DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: March 2007

Saturday, 31 March 2007

FAST FOOD NATION


Fast Food Nation (2006) dir. Richard Linklater
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Wilmer Valderrama, Bobby Cannavale, Catalina Sandino Moreno

***

Richard Linklater’s dramatic adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction book was unfairly disregarded by critics and theatre owners. Opening in the fall of 2006, the film received mostly negative reviews and quickly disappeared after only a week or two in limited release. It’s unfair because the film is quite good and worthy of the torch-passing from “Traffic” and “Syriana”.

“Fast Food Nation” is indeed like a third part of an unofficial trilogy of American big business vices. Like “Traffic” and “Syriana” it tells the story of a major widespread problem of middle America, in this case how corporate interests in the fast food business prevails over the health and well-being of the American people.

The film is set in classic middle America, a town called Cody, Colorado – the home of the meat processing plant U.M.D., that makes the hamburgers for the not-so-disguised McDonald’s stand-in “Mickey’s”. Greg Kinnear is perfectly cast as Don, the marketing exec who has come to Cody to investigate why unusually high amounts of fecal matter and e-coli have appeared in their “Big One” burgers. Greg is given a tour of the UMD plant and is shown the process of making the patties, only it’s clean and sanitary and trouble-free which causes Don to investigate deeper into the problem. Intercut with this are several other stories from the town – a group of teenagers working their jobs at Mickey’s with the boredom and who-gives-fuck attitude we expect from the people who serve us our food, and a group of Mexicans immigrants who have recently crossed the border illegally and now work the UMD meat processing assembly line.

Kinnear has two great scenes. The first is a meeting with a cattle rancher played by Kris Kristofferson. He informs Kinnear of the atrocities at the UMD plant – the use of illegal, untrained workers, an assembly-line that moves too fast for its workers at the expense of sanitation and safety and an unethical system of killing the animals. Kristofferson says to Kinnear, “they didn’t show you the kill floor did they?” This refers to the worst shift in the plant, the shift operated by the most desperate of illegal aliens, and which, for the malicious foreman (Bobby Cannavale), becomes a form of punishment for his employees. Kinnear is the wrong man for the job. He’s put in a situation where he is morally compromised. He could take the blindfold off the public’s eyes, or he could look the other way, go back to 9 to 5 and provide of his family. The choice is not that simple.

Ashley, one of the teenagers working the cash at Mickey’s, is given a great scene with Linklater’s pal Ethan Hawke. In a classic Linklater scene, Hawke playing Ashley’s activist uncle, muses on the middle-class attitude of playing it safe, going for money and living an anti-septic life of regret. The speech is perhaps out of place for the film but its great none-the-less and informs Ashley to quit her job and fight back against the man.

The storyline of the Mexican immigrants, Sylvia and Raul, is the heart of the film and played well by “Maria Full of Grace’s” Catalina Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama. They fight to get into the country for the chance to ‘live the American dream’, yet they ironically find themselves out of the frying pan and into the fire. The third act drops the weight of the American dream flat on their backs – Raul is involved in an accident at the plant which forces Sylvia to take a shift on the “kill floor.” The finale is disturbing and not for all viewers and will likely turn many people off meat for a while.

Together these stories paint a cynical picture of the industry. Perhaps not as dramatic as “Traffic” or “Syriana”, but the story is told in the Linklater way, through character and dialogue as opposed to action or suspense. The attitude of corporate America to the entire industry is summed up with Kinnear’s second great scene - a conversation with Bruce Willis’s character, a UMD’s liaison for Mickey’s. When confronted about the presence of fecal matter in the Mickey’s burgers, Willis succinctly sums it all up, “It’s a sad fact of life, Don, but the truth is we all have to eat a little shit every now and then.” Enjoy.

Buy it here: Fast Food Nation


Friday, 30 March 2007

THE CRANES ARE FLYING


The Cranes are Flying (1957) dir. Mikael Kalatosov
Starring: Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksey Batalov

****

No one can doubt the passion and grandeur of Russian cinema. The inspired and revered work of Eisenstein, Tarkovsky and Sokurov span the entire history of cinema. Mikael Kalatozov is a lesser-known name but a true artist who should be at the forefront of this list. And I’d argue “The Cranes are Flying”, winner of the Cannes Palme D’Or in 1957, as one of the greatest films of all time.

Boris and Veronika are blossoming lovebirds living in the bliss of new love, prancing around the streets with adolescent glee. But with the War around the corner the good times are not going to last. Kalatozov’s orchestration of this is genius. The scene of Boris and Veronika chasing each other up the staircase to her flat is marvelously dizzying - a bit of camera gymnastics that perfectly encapsulates their carefree whimsy.

When the declaration of war is announced, like most other young men, Boris wants to fight. Veronika remains in her love trance though, completely unaware of its effect on Boris. On the day Boris is due to leave, the couple miss their final rendez-vous and never see each other face-to-face. Upon hearing of the departure Veronika runs to the train station to stop him. Kalatozov is a master of emotional counter-point. The reveille of the farewell crowd counterpoints Veronika’s emotion-fueled chase to find her Boris. The scene is magnificent and a triumph of epic staging.

With Boris on the front lines, Veronika is forced to live out the war at home alone. But looking to make advances is Boris’ opportunistic cousin Mark. In an intense scene Mark attempts to rape Veronika while the city is in the midst of an air raid. Veronika gives in, and ends up marrying Mark, but her strength endures through the war and she refuses to let go of her love for Boris. She makes several attempts to discover his whereabouts and make contact with him. Boris dies on the front lines, but Veronika refuses to accept the reality. The ending of the war is not a cause of celebration for Veronika and the return home of the troops, like the departure scene, is again a painful counter-point to Veronika’s inner emotional turmoil.

No other country suffered more in WWII than Russia and that’s why Russian films about the War are so compelling. Going to war for a Russian soldier was the equivalent to a death sentence. Kalatozov uses unprecedented cinematic flair to put the emotions of the Russian people on screen. His deep focus and effortlessly fluid camerawork is a marvel and stands up to anything made today. The crowd scenes are staged with such authenticity it feels as if the movie being made is an afterthought to the events on screen.

“The Cranes are Flying” is one of a series of films from Kalatozov about passionate people trying to survive amongst harsh political conflict. Other films of his available to rent are “I am Cuba” and “The Red Tent”. A rare masterpiece, I’ve yet to see is “The Unsent Letter.” Hopefully this undiscovered treasure from the Russian master will also be brought back for the world to see. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Cranes are Flying - Criterion Collection


Thursday, 29 March 2007

PUNCH DRUNK LOVE


Punch Drunk Love (2001) Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson

***1/2

Guest review by Blair Stewart

What a profoundly weird movie experience this is, and what a thrill that P.T.A and Adam Sandler pulled this darkly lovely rabbit out of their hat on the general public. So this is what it felt like to be an American filmgoer in the unpredictable 70’s. I will always remember seeing this on opening night in a Vancouver megaplex in front of a packed crowd of Sandler fans and the horrified reaction as the end credits rolled with the Skittles tumbling out of everybody’s palms.
WHAT. THE HELL. WAS THAT?

Firstly, it is the very unconventional love story between virginal toilet plunger salesman Barry played by Adam Sandler with seething rage at the abuse he takes from his hectoring 7 sisters alongside the fact that he’s a virginal toilet plunger salesman and the mysterious red-dressed Lena played with saintly patience by Emily Watson as his romantic foil and likely savior. Secondly, it is Sandler and Anderson taking hammer and tongs to the caustic/sappy ‘Sandler’ persona of “Happy Gilmour’ and “Billy Madison” fame and to the entire ‘Romantic Comedy’ genre, adding art-house DNA of unpredictable violence and pathos to create this hybrid flower. Thirdly, it is an intense emotional experience for the viewer, its blinding florescent cinematography, disjointed soundtrack, tense acting and overall mood-tone enveloping you into Barry’s persona as he takes baby steps through self-inflicted danger towards the possibility of happiness. The film is blessed throughout with haunting beauty; a nighttime impromptu dance in the aisles of a grocery store, a sad close-up of a delicate character in peril that significantly raised my own heart rate to alarming levels, a silhouetted embrace that could be used as a visual definition of New Found Love.

Should Adam Sandler never veer down these odd side-roads again I will always admire him for the vulnerability and Travis Bickle-ish psychosis he displays in this role, with a supporting cast of Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman at his sleazy best and a superbly baffled Luis Guzman that assist his flowering as a performer. While Anderson will likely spend the remainder of his career making grand cinematic statements on par with “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”, this I consider to be his best work for its subversive ingenuity. Now that I’ve praised it its up to you to view it, the mutant Adam Sandler project, the One That Got Away from the Hollywood Focus Groups, the $25 Million Romantic Comedy from Mars. Enjoy?

PS-Check out Philip Seymour Hoffman’s incredible stunt for the ‘Mattress Man Commercial” available on the DVD special features:



Buy it here: Punch-Drunk Love (Two Disc Special Edition)

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

MEMENTO


Memento (2001) dir. Christopher Nolan
Starring: Guy Pearce, Carrie Ann-Moss, Joe Pantoliano

****

Director Christopher Nolan burst onto the Hollywood scene with one of the most ingenius and intelligent thrillers films ever made. The story is told backwards - from the point of view of a man with only his short term memory – we begin with the last scene in the film and work backwards to the beginning. I’ve seen it about 5 times and I still get confused.

Some time ago Leonard’s home was burgled and his wife murdered. The psychological shock caused Leonard to his lose ability to retain memories after the incident – this condition is called anterograde amnesia and is a real diagnosed condition. The Leonard of today is no longer a humble insurance adjustor, he’s a hardened vigilante in the midst of a complex and frustrating search for the killer of his wife. Without memories, the only way he can remember the facts is by tattooing notes to his body. These post-it notes to himself form the pieces of a puzzle for Leonard to find the murderer.

The device could have been just a gimmick, but in fact it’s a clever way to put an audience in the point of view of Leonard. It’s genius really. Like Leonard, with each new scene the audience is constantly in a guessing game as to where he is, what is going on and who the characters are. It’s disorienting but exhilarating and forces the audience to think and participate in the film.

Leonard is ruthless in his journey. The flashback scenes before the accident are very important to his character. The physical difference between Leonard the insurance man and Leonard the vigilante informs the audience of his transformation. Time is not a variable either, as there are no references to go by. We don’t how Leonard long has been searching for the killer, it could be weeks, it could be years.

Leonard’s last memory is the image of his dead wife’s lifeless eyes. This will continue to haunt Leonard for the rest of his life and so his journey, his tattoos and the other details of the search keeps him alive. When the puzzle is solved and the pieces fit together the film moves beyond a gimmicky suspense thriller into a piece of cynical nihilism. When he confronts the reality of his life, Leonard makes a choice to become the murderer – become the person he, himself, is looking for.

“Memento” is a great companion film to Nolan’s other masterpiece “The Prestige.” Leonard is much like Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier, their obsessions become their demons and they both manage to destroy the moral sides of their existence. In fact, “Memento” is existentialism to the core. From the point of view of a broken man, Leonard is essentially in search for the purpose of life. Jean-Paul Sartre said that ‘values are subjective’ – meaning, there are no objective standards by which humans live their lives; it’s based on individual consciousness. Leonard’s new life cannot be judged or understood objectively by anyone but himself – but, as the audience, by working out the puzzle of his life backwards we become as close as possible to understanding the doomed man. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

THE THIN BLUE LINE


The Thin Blue Line (1988) dir. Errol Morris
Documentary

****

No, this isn’t the Rowan Atkinson Britcom, it’s one of the best documentary ever made.

Errol Morris is one of the great all-time filmmakers – doc or drama and “The Thin Blue Line” is as scary any dramatic film. In fact, critics of Morris cited his dramatic recreations as more dramatic than documentary and therefore he was ruled ineligible for the 1989 Best Documentary Oscar. Morris would eventually win an Oscar for “The Fog of War” and he opened his acceptance speech with the apt line, “I can’t believe you gave me one of these.”

In 1976, Randall Adams, a wrong place at the wrong time drifter was arrested and imprisoned and put on death row for the murder of a police officer in Dallas, Texas. In 1987, while making a film on a judge with a notorious claim to fame of having sentenced the most people to death, Errol Morris discovered the case of Randall Adams. During his interview, he became convinced Adams was innocent. His Death Row documentary was abandoned and instead focused solely on Adams. Morris’ meticulously reinvestigated the case. The film interviews all the circus-like cast of characters and uncovers the comedy of errors that became the basis of the jury’s ridiculous verdict.

Morris’ interviews are one of his signatures. He invented a device through which the interviewees he’s talking to can actually appear to look straight into the camera when questioning them. The subject actually break the fourth wall with the audience creating a unique interactive experience. Intercut with the interviews are a series of highly polished and creative reenactments. But unlike bad dialogue with second rate actors, Morris shoots these scenes artistically, obscuring actor’s faces, using slo-mo and extreme closeups to create a dreamlike sensation. His technique has been copped by virtually every other documentarian, but even today, when Morris crafts a recreation he does it better than anyone.

Morris was one of the first filmmakers to use the brilliant composer Phillip Glass for his scores. His music for “Thin Blue Line” is magnificent and atmospheric and utterly creepy. It feels like a wave taking us further away into the world of the film, in this case, the seedy world of small town America.

But the stars of the film are the interviewees. Morris’s cast of oddball characters include, the pathetic Perry Mason-loving crime fighter couple who witnessed the murder to Adams’ inept lawyer and judge to the real murderer, David Harris, the real killer, whose awk shucks attitude toward the murder sends shivers down your spine. The facts and the evidence adds up to a shamefully botched police investigation and trial which resulted in an innocent man’s imprisonment for over 10 years.

Watching the legal system fail and topple like a house of cards is haunting and disturbing. The scariest moment of the film is the final taped phone conversation between Harris and Morris, for which, I think I held my breath during the entire 5 minute call. This is a must-see. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Thin Blue Line


Monday, 26 March 2007

JFK


JFK (1991) dir. Oliver Stone
Starring Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Sissy Spacek

****

I still remember seeing JFK in the theatres way back in 1991. Even after the endurance of 189 minutes of information overload and conspiracy theory bombardment I was still twitching from excitement. That’s the experience of seeing the film for the first time. If you haven’t seen JFK and think you know anything about post War America, you don’t.

The film is more than just about finding that second gunman on the grassy knoll, it’s an epic journey through American cold war politics – America’s most terrifying and paranoia-fueled period in its history. The film starts with a virtuoso sequence dramatizing the fateful last moments of President Kennedy’s life. We begin in 1960, Martin Sheen’s voice is unmistakable and his speech summarizes the complicated yet comprehensive backstory with clarity. Stone mashes virtually every form of media he can get his hands on to visualize the events. In fact, as the film progressed I realized his psychotic (and Oscar-winning) editing technique was a completely new form of cinema. I’d never seen anything like it before. The next scene dramatizes the actual assassination with great suspense and skill. I was watching a master filmmaker at the height of his talents. John Williams’ snare drum music cue of this scene is terrific. In fact, his score was his best in 10 years, and he hasn't been better since.

After the assassination, we see the aftermath from the point of view of the New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison. He discovers some not-so-coincidental connections of the assassination to the city of New Orleans. Years later, after the Warren Commission is released and Lee Harvey Oswald is declared the lone gunman, the verdict still doesn’t sit well with Garrison. After reading the entire volume of material on the case, he decides to conduct his own investigation. Garrison describes the inconsistencies of the case and the New Orleans connections to his staff in a terrific scene as he walks through the famed French quarter pointing out all the details and movements of the conspiracy’s nefarious characters.

The investigation consumes Garrison, which troubles his wife, his colleagues and his superiors. Garrison’s obsession compound and his life becomes consumed by the detailed minutiae of the evidence. With his wife about to leave him, his office bugged by the CIA and his staff deserting him, Garrison meets his “deep throat” referred to as X (deliciously played by Donald Sutherland). X confirms to Garrison how close he is to uncovering the trail of breadcrumbs, he also expands Garrison’s and the audience’s scope of the events beyond the cosmetic details of the magic bullet. We’re given full context for the assassination. “Well that's the real question, isn't it?” X says, “The Why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public.”

The film shouldn’t be judged on the validity or strength of Garrison’s and Stone’s argument, it’s not a whodunit, and it’s not meant to solve the crime. It’s meant to open our minds to the threat Kennedy’s Presidency represented to the higher powers at be, the powers that needed a Cold War to fight Cuba, the mob, Communism, and Vietnam. There’s a very interesting ABC documentary available “The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy” which actually refutes all of Stone’s physical evidence and supports the lone gunman theory. In fact, ABC's arguments are just as compelling as Garrison's - I really don't know who to believe - but it hasn't coloured my opinion of Stone’s film in the least.

It was and still is an electric film and in my view is a landmark of cinema, and certainly one of the best films of the 90’s. Enjoy.

Buy Stone’s film here: JFK
Buy the anti-Stone film here: The Kennedy Assassination - Beyond Conspiracy

Here’s the brilliant opening:

Sunday, 25 March 2007

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT


Death of a President (2006) dir. Gabriel Range

**1/2

“Death of a President” is a hypothetical documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush. I wouldn’t qualify it as a mockumentary, certainly not in the Spinal Tap tradition, DOAP is in a league all its own. We’re used to seeing fake documentaries as comedies, and that’s why the gimmick works so well – it plays off the deadpan seriousness of a documentary which informs the comedy. With DOAP, the fact that it’s played straight and completely realistic is the reason why it doesn’t work…

The film pretends to have been made in 2008. The events start in Oct 19, 2007 during a Presidential visit to Chicago. George W. is in town to make an economic speech as well as reinforce his position on terrorism. A large group of protestors have gathered outside to demonstrate against the usual shopping list anti-Bush agenda items. The gang outside are rougher and more violent than usual. One man manages to break the barricade and run up and touch the President’s car. One of the secret service agents refers to the act as an alarming breech of security. As a result everyone’s guard is up.

Bush makes his speech and as he’s leaving the hotel, gunshots ring out. The President is hit. He escapes in his motorcade, but it’s too late, President Bush is dead. Of course, Dick Cheney is sworn in as President (yikes!), and he immediately starts to agitate Syria, whom he’s had a vendetta against for years. The interviewees with the agents and investigators describe the evidence and multiple leads they followed during the investigation. The investigation becomes an arm of the Cheney political agenda. The American people need closure and someone has to be accountable. One Muslim woman interviewed says when she heard the news she prayed the shooter was not a Muslim. Indeed, a American Muslim with suspected Al Qaeda ties is arrested.

The documentary techniques are impeccable as the filmmaker's almost seamlessly blends stock footage, recreated footage, real speeches and fake interviews. There’s even a few Errol Morris-type sequences – slo-mo macro close-up bullets falling to the ground. On a technical level it’s groundbreaking, and in the realm of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast.

But as a piece of entertaining cinema there’s a fundamental flaw which I could never get past. It’s a big cheat and almost too perfect. A good documentary always has a bit of luck on its side, ie. getting access to a good story, being at the right place at the right time, finding the right stock footage etc. But since DOAP is fictional the filmmakers could create anything they wanted to make it compelling. The fundamental value of a documentary is that it is true. Without the truth, it’s just a 'whatif'. And I just couldn't figure out the fundamental purpose of dramatizing the film as a documentary. According to the (fake) final credits, the Muslim man charged with the murder is still on death row despite evidence and a confession that proves he’s innocent. So perhaps the film is a warning against the temptation to rush to judgment and make the incident a political tool, though the Arar case would certainly make a more compelling film.

DOAP is a marvel from a technical standpoint and interesting mock-doc experiment, let’s just hope it doesn’t catch on.

On DVD April 3rd. Buy it here: Death of a President


Saturday, 24 March 2007

Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN


Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) Dir. Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna and Maribel Verdu

****

Guest review by Blair Stewart

The second salvo across the board for New Mexican Cinema after “Amores Perros” success, “And Your Mother Too...” follows the post-high school exploits of two over-heated twits who con an honest-to-God Woman into taking a road trip with them with the intention of getting into her pants and the surprises that occur when she turns the table on them in sex and politics. Lower class Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and bourgeoisie Tenoch (Diego Luna), abandoned by their girlfriends for Europe and looking for drugs and p*ssy over a long summer before their university years begin stumble upon 28 year old married Luisa (Maribel Verdu) and convince her they know the location of a ethereal beach known as ‘Heaven’s Mouth’ that only they can take her to. Little do the two buddies suspect the personal crisis that she’s facing and that a trip to the ocean will change the course of their lives.

From a wryly funny and knowing script by his brother Carlos Cauron, director Alfonso Cuaron places you in modern day Mexico City with a sharp honest eye aided by the widescreen framing from long-time cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki that allows the characters space to roam, breathe and exist. What raises this story above that of a standard ‘voyage of discovery’ yarn is the awesome choice of an omnipresent narrator to tell brief stories of its main/peripheral characters and landscape and their sociological implications. It is as if Mexico itself is telling you the truth of its past and present. As the mismatched Julio and Tenoch, Bernal and Luna are excellent as little boys running headlong into adulthood and consequence while Maribel Verdu’s Luisa is the lynchpin with her intelligence, understanding and sexy jukebox shimming.

After watching this film I was struck by the disparity in present English language cinema and what is occurring south of the border through Mexico and down into Brazil and Argentina. Why do we have in our cinema a fear of sexuality and mature displays of it? Why would “Y Tu Mama Tambien” risk a NC-17 rating for showing what comes naturally to us whereas torture flicks of the ilk of the “Saw” trilogy and “Hostel” are shrugged about with their respective carnage? Is this not a worrying trend? After seeing what our neighbors can produce with cameras and talent, what does the English population of the world devote their daydreams to and are we really seeing it in our theaters? This is film without guilt; it is a blast of fresh air, it is a modern classic. Disfruta!


Friday, 23 March 2007

HARD CANDY


Hard Candy (2006) dir. David Slade
Starring: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh

***

Made for under $1 million, David Slade’s first feature overachieves as a creepy and shocking psychologically twister. It’s best to experience the film without knowing too much of the plot, but I can say it’s a two-hander/cat-and-mouse game between a teenage girl Hayley (Ellen Page) and older male photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson). It’s horror without blood and a thriller without overt violence.

The film opens with an online seduction scene. We see only the words from an internet chat room typed onto a computer. “Thonggirl14” and “Lensman319” are arranging a meeting at a coffee shop. They are online flirt-friends, now taking the next step for a meeting. In the meeting we reveal, “Lensman319” is Jeff, a handsome and charming 30-something photographer and “Thonggirl14” is Hayley, an articulate but underage 13-year old

Surprisingly Hayley is just as forward as Jeff, and there appears to be no coercion going on as they leave for Jeff’s home. Is Jeff a sexual predator? He doesn’t look it, but then again, why is he going home with a 13 year old? At this point, as the audience, we aren’t disgusted, just curious. The playful dialogue continues at Jeff’s swank home. His walls are adorned with photos of his young model-girls on the wall. Do we think Hayley is safe? Not by a long shot.

Without showing blood or gore the film is as disturbing and gruesome as any of the “Saw” films. The film’s centerpiece is a controversial squirm-inducing act of torture. But the power of the scene lies in the threat of violence and the fear of the unknown, not necessarily in the act itself. It’s a time and tested horror film trick, which most horror films ignore. Director David Slade gives us an ultra-slick car commercial look. Widescreen, changing shutter speeds, slo-mo and more close-ups than I’ve ever seen in a film. It certainly makes for pretty pictures, but it doesn’t over power the drama. The most effective gimmick is the use of the colour palette. Painstaking efforts were put into colouring every frame appropriately using costumes, production design and post-production timing to affect mood and suspense.In fact, the colourist gets his own head credit. Hayley’s red hoodie makes her stand out of the largely desaturated frame – a clever allegory to Little Red Riding Hood.

The stand out of the film is the starmaking performance of Canadian Ellen Page. At only 13, she brings remarkable depth to her character – both maturity and innocence. Even her expressionless face can exude confidence and inner sadness at the same time. No other actress in the world could have done this better. She will undoubtedly become a household name very soon (we’ve already seen her in “X-Men 3” – but bigger things are sure to come). Patrick Wilson is also well cast. He’s good looking, in fact, too good-looking to be a sexual predator. Therefore there’s always a doubt in our minds, up until the very end that may be completely innocent of anything he’s accused of in the film.

Please be warned, it’s not for the faint of heart, but if you’re in the mood for a horror film, before you pick up “Saw III,” or “The Hill Have Eyes,” take a piece “Hard Candy” – it will drawn you in. Enjoy.




Wednesday, 21 March 2007

BEST OF 2006

2006 Year in Film

I'm a little under the weather today, and so I'll repost my Best of 2006 for the blog. Sorry, a review will come tomorrow. I promise.

1. United 93 (dir. Paul Greengrass)

Filmmaking at its finest. An emotionally draining minute-by-minute recounting of the events of 9/11. (Note: don’t confuse this with the lame A&E made-for-tv movie – Flight 93) Greengrass takes realism to new levels by casting the real people in many of the key military and air traffic controller roles in the film. Tension and terror is created from the very beginning and sustained through the whole film and rises to unimaginable levels by the very end in the cockpit of the doomed flight. Available on video now.

2. Little Miss Sunshine (dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Ferris)

A real feel good film, with a hilarious ensemble cast. All performance are great, specifically Alan Arkin who is a scene stealer. Too many indelible scenes and images to count. Available on video now.

3. The Prestige (dir. Christopher Nolan)

A smart film that makes you think, and then think again, throughout the whole film – beginning to end. Christopher Nolan (Memento) tells the story of dueling magicians in turn of the century London. I’ll say no more. It’s is an experience you have to discover with as minimal description as possible. By the end, you will be astounded – I guarantee it. Despite the tepid critical and commercial reception, over time The Prestige I am sure will become a classic film. Available on video now.

4. The Departed (dir. Martin Scorsese)

I think this will be Scorsese’s year. Based on the Hong Kong crime film Infernal Affairs, it’s all business for Scorsese. Plot rules here. Emotions are kept to a minimum, very tough, and no-nonsense. Watch for hilarious banter from Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen (…just kidding). Available on video now.

5. Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

In the near future, humans can no longer procreate; Clive Owen agrees to help transport a miraculously pregnant woman to sanctuary from the violent streets of London in order to save humankind. Despite the high concept, Children of Men is remarkably simple in plot. It’s a chase film executed to perfection. Half a dozen scenes just blow your mind in terms of terms of suspense, emotion, raw power and technical brilliance. Available on video later this month.

6. Lady Vengeance (dir. Chan-wook Park)

After a 13-year imprisonment for the kidnap and murder of a 6 year old boy, the beautiful and feisty lady protagonist seeks revenge on the man that was really responsible for the boy's death. With the help of fellow prison inmates she gets closer and closer to her goal. But the end is not what she nor we would expect. Bloody, violent, but also morbidly hilarious, Lady Vengeance is disturbing and revelatory. This film completes Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy – please also rent 2005’s “Old Boy”). Available on video now.

7. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (dir. Michel Gondry)

A documentary about a NYC street concert staged by Dave Chappelle, featuring the Fugees, Mos Def, the Roots, Erika Badu etc. Dave Chappelle is funny, but don’t expect bust-your-gut gags, music is king here. I’m not a big hip-hop fan, but the performances were outstanding. Some of the more personal moments of the NYC residents, concert goers, and certainly Wyclef Jean’s solo performance piano performance at the end make this a classic concert film. Available on video now.

8. L’Enfant (dir. The Dardennes Bros)

Some more powerful Euro-Realism from the Dardennes Bros (see also The Son). L’Enfant is about a street couple/petty thieves who have recently become parents to an infant child. Bruno, the naïve and disaffected father attempts to sell the child for money, without the mother’s knowledge. When she finds out, he attempts to recover the baby and redeem his wrongdoings. My lame plot summary doesn’t do the film justice. A Palme D’Or winner at Cannes, the film is remarkably involving. It’s shot in the Dardennes Bros trademark, handheld documentary, medium-shot-only, style. Available on video now.

9. Last King of Scotland (dir. Kevin MacDonald)

“Last King of Scotland” is a great film, but not just of because of Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning performance but because the movie itself is great filmmaking. It’s the story of the relationship between the despotic African leader Idi Amin and his naïve Scottish doctor. Filmed with a unique sun-drenched look, the film practically oozes sweat from the screen. It's intense and thrilling all around.

10. Six Figures (dir. David Christensen)

A cerebral indie film about a young married couple experiencing the financial pressure of maintaining their middle class suburban lifestyle. When the man’s wife is mysteriously attacked and hospitalized, the husband becomes the main suspect. In what could have descended into a formula thriller instead becomes a unique examination of the fine line between trust and doubt in a relationship. With shades of Michael Haneke and Stanley Kubrick, Six Figures is paced deliberately slow and often cold and detached, but the experience is truly rewarding.

The other 10 that didn’t make the top spots, but are terrific films to watch and enjoy:

11. Inside Man – a classic heist film
12. Casino Royale – finally a Bond film that feels like a real film
13. The Descent – a clausterphobic horror film. Truly terrifying
14. Pan’s Labyrinth – Adult version of Narnia. Imaginative and scary
15. The Fountain – Challenging high concept cerebral sci-fi. Not for all tastes
16. Apocalypto – Uncomplicated bloody action adventure. Plain and simple
17. Letters from Iwo Jima – See this over Flags of Our Fathers.
18. Superman Returns – A guilty pleasure. Take it for what its worth
19. Dreamgirls – Great first half, second half lags, but still worth a visit
20. Babel – High drama all around

Some great foreign films that went straight-to-video:

The Pusher Trilogy – a series of Danish gritty and violent crime films. Brilliant.
L’Enfer – Three women who share a connection to a violent incident from their childhood. From a Krzysztof Kieslowski script.
The Conformist (1970) – A reissue of Bernardo Bertolucci’s classic film. One of cinema’s greatest films.

My Favourite Performances of the Year

Lead Actor:

Michael Sheen, channeling Tony Blair (The Queen)
Leonardo DiCaprio (Blood Diamond and/or Departed)
Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson)
Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat)
Aaron Eckhart (Thank You For Smoking)

Lead Actress:

Kate Winslet (Little Children)
Helen Mirren (The Queen)
Judi Dench (Notes From a Scandal)
Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls)
Kirstin Dunst (Marie Antoinette)

Supporting Actor:

Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine)
Mark Wahlberg (Departed)
Brad Pitt (Babel)
Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls)
Bill Nighy (Notes From a Scandal)

Supporting Actress:

Abigal Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine)
The kid from Half Nelson (Half Nelson)
Rinko Kikuchi (Babel)
Phyllis Somerville (Little Children)

He/She/It deserves something…

Steve-O for putting a leech on his eyeball (Jackass 2)
Daniel Craig for saving Bond
The baby in Children of Men
The Panther in Apocalypto
Tony Jaa in The Protector (you’ve got to see it to believe it)

Overrated films of the year:

Half Nelson – Gosling was great, but the film was not.
The Illusionist – Don’t believe what anybody says, The Prestige is the one to see.
The Queen – admirable but not amazing
World Trade Center – a noble effort, but felt like Made-For-TV territory.
Flags of our Fathers – Sometimes it works, but is overreaching.
Tristram Shandy – just didn’t get it.

Something to challenge yourself:

The Fountain – hit or miss, but it will linger with you.
Brick – Very complex but very unique. The dialogue is so complicated, I had to watch it with the English subtitles on!
Lady Vengeance – its Korean, but give it a try.
L’Enfant – you will be rewarded

Something to enjoy with your partner:

Devil Wears Prada
Little Miss Sunshine
Jackass (I’m serious)
Borat
Thank You For Smoking


L'ENFANT


L’Enfant (2006) dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring: Jeremie Renier, Deborah Francois

****

The Dardennes Bros are two Belgian filmmakers known for their neo-realist/documentary approach to filmmaking. Though similar in style to the Danish Dogme 95 films (ie. the Celebration), the Dardennes’ films differ greatly in the types of stories they tell. Whereas the Dogme films tended to portray middle and upper class society, the Dardennes deal strictly with the underclass street youth.


L’Enfant is set in the mean streets of an unnamed Belgian working class city (the Detroit of Belgium). Bruno is a young petty thief and small time hood. Sonia is his pregnant girlfriend – they’re very much in love, though more of a youthful puppylove. With only a few shots the Dardennes establish the environment and the characters perfectly – we know this story, it’s Dickensian and timeless – characters with nothing in their pockets, nothing to lose and no other thoughts than how to get through the day.

When Sonia goes comes home with a baby, Bruno registers little reaction. She may have well come home with a loaf of bread, which would be more exciting to him because he could eat it. The baby is more a burden to Bruno – not only the added cost of feeding and clothing it, but the loss of attention from Sonia.

Bruno decides to sell the baby to the black market. Using underground connections he finds a buyer and is taken to an abandoned building to exchange the child. Bruno never actually meets his buyers. He places the child in an empty room, then leaves. When he returns the baby is replaced with money. Bruno’s carefree attitude about the child is terrifying, and the actual exchange of the ‘goods’ is like an adrenaline shot of street-realism.

Bruno comes home with the money, and expects Sonia to be happy for the sale. She instantly faints. His naiveté is hard to believe, but that’s what makes the character so interesting. Bruno is too innocent to hate, he’s not malevolent, he just doesn’t know any better. And Jeremie Renier’s performance make it utterly believable. The remainder of the film tracks Bruno’s search to retrieve the child.

But Bruno’s journey doesn’t end with getting back his child. He retrieves it because he has to. He does it for Sonia, not for himself. Bruno is harder to crack – the street has made him soulless, unable live beyond his primordial childlike instincts. It’s not until the final moments of the film do we realize what Bruno is looking for – it’s redemption of his soul, something which he didn’t lose, but in fact never had. Something the street has deprived him of.

The Dardennes style is unmistakable. Their camera is always solely fixed on the characters, in this case, Bruno. It follows behind him, over the shoulder almost as his point of view. It stops when Bruno stops and it looks where Bruno looks. And after 10 mins we become invisible participants in Bruno’s adventure.

L’Enfant deservedly won the Dardennes Bros a rarely achieved second Palme D’Or at Cannes. It’s the fourth in a series of similarly themed films (“La Promesse”, “Rosetta”, and “Le Fils”). All films deserve to be discovered. Don’t rent them all at once. All are downbeat and somewhat depressing, but truly rewarding on all emotional levels. Enjoy.




Tuesday, 20 March 2007

HARD BOILED


Hard Boiled (1992) dir. John Woo
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung

***1/2

The influence of John Woo on modern pulp cinema can’t be ignored. Gun-totting actions films still overuse the Woo-signature double-gun shooting killing each other in slo-mo. After a series of Hong Kong actions film from “A Better Tomorrow” to “Bullet in the Head,” Woo, topped them all with his tour-de-force, Lawrence-of-Arabia-of-carnage, grand spectacle of bloodshed, “Hard Boiled.”

Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) is a Dirty Harry-type supercop with an itchy trigger finger and an I’ll-do-it-on-my-own attitude. Tony (Tony Leung) is a cop/rat who has infiltrated the triad mafia. Both cops are trying to take down a gang of mobsters responsible for running guns and making trouble throughout Hong Kong. Problem is Tequila is not aware of Tony’s identity and as a result he botches Tony’s plans to take them down from within. Eventually Tony’s cover is blown and is forced to team up with Tequila and attack the triads head-on.

Enough of the plot, the film is structured around 3 major action set-pieces. In fact, go ahead and fast forward to them if the dialogue gets boring. The first the ‘teahouse sequence’ which opens the film. Tequila and his partner have staked out some gangsters in a bird-themed Chinese café. When the action starts, unlike Hollywood, the bystanders actually get in the way and get killed as dramatically as the thugs. Tequila’s slide down the banister is unnecessary but fun. In fact half of the action is completely unnecessary from a storytelling point of view and instead exists, ‘just because it’s cool.’ But these ‘rules’ are established early and so are acceptable.





The next major sequence involves a confrontation between 2 rival triad groups in a warehouse. Tony’s crew enters via motorcycles with Uzis and proceeds to destroy everything in site. We also meet the triad henchman, Mad Dog (Philip Kwok), for the first time. He’s 100% badass and could wipe any Bond henchman of the screen in a second. Soon Tequila joins in the action and it becomes a Tequila vs. a hundred triads type of gun battle.





The third sequence is the 30min+ climax in a hospital. For some reason the triads have stashed their kitty of guns in the basement of a hospital (huh??), and Tequila and Tony decide to ambush the gang at this location. No doubt, hospital patients, doctors, and babies are caught in the cross fire. Woo’s famous single-shot long-take is a sublime piece of cinema – forget “Touch of Evil,” or “The Player,” or “Goodfellas,” on a technical level this one shot masterpiece trumps them all.

Here’s a portion:





One of the reasons Woo’s Hong Kong films work more than his Hollywood ones is the charisma of his stars. Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung exude silent intensities, unlike parody- performances of Nicholas Cage, John Travolta and Tom Cruise.

“Hard Boiled” turned out to be his last Hong Kong film, and though he’s had success in Hollywood, his action style still just doesn’t seem to fit as well over here. Perhaps it’s the overly emotive drama, which we forgive when its in Chinese, or the freedom to do pretty much anything on film Woo isn’t afforded in Hollywood? Either way, we’ll always have his Hong Kong films to marvel over. And who knows, maybe he’ll go back and reboot himself with another one later on down the road. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Hard Boiled - Criterion Collection

Monday, 19 March 2007

REGLE DU JEU (RULES OF THE GAME)


Règle du Jeu - aka Rules of the Game (1939) dir. Jean Renoir
Starring: Marcel Dario, Nora Gregor, Jean Renoir

****

Robert de la Chesnaye (to the Servant): “Please, will you end this farce”
The Servant: “Which one?”


Generally cited in most international polls as one of the greatest films of all time, “Règle du Jeu,” has proven to be a major influence on the unique sub-genre of ensemble-chamber films and a major influence on Altman, Lars von Trier, Woody Allen, Denys Arcand, Luis Bunuel and many others. It’s a biting farce and critique of the social follies of upper class French aristocrats.

A snobby French aristocrat Robert de la Chesnaye is planning a hunt at his country estate, and invites not only his friends, but their husbands, wives, mistresses and lovers. In Renoir’s world, wives and mistresses are interchangeable. Husbands have mistresses and their wives are mistresses to other men. Even the mistresses have other lovers. And everyone is invited to the party. The title is appropriate because Renoir’s upper class twits have ‘rules’ to their social games, where everyone is supposed to accept their dalliances as such. But only the upper class can be naïve enough to think their social superiority will immunize them against envy and greed. That’s how it starts, but of course we know the house of cards will eventually fall, it always does.

Renoir deftly juggles half a dozen plotlines and character relationships throughout the film. He uses pre-Citizen Kane deep-focus photography to show action and dialogue in the background and foreground. It was innovative then and is still fresh and exciting to watch today. After establishing all the characters and their relationships with each other, the film moves to another level with the hunt. Renoir crafts the scene well, with a terrific montage of killings of rabbits, pheasants and various other animals. The foreshadowing isn’t subtle, but in fact provides the film a darkly comic edge.

In the evening during a stage masquerade show for the guests, the energy of the film is ramped up to another level. Jealous anger boils over causing a series of arguments and fights through the house. These scenes, which make up much of the second act, create one cinema’s most famous set-pieces – a masterpiece of movement and choreography.

As you begin watching “Règle du Jeu”, it may not be an obvious masterpiece, but as Roger Ebert puts it, ‘you can't simply watch it, you have to absorb it.' By the end the characters get into your skin, not the just follies of the rich but every substrata of class as well – the wait-staff, servants, grounds keepers - all watch and participate in the elaborate game.

The underlying context of the film is the impending war. Renoir made the film prior to WWII, and didn’t have the benefit of hindsight, which makes his achievement even more remarkable. With the war on their doorstep, the naiveté of the ruling class and the triteness of their ego-driven preoccupations is scathing.

Unfortunately the result was a complete dismissal of the film by the critics and the public when it was released, as well as being banned by the Vichy Government for being unpatriotic. But, like “Citizen Kane”, it wasn’t until the late 50’s when “Règle du Jeu” could be accepted for all the rules that it broke. Enjoy.

NOTE: for a terrific editing lesson, watch the breakdown of the two different endings on the Criterion DVD. The Rules of the Game - Criterion Collection


Sunday, 18 March 2007

PREDATOR


Predator (1987) dir. John McTiernan
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Bill Duke

***1/2

“If it bleeds we can kill it”. A great line from one of the great testosterone films of the 80’s.

Schwarzenegger (Dutch) and his team of elite soldiers are assigned to rescue a group of South American politicians from some terrorists. After an impressive landing in the middle of the jungle the team has no trouble infiltrating the jungle encampment and blowing the hell out of everything. The gunpower is awesome, especially Jesse Ventura’s chain fed mini-gun. After they discover another military team skinned alive and hanging from the trees, they realize there’s more to the mission than just politics. The jungle is inhabited by an invisible alien creature playing his own version of the Most Dangerous Game. One by one Schwarzenegger’s crew is picked off the predator.

The star of the film is the predator (played by 7 foot tall Kevin Peter Hall) which spawned a not-so-bad sequel and a cross-over vehicle with “Alien”. The staging of his introduction is a classic, Dutch runs away from the predator and accidentally falls 100 meters off a cliff into a lake. He crawls away, only to discover the Predator has made the same jump. Dutch crawls through mud to shore and is ready to accept his death, when he realizes the mud on his body has rendered himself invisible to the predator. Here we see the Predator for the first time in the flesh:



The design of the Predator is the work of the great Stan Winston. From his wrist-operated, self-repair bio computer system, luminescent green blood, double mouth jowls to his shoulder-mounted laser sighting device, it’s so detailed, there’s a wikipedia entry about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predator_(alien). Of course Dutch’s description of him is a bit more blunt - “you’re one ugly motherfucker”.

“Predator” is highly quotable, especially when you, ahem…watch it over 20 times between ages 12 and 15. Remember Mac’s psychotic last words, “I’m gonna have me some fun, I’m gonna have me some fun”, or the Schwarzenegger one liner before blowing a hole in someone, “knock knock”. But it’s Jesse Ventura’s Blaine who has the best lines: “I ain’t got time to bleed”, or “this place makes Cambodia look like Kansas.”

“Predator” is still a hell of a lot of fun, though it’s not without its ridiculous moments, specifically Dutch jumping out of the way from, and surviving, a nuclear explosion. But the film remains highly watchable today beyond nostalgia reasons, unlike, say, “Commando”. It’s also responsible for some notable career changes of its cast: Arnold (Governor of California), Jesse Ventura (Governor of Minnesota), Sonny Landham (ran for Governor of Kentucky), Shane Black (once Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter) and Bill Duke (now a successful director). Enjoy.

Here’s a great spoof - Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator":



Buy it here: Predator (Widescreen Two-Disc Collector's Edition)

Saturday, 17 March 2007

MORVERN CALLAR


Morvern Callar (2002) dir. Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott

***1/2

Guest Review by Blair Stewart

This is the story of a too-quiet check-out girl who comes home to find her rich boyfriend dead by his own hand. He's left her a manuscript on the computer to be sent to publishers, money for the funeral, a jaw-dropping mixtape to listen to and instructions for poor working-class Morvern Callar to follow to insure his martyred legacy for art. But Morvern chooses otherwise.

Taking us from the suffocating grey blur of Scotland to the open blue comedown mornings of Spain, Lynne Ramsay's sophomore triumph observes a ghostly Samantha Morton who could be in the midst of a great internal crisis amongst all night raves and random sex, but we can't really tell and she might never will, she just might keep inscrutably drifting outwards.

Using a lively camera as a microscope on the spiritual unease of our times and an aforementioned soundtrack packing the likes of Aphex Twin, Can, Ween and Stereolab as a possible window into the protagonist's state, Ramsay film doesn't have a tidy opening or ending, it drops us into the middle of an unpredictable situation. Like Morton's performance, it is rare and raw and very much alive.

If I live to see the other side of this century (and I hope I do), should I be asked to name one world event, one album and one film to sum up what it was like to live during this post-everything generation, the answer likely will come as simply then as it does right now: 9/11, Kid A by Radiohead, Morvern Callar.
Enjoy.

Buy it here: Morvern Callar


Friday, 16 March 2007

HARD CORE LOGO


Hard Core Logo (1996) dir. Bruce McDonald
Starring: Hugh Dillon, Callum Keith Rennie

***1/2

One of Canada’s best films, “Hard Core Logo,” is also one of the quintessential rock films. Set up as a mockumentary, the film could easily have played as a straight drama and been just as compelling.

Hard Core Logo is the name of a fictional punk band from the early 80’s – contemporaries of the Ramones (in fact, Joey Ramone even makes an appearance). They are aged and past their prime, but Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon) the lead singer and self-proclaimed band leader reunites the band together for a reunion tour.

The introduction to the band and its members are typical in-your-face hardcore punk style. They all have great punk monikers like Joe Dick, Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie), John Oxenburger (John Pyper-Ferguson) and Pipefitter (Bernie Coulson). NOTE: The real band “Billy Talent” took their name from this film, and removed an “L”. It’s the shear willpower of their charismatic leader that brings them back together. The oil and water of the band are Joe and Billy. Billy has an offer from a bigger band named Jenifur to play with them after the tour. Each personality is as strong as the other, as Joe explains, “Billy wants models and limos, I’ll settle for hookers and cabs”. Its great line and sums up the two characters perfectly.

On the road, as we expect, we’re exposed to a host of crazy tour-bus punk antics. There’s no covering the Canadianness here, the band travels across the Rockies and Prairies – Vancouver to Edmonton to Regina and Winnipeg. It’s a bumpy ride. After some groupies steal the band’s money, Dick takes the blame and the downfall starts. Dick and the band eventually meet their idol Bucky Haight (a very good Julian Ritchings) who turns out to be a precious asshole. Billy continues to be a thorn in Joe’s side (ie. like the Mick Jones/Joe Strummer battles) as his threats to leave the band for Jenifur continue. Billy has more going for him than Joe. Joe’s life is the band, and the band is not a band without Billy. The math is easy - Joe’s situation is dire and it depresses him. In their final concert, Billy and Joe have a physical fight on stage, which breaks up the band permanently.

At the final moments in the film, we’re put into Joe’s shoes and we’re allowed to see his pain and utter dejection at the state of his life. He’s like a wounded bird, unable to fly, heartbroken and crippled without Billy. The final shot is a shocker – but wouldn’t it be hardcore with a happy ending, would it? Enjoy.

Buy it here: Hard Core Logo



Thursday, 15 March 2007

SHATTERED GLASS


Shattered Glass (2003) dir Billy Ray
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloe Sevigny

***1/2

Billy Ray (no, not that Billy Ray) says he’s a writer first and a director second, but it’s no coincidence that his two best films are the one’s he’s directed – “Shattered Glass” and “Beach” – but more on “Breach” in another review. When Billy Ray wants to write something good, he can. And he knows when to save it for himself.


“Shattered Glass” is the true story of Stephen Glass a talented young journalist from The New Republic –a snobby political magazine, dubbed the ‘in flight magazine of “Air Force One”. Most of the staff writers are under 30, idealistic extremely talented and cocky and Stephen Glass was one of the best.

Glass’ latest article is a humorous essay on a computer hacker who was employed as a security consultant by the same company whose computer system he hacked into. The article is popular and makes a name for Glass as one of the magazine’s top writers. A kink in Glass’ armour is discovered by a lowly web-writer (they didn’t have the prestige of the print journalists then) played by Steve Zaun. Zaun tries to find and follow up with the so-called hacker. But for Zaun, all roads strangely lead to nowhere. In fact, he soon discovers the article is a complete fabrication.

And so the race is on. Glass is a crafty manipulator who uses his innocence and naiveté to charm his subjects, colleagues and bosses. He has a way of turning his opponents on the defensive by saying lines like, “are you mad at me?” Glass scrambles to cover his tracks and invents more lies to explain his shoddy research and out and out fabrications. Meanwhile Zaun and his team of web-journalists seize an opportunity to take down one of industry’s most respected magazines.

The core of the story is the relationship between Glass (played well by Hayden Christensen) and his editor Charles Lane (a breakout performance by Peter Sarsgaard). Editors are supposed to support and back their writers (especially their good ones) and the crafty Glass uses these psychological tactics to turn his fellow writers against Charles. It’s masterful piece of manipulation and a great con game. Hayden perfectly plays Glass’ faux insecurities against Lane’s timidness as a new editor-in-chief.

There’s half a dozen terrific showcase scenes between Sarsgaard and Christensen. The most uncomfortable is when Lane asks Glass to actually bring him to the convention centre where Glass’s fictional hacker was hired. Glass rapidly fires off a string of lies, all of which bounce off Lane, until he finds the ultimate lie and blames the fictional kid for lying to him. It’s a brilliant exchange.

Along with recent reviews of “All the President’s Men” and “Zodiac,” “Shattered Glass” is in this league. The examination of the workmanship of a writer, their creed, ethics and dedication to their craft is far more believable than say, the nobility of 300 Spartan warriors. I’d wager money on these journalists in a scrap any day.

And good for Billy Ray. His years of hacking out scripts like “Hart’s War”, “Flightplan”, Suspect Zero” and “Volcano” went into making “Shattered Glass.” and how he kept that one for himself, I don’t know, he must have been crafty… Enjoy.



Buy it here:Shattered Glass

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

300


300 (2007) dir. Zach Snyder
Starring Gerard Butler, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro

**

As I sat in my seat waiting for my homoerotic blood-porn fix to begin, I glanced around and could not find a single woman in the crowd. If I was ever unsure if I was in the right theatre, my doubts were erased.

To say “300” caters to the modern UFC male would be an understatement. It’s the highly anticipated adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel dramatizing the Battle of Thermopylae (aka UFC 70 ‘Sparta vs. Persia’). The film is equally gargantuan in its blood and carnage as it is in it’s… what’s the word… “godawfulness”. It’s not a word, but fits the bill nonetheless.

When limbs aren’t being severed and bodies being pierced with spears like soft plums, the film is a cringe-inducing unintentional comedy. The story is this, its ancient Greece, Leonidas grows up from his early formative childhood development years learning to fight. As a child he faces a series of monstrous beasts as his rite of passage. In fact, all Spartan children are like this – Note: deformed children are immediately discarded and killed like bruised fruit at the grocery store.

Leonidas grows up to be King of Sparta, as well as its military general. When a plot to invade Sparta by the Persians (modern day Iran) is revealed, Leonidas decides to use his army of only 300 men to take the battle to them. The battle takes place on a narrow corridor of land on the edge of cliff. It’s the best defensive position against the army of thousands.

Attempt after attempt is made to penetrate the 300. The Persian army consists of enslaved men, whom the Spartans resent, because they, themselves, fight as free soldiers – btw: have they forgotten about the thousands of babies their mothers murdered and discarded at birth? Anyways, the evil Persians also have beasts, Rhino’s, hunchbacks and various other creatures to fight with them. The carnage is truly awesome. Limbs are hacked away, juicy digital blood splatters across the screen, eyes gauged out. Eventually Leonidas faces the leader of Persia himself, Xerses – imagine a cross-dressing Iman meets Manute Bol. His feminine facial piercing and sculpted eyebrows contrast Leonidas’s ab cleavage. It’s no doubt who we should root for.

I won’t ruin the ending, though you can always check the history books, but that doesn’t matter, it's all about the action, which truly is inspired. Frank Miller’s frames are gorgeous. Unfortunately the cost is a very tired recycling of virtually every cliché and every line from every sword and sandal epic ever made. The battle cries and speeches are truly awful. The soft flashbacks to yellow wheat fields blowing in the wind and the whiny soundtrack vocals is a carbon copy “Gladiator.” And the post climax speech by David Wenman is a copy of “Braveheart’s” ending. Why? With a $70 million opening weekend, I guess my question is answered, but it is lazy filmmaking. Enjoy?

Here’s a juicy battle scene, with an intro from Snyder and Butler;

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

TALLADEGA NIGHTS


Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) dir. Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen

***

Will Ferrell films are an oddity for me. It usually takes a second or third viewing of a Will Ferrell film to appreciate the humour. Films like “Anchorman” and “Old School” were so childish I had to unleash my inner idiot to laugh. Having trained myself with these classics I think I was primed for “Talledega Nights.” And it scored with me.

Will Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, a prototypical god-fearing Bush-loving flag waving, win-or-you’re-nothin’ Nascar driver. Ricky Bobby (the name inspired by the inordinately high number of dual-first-name drivers on the circuit - Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Mark Martin etc). He’s part of the pit crew of another driver who decides to quit driving in the middle of the race. Ricky seizes the opportunity, takes the wheel and actually wins the race. Soon Ricky is the number one driver on the circuit. His best friend is Cal Naughton Jr. (played by John C. Reilly sending up his character in “Days of Thunder”) and his teammate who helps him win by allowing Ricky to draft behind and ‘slingshot’ him past other drivers. Cal is too dumb to realize he’s always coming in second place and giving victory to his friend.

Ricky’s dominance of Nascar is challenged by a gay French driver, Jean Girard, who wears “Perrier” as his sponsor. He’s played by Sacha Baron Cohen. After a near-fatal crash and a resulting fear of driving Ricky leaves the track. Ricky’s deadbeat father returns to coach Ricky back into racing. Ricky’s comeback is successful and he beats his French rival to regain his pride.

Ok, now that we got the “plot” out of the way, and for fear of over-analyzing the film let me just highlight some of the moments which make the film ridiculous and morbidly enjoyable (if I’m cryptic, you’ll just have to see it):

- Gary Cole as Ricky’s father practically steals the film. His gift of a cougar named ‘Karen’ to help Ricky get over his fear of driving is priceless – not to mention the airbrushed photo on the hood of his car.
- Part of Ricky’s psychosis is sometimes thinking he’s a on fire. Watch for a hilarious moment when the track crew members pretend they are spinning fire hoses trying to douse the fake fire.
- The mockery of the perplexing advertising sponsors on their cars – Ricky’s sponsor is ‘Wonder Bread,’ Carl’s is ‘Old Spice.’ Sorry, that just makes me smile. I can’t help it.
- The dinner conversation on the ‘preferred’ Jesus – Ricky prefers Baby Jesus.
- Did I mention the cougar?
- Gary Cole at job shadow day is introduced as a “semi-professional race car driver” and “amateur tattoo artist”.
- Andy Richter as Jean Girard’s German lover
- Will Ferrell and Amy Adams making out at the bar
- Ricky’s kids, Walker and Texas Ranger’s, contempt for their grandfather
- Carl asking Ricky for instructions on how to turn the TV stereo on after he’s just stolen Ricky’s wife.
- The running chase at the end set to Pat Benetar’s “We Belong”

There’s many more, which you’ll have to discover for yourself. So unleash your inner idiot and shake and bake!

Unfortunately, most youtube clips have been removed, so I’ll settle for a few hilarious Sprint ads featuring Will Ferrell in character. Enjoy.







Buy it here: Talladega Nights - The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

13 TZAMETI


13 Tzameti (2007) dir. Gela Bubluani
Starring: George Bubluani

**

“13 Tzameti” is the first film from director Gela Bubluani, a Frenchman of Georgian heritage. Gela shows good promise with some salacious subject matter, but the film is so heavily weighted on the premise alone unfortunately without full realization of suspense or character.

A quiet unassuming labourer (Sebastien) is doing work on the roof of a young woman living with her grandfather in a quaint country home. He’s a nosey eavesdropper whom we catch spying on them and listening in on their conversations. He overhears of a package to arrive which could lead to a grand sum of money. One day, the grandfather dies suddenly of a drug overdose. Despite the work he’s done, since his employer has died he will not receive payment. Instead Sebastien takes the package in hopes of getting rich. There’s no money inside, but a note with detailed instructions – a veritable breadcrumb trail into the unknown. Unfortunately, the package turns out to be Sebastien’s pandora’s box.

NOTE: Below are spoilers which may ruin a shocking surprise which is the crux of the entire film…. Be warned.

Sebastien is lead into a game where he is the participant – a high stakes underground game of Russian Roulette – 40 men are gathered by a group of high-stakes bourgeoisie gamblers seeking the highest thrill – a civilized “Fight Club” There is no escape for Sebastien, he is part of the game for good. The contestants stand in a circle, load a bullet, spin the chamber and cock the pistol. Unlike “traditional” Russian Roulette, like we’ve seen in, say, ”The Deer Hunter” where the person is forced to shoot themselves, these contestants shoot the person beside them. Round by round goes by eliminating a few people at a time. Eventually it comes down to 2 people. The winner will receive a large sum of money.

There are a couple of fundamental faults with the film. The writer/director hangs his hat on the premise and the sole image of a group of men pointing guns at each other – aka a ‘Mexican standoff’. Indeed the first time we see it, it’s startling. But the one trick pony uses up its cinematic energy quickly, as each subsequent firing scene is the same as the previous. We know Sebastien will make it to the end – and most likely win and we know all the other characters will be killed off. So, therefore, there’s no suspense. And to bring back the comparison to “The Deer Hunter” – whose Roulette scenes tower in comparison – we are emotionally invested in those characters because they are voluntarily shooting at themselves. There’s a choice to make. The Tzameti men have no choice or even a strategy, its blind luck for them and the gamblers. Once they’re in, they’re in for the long haul. And so, as I said, all suspense and tension is zapped from the story.

Bubluani never even tries to sympathize or get to know the other characters - the “Deer Hunter” had about 2 hours of character development before unveiling its roulette scenes. It’s all played without emotion or self-reflection. Bubluani was so enamoured with the roulette, he forgot the simplest rule of filmmaking – tell a good story. Unfortunately, there is no story here.

That being said, I’m curious to see what the director’s next films will be. If he irons out some kinks in his work, there may be a good filmmaker here. Use your own discretion.

Buy it here: 13 Tzameti


Monday, 12 March 2007

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST


Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) dir. Sergio Leone
Starring: Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards.

In 1966 Sergio Leone filmed, arguably, the greatest western ever made, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” What could he possibly do to top it? The result was his even grander epic “Once Upon a Time in the West.” The title is legendary as it is now used by other filmmakers to title their own personal epics (ie. “Once Upon a Time in China,” “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” “Once Upon a Time in India” etc.)

The title is appropriate because it refers to a type of timeless, yet stylized storytelling that contains universal themes of good & evil, romance, time-spanning arcs etc. Sergio Leone’s film has it all – though not all filmmakers adhere to these standards (maybe there should be a Dogme-95-type jury administering licenses for this title).

Much of what we think about what the “west” was like are impressions formed by myths created by Hollywood and it’s ironic that it was the Italians who expounded these myths into the spaghetti western. The creation of the film was a conscious effort of Leone and his partners (and great filmmakers in their own respect), Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, to combine elements of all Hollywood westerns into the ultimate western mythology.

“Once Upon a Time in the West” tells the story of three characters, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a notorious outlaw and prison escapee on the run, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), a beautiful newlywed moving out west to settle her family and a mysterious harmonica player (Charles Bronson) looking for revenge. In their way stands Frank, a ruthless assassin, dressed in bad-guy black, played against type by none other than Tom Joad himself, Henry Fonda. Each story begins mysteriously, and in the classic Leone style motivations and true identities of the characters reveal themselves slowly. Each character is a caricature of a Western archetype. Bronson’s harmonica man hardly speaks a word, but talks with his sharp shooting pistols. Jill is a beautiful bride, but later revealed to be a former prostitute. The evil land developer Morton is a cripple.

The film is style over plot, as it contains scene after scene of stand-alone cinematic power. The opening title sequence is legendary – 15 minutes played in virtual silence as three gunmen wait at the train for Bronson’s arrival. It sets up the style for the entire film – moments in time drawn out and lengthened for maximum dramatic effect. For those unfamiliar with Leone’s work, it can be off-putting, but it pays off beautifully and no other filmmaker (perhaps Hitchcock) has consistently done it better.

The film is elegance-personified, from the gorgeous figure of Claudia Cardinale shot with luminous godlike reverence to the majestically sweeping wide-lens camera moves to Ennio Morricone’s grand score. In fact, film is worth renting or buying just to listen the score alone.

The lengthy drawn-out moments of drama are punctuated and paid off by moments of startling violence. One of the greatest screen introductions is Frank’s shooting of Jill’s husband and children in the second scene. After a slow Hitchcockian build up, Leone unleashes Henry Fonda and his gunmen with some of loudest gunshots we’ve heard on film. Even when people get shot they die in a Leone-signature way – a violent spin and fall. It was a year before the “Wild Bunch” and “Peckinpah blood,” but it’s still shocking and arresting.

“Once Upon a Time in the West” is a must-see, though it might take a couple of viewings to appreciate it fully. The film runs 2 hours and 45 minutes so save up a couple of days in your lifetime, it will be worth it. Enjoy.

Here are two scenes to whet your palette. They are lengthy, so watch it on lunch or something:





Buy it here: Once Upon a Time in the West

Sunday, 11 March 2007

THE QUIET EARTH


The Quiet Earth (1985) dir. Geoff Murphy
Starring, Bruno Lawrence, Allison Routledge, Peter Smith

***1/2

“The Quiet Earth” is a largely forgotten-about New Zealand sci-fi film from the 80’s. The premise is the frequent ‘what-if’ scenario of science fiction - what would you do if you were the last man on earth?

This question has sparked a whole subgenre of sci-fe ie. “The Omega Man,” “28 Days Later,” “several Twilight Zone episodes, and “The Stand”. Of course, it was Richard Mathieson’s seminal novel “I am Legend” that spawned all these interpretations – we’ll see how the Will Smith version of turns out…

A stark naked man, Zac (played by Bruno Lawrence) wakes up in his bed and goes about his everyday routine. Making coffee, showering, breakfast, his morning commute. Soon he realizes there’s no one else around. It’s as if people literally disappeared in a split second, there’s no dead bodies, cars are left derelict on the streets, a plane has crashed to the ground, a baby carriage left empty, a gas station washroom is left locked and occupied. Everything else in the world seems to work – electricity, radio frequencies, water. He wanders the streets aimlessly looking for someone, but to no avail.

As the days and weeks go by Zac accepts the world he lives in. In a series of fun sequences we see Zac pass the time by changing cars everyday, driving a train, drinking champagne for breakfast, moving into a mansion as his home and declaring himself emperor of the world. But the materialism of our society is no substitute for the need for community and social interaction. He’s on the brink of total madness when he meets another survivor, a young red-haired ‘beauty’ (hey, it’s the 80’s), Joanne (Alison Routledge).



Their companionship develops, though they never consummate – come on, they’re the last couple on earth, that’s the easiest pick up line. Anyways, I digress, Zac (a scientist in his former life) conducts scientific tests on the sun and discovers an anomaly in the universe, which could cause the earth's total destruction in a matter of days. The science of it all makes as much sense as launching Bruce Willis into space to stop of a hurdling meteor from crashing into earth, but for some reason you just play along.

Soon a third man, Api, shows up, which completes the love triangle. Joanne and Api fall in love thereby alienating Zac. They discover their common thread. They all died, of one way or another, at the moment of the disaster and were miraculously reborn in the solitude of the earth. It’s not Kierkegaard, but the explanation gives the characters context and meaning for their existence. It’s a second chance to rediscover life and love.

The film’s strength is when it stays away from the dramatic presumption of the post-apocalyptic world, that all our social morals would disappear and we, as Darwinist beings, would devolve into a carnal animalistic world of kill-or-be-killed. The opposite happens as the effect of their solitude enforces the characters’ need for companionship and love.

The three of them eventually settle their conflict and develop a plan to stop the further destruction of the world by blowing up the scientific testing facility from where the anomaly originated. It’s interesting that the film doesn’t answer the questions it poses, it’s told from the survivor’s point of view and instead asks the audience to interpret meaning religiously or philosophically or whatever term you wish to describe events outside the realm of physical explanation.

In the end Zac makes a selfless sacrifice in order to save Api and Allison. The final moments are particularly enigmatic, which may leave some feeling shortchanged, but we are left with an awesome image – perhaps an homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” of man entering a new world and a new life with so much more to discover. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Quiet Earth

NOTE, this is the awesome ending shot (contains spoilers):