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

Sunday, 31 August 2008

NIGHTWATCH & DAYWATCH


Nightwatch & Daywatch (2004-2006) dir. Timur Bekmambetov
Starring: Konstantin Khabensky, Mariya Poroshina, Vladimir Menshov, Zhanna Friske

** and ***1/2

If you saw the film “Wanted” this summer and couldn’t believe the over-the-top ridiculous carnage, perhaps you were wondering who was the brains behind that film. Genre-junkies know Timur Bekmambetov well by his a pair of audacious Russian fantasy action extravaganzas “Nightwatch” and “Daywatch”. A final film completing the trilogy will likely be made a released soon.

There was much as acclaim for the first film as there was confusion and bewilderment. While there is an achievement in creating a Hollywood-style fantasy blockbuster (Russia’s answer to “Lord of the Rings”) in Russia, Bekmambetov failed to condense the massive literary glut of the Russian novel into a coherent two-hours. It recalled David Lynch’s “Dune” – another visually stunning but incomprehensible sci-fi failure.

“Nightwatch” establishes the world of the “Light” and “Dark”, two opposing forces which, for centuries, have been in conflict. Apart from regular humans, there’s a race of people called “Others” with special abilities like telekinesis, or vampirism, or shape shifting etc. There’s been a truce since the middle ages thanks to mutual policing on each side by a group called “Nightwatch” and “Daywatch”. Our point of view into this world is Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), who we see in a flashback as he gets turned into a vampire (I think) and thus brought into the world of the “Others”.

In the present, while on the job Anton gets into a fight with a group of Dark Others and accidentally kills one of them – a major no-no and an act which threatens the peace. But Anton discovers that the Others were trying to kidnap a young boy who Anton learns is his son, Yeager. At the end of the first film Yeager is taken in by the Dark Army and thus becomes an enemy of Anton.

Which brings us to “Daywatch”, a completely different film in look and tone. With the rules of the world established Bekmambetov finally is allowed to let loose with the action extravaganza the series wants to be. “Daywatch” is bathed in a sumptuous blanket of saturated colours and a cornucopia of neon. It’s an eye-popping design, which feels like an audition tape for Jerry Bruckheimer.

The story starts a year after “Nightwatch” left off – for newbies, there’s no obligatory ‘recap’ lesson either. The structure follows the first, a flashback to ancient times tells of a magical piece of chalk with the ability to allow its user to travel back in time. From the audacious opening action scene, we know Bekmambetov has stepped up his ambition and directorial skills. Anton’s goal in this film is to find the magic chalk and use it to correct his mistakes and reunite with his long lost son.

Bekmambetov develops his supporting characters with greater care. There’s Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina), a stunningly gorgeous blonde who longs after Anton, but is put off by his coy, ‘hard to get’ attitude. She is also learning to use her powers, and can be absolutely badass when she wants to be. The femme fatal is the alluring Alisa (Zhanna Friske), a brunette, with a wolverine-like hairdo. The design of her outfit seems to be an influence on Angelina Jolie’s character in “Wanted.” Friske is just as badass as Jolie. Watch her character’s introduction – a fantastical set piece of action, which has her driving her car up the side of a building, crashing through a window, then through the hallways and crashing through the doors into the office of her boss.

Unlike “Wanted” we actually care for the supporting characters. Alisa longs to be with Kostya, an Other who is forbidden by his father from taking part in these dangerous activities. Unfortunately Alisa is married to the leader of the Dark Army, but with the magic chalk maybe she can change history and be with Kostya forever.

Bekmambetov’s attention to his characters means there’s greater stake in the action, which translates to deeper involvement and enjoyment of the film. “Daywatch” is one of the most ambitious action films ever made. He goes wildly over-the-top, but unlike “Wanted”, this extravaganza is in service an ever-involving story rooted in characters we love. Enjoy.

“Nightwatch” and “Daywatch” have been released on Blu-Ray by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.



Saturday, 30 August 2008

REDBELT


Redbelt (2008) dir. David Mamet
Starring: Chiwetal Ejiofor, Emily Mortimer, Tim Allen, Ricky Jay, Joe Mantagna

***1/2

One of the best films of the year is David Mamet’s “Redbelt” – part con film, part sports film. It’s always fascinating, evolving and unpredictable. It’s a unique hybrid film combining Mamet’s fascination with mind games and deception with some traditional structure of the classic sports genre.

Though it’s not the first film to showcase Mixed Martial Arts as its central concept, it’s by far the best, and I doubt there will be any better. It turns out that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mamet and badass of the Chicago theatre scene has a brown belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. His dedication and passion to the sport translates on screen as he delivers one of the best sports films in recent years, and in my opinion his best film as director.

It’s a fascinating set up. Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) an attorney is driving erratically at night, she accidentally hits Mike Terry’s car (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is teaching a jiu jistu class in his studio. When she walks in she’s on edge and after a series of small events accidentally grabs an off duty police officer’s gun and shoots out Mike’s store window.

Mike’s wife is angered because they now have to pay for the window with money they don’t have. This event, so accidental, is the beginning of a journey of a survival for Terry. Along the way a Hollywood star and director ingratiate him into their world. But when things are looking up they easily crash down, which forces Mike to make decisions which challenge his personal ethics and beliefs about fighting and jiu jitsu. Mamet is careful to drop this other shoe, and it all unfolds masterfully.

As expected Mamet crafts some wonderful dialogue. It’s largely bereft of his showy profane laden Glengarry Glen Ross style. At times the actors deliver their lines in this familiar voice, but Mamet tailors his dialogue to the characters. Mike Terry is first a student of the discipline of Jiu Jitsu and honourable and idealistic to the core. Terry is full of Sun Tzu-like philosophies, “A man distracted is a man defeated“ and “There is no situation you could not escape from.” Ejiofor expresses these lines with honour, integrity and believability. But nice guys finish last right? So we know his morals will get compromised somehow.

So can we start talking about Chiwetel Ejiofor as one of the best actors in Hollywood now? Well, he’s British of course, but he’s being cast by just about everyone in every kind of role.

Mamet is also an expert at skewering Hollywood as well (“Wag the Dog”, “State and Main”) and there’s a running theme of the corruption of the art by the television industry which has made MMA such a success. MMA owner Dana White has a featured interview on the DVD Special Features and legendary fighter Randy Couture has a role, yet, ironically Mamet is clear to show how sanctioned rules, fame and money easily and quickly corrupts the philosophy and grounded ideals of the art. This is the inner conflict for Mike. No one expounds or confesses these ideas in a speech, it’s subtly fed to us through background dialogue, nameless unimportant characters and throwaway lines. And so, after the problems compound on Mike and he’s forced to make his decision, we understand the weight of his choice.

“Redbelt” gets a little sloppy in the end as it wraps up its subplots. And the tone of climax may divide some audiences. It moves closer to genre than what we would expect from the first half. But in a movie about fighting it’s inevitable that the film would come down a fight. Thank you though David Mamet for not making the audience applaud. “Redbelt” is a great film. Enjoy.

Check out the Sony Pictures Blu-Ray edition which showcase’s Robert Elswit’s pristine cinematography.



Friday, 29 August 2008

ROAD HOUSE


Roadhouse (1948) dir. Jean Negulesco
Starring: Ida Lupino, Richard Widmark, Cornel Wilde, Celeste Holm

***

No, this isn’t the Patrick Swayze cult classic, it’s a 40’s noir genre film which is soon to be available on DVD for the first time. Its part of 20th Century Fox’s “Fox Film Noir” series, one of a continuing series of well packaged resurrections from their vaults.

The film stars Ida Lupino as Lily Stevens, a singer who is hired by small town bar owner Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark) to be their new attraction. Jefty has ideas beyond mere entertainment, as he intends on courting and marrying the gal. But Lily falls in love with Jefty’s business partner Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde). When Jefty finds out, he takes revenge by cooking up a trump burglary charge on Pete. Pete is legally trapped by Jefty’s conniving games and it will take a violent confrontation for Pete and Lily to free themselves from his web of entrapment.

Negulesco introduces Lily with classic noir mysteriousness. She’s a smart talking gal who loves to play solitaire. She loves it so much she carries a pack and starts up a game on the bar. In the noir language this means she’s a loner, who plays really hard to get. She’s coy when asked about what her act is. She’s silent at one point I thought she was a prostitute – disguised under the production code. She’s not. She actually is a singer, short on talent but has a natural stage charisma. At one point Susie the waitress says, “She does more without a voice than anybody I've ever heard!”

In the opening Negulesco establishes a sumptuous noir atmosphere. He blankets the nighttime bar in cigarette smoke and a myriad of shadows crossing the frame. Negulesco intercuts Lily’s swooning tunes with the reactions of an internally seething Pete. It’s an unspoken tension elevated to great melodramatic heights.

After Pete and Lily meet they provide some fun unintentional comedy. There first courtship is in a bowling alley. It's so completely ridiculous from fresh modern eyes, but perhaps in 1948 the thought of a man teaching a beautiful lounge singer to bowl is natural. It was probably as silly then as now, but it serves to provide some great sexual tension and piercing sexual dialogue and double entendres.

The second act plays as sordid melodrama. The film devotes it’s screentime to establishing Pete and Lily’s love affair. It needs the time as well, because of their extreme antagonism in the opening. Their attraction grows naturally – rare for a high speed genre film - and by the time Pete is framed we desperately want the two loverbirds to get away and live in bliss.

The elephant in the room is the character of Susie Smith (Celeste Holmes). She appears to have a relationship with Pete at the beginning, but when he starts courting Lily, she voluntarily steps aside. Maybe it was platonic all along – either way it is unclear. Susie continues to get in the middle of the love triangle, and I assumed her participation and relevance will be revealed later on. It never comes and so she remains the fifth wheel throughout the entire film.

“Road House” is Ida Lupino’s film, a Brit working in Hollywood. Her strange attractive quality causes the fight between friends – an indirect femme fatal. A central and strongly developed female character is a rare commodity in modern Hollywood, but back in the hey-day of film noir, the female lead was the engine which drove all drama and conflict. Enjoy.

“Road House” is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox on Sept 2.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

MARRIED LIFE


Married Life (2008) dir. Ira Sachs
Starring: Chris Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Rachel McAdams, Patricia Clarkson

**

There’s much good talent wasted in “Married Life”, a 50's period film about a philandering husband who conspires to off his wife. Hitchcock or the Coen Bros would make mince meat with the script. Mr. Sachs’s film is just an unformed slab of raw beef.

Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) is unhappy in his marriage. In fact he already has a mistress, a gorgeous gal half his age, Kay (Rachel McAdams). Harry confides in his buddy, Richard (Pierce Brosnan), about his other woman. But when Richard first meets Kay, he is instantly smitten with her as well. Unbeknownst to Harry, Richard quietly subverts their relationship by befriending Kay and gradually stealing her away from him.

Meanwhile Harry’s wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) is also having an affair with a local studmuffin played by David Wenham. Unfortunately, Harry, thinking Pat is dedicated to him and couldn't take the news, decides to poison and kill her instead of just telling Kay the truth. Since no one knows each other’s true feelings, it becomes a complex game of domestic deception.

The central plot point is Harry’s decision to kill his wife. But it’s not an act of desperation, it stems from his lack of courage to tell Pat he’s not in love with her. It’s a big stretch of reality, which isn’t surmountable for Hollywood, but a dose of humour is needed to smooth over the logic.

This is Alfred Hitchcock territory. “Strangers on a Train” or “Dial M for Murder” were not comedies, but had a cinematic cleverness to their murder plans which elevated the situation beyond common sense reality. Sachs doesn’t have the chutzpah to pull it off. The story is designed to be character-driven, except Harry, Kay, Richard and Pat are portrayed as 'movie characters' as opposed to real people, and so there's a major disconnect.

Chris Cooper, a great actor, is unfortunately trapped with a fine performance in a bad film. Harry is deeply conflicted and frustrated, and so his decisions are clouded by his personal frailties. It’s a great characteristic for a protagonist to have, but the events are executed by Sachs with dullness, Cooper’s talent is wasted. Cooper gives a tremendous performance in the climatic scene as he’s about to find out if his wife is dead or not. His reaction is astonishing – something which will unfortunately be lost and little seen by anybody.

Sachs is careful with his mood and tone, setting the period atmosphere and getting the cadence of the quiet conversations just right at the expense of really hitting the film out of the ballpark. Perhaps it's too much Douglas Sirk, and not enough Coen Bros or Alfred Hitchcock.

"Married Life" is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment



Wednesday, 27 August 2008

CELEBRITY


Celebrity (1998) dir. Woody Allen
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Winona Ryder, Melanie Griffth, Leonardo Di Caprio, Judy Davis

**

You may remember the great hype “Celebrity” received, buoyed by the superstrata stardom of post-Titanic Leonardo Di Caprio. He was top billed in the film’s lead up, only to disappoint the fans with a mere 10mins of screen time. The disappointment with "Celebrity" is more deeply rooted than Di Caprio mis-marketed appearance though. In fact, Leo has the best scenes in the film. No, the problem lies with Mr. Allen himself who lazily places Kenneth Branagh in a role clearly intended for himself, but doesn't allow the actor to take the film to the level his talent is capable of.

Kenneth Branagh is the lead, playing Lee Simon, a hack journalist living through a midlife crisis. Lee feels the best part of his life has passed him by, “fucking blink and you're 40, you blink again and you can see movies at half price on a senior citizen's pass.” Deep down though, he wants to sleep with more women (a common Woody Allen dilemma). And so Simon separates from his wife Robin (Judy Simon) and begins to date a number of hot women whom he meets via his celebrity-crossing job.

There’s Melanie Griffith, a married actress who “depends on the kindness of strangers” and who’s only off limits 'below the waste - everything above is fair game'. There’s Charlize Theron, a supermodel, who is attracted to Lee’s Aston Martin more than him. There’s Winona Ryder, a movie extra, but someone who has remained close to his heart despite refusing to be monogamous. Leonardo Di Caprio, despite the screentime, makes a memorable cameo as an actor as big as himself who abuses his girlfriend (note for Adrian Grenier who plays a member of his “Entourage”)

As mentioned Kenneth Branagh acts like Woody Allen playing, well, Woody Allen. Arguably Allen’s presence in his own films, especially as the sole protagonist, is a cumbersome weight to carry. Like Jerry Seinfeld, Woody doesn’t play a character, he plays himself. I welcome the non-Woody Allen acted films because it gives us a chance to watch the talented writer/director unencumbered by his non-abilities as an actor. And so, to be forced to watch Branagh act like Allen is just a waste of talent and it taints the entire film.

“Celebrity” is shot in beautiful black and white by Sven Nykist. And as Lee roams the nighttime streets encountering the weird and wonderful supporting characters along the way we’re reminded of Marcello’s journey in “La Dolce Vita”. Something Allen should get more credit for is his skills as a visual stylist. Whether it's influenced by a European classic or a completely new concept he's also supremely skilled at changing his visual style to suit his material.

But at best there’s only about four stand alone scenes of interest – Di Caprio’s star-powered meltdown, Charlize Theron’s teasing, an awkward break-up scene in Famke Jansson’s apartment in front of the moving help and a demonstration of oral sex by Bebe Neuworth. But Allen’s attempt to disguise his personal neuroses under our noses in the form of Kenneth Branagh is a tired and lazy characterization and reduces much of the comic potential in every other scene.

By the nature of it’s title, the film purports to be about celebrity. Allen never unifies his story with a theme other than Lee’s personal crisis. But of course, it’s Allen’s crisis, not Lee’s, which is just excruciating.

“Celebrity” has been repackaged along with six other Allen films from the 90’s by Alliance Films.



Tuesday, 26 August 2008

CHICAGO 10


Chicago 10 (2007) dir. Brett Morgen
Documentary

**

One of the most significant political events in the U.S. of the 60’s is the Democratic National Party protest of 1968. Unlike the peaceful protests of Martin Luther King, this rally had a much more militant and aggressive approach from both sides of the conflict. And the ensuing trial of the organizers was equally spirited. Brett Morgen (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) has constructed a documentary both documenting and dramatizing these tumultuous events. The Paramount DVD release is timed perfectly with the current Democratic National Convention occurring this week, 40 years after 1968.

As background, in 1968, the Vietnam War was in full force which caused much political debate between the Government and it’s youthful citizens who were being drafted into the military. In August of ‘68, the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. A protest was assembled by a group of eight known as the ‘Yippies’, led by, among others, Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale. After some mutual agitation from both sides, the protest turned ugly, people were beaten and arrested, including the eight leaders, who came to be known as “The Chicago 8”. They were all tried in an equally raucous public trial.

Morgen has a two-pronged approach to the story. He recounts the events leading up to and during the protest using traditional archival footage. And intercut with the events is the trial, which is dramatized using animation with celebrity actors’ voices playing the parts of the key players.

The influence of the Chicago 8 has remained with the protest movement beyond 1968. The events in Chicago is a reminder, good and bad, of the action taken to disturb the WTO talks in Seattle in 1999. And so instead of using tired old 60’s protest songs to set the tone, Morgen uses a range of aggressive protest songs to bridge the past 40 years – Rage Against the Machine, Beastie Boys, MC5.

In “The Kid Stays in the Picture” Morgen used a distinct stylized visual design at a time when docmakers were still stuck using an uncreative Ken Burns-style stills and archival footage approach. Morgen once again attempts to break some new ground with his animation recreations. It’s a mixture of Bob Sabiston (“Waking Life”) and Ralph Bashki (“American Pop”) styles and so there’s more familiarity than innovation.

And unfortunately these trial scenes are the downfall of the film. They don’t merge completely with the traditional elements and so there’s a major disconnect between the protest events and the trial. While some of the actors give wonderful voiced performances (Jeffrey Wright as Bobby Seale and Mark Ruffalo as Jerry Rubin) other performances such as Roy Scheider’s Judge Julius Hoffman and Nick Nolte’s attorney Thomas Foran feel like a bad Saturday morning cartoon. Unfortunately these sequences are half the film and it’s more than just mere distraction.

I still don’t why the film is called “The Chicago 10” and not “The Chicago 8”, perhaps I missed that. In any case, Morgen’s film is an interesting technical experiment but in the end won’t entertain anybody other than an ideologically interested audience.

“Chicago 10” is available on DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment



Monday, 25 August 2008

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?


Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? (2008) dir. Morgan Spurlock
Documentary

***

Morgan Spurlock’s “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?” arrives on DVD this week. His easy-going and accessible style fits in well with his new topic of discussion, 9/11 politics. The story is framed around his futile ‘search’ for Osama Bin Laden, but in doing so we get us a surprisingly frank and informative lesson on 'the war on terror' from all sides of the conflict.

Like “Super Size Me” before he gets going, Spurlock tells us what his journey is and shows us the preparations required. It makes for a great sequence as Spurlock learns about survivalist training in case he’s kidnapped, interrogated, or caught in a gunfight. His poor wife is once again part of the story, this time she's pregnant and has to go through pre-natal procedures alone while Spurlock's off combing the globe for terrorists.

Spurlock's agenda includes travelling to 5 different Islamic countries if not to discover where Bin Laden's hiding, then to get a sense of how the war on terror is viewed by the rest of the world. He goes to Tunisia, Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. Each country is different, some liberal and laid back, some up tight and strict. Spurlock reveals many misconceptions about attitudes towards America, which hopefully could filter up to the American government and help make the world a safer place.

Morgan Spurlock makes his documentaries like he was dared into them. He's able to connect his audience to his subject matter because his discoveries are our discoveries, which allows us to learn about big business, international politics, war, science and all other topics from his point of view. A cinematic guinea pig of sorts. Important to this technique is his image - his printed t-shirts, his ironically stylish handle-bar moustache, and a regular domestic life which often comes into conflict with his work.

In Hollywood terms, he’s the ‘everyman’ character. A regular guy, like you or I, put into extraordinary dramatic situations. Jimmy Stewart was that guy, Harrison Ford was that guy. Morgan Spurlock is that guy. Michael Moore used to be that guy too. Arguably Moore’s schtick doesn’t hold as much weight as it did ten years ago.

What Spurlock has over Moore, aside from youth and good looks, is what appears to be a neutral point of view. Perhaps it's a façade, but before he embarks on his journeys both in “Super Size Me” and this film, we never get the sense of an agenda, or proselytizing or manipulation. In this film Spurlock’s journey stems from a genuine curiosity about what people in Islamic countries think of America, Americans and its ‘war on terror’.

Ironically Spurlock experiences the greatest hostility in Israel when he tries to ask the same questions he's asked everybody to some orthodox Jews on the street. Of course, Israel is an American-backed country, and one of the reasons for the fundamentalist backlash against America. The mere presence of Spurlock and his cameras causes a major incident of conflict against the crew. There’s no faking the fear and shock on Spurlock’s face at the resentment.

Contrast against these moments is a common man’s comic sensibility. Spurlock uses animation and fun videogame-like graphics to visualize the important information. Like a mother who gives her child the nasty medicine disguised with some yummy ice cream, Spurlock purposely avoids all intellectual barriers from the discussion and gives us the statistics and information with a healthy chaser of humour.

Spurlock makes difficult subject matter fun and exciting. He'd make a good schoolteacher, and most certainly a great dad. The denouement offers us a wonderful moment for Spurlock, a newborn child of his own born into a complex and often contradictory world he's continually trying to make sense of. Enjoy.

"Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?" is available on DVD from Alliance Films


Sunday, 24 August 2008

THE DOORS


The Doors (1991) dir. Oliver Stone
Starring: Val Kilmer, Kyle Maclachlan, Meg Ryan, Kevin Dillon, Frank Whaley

***

For ten years between 1985 and 1995 Oliver Stone produced a remarkable amount of culturally significant and highly creative cinema endeavours. During this time he set standards, broke rules and established new ones as his storytelling skills evolved. Smack dab in the middle is “The Doors” his dreamlike rollercoaster ride through the late 60’s of Jim Morrison and his L.A.-based psychedelic superstars.

The film opens in the mid-60’s during Morrison’s time at UCLA film school. Even there he was a rebel poet misunderstood by his fellow students and teachers. We see him connect with one though, Ray Manzarek (Kyle Maclachlan). While walking on a beach philosophizing about art and politics they come up with the idea of a band called The Doors. Stone then fast-forwards through an influential six-month period where the band is formed, songs are written and their first gigs are played.

When they become famous we see a number of their benchmark career moments – the famous Ed Sullivan show where Morrison was asked to sing ‘girl you couldn’t get much better’, instead of higher; Morrison’s arrest at the New Haven show; and his experiences with the New York Andy Worhol scene. Morrison is torn between two women in his life, Pam (Meg Ryan), whom he falls instantly in love with on sight, and Patricia (Kathleen Quinlan) a journalist who introduces Morrison to sadomasochism and witchcraft. But it’s the boozing and excessive behaviour which causes the most conflict in his life, something which would eventually cause his self-destruction and untimely death in 1971.

Part and parcel with Stone’s successful films is his key collaborators. Namely, his trusted director of photography Robert Richardson. Stone’s style evolved alongside Richardson’s skills with lights and the camera. The psychedelic subject matter allowed Richardson to experiment with colours, exposures and film stock and push all kinds of cinema-boundaries. Watch for his trademark hot overhead highlights, rimmers and hotspots around the frame and watch his colours dissolve in and out of his frames. On Blu-Ray Richardson’s detailed brushstrokes are glorious to behold.

Stone worked with a number of editors many of who started off as assistants and got promoted over the course of these ten years. They include David Brenner, Joe Husting, Pietro Scalia who all worked on “The Doors.” With this film, watch for the seeds of their innovative montage style of editing which Husting and Scalia would win an Oscar for later that year for “JFK.

At 135mins it’s a lengthy journey. But we are always kept interested and stimulated with either the kaleidoscope of lights or the hypnotic trance of the Doors’ music. What starts to go limp is Stone’s characterization of Morrison. We don’t really get a chance to know or love the man while outside of his stage personality. In fact, Stone portrays his on stage and off stage personas as one in the same. It’s Stone’s interpretation, but it results in a monotony of dazed behaviour and flakiness.

But “The Doors” succeeds over its faults, because as a music biopic it successfully visualizes the power and influence of the music against the time, period and location. And few have done that better than Oliver Stone. Enjoy.



Saturday, 23 August 2008

EASY LIVING


Easy Living (1937) dir. Mitchell Leisen
Starring: Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, Luis Alberni and Franklin Pangborn
Comedy

***1/2

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

Inventor, writer and director Preston Sturges was, without a doubt, one of the brightest, funniest and most original entertainers in motion picture history. As a storyteller he was blessed with a very distinctive style wherein he blended savvy social satire into a sparkling romantic comedy soufflé, but with the sort of frankness not common to stories of that period (or many others, for that matter). Most importantly, he brought a common-man’s lowbrow sensibility to the pictures and was never afraid to add (when required) healthy dollops of slapstick to his deliciously varied concoctions reminiscent of the prat-falling-pie-in-the-face Mack Sennett variety.

As a writer-director, his style truly had no equal – he was one of a kind. And that, of course, is why it’s always fun and interesting to watch the movies he wrote, but didn’t actually direct. Watching them, they still feel like Sturges pictures, but they’re definitely missing those two key ingredients that announced his authorship (or for those so pretentiously inclined – auteur) with a capital “A”.

But before we get to those two ingredients or, if you’ll allow, two delectable, uh … “sturgeons”, let us briefly examine the elements of the trademark Sturges narrative in “Easy Living” – as bright and wonderful a picture as any he would eventually write AND direct, but instead directed by the somewhat reserved, though visually savvy and definitely classy Mitchell Leisen.

In “Easy Living” we’re introduced to business tycoon J. B. Ball, the Bull of Broad Street (played by Edward Arnold in one of his trademark renditions of boardroom royalty) who is disgusted (in spite of his wealth) that his wife has purchased yet another expensive fashion garment, a gorgeously opulent mink coat. In anger, Ball hurls the coat out the window of their suite high above the lowly street and it sails down and lands – plop – on the head of junior magazine editor Mary Smith (the bubbly, gorgeous Jean Arthur). This is about the only manna from Heaven in Mary’s life as she’s had to make her own way on her own steam, which, of course, is only appropriate when she falls for a klutzy, well meaning young man called John (a handsome, charming and very young Ray Milland) who works in an automat diner and conspires to provide Mary with a free meal as she’s down to her last nickel. John is, of course, no mere working class klutz – he’s none other than John (J.B.) Ball JUNIOR!!!

Yes, in grand romantic comedy tradition, the son of the Bull of Broad Street (trying to make his own way in the world rather than relying on his Dad’s money and power) falls for the woman who was the unwitting recipient of J.B. Ball Senior’s extravagant window-toss. The burgeoning romance finds its way rather innocently (in truth), but scandalously (on the surface) behind the closed doors of a grand hotel owned by the impresario-styled-chef-turned-hotelier Louis Louis (the hilariously overwrought Luis Alberni) who is in deep debt to none other than J.B. Ball Senior. Louis, using a sleazy gossip columnist, creates a controversy that results in an explosion of business for his faltering hotel, but also results in the typical all-hell-breaking-loose series of events that such a story demands.

Will the love of John Jr. and Mary survive? Will John Sr. come to respect his son and cut his wife some slack? Will Louis get his grand hotel back? The answers to these questions are probably obvious, but the ride getting there is a delightful one indeed.

As noted earlier, Mitchell Leisen is a class director all the way. He brings a kind of elegant panache to the text that is all his own. He hangs back with beautifully composed frames and a marvelous sense of height (those who mistake widescreen as the only way to make the most of a motion picture frame need to spend more time studying someone like Leisen or William Wyler or Clarence Brown or F.W. Murnau or James Whale or, uh … Orson Welles or any other visual stylists who knew how to make the most out of that magnificent standard frame aspect ratio). In fact, one wishes Leisen had had a shot directing some of the sparkling MGM comedies like “Dinner at Eight” or “Ninotchka” – not that there’s anything wrong with those great pictures OR their direction, but Leisen’s sensibilities seem so suited to them that one can almost imagine what might have been more (or at least equally) magnificent with his visual elegance. Leisen’s trademarks not only included his fine eye, but a nice even pace and a restraint – one might even say “good taste” – when it came to capturing visual humour.

This, of course leads us back to the two “sturgeons” we began with at an earlier juncture in this review since it is entirely conceivable that “Easy Living” would have been a very different picture if Sturges had directed it himself. The picture is Sturges all the way in terms of content, but the two elements it doesn’t have are the break-neck pace of dialogue delivery – Sturges had his actors delivering their dialogue so quickly it made, for example, Howard Hawks’ dialogue delivery seem snail-paced – and a manic quality that occasionally bordered on utter insanity – the Coen Brothers have tried to emulate this, but only half-succeeded in “Raising Arizona”. The lowbrow slapstick of the automat sequence in “Easy Living”, which begins with romance and ends in pratfalls, is a perfect place to compare Sturges and Leisen’s styles. In terms of content – it’s pure Sturges, but in terms of style, it’s Leisen all the way. If one used dance to equate how each director handled slapstick, Leisen would have been Astaire and Rogers while Sturges was clearly the Nicholas Brothers – ballroom vs. shuck n’ jive all the way.

“Easy Living” is a terrific 30s romantic comedy – a perfect blend of sensibilities that would, on the surface seem to be in diametric opposition, but deep down, with Sturges writing and Leisen directing, making (as it were) beautiful music together. And that is something to cherish.

“Easy Living” is available on DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

NO RESERVATIONS


No Reservations (2007) dir. Scott Hicks
Starring: Catherin Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson

***

Remember that restaurant-themed romantic-comedy starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart? I could barely remember it even though it only came out last summer, and on DVD this February. The marketing campaign screamed throwaway romantic comedy. In fact, “No Reservations” is based on the 2001 German film “Mostly Martha”, and many of the criticisms (an unwarranted 39% rotten on Rotten Tomatoes) were in comparison to the original. Since I hadn’t seen the original, it was a fresh experience for me. "No Reservations" is actually a really good film, a rare intelligent ‘drama’ (not romantic comedy) featuring a strong female lead character.

Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is an executive chef at an esteemed Manhattan restaurant. Her career has trumped any family aspirations. She is single but living her self-important ‘Sex and the City lifestyle. When her sister dies in a tragic car accident she becomes the legal guardian of her niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin), which quickly turns her life upside down. Though she tries her best, mothering is difficult. She forgets to pick Zoe up from school, feeds her haute cuisine dishes instead of kid-friendly meals and often leaves her alone in her apartment while she’s working at the restaurant.

Adding fuel to her discontent is a new sous chef who filled in for Kate during her grieving period. Nick (Aaron Eckhart) has quickly made himself comfortable in the kitchen and ingratiated himself with the staff more than Kate ever could. He’s also impossibly goodlooking and charming. Kate tries her best to antagonize him, but just can’t help herself from falling in love. Of course, with love comes some pain too, especially with the two working closely together. When Nick’s career goals eventually conflict with Kate’s each of them must make a crucial life-changing decision for the good of them and Zoe.

Watch the opening credits carefully, because it’s none other than Phillip Glass who scores the film. I thought Mr. Glass was picky about his projects? I don’t know the man but going by his work he seems to choose films with either a clear artistic direction, or a subject close to his heart (ie. his work with Tibet). If “No Reservations” has the stamp of approval of Phillip Glass, it’s good enough for me. Though it’s not “the Hours” or “Kundun”, Glass has chosen an intelligent and entertaining film to collaborate with.

Scott Hicks directed the film. Remember him? He was once a coveted director after his successful Aussie film “Shine”. A couple of failures later (“Hearts in Atlantis” and “Snow Falling on Cedars”) he dropped off the buzz radar. Though it’s more conventional than his other films, he’s still has a talent for storytelling and character. It’s a fine looking film too. The anamorphic widescreen frame opens up the small confines of Kate's restaurant kitchen and apartment locations.

The DVD cover sets the wrong tone for the film. It's a shame. Hicks is clear to establish a melancholy and reflective mood. The tragedy in the first act never leaves the film. The presence of Zoe reminds us of Kate’s loss and the importance of her decisions in the present.

If anything Aaron Eckhart’s character is too perfect. He’s an idealized partner for Kate – no such person in Manhattan exists (especially in the cutthroat restaurant business), but Nick's purpose is to challenge Kate and force herself to change for the better. Don't let this smart and entertaining film disappear, you will be surprised. Enjoy.



Tuesday, 19 August 2008

ALL THE RIGHT MOVES


All the Right Moves (1983) dir. Michael Chapman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Craig T. Nelson, Lea Thompson, Christopher Penn

***1/2

“All the Right Moves” is a great sports movie, because, well, it’s not really about sports. Before “Friday Night Lights” there was “All the Right Moves” – not so much a film about the sport of high school football, but the effect of football on its characters. It features a solid Tom Cruise performance, an important film in his career, one which showcases the tremendous star power and acting skills of a man who would soon be a mega-movie-star.

Stefan Djordjevic lives in Ampipe, a dreary Pennsylvania town named after its primary local business, American Pipe and Steel. He seems to have it all, a star cornerback for his high school football team, a beautiful girlfriend and a supportive family. Unfortunately the self-imposed pressure to leave the town for bigger and better things causes him to make some bad decisions which threaten his chances for a coveted college scholarship. He continually butts heads with the ball-busting coach (who else, but Craig T. Nelson) and many of the obsessed townsfolk who live and breathe football.

For a film which combines two cliché-heavy genres (sports and high school), “All the Right Moves” remarkably avoids almost most of these clichés. Sure, it’s familiar teritory, but each character makes intelligent choices without the pressure of artificially creating drama and conflict through cliché.

For example, Stefan has just been kicked off the team, and he takes out his anger on his girlfriend in front of a number of her friends. It’s an embarrassing moment which angers Lisa. Of course, Stefan’s in the doghouse. At this point in the film I expected a break-up which, according to screenwriting 101, would further his despair, thus causing more conflict etc etc. But an intelligent and rational conversation between the two the next day patches things up. As well, when we first meet Lisa, I immediately deduced that Stefan would cheat on her at some point in the film. He never does. Though he has his faults, Stefan doesn’t become the ego-football maniac we expect him to be.

In fact one of the most truthful aspects of the film is Stefan's clearly defined goals. He aspires to get a scholarship and play college ball, not to make the NFL, or get rich, but to get an education and become an engineer and do the work of his family with greater creative satisfaction. We learn this right off the top, and so we know Stefan is not just another sports cliché.

"All the Right Moves" is not just a Tom Cruise movie either, there's some major talent behind the camera which adds some extra prestige. It's the directing debut of Michael Chapman, the great DOP who shot some of the early Martin Scorsese pictures - "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull". And Chapman hired the great Dutch cinematographer Jan de Bont ("Basic Instinct") to lens the film, one of his first American movies. It's not the glossy style we would see in his later work, but he gives us a flawlessly composed, classic widescreen look.

Style would be all wrong here. The environment of the town is important to the story and the look. Chapman and de Bont shoot the film in the fall, mainly because that’s football season, but because the falling leafs, dulled autumn colours and permanent cloud cover establish the tone. And looming over everything is the gargantuan steel factory with it’s elaborate piping, smoke stacks and blackened exterior. It acts like a gothic castle from a horror film weighing heavily on it's characters.

The working class milieu is dramatized with the same authenticity as Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” (1979). Like that film, many of the townsfolk are of Polish or eastern European descent. And so, without overt reference, underpinning the main story is a commentary on the death of the American dream. We all know what happened to many cities like this in the 80’s. The industry that fueled towns like Ampipe fled for abroad leaving a number of ghost-like towns dotting the American industrial landscape.

Look past some really cheesy and dated 80’s music and you’ll see “All the Rights Moves” as one of the most honest and truthful films about high school football – and in my opinion a step above Peter Berg’s muscular, bravado-heavy dramatization of “Friday Night Lights.” Enjoy.



Monday, 18 August 2008

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS


Pineapple Express (2008) dir. David Gordon Green
Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Gary Cole

**

“Pineapple Express” is written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg who penned the immensely popular “Superbad”. That first film was their lifelong passion project. “Pineapple Express” feels like that other script they picked off the shelf, dusted off and quickly moved into production hot on the heals of their first major success. This one is a wild, meandering journey that lacks the discipline and focus of their first effort. Call a sophomore jinx – or, their “Mallrats”.

Seth Rogen plays Dale Denton, a process server who loves to get high. His supplier is a congenial Gen X slacker, Saul (James Franco). One day, while on a job to serve someone his papers Dale observes a mob-style murder. Although he gets away quickly he leaves behind a roach, which the drug kingpin Ted Jones (Gary Cole) uses to identify Saul. Dale and Saul suddenly find themselves on the run from the mob, fighting hand-to-hand, shooting guns and getting into car chases.

David Gordon Green, famous for his arty American indie flicks like “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls”, is a hired hand director. I applaud his effort to go mainstream and expand his horizons. Going by his previous indie feature, “Snow Angels”, a dismal dreary effort, he was a ripe for a change of pace and a little exercise of his funny bone. His direction of the action is competent but his ear for comedy is better. Other than a few quirky moments he’s languid style is invisible in this film.

A familiar face from the Gordon Green players is cast, the new soon to be ‘it’ guy, Danny McBride, who has slowly made a name for himself over the last year with “Foot Fist Way” and “Tropic Thunder”. For Green fans, you’ll recognize him as the obnoxious but loveable Bust-Ass in “All the Real Girls”. McBride plays Saul’s middleman, Red, a nave who seeks redemption for selling out his friends.

Unfortunately McBride’s presence is intermittent, and Franco and Rogen share the main stage. The duo is just not strong enough to sustain the lengthy scenes of inane babble which they either recite, mumble or shout at each other. Specifically, the lengthy car-in-the-woods scene seems to run on forever. I think it eats up about 10mins of screen time, without generating any narrative momentum. It’s only when McBride is introduced that the film completes its comic team. Franco and Rogen have some great banter but after the first act, their routine gets stale. But with McBride in the room we suddenly have a great trio.

“Pineapple Express” actually has a lot in common with “Superbad”. Both are films about real people in extraordinary situations, with “Pineapple Express” taken to the extreme. The humour is generated from the reactions of Dale, Saul and Red to their situations. Every once in a while Dale has to stop what he’s doing to question in insanity he finds himself in. It’s not a unique brand of humour (the current SNL players have a similar style), but it’s comedians like Seth Rogen who are leading this charge of self-awareness.

The final scene is the perfect way to the end the film, just a bunch of guys talking ‘about last night’. Reminiscing as if Seth and Evan would have done at the end of “Superbad”, about the crazy fucked shit they just went through. Unfortunately it all sounded better in dialogue, than what we saw on screen.



Sunday, 17 August 2008

TROPIC THUNDER


Tropic Thunder (2008) dir. Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black

***1/2

Over the last 10 years a cottage industry for Ben Stiller has been his annual MTV Movie Awards skits/mini-movies. He started out putting himself into other people’s films via some amazing cinematic sleight of hand, but he’s since broaden his act by lampooning just about everything to do with the Hollywood hype machine – including a hilarious bit about foley artists.

So “Tropic Thunder” which is basically an elaborate MTV skit extended to 107mins, replete with numerous star cameos, celebrity caricatures and even fake trailers (which have been created to absolute perfection), was an inevitable film. Even Tom Cruise who has been a favourite target of his over the years the joins in the fun for a surprisingly robust supporting role.

The concept goes like this: Ben Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, an over the hill action star currently filming a big screen Vietnam film. His co-stars include funny man Jeff Portney (Jack Black) who’s famous for his Eddie Murphy-like toilet humour films, and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a self-absorbed Australian method actor with five academy awards. When personalities clash on the set, the maniacal military consultant Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) convinces the director to shoot the remainder of the film in the real warzone of Southeast Asia. When the actors make contact with the Burmese militia they find themselves involved in a full fledged war. Unfortunately Speedman and the bunch are at odds as whether it’s a movie or the real thing.

The first half plays like a series of those self-contained skits and celebrity lampooning MTV gags. With much of the comedy going over-the-top early the humour just seemed too far removed from the story. And so the film within a film structure loses shape through a series of logical inconsistencies. In comedy you’re supposed to look past this stuff, but only if the gags score. If they don’t then all the short cuts are painfully obvious.

At the 45mins mark I had my doubts, but then the film gets good – really good. As the characters split up into their subplots gradually we’re drawn into the journey and we start caring for the characters – Tayback struggling with his insecurities about his Nam experience, Jeff Portney’s struggle to kick his heroin addiction, and even Matthew McConaughy’s super agent character's effort to get TIVO to his client gets some closure.

Of course many of the scenes exist for the sake of the comedy and not the story. Virtually every scene with the irate mogul Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) goes on about twice as long as it should. But considering it's Tom Cruise playing Grossman, the added attention is warranted. Cruise’s performance is not just a cameo but a potentially career saving key supporting role. Cruise is dressed up to the nines as the ultimate Hollywood big shot. His balding head, prosthetically engrossed fingers, arms and chest hair and foul mouth is so over-the–top few actors could possibly get away with it. In cutting the film Stiller obviously recognized how funny Cruise is he gives him a full dance number to roll behind the final credits.

Robert Downey Jr. is the real treat in the film though. He carries us through all the slow moments with his sometimes incomprehensible jive talk dialogue and thespian rhetoric. It’s been a great summer for the man, and either of his Tony Stark or Kirk Lazarus roles could net him some awards nominations.

Beyond the spoof humour “Tropic Thunder” is a great action movie. Watch for the action-movie style editing at the end of the film. As the film wraps up its subplots with a series of scenes intercut with an effective emotional rollercoaster style we’re reminded that Ben Stiller is as good a filmmaker as he is a comedian. “Tropic Thunder” is one of the best films of the summer. Enjoy.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

SHARKWATER


Sharkwater (2007) dir. Rob Stewart
Documentary

***1/2

Who knew sharks were so misunderstood. This is what director/underwater cinematographer Rob Stewart wanted to get across when he started shooting his documentary. The final film Stewart ended up with is not what he imagined. “Sharkwater” is both a beautifying underwater nature film about sharks as well as a tense and suspense journey into international politics and seedy black marketeering.

The best documentaries are often the ones that don’t go according to plan. Errol Morris’ “Thin Blue Line” was a happy accident – a case of false imprisonment discovered while researching a death row psychiatrist. Andrew Jarecki discovered his story of “Capturing the Friedmans” while doing a documentary on New York City clowns. While “Sharkwater” is still about sharks and not clowns the pleasant surprise is how Stewart is forced to put himself into his film.

In the opening Stewart tells us a lot about what we don’t know about sharks. First of all, they don’t eat people. Some statistics tell us how rare shark attacks are, and when they happen it's not for food. And even less rarely are people killed. Secondly, they’ve been at the top of the food chain evolved in their present form since before the dinosaurs! But now in the last half century sharks have been hunted down and killed with such efficiency they're threatened with extinction.

One of the world’s delicacies (especially in Asia) is Shark Fin Soup – basically, tasty soup with a real shark fin placed on top as a garnish. It adds nothing to the taste, just a symbol of the strength and guile of the shark. Stewart hooks up with the infamous “eco-warrior” (some would say eco-terrorist) Paul Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to document the search for the illegal ‘finners’ who ply the oceans for sharks, capture them, cut off their fins and throw them back into the water to die a painful death. The footage of this process is downright horrific and cruel. And so when Watson starts to engage violently a group of Costa Rican finners it becomes a truly anger-fueled ocean battle. Stewart captures some astonishing footage of the two boats, crashing into one another and even firing sprays of water to help sink their boat.

Things go off schedule when Stewart and Watson are thrown into a Costa Rican prison for their actions. Their flight from jail is equally adventurous.

And so the film becomes more than just a film about sharks – a story of Stewart himself, a passionate conservationist and his fight for his beliefs. It helps that Stewart is likeable and engaging. With his boyish good looks he could be pegged as a 19 year old. He’s probably in his 30’s, but still a remarkable achievement.

There’s no doubt some stunning underwater photographer. A pristine Blu-Ray version of the film is available. Of course, we see underwater high-definition stuff all the time on the Discovery Channel, but Stewart makes his footage and his story big screen worthy.

Watch for the final shot which rolls over the credits. It’s one of the most astonishing unedited pieces of film I’ve seen. Stewart is being dragged just below the waterline presumably by a speedboat. The camera is mounted in front of him to capture astract imagery of the water rushing by his face with great force and speed. The shot has seemingly nothing to do with the film, but upon reflection is a clever thematic metaphor of the journey Stewart goes through to save his beloved sharks. Check it out.



Friday, 15 August 2008

SMART PEOPLE


Smart People (2008) dir. Norm Murro
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page

**

“Smart People” was a just blip on the theatre release calendar this year. Not even the immense Ellen Page Oscar buzz/hype machine could buoy this film. “Smart People” just isn’t smart enough to become what it longs to be – an intellectual comedy for adults. It’s for adults, that’s for sure. Attention deficit youngsters would get past the first 15mins. In fact it remains stalled in first gear for the entire film. Lack of substantial conflict and discernable goals for its characters result in a dreary bore of a film.

Dennis Quaid plays a University professor of poetry with the awfully pretentious name of Lawrence Wetherhold. He’s a self-absorbed reprehensible shit who doesn’t know his students’ names, makes pains to avoid them when they ask for help, desires to become the head of his department even though he hates his job. Beneath the rough exterior he’s a widower who hasn’t moved on, and he’s a failed author who just can’t get his book published. His n’er do well adopted brother (Lawrence even makes a point to acknowledge that distinction) Chuck arrives in town to crash on his couch. His daughter Vanessa is a type-A young Republican who gets straight A’s but is equally miserable inside. His son James actually has some talent with poetry, and so, is continually stunted by Dad. When a kindly doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessican Parker) starts dating Lawrence, instead of a refreshing change in his life Lawrence’s life becomes even more complicated and annoying.

After 15mins these characters split up into their respective subplots which occasionally intersect, and predictably get solved with a neat little bow at the end. “Smart People” is so insanely average and familiar, it’s annoying. Thomas Haden Church plays his character from “Sideways”, and sports perpetual bedhead and an unruly moustache – we get it, he’s off the wall. Ellen Page wears frumpy and constricting clothing – we get it, she’s a stuck up bitch. And Dennis Quaid’s character is just a clichéd and uninteresting version of Michael Douglas’ character in “Wonder Boys”.

A romantic comedy is pasted on to give the film some structure. No sparks are created between Ms. Parker and Mr. Quaid. They seem to hate each other more than love one another. We are told by Dr. Janet’s friend that she used to have a crush on Lawrence when he was her professor (many years ago). From this one line, we are to believe an attraction. Sorry Mr. Murro, you can’t disguise this cheat from the audiences. They know a relationship has to be earned on screen, and it takes more than a line of exposition and five mins of glances to sell it to us.

Chuck and Vanessa have their own subplot, as Chuck endeavours to release Vanessa from the constrictions of her succeed-at-all costs attitude. He gets her high, and drunk, but these scenes don’t provide any humour. It’s just going through the ringer of screenplay 101.

Despite these criticisms, for what Quaid, Page, Church and Parker have to work with they've all given it the college try. If there were anyone else less watchable in those roles, the film could have been intolerable. The fact is the actors make the film just that, tolerable. But who wants to see just a tolerable film?

"Smart People" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Miramax and Disney Home Entertainment



Thursday, 14 August 2008

STREET KINGS


Street Kings (2008) dir. David Ayer
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Chris Evans, Hugh Laurie

**1/2

How many cop stories can David Ayer tell? Over the past 7 years David Ayer has been thoroughly proficient with his genre writing. A David Ayer film consists of tough as nails cop with teetering morals who is aggrandized as a flawed hero.

Let’s run down his films (as writer and/or director) along with its logline:

Training Day (2001): The only thing more dangerous than the line being crossed, is the cop who will cross it.

Dark Blue (2002): A robbery homicide investigation triggers a series of events that will cause a corrupt LAPD officer to question his tactics.

SWAT (2003): An imprisoned drug kingpin offers a huge cash reward to anyone that can break him out of police custody and only the LAPD's Special Weapons and Tactics team can prevent it.

Harsh Times (2005): An ex-Army Ranger finds himself slipping back into his old life of petty crime after a job offer from the LAPD evaporates.

Now arrives “Street Kings” – the story of a morally corrupt LAPD officer looking for the murderer of his former partner.

“Street Kings” is David Ayer’s second directorial feature after "Harsh Times", but was from a script penned by the great crime novelist James Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential"). There’s a shadow of the structure and plot twists of "L.A. Confidential", so there’s something familiar, and yet predictable about the story.

Keanu Reeves plays Det. Tom Ludlow of the LAPD, a man who goes beyond the law to find street justice. He’s backed up by his homies in his department, led by Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). This hasn’t stopped Internal Affairs (often acronymed “IA” in the movies) from breathing down his neck. When Ludlow hears that his ex-partner is working with IA on a case against his department, Tom’s goes to confront the man and give him a cautionary beatdown. Before that happens, the two are coincidentally caught in a convenience store armed robbery which finds his partner dead.

This is a wake up call for Tom who decides to conduct his own investigation into finding the killers, but in doing so, puts himself at risk of total exposure to his history of corruption.

Keanu Reeves plays his usually unemotive brooding self. It’s a heavily flawed character with more than enough complexities in his backstory, but so much time is spent with the mechanics of the plot we never really get to know or love Tom Ludlow. Forest Whitaker is the one who gets to go over-the-top, and he seems to have a lot of fun doing that for once. Chris Evans, one of those pretty faces that would usually seem out of place in a tough cop flick, provides the only character we come to like. He’s a young cop trying to fit into the ways of LAPD politics, and his mentored by the king of the street himself, Tom Ludlow.

“Street Kings” apparently was written back in the mid 90’s by Ellroy, and has traded directors for ten years - according to the imdb, David Fincher, Spike Lee and Oliver Stone were once attached. With Ayer on board and his record of morally questionable cop flicks, “Street Kings” feels like yesterday’s news. If the film came out around the OJ trial or the LA riots, the context of police corruption and gangland drug warfare would have greater cultural significance. Instead the film feels like a number of cop clichés strung together.

“Street Kings” is available DVD and Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


Wednesday, 13 August 2008

EVERYTHING IS FINE


Everything is Fine (aka Tout Est Parfait) (2008) dir. Yves Christian Fournier
Starring: Maxime Dumontier, Chloe Bourgeois, Normand D'Amour, Maxime Bessette

**

Yves Christian Fournier’s debut feature feels very much like a debut feature – it's a brooding tale of a teen trying to deal with the suicide of four – count ‘em FOUR! – of his best friends. It’s perhaps the most depressing film I’ve ever seen, and it seems only to serve as a showcase of the director’s skills with mood, tone and camerawork.

Josh is a typical teenager from Quebec – he loves to skateboard, listen to music and hang with his friends. But one day he knocks on his friend’s bedroom door and finds he has hung himself. Later that day he finds out three of his other best friends have also committed suicide. It’s no doubt a shock to him and so Josh is sent reeling in disbelief and incomprehension. Things are made worse when everyone around him questions Josh about what he knew of this seemingly planned and coordinated mass suicide.

It’s all a mystery to Josh, but over the course of the film through a series of flashbacks and recalled memories, he traces the seeds of his friends' discontent. Josh is also a suicide threat himself. His parents try to provide comfort but he’ll have nothing to do with them. Josh finds his only solace in Mia, the girlfriend one of the victims (Chloe Bourgeois). They strike up a blissful and sexy affair, but Josh just can’t seem to escape the pain of his loss.

“Everything is Fine” echoes the morose introspective youth gone wild works of Gus Van Sant, Larry Clark and David Gordon Green and most notably Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides”. It's also a laboured film, which drags out the grieving period to the entire length of the film. There’s rarely a blip of happiness – perhaps only when he gets his rocks off with Mia. But his joy rarely lasts beyond the coital experience because when he opens his mouth it’s full of the self-pity and cold detachment associated with his friends’ suicides.

The script barely holds together as a narrative structure. There’s few dramatic beats, or act turns or other traditional elements to move the story along and Josh barely changes as a character over the course of the two hours. But Fournier makes up for it all with a freeform dreamlike visual and auditory palette. It’s a gorgeous film to look at. His handheld camera moves freely with Josh along his journey of depression. Whether it’s a beautifying magic hour scene shot in slo-mo or rambunctious fuck in the woods, or a foot-tapping indie rock song on the soundtrack there’s always something interesting to watch and hear on the screen. It's dark material but as Fournier's first feature it's a labour of love and he has a clear vision for his film. 

Fournier just makes it so hard to jump on board beyond the technical level. We’re never provided with a handle of hope to grab onto. One can only take so many painful beatdowns. We badly need Josh to pick himself up and move on – this is what the film seems to be about, but Fournier is so determined not to take Josh or us there, it becomes a pointless exercise. I suggest waiting for his second film.

“Everything is Fine” is available on DVD from Alliance Films

Sorry, this trailer is only in French – but the film is subtitled in English:


Tuesday, 12 August 2008

DARK CITY


Dark City (1998) dir. Alex Proyas
Starring: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connolly, Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt

***

“Dark City” was Aussie Alex Proyas’ follow up to the successful “The Crow”. A masterpiece of visual design, the film has maintained its cult following thanks in part to the persistent flag waving of its biggest fan, Roger Ebert. A new director cut in glorious Blu-Ray is now available.

“Dark City” was slightly ahead of the curve in 1998. The existential themes were explored in a number of comparable films made in the late 90’s. The most obvious is the “Matrix”, made one year after, which tells almost the exact same story, except with mondo bullets, fights, and chases. David Cronenberg’s alternate reality mess, “eXistenZ” also made in 1999.

The story involves a man, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who wakes up in a tub next to a dead body in a hotel room. He has no memory and by instinct flees the scene trying to figure out what the hell has just happened. It’s a classic film noir set-up. The authorities, led by Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) are hot on his trail. His wife, Emma (Jennifer Connolly) is concerned when a stranger, Dr. Schreiber (Kiefer Sutherland), comes knocking on her door claiming to be John’s doctor.

Murdoch is also hounded by a group of mysteriously clocked men who conspicuously resemble Max Schreck in “Nosferatu”. We come to learn the men are part of a group of beings with special powers who ‘stop time’ to perform mind-altering experiments on humans. When Murdoch starts to exhibit these powers too, suddenly he becomes the only man who can save the city from its perpetual darkness and despair.

Ten years later the visual design, cinematography and special effect of “Dark City” are still as stunning as then. The ornately textured world Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulos creates is lit with a sharp high contrast style by polish Cinematographer Darious Wolski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) - a Ridley Scott influenced world – a combination of “Alien” and “Blade Runner”.

Alex Proyas, in the introduction to the DVD, questions the common critics’ critique that the film was style over substance. Indeed, Proyas is right in that the film is actually quite heavy on substance. The overarching story is a deep spiritual examination of human nature. But he’s also wrong in that “Dark City” suffers most because of its style. Ironically, the vital missing piece of the puzzle is its heart. It’s ironic because Murdoch mentions this in the final line to his nemesis, Mr. Hand, before entering the daylight exterior. He says something like, “you wanted to know what it was that made us human… well you were looking in the wrong place” (referring to his brain, as opposed to his heart).

By drenching the film with such a dark, cold and detached tone Proyas strips away all emotional investment in its characters. An interesting comparison would be Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show”, a completely different film but one which explores similar themes of the human spirit and willpower to triumph over control. Like Murdoch Truman is subjected to a prison to which he doesn’t know he’s a part, yet his indefinable human instincts compel him to escape somehow. Yet “The Truman Show” creates such a warm welcoming quality to the journey of its hero. Truman’s grand moment of discovery is infinitely more dramatic and involving than Murdoch’s. Thus, “Dark City” never moves beyond the sci-fi/noir genre elements to truly connect on a visceral and emotional level.

“Dark City” showcases best the robustness of the Blu-Ray format. Unlike the standard definition version of the film, the fine line between darkness and light of “Dark City” almost as it was intended on the big screen. Enjoy.

“Dark City” is available on Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada and New Line Home Entertainment in the U.S.

<

Monday, 11 August 2008

SHINE A LIGHT


Shine A Light (2008) dir. Martin Scorsese
Documentary

***

“Shine a Light” is a collaboration of two great artists - those venerable golden aged rockers, the Rolling Stones and legendary director Martin Scorsese. We all know Scorsese’s a huge fan, he’s been using Stones songs in his films since “Mean Streets”. I mean has there ever been a more effective or exhilarating use of a pop song in film than Robert De Niro’s introduction as Johnny Boy set to “Jumping Jack Flash”? So it’s a natural teaming. Scorsese delivers to us a traditional concert film approach showcasing the current state of the band. The Imax format results in a phenomenally beautiful film to watch, unfortunately hampered by the fact that, well, the four lads don’t really play their music as well as they used to.

The film opens with some great behind the scenes prep work. It’s New York City and the Stones are playing a benefit concert in the relatively small Beacon Theatre for Bill Clinton and bunch of other of his invited guests. We get to see Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts and Keith Richards awkwardly hobnob with Bill, Hillary, Hillary’s mom and the former President of Poland.

The conflict of the needs of Scorsese and the needs of the Stones provides some great off the wall moments. At one point one of the technicians tells Marty that the lights above Mick are so hot if he stands under one of them for more than 18 secs he’ll catch on fire. Gotta love Bob Richardson and his hot lights!

As far as the music goes, I don’t think anyone’s expecting to hear some great music-ship. Keith Richards' guitar work is sloppy at times and some of Mick Jagger’s singing is downright terrible. He is helped by backup vocals on almost every track, but I really wished someone would shoot the horn section – especially during “As Tears Go By”. The first two tracks are barely listenable. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is rushed and Jagger literally talks its lyrics – barely resembling what was heard in that great scene in “Mean Streets”. “Shattered”, the second song is even more terrible. After that the Stones finally step it up. A lesser-known hit, “She Was Hot”, finally kicks it up a notch, and Jagger’s duet with Jack White sounds great. In fact, White’s twangy vocals sound uncannily like a young Mick Jagger. The best song in the bunch is the aforementioned, “As Tears Go By” a rarely played early Stones hit.

Much of the humour comes from the archival footage of the Stones over the years. The British media reporting on the activities of the Stones, in their typically snooty British fashion is pathetic and hilarious.

The real reason to watch "Shine a Light" is the third artist collaborating on the film – the great DOP and genuine cinema-artist Robert Richardson. As expected the Imax format gives us phenomenally pristine image (think, the difference between SD and HD). Much of the behind the scenes prep time showcase the work of Richardson in lighting up the stage which will help 'shine the best light' on the Stones as possible. Richardson's unique look transfers well to the concert documentary format. In fact, take time to look at the list of additional camera operators in the final credits. You'll see a roll call of the best DOPs working in cinema today - Robert Elswit, Emmanuel Lubezki, John Toll, Ellen Kuras.

This is a testament to the importance of the Rolling Stones in popular culture and Martin Scorsese's undying reverence for them. Sure they are old, and can't play their instruments as well as they used to, but they still command the best artists in the world to work with them.

"Shine a Light" looks amazing on Blu-Ray disc - available now from Paramount Home Entertainment


 

Sunday, 10 August 2008

FRAMED


Framed (1975) dir. Phil Karlson
Starring: Joe Don Baker, Gabriel Dell, John Marley, Brock Peters, John Larch and Connie Van Dyke

***

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

In contemporary cinema, when all or some of the properties that normally characterize the genre (or, if one prefers, movement) of film noir are present in the work, pains always appear to be taken by those who write their analyses of said pictures to use phrases such as “noir-influenced”, “noir-like” or “contemporary noir”. Seldom will you see anyone daring to refer to “Sin City” or its ilk as film noir, but will, rather utilize one (or variations of) the former descriptive phrases.

During the 1970s, a number of pictures burst on the scene that – aside from their contemporary settings and dates of production – bear considerable traces of those properties usually attributed to film noir. Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves,” Francis Coppola’s “The Conversation”, Michael Ritchie’s “Prime Cut”, Peter Yates’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”, Sam Peckinpah’s “Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia” and numerous others could all be characterized as film noir – especially with their emphasis on such properties as: hard-boiled heroes, the power of the past and its unyielding influence upon the present, the unique and stylized visuals (even those emphasizing visual “realism” have style to burn with their harsh lighting and mega-grain), post-war and/or wartime disillusionment and, amongst others, an overwhelmingly hopeless sense of time lost (and/or wasted).

One picture from the 70s that could also fit the noir tradition permeating that oh-so-rich-and-groovy decade of dissent is one that has largely been forgotten. Since it was neither a hit, nor critically regarded in its year of release, Phil Karlson’s grim, violent crime melodrama “Framed” is a movie that’s long overdue for discovery, or, if you will, re-discovery.

Produced and written by Karlson’s creative partner Mort Briskin (they previously delivered one of the hugest box office hits of the 70s, “Walking Tall”), the world of “Framed” resembles a cross between Jules Dassin’s “Brute Force” and virtually every other revenge-tinged noir fantasy one can think of including Karlson’s 50s noir classics like “Kansas City Confidential” and the “Phoenix City Story”. In fact, “Framed” comes close to being a remake of “Kansas City Confidential” (elements of which also appeared in “Walking Tall”), but where it definitely departs is in the permissiveness of the 70s and the levels of wince-inducing violence it ladles on like so many heapin’ helpin’ globs o’ grits into the bowls of hungry Tennessee rednecks patronizing the greasy spoons of the Old South.

And indeed, Tennessee is where “Framed” was shot and is, in fact, set (not unlike the Karlson-Briskin Buford Pusser shit-kicker “Walking Tall”). While this down-home haven for rednecks seems, if I may, “a might” incongruous for a film noir thriller, it’s actually in keeping with the sordid backdrops of numerous noir classics – many of which are set against the small mindedness of middle America. Not all noir was in the big cities – the sleepy suburbs, seedy tank towns and just plain wide-open spaces – could all provide ample atmosphere for any number of these dark crime classics.

Not that “Framed” qualifies as a classic, mind you. In fact, it’s definitely one star rating below the aforementioned 70s noir from the likes of Coppola, Peckinpah, and Penn et al, but it’s damned solid and delivers the goods one expects from a workmanlike kick-butt kind of director like Phil Karlson.

“Framed” recounts the gripping saga of Ron Lewis (Joe Don Baker) a beefy, semi-amiable (albeit semi-smarmy) gambler and club owner who arrives home with a satchel-full of cash he’s just won in Vegas. His lover and partner in the club, platinum ice-queen country singer Susan Barrett (frosty, sexy Connie Van Dyke) begs him to stop gambling and quit while he’s ahead. If he did, there’d be no movie. Instead, beefy-boy takes his satchel and enters a high-stakes poker game and cleans up even bigger.

On his way home, someone tries shooting at him and when he pulls into his garage a redneck deputy harasses him. A brutal fight ensues (with eye-gouging – yeah!) and the lawman dies, whilst our hero, a mangled heap o’ beef, slips into a coma. Ron wakes up to find that he needs to plea-bargain his way out of a sticky situation wherein he faces life imprisonment for murder. He also discovers that his money has been stolen and that he’s been set-up big-time. (Granted, he DID actually kill the redneck lawman, but it was in self-defense.) Ron’s ice queen is roughed-up and raped by some bad guys and soon, our hero is sent up the river to a maximum-security prison.

Luckily, once he’s firmly ensconced in the Big House, he hooks up with a friendly hitman (former Bowery Boy – I kid you not – Gabriel Dell) and an equally amiable mob boss (John Marley – the producer in “The Godfather” who wakes up to find a horse’s head in his bed). Time passes with relative ease, and soon, our beefy hero – with a little help from his new prison pals – is on the loose and on a rampage o’ sweet, sweet revenge.

Loaded with violence and plenty of dark, seedy characters and locales (and a few welcome dollops of humour), “Framed” is a nasty, fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining crime picture. Joe Don Baker is a suitably fleshy hero and Gabriel Dell a perfect smart-ass sidekick. What’s especially cool about the movie is just how amoral a world ALL the characters move in and frankly, how their shades of grey don’t actually confuse things, but work beautifully with the noir trappings of the story and style.

“Framed”, by the way, is a picture I had not seen since I saw it on a big screen as a teenager. I even remember seeing it with my ex-cop Dad. We both loved it and I always had fond memories of it. Alas, it was one of those movies that I wanted to see again, but it had been out of circulation for so long that I suspected I might never see it.

Now, thanks to Legend Films, “Framed” is finally available. While it is yet another barebones DVD release from Legend and one can lament the lack of extra features, it’s becoming plainly clear that this is a company with more taste and savvy than the studio it is leasing product from.

“Framed” is the second Paramount Picture I have seen on DVD (the first being the magnificent “Mandingo”) to come from Legend. I can hardly wait to see more. Some of the more interesting titles Paramount made in the 70s are finally getting their due – thanks, of course, not to Paramount, but to Legend.

Interestingly enough, I recall seeing “Framed” on the same picture-palace screen I eventually saw “Mandingo” on.

Do wonders never cease?

No, they don’t. “Framed” also features a nude shower scene with Joe Don Baker.

Get thee to a video store, damn you!