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2012/08/26

The Prestige

By Dave Best

As the days grow shorter and summer starts to wind down, it seems appropriate for us to take a moment to pause and reflect on the event which will no doubt define 2012 for years to come. The planning was meticulous, the execution flawless, and no expense was spared in order to bring spectacle and wonder to an enraptured global audience. All over the world, people came together as one to celebrate and bear witness as herculean champions competed against one another for our entertainment. I am talking, of course, about The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s genre-rejuvenating Batman trilogy. Alongside such other critically acclaimed fan favourites as Memento (2000) and Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises further cemented Nolan as one of the most talented filmmakers working today whilst fanning the flames of my man-crush on Tom Hardy to dangerous heights. However, there is one Nolan helmed film which seems to have never quite gotten the recognition it deserves: his 2006 period piece, The Prestige. 

  
Based on the 1995 book of the same name by Christopher Priest, The Prestige tells the tale of an increasingly out-of-hand game of one-upmanship which develops between former colleagues turned rival stage magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), in turn of the twentieth century London.  Borden is a capable and dedicated working-class magician hampered by his poor sense of showmanship, whilst well-to-do Angier is a natural and engaging performer who is perpetually frustrated that he cannot match Borden’s raw talent. A tragic incident early in their careers sets the two against one another, and when Borden debuts his new, jaw dropping and seemingly unexplainable headline illusion, Angier becomes unhealthily obsessed with uncovering his nemesis’ secret and stealing the trick.

After the show they were jailed for public indecency
Neither Angier nor Borden is exactly what could be described as a "good guy"; they are single-minded, selfish men whose professional successes come at the expense of everything and everyone else in their lives. Having two dark, ruthless characters with few obvious redeeming features as the main focus of the film could have led to a situation where the audience doesn’t have a relatable character to root for, but thanks to superb casting The Prestige doesn’t suffer from this problem. Bale and Jackman are each perfectly suited to their roles and channel elements of their own personalities into their characters, giving them a very realistic and relatable feel. It’s no insult to say that neither actor had to work very hard to bring their character to life. Jackman’s theatre background and comfort on the stage is put to great use as the show-pony, extrovert Angier, whilst Bale’s more methodical acting style and erratic personality reflects perfectly in the serious and explosive Borden.  There is also an excellent supporting cast backing the two leads up: Michael Caine brings real warmth and class to proceedings as both the framing voiceover and Angier’s engineer, whilst Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall are, despite their limited screen time, impactful in their portrayals of the unfortunate women in the magicians' lives. 

The Prestige is as close to this as we're ever likely to get
The non-linear script, co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, is an exceptional piece of screenwriting. It is engrossing and entertaining from start to finish, which is no mean feat considering the two hours and ten minutes running time. The plot is woven expertly to mimic a magic trick as it unfolds, teasing and suggesting certain possibilities before revealing something altogether more unexpected and shocking as the curtain falls. It is difficult to talk about the plot without giving away some pretty big spoilers but suffice to say there are some real “holy shit” moments in this film, and the ending is a crescendo of entertaining plot twists. One of these reveals in particular is quite divisive, with some critics labelling it a “cheat” which undermines the rest of the film.  Without going into detail, all I will say about this is that misdirection and deception are two of the most important elements in stage magic, and as such, it should come as no surprise that they form recurring themes in this film. 

Books - like films but more...papery
The Prestige is also an excellent example of how to successfully adapt a book for the big screen. The source novel is a brilliant, inventive piece of work which I thoroughly recommend you read, but if the Nolans had simply tried to recreate it verbatim on film it would have been a disaster. The novel takes an epistolary approach to the narrative, delivering it via a series of journal entries and letters which are discovered by the modern day ancestors of Angier and Borden; it is a really effective way of framing and presenting the story in book form, but it would have been a nightmare to try and duplicate this method in the film and also would have probably lead to a rather dry and static end product. Instead, the Nolans took the existing central characters and themes and re-worked them drastically, putting their own recognisable stamp on the proceedings. The plot is at times glaringly different to that of the book and yet it still manages to maintain the atmosphere and intent of the original novel. The result is a film which is somehow both faithful to and radically different from the novel, which is an impressive trick to pull off, by anyone’s standards. 


For further information visit The Prestige's IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0482571

Suggested further viewing: Memento (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Fighter (2010)

2012/08/19

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy! The Ren & Stimpy Show

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


I hadn’t realized how much my childhood was influenced by the things that I watched on TV until one day a couple of weeks ago, when I introduced my son to an old favorite of mine, The Ren & Stimpy Show.  When the reoccurring character Mr. Horse delivered his trademark line of “No sir---I don’t like it”, my son turned to me and said, “Hey, that’s how you sound sometimes.” It hit me that he was right.  Who’d have thought that almost twenty years later, a cartoon about a cynical chihuahua and his dim-witted cat friend would still have an effect on me?

The Ren & Stimpy Show has basically achieved cult classic status over those couple of decades, and is a series that people seem to hate, love to hate, or absolutely adore.  For those who aren’t familiar with the show, it’s important to have a basic understanding.  It revolves around the misadventures of two friends: Ren Höek, a jaded, sarcastic chihuahua, and his friend/roomate, Stimpson J. Cat.  Like an animated “Odd Couple”, the two have completely different personalities; Ren is the more intelligent of the two, but ornery.  Stimpy is optimistic and cheerful…just not that bright.  And while on the surface it seems that Ren always has the upper hand in their friendship (when Stimpy does something stupid, Ren often lashes out by yelling, “You eediot!”), the very first episode establishes that without the companionship of his “old buddy, old pal”, Ren is heartbroken and lost.

Series creator John Kricfalusi, Stimpy, and Ren
Created by John Kricfalusi, he and Bob Camp wrote most of the episodes through the show’s seven year run, and also directed many of them too.  Kricfalusi was the voice talent behind Ren, while Billy West spoke for Stimpy (after the series’ end, West would go on to be the voice behind Philip J. Fry on Futurama, beginning in 1999, among other gigs).  Highbrow entertainment it is not; fart jokes, “nose goblins” and other grossness are a regular part of each show.  But, every episode is also jam-packed with slapstick fun and unabashed silliness. There's a huge cast of crazy characters: Muddy Mudskipper, Stinky Wizzleteats, Jasper the Dog, Haggis McHaggis, Powdered Toast Man...the list goes on.  And all of them have a part in some kind of zany adventure in each show, be it celebrating Yak Shaving Day, saving the pope from certain doom, being a part of the order of the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen...again, the list goes on and on.

Powdered Toast Man, reminding the guys that "Vitamin F" is an important part of a balanced breakfast
One of the highlights is the fake commercials for ridiculous products, complete with catchy jingles, like the one for the “breakfast cereal“ Sugar Sod Pops: “If you like grass, if you like dirt, eat Sugar Sod Pops; it can’t hurt”.  Most have a 50s era vibe to them, with every product more outlandish than the last.  Yet despite the absurdity, there’s also a tongue in cheek allusion to truth in the faux ads; many of them start out with an enthusiastic voice over of “Hey, kids…!”, and riff on the way that advertising is (still) often aimed at children.



It’s the layers of sharp wit and references that might be lost on younger children that also gives the show a stroke of genius.  For instance: there’s a Hitchcock-like moment in the episode “Rubber Nipple Salesmen”. At one front door, in a tight-lipped, insistent whisper, they’re urged by a walrus to call the police, a hint that sinister things may be happening inside the homes of the orderly animated subdivision they’ve stopped in.

Maybe it’s that wit and those references that have earned the show such a devoted following over the years.  Maybe it’s all the ridiculousness that lets kids cut loose, and adults feel like kids again.  Really, the reasons are probably as individual as each fan.  Whatever the case, The Ren & Stimpy Show lives on, online, on DVD, and in the hearts of those of us who it has brought its own unique brand of happiness and joy to all of these years.

For more information on the series, visit the show's IMDb page here: www.imdb.com/title/tt0101178.

2012/08/12

Four Boxes

By Jenny Bootle

Recently, my boss’s wife told me a horrific story about the time she woke up to the sound of a rat scrabbling up the side of her bed. Why do I mention this? Mainly because I haven't been able to shake it since she told me, but also because it started me thinking about why certain scary stories appeal. (Did I end up listening out for rats in bed last night? Yes. And will I again tonight and tomorrow night? Mmmm. Oh dear.)

One of my favourite psychological thrillers/ horror movies of the past few years is a small low-budget film, called Four Boxes (2009), which seems to have passed beneath most people’s radar.


The story follows Trevor (Justin Kirk) and Rob (Sam Rosen) out on a job for their company "Go Time Liquidators", a business which sells the belongings of recently deceased people on eBay. Trevor and Rob move into the home of just dead, Bill Zill, to spend the week sorting through his possessions.

Things get complicated when Amber (Terryn Westbrook), Rob’s fiancé and also Trevor’s ex-girlfriend, arrives to keep them company, and then creepy as they sort through the dead man’s mysterious possessions. The gang find and become hooked on fourboxes.tv, an ex-camgirl website bookmarked on his laptop on which a new resident (who they nickname “Havoc”) seems not to realise he is being watched and appears to be carrying out bizarre and perhaps deadly preparations. Is it real? What should they do about it? Or should they just keep watching because that’s what the internet’s for?

Rob, Amber and Trevor discover fourboxes.tv

Four Boxes has been described by its creators, husband and wife team Wyatt McDill and Megan Huber, as “Rear Window on the internet”. An atmosphere of cabin fever, paranoia, and apathy pervade the film with its muted colours, soulless suburban McMansion development, and the excellent melancholic track “Irene” by Canadian songwriter Caribou. The grainy pixelated images of “Havoc”, in which you can’t quite see what’s going on, add to the suspense and the repetitive early-videogame-esque soundtrack we hear every time the characters view FourBoxes.tv plays on your nerves in all the right ways. 

The characters are interesting - every one of them seems to be on their own slightly wrong path, self-obsessed, and hankering after empty or unattainable goals. As the trio sort through the house and pick through the remains of Bill Zill’s life, it becomes increasingly creepy – cryptic scrawled notes, defaced photos, strange collections of objects and the crime scene tape still up in the attic from his wife’s suicide six months earlier – at the same time that tensions within the group threaten to self-combust.

Liquidising unclaimed estates is hard work...

Which leads me to the twist. I kind of hate revealing that there's a twist because it means that you go into a film waiting for the “aha!” moment rather than letting it slink up on you. I don’t want to say much about it, other than to point out that it's genuinely surprising. I almost always see a twist coming (I once ruined a date by leaning over to my companion ten minutes into The Sixth Sense and whispering: “Do you think he’s dead?”) and although there’s an element of smug self-satisfaction that comes with this "skill", I do like an actual honest-to-god-I-did-not-see-that-coming surprise once in a while. What’s more, the filmmakers have gone to some effort to put in scenes and dialogue to make the film an interesting watch for a second viewing (yes, it’s that sort of twist!) and although I wouldn’t say that the ending pays off completely, it’s stayed with me and still has me thinking about it two years later.

Four Boxes’s budget was only $40,000 (raised from 25 friends and family members of the filmmakers) but it has good writing, good acting and good direction to carry it through so it's hard to imagine how more money could have made it better. It puts things in sharp perspective when you realise that 4,875 Four Boxes could have been made for the cost of one Transformers 3: Dark Side of the Moon (Michael Bay, I’m talking to you here!)

One of the great things about Four Boxes is that you don't know quite what sort of film it's going to turn out to be. Is it a story of Trevor's unravelling obsession with the website, the love triangle between the three friends or the mystery of the house? Without giving too much away, the fears explored in this film seem very modern. Fear of what we might find on the internet and what that might do to us. But perhaps the fear the filmmakers want to bring to the forefront is the underlying sense of what our instant gratification, empathy-lacking, grandiosity-infused, voyeuristic internet culture has done to us already.  

For more information on Four Boxes visit IMDb: www.imdb.com/title/tt1144545

2012/08/05

Bullitt

By Jav Rivera

Because Steve McQueen is "The King of Cool".  That's all that should be needed to get people to watch the spectacular, and award-winning, Bullitt.  But as time moves, more and more (possibly younger) people are forgetting what an impact McQueen had on film and society.


Bullitt's introduction immediately grabs the audience with William A. Fraker's innovative lighting and camera work, Lalo Schifrin's sly music, Frank P. Keller's editing, and Pablo Ferro's amazing titles.  Most of all, it creates a mood that prepares you for the next one hundred and ten minutes of brilliant filmmaking.


Oddly enough, McQueen doubted his skills as an actor, but no other film proves his abilities more than his portrayal of the titular character in Peter Yates' first American film, Bullitt. Both McQueen and Director Yates were in perfect tune to the project's power of reality, something in which McQueen had an inherent gift.  The pair also focused on a "show don't tell" style of filming.  (The style basically uses a character's body language rather than dialogue.)  Throughout the film, McQueen tells so much more through his eyes than his words, a practice that has proven to be one of the film's most powerful techniques.

Steve McQueen as "Det. Lt. Frank Bullitt" with his 1967 Ford Mustang GT
As explained during the director's commentary (found on the bonus-heavy Bluray disc, which also includes several featurettes about McQueen), Yates describes the amount of effort the pair made on making things realistic, including the use of real people (doctors, police officers, etc.) as well as real locations. (This was one the first feature films to be shot in San Francisco.)

The commentary, well worth listening to, also gives great insight into the humble excitement of Yates towards a film that he still hails as one of his best experiences.  Through his explanations of key moments, especially ones highlighting McQueen's astonishingly detailed acting, it's easy to hear the professionalism and childlike wonderment of the director.

McQueen and Director Peter Yates
Yates goes on to describe Bullitt as a western.  After hearing this, it's easy to find the many similarities: the quiet man with morals surrounded by shady characters, the safety of his female counterpart, and even the stability of his Mustang (in place of a horse).

The screenplay (written by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner) is unique for the fact that the main storyline (the actual case being investigated) is used as a secondary story, and switched for the main character's story.  In other words, without great announcement, the story of Bullitt becomes more important than the actual case.  This, at the time, was unusual, and has since become commonplace by today's standards.


Then there's that infamous car chase.  McQueen was adamant that he do all his own stunt driving, most of which remained in the final cut.  The 1967 Ford Mustang GT, which was featured prominently during this scene, has become a collector's dream.  The scene begins in San Francisco's hilly streets and moves onto the freeway.  It's dangerous, thrilling, and beyond words.  In fact, it's best to leave the details of this scene in the hands of the film.  Trying to put words to something as visually impressive as this is somewhat pointless.  After viewing, it should be easy to imagine the scene being used as a prime example for stunt drivers, as well as for editors.  What can be said, however, is the use of music during the scene, or, better described as a lack of music.  Despite some introductory music to establish the mood, the scene loses all unnecessary sounds and focuses on the vehicles.  It was another way to keep the scene as realistic as possible.  The sounds of the engines and tires were music enough to keep the audience at the edge of their seat.

"That" car chase.
The car may have become one of the film's most iconic images, but McQueen was also surrounded by an amazing supporting cast.  Simon Oakland's sympathetic captain gave great presence and believability as someone who could command an actor as well-known as McQueen.  Don Gordon (a close friend to McQueen) played dutifully as his partner, "Delgetti".  The magnificent Robert Vaughn played sleazy, yet polite, lawyer, "Chalmers".  "Cathy", though used mostly to show the softer side of "Bullitt", was played gracefully by the lovely Jacqueline Bisset.

(left) Robert Vaughn   -   (right) Jacqueline Bisset
It has become somewhat of an inside joke to the cast and crew of Bullitt that many of the supporting actors were given more dialogue to make up for McQueen's insistence to say less.  He wasn't trying to work less; if anything, he was doing more with his facial reactions.  And it helped intensify the power of his dialogue, adding more weight to his words by only speaking when necessary.

L-R: Norman Fell, Simon Oakland, Don Gordon, and McQueen
Bullitt stands the test of time.  Beyond that groundbreaking car chase, the film's heart lies within its portrayal of real life.  And McQueen's stoic hero with morals is a perfect example of underplaying a character.  McQueen makes even the smallest of tasks (e.g. stealing a newspaper) shockingly entertaining.  Any smart actor would use this as a study in film acting.  And any smart director would use this as a study in the use of great character and realistic filmmaking.


For more information on Bullitt visit IMDb: www.imdb.com/title/tt0062765

TRIVIA: Steve McQueen based his character on San Francisco Homicide Inspector Dave Toschi, made famous for his work on the Zodiac killings. McQueen had a copy made of Toschi's custom fast-draw shoulder holster. This is referenced by Jake Gyllenhaal's character in David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac.