Curtis Hanson 1945-2016

Director Curtis Hanson passed away today. While not a very prolific director, according to IMDB just 19 films over 40 years, he was involved in some very influential ones. A few of the more recognizable ones would ’90s rafting epic River Wild with Meryl Streep, a film that practically spawned a small cottage industry of rafting TV episodes after it came out. Another was the Eminem vanity project 8 Mile, about an aspiring rapper (imagine that).

More relevant to this site would be the 1992 revenge thriller The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. The most iconic film of his career is also a favorite of mine, LA Confidential, a stylish neo-noir set in 1950s Los Angeles and starring Kevin Spacey, Russel Crowe and Kim Basinger. Loosely based on rampant corruption and mob ties to the LAPD, LA Confidential borrowed heavily from actual events and is a well made hat tip to classic film noir.

RIP Curtis Hanson.

Links

Hi everyone,

Here is a link to a website devoted to an often forgotten aspect of the very visual film medium: Sound. Virtually everything you hear in a modern film from dialog to background speech (walla) to foley (mostly footsteps) is either artificially added or post processed in a hundred specialized ways. It’s a testament to the skill of these artists that films sound as good as they do.

It wasn’t always that way, one of the reasons people find early sound films a challenge is the primitive nature of the sound. Often the only sound system was an open omnidirectional mic. This was also a few years before high quality condensor mic systems escaped from the Navy sonar department and into studios.

filmsound.org is a great resource into this niche but fascinating field of film. From basic how to articles to extensive and detailed interviews, this site is a treasure for any film fan who wants to see how their favorite art form is made.

Harper’s Island (2009)

Harper’s Island (2009)

Opening Statement

25 victims. 1? killer and not one brain among them all.

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Review

 

Harper’s Island is a 2009 attempt at creating a cinematic Frankenstein’s Monster. A complex melange of different genres including murder mystery, suspense, horror and evening soap opera. The result is a lumbering, impressive and sometimes comical faceplant of a series that never quite decides what it wants to be when it grows up.

 

The show starts with a group of people boarding a ferryboat on their way to a destination wedding on Harper’s Island off the coast of Oregon. Local boy Henry Dunn is marrying the wealthy and beautiful Trish Wellington.

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The bride (Trish) on the left
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The groom (Henry) 2nd from left.

Henry’s best friend, Abbie Mills is only here to see the wedding. She has quite a bit of history with Harper’s Island and you can immediately tell she has some serious issues with the whole thing.

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Abbie, the best friend
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The Wakefield murders

Also included in the boat ride o’ death are various relatives and pals of Henry and Trish. This is the evening soap side of the show and will overlap the murder mystery part for the first few episodes.

 

The groom’s friends notice one of the guests is absent, but leave anyway, expecting him to catch up. What they don’t know is that he is already there, tied to one of the boats prop skegs, Naturally when those big props start to turn, we have our first victim.

 

Things then shift to the island, where serial John Wakefield slaughtered 6 women, including Abbie’s mother, 7 years ago, before being “killed” by Abbie’s father, Sheriff Charlie Mills. The tree that he hung their bodies from is still present and gives her a nasty shock when she sees it. (Why anybody would want to hold a wedding in such a place is beyond me.)

 

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Abbie’s father, the local sheriff. A day late and a dollar short as usual.

The next few episodes are filled with wedding plans, practical jokes, drama and drunken hookups with the occasional murder or suicide to keep things interesting. This is the transition to the mystery side of things.

 

As a mystery this one is a bit of a dud. The show heroically attempts to throw you off the scent by hurling red herrings like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets show, multiple people are questioned, arrested and generally clash with the Sheriff as the bodies start to pile up.

 

Problem is the show’s writers can’t help but bang on the serial killer Macguffin. Every other character drops the Wakefield name like they were selling it and it quickly becomes obvious that it will be a matter of when, not if, he appears. Also, while simply watching and not even heavily analyzing the show, I had my suspicions as to who the real antagonist was by episode 7 and was positive about his identity and motivation by episode 10, very disappointing for a murder mystery.

 

Another issue is the transition from drama to murder mystery, while at least 1 person has been killed every episode, even at episode 6, characters are still clinging to the upcoming wedding and pretending nothing is amiss. Any sane person would be ready to swim for it if multiple suicides and homicides were going on. Even better, the entire island is strewn with deadly traps including deadfalls, snares and pits. Yet no one seems to have any problems crashing through the forest like a herd of buffalo.

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At this point there have been roughly 6 murders, a suicide and several accidents involving deadly traps. Yet everyone thinks it’s a grand idea to run around in the woods after dark.

 

The slasher side of things works a bit better, by episodes 8-9, things are moving at a much better pace. The problem at this point is that some of slasher film’s least attractive tropes start to appear. Normally logical characters split up and start running into the woods like idiots. Characters illogically put themselves into situations where they can be pinned by the antagonist. Proficient shots miss the hulking killer with shotguns at point blank range, repeatedly. The slasher shows a Michael Myers level of supernatural toughness that jars badly with the semi-realistic murder mystery feel of the middle section of the show. Needless to say, all the rules from Scream start to apply by episode 6 making it that much easier to predict where the show is going.

 

While all of these issues are business as usual in the slasher genre, even expected. They clash badly with the measured, investigative feel of the earlier show.

 

Visually the show is stunning, filmed in lovely Canada, like most proper American TV productions of recent vintage. The director makes full use of the lush forest and dark landscapes of Bowen Island BC.

 

The actors in the production are decent to good. With several developing believable, even likeable characters when given an opportunity. The problem is that there are so many of them and quite a few resemble other performers, Elaine Cassidy and Katie Cassidy (confusingly not related) are especially similar as Abby and Trish. While you quickly figure out who’s who, it can bring you out of the zone for a few seconds until you figure it out. The sheer number of the cast also makes it hard to keep track of things, especially at the start, before the herd starts to thin.

 

The show’s plot is stretched over a 13 episode half season mini-series, which makes it as near anorexic as some of the characters in the show. What would be a passable 2 or 4 hour mini-series is stretched over 8.5 hours, forcing in a large amount of flab and filler. This defuses a lot of possible tension, especially early in the series. This also makes for a lot of wasted scenes and long takes that badly need an editor.

 

Verdict 2 Gavels out of 5 Interesting attempt at blending several different genres. Unfortunately the fundamental differences between these genres make Harper’s Island a confusing mishmash of ideas that never quite work correctly. Decent performances by some of the cast and moments of suspense do redeem it somewhat. Unfortunately the substantial time investment of 8.5 hours and 13 episodes make it difficult to recommend. The show simply takes too long to get going for the payoff to be worth it.

Link: Marvel movie soundtracks

Found this interesting little article on collider yesterday. It asks the question, can you remember any part of a recent Marvel superhero film score? I thought about it and they’re right, I can’t. I certainly remember the soundtracks of the recent Batman films. Honestly most of what I remember from the last one I saw, one of the Avengers I think, was a lot of painfully loud SFX blasting through the theater’s sound system.

The article gives a few ideas as to why Marvel’s film soundtracks are so unmemorable and it includes a fascinating fan made video essay.

Why Aren’t Marvel Film Scores More Memorable?

Links: Spymuseum.com

Hi everyone,

I just wanted to point to a non-film site that a friend just showed me: spymuseum.com

If you have an interest in all things espionage, this is a great resource. All of the big time stories are there: classic spy cases like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, spy masters such as Soviet Feliks Dzerzhinsky and CIA legend James Jesus Angleton. There are also many more obscure, but no less fascinating stories such as Rudolf Abel, who’s story was a major part of the recent film Bridge of Spies.

Most of the stories involve the cold war Great Game between the Soviets and the West and their various proxies around the world. Fascinating stuff if you like your history with a bit of intrigue.

Coming Soon

Coming Soon

Hi everybody, here is a list of reviews I am currently working on. A bit of a mixed bag this time, a US TV miniseries, another Brit-mystery and a film noir classic.

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First up is DCI Banks, a recent show from ITV in England. DCI Banks is an old school detective trying to navigate the perils of modern life while breaking in a new team and trying to catch a diabolical serial murderer.

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Next is Harper’s Island, an interesting attempt to blend the drama of an evening soap with the suspense and terror of a slasher film, all while trying to keep it at a network friendly TV-14/PG-13 rating.

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Finally, a personal favorite of mine, Pickup On South Street, a low budget, but feisty blend of film noir and espionage as a pick pocket becomes tangled in the dealings of a dangerous international spy ring after he steals a woman’s purse on a subway.

Sully (2016)

Sully (2016)

Just went to see the new Tom Hanks film in theaters, Sully. Since it’s a bit off topic for my site I’ll just do a quick review.

Sully tells the story of the short flight of US Airways Flight 1549 on January 15th 2009. Also called miracle on the Hudson, the Airbus A320 struck a flight of birds and lost both engines shortly after takeoff.

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Bird Strike!

Due to an almost perfect combination of circumstances, the pilot Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger was able to make an extremely dangerous emergency water landing and save all 155 passengers and crew. Anyone with an interest in aviation will tell you the odds of pulling off that kind of move with a crippled jet liner are almost improbably small.

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The miracle on the Hudson

My main concern with the film is how they were going to stretch an event lasting less than 5 minutes into a feature length film? Fortunately director Clint Eastwood centers the film in the aftermath of the crash and the NTSB investigation. An NTSB investigation is very similar to a criminal investigation, about the only thing they don’t do is arrest and mugshot the people involved. The primary difference is that the investigators are not just determined to find out why and how a crash happened, but how to prevent it from happening again.

Most of the dramatic tension involves the flight crew being grilled by the NTSB investigators. The story frequently flashes back to the crucial moments of the miracle on the Hudson, as well as other critical moments in Sully’s life. The film also shows the stresses that fame bring and the stress of being separated from his family during the investigation.

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The investigation
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“It was not a crash, it was a forced water landing.”

The film also shows the unsung heroes of the story, the flight attendants who helped keep things together before and after the crash. The ferry boat crews and first responders who helped in the rescue and the air traffic control crew.

The flying sequences are spectacular with minimal CGI and excellent editing. Some of the angles show just how close that plane came to nailing a building in it’s flight path to the river.

While Sully is a fairly low key film, it does a good job of building up dramatic tension and whole thing wraps up in a tight by modern standards 90 minutes. The editing is very tight with very little waste. Refreshing in an era of 2.5 hour epics.

Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart both do well as Captain Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles. The easygoing camaraderie and banter feel realistic. My only issue is that Tom Hanks is so distinctive as an actor and personality, that it’s difficult at times to forget it’s him playing Sully.

Verdict 4.0 Gavels out of 5 A surprisingly good story of a real life group of heroes. A great drama without a lot of fluff. The flight sequences alone are worth seeing on the big screen.