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

Monday, 31 March 2008

HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE


Harold and Kumar (2004) dir. Danny Leiner
Starring: Kal Penn, John Cho

***

With the upcoming release of, yes, the NEW “Harold and Kumar” film, a new edition of the original film arrives this week on DVD. The inspired idiocy of “Harold and Kumar” is both dumber and smarter than most other college/stoner/road comedies of its kind.

Harold is played by John Cho, an investment analyst whose shyness has allowed other colleagues take advantage of his pencil-pushing proclivity. Kumar Patel (Kal Penn), a naturally gifted post-grad who can smoke pot and fuck around and still ace his MCATs. After night of serious pot-smoking Harold and Kumar get the ‘craving’ for a helping of White Castle burgers. That’s all the motivation they need to get into all sorts of trouble on the long but adventurous journey from across New Jersey in search of their beloved fast food.

The film is actually a very clever twist on the racial stereotypical roles both Kal Penn and John Cho have been forced to play over the course their careers. The marketing campaign even cleverly self-effaced its stars – the trailer teased us with “the brown guy from Van Wilder and the Asian guy from American Pie”. The film combines racial stereotypes aimed all shapes, sizes and colours, but by no means tells a message bigger than pot is good, White Castle is good and the start what you finish attitude that has given them success academically.

“Harold and Kumar’s” strength is in it’s interminably likeable lead characters. Not all the gags succeed. There’s, some low low brow toilet humour and multiple trippy fantasy sequences. More gags stick than miss though which elevate the film beyond other stoner films of its kind – “Dude, Where’s My Car” and “Van Wilder”

It turns out “Harold and Kumar” has proven to outsmart its marketplace. The film was a quiet success in 2004 making a respectable $18million against its tiny $9million budget. But it wasn’t until its DVD release that is garnered its cult audience. And it was its repeated showings on TBS years later that the film edged itself permanently into pop culture history.

Several other serendipitous pop culture happenings gave “Harold and Kumar” even more cache. Just as the film hit the TBS schedule in 2006, Neil Patrick Harris, who gave the film a memorable debaucherous cameo as an tailing-chasing coke-snorting version of himself, came out of the closet as being gay. Instead of tanking his career the publicity gave him a well-deserved career-boost. And on the TV at the same time Harris’ sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” which has him playing featured a similar egomaniacal character as his role in H&K was finding its audience.

And so it was inevitable Penn, Cho and Harris would return for a sequel, “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanemo Bay”. The new film will be released in April, and we’ll have to see how higher expectation will affect its box office success. I haven’t seen a wide release sequel for “Van Wilder” or “Dude, Where’s My Car Yet?” Enjoy.

"Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" is available this week on DVD this week from New Line and Alliance Films Home Entertainment

Sunday, 30 March 2008

AUTOMATON TRANSFUSION


Automaton Transfusion (2007) dir. Steven C. Miller
Starring: Garrett Jones, Juliet Reeves, William Howard Bowman, Rowan Bousaid

*

“Automaton Transfusion” is guilty of false advertising. From “Dimension Extreme” division of Miramax’s Dimension films is this low budget horror film with one of the slickest DVD packaging I’ve seen. It’s designed to look like “Turistas” or “Haute Tension”, including a gory image of a half torn torso on the cover. After watching the film I’m convinced the graphic art for the DVD cost more than the film.

But of course a low budget has never stood in front of the making a good horror film. And so there’s no excuse for “Automaton Transfusion” to suck, which it does.

Randomly and with no rhyme or reason ordinary citizens start zombieing-out, spewing blood from their mouths and eating other people. A group of high school teenagers hold a party at a remote cottage in the woods. The zombies find the teens and proceed to tear them to shreds. The end.

The film is a series of horror movie cliché strung together with very little holding it all together. Director Steven C. Miller has clearly seen lots of horror movies, and for the most part finds the right camera angle to frame the scene to make it look passably professional. But he relies too much on the clichés instead of finding his own voice in the horror genre. There isn’t an ounce of originality, and I suspect the film got made because the director had some access to some blood and special gore effects.

The story is so simple it’s an insult to its ultimate inspiration “Night of the Living Dead”. George Romero didn’t have to explain why the world turned into zombies because the film wasn’t about zombies, it was about the relationship of four characters in a room under duress. Miller takes this as precedent which allows his film to do the same. And to top it all off, the sound is so bad, and poorly looped it’s quite laughable and the lighting is overly contrasty and distracting.

Yet despite all this the film managed to get a North American DVD release (with an expensive box) from Dimension and the Weinsteins solely on the amount of blood in the film. I guess there’s an audience for a film like this, since horror film junkies are the most rabid genre fans out there. Many of them will get suckered into buying or renting the film solely on the cover.

And any hope of some genre T & A are dashed when we get our obligatory boob shot early on, never to be seen again. Can I have my money back?

“Automaton Transfusion” is available on DVD from Dimension Films in the U.S. and Alliance Films in Canada April 1.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

WALK THE LINE


Walk the Line: Extended Cut (2005) dir. James Mangold
Starring: Jaoquin Phoenix, Reece Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick

**1/2

James Mangold had a difficult job. Encompass the life of the great singer Johnny Cash, and avoid the 'greatest hits' form of biopic storytelling. James Mangold chooses to tell his story with traditional conventions of the genre and indeed succeeds within this framework. I know it’s very simplistic to compare the films, but "Walk the Line" arrived a year after "Ray" and unfortunately it suffers from its familiarity.

The film begins with Mr. Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) preparing for his legendary performance at Folsom Prison in 1968. As his band thumps along playing the intro to his first song, Cash sits by himself in the green room staring at a circular saw – memories of which would take us back to his formative childhood years. The film then charts the life and career of Johnny Cash from the poor farmer’s kid with an abusive father (Robert Patrick) to his life in the military, his life as humble father and husband to his burgeoning and eventually successful career as music superstar and icon. And along the way the career of country singer June Carter (Reece Witherspoon) crosses paths and causes sparks. When fame hits Cash he finds himself succumbing to the vices of the industry and soon finds himself separated, drug addicted and alone. And it’s his relationship with June that will eventually bring him back to fulfill his life and career.

There’s a lot of familiar territory in Mangold’s film. One of Cash’s personal demons is his need for personal redemption and absolving himself of his own responsibility for his brother’s death. The power his father Ray continues to hold over him despite all his success and power is well played. And the Thanksgiving Dinner scene between Phoenix and Patrick is one of the best moments in the film. It comes two hours into the film and the build up of a lifetime of frustration comes with a wonderful cathartic exchange between the two characters.

Reece Witherspoon won an Academy Award for her role as the loving and conflicted June Carter. Since the film dramatizes events before they got married the film becomes about Cash’s long courtship of the reluctant June. June, who comes from a music business family, knows the trappings and vices of the industry. But June is also a good Christian and a traditionalist when it comes to family, and she, herself, feels a sinner for not holding her previous marriage together and her responsibility as the other woman that broke up Cash’s marriage. It’s a great romance that comes together as an act of sheer force of nature. And the final coda which tells the audience that Johnny and June stayed married for till death did them ‘part puts the entire film into perspective.

But the great performances, and wonderful music, just does not seem enough. Biopics are one of the toughest genres to get right. The film charts a path so familiar nothing seems fresh or original. The flashbacks to his childhood, his abusive father, lingering childhood memories which continue to haunt him in present, drug problems, groupies etc etc were easy pickings for Mangold. “Walk the Line” is also bathed in a degree of heavy-handed earnestness, instead of embracing the edge-pushing badass Cash's legend portrays himn as.

Though I hated “I’m Not There” I appreciated Todd Haynes’ attempt to make a film opposite to “Walk the Line” and “Ray”. The trend could have seen another more conventional filmmaker turn Bob Dylan’s story into another traditional biopic film. But Haynes explored this idea of rock myth with a narrative structure that skirted these familiar story benchmarks.

"Walk the Line" is back on DVD shelves again with a new two-disc set and an 'extended cut'. As with most extended cuts, it doesn't change the film significantly enough to notice without a scene-by-scene comparison. The second disc which appears to be chock full of interesting documentaries is essentially one rudimentary featurette cut up into 4 or 5 parts. The most disappointing aspect is the lack of real footage of Cash. Every aneqdote of Cash is visualized with stills or scenes from Phoenix and Witherspoon instead of the real Cash and Carter.

"Walk the Line" is expertly written, directed and performed and every viewer will weigh this with its inherant familiarity. As for adding another version of this film to your collection, avid fans will be the most disappointed. Enjoy.

Friday, 28 March 2008

PARANOID PARK


Paranoid Park (2008) dir. Gus Van Zant
Starring: Gabe Nevins, Jake Miller, Taylor Momsen, Daniel Liu

***

Gus Van Zant’s “Paranoid Park” arrives in selected cities after a lengthy festival run in 2007, starting in Cannes and winning a special jury prize. Though not part of his unofficial death trilogy (“Gerry”, “Elephant”, “Last Days”), it's more in keeping with this austere and freeform phase of his career than his Hollywood star-driven films. “Paranoid Park” doesn’t hit the emotional impact of his previous three films, but Gus Van Zant is always interesting and “Paranoid Park” is still beguiling and worthy to experience.

The film begins with Alex Nevins – a typical teenager skateboarder, apathetic about most things in his life except skateboarding - writing his thoughts in a diary. Then it’s revealed that a security guard was killed by a train near the local skateboard park. Then it’s revealed Alex is a suspect. The aftermath of the event affects his home life, his school life and his social relationships.

Like “Last Days” and “Elephant” the audience sees scenes played out of order. Since nothing is played for clever, you don’t actually realize the story is jumbled until midway through the film. This technique is made different than say “21 Grams” because Alex’s emotions never change throughout the film. We don't notice what’s before or after the murder because what’s in his head is never shown on screen.

So what is Alex thinking? What responsibility does he feels for his actions? The film is not about escaping conviction, or hiding his tracks but how Alex deals with the aftermath of the murder. And we don’t actually realize this until the final act of the film. It’s very subtle and only becomes absolutely clear with the magnificent final shot. Though completely different in style it’s a good companion piece to one of the Dardenne Bros' great films – “L’Enfant”. A similar story about the fallout from a tragic event where the characters' emotions are revealed by their physical actions.

The themes and moral conundrums are the stuff of inspired and moving storytelling. Unfortunately Van Sant’s execution is off. “Paranoid Park” lacks the fluid and consistent elegance which is a hallmark of his previous work. The inconsistency and incongruous music was the most distracting. Van Sant’s musical choices range from hardcore skater punk to whimsical 1960's Nina Rota scores to the folk sounds Elliot Smith (from “Good Will Hunting”). Some songs emphasized and supported the emotion of the scene (specifically the fantastic use of that Elliot Smith song), but at other times it's absurdly eccentric to the point of alienating art house pretension.

Van Sant doesn’t make it easy for the audience to jump into the film. He’s continually challenging the audience to find the film's meaning and purpose. But there is a clear purpose, and though it's not profound, "Paranoid Park" is truthful about the cold indignation of the typical American teenager. Enjoy.





Thursday, 27 March 2008

GATTACA


Gattaca (1997) dir. Andrew Niccol
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, Uma Thurman

***1/2

One of the great underrated science fiction films of the past 20 years is Andrew Niccol’s “Gattaca” – part existential sci-fi part, neo-Noir, part melodrama. Niccol presents a unique vision of the future examining the effect of genetic engineering on the social disparity of the human race. At it’s core it’s about the triumph of the human spirit against the absolutes of science.

The film is narrated by Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) a young man who has been burdened with being born ‘naturally’ – that is a normal sperm-egg childbirth. In this future though, mating is achieved largely through artificial selection of gene manipulation to produce the most desirable and healthy babies. Vincent’s lifelong dream is to go into space, but his genetic deficiencies has prevented him from being considered for the esteemed Gattaca Academy.

Vincent decides to play a game of deception and pose as a genetic alphamale who can pass the scientific DNA test. Enter Jerome Morrow (Jude Law) – a DNA star, who has crippled himself before achieving the greatness he was destined for. By way of a genetic agent, Vincent becomes Jerome. IDs are changed, urine tests faked, Vincent even has to undergo surgery on his legs to make him shorter. All of it works and Vincent is accepted into the astronaut training program. But when a murder occurs within the inner circle of the academy, Vincent’s real identity is threatened to be exposed.

The knock on Niccol, who also wrote “The Truman Show”, is that he lays his metaphors on thick and puts his message right in the audience's face. Indeed, Vincent’s last name Freeman, the double-helix staircase in Jerome’s apartment, and Vincent’s latent heart condition blatantly tells us the subtleties of his theme - that our bodies are greater than the sum of our individual parts. But part of the joy of the film is its sense of old-fashioned Frank Capra-esque values.

“Gattaca” is old-fashioned in its look as well. Niccols pays homage to “THX 1138” – both in design, tone and theme. George Lucas’s lo-fi sci-fi flick relied on retro production design, innovative sound technique and creative camera framing to create a future world on a low budget. Niccol uses the streamlined style of Frank Lloyd Wright as his design inspiration. In fact, many of the locations are Lloyd Wright buildings. Niccol even steals an exact location shot from Lucas – the staircase of the Gattaca building is directly out of Lucas’s underground city.

Though the film was made on a low budget Niccol expertly casts the film with unknown Jude Law as Jerome the co-lead. Without any film experience whatsoever Niccol’s risky casting choice was clearly an inspired one. Niccol also taps a sorely underused musical resource in Michael Nyman – Peter Greenaway’s frequent composer. Nyman’s music unabashedly sores helping the film reach its emotional climax with maximum impact. And even ten years later Michael Nyman is still one of the best kept secrets in Hollywood.

“Gattaca” tells big ideas in a small scale film. The message resonates well beyond the final credits. If you haven't seen it, you'll find yourself revisited this minor masterpiece again and again. Enjoy.

A new special edition of "Gattaca" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment



Wednesday, 26 March 2008

LA FLORIDA

La Florida (1993) dir. George Mihalka
Starring: Remy Girard, Raymond Bouchard, Pauline Lapointe, Marie-Josee Croze

***

French-Canadian cinema has a long history of funny (and successful) comedies. Unfortunately because of many factors internal to Canada (mainly language and cultural barriers) these fine films rarely get seen outside of Quebec, and almost never outside of the country. "La Florida" was Canada's top-grossing film in 1993. It only now gets a DVD release in English Canada. The film certainly looks 15 years old, but beneath the dated costumes, music and decor is a genuinely entertaining film about a family of snowbirds who moved to Florida to run their own tourist motel for fellow Quebecers.

Remy Girard (“The Barbarian Invasions”) plays Leo Lesperance, a retired bus driver who moves his family from snowy Montreal to Fort Lauderdale Florida. Leo buys up a decrepit old motel and fixes it up to cater to the large number of French Canadian ‘snowbirds’ who vacation there during the winter. Leo’s quick success angers the rival Quebecois Motel owner “Big Daddy” (Raymond Bouchard) who makes it his mission to drive Leo out of the market. At the same time a local, Jay Lamori, earnestly ingratiates himself with Leo and his family, but his conniving head games mask an ulterior motive. Leo’s perseverance continually puts him ahead of his rivals, but at the cost of alienating himself from his beloved wife Ginette (Pauline Lapointe) who no longer receives the attention she needs.

“La Florida” plays off some familiar comic territory, it has a tone of the organized chaos of “A Fish Called Wanda”, some slapstick by way of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and the classic fish out of water scenario. Writers Suzette Couture and Pierre Sarazin hammer out a tight template script that dots the I’s and crosses the T’s. That’s no insult to the material. Comedy scripts need to be functional, and a place to jump off point from for the actors.

Mihalka casts some of the best Quebec actors, who can indeed take it to another level. You will recognize Remy Girard who’s best known internationally from Denis Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions”. He can deliver the necessary lovability/affability and physicality needed for the role (imagine a French-Canadian Chevy Chase). You also may remember Raymond Bouchard from “Seducing Doctor Lewis” – another fine underrated Quebec classic and watch out for Marie-Josee Croze’s performance as Leo’s bikini-clad daughter Carmen – 10 years before Barbarian Invasions.

“La Florida” was made in 1993, and so beware of some nasty dated production value. At times the film feels like a “Weekend at Bernie’s”. Certainly Jason Blicker’s performance as the slick Italian-American is atrociously clichéd, and are the two Wayne’s World rockers who pine after Carmen.

There's a wealth of funny culture-bending comedies in la Belle Province that are good enough to beat most Hollywood blockbusters in local cinemas. "La Florida" is a good start for Canadians or Americans. Don't forget to check out "Seducing Doctor Lewis" which is even better. Enjoy.

"La Florida" is available on DVD this week from Alliance Films.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

STEEP


Steep (2007) dir. Mark Obenhaus
Documentary

***

I’m not a skier, but I’m fascinated by the awesome talents of extreme skiers. The proper term is actually “Big Mountain Skiing” and “Steep” traces the history and evolution of the subculture of skiers who risk their lives to traverse and ski these treacherous uncharted mountains. Though it doesn’t reach the bar set by the Stacey Peralta films ("Dogtown and Z Boys"), it’s a great mainstream showcase for the artistic beauty of these amazing feats of athletic wonder.

“Steep” attempts to mythologize the history of ‘sport’ of big mountain skiing the way “Z-Boys” and “Riding Giants” did for skateboarding and surfing. I use quotes around ‘sport’, because every one of these skiers will tell you it’s a lifestyle, not a sport. They don’t ski to compete, or to get adulation or glory, they ski to feel the adrenaline and exhilaration of pushing their bodies to the limit.

By tracing the history of the 'sport' from it’s beginnings we also get to see the evolution of the ‘art’. The skier credited with invented the notion of Big Mountain skiing is Bill Briggs who first traversed the Grand Tetons on skis in the mid 60’s. Then there’s the crazy Frenchmen who climbed all the way up and skied down the mountains at Chamonix. In the 80’s and 90’s the “North Shore” of big mountain skiing was discovered in Alaska. Skiers like Scot Schmid and Glen Plake were even faster and crazier. Now, it’s “heli-skiing” which allows skiers via helicopter to access mountain peaks previously unattainable to hikers. But the most death-defying and visually breathtaking form of skiing is a combination of heli-skiing and basejumping. The footage of Shane McConkey literally flying off the mountain and into empty air is phenomenal.

Skiing has a long cinematic history. There’s a whole subculture of ski films which are rarely ever seen outside of the skiing community. Within this world a cinema language exists which best showcases the sport. The skiers and cameramen and women who shoot the footage in the film have made true art. Beyond the near impossible feats of athleticism is an immensely beautiful aesthetic of watching a solitary skier navigate a giant white mountain. Over the course of their run, when seen on film, the patterns created in the snow, the choreography of movement over hills, snow and rocks becomes performance art.

Of course, “Steep” isn’t just a bunch of skiing footage, there’s characters, theme, and story. The film attempts to mythologize the lifestyle, making a spiritual connection. Unlike “Dogtown and Z Boys” it’s all so very serious and contemplative – none of the freewheeling fun I’ve seen in other skiing videos. So the framework is functional at best to tell the history and introduce the characters, but it never betters the skiing footage. Maybe that’s good, but it never comes close to “Dogtown” in terms of developing an intriguing narrative that stands alone as a story.

I suspect there’s dozens of other skiing films that show Big Mountain action just as well "Steep" and it’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t show us the ‘fun’ – but I would still recommend the film because watching 90mins of big mountain skiing still had my eyes glued to the screen. I will definitely watch it again very soon. Enjoy.

"Steep" is available on DVD from Sony Picture Home Entertainment


Sunday, 23 March 2008

THE DRAGON PAINTER


The Dragon Painter (1919) dir. William Worthington
Starring: Sessue Hayakawa, Tsuru Aoki, Toyo Fujita

****

Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw

The Orient!

That exotic, magical and wondrous land that exudes mystery – always and forever replete with the oh-so tantalizing fruits of utter temptation that drive those of the Occidental persuasion to such dizzying pinnacles of obsession that they threaten to rival even the heights scaled by the imaginary progeny of a Sir Edmund Hillary and Blaze Starr coupling.

And no Land of the Orient can tickle the white-bread fancy of the Occident than that of … Nippon!

NIPPON!

O! LAND OF NIPPON!

O! LAND OF GREAT JAPAN!

LAND OF THE RISING SUN!

LAND OF THE SAMURAI!

The delights you have offered us and continue to offer us are bounteous indeed.

And none are so bounteous as the delights offered to moviegoers the world over when the late, great Sessue Hayakawa ruled the silver screens of silent Hollywood and gave men and women alike a glimpse into the glories of the mysterious East.

Most of us know Sessue Hayakawa as the Oscar-nominated actor who played the legendary Col. Saito in “Bridge On The River Kwai” - David Lean’s classic war epic that delved into the souls of Occident and Orient alike against the backdrop of a Japanese P.O.W. camp. However, in the early years of cinema, Mr. Hayakawa was one of the most sought-after leading men.

Discovered by pioneering producer Thomas Ince (himself the father of numerous standards of production employed to this very day), Hayakawa got his start and immediately demanded and received unheard-of salaries for that period. He eventually signed with Paramount Pictures and his starring role in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Cheat” turned him into a $5000 per week leading player. During this time, he formed his own production company Haworth in order to generate productions not only for himself, but his wife Tsuru Aoki and a host of other Asian Americans. His goal was to create box-office hits and roles for Asians that challenged SOME (though certainly not all) the stereotypes common to Asian roles during this period. In this sense, Hayakawa was well ahead of his time – call it ‘Forty Acres and a Samurai’, if you will. (Eat your heart out, Spike!)

Hayakawa clung to the mystery and history of the Orient, but chose to present the characters in more heroic roles rather than the typical Occident view of Asians which was mysterious, cool, sexy, but ULTIMATELY – evil. If one were to equate this with the images of Native Americans on the Silver Screen, it’s probably safe to suggest that Hayakawa clung to the notion of the “noble savage” and recognized the inherent box-office appeal of this stereotype and its less harmful and offensive “qualities” (which, of course were replete in that of the just plain old evil “savage”).

“The Dragon Painter” definitely falls into the Asian equivalent of the “noble savage” stereotype. Audiences have always been drawn to the exotic, but especially so during the early years of motion pictures. This was, of course, a time when the world still felt young and exploration of uncharted lands and discovery of new cultures was at a fever pitch. Coupled with the new medium of cinema, audiences – especially those in the West – just couldn’t get enough of what was perceived to be different or exotic.

In “The Dragon Painter”, Hayakawa plays Tatsu, an artist living alone in the mountains. Perceived by those around him to be insane, he does nothing to give them another opinion since he obsessively paints only portraits of dragons. He is convinced that his beloved fiancée was stolen from him and turned into a dragon. Tatsu’s grief knows no bounds and he insanely continues his dragon paintings. But, crazy or not, Tatsu is clearly a gifted artist and when he is brought before a Master Painter, he’s given a chance to become even greater. It is here where Tatsu faces his ultimate challenge when he comes face to face with the woman he once loved (played by Hayakawa’s wife Tsuru Aoki). He is a happy man once again. Or is he? Grief had eventually become this artist’s muse and now that he is without grief, he stands to lose the gift of his supreme artistry.

“The Dragon Painter” is an utterly exquisite celluloid tapestry of art and love. It is replete with images that are staggeringly, heart-achingly beautiful and charged with a sense of longing and passion that has seldom been matched.

Hayakawa is, quite simply, remarkable. Completely avoiding the usual silent histrionics, he delivers an intense, sexy and, at times, agonizingly beautiful performance – thoroughly and utterly restrained. It’s not surprising to see why he was such a big star. He is, quite frankly, gorgeous. His flat, broad forehead, piercing eyes, aquiline nose, glorious cheekbones, full, supple lips and a profile to rival that of even the great John Barrymore himself, Hayakawa is without question, an Asian Valentino. Even the way he moves on screen has grace and precision. Perhaps this has something to do with his cultural roots in the Samurai tradition. As a teenager, Hayakawa even attempted seppuku and stabbed himself in the stomach close to forty times. Finally, whatever it was that contributed to his genius as an actor, matters less than what is before us on the silver screen – a star of the highest magnitude.

“The Dragon Painter” was, by the way, a lost film and only one print existed in France. It has been painstakingly restored for posterity and I sincerely believe my life, and certainly the lives of anyone who cares about cinema, have been made all the more full for having had a chance to see it.

This, of course, is where Milestone Films comes in since they have released this stunning work of art to DVD in a special edition that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Not only are we treated to a gorgeous transfer of restored/rescued elements, but also the DVD includes such delights as the odd short pairing of Hayakawa with Fatty Arbuckle and the feature length marvel entitled “The Wrath of the Gods”. The latter film not only stars Hayakawa and Aoki, but also features a very young Frank Borzage (immortal director of “Three Comrades”, “A Farewell to Arms” and many others) as a sailor who becomes entranced with a young Asian woman who has been cursed by Buddha. “The Wrath of the Gods” (written and produced by the great and aforementioned Thomas Ince) not only features some really tremendous storm footage and effects, but also makes for equally compelling viewing.

There are lots of great companies out there who unearth some real finds, but Milestone is clearly a company that is devoted to digging very deep for product that not only deserves exposure, but also damn well DEMANDS it.

“The Dragon Painter” is surely a film that demands to be watched by all true cineastes and has found a home thanks to Milestone.

The Gods of Nippon are smiling.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

REVOLVER


Revolver (2005) dir. Guy Ritchie
Starring: Jason Statham, Ray Liotta, Vincent Pastore, Andre Benjamin

*1/2

What was he thinking? It isn’t news to most people that “Revolver” is a complete mess. After the disastrous “Swept Away”, Guy Ritchie returned to the genre that gave him such success. But Ritchie reaches way too far in his attempt at a philosophical Freudian gangster film and delivers a dog breakfast that just gets sloppier and sloppier as it goes along.

The film has a promising beginning, the first 30mins sets up the character of Jake (Jason Statham) – a gangster/thug just released from seven-year stint in prison with revenge is on his mind. The man who did him wrong is a Casino mob boss Macha (Ray Liotta). Fearing retribution Macha tries to take him down, but he’s saved by a pair mythical con-men Avi and Zach (Andre Benjamin and Vincent Pastore). Avi and Zach propose a partnership – in exchange for all his money ($500,000), Jake will be protected from Macha and be given the chance to exact revenge against him. Jake fears a con, but his conscience tells him to go along with it.

This is where it gets tricky, Zach, Avi and Jake embark on a series of elaborate heists that trick Macha into thinking he’s at war with a rival Asian drug lord. Reference is made to a Kaiser Soze-type omniscient mob boss Mr. Gold whom everyone fears. This fear drives Macha to dig himself out of his the hole that Jake and the boys have caused. In the last third, Jake’s inner conscience starts to separate itself from Jake’s real conscience and so the battle becomes Jake vs. Jake.

Ritchie has attempted something profound. The movie starts out with a series of philosophical quotes like “The greatest enemy will hide in the last place you would ever look.” There’s a metaphor of a chess game with the con game going on, but none of it ever fits together. It’s a grab-bag of intellectualisms. In fact, Ritchie thinks so highly of his message that the final credits feature interviews from real life psychologists (like Deepak Chopra) discussing the ego, and the ID and other intellectual mumbo jumbo.

Ritchie never really sets up his world either. It feels like reality in the beginning but the world morphs into a “Sin City-type” environment, one without cops and traditional rules of time, location, logic and physics. There’s nothing wrong with a world like this, but by the time Ritchie fully commits to it, I was out of the film.

Ritchie’s style is front and centre of course. No dialogue scene is cut straight. They’re either intercut with some sort of flashforward, flashback, alternate reality, or even dialogue from other characters. There only mildly interesting sequence is a great gunbattle in the Jake’s brother’s apartment. Thrown in to ensure sufficient overkill is an animated sequence and scene forwards and in reverse.

Ritchie’s downfall is his self-conscious seriousness. There isn’t an ounce of humour, which is the reason why Ritchie’s first two films were so successful. Maybe the problem was having Luc Besson in his ear all the time saying “C’est bon”.



Friday, 21 March 2008

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL


Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) dir. Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Jason Segel, Kristin Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill

***

Judd Apatow has is his own cottage industry. He created two cult youth comedy TV series in the 90’s/00’s (“Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared”), from which he developed the talent of the writers, directors and actors who are working on his feature films today. His formula, both on camera and behind it, is a well-oiled machine, and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is his latest soon-to-be hit comedy.

This time Apatow has produced a script from Jason Segel (the stoner roomie in “Knocked Up” and Marshall in “How I Met Your Mother”), who also stars. Jason plays Peter Bretter who has just been dumped by his longtime and beloved girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell from “Veronica Mars”). Over time he has taken his relationship for granted and regressed into a pathetic lazy slob, and so he employs his conservative step-brother (Bill Hader) to help him back into the singles scene. It actually works, and he manages to get laid a few times, but without the passion he’s still a broken man. So Peter decides to take a vacation to Hawaii to drown out his sorrows.

Low and behold, Sarah is vacationing at the same resort, but with her new obnoxious Brit-rocker boyfriend Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Peter continues to pathetically pine after Sarah until his lovely hotel clerk, Rachel (Mila Kunis), starts showing interest in him. A new relationship blossoms, which also starts a competition between the two ex-lovebirds.

The film takes at least a third of the film to really find its grove. Peter’s character is set up to be like Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up” – a lazy man-child slob who eat Fruit Loops out of a salad tumbler. Peter is also a music composer for a hit CSI-like TV show – a career which requires much dedication, perseverance and talent. This disconnect was distracting. And though some of the gags hit it’s mark just as many fall flat.

The film picks up steam once Peter arrives in Hawaii. Integral to romantic comedies are the supporting characters. In Hawaii, we are treated to at least half a dozen characters who steal scenes all over the place. There’s Jack McBrayer (“30 Rock”) who plays a newlywed bible thumper who’s learning the ropes in bed; Paul Rudd is hilarious as laidback communication-deficient surf instructor, Jonah Hill plays a pathetic bus-boy with a man-crush on Sarah’s boyfriend Aldous Snow. In fact, Aldous becomes the real discovery in the film. He’s played by comedian Russell Brand – a TV star in Britain who recently hosted the Brit Awards. What first seemed like a stereotypically-written character became the major scene-stealer. Brand doesn’t just deliver a British accent, he develops his character into a lovable ego-maniac.

The film scores because it’s has a good heart and characters we learn to love and care about. Though Segel properly wraps up his subplots and character arcs, the film never feels like a template film. It sails way over most other comedies of its kind – ie. those recent Farrelly Bros. failuresSince it’s more comedy than romance we are saved the sappiness of that genre.

I’ll have to forgive the atrocious title which, by its very nature, lumps it in with other forgettable three word comedy titles with ‘ing’ in the first word. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” will be released in mid April, which, by opening before summer, means it likely won’t do “Superbad’s” or “Knocked Up’s” business, but with little competition before the May blockbusters hit, the film stands a good chance of being a modest surprise hit. Enjoy.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” will be out in theatres April 18 from Universal Pictures.




Thursday, 20 March 2008

DAISY KENYON


Daisy Kenyon (1946) dir. Otto Preminger
Starring: Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews

**

There's a bit of false advertising labelling "Daisy Kenyon" as a 'Fox Film Noir'. Though it was made by 20th Century Fox, it's not a film noir. It's one of those domestic melodramas, that Douglas Sirk perfected in the 1950's - a so-called 'woman's picture'. In this film Joan Crawford plays a woman torn between two men - Mr. Right and Mr. Wrong. Her head and heart make the decision a difficult choice. The film is no classic and fails to generate much intrigue, excitement or even general interest.

Daisy Kenyon (Joan Crawford) is an artist, a single woman, who's stuck in an affair with a married man, Dan (Dana Andrews). Even though she calls off the affair Dan keeps coming back and Daisy just can't resist. One day a soft-spoken war veteran Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda) enters her life. The courtship is one-sided as Peter expresses his love with unwavering certainty. Daisy is fond of Peter, and some sparks are there, but she still feels something for Dan. Daisy needs to move forward in life and she decides to marry Peter. All is bliss until Dan announces to Daisy he's divorcing his wife Rosamund (Peggy Ann Garner). Daisy is back at square one.

Which guy will she choose, is the central drive of the film. But it's barely strong enough to hang your hat on. Dan is a complete shit, lacking in all moral fibre. He's introduced as a bloodsucking lawyer. When he does decide to take on a case pro bono, it's more of an effort to please Daisy. Peter, on the other hand, is played by Henry Fonda - Nice-guy-personified. Sure, he lacks the fast-paced self-important career of Dan, but he's grounded and secure and everything Daisy needs. Unfortunately Peter is too apathetic about his relationship. He takes no stand, when Dan comes back into her life.

Joan Crawford and Henry Fonda is a great pairing - on paper. But on screen they are like fire and ice. The pieces just don't fit, and their on screen scenes together lack spark. As the lead Crawford is as confident holding the film together as she always is. Few, if any, female stars can match her screen presence - ever. Unfortunately "Daisy Kenyon" is no "Mildred Pierce", or "Flamingo Road"

This is certainly no noir either. There is no threat, violence, danger or intrigue - elements which define the genre. Even as a woman's picture there's just not enough melodramatic juice to whet my appetite. I had the privilege of discovering "Imitation of Life" (click for my review). Watch either the 1934 version or the Douglas Sirk 50's version for a woman's picture that singes your moral extremities. "Daisy Kenyon" is for Joan Crawford fans only.

"Daisy Kenyon" is part of the Fox Film Noir Collection from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


Wednesday, 19 March 2008

THE ENGLISH PATIENT



The English Patient (1996) dir. Anthony Minghella
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth

****

Yesterday we lost one of this generation's great filmmakers. Anthony Minghella's impeccably good taste resulted in films rich with texture layered through all its individual parts - lighting, music, performances, art direction. He preferred challenging literary adaptations with complex narratives, characters and themes. With only his third film, Minghella reached cinematic maturity very quickly - "The English Patient". Here's a reposting of my review of Anthony Minghella's crowning achievement.

I think the “Seinfeld” episode which had Elaine expressing her hatred of the film by yelling at the screen in the theatre may have tarnished the reputation of the film. And though the film took many of the Oscar’s big categories, including Best Picture, it’s rarely brought up as one of the great films of the 90’s. But let me remind you of just how good “The English Patient” is and why it was so successful 11 years ago.

The film was adapted from Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel by English director Anthony Minghella, whose only previous films were a couple of small British indies. “The English Patient” was a huge step up for Minghella, but he succeeded in creating a film that was popular with both audiences and the critics.

The film opens framing the sandy undulations of the Sahara desert from the point of view of a WWII 2-seater bi-plane. The passengers are Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). The plane is hit by enemy fire and then crashes to the ground. Laszlo emerges bedridden and under heavy bandages from the near-fatal burns to his body. His name is unknown but he is assumed to be English. He is brought to a secluded Italian country-side home where he is cared for in peace by a French-Canadian nurse (Hana) played by Juliette Binoche. The film moves back and forth between these two periods to trace exactly how the ‘English patient’ came to be where he is today.

It’s a tragic story centering on a doomed love affair between Laszlo and Katherine. We learn before the war, they were on a cartography expedition to survey the Sahara Desert for the Royal Geographical Society. Katherine is married to Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) but slowly over time her and Laszlo develop a deep carnal attraction for each other. The domino effect of the affair eventually causes Katherine to be involved in a disturbing accident, which brings us to the opening shot of the film.

Minghella paints a canvas overflowing with mystery, eroticism, romanticism and rich visual metaphors. Fiennes and Thomas are a good pairing and their chemistry could start fires. Laszlo is curious. Fiennes plays him as a brooding, unemotional and abrupt upper classman, but in a few intimate moments with each other Katherine discovers a poetic romantic side to him.

Like the opening credits sequence, which features a close-up of a brush painting symbols on a rock floor, Minghella directs the film with an equally masterful touch. Every image is painstakingly composed, and every movement and casual look has deeper meaning. My favourite visual moment is when Fiennes and Thomas are in the car during the sandstorm. As the scene ends, he’s looks out the window and appears to see his own reflection as the burn victim by way of a clever dissolve to the future.

The romantic subplot of the emotionally scarred Hana (Juliette Binoche) and her Sikh lover Kip (“Lost’s” Naveen Andrews) is just as compelling. Hana feels people that she loves always dies, and so she cautiously approaches her relationship with Kip. His courtship of her is not as carnal as Laszlo’s and so we get the rare treat of a subplot which could stand alone as its own film.

Elaine objected to the lengthy demise of the scarred Fiennes. Indeed the film runs over 2 and a half hours. But it’s an epic love story crafted from an epic novel. The film’s subplots gain speed and converge at the end with the reveal of how Laszlo and Clifton came to be on that doomed plane. Men, check your male egos at the door and enjoy the sumptuous ride. Enjoy.

ATONEMENT


Atonement (2007) dir. Joe Wright
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai

**1/2

“Atonement” is a hit and miss romantic epic which tells a broad and tragic story of two lovers who try to be together through personal and historical turmoil. Frequent themes of the genre including guilt, honour and class are at play and the story places itself in the heart of WWII, which automatically compares itself to “The English Patient”. Unfortunately Joe Wright’s film is too big for its two-hour running time and falls short of power of Anthony Minghella’s film.

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley play Robbie Turner and Cecilia Tallis, residents of an upper class English home in the countryside. Coy flirtations turn into a brief passionate romance, which upsets Cecilia’s jealous younger sister Briony. When a heinous assault occurs on the premises, Briony lays the blame and Robbie and he sent to prison. Years go by before Robbie and Cecilia find each other again and rekindle their passionate affair.

The film is slow. But that’s ok. It takes a good 20mins before the assault I mentioned above - the so-called ‘inciting incident’. Robbie and Cecilia become lost lovers who take the rest of the next 5 years through war and peace to find each other again. It sets up a passionate reunification and rekindling of their affair – the stuff great cinema romances are made of. Unfortunately the story is hampered by a third character, who turns out to be the lead character. Cecilia’s sister features prominently and is the cause of much of the conflict in the film and the title refers to her atonement of her sins.

At two hours and two mins there’s just not enough screen time to get to know any of these three characters. Wright cleverly tells many of the scenes from several points of the view. This is effective in showing how each of the three characters reacts to the conflict, but this also takes up valuable screen time. The film needed the extra 40mins the “English Patient” had to develop each character effectively. We never really feel the passion of Robbie and Cecilia’s affair grow and blossom and Cecilia’s sister Briony (Romola Garai) disappears too long during the second act before she makes her return.

The finale makes us re-evaluate everything we have just seen on screen and it gives the title greater meaning. Though it’s a dramatic reveal, the film is never clear as how to we should feel about the meddling Briony. This lack of emotional closure may work with a certain type of film, but a film like “Atonement” needs to be clear and succinct with its message.

“Atonement” aspires to have the same sweeping scale and tragic lost love as “The English Patient”. Wright does it all with one magnificent and much talked about shot – a five min unedited long take which follows James McAvoy’s character through the stationed troops at Dunkirk before the famous British retreat. It’s a fantastic shot featuring hundreds of extras on a beach and a hillside. The camera picks up and follows several characters throughout the shot and meanders a great distance across the beach, up a hill and through an enclosed encampment. The shot is great but few other shots can keep pace with this one. Therefore it becomes a glaring anomaly.

The similarities with “The English Patient” were obviously recognized by Wright as Mr. Minghella himself appears in a quick cameo towards the end as a television interviewer. It’s been a while since we’ve seen an unabashed romantic epic. I certainly welcome it, but it’s a long way from it’s rivaling its mentor. Enjoy.




Tuesday, 18 March 2008

THE RIGHT STUFF


The Right Stuff (1983) dir. Philip Kaufman
Starring: Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Sam Shepard

****

Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff” is made great because of its unabashed American zeal. “The Right Stuff” is a cinematic rendering of the U.S. Mercury Space Program as novelized by Tom Wolfe – that great American novelist/satirist.  It’s one of the great films of the 1980's and invisible to age - an era-defining mosaic of American history.

The film begins cleverly by establishing first the legend of Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) – the iconic test pilot who first broke the sound barrier. These scenes bristle with American machismo – the aloof loner who risks life and limb for personal glory and the thrill of speed. One day a group of government suits arrive in the Californian desert to recruit for the new Space Program. It’s greeted with ridicule by Yeager and his clique, but also curious adventure from pilots like Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward).

The film quickly moves forward to show us the unbelievable rigors and tests required to choose the first seven American Astronauts. The first seven pilots become our seven heroes, with John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom and Alan B. Shepherd (Scott Glenn) as the leaders. For those who don’t know their history, Kaufman builds some nice suspense as to who would be the first American in space and climaxes with Gordon Cooper’s flight, not a historically significant event, but one born from character. Meanwhile Kaufman keeps Yeager in the film occasionally cutting back to his life as a test pilot still pushing the envelope on Earth while his compatriots receive the glory of going into space.

“The Right Stuff” is aided great by one of the all-time great film scores. Bill Conti (“Rocky”) won an Oscar for his music which is as grand and soring as its subject matter – a rarity in today's cinema. It's mixture of classic orchestral sounds and then-modern synth sounds – nothing is dated though, in fact it transcends time.

Kaufman fills the screen with inspired iconic frames. There’s the much referenced long shot of the seven astronauts walking the down the hall toward the camera on their way to a press conference. There are numerous shots glorifying Yeager, including his heroic walk back to base after his final crash. And there are the images of John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Gordon Cooper jammed in their cockpits looking up into the awe of space.

The special effects are a marvel and completely invisible to the audience. There’s little or no noticeable blue screen work, instead the near lost art of model making, awesome aerial camerawork and untraditional light and chemical effects.

"The Right Stuff" belongs in the company of Altman's "Nashville" - an American classic about the power of American spirit, its innovation and perseverance. It's one of those films, like "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "It's a Wonderful Life" that I watch religiously once a year. Enjoy.




Monday, 17 March 2008

FUNNY GAMES


Funny Games (2008) dir. Michael Haneke
Starring: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet

****

“Funny Games” is a simple story of a husband, wife and their young boy who become victims of a home invasion by a pair of bourgeois psychopaths. Haneke skewers the slasher/horror film genre by avoiding all salacious aspects of these other films, instead building suspense to excruciating levels, before letting it out with shocking force. Putting aside the debate about whether his original 1997 film needed to be remade at all, Haneke has redelivered one of the most frightening film experiences you’ll ever see.

Having seen the original and knowing his other work, I was completely confident in Michael Haneke’s ability to deliver the goods. Michael Haneke is no sell-out, that’s for sure. Haneke has a sick mind, and as one of cinema's 'Enfant Terribles', my only curiosity is how far he would go. Haneke has created essentially a shot-for-shot remake of his original. The only difference being the different actors playing the roles. It’s still a sick and twisted experience with very little lost in the translation.

The film begins so innocently. Ann (Watts) and George (Roth) arrive at their serene country home for a weekend of relaxation. Ann hears a knock on her door and she meets Peter (Brady Corbet), a polite young man dressed in Wimbledon white, who kindly asks for some eggs. Ann obliges, but the simple request becomes an awkward and soon annoying lengthy game of words. Peter is then joined by Paul (Michael Pitt), Peter’s equally polite friend and accomplice. Ann senses some pushiness and she asks the pair to leave. When George arrives the argument turns violent, George is hit on the knee, handicapping him for the rest of the film.

The pair of psychopaths hold the family hostage for the evening. Violence is rarely threatened, as their insincere faux politeness clearly masks their hidden agenda of torture and humiliation. It will take Ann’s strength of will to find her way out of the situation and save her family.

Haneke is hyper aware of his audience and their expectations for such a film. And so “Funny Games” is as much about torturing the audience as the characters. Haneke can do shock and awe as good as anyone – remember the gruesome throat-slash in “Cache”? Or the room destruction scene in “Seventh Continent”? And there are some shock and awe moments in “Funny Games” – specifically the long take showing us the aftermath of one of the violent acts. But it’s Haneke’s skills in building terror and suspense and agonizing discomfort in the audience that is the marvel. Paul and Peter’s games are sick, but watch the effect of Haneke’s subtle shot selection and camerawork. He doesn’t waste a shot and cuts away only when necessary. The opening moments before Peter knocks on the door are made agonizing by Haneke’s placement of the camera. Haneke uses an old Polanski movie trick by shooting Watts against an open door in the background. The horror comes from the anticipation of the filling the space behind it.

Haneke breaks the fourth wall on numerous occasions. This is an old cinema trick as well, but Haneke maximizes its effect when he, at one crucial point, cruelly rewinds the film in front of our eyes and replays the scene again with less satisfying results for the characters and, thus, the audience. It’s Haneke at his cockiest, showing us his manipulation of the audience up front and in our faces.

“Funny Games U.S.” could never top his original film. Having familiar faces in the lead roles and the fact it's the second time around certainly lessens the impact. But at the very least he will also expose new audiences to one of the most disturbing and sick films ever made. I also get satisfaction knowing that some people, going by the title, will see the film by accident, thinking its a comedy. I'd watch it over and over again just to see people's reactions after leaving the theatre.


Sunday, 16 March 2008

BLACK WIDOW

Image courtesy of DVD Beaver


Black Widow (1954) dir, Nunnaly Johnson
Starring: Van Heflin, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney, George Raft

***

The second film in my series of Fox Noir postings is “Black Widow” – an effective whodunit mystery, which will keep you guessing all the way to the end.

Nancy Orway is an ambitious social climber who ingratiates herself into the New York upper class elite through a friendship with a big shot Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin). But with Denver’s wife Iris (Gene Tierney) out of town the friendship brings silent accusations of infidelity. It’s all very innocent until Nancy shows up dead in Peter’s apartment. Suddenly Peter’s seemingly innocent actions take on a whole new meaning. With the police quickly leaning towards a murder charge, Peter takes it upon himself to find the real killer.

The fundamental question which drives the film is whether a married man can develop a true platonic friendship with a single woman. Peter apparently does this out kindness to aid a young writer to get a foot in the business. But writer/director Nunally Johnson never makes Peter out to be a saint. Though he appears to be honest in his philanthropy there’s a darkside of Peter that keeps the audience on edge. In fact, everyone’s intentions are kept hidden from the audience. For the first half we’re not sure if Nancy is a crazed psychopath, if Denver is truly attracted to her, or whether he’s trying to exact revenge for his wife’s affair a year ago. Johnson plants all the right seeds which will pay off in the third act.

The film is presented in colour cinemascope, a format not traditionally associated with noir, but it works. The use of widescreen is fabulous. Johnson and his DOP Charles Clarke along with the legendary photographic effects man Ray Kellogg bathe New York in eye-popping colour and bold visual beauty. It’s rare to film a noir in colour, but remember, most of Hitchcock’s great colour films were essentially film noirs.

Van Heflin, whose prominent brow frequently got him cast as the bad guy in westerns, is completely believable as a reserved but confident Broadway producer. Ginger Rogers, though over the top, has fun with Lottie - a snobby elitist actress who bullies around everyone including the cops. Peter’s wife, Iris (Gene Tierney), is the most underdeveloped of the characters. Once the accusations of infidelity start Iris never once questions Peter’s story. It isn’t until a confessionary letter in the mail from Nancy that sends Iris over the edge, but even with this information she is still inactive as a character. But then I watched the special features of the DVD and learned the great noir actress Gene Tierney was suffering from severe depression and was heavily medicated during the time of the filming.

Two thirds into the film, I thought I had predicted the ending, but I was wrong. Johnson’s cinematic approach turns what could have been “Murder She Wrote” material into a tight, unpredictable whodunit with strong characters, that stands out against most other films of its kind. Enjoy.

“Black Widow” is part of the Fox Film Noir Collection from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

BONNIE AND CLYDE


Bonnie & Clyde (1967) dir. Arthur Penn
Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard, Estella Parsons

***1/2

Warren Beatty’s brainchild film charts Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker’s violent crime spree across the Southern States, which turned ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ into an iconic household moniker. It’s also one of the most influential films of the 60’s for its expressive use of violence contrast against it’s traditional Warner Bros ‘gangster’ genre façade.

Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), a bored teenager wasting away in a barren Texas town at first sight falls deeply for Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty). It’s not so much love as a sexual turn-on. Bonnie feels the bad-ass in Clyde and she instinctively wants to go anywhere he goes and do anything he does. They proceed to knock off a series of stores, and banks for fun and kicks. Along the way they recruit an eager car mechanic C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wet blanket wife Blanche (Estella Parsons) and establish themselves as 'the Barrow Gang'.

Bonnie and Clyde become media sensations in the era of famous public enemies - ie. Al Capone, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly. But when their fun romp is halted after a violent run-in with the authorities, the reality of their actions will come crashing down on their heads violently - really violently.

“Bonnie and Clyde” represented more than just a gangster film, it was the beginning of an important period in American cinema. Liberal attitudes toward sex and violence freed filmmakers to challenge the auteur films that were being made in Europe throughout the 60’s.

“Bonnie and Clyde” is very sexual, in fact the film begins with Faye Dunaway prancing around nude in her bedroom. Her courtship stroll with Clyde through her desolate Texan town is full of fun sexual innuendos – watch Bonnie licking her coke bottle and Clyde’s match stick twitching in his mouth.

This beginning sets up the central theme of the film - sex and violence and the relationship between the two. But the film gets interesting when once sex is taken out of the equation. Early on we learn Clyde, who admits he’s never been much a lover, can’t perform in bed, thus Bonnie and Clyde’s relationship is fueled purely on violence.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. Only 3 ½ stars? Well “Bonnie & Clyde” is a classic, there’s no doubting that. It’s a great film, which arguably, with modern eyes, doesn’t stand quite as tall as other films of the era. There are many scenes that drag, specifically the frequent use of the rear-projection driving scene. Penn uses the same uncreative flat frontal shot when shooting his in-car dialogue scenes. It's a bland method of storytelling which unfortunately dates the progressively liberal film.

Estella Parsons, who won an Oscar for her role, provides one of those effective but frustrating performances. Parsons plays Buck Barrow’s annoying wife who's brought along the journey against her will. Her wining voice and constant screaming provide conflict among the gang, which ultimately causes their downfall. I’m reminded of Dorothy Comingore’s equally cringe-worthy performance as Susan Alexander in “Citizen Kane”. Is it effective storytelling or just nails on a chalkboard?

But the most important part of the film, the ending, is still as exciting and brutal as it was in 1967. The innovative blood and squibs effects, the editing and the slo-motion camera work are still beautiful and bold even with today’s eyes. Sam Peckinpah would later find influence from "Bonnie and Clyde" and rewrite cinema for expanding these techniques. But it all started with "Bonnie and Clyde". Enjoy.



Friday, 14 March 2008

DANGEROUS CROSSING



Dangerous Crossing (1953) dir. Joseph Newman
Starring: Jeanne Craine, Michael Rennie

****

“Dangerous Crossing” is not so much a noir as a Hitchcockian psychological mystery. A newlywed is suspected of going crazy when her husband mysteriously disappears without a trace. Part of Fox’s Noir Collection, “Dangerous Crossing” is one of the lesser known classics of the genre – a thoroughly entertaining slice of pulp fiction.

A newly married couple John and Ruth take an ocean liner cruise for their honeymoon. When they arrive in their cabin, John asks Ruth go ahead and meet up in 15mins at the bar before dinner while he runs an errand. Ruth obliges, but at the bar John is a no-show. In fact, he's disappeared from the entire ship. The ship’s crew search the boat, but to no avail. When asked for identification, ticket, or evidence of John, Ruth can’t produce anything. Suddenly everyone’s suspicious eyes turn on Ruth.

Did John really exist, or was he a figment of her imagination? When she reveals the painful period in doctor’s care after the death of her father, the evidence weighs toward psychosis. But when Ruth starts getting mysterious phone calls from John from aboard the boat warning her about their safety, something more devious and sinister rears it’s ugly head.

Ruth (well played by Jeanne Crain) goes through an agonizing journey of torturous frustration. It’s a difficult performance, one which could easily have spilled over into emotional overdramatics, but Crain puts the reality of the situation in all her reactions.

"Dangerous Crossing” is a technically-perfect genre film. Director Joseph Newman has a great studio shooting style - a Michael Curtiz-influenced look with sweeping crane shots, and elaborate dolly moves to accentuate and heighten the drama. Newman sets the tone of mystery and suspense brilliantly. The location and design of the ship provide the confining clausterphobia within which Ruth’s paranoia can bubble over. The scenes in fog-shrouded night along with the monotonous fog horn lay on the noir-intrigue extra thick. The best scene in the film is a sequence worthy of Brian De Palma's theft. Ruth hears a knock on her door, but when she answers it, no one is there. She looks out into the hall – no one in sight. Just then a door from down the hall slowly opens by itself. Then slowly closes. And of course, Jeanne Craine frightening reaction sells the drama.

“Flight Plan” and “Bunny Lake is Missing” tell the same story, an unexplainable disappearance with no evidence to prove the missing person ever existed. Both films are flawed and could not wrap up satisfactorily the ‘is she crazy or not’ conundrum. “Dangerous Crossing” provides the most satisfying resolution of all three films. With the film clocking in at 76mins, there’s not much room for extraneous plotting or lengthy explanations, and so the climax and resolution comes rather suddenly. But the brevity serves the material best.

One of the remarkable aspects about the production was the studio's use of economies of scale. “Dangerous Crossing” doesn't look like it was shot for $500,000 in 19 days, but it was. 20th Century Fox creatively recycled sets, costumes and actors from much bigger pictures also in production – “Titanic” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” - to bump up the production value. Combine this with best aspects of the genre - fog, shadows, sound, shady characters and a slowly revealing potboiling plot – and you have a top notch film noir. Enjoy.

"Dangerous Crossing" is part of the Fox Film Noir Collection, which also includes "Black Widow" and "Daisy Kenyon". Look for reviews of these films in the coming weeks.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN


Ice Age The Meltdown (2006) dir. Carlos Saldanha
Voices by: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Dennis Leary, Queen Latifah

**

“Ice Age: The Meltdown” is good enough to hold you over in between Pixar films, but ultimately a forgettable entry in the realm of CG cinema. The animation is surprisingly sparse in creative design. I’m not sure it had half the budget of “Ratatouille” or “Cars”, but it certainly has half the laughs and originality.

The film begins at the end of the Ice Age and our trio of lovable animals Manny the Whoolly Mammoth, Sid the Sloth and Diego the Sabre-Toothed Tiger (Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, and Dennis Leary) are forced to leave their glacial home to an awaiting Ark – get it? A flood and an Ark. Even Scrat the Squirrel knows it’s time to go. The trio’s journey take them from the glacier valley across land, ice, water, and mountains to find a new home.

Along the way Manny meets up with another Mammoth, Ellie (Queen Latifah), an orphan who lives in the company of possums. In fact, since Ellie has never seen another Mammoth and so she assumes she’s possum. This comical bit of confusion lasts until Ellie’s latent memories of the day she was orphaned comes back to her.

It’s a rather uneventful journey, with little of the visual wonder which we expect from computer animation. The animals’ lives are threatened by a series of uncreative challenges, there’s a treacherous adventure over a rock bridge, a couple of evil sea dinosaurs, and a group of vultures hovering (and singing) around them. Unfortunately most of the suspense is played for subpar comedy.

Most of the gags are of the Shrek-influenced pop culture variety – it feels so perfunctory and unoriginal it fails to bring the intended laughs. At one point Sid meets a group of young sloths who are willing to obey his every command, a choreographed Simon Says dance sequence follows.

The only saving grace are the brief interludes featuring Scrat the Squirrel and his precious acorn. This is the most inspired humour in the film – a more Chuck Jones-style of physical humour minus the go-to pop culturisms. These scenes act as transitions between the main journey of our heroes and become little comic gems peppered throughout the film.

“Ice Age: The Meltdown” will certainly keep your kids occupied for a 90mins break in your day. It’s relatively scare-free too, so they definitely won’t give them any nightmares. Not recommended for adults.

"Ice Age: The Meltdown" is available on DVD from Fox Home Entertainment





Wednesday, 12 March 2008

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN


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

****

Hollywood has just done the unthinkable - given the Best Picture Oscar twice in a row to two of the more darker, nihilistic mainstream films we’ve seen hit our multiplexes (including 2006’s “The Departed”). I welcome this trend as revenge against some of the more egregious Oscar choices over the years.

“No Country For Old Men’s” masterfulness lies in its sparse depiction of two men fueled by greed to find a lost satchel of money – a head to head battle with a dozen or more corpses left in their wake. But despite all the praise, “No Country For Old Men” frustrates me in almost equal measure by its unnecessarily obtuse ending that on second viewing feels even less satisfying.

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

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

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

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

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

But after achieving greatness for three quarters, after a key death the film slowly peters out with little action or drama that significantly affects the story. The film turns into Tommy Lee Jones’ story at the end, which still frustrates me. Though the voiceover in the film is Jones’ he is virtually inactive and doesn’t affect the plot or events in the story. The book is an anti-climax, and so is the film. The Coens, on the DVD featurette, describe to us, with verve this fact. But recognizing this fact doesn’t make it any more satisfying or great. And for a film so inspired Jones’ final speech and obnoxious ‘cut to black’ is just a slap in my face. A film this great deserves better. Enjoy.

"No Country For Old Men" is available on DVD this week from Miramax Films and Alliance Films"

Monday, 10 March 2008

THE COUNTERFEITERS


The Counterfeiters (2008) dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky
Starring:Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Martin Brambach

**1/2

“The Counterfeiters” was the Best Foreign Language Film winner at this year’s Oscars. It’s a true story of a group of concentration camp prisoners in WWII who survive the horrors of the Holocaust by making counterfeit money for the Nazis. It’s a story of personal survival amidst the most harrowing of historical events that unfortunately suffers for missing its opportunities to be a 'great' film, instead of just a 'good' film.

Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is introduced in post-war Monte Carlo, gambling, and whoring his life away. Though he's winning with ease, he's not happy. After a night with a beautiful girl, entranced only by his money, she notices his concentration camp tatoo on his arm. This piece of information sends us back to the War to show how Sorowitsch survived the Holocaust.

Sorowitsch was one of the most famous forgers in Europe, he made an unscrupulous living falsifying passports for whoever had the money to pay. But once the war starts, Sorowitsch, like all Jews under German occupation is imprisoned in a concentration camp. Sorowitsch witnesses and is subject to the imaginable brutalities of the concentration camp and vows to survive at all costs. Sorowitsch's expertise becomes a valued asset and he soon finds himself leading a group of forgers with varying skills counterfeiting British Pounds and American Dollars to fund the Nazis' last ditch war effort. The group find solace in their work, but when another member of the team, Burger (August Diehl) objects to the immorality of working for the Nazi cause moral conflicts compound on each other threatening everyone's lives.

The strength of the film is the fundamental and confounding moral question of 'what you do to survive?' Before Burger raised his ethical hand, Sorowitsch thought he knew the answer to this question. But the heart of Ruzowitky's film is how Sorowitsch reconcile's these internal and external conflicts.

By tackling the Holocaust Stefan Ruzowitzky is automatically pitting himself against the great films that have come before it. “The Counterfeiters” is a good film, and perhaps deserves more than 2 1/2 stars, but considering the subject matter and the potential the materials presents, I must dock large points for each opportunity missed.

The cinematography bothered me – so much so, I literally couldn’t look past it. Ruzowitzky and DOP Benedict Neuenfels shoot the film with a blanket of grain it’s actually very difficult to see the detail in the film. They also employ an unnecessary handheld swishing camera technique that doesn’t fit the material. The result is something akin to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s stylized “21 Grams”. The style worked to enhance the grittiness of Iñárritu’s story, but for the Holocaust, the subject does not require such enhancement.

As well, we barely get to see the detail of how the counterfeiters created such perfect recreations of currency. Salomon Sorowitsch was such an artist with his work we needed to see the details of his craftsmanship to truly appreciate the timeconsuming work being done. Like Col. Nicholson is "Bridge Over the River Kwai", seeing the details he obsesses over makes his eventual redemption even more powerful. But with the distracting fuzzy cinematography the preciseness of Sorowitsch's work is lost and with it another layer of internal conflict. 

It's a shame to critique a film of such compelling real life subject matter on the basis of its camera technique, but it's also a shame for the director to distract us away from his story with an unnecessary artifice.

The final on screen text frustrated me even more, when we learn that the Counterfeiters' work in the film was the largest counterfeiting operation in history. That took me by surprise because this scope never got across on screen. The most amount of money we see at one time is a handful of dollar bills. Again this is a missed opporuntity for Ruzowitztky to show us the scale of the operation instead of telling us – and at the end of the film.

"The Counterfeiters" is a good film, but I just can't help what could have been...a shame. Enjoy. 




Sunday, 9 March 2008

HITMAN


Hitman (2007) dir. Xavier Gans
Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Olga Kurylenko, Dougray Scott, Ulrich Thomsen

***

In my review of “Shoot ‘Em Up” I expressed my frustration for the excessive use of ‘double-gun’ shoot-outs. John Woo’s double-gun career is over, and so should everyone else’s. “Hitman” not only uses the double guns, it features it prominently on its poster. Needless to say, my expectations for this film were low. But “Hitman” is not all gun-porn. Writer Skip Woods (“Swordfish”), Director Xavier Gens (“Frontieres) and star Timothy Olyphant, with a wink of Eurotrash humour, create a bloody-satisfying popcorn genre film.

Agent 47 (Olyphant) is patterned out of the Jason Bourne mold of killers – like Bourne, 47 had his identity removed and was brainwashed to be a Terminator-like killer. 47 lives like a wandering soul, at the command of some unknown “organization” called “The Agency”. Interpol supercop Mike (Dougray Scott) has been tracking 47 down for seven years. During this time 47 has killed 100 people across the world (and, according to a brief shot of a pushpin map, a hit in Northern Manitoba – wow!).

Agent 47’s latest gig is to bump off the President of Russia (Ulrich Thomsen). After the job goes down, successfully from 47’s point of view, he discovers a double-cross, which has him really mad and looking for answers…and violent revenge of course. In the middle of the complicated melee is President Belicoff’s favourite Ukrainian prostitute Nika (new Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), who teams up with 47 to solve the mystery.

If the plot sounds a lot like the “Bourne” series, or “The Professional” you’re right. It’s a major influence and piggybacks on the success of the new-Millenium superspy – the brooding uncharismatic identity-less loner. But “Hitman”, which is based on a videogame, retains the bubblegum tone of the videogame genre. Though the film is relatively humourless, unlike Bourne, it never takes itself seriously. Gens and his team know their film is pulp cinema and a low-rent franchise.

So with this attitude Gens maximizes his cinematic possibilities. The film feels like a young expressive filmmaker looking to make a bold career statement. Gens, a Frenchman, previously directed the eye-popping violent horror film “Frontiere(s)”. With that film he pushed the boundaries of violence, gore and good taste. That was the torture-porn genre, and in the gun-porn genre he puts in as much chutzpah.

There’s several action set pieces that make Michael Davis’ “Shoot em Up” sequence look pathetic. The final gun battle is bloody and nasty. Gens doesn’t spare us the great blood squibs we never got in “Shoot em Up”. And Belicoff’s death scene from the bullets of the helicopter encircling and tearing up with his rooftop lair is the most satisfying gunfight I’ve seen in a while.

Not everything in the film is a bulls-eye. The first third of the film is too paced quickly. Gens fails to generate the suspense needed to make the ‘hits’ exciting and thrilling. As a result, at the beginning, the film actually feels like a videogame. Gens gets over the hump and in the second and third acts. Once we get to know 47 and his relationship with Nika the film blossoms and find a good groove.

As well, Timothy Olyphant deserves some credit for taking a stock character – a videogame character – and turning him into someone intriguing enough to want to get to know. The barcode on the back of his shaved head is ridiculous, but I saw it as deadpan humour (and no, we never get to see him get ‘scanned’).

On the DVD special features it’s apparent, despite the pulpiness of the material, Olyphant, Scott and all the other actors took their parts seriously which actually shows up on screen. Combine this with the cinematic energy of a hungry and talented filmmaker, and you see how straight-to-video material gets elevated to respectable popcorn entertainment. Enjoy.

Don’t be dissuaded by the overdramatic trailer.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM


Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007) Zach Helm
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman

***

“Mr. Magorium” is the debut feature from writer/director Zach Helm. Zach is so new, he only has 3 produced credits on IMDB. But as writer of “Stranger Than Fiction” his name quickly opened a lot of doors. He was privileged to be able to direct his first film at a ripe old age of 31. It’s a cuddly-cute children’s film about a kindly old Willy Wonka-type toymaker who brings love and happiness to kids through his magical Manhattan toy store. Helm leans heavily on the Tim Burton/Peter Pan themes, but is able to create a decent knock-off of rated G feel-goodness.

Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is a 243 year old man-child (Pee-Wee Herman meets Willy Wonka) who operates a magical toy store in Manhattan. The store is alive in every sense of the word – children stream in and of the store with wondrous glee, stuffed animals come alive and play along with the kids – Kermit the Frog (Henson voice and all) even frequents the joint. Magorium harbours a secret though. His death is impending. He’s not sick or bed-ridden, it’s just his time to go – and he knows it. Magorium offers the store to his longtime manager Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) to own and operate. But Molly has dreams of becoming a world class piano player, touring the world and becoming famous – a dream which had been halted for years because of the needs of the store.

When Magorium passes on the store dies as well. And only a heart with an absolute belief in the healing power of magic can bring it back to life.

Dustin Hoffman is a delight as Magorium. In his older age Hoffman has embraced his supporting roles with verve. He was arguably the best part of “Meet the Fockers” and he stole his scenes in “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”. As Magorium, Hoffman essentially plays Willy Wonka, but better than Johnny Depp. As required he chews his scenery by speaking with a cartoon lisp and waddling and bouncing around like a giddy child. Few actors could get away with such zaniness.

Jason Bateman’s straight man is a good contrast to Hoffman. He plays the tight-ass accountant Henry Weston who is slowly loosened up by the shy and awkward Eric (Zach Mills). Natalie Portman does Winona Ryder very well – a petite wondergirl who loses her faith in magic. And that’s about all the characters we get. There’s no evil insurance inspector, no slimy real estate developer and not even a pushy toy conglomerate. What gives?

Mr. Magorium suffers mainly from this lack of danger or threat. There’s the looming death of Mr. Magorium, which from his point of view is embraced and welcomed with open arms. I couldn’t help but wonder (no pun intended) how the film would have played if Magorium feared his own death. This would have added a level of depth that Hoffman could have chewed off even more. Instead, there’s a blanket of lollipop goodness that permeates every frame. We’re teased with a menacing entity surrounding the building. There’s a great scene when a corner of the wallpaper starts to turn black when Magorium’s prospective death is mentioned. This threat doesn’t reveal an antagonist, but a convenient plot point to be resolved in the third act.

In the end Zach Helm tells his bubblegum story well – he pushes the right buttons to make us want to be six years old again. And there’s a moral of the story to put your kids to bed with – magic only exists with those with the capacity for the deepest unselfish love.

“Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” is now available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.