Sunday, March 9, 2014

Review: The Great Beauty

Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, the city of yearning.

                                         - Giotto Di Dondone (1266 - 1337)

Rates:  *  *  *  *  1/2

Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has reached a milestone; he's just turned 65. To celebrate he throws a lavish, rooftop party, an act very much in keeping with his character. Jep is garrulous, verbose, a bon vivant and something of a scoundrel, the sort of character that defies simple adjectives. 

He's also a Roman, in that he has lived most of his life in the eternal city and has been shaped, and even defined, by it. Rome is depicted here as a city rich in culture; of food, language, art, conversation and history, all things close to Jep's guarded heart. 

Arriving in Rome in his early twenties, Jep quickly established himself as an author, publishing a classic work of melancholy romantic fiction. And then, just as quickly, abandoned serious literature live it up, making good money through journalism but devoting most of his energy to carousing. As he puts it, 'I didn't just want to live the high life, I wanted to be the king of the high life.'

A post he attained early and maintained, through four decades.

Now, with the end much closer than the beginning, Jep takes stock. While still drinking, dancing, talking, arguing and loving his way through an endless series of short days and long nights, he also finds moments to ponder the meaning of it all. Away from the crowds and the bustle, he walks along the Rhone, goes to art galleries, seeks out old friends, thinks about things long forgotten.

Jep is a restless man, easily distracted, contrary and contentious. And this episodic film is designed to reflect his character.

It's no surprise to learn that Jep never married and never seriously considered settling down. While this is presented initially as a lifestyle choice, it is subsequently revealed as also a bare necessity; he is a difficult person to be close to, and occasionally turns on even members of his closest circle with brute savagery.

But he can also be warm and generous, evidenced by the gentle relationship he strikes up with a middle aged stripper. And the romantic streak alluded to in his long ago first novel still surfaces, particularly when he reflects on the girl, now deceased, who inspired him to write it. These feelings, it seems, were subsumed, but never entirely repressed.

Ultimately though, Jep seems most at home with his own company; wandering the streets, absorbing the wonders that life has to offer. And these are many and varied. While the film has an almost elegiac tone at times, it also delivers marvels; a giraffe standing in an abandoned piazza, a flock of storks on a balcony at dawn, a famous art gallery explored by candlelight.

Jep ends his odyssey thinking about death, knowing his own isn't much further away. He reflects via voice over, 'This is how it always ends, with death. But first there was life, hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah...' It's a cryptic ending, to a film wide open to interpretation; is he saying that as his life was full, his death becomes insignificant? Or just the opposite, that the commotion of his life really just disguised the emptiness that he now has to face. 

One of the pleasures of this brilliant film will be puzzling over questions like these, for some years to come.

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino scored two years ago with This Must Be the Place, a quirky road movie featuring Sean Penn as reclusive musician known only as Cheyenne. And there are a number of associations between this earlier film and The Great Beauty; both are composed of a series of vignettes, instead of a conventional plot, and both centre on characters conducting a review of their lives.

Both Cheyenne and Jep are seekers; the former for his estranged father who he hasn't seen for many years, the latter for a connection of any sort that cuts through his cynicism and stirs his emotions. But while the characters share similarities, Sorrentino has also diverged and matured in his approach, now offering a film that is deeply linked to some of the great works of Italian cinema. There is much here that is indebted to Fellini and Minnelli, among many other masters.

There is also humour, amidst the reflections and pathos, some of it surprisingly broad. Sorrentino takes particular aim at the contemporary art world, where Jep works as a critic, and depicts the film's artists as a pack of shallow, pretentious charlatans, more concerned with maintaining their image than producing anything enduring. And there are also pointed potshots at organised religion, gender politics and Gen Y. While most of this is funny, some is just plain silly, or simply over-exaggerated, and so provides some of the film's few week spots.

Mostly though, this is an intoxicating, enchanting mix. A film that switches emotional modes rapidly and then nails them, one after the other. The funny parts are (mostly) funny, the thought provoking elements make you think, the silent stretches of contemplation are simply stunning.

Tying the disparate elements together is Servillo, a veteran actor who has always worked at home. His performance here is charismatic, charming, abrasive and always surprising. You keep waiting, expectantly, to see what the actor and the film throw up for you next, and you are rarely disappointed. There is so much going on here on different levels that it's really quite difficult to describe in a few paragraphs.

So we'll abandon that project right now, and end by saying that this is a film that is for anyone who has ever been interested in anything, who has ever loved, and who has ever had doubts. Which is a clumsy way of saying it has a universal message. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Movie Stars That Had Early Career Bit Parts on TV

Starting out, most actors will take any sort of assignment. Commercials, info-mercials, dinner theatre, whatever. For an up and comer then, a small part in a popular TV show is a comparatively prestigious gig, bringing with it immediate exposure to a large audience. These early credits are then often forgotten, if and when the actor makes it to the big time.

Here are 5 Hollywood stars who took an early bow on the small screen:


Fremmer in Moonlighting

When I was in primary school, this romantic-comedy-detective show was my favourite thing on TV, although it's nowadays best remembered as the vehicle that set Bruce Willis on the road to mega stardom. But it also provided an early career moment for another young actor. In the first episode of Season 1, Gunfight at the So-So Corral, the first character onscreen is Fremmer, a young wannabe hitman played by a fluffy haired, 27 year old Tim Robbins. Something of a TV veteran, there were bit parts in The Love Boat and Hill Street Blues before Moonlighting came along, Robbins tackles his part with gusto and his role here is memorably... goofy. His fight with an aging, top shelf hitman is a masterpiece of unintentionally silly slapstick, and the look on his face as he tries to get away is gormless enough to have come out of The Hudsucker Proxy. You can watch it here.


Mascot in Monk

Oscar winner, arthouse darling and tentpole franchise mainstay, Jennifer Lawrence is the girl that can do no wrong. With legions of fans and a queue of well credentialed directors lining up to sing her praises, it's almost hard to believe that her first credit on IMDB dates only from 2006. And, even more astounding, is such a minor part that her character doesn't even have a name! Who could treat J-Law in such a way? Unthinkable!! But there it is; in this episode from Season 5 of Tony Shalhoub's quirky detective series, Mr Monk and The Big Game, the girl wonder dons a bear suit and jumps around on the sidelines of a high school basketball game, before briefly pulling her head off to talk to the coach. Will wonders never cease? The scene is here.


Fast Eddie Felcher in Miami Vice

For me, Ben Stiller seems like such a product of the 90's that it's sometimes difficult to imagine his existence prior to Reality Bites. And yet, here he is in one of the previous decades most iconic shows, giving a high octane speed rap to a white suited Detective Crockett in Miami Vice. But, in this, Stiller definitely wasn't alone, as MV gave an early credit to a staggering number of Hollywood's biggest names, including Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Liam Neeson and (very hard to imagine)... Helena Bonham Carter? Find a full list of the Vice's prominent guest stars here, and Stiller's motor-mouthed effort here.


Cynthia McAllister on Medium

And now for something... a bit icky. Rising star Emma Stone has made a name for herself playing a series of smart, hip, sassy young women in popular movies like Easy A and The Amazing Spider Man. But her first prominent role was on TV in the suburban psychic drama Medium, playing an altogether different sort of character. She even had a different name; born Emily Stone, she decided to take a stage name as the Screen Actor's Guild already had someone with this handle. She initially chose Riley Stone, which is how she is credited on Medium, before settling on Emma, a nickname her mother had for her when she was a child. As for the ickiness? Riley Stone plays Cynthia McAllister, a troubled young woman who has been bullied into an incestuous relationship with her father, a disturbing plot that you can get a snapshot of here.


Beach Patrol Cop in The Mod Squad

As a movie star, Harrison Ford has been in some of the biggest, most successful films ever made. And, before that, he served a lengthy apprenticeship playing bit parts in B movies and TV serials, of varying quality. One of the bigger TV shows he was in (a list that includes Ironside, Gunsmoke and Kung Fu), he played a cop in the very first episode of this time capsule action drama, a role so tiny that he wasn't even credited. But there he is: Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Deckard, learning his chops on the beach patrol. And while I couldn't find an actual clip of this moment from the show, for a giddy Harrison Ford experience check out his even earlier cameo in The Great Escape here.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Australia's Forgotten Oscar Winners

Australia has had some great success at The Oscars in recent years. And our winners have been lionised such that they are probably familiar to nearly everyone; Rusty and Cate and Shiney McShine and Crazy Mel (before he went crazy).

Less well known then the recent victors are some Oscar winning Australians from years past. For this country has produced winners going back decades, a number of whom were recognised for their work on some of the most famous movies in the history of cinema. 

Here are five Oscar winning Aussies, now slightly overlooked:


Best Cinematography - 1950

The Third Man

Born in Perth in 1913, Krasker moved to Europe as a teenager to study art and worked initially as a stills photographer in Dresden and Paris. Moving to London in the late 30's, Krasker took a job at Korda Studios and soon moved into cinematography. Influenced by both film noir and German expressionism, which he had been exposed to on the continent, Krasker established a name for himself with moody, starkly contrasted imagery. His movie career followed an established path; work on B pictures like The Thief of Baghdad (1940) leading to more prestigious assignments, like Olivier's Henry V (1944). He put himself at the forefront of his field with brilliant work on David Lean's Brief Encounter, generally considered one of the finest British movies ever made, although Krasker would clash with the director over the shooting of certain scenes. His work was held in such regard though, that he was Carol Read's first choice to shoot The Third Man, and this became Krasker's signature work. His imaginative lighting and inventive camera angles are a notable feature of the film, and he was rightly recognised at the Academy Awards in 1950. Krasker subsequently moved to Hollywood and lensed a number of other high profile movies, before retiring in 1965.


Best Costume Design - 1951, 1957 & 1959

An American in Paris
Les Girls
Some Like it Hot

Costume designer Orry-Kelly (born Orry George Kelly) is Australia's most successful Oscar winner, earning three statuettes in the 1950's. The son of a tailor from Kiama, New South Wales, Orry-Kelly studied art in Sydney before moving to New York in the 1920's to pursue an acting career. There he shared an apartment with another up and comer, Archie Leach (AKA Cary Grant), while taking odd jobs to make ends meet. He painted murals and did some casual costume work on Broadway, which lead to a job offer in Hollywood. Moving to LA in 1932, Orry-Kelly soon realised his talents lay specifically in costumes and he became an in-demand designer, working for all the major studios. Working prolifically, his work is featured in some of the best known films of the era, including; Casablanca, Oklahoma! and The Maltese Falcon, and he would end with an amazing 263 film credits. But it was some of his most flamboyant work that earned him his Oscars, and the engagingly silly drag costumes of Some Like It Hot are probably his most enduring contribution to film history. A witty, acerbic man, and an outrageous drunk, Orry-Kelly appears to have lived a melancholy life outside of the studio system, and he died of alcoholism in his sixties. His pall bearers included both Grant and Billy Wilder. Gillian Armstrong is reportedly working on a documentary of his life, which may include the rumour that he and Grant were occasional lovers, as well as friends. 


Best Adapted Screenplay - 1956

Around the World in 80 Days

John Farrow's eventful life began in Sydney in 1904, as the son of a dressmaker and tailor. A restless youth, Farrow joined the merchant marine as a teenager and traveled the Pacific. After a chance meeting with pioneering film producer Robert J. Flaherty, Farrow took an interest in cinema and moved to California in 1927, hoping to get work in the industry. He did odd jobs at the fledgling film studios and began writing, and by the 1930's had established himself as a solid, mid tier screenwriter. He expanded into directing and racked up a number of B picture credits in the lead up to World War II. In 1936 he married actress Maureen O'Sullivan and they had four children together, one of whom, Mia Farrow, would become more famous than either of her parents. He joined the Navy and saw active duty during the war, then returned to Hollywood and made a series of successful war pictures. But his career declined in the 1950's, and he was largely back to assigned screen writing work when he won a surprise Oscar for co-writing Around the World in 80 Days, generally considered one of the less distinguished films to taste Oscar success. Farrow often expressed a desire to work in the Australian film industry but, apart from producing some Australian documentaries, this idea was never realised. He died of a heart attack in Beverly Hills, aged only 58.


Best Costume Design & Best Art Direction - 1968


Melbourne born John Truscott achieved a rare double Oscar win in 1968 for his work on the period film Camelot, garnering recognition for his art direction and costumes. Truscott was an acclaimed costume and set designer from the theatre, with a long history of working on large and small stage productions in Australia. His well received work on a theatrical production of Camelot in 1963 lead to an invitation to Hollywood to work on the film adaptation, which makes his subsequent Oscar success, on his first film, even more remarkable. Although the acclaim for his film work was not universal (film critic Leonard Maltin called Camelot's production design 'cheap'). Truscott's film career was short lived; having worked on the big budget musical western Paint Your Wagon he drifted back to theatre, although he did not return to Australia till 1978. On his return, Truscott worked on a number of projects, including designing the Melbourne Arts Centre's interior and serving as creative director of Brisbane's World Expo in 1988. He passed away in 1993.


Best Original Song - 1981

Arthur's Theme (The Best You Can Do)

Australia has only produced one nominee in the best song category, and so one winner, and who else could this be but Peter Allen, one of the great music populists. The song came from the successful romantic comedy Arthur, starring Dudley Moore as a spoilt, alcoholic millionaire and Lisa Minelli as the blue collar girl who takes his fancy. Arthur's Theme was largely written by Christopher Cross, who sings the song, in collaboration with Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sayer (Bacharach's long time writing partner). But Allen, Minelli's ex husband, also contributed enough material to get a song writing credit and, ultimately, an Oscar. The song's famous refrain, 'If you get caught between the moon and New York City' is reportedly Allen's, from an unproduced song he wrote for himself some years before. The song's video is here  (you know you want to).

Review: The Wind Rises

Rates:  *  *  *

Film makers are an obsessive bunch. Which makes sense; there are a thousand and one details that go into the making of every film, so being a bit OCD is probably an evolutionary advantage. Similarly, film makers are often drawn to stories about other obsessive people, real or imaginary. This is undoubtedly because they see in these committed characters a reflection of themselves and their own desires.

And so it is with The Wind Rises, venerable Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's latest, and reportedly final, feature.

Jiro Horikoshi is a small boy born in a provincial town just after the dawn of the 20th century. His childhood is entirely disarming; Jiro goes to a basic school, helps his parents with the many chores around their semi-rural property and dotes on his younger sister. Important character traits are established early. Jiro has a strong sense of morality, demonstrated when he defends a weaker boy from a group of bullies, and his generally calm demenaour conceals a burning passion: Jiro is obsessed with flight.

From an early age, he has fantastical dreams about taking to the air in a home made aircraft. In one of these he meets Caproni, a famed Italian aircraft engineer. While the young Jiro would like to be a pilot, he already knows this dream is cursed; his acute myopia will always keep the pilots seat out of reach. But he is impressed with Caproni and his high minded talk about aircraft being 'beautiful dreams,' and resolves to be an aircraft designer instead.

In the first of several jumps forward in time, the film then moves to find Jiro as a young man, returning to university in Tokyo by train. En route he meets Naoko, a cute young woman he immediately feels a sense of connection with.

As their train arrives in the city, a devastating earthquake strikes (the real life disaster of 1923) and a city wide fire erupts in the ensuing chaos. Jiro helps Naoko find her way home, and the director produces one of the most stunning sequences of his long career. The quake, and its aftermath, is realistically, but flamboyantly depicted, with the harrowing drama of the moment sitting alongside some surrealistic touches (the way the railway track leaps in the air and the earth literally roars before it shakes). It's a stunning sequence, serving as a bridge between the imaginative content of the director's earlier films and the more realistic tone adopted here.

Back at university, Jiro has grown into a pleasant but soberly committed young man, almost entirely dedicated to his aeronautic studies. His head is always in a book, or bent over his drafting table, and his designs are iconoclastic. In rare moments of levity, he sees plane parts everywhere he looks, whether watching birds flying past, or eating mackerel for dinner and remarking that the bones would make perfect wing struts.

Another jump forward finds Jiro working for Mitsubishi, now trying to turn his ideas into reality. Japanese industry is depicted as outdated and backward and Jiro, and the companies other young designers, constantly hit their head on the ceiling imposed by the use of wood and canvas, as opposed to metal. They all laugh at the fact that their experimental planes are taken to the test airfield by bullock, but they laugh through gritted teeth. Progress is slow, Jiro frustrated.

A chance encounter then allows him to rekindle his association with Naoko, who has grown into a delicate and sickly woman. Their friendship soon blossoms into romance and leads Jiro to the one great question posed by the direction of his life; as Naoko becomes sicker, will he choose her or his work? In a move so selfish it could only be true, he tries to avoid this decision altogether, marrying Naoko and installing her in his manager's house, so he can see her for a few minutes at the end of his 18 hour workdays. His wife's condition rapidly deteriorates.

But Jiro does, at least, make some progress with his designs, coming up with a radical new prototype that finally seems to match the vision in his head. Although, when it comes, even this is something of a Pyrrhic victory. The military has always been Mitsubishi's main customer and as the 1930's crest and begin their slide towards a world war, it is obvious that Jiro's planes are going play a key part. Ultimately, his design would become the Zero fighter, one of the war's most famous instruments and star of many film adaptations of the attack on Pearl Harbour.

This seems to point the way to the film's conclusion; a single minded dreamer forced to face the negative consequences of his good work. But, disappointingly, the film decides to dodge this and retreats, tamely, to fantasy again for its conclusion. Jiro's wife does die - fittingly while he's at the airfield - and he dreams a final dream of finding her again, watched over by Caproni, who compliments him on his plane design. Nodding at a passing version of the Zero, Jiro remarks, 'None of them ever came back,' which is an elegant summation, if not dramatically satisfying.

With The Wind Rises, Miyazaki has decided on a coda that is entirely at odds with the rest of his filmography. There are no forest spirits, animal demons, talking cats or enchanted bathhouses here. And, for a while, it seems as though he has hit the jackpot, that his beautiful dream of a stylishly animated bio-pic about a difficult man is to be brilliantly realised. The opening hour of the movie, charting Jiro's childhood, arrival in the city and fledgling career is wonderfully captivating.

But, unfortunately, the longer the film progresses, the more it sheds this initial sheen.

Jiro's quest becomes repetitive and, after a time, tiresome. He keeps having great design ideas, only to have them flail when he tries to build them, a repeated series of events that slowly loses its charm. And there are some odd elements to the story, which take up screen time without adding very much. Chief among these is a grey eyed German entertainer who befriends Jiro, and offers him snatches of cryptic advice.

The film's main, non-aeroplaney element, the doomed love affair, struggles to offer what it needs to, in order to balance the story. The adult Naoko is so frail, right from the time Jiro finds her again, that their interaction is mostly kept to holding hands in bed. Naoko is barely able to function and is so obviously ill fated that there is no dramatic tension regarding the outcome. She is clearly going to die young, and it is also blatant that her husband will largely ignore her beforehand.

But the film's main problem is the ending, which comes across as a copout. You could make the argument that this isn't a war film, rather a study of obsessive tendencies, but my feeling is that Jiro needed to be confronted with the horrors that he contributed to. This is provocative, but a necessary counterweight to the film's overall theme, which appears to indicate that artists must be free from normal behavioural constraints in order to achieve their ends. While you can make this argument, one logical conclusion is that artistic tunnel vision can produce some pretty unpleasant consequences, which it clearly does here. It would have been interesting to see what Jiro finally made of it all, his contributions as an engineer and a man, viewed from a broader perspective.

The Wind Rises is a visually arresting, but only fitfully successful, movie. Miyazaki deserves credit for following his own heart and ending his career as he wanted, its just a shame that the results are so uneven. Making a lengthy biopic as an animated feature is a bold play and, as Jiro's story demonstrates, bold plays often end unsatisfactorily.