Empire's best directors
There's nothing like someone else's list to give you a chance to blow off some steam. Empire, a British movie magazine, polled its readers to discover who the "best" directors were. The top ten as voted by them were, in order: Steven Spielberg; Alfred Hitchcock; Martin Scorsese; Stanley Kubrick; Ridley Scott; Akira Kurosawa; Peter Jackson; Quentin Tarantino; Orson Welles; and Woody Allen. I'd score that about 3 out of 10. Apart from some questions of taste, the list demonstrates clearly that most of the voters have only been around movies for a week or two. There is no sense of history or understanding of a body of work or the influence directors might have on their peers or that the film industry exists outside Hollywood (British director Scott and NZer Jackson are here because they are primarily Hollywood directors and Kurosawa had to be acknowledged because of his influence on Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg). Between them the listed directors have won but 4 Oscars and two of those belong to Spielberg, for his serious and high-minded work. While not necessarily putting any of the following on the list, you have to ask: where is DW Griffiths, the father of modern cinema and the man that invented most of the language of directors? Where are the great directors of the 1930s and 1940s: John Ford (he was 18th in the poll), Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, William Wyler, John Huston and Michael Curtiz? Where are the great writer-directors: Billy Wilder (19th place?!?) and Joseph L Mankiewicz, among many others? The man who with Kurosawa invented the lexicon of the epic film, David Lean (12th)? The great actor-directors, especially Clint Eastwood (11th) and Laurence Olivier, and the idiosyncratic directors like Robert Altman, Bob Fosse and Ernst Lubitsch? If you're going to nominate the recent flavors of the month, why not choose ones who have shown flair, style and consistency: Ang Lee, Francis Ford Coppola, Joel Coen ("The Coen Brothers" are listed at 13th even though Joel is the credited director on their films)? They couldn't even find room for the masters in other languages, like Almodovar, Fellini, Renoir, Bergmann and Godard (although Sergio Leone was listed at 17th) nor, he whinged parochially, any Australians, particularly Peter Weir.
While I would leave off many of the magazine readers' choices from my top ten or twenty because there are better directors around, it is laughable, in the sweep of film history, to pretend that Scott, Tarantino and Jackson are in the top echelon. Despite his directing a great trilogy, which may be my personal favorite piece of cinema, Jackson's record before and after tLofR is not such as to merit a place. Spielberg is undoubtedly a popular director but so was Cecil B deMille in his day. Like deMille, Spielberg is a superior salesman, not a top ten director (although, on the basis of his 'serious' films and of Minority Report, he might sneak into the top twenty). Woody Allen would perform likewise, based on his first twenty-five years of output, not his last ten. James Cameron (14th on the Empire list) is right out.
For the record, my list (which largely excludes European directors because I find much of the work with which I am familiar pretentious and slow) is, in order: John Ford, Billy Wilder, Akira Kurosawa, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman, David Lean, Martin Scorsese, John Huston and Michael Curtiz (with honorable mentions to Orson Welles [great debut, shame about the rest], Stanley Kubrick [four great movies and then descending into crap], Clint Eastwood, Bob Fosse (died too young but did 4 or 5 classics), Pedro Almodovar and Peter Weir).
Banks for the memory
I love a good heist movie - the more complex the better, as long as it all works out logically. The novels of Donald E Westlake, especially the Dortmunder books, and movies like Topkapi and Rififi, piqued my fancy and there have been enough examples since, some on the border between heists and con jobs - Ocean's Eleven, for example. Last issue's Firewall was a little disappointing in terms of the complexity of the plot, offering other benefits to compensate. On the other hand, Inside Man has much to recommend it in terms of its labyrinthine plot. It manages to do this while breaching a number of the accepted canons of the genre. Written by first-time scriptwriter Russell Gewirtz, who has a background in TV cop shows, and directed by Spike Lee, the film brings some interesting variations to the genre, which I attribute to Lee who is working in a very different metier from his usual race-conflict based material. Not that the director can resist a few jabs in that direction, especially in the scene where the police treat a turbanned Sikh as if he were an Arab terrorist. The movie starts with the gang leader (Clive Owen) telling us that he is committing the perfect robbery (he says that he is only going to tell us once but Lee repeats the scene towards the end, making a liar of him) and we see the start of the heist as the gang enters the bank, rounds up those inside and then apparently awaits the arrival of the police and the subsequent siege. The chief negotiator is Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington), a dapperly dressed officer who is himself suspect, the question of some money missing from one of his busts, and who has a history with the officer in charge (Willem Dafoe). An added complication is provided by the concerns of the bank's President (Christopher Plummer) with the contents of one particular safety deposit box and he brings in a mysterious, but high-powered and well-connected, fixer (Jodie Foster). Against this background the heist is played out, with the expected demands and responses, and some slightly off-beat additions (I particularly liked the Albanian-language red herring and a couple of neat role reversals revealed as the plot unfolds). As director, Spike Lee adds something to the mix: instead of presenting the robbery in a straight chronology, he starts inserting excerpts from the post-robbery police interviews with the former hostages, prefiguring a lack of violent gun play at the end of the siege, and creating for the audience further mysteries to be solved. Who is who - are any of the interviewees actually members of the gang, and did the gang indeed have an inside man (or does the title have another meaning) - are among the myriad of issues raised. The script is smart enough to have both the police and robbers recognise that they are, in a way, playing homage to Dog Day Afternoon (and there references let the audience know that the movie is not set in some sort of cultural vacuum, like, say Cast Away was). Before the end, there is a neat plot twist or two, in what is a well-plotted, and surprising at times, mystery. There are a few kinks that the cognoscenti will guess, and a resolution that is quite satisfying. Both Owen (who plays most of the film behind a mask) and Washington acquit themselves well, in good parts. Plummer's and Foster's contributions are little less successful. In many ways the sub-plot they inhabit, while important for the audience in providing clues as to what is really going on, tends to stultify, rather than advance, the plot. Nonetheless Foster plays the part, thinly written as it is, with her usual excellence. But, like most heist movies, it's not the acting in the end but the script (and the director's adaptation of it to film) that remains the important element. In this case, it works, by and large, and is a satisfying movie, that remains internally logical. In these trying times, that's a real bonus.
Where is Burgess Meredith?
If you want to convince some fuggheads of the stupidity of the "intelligent design" version of the creationist pseudo-science, take them to see La Marche de l'empereur (The March of the Penguins). The film, recently crowned as the best doco of the year, chronicles the mating rituals of the emperor penguin, the last species still returning to Antarctica to breed. Filmed in incredibly onerous conditions, the film follows the penguins as they arrive in autumn, march 30 kilometers to their traditional breeding grounds - they apparently return to the same place each year - and then pair off. A coupla months later the mums drop their eggs, pass them to the dads for safe-keeping and bugger off back to the ocean to feed. It's now winter and the dads mind the eggs until they hatch and then watch over the chicks until mum returns, giving the kids just enough nourishment until mum returns with some grub. Mum-penguins recognise their offspring by sound amongst a cacophony, despite the fact that they have never met and the chick was but an egg when they left. Now it's dad's turn to march off for his first feed in four or so months and then he comes back and mum marches off. During this time, the parents and kids have faced a number of chilly Antarctic nights and the probability of at least a couple of major blizzards, huddling together for warmth. Finally as summer approaches, the parents' marriage of convenience ends and they march back to the sea (now not a very long walk, due to the spring and summer ice melts) and the chicks are left to fend for themselves and, eventually, to find their way to the sea, where they will spend four or so years before themselves joining the march. This is fascinating stuff to watch, reminiscent of the better Disney nature docos of the fifties, that used to dominate the Oscars and featured regularly on the Adventureland segment of the television series, Disneyland, but you'd be hard-pressed to describe the design of the emperor penguin breeding cycle as 'intelligent'. Leaving aside the vicissitudes of travel and the problem of finding a mate when girls outnumber boys, the breeding program is fraught with dangers: passing the eggs from mum to dad results in some losses - and the loss of the breeding season for those parents; at hatching the chick can be lost if dad isn't quick enough; the first return of the mother with food is sometimes too late; and the extremes of weather and the arrival of predators can both forestall the development of the chicks. You marvel at the fact that they survive and that the system seems to work, and even more as you watch you wonder at the sacrifices made by the French camera crew to secure the footage. (In the light of its classification as a 'documentary' I am concerned at the credit that notes the 'special effects' material in the film and you can speculate on which shots are reality and which are constructed in the studio. I have a feeling that some of the underwater shots fall into the latter category. To the extent that some of the footage has been created, rather then just recording what the crew saw, you can wonder whether the movie is in fact a documentary; but then, even without the use of sfx, documentarians can fiddle with reality to create their own meta-reality by use of editing, narration, music and other tricks of the trade.) You marvel at it but somehow - and I hate to use the term because it's just so obvious - it leaves you a little cold. The US version, the one that we are seeing here, is narrated by Morgan Freeman from a script that verges on the anthropomorphic. I have no problems with the use of allusions to human activities in nature docos but this one stretches the envelope. Still I suppose that it must be an improvement on the original French version, which apparently left the narration in the flippers of the penguins themselves, which seems to me to pose even more questions. It's been many years since the Disney nature films dominated the documentary Oscars and more human dramas, such as those from Michael Moore and Errol Morris (and various entries from the Shoah Foundation), have been to the fore, so the return to honoring the breeding cycle film is interesting. I just wonder whether the decision was affected more by the size of the film's box office returns than its intrinsic qualities.
Salt on the tale
Just as The March of the Penguins raises a vexed question about the interpolation of constructed material into documentaries, The World's Fastest Indian raises a separate, and perhaps even more contentious, issue: how creative can your interpretation be in a movie that is supposedly a biopic - biographical picture - "based on a true story". Some films get away with quite a deal of invention (Shine comes to mind as a recent example of a film where creative interpretation was said to play a major part without affecting the film's popularity) while others suffer as a result of such accusations (The Hurricane, for example). The World's Fastest Indian allegedly tells the story of Burt Munro's first visit to the USofA. Munro is a 60 year old Kiwi motor-cycle enthusiast from Invercargill who decides to go to Bonneville to race his reworked bike on the salt flats. Directed by Australian-born and New Zealand-raised Roger Donaldson (who had in his youth made a short doco about Munro), the movie follows the eccentric old man through his pilgrimage across the US from Hollywood to Utah and his travails to get a run during speed week - when enthusiasts come to hurtle down the dried salt. The film provides a plum part for Anthony Hopkins as Munro. He pretty much nails the part, the accent, the deafness (combined with some cultural incredulity) and the eccentricity, and provides just the right touch of modest honesty to make the part of the innocent stranger in a very strange land work. What doesn't work quite as well is the script, which seems to pile Ossa on Pelion: not content with the cross-dressing hotel clerk and the used car salesman in LA, he is confronted with a horny western rancher widow, a noble savage and a kid soldier fresh from dumping Agent Orange on the Viet Cong (all this in 1962-3). And that's before he arrives in Bonneville, where even stranger things happen. We are told at the end that Burt visited Bonneville a number of times after his first visit and I could not help thinking that the trip was a composite of incidents that happened on a number of those trips and that Burt achieved what he is portrayed as achieving at the salt flats on a later trip - but it was all incorporated here for dramatic purposes. As a result, despite the strength of Hopkins' portrayal that is the centrepiece of the picture, the movie doesn't work as well as it might because of the interpolations. Not withstanding this reservation, I enjoyed this tale of obsession and innocence, where the rather old-fashioned Munro is confronted by some very different fashions and by challenges that he meets. But it strained my willing suspension of disbelief before the end.
V for La Révolution
Alan Moore's graphic novels have suffered some very different fate. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a movie disaster; From Hell was not that bad; and V for Vendetta is actually very interesting. You can imagine how little I was looking forward to this movie: it's written by the Wachowski brothers, the auteurs responsible for The Matrix and its sequels; it's based around a hero who copies his schtick from Guy Fawkes, the seventeenth century religious fundamentalist who felt that senseless slaughter was the best way to return England to the one true universal church; and it stars Natalie Portman, whose SF credentials were established by increasingly abysmal performances in The Phantom Menace and the subsequent Star Wars prequels. But my expectations were confounded. The plot is typically dystopian: a Tory minister, taking advantage of threats from jihadists and disease, has established a fascist dictatorship in Britain, which he rules not unlike Big Brother. Ironically John Hurt, who made his name, at least in part, as Winston Smith, plays this character, Sutler, who is seen only on video screens, issuing orders to the top level of his underlings. (Whether through acting or effects, Sutler's eyes are amazing: his pupils are almost as large as his irises, as if he were at the bottom of a very dark hole.) The chief of the offsiders is a porky Tim Piggott-Smith and the most intriguing is Stephen Rea, the reliable and craggy-faced Irish actor who was so good in The Crying Game and in Citizen X. His character (the policeman Finch) is not unlike the dogged detective in the latter film. His job is to track down a 'terrorist', V, who blows up the Old Bailey on 5 November and promises to do similar things to Westminster Palace one year hence. On his way to the first explosion, he rescues Evey (Portman), a junior television executive, from some putative police rapine and their subsequent interaction forms a major strand of the movie. V is disguised behind a Guy Fawkes mask (which also resembles in some ways the Joker make-up worn by Jack Nicholson in Batman) and is on a mission of vengeance for crimes committed on him, including, as we learn, his mutilation by fire - the McGuffin for the disguise. Hugo Weaving gets to play the masked man (who, with Clive Owens bank heister, becomes the second lead role played largely behind a mask that I saw within a couple of weeks) and, while we can admire his intelligence in the plot he develops, we are never quite sure of his sanity. During his first meeting with Evey he is indulges in this alliterative monolog:
Voila! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is it vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified, and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin, van-guarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it's my very good honor to meet you and you may call me "V".
To which Evey can of course but reply: "Are you like a crazy person?" (In the spirit of l'esprit d'escalier, a better reply might have been, "A bit vainglorious, V.")
Weaving manages to impart some humanity to V, despite the handicap of the mask, and the writers have done well to leave the question of his identity and his disfigurement well alone. There are really three disparate elements to the film and each from a different genre: the background is the analysis of the Orwellian society in which they live, a dystopian SF story; V's acts of revenge on those responsible for his condition, including the state itself, a Jacobean revenge tragedy (which fits in well with the Fawkesian references in the film); and a police procedural in which Finch tries to track down V and his accomplice. There is more than enough here to keep us entertained, despite the obviously derivative nature of many of the storylines. The trick is to keep the different elements in balance and here the script does remarkably well. In addition to the lead actors, who are uniformly good, there are a couple of interesting cameos, from folks as diverse as Stephen Fry and John Standing. Interestingly directed by James McTeigue, an Australian who'd been an assistant director on Dark City, as well as all three Matrices, V for Vendetta even manages partly to restore Portman's reputation: after several good roles as a kid (The Professional, Heat and Beautiful Girls come to mind), it's been largely downhill as an adult, especially as a result of the Star War prequels. She's good enough as the point of view character. Despite some senseless violence at in the climax I found this a very satisfying genre film. Recommended.
Dancing on the edge
The current film about the exploits of Pierre Dulaine poses some of the same questions as the ones raised about Burt Munro. Pierre is responsible for a successful program that is teaching ballroom dancing to troubled high schoolers and Take the Lead is 'based on the true story' of how he came to be involved. Starring Antonio Banderas as Dulaine, the film follows a predictable arc, from the involvement of a ballroom dancing teacher with marginalised ghetto kids more interested in hip-hop and house music, the opposition from the teaching establishment and parents, the disdain for the poor kids from his rich teenage paying clients, and the triumph over adversity at the end. For all that, and despite the overwhelming feeling that Dulaine's story was in fact nothing like this scenario, the film is very enjoyable. This is so for three reasons: the music, the dancing and the enthusiastic young cast. The ingenue leads are taken by Rob Brown (who, having been the one Finding Forrester, is getting on a bit to still be playing high school delinquents) and Yaya DaCosta, mutually antagonistic at the start, destined to come together, and both very interesting, so too are Lauren Collins (Caitlin, the young richy who goes uptown) and Dante Basco (the Latino loverboy). The music blends Gershwin, latin rhythms and hip-hop in a very eclectic way, with "Fascination" featured as the main waltz tune. The audience we saw it with was dominated by late teens and twenty-somethings, so they would have come across many pieces of music that they would not be familiar with. Those there to see Banderas would have found that the hip-hop and house music has its own rhythms and attractions. And the dancing, from traditional latin and ballroom to the more unstructured hip-hop moves are a highlight. Finally a "brava" for Alfre Woodard as the Principal - who provides a strong centre for the film. A good time.
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit maintained Nick Park's Academy Award record with the two eponymous-before-the-colon characters. Nominated for their first short film, they subsequently won the prize for animated short subjects for their next two before graduating in this film to the Animated Feature category. Pitted against the latest Miyazaki hand-drawn feature and The Corpse Bride, Nick Park's claymation work won the Oscar (there was no Pixar cartoon this year - The Incredibles won the previous year - nor any awardable computer animated feature from another studio). While I applaud the awards to the short films, I am a bit more reluctant to give a big tick to this one: while it maintains much of the humor of the original short films, the feature cartoon seems a little stretched. Wallace is a cheese-loving inventor from rural England and Gromit, his dog, is the brains of the outfit. In this outing, their village is preparing for a fair featuring oversized vegies, and is plagued as a result by a surfeit of rabbits, which W&G are dealing with, through their firm, Anti-Pesto, in a humane way. This brings approbation from the female representative of the local gentry, Lady Tottington, and enmity from her suitor, Lord Victor Quartermaine. Naturally one of Wallace's schemes backfires and the post-colon eponymous character is a result of it. The plot follows the lines you would expect, with Wallace smitten by the lovely Lady, Lord Victor reacting to this interference with his wedding plans in the only way that a man from the counties would, and Gromit needing to sort out the mess. Helena Bonham-Carter and the increasingly ubiquitous Ralph Fiennes voice the nobility and Peter Sallis is again the voice of Wallace, and I have no quarrel with any of the voice work in the film. There are quite a few laughs along the way: Nick Park and his crew are too sympathetic with their characters for the result to be otherwise. But the taking of characters that make good thirty-minute comedies, and trying to make them work in a feature is not quite successful here, just as Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges and any number of the Warner Brothers stable of cartoon creatures suffered in attempts to transfer their comedy to feature films. The resulting film is entertaining but doesn't quite work as well as, say, Chicken Run, and certainly not as well as earlier W&G cartoons.
The Corpse Bride, one the films that lost to W&G:tCotWR, is also a stop action animation, with figures only slightly more realistic than those in the Aardman film. Directed by Tim Burton, the film has a lovely gothic feel. The Victorian-era love story that mixes several genres of music and fantasy elements is a charming piece, made better by its big name cast of voice actors. But it is the script, and Burton's imagination, that stars just as much as Johnny Depp's voice. Depp plays Victor, a rich fishmonger's son who is to marry Victoria, the daughter of impoverished nobles, in an arranged marriage. While the youngsters find love at first sight, Victor's nervousness disrupts the rehearsal and he ends up in a graveyard, where he 'marries' Emily, the eponymous character. This leads Vic into the underworld which is a far more lively place than the 'real' world but he pines for Victoria, who has her own problems. The complications of the plot are not the important thing: the humor and look and feel are. There is a villain to hiss and everything turns out well at the end - as you would expect from this sort of fairytale. In addition to Depp, the genuinely ubiquitous Helena Bonham-Carter, Emily Watson, Richard E Grant, Tracey Ullman and Joanna Lumley provide characters' voices and do it exceptionally well. I liked this a whole lot, as a genre film, as an animation and as an entertainment. I haven't always been a Tim Burton fan but he does very well here - better I think than Nick Park did with Wallace and Gromit - and an Oscar would have been a just reward.
Layer Cake is one of those gritty inner-city British crime melodramas hat have become a staple since The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa. Its lead character (and narrator) is never named but he is a superior son of a bitch, who doesn't mind telling us how much smarter he is than those around him in the criminal milieu. Played by Daniel Craig, this is an attractive character and his voyage through the film's twists and turns is well written and well directed. Unlike Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, the film is not in the hands of Guy Ritchie, a director of little subtlety, but of Matthew Vaughn, who'd produced those two movies and has now stepped into the director's chair, successfully, if this debut feature is anything to go by. There is the usual violence and some very interesting dialog, some predictable twists and a 'wow' finish. Very enjoyable, if you are in sympathy with the genre.
From our DVD collection - reviews of good and great movies not previously reviewed
One thing I found out from watching The West Wing is that A Lion in Winter is President Jeb Bartlet's favorite film. Shows he has great taste for a fictional character. It would rank in my personal top five. Adapted from his great stage play by author James Goldman, the film re-imagines one of the later Christmas courts of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. They are joined by their three surviving boys, Richard, Geoffrey and John, as well as young King Philip of France and his sister Alais, betrothed to Richard, but sharing Henry's bed. Henry and Eleanor are two of the great characters of the High Middle Ages and their sons, Richard Lionheart and John Lackland, are themselves figures of legend in English history. Peter O'Toole is the eponymous character. A few years earlier he had played a younger Henry II in Peter Glenville's Becket. He has to be aged a few years for the fifty-year-old king of this piece (I'm 50 now. Good God, boy, I'm the oldest man I know! I've got a decade on the pope!) and is matched with Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor. O'Toole was 36, playing 50; Kate was 61, playing a queen of exactly that age. And what a pair they make! They provide two of the great performances on film. She won an Oscar - her third; he lost to Cliff Robertson's much promoted turn in Charley. (O'Toole would eventually receive an Honorary Oscar for his life work but is, unjustly, the record-holder for futility: seven times nominated for no win when he should have won at least two.) While their fireworks dominate the film, the younger cast is not without merit: John Castle as the constantly overlooked middle son Geoffrey (No one ever thinks of crown and mentions Geoff, why is that? ... It's not the power I feel deprived of; it's the mention I miss. There's no affection for me here; you wouldn't think I'd want that, would you) and Nigel Terry (later King Arthur in Excalibur) as the grubby young John (Poor John. Who says poor John? Don't everybody sob at once! My God, if I went up in flames there's not a living soul who'd pee on me to put the fire out! To which Richard responds: Let's strike a flint and see) are very good indeed and a very, very young Timothy Dalton (the second best James Bond) carries the right epicene qualities for the French king who still seems to have a crush on his former mentor, Richard. The only less than perfect performance comes from Anthony Hopkins as Richard. Relatively new to film, he never quite finds the right level for his performance and its ends up a bit stagy. (Forty years on, he has found the right pitch as his Burt Munro demonstrates.) A Lion in Winter is a winner on every level: it is good history, it is good biography, it has a series of great performances of its sparkling dialog, and it bridges four generations of film greats: from Hepburn to O'Toole to Hopkins to Dalton. That director Anthony Harvey (a former film editor) was able to elicit performances that match the grandeur of the characters in his first major directorial role is amazing, although sadly he has never matched that level again (except perhaps in another idiosyncratic personal favorite, They Might Be Giants).
[Note: Information about the movies mentioned, including cast and crew lists and all sorts of trivia, is available at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).]
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Last updated: 17 June 2006