Archive for the ‘Criterion’ Category

“I feel unusual.” – Withnail(played by Richard E. Grant) in Withnail & I

My line, I FEEL UNUSUAL, is instantly catchphrased through the crew and applied to every variant and situation, from overtime hours to the pleasure and surprise of meeting Ringo Starr, who turned up to watch filming one day.” – Richard E. Grant

Withnail & I is based on a simple premise: at the end of the 1960’s, two unemployed actors take a holiday in the country.  Released in 1986, Withnail & I, Bruce Robinson’s semi-autobiographical directing debut,  has become a classic among a certain set.  But the film is more than a cult-classic designed for a drinking game; it’s a truthful and unsentimental portrait of the kind of friendships/relationships that we all inevitably outgrow.  It harkens back to the darker and more carefree days that mark the end of ones youth.  Funny and brutally honest, Withnail & I was a film that found me (like it did so many others) at just the right time.

“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.” – Withnail

Withnail & I was produced by HandMade Films, a British production company co-founded by George Harrison (hence the Ringo visit to the set).  Withnail came into being first as a novel.  Robinson said that writing it “was one of the few times in my life I feel I was inspired.  I was writing it so fast, and crying with laughter as I was writing . . . I wrote it purely for the joy of writing.”  But turning the novel into a screenplay was not the same experience for Robinson.  “Withnail the screenplay was my biggest nightmare outside the atomic bomb.”  At first, Robinson did not even intend to direct the film.  He was coming off the success of writing the The Killing Fields‘ Academy Award nominated screenplay and suddenly Paul Heller was interested in producing Withnail.  While Robinson was trying to find a director, Heller suggested  that Robinson direct the film himself.  Robinson later observed: “I wouldn’t have directed it had it not been for [Heller].”

“I want something’s flesh.” – Withnail

Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann were not the first choices for the roles of Withnail and I (Marwood in the script), respectively.  Robinson first offered the Withnail role to Daniel Day Lewis (he had recently been in  My Beautiful Launderette and A Room With A View; he passed to do The Unbearable Lightness of Being instead).  The role of Marwood was offered to Kenneth Branagh (who also passed; he only wanted to play Withnail).  Both actors who passed on the film did just fine career-wise; and it certainly would have been a different film with them in the roles.  But I don’t think either could have portrayed the hunger and desperation of Withnail and Marwood with Grant & McGann’s authenticity  (Michael Maloney, after going through multiple auditions with Richard E. Grant, also passed on the role of Marwood, believing the script to be anti-gay, anti-black and anti-Irish).  Marwood is the less showy of the two roles, and McGann plays the perfect foil to Grant’s Withnail.  Robinson on McGann: “Paul was very generous in the film.  He doesn’t  have the fireworks like Grant, he doesn’t have the laughs; he’s setting up laughs for Withnail all the time.”  So the film belongs to Grant’s Withnail.  This would be the role that made his career.  And it almost didn’t happen.  “I’m looking for Byron, not a chubby Dirk Bogarde,” Robinson said after seeing Grant for the first time.  But casting director Mary Selway kept saying, “He’s got something about him.”  Only after a series of auditions was Robinson converted: “Richard’s a vicious old tart . . . Withnail was a timebomb ticking in Richard for many years, I think.”  More on Richard E. Grant in my post on his film diaries, With Nails.

“I’m making time.” – Withnail

Withnail & I is as much of a farewell to the 1960’s as a film like Gimme Shelter.  But it is also a timeless goodbye to the frivolity of one’s youth.  As much as I always wanted to see myself as a Withnail-like character–a “timebomb” who lived their life as one long drag of a cigarette–in the end I ended up being more of a Marwood.  As hard as I tried to live my life like an artistic masterpiece in process, I would make safer, more conventional choices that took me out of the squalor of my teens and twenties to the much more respectable path of my thirties.  I am sure that it was the right choice in the end, but one does miss the romantic notion of oneself as a doomed artistic figure.  As I approach my forties I hope that I am able to find balance in life — to embrace both my Withnail and my I.



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If you have never seen this one, you must check it out.  Has been a favorite of mine for years.  The film that introduced the world to Richard E. Grant.  A favorite of Rainn Wilson’s (The Office) as he stated on NPR’s Morning Edition in November.

To watch the preview – Click HERE

To buy a copy of the film direct from Criterion – click HERE

Available to watch instantly on Netflix

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“Some of my most praised films – Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, The Tenant – were largely matters of convenience, done because of time or money or to accommodate a certain producer.  I wouldn’t have chosen them, you know?” – Roman Polanski

Repulsion (1965) which was Roman Polanski’s second major feature film and first English film, helped cement his reputation as one of the most exciting directors on the international scene.  His first major film was the 1962 Oscar nominated psychodrama Knife in the WaterRepulsion, which stars Catherine Deneuve, is a beautifully filmed psychological horror film.  It is also the first of Polanski’s unofficial “Apartment Trilogy” (the others being Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976)).

“You know what I like to see again and again?  Snow White.  I don’t think they make anything better.  It’s so naively beautiful.” – Roman Polanski

Unlike the other two films of the trilogy, which were based on novels, Repulsion was an original screenplay written by Polanski and Gerard Brach.  At the beginning of the film, Carol (Deneuve) is presented as tightly wound woman who, although certainly dealing with psychosexual issues, is still able to hold a job.  We see her interacting with her sister, with whom she lives, as well as her boyfriend, of sorts.  But even at the beginning of the film, she is so withdrawn as to almost be blank.  Things quickly go from being okay to bad to worse when Carol is left alone in the apartment because her sister (played by Yvonne Furneaux of La Dolce Vita) goes away on holiday.  Hallucinations are not far behind as Carol’s grip on reality falls away and her home, which had been her refuge becomes, a foreign nightmare straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe story or Grimm’s Fairy Tale.

“It’s very important to set your place in a concrete environment.  I think Checkov said that the important thing when you have a play or any kind of novel is to set the roots in a concrete place.” – Roman Polanski

Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (Dr. Strangelove) does an amazing job changing the very nature of the space Carol lives in, despite the film’s limited budget and the set’s physical constraints.  Repulsion is the subconscious brought to life.  The audience is treated to Carol’s distorted and changing view of the world as she descends into madness.  This atmosphere is also aided by a soundscape that is in constant flux.  Outside, we are treated to the musical score of Chico Hamilton.  It is not quite swinging 60’s London (we would have to wait for Antonioni’s 1966 Blow-Up for that), but it is a stark contrast to what we have in the apartment.  When confined within the apartment, we hear isolated sounds – Carol’s internal soundtrack: the clock in her room, the bells of the nunnery next door, her sister having sex in the next room, the sound of the water tap, etc.  The sounds are isolated and amplified.

“I felt very, very close to Roman.  That’s the film I feel I helped make.  The producers were used to producing porn.  It was a small budget film and for them, nothing of great consequence . . . The experience with Roman was very important to me.” – Catherine Deneuve

Polanski’s vision of  psychosis as portrayed by Deneuve has been widely praised by critics since the film’s release.  From its opening credit sequence, with the titles overlayed on a close-up of Deneuve’s eye (Un Chien Andalou anyone?), we know something is up with her.  But why Carol is descending into madness is never really dealt with.  She has male issues, abandonment issues, and is shown as being completely alone within her own mind – a stranger in a strange land.  Those around her seem to ignore any warning signs, either by being too centered on their own lives (her sister) or by being bewitched by her haunting beauty (her boyfriend, her landlord).  The film’s final image perhaps gives us a clue but I am not sure it is as simple as the last frames of the film might lead us to believe.  And that is part of what is so engaging about this film, and true of Polanski’s best films–the audience is allowed to figure out the realities and fantasies of the characters for themselves.

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We know Darren Aronofsky saw this one . . .

To watch the preview – Click HERE

To buy a copy of the film direct from Criterion – click HERE

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“He saw himself as the Charles Dickens of crime in Boston instead of a crime writer.  He just understood the human condition and he understood it most vividly in the language and actions among low lives.” – Elmore Leonard on George V. Higgins, author of the book The Friends of Eddie Coyle

“With The Friends of Eddie Coyle, he’s given us the most penetrating glimpse yet into what seems the world of crime – a world of stale beer smells and pale unnourishing winter sun, and pale unnourished little men who do what they have to do to get along.” – Joe McGuinniss’ 1972 New York Times book review

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was published in 1971.  Two years later it was made into a movie that would become the granddad of the Boston crime movie and a stark counterpoint to other gangster fare of the period, like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (based on the book by Mario Puzo).   The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt), is an  unsentimental story of Eddie Coyle, a small-time criminal.  There is no blood in the film, and very little violence–and, only one (failed) car chase which takes place in a parking lot, which is surprising  in a film from the director of Bullitt.  It does not glamorize crime or criminals; instead we see them as real people.  The book and the film both work off of an almost drab realism–we’re just being told a story.  One of the film’s most famous qualities is its location filming (filming never occurred in a studio).  Boston is one of the stars of this ensemble film.

“What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.” – Norman Mailer on The Friends of Eddie Coyle

“The characters are telling you the story.  I’m not telling you the story, they’re going to do it.  If I do it right, you will get the whole story.” – George V. Higgins

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was Higgins’ first published novel.  At the time of its publication, Higgins was an assistant US attorney.  At the time, Boston was being torn apart by the gang wars.  As an assistant US attorney, Higgins had unique insight into that world and was able to translate it onto the page.  The story is written the way people talk–the dialogue is all realistic.  In fact, most dialogue in the film was taken directly from the book.  The book (and film) tells us the story through dialogue.  And not just Eddie’s; we are treated to multiple narratives.  This is a character driven story, similar to what one sees in the work of Elmore Leonard (who is a Higgins fan).  The plot seems to come from characters, as opposed to characters existing simply to fill-out the plot.  Over time, Higgins’ characters have achieved iconic cult status.  For example, Quintin Tarantino’s adaptation of Leonard’s Rum Punch changed the title character’s name from Jackie Burke to Jackie Brown (the name of the gun runner in The Friends of Eddie Coyle).

“I was impressed by his book largely because I think that work like his is necessary for people to understand something about the humors of the criminal mentality.  I know a little something about the criminal mentality.” – Robert Mitchum on Higgins and The Friends of Eddie Coyle

At the center of the film is Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Eddie Coyle.  Mitchum is one of those actors who does more with less.  This marked the resurgence of Mitchum’s career from the former A-list leading man to an everyman who could be embraced by the new Hollywood of the 1970’s (Mitchum followed Eddie Coyle with The Yakuza and two turns as Phillip Marlowe).  While preparing for his role as Eddie Coyle, Mitchum supposedly hung around with James “Whitey”  Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang.  Mitchum did not act alone, however, as Eddie Coyle gives us a great ensemble cast.  The film is populated with characters actors, including Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, Joe Santos, and Alex Rocco (who is reported to have been a low level Boston gangster before heading to Los Angeles to become an actor – he is best known for his portrayal of Moe Green in The Godfather).

Recently, the film world has been overrun with Boston crime dramas.  Most recently, we’ve had The Town. And not long before that, there was The Departed and Mystic River.  But it is impossible to talk about about Boston crime dramas without recognizing their roots.  The Friends of Eddie Coyle laid the ground for all the Boston crime dramas to come.  And there have been many, and undoubtedly there will be many more.  But no film serves up more reality than Eddie Coyle.

For more on The Friends of Eddie Coyle, check out this excellent Film Comment essay by Geoffrey O’Brien (author of The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century).

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So, with The Town being released on DVD this past week, I thought I would go back and look at what is THE classic Boston crime film – The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) – Directed by Peter Yates.

To watch the preview – Click HERE

To buy a copy of the film direct from Criterion – click HERE

To buy a copy of the book on which the film is based – click HERE

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There are so many things we could explore here.  First, there was the whole mess of who was to direct the film: Alex Cox vs. Terry Gilliam.  Cox (Sid & Nancy and Repo Man – pictured left) had been hired for the project but apparently he pissed Hunter S. Thompson off during a meeting and was thus replaced by Gilliam.  Or we could discuss that this was the first time that cinematographer Nicola Pecorini was to work with Gilliam.  Pecorini has served as Gilliam’s DP since.  What I would rather discuss is my dislike for this film–a film I believe I should like.

Having grown up on the book and earlier Gilliam works, like Time Bandits and Brazil, I expected this pairing to have been a slam dunk.  Both Gilliam’s and Thompson’s work constantly bend reality both for fun and effect. Reviews of the film talked about the film’s “fidelity to the author’s hallucinatory imagery” (Stephen Holden, New York Times) and we know Gilliam’s body of work is easily described as “rich, explosively imaginative fantasies . . .” (Julian Sancton, Vanity Fair).  And that is what is wrong with the film.  It creates, literally, a visual translation (with voice-over’s straight from the book being delivered by Depp) of the drug-charged visions of the place the American dream has come to die, Las Vegas.  The film also borrowed heavily from the imagery of the book’s illustrator, Ralph Steadman.  I always read Thompson as an impression of a place and time; a state of mind.  To have a film literally translate ALL of Thompson’s words & ideas to the screen leaves the audience with only one way to go.

To turn Gilliam’s own words on him, “All the work is being done for you.  It’s like television.  It’s turning cinema into a passive experience, because you don’t have to imagine anything.  You don’t have to use your imagination.  Everything is there . . . It’s like radio.  If you’re doing drama on the radio, you have to imagine.  And I think that many could get people’s imaginations functioning, exercising . . . the end experience is much more rich.”  Of course he was not talking about his own work but the difference between the first version of King Kong and Peter Jackson’s CG-laden remake.  But that is how I was left feeling after Fear and Loathing.

Do you know Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There is a lot of drinking in the play (and in the 1966 film version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as well).  But the play is NOT ABOUT DRINKING!  And yet many productions of the play never really get beyond the bottle.  And Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing never gets beyond a line from the beginning of the book and also used in the film: “The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab.  We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid . . .” etc. etc. etc.   Sure,  drinking and drugs are part of both works, but there is a lot more going on as well.  For me, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about drugs as much as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff? is about drinking.

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