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

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

HALLOWEEN II


Halloween II (1981) dir. Rick Rosenthal
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Charles Cyphers, Lance Guest

***1/2

“I shot him six times, I shot him in the heart!”

John Carpenter’s “Halloween” is a great film, but rarely is its sequel “Halloween II” ever discussed with any reverence. Perhaps because it’s not directed by Carpenter which may knock it down on the prestige level, or perhaps its lumped in with the half dozen sequels which came after it. But discussing “Halloween” without “Halloween II” is like discussing “The Godfather” without “The Godfather Part II”. “Halloween II” is a superb second half of the story, a natural extension from the first film, adding more chilling horror and revealing more of the story which make both films all the more satisfying.

The night of Oct 31, 1978 isn’t over in Haddenfield. “Halloween II” not only links up with Part I, it overlaps the last five minutes of the film. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) the quiet teenage babysitter has just fought off the Shatner-masked Michael Myers and we see Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) shoot Myers six times only to discover his body has disappeared into the night. While Dr. Loomis and the cops comb the streets of Haddenfield and Laurie is taken to the hospital for treatment, Myer regroups and continues his rampage. Myers is a different killer though, he’s not as random as we thought. When he steals a knife from a neighbour’s kitchen he curiously leaves her alive. His murderings seem motivated and by necessity. A series of discoveries by Loomis will reveal why.

Eventually Myers makes it to the hospital where the terror is ramped up to peaking levels. Rosenthal constructs a masterful sequence of terror in the clausterphobic confines of the hospital. One by one the skeleton crew staff bite the dust in even more gruesome fashion. Myers creatively kills with a syringe, a scalpel, his bare hands, and even a scolding hot water tub. When Myers finds Laurie, it becomes a one on one chase through the hospital with Myers pursuing with a calm but relentless Terminator-like assault. Loomis eventually makes the connection between Laurie and Myers, and arrives at the hospital just in time to save the day,

“Halloween II” feels like a real and necessary sequel because it expands on plot threads from the first film and provides the satisfactory closure missing in the first film. Some may say the randomness of Myers’ killing or the open-ended ending made it scarier. I disagree. Knowing Myers’ motivation and the patient 15-year wait before his premeditative attack is even more chilling than the randomness.

Rosenthal smartly mimics John Carpenter’s style to make his film fit nicely alongside the first. Carpenter wasn’t so far removed from the project either to make it completely Rosenthal’s film. Original creators Carpenter and Debra Hill co-produced and co-wrote the sequel and Carpenter composed the score again. And so, with the same actors, it’s all but Carpenter’s film. In fact, in interviews Carpenter’s said he should have directed the sequel, but his career was blossoming too fast at that point.

Rosenthal is no slouch though. The hospital sequence is as good and scary as anything in the first film and arguably the film reaches even higher levels of dramatic intensity. The creepiest shot in the film is Myers slowly walking down the steps, scalpel in hand, in time with the beat of the music.

The film is book ended with a counterpoint song, “Mister Sandman”, which reinforces the theme of Strode’s living nightmare which will continue to haunt her the rest of her life. And Loomis’s heroism at the end is the correct way to close out his character. Throughout his time in the mental hospital, Myers’ battle was with Loomis – a battle which Loomis lost, and for which he needed redemption. “Halloween II” is as much about Loomis as it is about Strode or Myers. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Halloween II




Tuesday, 30 October 2007

TWIN PEAKS PILOT


Twin Peaks Pilot (1990) dir. David Lynch
Starring: Kyle Maclachlan, Michael Ontkean, Ray Wise, Richard Beymer, Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn

***1/2

“Diane... another ‘Twin Peaks’ box set arrives in stores. I thought all episodes were available already. Wasn’t the second season just released earlier this year? Oh, I just noticed this Gold Box includes the previously unreleased pilots. I must check it out.“

Ten years before the birth of edgy serialized watercooler television like “the Sopranos” there was “Twin Peaks” - a trailblazing short-lived event TV series from surreal experimentalist David Lynch. Family-friendly network television and David Lynch seemed an unlikely match, but for half a season they were the real ‘must-see TV’. The pilot which aired April 8, 1990, is still one of the finest television moments in my 32 years of boob-tubing.

The series opens with a credit sequence not unlike his 1986 film “Blue Velvet” – serene nature shots of an idyllic northwestern lumber town named “Twin Peaks”. Angelo Badalamenti’s swooning score washing over you like a gentle stream. The opening moments catch Pete Martell (Lynch regular Jack Nance) finding a dead body wrapped in plastic at the side of a river. The girl is revealed to be local beauty queen Laura Palmer. The awkshucks group of inexperienced authorities led by Sheriff Harry S. Truman call in the FBI to help with the investigation. Arriving in town praising the local coffee and cherry pie is the goofy Dale Cooper (Kyle Maclachlan). Goofy as he is, Special Agent Cooper is as thorough as he is peculiar and his attention to detail becomes apparent once he begins the investigation.

The townsfolk are either innocent benevolent naves or scheming and conniving backstabbers. The numerous subplots are as steamy and potboiled as any soap opera. There’s Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) the local landowner looking to takeover the local saw mill. There’s Ray Wise and his wife Sarah who are grief-striken beyond belief over Laura’s death. There’s the high school cliques, all of whom are cheating on their girlfriends or boyfriends with someone else in the town. Teasing forensic clues are dropped on us, such as a half a heart necklace, a hidden diary, a video tape of Laura recorded by an unknown lover, a small letter R torn from a newspaper and placed under Laura’s finger nail. Since it’s a pilot not much is resolved except to throw the puzzle pieces on the table for us to piece together over the course of the show.

Lynch is a master of counterpoint and mixing tones. And like “Blue Velvet” he and co-creator Mark Frost move effortlessly between absurd humour to potent melodrama to uncompromising horror. In the pilot humour and horror are mixed in with a traditional procedural set up giving us the evidence, witnesses, and list of suspects. Lynch also shows us how the news of Laura’s death travels through the community. Two scenes stand out –Leland on the phone with his wife when Sheriff Truman gives him the bad news; and Donna Hayward and James Hurley’s fearful glances with each other in class.

The characters make the show a standout. Some are caricatures such as bad-girl-in-a-school-uniform Audrey Horne, some are extreme wackos such as Ed Hurley’s drapes-obsessed wife, but only a few are actually grounded in reality. And in many ways Sheriff Truman is the anchor. His character is our point of view in this world – he remains calm and straight throughout the entire series. Dale Cooper, though an outsider of the town is as idiosyncratic as the log lady.

As the series moves on, weaknesses become evident after the first 7 episodes, which is where the open-ended American television format fails. Lynch is best at creating moments or individual scenes, and so the series amplifies glaringly Lynch’s limitations with closure. The series should have been completed after 6 or 8 episodes, instead its popularity likely delayed the reveal of Laura’s killer till the second season.

No pun intended, the series peaks somewhere in the first few episodes of Season 2. After Laura Palmer’s murderer is discovered, all parties involved including Lynch himself admits the series went downhill and rightfully got cancelled. But within the sloppy second season there are moments of brilliance. And, really, has there ever been a scarier bad guy in television (or even the movies) than “Bob”?

The influence of Lynch and Frost’s skewed world of absurd characters is seen in many of today’s shows such as “Desperate Housewives”, “Weeds”, and “Ugly Betty”. But this is 2007 and it took over 15 years for television to catch up to this giant leap forward. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Twin Peaks - The Definitive Gold Box Edition (The Complete Series)



Monday, 29 October 2007

TALK TO ME

Talk to Me (2007) dir. Kasi Lemmons
Starring: Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Martin Sheen

**

“Talk to Me” intrigued me as worthy viewing based on the ten-year old reputation of “Eve’s Bayou”. A film which I haven’t seen, but will always remember from Roger Ebert’s glowing 1997 review. Unfortunately Lemmon’s latest film about 60’s/70’s controversial African-American DJ Petey Greene is a typical middle of the road biopic, an HBO MOW at best pushed to the theatres based on the star power of Don Cheadle.

Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) was a thug serving time in a Washington D.C. prison when he caught the attention of local radio programming director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Dewey first hears Greene’s profane radio act over the PA system while visiting a friend in prison. Dewey is casually introduced to Greene, who is as loud and obnoxious in person as he is over the air. After Greene gets out, he pursues Dewey to put him on the radio with steadfast determination. Everyone in the station is turned off by the in-your-face persona of Greene, but Dewey sees a connection with the black audience that is lacking with his current programming. Dewey takes a chance and puts him on the air. And the rest is obscure radio history.

Dewey and Greene’s career spans the civil rights period in the late 60’s and early 70’s. But as Greene becomes more popular Dewey’s dreams of success become larger and larger. Dewey becomes Greene’s manager and he moves his act into stand-up, TV talk shows and eventually the peak of entertainment, “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”. The success takes a toll on their partnership and they eventually split up, only to reform years later for one last gig.

Essentially the film is about the relationship between two opposite personalities. Greene, the talented showman with an alcohol problem, and Dewey, his conservative manager who harnesses and guides Greene’s talent into areas he was never meant to go. When they make it to “The Tonight Show” Greene’s act has become too diluted he feels like a sell out. At this point in his career Greene realizes there’s more to life than success - ‘keeping it real’ splits the team apart.

Basically I’ve just recycled every celebrity team’s rise and fall formula. Most recently it was “Dreamgirls”, but “Talk to Me” does nothing to alter the formula. We never get the sense of Greene’s talent for talk either. By following the formula the film has to showcase the talent of artist – like the tremendous musical sequences in “Dreamgirls”. Unfortunately Cheadle, though a great actor, doesn’t show us Greene’s true magnetism. Compare this performance to the portrayal of Barry Champlain, the doomed shock jock in Oliver Stone’s “Talk Radio”. Similar subject matter, elevated above formula by Eric Bogosian’s commanding performance. If Bogosian never acted again, he could have been a successful radio DJ. Cheadle never embodies Greene, he just acts like him.

“Talk to Me” is also filled with too many silly and contrived scenes that lesson the power of the story. The usual hard-ass near heart attack role by Martin Sheen as the station manager and Greene’s bombastic bimbo girlfriend make for lame slapstick comedy.





Here’s footage of the real Petey Greene:


Sunday, 28 October 2007

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME


The Most Dangerous Game (1932) dir. Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Starring: Joel McRae, Fay Wray,

***

This largely unheralded film from the early 30’s is essential viewing for cinephiles. “The Most Dangerous” is an adventure film about a man and woman who get shipwrecked on a remote Pacific Island inhabited by a maniacal Russian aristocrat who hunts human victims for sport. A myriad of remakes, copycats and borrowers have reduced the power and suspense of the film, but when put into proper context, it’s still is a highly enjoyable film. And at the very least you can see the seeds of the next film for this filmmaking team – “King Kong”.

Like “King Kong”, director Schoedsack opens his film on a boat, traveling the treacherous Pacific Ocean. A group of game hunters are returning home from a hunting trip, when they are lured off their path to an uncharted island. They hit a reef and sink their boat. The only survivor is Bob Rainsford. Bob is given shelter by Russian emigrant Count Zaroff and his Rasputin-like henchman, Ivan. Zaroff’s false hospitality is peppered with a sinister ulterior motive. Along with Bob are two other guests from another misguided expedition – siblings Eve and Martin Trowbridge (Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong).

When Martin disappears, Bob and Eve learn about Zaroff’s sick hobby – hunting real humans in the wild for sport. Bob and Eve are given weapons and released into the island jungle with a head start before Zaroff and his hunting party tracks them down. But Bob is no ordinary game. He proves a worthy adversary as he creates a series of traps that make Zaroff’s hunt the most dangerous yet. The hunter-vs.-hunter battle ends with a hand to hand fight in his castle before Bob and Eve finally win their freedom.

Before Eve and Bob are released and the adventure begins we are subject to a largely painful set up consisting of the most unsubtle metaphors of Social Darwinism. Before reaching the island Rainford’s proclaims his superiority saying, “This world's divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I'm the hunter. Nothing can change that.” A tad on the nose. Things get interesting once the scene-chewing Count Zaloff enters the picture. He is a wonderful noble bad-guy with a sense of gamesmanship and honour (imagine Hans Gruber meets Mr. Burns). My favourite moment is the crash dolly down the staircase when he Martin says to Eve “Don't worry. The Count will take care of me.” The camera ends its sweeping move with Zaloff’s line “Indeed I shall.”

Once the adventure begins on the island (approximately the midway point), we get to see Schoedsack’s skills at ‘in-the-wild’ filmmaking. Many of the jungle sets were reused for “King Kong” and the special matting photography gives us an utterly believable lifelike environment. The chase continues for most of the second half and is well executed and edited as an early classic Hollywood action sequence.

Some other interesting significances of the film is the presence of a young David O Selznick as producer, Max Steiner who composes one of his earliest and best music scores (and uncredited as well!). And the film has key significance in David Fincher’s 2007 film, “Zodiac”. “The Most Dangerous Game” figures prominently as a piece of evidence in the case against the famed 70’s serial killer. Watching “Zodiac” having seen “The Most Dangerous Game” actually makes the film more enjoyable.

For good and bad, “The Most Dangerous Game” is a public domain film, which means anyone with access to a professional quality tape anyone can create a DVD and sell the film. It appears Legend Films has done just this. The disc is marketed as the first release of the colourized version, which of course, is blasphemy to cinephiles, but thankfully they also include the original black and white version. Unfortunately both versions are not as crisp as the Criterion version released several years ago and the atrocious DVD menu screen which looks like a video game is an insult to the film. The colourization was supervised by Ray Harryhausen, which doesn’t add enough credibility to make it right. The interviews with Harryhausen and a couple other scholars add a few good insights, but I recommend watching the Peter Jackson documentary on Universal box set of the 1933 “King Kong” film for a better analysis of the film.

But these are all peripheries for film buffs. The film and content prevail as an important benchmark of cinema. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Most Dangerous Game


Mind the French music accompanying this clip, it’s all I could find:



Saturday, 27 October 2007

THE COMPANY


The Company (2007) dir. Mikael Salomon
Starring: Chris O’Donnell, Alfred Molina, Michael Keaton, Alessandro Nivolo

****

“The Company” is a 3-part TV mini-series which aired on TNT this summer. It’s a shame it only aired on the lower-tier cable channel and not a prestige-caster like HBO or Showtime, because with some heavy hitters behind the film (Ridley and Tony Scott) we are guaranteed an exciting, suspenseful epic event. Indeed, it’s arguably the definitive film about the CIA – everything “The Good Shepherd” wasn’t.

The film is divided into three clearly-defined chapters spanning 1945 – 1992. Part 1 introduces three key figures – Jack McAuliffe, our hero (Chris O’Donnell), Leo Kritsky (Alessandro Nivolo) and Yevgeny Tsipin (Rory Cochrane). They are all friends and grads from Yale, which, as we know from history books and films was the recruiting ground for the Company (the CIA’s nickname). Jack and Leo get recruited, and Yevgeny moves back to Russia, where he is courted into the KGB. The first mission for Jack is bringing back a Communist defector from East Berlin. Jack is taught the ropes by old school mentor ‘The Sorcerer’ Harvey Torritti (another fine Alfred Molina performance). When the defection is compromised it exposes a mole with the upper ranks of the Company. Throughout the series, this mole will become central in all of Jack’s dealings.

In Part 2, Jack is abroad participating in the foreign affairs missions in Hungary, Guatemala and Cuba and we get to see played out the Hungarian Revolution, and the Bay of Pigs invasion. In Part 3, the mole comes back into the picture when another defector teases Jack with some tempting information. Michael Keaton, who plays director James Angleton, a supremely analytical agent, goes after the mole with needle and thread precision. But when the mole is revealed to be someone close to Jack, hearts and minds come into conflict. The film finishes off with the fall of Communism, when the “great game” as everyone describes it comes to an end. We are also given a revelatory piece of information about a Soviet connection to a near disastrous event in 1987. I’ll let you watch to discover this clever real-life connection.

It must have been fun and frustrating to be a CIA agent - highly intelligent people going head-to-head in a game of global chess. Nothing is ever as it seems, and if the agents get to a piece of information too easily it’s usually dismissed as disinformation. This is the main battle for Jack and Torritti, determined disinformation from real information. It’s a conundrum that can rarely be solved, because facts, evidence and information can so easily be planted and manipulated.

Writer Ken Logan (“Blackhawk Down”) manages to dramatize these complex mind games with clarity. He keeps the characters to a minimum, and so rarely are we confused. He also gives us peaks and valleys in the narrative – which “The Good Shepherd” lacked. Part 2 is essentially an action film with Chris O’Donnell driving tanks in Hungary and firing guns in Cuba. Logan is all business as well, leaving out any and all relationship plotlines. Excised are the requisite scenes of domestic life and internal family conflict. And there’s no miscasting of Angelina Jolie as an innocent housewife either. As mentioned, it’s the “24” model of espionage - A to B to C storytelling with very little fat.

The series is directed by Mikael Salomon – known for his DOP work in the 80’s and 90’s but his superb directorial work on “Band of Brothers”. He manages to get some surprisingly large-scale production value within television’s usual low budget. Having cut his teeth with lower budget action on “Band of Brothers” Salomon provides the same level of tense action here. And in the Bay of Pigs sequences, he actually pulls off a surprising epic landing sequence complete with wide establishing shots of the beaches with planes flying overhead, battleships in the water and hundreds of men on the beach. It was a pleasant surprise to see this escalation in storytelling after the largely low-key whispering of Part 1.

The film is on DVD, and believe me, it’s a must see. For those of you who really wanted to like “The Good Shepherd” but could only sleep through it’s pedantic pace, the real film about the CIA has finally arrived. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Company



Friday, 26 October 2007

KAW


Kaw (2007) dir. Sheldon Wilson
Starring: Sean Patrick Flannery, Kristin Booth, Stephen McHattie, Rod Taylor

*
Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw

Have you ever seen a motion picture that reminds you of how little you know? Have you ever seen a motion picture that teaches you things you never knew? Have you ever seen a motion picture that makes you glad you never watch television?

“Kaw” is just such a motion picture.

Recently released on DVD, “Kaw” proved to be quite a revelation to this viewer.

First of all, I wondered why I had never heard of it before since I see virtually every genre picture that is released in the movie theatres. How could I have possibly missed a motion picture about a sleepy farming community that is under attack by flocks of crows afflicted with mad-cow disease? This sounds like the sort of picture I live for.

Crows? Afflicted with mad-cow disease? Pecking people to death?

Let me be first in line, please.

Alas, such a motion picture did not open theatrically, and I was forced to experience it for the first time on DVD.

Why, you ask? Well, as it turns out, “Kaw” is not one of your run-of-the-mill straight-to-video feature films. It apparently premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel. As I live in Canada, I do not get the Sci-Fi Channel. Even if Canada did get the Sci-Fi Channel (or if this movie aired on Canada’s own Space or TMN), I still would not have seen it since I have not had cable television since 1983 and have no intention of getting it ever again.

In any event, the first thing I learned is that people still make movies for television.

Isn’t that interesting?

The second thing I learned was that Sean Patrick Flannery who plays the stalwart small-town cop attempting to save his fellow townsfolk from the mad-cow-afflicted crows has made many movies for television. This explains why he was not familiar to me. The same thing happened a few years ago when I was watching the pallid American remake of “The Grudge” and wondered why I could not figure who the mousy, uncharismatic leading lady was. I eventually found out she was the star of the TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” which I had never seen before because I do not watch television and I had managed to successfully repress her appearances in the pathetic theatrical motion pictures she actually was in.

The third thing I learned was that I should be proud of my Canadian nationality since it appears that “Kaw” was made in Canada with many Canadian actors, some Canadian producers and with money from the Canadian government. For some reason I saw an American flag flying in the small town the movie is set in, but that’s okay because I soon realized it was probably some small town in Southern Ontario and that it looked a lot prettier than many small towns in America.

The fourth thing I learned from watching this movie was that Rod Taylor is still alive and he’s a terrific actor who deserves much better than being wasted in thankless roles like this one, a kindly small-town doctor. Taylor, as many of you know, was a big star in the late 50s and early 60s and most notably was the square-jawed leading man in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, a film that “Kaw” pathetically attempts to homage.

“Kaw” is not terrible. If you had absolutely nothing to do, you probably would not feel like you wasted 90 minutes. It clips along reasonably, it does feature Rod Taylor (and the eminently watchable character actor Stephen McHattie), it is not without some decent special effects and it is relatively bereft of awful dialogue. This, however, is what makes a movie like this even more depressing. I actually kept wishing it would be awful, so at least it would have been fun. Instead, it was straight-ahead, humourless and maddeningly competent.

This sort of competence does not necessarily make for entertaining movies. I mean, come on, this is about crows with mad-cow disease for God’s sake! Can we lighten up a little folks and have some fun?

Watching this movie kept me thinking about some of the fabulous creature features of the 70s and 80s from people like Corman, Dante and (I kid you not) John Sayles. Movies like “Piranha” and “Alligator” had a delightful trash sensibility and tons of humour mixed with the gore. I even thought about movies like “Frogs” and “Grizzly” which also had pulp sensibilities. I thought about “The Birds” and “Jaws” – both “A” pictures to be sure, but full of virtuosity and humour.

And then I thought about “Kaw” and the humourless competence that rules every frame.

The DVD release of “Kaw” features a variety of extra features, but the best one is an interview with Rod Taylor who is gracious, funny and full of wonderful anecdotes. Alas, he does get to talk about “Kaw” and mentions that he took the role because, unlike Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, the mad peckers had a reason for killing people. My heart sank. He was too gracious to admit he took this piece of garbage for the paycheque and came up with some lame excuse. Rod, darling, one of many things that makes “The Birds” so creepy, so chilling and so scary is that there is NO reason for the birds to kill.

“Kaw” gives us a moronic reason. Some repressed Hutterites with fake beards do not report that their livestock have mad-cow disease and the crows start to feast on the disease-ridden bodies, which, in turn, drive them insane.

Now if you’re going to have a mind-numbingly stupid reason behind the carnage, please have the good taste to make a pulpy, funny, completely whacked movie instead of something that is merely competent.

The fifth and most important thing I learned watching “Kaw” was this – if “Kaw” is the sort of thing made for television on a regular basis, I’m sure glad I don’t have cable.

Buy "Kaw" here:Kaw

Buy "The Birds" Here: The Birds (Collector's Edition)



Thursday, 25 October 2007

TORONTO AFTER DARK FESTIVAL #3: Wolfhound


Wolfhound (2007) dir. Nikolai Lebedev
Starring: Aleksandr Bukharov, Oksana Akinshina, Aleksandr Domogarov, Igor Petrenko

***1/2

For me, no one does melodrama better than the Russians. Perhaps it’s the sheer size and uncompromising environment that brings out the heart and soul of the people from their art. Though it’s no “War and Peace”, or “Doctor Zhivago” “Wolfhound” – a large scale sword and sorcery fantasy is in the tradition of these “big” stories. Billed as “Russia’s” “Lord of the Rings”, it comes close to being one of the best in the genre of medieval fantasy.

Having just seen and given two stars to Uwe Boll’s take on sword and sorcery – “In the Name of the King” with Jason Statham, “Wolfhound” towers over that film and stomps on it like a blow from a blunt mace to the head. Speaking of blunt maces to the head, the film owes a lot to “Braveheart”. The opening sequence establishes the lead character’s journey, when we see in flashback our hero’s innocent farming parents brutally murdered right in front of the child’s young eyes. Like William Wallace after his new bride is murdered, “Wolfhound” makes it his lifelong mission to avenge their deaths.

When he takes down his first victim in a violent and brutal fight in a castle, he takes with him a female tagalong (a traditional element of the genre) Princess Helen, a Russian Goddess who will soon be crowned Queen of land. Wolfhound and Helen are joined in their quest by a blind wizard and a few other warriors, slaves and scholars. Oh, I forgot Wolfhound’s pet bat as his sidekick – a definite first for the genre. Like R2D2 or Twinkle Bell his bat is his trusted ally and comes to his aide on a number of occasions. It’s corny, but each and every time it put a childlike smile to my face. I won’t go into detail about the quest and the special rock-like key that supposed to open the gates of Callidor (or something like that). There’s also a love story between the scarred warrior Wolfhound and the Princess. Typically her hand is already taken by another prince, but Wolfhound’s sensitive power is able to win her love. It's all food for the sweeping majesty and melodrama of the genre.

“Wolfhound” apparently had the largest post-Soviet budget for a film. And it’s on the screen. The special effects are mostly invisible to the eye. Even though people told me the bat was CGI, I still couldn’t tell. The film also has an aged, 80’s feel to it. Like 80’s classics “The Sword and the Sorcerer” or “Flesh and Blood”. Trust me, “Wolfhound” is not a nostalgia-fest, it’s taken very seriously and there’s ample bucks on screen to make it look believable.

As director, I don’t know who this Nikolai Lebedev guy is, but he’s definitely got some cinematic chutzpah. There’s at least 6 to 8 awesome sequences that get the blood pumping and adrenaline flowing. There’s a great sequence intercutting three transition scenes – the Princess’ coronation, the evil lord’s preparations for battle, and ceremonial goat killing – set to a heart pounding drum score. Lebedez turns what could have been a perfunctory montage scene into fun music video style exercise. There’s great battle between “Wolfhound” and a lifelike white fog that’s one of the more creative action sequences I’ve seen in a while. Wolf’s final battle against the tornado rock creature has certain biblical allegories and Lebedev’s framing of the gothic imagery feels like a Wagner score put to life.

Lebedev is clearly steeped in the cinematic fantasy and action cinema. There’s lot of “Excalibur”, “Braveheart”, “Gladiator”, “Lord of the Rings”, and a subtle dose of “Raiders of the Lost”. Though there’s a lot Spielbergian camera movements, it’s the attitude and joyful cinematic tone of Indiana Jones that really shines through.

My pals whom I saw the film with complained about its corniness. Indeed the love story and Wolfhound’s overly dramatic arc of revenge moves well into melodrama, but it’s a genre film, and though it may not match “Lord of the Rings”, there’s plenty of room at the top to make it worthy companion film. The Russians wear their hearts on their sleeves and considering their history of pain and suffering, and the damned cold weather, they are allowed to rejoice loud and grandiose as they want. I'll always listen. Enjoy.

PS I don't know when this film will get a North American release. If anyone has any info, please send a comment.



Wednesday, 24 October 2007

FIDO


Fido (2007) dir. Andrew Currie
Starring: Dylan Baker, Carrie Ann Moss, Billy Connolly, Henry Czerny, K'Sun Ray

***1/2

Fido is a fabulous new zombie comedy about a tamed zombie who is bought by a humble suburban family to do household chores but ends up developing a brotherly relationship with their young son. Though there will be inevitable comparisons to “Shaun of the Dead”, “Fido” earns its own place in this new sub-sub genre of horror films.

The opening monologue is hilarious. The masculine and guttural voice of a 1950’s radio announcer explains the backstory in the style of a classic newsreel. Instead of a World War, Earth, in this fictional world fought a “zombie war” against a zombie infestation. A company called Zomcon was able to tame the zombies with a collar around their necks. With this device zombies became robotlike servants available to ordinary families to do their daily chores.

One day Helen Robinson (Carrie Ann Moss) surprises her husband, Bill (Dylan Baker) with a new zombie (Billy Connolly) for the home. Their young boy Timmy makes friends with the zombie and names him Fido. Fido performs his tasks well, but Bill is still suspect of his presence. Painful memories of the Zombie War are brought back which causes a disruption in the family. Fido is watched carefully by the neighbourhood skeptic Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson) and one of the Zomcom executives (Henry Czerny) for fear that Timmy and Fido’s relationship might result in another potential zombie-outbreak.

“Fido” is foremost a deadpan comedy. Everything in the film, no matter how ridiculous is played straight. Director Currie assembles a perfect ensemble cast to play the roles. Carrie Ann Moss is the perfect homemaker-next-door, Dylan Baker is the classic suburban conservative father, Henry Czerny, as always, play his bad guy role with evil menace, and K'Sun Ray is gawky enough to play the curious Timmy. Henry Czerny, who doesn’t get enough good work as far I’m concerned, is the stand out.

Parodying the dull 1950’s suburban lifestyle is nothing new, but when combined with the absurd revisionist history Currie and co-writer Robert Chomiak create with the zombies, it’s downright hilarious. Even when I wasn’t laughing out loud there was a constant smile on my face. “Fido” could have overstayed its welcome and become a one-joke comedy, but Currie actually creates a warm relationship between Timmy and Fido. Though Billy Connolly doesn’t have any lines, his head tilts express just enough emotion to keep us interested.

The film, shot by DOP Jan Kiesser, looks fantastic as well. The film has a beautiful 2:35:1 widescreen frame, bright saturated colours and great use of the B.C. landscape. Composer Don MacDonald produces a top notch Elmer Bernstein-esque score and complements the heightened recreation of the period perfectly.

“Fido” manages to find surprisingly clever metaphors between zombies and the paranoia of the 1950’s - the fear of losing jobs to mechanical automation, the communist scare, and the need to keep up with the Jones. But the heart of the film is the relationship between boy and zombie. It’s like “Slingblade”, meets “E.T.”, meets “Lassie” meets "Night of the Living Dead". I’m sure that made an awesome pitch. Please check this film out. Enjoy


Buy it here: Fido


Monday, 22 October 2007

HOSTEL PART II


Hostel II (2007) Dir. Eli Roth
Starring: Lauren German, Heather Mattarazzo, Bijou Phillips

*
Beware Spoilers Ahead

In my review of “Hostel I” I said I purposely avoided the films of the new ‘torture porn’ genre which has emerged in the past 4 years. I praised the “Hostel I” for its satisfying blend of action, horror, wit and fresh unpredictability. “Hostel” is a completely unnecessary sequel that serves only to start another exploitation franchise which is the reason I avoided the genre in the first place.

Part II continues on directly where Part I left off, following Paxton (Jay Hernandez) home where he miraculously escaped the torture chambers in Part I. Despite this the underground organization “Elite Hunting” continues to exist and thrive. We get to see how the organizers choose their victims and auction them off to the highest bidders across the world. The next victims are Beth (Lauren German), Lorna (Heather Mattarazzo) and Whitney (Bijou Phillips), three female backpackers who unfortunately choose the same nefarious hostel as Paxton. Like the men in the first film, one by one the women are lured into the trap by the advances of the opposite sex. They are tortured to death, except for one of the gals who uses some smarts and a little bit of braun to escape death.

“Hostel II” feels like one of those sequels with lower rent actors and a new director hired to regurgitate the formula. So the fact that Eli Roth is responsible for this hasty sequel astonishes me. Roth uses the same formula as the first film, but a few changes have a drastic effect, turning a clever story about exploitation into just plain old exploitation – and without the wit.

The fundamental change in Part II is that the audience knows the major twist – that the torture chamber is an underground hunting club for rich sickos. The social context of Part I is the irony of the three backpackers being lured into an extreme form of exploitation by their own desires to exploit other women. In Part II, there is no irony, and the fact we know they are being lured makes it a perfunctory exercise with no suspense.

The second major change is that the victims are women. In a sick and twisted way the torture in Part I was actually witty. But when the victims are women it just becomes sick and twisted. That’s where I draw the line.

The third change is a preposterous attempt to humanize the torturers. Roth shows us the journey of two rich friends, Todd and Stuart (Richard Burgi and Roger Bart), from the U.S. to Bratislava as they get ready to take part in the game. We are supposed to ‘identify’ with Stuart who is uncertain and bullied into going through with the deed. Todd is the devil on his shoulder who peer pressures him into torturing and murdering an innocent woman – “Come on, be a man!” he keeps saying. And so, when a cheap excuse for a twist happens at the end it’s completely lost because we don’t care about any of the characters.

I will definitely put a hold on my support of Mr. Roth, who has taken a giant step backward with this film. Apparently his next film is a zombie film based on the Stephen King novel “Cell”. In the meantime, skip this horrible flick.



Sunday, 21 October 2007

TORONTO AFTER DARK FESTIVAL #2: In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale


In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007) dir. Uwe Boll
Starring: Jason Statham, Ray Liotta, Ron Perlman, John Rhys-Davies, Matthew Lillard, Burt Reynolds

**1/2

It was a fun screening last night with the infamous Uwe “Bloodrayne” Boll present in the audience. “In the Name of the King” is being billed as Uwe Boll’s largest budget to date, conspicuously leaving out the quality of the film. As a piece of adventure fantasy cinema the film is fantastic, but it’s also hampered by easily some of the worst performances this year. With an After Dark Festival audience it was terrific night out, but when it comes to competing with regular weekend box-office audiences that’s a different story.

The crowd was indeed primed to watch a Uwe Boll film. Mr. Boll’s humourous self-effacing introduction gave us permission to laugh at the bad parts and cheer the good parts. The story is typical of the genre. The evil sorcerer Gallian (Ray Liotta) has created an army of Krugs (like LOTR’s Orcs), laid siege to the land and taken over the Kingdom of his uncle King Konreid (Burt Reynolds). Jason Statham plays a humble farmer named Farmer (seriously) turned reluctant hero who summons latent but powerful fighting skills in order to rescue his kidnapped wife.

Farmer is joined by his mentor Norick (Ron Perlman) and his brother-in-law Bastian (Will Sanderson). Along the way Farmer discovers some secrets about his association with King Konreid and must reconcile the needs of the people with his own desire to save his wife. Much sword fighting, horse riding, magic conjuring ensues in this fun “Lord of the Rings” knock off.

The film looks fantastic, and though the fighting is 100% bloodless Boll and martial arts expert Siu-Tung Ching (of the Zhang Zimou films) choreograph some terrific epic action scenes. The film has an aged sepia-toned quality to it –unpolished and raw, like an untimed one-light transfer from the cut negative. Ironically it was refreshing to see a film without the dousing of an over-processed colour palette and digital effects.

Burt Reynolds’ performance was so bad every time he entered a scene he drew fits of laughter from the audience, and even more when Boll cut to the close-ups of his obviously face-lifted face. In fact, Jason Statham deserves an award for keeping a straight face through Reynolds’ bedside death scene, which is drawn out to a magnificent five minutes of agony. As mentioned, with the jazzed After Dark audience the scene drew thunderous applause.

Also turning in over-the-top performances are Ray Liotta at his maniacal best as the evil scorceror, and Matthew Lillard hamming it up as Konreid’s snot-nosed delinquent nephew and heir-to-the-throne. The rest of the cast knows their place in this expensive b-movie realm as well. Leelee Sobieski is comfortable saying the bad dialogue, as is Clare Forlani. Ron Perlman is perfectly cast and is at his grizzly best. Brian J. White also keeps a straight face and turns in a noble performance as the leader of the King’s army. He makes a strong case to be a future action star. But the film is all about Jason Statham’s star persona, and he delivers with great action chutzpah. Every leap, sword swipe, and leg slash is matched with a snarling squinting stare. Few actors today could do this role better than he.

The film has the honour of being part Canadian and being filmed in the glorious Rocky Mountains of B.C. (eat your heart out New Zealand). While it’s certainly no “Lord of the Rings” Boll has turned in a decent part-action film, part unintentional comedy, which deserves to be in the “so bad it’s good” column. Enjoy.

P.S. The film will be released in U.S. and Canada in Jan 2008.

Here’s a cool trailer to keep you going till then:



Saturday, 20 October 2007

TORONTO AFTER DARK FESTIVAL #1: Mulberry Street


Mulberry Street (2007) dir. Jim Mickle
Starring: Nick Damici, Antone Pagan, Sarah Dickinson

***

Opening the ‘Toronto After Dark Film Festival’ last night was the acclaimed New York City zombie film “Mulberry Street”. When an infestation of half-rat half-man zombies take over Manhattan, a group of lowly apartment building tenants including a former boxer, a drag queen and a war veteran form an unlikely bond to fight off the predators. It’s a humorous logline, but the film is a seriously intense urban action zombie film in the tradition of “28 Days Later”.
The opening establishes a group of well-meaning New York City working class residents of a condemned apartment building slated for demolition. Before that happens, some of the feral rats also inhabiting the building start exhibiting more than the usual belligerent behaviour. When a rat takes a chunk out of the arm of one of the residents, he becomes infected with a new virus that will soon turn him into a rat zombie. Of course, where’s there’s one rat zombie there 10 more. And so it doesn’t take long for Manhattan to turn into a rat-zombie war zone.

In the building the fight is led by former boxer Clutch (Nick Damici) who is joined by Drag Queen Coco (Ron Brice) and a group of unlikely working class heroes. Clutch’s paternal instincts kick in and he becomes the Romero-like hero of the building. Meanwhile, in another part of the city Clutch’s daughter Casey (Kim Blair) has returned home from a tour in Iraq to be with her Father. She is forced to fight her way into the city to be reunited with her long lost father. The reunion is bittersweet as more death and bloodshed soon follow.

The film is played completely straight with little overt humour, though I giggled at some of the creative beatings from Clutch and his comrades-in-arms. There are no guns in the film; instead fists are the weapons of choice. Rat-zombies are punched to a pulp and thrown around like rag dolls. The hook of the film seems to be the introduction of the New York City rat into the zombie world. It sounds great on paper, but apart from catching a glimpse of a few prosthetic noses in some of the shots, the enemies are just flesh-eating zombies – plain and simple.

Jim Mickle keeps his camera moving and cutting at a frantic pace. His staccato shutter effect mimics the visual techniques in “28 Days Later”. In fact, the tone of Danny Boyle’s film is all over this film. Mickle uses an ambient feedback music score that Boyle used to punctuate his emotion beats in “28 Days Later”. Mickles overuses this technique and through repetitiveness, unfortunately it loses its impact. There’s about 6 or 7 action sequences with muted location sound and amplified ambient feedback. Mickle seems infatuated with it.

I’m being a little tough on the film, because considering the zero-budget the filmmakers had to work with, it’s a remarkable tough, gritty and intense film. When the characters finally get together at the end there’s a brief moment of calm when Clutch and Casey realize they’re a family together under the most extreme of circumstances. Mickle knows his film is about his characters, not the effects, or the action or the bloodletting.

One major distraction I had with the screening was the yucky full frame letterboxed digital projection. The colours were muted and dull and the grainy dark images which dominated the entire film only made more obvious the film’s no-budget. It’s a shame because under proper projection conditions – ie. maybe a print transfer, or a ‘Christie’ digital machine the film could have looked much better. Instead we were watching a giant television screen.

This is just part one of a few more After Dark Reviews of some of the best under-the-radar horror and fantasy films coming to your local theatre, underground video store, or Bit Torrent queue list. Enjoy.



Friday, 19 October 2007

HOSTEL: DIRECTOR'S CUT


Hostel: Director’s Cut (2006) dir. Eli Roth
Starring: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson

***1/2

NOTE: This is a review of the “Hostel: Directors Cut”, but since I haven’t seen the theatrical cut so I can’t compare the two.

Over the past few years I purposely stayed away from the hyped ‘torture porn’ genre of horror films. Eli Roth, from his public persona, struck me as someone whose films I did not want to see. But having just seen “Hostel” (as well his Grindhouse trailer, “Thanksgiving”) I can now say, I’m an Eli Roth fan. “Hostel”, which tells the story of a group of Americans who get seduced, kidnapped and tortured by some particularly gruesome Eurotrashers, throws enough twists and turns at us that the film becomes more than just your ordinary horror film, but something completely entertaining and satisfying beyond the genre expectations.

Americans Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) and the Icelandic Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) are your typical backpackers traveling through Europe looking to get laid and get stoned. They’re in Amsterdam making the most of the town. Paxton is the adventurous one, Josh is the shy one, and Oli, is your typical wild Icelander (you’d know if you met one). In search of even greater action, the boys take the advice a creepy Russian, who tells them to go a hostel in Bratislava where the girls go mad for Americans. Hook, line and sinker.

The boys travel by train to Bratislava and rent a room at the hostel where they are greeted by a pair of half undressed Eastern European beauties. They boys party with and eventual bed the young ladies. But one night when Josh gets separated, he passes out and wakes up in a torture chamber where his living nightmare begins. I’ll end the synopsis here, because the less you know the better. And beware spoilers are ahead.

The story unfolds very carefully. Roth doesn’t rush the gore, which is the reason why most people will be seeing the film. In fact, there’s only a 20 mins sequence in the middle of the film when the disgusting stuff actually happens. Much of it is implied. Roth plays by the rules and doesn’t give us too much too early. The film is cleverly structured to maximize the dramatic impact of its reveals. The opening act contains no horror, only laying a foundation of suspense. The portrayal of the Americans’ behaviour and the European attitude to them is very real. Much of the fear comes from this post 9/11 worldwide backlash against America. Because of recent Bushian politics, many Americans feel threatened in different parts of the world. All of the scenes and events in the first act (ie. Josh’s fight in the bar) amplify this fear. As well, what seems like exploitation and gratuitous amounts of sex and nudity with the prostitutes in the film is also laying thematic groundwork for payoff later in the film.

There’s several key moments and story beats in the film that kept me on the edge of my seat. The first key switch is when Roth cuts away from Josh in the torture chamber to Paxton who has been left alone at the disco club in the morning. By cutting back to Paxton, we are left hanging as what happened to Josh, and he delays the big reveal as to what the torture chamber actually is. NOTE: I applauded the recent TIFF film, “The Passage” for a similar narrative shift, not knowing Roth did it first. The second key reveal is when Paxton discovers he’s been set up by his new girlfriends. And the third moment occurs when he meets a fellow American in the torture room. It’s a very clever twist that I didn’t seen coming. Instead of being another slice of torture-porn exploitation, it makes an intelligent statement about exploitation.

Roth is very smart about how he shows his gore. It’s incredibly violent but also with a touch of humour – the eyeball scene is my favourite. And just when the film is about to get predictable, there’s the third act, which is a revenge action film. Roth breaks a horror film rule by having the victim actually fight back and succeed. I can’t recall a horror film where the hero is able to find such satisfying and sustained revenge against all his enemies.

That’s the key word in this review – satisfaction – the ending of the film in the washroom is such a great moment of cinematic revenge I was fist-pumping the screen. Eli Roth, you’ve sold me. I loved your “Thanksgiving” trailer on Grindhouse, I loved “Hostel”, and I look forward to “Hostel II” and looking back at “Cabin Fever”. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Hostel (Director's Cut)



Thursday, 18 October 2007

SAM KATZMAN #1 - Creature With the Atom Brain


Creature With the Atom Brain (1955) dir. Edward L. Cahn
Starring: Richard Denning, Angela Stevens, Michael Granger, S. John Launer, Gregory Gay

***1/2

Sam Katzman is one of cinema’s great schlockmeisters – a Roger Corman-like producer of 1950’s B-Horror films. According to the IMDB he has 250 various producer credits to his name. My first entry into the cinema of Sam Katzman is “Creature With the Atom Brain” a classic piece of disposable celluloid of the atomic era.

The film jumps right into the story with not an ounce of backstory explanation. A zombie-like man with a scar across his brain follows another man to his office late at night. The zombie moves to the windows and rips open the covering steel bars with hulk-like ease. The zombie then approaches the man and strangles him to death. Somewhere else in the world, a maniacal gangster and his German scientist partner, Dr. Wilhelm Steigg, (Gregory Gay) watch the action from the point of view of the zombie. They are able to control his movements remotely with simple instructions read into a microphone.

The gangster is the diabolical Frank Buchanan, who has returned from exile in Europe to exact revenge on his enemies. One by one his former colleagues and lawmen that did him wrong die at the hands of his army of remote-controlled humans. There’s a fantastical scientific explanation of how they can control their brains, but essentially they are zombies before there was such a term. The army is called in to help and the authorities led by mild-mannered scientist, Dr. Chet Walker, hunt down Buchanan and Steigg.

I doubt Sam Katzman ever thought this film would last beyond its life in the theatre. In fact, he’d probably be shocked someone like me would be discussing his film has such length 50 years later.

But a film like this changes over time. What was probably a very scary movie for teenagers in its day is now a time capsule comedy – a hilarious slice of the times. Modern films about the fifties frequently make fun of the blindfolded view of the world cinema showed its audiences (ie. “Far From Heaven”, or the recent horror-comedy “Fido”). Domestic suburban life was a blissful fairytale world and politics and war was noble, heroic and fun. And so, the naiveté of films like these provide us with unintentional absurdist humour.

Remarkably, as a piece of disposable low budget cinema, it actually survives as a polished piece of entertainment. With the help of a fantastic DVD transfer, the black and white image is as crisp and clear as it was in 1955 (probably better actually). In fact, the sharpness of the image rivals any black and white film made today - try doing a comparative analysis of Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck” and this film. It’s surprisingly difficult to find the technical differences.

The film plays to the lowest common denominator of intellect. The actors are there to tell the audience, on the nose, what is going on – and set up the fun action horror sequences. Some of the acting is horrendous, but excusing this in the context of times is necessary to enjoy the film. Though it’s not particularly scary, once the film gets moving at it’s brisk pace I got caught up in the melodrama.

The finale will provide some laughs as the zombie-warriors engage in a huge hand-to-hand battle with the police on the lawn of a suburban home. Director Edward L. Cahn frequently uses a point-of-view shot to show the zombies strangle their victims. It’s overused, but I can imagine it causing a fright to 50’s teenagers.

There are three more films in the new Sam Katzman DVD box set that I’ll be reviewing leading up to Halloween. I was surprised how enjoyable these films can be. For a guilty pleasure, and at least to expand your film history experience, take a look at “Creature With the Atom Brain”. Enjoy.

Icons of Horror Collection - Sam Katzman (The Giant Claw / Creature with the Atom Brain / Zombies of Mora Tau / The Werewolf)

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

THE HOAX


The Hoax (2007) dir. Lasse Hallstrom
Starring: Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci

***1/2

Nazi Propagandist Josef Goebbels once said the bigger the lie the more people will believe it. This was how Clifford Irving managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the editors, executives and lawyers of McGraw-Hill, one of the world’s largest publishers, and command an advance of $1,000,000 to write a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. “The Hoax” which recounts the amazing details of Irving’s forgery is a terrific new film just released on DVD.

Richard Gere, sporting a funny 1970’s tightly curled hairdo, plays real life author Clifford Irving. In the opening, Irving is on top of the world when his publisher McGraw-Hill agrees to publish his latest fiction novel. It isn’t more than a weekend that goes by before Irving has bought a new car, refurnished his house and spent all his money that he discovers the editors are reneging on their verbal deal. Irving is sent into a tail spin, and the only wait to salvage a failed career is to manufacture his own destiny. In a fit of anger he proclaims to his editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) that his next idea will be the most important novel of the 20th Century. This statement is enough to get another meeting from Tate, where Irving comes up with a false story that Howard Hughes, the billionaire, has chosen Irving to write his autobiography.

Of course Tate is suspect, since Hughes is one of the most reclusive people in the world. But Irving uses this reclusiveness to his advantage and manufactures fake handwritten memos as evidence. Handwriting experts valid Irving’s claims and so Irving is off and running with his forgery. His wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) and his research colleague Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) are roped into the adventure and together through a series of elaborate scams actually finish the novel and steal $1,000,000 from the publishing company. When the news of the book breaks, suddenly the real life Howard Hughes becomes involved (or does he?). Suddenly, without knowing it Irving becomes the puppet for Hughes’ devious bidding. The story unfolds with wit and intrigue. Of course the film wouldn’t work for a second if it weren’t all true. It’s hard to believe, but the story is backed up by none other than Mike Wallace in a retrospective “60 Minutes” featurette on the DVD special features.

“The Hoax” is a pleasant discovery – the once shelved Miramax film was released in April of this year, two years after it was made, to decent reviews but little box office or fanfare. I must blame the marketing department that built its campaign around the minor comedic elements of the film. Watch the trailer below which makes the film out as a happy-go-lucky farcical satire.

The intricate and detail-heavy plotting were the most intriguing aspects of the film. Imagine a really good episode of one of that great detective shows “McMillan and Wife”, or “Columbo” where we get to see the crime performed and dissected down to the minutest detail. It’s hard to believe how easily respectable and experienced executives could hand over such large sums of money based on a forged handwritten memo on lined yellow paper. But that was the power of Howard Hughes back then. His influence in transportation and politics allowed Irving to move these hypothetical weights around to get what he wanted.

Much of the deception is due to the personality of Irving himself, whom Mike Wallace describes as an ok novelist, but a better actor. He’s one of the great conmen of our age. Gere gives a solid performance of this complex guy. He’s a devoted husband with a philandering past, who frequently asks his pal Dick to stop him from the temptation of other women. Irving knows his failures, and so in way we sympathize with him. He’s addicted to lying.

The humorous elements probably come from Lasse Hallstrom, who has made a career from throwing pixy dust onto emotional subjects (“What Eating Gilbert Grape”, “Cider House Rules”). He uses some overused AM radio songs as the soundtrack for the film – CCR, Rolling Stones, Richie Havens, etc. These are great songs, but gave off a confusing tone for the film.

“The Hoax” compares favourably to “Shattered Glass” – Billy Ray’s equally terrific film about a magazine journalist who wrote fake articles for the ‘New Republic’. The subject matter in both is something we are instinctively drawn to, the con, the robbery, the magic act of deception. I know every time I watch a heist film I always want them to get away with the money. I’ll let you watch the film to know how it turns. Enjoy.




Tuesday, 16 October 2007

THE TRIALS OF DARRYL HUNT


The Trials of Darryl Hunt (2007) dir. Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg
Documentary

***1/2

I had the pleasure of watching “The Trials Darryl Hunt” a new documentary from ThinkFilm. The small New York/Toronto-based distributor has placed themselves in the forefront of this new era of theatrical documentaries (“Spellbound”, “Murderball”, “Born Into Brothels”). And indeed, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” hits the mark of these other films. It tells the unbelievable story of Darryl Hunt’s 20-year fight to free himself from wrongful imprisonment of a crime he didn’t commit. It’s a compelling story of injustice, racism and the dedication of his friends and colleagues to set him free.

In Winston-Salem N.C. in 1984 newspaper editor Deborah Sykes, suffered the most heinous crime. On her way to work, just ten minutes from her office, she was brutally raped, sodomized and murdered. Her body was discovered at 2:00 in the afternoon that day. Darryl Hunt, a young black male, was fingered as the murderer. A sloppy trial based on a circumstantial evidence and an “eye witness” testimony from a Ku Klux Klan member convicted Hunt on first degree murder, which meant life in prison (that’s ‘real’ life, not the Canadian 25-year version).

Hunt’s cries of innocence do not go unnoticed by the outraged members of the black community – specifically Larry Little, a local city official and friend of Darryl’s who starts a fund to see his case reopened and appealed. Little and his organization of black citizens indeed get the case reopened in 1989, but this is only the beginning of the Odyssey. As the title suggests, Hunt endures trial after trial for 20 years before real justice is served.

Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg use 10 years of their own lives to document the complete journey with a remarkable amount of TV news reports, data, court documents etc. It’s told completely straight with little stylish embellishments. Of course, the high bar for a film like this is Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line”, which used creative cinematic techniques and bold dramatic music to accompany his investigation. At first, I couldn’t help comparing the two, and thinking, “the music is kinda dull and the visuals are adequate at best,” but as the film moved along and gathered momentum these concerns disappeared. The drama is inherent to the details of the story. Dramatic music and stylish visuals were not necessary.

Some of the egregious police and legal oversights were shocking to hear. Other then the Ku Klux Klan eye witness, racism doesn’t seem to be an overt factor in the story. But it is. No one cared about Darryl Hunt. No one cared about the shoddy evidence which miraculously stuck to the case. Even when DNA testing proved Hunt did not rape Mrs. Sykes, he still could not get another trial. Perhaps the carelessness of the police investigation could have happened to anybody. But did they really care about another black man put in prison, wrongfully or not? No.

In a month when most distributors are releasing their horror films to video stores, ThinkFilm seems to be telling us to watch this movie as a horror film. And indeed there’s as much horror in this film as any of the “Saw” films. Enjoy.

PS. The film won the Documentary Audience Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

Buy it here: The Trials of Darryl Hunt


Monday, 15 October 2007

THE DARJEELING LIMITED


The Darjeeling Limited (2007) dir. Wes Anderson
Starring: Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrian Brody

***

Warning: Spoilers contained here:

After going big with “The Life Aquatic” Wes Anderson has wisely scaled back his latest production to tell an intimate story of three brothers struggling to get through the baggage of their past and rekindle their friendship while on a spiritual journey through India. The stunning visuals make up for a story that starts off well but loses momentum in the second half.

The opening scene is a fun action sequence. The camera is following Anderson’s favourite actor Bill Murray through the streets of an unnamed Indian city. He’s racing to catch the “Darjeeling Limited” train. He’s running down the platform but not fast enough to make the jump on the last car. Just as he gives up, a more fleet of foot Adrian Brody emerges beside him and successfully makes the jump. Murray is left off the train, and off the film. It’s a neat piece of misdirection from Anderson.

We then follow Brody, playing Peter Whitman, who joins up with his two brothers, Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Francis (Owen Wilson) who are on the same train taking the same journey. The ride is organized with obsessive detail by Francis and his assistant Brendan as a way of reconnecting after the death of their father one year before.

It’s clear there’s much baggage between the three and so Jack and Peter are suspect of Francis’ motives. His intent is meaningful but immediately Francis’ commanding presence over the two starts to annoy each other. One of Francis’ many petty annoyances is his habit of ordering food for his brothers at restaurants. There are a couple of wonderful scenes that showcase this with great comic timing of the actors.

Brody, Wilson and Schartzman are a great trio. As brothers they are completely different in appearance (a 5-6 inch difference between Brody and Schwartzman), but they have a report and a common manner of speaking that is realistic for brothers. And while the dialogue zings like a Hawks film, there are moments of silent glances that say more about brotherly relationship than any line of dialogue.

The characters are typically Andersonian – privileged men who act like children stunted from absentee parenting. The backstory of their younger lives are not fully fleshed out, but with a Wes Anderson film they don’t need to be. Anyone familiar with his films knows his characters’ frailties. And in “Darjeeling” they are much the same. At the midway point in the film, Francis’ plan is halted and the trio are forced to deal with their problems ad hoc without the security of the train and Francis’ itinerary.

Thematically, getting off the train is a great metaphor for the next step in the mending of the lives, but cinematically the film suffers and loses direction. When they eventually meet up with their mother (Angelica Huston), these scenes fail to pay off the set up in the previous two acts. The film then slowly loses steam and deflates without a whimper. At this point only the beautiful imagery and music were keeping my attention.

Like all his films Wes Anderson and his DOP Robert Yeoman shoot the film with wide angle anamorphic lenses. There’s something to look at in every part of the shot. When the camera is framed for its close-ups the actor’s faces jump out of the screen giving each character a larger than life persona. As customary Anderson’s camera movements are kept to parallel and perpendicular patterns. With the wide angle lens the movements are exaggerated and so the camera becomes a character in the film - the wonderful opening scene as prime example.

Since this is Anderson’s fifth film, I was somewhat disappointed he couldn’t expand his storytelling skills and give us something we hadn’t seen or heard before – the quirky compositions, deadpan humour, intellectual dialogue, super slo-mo set pieces, mod music etc. While I do appreciate a director who can create a consistency in style across his or her body of work, as mentioned, the similarities go beyond the style and into story, character, theme and tone.

Years from now when we look back on Anderson’s films, we may be calling him a genius, but I doubt we’ll be able to remember the difference between Owen Wilson’s four main characters: Dignan (Bottle Rocket), Eli (Royal Tenenbaums), Ned (Life Aquatic) or Francis (The Darjeeling Limited). I’ll let him off the hook now, but next time…

Enjoy.

P.S. Wes Anderson advises you to watch his short film prologue “Hotel Chevalier” starring Natalie Portman and Jason Schwartzman before viewing the film. I've seen it. It's really boring and pretentious. Visit http://www.hotelchevalier.com/.




Sunday, 14 October 2007

PLANET TERROR


Planet Terror (2007) dir. Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Freddy Rodriguez, Rose McGowan, Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin, Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, Bruce Willis

****

After a second viewing “Planet Terror” on DVD and alone, without “Death Proof”, it’s clearly one of my favourite films of the year. It’s a remarkably enjoyable film that succeeds on all levels – action, character, comedy, and genre. Every scene is infused cinematic wit and energy and from beginning still had me grinning from ear to ear.

The film opens with a wicked-awesome go-go dance routine from Rose “Cherry Darling” McGowan over the opening credits. Then the film establishes the creation of Rodriguez’s zombies with a ridiculously over-the-top action sequence on a military base in Texas. His blood squibs are extra juicy, like exploding water balloons of blood. Then Rodriguez establishes one-by-one the dozen or so characters in the town that will soon become victims or heroes in the 105min circus of carnage to follow. Each character is given a clear – albeit melodramatic – subplot which is followed through to the end, no matter what happens. Some are sincere and romantic, others are absurdist. There’s Cherry Darling’s list of “useless talents” that help her get out of a number of life-threatening situations, J.T.’s search for the missing ingredient to make his prize-winning BBQ sauce, Dakota Black’s relationship her father, El Wray’s attachment to his leather jacket as well as his attempts to win back his Cherry, his long lost love.

Rodriguez clearly loves his characters and the actors who play them, and so we love them too. My favourites are Marley Shelton, playing a gorgeous blonde doctor, Dr. Dakota Black, who performs all her action scenes in high heels and sexy smeared eye liner, Rodriguez’s own nieces playing a pair of ‘Crazy Babysitter Twins’ who are billed as such in credits, Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey, two classic 80’s/90’s b-list action actors who seem practically separated from birth. Nicky Katt, Stacy Ferguson, Naveen Andrews – too many to name really – all add to the fun.

John Carpenter’s influence is all over the film. Freddy Rodriguez, who plays the soft spoken nave turned ass-kicking hero, channels the best Carpenter hero roles – Snake Pliskin, Jack Burton, and Roddy Piper from “They Live”. Rodriguez’s score has the same particular synthesized rumblings of a Carpenter score as well, not to mention his recurring theme of the townsfolk forced to defend together against a siege on the town (which originally is a Romero and Hawks creation). “Planet Terror” moves away from the Carpenter formula with its own brand of Grindhouse wit. In addition to many more subplots, Rodriguez manages to set up and execute more successful comic gags than all of his other films combined.

Rodriguez makes the film his own with his trademark hyperkinetic editing and shooting style he perfected with the Mariachi trilogy and particularly “From Dusk Till Dawn”. Rodriguez’s DVD special features are always top notch and his usual 10 Minute Film School Featurette shows how he and his special effects team used a variety of high tech and low tech methods of fooling us.

The digital scratches and imperfections hold well on DVD. When it was first rumoured that the Grindhouse filmmakers would purposely scratch the film to make it look old, I admit I cried foul. But seeing it on both big and small screens, the two films benefit greatly and add to the fun.

“Planet Terror” stands well on its own. The clever and busy narrative could have been overshadowed by the pyrotechnics but amazingly his motley group of Grindhouse characters are the most interesting and lovable from any of his films. I’ve seen lots of great and serious films this year, but “Planet Terror” will definitely find a place in my ten best. Enjoy.



Saturday, 13 October 2007

A MIGHTY HEART


A Mighty Heart (2007) dir. Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Will Patten, Archie Panjabi

***1/2

With “The Kingdom” out in theatres, Peter Berg’s immature take on Americans/Islamic relations, it’s the absolute best time to release on DVD “A Mighty Heart” – a more accurate and ultimately compelling version of essentially the same issues and themes. “A Mighty Heart”, which tells the story of the investigation into the kidnapping of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, is a powerfully realistic film about the resolve and determination of Pearl’s wife Mariane to find her husband amid the powerful force of global politics.

In 2001, Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped by Muslim extremists in Pakistan. The film is told from the point of view of Mariane (Angelina Jolie) who patiently manages to navigate through the false rumours, politicking, and worldwide press fervour surrounding the case and focuses on finding Daniel. Dan Futterman is well cast as Daniel whom we get to know in the first act of the film and periodically in flashbacks throughout. Prior to his capture, he is a soft-spoken dedicated journalist and husband. The Pearls travel to Pakistan the day after Sept 11 to report on the activities of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. When Daniel gets a chance to interview Sheikh Gilani, a notorious terrorist, he knows he’s entering dangerous territory. Everyone Pearl talks to warms him but Pearl is ambitious and puts the story ahead of his safety. The night Pearl is to meet Galani, he disappears, never to return home.

When the Pakistani police become involved a complex web of terrorist connections slowly unravels. Like “All the President’s Men” one suspect leads to another, which leads to another etc etc. The names are so hard to keep track of Mariane and her friend Asra (Archie Panjabi) have to use a whiteboard to keep track of everything. We aren’t meant to follow or understand the trail, only to know that Pearl’s kidnapping was not random but a targeted and premeditated act of terrorism.

The film is directed by the multitalented Michael Winterbottom, a British filmmaker, who can work in any genre, but who recently has developed a naturalistic style of on-the-fly street filmmaking. Winterbottom and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind shoot the film with local non-actors, in authentic locations with documentary-like believability. Watch, “24 Hour Party People”, “In this World”, and “Road to Guantanamo” to see the evolution of this style. The result is a film with 100% authenticity.

The film is edited with great pace. The lead-up up Pearl’s kidnapping is told with a fractured non-linear montage technique. Winterbottom enters conversations already in progress and exits before they are finished. At times this can be frustrating, especially when a new character is introduced but whom we don’t get to know until many scenes later. For example when we first see Will Patton, who plays an American authority, we only get a few lines out of him before Winterbottom cuts away. It’s a shame because Patton is such a good actor and I wanted to hear what he had to say. So this style can be obtrusive to the story, but since this is Mariane’s point of view I guess the motivation was to mimic the chaos of the event.

Unlike, Peter Berg, who turned his story into kill-at-all-costs action film, Winterbottom avoids all possible Hollywood traps. It would have been easy to inject internal conflict into the film by portraying the Pakistani police as backwards and unaccommodating to the Americans, instead the captain of the Pakistani counterterrorism unit who leads the investigation is as smart, dedicated and unwavering in his search as any of the Americans. Winterbottom is also able to create tension and suspense without resorting to guns, overt violence or action scenes. There’s a couple of moments of gunfire, but it’s not embellished.

Much of the credit of the film should go to producer Brad Pitt, who had the courage to put the film into Winterbottom’s hands as opposed to someone like Peter Berg’s. As a result “A Mighty Heart” may be a less accessible film, but it’s been told the best way possible, by preserving the integrity of Daniel and Mariane Pearl and all those involved in bringing the terrorists to justice. I hope the academy doesn't forget about this film come Oscar time. Enjoy.


Buy it here: A Mighty Heart


Friday, 12 October 2007

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
dir. Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Mary Louise Parker, Paul Schneider

***

The most pretentious title of the year could have been the most pretentious film of the year – it aspires to be “Days of Heaven”, but it also has the potential to be “Heaven’s Gate”. It lies somewhere in between. The often told story of Jesse James and his storied death at the hands of his friend Robert Ford is told with a quiet intensity that elevates the story into the ultra strata of American myth.

The James in this film is an enigmatic bi-polar hero. He can be a decent, peaceful and loving father to his wife and kids one minute and a sadistic maniac willing to beat a child down repeatedly with his fists the next. Robert Ford is a celebrity-wannabe of the 19th century. He has worshiped Jesse since his youth and makes a concerted effort to befriend him and become part of his gang. He’s eventually brought in to help with their bad deeds, but right at a time when there’s much internal conspiracies against Jesse. With the authorities hot on his trail eventually Ford gets bribed into killing the man he once idolized.

For most of the film, the machinations of the plot seem perfunctory to the denouement or ‘fourth act’. After James is killed the story finally gets interesting when we see the country’s reaction to the death of their storied anti-hero. Robert Ford becomes famous for killing James and exploits it as any reality or 15-min-fame celebrity would today. He becomes overexposed and all hopes of achieving greatness in his life from his actions are lost. I’m hesitant to be specific about how this finale plays out, but it absolutely makes the film.

The film is told with a documentary-like omniscient narrator – very similar to the narration in “Little Children”. It’s not a Midwest or Southern voice, it’s out of place, perhaps someone from the 'civilized' north recounting the story. We all know the story of the James gang from the countless Hollywood films, and it’s actually refreshing to see the film made not like the current trend of ‘gritty’ reality films but like a fairytale bedtime story.

So the film becomes about the myth of Jesse James – not the man. In fact, I’d argue James as a supporting character to the lead – Robert Ford played by Casey Affleck. Affleck is well cast. He’s been playing the affable meek runt his entire career, and finally he gets to take this character to another level.

Director Andrew “Chopper” Dominik and producer/star Brad Pitt have their sights set on texture and mood, and, going by the credits, they clearly screened the works of David Gordon Green, Terrence Malick, and the Coen Bros before crewing up. So I doubt it’s a coincidence Paul Schneider, Roger Deakins, and Sam Shepard show up on the call sheet – not to mention the architect of perhaps its closest cousin – “The Proposition” – Nick Cave, who provides the melancholy soundtrack.

Roger Deakins seems to be shooting every prestige film in Hollywood these days – this season alone he’s shot “Jesse James”, “In the Valley of Elah” and “No Country for Old Men”. Deakins, the Coen’s frequent DOP, shoots the outdoors so well. Each frame is rich with the texture of a tattered old photograph. I’m sure he’ll be Oscar-nominated for at least one, if not all three of these films. I’d love to see that happen.

“The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” is no “Days of Heaven”. It hits the myth, but misses the poetry. And thank god for the final 20mins, without which it could, sadly, have been “Heaven’s Gate”. Stick through the two hours before the finale, it will be worth the $11.95. Enjoy.


Thursday, 11 October 2007

MICHAEL CLAYTON


Michael Clayton (2007) dir. Tony Gilroy
Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack

**1/2

Buyer beware. Michael Clayton may not be what you expect. It certainly wasn’t what I expected. And that doesn’t necessarily make it better. “Michael Clayton” is not a corporate thriller, but a character film, about a ‘fixer’ for a corrupt law firm that is forced to reexamine his life when he discovers his firm is complicit in a class action law suit of corporate malfeasance.

In the first few moments we are parachuted into a series of scenes that do not make any sense – Michael Clayton (Clooney) a disheveled looking lawyer appearing to play his last penny on a hand of poker; Clayton seeing a client late in the evening and acting aloof – Clayton seeing his car get blown up. There’s an apathy to him, which we will come to learn about as the film then flashes back to 4 days before.

We then get the full backstory of Clayton’s failed life. Clayton has sunk his savings into a restaurant business which was financed with some shady money. The restaurant has gone under and now Clayton is scrambling to pay back his lenders. Meanwhile, Clayton’s boss and mentor Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has gone mad and stripped down in the middle of a deposition. This has angered and alarmed his clients U-North – a giant conglomerate who is in the middle of a large class action law suit. Clayton is sent in by his unscrupulous partner Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) to “fix” the situation. Amid a severe depression Clayton is forced to reconcile his debt, his job and his family life, all of which are threatened by the corporate henchmen watching over his shoulder.

Tony Gilroy is the writer behind the Bourne films. While those films are direct and to the point, “Michael Clayton” takes some time before it makes it point. In fact, it isn’t until the last scene of the film, where I finally realized what it is. It looks and sounds like a political thriller – replete with middle aged men and women wearing cool suits and talking on their cell phones a lot, there’s the quiet but percussion heavy James Newton Howard soundtrack and the poster tagline “truth can be adjusted”. Unfortunately the film isn’t about truth, or lack thereof, nor the mystery surrounding the nefarious actions of an unethical corporation. It’s about Michael Clayton and all the pressures that surround him – including his failed restaurant business, his job, his alcoholic brother and his neglected son. The elements of the corporate story which the film is marketed as are laid out in a 5min conversation with Tom Wilkinson’s character when we first meet him. Other than that there is very little revealed in that subplot story.

I must admit I was waiting for the intrigue to start, but it never does. The film is about Clayton. As mentioned he is a broken man, disillusioned with the state of his job. He once had aspirations to be a lawyer with ethics and pride, but as his boss Marty Bach says, he found his niche – to be a fixer. This brings me to another problem I had with the film. We never get to see how good Clayton is at being a fixer. We never get the establishing scene where he “cleans” up the mess. I imagine this could mean planting evidence, bribing people, maybe even threatening or killing people. We are told of Clayton’s talents, but we never get to see it.

The arc of his character is well thought out and executed. There’s a moment late in the film where Clayton’s holding a paper in his hand while talking to Bach. What he does or doesn’t do with this piece of paper is a turning point in the film, the significance of which is only referenced casually at the end. The movie then builds to a wonderful climax that lingers with you after the film. In fact, the final shot will likely keep you in your seats.

The most frustrating aspect is the fact that Gilroy tries too hard not be direct. He plays the pronoun game in virtually every conversation - referring to “this” or “that” without establishing what “that” is. In hindsight, the title gives away the film, so I really shouldn’t be surprised that it wasn’t a thriller but a character film. But when I saw the final credits and saw that Sydney Pollack, George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella were Executive Producers, I said, “ahhh, that explains it”. There’s some major award-winning talent here that probably wanted to win some more awards. Enjoy.

P.S. I seem to be in the minority compared to the current critical opinion. Please let me hear your thoughts.