Sunday, February 2, 2014

Rip Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Philip Seymour Hoffman
July 23, 1967 – February 2, 2014

Sad news, as it's being widely reported that Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead today. Possible drug overdose. A shame. A waste. Terrible. I can't begin to wrap my mind around the impact Hoffman has had in film in the last twenty years or so. He was one of those out-of-left-field sort of actors, who silently rose up through small, memorable roles. Through the '90s you knew his face, you knew his work, but you may have not known his name. I think I first watched him in Scent of a Woman (1992), but it may have been The Big Lebowski (1998). Most probably learned his name in his "break-out" role in Boogie Nights (1997). I didn't see that film until several years after its release, so for me it was The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) where I suddenly realized "wait, I've seen that guy before, he's really good!". That was the start of checking out his past work and following whatever came next. I've pretty much loved him in everything I've seen him in, even if the film itself wasn't great. He had a pretty striking physical presence to back up his acting chops. He could pull off prim and proper and disheveled with equal effectiveness. He could be interesting, lovable, or just a downright slimy creep. Few can do a person on the verge of falling over the edge like he did in films like the fantastic character piece about a degenerate gambler, Owning Mahowny (2003), or as the desperate mastermind of an ill-fated crime in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007). People took major notice of him again in Capote (2005), where he won best actor, but he could be overlooked as well, in small roles that held films together, like his turn as an awkward teacher falling for a student in 25th Hour (2002). At only 46 years of age there seemed like there was so much more promise there, but sadly that's been forever silenced. Thankfully his body of work is one worth revisiting and enjoying for years to come. Thanks, Philip.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

DVD Spotlight: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian Horror Blogathon 2013)

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) (2-Disc Special Edition)
DVD Release Year: 2005.
Released by: Blue Underground.
Region: 0.
Starring: Tony Musante; Suzy Kendall; Enrico Maria Salerno; Eva Renzi; Umberto Raho; Renato Romano; Giuseppe Castellano; Mario Adorf; Reggie Nalder.
Directed by: Dario Argento.
Colour/96 Minutes/NR

Writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American living in Rome with his girlfriend Giulia (Suzy Kendall). While taking a late night stroll past an art galley, he observes the final moments of what appears to be an attempted murder upon a young woman by a black-gloved man dressed in a raincoat. Being the only witness, the police at first stop him from leaving Rome (as he was planning on soon doing), as they believe the assailant may very well be the same person who has been responsible for a series of gruesome murders of young women in the city. Dalmas soon becomes obsessed with tracking down the murderer himself, and finds that his life and the life of Giulia are soon put into danger as the killer starts to stalk them. But Dalmas knows something isn't right about what he saw that night, and the need to know the truth drives his obsession to the point where it may be the end of him.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a rather impressive and stylistic suspense thriller, and Dario Argento's directing debut. It's essentially an uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown's novel The Screaming Mimi, previously adapted by Gerd Oswald as Screaming Mimi (1958). The framework of the film borrows a lot from Mario Bava, Sergio Leone, and Alfred Hitchcock in how it's shot and in some of the over-all themes. Most obvious are the Hitchcock themes here: the ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances; the use of suspense rather than jump scares; and -- with the number of shots that present the POV of the killer -- a thread of voyeurism that sucks the viewer into the film.

The major focus of the film seems to be Argento trying to mislead the viewer with red herrings and twists that don't actually betray the logic of the overall mystery, and he pulls it off like an old pro. On top of that he shocks with both graphic and implied bloody violence, dished out by a deeply disturbed killer upon unsuspecting women, always with sharp blades. He also peppers the film with weird characters, including a stuttering pimp; an ugly hit man who sports a bright yellow jacket (cult favourite character actor Reggie Nalder!); and a crazed artist whose painting may hold an important clue about the murderer. Argento misleads as well by subtlety informing the viewer's expectations with false clues derived from what the characters say. You expect the killer to be someone or something because the characters expect it. In the end you are as surprised as they are.

It's not only in the plot of the film itself that Argento manages to lead the viewer along liked the Pied Piper, but he did it with the impact of the film as well. Although not the first giallo film (Bava was doing them first), Bird is often credited (and rightly so) as having redefined what the genre could include, setting a new blueprint and, at least for the majority of the English-speaking audiences, actually becoming what the definition was. The film had not only a profound effect on the audience but on the film-makers to come after Argento, who often aped him in their own gialli. In this sense, Argento is much like Leone, whose westerns shaped what we all came to know as the Spaghetti Western, despite the genre having existed before Leone came on to the scene with his Dollars trilogy.

Although this was Argento's first film, he was essentially born into film making -- his background in film journalism, screen writing, and what he learned about photography from his mother (whom was a photographer of movie stars) obviously informed his style, or rather what his style would come to be known as. Although he wears his influences on his sleeve here, which is something a lot of first-time film makers are known to do, especially in the horror genre, this wasn't quite as common back then. Today it's a cute gimmick or in-joke, but to Argento's film it's actually important to the plot and the visuals. I've often thought that not only are some of the best moments of this film built on the skeleton of his influences, the one real low point shows up here as well with a scene at the end that was obviously taken directly from Psycho. It's a brief scene spelling-out in detail the reasons for why the killer did what they did. Like Psycho, it feels tacked-on and lazy. One misstep in an otherwise fantastic debut.

The actors do a fine job despite their roles being slightly under-written. Tony Musante, whom had real-life tension with Argento on the film, plays a handsome and somewhat unlikeable hero here. Despite his flaws, the character of Sam Dalmas needs to know the truth and in the end he does try to save those around him from the killer's wrath, after putting them directly in danger due to his obsession. Suzy Kendall has little to do, but manages to still stand-out, not only with her looks, but in one impressive scene where the killer tries to break into her and Sam's apartment. Enrico Maria Salerno's Inspector Morosini is pretty much a classic no-nonsense professional with a good heart. I mention that all these roles are underwritten, but it's not a critique. In fact, it was obviously intentional. It's in Argento's close-ups of their faces and eyes that we get a peek at the internal psychology of each character, and the actors all pull this off quite well.

Last but not least is the great Ennio Morricone's creepy score. It's a mixture of striking atonal jazz and creepy child-like sequences, that seem to respectively hold up the sudden moments of violence and dread as well as the hidden past traumas that have welled-up to create the horrors in the present day of the film. Much like Argento's genre-defying structure and visuals, the methods Morricone used here were experimental for him, and he ended up using them again and again for about twenty more films.

As for the DVDs themselves, the first disc in this set provides a great print of the film, showing off both vibrant colours and Argento's rather nice use of minimal lighting, especially at night and in a scene in a totally dark room, where the only thing we see is Dalmas' silhouette in a door frame. The audio features an extensive amount of English and Italian options, and a commentary track from Argento buffs Alan Jones and Kim Newman. This track is more than worth the price of the set, as they discuss both the things they see on-screen as well as what was happening behind the scenes. They go into extensive detail about Argento's influences and where they show up in the film, and how they would further develop later in his career. Great film geek stuff. The collections of interviews on the second disc are somewhat of a let down, as most of them are too short to give you much information, and not really any new information at that. However, the bit at the end of Eva Renzi's, featuring an aside about what a psychopath Klaus Kinski was, is pretty amusing.

If you want to see one of the best giallo films, and really the film that made the genre what we know it to be today, here's the place to look. Argento indeed matured in future films, but this is rather bold, stylish and expertly made debut, and I find repeat viewings don't do anything to lessen its impact for me.

DVD Information:

Disc One:
Video: 2.35:1.
Audio: Italian (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), Italian (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround), Italian (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround), English (Dolby Digital 5.1 EX), English (Dolby Digital 6.1 EX).
Subtitles: English.
--Audio commentary with journalists Alan Jones and Kim Newman.
--International trailer.
--Italian trailer.
--TV spots.

Disc Two:
--Out of the Shadows: Interview with Co-Writer/Director Dario Argento.
--Painting with Darkness: Interview with Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
--The Music of Murder: Interview with Composer Ennio Morricone.
--Eva's Talking: Interview with Actress Eva Renzi.

This post was written in part for the 2013 edition of The Italian Horror Blogathon, run by the fantastic film blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. Follow the link to see the other entries that pop up between now and the 31st! Hell, get off your ass and write your own!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Recent Viewings: 10/7/2013.

For some Trekkies this is where "no one has gone before".

Iron Man 3 (2013)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.; Gwyneth Paltrow; Don Cheadle; Guy Pearce; Rebecca Hall; Jon Favreau; Ben Kingsley; James Badge Dale; Stephanie Szostak; Paul Bettany; William Sadler.
Directed by: Shane Black.
Colour/130 Minutes/PG-13

After the events of The Avengers Tony Stark is a mental wreck. The personal growth and relationships he's built over the past two films are being threatened by the trauma he suffered. He's been isolating himself from people and getting lost in his work, designing and building numerous variations on his Iron Man suit. Meanwhile a mysterious Bin Laden-like terrorist called The Mandarin (played fantastically by Ben Kingsley) has been targeting American targets around the world with great success and making threats against the President. Stark recklessly lays down a direct challenge to the Mandarin to face him, which is quickly answered. Stark/Iron Man is defeated and presumed dead, but he's actually gone into hiding to regroup and regain his nerve and his life. Get past the explosions and it's actually a bit deeper than it had any right to be. At any rate, I love that all the fan boys got butt-hurt over what they did with the Mandarin. I thought it was a great twist. I mean, come on, I'm not a politically correct milksop, but Fu-Manchu is a bit played out, yes? Although I think they could have added a twist upon a twist in this case. Think about this: what if he really was the Mandarin all along, and the drug addicted actor The Mandarin is revealed to be is just another layer of his deception, setting himself up as the villain in a future Iron Man or Avengers film. Well, a geek can dream, I guess. Also, the subplot about the extremis stuff fell flat for me. I mean, super soldiers/living dirty bombs are fine, but the flame-based powers just seemed like an excuse to add even more special effects. I don't know, I don't read the comics, so perhaps it make more sense on paper. Still, having Shane Black at the helm and making this story more about Stark the man and his struggle with his alter ego was the right way to go I think. Far better than when Spiderman went all emo a few years back. Worthy rental.

Frankenstein's Army (2013)
Starring: Karel Roden; Joshua Sasse; Robert Gwilym; Alexander Mercury; Luke Newberry; Hon Ping Tang; Andrei Zayats; Mark Stevenson; Cristina Catalina.
Directed by: Richard Raaphorst.
Colour/84 Minutes/R

Some horror fans may be familiar with the very cool teaser trailers that popped up in the mid-to-late 2000s for Worst Case Scenario, which featured inventive-looking Nazi zombies walking out of the water on to a Norwegian beach, somewhat evocative of the 1977 Nazi zombie film Shock Waves. That film never came to be, but director Richard Raaphorst finally managed to use his zombies in something, and for that I'm thankful. In this film we follow a squad of Russian soldiers making their way into Eastern Germany in 1945. One of them has a camera (and thus, yes, this is a found footage film), filming this march to victory. The squad gets a distress call from another Russian squad in a nearby town. When they go there to investigate they encounter former German soldiers converted into strange creatures, half-man and half machine, and not at all friendly. Zombies and found footage are both played out beyond words, but thankfully this film manages to make both work. The film's budget is low, but used effectively in a Blair Witch sort of way. The camera POV is ever-present, and thus the plot comes out a bit more organically, the characters learning what we learn as we go on. No after-the-fact exposition is present or needed. The film's cyborg/zombie creatures, that also have a bit of a steam punk feel to them, are creatively designed, and they are constantly popping up, sneak-attacking our heroes. I use the term heroes very loosely by the way, as they are all pretty much unlikable thugs. The film is not without flaws however. The film slows down quite a bit once our camera man comes face-to-face with the mad genius behind these creatures (Karel Roden), who is hinted at being the grandson of the original Frankenstein. This final act drags a bit too much and the finale could have been much more bat shit crazy -- a really missed opportunity there -- but overall I'm still happy with what they pulled off here. It's fun and it doesn't overstay its welcome. Best viewed with some alcohol and friends. Renty, renty.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Starring: Chris Pine; Zachary Quinto; Zoe Saldana; Karl Urban; Simon Pegg; John Cho; Benedict Cumberbatch; Anton Yelchin; Bruce Greenwood; Peter Weller; Alice Eve.
Directed by: J.J. Abrams.
Colour/132 Minutes/PG-13

Trekkie die-hards will hate this as much, if not more, than the first film in this reboot series. It's pretty much a big, dumb action film, featuring sexy young starfleet officers looking good in tight clothes. I mean, Alice Eve is pretty much in the film to look good in a brief scene where she shows off her space undies. And nice undies aside, I kinda liked it for what else it was. As much as I didn't want to see them try their own take on Khan, they managed to put a new spin on the original storyline of Space Seed and The Wrath of Khan and make it pretty interesting. They also sort of managed to remake The Wrath of Khan in some scenes without seeming too cynical or cute. The actors do a great job again taking over the classic roles; especially Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Simon Pegg's Scotty. Benedict Cumberbatch, from the BBC television show Sherlock, is really fun as Khan. He doesn't attempt to ape Ricardo Montalbán's performance, which is a smart move. I enjoyed the inside references to the original series. I enjoyed the look of the space scenes, especially near planets, that looked like matte paintings. Beautiful. This isn't great or even good Trek, but it's mindless, slick fun. So, worth a rental.