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

Friday, 31 August 2007

HE DIRECTED THAT?

Most of the great directors we know are considered auteurs – an ‘author’ of a film who also has a consistency of style, subject, and/or theme. Every once in a while a director will throw us for a loop and make a film that is inconsistent with his or her other work. Here’s a compilation that has been brewing in my head for a long time – a list of the most famous cinematic anomalies from great directors. These anomalies aren’t necessarily flops, or failures, but deviations in either style, theme or genre from their traditionally known films. For example, Steven Spielberg’s “1941” is considered a major flop, but the themes, comedy and style of the film all carry his signature stamp – in this case all taken to the extreme. As well I've excluded most 'first features' from directors. For example, James Cameron's "Pirahna II" or Oliver Stone's "Seizure" or even "The Hand", both of which were made before their acclaimed work began. The first entry, Robert Altman’s “Popeye’ looks and sounds like an Altman picture, but the subject matter – a popular comic book series meant to be a tentpole franchise film for its studio? That’s anything but Altman territory.


Robert Altman – Popeye

The 70’s were Robert Altman’s decade. He produced quantity - directing at least one film every year in the decade – and quality (“MASH”, “McCabe” and “Mrs. Miller”, “Nashville”). The anomaly that jumps out us is "Popeye" – a musical based on the famous comic books, starring Robin Williams. I saw the film in the theatre as a kid, and though I was 5 when I saw it, I do remember it sucking really badly. Of course, there are hordes of cult fans for the film. It's considered a bomb in its day, and put Altman in the Hollywood doldrums for much of the 80’s. Interestingly though, the film took in almost $50million in the box office, almost double its budget. And despite the reputation of the film it received some great praise from the nation’s most noted critics – two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert. The latter of the two wrote about Altman, “He takes one of the most artificial and limiting of art forms -- the comic strip -- and raises it to the level of high comedy and high spirits.” Vincent Camby of the New York Times wrote, “''Popeye'' has other unexpected joys, including the fact that, unlike most movies, it gets better and better as it goes along." Judge for yourself.





Francis Coppola – Jack

Another Robin Williams film. Hmmm, a trend? I don’t know anyone who has actually seen “Jack”. So, if it’s a great film please correct me. Jack tells the story of a man whose body ages four times as fast as his brain. Therefore when Jack is 10, he has the body of a 40 year old. Most of the humour derives from the concept of Robin Williams in an elementary school classroom. Todd McCarthy summed up everyone’s question in his 1996 review, “The message of ‘Jack,’ as spelled out for all to hear in the climactic scene, is, 'None of us have very long on this Earth. Life is fleeting.' What, then, is Francis Ford Coppola doing spending a year on this tedious, uneventful fantasy…”





Roman Polanski – Pirates

Since the early 60’s Roman Polanski had established himself as one of the great psychological horror directors – “Knife in the Water”, “Repulsion”, “Rosemary’s Baby”, “Pirates”… what? Starring Walter Mathau? It turns out “Pirates” was a labour of love for Polanski who first conceived the idea after “Chinatown” (1974) with Jack Nicholson as the lead. That nasty statutory rape case put a halt to those plans in the 70’s, but he revived the project in the 80’s. Critically and commercially it was a bomb. Roger Ebert trashed the film back in the day saying, “This movie represents some kind of low point for the genre that gave us ‘Captain Blood’.”





Stanley Kubrick - Spartacus

Every time I cruise the Kubrick filmmography and marvel at his great body of work, I stop and pause at “Spartacus”. Since “Paths of Glory” (1957) (and arguably “The Killing the year before) Kubrick’s films look, sound and feel like ‘Kubrick films - his beautiful tracking shots, zooms, wideangle lenses, classical music. But "Spartacus" is so generic, so Hollywood, so not his film, it warrants a mention. Only one shot in the film screams Kubrick – the hint of the ‘Kubrick stare’ on Kirk Douglas early on in the film. Other than that, it’s a hack job. It’s a wonderfully competent film, with terrific action scenes – especially the dramatic battle scene at the end – but it was his first and only ‘director for hire’ job and a bold anomaly of his career.





Walter Hill – Brewster’s Millions

Walter Hill is an action legend. A protégé of bloody Sam Peckinpah, Hill took the editing style of Peckinpah and adapted it to his own personal style of filmmaking. Hill made fun adventures with highly stylized violence – “The Driver”, “The Warriors”, “48 Hours”, “Streets of Fire”. His characters were alpha male macho and dirty. But in 1986 he made a Richard Pryor-John Candy comedy, “Brewster’s Millions” about a down and out baseball player who inherits $300 million but has to spend it in 30 days. The novel it was based on was actually originally written in 1902, and made into a film six times before. So perhaps it was Hill remaking a film or book he loved in his youth. Who knows.





Brian De Palma – Wise Guys

Like Walter Hill above, in 1986 the popular director of violent horror films decided to go comedy. “Wise Guys” is a Danny De Vito-Joe Piscopo vehicle about two lowly mob errand runners who are set up to kill each other. It’s a mob-comedy romp, unlike any of De Palma’s popular and best known films. It’s interesting to note that De Palma did start out in comedy before turning to Hitchcockian horror films – "Hi Mom!" and “Phantom of the Paradise” are both wildly comic films. But when sandwiched between “Body Double” (1984) and "The Untouchables" (1987), the film is a head scratcher.





Robert Wise – Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Robert Wise is a man of all genres – horror, musical, sci-fi - and when cinephiles talk about the great career of Mr. Wise, it’s “The Sound of Music, “The Haunting”, The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “West Side Story” – not to mention his editing resume which includes “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.” But the first Star Trek film? Between the cancellation of the 60’s TV Series and this first feature film there were several attempts to revive the series in the 70’s, the closest being a TV pilot entitled “Phase II” to be directed by Bob Collins. After Star Wars was released, the pilot was reworked into the feature film, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. Paramount replaced the unknown Bob Collins with sure hand of Oscar-winner “Robert Wise”. Until the recent addition of JJ Abrams, the franchise hasn’t had a higher profile director since Mr. Wise. Wise was lambasted by critics and fans for overusing the 'awkstruck-ness' of the special effects and not concentrating on the heart of the "Star Trek" stories.





John Huston – Victory!

“Victory!” is a guilty pleasure from my youth – a story about Allied WWII prisoners who, in captivity, play a game of Soccer against the German national team, as a rouse for their elaborate escape plan. The film starred Sly Stallone as the lone American (who played the goalkeeper), Michael Caine, and Max von Sydow. Many real-life soccer/football stars were also featured, including the Brazilian great, Pele, and Premiership stars, Bobby Moore and Mike Summerbee. How or why the great 75 year old director of “The Maltese Falcon” and “The African Queen” got involved, I don’t know . The film has a cult following, especially in Britain (where the film was named “Escape to Victory).


David Lynch – The Straight Story

Though “The Straight Story” is a new film and still in our memories, many years from now when Lynch is dead and gone, this film will most certainly be his anomaly. There's no sex, no horror, no surrealness. The appropriately titled film, tells the true story of Alvin Straight, a humble farmer who travels hundreds of miles on a John Deere tractor to be with his dying brother. It features the Oscar-nominated last role for Richard Farnsworth – who sadly died shortly after the Oscar ceremony. “The Straight Story” is a great film, and is much different in style and tone to his other films. There are some wonderful moments of introspective poignancy which fits in well with Lynch's style. Watch the dissolves and sound design of the scene below. As well, there's a wonderful moment with Sissy Spacek and Farnsworth at night pondering life while looking up at the stars.





Sam Raimi – For Love of the Game

Sam Raimi is a big baseball fan – a Michigan-born Tigers fan. As a hired hand, “For Love of the Game” fell into Raimi’s lap with Kevin Costner already cast. The result was a maligned production involving some high-profile disputes between director and star. Upon release the film fell out of theatres quickly and quietly. Of course, this was the pre-“Spider-Man” Sam Raimi. Don’t be surprised if Raimi gets back into the chair behind another baseball film that can he can coddle from the development stages to make it a true passion project.




Gus Van Zant - Finding Forrester

From 1997 – 2000 we can consider to be Gus Van Sant’s mainstream period – his “Rose Period”. “Good Will Hunting” was a major success, and he decided to follow it up with his remake of “Psycho”. Although some considered it blasphemous to reshoot such a classic, I wasn’t too perturbed by it. And if anyone could get away with it, it’s Gus Van Zant. But I won’t forgive him for his wholesome feel-goodness of “Finding Forrester.” We were all happy Van Zant went back to his experimental roots to gain back his indie cred. His next three films comprised his “death trilogy” (“Gerry”, “Elephant” and “Last Days”). “Finding Forrester” will always stand out as Van Zant’s sore thumb. I doubt he will ever make a movie like that again.





Tim Burton – Planet of the Apes

Think about it, “Planet of the Apes” is the least 'Burton-esque' film Tim Burton ever made. In fact, like Kubrick’s “Spartacus”, there’s isn’t anything in terms of production design or camerawork or humour that resembles his signature works. And other than his then wife Lisa Marie, none of the familiar Tim Burton players are present either. He may as well have called it an Alan Smithee film - it's that generic. The production was also a difficult endeavour for Burton. Perhaps his heart wasn't in it. Though the film is only 6 years old and fresh in our memory, 20 or 30 years from now, “Planet of the Apes” will likely remain Tim Burton’s anomaly.



Woody Allen – Match Point

When I saw “Match Point” in early 2006, it was one of the most refreshing films I had seen in a while. Knowing the film was a “Woody Allen film” I had certain expectations, even though I knew it wasn’t a comedy. But I was not expecting the magnificent Hitchcockian homage that it was. In fact, it’s one of best-ever “Hitchcockian” films. There is a lot of black humour in the film, but none of it smelled like Allen’s other films. As of now, “Match Point” is his anomaly, but who knows, he may be starting a new period in his career. His next film “Cassandra’s Dream” with Ewan MacGregor and Colin Farrell sounds like more morbid “Match Point” stuff. Can’t wait.





Wes Craven - Music of the Heart

Wes Craven made a comeback with the "Scream" franchise in 1996. He parlayed that success into his only mainsteam dramatic film "Music of the Heart" with Meryl Streep. The film wasn't bad, but wasn't great either, and I can't blame him for trying to change genres. The horror genre, especially pop-horror, is a tough hole to dig oneself out of career-wise. I doubt he's getting any decent dramatic scripts sent his way these days. It's too bad he didn't jump onto something with more substance than the uninspired retread material the film turned out to be.


Thursday, 30 August 2007

THE RED AND THE WHITE


The Red and the White (1968) dir. Miklós Jancsó
Starring: József Madaras, Tibor Molnár

****

Thanks to my readers who commented on my "Long Take" article, I have discovered the cinema of Miklós Jancsó. My entry is "The Red and the White". Trying to describe Jancsó’s ode to Russian Revolution is difficult. There is no traditional plot, no tradition characters – it drops the audience into the front line of the war between the Reds and the Whites in the violent years just after the Russian Revolution. Jancsó matter-of-factly shows us both sides of the conflict with complete dispassion. It’s not documentary-like either, as in “Bloody Sunday” – it’s a cinematic experience unto itself and a dazzling anti-war film.

The film starts on the front line of the Russian Civil War of 1919 (aka Red and White War). The Reds are the Bolshevik Army who have just overthrown the Czarist monarchy. They were comprised not just of Russians, but workers from Romania, Hungary and Poland and other European countries. The Whites were a coalition made up of Czarist loyalists who wanted to overthrow the new Communist government. They were backed by and in many cases fought by other European soldiers and armies.

The film opens in the Russian countryside with a wonderful dolly and crane shot as a platoon of Whites pursue a group of Hungarian Reds across a hillside. Some are captured and some escape. The escapees wander into a Hospital barracks, where they receive care. Soon after the Whites catch up to them and pillage the premises looking for more Red soldiers. The film fluidly moves back and forth across both sides of the war. In the hospital the point of view inconspicuously moves to the White side of the battle. At times the soldiers don’t know who is on whose side and neither do we. After all it was a civil war fought by multinationals on both sides. Jancsó doesn’t care about confusing the audience though - the brutality of war is his main concern.

The film was meant to be propaganda, but often times great films come from these political restrains, the films of Mikael Kalatozov (“I am Cuba”), Sergei Eisenstein (“October”) and Leni Reifenstahal (“Triumph of the Will”) come to mind. In fact, “The Red and the White” was born from a commission by the Soviet government to make a film commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

There is more than just a thematic kinship with Kalatozov’s fantastic “I am Cuba”. Both films use breathtaking long takes and wide-angle black and white cinematography. The scene when the Red captain makes the White captives take off their shirts and run throughout the barracks like released animals at a fox hunt is brutal and humiliating, but expertly shot and choreographed. The use of wideangle landscape shots in the finale battle is a tremendous piece of cinema and reminiscent of the epic battle in “Spartacus”.

Ironically, "The Red and the White" is an anti-war film masquerading as propaganda. Despite being a commission of the Soviet Government, the Soviets were not pleased with the Jancsó’s cut, and had the film re-edited to make the Reds more heroic. The film eventually was banned in the Soviet Union, but not before it was released in the U.S. and Hungary and became one of Jancsó’s most beloved films.

Kino has a barebones DVD available. The transfer is from the print, which means the cigarette burns and handling scratches are visible, but it’s still beautiful to watch and a must see for all cinephiles. I can't wait to discover Jancsó's other films. Any suggestions? Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Red and The White

Note: This is a compilation of shots set to different music:

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

NIAGARA


Niagara (1953) dir. Henry Hathaway
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotton, Jean Peters

***

"A raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!"

“Niagara” is a Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made. Veteran studio director Henry Hathaway directs this suspense thriller about a woman who conspires to kill her husband and run away with her male companion. It features one of Marilyn Monroe’s most alluring performances, but it’s Niagara Falls that’s the star of the film – skillful use of on-location shooting to make the natural wonder a foreboding omnipresent shadow over the action.

A young newlywed couple, Ray and Polly Cutler (Max Showalter and Jean Peters) arrive in Niagara Falls for their honeymoon. Occupying one of the rooms is the sultry and sexy figure of Rose Loomis (Marilyn Monroe). She is the trophy wife to an elder man, George Loomis (Joseph Cotton). Right away there’s something teasing, naughty and shifty-eyed about Rose. When Polly catches Rose locking lips with another man near the Falls, she knows something is awry.

It turns out Rose is quietly plotting to leave George and run away with her handsome boy toy – Patrick (Richard Allen). George is targeted to be bumped off by Patrick in an elaborate murder scheme, but when the plan fails Patrick ends up the one murdered. George goes on the hunt for revenge against Rose. But when Polly gets in the way, suddenly she’s caught in the web of suspense and thrills, which culminates thrillingly at the edge of the Falls.

As effectively as Hitchcock used San Francisco in “Vertigo” or Mount Rushmore in “North By Northwest” Henry Hathaway does the same with Niagara Falls. In fact, Joseph Cotton, not so subtly tells us the metaphor of the Falls when Loomis warns Polly about love, “…it's calm and easy, and you throw in a log, it just floats around. Let it move a little further down and it gets going faster, hits some rocks, and... in a minute it's in the lower rapids, and... nothing in the world -- including God himself can keep it from going over the edge.” This is Loomis’ marriage in a nutshell.

Hathaway shoots the Falls with stunning visual beauty. His frames highlight its powerful force as well as its graceful natural elegance. The murder at the bell tower provides a wonderful cinematic shot showing a murder from high in the ceiling looking down at the shadowy action overhead with the bells perfectly framed in the foreground. The final moments down the river approaching the edge is a terrific action sequence – especially for 1953. Hathaway uses complex gimble effects to rock the boat and he dumps more than enough water in Cotton and Peters’ faces to make it believable.

Marilyn Monroe is a perfect Hitchcockian blonde cocktease. She is ravishing, especially in her opening shot, naked underneath the covers in bed. We see her coming in and out of the shower on a number of occasions, and her famous pink dress rivals any sexually enticing costume I’ve seen on film. It’s too bad Ms. Monroe never made a real Hitchcock film. She stayed mostly in her comedic comfort zone, but in “Niagara” she commands the screen like best-ever femme fatales.

Max Showalter as Ray Cutler is a weakpoint in the film. His gawky naivety is too childish and rudimentary to have even survived scrutiny in 1953. His one-note and ‘clown like’ facial expressions are fit for television, not the big screen.

Henry Hathway wasn’t a studio hack, and though he never did get the recognition of an Alfred Hitchcock, he did create some indelible noir classics including, “The Dark Corner”, “Kiss of Death”, “Call Northside 777” and, of course, “Niagara”. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Niagara


Tuesday, 28 August 2007

LIGHTS! CAMERA! ELVIS!



Blue Hawaii - Easy Come Easy Go - GI Blues - Girls Girls Girls - King Creole - Fun in Acapulco – Roustabout - Paradise Hawaiian Style

Starring: Elvis Presley

Guest review by Greg Klymkiw

Paramount Home Video’s contribution to the recent glut of Presley celluloid is a nicely packaged box set entitled: “Lights! Camera! Elvis! Collection”. It is precisely the packaging – a fancy blue suede box that holds the eight movies – which counts as one of two reasons to recommend picking up this title that exploits (I mean, commemorates) the 30th anniversary of the King’s deadly slide off the porcelain throne onto the cool slab of Memphis marble adorning the second floor of Graceland.

The second reason to pick up the box is the inclusion of Mr. Presley’s best movie – the just-short-of-great "King Creole". Based upon Harold Robbins’s best-selling pot-boiling trash-lit and serving, not surprisingly, as a fine structural coat-hanger to the fashionably stylish dark fabric of late-noir, this Michael Curtiz-helmed studio picture tells the tale of poor-boy Danny Fisher and his rise from the gutter and ultimate acceptance of his loving Dad while battling a sleazy gangster and having to choose between a life of crime and a life of song.

Featuring a terrific supporting cast, "King Creole" features the delectably sleazy Walter Matthau as the gangster-club-owner who makes Danny’s and pretty much everyone else’s life miserable, a sad and sexy Carolyn Jones as Matthau’s Madonna-whore moll with a heart of gold, a suitably pathetic Dean Jagger as Danny’s loser Dad and the radiant and utterly magical Dolores Hart as Presley’s main love interest. Better yet is Presley’s fine performance. His smouldering screen presence is palpable and he displays a wide range of emotion. If Col. Tom Parker had not so horribly bungled Elvis’s motion picture career, the King might well have joined the ranks of James Dean, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando as one of the truly great angry young men of 50s and 60s celluloid rather than the popular, but ultimately cartoon-like joke he became in later pictures.

The rest of the package is a woeful collection of some of Presley’s worst screen offences – some more risible than others, but risible nonetheless. From the standpoint of picture quality, this collection offers transfers ranging from adequate to first-rate. The lack of extra features (save for original theatrical trailers) is a bit annoying, but only "King Creole" really suffers from having no additional tidbits to add some informational cherries to the ample and tasty treat of the picture itself. It’d be great to try and score a commentary track (or even extensive interview) from Dolores Hart who, at the age of 25, left the fame and glamour of the movie business to become a nun in the Catholic Church. Even now, she apparently holds the distinction of being the only nun who is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I also think a scholarly commentary would be great with this picture especially since Curtiz’s direction is so first-rate and the late-noir style would also deserve some in-depth analysis.

The other movies in this box include one of Elvis’s biggest hits, the utterly ludicrous travelogue "Blue Hawaii" which has the dubious distinction of virtually no plot and an annoyingly over-the-top Angela Lansbury offering support. "G.I. Blues" is a plodding attempt to present Presley’s service experience in an entertaining fashion. Stella Stevens is mouth-wateringly gorgeous in "Girls! Girls! Girls!" but her character is such a sourball that one is not surprised that Elvis’s eyes may occasionally roam around at the constant bevy of beauties around him. "Fun in Acapulco" and "Paradise Hawaiian Style" are both dull and silly travelogues, while "Easy Come Easy Go" tries to mix it up with some deep-sea diving action to liven up the stale proceedings.

These titles are pretty woeful, but for some they might offer enough nostalgia appeal to warrant sitting through more than once. I, for one, was kind of hoping for at least some melancholic magic that’d bring me back to those halcyon days when I first saw many of these movies as a kid attending the Saturday matinees at a little neighbourhood cinema in my old hometown. Through the gentle haze of childhood recollection, I thought many of these pictures were really wonderful. Alas, they do not hold up to adult scrutiny. Elvis is always cool in the pictures, but it’s alternately depressing seeing this brilliant young actor in material that is so below his talents that all feelings of bygone warm and fuzzies dissipate pretty quickly.

Other than the terrific "King Creole", the only other picture in this collection that might warrant more than one viewing is the solid, though unexceptional "Roustabout" that tells a tale of Elvis amidst some old-time carnies played with classic verve by Barbara Stanwyck and Leif Erickson. This is one movie that might have benefited from having someone or something resembling a director behind the lens as opposed to the dull-as-dishwater competence of John Rich who is, not surprisingly, a veteran television director. He’s a decent enough camera jockey, but it might have been nice to imagine this picture in the hands of someone like Don Siegel or Sam Peckinpah.

Now, I am sure that some might argue that the whole point of the Elvis pictures is to showcase the songs and the King performing them in a variety of locations. This might have been fine in the day, but it’s awfully hard to watch most of what’s in this box set after watching "King Creole". It’s not only a good movie with a genuinely good Elvis performance, but the music is presented in a context that does not detract from the noir-ish world Curtiz creates, but actually works within it, not unlike the musical sequences in something like the classic Rita Hayworth picture "Gilda". Among a whole mess o’ tuneful crawfish ditties crooned by everyone’s fave lipster, my personal delights were his renditions of the title track, “Trouble” and the get-up-and-boogie “Hard Headed Woman”.

And while this may be hard to believe, many of the other movies don’t actually feature Elvis’s best numbers. They’re always beautifully performed – his voice is smoother than smooth, but tinged with those occasional wild-man highs and lows that can send us to truly orgasmic places – however, many of the songs themselves just plain suck. There’s no polite way of saying it, so allow me to reiterate – they just plain suck! For example, the "Blue Hawaii" soundtrack features one – count ‘em – one truly legendary song (“Can’t Help Falling In Love”), but I am sure my life will be full if I never again have to hear “Rock-a-Hula Baby”. And yes, I know the album from this picture was probably one of the biggest albums of all-time, but that doesn’t mean most of the songs on it were any good. In G.I. Blues we get to see Elvis sing “Blue Suede Shoes”, but we also have to suffer through numerous musical mediocrities. This is pretty much the case for the rest of the pictures in this box set.

In summation, the “Lights! Camera! Elvis! Collection” presents an interesting look at how a brilliant young actor was used, abused and wasted – especially in light of the great work he displayed in "King Creole". If you must own the blue suede box that houses the abovementioned titles, then feel free to pick this collection up. Otherwise, you might do better by just renting "Roustabout" and purchasing "King Creole" on its own or waiting until someone issues a special edition of this fine picture. Art thou listening Paramount Home Video? Do Elvis and his fans proud and get cracking on a tasty DVD gumbo of this fabulous movie.

Buy it here: Lights! Camera! Elvis! Collection (Blue Hawaii/Easy Come, Easy Go/Fun in Acapulco/G.I. Blues/Girls! Girls! Girls!/King Creole/Roustabout/Paradise Hawaiian Style)


Monday, 27 August 2007

THE LIVES OF OTHERS


The Lives of Others (2006) dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur

****

There was silent shock at last year’s Oscars when the Best Foreign Language film was read out as “The Lives of Others” instead of the favourite, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” I was surprised but not disappointed because the Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first feature film is absolutely terrific. I’ve seen it twice now, and it stands up well after two viewings. It’s terrific as a thriller, a character study and cold war spy film. It’s highly recommended viewing.

In East Germany, 1984, the Berlin Wall is up and citizens are still under oppressive Communist rule. Artists and their works are watched with scrutiny for subversiveness. Many great artists are blacklisted and not allowed to perform or create. In Orwellian fashion (hence 1984), the secret police, Stasi, keeps strict control on all activities of suspected conspirators. They are so determined and meticulous they collect samples of body odour from the seats of interrogated victims to have on file for future reference.

The best of the best of Stasi agents is Captain Gerd Weisler, a robot-of-a-man, who conducts his interrogation and surveillance with unwavering determination. When he is assigned the case of bugging the apartment of a talented playwright Georg Dreyman and his actress/wife Christa, Weisler’s outlook on life and patriotism slowly changes. By listening in on the most intimate and personal aspects of their life he begins to envy their creativity, freedom and ‘joie de vivre’. When Dreyman conspires to write anonymous essays for a Western newspaper, unknown to Dreyman, Weisler silently becomes his guardian, covering up information and silently subverting his own surveillance effort.

Ulrich Mühe is phenomenal as Weisler and gives an Oscar-worthy performance. At the beginning he is a monster who prides himself for interrogating his countrymen with intense psychological cruelty. He accepts his role as an instrument of the government to do their dirty work with complete dispassion. Yet, on several occasions we see him walk home and enter his sterile domicile apartment. Here we get to see the feared man as an ordinary person – lonely and weak. He has nothing outside his job and his sex life consists of weekly visits from prostitutes.

The final moments of the film are heartbreaking for Weisler. After the fall of the Wall, we see the broken man delivering mail with deflated pride. At this point we are given full perspective of the effect of the Iron Curtain. Weisler was a talented man and though he was the best at his job the only way he could succeed was by compromising his convictions and cheating himself and his country. Weisler chose not to and thus became a broken man. But in the last scene, a few small words on a page redeem all that he has lost. It’s a remarkably poignant moment. Some may be put off by the ‘Frank Capra-ness’ of the scene, but it’s emotional and cinematic and takes the film to another level.

A sad footnote to the film was the sudden death Ulrich Mühe, who succumbed to stomach cancer only a few weeks ago. Mühe’s life remarkably mirrored the character of Dreyman – he was a theatre actor in East Germany during the Cold War years, who, like Dreyman, was forbidden from speaking out against the repressive regime. Mühe claims his wife was compromised and secretly had him under Stasi surveillance for the last 10 years of their marriage.

“The Lives of Others” is a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining film. Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is a talented filmmaker with a bright future. Watch for him to be making the move to Hollywood very soon. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Lives of Others


Sunday, 26 August 2007

ARMY OF SHADOWS


Army of Shadows (1969) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring: Lino Ventura, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret

****

Kyle Smith of the New York Post was quoted as saying Robert De Niro’s film “The Good Shepherd” was “the ‘Godfather’ of spy films”. That’s a horrible comparison, but saying “Army of Shadows” is the “Godfather” of Résistance films – or even ‘spy’ films as a whole – is not an overstatement. Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic was rediscovered and reissued last year and has arrived on a beautiful Criterion Collection DVD special edition. It’s an epic story of a group of ordinary French citizens and their courageous but dangerous and difficult efforts to front the Résistance efforts against Nazi occupation in WWII.

The opening shot is a magnificent long static take. The Arc de Triumphe framed perfectly at the end of the Champs Elysee. When a group of Nazi soldiers goosestep their way into frame from the background to the foreground we are mediately put in the time and place. It’s 1942 – Nazi occupied France. One of the leaders of the French Résistance, Philip Gerbier (Lino Ventura) has been captured and taken into interrogation. His escape is expertly engineered and executed like a trained killer would. He’s not a fighter though, but a civil engineer, forced into participating in the dangerous game of hiding and subverting the Nazis from within. Immediately we get the sense the 3 years of occupation has hardened Philippe. He’s not the same man before the war. But now, he’s a tough-minded, steely-eyed idealistic soldier.

The film focuses on a group of six Résistance leaders who are equally as determined to make the sacrifices needed to free France. But with the Nazi’s hot on their tail, this tests the resolve of each of members of the group.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s confidence with the story and the medium is apparent. Made in 1969, it’s one of Melville’s later films and a labour of love. Melville was known for his American-style French crime films – “Le Samourai”, “Le Circle Rouge”, and “Bob Le Flambeur”. Those films were genre-based and always had a cinematic panache to them. Melville takes “Army of Shadows” very seriously. The mood and tone is cold and isolated. There’s a blanket of despair consistent throughout, visualized by the desolate streets, the clean compositions, grey and colourless visual design and the cold and detached performances of the actors.

But when the film shifts briefly to London we immediately feel a different mood. The group makes a daring trip via submarine to London to get support from the British government. Philippe gazes around at the lively activity of the city. He walks into a bar and looks forlornly on the playful interaction of males and females. He’s reminded of the life he used to have as a pre-war citizen. The hustle and bustle of the city is palpable and contrasts the quiet subdued air of occupied France.

Eventually the group returns to France when one of their leaders is captured by the Nazis. Here on in a series of events tests the soldiers’ allegiance to their cause. No one is immune the pressure of torture and persecution. Everyone has their weak spot – including Mathilde.

The Criterion transfer of the film is magnificent. That combined with the classical cinematography and expert direction makes "Army of Shadows" one of the great films of the era. The themes of honour, guilt, and betrayal hold true to today as well. The film is closest in comparison to Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” (1971), both are great films about characters whose loyalties to their friends and countrymen are tested amid tumultuous times of war and subjugation.

Buy it here: Army of Shadows - Criterion Collection


Saturday, 25 August 2007

THE 11TH HOUR


The 11th Hour (2007) dir. Nadia Connors, Leila Conners Peterson

A Documentary presented by Leonardo Di Caprio

**

“The 11th Hour” is a high profile documentary which arrives with much hype and publicity, mainly due to the vigorous efforts of its producer and presenter Leonardo Di Caprio – a fervent celebrity environmentalist. I agree 100% with the information and 100% with the arguments in the film. It’s hard to fault a film for so passionately trying to convince people to change their collective ways and save the environment. But since the medium is film and art, I must review it as such. As a persuasive argument for environmentalism it succeeds. As a ‘film’ it fails.

“The 11th Hour” gathers dozens of the finest scientists, activists, and politicians in traditional talking head interview style to summarize the state of the world. Leonardo Di Caprio opens the film like David Attenborough or James Burke in a PBS documentary, walking and talking telling us what we’re about to see and be told. Perhaps it’s a warning for those who already know we’re teetering on the edge of our own destruction to leave the theatre and watch something more entertaining, like “The Simpsons” or “Hairspray. What follows is an assault of doom and gloom information from a line-up of scientists telling us how everything we do in life is wasteful, redundant and harmful. Everyone from Stephen Hawking to Mikael Gorbachev to Aboriginal chiefs – everyone is given their shot at us.

I invariably must compare the film to “An Inconvenient Truth” which has the same agenda, but while Al Gore’s film is succinct and to the point, “The 11th Hour” is sloppy and meandering. The film not only discusses our environmental irresponsibilities but scolds us for eating junk food, watching celebrity gossip television, playing video games etc etc. It’s like being caught in a pseudo-intellectual rant from a stoner/drunkard at a party. Just rambling and rambling to the point of not having a point. There’s a reason why Al Gore is a politician, he knows how to speak and knows how to present an argument. “An Inconvenient Truth” was concise and streamlined – “The 11th Hour” is not.

I was surprised how under-visualized the film was. Other than the interviews virtually the entire film is a series of montages made up of old archival stock footage we’ve seen time and time again. I can only guess how much was original footage but I would wager about 10% or less. Midway through the film the editing of the stock footage reminded me of Oliver Stone’s “JFK” – and low and behold the editor of the film was Pietro Scalia – the multi Oscar-winning editor of “JFK”. He does his best with what he has, but the film badly needed some purposely shot film to provide us some relief from the barrage of stock images. We are browbeaten for nearly 2 hours by shocking image after shocking image – decaying cows in fields, seal clubbing, Katrina flooding footage, glacier melting, toxic chemical dumping and on and on. It just doesn’t stop. Cudos though to the filmmakers for choosing some magnificently grand music tracks from the likes of Sigur Ros, Mogwai and Brian Eno.

The films of Michael Moore, which are unabashedly activist, succeed because entertainment is put above information. “An Inconvenient Truth” was heavy on information and persuasive arguments but the heart of the film is the story of Al Gore, which is an emotional and entertaining journey. “The 11th Hour” is all information, no heart, no emotion.

As I said I can’t argue against the message, but for the medium of choice (cinema), the argument needs to be made by using art to inform. Interestingly enough this film has essentially been made before – 20 years ago – as “Koyaanisqasti.” Except “Koyaanisqatsi” didn’t have a single interview or line of voiceover - only music and images. It’s a perfect example of presenting a powerful argument as art and entertainment, rather then preaching. So, make your next car a hybrid, convert your household lights to energy saver bulbs, and recycle your plastic bottles. And if you want to see how our shallow and superfluous lifestyle needs are collectively contributing to the downfall of the planet, watch “Koyaanisqatsi” – you will definitely be entertained and informed.

Click here for a review and clip of “Koyaanisqatsi”

Here’s the trailer for “The 11th Hour”

Friday, 24 August 2007

THE MATADOR


The Matador (2005) dir. Richard Shepard
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear

**1/2

“The Matador” is an Elmore Leonard wannabe film about a depressed hitman whose chance meeting with a lowly salesman in a hotel turns his career around to make a better and more respectable life for himself. The writer/director creates some interesting characters but doesn’t take them to the places they need to go make the film dramatic or suspenseful. The film works well as a poignant black comedy, but I wish it was more blacker than comedic.

Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is a suave hitman. He’s also a burned out drunk and a despicable womanizer. While casing his next hit, he meets a suburban middle class salesman, Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) in a Mexico City hotel bar. They strike up an unusual friendship, which takes them to a bullfight. There Julian reveals to Danny the truth about his job. Danny doesn’t believe him, and Julian proceeds to demonstrate by stalking and attempting to do a random hit on a bystander. He doesn’t go through with it, but Danny is convinced he’s the real deal.

With 20 years behind him, Julian’s on his last days as a hitman. Danny's description of his blissful domestic life sticks with Julian. Suddenly he has a conscience, which makes his job difficult. But Danny’s life isn’t as blissful as it looks. Their unlikely friendship continues beyond Mexico City when Julian shows up unannounced at his Denver home in the middle of night. He’s come to ask Julian for a favour of extreme consequence that will affect both their lives forever.

The film is a black comedy with all the violence left off screen or dramatized with humour. The film concentrates on character instead of situation. As a result much of drama of the danger is lost. We never get to see Danny's reactions to these life-changing events. The flip side of this is the way director Richard Shepard hides this information from us. It’s a bit of forced narrative manipulation (think of the unnecessary narrative shifting “21 Grams”), but it does provide some surprising reveals, especially at the end.

I can’t help but think of how the film could have been different (and better) if we saw the violent moments on screen. Pierce Brosnan was one of the producers. He’s a good looking dude, but has never stretched himself as an actor. Brosnan could have taken the film in a darker direction and really made a name for himself outside of James Bond. Instead he chose to stay with light and whimsical. This is a reason why no one younger than 60 ever went to a film because Pierce Brosnan was in it.

The film looks terrific. Shepard and DOP David Tattersall bathe the Mexico scenes in beautiful colours and bright sunlight. Each scene is staged and directed well. Shepard chooses his music well also. His final music choice, which takes us into the credits is perfect for the tone of the film.

The title of the film refers to the bullfighting scene which is the key scene in solidifying Julian and Danny’s friendship. To me, it’s a metaphor for the cathartic enjoyment of violence and the bloodlust we all have deep within ourselves. In this scene Danny ignites Julian’s benevolent side, but Julian also ignites Danny’s malevolent side. The film never shows the bull being killed, nor do we see Julian’s victims be killed. It’s a consistent cinematic choice, but is it the right one? It’s for you to decide. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Matador (Widescreen Edition)


Thursday, 23 August 2007

3:10 TO YUMA (Original)


3:10 to Yuma (1957) dir. Delmar Daves
Starring: Glenn Ford, Van Heflin

***

With the release of the well-casted “3:10 to Yuma” with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, it’s timely to review the original film from 1957. Elmore Leonard has been around for a long time, and before he perfected his own brand of crime stories, he wrote dozens of classic Westerns, including “3:10 to Yuma”. The film was highly popular at the time and attracted audiences with the against-type casting of Glenn Ford as the bad guy. Fifty years later, the film survives remarkably well. It looks great and provides ample entertainment with all the essential elements of the genre.

The film opens with Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) robbing a stagecoach. Wade is the charismatic leader of the black clad group of thieves. He’s not sadistic though, and is forced to kill one of the drivers in self defense. The group of soon-to-be-wanted men ride into town where they plan their escape across the border. Wade splits up with his men so as not to attract attention to themselves as suspects. But in doing so he opens himself up for capture.

Enter Dan Evans (Van Heflin), a decent, hardworking rancher with a wife and two children. Dan is caught in the middle of the activities when he strolls into the same town looking for a loan to help him through the lengthy drought that’s plagued the land. With no means to secure the loan, he accepts an offer of $200 to help transport Wade to prison. Knowing Wade’s gang will be out to rescue him Evans and the authorities plot a rouse to get Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison (hence the title) under the noses of the gang. Evans has to keep a steady watch on the manipulative and dangerous offender in order collect the money which will save his family from financial ruin. But with the clock ticking down to 3:10pm Wade’s gang eventually catches onto their plan. Evans is faced with two options – let go Wade go and flee to safety or go through with the plan and send Wade to prison at the risk of his own death.

The film’s main strength is its brilliant direction and cinematography. The 1950’s was the golden age of black & white cinematography. Director Delmar Daves and DOP Charles Lawton Jr. craft one of the most beautifully shot films of the era. It flawless composed, lit and choreographed creating an absolute perfect example of classical filmmaking. The film stands up to any of today’s films. It’s very modern. Gone are the dated rear projection process shots of the 40’s. Everything is on location and real. The camera movements and creative composition make every shot a visual treat. The exteriors look like Ansel Adams photographs and rivals anything John Ford has ever done.

Story wise, Elmore Leonard and screenwriter Halstead Welles create a well-told narrative. The opening act is suspenseful. We’re not quite sure what is going on, nor can we predict the course of the action in the film. When the gang leaves Wade alone in the bar, there’s a lengthy courtship scene between Wade and the barmaid. It’s short, but they actually fall in love and the scene ends with a passionate kiss. This isn’t the typical Western bad guy. Jack Palance would never get romantic with a dame. But this is Glenn Ford. He was known as the everyman hero in his films, and Wade was an against-type character. Ford makes Wade an honest antagonist with personal ethics. He is highly effective as such. But where the film fails, is in the second act when Evans and Wade are companions at the station waiting for the 3:10 train. By playing Wade as likeable and honest, there is no suspense or tension between the two. Even with Evans' shotgun pointed at Wade we should continually feel the threat from Wade. But we never get that. Ford is too much of a hero to ever threaten Van Heflin. Watch Henry Fonda’s performance in Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” for the best example of sinister anti-casting. Therefore, with much of the tension zapped from the story the film drags until the finale.

The finale redeems the film in the end, with an expertly choreographed ambush on the town. Evans is forced to fight off the gangsters and get Wade into the train. The only false moment happens at the very very end when it finally rains on the land. The water/rain effects are quite amateurish considering the technical polish on everything else in the film.

Overall, “3:10 to Yuma” is a great Western. Though without the lasting impact of John Ford or George Stevens film, it ranks somewhere around the “High Noon”, “Bad Day at Black Rock” level of Westerns. Check it out. Enjoy.

Buy it here: 3:10 to Yuma (Special Edition)


Wednesday, 22 August 2007

KISS ME DEADLY


Kiss Me Deadly (1955) dir. Robert Aldrich
Starring: Ralph Meeker

**1/2

Film noir is well established genre - dark crime tales usually involving ordinary guys caught in tangled webs of intrigue or crime, visualized with dark shadowy cinematography. Often low budget, with tier B actors, the sexuality and violence became the attraction rather than star power. “Kiss Me Deadly” is considered one of the greats. It’s familiar territory as described above, dramatizing another hard boiled crime story from writer Mikey Spillane. The film is also famous for influencing Quentin Tarantino’s glowing briefcase in “Pulp Fiction”, Alex Cox’s glowing trunk in “Repo Man” and Steven Spielberg’s mysterious Ark of the Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It certainly has the noir mood and tone, but unfortunately, other than for its historical significance, it doesn’t age well.

Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer, a L.A. private eye who one night picks up a mysterious hitchhiker named Christina (a young Cloris Leachman). He gets into an accident by the forced hand of an unknown assailant. When he wakes he finds the Christina has died. With the help of his local P.I. colleagues Hammer embarks on a dangerous investigation into the accident and discovers a dark and dangerous magical maguffin that’s the root of all this criminal activity.

For two thirds the film moves with the pace and excitement of a “Law & Order” episode. Hammer interviews several friends and colleagues trying to track down the source of Christina’s disappearance. Along the journey Hammer evades the usual shadowy but unimpressive henchmen. Hammer is no wimp though, he fights off a knife-wielding hitman at night and violently throws him down a long flight of stairs; he disarms a bomb planted in his car with ease; and he fights off a half a dozen group of thugs at the home of local heavy Sugar Smallhouse.

The finale is a classic and the reason to watch the film. The legendary ‘whatsit’ box, which everyone is after, is never really explained though it has been speculated to be one of several metaphors (a caution against atomic testing is the most popular). It’s interesting to see its influences on two important films from two different generations – “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Pulp Fiction.”

Though the ending packs a wallop, a great noir has to tease us with details, red herrings or false leads. Since the audience is with the point of view of the investigator, we must also constantly feel the threat of Hammer moving forward to discover the mystery. For example, in “DOA” Edmund O’Brien’s character is poisoned and must find his killer in 48 hours in order to live, or in “The Postman Rings Twice”, Frank and Cora conspire to murder Cora’s husband because it’s the only way she can escape her drab and boring life. Two acts of investigation in “Kiss Me Deadly” provide little drama or intrigue. Nothing is learned about Christina or cause of her trouble until the very end in a rushed though fantastic finale.

Ralph Meeker is a tough gumshoe but he’s missing the wit and charisma of a Humphrey Bogart, or the confidence of a Fred MacMurray. As a character actor (ie. “Paths of Glory”) he’s effective but doesn’t have the chops to fully carry a film (though I have to give him credit for the best-ever cinematic 'bitch-slapping'). Missing also is a credible antagonist. Where’s the Sidney Greenstreet or Peter Lorre or Orson Welles or Edward G. Robinson? A young and skinny Jack Elam makes an appearance, but his commanding presence just isn’t there yet.

Rudimentary plotting, which moves from scene to scene without impassioned danger or action, stalls the film. The ending certainly takes the film to another level, but the jump is too large, too quick and too much for me to recommend it over other classics of the genre. Watch “Double Indemnity”, “Touch of Evil”, “Mildred Pierce”, “The Big Sleep” or “The Maltese Falcon” first.

Buy it here: Kiss Me Deadly


Tuesday, 21 August 2007

SUPERBAD


Superbad (2007) dir. Greg Mattola
Starring: Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Seth Rogan, Bill Hader

***1/2

“Superbad” is one of the most entertaining films of the year. I was worried the best parts were in the trailer, which I saw at least a dozen times over the past 4 months of hype. But the film is R-rated enough to show us only the PG parts and save us the raunchy and funnier bits for the theatre. “Superbad” isn’t original, in fact, it’s another of the ‘one-night-in-the-life-of-high-schoolers-trying-to-get-laid’ genre. It treads on “American Pie” material, but without the sappy fromage which plagued that franchise. “Superbad” is indeed bonafide badass.

Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are prototypical teenagers, and even though they’re about to graduate, they’re still negotiating their way through the social challenges of high schooldom. Their plans are Machiavellian. They know they’re going to get laid in University, therefore they need girlfriends for the summer so they can actually be good at it by that time. This opportunity presents itself in the form of a big party held by Jules - a Tier 1 social strata babe. Their plan is to use the new fake ID of their nerdy friend Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to buy liquor for the party. This would ingratiate them with the cool kids and hopefully get them girlfriends for the summer.

Things don’t as planned when Fogell comes back with a Hawaiian driver’s license named “McLovin”. After much arguing Fogell grows a pair, buys the booze, and is just about the leave when a perp knocks him out while robbing the store. He wakes up in the care of the police, who then take him on a wild debaucherous diversion. Meanwhile, Seth and Evan’s plan B has them crashing another house party and stealing their booze. The story moves at a quick pace as the night takes the trio of losers from one outrageous situation to another.

The film has a lot going for it - strong and genuinely funny comedic writing to start. The situations aren’t necessarily original, in fact, it’s a combination of “American Graffiti”, “Animal House”, “Porky’s” “Dazed and Confused” and “American Pie”, but writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg inject a healthy dose of “I’ve been there” reality.

Casting is top notch. Hill and Cera are completely opposite in personality but compliment each other like a classic comedic duo – think of the personality dynamic of Abbot and Costello or the Smothers Brothers or Martin and Lewis. Seth does most of the talking, shouting and complaining, Evan is content to go with the flow. The film really gets moving when Fogell meets the childishly irresponsible cop duo, Slater and Michaels (played Seth Rogan and Bill Hader, who, I’m convinced are minor comic geniuses). They take idiocy to another level.

The discovery is Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who is transformed from the wirey Fogell into the party legend McLovin’. His best scene is when he’s roped into his inspiring booty shaking dance with a party hottie. The best moment for Seth is the confession of his childhood habit for drawing highly detailed sketches of cocks. This has added humour for me because of a good friend of mine who had a penchant to tagging public places with similar sketches.

For several reasons, “Superbad” trumps all other similar films of its genre– specifically “American Pie”, which this will ultimately be compared to. The “American Pie” series was always plagued with sappy cheeseball character arcs that undermined all of the film’s raunchiness. “Superbad” does have characters that change and grow but they remain badass losers to the very end. As well, “Superbad” is cast with likeable and lovable leads. “American Pie” was cast with good looking but ultimate cardboard actors with no personality. And thirdly, I doubt we will ever see “Superbad 4 – Band Camp”.

“Superbad” is one of those movies that condenses everything that is fun about high school and distills out all the crap. It works best because, like “Knocked Up”, the filmmakers keep it real and honest and relatable. Especially for the guys, I think we all, in some form or another, were Seth, Evan or McLovin’. Enjoy.


Monday, 20 August 2007

THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON


The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006) dir. David Leaf & John Scheinfeld

Documentary

**1/2

“The U.S. vs. John Lennon” tells the story of John Lennon’s controversial activism for peace during the tumultuous late 60’s and early 70’s. Though the subject is the former Beatle, the film uses John Lennon as the entry point to tell the larger story of anti-war activism during the Vietnam War. Though the film is polished and comprehensive it doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know about the anti-war movement or the Lennon the man.

As he mentions in a press scrum outside one of his Immigration hearings, “he had a face that people didn’t like”. In fact, John Lennon has stirred up controversy his entire life. In Lennon’s own words we hear him talk about his working class background in Liverpool which begat his hatred of oppression and contempt for authority. When he was a Beatle he was much beloved for his music, but his infamous statement about being bigger than Jesus revealed his anti-establishment personality for which he would later become more famous.

The film tracks John’s rise from Beatle to political activist and his lengthy battle against deportation by the Department of Immigration. From the government’s point of view, it makes sense, why should John Lennon, who isn’t American and only recently moved to America, be allowed to criticize a government that’s not his. Lennon used the media and his pop star celebrity to his advantage? He befriended them and allowed them into his home, which mutually benefited both parties.

The film gets all the right people to appear on camera, Yoko is there, so are activists Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Bobby Seale, journalists, Carl Bernstein and Walter Chronkite and Nixon-era politicians G. Gordon Liddy, John Dean and George McGovern. These are all great people which give the film its credibility, but no Paul McCartney? no Ringo Starr? Unfortunately the film becomes just a factual rundown of 1966-1980. There’s no deep analysis or discoveries into Lennon the man, just a surface summary which could have been provided by an A&E Biography. The film’s narrative, other than building up to his assassination in 1980, climaxes with Lennon getting his green card. It’s not very exciting and in fact, is an anti-climax.

The filmmakers use the glossiest and slickest visualization techniques available today. HD cameras shoot the interviewees against creative backgrounds and 3-D still photography enhancement (a la “The Kid Stays in the Picture”) allow standard photographs to dynamically pop out of the screen. It’s beautiful to look at, but in the end it’s style over substance.

For such an important man who left a valued creative and political legacy, the film is too shallow to challenge our minds. It's a ‘puff-piece’. I’m waiting for the filmmaker who can get Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, or Julian Lennon to talk about the side of John Lennon we’ve never seen. But at the very least there some great music to enjoy.

Buy it here: The U.S. vs. John Lennon


Sunday, 19 August 2007

THE PROPOSITION


The Proposition (2005) dir. John Hillcoat
Starring: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Emily Watson

***1/2

“The Proposition” is an Aussie Western written by new wave punk rocker Nick Cave. It’s a beautifully crafted film telling a familiar western tale from the Australian point of view of their sordid history and association with British imperialism. It’s a story of a British officer who puts his job before his family in the idealistic hope of civilizing the lawless Australian outback. The story is simple, but it’s theme of betrayal and revenge is classical giving the film a resonating mythical quality.

The opening reminds me of “Days of Heaven” – still photographs of the era with a quiet melancholy soundtrack over the main credits. It sets the time, place and mood of the film perfectly. The inciting incident happens before the film starts. A well-respected family is brutally murdered by a particularly brutal gang led by the sadistic maniac Arthur Burns (Danny Huston). After a Peckinpah-worthy shootout Lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) captures Burns’ two brothers Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey (Richard Wilson). Stanley makes a proposition to Charlie – to find and kill his older brother Arthur in the nine days before Christmas, or he will kill his younger brother Mikey. Charlie accepts the proposition and sets out to find his long lost brother.

Though Guy Pearce’s character is structured as the main protagonist, the complexities of the film lay with Captain Stanley. His dedication to the law and the land compromises his family as husband to his beautiful and refined wife, Martha (Emma Watson). But Stanley has convictions about his role in Australia. His commitment to his job is fed by his desire to provide a peaceful home for Martha - thus his need to “civilize” the land. We discover the ramifications of his ‘proposition’ when his superior Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) arrives in town. When he finds Mikey Burns in custody, he orders a 40 lash flogging as punishment for the Hopkins massacre. With his word broken Stanley knows Arthur and Charlie will soon go after he and Martha – therefore his proposition effectively becomes his own death sentence.

Cave and Hillcoat effectively build up the Arthur Burns character to be a Kaiser Sose/Col Kurtz-type larger-than-life antagonist. We don’t meet him until the second act, but the stories told about him and the legends portray him as a spirit or a legend. The aborigines describe him as part man, part dog, with long ears and a tale. When we finally meet him, he doesn’t disappoint. He’s aloof but sadistic. He speaks with calm eloquence, but his actions are maniacal and vicious. Likely inspired by Brando’s Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”, Danny Huston plays him to perfection.

Nick Cave’s ethereal buzzing music soundscapes add to the Australianness of the film. There’s strong sense of aborigine spirituality throughout the film that give it A “Walkabout” or “Picnic at Hanging Rock”-type feel.

The film builds and builds to a violent cathartic ending. The Charlie and Arthur ride off to rescue brother Mikey and avenge his beating, meanwhile Captain Stanley and his wife try to have a peaceful Christmas - a soon-to-be tragically ironic occasion.

Have some patience with the film and pay attention to the quiet dialogue, which is sometimes difficult to understand. It’s all fuel for this violent but beautiful layered genre gem. Enjoy

Buy it here: The Proposition


Saturday, 18 August 2007

THE DARK BACKWARD


The Dark Backward (1991) dir. Adam Rifkin
Starring: Judd Nelson, Bill Paxton, Wayne Newton

*

I had never heard of “The Dark Backward” before, but apparently it’s a ‘cult film’. Well, it’s “finally” arrived on DVD Special Edition. After watching it for the first time I realize why it’s been unavailable all these years, it’s a terrible film hiding underneath so-called ‘cult status’. It’s a pseudo-fantasy freak-show story about a lowly garbage man who becomes a stand up comic, fails, then succeeds when he discovers a third arm growing out of his back. Nope, there are no typos in that last sentence.

Judd Nelson plays Marty Malt a nerdy garbage man, who dreams of something bigger than his mundane life. His best buddy (Bill Paxton) is an accordion-playing celebrity wannabe named Gus. He’s the entrepreneur of the duo, who’s always cooking up schemes to get rich and famous. For no apparent reason, Gus encourages Marty to try stand-up comedy. Marty’s act is beyond terrible, but for no apparent reason Gus keeps trying to sell him as entertainment.

For no apparent reason Marty starts growing an arm from his back. When the arm is fully grown Gus exploits it and turns Marty’s comedy act into a freak show. He interests a famous talent agent, Jackie Chrome (Wayne Newton), and together they make the impossible possible - Marty Malt is a successful stand up comic. Then, for no apparent reason, overnight, his third arm disappears, Marty goes back to his run of the mill mundane life. The film follows a traditional path of rise to fame, then collapse. Nothing makes sense and there’s absolutely no wit or humour in the script.

From the outset Marty Malt is a beaten down character. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him because he’s a garbage man, which is the most childish device in the book. And he’s given a nerdy hairstyle, black rimmed glasses and a pocket protector to hit the nail on the head. A nerd throwing away trash for a living - that just doesn’t make sense. It’s convenient storytelling where the humour is derived from the concept and idea instead of story, character and situation.

Bill Paxton is at his most annoying. He’s Private Hudson from “Aliens” taken to the extreme. His whining and shouting and constant chattering was like daggers in my ears. For no apparent reason his character, Gus, lives and gravitates to the most vile, disgusting “Fear Factor” trials you could imagine. Here’s a role call of a few of these disgusting scenes and how they probably read in the script:

EXT. Garbage Dump – Day
Gus sees half-eaten ham sandwich in a bag of rotting garbage. He eats the sandwich.


INT. Gus’ apartment – Night
While partying with a group of grossly obese strippers, Gus asks Obsese Stripper #1 for a bucket of faeces, which he then proceeds to smear over his nipples and massages into his skin.


EXT. Garbage Dump – Day
Gus happens upon the decaying body of a dead woman. Gus licks the woman’s breasts for pleasure.


Rifkin apparently wrote the film when he was 19. It shows. My own 1994 action film starring my high school friends using toy guns as props, shot on Hi-8 video and edited with two VCRs is a better film. I can lend you a copy if you want.

Enough said.

Buy it here: The Dark Backward (Special Edition)


Friday, 17 August 2007

TAXI DRIVER


Taxi Driver (1976) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Albert Brooks, Cybil Shepherd, Jodie Foster

****

"I got some bad ideas in my head."

What is there to be said about “Taxi Driver” that hasn’t been said already? Not much. So pretend you’ve never heard of the film before. “Taxi Driver” is one of a half dozen pure masterpieces in Scorsese’s collection. It’s unlike any other film, it doesn’t fit into a genre, it’s difficult to summarize, and moves with an awkward pace. It’s part social commentary, part character study, part violent thriller, part comedy, partly personal filmmaking, part noir and on, and on, and on.

The film opens with shots of New York from various points of view from a taxi cab. Its a hallucinagenic sequence intercut with a closeup of a pair of wandering eyes. The taxi is a character, the street is a character, and so is it’s driver – Travis Bickle, one of the most unique and analyzed characters in film. As Bickle describes to his employer in his job interview, he can’t sleep nights. He’s a glutton for punishment though and will work ‘any time, anywhere’. He’s also a Vietnam vet – but more on that later. Bickle gets the job and drives the streets of New York encountering all sorts of people – high class, low class, politicians, prostitutes, pimps, maniacs etc.

He’s a lonely person with no direction, just looking to fit in with society. Finding a girlfriend or some sort of companion seems the right thing to do. His attempt to ask out the concession stand girl in a porno theatre fails. Then he tries to court one of the most beautiful people on the planet – Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), a political campaign representative for a Presidential candidate. Needless to say, she’s way out of his league, but he actually has enough charm to get a date with her. He dresses the part, says all the right words, but makes one ghastly mistake. He takes her to a porno theatre. Oh Travis, no! As the audience we’re rooting for Bickle to succeed, but the moment the camera reveals the X-rated marquee, our hearts collectively sink. It’s only the second act, but it’s downhill all the way from here.

Bickle tries to compensate by taking in a twelve-and-a-half-year-old street prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster). They develop a unique friendship, but Bickle is still hurting from Betsy’s rejection of him. He abandons all hope of traditional social interaction and plots a violent course of action which will make him a martyr for society.

As mentioned, the film is many things. It shows the chaotic world through Bickle’s eyes. Like Mark Lewis, in my previous entry, “Peeping Tom” , Bickle is a voyeur and Scorsese is careful to show Bickle’s reactions to the most mundane and irrelevant people, places and things. Watch the scene in the coffee shop when he asks the Wizard (Peter Boyle) for advice. Bickle fixates on the foaming tablet in his water, Charlie T as he exits the store, and the limping street hustler walking past him on the street. It’s as if he’s a computer, or an alien, taking in information and calculating an answer.

Bickle is a stunted human being, and likely mentally ill. We don’t know if it was Vietnam that caused his malfunction, but the fact that it’s hinted at only at the beginning, but never referenced again, is an interesting decision for writer Paul Schrader. Since it was made in 1975 (and released in 76) Vietnam films had yet to be made, and the war had only finished a year before. I suspect Schrader and Scorsese didn’t want to provide a clear answer to Bickle’s actions because it would become an entirely different film.

By staying ambiguous and vague, the film remains personal for both filmmakers. Schrader put his heart and soul and some of his own experiences as a lonely writer into the screenplay, and Scorsese shows the ‘warts and all’ of his beloved city like only he can. Without Vietnam, “Taxi Driver” remains a personal view of New York.

There’s a new 2-Disc Special Edition of “Taxi Driver” out on DVD this week. At the very least it improves the cover art, which now is artistic enough to represent the great film that it is. But Sony gets everything right on this one – the packaging, presentation, extras et al. There’s two audio commentaries and a host of other essays, interviews and interactive features. Don’t be fooled by the submenu, “Featurettes” where the documentaries and interviews are placed, these aren’t lame EPKs, they’re informative and individually-worthy mini-films. It’s interesting listening to DOP Michael Chapman and Scorsese discuss their influences on “Taxi Driver”. I never thought of Godard when watching the film, but in hindsight I completely agree with Chapman when he says, “there’s Godard all over this film.”

My favourite moment in “Taxi Driver” is a quintessential Scorsese scene. After shooting the corner store thief, the owner says he’ll take care of it. He grabs Bickle’s gun, then proceeds to beat the man with an iron bar even though he’s 100% dead. Then the film cuts to a brilliantly ironic song, “Late For the Sky” by Jackson Browne. Bickle is sitting with a gun in hand watching American Bandstand. It’s another voyeur moment. Bickle watching on the TV the life he so desperately wants to have, and which he will soon abandon and reject. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Taxi Driver (Two-Disc Collector's Edition)


Wednesday, 15 August 2007

YOJIMBO


Yojimbo (1961) dir. Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune

***

“Yojimbo” is a landmark film for Akira Kurosawa. He was already on the map with “Rashomon” (1951) and a master filmmaker by “Seven Samurai” (1954), but he became a living legend with “Yojimbo”. The film famously influenced Sergio Leone to create the Spaghetti Western “Dollars Trilogy” and George Lucas to create “Star Wars”. “Yojimbo” is a supreme example of the adaptability of Kurosawa’s storytelling, but unfortunately beyond historical significance it doesn’t quite stand up to Kurosawa’s other more revered works – “Ikiru”, or “High and Low” or “Seven Samurai”.

Toshiro Mifune plays Kuwabatake Sanjuro, a feudal Japanese Ronin who is first seen wandering rural Japan. He has nowhere to go and no timeline, and so he puts his fate to chance by throwing a stick on the ground to determine his direction. The stick directs him to the small township, similar to those one-horse towns from the American Western. Sanjuro is an opportunist and immediately he sees an opportunity to make some money and exploit the gang war that plagues the innocent bystanders. Sanjuro offers himself to the highest bidder and schemes from both sides of the conflict to incite the gangs to destroy themselves thereby freeing the citizens their tyrannous rule.

Kurosawa’s frames are brilliant. Widescreen black and white always looks good and “Yojimbo” is one of his best looking films. Kurosawa mixes long lens portraits, which influenced George Lucas and the classic wideangle establishing shots of the town, which influenced Leone.

Plot wise, the film doesn’t hold as well today as it did in 1961. The second act drags. Sanjuro’s manipulation of the gangs is never clearly thought out and the moment he is beaten up, there’s a long stretch where the film almost comes to a complete halt. Interestingly, “Fistful of Dollars” suffers from the same flaws as well.

It’s fun to watch the opening fight scene in “Yojimbo” to see where it influenced both George Lucas and Sergio Leone in separate ways. Leone takes Kurosawa’s humour, specifically mimicking Mifune’s last line to the coffin maker – “Two coffins... No, maybe three”. Lucas borrows the fighting style of the Samurai. Compare it the scene in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”, when Liam Neeson and Ewan Macgregor rescue the Natalie Portman from the droids in the first act. Watch how Neeson kills the droids with his lightsaber with speed and sheaths his saber exactly like Sanjuro.

The Western archetype is the prevailing theme – a wandering fighter, a loner who balances personal ethics with crafty selfishness. Wind and dust are important to the look and feel of the film. It fills the frame with chaotic movement while the characters move with slow deliberate steps. Like those who were influenced by him, Kurosawa’s work is an amalgam of several other sources - the great American Western filmmakers, John Ford, Howard Hawks, George Stevens, Japanese myths and classic Shakespeare.

The 1962 film “Sanjuro” is a sequel featuring the same character on a different adventure. Though it has some flaws as well, it features a fantastically bloody ending which “Yojimbo” lacks. But all quibbles aside there’s nothing to take away from Kurosawa. He is and always will be one of the top five filmmakers of all time. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Yojimbo - Criterion Collection

This is the final confrontation – spoilers obviously:

PEEPING TOM


Peeping Tom (1960) dir. Michael Powell
Starring: Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey

****

“Peeping Tom” is a British cinema classic from the 60’s - a psychological horror film ironically made by one of Britain’s more mainstream filmmakers - Michael Powell. It’s a naughty but brilliant film about many things - sex, voyeurism, murder, psycho-analytical torture, pornography and the movies itself. Though not as well-known as Hitchcock’s “Psycho” from the same year, the film had a significant an impression on filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter and Brian De Palma, and maybe even Hitchcock himself.

The film opens in the streets of London at night with a man picking up a prostitute. In the hotel we watch the woman undress from the point of view of an 8mm camera. Then a look of intense fear comes upon her face. As the camera moves closer she screams. She is dead. The murderer is Mark Lewis, a shy introverted film technician. By day, he pulls focus for feature films at a London film studio, in his spare time he likes to shoot the world with his 8mm camera. Lewis is addicted to his camera and has a lifelong obsession with capturing the emotion of fear on women’s faces.

One day Mark meets one of his neighbours Helen Stephens, who is fascinated by his obsessive shyness. A cautious courtship takes place between them in Mark’s apartment and eventually the two fall in love. But Mark’s deep psychological obsessions aren’t healed and he still feels the need to kill with his camera. Mark reveals to Helen a dysfunctional childhood which saw his child psychologist father manipulate and study his son with a series of filmed emotional experiments. Mark’s love for Helen fights against his brainwashed compulsion to complete his lifelong documentary of death.

“Peeping Tom” is a fascinating film. The opening moments are eerily similar to John Carpenter’s famous point-of-view opening murder in “Halloween”. Admitedly, in the first few scenes, I had trouble getting past the datedness of the film. It’s very 60’s both in look, tone and acting style. But Carl Boehm’s performance draws you in so cleverly. He’s stands up to the best-ever psychopaths – Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates or Peter Lorre’s Hans Beckett. The commonality of these characters is the sympathy and understanding the actors bring to their characters. But Carl Boehme deepens Mark perhaps just a bit more. For example, Norman Bates is a murderer with a dual personality but sufficient and credible explanation is never given to us (other than the rushed denouement). Mark’s history with his father’s deepens him further than Bates ever was.

The film contains some terrific individual scenes. The death of the stand-in, Vivian, is a masterpiece of counterpoint and hypnotic pacing, as she dances for Mark around the vacated set with happy-go-lucky glee not knowing she’s being lit to die. The reveal of his weapon of choice would make Hitchcock jealous – a phallic leg of his camera tripod, with a knife on the end. Mrs. Stephens’ suspenseful confrontation with Mark in his screening room is also great because, despite her blindness, she’s able to protect her daughter by striking at Mark’s vulnerability.

Martin Scorsese’s love of the film is well known, but its influence in Brian De Palma should also be noted. Going back to his 1970 underground film, “Hi Mom!”, the voyeuristic themes are ones De Palma would return to time and again. “Blow Out” owes a lot to the psychology complexities of “Peeping Tom” and the exploration of these elements through the world of filmmaking. And the film’s Freudian themes were lifted and inserted directly into De Palma’s “Raising Cain”.

“Peeping Tom” was way ahead of it’s time. In fact, audiences couldn’t understand or relate to the film in 1960. Michael Powell, one of the Britain’s greatest filmmakers, was essentially ruined because of the negative reaction to the film. It’s now universally recognized as a great film by a great filmmaker. And he couldn’t have made a more impassioned work of art to be the exclamation point of his career. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Peeping Tom - Criterion Collection

It’s a dated trailer, and doesn’t do the film justice: