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

Monday, 30 June 2008

CITY OF MEN


City of Men (2007) dir. Paulo Morelli
Starring: Douglas Silva, Darlan Cunha, Rodrigo dos Santos, Camila Monteiro, Jonathan Haagensen

***

Following “City of God” and the Brazilian TV series of the same name, Paulo Morelli’s “City of Men”, continues the tales of youth and gang culture in Rio de Janiero.  "City of Men" is the less flashier little brother to Mereilles' seminal film, but also a deserving follow up and, in many ways, a more satisfying experience.

Though similar in look and style, Morelli’s film is not a sequel to “City of God” – only the theme, location and visual style join the two films together. “City of Men” takes place in present day and portrays the lives of – Ace and Wallace – two 17 years old youths whose futures are uncertain. Being poor and uneducated, University is out of the question. The threat of gang involvement, which is only one degree of separation away from both boys, looms over them. One of the roots of their uncertainty is their lack of fathers.

Ace and Wallace decide to search to find their real fathers. If you’re poor, it’s difficult to leave the slum, so their search is a matter asking the elder locals. They discover both of them descend from the gangster lifestyle, which seems to breed a circle of crime. Ace discovers his father was killed during a gang hit many years ago, and Wallace tracks down his father, Heraldo, now on probation after a 15-year stint in prison. While Wallace’s relationship with his father grows, his friendship with Ace widens. When the local gang battles become more violent, suddenly Ace and Wallace find themselves as bitter enemies.

Morelli smartly contains his film and doesn’t try to outsprawl Mereilles’ epic. “City of Men” is focused on Ace and Wallace the entire film. The film doesn’t rely on the Scorsese-isms which Mereilles injected into his film. “City of Men” is a slower and more intimate realist experience.

The young men who play the rambunctious but dangerous street kids bring authenticity and warmth to the film. Even though violence and murderous behaviour is present, ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ aren’t so easily definable as in “City of God”. “Midnight” is the leader of one gang – he’s an honourbable young man who desires to organize the kids of his ‘hill.” Fasto, Midnight’s rival, splits from the gang after refusing to kill was one of his men for insubordination. “City of God” gave us true ‘movie-villans’ like L’il Ze – monstrous (but entertaining) caricatures of gang leaders. As a result, “City of Men” feels more authentic.

The first half of the film is the strongest – establishing the relationship of Ace and Wallace to the complexities of the street. But when the sensational gang battles enter the picture, Morelli’s characters take a back seat to the gunplay and the action. It provides a rousing final act, but at the sacrifice of its true heart.

What never wavers is the documentary-like street feel of the film. It’s gorgeous to watch. Morelli and cinematographer Adriano Goldman bathe their frames in sundrenched yellows and golds. A nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Enjoy.

“City of Men” is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada and Miramax Films in the U.S.



Sunday, 29 June 2008

CULT OF THE COBRA


Cult Of The Cobra (1955) dir. Francis D. Lyon
Starring: Faith Domergue, Richard Long, Marshall Thompson, David Janssen
Horror

**1/2

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

While one cannot justify delivering more than two-and-a-half stars for this copycat of Val Lewton’s “The Cat People”, it is a rating that doesn’t adequately represent the picture’s considerable entertainment value and its extremely interesting commentary on post-war life in America. “Cult of the Cobra” is another film from Universal Home Video’s magnificent DVD box-set “The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection” and though it lacks panache (save for the terrific cinematography of Russell Metty), it represents just the sort of picture that home consumption appears to have been invented for – a medium to deliver product that might otherwise be consigned to a slag-heap of forgotten cinematic refuse. And for “Cult of the Cobra”, the fate of neglect would be a shame. In spite of Francis D. Lyon’s perfunctory direction, there’s something extremely haunting about this story of a group of young American soldiers who have survived the horrors of war and yet, when the clouds of strife are lifted, find themselves stalked and cut-down on home turf by a mysterious, evil and (naturally) foreign killer.

While some contemporary audiences get all high and mighty in their idiotically myopic political correctness when it comes to the ethnocentrism of older pictures, they should just swallow a humour pill and enjoy the fact that the film begins in Asia. Yes, Asia! The film does not specify where EXACTLY in Asia we are – all that really matters is that we are not in AMERICA and that our brawny, normal, American and WHITE heroes are in a mysterious, foreign land. Foreign, in this context equals EVIL!!!!! And even though we’re supposed to be in “Asia”, we’re really in some crazed never-never-land of cloaked, turban-adorned snake charmers. Looking for some exotic action before returning to their normal lives back in America, our motley heroes manage to buy their way into a mysterious ceremony of snake worshippers where they witness a boner-inducing cobra-charming burlesque routine then interrupt the proceedings in that brashly rude, American way when one of them snaps a flash photo and then, to make matters worse, they engage in a brawl with these foreigners and steal their sacred snake basket. One of the soldiers at a later juncture opines that perhaps they went a “little too far”. You bet, fella! These goddamn foreign snake charmers don’t take to your kind at the best of times and now you’re in for one kick-ass curse that’s not only going to follow your infidel rump back to the homeland, but to your ever-loving grave. And believe, there ain’t nothing Homeland Security can do about cobra curses.

As the picture progresses, things get especially entertaining back in America when we primarily follow the adventures of roomies Richard Long (the eventual star of T.V.’s “Nanny and the Professor”) and Marshall Thompson (eventual star of T.V.’s “Daktari”) as they vie for the affections of wholesome platinum blonde apple-pie babe Kathleen Hughes. When she eventually picks stalwart hunk Richard Long to be her main swordsman, Marshall Thompson dejectedly finds himself in the arms of the mysterious, exotic and FOREIGN Faith Domergue. And a good thing too: Faith Domergue represents everything that was so great about 50s movie babes – nice full lips, melt-in-your-mouth curves and sex appeal that never lets up. (Domergue was especially semen-draining to young, pud-pulling male movie-goers in “This Island Earth”.) Domergue, of course, is an agent of the cobra-worshippers and her mission is to kill each and every last one of the infidel soldiers.

The cast and the vaguely derivative (but compelling) screenplay work overtime. Russell Metty, the cinematographer, especially delivers the goods. Metty, who shot most of Douglas Sirk’s great melodramas and, lest we forget, Orson Welles’s “Touch Of Evil”, contributes marvelous lighting and some really effective cobra point of view shots. One only wishes that Francis Lyon wasn’t such a dull director. His lack of voice is what keeps this picture from really soaring. It’s unfortunate, since Lyon was a great editor (he won an Oscar for his astounding cutting on the classic boxing picture “Body and Soul”), but as a director, he played things strictly by the numbers. This workmanlike approach is not always a bad thing in a director, but this picture is so entertaining to begin with that one wants it to be better than it ultimately is.

Alas, they can’t all be masterpieces. If they were, the world would actually be a dull place (oddly enough). It’s probably enough that this picture exists and that it’s as fun and interesting as it is. One does wonder, however, what it might have been like with a livelier directorial presence at the helm – a Jack Arnold, a Richard Fleischer, a Joseph Lewis or an Edgar Ulmer – or, for that matter, a producer like Val Lewton. In fact, any one of those directors and Lyon editing (instead of directing) might have delivered the goods.

It’s still a good picture though. Seeing these hunky, fresh-faced young soldiers get mysteriously whacked by the stunning Faith Domergue will keep you on the edge of your seat. And, you know what? I’m almost inclined to revise my two-and-one-half stars a little more in the direction of Heaven. I won’t, but one can dream, can’t one?

“Cult of the Cobra” is available on DVD in Universal Home Video’s “Classic Ultimate Sci-Fi Collection”

Please read these other similar postings:
The Incredible Shrinking Man
The Land Unknown
The Leech Woman
Dr. Cyclops



Saturday, 28 June 2008

THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS


The Tracey Fragments (2007) dir. Bruce McDonald
Starring: Ellen Page, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Ari Cohen, Zie Souwand, Slim Twig

***1/2

“The Tracey Fragments” is kind of a marvel, an emotionally powerful film about a young teenage girl who moves through a series of tramatic experiences over the course of a couple of days, told using a kaleidoscope of intricately designed split-screen effects. It’s audacious and in-your-face, but beautifully designed and executed. What could have been a stylistic crutch in fact aids in discovering the fragmented character of Tracey Berkowitz.

Ellen Page plays Tracey Berkowitz a 14 year old girl, whom we first see riding a bus dressed only in a wrapped up plastic shower curtain. Her voiceover describes her inner thoughts, which help trace back the state of her life and how she got to be on a bus wearing a shower curtain. Her voiceover isn’t so much narration as read-aloud random journal entries.

The narrative jumps from through many timelines and locations. We see Tracey as a young child mentally abused by her parents, we see her in her kitchen as a teenager being mentally abused by her parents. We see her in school being bullied by the ‘mean girls’. We see her visualized fantasies of her high school crush, Billy Zero. The connecting throughline is Tracey’s search for her younger brother Sonny, who has gone missing. Sonny is Tracey's  constant and the only one who brings order and normality to her increasing chaotic life.

The visual style is front and centre from the first frame. The film is shot ultra-low budget, using old fashioned Dogma-95 style DV camera work. This naturalism combined with it’s split screen effects create a unique visual style. Only Mike Figgis’ “Timecode” compares to the experimentation on display here. While “Timecode’s” four-quadrant action was distracting to the viewer, the design of the ever-changing visual fragments in McDonald's film is always cohesive.

Editor Jeremiah Munce is credited as the conceptual designer, and his kaleidoscope of imagery creates its own form of art layered on top of the actual story, dialogue and character we watch in these little frames. The imagery is edited and designed to be taken in as whole, instead of following the action of one specific frame. It’s a risky venture, but Munce and McDonald deliver a thorough satisfying experience.

Another layer of artistic brilliance is the music of Broken Social Scene (the acclaimed Toronto-based music ‘collective’), who provide a number of songs which serve as the soundtrack. BSS’s ambient soundscape set a tone of melancholy and sadness. It’s a great contrast to the often gritty and disturbing images we see throughout the film – the music acts as a warm breaze or gentle wave of sounds which pull the audience through the dirt and grime of Tracey’s adventures.

"The Tracey Fragments" is challenging, emotionally and conceptually. Admittedly, it’s a difficult film to dive into. And the first five or ten minutes will be a confusing experience. But Tracey's adventures slowly seep into your skin and in the end the whole is greater than the sum of it parts. Enjoy.

“The Tracey Fragments” is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada on June 30. The film is distributed by Thinkfilm in the U.S.





Friday, 27 June 2008

WANTED


Wanted (2008) dir. Timur Bekmambetov
Starring: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp, Thomas Kretchman

**

“Wanted” will likely be a big money-making, crowd-pleasing surprise hit of the summer. It stands alone as the only violent action film of the summer – a rarity in today’s era of mass market blockbusters. As one would expect from a poster of Angelina Jolie holding a handgun that’s bigger than her arms, it’s a balls out action film and an onslaught of the senses. Other than a few shock and awe moments though it’s a largely uncreative adventure and a bore.

Wesley Gibson is a typical bored office worker who despises his cubicle jungle. One day, a super hot woman named Fox (Jolie) tells him his father, whom Wesley never knew, was a super-assassin who has just been murdered. And the man who killed him is looking to kill Wesley. Wesley is told he has the same aptitude for assassinations as his father and is asked to join a ‘Fraternity of Assassins” who kill people at the whim of a textile loom that channels the will of fate – seriously.

Wesley joins forces with the Fraternity, and is led by the zen-like Sloan (Morgan Freeman) into a series of assassinations. But Wesley yearns to go after the killer of his father, and he quickly gets the chance when the evil assassin Cross (Thomas Kretchman) finds him first. Mondo action ensues and Wesley fulfills his destiny to be the best assassin in the world.

The film is essentially “The Matrix” – with a few minor adjustments or twists in the second half. Wesley Gibson, like Neo, yearns for something more out of life – he can feel he is 'different' than other people, but just can’t put his trigger finger on it. Like "The Matrix" he’s tracked down by both a really hot chick and a sooth-saying elder mentor who speaks in philosophical hyperbole. They convince him he has extraordinary powers, though Wesley, like Neo, doesn’t believe it. Our hero must go through a series of grueling and painful trials to train and prove his fortitude, worthiness and dedication to the cause.

"Wanted" is blood brothers to “Shoot ‘Em Up” as well, another audaciously over-the-top action picture that wears its influences on its sleeve. The difference being “Wanted” doesn't feel as if it’s paying homage or reference to its influences, just blatantly copying them.

"Wanted" tries to fool us with quantity over quality. Being an action-film junkie with discriminating tastes for the genre, Timur Bekmambetov’s direction is sloppy and distracting. He takes time to craft his action set pieces – which the story moves itself around to fit into – but relies on frenetic editing to assault our senses. To go back to the "Matrix" films the Wachowskis smartly used minimal cutting and let what was on the screen wow us. By cutting, zooming, swishing its camera to the extreme "Wanted" sorely lacks this cinematic confidence.

There are about six wow moments – five of which you have already seen in the trailer. The sixth one comes in the big finale and should generate some laughs, but look between these lines and you’ll a find sub-standard action film – something which Tony Scott, John Woo, Michael Bay, Paul Greengrass, John McTiernan, James Cameron, The Wachowski Bros, Robert Rodriguez, have done better.

To cut Mr. Bekmambetov some slack, it’s his first Hollywood film after making a name for himself for his "Nightwatch" and "Daywatch" films in Russia - two parts of an action vampire trilogy which I could barely sit through half an hour of before getting confused. He translates his hyper-stylized techniques to "Wanted" pretty easily, but it’s nothing new – a rehash of the fast-slow bullet-time cinematography we saw in the "Matrix" 9 years ago. As for the story, there’s nothing to be confused about "Wanted".

As for Angelina Jolie – she’s sexy alright, but so gravely malnourished it’s distracting. There will likely be several more “Wanteds” made after its inevitable success at the box office. There's lots of backstory that needs to be fleshed out, so contradictorily, I actually look forward to part II, but perhaps only to know how the Fraternity figured out that their textile loom is asking them to kill people, and not just serve them coffee or something.



Thursday, 26 June 2008

OPEN LETTER TO HOLLYWOOD: No More Red Font Eddie Murphy Posters!!


Dear Hollywood Marketing Execs:

I was driving the streets of Toronto yesterday, and drove past a bus with a giant banner advertising “Meet Dave” - a new family comedy with Eddie Murphy. As we all know Eddie Murphy’s late career work (save the “Dreamgirls" blip) has been either milking "Shrek" for Dreamworks, or starring in kid-friendly family pictures such as this.

The “Meet Dave” banner, which is probably being plastered in every major city in Canada and the U.S., features the big mug of Mr. Murphy over top of the title in bold red font against a white background. Just change the title and the expression on Eddie's face and you have the poster for every other kid flick he’s made since “The Nutty Professor”.

For some reason this annoys me to no end.

Of course, the distributor who markets the film (in the case of "Meet Dave", 20th Century Fox) wants grab it’s audience by whatever means necessary and pull them into the theatre. One of their tactics is to have the poster or other promotional material quickly identify with or remind its audience of other successful films of the same genre. That's why the "National Treasure" posters vaguely resembles the "The Mummy" posters. But with these Eddie Murphy films, the lack of creativity is simply ridiculous.

Let's look at these some of these posters side by side:



I am not the audience for “Meet Dave”, so why am I so bothered? Perhaps it’s the uncreativity of the marketing department, which charge large amounts of money against the production to create the worst example of template marketing. It’s also a shameful reminder of the dreck that Eddie Murphy is making his living on these days – but as evidenced by his work in “Dreamgirls” he can still act.

If these six films weren’t overkill enough, they're branding Ice Cube's family films the same way:



I have no problem with these films which I’m sure bring much laughter to six-year olds but out of respect for Mr. Murphy and everyone else that isn't six, change your marketing campaign. At the very least, change the colour of the font. Please.

Thank you for your attention,

Alan Bacchus

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

THE PROFESSIONALS


The Professionals (1966) dir. Richard Brooks
Starring: Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Woody Strode, Robert Ryan, Jack Palance

***

A new high-definition Blu-Ray edition has given new life to Richard Brooks’ classic action Westerner. The 1966 film now looks as clean and crisp as the first print struck from its cut negative.

With the Blu-Ray treatment Conrad Hall’s gorgeous and innovative lighting is seen in full glory. The film is famous for what's known in cinematographers’ circles as its ‘day-for-night’ photography. Day for night means exposing a daytime scene to look like night. It usually produces a dull image. But Hall’s work in "The Professionals" is not a cheat, in fact it's key to the overall look and tone of the film - night scenes look as if it's dusk, with a crystal blue sky in the background but dark all around.

“The Professionals” has the misfortune of being made a year before the seminal “Bonnie and Clyde” and three years before “The Wild Bunch”. Like “The Wild Bunch” “The Professionals” is set in early 20th century – an era with automobiles and automatic weapons. “The Wild Bunch” expressively used its extreme violence as a metaphor for the changing and outmoded days of the traditional western gunslinger, while "The Professionals" is just a genre film. And so, with Brooks' film practically next door neighbours to Peckinpah’s classic, the grass seems that much greener on the other side.

The film treads on the popularity of similarly themed 60's films about ragtag groups of soldiers of fortune – “The Magnificent Seven” “The Guns of Navarone”, “The Dirty Dozen”. In this film, Lee Marvin plays Rico Farden who is hired by local landowner J.W. Grant to rescue his kidnapped wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale) from a group of Mexican bandits. Rico brings on his demolition expert Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), horse wrangler Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), and tracker/marksman Jacob Sharp (Woody Strode). Together they ride from Texas to Mexico to rescue the girl and battle the Mexican bandits all the way home.

The performances are solid. Teaming up the strapping uber-male stars Marvin and Lancaster works. Marvin is the confident and commanding leader and Lancaster is witty and charming George Clooney-type. Woody Strode is a welcomed figure in any movie he’s in, and Ms. Cardinale’s pouty face and ample bosom barely unhidden under her fashionably unbuttoned dress is simply deliciously. Is there a more ideal western heroine?

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare “The Professionals” with “The Wild Bunch” because Brooks’ film doesn’t pretend to be more than a genre action film. And it certainly doesn’t aspire for cultural significance. Yet Brook’s film was nominated for a few Oscars including writer and director Brooks as well as Conrad Hall’s cinematography. The film doesn’t quite live up to these award nominations, but it’s still a top notch, well executed film and on Blu-Ray a stunning film to look at. Enjoy.

“The Professionals” is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.


Tuesday, 24 June 2008

COME DRINK WITH ME


Come Drink With Me (1966) dir. King Hu
Starring: Pei-pei Cheng, Hua Yueh, Hung Lieh Chen, Yunzhong Li

***1/2

I am probably not the best reviewer for this film, which according Hong Kong cinema fans is a landmark film in the genre. I profess to only be a casual fan of martial arts cinema, and though my knowledge doesn’t go beyond the Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and the schlocky Tiger/Crane films of the 70’s of my youth, I can say that “Come Drink With Me” lives to its reputation as the birth of the genre.

“Come Drink With Me” is a simple story, a powerful kung fu warrior, the Jade Faced Tiger, named after his white face makeup, stops a government convoy in rural China. It’s one on twenty but the Jade Faced Tiger beats down and slices to bits the entire group. One person is saved though and taken prisoner. The Jade Tiger’s clan ransoms off the prisoner in exchange for the release of one of their warriors.

Coming to the aid of the government prisoner is the legendary Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei Pei) an unassuming young girl with some nasty skills with a sword and a knife. The bandits prove to be keen adversaries, but she soon finds herself aided by a mysterious drunken kung-fu master who looking for revenge against his old partner. Together they make a formidable duo of destruction.

The film is a marvel for 1966, made a few years before the Bruce Lee films. With “Come Drink With Me”, born is the foundation of all kung fu films which came after it. The story is told with the pacing and chutzpah attitude of a Spaghetti Western. Fights are played out without musical accompaniment – just the sounds of the fists and swords. King Hu takes time to play out each challenge and battle. He’s conscious of the pauses in action as the heroes survey their opponents and plot their strategy. And then with swiftness the action starts with a burst of energy.

King Hu’s magnificent widescreen frames are perfectly composed and make stunning use of the awesome mountain landscapes of mainland China. “Come Drink With Me” also pioneered the expressive use of blood in the action. Stabs and slicing swipes of the swords are met with streams and squirts of gushing blood.

The fights are admittedly rudimentary compared to the abilities and technology available today, but the film is not so much about the choreography of battle but the attitude of the characters to battle. And Cheng Pei Pei as female lead warrior is the ideal lonesome protagonist. She is gorgeous, commanding and confident with the steely-eyed stare of an intimidating master. Ang Lee would take influence from the film and cast Cheng as the Jade Fox in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”.

I started watching the film (a special edition DVD) without knowing anything of the film, including the year it was made. The fight sequences lack the dance-like fluidity of the more famous genre classics of Jet Li or Jackie Chan, but these films didn’t arrive until the 1980’s – before then it was “Come Drink With Me” which stood above all others and a benchmark of achievement for the genre. Enjoy.

“Come Drink With Me” is available on DVD from the Weinstein Company in the U.S. and Alliance Films in Canada



10,000 BC


10,000 BC (2008) dir. Roland Emmerich
Starring: Camilla Belle, Steven Strait, Cliff Curtis

*

Never before has so much money been thrown at a more ridiculous story. "10,000 BC", the latest Roland Emmerich film to the DVD shelves, is one of the most absurdly ambitious films in recent memory. A tribe of primitive humans make a long trek across land and time to save their chosen one from a horde of evil enslavers.

Assuming the title of the film refers to its timeframe Emmerich commits some of the most revisionist historical errors in cinema history (and I'm not one who generally cares about that stuff). The film starts out in what appears to be an ice-age and ends in Ancient Egypt during the construction of the Great Pyramids (which was actually completed 7500 years later). A group of hunter-gathers, who speak a crudely accented English live communely in twig/bone huts. They talk of a legend of four-legged beasts and the honour of he who slays the beast will lead the tribe to better days. They speak of a girl with blue eyes, a chosen one of sorts, and a hero who will rise above all to lead their people (hey, if Emmerich can bastardize history, I can bastardize his plot).

The film not only spans time, Emmerich takes us from the ice-capped mountains to bamboo jungles to grassy plains and finally to sand-duned deserts. It's a visually interesting pallette, but the tribes move through these environments by foot in a matter of days (sometimes hours). We meet whooly mammoths, sabertoothed tigers, giant man-eating ostriches. At one point the hero rescues a computer generated Tiger from a pit, then makes friends with it after and has his favour returned several scenes later, when the tiger saves the tribe from a group of menacing African warriors.

The biggest threat comes from a warring group of ugly snarling Barbarian-types. When the film moves up the Nile to reveal the half-built pyramids being constructed by whooly mammoths, and led by what we're told is a despotic alien from another world - it sunk to an even deeper level of absurdity. The leader's identity is shrouded from us until he is killed - but considering the direction the film was going I was banking on James Spader from "Stargate" to be under the cloak. I was wrong.

No reference is made about location, probably so as not to offend the cultures of the various ethnicities that Emmerich bastardizes as well. The only white person, other than Camilla Belle, turns out to be the evil 'Wizard of Oz' character I mentioned. His reveal is brief but it clearly looks like a wrinkly old white guy - it still could have been James Spader!

"10,000 BC" could have worked if Emmerich didn't take his film so seriously. With the far-reaching emotions, slow-mo death scenes, and romantic reunifications, Emmerich appears to be reaching for Oscar. Ironically Emmerich's previous films, though similarly overwrought and bad, have an expensive b-movie schlockiness that can actually be fun. "10,000 BC" aspires to be "Braveheart" or "Titanic", which makes it even more pathetic.

A good comparison movie is Uwe Boll's "In the Name of the King" - an almost equally abysmal film - technically proficient, but ridiculous. Yet, "In the Name of the King" is fun no matter how cheesy - like Irwin Allen on steroids. "10,000 BC" is cheesy but never fun and a limp Golan & Globus film at best.

I never thought I'd say this, but bring back Dean Devlin!

"10,000 BC" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video


Monday, 23 June 2008

THE INCREDIBLE HULK


The Incredible Hulk (2008) dir. Louis Leterrier
Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt

***

“The Incredible Hulk” is the second part in this ambitious venture from Marvel – an attempt to link the Marvel heroes in a series of feature films ultimately converging in an ‘Avengers” film. It’s an exciting time for comic book fanboy cinema, and a great 2008. While “The Incredible Hulk” doesn’t come close to “Iron Man” it successfully trumps the Ang Lee version, providing a fan and audience-friendly electric-paced franchise reboot.

The film takes place several years after the Ang Lee version, Bruce Banner, now played by Edward Norton, is in hiding in Brazil. The military General Thaddeus Ross, formerly Sam Elliott now William Hurt, continues to scour the world looking for Banner so he can bottle his dark but powerful biological powers. Banner’s search for a cure for his condition is aided by a scientist named Mr. Blue who corresponds with him via the internet. When Banner’s location is accidentally revealed to Ross a lengthy cross-continental chase begins from Brazil to the U.S.

Chasing Banner is the uber-soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) a rapid dog of a man, who fears nothing and revels in the challenge of fighting the beast man Hulk. When Blonsky comes face-to-face with the big green man for the first time he develops a thirst for his power. And so in searching out the cure Banner leads Blonsky to the secret which will make his adversary into an even more menacing beast. Complicating matters is Ross’s lovely daughter Betty (Liv Tyler) who rekindles her relationship with Banner after all these years. Hulk faces off with Blonsky’s new alter ego Abomination to save Ross and the citizens of New York City from harm.

It was a pleasant surprise to see that Marvel didn’t render Ang Lee’s “Hulk” completely obsolete. By telling the Hulk backstory in the opening credit sequence we quickly bypass the origin scenes we already know from the first film. And so after the credits we jump right into the story with great pace - something  which was sorely lacking in the first film . Therefore, one could watch Ang Lee’s film and Louis Leterrier’s film as two distinct chapters in the Banner story.

The Hulk looks much the same as the Ang Lee version, except slightly less green – a duller grass-stained green. A low-key lighting scheme attempts to blend the Hulk in better with the real environment but from my discriminating eye, there’s still some room for improvement with the CGI.

Tim Roth’s Abomination provides the massive action and destruction that fanboys wanted from this new Hulk. The finale, as we all know from the trailer, is a New York street battle which destroys a lot of city property. Unfortunately Abomination didn’t tickle me fancy. He’s over-designed from a creature-effects point of view, and too far removed from the human form. His grossly broadened shoulders, protruding rib cage and spinal vertebrae made him more beast than man, thus losing its connection to Tim Roth.

None of the old 70’s Hulk references did anything for me - Lou Ferigno appears, Bill Bixby even appears, same with the familiar line “don’t make me angry” as well as the sentimental music from the TV series. But didn’t they already show these token reverences in the Ang Lee version already?

I reveled in the easter egg connections to "Iron Man" before Downey Jr.’s not-so-secret cameo appearance as Tony Stark. SHIELD, Nick Fury and Stark Industries are mentioned a few times, but when Downey appeared at the end in character with his uniquely coiffeured beard the full scale of the film and its place in the larger Marvel universe was opened up. Unfortunately his appearance is brief and his dialogue tells us little more than we already knew from the post credits Iron Man easter egg. Really, is that all the writers could think of?

Minor griping aside, with “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk” a success, let’s hope “Thor” and “Ant Man” can continue the trend – though I'm told by my comic aficionado friends that these two stories will be much more difficult to adapt for the screen. Enjoy.



Sunday, 22 June 2008

CITY SLICKERS


City Slickers (1991) dir. Ron Underwood
Starring: Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby, Jack Palance, Helen Slater, David Paymer, Joshua Mostel

*1/2

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

Taking a second helping of a movie you recall enjoying from many years ago can often be supremely pleasurable. In my experience, it is seldom disappointing. That said, it usually only works with movies that you REALLY enjoyed as opposed to movies that you mildly, if not vaguely enjoyed. Also, the movies that seem to date the worst are movies from the more recent past – the reason for which seems a bit elusive, though I suspect it might have something to do with the fact that contemporary culture and society is generally so pathetic, uninteresting and bereft of any real class and/or romance that the RECENT past seems to take on even more pitiable status when presented within the context of a feature length motion picture.

Such a motion picture is ‘City Slickers’ – an extremely popular (in its time) feature comedy that has dated very badly indeed. Not that it was ever especially good, but I always remember it having enough of an amiable quality at the time to not only make me recall it favourably, but even instill a bit of excitement at the prospect of going back to it again. Alas, time has definitely not been kind to “City Slickers”. It’s a by-the-numbers fish-out-of-water comedy with a group of men on a mid-life crisis quest for manhood as they leave the comfy confines of the city for a dude-ranch-sponsored cattle drive aimed at … well, groups of men on a mid-life crisis quest for manhood.

As I suffered through this surprisingly plodding comedy, I kept wondering why I had fond memories of it. The laughs are few and far between and not especially inspired and worst of all; most of the cast speaks as if they’re in a small-screen situation comedy. The plight of the central characters is especially offensive – they are, after all, disgusting baby-boomers who spend much of their time whining about how empty their lives are and how they need to fill them with something that can remind them of their lost youth. Ugh! How are we supposed to relate to a generation of losers who had everything handed to them on a silver platter and still managed to screw everything up for all of us Generation X, Y and Z-ers?

The Judd Apatow schlubs of contemporary screen comedies (like the “Forty Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”, etc.) are at least aware of what losers they are. They revel in their schlubiness, they celebrate it, and they embrace their inner loserdom. They don’t whine like these pathetic baby boomers and are all the funnier and enjoyable for their utter comfort in loserville.

Billy Crystal is especially gross in this picture as it is his mid-life crisis that we’re forced to spend most of our time with and he’s the worst offender of the sit-com-style delivery of lines. Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern are also pretty hard to take, but at least they’re not quite as borscht-belt schticky as Crystal. Interestingly enough, Crystal’s style of performance and delivery was perfect in “Mr. Saturday Night” where he played a borscht-belter and, of course, his appearances over the years as host of the Oscars have been thoroughly memorable and engaging. Crystal just doesn’t suit this kind of picture. He either needs to play bigger than life characters a la Mr. Saturday Night or stay on television hosting variety shows.

It’s really the supporting cast of “City Slickers” that shines. For example, Joshua Mostel and David Paymer are genuinely engaging as the ice-cream barons looking for adventure – there’s a gentle, schlub-like quality to their characters and line-delivery that’s pleasing, human and genuinely funny. They’re closer to the Seth Rogens of the world than Crystal, Kirby and Stern.

And that brings us to the one performance that cannot be ignored in “City Slickers” – the Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor – Jack Palance. From the moment Palance appears onscreen as the tough-as-nails boss of the cattle drive, it is apparent who the real star of this picture is. Palance commands the screen with the kind of bigger-than-life quality that the likes of Billy Crystal can never attain. His handsome, craggy, weather-worn face, that wry smile, those twinkling devilish eyes, those magnificent cheek bones that reach for the ends of the universe – Jack Palance is ALL MAN and then some! He chews the scenery with the irascible skill and charm of an Old Master and as the picture unspools, it becomes obvious why anyone would have fond memories of “City Slickers”. Jack Palance steals the show and then some – just as he did when he claimed his Oscar for his work in the film and proceeded to do a set of spectacular one-armed push-ups to prove to the world that old actors were in great shape and needed to keep working.

It’s Jack Palance’s show all the way and the sole reason why anyone would have fond memories of this picture, but it has dated and dated badly. At one point, Crystal’s character chides someone’s behaviour as being not “90s” enough. This, of course, is the moment that sticks out like a sore thumb because the picture is not only SET in the 90s, but it’s a style of navel-gazing baby-boomer humour that feels so firmly rooted in the 90s. The picture just doesn’t have the stuff to transcend its clunky storytelling - which is as much about how movies like this were made during that period as it is about the pre-occupations of both the filmmakers and audiences of the time.

“City Slickers” is as wizened and petrified as the baby boomers it represents. It’s the work of men who were old before they were really old, and now that they and their film is even older – it’s all the more pathetic.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

THE HAPPENING


The Happening (2008) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel

***

Each new Shyamalan film over the past few years has been greeted with anticipation, and expectation. “Lady in the Water” was truly a bad movie. Yet, despite the failure his willingness to take a risk, fail, take his knocks and pick himself back up again is what great filmmakers do. Though still a relatively young man, I think Shyamalan is a great filmmaker – certainly someone with such immense talent whose films deserve their attention and scrutiny.

“The Happening” has taken a lot of knocks, but it’s a very good film – a few scenes short of great – but still a mysterious, though-provoking and sometimes visceral cinema experience. It’s not for all tastes, and most of the criticism is warranted – yet for those who enjoy quiet cerebral slow-brewing tension, Shyamalan delivers an antidote to the bloated summer blockbusters.

Like most of his films, Shyamalan likes to work within self-imposed parameters – as if he’s created his own personal set of dogma rules – stripping away the stylistic elements to put the audience in the skin of the characters without artifice. His methodology is admirable and invigorating when he succeeds.

His rules apply with “The Happening”. The situation is simple – over the eastern seaboard regular citizens suddenly start exhibiting suicidal tendencies and kill themselves with robotic-like procedure and precision. We watch as a gentle woman quietly stabs herself in the neck, a man runs himself over with a lawnmower, high rise window cleaners throw themselves from a top of a building. Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) a soft-spoken teacher, escapes the danger areas and leads his wife and the left-behind child of his best friend to safety from an explained force of nature.

As consistent with his ‘great’ films, Shyamalan never loses sight of his characters and his themes. The themes of “The Happening” are crystal clear (there’s an environmental lesson and a poignant post 9/11 theme of social cohesion) and so we never feel it’s the director jerking us around for the sake of some scares. In fact, there’s relatively few “scares” per se; instead tension is built to an emotionally-based climax. So without traditional plot-based closure it’s easy to see why “The Happening” has left many dissatisfied.

Another difficulty Shyamalan forces himself to hurdle is the lack of an antagonist. Moore and the fleeing innocents are continually trying to figure out what is going on, who is attacking them and for what reason. Midway through, a theory is deduced which is accepted by Elliot and his group. If this is the reveal of the antagonist it’s either one of the most audacious plot points to come across mainstream cinema in a while, or it’s an inspired creative decision. It’s a bit of both, but I personally saw the ‘evil presence’ in the film as an intellectual spin on classic b-movie horror – think “The Blob” meets “The Birds”.

A few key aspects prevent the film from becoming great. The acting waffles on many occasions. Mark portrays his character with Shyamalan’s typical everyman monotone cadence. But his performance is often inconsistent – he’ll go over top in one scene and understated in the next. And many of the supporting actors simply lack the chops to sell the grief and dismay of the gruesome situations. Shyamalan’s quirky humour is dolloped in, in unexpected but also welcomed moments. The film is never serious enough for a gag or two.

And there’s a major editing fiasco as well. Several scenes stand out glaringly like scenes from a bad film slotted into a great film. Imagine a chunk of “Deep Blue Sea” slotted into “Jaws”. There’s three scenes I specifically noted: 1) a montage scene in the middle of the film showing various people around the U.S. watching the events unfolding through the television 2) a gruesome death scene as seen through a PDA device 3) a lengthy television interview scene in the denouement. I can only assume Mr. Shyamalan got territorial and couldn’t ‘kill his babies’.

N. Night Shyamalan’s films often don’t sit comfortably with audiences because they aren’t genre films. Though they sit in the thriller section of the video shelves, they are far from traditional genre pictures. “The Happening” is much the same. With the extreme backlash against the man, I’d like to start a support group for fans of this film – are there any out there? Enjoy.

PS. And by the way, I loved Zooey Deschanel’s spacey performance.





Friday, 20 June 2008

THE GANG'S ALL HERE


The Gang’s All Here (1943) dir. Busby Berkeley
Starring: Carmen Miranda, James Ellison, Alice Faye, Eugene Pallette, Benny Goodman, Sheila Ryan

****

“The Gang’s All Here” is a treasure of Hollywood – a magnificent Fox musical directed by one of cinema’s great visual pioneers – Busby Berkeley. Under the guise of a traditional musical Berkeley crafts a series of astonishingly choreographed sequences of pure cinematic technical skill which becomes obscenely surrealist in its excess.

In contrast, the set up and execution of "the story” is one of the most pathetic coathanger plots Hollywood ever hung its hat on. Andy Parker (James Ellison) is a US G.I. about to ship off to fight in WWII. He has a girlfriend Vivian (Sheila Ryan) who is assumed to him through his family friendship. But the night before he leaves he meets a comely chorus girl named Edie Allen (Alice Faye) whom he instantly falls in love with. There’s seems to be some confusion between the sexes because Vivian thinks she’s engaged, while Andy thinks they’re just friends. Meanwhile, Edie holds a candle for Andy's return to him after his call for duty. When Andy returns home he’s forced to confront his two lovers and settle on one.

The film makes no attempt to hide its patriotic and propaganda rousing, as the lesson to be learned from all the shenanigans is to ‘give your cheatin’ soldiers a break – they’re fightin’ a war over there for you.’ It's all fodder anyway to put on a big show.

“The Gang’s All Here” is the epitome of the extraordinary creative vision of Busby Berkeley - a true visual artist working in an industry which often stifled creativity in favour of conformity. Perhaps one of the most ironic of Hollywood stories is the fact that Berkeley – despite having a lengthy and successful career as a dance choreography for both Broadway and Hollywood – could not dance. Berkeley brought his genius eye and brain for visual design and applied it to the act of dance.

Thus explains the commonalities of his work – a fetish for geometrical shapes, and choreographed movements of groups rather than individual technical skill. In fact, during World War I Berkeley learned his discipline for coordinated movement from his drill instruction.

Other than Carmen Miranda whose star power is tacked onto the story (but who provides a number of sultry and suggestive numbers), Busby Berkeley’s camera is the star in the picture. His lengthy and elaborate sequences are created from a series of long takes, which unknowing to the audience are only comprised of one or two cuts. If you thought Sam Raimi was a gymnast with his camera, 40 years prior, Berkeley’s camera was moving forward, back, up, tilting up and down at all angles to give the viewer to razzle-dazzle of Hollywood escapism.

Berkeley's form of razzle-dazzle puts most of Hollywood's modern attempts at musicals to shame.

You can find "The Gang's All Here" in a new Carmen Miranda box set available from Fox Home Entertainment. It's a must-have.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

TOTAL RECALL - A MASTERPIECE OF CRASS


I wander if we’ll ever see a film like “Total Recall” again. The film was major Hollywood blockbuster starring the biggest international movie star at the time. In today’s cinema environment “Total Recall” would be a tent pole film, written for the widest possible audience, and designed to generate a sequel or two, a TV series and a theme park.

Let’s go back in time. According to Wikipedia, "Total Recall" had the largest authorized production budget for a Hollywood film. Arnold Schwarzenegger was major star, but not yet at his height of stardom (next summer's blockbuster T2 would confirm that). Director Paul Verhoeven was coming off “Robocop” – a sci-fi/action/satire and one of the most violent films ever made. Despite no stars and an R rating, the unexpected success of “Robocop” allowed him to make “Total Recall”.

1990 is different than 2008, and a filmmaker like Paul Verhoeven would rarely be allowed carte blanche with the biggest star and biggest budget in Hollywood to make a film one of the most eye-popping over-the-top violent, politically incorrect, lewd and bad taste films ever made. It was a different time then, politics were different, prevailing cultural attitudes were different. Look at some of the films made in the late 80’s, early 90’s – perhaps the glory days of the action violence – “Robocop”, “Rambo III”, “Commando”, “The Last Boy Scout”, "Extreme Prejudice" and all those Steven Seagal films - it was a different era. In today’s Hollywood cinema it’s rare for a mainstream film to show even a blood squib (a bloodless “Iron Man” helped it succeed in the box office).

“Total Recall” is the height of a unique era in cinema we may never see again - a true masterpiece of mainstream crass and indecency.

“Total Recall” deserves to be celebrated. If it were made today we most certainly would have missed out on these classic moments:

"Baby, you make me wish I had three hands!"


When Quaid first enters "Venusville" - the redlight district of Mars, he is approached by perhaps cinema's most audacious sexual fetish - a three titted lady!


Kuato Lives!


One of the mysteries of the story is 'Who is Kuato?" - the mythical leader of the Martian revolution. Kuato is dramatically revealed to us to be a mutant growing out of Marshall Bell's body.


Human Shield


Cudos to our hero Quaid who uncaringly using an innocent bystander’s dead body as a human shield to protect himself against rapid gunfire. Come on - that is totally awesome. Would Jason Bourne even attempt that? No way!


Richter’s Arms


After the dramatic elevator fight between Quaid and Richter, Quaid ultimately wins out crushing his opponent to death under an elevator platform leaving Richter's two maimed arms in his hands as souvenirs. "See you at the party Richter!"


Kuato Dies!


Special effects designer Rob Bottin was part and parcel with Verhoeven's ultraviolent streak from "Robocop" to "Basic Instinct". He was a master at organic body and creature effects. And Kuato's 'bullet to the head' slo-motion close-up must surely be on his reel.


Arnie shooting Edgemar in the head


Again, whenever will a hero so callously blow an unarmed man's head off without pause? In fact, Quaid does pause thinking he's not a human - but kills him because he is.


Dwarf brandishing a machinegun


OK, it's not crass, but even dwarves and mutants can kick ass in Verhoven's films. How awesome is that!

Stepping on a Dead Body


After the awesome escalator shootout Quaid escapes and the bad guys run to follow. Paul Verhoeven takes the time to shoot and edit in a cutaway of Richter actually stepping on the bullet ridden chest of a dead body - presumably that poor sap that Arnie used as a human shield.

"Total Recall" would go on to earn $120million in the US box office, good for seventh best that year. But what if “Total Recall” were made today? Well, it likely turn out to be “Minority Report” which interestingly enough was originally written as “Total Recall 2” with Quaid as the cop who solves crime in the future.

BE KIND REWIND


Be Kind Rewind (2008) dir. Michel Gondry
Starring: Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow

**

I am a great admirer of Michel Gondry and really really wanted to love this film. Gondry's cinematic exhuberance and hands-on approach to filmmaking is admirable and infectuous. Gondry should be making films like this. And although "Be Kind Rewind" is not the bullseye hit that "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was he's still one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.

Jerry and Mike (Jack Black and Mos Def) are two old school video store workers - stunted 'man-children' really with a lovable ignorance to anything outside their Brooklyn enclave. When the store owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), leaves town for a few days he entrusts the shop to Mike, his number 2. One day Jerry accidentally magnetizes himself while trying to perform some industrial sabotage. For a while it's fun and games as he sticks himself to streetpoles and pisses magnetic pee on the street, but when he handles the VHS tapes, he inadvertantly erases them all. With Mike in a tailspin, a bubblethought pops into his head to re-record the erased movies with their own crappy video camera low-tech guerilla-style.

Their "sweded" films (as Jerry coins it) become a neighbourhood hit, which rallies the community together. But when the evil condo developers threaten to evict the tennement owners Mike and Jerry create their own original sweded film to raise the necessary money and save the building.

The film has a naive childlike quality, which works for and against it. The character live in their own insular world - 10 years behind everyone else - and they choose not to expand their world beyond their local Brooklyn streetcorner. This is admirable and could have provided fuel for some wonderful comedy - mixing the insular world with the outside world. Though Gondry attempts to capture this humour with Danny Glover's subplot, he misses this opportunity.

It's hard to fault "Be Kind Rewind" because it has a huge heart that it wears on its sleeve. Few films today are brave enough aspire to uncool values like community-togetherness and altruism. Though Gondry channels the optimism of Frank Capra, but he's unfortunately missing his Jimmy Stewart. Neither Jack Black nor Mos Def supply that rock solid grounding. Much of the film feels improvised and made up as they went along - but not in a good way. Jack Black's "jackblackisms" are funny, cause he's a natural comedian. But Mos Def is miscast. I like Mos Def a lot, but his speech was so slurred and drole at times I had trouble understanding him. It's works for Brando, but not Def. It's clear Gondry is a better director than a writer, and in "Be Kind Rewind" as a solo writer he was missing that Charlie Kaufman ear for natural yet cinema-friendly dialogue.

The concept of "Sweding" real films with low tech household items sounds better on paper than on screen. Though Gondry provides us with dollups of the eye-popping "how'd-he-do-that" creative ingenuitity we've seen in his other films and videos, I found myself laughing more at the concept than what was actually on screen.

As as aside, the best-ever example of real life Sweding is the fanboy internet sensatation, "Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation" - a shot for shot remake of the first Indy film made in the 80's by a group of neighbourhood kids. I had the privalege of seeing this film at Toronto's Sprockets Film Festival a few years ago. There's no suspension of disbelief required because the kids actually did it, it's on screen and its better than Gondry. Super producer Scott Rudin acquired the feature film rights, so who knows we just might some more 'sweding' on the big screen in the near future. Unfortunately because of the massive rights violations its' virtually impossible to find anywhere outside of the rare festival screening.

Back to "Be Kind Rewind"...Michel Gondry is a director, who perhaps, works best in the medium of short films (ie. videos and commercials) and he very well may never top "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless" in the feature film arena, but as long as he keeps spitballing his brain onto celluloid I will follow.

"Be Kind Rewind" is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada and New Line Home Entertainment in the U.S.




Wednesday, 18 June 2008

THE FAR COUNTRY


The Far Country (1955) dir. Anthony Mann
Starring: James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Walter Brennon, Corine Calvet

***

Jimmy Stewart wasn’t known for his westerns, but in fact he made many in the genre, including five with director Anthony Mann. “The Far Country” was his last collaboration with Mann, a prototypical genre film, fulfilling all expectations and even giving us a bit more than we’d usually get.

Jimmy plays Jeff Webster, an opportunist who, with his partner Ben Tatum (Walter Brennon), travel north to capitalize on the Klondike boom. Their prized possession is a herd of cattle which they hope to sell in Dawson City to fund their dream ranch in Utah. Plans are halted in Skagway when the duo run into the self-made lawman Gannon who rules his town like a tyrannical despot. But in Jeff Webster, Gannon has met his match.

Gannon is jailed on a trumped-up charge, but manages to get released and save his herd. On the way to Dawson City a quid pro quo of actions escalate into an all out war between the citizens of Dawson City and Gannon’s group of evil strongmen. Gannon, who prefers to protect his own back, is conflicted to go against his personal scruples and fight someone else's battle.

"The Far Country" is one of the best examples of the Western genre. Jeff is the typical genre protagonist, a semi-nomadic loner/drifter with his own personal code of honour. In fact, he’s wanted for murder, and when he’s confronted about it, he says, “I shot him, because he shot at me”. Webster prefers the company of himself and his best pal Tatum and refuses help or to be helped, “I don't need other people. I don't need help. I can take care of me.”

Writer Borden Chase is not subtle with Jeff's traits, but it’s important to be clear about who his character is – after all its Jimmy Stewart playing against type (the exact opposite of George Bailey). The internal conundrum Jeff is faced with at the end resonates deeper when he decides to altruistically stand up for the innocents.

Jimmy Stewart performs admirably as the thick skinned but honourable bullhead. His best scene is when Marshal Rube Morris confronts Gannon and his thugs in Dawson City. Rube is clearly in over his head facing off against the tough guys – Webster recognizes this and Jimmy Stewart’s face registers all the words necessary to describe his character's internal conflict. I generally prefer the aged Stewart, with his graying hair and crow's feet, which makes for seems to make for a more complex character. "The Far Country" is one of his best mid-career performances.

The film also charts a poignant subplot about his relationship with his best friend Ben. They are like father and son, but Webster is the leader and Ben has followed him around on his various schemes and adventures without complaint. And so, when Ben confesses to wanting to move on without Webster it’s a strong unspoken moment.

This is the strength of "The Far Country”. The awesome scenery (shot in Jasper Park in Alberta) commands most of the praise, but there’s a lot going on between the lines and a surprising amount of subtle subtext in a genre which is typically on the nose and action-oriented. Enjoy.

“The Far Country” is available on DVD in The James Stewart Westerns Collection available from Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

JOY DIVISION


Joy Division (2007) dir. Grant Gee
Documentary

***

I don’t know if it was coincidence or design but throughout 2007 Anton Corbijn’s feature film biopic “Control” was accompanied by Grant Gee’s traditional documentary feature “Joy Division”. Both films started at Cannes and went Toronto and although only “Control” got the traditional theatrical release, they’re back together again available on DVD today.  And with the current sound of today’s music so heavily influenced by the post-punk sounds of Joy Division both films are required viewing for music fans.

Grant Gee’s documentary is as traditional as it gets for documentaries and tells the story of the band's quick rise and ending with the tragic suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis. The band’s influence and high quality music notwithstanding, the film is adequate and enjoyable and the ideal compliment to Anton Corbijn's biopic masterpiece.

The film very quickly establishes the environment which gave birth to the band – the dirty and depressing industrial wasteland of 1970's Manchester. There wasn't much else to do in the city other than watch football and play music. Interviews with surviving band members (aka New Order) tells us about the angst and cyncism the four lads needed to express. Not five minutes goes by before Gee gets to the famous Sex Pistols concert in 1976 when three of the band members saw the influential show and decided to form a band.

All the benchmark moments in their history are referenced and covered. Having seen “Control” there’s actually very little to learn from the documentary that isn’t in dramatic version, but we do get to see the events told from the horse's mouth using the actual footage of the day. Both films mirror each other perfectly.

Grant Gee experiments with style throughout the film in an attempt to make the film different or special – in the beginning Gee uses a weird focus transition between interviewees, then he changes it up with a freeze-frame transition device. It all seems like an attempt inject some edge to compliment the progressiveness of the music. None of it it necessary, and often times distracting.

Grant Gee purposely avoids sex, drugs and hotel trashing. All of that stuff happened, and he cuts around this material cleverly just to let us know that “Joy Division” got their rocks off just like everybody else. But since their music is so revered the childish tour behaviour doesn’t befit the intelligence of the music. What's conspicuously missing is the participation of Ian Curtis' wife, Deborah, though Gee makes do using quotes as text on screen to get her point of view.

Joy Division is famous for its dark and depressing songs. The film examines closely the link between Curtis’ introspective lyrics and his suicide-inducing depression. One of the interesting insights is the fact that no one in the band thought twice about the lyrics. Anick, Curtis’ Belgian girlfriend, saw the seeds of death in his words and tried to alert his friends, but no avail.

Joy Division ended when Ian Curtis died, and so does the film. Of course, the remaining members of the band renamed themselves New Order and achieved even bigger success as artists. Perhaps it’s a different film, but the transition from the two bands intrigues me as much as the Joy Division story. Unfortunately I’m sorry to see this referenced only as a piece of on screen text.

After watching the documentary I can hear Joy Division in many of the critically lauded alternative bands today – “Interpol”,  “The National”, “The Editors”. Though the film may not reach the height of passion and anger of say, Julien Temple’s Sex Pistols film “The Filth and the Fury”, it’s the right film to showcase and document the troubled but important history of one of music’s most influential bands. Enjoy.

Other postings to check out:
Control
The Filth and the Fury

"Joy Division" is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada and The Weinstein Company in the U.S.



CONTROL


Control (2007) dir. Anton Corbijn
Starring: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton

****

In my best Mancunian accent, “’Control’ is focking brilliant, yeah!”. Anton Corbijn’s film documents the tragic life and death of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. Corbijn subverted all my expectations about the rock’n’roll genre. Though it’s a film about an artist suffering from depression, it manages to escape the downbeat nature of despair, instead examining the fear of not being able to control one’s life. It’s also the soundtrack of the year, and reminds us of the great transitional period of pop music.

Cobijn shoots the film in glorious black and white, I imagine, to recreate the feeling of watching Joy Division’s famed tele-gigs on those 14-inch black and white televisions that were common in the day. The film opens with Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) as a scrawny, quiet and somewhat anti-social 16-year-old whose drab life in working-class Manchester consists of going to school, working a lowly civil service desk job and dreaming of a musical life like his idols, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Despite his young age he falls in love with and marries his local sweetheart, Natalie (Samantha Morton). In the burgeoning years of Curtis’s career, Natalie and Curtis lead a surprisingly dull domestic life – nothing befitting the typical rock and roll lifestyle.

We get to see the traditional timeline series of events that builds Curtis’s career from wannabe musician to being the ‘it’ band of the country. We get to see their early gigs performing under the name “Warsaw”, their introduction to the famed British TV personality, Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) and their raucous manager, Rob Gretton (Tony Kebbell). Though Curtis loves his intensely loyal wife, he does succumb to the usual trappings of the on-the-road rock band lifestyle. He develops a relationship with a gorgeous Belgian fan and for the course of the film has difficulty being honest with both women. Curtis sees his life flash before his eyes when he discovers he suffers from epilepsy and is forced to depend on a pharmacy of drugs to curb the disease. Curtis’s life spirals downward as the mental depression from the drugs stunts his relationships. As a performer, his popularity still increases at the expense of a nightly battle to keep up the lively antics that has made him a star. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the film ends tragically. Curtis’ last days in his home, listening to Bowie records, is an emotional cinematic moment. The rest is rock and roll history.

Clearly Corbijn, who photographed Joy Division early in their formation, knew Curtis and the band intimately and the evidence is on the screen. Sam Riley plays Curtis with such sincerity we desperately want Curtis to find happiness. The camera loves Riley. His large doughy eyes are like a puppy dog longing for his master. The inability of Curtis to reconcile and take control of his life is so saddening - hence the title of the film. “Control” is not about sex, drugs and rock and roll, nor is it about the descent into drug-induced depression, as say, a Kurt Cobain film might be. It’s about a gentle man who, because of God’s will, reluctantly loses his control over his life.

The music is awesome. Corbijn, who has directed music videos for Depeche Mode and U2, knows his way around a stage. In the concert scenes, Corbijn turns up the volume significantly higher than the rest of the dialogue to the point where it actually feels like a real concert. The bass is cranked so loud you can actually feel it in your chest. I’ve never experienced that feeling in any other rock film before.

The heart of the film is the sympathetic performance of Sam Riley. He’s uncanny as Curtis, but eerily, could also play Pete Dougherty in a Libertines film if there ever was one. Of course, the film is tragic as well especially knowing that it was such a common disease that took him away from this world in the prime of his life. “Control” is a perfect film.


Monday, 16 June 2008

THE LAND UNKNOWN


The Land Unknown (1957) dir. Virgil Vogel
Starring: Jock Mahoney, Shawn Smith and William Reynolds

***1/2

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

The Land Unknown, a stirring, imaginative and entertaining feature-length sci-fi fantasy in the “lost world” mode is the work of a directorial non-entity by the name of Virgil Vogel. Vogel eventually distinguished himself as a camera jockey par excellence when he directed literally thousands of hours of dramatic television series including “The Big Valley”, “The Streets of San Francisco”, “Bonanza”, “Mission Impossible” and “Magnum P.I.” (to name but a few). Vogel helmed the shooting of some of the very best and certainly most popular dramatic programs, but as a T.V. director, he would always be taking a creative back seat to the artistic vision of the producers. In television this has (and still is) almost always the case - the producers are the auteurs – not the directors.

With feature-length motion pictures, however, critics and audiences generally tend to wax oh-so-eloquently about the considerable stylistic signature touches that directors bring to the table. This is especially so with genre pictures. Argento, Bava, Fulci, Cronenberg, Shyamalan, Browning and Whale – to name but a very few – are all directors associated with a wide variety of stylish horror, suspense and fantasy pictures and who all have distinctive signatures. But alas, when one thinks of phantasmagorical cinema, one virtually never conjures the name of a producer.

There was, however, a time when producers and/or studios and studio heads and/or production executives were often the primary driving creative force behind genre pictures. The most famous example is, of course, Val Lewton – the genius behind such noir-like RKO horror pictures from the 40s as The Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie and The Body Snatchers, among many others. While Lewton worked with a number of the same directors on these pictures (Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson and Robert Wise), the overriding stylistic voice is so consistent from picture to picture that it is clearly Lewton who is the auteur. Any individual signature touches belonging to the directors of those pictures are overshadowed to the point of obscurity. Lewton’s vision rules. (Interestingly enough, Lewton is such an important filmmaker that he is the only producer in all of film history to be afforded a DVD box set devoted to his productions. Not even true producer auteurs like David O. Selznick or Jerry Bruckheimer have box sets devoted to their distinctive oeuvres.)

Lewton might be King, but there remain a number of other great visionary producers of genre pictures.

Under Carl Laemmle and his son Carl Jr., Universal Pictures (during the 30s) was home to a myriad of iconic horror pictures including the Dracula, Frankenstein, Invisible Man, Wolf Man and Mummy franchises. While these properties utilized some of the aforementioned auteur directors (Browning and Whale), there is a consistency in tone and look to these pictures – a grand sense of humour mixed with the guignol. This is clearly the influence of the Laemmles - especially when one compares the Laemmle-produced franchise horror pictures to the subsequent sequels under Charles R. Rogers who took over as production head of Universal when the Laemmles were forced out in the late 30s.

In the 50s, we saw the beginnings of Roger Corman’s considerable influence as a producer of genre pictures and while his stature should not be diminished, he ultimately is in a separate league due to the fact that he eventually exercised his visions as a director too.

The actual fact of the matter is that the unsung hero of genre pictures was none other than William Alland, an in-house producer of genre features at Universal Pictures during post-war-cold-war America. Alland not only created a series of entertaining and original sci-fi horror pictures (Colossus of New York and This Island Earth), but created one of Universal Pictures’ most enduring and beloved horror franchises – the Creature From The Black Lagoon. Alland also worked with a number of directors – namely Jack Arnold and Nathan Juran (as well as the abovementioned Virgil Vogel), but again, there is a consistency to the pictures that suggests that the true auteur is Alland himself.

Alland’s most obvious trademark is his interest in sci-fi horror pictures that blend an ecological theme with a kick-ass monster (the latter to justify the activism and politics of the pictures and make them commercial). This approach to genre storytelling was not only a major influence upon other films and filmmakers at Universal, but the entire industry – during and after this period.

And, of course, one of Alland’s best pictures, The Land Unknown was not only a big hit at the time, but provided at least two generations of nerds with thrills and chills when the picture became a staple of creature-feature television broadcasts during the 60s, 70s and 80s. And it’s no surprise why it was and still is a much beloved genre picture – everything one would want from such a picture (including the kitchen sink) is on display here and then some.

We get a granite-jawed two-fisted handsome hero who provides more than able leadership to a motley assortment of adventurers (including a requisite babe) who find themselves in a mysterious world below sea level in the Antarctic where everything is heated by volcanoes and shrouded in a mist that allows for the continued preservation of dinosaurs.

Yee-haa! Let the fun keep a coming!

The script is lean and mean, the cast is highly attractive (from hunky Jock Mahoney to babe-a-licious Winnipeg-born Miss California beauty queen Shawn Smith) and the effects from Universal’s whiz-bang Clifford Stine rock big-time (even some of the cheesier man-in-suit and/or enlarged lizards work well thanks to some superb composite work and first-rate production design).

The expert and virtually seamless use of actual footage shot in Antarctica blended with the exceptional visuals creates the kind of mood necessary to plunge us wholeheartedly into the magical world The Land Unknown.

Most interestingly, we get a film which not only shows how man (in the name of science, exploration and ultimately, big money) infiltrates and encroaches upon an otherwise pristine natural world, but given the actual setting of the lost world itself, we have a film that eerily anticipates what has become global warming.

The Land Unknown is one of several terrific new films that are part of Universal Pictures wonderful box set called The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection. In addition to The Land Unknown, the box features three other magnificent William Alland productions, The Deadly Mantis, Tarantula and The Mole People.

One last note about William Alland – Alland actually began his career as an actor. He was an original member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company and he performed in the now-legendary radio broadcast of The War Of The Worlds. Alland also toiled for Welles as an assistant director – un-credited, of course. Even cooler is that William Alland, as an actor, portrays what is perhaps the most important character (save for the title character) in the greatest picture of all-time – Citizen Kane. Seen mostly in long or medium shots, and often from behind, Alland is the reporter entrusted with getting Kane’s story and through whom much of the film is mediated.

Like the near-faceless reporter in Citizen Kane, William Alland always remained in the background, but was clearly an ever-present mediator and conveyor of great drama and, most importantly, grand entertainment. The Land Unknown is proof positive of that fact.

"The Land Unknown" is available on DVD from Universal Studios Home Enetertainment

Sunday, 15 June 2008

YOUNG PEOPLE FUCKING


Young People Fucking (2008) dir. Martin Gero
Starring: Aaron Abrams, Carly Pope, Kristin Booth, Callum Blue, Ennis Esmer

***1/2

Much talk surrounds the now infamous Canadian film “Young People Fucking”. Controversy about the porn-sounding title prompted the creation of a pending Canadian bill giving the Feds the right to rescind tax credits on the basis of content thus adding risk to an already volatile financing system for domestic films – but more importantly censorship of Canadian culture.

There are few things that Canadians do well in film – animation, mockumentaries, documentaries are a few – but also sex. Sex on film in Canada is like musicals to MGM, gangster movies to Warner Bros and horror films for Universal. We seem to have a knack at showing some good old-fashioned fucking on screen. More importantly the system allows us the freedom to show this. Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg made careers out of weird fetish sex. And even Canada’s most successful commercial film, the raunchy sex comedy “Porky’s” established one of the industry’s venerable financing institutions – The Harold Greenberg Fund. The sex in that film is still paying off 25 years later.

It would be a shame if “Young People Fucking” were squashed because of its salacious title. In fact, its title is one of the most inspired marketing tools to cross our screens in a while, and which will likely ensure it’s inevitable success. But is the film any good? Yes.

YPF is simple and transparent in its concept. Off the top we’re told we’ll be following one night in the lives of 5 couples – “the friends”: two longtime friends who desire to be fuck-buddies; “the exes”: two former lovers attempting to rekindle a romance; “the first date”: a couple finishing off their first date with a night of hot sex; “the couple” a boyfriend and girlfriend trying to buck the tedium of routine sex; and “the roommates” the film’s only threesome.

Within each night of complex courtship, we see the five stages of sex: interlude, foreplay, sex, orgasm and afterglow. As in traditional ensemble films each scene is intercut with each other showing how each couple makes it through some of the most awkward, embarrassing, frustrating and complex baggage to simply have a little sex. The only thread that links everything together is the f**king.

Like a good screenwriter Martin Gero sets goals for his characters and throws in as many obstacles as possible to keep them from achieving them. Gero keeps the situations realistic and observational – like a scene in Seinfeld expanded into a feature. But sex provides enough complex intricacies that there’s more than enough material to sustain and warrant a feature film treatment.

YPF could also be called “Young People Talking”, because there’s lots and lots of talk. Certainly more talk than sex. Cleverly Gero’s obstacles derive from the excess chatter his neurotic characters incessantly spew out in the most ill timed moments. Just when the romance is cruising along for our characters, a look, or a line strikes a neurosis that halts the action and creates conflict. The characters have the self-observational insight of a Woody Allen and the blockhead common sense of a Kevin Smith.

The reliance on chatter also prevents the film was breaking out and becoming a great film. The second act drags – drags a lot actually. Its contained concept starts to feel claustrophobic somewhere during the ‘foreplay’ segments. The exclusive bedroom locale and limited characters almost wear out its welcome. A ‘wildcard’ (a new character or element or location) is needed to alleviate its predictability and spin the film in a new direction.

In the end the audience gets what it wants, good comedy – and good sex – all tasteful with dollops of non-exploitive nudity. Gero successfully articulates those quandaries, bubble thoughts, and the silent but gnawing frustrations of the act with real world adult intelligence. The Canadian federal government should embrace the only thing other than hockey that we do better than most others - show our uninhibited thoughts about sex on screen. Everyone else seems to like it. Enjoy.