Tuesday 30 July 2013

Blindspot - "In The Heat Of The Night" & "Absence Of Malice"

As "issues" movies go, In The Heat Of The Night ranks as one of the big ones. It may not have been the first of its kind, but it solidifies its place in film history by crafting moments of subtlety and nuance while also wearing its central issue proudly on its sleeve and never resorting to being maudlin. Every movie since its release that waves a flag for a cause or makes a political point has a direct line to it as an influence - even if many of them fall victim to excessive beating of their drums. So why had I not yet seen this classic? Aside from the fact that I can't see everything (dammit), it fell into that category of "well, I pretty much know the story...". Of course, that's rarely the case isn't it? Even if the plot points match up to what you expected, there's always all the bits in between to savour. A fine reason to keep doing these blind spots...

To narrow the field of potential pairings with In The Heat Of The Night, I looked for another issue film that could be considered as revolving around a central powerhouse performance. It's hard to compete with Heat's tandem headliners - Sidney Poitier as the Philadelphia detective stuck in a racist Southern town and Rod Steiger giving an Oscar-winning turn as the town's sheriff - but you could do far worse than calling on Mr. Paul Newman...His Oscar-nominated role in Absence Of Malice was one I had wanted to see for awhile, so it seemed a good double bill once you combine that with the film's focus on the power and responsibility of the press and legal system. Another trait both movies share is the way they jump quickly out of the gate. We're not even 15 minutes into Absence Of Malice and we know: that a union boss has gone missing and is presumed dead (the film was made only 5-6 years after Jimmy Hoffa disappeared - he wasn't even legally declared dead yet); the justice department has some suspects but is getting nowhere; they decide to focus their investigation on Michael Gallagher (Newman) since he is the son of a former criminal with ties to the suspects (and they hope to lean on him for information); a snoopy reporter named Megan (Sally Field) has discovered the investigation; the justice department lead on the case purposely leaked the investigation so that Gallagher would see it in the press; Michael is likely totally innocent and the story run in the newspaper will have assumptions and accusations leading to unjust consequences; etc. It's a pretty packed opening and the film expects you to keep up as it drops names right and left. It does essentially follow through with where you assume the plot will go - Gallagher does indeed suffer due to the leaked story as his union shuts him down, he loses customers and his closest friend Teresa (the also nominated Melinda Dillon) is pulled into the story - but manages to keep you guessing a bit regarding Gallagher's actual connections and Teresa's guilt over a secret they share. Field also keeps you guessing by oddly playing the reporter at different times as confident, flighty, defiant, meek, mouthy and sexy. It's not completely the actress' fault (though her performance just doesn't seem to fit at times) as the character's behaviour is a grab bag of possibilities. It certainly keeps you a bit off balance (particularly during the scenes between the two leads), but there's little likelihood that it was intentional. Newman for his part is remarkably consistent throughout as he plays Gallagher as stoic and very focused. Though he is initially upset at the paper and Megan for the fact-free reporting about him, he tries to settle into a moral compass for her. "You say someone is guilty, everyone believes you. You say they're innocent and no one cares." Her response shows he has some work ahead of him: "That's not the paper's fault, that's people."

As mentioned, In The Heat Of The Night also has a quick out of the gate start. Its plot is well enough known: Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is passing through Sparta Mississippi, but while waiting for his connection gets pulled from the train station late one night by a deputy who is suspicious of a well-dressed black man. One of the town's wealthiest and most important men has just been found dead in an alleyway, so Virgil is brought in for questioning and is assumed to be the prime suspect ("How does a coloured man get that kind of money?"). Every person he comes across in the town has an immediate reaction to him and though finding out that he's a cop from Philadelphia may drop him from the suspect list, no one is jumping to extend a friendly handshake. Once his captain offers Tibbs' services to Sheriff Gillespie (Steiger) over the phone, the sheriff's own racism and demeanour towards the detective becomes situational - one minute calling him "Boy" and the next ordering his staff and the morgue to give Tibbs everything he needs. Gillespie is definitely conflicted since he needs to solve the case (the deceased Mr. Colbert was on the verge of socking even more investment into the town), but hates being shown up by a black man. Except for two people, the rest of the town see little use for Tibbs and stick with their initial assumptions (why change when you're comfortable?). Mrs. Colbert is one of those two and applies pressure to the sheriff and mayor to keep Tibbs as the lead investigator. Not only did he show her kindness while breaking the news of the murder to her, but he is also able to quickly surmise that a second suspect is also innocent. Unsurprisingly, that second suspect (a young man who took the dead man's wallet after the crime had been committed) is the other person who gives Tibbs some respect.

That's not to say that Tibbs is exactly respectful of all the townsfolk himself...One of the key elements of the film is that Virgil isn't a perfect human being either. He is well-educated, classy and does his job very well, but he also doesn't hesitate to look down on most of these Southerners. Sure he has good reason to carry that chip on his shoulder when he's treated this way, but it begins to interfere with his investigation and he starts making his own assumptions and looking for his own justice. Gillespie, though quick to anger and judgement himself, is also a smart man. The two of them push and pull for the entirety of the film and use each other's weaknesses. At one point when Tibbs has given up and decided to go home, Gillespie uses Tibbs' "holier than thou" attitude against him to convince him to stay by asking him how he could refuse a chance to make all these white people look stupid. There's a strong theme throughout of people showing their need to instill their own moral codes on others. Oddly enough, it's a theme that snakes through Absence Of Malice as well. The newspaper has little moral code of its own as shown by their lawyer (as long as they made a small effort to reach Gallagher or publish his denials, they can say whatever they want about him - if there is absence of malice then justice is served), but the DoJ have reached their own conclusions and need to get there no matter what. Even Gallagher (though he has pretty justified reasons as the film goes on) feels compelled to teach a few lessons to all the different players. In both films, no one wants to be reasonable. Which is somewhat the point - for many people their own moral code is justification enough.

Absence Of Malice tends to hammer home its points though. I've never considered Sydney Pollack the most subtle of directors and numerous scenes in the movie help reinforce that rather unfounded argument. Of note is Field's rather clunky delivery of "What are you saying?" to the lawyer that sets up his "absence of malice" speech. The final 10-15 minute scene in the U.S. assistant attorney general's office is both the best scene in the movie and one of its glaring faults. It's pretty great almost solely due to Wilford Brimley's reading of his AAG role as a disappointed parent getting his unruly children to tell him what they did wrong. But it exposes the faults of the film by stating its message a bit too clearly - don't rush to judgement, consider what truth means, it should be better to get a story right than fast and people can get hurt. Some relevant questions that ring true today for sure, but it's weakened by its method. Newman is also strong in that final scene though - both in how he quietly responds to questions and how he watches others without breaking his focus. One could argue that In The Heat Of The Night doesn't exactly shy away from stating out loud its own message, but both Tibbs and Gillespie are complex characters who contribute to the story's resolution without ever having to stand up and shout "Racism is bad!". It's much more powerful when you simply see that it's bad and don't have to be told. The film is probably best known for two moments when Tibbs stands up proudly for himself. The first is when he is condescendingly asked what them Northerners call him ("They call me Mr. Tibbs!") and the second when he responds to being slapped by the town's powerful cotton plantation owner. Poitier is on fire in both these scenes - that seething rage just under the surface of Tibbs almost makes you back away from the screen for fear of catching some shrapnel if it explodes. I can only imagine how this must have come across in 1967 because it's still pretty damn intense in 2013.

Neither film is overly showy with its visuals (both directors are much more focused on story and characters), but In The Heat Of The Night still takes full advantage of the great Haskell Wexler behind the lens. Shadows and shafts of light come into play and director Norman Jewison chooses his long shots judiciously to set scenes or show character relationships. The film is filled with talent - from the Ray Charles theme song (not a particularly great song in my opinion, but still...) to a great cast of character actors (Warren Oates, William Schallert, Scott Wilson, Larry D Mann, Anthony James - if you don't know the names, I guarantee you know every one of those faces). Hal Ashby hadn't started his directing career yet, but he won an Oscar for his work editing the film. In all, it won 5 Oscars including Best Picture - and that's in a year that also had Bonnie And Clyde, The Graduate and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner in the running for top honours. Not that Oscars are, by any means, a sign of quality, but Jewison's film makes a good standard bearer for that period. Absence Of Malice didn't quite knock 'em dead at the Academy Awards, but its 3 nominations (along with Newman's nod, Dillon and the screenplay got noms as well) weren't too shabby. If perhaps the screenplay didn't shine as strong as it could have, the film still casts a reasonably interesting story (with good doses of tension as we try to figure out what Teresa's secret is and how Gallagher's plan will roll out) and even manages to put a different context around what initially seems like a bad idea for a romantic plotline. Indeed both films manage to create solid contexts around their issues and bring to the fore the characters and the consequences. In particular, the consequences of basing your world view solely on what you see from your own pedestal.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

TIFF 2013 - The First Tsunami of Titles

The heatwave has broken, the waters have receded and the weather was beautiful on Tuesday in Toronto. It's like the Toronto International Film Festival planned it that way so that everyone's good mood would be doubly enhanced when they made their first announcements for this year's lineup.

Of course, with expected selections being confirmed (by this point there are always numerous films that are shoo-ins for being at TIFF), how could any film fan not rejoice? But as usual, things only get better as you dive deeper into the list and start pulling out your favourite directors while also finding nifty surprises and a bunch of "never heard of that one before" titles (some of which can grab you simply on the basis of a single screenshot). I plan to see at least 40 films this year and I do believe I could fill my entire schedule just with what was announced today (I won't of course because the other programs always have treasures).

Big names abound with world premieres. All of the following directors have movies already slated to appear during the Gala or Special Presentation screenings (the only two programmes announcing so far): John Carney, Atom Egoyan, Stephen Frears, David Gordon Green, Nicole Holofcener, Ron Howard, Jim Jarmusch, Steve McQueen, Francois Ozon, Jason Reitman, Denis Villeneuve and Andrzej Wadja. Not too shabby. Even stars Jason Bateman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt will have directorial efforts in the lineup.

And yet, as much as I want to see pretty much all of their films, none of them make even my top 20 anticipated films from this first set. Here's what jumped out at me:

Attila Marcel (Sylvain Chomet) - Chomet's first live action film (after the wonderful Triplets Of Belleville and the even more wonderful The Illusionist) promises to meld Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. Since they just happen to be two of my favourite artists ever, I'm overjoyed at this news.

Burning Bush (Agnieszka Holland) - I'm tempted to see Holland's look at the aftermath of a grisly government protest almost solely due to its 4 hour run time - the last couple of years at TIFF have provided a wealth of great loooooong form films (the 4.5 hour triptych Dreileben and the 15 hour The Story Of Film in 2011 and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 4.5 hour Penance last year). Tempted, so tempted...

Blue Is The Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche) - It's a contender for my list simply due to its Cannes win and some of the glowing comments I've heard about it.

Cold Eyes (Cho Ui-seok, Kim Byung-seo) - Korean action-thriller with high-tech cops and bank robbers. Yep.

Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee) - Rejoice for there will soon be a new movie from Jean-Marc Vallee. If you don't know how I feel about his previous film Cafe De Flore then please give me an hour's worth of your time and I'll tell you.

The Double (Richard Ayoade) - Ayoade's Q&A after the TIFF screening of Submarine a few years ago alone made me a fan for life - he was dry, witty, self-deprecating, nimble and brought some of the biggest laughs of the fest during that post-film discussion. Oh, and I really enjoyed the movie too. So bring on the sophomore effort.

Exit Marrakech (Caroline Link) - A 17 year-old boy experiences a completely different culture while visiting his seldomly seem father. The scenario just seems to lend itself to some wonderful possibilities. And I'm a sucker for father/son relationship films.

Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron) - Hard to say if I'll catch this at the festival - it'll be a big release in the Fall anyway - but I'm curious as hell what Cuaron will offer up. I'm not a big 3-D enthusiast, but this could be something different.

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino) - Maybe it's because I recently saw La Dolce Vita, but a revamped view of a tired and possibly cynical journalist wandering through Rome's nightlife with all the beautiful people sounds oddly appealing.

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski) - The gorgeous black and white screencaps on the TIFF web site for this film are reason enough to rank it high on my must see list.

Life Of Crime (Daniel Schechter) - It's called "Life Of Crime", it's based on an Elmore Loenard book and it stars John Hawkes, Jennifer Aniston, Isla Fisher and Tim Robbins. Yes, I want to see that.

Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda) - I think the last few times I've mentioned Kore-eda in relation to a new movie by him, I've explained my anticipation by simply stating "It's Kore-eda!". I see little need to provide further explanation...

The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra) - I had great luck with my 3 choices from India last year (which didn't even include what I heard was one of the best films of the fest - the 7 hour Indian gang epic Gangs Of Wasseypur), so even though this seems like a bit more of a gentle comedy/drama, I'm hopeful the streak continues. And since it stars Irrfan Khan, you can't go too far wrong...

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt) - Again, another film I may or may not see at the festival...But I'm no less eager to see where Reichardt goes next. Each film has made her rise in my estimation.

The Past (Asghar Farhadi) - I'm one of the many that was completely captivated by the back and forth push and pull of Farhadi's amazing A Separation. You bet I want to see what he does next.

Quay D'Orsay (Bertrand Tarvernier) - I'm in the mood for a "gleeful political satire".

REAL (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) - I love Kurosawa's films and his use of sound to create dread and atmosphere, so when the words "frightening mindscape" are used in the description of his new film...Well, I'm beside myself with anticipation.

Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer) - Glazer has been overdue for a new film and his stylish resume (2 films and some great music video work) has me eager to see what's been cooking - especially when Scarlett Johansson stars as a "voracious alien seductress" preying on solo travelers. This could be great fun.

Visitors (Godfrey Reggio) - The director of the Qatsi trilogy premiering his new wordless film with live accompaniment by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performing a Philip Glass score? Wowza. And introduced by Steven Soderbergh. Probably going to be sky high prices, but I may have to make an effort...

We Are The Best! (Lukas Moodysson) - I tend to gravitate towards Scandinavian films at TIFF (and with a pretty good track record overall), so what better time to finally see my first Moodysson film? I'm way overdue.

Can't wait for the next batch of announcements! Fortunately TIFF will only release chunks at a time on a weekly basis - it'll give me time to replenish all the saliva I lost today from slobbering all over myself...

Thursday 18 July 2013

Coincidental Parallels - "The Ninth Gate" and "Robot & Frank"

While perusing NetFlix the other day, I scrolled passed Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate and then backed up to bring it into view again. I don't know if it was the urge to start diving into Polanski's, uh, middle years (I hadn't seen any of his films between The Tenant and Ghost Writer - a gap of about 35 years) or simply to see Johnny Depp without scads of makeup and CGI, but I decided to dive right into it.

A good decision as its a pretty fine thriller and was exactly what I was looking for that evening. The following day I stopped by my fave local video store Videoflicks (yes, I still frequent actual physical video stores) to catch up on some titles missed in theatres. I came home with Dragon, Dead Man Down and Robot & Frank. The last of those was my most anticipated since I liked the concept and had heard strong reviews. Turns out it was pretty damn good with Frank Langella giving an outstanding performance as a thief whose memory is slowly fading. He gets some healthcare assistance from a robot and turns it into his partner in crime.

Langella being in both films back to back was a great happenstance, but it was a bigger coincidence that caught my attention...

In Polanski's film, we learn early on what kind of man Johnny Depp's book dealer is as he undervalues a rare 4 volume set of "Don Quixote" and buys it. He walks away with an incredibly valuable tome for a pittance.

In Jake Schreier's Robot & Frank, Langella's old timer is an avid reader who loves to acquire armfuls of books at a time from the local library (though it's hard to say if the fact that Susan Sarandon also happens to work there actually trumps his desire for new things to read). On one visit, as he worries that the books are being replaced by new technologies, she shows him one of the building's most prized possessions. She unlocks a small glass encased box and pulls out a rare and incredibly valuable copy of..."Don Quixote".

Coincidences should be expected, but it's still pretty satisfying when you find them. Think I'll go rewatch Lost In La Mancha now...

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Not that anyone took the MPAA seriously before, but...

Right at the very end of William Friedkin's memoir The Friedkin Connection comes a short discussion of the MPAA's rating of his most recent film (the greasy Killer Joe). The following passage covers the appeal submitted by Tracy Letts (the playwright and screenwriter) and the producers:

Then Tracy spoke for about five minutes trying to persuade the board that our film was not exploitative; the violence and sexuality were part of the fabric of the lives of his characters. He felt frustrated and humiliated having to justify his work. "It wasn't about anything specific in the movie" he told me. "It was the movie itself. They objected to it in total." At one point Tracy said to them: "It's like we're being punished for doing this convincingly." Their response was, "The fact that the violence was personalized is definitely one of the reasons." Tracy asked, "In other words, if the violence was depersonalized it wouldn't bother you?"

"No, it wouldn't", they said. "If this was just some guy dying, like in Saw, we wouldn't care."

Tracy felt their decision had already been made but he said. "Because we've given these characters depth and the actors play them well, you feel we deserve an NC-17." Their answer was "Yes." The board took twenty minutes to uphold the rating, unanimously, 13 to 0.

Whether you think Killer Joe deserves an NC-17 rating or not, that is some ridiculously terrible reasoning right there.

Sunday 14 July 2013

I'm Not 2 Minutes In...

...and I already know that I'm going to love Without Warning (1952 - Arnold Laven).

The score begins - like many typical crime/noir films - with blaring horns signifying caution and trouble ahead, but it doubles as the cacophonous soundtrack of the nighttime drive on the freeways of L.A. that we see on screen. And suddenly - ahem, without warning - the title card whooshes into full view...

While the rest of the standard credits roll, the score shifts to a slower pace and adds some sultry sax to the mix (likely indicative of the parts the blonde ladies on the DVD menus will play), but then - remembering that mysteries will be popping up - shifts again into the deeper sounding horns that bring a rhythmic "bum-bum-bum". We immediately get the feeling this will be a fast paced movie (especially since it clocks in at 77 minutes). Fading out, we get two final blares during producer and director credits - just to remind us that danger lurks around the next title...

And bang - there it is: a Motel sign, a view outside a room and a narrator telling of random vicious crimes done for no reason (all done with that classic noir voice over style). The light in the room clicks off and we cut to a male figure cradling a knife in none-to-subtle a fashion. The shot is full-on Noir with a capital 'N': viewed from low down with shadows coming from all angles. He runs off leaving the radio blaring and the hotel manager comes to see what the ruckus is about. After not getting any response to keep the noise down, he enters the room while the scene fades out. The music cuts out shortly after we've gone black and then there's the shortest of pauses before we jump to a dead woman's close-up face upside down on the bed.

A fantastic quick set-up to the film - particularly that last bit that drops the music out to silence before jumping to the corpse. There's no need to show the manager or the complaining guest's reactions to discovering the body - the silence and sudden appearance of her face in the frame (unexpectedly rotated 180 degrees) gives us all the info we need about what happened after the body was found. The movie wants to jump right into its story and I'm right along with it.

The film actually becomes more of a crime/police procedural (as the narrator talks about the sweat of tracking down clues that lead to dead ends), but uses much of the noir style and stays effective until it peters out a bit in the last 15 minutes (some coincidental timing and an ending that should've been more satisfying). But no matter, my initial instincts were right. Sometimes, out of nowhere and without notification, you just know a movie's gonna be good.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Basking In The Cesspool Of Filth #20

Was about to start a new Cesspool post (due to a few recent horror film viewings) when I noticed I had this draft kicking around from over a year ago. I figured I should at least make use of the screencaps even though I don't have too much to say about the films...

C.H.U.D. (1984 - Douglas Cheek) - I'm glad that I finally caught up with one of the go-to titles for 80s goopy horror...C.H.U.D. isn't great, scary, unsettling or horrific, but it is kinda fun - if you like sludgy, dripping monsters. And a svelte John Goodman!

Satan's Little Helper (2004 - Jeff Lieberman) - This really should be bad. Just plain bad. And some of it is (moments of, ahem, "acting" are more cringe inducing than most horror films). But overall, this really kinda worked. A bit funny, a bit disturbing and always a bit more creative than you expect.

The Roost (2005 - Ti West) - Anyone expecting West to deliver more throwback 70s horror style (e.g. The House Of The Devil) or a fine character-driven ghost story (e.g. The Innkeepers) might be sadly disappointed in his earlier effort here. But there's enough 1) decent tension-filled moments to entertain the viewer and 2) overall talent on display to give notice that much better films would follow..

Screamplay (1985 - Rufus Butler Seder) - Certainly not for everyone, this cheap (and made to look cheaper) fever-dream has line readings on par with open high school play auditions and a story that doesn't really lead anywhere. BUT, there's something oddly creative about almost every frame.