Archive for the ‘American’ Category

Independence Day (1996)

Posted: February 19, 2012 in 1996, Action, American, Disaster, Sci-Fi

Roland Emmerich’s big budget sci-fi disaster action movie about an alien invasion of earth was the highest grossing film of 1996 and won an academy award for its special effects.  Despite this the film was met with a mixed reception upon its release and probably owes more to its advertising for its success than anything else.

Unlike most invasion films the alien’s of Independence Day don’t sneak on to Earth and hide before attempting to destroy humanity but instead choose to rock up in some pretty impressive, for want of a better word, flying saucers.  This was a conscious decision by Emmerich who came up with the idea for Independence Day whilst promoting Stargate and asked an interviewer what it would be like to wake up and find 15-mile-wide spaceships hovering over the world’s largest cities.

ID4 is very light on plot but makes up for this with impressive visual effects – in particular the scene when the White House is destroyed, a great supporting cast, and a few quotable, if not clever, one-liners.  Unfortunately by using an ensemble cast and blending so many personal stories together it suffers from not having a clearly defined star, Will Smith (playing cocky USAF Captain Steven Hiller) gets the most screen time but only slightly more than Bill Pullman (playing President Thomas J. Whitmore).  Named for the American holiday with which the invasion coincides the film displays over the top nationalistic overtones, the American soldiers being particularly gung-ho in their attitudes – launching a nuclear attack with little thought about the future consequences.  In addition to this the scene when President Whitmore addresses the pilots before the final battle and declares that the entire world will call July 4th its Independence Day positively reeks of camembert whilst the scenes of the worlds various armies when they get the news that the American’s are organising an attack seem particularly patronising… as if the world couldn’t win a battle if it weren’t for the American’s.

Despite the lack of depth to the plot, the absence of a central character, and the mass of self-propaganda for the American nation the film manages to be enjoyable throughout and remains one of those films that you can watch again and again and still enjoy.

Emmerich has said in the past he’s been interested in writing a sequel to Independence Day and in October 2011 he and co-writer Devlin confirmed that they had an idea for 2 sequels to film back to back and have expressed a desire for Will Smith to reprise his role in both.  Smith responded by saying he was interested but wanted $50 million for both films, personally I’m kind of hoping this means that a sequel won’t go ahead.

The Untouchables (1987)

Posted: February 17, 2012 in 1987, American, Crime, Drama

Set in 1930’s Prohibition-era Chicago The Untouchables is the semi-biographical story of Bureau of Prohibition Agent Eliot Ness as he tries to take down notorious gangster Al Capone.

Naive agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is tasked with bringing Chicago’s lawlessness under control by catching and convicting gangster Al Capone (Robert DeNiro) who controls most of the city.  Conducting his first raid on Capone’s alcohol smuggling operation with a large force from the Chicago Police Department leaves Ness a laughing-stock as the gang are expecting him thanks to the corrupt cops within the department.  Realising that he can’t trust anyone in the department, and after a chance meeting with veteran Irish-American beat cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), Ness recruits his own team of  incorruptible officers starting with Malone.  Rounding out ‘The Untouchables’, as they would later be dubbed, are trainee police officer and sharpshooter George Stone (Andy Garcia) and Forensic Accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) assigned to Ness by Washington.  Led by Ness and Malone, who takes it upon himself to show Ness what it really means to be a police man on the corrupt Chicago streets, the team wage war on Capone’s organisation raiding illegal liquor shipments and warehouses.  Wallace reveals to Ness that Capone hasn’t filed a tax return for four years meaning that if they can prove he has received an income from his criminal activities they can try him for tax evasion.

The film is beautifully realised, 30’s Chicago jumps off the screen as totally believable, and from the outset the score (written by legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone) creates a tense atmosphere that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat.  Graphically violent (the scene of Capone with the baseball bat being a standout moment) the film subtly deals with aspects of morality, relationships, and redemption whilst keeping the story moving at a comfortable pace.

They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you get Capone.

Despite Costner being the star the film is stolen by both Connery and DeNiro; the former delivering a powerhouse performance and always seeming to have the best lines and the latter packing on 30 pounds to method act Capone as an enigmatic ‘rock-star’ who basks in the attention of the media and, despite his propensity for violence and criminal activities, is adored by the public.

Taught and well written The Untouchables is a modern classic in every way.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Posted: February 3, 2012 in 1939, American, Drama, Romance

Set in South America, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is a showgirl traveling by boat to Panama to audition for a show.  En-route the ship docks overnight in the small port town of Barranca to take on supplies and Bonnie disembarks to explore the town.  Whilst ashore she meets a close knit group of American pilots who fly for Barranca Airways, a struggling freight business owned by ‘Dutchy’ Van Reiter (Sig Ruman) and managed by Geoff Carter (Carey Grant).  Despite his brusque manner Carter is respected by everyone and it soon becomes clear that he tries to hide his emotional damage behind his macho attitude.

When a fatal accident kills one of the pilots Bonnie is horrified at the way the other pilots deal with their grief, choosing to drink and pretending that the pilot never existed in the first place.  Howard Hawk’s Barranca is populated by ‘real’ men who drink hard liquor, chain smoke, and hide their emotions, unless that emotion is anger.  Intrigued by Geoff’s ambivalence towards her and the emotional wall he’s constructed around himself Bonnie chooses to stay on in Barranca eventually falling in love with Geoff.  Over the course of the film Geoff’s actions belie his hardened exterior and by performing small benevolent actions he redeems himself in the viewers eyes allowing them to understand the bond formed by the brotherhood of pilots and their fierce loyalty towards their charismatic leader.

Angels is the first film Grant did for Columbia after being released from his contract with Paramount and is widely regarded as one of director Howard Hawks best films – particularly for the flying sequences.  In 1983 Donald P. Bellisario created the TV show ‘Tales of the Gold Monkey’ which was inspired by Only Angels Have Wings and in turn went on to inspire the Disney cartoon ‘Talespin’.

The Shining (1980)

Posted: January 30, 2012 in 1980, American, Horror

Adapted from the 1977 Steven King novel the plot of the film version differs quite dramatically from that of the original book.

Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson the film tells the story of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a writer who takes a job as winter caretaker at The Overlook Hotel with the aim of using the time to write his new book.  During his interview at the beginning of the film the hotels manager, Stuart Ullman, makes a point of telling him about one of the previous caretakers, Charles Grady, who got cabin fever and killed his family before committing suicide.  Jack takes the job anyway and is joined at The Overlook by his wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), who is gifted with supernatural abilities.  When the family arrive on the last day of the season Danny meets the head chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), who also has the same abilities as Danny and explains that the ability is called ‘Shining’.  During their conversation Danny asks about Room 237, Dick tells him the hotel has a ‘Shine’ of it’s own and many memories, not all of which are good, and that he should stay away from Room 237.

As time goes by The Overlook get’s snowed in, becoming more secluded as the telephone lines go down and contact with the outside world becomes more infrequent.  Jack takes over The Colorado Lounge, a vast recreation room, to start writing his novel and becomes increasingly frustrated at his inability to make progress.  Whilst trying to write Jack is frequently interrupted by Wendy until one day he snaps at her and tells her not to disturb him whilst he’s working, Jack becomes more isolated in the vast room reflecting the increasing isolation of The Overlook itself.

Danny amuses himself during the course of their tenancy by playing in the corridors and rooms of The Overlook but is plagued by visions and nightmares caused by his Shining ability.  Eerie music sets the mood for Danny’s ability whilst disturbing images of twin girls, mutilated corpses, and rivers of blood flowing through the corridors of The Overlook flash across the screen.  Kubrick plays on the viewers nerves through both the visuals and sound to create an uncomfortable atmosphere to the film rather than using shock tactics to scare the viewer.  Long tracking shots are used to great effect in The Shining creating long, drawn out scenes where you wait with bated breath for the pay off.  The most famous of these scenes is when the camera follows Danny as he rides his Big Wheel through the corridors of the hotel with the soundtrack alternating between virtual silence as the plastic wheels cross the carpeted areas before exploding with noise when they move onto the wooden floors.

Whilst Kings novel plays up to the supernatural forces existing in The Overlook which first effect Danny, then Jack and finally Wendy, Kubrick’s adaptation plays down this aspect seeming more that the isolation and frustration felt are the causes for Jack’s descent into madness.  It’s never made clear as to whether the party goers Jack encounters in The Gold Room in the film are actually spirits or manifestations of his madness and the only shared supernatural encounter is that of the woman in Room 237 experienced by both Danny and Jack.

The Shining has become a classic horror film and has been parodied many times since it’s release including The Simpsons – Tree House of Horror V episode, Family Guy, and 30 Seconds to Mars video for ‘The Kill’ and contains one of the most quoted lines in film ‘Here’s Johnny!’ which was actually improvised by Nicholson at the time and almost didn’t make it in to the film.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Posted: January 25, 2012 in 1964, American, Comedy

Based on the Peter George novel Red Alert, Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy satirizes the theme of a nuclear scare, in particular that of mutual assured destruction, in which each side is supposed to be deterred from a nuclear war by the prospect of a global cataclysm regardless of who actually won.

When Kubrick was writing the first draft of the script he did so with the intention of making it as a serious drama however changed to a comedy when he realised that ‘one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question‘.

Starring Peter Sellers, Slim Pickens, and George C. Scott the story concerns a deranged US Air Force General who, unknown to his superiors, orders a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia.  It then follows the President of the United States, Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), his advisors, and an RAF Captain, Lionel Mandrake (Sellers again), as they try to recall the bombers and avert nuclear disaster.  The film separately follows the crew,  including James Earl Jones in his first film role, of one of the bombers piloted by Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) as they attempt to deliver their payload.

Columbia agreed to finance the film on provision that Sellers would play at least 4 major roles, Kubrick accepted the demand but Sellers only ended up playing three of the four roles originally written for him.  He was originally scripted to play the role of Kong, despite being reluctant to do so due to the workload and feeling that he wouldn’t be able to do the role justice, and the role eventually went to Picken’s after Sellers sprained his ankle and was unable to work in the cramped cockpit set.  In the final version of the film Sellers played the roles of RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, US President Merkin Muffley, and the titular character Dr. Strangelove, who doesn’t actually appear in the book, an ex-nazi mad scientist who’s portrayal is an homage to the character of Rotwang from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.  General Buck Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) was an over-the-top parody of gung-ho americanism, Scott wasn’t comfortable playing Turgidson this way so Kubrick got him to play the character this way for warm up shots before doing ‘real’ takes, ultimately Kubrick used these shots which led to Scott refusing to ever work with him again.

The film was shot entirely on set at Shepperton Studios in London as Sellers was unable to travel abroad at the time as he was in the middle of divorce proceedings.  There were 3 main sets, General Rippers office, the interior of the B52 Bomber, and finally the War Room which was a massive set some 40 meters long by 30 meters wide with a 35 meter high ceiling, walls covered with strategic maps, and glossy black floors – a design that was later recreated for the video for Muses single Time is Running Out in 2007.

Kubrick managed to insert elements of satire throughout the film from character names, President Merkin Muffley being a prime example (a Merkin is a pubic hair wig, the president is bald and his last name is Muffley which are both homages to a Merkin) to visual images, the soldiers fighting to take control of Burpleson Air Force Base against the backdrop of a billboard reading ‘Peace is our Profession’.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Posted: January 20, 2012 in 1997, American, Drama, Mystery, Neo-noir

Curtis Hanson’s stylish neo-noir adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel paints a dark picture of the LAPD in the mid 1950’s depicting an organisation steeped in corruption and brutality.

Trimming significant excess from the source the film follows three radically different L.A. detectives as they investigate a shooting at an all night diner.  Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a slick narcotics detective and technical advisor for a popular TV drama whose ‘movie star’ veneer masks a man whose sold out.  Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe) is a violent yet emotionally damaged homicide detective with his own moral code.  Finally, Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is an ambitious, driven, by-the-book career cop whose detective father was killed on the job.  Each detective investigates the shooting in their own way but soon their paths cross as they discover there’s more to this crime than they first thought and soon they become embroiled in a complicated plot of corruption, drugs, murder, and prostitution.

Ed Exley – All I ever wanted was to measure up to my father.

Bud White – Now’s your chance… he died in the line of duty, didn’t he?

Nominated for 9 Academy Awards (it won two – Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Kim Basinger, and Best Screenplay – Adapted) L.A. Confidential was universally acclaimed for both it’s stars and it’s visual style.  Hanson and the films cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, studied many of the films of the era including The Bad and the Beautiful, In a Lonely Place, and The Tarnished Angels in order to achieve the right atmosphere however in order to avoid a feeling of nostalgia they shot like a contemporary film and used more naturalistic lighting than in a classic film noir.

Ultimately L.A. Confidential allows the hope of the period to shine through the gritty and rotten heart of it’s subject matter and draws the viewer in, engaging them, so that they become a part of the story.  Whilst you may hate the main characters initially for their thuggish, uptight, or slick ways I defy you not to start to care about them as their story develops and they begin to evolve before your eyes.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Posted: January 19, 2012 in 1941, American, Drama, Mystery

Hailed as “the greatest movie of all time” Citizen Kane was Orson Welles debut feature film which he not only starred in but also directed and co-wrote the screenplay for.  Having your debut film heaped with such praise should be taken as a major point of pride but considering that Welles was only 24 at the time it should be considered so much more.

Unfortunately with 70 years of praise and hype behind it new viewers should be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed by the film upon first watching it.  Subsequent viewings however will yield more enjoyment as the viewer becomes more impressed by it’s unique visual style (cinematographer Gregg Toland developed a technique for ensuring the the foreground, middle-ground, and background were all in focus simultaneously), simple yet engaging storyline, and outstanding acting.

Welles stars as the titular character of Charles Foster Kane, a reclusive millionaire media mogul, who dies virtually alone within the first 5 minutes leaving the contents of his mansion, his businesses, and his last word ‘Rosebud’ as his legacy.  It’s the latter of these that becomes the catalyst for the film as a group of newsreel men set out to interview Kane’s friends, family, and business associates in an effort to decipher the meaning behind this last word.  The interviews are told though a series of flashbacks to various periods in Kane’s life making use of non-linear storytelling to develop Kane’s character based on the interviewees perception of the man himself.  Masterfully controlled and edited the film avoids becoming confusing and serves to show a fully rounded individual and his progression from likeable, impetuous youth to grizzled, embittered old man over the (nearly) 2 hour run time.

During shooting newspaper magnate William Randal Hearst, with whom viewers can see an obvious comparison to Kane, attempted everything he could to prevent the film from being made even going so far as to accuse Orson Welles of being a Communist to prevent it’s release.  Although many consider the film to be based on Hearst’s life Welles claimed that the story was a composite on many individuals from that particular era, this can be seen to be true as there are also elements from the life of Samuel Insull (a Chicago utilities magnate from the time) represented in the film.

If I hadn’t been very rich I might have been a really great man

– Charles Foster Kane

Despite it’s success the film was originally a flop when it was first released and was universally booed at the 1941 Academy Awards every time one of it’s 9 nominations was announced.  The film was re-released for the public in the 1950’s after spending nearly a decade locked up in the RKO vaults.