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

Sunday, 30 September 2007

EASTERN PROMISES


Eastern Promises (2007) dir. David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel

****

“Eastern Promises” is Cronenberg’s second consecutive success in what currently is his ‘mainstream years’. For good reason it made a stir at TIFF this year. It’s a tight story about the intriguing milieu of Eastern European gangsters in London. The unique collection of global talent – Canadian, British, Aussie, German, French result in familiar story executed with an unfamiliar tone. It’s a terrific film.

Naomi Watts plays Anna, a British midwife, who works in a London hospital. She’s recently separated from her boyfriend, miscarried a child and has moved back home with her mother. Fate lands on Anna when she performs an emergency delivery of an unknown 14-year-old pregnant Russian girl. The girl dies in labour, but the baby survives. The only form of identification on her is her tattered diary written in Russian. Anna is compelled to search out the identity of the girl and find the true family of the young infant.

This search leads her to the head of the Russian mob in London – Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). In her dealings with Semyon, she befriends one of his new mob soldiers, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who takes orders from Seymon’s firecracker son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). A subplot about a murdered Chechnyan runs the same course as Anna’s journey. The two collide resulting in an unlikely union between Nikolai and Anna.

“Eastern Promises” keeps a steady pace, slowly revealing to us a complex tale of family, culture, broken dreams, loyalty and sacrifice. The film is told from Watts’ point of view. Her relationship with her old world conservative Uncle speaks to all audiences who’s had to reconcile old familial traditions with new world liberalism. Uncle Stepan knows the dangerous world of the Russian mob from his youth in Communist Russia. But his conceited attempts to protect Anna only results in her further alienation.

The power of the film is in Viggo Mortensen’s quiet but commanding Oscar-worthy performance. Nikolai is an intelligent and internally calculating mob soldier. He starts out as a lowly driver for the hot headed Kirill, but his courage and loyalty sees him promoted - similar to ‘being made” in the Italian mob. The prison tattoos etched on Nikolai’s body tells his life story. Prison time is a rite of passage for the Russians and the ultimate test of true loyalty to this way of life. And Nikolai’s body reads like a Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”.

Production Designer Carol Spier and her design team create a dirty elegance to this shadowy world. Viggo’s hairstyle, sunglasses and costume tell us exactly who Nikolai is without the need for expository character-establishing banal dialogue. Viggo’s accent and mannerisms are pitch-perfect for the character. And a few key silent glances outside of his steely demeanour and some carefully chosen camera angles tell us there’s more to Nikolai than just an ordinary thug.

As expected “Eastern Promises” is gory and tough. The violence is sudden and shocking, and sometimes, in its extremity, morbidly funny. Nikolai and Kirill’s disposal of the Chechnyan body is a prime example. I grinned at Viggo’s line to another less-callous mobster as he’s about to prepare the body for disposal, “You may want to leave the room now.” Nikolai’s workmanlike technique is disgusting but also funny.

Writer Steven Knight, who also wrote another ethnic-influenced London mob film, “Dirty Pretty Things”, writes with a confident command of the screenwriting formula. But he and Cronenberg keep the tone and dramatic reveals in check to prevent it from over-emoting and overstating itself. Cronenberg and Wright foreshadow the events in the third act with the deft touch master filmmakers.

There are a lot of big-picture themes simmering throughout the film. Though not explicitly stated, the film is essentially about the broken dreams, or “promises” made to young Eastern European girls who come to the West in search of a better life, and the young girl who died giving birth symbolizes this. Anna, as a second generation immigrant, knows this which makes her journey the compelling through line that elevates the film over and above a salacious body count gangster film. Enjoy.



Saturday, 29 September 2007

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvestor, voice of Douglas Rain

****

At the Bloor Cinema in downtown Toronto on Wednesday I caught a screening of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in glorious 35mm (a 70mm print would have been nicer, but 35mm is just fine). In my brain I transported myself to 1968 (before I was born) and pretended I was watching the film for the first time at its premiere. I couldn’t quite pretend I didn’t know what was coming next, but the experience was a magical event.

When the lights went down the opening musical overture (customary in those days for epic films) played for a couple of minutes. It’s a wonderful soundscape of moody murmuring and chanting. Then the the opening “scene” set to Richard Strauss’ operatic Also Sprach Zarathustra. The audience is awe-struck with the most unbelievable special effects, then, ever put to the screen. Kubrick at his most audacious then, ‘flashes back’ to the dawn of man – a Neanderthal man chapter of the story which shows the moment of divine intervention when man progressed as intelligent creatures. Then one of the neanderthals throws one of his new bone-weapons into the air and match cuts to an orbiting satellite thousands of years later. Wow.

We then meet Heywood Floyd, an American summoned to speak at a meeting of scientists to discuss a brave new discovery on the moon. Floyd’s team investigates a mysterious black monolith recently been dug up in a crater on the moon. The monolith, which had been purposely buried there millions of years ago, emits a pulse toward the planet Jupiter. The third chapter occurs 18 months later as we follow two American astronauts, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), on the space journey to Jupiter. Bowman and Poole’s mission is compromised when the ship’s intelligence computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) runs amok and targets them for death. The rousing fourth chapter moves from the physical into another dimension of space and time. The monolith appears one last time before Bowman who experiences the ultimate existential epiphany.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” is no doubt a difficult film and not for all tastes. If it’s you’re first viewing, and you watch it with a clean slate without expectations, the film will likely astound you beyond belief. If you’re like me, who, at aged 8, had expectations of “Star Wars”, you’re in for disappointment. So it took me a second viewing in my teen years to fully grasp and appreciate the enormous depth and spirituality that Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke puts onto the screen.

Technically the film is still a mystery as to how some of the shots and effects were made. Even today, against the highest-priced CGI, Douglas Trumbull’s special effects are utterly believable and awe-inspiring. Kubrick knew this film would set the benchmark for special effects and rewrite the book about science fiction on screen. As such he took meticulous care to get the physics and science correct. Watch how long he extends each procedure in the film. In the waltzing spaceship dock sequence Kubrick painstaking shows us with each immaculately composed shot how a space ship docks in zero-gravity space. Watch the sequence where Frank Poole changes the faulty “AE-35” unit on the satellite dish– the attention to detail on every switch flipped, button pressed or body movement is slow and steady but hypnotic in it’s meticulousness (and reminiscent of the CRM 114 sequence in “Dr. Strangelove”). Kubrick makes art out of technique and procedure.

Another of the great technical achievements is the famed rotating set which allowed Kubrick to achieve the incredible tracking shots through the circular ship. Perhaps the most head-scratching effect, is the smallest - the floating pen with leaves Heywood Floyd’s hand and floats effortlessly in mid air and then is caught by a stewardess. I now know how it’s done, but only after reading it in a book many years later.

The structure of the film is as daring as the concept. Splitting the film into distinct and separate chapters means, in each act we’re introduced to a new set of characters. But they aren’t so much 'characters' as instruments to propel the film forward. Bowman and Poole are so unemotional in their work they are as robotic as HAL, their computer nemesis. But their battle of wills is the highlight of the film. And watch the brilliant foreshadowing throughout the chapter as to how their battle will end – a brief cut a random hurdling asteroid, a shot of the “exploding bolts” sign on the pod, or the Bowman’s red helmet left lying in the podbay.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” has become a cultural phenomenon because of the way it unifies science and religion. “2001” tells us that though space and time are infinite, it’s God’s presence, whether you believe in the dogmatic teachings of the higher power, that that has caused man, as a species, to break free of our physical bodies and achieve the unachievable. Enjoy.

The greatest film opening ever?


Friday, 28 September 2007

TEKKON KINKREET


Tekkon Kinkreet (2006) dir. Michael Arias
Voices by: Kazunari Ninomiya, Yu Aoi, Masahiro Motoki, Min Tanaka

**1/2

Guest review: Pasukaru

“Tekkon Kinkreet” is the directorial debut of Michael Arias, an American living in Japan, which actually makes it first major anime directed by a non-Japanese. His career is linked to major movers and shakers in the industry such as Hayao Miyazaki (“Princess Mononoke”) and the Wachowski Brothers (“Animatrix”). The film is adapted from the early 90’s manga “Black and White” by Taiyo Matsumoto. Despite the pedigree, the film falls short from being a genuine success.

“Tekkon Kinkreet” (a Japanese pun derived from iron-reinforced concrete) is set in - you guessed it - a fantastic urban landscape called Treasure City. It’s a hedonistic playground for everyone from ankle-bitters to old perverts. The narrative follows two street urchins: the hard-hitting ‘Black’ and snot-nosed ‘White’. The city is basically territory for their frivolous gang scraps and petty crimes. Black and White are the thorn in the side of the local yakuza, who can’t catch them as they fly and bounce off rooftops like a couple of maladjusted brats from Neverland. All is fine and dandy for our heroes until a snake-faced outsider, planning to build a sky-scraping kiddy funland, takes over the yakuza operations. Aided by three Terminator-like alien assassins the snakeman faces off against the troublesome street kids in a climatic fight in the gnarly theme park.

The film gets interesting when White is seriously injured and separated from Black. The two kids have a symbiotic relationship, and when torn apart sends Black off the deep-end and White crying annoyingly with no end at all. Black develops a minotaur-faced alter-ego that’s more evil than anything the baddies can throw at them, which Black must confront in the end before it consumes him. This all serves as an interesting allegory for neglected youth and the contradictions of adulthood, making this far more interesting than the rambling plot.

The film is visually impressive, and to some extent experimental. I loved the sprawling funkadelic city and the kinetic action. The aesthetics are a mixture of childlike drawings, sophisticated camera movements, and realistic settings. The blend makes for some pretty awesome stuff. The expressionistic dream sequences are especially noteworthy. Though not new to the genre, “Tekkon Kinkreet” presents a fine balance of mainstream and art-house anime, delivering an auteur-powered piece de resistance… or should I accredit this to the manga?

Are we talking masterpiece? Unfortunately, no. The main plot is unfocused, the kids get irritating at times, and as a whole the film lacks real emotional resonance. Missing was a genuine visceral reaction. The potential for the material to blow my mind made the film all the more disappointing. It’s too little of what you want, and too much of what you don’t want. There are definitely enough marvels to recommend “Tekkon Kinkreet” to anime fans, though your average neophyte might feel indifferent to the whole thing.

Buy it here: Tekkon Kinkreet


Thursday, 27 September 2007

KNOCKED UP


Knocked Up (2007) dir. Judd Apatow
Starring Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann

***1/2

On DVD this week is the thoroughly satisfying “Knocked Up”. The producer and director of the film, Judd Apatow, is sitting on top of the world right now with two back-to-back comedy successes as director (inc. “40 Year Old Virgin”), and as producer of the surprise comedy hit of the year, “Superbad”. “Knocked Up” is a wild broad comedy that succeeds because it's rooted in the realities we can all relate. It's guaranteed laughs for just about everybody.

As with “40 Year Old Virgin”, many of the same actors appear – Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Lesley Mann. Ben Stone is the prototypical party animal - male, underachieving, unemployed, pot-smoking, beer swilling and all around fuck-up. He’s lived the last 5 years off a $14,000 settlement from being run over by a bus. He and his equally inept quartet of male buddies are starting a website which tracks the nude appearances of hot female celebrities on film. One day Ben and his boys are partying at a local club when he meets Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), a ridiculously hot blonde. The flirtations lead them back to her place, which turns into sloppy drunk sex. Two months later, when Ben has all but forgotten about his one night stand, Alison calls him up to tell him she’s pregnant.

Ben’s singular-minded world in suddenly opened up to real life and he and Alison are forced into a relationship neither thought would go beyond the morning after. Ben does the right thing and supports Alison’s decision to keep the baby, and he actually becomes a solid partner in the pregnancy. Ben quickly falls in love with Alison and decides to make it a go at a real relationship.

Ben is ingratiated into Alison’s family. He bonds with Alison’s brother-in-law, Pete, (Paul Rudd), a father of two and at the seven-year-itch stage of his marriage. Pete and Debbie’s relationship is passionless and tempestuous. The bliss doesn’t last for Alison and Ben and they too encounter relationship troubles. Are Ben and Alison are destined for a life like Pete and Debbie?

The elements of comedy in the film are simple. Dating and pregnancy are fuel for tried and tested comedy situations, but it’s the unlikely comedic talent of Seth Rogen that holds the film together. ‘Funny’ often starts with the look, and Rogen looks the part. His chubby physique and rugged curly locks lends credibility to his character – in other words, he looks like a pot-smoking beer-swilling freeloader. But he also has great comic timing and a dozens of priceless one-liner gags.

Like last year’s “The Break Up”, the film brings the comedy out of a credible real-life situation. And like “The Break Up” the film is heavily weighted to the male-centric perspective. I think it was Rogen’s impression of Doug Quaid from “Total Recall”, ‘Cohagen, give dem the air” (told with a Schwarzenegger accent) that gave it away. I guarantee not a female in the audience got that joke. But don’t count out the talents of the ladies. Kristin Wiig translates her nervous insecure character from SNL to her role as an E! executive who reluctantly gives Alison the job of on-screen host. Her scenes are a stand out. But funny is funny, laughter is universal and the film will play over broad audiences. The film will be even more successful on DVD.

Judd Apatow has the gold key right now. In addition to "40 Year Old Virgin" and “Superbad” he’s also responsible for the hidden gem TV series “Freaks and Geeks”, and “Undeclared” an Emmy Winner from “Da Ali G Show”, producer of “Anchorman”, “Talladega Nights”, “The Cable Guy” and more. I guess to sum him up he’s mastered the ‘Cinema of Loserdom’, but other than Donald Trump, who doesn’t love a loser? Enjoy.


Wednesday, 26 September 2007

DAN IN REAL LIFE


Dan in Real Life (2007) dir. Peter Hedges
Starring: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook

*1/2

Here’s an advanced review (Warning: some spoilers) of “Dan in Real Life” - a saccharine romantic comedy from Disney/Touchstone starring Steve Carell as a single-dad widower who falls madly in love with a woman after a chance encounter but then realizes she’s his brother's new girlfriend. It’s a sitcom premise extended to a feature film, but instead of utilizing the great talents of Carell, it's crippled by a fundamental syrupy family values wholesomeness.

Steve Carell plays Dan Burns a widower and now single dad to 3 young girls. He writes a parental advice column in the local newspaper and so has ample time to play Mr. Mom to his kids. He and the kids trek up north to their parent’s cottage for their annual Thanksgiving weekend of family fun. It’s been four years since his wife died and he still hasn’t found new love. One day he meets a gorgeous and worldly intelligent woman named Marie (Juliette Binoche). They spend the afternoon hitting it off, but before they leave she tells him she is seeing someone. She still feels the spark though and gives him her number. That same day, before he gets to call her, Dan is introduced to his brother Mitch’s new girlfriend – low and behold, it’s Marie.

For the rest of the weekend Marie and Dan awkwardly try to discuss and digest their situation without setting off alarm bells around the family. The duo encounters some of the usual comic situations arising from the deception. But the longer Dan keeps the secret the more damage he’s doing to his family. Of course, the secret doesn’t last, resulting in a major rift in the family.

Steve Carell is unfortunately held back from digging his teeth into this role. He’s a retread of the quiet, unassuming and depressed characters he played in “Little Miss Sunshine” and “40 Year Old Virgin”. He is an honourable dad, who is too earnest and likeable. In fact this Disney wholesomeness permeates the entire film. The situations are like episodes of “7th Heaven” or “the Gilmore Girls” – not that there’s anything wrong with those shows, I just don’t need to see them turned into feature film comedies and using up the time of great comic talent.

It’s a B-grade version of “Stepmom” and a C-grade version of “The Family Stone”. Positive values reign over comedy and laughter. “The Family Stone” is a decent comparison because I recently watched and reviewed that film. “The Family Stone”, though flawed, was not afraid to push some buttons and get their characters dirtied up before redeeming them in the end. Dan Burns never gets dirty. His relationship with Marie never gets past get-to-know-you chitchat. And so when the family does find out about the deception, it doesn’t take much more than a tough apology for them to kiss and make up. The subplot with their kids and the need to get past the death of their mom is candy apple storytelling – very sappy and righteous. And is it just me or do you hate film flirtation too? Peter Hedges has to overlap their afternoon-long first conversation with a series of dissolves to compress time but he still doesn’t avoid the dull flirtatious dialogue.

Perhaps I'm not the audience for the film. But the film is so middle of the road, I don’t think anyone will be truly satisfied or even want to recommend the film to their friends. I certainly don’t. The film opens on Oct 26.


Tuesday, 25 September 2007

THE KINGDOM


The Kingdom (2007) dir. Peter Berg
Starring; Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, Jason Bateman

**

Opening this Friday is “The Kingdom” - the latest in a series of topical films addressing the issue of American occupation in the Middle East. It tells the story of a group of FBI rogues who investigate a terrorist attack on an unsuspecting American village in Saudi Arabia. “The Kingdom” wants to be several films, and doesn’t quite decide which one until the end. It works best as a plain old action film. The politics of the film are naive, and in fact, only furthers the negative reputation of America as new world imperialists. But never-the-less, if you’re not offended by it, you may actually enjoy it.

The film opens with a brilliant Oliver Stone-style montage summarizing the modern history of Saudi Arabia. Director Peter “Friday Night Lights” Berg uses archival footage and archival narration to show us how the conflict over Saudi oil began and evolved. The narrator changes as the years change, ending with the familiar voice of A&E’s Bill Curtis bringing us into the present. Then we see the tragic terrorist attack on the American community in Saudi Arabia. Berg shoots it like an action scene and makes sure to show us the brutality of the violence. Men, women and children all die indiscriminately. To the American authorities back home, the massacre is a mystery. The terrorists were dressed as Saudi police, who were supposed to be on their side. The political implications of putting American military boots on Saudi sand are too great and so, Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) assembles a rogue task force to investigate. His team consists of military forensic experts played by Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and Chris Cooper. The Saudi official assigned to watch over the Americans is Colonel Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhoum) who slowly but surely learns the go-hard-or-go-home ways of the Americans and helps them unlock the mystery.

At a time of high negative opinion of American interference in the Middle East, the depiction of the Saudis Officials are antiquated, naïve and somewhat appalling. The Saudis are portrayed as backward, stupid, and incompetent. The Americans have no respect for the Muslim culture either. The Ambassador aide played by Jeremy Piven says to Jennifer Garner’s character when she meets the Saudi Prince for the time to “cover up your boobies.” The Americans roll their eyes in confusion. You have to be living under a rock these days not to know the customs of the Arabs. The Americans never attempt to learn, get to know, or even want to respect the 1000 years of Muslim culture, they just want to get their man by whatever means necessary – which is the reason they’re in the mess in the first place. Watch “A Mighty Heart” and you’ll see a much better example of a credible and realistic portrayal of a similar situation. In that film, the Pakistani police are actually smarter than the Americans.

“The Kingdom” send mixed tones until the third act. By the opening sequence, it feels like a political/Oliver Stone-type film. After the terrorist attack, we see a whole host of politicians played by some of the best character actors working today. For fear of complicating the audience we are given character's names and titles superimposed on the screen. So, then it feels like a “Syriana/Traffic” multi-layered political story. But all these politicians are excised from the story once Jamie Foxx’s team gets to Saudi Arabia. The film then becomes an investigative procedural/forensic film, with some comic relief supplied by Jason Bateman. In the third act it becomes a Ridley Scott action film at the end, with an overdose of close ups of children eyes to pull our heart strings and justify the carnage.

Peter Berg is good at the action, and this is how you should watch the film. The film could have been dreadful if not for the big rousing final action sequence which is a big old rush of adrenaline revenge. Michael Mann was one of the producers and his influence on these last 20mins is felt. Berg doesn’t spare the gore or graphicness of the deaths. In the final moments Berg gives the audience that cathartic fuck you to the Al Qaeda terrorists that just might have them cheering in their seats. If you haven’t left the cinema yet, you will be cheering. Enjoy.


Monday, 24 September 2007

EYES WIDE SHUT


Eyes Wide Shut (1999) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman

***

I have tried really really hard to love Master Kubrick’s final film, but I just can’t do it. Some find “Eyes Wide Shut” a beguiling and seductive dream-story masterpiece and worthy of his other classics, but for me, it succeeds in teasing me without paying off in the profound way Kubrick wanted it to.

Throughout the mid 90’s there were several rumours about new Stanley Kubrick projects. There was the salivating sci-fi project, “Artificial Intelligence”, or the holocaust story, “The Aryan Papers”. But when it was announced he was filming a Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman film heads turned (at least mine).

After an incredible 15 months of production, key casting changes during reshoots, and tall tales of obsessive behaviour from Kubrick the film was released in July of 1999. My expectations were high – too high in fact - and I was severely disappointed. But as with many of his films it requires many viewings to get through the dense themes. After 8 years and several viewings I can finally write about it.

The film opens with a Kubrick trademark - a waltz. Shostakovich's Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra plays over Bill and Alice Harford (Tom and Nicole) as they get ready for a Christmas party. They are a New York Park Avenue couple. Bill is a doctor and Alice stays home to raise their young daughter. At the magnificent party of their friend Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) the couple get separated and start exploring the premises as singles. Alice gets hit on by a handsome Hungarian playboy, while Bill flirts with a pair of playful young gals. Before anything moves further, Bill is summoned to the Victor’s bedroom where his mistress has just over-dosed on drugs. The woman lives and Bill goes about the evening.

At home Bill and Alice get into an argument about their near-philandering activies. After much bickering about the sex-obsessions of men, Alice reveals to Bill a time, years ago, when she almost sacrificed her marriage for a lustful encounter with a stranger. It never happened, but the story shakes Bill to the core. Before the two can reconcile their argument Bill is called out to work. For Bill the night and the next few days becomes a journey into his own subconscious fueled by the jealousy from Alice’s shocking admonition. Bill moves from one odd situation to another where he is tempted into adultery, and climaxing with a dangerous ritual orgy which threatens Bill’s life.

The film is structured like a dream – the events in Bill’s rabbit hole journey are born from his psychological fantasies. You’ll notice that each and every time Bill seduced, just as he’s about the move into adultrous territory he is interupted by something outside his control. Ie. Before the two girls take Bill to the other room at the party he’s interupted by Ziegler’s assistant; Just before he gets naked with the kindly street prostitute his cell phone rings. So for this reason his frustration is our frustration as audience members. Some of these vignettes work, some don’t. Seeing the film for the first time, you’re fooled into thinking these events will somehow payoff later on down the line – but they don’t. It’s kind of a cruel trick of Kubrick to tease us - like a peep show, without ever showing us anything.

During these encounters Bill is inactive as a protagonist. Then he meets Nick Nightengale. With his sexual frustration at it’s peak he finally takes action and wills himself into the exclusive masked sexual ritual, which is the major set piece in the film. It is a classic scene. Kubrick expertly sets this scene up with unbearable suspense and his ominous and brooding Tamil chanting music. Kubrick continues his career-long fascination with masks, which adds to the creepiness of the sequence. But even this sequence teases us with threats of violence and we see ample amounts of graphic fornication. But does it really payoff? Unfortunately I can’t spoil anything here.

As expected the film looks fantastic. Kubrick improves on his traditional natural flat lighting with a gorgeous array of Christmas lights creating an omnipresent glow in the background. He also uses an unnatural but mood-altering blue light in the windows of his interior sets. There’s a few trademark tracking shots, but it’s surprisingly light on the camera gymnastics. Everything about the look works for the film. I think it's his best lit film.

“Eyes Wide Shut” is high on mood, chills and the usual technical brilliances we expect from his work. And even though I tried really hard to find the profoundness in the film, it’s no masterpiece for me. Though the film is supposed to express Bill’s sexual frustration, it still frustrates me. Maybe that’s the whole point of the film - that the events in Bill’s life never pay off. So for me, where Kubrick has made a film about impotence, not jealousy. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Eyes Wide Shut (Two-Disc Special Edition)


Sunday, 23 September 2007

BLACK BOOK


Black Book (2006) dir. Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Carice van Houten, Sebastien Koch

**1/2

After a series of commercial and critical failures director Paul “Total Recall” Verhoeven returned to Holland to make “Black Book his first Dutch film since the early 80’s. It’s an epic film about the Dutch Resistance in WWII Nazi Germany. For two acts it succeeds as a surprisingly good wartime espionage thriller, but Verhoeven get bogged down in the mechanics of overplotting and essentially ruins a really good film.

The film opens in Israel 1956. A woman visiting with her Canadian husband recognizes a familiar face – a kindly brunette woman teaching to children in a Jewish school. They both recognize each other from during the war. The film then flashes back to Holland in 1944 to show how they get to where they are now. This device of starting in the present and flashing back is so overused it actually cheapens the film and shows a lack of confidence in the material, which, told chronologically, should be powerful enough on its own.

The teacher was Rachel Steinn (Carice van Houten), a Dutch Jew who is forced to flee the safe countryside when her family home is bombed. She and her family connect with a group of Dutch Jews and travel by boat to safety. But when they are intercepted by a Nazi patrol, Rachel is the only one to survive the massacre. With no where else to turn she joins the Dutch Resistance and becomes part of the dangerous world of undercover anti-Nazi espionage. When one of the Resistance members is captured by the Nazis Rachel accepts an assignment to infiltrate the regime and rescue their comrade from the inside. Rachel Steinn then turns into a Mati Hari spy. She dies her hair (all her hair) blonde, and assumes the new identity of Ellis de Vris.

Ellis enters the Nazi regime by bedding a high-ranking Gestapo officer named Muntze (Sebastien Koch) and starts spying on their actions from the inside. Ellis’ mission becomes compromised when she falls in love with Muntze. With her allegiance divided she eventually finds herself wanted by the Dutch Resistance for treason. The film does eventually catch up to Israel 1956, but by that time all interest in the characters are buried under unnecessarily complicated overplotting.

“Black Book” doesn’t have the powerful resonating quality of an “Army of Shadows” or “The Pianist”. It’s an unabashed thriller that harkens back to an Alistair MacLean story - more adventure and intrigue as opposed to serious reflection. There's actually nothing wrong with that, because it seems to be clear about it's motives.

Carice van Houten is in almost every scene and she performs well in holding the film together. She is strong and sexy and vulnerable and has to subject herself to a few audacious and disgusting on screen acts, including being dumped on by a giant bucket of faeces. Yep, that’s right. Sebastien Koch, whom you’ll recognize from “Lives of Others”, is well cast as Ellis’ love interest. He’s terrific actor with a commanding presence. Don’t be surprised if he soon makes the jump to big budget Hollywood films.

The reason most people will want to see the film is for Paul Verhoeven, whose body of work ranges from disturbingly violent action to daring and graphic sex. Aside from a couple of brief moments, the film is virtually invisible to his style. The liberal attitude of the Dutch toward nudity and sex is present, but it’s not in your face like Verhoeven’s earlier Dutch films. Verhoeven is good at the action and the craftsmanship of the individual scenes but he is sloppy and unconfident with the mechanics of storytelling. The film disappoints because he complicates a story that doesn’t need complicating.

So for Verhoeven fans, it’s worth a visit, but if you want to see a good film about the WWII Resistance rent Melville’s “Army of Shadows”. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Black Book


Saturday, 22 September 2007

CHINATOWN


Chinatown (1974) dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston

****

“Chinatown” has been touted by many pundits as the best screenplay ever written. It’s a unique Hollywood concoction – a gunshoe thriller in the classic noir genre, but also modern and beguiling. It’s a twister that unravels to reveal a salacious melodrama motivating a big business urban conspiracy.

Jake Gittes is an L.A. private detective in the 1930’s. One day a woman named Evelyn Mulray enters his office and hires Jake to spy on her husband Hollis Mulray whom she suspects of cheating. Jake is initially hesitant to take the case as he honestly explains that she’s better off not knowing, it would cause more pain for her. Mulray is insistent and Jake takes the case. Jakes follows Mulray around for several days. He discovers he’s the chief engineer of the city’s water department. There’s a major drought in the city of Los Angeles and Mulray is in the middle of a heated debate about an expensive new dam project. Despite all this, Gittes’ investigation reveals a conspiracy involving the city dumping precious water in secret overnight. Gittes performs his job and captures Mulray’s rendez vous with a young girl. But when Hollis Mulray turns up dead the next day, and a different woman shows up claiming to be the real Evelyn Mulray, Gittes realizes he’s been set up in an elaborate murderous plot.

With his pride and reputation on the line Gittes retraces his steps to uncover the conspiracy. He develops a relationship with the real Evelyn Mulray (Faye Dunaway). Evelyn, a good-looking erudite woman, with an emotional detachment to the mysterious goings-on, intrigues Jake and he takes her case to find the other woman who was seeing her husband. No one seems to be telling the truth, not even Evelyn, and as Gittes moves through the city of Los Angeles, the stakes get higher and higher. When he meets Evelyn’s father Noah Cross (John Huston) who owns the water company, we realize the conspiracy is as personally motivated as it money-driven. “Chinatown’s” byzantine plot expands larger as the film moves along becoming a big business conspiracy about the creation of modern-day L.A. and a searing melodrama with operatic plot twists.

I’ve seen the film several times and it still confounds me. The mechanics of the plot, like “The Big Sleep”, are notoriously difficult to follow. And though I do get lost each time I watch it, I’m comforted by the intermittent expository lines Towne gives Jake to say which always helps me catch up.

Roman Polanski directs the film to perfection. Nobody has shot Los Angeles better than Polanski and his DOP John Alonzo. For a film noir, they chose to the shoot the film as bright and sunny as possible. Film noirs are traditionally shot in shadows and underlit to compliment the secretive elements of the genre, but Alonzo and Polanski hide nothing from us. They choose to beautify Los Angeles and bathe their characters in the brightest colours. Polanski’s camera follows Gittes very closely the entire film, much of it behind his neck. With a 2.35:1 wide angle frame we are able to see everything Jake sees and still see Jake’s wandering eyes and furrowing brows up close and personal. The handheld work is subtle. It’s so close to everything it becomes part of the action, but without the jerky movements that overtly remind us a camera is there. Sometimes the camera is so close to the actors we can feel it getting in the way. Watch the very end, after the shootout in Chinatown. When Jake and the cops run up to the car and see the damage done Nicholson actually knocks the camera. It’s unintentional but unobtrusive and natural to the film.

“Chinatown” never tires. It contains so many indelible characters and situations, an unraveling plot that gets bigger and bigger as it goes along, beautiful locations and a modern quality that continues to resonate today. In fact, it’s a good companion piece to “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”. Seriously. Check it out.


Friday, 21 September 2007

JYNDABYNE


Jindabyne (2006) dir. Ray Lawrence
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Laura Linney

***

Jindabyne is a trainwreck of a film – for the characters, not the film itself. It tells the story of the gradual destruction of a man’s married life when he innocently discovers the dead body of a girl while on a fishing trip. The film is notable for being one of the Raymond Carver short stories that was included in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts.” “Jindabyne” is not a remake, but a different vision of a fractured marriage and a racially divided Australian community.

“Jindabyne” is the name of small town in Australia. Stewart is an Irish emigrant living there with his American wife, Claire (Laura Linney) and their young son, Tom. There’s immediately some palpable tension between Stewart and Claire. Some of it stems from the isolation in their adopted home, some from Claire’s meddling mother-in-law. One day Stewart and his three buddies, like in “Deliverance”, take a male-bonding fishing trip. Before they even get to catch a fish Stewart discovers the dead body of young aboriginal girl lying in the river. We, as the audience, recognize this girl from the creepy opening scene when we saw her stalked and kidnapped by a local Aussie hillbilly.

When Stewart returns home, he doesn’t tell his wife until the cops show up at their door in the morning. Claire is shocked at the incident, but even more shocked she was the last to find out. The event causes their rift to increase and further distance themselves from each other. In the news Stewart’s name gets dragged through the mud when it’s revealed they kept fishing after finding the body and didn’t report the death until days later. Because the girl was aboriginal they become the target of anti-white hate crimes from the native community. Claire mourns the death of the young girl in order to cleanse her own soul from the dirt she’s been dragged through by her husband.

“Jindabyne” feels like an Andre Dubus (“In the Bedroom“) story. There’s a constant sense of dread that hovers over the film at all times. The fishing trip doesn’t occur until almost 40mins into the film, but director Ray Lawrence teases us with meditative camerawork, quiet dialogue with no music, and slow inquisitive zooms into characters faces to increase the tension. Even after the deathly discovery emotions are kept in check. Eventually Claire and Stewart have it out in one fantastic shouting match. It’s great to watch two great actors face off in an intense cathartic emotional scene.

The film also has a sense of aboriginal mysticism – like God watching over the actions of the white man and punishing them for their desecration of the land and the murdering of their people.

Lawrence crafts some very creepy moments – specifically the little girl’s cruel and almost fatal trick against Stewart’s son in the lake. The mood and atmosphere turn what could have been a 90min film (or even less in the case of “Short Cuts”) into a two-hour seat-squirmer. Since the dialogue is so quiet and soundtrack virtually devoid of music it’s an awkward film to watch and hear. At times I had the volume cranked to the max just to catch an important line of dialogue. Though it’s frustrating, it adds to the thick air of unease Lawrence seems to be an expert at creating.

Most viewers will be turned off by the slow pedantic pace, but with patience you may be reworded with, at the very least, two terrific performances from Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Jindabyne

Thursday, 20 September 2007

THE FAMILY STONE


The Family Stone (2005) dir. Thomas Bezucha
Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Diane Keaton, Dermot Mulroney, Luke Wilson, Rachel McAdams

***1/2

What the hell am I reviewing a Christmas film in September? I don’t know, but it was on TV, and I watched it. In fact, I saw it in the theatre when it was released and it still holds up as a fine Christmas film even after two viewings. It’s the classic situation – stuck-up conservative urban woman visits the liberal small town family of her boyfriend. Politics and cultures clash and then they ultimately make up and find mutual ground amid the joy of the holiday season. That’s only the tip of the iceberg though, there’s lot of surprises I couldn’t see coming, not to mention some razor-sharp and complex dialogue exchanges between the characters. It’s a quality film.

Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) are a New York City power couple who travel to Everett’s upstate New York family home to spend their holidays. When Meredith arrives, Everett’s parents, Kelly and Sibyl (Craig T. Nelson and Diane Keaton) and their full house of grown children gather around the window to watch and judge her every movement. The rumours of her conservative uptightness are confirmed when she steps out wearing high heels and carrying designer luggage. The main antagonizer is Amy Stone (Rachel McAdams). She is relentless in giving Meredith a hard time. A difficult and embarrassing game of charades results in the first major outburst from Meredith. She’s so upset she calls in her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to help her through the weekend.

When Everett announces to his family he wants to propose to Meredith suddenly a line is drawn in the sand and ultimatums are fired. No one thinks Meredith and Everett are right for each other and we suspect not even Everett himself, who may be proposing just to spite his disapproving mother. Over the course of the weekend they grow apart, new loves flourish, and life-changing news is revealed resulting in several twists of plot and character.

Sophomore writer/Director Thomas Bezucha has attracted a large pool of relatively expensive talent on the strength of a tight script, great dialogue and many well-drawn characters. He juggles half a dozen plotlines with ease and uses clever transitions between scenes. He often ends a scene on a question from one character, which is answered by another character in the next scene. It’s probably been done before, but it’s particularly effective in this film. Bezucha crafts some wicked group dialogue scenes as well – the charades scene as noted, but also the dinner scene where the subject of Sybil’s gay son is brought up. Meredith doesn’t disapprove of same-sex marriage, but she manages to dig herself a deep deep grave with a series of unintentional bigoted remarks. The editing and direction of the actors in the scene is impressive, especially for a sophomore.

In the third act, when relationships change and new love blossoms, the film dives into some substandard slaptickism, which doesn’t work considering the intelligence and tone of the first half of the film. But it’s the characters and their individual stories that keep our interest to the end. Casting is also king here as the quality supporting performances are supplied by Claire Danes, Paul Schneider and Brian White.

I’ll re-post this at Christmas to remind you of this decent rental to get you in the holiday mood. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Family Stone (Widescreen Edition)


Wednesday, 19 September 2007

ELIZABETH


Elizabeth (1998) dir. Shekar Kapur
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccelston, Joseph Fiennes

***

“Elizabeth” launched the great Cate Blanchett to the world. She delivers a terrific star-making performance as the innocent bastard child of Henry VIII turned powerful Queen of England. No one should use the film as research for their high school essays mind you, but it’s fun to see the important transition period of English and European history play out in classic Hollywood melodramatic fashion.

Director Kapur sets the tone early with a bombastic opening. Taking a page from Baz Luhrman’s “Romeo + Juliet” his opening titles set to an operatic music extravaganza tells us the simplified details of the backstory with statements like THE COUNTRY IS DIVIDED and CATHOLIC AGAINST PROTESTANT”. Kapur is clearly telling us this is no corset-drama. The Queen on the throne, Mary Tudor (Kathy Burke) has been sickened with cancer and the Catholic loyalists fear the Protestant Elizabeth will take the throne and reduce their power. The anti-Protestant movement is led by the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston). He tries his best to get the Queen to execute Elizabeth before she dies, but the Queen puts family ahead of religion and lets Elizabeth live.

As soon as she’s coroneted Elizabeth faces the backstabbing pressure of Norfolk and his Catholic cronies. On her side is her secret lover, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) and returning from exile, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush). Walsingham becomes her trusted advisor and guides her through the regal politicking. In order to strengthen her monarchy she is encouraged to seek a husband and produce an heir. Elizabeth is courted by numerous candidates, two of whom are the French consort Duc d'Anjou (Vincent Cassel) and the son of the King of Spain. As Elizabeth toils between love and politics she loses some of her most trusted friends. She makes a decision to give her body and soul to her country – hence becoming the “Virgin Queen”.

The first half of “Elizabeth” works better than the second half. The action-packed dramatic opening gives the film a Francis Coppola "Dracula" feel – operatic, dangerous and larger than life. Kapur stages the court action dramatically, freeing the genre from the stuffy cold confines of traditional period films like “Beckett” or “A Man For All Seasons”. Kapur’s “Elizabeth” is warm, lively, and fast-paced. Unfortunately the pacing slows down in the second half when Elizabeth is consumed with pressure to wed and give birth. In the latter scenes intrigue prevails over action and drama.

Kapur gives enough quality screen time to many great performers. Geoffrey Rush is terrific as the quiet and confident Walsingham, Fiennes fits the bill as Elizabeth’s charming boy toy and Christopher Eccelston is perfectly cast as the conniving antagonist. Vincent Cassel sells out by playing the fanciful French courtesan as a crossing-dressing fairy. But it was much fun to see English/French soccer star Eric Cantona’s commanding presence as the French ambassador Monsieur de Foix.

Kapur steals his ending from “The Godfather”, using Coppola’s assassination montage sequence from that film to show how Elizabeth and Walsingham permanently dispose of her enemies. But, as mentioned, Kapur is taking bits and pieces of other films to make his own version of a period epic.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth I has so many more exciting and compelling stories. For this reason Kapur and Blanchett have reprised their duties and created a historical sequel – “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” due in theatres in a few weeks. This next film will involve Elizabeth and her fight with Spain, Mary Queen of Scots and her relationship with explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (played by Clive Owen). Let’s hope “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” will make a good companion to this first film. Enjoy.

PS Watch for more Elizabeth-themed reviews in the next two weeks.

Buy the new issue DVD here: Elizabeth (Spotlight Series)


Tuesday, 18 September 2007

DEATH PROOF (EXTENDED & UNCUT)


Death Proof - Extended and Uncut (2007) dir. Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Zoe Bell

**1/2

Out on DVD this week is the extended cut of Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof”. Following the tough act of Robert Rodriguez’ fun-filled “Planet Terror”, as the second half of “The Grindhouse” Quentin’s contribution was a let down. Since my first viewing in April, the film has grown on me, not because of the added scenes but because it works better as a stand-alone film – a Quentin Tarantino film, not a Grindhouse film. It’s still ego-stroking, esoteric and mostly boring with little joy in the dialogue, but the fresh face of Vanessa Ferlito, the fantastic car action and the attitude and performance of Kurt Russell make the film enjoyable if you’re in the right mood.

I was too young to know the real “Grindhouse” experience that Tarantino grew up with. My theatre-going youth was the shoebox-cinema experience of the 1980’s (which isn’t great nostalgia). But I still have fond memories of discovering these exploitation films on the bottom rows of the videoracks in strip-mall video stores. And instead of scratchy prints for me it was worn out VHS tapes with bad contrast, tracking problems and bleeding colours.

The opening credits of “Death Proof” fill the screen in front of a speeding car on an open highway. It’s like the opening “Mad Max” - grainy, scratchy, raw and dirty. We are then introduced to a foursome of supple young soon-to-be-victims. Tarantino directs their car ride conversation like his own “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”. Watch the framing on Jordan Ladd, which is the same shot as Samuel L. Jackson’s close-up in “Pulp Fiction” and look at Sydney Tamiia Poitier’s posture in the backseat, which resembles Tim Roth bleeding to death in the back of Harvey Keitel’s car in “Reservoir Dogs”. The girls spend the night partying with a bunch of horny guys in a seedy bar. There’s lot of banal dialogue about going to a cottage, and their decision to bring boys or not. Then Kurt Russell enters the picture playing Stuntman Mike, a sleazy former Hollywood stuntman. With his smooth talk and rugged good looks he charms Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) into a lap dance. The dark side of Stuntman Mike is that he’s actually a murderous psychotic who stalks and kills young women with his big fat black Chevy Nova muscle car. All the girls in the bar fall victim to Mike, and each die a horribly brutal death before the end of the night.

At the halfway mark the film cuts to 14 months later in another city. It’s a virtual carbon copy of the first half, except arguably with less attractive actors (sorry Rosario Dawson fans, it’s not her best look). Mike is stalking another set of girls - this time a more formidable bunch, four stuntwomen, who are joyriding in a vintage 1971 Dodge Challenger. Zoe (real stuntwoman Zoe Bell) performs a dangerous stunt called the “Ship’s Mast” by riding on the hood of the car using two belt straps to hold onto. In the middle of the ride Mike’s car crashes the party. And so begins a long 18 min car chase between Mike and the girls. When the girls get the upper hand and turn the tables it’s funny to watch Mike turn into a pathetic crying bitch. This ending caps off a great Kurt Russell performance, but a sub par Tarantino film.

Tarantino is known for his dialogue, but as a director he shoots the film with a terrific eye. His bold close-us, framing and lighting are a joy to look at. Each scene is crafted with one exciting composition after another and he always keeps the look fresh and energetic. His circular dolly around the table of girls in the second half is a neat recreation of his opening “Like a Virgin” shot in “Reservoir Dogs”.

The car action, which is fantastic, resembles the high energy 70’s car chases of George Miller and H.B. Halicki. Tarantino smashes his cars up real good and uses pure driving speed and force to create fear and suspense. Tarantino shoots Stuntman Mike’s Chevy Nova like a character. I specifically loved the sound of its deep guttural chest-pounding rumble. But aside from the look and action, the dialogue runs on and on, and stalls the film before it even gets going.

There seems to be a lot of cuts of the film around. The new extended DVD version runs 113 mins, the “Grindhouse” version ran 88mins and the Cannes version ran 127. The added value in the extended version is the Vanessa Ferlito lap dance. And although performed fully clothed and in flip-flops it’s still sexy as hell. In fact, every frame in which Ferlito is in is worth watching. Unfortunately, these interesting moments are too few and far between to make the film stand up to Tarantino’s other classics.

Buy it here: Grindhouse Presents, Death Proof - Extended and Unrated (Two-Disc Special Edition)

Here’s the lap dance scene, which was the ‘missing reel’ from the “Grindhouse” version:

Monday, 17 September 2007

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE


A History of Violence (2005) dir. David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt

***

Ok, when “A History of Violence” came out, I intensely disliked the film. There was a tone that I just didn’t get. Everything from the acting, to the music, the editing, the plot confounded me and drove me bonkers. But I was in the very small minority. Did I miss something? It was universally acclaimed and one of the best reviewed films of the year. Upon second viewing, it’s finally sunk in and I've been able to enjoy the film. Though it still doesn’t rise to the quality of “The Fly”, or “Dead Ringers” it’s a quality mainstream effort from the Canadian master.

The film opens with a piece of misdirection. We watch the slow movements of two psychotic killers who have just murdered a motel owner. They walk around the outside of the motel, slowly get into their car, light their cigarettes and discuss their movements of the day. Cronenberg lingers on them for so long and gives them so much screen time we expect them to be main characters for the rest of the film. Then we meet Americana personified Tom Stall, who lives the quiet life of a diner-owner in a small Indiana town, with his wife Edie (Maria Bello), teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and daughter Sarah. The psychotics collide with Stall when they attempt to rob and pillage his diner. Tom fights back and shoots both killers dead with expert skill. Tom becomes the hero of the town and makes the news all around the country.

Back to the misdirection of the opening scene...on my first viewing I couldn’t reconcile importance of the lengthy and carefully directed opening with the psychotics’ sudden disappearance from the story. In fact, I still don’t understand Cronenberg’s motivation here, but it irks me less the second time ‘round.

Back to the story…one day some more nefarious bad men show up at the diner, one of whom is Carl Fogarty, a creepy and intimidating Ed Harris. Fogarty thinks Tom is a gangster from Philly named Joey Kusak. Tom denies it all, but Fogarty is persistent and follow him and his family around the town until he’s forced to confront Tom directly with threats of violence. When faced with the threat on his family Tom fights back and again beats down the mobsters like a rapid dog unleashed and unmuzzled. Tom comes clean with his family about his sordid past as a ruthless gangster. In order to continue his new life with his family he must confront his past and face off against his brother Richie (William Hurt) who now runs a crime family in Philadelphia.

Cronenberg executes the mainstream elements of the story well. The plot is simple and uncomplicated. It’s about a man looking to go straight, cleanse his soul, and atone for past sins. The film is a statement about the attraction and simplicity of violence. It’s an easy way out of confrontations. Tom’s son experiences the same feelings as his father has. He is pushed around by a student and one day lashes out and beats down the taunting bully. Tom’s wife is at first shocked by the revelations of her husband’s past, but then gives in to its carnal attractions in a domestic fight turned sex scene on the stairs.

Cronenberg leaves us wondering about his back story though. Not even the brotherly bond of love can quell the violence between Tom and Richie. So what could have caused such an irreparable rift? Why, at the first sign of his brother, does Richie suddenly want him dead? There’s some deep emotional issues that needed to be mined in order for “A History of Violence” to be truly profound and rise above just a mainstream film.

Perhaps this is why I initially disliked the film. I expect so much more psychological complexities to Cronenberg’s characters. In “A History of Violence” everything is up front, in your face and simple.

Buy it here: A History of Violence (New Line Platinum Series)

Here's the opening:

Sunday, 16 September 2007

TIFF REPORT #13 - No Country For Old Men


No Country for Old Men (dir by Joel and Ethan Coen) 2007
Starring: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly MacDonald

****

Guest review by Blair Stewart

Here's a last Toronto review to come your way. It's the most buzzed about film, Coen's instant classic - "No Country For Old Men".

A mean son-of-a-bitch of a film, the Coen brothers have shaken off the light-weight doldrums of "Intolerable Cruelty" and "The Ladykillers" for a return to their "Blood Simple" roots with an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's neo-western "No Country for Old Men".

Laconic Vietnam veteran Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting antelope in the backcountry of early 80's West Texas when he discovers the remains of a Mexican drug deal turned "colossal goat-fuck" as one character puts it mildly. Finding $2 million convinces him to pack up his little lady (Kelly Macdonald) and leave his trailer park existence behind for the open road, with some help from the remaining drug dealers and an angel of death embodied by Javier Bardem nipping as his heels. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones is Sherriff
Ed Tom Bell, cleaning up their messes and anticipating their next moves.

A relentless thriller that curls and doubles-back on itself like a desert snake, "No Country for Old Men" strength comes from its unpredictable plot shifts, unconventional casting, awe-inspiring bloodlust (Bardem mows down half of the entire cast, and would make mincemeat of Hannibal Lector), and dry, brittle Texas dialogue.

This is return to form for the Coens after their recent audience-friendly work, the characters have been tripped of caricature and the humour is shaded with misery, hopefully a sign of maturity in their subsequent work, like the impact of "The Unforgiven" on Clint Eastwood's as a director. Highly recommended, just be sure to shield your eyes.


Saturday, 15 September 2007

TIFF REPORT #12 - With Your Permission


With Your Permission (2007) dir. Paprika Steen
Starring: Lars Brygmann, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Søren Pilmark, Rasmus Bjerg, Nicolaj Kopernikus

***

I’m confident enough to say Denmark’s Anders Thomas Jensen is the best screenwriter working in the world today. His quantity and quality of work has been consistent for almost 10 years. He’s can write dark brooding character films such as “After the Wedding” and “Brothers” as well as wildly hilarious comedies, “The Green Butchers”, “Adam’s Apples”. Therefore it’s no surprise that “With Your Permission” is a late festival gem. It’s a wicked black comedy about a n’er do well restaurant manager whose being physically abused by his overbearing wife and seeks solace with group therapy. Only the Danes could find humour in spousal abuse and make it easily translatable to American audiences.

Jan (Lars Brygmann) is a pathetic man. Everyday he shows up to his ferry restaurant job with a new bruise or scar from the frequent beatings from his wife. He is a failed opera singer who developed tinnatus and thus had to abandon his artistic career. He has taken his own personal misery out on his wife (also a former opera singer) by not letting her pursue her own career. He also takes out his aggression on his staff and customers on the ferry – and in one funny scene calls the police when a customer takes a fry from her husband’s meal without paying for the buffet plate.

Jan is instructed to go to therapy to seek help. When he shows up in the first session, there’s only two other men in the room – both of whom are tough burly car mechanics who beat their wives. Jan feels shame for his own plight, and through peer pressure, pretends to be a wife-beater as well just to fit in. This first lie begets more lies which compound on top of each other thereby worsening in his situation. When Jan’s wife Bente (Sidse Babett Knudsen) gets a part in ‘La Boehme’ his jealousy fuels further despair. With no other options Jan is forced to go to extreme measures to relieve himself of the sorrows in his life.

Writer Anders Thomas Jensen and director Paprika Steen start out by drawing Jan with superb clarity. Though his hairdo and moustache makes him look like a 1970’s Dennis Weaver, he’s not caricature. He’s both meek and cruel at the same time. At first we feel sorry for Jan and his subordinate relationship with his wife, but then as backstories are revealed, specifically in a well-written and acted dinner table scene, roles are reversed and our sympathies change. Two of the highlights of the film are Jan’s fellow therapy clients, Alf and Rudy, who attach themselves to Jan and Bente and give us the absurdly violent elements that is Jensen’s hallmark. Jan, Alf and Rudy first bond over their mutual penchant for spousal abuse, and at one point they violently beat up a man who confronts a nervous Jan in a park. Alf and Rudy change over the course of the film as well and eventually develop an odd three-way platonic relationship with Bente which further alienates Jan.

Sidse Babett Knudsen, who was seen last in “After the Wedding”, is a wonderful actress. Her black hair and piercing blue eyes make her a striking actress to look at, and she translates the same intensity from “After the Wedding” to this film with ease. Festival Programmer Steve Gravestock told us before the screening Steen couldn’t be there because she was directing Knudsen in an adaptation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. I can’t wait to see that – she’s would do an excellent Elizabeth Taylor.

The film has much in common with “Fargo”, both move fluidly from black comedy, to violent comedy, to poignant drama. Though “With Your Permission” ends with a Garry Marshall-like finale, this doesn’t detract from the overall tone, in fact, it adds to the absurdity of it all - two people who have spent the entire film physically and mentally abusing each other do find love and happiness in the end. “With Your Permission” is another score for Jensen and the always-interesting Danish cinema. I wish we could do that here in Canada. Enjoy

P.S. Don’t forget to check out Jensen’s other comedies, “Adam’s Apples” and “The Green Butchers”.

Friday, 14 September 2007

TIFF REPORT #11 - Before the Devil Knows You're Dead


Before the Devil Knows Your Dead (2007) dir. Sidney Lumet
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marissa Tomei

**

Sidney “Serpico” Lumet hasn’t made a good film in 20 years (“Running on Empty”?) but from the premise and cast I was hoping for a return to form. The premise is intriguing as hell – a two troubled brothers pull off a heist of their parents’ jewelry store, but inadvertently kill their own mother. The action sets off a firestorm of familial bad blood and Shakespearean-like tragedy. Unfortunately “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” is not a return to form, it’s a terribly overwrought, implausible, overproduced, overacted melodrama without an ounce of truth.

The film opens with the jewelry heist. A masked man robs a kindly old lady of her store of jewels. The woman surprisingly fights back and winds up getting shot and killed. The guy driving the car, Hank, (Ethan Hawke) is shocked to see the ‘easy score’ turn bloody. In the next scene, we flashback a few days before to meet Hank and his family, when it’s revealed that the store owner was in fact Hank’s mother. The film moves back and forth across the days before and after the heist to tell us how it all shook down. Four days before, Hank’s ball-breaking arrogant brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) posits the plan to rob their parent's store to his younger brother. Both brothers are on the verge of crackling under social and financial pressures and appear to be living depressed, uneventful lives. Thinking it’s a victimless crime and their parents secure through insurance, Hank agrees to do the deed, the results of which we know already from the opening scene.

Hank and Andy’s father Charles (Albert Finney), frustrated with the ineffectual police investigation takes it upon himself to find the killer – not knowing he’s looking for his own sons. As the boys desperately try to hide their tracks, Hank spins out of control, turning sadistic and dangerous. The three men eventually collide with tragic consequences.

“Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” is a good film gone bad. Despite a talented cast and once talented director, the film sounds better on paper than on the screen. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character is unrelatable as a human being. We first see him making mad animalistic love to his wife (Marissa Tomei), then having sweet modest pillow talk afterwards. But after this first scene he is a crazed maddog of a character from then on. His proposal to his brother is completely mishandled – the devilish unemotional sneer he emotes while telling his brother to rob their own parents is unnecessary and unbelievable. Why the pair of brothers couldn’t simply ask their parents for some money is a question never raised. Someone missed the boat here, because there’s a backstory to be explored as to how a father could raise their children to commit such a heinous act. The proposition is told to us so quick and early in the story we never get to ponder the extremity of their situation – and ask, ‘is this the only option for the boys?’

I suspect these issues were never answered in the script and as a result Lumet compensates by giving us some cinematic gymnastics to distract our attention. First, he jumbles the timeline, flashing forward and back in typical over-used Steven Soderbergh/ Quentin Tarantino fashion. Unfortunately the jumping around doesn’t heighten the drama or compliment the story. It’s artificial and distracting. Secondly, the performances are surprisingly weak. Philip Seymour Hoffman is over-the-top and scene-chewing. He’s so sadistic, cruel and dispassionate he’s a bad guy drawn from the action film genre. Thirdly Lumet distracts us by making Marissa Tomei strip down in the majority of her scenes. I definitely counted the first three scenes with her were played either topless or buck naked. She’s a fine woman to look at, don’t get me wrong, but it's too exploitive for a serious film.

Albert Finney used to be a great actor, but he is too old, shaky and lost in his role as the vigilante father. It’s a minor quibble, but Finney could not close his mouth in the film. Whenever he’s onscreen, his mouth is gaping wide open which makes him look like he’s constantly gasping for air. His actions in the final moments of the film seem tacked on in a conscious effort to be shocking. I just rolled my eyes and said – "nice try Sidney, you can’t fool me, this film is not profound, nor tragic - just overwrought, manipulative and unbelievable."


Thursday, 13 September 2007

TIFF REPORT #10 - Le Scaphandre et le Papillon


Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (2007) dir. Julian Schnabel
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Marie-Josée Croze, Emmanuelle Seigner, Max von Sydow

****

“Le Scaphandre et le Papillon” aka “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a fabulous film about former editor of “ELLE”, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was rendered paralyzed from a tragic brain aneurism, and whose only way of communicating was through one blinking eye. The film premiered at Cannes earlier this year and has recently made its North American debut, here at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s one of the best films of the year.

Through a fractured point of view we are behind the eyes of Jean-Dominique Bauby who has suddenly woken up in a hospital room and realized he is completely paralyzed. We can see the doctors and nurses trying to communicate, but Jean-Do can’t respond. He is told he suffered a brain aneurism and will now have to live the rest of his life completely paralyzed. The lovely nurses slowly teach Jean how to communicate by blinking his one eye. They help Jean spell out each word by reading aloud the letters in the alphabet in order of their most popular usage – ie. E, S, A, R, I etc. By blinking at each letter Jean can spell out his thoughts.

Before the aneurism Jean was contracted with his publisher to write a book. He boldly honours that agreemeent and takes on the gargantuan task of writing a novel, which gives him the joie de vivre to carry on with life despite his disability. But even with his affliction he can’t escape the troubles of his past life. Jean still has trouble communicating with his father (Max Von Sydow), and his mistress has stayed in the picture which forces Jean to reconcile his secret/cheating life with his family.

The details of the rehabilitation and the therapy he receives is documented with procedural precision. I was reminded of the scientific research the Odones go through in the film “Lorenzo’s Oil”. If we understand the tremendous effort and dedication it takes Jean-Do to create even one word, the achievement of writing an entire novel with one blinking eye becomes that much more extraordinary.

Schnabel employs Steven Spielberg’s DOP Janusz Kaminsky to photograph his vision of Jean’s new life. And together they create a well thought out visual arc. In the opening scenes in the hospital we see the world through Jean-Do’s two eyes. Since one eye is infected the view is fractured and warped. When his right eye is sewed shut (a squirm-inducing scene we see in a large macro close-up), suddenly his vision becomes clearer. With only one camera angle at his disposal Schnabel manages to sustain the story and the drama and create the character of Jean-Do without ever seeing him. We are helped by hearing Jean-Do’s inner thoughts read out to us as humourous voiceover. Schnabel doesn’t go outside this point of view until the second act and he chooses the just right moment to enter this world. It’s a wonderful scene which kicks the film into another gear. And with fine editing, Schnabel cleverly contrasts Jean’s vivid and lush memories of before the accident with the cold, quiet and clausterphobic life of being ‘locked-in’.

I was surprised to see Hollywood blockbuster-makers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall were the producers of the film. It was written by Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Pianist”, Ronald Harwood and, as mentioned shot by the great “Janusz Kaminsky”. The film certainly has a Hollywood feel to it, but also with a pleasant mixture of Schnabel’s uniquely creative artistic sensibilities. The influences of both schools of filmmaking are evident and they mash well together.

The film is Oscar-worthy on the technical aspects and the performances. Don’t be surprised if we see this garner some major hardware come next February. Not only is the film about a physically-challenged person, which always impresses voters, but it’s a both tragic and feel-good and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit storytelling.

Please check out this remarkably beautiful trailer sans subtitles though:

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

TIFF REPORT #9 - Stuck


Stuck (2007) dir. Stuart Gordon
Starring: Mena Suvari, Stephen Rea, Russell Hornsby

***

“Stuck” has one of the most intriguing film concepts– a man is hit by a car and gets stuck in the windshield. The female driver fears prosecution and drives him to her home where she leaves him to die in her garage overnight. And ironically the film is inspired by actual events. Veteran horror-film director Stuart “Re-Animator” Gordon and writer John Strysik tackles the story with a unique b-movie spin turning the film into an effective absurdist black comedy.

Stephen Rea plays the humble protagonist Tom. He’s just been evicted from his apartment and forced out onto the street with a handful of clothes as his only possessions. He’s met by a kindly homeless person who graciously gives him a grocery cart to carry his belongings. Tom thinks he’s at the lowest possible point in his life, until he meets Brandi that is.

Brandi (Mena Suvari) is interestingly drawn. She’s a decent care-worker in an old age home. She seems to have her head on both shoulders – career-oriented, responsible and hardworking. But Brandi’s not all red roses. She’s got a gangster-streak in her. Brandi’s hair is braided into atrociously inappropriate cornrows, and her nails are intricately painted like museum artwork. Her boyfriend – Rashid (Russell Hornsby) is a drug dealer who supplies her and her friends with a steady supply of ecstasy and weed. After a night of partying Brandi drives home high and crashes into friendly Tom. The crash is horrific, dramatized in super slo-mo, breaking his shins and sending him hurdling into the windshield. Brandi is so shocked she drives him home into her garage to gather her thoughts.

Fearing criminal charges she doesn’t tell anyone, until the next day when he enlists Rashid into ‘taking care’ of the problem and making Tom disappear. But Tom is a resilient crash victim and so begins a battle for survival against Brandi and Rashid.

For the first half of the film I struggled with the tone. The opening sequence is a slow-motion parody of rap videos inside the old folks home. And when we first see Brandi’s cornrows, it’s a shock – in fact, I couldn’t not take my eyes off them the whole film. After the crash, with Tom stuck in the windshield, their interaction is off kilter. I couldn’t figure out if the film was horror, comedy, drama or all of the above. As the film moves along and Tom has to find safety the film’s tone made sense. It settles nicely into a b-movie absurdist black comedy territory which could have played along side Tarantino and Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse” doublebill.

The sex scene with Brandi and Rashid is shown in graphic length. It’s exploitive and funny at the same time. The hallucination of Tom coming through the windshield while Rashid is on top of Brandi confirmed the tone. And the battle in the garage is wonderful Grindhouse-like sequence of events.

Mena Suvari, who also serves as one of the producers, is surprisingly good and turns in a darkly comic outrageous performance. She has no problem having fun with the role, braiding her hair and stripping down for some nasty sex.

“Stuck” knows its place in the genre. Like “Snakes on a Place”, it could be a fun theatre experience for a cine-loving audience. “Stuck” bests “Snakes” because it doesn’t coast by on the premise, it brings us some genuine thrills, chills and laughs with a 'Ripley's Believe it or Not" reality. Enjoy.


Tuesday, 11 September 2007

TIFF REPORT #8 - The Passage


The Passage (2007) dir. Mark Heller
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Neil Jackson, Sarai Givaty

***1/2

In this day and age, it’s difficult to inject new life into the horror genre. Mark Heller’s debut does just that. “The Passage” tells the story of two young men traveling abroad in Morocco who take the day trip from hell into the secluded Atlas mountains. Heller manages to find new ways of scaring us by putting the audience in a locale we’ve never seen before and playing on new millennium fears of global tourism and religious culture shock.

“The Passage” begins innocently as the film establishes the characters of Luke (Stephen Dorff) and his British pal, Adam (Neil Jackson) – two typical 20-something tourist/backpackers currently living in Morocco. Adam is the late night party animal, while Luke is reserved one. Luke has come to Morocco to escape the grief of his recently deceased girlfriend. One night Luke meets an impossibly gorgeous local girl named Zahara (Sarai Givaty). They hit it off and start a courtship over the course of the next few days. Because of the strict religious culture the two are sure to be very careful with their public displays of affection.

The two take a trip into the Atlas Mountains to get away from the city and spend the night in a small stone hut for the evening. In the middle of the night Luke discovers a series of elaborate pathways that run underneath the ground and connect to all the huts in the region. Luke’s curiosity urges him forward into the darkness, where something evil awaits.

“The Passage” tells a familiar story with both traditional and familiar methods. Heller takes a page from Hitchcock’s “Psycho” by misdirecting us as what the film may or may not be. The romance of Luke and Zahara, which takes up the first half of the second act, is well told. Often in horror films, the establishment of the characters and their relationships are perfunctory plotting devices before launching into the bloodletting. But if “The Passage” continued on as a relationship film across the expansive Moroccan lands I would have kept watching and been completely content. But when Luke discovers the ‘passage’ in his hut the film moves into dark, horror territory and my relaxed sitting posture just got a little more tense.

I was reminded of the first half of “The Descent” which effectively used total darkness and echoing sounds to create the sense of fear of the unknown. Heller gives Luke a great device for him to see in the darkness. He uses the flash from his still camera to see what’s in front of him. “The Descent” used the nightvision function of a camcorder to project a similar feeling. The result is a visual escalation of suspense from each snapshot, which we expect, sooner or later, will reveal something sinister.

Neil Jackson, who plays Adam, actually wrote the film. He is great as the party-loving British hooligan, but it’s Stephen Dorff who shines as the beleaguered young man. He’s plays the broken soul so well, which is why his relationship with Zahara works.

It’s also refreshing to see the horror play out strictly as psychological horror and not resort to gore. I think audiences were in agreement that the first half of “The Descent” which exploited our clausterphobic fear of dark places was better than the “Aliens-like” second half. Heller doesn't make that mistake.

The last act which brings Adam back into the story is a brilliant second act turn. The urgency of events is suddenly raised which leads to the dramatic final events. You’ll probably find the last few scenes at the end unnecessary. A more powerful ending would have been on the cut-to-black at the 85min mark – anyone who’s seen the film will know what I mean. Heller also mishandles the few flashbacks in the film. Who knows - whichever distributor picks it up might do work some scissorhands on it and make it an even better film.

“The Passage” is a great refreshing entry into the genre. His concept is so simple yet effective - something, as a filmmaker, made me shake my head and say, ‘why didn’t I think of that’. Enjoy.

Monday, 10 September 2007

TIFF REPORT #7 - George Romero's Diary of the Dead


George Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007) dir. George Romero
Starring: Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, Shawn Roberts, Amy Lalonde, Joe Dinicol, Scott Wentworth

**

We all have to show our penance to the Godfather of Zombies, George Romero. That’s why I went to see his latest “Diary of the Dead”. Unfortunately his best days are behind him as the film is a subpar effort in the genre, and serves only to self-parody his other films. It’s largely uneventful, action-less and uninteresting. I admire his attempt to subvert the genre he invented by making the film seem like a student film version of his own films, but the post-modernist approach distracts us from what we all really want to see - more zombie blood-splattering. And there wasn’t nearly enough of that.

It’s present day and a group of film students are shooting a zombie/mummy film in the woods. When they hear on the radio about the world being attacked by zombies, the adventurous director Jason (Joshua Close) leads his crew into the zombie danger zone to capture the action first-hand verite-style. The crew is led on journey of discovery, fighting and eventually fleeing from the zombies.

In many ways it’s also a mockumentary as the entire film is shot from the point of view of the director’s two cameras. For Romero to parody “The Blair Witch Project” is almost 10 years too late. This post-modern approach is a tired storytelling technique – even as applied to zombie genre. Does he forget that the Zach Snyder version also used the camcorder as a character?

Romero uses over-dramatic delivery and self-reverential one-liners as his dialogue in the film. He’s intending the film to appear as if it were made by student. At times it was quite funny – especially the deaf Amish man who uses a scythe to fight off the zombies on his farm, but most times during the faux filmmaking and point of view narration from the director we all just wanted to see some more zombie carnage.

During the screening there was some forced laughter from the hardcore fanboys – they as well tried very hard to like the film, but few, if any, really did.

TIFF REPORT #6 - The Battle in Seattle


The Battle in Seattle (2007) dir. Stuart Townsend
Starring: Michelle Rodriguez, Martin Henderson, Ray Liotta, Andre Benjamin, Woody Harrelson

**

Actor Stuart Townsend’s first feature film is the most unlikely of first films - a political action character drama about the violent and chaotic WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. The film dramatizes the events of the three violent days which saw protestors violently battle the police in the name of anti-globalization and human rights. Townsend’s debut is competent, but not stellar. It’s unfortunate because a story like this needs to be stellar in order to succeed. It can’t be competent. And by making a film like this he’s going to be compared to the master of this genre – Paul Greengrass, whose film “Bloody Sunday” is still far and away the top bar for this type of film. “The Battle in Seattle” doesn’t come close.

The film uses fictional characters and subplots to tell the true story of the violence that plagued the 1999 WTO meetings in Seattle. We get to see the planning of both the police and the protesters at the beginning of the film - both sides are aware of each other and both try to outwit each other in order to claim the upper hand. The protestors led by Jay (Martin Henderson), Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) and Django (Andre ‘3000’ Benjamin) do get the upper hand and manage to block off entry to the headquarters. Mayor Jim Tobin, who wanted to keep the day non-violent is forced to use tear gas to disperse the protestors. Three days of fighting results in escalating violence that tears the city apart.

By shooting the film handheld, in your face, and visceral, Townsend clearly intends to tell the story in a ‘realist’ fashion – like “Bloody Sunday”. Unfortunately it’s transparent, Instead of trusting the power of situation, he relies on unnecessary melodramatic contrivances and artificiality. For example, Officer Dale’s (Woody Harrelson) wife has just miscarried as a result of the violence. When Dale asks his superior if he can take the next day off to be with his wife, the Chief tells him no - he’s needed on the street. This scene serves to fuel Harrelson’s anger which he takes out on one of the protestors. But the manipulate scene is unnecessary and unrealistic. As well, towards the end of the film when Dale apologizes to the man he beat up, their conversation feels more out of the on-the-nose “Crash” rather than the natural realism of “Bloody Sunday”.

Much of the political dialogue is terribly on-the-nose as well. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and doesn’t shy away from blatantly telling the audience what they should feel about the WTO and Globalization. Of course, it’s a partisan film, but it would have been more powerful to ‘show’ the message instead of telling us. Again, the power of the situation could have done that on its own.

In the end, the protestors rejoice in a claimed victory when the trade talks are cancelled. I was left shaking my head. After all the violence, clearly escalated by mob-mentality actions on both sides of the fence, for the protestors to rejoice joyously is an insult to its audience.

“The Battle in Seattle” is on par with Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby” – another flawed actor’s passion project. Both films take a blatant melodramatic approach to a story that doesn’t need massaging. Both films are filled with great star power which doesn’t actually add any authenticity – in fact, the famous faces distract us. We shouldn’t be saying in the middle of the film “hey, isn’t that Joshua Jackson?” You just have to re-watch Greengrass’ “United ‘93”, which successfully used unknown and non-actors in all the roles. That film is more powerful, less expensive and will be more successful than Townsend’s film. And I’m very surprised Townsend didn’t go that route because he was clearly aware of the Greengrass comparisons. That’s why he hired “United 93’s” DOP, Barry Ackroyd to lens his film.

Saying all that, Townsend’s film is a noble effort and it shows some skill with actors, cameras and editors. I look forward to his next project.