Off the back of the release of ‘American Sniper’, Clint Eastwood’s patriotic biopic of the US military’s deadliest shooter Chris Kyle, I run down five of the best ‘American _______’ pictures.
5. American Psycho
Who can forget Christian Bale’s crazed performance as investment banker Patrick Bateman? Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ book of the same name, ‘American Psycho’ is a bloody good film.
4. American Pie
Often, the original is best and this definitely applies to teen comedy franchise ‘American Pie’. The first film saw Jim and his friends make a pact to all lose their virginity on prom night, leading to hilarious cringe-worthy incidents of humiliation. After the initial trilogy, the embarrassment continued with poorly received spin-offs.
3. American History X
In ‘American History X’, Edward Norton stars as neo-Nazi extremist Derek Vinyard. After serving time in prison for manslaughter, he and his views are released to influence his younger brother and those around him. Remembered for its brutality and non-linear narrative, it is a modern masterpiece that came 311th in Empire’s list of the Greatest Movies of All Time.
2. American Gangster
Ridley Scott has been a little bit hit and miss in the past decade or so but his crime epic ‘American Gangster’ was undoubtedly a high point. With colossal performances from Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, the story of drug-smuggling Frank Lucas was exhilarating from start to finish.
1. American Beauty
Taking the top spot is the iconic ‘American Beauty’ directed by Sam Mendes. The plot follows the midlife crisis of office worker Lester Burnham, played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey, who falls in love with his teenage daughter’s best friend. If his wife finds out, it’ll be no bed of roses…
The growing up process is, of course, universally familiar and we’re no stranger to watching characters age on screen. Whether it’s child actors transitioning to adulthood across many years on television or film franchises, or fictional characters lives developing through various actors, it is a progression that we are very used to. In a project that was filmed across a twelve year period, forward-thinking director Richard Linklater presents a coming-of-age story with unique scope. ‘Boyhood’ stars Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr who starts the film a six-year-old boy riding around care-free on his bike, and ends an eighteen-year-old ready to start college. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play Mason’s parents and his older sister is portrayed by Lorelai Linklater, who is the daughter of the director. The film steadily follows Mason and his family’s growth, through their ups and downs, and revolutionises the art of storytelling in doing so.
The logistics of filming one group of actors once a year, every year, for over a decade is astounding, and moulding the footage from each shoot into a coherent, touching tale is admirable. Decorated with references to politics and pop culture, the passing of time is completely natural – so much so that it’s almost documentary-like. There are no title cards or captions to assist in illustrating time hops in the narrative. Instead, subtle pacing is utilised to offer a pure unprocessed flow. An avid video game fan, we watch in awe as noughties kid Mason upgrades from Gameboy Advance to XBOX to Nintendo Wii and matures whilst dealing with his at times turbulent home life. In all honesty, the plot itself is nothing too remarkable, and with a standard delivery involving different Masons and a little make-up for the grown-ups, it’d make a good film. However, it is the reality of the film-making process and the sheer commitment shown by all involved that makes the result truly extraordinary.
In work that will so obviously be talked about in terms of its development, it would be a shame for the acting talent displayed to go unnoticed. In the early stages, when Coltrane and his character Mason were just small children, I guess he couldn’t do much more than be himself. Into his teenage years though, Coltrane grew up and grew into his role, giving a likeable performance, despite the awkward puberty stage. The same can be said for Lorelai Linklater who gets the annoying yet loving older sister part just right. Whilst building the structure of Boyhood, Linklater worked with Ethan Hawke on a trilogy of romantic films which spanned a whopping 18 years so the pair are more than accustomed to unorthodox film-making. Hawke, in his role as Mason’s father, gives similar speeches to those that we associate with his work for Linklater, giving ‘birds and the bees’ wisdom while he does a bit of growing up himself. His dialogue is always interesting, and his laidback father figure attitude juxtaposes with the stricter mother who, after separating from her children’s father, goes from one bad relationship to the next. The family dynamic plays out realistically, and when they come together, the time that they’ve spent together on and off screen is evident.
In the past year or two, we’ve had a few treats that are not only enjoyable films, but wonderful cinematic experiences which are helping move the industry forward. Films that enhance the movie-going experience should be held in the highest regard and this falls firmly into that category. It provides a perfect sense of escapism as we forget our own lives for a few hours and become engrossed in Mason’s. Richard Linklater has proven himself as a pioneering creator of film, constructing his craft in one of the most personal projects you can imagine. ‘Boyhood’ is his brainchild invention and he has carefully raised it to become his masterpiece.
Earlier this year, the film world was hugely saddened by the tragic death of the award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. His passing resulted in the heightened sense of anticipation around Anton Corbijn’s spy thriller ‘A Most Wanted Man’, the film to feature his last leading role. Adapted from the book by acclaimed espionage novelist John le Carré, the story centres around intelligence operative Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) and his efforts to track Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a suspected Russian terrorist captured on Hamburg CCTV. The intricate plotting combined with Corbijn’s creative style makes for solid if unspectacular viewing, boosted by an awe-inspiring swan song from one of our most highly regarded performers.
The bleakness of the seedy setting seeps into the atmosphere of the film from the outset with a gloomy sky view of the Elbe harbour, and this murkiness bleeds into the characters, or Bachmann in particular. Wanting to put his blemished past behind him, his old-school methods are upgraded to fall in line with the 21st century but are continuously questioned and intervened with by the post 9/11 westernised attitude towards the Muslim community. Bachmann, fighting what always feels like a losing battle, is dishevelled and weather-beaten though not without a dry sense of humour. He mulls over his evidence on the staple diet of black coffee, cigarettes and Scotch. Like the last le Carré film adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I found the pace sluggishly slow and it is very much in the grown-up cinema category. I imagine I may appreciate its complexities more in time or perhaps after a second watch, but aside from Hoffman’s fine character work, there was little else in this for me.
After a string of strong performances throughout his career, it comes as no surprise that his final central turn is as good as we all hoped it would be. The excellence of his Teutonic accent draws us in initially until we are so taken in by the character that it becomes merely a side note. Bachmann is a man whose talents go unrecognised as others interfere with his carefully planned end game in order to achieve a quick result, and his frustration over this is compelling. No stranger to playing lonely souls hampered by personal demons, this time it feels incredibly raw given the circumstances and the closing scenes hold a cold air of finality. Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams are less than memorable in their supporting roles, the latter’s take on the German accent leaving a lot to be desired. Daniel Bruhl is criminally underused as a spy-tech expert and his casting seems based on geographical factors alone as he isn’t given much to do, despite his capabilities.
‘A Most Wanted Man’ takes a visually interesting look at modern day espionage, bringing racial politics and corruption to the forefront. Despite the plodding nature of the pacing and weightlessness of the supporting cast, it has a vital performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman that just about makes it all worthwhile. We’ve still to see him in the final Hunger Games instalments, but his portrayal of haggard underdog spy Bachmann marks a bittersweet penultimate chapter in his fascinating back catalogue, only highlighting the poignancy of the loss.
In a summer full of blockbusters with brains, acclaimed director Luc Besson gives us ‘Lucy’, a sci-fi film that explores the maximum potential of the human psyche. Scarlett Johansson stars in the titular role, continuing her recent streak of forward-thinking performances. Set around the grubby Taiwanese underworld, Lucy finds herself in trouble with a local drug lord, and her bloodstream is subjected to a deadly amount of a synthetic substance which lets humans use more than the usual ten percent of their brain capacity. This leads her to track down scientist Professor Samuel Norman, played by Morgan Freeman, who has years of research dedicated to the topic. Will his wealth of knowledge be enough to save Lucy, or will the symptoms prove to be fatal?
On paper, the plot is preposterous and on screen it’s no different but if you put the ridiculousness of it to one side, it is hugely entertaining. All the boxes are ticked for a successful popcorn movie – it has a car chase, an attractive blonde, shades of violence and of course, Morgan Freeman delivering a lengthy monologue. The ambitious scale of the project is illustrated by striking graphic elements, such as the visualisation of phone signals and the abrupt cutting between human interactions and unrelated scenes of animals in the wild in an Apocalypse Now-esque manner to symbolise a correlation between the two. These arty moments feel separate from the core of the film and don’t always fit naturally with the story development, and as the film reaches its closing stages, things go from eccentric to downright bonkers.
In the past year or so, we’ve seen Scarlett Johansson play a computer operating system in Her, a Weegie-stalking alien in Under the Skin and now a physics defying superhuman. She seems to really like the unorthodox parts of late, and with a screen presence as powerful as hers, she makes it all look so easy. As her character transitions into an almost robotic state, she comes across as forceful, commanding and at times scary, yet we are still able to sympathise with Lucy’s situation. Whilst Johansson’s portrayal has many layers, and transforms throughout the film, Morgan Freeman is essentially Morgan Freeman. He doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time to be fair, but when he does he does nothing to steal the show from the lead. I should mention supporting actor Julian Rhind-Tutt who is very effective as a sleazeball associate of the mob boss Mr Jang.
Flawed in its overreaching scope, ‘Lucy’ is still definitely worth seeing for Johansson alone. The film is undoubtedly well made, with filmmaker Luc Besson maintaining his keen eye for a good shot. As director, writer and editor, perhaps he has taken on a little too much this time, and without a creative collaborator, has had nobody to bounce the crazy ideas off of. Despite the problems the film has, it is at least another fantastic example of Scarlett Johansson’s talents. She is an unstoppable force and as Lucy, she gives 100%.
Since his first feature Animal Kingdom was met with such critical acclaim five years ago, the Australian writer-director David Michôd’s follow up film has been hotly anticipated. He has kept mostly the same team around him and has again cast the experienced Guy Pearce in a central role, but will this equal another great picture? Titled ‘The Rover’, this western is set a decade into the aftermath of a global crisis in a post-apocalyptic outback. Pearce stars as Eric, a man of few words, filled with rage over the losses he has suffered. When his car is stolen by a gang of small-time crooks, he sets out to retrieve it and will stop at nothing until he gets back what is his. In his mission, he encounters an American simpleton called Rey (Robert Pattinson), who happens to be the younger brother of one of the criminals Eric is chasing. Together they pursue in this slow-burn thriller which is so full of style, it leaves little room for substance.
The atmosphere of the location is captured effectively in the opening moments, the Australian outback appearing even more lonely that you’d expect. The warm and dirty desolation of the environment is exhibited through a series of long landscape shots stitched into the story with slow dissolve transitions to the flawed, selfish characters that inhabit it. The promising start disappointingly isn’t capitalised on as the clever techniques implemented are simply repeated. With very little going on plot-wise, every moody sequence with Eric staring angrily into the sun seemed to last an eternity, feeling like a very good short film premise stretched out to an unnecessary length. The shades of violence are dealt with brilliantly in fairness, the Michôd’s flair in the gangster genre serving him well, but where this differs to his last piece is that the men here are so underdeveloped that I didn’t care whether their brains were to be sprayed all over the wall or not.
In a film with only a small amount of characters, speaking a small amount of dialogue has a big reliance on the acting to offer it some weight. Guy Pearce is used to the pressure of a leading role and possesses the skill to play fearsome parts, having excelled as the villain in prohibition western Lawless. Eric though is far less exaggerated and is an ordinary man who due to his personal grief and suffering has changed, and we quickly ascertain the heinous behaviour he is capable of. The performance is solid if a little underwhelming, limited by the minimalist nature of the concept and scripting. I did however enjoy how his arc ended as it finally answered the questions surrounding the motives of his actions. I was impressed by the turn from Robert Pattinson, shedding his cool guy image to play a different type – the naivety and nervousness of Rey forces us to sympathise with him, and also makes him an unpredictable force who acts first and pays for it later. I was pleased to see Scoot McNairy appear as I have, in the past, be an admirer of his work but he is sadly terribly underused.
I am by no means against minimalist filmmaking but I found ‘The Rover’ to be rather empty, and came away unsatisfied given the reputation of the cast and crew. Michôd has endeavoured to create what appears to be a very personal film which I believe, unlike his first, will struggle to appeal to the mainstream cinema audiences. It is successful visually with its menacing cinematography and in its high points, it is intense, powerful and incredibly suspenseful. Unfortunately, these moments are too sparsely spread and the pacing of the film results in several boring slogs of simply waiting for something to happen.
At Cinema Perspective, it is vital to not only provide the latest news and reviews from the mainstream and the indie but to remember how important locally-made films are, whether they are shorts or feature length. Edinburgh-based filmmaker Craig McKenna has been working tirelessly on his new short film ‘When The Tide Comes In’ and is building an online presence for the project through social media updates and teaser trailers. You can find more information on the Border Raid Films Facebook page but before that, he has agreed to answer a few questions about his latest film and the process involved…
Firstly, we’ve seen the teasers but can you give us a short overview of ‘When The Tide Comes In’ and how the idea for it was formed initially?
“When The Tide Comes In” is the story of two adopted brothers Aubrey and Gedys who have to overcome their differences to fulfil their father’s dying wish. It is set in rural Scotland in 1936, and deals with family ties, loyalty and conflicts of the heart, when the right thing to do is sometimes the most painful.
The film stars Donald Morgan, Cameron Forbes, Gordon A. McKenna and Alia E. Torrie.
Initially, the idea came to me while driving – I know, that sounds dangerous! I seem to get a lot of ideas on long stretches of road whilst listening to classical music. I remember it being a 50 mile drive so I had plenty time to allow the idea to ferment.
It must have been around November 2013, a competition came up looking for submissions of 5-minute shorts on the topic of “Family Business” and I started developing the idea to the brief. I really wanted to do something ethereal, and moving, far removed from the mainstream. So I wrote about two sons staying with their dying father until the end. But 5 minutes just didn’t feel right – it needed more room to breathe. I made the decision not to enter the competition, and instead further develop this idea into something more complete. Two weeks later, the first draft of “When The Tide Comes In” was ready.’
How did the experience of making the film differ from previous films you have been involved in?
‘There are definitely that moment after writing a script when you stop and think, “how the hell am I going to shoot this?!”. This was one of those. In terms of filmmaking, “When The Tide Comes In” is certainly the most ambitious production to date.
The first big change was that from the start I wanted this to be a period film. With that in mind, you approach things very differently, because you have to consider the audience buying into the time and setting. It’s great because you can be so articulate in creating the world your story and characters exist in. The research and referencing was the biggest undertaking and really enjoyable.
Being period accurate was vital, because if you settle for less, I kinda think you end up with a half-assed film. My partner Alia (in addition to her performance) has a fantastic eye for detail, history and a flare for colour, so when I asked her to oversee Costume, I already knew how shrewd she would be and not settle for anything less. To be working with her like this really raised my game as Designer, and in turn it brought out the best in each other. I really felt we were just very on top of the films subtext, tone and its authenticity.
Working with DoP Alan C. McLaughlin was a real education for me too, primarily because he got me to start looking at things in terms of ‘movements ‘ rather than shots. It really opened up possibilities. With this in mind, we chose to used a Prosup Jib pretty exclusively so that we had the flexibility to shoot those movements. It was a totally fresh approach to me.
However, Perhaps the most ambitious part of the film’s was the second block of filming. There was so much hanging on the final scene’s emotional conclusion, which involved a boat and a particularly choppy Irish Sea. (Uh-huh..raised eyebrows) There were just so many variables to consider, it was pretty insane. Then we found out that due to changing weather we were really only going to get one day to shoot those scenes ….
But it was just the most satisfying feeling of achievement to pull it off. I would gladly do it again and again.’
I can see that you had an extensive crew working on the film. Do you view filmmaking as the development of the director’s singular vision or is it very much a collaborative process? Or is it a bit of both?
‘You know, that’s a very difficult question. Personally I think it comes down to the individual director. There are those who seem to have every decision made in their head before they get anyone else involved, everything is predetermined and filmmaking becomes a process of carrying out a series of commands. I know that is an extreme, but it does exist. It’s not really my way. Having a definitive vision is a real strength but I also like to think of myself as being open to trying out new things and exploring possibilities. Start with the script and work from there. The people you bring into the production process are such a great resource and good people can bring so much to the table.
For this film, I certainly felt that being open to ideas and making informed decisions was far more rewarding. While the final decisions were down to me, it was the discussions with cast, the considerations of costume design and the possibilities of cinematography etc. that really brought the film together. I don’t think I could ever regard this film as only one man’s triumph.’
Now that you’ve honed your skills in short filmmaking, are there plans in the pipeline to venture to feature length?
‘Oh, I would very much love to. There are many stories I’d love to develop. The important decision is whether to go long-form with them, and how to do them justice. But yes, there are plans in progress. Fingers crossed.’
From your social media updates, I notice that your father features as one of the actors in the film? How did this come about and what was it like directing a member of your family?
‘Yes that’s quite right. My Dad plays Morley the father of Aubrey and Gedys. In many ways he is perhaps the most pivotal character of the film.
When I think about it, it was really my Dad, who got me interested in storytelling and film as a child, and I think he would have loved to pursue a career in the arts himself. For Morley, Dad had always been a consideration for the part, but I wasn’t sure how he would feel about it if cast. I remember that during the auditions there was strong interest in the roles of Aubrey and Gedys, but there were only a couple for Morley. It was a very uncertain time, but after chatting about it with colleagues I started seeing my Dad more and more playing the part.
Since the last film, I’d really given a lot of thought into directing performance. It’s important to understand that actors, like all of us, work and learn differently. Some work with description, others with imagery or music. My Dad currently works as a home carer. When we read the script together, he seemed to think through the scenes and character by referencing it to real people and life situations he had witnessed, particularly about the sick and elderly. It helped him visualise it and explore it in his own way.
Sadly, he couldn’t make the rehearsals, so he and I didn’t get much time to really go through performance until the first morning of the shoot. I was dead nervous, I can tell you! When the camera started to roll, Dad’s performance started with this “death rattle”…and it completely took us all by surprise.
Lastly, thank you for your time, and best of luck with the film!