Titirangi Storyteller

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Archive for May 2009

On Location: New York!

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King Kong 1933

King Kong 1933

The five boroughs of New York having always been the stuff that movie dreams are made of. The American film industry may have been born across the Hudson River in New Jersey, but quickly moved to Manhattan and by the 1920’s, the city was buzzing with studios producing silent films. Then in 1926, Hollywood sprung up virtually overnight in the California desert and sucked the industry west. In less than two years, film production dropped nearly 60%. When tinsel town made the full conversion to ‘talkies’ in 1932 it vacuumed up the rest of the business, along with hundreds of Broadway-based New York writers, administering a last, mortal blow the city’s film industry.

Dead End Kids set, 1938. All Hollywood

Dead End Kids set, 1938. All Hollywood

Those writers, collecting fat paycheques in the California desert became homesick for the cafes, lights and glamour of Manhattan and set many of their films ‘back home.’ Hollywood’s answer to the missing skyscrapers was sets. At its peak, the studios had more than twenty standing sets recreating entire New York neighbourhoods, most notably Paramount’s five-acre ‘city’ including Fifth Avenue, Beekman Place, the Upper West Side, Greenwich Village and Soho.

As a result, many classic “New York” films such as King Kong, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and almost all of Humphrey Bogart’s early films with the Dead End Kids were shot entirely in Hollywood. When Samuel Goldwyn showed up on the set of Dead End, he became enraged that the set designer had littered the rundown buildings with rubbish and ordered it cleaned up, yelling, “There won’t be any dirty slums in a Goldwyn Picture.” Even Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, was shot in California with location shots added for authenticity.

Until the 1970’s, virtually all moviegoers saw was an idealised vision of New York ‘City’.

How to Marry a  Millionaire, 1953

How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953

Of course there were some notable exceptions. Marilyn Monroe’s 1953 dazzler, How to Marry a Millionaire was shot in a Sutton Placeapartment and glimmers with the lustre of old New York money. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) stunned moviegoers with a wretched, filthy city bereft of glamour; and Marlon Brando’s tortured cry, “I coulda been a contenda!” evoked a desperation that still echoes.  In 1961, audiences got a taste of the ritzy East Side with Breakfast at Tiffany‘s, falling in love with Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly; and on the other side of town, a glimpse into the city’s racial problems with Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story.

Midnight Cowboy, 1969

Midnight Cowboy, 1969

While these films captured a sense of the city that could not be duplicated on a back lot, they retained many standard Hollywood production values, a gloss that separated the ‘real’ New York from its widescreen counterpart. Then in 1969, John Schlesinger’s X-rated Midnight Cowboy exposed an out of control urban jungle where a sickly indigent cripple, Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) and displaced Texas gigolo, Joe Buck (John Voight), struggle to survive in a rat-infested tenement. LA born Hoffman spat the ultimate NY line, “Hey! I’m walkin’ heah!” The film had an almost documentary quality, gritty and dark, its characters too lifelike to dismiss. Midnight Cowboy took Best Picture that year and New York shrugged off the Hollywood sheen.

Annie Hall, 1977

Annie Hall, 1977

While Schlesinger never made another New York film, the city brought forth three young filmmakers of its own who wrestled their hometown back from the celluloid imagination and ushered in a revolution; Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. What these three knew was that a New York film has nothing to do with a beauty shot of the Statue of Liberty. It’s when the traffic and the rhythm of the subway beat in the script and the grime and glitter of the streets are the real leading lady. And she had two favourite co-stars, Al Pacino and Robert de Niro. Separately and together, these five defined the 70’s New York movie.

Serpico, 1972

Serpico, 1973

The 70’s were tough times for New York. The city was financially bankrupt. With the explosion in heroin and cocaine traffic, violent crime escalated out of control. The South Bronx became a burned out, bombed out war-zone. Feminism, gay rights, disco, the punk scene, Son of Sam, racial tension, the advent of the Yuppie… It was a city under siege; and Allen, Coppola and Scorsese, along with Sidney Lumet, opened their lenses and got it all down on film: Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Annie Hall, Taxi Driver, The Godfather I & II, Manhattan, Network, Cruising, to name a few. In the eighties they were joined by Spike Lee who set his films in black neighbourhoods and raised the real issues faced by minorities in the land of plenty with She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing.

She's Gotta Have It, 1986

She's Gotta Have It, 1986

And the more they filmed, the more Hollywood sent production teams back east. In the early 70’s there were only a handful of films shot in New York each year, by the end of the decade, it was more than fifty. That number tripled by the end of the eighties and doubled again by 2000. These days a visitor can’t help stumbling across a film set. I was there last July, strolling through Greenwich Village on a hot summer night. Turned a corner to find mountains of ‘snow’ on the sidewalk and piled up in front of a grocery; a half dozen actors ‘freezing’ in heavy winter coats while the rest of the crew sweated in shorts and jandals. That ain’t Hollywood. It’s all New York.


200 Cigarettes (1999), Risa Bramon Garcia
25th Hour (2002), Spike Lee
Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen
Basquiat (1996) Julian Schnabel
Cotton Club (1984), Francis Ford Coppola
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Susan Seidelman

Desperately Seeking Susan,

Desperately Seeking Susan1985,

Do the Right Thing (1989), Spike Lee
Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Sidney Lumet
Fame (1980), Alan Parker
Godfather I & II (1972 & 1974), Francis Ford Coppola
Goodfellas (1990), Martin Scorsese
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Jean Negulesc
In America (2003), Jim Sheridan
King of Comedy (1983), Martin Scorsese
Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen
Midnight Cowboy (1969), John Schlesinger
Network (1976), Sidney Lumet
On the Waterfront (1954), Elia Kazan

Requiem for a Dream, 2000

Requiem for a Dream, 2000

Requiem for a Dream (2000), Darren Aronofsky
Saturday Night Fever (1977), John Badham
Serpico (1973), Sidney Lumet
Shaft (1971) Gordon Parks
She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Spike Lee
Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese
West Side Story (1961), Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise

Thanks to Randolph Mase for inspiring me to dig this out!


Written by Titirangi Storyteller

31/05/2009 at 2:16 am

Mister Lonely

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mister_lonelySomewhere in Paris there is a very lonely Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who doesn’t speak the language well, looking for his big break.

His agent believes in him, but he learns to believe in his Michael Jackson self when he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). She lures him to Scotland where she lives with her husband Charlie Chaplin and daughter Shirley Temple in a commune with a dozen other impersonators.

They are building a performance centre in the hope that once it is built, audiences will come. We are treated to enchanting performances from Madonna, the Three Stooges, Buckwheat and Sammy Davis jun, not to mention the Queen, who capture both the essence of the original characters and the isolation and alienation of the people behind them.

mister-lonely-herzogMeanwhile, in a remote convent in Panama, Father Umbrillo (Werner Herzog) delivers emergency food rations to area villages, the nuns sitting in the back of his rickety old plane, tossing packages out the cargo bay.

When the plane jerks, a nun falls out, and with her habit flapping furiously, she prays for the Lord to save her. She lands in a field, dazed but unharmed.

Tmr_lonely_09he rest of the convent soon take up skydiving sans parachute – a genuine miracle, which Father Umbrillo is very proud of, though he declines to jump himself. He decides to visit the Vatican and show the Pope.

Though the two stories never connect, they run on an emotional parallel, as director Harmony Korine takes us on a curious journey through a forgotten corner of the human psyche, examining our identity, our ability to do the impossible and just what it will cost us in the end.

minster-lonely_lMister Lonely is far more colourful and, if not life affirming, at least more life loving than Korine’s chaotic debut, the cult classic Gummo (1997). Unfortunately, there are no special features on the DVD.

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

26/05/2009 at 10:54 am

Shine a Light

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rolling-stones-shine-a-light-431503Forty-five years into their career, the Rolling Stones team up with Martin Scorsese, Jeff White, Christina Aguilera, Buddy Guy, 18 of the finest cameramen in the business and a couple thousand of the luckiest ticket-holders in the world for two nights in New York’s wonderfully intimate Beacon Theatre.

With President Clinton ‘opening’ the show, the result is pure magic.

shine glimmerSure, it’s easy to poke fun at the ageing Glimmer Twins, Mick’s once baby-face and pouting lips are desiccated, and Keith’s crepe-paper arms sag like a 90-year-old woman’s. Get them up on stage with Ron Woods, Charlie Watts and the rest of their entourage and it’s clear time is still on their side as they crack into a “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as electrifying as in 68, 78, 88, or 98.

rolling-stones-shine-a-light-aScorsese, bless his rocking little heart, understands audiences want to see and hear every song from start to finish, feeds us cynical little interview snippets from the past 40 years of reporters asking the band when their going to quit, in between songs.

2008_shine_a_light_003The set-list is a mix of classics and more recent fare, including “Shattered,” “Faraway Eyes,” “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up.”

Christina Aguilera lends her pipes on “Live With Me,” and Jack White takes a turn at the mic on “Loving Cup, ” while Buddy Guy tests his chops on “Champagne & Reefer.”

the_rolling_stones_shine_a_light__1_The performances are perfect and the moves – yeah, I winced when Keith went down on his knees, but he got right back up and kept on grooving, and Mick’s the same rooster on acid he’s ever been.

Scout out the 3-disc special edition.

Disc 1 contains the flick and special features including four songs cut for running time, a behind the scenes featurette and an interactive version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” I couldn’t quite get my head around.Disc 2 is a digital copy for your Ipod and Disc 3 the soundtrack CD. It’s all packed up in a flash box with a souvenir booklet. Simply brilliant.


Written by Titirangi Storyteller

24/05/2009 at 11:00 pm

Happy Go Lucky

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happy-go-lucky-poster-0Mike Leigh’s last outing was the relentless depressing and despairing Vera Drake (2005). With Happy-Go-Lucky he pulls a 180 and introduces us to the deliriously optimistic Poppy Cross (Sally Hawkins) whose first thought at discovering her beloved bicycle has been stolen is, “I didn’t even get to say good-bye!”

Without her wheels, Poppy accepts that at 30, it is time to learn to drive and organises an instructor to give her weekly lessons. Scott (Eddie Marsan, best known for his baddie roles in Hancock and Mission: Impossible III) is miserable and unlucky, stuck in a life he never wanted because other people have always been out to get him. Surly and cranky, he is the antithesis of Poppy. While she doesn’t give him a second thought, each week she gets under his skin and on his nerves just a little bit more – so much so, she suspects he might be stalking her just a little.

hglPoppy lives with her best mate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) also a primary school teacher. They plan lessons, big nights out and scheme over how to meet Mr Right – both of them fending off family pressures to marry and settle down, defiantly happy with their lives as self sufficient, independent women.

happy-go-lucky-But in the midst of this happiness, Poppy has occasional moments wondering what her life is really all about. She finds herself needling Scott, deliberately taunting him over his catch phrase, “En-ra-ha,” not realising she might be pushing him over the edge.

happy-go-lucky_lHappy-Go-Lucky is a rare film, absolutely joyous, but so rooted in the reality of day-to-day life it never feels false or forced. Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins form a perfect team, coming up with possibly my favourite movie of the year.

Special features include: Behind the Wheel, a making-of doco on how Hawkins and Marsan did all the driving themselves; a featurette on the key characters; plus an image gallery and the trailer.

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

20/05/2009 at 10:20 pm

Posted in film review, Writing

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Midnight Cowboy

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Midnight_CowboyMidnight Cowboy broke all the rules when it was released in 1969. After a decade dominated by glossy, Technicolor, feel-good musicals, John Schlesinger’s x-rated exposé of shattered dreams amongst the grime and desperation on New York’s mean streets made the entire industry sit up and take notice.

It’s not just the only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for best picture, it paved the way for Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen to tell their New York stories (Taxi Driver, The Godfather I & II, Manhattan). Nearly 40 years on, it is every bit as powerful and authentic as the day it was released.

John Voight plays Joe Buck, a naïve Texas dishwasher who decides to hop a bus to New York City where he is sure he’ll soon be living the high life as a high-paid gigolo. He arrives in his buckskin jacket and spit-shined cowboy boots and starts following rich women around.

Midnight-Cowboy-Photograph-C10043659He figures he’s struck gold when Cass (Sylvia Miles) takes him home, but after he’s delivered the goods, she hustles him out of $20. Then he runs into Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a petty thief with a bum leg who promises to get him some proper management, hustling him out of another 20 and delivering him to a gay born-again preacher – but not before uttering the immortal words, “Hey! I’m walkin’ heah!”

MidCow01Soon Joe is broke, locked out of his dingy hotel room and living on the street, prowling 42nd St after dark like all the other cowboys, but too soft-hearted to make the johns pay. (Check out the young Bob Balaban.)

When he runs into Ratso again, Joe is desperate to get his money back, but ends up going home with him, to his rat-infested, condemned tenement, where the two form a friendship and struggle to survive – both living on dreams of a better life.

midnight_cowboy2The two-disc collectors’ edition includes two recently made featurettes with surviving cast and crew, reflecting on making the film and its impact and another looking at the late John Schlesinger’s life – easily as fascinating as any of his movies. Also included is a photo gallery, the theatrical trailer and an insightful commentary by producer Jerome Hellman.

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

17/05/2009 at 11:03 pm

Posted in Film, Writing

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Director: Neil Marshall

doomsdayposterAny minute now, the deadly ‘Reaper’ virus will strike Glasgow. London will respond by rebuilding Hadrian’s wall, abandoning Scotland it to its fate. Few will escape. Life will go on…

…Until the Reaper mysteriously resurfaces in London in 27 years. A team of crack military scientists, headed up by uber-fit Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra, Boston Legal), will venture into that forsaken territory in search of survivors whose blood will contain antibodies to be used as basis for a cure.

When they arrive they will find a land ruled by opposing factions – one group gone back to its medieval roots reoccupying castles and eking out a subsistence living, headed up by a psychotic Malcolm MacDowell.

doomsday_viperThe other has taken refuge in cannibalistic 1980’s disco-punk, led by MacDowell’s psychopathic son Sol (Craig Conway) who pales beside uber-girlfriend, Viper (South African stuntwoman Lee-Anne Liebenberg, virtually stealing the flick in her first feature role).

Anyone for a barbecue?

doomsday32This B-grade splatter-fest rips directly from nearly every post-apocalypse flick ever made, most notably 28 Days (2000), the Mad Max trilogy (1979-85) and Escape From New York (1981).

Where did they get those weapons? The petrol? Who’s growing food? Providing the drugs? Designing those fabulous outfits?

Who cares???

doomsday4Terrible, nonsensical, full of plot holes – but anyone who loves a good yarn with the sound turned up to 11 will not be able to tear their eyes away. In the spectacular final car chase, set to with Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes”, Mitra drives a sports car through a bus, and I was cheering them on. Neil Marshall has stripped this flick down to the bare essentials – sex, drugs and rock’n’roll… It’s got  no class – but it’s got style and guts and a vision of the future no worse than the latest swine flu scare-mongers have got on offer. Bring it on!

Special features include three making-of featurettes and an entertaining commentary.

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

13/05/2009 at 12:13 pm

Lust, Caution

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untitledAng Lee is one of the few directors who can tackle virtually any genre, and with a few exceptions (2003’s The Hulk leaps to mind) come up with something marvellous if not exceptional (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000,  Brokeback Mountain, 2005).

Lust, Caution is a slow-burning thriller set in WWII Japanese-occupied Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Wong Chia Chi (27 year-old Wei Tang in her film debut) is university freshman, abandoned by her father, and living with relatives. She has no sense of belonging – anywhere or to anyone. She joins a drama group who long to be part of the Chinese resistance and discovers an unknown talent..

lc11When the troup’s plan grows grander, she agrees to take on the role of a lifetime – seducing Mr Yee (Tony Leung), a corrupt government minister responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Chinese resisters. She will lure him away from his heavily armed security, so he can be assassinated.

This means Chia Chi must learn to dress, speak and also perform sexually – the way Yee would expect, not as a virginal university student. Of all the indignities she has to bear, I found this ‘training’ the most painful.

lc06Eventually she succeeds in her mission to seduce Yee, but any sense of control is immediately shattered. Though she never wavers from the purpose of her mission,  her encounters with the cruel and emotionless Mr Yee are the only time Chia Chi truly feels truly alive. She is longing for him as much as she longs to see him dead.

It is simply impossible to do justice to this film in a few hundred words. There is the complexity of Chinese politics in a time of occupation.  Chia Chi’s personal story. And then there is the issue of the thousands of women who’ve performed this wartime ‘service’ for their countries who, if considered at all, are more likely to be called whores than heroes.

At 2 hours and 39 minutes, Lust, Caution is long and the first half hour lingers over the manners and habits of the moneyed class. Joan Chen has a small but interesting role as Yee’s wife, caught up in gossip, shopping and mah jhong.

lc05Yet once the story begins to move it is riveting. The breathtakingly frank sex scenes (for which Tang was blackballed by the Beijing film industry) are unforgettable – and are the one caveat I offer before recommending this film. If you are even moderately easily offended, the sex scenes will likely take you out of your comfort zone – as much as they do Tang’s character, which is why they are entirely appropriate.

lc04Also included on the DVD – a making-of documentary with interviews with Ang Lee and the cast, including co-stars Joan Chen and Hong Kong heartthrob, Lee-Hom Wang. A truly miraculous film.

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

11/05/2009 at 10:21 pm

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