DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: January 2008

Thursday, 31 January 2008

THE COMEBACKS


The Comebacks (2007) dir. Tom Brady
Starring: David Koechner, Carl Weathers

*

Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw

A nerdy water boy looks up earnestly at the coach and offers him a rim job. An expression of concern crosses the coach’s face. The water boy quickly allays the coach’s fears by pulling a dripping sponge out of a bucket and further explaining how he will wash the rims of the coach’s car. The coach, understandably (since this exchange is in full view of the entire football team) breathes a sigh of relief.

If the abovementioned sounds the least bit funny, then The Comebacks will be a movie made in Heaven for you since it is laden, wall-to-celluloid-wall, with amusing “gags” just like it.

The Comebacks is yet another in a long line of scattershot screen humour that began with Airplane and continued up to and including pictures such as Date Movie and the very recent Meet the Spartans. However, what makes this kind of spoofy humour work is when it is presented with skill and precision. Most importantly, it needs to actually be funny.

The Comebacks is anything but funny. It’s boring, painful, stupid and for its 107 minute running time (the unrated dvd version is unmercifully longer than the theatrical version) all one can do is look open-mouthed and wonder how and/or why it was ever made. One also spends an inordinate amount of time looking at the clock and noticing one’s life tick away as this utterly reprehensible piece of fecal matter continues to unspool.

Not that it matters, but The Comebacks tells the story of a loser coach and a team of losers and how they eventually win. Sound familiar? The unconventional methods utilized by the coach include watching man-on-man hardcore pornography and encouraging his lily-white losers to be “bad”. Ha-ha! I’m still busting a gut.

While it tells this “story”, we are treated to lots of bits attempting to spoof contemporary sports movies like Friday Night Lights, We Are Marshall, Radio and other inspirational gridiron dramas.

The Comebacks reaches its nadir, however, when it resorts to spoofing Dodgeball. Dodgeball is already a spoof. It’s also funny and good – neither of which are attributes that The Comebacks is possessed with.

The movie was written and directed by Tom Brady, the auteur behind Rob Schneider’s "The Hot Chick". This should tell you everything you need to know.

By the way, I love stupid comedies – however, I expect them to not only be stupid, but funny.







Wednesday, 30 January 2008

THE NINES


The Nines (2007) dir. John August
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy, Hope Davis, Elle Fanning

**1/2

"The Nines" is another Sundance hit from last year that comes to DVD without much of a theatrical release. It's worth strong attention because it's the directorial debut of hit screenwriter John August ("Go", "Big Fish", "Charlie's Angels"). August confounds us with an eliptical storyline involving three separate stories featuring the same actors playing different characters in each story. There's some very interesting material that unfortunately does not any make sense. As a result, the theme and message is lost in August's consciously difficult narrative. Each of the storylines are well-crafted, directed and dramatized, but it just doesn't add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The first story entitled "The Prisoner" involves an actor Gary (Ryan Reynolds), who falls off the wagon, burns his house down, goes drinking and driving and crashes his car. He's then sentenced to house arrest in a lavish mansion in Los Angeles. The comely neighbour (Hope Davis) makes several sexual advances to him until he's cockblocked by his perky publicist (Melissa McCarthy). Part two is called "Reality Television" and follows a writer Gavin (Reynolds again) who's developing a TV pilot for a swarmy TV Executive Producer (Davis again). Gavin is forced to make the difficult decision of firing his leading lady and best friend (McCarthy again) for a younger and more attractive star. Part 3 entitled "Knowing" features a video game designer Gabriel (Reynolds) who, while on a camping trip with his wife (McCarthy) and his daughter (Elle Fanning), run out of gas and get stranded in the wildnerness. While Gabriel leaves the two to seek help, he meets up with a shady drifter (Davis) with a sinister motive.

The triptych and wraparound storyline, the Los Angeles locale and the show business mileu make "The Nines" feel a lot like David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive". Each of the chapters are interesting standalone stories which feature compelling twists and turns in the short half hour time frame. Each of the stories have something to reveal narratively and emotionally. The opening chapter features a wonderful seduction scene between Davis and Reynolds. The second chapter has Reynolds disappearing into the character of a confident and skilled TV writer, but is twisted to reveal the vulnerability and destructive nature of the business. And part 3 builds some wonderful suspense between Davis and Reynolds, as well as the left behind family played by McCarthy and Fanning.

Where the film fails is connecting these elements together. In the finale, there's a series of revelations that is supposed to enlighten us as to what exactly is going on. But the clutter of information just confounded me even more. I would have preferred three distinct and vaguely related stories, which leaves it for the audience to infer their connectivity. The stories are already connected by characters who are referred to in some form or another in each of the other chapters.

The film is worthy enough of a look for Ryan Reynolds who stands out. It's a shame his performance will be buried on the DVD shelf. But there was enough industry buzz to get producers and directors to notice and get him some more challenging work in the future. Enjoy.






Tuesday, 29 January 2008

ROCKET SCIENCE


Rocket Science (2007) dir. Jeffrey Blitz
Starring: Reece Thompson, Anna Kendrick, Nicholas D'Agosto, Vincent Piazza

**

From the creator of the wonderful documentary "Spellbound" comes a first dramatic feature about the world of high school debating. "Rocket Science" was a Sundance hit from last year, but didn't find an cinema audience, and now arrives unceremoniously on DVD. Sundance has a habit of aggrandizing films only to find disappointment once they hit the real world. Unfortunately "Rocket Science" is such a film.

Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) is a high school freshman with a stutter - not a traditional stutter - he disguises it very well, with a lot of "umms" and "ahhs". As a result he doesn't talk in class even though he knows all the answers to the questions. One day a nerd-hot chick from the debating team, Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), asks him to be part of the team. He joins and develops an attraction to her - one of those first crush attractions. And so when things suddenly go all wrong for no apparent reason and Hal is unceremoniously dumped his life goes into a tailspin.

Hal is not only dumped, Ginny moves to a new school and joins a rival debating team. All Hal got was one kiss and some clothed groping. He even questions if he got to second base. But it's enough for Hal to make it his mission to exact revenge on Ginny. He attempts to beat her in the State finals by obtaining help from the former State champion, who's now down in the dumps and working in a laundry mat. Meanwhile, his mother has started dating the father of a fellow Korean student, and his brother is a chronic kleptomaniac. Oh yeah Hal constantly carries around a suitcase with him for no apparently reason and has a penchant for hiding in janitor's closets.

"Rocket Science" tries really hard to be quirky. 'Quirky' comes naturally from material and characters we love because of their eccentricities. "Rushmore" is the template Writ/Dir Blitz is trying to fit himself into. But it's quirkiness masks what is a simple story, which, if told right, could have been a fine film. We have a kid with a stutter who wants to be on the debating team - there's a good film right there. Debating is an interesting milieu, especially when it's coming from the director of "Spellbound". So where does the film go wrong? Essentially we don't ever get to see Hal perform debating well.

A classic sports-genre confrontation is set up between Ginny and Hal which never pays off. There isn't much of a love story either. Ginny shows some interest in Hal, but she's too stuck up and business-life for us to like her. It's easy to see why Hal would fall in love her though - she has bookish girl-next-door good looks - that reserved personality that you can't help but try to crack. And for a while at the beginning their relationship was going somewhere. But Blitz takes her out of the story and out of Hal's life. We fill in a few blanks and can come to our own conclusions why she left the school and team so suddenly, but it doesn't broaden her character or deepen their relationship.

The supporting characters exist and act for the sake of themselves. Hal's mother who leaves Hal's father at the beginning of the film takes up with a Korean man with a passion for the Kama Sutra. We never see a progression of either of these relationship and nor do they affect the course of events in Hal's journey.

"Rocket Science" recycles the goto elements of the quirky comedy, specifically scratchy titles (Fall, Winter, Spring) and the obscure indie pop soundtrack- this time it's the Violent Femmes that get the spotlight. We've this done better in Rushmore, Garden State and Juno - and arguable worse in Thumbsucker. There's also a voiceover, which sounds eerily familiar to the wonderful documentary-like approach in "Little Children".

So, everything we see and hear in "Rocket Science" has been done before. There's nothing wrong with telling a genre story, but Jeffrey Blitz puts his film into the wrong genre. If he stayed with a traditional high school story - boy, girl, debate, love, sex, heartbreak, triumph and revenge Blitz might have another "Election".

"Rocket Science" is now available on DVD from Alliance Films.


Monday, 28 January 2008

BLU-RAY: COMING TO A MALL NEAR YOU


Don’t you just love format wars? Beta vs. VHS, PC vs. Mac and now Blu-Ray vs. HD DVD. I was one of the unfortunate souls who thought HD DVD would actually win the war. After all in November Toshiba drastically lowered the prices of their players to make the HD upgrade actually affordable to regular people. Having been teased with watching a few High Definition films on channels like HDNet, I just couldn’t wait for the war to be over. So I gave in and got one of those sub $200 Toshiba HD DVD players at Christmas. The HD bliss lasted all of a week, when in early January Warner Bros announced they were exclusively moving to Blu-Ray. As background, up until then it was almost 50-50 market share in North America with Paramount/Dreamworks and Universal exclusively HD DVD, Disney, Fox, Sony and Lionsgate exclusively Blu-Ray. Warners, who has the largest catalogue of titles, was selling both formats.

Once Warners announced their Blu-Ray switch, instantly HD DVD became the dinosaur. Too bad for me, and many others. So what do I now? Switch to Blu-Ray? Craigslist already has dozens of low priced HD-DVD players on the market. At most I can get is $150 or so. The answer is yes, cut my losses and make the switch. But when?

With HD-DVD on the run and post-Christmas (Boxing Day in Canada) television purchases made, Blu-Ray is now out in full force selling the brand. But there couldn’t be an easier sell. High Definition is like another world of movie watching. Remember when Dorothy opened the front door of her house and moved from the B&W world of Kansas to the technicolor world of Oz? The difference is that remarkable. Many people already have HD televisions and have the Discovery Channel as their default channel, but many don’t realize the glorious experience of watching a feature film in High Definition.

I was one of those cine-nerds who actually had a laserdisc collection – and from 1992-1998 I marveled at the remarkable upgrade from VHS. The jump to DVD wasn’t much of a leap from Laserdisc, but the jump to High Definition is otherworldly. I will watch any film in high definition – especially older titles, like “The Road Warrior” which hasn’t looked this good since, well…its original negative was cut.

In order to get the regular public (not cinephiles like me) to jump on board Disney and Panasonic has teamed up for a mall tour around the U.S. and Canada. Their first stop was Yorkdale Mall in Toronto. It was an impressive set up – a 65 inch Plasma screen, the latest Panasonic Blu Ray players, Sony Playstations etc. Disney is the best ambassador to sell this product because their Pixar films are unbelievably pristine in high definition. The sharp resolution and bold colours are irresistible – especially for impressionable kids strolling by or man-child adults who look forward to the weekly Best Buy fliers. Over the course of the year Blu-Ray should have no problem growing the market and make standard definition DVD a relic like VHS. The good thing is all Blu-Ray players upconvert your old DVDs, so you don’t have to upgrade your entire collection – yet. But of course, it’s tough to resist buying, say, “2001: A Space Odyssey” in High Definition even though you have it on regular DVD.

Some of the newer features which will become more popular include interactive games. Disney’s “Cars” features a game you can play on screen while you’re watching the movie, and according to the Blu-Ray spokesperson, a feature called BD-Live – a more advanced interactive internet component of Blu-Ray technology. For example, if you’re watching a film, and you like the actors shoes you could theoretically buy those shoes directly via the internet and user interface of Blu-Ray. Amazing, but scary and shocking as well. This could take product placement to a whole new level. Let’s just hope revenues from such a venture will trickle down quickly to make these machines more affordable now.

Currently at Best Buy, the cheapest player is $399. These are cinephiles prices. Message to manufacturers – take a temporary hit and cut the price equal to under $300 and give us all the ability to experience the wonderful Blu-Ray.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS


King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) dir. Seth Gordon
Documentary

****

In the gigantic world of videogames, there is a little known subculture of “classic gamers”- that is, the first generation of arcade games that we of the 30-something generation grew up with – Pac Man, Asteroids, Galaga, and Donkey Kong. In “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” director Seth Gordon digs deep into the world of classic gaming and discovers a highly competitive underworld of obsessed supergeeks who cling onto these once-thought obsolete games.

The ‘king’ of “King of Kong” is Billy Mitchell, a supergeek from the 80’s who's still the reigning champion of Donkey Kong – remember that simple game featuring Mario jumping over barrels trying to rescue his wife from a giant ape? Well, apparently the game is not so simple. According to these gamers, it’s the most difficult of the classic games and the toughest nut to crack. Billy Mitchell cracked it in 1982 and became a 15min-fame superstar, appearing on a cover of Life Magazine. It's now 25 years later and Mitchell clings to his title like a life preserver of minor celebrity. He is the king of a clique of geeks who keep alive a competitive record-keeping society called “Twin Galaxies”. But when Steve Wiebe, a humble middle-class father from the Seattle suburbs, suddenly breaks Mitchell’s record a rivalry of operatic proportions ensues.

“King of Kong” is a great documentary because it does what documentaries do best, put a microscope to an obscure subculture of society and finds relatable goals, emotions, and characters. I have an affinity to the material, being a first generation gamer, and so I found fascinating the intricate details of the “Donkey Kong” game. The gaming experts breakdown the strategy of this seemingly ‘simple’ game and accurately explain to us the skills involved in achieving the high scores Steve and Billy compete for. Gordon uncovers a sport as exciting and competitive as say tennis or golf.

For regular folk it’s the cast of characters that make the film great. It’s easy to see why the gaming clique would feel threatened by Steve Wiebe – he’s of the same generation as the “Twin Galaxy” gamers, but he’s good looking, athletic, the perfect American family. Wiebe’s backstory explains a lot about the psyche of this insular world. Steve grew up almost succeeding at many things, basketball, baseball, etc. But he never became the best at anything. Arbitrarily Wiebe chooses Donkey Kong to master. Donkey Kong becomes his benchmark for success in life. For Billy Mitchell, he already is at the top of the food chain. He has nowhere else to go but down, and it’s fascinating to watch how he his minor success has fed the remainder of his life. He parades around a buxom wife; wears a ridiculous coif of feathered black hair, and sports a series of America flag ties. Yet with all his posturing the fear of losing prevents him from a face-to-face confrontation with Steve.

Gordon’s cinematic accoutrements add wonderful nostalgic detail. His soundtrack includes corny 80’s pump-up rock tunes like “You’re the Best” by Joe Esposito (you know, the montage scene from “Karate Kid”) and his pixellated freeze frames and 80’s-chic stylings all add to the film’s geek-hipness.

The film builds to a climax which doesn’t depend on a mono-a-mono confrontation. By the end you will believe so hard in the honesty of the characters. Specifically Steve Wiebe who becomes a beacon of light for the gamers. We want him to succeed and win so badly, but above all we want him to be accepted into the society of losers who initially rejected him. “King of Kong” is a little gem that needs to be discovered. Enjoy.

“King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” is available Tuesday Jan 29 from Alliance Films.







Saturday, 26 January 2008

RAMBO


Rambo (2008) dir. Sylvestor Stallone
Starring: Slyvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Michael Marsden

***

There must have been a lot of angst pent up on Stallone's brain to unleash such brutal body-ripping carnage on screen, because "Rambo" is the most violent movie ever made. The previous Rambo films were never that graphic - in fact, the best episode "First Blood" had virtually no death. "Rambo" is not the reboot that "Rocky" was, it's a film as bloated as Stallone's grossly pumped up body, and retains little of the deep-rooted conflict of John J. Rambo. But if you want carnage and action, Rambo delivers in spades.

Rambo nowadays lives in the political war zone of Burma making a living catching poisonous snakes to fight in a gambling ring. A group of Christian missionaries show up one day asking to take them down river to work in a medical camp. After much pleading he reluctantly agrees. And so begins the violent journey Rambo warned them of. The evil Burmese rebels raid the medical camp and take the Americans prisoner. Rambo then joins a group of mercenaries employed to rescue them.

Rambo is not the Rambo we rememeber. In fact, the Rambo we remember is not the Rambo that actually was. Does that make sense? I personally believe Rambo to be one of the great American movie characters - he's above and beyond any of Schwartzenegger films. In fact, the evolution of his character from a psychologically disturbed Vietnam vet in "First Blood" to heroic but reluctant mercenary in "Rambo III" is actually a challenging and complex role. All the Rambos are good films. "First Blood" is fantastic, "Rambo II" is ok, and "Rambo III" is very good. There's also a lot in common with the Jason Bourne character - a soft spoken killer, with a heart he just can't turn off. Unfortunately, in this new film, you'll see a large leap in de-evolution from the last time we saw him on screen.

The attraction to the Rambo character was that he didn't talk - he was a character defined by his actions. Stallone continues this trait in this 4th installment, but after several scenes of lengthy brooding silences, he regurgiates his thoughts with overwritten faux-profound statements like "When you're pushed, killing's as easy as breathing" or "Live for nothing, or die for something". Everything else about the set up to the action is laboured and unncessarily unimaginative. Despite these faults, the film is not all that predictable. When the mercenaries first appear on screen, they are badly charaterized an antagonists to Rambo's selfless morals. I thought for sure they would get killed off early so Rambo could prove he was right all along, but they actually stick around and become integral to the story.

Stallone makes up for his atrocious, poorly written dialogue, with tremendous in-your-face and often shocking action sequences. There's 3 or 4 major set pieces that, in terms of graphic bloodshed, do for gun fights what "Braveheart" did for sword and shield battles. Stallone equips his characters with some massive heavy artillery. Bullets don't just wound or kill it's victims, they tear the limps off people and throw them back 10 feet or more from the impact. The mercenary, 'School Boy' (Matthew Marsden) is given a 4 foot long sniper canon that has the power to explode a person's head like a watermelon with one shot.

No explosion, gunshot, or knife stabbing is taken for granted. Each one is puncuated with a creative maiming of some sort that will cause you either turn away from the screen or laugh hysterically. Stallone as director (remember he's directed 7 feature films) creates some suspenseful and tense sequences. The best scene is a harrowing chase through the jungle as Rambo flees the Burmese army led by a pack of frothing pitbulls. I was reminded of the quality running in Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto". The scene ends with a gigantic claymore mine explosion, which Rambo manages to outrun. It's all impressive and reprehensible at the same time.

Overall, Rambo satisfies my visceral sensabilities, which is enough to warrant a recommendation. But it's not the same Rambo. A shred of the once great character I used to love remains - about as much as Jerry Goldsmiths raucious score remains in this film. Enjoy.



Friday, 25 January 2008

PAN'S LABYRINTH


Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) dir. Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú

****

Guillermo Del Toro’s film luscious and alluring gothic masterpiece is the pinnacle of fantasy filmmaking. It was sad to watch the disappointment on Del Toro’s face when “Lives of Others” was read out as the (albeit deserving) winner of the Best Foreign Language film Oscar last year. But it will take nothing away from "Pan's Labyrinth", which will remain a special film for a long time to come.

Where do I start praising this film? It’s the equivalent of a classic Grim’s fairytale – a fantastical story rooted in the reality of Earth. But like the Brother’s Grim, Del Toro sets his story in the darkest of places – in the desolate and dark forests of the Spanish countryside. It’s also WWII, a time of Fascist tyranny when the military exercised power with maximum cruelty.

Del Toro’s Red Riding Hood is Ofelia, a child who has arrived with her pregnant and widowed mother to live at an army barracks with her new stepfather Vidal (of course step-parents were frequently the evil monsters in Grim’s tales as well). Outside in the woods, Ofelia discovers an abandoned hedge maze which leads to a door to another world. From this world, a centaur-beast emerges and proclaims Ofelia to be the lost Princess of their land who has come back to reclaim her kingdom. Ofelia undergoes a series of tasks to prove she is the true successor.

Oflelia’s fantasy adventures distract her from the evil presided over by her stepfather, Capt Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Vidal strives to hunt down the scattered rebels who fight for freedom and subvert the Fascist authorities. One of whom is the secret boyfriend of Ofelia’s confidant Mercedes, the lowly cook who sabotages Vidal from within. When Ofelia’s brother is born, she realizes the danger he will face being in the care of his sadistic new father. Ofelia’s courage allows her to save her brother and reclaim her crown as the Queen of the subterranean world.

Del Toro’s skills as writer should not be overlooked. Del Toro juggles several storylines and subplots with accurate skill. His screenplay is near-perfect. It's a classically structured screenplay – something that could be workshopped in a Robert McKee course. Mercedes’ plotline involving her boyfriend and the situations she puts herself in to save the day become more dangerous as the film progresses. The stakes are at its highest when she’s placed in the Vidal’s evil torture room (which is perfectly set up and paid off in the third act). The third act also merges the two main storylines when Ofelia is chased by her stepfather into the Labyrinth – thus merging her fantasy world with the real world.

The heartbreaking finale is worthy of the Grim’s influence. The manner in which Ofelia enters the fantasy world is a risky decision for Del Toro – something which few Hollywood blockbusters would be brave enough to do. But it’s what raises his film above Narnia, Potter, and in my personal opinion, LOTR.

In perhaps the most fan-appreciative follow up to this critically-acclaimed masterpiece Del Toro has unpretentiously jumped back into genre, with a sequel to “Hellboy”. And after that according to the IMDB he'll complete his Spanish Civil War trilogy with a ghost story entitled "3993". Enjoy.


Thursday, 24 January 2008

LIFE OF BRIAN


Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) dir. Terry Jones
Starring: John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam

***1/2

Young people may not know or remember that Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” was highly controversial in its day and widely dismissed and vilified by the Catholic establishment when it was it released. It's now almost 30 years later and though the film doesn’t feel like the naughty irreverent hot property it was back in ‘79 and in comparison the gags are farther apart than say, “Holy Grail” the Python brand of ‘silly’ comedy is always a joy to watch and will no doubt put a smile to your face and hurt your gut.

Python opts for a more traditional narrative as opposed to the pure sketch compilations such as “Meaning of Life”. At the opening, we follow the three wise men to Bethlehem where they search out the birth of the messiah. They find Brian, but soon realize he’s not the messiah they’re looking for and they move on to the next room. The film continues to follow Brian's (Graham Chapman) parallel path of Jesus in Judea in the biblical year of 33 AD. The film skewers the notion of a messiah – during a time when the people of Judea were actively looking for any person to lead them against oppression from the Romans.

Brian falls into league with a rebel group of Jewish dissidents called the "People’s Front of Judea" (not “The Judean People’s Front”). Brian inadvertently gets mistaken for the messiah again and develops a group of loyal followers. He is captured and crucified by the Romans like Jesus, but while singing a happy tune – “always look on the bright side of life”.

“The Life of Brian” actually topped a poll conducted by Total Film Magazine in 2000 of the funniest films of all time – high praise considering it bested Monty Python’s own “Holy Grail”. It’s actually one of my least favourite Python films – sitting just above “The Meaning of Life” and below “Holy Grail” and “And Now For Something Completely Different”. There are fewer uproarious set pieces than we are used to. Instead the strength of the film is its political and social critique of organized religion and the rigidity and irrationality of its followers.

No one is safe in a Python film though - Jews, Romans, Catholics, activists, zealots and people with speech impediments all take hits. Some of my favourite characters include Michael Palin's ex-leper, John Cleese's bureaucratic and ineffectual rebel leader and Eric Idle's stubborn Harry the Haggler. Graham Chapman who plays Brian is the straight man of the bunch. Though it's unusual for the troop to use a straight man, in the ridiculous Judean world they create, his role is essential in counterplaying the gags and enhancing the comedy.

Monty Python is a treasure of British comedy and each and every one of their films can result in spontaneous uncontrolable laughter. Beware. Enjoy.

Monty Python's Life of Brian is available from Sony Pictures Entertainment on DVD and Blu Ray January 28, 2008


Wednesday, 23 January 2008

OSCAR NOMINATIONS

It was a fun day for film when the Oscar nominations were announced, which then turned into a sad day when it was announced actor Heath Ledger was discovered dead in his apartment. So I approach this celebration with some caution.

The were little surprises in the nominations – the big favorites – “There Will Be Blood”, “Atonement”, “Juno”, “No Country For Old Men” received multiple nominations in the big categories. “Michael Clayton” was the dark house surprise for me. It garnered nominations in virtually all the big categories, edging out the wild card films such as “Eastern Promises”, “Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “I’m Not There”.

I was sad to see “Into the Wild” receive very little recognition, except for a deserving Hal Holbrook. I would have replaced “Into the Wild” for “Atonement” or “Michael Clayton”. Though I didn’t see the brilliance of “Clayton” as everyone else did I respected it’s inclusion. “Atonement” is still a head-scratcher for me. It seemed to be made for Oscars and I’m surprised voters didn’t see through this. The film is watchable but has many narrative and inconsistent flaws.

Director Joe Wright was unlucky to suffer the indignation of being the annual displacement in the Best Director’s category. Every year, there seems to be one director whose film gets nominated for Best Picture, but doesn’t get a Best Director nod. And every year, like a broken record, writers write comments like “the film didn’t direct itself” – forgetting that the voting process is not one person sitting at home rolling the dice of chance, but a ballot from a very large votership. Anomalies and inconsistencies like these are going to happen, and adds to the fun of the event.

I’m more than happy to find Julian Schnabel steal Mr. Wright's nomination though, because his vision of “Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a phenomenal and risky piece of work.

The most atrocious controversy occurred even before the nominations were announced - the omission of the two most celebrated foreign language films, the Romanian entry "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" and France's "Persepolis" from not just the nominations but the 9-film shortlist! This is the same kind of suspicious balloting as the infamous omission of Steve James's "Hoop Dreams" from the Best Documentary category in 1994. In those days the nominations for Documentaries were chosen by documentary filmmakers who often colluded to prevent the clear favourite, like "Hoop Dreams", having a chance to win the award. The voting procedure is different for "Foreign Language" film, so we can only guess that a conservative votership shunned the Cristian Mingiu's tough film on illegal Romanian abortions, or Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's animated coming of age film about an Iranian girl. This is plainly embarassing for the Academy and tarnishes the credibility of the Awards. The most ironic thing though is that "Perseoplis" did get a Best Animated Feature nomination. Unfortunately it's up against the mighty "Ratatoiulle".

Perhaps the most special nomination for me is Josh Raskin's animated short "I Met the Walrus" - a Canadian short visualizing an audio interview of John Lennon by a 16 year old student in 1969. It's a sharp and visually astounding piece of art.

Poor Angelina Jolie, who seemed a shoe-in for a nomination for "A Mighty Heart" six months ago - but the distributors felt the need to release the film in the summer. If the film were released at Christmas like "There Will Be Blood" or "The Savages" Jolie just might be celebrating right now.

There's no point in predicting at this point, because, like a horse-race, it's a long way to the finish. Just try and watch all these films now.

Here's the full list of nominees:

Performance by an actor in a leading role
George Clooney in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)
Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax)
Johnny Depp in "Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah" (Warner Independent)
Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises" (Focus Features)

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Casey Affleck in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (Warner Bros.)
Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War" (Universal)
Hal Holbrook in "Into the Wild" (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment)
Tom Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (Universal)
Julie Christie in "Away from Her" (Lionsgate)
Marion Cotillard in "La Vie en Rose" (Picturehouse)
Laura Linney in "The Savages" (Fox Searchlight)
Ellen Page in "Juno" (Fox Searchlight)

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Cate Blanchett in "I'm Not There" (The Weinstein Company)
Ruby Dee in "American Gangster" (Universal)
Saoirse Ronan in "Atonement" (Focus Features)
Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone" (Miramax)
Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)

Best animated feature film of the year
"Persepolis" (Sony Pictures Classics): Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney): Brad Bird
"Surf's Up" (Sony Pictures Releasing): Ash Brannon and Chris Buck

Achievement in art direction
"American Gangster" (Universal): Art Direction: Arthur Max; Set Decoration: Beth A. Rubino
"Atonement" (Focus Features): Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
"The Golden Compass" (New Line in association with Ingenious Film Partners): Art Direction: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
"Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount): Art Direction: Dante Ferretti; Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Art Direction: Jack Fisk; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson

Achievement in cinematography
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (Warner Bros.): Roger Deakins
"Atonement" (Focus Features): Seamus McGarvey
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn): Janusz Kaminski
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Roger Deakins
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Robert Elswit

Achievement in costume design
"Across the Universe" (Sony Pictures Releasing) Albert Wolsky
"Atonement" (Focus Features) Jacqueline Durran
"Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (Universal) Alexandra Byrne
"La Vie en Rose" (Picturehouse) Marit Allen
"Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount) Colleen Atwood

Achievement in directing
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Julian Schnabel
"Juno" (Fox Searchlight), Jason Reitman
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.), Tony Gilroy
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Paul Thomas Anderson

Best documentary feature
"No End in Sight" (Magnolia Pictures) A Representational Pictures Production: Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
"Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience" (The Documentary Group) A Documentary Group Production: Richard E. Robbins
"Sicko" (Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company) A Dog Eat Dog Films Production: Michael Moore and Meghan O'Hara
"Taxi to the Dark Side" (THINKFilm) An X-Ray Production: Alex Gibney and Eva Orner
"War/Dance" (THINKFilm) A Shine Global and Fine Films Production: Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine

Best documentary short subject
"Freeheld" A Lieutenant Films Production: Cynthia Wade and Vanessa Roth
"La Corona (The Crown)" A Runaway Films and Vega Films Production: Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega
"Salim Baba" A Ropa Vieja Films and Paradox Smoke Production: Tim Sternberg and Francisco Bello
"Sari's Mother" (Cinema Guild) A Daylight Factory Production: James Longley

Achievement in film editing
"The Bourne Ultimatum" (Universal): Christopher Rouse
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn): Juliette Welfling
"Into the Wild" (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment): Jay Cassidy
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) Roderick Jaynes
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Dylan Tichenor

Best foreign language film of the year
"Beaufort" Israel
"The Counterfeiters" Austria
"Katyn" Poland
"Mongol" Kazakhstan
"12" Russia

Achievement in makeup
"La Vie en Rose" (Picturehouse) Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald
"Norbit" (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount): Rick Baker and Kazuhiro Tsuji
"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (Walt Disney): Ve Neill and Martin Samuel

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
"Atonement" (Focus Features) Dario Marianelli
"The Kite Runner" (DreamWorks, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Participant Productions, Distributed by Paramount Classics): Alberto Iglesias
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.) James Newton Howard
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney) Michael Giacchino
"3:10 to Yuma" (Lionsgate) Marco Beltrami

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
"Falling Slowly" from "Once" (Fox Searchlight) Music and Lyric by Glen Hansard and: Marketa Irglova
"Happy Working Song" from "Enchanted" (Walt Disney): Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz
"Raise It Up" from "August Rush" (Warner Bros.): Nominees to be determined
"So Close" from "Enchanted" (Walt Disney): Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz
"That's How You Know" from "Enchanted" (Walt Disney): Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz

Best motion picture of the year
"Atonement" (Focus Features) A Working Title Production: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster, Producers
"Juno" (Fox Searchlight) A Dancing Elk Pictures, LLC Production: Lianne Halfon, Mason Novick and Russell Smith, Producers
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.) A Clayton Productions, LLC Production: Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox and Kerry Orent, Producers
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss Production: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax) A JoAnne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Company Production: JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Lupi, Producers

Best animated short film
"I Met the Walrus" A Kids & Explosions Production: Josh Raskin
"Madame Tutli-Putli" (National Film Board of Canada) A National Film Board of Canada Production Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski "Même Les Pigeons Vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven)" (Premium Films) A BUF Compagnie Production Samuel Tourneux and Simon Vanesse
"My Love (Moya Lyubov)" (Channel One Russia) A Dago-Film Studio, Channel One Russia and Dentsu Tec Production Alexander Petrov
"Peter & the Wolf" (BreakThru Films) A BreakThru Films/Se-ma-for Studios Production Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman

Best live action short film
"At Night" A Zentropa Entertainments 10 Production: Christian E. Christiansen and Louise Vesth
"Il Supplente (The Substitute)" (Sky Cinema Italia) A Frame by Frame Italia Production: Andrea Jublin
"Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets)" (Premium Films) A Karé Production: Philippe Pollet-Villard
"Tanghi Argentini" (Premium Films) An Another Dimension of an Idea Production: Guido Thys and Anja Daelemans
"The Tonto Woman" A Knucklehead, Little Mo and Rose Hackney Barber Production: Daniel Barber and Matthew Brown

Achievement in sound editing
"The Bourne Ultimatum" (Universal): Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Skip Lievsay
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney): Randy Thom and Michael Silvers
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Matthew Wood
"Transformers" (DreamWorks and Paramount in association with Hasbro): Ethan Van der Ryn and Mike Hopkins

Achievement in sound mixing
"The Bourne Ultimatum" (Universal) Scott Millan, David Parker and Kirk Francis
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter Kurland
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney): Randy Thom, Michael Semanick and Doc Kane
"3:10 to Yuma" (Lionsgate): Paul Massey, David Giammarco and Jim Stuebe
"Transformers" (DreamWorks and Paramount in association with Hasbro): Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell and Peter J. Devlin

Achievement in visual effects
"The Golden Compass" (New Line in association with Ingenious Film Partners): Michael Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris and Trevor Wood
"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (Walt Disney): John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson and John Frazier
"Transformers" (DreamWorks and Paramount in association with Hasbro): Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Russell Earl and John Frazier

Adapted screenplay
"Atonement" (Focus Features), Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
"Away from Her" (Lionsgate), Written by Sarah Polley
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson

Original screenplay
"Juno" (Fox Searchlight), Written by Diablo Cody
"Lars and the Real Girl" (MGM), Written by Nancy Oliver
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.), Written by Tony Gilroy
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Brad Bird; Story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird
"The Savages" (Fox Searchlight), Written by Tamara Jenkins

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

FAMILY GUY PRESENTS BLUE HARVEST


Family Guy Presents Blue Harvest (2008) dir. Dominic Polcino
Voices by: Seth McFarlane, Alex Borstein, Seth Green, Mila Kunis

***

“Family Guy” is the most obscure-referencing fanboy show out there. And so it’s only fitting that the naughty cartoon gets the authorized privilege of spoofing the granddaddy of fanboy films –“Star Wars”. Yes, with full support of Mr. Lucas Seth McFarlane has created a near shot for shot remake of “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope” with his loveable yet profane characters. For Star Wars fans the inside humour is hilarious, and even for regular people it should be fun.

Chris plays a pudgy Luke Skywalker, Lois plays Leia, Quagmire and Cleveland plays C3PO and R2D2. Peter is Han Solo, Brian is Chewbacca, Mr. Herbert is Obi-Wan, etc etc. It’s amazing to watch the reverence for the material on display – starting with the title which refers to the fake name used during the production of “Return of the Jedi”. The animators manage to condense 121 mins of Star Wars’ running time into 45mins of Family Guy screen time. It’s funny because it’s actually difficult to figure out which pieces are missing. But what’s on screen is shot-for-shot as it was the original. In fact, though I can’t confirm, some shots appear to be rotoscoped.

The gags are hit and miss – some are simple visual gags which reminded me of the juvenile “Spaceballs (ie. the bumper sticker on the back of the Empire battleship cruiser) but there's plenty of subtle insider jokes that will please the hardcore fans. The writers pick apart all the inconsistencies and ‘mistakes’ in the original film, such as the battleship officer who doesn’t let his gunner shoot down R2D2 and C3PO’s escape pod at the beginning or when Han questions Luke for instantly believing in the force, having only heard about it three hours prior. These jokes went way over the casual viewer's head but the scene where Han tries to take a couch out of the trash compactor and into the Millenium Falcon is stand alone priceless.

The DVD special features contains a great interview with Seth McFarlane questioning George Lucas. There’s a giddy look of glee on McFarlane’s face that comes through in his questions. Lucas is his usual glum demeanour, but McFarlane manages to coax a few interesting answers out of the man.

The film sounds great thanks to the real John Williams score and some recycled sound effects – though I was disappointed the film was created in only 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I guess the pressure from the broadcaster to make the film TV-friendly won out over true fanboy authenticity. Because as we all know “Star Wars” is a 2.35:1 film .Oh well. Enjoy this must-have disc for “Star Wars” or “Family Guy” fans.

“Family Guy Presents Blue Harvest” is now available on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.



Sunday, 20 January 2008

SYDNEY WHITE


Sydney White (2007) dir. Joe Nussbaum
Starring: Amanda Bynes, Sara Paxton, Matt Long

**

Amanda Bynes can be a star, but just hasn’t seemed to breakthrough. The reason is roles like "Sydney White", which recycle the same uncreative high school movie formula which put plainly just isn’t funny by itself. What saves the film from complete failure is how it refashions the story of Snow White against this tweener formula.

Sydney White is like Snow White, she grew up in a male-dominated household. Her mom died at an early age and so her plumber Dad brought her up alone with his construction worker colleagues. She’s a tomboy with power tools. She also happened to grow up to be gorgeous (though she appears to spend too much time in the tanning bed) and can attracts guys like fly on shit.

When Sydney goes to college she finds herself out of the element and thrust into the competitive world of sororities. Her mother was a legend at Phi Kappa Gamma, and so her lifelong goal is to follow in her footsteps. In her way are the evil stepsisters..ahem… I mean the evil sorority girls who frequently surf “Am I Hot or Not.com” to determine their social standing on campus. The girls, led by the evil Rachel Witchburn, make her pledging extremely difficult. White’s pledge is sabotaged by Witchburn and she is banished to live with a house full of geeks (the seven dorks). Sidney finds common ground with the dorks and together they work to avenge Sidney’s plight and get her back into Phi Kappa Gamma.

Everything in “Sydney White” is skewed toward characterizations as opposed to real characters. The dorks in the film are like “Revenge of the Nerds” – so extreme they are like cartoons of dorks. I guess since dork-chic is in style the writers had to make them really pathetic to make them stand out such – one of them actually talks through the use of a handpuppet! Wow.

The Snow White references are clever and are only elements that sustained my interest. As mentioned, the filmmakers incorporate the charming prince and the stepsisters, but there’s also the mirror on the wall, magical kiss, the hi-ho song etc etc. Some are just laughable – for reasons I’m not sure of – there actually is a ‘sleepy’ character who is an African exchange student who sleeps all time because in three years he still has jet lag! That’s hilarious.

Amanda Bynes is talented. She has some chops with physical comedy that her contemporaries don’t (Lindsay Lohan, the Olson Twins, Hilary Duff). But she’s given such unchallenging material, it’s pathetic. I’m glad she was cast in “Hairspray” – a lesser role, but at least one that audiences over the age of 12 will watch. I don’t know how old Ms. Bynes is, but she shouldn't be making films for 12 year olds, which is what “Sidney White” is.

“Sidney White” is available on DVD Tuesday Jan 22 from Universal Home Entertainment


Saturday, 19 January 2008

SAKURAN


Sakuran (2007) dir. Mika Ninagawa
Starring: Anna Tsuchiya, Kippei Shiina, Yoshino Kimura, Hiroki Narimiya

***

A good friend of mine loaned me this Japanese film on DVD with the selling point, the director is the ‘Sophia Coppola of Japan.’ High praise, but an accurate description of this interesting and unique film. It tells the story of a brothel in Feudal Japan. From the point of view of a child who is sold into the business, we watch her grow and learn the ropes of the prostitution business. Imagine an authentic “Memoirs of a Geisha”. Though it’s Japanese, it’s crafted with a hint of an American sensibility to make it viewable in the West.

We are introduced to Kiyoha, a beautiful teenage girl who works in a Japanese brothel. She narrates her own story starting with the day she was sold into the business at the age of 8. Over the next few years this little girl learns of life, love and sex from her gossipy foul-mouthed brothel women. From her first day in the brothel, she desires to leave the place. But as she gets older she blends in with her company of women and eventually becomes the most sought-after of girls. When an opportunity presents itself to leave her most-hated pleasure-house her own personal scruples emerges which prevents her from leaving.

Sakuran is the debut feature of 34 year old Mika Ninagawa – a photographer by trade who has branched out into filmmaking. The film certainly has a photographer’s eye. It’s bathed in saturated colours, beautifying slo-mo and immaculately composed frames. In fact, the film jumped out at me so much I had trouble figuring out the timeframe. I am so used to seeing this period in Japan shot either in black and white (as in a Kurasawa film), or with a dark, shadowy tone.

Like Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” the film modernizes the period with the refreshing flare of pop music. Though I didn’t recognize any of the music, I found myself tapping my foot.

Mika’s also is not shy with showing some skin. There’s a particular funny scene shot from young Kiyoha’s point of view in the bathing room. The camera cuts together a lengthy sequence of close-ups of naked breasts. Because it’s from a female director and a female point of view it feels legit – as opposed to a Brian De Palma girls locker room sequence which is just naughty. We get to see the amorous acts of lovemaking with only a minor cover-up here and there. Mika makes it all very sexy and wanting.

I admit not to knowing much of Japanese cinema other than Kurosawa, Godzilla, and a few other Samurai films. Virtually every Samurai film I’ve seen has had a scene in a brothel, so it’s refreshing to see the other side of those male-centric scenes we’ve seen a hundred times. Check your local arthouse DVD retailer for an import or bootleg DVD copy. Enjoy.




Friday, 18 January 2008

AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER


An Affair to Remember (1957) dir. Leo McCarey
Starring: Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr

***1/2

"An Affair to Remember" is one of Hollywood's most treasured romances. What starts out as a flighty wistful affair on a cruise turns into a near tragic story of lost love. The film famously spawned a reverant homage in "Sleepless in Seattle" and a remake as "Love Affair". It's a classic for the right reasons.

Cary Grant plays Nickie Ferrante, a suave playboy, who is on his way to New York to be with his new fiance. Deborah Kerr plays Terry McKay, a beautiful singer who is also on her way home to be with her waiting beau. But when a boat cruise courtship is struck, Nickie's and Terry's future plans become extremely complicated. They agree to meet up with each other after 6 months atop the Empire State Building to see if the sparks in their brief relationship are still alive.

Just when you think the film becomes predictable we're sent on a couple of surprising left turns in the second half. Leo McCarey and Delmer Daves are skilled screenwriters. He makes Nickie and Terry's courtship a difficult endeavour as they throw the most insurmountable obstacles in their way. After the initial courtship on the boat we think there would be a central conflict involving Nickie and Terry's respective fiances. But Kenneth (Richard Bradley) recognizes and accepts Terry's love for Nickie, and as the biggest surprise, he becomes her biggest supporter of rekindling their affair.

I've never been a Cary Grant fan. And here he plays the same character as in every one of his films again. But within the Cary Grant oeuvre he's never been better. In the first half, as expected he's charming and suave, with his usual effortless affability. In the second half we see a diffrent side to Grant. He is a given a powerful moment of sadness, which he acts with an unexpected subtle understateness.

Saying all this, the film is not perfect either. There are a couple of missteps though, namely a lengthy musical musical sequence in the school where Terry works. It's a sequence plugged into the wrong movie. But in 1957, it was part of the standard Hollywood formula to include at least one musical sequence like this.

The introduction of Nickie to Terry feels like a film in a bottle and out of touch with the real world. Despite being engaged, upon first sight Nickie instantly pursues Terry without a second thought to his impending marriage. He even takes her out to the French Rivera to meet his grandmother. Neither character thinks it's weird to be meeting elder relatives after knowing each for less than a week. Though they don't consummate, it's never an innocent affair.

There's some manufactured conflict during their reconnection at the finale, which could easily haven been solved with a simple admission of the truth from Terry. But for some reason she doesn't tell him why she stood Nickie up at the Empire State Building. Her intent and motivation in this moment is confusing. The film also has an unsatisfactory abrupt ending shortly afterwards. But that was the way Hollywood told stories back then - very little breathing time between climax and credits.

The 50th Anniversary Disc is well packaged with classic lobby card inserts and a second disc full of featurettes and other usual goodies. It should make a fine addition to your classics section of your DVD collection. Rediscover the romance of this swooning classic. Enjoy.

"An Affair to Remember - 50th Anniversary" DVD is now available from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


CLOVERFIELD


Cloverfield (2008) dir. Matt Reeves
Starring: Michael Stahl David, T.J. Miller, Odette Yustman

**

What an unpleasant surprise “Cloverfield” is. Viral hype marketing seems to have overshadowed the actual movie that is “Cloverfield”. Expectations run high when the writers and producers of “Alias” and “Lost” plan a secret sci-fi monster/alien movie. Unfortunately there’s nothing to reveal that isn’t in that wicked-awesome trailer we saw in front of “Transformers” last summer. For a film that aspires to realism ironically is one of the worst examples of style over substance.

It’s Manhattan and a bunch of good-looking successful youngsters have assembled for Rob's surprise going away party (like one of those parties on “Gossip Girl”) . We watch several characters mingle with one another and gossip over the usual things – all of it captured on handycam by one of the characters, Hud. Then, a loud bang, shake, rattle – outside some Armageddon-like disaster has struck (btw. J.J. Abrams wrote “Armageddon”). We continue to follow a handful of party-goers as they navigate their way through war-torn Manhattan to reunite with Rob's girlfriend.

The main fault of the film is the reason why it was made in the first place – the entire movie is seen from the point of view of Hud’s handycam. And Hud is a BAD camera operator. Most of action we see only glimpses of when Hud isn’t running away from monsters, ducking from falling rocks or dodging gunfire. And when we do get to see something, the camera is swishing past at rapid speed, or skewed at such an extreme angle that nothing can be deciphered. This is the Spielberg trick (“Jaws”) – monsters are scarier when we don’t see them on screen. This is true and the monster moments are frightening, but it’s not just the monsters we don’t see, we don’t much of anything. Having been exposed to three Bourne movies, NYPD Blue and enough Dogma-style films, audiences are attuned to the shaky camera, but this is another realm of shaky. I’d say only 25% of the film is framed properly, the other 75% is either tilted, sideways or upside down.

By using this technique “Cloverfield” aspires to 'realism'. But of course in any real situation any sane person would just put down the camera and run for their lives. So this artifice is as shaky as Hud's camera. It worked for "Blair Witch Project" because the characters were filmmakers, and they were actually making a movie. In "Cloverfield" there is no reason for someone to continue filming while their lives are in jeopardy.

Knowing the creative backgrounds of Abrams, Reeves and writer Drew Goddard, what is most disappointing is the actual story, which is paperthin. Strip away the stylistic crutch and we're left with Godzilla. The story doesn't evolve or unfold, nothing is revealed - it's getting from A to B, with only a few obstacles to hurdles. Granted our characters are facing a mean sonofabitch of a monster as well as army of badass insect warriors. And when we do see these monsters it's really cool - but it's too bad we feel nothing for our characters.

None of any of this is original either. The "found footage" preamble we see at the beginning is "Blair Witch Project" and even the idea of a handheld special effects film, perhaps was inspired by Neill Blomkamp (that guy Peter Jackson chose to direct HALO). Watch Blomkamp's short films and you'll see what I mean (see below).

There's no reason why "Cloverfield" couldn't have shot the film traditionally and kept the same point of view. We then could have some more monsters and there would be few pukers in the audience too.




By the way, here's "Alive in Joburg" by Neill Blomkamp:

Thursday, 17 January 2008

IN PRAISE OF THE CAR CHASE

There are few things more thrilling on film than a good old fashioned car chase. It never tires and will likely never be played out. Since 1968's "Bullitt" the car chase has evolved to become a competitive one-up-manship between filmmakers. The 70's were rife with b-movie genre films entirely devoted to car chases - the grandaddy of these being the original "Gone in 60 Seconds". And now with advanced camera rigging devices, and hydraulic car-lifters directors can craft intense scenes unimaginable in those early days.

There are even many sub-genres of the car chase: there's the simple one-on-one single road chase (usually in a rural setting). There's the freeway chase highlighted by immense speed and multicar crashups. There's the urban chase, which uses pedestrians, streetpoles and parked cars as obstacles to create suspense. There's the Euro-chase made distinct with small cars in small streets and tight maneuvering. And then there's those which take cars where cars weren't meant to go. There's a bit of everything in this compilation.

Note: I have listed the directors of the film beside the titles, but often action scenes are directed by the second unit director or stunt coordinator. The best resource for this information is www.varaces.com - a database site dedicated solely to logging every movie car chase ever filmed.

Let's begin, in no particular order:

The Matrix Reloaded - Highway Chase (2003) dir. The Wachowski Bros

A car chase which starts in the city streets and moves onto a highway, then turns into a motorcycle chase against the traffic, not to mention hand to hand combat inside and on top of the cars. Awesome! Love or hate the film The Wachowski Bros broke new ground for car chases with this scene. They built their own stretch of highway specifically for this scene. It’s smooth and slick style is a great contrast to say, the Bourne car chases, which uses a visceral ‘in-the-seat’ realism.






Bad Boys II - Freeway Chase (2003) dir. Michael Bay

"Bad Boys II" was ripped into by critics, but action/chase fanboys know Michael Bay's freeway chase is arguable the best stand alone chase scene. The sequence is so over the top, so crass, so debaucherous it’s divine.The carnage is unbelievable.







Ronin - Paris Chase (1998) dir. John Frankenheimer

The narrow streets, cobblestone roads and close-quarters of European streets always make for great action. John Frankenheimer’s "Ronin" features three great car chases. This is one is the best. Notice there is no music, just the hum of those beautiful sounding BMW engines.






Deathproof - Ship's Mast (2007 dir. Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino obviously reveres the classic car chase and specifically those 70's films I mentioned above. His characters even repeatedly reference "Vanishing Point" and "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" numerous times. In the film's celebrated sequence stunt performer and actor Zoe Bell performs a manoeuvre called the "ship's mast", which involves riding the hood of a car while holding onto two leather belts. When Kurt Russell's 1970 Chevy gives chase the stakes and stunts are shifted into overdrive. Buckle up!.







Dirty Mary Crazy Larry - Finale (1971) dir. John Hough

A major influence on "Death Proof" was the final chase in "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry". It's mostly a one-on-one pursuit through straight roads. It's not the spectacular explosion-heavy chase of a Michael Bay sequence, but it's influential nonetheless and still wildly popular.







Diva - Through Le Metro (1982) dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix

This small little French hit features an amazing chase between a car and a scooter through the streets of Paris, and then through the subway system! Amazing.







Le Casse - Demolition Derby (1971) dir. Henri Verneuil

Watch these two little Eurocars skid their way through Greece. It's a Fiat and Opel Rekord that take much heavy damage before the end of this exhausting pursuit.






The Driver - Robbery Escape (1978) dir. Walter Hill

Walter Hill’s cult classic is a simple story about, well ... a driver. The climactic scene features Ryan O’Neal evading the police after a heist. Though not as violent or smash-up as the newer chases, it’s a tense scene. Watch Ryan O'Neil's calm and collected demeanor throughout - a true professional.







Bullitt - Mustang in Action (1968) dir.

The original San Francisco car chase. Steve McQueen driving his own car, that classic 67 Mustang, the jazzy score, the turtle neck! It still rocks.







The French Connection - Chasing the ‘L’ (1971) dir. William Friedkin

It’s not a car chase per se, but a car/subway chase, that’s even better. What makes Friedkin’s renowned chase so suspenseful is the intensity of Gene Hackman's performance and the danger he puts himself in to catch up to the train. This is a case of character influencing the action.

Unfortunately the chase has been removed from YouTube. If anyone know where to embed it please let me know.



To Live and Die in L.A. - Against the Traffic (1986) dir. William Friedkin

I haven’t read Gerald Petievich’s novel on which the screenplay was based, but I suspect Mr. Friedkin embellished or even invented the car chase in the story so he could top himself. Watch how Friedkin directs Petersen to act in the same fear-based hyper attentiveness as Gene Hackman in "The French Connection".
Friedkin would try and top himself again in the abysmal film "Jade" - skip it.
Only a trailer is uploaded at the moment:






The Bourne Supremacy - Moscow Chase(2005) dir. Paul Greengrass

Director Paul Greengrass puts the audience in the passenger seat next to Matt Damon as he plays bumper cars with his tiny little European taxicab. Listen to how John Powell’s heart pounding score adds to the speed and exhilaration of this chase.





Mad Max Interceptor Introduction (1979) dir George Miller

The opening of Mad Max is pure adrenaline, and one of best ever introductions to a hero. There’s two parts to the chase in the clip below. The spectacular crash through the camper is awesome, but I personally like when the thug starts crying when he finds out Max’s Interceptor is on his tail. Check it out:






The Road Warrior Opening (1981) dir. George Miller

Like his first film Miller opens with a bang. Few directors visualize the pure speed of better than Miller. Check it out:





Striking Distance Opening Chase (1993) dir. Rowdy Herrington

It’s a lame duck of a film, but Rowdy Herrington opens with a well-choreographed 1 on 20 car chase. The scene doesn’t quite have the intensity of a Mad Max scene and beware of some ugly cars and bad music. Other than that it’s a fine and lengthy sequence:





The Dead Pool Dirty Harry vs. A Remote Controlled Car (1991) dir. Buddy Van Horn

Buddy Van Horn – a second unit director/stunt coordinator by trade and pal of Clint Eastwood - directed the last Dirty Harry flick. He adds a new element to much imitated San Francisco chase by pitting Dirty Harry against a explosive-armed remote control car. It’s both comic and suspenseful and quite brilliant.

I could only find the trailer:




The Seven Ups Across the George Washington Bridge (1976) dir. Philip D'Antoni

A kind of spin off film to "The French Connection" – Roy Scheider gets to drive this time in an epic 10mins chase through New York and across the George Washington bridge. The ending is a classic. Enjoy:





The Blues Brothers Mall Chase (1980) dir. John Landis

Sure the final Blues Brothers chase is a classic, but arguably the Mall Chase is something we’ve never seen before or since. It’s a masterpiece of comic action. My favourite line – Jake: 'Disco dancing haircuts.'





Taxi Highway Chase (1998) dir. Gerard Pires

The original French film featuring a fast and furious speed through Paris and onto the highway. The monotonous electronic music provides a unique momentum to the scene:





Terminator 2: Judgment Day Downtown LA Chase (1991) dir. James Cameron

Cameron crafts a heart-pounding scene which starts in an underground parking lot, into the streets and ending in the concrete water runoff canal. As usual Cameron directs the scene with relentless muscular intensity.





Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines Arnold saves the day again (2003) dir. Jonathan Mostow

2003 was the year of the car chase: "Matrix Reloaded", "Bad Boys 2" as well a lengthy and destructive city car chase in "Terminator 3". It’s one of few chases featuring a woman driving one of the cars – does she count that she's a robot though? The extended crane attached to Kristanna Loken’s truck causes some massive destruction.




Wednesday, 16 January 2008

CLEO FROM 5 TO 7


Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) Dir. Agnes Varda
Starring: Corinne Marchand and Antoine Bourseiller

****
Guest Review by Blair Stewart

When a good film "grabs" you it will bring up latent fears, emotions and dreams. Popcorn escapism like a good James Bond flick can make even the most cynical cineaste regress to a daydreaming child. But a great film will completely transport you to another time and place. 'Cleo de 5 a 7' transports you to the summer of 1961 Paris for a few crucial hours and allows you to observe its heroine like an innocent voyeur.

Corinne Marchand plays Cleo, a gorgeous, flighty pop singer who, despite the pending results of a cancer test, lives like she has the moon and some stars on a string. We follow her through the breezy City of Lights and witness a sea change in how she might live the remainder of her life. The afternoon sun shines on Cleo in crisp black and white, snippets of radio and noise bounce around carelessly as she awaits judgement, we even have time for a song or two in her childish penthouse filled with kittens and frilly garbage. Cleo will then escape into the city to drown out her fears in its noise and bluster. The film reaches its charismatic destination when Cleo meets a soldier (Antoine Bourseiller) on his way to the Algerian front lines. The two strangers find common ground in their mutual clocking ticking mortality and spark the 'possiblity' of a romance.

My first impression when I read this poorly represented plot summary was art-house pretention. But Agnes Varda has created her own version of a french croissant. A light and flaky yet wholly satifying morsel of celluloid and one of the most accessible films of the French New Wave. Varda's photo-journalism experience shines through, crafting wonderful Parisian compositions and languid handheld strolls through its streets. Linklater fans will find obvious influences in his 'Before Sunrise' films as well as Julie Delpy's 'Two Days in Paris'. And I have a hunch the opening credits made a hell of an impression on a young Wes Anderson.

Please jump into this timemachine and transport yourself to Paris and into the life of Cleo, from 5pm to 7pm.

PS Watch for the line-up of French New Wave cameos.



Tuesday, 15 January 2008

IN PRAISE OF RAY HARRYHAUSEN



It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) dir. Robert Gordon
Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis, Ian Keith
***

Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) dir. Fred Sears
Starring: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis, Morris Ankrum
***

Sony Pictures has released a couple of must-haves for sci-fi cine-buffs. Sony has slowly been reissuing Ray Harryhausen classics in reverant 2-Disc special editions with superb packaging, menu screens, commentaries and special features documentaries.

For those who aren't familiar with Ray Harryhausen, he is the great special effects genius who mastered the art of stop motion animation. Though Mr. Harryhausen would probably object to being called an animator as he exclusively worked with live action photography - specifically merging and matting his stop motion creations with shot footage.

Harryhausen got his break working with his idol Willis "King Kong" O'Brien on the Merian C. Cooper production of "Might Joe Young" (1949). After making a name for himself for his solo work on "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" he hooked up with schlock producers Charles Schneer and Sam Katzman in the mid 50's producing some of the 'great' classics of early sci-fi.

I use quotes around great because "It Came From Beneath the Sea" is really schlocky - a bad film, really. When a gigantic octopus reaks havoc on a nuclear submarine in the Pacific, two scientists and a Navy officer join forces to stop the massive beast. Same with "Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers" - a simple story of humans battling malevoent aliens with a penchant for destruction. Before Roland Emmerich started blowing up national monuments these films reveled in destroying treasured architecture. In "Beneath the Sea" Harryhausen takes down San Francisco - Fisherman's Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge - and in "The Flying Saucers", it's Washington that takes the pain. In these films Harryhausen and director Fred Sears create some of the cinema's most indelible images - see above.

Of course, these films are b-movies, and most of the dialogue and plotting are excruciatingly dull. In "Beneath the Sea" there's an attempted love triangle that doesn't create any sparks. And there's way more screentime devoted to dialogue and exposition. Indeed, it's tedius, and it's all filler for Harryhausen's beautiful sequences.

Sony's fine DVDs are colorized under supervision by Harryhausen himself and offered in a neat "ChromoChoice" viewing experience, which allows the viewer to toggle between color and black and white. Each disc features a filmed conversation between Tim Burton and Harryhausen. It's fun to watch the mega-successful Burton show pennance to the elder statesman. Each DVD features a boatload of interesting and informative featurettes, including a lesson on how old style stop motion is painstakingly created.

Harryhausen kept making films into the 70's and his last was 1981's "Clash of the Titans". Since then Phil Tippett assumed the reigns as the stop motion master. With CGI, its a rare art form, especially in live action film. It's a shame because there's a rough and organic quality to stop motion that CGI can't capture unless consciously recreated. Thanks to Sony Harryhausen's films will always remain readily available. Enjoy.


Monday, 14 January 2008

THE ITALIAN JOB


The Italian Job (2003) dir. F. Gary Gray
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton

***

With insurance, robbing a bank, a museum, or a train is usually a victimless felony. That’s why filmmakers have always been able to turn this crime into comedy - especially when it’s against a money-grubbing miser or a big faceless corporation. The 2003 “Italian Job” is a film that fits in nicely to the great history of the genre.

The only elements from the original version that remain are the title, a few of the character names and the cute “Mini-Coopers”. And that’s all they needed to keep. The rest is justifiably discarded to update its story. It all works marvelously in this solidly entertaining action romp.

The film opens with Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg) and his team of young, hip, good looking, funny and charming thieves in the middle of a heist. It’s Venice Italy, and their target is $34million worth of gold bars. A good heist sets the audience up with expectations and cleverly changes them so we can be as surprised as the victims when the thievery is executed. After exploding a hole through the floor beneath the safe, the team makes a getaway in a high-powered speedboat through the Venetian canals. It’s a wonderful on location sequence (a rare boat-chase!) Our expectations are subverted when we discover the gold is not in the boat but somewhere else. Afterwards, in the midst of the team’s celebration, the safecracker Steve (Ed Norton) double-crosses them and steals away the gold.

Cut to six months later, Charlie is still hell bent on revenge. He has tracked down Steve to Los Angeles and reassembles his team to steal back the gold. Without a safecracker, Charlie enlists the daughter of the team’s fallen patriarch, Stella Bridger (Charlize Theron) to join them. As customary with the genre the team painstakingly cases the job using high tech computers as well as good old fashioned cons and deception. Of course, Steve is a wily adversary and they do run into a few hiccups, but it all sets up the exciting Mini-Cooper chase sequence through the streets of L.A. – a clever scene worthy of the famous Turin traffic jam finale in the original film.

“The Italian Job” has much in common with “Ocean’s Eleven”. Mark Wahlberg is cool and charming like George Clooney, Jason Statham is handsome and smooth like Brad Pitt, Seth Green is the tech-wiz like Eddie Jemison etc. But “The Italian Job” never tries to trump the star-heavy hype-machine of Oceans. Instead they streamline their story and reduce their lead characters to a five resulting in a film unencumbered with the complex narrative that often plagued the Ocean’s films.

The film is also ridiculously implausible, specifically Lyle’s convenient high-powered laptop which, with a few buttons, can recreate the 3-D blueprints of a building, tap into and control the entire L.A. streetlight grid etc etc. In hindsight the team could have just hijacked a bank’s computer system and had $34million wired to their Swiss bank accounts. But as you’re watching the film you never once think of these holes because the visual and auditory entertainment is so much fun. And Charlize Theron looks so hot driving that Mini!

With the success of “The Italian Job” and the “Ocean’s movies” I’m surprised this hasn’t been turned into a franchise. But apparently a sequel is being filmed, called “The Brazilian Job”. The same filmmaking team is on board, so it should make for a fine sequel and perhaps more.

For fans of this and the “Ocean’s Films” – don’t forget to explore the origins of this genre. The 60’s had plenty of these action comedies. Check out the original “Italian Job”, “The Thomas Crown Affair” and the best of them all, “Topkapi”. Enjoy.




Sunday, 13 January 2008

3:10 TO YUMA


3:10 to Yuma (2007) dir. James Mangold
Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Ben Foster

***1/2

On DVD this week is “3:10 to Yuma”, featuring megastars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale and directed by “Walk the Line’s” James Mangold. It’s a remake of the 1955 Delmar Daves film adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name. It’s a character-film about a vicious outlaw who faces off against an ‘everyman’ rancher when he gets involved in a dangerous mission to transport him to prison. The film begins slowly but then gathers great steam resulting in a surprisingly touching finale. It’s not one of the best westerns ever made, but it improves on the original and showcases some of the finest performances this year.

The film opens with the quiet and assuming rancher, Dan Evans (Christian Bale), under attack by the local railroad developer. They burn his barn to the ground as a forceful warning to vacate his property to make way for his near-coming railroad. His young teenage son, William (Logan Lerman), disrespects his father, who is crippled from a war injury, for failing to take a stand for his family and fight back like a real man.

Russell Crowe plays Ben Wade, a wanted outlaw who leads a vicious gang of evil-doers. After stealing $10,000 from a stagecoach he becomes the target of the Pinkerton authorities. While relaxing in a small town, Wade slips up and gets caught, but the fight has only begun. Wade must be transported undercover of his menacing posse to the train station to catch the 3:10 train to Yuma Prison. Evans who happens to be in town confronting the railroad developers offers to help for a fee of $200. This money will help him through the terrible drought that has plagued his land and save his family from financial ruin. And so begins the battle of wills on the journey to Yuma. Evans is a tough match for Wade, and resists all his psychological scheming and escape attempts. But when his son unexpected hitches a ride, suddenly there’s more at stake. Evans’ fears and internal demons are tested to the extreme, physically and mentally as the clock ticks down to 3:10.

Christian Bale plays light as effectively as heavy, and is fantastic as the emasculated rancher/father. The relationship with his son is the heart of the film. At first I rolled my eyes when the ambitious youngster disobeys father’s orders and follows the Wade’s coach. I’ve seen this scene a thousand times before. But Mangold plays the dynamic intelligently. William is at first attracted to Wade’s active forthrightness. Since his father failed to stop the railroad developer from terrorizing his family, he feels the protection of the family will eventually fall to him. But as the film moves along they become closer as a family and in the end William realizes the courageous sacrifice his father has made for his family.

Russell is also very good as the maniacal yet honourable outlaw. Glenn Ford played Wade in the original, but Crowe trumps Ford’s performance who originally played him just as ‘charming’. Crowe effectively adds much needed menace to give his character weight. Crowe wasn’t stretched too far in the role though until the end. At a key moment in the film, Crowe, standing at gunpoint, and framed terrifically in a long medium shot. Viewers who’ve seen the film will know what I mean. The prolonged unspoken look of fear on his face so palpable and is the mark of a great actor.

The discovery in the film though is actor Ben Foster (“X-Men 3” and “Six Feet Under”) who plays Charlie Prince, Wade’s right hand man, one of the great bad guys in recent movie history. He is so loyal and determined to rescue Wade nothing will stop him from reaching the train station by 3:10. He is not so much a character as he is a robotic “Terminator”-like monster - petal to the metal, full throttle bad-ass.

“3:10 to Yuma” bests the original by adding the subplot of Evans’ son (who is left at the ranch in the original), but Mangold and writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas add several action scenes to the second act. This quickens the pace - a fault which plagued the original. Surprisingly though the visual look of the film was disappointing. Delmar Daves’ black and white film had a magnificently beautiful widescreen anamorphic look. It was perfectly framed and composed and edited. This new version seems stolid and perfunctory. As well, Marco Beltrami’s music was uninspired ‘made-for-television’ material.

Overall “3:10 to Yuma” is a great on character, average on action, but a good solid modern western and must for fans of the genre. Enjoy.

FYI. Here’s my review of the original film. Click HERE.