Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In a Lonely Place



Based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place is the story of a screenwriter who is accused of murder as a neighbor helps him as they fall in love and try to solve the murder he’s accused of. Directed by Nicholas Ray with an adapted script by Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt, the film is a noir-style mystery filled with intrigue as it’s considered to be one of the great noir films of the early 1950s. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Martha Stewart, Art Smith, and Carl Benton Reid. In a Lonely Place is a chilling yet exhilarating film noir drama from Nicholas Ray.

With a career in trouble and depending on booze, Dixon “Dix” Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is at a restaurant where he meets his agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith) and a boozy actor named Charlie (Robert Warwick). Lippman has news about a film project where Steele needs to adapt a book and to turn it into a script though Steele isn’t sure about the idea. When a hat-check girl named Mildred Atkinson reveals that she’s read the book, Steele asks for her help as he invites her to his apartment home as she tells him about the book. Realizing what the premise is, he gives her cab fare so she can come home until a detective named Brub Nicholai (Frank Lovejoy), who knew Steele back in World War II, asks him to come to the police station revealing that Atkinson got killed.

With Nicholai’s supervisor Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) believing that Steele killed Atkinson due to his background over his erratic, violent behavior, Steele becomes a suspect as he says he didn’t kill her. Then a woman named Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), a neighbor of Steele, reveals that Steele didn’t do anything as she saw him walk Atkinson out of his door as she walked out of the building alone. Steele is let go though Lochner remains suspicious as he asks Nicholai to watch over him as Steele and Gray become friends as she helps him type up his script. After meeting Lippman and Charlie, Gray becomes part of the team though Steele remains uneasy as a dinner with Nicholai and his wife (Jeff Donnell) was an uncomfortable experience. With Gray becoming more aware of Steele’s troubled behavior including a few violent outbursts, things start to become uncomfortable for everyone.

After being pursued by Lochner to know more about Steele, Gray is disturbed by his behavior following a dinner with the Nicholai and his wife. When things seem to calm down, Gray remains uncomfortable around Steele when he asks her to marry him. She suddenly realizes he isn’t normal as she starts to wonder whether or not he killed Atkinson while figuring out if he will kill her.

The film is about a troubled screenwriter who is accused of murder only to be saved by his neighbor who is a failed actress that falls for him. With the police on his back and the pressure to finish a screenplay based on a book that he hates. Dix Steele starts to become unhinged though the only thing that’s grounded him is the presence of Laurel who would become his collaborator as they eventually fall in love. The story progresses once love is in the air as is Steele’s erratic behavior starts to eat at him where at one point, he beats up a young driver. It’s the moment that Laurel starts to fear him as she wonders when he is going to really do something as there is a dark element to Steele from the way he describes what the killer might’ve done to Atkinson.

The script is an intriguing study about a man down on his luck as the project that would save his career only adds to his dislike towards the world and to his own troubled behavior. The film’s title refers to Steele’s own sense of isolation as well as the fact that he’s not an easy man to deal preferring to live alone despite interacting with people for work and social gatherings. When a woman like Gray gets close to him, he starts to feel comfortable except for the thing such as the police investigating him and the demands to finish a script would only undo him.

The direction of Nicholas Ray is truly startling from the way he composes some of the suspense scenes to how relaxed he lets some of the lighter moments of the film play out. For some of the darker moments, Ray maintains a stillness with the camera and framing to set the mood of what could be happening or what Steele is saying about what might’ve happened. There is also a heightened style to Ray’s direction from the driving scenes to the tense scenes at the police station. Ray is always engaged by what is happening as the overall work he brings is phenomenal.

Cinematographer Burnett Guffey does some excellent work with the film‘s black-and-white photography with some wonderful shadings to enhance the noir tone of the film including the use of heightened lights for some of the intense moments of the film. Editor Viola Lawrence does a very good job with the editing as it’s presented mostly straightforward with the use of dissolves and fade-outs for the transitions. Art director Robert Peterson and set decorator William Kiernan do great work with the look of the apartments that Steele and Gray live in along with the restaurant, clubs, and police stations they encounter.

Costume designer Jean Louis does a fantastic work with the gowns created for the film including the black sheer gown that Gray wears to a gathering as well as the other dresses for the women in the film. Sound engineer Howard Fogetti, with Ellis Burman for the sound restoration, does some fine work with the sound from the tire squeals to the location work to create a dark mood for the film. The film’s score by George Antheil is brilliant for its thrilling arrangements to enhance the sense of dread as well as somber pieces for the melodramatic moments of the film.

The cast includes some notable appearances from Hadda Brooks as lounge singer, Steven Geray as a head waiter at the restaurant Dix frequents at, Robert Warwick as Steele’s boozy thespian friend Charlie, Jeff Donnell as Nicholai’s wife Sylvia, and Martha Stewart (not the famed TV personality) as the ill-fated though charming Mildred Atkinson. Other notable roles include Art Smith as the loyal but worried agent Mel Lippman, Carl Benton Reid as the suspicious Captain Lochner, and Frank Lovejoy as the open-minded but friendly Brub Nicholai. Gloria Grahame is superb as Laurel Gray, a failed B-movie actress who helps Steele by becoming his alibi and help him write his script only to be troubled by his erratic behavior. Finally, there’s Humphrey Bogart in a magnificent performance as the troubled Dix Steele. Bogart’s vulnerability is key to what makes this performance as one of his best from the way he acts crazy in the way he describes things or how he reacts to something. It’s a very complex and powerful performance from the actor who also has great chemistry with Grahame in what is a chilling performance.

In a Lonely Place is an eerie yet engrossing noir-drama from Nicholas Ray featuring brilliant performances from Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. For anyone that is interested in the world of film noir, this film is a good place to start as well as a good introduction to the works of Nicholas Ray. For fans of Humphrey Bogart, this is definitely one of his essential films as it features what is truly a performance for the ages. In the end, In a Lonely Place is a haunting yet captivating film from Nicholas Ray.

Nicholas Ray Films: (They Live By Night) - (Knock on Any Door) - (A Woman's Secret) - (Born to Be Bad) - (Flying Leathernecks) - (On Dangerous Ground) - (The Lusty Men) - Johnny Guitar - (Run for Cover) - (Rebel Without a Cause) - (Hot Blood) - (Bigger Than Life) - (The True Story of Jesse James) - (Bitter Victory) - (Wind Across the Everglades) - (Party Girl) - (The Savage Innocents) - (King of Kings) - (55 Days at Peking) - (We Can't Go Home Again) - (Lightning Over Water)

© thevoid99 2011

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Paranoid Park


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 11/13/08 w/ Additional Edits.


Throughout his 20-plus year career, Gus Van Sant remains one of independent cinema's finest icons. Whether it's through art house fares like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, mainstream films like To Die For and Good Will Hunting, or his most recent experimental films about death like Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. Van Sant has chosen to remain independent as he makes films with themes of loneliness, youth, and disappointments. In 2007, Van Sant premiered a new film at the Cannes Film Festival that year which won a special 60th Anniversary award about a group of skateboard kids in Van Sant's native Portland, Oregon entitled Paranoid Park.

Based on Blake Nelson's novel, Paranoid Park tells the story of young skateboarders in Portland, Oregon as a young skateboarder becomes part of an exclusive skateboard club. Then one night on a freight train, the young man runs into a security guard and accidentally kills him as he tries to deal with what he's done. Written for the screen, edited, and directed by Gus Van Sant, Paranoid Park is a mixture of Van Sant's recent experimental work in his Death Trilogy while channeling some of his art-house film that included his 1985 debut film Mala Noche. With a cast of mostly unknown actors including Gabe Nevins, Taylor Momsen, and Scott Patrick Green. Paranoid Park is a haunting yet enchanting film from Gus Van Sant.

A young high school kid named Alex (Gabe Nevins) has always been fascinated with skateboarding. Though he considers himself a decent boarder, he is part of a gang of skaters along with his best friend Jared (Jake Miller). Jared mentions an exclusive park for boarders called Paranoid Park. Alex watches all of the skateboarders skateboard and do all of their stunts as to him, it's heaven. Wanting to go again with Jared, Jared goes out to another place as Alex goes alone to Paranoid Park where he meets one of its regulars named Scratch (Scott Patrick Green). Scratch skates one of his boards as the two goes on a freight train where they encounter a security guard (John Michael Burrowes) and something bad happens.

Alex is forced to ponder on what he's done as he finds himself drifting. Even when his girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), he tries to figure what to do as he even suggests in talking to his father as his parents are currently going through a divorce. When a detective (Dan Liu) interrogates all of the skaters in the community, he has another with Alex where he gives his own interpretation of what had happened. Yet, his own guilt starting to ravage him and wonder had happened on that night. One of his friends Macy (Lauren McKinney) makes a suggestion where Alex finally tells his story through a notebook while pondering that unique world of Paranoid Park.

Told in a first-person perspective from the mind of its protagonist, the film is mostly non-linear as Gus Van Sant goes into the mind of a young man who is trying to pin-point all that had happened from his attraction to Paranoid Park onto the event where he saw something horrific happen. While the film is more plot-driven than his previous three features where he explored death. The film still has the same kind of looseness of his Death Trilogy where it's more about mood rather than a conventional plot. At the same time, it's told from the perspective of a kid through a notebook as he narrates and ponders what he has to do with this situation and how to tell it.

Van Sant's adapted script is told in a loose narrative style where it's mostly non-linear yet uncovers what the film's protagonist is going through. At the same time, Van Sant explores the world of high school in a realistic fashion instead of a conventional, Hollywood style where the focus is on the popular kids or the idea of what high school might be. While the kids might seem like stereotypes on the outside, most notably the character of Jennifer, there's something interesting about them considering that they're real kids going through the things that kids in high school are really going through. The film's story about the death of the security guard as it's told in memory. In the event of something that catastrophic, things don't become clearly which is why the film begins with Alex trying to write something down.

Van Sant's script is definitely wonderful in its approach but it's his direction that is really the film's highlight. With Van Sant also serving as his own editor, the film works in this loose, unconventional style of narration with moods and atmospheric scenery that is truly enchanting. With footage of skateboarders shot in a Super 8mm film style, there's something poetic in the way Van Sant captures the world of skateboarding in Portland, Oregon. Shooting on real locations and in a style that is truly engaging, Van Sant's direction is definitely top-notch filled with slow-motion shots done with his unique approach to his editing. Van Sant's editing style is done in an elliptical approach to the pacing where in its 84-minute running time, it floats very soothingly in its direction as it uncovers each moment while taking the time to tell the story. The overall result is Gus Van Sant still at the power of his work as an artist.

Helping Van Sant in the visual department is Christopher Doyle, the famed cinematographer for Wong Kar-Wai and had previously worked with Van Sant in the 1998 remake of Psycho. Doyle along with Rain Kathy Li creates some amazing, colorful, and moody shots for many of the film's greyish exterior scenes for the daytime shots of Portland along with some wonderful, atmospheric nighttime shots. The interiors in both the day and nighttime shots are done with amazing intimacy and mood as it's playing to Van Sant's atmospheric direction. Doyle's work is truly superb along with the grainy look of the skateboarding sequences told in a beautiful yet poetic style.

Art director John Pearson-Denning and set decorator Sean Fong do fine work with the film's look for the houses that Alex stays in along with the other homes. Costume designer Chapin Simpson also does fine work in the costume with the look of t-shirts, baggy pants, and such to the style of the skater. Visual effects supervisor Chel White does great work in one of the film's rare special effects sequence in one of the film's horrifying moments. Sound designer Leslie Shatz provides one of the film's huge technical highlights with her sound work in the layering of voice to bring perspective to what the film's protagonist is thinking about. Some of the sounds of metal clanging and others are done in such a dramatic fashion that Shatz's work is truly superb as she's definitely become of Van Sant's key collaborators.

The film's soundtrack that was supervised by Van Sant is a wide mix of music ranging from hip-hop, metal, and blues music from acts like Cast King, the Revolts, and Cool Nutz. Yet, most of the music is dominated by three different styles of music ranging from folk, ambient, and classical. On the folk side are two cuts from the late Elliot Smith whose somber music pieces provide the right tone for Alex' own emotional anguish and despair. The ambient pieces by Ethan Rose also brings a wonderful, atmospheric tone to many of the film's eerie scenes and several skateboarding sequences. The final contributor is the late Nino Rota as Van Sant chooses four score pieces from two films by Federico Fellini. Three pieces from 1965's Juliet of the Spirits and one from 1973's Amarcord all have this whimsical yet romantic feel to Alex's own emotions and some of the high school antics as Van Sant truly chooses his pieces very wisely.

The casting by Lana Veenker, Berney Telsey, and David Vaccari is truly superb with appearances from filmmaker M. Blash as a science teacher and cinematographer Christopher Doyle as Alex's uncle Tommy. Other small performances from Susan Ploetz as a teacher, Winfield Jackson as Alex's brother who does a hilarious Napoleon Dynamite impression, Grace Carter and Jay "Smay" Williamson as Alex's parents, and Emma Nivens as a friend of Scratch are memorable. Other small memorable appearances like Emily Galash as Macy's friend Rachel and John Michael Burrowes as the security guard are excellent. Daniel Liu is really good as Detective Richard Lu, a man doing his job though he does understand what kids do and act like as he's really someone trying to help Alex.

Scott Patrick Green is very good as Scratch, a regular at Paranoid Park who befriends Alex as they take part in a moment that would be tragic. Taylor Momsen of Gossip Girl is good as Alex's girlfriend Jennifer who feels neglected about Alex's trips to Paranoid Park while acting like the obnoxious popular girl who really doesn't understand the skateboard culture. Lauren McKinney is really good as Macy, the girl who really understands Alex while being the girl who seems more right for him while giving him an idea that would be the basis for the film. Jake Miller is excellent as Jared, a fellow skater who shares Alex's enthusiasm for skating all things that high school boys do in his hopes to get laid. Finally, there's Gabe Nevins in a superb performance as Alex. Nevins' subtle, mystical performance is truly a highlight of the film as he brings a sense of realism and enchantment to the role of a high school kid dealing with tragedy and how he's confronting it. It's truly a mesmerizing performance from the young actor.

Paranoid Park is truly a haunting yet engrossing film from Gus Van Sant that definitely ranks up there with earlier classics like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. Fans of Van Sant's recent experimental work will no doubt enjoy the poetic imagery and atmosphere he creates for the film along with Christopher Doyle's cinematography, Leslie Shatz's sound design, and the film's soundtrack. Audiences wanting a more realistic look at high school will definitely find something they can relate to as opposed to the fantasy world that is High School Musical. In the end, Paranoid Park is a film that puts Gus Van Sant as one of the true leading voices in American cinema.



(C) thevoid99 2011

Monday, August 29, 2011

Johnny Guitar


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/12/09 w/ Additional Edits.


Though beloved by Europeans and other film directors in the U.S., Nicholas Ray is considered by some an outsider of Hollywood. Even after his peak in the 1950s, he tried to get projects going but without Hollywood's support. It would be those in the French and German New Wave that would help bring attention to Ray's work throughout the years to a new generation of film buffs. Though Ray's death in 1979 was a huge loss, his legacy was still insatiable to film buffs and aspiring film directors. In 1954, Ray made a western that some considered to be one of his greatest films before the popularity of his 1955 film A Rebel Without A Cause.

Directed by Nicholas Ray based on Roy Chanslor's novel, Johnny Guitar tells the story of changing times in the Arizona cattle community in the Old West. With a screenplay by Phillip Yordan (and an un-credited Ben Maddow due to the blacklist of the 1950s), the film features a female protagonist, an oddity in the Western genre, as she fights authority against those threatening her saloon and town with help from an old lover. Starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano, Scott Brady, Ben Cooper, Ward Bond, and Mercedes McCambridge. Johnny Guitar is a thrilling, melodramatic masterpiece from Nicholas Ray.

It's a windy day in an Arizona desert as a man named Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) arrives to a saloon outside of a cattle town. Inside the saloon, Johnny asks for whiskey and the saloon's boss who turns out to be a woman name Vienna (Joan Crawford). Vienna is currently in a meeting with Mr. Andrews (Rhys Williams) about the railroad building nearby her saloon. She is aware that with the railroad, her saloon will be booming with business along with a town set to be built that she'll share with the people working at her saloon. Then comes the arrival of Marshall Williams (Frank Ferguson) and cattle baron John McIvers (Ward Bond) as they bring the body of a dead man. The body is the brother of a woman named Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) who has deep hatred for Vienna.

Claiming that an associate of Vienna in the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang of hooligans were responsible for the death of Emma's brother. The Dancin' Kid and his gang arrive denying the whole affair as they ask Johnny Guitar who reveals that it couldn't be true. McIvers decided to ban gambling outside of the town as he gives Vienna a day to leave town. Vienna refuses as Johnny helps smooth things though he gets into a fight with one of the Dancin' Kid's men in Bart (Ernest Borgnine). When Johnny is revealed to be a master gunslinger after a duel of sorts with another of the Kid's men in Turkey (Ben Cooper). It's clear that Johnny has a past with Vienna as they were once lovers as he is hired to add protection from the angry cattlemen wanting to get rid of her. With the Dancin' Kid and his gang blamed for the death of Emma's brother, they decide to leave town but rob the bank first in order to get attention.

At the day of the robbery, Vienna is there getting her money out as they arrive minutes after her arrival. Yet, Vienna tries to get the Kid to not rob the bank but he and the gang leave to try to go to California. Instead, things go wrong due to explosions at the mountains that leaves Turkey wounded as the Kid is forced to leave Turkey behind. After paying off several of her employees to leave, Johnny reluctantly leaves as Emma, McIver, and the Marshall with their posse arrive to find the wounded Turkey under a table. After Vienna's employee Tom (John Carradine) tried to save her, Vienna and Turkey are taken where they're to be hanged. Johnny saves Vienna as the two hide out at the Kid's hiding place where the Kid, Bart, and Corey (Royal Dano) are hiding as well. With Johnny's real identity is revealed, things go wrong when Emma finds the hideout as she challenges Vienna to a duel.

While having a female lead instead of a male for the western genre in the 1950s seems radical. Yet, screenwriters Phillip Yordan and Ben Maddow, and director Nicholas Ray creates a western that is unique while playing around with its structure. Notably the ideas of conflict, bank robberies, and of course, a climatic duel at the end. What Yordan, Maddow, and Ray went for to make this film seem unconventional is the sense of melodrama as well as some political commentary that was going on in the McCarthy era. The story is simple. A woman runs a saloon by herself hoping to make some big money once the railroad comes in near her saloon. Yet, the nearby town where she has her money in a bank account seems threatened by it since they won't get a share of the money.

While the script delves into its political commentary through stylish dialogue and conflict between Vienna and the cattlemen. It's the direction of Nicholas Ray that is unique as it's told through melodrama. In the westerns, men are often the dominant figures in that genre. What Ray does is have the women take charge and they're not likeable women. Vienna is first scene where pants and shirt with a gun belt around her waist where she's often shown with a scowl on her face. She rarely displays any kind of emotions except when she's dealing with her past with Johnny. Then there's Emma, a woman who is mean as a bull as her hatred of Emma is more personal than anything. For all the men around her, they are shocked by her anger and can't really comprehend anything.

The film's unconventional approach towards its idea of protagonist and antagonist with its title character really being a supporting role is quite startling. At the same time, it's not a western but rather a melodrama that revolves around Johnny's return to Vienna's life as well as the Kid's feelings for Vienna. It's later revealed that Emma has a thing for the Kid but doesn't want to admit it. In many ways, what Nicholas Ray does is a real deconstruction of what is known traditionally as the western. It's lack of realism in place of melodrama is what makes the film so entrancing to watch as if they're all doing theater while the men have more talents than just being gunslingers. Overall, it's fantastic work from Nicholas Ray.

Cinematographer Harry Stradling does fantastic work with the film's colorful, Trucolor photography style. Awash with amazing colors in its exterior settings of the day and night to the interior shots of the saloon where it's wonderfully lit. Even in a shot where Joan Crawford is where white against a yellowish backdrop to represent the good girl with Mercedes McCambridge in black. Another great shot revolves a scene in the cave that awash with red that matches the shirt that Crawford was wearing. Stradling's photography, notably a shot of the Arizona skyline is truly rich in its elegance and ode to melodrama. Editor Richard L. Van Enger does excellent work with the smooth transitions, dissolves, and fade-outs to help play with the structure and movement of the film. Even for the film's suspenseful and climatic duel between Vienna and Emma as it plays to a rhythm. The editing is really masterfully crafted.

The art direction by James W. Sullivan with set decoration by Edward G. Boyle and John McCarthy Jr. is great in the look of the saloon as there's a sophistication and ruggedness to its look. Even as it features a mountain/cave-like wall where it adds an authenticity to its look and feel. Costume designer Sheila O'Brien does great work in the look of the clothes, notably the women where the character of Emma wears dark dresses throughout the entirety of the film while Vienna wears jeans and pants half the time for her mean persona. Then when she has to play lady, she wears this wonderful, flowing white dress to represent her good girl persona, though she is a bitch at times. The sound work by T.A. Carman and Howard Wilson is excellent for its sound locations, gunshots, horse calls, and runs to play up to the energy of the western. The music by Victor Young is brilliant for its sweeping arrangements of its energetic, suspenseful music while going somber into its more melodramatic scenes. The title song at the end by Young and Peggy Lee is great in playing up to the romanticism of the film.

The cast is excellent as it includes a then-unknown Dennis Hopper making his film debut (though un-credited). In the roles of Vienna's men which include Paul Fix as roulette spinner Eddie, John Carradine as saloon manager Tom, and Rhys Williams as businessman Mr. Andrews are all excellent in their small roles. Royal Dano is excellent as the sickly Corey while Ben Cooper is really good as the young, naive Turkey. Ward Bond is great as Mr. McIvers, the cattle baron who wants to get rid of Vienna from his town while Frank Ferguson is good as the more sympathetic Marshall who is trying to keep the peace. Ernest Borgnine is superb as the greedy, rugged Bart, a man who is more concerned with money and survival than teamwork. Scott Brady is very good as the Dancin' Kid, a man who loves Vienna while deciding to lead a robbery to get attention only to land himself in trouble and face betrayal.

Mercedes McCambridge is brilliant as the tough, angry Emma, a woman who has deep hatred for Vienna as she takes charge in leading a revolt towards the saloon owner. McCambridge's performance truly embodies the role of a villain as she can be brutal and so evil that only she can match Joan Crawford in a bitch fight. Though the truth is that both McCambridge and Crawford really hated each other on and off the set. Sterling Hayden is great as the title character Johnny Guitar, a man who is hired to protect Vienna though is dealing with his own past and love for Vienna. Hayden is very restrained yet compassionate in his role as he has great scenes with Crawford though off the set, he wasn't saying kind things towards Crawford. Finally, there's the brilliant though infamous Joan Crawford. Playing a character that is sexually ambiguous where she acts like a lady and at times, dresses like a man. She is a woman who is tough both in business and as a person. Yet, she displays a vulnerability in dealing with her feelings for Johnny while dealing with the Dancin' Kid's feeling for her. It's a brilliant role for the actress who is known more for her personal life than her acting though it's clear that this is one of her great film roles.

When it was released in 1954, the film received mixed reviews from critics in the U.S. A release later on in Europe, notably France, drew rave reviews with critics and aspiring filmmakers. The film proved to be influential to the French New Wave as well as other directors including Italy's Sergio Leone. In 1988, famed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar made references to the film for his international breakthrough hit Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) both as a plot device and as a conflict between its protagonist and antagonist. The film would later be considered a classic of American cinema as in 2008, the film was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry.

Johnny Guitar is an exciting, stylish, and melodramatic masterpiece from Nicholas Ray. Featuring superb performances from Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, and Ernest Borgnine. It's a film that definitely lives up to its reputation of heightened drama as well as its deconstruction of the western genre itself. While Rebel Without a Cause might be Ray's most well-known film, it's Johnny Guitar that is the film that gives Ray the cinematic reputation he received among film buffs. In the end, for a western that is unconventional and with a dramatic flair that is unique. Johnny Guitar is the film to see from the late, great Nicholas Ray.

Nicholas Ray Films: (They Live By Night) - (Knock on Any Door) - (A Woman's Secret) - In a Lonely Place - (Born to Be Bad) - (Flying Leathernecks) - (On Dangerous Ground) - (The Lusty Men) - (Run for Cover) - (Rebel Without a Cause) - (Hot Blood) - (Bigger Than Life) - (The True Story of Jesse James) - (Bitter Victory) - (Wind Across the Everglades) - (Party Girl) - (The Savage Innocents) - (King of Kings) - (55 Days at Peking) - (We Can't Go Home Again) - (Lightning Over Water)

(C) thevoid99 2011

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Last Days


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 12/10/05 w/ Extensive Revisions & Additional Edits.


April 5, 1994 was a day that many rock fans would remember as Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain committed suicide only to be found three days later. 11 years since his death, many people still wondered why the gifted and tortured songwriter had done such a deed. In 1998, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomsfield tried to find answers in which he feels part of the reason he killed himself was his overbearing wife and Hole singer Courtney Love. Still, questions remained unanswered while some try to find a sense of understanding into Cobain's death. In 2005, one director chose to figure out that understanding through a fictional account about a young rock singer, similar to Kurt Cobain, who is spending his final days of his young life entitled Last Days.

Written and directed by Gus Van Sant, Last Days is the third and final part of his elliptical trilogy of death. Using the same minimalist style and improvisation that preceded the last two films, Gerry and Elephant, Van Sant chooses to explore one man's psyche as he is detaching himself from the world around him. Starring Michael Pitt, Asia Argento, Ricky Jay, Lukas Haas, Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon, Nicole Vicius, Scott Green, Ryan Orion, and Harmony Korine. Last Days is a harrowing, eerie portrait of a downward spiral captured by the brilliant Gus Van Sant.

Wandering around in the middle of the woods, a young man named Blake (Michael Pitt) treks across the woods to detach himself from the world. After spending the night at a campfire, he returns home as the only people at his house are those who claim to be his friends. After retrieving a box that he had dug up while doing some domestic activities, a man named Thadeus (Thadeus A. Thomas) arrives to sell phone books that ends up being being awkward due to Blake's distracted behavior. Preying around his house, he locks himself where a young woman named Asia (Asia Argento) finds him. With her boyfriend Scott (Scott Green) and friend Lukas (Lukas Haas) also around, they deal with a couple of Mormon missionaries (Adam & Adam Friberg) as the two men with Asia and Lukas' girlfriend Nicole (Nicole Vicius) leave the house. Later that day, a private investigator (Ricky Jay) and a friend of Blake named Donovan (Ryan Orion) tries to find him unaware that Blake is hiding somewhere in the woods.

After Donovan and the investigator leave, Blake returns home where a record executive (Kim Gordon) visits to get him back into rehab. Blake instead, chooses to wallow around as his four friends return listening to music and doing all sorts of things prompting Blake to leave. Walking to town, he goes to a club where he talks with a club goer (Harmony Korine) and later returning home with an intent on what he wants to do.

Other directors would've either take an issue on suicide as something honorable or to attack the person committing it. Since the film is inspired by Kurt Cobain's suicide, like the previous films of Gus Van Sant's Death Trilogy, it brings more questions than answers. Yet, it's the right approach since Van Sant neither condemns nor praises Blake's final actions. Plus, Van Sant goes into that approach where the audience is aware of what this young man has accomplished yet everything that comes around it only troubles him to the point that he has a desire to kill himself. It's really about a man who is in the final moments of his life as he ponders what he's trying to live for.

Now the writing of the film is really more of an outline where Van Sant leaves more room for improvisation. In terms of its structure, the first act is really about Blake wandering around in his own torment and to the world around him. The second act is a bit more non-linear in which its where the directing and editing becomes very idiosyncratic. Where in one scene, we have Lukas and Scott talking to religious counselors while Asia is trying to find Blake, who is in his room watching a Boyz II Men video. It starts off with Asia trying to find Blake where we see the sense of perspectives. That style of Van Sant's editing, writing, and directing really comes into the forefront for entire second act where everything is happening to the Lukas and Scotts's conversations with Blake where it originally starts off with the two and their girlfriends partying. Even the investigation scene is where Blake leaves only to hide on a bench to watch the river while Donovan and the private investigator are trying to find him at the same time.

Though it's obvious what's going to happen in the third act, it's really more of a winding down to what's to come with an even more eerie aftermath. Particularly with the friends of Blake who feel that they could be in trouble since they were in his house. It's really more disturbing in the end since Van Sant doesn’t try to make the audience feel overly empathetic towards Blake. Another thing about Van Sant's writing in this film is the lack of dialogue since its often improvised for a sense of authenticity while Blake barely talks. It's that improvisation and minimalism that gives Van Sant's film an eerie quality, especially in one scene of the second act where Blake is performing and the camera on a dolly track is moving back to see Blake playing with his music. It's one of the scariest and most troubling scenes of the film. Van Sant on the directing front is as potent and observant than ever while on the editing, he gives the film a slow but deliberate pacing that works in its observation and study of the protagonist the audience is seeing.

Helping Van Sant in his minimalist, wandering vision includes two important collaborators who worked in his trilogy, cinematographer Harris Savides and sound designer Leslie Shatz. Savides brings a harrowing yet colorful cinematography to many of the film's interior, wooden scenes with little lighting that gives the film an evocative tone while many of the film's exterior scenes, especially at night where the lighting is often filled with available light or fire. The compositions Savides brings is beautiful while channeling the ghostly quality of what's to come. Leslie Shatz also brings that ghostly, ethereal quality to her sound design with its use of bells and choirs singing in the background that suggest something spiritual that's to come for Blake in his final moments. Shatz also conveys the use of music and the surroundings Blake is in away from the outside world with sounds of trains, waterfalls, airplanes, and everything else. It helps tells the story as Shatz, who won a Grand Technical Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, does amazing work.

While art director Tim Grimes brings a lot of detail to the look of Blake’s house including its dingy kitchen and wooden house design, costume designer Michelle Matland also brings the right kind of clothing from the sunglasses and sweaters that brings a nice reference to Kurt Cobain. Consulting a lot of the film's music is Sonic Youth leader Thurston Moore who brings not just a lot of alternative rock to the forefront along with a cut from the Velvet Underground but also some original music from Lukas Haas and Michael Pitt who really conveys the eerie, disconcerting sound of the music of the times. One of the best pieces of music that brings humor to the film in a movie that lacks humor is Boyz II Men's On Bended Knee that shows that time of the 1990s. The film still retains the classical sense that Van Sant got in his previous parts of his trilogy while opening and closing the film with a mournful opera piece.

The film's small cast includes some fine performances including a few unknowns who are either local actors like the Friberg brothers who are really local actors while the Thadeus A. Thomas is in real life a phone-book salesman. These performances are done realistically and give the film a sense of realism. Cameos from Harmony Korine as a Dungeons & Dragons fan talking to Blake and Kim Gordon who brings a mysterious quality into her performance where the audience isn't sure what she’s playing though from an interpretive view, it could be an angel in disguise as a record executive. It's a fine performance while Ricky Jay brings a lot of humor to his character as he talks about Chinese circus acts while Ryan Orion is excellent as Blake's friend trying to find him while talking a lot of stuff to the detective. The performances of Asia Argento, Nicole Vicius, Lukas Haas, and Scott Green are well done since they do have their moments to stand out when really, they do great background work as Blake's patrons who are unaware of what he's going to do while look at him as a real person instead of a rock star.

Finally, there's Michael Pitt who gives the performance of his career as the troubled yet brilliant Blake. With very little dialogue, Pitt does a lot of muttering, mumbling, and talking to himself yet it sells within each moment of the film. Pitt manages to convey the torment and fragility of a young rock star who has simply has had enough. Often tripping on things, stumbling around, or just wandering off through sense of paranoia, there's never a moment in which Pitt wants empathy or sympathy since he knows what he's about to do is wrong and he can't escape it. It's a selfish character but it's a very human one as Pitt brings all of the qualities that is needed for this troubled young man. Still in his early 20s and with film roles in movies like Bully by Larry Clark, Hedwig & the Angry Inch by John Cameron Mitchell, The Dreamers for Bernardo Bertolucci, and The Village for M. Night Shylaman, Michael Pitt is truly becoming one of the most daring and risk-taking actors of his generation and he's just getting started on his path towards greatness.

The HBO Films Regional 1 DVD of Last Days includes the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio in English, Spanish, and French along with English and Spanish subtitles. The DVD comes in two different sides and two different cinematic formats for the film on the first side. The film does the 16:9 widescreen format that is loved by most film buffs while Van Sant also chooses to bring the 4:3 fullscreen format which he preferred for this film since it was the original theatrical presentation he wanted. The special features on the DVD is very minimal but worth watching. One is a making-of 20-minute featurette where Van Sant, producer Dany Wolf, Harris Savides, and the film's cast talk about the improvisation and creativity that goes on behind the film and how inspiring it was to have a sort of freedom.

The second featurette is a making-of scene where it's the dolly shot track where Lukas Haas shoots the crew trying to get this long dolly shot with crew members trying to remove the railing so the camera wouldn't get that while balancing it. It's a great featurette for any aspiring film director. Only one deleted scene makes it to the DVD and it's the scene where Blake is performing from a ceiling view and it's the scene that was shot in the final cut in that long dolly track shot. Here, we see Blake performing with guitars, fuzz boxes, and everything as he destroys it in the end of the 8-minute scene. The final part of the special features is music video by the band Pagoda led by Michael Pitt which is an alt-rock song of the band performing with his co-star Nicole Vicius dancing around with tapes on her breasts while the band eat while talking. It's a fun video to watch.

While it's a film not for everyone and certainly for those who hadn't enjoyed Van Sant's recent work, Last Days is still an incredible, poignant film from Gus Van Sant led by Michael Pitt's entrancing performance. Though for those who didn't enjoy the elliptical approach of his previous films in the trilogy will sure hate this film. Fans of Nirvana obviously will have mixed feelings though its observant approach makes the film very interesting. While it's nowhere near the brilliance of earlier films like My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, or To Die For, Last Days does remain one of Gus Van Sant's more intoxicating and provocative films of his career. In the end, Last Days is a superb yet melancholic film from Gus Van Sant.



(C) thevoid99 2011

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Elephant


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 7/11/05 w/ Extensive Revisions & Additional Edits.


Written, edited, and directed by Gus Van Sant, Elephant is a film about an ordinary day in Portland, Oregon where kids in an otherwise, typical school day have their lives change when two fellow classmates come and terrorize the school. Inspired by the Columbine school shootings in 1999, the film is a fictional account about what might've happened as well as what motivated two kids into killing other people in school. With a cast of largely unknown young actors including a couple of veterans in Matt Malloy and Timothy Bottoms. Elephant is a harrowing, psychological drama from one of American cinema's most enduring storytellers.

A young student named John (John Robinson) is late for school as his father (Timothy Bottoms) tries to get him to school despite being intoxicated. After a lecture from the school's principal Mr. Luce (Matt Malloy), John hangs out with his friend Eli (Elias McConnell) who is doing a portfolio while a student named Michelle (Kristen Hicks) is going to the library to help out. When John steps outside of the school, two kids named Eric (Eric Duelen) and Alex (Alex Frost) appear carrying long bags and wearing black gear as they tell John to not re-enter the school. Earlier that day, Acadia (Alicia Miles) takes a class session about homosexuality while Nathan (Nathan Tyson) and Carrie (Carrie Finklea) are enjoying the day. While three girls in Jordan (Jordan Taylor), Nicole (Nicole George), and Brittany (Brittany Mountain) make comments about Carrie, their day of gossip would end.

For Eric and Alex, they would make plans of their own the day before the shootings as Eric plays Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, No. 2 Moonlight-Adagio Sostenuto for recreation as they make plans. On the day of the shooting, they wreak havoc while a kid named Benny (Bennie Dixon) watches in horror as do many of the kids in school.

Now for a film that serves as a response to Columbine, the idea would've been to make a long film like the 2002 film Home Room with Erika Christensen, Busy Phillips, Victor Garber, and Agnes Bruckner about the aftermath of a school shooting. Gus Van Sant's approach in is response to Columbine leaves more for interpretation by not giving answers or any kind of explanation. In this minimalist approach, Van Sant prefers to let the audience get to know the characters instead of what is going to happen. In this short, 81-minute film, Van Sant profiles each character for a brief period of time while some things begin to happen all at the same time.

Like his previous effort Gerry, which had a largely improvised, minimalist script by himself, and the film's stars Casey Affleck, and Matt Damon. Elephant is also improvised but the script structure is non-linear in some areas since the film goes back and forth to let the audience know about the characters. The story takes its time to profile each person and their situations with the third act being the actual killings. In that third act, we get to see a moment that could've been heroic but Van Sant chooses to convey tragedy on top of tragedy. Plus, the characters in the film is set in a high school. Now a high school story would've been filled with many stereotypes and for a while, there are a few stereotypes like the characters of Jordan, Brittany, and Nicole who all act like the typical mean girls of high school. Then once we get to know them, the stereotype is thrown out of the window.

Van Sant's minimalist approach to writing is also shown on the directing by using a very small film crew with cinematographer Harris Savides as his main cameraman. Van Sant would film a scene a few times in different perspectives, and that is in the perspective of the characters in the film. For example, the scene where John is being photographed by Eli while Michelle passes by. There's three different versions of that entire scene in the film. Plus, being an improvisational director, Van Sant lets the kids be themselves for a bit giving them a chance to have their moment shine. Plus, the camera sequences would run in long takes where the camera follows whatever characters and the actors feel relaxed and confident enough to be improvisational or just play a character in the right way. This is an example of what real directing is.

If there's an idea of how Van Sant works, it's like this. He's a writer first and then, he direct. During post-production, he edits the film himself with very few assistants around him so he can have an idea on how he'll have a scene go and stop and how to move on the next. In its 81-minute time running, Van Sant brings a nice, engulfing editing style that isn't slow or isn't fast. It's nicely paced while its non-linear structure gives the film a nice rhythm that isn't hard to follow but gives the film a comfortable feeling.

Like his colorful work in Gerry, Harris Savides brings a natural, realism to the film in its color schemes with his camera while in many of the school's exterior scenes. He captures the blandness or ordinary look of its lights and look of the school. Even when using blue-green filters for the a few scenes at night in the home of Eric and a shot of the sky. The cinematography in the film is some of the most real and colorful camera work in the film and Van Sant has made a great decision in choosing Savides as his cinematographer. Art director Benjamin Hayden helps Savides in capturing the bland look of the school from its carpeting to walls and lunch room chairs that helps the look. In the sound department, Leslie Shatz and Felix Andrew do a great job in capturing the sound which sounds like real conversations of schools and the quietness of it.

Then there's the music of the film. Van Sant for years had been known for using pop music in all sorts of moments like previous efforts like My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, and Good Will Hunting. When he did Gerry, he chose the classical work of Avro Part, notably Spiegel Im Spiegel for the musical background. In this film, he uses the piano sonatas of Beethoven to convey the dooming melancholia that surrounds the mood and what is going to come.

Then there's the cast which could've been different if Van Sant used real, more seasoned professional actors. Instead, Van Sant goes for unknowns which helps with the exception of Matt Malloy as a stern but caring principal and Timothy Bottoms as John's drunken yet melancholic father. There's some fine performances from the female cast like Alicia Miles, Brittany Mountain, Nicole George, Jordan Taylor, and Carrie Finklea but it's Kristen Hicks who really stands out as the gawky, quiet Michelle. A character that could've been part of the trouble that's to come but she's the one that has morals and an understanding that makes her more human and it's the one many can relate to.

Bennie Dixon, Nathan Tyson, and Elias McConnell all bring in great performances but it's John Robinson who really stands out as the fresh-faced innocent performance as John. He's like every kid we know, smart, good, and knowing what to do while Robinson brings in a great performance when he knows danger is around. The performances of Alex Frost and Eric Deulen are also in their brooding stature as they try to convey the trouble side of themselves and showing their sick side during the killings.

The Region 1 DVD release that includes two cinematic specifications of the film whether in its original 4:3 full-screen format or the 16:9 widescreen presentation. Along with its 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS sounds along with French and Spanish audio/subtitles. The DVD doesn't really include much except for the film's trailer and a promotional spot for HBO films. The only real feature that is shown is a 12-minute Behind the Scenes segment in which the films shows the actors playing around and talking about high school and their characters with Van Sant and his crew working on the film while he gives a glimpse of what he does in the editing room using an old editing machine as opposed to the computer that some use nowadays.

Elephant is Gus Van Sant's most fulfilling and captivating work since 1991's My Own Private Idaho. Of his films, this ranks as one of the best as well as creating a film that is more about what might've happened with Columbine rather than why did it happen. It is not an easy film to watch but certainly has a subject matter that cannot be ignored. In the end, Elephant is an entrancing yet hypnotic film from Gus Van Sant.



(C) thevoid99 2011

Friday, August 26, 2011

Gerry


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 8/3/04 w/ Additional Edits & New Content.


One of the finest independent filmmakers from the 1980s, Gus Van Sant has always challenged the world with his view on drugs, sexuality, angst, and intelligence. From his 1985 debut film Mala Noche, he would embark into a widely-acclaimed career with two landmark films for 1989's Drugstore Cowboy and 1991's My Own Private Idaho. After a misstep with 1993's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Van Sant returned in 1995 with the media satire To Die For that made Australian actress Nicole Kidman a superstar. In 1997, Van Sant reached a peak with Good Will Hunting that featured comedian Robin Williams in an Oscar-winning performance as psychiatrist to troubled student Matt Damon who also won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay which he co-wrote with fellow co-star Ben Affleck. In 1998, Van Sant decided to cash in on his success with a frame-by-frame remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho which proved to be a disappointment. After 2000's Finding Forrester, some felt Van Sant had lost his way and the director decided to return to his indie film roots. In 2002, Van Sant released a film that was way beyond any of his mainstream work in the film entitled Gerry.

Gerry is a movie about two men named Gerry who both take a hike in the desert and then, get lost. That's pretty much it. Rather than taking on a story with so many layers and contexts, Van Sant returns to simplicity in a European film style that he loved as a young filmmaker. Directed by Van Sant with a largely improvised script he co-wrote with his stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, both Van Sant regulars, the film is really an exercise on survival, morals, and human mentality. In Gerry, Van Sant strips away everything he's done before for a simplistic, minimalist film style with just a few extras, two main actors, and a small film crew filming in several locations like California, Utah, and Argentina. After years of so-so mainstream efforts, Gerry marks an artistic return to form for the noted indie film icon.

Two guys named Gerry are driving through the desert where they decided to stop to take a hike. During their hike, they follow a trail and then stopped following it where the two discussed the TV show Wheel of Fortune. Suddenly, they find themselves lost and have trouble making their way back until night appears as they set a campfire where they have a conversation about various things. The next day, the two men climb hills where they split to find familiar ground until one of them is on top of a rock and unable to get down. After that moment, they continue to try and find something only to be lost in the desert. With no food, water, or rest for three days, the two fight while seeing mirages and other things as they're both dying unsure if they'll ever get help.

The film's minimalist, simplistic plot timed at nearly an hour and forty-five minutes seems like a stretch for a feature-length film. While the film does have its flaws in its lack of actual dialogue and long sceneries where the pacing is slow. Gus Van Sant isn't trying to make a perfect film but rather an experimental film where the audience act as a third party lost in the desert. Van Sant's direction really shines as he just lets the camera flows with some detached two-person shots and close-ups of the actors himself. Van Sant also brings in moments where Matt Damon and Casey Affleck are improvising where the two seemed very relaxed in their performances. Van Sant's approach to just making a film that is simple proves he still has an independent spirit in him and the fact that you can make a movie with just two guys getting lost in a desert. Especially since the film has no opening credits at all proving that it's a hard-nosed indie film.

If Van Sant's direction is as potent in comparison with his more famous films, the film's script is very stripped-down in its presentation, leaving Damon and Affleck to improvise a lot in their dialogue. The conversations about Wheel of Fortune, sanctuaries, nature, and morality are often very sparse. Damon and Affleck pretty much just use their body language and emotions to bring their performances. The two men don't talk very much as they endure several challenges, physically, emotionally, and mentally. While it's not their best performances, in comparison to their previous work with Van Sant, Damon and Affleck bring in performances without any kind of theatrics or traditional dramatic scales but rather something simple and realistic. Particularly Matt Damon, who is more well known as a Hollywood superstar of sorts but he proves himself to have some loyalty in his work with Van Sant and indie films.

In Gerry, Matt Damon strays away from his A-list status to just act and be himself for a bit in his role as one of the Gerry brothers. What this proves for Damon is that he's an actor who is willing to do a big budget film like The Bourne Identity and Ocean's 11 to strange, lowbrow comedies like Stuck on You and a hilarious cameo on Eurotrip to something artsy as Gerry. While his buddy and Casey's brother Ben may have a more A-list status than Matt Damon, Damon is proving himself to be one of the more underrated actors of his generation. Casey Affleck meanwhile, proves he's a more capable, disciplined actor than his own brother as he just brings a smart but flawed approach to his performance as one of the Gerry brothers. Casey, who's appeared in To Die For and Good Will Hunting, has proven himself as a writer himself since he and Matt bring a more minimalist approach to their characters while not leaning to any kind of stereotypes. Overall, the two men bring out fine performances.

Complementing Van Sant's vision is cinematographer Harris Savides whose vast, wondrous cinematography is spellbinding in capturing the look of the deserts and mountains. Even when the day shifts into night, Savides' look is amazing to watch as he just gives a wonderful, grand look into nature where the cinematography is overall exquisite. The film even captures the look of the film with its windy sounds, birdcalls, and speech from sound designer Leslie Shatz and sound editor Felix Andrew with Van Sant, Damon, and Affleck doing the overall editing of the film. Bringing a melancholic tone to the film is composer Arvo Patt who brings an atmospheric, piano score to the film along with earthy, ominous textures to the film itself where it plays well to the film's minimalist style.

***Additional DVD Contents Written on 8/25/11***

The Region1 DVD from Miramax and ThinkFilm presents the film for its 2:35:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio that is enhanced for 16x9 televisions along with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. The only major special feature in the DVD is a thirteen-minute behind the scenes featurette entitled Salt Lake Van Sant. It’s essentially the making of a tracking-crane shot where the two Gerrys are walking on a desert through harrowing winds as it’s shot on location in the Utah Salt Flats as it has a few humorous moments and great tidbits on how to do a shot like that. Other minor special features include a trailer for the film Blue Car and a celebration piece for Miramax as it’s an overall decent DVD.

***End of DVD Tidbits***

While it may not live up to more conventional films Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting or To Die For, Gerry is still a haunting yet engaging film from director Gus Van Sant with help from Casey Affleck and Matt Damon. While the film isn't clearly for everyone because of its simple nature and walk-like pacing, it's still a remarkable film for just being to the point and not has any weird effects or over-the-top theatrics. This film would mark a return-to-form for Van Sant following a period of big-budget Hollywood films. In the end, Gerry is an unconventional yet provocative film from Gus Van Sant and company.



(C) thevoid99 2011

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tokyo!



Tokyo! is an omnibus film by three different filmmakers about the city of Tokyo for three different stories. For this film, non-Japanese directors were employed as Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho provide their own different stories set in Tokyo. Starring Ayako Fujitani, Ryo Kase, Ayumi Ito, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Denis Lavant, Jean-Francois Balmer, Julie Dreyfus, Teruyuki Kagawa, Yu Aoi, and Natao Takenaka. Tokyo! is an extraordinary ominbus from the trio of Gondry, Carax, and Joon-ho.

Interior Design (Written and directed by Michel Gondry, based on the short story comic Cecil & Jordan in New York by Gabrielle Bell).

Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) and Akira (Ryo Kase) have arrived in Japan to stay at the home of their friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito) for the first screening of Akira’s first film. The couple is also looking for an apartment while dealing with low money and parking tickets prompting Akira to take a job. For Hiroko, she finds herself not really doing anything and trying to find an apartment as their car has been impounded. With the screening for Akira’s film happening, Hiroko ponders her own existence as something strange happens to her in her moment of despair.

Merde (Written and directed by Leos Carax)

A strange man (Denis Lavant) comes out of the sewers to wreak havoc and terrorize people as many wonder who he is and what is he doing. After more chaos that led to the deaths of many, the man is captured with no one able to understand him. A French lawyer named Maitre Voland (Jean-Francois Balmer) arrives to Japan to communicate with the man as a trial is set to happen. Yet, the trial becomes a media circus as the man’s statement of hate divides people as he is to be sentenced to death by hanging if found guilty.

Shaking Tokyo (Written and directed by Bong Joon-ho)

A hikikomori (Teruyuki Kagawa) is living a life of isolation has he hasn’t left his apartment for a decade with his telephone being the only outside link so he can order food with the money he has. One day, he makes his first eye contact in a decade to a beautiful young woman (Yu Aoi) who is delivering pizza as an earthquake happens and she faints in his apartment. Though he was able to revive her, she leaves as he yearns to see her again. When a new pizza delivery man (Natao Takenaka) reveals that she quit, the man seeks to find her as he goes outside for the first time in a decade.

The film is essentially about three different stories all set in Tokyo for each director to create their own forty-minute story about things happening in Tokyo. For those three filmmakers, they each get a chance to put their own stamp about life in Tokyo from their own perspective. In Michel Gondry’s short, it’s about a woman whose attempt to help her filmmaker boyfriend in finding an apartment and to help him is a mixture of Gondry’s whimsical humor but also with bits of light-drama that includes his own quirky visual style. Leos Carax’s film is a comedy about a man wreaking havoc creating a state of anarchy as he’s put on trial in a film that is dark but also very humorous. Bong Joon-Ho’s short is a more dramatic piece about the world of the hikikomori in this touching tale of isolation and longing.

The shorts that each filmmaker creates adds to the beauty that is Tokyo and its people as the stories that Gondry, Carax, and Joon-Ho create from an outsider perspective allows the audience to be engaged by these stories. With the characters they present through the different locations in Tokyo, the three filmmakers create a film that is truly spellbinding and imaginative. Whereas most omnibus and anthology films tend to have segments that are great and some that aren’t, this film manages to do more by actually having three great segments that combines into one dazzling film.

The cinematography by Masami Inomoto (Interior Design), Caroline Champetier (Merde), and Jun Fukumoto (Shaking Tokyo) each has a distinctive yet grainy look to the film but they also allow themselves to add their own elements to each segment. Inomoto brings in more stylish look to the coloring for Gondry’s segment while Champetier adds something much darker to the look of the trial scenes in Carax’s segment. Yet, it’s Fukumoto who stands out with a more sunnier yet lush look for many of the interior settings in Joon-Ho’s segment. The editing of Nelly Quettier for Carax’s segment is the most stylish for its jump-cuts and multiple split-screen segments. Cedric Fayolle’s visual effects work for the segments by Gondry and Carax is superb as he creates a wonderful look to a transformation sequence in Gondry’s segment while providing some explosive stuff for Carax’s segment.

The production design work Hiroshi Hayashida for Gondry’s segment is among the best of the three for its claustrophobic look in the apartment while Mitsuo Harada’s work in the Carax segment doesn’t include much except for the cave that the stranger lives in. The set pieces for Joon-Ho’s segment by Toshihiro Isomi is wonderfully stylish for its stack of pizza boxes, books, and various objects. Paul Hsu’s sound work in Gondry’s segment is very good for capturing the chaotic atmosphere that is Tokyo. The music of Etienne Charry for Gondry’s segment and the original music of Byung-woo Lee for the rest each provide some wonderful moments for the film. Charry adds a sense of whimsy to Gondry’s piece while Lee provides some more ominous pieces for Joon-Ho’s segment with a more comical piece for Carax’s score.

The casting is excellent as the film includes some small but notable appearances that include Satoshi Tsumabuki as a businessman that Akira meets in Interior Design, Julie Dreyfus as a interpreter in Merde, and Naoto Takenaka as the pizza delivery man in Shaking Tokyo. In the Interior Design segment, Ayumi Ito provides a very good performance as Akemi, a friend of Hiroko who tries to help her while Ryo Kase is also good as Hiroko’s ambitious filmmaking boyfriend Akira. Ayako Fujitani is brilliant as Hiroko as a young woman lost in a world of ambition and trying to find something as she feels useless in her life. In Merde, Jean-Francois Balmer is very funny as the lawyer while Denis Lavant is great as the strange creature who wreaks havoc upon everyone. In Shaking Tokyo, Yu Aoi is wonderful as an eccentric yet shy pizza delivery girl while Teruyuki Kagawa is phenomenal as the equally shy yet secretive man living as a total recluse.

Tokyo! is a charming and exhilarating omnibus film from the trio of Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-Ho. Fans of these filmmakers will no doubt enjoy the shorts they make while it also offers something for those new to the omnibus/anthology films. It’s a film that proves what omnibus films can do when its filmmakers are each on the same page about how to make all their material into one great package. In the end, Tokyo! is an extraordinary film that features some of the best work of Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho.

Michel Gondry Films: Human Nature - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Dave Chappelle’s Block Party - The Science of Sleep - Be Kind Rewind - (The Thorn in the Heart) - The Green Hornet - The We & the I - (Mood Indigo) - (Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?)


Bong Joon-ho Films: (Barking Dogs Never Bite) - (Memories of Murder) - The Host - (Mother) - Snowpiercer

© thevoid99 2011

Finding Forrester


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 6/14/09 w/ Extensive Revisions & Additional Content.


After achieving commercial success and critical acclaim with 1997's Good Will Hunting that nabbed 3 Oscars for Best Supporting Actor to Robin Williams and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Director Gus Van Sant was clearly at his peak as he achieved his first Oscar nod for Best Director. To follow-up the success of the film, Van Sant did the unthinkable when he signed to direct a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic film Psycho. Van Sant chose to re-make the film in color and shot-for-shot like the original Hitchcock classic that definitely received negative reviews. After the fallout from his remake of Psycho, Van Sant took a break for his personal projects as he returned to film in 2000 with a coming-of-age drama entitled Finding Forrester.

Directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Mike Rich, Finding Forrester tells the story of a young African-American teenager who has a talent for writing while living in the inner-city. After befriending a reclusive novelist who lives near by, the young talent finds himself being accepted into a prestigious private school where he deals with new social changes and such as he leans towards the guidance of his new reclusive friend. Starring Sean Connery, Rob Brown, F. Murray Abraham, Busta Rhymes, Anna Paquin, and Michael Pitt. Finding Forrester is a well-made, coming-of-age drama from Gus Van Sant.

Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) is a 16-year old African-American student who is also a talented basketball player. With a passion for both basketball and books, Jamal doesn't reveal his talents as a writer to his friends as he lives in the Bronx with his mother (Stephanie Berry) and his older brother Terrell (Busta Rhymes). One day, Jamal and his friends notice someone is watching them play as they sneak into his apartment to see who it is where Jamal accidentally leaves his backpack where he retrieves it with notes about his writing. When he and his mother learned he's been accepted to the prestigious Mailor Callow in Manhattan, Jamal meets a young student named Claire (Anna Paquin) who gives him a tour of the place. Though unsure of his new surroundings, he gains a friend in Claire and another student named John (Michael Pitt).

During another trip to the reclusive man's apartment building, he meets the man that is revealed to be William Forrester (Sean Connery) who is impressed by Jamal's writing though he feels the boy could do better as he becomes the boy's mentor. Despite being part of the basketball team and having some friends, the school's literature professor Robert Crawford (F. Murray Abraham) is not impressed by Jamal as Jamal seeks guidance from Forrester. Though he keeps his meeting with Forrester a secret out of respect for Forrester, Forrester asks that whatever material Jamal has written must stay in the apartment. Jamal decides to take Forrester out of his apartment where it starts off slow until they go to an empty Yankee Stadium as Forrester begins to open up about his life and frustrations with the world of literature.

With Crawford becoming more suspicious about Jamal's writing talents as a writing contest is coming up, Jamal finds himself in trouble with Crawford with Forrester reluctant to help. With Jamal's future in trouble, it's up to Forrester to help out the young boy.

While the film's plot might be relative to other old-men guiding a young man into life lesson's in other films like Martin Brest's Scent of a Woman and Van Sant's own Good Will Hunting. Screenwriter Mike Rich does create a story that is rich with the idea of an Africa-American youth getting a chance to have his writing talents pushed further by a reclusive novelist. Yet, it's really about a young man getting help as his talents in writing gets attention by an elite school while helping this reclusive old novelist to rediscover life and writing. The screenplay does show a character like Jamal dealing with all of these changes around him where he tries to deal with his new surroundings but hoping not to alienate his old friends at the Bronx. At the same time, it allows the character of William Forrester to slowly unveil himself while showing reasons why he didn't publish anymore material.

Though the script's faults may lie in its familiar plot points and storylines. It is handled with such grace and subtlety by Gus Van Sant. Van Sant's direction definitely leans more towards the European art film style rather than something conventional in his compositions and shots. Though there are some conventional approach to framing and shooting decisions, notably the basketball scenes and some of the drama that goes on in the classroom. Still, Van Sant is engaging through what he shoots and presents while giving the actors a chance to be loose in their performance without any kind of huge theatrics. While the material is a bit sub-standard in comparison to the other films Van Sant has sone in the past. He does create a look and feel that is unique without forcing any kind of melodrama to the film.

Cinematographer Harris Savides, who would become Van Sant's regular cinematographer in the next series of projects, does great work with the film's low-key, colorless photography style. While there's bright colors in several exterior scenes in some of the film's NYC locations including a museum scene. Savides' camera in its interiors and nighttime sequences are filled with intimate shots and not much lighting schemes to revel in the dark world of William Forrester. Savides' work in its photography is exceptionally exquisite without any kind of theatrical lighting schemes and such. Editor Valdis Oskarsdottir does some excellent work with the film's stylized editing with the use of rhythmic jump-cuts to keep the film moving quite leisurely. Even as it moves quite well for a film that's around 135-minutes long as the editing is done in a conventional yet well-mannered style.

Production designer Jane Musky with set decorators Susan Bode and Lynn Tonnessen plus art directors Robert Guerra and Darrell K. Keister do some fine work with the look of the prep school in its richness plus the home of William Forrester. Notably as it is surrounded by books and photographs while they do some fine work with the old photos of Sean Connery as a young man including a painting of him at the school. Costume designer Ann Roth does some very good work with the costumes from the prep school look that the kids wear to the contemporary, urban clothing that Jamal's friends wear to contrast the two different worlds. The sound work by editor Kelley Baker plus mixing from Van Sant and his longtime collaborator Leslie Shatz works very well to complement the chaos and surroundings that the characters are at including the world of New York City.

The film's soundtrack is mostly filled with a mix of jazz pieces from Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and many others plus ambient-like guitar pieces from Bill Frisell. Along with an island-flavored cover of Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, there's a famous piece revolving around Forrester's bike rides to the musical style of Carl Orff, which is often famous for the theme pieces from Terrence Malick's 1973 debut film Badlands.

The casting by Francine Maisler, Bernard Telsey, and David Vaccari is well-assembled with some memorable small roles from rapper Lil' Zane, Damion Lee, Damany Mathis, and Fly Williams III as Jamal's urban friends along with Matthew Noah Wood as a basketball rival of Jamal at the prep school and Glenn Fitzgerald as a man who drops food off for Forrester. Other small roles include Michael Nouri as Claire's father, Richard Easton as a well-mannered professor who is amazed by Jamal's talents, and April Grace as Jamal's English teacher at his old urban high school. The film also features some cameo appearances from Alex Trebek in an episode of Jeopardy which features an appearance from Van Sant regular Alison Folland plus Joey Buttafuoco as a nightman at Yankee Stadium and Matt Damon in one of the film's final scenes as a lawyer.

Stephanie Berry is very good as Jamal's caring, no-nonsense mother while rapper Busta Rhymes gives a surprising yet restrained role as Jamal's older brother who is amazed by his talents and encouraging it. In one of his early film roles, Michael Pitt is very good as John Coleridge, a quiet student who befriends Jamal who would defend him during a class session with Crawford. Anna Paquin is in fine form as Claire, a student who also befriends Jamal and is amazed by his intelligence as her relationship with Jamal nearly goes into romantic territory but fortunately, doesn't. F. Murray Abraham is good as Professor Robert Crawford, a failed writer who tries to get Jamal kicked out believing he isn't good enough. Abraham's performance is good, his character kind of comes off as one-dimensional as a frustrated man who is very ignorant about Jamal's talents.

In his film debut, Rob Brown is great as Jamal Wallace, a talented young kid who loves to play basketball but also likes to read books and write things. Brown's performance is very restrained and also not very brash as he gives the character an innocence who is more concerned about doing the right thing but doesn't want to be alienated by his friends. Brown really shines in his performance while having a great rapport with his co-star Sean Connery. Connery gives a magnificent yet humorous performance which includes the famous line, "You're the man now, dawg". Connery displays a restraint but also a grizzled persona of a man trying to hide from his demons while guiding a young writer to greatness as it's one of Connery's better performances which is often lost in some of the bad action films he's done in the late 90s and early 2000s.

***Additional DVD Content Written on 8/24/11***

The 2001 Region 1 DVD from Columbia Pictures presents the film for its original 2:35:1 theatrical aspect ratio for the widescreen format with 5.1 Dolby Digital for English and 2-Channel Dolby Surround for English and French with subtitles in both languages. The DVD includes several special features made specifically for the DVD release.

The first is HBO’s Making-of TV special about the film which is essentially a 15-minute typical making-of special that features interviews with cast members, director Gus Van Sant, screenwriter Mike Rich, and producers for the film. Sean Connery and Rob Brown talk a lot about the film’s themes while Van Sant discusses wanting to create something about reclusive writers and unlikely writers. It’s a pretty good featurette that has some moments though it has some distracting narration. The second special featurette is the 12-minute Found: Rob Brown about the casting of Rob Brown. Van Sant reveals the difficulty of finding a sixteen-year old African-American kid from the Bronx where he turned to Spike Lee for help. Through the casting call, Brown was discovered as Van Sant helped him prepare for the part as did Sean Connery to help him make things easier as it also includes some outtakes and fun moments between takes.

Another mini-feature are two deleted choir scenes cut out from the film where the two scenes has the Dewitt Clinton High School Chorus perform a variations of Lacrimosa and Lean on Me. They feature some great shots though it’s obvious why they got cut from the final film. Other additional special features includes a filmographies section for Gus Van Sant, Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, and Anna Paquin plus trailers for the film along with Van Sant’s To Die For, Caroll Ballard’s Fly Away Home that starred Anna Paquin, and First Knight that starred Sean Connery. Also in the DVD is a booklet where screenwriter Mike Rich talks about the inspiration for the film as well as brief tidbits on the production. Overall, it’s a decent DVD release that doesn’t offer much but it is still good for fans of the film.

***End of the DVD Contents***

While it may be considered one of his weakest feature films in his library of films, Finding Forrester is still a good yet engaging film from Gus Van Sant featuring great performances from Sean Connery and Rob Brown. While fans of Van Sant will certainly feel like it's one of his weaker efforts but doesn't reach the low point of films like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and his 1998 remake of Psycho. It's a film that does stray a bit from convention while providing a wonderful insight into the world of writing. In the end despite its flaws, Finding Forrester is still a good, coming-of-age drama from Gus Van Sant.



(C) thevoid99 2011