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

Friday, 31 October 2008

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE


Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) dir. Tobe Hooper
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Gunnar Hansen, Edwin Neal, William Vail

****

Happy Halloween. Having recently seen the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with fresh eyes it’s hard to believe that film was made 34 years ago. Its visceral cinematic power is as strong today as it was then. I’d even argue it to be still the most intense and freaky horror film ever made.

A familiar horror film set-up introduces the film’s heroes/victims. A foursome of college students are on a roadtrip in a van. Events are foreshadowed when they pick up a shifty hitchhiker who demonstrates his skills in cutting himself with a knife. The van eventually runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere and while they wait for the gas station to refill they takeover a derelict house.

Gradually, one by one, each person wanders over to the neighbours' house, where they discover the most frightening sight to behold. A portly inbred hillbilly wearing a mask of human flesh (thus credited as 'Leatherface') brandishing a chainsaw captures and kills the first three victims with ease. The lovely brunette Sally (Marilyn Burns) is the last one left. For the entire evening she’s chased around the house and through the woods by Leatherface until she’s eventually caught. An entire family of freaky murderous cannibals are revealed and host Sally to a dinner of the chopped up and cooked remains of their friends.

Filmed for ultra low budget in the 70's, it belongs in the company of "Night of the Living Dead" as one of the few truly independent film successes of the late 60's/early 70's. The minimalist aesthetic, combined with the sun-bleached 16mm look adds creepy, backwater hillbilly authenticity of the time and place. And even more impressive is that much of the action and suspense takes place in the bright Texas sunshine and vast exterior.

The finale which has poor Sally alone in captivity of Leatherface and his family is one of the most intense and frightening sequences in any horror film. Director Hooper manages about 15mins or more of sustained screaming from actress Marilyn Burns. Sally’s ordeal, the famous dinner sequence, is capped with an oddball scene. It’s time for Sally to die, and Leatherface and his Father (Jim Siedow) want the half-comatose grandfather to do the killing. The poor old man’s futile attempts to bludgeon Sally is as humourous as it is frightening.

The final chase scene out of the house and into the dirt road is a great cathartic moment for the characters and us. The audience thinks it's still night, and so when Sally jumps through the window into daylight its a surprise to Sally and us. The final moments are both humourous and terrifying. Despite all the nastiness Hooper submits his characters to, he does leave Sally alive, a brief moment of optimism amid so much depravity.

As one of the great low budget indie horror films, "Chainsaw" grabs the torch passed by George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" (1968). John Carpenter would then take it from Hooper with "Halloween" (1978). The three films represent a unique trilogy of minimalist horror, but maximized terror - and the most influential low budget horror movies.



Thursday, 30 October 2008

THE MATRIX RELOADED


The Matrix Reloaded (2003) dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Monica Bellucci

***1/2

No, that’s not a typo up there. Yes, I confess “The Matrix Reloaded” is my favourite of the Matrix Trilogy. It was four years since the first Matrix blew the minds of action and sci-fi junkies. While the fresh and energetic mix of big ideas with Asian-style kung fu and gun play in the first film gave audiences hope of the next great sci-fi franchise the sequel, “Matrix Reloaded” was a massive let down to most people.

I never had the reverence for the first film that other people had, so I was easily caught hook, line and sinker by its expanded and deepened mythology, bigger ideas and bigger action.

When we last saw Neo (Keanu Reeves), he had just discovered his full abilities to manipulate the Matrix and defeat the evil Agents. Neo is introduced on board the Nebuchadnezzar, Morpheus’ battleship which trolls the underworld of the robot-ruled Earth. Neo is also fully in love with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) but is stressed because of a series of recurring nightmares of her death.

Neo needs to see the Oracle again and get more information about his destiny and how he can save the precious human colony Zion from the robot onslaught. He’s told to go to “the source”, which holds all his answers. To do this Neo, Trinity and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) navigate their way through the Matrix to find the ‘keymaker’, who holds the key to the source. The trio battle more kung-fu badasses and multiple Agent Smiths in their race to save Zion.

One of my main complaints about the first film was a love story which emerged quickly in the final act and served as the deus ex machina which saved the day. In “Reloaded” Neo and Trinity’s love affair is fully palpable. They are even given a sexy love scene during the hypnotic rave scene (really, I didn’t mind that scene). Neo’s choice to save Trinity has gravitas where none was present in numero un.

Action is taken to another level of ambitiousness and technical bravura. While the Wachowskis earned points for chutzpah and technical innovation in the first film, I actually felt the execution of many of the scenes didn't hit the mark. Keanu Reeves is clearly a better fighter in “Reloaded” and his tussles with the Merovingian thugs, Seraph and especially the 100 Agent Smiths are choreographed with perfection. Watch the making of featurette and you'll see how, despite having the top CG artists at their disposal, Yuen Woo-Ping and the Wachowskis actually used old fashioned techniques as much as possible to create the multiple Smiths.

The lengthy trip into the Matrix takes up most of the second act, a full 45mins of sustained tension. The Merovingian’s (Lambert Wilson) coterie of badasses, including a luscious Monica Bellucci (a great bit of casting) arguably are the best baddies and supporting characters in the entire series. The climax of this sequence of scenes of course is one of the best car chases ever filmed - still a stunning sequence of stunts and action.

The central mythological question posed is about “the One”. How did the Oracle know Neo is ‘the one’? And what the hell does "the One" actually mean? Some found Neo’s visit to "the Source" a laughable scene of incoherent dialogue. But in between the big words, I found the architect’s revelations thought-provoking and meaningful within the context of series. We are told "the One" was planted in the Matrix by design to give hope and purpose to the human civilization, thus allowing the imprisoned human lives to generate  more power, which, thus, sustains the robots. A symbiotic relationship, where one species can’t live without the other. All of this is foreshadowed in various conversations throughout the film.

We are also introduced to “Zion” which is only referred to in the first film. We get to meet a number of military leaders who spew endless clichéd military rigmarole, and are, unfortunately, as soulless as any of the virtual Agents or robots. In fact, the major crutch for the Wachowskis in each of the films is that the virtual world is so much more interesting than the dull Zion world. 

"Reloaded" ends with a great cliffhanger, a humanized version of Smith in the real world, in a coma next to Neo. Unfortunately the Wachowskis set up an insolvable puzzle - ideas just too abstract and philosophical to be solved with mondo action. But more on that when I review “Matrix Revolutions”.  In the meantime. I confess, that I enjoy “The Matrix Reloaded”. Bring it on!

"The Matrix: the Ultimate Collection" is now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Bros Home Entertainment

Other relevant postings:
THE MATRIX



Wednesday, 29 October 2008

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY


Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) dir. Mike Leigh
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Samuel Roukin

***1/2

Mike Leigh’s talents are in top form in this simple yet complex story of a gal who is so happy it causes such discomfort in people.

Poppy is a classic Mike Leigh lead character, a working class British gal, independent yet confident in herself, a drummer who marches to her own beat. We meet her riding her bike around town. She parks and locks up the bike to a fence, but when she returns, it's stolen. Poppy laughs it off with a smile and says to herself under her breath, "we never got to say goodbye." Leigh proceeds to follow Poppy around through her everyday normal life - she works as a kindergarten teacher, she shops, she goes clubbing with her girlfriends etc etc. At times, not matter what the situation Poppy never relinquishes her smile.

Her patience is tested when she decides to take driving lessons to finally learn how to drive. Her instructor is the exact opposite to her - a timebomb of nervous insecurity and pent up anger. From the get go Poppy pushes his buttons and takes the piss out of everything he says and does. There's also Poppy's sisters who continually squabble with familiar sibling rivalry. Lingering resentment rears its head as Poppy’s carefree attitude only emphasizes the stresses on everyone else's lives.

Throughout the first act Poppy’s is so over-the-top jovial her laughter and inability to carry on a conversation without giggling detours of humour was like a frustrating itch on my back I couldn't scratch. At times she was excruciatingly annoying, and so I wondered if I was perhaps too cynical to enjoy the character. But I think this was by Leigh's design, because as the film moves along, although we never see dark corners corners of her past, her saintliness has an edge.

Throughout the film we wait for Poppy’s armour of effervescence to crack. While a dark side is (rightfully) never revealed, Leigh sets up a number of tense situations which shows her lack of maturity. Poppy’s attempt to make conversation with a schizophrenic homeless man had me grinding me teeth and gripping my chair with fear. In this case, her optimism crosses over into naive stupidity. Poppy’s confrontation with her sister reveals the negative influence of her happiness with others around her. And the climax comes in the form in a fantastic cathartic shouting match from Scott the driving instructor, which finally uncorks his true feelings - many of which represent the collective thoughts of the audience.

A number of stand alone scenes, which don’t necessarily add to Poppy’s character add sparkling real world texture to the scenery. Poppy’s Flamenco teacher provides a couple of scenes of comic magic, and Poppy even manages to make a first date, including the nightcap sexual encounter, so effortlessly comfortable.

One of the hallmarks of Leigh’s style is his semi-improvisational methods of storytelling. Leigh’s been known to spend months workshopping with his actors to move a story from a sketches of characters to a full script. The magic of realism takes work, and simply having actors riff off the cuff while the camera’s rolling doesn’t constitute realism. Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” is an example of where improvised and seemingly ‘realistically’ filmed scenes can feel force fed and ironically inauthentic.

"Happy-Go-Lucky"  feels completely natural and realistic because Leigh makes the rehearsed seem unrehearsed and thus unobtrusive and invisible.  Enjoy.



Tuesday, 28 October 2008

THE MATRIX


The Matrix (1999) dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving

**1/2

When “The Matrix” first came out in 1999, I seemed to be the only tepid audience-member. Sure, I appreciated the noir tone mixed with high-concept/big idea sci-fi and the innovative special effects, but despite the big themes and metaphors I found the human story wooden and soulless - that one critical element that can move science-fiction beyond a technical exercise. My opinion hasn’t changed much since then. A fabulous new Blu-Ray box set has allowed me to re-experience and re-evaluated all three films again.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is our hero, a lowly computer hacker with a nagging feeling of big brother constantly watching over him and controlling his destiny. Along comes the gorgeous black latex-wearing Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who arranges a meeting with the legendary hacker Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Morpheus isn’t a jogging pants wearing/Doritos eating geek though, he’s a crocodile jacket/designer sunglasses wearing philosopher who has the answers to Anderson’s subconscious questions. Morpheus gives a Anderson the choice of opening his mind to the true reality of human existence, or keeping his blinders on and pushing buttons for the man. It’s a no-brainer, and Anderson is given the shock of a lifetime.

We then discover that the year is not 1999, but 2199, and Anderson’s life is a virtual reality world created to allow despotic robots to harvest the energy from all human life. In the ‘real world’ Anderson escapes his cocoon-like captivity and joins Morpheus’s crew of revolutionaries in the fight against the evil machines as the saviour of humanity known as “the One”.

What troubled me when I first saw it, and even now, despite its pop culture integration, were the ‘rules’ of “The Matrix” world? What can the Smith and Agents actually do in the Matrix world, and what can’t they do. When we first meet the agents, Smith has the power to collapse Neo’s mouth so he can’t speak. He also sticks a computer probe device in his body to track his movements. If Smith can remove Neo’s mouth, why can’t he just crush his heart or something to kill him? Or just insert this device using his mind? I couldn’t never get how the telephone system worked, nor how the people in the real world can track the actions of the characters in the Matrix?Why couldn't Agents do that either? And how can they arm themselves with so many guns at will, yet run out of bullets? I’m sure hardcore Matrix followers could answer these questions in precise detail, but almost 10 years after the movie has been in the public consciousness these fundamental questions still arise.

But the biggest beef is the soul of the film, which never materializes in this first film. In the third act the question of Trinity’s future as envisioned by the Oracle is revealed. She falls in love with Neo, the same love which would rescue him from death. I was shocked in 1999 when this magical kiss/deus ex machine saves the day via an artificial romance which only appears in hastened fashion in the third act. Perhaps I missed this romantic subplot while gawking over the bullet time effects? Nope, 10 years later, it’s still not there.

The strength of “The Matrix” will always be its high concept existential storytelling, continuing the long and great tradition of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Arthur C. Clarke, George Orwell etc. The best science-fiction is speculative fiction as well. What would happen if …? The Wachowskis not only served us a plate or brainfood, but an eyepopping, ear popping cinematic mélange of film noir, Hong Kong action, graphic novels, anime etc etc. 

I’m still of two minds on the “Matrix”. One, it’s a technically brilliant exercise in cinematic gymnastics, two, it’s a mind-expanding near-future philosophical treatise, three, it’s all brain and no heart, featuring actors giving wooden performances as robotic as the enemies they fight against.

Look out for reviews of "Matrix Reloaded" and "Matrix Revolutions" later this week.

“The Matrix: The Ultimate Collection" is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Bros Home Entertainment



Monday, 27 October 2008

CASINO ROYALE (1967)


Casino Royale (1967) dir. John Huston, Val Guest, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish
Starring: Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, David Niven, Orson Welles, Woody Allen

**

Before Daniel Craig got really serious as the rebooting tough and coarse James Bond, there was this British swinging 60’s sex romp spoof of the iconic character.

Explaining the plot is completely unnecessary, because it barely uses Ian Fleming’s original material. Instead it serves as a jumping off point for the myriad detours, set-pieces, skits, sketches, cameos which befit a variety show like “Laugh In”.

The basic outline goes like this… James Bond (David Niven) is secretly in retirement, but his name has been assumed by other agents in an effort to confuse their enemies. But when a number of other double-O agents are killed the real Bond is recruited back in action. Like the novel and the Daniel Craig version Bond plays cards against Le Chiffre in Monte Carlo, but this seems to be a minor footnote to various meandering plot detours. The end result is as coherent as an acid trip.

The comedy is of the swinging 60’s variety, and though this bloated psychedelic extravaganza will barely cough up a giggles with modern audiences, it isn’t without merit. Firstly it’s perhaps the best example of how precisely on the mark Mike Myers was with his Austin Powers series. No matter how ridiculous and repetitive the Austin Power movies got it doesn’t compare to the overindulgences and zany antics in “Casino Royale”. 

So was “Austin Powers” spoofing a spoof movie? In many ways “Casino Royale” isn’t a spoof movie. While it makes reference to and exaggerates the hallmarks of the Bond series – the silly double entendre Bond girl names, the silly gadgets (which by 1967 had already becomes joke) etc. – its comic set pieces including food fights, hallucinogenic acid-trip sequences, the sexual innuendos and double-entendres are played as serious comedy. 

Perhaps the most attractive and noteworthy element of “Casino Royale” is the fact that two of cinema’s great icons Orson Welles and Peter Sellers share the key set piece in the film. In the climatic baccarat game, we get to watch a great game of deception on and off screen. The behind-the-scenes conflict between Welles and Sellers are legendary. Welles reportedly had no respect for Sellers, referring to him as “that amateur” and he insisted his character ,Le Chiffre, perform magic during the game, further annoying Sellers. Sellers apparently stormed off the set for days, leaving Welles to do his coverage alone. When Sellers returned, he completed his portion of the scenes without Welles present.

Modern audiences will recognize the music of Burt Bacharach. His “Look of Love” song, which is kind of an anthem for the swinging 60’s, is front and centre as well as the fluffy theme song, which SNL fans will recognize as the music Will Forte’s flaky high school football coach character plays to pump up his teammates.

Since this was Ian Fleming’s first novel, this film always seemed like a stain on the franchise. Back in 1967, at $12million, then an astronomical sum of money for a feature film, it was a flop. Now thanks to Daniel Craig and the Bond producers, the “Casino Royale” title has its respect back. But don’t forget that this 1967 version still exists, and though it’s a complete disaster, think of it as a time capsule of swinging 60’s and an ironic accompany-piece to the Austin Powers series.

"Casino Royale" is available on Special Edition DVD from MGM Home Entertainment



Sunday, 26 October 2008

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE


Standard Operating Procedure (2008) dir. Errol Morris
Documentary

**1/2

Arguably, Errol Morris is the premier documentary filmmaker in the world, and we expect him to hit a home run every time at bat. “Fog of War” won him an Oscar in 2004, “Thin Blue Line” is often cited as one of the greatest documentaries ever made, and Roger Ebert considers “Gates of Heaven” one of his favourite films of all time – doc or drama. New to DVD is “Standard Operating Procedure” a film about those infamous photos from Abu Ghraib prison which helped unite many Americans against the war in Iraq. Though Morris is on his game stylistically, the film is surprisingly unfocused and unimpressive, and leaves too many questions unanswered

It wasn’t that long ago (2004) when those egregious photos of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib prison found its way into the public. If you were under a rock during that time, they were photos of American prison guards stationed in Iraq humiliating Iraqi detainees by stripping them down and forcing them into inhumane acts. Through a series of interviews from the personnel involved Morris seeks to uncover and comprehensively document what happened during those few months and its investigative aftermath.

We get to see Lynndie England, that woman who was seen holding a prisoner attached to a dog leash. Her emotionally detached testimonial describes how the leader of the bunch Charles Graner, used his male-domination psychology to get her to appear in the photos. There’s Sabrina Harmon whose diary entries back home to her wife tell a story of someone who knows they’re doing wrong, but had no authority or courage to stop it. There’s the investigator who tells us how he pieced together the timeline of events with forensic precision and determined what, if any, criminal acts were perpetrated. We also meet the soldiers who did time for those acts, who now hold disdain for the military for using them as the scapegoats for a policy of maltreatment which went up the chain.

On paper, with Morris at the helm, with this political hot button topic, this film should be a score. Unfortunately Morris is all style, and reveals very little substance. The film is a beautiful film to behold. Robert Chappel and multi-Oscar winning DOP Robert Richardson make this doc look better than most feature films. Morris uses his patented point of view technique which allows the subject to answer Morris’ questions to his face, but appear to the audience as if they’re looking into the camera. As with his other films Morris shoots a series of abstract recreations with high-speed 35mm cameras. I assume they were shot by Mr. Richardson ASC as the images are glossed with his trademark look. The Roberts capture some of the most incredible images I’ve ever see put to film – specifically a super-slo mo shot of a guard dog snarling and chomping near the macro-lensed camera. It’s a phenomenal shot.

But the prettier the pictures overshadow what, for the most part, is a ‘surface’ documentary. Morris takes a long time before getting to his point. He passes time to giving us plenty of facts, and showing us CSI-style analysis with elaborate computer graphics. Morris is never clear whether his film is a character-analysis – a la “Mr. Death” or an investigative study, a la “Thin Blue Line”. Morris treads both points of view, and doesn’t find drama with either one.

The problem is the power of the images. Images which we have seen before and are still fresh in our memory. There is no smoking gun to be found. There is no shocking reveal of information. Morris does eventually find an intriguing contradiction toward the end of the film, when the investigator, one by one, tells us which photos constitute a ‘criminal act’ or ‘standard operating procedure’. It’s an eye-opening paradox of inconsistency, but by that point we’ve been numbed with facts and information which the audience probably inferred themselves back in 2004.

And Morris misses out by never getting to interview the ringleader in the entire affair, Charles Graner (who was disallowed by the military from participating) as well anyone up the chain of command who would be culpable to some of the accusations of policy and the ‘standard operating procedure’ these soldiers were told to uphold.

In the end, “Standard Operating Procedure” raises more questions than it answers. We get both horrific photos of abuse and humiliation intercut with stunningly beautiful cinematography. It’s never the cohesive focused film which expect from Errol Morris, consider this one a bloop single.



Saturday, 25 October 2008

THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANY


The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972) dir. Waris Hussein
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Perry King, Michael Hordern, Lovelady Powell, Barbara Trentham and Edmundo Rivera Alvarez

**1/2

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

Santeria is some scary shit and has largely been ignored by horror films. This might have something to do with the fact that it’s a religion and therefore politically incorrect to drag it into the realm of such a “lowly” genre. That said, political correctness has never reared its ugly head when Catholicism or other religions are delightfully exploited for similar purposes, so one can only gather that either Liberal-minded creators are happy to exploit the dominant European religions, but unable to bring themselves to do so for the saintly Third World blend of Jesus-worship and voodoo or it might be that they just haven’t had their thinking caps skewed in the direction of Santeria. That said, this 70s thriller goes whole hog on the Santeria front and includes one freaky exorcism sequence that blends some very cool Latin musical stylings with all the shrieking, convulsing and chanting you can handle.

“The Possession of Joel Delaney” is seriously flawed, but still manages to effectively raise the hackles on a number of fronts – not the least of which is its creepy, deliberate pace as we’re treated to the tale of a wealthy, fur-laden New York housewife (Shirley MacLaine) who slowly comes to realize that her messed-up lay-about brother (our title character – marvelously played by Perry King in his first feature film role) is possessed by the spirit of a now-dead serial killer who delights in severing the heads of his female (‘natch) victims with one Mother of a switchblade.

It’s a movie rife with all sorts of interesting shadings – undertones of incest, the wide gap between rich and poor, the dichotomous cultures of WASPS and Puerto Ricans and, most fascinating of all, the backdrop of Santeria. Unfortunately, the movie is marred by some really clunky direction and a clutch of dreadful performances.

Director Waris Hussein seemed an unlikely choice for this film adaptation of Ramona Stewart’s very cool novel which kept this feller up for several late nights as a kid – clutching a flashlight under the blankets to keep reading, but to also ward off fear of the dark. Hussein’s previous directorial attempts included the extremely entertaining counter-culture kiddie sleeper hit ”Melody” (replete with a classic BeeGees score and that double-infusion of “Oliver” star wattage Mark Lester and Jack Wild) and the whimsical, delightful Gene Wilder comedy “Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx”. He clearly seems out of his element with this material and it’s certainly one of the oddest studio pictures I’ve seen from this period since it equally balances some really effective sequences with moments that raise Ed Wood to the heights of Bergman.

Even Shirley MacLaine seems weirdly unsuited to the requirements of the picture. She handles the rich-bitchiness of the role with considerable assuredness, but many of her other emotions feel forced and even annoyingly shrill. The latter performance flaw is especially odd when she’s called upon to be vaguely caring and/or maternal. It’s so insanely uneven that one can only think she felt she was slumming and wrong-headedly thought she needed to mix things up to keep it interesting for her.

MacLaine isn’t, however, the only one rendering a bad performance. Many of the American and British actors in the film feel like they are foreigners dubbed into English, though they clearly are English-speaking thespians recorded mostly with synch sound. Only Perry King is dubbed with any regularity, but at least that makes sense for his character since his voice is only replaced when he is speaking Spanish in the tones of the serial killer’s demon spirit. In fact, King delivers one of the best performances and it’s clear why he went on to become a popular leading man in the 70s (though strangely, he never quite reached the heights of his contemporaries).

Aside from King, the only performances of note come from the Puerto Rican actors Hussein cast in supporting roles. One of the most memorable and stirring appearances in the picture comes from Edmundo Rivera Álvarez as the Santerian exorcist Don Pedro. He’s only on-screen in two scenes, but he is so riveting – blending compassion with religious fervor – that one almost wished he had more scenes. In fact, it might have been far more interesting to expand his role to the size of that of Max Von Sydow’s in “The Exorcist” (that little 70s possession picture that has definitely outshone this one). Interestingly, Álvarez was a prominent actor, director and playwright in Puerto Rico who, in spite of his prolific work in his home country never found a place in mainstream Hollywood cinema and died in relative poverty and obscurity.

For all its problems, though, “The Possession of Joel Delaney” is still a picture worth seeing – especially for fans of the horror genre. It has enough creepy moments to keep one glued to the screen. It’s also yet another bold DVD release from Legend Films – taking an obscure picture from the Paramount catalogue and getting it out in the world for all to see.

And for a glimpse at a small, but dynamic performance by Edmundo Rivera Álvarez and the Santeria action, it’s worth yet another tip of the hat to Legend.

Friday, 24 October 2008

ROMANCING THE STONE


Romancing the Stone (1984) dir. Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny Devito

**1/2

“Romancing the Stone” is an important film for both Michael Douglas and Robert Zemeckis. Michael Douglas, whose greatest success as an actor was still the 1970’s cop TV show “The Streets of San Francisco”, had yet to break out as a leading man on the big screen. His rugged adventureman character Jack Colton won over hearts of female audiences and elevated him to the A-List. As for Mr. Zemeckis, it was his first big budget action film, and the film which would catapult him to an A-list director and ready him for his next outing, “Back to the Future”.

Despite this pedigree it’s still just Indiana Jones-lite. A romance novelist finds the man of her dreams while on a quest to bring a lost treasure map to a nasty group of Columbian kidnappers. Mediocre adventure, mediocre comedy and a pretty decent romance are the ingredients of this fluffy Indiana Jones knock-off of the 80’s.

Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) is a romance novelist, who is first seen typing the last words of her latest novel and then weeping at the romantic finale she's created. While her characters are wistful ladies of love and adventure, her own life is uneventful and boring. She's single and lives alone in a small apartment in NY. But when she gets a call that her sister has been kidnapped in Columbia and the only way to save her life is to bring her captors a lost treasure map to the jungles of South America in exchange for her life, suddenly Wilder's in one of her own adventures.

She's a fish out of water in Columbia and sticks out like a sore thumb. When her bus is ambushed by a nasty Columbian thug, Wilder is dramatically rescued by the handsome Jack Colton (Michael Douglas), an American wanderer with a machete and a shotgun. He's the type of man she's been writing about for years and now they're combing the jungles of South America for buried treasure. Along the way they get into a number of adventures with corrupt officials, Columbian drug lords and Danny Devito.

For fans who want to see the seeds of a great director for he became big time, there’s little evidence of the ambitious Zemeckis would become famous for. His direction is unflashy, and instead lets the chemistry of his stars command the screen and move the film forward. If anything it's a hallmark of Zemeckis' gift with comedy and action, but with both in unimpressive doses.

A crutch on the film is some surprisingly dated 80’s cringe-music from Alan Silvestri. Silvestri’s music sounds like a mix of Harold Faltermeyer synth with sickening saxophone solos. On the new Blu-Ray edition this music plays over the main menu screen, certainly a disincentive to click play and watch the film.

The technical aside, "Romancing the Stone" was always meant to be a vehicle for its stars. And Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner make a great on screen romantic pairing. Turner, one of the 80’s screen goddesses, is a plain Jane in this film. She’s dressed down, wearing little make-up, yet her charming affability and sultry husky voice shines through. Sadly she didn’t have a long career as a leading lady, but in the 80’s there were few more desirable.

Michael Douglas, who produced the film as well, found for himself the ideal vehicle to turn him into a leading man. His Jack Colton is manufactured with the exact same Indiana Jones-like charm, toughness and mystery. Colton is supposed to be part hero, part con man and Douglas has enough untrustworthiness to sell us both these qualities. A series of roles after “Stone” and it's sequel "Jewel of the Nile" would lead up to his Oscar win for “Wall Street” solidifying his place equal to his father in cine-history.

"Romancing the Stone" and "Jewel of the Nile" aren't bad films, but they certainly hasn't added any lustre added to it since 1984/85. These films serves best as nostalgia-pieces of 80's romance and adventure in the time of Indiana Jones. Enjoy.

"Romancing the Stone" and its sequel "Jewel of the Nile" are available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment



Wednesday, 22 October 2008

BOY-A


Boy A (2008) dir. John Crowley
Starring; Andrew Garfield, Peter Mullan, Katie Lyons, Anthony Lewis

****

One of the rare gems of the year has been quietly released on DVD this week – “Boy A”. If you’ve heard of it, it’s because it played on the festival circuit last year. The British drama was released last year abroad and received 7 BAFTA nominations, winning one for Andrew Garfield’s stunning breakout lead performance. It’s a devastating film, anchored on internalized emotions.

“Boy A” is set in working class Manchester. The film opens with a simple conversation between Jack and Terry. Jack (Andrew Garfield) is a young 20-something just being released from prison for some kind of juvenile crime. Terry (Peter Mullan) has been his rehabilitation officer and sole confident during his incarceration. Jack is not his real name, but one which will give him anonymity in society. Once out Jack gets a job as a local delivery driver. Gradually he comes out of his shell, makes friends, and even begins a slow courtship of a young gal from work. Just when life is looking up, Jack’s past comes back to haunt him sending him in a tailspin which threatens all the progress he’s made.

Crowley is careful about revealing his information. Terry and Jack talk quietly about characters and events we don’t know about and flashbacks to Jack’s youth don’t seem to match up to the heinous crime Jack committed as a kid. But over the course of the first two acts we gradually learn about the crime, its effects on the community and reasons for Jack's secrecy.

There’s not a lot of story to tell, but the timing of these reveals are key to understanding Jack’s character. If, at the beginning, we knew of the crime Jack committed, we may not have the same sympathy for him as an adult. So in a way Crowley puts the audience in the shoes of Jack’s new friends. Jack’s central conundrum is his need to confess his secrets to Michelle. But Terry, who has become his father figure, is dead set against telling anybody anything. The risk is just too great for Jack.

Garfield dramatizes this frustration with a wonderful internalized performance. Through Jack's expressions and reactions, the pain of his lies to the woman he loves is as painful as the crime he committed. Would Michelle love Jack the same if she knew the truth? Would the audience love him the same if we knew the truth off the top? If you see the film, it’s an easy question for us to answer, but for Jack, it's not so certain.

So without much plot or action, the complexities of Jack’s internal struggle carry our attention with edge-of-your-seat tension.

John Crowley’s eye is impeccable. For each scene he covers the action with a unique set of creative and visually stunning frames. Whether it’s a formal profile, or symmetrical centre-framed of Jack visual metaphors are subtly burning into the audience’s mind. While his frames are distinct, they aren’t untraditional or over-stylized. Crowley is a relatively new voice in British cinema. "Boy-A" is only his second feature film after 2003's "Intermission" with Colin Farrell.

Outside of Garfield’s intense internalized performance “Boy-A” is a film about perspective. In the final act Jack’s identity is revealed to the public and his life quickly begins to crumble. We’ve all heard stories of heinous acts of violence committed by youth on other youth. And the crime in this film could easily be a headline-grabbing sensation in today’s media. By setting his perspective on Jack exclusively, Crowley forces us to confront our own value system and our ability to forgive. Enjoy.

"Boy-A" is available on DVD in Canada from Alliance Films, and in the U.S. from "The Weinstein Company"






Tuesday, 21 October 2008

THE STRANGERS


The Strangers (2008) dir. Bryan Bertino
Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman

****

I’m confident enough to say “The Strangers” is one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen, and would easily make my short list of the best horror films ever made. Bryan Bertino, with only his first feature film has made a film as simple yet terrifying as John Carpenter’s “Halloween”.

Bertino has essentially made a home invasion/cabin movie –a very familiar set-up in the horror genre. James and Kristin (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) are a dating couple attending a wedding and staying at their weekend home in the country. The night doesn’t seem to have gone well, a conflict of some sort has resulted in visible tension between the two.

As the two try to resolve their conflict they are interrupted by a suspicious knock on their door. Who could be around at this time of night in such a remote place? A seemingly innocent girl is looking for a friend of hers. When James leaves to get some cigarettes for Kristin, the girl returns with more nefarious intensions. With a trio of masked assailants laying siege on their home it becomes a battle of strength and will for James and Kristin to survive this harrowing game of home invasion.

Bertino manages to distill away all the salacious and superficial genre elements and concentrate solely on pure terror. This is the hardest part about the genre. Gore can be achieved through technical elements, but fear is the work cinematic skill. Bertino paces the film with a careful speed. Beginning with a slow, quiet build-up of tension. It’s misdirected tension though. James and Kristin’s conflict causes them to split apart which leaves Kristin vulnerable and feeling alone physically and emotionally. When the ‘strangers’ arrive Kristin and the audience are at their most vulnerable and manipulative.

Since the film is secluded within it’s single location and limited characters Bertino is forced to put the audience in the protagonists’ shoes. James and Kristin, for the most part, remain intelligent and logical characters throughout the film. At one point they voluntarily split up, which I wouldn’t have done that situation, but Bertino expertly covers most ‘what would I do this situation’ issues which often cripple these pictures.

Bertino is simple yet absolutely precise with his camera angles and his editing,  thus maximizing fear. Perhaps the best shot in the film is the introduction of the male masked stranger. Wearing a creepy white hood with randomly cut eye-holes the psychopath is seen while Kristin is in the kitchen on the phone. The man appears slowly out of focus in the background. No sound announces his appearance, and he barely even moves, but his white mask is so clearly defined in the background, our eyes are drawn to the space. The film follows this path of quiet, slow-moving terror.

As one can expect it’s difficult to find the light at the end of this dark tunnel. Warning SPOILERS ahead… despite the heavy material there’s actually a throughline and character arc which is achieved at the end. This is why Bertino was so careful with his opening scenes and establishing the broken relationship of James and Kristin. Imagine yourself going through the ordeal and you’ll find the most terrifying moments is when Kristin or James are alone – not knowing what’s happening to the other. In their last moments, the tortured couple, though about to die, are together side by side comforting each other through the final agonizing moments, completely in love with one another and in a sick and twist way at peace.

"The Strangers" is one of the best films of the year.

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



Monday, 20 October 2008

Toronto After Dark Film Festival: MIRAGEMAN


Mirageman (2008) dir. Ernesto Diaz Espinoza
Starring: Marko Zaror, Maria Elena Swett, Ariel Mateluna, Mauricio Pesutic

**

From Chile comes an unusual and unexpected entry in the comic book genre. Hanging on the concept of a superhero film is this showcase vehicle for Marko Zaror (stuntman for the Rock in “The Rundown) and his extraordinary feats of acrobatic martial arts. In the marketing leadup to this film at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, we’re told to expect something like breakout performance of Tony Jaa in “Ong Bak”.

While Mr. Zaror’s martial arts skills are indeed out of this world one has to get past the film’s unimposing no-budget home video-like stylistic exterior. With these strikes discounted, and with a forgiving and rambunctious genre-ready audience, “Mirageman” becomes a surprisingly enjoyable theatrical experience.

Marko Zaror plays Maco who is introduced to us sparring against one of those martial arts resistance boards in the basement. His speed and strength are a sight to behold. His physical stature is about 6’ 3” of pure toned muscle. This extraordinary beast of nature is actually an ordinary guy. He’s a gentle giant who cares for his crippled brother in the hospital. One day Maco happens upon a robbery and uses his beat down skills to stop the crime. Maco has an epiphany that he could be a vigilante superhero like Batman.

After brainstorming names and costumes, Maco becomes Mirageman – a low rent Halloween costumed superhero. As Maco performs his altruistic good deeds quickly the city of Santiago catches on that they have a bona fide superhero of their own. The media jumps on the story and he becomes a sensation. A template superhero plot is follows...

Watching and enjoying “Mirageman” must come with a few caveats. It’s a “no-budget” film to start, but not the charming and innovative cinematic techniques of say “El Mariachi”. The consumer-grade cameras, no lighting, no sets, real locations with real people walking the streets in the background is not kind to the film. Excessive use of news reporter footage to give expository information to the audience is a tedious and lazy storytelling device. It’s looks barely above a home video backyard filmmaking.

But it’s all about the fight scenes, most of which were choreographed on the day of filming. Zaror is a massive physical presence, which commands the screen. Director Espinoza wisely keeps Zaror's dialogue to a minimum, letting his fists and feet do the talking. Zaror spin kicks his opponent with lightning quick speed, often hitting the actual actors (who are all stuntmen though).

Espinoza has an ear for comedy too, and though his send up of the superhero genre is not original he coterie of pathetic characters provides enough humour. The funniest recurring gag is Pseudo-Robin, a wannabe superhero who tries to convince Mako to be his sidekick.

“Mirageman” only work if a) you’re a Hollywood talent looking for talent b) you’re at the Toronto After Dark film festival and you’re with a theatre full of energetic die hard genre-junkies. So despite some atrocious ‘filmmaking’ “Mirageman” turns out to be a somewhat decent cinematic experience. Enjoy.



Sunday, 19 October 2008

Toronto After Dark Film Festival - LET THE RIGHT ONE IN


Let the Right One In (2008) dir. Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Kare Hedebrant, Lina Lenadersson, Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl

**

One of the major buzz horror films this season is a peculiar Swedish vampire flick – “Let the Right One In”. Sweden’s not known for it’s horror films, but this one manages to take a familiar genre of teenage angst and vampirism and inject a thoroughly-skewed Scandanavian spin on the genre.

We’re in a small, depressed wintry Swedish town. Oskar is a lonely and shy pre-teen kid. The bullying he suffers at school has become so annoying he dreams of the day he gets to stab to death his abusers like a stuck pig. One day while Oskar is expressing his rage by stabbing a tree he meets an equally lonely girl, Eli. This is no ordinary girl though. She’s a vampire who loathes her existence and clings to Oskar to rekindle her once ordinary life. She’s attracted to both his timidity and his rage. Through Eli Oskar develops the courage to stand up to his enemies and claim his dignity.

Cudos to Alfredson who manages to breathe new life into the bloated vampire genre. He’s very sure not to make this a typical genre film by using a distinct visual style and pace. His frames are immaculately composed tableaus. No shot seems out of place, or wasted. Every camera movement is carefully executed.

Unfortunately his stylistic efforts also act as a crutch on the film. Pacing so unnaturally slow should be used sparingly to emphasize a scene or build up tension. As the audience we’re continually waiting for the shoe to drop, to pay off, but it never comes. It’s like persistent slow motion. Every shot has a laboured beginning middle and end. Dramatic pauses seem to last eons.

Perhaps the pacing is designed to mask the razor-thin plot, which if performed in regular speed is really about 30mins of screen material. Not much happens at all. There’s one so-called ‘plotpoint’ midway through the film when Oskar triumphantly fights back against the bullies. It’s a great moment, but in between this and the next moment of conflict for Oskar his character seems to be on pause for 45mins.

The trump card in Alfredson’s pocket is the climatic scene, which admittedly is, hands-down, bar-none, the stand-alone ‘scene of the year’. Alfredson crafts a tense confrontation between Oskar and the bullies in a vacant swimming pool late at night. In one of the most stunningly creative, disturbing and yet beautiful shots ever conceived in the horror genre Alfredson caps off his film with a bang.

Unfortunately the final scene is not enough to forgive the lengthy tedium of waiting we have to suffer to get to this point.

“Let the Right One In” has been winning awards and increasing it’s buzz over the past few months. It’s original and daring and stylistic and a refreshing change to the traditional vampire genre-film, and rightly deserves its attention. But beware of over-hype. “Let the Right One In” is art-horror film, with more art than horror.



Saturday, 18 October 2008

MOTHER OF TEARS


Mother of Tears (2007) dir. Dario Argento
Starring: Asia Argento, Asia Argento, Cristian Solimeo, Adam James, Moran Atias, Udo Keir

*1/2

Dario Argento is back with another horror film – A noble attempt but bad execution of a gothic witch horror film. "It’s a sad reminder of once great filmmakers like John Carpenter who just can't make good movies anymore. 

It’s present day Rome and by accident a construction crew unearths a medieval pandora’s box of sorts (ok, the characters don’t know it’s a ‘pandora’s box but we do). A gorgeous museum intern Sarah (Asia Argento) and her colleague open the box releasing supernatural demons which proceed to brutally kill the colleague.

Sarah’s investigation into the death (of course the police are baffled and ineffectual) reveals that the box released the spirit of an ancient witch - The Mother of Tears. But it so happens Sarah is the daughter of a once great witchkiller. Sarah’s latent anti-witch powers are the only way to stop a new horde of witches which is descending on Rome.

I can say that the opening credits are fantastic. Claudio Simonetti’s rather large baroque music, which recalls Jerry Goldsmith’s score the “Omen”, creates a great atmosphere of doom and gloom. But once the opening scenes fades in we’re witness to an exercise of b-grade gore and hokey thrills and chills.

Asia Argento’s good looks just can’t mask her inability to say the bad dialogue very well. At times her father, the director, is reaching really far to satisfy us. The opening kill is over-the-top, replete with arms and heads being ripped from the poor woman’s body – no suspense or intrigue, just some physical gore, bodyparts, slit throats and some blood. At one point a woman Sarah meets along her journey is a lesbian and we see a gratuitous scene are her having sex with her hot wife. And then Argento puts her own daughter naked in the shower! Talk about an awkward shooting day that must have been.

“Mother of Tears” in technically the final part of his ‘mothers’ trilogy following “Suspiria” and “Inferno”, so for Argento enthusiasts there’s may be some inside references to cling onto – for everyone else, it’s just some T&A and some blood.

“Mother of Tears” is available on DVD in Canada from Alliance Films



Friday, 17 October 2008

MONGOL


Mongol (2007) dir. Sergei Bodrov
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Honglei Sun, Amadu Mamadakov

***1/2

The Russians do big epic stories very well. Another fine edition to this legacy is “Mongol” the first of a planned three films on Genghis Khan. “Mongol” has all the ingredients of what Hollywood would have done with the project, epic fighting, brother vs. brother battles and a romantic throughline which spans almost 40 years. The Russian/East Asian fusion involvement adds the authenticity which Hollywood would never be able to create.

Before Genghis Khan, he was known as Temudgin (Tadanobu Asano), introduced to us as a young boy living the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols. Everything is bliss for Temudgin especially after he successfully picks his young bride-to-be at the traditional age of 9. After a violent attack from the evil Merkit clan Temudgin’s father is killed. The Merkit warriors want to kill the boy as well before he can exact revenge on them, but according to tradition (there’s lots of tradition in this film), he can’t be killed until he is ‘of age’. Instead he’s enslaved to hard labour. Temudgin eventually escapes and he begins a long search to reunite his bride Borto (Khulan Chuluun).

Temudgin gets help along the way from a like-minded ambitious prince named Jamukha (Honglei Sun). They become blood borthers, helping each other rid the lands of the Merkit dominance. But Temudgin’s love for Borto breaks tradition and he makes an enemy of his former brother. And it will take bloody limp-hacking battle to decide who is the king of the Mongols.

The only other Hollywood version of Genghis Khan was that forgettable 1965 version with Stephen Boyd, Omar Sharif, James Mason and ahem.. Telly Savalas. The difference between two version and is like the equivalent of those two “War and Peace” movies – the King Vidor/Audrey Hepburn Hollywood version vs. the authentic Sergei Bondarchuk 1965 version.

Well, it seems authentic enough from North American eyes. Temudgin is played by a Japanese star Tadanobu Asano. Though he’s not Mongolian he’s fantastic – a soft spoken leader who we see change from timid boy to the charismatic and legendary Genghis Khan. His rival and brother, a Chinese actor, Honglei Sun, is even better. He’s even more unemotive than Asano, but his steely-eyed stare and distinct mannerisms make a worthy opponent.

The time-spanning love story is the anchor which makes the film completely accessible to international audiences. Great epic pictures are able to shift between moods of romance to testosterone-fueled bloody carnage. And for adrenaline junkies the battle scenes satisfy what is to be expected from a film about one of the greatest military leaders the world has ever known. And it’s better than “Alexander”. Enjoy.

“Mongol” is available on DVD in Canada from Alliance Films



Thursday, 16 October 2008

W.


W. (2008) dir. Oliver Stone
Starring: Josh Brolin, Richard Dreyfuss, Toby Jones, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell

***

W. is kind of an unprecedented film – the political story of a U.S. President currently in office. Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” would perhaps be the only comparison. Oliver Stone’s film is even more ambitious and risky. There are no pseudonyms or alter-egos to hide behind, it’s about real people and real events still in progress.

"W." is not the Stone from those really ambitious days in the 90's when he gave us some truly risky studio films. The absence of Robert Richardson behind the camera, Pietro Scalia's editing and John Williams' music, is a big loss in innovation, but it's by far Stone's best film since "Nixon".

The story begins after 9/11 - 2002 in fact, just when Iraq becomes the next target for the Bush administration.We're immediately thrown into the Oval Office roundtable discussing the term "Axis of Evil". There's Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condolezza Rice, Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and George Tenet. All of them are familar actors doing remarkable impressions of these familiar names and faces. As these events lead up to the invasion of Iraq and the search for the infamous WMDs Stone periodically flashes back to Bush's youth and traces the steps which have led to the decisions he's making in the present.

Key to the Bush personality, persona and character is Bush Sr. - the former President, Yale grad, oil man, and CIA Director whose expectations for dubbya are just too big to handle. For the decade of the 70's it's a trainwreck lifestyle, always with a drink in his hand. When he decides to shape up his life, he finds God and kicks his alcoholism. Nothing seems to satisfy the elder Bush, until W. joins his 1988 Presidential campaign and shows his teeth as a fighter and a surprisingly astute right-hand man. Since the real story is not yet complete Stone leaves us with a question mark, but not before he paints for us a unique picture of one of the most 'misunderestimated' figures in American politics.

Stone’s film is first a satire and second a political statement. Unlike “JFK”, there’s little controversy to spark other than the mere fact of making a film about the current President in office. Bush is depicted exactly as he is perceived – a kid born with a silver spoon in his mouth, who sailed through his youth as a drunk-driving wildcat then got in shape, found God and followed in his Dad’s footsteps to the White House. Much of the humour comes from his common man’s personality, mis-pronunciation of words, confident swagger and his general affability as leader of the free world.

Stoner never gets any deeper than that, and so as an analytical examination of history he fails to reaches the supreme highs of his earlier political gems “JFK” and “Nixon”. Stone does give us two hours of fun engaging entertainment though.

Josh Brolin, currently on one of the most surprising runs of great films in recent Hollywood memory, turns in a truly great performance, carrying every ounce of the film. It takes about a third of the way through before the novelty of Josh Brolin doing a George W. Bush impression wears off and he disappears into his new skin.

Brolin and Stone continually walk a dance of complete buffoonery and genuine sympathy and understanding of the man. The strongest depth of character is his lifelong battle with his father George H. W. Bush (James Cromwell). One of the key dialogue scenes in the film is when Bush confesses to his pastor that people don’t understand the burden being born a Bush. As we get into the mind of W. we see the insecurities of a young man with enormous expectations. His dalliances, though irresponsible and careless are the work of a young man struggling to find his identity - something everyone can identify with. And so Bush's journey, well planned out by screenwriter Stanley Weiser, is about his acceptance of himself and not from his father.

Behind Brolin is a long list of great supporting actors as his aides. Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell, the only one against the war in Iraq, is distinguished and honourable; Richard Dreyfuss, a spitting image of Dick Cheney is the villain - a crafty war monger who directs traffic quietly in the background. It's Dreyfuss' best role in over 10 years. The other standout is Toby Jones, as Karl Rove, the man who was with Bush the longest and who 'trained' him to win his campaigns.

Some may see this portrayal as too strong, some may see it as not challenging enough. But by the end, what is the point Stone's trying to make? While Stone is tough on him he leaves his reputation in tact. Considering the ballsy ambitiousness of such a project, Stone succeeds admirably. It's a fine place-in-time portrait of a simple man who happened to rise to the most influential public figure in the world. Enjoy.


Wednesday, 15 October 2008

HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE


Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) dir. Irving Cummings
Starring: Alice Faye, Don Ameche, J. Edward Bromberg, Buster Keaton

***1/2

Studio-era Hollywood has always done films about Hollywood well. From “Singing in the Rain” to “Sunset Boulevard” tinsel town could always take its own pulse and both lampoon and celebrate itself in the name of entertainment. A great example of this comes from Fox’s new Alice Faye Collection Vol 2 – “Hollywood Cavalcade”.

Who is Alice Faye you ask? And why does she deserve not one by two volumes of a box set? Even though I have an interest in classic Hollywood, I admittedly was unaware of these ‘Alice Faye’ pictures.

Faye was a beloved protégé of Darryl F. Zanuck, the mega-mogul who ran 20th Century Fox studios. Faye could play a variety of leading lady types – wisecracking show girls to wholesome motherly figures. Watching “Hollywood Cavalcade”, a lavish Zanuck production in Technicolor, it’s easy to see why she was such a star. Though she was not blessed with the alluring good looks of a Rita Hayworth or Marlene Dietrich, her chief asset was an infectious Shirley Temple-like charm.

In “Hollywood Cavalcade” Faye plays Molly Adair, a Broadway star recruited by aspiring film director Mike Linnett Connors (Don Ameche) to go to Hollywood. But this is 1913 and before ‘moving pictures’ became the top of the acting hierarchy. Then Broadway was the pinnacle of stardom. So it’s not an easy decision. Molly, lured by Connors’ dreams of grandeur and his steadfast belief in the power of motion pictures, takes a risk and makes the jump.

Once in Hollywood Molly acts against the greats of silent film, including Buster Keaton. Over the years and after a series of successful pictures Molly and Mike become a powerful team as star and director. Molly falls in love with Mike, but Mike is so career-oriented he refuses to acknowledge the advances. Eventually Molly moves on to marry her co-star Nicky Hayden (Alan Curtis), which drives Mike mad and threatens both their dreams of achieving lengthy careers in Hollywood.

“Hollywood Cavalcade’s” plot goes from the usual highs and lows of celebrity stardom. Where the film scores its points is its self-examination of Hollywood. We get to see reenacted with intelligent insight the creativity of the silent era and how studios made stars from actors who couldn’t speak. We also get to see some of the last performances of the great silent stars, specifically Buster Keaton and the Keystone Kops who appear as themselves. In a number of film-within-a-film sequences co-director Malcolm St. Clair, using authentic old-style shooting methods and under the guidance of the great Max Sennett, directs some great comic moments of slapstick and physical comedy from the silent era.

The sad footnote to Alice Faye’s career was a public dispute with Zanuck, who claimed her lead role in “Fallen Angel” was cut out down to make room for Zanuck’s latest ‘protégé’ Linda Darnell – a real life Hollywood love triangle which strangely parallels the events in “Hollywood Cavalcade”. Unfortunately Faye’s story didn’t have the happy ending of Molly’s. Zanuck blackballed Faye for breach of contract and essentially ended her career as a leading lady.

But Faye now has her two box sets to be remembered by. And “Hollywood Cavalcade” is a great time capsule of this tumultuous period from burgeoning art form to its emergence as the ‘dream factory’. Enjoy.

“Hollywood Cavalcade is available from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED


Rachel Getting Married (2008) dir. Jonathan Demme
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie Dewitt, Mather Zickel, Bill Irwin, Deborah Winger

**

With all the praise heaped on this Oscar-potential/‘Jonathan Demme Comeback’ picture, I need to find or create a support group for “Haters of Rachel Getting Married”. This overly self-conscious contrived melodrama purports to be realism through obvious handheld camera work and supremely boring documentary-like wedding footage, which ironically is so in-your-face politically correct it’s sickening.

Demme’s picture is intentionally bleak. There’s no sign of optimism or hope in any of the characters letting bygones be bygones. Maybe at another reunion, years later, things will get resolved, but for now, it’s war. Kym Buckman (Anne Hathaway) has just been released from rehab for her drug addiction which contributed to her younger brother’s death. That’s a hell of a lot of baggage to bring to her sister Rachel’s wedding, which coincidentally is scheduled the day after she gets out. Kym immediately resents being relegated to the end of the rehearsal dinner table and being ostracized from the “maid of honour” duties.  Since Kym is ticking timebomb of emotion – something which Rachel has trouble avoiding on this day of celebration - it makes for explosive fireworks.

In a number of heated arguments during the pre-wedding activities blame is shifted between everyone in the family – Dad, for being to controlling, Rachel, for being the perfect daughter, Kym, for demanding everyone’s attention, and Mom, for not taking any responsibility for the children whatsoever.

Demme concentrates so much on the Buckmans he forgets there’s other people in the room as well. Somehow the incumbent family doesn’t seem to care about the domestic fireworks because we never ever get a reaction from them. Rachel's fiancé Sidney never tries to intervene, never rolls his eyes and never says a word.

This only one of the annoying contrivances which get piled onto what should have been a four-hander story – a la “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. Instead, the wedding elements (assuming you got past the contrivance of scheduling a wedding the day after your sister who killed your younger brother gets out of rehab) just get in the way of the story.

In the spaces between the domestic disputes and sibling rivalry (the actual 'story'), Demme eats up screentime with a series of lengthy ‘life-like’ wedding scenes. There’s a 10 mins long rehearsal dinner where we get to sit through all the speeches from the wedding party. That stuff is excruciating enough at real weddings, so I don’t need to see it lived out on screen. And Demme’s hand-held camera – like those Dogma films from 10 years ago –is shot to look like camcorder footage. Ironically though, it’s an obvious device force-fed to us in the name of realism.

The other annoying contrivance is the overly ethnically diverse self-conscious wedding. Let’s go through the mélange of cultures represented at the Buckman wedding. Sidney is African-American, Rachel is Jewish yet everyone is dressed in traditional South Asian attire (the women are wearing Saris and the men wearing Indian robes). But Sidney and Rachel are going to live in Hawaii after the wedding so the men are wearing Leis around their necks. The scarf-wearing hipster band plays ultra-cool indie-pop music, until out of nowhere a Carnivale-style Brazilian samba band shows up.

If Demme had concentrated on the real storyline and stakes at hand, the wedding should have been a background to get the characters in a room together, Instead he spends so much time creating this impossibly cool wedding, it’s distracting from the fine performances being created. Hathaway will like get her Oscar nomination, but barely because Demme almost fucked it up by masturbated to his own ‘dream wedding.’

PS. At one point in the film when Kym dramatically confronts her mother’s culpability in the conflict another audience member at Toronto’s Varsity Cinema #8 groaned with the same emotional exhaustion I was feeling. It put the only genuine smile on my face. I should have found that guy after the movie and started a group hug.


INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Shia LeBeauf, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone

***

On DVD this week is the latest Indy adventure. Expectations were high and it has already divided camps. After all, it's a 27 year old franchise and things can never be the same as it was. But since each episode of the series is a standalone adventure with only a few connections between them, "Crystal Skull" automatically had the pressure relieved of, say, the Star Wars prequels to really f* things up. "Crystal Skull" doesn't quite have the same magic as the other films, but it's still a respectable entry in the series and a highly entertaining film.

As usual the film begins with a bang. It's 1957, and we're following an Army convoy in the Nevada desert. The Army has kidnapped Indiana Jones and his sidekick George "Mac" McHale (Ray Winstone). Cate Blanchett, hamming up a great Russian accent (Ukrainian actually), leads the Commies in a search for a piece of military treasure hidden away in a very familiar warehouse. An elaborate chase ensues ending with perhaps the most audacious escape from danger Indy's ever faced - a refridgerator never seemed so helpful.

After Indy escapes and travels back home safely to Princeton he's met by a bold youngster named Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeauf doing a great biker-rebel impression) who has been sent by Indy's old archeologist friend Professor Oxley (John Hurt) to find and bring back a mysterious Crystal Skull to its rightful home in the Mayan jungle. Indy meets up with his old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) along the way and the foursome travel the globe, discover ancient worlds with supernatural powers while fighting off those nasty Commies.

There's a lot of plot in "Crystal Skull" and too much to tell in a review. But the less you know the better, because the biggest strength of this film is it's unfolding story and clever reveals of information. Spielberg and company are wise to tell the story 25 years after the 1930's adventures we're used to. Writer David Koepp also cleverly writes in the Communist scare and the atomic age into the film, and finds new enemies to replace those evil Nazis.

Koepp smartly put some quality time into fleshing out Indy's activities between now and then. Let's face it, a 65 year old action hero is not very exciting, but they do the best they can. We never got to see Indy during the war, but we learn that Jones used his worldly skills and knowledge to become a highly decorated spy for the US Government. He's not even called Indiana anymore. He's back to Henry Jones Jr. and instead of traversing the globe in search of treasure he's living comfortably teaching at Princeton.

There are plenty of elaborately choreographed actions scenes, some of which triumph, and some are just watchable. The action sores to great heights in the first half, and arguably have decreasing returns as the film moves along. The highlight is the cool motorcycle chase through the Princeton campus, and ending with a great comic punchline in the library. The lowlight is a not-so-well shot swordfight between LeBeauf and Blanchett atop two moving jeeps which segues into a CG-heavy Tarzan-style vine-swingning sequence.

On the downside is the overall dillution of the suspense, jeopardy and campy gore of the original three. It's family friendly fare for most of the film. No hearts are ripped from people's chests, and no melting faces. The climax may even turn a lot of people off, as it doesn't have the emotional resonance of "The Last Crusade", or the spine-tingling fear of "Raiders".

The fears of Spielberg and Lucas trying too hard to recreate the magic and failing miserably are adequately allayed. It's a grounded film that stands on its own and never falls into pathetic self-parody. "Crystal Skull" successfully blazes its own trail in terms of style, structure, tone and character. Unless you're really cynical, it's guaranteed to entertain. Enjoy.

'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Sunday, 12 October 2008

THE NEW CENTURIONS


The New Centurions (1972) dir. Richard Fleischer
Starring: George C. Scott, Stacy Keach, Jane Alexander, Clifton James, Scott Wilson, Erik Estrada, Rosalind Cash, Isabel Sanford, James Sikking and William Atherton

**1/2

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

It’s always a pleasure to extol the considerable virtues of Richard Fleischer, one of the most overlooked and underrated American directors, even when the picture in question is not one of his best works. “The New Centurions” is a movie that, at least for me, plops squarely into the category of work I loved as a kid that sadly, has not held up as well as I’d hoped. It’s certainly not awful, though, and it has much going on to recommend it – most notably, another truly great George C. Scott performance and a generally fine first two-thirds (save for some obvious clunky bits). If there are major problems with the film, they probably lie with the original source material, Joseph Wambaugh’s groundbreaking, best-selling novel and Stirling Silliphant’s less-than-stellar screenplay adaptation.

Wambaugh is, of course, the former L.A.P.D. cop-turned-novelist whose books attempted to truly capture the day-to-day grind of police life without the usual glorification inherent in so much of our popular culture – a dramatic, but realistic front-lines approach to a world that most of us couldn’t even begin to imagine. Fleischer’s movie version, from a stylistic standpoint, often does an excellent job taking us from the graduation of rookie cop Roy Fehler (Stacy Keach) and his on-the-job training under the tutelage of grand, old man of the force, the wizened, cynical Andy Kilvinski (George C. Scott) who regales the young man with all manner of crusty wisdom and gallows humour. With the dark grainy lighting and camerawork of Ralph Woolsey, Fleischer gets us through the nightly grind of patrol cops with an almost documentary-like flavour.

For the most part, this is no standard-issue genre fare as we follow the cops on a series of almost mundane adventures – domestic disputes, child abuse cases, petty theft, grifting and in one of the movie’s more amusing segments, the rounding up of streetwalkers, shoving them into the back of a paddy wagon and getting them boozed up so they can’t ply their trade. The film also focuses on the cops’ bouts with alcoholism and marital strife. For 1972, this was certainly groundbreaking material.

My first helping of the picture was at the tender age of 12 and I saw it with my ex-cop Dad. As a movie, it was definitely unlike the usual father-and-son fare in the de-glamorization of the cops’ lives and I also recall my own father responding very positively to the movie in that it had “less bullshit” than other cop pictures. Seen now, though, it’s a movie that scores points for being the first of its kind in the mainstream, but alas, loses considerable steam as Silliphant’s script maintains the flawed episodic structure of Wambaugh’s book and adds, all on its own, a lot of clunky and clichéd dialogue. This seems especially odd since Silliphant did such a fine job with adapting the classic cop novel on which Norman Jewison’s “In The Heat of the Night” is based. With that film, Silliphant was able to deftly sift what was best and cinematic in the original source material while adding the proper connective tissue to make the picture a cohesive whole. “The New Centurions” in comparison is a bit of a mess, lurching from one episode to another and never quite ably capturing the sense of time passing in a smooth manner.

There are other problems with the picture as well. When the character of Kilvinski tragically departs from the story, the rest of the movie can’t quite rise to Scott’s level of performance and his presence, or lack thereof in the latter half, is so powerful it almost seems like movie’s only raison d'être. As well, the marital difficulties portrayed border on soap opera and it doesn’t help that Jane Alexander portrays Stacy Keach’s wife with such ramrod-like seriousness that she comes off like a harridan on lithium. Finally, the rather interesting cast of supporting characters is introduced, them dropped and no attempt is ever made to fully integrate them into the whole.

All this said, though, Fleischer keeps the action moving with his typical efficiency and he works overtime against the plodding nature of the script. There are still scenes and sequences that work in spite of the screenplay and some moments that are simply unforgettable: Scott’s amusing rendition of “Kilvinski’s Law” which is the character’s off-the-book sage advice, a terrifying scene where the cops rescue a baby from being burned and beaten by its neglectful mother, some of the banter of the cops themselves (both on patrol and in the stationhouse), an especially hilarious sequence involving the entrapment of a seven-foot lumberjack “fruit” and George C. Scott’s final monologue which is not only heartbreakingly performed, but one of the few moments that achieves what the whole movie should have aspired to.

Everyone involved with the picture has obviously done better work elsewhere, but it’s still an entertaining and engaging way to spend a couple of hours in front of the television.

Besides, where else is one going to see Mrs. Jefferson herself (Isabel Sanford) playing a foul-mouthed, fat-assed, soul-infused street whore?

That gal definitely was “a movin’ on up”.

“The New Centurions” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures in their new series Martini Movies.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

TOUCH OF EVIL


Touch of Evil (1958) dir. Orson Welles
Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich

****

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of “Touch of Evil” Universal Studios has released a new 2-Disc box set featuring three versions of the film as well as the famous 58 page memo Orson Welles wrote after viewing the studio’s cut. The film is an astonishing work of art and labelling it a mere noir film doesn’t do justice to the innovative and thoroughly unique cinematic style Welles applied to the pulpy story of police corruption on the Mexican-American border.

Charlton Heston (in perhaps his finest role) plays Mike Vargas, a Mexican cop drawn into a cross border investigation of the bombing death of an upstanding American businessman. Butting heads with Vargas is Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) the drunken corrupt Sheriff who plants evidence and frames criminals into getting his convictions. Welles intercuts this investigation with the movement of Vargas’s American wife Susie (Janet Leigh). While Vargas is off doing his job the neglected Susie becomes brutally terrorized by local gangsters who may or may not be working with Quinlan.

Typical to his style, Orson Welles uses exclusively wide angle lenses for every shot. The lens accentuates the motion of everything from the movement of the camera to the actors and objects in the frame. Take the scene when Vargas is followed by the assassin who tries to throw acid on him. Watch the movement of the discarded pages of newspaper blown across the ground in the background before the assassin strikes - a minor piece of set dec which adds so much texture and tension to the scene. And watch the effect of his uncompromising wide angle close-ups. During the violent rape and strangulation scenes the camera is shoved right into Janet Leigh and Akim Tamiroff’s faces, the effect of which make the violence extra brutal. Brutal even by today’s dulled senses.

Important to these scenes is the pulsating rhythms of Henry Mancini’s percussion-heavy score. Welles even makes specific note of the importance of the source music in his memo. And who could forget the ironically romantic theme song played on the pianola which ends the film?

One of other innovations Welles used throughout is overlapping dialogue. With the extreme wideangle lens, traditional coverage was not necessary (everything is viewable in the frame). So Welles allowed and encouraged the actors to talk over the end of other people’s lines. The result is a heightened pace, but also much confusion. Important lines containing vital information to the story are often missed and talked over, or said under one’s breath.  And so the film demands constant attention.

Perhaps the only stain on the film is Dennis Weaver's character and performance. He plays the hapless nave who works the front desk at Susie's motel. Weaver chews his already engrossed screentime with an annoyingly twitchy stammer and dim-witted gawky droll. The idea of a slow-witted nightwatchman is fine, but as Robert Downey Jr.’s character in “Tropic Thunder” would say, Weaver goes ‘full retard’. It's a small but annoying crutch on the film.

Having watched it a number of times, and once with the subtitles on, the complex plotting still confuses me. I still haven’t figured out why the Grandis were after Susie so early in the film, nor how the opening bombing fits into the plot. Did Quinlan plan it? I'm still not sure. But "Touch of Evil" is more about flow and movement - a visual and auditory experience pulling the audience through some of the darkest moments in studio filmmaking up until then.

Part of the Welles' genius is the tone he sets at the end. During the impeccably staged climax which has Vargas following and listening to Pete Menzie’s wiretapped conversation, Quinlan seals his fate with a confession. While it solves the case for Vargas we also get to know more about Quinlan than we knew before. Despite being a liar and a murderer Welles is sympathetic to him.  We’re reminded that Quinlan was a great leader of the community before the death of his wife corrupted his ethics, a remarkable depth of character we rarely see in traditional Hollywood genre films. This is why "Touch of Evil" is so special. Enjoy.

"Touch of Evil - 50th Anniversary" is available on DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment

PS I haven't even mentioned the opening shot, which is still one of the greatest shots in the history of cinema. Here it is: