded but it more than makes up for this with four simply stunning performances by its four female leads. They are the heart of the film even the story is somewhat predictable and with a done before feel to it. But at the end of the day it is easy to find faults. I think Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe a fine film with more than enough going for it that I have no hesitation in saying WATCH IT!! It is now 20 years since its release and I now know why it was so well received and immensely popular buy all who saw it in 1991.

 IMDB has this with 7.4/10. I'd agree with that because it does have several flaws ( which I choose to ignore ). But that aside the story is strong enough to engage the viewer and I doubt if anyone who watches it will fail to comment on the quality of the acting afterwards.

Click here for a synopsis and more:


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Scorcese Magic Absent In Family Fantasy

 Here is another article from my local newspaper on Martin Scorsese's latest film Hugo. It isn't to be release until the 12th January here in NZ and to be honest it hasn't piqued my attention at all. What has got me though is that this article flys in the face of of the films 8.7/10 rating at IMDB. I suspect that it is just because it is new to audiences and over time it will drop as it becomes more familiar to viewers. But none the less this is a Martin Scorsese film and the reactions it has gathered are of interest to those who haven't seen it yet. Anyway on with the article!

 A founding legend of cinema has it that audiences jumped out of their seats in alarm when the LumiEre brothers first screened their 1895 film of a train arriving in a station. Cinema has been trying to get a comparable rise out of us ever since. Today, the method generally considered the fast track to big screen rapture is 3-D. Egregious overuse in the last two years has left us jaded about the possibilities - but you'd hope that, if anyone could do something special with it, it would be Martin Scorsese.

 Alas, the maestro's Hugo affords little real awe, which is particularly bitter, given that the film insistently tells us - often in so many words - that wonder, enchantment, dream are the very stuff of cinema. It's surprising to find Scorsese making 3-D family entertainment, but it's not that he's yielded to the rule of the impersonal blockbuster. For behind this whimsical tale of a waif in 1930's Paris, there lies a hidden agenda very close to the director's heart. Hugo is essentially a well-intentioned lantern lecture on the glories of silent cinema and the importance of film preservation.

 Young orphan Hugo Cabret ( Asa Butterfield ) lives in the maze of corridors and staircases behind the walls of the old Gare Montparnasse. There he makes two enemies  -  a cantankerous old toy vendor ( Ben Kingsley ) and the station inspector ( Sacha Baron Cohen ), a liveried martinet with a mechanical leg and attendant doberman. A spoiler warning is probably unnecessary, as many people will know the payoff from Brian Selznick's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a singular combination of text and intricate drawings. Together with the toy seller's goddaughter Isabelle ( Chloe Grace Moritz ), Hugo restores a mysterious automation and follows a trail that leads to one of cinema's greatest innovators, Georges Melies ( 1861 - 1938 ).

 A stage magician turned master of screen trompe I'oeil, Melies invented fantasy cinema - you could call his glass - walled studio the original DreamWorks. The best thing in Hugo is its evocation of Melies at work : in a shot that alone justifies the use of 3-D, technicians drop lobsters into a tank to evoke as underwater kingdom. The film's bottom line is its espousal of silent cinema : if any child emerges desperate to discover Buster Keaton, or search their grandparents' attic for long lost nitrate footage, Scorsese can count his job well done. But Hugo comes off badly by comparison with the golden oldies it celebrates.

 Overall Hugo is a sumptuous dud. In the railway station, Scorsese and team - including Robert Richardson and designer Dante Ferretti - have created a labyrinthine wonder, sometimes including authentic architectural vertigo .But the plot is a thin support for the film history class. Much of the station business consists of Hugo being chased through milling crowds, to laborious slapstick effect, by the vengeful inspector.

 What say you?

 I personally agree with the articles sentiment on the over use of 3-D in cinema today. I've been saying it for months but I know I'm not alone in thinking 3-D over used and over rated. I think most professional film critics and buffs feel the same way. It will be interesting over time to see where Hugo leads in cinema goers memories. At the moment it seems to be generating favourable reports and yet as this article shows not everyone is impressed. Just on what I have seen and read alone  it is a film that I suspect will not overly impress me.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Never Say Never Again

 1983's Never Say Never Again was a film conceived out of a long drawn out legal battle and petty mindedness. I have in previous Bond posts alluded to the legal battle over the novel Thunderball and the use of the character Ernst Blofeld and the organisation SPECTRE. Ian Fleming wrote the novel from an abandoned screenplay that he co-wrote with Kevin McClory. When published Fleming gave no credit to McClory for the use of his ideas which lead to McClory taking Fleming to court for breach of copyright. When Eon productions made Thunderball they made a deal with McClory which stipulated he could produce the film but not make his own version for a period of ten years afterwards.

 These legal wranglings are the reason why Blofeld and SPECTRE do not appear in any Bond film after Diamonds are Forever as Eon Productions were legally bound not to use them. Of course Blofeld makes a small re-appearance in 1981's For Your Eyes Only where he is forever written out of Eon films as Roger Moore's Bond unceremoniously dumps him down a chimney! This scene is not only a humorous scene to watch but also a very serious on screen ' fuck you ' to McClory and the legal battles he had fought over the character.

 All of which in a round about way brings me to the why Never Say Never Again was ever made. As you all know the film is not an official Bond film. But now that McClory had won his legal battle over his rights to the novel, and more than ten years had passed, the way was clear for him to make his version of it into a film. This is the sole reason for the films existence and nothing else. So in essence there is a certain degree of petty mindedness in McClory's decision to make the film. After all he had won his legal battle and the right to be identified as the creator of Blofeld and SPECTRE but what use was that to him? All he could do was make his own version of the novel and Never Say Never Again was the result.

 Over the years McClory had tried unsuccessfully to get a film off the ground. Those ongoing legal issues saw to that and it wasn't until the early 1980's that the way was clear. And then in stepped Sean ' never again ' Connery! After his 1971 quip ' never again ' when asked if would make another Bond film he reneged on it to make Never Say Never Again. His fee of US$3 million was to include a percentage of the profits, along with casting and script approval. Unfortunately I can't find anything else on Connery's motivations for returning as Bond for this film. Suffice to say though that no other actor was considered or even approached for the role.

 Somehow with this background it is no surprise the film had a troubled production. In fact it was so troubled that Connery himself had to take on production duties as producer Jack Schwartzman's lack of experience shone through. He was so poor that money ran out half way through filming and he had to finance the rest out of his own pocket. He later admited he had underestimated the cost to make such a film. Fortunately for him and all involved the film grossed US$160 million on its final cost of US$36 million.

 Never Say Never Again of course competed in the same year with official Bond release Octopussy. It is almost impossible then not to compare the two. For instance as Never Say Never Again ran to US$36 million to make Octopussy was made for less ( US$27.5 million ) and grossed US$187.5 million. So in every aspect the official Bond franchise knew how to make their own product for less but also how to gross more in the process. It goes to show that even having Sean Connery back as the most iconic, let alone preferred Bond, that the cinema going public backed the official Bond film far more that its rival. Fortunately for posterity no more unofficial Bond films have been made.

 I say fortunately because Never Say Never Again had the potential to forever scuttle and ruin the official Eon franchise. If more unofficial Bond films had followed to compete with Eon, then eventuality one would have been driven out of the Bond business, or both ( and hence Bond films as a whole ). Whilst I sympathise with Kevin McClory and his rights to the Thunderball novel I'm not overly impressed with the motivations behind the making of Never Say Never Again simply because of the potential trouble it could have brought to the future of the Bond films. Fortunately Never Say Never Again made a profit, starred an aging Sean Connery against an aging Roger Moore, but at the end of the day Eon really won through.

 Interestingly by the time of Octopussy Roger Moore himself was having a Sean Connery ' never again ' moment. His initial contract with Eon had been for three films after which he was contracted on a film by film basis. He had made it clear he wished to retire from the role after 1981's For Your Eyes Only his fifth Bond film. Many criticise Moore for apparently staying on in the role too long. But the reality was it wasn't his desire to do so as he was heavily pressured by Eon to remain. What many do not realise is that American actor ( and father of Josh ) James Brolin under went extensive screen tests for the role of Bond for Octopussy as Moore's replacement. But when Eon found out McClory and Connery were to remake Thunderball they re-contracted Moore as it was  felt he, as the established Bond, would be more than able to compete with McClory's film.

 As the figures show Moore in Octopussy did just that. Again I stress the importance to posterity that Octopussy outperformed Never Say Never Again and Moore must take huge credit for making the film when so reluctant to do so. I never saw Never Say Never Again when it was released in cinemas. In fact I never knew of its existence until it played on NZ telly several years later. Suffice to say though that I did see Octopussy and still consider it one of the better Roger Moore films. But then again I have a real soft spot for the Bond films of the early 1980's because they are the ones I saw first on the big screen and hence have retained a real affinity for.

 But in all reality how well do the two Bond films of 1983 stack up against other outside of money made, who wrote what script, and who played Bond? To be honest I think Octopussy the superior film of the two. Again Never Say Never Again is a little more than a Thunderball remake with some clever script changes to incorporate Connery's age ( ie the idea that the 00's were obsolete and James Bond an aging super hero ) whereas Octopussy was an original Bond story. Besides my reservations behind the motives for making the film there is enough about it to like. It is far from awful and in fact on release in 1983 was generally well received by critics worldwide.

 All the ingredients are there besides the plot. It has two Bond girls, a villain, SPECTRE and Blofeld, exotic locations and a theme song Never Say Never Again sung by Lani Hall. But because this was an unofficial Bond film the Bond theme is glaringly obvious for its absence as is the opening credits gun barrel sequence. Instead we get a screen full of 007! Personally I found a lot to like even though the idea of a 52 Connery/Bond having it off with a then 20 year old Kim Basinger/Domino Patachi didn't quite work. Otherwise the film has enough Bond going for it, even though Octopussy surpassed it in every way......but one. And that was in seeing Sean Connery back in his iconic role which showed the world yet again why he was considered the quintessential James Bond.

 Again to comparisons! IMDB has Never Say Never again with 6.1/10 and Octopussy with 6.5/10 ( I'd give them 6/10 and 7/10 respectively ). There isn't a lot between the two but even with IMDB ratings Octopussy beats its 1983 competitor, and rightly so in my opinion. I do like Never Say Never Again as a Bond film. It is certainly a better film than several of the official Eon productions and it was great to see Sean Connery back in the role he defined. But besides liking it as a stand alone film I totally dislike both Kevin McClory's and Sean Connery's motivations for making it. There is a degree of pettiness about it all. Even though Connery is the best Bond of them all it was disappointing he returned to the role in an unofficial film that threw the proverbial brown stuff at Eon. It was a sad attitude to take with Connery's end as Bond to my mind ( fortunately his wink at the end of the film really did signal ' never again ' !!! ).

 In a word.....interesting for Connery's return but not as good as it's official rival.

 Click here for wikipedia's comprehensive page on the film:

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Corpse Bride

 Every so often there comes along a film that for what ever reason you failed to see on the big screen and regretted having done so. Tim Burton's 2005 stop-motion-animated feature Corpse Bride is one such film for me. I can't recall the reason why I missed this (but even worse )  last night was the first time I had ever watched it!! This is most unusual because I like Tim Burton's films, especially 1999's wonderful dark gothic styled Sleepy Hollow and I have a real soft spot for 1996's satirical Mars Attacks!.

 Now the type of animation Corpse Bride uses isn't for everyone and can be a somewhat acquired taste. Fortunately though it somehow perfectly fits Burton's vision of darkness, gloom, and quirkiness that are his hallmarks. In saying that stop-motion-animation is somehow more suited to tales of a darker nature than more traditional animation seems to be. For instance 2009's Coraline which was supposedly a children's feature, and yet in all reality was far from it. Even as an adult I found it unsettling and wondered how on earth anyone could consider it solely a children's film.

 As stated this type of animation isn't for all and yet on release Corpse Bride was both a financial and critical success grossing just shy of US$117.2 million worldwide. All of which reinforces an argument which I have been making for years in that animation is not the strict domain of children alone. Corpse Bride is proof of this because there is no way it is suitable for children and wasn't aimed at them at all. It is an adult orientated feature and judging by its commercial success was well received by its target audience. This fixation with animation being strictly a children's medium really annoys me because it just isn't. To be sure there are features that are aimed at children alone as this years ( both awful ) Yogi Bear and Hop show. But in all reality it is a medium for all. It is just once in a while that a film maker ( thankfully ) makes an animated feature for adults alone that reminds us of this.

 Corpse Bride went on to be nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar but was comprehensively beaten by Wallace & Gromit : The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. In fact Wallace & Gromit dominated that years animation awards claiming no less than 10 Oscars!! It is hard to dis-agree with the Academy's assessment of Wallace & Gromit over Corpse Bride because it was doing stop-motion-animation well before Burton's film. In the process it set the standard for this type of animation. But none the less just the fact it was nominated shows that Corpse Bride is a notable animated feature. In fact it was even nominated for the AFI's Top 100 animated features. Exclusive company to even be nominated for indeed!

 But what is all about?! Corpse Bride is a comedy/fantasy/horror/ musical all rolled into one. The story is set in an un-named Victorian era village somewhere in Europe. It revolves around the marriage of the son of merchants ( Victor voiced by Johnny Depp )  to the daughter ( Victoria, voiced by Emily Watson ) of cold snobby aristocrats who have lost their money .The marriage is intended to lift the social status of Victor's parents and restore the wealth of Victoria's. The young couple have never met but when they do fall in love at first sight. Unfortunately Victor's bumbling nervousness sees him unable to complete the wedding rehearsals and he flees into a nearby forest.

 Here the fun and games begin because unknowingly Victor, in practising the vows, places the ring on what he supposes is a dead branch, which in fact is the finger of a dead bride. Victor finally gets the vows right and lo and behold out of the ground pops his bride, Emily....a corpse ( voiced by Helen Bonham Carter ) Suffice to say she takes him off to the under world where he tries to explain his mistake and she tries to keep him. One thing leads to another in both worlds. With Victor's supposed elopement Victoria is married off to the sinister Lord Barkis Bittern who it turns out murdered Emily on the night of her marriage. On learning of Victoria's marriage Victor decides to marry Emily by drinking a potion that will stop his heart and make him dead like her.
 Suffice to say the story is a bitter-sweet one for just as Victor is to drink the potion the wedding is interrupted and Victoria turns up followed by Lord Barkis. The truth of his former marriage and murder of Emily is revealed and he inadvertently drinks Victor's potion and dies. Emily is set free and Victor and Victoria are free to marry. Overall the premise isn't overly original as bitter-sweet tales like this have been told for centuries. It reminded me of certain aspects of Romeo and Juliet in how mis-understandings led to a sad ending ( of which Corpse Bride almost ended as ). I believe though that Corpse Bride itself was loosely based on a tale from Jewish folklore.

 Corpse Bride is very much Tim Burton at his macabre best. The humour is typically black and yet it is a tale that is both bitter and sweet. What I personally liked about the whole feature was how Burton had the living in a virtually colourless drab world whereas the dead where in colour and in a more joyful, fun place. To be sure he is replicating the snobbery and evil of Victor and Victoria's parents ( along with that of Lord Barkis ) and their world, but I thought this a very clever touch. I really liked how the dead were all coloured blue just as a fresh corpse is! Again a great touch.

 My only criticism is that I didn't like the musical element. It is very much a feature of animation but I found myself unengaged by the singing in this even the humouress scenes during it were worth watching.

 This then is a simply stunning piece of adult animation. I really regret not having seen it on the big screen when it played here but that is the way it goes sometimes. But I have finally seen it. And even though on the small screen it is still impressive enough to dazzle and show why Tim Burton is the modern master of dark gloomy gothic driven macabre films. For me he, along with Quentin Tarantino, are the two leading film makers in the world today, simply because they are always ahead of the pack in the use of new and interesting film making techniques.

 IMDB has this with 7.4/10. I'm more inclined to give it at least 8.5/10 for being so well animated. The premise isn't overly original but the visuals are its main focus against which the plot is set. The voice cast is long and prestigious which adds to its overall quality as well. I mean can you complain at Joanna Lumley, Christopher Lee, Tracy Ullman and Albert Finney?!!!! It is hard to believe though that such a masterful animated work such as this was bettered that year by an English inventor with a smart dog and the tale of a were-rabbit!!

Click here for a synopsis and more:

 Here for more:

And here for the official site:


 Once in a while we all strike a film that is is all but obscure and yet deserves better. 2006's biographical docudrama Hollywoodland is one such film. I watched it last night on late night TV and was surprised I had never heard of it. But what really hit home was how such a fine film can become all but forgotten and overlooked so quickly. I wouldn't say it is a masterpiece, let alone a modern day classic, but with its fine cast and intelligent look at the events it surrounds it deserves better.

 The film is a look at the death of George Reeves and the controversy surrounding it. For you not in the know Reeves was the actor who played Superman n the 1950's TV show Adventures of Superman. In 1959 he was found dead in his bedroom from a gunshot wound to the head. It was ruled as suicide but many believed he was murdered.  Some even think it was a result of an accidental shooting. Either way to this day the controversy has polarized opinions. What the film concentrates on ( in a fictional way ) on is the investigation, specifically that by a down on his luck private investigator.

 The investigator Louis Simo is played by Adrien Brody and is loosely based on a real detective Milo Speriglio who worked on the case. As mentioned the film is a fictional look at the events and there are numerous historical liberates taken. To be sure with Reeves death still uncertain in many peoples eyes it could never really genuinely show the truth. But like so many films of this sort it attempts to show what may possibly have happened without purporting to be the truth. For me when I read of the background to Reeves death there are only three ways he died. From suicide, accident or murder.

 The film through Brody's excellent acting and portrayal of  investigator Simo explores the immediate life of Reeves leading up to his death. In life Reeves had an affair with Toni Mannix ( played by Diane Lane ) the wife of studio executive of MGM Edie Mannix ( played by an excellent Bob Hoskins ). One of the theories surrounding the death of Reeves was that he was murdered on Mannix's instructions because he dumped Toni for a younger woman. Apparently the real Eddie Mannix had gangland connections and was implicated in the made to look like an accident murder of his first wife. He was also suspected of being involved in other deaths but nothing was ever proven.

 The second theory is that he was accidentally shot by his girlfriend who he took up with after Toni Mannix. Funnily enough it was Mannix who gave Reeves the pistol ( a 9mm Luger ) from which he died! Apparently after the shot was heard the other occupants of his house took 45 minutes before ringing the police. This is where all the speculation arises as to the possibilities outside of suicide. It was a strange event and one can see why people believe there was a cover up of sorts. And then there is the films finale which shows the unhappiness Reeves life had spiralled down into and the more probable explanation of his death being one of simple suicide.

 The film looks at each scenario through flashbacks at known events that may have contributed to Reeves death. Besides his breaking off with Toni Mannix there was the fact that his acting career was going no where. Many films that use the technique of jumping between time streams can somewhat feel clumsy, but credit where credit is due because I felt Hollywoodland done it very effectively. The past was instantly recognisable when Ben Affleck who played George Reeves was on screen. The film starts with the investigation of Reeve's death and the hiring of Simo by Reeve's mother after the police rule suicide. The thing here though is that whilst the film contains historical liberties it appears none were taken with the police investigation or the more factual side of things.

 This makes the film work. Because as stated it isn't trying to sway opinions but leave the viewer in an ambiguous state of mind as to what really happened and who actually pulled the trigger if it wasn't Reeves himself. The film though does end with it all but saying it was more than probable suicide and suicide alone. So often film like this over emphasis points or try to sway thew viewer towards it own point of view. But once in a while a film that is based on events where the outcome is uncertain comes along that does it right. One example is the excellent Zodiac of a few years ago where the film attempted to establish the identify of a murderer from the available evidence. It done it superbly and Hollywoodland does exactly the same thing from the available evidence but dramatises it a bit more, especially in regards to Louis Simo.

 Holywoodland then is a noteworthy film of its type. It has a fine cast all of who put in excellent performances and it is a shame that as film it isn't better known. The thing is that it turned in a profit on release, and received positive responses from critics. It was even thought by many to be an Oscar contender but didn't receive any nominations at all. Hollywoodland is yet another example of how a very good film can be intelligently realised, include a fine cast who put in excellent performances, and yet all but disappear into obscurity. I won't say it is a truly great film but it is of better quality than many films Hollywood churns out in a year. If you find this on DVD or it plays on TV then I urge you to watch it because I'm sure that like myself it will more than satisfy.

  In intelligently, well made film in the Zodiac mold even though a more fictionalised look at the events it portrays. The cast is excellent with real standouts from Adrien Brody and Ben Affleck. It is well worth your while. IMDB has this with a disappointing 6.6/10. I'm more inclined to give it a 7.5/10 at least.

George Reeves and Ben Affleck who plays him.
 Click here for a synopsis and more:

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Thursday, December 1, 2011


 I've only been reading American history for about 11 years now. Before 2000 I wasn't interested in the US of A at all as Europe's long history had me engrossed. But that all changed when I picked out a battered old 1960's biography on JFK at my local library. I read it and then suddenly ripped through the entire ( and substantial ) Kennedy section before I knew it. From there I've dabbled in the Revolution and the Civil War. But my main interest has been the block of presidents from FDR through to RMN's resignation. That whole period of American history is what has gripped my fascination the most. Pity my degree in general history didn't include one paper on US history. In fact it was 24 papers on banal crap that was a damned expensive chore to complete!

 Of course my number interest is in military history. So FDR is also tied in with WW2, Truman the tail end of WW2 and the Korean War. Then Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon with Vietnam. So anything about these six presidents is of interest to me. But Nixon must rate as the one that has piqued me the most. I've read more on Kennedy and his family, but believe Nixon the far superior politician. Nixon is of so much interest is obviously because of Watergate, which exposed the abuse of power and his flawed personality. To be sure Nixon achieved many things as president, especially in opening up China, but when looking at Nixon the shadow of Watergate hangs over all.

 So when I saw the poster to this film in 2008 I wet my lips in anticipation. Funnily enough I had just finished David Frost's memoir on the Nixon interviews entitled ' I Gave Them a Sword ' ( a line Nixon uses in the film ). It may seem strange to many that a film about a disgraced former US president would find an audience in NZ. But find an audience it did. In fact it reached #6 at the box office and stayed there for several weeks. What I found interesting was the session I went to was made up almost entirely of those old enough to have lived through Watergate and seen the Frost Nixon interviews. It just goes to show that Nixon may be gone but his legacy/infamy still fascinates many people worldwide.

 This Ron Howard film adaptation is based on a 2006 play of the same name. It also starred Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in their respective roles as David Frost and Richard Nixon. I believe the play was very well received and won numerous awards and nominations. So in many respects it was no surprise it was then adapted to film as many successful plays are ( A Streetcar Named Desire being a good example ). And like its play counterpart the film adaptation received its share of awards etc being nominated for no less than 5 Oscars ( Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing ) Of those five it won none. This is unfortunate, because even though the film is historically flawed, it has a stand out performance from Langella who, I feel, was terribly over looked for Best Actor in favour of Sean Penn in Milk. To be sure Penn was great, and Milk is a fine film, but for me Langella's was the better performance.

 But for all its Oscar nominations I'm not sure how financially successful the film was. I've looked up the figures on wikipedia which says it grossed US$27.5 million worldwide on a budget of ( supposedly ) US$25 million. Those are not particularly over whelming figures are they? I mean compare to the Us$18 million worldwide gross of NZ film The World's Fastest Indian ( which I reviewed two weeks ago )  That of Frost/Nixon is extremely modest to say the least. The good thing here though is that the film is judged on its quality and not its financial return. It may not have raked in big bucks but it was a fine film none the less.

 Luckily for the film also is that it wasn't judged on its historical accuracy. On release many Nixon-ophiles/historians alike criticised the films dramatic license taking (  the only real flaw in another wise excellent film ). The historical inaccuracies and license taking make for a fine script and viewing. But for those wanting a true blow by blow account of the interviews will feel aggrieved and let down by them. I am usually a stickler for accuracy in historical films, but once in a while I do recognise the whys of dramatic license taking.

 I won't go too deep into the inaccuracies etc as wikipedia's page on the film is a good enough place if you want to read more on them. But there is one scene that stands out for me, being both inaccurate, and yet in context to the theme of the interviews. I refer to the scene where Langella's Nixon rings Sheen's Frost late at night after a few stiff ones. In reality this phone call never happened. And yet it is a fact that in the later stages of the Watergate scandal Nixon was known to ring associates late at night after a few drinks and have no re-collection of having done so the next day ( Richard Nixon was well known for being unable to hold his liquor and it didn't take a lot to get him tipsy ).

 The scene may be historically incorrect but what it did in a scriptually great way was to show how important to both Frost and Nixon the intewviews were. If one or the other failed then they were out in the wilderness forever and both knew it.  Frost had invested his own money in the project and if it failed then his career was over. Conversely if Nixon came out of it smelling of exonerated roses then he could have climbed back into political favour, especially after Gerald Ford's mis-guided pardon.

 Like I say completely inaccurate. But in its way it brings home to the viewer what both Frost and Nixon hoped to get out of the interviews. Nixon wanted back into political life. Frost wanted a confession and the money it would bring in. The other inaccuracy is the how overplayed the last interview on Watergate was enacted. Apparently in reality Frost went quite easy on Nixon and reigned in his fierce interviewing technique. By doing so he was able to get more out of Nixon that Nixon would have otherwise divulged. Partisans on both sides question the accuracy of the script but that aside it is a fine example of dramatising history. 

 So the script is flawed historically, but none the less it is a worth while watch. The cast is truly excellent and there isn't a dud performance to be seen. To be sure Sheen and Langella were reprising their stage roles, and knew them inside out, but the support cast isn't lost next to them. I mean look at these names, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones, and Oliver Platt. Seriously how can  go wrong with such a cast? Again there are questions about some of the historical aspects though,  such as the stern character played by Bacon. Apprently his character of Nixon aide, Jack Brennan, wasn't as stern being more reserved and gentle.

  Of course ultimately the film is about Sheen's Frost and Langella's Nixon. I thought Michael Sheen excellent as the playboy television entertainer David Frost. He pulls of the sleaziness of Frost and his playboy ways perfectly. But again some of that must be taken with a grain of salt historically. The only criticism I have read on Sheen's performance is from one critic who wrote Sheen was all ' frozen smiles '. Conversely another critic commented that both he and Langella went beyond just mimicking their characters and ' embodied them '. I'm not sure about Sheen's Frost as I've never really seen a lot of him. But I've read enough ( and seen footage ) on Nixon that Langella really did become Nixon himself. Langella, like many good actors,  did his research for the role by visiting the Nixon library and speaking to numerous experts. On set the cast and crew even went as far as to call him ' Mister President ' to get him into the role!!!

 I think his performance simply stunning. One critic summed it up perfectly stating ' the final scenes, Langella has all but disappeared as to deliver up Nixon himself. ' I couldn't have put it better. For me as a Nixon-ophile and historian ( as such ! ) I really like this film. Sure it is flawed in that it tinkers around with historical fact to make the film more dramatic. But I can overlook that because Frank Langella's performance alone as Richard Milhouse Nixon is reason enough to watch this film. It is very rare that an actor gets into the person they are playing, but Langlella does so in a superb piece of acting. The whole cast is good without being lost next to Sheen and Langella, the editing is note worthy ( hence the Oscar nomination ). Overall the film does well at showing the background to Nixon's resignation, the negotiations for the interviews, and the interviews themselves. The interviews in which the American people came as close as they ever going to get in recieving an apology from Nixon.

  IMDB has this with 7.8/10. It may be inaccurately flawed but it captures the feel and flavour of the events. If for nothing else that is what the film attempted to do rather than a provide a straight out historically factual portrayal. So in the end a fine and very solid film of which I'd give a 8/10 for its overall quality. Without question though I'd give Frank Langella a perfect 10/10, for not only playing Nixon so well, but for being as close as it was possible to becoming the man himself.

If you want to know more about the film's historical inaccuracies then go to wikipedia's page on the film. Towards the bottom is a good piece on them.

But click here for a synopsis and more:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Brother Bear

 When we think of Disney's animated features titles like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, The Jungle Book, Aladdin, The Lion King, and even Tangled immediately spring to mind. But think on this. In 2003 Brother Bear was Disney's 44th animated feature, and yet I bet you cannot name, let alone say you have seen them all. I certainly can't and yet I love animation. In fact I was shocked to find out that in 2003 Disney had made 44 animated features.

 Well before last night I had never heard of Brother Bear! I stumbled across it last night whilst rummaging around in the cabinet below the telly. At first I wasn't interested simply because I and never heard of it. But into the DVD player it went and afterwards some 'net searching did I do! What I found out surprised me. I was shocked by how many animated features Disney have made of which I know nothing about. I mean Brother Bear is only 8 years old and yet I don't recall this playing at my local cinema.

 The thing here is that this is a feature that grossed US$250 million world wide and yet has all but slipped into relative obscurity. In many respects it has suffered the same fate as 2008's Bolt in being a financial success without capturing the viewers imagination. I think this is because like Bolt it is a one watch unremarkable animated feature. It is a film that just doesn't stay in your mind except maybe in re-calling that it was somewhat.....bland?

 What is surprising is that it was nominated for two Oscars ( one of which was for Best Animated feature ). It really had no hope of winning when you realise it was up against Finding Nemo, which is to be honest, the far superior feature. To be sure it isn't a case of computer over hand drawn animation but one of Finding Nemo being more original overall, if not more striking. On release for instance Brother Bear was criticised for retreading ground from the likes of The Lion King and parallels to Ice Age. The criticisms are valid up to a point. There is a definite Lion King feel at times, but the comparison between it and Ice age are unfounded because Brother Bear was in production BEFORE Ice Age.

 Other interesting facts include the fact that this was the last hand drawn animated feature to come from Disney. This is probably because of the success of Finding Nemo. Again if you compare Brother Bear against Finding Nemo it must be said hand drawn animation was looking somewhat dated. In all reality to survive Disney had to make the switch to keep competing. I'm a fan of hand drawn over computer generated but what got me as I watched Brother Bear last night was how it looked older than its 8 years. It really did hit me just how quickly I have gotten used to computer animation.

 In all honesty though I don't think the quality of the hand drawn animation in Brother Bear is of previous Disney efforts. It isn't poor but it just isn't quite there either. At times it is quite jerky and to my eye looked like a straight to DVD feature from a minor studio of limited budget. One thing about the animation really bothered me right throughout, and that was the mouth of young bear cub Koda. That's right his mouth! In profile it looked more like a monkey's than a bear's! Seriously watch it as it doesn't look at all like a bear's mouth but a primates. I found this highly distracting and reinforced my feeling that the animation overall in Brother Bear wasn't quite there. At times it looked somewhat sloppy.

 Besides that there are other elements lacking. Generally speaking all Disney features have a good dollop of humour thrown in. But in Brother Bear there was decided lack of it. I mean in its entire 80 minute running time I laughed only once. It is not that it is overly serious in tone it is just that the intended humour doesn't come off. For instance the two squabbling, bumbling Moose brothers don't have the humour of past Disney comic characters. Even the dialogue between the characters was somewhat bland. I particularly found Koda's runaway, smart arse-mouth approach, more tiresome than humourous.

 Another thing in the film had me frowning as well. It was the copious amounts of head slapping of the human characters. I'm not sure this is appropriate in a film aimed at children. Animated features are renowned for promoting morals and values, and yet here is all this slapping going on. It sort of demeaned the message the film otherwise had and it felt out of place to me. But if you overlook the low level violence the story and moral are typical Disney.

 Over all then it must be said that even though Brother Bear was a financial success it hasn't stuck around. The fact an animation fan such as myself hadn't previously heard of it says a lot. This isn't a bad feature but it is far from Disney's best. All the ingredients are certainly there but they don't come together. The animation is lacking in the usual Disney quality and it shows because at times the film looks jerky. The humour is also absent which is unusual for a Disney film because it is a real staple of the studios animated features. I can't say I like or disliked Brother Bear. But to be honest I found too much to criticise than I would have liked to have.

 IMDB has this with 6.6/10. I'm more prone to give it 5/10 simply for it being so unremarkable. Sure it looks and feels like a Disney animated feature but it just isn't one of the studios best...far from it. Something is palpably lacking. Maybe the fact its sequel went straight to DVD says something in itself??

 In a word......Bland.

Click here for a synopsis and more: