Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: February 2010

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Best Films of the 00s: 2006

by Tony Dayoub

My apologies for being sidetracked from this popular series of posts, but I had some obligations I needed to fulfill with some of my other writing. However, with most other lists of this kind having been wrapped up for some time now—and Hollywood's own celebration of the films of 2009 approaching in the form of the Oscars—I am feeling some pressure to finish this survey of the best films of the decade. Once again, a reminder that I can't judge movies I haven't seen (which was entirely possible in 2006 since my first son had just been born, and we had just relocated to a different state). So if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I just never got to it. But definitely suggest it in the comments section below.

So now, without further ado, and in alphabetical order, the ten best films of 2006...

Bug, director William Friedkin - A return to form for Friedkin (The Exorcist), a director many had written off long ago. This chilling film, based on Tracy Letts' play, benefits greatly from Michael Shannon's breakout performance. Bug also recalls a little seen Nicolas Roeg film, Track 29 (1988), about a lonely woman bonding with a mysterious drifter who may be the son she gave up for adoption when she was a teenager. In this iteration, Ashley Judd does an outstanding job playing down her usually glamorous looks to play a devastated woman whose son disappeared years ago. Her fragile state of mind contributes to the bond forged between her and Shannon's unhinged entomophobic.

Casino Royale, dir. Martin Campbell - Sure, it would be simple to credit actor Daniel Craig for reinvigorating the stale, old character of superspy 007. He does bring a callous brutality which hasn't been seen in Bond since Sean Connery played the part nearly 50 years ago. But Campbell 's practically revelatory direction of the film goes further in breaking the formulaic rut this series was stuck in. Minimizing the silly gadgetry, bringing in a strong supporting cast (including Eva Green and Giancarlo Giannini), and making the normally impervious secret agent a thuggish rookie are a few things that help. The pivotal decision, however, was in filming a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Ian Fleming's first 007 story, a small-scale battle of wits with global implications set over a card table.

Children of Men, dir. Alfonso Cuarón - What are the chances such a deeply humanistic film would also turn out to be the most important science fiction film since perhaps, Blade Runner (1982)? Set in an Earth dying by fits and starts, the story of Theo Faron (Clive Owen) and his mission to transport a mother and her baby—the first born in over 18 years—is profound, emotionally resonant, and tightly paced. So one can be forgiven if Emmanuel Lubezki's fantastic camerawork is overlooked amidst the constant stream of action. There are at least three single-take shots—one shot of a climactic battle runs over 6 minutes—which will have you scratching your head and wondering, "How'd they do that?"

The Departed, dir. Martin Scorsese - Neither the horrible film most of its detractors call it, nor the best film on Scorsese's resume—as its box office receipts and awards would suggest—this gritty cop thriller is just a well manufactured genre piece. Most times it is these boilerplate productions which reveal more of the director's strengths than the more complex fare. In this case, those virtues are his mastery over an ensemble cast (Damon, DiCaprio, Baldwin, Farmiga, Sheen, Wahlberg, Winstone, and the inimitable Jack Nicholson) and his ability to keep the story focused despite the potential for some serious sidetracking into the culture and customs of criminals and cops in the city of Boston.

The Fountain, dir. Darren Aronofsky - Aronofsky's most underrated film is probably his best. This triptych stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as past, present, and future paramours investigating the scientific and metaphysical aspects of the Tree of Life. The movie's startling imagery is on a par with the best that science fiction cinema has ever offered us. And the intertwining romance still resonates long after the memory of the film's spectacular dreamscape has faded.

Inland Empire, dir. David Lynch - After spending an incredible amount of time deciphering Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (successfully, I believe), the disappointment that emerges with the evaporation of all the mystery is not something I care to repeat with any Lynch movie. So with this one, I resign myself to deliberate head-scratching. Perhaps it's his most self-indulgent exercise since the ultimate student film, Eraserhead (a thesis film which he spent 5 years making); so indulgent, it often borders on the self-parodic (six-foot-tall bunnies, anyone?). But at least this one has one of the decade's greatest performances going for it, a dual one by Laura Dern as both an actress and the physical manifestation of the role she plays in the film-within-the film she stars in.

Inside Man, dir. Spike Lee - This tense heist flick echoes Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Not surprising, since Lee has previously acknowledged the veteran New York director's influence on his work. Like in the earlier film, the motive for the bank robbery is behind a surprising turn two-thirds of the way in. And like in that film, Lee is unafraid to inject social issues in an otherwise average thriller to keep the pot simmering. Clive Owen and Denzel Washington are effective antagonists.

Miami Vice, dir. Michael Mann - From a comment I left at Jake's recent review at Not Just Movies:
... Scarface was a major influence on Mann's first incarnation of Vice, which echoed a lot of the pastel colors, art deco production design, and synthesized music from De Palma's film. Vice in turn played a big part in turning Miami into "...a bit of a carelessly painted-over dump...all the time using [the film's] color scheme to undermine the hollow allure of the city."* Much of the revitalization and gentrification of South Beach began with and was coordinated by Vice's TV production crews looking to glamourize the area for location shooting. Ironically, Mann closes the circle with the movie's depiction of a city leading a double life, one which was unintendedly initiated by his vision of the city to begin with.
*Quote taken from Jake's review.

The Prestige, dir. Christopher Nolan - This is Jackman's second appearance this year in a young director's best film. So why can't he connect outside of fantasy-inflected efforts? Well, there is a certain hamminess inherent in his style that lends itself to larger-than-life roles like superheroes (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) or showmen (this film). Kenneth Branagh might want to reserve a space for him in his next Shakespeare adaptation. Anyway, Nolan's tricky film never cheats as it skillfully explores his favorite themes of duality and deception in a rivalry between two turn-of-the-century stage magicians. Bonus points for finagling an extended cameo from David Bowie.

The Queen, dir. Stephen Frears - This sometimes humorous depiction of the British royals begins just before Tony Blair's election win and segues right into the week that Princess Diana died. Michael Sheen continues his portrayal of Blair begun in the first part of screenwriter Peter Morgan's triptych, The Deal, and to be concluded in HBO's upcoming The Special Relationship. But the real star here is Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth. While almost all of the insular royals are shown here to be completely out of touch with their subjects' feelings over Di's passing, Mirren's Queen often reveals a "common touch," attributed to her time serving in uniform during WWII. Morgan's sarcasm towards the royals is leavened by Frears' rather sympathetic view towards them, best illustrated in a quietly beautiful scene where the Queen is confronted by a 14-point stag on the grounds of her estate. Her grief when she hears of the stag's death later on reveals how deeply she identified with him and her awareness that the monarchy is slowly being phased out of existence.

For more of this ongoing series, click here.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Blu-ray Roundup: Shock Value

by Tony Dayoub

WARNING: Read at your own risk. This post includes SPOILERS.

I once took one of those screenwriting seminars with Robert McKee. You know, the guy Brian Cox plays in Adaptation (2003). Yeah, that guy is real. And he makes loud pronouncements in life much the same way he does in Spike Jonze's film. Subscribe too closely to his inspiring platitudes and you run the risk of producing a very mainstream commercial script, which I guess is the point since this seminar purports to help you write a script that sells. A lot of his admonitions are common sense, just put in a context which doesn't often come to mind.

One of those bits of guidance involves what he calls "turning." To hold a story's audience, the story must "turn." Frequently. I think screenwriter William Goldman refers to it as the "reversal." Goldman uses an example of it in his fascinating book, Adventures in the Screen Trade. He talks of the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) in which Katharine Ross walks into her home at night to find Robert Redford waiting in the shadows with his gun drawn. She freezes, and he makes some sexually threatening remarks as he orders her to undress. She begins to do so, and there is some phallic business with the gun (stuff that wouldn't play so well today, admittedly). While it is initially disturbing to see our hero behave like a deviant, a lot of this is defused when Ross finally says, "Know what I wish? That once you'd get here on time." The reversal, turn, or twist as I'll refer to it, is what draws you in. And the most masterful directors know when and how to employ the twist to maximum dramatic effect.

Long before M. Night Shyamalan robbed the "climactic" twist of its power by fashioning a career relying on it, director William Friedkin made what has become a cult classic that completely depends on it for the film to succeed. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) plays like your typical eighties cop thriller for roughly 105 of its tight 116 minutes. Most of it is rife with cliches: a Secret Service agent's obsessive pursuit of a counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe); his questionable methods, dangerous not only to his partner (John Pankow) but to innocent bystanders as well; his unethical relationship with a hot CI (Darlanne Fluegel). If it weren't for the interesting tweaks like the slick Miami Vice-like cinematography by Robby Muller, a surprisingly classic soundtrack by Wang Chung, and Friedkin's often subliminal inserts (as in The Exorcist), the movie would play like warmed over French Connection (1971). But the last minute twist of hero William L. Petersen's demise-by-gigantic-shotgun-hole-to-the-head instantly reframes his character's relentless hunt as the self-centered, addictive search of an adrenaline junkie looking for his next fix. Watch the film again immediately after you finish it, and you'll see Friedkin doesn't cheat. He loads the movie with foreshadowing, but you're so conditioned to accept the way such films usually turn out you ignore all the clues.

The Last King of Scotland (2006) brings its shocking twist in a little earlier. If you know your history, it's no surprise the often congenial Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) is more paranoid than he initially lets on to his Scottish sycophant, Nick Garrigan (James McAvoy). But a dumb affair with one of Amin's wives, Kay (Kerry Washington) serves to wake Nick up to the true danger of Amin while he is perched precariously at the top of Ugandan govenment. After Kay becomes pregnant, and is unable to find a safe way to terminate the pregnancy without Amin's knowledge, she risks going to local tribesmen. Nick is too late to stop her, instead finding her naked corpse, its arms and legs chopped off and sewn back onto the corpse in reverse. The gruesome shot of the body only appears in the film for a few frames, but it is enough to supercharge the movie as it heads towards its conclusion. A little research, however, reveals that the film's implication that Amin butchered his wife is not concrete. Speculation is that she died as a result of the botched abortion, and was dismembered by her lover (another doctor, not the fictional Garrigan) in order to make the disposal of her body easier.

Criterion's newest release, the Oscar-nominated Revanche (2008) by Götz Spielmann, gives us a twist on the twist. Rather than save it for its last act, it is the motivating factor that propels the protagonist into the moral dilemma that occupies the majority of the film. Its early scenes seem to set up a tale of moral compromises involving the Ukrainian prostitute Tamara(Irina Potapenko) and her good-hearted lover, ex-con Alex (Johannes Krisch) who decide to rob a bank in order to escape their bleak life in the slums of Vienna. Though Alex doesn't even load his gun for the robbery, keeping his promise to Tamara to avoid violence, the same can't be said about the cop (Andreas Lust) the couple runs into as they make their getaway. A faulty aim as the cop fires at the getaway car changes the dynamic of the whole film from a banal lovers-on-the-lam story to a meditation on fate, culpability, and coincidence still haunting me over a week after I first saw it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon - Sherlock Holmes (1922)

by Tony Dayoub

This is a contribution to For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon being led by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme, aka The Siren, at The Self-Styled Siren.

With all the hype surrounding the release of yet another iteration of Sherlock Holmes this past Christmas, many might have overlooked a rare cinephilic treat related to its attendant publicity. Turner Classic Movies celebrated the character—one of (if not) the most often depicted in cinema—with a day-long marathon of his films. From Basil Rathbone to Peter Cushing, most of the actors that have played the eccentric detective were represented. The most interesting film was reserved for TCM's regular Silent Sunday showcase, the 1922 Sherlock Holmes starring the renowned John Barrymore as the eponymous sleuth. This was the television debut of the previously lost silent, restored by the George Eastman House with the help of the National Film Preservation Foundation in 2001.

Sherlock Holmes is representative of why the NFPF's work (as well as that of countless other cinematic archives too numerous to mention) is so important in preserving our cinematic heritage. According to their website, "fewer than 20% of U.S. feature films from the 1920s survive in complete form in American archives; of the American features produced before 1950, only half still exist." As it stands, this 85-minute cut of Holmes, the most complete version yet, still has sections that are pretty clearly missing (sometimes even in the middle of a scene) and perhaps lost forever. The George Eastman House's work on this film give movie enthusiasts of all stripes another portal into the past, and it was made possible with a grant from the NFPF.

If you are a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary creation, you will learn that this silent is one of the least faithful interpretations of the character. The film begins with Holmes as a young college student, making the acquaintance of a classmate by the name of Watson. He still hasn't found a line of work suitable for his unique deductive talents. But a mystery crops up, one which he won't be able to solve for years despite knowing that a Professor Moriarty (played by a frightening Gustav von Seyffertitz) is somehow behind it. And in working the case he'll meet the love of his life, Alice Faulkner (Carol Dempster). Yes, you heard right. Holmes falls in love. Who knew that a film made while Holmes' author Doyle was still alive could somehow depict the character less accurately than Guy Ritchie does with Robert Downey, Jr. in the role?

Well, disappointed Holmes aficionados aside, movie buffs can find plenty to appreciate in the film. The American movie is one of the few silents to have done extensive location work in London. And though the setting isn't period accurate to Doyle's stories, it is historically fascinating to see early automobiles and telephones in use by the characters and in the background. Also of note is Barrymore's performance. The contemplative, stoic detective elicits a subdued portrayal from the usually theatrical Barrymore (Grand Hotel), one more palatable to today's audiences than the ones typically found in his other films. 1922 was the year that Barrymore would give his best regarded stage performance as Hamlet. The female lead, Dempster, makes a rare appearance in a film outside of her collaborations with mentor and lover, D.W. Griffith (Intolerance). Future Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper has a small but pivotal appearance in the film as a woman working for Moriarty. But most interesting is the fact that Sherlock Holmes features the debuts of two actors who would go on to greater acclaim in the future.
Roland Young, who plays Dr. Watson, would go on to some measure of fame for his Oscar-nominated role as the titular Topper(1937). And in the part of the confidential informant, Foreman Wells, is an actor who went on to portray a famous detective in his own right, William Powell.

The greatest crime is to ignore the fact that even flawed films such as Sherlock Holmes provide immeasurable value in the amount of opportunities one is offered to learn about the cultural, social, and historical details so unique to our continuing cinematic legacy.

Please donate any amount you can to support the efforts of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing:
Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Movie Review: The Wolfman (2010)

by Tony Dayoub

Oh, how I wanted to like The Wolfman. I was so excited when I saw the trailer, I even ran a post suggesting it looked more exciting than Avatar (I totally deserve to get the boot for that one). Not only does it star one of my favorite actors, Benicio Del Toro. Not only does its imagery evoke the expressionistic chiaroscuro scenes of the old Universal horror flicks AND the repressed (at least some of the time) eroticism of the Hammer horror movies. It is also the return of one of my favorite cinematic monsters, the werewolf.

There is something tragic about the werewolf, a man (or even woman as in 2000's great Ginger Snaps) whose monstrous nature is a curse inflicted rather than a an inborn evil. Generally, this puts the viewer in the position of rooting for his human persona while recognizing the danger of his animalistic one. Rarely though, does it force one to actively root against the wolf monster he becomes the way one would against Jigsaw or any other inherently evil killer. Who can really hate an animal for simply acting true to their bestial nature? Some actors can deliver the conflicted nature of such a creature, from narrowly talented ones like Lon Chaney, Jr. in the legendary original 1941 iteration of this film to the far more dynamic Oliver Reed in my personal favorite, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961).

So imagine my surprise when the usually dependable Del Toro fails to pull this off. His Lawrence Talbot, haunted as he says he is, sleepwalks through the otherwise operatic Wolfman, lost in Method-inspired underplaying while his stage-inspired British supporting players steal the film out from under him. Anthony Hopkins isn't even working hard at it. His performance as Talbot's father, Sir John, is subdued enough to be nearly as somnambulistic as Del Toro's. But Hopkins can do more with an unexpected voice modulation than other actors can, even Del Toro, whose portrayal of the monster demonstrates he can release his inner beast with gusto when necessary, Rick Baker's fantastic makeup be damned. A wild romp through a Victorian London right out of the recent Sherlock Holmes allows Del Toro to chew more than the scenery.

Sherlock Holmes also serves as a key to decipher what went wrong with The Wolfman. Editor extraordinaire Walter Murch seems to have been brought on to save this movie. He seems to have been inspired by Guy Ritchie's stop-start, slow-mo-then-overcranked editing style since it enlivens the contemporaneous setting of the Holmes film. But Murch's hyper-stylized editing does nothing to erase the picture's flaws. This movie has been delayed for a year, and quite honestly it shows. Director Joe Johnston (October Sky) may be more to blame for Del Toro's failings than the actor himself. The performance of his leading actor seen in relief to that of the rest of the cast indicates Johnston leaving Del Toro to his own devices. The film is overscored by Danny Elfman (after almost being fired and having his compositions deleted in favor of someone else's), his orchestration a virtual rip-off of Wojciech Kilar's seminal music for Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). Despite being lit quite beautifully by Shelly Johnson, the movie's tendency to fall back on medium close-ups betrays his roots in the televison world, minimizing any dynamism from the disjointed shot selections. The problem is Holmes' editing style doesn't work in this Gothic horror film, where shots need to linger long enough to establish a sense of atmosphere and heighten the tension. Strangely enough, The Wolfman simply moves too fast, sacrificing mystery to make sure all of the money spent on gore, CGI, and art direction is seen on the screen.

Sadly, I'll have to wait a bit longer to get an effective movie worthy of this classic monster. The Wolfman's growl is indifferent to its bite.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lola Montès (1955): Is It Really "the Greatest Film of All Time?"

by Tony Dayoub

Before I discuss Lola Montès, allow me to digress. An oft-discussed topic among cinephiliacs (where did I see it this week, Wonders in the Dark?) is the difference—if there is one—between a film labeled "best" or "favorite." As in, "Citizen Kane is the best film of all time," or, "My all-time favorite film is There Will Be Blood." I am of the opinion that "best" and "favorite" are two different animals. A movie which I label "best" is a film displaying artistic, intellectual, and technical virtuosity, yet it might not engage me on an emotional level. The White Ribbon (2009) is a great example of a film which I am happy to list as one of the best of this decade, but it leaves me cold... as it is meant to. It certainly isn't a "favorite" which I would choose to see over and over again. No, a "favorite" is a movie which I enjoy watching, sometimes even obsessively, despite any flaws in its execution. For example, David Lynch's visually stylish Lost Highway (1997) is a film which is certainly not one of his best, tends to be almost parodic in its excesses, yet appeals to me for the way it hearken's back to another noir I love, Kiss Me Deadly. Get it?

Well, as it so happens, the two films which are constantly vying for the number one spot on my own personal list of such things happen to be films I consider both "best" and "favorite," Bertolucci's Il Conformista (The Conformist) (1970) and Coppola's The Godfather Part II (1974). They each have a complex nonlinear narrative structure, make thematic associations through montage—a visual device unique to the moving picture—are impeccably cast, perfectly written with dialogue that is not only colloquial to the characters but resonant within the subtextual framework... the list of their outstanding qualities goes on. They are also movies which I engage with so greatly that even after multiple viewings, I like spending time in their respective worlds. Food for the mind AND for the soul, these movies are.

Watching the upcoming Criterion release of Max Ophuls final film, Lola Montès, at first glance a film which doesn't resemble either of my two favorites, is what got me to thinking about how I classify movies. A subscriber to auteurism like myself couldn't ignore its godfather, film critic Andrew Sarris and his one-time declaration, "Lola Montès is, in my unhumble opinion, the greatest film of all time.” Wow. He really sidestepped the whole "best" vs. "favorite" argument by using the all-encompassing "greatest." Why hadn't I seen this movie yet? The reasons are many as to how this gorgeous film got lost over the years, and easy to find if you search the internet. But as for me personally, fate got in the way of my being able to see it in 2008, the first year I was invited to cover the New York Film Festival where this restored version had its premiere.

Lola Montès explores the historical figure—an Englishwoman (Martine Carol) who adopted the titular stage name gaining some fame for her dancing and even greater fame for her numerous affairs with such luminaries as composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) and King Ludwig I of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook, looking like an old world Victor Garber)—through an unusual framing device. Peter Ustinov assays the role of the Ringmaster at a travelling circus in which Lola performs in a living reenactment of her life story. Each time an anecdote is related to the rapt audience, the viewer is drawn into a flashback by the film's own meta-ringmaster, Ophuls.

On a purely visual level the film, Ophuls' first in color and Cinemascope, is spectacular to behold. Every frame is lushly appointed with color, and a gilded luxury densely and kaleidoscopically layered onto the image. Not one shot is free of any refractive, prismatic, or reflective effect. Actors are frequently blocked by columns, architectural grating, stained glass, or gauzy color curtains throughout, all effects which separate us from the events of Lola's life unfolding before us while paradoxically creating the intimacy of being in the same room as her, voyeuristically peering into her most private moments like some celebrity stalker. Adding to this peculiar contradiction is Ophuls' refusal to ever shoot any closeups within the flashbacks, a decision which realistically approximates our own natural vision's propensity to focus on medium to wide tableaux, again keeping us at an unusual distance cinematically while still preserving the you-are-there perception.

The viewer's perspective shifts almost imperceptibly throughout the circus setting, the film's present as it were, from one of spectator when Ophuls' constantly moving camera tracks Lola from her audience's point of view to one of omniscient voyeur when the camera follows her backstage, where every cinematographic obstruction hints at the loneliness and confinement the character endures in her self-imposed isolation. Say what you will about Martine Carol's limited range, it is perfectly harnessed by Ophuls to convey the character of a chameleon, one who has voided her personality to become all things to all men, a sexual object defined by whatever male is at her side, but strangely devoid of emotion in all but two key moments in the film. Carol's vacant expression and Ophuls' visual imprisonment of Lola fuse in the film's last tracking shot to form one of the most disturbing final shots I can remember from a movie of that period, over which he brings down a theatrical curtain, the final implicit statement that the viewer is tied to Lola's objectification as greatly as her filmic male admirers are.

All of this analysis should betray the fact that though Lola Montès stimulated me on an intellectual level, on an emotional level it failed to connect, although I'm not sure that wasn't Ophuls' intention. With all due respect to Mr. Sarris, Lola Montès has made it onto my all-time top 10. However, it has not yet supplanted either The Conformist or The Godfather Part II as a favorite. True, Lola Montès ends up having more in common with each of the aforementioned films than one would think. Each of the film's respective protagonists end up in a form of self-imposed exile. Each of the films share a novelistic, non-linear approach to storytelling. Each of the films are sprawling in their use of the external (worldwide physical locations) to focus narrowly on the internal (the motives of one individual).

But Lola Montès' technical virtuosity far surpasses that of the other two films. Where The Conformist and The Godfather Part II are dependent on montage to develop their theses, Lola Montès trusts its audience to make its way through its mise en scéne to get its subtext across. So I'm not entirely certain that with subsequent viewings I won't become more comfortable with its spectacle on a visceral level. Its unpredictable ending makes one want to rethink the whole movie. Given time, Lola Montès might just inch her way up to the very top of my own list of favorites.

Lola Montès is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD, Tuesday, February 16th.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Movie Review: Red Riding: 1983 (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

The weight of the past hangs heavily on top cop Maurice Jobson (David Morrisey). For years he has carried the guilt over his involvement with the renegade cops of the West Yorkshire Constabulary and their preference of expediency over thoroughness in the child abduction case of 1974. Now, with the case closed and the perpetrator in prison, another series of abductions (too similar to be pinned on a copycat) begins. And it is too much for this compromised public servant to bear.

Anand Tucker (Leap Year) presents the events of Red Riding: 1983 like a memory play. Impressionistic in its photography, elliptical in its explanations, and nonlinear in its chronology, this entry in the trilogy is the spiritual chapter after the visceral action of 1974 and the intellectual exposition of 1980. Apropos of its approach, it nominates three characters to form a sort of mystical trinity to shepherd the triptych to its conclusion.

Seeing as 1974's viewpoint is that of a reporter, and 1980's belongs to a cop, it would be easy to pin the perspective for 1983 on the attorney who brings us into this story, John Piggott (Mark Addy). But the complex storyline is as thorny in its telling as it is internally. One of the other unlikely heroes is the street hustling B.J. (Robert Sheehan), who seeks redemption for his silence about the abductions so far. The third participant in this trinity is Jobson, sidelined for the previous two parts but roused into action by an unlikely romance with an unusual oracle (Saskia Reeves).

The shifting narrative devices and protagonists serve to add ambiguity and a feeling of displacement in the viewer. The dislocation created by the unusual structure forces one to be less concerned with the procedural aspects so central to the last part, and instead hone in on the moral ramifications of Jobson's inaction, B.J.'s silence, and Piggott's deliberate ignorance. One becomes attuned to the state of mind of these three players as they each pursue the killer, and their repective redemption, in their own way.

The greatest compliment one can give to Tucker and Red Riding: 1983 is that after it is over one wants to see the trilogy all over again, not simply to figure out how all the pieces fit together, but to wallow in the dark atmosphere of this long-form piece of cinema one rarely experiences anymore.

Red Riding: 1983 is playing as part of the Red Riding: Special Roadshow Edition, today through February 11th exclusively at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street, New York, NY 10014, (212) 924-7771

It will also play February 14th, 17th, and 18th, at Landmark's Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Los Angeles, CA 90025,
(310) 281-8223.

It opens in select theaters nationwide on February 19th.

Click here for more posts on
Red Riding.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Movie Review: Red Riding: 1980 (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

Red Riding: 1980 begins more than five years after the last film. Reporter Eddie Dunford is dead. Builder John Dawson is dead. Paula Garland is dead. Crooked cop Bob Craven (Sean Harris) is now a detective. Chief Bill Molloy (Warren Clarke) is buckling under the pressure of a new set of serial murders terrorizing Yorkshire. And top cop Maurice Jobson (David Morrisey) still sits on the periphery of the action, ever watchful yet decidely unhelpful.

Into this tense atmosphere comes Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), a dedicated officer assigned to re-investigate the unsolved Yorkshire Ripper case currently bedeviling Molloy. As cocky as Dunford was in his approach, Hunter is respectful, earnest. Yet even though the story perspective has shifted from that of a reporter to that of a cop, Hunter is just as much an outsider as Dunford was. And he's got problematic baggage, too—a needy wife whose miscarriage some time ago forced him to leave the Ripper case once already, and also led him into the arms of a fellow cop, Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake).

One also begins to sense there's something sinister about the Reverend Martin Laws (Peter Mullan), not entirely helpful in the last film's investigation, but Johnny-on-the-spot in this investigation. He provides a shoulder to cry on for Helen. But more importantly, he manages to deliver a confidential informant named B.J. (Robert Sheehan) to Hunter. B.J.'s information leads Hunter away from the Ripper killings and to the Karachi shooting that proves so pivotal in the previous film.

This is the weakest entry to the series because of its expository nature. That being said, it is a fine procedural with an instructive look into the cop culture of the West Yorkshire Constabulary. It is also a savage indictment of the insular culture of a small town and its police department. Hunter uncovers a shadow police force within the department, one whose motto is, "The North, where we do what we want." Though the Ripper case recedes into the background, it soon becomes clear that it is a reminder to the dirty cops of the earlier set of serial murders. It is also the impetus for Hunter's inquiry into the Karachi shooting, a key building block in the cops' conspiratorial act, without which the crooked detectives' silence starts to crumble.

A lot of what one learns in 1980 revolves around the notion that Hunter's honorable and lawful methods serve him no better in his attempt to stand up to corruption than Dunford's foolhardy stunts did. It's a bit obvious, which contributes to the familiarity of this chapter in the trilogy. But pieces are coming together, and as a second act this film is more than suitable in propelling the viewer to the third and final chapter of Red Riding.

Red Riding: 1980 is playing as part of the Red Riding: Special Roadshow Edition, today through February 11th exclusively at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street, New York, NY 10014, (212) 924-7771

It will also play February 13th, 14th, 16th and 18th, at Landmark's Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Los Angeles, CA 90025,
(310) 281-8223.

It opens in select theaters nationwide on February 19th.

Click here for more posts on
Red Riding.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Movie Review: Red Riding: 1974 (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

Red Riding: 1974 only seems like a bracing return to the dark British crime thrillers of the seventies like Mike Hodges' Get Carter (1971), or the serial killer genre explored in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). A more accurate touchstone would probably be such disparate films as Straw Dogs (1971) or The Conversation (1974). From the former, it derives the outsider's perspective when obstructed by small-town provincial attitudes. From the latter, it borrows the sinking feeling of a protagonist so forcefully assailed by corrupt forces he may end up stained—or worse—from the experience.

Director Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited) sets the trilogy in impressive motion with a murkily-lit look at a series of murders involving young girls in Northern England. The perspective on the case belongs to Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), a cocky reporter who strides onto the relatively close-minded Yorkshire scene with little regard for the locals. A southerner, Eddie never quite meshes with his fellow reporters, the local constabulary, or even the families of the victims or witnesses involved in the case. The one person Eddie does seem to have most in common with is the slimy sophisticate, John Dawson (Sean Bean), a millionaire who pays off the local police force to keep his empty lot free of gypsy settlers as he prepares to start construction on a mall.

Eddie and John's tenuous link is their remove from the backwater environs with its unrefined denizens. That and Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), a mother of one of the victims who is sleeping with each of them. Like Dustin Hoffman's David Sumner in Straw Dogs, Eddie is overconfident, believing he's got the Yorkshire folks all figured out, or even that he's one step ahead of them. But like Sumner, he is out of his element when facing the local bullies, in this case crooked cops like Bob Craven (Sean Harris), a bully who always proves most threatening when attacking Eddie's masculinity. The primary difference between him and John is the builder's willingness to play by the rules of this berg, a place where he doesn't belong any more than Eddie does.

On this level, the film is evocative of the seventies conspiracy thrillers like The Conversation. Eddie Dunford navigates through the filthy intricacies of the serial murder case, slowly finding connections to the cops, their benefactor John Dawson, and even his own newspaper. Like Gene Hackman's Harry Caul, Eddie believes his integrity gives him a slight edge over all of those he encounters, a professional distance if you will, one which he thinks will protect him against the depravity all around him. He blows off John's attempts to buy him off because he is self-assured in his notion that he is uncorruptible. It is only when John callously sics the dirty cops on Paula that Eddie realizes how mired he is in the wrong side of Yorkshire's demoralizing microcosm.

In look and feel, Red Riding: 1974 resembles another recent period film which examines a serial killer through the eyes of a reporter. That would be Fincher's Zodiac (2007). And though it quite doesn't achieve that film's multi-leveled complexity, it does make for an interesting first chapter in what could be classified as a time-lapse look at a small city oppressed by its own sinfulness. Those expecting a typical serial killer exercise may be pleasantly surprised. Red Riding: 1974's lurid serial killings are only a hook to draw viewers into its penetrating exploration of into the nature of venality.

Red Riding: 1974 is playing as part of the Red Riding: Special Roadshow Edition, today through February 11th exclusively at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street, New York, NY 10014, (212) 924-7771

It will also play February 12 - 14th and February 18th, at Landmark's Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Los Angeles, CA 90025,
(310) 281-8223.

It opens in select theaters nationwide on February 19th.

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Red Riding.