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

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

THE HAPPENING - A Second Look


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

**

My reviews are not meant to stand as such forever. My opinions change with different viewings, sometimes dependent on mood, the environment/screening medium, timing, age etc. “The Happening, which I saw just a few months ago in the summer, was a fun cinematic experience. Despite horrible critical reviews, the good elements trumped the bad elements, and I gave it a decent ***.

However, a second screening at home has produced a reversal of thought – not full 180 degrees, maybe 115. Please re-read my original review HERE. I can only say “What was I thinking??”

"The Happening" is a simple story which literally jumps right into the story with haste. Some kind of epidemic or virus is sweeping the east coast of the U.S. Without warning large groups of people suddenly stop moving, become entranced zombies and then systematically commit suicide. Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) is a humble science teacher who desperately tries to bring his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and a small group of people to safety while trying to figure what the hell is going on.

Just about the only thing happening for “The Happening” is the wonderful dough-eyed performance of Zooey Deschanel. It’s hardly a star-performance, or anything close to a leading lady, but her soft-spoken innocence and gosh-darn wide-eyed stare is just too cute not to love. Unfortunately everyone else in the film is almost unwatchable. Other than the star names above, it’s largely unknown actors saying the lines. But I lay blame on Shyamalan who directed these actors to their awful performances. They are given familiar disaster-movie lines, like “what the hell is going on?”, Where are we” and “run!” The actors can’t even say these lines right.

On the DVD special features a whole featurette is devoted to the gore in the film. Shyamalan was encouraged by the studio to go for an R-Rating for the first time. Shyamalan describes his enthusiasm in using violence to increase the intensity of the film. But Shyamalan, who is a master at off-camera tension, should have known better. None of the gore works in this film. Almost every squirt of blood or hacked limb jumps out of the screen like an exclamation mark where none was required.

The problem is Shyamalan filmed the story with the same tone, pace and visual style as his other films, the effect of which was a statement against the gratuitousness of arbitrary gore. The most glaringly excessive gore moment is the one seen from a woman’s i-phone as the zoo-keeper gets mauled to death by the lion. Not only is the CG matting obvious it’s a near carbon-copy of a scene from Shyamalan’s “Signs” – a far superior film.

This time around, I just couldn’t look past the atrocious logical holes and decision-making inconsistencies. Specifically Julian’s (John Leguizamo) decision to leave his child with Elliot and Alma while he searches for his wife. No one in the world would do that. No one.

As well I could not look past the excessive use of expository television and radio coverage. The technique was used effectively and sparingly in “Signs”, but in this film Shyamalan continually bombards us with a scene every 10mins of a television reporter telling us information we knew already. It’s a mark of an inexperienced and lazy filmmaker, and so it’s amplified even more knowing it comes from someone with talent.

The only other saving grace is James Newton Howard’s fine minimalist score. In fact, I’d argue Howard as being the best music composer working in Hollywood today. With only a few notes he creates one of those effectively creepy scores we heard from John Carpenter in the 80’s.

The themes and metaphors of the environment, post 9/11 social cohesion, and over-population are sometimes subtle and sometimes blockhead. The inconsistencies are frustrating. I wish could have bottled my first experience with this film, because now I can only see it’s flaws. It’s a well-intentioned sloppy mess.

"The Happening" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray Oct 7 from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Monday, 29 September 2008

PHASE IV




Phase IV (1974) dir. Saul Bass
Starring Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy and Lynne Frederick

***

Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw

“Phase IV” is a nifty, creepy ecological sci-fi thriller that keeps one engrossed from beginning to end in spite of occasional, though rather glaring flaws that could have dragged the film down quite a few notches if it had been directed by anyone other than Saul Bass. In fact, the movie is so good, it is almost overshadowed by the single question it raises which is – why the hell did Saul Bass only direct ONE feature film?

Well, in spite of winning an Oscar for the very cool and supremely unconventional short film “Why Man Creates, “Phase IV” was, and still is, a criminally neglected and forgotten picture. Misunderstood and mishandled by Paramount Pictures upon its theatrical release it has also been conspicuously absent on DVD until the recent Legend Films release of numerous titles that Paramount seemed curiously ambivalent about releasing themselves. Thankfully, though, Legend has picked up this slough of interesting titles and in particular, “Phase IV” can now be seen and enjoyed by the few of us who enjoyed it upon its original release and hopefully a hell of a lot more.

A variation on the “big bug” creature features of the 50s, one might call it a “small bug” creature feature in that the villains are not oversized tarantulas and preying mantises, but rather – ants – yes, I kid you not, ants.

Real ants.

Small ants.

Billions upon billions of ants that have, in a remote corner of an Arizona desert and due to a strange interplanetary phenomenon, merged into a central force of thought and destruction bent on ascending to the very top of Earth’s food chain. But in spite of this seeming doom and gloom creature feature premise, “Phase IV” is a quiet, deliberately paced and, at times cerebral picture – reminiscent of Robert Wise’s strangely clinical adaptation of “The Andromeda Strain” and the 1971 release of “The Hellstrom Chronicle” (Walon Green and Ed Spiegel’s riveting mock documentary about insects taking over the Earth).

The delightfully named principal character, one Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs (zealously brought to life by Nigel Davenport) teams up with James Lesko (Michael Murphy), a young statistician and computer scientist. Together they set up a small research base in the desert to keep a watchful eye on the rather odd behaviour of several colonies of ants. Given the power to evict a family living nearby, they begin a series of experiments that very quickly suggest that the ants not only have rational thought but also communicate via the universal language of mathematics. As ridiculous as this sounds, the visually sumptuous attention to detail through macro-photography, stop-motion and some really cool optical effects allows us to suspend disbelief and, for most of the picture’s running time engage in the mechanics of screenwriter Mayo (Marooned) Simon’s oddball plot. Where the picture occasionally falters is in some of the more stilted dialogue shoved into the mouths of the characters and the weird presence and performance of the stunningly gorgeous, but mind-numbingly inept Lynne Frederick (real-life squeeze of Peter Sellers).

But when Saul Bass trains his eye on either the ants or the scientific gymnastics of the two men, “Phase IV” is a real treat. Bass, of course, is best known – not as a film director, but as the graphic designer responsible for such memorable title sequences as “Psycho”, “The Man With The Golden Arm”, “Vertigo” and, among numerous others, “Casino”. His frame compositions in this picture are nothing less than masterful and at times, come close to being worthy of the best of Kubrick. Alas, the ideas under the surface of the narrative become such a cerebral jumble that not only do they come close to making the more obtuse moments of “2001: A Space Odyssey” seem clear as day, but occasionally one is tempted to give up in frustration since the film occasionally veers from brilliant to moronic.

Finally, though, the uneven quality of the picture is more than obscured by Bass’s visual panache and once in awhile, “Phase IV” is blessed with images so horrifying and creepy that one realizes just how important Bass must have been to Hitchcock during Psycho. Many of the key set pieces in Hitchcock’s masterpiece were storyboarded by Bass and Phase IV has some visuals that evoke similar feelings of revulsion. I will never forget, for example, a horse’s whinnying - sounding like shrieks of pain coming from an inquisition torture chamber as its body is covered with millions of swarming, munching ants and the look of horror on the face of the young owner of the horse as it is shot to death in order to end its suffering. Nor will I forget the creepy sight of an outstretched hand of a dead man as thousands of ants pour out of a gaping hole in the palm. Nor will the sight of several towering monolith-like anthills surrounding the remote research base ever leave my memory.

“Phase IV” is replete with such strange and horrific images that finally, its not only a picture worth seeing, but one that instills feelings of regret that Bass never made more films as a director. If he had, he might have not been able to create some of the most astounding titles sequences in motion picture history, but motion picture history might have been blessed with a few more masterworks. As it is, “Phase IV” is a work that stands more as a testament to the promise of Saul Bass as a director, but sometimes just imagining what might have been is a worthy substitute for what actually is or was or could have been.

Until another life, or at least until the ants take over, dreaming will have to do.

“Phase IV” is available on DVD from Legend Films.



Sunday, 28 September 2008

KRYLYA (aka "WINGS")



Krylya/Wings (1966) dir. Larisa Shepitko
Starring: Maya Bulgakova

***1/2

Guest review by Greg Klymkiw

The romance of war has seldom been so heartbreaking than in the hands of the great Ukrainian-born director Larisa Shepitko who made this first feature after a few short films and studying under the watchful eye of fellow countryman and master film artist Oleksander Dovzhenko. What’s especially bittersweet is that the film is set in a post-war Soviet world where the lead character Nadezhna (Maya Bulgakova) struggles to settle into a life of seeming normalcy and, compared to her career as a fighter pilot, complacency. Now in her fortieth year, she works as a schoolmistress and goes about her daily tasks with professionalism and commitment on the surface, but always yearning and dreaming of the days when she soared above the normal world – touching Heaven, surrounded by the billowy clouds and racing through the air, dipping and swooping like a bird of prey.

Shepitko, part of that breed of Soviet filmmaker that rejected the occasionally overwrought montage-heavy storytelling of the likes of Eisenstein, tells her delicate tale with the same kind of editorial restraint common to her generation. Favouring gorgeously composed tableaus and a stately pace, Shepitko aims her lens at the realism of Nadezhna’s life, but with such a keen eye that the commonplace becomes extraordinary.

And what is it about the “normal” that nags at Shepitko’s central character?

The bottom line is this: The girl just wants to fly high. But alas, it is not to be – Nadezhna’s place in servitude to the Soviet ideal is now in the shaping of minds – youthful minds that live in a peaceful world that cannot even begin to comprehend the horrors of war. Nor are her students (and most others – adults AND children) equipped to fathom the mad, youthful rush accompanying Nadezhna’s idealism which led her into the cockpit of a bomber and into the arms of a fellow high-flyer, a dashing young man who eventually dies in a fireball before her very eyes – an image that haunts her constantly.

Shepitko expertly juxtaposes the romance and tragedy of Nadezhna’s life during the war with a series of poetic flashbacks that always help move the story forward when the drabness of her current existence reaches its nadir. One of the more moving sequences has our protagonist watching as a group of schoolchildren in the local museum are shown a display devoted to her heroism during the war. With the love of her life long dead and a schlubish museum director vying for her attentions – Nadezhna’s own life has become a literal and figurative museum piece.

Her daughter Tanya, a ravishing beauty, has married a much older man and Nadezhna can only think of her long-lost lover and how this prissy egghead who cohabits with her progeny can only pale in comparison. While Tanya has married for love, Nadezhna’s lover died for love – not necessarily for romantic love, but for the romantic ideals and love of flying that he shared with her.

With such a pedigree, can anyone ever be good enough for Nadezhna’s daughter?

While Krylya (the Russian word for “Wings”) shares much in common with Dovzhenko and Grigori Chukrai (Ballad of a Soldier), there is a relatively contemporary film, which builds towards a conclusion as soaring and heartbreaking as the one that ends Nadezhna’s story. Werner Herzog’s astounding 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly still can evoke tears when one recalls the final images as the title subject has a dream come true. A similar and extraordinary sequence occurs at the end of Krylya and delivers the kind of impact that only movies can bring when a dream comes true.

In both cases the wish fulfillment is endowed with both elation and heartache.

Shepitko firmly roots her character in a past that seems so far away and yet, truth and redemption are found in the reclamation of that past – albeit a reclamation that embraces the present and includes an acceptance of the future.

Shepitko only made three features following this debut. Her life was tragically cut short in a car accident while on a location scout for what would have been her fifth feature.

Like Nadezhna’s dashing flyboy lover, Shepitko died while doing what she knew and loved best.

Great art and life are never that far apart, are they?

Krylya is available on Criterion's Eclipse DVD label with Shepitko's "The Ascent"

Saturday, 27 September 2008

THE GODFATHER PART III


The Godfather Part III (1990) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, Talia Shire, Joe Mantagna, Sofia Coppola, Diane Keaton.

***1/2

Can we finally show some love to “The Godfather Part III?” Before the trend of reviving old franchises, Francis Coppola decided to make a third part to his legendary Godfather duo. It was 1990, 16 years after 1974’s “The Godfather Part II”. With the enormous pressure of meeting the expectations of the first two films, “Godfather Part III” was a disappointment to almost all fans. Even the seven Oscar nominations it received seemed like a ‘nice try’ pat on the back for Coppola.

Since 1990 “Part III” has been like the Scarlett Letter, or the runt of the family that people don’t recognize. Even I joined in the fray and refused to acknowledge “Part III” as part of the “Godfather” saga. Most of the criticism centred on Coppola’s casting of his daughter Sofia as Michael Corleone’s daughter. Time to debunk this, she’s not that bad – certainly not enough to ruin the film.

This zeitgeist of hate against the film has perpetuated itself much too far. It even made EW’s list of worst sequels of all time – landing in between “Revenge of the Nerds II” and “Legally Blonde: Red, White and Blue”. Come on! So 18 years after Part III, and with a new Blu-Ray edition to marvel at, it’s time to show the respect this film deserves.

Like the two previous films “Part III” opens with a party, this time celebrating a donation of the Corleone family to the Catholic Church. This is a different Michael Corleone than we last saw him. It’s 1979 and the family is mostly legitimate - the casinos have been sold off and the Lake Tahoe estate abandoned. Instead Michael has gone corporate. The party also serves as a reunion of sorts – Kay who left Michael years ago returns with a new husband; and a new face shows up, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) the illegitimate son of Sonny. Like Sonny, Vincent’s a hothead and desires to work for Michael as his bodyguard to combat a growing feeling of dissention from Michael’s former mafia colleagues. After an assassination attempt Michael agrees to take on Vincent.

Vincent unfortunately falls in love with Michael’s daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola), which both men know makes Vincent vulnerable to his enemies and endangers Mary. As Vincent struggles with his choices, Michael finds himself in a complex web of corporate intrigue which involves an international corporate conglomerate Immobiliare, the Catholic Church and the Mafia. Michael’s forced to bring back those gangland instincts in order to free himself against the plots against his family.

Like the previous two films Coppola remarkably controls the tone of the film. It always starts with Gordon Willis’ cinematography. It’s slightly different colour palette, the sepia look is updated slightly with a more golden tone. It reflects greater wealth and esteem of the Corleone family in this modern age. The stakes and scope of the film is larger than previous films. The Catholic Church, the Pope, large corporate conglomerates show the new era of corruption. The ‘globalization’ of organized crime if you will.

Coppola is careful to continue his solid foundation of character as basis for the conflict. Central to this is Andy Garcia’s character. It’s a marvelous performance (which garnered him an Oscar nomination). When we first meet Vincent as a leather-jacket wearing street thug, he’s overacting like a gangster. It feels out of place, like out a Godfather parody. But of course, this is by design because this is Vincent’s desire – to be part of the Corleone family. After Michael’s son Anthony chooses a life of music over the ‘family business’, however legitimate, we can understand Michael’s attraction to Vincent’s unquestioned loyalty. Over the course of the film, watch how Vincent changes. Under the guidance of Michael his rough edges are smoothed over and he develops the confidence and coolness of a leader.

In the short term, Michael’s politicking and alliance with Vincent works – but he can only evade his past so long. The finale preceded by another wonderful montage assassination sequence, is both a surprise and deeply emotional climax to the full Godfather story. After the dramatic death, Coppola’s flashbacks to the two previous films satisfyingly link the three films and complete the second arc of Michael's character.

“Godfather Part III” was not a necessary addition to the story – neither was Part II though either. So what if Part III doesn’t have the ‘magic’ of the other two parts, it’s better than “The Phantom Menace”. Enjoy.

PS. And again, for the record, Sofia Coppola is not that bad. She’s certainly not great, but Coppola cuts around her performance to get what he needs from her minimal performance.

“The Godfather Part III” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray as part of the new Coppola Restoration edition of the series.

Other Relevant Postings:
THE GODFATHER



Friday, 26 September 2008

YOUNG@HEART


Young at Heart (2007) dir. Stephen Walker
Documentary

***

“Young@Heart” is a bit of a cheat. How is it possible to dislike a group of lovable old farts singing off-key pop tunes as a travelling chorus group? British filmmaker Stephen Walker tapped into this gold mine of quirky entertainment after seeing the group perform in London. It makes for a lovely film which pulls the heart strings without yanking him with sappy sentiment.

Young@Heart is not only the name of the film but a musical group of senior citizens from Northhampton Massachussetts who sing in a travelling chorus group not only in an effort to make good music but bring a light of joy to their debilitated lives. Bob Climan, a spunky 50-something, conducts the group and programs their eclectic musical selections. Climan gets the group to sing pop songs, which many of the members of the group have never even hear before. There's Coldplay, Sonic Youth, The Clash.

Walker’s traditional approach to the material gives the film the feeling of an old-style documentary – like Apted’s “Up Documentaries”. We hear Walker’s drole British voice guiding the film and informing the audience of what’s happening.

The music is OK at best, but we’re not here to hear good music. Walker centres in on a few key characters – the most lovable and cute of course. The film could easily have settled into a sappy ‘high on life’ affair, but Walker gets a little dirty with the story - just a little. The band’s director and conductor Bob Climan pushes his seniors to limit to get the best performance out of them. He’s not the sweet volunteer humanitarian painted with loving respect you’d think. The frustration of trying to teach 90-year olds Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” is more than visible on his face.

The characters reign supreme above the cuteness. Fred Knittle’s “Fix You” overture provides a great climax to the film. The oxygen tank he carries around with him suggests some forced sympathy but when he belts out the Coldplay classic from his seated chair, we’re reminded of the late career of Johnny Cash, putting years of pain into the renditions of his songs. We get the same feeling from Mr. Knittles.

A great companion film to this is the wonderful Italian documentary, “From Mother to Daughter” which premed at the Toronto International Festival a couple weeks ago. In that story, we watch a group of elder former-rice patties farmers from Italy reunite and form a travelling folk-song group. One of the uniting themes between both these films is the respect of the youth to its elderly. The best scene in “Young@Heart” is a concert they perform to a group of prison inmates. There’s a truthful expression of respect and admiration by the prisoners which hit home as much as anything shown in the film.

“Young at Heart” is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Other relevant postings:
FROM MOTHER TO DAUGHTER




Thursday, 25 September 2008

THE GODFATHER


The Godfather (1972) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton

****

What more analysis or praise do we need to shower “The Godfather” with? It’s the gold standard for cinema – a perfect film with more than enough layers to survive viewing after viewing after viewing. It never wears out.

The film opens with the now famous wedding scene – which is really four or five sequences in one scene. For the first 25 mins or so the audience is sequestered within the grounds of the Corleone family. Getting married is Connie and his husband Carlo. Connie's father is Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) the elderly Don who mumbles quietly to his minions, but exercises absolute power with absolute confidence. There’s the three sons, Sonny (James Caan) Vito’s broad-shouldered philandering eldest son, Fredo (John Cazale) the drunken n’er-do-well, Tom (Robert Duvall), the adopted brother and family lawyer, and Michael (Al Pacino), the unassuming war-hero returning home.

Who would think that by the end of the Parts I and II, Sonny would be betrayed and indirectly murdered by his brother-in-law, and that Michael would ostracize Tom out of the business of the family and then have own his flesh and blood brother Fredo murdered.

After the crucial wedding scene, we finally see the family in action outside the confines of their estate. It's a highly competitive world of gangsters - five families in New York, currently in a period of peace. But when a wildcard shows up in the name of Virgil Solozzo (Al Lettieri), Don Vito finds himself at odds and at a crossroads for the family.

This is where the contradictory morals of the genre are expertly navigated by Coppola, We know Don Vito is a ruthless negotiator and a killer - the horse's head showed us how the Don reacts to 'bad news' - but he has created his own personal set of morals to abide by. Similar to the western genre, the Corleone family is governed by the gangster 'code of honour' outside traditional authoritarian law. The crucial moment in the film is Vito's decision to maintain the intregrity of his family and not get involved with Solozzo's drug scheme - it's partly a political decision, partly a moral decision - and it ultimately causes the war which changes the direction of the movie and all the characters. When Don Vito is shot and left bedridden Michael steps up to exact revenge against Solozzo and take leadership for the family.

"The Godfather" is a timeless film because with each viewing I seem to catch more depth and layers in the characters. The scene when Michael convinces his brothers that he should be the one to kill Solozzo is the first overt expression of Michael's 'turn to the darkside'. But with this recent umpteenth viewing I saw some the seeds of Michael's fate planted in the audience earlier than that. Watch the scene when Kay calls Michael at the house while Clemenza shows him his meatball pasta recipe. Michael of course avoids telling Kay he loves her. By not saying 'I love you', it's perhaps a silent acknowledgement of the new life he's knows he's about to enter - something which Kay cannot be a part of.

The central theme of the film of course is not exclusively about the mafia - but family. Specifically the corruption of family from the inside out. Coppola’s epic scale and archetypal themes seem to borrow or echo classical or even biblical tales of tragedy. Another layer of depth I discovered with this recent viewing is in the scene when Michael meets Kay again after returning from Sicily. Coppola brilliantly plays the scene while Kay is attending to her school children - a great and subtle visual metaphor for this first heinous act of deception to bring Kay into his world and corrupt her innocence.

By the end of the film, Michael becomes the person he swore he'd never become. But the tragedy of the story is not that Michael has become part of the 'family business', but that he's betrayed the code of honour set and established by his father - which is wonderfully articulated in the fabulous closing shot - 'a man that doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man'.

"The Godfather" is now available on Blu-Ray in new "Restored" edition.



Wednesday, 24 September 2008

MAN ON WIRE


Man on Wire (2008) dir. James Marsh
Documentary

****

French acrobat Philippe Petit's attempt to cross the two roofs of the NYC Twin Towers by high wire in 1974 has been dubbed the 'artistic crime of the year'. James Marsh has turned this story into one of the best films of the year, a riveting documentary, as tense and suspenseful as any dramatic thriller I’ve seen this year.

Philippe Petit, talking to camera with effervescent zeal, describes how, even before the Twin Towers were built the massive monument called to him to conquer it. Back in France he had already climbed the Notre Dame Cathedral and crossed it via his tightrope. And the same thing in Sydney Australia by illegally crossing a lengthy suspension bridge. But conquering the Twin Towers would be his most challenging achievement. Filmmaker James Marsh cuts back and forth between the day of Aug 7, 1974 and the long planning process required to pull it off.

As the story progresses we get to know the childhood and youth of Petit and the personality which contributed to his insane desire to put his life on the line in the name of art. We hear from his devoted girlfriend and the motley crew of accomplices who help him plot the crime.

After seeing “Man on Wire” I might accuse Marsh of theft from Errol Morris if his film wasn’t so damned good. Marsh pays homage to the great filmmaker by employing a similar cinematic style. Marsh’s interviews are shot behind non-descript studio backgrounds, and intercut with artistically recreated scenes. The recreations are well beyond anything you'd see on the Discover Channel though, they are shot like an abstract rendering of the memories of the participants. For example, Petit and his colleagues recall hiding under a tarp while the nightwatchman patrols the upper floor of the Tower the evening before climbing to the roof. The sequence is dramatized with only a handful of shots from obscure angles – just enough information to tell the audience what’s going on and maximizing the suspense of the scene.

Marsh plays out the action with the procedure detail of a CSI episode. We get to see all the planning and rehearsals, along with the real maps, blueprints, diagrams, checklists, and photos used to detail the 'heist'.

The heart of the film is Philippe, himself, who provides as much off-the-wall French humour as suspense. He’s naturally a clown, a joker, and a shit disturber with giddy sense of childish enthusiasm. Watch his eyes light up when he describes the first time he heard of the Twin Towers being erected in New York City. He describes it as a beacon commanding him to conquer it

By the time Petit makes it through the night unseen, onto the roof and have the wire successfully rigged, we almost forget that he actually has to complete his stunt by walking on the wire half a mile above the earth. The photos which visualize his walk on air are so breathtaking, even though I was in my theatre seat, I felt the sensation of height and the brief moments of utter fear. But for Philippe walking the wire was the easy part, and a cathartic release of freedom in a place where no one could touch him.

The World Trade Centre was’t climbed, because it’s there. Petit's journey is the completion of a large extensive work of performance art. He refers to his walk on the wire as a dance, a moment of spectacle for his audience below.

What’s never referenced but hangs over the entire film is the fact that 27 years later Philippe’s greatest achievement would lay on the ground in rumbles. A good part of the film is about the building of the towers and the news coverage surrounding it. As we see the large steel beams be put in place, it reminds us of those haunting images of those same mangled parts lying on the ground after 9/11. So without reference to 9/11 “Man on Wire” is the ultimate love letter to the two towers.



Tuesday, 23 September 2008

SEX AND THE CITY


Sex and the City: The Movie (2008) dir. Michael Patrick King
Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon

***

At 2 hours and 31 mins, “Sex and the City: The Movie” has to be the “Godfather” of chick flicks. I was astonished to read this running time on the back of the DVD box. Can a fluffy summer popcorn film based on a half-hour TV show sustain such length? 

“Sex and the City” is not a stand alone film, and doesn’t even pretend to be. Trying to watch the film impartially without the context of the TV series is like watching or reviewing “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith” without seeing the 5 other films. The film tries really really hard to satisfy its core audience and no one else. Other cynics and haters be damned – this film is not for you.

When we last saw these four gals, Carrie Bradshaw (Ms. Parker) had just gotten back together with her on again off again boyfriend ‘Big’; Samantha Jones (Ms. Cattrall) the devoted bachelorette was comfortable in a long term relationship with her model boyfriend Smith; Charlotte (Ms. Davis) was happily married and is now mother to a newly adopted Chinese infant; Miranda (Ms. Nixon) was also married, a mother and happily living in once-dreaded Brooklyn. The film joins in at the point of Carrie and Big deciding to get married. The small wedding turns into a big wedding, which scares off the third-time groom Big. When he hesitates and stands his bride up on the day of the wedding Carrie goes into a lengthy depression, questioning everything she thought she knew about love.

The other gals each have their personal conflicts. Samantha starts having second thoughts about her relationship with Smith, who she now lives with in L.A. Miranda’s hubby Steve cheats on Miranda, which send her into a tailspin as well. Charlotte is conflict-free but becomes the rock of support for all the girls in these uncertain times.

I had my doubts at the beginning. The first 50mins slogs along, and feels like a pajama party put on screen. Writer/director King appears to get out of the way early all the fashion product placement which the audience expects to see. There’s three lengthy sequences in this first 50mins devoted solely to it’s costume changes. The opening scenes feature five or six changes layered beneath Carrie introductory voiceover. There’s a Vogue photoshoot where we see Carrie model a number of wedding dresses from various couture designers, and a painful 80’s wardrobe dress-up sequence, which in the extended cut version lasts twice as long as it should. In addition we're subject to the same repetitive jokes about the characters - we get it, Samantha loves sex. It's tedious, but it's what the audience wants.

At the 50mins mark the film finally starts. The wedding scene is directed and performed with real authenticity and jumpstarts Carrie’s character and the film. Carrie’s wedding day confrontation with Big on the one-way street features a shocking release of anger from Carrie. The respective subplots of the other gals don’t truly broaden the personalities of the characters more than we saw in the TV series, but their personal morals are all put to the test in satisfactory and truthful ways.

What separates this movie from say, 4 equivalent TV episodes strung together? There actually isn’t much, but that in no way detracts from the entertainment of watching the four familiar friends chat, wear expensive cloths, tour NYC, have sex, break-up, and make-up. “Sex and the City” is easy to hate and easy to love. Take your pick.

"Sex and the City" is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada and New Line in the U.S.



Sunday, 21 September 2008

CHANDU THE MAGICIAN


Chandu the Magician (1932) dir. William Cameron Menzies, Marcel Varnel
Starring: Edmund Lowe, Irene Ware, Bela Lugosi

***1/2

“Chandu the Magician” is a rare and underappreciated adventure film from the great period of early horror/adventure classics. The 30s was the era of "King Kong", "Dracula", "Frankenstein", "The Mummy", and more. “Chandu the Magician” stands up well against all of these films for its production value, cinematic energy and exuberance and innovations in cinema that inspired the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Edward Lowe plays Frank Chandler a British secret agent trained in the eastern mystics of “Yogi”, which has given him powers of hypnosis and mind control. After completing his training he’s told to “go forth with his youth and strength to conquer the evil that threatens mankind.” He's assigned to combat the nefarious Egyptian megalomaniac Ruxor (Bela Lugosi) from seeking world domination. Ruxor has kidnapped Chandler’s brother-in-law and scientist Robert Regent who has developed a dangerous death ray with the ability to kill lots of people half way around the world. Chandu encounters a series of spine-tingling adventures and daring escapes in order to save the world from destruction.

Chandu appears to be one of the main influences on Stephen Somers to make his version of "The Mummy". In fact, I'd argue "Chandu" was more influential than even the original 1932 "The Mummy". The film's three main protags, Chandler, his sister and the drunken comic relief Biggles form the same bumbling trio played by Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and John Hannah.

Chandu is credited with two directors, Marcel Varnel, a stage director who directed the actors and William Cameron Menzies who was in charge of the technical design of the picture. Varnel must have phoned this one in because the acting is simply atrocious. But with today’s eyes, Edmond Lowe’s mixture of British superiority and uber-seriousness is just too silly to criticize. It’s so much fun.

Menzies is the real star of the show and one of cinema’s most ambitious filmmakers. He was a director or co-director in the 1930’s on pulpy films such as “Chandu”. Perhaps his crowning achievement is the British science-fiction masterpiece “Things to Come” – a cautionary tale of war which spans 2000 years of history. In “Chandu” he sets to the tone of adventure, mysticism and intrigue with a number of inspired sequences, which, unlike the acting, stands up against any of the films of it’s era, including “King Kong”. You just need to watch the opening sequence for evidence - a wonderful shot which introduces us to to Chandler’s Yogi training fortress. The shot starts with a miniature of the Yogi castle high atop a mountain (dramatically lit with noir-like texture by the great James Wong Howe), then seamlessly transitions to a tracking shot through the hallways of the lair. The sequence is capped with a wonderful showcase of Menzies’ fine superimposition photography demonstrating Chandler’s new mystical powers.

“Chandu the Magician” is a pulp classic, and wonderful time capsule of the ambitiousness of early Hollywood to entertain it’s audiences and amaze them with new worlds, mad scientists, death rays, charming heroes and exotic villains. Enjoy.

“Chandu the Magician” is available a new “Horror Classic” box set from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Other relevent postings:
THE MUMMY (1932)
THINGS TO COME

Saturday, 20 September 2008

MIDNIGHT


Midnight (1939) dir. Mitchell Leisen
Starring: Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore

***

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

In the screenplay of this breezy, charming romantic comedy, one must look very deep to find the trademark Billy Wilder cynicism and ultimately realize that the final product definitely comes up short in this respect. The lack of knee-slapping pessimism does not, however, detract from how enjoyable the picture is. Wilder’s screenplay, co-written with partner Charles Brackett is such a perfectly formed bauble of fairy-tale romance with healthy dollops of sexual frankness (which, frankly is a more-than-equal Wilder trait to that of cynicism) that it can steadfastly maintain a place amongst other terrific examples of its type.

Finally, what makes this urban, continental variation on the Cinderella tale soar is the exquisite visual panache of the great (and truly underrated) director Mitchell Leisen. His touch, though light as a feather, earns its heft (so to speak) thanks mainly to his fine eye for composition, his razor-sharp sense of pace and his deft ability to handle the proceedings with an elegance befitting its deliriously romantic setting of 1930s Gay Par-ee. In Leisen’s hands La Ville-lumiere bubbles and sparkles with such frothy sophistication that one is reminded of just how awe-inspiring Paris is, but more importantly, how the essence of one’s memories of Paris itself can, in some ways, actually benefit from the eye of the motion picture lens, and, more to the point, the perspective of a director as stylish as Leisen.

And there’s nothing more stylish than Paris in the rain – precisely the setting our heroine, Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) finds herself in at the beginning of “Midnight” as she stumbles off the train in full evening attire with neither an umbrella nor a penny to her name. Luckily, she catches the eye of dashing Hungarian émigré cab driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) who agrees to chauffeur her about the city as she searches for a singing job, but more importantly, for an opportunity to land her a rich husband.

Even though she and Tibor are clearly a match made in Heaven (something both the audience and the characters are equally and plainly aware of), Eve is tired of poverty, and rather than prolong the inevitable, she sneaks away from the man who would shower her with the riches of love (but not much else) and sneaks her way into a private party and classical music recital. It is here where she meets the irascible Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore) who sees in Eve the kind of spunk and good heart that attracted him to his own wife Helene (Mary Astor). Alas, Helene is dabbling in a rather open affair with the dashing Marcel Renaud (Rex O’Malley) and a heartbroken Georges sees an opportunity to win his beloved wife back with the assistance of Helene.

In the meantime, the love-struck Tibor, aided by the watchful eyes of every cab driver in Paris searches under every rock for Eve. This, of course, becomes increasingly difficult since the radiant gold digging chorus girl has appropriated his surname and is now firmly ensconced in high society with the rather noble moniker of Baroness Czerny.

The action eventually leads to a Grand Ball where all the players cavort in a manner only befitting one of the finest romantic screen comedies that borrows generously from one of the great fairy tales of all time. Needless to say, it can hardly be called a “spoiler” to suggest that Cinderella results in a happy ending and that the same can be said for “Midnight” which hurtles like a runaway train through a multitude of breakneck twists, turns, dips and ascensions until its inevitably delirious conclusion.

With movies like “Midnight”, it’s the ride that truly counts. And what a ride! One never feels like the final destination has come un-earned.

It almost goes without saying that the cast is utter perfection. Colbert proves, yet again, why she was one of those most beloved stars – not only of her generation, but also of all time. The camera not only loves her to death, but she embodies all that is WOMAN! She is graceful, sexy, bubbly and sharp as a tack. Most importantly, she makes us laugh and is not afraid to have us laugh both with her and at her.

Don Ameche is not only charming as the Hungarian cab driver, but he too is blessed with such a truly buoyant sense of humour that it’s no wonder his career lasted well into old age. Contemporary audiences will, no doubt, remember his finely wrought performances in “Trading Places”, “Cocoon” and, most notably, David Mamet’s “Things Change”.

Mary Astor and Rex O’Malley make a perfect illicit couple and deliver highly nuanced performances which respectively blend haughtiness and warmth, and smarminess and charm. Astor is especially surprising. She often strikes me as humourless, but not only does she display considerable lightness, but she’s also really sexy.

The genuine treat in “Midnight” is, predictably enough, the genius that is John Barrymore who alternates between all-knowing reprobate and a love-obsessed fool. His lines readings and comportment are nothing less than perfection itself – all the more amazing since he was, no doubt, completely and utterly plastered for much of the film’s production.

“Midnight” is a class act all the way. It’s also more fuel to the fire that is: “They don’t make ‘em they way they used to.”

Now isn’t THAT the truth?

“Midnight” is available on DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Friday, 19 September 2008

THE LOVE GURU


The Love Guru (2008) dir. Marco Schnabel
Starring: Mike Myers, Justin Timberlake, Jessica Alba, Romany Malco

*1/2

How bad is “The Love Guru”? It’s not the worst movie ever made, but it certainly is a dismal unfunny affair. It’s Mike Myers' first original character  since the Austin Powers series. A lot has changed since those years (1997, 1999, 2002) and unfortunately "The Love Guru" feels like a very stale Austin Powers 4.

Myers plays is Pitka, an Indian motivational guru with a speciality in helping celebrities release themselves from depression. Pitka is hired by Jane Bullard (Jessica Alba), owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs to help Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco) her star player, out of the team's slump. Darren's stress stems from his girlfriend who recently left him for the rival LA Kings goalie Jacques "Le Coq" Grande (Justin Timberlake) and his fear of playing when his mother watches the games. Pitka has his own issues as well. He desperately desires to be the #1 guru in the world, a title held by the real Deepak Chopra. As well Pitka finds himself falling in love with Jane, despite taking an oath of chastity. 

Why audiences decided to now trounce so heavily on “The Love Guru” is a curiosity. The rhythm of the humour, and many of the gags are recycled from Austin Powers, which had the staying power for three films. The irony is that, despite all the negative criticism, the Myers’ childish and uncreative dick and balls jokes are as lazy as those in “Austin Powers in Goldmember”, which made $213million in the box office.

Mike Myers has simply double-dipped once too many times. We tolerated the laziness in “Goldmember” because Austin Powers was already a beloved character in pop culture. Guru Pitka is thoroughly uninteresting and at best a supporting character in one of his other films.

Again Myers fills the comedic void with cameos. One of the running gags is Pitka’s greeting 'Mariska Hargitay' (as opposed to the real Hindi greeting ‘Namaste’). Of course the real Mariska Hargitay from TV’s “Law and Order” shows up for a cameo but is given little to work with other than the walk-on sight gag .

Even Verne Troyer is cast again as the Maple Leafs coach. But again Myers recycles the same 'short jokes' we heard in his 2 Powers films, in addition to biting the half-sized room gag from "Being John Malkovich". Shameful.

I haven’t referred to the director Marco Schnabel at all because for all intents and purposes it’s a Mike Myers film. The fact that Jay Roach, Myers' director of all the Powers films was smart enough to stay away should have been the dead giveaway of this film's failure.

"The Love Guru" is available on DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment


Thursday, 18 September 2008

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN


Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2007) dir. Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightly, Jack Davenport, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy

** (the films)
**** (the making of)

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” series is one of the most successful franchises in cinema history. But on the Rotten Tomatoes meter each film seemed to have decreasing critical returns - 79% for “Curse of the Black Pearl”, 54% for “Dead Man’s Chest” and 45% for “At World’s End”. But the “Pirates” brand grew to be so robust it was completely immune to all negative criticism (the domestic box-office totals for each respective film was $305, $423 and $309).

So the fact that I disliked all the three films clearly carries no weight in the enormous amount of press coverage of the series. The most entertaining aspect of the series for me is not the final product, but how these films got made.

Disney has released the three films on Blu-Ray recently, and cinephiles who think the Pirates series is a throwaway franchise or something to put on the TV to occupy their kids should reconsider. Scour the Bonus Disc on "Dead Man's Chest" for the two making-of documentaries and you'll find the real treasure of the franchise.

The two stand alone documentaries, “Charting the Return Pre-production Documentary” (25:00mins) and “According to Plan: The Harrowing and True Story of Dead Man’s Chest” (59:00mins) which together total a feature length film, is as good as any making-of special features I’ve ever seen on DVD. Both are true documentaries (not glorified featurettes) shot in verite, fly on the wall style with comprehensive access to all aspects of the production. Although it's still a product of Disney and largely a happy affair all around, we get to see the nuts and bolts, pitfalls and triumphs of this massive production.  

“Charting the Return” introduces director Gore Verbinski in his production office looking unpretentious, calm and completely ordinary even though he’s in command of one of the most complicated and expensive series of films ever made. Jerry Bruckheimer and his team freely admit they are all working backwards from the release date, which means starting pre-production before the scripts are even finished, usually a recipe for disaster for any production. But money and talent have always trumped logic with the "Pirates" series. Cameras follow Verbinski into casting meetings, department head meetings, location scouts, stunt training, budget meetings and more - rare access into the ‘business of Hollywood’.

The pre-production doc fits well into the production documentary “According to Plan”. Again, instead of filling the running time with clips of the film, or press-junkit interviews, we get a fly-on-the-wall candid look into the ambitiousness of the film. I must give credit to Verbinski for choosing real-life location filmmaking over manufactured studios environments or relying computer graphics to create his on-screen world. The filmmakers go on a 200-day 'adventure' to the Bahamas, Dominica, St. Vincent to achieve 100% authenticity. Some of the more incredible on-set stories we witness first hand are the impressive engineering achievements in bringing 500+ crew members and all their equipment, trailers and trucks into some of the most remote places in the Caribbean. There was as much urban planning, engineering and infrastructure-building as filmmaking over the production period. Mountains were excavated so new roads could be shoveled, leveled, and asphalted to allow the heavy-load trucks to scale the mountainous terrain and access the interior of the island.

It’s the best example of Hollywood production philosophy – if you throw enough money at a problem anything will be solved.

While the undertaking is impressive, unintentionally the documentaries also expose the ironies of Hollywood. As quickly as the filmmakers parachuted into the Caribbean, dropped their hundred million dollars worth of cast, crew and gear, they jettisoned themselves out of there to move onto the next set. Out of sight, out of mind.

While the crew members are not shy to impress us with their achievements, in the big picture it’s hard not think of the ridiculousness and economic irresponsibility of the whole endeavour. With the manpower, money and efficiency the filmmakers and crew put into making these films imagine what could be achieved if these resources and energy were applied to creating real sustainable infrastructure for other struggling Caribbean nations, like Cuba, or Haiti.

And at the end of the phenomenal 200 days the legacy of their work is a few hours of disposable entertainment. Hurray for Hollywood, there’s nothing like it in the world.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

THE STONE ANGEL


The Stone Angel (2008) dir. Kari Skogland
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Christine Horne, Cole Hauser, Kevin Zeghers, Ellen Page, Dylan Baker

**

Many 30-somethings, like myself, grew up despising Margaret Lawrence’s 1964 book “The Stone Angel”. It’s been a staple in the Canadian high school curriculum for years. And for many of the kids my age being forced to read the book at then was torture. The story of a dying old woman reminiscing about the good and the bad throughout the 91 years of her life just wasn’t the kind of literature I wanted to read at age 15.

But there was a reason the book was in the curriculum, it’s a piece of classic Canadiana, a rich composite of the life of a unique and deeply conflicted protagonist. Forty-three years after it was first published and 17 years after my first encounter with “The Stone Angel” the one and only filmed version of the story was made. The film stars Ellen Burstyn, as Hagar Shipley, a spry 91 year old who is being pushed into an old-age home by her frustrated son Marvin (Dylan Baker). This event causes Hagar run away back to northern Manitoba to reflect on her life and the events which made her into the feisty, grade-A “holy terror” today.

Flashbacks show her as a young child getting into fights with young kids, a rebellious teenager (played by newcomer Christine Horne) disobeying her father and marrying the lower class farmer stud Bram (Cole Hauser), birthing two kids who rebel against her for repeating the same mistakes as her father, and so on and so on. Hagar’s convictions for better and for worse are reconciled with sappy melodrama and dashes of humour.

The film continually battles the challenges of adapting a time-spanning, multi-layered novel. Set in the prairies, with the cross-generational performances, the film deserves the attention of a film such as “Giant”. Unfortunately the events of conflict are not melodramatic enough for these grand Hollywood epics, nor intimate enough to be played as realism. In order to condense the story flashbacks and plot threads the film resorts to cliché to move the story forward. Many of the key beats come at us too quickly. For example, Hagar’s brother Matt (Aaron Ashmore), is in two brief scenes before he’s ill and on his deathbed. Bram Shipley is seen drinking a beer during the day before the next scene when he’s alcoholic.

Despite the hopscotching through Hagar's life, the film still feels as if it's moving in slow motion.

The one thing the filmmakers got right is the casting for Hagar. Ellen Burstyn turns in another late career gem of a performance. Burstyn plays a range of ages from mid-40’s to 91. Other than face make-up subtle changes in performance dramatize the age and character differences. Christine Horne’s younger Hagar, is a spitting image of Burstyn but lacks her truthful confidence and sadness. Cole Hauser gives a fine performance as Bram Shipley, but the most interesting casting choice is his real life father Wings Hauser as the older version of his character. Not knowing it was father Hauser playing the elder Bram, I marveled at the realistic face makeup and change in performance. It was only until I saw the end credits did I learn it was a real father and son acting team. And thinking back on other films I can't think of another film that had a father and son playing the same character in a film.

Perhaps “The Stone Angel” was meant to remain in print and not on celluloid. Despite my bad memories of the book, it’s a benchmark in Canadian literature and it deserves a better filmed treatment. A riskier, more personal cinematic vision is needed to elevate the film beyond just an adaptation of a revered book.

“The Stone Angel” is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.



Tuesday, 16 September 2008

KILL BILL


Kill Bill Vol 1 & 2 (2003, 2004) dir. Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Lucy Liu, Darryl Hannah, Julie Dreyfus

**** and ***

Both “Kill Bill” films have been recently released on Blu-Ray. Unfortunately it’s the same North American version with that especially bloody section of the Vol 1 finale diluted to black and white. Fans will know that audiences in other more liberal markets got to see that wonderful sequence in bold and beautiful full bloody colour. Apart from this omission, the films are a glorious addition to the growing Blu-Ray library and showcases brilliantly Robert Richardson’s sumptuous cinematography.

With today’s eyes it’s hard to imagine the two "Kill Bill" films as one. During production Tarantino intended the film to be watched as a whole, but during post-production it was reported that Harvey Weinstein suggested breaking it into two films. Though I find it hard to accept that Miramax would bank roll a single 4+ hour film for mainstream release in the first place, this is the official story.

Years later, “Kill Bill” is still a thoroughly enjoyable experience, a return to the wild idiosyncratic cinematic exuberance which Tarantino enchanted us with in “Pulp Fiction”. While “Reservoir Dogs”, “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown” were all influenced by numerous films and genres-favourites of his youth, Tarantino showed off his influences most proudly and undisguised in “Kill Bill”.

Vol 1 opens with the classic 1960’s “Shawscope” logo announces to us that this will be his “Kung-Fu” movie. But “Kill Bill” is many other things – a 70’s revenge exploitation film, a Spaghetti Western, an Italian horror film, and for one sequence even a Brian de Palma thriller homage.

Debate will rage on forever which film is better, but for me, Vol 1 is a more satisfying experience.

Each chapter in Vol 1 seems to trump the one previous. Let’s go through the order: Chapter 1 contains the knife-fight scene, a well-choreographed and humourous battle between Vivica Fox’s Vernita Green and Uma Thurman’s The Bride. Chapter 2 contains the marvelous hospital sequence including Tarantino’s split-screen homage to De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill”, which precedes the hospital escape sequence. Tarantino is at his cockiest when he cuts to his anime flashback scene establishing O-Ren’s backstory (book ended by Uma’s wiggling toe). Chapter 4 slows down the pace but also warms up the tone. The Bride’s conversation with Hattori Hanzo cleverly builds up to the reveal of his famous Samurai swords – a key plot point in Vol 2. And of course the film ends with a series of escalating fight sequences in the House of Blue Leaves.

Vol 2. takes the pace and exuberance down a few notches after the rambunctious finale in Vol 1. Vol 2. is constructed like a spaghetti western. Most of the action takes place in the desert, either at Budd’s trailer, or Bill’s rural compound and is paced with the same calm, quietness as the great Sergio Leone classics. The highlight of Vol 2. is the Bride’s flashback to her kung-fu training in China bookended by her dramatic escape from her buried coffin. We also see for the first time the title character, Bill. He’s played by David Carradine, famous for his role in TV’s “Kung-Fu”, but also a number of great 70’s films which also influenced Tarantino to cast him. Tarantino characterizes Bill as a soft-spoken humble man. I can understand why Tarantino plays Bill with this zen-like cool, but we never get to see the ‘sadistic’ Bill Tarantino hypes up for us. Arguably this results in the film’s dialogue-heavy anti-climax at the end of the second film.

Both volumes of "Kill Bill" couldn’t exist without the other, while Vol 2. doesn’t reach the melodramatic grandeur of Vol 1., the second film is a more serious character-driven film. What we learn about The Bride, Budd and Bill himself rounds out all the playfulness of the first film and deepens Tarantino’s masterpiece beyond the superficiality of an homage film. Enjoy.

“Kill Bill Vol 1 & Vol 2” are available on Blu-Ray from Miramax Home Entertainment

Here's the full colour 'House of Blue Leaves' sequence:


Monday, 15 September 2008

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY


Bright Lights, Big City (1988) dir. James Bridges
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Phoebe Cates, Tracy Pollan

***1/2

In 1988’s “Bright Lights, Big City” Michael J. Fox was cast against type as a coke-addled hack writer struggling to stay afloat after the break-up with his wife. His marvelous and truthful performance and James Bridges’ mature direction help make “Bright Lights, Big City” one of best films to bottle the late 1980’s cultural zeitgeist–a solemn introspective version of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”.

Jamie Conway (Fox), the alter-ego of the film’s novelist/screenwriter, Jay McInerney, is a writer whose career has plateaued with a mind-numbing job as a fact-checker for a second-rate magazine. He continually dreams about his recently separated wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates). The film joins Jamie midway through his depression drowning out these sorrows snorting lines of coke in bathroom stools of late night dance clubs.

But Jamie is a charmer and he manages to keep the appearance of control. Curiously he continually tries to avoid his younger brother’s attempts to make contact with him. Gradually as his job unravels and his dependence on drugs increases, through a few key flashbacks we get to know of Amanda’s betrayal and the dark memories of his family life in Kansas City – the sad circumstances which led to Jamie’s concerted attempt to escape from reality.

The great DOP Gordon “The Godfather” Willis lenses the film with colours of the day. Bright neon, clean lines, bold reds, pinks and greens popping out of the frame. Underneath the loud (and often obscene) music and stylish visuals Bridges keep his frames cold and undecorated emphasizing the emptiness of this lifestyle.

Jamie’s backstory is important to explaining the current state of his life. The key reveals in the film occur in Jamie’s flashbacks. But what we don’t see is his life in Kansas City. The allure of the Big City (hence the title) brought Jamie to gotham. The drug was the Manhattan lifestyle and once addicted the chemical substances clung to him easy.

Though much is made of the shocking site of the wholesome former teen idol, Michael J. Fox, doing lines, “Bright Lights, Big City” is not a drug film. We never see Jamie get hooked, we never see him do his first line, and we never see him kick the habit, nor do we see anyone reference his habit. Jamie’s dilemma is Amanda and his regret with his mother. Bridges is smart to leave out the clichéd scenes of over-the-top partying, excessive behaviour and cold turkey withdrawal and the closure of his recovery. Bridges lets the audience determine the state of his habit. Like Bridges’ other films, in particular “The Paper Chase”, the mood and tone are kept quiet – a minimalism which respects the audience’s ability to interpret cause and effect without the blunt hammer of exposition.

“Bright Lights, Big City” was the last film for James Bridges – an underrated writer/director with small but impressive body of work. Sadly Bridges died of Cancer in 1993 at age 57. His two other great films include 1973’s “The Paper Chase”, the marvelous inside look into the competitive world of Harvard Law School and 1979’s “The China Syndrome”, the Oscar-nominated political film about a nuclear accident cover-up. “Bright Lights, Big City” fits snuggly beside both these great films. Bridges brings the integrity of a journalist to the dramatic treatment of all three stories. Like a good journalist, throughout his career Bridges eschewed sensationalism for truth. Unfortunately it didn’t always make for popular cinema, but the maturity of his work has stood the test of time. Enjoy.

A 20th Anniversary of “Bright Lights, Big City” is available on DVD from MGM Home Entertainment



Sunday, 14 September 2008

TIFF Report #18: "LOOSE ENDS"

After 10 days of exhaustion, here are the 'leftovers' I just didn't have a chance to do full review for.

Martyrs (2008) dir. Pascal Laugier
Starring: Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Begin, Robert Toupin

*1/2

Another extreme French horror film (can I be the first to coin the term F-Horror?). This exercise in shock-value tells the story of a particularly nasty group of scientists who torture innocent girls in hopes of discovering a passageway to ‘the other side’. Gore and shocks trumps true horror and suspense. The final third of the film is intended to be the most grotesque act of torture and mutilation ever put to screen. Without the fundamentals of suspense all the money spend on false arms and fake cadavers is wasted.

The Paranoids (2008) dir. Gabriel Medina
Starring: Daniel Hendler, Jazmín Stuart, Walter Jakob, Martín Feldman, Miguel Dedovich

**

A Spanish drama about a young writer without the confidence to make a career break, nor confess his love to the woman he truly loves. A love triangle is set up and allowed to grow moss thanks to it’s snails pace in plotting. It’s also billed as a comedy, but without the comedy. The final thoroughly satisfying ten minutes saves the film from complete misery.

The Narrows (2008) dir. Francois A. Velle
Starring: Kevin Zegers, Vincent D'Onofrio, Sophia Bush, Eddie Cahill, Titus Welliver, Monica Keena

*

How this film got into TIFF and beat out other superior films is a complete mystery. “The Narrows” is a b-grade Sopranos knock off anchored but appalling mafia clichés. Kevin Zegers plays a young mob driver who yearns to go to school for photography but struggles to separate himself from his gangster connections. Velle’s lame homages to Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (bad blues cover songs, and pathetic stylistic imitations) makes the film just pathetic.

Birdsong (2008) dir. Albert Serra
Starring: Lluís Carbó, Lluís Serrat Batlle, Lluís Serrat Masanellas, Montse Triola, Mark Peranson

* 1/2

This absurd Spanish comedy is shot in black and white using exclusively long static takes. Some may find the exercise brilliant stylistically, but for others like me, it’s excruciatingly dull and boring. Imagine Bela Tarr, without the tracking shots.

Pr-Ra-Da (2008) dir. Marco Pontecorvo
Starring: Jalil Jespert, Evita Ciri, Gabriel Rauta, Patrice Juiff, Robert Valeanu

**

A noble, socially conscious true story about a young idealist from Paris who travels to Bucharest in the early 90’s to help a group of homeless kids get off the street. Told with the familiar language of social realism, Pontecorvo shows adequate storytelling skills, but the film lacks the cinematic a spark to really score with audiences.

The Stoning of Soraya M (2008) dir. Cyrus Nowrasteh
Starring: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marnò, Jim Caviezel, Navid Negahban, Ali Pourtash

**

Another culturally important film, this time a true story of a Iranian woman who was falsely accused of adultery, but because of the male-centric Muslim laws was unable to stop the men in her village from convicting her to death. Though the story and lessons learned from this black period in Iran’s history are important, Nowrasteh dramatizes the film with the subtlety of a blunt hammer. The lead up to and filming of the brutal stoning death is shown to us without restrain, echoing Mel Gibson’s treatment of the Crucifixion in “Passion of the Christ”, but without the textured imagery and any evidence of cinematic flare or skill.

The Miracle of St. Anna (2008) dir. Spike Lee
Starring: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller,

*1/2

Spike Lee just went all wrong with this film. Lee attempts to mix humour and sentiment with gritty war realism, which results in a messy oil and water concoction. His political agenda is so in the audience faces, it makes Lee look antiquated.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

TIFF Report #17: UNCERTAINTY


Uncertainty (2008) dir. Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lynn Collins, Assumpta Serna, Olivia Thirlby

***

“Uncertainty” plays some tricks on the audience and tells two stories through the same characters at the same time. Scott McGehee and David Siegel borrow their concept from Peter Howitt’s “Sliding Doors” with Gwenyth Paltrow. One choice made by a young New York couple results in two completely course of events which follows. Two strong performances anchor this clever film about randomness, fate, and individual responsibility.

The opening scene shows Bobby (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Kate (Lynn Collins) standing in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge discussing a choice to make. We’re never sure what choice it is, until Bobby flips a coin to make a decision. Suddenly they run off in separate directions with haste – thus jump starting this intriguing twister. The couple meet back up after the sprint, except we get to see two separate courses of action - like a 'Choose Your Own Adventure'. Plot #1 has the couple finding a lost blackberry in a cab. Plot #2 has the couple finding a stray dog on the street.

In Plot #1 (defined to us by the couple’s matching yellow outfits) becomes a thriller as the Bobby and Kate discover the cell phone contains vital information wanted by a group of warring New York gangsters. When the couple is offered a reward of $500,000 for the phone, they find themselves involved in a taut cat-and-mouse life-threatening chase across the city. Plot #2 becomes a relationship drama as the couple visit Kate’s family and discuss their dilemma about her unwanted pregnancy.

We essentially get two movies in one. The thriller is thought out very carefully. The actions of Bobby and Kate are played with noir-like plotting. They are ordinary people caught in a web of extraordinary and dangerous behaviour. The filmmakers are smart enough to keep the couple talking and questioning the minute details of their actions. Inevitably with this type of story the audience is forced to put themselves in the characters’ shoes and ask ‘what would I do in this situation?’ With the exception of a few small plot holes McGehee and Siegel keep it smart, logical and unpredictable.

Meanwhile all the character development is contained in plot #2, a significantly less interesting series of scenes. The majority of the action takes place through dialogue at Kate’s family BBQ. Overt conflict is kept to a minimum which results in some slogging, but Levitt and Collins make such a likeable couple it remains watchable. The central dilemma in this plot is Kate/Bobby’s choice of whether to keep the baby or not. But seeing that the couple are grounded individuals clearly in love, to me the choice is a no-brainer.

What’s missing are the connectors between the two plots. The characters’ choices and actions are completely autonomous to each other they might as well be two sets of characters played by the same actors. McGehee and Siegel aren’t absolutely clear about the rules of their alternative universe concept either. Somehow they wind up wearing different clothes after the initial sprint-off the bridge. Why they decide to flip a coin and run away from each other is never answered. As well, going by the filmmaker’s logic of their dual lives Kate should be pregnant in Plot #1, but it’s never referenced. Perhaps this is where the title of the film comes in, a level of ‘uncertainty’ is meant to exist in the audience’s minds as to how the subplots are related.

The finale brings the two Bobby/Lynns together in the same place, unfortunately without the ‘eureka’ moment that makes everything clear and complete. Uncertainty remains even after the end credits. In this case, a little bit of certainty could have made this good film into a great film. Too bad. Enjoy.

Friday, 12 September 2008

TIFF Report #16: VINYAN


Vinyan (2008) dir. Fabrice du Welz
Starring: Emmanuel Beart, Rufus Sewell

***

What would you do if your child had drowned in the Ocean but you received scant evidence that he was kidnapped and alive somewhere in the Burmese jungle? This is the conundrum faced by Fabrice Du Welz’s characters in this frightening Southeast Asian 'Heart of Darkness' tale.

Paul and Jeanne Belman (Rufus Sewell and Emmanuel Beart) have just been through unimaginable pain and suffering. Their young boy died six months ago in a Tsunami-related drowning accident aboard a boat in Thailand. Because of Paul’s philanthropic work they remained in Thailand. During a corporate presentation Jeanne catches site of what appears to be their child in a grainy video. Despite more evidence against the possibility of her son being alive Jeanne is convinced he was kidnapped.

And so begins the arduous journey to find their son. The Belmans spend all their money bribing local prostitution brokers and riverboat guides to bring them into the remote and dangerous jungles of Thailand and Burma. As their money is depleted and the roadblocks pile up Paul’s doubt resurfaces. Jeanne and Paul’s relationship breaks, but not before they’ve passed the point of no return and are forced to face their demons and own personal responsibility with their predicament.

Du Welz’s film would make a good companion piece to Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” or Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, Wrath of God”. Like these two great films “Vinyan” dramatizes a lengthy psychologically challenging journey into exotic, uncharted lands by boat. All three films explore the effects of the environment and the mystical nature of its native population against the intrusion of the white man into their world.

Labeling “Vinyan” as a ‘horror film’ would be a misidentification. Although there are some scares, the suspense comes from the intensity of the challenges the couple is presented with. Du Welz drops his characters into some of the most harrowing weather and terrain they could be exposed to. There’s one of shot of Rufus Sewell sitting on a rock being pummeled by massive globules of heavy rain. No rain machine could match the authenticity of this real world effect. By the end these physical and emotional beatdowns becomes truly exhausting.

Du Welz employs Benoit Debie who was Gasper Noe’s cinematographer on “Irreversible”. Like Noe’s film Du Welz bombards our eyes and ears with an assaulting visual and sound design. The opening scene is a series of abstract, out of focus water bubbles rising and falling across the frame with an all-encompassing wall of ambient noise blasting through the theatre speakers. The sound mixer cranked the levels to 11 in numerous sequences – so much so I had to plug my ears for relief. It's a warning sign to the audience to prepare for the painful ride.

Du Welz doesn’t give his characters or us relief from their journey. There's a point in the film when we realize whether the Belmans find their child or not ceases to matter. The real dilemma is articulated subtly in the marvelous fire lighting ceremony scene. When Jeanne refuses to participate in the healing ritual she unknowingly seals hers and her husband’s fate.

Rufus Sewell and Emmanuel Beart physically and emotionally pour all their emotions onto the screen in two supremely remarkable performances. “Vinyan” is a difficult and challenging visceral cinematic experience, and most certainly the best film about grieving families I've seen this year at TIFF (and there have been a few). Enjoy.



Thursday, 11 September 2008

TIFF Report #15: SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK


Synecdoche, New York (2008) dir. Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson, Samantha Morton, Catherin Keener

***

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is the most idiosyncratic work of all his films – the story of a depressed hypochondriac playwright who literally puts his life into his next play and vice versa. It assembles all the themes, elements, humour and distinctive characteristics of his work with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry into his first film as director, unfortunately without the discipline of either of these great directors to guide the film toward coherency and accessibility.

Despite the narrative confusion the film has a solid emotion anchor, and it conveys its overarching theme of the introspective artist with surprising clarity. The details in between is constructed like a stream of consciousness writer running wild without an editor - a David Lynchian nightmare from the perspective of Charlie Kaufman. It’s wanders dangerously toward cinematic self-flagellation.

Kaufman’s alter ego in this film is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre writer with a seemingly loving wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and daughter Olive. Caden appears to suffer from a series of escalating ailments, which has Caden thinking he’s close to death. His wife has a career as a miniature painter – she paints really tiny canvases that can only been seen with a magnifying glass – and suddenly she finds herself becoming more famous as a bohemian contemporary artist. When fame calls she quickly dumps Caden and leaves for Europe with Olive. With his heart shattered Caden puts his life into his work to create his true masterpiece of the theatre.

Caden decides to hire an actor Sammy (Tom Noonan) to play himself who is writing and playing the production of this ultimate play. Except the ultimate play is a real time dramatization of his life. Even his assistant Hazal (Samantha Morton) gets in the act and casts an actress, Tammy (Emily Watson) to play herself. Since Sammy is playing Caden, like a true method actor Sammy wants to hire someone to play him, and so another version of Caden appears. Get it?? The real Caden falls in love with his assistant Hazal, but is confused when he develops an attraction to her alter-ego Tammy – same goes with Caden’s double. Get it??

“Synecdoche, New York” is just too complex an undertaking for Kaufman to handle for his first feature. There’s little consistency across the film, and a general feeling like it’s being made up as the film goes along. At the beginning, it’s a relative straightforward introduction to Caden’s family life. Humour is played with the same quiet absurdity as in “Being John Malkovich”. The dialogue is played very quiet, so quiet in fact, jokes and gags are missed because they’re often said under a character’s breath or over top of another line.

Kaufman’s time frame is erratic. With little warning, the film moves forward years in time without any traditional transitions to bridge the gap. The second half of the film has a snowball effect of the temporal paradoxes of the character and time shifting. The closest metaphor to use is one of those MC Escher paintings of a man walking down a set of stairs without moving anywhere. Though the film takes places over 17 years, with Hoffman gradually getting older via prosthetic face make-up the film doesn’t appear to move anywhere.

There are some truly wonderful Kaufman-esque moments. Caden’s wife Adele disappears early in the film after she moves to Germany, but her burgeoning career is referenced in numerous subtle ways. Adele is given a parallel existence alongside Caden’s, which we see in various media coverage placed innocuously in the background. I was reminded of that dramatic shift in “Being John Malkovich” when Craig Schwartz suddenly becomes a star puppeteer with a skyrocketing career.

I’m convinced somewhere in the film there is a masterpiece, one which requires constant attention, but for me it will likely take two or three more viewings to find it. For Kaufman though, it's worth the wait. Enjoy.



Wednesday, 10 September 2008

TIFF Report #14: GOMORRA


Gomorra (2008) dir. Matteo Garrone
Starring: Salvatore Abruzzese, Simone Sacchettino, Gianfelice Imparato, Vincenzo Altamura

**

“Gomorra” arrives in Toronto after a Grand Jury victory at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s billed as a realist view into the modern Italian mafia – not the “Sopranos”, not “Goodfellas”, or “The Godfather” - an Italian story made by Italians. But I think I’m suffering European social realist fatigue. Though it feels like an important movie, the emotional detachment from its characters left me underwhelmed and had me longing for more artificiality and dramatic manipulation.

In the tradition of "Traffic" or "Syriana" “Gomorra” interweaves a number of separate stories and different points of view into the world of this new type of mafia. There’s an elderly money runner who spends his days walking through the neighbourhood either collecting money or giving it out; A waste disposal broker and his protégé who buy a quarry and rent out the space to illegal toxic waste dumpers; A young teenage grocery clerk who takes the initiation to becoming a full-fledged gang member; A sullen tailor who betrays his mob dons by selling out to a group of Chinese sweatshop rivals. And the journey of a couple of young and raucous “Scarface” wanabees run who wild on the streets with reckless abandon.

Tailors? Corporate waste disposal? Elderly money runners? These subplots are intended to be the antidote to the salacious aggrandizement of the mob in Hollywood. It results in a narrative that purposely eschews drama and emotion and unfortunately interest.

The current social realist trend in European films is taking its toll on me. By using handheld cameras without traditional coverage, or editing, Garrone attempts to tell his “story” like the documentary-like approach of the Dardennes Bros, or last year’s Cannes winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Unfortunately in ‘keeping it real’ he strips away all emotion and personality and distances himself from his characters. In fact, most of his actors are just moving bodies performing actions and dialogue that never really deepen, enlighten or connect us to the new world of Italian crime.

There’s a series of title cards at the end of the film which tell us some information about the state of the real Gamorra in Italy kind of like a call to action – like in Howard Hawks' original 1932 “Scarface”. I was shocked Garrone ended with this information. Because it just reinforces how vacant his film is, and how little we have learned about this subject.

The only subplots that maintained momentum were the stories of youth. The journey of Marco and Cirro stands out - a couple of bumbling idiots who are ballsy enough to steal cocaine right out of the hands of a group of dangerous African gangsters. They get away with it, which fuels their confidence that they can get away with everything. They command the majority of the standout scenes, including an eye-opening target practice scene (from the still above).

But despite a few standalone scenes, at the end of the film, we are left with the question – so what? To see some characters get killed on screen? Certainly not to get emotional involved with them or even deepen the complexities of Italian crime. Some will be attracted to the freshness of Garrone's approach to the familiar genre, but most will find it too vacant to really become the masterpiece it strives to be.