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

Monday, 30 April 2007

THE KILLING


The Killing (1956) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Timothy Carey and Elisha Cook Jr.

****

“The Killing” was Stanley Kubrick’s third feature film, but for cinephiles it’s generally considered his first "real film”. Made in 1956, when the young American director was just getting his sea legs, the film feels less an auteur statement than a rock-solid genre film. From beginning to end it’s one of the best heist films of all time and, ironically, one of Kubrick's most accessible and entertaining films.

We open with a classic noir image, a group of shadowy men sitting around a poker table, lit with a single harsh lamp above them, a cloud of cigarette smoke lingering. They are plotting a heist of a racetrack. The hard boiled dialogue bristles with kinetic energy. Sterling Hayden (the star of the “Asphalt Jungle”) is perfectly cast as Johnny Clay, the ringleader of the bunch. He’s fast-talking, tough and confident. Outside of the table the schemers seem like ordinary people, each with a specific task to make it all go down smoothly. There’s the Irish bartender Mike, one of the inside men who stages a fight in the racetrack as a distraction, George (Elisha Cook Jr.) another inside man, a teller who lets Johnny into the back office where the cash is, Maurice (wrestler, Kola Kwariani) who’s starts the fight which distracts the cops, Timothy Carey, the beatnik sniper who shoots the horse causing more confusion, and Randy (Ted de Corsia), the crooked cop who collects the cash.

The score is planned and executed to perfection, but there’s always a wrench in the works, which comes in the form of Sheri (Marie Windsor), George’s domineering trophy girlfriend, who’s waiting for the right time to double-cross her pathetic husband. There is no weak link in the ensemble as each character fits the mold of the genre perfectly.

The innovative structure of the film is due in part to both Kubrick and the great crime novelist/co-screenwriter Jim Thomson (“The Getaway). After the first act ‘setup’, the second act heist is replayed 4 or 5 times from the point of each of the characters. Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” used this technique as well as Steven Soderbergh in “The Underneath” and “Ocean’s 11”. Neither filmmaker used it more effectively than "The Killing" and , 50 years later, the technique is still fresh.

The “Kubrickisms” are few and far between. Unlike his later films, Kubrick keeps the running time down to under 90mins, and we only see a hint of his famous wideangle lenses, and long tracking shots. There are a few seeds of his trademark visuals though, including Sterling Hayden’s disguise during the heist which would foreshadow Kubrick’s fascinations with masks (ie. “The Shining”, “Clockwork Orange”, Eyes Wide Shut”); and the omniscient voiceover, which would be used later in “Dr. Strangelove”, “A Clockwork Orange”, and “Barry Lyndon”.

The film certainly feels like a 50’s film, the dialogue, music and narration are a tad antiquated, and so viewers should watch it in context of the era. Whether it’s comedy, action, science fiction, suspense, horror, "The Killing" is a reminder of Stanley Kubrick's gifted skills to make any kind of film his own - a true filmmaker who could pretty much do anything. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Killing

Watch Sterling Hayden set the scene:

Sunday, 29 April 2007

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP


The Science of Sleep 'La Science des Reves' (2006) dir. Michel Gondry
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Alain Chabat

***

Guest review by Blair Stewart

If you're juggling a lousy cut ‘n' paste job at the calendar-making firm alongside questionably stifled artistic ambitions and the terrifying prospect of love, it’s wise sometimes to seek contentment in a good night's sleep.

A personal project for wunderkind Michel Gondry and a Rosetta stone for his aesthetic, "The Science of Sleep" has Gael Garcia Bernal as Stephane, his 'lean-years' alter-ego. Returning to live in his childhood Paris flat, Stephane is a talented ‘enfant terrible’ who shirks from cold, clear reality by indulging in his vibrant dreamland of DIY cardboard cities and giant ridable paper-mache ponies(Gondry's art department must have been rolling around on the paste-splattered floor in paroxysms of joy during pre-production) to make sense of the world. Crashing headlong into his navel-gazing is his neighbour Stephanie, a fellow artist and dreamer played with winsome charm by Charlotte Gainsbourg to Garcia's snotty man-childishness. Love may exist between the dysfunctional two, but Stephane will have to leave behind his fantasy world or Stephanie is going to have to take a leap into his reckless subconscious. Rounding out the cast and stealing the show is a memorably profane performance by Alain Chabat as Stephane's dullard co-worker, Guy - the id speakerbox of Gondry's sexual hang ups.

Using the romantic-comedy as a blueprint, Gondry has handcrafted a cerebral egg-carton rocket out of the limitations of the genre to celebrate old school in-camera tricks, stop motion animation, back projection, the movie masters who inspired him and the many, many wondrous uses of cellophane. For a film this irreverent, I must end irreverently:

Question-How many Surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer-Fish.
Amusez-vous bien.

Buy it here: The Science of Sleep


Saturday, 28 April 2007

CHILDREN OF MEN


Children of Men (2007) dir. Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore

***1/2

“Children of Men” is great entertainment and a surprisingly lightning fast tense thriller. A high-concept near-future story told very simply without unnecessary encumbrances. It’s pretty much guaranteed to satisfy.

It’s 2027 and Britain (and the world) is in a state of near anarchy. All women are infertile, cannot conceive and cannot give birth. Therefore the population is aging and the end of humanity is near. It’s been over 20 years since the birth of the last child in the world and the film opens with the announcement of the death of the ‘youngest’ person on the planet – Baby Diego. With the inevitable demise within the current generation, fear has struck the nation and as a result Britain has reverted to a fascist state. Refugees and immigrants are interned, and citizens require transit papers to travel from place to place.

Theo Faron (Clive Owen), former political rebel/activist, now cynical bureaucrat is like everyone else, passing the time with a glum apathy. His only solace are his visits to his hippie, pot smoking friend, Jasper (Michael Caine). Suddenly his long-forgotten ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) re-enters his life and asks him for help in transporting a miraculous pregnant girl, Kee, across the country to meet up with “The Human Project” - an organization devoted to discovering a cure to the world’s infertility.

The journey takes the team through a series of tense and thrilling encounters and adventures. The film is a mixture of near-apocalyptic thrillers like “28 Days Later” and “Mad Max I”. As mentioned, despite a potentially complicated plot, the film manages to distill away the backstory, science and over-reaching aspects of the story to concentrate on the escape to freedom of Theo and the Kee. After the first act, the film is essentially one long chase film, moving from set piece to set piece. Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have magnificently choreographed the action with a series of simple and effective ‘long takes’ covering most of the action with all-encompassing wide-angle lenses and minimal cuts. The effect puts the viewer in the point of view of the main characters – action, gunfire and explosions happen behind, beside and in front the characters and we can’t possibly take it all in at once.

This is how Cuarón creates and makes believable this new world. It feels completely realistic. As Theo enters the refugee camp, the set is never established in the traditional way, with the wide-angle view everything in the background is visible and so Cuarón trusts the intelligence of the audience to fill in the picture of the future world. And deep deep deep in the background are massive amounts of a detail, from billowing smoke, hundreds of extras, bombed-out buildings, explosions etc. It’s an auditory and visual experience in every corner of the frame.

Despite the praise, I can’t say “Children of Men” is not without it’s missed opportunities, specifically with “The Human Project”. They are established as a mysterious operation, which could or could not exist. The subplot around their activities is dropped quickly and never further explored. Since this is their destination, the mystery of whether they actually exist could have raised the stakes to a higher level. Unfortunately we never doubt they will find what they’re looking for. With 5 writers credited (not including the novelist) I can assume this avenue was likely explored and then discarded in favour of the simplistic approach – and perhaps for the better. We’ll never know.

But don’t worry, the film will keep you glued to the screen for 1 hour and 45 mins, and we all must thank Mr. Cuarón for not overindulging himself with an epic running time, and believe me, he had the cache to do it if he wanted. Mr. Spielberg, are you listening? Keep it simple stupid. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Children of Men (Widescreen Edition)

Here’s a featurette on Lubezski’s cinematography (warning: contains spoilers):


Friday, 27 April 2007

THE ENGLISH PATIENT


The English Patient (1996) dir. Anthony Minghella
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas

****


I think the “Seinfeld” episode which had Elaine expressing her hatred of the film by yelling at the screen in the theatre may have tarnished the reputation of the film. And though the film took many of the Oscar’s big categories, including Best Picture, it’s rarely brought up as one of the great films of the 90’s.
But let me remind you of just how good “The English Patient” is and why it was so successful 11 years ago.

The film was adapted from Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel by English director Anthony Minghella, whose only previous films were a couple of small British indies. “The English Patient” was a huge step up for Minghella, but he succeeded in creating a film that was popular with both audiences and the critics.

The film opens framing the sandy undulations of the Sahara desert from the point of view of a WWII 2-seater bi-plane. The passengers are Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). The plane is hit by enemy fire and then crashes to the ground. Laszlo emerges bedridden and under heavy bandages from the near-fatal burns to his body. His name is unknown but he is assumed to be English. He is brought to a secluded Italian country-side home where he is cared for in peace by a French-Canadian nurse (Hana) played by Juliette Binoche. The film moves back and forth between these two periods to trace exactly how the ‘English patient’ came to be where he is today.

It’s a tragic story centering on a doomed love affair between Laszlo and Katherine. We learn before the war, they were on a cartography expedition to survey the Sahara Desert for the Royal Geographical Society. Katherine is married to Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) but slowly over time her and Laszlo develop a deep carnal attraction for each other. The domino effect of the affair eventually causes Katherine to be involved in a disturbing accident, which brings us to the opening shot of the film.

Minghella paints a canvas overflowing with mystery, eroticism, romanticism and rich visual metaphors. Fiennes and Thomas are a good pairing and their chemistry could start fires. Laszlo is curious. Fiennes plays him as a brooding, unemotional and abrupt upper classman, but in a few intimate moments with each other Katherine discovers a poetic romantic side to him.

Like the opening credits sequence, which features a close-up of a brush painting symbols on a rock floor, Minghella directs the film with an equally masterful touch. Every image is painstakingly composed, and every movement and casual look has deeper meaning. My favourite visual moment is when Fiennes and Thomas are in the car during the sandstorm. As the scene ends, he’s looks out the window and appears to see his own reflection as the burn victim by way of a clever dissolve to the future.

The romantic subplot of the emotionally scarred Hana (Juliette Binoche) and her Sikh lover Kip (“Lost’s” Naveen Andrews) is just as compelling. Hana feels people that she loves always dies, and so she cautiously approaches her relationship with Kip. His courtship of her is not as carnal as Laszlo’s and so we get the rare treat of a subplot which could stand alone as its own film.

Elaine objected to the lengthy demise of the scarred Fiennes. Indeed the film runs over 2 and a half hours. But it’s an epic love story crafted from an epic novel. The film’s subplots gain speed and converge at the end with the reveal of how Laszlo and Clifton came to be on that doomed plane. Men, check your male egos at the door and enjoy the sumptuous ride. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The English Patient




Thursday, 26 April 2007

THEY LIVE


They Live (1988) dir. John Carpenter
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David

***1/2

I must have watched this film over 2 dozen times in my early teen years. My Brother and I memorized every shot, every cheesy line, every music sting, every grunt. Why? It’s no technical masterpiece, it’s not particularly innovative, not particularly scary, but somehow it has an unmistakable mystique. It wasn’t until many years later with the advent of the internet which gave film geeks a venue to discuss these types of films, that I realized we weren’t alone.

“They Live” is an intriguing high concept sci-fi film. What if Earth was being colonized gradually over the years by an alien species, and slowly subverting our species by infiltrating our media, politics and military? Roddy Piper, a soft-spoken drifter with no name, walks into town looking for work. He befriends a do-right/never-you-mind construction worker, Frank (Keith David), who gives him a job and a place to stay at a homeless shelter. There Piper comes into possession of a pair of sunglasses that reveals the alien world we, as humans, are unknowingly living in. Like those red glasses you get in cereal boxes that reveal secret codes, Piper is able to see the alien humanoids walking among us as well as subliminal messages such as, “obey”, “conform”, “consume”, “sleep” etc. hidden in our radio frequencies, billboards and television broadcasts.

Piper enlists the reluctant help of Frank to prove he’s not crazy. Frank and Piper discover an underground of like-minded freedom-fighters who have organized to rebel against the alien takeover. In hopes of awakening the entire world to their silent threat, Frank and Piper decide to attack the local television studio which has been broadcasting the subliminal messages. Action ensues when the alien police discover their plot, and it becomes a fight to the death to save humanity.

Without getting too serious, there is a subtext to the film. It’s essentially about our growing social disconnect with each other as humans. Remember, this is pre-internet times, and so Carpenter and short-story author Ray Nelson were putting the urban sprawl and conservative Reagan-era economics to blame. In fact, in the late 80’s, early 90’s there was niche movement of similarly themed anti-urban films including “Falling Down”, “Do the Right Thing”, and more (suggest more please).

Despite this, the film is all camp and can’t be taken seriously whatsoever. The acting is bad at times, and the score is adequate by Carpenter standards, and the romantic subplot of Piper and a television news journalist is downright laughable. But it is paced well, starting out very slow and setting up the characters and the environment they live in, with a slow atmospheric hypnotic mood. And most importantly the film never takes itself seriously and provides as many gags as it does action.

“They Live” is in keeping with his other camp-classics “Escape From New York” and “Big Trouble in Little China”, but unfortunately “They Live” is Carpenter’s last decent film, and sadly I don’t think we’ll see another good film from him. Please rediscover this campy little gem. Enjoy.

Buy it here: They Live


Wednesday, 25 April 2007

RESERVOIR DOGS


Reservoir Dogs (1992) dir. Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn

***1/2

"Reservoir Dogs" seems like eons ago. At the time that movie was just about the coolest thing on earth for the 20 and 30 somethings. University dorm-rooms were saturated with its posters, and the iconic imagery the film produced. It’s 15 years later, and I wonder how much Tarantino has changed.

“Reservoir Dogs” premiered at Sundance 1992, played at TIFF in the Fall and was released later that year, but it wasn’t until it's video release did it catch fire. From the opening conversation Tarantino was announcing himself to the film world. We never heard a conversation like that – Mr. Brown’s graphic description of the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” as well as Mr. Pink’s rant about not-tipping. Then the music kicks in, a little known 70’s track by god-knows-who which sounded so cool. Cigarette smoking, sunglasses wearing bank robbers walking in slo-mo. Whatever it was this was a cool movie so far. Then we see two of the same characters we saw in the first scene Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) who just committed a heist driving in a car, except Orange is bleeding like a stuck pig all over the pristine white interior of their car. The film just got even more intriguing.

As White and Orange convene in their agreed-to abandoned warehouse to figure out exactly what went wrong, the film flashes back to retrace exactly how each character got put on the job. With everyone accusing everyone else of being the rat, Mr. White defends Mr. Orange to the end and in doing so develops a fraternal bond with him.

Scene after scene bristles with originality in the post-modern way. Tarantino culled some of his favorite scenes and lines from his favourite films and mashed them together with his instantly trademark dialogue creating the first “Tarantino-movie”. Somewhere in the film are pieces of: “Django”, “The Killing”, “Taking of Pelham 1,2,3”, “The Professionals”, “Point Blank”, “Do the Right Thing” and many more.

Even the truncated time-shifting was fresh and soon to be copied everywhere. There was nothing formula about this genre film. Tarantino wasn’t concerned with the heist, or whether they get away with the diamonds, but the relationship of Orange and White. Tarantino even reveals to the audience midway through the film that Mr. Orange is actually the undercover cop who sold out the crew. But the main reveal is when Orange confesses to White. This is more powerful because we know the emotional pain this takes on both Orange and White. It still is a remarkably dramatic moment.

Has Tarantino changed over the years? Yes and no. He’s certainly gotten egotistical with his dialogue. In both “Kill Bill” and “Death Proof”, Tarantino could have used an assertive editor to challenge him into trimming and shaping his meandering conversations. And his films seem to get more anachronistic and insular. “Death Proof” was his least accessible film by far. Even Kurt Russell fans have to be scratching their heads. But each film is an impassioned personal piece of work, whether it’s a hit or a miss, Tarantino will never sell out and make someone else’s film. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Reservoir Dogs

Here’s the original trailer:


Tuesday, 24 April 2007

HOT FUZZ


Hot Fuzz (2007) dir. Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost

***1/2

Hot off the success of “Shaun of the Dead”, the team of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have created a worthy successor in “Hot Fuzz” – a spoof of buddy-cop films that has more humour, intelligence and reverence than any of the “Scary Movie”/”Epic Movie”/”Teen Movie” series of films.

In the opening backstory we learn Super-cop Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) has directed his whole life to work for the London police. His illustrious career has been spent kicking ass and taking names. And so, when his promotion to Sergeant forces him to move to Sanford, a quiet English hamlet in the country, Nicholas’ dreams are shattered.

In Sanford, Nicholas is a fish out of water, and quickly his big-city instincts annoy the small town locals. His fellow policemen and women are antiquated in their equipment, procedures and political correctness. Angel is teamed up with Constable Butterman (Nick Frost), a pudgy fanboy of adrenaline action films, who appears to have had his training from his enormous DVD collection. “Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?” Butterman asks Angel. Of course the question is referring to the John Woo, Michael Bay films stunted male film buffs memorize and replay over and over again.

Writers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are two of these stunted males who are clearly highly literate in the world of action cinema. The story moves with the pace of a Bruckheimer film, but with the wit of a “Faulty Towers” episode. Angel’s arrow-straight professionalism contrasted with the aw-shucks small-town life is hilarious – specifically Angel’s first assignment to find a runaway goose. When a few townsfolk start dying under mysterious circumstances, the plot gets rolling and Angel and Butterman even find themselves in a few good action scenes of their own.

Just as important as the action are the montages, and there are plenty (and perhaps too many). Wright over-dramatizes every transition and every unnecessary close-up with dramatic auditory punch. The opening of a locker, pouring a pint of beer, taking a mug-shot photo, scribbling a note onto paper all become seizure-inducing elements over-stimulation.

Deservedly so, Pegg, Wright and Frost command major respect in their home country, evidenced by the impressive team of actors assembled – Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Martin Freeman, Billy Whitelaw, Paddy Considine, Steve Coogan and more. Apparently there are even a couple of unrecognizable high-profile cameos – try and find Cate Blanchett and Peter Jackson in there.

The finale is like “The Wild Bunch” with tea and crumpets. A series of Bay-worthy action set pieces and car chases, slow motion shot-guns, glib-one-liners and creative death scenes. By the end the quota of dead bodies, explosions, and spent shotgun shells has been achieved. Michael Bay, John Woo, and John Cleese would approve. Enjoy.


Sunday, 22 April 2007

PSYCHO


Psycho (1960) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam

****

"Psycho", Hitchcock’s most notorious film, was arguably cinema’s first modern horror film - a psychotic murderer brandishing a huge phallic knife slashing to death everyday visitors to his secluded motel. The general plotline befits virtually every slasher film ever made, and it's all due to Mr. Hitchcock.

The film has a peculiar structure to it, cleaved in two halves – the first, Marian Crane played by Janet Leigh, an attractive yet deceiving woman who’s having a torrid affair with a recently divorced man, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). The opening scene sets her character’s dilemma, they want to move away together but with Sam’s alimony payments they don’t have enough money to make a life for their own. Marian works for a bank and when she’s given $40,000 cash to make a deposit she makes a split-second decision to steal the cash for herself. This is the typical Hitchcock frailty – an innocent woman pulled into a crime by necessity. The first half continues as we experience Marian’s lengthy escape on the road through the desolate roads and small towns of Arizona.

Newcomers to the film will already know and be anticipating the famous shower scene and so these road scenes, if not for Bernard Herrman’s pulsating score, may seem dull and boring. But you have to view the film in the context of the 1960’s audience. These scenes were crucial in misdirecting the audience away from the shower scene and what the film will eventually become. Hitchcock sets up a scenario similar to his previous film “North By Northwest” – a road-adventure film of an ‘everyman’ on the run from his antagonists. And so, when Marian Crane steps into that shower and is slashed to death, the shock is amplified. I only wish I was able to see the film as audiences did in 1960. It must have been quite an experience.

And contrary to popular belief Janet Leigh’s character, Marian Crane actually survives through exactly half the film. Pundits frequently refer to Leigh’s death during the first act, first third or even first reel of the film, but I actually timed it and it comes at exactly the half way point of the film.

The second half of the film is Perkins’ film. After the shower scene we see Bates systematically go through the step-by-step details of disposing of the body. Perkins is so good as the demented mama’s boy, with the ability to express child-like innocence and then subtly switch to chilling maniac instantly. Hitchcock embellishes his scrawny birdlike mannerisms in keeping with the bird-theme he runs throughout the film. Perkins even waddles and bounces like a bird. And take special note of the conversation when Martin Balsam questions Perkins in the motel office, Hitchcock frames a shot of Perkins’s neck, as he leans over the camera to look at the guest registry. With Perkin’s eating a peanut, we see his neck and adam’s apple bob and quiver like a chicken. It’s really creepy and a remarkable performance.

Of course, the murder scenes are what make the film the masterpiece that it is. The shot of Bates opening the bathroom door in the foggy background as Marian showers can still induce shivers down my spine. And Bates’ sudden lunge at Martin Balsam at the top of the stairs always makes me jump. But be careful not to miss the most subtle and perhaps brilliant moment of the film - watch Bates’ teeth at the very end of the film. Before the picture dissolves to the car being pulled from the water, Hitchcock very briefly superimposes the skull of his mother over Bates’ face. It’s short and subtle but so devious.

Despite the success of the film, no other filmmaker attempted to recreate the experience of “Psycho” until the 70’s – notably “Black Christmas” and “Halloween”. Now the theatres are saturated with knife-wielding killers. But it’s the original that stands the test of time. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Psycho (Collector's Edition)


Saturday, 21 April 2007

MAGNOLIA


Magnolia (1999) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore

****

I have a love/hate relationship with “Magnolia.” For years, it was a near god-like worship for the film. Seeing in it 1999, was an inspirational experience. Even on subsequent viewings my reverence for the film grew and grew. But lately I’ve tended to hate the film. Let’s try and comprehend why.

At 3 hours plus, it’s a dizzying tale of nine of more interconnected characters all going through life-changing moments during one 24-hour period. The title derives from an intersection in the heart of the San Fernando Valley of California (Anderson’s home turf). There’s Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a cop courting a young and disturbed coked-out girl, Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) – who is the daughter of a philandering alcoholic game show host, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) who hosts a children’s game show whose main star is a child-genius, Stanley Spector – who doesn’t want to grow up to be like former child-star and kid genius, quiz-kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy). The heart of the story is the relationship between Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) an alpha male motivational speaker and his estranged father Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) who’s on his deathbed dying of cancer.

The combination of all these characters (and a few more) make up the mosaic of sorrow, loss, guilt and redemption that Anderson is trying to paint. And he certainly succeeds in spades. “Magnolia” wears its heart on its sleeve in terms of emotional catharsis. Characters’ motivations and inner secrets are slowly revealed throughout the film which creates the extreme peaks and valleys of the narrative. For example, in the middle section of the film, TJ Mackey, who is introduced as a despicable misogynist, is brilliantly broken down by a probing journalist (the amazing April Grace) in an interview between his speaking sessions. The revelation of Mackey’s past in this instance turns around the audience’s perspective of its characters.

Anderson’s stylistic excess equals the excesses in emotion. Anderson’s channeling Scorsese again, as he whips his camera around from character to character, subplot to subplot, rarely giving us time to breath. The second half of the film gives us quieter and more reflective moments – most famously during the scene in which each of our main characters express their remorse by simultaneously singing the Aimee Mann ballad, “Wise Up.”

The songs of Aimee Mann are the backbone of the film, which was one of the Anderson’s inspirations for writing the story. But it’s the pulsating rhythm of Jon Brion’s score which dictates the pace.

Despite these qualities, the film also feels bloated, self-serving and arrogant. The film walks a fine line between a brilliant operatic masterpiece and egotistical pretentious piece of shit. It’s so big and so grand, literally and metaphorically, like a painter given a canvas just a bit too large to see it all in one glance. Portions of the piece sizzle with artistic brilliance, other parts sag, and as a whole you’re not quite sure what it all means. And I’m not sure if Anderson knows exactly what “Magnolia” is either. Depending on my mood, I lean either way. But don’t forget when “Citizen Kane” was released the reaction was the same – many loved it and many hated it. But it is a masterpiece for exactly this reason. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Magnolia

Here’s the interview scene I mentioned:

Friday, 20 April 2007

THE FOG OF WAR


The Fog of War (2003) dir. Errol Morris
Starring: Robert McNamara

****

“The Fog of War” is a single-subject documentary about Robert McNamara, the so-called architect of the Vietnam War. It’s a fascinating film about his years of service from WWII to his time as Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defence. It’s a deconstruction of war from the point of view of an aged insider looking back on his influence on the world. And even though the film looks into the past, it’s highly relevant today.

Director Errol Morris separates the discussion into 11 chapters, subtitled: “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. He starts things off with the Cuban Missile Crisis and describes the events as they happened from within the oval office. We’re privy to never-before-heard snippets of taped conversation between Kennedy and McNamara. The first lesson to be applied to the crisis is “Empathize with Your Enemy.” It’s a remarkably simple conclusion but often forgotten in political, military or economical tactics. McNamara refused to think of the Soviets or the Cubans as “evil-doers” and instead put himself in their shoes to empathize with Khrushchev and Castro’s needs and desires. McNamara admits we all came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war, but the U.S. came out victorious because of his and Kennedy’s tactics.

McNamara then circles back to discuss his involvement in WWII, which is even more fascinating. McNamara has always been the smartest guy in the room.
With his Berkeley and Harvard degrees under his belt, as a soldier, instead of going to the frontlines, the Air Force put him to work in the Statistical Control Office. There he was instrumental in analyzing the effectiveness of the bombing campaigns in the Pacific as well planning the cruel firebombings of 1945. The reduction of soldier’s lives to numbers, percentages and kill ratios is alarming, but also makes sense in the context of the needs of combat. McNamara is candid in saying, if the U.S. lost the War he and his superiors would have been tried as war criminals.

McNamara’s involvement in Vietnam is the heart of the film and the reason his name remains so controversial today. Morris clarifies the misconception of McNamara as the ‘architect’ of the war. McNamara clearly lays blame on LBJ, whom we hear from the horse’s mouth contradicting his advice to pull out of Vietnam. The rest is history.

McNamara’s insights are so important today that he could easily substitute Vietnam for Iraq and the film would be just as accurate. His description of the error in attributing the Gulf of Tonkin affair to the North Vietnamese, which ultimately caused Johnson to escalate the war is eerily similar to Bush’s miscalculation of Iraq’s phantom WMDs.

“The Fog of War” isn’t just about the Cold War, it’s also about the man himself. McNamara is fascinating because he seemingly found himself in positions of power by request, as opposed to desire. He had no intention to be placed in the Statistical Control department of the Air Force, and he had no desire to leave his position as Head of the Ford Motor Company until President Kennedy called and asked him to be his Secretary of Defense. He’s been courted by his employers because he’s a superior man who can apply he pure intellect into any situation. Kind of like the current trend of hiring super-smart MBA grads to head baseball franchises despite no experience in the sport whatsoever.

Errol Morris again opens his magnificent bag of tricks to visualize the story. As with all his films McNamara speaks right to camera and appears to communicate with us personally, one-on-one. It’s highly effective and persuasive; his stock footage and slo-mo artistic recreations are simple yet effective renderings of the complex themes; and Philip Glass’s music always sounds best with Morris’ films and this is no exception.

A frustrating aspect of the film is that Morris never fully breaks down the wall of protection put up by McNamara. We never really get to ‘know’ the man. McNamara’s quick to tell us about what went on behind the political doors, but when it comes to his family and his own moral convictions, he is elusive specifically when it comes to accepting blame. Even with his age, the benefit of hindsight and his illustrious stature in the world, he’s still the smartest guy in the room and won’t let you forget it. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Fog of War


Thursday, 19 April 2007

SID & NANCY


Sid and Nancy (1986) dir. Alex Cox
Starring: Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb

***1/2

As my friend Blair Stewart commented on “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould”, the film that resulted from his life is worthy of the work that he produced. Going by that, “Sid & Nancy” is as dirty, clumsy, beguiling and romantic as the legend of the lives of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen and is a perfect representation of their doomed relationship.

The film opens with Sid’s interrogation by the police after the death of his girlfriend Nancy. We then flashback to some time before to see what led to that point – time frames are never given, in fact, we're never introduced to Sid Vicious formally either. There’s no obviously expository line such as “Johnny Rotten, meet Sid Vicious”, nor are there any sepia-toned flashbacks to Sid’s youth. This is a punk film; it’s smart, but not clever and doesn’t follow a formula.

Sid meets Nancy in London. Her carefree attitude about drugs, sex and nihilistic existence fits in well with the band, and she becomes an official hanger-on. After Nancy has a beer thrown on her by an angry bar patron, Vicious moves to comfort her. It’s not a “Hugh Grant” romantic moment, but a Sid Vicious moment, a small gesture of affection which shows his interest in her. During their conversation Sid asks her for some heroin. This is music to Nancy’s ears, and thus begins the downward spiral of their lives.

As Nancy and Sid become closer entwined with each other, so does their insular self-perpetual drug habit. And not surprisingly they quickly drift apart from the band. Just prior to leaving for America, in order to keep Sid clean, the band tells him that he can’t take Nancy on tour. Sid goes to America alone, but their love persists. Sid’s behaviour doesn’t improve, and eventually he’s kicked out of the band for good. Sid and Nancy work together on Sid’s career as a solo artist - the recreation of Sid’s music video for “My Way”, as a scene unto itself, is fascinating - until the drugs fatally destroy both their lives.

“Sid & Nancy” is not without some humour. Junkie antics such as, trashing hotel rooms, beating each other up, falling down in inappropriate places and saying really stupid shit treads finely between horror and humour. Note their visit to Nancy’s parent’s house which borders on the ridiculous – Nancy’s conservative parents entertaining the junkie-to beat-all-junkies at the dinner table and their funny half-hearted attempts to tell them they don’t want heroin-addicts in the house is the blackest of black comedy.

“Sid & Nancy” is also not without beauty. Shot by a young Roger Deakins, the film features scenes of remarkably poetic beauty, specifically Sid and Nancy’s passionate kiss in an alleyway underneath falling garbage.

Director Alex Cox (also "Repo Man") has marked a unique place for himself as one of cinema’s most idiosyncratic directors. He kept “Sid & Nancy” authentic when it could easily have turned into melodrama. And there’s much more story to tell, including his morbid childhood and his harrowing experiences on Riker’s Island prison. Cox even stays away from the temptation to overexploit to salaciousness of his drug taking. And if you ever thought this live-fast/die young junkie love story foreshadowed the troubled life of our generation’s Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, then the unintentional-cameo of Courtney Love late in the film will freak you out! (and remember this was made in 1986) Either Alex Cox is clairvoyant or he’s a genius. Either way, it makes the film even more complex. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Sid & Nancy


Wednesday, 18 April 2007

BLADES OF GLORY


Blades of Glory (2007) dir. Josh Gordon & Will Speck
Starring: Will Ferrell, Jon Heder, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett

**1/2

“Blades of Glory” is another decent low-brow comedy from Will Ferrell who is quickly amassing a great body of guilty-pleasure comedy films – “Old School”, “Anchorman,” and “Talledega Nights”.

Will Ferrell brings some of his frequent players to the film, including Andy Richter (Talledega), Luke Wilson (Old School), Amy Poehler (SNL), Rob Cordrry (Old School) and newbies Will Arnett (Arrested Development), Craig T. Nelson (Coach), Romany Malco (Weeds) and Jenna Fischer (The Office). The supporting characters and cameos, unfortunately, don’t bring as many pure laughs or gags to their scenes as say, Gary Cole, Paul Rudd or Seth Rogan and so the movie rests solely on Will Ferrell.

At the beginning Chaz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) and Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) are rival figure skaters. Their elaborate and ridiculous backstories are told in flashback – the effeminate MacElroy was adopted by a money-grubbing sports scout/opportunist and brought up “Tiger Woods”-style to live and breath figure skating; Michaels is the badass of the sport, who is also a boozing sex-addicted male chauvinist. After a fight on the podium at the World Championships, Chaz and Jimmy are both banned from the sport. For three years they take demeaning jobs to pay the bills – Jimmy, a minimum wage-earning skate salesman, and Chaz, a performer at a lame “Barney-On-Ice”-type show for kids. Ferrell’s drunken performance in front of the kids on his last show is a highlight.

Chaz's coach, Craig T. Nelson, teams up the two skaters to compete as pairs, which is the only loophole in which they can compete. Of course, the rivalry still exists and they find themselves devoting more time to insane chauvinistic contests than working together for mutual benefit. These scenes are funny as well. Eventually they learn to work with each other and make it back to the World Championships again where they get a chance at redemption and to reclaim their glory.

Much of the secondary laughs come from the Van Waldenberg twins - Amy Poehler and Will Arnett - an evil brother-sister team with an equally elaborate and foolish backstory. Their shunned sister, a yummy Jenna Fischer, falls in love with MacElroy and becomes the bait by which the twins try to subvert Chaz and Jimmy’s chances at winning.

The formula of the story is not original, but it’s the details– the characters, their backstories and the ridiculous situations they find themselves in - that keep the story flowing and interesting to the viewer.

Considering the film will likely come to video in the next couple of months, this is probably a renter, and would in fact probably be enhanced with some form of alcoholic accompaniment. Enjoy


Tuesday, 17 April 2007

SMOKIN' ACES


Smokin’ Aces (2007) dir. Joe Carnahan
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jeremy Piven, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia

*1/2

“Smokin’ Aces” is a madcap action-comedy derived from the “Cannonball Run” school of filmmaking, throw in lots of famous actors give them a maguffin to find and let them loose.

That just about sums up the ‘plot’ of “Smokin’ Aces”, or at least the idea behind it. To give more detail, Jeremy Piven plays Buddy “Aces” Israel, a strung out Vegas magician turned gangster living atop a Reno Hotel waiting to make a deal with the cops for immunity in return for snitching on the mob. The mob has put out a bounty on his head - $1million (that’s it? I’m reminded of the ‘Austin Powers’ gag). Out of the woodwork comes a host of would-be takers – bail bondsmen, mobsters, hitmen, etc all trying to claim the prize. Among them are: Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, and Alicia Keys.

Some get blown away by each other along the way, some survive. Eventually the cops show up and Buddy is taken to the hospital, where more action and revelations are played out.

The film is a blatant rip off of “True Romance” – or at least the final scene expanded into a whole movie. There’s lots of coke, guns, weird beard-art, ripped muscle-heads, cop-talk, surveillance cameras, huge guns, green cinematography, pop music etc. Perhaps it was made to serve as Carnahan’s audition tape for Jerry Bruckheimer. It’s ridiculous how much he steals from Bruckheimer-alum Tony Scott. Just watch the introduction of the backstory:



The film is frustrating because it clearly wants us to think strung out characters are cool – Jeremy Piven’s disheveled bedhead look is obviously inspired by “Scarface.” But we never like Buddy Israel because he’s strung out and disheveled from beginning to end. “Scarface” actually showed (over the course of 3 hours as well) how Tony Montana got to that place. So it’s a cheap copout. It’s like making the final scene of “Scarface” into a standalone movie. Basically it’s a video game, which, considering their increasingly complex narratives, might be an insult to video games. Perhaps Carnahan thought we would instant love Piven through his Ari Gold character in “Entourage.” Sorry, Joe, didn’t work.

What a bad miscalculation for Carnahan. Though, perhaps he was just letting off steam after being fired from “Mission Impossible” III the year before.

Buy it here: Smokin' Aces

Monday, 16 April 2007

SUNRISE


Sunrise (1927) dir. F.W. Murnau
Starring George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor

****

“Sunrise” is essential viewing in understanding the history of cinema. It was made at a unique time, just before the sound era, (the first 'talkie' “The Jazz Singer" was also released that same year) when cameras were about to be locked down and put in sound proof containers, so on-location sync sound could be accurately recorded. The result was almost a depression in the technique of cinema, with “Sunrise” one the last great silent films.

The subtitle for the film is ‘A Tale of Two Humans’ and essentially it’s about a remarkable day in the life of a young couple, whose names are conspicuously not given. Played by George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor, they are billed as "the Man” and “the Woman”, which is Murnau’s attempt to make the story mythic and archetypal. The story is indeed simple. We meet our couple living in a small rural community leading a simple farmer’s life. They are newly married and blissfully in love. But when a dark-haired city girl comes to the community for a vacation the man discovers temptation for the first time. The woman from the city attempts to steal the man from his wife, and nefariously suggests he drown her in the sea and make it look like an accident. The man accepts the plan and comes close to going through with it, but at the last minute convalesces and repents to his wife.

The film then moves to the city as the man and woman play out the rest of their day in the large metropolis. They are both new to the city and so they are fantasized by the attractions, lights, cars and hustle and bustle. Director F.W. Murnau was a pioneer of cinema who had created landmark films such as ‘Nosferatu” and “Faust” and “Sunrise” would be his Hollywood debut. The portrayal of the city life is told with kaleidoscopic dazzle, typical of Murnau’s work. Cinematographer Charles Roscher and Karl Strauss’ camera technique is a co-star and is the main reason to watch the film. For the first time we see the camera to move and prowl like we see and take for granted today. But because the movement of the camera back then was used only when necessary it had a much greater impact. The most famous shot frequently shown in film classes is the couple’s first arrival to the city. They get off their tram and walk across the street through traffic. The shot glides behind them over rail tracks and in between cars, in what appears to be a steadycam shot of today.

Murnau uses some striking superimpositions as well; particularly the scene in which the man’s subconscious is taken over by his thoughts for the woman from the city. Sitting on his bed, we see a ghost-like image of the other woman embracing him from behind.

Even taken out of context of the times it’s very effective storytelling and highly watchable today. Often the melodrama and over-emotive dramatics of silent film don’t translate well today, but the simplicity and tightness of the story, make it work. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Sunrise

This is the only footage online I could find, it’s 10mins, but it will give you a taste of the film:

Sunday, 15 April 2007

UMBERTO D


Umberto D (1952) dir. Vittorio De Sica
Starring: Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia-Casilio

***1/2

“Umberto D” is a heartbreaking and unapologetically sentimental film. It’s one in a series of great neo-realist tragedies from De Sica, including “The Bicycle Thieves” and “Shoeshine”. Perhaps it’s his most blatantly heartbreaking film, and wears its heart on its sleeve.

It’s a simple story about a man and his dog.

The film opens on a rally of retired senior citizens protesting for a raise in their pension payments. With the increased standard of living, the elder men who are forced to make a living on their pensions just can’t make ends meet. Umberto (Carla Battisti) is one of them, a sad lonely man, with no family, no friends, just his unconditionally-loving dog Flike. Umberto is Chaplin-esque in our pity for him. He wanders the streets looking for something to do, his glory days are over, but he’s missed his golden years too. It’s desperation for him. De Sica uses his camera framing and deep focus photography to isolate and subjugate Umberto to the environment. He’s often framed at the bottom of the screen with the city engulfing him.

Umberto lives in an apartment complex where, after 10 years of residency, he’s about to be evicted for not being able to pay his rent. Maria, the landlady’s maid, cares for him and gives him companionship. Maria’s discovered she’s pregnant, but not sure who the father is, as a result they discover a mutual need for each other. Throughout the film Umberto moves through scheme to scheme trying to drum up money to pay off his debt. Whether it’s selling his watch, or voluntarily staying in a hospital because its cheaper than a hotel, we watch Umberto’s dignity degrade further and further.

Returning home from the hospital, Umberto finds former home gutted and destroyed, ready to be merged which a neighbouring apartment. Umberto’s pride and dignity is completely shattered as he officially steps down a class to homelessness. His once prosperous life now reduced to just his suitcase and his dog.

Umberto’s relationship with his dog (Flike) is the heart and soul of the film. Umberto cares for him more than himself. They are team in their suffering. Flike’s journey is just as compelling. A heartbreaking scene is Flike’s disappearance and Umberto’s desperate attempt to find him. Umberto goes to the dog shelter where they put down stray dogs. Umberto goes from cage to cage in hopes that he might be there. Eventually they are reunited, and the moment is joyous and brings tears to your eyes.

The finale of the film even more emotional, knowing that, as homeless man, Umberto will not be able to properly feed and care for Flike, he decides to part with his beloved. His attempts to leave him are so moving, you’ve never seen anything like it.

The commonality of the Italian neo-realist films were its simplicity and matter-of-fact portrayal of everyday street life. “The Bicycle Thieves” was about a man and his son trying to recover their stolen bicycle and “Shoeshine”, about two boys who shine shoes trying to save up money to buy a horse. The neo-realist films also use non-actors who bring authenticity and naturalism to their characters. Umberto D was Carlo Battisti’s only ever role in film, and he’s remarkable. As a result we never feel as if we’re being manipulated by the film, only that we’re watching the joys and pains of life unfold in front of our eyes. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Umberto D. - Criterion Collection

Watch as Umberto tries to learn how to beg for change:

Saturday, 14 April 2007

THE EVIL DEAD


The Evil Dead (1981) dir. Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell

****

Guest review by Pasukaru

The story is legend: a group of college buddies raise money from local dentists, get a camera and some pot, find an abandoned cabin in the woods, and go on to make one of the most influential and revered independent films of all time. Hail to “The Evil Dead”.

Plot: College friends go for a holiday in an isolated cabin where, through a cursed book aptly named ‘The Book of the Dead’, they let loose vengeful demonic spirits that possess the students one by one until Ash, our hero, must battle the evil forces solo to the gory end lest they “swallow his soul”.

Ticket please.

Beginning in the fall of 1979, filmmaker Sam Raimi (now known for his mega successful Spiderman franchise) and his actor-friend Bruce Campbell set off to make a feature length version of their short film “Within the Woods” (worth a look to see how the concept evolved, if you can find it). After screening at Cannes, it found a distributor. The VHS era had begun, and this is where “The Evil Dead” would gain its reputation as a college dorm favorite and cult film phenomenon. The Ash character has since become one of horrordom’s most beloved and quotable heroes. Either given 85 thousand or 200 million dollars, Mr. Raimi sure knows how to put on a show. Call it shlock if you will, but this is shlock done the right way.

Unleashing a relentless audio-visual blast of invention, creativity, and shocks, Sam Raimi (then barely 21) has strung together a tour-de-force on a shoestring budget through the sheer vigor of his unfettered imagination. Sam and co. use bold lighting and dynamic camera stunts, having used improvised gear such a plank of wood in place of a Steadicam. When these boys needed to get something done, they did whatever it took. That’s inspiring. Endlessly mimicked thereafter (how many cabin-in-the-woods horror movies have you seen?), “The Evil Dead” sets an example for what you can accomplish when your love for the medium and craft bursts out like a first orgasm; it is a pure, exhilarating, unapologetic, and life-altering experience we want to revisit again and again. Despite what the big kids at the coffee shop might tell you, this is what they should be showing in film schools.

A tad risqué for its time, the movie showcases a woman being raped by a tree (?), which was the reason it was banned in many countries. The sequence is more surreal than pure horror, but at the same time joyfully naughty. This is where “The Evil Dead” is endearing and misunderstood: horror and comedy are two sides of the same coin. Scream or laugh as you may, the film veers so far off into the surreal that anything can happen, really. The mix of humor and gore blend for some unexpected yet unsettling results, and this is where it rests its laurels. Logic has no place here, and that rebellious spirit endears it to audiences worldwide. I had the opportunity to see a screening of “The Evil Dead” in Tokyo to a packed theatre, some twenty-five years after its creation, and it had the audience enthralled (and I’m sure, like me, they had all seen it many times before).

The film spawned two sequels; “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn”, being the best of the three, is funnier, gorier, and more polished (they did have 10 times the budget). Some call it a remake, but the tone and story are different enough so that it set itself apart. Nonetheless, “The Evil Dead” is where it all started. If you love movies and appreciate the love of making them, then I suggest you watch it… again, before the remake. Check it out.

Friday, 13 April 2007

THE SOPHOMORE SLUMP

The Sophomore Slump is more associated with a sports cliché but in the history of cinema there have been a few. More often than not a director’s first film, however successful, is compromised by budget, often scraped together from personal savings, rich uncles, minor arts grants, or maxed out credit cards. These films are born from years of sweat and toil and sacrifice and cashed in favours. George Lucas’ first film “THX 1138,” was famously under-imagined due to a slim budget and short shooting schedule. But arguably its greatness came out of its sparseness. With “American Graffiti,” Lucas’ next film, he achieved mega success, many Oscar nominations and a chance to do a certain trilogy we need not speak of. Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film “Hard Eight,” while respected for its small scale story of an older man seeking redemption for past sins, in Anderson’s eyes was a compromised film and butcher-job by the studio. Of course, his next film “Boogie Nights” secured Anderson near god-like status as an indie auteur. In most cases “second films” allowed give the filmmakers freedom to expand their creativity and truly express themselves, but there have been a few filmmakers whose sophomore films just couldn’t live up to the hype. Below are 10 of the most notable of sophomore slumps:

NOTE: You’ll see this list is heavily skewed to the 80’s and 90’s and to American films. Before this time the studio system allowed directors to slowly develop their craft either through television, or low-budget Roger Cormon-type films. It wasn’t until the 80’s and 90’s when self-financed independently produced films were feasible for young filmmakers. And so, the phenomenon of the sophomore slump is generally a new-era occurrence.

Andrew Niccol (GattacaSimone)

In 1997 Niccol directed “Gattaca” and though not a commercial success was highly acclaimed and as the writer of “The Truman Show” the next year Niccol established himself as a sensitive and thought-provoking filmmaker. His next film, “Simone”, about a producer who creates a virtual celebrity in his computer to say it plainly, was one a frustrating experience and one of the worst films I’d ever seen. To give him the benefit of the doubt, the film received as many positive reactions as negative ones, but I believe those same critics would categorize it as a step down from his previous work. Since Simone, he’s directed the underrated “Lord of War” which redeems him slightly, and according to the IMDB he’s developing a biopic on Salvador Dali. Only time will tell.

Kevin Costner (Dances With WolvesThe Postman)

Oh Kevin, what a downfall. Ok, so you beat out “Goodfellas” for the Oscars in 1990, we may not have held that against you if you didn’t follow it up with the grand debacle of “The Postman”. Essentially a remake of “Dances With Wolves” set in the future, the grandness of its critical failure was only matched by the grandness of its commercial failure. An estimated budget of $80m, brought back only $17m in the box office. Kevin’s third film, “Open Range” brought Costner back down to earth, and proved that he could make a good film. We’re still waiting for film # 4.


Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez (Blair Witch ProjectThe Strand/Altered)

After directing the most profitable film of all time ($140m domestic box office compared to a $35,000 budget) Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez appeared to fall off the cinematic map. I suspect they were respectfully stuck in development hell, or were receiving lame horror/Blair Witch ripoff scripts. Ironically, according to the IMDB, each of them directed straight to video films in 2006 - Myrick's "The Strand" and Sanchez's "Altered". I don't know anyone who has seen them. What a shame. Don’t give up guys.

Karyn Kusama (GirlfightAeon Flux)

One of the biggest disappointments has to be Karyn Kusama’s lengthy hiatus after the 2000 hit “Girlfight”. The film won the highly coveted Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and a dozen more prestigious international awards. But it took 5 years to produce her second film, and unfortunately happened to be the cartwheeling Charlize Theron vehicle and unnecessary adaptation of Peter Chung’s hyper-cool animated series, “Aeon Flux”. Needless to say, it bombed and didn’t come close to recouping its budget ($25m domestic box office gross vs. a $65m budget). But more disappointing is her choice in subject matter after her promising start with “Girlfight” – a girlpower Matrix ripoff. Come on Karyn, enough games, show us your teeth again.

Vincent Gallo (Buffalo 66The Brown Bunny)

1998’s “Buffalo 66” was like the birth of a fresh new voice in American indie filmmaking. It was raw and personal and reminded us of Scorsese’s early films. And so, when “The Brown Bunny” was listed in competition at Cannes in 2003, at least in my house, there was some excitement as to what his follow up would be. Of course, the film’s reception at Cannes that year is now the stuff of legend. The walkouts, the boos, the jeers from the French audience, and the tête-à-tête fallout with Roger Ebert. I’ve only seen the ‘improved’ shorter version of Gallo’s sparse road movie, but even then, his sophomore film is a disappointment and a step down from the promise of "Buffalo ’66". Despite this I hope he can find more money for his movies, and I hope he doesn’t need fellatio to get it.

Billy Bob Thornton (Sling BladeAll the Pretty Horses)

Billy Bob entered the Hollywood scene with a triple threat film, writing, acting and directing “Sling Blade” for which he won the Oscar for screenwriting. But his second film “All the Pretty Horses” crashed and burned in an all-round Miramax fiasco. Despite being an adaptation of an acclaimed Cormac McCarthy novel, the production was one trouble after the next - a lengthy and overbudget shoot, a reported four-hour director’s cut severely chopped down to under two hours, and a full Daniel Lanois score discarded in favour of Marty Stuart, Larry Paxton and Kristin Wilkinson (who?). When asked if there would ever be a director’s cut of the film, Billy Bob says “doubtful”. He’s been quoted as saying, even if he had a chance to release a director's cut, he'd only do it if he could restore Lanois’ original music, which he cites as the most beautiful score he’s ever heard. A shame.

Lars Von Trier (The Element of CrimeEpidemic)

After wowing Cannes and the international film scene with his brooding cyber-punk future-noir “The Element of Crime” (1984), Lars Von Trier followed it up with a hastily put together post modern mess of a horror film “Epidemic”. Lars casts himself as well as his screenwriter in a film within a film within a film. Over time the film has gained a cult following, but of his entire body of work, arguably it’s his lesser film.

Kevin Smith (ClerksMallrats)

In 1994 Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” became the slacker generation’s most quotable film. A $27,000 credit card-funded film about two guys talkin’ dirty in a convenience store grossed over 10 times its budget. Perhaps the Tarantino comparisons were too much, because his next film “Mallrats” received scathing reviews and a dumped marketing campaign which equaled bad box office (it returned only a quarter of its budget back in the domestic theatres). Despite the experience of “Mallrats” Kevin Smith would bounce back two years later with his best film so far, “Chasing Amy”. Good on him.

Ed Burns (Brothers McMullanShe’s the One)

The success of “Brothers McMullan” was out of this world for Ed Burns, and the lottery ticket film all directors are looking for. Shot for $24,000 over weekends, the director acting, writing, directing and producing with a cast of unknowns, the film made it to Sundance, won, and got picked up by Fox Searchlight for distribution. A dream come true. What would Burns do next? “She’s the One” certainly wasn’t his “Magnificent Ambersons” or ‘Boogie Nights” or his “Pulp Fiction”. “She’s the One” played it too safe, another Irish-American story with more expensive, but not necessarily better actors. And even after 7 more films the only one we’ve even remembered the title for is “Brothers McMullan” – it still resonates.

Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and VideotapeKafka)

For 2 years, Steven Soderbergh was the wunderkind. Under 30, and already a Palme D’Or winner, and the leader of the 90’s indie movement. His debut was highly accomplished and demonstrated superior command of the artform. It was clear “Sex, Lies” was highly personal - perhaps James Spader’s character mirrored Soderbergh’s own idiosyncrasies. But with his next film “Kafka” Soderbergh delivered an overindulgent experimental mess nowhere near as complex or intriguing as “Sex, Lies”. Needless to say, it bombed with both critics and the box office. Soderbergh’s next 2 films performed just as badly, but as we know, it took Soderbergh another 7 years before climbing back on top with a string of hits culminating in his 2000 Oscar year.

Please send in your comments other additions, specifically international filmmakers I may have looked over. Thanks.


Thursday, 12 April 2007

FARGO


Fargo (1996) dir. Joel Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy

****

One of the all-time great black comedies, “Fargo” remains the Coen Bros' best film. Although with the number of rabid fans out there will be debaters, and certainly “Miller’s Crossing”, and “The Big Lebowski” have large followings, but since their Oscar says “Fargo” on it, this is the film they will be remembered for.

The snowcapped Midwest never looked so depressing. The film opens on a majestic long shot of a wintry road in the middle of nowhere, a lone car driving in the distance. It’s Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a hapless used car salesman on his way to make a deal with 2 equally hapless criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap and ransom off Lundegaard’s wife. The scheme is ridiculous and an act of desperation for a man seemingly on his last legs. We’re never told why he feels he must ransom off his wife for a measly $80,000. Perhaps it’s gambling debts, or perhaps it’s to re-maculate himself after years of ridicule by his in laws.

Regardless of his reasons, Jerry’s plan soon falls apart. The plot to collect the ransom is interrupted by Jerry’s bigheaded father in law, who gets shot and killed during the exchange. Soon after, Jerry’s wife, falls victim as well.

Meanwhile, on Jerry’s trail is the unassuming pregnant policewoman, Marge, played by Frances McDormand (who also won an Oscar). Marge has small town politeness, but the instinct and intuition of a hard boiled cop. She soon connects the dots which leads her to Jerry’s workplace. Marge innocently questions Jerry about a stolen car from his lot, and a few minutes later Jerry crumbles from the tension implicating himself as a suspect. The film ends with a legendary climax, involving the now-famous wood-chipper scene.

The Coens will likely not make a better film than “Fargo” because it uses all the tools, techniques and stylizations that make them “the Coen Bros” but in its most audience-accessible form. To compare it to, say, “O Brother Where Art Thou”, “Big Lebowski” or “Miller’s Crossing” they all have an anachronistic self-reverential feel (namely the Preston Sturges influence), but “Fargo” is their most honest and personal film. And Marge is also their most honest hero/heroine. Violence and crime is sloppy and criminals, for the most part, aren’t smart. So the characters feel like real people and that they could actually exist, however ridiculous their actions might be.

Technically, the Coens left their flashiness at the door and concentrated on story over style. The signature Carter Burwell sound is present though. A master of mood and atmosphere, Burwell’s melancholy score evokes sorrow, depression and bitter sadness. Sadness is key because for such a peaceful place, the events that transpired couldn’t have happened to nicer people. Marge’s final speech gives us the lesson with such simple and honest words:

“There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don't you know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it.”

Enjoy.

Buy it here: Fargo (Special Edition)


Wednesday, 11 April 2007

THE CONFORMIST


The Conformist (1970) dir. Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Enzo Tarascio

****

In 1970 Bernardo Bertolucci was still an Italian phenom, he was 30 and had already directed 3 accomplished films. Teaming for the first time with the great Vittorio Storaro, who would go on to shoot “Apocalypse Now” and “Reds” Bertolucci created a sumptuous and sexy political thriller about fascism, sex, betrayal and murder. In 36 years, it’s aged better than any film of its year and today should be considered one of the greatest films of all time, or at the very least the most beautifully shot.

Set in pre-war Italy 1938, Marcello Clerici, a wannabe bourgeoisie with some painful repressed psychological baggage, including a homosexual incident from his youth, has chosen to compensate by trying to find normalcy in his life. He’s chosen marriage because that’s what's expected of him and now he’s joined the Fascist party in order to confirm his status as a conforming citizen of the state.

During his honeymoon in Paris, Marcello receives his first orders to track down and murder his former University professor and suspected subverter Enzo Quadri. This immoral act of treachery is the perfect assignment to test his loyalty. As Marcello and his wife reacquaint themselves with Quadri, Marcello develops an attraction to Quardi’s wife Anna. The relationship of the ‘foursome’ develops, further intensifying Marcello's Hamlet-like indecision. Marcello eventually completes his transformation to fascist robot when he betrays his friends and watches them die a gruesome death. The climax is powerful, but it’s the denouement that provides the cathartic release and personal redemption for Marcello as he confronts face-to-face the demons of his past.

“The Conformist” is a Freudian character study about a man overcompensating for his own personal fears and self-doubts. It's the repressed homosexual incident from Marcello’s childhood (obviously a big no-no under Fascist rule) that created the cold, lifeless and emotional detached Marcello of today. Is he homosexual or not? We don’t know, and neither does Marcello. To Marcello, Fascism represents the ideal avenue to subjugate his desires, deprogram himself and destroy his individuality.

The complexity of Marcello’s character is matched by Bertolucci’s visualization. Every frame is a piece of art and no other film has used light, shadow, colour and movement to greater dramatic effect. Each shot after the next brims with astonishing visual beauty. At a time when Hollywood was going natural and handheld “The Conformist” presents a classic, elegant and stylized look. In colour film, only “Days of Heaven” and “The Godfather” come close to challenging its masterful elegance.

But “The Godfather” and “The Conformist” have more in common. Essentially they are both about a once innocent man transformed, brainwashed and lured in by an acceptable form of societal sin (fascism vs. the mob). Though not as sprawling and epic as "The Godfather," “The Conformist” more than compensates with pure gorgeousness. Enjoy.

PS. It's also one of the sexiest and most alluring films ever made. Watch Anna and Giulia's teasing dance:


Tuesday, 10 April 2007

THE LOST ROOM


The Lost Room (TV) dir. Craig R. Baxley, Michael Watkins
Starring: Peter Krause, Juliana Marguiles, Kevin Pollack

***

“The Lost Room” is a Sci-Fi Channel Mini-Series which aired last year and is now available on DVD. It’s a 6-part Stephen King-type high concept show about a police detective’s discovery of a series of mysterious objects with supernatural powers taken from a “lost hotel room”.

It’s a little tough to encapsulate into a one-liner, but the series is fascinating and highly addictive viewing. Peter Krause is a police detective (Joe Miller) who stumbles upon a highly coveted motel key from one of his perps. He soon discovers the key has the ability to open any door and enter another dimension in the form of a lost motel room. The backstory of the room and the key dates back to an unsolved cosmic mystery in 1961. Joe, a single father to his daughter Anna, has fun learning the properties of the room. The key can open any door, and once inside the room, you can exit back out into any room as long as you can visualize it. Unfortunately danger accompanies the key and with it a group of people called the Legion seeking to obtain the key. After a violent confrontation with the Legion Anna flees into the room and becomes trapped in the other dimension.

Joe’s journey to find his daughter uncovers a larger network of objects from the room, each with a different power - like “Heroes,” except the objects are everyday items and not people. There’s the “pen” which burns anything it touches, or the “bus ticket” which when touched to one’s head transports them curiously to a desolate crossroads in Kansas, MI, or “the comb” which freezes time. There are supposedly over a hundred spread around the world.

Joe joins forces with Jennifer Bloom (Juliana Marguiles), a member of a benevolent group of object-hunters seeking to obtain them so they may not be used for harmful purposes. Using his detective skills and the objects they obtain along their way Joe and Jennifer uncover the mystery of the Lost Room and the event that caused such a disruption in the physics of the natural world.

The series, part “Heroes”, part “Da Vinci Code,” part pulp noir, is immensely entertaining and satisfying for several reasons. Firstly, it’s a mini-series, and therefore it has an “end”. Unlike the “X-Files”, “Lost” or “Heroes” which are forced to torture impatient fans by dragging out plotlines for unnecessarily long periods of time over the course of several seasons, “The Lost Room” has guaranteed satisfaction. Also, the supernatural elements have easy to follow “rules” to them. In science fiction one of the most difficult tasks of a writer is to establish believable ‘rules’ within the context of the fictional and sensationalized story. Often times the filmmakers or series creators can back themselves into a corner, unable to explain or maintain the logic of the mysteries they have created (“The Matrix” being the prime example). But “The Lost Room” keeps it simple, doesn’t give us too many characters, and is not afraid of a little exposition to make sure everyone knows what’s exactly going on. This occasional “idiot check” may break a Syd Field rule or two but it’s necessary and greatly appreciated in this type of high concept story.

Peter Krause is perfectly cast as our everyman hero. Like his character in “Six Feet Under,” he’s someone we just instantly like, someone we identify with, someone who has our curious ‘what the f-k was that?’ point of view. “Heroes,” as good as it is, is missing a character like this. Often it feels like the characters and scope of “Heroes” is perhaps a bit too large for itself. It’s always walking a fine line of having a canvas too large and complex to comprehend. We’re never lost in the “Lost Room”.

And it wouldn’t be good television if it wrapped things up into a completely tight knot. Doors are left open for a second series, but even if it doesn’t we’re still left 100% satisfied, intrigued and entertained. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Lost Room (Mini-series)


Monday, 9 April 2007

GRINDHOUSE


The Grindhouse (2007) dir. Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Rose McGowan, Kurt Russell, Freddy Rodriguez

****

Two exploitation films back-to-back with fake trailers before and in between each film. The film was created to be part of ‘an experience’ of watching bad horror/action films of the 70’s in crappy theatres with bad sound systems, smelly seats and scratchy prints. For the most part the film lives up to its hype, minus one flaw – but more on that later.

The first film is Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror”. The plot of course is secondary but here goes, a group of scientists headed by “Lost” star Naveen Andrews has produced a lethal gas which turns people into man-eating zombies. Bruce Willis has formed a rebel faction of the military and kills the scientists and steals the gas for himself. Meanwhile we meet members of the townsfolk from outside the base: A former stripper, Cherry Darling played by Rose McGowan, the comely doctor Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) and her lesbian lover, Stacey Ferguson, Josh Bolin as Dakota’s husband, a local diner owner played by Jeff Fahey, an ornery sheriff played by Michael Biehn and a drifter, El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez). The film is well cast with semi-popular character actors from various action movies of the 1980’s. Though I have to ask, where was Michael Paré? The set up leads into a blood splatter extravaganza that brings all the characters together to fight off the evil zombies. Rodriguez throws in everything but the kitchen sink to keep our attention locked to the screen and every bit of it works.

“Planet Terror” is so f-ing good. Rodriguez amazingly juggles half a dozen characters and actually makes us care for each of them. The forced emotional moments add to the cheesy hilarity including Freddy Rodriguez’s attempts to win back his former flame, Dr. Dakota’s rescue from certain death by her resurrected father, and the Aliens-inspired suicidal death scene of Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey. Freddy Rodriguez, though the shortest actor in front the camera, has the chutzpah of a young Kurt Russell and actually holds the film together as an action hero/leading man.

Speaking of Kurt Russell, Tarantino’s segment changes gears (pun not intended) and slows the pace down to add some dialogue into the mix. Quentin’s film is “Death Proof”, a send up of redneck road movies like “Vanishing Point” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry”. A highway vigilante, Stuntman Mike, played by Kurt Russell combs the roads of Texas looking for groups of attractive girls to murder. His weapon is his ‘death proof’ car which allows him to inflict as much damage as humanly possible with his car yet miraculous protecting him from harm.

The major flaw of Grindhouse is in fact Tarantino’s film, which unfortunately doesn’t come anywhere near the humour or excitement of “Planet Terror”. Tarantino’s masturbatory dialogue runs on and on to the point of tedium. Ironically, despite his posturing about his love for Grindhouse cinema and throwing back to his days of watching B-action, kung fu and road movies, Tarantino didn’t make one of those films. He has made a Tarantino film – and a lesser one at that. I can’t imagine Tarantino ever heard such long stretches of banal unfunny dialogue in “Vanishing Point”. The actresses reading his branded dialogue unfortunately can’t sing it, and there’s definitely some poor casting here. And as far as hotness factor goes, he’s lost out as well. The girls in the first half of his film who are unfortunately killed off are far more attractive than the heroes that live at the end (sorry, Rosario Dawson, you’ve looked better). But enough quibbles. Tarantino’s film isn’t all that bad. Vanessa Ferlito sears every frame she’s in, Kurt Russell’s car kicks major ass and the death scenes are bloody lovely.

The trailers which come before and during the film are absolutely gutbusting, especially Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” and Edgar Wright’s “Don’t”. You will cry with laughter. Canadians will get an extra treat. Sandwiched between the ‘real’ trailers “Fracture” and “Live Free or Die Hard” is the contest winner for the best fan-produced Grindhouse trailer, the hilariously idiotic “Hobo with a Shotgun” (the title alone makes me grin). You can catch all these on youtube, but you’ll laugh harder in the theatre.

The added imperfections of the film - the intentional scratches, missing reels, faded colour and awesome porn music introductions work like magic and put you in the smelly Grindhouse environment just as the filmmakers wanted. It ALL works. Grindhouse will likely satisfy more of the ironic film loser type (like me) who can appreciate the joy of bad films. As for the others, I guarantee you will at least enjoy the trailers. Enjoy.

PS. I also suggest getting Combo #1 at the concession stand – large popcorn, large coke and the bonus pack of nibs – so fucking good!

Here’s the trailer:



And here’s some real Grindhouse trailers from the 70’s (watch for the cougar attack at the 3 min mark!).


Sunday, 8 April 2007

THE HOST


The Host (2007) dir. Joon-ho Bong
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Hae-il Park, Du-na Bae

***

“The Host” is the biggest film ever to come out of Korea, a fun monster movie and a mixture of “Alien”, “Godzilla”, and all the Roland Emmerich-disaster films rolled up into one, with an unquestionably peculiar Korean spin to it.

The opening is clever: years before today, an American scientist at the U.S. Army base in Seoul instructs his Korean subordinate to drain a bottle of dusty, expired formaldehyde into the drain. The Korean man objects saying it will end up in the Han River harming the tepid waters. The scientist wonderfully typifies the environmentally unfriendly “Ugly American.” The Korean follows orders and proceeds to drain the bottle into the sink, but when the camera pans right we see there are hundreds of bottles to dispose of. This slap-in-your-face expository set up is a great send up of the B-monster-film genre.

Cut to present day, on the banks of the beautiful Han River, we meet the Park family operating a kiosk selling food and snacks to tourists. In the middle of the serene day, everyone’s attention is curiously drawn to an odd shape hanging underneath a bridge in the distance. When the shape falls into the water the quick glimpse reveals it’s a large creature of some sort. Several moments later it swims to shore and appears with great shock charging towards a group of tourists on the bank of the river. One of the rules of the monster genre is to hide the creature from full view of the audience until at least the second act, and in the case of Jaws, Alien and some others, the third act. But in "The Host" we dramatically see the alien in its full glory in this first scene. This is the first of many great shocks and surprises in this genre-send up film.

Hyeon-Siu Park, the daughter of the kiosk operator is sucked into the jowls of the beast and taken away. The remainder of the film portrays the family’s search to find the beast and rescue the girl. In addition to the scares Joon-ho crafts some great comic scenes, including a hilarious grieving scene for the victims of this first attack. Joon-ho sets up the family’s dysfunctionality when they start fighting with each other, while mourning at the foot of their child’s memorial.

The family provides the majority of the laughs, Gang-du is the father of Hyeon-Siu, but a real dimwit who takes the blame for letting his daughter go, his brother, Nam-il, is an unemployed university graduate and is self-conscious for his underachievements, and the sister, Nam-ju, is a famous archer, who feels shame for winning a ‘bronze’ in the latest world championships. The dynamic of these three fuels the film in between the monster moments.

But it’s the monster moments that make the film. The beast is truly scary and unique as well. It’s like a giant mutated piranha/lizard with dash of Alien and Predator thrown in. The special effects by New Zealand’s famed Weta Workshop (“Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong”) is top-notch and completely believable.

The send up of the SARS scare provides added poignancy and humour not to mention the not-so-subtle jabs at the anti-Kyoto, military-heavy American influence in the Korean culture. The result is a funny, scary and highly entertaining piece of pulp cinema. Enjoy.