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

Monday, 31 December 2007

SHOOT 'EM UP


Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) dir. Michael Davis
Starring: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Belluci

**

To all action directors out there, please put a stop to using ‘double-gun’ action sequences – please! In the late 80’s/early 90’s John Woo took gun fights to a new level of violence – a slo-motion choreographed dance of bullets, explosions and blood. Since then virtually every gun battle has to figure in an actor, and to quote “Hot Fuzz”, ‘brandishing two guns, whilst jumping in the air’.

Michael Davis’ “Shoot ‘Em Up” takes the John Woo influence beyond the mere double-gun thing and makes an entire movie out it. Considering the entire film was written around the gun battles, I have to judge it on that. The film is audacious, in-your-face, and unabashedly reverential to John Woo’s films. I admired the energy and genuine joy of action filmmaking on display but I was disappointed because the action sequences fell way behind compared to the glorifying beauty of Woo’s violent choreography.

The film is structured around a dozen set pieces barely hanging onto a plot about a politician, a baby, and gun company. The singularly-named Smith (Clive Owen) is the reluctant hero who interrupts a murder of a nursing mother. The mother dies and Smith takes the child to safety. He soon discovers the baby is wanted by an evil group of gun-toting criminals led by the wise-cracking Hertz (Paul Giamatti). Smith employs the help of local prostitute Donna Quintano who specializes in lactation fetish. While Donna feeds the baby Smith fights off the bad guys.

The film is consciously in-your-face and tries hard to push the boundaries of decency. The baby is treated like a briefcase full of money as it’s grabbed, tossed around, driven over and shot at numerous times without any harm. There’s also a sex scene which has Clive Owen doing the nasty with Monica Belluci, shooting the bad guys who have invaded the room and bringing Belluci to orgasm a couple times as well. That’s talent.

The actors deserve most of the credit, because without the A-List credibility of Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti the film would simply have been a festival of bullets. But the mere presence of these two great actors makes the film watchable beyond the action.

Much has been made of writer/director Michael Davis’s ‘overnight’ success. Indeed he sketched and animated all his action scenes as a pitch to New Line to finance the film. But Davis also had five other low budget feature films under his belt as well as a relationship with USC buddy and blockbuster producer Don Murphy. The shepherding of this relationship is what got the film made.

Davis has some skills and the cinema joie-de-vivre of a Robert Rodriguez. I certainly look forward to his next film. As for “Shoot ‘Em Up” I’d rather watch “Hard Boiled” for the 25th time.

“Shoot ‘Em Up” is available this week from New Line Home Entertainment and Alliance Films. Buy it here: Shoot 'Em Up



Sunday, 30 December 2007

THERE WILL BE BLOOD


There Will Be Blood (2007) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciaran Hinds

****

“There Will Be Blood” is Paul Thomas Anderson at his most confident, cockiest and a little bit confounding. Six years after “Punch Drunk Love” PT returns with a departure from his previous films by delving into a novel (Upton Sinclair’s ‘Oil!’) and going back in time 80 years. Absent are the usual PT players (Luiz Guzman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly et al). Filling their shoes admirably is the amazing Daniel Day-Lewis. Lewis and Anderson are a force to be reckoned with and they deliver in spades an epic tale of greed, power, ego and oil.

PT sets the tone early by giving us an extended 15 mins sequence of then humble oil prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he painfully sweats blood to find oil in a desolate patch of desert land in Texas. Starting with a single pick axe we watch over time Daniel’s oil empire grow and grow and grow. We watch as Daniel and his young son H.W. Plainview swindle land owners from the true value of their land. One day a mysterious boy appears at Daniel’s door claiming to know where oil-rich land could be bought at a cheap price. Daniel and H.W. travel to this acreage and discover some of the most profitable untapped oil land in the U.S.

Daniel either buys or leases the land from all the nearby towns and becomes an oil baron. Daniel’s nemesis is the equally ambitious Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) – a god-fearing evangelical who sees the opportunity to make a name for himself on the back of the oil boom. As Daniel ages, his ego and need to crush his competitors seems to cloud his sharp judgment. And with so much wealth he becomes drowned in money he can’t spend. But is it money he desires or just the power?

PT Anderson must have seen “Gangs of New York” and said to himself, “there’s my next film.” Anderson gives us Bill the Butcher again, and puts him in virtually every frame of its two and a half hour running time. He allows Day-Lewis to go full force with the character and live and breathe Daniel Plainview. At times, Anderson lets him go too far, but for the most part he carries and elevates the film beyond what any other actor in the world could have done. Day-Lewis’ voice, mannerisms, walk and bushy moustache seem to turn him into a sadistic maniac. Much of Daniel Plainview is Bill the Butcher, and that’s o.k. because I could watch Day-Lewis washing dishes for hours and still be mesmerized.

Daniel Plainview is a fascinating man. It takes us a while before we start to get a sense of who he is. We know from the first scene he’s ambitious, especially when we watch him hike himself up a mine with a broken leg and crawl to the nearest shopkeeper miles away. We soon learn he’s a family man, or so he tells us. His relationship with his son is important to the story. At times he can be cruel – like feeding him hard liquor as a baby – and also respectful and educational – teaching him the ways of oil. Is Plainview just a swindler or does he endeavour to make a difference for the lives of the townspeople as he claims? The final act shows us who Plainview is. Two awesome dialogue scenes at the end reveal everything about the real Daniel Plainview and will have you shaking your head in awe.

Anderson’s proficient technical skills are on display again and he’s never one to hide his influences. Other than the casting of Day-Lewis Scorsese is absent here, instead, believe it or not, it’s Stanley Kubrick he’s channels. The opening shot and the opening 15mins is lifted right out of, believe it or not, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and much of the sound design and music score is Kubrick-esque as well.

The film looks fantastic of course. Anderson's frequent cinematographer Robert Elswit shoots the film with beautiful anamorphic wide angle lenses. He underlits most of the nightime and interior scenes. These scenes, some of which are difficult to see because it's so dim, creates a creepiness and sense of unease throughout the film. There's always something hidden in the dark, something about Plainview's morals, or motivations, or both. The exteriors are majestic - evoking the best work of the great landscape films which likely inspired Anderson ("McCabe and Mrs. Miller", "Once Upon a Time in the West", the Dawn of Time sequence in "2001: A Space Odyssey").

Much of the film is about texture, mood and tone. Anderson knows when to quicken up the pace and raise the stakes. He announces these moments with his unique ear for music. Instead of Jon Brion or Michael Penn he employs rock-God Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead) for the job. Greenwood delivers an accomplished classical score with hint of the new Radiohead “In Rainbows” progressive sound. It’s both fresh and familiar.

It’s frustrating because the film is a masterpeice, yet, as I write this, one scene continues to nag at me. As mentioned the finale enlightens us to the true character of Daniel Plainview. At the same time there’s tonal shift to a comic tone we hadn’t seen before in the previous 150mins. Though it got some laughter from the audience it didn’t quite work for me. PT Anderson needed to say ‘cut’ at one point. Instead he lets the camera roll too long and the scene turns into slapstick. I would have overlooked this if it didn’t come at the very end. Anderson is making a statement hear, and it’s the right message he’s sending, but he does it with the wrong tone. This nags at me because the film is so damned good it’s like that one nick in an otherwise flawless piece of art. Enjoy.



Saturday, 29 December 2007

THE KILLER SHREWS


The Killer Shrews (1958) dir. Ray Kellogg
Starring: James Best, Ken Curtis, Ingrid Goude

***

Review by Greg Klymkiw

Ken Curtis is known to most of us for his long and distinguished career as an actor – from his musical appearances with the magnificent Sons of the Pioneers in numerous John Ford westerns to his long-running role as Festus in the legendary TV western “Gunsmoke”. Surely the cherry on the sundae that is Curtis’s career is the fact that he also produced “The Killer Shrews”, a tremendously entertaining 50s B-picture that manages to keep one riveted for its mercifully short, but action-packed running time.

Beginning with a somewhat portentous narration that informs us that shrews are nasty little beasts who put Hannibal Lecter’s (and presumably Robert Pickton’s) piggies to shame, we are plunged into the bargain basement Dr. Moreau-like island where shrews have been bred all big and nasty and some mad scientist types, a babe and a villainous heavy (played by Curtis himself) encounter a stalwart sea captain and his Stepin Fetchit-like sidekick who come to sniff out the dirty doings.

Much of the plot, such as it is, revolves around the captain trying to put the make on the babe who is inexplicably involved romantically with the seemingly psychotic Ken Curtis while shrews attack (and occasionally kill) the inhabitants of the island.

The killer shrews pre-date CGI, so they are rendered oh-so-accurately by utilizing dogs who appear to have stringy mops fixed to their backs and huge vampire teeth gaffer-taped and/or glued to the insides of their mouths.

The movie is replete with both laughs and thrills. The thrills – in spite of the ridiculous effects – are reasonably genuine as the proceedings are directed efficiently by famed special effects man and second unit director Ray Kellogg (making his directorial debut here). Let’s not forget that Kellogg was hand-picked years later by John (Our Father) Wayne to direct “The Green Berets”. Then again, perhaps we do want to forget that.

You will not, however, want to forget “The Killer Shrews”. I dare you to try.

Legend Films has recently released “The Killer Shrews” in a terrific DVD that features a delightful bevy of special features including a terrifically colorized version, the original black and white version, some oddly amusing factoids on shrews, a bunch of period trailers from B pictures, an astounding 50s educational film titled “Squeak the Squirrel” and an entire second feature in a double bill (the incredibly lame “Giant Gila Monster” which is of interest only as the second Ken Curtis – Ray Kellogg collaboration).

“The Killer Shrews” is available on DVD from Legend Films. Buy it here: The Killer Shrews/The Giant Gila Monster


Friday, 28 December 2007

SWEENEY TODD


Sweeney Todd (2007) dir. Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower

**1/2

Note: I'm writing this review not knowing anything about the original musical. I feel like the victim of false advertising. Though I knew “Sweeney Todd” was based on a Broadway musical the trailer featured virtually no singing whatsoever. In fact, 90% of the film is music and song. And not just the occasional song, it’s like one continuous musical number interrupted by brief moments of dialogue. No disrespect to Stephen Sondheim whose songs and music are complex and intricate but for many people unfamiliar with the material it will likely be an inpenetrable film. Some will see the brilliance in adapting Sondheim's music to the screen, others, like me, will have difficulty seeing past Johnny Depp singing his dialogue.

Depp plays “Benjamin Barker” who returns to home to London, on a mission to exact revenge on the men who kidnapped and killed his wife many years ago. Since then Barker has changed his name to “Sweeney Todd”, and is now a murderous sadistic maniac with a death wish. He befriends a local meat pie maker Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and he sets up a barbershop in her attic where he will perform his bloody revenge killings. They work together to find and lure his victims to the shop where he shaves them, cuts their throat and discards the bodies to be ground up into Lovett’s meat pies.

Perhaps I’m the wrong person to review this film because though I don’t mind actors ‘singing’ their dialogue when it’s on stage, I most certainly find it unwatchable on screen. Each scene would start out with traditional dialogue, and just when the scene would get creepy or interesting the characters would suddenly start singing. Nothing zaps the tension out of scene more than the characters breaking out into showtunes. For example, the first confrontation with his nemesis Judge Turbin (Alan Rickman): Todd invites Turbin to sit in his chair for a shave. This is the moment Todd’s been waiting for years, to have the kidnappers of his wife vulnerable and ready to die. But then Rickman and Depp start bellowing the harmonizing song “Pretty Women”. I immediately fell out of the scene, and into a different movie – a movie I didn’t want to see. So, perhaps it’s my ignorance with the material or my stubbornness to accept music and song in a dark tale of murder, but either way it was a frustrating experience.

The potential for what “Sweeney Todd” could have been is evidenced in the third act when the film conspicuously holds back the songs and finishes the story off with a more traditional dialogue-driven narrative. The final 20 minutes, which saves the film from an even lower rating from me, is a fantastic bloody and tragic climax worthy of its Italian operas roots, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence the singing was minimalized to a few verses.

I think Tim Burton is a good director with a unique sense of style and design, but unfortunately the design team seemed to be on auto-pilot with this one. There were few visual surprises as most of everything we see in the film is recycled from “Edward Scissorhands” and “Sleepy Hollow”. There’s Johnny Depp’s costume and hair which we’ve seen before in “Scissorhands”, Johanna’s died-blonde heroine - a twin of Winona Ryder’s and Christina Ricci’s characters from “Scissorhands” and “Sleepy Hollow” - plus there’s the pasty white powdered goth skin and Dariusz Wolski’s colour-drained cinematography – all of which is typical Burton stuff.

What’s different is the rage and fury and the amount of blood spilled in this film. Correct me if I’m wrong but its Burton’s first R-rated film. Burton makes the most of his rating as he probably sets the record for the most throat-slashings in one film. It’s wonderful to see Burton exercise some violent tendencies in this film, because for a man who has delved into darkness so many times it’s about time we saw some blood. I just wished he didn’t slash people’s throat over Broadway showtunes.

If you like musicals, and know “Sweeney Todd” you will likely be thoroughly satisfied, but if you don’t want to see Johnny Depp or Alan Rickman singing together (both of whom are only adequate) and just want to see Tim Burton spill some blood this is not the flick for you.











Thursday, 27 December 2007

LOST: SEASON THREE (PART 1)


Lost: The Complete Third Season (Episodes 1-8)
Starring: Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Terry O’ Quinn, Elizabeth Mitchell, Josh Holloway

****

Season Four of “Lost” starts on January 31. There’s a promo out already which hypes up the new adventures. As you may know the end of the series is set – a final 55 episodes spread over three seasons. With the end in sight it’s exciting to know the producers and writers have planned out the descent back to reality and finish off this unique TV experience with a bang.

A month should give you just enough time to watch, or rewatch the Third Season which is out on DVD right now. I’m a complete “Lost” fanatic who just can’t get enough. Having watched each of the episodes on network television throughout the year I was excited to rewatch the episodes back-to-back, without commercial interruptions and at my own viewing schedule. The traditional method of 45min of a series once a week interrupted every 8 mins with commercials seems archaic after watching a series straight through. “Lost” is no exception.

And don’t believe cynics and naysayers about the third season. From top to bottom it’s as beguiling as the other two seasons, with thought-provoking twists with that tinge of existential philosophy. Slowly pieces are fitting together, but with every question answered a new one is asked. As a complete whole it’s as good as any piece of celluloid cinema out there.

When last we left the Losties Desmond, Locke and Charlie had just blown up the hatch. Jack, Sawyer and Kate were captured by the others. Sayid, Jin and Sun were on a sailboat looking to rendezvous with Jack. These first eight episodes concentrate heavily on the imprisonment of Jack, Kate and Sawyer. The key new character we get to know is Juliet, played by the phenomenal Elizabeth Mitchell. In fact she gets the opening shot of the first episode. It’s a clever scene of misdirection. We see Juliet put on a CD and hum along to Petula Clark’s pop song “Downtown” and then prepare for her book club meeting. After the sound of an earthquake Juliet runs outside to see Oceanic Flight 315 exploding in midair. When the camera pulls back to reveal the island, it’s a rare awe-inspiring moment for television. It’s a perfect example of the series. The audience is kept in the dark until the precise moment to reveal what’s actually going on.

Juliet turns out to be one of the evil “Others”, the original inhabitants of the island who kidnap children and perform mysterious medical tests on our Losties. Juliet and Ben (Michael Emerson) have specific plans for Jack whom they keep separate from Kate. Their plans climax in an operation procedure Jack performs on Ben. In the best episode of the first half (#6 “I Do”) Jack operates on Ben but turns the tables in an effort to rescue Kate and Sawyer.

During it’s network run, after each show, with my friends I debrief our thoughts and predictions for the upcoming shows. Neither I nor my friends have ever guessed what would happen next for any of the plot threads that have emerged over the course of the show. It’s a testament to the storytelling skills of the producers to be able to stay fresh and unpredictable yet grounded in the ‘reality’, rules and tone of the world they have created.

These first 8 episodes especially have a remarkable pace and momentum, something which is lost (no pun intended) on the weekly television format. It’s impossible to watch just one episode and you often find yourself stuck on the couch for hours unable to turn away from television. “Just one more episode…”. In my mind it’s still the best show on television.

“Lost: The Complete Third Season” is available on DVD from Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Buy it here: Lost - The Complete Third Season


EASTERN PROMISES


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

****

On DVD this week is the thoroughly satisfying 'gangster' film “Eastern Promises”, though it's difficult to place the film in a genre. It's a Cronenberg film, much like his previous success, "A History of Violence", another difficult film to categorize. For good reason it made a stir at TIFF this year. It’s a tight story about the intriguing milieu of Eastern European gangsters in London. The unique collection of global talent – Canadian, British, Aussie, German, French result in familiar story executed with an unfamiliar tone. It’s a terrific film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Eastern Promises" is available on DVD now from Alliance Films. Buy it here: Eastern Promises (Widescreen Edition)




Wednesday, 26 December 2007

D-WAR: DRAGON WARS


D-War: Dragon Wars (2007) dir. Shim Hyung-rae
Starring: Jason Behr, Amanda Brooks, Robert Forster, Chris Mulkey, Elizabeth Pena

*1/2

“D-War: Dragon Wars” a new Korean monster movie is one of those films where the poster is infinitely better than the film. The ads depict two bad ass Godzilla-like serpents battling each other atop A skyscraper. I had hopes it could have been another quality Korean genre film like “The Host”, but I was shocked to see that it was all American – even set in L.A. with semi-recognizable Hollywood actors. In their attempt to make an internationally successful film the filmmakers disregarded anything about their own culture that would have made the film distinct and created a throw away carbon copy picture.

Curiously, according to the DVD Special Features, “Dragon Wars” was the most expensive film ($30m) ever made by Koreans. In fact, it’s worn like a badge of honour. But no one seems to care if the film is any good.

The story is apparently based on Korean myth. As a boy Ethan Kendrick meets an antique dealer (Robert Forster) who identifies him as the reincarnated spirit of Halam, a warrior from ancient Korea. In flashbacks we see Halam and his lover Narim confront an evil serpent monster named Imoogi. The pair take the power of the dragon to their suicidal deaths with the knowledge they will be reunited 500 years later. When Ethan grows up he is compelled to find the reincarnated lover who will have the power to summon the good serpent to fight the bad serpent. The backstory is impossible to understand – in fact I had to refer back to Wikipedia to remember it all. Anyways it’s all hokey-pokey pseudo-mythology stuff.

The Imoogi serpent appears in Los Angeles to find and kill Ethan’s reincarnated lover Sarah (Amanda Brooks). As a TV news reporter he discovers a series of mysterious events and disasters could be the reemergence of this legendary monster. Ethan accepts the responsibility of his former life and must save Sarah from the evil Imoogi. Just in the nick of time the good Imoogi finally returns for a climatic battle of the monsters.

All of the above is an excuse to have some good ol’ Godzilla-style destruction. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But unlike those campy Japanese films the Korean filmmakers felt the need to mask the film’s campyness and turn it into a Roland Emmerich blockbuster. Though the budget was the highest in Korean history they still couldn’t reach the bar that Emmerich or Michael Bay have set for the genre. There’s 2 or 3 big set pieces that sustain your attention, but everything else is just moving through the ringer with truly awful results. The best scene is an ambitious downtown L.A. monster battle (a la “Transformers”). There’s some awesome destruction and explosions involving the Imoogi and an army of flying pterodactyls. If you have to rent this film you may want to fast forward to this scene.

Since the poster features a dragon vs. dragon battle atop an L.A. skyscraper I was waiting for that scene. But it never comes. It’s only in the very last scene does the good serpent finally emerge. The battle is a let down because it's way too late in the film and, for some reason, the filmmakers forgot to put arms and legs on the monsters. Therefore their movements, actions and ‘fightability’ were extremely limited. I'll take Godzilla va. Mothra any day.

The film had potential to be another quality Korean monster movie like “The Host”, which could compete with the Hollywood blockbuster monster movies but still retain its distinct “Korean-ness”. Instead it fails because of its naïve attempt to be Hollywood.

“D-War: Dragon Wars” is available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on DVD. Buy it here: Dragon Wars - D-War



Tuesday, 25 December 2007

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE


It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) dir. Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore

****

The timeless classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” is essential viewing for the Christmas season. It’s the life story of humble family man George Bailey who, throughout his life, gave more than he received, and in the moment of deepest despair is allowed to see the effects of his goodwill. Though known as a holiday film, it’s a perfect piece of cinema on its own and one of the greatest films of all-time.

There are several existential themes that run through the film which make it so accessible and watchable. Capra and his writers give us a full hour and a half of story before revealing the heart of the film. We see George at benchmark moments in his life when his selflessness has furthered the lives and careers of others. There’s his brother’s sledding accident which saved his life but caused irreparable damage to George’s ear; Before going off to college George stays in the town he desperately wants to leave so he can bail out his father’s old Building Savings and Loan business; On the day of his wedding George forgoes his honeymoon so he can stem a potential bank run against the business – and personally loans $2000 from his own savings to help the community. But most importantly he sacrifices he hopes and dreams of becoming an engineer in order to help his community from falling under the monopolistic money baron Mr. Potter.

These events are carefully written and planned out in the screenplay so they will pay off in the famous third act which most of us are familiar with. The angel we heard talking to us at the beginning of the film comes to earth like the ghost of Christmas past to help George see the good he has brought his friends and family. The film is existential because despite the divine intervention it’s George’s direct and indirect actions in his life which ultimately save him from financial ruin. Though the benign angel Clarence allows him to see the effect of his goodwill on the community there is no magic button or pixie dust thrown into the mix. The revelation and resolution are not religious, or a miracle, instead the result of a life’s work of goodness.

In many ways the film is also a direct shot at extreme free-marketism. Bailey’s credit union battles Potter’s evil economic takeover throughout the film. I’m surprised the film wasn’t blacklisted because the allusions to socialism are clear. Frank Capra though is such a talented filmmaker that his righteousness and common wholesomeness trump any economic or political agendas.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is timeless not because of its Christmas themes but because there’s a bit of George Bailey in every one of us - his dreams and aspirations and his guilt, insecurities and neuroses. And the purpose of the film is not to spread Christmas cheer but to make the audience look inward and rediscover their own personal faith in humanity and the value of the smallest seemingly insignificant actions in our lives. Such optimism is rare for films today. Merry Christmas.

A new 2-Disc Special Edition DVD is available from Paramount Home Entertainment. Buy it here: It's A Wonderful Life (Two-Disc Collector's Set) (B/W & Color)


Monday, 24 December 2007

GHOST RIDER


Ghost Rider (2007) dir. Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Peter Fonda, Wes Bentley, Sam Elliott

**1/2

I hope my credibility will still be intact after this review because, believe it or not, “Ghost Rider” is actually pretty good. That’s not exactly praise to go on a poster, but it certainly surprised me. When I first saw the trailer earlier in the year, I couldn’t think of a worse premise - a flaming motorcycle riding superhero with Nicholas Cage and Peter Fonda. Nothing seemed appealing especially considering writer/director Mark Steven Johnson’s last film was “Daredevil”. But the film was highly successful in the theatres and so I just had to see what I was missing (Sony was also kind enough to send me a copy including an elaborately detailed die-cast bust figurine of the Ghost Rider!). And so, with low expectations the film surprised me with an entertaining and fun comic book adventure that I’d watch over “Spider-man 3” any day of the week.

As I started watching I was waiting for the film to get bad, but it didn’t – ok the ending was sloppy – instead it pretty much had me glued to screen most of the time. Nicholas Cage plays Johnny Blaze, a charismatic stunt-bike jumper. We first see him as a teenager performing with his father. When his father develops cancer Blaze sells his soul to the devil (Peter Fonda) to save his life. But the devil tricks him and his father dies tragically performing a stunt. But it’s too late for Blaze as his soul is already condemned for life.

Years later the devil finally returns to complete the second part of his deal. Blaze becomes a “ghost rider” – a messenger who collects the souls of others meant for hell. All the information stuff about the ‘rules’ of the ghost rider is told to us in an opening narration – by the wonderful gruff voice of Sam Elliott. With the motivations, background, legend and lore out of the way, the action can start. Like the Hulk, Blaze soon finds out, in times of need, he can change into his crime fighting alter-ego – “Ghost Rider”. His head explodes into a flaming skull, his bike transforms into a bad ass flaming chopper, and his weapon of choice, a thick chain whip, a la Indiana Jones. It’s something I’ve never seen on film before – no tights, capes, or masks, just flames, skulls and chains.

The special effects which looked hooky in the trailer were believable and exciting once the backstory and characters were set up. Since reality and plausibility are the first things to suspend when watching a comic book film, its success depends largely on its hero as well as that indefinable ‘cool-factor’. Every time Nick Cage’s head exploded into flames I perked up in my seat. Cool. Score one for “Ghost Rider”.

The film scores again with Cage as the hero. As an actor Cage unfortunately carries with him the weight of his bad casting choices. Yes, he’s overacting and chewing the scenery like in previous films but he plays Johnny Blaze with such enthusiasm it trumps all his baggage.

Like most films of its ilk the grand finale is a let down. The final confrontation with the evil Wes Bentley is a sloppy mess. The elaborate details of the devil’s contract maguffin get lost in a mélange of overwrought psychedelic special effects. The film also tops two hours, which is a big no-no for a disposable film such as this. But for most of its 123mins I was engaged and entertained, and though the film is disposable I still have my “Ghost Rider” bust sitting on my office shelf. Enjoy.

The “Ghost Rider” Gift Set is now available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Buy it here: Ghost Rider (Extended Cut with Premium Item Gift Set)



Sunday, 23 December 2007

I AM LEGEND


I am Legend (2007) dir. Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith

***1/2

“I am Legend” is (so far) the most entertaining blockbuster of the holiday season. I had doubts where another version of Richard Matheson’s famed novel from the 50’s could be made new and fresh today. After all, it gave birth to countless zombie and ‘last man on earth’ films. But sophomore director Francis “Constantine” Lawrence and leading man extraordinaire, Will Smith, pull it off. It’s worth all its mondo box office bucks.

Manhattan is a wasteland. Three years ago an airborne virus rapidly spread and killed most human life. Those who didn’t die were transformed into rapid blood hungry zombies. And apparently only one human was immune – Robert Neville (Will Smith). The fame monuments, buildings, and streets of New York City have grown over with weeds and animals roam free among the desolate cars and empty buildings. The opening scene is an adrenaline pumping sequence featuring Neville and his trusty dog Sam cruising the streets of Manhattan in a sportscar chasing a herd of deer. By day Neville has a daily regiment to retain the last sense of order in his otherwise bleak life. By night he hides in his apartment from the evil nightwalker zombies that roam the streets looking for blood.

In solitude Neville’s only conversations are with his dog and a group of mannequins he has placed around the city to keep him company. To keep his sanity he conducts scientific experiments on animals in a laboratory in his basement - his last glimmer of hope that a cure for the deadly disease could be found and eventually bring human life back to the planet.

It’s a remarkably high concept with grand themes, but the heart of the story – both the novel and the film – is the character of Neville. Will Smith is a marvel in the role. For most of the film it’s Smith, alone, acting with a dog. Smith plays Neville as teetering on the brink of insanity. With few words we get the sense of this constant struggle. When he’s not pulling back to frame the immaculately designed deserted city, Lawrence’s camera is up close in Smith’s face. Smith’s determined eyes and mouth quivers say as much as his monologues. Smith’s performance is Oscar-worthy.

For a film about a man alone in the world "I am Legend" has more dialogue than it should. I had the same problem with “Cast Away”. A bold and risky move would have been to the play the film no dialogue at all. But with $100million dollars on the line – 'bold' and 'risky' are dirty words. It’s a shame. No worry though, because Neville’s trusty German shepherd is infinitely most interesting than a volleyball. As the main supporting character, Sam is not just played for cute. Much of the action and emotion comes from the relationship between the two. There are a few humorous scenes as they go about their domestic life together. But there’s also moments of heartpounding suspense and emotion during their adventures.

The action is fantastic and there are several bravura sequences that had the audience in shock. As mentioned the opening deer hunt is incredible, and the first encounter with the zombies in the darkened building is a great set piece of suspense. Though James Newton Howard composed a score, music is virtually non-existent. Much of the film is played in complete silence, which adds to the eerie effect.

The flashbacks in the film are structured like an episode of “Lost”. We see the evacuation of New York three years ago played out in Neville’s serialized memories. It’s one scene which gradually reveals itself over the course of the film. There’s some fantastic epic action and scope (spoiled in the trailer), but unfortunately it fails to reveal anything in Neville’s character we didn’t infer already. There’s a missed opportunity here.

The one major fault with the film is a 20mins chunk of time at the beginning of the third act. A new element to the story is introduced and unfortunately it stops the film dead in its tracks. It’s a shame because it was running on high momentum until this break. By the end the momentum is quickly built up again and we are given a satisfactory conclusion. I heard some grumblings in the audience, “that’s it?” Though the climax wasn't better than the beginning of the film, I’m glad Lawrence didn’t overcomplicate the story and push it over-the-top. It remained Robert Neville’s story to the end. Enjoy.



Saturday, 22 December 2007

MISSILE TO THE MOON


Missile to the Moon (1958) dir. Richard E. Cunha
Starring: Richard Travis, Cathy Downs, K.T. Stevens, Tommy Cook

***

Review by Greg Klymkiw

Truly great science fiction is rooted firmly in science fact. “Missile to the Moon” is just such a motion picture. Directed with passion and panache by the great Richard E. Cunha, audiences will thrill to the care and effort taken to plunge us into a celluloid world that reproduces – blow by blow – what it truly must be like to travel in space and to walk, ever-so-boldly on the surface of the Moon. What especially will blow your mind is the astounding accuracy of what actually exists beyond the boundaries of our atmosphere.

First and foremost is the painstaking attention to the details of what an actual space program must be like. Even though the picture was released in 1958, it’s so ahead of its time that one can only apply the word “visionary” to its awe-inspiring use of fact and fiction to transport us to a reality not quite achieved either before or after this picture was made. At the beginning of the movie, a group of scientists are seen on the cusp of sending a missile to the Moon. The chief scientist reveals to his colleagues his incredible rocket and while some might mistake it for a crudely carved phallus against a cardboard backdrop, they would be … well; uh … they would surely be mistaken. Many missiles look like phalluses (or is the plural “phallusi”?) and who really knows what anything looks like from the launch bridge of a place like Cape Canaveral. Unless one has actually been there personally, it might well all look like painted cardboard.

Secondly, how can one possibly ignore the accuracy with respect to security at the launch site? In a world where crazed terrorists can hijack passenger planes and fly them into buildings, surely it is possible to believe that the crew of the first missile to the moon could be manned by two petty criminals who wander into the top secret launch site and hide in the missile itself. In light of the realities of a world where Osama bin Laden continues to reign supreme and plot his revenge upon the infidel, does it not take a visionary like Richard E. Cunha to show how a missile can be manned by a scientist and his girlfriend who accidentally find themselves on the launch pad and eventually in the ship itself?

Thirdly, the travel into space itself is handled with customary adherence to fact – everything from the accurate use of seatbelts to the meteor shower of paper-mache-like boulders that threaten the missile and finally, how it does not really affect the missile’s use of fuel and/or resources to have several unaccounted-for passengers on board.

And last, but certainly not least is the stunningly accurate rendering of the Moon itself – a world where the rocks have arms, legs and pointy heads and appear to have been brought to life by Art Clokey himself, a world with giant spiders (and unless we’ve seen one up close, how do we know they don’t look like puppets?) and an entire race of babe-o-licious women who rule the Moon with firm, but gentle hands.

Is this picture a pile of crap? It sure is. But what a pile of crap! This is no guilty pleasure. One must feel pride in relishing every delightfully absurd moment of this undeniably entertaining movie that is so idiotic that, like the work of Ed Wood, it’s impossible to believe that Cunha and his collaborators had no idea of what they were doing. Of course they did, and for the good of the picture, and for entertainment value that has spanned the decades since its first release, Cunha and company delivered a fast, fun and insane little picture.

The Legend Films DVD is also a lovely way to see the picture. It presents both the black and white version and a colorized version in addition to the inclusion of some 50s TV commercials as extras. If truth be told, however, and in spite of the excellent colorization job, I preferred the black and white version, because the colorized version chooses to deliver all the babes on the moon with skin that is colored green. Green just doesn’t inspire the proper degree of manhood engorgement that the straight-up black and white rendering of the babes most certainly does.

"Missile to the Moon" is available on DVD from Legend Films. Buy it here: Missile to the Moon

Friday, 21 December 2007

STARDUST


Stardust (2007) dir. Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Sienna Miller

**

Every three months or so in the past two years there’s been another Tier 2 fantasy film. If Tier 1 is “LOTR”, “Potter” and “Narnia”, Tier 2 would be “Bridge to Terebithia” or “Eragon”. “Stardust” features a top tier cast, a hot new director, a lauded novel, but unfortunately “Stardust” settles into the lowly Tier 2 level of fantasy.

After some voiceover from Ian McKellan (puh-lease) the film jumps right into the story. We are told there’s a city called “Wall” built next to a wall to another world. The hole in the wall that leads to the other world is protected by a singular old man. A young man approaches, tricks him into the looking the other way and jumps to the other side. Is that it? Is that all the backstory explanation we get of this other world? There’s no cinematic build up or reveal or mythology to nuance. It all happened to too fast for me to accept. Remember “Narnia” took its time before revealing the new world in the closet. Same with “Wizard of Oz” – both films used its first act to lay the groundwork and foreshadow the events about to take place. Gaiman, Vaughn and the bunch throw us into the deep end right away.

I digress. The young man who crosses into the fantasy Kingdom of Stormhold beds a witch’s slave (a yummy Kate Magowan) and fathers a young boy. This boy grows up in the real world to be a young gent named Tristan (Charlie Cox). While gazing into the stars he sees a shooting star and offers to collect it for his girlfriend (Sienna Miller) as a show of his love. Tristan crosses the wall and the adventure begins.

But the falling star isn’t a falling star, it arbitrarily turns into Yvaine (Clare Danes). So Tristan decides to escort Claire Danes back home. How would he explain that to his girlfriend? There are the evil witches, led by Michelle Pfeiffer (Lamia) who need the fallen star to recapture their youth. There’s also a group of warring princes who need the star in order to claim their right to Peter O’Toole’s dying throne. Along the way Tristan and Yvaine are helped by a group of pirates who ply the skies in a flying pirate ship. Tristan and Yvaine bicker throughout the journey but eventually realize they are falling in love.

None of the scenes gave me the sense of wonder or myth we expect from a film of this genre. Though I can’t substantiate it, much of the film seemed to take place at night. Visually this is dull, especially for fantasy. As mentioned, the backstory is given to us too fast and so the ‘rules’ of the world are never clear. Things just jump out at us because we are told to accept it. Nothing is earned. Also, with some great actors like De Niro, Pfeiffer, Danes and even supporting characters like Ricky Gervais and Peter O’Toole, the choice of Charlie Cox (who?) as the lead is a head-scratcher. He’s uncharismatic and dull as dishwater. And how he’s able to snag both Claire Danes and Sienna Miller requires a big leap of faith.

“Stardust” feels like an 1980’s fantasy film - “The Neverending Story” or “Time Bandits” - but nostalgia for these films isn’t enough to sustain a subpar narrative and unimaginative visuals. I’ve never read Neil Gaiman, but he’s often spoken in the league of Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Matthew Vaughn, who produced the first two Guy Ritchie films and directed his own Brit-crime “Layer Cake” is the director. You may remember he bowed out of “X-Men 3” and took on this project instead. Despite these high credentials the film is lackluster fantasy.

“Stardust” is now available on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment. Buy it here: Stardust (Widescreen Edition)



Thursday, 20 December 2007

BRAVEHEART


Braveheart (1996) dir. Mel Gibson
Starring: Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Brendan Gleeson, Sophia Marceau, Mary McCormack

***1/2

It’s obvious now that self-sacrifice is Mel Gibson’s favourite fetish, but back then, before “Passion of the Christ” William Wallace carried the title as the on-screen hero with the most gruesome and painful act of mutilation. The tear-jerking finale is just one of a dozen eye-popping scenes that elevate violence to high art. After 11 years the unabashed emotional story of courage and patriotic English-hating pride still packs its emotional and visceral wallop like a blunt mace to the head.

I don’t mind the tampering of history to make its point, which I’ve been told by many a history-fanatic is the case with the story of William Wallace. Who cares. In 1280, with the evil English King, Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) on the throne Scotland is ruled under slavery-like oppression. The final straw is “Prima Nocte,” an act which allows a noble Lord to take the wife of a newly married woman to bed on her first night. At this time William Wallace, the humble son of a farmer, whose father died at the hands of the evil English army, has returned to Scotland to find his bride – his childhood love Murron MacClannough (Mary McCormack). But the noblemen get to Murran and kill her without remorse in order to goad Wallace into a fight. The reluctant warrior is unleashed with menacing vengeance. As he fights back, the entire village, and then the entire country, rallies behind Wallace to fight for the freedom of the people.

Ironically what stands in Wallace’s way is the stubborn politicking of the Scottish nobles who refuse to give up their land and title for freedom. Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen) who has the potential and conscience to unite the clans is manipulated into betrayal by his dying father. Despite these obstacles Wallace fights battle after battle and is close enough to winning before he’s captured and ultimately executed for his rebelliousness. But as a martyr he becomes stronger in death than life and under Robert the Bruce, the Scottish people finally win their freedom.

The major attraction of the film are the phenomenal battle scenes. After 10 years of imitation, Gibson’s film has yet to be topped for it’s visceral and relentless sword-wielding action. The beatdowns still bring a childlike smile to my face. My favourites include: the sword to the balls, the arrow in the bare ass, the knife to the face, the ball and chain beatdown to the nobleman’s head and the bloodly head-puncture at the beginning of the Stirling battle. The action is huge and complex and involve thousands of extras but Gibson shoots it so confidently nothing is missed or masked by a shaky camera.

“Braveheart” makes no apologies for being patriotic and partisan. As a result Gibson and writer Randall Wallace resort to caricatures for several of the key players in the film. While the fey son of the King provides humorous interludes (especially when his lover who is ‘skilled in the arts of war and military tactics’ is tossed out the window) they’re unnecessarily juvenile two-dimensional characterizations. Robert the Bruce is also key to the film but he’s consistently a brooding wanker without a backbone. Even in the final rousing scene he’s a half asleep before commanding the army to fight. We never see him rise to truly become the man Wallace wants him to be.

The film has been ripped off so many times in the last ten years, most famously by mega-hits “300” and “Gladiator”. They all owe gratitude to “Braveheart”. Remember it was Gibson’s second film as director (after the talkative drama “The Man Without a Face”) and so to craft a film of such epic scale only adds to its Gibson’s monumental achievement.

A new special edition DVD is now available from Paramount Home Entertainment. Buy it here: Braveheart (Special Collector's Edition)


Wednesday, 19 December 2007

I'M NOT THERE


I’m Not There (2007) dir. Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Heath Ledger

*

Todd Haynes’ film about the many lives of Bob Dylan is cinematic masturbation of the highest order. The idea of having different actors play Bob Dylan in his various stages of his career including a woman and young black child is intriguing, but Todd Haynes over-intellectualizes the man so much the film becomes a sloppy esoteric mess.

I don’t even know where to start. Nothing at all made sense to me. A young male child is introduced first as Dylan when we see him board a train like a hobo in the 1930’s. Except it’s not the 30’s (or is it?) and his name isn’t Bob Dylan, its Woody Guthrie. Huh? We see the Ben Whishaw Dylan intercut with the other Dylans. He’s talking to camera, but I think it’s the point of view of a press conference. He expounds philosophically on something that went so far over my head I stopped paying attention. The Christian Bale Dylan is named Jack Rollins, and he represents the beginning of his folk career when he made a name for himself in the Greenwich Village scene in the early 60’s. Heath Ledger plays the egotistical Dylan, named Robbie Clark, who marries and starts a family with a Parisian bohemian named Claire. The Cate Blanchett character is named Jude Quinn and represents the enigmatic mid 60’s superstar Dylan. Lastly, the Richard Gere Dylan is from Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”, but he’s actually Billy the Kid in the 1800’s. Or is he? Towards the end of the film we see Richard Gere driving away in a car? What the fuck?? Incidentally Dylan’s character in the actual film was not Billy but his friend Alias. Confused?

I was confused in the first five minutes. The only way any person could understand the film without making massive leaps of guesswork is if they had intimate knowledge of Dylan’s songs and the specific events in his career. I’m somewhat knowledgeable of his 60’s music, but the only event I recognized was the first time the Beatles smoked up with Dylan in London. Apparently the character who hangs around the Cate Blanchett Dylan for the whole film was Robbie Robertson. I had no idea. Why didn’t Haynes tell us? Nor did I know the town in which the Richard Gere’s character was wandering around was the name of a Dylan song and all the characters in those scenes were supposedly mentioned in the song.

The film is much like Haynes’ other rock and roll film, “Velvet Goldmine”, his ambitious and heavily-flawed film about glam rock in the 70’s. Like “Goldmine” few of the scenes flow with one another; there’s seems to be no structure, nor transitions don’t make any sense and the characters speak in confusing riddles. “Inland Empire” made more sense than this.

Oh yeah, Julianne Moore appears in a series of mockumentary sequences, there’s some Oliver Stone JFK-type sequences that use stock footage to make some sort of point about the Vietnam War and there's some recreations from "Fellini's 8 1/2" (that stuff I did get, but for people who haven't seen that film...watch out.)

What angers me is the contempt Haynes shows to his audience - contempt for someone, like me, who is familiar with his music, but not his personal life. How can he expect me to keep up with his impenetrable and cryptic ramblings? Do I need to read a Dylan biography before seeing the film? Apparently so.

Dylan’s music was meant to incite thought and action by the average working Joe. By cutting out 99% of his audience and elevating his story into the upper strata of high brow intellectualism he’s undermined everything Dylan’s music stood for. “I’m Not There” is one of the worst theatrical experiences I’ve had in a while. I now need to cleanse my soul by watching “Ghost Rider.” Thanks.




Tuesday, 18 December 2007

HALLOWEEN (2007)


Halloween (2007) dir. Rob Zombie
Starring: Scout Taylor-Compton, Malcolm McDowell, Sheri Moon Zombie, Tyler Mane

**

I respected Gus Van Zant’s remake of “Psycho” and personally feel any film can be remade. Of course tackling the great films makes it that much harder to do. Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” is a noble attempt to re-envision John Carpenter’s film. Clearly Zombie didn’t want to make just another sequel. Though I didn’t like the film, “Halloween” is a film unique to Mr. Zombie. If you’re a fan of his films and his sensibilities then his “Halloween Rebooted” succeeds. For others, including me, it was a mixed bag with more shocks than scares.

The film is structured in two clearly defined halves. The first is the domestic story of Myers as a child. His home is the abusive nightmare you would expect from a soon-to-be serial killer. His mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a stripper who works hard to put food on the table. His stepfather (William Forsythe) is a freeloading son-of-a-bitch who continually puts down Michael and gives sexual glances to his sister. We also meet the students, teachers, councilors of the school. The bullies, of course, harass Michael constantly. As a result of all this emotional and physical abuse he retreats behind a mask, which he wears to hide his fears. Michael indeed does go crazy and kills his entire family except for his mother. Michael goes to a sanitarium where he meets Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) who spends the 15 years trying to understand his deranged mind. In the second half, it’s 15 years later. Myers escapes from the psych ward where he proceeds to do all the killing we saw in the original film.

Essentially the first half is Zombie’s film, the second half is Carpenter’s film. And trying to fit these two together is like putting a square peg into a round hole. Zombie’s half is particularly effective at justifying and giving context to his murders. Though there’s nothing profound about the psychological analysis Zombie’s storytelling ability is very strong - if you don’t mind spending an hour with the vilest people on earth. It’s a dirty and repulsive world.

To help create this repulsive world, Zombie shoots the film in the same style as his previous “The Devil’s Rejects”. DOP Phil Parmet, who lensed both films, employs a similar grainy and oversaturated look using long lenses and a handheld camera. Zombie also casts some of the same actors as in “The Devil’s Rejects”. William Forsythe is hillbilly deadbeat extraordinaire, and Sheri Moon Zombie is… well… perfectly cast as a stripper MILF. Perhaps my loyal Illinois readers can enlighten me on what the local accent of Haddenfield should be. I kinda doubt it was the southern twang we hear from everyone’s mouths in this film. Therefore for Zombie to resort to the stereotypical redneck abusive characters is a shame.

Where the film just doesn’t work is the second half and the actual suspense. The scares in the original Halloween had a deft and simplistic touch which helped create the general creepiness. “Deft”, “simplistic”, or “subtle” is not in Zombie’s toolbox. Therefore the actual killings shock us more than scare us. Much of the action is choreographed exactly as it was in the first film. The death scenes are drawn out beyond the simple stab to the heart or strangulation. Zombie’s victims writhe in agony and suffer longer more painful deaths than Carpenter’s.

Zombie’s “Halloween” may have worked if he told his story without remaking Carpenter’s film. The situation and characters he creates in the first half are strong enough on to warrant a treatment of their own, without the need to fit it into the “Halloween” story Carpenter and Debra Hill created.

I think Rob Zombie is talented filmmaker, with a unique visual style. And though he may be influenced by the original “Halloween” it was a mistake for him to remake it. It’s not his story to tell. Assuming you don’t mind the idea of remaking one of the greatest horror films of all time, ultimately it’s a matter of personal taste whether the film succeeds or not. For me, I despise the taste of bile.

"Halloween" is available from The Weinstein Company and Alliance Films on December 17. Buy it here: Halloween - Unrated Director's Cut (Widescreen Two-Disc Special Edition)


Monday, 17 December 2007

HOT FUZZ DVD


Hot Fuzz – 3-Disc DVD Set (2007) dir. Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Timothy Dalton, Jim Broadbent

***

There’s a scene in “Hot Fuzz” when Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) takes Sgt. Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) to his basement to show him his massive DVD collection. Since “Hot Fuzz” is a self-aware spoof of the genre, it’s only fitting that it produce a bloated pimped out special edition worthy of Butterman’s collection. This new DVD set does the film justice as it gives its fanboy audience everything they need to savour every last morsel of the film.

Of course there’s a host of running commentaries, no less than five, including a ‘guest’ commentary from Quentin Tarantino who has since brought Wright and the boys into his cine-clique of like-minded filmmakers. Though I can’t support this, five commentary tracks could be the most ever for a single film (if anyone has evidence, please let me know). Thank God Pegg, Frost and Wright are interminably watchable, because there’s literally hours of footage of the three goofing around in pre-production, on set, or on the press junket tour. In fact, there’s a whole disc devoted to the publicity tour around America.

Though I didn’t watch them all there are 22 deleted scenes which could also be a record for a DVD. The special effects featurettes which quickly shows how each of the main special effects shots were created are quick and dirty fun. But the best of them all is Edgar Wright’s home video film, made when he was 19, “Dead Right”. It’s classic VHS filmmaking at its best – low tech squibs, family members and local friends as cast, fun experimental camera moves and transitions. Getting through the entire 60 mins is tough, so I suggest watching the easily digestible “Making Of” section which is hosted by Edgar himself comparing “Hot Fuzz” to his original home made film. You will be surprised some of the similarities in style and tone.

Oh yeah, there is the film as well, which, for Edgar, Simon and Nick, is probably secondary to the extra experience of the DVD. The film itself is a fun poke at American action films and its culture clash with the British attitudes. Like “Shaun of the Dead” the filmmakers are well-versed in the genre and refer to it often as they’re making the film.

Simon Pegg plays Sgt. Nicholas Angel - a British “Dirty Harry” type who is used to the big action of the big city. When he gets assigned to a pathetically serene and lifeless countrytown his talents are wasted. But when Angel and his enthusiastic partner Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) discover a village conspiracy involving various nefarious characters their guns finally come out ablazing.

Unfortunately “Hot Fuzz” isn’t as lovable as “Shaun of the Dead”. Pegg is great as the stuck up super cop, but I miss his everyman slacker charm. Also, at two hours, “Hot Fuzz” is 30mins too long. Their idol, “Bad Boys II”, arguably, can get away with a two-hour plus length because it can successfully distract our attention with a dozen action set pieces, but “Hot Fuzz” is light on action and heavy on plot and dialogue. The film just can’t sustain that much plot – and indeed it wears the film down.

The film is also very very loud. In spoofing the genre Wright has also mimicked it’s style by using a multitude of unnecessary close-ups and montages aided by overloud sound effects. Every door closing is followed by a ‘woosh’ or an extra loud ‘action slam’. We get the point after the first 15 mins, but as the film progresses the technique can become annoying.

The finale does get it right though. It’s like “The Wild Bunch” with tea and crumpets. A series of Bay-worthy action set pieces and car chases, slow motion shot-guns, glib-one-liners and cringe-inducing gory death scenes. By the end the quota of dead bodies, explosions, and spent shotgun shells has been achieved.

Buy it here: Hot Fuzz (3-Disc Collector's Edition)


Sunday, 16 December 2007

CABIN FEVER


Cabin Fever (2003) dir. Eli Roth
Starring: Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, James DeBello, Cerina Vincent

**1/2

You may remember Eli Roth’s debut film causing a stir at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002, when it started a bidding war with nine distributors. It was acquired by Lion’s Gate Films for a sum larger than its production budget ($1.5m) and eventually earn over $30million internationally.
It jump started Roth’s career as well as start a new strain of backpacker-horror films. After “Cabin Fever” came Roth’s “Hostel” films, “Touristas”, “Haute Tension”, “The Descent” etc etc. It’s a strong debut for Roth giving us great doses of gore and black humour though hampered by an unfocused second half and a lack of a clear antagonist.

Ironically, for a horror film director, Roth’s films actually aren’t all that scary. “Hostel” was a fantastic film, but not because it made you jump out of your seat. He creates a sense of dread using a slow build up of character and environmental developmemt. That’s the first time I’ve used that term – ‘environmental development’, but it’s relevant because setting is so important to Roth’s films. In “Cabin Fever”, it’s the hillbilly backwoods of rural America. In cinema terms, it’s the land of “Deliverance” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.

The opening establishes a group of annoying college students on the road to a cabin to party. Their first stop at a gas station establishes them as unwanted foreigners in the area. They meet a racist convenience store owner as well as his inbred son who has a penchant for biting people. My first impression was that these hillbillies would soon stalk and kill the students. That turns out to be a red herring as it’s a toxic virus that infects the kids and drives them to madness and death.

The first half of the film, like “Hostel”, uses a simplistic approach to setting up the story –uncomplicated and likeable characters in a situation we can all relate to. Unfortunately Roth is unfocused in the second half. He can’t decide who the antagonists are - the locals, the cops, or the students themselves. Without clear a direction the film then becomes just a series of scenes. Though it gives us ample doses of gore it’s ultimately unsatisfying. The film could have ended several times; instead we get more unnecessary screen time with the cops’ search for the rapid teens and an unnecessary hospital sequence. Roth seems to be testing the waters of all his favourite horror films – “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Deliverance”, “The Hills Have Eyes” and “The Thing” – without deciding on one.

Roth would redo this formula with “Hostel” with far more satisfying results. In “Hostel” he remains focused, precise and clear about his metaphors. Consider "Cabin Fever" growing pains. Enjoy.


Saturday, 15 December 2007

JUNO


Juno (2007) dir. Jason Reitman
Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, JK Simmons, Alison Janney

***1/2

“Juno” is a deceptively simple story about teenage girl and her pregnancy – imagine “Knocked Up” with adoptive parents. It’s a different type of comedy though, not gag-based, but situation-based. A colleague of mine likened it to a glorified extended sitcom. That’s a good comparison – but a well-done sitcom at its best and worthy of a feature film treatment.

Ellen Page is Juno, one of those unflappable cynical teenagers who feels superior to all obstacles in her way – including pregnancy. The film opens with her taking a pregnancy test – three in fact. While most 16 year olds would feel ashamed of buying one, Juno proudly takes her tests in a gas station with support from a random gas attendant (a funny cameo from Rainn Wilson). Juno doesn’t cry or even looked shocked – instead just accepts it as another part of life she stumbles into. She considers all options including abortion but decides to keep the baby and give it to adopting parents in need of a child.

Via the Pennysaver she chooses Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) – two yuppie conservatives from the suburbs. Juno’s friendship with Mark grows when she discovers he’s a former musician who secretly loathes his middle-class lifestyle. They find common ground in the rebelliousness of their music and pop culture idols. Meanwhile Juno’s relationship with Paulie (Michael Cera), the father of her child, falls apart despite their continued attraction to each other. Juno’s escalated maturity blinds her to the joys of true teenage love, which is slowly passing her by.

Surprisingly the film manages to thoroughly entertain solely on dialogue, acting and comic timing. One of the golden rules of screenwriting is to create conflict. But there is virtually no conflict until the third act. It’s either a stroke of genius or luck because by avoiding conflict the film actually avoids the clichés of the genre. Take the scene when Juno tells her parents of her pregnancy. I expected the parents to scream and shout and resent their daughter for her carelessness. Instead their reaction is indeed disappointment but they are measured and composed. And a few clever lines of dialogue cap off the great scene.

For Juno her meeting with the adoptive parents is surprisingly easy as well. We expect obstacles to be thrown at Juno, Mark and Vanessa. But everything seems to go smoothly – too smoothly. The obstacles are thrown at the characters in the third act and they indeed test Juno’s strength and resolve. Without overtly teasing us, Reitman builds some strong tension with the fate of the baby during these moments especially after a dramatic reveal from Mark. It’s nitpicking but at this point, the film had an opportunity to move into darker territory, but it continues to stay on the straight and narrow.

And perhaps it’s more sour grapes, but am I the only one getting sick of the overused indie-film-quirky elements which Reitman unnecessarily reuses – the tender acoustic guitar music (a la “Little Miss Sunshine”, “Garden State” or even going back to “The Graduate”), the early 80’s geek chic (please no more ironic headbands in films please) and the scratchy hand-animated inter-titles?

The film is brilliantly cast with some of the brightest and funniest comic character actors around – an ironically enough, most are from television. Those who know Ellen Page’s work (“Hard Candy”, “The Tracey Fragments”) will not be surprised that she is fantastic as Juno. But for newbies behold her starmaking performance. Enjoy.

Friday, 14 December 2007

THE KITE RUNNER


The Kite Runner (2007) dir. Marc Forster
Starring: Khalid Abdalla, Atossa Leoni, Shaun Toub, Homayoun Ershadi, Zekeria Ebrahimi, Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada

**1/2

I’ve never read the book, but according to the trailer, the film is based on “one of the most beloved stories of our time”. Talk about setting yourself up for failure. No film could ever live up to those expectations. The film succeeds in telling a compelling story of a young Afghani man’s lifelong search for redemption, but fails to give us the epic grandeur of cross-culture politics which the trailer and book promises.

Amir and Hassan are rambunctious 8 year olds living in Afghanistan in 1978, before the Soviet invasion. They are best friends whose main passion is for flying kites in a highly competitive village tournament. What separates Amir and Hassan is class. Hassan is a poor son of a servant, and Amir lives a life of upper class privalege. Despite this the two boys live and play like equals – though Amir envies Hassan’s unwavering pride and honour. When the local bullies start picking on the two boys, it’s Hassan who stands up and fights them off. Just before the invasion, a rift develops between the boys that cause Hassan and his father to leave the village. During the invasion Amir and his father flee to America to start a new life. And Hassan disappears from Amir’s life.

The film moves forward 20 years when Amir has graduated college in San Francisco and is about to begin his working life. Amir is a writer who has written a novel based on his childhood experiences in Afghanistan. He lives a comfortable life in America, but when he receives a phone call about important news of Hassan, he’s compelled to travel back to his homeland to reconcile his past.

The film is structured in two halves – Amir as a child and Amir as an adult. Youngsters Zekiria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada as Amir and Hassan hold the film together as they make make up half the screen time of the film. Much of the dialogue is overwritten and overly literary - Hassan, who is a poor servant’s child, speaks in metaphoric hyperbole. I can’t believe I even used the words, ‘metaphoric hyperbole’ but Hassan, who apparently can’t read, would probably understand its meaning. The coming of age story serves to establish the characters motivations, desires and frailties, but in doing so Forster and writer David Benioff create a ‘preciousness’ to this story which can be off-putting.

Once we establish Amir as privileged and Hassan as poor, knowing that the Soviet invasion was near, the second half of the film became predictable. Within this predictability though, the story is anchored by the character of Amir, whom we care for deeply. If we thought Amir was a dishonourable shit as child, when we see him as an adult in America our attitude changes. Khalid Abdalla plays the elder Amir and his courtship of his soon to be wife, Soraya, gives us the ideal bridge between Amir’s childhood culture and his new American home. His honourable respect for his family and culture changes our opinion of him. It’s probably my favourite part of the film, when Amir goes through the procedures of asking his wife’s hand in marriage (though I’d never want to have my father broker the deal as Baba does).

Unfortunately Amir’s redemption is troublesome. Knowing the effect of his cowardice as a child, we know what the third act will entail. There are some missed opportunities for greater drama and riskier decisions for Amir. When he gets the call about Hassan in Afghanistan, he makes a split second decision to leave, and his wife supports him 100%. This is too easy for Amir. He must have been accustomed to the American lifestyle therefore making a decision to infiltrate the dangerous world of the Taliban requires more courage than he’s ever had to face – something Amir hasn’t yet earned. Somewhere between being a child and being an adult he found the courage to stand up for himself and his friend. The problem is we never see this epiphany.

This brings me to the notion of an ‘epic’ film. I would rarely say this but, the film actually needed to be longer so we can see Amir’s transition in life from coward to hero. As well, Amir’s wife too easily accepts his need to go back. There’s room for conflict in this decision. Unfortunately there’s none.

The film isn’t called “The Kite Runner” for nothing. Forster crafts some remarkable “kiting” scenes involving one-on-one kite battles between kids. He shoots them with the aid of computer effects, but the thrilling chase sequences in the air are reminiscent of those Harry Potter Quiddich sequences.

So for all fans of the novel you will likely be disappointed. If it was hit and miss for me, it will likely be all misses for you. Saying all that, it was a decent night out at the movies, redeemed with a great scene near the end at the dinner table when Amir asserts his new found pride. This will certainly produce great satisfaction. Enjoy.


Thursday, 13 December 2007

INTERVIEW


Interview (2007) dir. Steve Buscemi
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Sienna Miller

**1/2

“Interview” is based on a film of the same name by Dutch director Theo Van Gogh, who was tragically murdered a couple years ago. It’s two-hander, meaning only two characters talking for the whole film. This type of film is challenging to make. Keeping an audience interested in the same two people for 90mins and structuring narrative ebb and flows to create tension, conflict and emotional reveals are difficult for the writer, director and actors. Though Miller and Buscemi deliver fine performances the film falls into the usual traps of the genre and fails to deliver a satisfying conclusion.

Pierre (Steve Buscemi), a respected Washington journalist, is given a demeaning assignment to interview pop-celebrity Katja (Sienna Miller) in a New York Restaurant. Katja is late, Pierre is pissed off, and so their interview starts off poorly. Their reluctant discussion moves to Katja’s apartment where the verbal and mental games continue. Like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe”, their conversation bounces back and forth between outrageous insults (like Pierre calling Katja, ‘Cuntya’) and deep-rooted respect for each other. It’s a frustrating journey and by the end after investing 80mins of time with these two we’re glad to leave them.

Other films in the “two people talking in a room” genre include, “Tape”, “Bug” “Oleana”. “Tape” is the best example of this genre – it features Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke as two high school friends chatting about old times in a hotel room. This film works because it not only has good performances, but a crucial third act turn which introduces a new character and pushes the film toward a conclusion worthy of its two previous acts. “Interview” doesn’t appear to have a third act. They stay in Katja's apartment and argue continuously. There’s a moment when Pierre heinously violates Katja’s privacy. At this moment Katja should have kicked Pierre out of her apartment for good – instead he is allowed to stay. The film lost me at this point as it broke its rules of reality. The only thing keeping me interested was the sexual tension, which is crafty, but never really pays off.

The film is a game between two different personalities with equally-sized egos. Sienna Miller is fantastic as the typical paparazzi-bait celebrity – a Lindsay Lohan type who is more famous for being famous than her acting career. Unfortunately, Buscemi, who is a fine actor and is engaging in this film, is wrong for his part. Pierre is a journalist in the midst of a fall from grace. Buscemi’s quirky looks and mannerisms don’t fit with the idea of a serious Washington journalist with a nefarious past. I kept thinking of a Peter Sarsgaard-type – someone who can seem unflappably professional and confident. Buscemi is witty, but never confident. With someone like Sarsgaard Pierre’s eventual unraveling would have been more unexpected and revealing than as it plays out with Buscemi in the role.

The major problem with the film is that not much actually happens or is revealed. There are some demons from both characters’ past that are revealed, but it doesn’t inform their actions or reactions in the film. Do the characters learn more about each other from their night together? Do they become better people because of the interview? No and No. A third act or a new character like in “Tape” is needed to give us a new perspective or twist our expectations. By the end, can we tell if our characters have changed or that we’ve just been jerked around? I don’t know. Decide for yourself.



Wednesday, 12 December 2007

THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM


The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) dir. Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon, David Strathairn. Joan Allen, Julia Stiles

****

“The Bourne Ultimatum” arrives on DVD this week. On second glance it’s still bad-ass. In "Supremacy" Bourne was framed and targeted for death, this time he's doing the chasing – from Russia to Europe to Africa and North America he’s got a death wish to avenge his forsaken life. It's one of the best films of the year. Let's hope critics have the courage to put a ballsout action film like this on their top ten lists.

Few sequels start minutes after the previous film ended. (“Halloween II” is like that, any others?). Jason Bourne is in Moscow moments after stumbling out of Irene Neski’s apartment. He evades the Russian police and disappears, but as we all know he’s still in search of the old Bourne, and so he doesn't stay in hiding for long.

While on a train ride to Paris he reads an article about himself in the paper, written by a London journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine). The unnamed source of information in the article piques his interest as the man who can answer all his questions. But with the CIA tracking Ross as well, Bourne once again is tempting fate by throwing himself into the fire. Cause and effect events spillover from there as Bourne finally tracks down the source of all his fractured memories and reconciles his past.

Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) is hot on his trail again, but this time under the command of Senior Official Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) – another steely-eyed acerbic pencil-pusher. Strathairn is the last in a long line of fantastic character actors cast in this role (Chris Cooper and Brian Cox being the others).

The film, and the series as a whole, feels like “The French Connection” – basically one long chase film with very little breathing time in between – like a 24 episode on speed. The details of the surveillance techniques are well thought out and highly plausible, as compared with, say, the hackers in “Live Free or Die Hard”. The control room scenes with Landy and Vosen’s crack team of tech-spies is impressive. One of the key ingredients to the believability of the series is the intelligence of its minor characters. It’s like a chess match, or psychological case of game theory. Who can predict whose moves the fastest and strike first. It’s a spy vs. spy, battle of the brains.

Bourne has the brawn too. There’s nothing Bourne can’t handle – whether it’s fighting hand to hand to the death, driving motorcycles or cars, Bourne takes care of business with panache. The car chase scene doesn’t quite top the climatic scene in “The Bourne Supremacy” but the rooftop chase makes up for it. My favourite scene though is Bourne guiding Ross through a busy London station while evading the CIA surveillance operatives. Greengrass filmed it in public with real bystanders. It’s a masterful piece of choreography. Greengrass again employs his handheld camera, but it’s important to note that the effect is indeed dizzying but it’s never confusing. The sense of geography of the area is always there. He’s a supremely talented director, who deserves another Oscar nod – why not? They gave one to William Friedkin.

Like the films the DVD is unpretentious – It’s a one-disker, without a “special edition” or “director’s cut” label, but it contains an informative commentary track from Greengrass as well as a series of fine behind-the-scenes featurettes about the making of the best scenes in the film. And if you want to know how they achieved the fantastic jump through the window stunt in Tangier, it’s there.

I advise watching Bourne II before watching Bourne III, there is a clever overlap between the two films, which you may not catch if it’s not fresh in your memory. It’s just one minor point which most people probably missed, but it adds more intelligence to already the best spy series ever made. Enjoy.