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

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

CALL FOR VOTERS - The Top 25 Indy Moments



Hey Fanboys and Fangirls,

In celebration of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Daily Film Dose is compiling another Indy-specific Fanboy list: The Top 25 Indy Jones Moments.

From the 3 feature movies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade) please send me your 10 favourite moments, actions, or lines of dialogue. From everyone's top 10 lists the DFD writers will compile the 25 most popular moments.

Please avoid 'scenes' - ie. Truck chase in "Raiders". We'd like to find those singular moments in time that has made the series so special to Fanboys around the world. Please be specific - ie. Indy crawling under the truck in "Raiders".

Please email me your suggestions to dailyfilmdose@hotmail.com

The list will be posted the week of the release of the new film.

Thanks,

Alan

THE GOLDEN COMPASS


The Golden Compass (2007) dir. Chris Weitz
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Eva Green

***

New Line pumped in $180million into this film with the intention of making two others parts to the trilogy. With only a meager $70million from the North American box office, part 2 and 3 appeared dead. Apparently the film world revolves around the U.S. Box Office, because foreign receipts pulled in a highly respectable $300 million and it would be a shame if New Line doesn’t consider the film a success. The fact is, the expectations on the film and the series were much too high. Though it doesn’t reach the mythic level of storytelling of LOTR, it’s as good as Narnia and arguably the later Potter films.

“The Golden Compass” exists in a parallel world to Earth, one where humans live symbiotically with their own personal ‘daemon’ – that is, a companion animal that represents the person’s soul. Daniel Craig plays Lord Asriel, a nobleman who has discovered evidence of a magical substance called “Dust” which, according to legend, can allow travelers to move in between these parallel worlds (ie. to Earth). Asriel embarks on a journey to the North Pole to find these secrets. But he is continually fought against by The Magisterium, a despotic organization that serves to protect society against these unknown mythical worlds.

With Asriel off on his journey, he entrusts his niece Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) to the company of her boarding school. But Lyra is unknowingly roped into the adventure when she is taken by the mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) on her own journey to the North. When Coulter’s nefarious motives are revealed Lyra escapes into the company of a group of wandering bandit warriors, called Gyptians. In order to reunite with her Uncle, Lyra enlists the help of a disgraced ‘daemon’ Polar Bear, Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Gandolf McKellan) and hot witch named Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) to fight the evil army.

The fantasy genre is already bloated with too many franchise wannabes, like "The Seeker", or "The Spiderwick Chronicles", and Compass, like most others of its kind, is unoriginal its set-up – a prophesy is fulfilled by a young child, who discovers powers adults don’t have and has to go on long journey to save the world etc etc. Of course, "Compass" is a genre film and does have a few key elements which separate it from the pack.

Perhaps the most interesting characters are the mysterious Magisterium who are the not-too-disguised Catholic Church of this parallel world. In the press, much was made of this comparison, but I saw it specifically as a parallel Spanish Inquisition. Like those doubting Thomases the religious power of the Magisterium is threatened by free-thinkers’ scientific exploration of the universe, with Asriel as its Copernicus or Galileo. Political allegories make for better and deeper viewing experiences and in this case, it’s a warning against ruling with absolute power.

It’s difficult to say how much influence the Christian (or Catholic) right had on the U.S. box office, but the backlash against the film was fierce. The film ends on a cliff hangar, and knowing the possibility of the series never getting past episode one, it's a frustrating tease. Lyra’s entry into the other world, the discovery of the magical powers of the dust and Daniel Craig's showdown with her nemesis Nicole Kidman may never come to fruition. It’s a shame if we don’t get to see the sequels because of a few lobbyists

"The Golden Compass" arrives on DVD this week with a chance to become the success it didn't get in the U.S. box office. Enjoy.




Tuesday, 29 April 2008

RETRIBUTION


Retribution (2006) dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Manami Konishi

**1/2

Guest review by Pasukaru

J-Horror had once been a term propagated proudly among Asian film geeksters (before the remake frenzy), but is now voiced in an embarrassed undertone. Japanese horror has probably seen its heyday come and go, but who knows - there still may be a new masterpiece on the horizon, and who better to deliver it than Kiyoshi Kurosawa. His seminal film “Pulse” (2001) is certainly one of the finest examples of the genre, and so I eagerly opened the DVD case to his latest offering, despite it going virtually unnoticed in movieland (most likely J-horror fatigue).

Fade in. Once again, Kiyoshi casts Koji Yakusho as the brooding leading man, Yoshioka. This time he investigates the murder of a woman in a red dress drowned in salt water. Soon, evidence implicates our hero as the murderer, and has his partner, played by Tsuyoshi Ihara, suspecting him. Did Yoshioka do it? This is an intriguing way to start a murder mystery, as this device has become a clichéd third act twist in a great many psychological thrillers. Our main man, of course, can’t remember a thing and obsessively, and aggressively, hunts for the real killer while suffering from a mental breakdown. Before you can say “Sadako”, a longhaired ghost in a red dress starts appearing. In all fairness, "Retribution" isn’t as tired as it sounds, but a man in a red dress would have been a nice departure. Alas, conventions are conventions. Eventually, Yoshioka connects the dots, rules out a single killer, and finds a supernatural link from his past to the bizarre murders.

"Retribution" is generally unique, but somewhat unsatisfying. There’s something about collective guilt over the neglect of the needy in the face of unchecked modernization, or something, but it’s a weak hook to hang your coat on. Sure, the ghost is angry (we get it), but the relationship to her victims and Yoshioka is not convincing. I simply could never wrap my head around the ghost’s motivations, and felt her appearances were more silly than scary - ie. there's a scene where the ghost takes flight over the city which is unintentionally funny.

Nonetheless, director Kiyoshi brings a refreshing intellect to the worn-out genre, which can't be said of his other J-Horror imitators. Kiyoshi creates a unique haunting mood consistent over all his films with the help of his beautiful and striking compositions. Koji Yakusho deserves recognition for playing what could have been some ridiculous scenes totally straight and convincing. By the resolution, we are on his side, engaged by his torment, which supersedes the laughter the events may have induced.

Ultimately, "Retribution" serves as a showcase for gifted filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa, because in the hands of any lesser director this story would probably have been a complete farce. All being said, it’s a worthy addition to the genre. Kurosawa will be back with better films.


Monday, 28 April 2008

CLOVERFIELD (DVD)


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

** in theatres
**1/2 on DVD

This serves as an amendment to my original theatrical review of the film.

Marshall McLuhan's statement, "The medium is the message" was never seemed more applicable than with "Cloverfield." After watching the film on DVD, as suspected, the film is a different experience on the small screen than the big screen. The nausea induced by the physical motion of the camera is certainly a difference, but since the film is designed as a 'reality-based' experience - as if "Cloverfield" was an unedited 'discovered' tape - such a discovery would likely be seen in people's homes on the small screen. In fact, it would likely be seen on an even smaller screen as pirated youtube clips or something, but the DVD experience is the best compromise.

"Cloverfield" looks better as well. According to the special features, the film appears to have been shot on an prosumer HDV camera - one that is designed to produce images primarily for high-definition television screens, not stadium seating-sized multiplex theatres. The predominantly dark nighttime images hold better on TV which makes the chaos of the characters' traumatic night in Manhattan now a crisp discernable and ironically beautiful series of images.

Is "Cloverfield" a different film now? Was my original review based purely on the medium it was presented in? Yes and no. I tacked on another half star because the exhilaration and pace of the film was more evident the second time around, but the film is still a frustrating example style over substance.

Click here, for my original review to contrast

Here's the teaser that started the hype:


Sunday, 27 April 2008

SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS


Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) dir. Sergei Parajanov
Starring: Ivan Mikolajchuk, Larisa Kadochnikova, Tatyana Bestayeva, Spartak Bagashvili

****

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

Against the heart-achingly gorgeous rural tapestry of the Carpathian Mountains and training its kino-eye with both the grace and precision of a hawk on the colourful Hutsul peasantry of 19th century Ukraine, the swirling, dancing camera of cinematographer Yuri Illienko under the masterful direction of Serhey Paradjanov created what is, perhaps, one of the most astonishing and influential motion pictures of all time.

There are a lot of good pictures out there and a surprising number of great ones, but one can only count on the fingers of maybe four or five sets of hands the number of gems that truly deserve the sort of worship afforded to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Serhey Paradjanov’s immortal classic of Ukrainian cinema. I proclaim this with having seen over 30,000 movies in my life, so I do not issue this proclamation of truth lightly. I have also seen the picture itself at least 30 times, the first time at the age of seven on a bootleg film print smuggled into Canada and screened at the National Ukrainian Federation Hall in the North End of Winnipeg. Seeing this picture was never an easy feat, especially since it was repressed by the Russian communist dictators in the 1960s and then given relative short shrift through much of the home video revolution that began in the 1980s. (I still own a washed-out, over-priced VHS version that I bought at Kim’s Video in New York many moons ago.) Other than poor bootlegs I rented from video stores in North York and Etobicoke in Toronto, it was always annoying that the film was not available on DVD.

With this in mind, it is with reverence and joy that true cinephiles will regard the current Kino DVD release of Serhey Paradjanov’s. Not only is this the work that brought Paradjanov to the attention of serious cinema aficionados outside the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, but upon being unveiled in 1964, this wildly poetic and romantic motion picture not only influenced filmmakers all over the world, but also placed Paradjanov at the forefront of cinema artists – a place he so clearly deserved to be at.

Ethnically Armenian and born in Georgia, Paradjanov began his filmmaking career as an assistant director at the famed Dovzhenko Studios in Ukraine. Upon graduating to the full-fledged status of director, he toiled away in the often-clunky and sometimes restrictive realm of social realism that was demanded upon filmmakers and forced upon audiences by the communist powers-that-were. Though Dovzhenko himself disowned many of these pictures, it must be noted that he cut his teeth cinematically with some of the finest actors and technicians working within the Soviet system and he was not only able to learn and explore all aspects of cinematic storytelling, but frankly, he made quite a few decent pictures during this period. Films such as "Andriesh"," Ukrainian Rhapsody", "Dumka", "A Little Flower On A Stone" and numerous others all point to a developing visual storyteller with a flair for colour and poetry.

Unlike that work, however, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is not the proficient toil of a mere craftsman. It takes its place rightfully as the work of a true artist, a master, if you will. Based on the classic Ukrainian novel by Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky, it spins a seemingly straightforward tale of two lovers, Ivan and Marichka, who develop a magical, passionate bond in childhood, but who are kept apart tragically in life, only to be reunited spiritually in death.

This simple and oft-told tale is ultimately so complex, so emotional and so true – especially in Paradjanov’s hands – that it makes most love stories seem like just so much Harlequin pap. In the first place, there is the matter of Paradjanov’s now-legendary approach to the visual rendering – a camera that seems almost avian in its point of view. It swoops, it slides, it soars, it spins and as quickly as it begins its magical dance, it will stop, and stare with keen precision. It is a camera that never feels like it is where you expect it to be, yet in so doing, is exactly where one would want it to be. Paradjanov uses the camera eye to create emotion, to instill and render feeling. Yet even as he does this, he never sacrifices the clarity and/or forward thrust of narrative, the complexity of character or the underlying spirit of emotion inherent in the story. He never indulges his camera or his poetry strictly for the sake of poetry. He allows the poetic flourishes to serve the audience’s engagement in the world in which the characters live. Like Eisenstein at his best, Paradjanov still never forgets that as an artist, he is an entertainer, and a master entertainer at that. However, like Oleksander Dovzhenko, the pioneer of poetic cinema with "Arsenal" and "Earth" (Zemlya), Paradjanov also realizes that pure, strict narrative, pure social realism (if you will) is not the only way to effectively tell a story cinematically. Paradjanov composes images that are so heart-achingly beautiful that they stay burned in one’s memory long after the film has played itself out.

Paradjanov himself often acknowledged Andrei Tarkovsky as his chief inspiration. "Ivan’s Childhood" is the film that encouraged Paradjanov of the poetic possibilities of telling stories cinematically. Interestingly enough, "Ivan’s Childhood" was an odd first feature for someone like Tarkovsky in that it was almost a “gun-for-hire” job that forced him to find new and exciting ways of making the material “his own”. This, of course, is what still makes it (at least for me) Tarkovsky’s greatest achievement as the poetry serves the narrative and is never there just for the indulgent sake of it. And while "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is hardly a first feature for Paradjanov, it has the same fresh, exciting feel as "Ivan’s Childhood". (And again, since Paradjanov somewhat unfairly disowned his previous work, one could almost count it as a first feature.)

While Kino’s DVD is bereft of a commentary track, it does feature a vaguely interesting documentary entitled "Islands" which looks at the friendship and artistic similarities between Paradjanov and Tarkovsky. Filled with clips that compare and contrast the two filmmakers, it is definitely worth seeing, but only if you’ve watched all of Paradjanov and Tarkovsky’s key works. Although the DVD includes a Dolby 5.1 track, it wisely includes the original mono track. Time and expense were never spared in Soviet cinema and the mix on this film proves just how wonderful mono sound can actually be. The stunning music adapted by Miroslaw Skoryk from a wide variety of Ukrainian folk music in Hutsul dialect sounds magnificent in mono and seems better integrated with the other tracks than the overbearing and annoyingly pristine 5.1 track. The extras are nice, but for a film of this magnitude, it would have been welcome to have material that more deeply assessed the cultural and historical background. Greatness like this requires constant and diligent assessment.

And, in assessing the greatness of "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors", one should not discount the fact that the very material of Kotsyubinsky’s book was a perfect opportunity for Paradjanov to break out of the social realist mode of the communist oppressors and create a work of such profound cinematic artistry. During his lifetime, Kotsyubinsky, a social democrat dedicated to the ideals of writing narrative literature about Ukrainian culture in the Ukrainian language made him a target of the Czar’s secret police. Kotsyubinsky had been imprisoned and persecuted by Czarist Russia for most of his life. Ironically, during subsequent Soviet rule, writers like Kotsyubinsky were used as propaganda tools by the communists to extol the virtues of communism by extolling the virtues of artists and historical figures that had been persecuted by the Czar. Even though the communists practiced identical persecution on contemporary artists, they thought they could prove how superior they were by holding these people up as examples of political freedom fighters against the repression inherent in the previous regime. Since Kotsyubinsky’s centenary was just around the corner, it would not have been lost on Paradjanov that he’d have a relatively free ride within the Dovzhenko Studio to make exactly the movie he wanted to make out of Kotsyubinsky’s classic novel.

And what a ride he had. And what a ride, he gave us. (Though sadly, after the film was made, Paradjanov suffered mercilessly with endless persecution, brutal terms in the Gulag and a premature death due to illness brought on by his suffering.)

"Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is a movie that raises the gooseflesh in the audience to new heights. Paradjanov never ceases to dazzle us with his virtuosity. When a falling tree comes crashing down on its intended victim, that camera is with the tree’s point of view as it watches the horror of said victim turn to pain and anguish as nature plunges down and crushes the man below. When an axe comes flying towards the face of someone, that axe practically smashes the camera lens in two and the screen – the eyes of the victim – turns to the colour of blood. As two lovers say farewell in the sun-dappled foliage of the Carpathians, their youthful faces become drenched with a sudden, magical rain-shower, which soothes their rising passion just as strongly as it hides their tears in raindrops. The movie is replete with images like these – not a shot, not a scene, not a frame goes by without some sort of cinematic invention. Sometimes contemporary audiences react with self-satisfied amusement to occasional flourishes in the film (as they are wont to do with almost everything that is not seemingly hip and now), but that’s only because the initial brilliance of Paradjanov to shoot something in a certain way has been so studied and copied that in its purest form, it seems like a cliché, when it is, in fact, the real thing.

"Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" has been influential upon filmmakers outside of the Soviet Union (Dutch-Australian auteur Paul Cox cites it as the film that made him want to make films), but also, during the 60s and 70s, WITHIN the Soviet Union it briefly gave way to an explosion of poetic-styled cinematic storytelling – especially in Ukraine. Made in the Dovzhenko Studios (named after you-know-who, obviously), "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" inspired a brief, but exciting wave of poetic feature dramas including works by Illienko, Osyka and, interestingly enough, Ivan Mikholaichuk, the actor who stars as Ivan in "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors". (As a footnote, Mikholaichuk was not only one of the big stars of Soviet cinema, but one of the few who actually spoke Ukrainian. He was extremely influential at the studio and a big supporter of national cinema in Soviet countries where the Russian communists launched aggressive campaigns of Russification.)

Finally, one of the great things about this picture is how Paradjanov lavishes time and attention on all the rituals that rule the lives of the Hutsul people in the Carpathians. Church-going, Christmas, spring thaw festivals, harvest festivals, weddings, funerals, courting and many other richly evocative moments in the lives of the characters not only present a magnificent historical and cultural portrait, but do so, by integrating the rituals and the pleasure of watching the rituals directly into the narrative. Again, Paradjanov finds ways to tantalize our senses, but never in an indulgent way – always remembering to stay in service to the story.

One ritual detailed in the film that is especially poignant and funny is a wedding scene that involves a husband and wife being joined in the eyes of God (and the Hutsul community) blindfolded and attached to a yoke. In the world of these characters, life is work, while marriage is a life-long attachment to drudgery, and where the only escape, the only happiness, the only spiritual fulfillment comes in death and the afterlife.

These shadows of forgotten ancestors that infuse the lives, not only of the film’s characters, but in many ways, all of us are detailed with the beauty, care and grace that only a great artist like Paradjanov can bring to such material. He’s made a picture that allows us to participate in the rituals and heartaches of life while at the same time being tantalized and entertained by it.

He’s also made a picture that allows us to experience almost first-hand, a sense of spirituality where we can soar, bird-like, perhaps even God-like with the camera – Paradjanov’s camera – that magnificent vantage point that makes us feel immortal.

Now that’s poetry!

Saturday, 26 April 2008

HOT DOCS - "Planet Bboy"


Planet B-Boy (2008) dir. Benson Lee
Documentary

***1/2

There are four core elements to the influential art form known as Hip-Hop:  Rap, DJing, Graffiti, and Bboying (aka breakdancing). Since the late 70’s/early 80’s Rap has come to dominate Hip-Hop leaving the other elements behind and out of the pop culture loop. And while Rap has become a huge money making and marketing machine, the dance form of the culture - Bboying - has gone stayed true to its roots.

Benson Lee’s exhilarating documentary reveals to the average layman the explosive worldwide phenomenon of the underground bboying scene and how the passion for this highly expressive form of art unites youth around the world.

At the top Lee gets the housekeeping done first and quickly. In a fast-paced 5 mins sequence Lee quickly summarizes comprehensively the history of bboying from its origins and influences to its status today. Lee then gets down to the real showcase and the focal point of the film - the annual 'Battle of the Year' competition. Every year Germany holds a bboying competition which sees the 18 of baddest international crews battle it out to be the best in the world. 

Lee criss-crosses the globe at breakneck speed to cover four of the most promising crews competing - Korea, Japan, France, U.S. Each of the dancers from the crews become the characters in the film. The more we learn about the backgrounds of the dancers the more Lee reveals their commonality across their different cultures. Whether it’s a Korean teen who continually seeks the approval of his single father, or a 12 year old French boy whose discovers her mother’s latent racism, Lee, in humourous and emotional ways, shows how the passion to dance, compete, and entertain allow them to rise above the poverty, discrimination or domestic problems in their lives.

In addition to these great characters, Lee captures some of the most phenomenal dancing you will ever see – period. The Battle of the Year begins with a choreography round where the crews perform a routine as a group. As each crew takes the stage we get to witness astounding feats of acrobatics, complex leg, arms and body movements and uniquely creative choreography. The final round is the traditional crew vs. crew battle. The two crews that compete in the end go through a series of jaw-dropping one-manships that had the Hot Docs audience shaking their heads in unison. The results best anything seen on "Dancing With the Stars".

So if bboying is so much fun to watch, why hasn't television hasn’t tapped into this. The dance is inherently a freestyle form of expression, and without traditional rules and conventions mainstream media has never been able to find a way to bottle and package this energy. But the dancers wouldn't have it any other way. Bboys continually push their bodies and minds to the limit because there is no rulebook, no manual to learn from, no school to teach it. It’s still a self-taught discipline and an unruly artistic force of nature.

Go and see this film, it’s currently playing in selected cities in the U.S. and in Canada in May.




Friday, 25 April 2008

THE FRIGHTENERS


The Frighteners (1995) dir. Peter Jackson
Starring: Michael J, Fox, Dee Wallace Stone, Trini Alvarado, Jake Busey, Chi McBride

***

“The Frighteners” was a minor flop in its day – a forgotten about ghost thriller/comedy about a paranormal detective who tracks down a ghostly serial killer who has continued his spree from the afterlife. Now that director Peter Jackson is off-the-charts-successful, “The Frighteners” has gotten a worthy second look again.

The film got an early HD-DVD release from Universal in the form of a director’s cut which adds another 12mins onto the film. The DVD also comes with a full-length comprehensive documentary cut by Jackson himself, which he original shot specifically for its Laserdisc! release in 1996. The film must have bad luck because it helped kill off two obsolete formats.

Michael J. Fox plays Frank Bannister an ethically-challenged detective with a unique ability to see and communicate with the paranormal. To make money he employs the help of a couple of his ghost buddies - Cryus (Chi McBride) and Stuart (Jim Fyfe) - to haunt people’s houses and con them into retaining his services. Bannister's immorality stems from the traumatic murder of his wife, which Frank witnessed and which gave him the power he possesses today.

But a new ghost has arrived in town, and starts killing off people in the manner in which Frank’s wife was killed – marked with a number etched into the victim’s forehead. Frank is accused of the murders through his association as a ghost-hunter. With the help of Lucy Lynskey (Trina Alvarado), a widower whose husband was one of the numeric victims, Frank tracks down the murderer and comes face-to-face with the demon from his past.

The film is an ambitious effort because it plays on many different tones and genres. The opening establishing scenes are played as pure comedy. The central relationship is Frank and his ghost pals. Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, John Astin and R. Lee Ermey provide caricatured characters which easily bring you into the story. Jackson and his spouse/co-writer Fran Walsh gradually pump in the fear in the second act and intrigue us with some unexpected plot twists. The lengthy final act wears out its welcome and goes over-the-top with a drawn out cat and mouse confrontation/gunfight.

Apart from the bloated finale the film unfolds and reveals itself with great intrigue. Jackson skillfully retains the light comic tone for as long as he can. Eventually he has to let go and get down the business of solving his morbid tale. His introduction of the quirky FBI detective is a welcomed addition the second act, but then in the finale he needlessly turns him into an ugly neo-Nazi. This misstep still doesn't work.

Michael J. Fox holds the film together well even though he is played against type. He’s a broken man and without the fast-talking repartee we are used to in his more famous roles. His dramatic arc brings him from apathy to despair and back up to redemption at the end..

Fox had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the time, though he had not gone public with his condition.  Love or hate the film (most people are in one or two of these camps), it's perhaps most significant for being Michael J. Fox's last leading role on the big screen. I certainly hope we get to see him again soon. Enjoy.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

SHE DONE HIM WRONG



She Done Him Wrong (1933) dir. Lowell Sherman
Starring: Mae West, Cary Grant, Owen Moore, Gilbert Roland

***

Mae West is one fascinating movie star and “She Done Him Wrong” is a fascinating film. The Academy Award-Nominated film was like the “Midnight Cowboy” of its day, a racy sex-charged drama which helped cause the Hollywood studios to implement the famous Motion Picture Code which outlawed moral unacceptable content from it’s pictures.

As per the opening titles, the film is set in the "Gay 90’s" – referring to 1890’s New York. West plays Lady Lou a seductive dancer in a bowery saloon, who works for her boss and benefactor Gus (Noah Berry). Cary Grant plays Captain Cummings a kind of Salvation Army missionary worker who’s about to be evicted by the owner of the building. Lou's former beau Chick Clark (Owen Moore) is in prison but itching to escape, something which would cause great conflict at home.

Lou's seductiveness and confident street smarts has made her into a character like Humphrey Bogart’s character from Casablanca. Guys swoon over her and will do anything catch her attention, or even go to bed with her – something which she unsubtly takes pride in. She speaks in sharp double-entendres like "Is that a pistol in your hand or are you just glad to see me?"

But when Gus’s racketeering draws the attention of the police West suddenly becomes an accomplices to Gus’ illegal activities. Will her sexiness be enough to get her out of her jam?

Mae West is fascinating because she is more than just the blonde seductress she portrays on screen. Before Hollywood she was an accomplished stage writer, penning some of the more edge-pushing plays about sex and homosexuality. In fact, “She Done Him Wrong” was adapted from one of West’s plays, “Diamond L’il” I guess she could have been considered the female Orson Welles – a “L’enfant terrible” who took Hollywood by storm with strong swiftness. She wasn’t exactly a youth though. She was 38 when she made her first film in 1932. She became a pin-up star at an age when Hollywood usually discards and trashes actresses for the younger generation.

With today’s eyes the film may not feel racy, but considering the Code of Morality which resulted in decades of saccharine depictions of sex, Lady Lou is a menace to society. It’s also interesting to watch how general attitude of beauty has changed over the years as well. West is definitely a full-figured woman and flaunts every curve she’s born with. In fact, all the dancers in her show are buxom hippy girls - a stark contrast to the 'ideal woman' of today.

Lowell Sherman as director shoots the film with great pace. In addition to West’s character, the style of the film could have been an influence on Michael Curtiz in making "Casablanca". The film takes place entirely in a one bar, and the many subplots which revolve around Lady Lou over the course of the film converge in the final act. The film never feels like a 1933 film. The restored cinematography in the Universal Classics DVD looks like the film was made today.

"She Done Him Wrong" is a significant, influential and most importantly enjoyable that has, for the most part, survived the ages. Enjoy

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

A PASSAGE TO INDIA


A Passage to India (1984) dir. David Lean
Starring: Judy Davis, Victor Bannerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox, Alec Guiness

***1/2

“A Passage to India” marked David Lean’s return to the big screen after a 14 year hiatus/semi-retirement. His previous film “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970) was a commercial and critical flop, perhaps this bad press stunned him into a creative daze. “A Passage to India” is more than just a respectable comeback film especially for a 76 year old man. It’s a gorgeous film full of the magic, intrigue and romance and spectacle.

The film begins as a story of Adela Quested (Judy Davis), who comes to India looking for an escape from her drab life in England. She is seduced by the exoticness and the sensual mysteries of India and soon finds herself on the path to finding love with a handsome Indian Dr. Aziz (Victor Bannerjee). Lean plays these emotions with precise skill. Her discovery of the Kama Sutra statues is key and her voyage with Aziz to the Marabar caves agitates her hormones. A consummated relationship never blossoms, instead her fear of the unknown and fear of love manifests itself in the mysterious occurrence in the cave. Adela emerges from the caves scratched, bruised and beaten and accuses the kind an unassuming Dr. Aziz of rape.

The film takes a sharp turn in a more conventional direction (and unfortunately lessons the impact of the film). The final act is a courtroom drama in the traditional witness-defense-prosecution format. It's a shame because this sucks much of the elegance and lyricism out of the film. The film then becomes a story about Aziz andhis friend Fielding (James Fox) who stands by Aziz despite all the accusations against him. Adela is essentially discarded from the film. The finale which features Fielding visiting Aziz years in the future and reconciling their own personal conflicts.

A hallmark of David Lean, especially the “epic period” of his career, is his choice of locations. The setting of his films become as important as his characters. “Bridge on the River Kwai” though set in Burma was shot in the jungles of Ceylon; In “Lawrence of Arabia” Lean took his camera to the uncompromising but beautifully pristine Arabian desert, even “Ryan’s Daughter’, though flawed, shot Ireland like no other film has done before or since. In “A Passage to India”, it’s ‘David Does India.’ Like these previously films Lean places his characters against some of the most awesome vistas we’ve seen from India.

The centrepiece sequence is Adela’s journey to the caves. We see lengthy shots of the most beautiful rock formations in the background with a parade of elephants traversing the land in the foreground. This journey leads up to the key scene in the film when Adela experiences a mystical presence in the cave.

Other hallmarks of Lean are his music and editing. The familiar swoon of Maurice Jarre’s music is in the film as well – though for the most part he's kept it subtle and indistinct compared the grand scores he created for Lean in the past. Lean serves as sole editor on the film - his first credit as such since 1942. Lean was a seasoned pictured editor in the 30's before moving to directing in the 40's. He also pioneered some new editing techniques in the 1960’s for example, using straight cuts instead of dissolves to show passage of time. Lean performs well despite the 40 years in between editing assignments.

Though the film does not elevate itself to the level of masterpiece, and certainly not near the resonating quality of “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Doctor Zhivago”, it’s a great last film from one of cinema’s truly great ‘masters’. Not many other master directors can claim a last film as good as Lean’s. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

WEE WILLIE WINKIE


Wee Willie Winkie (1937) dir. John Ford
Starring: Shirley Temple, Victor McLaglen, June Lang, Cesar Romero

***1/2

One of John Ford’s least well-known films is one of Shirley Temple’s best films – Wee Willie Winkie – based on the Rudyard Kipling story about a young girl who travels to India to meet her grandfather, and winds up becoming intregral to the peace between Indian rebels and British imperialist military. It’s a surprisingly engaging film that moves beyond the stigma of a “Shirley Temple” film. It stands on its own as one of Ford’s most underappreciated films.

Priscilla Williams (Shirley Temple) and her mother Joyce (June Lang) are traveling to India to meet Priscilla’s British grandfather and Joyce’s father-in-law. Granddad Williams is a colonel in the British military and is in charge of commanding the British occupation (and civilization) of a Sikh territory. Neither has met the other and so the meeting is anticipated with excitement and curiosity, especially for Priscilla. Of course, Priscilla is only a kid and naïve to the clashes between Indians and British cultures and by accident she befriends the leader of the Indian resistance, Khoda Kahn (Cesar “The Joker” Romero), who has been sent to prison for running guns.

Though she lives on a very un-kid-friendly military base in India, Priscilla is not a fish out of water. She easily fits with her new temporary family. She strikes a unique friendship with Drill Sergeant MacDuff (the lovable Ford regular Victor McLaglen). But when tensions heat up between the warring parties Priscilla inadvertently gets involved in the struggle. Through her friendship with Kahn Priscilla actually negotiates a peace between the rebels and the British and settles age-old conflicts with her Shirley Temple-cuteness.

John Ford and Shirley Temple are a perfect match. The emotional and mythic sensibilities of the Ford style works well with the naïve hijinx of the Shirley Temple films. Priscilla's naïvite to the stakes the British and Indians are engaged in allows the film to boil down complex issues into simplistic easy-to-understand terms. Priscilla doesn’t know politics, but she does understand that if Kahn doesn’t want to hurt anyone and Col. Williams doesn’t want to hurt anyone, then why should they fight?

It's impossible not to love Shirley Temple’s exuberant energy. It’s easy to see why Temple is often credited with “getting America out of the Depression”. She’s a shining beacon of light which passes through the darkest of situations. One of Ford’s greatest scenes (in any of his films) is Priscilla’s visit to MacDuff's hospital beside. With MacDuff shot and near death Priscilla visits him with joy and elation. She is naïve to what how badly her good friend is hurt, and so the contrast of emotions in the scene is heartbreaking.

How has such a film with such esteemed pedigree (Ford, Temple, Kipling) been forgotten about in the eyes of historical cinema? Perhaps it’s the title which reads more like a forgettable kids film than a classic story set in exotic India. It’s a shame. And certainly the hot pink packaging on the new Fox DVD will not be an incentive for curiosity-seekers to pick up the film. But seek it out for yourself and make a 70 year old ‘discovery’. Enjoy.

Monday, 21 April 2008

HOT DOCS 2008 - "Song Sung Blue"


Song Sung Blue (2008) dir. Greg Kohs
Documentary

**

Mike and Claire Sardina are easy targets for documentary treatment. Over the past 17 years the duo have become local Milwaukee celebs performing as a Neil Diamond/Patsy Cline cover band under the moniker “Lighting and Thunder”. Both are those celebrity-wannabes that live for the limelight no matter how dull or dim that light is. The Milwaukee cover band scene is small enough but their semi-cult following has given them dreams of grandeur.

The duo reaches their height of success when they play to over 30,000 people at a Pearl Jam concert with Eddie Vedder. But when a random accident cripples Claire, their energy to perform is diffused causing a serious rupture in their domestic bliss. With the band defunct Mike and Claire’s lives devolve into passionless existence. The film goes through the usual rise and fall and rise again path.

Its people like Mike and Claire that made the wonderful HBO series “Flight of the Conchords” so enjoyable. Lighting and Thunder (their given names are rarely used) are like Jemaine and Bret - they are so naïve to the realities of show business, yet they perform every show with every ounce of their limited talents. Usually these average Joes with hearts of gold makes for good viewing, and some rave reviews would suggest I'm in the minority, but Lighting and Thunder, their joie de vivre aside, are mildly interesting people at best.

Director Greg Kohs is a little sloppy in his storytelling, the film is cut together with a vast amount of what looks like home video footage shot by either Lighting, Thunder or their kids. Greg never establishes a timeline. And so the only reference to date becomes their fashion and hairstyles. Eddie Vedder’s appearance grounds the backstory to the mid 90’s, other than that is a slightly confusing journey.

Director Kuhs over-embellishes the ugliness of the film. The opening scene features Mike’s crotch and his droopy briefs framed as he sets up the camcorder for a confession. He then puts his face so close to the lens his black pores look like saucers. It’s just one example of many where Kuhs consciously uses the ugliest footage of his characters to generate either humour or sympathy. His mixture of tape quality ranges from Americas Funniest Home Videos rejected footage to passable quality sit down interviews. In the second half of the film Kuhs eats up screen time shooting lengthy and banal kitchen conversations with the Sardina family. Claire’s kids become key characters as the film moves along but their actions only adds to the exploited ugliness of small town America. Kuhs even shows us the screaming birth footage of Claire’s soon-to-be-given-up-for-adoption granddaughter.

All of this extraneous footage had me asking why? Kuhs seems to be passing time to get to his impossibly poignant finale when Eddie Vedder enters the saga once again with a gift which couldn’t have been written better in a feature film. This great life-fulfilling moment almost makes this long ugly journey worth it.


THE SAVAGES


The Savages (2007) dir. Tamara Jenkins
Starring: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman

***

It’s not Pacino/De Niro, but a Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman pairing is enough to give “The Savages” a good look. The subject matter – two siblings who come together to attend to and give care to their dementia-stricken father – is depressing stuff. Add in that their characters are struggling writers with failed careers living equally depressive lifestyles, it doesn’t make for an appealing logline. But there is joy in watching these two fine actors compete with each other on screen as their characters do in the film. These lives and this film are worthy of a visit.

Laura Linney plays Wendy Savage, a struggling playwright who writes her grant applications while temping in various NYC offices. Philip Seymour plays Jon, her older brother, a specialized professor in Brechtian theatre. He lives in Buffalo because that’s the only place where he can be employed. When the remarried wife of their father Lenny dies, the siblings are forced to travel to his sterile seniors community in Arizona and bring him home.

As Wendy and Jon deal with the difficulties of their father’s mental deterioration they come to grips with their own place in the world. Wendy’s reconciles her insecurities with her career, her age and her affair with a married man, and Jon tries desperately hard to distance himself from his emotional pain of losing his father.

As you can gather by my synopsis above it's deep and heavy material. Each character has much weight and self-conscious emotional baggage to carry around with them. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins who seems to be writing from a familiar place shows this in a great scene in the car towards the end of the film. Jon and Wendy engage in a heated argument about career envy while their near-comatose father stares straight ahead in silence. A close up of actor Philip Bosco tells us several things – that perhaps he is in the most joyous place of the three, or that he has come to realize he’s the cause of their pathetic bickering. Either way Jenkins tells us a lot with just a close up.

“The Savages” will likely be compared to “Away From Her” which tells the story of an elderly man who puts his wife into a home while she deteriorates from Alzheimers. Both films have moments of sheer sadness. The most uncomfortable for Lenny and Wendy is when she’s on the plane back home and Lenny’s pants fall down on the way to the restroom. The embarrassment made me want to turn away from the screen in shame. “Away From Her” gives us these moments of despair but Sarah Polley allows Julie Christie’s character to retain her dignity. It’s a directorial choice made more uplifting and satisfying in “Away From Her”.

The film breathes life when Linney and Hoffman are screen, and when together it’s magic. We are privileged to watch these two actors at the height of their artistic abilities on screen together. No matter how depressing the material these two actors are highly watchable.

Some may find Jenkins’ depiction of palative care more genuine than Polley’s more poetic and introspective tone. For me, I’d rather spend two hours celebrating life than examining its stool. To each his own. Enjoy.







Sunday, 20 April 2008

HOT DOCS 2008 - "All Together Now"


All Together Now (2008) dir. Adrian Wills
Documentary

***1/2

Toronto's Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival is underway, this is the first of several reviews over the next week

One of the hottest attractions in Las Vegas right now is the Cirque du Soleil show, “Love”, a Beatles-inspired extravaganza of music, light and colour. While documenting the staging of the show, Canadian filmmaker Adrian Wills is somehow allowed unprecedented access to the world’s most spectacular performance team and the world’s most legendary band. With the access, time and tools at his disposable Wills perfectly visualizes the marrying of these great artists with thoroughly entertaining results.

Talking head interviews, shot in crisp and clean High Definition, are combined with verite camera footage backstage of the Cirque production to tell the story of how these two forces got together. We learn it was the brainchild of the late George Harrison who first approached Cirque founder Guy Laliberté. Since the Beatles music is so preciously handled the Cirque artists inevitably have to get approval of the Beatles themselves and their surviving families. Paul, Ringo, Yoko Ono and Harrison’s widow Olivia,and  producer George Martin all become intimately involved in the show. In fact Martin and his son Giles go back into the studio and remix all the songs from scratch to create a 'live-like' experience specifically for the show.

Early on the Cirque producers fear the committee approach might cause more harm than good and so the whole show is approached with some trepidation. If anything is missing from the film it's the drama and tension which invariable would come from the butting of artistic heads. But surprisingly there is very little conflict. At one point Yoko Ono gives some creative feedback, which prompts director Dominic Champagne to proclaim that Yoko hates it, but other than that it’s smooth sailing. The film never turns into a puff piece though. Beyond the spectacle, it's a story of family and how the business of the Beatles has been passed down to the next generation. Wills concentrates of his characters despite them being some of the most familiar people in the world. Is there anything to know about the Paul or Ringo we haven’t learned in countless interviews, books, or documentaries? No, but we get to hear some of the wonderful anecdotal stories straight from the horses mouth often in intimate unencumbered settings.

With the aid of some long lenses and great microphone placement, Wills is both invisible and omnipresent at the same time - fly-on-the wall filmmaking at it’s best. Wills catches McCartney reminiscing with Ringo and George Martin alone during rehearsals. Wills zooms in to catch George Martin 'air-conducting' his own music while hearing the first test sound mix in the theatre. We even catch Paul singing along to his own songs!

Wills give the audience exactly what they want to see. In the Hot Docs Q&A he explains that the film wouldn't be worth doing unless he got Paul, Ringo, Yoko Ono, Olivia Harrison and George Martin involved. Everyone is there and Wills gives everyone ample screentime. We also get to see a great summarized version of the final stage performance. The film 10 minutes is a condensed version of the show using several camera angles, intercut with Paul and Ringo’s reactions to the show.

But Wills' secret weapon which can do him no wrong is the Beatles’ music, which is wall-to-wall throughout the film. The music still gives me chills when I hear certain songs, but when combined with the awesome visual beauty of the Cirque du Soleil artistry it makes for an awe-inspiring experience. Enjoy.



Saturday, 19 April 2008

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM


The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) dir. Rob Minkoff
Starring: Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Michael Angarano

***

“Forbidden Kingdom” is the long-awaited pairing of the two most celebrated martial arts movie stars in the world. With both actors in their forties, and their best work is behind them, they can still fight with verve and stylized energy. Though it’s an American production, from an untested American director and writer, the team delivers a film worthy of its influences and provides the ideal canvas for Li and Chan to showcase their talents together.

The plot is typical of the genre - a young kung-fu nerd teenager Jason Tripitkis (Michael Angarano) in South Boston discovers a magical staff in a Chinese pawn shop. After some high school bullies rob the store, Jason flees with the staff which then reveals some magical powers transporting him into the fantasy world he idolizes from his kung-fu movies.

Jason befriends a local drunk Lu Han (Jackie Chan) who tells him the story of his magical lance. Jason assumes the Frodo role as the prophecy’s keeper and journeys to the mountains to return the staff to its rightful owner – the imprisoned Monkey King. Along the way the duo pick up a feisty female warrior, The Golden Sparrow (Lius Yifei) and humble warrior monk (Jet Li). The monk and Lu Han educate Jason on the ways of kung fu, which will come in handy when everyone is eventually forced to fight against the evil forces that desire the sacred staff.

The film arrives with a great amount of hesitation and suspicion. “The Forbidden Kingdom” is not a Chinese film, it’s American, told mainly in English from a director with absolutely no action or martial arts directing experience. Rob (“Stuart Little”) Minkoff has no business being the man directing these two great artists, but he is smart and humble enough to hire the great fight choreographer Yuen-Woon Ping and legendary DOP Peter Pau (“Crouching Tiger”) as his chief aids. He also shoots the film mostly in China, which provides some of the most exquisite locales I’ve seen on film in a long time. Minkoff finds vistas and scenery we’ve never seen before and frames his camera as wide as possible to execute the epic tone of the film.

The story elements make it a mash-up of “Wizard of Oz”, “Transformers”, “Karate Kid”, and “Lord of the Rings”. The bookend scenes in Boston, which begin, and end the film, are gag inducing. The rudimentary plotting, acting and scripting make it an atrocious set up which gave off really bad vibes at the beginning, but once we enter the fantasy world the film takes off and soars. Story, plotting and acting are suspect at times, but they certainly top most of the dreadful plots I’ve seen in the great films from both actors.

The question of how these two great stars will fight each other is solved with smart and funny writing. Yes, we do get to see Chan and Li go at it, and yes it’s a long scene that takes up a decent 10-15mins of screen time. We get the best of both worlds when Li and Chan actually team up on the same side to battle the forces of evil – so don’t worry neither one is killed off early, they both continue to kick ass for the rest of the film. Though Chan and Li have noticeably much older faces they still possess the speed and agility to make the fights exciting. And their star power is always present even in between the fight scenes. Though their English is not good they command and share the screen equally and give fine performances.

Though “The Forbidden Kingdom” is not the dream film for these two it’s an accessible action film with a canvas big enough for Chan and Li to showcase their talent together. Minkoff has made a reverential kung-fu film to the work of Li and Chan. Enjoy.



Thursday, 17 April 2008

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR


Charlie Wilson's War (2007) dir. Mike Nichols
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman

**1/2

"Charlie Wilson's War" follows in the tradition of such political films "Three Kings", "Bulworth", "The Right Stuff", "MASH" and Nichols' own "Catch-22" and "Primary Colors". "Charlie Wilson" mixes absurd black humour with its political agenda plot. Though the result is entertaining it unfortunately doesn't match these films. "Charlie Wilson" is hefty on dialogue and plot but light on drama, threat, and suspense.

The film is based on a true story of Charlie Wilson, a U.S. Senator whose vices include strippers, cocaine and other malevolent behaviour. He also gets shit done, and when he's exposed to the atrocities the Russians are committing against the Afghanis during 1979 invasion of their country Wilson decides to take action. With the help of eccentric socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (a boisterous ubermale performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman) Wilson launches a covert war against the Soviets. Hanks raises a billion dollars in funds and arms the Afghans with the most sophisticated weaponry to defeat the Russians.

The performances as expected are spot-on. Philip Seymour Hoffman got an Oscar nomination for his role as Avrakotos. It's a showy performance bordering on over-the-top. It's full of bravado and posturing, gutteral mumbling. Hanks is Hanks and though his character beds many women and dabbles in some blow, we never get to see him down and dirty on screen. Roberts' mere presence is enough to fulfil the eccentric character of Herring. Scotch also plays a central role in the film - it provides the actors' business in virtually every scene.

The bravado, the blow, the scotch. It certainly feels like an Aaron Sorkin screenplay - the dialogue constantly rides the edge of being intelligent and overwritten. At times the talk is sharp like daggers, but when you want the people to 'get to the point' it's word-soup. The most surprising omission in the film is drama. Wilson's mission to fund and coordinate the 'covert' war encounters few if any roadblocks. Sorkin places Hanks and Hoffman in various meetings and phone calls convincing people into giving their time and money to the effort. The biggest hurdle is getting the Israelis to work with the Pakistanis. But little drama or work appears to be involved other than a lengthy flight.

I appreciate Nichols' scant 1hr 42min running time, but a film like this, which takes place over 10 years, many countries and a complex number of characters, needs to top two-hours. Nichols and Sorkin cram in a lot of info and make massive leaps to go from A to B to C. It all make sense, and we're never confused, the film never feels like 10 years - 6 months at most. It's clear the filmmakers never wanted to lose the light tone and fast pace. But after a couple of scenes Sorkin's comic devices become predictable, and actually distracts from the focus of the film. Every serious scene is counterplayed with a comic subplot. For example, Wilson's first meeting with Avrakotos, when he briefs Wilson on the needs of the Afghani rebels is interrupted with his secretaries' spin control of Wilson's Las Vegas coke/strippers scandal. There's also Wilson's first meeting with the CIA arms expert, which is interupted with a game of chess the agent continues to play as the talks serious.

The humour doesn't really generate any laughs, but then again, it's not a gag film like "Dr. Strangelove". But there's just not enough action, or drama or humour to make the film as compelling as the story. It's a shame because the Afghanistan War was lengthy and highly influential on the world today. There's a scene at the end, which explains how an off-the-cuff decision saw the Americans abandon their mission and 'fuck up the end game', but this is the only moment which puts the film in its painfully ironic perspective.

Because of the filmmaking lustre attached to the film, "Charlie Wilson's War" needed to have the impact as say, "MASH" or "THREE KINGS". It's competant enough for other filmmakers to consider it a success, but with the track records behind it, it's a disappointment.

"Charlie Wilson's War" is available on DVD April 22 from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.



Wednesday, 16 April 2008

ALL ABOUT EVE


All About Eve (1950) dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Hugh Marlowe

****

Part II of my Bette Davis reviews is one of Hollywood’s all-time classics, “All About Eve” – an enthralling satire about the nasty politicking in the New York theatre scene. It’s a great American film about ambition and greed. With today’s current eyes, it survives well as a commentary on the country’s own socio-economic values system.

The film opens with an awards ceremony in honour of a lauded theatrical actress, Eve Harrington. Instead of focusing on Eve we see the reaction of a group of people attending. It’s surly bunch, politely applauding but thinly hiding their disdain for the diva. Much like “Sunset Boulevard” tells the fall of Joe Gillis, the film flashes back to tell the sordid story of Eve Harrington.

Eve Harrington is introduced as a starstruck fan waiting outside the theatre to catch a glimpse of the stage’s top star, Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Eve gets the introduction of a lifetime when she’s allowed backstage to hang out with Channing's theatrical coterie - the same group of people at the awards ceremony. Margo empathizes with Eve’s dreams of working in show business and takes her under her wing. Slowly the innocent charity-case becomes a leech that needs to be burned off. Margo’s behaviour with Eve becomes abrasive and she soon lets her go. But by this time Eve has already cozied up to Margo’s friends, which make her look like a raving mad Diva. Eve’s stock rises and becomes a bigger star than Margo alienating all her friends and becoming a ego-driven maniac.

Eve takes Margo’s charity, then exploits and warps it creating her own career from the burned bridges of everyone she stepped over. In many ways, “All About Eve” dramatizes the old show business adage, be careful who you step on on the way up because you'll meet them on the way down. Writer/Director Mankiewicz manages to avoid all cliched traps and never let anyone fall back on caricatured or familiar performances.

“All About Eve” is a big film told small. The film spans many years and shows the gradual transition of Eve’s character from naïve outsider, to a sly conniving show diva. But the film is remarkably small in production scale and budget. Only a few studio locations and sets are used, and even when the action moves outside the director employs some rather rudimentary (and dated) process shots.

What doesn’t date is Bette Davis’ magnificent performance and Mankiewicz’s bristling dialogue, which is virtually incomparable to today’s films. If this film were made today, it would have been easy to play into the archetype of the bitchy Broadway diva, a la, “The Devil Wears Prada”. But watching the progression of the story, we side with Margo. Though she’s caught in the bitchiest political catfight, Margo's frustrations rarely boil over and she manages to escape with her own personal pride intact.

It’s theme of greed and corruption translates well to today's world as well – in fact, it will be relevant in any day, because as long as we live in a free-market democratic world there will be climbers and cheaters who will stop at nothing to get what they want. Enjoy.

“All About Eve” is part of the Bette Davis Collection from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment”. See also my review of “Phone Call From a Stranger




Tuesday, 15 April 2008

BELLA


Bella (2008) dir. Alejandro Gomez Monteverde
Starring:Eduardo Verástegui, Tammy Blanchard, Manny Perez

*1/2

"Bella" won the Audience Award at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival - a prestigious award won by great films such as "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" and "Eastern Promises". But it's almost two years later and the film finally gets a theatrical release. The film, a slice of life drama of a Mexican-American chef and his relationship with a pregnant waitress in NY, turns out to be a boring exercise in heart-string pulling with surprisingly clumsy storytelling.

The film opens with a flashback. Jose (Eduardo Verástegui) is a handsome soccer player about to sign a deal which would see him playing for Madrid in La Liga, the Spanish Football League. The film cuts to present day and we see the same man looking completely different - he's grown a giant unruly beard and unkempt hair and works as a chef in his brother's Mexican restaurant. The other protagonist is Nina (Tammy Blanchard) who works as a waitress in the restaurant. We see Nina testing positive for a pregnancy test - a result which causes her much distress. When Manny humiliates and fires Nina for showing up late Jose is compelled to leave his post and follow her. Over the course of the day they develop a relationship and find a common solution to both their problems.

Despite good production value including sharp and beautiful New York City photography, the film is clumsy in it's storytelling. Writers Monteverde and Patrick Million have difficulty establishing the world and tone of the film. In the opening scene, by Jose's outfit and his antique car, it would appear to take place in the 1950's. But when we cut to the present, it's the 2000's. Also, Jose is supposed to be a great soccer player whose dream crashes after a tragic car accident. On a couple of occasions an exhibition soccer match between Mexico and the U.S. is referenced which piques Jose's interest, but this plot thread goes nowhere.

The main throughline of the film is the relationship between Nina and Jose. By how their first meeting plays out in the subway I assumed Jose to be the father of the child. I was wrong. So why does Jose chase after Nina? I assumed there was an inate attraction that draws him to her. I was wrong. Bella is so unfulfilling because it purposely avoids these conventions. And 'convention' is not a dirty word here. A film like this needs to work with conventions.

But what confused me the most - and I feel bad to critique the film on a point so banal - is Jose's beard. It's so big and overgrown he looks like an Islamic fundamentalist. In fact, considering the story takes place in New York, I first assumed there would be a 9/11/terrorism theme to the film. But no, his beard is never mentioned or acknowledged except a casual reference by his father. Jose's beard is the elephant in the room during the entire film. It's out of character because Jose, sans beard, is actually so handsome he could be a runway model. There are more subtle ways to portray a character's subconscious hidden demons, and hiding his face beneath such overgrowth is simply ridiculous and distracting.

The final moments in the film climax with an implausible 'twist' which unnecessarily raises more questions than it answers. Maybe I'm just cynical, but it's the final straw in a film that never ever gets it right.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

JUNO


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

***1/2

On DVD this week is last year's little film that could - "Juno" that deceptively simple story about teenage girl and her pregnancy. It’s a different type of comedy though, not gag-based, but situation-based. A colleague of mine likened it to a glorified extended sitcom. That’s a good comparison – but a well-done sitcom at its best and worthy of a feature film treatment.

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

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

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

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

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

Though “Juno” won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar this year, the film’s success lies in the great actors that breathe life into Diablo Cody’s wonderful characters. And it’s the success of the new era of situation comedies – ie. “30 Rock”, “Office Space”, “Arrested Development”- that has allowed these actors to continually develop their talents on television and freely move between mediums. Enjoy.


Saturday, 12 April 2008

THE SEEKER: DARK IS RISING


The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (2007) dir. David L. Cunningham
Starring: Alexander Ludwig, Christopher Eccleston, Ian McShane, Frances Conroy

* stars

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

Given the overwhelming commercial success of family-aimed fantasy movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter series and The Chronicles of Narnia, it’s actually a bit perplexing to me that we have not had MORE lower budgeted knock-offs with acceptable levels of production value, derivative screenplays and bereft-of-flavour by-the-numbers direction.

The wait is now over.

The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (one of the more idiotically clumsy titles to grace the silver screen in some time) is just such a motion picture. This dismal cinematic composting toilet boasts an obnoxious lead character, even more obnoxious supporting characters, a just plain simplistic plot, numerous plot holes, inexplicable behaviour, very little in the way of forward-moving character development, stupid dialogue and competent, but ultimately, not too imaginative special effects.

Based upon what must be the first of a series of kids literature that began in the 80s and written by Susan Cooper (who is apparently and especially much-beloved by children that grew up on her work) this actually has to be one of the worst family fantasy movies I have ever seen – so much so, that I am thankful I have not wasted my own child’s time on any of this woman’s books as her writing must make J. K. Rowling and those of her ilk seem like bloody Leo Tolstoy.

I am, of course, assuming the source material is awful without reading it because the screenplay adaptation comes from John Hodge, the masterful author of such screenplays as Shallow Grave and Trainspotting and if he was unable to cobble something together on the page that was even remotely interesting, competent or entertaining, how could I begin to assume the original book was any good to begin with.

The movie tells the story of an obnoxious kid and his obnoxious family who move from America to Britain. The young lad, Will, not unlike a pint-sized Dustin Hoffman from Straw Dogs, is especially weirded out by the odd ways of these wonky English people in their bucolic, whimsical and oh-so quirky English town while conversely, his new friends and some of the townspeople alternate between down-home friendly and inbred, isolationist malevolence. (Much as I’d be tempted to call this a family friendly cross between Harry Potter and Straw Dogs, I won’t, because that actually would make The Seeker sound like a movie worth seeing.)

Soon, Will’s got an incredibly bored-looking Ian MacShane blubbering on to him about some nonsense involving his destiny as the only warrior of the Light who can fight the forces of the Dark in order to keep the world safe forever.

Enter The Rider (Christopher Eccleston), this snarling nasty guy on a horse who looks like a cross between a Thunder Bay rocker dude and a Black Knight by way of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Rider (a truly boneheaded name) is the prime mover and shaker of the forces of Dark and it’s up to young Will to take him out. In addition to this, Will needs to seek six items of import to keep the Light safe.

This could have been a most challenging treasure hunt for young, obnoxious Will. Thankfully he finds everything rather easily within a block or two of where he lives.

At this point in our review, the best thing I can do is spoil the ending for you, because I am sure you would never guess what happens and I certainly do not want you to have to actually sit through this movie as I did.

Are you ready for it?

Here it is.

The Seeker fulfills his destiny.

The Dark is defeated.

Light rules.

Why anyone would bother to make this picture is beyond me? Why anyone would watch it is an even greater mystery. Why anyone would bother letting their kids read Susan Cooper’s books also mystifies me (at least if this picture is any indication of what they’re like). Then again, why anyone would let their kids read any of the crap out there that’s aimed at kids – especially that Rowling woman – is beyond me since there’s a wealth of great literature for children that already exists from the likes of Roald Dahl, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexander Dumas, Rudyard Kipling and many, many more.

I’d also like to know why the director of this film, one David. L. Cunningham, even bothers to live and breathe since his direction suggests otherwise.

A movie like The Seeker seems so abominable on every level, I’m ashamed to have even bothered writing this much about it, In fact, it’s so execrable that I am ashamed of forcing you to read what I have to say about it, so I think you should really just clean the palate of your eyeballs and mind (so to speak) and stop reading now.

"The Seeker" is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment



Friday, 11 April 2008

ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM


Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2008) dir. Greg and Colin Strauss
Starring: John Ortiz, Reiko Aylesworth, Steven Pasquale, Johnny Lewis

*

“Alien vs. Predator: Requiem” derides both franchises because it serves only as a medium to put an Alien on screen with a Predator – with the most rudimentary, dull, unsuspenseful and uninteresting excuse for a story imaginable.

The entire concept of "Alien Vs. Predator" came from a fanboy wetdream. Since both "Predator" and "Alien" are both 20th Century Fox properties, this made it all the more likely that a movie (or two) would happen. It was first introduced as a comic book in 1989, then teased to us in “Predator 2” (1990) in a very brief shot of the Predator trophy case at the end of the film. It took fanboys the right timing of ‘pause’ or our VCRs to find the shot.

It was a great moment, but the seed was planted for the possibility of teaming up two sci-fi monsters in one movie. Monster movies have a long history of cross-over films. Perhaps the most famous is “King Kong Vs. Godzilla” (in Japanese and American versions with two different results). This on screen pairing was exciting, but certainly didn’t become a high point for either franchises.

And so, should we have expected any better from the "Alien vs. Predator" let alone the sequel? Yes. Fanboys have been so influential in the new millennium of fantasy/sci-fi cinema that movies such as these command serious thought from the development executives to satisfy their highly discriminating tastes.

“Alien vs. Predator: Requiem” is so unsatisfying because it’s obvious this film came from a script out some kind of automatic processing computer, instead of the mind of that discriminating writer writing for the fanboy.

The story begins as the first “Alien vs. Predator” ended. The Predator from the previous film is lying on a space gurney, dead. Suddenly a baby Alien bursts from his stomach revealing a new species of Predator (a Predator/Alien) hybrid. This new beast launches itself down to earth where it will plant its eggs and multiply in hopes of taking over the world. Hot on its tail is another Predator looking for revenge for killing his pal. And so the hunt is on.

In their way is a group of small town earthlings that stumble across this mighty battle. A group of teenagers, a mother looking for her missing husband and son, and a humble sheriff fight and flee against these creatures which pop up anywhere and everywhere. Then some of those swarmy government suits discover what’s going on and try to get in on the action – setting up yet another sequel which will likely disappoint.

The film is structured as a dull T & A teen horror flick. The usual methods of suspense are applied with amateurish results. The directors even attempt to recreate some of the great moments from both franchises over the years, but again with no panache or inspiration. Stereotypical and uninteresting human characters supply the body count for the alien. Only John Ortiz (that wonderful character actor from “Carlito’s Way” and “American Gangster”) as the do-good, yet out of his league sheriff, generates mild interest.

Rent Predator 1 or 2 (which is underrated by the way) or any of the four Alien films over “Alien vs. Predator: Requiem”.

"Alien vs. Predator: Requiem" is available on DVD April 15 from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment





Thursday, 10 April 2008

DAYS OF DARKNESS


Days of Darkness (2007) dir. Denys Arcand
Starring: Marc Lebreche, Diane Kruger, Sylvie Leonard, Caroline Neron

**

Denys Arcand has always seemed to be a hit and miss director, and lately just can’t seem to make two good movies in a row. After the Academy Award winning “Barbarian Invasions”, Arcand has followed up with another intellectual comedy, but without a solid narrative focus, which results in a film as lost as it’s main character.

The film opens on a slightly annoying serenade by singer Rufus Wainwright. He's seducing a woman (Diane Kruger) with a sultry (and very winy) song. This is one of many dream sequences we’ll see coming from Jean-Marc Leblanc – a hapless civil servant living in a Montreal suburb. Jean-Marc is married to Sylvie, a career-minded real estate agent who prefers the company of her blackberry to Jean-Marc and his two daughters have just hit the age where they don’t want anything to do with him. So Jean-Marc retreats into a series of fantasy lives and relationships. He has three fantasy girlfriends – Diane Kruger, who plays, I think, Diane Kruger, or is it Veronica? (i forget), his lesbian co-worker, and a TV journalist.

As Jean-Marc goes about his days at his loathsome Government desk job listening to complaints from distressed citizens his mind wanders playing out his idealized life. Jean-Marc aspires to be a famous writer and a sex God desired by all women. But when he realizes he can’t live in his fantasies, Jean-Marc's only respite is to leave his home and retreat to his family cottage, which recalls the last joyous period in his life.

Arcand is on fire in the first third of the film. He sets up a future world we’ve never seen before. Arcand portrays a near future of Montreal as a world close to apocalyptic crumble, either from the paranoid-inducing viruses which rage in the air, or under the crush of the enlarging bureaucratic government. Canadians, and Montrealers in particular, will catch several inside jokes, specifically that white elephant of a building, the Olympic Stadium, which in the film is used as office space for the expanding Quebec Civil Service. Arcand crafts some wonderfully hilarious banter among Jean-Marc’s co-workers, his family and his fantasy family - politically astute and satirically scathing.

Unfortunately this inspired story relaxes and peters out once we realize Arcand has nothing further to say about saccharine middle class life than we’ve seen in other similar films - ie. "American Beauty" or "Little Children". The second act is a series of lengthy fantasies which lead nowhere and only extend the running time. Specifically the Medieval jousting sequence is drawn out way beyond the other sequences, and at the end we’re left with nothing to push the story forward.

Arcand’s films always provoke conversation and “Days of Darkness” will do exactly that, but for the wrong reasons. You’ll ask yourself what went wrong with this clever near-future fantasy intellectual dissertation and what exactly is his point?



Wednesday, 9 April 2008

THERE WILL BE BLOOD


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

****

No film from 2007 got better on its second viewing than “There Will Be Blood” – not even “Control” which I cited as my favourite film, nor “No Country For Old Men”. I’m convinced Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece will gain an even stronger following over the ages and rise above and beyond its fellow 2007 Oscar nominees.

In my original review of “There Will Be Blood”, I gave a glowing four star rating with a mild asterix to the ending which I had thought was inconsistent in tone with the rest of the film. I’m not sure what my expectation was, but on second viewing, this minor blemish had erased itself.

Warning: Spoilers ahead...The finale, which changes from the open exterior plains of Texas to an expansive but cold and lifeless interior of the aged Daniel Plainview’s mansion, is the natural place for Anderson to take his film. The elder Plainview is a depressed and broken man. This final series of scenes explains everything about this wonderful character.

Contrast the opening scene to the final scene. The opening, which is shot and cut without dialogue, shows the painstaking detail of the process by which Plainview finds oil and becomes rich and powerful. The subsequent scenes show Plainview’s painstaking efforts to “swindle” the citizens of New Boston out of the oil they happen to sit on. Plainview’s enjoyment of his wealth derives completely from the process of making money – that is extraction, the swindling, and the destruction of his competition. Without the process Plainview is limp and lost.

And so Plainview’s hysterical drunkenness and over-the-top decadent and lifeless house is a result of a man with all the money in the world but nothing to accomplish.

Another fascinating aspect of the film which excited me on first viewing and deepened further on DVD is Anderson’s homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Anderson’s frames subtly reference Kubrick’s ambitious film on several occasions:

Watch the opening shots which establish the environment of Texas, which eerily look like the pre-historic opening of the Dawn of Man sequence.



Watch the shot of Plainview alone at the beginning of the film eating his lunch, hunched over beside his well. He’s crouched eating his food with his hands like an animal. Compare this to Kubrick’s shot of the Neanderthal eating his first carnivorous meal after slaying the tapir.



Towards the end, check out the framing and action of Daniel Day-Lewis when beats down Paul Sunday with his bowling pin. Watch the identical framing of the famous discovery of weaponry scene by the Neanderthals, again in Kubrick’s Dawn of Man sequence.



And of course Anderson’s final act, which takes place in an opulent but cold mansion is eerily similar to Bowman’s final destination at the end of "2001".



It would be a stretch to find a thematic connection or something else profound in these specific similarities, instead it serves to show Anderson’s ambitiousness with his film. Like Kubrick in “2001”, Anderson aspires to greatness and pulls off the rare feat of achieving and arguably surpassing his and our expectations. Enjoy.

“There Will Be Blood” is now available on DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment