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

Friday, 30 November 2007

NAPOLEON DYNAMITE


Napoleon Dynamite (2004) dir. Jared Hess
Starring: Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majerino

***

The influence of “Napoleon Dynamite” on popular cinema can not be exaggerated. The film helped popularize the geek-chic trend in cinema, TV and fashion. And I’m sure Hollywood agent’s desks are still piled high with Napoleon Dynamite-like comedy scripts. It popped up at Sundance in 2004, made a splash and virtually caught fire and blazed its way into indie cinema history. It’s “Rushmore” for dummies.

Jared Hess and his spouse/co-writer have morphed and stretched the high school genre to aggrandize the most impudent narcissistic geek-nerds ever imagined. Most high school films play off the stereotypical characters – nerds, jocks, pot-heads, goths. And then there’s Napoleon Dynamite, an under achiever who fails in both academics and social stratas. What Napoleon lacks in behavioural skills he makes up for in confidence.

Trying to explain the plot is an exercise in futility, as the film is essentially made up of a series of quirky characters doing really fucked up shit and taking it all very very seriously. The poker-faced deadpan idiocy escalates to obscene levels, and climaxes with the unbelievable dance sequence. But it’s the warm-hearted romantic closure that still surprises me and completes the full arc of Napoleon’s character.

“Napoleon Dynamite” works because of a few key and essential elements. First, Jon Heder. It’s that rare occasion when the character is defined by the actor. Jon Heder is Napoleon Dynamite and Napoleon Dynamite is Jon Heder. Much like, say, Ace Venture and Jim Carrey the film would not exist without Jon Heder.

Second, the details. Every frame is filled with a cornucopia of loserdom. I can only assume co-writers Jared and Jerusha Hess sat down before writing the screenplay and brainstormed the most loser-ish things about high school. And so, Hess’s background is his foreground as he jams his frames with everything on his list. This perspective is aided with a creative and colour production design and the usual quirky wideangle cinematography.

Third, the film exists without time or place. It’s a style mash-up of the worst fashion mistakes from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The film is from Napoleon’s point of view – his skewed outlook of the world. Hess shows great skill as a director by staying within this bubble the entire film. Ie. Napoleon’s atrocious 1980’s lunar boots are never referenced. Every ridiculous outfit or action or dance is accepted because this is Napoleon world, of which he is king.

Lastly, the film has a heart. Sure, it’s Napoleon’s point of view but he remains an accessible character because his goals are from the real world. The film ends with a cute romantic gesture as Napoleon finally finds someone who will play tetherball with him. Though “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts will be filed under 00’s fad trivia, the film should not. It stands up to repeated viewings long after the hype.

Here’s the very clever opening credits:


Thursday, 29 November 2007

SEDUCING DOCTOR LEWIS


Seducing Doctor Lewis (2003) dir. Jean Francois Pouliot
Starring: Raymond Bouchard, David Boutin, Benoit Briere

****

“Seducing Doctor Lewis” (aka 'Le Grande Seduction') is one of the highest grossing Canadian films of all time. In 2003, it took in almost $9million, in the province of Quebec alone. It barely made a dent in English Canada, but it did manage to garner acclaim at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and win the World Audience Prize. And for good reason, it’s a comedy set in a small Quebec town about the quirky citizen who host a big city doctor and try to convince him to stay in their village. In the tradition of small-town cultural films “Waking Ned Devine”, “Local Hero”, "The Full Monty" it’s light but highly enjoyable, gut-busting in some parts and a perfect film for its genre.

The once thriving fishing community of St. Marie-La-Mauderne has come upon hard times. The residents who number only 120 people are forced to make a living off of their monthly welfare cheques. Despite these depressing times the townsfolks are surprisingly optimistic. The one glimmer of hope is a bid to locate a plastic manufacturing plant in the town. The main obstacle is that, for insurance purposes, the town must have a doctor residing, which, considering the remoteness of the community, is highly unlikely.

Local community leader Germain Lesage (Raymond Bouchard) assembles the townsfolk to coax a young big city doctor Christopher Lewis (David Boutin) that St. Marie-La-Mauderne is the next best thing to heaven. And so begins the ‘grand seduction’ of Dr. Lewis. The town go to great lengths to adapt the town to Lewis’ every interest, desire and idiosyncrasy. From learning to play cricket to tapping his phones to tapping the depths of psychological reports the villagers reinvent themselves and find a new joie-de-vivre in their grand scam.

With one part French Amelie-like fancy, one part British working class awk-shucks-ness and two parts Hollywood formula, the narrative moves and sways like a well-oiled machine. The cast is filled with so many lovable characters – Lesage is gruff and ethically-challenged but he’s so passionate about bettering his town he is the ideal flawed hero. His supporting conspirators include the local bow-tie wearing banker (Benoit Briere) who thinks he’s a big shot but is a hair-breath away from being replaced by an ATM, and the local wives who go about their wiretapping with Gestapo-like intensity.

Several scenes stand out, including the ridiculous yet sublime cricket scene, where the locals learn cricket to impress the Lewis who has a love for the sport. From the water-view below the hill, the game looks authentic to Lewis, but the close-ups of their white sweaters and painted and refashioned hockey equipment is a gut-busting scene.

The film mixes some comedy of errors, physical comedy, and clever fancifulness adding up to a near-perfect whimsical farce. Don’t take it seriously or over-analyze it. And to those English Canadians out there who never saw it or were to cynical to like it, shame on you. Just read the glowing reviews from the various countries around the world where the film was deservedly were distributed and lovingly embraced.

Buy it here: Seducing Dr. Lewis


Wednesday, 28 November 2007

LIFEBOAT


Lifeboat (1944) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, Mary Anderson, Hume Cronyn

****

An interesting companion piece to yesterday’s review (“Titanic”) is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest and best films – “Lifeboat”. Hitchcock likely took on the project as a creative challenge to himself - a film told entirely on a lifeboat of people rescued from a sunken ship during WWII. Hitchcock’s talents are put to the test to make 90mins in a small contained boat on the water, exciting and believable. It’s an amazing achievement which further supports the greatness of the Master.

The film begins on the water (of course) as the camera shows the trail of debris left by a sunken civilian ship. It’s 1944 Atlantic, which was a hotbed of naval activity. An upper class gossip columnist journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) climbs aboard the lifeboat to safety. In these opening moments one-by-one more survivors swim their way to the boat. Willy (Walter Slezak) who has the natural leadership qualities butts heads with the snobby Porter who insists on documenting the adventure on her portable typewriter. Minor squabbles are pushed aside when the last survivor climbs aboard, a German naval officer (William Yetter)

Should the civilians toss the German overboard, or save his life like everyone else? This becomes the major point of conflict. The German is kept aboard, and he proves his worth by navigating the ship in the right direction toward land. Or is he? Beneath his congenial demeanor he appears to slyly subvert their cause for rescue. Who will survive the small scale battle of wills?

The film could have easily been just a ‘novelty’ film, but the studio took project seriously, hired famed author John Steinbeck to write the story, hire dthe hot talent of Hitchcock to direct and cast popular star Tallulah Bankhead. Getting Bankhead (perhaps the Paris Hilton of her day) to be in a film where she gets wet and thrown around a boat in the middle of an ocean was a major coup. The casting worked perfectly because Bankhead’s real life snooty personality shows through in her character. The unique and varied personalities of Bendix, Slezak, Cronyn and Yetters round out a perfect ensemble cast.

But the big challenge for Hitchcock was how to keep the audience interested without boring them by staying in the same dull claustrophobic location the entire film. Hitchcock sought to use a different camera angle for every shot in the film. Usually dialogue and conversation are cut together using overlapping camera angles. Of course, Hitchcock meticulously storyboarded the film and as a result accomplished a miracle of mise-en-scene. It truly is remarkable.

For ‘high concept” films, few films top can “Lifeboat” for successfully executing its self-imposed restraints. “Hitchcock would do it again a few years later with “Rope” – an 80 min film made to look like one continuous shot. Other attempts at doing this type of high concept have mixed results – Robert Zemeckis' “Castaway” failed because he took Hanks off the island in the third act, “Speed” was a success, but Jan De Bont took the audience off the bus in the third act as well. Alfred Hitchcock never leaves the boat. He created his rules, stuck to them and executed it to perfection. Enjoy.

Buy Lifeboat (Special Edition)


Tuesday, 27 November 2007

TITANIC


Titanic (1997) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo Di Caprio, Kathy Bates, Billy Zane, David Warner, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton

****

It’s been 10 years since the “Titanic” phenomenon. It shattered the domestic and worldwide box office records by such a margin, it’s still miles ahead of #2 “LOTR: The Return of the King”. Like most successes the bigger it got the more people wanted to tear it down. It’s been trounced on like a dirty old carpet ever since. Sure the dialogue is ham-fisted and the romance is a little syrupy, but with a fresh set of eyes, “Titanic” is still great entertainment and worthy of its records.

James Cameron wanted “Titanic” to be his “Doctor Zhivago” and so, like David Lean, the film begins in present day and flashes back to retrace the memories of a tragic love story against the background of a large scale historical event. The opening introduces Rose (Gloria Stuart) who is brought aboard a ship of a treasure hunter looking for a lost diamond necklace from the wreckage of the “Titanic”. Rose recounts the story to the high tech treasure hunters of her fateful trip in 1912.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jack, a poor American looking for a ride back to his homeland. He wins his ticket on a game of poker, hops the boat in the nick of time and sails off. When he rescues the lovely erudite Rose from a suicide attempt he becomes the local hero and finds himself hobnobbing with the upper class elite, namely Rose’s impudent fiancé, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Longing glances from across tables turn into gleeful flirting around the boat then passionate sweaty sex in the back of a car. Then, of course, the boat hits an iceberg and the crew and passengers have one hour to get off the boat before it sinks. Despite numerous attempts by Cal to separate them, Rose and Jack stay together all the way into the freezing cold water where their fleeting romance will eventually go down with the ship.

Let’s address those nasty knocks against the film as poorly written sappy romance with bad dialogue and two-dimensional characters. Indeed Jack, Rose, Cal and the rest are uncomplex caricatures which easily separate good from bad for the audience. But James Cameron has a knack for good casting and his lead actors are so likeable the dialogue is more than tolerable. In 1997 Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet were young, and though not household names, both were already Oscar-nominated actors. Di Caprio is just about the perfect everyman and Kate Winslet, who was practically born in a corset, falls into her character like an old shoe.

The one common element that would cover everyone’s beef with the film is Billy Zane as Cal Hockley. Without Billy the film would be become more than tolerable even to the most extreme anti-Titanite. Indeed, almost every word out of his mouth is like bile. And I don’t think it’s the writing, it’s just a case of bad casting. Sorry Billy. I liked you in “the Phantom” and “Dead Calm”, but you’re dead wrong for “Titanic”.

Though I’m a guy, I was never bored with the romantic 90mins before the ship starts to sink. Once it starts going down, the tech-master Cameron takes over and he gives us an awesome 90mins disaster sequence. It’s an Irwin Allen extravaganza with every penny of its $200 million budget on the screen. Cameron had a gimbaled full scale replica of “Titanic” docked in a man made tank in Mexico. Some of the CG effects during the first half look cartoony now, but everything blends in well during the nighttime scenes. My favourite moment is that poor digital person who falls and gets hit by the propeller on his way into the water. The three editors, one of whom is Cameron himself, deserves much of the reward for cutting together the moments of disaster-related suspense with the emotional anguish of joining Rose and Jack together.

For intrepid cinephiles I highly actually recommend finding Roy Ward Baker’s take on “Titanic”, 1958’s “A Night to Remember”. Imagine “Titanic” without the love story. You will find many similarities between the two films, including several blatantly stolen shots from the 1958 version. The production value is surprisingly high. Check it out. There’s an out of print Criterion Collection DVD out there.

Ok, so take out Leo’s “I’m king of the world” line, Billy Zane, and maybe Danny Nucci, and you have a perfectly enjoyable film. Leave them both in there and chew some potato chips over those moments and you still have a fine film. Enjoy. Now get out of the water and make another film.

Buy Titanic (10th Anniversary Edition)
Buy A Night to Remember - Criterion Collection

For kicks, compare these two near identical scenes:

From “Titanic”:



From “A Night to Remember”:


Monday, 26 November 2007

I AM CUBA


I am Cuba (1964) dir. Mikhail Kalatozov
Starring: Raul Garcia, Sergio Corrieri, Luz Maria Collazo, Jose Gallardo

****

Milestone Films has released, for me, the best DVD for 2007 - one of my favourite films of all time, “I Am Cuba” . It’s a lost masterpiece – a collaboration of Soviet and Cuban filmmakers dramatizing the Cuban Revolution. With some of the most astonishing visuals ever put to screen then or since, it’s mandatory viewing for all lovers of visual cinema.

“I am Cuba” was filmed over two years as a co-production between Mosfilm (USSR) and ICAIC (Cuba), by acclaimed director Mikhail Kalatozov (“The Cranes Are Flying”), his cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky and a Cuban cast. This unique collaboration of Slavic methods and Cuban values resulted in a visionary film about the passion of the workers who rise up against the oppression of American Imperialism and reclaim their dignity as the salt of the earth.

The story is told in four distinct vignettes during the Batista-ruled period just prior to the Revolution. The first is the story of a demure Cuban prostitute who picks up her men in a nightclub catering to deep-pocketed American businessmen. The second story shows the depressed lifestyle of a poor Cuban sugarcane farmer who loses his land to a wealthy and unscrupulous landowner. The third depicts a young revolutionary who rises up and leads the students in a violent demonstration against the corrupt Batista-police. The final story shows the battle in the mountains where Castro was hiding and first started his military coup. A humble farmer, who rejects guns and violence is forced into battle when his son is killed by a bomb.

The stories are connected by one or two characters that appear in several of the vignettes, but for the most part they are autonomous stories linked by a common theme of passion and love for land and country. The film uses the power of the image and editing to contrast the decadence of the Batista-era society with the squalor of the Cuban people. The star of the film is the Kalatozov’s camera, which is freed from all constraints of mainstream cinema. As Martin Scorsese explains in his introduction to the DVD, with the endless time, money and creative freedom Kalatozov and his brilliant cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky essentially rewrote their own rules of cinema. Each scene is build around a series of long takes that move the camera forward, backward, up walls, into swimming pools, and through the air. But the film isn’t about fancy camera movement, Kalatozov’s eye finds more awe-inspiring frames in one film that most filmmakers would be lucky to find in a career.

Unfortunately, despite its greatness, the film has never received the historical acclaim or stamp of approval as, say, “Rashomon”, “Breathless” or “Fellini’s 8/12”. There is a reason. The story behind the making of “I Am Cuba” is as intriguing as the film –documented in a wonderful self-contained feature film, “The Siberian Mammoth” which accompanies the gorgeous cigar-box-themed box set. When the film was released in Cuba and the Soviet Union in 1964 for cultural and political reasons both countries hated the film. Therefore the film was shelved and never seen again until it was rediscovered after the end of the Cold War. Other than a couple screenings in Cuba and the Soviet Union, the film had never been seen by anyone. Since its re-discovery in 1995, the film has gradually been exposed to audiences – via the first Milestone DVD/VHS release, various Cinematheque programs, and film school courses as an example of propaganda cinema. Slowly the influence of “I Am Cuba” can be seen in today’s films – watch for its inspiration in “Boogie Nights, “Thin Red Line” and “Children of Men”.

Mikhail Kalatozov went on to direct one more feature after “I Am Cuba” – “The Red Tent (1971)” – a fabulous adventure film with Sean Connery and Peter Finch. Sadly he died in 1973 at a time when he was at his artistic peak. His name is never referenced in discussion of the great auteur directors of world cinema. But he is a true master of cinema and is as relevant as Godard, Fellini, or Kurosawa. Please watch this film as well as his others.

Read my review of Mikhail Kalatozov’s “The Cranes Are Flying".

Buy it here: I Am Cuba: The Ultimate Edition



Sunday, 25 November 2007

BUG


Bug (2007) dir. William Friedkin
Starring: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr.

***1/2

Review by Greg Klymkiw

Without question, “Bug” is one of the most compelling, terrifying and compulsively watchable pictures to grace the screen in quite some time. Directed by William Friedkin, that venerable master of all that can be deliciously and artfully nasty-minded in cinema, it is a picture that some might even view as a bit of a comeback for the filmmaker who unleashed, among many others, “The Exorcist”, “The French Connection” and “Cruising”. I am, however, not all that fond of the notion of comebacks – especially as they relate to men of Friedkin’s talent and vision – as Norma Desmond said, “it’s the pictures that got smaller”, and certainly in the case of Friedkin, the motion picture industry and the marketplace itself has changed, and certainly not for the better.

“Bug” tells the seemingly simple tale of a lonely working class woman (Ashley Judd) who finds a glimmer of happiness with a mysterious handsome stranger (Michael Shannon), only to be drawn into his web of paranoia. By finding love, they also discover pain, and eventually true happiness proves to be as elusive and delusional as their respective and, finally, collective states of mind.

In the end, does this really sound that simple? To be frank, it isn’t. In fact, one almost wants to avoid lavishing too much (or even any) attention to the plot since, for most of the picture’s running time, “Bug” careens madly into very dangerous and surprising territory. So surprising, in fact, that one of the minor disappointments is that the script by Tracy Letts (from his play of the same name) veers into some not-so-surprising territory in the last third of the picture’s running time.

However, for the first two-thirds of the picture, one never really gets a handle on where it is going. And in an age of cookie-cutter story telling, being surprised with every turn is not only rare, but in the case of “Bug”, supremely engaging and, even during some especially stomach-turning moments, entertainment of the highest order.

Friedkin is responsible for so much of this. Based on a theatrical piece, the movie wisely does not betray its roots but enhances them in a wholly cinematic way. Since most of the picture involves two people (with a handful of occasional “interlopers”) in one motel room, this could have (in less capable hands) been a dull, dreary mess. Friedkin keeps us glued to the screen with a keen eye that makes every shot a pleasure to look at, but also resonating with dramatic intensity. Not that the style is intrusive or obvious – it is, in fact, a delicious bird’s eye view of two people spiraling into a pit of insanity presented with verve and honesty. This should come as no surprise to Friedkin followers. His early career as a documentary filmmaker in addition to his years of experience as a visual storyteller serves him very well. He has also adapted theatre to the big screen – most notably with the slightly dated, but still groundbreaking motion picture of Mart Crowley’s play “The Boys In The Band”. Friedkin is not one of those filmmakers who fall into the cliché of having to unnaturally “open up” a theatrical work and/or gussy it up with overly fussy visual details. Friedkin embraces the proscenium in a variety of inventive ways – preserving the claustrophobic intensity of the piece, but allowing it to still breathe as a work of cinema.

But perhaps Friedkin’s greatest gift as a storyteller is his audacity. When necessary, he will push the boundaries, up the ante and shove us headfirst into territory that most filmmakers who prefer to hide from or even worse, try to mute. Not Friedkin. He ‘rub our noses’ in the worlds of his various films and succeeds admirably. Can anyone forget how far Friedkin took us in “The Exorcist”? Developing compelling characters and charting their journeys with the precision of a master documentarian and slowly building to a series of crescendos in which he earned and flung all manner of visceral atrocities in our face. Friedkin ensured that “The Exorcist” would be a true classic with lasting value by never forgetting that movies are a rollercoaster ride and that one must build to the peaks and valleys of terror with skill and precision to make sure that the moments of viscera stay with us forever. In “Cruising”, Friedkin blended the tried and true ‘policier’ with a descent into a sexy, thrilling, Bosch-like world of gay S&M clubs. Some found this offensive and/or homophobic - too bad for them. They lose. It was supposed to be thrilling. And so it was. And in “The French Connection” who can ever forget the moments of utter terror behind the wheel of Gene Hackman’s speeding car as it tore through the grubby, crowded streets of New York in pursuit of a train? With “Bug”, Friedkin takes us on an equally compelling rollercoaster ride.

As thrilling and memorable as the ride is, there is a point in the story where one gets a nagging feeling that it could go in a certain and potentially ho-hum direction, but because the picture has been surprising you all along and because the ride has been so happily infused with style, you repress your doubts and believe it will go into more unpredictable directions. The ride continues and it is still thrilling, but the eventual outcome was what you predicted at that earlier juncture and this is a bit of a drag.

But no matter: there are so few movies around these days as provocative and stunningly directed as “Bug” that one can forgive a flaw that can sink most other pictures.

The performance Friedkin coaxes from a slightly de-glammed, but still delectably sexy Ashley Judd is a tour-de-force – ranging from shy submission to out and out over-the-top insanity. Michael Shannon has had plenty of time to perfect his performance as the paranoid war vet on the stage, but he seems as fresh as if he were doing it for the first time. And in a supporting role as Judd’s psychotically abusive ex, Harry Connick Jr. shocks and surprises with a performance that is as sexy as it is terrifying.

The recent DVD release of “Bug” will provide a great opportunity for audiences to acquaint themselves with this picture which was completely mishandled theatrically – marketed as a pure horror film and plunked into all the wrong venues. Alas, the supplementary features leave quite a bit to be desired. Friedkin makes a better picture than he does delivering feature-length commentaries. His disappointing drone spends far too much time telling us things we already can see and an equal amount of time telling us things we do not really need to know (story issues that are ultimately not as deep as Friedkin makes them out to be). It would have been so much more interesting to hear Friedkin walk us through his process in terms of shot set-up, decisions regarding coverage and other practical issues of his art. We get a smattering of them in the EPK-like doc accompanying the feature as well as the intro segment, and while welcome, they’re so skimpy as to be truly unsatisfying – especially since we expect to get more on the commentary track.

In any event, “Bug” is as must-see motion picture. Even if you end up hating it, you’ll probably admire it anyway for both audacity and relentless directorial virtuosity.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

DRUNKEN ANGEL (CRITERION COLLECTION)


Drunken Angel (1948) dir. Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takeshi Shimura

***1/2

Criterion Collection has just added its 19th Kurosawa film to its collection. “Drunken Angel” was the beginning of the director’s influential collaboration with Toshiro Mifune. Set in post war Japan, Mifune plays a yakuza gangster who strikes an unusual friendship with his doctor played by Takeshi Shimura. The film is also considered Kurosawa’s first auteur film with a fully realized creative control. It doesn’t disappoint.

Two of the great Kurosawa players, Takeshi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune, play friends and adversaries in a small village in post war Japan. The opening shot establishes a toxic lake of post-war chemicals, which has caused much sickness, disease and squalor. The depressed area has also brought the Yakuza and their misanthropic brothels, booze and violence. Matsunaga (Mifune) is a handsome tuberculosis-afflicted gangster who is treated by a doctor Sanada (Takeshi Shimura). At the beginning Matsunaga is standoffish to Sanada’s vehement pestering to change his lifestyle for the sake of his disease. But when the ruthless yakuza boss Okada returns to the village to reclaim his power over the gang, Matsunaga finds himself at an impasse in his life. With death knocking at his door, he sees Sanada’s selfless gestures as a sign to change his life for the better. The film climaxes with one of Kurosawa’s most famous violent endings, a heroic fight between Matsunaga and Okada.

The time and place of “Drunken Angel” is as important as any of Kurosawa’s films. In 1948, much of Japan was war torn and in the midst of rebuilding. The conflict in every scene is born from the filthy swamp – a symbol for their violent defeat in WWII. Out of this setting Kurosawa builds two great complex characters: Matsunaga, the doomed Yakuza whose honour is crushed with the return of his ruthless comrade and Sanada the pathetic failed doctor who can only sustain his practice by treating gangsters and thugs and. The contradiction which brings the two together is Sanada’s instinctive need to care for his patients in and out of the office – specifically Matsunaga.

In addition to his two great characters Kurosawa builds a tight and suspense narrative when Okada, the ruthless Yakuza leader returns to the village. The subplot involving his search for his former girlfriend, who is now Sanada’s assistant, provides the stakes and jeopardy which results in Matsunaga’s heroism in the end. Though the final fight in the hallway, slipping around through spilled paint cans, has become famous I was disappointed with the climax. When Matsunaga decides in his weakened diseased state to confront Okada, suspense is built for a climatic David vs. Goliath match up. Although Okada is established as a ruthless killer, but we never see Okada demonstrate this power. And so I think their sloppy choreography reduces the power of that scene.

Criterion again out does itself with the special features and packaging of the material. We are treated to a wonderful 30 mins documentary on the making of film. It was made prior to Kurosawa’s death, and so we get a well-made and polished documentary with Kurosawa and his collaborators completely deconstructing the film. We get to learn not only about the technical aspects of the set construction, but also how Kurosawa and Mifune first met and collaborated.

“Drunken Angel” is special because Kurosawa wonderfully blends the Westernized genre elements of a complex noir, with the wholly Japanese themes of honour and self-sacrifice. These sensibilities would become more important and recognizable in his later films which brought his international success. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Drunken Angel - Criterion Collection

Friday, 23 November 2007

THE MIST


The Mist (2007) dir. Frank Darabont
Starring: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Toby Jones, Andre Braugher

**

“The Mist” might have been a good movie if it were made in 1980 when Stephen King’s novella was first published, and if John Carpenter hadn’t made “The Fog.” The film plays around in several sub-genres of horror and just can’t decide which film it wants to be – a kitschy monster movie, a serious post-apocalyptic thriller, or a character-driven chamber drama. The film is also handicapped by the Stephen King jambalaya of his usual themes and characters, and so it feels like a story we’ve seen before and done better.

The film opens with the quickest set up imaginable. A big storm has just hit a small community in Maine. In the morning, our hero David Drayton (Thomas Jane), sees across the lake a mist floating towards his house. Drayton and his son go to the local grocery store for supplies when a raving mad local runs into the store and tells everyone there’s something ‘evil’ in the mist. A scream is heard in the distance and suddenly everyone decides to barricade themselves in the store.

Once in the store, it becomes a chamber drama conflict between the various personalities. There’s the skeptic lawyer, the God-fearing Evangelical, the cocky redneck hillbillies, the hot blonde babe etc etc. It’s all fear-based suspense, until real monsters in the form of giant mutated insects eventually emerge and lay siege to the store. The internal human conflict divides the survivors into two groups – the regular people and the Evangelical zealots who think it’s Revelations coming true. Drayton leads the regulars out into the mist to find safety, but instead discovering something even grimmer.

If the set up sounds like John Carpenter’s “The Fog”, you’re right (coincidentally released the same year King’s novella was published). “The Fog” is far far superior to this King/Darabont production. Darabont is not sure what kind of film he wants to tell. The set up is no-nonsense. It doesn’t take more than 5 mins before the mist is established as evil and all our characters are in the store. Unfortunately there is little suspense in setting this up. There’s no ominous music, or teasing shots of the mist, it’s just too fast and sudden. But then I thought, ‘ok, Darabont is respecting his audience, assuming they know the genre and is not wasting time with unnecessary exposition’. Unfortunately Darabont puts the first act through ringer by having a lengthy internal conflict about what’s in the mist. This lasts a good 10 mins of screen time and is surprisingly sloppy, amateurish with no creativity.

The second act kicks into gear when it becomes a pure genre monster film. The battle with the giant insects produces a series of fun genre goodness sequences including healthy doses of bug splatterings, ass-kickings, and face-suckings. Towards the end of the second act the fighting stops and the heavy-handed social commentary starts. Marcia Gay Harden’s Evangelical character Mrs. Carmody refuses to take “shut-up” for an answer and keeps yelling out her apocalyptic scripture. Eventually people start believing her rhetoric and join up with her clan. The irony is laid on thick from this point on, including the ending, which is as subtle as a bull in a china shop.

By the end Darabont’s conscious attempts at profound irony yanked me around too much and moved away from its genre roots into a low rent Twilight Zone territory.




Thursday, 22 November 2007

BLADE RUNNER: FINAL CUT


Blade Runner: Final Cut (1982) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Joe Turkel

****

Congratulations to the Regent Theatre in Toronto and all other theatres around the world that are hosting the re-release of “Blade Runner”. It’s being billed as “The Final Cut” after many other cuts that have circulated since 1982. The marketing and hype around this would make it seem like we’re watching a brand new version. For me it’s still the same “Blade Runner”, with differences I barely noticed from the previous versions. In fact, it’s basically a re-editing of the various elements cut out or edited back in over the years. Whichever version it is it’s still a fantastic film and one of the all-time great sci-fi pictures.

Personally, I liked all the versions. I don’t mind the much-trounced noir-ish voiceover from Harrison Ford, and I don’t mind the so-called ‘happy ending” which has Deckard and Rachael driving off together away from Los Angeles, nor do I mind the unicorn subplot which implies Deckard as a Replicant. All of these elements are peripheries to the main themes of the film, which are profound examinations of the nature of humanity. If Replicants were created by humans does this give us the right to exert absolute superiority and authority over them? Do they have the right to freedom?

In the backstory Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) created a series of artificial intelligent robots called Replicants that look and act exactly like humans. They are so real only through a series of electronically monitored psychological tests can they be differentiated from normal humans. Tyrell gave his creations a life span of only four years, after which time they die. When several of the Replicants revolt aboard their spaceship and return to Earth illegally, they are immediately targeted for termination. A Blade Runner named Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose specialty is in tracking down these robots, is assigned to this job.

I remember back in the ’82 my Dad and my older cousins were talking about the film with exuberance. Though it wasn’t successful commercially there was a buzz about the film. When I saw the film on video as an 8-year old I was disappointed (with any sci-fi film I always expected “Star Wars” or “The Black Hole”). Even for adults, it’s a tough film to crack. The pacing is intentionally slow; in fact listen to the slow-motion speed of Roy Batty’s dialogue; and the cinematography and production design, though brilliant, is dark, wet and moody.

But on subsequent viewings “Blade Runner” quickly grew on me, specifically once the existential themes seeped into my skin. The final cat-and-mouse chase between Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Deckard is a classic Ridley Scott scene (remember the ending of “The Duellists”, or “Black Rain”?), but Rutger Hauer’s speech at the end is even more important. If the film were from Batty’s point of view, he would be the hero. His description of the pain and suffering he has experienced over his four years of servitude puts the entire film into a different context. Think of relativity. What would you do if you were born into obscene slavery, forced to fight wars against your will and then be told your life has clock-ticking expiration date? Great films show the shades of grey of their lead characters. And by the end of this film, the seemingly sadistic bad guy becomes a tragic hero. And his heroism in saving Deckard, his final act of redemption, proves he, like his human counterparts, are capable of forgiveness.

Even if these thematic elements seem weak (as they did with Roger Ebert), there’s always the awesome auditory and visual experience of the film to enjoy. The special effects by the legendary Douglas Trumbull are still phenomenal. As the creator of the optical effects in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, Trumbull is true master of light. His work is complimented by the lighting by cinematographer Jordon Cronenweth – who underlights his interiors, but blasts harsh spotlights through every window. And in the Regent Theatre, the awesome sound system added a new level to the film I had never experienced on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD or late night television.

Each and every version of “Blade Runner” is special. The mere fact there are 4 or 5 versions of the film is a testament to the fact that the little additions don’t really change the grand scope of the film. It’s greater than the sum of its parts and a classic. Please see it in the theatres if you have the chance. Enjoy.

Buy it on DVD in December: Blade Runner (Five-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition)


Wednesday, 21 November 2007

HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE


Hearts of Darkness (1991) dir. Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper
Documentary

****

There is no better documentary about the pain and sacrifice of making a film than “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse”, which is now available on DVD for the first time. The documentary which chronicles the sordid history of the making of “Apocalypse Now” is a film worthy of the greatness of its subject. A remarkable amount of on-location footage, candid audio recordings and modern reflections of the time from the participants make for an all-access pass into the hellish process of making a masterpiece.

At the top we’re privileged with an interesting tidbit of info that the film was first proposed as an American Zoetrope feature for George Lucas to direct. A script had already been written by Zoetrope pal John Milius, and was to be filmed in 16mm during the Vietnam War. That suggestion didn’t fly with the studios, and so Coppola had to wait until he had the clout from “The Godfather” films before taking another shot at it. After the backstory of the development of the project, the documentary is taken over by the footage shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor who traveled with the crew to the Phillipines location. "Apocalypse Now" turned out to be a cursed production which lasted over a year, survived a hurricane, a near-death heart attack from Martin Sheen, the firing of its lead actor, and the numerous contemptuous antics of Marlon Brando.

Directors Bahr and Hickenlooper effectively use a clever voiceover track from Orson Welles - a similar maverick independent who also tried to film Joseph Conrad’s novel in 1940, before “Citizen Kane”. That project was too daunting for Welles but we have the narration from his Mercury radio program which acts like an ominous ghost haunting Coppola’s film.

Though Eleanor Coppola doesn’t get directorial credit, she should. Her candid audio recordings which were made without Coppola’s knowledge offers us true fly-on-the-wall access to a great artist at work. We get to hear the indecisive ramblings of Coppola near the brink of insanity. He honestly confesses his film will be no good and questions the risk he’s taking in making a ‘pretentious’ film.

There are many profound themes that emerge from the material without manipulation from the filmmakers. The notion of war and filmmaking being linked metaphorically comes true when the Philippine Army takes away Coppola’s helicopters in the middle of shot to fight off some Communist insurgents. Amazing. The film is also about ego and excess. His description of how he wants the set designer and casting director to fill out the French Plantation scene is grossly egotistical. And look at the opening shot of an unflattering Coppola, shirtless, so heavily bearded you can’t see his face, and frantically twitching. He resembles the character of Kurtz himself - out of control, out of touch with reality and without an end-goal vision.

Sometimes great art comes from the insane mind. Coppola was never committed, but he certainly lost years of his life making the film. Indeed “Apocalypse Now” became an unrivaled masterpiece. One thing missing is Coppola’s opinion on the finished film. I suspect he hates it, probably because it brings up these tragic memories which are nightmarish to him but fascinating to us. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Hearts of Darkness - A Filmmaker's Apocalypse


Tuesday, 20 November 2007

HAIRSPRAY


Hairspray (2007) dir. Adam Shankman
Starring: Nikky Blonsky, Michelle Pfieffer, John Travolta, Zac Efron, Elijah Kelly, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah

**1/2

I can’t help compare “Hairspray” to its most recent closest cousins “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”. It’s my third and least favourite. It’s a bumblegum musical with a softy message about image and race discrimination. The film would fall apart if not for Nikki Blonsky who holds the film together with her spunky performance.

I haven’t seen the John Waters version so the review of the film will stand on its own, without any preconceptions.

Tracey Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is an overweight Baltimore high school student who, like every other teenager in the town, dreams of being on the local music variety show ‘The Corny Collins Show”. When the show announces its holding auditions for a new member of the troupe Nikki is excited. She is accidentally discovered and is cast in the show much to the dismay of her mother (John Travolta in drag) and the evil music choreographer Velma Van Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer). While performing on the show she discovers some mistreatment of the black dancers, who are segregated and relegated to an episode once a week – dubbed ‘Negro Day’. Tracey works with one of the black dancers, Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) to integrate the show and make life better for all.

The film, which takes place in the early 1960’s, has a time and place naiveté to it. When they refer to ‘Negro Day’ it’s a point of comedy considering how ridiculous such a thing sounds. The dramatic counterpoint is that indeed, those attitudes were commonplace and accepted back in the day. Another interesting aspect that Tracey’s weight is never mocked. It’s taken for granted, and though the stuck up choreographer Velma Van Tussle loathes Tracey’s addition to the show, weight is not overtly referenced. Therefore we get past the crude fat jokes without ever bringing it up. Thank God.

As for the music and dance numbers, Nikki is a little pinball of energy and she looks like a hell of a lot of fun to dance with. She embodies Tracey Turnblad. The song and dances unfortunately don’t rise to the level of Nikki’s enthusiasm. They are adequate, but not finger tapping, or memorable enough to be stuck in my head afterwards. The finest performer in the entire film is Elijah Kelley who is a stand out as Seaweed. But his superior dance moves and fine soulful voice feels bottled up with the standard material.

I could never get past John Travolta in drag. It’s just too absurd, even for John Waters. Respect to Christopher Walken who has to play his husband and lover. The mere sight of Walken dancing and embracing a fat-suit-wearing John Travolta is something purposely excised from my memory.

Two and a half stars may be tough on the film, but considering the unanimous praise and 93% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I have to be honest. I would rather see “Dreamgirls” or “Chicago” over “Hairspray” any day. Once is enough. Enjoy.



Monday, 19 November 2007

BLADE TRILOGY


Blade Trilogy (1999 – 2004)
Starring: Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson

***

When I first read about “Blade” and saw the trailer in 1998, I dismissed the film as another stock action vehicle for Wesley Snipes – anyone remember “Passenger 57”, “Money Train”? And so when the opening weekend box office numbers came back at number one I was shocked. The film went on to make a respectable $65 million domestically. I still resisted seeing the film until it was released on ahem… VHS.And then having seen the film, I was thoroughly impressed. The opening scene sets the tone of the series perfectly. A typical rave – a late night crowd of youthful dancers pack the basement of an urban nightclub. When the music reaches its peak the overhead sprinklers turn on, raining down buckets of blood. All the ravers then turn on one hapless soul who discovers they are all raveonous vampires. Before he’s sucked dry, Wesley Snipes, dressed in black leather, with an artistically patterned hairstyle, a cape, and a badass sword emerges and wipes out all the vampires with impressive skill. Cool.

That’s a fabulous start to a series that would spawn two sequels and kickstart the careers of three emerging directors. The first was Stephen Norrington, who establishes the look and tone of the franchise. He shoots the film with glorious anamorphic lenses and gritty florescent lights. The soft glow shines nicely against Blade's black leather and slick black sunglasses. Remember this was a year before “The Matrix”, which must have been watched by the Wachowskis before making their films. Norrington, who came from a special makeup effects background, showed a remarkably confident grasp with action, set a high bar and delivered a fantastic film.

When time came for the sequel the producers grabbed Guillermo Del Toro, the Mexican genre director who burst onto the scene with his uniquely creative monster film “Cronos” in 1992. His American debut “Mimic” failed and it took a smaller though critically successful Spanish/Mexican film “The Devil’s Backbone” to give the producers confidence he could make a successful sequel. “Blade 2” took some liberties with the first film by arbitrarily inventing an excuse to bring back Whistler from the dead and disposing of the Karen Jensen character from the first film. Instead Blade finds himself in Europe searching for Whistler with a new weapons expert played by Norman Reedus. The Vampire politics are complicated with the introduction of a new species of vampires called Reapers who target both vampires and humans for blood. Blade teams up with his own enemy, the vampire Bloodpack to hunt and kill the Reapers. Del Toro cast some major ass-kickers as his Bloodpack, including Hong Kong choreographer Donny Yen and the smirking giant Ron Perlman.

Del Toro’s sense of gothic design oozes through the material. Most of the film takes place underground in a sort of Russian vampire catacombs. The design of the Reapers’ mouths is a cool hybrid of “Predator” and “Alien”. Clever makeup and CG effects create a horrific new addition to the vampire genre. Del Toro is equally adept with the action as Norrington and Snipes is still as badass as in part I.

The success of “Blade 2” allowed Del Toro to make his passion project “Hellboy” – Coincidentally Mike Mignola, the creator of the “Hellboy” comic was an artist on “Blade 2”. With Del Toro off to bigger and better things it was natural that the sole screenwriter from both films David Goyer step forth and direct the final episode. In addition to “Blade” Goyer was a hot property having co-written the as-then-unreleased “Batman Begins” – arguably the best comic book film to date. Goyer added hot buff actors Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel to the mix as human vampire hunters. Goyer succeeds in keeping the tone and style of the storytelling the same, but as a director the film was a few notches down in skill level. The pacing was off, in fact speeding along at a pace too fast for the rest of the series. On a technical level the shot selection and editing of the action scenes were clunky and rough. The stunt casting of Triple H was undignifying and Eric Bogosian, Parkey Posey and Natasha Lyonne seemed to be acting in a different movie altogether. In the end “Blade Trinity” was the least successful film of the three.

The “Blade” trilogy succeeds because of its action, plain and simple and at best was a showcase for young filmmakers to exercise some stylish muscle. So what ever happened to the “Blade” alumni? Stephen Norrington went on to direct an adaptation of Alan Moore’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”. Though the film was a famous flop I actually enjoyed the film as a wild and fun comic fantasy. Unfortunately Norrington hasn’t directed a feature since. Guillermo Del Toro directed the acclaimed and successful “Hellboy” and then his ‘critically-respectable’ masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth”. And “Hellboy 2” is in production. David S. Goyer directed the moderately successful thriller “The Invisible” in addition to writing more high-profile action films, namely Doug Liman’s “Jumper”, “The Flash” and “Magneto”.

The “Blade Trilogy” is now available in one set from Alliance Films and New Line Cinema. The set doesn’t add anything extra other than the already-stacked special features of the individual movies. It’s a solid pick up for your comic book film DVD collection. Enjoy.

The Blade Trilogy (Blade/ Blade II/ Blade: Trinity)


Sunday, 18 November 2007

GOLDEN BOY


Golden Boy (1939) dir. Rouben Mamoulian
Starring: William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Lee J. Cobb, Adolphe Menjou

***

Supposedly Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939, produced William Holden’s first film. A well-written and well-crafted film about a boxer who wrestles between a love for fighting and a talent for playing the violin. The strength of the film is it’s screenplay by the legendary writer, Clifford Odets who adapts the film from his own play. Aside from dated politically incorrectness the film manages to avoid most clichés and exist beyond the ‘boxing film’ genre.

William Holden, the gruff maschismo-man we know him from his later roles, is almost unrecognizable young and rebellious21 year old. He plays Joe Bonaparte who has a talent for violin-playing but chooses a life of down and dirty boxing to make a living. He’s managed by Tom Moody (the great character actor Adolphe “Paths of Glory” Menjou) and his smart and sexy assistant Lorna Moon (a luminous Barbara Stanwyck). Joe is tempted to the dark side by a local gangster, which further alienates him from his disapproving father and eventually from Lorna, his girlfriend-in-waiting.

Stanwyck is as usual super sexy as Lorna, and the boxing subplots are typical and adequate fare for the genre. The reason to watch the film is the relationship between Joe (William Holden) and his father, played by Lee J. Cobb. Behind the atrocious fake moustache, fake eyebrows and Italian accent Mr. Bonaparte is a realistic character we can all relate to. He’s immigrant who struggles hard to put food on the table for his family. He cherishes his son’s blessed artistic gift of music which dignifies his working class lifestyle. But when Joe’s interest turns to the violent and dirty sport of boxing Bonaparte fear’s his son’s life will revert to the inner city immigrant lifestyle most other of his kind are stereotyped into.

You can’t fault Bonaparte for wanting a peaceful respectable life for his son. This is familiar conflict in cinema, but Odets chooses an unfamiliar conundrum for the Bonapartes. Odets could have given Joe a scholastic talent, which would have been a clearer point of conflict between the father and son – ie. being a successful lawyer vs. fighter. But a conflict between art and violence is a far more complex decision because Joe’s decision is not money-driven.

Unfortunately what we never get a clear sense of where Bonaparte develops the need to beat down people for adulation. If his talent is that good, he can certainly get fame from playing the violin. So is there a deep-rooted carnality to the sport that attracts Joe to boxing? Perhaps it’s the violence in his home and that causes him to transfers his aggression to the ring. If so, it’s in the sub--sub-subtext. There’s a scene when Joe’s brother-in-law Siggie hits wife on the head during an argument. The father Bonaparte is in the room and scolds Siggie saying, “please, you shouldn’t hit your wife in public, do it in private!”. Unfortunately I don’t think this was subtext, instead just behaviour that was acceptable in its day. It’s a shame Odets never made clear the root of Joe’s inner conflict.

The other highlight of the film is the final fight scene at the end. For a boxing film, not seeing a fight until the end was curious, but director Mamoulian makes up for it with a thrilling and well-staged main event. The scene must have cost a fortune to shoot - it begins with the entrance of the boxers into the ring. Mamoulian doesn’t trick us with cheating close-ups; he fills all the seats in the arena with real live bodies. The lighting and framing by legendary lensman Karl Freud in collaboration with Nicholas Musuraca, brings to mind the contrasty look of Scorsese’s fight scenes in “Raging Bull”. I suspect this film was a major influence on Scorsese’s film.

William Holden had a long 40-year career – roughly book-ended by two great films – “Golden Boy” and “Network”. In between he gave us many great films, “Sunset Boulevard”, “Stalag 17”, “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “The Wild Bunch”. “Golden Boy” is a quality jumpstart to his career. Enjoy.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

ANGEL-A


Angel – A (2007 dir. Luc Besson
Starring: Jamel Debbouze, Rie Rasmussen

**

Luc Besson has spent the last 8 years writing and producing a series of successful action flicks like the “Taxi” and “Transporter” films. Though this made him stinkin’ rich, as a director he must have felt the need to put his eye behind the camera. So Besson’s returning to directing was 2005’s “Angel-A” which was only released in North America in 2007. Unfortunately it’s a surprisingly dull and talky romantic comedy/crime fantasy saved only by its eye-popping black and white visual design.

Jamel Debbouze as Andre is a good protagonist. We’ve seen him in “Amelie” and “Days of Glory”, he’s a little sparkplug with a wide range of quirky-cute facial expressions and physical comedy that makes for a great character actor. He is teamed up with the typical Luc Besson heroine, the complete opposite in leading ladies - a tall, blonde, out of this world-hot supermodel Rie Rasmussen playing his angelic slave Angela.

Andre and Angela meet on the edge of a bridge about to commit suicide in the River Seine. Instead Andre saves Angela, who is so grateful for his generosity, she owes the rest of her life to him, and so becomes his own personal slave. Wasn’t this a plot from an episode of the “Flintstones”? Definitely “I Dream of Jeanie”. The film turns into a buddy flick, when they tour Paris ridding Andre of his enemies one-by-one. An intriguing set up considering the unique pairing of Debbouze and Rasmussen, unfortunately the execution and pay off is uncreative and predictable.

This is not “Leon” or “La Femme Nikita”. Angela helps Andre get out of debt by prostituting herself to rich men in clubs to pay his debtors. Conflict between the two arises when Andre chides her for degrading herself for his benefit. But Angela seems confident in her abilities to seduce men and retain her superiority over them. This continues for most of the film. They eventually fall in love, but when Angela reveals to Andre her true reason for being Andre’s hopes of finding his soul mate are dashed.

Besson had an opportunity to create a unique working relationship between the two. When they start working together there needed to be a quirky cleverness to how Angela helps Andre. So by settling on sex as her mechanism for change it’s a let down, and the film becomes tediously predictable.

Besson’s visuals are up to his usual high standards. His trademark anamorphic extreme wide angle frames look great in black and white. In the bright exteriors everything in the frame is in focus and thus having the actor in close to the camera pops them out of the screen.

Besson needed some grade-A action to counterpoint his lengthy stretches of dialogue. Unfortunately nothing is revealed in these Parisian café conversations except pretty pictures and nothing we couldn’t have predicted by simply looking at the poster or watching the trailer. A disappointing return for Mr. Besson.




Friday, 16 November 2007

THINGS TO COME


Things to Come (1935) dir. William Cameron Menzies
Starring: Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke

****

“Things to Come” is an early and largely unheralded masterpiece of cinema and one of the all-time great science-fiction films. H.G. Wells, the famed novelist, actually wrote the screenplay adapted from his book ‘The Shape of Things to Come’. It’s one of the most ambitious films ever made, which tells the story of a fictional city in England from 1940 to 2040 - a hundred-year journey of technological and political progress, filmed with the most advanced special effects and production design of its time.

The English city of “Everytown” is a not-so-subtle double for London. The film begins in 1940 when the world was at the brink of a war (and remember the film was made in 1935, four years before WWII broke out). Though most people knew a World War was imminent the damaging effects nobody could predict, and so when war does break out in the film and literally destroys the world, we get see an extreme view of our future.

The second stage of the film takes place in 1970, when the world is still reeling from the destruction of the war. The world is divided into smaller warring communities – a world where scarce commodities like gas, oil and water are the prime necessities. Communication and technology has disappeared and people live spartan post-apocalyptic lives of need. Out of this environment emerges a tyrannical Nero-like despotic leader “Rudolf” who leads Everytown into battle against its neighbours. But when a member of a more advanced group arrives to the city in an airplane hope of a better future is clear on the horizon.

The final chapter fast forwards to 2040 – a completely futuristic world of peace. But the progress that brought the peace is moving too fast for some. A backlash against the technological advances ironically creates more tension and a new rebellion moves to reverse technology and revert society back to where it was. The film climaxes with a riot as the leaders of the city launch the first manned mission to the moon.

Despite some clunky on-the-nose dialogue the film is highly entertaining and a technological marvel. Wells writes his dialogue in the form of ideological speeches warning viewers about the dangerous world we’re headed towards. The ideas and themes of war and the irony of progress and conflict are simplified, but a 1935 pre-war point of view makes it remarkably profound and thought-provoking.

But the production value is the star of the film – design, editing and cinematography. More impressive is that it’s a wholly British production with no Hollywood ties. It was directed by the renowned production designer William Cameron Menzies who would go on to win an Oscar for designing “Gone With the Wind” and shooting the famous Burning of Atlanta sequence. He would also direct the sci-fi classic “Invaders from Mars” in 1953. The staging and set design are unbelievable and rival any film of its day or since. The design of the demolished city bears a striking resemblance to the bombed cities of Europe after the war – Berlin, Tokyo etc – and matches the destroyed city designs of “Full Metal Jacket” and “Saving Private Ryan”. The futuristic city in 2040 is even more impressive. Model work, matte photography and rear projection imagery are seamlessly combined to create a visually stunning future world. Menzies chooses a series of awe-inspiring frames that would set the bar for all other science-fiction films to come.

Legend Films distributes the fine Ray Harryhausen-restored DVD. I highly recommend picking up “Things to Come” either to complete your science-fiction collection or to start it. If you’re a cinephile, this needs to be on your shelf. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Things to Come




Thursday, 15 November 2007

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN


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

****

“No Country For Old Men” is like no other film. Only Sam Peckinpah at his drunkest (“The Getaway” or “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”) could compare to the assault of bloody carnage that is this film. It’s the most emotionally dispassionate film about greed and violence I’ve ever seen. Saying all that, the film may be a masterpiece, but it’s not perfect - a complex backstory emerges, with much of it left unclear and for us to fill in the gaps, as well as an obtuse ending that will make your head scratch. But its masterfulness lies in its sparse depiction of two men fueled by greed to find a lost satchel of money – a head to head battle with a dozen or more corpses left in their wake.

I haven’t read the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and so I will only comment on the film itself - not what was left out, expanded or contracted, or what was better about the book. And beware of some spoilers towards the end of this review.

Tommy Lee Jones narrates the film like an omniscient observer of the events about to take place (like Sam Elliot in “The Big Lebowski” or Moses the Clockman in “Hudsucker Proxy”). He’s a sheriff with a wealth of knowledge and experience about the violent nature of man. His opening speech describes a teenage boy he sent to the electric chair without any second thoughts. The boy was made of pure evil –the Michael Myers type of evil that has no rational thought, emotion, or sanity.

Our hero is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who, while hunting in the desert, accidentally discovers a dope deal gone wrong – a half dozen dead bodies as well as a dead dog. Left over is the classic briefcase full of money - $2 million worth – enough for Moss and his shy wife, Carla (Kelly MacDonald) to retire. Moss is an intelligent character established by showing the details of his thought-process. He knows someone will eventually come looking for the money. And so, like a great chess player he calculates several moves ahead of his adversaries. But for most of the film, he doesn’t know who’s persuing him – just a relentless force of nature – echoing footsteps in a hall, or a vacant voice on the phone.

This force of nature is the evil Jones describes to us at the beginning. The Bubonic Plague with legs - Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The Michael Myers (“Halloween”) comparison is appropriate not only in his actions, but also how he is shot by the Coens. He is slow, methodical and literally impossible to kill. His weapon of choice is an oxygen tank and a silenced shotgun.

Three quarters of the film is a quid pro quo chase through Texas and into Mexico. Like the detailed mechanics of the events in “Blood Simple” the Coens craft a series of masterful sequences of predator and prey. The piece-de-résistance of sequences – which should win the Coen’s their first directing Oscar - is a scene which starts with a hotel room confrontation between Moss and Anton and ends out on the street amid a hail of bullets and blood.

Like “Fargo” the Coens leave style and cleverness on the cutting room floor and tell the story with a sparse cinematic technique. The performances and characters lead the story. Josh Brolin has never been better – and to think the brothers didn’t want Brolin for the role. It took an audition tape directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to convince them to let Brolin in the door. And now, I couldnf’t imagine anyone else in that role. Javier Bardem, who has been buzzed about ever since they started shooting, is the real deal. The showcase scene for Bardem is his confrontation with a gas station attendant. The rhythm of dialogue is off-putting and tense. Bardem sets a new bar for sadistic maniacs. Move over Hannibal Lector – you’ve been trumped.

But as I said the film is not perfect. In fact it ticked me off towards the end… SPOILERS ahead. The exit of one of the characters got me very angry. Somewhere in the third act he/she is killed off unceremoniously and we are given only a quick shot of the dead body to identify them to us. It was so quick I missed it, and so I was confused for the rest of the film whether he/she was dead or not. But my issue is not the killing of one of our heroes, but the fact it was done off-screen. Ok, it’s clear the Coens are telling us that their film is not typical cinematic fare, where heroes die like heroes and villains die like villains. Does that make the film better or greater? I will likely learn to accept this in subsequent viewings, but I will stay mad at the film for not giving me the final dramatic confrontation the film had been setting up the entire way.

The film also turns into Tommy Lee Jones’ story at the end. This confused me. Though the voiceover in the film is Jones’ he is virtually inactive and doesn’t affect the plot or events in the story. I’m still trying to reason the significance of his two final monologues – one to his ex-partner and the other to his wife at the end. It’s not clear to me and I desperately wish it was. For a film that was so clear and focused for 105 mins, having the final 15 mins as obscure and obtuse as it is confounds me.

But “No Country For Old Men” is still the must-see film of the year. And with the precedent of “The Departed” the Academy doesn’t seem to have a problem with high body counts, so I hope we see the Coen Bros on the podium come Oscar season. Enjoy.

Here’s a piece from the IFC News:


Wednesday, 14 November 2007

PARIS JE T'AIME


Paris Je T’Aime (2007)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, Gerard Depardieu, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands, Willem Dafoe, Rufus Sewell, Emily Mortimer

***1/2

Eighteen short films, 5-7 mins long, written and directed by 21 international filmmakers, each set in a different section (or ‘arrondissement’) of Paris. That’s about all the parameters the filmmakers were given yet the film has a remarkably consistent film mood and tone. The result is indeed greater than the sum of its parts and becomes a near perfect love letter to the city of Paris.

“Paris Je T’Aime” works when most other compilation films fail because of the length of its segments. Five minutes seemed about the perfect length of film to establish distinct characters and cleverly twist our expectations. With the exception of Christopher Doyle’s and Tom Tykwer’s shorts, style and showoff-ness is kept to a minimum. With a consistent naturalistic style and a good mix of lightness and seriousness, all films stayed in a short range between comedy – tragedy. There were two films, from directors Christoffer Boe and Raphaël Nadjari, that were shot but not included in the final film which was a courageous decision to keep only the best ones. I suspect these films pushed to the extreme and thus couldn’t connect with the other films.

“Paris Je T’Aime” reminded me of Krzysztof Kieslowski who made his films as thematically connected stories (ie. Dekalog and Red, White, Blue). If Kieslowski were alive today, I’m sure he would have been a part of this compilation. In fact, I’m sure he was an inspirations for the film. Here’s a series of mini-reviews for each segment:

Montmartre - dir. Bruno Podalydès. **

The director himself, Bruno Podalydes, goes in front of the camera playing a snobby French man looking for a parking spot in the touristy Monmartre district. It’s a rather disappointing first entry - surprisingly light on pizzazz, flare, or cleverness – though a sincere courtship that occurs in his car begins the romantism of the film.

Quais de Seine - dir. Gurinder Chadha ***1/2

An obnoxious teenage Parisian who ogles female passersbies develops an unlikely friendship with an enchanting Muslim girl. Chadha explores the multi-cultural side of Paris and offers a surprisingly romantic courtship with only 5 mins of screentime. With only a couple of lines of dialogue and a few glances we instantly see a connection between these two new lovers. One of the better shorts of the film.

Le Marais – dir. Gus Van Sant ***

A young man expresses his love for a co-worker, despite a fundamental miscommunication between the two. A typical Van Sant entry with a wonderful twist at the end. His naturalism with performance is clear, and the ending leaves us hanging for more. Not entirely satisfying but still an intriguing 5mins to spend with Mr. Van Sant.

Tuileries dir. Joel and Ethan Coen ***1/2

Steve Buscemi plays a hapless American tourist whose wandering eyes gets him in trouble with some local Parisians. The Coens have fun with the notion of French snobbiness. It’s the funniest of all the entries, with some doses of the trademark Coen Bros’ style – but not too much to overwhelm the entire film.

Loin du 16e dir. Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas ***1/2

A young Spanish woman is paid to tend the baby of a wealthier woman, but her thoughts are with her own neglected child instead. Salles and Thomas wisely cast the wonderfully sad Catalina Sandino Moreno. It’s a mix of melancholy and irony which works wonderfully with little dialogue. She sings a song twice in the film, and though its sounds the same, the emotions expressed are different.

Porte de Choisy dir. Christopher Doyle *1/2

A lowly salesman cold calls a beauty salon operated by a coterie of bold Chinese hairstylists. Doyle’s film is the most idiosyncratic as well as the most confusing, and under-realized of the bunch. It doesn’t make any sense at all.

Bastille dir. Isabel Coixet ****

A man who is about tell his wife he’s leaving her for another woman, changes his mind at the last minute, and in turn changes his future life entirely. A whimsical and poignant tale that manages to define love beyond the physical and superficial. Coixet’s wonderful voiceover evokes the whimsy of “Amelie”.

Place des Victoires dir. Nobuhiro Suwa ***

Juliette Binoche plays a grieving mother who receives solace in the form of an American cowboy from her dreams. A surprise appearance by Willem Dafoe reunites the Binoche/Dafoe “English Patient” pairing. This film is the most sombre of the series, yet Suwa creates a surreal and existential quality from the absurd idea of a cowboy in Paris.

Tour Eiffel dir. Sylvain Chomet ***

A story of the courtship of two mimes around the Eiffel Tower. If you hate mines, you’ll hate this film. But it’s Paris, and so going along with the ride of this segment is fun and sweet.

Parc Monceau dir. Alfonso Cuarón ***1/2

Nick Nolte plays a slimy older man who appears to be having an affair with a young woman, and is threatened by her ill-tempered other lover. Shot entirely with one long take, Cuaron manages to misdirect us with some cleverly written dialogue, smart casting and a humourous twist at the end.

Quartier des Enfants Rouges dir. Olivier Assayas ***1/2

Maggie Gyllenhaal playing an American actor shooting a film on location in Paris develops an attraction to her local hash dealer. Assayas brings together the upper and lower classes with drugs being the common denominator. But in the end Gyllenhaal’s character discovers a feeling in herself that drugs can’t supply.

Place des fêtes dir. Oliver Schmitz ****

An African man asks out an African woman in the most unusual of places and situations. This is my favourite of all the films. Like Cuaron’s film, Schmitz misdirects the audience by showing their dialogue while withholding vital information about their backstory. When he flashes back to see how the man and woman came together he gives to us an intensely emotional revelation.

Pigalle dir. Richard LaGravenese **1/2

Bob Hopkins and Fanny Ardant play a couple who act out a fantasy as a sexual spark for their relationship. Yet they both refuse to move past the baggage in their life together. Like Cuaron and Schmitz’s this short teases us with misinformation but it lacks the focus of those other two to make it stand out.

Quartier de la Madeleine dir. Vincenzo Natali **1/2

An American backpacker (Elijah Wood) encounters a vampire at night, which begins an extraordinary courtship between the two. Natali is the only one who uses genre in his short. Apart from a wonderfully gothic atmosphere, there nothing to reveal to us in this story which we haven’t seen before.

Père-Lachaise dir. Wes Craven ***1/2

At the Père Lachaise Cemetery a British couple (Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer) argue and break up while viewing the grave of Oscar Wilde. But the spirit of Wilde, played by Alexander Payne, gives the man a small nudge to rekindle their flame. It’s the most ‘Hollywood’ of the films, but it still retains the romantic and poetic quality of the film as a whole.

Faubourg Saint-Denis dir. Tom Tykwer ****

A young blind man meets, loves and breaks up with a lovely American actress (Natalie Portman). Tykwer stylishly recreates the energy of his “Run Lola Run” by showing a year in the life of this couple in the span of 5mins. Style doesn’t supplant substance though as the film remains romantic and poignant throughout.

Quartier Latin dir. Gérard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin **

A couple meet for a drink at a quiet restaurant to finalize their impending divorce. One of the weakest of the bunch, unless you savour the significance of having Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands and Gerard Depardieu appear on camera together at once.

14e arrondissement dir. Alexander Payne ****

A middle-aged single American woman with atrocious Americanized French accent visits her beloved Paris for the first time in her life. The perfect ending to the film as Payne uses his trademark introspective style to show the sadness and joy of a lonely woman in the city of love.

Enjoy.


Tuesday, 13 November 2007

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, Marisa Tomei

**

Warning: major SPOILERS ahead

Sidney “Serpico” Lumet has been in a slump and I so desperately wanted to love "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead". The premise is intriguing as hell – a heist gone wrong puts two brothers in 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 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 (Marisa 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 Marisa 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."

Monday, 12 November 2007

GONE BABY GONE


Gone Baby Gone (2007) dir. Ben Affleck
Starring: Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris

**1/2

NOTE: It’s difficult to discuss this film without a general SPOILER warning as it makes for better analysis and discussion if I can be specific in my praise and criticism. So please beware.

“Gone Baby Gone” is a frustrating film. It’s a terrific first directorial effort for Ben Affleck, impressive both as director and co-writer, but he’s unfortunately hampered by unnecessary twists and turns of a story that probably sound better in a novel than on screen. It suffers from the same faults as “Mystic River.” “It’s like two completely different films, the first sails along building steam toward a tragic second act climax and the second doubles back on itself and destroys everything the film builds up in terms of tension and character.

Casey Affleck plays Patrick Kenzie, a young private investigator who works with his girlfriend Angie Gennaro in finding missing persons – usually drunken husbands who wander off after domestic disputes. But when Patrick and Angie are hired by the aunt and uncle of a young girl gone missing from a local Boston neighbourhood, suddenly the stakes in their job are raised to the highest levels.

Using his local neighbourhood connections Patrick leads Lt. Brassard (Ed Harris) and the police into the underground of Boston drug trafficking. Along the way we learn of several dramatic revelations about the case which test the personal ethics of Patrick. He’s forced to make life-changing decisions that affect him, his relationship with Angie and the fate of the lost girl.

Ben Affleck consciously announces to us that his film is ‘authentic’ Boston – the real Boston never seen on film before. Every scene seems to begin with a series of shots of real life Bostonians to remind us of its authenticity. His bar scenes are inhabited with real live Dorchester drunks and badass knuckleheads. Every conversation begins and ends with a series of ballbusting insults - a roll call of creative uses of motherfucker or cocksucker. At the top of the film these Mamet-like exchanges seemed self-conscious, but eventually these scenes actually blend into a good rhythm of naturalism. Affleck’s direction is competent and unflashy – a good choice considering the material - but considering the quality actors he’s assembled he had the best back-up available. And it’s actually Affleck’s writing (with co-writer Aaron Stockard) which deserves the most praise. So it’s official, “Good Will Hunting” was no fluke.

And then there’s the third act, which undermines all the praise I’ve noted above. For me “Gone Baby Gone” essentially ends with the scene after the nighttime shoot out in the home, and after Affleck’s and Ed Harris’ fantastic scene outside the police station. It’s a great acting showcase and a great exchange of dialogue. The film disintegrates from this point on. Dennis Lehane, the author of both novels undermines his own characters with the need to resolve the film like an Agatha Christie whodunit. If there are ten characters in the story one of them must the murderer. And it’s a damn shame.

There is a big difference between cinema-realism and the real world. There are decisions, choices and actions that are plausible based on the rules generated by the film being watched. This is cinema realism. These may be different than in the real world – what I call ‘real-realism’. There is a choice Patrick Kenzie is given late in the film which becomes the main talking-point about the film. Warning SPOILERS ahead….Patrick has a choice of whether to let the missing girl stay with her secret surrogate family (the kindly retired cop Morgan Freeman) or call the cops and send her back to her drug-addicted mother. In the real world there would be no choice because hiding the girl would make him an accomplice to kidnapping and send him to prison. But in cinema-reality the decision becomes interesting.

Thinking of the question from an idealistic point of view the movie can be profound, but only in the artificial Hollywood bubble world. The contradiction is that Ben Affleck fights so hard to make his Boston a real Boston – with real people on screen, not Toronto-faked-for-Boston - and so by giving his character these cinema-reality choices in the end is disappointing. This is why “Gone Baby Gone” is two different films – one good, one bad. I’m still on the fence.