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

Friday, 29 February 2008

IN BRUGES


In Bruges (2007) dir. Martin McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes

***

Much acclaim, including a four-star review from Roger Ebert pushed me to see this film in theatres. It’s a small scale story about two hit men, hanging out in Bruges Belgium waiting for their next instructions. The trailer is cut to be like a Guy Ritchie-Matthew Vaughn film, and though it has the same sense of humour, it’s a largely a low key character film. It’s another in a long history of recent British gangster films that entertain, but never quite take off and soar as the Hollywood and Asian cinema have been able to do.

Ray and Ken (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) are a couple of wisecracking hit men who have just completed a job. We’ve never told what the job is, only that Ray and Ken are to convene in Bruges for further instructions. “Where the fook is Bruges?” Ray asks. Bruges is a small tourist town in Belgium, known for its uniquely preserved medieval architecture. When they arrive Ray discovers it’s a boring ol’ tourist trap with little action and excitement. Ken, who’s enamoured by the culture and history, falls in love with city.

A palpable tension exists between the two beyond Ray’s restlessness with the city. We discover their job didn’t go as planned, resulting in more death than necessary. Their boss, Harry, who we only know as an ornery voice on the other end of a phone has nefarious plans for Ray and Ken. With their lives on the line, Ray and Ken's loyalties to each other and their own personal scruples are put to the test.

Martin McDonagh, who generated buzz for himself with his Oscar-winning short film “Six Shooter”, is skilled with the genre. Ray and Ken are a great British “Odd Couple” - Brendan Gleeson is the straight man and Colin Farrell is the wild man. For the first two acts, McDonagh concentrates on the two characters, their relationship with each other and as well as their relationship with the town and its people. Ken, in fact, courts a local girl which feels like genuine love. But McDonagh also silently plants the seeds for the third act, which has Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arriving in Bruges to ‘finish the job’. The seemingly meaningless actions of Ray and Ken and all the minor characters they meet along the way are cleverly weaved in and affect the outcome in the final violent confrontation.

McDonagh commits an error though. He falls in love with his cleverness of his “Seinfeld-like” wrap-up, but forgets that the strength of his film is his two characters. There’s a very powerful emotional moment which occurs at the 90mins mark of the film, which is so well-planned and executed, it would have made a great finale, if the film ended there. But McDonagh continues the action for another 5mins, a chase scene which serves to create action and but not drama. The film is less powerful because of it.

“In Bruges”, with it’s sharp dialogue and strong characters, entertains and generates great laughs, and though it narrowly misses it’s chance to soar, it's still a fun, enjoyable romp.




Wednesday, 27 February 2008

THE ARISTOCATS


The Aristocats (1970) dir. Wolfgang Reitherman
Voices by: Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Sterling Holloway, Scatman Crothers

****

Guest reviewed by Greg Klymkiw

With my first child, I had a strict rule regarding what Disney product she was allowed to see – especially when it came to the animated product. Nothing that was made after Uncle Walt’s death would be allowed in our home. Everything in the post-Walt world was risible at worst and mediocre at best. For me, this especially includes that wretched period which barfed out the overblown and overrated and overwrought “Aladdin”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “The Little Mermaid” and (gag me with a very big spoon), “The Lion King” and everything else of that unfortunate ilk. These dreadful pictures with their annoying use of actors like Robin Williams and syrupy scores would not only remain verboten in my home, but were, no doubt, sending Walt’s corpse into major grave-spinning mode. There was, however, one exception to this strict rule and that exception was this: films that Walt personally developed and had already given a thumbs-up to for production PRIOR to his death were perfectly acceptable.

An especially wise exception to that rule was “The Aristocats”, the Disney Company’s twentieth animated feature film. It was finished after Walt’s death, but developed personally by him.

Some criticize the movie for being super-derivative of so many Uncle Walt classics, which, of course, is utter nonsense and true all at once. While there is no denying that “The Aristocats” is basically “Lady and the Tramp” with cats, crossed with “101 Dalmatians” and dollops - here and there - from a handful of others, all that basically proves is that good stories are always worth telling and re-telling and re-telling again – just so long as the details are not only different, but that they are, for lack of a better description, cool.

And “The Aristocats” is nothing if not cool.

With a late 50s jazz mentality set against the ultra-romantic and super-cool backdrop of Gay Par-ee, or, if you must, Paris, “The Aristocats” is up there with the best of them because it takes something from a previous (“old”) generation that already WAS cool and makes it cool again. Keep in mind that “The Aristocats” was released in 1970, long after rock n’ roll had become king, but rather than resorting to what was hip in terms of “now”, the picture steadfastly held onto what was cool in the past and not only cool, but frankly, the kind of thing that COULD withstand the test of time and appeal to generations well beyond the here and now. Disney was always ahead of his time, but he also knew that the ephemeral could make some quick bucks, but wouldn’t ensure several lifetimes of profits. And it was that knack for creating work that could keep making money for generation upon generation, work that had staying power, work that could, in fact live forever, is the very reason that Disney was a genius and a visionary and the ultimate filmmaker – an artist of the highest order in addition to being a captain – no, a General of Industry.

In a nutshell, the picture tells the story of a crazy old rich lady (Hermione Baddeley) who has a gorgeous, pampered cat called The Duchess (Eva Gabor) who, in turn, has three cute and precocious kittens. When the old rich lady decides to bequeath her whole fortune to her manservant Edgar, he decides to kill all the cats since he won’t get a single penny until all four cats live out all their nine lives due to a clause in the will that puts the kitties before Edgar. He cat-naps the felines, takes them to the middle of nowhere, tries to drown them, but is foiled in his nefarious intentions by a couple of mangy, but heroic old hound dogs. The kitties, stranded in the middle of nowhere are assisted in their plight by O’Malley (Phil Harris) and his other alley cats, a bunch of American expat-cats, who play mean jazz as only Americans in France could.

The humour, the characters, the voice-work are all first-rate. The animation, especially in terms of detail with respect to feline behaviour, is exceptional. But what really rocks (so to speak) in this picture is the fantastic musical score – especially the “Ev’rbody Wants To Be A Cat” number that is the soaring definition of the expression: “jazz hot”.

I personally saw The Aristocats in 1970 as a kid and subsequently on a couple of occasions when it was officially re-released theatrically. I saw it when it was first released on DVD, and most recently watched it in the magnificent new 2-disc DVD special edition released by Buena Vista. Each time the movie held up magnificently. It’s one great picture.

That said, my daughter eventually demanded to see all those banned Disney titles. I grudgingly bought all of them. Imagine, if you will, my shame and remorse at bringing “Aladdin”, “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast” and, God help me, “The [Goddamn] Lion King” into my home. Interestingly enough, my daughter watched all of those dreadful titles once and once only. She has never wanted to watch any of them again. The true Disney films, that she’d be indoctrinated with, however, are always on – again and again and again. She never tires of the real thing. “The Aristocats” is a movie she’s seen at least twenty times – probably more.

This, of course, not only proves how great Walt Disney was, but how important it is to expose children to only the best in their early years. That way, they learn how to discriminate between what’s good and bad. Most pointedly, they develop an excellent shit detector when it comes to much of the garbage that has been made in the RECENT past. When their yardstick is the very best, everything else becomes so much landfill.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

OSCAR RECAP 2008


The hardware has been handed out, and like last year, it was a relatively surprise and drama-free edition. Some would call that ‘boring’. I still enjoy any Oscar ceremony – no matter what the outcome. The ceremony ended prior to midnight, which was a surprise. Only one lifetime achievement award was given out – what happened to the Irving G. Thalberg Award? We haven’t had one since 2001. There was only one “salute to...” montage. In fact Jon Stewart humorously referenced the overproduced and lengthy salutes such as the binocular/periscope salute or the ‘waking up to a bad dream’ salute. Though it didn’t generate as many laughs as it should, but it was a clever send up of itself.

It was Jon Stewart’s second outing as the host. The first-time jitters weren’t there like two years ago, and he assumed the role like a well-worn shoe. He relied less on the comfort-zone of his political jokes, instead weaving them in smoothly when appropriate. There were enough writers jokes to go around, and some of the usual roasting of the celebs. George Clooney, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson graciously took some nice shots. BTW: Remember Sean Penn taking offense to Chris Rock’s stab at Jude Law? Stewart was at his sarcastic best as well – my favourite crack was after Glen Hansard’s heartfelt and humble acceptance speech for Best Song in “Once”. Stewart’s crack, “he’s so arrogant” was a perfectly timed ad-lib.

As for the Awards, the Best Supporting Actress race promised and delivered the most drama. Tilda Swinton won over the slightly more favoured Cate Blanchett, Amy Ryan and Ruby Dee. Though I wasn’t the biggest fan of “Michael Clayton”, Tilda Swinton was the arguably the best part of the film. It’s also a great reward for over 20 years of fine art houses performances.

As has been the common over the past few years, there was an even distribution of Awards. In previous generations we suffered through huge sweeps of categories, especially in the technical categories. Ie, “Titanic” or “LOTR: Return of the King” sweeping categories like editing, art direction, special effects, sound etc etc. Instead we saw a deserving “The Bourne Ultimatum” take home three awards. Here’s breakdown of winners and the new tags they can now slap on their DVD boxes:

No Country For Old Men – 4 awards
The Bourne Ultimatum – 3 awards
There Will Be Blood – 2 awards
La Vie En Rose – 2 Awards
Sweeney Todd – 1 Award
Juno - 1 Award
Atonement - 1 Award
Once - 1 Award
Michael Clayton - 1 Award
Elizabeth: The Golden Age - 1 Award
Golden Compass - 1 Award
Ratatouille - 1 Award
The Counterfeiters - 1 Award
Taxi to the Darkside - 1 Award
Freehold - 1 Award
Peter and the Wolf - 1 Award
Mozart of Pickpockets - 1 Award

That’s 17 films taking home 24 trophies.

As for the Coen Brothers, I remember being so satisfied in 1997 when they won Best Original Screenplay, thinking they would never top “Fargo” and that they got the Oscar monkey off their back early. And so with three more personal trophies last night, that makes four trophies on each of their shelves. Unfortunately my personal favourite, Paul Thomas Anderson was left short again. He was previously nominated for best screenplay for “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” But Hollywood has a habit of ignoring daring masterworks in the present – PT, expect a sympathy Oscar later in your career.

Other big news was Daniel Day-Lewis winning his second Best Actor Oscar, becoming the eighth member of the very select Two-Time Lead Actor Winners Club, joining:

Spencer Tracy
Frederic March
Gary Cooper
Marlon Brando
Dustin Hoffman
Jack Nicholson
Tom Hanks

As an aside, other than James Newton Howard, who’s been nominated for 7 Oscars, the Best Music Score nominees which are usually dominated by established veterans were either rookies or second-time nominees - and certainly no household names. No John Williams, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, Danny Elfman, Thomas or Randy Newman. As an aside, can anyone remember or hum any of this years' Best Score nominees? Just where have all the great music scores gone to?

One of the most awkward red carpet moments was Ben Mulroney (CTV Canada) interviewing Julian Schnabel. The notoriously difficult director was as unaccommodating as he’s ever been. He contributed to a very long 3 or 4 seconds of dead air when he refused to answer Ben questions.

The second-most awkward moment was Gary Busey’s invasion of Ryan Seacrest’s interview with Jennifer Garner and Laura Linney:



John Travolta was sporting a fur-like black rug of a haircut similar to the Rock and danced on stage before presenting Best Original Song – we get, you can dance!

Best humorous ego-boost: Jon Stewart/John Travolta’s gag about the Boeing 707 with its lights on. You can’t say he won’t poke fun at himself.

I love the fact that the Academy gets a really hot young actress to host the Science and Technical Awards (usually a few days prior). This year it was Jessica Alba, who looked stunning. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable she must have felt hanging out with the techie geeks at the Science/Technical after parties.

The success of “No Country For Old Men” is part of welcomed new trend in mainstream Hollywood cinema. It’s now back-to-back years with the big trophy going to very dark violence nihilistic pessimistic films. And it’s not a coincidence that we are seeing cherished franchises rebooted to be darker, more realistic and gritty. Is this a statement of our current state of affairs, or just the natural ebb and flow of cinema? A bit of both. It’s a good thing, because 15-20 years ago “No Country For Old Men” may never have a nomination.

It was a less entertaining ceremony for Oscar, but a greatly significant year for Hollywood - and year in which Oscar, for the most part, got it right.

Monday, 25 February 2008

BEOWULF


Beowulf (2007) dir. Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn

**1/2

I have to say I’m still not a fan of Zemeckis’ motion capture innovations. At times it’s photorealistic, and at other moments it looks like “Shrek”. With my brain shifting back and forth between live action and CG animation, it causes a distraction from the story and action.

Putting the technical aside, “Beowulf” is a straightforward adventure story based on the Danish story written many centuries ago. I don’t know if Robert Zemeckis’ version adheres to the Danish origins, but I don’t really care. Is it “300” – No. Is it “Braveheart” – No. Does it entertain? Yes – at times.

Somewhere around 400AD the kingdom of Denmark is ruled by King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins). When his nemesis Grendel (Crispin Glover), an ungodly ugly beast from the mountains, attacks his village he summons the best warrior of the land to slay the beast. Heeding the call is Beowulf (Ray Winstone), a born soldier with a legendary reputation for demon-slaying. He accepts the task of killing Grendel, but little does he realize that there’s a higher power even more devious that pulls the strings. Beowulf’s heroism is challenged when he faces against the computer-enhanced Angelina Jolie – wow! Beowulf sells his soul to the demon in exchange for Hrothgar’s kingdom –a decision which will haunt him during his reign until he can confront the beast once again and redeem himself.

Other then telling an adventure story with some quality limb-hacking and some CG nudity, “Beowulf” strength is it’s de-mythologizing the notion of the classic ‘hero’. Genre films like “300” and “Braveheart” piggyback on the archetypes created by stories like “Beowulf” and Homer’s “The Odyssey”. So in going to back the original source, writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary are smart to make their hero as flawed, selfish, and unsure as possible.

When Beowulf is introduced to us, we see in flashback, an account of his slaying of a dragon-beast. What we see is a triumphant demon-slaying, with Beowulf slicing the beast open from within its belly and emerging heroically through his eye. The King’s advisor Unferth (John Malkovich) is suspect of Beowolf’s tall tales – but at this point in the story Beowulf is the hero, and we only see Unferth as the jealous antagonist. But as the story moves forward, the rust in Beowulf’s armour shows, revealing an ordinary man with weaknesses and insecurities like everyone else. In the second half of the film, with the legend already in progress “Beowulf”, now with responsibilities of a King, endeavours to atone for his sins.

Other than the character arc of Beowulf, the plotting and events in the story are minimal. The first half builds up to Beowulf’s confrontation with Grendel’s mother. There’s a jump forward in time, directly to the return of Grendel’s mother. Unfortunately what is skipped is what should have been the second act of the film, when we get to see the downfall of Beowulf, setting up his redemption in the third act.

In terms of adventure and action, “Beowulf” is surprisingly lacking. About two thirds of the film is contained inside the King’s dank and fire-lit banquet hall. And we never get the 'spectacle' this story deserves. With the infinite size of canvas Zemeckis has at his disposal he keeps the action story small and contained, unfortunately to the detriment of the film.






Sunday, 24 February 2008

CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND


Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939) dir. Norman Foster
Starring: Sidney Toler, Victor Sen Young, Cesar Romero

****

Guest review by Greg Klymkiw

Norman Foster directed this entry in Fox’s Charlie Chan series and this is one of the best of all the Chan pictures and certainly the best starring Sidney Toler, the man who filled Warner Oland’s shoes when Oland died.

Norman Foster is, without question, one of the most overlooked and underrated directors of American cinema. It’s possible he’s been passed over for serious scrutiny and regard because much of his work was buried within the world of Fox’s second features, but it also might have to do with the rumours that it was Orson Welles who designed and mostly directed (un-credited) the noir classic "Journey Into Fear". While Welles’s influence in that picture is obvious, one can easily look at Norman Foster’s early work – especially his exciting use of low-key stylings – and argue that he was possibly one of the many influences Welles used with both skill and abandon. In fact, one could even argue that Foster’s direction of the noir-ish melodrama "Woman on the Run" might well have given Hitchcock an idea or two for "Strangers On A Train."

Interestingly enough, Foster was also responsible for directing a lot of extremely cool television drama in the 50s and 60s including Disney’s fantastic "Davy Crockett" dramatic specials, "Batman" (with Adam West) and "The Green Hornet" (with Bruce Lee as Kato).

"Charlie Chan at Treasure Island" is an extremely cool mystery set against the backdrop of the San Francisco International Exposition wherein our venerable Asian detective investigates the death of one of his best friends. Charlie’s sleuthing leads him into the mysterious world of magicians, psychics and other eccentrics of San Francisco high society. With the help of Number Two Son (the wonderful Sen Yung) and a magician (played with high camp flair by Cesar Romero), this is a really juicy mystery thriller with many moments of genuine suspense.

This is no surprise. The aforementioned Norman Foster had already carved a successful niche for himself as the writer and director of many episodes of Fox’s other great Asian detective series – "Mr. Moto" (starring the incomparable Peter Lorre with taped-back eyes and fitted with gleaming buck teeth). It’s Foster’s work on the Moto films that might have had their greatest influence on more than one generation of filmmaker.

Foster’s direction in the Toler Chan films really injects life into the series and they rival even some of the better Chan films from the Warner Oland period.

The recent Fox Cinema Classics Collection DVD release of Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (part of Volume 4 of the Chan Collection) includes a full commentary track and a couple of terrific documentary featurettes. The most amazing of these mini-docs traces the potential influence of this film upon the notorious Zodiac killer. Great directors have been known to influence a plethora of psychos and the arguments put forth in the doc are not without merit.

Friday, 22 February 2008

AMERICAN GANGSTER


American Gangster (2007) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe

***1/2

“American Gangster” surprised me by setting itself apart from “Carlito’s Way”, “Casino” and “Goodfellas”. Ridley Scott's film is more like Michael Mann’s “Heat” than anything else. It’s set in the 70’s but it’s not about the 70’s. The film is also worthy of the starcasting of Crowe and Washington as adversaries on opposite sides of the New York heroin drug war. Ridley Scott directs a surprisingly lean and focused film about the exploitation of American capitalism. Despite its simple title, it’s a smart film about a complex business.

The film takes place between 1968 and 1976. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a bagman for a local Harlem mobster who dies at the opening of the film. A number of other gangsters quickly assemble to fill the void. Lucas sees his opportunity and sets off to become top of the food chain in the drug business. Lucas is as smart a businessman as he is a thug and Ridley Scott shows us in detail Lucas’s passionate dedication to creating his empire. Lucas is an early globalist and actually makes a trip into the jungles of Thailand to buy pure heroin at the source. Meanwhile, the cops led by an undercover agent with Serpico-like scruples named Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) frantically searches for the supplier of Lucas’s new brand of potent Heroin. The film becomes a cat and mouse game between the two characters over the course of 8 years. And in the end they find out they have more in common than they realize.

The underlying theme of the film is capitalism - how Frank Lucas used all the skills and experience from his lifetime of crime to exploit the economic system of supply and demand. He establishes a personal set of rules which allows him to quickly replace the boss of Harlem (like Tom Peters' "In Search For Excellence" adapted to the drug trade) 1) show strength and confidence. 2) Bypass the wholesaler and buy straight from the source 3) Sell a good quality product and low prices – watch Lucas’s confrontation with Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.) for a wonderful scene demonstrating his firm grasp of this pricing principal. Lucas’s fourth rule may only apply to drug dealers – keep a low profile.

Lucas indeed keeps a low profile and uses race to his advantage. Lucas goes about his business with little flair and flash as his competitors- the Italian mob. In a city where the Italian mob rules the streets Lucas, as a black man, stays off Roberts’ radar for a long time. There’s a scene midway through the film where Lucas loses concentration and slips up. It’s a minor moment with drastic ramifications. When Lucas realizes his mistake it’s a great moment of acting for Denzel.

Russell Crowe matches Denzel’s chops in the acting department but writer Steve Zaillian is a little sloppy in fleshing out his character. Roberts has a child with his ex-wife Laurie (Carla Gugino) and is going through a custody hearing. The contradiction for Roberts is that for a man so responsible in his job he shows a remarkable lack of responsibility in his family life. This is all in the script, but it’s told to Roberts (and us) in dialogue. Roberts doesn’t learn it for himself. In the end Roberts makes a sacrifice to do the right thing, but it's too much of an aside to affect his life and his work.

Aside from a few songs and one music montage “American Gangster” stays away from being a nostalgia-fest. Films about the 70’s usually feature the songs of the era to put the audience in the period ie. De Palma’s disco-Godfather tale “Carlito’s Way” or Scorsese’s Rolling Stones-heavy “Casino”. Scott creates his own path in the genre by limiting his use of period music. In addition Scott’s colour palette is dark and muted. The film is rooted in the New York City grey, as opposed to the disco colours of the other aforementioned films. As such “American Gangster” doesn’t look like a film about the 70’s, which allows it to exist on its own.

“American Gangster” is a refreshing take on the cinematic world of New York mobsters. Ridley Scott is certainly more than comfortable with action, but his film is heavy on character and procedure and low on action. The film works best as an enlightening essay on the economics of drugs and how well it adapts into American big business. Enjoy.



Thursday, 21 February 2008

ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES


Romance and Cigarettes (2007) dir. John Turturro
Starring: James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mandy Moore, Mary Louise Parker, Christopher Walken

***1/2

There were several traditional musicals last year, including "Sweeney Todd", "Hairspray", "Across the Universe", but none that compares to the inspired creative energy, enthusiasm and originality of "Romance and Cigarettes". This little seen film which sat on a shelve for a year before a quick and dirty release is an absolute gem, and needs to be discovered on DVD. While watching the film and in between fits of laughter I tried to think of comparison films to help me in this review. But few came to mind. It's a wholly original surreal, comedy, drama, pop musical, tragic, perverse mongrol of a film.

The story revolves around the depressed life of Nick Murder (James Gandolfini). He's a blue collar labourer who rivets bolts atop a NYC suspension bridge. He's currently having an affair with Tula (Kate Winslet) a beautiful lingeries saleswoman with foul and dirty tongue. Nick's wife Kitty, (Susan Sarandon) has suspicions of adultery and hires her highly quotable singing and dancing cousin Bo (Christopher Walken) to investigate. Meanwhile, Nick and Tula's three daughters, Baby, Constance and Rosebud (Mandy Moore, Mary Louise Parker, Aida Turturro) have a backyard rock band and have courted the neighbourhood hunk Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale) as the singer. But when Baby falls in love with him, it disrupts the family and splits up the group.

There is no template or genre for a film like this. It exists in it's own universe. There's shades of "Strictly Ballroom", "Wild at Heart", "Little Shop of Horrors" and Federico Fellini. The Coen Bros' names are attached, perhaps because of their longest working friendship with Turturro, but since Turturro serves as writer/director I suspect this feature is of lifetime labour of love. And the evidence is on the screen.

The only tone I could put my finger on was "inspired organized randomness". Characters operate as if from different movies, different worlds and speaking different languages. Like a traditional musical characters will often express their emotions in song, aided by the other actors and background players around them. But the songs are not original broadway-style showtunes, instead it's pop music from James Brown to Englebert Humperdinck to Buena Vista Social Club, sometimes the characters sing with the actual song in the background, sometimes it's solo, sometimes it's not. Turturro makes up his rules as he goes along, as a result the film never settles into predictability.

At one point Steve Buscemi's character looks out the window and sees three men chasing a baby calf down the city turnpike.

Every character is a scene stealer - James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon ground the film, but even they aren't spared the Turturro character-ringer. After a casual reference by his mistress, Nick becomes obsessed with circumscision and in one of the most squirm-inducing scenes actually goes through with the procedure. Their three sisters are the most unlikely trio of siblings ever put to film, not only do they look completely different, Mandy Moore is 23, Mary-Louise Parker is 43 and Aida Turturro is 46! Bobby Cannavale is like an Elvis impersonator on amphetimines and Christopher Walken sings, dances and speaks in movies quotes and hyperbole.

The film only suffers in the final act when it loses some its trampoline steam. The film settles down into a traditional drama, giving us a tragic ending which doesn't befit the joyful exhuberance of the first two thirds. But the film remains a special undefinable film, which will take years to find it's audience. It's no wonder the film sat on the shelf for so long. The marketing heads still don't know what to make of the film. I don't either, and I don't really want to. Just sit back and enjoy.

"Romance and Cigarettes" is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment


Wednesday, 20 February 2008

IMITATION OF LIFE


Imitation of Life (1934)
Starring: Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, Warren William

***1/2

"Imitation of Life" is a classic Hollywood studio melodrama based on a popular Fanny Hurst Novel. It's a surprisingly powerful film about two women, - one black, one white - and their bond of friendship and family over 20 years. It was popular and critically acclaimed in its day, so much so it spawned a successful remake in 1959 with Lana Turner. But I had never heard of it until its recent DVD re-release. It's a film about time and place and so with today's eyes the stereotypical characterizations could be seen as offensive, but at the heart of the story is a seering emotional drama about racism and female empowerment that in 1934 was decades ahead of its time.

Claudette Colbert plays Bea Pullman, a widow with a young daughter Jessie. When she meets Delilah (Louise Beavers), a black woman, also widowed, with a child of similar age, they quickly strike a friendship of commonality. Delilah offers her services as a maid in exchange for room and board. Bea and Delilah soon go into business together and open a pancake restaurant featuring Delilah's secret pancake recipe (influenced by the Aunt Jemimah brand). Bea's career aspirations outpace her pocketbook, but that doesn't stop her from negotiating her way into buying and renovating a vacant store on credit. Over the course of many years the store expands into an internationally successful business making Bea and Delilah rich. But Delilah honourably retains her modesty and continues to serve Bea as her maid.

Despite the success Delilah's relationship with her daughter Peola becomes strained. Peola was born with light skin, which appears as white. Through her youth Peola's feels racist contradictions and embarassment of having a black mother. In her teenager years it becomes so extreme she leaves home to start a new life, with a new identity never to see her mother again.

These plot threads when written out and described seem more like daytime television than respectable cinema, but the story is never sensationalized. Director Stahl and his writers never give their characters a helping hand. We watch in a series of scenes Bea's guile and business-savvy in building her business from scratch. Bea and Delilah, despite all their family-hardships and personal struggles, never stray from their personal ethics.

Though the film was made 25 years before the Civil Rights movement the film is as liberal and empowering as anything to come out of that era - including "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", which I recently reviewed. At a glance Delilah can be seen as a stereotypical black maid - she is referred to as "Mammy" and speaks with a tongue now seen as racist. But she is a powerful figurehead for honour, stability and strength of character - elements much stronger than her stereotypes.

Delilah's final moments as she calls out for Peola is one of the powerful moments I've seen in film in a long time. The simplicity of her needs and emotions remind me of a John Ford film, and when Peola is reunited with her mother is a heartbreaker.

The new Universal DVD also contains the Douglas Sirk 1959 Technicolor version with Lana Turner. It's an interesting comparison - specifically since it was made 25 years after the original. Bea's character (renamed Lora) is put ahead of Delilah's character (renamed Annie). Sirk's film is more in line with his other 'women's melodramas', "All That Heaven Allows" or "Written in the Wind" - it retains the empowerment of the female lead, but the statement against racism and segregation is less powerful. The 1934 version is by far the better film. Enjoy.

"Imitation of Life - 2 Disc Set" is available on DVD from Universal Home Entertainment

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

LUST, CAUTION


Lust, Caution (2007) dir. Ang Lee
Starring: Tony Leung, Wei Tang, Joan Chen, Lee-Hom Wang

**1/2

After the phenomenal success of “Brokeback Mountain” Ang Lee returned to his homeland to make another Chinese-Language film. His ability not only to move easily between genres, but different cultures and different languages is impressive. He scored with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, but unfortunately “Lust, Caution” is a miss.

The film is set in WWII-era Shanghai during Japanese occupation of China. Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) is an innocent and shy student attending University. To engage herself in social activities she joins a drama company at school. Within the company emerge the seeds of a revolutionary movement, one of many resistance groups being formed around the country. Chia and his friends unite to help free their suppressed citizens from Fascist rule. The group targets a high-ranking corrupt police official, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), for assassination. But it’s Chia who is charged with infiltrating his affluent family and courting him. Chia’s Mata-Hari alter ego is Mrs. Mak – who ingratiates herself with the family through a series of Mahjong Games (like “poker-night” for Chinese women).

In one of the most original scenes of the film Chia, who is a virgin, has to practice sex with one of her comrades. Soon the beautiful and confident Chia goes after Yee. Her longing glance turns into a torrid affair, which spans several years before the group has a chance to strike their blow. When the time comes Chia’s feelings may just stand in the way of her duties for the resistance.

The title is appropriate as the film weighs traditional wartime political intrigue with hot and steamy eroticism. Lee certainly does the steaminess right. Tang and Leung film three or four red-hot love scenes. In the unrated version of the film, full frontal is all over the place and in a few places some eye-opening hardcore shots are left in. Lee makes it all very sexy and tasteful and erotic.

Where the film is left dry is the espionage half of the story. There’s more than enough room in the 2 hr 40min running time to show us the intrigue, suspense and danger involved in Chia and Kwang’s spy games. Unfortunately these events are only talked about and never shown on screen. For example, Mr. Yee’s assistant informs him that his secret police raided several residence safe houses. Considering these safe houses involve the characters in the film, we should have seen these events. As well, Mr. Yee describes to Chia the ‘bloody activities’ he had to go through to get information from a detainee. It’s an emotional scene, which could have been made more powerful if we, or perhaps Chia, witnessed it.

Instead the film exists solely within the point of view either Yee or Chia. Though I respect Lee for his consistency in point of view and his concern for not making a ‘thriller’, I don’t think he gets the romantic story right either.

There are very little sparks between Yee and Chia. And for the entire film Chia gives in to Yee’s animalistic physical and sexual abuse. Like a sex worker, she serves his every fetish including extremely rough sex, bondage, hair-pulling, slapping etc. The fundamental error here is why Yee, who is so paranoid he carries around multiple bodyguards with him, wouldn’t suspect Chia as a spy? Surely no one would give in to such obscene sexual demands without pay or reciprocity? If Yee were a charming aristocrat or had a Stanley Kowalski-swagger, I might believe, but Leung portrays Lee with absolutely no passion, character, or likeable quality for Chia to cling onto. We are left with nothing but rough sex to bring the two together.

Perhaps Lee intended a bond to form through the unspoken longing glances between the two. This requires great leaps to fill in these large gaps. In fact there’s just too much leaping to do in order for “Lust, Caution” to come together completely. There are some beautiful moments dotted throughout, but not enough to sustain interest for such length of time.






Sunday, 17 February 2008

CASINO


Casino (1995) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone

****

It’s hard to believe the mixed reception “Casino” received when it was released in 1995. In fact, it’s hard to believe that I didn’t even like the film when I first saw it. But in 13 years it’s grown up to be a masterpiece and one of his most entertaining films.

“Casino” tells the story of Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and his coterie of gangsters who take over Las Vegas in hopes of sucking the city dry of its cash cow industry. Rothstein, a career gambler, and manager of the Tangiers Casino is a cog in this grand decade-long scheme, whose strings are pulled by the Midwest Mafia families. Rothstein’s a streetwise Casino-expert who can separate his business from his pleasure, but when he becomes enraptured with an equally cunning hooker/socialite Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), it marks the beginning of the end for his empire.

Scorsese freely admits “Casino” was meant to be an unofficial sequel to “Goodfellas”. The subject matter and gangster milieu is the same, he casts many of the same actors in similar roles, and he uses the same cinema-language to tell both stories. In fact, my criticism of the film in 1995 was that it was too much like “Goodfellas”. Pesci’s Nicki Santoro is essentially the same loose cannon character as Tommy De Vito; and then there’s the voiceover, which in “Goodfellas” got turned off after the character introductions to let the plot takeover, but in “Casino” voiceover drives the film, which was off-putting.

But over the years, all of these initial criticisms dissipated and the film now seems like a natural, organic piece of brilliance. This is a good example of why I wish more critics would re-review older films when their opinions change.

What makes “Casino” perhaps Scorsese’s most ‘entertaining film’ is the humour. It’s arguably Marty’s funniest film. “Goodfellas”, “King of Comedy”, “After Hours” have moments of absurdist comedy, but “Casino” keeps a comedic tone consistent throughout. For example, Joe Pesci’s opening voiceover describing the numerous ‘holes in the desert’ used to ‘dispose’ of the city’s problems. Pesci takes us on one of many digressions when he humorously describes the logistics of wacking someone in the desert. James Woods’s pathetic pimp who conspires with Ginger to rob Rothstein blind is a great addition to the cast.

There are many digressions in the film, which explains its three-hour running time. It’s an intimidating length, but Scorsese and his usual editor Thelma Schoonmacher create such a blistering pace from the outset, it breezes by without pause. In fact, with the amount of voiceover, much of the film is told in montage – showing us pieces or fragments of scenes to condense time and advance the story. It serves the purpose of reinforcing the main theme of the film – excess.

“Casino” is about the grand age of Las Vegas excess, a time when it really was “sin city”. Money, whores, drugs, gangsters etc etc. Robert Richardson’s neon-drenched wide-angle photography is gorgeous and he employs virtually every camera-gimmick in the book to create a stylistic Vegas-worthy film. Scorsese’s costume and art department run wild as well playing up the tackiness of the period. One of the ongoing gags is Rothstein’s immaculately-tailored pastel suits, which in every scene becomes more ridiculous and over-the-top. In fact my favourite De Niro scene is when LQ Jones’ character visits him at his office. When his secretary calls him, De Niro stands up from behind his desk, revealing he’s wearing a freshly pressed powder blue shirt and no pants. He proceeds to calmly grab a pair of pants from his closet and put them on before Jones enters. It’s priceless moment of deadpan humour.

The bravura moments are two standout scenes of raw cinema-energy between De Niro and Pesci. First is Nicki’s argument with Sam in his living room after Nicki tries to strong arm one of his bankers. It’s a tit-for-tat onslaught of verbal fireworks. The second confrontation is even grander, when the two meet in the middle of the desert for another round of verbal carnage. The ‘fucks’ are thrown around like adverbs.

It’s fun to watch “Casino” and then watch PT Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” back-to-back. The similarities in style, look, humour and theme are uncanny. We all know Anderson is not afraid to hide his influences, and of all his movies his devotion to “Casino” is most in your face. He seemed to find the masterpiece in “Casino” before anyone else did. Enjoy.

Here’s the desert conversation to marvel at:


Saturday, 16 February 2008

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON


In the Shadow of the Moon (2007) dir. David Sington
Documentary

****

It’s hard to believe we actually take for granted the fact that we have the ability to go to space. It’s even harder to believe that man has actually set foot on the moon and returned home safely. And even harder to believe that it was done almost 40 years ago! David Sington’s wonderful documentary reminds us of the significance and power of these monumental accomplishments.

“In the Shadow of the Moon” is the definitive Moon documentary. Only 12 men have ever set foot on the moon and Sington has assembled all the living members of this exclusive club, with the conspicuous exception of Neil Armstrong (more on that later). Through a series of modern interviews and archival stock footage Sington gets the first hand account details of the lead up to the Apollo 11 launch and the subsequent missions afterwards from the men who were actually up there.

The film is fascinating because though we know the stories of Apollo 11 and because of the movie, the famed Apollo 13 mission, Sington and his interviewees makes us feel as if we’re hearing it for the first time. Sington is aided by the best stock footage available. Sington scours the archives for the best footage, both seen and unseen from the NASA archives. And though we've seen much of it before, it's still breathtaking. Computer graphics will never compare to the quality of these original 35mm elements of “real space”. When re-mastered and transferred at the highest quality this footage reveals to us, in ways special effects cannot, the awesome power of space, our celestial bodies, and the machinery we've created to get us there.

The viewing experience is enhanced if you can completely submerge yourself in the recounted stories of the astronauts and imagine their experiences as if you were there with them. For example, Buzz Aldrin’s account of seeing the first “Earth-rise” – that is, the Earth rising from behind the moon, which at that point, no other human had ever seen. He describes the sharp blue colour of our planet standing out against the stark blackness of space, which made him appreciate its unique preciousness.

The one (large) omission of the film is the first man to set foot on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, who is still alive but refused to participate. Ironically though, his absence makes the film even more fascinating. The other astronauts who knew him intimately are so reverential of the man he becomes even more iconic than he already is. Armstrong is described as a soft-spoken, humble zen-master – a man with complete unwavering control of his body and emotions. Nothing fazed him. An incident is described during training when an accident happened and Armstrong ejected himself from the lunar module, narrowly avoiding death by mere seconds. Armstrong walked back to base and filed his paperwork at his desk, as if nothing had happened. When his crew mates ask him if he had ejected himself from the exploding module, Armstrong calmly said, “yeah.”

Armstrong’s absence in the film is never explained, but after reading his Wikipedia bio I have come to understand the man and his reasons a little more. After Apollo 11, he retired to consult for NASA, and then became a professor for his alma mater, Purdue. After discovering the memorabilia he had signed for fans over the years was now being sold for thousands of dollars, he stopped giving autographs. He will only use his name, likeness and famous quote for charitable purposes. He once sued Hallmark for using his likeness without his permission and won. He then donated the settlement to his University. He once was in a legal battle with his barber who sold clippings of his hair for $3000. After legal threats the barber donated the money to charity. Armstrong also refuses to publicly support any political party, and is against the notion of the United States as the ‘world’s policeman’. And with regard to the famous “One small step for man” quote, nobody knew he was going to say it. Nobody wrote it for him. It was Armstrong’s words. A truly profound man whose actions speak louder than any words he could say on the subject, and especially on camera.

“In the Shadow of the Moon” is a film about the men who made the journey. It is made relevant today because of its effect on their philosophical outlook on life – not ‘finding religion’ but broadening their perspective of the earth, and their responsibility to the planet as a whole. Enjoy.

“In the Shadow of the Moon” is available on DVD from ThinkFilm.





Friday, 15 February 2008

CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU


Charlie Chan in Honolulu dir. H. Bruce Humberstone
Starring: Sidney Toler, Phyllis Brooks, Victor Sen Yung, Eddie Collins

***1/2

Review by Greg Klymkiw

When longtime Charlie Chan star Warner Oland died in 1938, Twentieth Century Fox was faced with a dilemma of considerable magnitude. The Chan series (based on writer Earl Derr Biggers character who, in turn, was loosely based on a real-life detective in Hawaii) was one of Fox’s more profitable franchises and exhibitors and the public were still hungry for more. And now Oland was dead. Though he was Swedish, his swarthy features allowed him to be made-up as an Asian and he made quite a career of playing “yellow-face” roles. After appearing in 16 pictures as Charlie Chan, the most venerable Asian detective, Fox and the world both wondered who would succeed him.

Oland, of course, was not Asian – few leading Asian roles were actually entrusted to Asian actors. Would an Asian actor be cast? While rare, there was already some precedence for utilizing actors like Sessue Hayakawa and Anna Mae Wong in leading roles. After a period of intensive casting (well over thirty actors were tested for the role) it was announced that a new Charlie Chan picture was on the way and that it would star the non-Asian American-born character actor Sidney Toler. While he was not Swedish like Oland, it is said his ethnic background was primarily Scottish – definitely not Asian. Ah well, it’s interesting to make note of this, but kind of ridiculous to place the contemporary values of political correctness and tolerance on such matters.

Charlie Chan in Honolulu is definitely a transitional picture within the series – due mainly to the challenges of maintaining a much-loved character with both a new actor and changing times. It does, however, succeed as one of the more entertaining entries of the series.

Up to this point, the Chan pictures had been set in a series of far-flung locales such as Egypt, London, Paris and Monte Carlo (among others), but this entry takes us to Chan’s home in Honolulu where we’re introduced to an All-American mailbox (emblazoned delightfully with the All-American: “Chas Chan”) in front of an All-American bungalow. Inside, we’re treated to an All-American depiction of a typical Asian-American family as Charlie presides over a dinner table filled with what seems like dozens of his offspring. Here we’re also introduced to the new sidekick of the series, Number Two Son. The terrific young Asian actor Keye Luke portrayed Number One Son, but Luke was so distraught over Oland’s death that he withdrew from the series – hence: Number Two Son (played delightfully by Asian actor Sen Yung).

This family dinner is especially fraught with tension since Charlie’s daughter is in the hospital and about to give birth to his first grandchild. It’s also revealed that Number Two Son wants to be a detective, but Dad scoffs at the very idea. When the entire family takes off to the Honolulu Hospital to be present for the birth of Number One Grandchild, Number Two Son takes a telephone call for Charlie.

Chan is being summoned to preside over a murder case. Number Two Son’s telephone interception is a perfect antidote to his overwhelming desire to be a detective. He decides to take Charlie’s place and soon finds himself on a freighter where a particularly brutal murder has taken place. Number Two Son bungles his way along until Charlie swoops in to save the day. Eventually, Charlie – in classic Chan fashion – assembles every one of the suspects into one room to reveal the killer and with the help of Number Two son, he does so with his usual flair.

All in all, this is relatively straightforward stuff and quite par for the Chan course. This doesn’t mean it’s not supremely enjoyable. It most certainly is. The supporting cast includes two absolutely delicious babes (one “good” and one “bad”), some hilarious comedy relief from Eddie Hogan as a zoo keeper continually on the run from an escaped lion and last, but certainly not least, the inimitable George Zucco as a crazed psychiatrist called Dr. Cardigan who has some weird machine affixed to an actual human brain.

The movie is replete with Chan’s trademark “Confucius Say”–styled sayings and Sidney Toler adds considerable flair to the role of everyone’s favourite Number One Detective. Fans of the series will be more than satisfied with this picture, though I suspect non-Chan-fans will potentially have no idea why this series was one of the most popular detective series in movie history.

Also, those who are humourless politically correct fascists will be idiotically offended by the period ethnocentricity that’s basically gentle and never mean-spirited. One example of this is when Charlie, at the hospital, is accidentally handed the wrong baby – a tiny Black child. Charlie smiles and quips, “Wrong flavour.” It’s a genuinely and sweetly funny moment that has more to do with the racism and/or ethnocentricity and/or just-plain stupidity of the character of the nurse who hands the child to Chan. However, one can easily imagine Birkenstock-wearing-granola-bar-knee-jerkers sharpening their venomous fangs of righteousness over this and several other moments like it.

The recent Fox Cinema Classics Collection DVD release of Charlie Chan in Honolulu is a very handsome package. It is full of terrific background documentaries and a painstaking reconstruction of one of the lost Charlie Chan features using publicity skills and a reading of the shooting script. This movie is part of Volume 4 of the first-rate Charlie Chan Collection that has been slowly released over the past couple of years and continues to deliver the Chan-goods to all of us Chan-oid nerdster psychos who can never get enough of these wonderful old pictures.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

MARGOT AT THE WEDDING


Margot at the Wedding (2007) Dir Noah Baumbach
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ciaran Hinds, John Turturro

***1/2

Though I liked very much "The Squid and the Whale", "Margot at the Wedding" turned me off. For no particularly good reason the trailer seemed to be talking down to me. I sensed an intellectual superiority or distancing from the audience. It turns out my instincts were wrong, Noah's "Squid" follow up is a thoroughly entertaining film - a trainwreck of a film to be sure, but fine character study of sibling rivalry.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a 'famous' short story author. She and her son Claude travel to “the Hamptons" - cottage country for the New York rich and famous - to visit her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is marrying slacker music-snob Malcolm (Jack Black). On the visit, the sisters clash on various issues– mainly Margot's disapproval of Malcolm as her prospective husband. But latent conflicts from childhood resurface and it becomes a bloody battle of psychological warfare, where no one, including the children, is spared the wounds.

"Margot" teeters on the edge of truth and pretension. At the beginning Baumbach puts up an impenetrable front. When we first meet Malcolm, he’s sporting an ironic hipster moustache, but he’s self-aware of it as well, and so tells everyone it's temporary. Even Margot’s young boy Claude is dressed up and coifed like a Metosexual. They play a highly competitive game of Crochet and Margot climbs a tree for no apparent reason. This random intellectual irony I feared from the trailer.

The dialogue was difficult to understand and get into as well. The characters don't speak like movie characters, but they don't speak like real people either – at least not the people I know. But that's ok, because once I got into the groove of the film it hooked me in and dragged me along its rocky course. The situations and issues I’m familiar with, and so once the characters are properly identified, the dialogue becomes as natural as everyday conversation.

Though we only see a weekend in the life of these characters Baumbach manages to show us generations of emotional baggage, going back at least three generations. Though we never meet Margot and Pauline’s parents, their mother and sister are referred to often. I'm sure an alternate film following these characters around for a couple days would result in similar self-destruction.

Saying Margot is a 'flawed' character is an understatement. She's a royal bitch, actually. She talks to and treats her son like an adult. It's terribly annoying. She even plays child-stunting mind games with him - the same games she plays with her sister, and likely the same games her mother played with her. This scolding disaffection comes from deep-rooted emotions which are revealed throughout the film. Sibling envy is one, career anxiety another, loss of identity, aging etc. It’s a layered performance from Kidman and one of her best. While she’s being a cold-hearted bitch, and though we never sympathize with her, we do identify with her emotions.

The great cinematographer Harris Savides (‘Elephant’) shot the film. He compliments the emotions with a cold, lonely and isolating visual design. Despite living on expensive property, the home feels dreary and depressing. He uses a muted colour palette and unflattering wide angle close-ups. It adds to up dogma-like realism.

Baumbach uses a few clever visual metaphors to hit his point on the head. There’s a recurring subplot of an aging tree in the backyard which becomes significant thematically at the end. And the final moments on the bus (and clever reference to “The Graduate”) is not subtle either. But both moments provide the satisfying closure I didn’t think I would get.

So don’t judge a film by its trailer. “Margot at the Wedding” made me look naïve for initially dismissing like fine little gem. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS


4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) dir. Christian Mungiu
Starring: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu and Vlad Ivanov

****

Guest review by Blair Stewart

‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ is a controversial work more talked about than seen. Despite being the surprise, underdog winner of the Palme D'Or this year, it was a conspicuously absurd omission from the Best Foreign Language Shortlist for this year’s Oscar nominations (that's right, it didn't even make the 'shortlist'). A bitter condemnation of life in Romania during the totalitarian reign of Nicolae Ceausescu, Christian Mungiu’s sophomore effort is a rattling experience.

It’s 1987 and we’re placed in an unnamed shithole of a city under the blanket of Communist misrule. For 12 hours we observe the actions of a student, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), as she searches for a way to find her pregnant roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) an abortion. With Romanian society in the grip of Ceausescu’s ‘Golden Age’, and abortions illegal, it becomes a Sisyphean task. From black market wheedling, surveillance and suffocating questioning from all facets, Otilia is forced to perform all the necessary tasks of attending to her weak friend. The question of pro-choice or pro-life is mute as the decision has already been made. What we witness is the consequences. The camera follows Otilia through underlit hotel rooms and various decrepit backalleys. Otilia meets a sordid cast of characters from the callow, opportunistic abortionist, to an upper-caste family simmering with tension at the ring of the telephone. It’s all well beyond loyalty to clean up Gabita’s mess.

The director’s presentation of the dilemma is like a rigid Dogma exercise. Mungiu keeps the camera at eye level, uses one shot for each scene, refrains from using music, and exclusively uses natural light (often plunging the audience into total darkness). It builds up to a sequence when the protagonist has to perform one last crucial task, the realism of which is worthy of the quiet terror throughout the entire ‘No Country for Old Men’.

In the role of the ‘hero’, Anamaria Marinca is fantastic – her guarded face projects the quiet pain of being lower-class and powerless in a corrupt Communist state. Though a minor issue is perhaps the extreme ‘Herzogian’ degree of hardship Otilia is forced to endure. With the entire universe conspiring against her, at times it actually strains the film’s credibility.

Some critics have declared a ‘Romanian New Wave’ based on the success thias film and his fellow countrymen Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and Corneliu Poromboiu’s “12:08 East of Bucharest”. I’m eager to seek out the results of this burgeoning movement.

A warning for the squeamish, if you are uncomfortable with the subject matter of abortion this is a realistic representation, proceed cautiously. I highly recommend this film.


Tuesday, 12 February 2008

IN PRAISE OF ROY SCHEIDER


Roy Scheider was an unlikely leading man - atypical in physical stature with an angular and weathered face, more in line with character actor or villainous henchman. He had one of the more famous broken noses in Hollywood (Marlon Brando's being the most famous). Yet the moment he opened his mouth a calm and soothing voice made you instantly like him. He was rarely the villain or the heavy. When called upon he always did it well and with panache - but it wasn't in his bones. Scheider on screen was someone you could trust. That's why he played more cops in his career than anything else.

I've put together a Roy Scheider retrospective. "Jaws" and "French Connection" are his famous classics, but he has seven other films which deserve to be rediscovered and enjoyed with Mr. Scheider in memory. Here's the ten Scheider classics in chronological order:

1. Klute (1971) dir. Alan J. Pakula
It's not surprising it took several character roles before proving himself as a leading man. Alan J. Pakula's thriller about a prostitute (Jande Fonda) who helps a police detective solve a mystery who Scheider's breakthrough. As Fonda's pimp - an unlikely dark role - he seemed to be cast largely on his street-wise looks than his personality. With it's multiple awards and nominations it was a major breakthrough for the late-blooming 39 year old.

2. The French Connection (1971) dir. William Friedkin
William Friedkin's benchmark film allowed Scheider to become a household name and be permanently etched in pop culture consciousness. Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle was the showcase, but Scheider's quiet toughness as Doyle's loyal partner shone through winning him his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

3. The Seven Ups (1973) dir. Philip D'Antoni
After "The French Connection" Scheider took a series of similarly-themed and often forgettable cop dramas. "The Seven-Ups" is one of these films - but it's made memorable with Scheider's own fantastic car chase (Hackman got to drive the car in "The French Connection") - a grandiose 10mins pursuit through New York.

4. Jaws (1975) dir. Steven Spielberg
And then there's "Jaws", featuring one of the most famous ad-libs in cinema, "We're gonna need a bigger boat". Scheider was Spielberg's original 'everyman' - a family man who's scared of the water and challenges his fears by hunting down the imposing and cunning 25ft great white shark. "Smile, you son of a b--"

5. Marathon Man (1976) dir. John Schlesinger
Roy Scheider could have done anything he wanted after "Jaws", and he probably got hundreds of disaster-film roles thrown his way. Instead he followed up the biggest film of all time for another supporting character role in John Schlesinger's "Marathon Man". Scheider plays Hoffman's sly brother and secret agent who uses him to track down Laurence Olivier's evil Nazi war criminal. It's one of his most underappreciated roles. Just watch the hand-to-hand fight scene in the hotel room and you'll see - like Jason Bourne, he's badass.

6. Sorcerer (1977) dir. William Friedkin
Everyone should see "Sorcerer". The film was labelled a flop in 1977, but for William Friedkin and Roy Scheider it's some of the best work for both artists. Scheider plays one of several desperate ex-pat criminals living in South America in self-imposed exile. Scheider leads a team to transport several crates of unstable nitroglycerin to blow up an oil well. Scheider is again soft-spoken but tough, dependable and trustworthy. But by the end he's driven to madness - "Sorceror" is an assault on your mind, body and spirit. A must see.

7. All that Jazz (1979) dir. Bob Fosse
Bob Fosse's autobiographical artist-gone-wild story is like "Fosse's 8 1/2" with Scheider as his Marcello Mastroianni alter ego. It's a fascinating surreal self-destructive performance channeling the crazed drug-fueled debaucherous adventures and dreams of Fosse's real life. Scheider deservedly received an Oscar nomination for his peformance.

8. Blue Thunder (1983) dir. John Badham
Though Scheider's 80's output wasn't packed with critical acclaim or blockbuster hits from the 70's, he was still a bankable leading man. "Blue Thunder" is not "The French Connection" but it's a wildly entertaining action thriller. With fine direction from John Badham Scheider helps elevate the film beyond the hook of the cool iconic helicopter and officer Frank Murphy a heroic underdog.

9. 52 Pick-Up (1986) dir. John Frankenheimer
One of the best crime dramas of the 80's is this fine, underrated John Frankenheimer classic. "52 Pick-Up" is a tight revenge thriller which sees Scheider the victim of a heinous act of blackmail. Elmore Leonard's wonderful twisting story and razor-sharp dialogue contributes to the melodrama, but it's the trio of superb lead performances, including Scheider, who hold it all together.

10. Naked Lunch (1991) dir. David Cronenberg
Scheider's last great film is a crafty supporting performance in Cronenberg's notorious surreal psychedelic nightmare. Scheider plays Benway a mysterious Doctor who prescribes a counteracting drug to help Judy Davis kick her drug habit. Like in "Marathon Man" it's a devious scene stealing performance.

Roy Scheider had a reputation for being one of the nice guys in Hollywood. A true professional, who despite his acclaim and celebrity respected his fellow actors and crew. Please pick one or more of these films and help celebrate the life and career of Roy Scheider.

Monday, 11 February 2008

THE SEARCHERS


The Searchers (1956) dir. John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood, Vera Miles, Ward Bond

****

“The Searchers” is one of the all-time great Westerns. It deserves the title because “The Searchers” personifies best the mythologized period of time that Hollywood perfected. Ironically it’s one of John Ford’s later pictures (he was in his early 60’s), but his age doesn’t show. It's mesmerizing Hollywood studio classic.

John Wayne plays Uncle Ethan, a Civil War vet with a nefarious past who has returned to his brother's home for food and shelter. The return of Ethan is a joyful occasion for the kids but a sore spot for his brother. Unexplained conflict between the brothers hints at a lifetime of domestic differences. But while out on a scouting mission the ranch is attacked an Indian war party, his family murdered and his niece Debbie is kidnapped. From here on in Ethan's life becomes focused on revenge. Ethan, along with his half-nephew Martin Pawlsey (Jeffrey Hunter), embark on a decade-long journey to find the kidnapped niece and avenge his brother's death.

Ethan Edwards is one of the all-time great anti-heroes. In the cinematic mythological West, law and order is a relative entity. Ethan can be a stubborn racist, but a noble gentleman with his own personal set of ethics and morals. For Ethan, considering the heinous crime committed against his family, any and all means of rescue is justified. Edwards is singular in his mission, his character is superior to anyone and everthing he comes across.

"The Searchers" is a fascinating film because of the length of its narrative timeline. Ford takes us up and down the span of the U.S. West, across desert, mountains, and snowy fields. By the end of the journey Debbie is 10 years older, no longer the innocent victim Martin knew. She has spent most of her life in the company of Ethan's sworn enemy. As a result she becomes the enemy to Ethan. So what is Ethan's motivation? To find and rescue Debbie, or exact his own personal revenge against a lifetime of battles against the Commanche?

I was privaleged to watch the film in High Definition on HD Net. It was a glorious experience - John Ford's elegent compositions never looked better. One of the best scenes is Ethan's first confrontation with the Commanche. Watch the staging and build up of the action as Ethan's party is tracked by the Commanche's war party silently from a ridge off in the background distance. Ford was a master of composition, and though it wasn't his first film shot in Monument Valley, he uses the landscape to greatest effect.

While John Wayne's immense screen presence and star power invigorates every scene he's in, arguably the weakest moments is the subplot involving Jeffrey Hunter's character. Over the course of his journey Martin develops and undevelops a relationship with his childhood sweetheart Laurie (Vera Miles). It's provides comic relief but it's often pedantic and distracting from the sharply focused journey.

And there's the opening and closing shots, which never cease to send shivers down my spine. If you haven't seen the film, they are two identical shots of John Wayne in the distance seen through a doorway. These two moments are enduring because of three key elements - 1) the frame within a frame composition which, despite the long shot focuses our attention on Wayne's tall and sturdy frame. 2) The strong wind which seems to carry Ethan away. 3) The somber Stan Jones tune "The Searchers" played by 'The Sons of the Pioneers'.

The politically incorrect 'Cowboys and Indians' story and John Wayne's much parodied performance can seem antiquated to modern-nave audiences. But any preconceptions will dissolve immediately once The Sons of the Pioneers start singing that graceful opening song and John Ford frames that magnificent opening shot. Enjoy.

Here's the fantasic opening:


Sunday, 10 February 2008

30 DAYS OF NIGHT


30 Days of Night (2007) dir. David Slade
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Mark Rendall

***1/2

“30 Days of Night” is a familiar story – a small isolated community shut in and invaded by a horde of bloodsucking zombie/vampires. After countless films on this subject it’s hard to believe this film could be made fresh and entertaining. But David Slade does just that.

The hook of this zombie film is that the town under invasion, Barrow Alaska, the northernmost city in the state, is stuck under cover of night for 30 days. It’s a geographical thing - being so far north the sun doesn’t rise and set in traditional hours of the day. During the month of darkness most of the town leaves for the south, but a few of them stay. One day a drifter (Ben Foster) walks into Barrow making trouble and ranting about a plague coming for the town. After some other strange occurrences the malevolent demons reveal themselves. Over the next 30 days a race of rabid vampire-zombies savagely kill the citizens of Barrow. Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) leads a group of scared citizens against the onslaught.

“30 Days of Night” follows the familiar path of the genre. There’s the small group of survivors in an enclosed location with no escape; there’s the scene where a friend or family member has to be put down after being bitten by the demons; there’s the irrational old man who thinks hiding is a bad idea, leaves the security of the group and is horrifically killed; and there’s the debate of who will sacrifice themselves for the good of the town. These familiarities work because it’s clear the classic ‘zombie story’ has become a sustainable and enduring form of cinema-storytelling - like “The Odyssey” in literary storytelling.

Director David Slade doesn’t complicate the form and lets his fine actors sell the story to us. As he should Slade carefully builds suspense in the opening act by hiding the demons from us. Ben Foster, who teases us with his incoherent rambling, turns in another scene stealing performance. His performances in this and “3:10 to Yuma” remind me of the ‘Christian Bale disappearing-act’ method of acting. And it won’t be long before Foster is an A-lister too. The great character actor Danny Huston, is a pleasant surprise as the leader of the zombies. He doesn’t speak a word of dialogue other than a made-up language through which he communicates with his minions. But with a pale white face, giant black pupils and a set of sharp mangled teeth Huston becomes a truly menacing baddie.

The film gives us the violence we expect, and Slade makes it all fun and horrific. Not even children are spared the carnage. Guns are kept to a minimum. Instead Slade prefers the good old fashioned axe as his prima-weapon. Hartnett performs some evil and nasty headchoppings – not the clean and simple one-swipe lop offs either, but tough and brutal hackings.

It’s a great showcase film for David Slade (“Hard Candy”) who will soon be making bigger blockbusters in no time. He has a great eye for composition and editing. Watch the first big vampire attack set piece, which he shoots from a high helicopter angle above. It’s a fantastic and fresh way of visualizing a scene we’ve scene dozens of times before in movies.

An interesting contrast film to “30 Days of Night” is Frank Darabont’s “The Mist”. It’s a similar film with the same genre parameters, and even a talented filmmaker like Darabont couldn’t get away with diverging from the path. So in this case perhaps inexperience was Slade’s greatest ally.

“30 Days of Night” is available on DVD Feb 26 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.


Saturday, 9 February 2008

GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) dir. Stanley Kramer
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Katherine Houghton

***1/2

The most acclaimed film of the new Sony Pictures’ Stanley Kramer Collection is the celebrated “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” - the story of an interracial couple who come home to announce their relationship to their parents. The film was nominated for multiple Oscars and winning two for Hepburn and writer William Rose. It was my first time watching the film and I was surprised by the deft writing and nuanced performances of the leads. I had pre-conceptions of the film as a heavy-handed statement of race relations, but the film avoids the blunt characterizations I expected.

Sidney Poitier shines as the charming doctor John Wade Prentice who approaches the meeting of their respective families with careful trepidation. The most important moments of the film are the opening 20 mins where he meets Joey’s mother Christina and father Matt for the first time. Every look, gesture and line is carefully thought out so as not to offend. But it's impossible to avoid Christina's initial shock of seeing her daughter's new boyfriend. Hepburn, who plays Christina, doesn't give us conflict for conflict's sake,. She is not confrontational, instead reserved and polite, which fits her character. Poitier plays the scene like an intelligent 37 year old mature adult would. Houghton, as the much younger Joey, plays the scene as a 23 year old girl in puppy love. The dynamic of these three characters in this scene is a marvel of intelligent acting. The over-the-top objections from Tillie, the black female caretaker, is unfortunately the weak spot in the dynamic.

The first half of the film is a four-hander as Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina wrestle with not only the shock of her daughter's new relationship, but the fact they want their approval for marriage. It's all too much to take for Matt, who is welcoming of John, but soon changes his mind when he realizes the difficulties Joey and her prospective children will have in the still heavily-racist society.

The third act brings in Dr. Prentice's parents in from Los Angeles for a dinner party. Unfortunately the additional characters don't change the dynamic and the film continues to sail along the same path as the first half. The film builds to a lengthy speech from Tracy who expounds on the situation and his personal ethics. It's like the closing arguments of trial (and Kramer's other classics with Tracy "Inherit the Wind" or "Judgment at Nuremburg"), but nothing is revealed that we didn't see coming the entire film.

"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is an important film which hasn't dated much since 1967. The issues are still relevent today - for any kind of discrimination. I think we can all relate to the characters and circumstances of the film. And at the very least, it features three of the great actors of our time - specifically Sidney Poitier who is in top form. Enjoy.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will be releasing a Stanley Kramer Collection - a fine box set of Kramer classics, which includes, "The Wild One", "Ship of Fools" and others. This is the first of a series of Kramer reviews. Enjoy.


Friday, 8 February 2008

TOOTSIE


Tootsie (1982) dir. Sydney Pollack
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Bill Murray, Dabney Coleman

****

“Tootsie” is one of the all-time great comedies – a high concept comedy that only uses it’s gimmick to grab our attention. After we’re hooked the film becomes a fascinating and hilarious character-piece about gender relations. As well, we’re given an accurate glance at the absurdity and high-pressure world of daytime television.

Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a struggling actor whose talent is preceded by his reputation for being difficult. He puts the art of acting above his needs to eat and survive. When he absolutely can’t get a job anywhere he seizes an opportunity to audition in drag for a soap opera. Under heavy makeup, tweezed eyebrows and a frumpy dress Dorsey creates Dorothy Michaels – an ideal of independent female empowerment – the exact personality the producers of the show were looking for. He gets the job, without realizing the commitment and potential dangers of his deception.

He falls in love with his co-star Julie (a most gorgeous and young Jessica Lange) and is then courted by her father (Charles Durning). Dorsey’s has to continue the rouse in his home life as well, because he got the part over his colleague/girlfriend Sandy (Teri Garr). During this time Dorothy’s liberating and sometimes improvisational performance makes her/him a national sensation. But with the lies compounding Dorsey has to make a decision to continue with the deception or not. The result is one of all-time great filmed climaxes.

Dustin disappears into Dorothy Michaels. The film would not work if he didn’t. Though Dorothy Michaels is not a gorgeous woman, Hoffman’s southern belle voice inflections, tippy-toe walking and dainty mannerisms sell the character. The film is not gag-heavy or laugh-out-comedy, it’s situation and character-based. It’s absurdist cinema told with straight reality.

The story is screenwriting perfection personified. It’s classic formal structure that hits the right beats and the time with maximum impact. Watch how in the final act Michaels’ plans spiral out of control. The subplots with each of the supporting character merge until his final and inspiring speech during the “live” soap episode reveals himself to everyone in the world at the same time. This scene is one of the great climax because of momentum and reaction. Pollack directs the scene so well, by placing Hoffman at the top of the staircase on the studio set and has him descend as the gradually confesses his secret. And continually cuts to everyone reactions before and after the reveal which amplifies the surprise. It’s a brilliant moment.

The film was made 1982 – and many of you may remember it as a Zeitgeist year of gender-switching films. Blake Edwards’ Victor Victoria was released that year as well. Dave Grusin’s time and place music was lively in 1982, but now is almost unbearably dated. The bouncing bass and 80’s saxophone in the “Go Tootsie Go” theme song is cringe-inducing. But look beyond these peripheral elements it’s a masterpiece underneath and will shine through.

It’s the 25th Anniversary of the film and Sony has released a new DVD. There‘s a fine near-feature lengthy documentary on the making of the film from start to finish. It’s better than your average doc because the lengthy and interviews with the actors and filmmakers examine in the depth the detailed development process of crafting the film. We see the step-by-step process of how a kernel of an idea from Dustin Hoffman grew into the screenplay and the ultimate a shot and edited film. The collaborative process should be a course in filmmaking 101 for students. I highly recommend picking this up. Enjoy.

"Tootsie: 25th Anniversary" is available on DVD from Sony Picture Home Entertainment


Thursday, 7 February 2008

JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB


The Jane Austen Book Club (2007) dir. Robin Swicord
Starring: Emily Blunt, Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace

**

“The Jane Austen Book Club” tells the story of five women and one man who get together once a month to discuss the revered novels of the dame of relationships and romance Jane Austen. The film would certainly be enhanced if you knew the characters and situations of the Austen oeuvre, and though there’s enough explanation for naves like me to get it, I was sadly bored with the frustrating lives of these people.

The film is framed around the depressing life of 30-something Prudie Drummond. Her name is appropriate because she is the epitome of a cynical prude. She teaches high school French and expresses her snobby superiority by speaking French in the middle of conversations. She loathes her uber-guy boyfriend who seems to put his career of their relationship. And she also longs to bed one of her hunky teenage students. Instead of therapy she attends the Jane Austen Book Club. The other members of the club are more grounded – Bernadette (Kathy Baker) the 4 times married senior, Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) who’s recently been dumped by her husband for another woman, Allegra (Maggie Grace), a lesbian with a extreme-sports fetish, and Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a single woman who prefers the company of dogs to men.

As each book gets read the situations and characters give greater meaning to their lives. Like “Sex and the City” the women gather at a Starbucks to discuss their characters and comfort each other as their crises deepens. The runt of the group, which provides the most substance of plot is Grigg (Hugh Dancy) – an almost too perfect unattached catch. He’s hunky, got great hair, is a millionaire, makes his own eco-friendly cars, and loves of science-fiction novels – imagine a young Richard Branson meets Steve Jobs. Grigg is torn between Sylvia and Jocelyn. He dates them both, yet neither want to commit to him. It’s utterly implausible that Grigg would even spend more than an hour with these ladies, let alone spend 6 months with them – especially with the exhausting Prudie moping about. So Grigg serves the role of the Austen male – the Mr. Darcy or Christopher Brandon (I admit I had to look these names up).

I guess my main problem with the film were the reactions and actions of the characters to their situations. Though I’m not a woman, I think the audience should be able to put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist, in this case, at least one of the characters. And I couldn’t do it. Each characters seem not like the accessible Austen characters, but a manipulated version of them to create drama and conflict.

Granted, Prudie’s final decisive moments, where she receives a sign from the divine – “What would Jane do?”, was a great moment – well written and directed. We finally saw an emotional and conflicted choice, which allowed Prudie to grow and become a better person. Unfortunately the 90 minutes prior to this was to much tedium for me.

“The Jane Austen Book Club” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment