Friday 29 June 2012

Blind Spot #6 - "White Heat" & "Angels With Dirty Faces"

This month's blind spot post is easily the most obvious pairing of films I've done so far. Though a good 11 years separate the release dates of these two key representations of the gangster genre of the '30s and '40s, their commonalities far outweigh their differences. Each pairs characters on opposite sides of the law (the moral kind as well as the criminal code) and are directed by masters of pacing and snappy storytelling. Each suffers from some similar problems as well (minimal use of the tiny set of female cast members, too much time spent with extraneous characters, etc.), but they both rise high above any small potato issues and build to rousing iconic finales.

The great James Cagney (who just seems to become greater every time I see him) plays the heavy while a pair of O'Briens take on the respective righteous roles in both 1938's "Angels With Dirty Faces" and 1949's "White Heat". While Cagney flexes some of his trademark mannerisms - at least those on which latter day mimics focused like his rolling shoulders in the former and his lower lip biting in the latter - his real life chum Pat O'Brien plays nice as a childhood friend turned priest trying to reform him in "Angels" and then Edmund O'Brien takes on the role of an undercover cop trying to infiltrate his gang and bust him in "Heat". Both play out as morality tales, though the former bounces a bit more between styles as it hits period comedy and melodrama along with its gangster roots. Fortunately, Michael Curtiz is at the helm and he manages to meld all the styles with relative ease and very few slow moments - which makes sense for a director that has worked in pretty much every genre. Raoul Walsh tackles the duties behind the camera for "White Heat" and grounds the film in the crime and police procedural form with many Noir touches.

"White Heat" is easily the darker of the two films wasting little time before getting to its first heist (of a moving train) that concludes with several casualties - all at the hands of an obviously ruthless gang leader named Cody Jarrett (Cagney). He feels he has no choice but to remain tough (not even paying any mind to having one of his own men killed) as he feels he could easily lose control of the gang. His beautiful blonde wife (played in wonderful greedy fashion - though not given nearly enough to do - by Virginia Mayo) has even fewer scruples than he does and could side with one of Jarrett's henchmen at the slightest sign of weakness. Jarrett is also fighting debilitating headaches that force him to become even tougher in order to prove to the gang that they don't effect him. Word is he used to fake the headaches as a child just to get his mother's attention, but now they've become real. Fortunately for Jarrett, his mother is still present to comfort him and advise him on how to remain leader and always strive for more ("Top of the world!" she counsels...). She just might be the toughest nut of the bunch. After being tracked by the cops, Cody plays it smart by confessing to a much lesser crime in a different state to avoid being charged in regards to the train heist and the murders. At this point, the police can only try to get to Cody from the inside and dispatch long time undercover agent Hank Fallon (O'Brien) to get close to him during his prison stretch. The plan succeeds, but a little too well as Fallon gets pulled into a group breakout. Cagney is truly superb throughout the film - whether he's playing tough, turning on some charm or playing mama's boy - but he isn't the only strength on display. The plot moves sharply and even the procedural elements of a group of police cars tailing Ma Jarrett is pretty exciting. The rest of the gang members don't get much play, so you never quite get the feeling of a true criminal team, but that's OK since it's all about the mother and son team. Ma even ensures that Cody gets his slice of any robberies the gang pulls off while he's in jail.

There's less of these completely ruthless streaks occurring among the characters within "Angels". As the film opens over the teeming city streets (including fantastic detail and a huge set of extras), we meet our central pair of delinquents: Rocky Sullivan (Cagney) and Jerry Connelly (O'Brien). After some typical bad behavior, we see them about to be caught for breaking into a railway car (yet another parallel between the films). Connelly is fleeter of foot, though, and escapes while Rocky gets nabbed and sent away. While incarcerated, he not only manages to get into further trouble and extend his stay, but also learns all the tricks of the criminal trade. Connelly on the other hand, rededicates himself to where both boys grew up - the church. When they meet again years down the road, Connelly is the local priest trying to set straight a bunch of young ruffians. Though the two old friends are still close, Rocky can't help but notice how the boys look up to him and use them to his advantage in getting new business started. Speaking of advantages, his corrupt lawyer (played within a nice layer of slime by Humphey Bogart) is supposed to have 100 grand waiting for him. As Rocky tries to re-establish himself within the city's racketeering business he runs afoul of his lawyer and the current crime boss, not to mention Connelly who has decided to wage war on the corruption found within city politics. Of course everything builds to final confrontations and last stands, but it does so with more melodrama than "White Heat" by focusing on the relationships - bringing to a head the love between two "brothers", the broken trust between partners and the admiring respect of young wanna-bes. Where it falters slightly is in how it uses (or misuses) some of the additional characters. The lovely Ann Sheridan plays Laury, the tough girl from the streets grown up and unable to prevent herself from falling in love with Rocky - a definite missed opportunity as her character (after a few good initial scenes) suddenly becomes soft and has nothing much to do. More problematic is the inclusion of far too many scenes with the Dead End Kids - a group of 6 young actors playing the street toughs that Connelly and Rocky are trying to mentor. The Dead End Kids were quite popular at the time having recently moved from the successful broadway play "Dead End" into the even more successful film version. Through the late 30s and early 40s the Kids starred in several films and serials (and the wider set of actors from the play continued in groups such as The East Side Kids, The Little Tough Guys and The Bowery Boys well into the 50s), so they had a good deal of screen time due to their fame. Unfortunately, much of it (in particular the scenes without one of the leading men) is filled with rather poorly delivered tough kid dialogue and moments that do little to move forward plot or character. Fortunately, the rest of the film moves at a great clip and even when it feels like the melodrama may become a bit too weighty, it manages to trim it to its basics so that everything can come together at the end.

Which brings us to those two finales - each standing tall in the history of cinema, each filled with expressionistic lighting and shadows spilling through cracks and crevices and each resulting in what seems to be a predetermined fate for its central character. Both pull out the stops visually and tie up story lines, moral dilemmas and character arcs. I knew how both ended going in, but it didn't spoil the power of either one of them. Cagney easily deserved his first Oscar nomination for "Angels", if only for that last scene of his which was one of the first occasions in a gangster film that allowed any redemption at all for one of its criminals (though, in this case, only in the "eyes of God"). It's surprising that Cagney wasn't granted another try at the Oscar statue for "White Heat" since he grabs hold of every scene he's in, but by that point he had already won for "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (a previous entry this year in the Blind Spot series). He certainly was at the top of the world at this point - his mother must have been proud.

Monday 25 June 2012

Review - "Brave"

Also published as part of a combined review of the film at RowThree.

A lot has been made of Pixar's latest film being the first of its slate to centre around a female protagonist. A great deal has also been written about how stunning it looks (even in comparison to the rest of its brethren) and about all the new proprietary technology that had to be invented just in order to render out all the graphics. All true. In the wake of its initial screenings, there has also been a fair amount of chatter about how the story is a bit of a letdown, somewhat generic and how the film is simply ordinary. That, I must say, is a load of shite.

Perhaps it's just a wee bit of my Scottish heritage getting its back up, but I thought the film a wonderful mix of adventure, magical fantasy and gentle humor all of which was in service to the set of themes of the story - the main one being clearly spelled out: you can control your own fate, if you're brave enough to try. However it wraps this common sage advice into a mother\daughter story that not only shows the push-pull of a parent-child relationship where each is far more similar to the other than they would ever care to admit, but also highlights the importance of real communication. Set in the Scottish Highlands, Queen Elinor has been raising Merida to take on duties of a princess and to eventually marry one of the first born sons of one of the leaders of the other clans. Her father has helped to bring peace to the previously warring clans and the selection of the proper suitor for Merida is one of the ceremonial acts that keeps the clans together. If you've seen a single image of the film, you'll already know that these plans do not coincide with Merida's, but neither mother nor daughter will give an inch since they never really listen to the other. This sets up Merida's big act of rebellion at the archery contest where the young men try to win her hand. When that fails to get her point across, she takes more drastic measures.

It's certainly the act of a petulant know-it-all child, but the character of Merida has already been given enough time with us that we can't help but forgive the act. It helps that she's voiced by Kelly MacDonald, who easily manages the range of emotions of a teenager but can also handle the tough authoritative voice of a young woman (and a single instance of "Shut it!" that even quieted down several of the more talkative youngsters in the audience). Though Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson are also terrific as her parents, MacDonald is fantastic as she has the bear's share of the work and her voice really fits those ravishing locks. That flaming orange hair is certainly the signature of the film, but its landscapes, lighting and detail are all equally impressive. If it's too obvious to state that a Pixar film looks gorgeous, it doesn't take away from the fact that it really does. I should also address the 3D - it's totally unnecessary, but also one of the best examples I've seen of using the medium to provide depth of space. And it didn't even give me a headache...

As a whole the film has much more of an old style Disney feel in its approach to story as well as humour. Much of the humor in the film has been seen before - typical animated facial reactions and such - and comes less from the comedic abilities of its voice cast and more from character and physical action. As the story goes on and the characters grow fuller, it feels fresher. And so does the approach towards the film's messages. Brave manages to stretch the several different themes it has (responsibility for one's own actions and fate, finding bravery within you, communication) to bring forward a very contemporary take on our specie's ability to talk over each other. Brave posits that to really understand the other side of an argument or point of view, you must swallow your pride and the natural human desire to feel superior. To truly listen is to accept that you might be able to learn something new, alter an opinion or even admit that you might be capable of being wrong. It's not that difficult to do - maybe just a little scary the first time you try it.

Sunday 10 June 2012

Shinsedai Cinema Festival 2012 - The Full Slate of Titles

The Shinsedai Cinema Festival is just over a month away and tickets are going on sale in a mere week and a half (June 21st). So it's high time I supplemented my initial preview of the first titles announced with a preview of the rest of the films Shinsedai will be screening at The Revue Cinema starting July 12th. Since that last preview was about a month and a half ago, let's not waste any further time...

The Ghost Cat And The Mysterious Shamisen

This 1938 little seen ancestor to Japanese horror is a remarkable addition to the lineup. I'm dying to see it as it sounds like an early example of so many of the well-worn (but oh-so-wonderful) tropes of the Japanese ghost story. Seijiro is a shamisen player and after his cat runs away, it returns with a beautiful woman (Okiya) and the two fall in love. This doesn't settle well with Seijiro's fiancee (played by Japan’s first “Scream Queen” Sumiko Suzuki) who kills both Okiya and the cat. Of course, cats don't take kindly to that sort of thing and soon, with the help of Okiya's younger sister, vengeance plays itself out. The film has been specially subtitled by Jasper Sharp and the JVTA (Japan Visualmedia Translation Academy).

"The Ghost Cat And The Mysterious Shamisen" screens on Friday, July 13th at 7:00PM.

Enter the Cosmos: Takashi Makino Special

"Be prepared to have your notions of cinema be challenged and expanded by this not to be missed experience". That little tag line from the Shinsedai web site should be enough to convince any adventurous film fan to come for this trifecta of short experimental films by Takashi Mikano. Each film has a different musician (Machinefabriek, Jim O'Rourke, as well as Makino himself) laying down the soundscapes to accompany the "layers of light, colour and visual dissonance". The run times are between 18 and 35 minutes, just enough time to expand the old noggin.

"Enter the Cosmos: Takashi Makino Special" screens on Thursday, July 12th at 9:30PM.

Hiroshima Nagasaki Download

The hibakusha are people who survived the WWII bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now, try for a moment to imagine what kind of memories are seared into their brains. Filmmaker Shinpei Takeda and producer Eiji Wakamatsu felt that we needed to do more than just imagine those stories - 65 years later, they track down some of these survivors who have moved to the United States and get them to relate their experiences to the camera (in other words, "download" them for safe keeping). During their road trip, they also find out how these 18 individuals have adapted to U.S. culture and what parts of their original heritage they have maintained. It's a short 73 minutes, but I don't expect it'll take long to feel the impact of the tales these people have to tell.

"Hiroshima Nagasaki Download" screens on Sunday, July 15th at 1:30PM.

Good For Nothing

This feature debut by director Sho Miyake is an attempt to make a "film without a frame". With comparisons popping up to Bela Tarr (and the gorgeous, languid black & white photography he typically uses) as well as Gus Van Sant's death trilogy, this 76-minute story of three young men fresh out of high school torn between continuing their rebellious acts of youth and taking adult responsibility is bound to be one of the more stylish of the festival. As the three get jobs with a security alarm company, they find their wills being tested.

"Good For Nothing" screens on Sunday, July 15th at 4:00PM.

Beyond Anime: The Outer Limits

This compendium of 16 shorts was originally curated by Jasper Sharp for the second annual Zipangu Fest (in London) and is now set to blow some minds on this side of the ocean. Less focused on traditional anime characters and more on pushing the boundaries of animation itself, this set of independently produced works will be a great way to help wind down the festival (it screens just before the closing film "Tentsuki"). I'm betting this may be one of the more highly anticipated and attended shows of the festival.

"Beyond Anime: The Outer Limits" screens on Sunday, July 15th at 6:00PM.

You can check out trailers for all these films at the Shinsedai YouTube channel. Tickets and passes for the festival go on sale June 21st. For more information on the fest be sure to visit the Shinsedai Cinema Festival website.