Friday Flashback: Les Diaboliques (1955)

I watched this film for the first time a couple of years ago and all I could think was that I couldn’t believe I waited so long to see this masterfully haunting film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. In 2007, Time magazine even placed this thriller on their list of the Top 25 horror films (ranked 19th). Now, it gets a marvelous new Blu-Ray release from the wonderful folks at the Criterion Collection. The Blu-Ray contains many new features (as Criterion usually includes), including a new digital restoration.

Based on Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel She Who Was No More, Clouzot was able to grab the film rights to the book – just before Alfred Hitchcock, “the master of suspense” was able to. In watching Les Diaboliques, you can clearly see just how much Hitchcock would have loved to have gotten his hands on this project – it fits in so well with his body of work. The film would go on to inspire one of Hitchcock’s latter efforts, the American classic Psycho.

The film takes place at a boarding school run by the despotic and cruel Michel (Paul Meurisse). The school is owned by his wife Christina (Vera Clouzot), who works there as a teacher. Christina is a fragile, timid creature who is the object of her husband’s abuse. Michel is also having an affair with Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), another teacher at the school – and he isn’t exactly discreet about it. The two women devise a plan to kill this beast of a man. Signoret takes the reins here, leading the hesitant Clouzot on as they plot to drown him in a bathtub and throw him in the school’s deserted pool. When the body floats up, it will simply look like an accident…But the body doesn’t surface. In fact, when the pool is drained, the body is nowhere to be found – leaving the delicate Christina in an absolute state of horror and petrified of getting caught.

This is a classic “revenge film” with twists in the story that you surely do not see coming. Clouzot also captures some frightening images in this glorious black-and-white film. The performances by the three stars are marvelous – and the finale just takes your breathe away – so much so, that the end credit asks viewers not to give away anything to others – an olden-day “anti-spoiler” alert, if you will. As a horror/thriller, the film sets a benchmark for others that would follow, including the aforementioned Psycho, Polanski’s Repulsion, DePalma’s Sisters, and Sluizer’s The Vanishing. One of the very best films ever made, for sure – surely strong enough to be widely appreciated and admired by a new audience 50+ years later. Rent it, buy it…watch it if you haven’t already…and you can thank me later.

Top 5 Tuesday: Spooky Stephen King

According to IMDb, Stephen King’s wonderful novel Bag of Bones is currently in production for a TV series. This made me very happy as I am a very big fan of that book and, of the writer himself. Mr. King and his writing talents get short-changed by many critics, mostly because he is so insanely popular. I have always believed that the enormity of his success has hindered his standing as one of our country’s finest modern-day writers. But anyone who has had the opportunity to read his insightful book, On Writing will truly be able to have a deeper appreciation for the author as he speaks to the art and craft of the writing process.

So Stephen King has written a bazillion short stories and novels – and a bazillion films have been adapted from these works. Some brilliantly executed, while others – eh, not so much (there are actually 7 Children of the Corn films). I thought to devote this weeks Top 5 Tuesday to the scary films based on his stories. Now before you start screaming, “Where the hell is The Shawshank Redemption?! Stand By Me? How can you forget The Green Mile?” I will state up front that I chose to stick with the horror/thriller genre, which constitutes about 90% of the movies. For the record, both “Shawshank” and “Green Mile” would positively make my Top 5, as I think they are both marvelous films directed by the very talented Frank Darabont. But since Stephen King is mostly associated with “the spooky,” I stayed in that direction.

I’m not a connoisseur on horror films by any means. But I do enjoy a good scary movie every now and then, and I especially admire the few smart horror films released (last year’s Let Me In, for example, was terrific, based on the even better Swedish film). And I have enjoyed many films based on the works of Mr. King through the years. Here is what I consider the 5 best:

5. Firestarter (1984)

I know this may not be included on everyone’s list, but I appreciate and enjoy this science fiction thriller an awful lot. Based on one of King’s earlier works, Mark L. Lester does a very good job at bringing his vision to the screen. One standout here is that King adapted the screenplay himself, which has rarely been the case since. The story is a good one too. Little Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore) has a powerful and dangerous gift for a young girl…pyrokinesis. The United States government is threatened by this and wants to take her away from her father (David Keith) for their own use. The father, Andrew McGee, had previously participated in a medical experiment that gave him telekinetic ability. The father-daughter relationship here is played very nicely. And a strong supporting cast (which includes Art Carney, Martin Sheen, and Louise Fletcher) gets to shine here too, especially George C. Scott as the enigmatic John Rainbird. It may look a bit dated at this point, but the story and Lester’s execution still holds up mighty well. Like Carrie and Cujo, Firestarter ranks among the best early movie adaptations of Sir King.

4. Misery (1990)

I’m not a big fan of Rob Reiner at all, but I can’t deny the fact that he did a terrific job at bringing this tremendous 1987 novel to the screen. Unlike most of King’s stories, this one doesn’t have a supernatural element to it – but it is, at times, horrifying – and in many areas (mainly due to the splendid editing), very suspenseful. James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, the famed novelist who gets into a terrible car accident on his way west with his brand new novel. He is “rescued” by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a nurse, and brought to her remote home. Sheldon’s #1 fan promises to take good care of him. Caan and Bates have a wonderful dynamic together – and Ms. Bates gives one of cinema’s most horrifying performances – so well-deserving of the Oscar she won for her work here. The character is already enmeshed in film lore (“You dirty bird!”) and though most of the movie takes place in her home, Reiner keeps the film from feeling claustrophobic. It’s a marvelous story woven by Mr. King – with a terrific screen adaptation by William Goldman, one of our best screenwriters. And Mr. Caan, known mainly for playing “the tough guy” or “hothead,” is also so good. It is refreshing to see him play such a composed character – and one who is so utterly helpless. Misery is a beautifully shot film that always has me putting my hands to my face.

3. The Dead Zone (1983)

David Cronenberg directed this wonderfully creepy, suspenseful and thought-provoking flick. Christopher Walken plays a mild-mannered schoolteacher who gets in a terrible car wreck and awakens from a coma five years later, only to find his former life all but gone. He has however developed the fantastical ability to tell a person’s secrets simply by touching them. When he shakes hands with the Senatorial candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he foresees him becoming president of the United States and the man behind instigating a nuclear war with Russia. The film raises some provocative questions – but it is clear this all stems from the mind of Stephen King. The hunt for a local serial killer is eerie indeed and Walken’s telekinetic visions are gripping. Walken is terrific, as he’s given a great character to sink his teeth into. The film deserves mention on this list solely for the way he screams to a young boy’s obstinate father, “THE ICE IS GONNA BREAK!” It’s perfect Walken!

2. The Mist (2007)

I love this film! Love it, love it, love it!!! And how awesome is Frank Darabont at bringing King’s work to the screen?! This is a sensational and courageous piece of filmmaking – horrifying, profound, enthralling – and has one of the very best endings in recent years. The ensemble cast is stellar – all recognizable faces, but I am so glad they decided not to go “the star route” with this one. Andre Braugher, Marcia Gay Harden, William Sadler, Frances Sternhagen, Toby Jones, and Jeffrey DeMunn are all given such rich characters to play with and they are all wonderful here. The film though, revolves around family man David Drayton (played by Thomas Jane, who I had not heard of before, and hold the film together quite nicely). After a terrible storm, David takes his young boy to the local grocery store. The store loses power and the patrons are then alerted to a mysterious, oncoming mist. Most of the action from here on out takes place in the store as the shoppers are literally trapped. And what is outside (not to mention what attacks the store) is spine-chilling and great fun to watch! Some amazing elements take place between the locals as they remain trapped and form their own sects within. Fascinating religious themes come into play and again, King illustrates how well he knows how the human mind works in dire situations. A must-see horror movie – a must-see movie period!

1. The Shining (1980)

Is this really a surprise to anyone? I know Mr. King wasn’t exactly thrilled with what director Stanley Kubrick did with his superb 1977 novel, but this is a horror classic, and surely one of the very best ever made. The TV mini-series was nothing compared to this absolutely sinister film. As caretaker for the stately Overlook Hotel, Jack Nicholson gives a sensational, multi-layered and horrifying performance. Of course, he is perfectly cast here. Shelley Duvall, a seemingly unusual choice to play his wife, counters Nicholson perfectly. We are treated to gorgeous cinematography, impeccable production design and a sense of terror from the very opening of the film. Those freaky twins, the woman in Room 237, Grady telling Jack what must be done with his wife and child, the elevator, REDRUM – it all makes for a beautifully woven creepfest helmed by one of film’s greatest directors. The ambiguous ending (with the black-and-white photograph) always fascinates me – with the song “Midnight, the Stars, and You” eerily playing in the background. Even if “Shawshank” were in the mix for this list, I’m not entirely sure if this masterful film still wouldn’t be at the very top – it’s that freakin’ good!

Weekend Humor: Kubrick Bloopers!

I thought I’d celebrate the 40th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant A Clockwork Orange (Christ, I’m old) in completely inappropriate fashion – by finally doing another ‘Weekend Humor’ post in Mr. Kubrick’s honor. This humorous collage of animated Kubrick bloopers was created by Dan Meth – and features some fun “outtakes” from Spartacus, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut – and of course, A Clockwork Orange. Kudos to Mr. Meth (who I do not know) for creating a funny bit here that I happened to stumble across on YouTube.

“Clockwork” certainly deserves a much more serious posting, praising its outstanding merits – and I will make sure to do that at some point soon. This will do for now. A Clockwork Orange remains, for me, one of the greatest films ever made – a shoe-in for my Top 20 of all-time. Click and enjoy — have a great weekend everyone!

Friday Flashback: The Rapture (1991)

I must admit, I have absolutely no idea what all of this talk about the coming rapture is all about. I keep seeing posts on Facebook, but haven’t bothered to look into reading anything about it. Colleagues at work have spoken about it, and, if I understand correctly, the end of the world is supposed to happen tomorrow, May 21, 2011. So I guess this will be the final post on The Lantern – and I’m not sure why I bothered going into work with the end of the civilized world so near.

Anyway, I thought to celebrate (if that’s the proper word) the impending apocalypse with another must-see/4-star film for the ‘Friday Flashback’ feature — The Rapture, written and directed by Michael Tolkin. Now, twenty years later, I vividly recall being a student at New York University when this came out and seeing it at the Angelika Theatre. I also remember being absolutely blown away with this astounding work – and when the credits finally rolled, with no music accompanying them, I remained quite still in my seat, taking in what I just witnessed on screen. This movie made next to nothing at the box-office (estimated 1.3 million), so chances are you may not have seen it – but again, the purpose of this column is to urge film lovers to see these mighty achievements in film from yesteryear.

The film revolves around Sharon (an extraordinary Mimi Rogers), a telephone operator who is living a pretty unfulfilled life. Her job bores her to tears, and in the evening, she goes out with her male partner Vic (Patrick Bauchau), cruising the hot spots of Los Angeles in search of swingers to spend the evening with. Sharon is clearly not happy and begins to question her amoral lifestyle, much to the chagrin of Vic who is completely content with their behavior. Sharon comes into contact with a religious sect who inform her that a rapture is at hand, which sparks a massive awakening in her. She begins a completely new life as a born-again Christian, devoting herself completely to a higher power. We later see her with a handsome husband (a very young David Duchovny) and beautiful little girl. I won’t give away much more than that – because Tolkin’s impressive script throws a few curve balls at the viewer that we surely do not see coming. But I will say that after giving herself completely to God, Sharon turns and questions God’s compassion and goodwill – even with the possible end-of-the-world approaching. She believes she must take her daughter to the desert for this day of reckoning and here, she comes in contact with a concerned deputy (Will Patton), who looks after the two women in the unforgiving terrain, while mother and daughter wait.

This was Michael Tolkin’s directorial debut (he has since directed only one other feature film, while working chiefly as a screenwriter since) – and he presents us with a powerful and courageous film. This is surely a movie that goes places others dare not approach. And at the center of it is Mimi Rogers who is nothing short of sensational. I am always dumbfounded at her lack of recognition – especially after seeing her work here. She was surely robbed of a well-deserved Oscar nomination for this performance – her work here is uninhibited, brave, and overpowering. If for no other reason, people should see this solely to watch her – she is that riveting. Because of the strong sexual and violent content (not to mention the prominent religious themes), The Rapture is not a movie for everyone, that much is certain. But for those who appreciate daring independent films, put this one right on top of your rental queue.

Anticipating Woody Allen’s New Film

So — it’s that time of year again. A time where hope springs eternal. A time for cautious optimism — and a time for well-deserved skepticism. Almost as clockwork as waiting for Puxatony Phil to show his face each and every year, comes the release of a new film release by the legendary auteur Woody Allen.  This year, Midnight in Paris (Allen’s 42nd feature film) is scheduled for release and opens this week (after debuting to rather positive reviews at the Cannes Film Festival).

As always, Allen has been able to bring together a star-studded cast to speak the lines of the aristocracy. For Midnight in Paris, we are treated to Oscar winners Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, and Marion Cotillard — as well as co-stars Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Alison Pill, and Carla Bruni. But it is usually not the cast that has been the problem with some of Allen’s films for the past 10+ years — sadly, it has been the bland storytelling and the writer/director himself revisiting the same old themes using the same old characters in his films. I have written about this quite a bit on The Lantern, so I won’t bother repeating myself here. Suffice it say that I remain a tremendous fan of Mr. Allen — I still feel he is one of the finest American filmmakers we have. However, his batting average since 1999’s wonderful Sweet and Lowdown has not been a very impressive one. I keep hoping that he will stretch himself as an artist and explore new ground, but this is rarely the case — and I am slowly giving up on this dream with each new film released.

I enjoyed last year’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger very much. Though it tackles many of his favorite subjects, the writing was much sharper and more genuine — and the cast gave wonderful performances. It was a strong 3-star film. The romantic comedy Midnight in Paris — the first film that Allen has shot entirely on location in Paris — so far has pretty good word of mouth, even getting a solid 86% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes as I write this post. We shall soon see. With the slow decline in Allen’s work over the years, critics have had a tendency to over-praise his good films (a la Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona), proclaiming them to be much more than they are, simply on the basis of comparing them to such duds as Anyone Else, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Scoop. Of course they look like masterpieces compared to these embarrassing efforts.

But, as I do every year, I will be at the theater this weekend and pay for my ticket. Woody’s films always get my money. I will wait with baited breath and hope for the best. Fingers crossed.

My review of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Strangerclick here

My Top 10 Films of Woody Allenclick here

Top 5 Tuesday: David Mamet

As a devoted fan of the theater, I have long been a fan of the works of the prolific playwright David Mamet dating back to his edgy early works from the 1970’s. I always look forward to his new plays and books – and seeing productions penned by him whenever I can. Of course, it didn’t take very long for Hollywood to recognize his brilliant writing talents and he has been writing feature films since the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. He has since written over 20 screenplays and has proved himself to be a notable filmmaker as well, having written/directed ten movies, debuting with House of Games (which Roger Ebert called the best film of the year – this, when the venerable reviewer was still critical and on top of his game). While re-watching Sidney Lumet’s wonderful 1982 film The Verdict last week (which was written for the screen by Mr. Mamet), I was inspired to devote this week’s Top 5 Tuesday to the works of one of today’s greatest writers. Narrowing it down to only five proved to be very challenging, but here are the chosen ones that Mr. Mamet wrote or directed or both.

5. Wag the Dog (1997)

A truly witty, marvelous and affecting political satire. Directed by Oscar-winner Barry Levinson, the script here just bleeds one Mamet line after another (“We’re not gonna have a war, we’re gonna have the appearance of a war”) which is a delight to take in. It is nearing election time and the president of the United States is facing a career-destroying sex scandal. Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro), one of his top advisors, hires a seasoned Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to create a war through the media so that the president can come out the hero. The producer asks, “I’m in show business, why come to me?” to which Conrad responds, “War is show business, that’s why we’re here.” Great stuff. The chosen country? Poor Albania. And what the two are able to stage in our fight against this little country is laugh-out-loud funny. DeNiro and Hoffman shine here — and they have a terrific supporting cast to work with. Though incredibly funny (especially Hoffman chewing up the scenery), there is a lot to frighten the viewer — and the film’s end is powerful and tragic. Mamet co-wrote the script with Hilary Henken — very intriguing to see him work with another.

4. Homicide (1991)

Perhaps this one may not rank among the favorites for fans of David Mamet, but it grows on me each time I see it. I think it is one of his strongest, most intelligent works — and for those familiar with Mamet’s script and prose, you can easily tell that the subject matter is a very close and personal one to him. Jewish homicide detective Bob Gold (Joe Mantegna) is trying to capture a murderer — until he is suddenly re-assigned to another case…one for him, that he wants no part of. Like a lot of Mamet’s works, a primary theme to this engaging, insightful and powerful film is the search for the self. Gold is a lost man, though he may not be aware of this at the onset of the film. But this new “minor” murder case takes him on a journey that opens his eyes to the world around him and to his very own roots. Mamet has always handled the issue of race head-on, but with tremendous authenticity — and he does the same here. Mantegna is incredible here and again, as in other works, the film goes in directions that you surely do not expect. This was Mamet’s third effort as a film director, and his growth and maturity in style are evident. His style is not at all flashy — he works only to tell his story. But this remains a great work — and it gets better with each viewing.

3. The Verdict (1982)

A remarkable film and one of the very best courtroom dramas of all-time. This was Mamet’s 2nd screenplay and his early style and rhythms are easily detectable here. Frank Galvin (a magnificent Paul Newman) is an ambulance chasing, alcoholic lawyer with a questionable past. He is given the opportunity to spiritually redeem himself and salvage a tarnished career when he takes on a medical malpractice case. Though his case is very strong, the forces working against him (and there are many, including a judge who acts way out of line) push him to the brink. Galvin is repeatedly offered to settle, but the case proves to be about much more than just dollars for him. Newman turns in one of his greatest performances here (which in itself is saying a hell of a lot), and Mamet’s dialogue rings genuine, gritty, and smart. The characters are beautifully woven and the arc he creates for his protagonist is the stuff of great screenwriting. There were many scripts being considered for this film adaptation — and it is easy to see why Lumet went with this one. And though Mamet initially kept the actual verdict out of his script, Lumet convinced him otherwise, which makes for a ending that keeps you on the edge of your seat. A triumph in every way.

2. House of Games (1986)

There are those who would argue that The Sting is the greatest con film ever made. I would make one strong case for this dark, twisting, brilliant film that marked Mamet’s directorial debut from his very own ingenious script. A famous psychiatrist (Lindsay Crouse) decides to help one of her patients who is in grave danger for incurring gambling debts with the wrong people. By doing so, she is introduced to a shadowy and seedy underworld inhabited by con men. She is befriended by Mike (a perfectly cast Joe Mantegna) who shows her the ins and outs of getting other people’s money. The film is dark and makes for a wonderful modern film noir. You never know what the next move will be and the numerous twist-and-turns keep you forever guessing. Mamet has also brilliantly captured the nuances of speech of these diabolical people (“It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine”). What’s fascinating to note is that he makes Mike and his merry men very likable people and in a way, we kind of root for them. Their small bits and witty banter show their strong comraderie and their affection for one another. Ricky Jay and the late J.T. Walsh are standouts here. But the story revolves around Crouse’s doctor — she is finding out about herself throughout the course of the movie. And what she ends up discovering might be more frightening than getting conned out of all your life savings. This is a superb achievement in filmmaking — and Mamet truly made a remarkable splash as a director here. If you haven’t seen it and you are into dark, stylized noirs — this is a must-see.

1. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

The play was monumental and to make a successful transition to film can be very challenging. Some make the transition seamlessly (like this one), while others (like Mamet’s American Buffalo) aren’t nearly as successful. It is also an oddity that the film’s classic scene where Blake (an impressive Alec Baldwin) comes in to berate all of the salesmen present wasn’t even in the actual play. The all-star cast here are all on the top of their respective games, making this one of the greatest ensemble turns in film history. The mostly interior settings take place in the real estate office and the chinese restaurant across the street. The salesmen are all experiencing tough times and are given great incentive by Blake to produce — or else. Remember? A-I-D-A. Blake proclaims, “A-I-D-A. Attention, Interest, Decision, Action. Attention – Do I have you attention? Interest – Are you interested? I know you are, because it’s fuck or walk. You close or you hit the bricks. Decision – Have you made your decision for Christ? And Action.” The golden “glengarry leads” are stolen in the middle of the night and the 2nd act of the film is devoted to discovering who in fact could have swiped them. The dialogue is rapid-fire, obscene and pure Mamet.  Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and Kevin Spacey do a tremendous job at nailing down the cadence and rhythm of the dialogue — and Jack Lemmon gives (in my estimation) his finest performance. These are not likable men — and this is surely not a film for everyone. But those who do appreciate it can recite lines verbatim like they would any other cult classic. James Foley directed this film, which Mamet adapted for the screen — and as much as I admire House of Games, this had to be number one.  For those who have seen it, you know why. And always remember — coffee is for closers only.

Honorable Mentions

I know this is cheating, but any fan of the above-mentioned films or David Mamet himself, should do themselves a favor and watch a few of his other great works such as: the very funny State and Main (2000), the wonderfully woven The Spanish Prisoner (1997), his terrific Chicago-based dialogue in The Untouchables (1987), and the thought-provoking/controversial Oleanna (1994).

Friday Flashback: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

For those of you who read the Magic Lantern (and I humbly thank you for that), you know that I don’t hastily throw around the word “masterpiece” upon every film that I have a deep admiration for. In fact, I think it’s somewhat rare for me to label a film as such. However, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist film The Bicycle Thief is a small gem of a masterpiece indeed. Last year, Empire magazine even went so far as to rank it #4 on their list of “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema” – just one of many notable film lists it rightfully appears on.

The story is simple enough. Set in Rome during the economic depression of post-World War II, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is lucky enough to land a good job pasting posters throughout the city’s walls. But he is told that he must have a bicycle for the job (“No bicycle, no job.”). Antonio has an adoring wife and two small children to support – and just recently hocked his bicycle to put food on the table. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) takes charge and makes the decision to pawn their bedsheets so that her husband can re-claim his bicycle and go to work. Things are finally looking up and Antonio will now be bringing in some money. Of course, his precious bicycle is stolen on his very first day on the job – right under his very eyes. The next day, Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) walk the streets of Rome desperately looking for the stolen bicycle.

The film was shot on location in Rome with De Sica (staying true to the Italian movement initiated by Roberto Rossellini) casting non-actors with no training whatsoever in order to give the film a truly authentic quality. In fact, Maggiorani, the lead, was a factory worker – and he is riveting and heartbreaking here. And though the plot and De Sica’s style can be seen as somewhat minimal, it is in this simplicity that makes this glorious movie a must-see for every fan of film, both young and old. There are just too many scenes and brief moments that, simple as they may appear, manage to capture your heart and your mind.

The love between Antonio and his wife is illustrated beautifully at the onset of the film – they are playful and affectionate. And Maggiorani and Carell have a dynamic and very believable chemistry together. As the son, young Staiola has magnificent screen presence. You can easily tell what the distraught boy is thinking as he futilely walks the streets with his father – even when he isn’t saying a word. When all hope is near lost, his father asks him if he is tired and hungry and the way Staiola answers without even speaking a word is beautiful to watch. Even the tiny, quick gesture of Antonio fixing young Bruno’s scarf on the way home makes for a delightful moment.

The New York Times heralded The Bicycle Thief as “brilliant and devastating” – and that, it certainly is. Italian cinema in the 1940’s was dominated and influenced by the neorealism movement. Its impact was enormous and would later serve to inspire the French New Wave cinema. Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica, and even Fellini were staples of this movement, with brilliant films such as Rome, Open City (1945), La Terra Trema (1948), and my personal favorite, Umberto D being released. The Bicycle Thief, now 60+ years since its release, still is a magical watch and one of the most touching films to grace the silver screen.

Top 5 Tuesday: Colin Farrell

In addition to the new ‘Friday Flashback’ segment, I thought to also include a ‘Top 5 Tuesday’ as well. Not too wordy – just a quick Top 5 list of various filmmakers, actors, movies, and such. And in watching Peter Weir’s inspiring (and beautifully shot) 2010 film The Way Back last week, I was reminded of how impressive and diverse the resumé of Colin Farrell is becoming. I know that he has a reputation for not being the most well-liked of celebrities, but every time I see him speak, he comes off as self-effacing, witty, intelligent, and genuine. I must admit, I like the guy – and more importantly, I like watching him work on screen. His idol Al Pacino (so he has awesome taste to boot) went so far as to call the Dublin-born star “the best actor of his generation” – and that might not be so absurd a thought. How many times have we heard that Johnny Depp or Edward Norton (both great talents) are so great at selecting the projects they work on…that they have such terrific range? This is, for the most part, quite true. But since bursting onto the scene, Farrell should start to be recognized as being in that very same boat. Courageous, smart choices (let us pardon him for Alexander and Miami Vice, shall we) in big-budget and indie films – showing remarkable range. Here are what I think Colin Farrell’s Top 5 Performances are to date:

5. Tigerland (2000)

Farrell really started to open some eyes with his Texan twang in this gritty Joel Schumacher film. The movie follows a small band of recruits inFort Polk, LA during their training before they are shipped off to war. Here, he played Private Roland Bozz, a draftee who opposes the Vietnam War and has a knack for getting into trouble and helping others get discharges. Farrell shows great range here and, though he appeared in The War Zone just a year prior, this was the role that launched his career of working with some of the world’s finest directors.

4. The Way Back (2010)

A great turn in a strong supporting role here. Farrell plays Valka, a Russian criminal who will stab you if you don’t give him your sweater when he demands it. But Farrell also makes sure to give his tough thug a soft side too, which he does gracefully (as he shows when he speaks of his beloved homeland). The film follows a group of prisoners who escape a Russian gulag during World War II only to walk 4,000+ miles to freedom inIndia. The movie is grand in scope with gorgeous art direction and cinematography. Farrell, as part of a terrific ensemble of international actors, stands out in his very complex role. I know he was not nominated for an Oscar, but I do hope he was given the serious consideration he rightfully deserved.

 

3. interMission (2003)

This Irish black comedy (directed by John Crowley) was one of the year’s very best, in my opinion. Again, Farrrell co-stars as a significant piece to a much larger puzzle playing Lehiff, a petty and dysfunctional criminal. The intersecting stories weave seamlessly throughout and, as usual, you can’t take your eyes away from what Farrell is doing on screen – especially in the scenes that involve Detective Jerry Lynch (Colm Meany), a man who has dedicated himself to ridding the streets of Dublin from scum like Lehiff. This movie went under the radar here in the States – and I would highly recommend it for anyone who missed it.  Yes, he has played the “tough guy” a few times, but he always manages to create many layers underneath that give us characters more depth and help us empathize with his plight.

 

2. At Home at the End of the World (2004)

Another huge box-office flop and another film that landed on my Top Ten Films of 2004. Why did no one see this heartwarming, funny, original, and beautifully crafted film (with a great score by Duncan Sheik)? Farrell gives a riveting, uninhibited performance here as Bobby Morrow, a young man who grew up only knowing tragedy – and becomes best friends with the awkward and openly gay Jonathan (Dallas Roberts) in high school. The two couldn’t be more opposite – but that is what makes them inseparable. The film follows their very close friendship through the years – as well as the 3rd party of the trio, Clare (Robin Wright Penn). Farrell creates a tender and “real” character in this moving Michael Mayer film. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours, this film covers a 12-year span – from the suburbs of Cleveland to the Big Apple. A great piece of storytelling – and again, Farrell brings to it, a great sense of warmth and humanity. 

1. In Bruges (2008)

Can you believe Farrell tried to talk writer/director Martin McDonagh out of casting him for this superb film??? Thank God, McDonagh didn’t listen. Not only is this a brilliant film (McDonagh’s first feature length), but Farrell once again gives a tremendous performance, this time playing Ray, a novice hitman who has been racked with guilt since botching his first assignment. He is sent by his boss Harry Waters (a wonderfully over-the-top Ralph Fiennes) to stay in Bruges with his elder accomplice Ken (Brendan Gleeson) until they receive further instructions. Really, Harry has ordered Ken to rub out Ray for the blown assignment. This is without a doubt a must-see film — and one of the best comedies to come out in recent years. Farrell’s chemistry with Gleeson throughout the film is terrific, which is absolutely key to making this original black comedy work. Farrell garnered a Golden Globe award for his stellar performance here — whatever that’s worth, as those awards are beyond ridiculous, but he creates a character we can completely empathize with…he makes us laugh throughout, but also adds such pathos to the confused hitman that we can’t help but feel sorry for him. I can’t say enough about this fantastic movie — and Farrell clearly shines, as he usually does. Now it’s time he starts getting noticed for doing so with each film he appears in.

Friday Flashback: Fail-Safe (1964)

At this point, it is no news that we lost one of our most gifted filmmakers this past April, when the Sidney Lumet passed away at the age of 86. With such brilliant works as 12 Angry Men, Network, The Hill, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and so many others, Lumet surely deserves to be mentioned any time we speak of cinema’s greatest film directors. The past few weeks, I went back and re-acquainted myself with a handful of his films – my own personal and quiet way of paying homage to the legend…and fell in love again with some splendid old friends. It was the haunting and compelling 1964 film Fail-Safe though that inspired me to get my ass back in gear and get back to the Magic Lantern Film site. I understand that I have not stayed on top of this blog for the past few months, but I am working my way to writing on a regular basis once again. Watching the awesome Fail-Safe once again prompted me to coming up with the “Friday Flashback” feature, where I’ll be paying tribute to some of the very best films from years past – perhaps you have seen them already…but in case you have not, consider this my way of saying to you, “You haven’t seen that one?! Rent it…now!”

In short, Fail-Safe tells the story of a fictional (but seemingly very probable) nuclear crisis during the Cold War – when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their peak. Due to technical failures, mistrust, and the jamming of radio transmissions, a series of American bombers are sent to bomb the city of Moscow. With absolutely no music used throughout, the film is set in four separate locales, with only a small handful of scenes being shot elsewhere. Lumet uses a very effective minimalist approach here – and much like he did with his magnificent debut 12 Angry Men, he keeps his audience from feeling claustrophobic in such restricted settings. Because he received no help or cooperation from the U.S. Air Force whatsoever, Lumet was forced to use stock footage of planes taking off or soaring in the sky. The effect is not impressive in the least, but certainly forgivable. In the end, it doesn’t matter — as the film goes deeper and deeper, the tension continues to rise until its harrowing conclusion.

Lumet is blessed with a tremendous cast here, led by Henry Fonda as the President of the United States. Fonda is affable, but strong and almost all of his scenes are inside his bunker where he speaks on the phone with the Soviet Premier, with the help of his trusted interpreter played wonderfully by Larry Hagman. Hagman’s performance here could easily be overlooked, but he is doing so much while trying to translate the actual language in addition to capturing the Premier’s mood and tone. The Soviets are never seen in the film, but the scenes with Hagman and Fonda are fascinating to watch. Dan O’Herlihy is excellent as General Warren Black, a man with recurring nightmares and one of the military’s chief critics against nuclear armament. A young Walter Matthau is also frighteningly powerful here, playing Groeteschele, an outspoken professor with some outrageous theories about nuclear warfare.

Of course, the constant (and perhaps unfair) comparisons with Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Dr. Strangelove will always arise. Indeed, when it was released in 1964, Fail-Safe was a box-office bomb (pun, well…intended), though it garnered glowing critical reviews. Much of this was due in part to Kubrick’s film being released first – at his insistence (no shocker there). But both films were both produced by the same studio. One went on to become known by cinephiles everywhere as one of the greatest films ever made and one of the greatest comedies of all-time…while Lumet’s film doesn’t get near the high praise it deserves. Both films tackle the same subject matter – but told in two completely different ways. I think (and I know most of my blogging brethren will shudder at the thought) that Lumet’s film is better in many aspects, though I am not making this out to be a contest. Lord knows I am a huge Kubrick fan and I put Dr. Strangelove up there with the very best. But the ending to Fail-Safe, for me, is more powerful, more gripping, and more disturbing. If you haven’t seen it and you consider yourself to be a fan of film, I would urge you to see it – and see what you think. It’s a 4-star film of the highest caliber…and one of just a handful of movie gems directed by someone who will be missed dearly.

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