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

Thursday, 31 July 2008

X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE


X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008) dir. Chris Carter
Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Amanda Peet, Bill Connoly, Xzibit, Callum Keith Rennie

**1/2

I was only a casual fan of the series (not an X-phile), but knew most of the backstory and conspiracies involved. “X-Files: I Want to Believe” is not what you would expect and certainly not what I expected. It’s a difficult film for fans and non-fans for different reasons. It’s good as a stand-alone thriller (with a slight supernatural twist), unfortunately it comes without any of the high-concept “X-Files” lore, which made the long-running series so intriguing.

First off, you don’t have to know much about the TV series, expect one crucial point – that the main characters Mulder and Scully, had one of television’s most teasing platonic relationships – one which was never consummated. This new movie takes place a number of years after the series. Scully has quit the FBI and works in a church-run hospital caring for children with terminal diseases. Mulder is a recluse who lives enigmatically in a rural home. When an FBI agent is abducted and a psychic Priest claims to have visions of the crime, Mulder is tracked down and brought in to help with the investigation. Mulder asks for Scully’s help, but she is reluctant – because of her disbelief in the Priests claims, and because she’s devoted to curing a dying patient. The psychic reveals more than both Mulder and Scully expect and they soon find themselves working together again to solve the crime.

There’s something off kilter about the film. Midway through I figured out what it was, many scenes are intercut with each other, which, going by the language of cinema, should convey a link or connection. And if the juxtaposed scenes don’t pay off, all we get is false tension. There are many moments of false tension in this film. But Carter asks patience of the audience, and tries to bank these pay offs for later in the film. It’s up to you whether this technique works.

Most films, especially genre films, tell you what the film is about in the opening. The audience can therefore rely on their expectations to help them suspend their disbelief. With “The X-Files” there’s such a large backstory from nine years of television that there are very specific expectations associated with a big screen treatment of this story - national security conspiracies about alien abductions, monsters, ghosts and other paranormal activity.

Instead we are thrown into the investigative/serial killer genre. As the story progressed, I expected that ‘eureka’ moment to occur which will put us into the X-Files world and take the story to another level – that cinematic level above and beyond television.

Back in the days of the TV series there were two kinds of episodes – the continuing storyline involving aliens, Mulder’s sister, Cancer Man, and the other conspirators, and the so-called stand-alone ‘monster of the week’ episodes that didn’t connect directly to any episodes before it. “X-Files: I Want to Believe” never went to that next level and by the end of this new film, all we get is a ‘monster of the week’ category.

To their credit writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz take the film to another cinematic level of theme and character. Though conspiracies aren’t revealed, a paranormal revelation changes the characters in a profound way which the TV series could never do. Scully and Mulder express emotions and actually act like real people instead of TV characters forced to spin their wheels without an arc to complete. The big screen treatment allows Mulder and Scully to actually change, and confront and solve their emotional conflicts.

This is where “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” succeeds. We get see Scully and Mulder cathartically go through profound personal discoveries and reconcile their characters and their relationship with each other, but at the expense of what could have been a bigger, more intriguing and arguably more satisfying “X-Files” film. Enjoy.




Wednesday, 30 July 2008

FINISHING THE GAME


Finishing the Game (2007) dir. Justin Lin
Starring: Roger Fan, Sung Kang, Joseph McQueen, Josh Diamond, Sam Bottoms

*

"Game of Death", starring Bruce Lee is one of Hollywood's most curious stories. Prior to shooting "Enter the Dragon" Lee had filmed a portion of "Game of Death", but when "Enter the Dragon" was offered to him, Lee left mid-production. Of course, Bruce Lee died after shooting "Enter the Dragon" and thus, "Game of Death" was never finished. But in 1978, Hollywood capitalized on the immense popularity of Bruce Lee and finished the film using only 11mins of original footage and filming new scenes with new actors and a stand-in for Lee.

Now Justin Lin ("Better Luck Tomorrow" and "Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift") has embellished this ridiculous but true story into a comic mockumentary dramatizing how the re-casting process for Bruce Lee could have gone. Unfortunately despite good intentions, the film falls flat and generates little, if any, laughs.

The film starts by introducing the performers who are vying for the coveted role. We get to know a bunch of off-the-wall pathetic characters via mock-interviews, mock verite footage and mock archival footage. There’s a white guy who thinks he’s Chinese, an egomaniac Bruce Lee competitor named Breeze Lou, a doctor turned kung-fu action star and many others.

Most of the attempted humour is derived from the dead-pan patheticness of their self importance. None of the characters realize the depravity of attempting to ride the coattails of a dead celebrity. Other than the deadpan device, the situations are a series of gags which fail to hit the mark. Early on a lengthy dialogue about who the ego-maniac casting agent and the hack director would fuck of the actors auditioning stops the already dull film dead in it's tracks. It never recovers.

Lin also attempts to generate humour from the over-exposure tacky 70’s kitsch. But timing is everything in comedy and Lin is way too late with his concept. Freeze frames, pastel colours, split screen transitions were used first and with much greater ironic effect in "Boogie Nights”. Even the faded and grainy faux-archival footage was already done by the Grindhouse films. If this film had been made before the recent Christopher Guest films, before "Boogie Nights" and before "Grindhouse", the film would have been innovative and original. Ironically, it just feels dated now.

It's a shame, because there's a interesting story to be told about the typecasting and lack of opportunity for Asian actors in Hollywood. Lin incorporates this as a thematic subplot, but behind the non-laughs, it's all lost.

"Finishing the Game" is available on DVD in Canada from Alliance Films.




Tuesday, 29 July 2008

AMAL


Amal (2008) dir. Richie Mehta
Starring: Rupinder Nagra, Naseeruddin Shah, Vik Sahay, Roshan Seth

***1/2

Opening this week in Canada is Richie Mehta’s “Amal” – a wonderful first feature from the promising new writer/director. It tells the story of a humble rickshaw driver in New Delhi, India who, by nature of his selflessness, influences a dying man to bequeath his fortune to him. Mehta uses a delicate hand to convey old-fashioned yet profound values of goodwill and benevolence.

Amal (Rupinder Nagra) is a poor auto-rickshaw driver in Delhi. Despite objections of his mother and an opportunity to work for more money and less hours at the post office Amal chooses to live out this working class legacy of his deceased father.  One day Amal drives an elderly curmudgeon like he would any customer and politely refuses extra money for his good service. Amal would never meet him again, but the man has clearly been affected by Amal's pride in his job.

When the elderly man, who we now discover has a name (G.K.), dies, we meet his greedy relatives who clamour for their inheritance (the amount of which is never mentioned). Clearly G.K. was something more than just an ordinary fare. Instructions on his will state that the assets would be frozen for 30 days so Amal could be found so the money can be bequeathed him.  The humilty of Amal contrast against the greed of G.K.’s family creates a tense and unpredictable conflict of morals.

The story is so simple it feels as if I’ve seen the film before. Sure there's some of “Melvin and Howard” in there, and a bit of Vittorio de Sica (“Umberto D”) but the feeling was like an adaptation of a fairytale I had read as a child. There’s an unabashed moral or lesson to take home at the end, like “Crash”, a similar urban story about how fate causes their characters to see their own faults. Mehta never proselytizes his ethics though. "Amal" is also aided by its low budget aesthetic, which helps bury its themes in a thoroughly modern cinema-style.

Mehta and his production team, cinematographer Mitchell Ness and Production Designer Mark Gabriel (both relative newbies as well) create a completely authentic visual design. They may have been influenced by the work of Michael Winterbottom who loves to shoot 'from the hip' on the real streets of populated places. “Amal” has the same sense of realism as “In this World” or “A Mighty Heart”.

Some fine editing work is contributed by Stuart McIntyre who creates great rhythm and a momentum which gathers steam as the film progresses – a rare quality for a first feature. With the multiple locations, rickshaw driving footage, and hustle and bustle of the real Delhi streets, there’s always something interesting in each frame and every scene seems fresh and distinct.

But the film succeeds because of a dramatic screenplay filled with all the essential elements of great cinematic storytelling. Mehta and his co-writer/brother Shaun are conscious of when to reveal their precious information. And everything is timed perfectly.

If there’s room for improvement ironically it’s the character of Amal himself. Amal is made almost saintly and overly precious. Amal is impossibly considerate, humble and unassuming, one wonders if he has ever come into conflict with anything or anyone? This was distracting at first, but by the end, but I realized Amal isn’t so much a character as an ideal to achieve to which the supporting characters react against. The final moments of narration is a little heavy and obvious, but it successfully conveys in entertaining fashion the important message - strive to be content with one's self, because the poorest man can also be the richest.

"Amal" shows remarkable cinematic maturity for a first feature - a technically assured little gem which will help you reconcile your own anxieties and concerns about life.

"Amal" is being released in Canada August 8 by Seville Pictures. A U.S. release is pending.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS


What Happens in Vegas (2008)
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Cameron Diaz, Rob Corddry, Lake Bell, Dennis Farina, Treat Williams, Queen Latifah

*1/2

"What Happens in Vegas" was a moderate success against "Iron Man" earlier this summer. Somehow it succeeded solely on the basis of it's genre, because for a romantic comedy, it generates little romance and only a smattering of comedy.

Ashton Kutcher plays Jack Fuller, a ner-do-well, who's just been fired from his woodworking job by his own dad, Joy McNally (Cameron Diaz) is a NYC stock broker who’s just been dumped by her fiancé. They both decide to drown their sorrows out with a debaucherous trip to Vegas. Over the course of the weekend, the pair hook up and find themselves hitched. The next morning, both of them realize it was mistake, but before they have a chance to divorce each other Jack plays the slots with Joy’s quarter and winds up winning $3million.

Both of them claim the money, but instead of splitting it evenly, a court judge assigns them to live together as a married couple to work it out before making a divorce official. Therefore Joy and Jack, despite their differences are forced to play husband and wife for 6 months. It’s not an easy task as they are like oil and water, an odd couple of extreme "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" behaviour.

The film is yet another take on that subgenre of romantic comedy, where the man and woman try so hard to hate each other, without even realizing they’re falling in love. Instead of creating two interesting characters, writer Dana Fields tries really hard to stay within in its two paragraph summary hook from above.

The result is a series of gender clichés strung together. Like a stand-up comedian using the same material and telling the same jokes for years, the comedy is just as repetitive and derivative. And ‘romance’ only comes into the picture in the final act, tacked on to complete the genre requirements. Jack and Joy have no business being together, yet the genre demands that they do.

Joy and Jack aren’t so much characters as the two most intellectually-challenged selfish people on earth. There’s isn’t a single realistic or intelligent thought or action from either of them the entire film. Jack is complete idiot from the get go, and decides to follow the advice of his even more idiotic best friend Hater (Rob Cordrry) – yes his name is ‘hater’ – in order to scam the money away from Joy.

Some other familiar faces show up for a decent paycheque. Rob Corddry and Lake Bell generate all the best laughs as the token ‘best friends’. Queen Latifah shows up in a thankless role as the marriage councellor. Dennis Miller turns up with a few wise cracks from the behind the bench as Jack and Joy’s curmudgeon judge. Dennis Farina’s authoritative presence fills the role of Joy’s boss and Treat Williams plays Jack’s father. If anything, these characters serve as welcomed distractions against the non-distinctiveness of the leads

As mentioned the film is a series of clichéd gags on the differences between men and women – if you didn’t know, men leave the toilet seat up, that’s funny! The tête-à-tête of one-up-manships fills the entire second act, which is far too long. “What Happens in Vegas” never elevates itself above it’s hook of silliness and childishness to be taken seriously, even as a genre-comedy.

“What Happens in Vegas” is available on DVD August 26 from Fox Home Entertainment



Friday, 25 July 2008

THE YEAR MY PARENTS WENT ON VACATION


The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2007) dir. Cao Hamburger
Starring: Michel Joelsas, Germano Haiut, Simone Spoladore, Eduardo Moreira

**

“The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” is a coming of age drama set in a 1970 Sao Paulo Brazil. A young boy is left by his left-wing rebellious parents in an urban tenement building for the summer during Brazil’s victorious 1970 World Cup. There’s much potential in this coming-of-age story, but much of the drama from this interesting set-up goes unrealized.

It’s 1970 Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Mauro (Michel Joelsas) is an only child to Bia and Daniel, two seemingly grounded and caring parents. It’s the summer of the World Cup and Mauro is looking forward to cheering for their team led by the great Pele. Out of the blue, their parents hastily leave their home, for what they tell Mauro is a ‘vacation.’ Instead of taking Mauro with them, they leave him in the care of his grandfather in Sao Paulo.

When Mauro discovers his grandfather has died the day before, he’s finds himself left all alone in Sao Paulo with nowhere to go. Fortunately a kind elder neighbourhood man, Schlomo, takes the boy in. For the summer Mauro is taken in by Schlomo’s Jewish-Brazilian community as one of their own. Mauro attends Jewish ceremonies, plays soccer with the local kids and experiences many those cherished moments of childhood discovery in his adopted community.

The strength and weakness of the film is Mauro’s point of view. There’s an innate sense of dread which runs under the opening of the film. We sense there is something wrong with Bia and Daniel and that they are hiding some danger from the young boy. We’re never told explicitly why they are forced to leave, but since we’re adults watching the film, it’s obvious they are political dissidents on the run from the police. And so we enter an unknown world seen through the eyes of an innocent young boy. It’s a teasing intro.

Director Cao Hamburger employs a trendy realist style – grainy and handheld and employing almost exclusively mid to long lens sizes - which looks and feels like the work of the Dardennes Bros ("L'Enfant", "Le Fils").

Unfortunately, the final product is lacking the emotional drama of the Dardennes. Once Mauro is taken in by Schlomo and his community we forget about Mauro’s parents, and the fear of the situation leaves quite quickly. The film then moves into a familiar coming-of-age story which is considerably undramatic compared to the opening. Lead actor Michel Joelsas is capable as Mauro – he’s quiet but doesn’t quite connect to the audience in a warm paternal/maternal way. Perhaps this is because he is an inactive protagonist, a child to accepts everything that happens to him, with little complaint or even concern. In fact his chief concern is recovering his homemade toy goalkeepers for his table-top soccer game, which, of course, is meant as irony, but everything else Mauro is feeling is directed elsewhere.

The film might score with audiences who connect with the odd couple relationship of an elderly Rabbi and a goy kid. There’s some humourous interactions as they learn to live with each other in his small apartment, specifically a fun sequence where Schlomo discovers Mauro's a goy when he see his uncircumcised 'pee-pee' peeing in a flower pot. The two eventually find common ground in soccer and celebrate and dance together when their team wins their games.

A good comparison film could be “Under the Same Moon” (La Misma Luna) – a wonderful Mexican film about a young boy who ventures out on his own to find his mother. The childhood protag Carlito goes through numerous dramatic adventures before reuniting with his mother. Though it’s more Hollywood than realism, it’s more cinematic and engrossing. Even the Dardennes know how to inject cinematic story twists and turns to hook and audience.

“The Year My Parents Went On Vacation” is available on DVD from City Lights Pictures

Other related postings:
L'Enfant
Under the Same Moon



Thursday, 24 July 2008

FELLINI'S 8 1/2


Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) dir. Federico Fellini
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni

****

Ok, clearly I haven’t unearthed a diamond in the rough, nor am I writing about anything any reasonably knowledgable cinephile doesn’t know, but “Fellini’s 8 ½” is a great film and should be watched by everyone who wants to be a filmmaker.

Made in 1963, the film is surprisingly relevant in the present. Italian film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown just prior to shooting his next big film. The expectations of him are high. His every word has importance and everyone around him, from his family to his working colleagues, are clamouring for his attention. His writer and producer eagerly want his input on script and production issues but creatively he’s broken down and has “filmmaker’s block”. As a result Guido retreats like a turtle into his shell, via his fantastical dreams and memories.

Guido ventures into his subconscious and visits himself and relives his adventures as a young child. He fantasizes about a beautiful and elusive siren/goddess played by Claudia Cardinale - the perfect uncritical respite from his chaotic world.

The fantasy sequences are celebrated and continue to mesmerize for its choreography and design. These sequences are technically amazing, and up until then, compared only with “Citizen Kane” for its visual inventiveness. Fellini’s use of actors and camera movement mimics the movement of the rides at a circus. Things just never stop going round – people pop up in places around the frame, constantly surprising us.

Of course, 8 ½ was named after eight and halfth film he made until then (he co-directed an early film). And so referencing his own work in the title was just one unsubtle way of informing the audience the film is autobiographical – based on his experiences after making “La Dolce Vita.”

The film should be seen by anyone who has questioned his or her talent, in any shape or form. Almost everyone questions their own ability to continue the upward trend of success. If the film were made today, perhaps Guido would have taken drugs to cope, and instead we would have had “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas”. And who knows, maybe Fellini dabbled in some pre-swinging 60’s era hallucinogens. Either way, the film stands up to any of today’s films about filmmaking, and other creative efforts – ie. “Adaptation” or Wonder Boys”.

A beautifully pristine DVD is available in your foreign or classic film section. Please rediscover and enjoy.



Wednesday, 23 July 2008

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN


Kingdom of Heaven Dir Cut (2005) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Eva Green, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irons

***

In 2005 Ridley Scott directed one of his biggest films he’s ever been involved with – film about the Crusades and the Christian fight with the Muslims for control of Jerusalem. The film was cut down to 145mins from an original length of three + hours. Theatrically the film was a very big flop, which came as a total surprise, considering the man had just come off three successful films in five years – “Gladiator”, “Hannibal” and “Blackhawk Down”.

But in hindsight Scott’s Kurasawa-influenced Middle Eastern epic never even had a chance to succeed at the box office – no matter how long it is, it’s an anti-dramatic film, without the genre-satisfying heroism of its competitors, “Gladiator”, “Braveheart” or “300”. It’s a shame because in many ways, “Kingdom of Heaven” is more complex and intriguing character and political study. But is character and politics enough for a film about medieval knights and the crusades?

The hero of the film is Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith who becomes knighted by his absentee father (Liam Neeson) and travels to Jerusalem to cleanse his soul after the suicide of his wife.When he arrives in Jerusalem, he discovers he has inherited several acres of land, which are occupied by a peaceful mix of Christians and Muslims. But the peace is threatened by the Muslim armies at the gates and the warmongering Christian military from within.

Balian doesn’t have the chutzpah of Maximus in Gladiator. He’s a humble, reluctant knight, who resembles the virtues of Jesus – a selfless man, who fights not for land, title, or even women, instead for the peace of his people. He doesn’t even care that his people live in their home Jerusalem. And in the big finale, Balian actually surrenders and gives up the land to the Muslim army.

In any other epic Balian’s surrender would be seen as uncourageous, or selling out, but for Balian, there’s more honour in saving the lives of his people and their families, than dying for one’s beliefs.

Of course the Holy Land is still being fought over almost 1000 years later. Balian lives a secular life and attitude, and though he fights in the name of God and wears the cross, he’s pragmatic about his religion – which is perhaps not reflective of the times, but certainly reflecting a modern attitude.

In 2007, the fully realized 196 mins version was released on DVD with an unprecedented 45 mins of added material. The film is certainly a better film. The key additions include more time spent in France with revelations about Balian’s father and his half-brother, and lengthy chunks of material devoted to Balian’s relationship with Sybille (Eva Green).

Both additions I welcomed. More quality time with Liam Neeson in France deepens Balian’s decision-making in Jerusalem, and I could always use some more quality time with Eva Green. She is simply stunning in the film. I don’t know if her now trademark smoky eye shadow was in style in 1150, but who cares. Seriously though, her character additions fit in well with the theme of the corruption of power. In the Director’s Cut her character is more sinister than the theatrical, and which provides one of the most unexpected twists which has Balian rejecting her advances and offer of kingdomship. I can see why her dramatic downfall was cut out of the picture – it’s even more audience-unfriendly than our hero surrendering to the enemy. Her advances to Balian are rejected, and she kills her own child because he is a leper.

Despite the welcomed changes, it's still no masterpiece.

Pacing is a still a major problem. Mr. Scott is in love with his flickering candle-lights and flowing flags and gorgeous picturesque frames. But there's a consistent and unnecessary slowness, which never ramps up in intensity - even during the battle scenes. There's also a familiarity to the material. The epic battles are technically proficient it in depiction of medieval war, but it's little different than the army vs. army sequences in the LOTR movies, "Braveheart", "Gladiator", "Troy" and others. And Harry Gregson-Williams turns in a score of recycled choir chanting and indistinctive orchestral melodies.

In “300”, “Braveheart” and “Gladiator” each of their heroes died honourably in combat. Is Balian cowardly? Not at all. In fact, he makes the most sophisticated and morally complex decisions of any of the above-mentioned films – but it results in an audience-unfriendly but neverless thoughtful conclusion. Unlike other Ridley Scott movies, this one is a true 'Director's Cut', which results in a different and better film than the original, unfortunately it still doesn't rise far enough to become one of his 'great' films. Enjoy.

Other related postings:
The Multiple Visions of Ridley Scott




Tuesday, 22 July 2008

RESCUE DAWN


Rescue Dawn (2006) dir. Werner Herzog
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies

***1/2

“Rescue Dawn” is old-fashioned traditional filmmaking which wouldn't turn heads if it wasn't written and directed by one of cinema's most iconoclastic filmmakers - Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog has never been one to do things the easy way. His track record is filled with wild adventures on location in some of the most remote and uncompromising places on earth. Each endeavour of his is like a different “Apocalypse Now”. He must drive his crew berserk, but the legacy of work has lasted longer than the hardships it took to create them. “Rescue Dawn” is such a film.

Herzog first filmed this story as a documentary in 1997 called “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”. This dramatic version starts out in 1965 before Vietnam was considered a full-fledged war. During this time it was a ‘Black Ops’ objective. Christian Bale plays Dieter Dangler, a pilot who is shot down flying over Laos, and taken prisoner in a POW camp. As Dieter first enters the prison, he’s surprisingly calm, perhaps expecting civil Geneva-code-approved treatment. He meets a group of other prisoners, among them, two Americans Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies). When he learns that they have been in the camp for over two years, Dieter quickly formulates a plan of escape.

Using his resourcefulness he devises ways to release themselves from handcuffs, hide their food and plot their escape under the noses of the guards. Ironically the major roadblock in his plan is Duane, who has delusions of being rescued miraculously and continually tries thwart Dieter’s escape. But the gang eventually does escape, which only puts them into an even more hostile environment – the Laotian jungle.

Christian Bale, as expected, delivers a great method performance. And Herzog makes things even easier for himself by casting the two great character actors, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies who match up perfectly as Dieter’s mentally exhausted compatriots. Davies contributes another wonderfully spacey and neurotic performance and Steve Zahn's easy-going affability provides genuine warmth and sympathy.

Knowing Werner Herzog’s track record, the biggest surprise is the film’s conventionality. After over 35 years of filmmaking "Rescue Dawn" was his first Hollywood-ish film. The plotting of events fits nicely into the grand old tradition of prison-escape films. Herzog even gives us a triumphant climax with a 1980’s freeze frame to punctuate his thoroughly satisfying and straightforward ending.

The success of “Rescue Dawn” reinforces my desire to see more avant guard filmmakers make straightforward films. I’ve always thought, at will, David Lynch could make the scariest genre horror ever made. “Rescue Dawn” proves Herzog’s innate talent for storytelling can transfer to any genre or any medium. Enjoy.



Monday, 21 July 2008

THE DARK KNIGHT


The Dark Knight (2008) dir. Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart

****

“The Dark Knight” is a different film to “Batman Begins”, with Bruce Wayne/Batman’s origins and motivations established, and the comic book mythology deconstructed Christopher Nolan is off and running with his full-tilt action sequel. It’s breakneck speed from start to finish with little time for catch-up. Viewers who stop to think about the plot or how characters go from A to B, and wind-up at C will be left behind.

When last we left Gotham City, Batman had defeated the League of Shadows, but not before the inmates of Arkham Asylum escaped into the streets. Now with the city’s mob boss, Carmine Falconi, dead it’s been a free-for-all of uncoordinated gangland activity. Chaos reigns on both sides of the law. The ‘bat-man’ has become a legend to mimic by other wannabe masked avengers masquerading about town attempting their own personal vigilantism.

Batman/Bruce Wayne has come to realize that by his actions, he’s on track to becoming judge, jury and executioner. Batman puts his stock in the courageous DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to be the real hero and uniting force which will bring Gotham back into peace. Amid the chaos a poisoned pill psychotic named “The Joker” (Heath Ledger) has emerged as the city’s biggest threat to order.

“The Dark Knight” is all about action. A blistering pace set early starting with the excellently staged bank robbery sequence, and a number of bravura gun fights, set piece chases, and narrow escapes. The film never ever lets up. Nolan’s skills as director, and his unique rhythm of editing (helped by a pulsating Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard’s co-score) make the picture a marvel blockbuster entertainment – like Paul Greengrass’s with his Bourne movies – a cinema of momentum.

The film is not without it’s flaws and minor quibbles either. The muscular action substitutes for deficiencies in character. Even at two and a half hours, there’s not enough time to adequately give attention to its multiple subplots. As a result, characters like Alfred, Lucius and arguably Bruce Wayne himself are not broadened from what we learned in the first film. Towards the end, after 150mins of non-stop action, the exposition and explanation contained in the lengthy wrap-up speeches unfortunately are detractions.

So why was I not bothered about these deficiencies? Because The Dark Knight is the second film of a trilogy – a chapter devoted not to Bruce, or the mythology, but Gotham City itself – a city like, Rome, threatened with destruction from within. The theme of “The Dark Knight” is written into a conversation between Dent and Wayne early on. When considering whether it would serve Gotham better for Batman to temporarily exercise absolute power, Dent recounts Roman history and the authority of Julius Caesar, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

“The Dark Knight” broadens the accessibility of the comic book genre by rooting itself more in reality than any of the other comparable super hero films. In fact, the genre is more a crime thriller than comic book fantasy. The objectives of Batman’s adversaries are not arbitrary world domination - instead it’s the tangibility of money and power. But in the case of the Joker, his motivations are more difficult to read. We don’t learn too much about who the Joker is and what drives his need for chaos and destruction. For me, this was the most interesting question to be resolved – a discovery of his motivation beyond mere insanity.

Before “The Dark Knight” was even released, it was more than just a film. One cannot watch the film with pure objectivity knowing it was Heath Ledger’s last ‘completed’ film, playing a damaged character, which as some suspect may have mimicked Ledger’s real life personal demons. Ledger’s presence in the film is electric and the truth behind the fiction brings added context and attention to his character.

Admitted as I left the theatre, I couldn’t answer the question I wanted revealed – what was the Joker’s motivation? An explanation is given to us, but it was hasty and unsatisfactory and likely a red herring to keep us guessing. The Joker is a trickster who loves to play games. He continually challenges Batman, Dent, Gordon and the citizens of Gotham with questions of moral decency, honor and principal. Questions which, if answered properly, will put the city of Gotham on the right path of repair. As I recounted the progression of the story it then became so obviously clear – and several hours later I found myself nodding my head with admiration. Enjoy.

PS. As an aside…for those with access, “The Dark Knight” HAS to been seen in IMAX. With all this discussion of the impending death of cinema, and whether the new 3-D technology will be able to reinvent the theatre experience, Christopher Nolan has found the answer – and it’s been staring us in the face for over 25 years.

Many segments of the film were shot and presented in full IMAX glory. And for those who think it would be same as watching a blow-up version of Spider-man or Harry Potter in IMAX, there’s a big difference. Shooting a film in IMAX is different than blowing up a 35mm film to IMAX. The resolution of the full screen IMAX picture is remarkable – almost unbelievable actually. The film cuts in and out of IMAX and 35mm sequences frequently. Sometimes a scene is established with an IMAX shot and then goes back to standard 35mm for the rest of scene. But each and every time we see the film go 8 story-big it’s truly eye-popping. Christopher Nolan has not only raised the bar for all other top tier blockbuster directors to hit, he has resuscitated new life into that so-called dying art form of celluloid cinema.



Sunday, 20 July 2008

X - THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES


X - The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963) dir. Roger Corman
Starring: Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone, Don Rickles

***

Roger Corman is one of the great independent film producers. According to IMDB he has 384 films credits as producer between 1954 and 2008. Yes, that’s seven films a year for 54 years! Anyone who’s ever made a film would never be able to comprehend such a acccomlishmeny. What’s even more remarkable is that, it’s been said that Mr. Corman has “never lost a dime”.

Corman officially retired himself from directing in 1971, but before that he directed dozens of classic horror and b-exploitation movies. One of his best is “X”, or “The Man With X-Ray Eyes”.

Ray Milland plays James Xavier a doctor who’s on the brink of discovering a way for regular human eyes wave length other than traditional the light waves. When an opportunity arises to present his findings to grant funders, he decides to test his eye drops for the first time on himself. He discovers an ability to see through different layers of matter – including the human body.

His world is thrown upside down when he accidentally kills someone, which forces him to flee and go into hiding. On his journey he uses new skills to become a miracle healer, a carnival mindreader, and a Las Vegas gambler. Corman scares the bejeses out of us with a climatic reveal when he uncovers his tainted eyes.

The X-Ray special effects provides some interesting psychedelic visuals. When Xavier discovers he can see everyone as naked if he wants to, it provides a classic swinging-60’s sequence in a dance hall. And in Vegas we see from Xavier’s point of view the skeletal figures of people walking around, which creates a surreal melange of colours and horrific imagery.

As the movie played on DVD, my wife, as always, was casually watching as she was surfing the internet. She didn’t see the beginning of the movie and didn’t know what I was watching. Though I knew she didn’t know what movie it was, as a fun experiment, I casually asked her if she could guess the title. And yes, she got it right! B-Movies have never felt the need to be coy with their titles. This film is no exception – the title is completely literal to the story of the film.

But it’s b-movie material and so we don’t expect Corman to go much deeper than his literal title, but having seen Jack Arnold’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man” recently b-movie science fiction has room to expand our minds. “X” provides some existential thoughts about the responsibility of science (there are some things man was just never meant to see), but like a psychedelic trip, the film provides us pretty pictures for an hour and a half, without much of a hangover. Enjoy.



Saturday, 19 July 2008

WAR GAMES


War Games (1983) dir. John Badham
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Alley Sheedy, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, Barry Corbin

****

“War Games” that underappreciated techno-classic has all the hallmarks of early 80’s cinema: fears of computer and artificial intelligence, late cold war paranoia, and of course kids vs. adults. “War Games” stands out of the pack, because it never caters to be simply entertainment, its message is a powerful reminder of the dangers of the technology we create and the speed with which we create them. It's also great entertainment.

“War Games” opens with a lengthy but important sequence. We watch the mind-numbing procedure of a pair of military operatives as they go about their daily routine at a NORAD missile launching station. It must be a painfully boring job, forced to go through the same procedure day after day, in case they are asked to actually throw the switch for real. Well, on this day the unthinkable happens. They receive authenticated orders to launch their missiles. But after all the training and rehearsing the human factor fails them and one of the men (the late John Mahoney) refuses to launch the missiles.

And so is established the moral conundrum of the film and of the nuclear age. Should the fate of the world rest with the decision-making of one man? Should a military decision like a launching of nuclear warheads be executed by a computer? This is what advisor John McKittrick (the great 80’s character actor Dabney Coleman) proposes and implements. A Hal-like computer called WOPR replaces the execution procedure we saw in the opening scene. It’s an impressive piece of machinery but not everyone is convinced the computer is right for the job.

Enter high school wiz-kid David Lightman – a Bill Gates like Seattle teen who skips school and changes his grades with his elaborate home computer system. One day, while trying to hack into a software company to play games he accidentally hacks into the WOPR computer and thus the NORAD defensive grid. He starts a game of Biothermal Nuclear War, which Lightman thinks is only a game, but in reality turns into a world-threatening nuclear simulation. Lightman is in big shit and is taken into custody. The only person who can exonerate them is the reclusive designer of the WOPR computer.

From a screenwriting perspective Lawrence Lasher and Walter F. Parkes have crafted the perfect techno-thriller script – big ideas are told through great characters and accessible point of view storytelling. The pacing and dialogue are sharp, with just enough humour and romance dabbled in lighten the seriousness of the subject matter. They even have the ticking clock, the classic screenwriting device to remind the audience of the stakes. Usually this device is masked as a metaphor but the writers are confident enough to use a literal countdown display on the WOPR computer which they cut to from time to time.

Lightman’s computer set up is a great piece of production design. Designer Angelo Graham constructs a reality-based bedroom set-up of machinery, printers, speakers, monitors, which is certainly antiquated, but something which a clever teenager could have at the time. Lightman’s research and hackings are shown to us in procedural detail like the opening of the film. OK, so it’s impossible to actually type in a colloquial phrase and have it recognized as an command, but Matthew Broderick’s handsome yet geeky innocence sells all the mumbo jumbo to the audience with ease. Graham also creates an enormous NORAD set rivaling Ken Adam’s Dr. Strangelove set. Graham fills the huge space with authentic-looking giant computer screens, global maps, and hundreds of fancy computer and flashing lights. Within the space, John Badham expertly crafts his utterly suspenseful climatic battle with the computer.

Director John Badham, a relative unknown in today’s cinema circles, is one of the great mainstream directors of the 80’s. He even directed “Saturday Night Fever”. Other hit films of his include, “Blue Thunder”, “Short Circuit”, “The Hard Way” and “Nick of Time”. Arguably “War Games” is Badham’s crowning achievement, which stands out over all other Reagan-era Cold War films and can proudly be compared favourably to many of the great 60’s films: “Fail Safe”, “The Manchurian Candidate” and dare I say, “Dr. Strangelove”. Enjoy.

“War Games: 25th Anniversary” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.



Friday, 18 July 2008

THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR

Image courtesy of DVD Beaver

The Major and the Minor (1942) dir. Billy Wilder
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Robert Benchley, Rita Johnson and Diana Lynn
Comedy

****

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

“Why don’t you step out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?”

Ever hear (or use) that one before? (Or variations on that theme?)

Well, thanks to screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, the abovementioned come-on line from their wickedly diseased minds splashed onto celluloid in 1942’s “The Major and the Minor”, Wilder’s debut in America as a director.

Though filmmakers during this period had to deal with significant censorship because of the restrictive production code, Wilder managed to make movies that flouted the code persistently by brightly and fiercely presenting all manner of permissiveness in a multitude of new and exciting ways. With “The Major and the Minor”, Wilder would pull some rather substantial wool over the eyes of the Code – and what magnificent wool-pulling it proved to be!

The picture features saucy, sexy, vivacious Ginger Rogers as small-town girl Susan Applegate who tries – rather unsuccessfully – to make a go of it in the concrete jungles of New York. Tired of all the wolves that want just one thing (and one thing only – right fellas?) from her supple self, she’s compelled to beat a hasty retreat back to middle America after the abovementioned martini line slithers out of the slavering mouth of horny reprobate Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley). Osborne refuses to take “no” for an answer - insistently endeavoring to get into Susan’s panties. She is forced to resist in a manner that betrays her almost veteran-like stature in having to expertly rebuff similar unwanted amorous advances.

Once at the train station to escape the dogs, as it were, of New York, she realizes she is short a few dollars for the ticket back home and gets the idea to do a makeover (pigtails, lollipop, balloon, etc.) to qualify for a child’s discount ticket. The ruse gets her a ticket, but once on the train, she’s pursued by some skeptical conductors and finds herself hiding in the compartment of a handsome young officer, Major Phillip Kirby (dashing Ray Milland). The Major takes an instant liking to this lollipop-licking “12-year-old” (who, befitting her pre-teen “age”, is referred to as “Sue-Sue” rather than “Susan”) and in an initially innocent, fatherly way Kirby becomes Susan’s saviour and benefactor – not only securing her safely on the train, but temporarily putting her up at his fiancé’s family estate.

It is here, amongst high society, where Lucy (Diana Lynn) a real 12-year-old (and little sister to Phillip’s fiancé) engages in sibling rivalry in extremis and helps Susan steal Phillip’s heart from her nasty, cold fish older sister. And it is also here that amongst the upper crust where the Major disconcertingly appears to be falling in love with a 12-year-old girl.

We, the audience, have had no doubt the Major would fall for Susan, but it starts getting just a little bit strange that the charade continues quite as long as it does. Yes, Susan knows she’s 30 and we know she’s 30 and Lucy knows she’s 30, but the Major most certainly does NOT. In fact, as he’s a teacher of young military cadets, he even seems to be setting his “Sue-Sue” up with any number of his students. He seems to be downright shilling Susan – perhaps to quell his own feelings for her.

Amusingly, but also tellingly, Susan – once the recipient of unwanted attentions from much older men (when she “was” 30) is now, at the age of 12 being hounded by young teenage boys.

On the surface, The Major and the Minor seems to be as frothy and inconsequential a romantic comedy as one is likely to experience. As the film progresses however, you realize it’s pure cynical Billy Wilder and while thoroughly bubbly, it’s not inconsequential in any way, shape or form. Substantially ahead of its time in terms of examining the sexual roles of men and women, and in particular, the way in which women are sexualized by men and society at practically any age, this proves to be a picture that does the requisite double duty of being entertaining and thought provoking all at once.

Finally, one of the more interesting aspects of this picture in terms of how women are viewed by men and by society at large is the fact that Susan is not – even for a moment – a convincing 12-year-old to the REAL 12-year-old and, in actuality, often acts far more immature than a 12-year-old actually would. The fact that a grown man AND teenage boys STILL seem attracted to this 12-year-old who might actually be younger or, at the very least, MORE immature seems to suggest the pedophilic nature inherent in ALL men.

“The Major and the Minor” is an extraordinary picture. It’s funny as hell and even romantic, but it’s also super-creepy. Some might suggest the creep factor was not Wilder’s intent, but one only needs look at his subsequent work (“Double Indemnity”, “The Apartment”, “Sunset Boulevard”, etc.) to realize that there’s no reason why it would NOT be intentional.

Wilder was nothing if not provocative. Watching this movie and comparing it to contemporary want-to-be provocateurs like Todd Solondz and his ilk, it becomes especially apparent how ahead of the pack Wilder was – ahead of the pack, ahead of his time and, to a certain extent, ahead of our time also. Wilder was and is, in fact, the real thing, while those who try to do the same thing now in their insufferably hip fashion are not much more than poseurs. Wilder is definitely a major. Most of the rest are minor.

“The Major and the Minor” is available on DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment



Thursday, 17 July 2008

BASIC INSTINCT


Basic Instinct (1992) dir. Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzunza, Jeanne Tripplehorn

***1/2

In 1992, Paul Verhoeven shifted gears away from his previous two action films, “Robocop” and “Total Recall” to shoot a beguiling investigative slasher picture which was already famous for being the most expensive scripts ever sold in Hollywood. "Basic Instinct" is now a naughty and notorious classic. It’s b-movie material but with an ultra-slick gloss provided by the moody/serious Hitchcockian tone and Jan De Bont’s luscious cinematography. Now, arguably “Basic Instinct” is the quintessential erotic thriller.

Fans of Verhoeven’s work in Holland will instantly recognize thematic and genre similarities with his early Dutch film “The Fourth Man” (1983). Like “Basic Instinct”, the protagonist is a man who is seduced by a multiple-widowed sex-pot angling for another victim. Some of the action and violence is identically staged, specifically one sex scene where instead of an icepick Sharon Stone’s equivalent does her nasty work with a pair of scissors.

“The Fourth Man” is great practice for creating the erotic thriller to beat them all. Michael Douglas plays Nick Curran, a cop currently under investigation by internal affairs. He’s assigned to the case of a dead rock star who has been stabbed to death with an icepick. The chief suspect is Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone) a paperback novelist with a degree in psychology, or as the police captain says, "a degree in fucking with people's heads". Catherine does just that, and seduces Nick with gradually increasing sexual teasing. As Nick gets closer to Catherine, the more he’s convinced she didn’t do it. Before long Nick is caught in a deadly web of death with him as the next intended victim.

Jan De Bont has a lot to do with the success of the film. He was one of Verhoeven's two favoured DOPs from his native land. His two action films were both lensed by Jost Vacano, who had a style completely wrong for this different kind of film. The erotic noir genre calls for a different skill set and Jan de Bont’s classic big screen Hollywood style was the right kind of gloss needed. Unfortunately it would de Bont’s second last feature as DOP. Of course, he would go on to direct some major blockbusters ("Twister" and "Speed"), but it’s a shame, because we’ve also missed on some great collaborations.

The late Jerry Goldsmith, one of the great music composers in Hollywood - ever - provides a wonderful swooning music score. He injects just the right amount of Bernard Herrman to compliment the Hitchcockian feel, without resorting to complete theft.

From the San Francisco locale, to the psychoanalytical themes, to the camera work, "Basic Instinct" is one of the best Hitchcock-influenced films, and perhaps a film Brian DePalma should have made - it even features an elevator-death climax. The DVD features a great commentary by Paul Verhoeven and Jan de Bont revealing all the Hitchcockisms they injected in the film. Rediscover this naughty 90's classic. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

CANADIAN FILMS AT TIFF

Yesterday the full line up of Canadian films for the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival were announced.

Please go to Canadian Film Dose for the full, easy to read list.
Click HERE

THE BAND'S VISIT



The Band’s Visit (2007) dir. Eran Kolirin
Starring: Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour

***1/2

"The Band’s Visit" tore up the festival circuit last year winning awards at Cannes (En Certain Regard Jury Prize), Tokyo (Grand Prix) Warsaw, Montreal, Munich, Zurich and more. An Egyptian band gets lost and stranded in a small Israeli town overnight where they're forced to ingratiate themselves with the locals. It’s a cross cultural comedy with a deliciously warm heart and a distinctly European comic sensibility.

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Egypt arrives in Israel the day before a performance at the Arab Cultural Centre. At the airport, there is no greeting party, no bus, no cab or limo waiting to pick them up. Have they been forgotten about? The band leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai) is so concerned with maintaining discipline and representing their country with pride and honour, no one makes a stink, or pulls a tantrum. They wind up walking to the nearest village, dragging their instruments behind them. It’s both pathetic and cute at the same time.

They arrive in a one-horse Israeli town, with little bus access. The locals are welcoming of the band and courteously put them up for the night. The local restaurant owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) houses Tawfiq and his trouble-making trumpet player Khaled. Other band members split up and bunk with some of the other locals. The film intercuts the interactions between the Israelis and Arabs over the course of the evening.

The interaction of Tawfiq and Rita turns into a coy sexual flirtation. Ronit Elkabetz, a gorgeous middle-aged actress, provides a wonderfully sexy performance contrast against Gabai’s drill sergeant persona who is so stuck up he won’t take off his hat. Khaled, the trumpeter, hangs out with local loser, Papi, and teaches the awkward youth the intricacies of how to pick-up a girl. Khaled and Papi provide the best scene in the film and perhaps one the most hilarious displays of female courtship.

"The Band's Visit" is not unfamiliar or original. The British, Irish and Scottish have perfected this small town fish out of water story. The logline reads as “The Englishman Who Came Up and Hill But Went Down a Mountain”, or “Waking Ned Devine”, or “Local Hero”, there’s a few oddballs which are familiar to these films, but an overall European - and to get specific, Scandinavian - flavour makes the film distinct.

Director Eran Kolirin sets a quiet tone – part sadness, part surrealism. The Israeli town is a desolate place, with imagery influenced by the Coen bros’s Fargo”. Kolirin shoots his scenes with an economical sparseness with no shot wasted. His camera is locked down and framed with portrait-style composition. The films of Swedish surreal-master Roy Andersson come to mind.

The performances are quiet too. A voice is never raised. And with very little overt conflict, a full arcing narrative is sustained and completed with lessons learned about each other and themselves. Kolirin never dumbs down the material or coaxes unwarranted tears or emotional revelations from the character.

By the end of the night the stranger vs. stranger tension is barely broken, but just enough be to be poignant without melodramatic. The band will likely never ever see the locals of the town again, but they will also never forget their night of unplanned cathartic adventure. Enjoy.

"The Band's Visit" is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment



Tuesday, 15 July 2008

21


21 (2008) dir. Robert Luketic
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey

**

Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book “Bringing Down the House” – the true story of how a group of MIT students used their superior math skills to beat Las Vegas at blackjack – was an enjoyable read. Because of the Steve Martin/Queen Latifah film, the movie version had to change its name to "21". For a film about deception Robert Luketic and his writers (and pardon the pun) lay every card on the table early resulting in a predictable narrative path with little creativity, excitement and drama.

Jim Sturgess plays Ben Campbell, an MIT student who has the grades to get into Harvard Med, but not the money. He’s angling for a scholarship but without it, he’ll need $400,000 to pay his way through. After impressing one of his professors Mikey Rosa, he is approached by Mikey to participate in a blackjack club. This is not ‘poker-night’ for the guys, it’s an elaborate card counting scam, led by Mikey himself. The allure of the fast-paced, high-stakes Vegas operation is tempting, not to mention the hottest girl in school is also part of club. It’s a no-brainer for Ben.

The best part of the film is the opening act where we, as the audience, in the shoes of Ben, learn the ropes of card counting. A simplified system of counting high cards as +1 and low cards as -1 allows the group to determine when a “hot” deck is about to dish out good hands. 'Spotters' signal to the roaming big players which table to sit down at, and thus drop some major cash on high potential decks.

Ben's character follows a predictable path of rise and fall and redemption. As expected there’s the Guy Ritchie-style montage scene where we see our foursome get rich quick, buy expensive suits, and party in comped glamour suites. Of course Ben falls in love with the hot chick (Kate Bosworth, who has no character other than playing ‘the unattainable’) and eventually loses some money. A series of losing hands for Ben eventually sees him become enemies with Mikey and put the old school Casino authority hot on his tail.

Luketic and his writers needed to get educated with David Mamet to know how to film gambling. Ben resorts to a con to get himself out of trouble. But it’s a pathetically conceived scheme which should not have fooled his enemies but it does. Ben does get out of hot water while learning a lesson about himself in the end. It’s TV after school special plotting and resolution at best, and certainly doesn’t tell us more than that Beverly Hills 90210 episode where Brandon becomes a gambling addict.

Other than the freshness of math geeks using their brains to beat Vegas, the heart of the film is the character arc of Ben. The friends he alienates while he changes from engineer geek to Versace-wearing blackjack super stud is a laughably wrapped-up subplot. It’s best to either read the book or watch the special features on the DVD where the actors describe to us their method of counting – so everyone at home can start their own 21-club, beat Vegas, then get their faces pounded in by the Casino-police.

"21" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment



Monday, 14 July 2008

RAMBO III


Rambo III (1988) dir. Peter MacDonald
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna

***

“Rambo III” in 1988 was a big deal. It was a $65million film, an enormous budget for its day, starring perhaps cinema’s biggest star and released in the coveted Memorial Day summer slot. The budget allowed the improvement of production value over the “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” and the topical Afghanistan setting seemed less exploitive and more relevant to 1988. It’s the second best film of the series, behind the classic “First Blood”.

Years after Rambo rescued those left-behind Vietnam POVs in “Rambo: First Blood Part II”, John has retired in Thailand where he helps a group of Monks in a local village. To make ends meet he competes for money in a Bangkok stick-fighting arena (which makes for a fantastic opening sequence!). When Rambo learns Col Trautman has gone missing in Afghanistan, he comes out of a retirement for a solo rescue mission to find his trusted friend.

On his journey he befriends a group of Afghan rebels who, despite inferiority in weaponry have been battling the invading Soviets on guts and courage. With Rambo’s help the rebels organize and take down the evil Soviets.

To get Rambo to Afghanistan, there’s a number of logic holes to surmount, chief of which is Col Trautman, played Richard Crenna, a 60+ year old man who leads a covert unit inside Afghanistan. Really? Of the entire United States, he’s the best man for the job? And why Rambo is only soldier in the world who can do the job?

It was easier to fool 1988 audiences these days with these dalliances. Modern equivalents use humour to acknowledge these stretches of believability. Just look at the self-reverential humour in “Iron Man” or “Spider-Man”. “Rambo III” somehow manages to succeed, even two decades later. There’s barely an ounce of humour in the film, the story is played completely serious and Stallone and company confidently gets away with it. Other films of its kind cannot say the same thing – any of the Norris films, or 80’s Schwarzenegger films are completely forgettable in comparison.

Rookie director Peter MacDonald (then only a camera operator and second unit director) is quick to establish the set-up and then move into the action. In fact, in three minutes and less than a page of dialogue, Rambo is approached by Trautman in Thailand to lead the mission, Trautman goes to Afghanistan and is caught, the Army commander goes back to Thailand to tell Rambo about the fuck-up which quickly changes his mind, and at the end of the sequence Rambo is in Afghanistan looking for Trautman. An amazing condensation of time which most people wouldn’t notice if they hadn’t seen the film a dozen times (I know, I suck).

Sly doesn’t get the credit he deserves as one of cinema’s great physical actors. Rambo is a character defined by actions, not words. And when he’s not stabbing people or firing his guns, Stallone’s physical presence, steely-eyed stares and pensive thoughts defines the complexities of the man. Stallone’s Rambo, despite his military skills, is as vulnerable as any soldier. Unlike other cinema super soldiers victories don’t come easy. Whether it’s sewing up a cut with a needle and thread or cauterizing a wound with gunpowder, Rambo gets beaten down as often as he kills. Perhaps only Marlon Brando bests Stallone for talent in expressing on-screen pain.

This is why Rambo is such a great character. “Rambo III” is an intense film, it has all the explosions, carnage and death as everyone remembers from the time, but the violence appears justified and realistic because there’s passion in Stallone’s character to win. The best example of this is the best scene in the film, when the Soviet army invades the Afghan village with a number of high tech gunships. Rambo’s lengthy run across the village to the lone artillery machine gun demonstrates the intense and determination of his character. He then destroys a multi-million dollar piece of a equipment with his raw power and determination. Enjoy.

Other related postings:
First Blood
Rambo



Saturday, 12 July 2008

SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES


The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) dir. Mark Waters
Starring: David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary Louise Parker, Seth Rogen (voice), Martin Short (voice) and Andrew McCarthy
Fantasy

**

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

My first helping of this family-oriented fantasy was on the big screen and my recollections of that experience are relatively positive. However, keep in mind that it was the EXPERIENCE of seeing it, NOT the movie itself that left me with a positive feeling. In fact, I had pretty much filed the movie under forgettable save for the vaguely lingering feeling that Nick Nolte was a great villain and that David Strathairn was (almost as always) pleasing, but so much so that one wanted him to be the main character instead of the annoying dysfunctional family we’re forced to spend the rest of the movie with.

The other reason I recall it being a good experience was that I saw it with my kid and she seemed to have a reasonably good time watching it. But that’s about it. That’s about all I remembered until I watched it again on DVD, which confirmed why the initial experience on the big screen was ultimately so forgettable.

Basically, The Spiderwick Chronicles is more done-to-death family fantasy with nothing especially new or exciting added to the mix (save for the occasionally welcome tone of nastiness on the part of Nick Nolte and his unholy cohorts).

The narrative is way too familiar. A single Mom with money problems moves her kids (a pair of male twins and their sister) into a creepy old mansion bequeathed to them. The kids discover weirdness in the house and surrounding neighborhood – a whole other world of creepy creatures (most evil, some helpful). The kids find their long dead grandfather’s (Strathairn) creation - a magical field book that had the power to open doors between our world and the world of monsters. The main monster, played with scenery-chewing delight by Nolte, wants to possess the book to have ultimate power over pretty much everyone and everything on both sides of the dividing line. One of the boys leads the way in battling the monsters and eventually grows up by reuniting with Grandad in the spirit world and bringing his dysfunctional family together.

Isn’t that nice?

Apparently, the movie is based on a series of popular family books. Big surprise. Isn’t everything these days?

In any event, I have never bothered to read any of these contemporary masterworks since I’m more inclined to expose my kid to the classics rather than these mass-marketed franchise empires masquerading as literature. Therefore, I am unable to compare the movie with the books, but I can only assume they’re of the same ilk. (And for those who do not mind exposing their children to such books, I’m willing to concede that they’re probably good for what they are – maybe even first rate. But again, for what they are.)

Another thing that’s getting tiresome in these fantasy movies is seeing families that are torn apart by divorce. This is getting old fast. Even if this represents the legacy of the baby boomer hippies and resembles most “families” (if you can call them that) these days, it would be nice to see a return to the true family values of the classics (both in film and literature). If popular culture – especially movies like this one could present such values at the forefront, then maybe, just maybe they’d provide more acceptable propaganda to inspire values other than selfishness and dysfunction.

All in all, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a vaguely competent and certainly watchable family fantasy, but it’s also nothing really special. The picture is well acted and sports some terrific special effects. If your children have been reared in some nut-job Waldorf-styled school, the movie might prove to be a tad scary or intense for the really wee ones. That said - my seven-year-old didn’t find it scary. That said, she’s already seen Hellboy, Sin City, all the classic Universal horror movies, all the Ray Harryhausen fantasy adventures, all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies and Gremlins, to name but a few – so The Spiderwick Chronicles was pretty much a walk in the park for her.

Once again, all the technical credits on this picture (in addition to the sfx) are first rate – everything from Caleb Deschanel’s rich cinematography, Michael Kahn’s razzle-dazzle cutting and James Horner’s suitably sweeping score. The screenplay, such as it is, appears to bear a co-writing credit from John Sayles which is nice knowing since it means he was probably able to raise an entire independent feature budget from his writer fee in order to make a movie he actually cared about.

One of the main reasons the picture is so forgettable might also have more to do with the ho-hum by-the-numbers direction provided by the thoroughly unexciting Mark Waters. Someone with more flair or panache might have nudged this picture a little further into something more memorable. At least it would have had style – something resembling a personal voice rather than feeling like it was cobbled together by studio marketing analysts.

The recently released DVD is presented in a 2-Disc Field Guide Edition which means that the cover bears a fake wax seal holding the cover closed with Velcro and that the two discs are crammed with the usual assortment of EPK-styled extra features.

There are a lot worse family fantasy adventures than The Spiderwick Chronicles to foist upon your kids, but with the wealth of classic material available out there, one wonders why this picture would come close to anything resembling a first-choice.

"Spiderwick Chronicles" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Friday, 11 July 2008

SCARFACE (1932)


Scarface (1932) dir. Howard Hawks
Starring: Paul Muni

***1/2

Despite 50 years between Howard Hawks’ “Scarface” and Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” they are surprisingly similar. This perhaps is due in part to Brian De Palma’s reverence for classic cinema (he is the master at ‘borrowing’ from the great films), but also the fact that the original is film still top notch dramatic entertainment.

Oliver Stone who wrote the new film retains the fundamental structure of Ben Hecht’s original screenplay (by way of Armitrage Trail’s novel). Tony “Scarface” Camonte (Paul Muni) is muscle for Chicago gangster Johnny Lovo – think Robert Loggia’s character Frank. Lovo and Camonte has consolidated the local mobsters in the south side to rival their bitter enemies in the north. With Camonte’s love of action and quest for power he can’t resist invading the territories in the north side against Lovo’s strict orders. A rift develops between Lovo and Camonte, and it only takes the slightest hesitation for Lovo to lose out to Camonte’s kill-first tactics. With Camonte leading the mob, it becomes an all out war in Chicago.

We also get to know Camonte’s family life – his best friend Rinaldi (George Raft) is his trusted ally – think Steven Bauer’s character Manny – his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), his mother, and like the Pacino version, Camonte aggressively pines after the boss' girlfriend, Poppy. Substitute Michelle Pfieffer for Karen Morely.

De Palma's version kept beat for beat intact the core relationship between Camonte, his best friend, and his sister. Like Tony Montana, Camonte is over protective of his sister, and when she disappears to marry his best friend Rinaldi, Camonte’s obsessed mind boils over with the Shakespearean-worthy tragedy. The climatic scene when he kills his best friend is equally powerful.

The film was produced by Howard Hughes, and his independent and maverick hands are all over the film. The violence was condemned back in the day, for glorifying the gangster lure which aggrandized thugs like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and John Dillinger. Perhaps this explains the conspicuous opening text crawl which tells the audience about their intentions and how to feel about organized crime. There’s also a blatantly political scene in the middle of the film when a group of politicians present a ‘call to action’ against organized crime. The orator even speaks directly to camera addressing ordinary citizens (ie. the audience) to stand up and against this tyranny.

Hughes was a smart man, and so perhaps this was appeasement for including his bloody and violent ending, which was toned down and reshot in an alternate but unused version. The Universal DVD has both, and I much prefer the original and more violent. Hughes stood by his guns to keep HIS ending, and it worked.

The greatest compliment De Palma/Stone paid to the original – other than De Palma's final dedication to Hecht/Hawks before the tail credits – is the inclusion of the thematic billboard which both Camonte and Montana look up to in the sky. Midway through “Scarface 83’ after Tony Montana takes over Frank’s business, he looks up and reads a sign off a blimp – it reads, “The World is Yours’ (embellished by that great pulsating Giorgio Moroder music sting!). Tony Camonte does the exact same thing. Instead of a blimp he takes inspiration from a billboard atop a building. This thematic reference of the 1932 “Scarface” was still relevant in 1983, and is still relevant today – a warning sign of how the American dream can easily be manipulated and distorted and create the evil monsters of Tony Montana and Tony Camonto. Enjoy

Thursday, 10 July 2008

THE MUMMY (1932)


The Mummy (1932) dir. Karl Freud
Starring: Boris Karloff, David Manners, Zita Johann, Edward van Sloan

***

With the third entry in the Brendan Fraser “Mummy” franchise do out soon, it’s a good time to revisit the original “The Mummy” released in 1932, which is being released on DVD again by Universal. The original film is a sparse, barebones jumping off point compared to the visual effects blockbuster extravaganza of the newer films. But remnants of the old film are still in the new one.

Karl Freund’s “The Mummy” begins in 1921, during an excavation of an ancient Egyptian tomb where a team of archaeologists Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), and Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) have uncovered a mummy. It's a mysterious find because the man inside appears to have been entombed alive, along with a cursed box with an inscription written to whoever finds it to never to open the contents. While Muller and Sloan are away, the curious archaeologist Norton opens the box revealing an ancient scroll of text which he proceeds to recite. As he does this the buried alive Mummy, Imhotep (who else but Boris Karloff), comes to life and calmly leaves the site never to be seen again.

When a second expedition shows up 10 years later Imhotep emerges as an aloof yet demanding Egyptian man named Ardeth Bey (still Boris Karloff). Bey finds the expedition leader, Sir Joseph's son Frank (David Manners) and points them in the direction of the lost tomb of Imhotep’s lost love Princess Anckes-en-Amon. Bey manipulates the archeologists into resurrecting the Princess so he can be reuntited with her. To do so, he needs the scroll and a female sacrifice, who happens to be the ravishing guest of Dr. Muller (Zita Johann).

The great German cinematographer Karl Freund directed the film. The year previous he shot Tod Browning’s “Dracula”, but he’s most famous for lensing the German classics of F.W. Murnau (“The Last Laugh”) and Fritz Lang (“Metropolis”). Freund’s style wasn't completely 'Hollywood-ized', as his slow moving gothic style is still present. Just watch the movements and speech patterns of Karloff himself. It’s been thousands of years for Imhotep/Bey so patience has been his sole virtue.

Fans of Freund’s previous work will recognize this in his dramatic lighting scheme. The most ominous of course is the famous shot of Karloff staring into the camera, underlit to create a skeletal-like appearance. 1932 audiences must have been wildly creeped out. Freund’s camera slowly moves in and out and around the sets with the grace he put into his great German films.

The actual cloth-bound ‘Mummy’ which is slapped on the movie poster (and in the still used for this review) appears in only a very brief scene in the opening, the remainder of his presence is as Ardeth Bey. Traditional scares are few – Bey commits a couple of murders – but the horror comes from the sense of unease and the centuries old curse which slowly comes to life. Bey’s motives (the need to rekindle lost love) are honourable , but it’s only when Freund reveals the deathly sacrifice needed to complete his plan, does Bey become truly horrifying. Enjoy.

"The Mummy (1932)" Legacy Collection is available on Special Edition DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment



Wednesday, 9 July 2008

UNDER THE SAME MOON


Under the Same Moon (2007) dir. Patricia Reggin
Starring: Adrian Alonso, Kate del Castillo, Eugenio Derbez, Maya Zapata

***1/2

“Under the Same Moon” or “La Misma Luna” an under-the-radar Mexican festival circuit film quietly arrived on video a couple weeks back. In this day and age of social realism and cynical cinema, this film never did find its audience. This is no surprise. It’s uncool, unhip, old fashioned, and a little corny. But its optimism and heart on your sleeve sentimentality is a welcomed breath of fresh air. This simple tale of a young Mexican boy's journey to be reunited with her mother across the border is a near perfect rendering of the classic Odyssey-style storytelling and a small unearthed gem waiting to be discovered.

The opening establishes the two main characters, nine year old Carlito and his mother Rosario. Rosario crossed the border illegally 4 years ago and now lives in LA, working as a maid so she can properly provide for her son. Carlito lives with his grandmother in Mexico. His life is safe and secure, but he’s brave enough to mask his desire to grow up in the company of his mother. Breaking the bond of mother and son creates such a strong cinematic hook, the real world plausibility or logic of such a situation becomes mute. A dramatic event at the first act turn occurs which puts puts his domestic situation in question.

Carlito goes on a journey to find his mother, a journey which takes him across the border via a series of interesting characters, some good, some not so good, who help at each stage along the way. The less you know about the specifics of the story the better, because despite the Hollywood conventions it’s an unpredictable series of narrative twists and turns - something new and exciting is discovered with every new beat, scene and act turn. If I were teaching a course on screenwriting, “Under the Same Moon” could be a case study on the perfect structure and execution of its genre.

The finale is unabashedly 'Hollywood', but still thoroughly cinematic and satisfying. The perfect ending for this special film.

The anchor is a remarkable performance from youngster Adrian Alonzo – an astonishing performance comparable to any of the acclaimed child performances in recent memory ie. Haley Joel Osment, Abigail Breslin, Dakota Fanning etc. But the lack of recognition for such work is equally astonishing. Young Adrian holds down the film with complete authenticity. His sad but strong eyes instantly give Carlito the street smarts the character needs for us believe that he could make this journey.

The characters he meets along the way are introduced casually but slowly developed under our noses. Check out the loathsome Enrique (Eugenio Derbez) who enters the picture as a fellow border crosser who has no need to hang around a little nine-year old while evading the INS ( I wouldn’t either). But surprisingly Enrique hangs around long enough to become an integral supporting character, who learns something about honour and friendship along the way.

It would be easy to dismiss the film for simplifying complex issues, or the fact it makes no overt political stance on border relations between Mexico and the U.S. The border exists purely as a cinematic device or barrier between mother and son. The film is bigger than the political issue, because it’s a pure form of storytelling, which in the annals of history will survive long past it’s “political divisive” contemporaries.

Please see this film. Enjoy.

"Under the Same Moon" is available on DVD from Fox Home Entertainment

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

HEAVY METAL IN BAGHDAD


Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2008) dir. Suroosh Alvi, Eddy Moretti
Documentary

**

Acrassicauda means 'black scorpion' in latin. It’s also the name of the only heavy metal band in Iraq. Needless to say, heavy metal is frowned upon by the fundamentalist authorities, who see their music as a form of heretical Western propaganda. The filmed journey of filmmakers Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti to find this controversial band allows the audience a unique point of view into the Iraq War.

Alvi and Moretti are a pair of filmmakers from Vice magazine who, via their work with MTV, heard about this heavy metal band from Iraq. The notion of a metal band playing this type of music in the world's hotbed of conflict piqued their interest enough to bring their cameras and film a documentary. What they learn is what we've all known for some time, that after almost 5 years of war, the country is still as oppressed as it was during the Saddam rule.

For heavy metal junkies (like me), the film isn’t about music. In fact the music they play is pretty bad. The band plays mostly cover tunes, and their fan base consists of a handful of headbangers who seem to act more for the camera than the music. So it’s a bit of artistic licence and aggrandizement to call Acrassicauda an actual band. The film is about the effect of the war on the ordinary working people of Iraq – people like you and I who just want to play the music they like, and raise their families in peace.

The most fascinating element has little to do with the original intent of the filmmakers. I was shocked to see the extent of the westernization the ordinary Iraqi people. Bassist Firas Al-Lateef speaks like an ordinary American youth starting every sentence with ‘dude’. He speaks such good colloquial English, there is very little culture to discover in the film. Maybe this feeds the theme of the film – the fact that the world is so interconnected that Lateef, via Western TV and the internet, knows the freedom he was promised and can articulate it with our own words.

Like their contemporaries, Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, or Werner Herzog, the filmmakers use themselves as the narrative driving force (actually Alvi is the only one in front of the camera, Moretti is the operator). Unfortunately Alvi lacks the charisma of any of the above to make him a ‘character’ in the film. Sam Dunn, the director of “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey”, didn’t have much screen presence either, but his passion for the music made him interminable watchable. I don’t know if Suroosh even likes heavy metal? He never once discusses their music with the band.

Alvi also isn’t seasoned enough to make subtle his obviously leading questions. He’s constantly fishing for the salacious answers he desires to make compelling drama. And in the end, Alvi and Moretti resort to the most obvious act of forced emotions, when he shows a rough cut the film we're watching to the band members. That’s got to be a first in cinema. Watching the subjects watch their own film!

The film hopscotches through 3 years of the life of the band. And the camera seems to miss the most interesting moments. At one point the band members individually leave Baghdad for Damascus, after which the filmmakers track them down again for more of the same interviews. It would be nice to be present during this traumatic decision and action. As well, in the end, we learn the band broke up and sold their instruments to help pay their rent. Again, this could have been the most dramatic moment in the film, when the musicians literally 'sell out'. All we get is a brief text card before the credits role.

The individuals featured in this documentary are courageous citizens of Iraq – young people who love their country, but because of political decisions out of their control, live under threat of death or persecution. They speak passionately about their country and the lack of freedom which was promised to them by their new government. Their life experience makes all the problems in my existence petty and insignificant by comparison. It’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t capitalize on missed opportunities and channel this in more cinematically-satisfying ways.

“Heavy Metal in Baghdad” is available on DVD in Canada from Alliance Films