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

Sunday, 30 November 2008

COLUMBIA BEST PICTURES COLLECTION


Columbia Pictures has a long, rich history of making movies. It was one of the original studios of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’. Like every other studio it’s been bought and trading numerous times over the years. Currently it’s part of the Sony conglomerate, but with the large bankroll backing it, it’s become one of the largest filmmaking companies in the world.

Fresh for a holiday gift for that cinephile in your family is a cleverly package box set containing every Best Picture Academy Award winner from the Columbia vault. No, the set is more than just a cardboard box enclosing their overstocked titles, this set of 11 films comes in a coffee-table book-like design, with a textured slipbox case complete with liner notes and all the special features we’d expect from these great films.

Packaging aside, the set represents a great snapshot Hollywood studio filmmaking. Despite almost a 50 year timespan, you can see consistency in these Best Picture winners - socially and politically conscious films about big stories and big events, often from revered literary material or about historically significant figures.

Here’s the rundown of these 12 great films which span 1934-1982

“It Happened One Night” (1934) dir. Frank Capra
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
Capra’s screwball romantic comedy classic about a wealthy socialite falling in love with a mischievous reporter.

“You Can’t Take it With You” (1938) dir. Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur
Capra’s tale of two lovers caught between their two ideological disparate families.

“All the Kings Men” (1949) dir. Robert Rossen
Starring: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, John Derek
The first adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of political ambition and corruption.

“From Here to Eternity” (1953) dir. Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed
The multi-award winning saga of WWII-era action and romance in the Pacific.

“On the Waterfront” (1954) dir. Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie Saint
Brando’s seminal method performance as Terry Malloy still packs a wallop

“Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) dir. David Lean
Starring: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa
Guinness and Hayakawa's battle of wills in a Japanese POW camp anchor David Lean’s first masterpiece in epic filmmaking.

“Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) dir. David Lean
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alex Guinness, Anthony Quinn
Lean romanticizes the desert as a hypnotizing environment and arena for politics and war.

“A Man For All Seasons” (1966) dir. Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles, Vanessa Redgrave
The story of King Henry VIII told from the point of view of Catholic dissident Sir Thomas More.

“Oliver!” (1968) dir. Carol Reed
Starring: Mark Lester, Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, Jack Wild, Shani Wallis
Dickens’ classic turned into a musical from the music of Lionel Bart.

“Kramer Vs. Kramer” (1979) dir. Robert Benton
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry
The only intimately-told story in the set is Robert Benton’s definitive film about divorce.

“Gandhi” (1982) dir. Richard Attenborough
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Candice Bergin, Edward Fox, Roshan Seth, John Gielgud
One of the biggest films ever made, featuring Ben Kingsley's phenomenal embodiment of Mohandas Gandhi.

“Columbia Best Pictures Collection” is available on regular DVD only.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

HANCOCK


Hancock (2008) dir. Peter Berg
Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, Eddie Marsan

**

On DVD arrives “Hancock” a film no one seemed to like (a 38% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) yet grossed $227million dollars. It was born from one of those legendary specs scripts which floated around Hollywood for years. The Peter Berg version has an intriguing set-up, but a number of great ideas gone unrealized.

Will Smith plays Hancock, a drunken superhero, who literally lives in a ‘van down by the river’. Though he flies around saving the citizens of L.A. from petty crimes, lately his crass attitude, drunkenness and careless behaviour has turned the public against him. When he saves the life of a well-meaning publicist, Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) a friendship develops which will change Hancock’s life for good and bad.

Ray starts improving his attitude and learning the ropes of being decent, trustworthy and reliable. As he ingratiates himself with Ray’s family he becomes closer to Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron), which reveals secrets of his past and his ultimate destiny.

A clever twist on the superhero genre is established – an affable hero, lost with no direction. His relationship with Ray is introduced and plays well. Berg primes us for a classic cinematic redemption of sorts, but midway Charlize Theron’s character takes the film on a wild turn in a new direction. It’s a massive coincidental plot twist, which throws all the groundwork of the previous act out the window. As the background of Hancock comes to light Ray instantly becomes inconsequential and unnecessary to the story. Berg tries to juggle two relationships (Hancock-Ray and Hancock-Mary) and so failing at both drowns the film.

Hancock’s villain, Red Parker, is also sorely underwritten. His story is hastily put together in the second half of the film to provide some external conflict for Hancock. Unfortunately, he’s just some criminal schmuck who poses no threat to our hero whatsoever. Eddie Marsan plays Red, he’s a great actor (see his great performance in “Happy Go Lucky”) but as for a villain to play off Will Smith, he’s out of his league.

Ultimately the film is let down by Peter Berg’s show-off direction. He paints lovely pictures but he appears to be channeling some kind of early-career-Michael Bay fixation. Every scene is shot in the sundrenched deep yellow L.A. magic hour and cut with the manic intensity of Bay’s “The Rock”. Unnecessary handheld camera appears to create drama where there is no drama. It’s all artifice and distracting.

I’m convinced “Hancock” could have worked with a more focused director. Berg’s previous film “The Kingdom” makes a good comparison with “Hancock”. Berg seems to get distracted with crafting his individual scenes instead of creating a unifying whole of a film. “The Kingdom” meandered wildly with a different tone to every scene. “Hancock” suffers from the same ailments.

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

Friday, 28 November 2008

TWILIGHT


Twilight (2008) dir. Catherine Hardwicke
Starring: Kristin Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Ashley Green

**1/2

I’m kind of fascinated by the phenomenon of “Twilight”. It’s a heavily flawed film which normally I would jump on and beat down, picking it apart for it’s sloppy structural inconsistencies, massive plots. lapses into horrendous acting, awfully-directed action scenes, and even bad continuity, yet beneath these negatives shines through the appeal which has made this film is phenomenal success.

“Twilight” is successful because, like a thinly sharpened knife, it targets its audience with pinpoint accuracy and discards everyone else who doesn’t fall into their demographic. Like mostly anyone not in high school I had never heard of “Twilight” until I was bombarded by the media onslaught in the past month. Most teens have heard of it. To help understand the hype my wife read the novel - it’s a breezy, easy-to-read 500 pages of forlorn romance, high school gossip, fashion, proms, and domestic confusion. Dare I say, it’s the “Carrie” of it’s day?

The story begins introducing Bella Swan (Kristin Stewart) who’s narrating her tale to us. She’s a child of divorced parents who is about to move in with her father in a small town in Oregon. As the new girl, she’s not ostracized, she’s the attraction – the new toy to play with. She easily makes friends and finds a place in the social web of high school. Then along comes Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the unattainable hot dude in school. He’s a member of the Cullen family, a weirdo, near incentual group of half-siblings who lives in seclusion and only come to school on overcast days.

Of course the Cullens are a coven of vampires and of course Bella falls in love with him. It takes a while though. Edward is aloof and distant to Bella, mainly because he’s madly in love with her – a dangerous relationship for a vampire to have. But the Cullens are good vampires and they’ve lived harmoniously with humans for many centuries feeding off animals for food. Their relationship kinda works and Bella is ingratiated into Edward’s goofy family. Whilst this is all going on a group of evil vampires have started killing humans in the town. When they target Bella for the next meal the Cullens battle their enemies in the name of true love.

The film is a grabber in the opening act, author Stephanie Meyer’s depiction of high school feels fresh and relevant, minus the clichés of cliques, bullies, jocks, stuck-up bitches etc. Catherine Hardwicke, who directed another non-traditional teen-angst film, "Thirteen", is the ideal choice of director and she employs a natural style without drawing attention to itself.

Then as the plot points start dropping the film’s inefficiencies start to show. The Cullens are introduced as brooding and dangerous, yet when Bella visits them for the first time they act like the Brady Bunch. Pattinson’s James Dean-like Edward character is all over the map. He makes longing glances at Bella, and speaks with an off-kilter cadence which I couldn’t figure out as bad acting, complex characterization or just a difficult American accent.

Pattinson is good-looking enough to sell the role though, because it’s Bella who really matters. Kristin Stewart single-handedly keeps the film from falling apart. After a number of supporting roles in interesting films (“Panic Room”, “Undertow”) over the last ten years, she’s ripe for this leading role.

The final half is highlighted by a number of action sequences which are sloppily choreographed and executed. The vampires have the ability to jump high and run fast, which are visualized with painfully obvious wire enhancement work which looks as bad as a low rent 70's kung-fu movie.

But teenage girls don’t go to see “Twilight” for action, they want to see romance. Bella is the ‘everygirl’, a mirror image of the audience, and so by wrangling the hot dude, and falling in love in spite of the obstacles against them, the film gets the only important thing right.

After the success of this film subsequent sequels will likely be able to correct the technical problems and deliver films which can stand on their own. After it’s all done, we probably look back on “Twilight” as it’s humble and rocky beginnings. Enjoy.





Thursday, 27 November 2008

STEP BROTHERS


Step Brothers (2008) dir. Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen

**

Comedy is the most difficult genre to crack. When comedy falls, it falls hard. “Step Brothers” certainly makes a loud noise when it hits the ground. The latest Will Ferrell/Apatow concoction makes “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” look intellectual.

Two 40 something males Dale and Brennan (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly) who still live at home with their parents find themselves step brothers when their parents get married in their senior years. So the central hook is that the brothers are really old but act like 12 year olds. At the beginning both are protective of their space and it becomes a standoff between the two sulking manboys. The two eventually find common ground and become best pals.

Domestic bliss is interrupted when Dale’s douchebag brother Derek (Adam Scott) visits. His superiority complex causes so much conflict in the house it splits Dale and Brennan again. The final act is devoted to getting the two back together.

The writing credits are assigned to Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly and Adam McKay the same actor-director team from "Talledega Nights". Clearly this script was hatched over a number of over-work drinks, probably a few cocktail napkins. The resulting finished film feels like 90mins of improvised shenanigans.

Thankfully Mr. Ferrell let go of his uber-confident Anchorman persona and let Reilly take that spotlight. Ferrell’s character Brennan, is a meek and shy wannabe. Against Doback’s (John C. Reilly) commanding posturing and bullying tactics Brennan continually gets beaten down. But it doesn’t stop the inane conflict between the two. Just one example of the key standoffs is over Dale’s drumkit, which is pronounced ‘off bounds’ by Dale. Of course Brennan just can’t help testing it out just to fuck with Dale. It provides one of the many lengthy shouting matches of expletive dialogue, all of which appear to be made up on the spot. Both Reilly and Ferrell are talented folks, but, in cinema, polished-scripted material always triumphs over improv.

While most of everything falls flat, there are two standout scenes which had me laughing hysterically. The first is the sleepwalking scene. The two step-brothers both happen to be chronic sleepwalkers, and one night they both walk out of their beds and walk around like brainless zombies. This was likely improvised and miraculously it’s a brilliant piece of physical comedy. In fact, the boys give us a second sleepwalking scene later in the film, which could have been a deleted scene, but obviously the boys knew they needed another big laugh. The other gut-busting scene is a montage of photographs of Will Ferrell’s character, whose eyes are covered in the ugliest redeye effect imaginable. Silly humour is in the details and unfortunately most of everything else in “Step Brothers” is without these details.

On paper, "Step Brothers" could have been a good film, and although I don't know the details of the production it feels like haste, laziness and maybe a bit of ego drowned this film.

“Step Brothers” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

So if you're short on time, just check out the sleepwalking scene here:


Wednesday, 26 November 2008

FLicKeR


Flicker (2008) dir. Nik Sheehan
Documentary

**1/2

In the mid 60’s Canadian-born artist Brion Gysin invented what he purported to be a new entertainment medium – the ‘Dream Machine’ – a device which would tap into the human mind for a natural high. The device sounds highly scientific. A cylindrical column with cut out holes spins around a light bulb. When spun at a certain speed, the frequency and flicker of light induces an ‘alpha wave’ activity in the brain, the same activity as which causes dreaming and spurs creativity.

The height of the Dream Machine’s popularity was the 60’s when some saw the potential as a non-chemical based psychedelic high. Whether it works or not, it attracted some famous people. Brian Jones, Marianne Faithful, Iggy Pop all used it. Even Kurt Cobain had one in his house the day he died.

Canadian filmmaker Nik Sheehan uses this device to tell the story of its inventor Gyson, a beatnik era renaissance man and his uniquely idiosyncratic life and accomplishments. It's intriguing and little known story of counterculture and psychedelic spiritualism.

Like many other documentarians Sheehan puts himself into his film as he travels the world interviewing advocates of the Dream Machine. His subjects are off the wall, and so we’re never sure if the device is just hoax, a novelty or something which can truly change people’s perception. There’s Marianne Faithful, the former swinging 60’s icon who speaks in droll, unenthusiastic tones, Iggy Pop seems spry and has fond memories of the device like remembering an old girlfriend he hasn’t seen in a while; a transgendered artist Genesis P-Orridge is still wildly mad for the device.

The most fascinating moments are when Sheehan delves into the history of Gysin and his oddball life in the military, secret service agent, author, artist, entrepreneur and his coterie of beatnik friends including William Burroughs, Paul Bowles and a number of boundary-pushing artistic endeavours including madhatter schemes like putting spells on astronauts who travel to the spacestation.

 Whether you believe in the power of the device or whether you think it’s as hokum as a palm reader, shouldn’t influence the enjoyment of the film. Flicker works best as a character film. It’s a story Errol Morris would have knocked out of the park. “Gates of Heaven” wasn’t really about the pet cemetery, same goes with “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control”. Morris could draw the audience into the quirky lives of his subjects so much so that we cared about their passions as much as them.

At times Sheehan gets close to achieving the same attachment to the Dream Machine as Morris did with his pet cemetery. Unfortunately Sheehan is let down by his technique. A handheld camera is used throughout, even during the scenes of talking head interviews. And so along with Sheehan’s unimpressive voiceover “FLicKeR” feels like television, like a ‘special assignment’ piece of journalism we’d see on CBC, or Dateline NBC. That immeasurable big screen cinematic quality is the missing ingredient to elevate it into Errol Morris level of filmmaking.

The film's popularity at film festivals has unearthed a cult audience for this subject matter. “FLicKeR” plays a limited theatrical run locally in Toronto. Though it’s not everyone’s cup of tea Beatnik or psychedelic nostalgia fans may be entranced like the Flicker. Can’t make it to Toronto for the screening? You can always try out the Flicker sensation at the film’s website: www.flickerflicker.com. Happy dreaming.



Tuesday, 25 November 2008

TROPIC THUNDER


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

***1/2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the spoof humour “Tropic Thunder” is a great action movie. Watch for the action-movie style editing at the end of the film. As the film wraps up its subplots with a series of scenes intercut with an effective emotional rollercoaster style we’re reminded that Ben Stiller is as good a filmmaker as he is a comedian. “Tropic Thunder” is now on DVD and the funny holds up just as well on second viewing.

"Tropic Thunder" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.



Monday, 24 November 2008

WALL-E


Wall-E (2008) dir. Andrew Stanton

***1/2

Looking back after 12 years of feature filmmaking under Pixar's belt it's a remarkable string of successful and entertaining films - no duds whatsoever. Yet, when watching "Ratatouille" last year, a sameness in tone was setting in. Of course the audience for these films are kids first, adults second, but with the immense creative potential for the medium I couldn't help think it was time to break from the formula and create something truly groundbreaking for the medium/genre.

“Wall-E” manages to do just that - almost. This time director Andrew Stanton and the Pixar bunch go back to their earliest pre-Toy Story short films for inspiration - visual storytelling, attention to detail and a healthy dose of gosh-darn cuteness. With very little dialogue "Wall-E" tells it's marvelous tale of a stranger in a strange land with the visionary delight and social consciousness of the great films of the silent era. The film also doesn't know how much of good thing it has, and devolves in the second half into Pixar autopilot which had me yearning to see the first half again.

The setting is the future – Earth has become a wasteland of excessive consumption. Garbage is piled higher than skyscrapers and the extra large big box superstores are now empty shells. There is no one around, anywhere, except for one cockroach and one really cute robot, Wall-E. Wall-E is a waste disposal unit – about one foot square- like R2D2 meets Short Circuit. Every day Wall-E fastidiously goes about his business of finding junk, and either storing it in his small bachelor pad or squeezing it into stackable squares.

One day a spaceship lands on earth and drops off another robot, Eva – a reconnaissance version of Wall-E, except sleeker, more streamlined, more advanced and (most likely) female. Wall-E bonds with Eva as he educates her on his simple way of life. When Eve is forced to return where she came from Wall-E hitches a ride to a giant big-box cruise ship for humans in space. The hustle and bustle of the new world is culture shock, but Wall-E is a survivor and he inadvertently sparks a revolution against the despotic tyranny of the evil Hal-like robot Otto and return the lazy, gluttonous humans back to earth.

Let’s just get out of the way the fact that’s it’s thoroughly entertaining stuff for its entire 90mins and probably the best CG animated film ever made. Done. Now we can really talk about the near genius Pixar almost achieves and the frustration of missing that boat. The first third features only Wall-E and his mute cockroach friend. There is no dialogue, and so the film, like many critics have likened it to, is Chaplin-esque. Like the Little Tramp, Wall-E’s actions are like a silent dance of actions, movements and gestures. There's nobility in his work, but we equate his loneliness with sadness and words need not be spoken to convey the emotions of his sparse existence.

Then Fred Willard shows up on a TV screen (a live-action Fred Willard) which made me think that this film may not be an animated film at all – that real humans might, for the first time, join in a Pixar film. I salivated at the potential of merging live action with Pixar animation. In fact, with Wall-E alone on Earth, I never felt like I was watching an animated film at all. The rendering of the robot, the cockroach and the wasteland locale looked as good as live action – certainly better than any world George Lucas has created. The second half is a different film. The inspired CG existentialism gives way to cartoon people – once again. The same animation of humans we’ve seen in every Pixar film before it.

And there’s nothing wrong with that – it provides more than enough humour and exciting action to ramp the film up to a satisfying climax. But the disappointment, however slight, of not meeting the expectations it set in the first half cannot be ignored.

Could “Wall-E” have sustained the inspired ingenuity within the self-imposed restraints of its first half? Most certainly. It’s a shame Stanton didn’t try, but he still delivered to us enough intelligence, visual brilliance and cuteness to consider the film a masterpiece of its genre. Enjoy.

"Wall-E" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment



CITY GIRL


City Girl (1930) dir. F.W. Murnau
Starring: Charles Farrell, Mary Duncan, David Torrence, Edith Yorke

***1/2

By 1930 ‘the sound era’ was well underway. F. W. Murnau ("Sunrise"), the German emigrant, was still working in the medium. One of his greatest films was made in the sound era – “City Girl”. Technically “City Girl” was a ‘talkie’ as well. Murnau filmed two versions, but unfortunately only the silent version remains. Murnau was a master at silent film and so, it’s difficult to imagine “City Girl” being improved with sound.

It’s a simple story. Charles Farell plays Lem, a rural farm kid is sent to the big city of Chicago to sell the family crop. He’s been given specific instructions by Pa to sell it for $15 a bushel, else they won’t be able to survive for the year. Once in the market he sees the price of wheat start to drop sharply and he sells it for $13.

Meanwhile, when he’s not playing the market he goes to lunch at a local diner, where he catches the eye of a beautiful young waitress Kate (Mary Duncan). They fall in love and before Lem leaves he asks for her hand in marriage. Together they move back to the farm. The honeymoon is short lived as soon as Lem’s crotchety old father takes an instant disliking to Kate. Lem doesn’t stand up for his wife, which causes their relationship to falter just as quickly as it grew.

The structure provides the audience with two unique film experiences. The Chicago scenes show Lem as the outsider to the fast-paced Big City world – a world so unforgiving and high pressure it causes Lem to sell his crop short. The second half takes place entirely at the farm, where Kate is out of place. Like “Sunrise” the splintered film comments on the differences between city and country.

In “Sunrise”, Murnau's mobile camera provided a fluid, dream-like point of view into these worlds, in "City Girl" Murnau’s photography of both environments are tableau Whistler-esque portrait-style framing. Though not as flashy, Murnau still frames some stunning imagery.

The remastered DVD from 20th Century Fox, included in their new Murnau/Borzage/Fox box set is stunning to look at. Ernest Palmer’s B&W is so crisp it's indiscernible from B&W imagery shot decades later.

Watching “City Girl” it’s hard to remember this is the same director of German expressionist classics like “Nosferatu” and “Faust.” Sadly it was the last film from this great filmmaker. Murnau died a year later in a tragic car accident. Enjoy.

“City Girl” is available in a special Box Set from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.


Sunday, 23 November 2008

QUANTUM OF SOLACE


Quantum of Solace (2008) dir. Marc Forster
Starring: Daniel Craig, Matheiu Amalric and Olga Kurylenko

**

Guest review by Blair Stewart

Mild Spoiler Alert:

Blazing forward where "Casino Royale" left off, Daniel Craig's second James Bond vehicle "Quantum of Solace" is all-action and no script. We open on 007 speeding along the lakes of Italy with the mysterious Mr. White in the trunk of the car and henchmen on the chase. After the exhaustive opening we crash headlong into boat skirmishes and rooftop shootouts bringing to mind the breakneck pacing of the successful "Bourne" sequels, which has influenced and been influenced by our English spy. There's no foreplay here, its just straight to business for the new Bond.

Throughout "QofS" our hero dispenses with basic dialogue to seek revenge for the death of his double-crossed love Vesper from "Casino Royale" while the invaluable Judi Dench as MI5 boss M sweeps up his messes and keeps the film grounded amidst the pyrotechnics. Bond will follow a trail to the all-powerful Quantum organization and its dummy environmental corporation Greene Planet led by the nefarious Dominic Greene (Matheiu Amalric), who's stealing Bolivian water. While water is certainly relevant, its not as romantic a McGuffin as Fort Knox's gold.

Matheiu Amalric follows in a line of recent Hollywood antagonists like "Live Free or Die Hard's" Timothy Oliphant or Aaron Eckhart from "The Dark Knight" Two-Face who are completely overmatched against their heroic foil. James Bond is a brilliant, skilled international super spy with a relaxed attitude towards murder and Dominic Green is a corrupt industrialist who, based upon his muscle, should seriously consider renting the services of Oddjob or Jaws.

It's admirable that the lead villain is a nod towards the real life baddies in this franchise's recent pursuit of realism but it doesn't make for strong dramatic tension when 007 is matched against the likes of Jeffrey Skilling.

Helping Bond is Olga Kurylenko as Camille Montes, the sexiest Bond girl in the series, and as a half-Russian agent for the Bolivian secret service who doesn't utter a word of Spanish during the film, one of the most inexplicable overwritten characters.

Making too brief an appearance is the great Jeffrey Wright from "Casino Royale" as Felix Leiter, the CIA insider who is an accomplice of James. As Judi Dench shows in this film, if you have Jeffrey Wright, use him as much as you can.

In the iconic role of Agent 007, Daniel Craig is still a relief from the aging ham of Pierce Bronsan, but his Bond is almost unpleasant to spend time with, an automaton of cool, capable destruction without the two vital qualities of previous Bond performances, debonair wit and chemistry with his Bond girls.

In the director's chair Marc Forster is capable in his action and cross-cutting storylines, but his flair can't hide a plot stretched thin and flung around the globe like a hot-potato.

My suggestion for the follow-up; slow it down, pump up the bad guy, leave the Bolivian water to the "other" cinema spies
and make a call to Chan-Wook Park, the Korean wunderkind is born to make a great Bond film.


Saturday, 22 November 2008

THE ASCENT


The Ascent (1977) dir. Larisa Shepitko
Starring: Boris Plotnikov, Vladimir Gostyukhin, Sergei Yokovlev and Anatoli Solonitsin

****

Guest review by Greg Klymkiw

Survival and sacrifice are at the forefront of Larisa Shepitko’s harrowing World War II drama “The Ascent” – only fitting since the film, at once simple, at the next complex, is ultimately an allegorical portrait of Christ and Judas in a world turned topsy-turvy by the senseless strife and slaughter during the German invasion and occupation of Belarus. That notion of faith, extracted as it is from the New Testament and applied to such issues as love and betrayal of country are completely at home within the context and backdrop so vividly and evocatively portrayed.

For the Ukrainian-born Shepitko, herself a student of Master Ukrainian filmmaker Olexander Dovzhenko, it is clear why this story resonated with her and why she applied such staggering Dovzhenkian compositions to the picture. Coming from Ukraine, a country and culture that had been under the yoke of occupation and suppression almost from its very beginnings and having been mentored by a brilliant filmmaker who himself had been repressed and censored by Joseph Stalin, the mixture of frank political material coupled with a story and central relationship derived from the opiate of the masses, is illustrative of Shepitko’s artistic bravery at such a relatively early stage of her career in the repressive Soviet regime that frowned upon anything that deviated from the State disavowal of all things based in faith.

The story is a simple one. It is also both tragic and compelling. Ultimately, however, it is the simple narrative backbone that allows Shepitko to inspire an audience’s engagement in the proceedings as well as opportunities for contemplation and reflection both during and after seeing the film.

Following a rag-tag band of partisans through the snowy steppes and forest of Belarus, we are introduced to our pair of mismatched protagonists, the hardened, practical Rybak (Vladimir Gostukhin) and the physically weak, but thoughtful Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) as they volunteer to journey through the bitter cold of the dangerous, Nazi-infested region to find food for the tired and starving freedom fighters. The journey begins to take, almost from the beginning, a series of increasingly disastrous and dangerous detours as Sotnikov becomes sicker with bronchitis and a bullet wound while Rybak becomes so intent upon survival that he begins to question all the sacrifices he is enduring. They both find themselves face-to-face with having to make the ultimate sacrifice for each other, those around them and most importantly, home and country.

Given that most of us are more than aware of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, it is also a testament to Shepitko’s cinematic storytelling prowess that we are still gripped by the proceedings in spite of having a good inkling of where the story will go. In fact, it is the inevitability of where things are headed that keeps us glued to the screen – we keep hoping against hope that the inevitable will be circumvented and, of course, Shepitko plays the portent with harrowing assuredness and style.

Interestingly, “The Ascent” is not dissimilar to another great Soviet war picture, Grigori Chukrai’s “Ballad of a Soldier”. On the surface, both pictures deal with soldiers who have a specific goal, but on their journey they face a series of obstacles and detours that painfully keep them from reaching their ultimate destination. The difference, however, is that Chukrai’s film (also full of lush, gorgeously composed exteriors in the Dovzhenkian mold) involves detours routed firmly in sacrifice wherein the central character is kept from visiting his destitute mother because he is continually sidetracked by being duty-bound to helping other people with their own challenges. In “The Ascent”, it is both betrayal and survival that provide the obstacles. This basic difference highlights why one picture feels romantic and the other is overwhelmingly tragic.

That said, “The Ascent” is equally powerful and perhaps even more so since the will to survive – at any cost – becomes so poignant. Sacrifice, which involves principles rather than that of the plight of individuals, takes “The Ascent” into (ironically) political territory that mirrors the struggles of everyone living within the Soviet system. As an audience we are forced to confront a system of repression (Soviet-ruled Belarus) that is also being occupied and repressed by a foreign aggressor (Germany). The enemy is sadly, from within and outside so that our characters are surrounded – almost in futility. The domestic collaborators with the Nazis are at once evil and altogether human. We understand the need to collaborate while condemning it at the same time.

Living in a system of repression like Belarus and under the yoke of a madman like Stalin, the Nazis provide a way out of the madness – an alternative to Stalin. Two of the supporting characters in this narrative are perfectly emblematic of this. One is a village elder (Sergei Yakovlev) who is a reluctant collaborator while the other is a local Nazi interrogator (Anatoli Solonytsin), a cold, practical bureaucrat. The former is a man who seeks safety in collaboration for his family and friends, while the latter is a pure opportunist – someone who is just as happy serving the dictator du jour (Hitler) as he would be engaging in a Stalinist purge. These dichotomous personalities brilliantly mirror Rybak and Sotnikov – especially since their journeys and the inevitable outcomes are so similar: suggesting, of course, that notions of sacrifice and betrayal, collaboration and resistance, good and evil are almost always grey areas in war, and in particular, within repressive regimes.

What is not a grey area in “The Ascent” is suffering – represented not only by the physical pain and death of violence, but by the land itself. Here is where Shepitko’s kino-eye is especially evocative. The bitter cold and the endless, bone-chilling whiteness of snow overwhelm all the exterior shots. One of the more intensely powerful moments involves Rybak dragging a sick and wounded Sotnikov through the snow – for what seems like forever – as Nazi bullets fly at them. Shepitko’s camera is like a mad pit bull’s jaws clenching at its quarry – it seems to never let go of these two men as they painstakingly make their way through the snow.

Throughout the film we see the actors enduring literal physical hardships. Seeing “The Ascent” again, I was reminded of the genius of Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo”, a movie that has suffered unnecessarily over the years due to the hype surrounding the mad German (and ethnically Slavic) director’s decision to force his own cast and crew to drag a riverboat through the jungle and over a mountain. When writing at an earlier juncture about Shepitko’s “Krylya/Wings” I was also reminded of Herzog – in that case, it was the documentary “Little Dieter Needs To Fly”. Visually, Herzog and Shepitko are very different. Herzog’s visuals in drama and documentary, while stunning, have the immediacy of cinema vérité while Shepitko is rooted in the classical, sumptuously composed imagery her mentor Dovzhenko was known for. What Shepitko and Herzog share, however, is an unflinching search for truth in image, and in particular, the use of truth in image in the telling of stories cinematically.

Speaking of sharing, it is also worth noting that some of the finest war films of all time were made under the Soviet system – many of which put the best American examples of this genre to shame. That said, Ukrainians appear to have directed the very best Soviet war films. Olexander Dovzhenko (“Arsenal”, “Schors” and his WWII documentaries), Sergei Bondarchuk (“Destiny of a Man”, “War and Peace”), Grigori Chukrai (“Ballad of a Soldier”, “Cold Skies”, “The 41st”) and Shepitko have powerfully and evocatively portrayed the horrors and even glories of war and share Ukrainian ethnicity. Perhaps it is coincidence, or perhaps it is worthy of further study. In any event, it is certainly worth noting. It is also worth reiterating that all the abovementioned filmmakers come from a country that has always been dominated and repressed by other powers. With “The Ascent”, it is finally survival and sacrifice that drives the picture and makes it a film that is haunting, unforgettable and tragic.

Ukrainians, it seems, and others who have lived under repressive regimes, have always known something about survival, sacrifice and war.

“The Ascent” is available on DVD on Criterion’s Eclipse Label.

Friday, 21 November 2008

BOYS IN THE BAND


Boys in the Band (1970) dir. William Friedkin
Starring: Kenneth Nelson, Peter White, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman

***

“Boys in the Band” is one of the benchmarks of cinema. One of the first films to portray overtly gay characters intended for mainstream audiences. The film is also notable for being an early William Friedkin film – just before his phenomenal 1970’s successes “The French Connection” and “Exorcist”.

The new DVD release makes for good timing. Gus Van Sant’s terrific biopic “Milk”, on Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to hold public office opens in limited release this week. As well, the controversial repeal of gay marriage in California has put the issue of gay rights back into the spotlight.

“Boys in the Band” isn’t about gay rights, but it was arguably the ‘coming out’ party for Hollywood into the regular public. Before 1970, gay characters were disguised as fashion designers, hairstylists, or deviant anti-social types (like the murderous ‘roommates’ in Hitchcock’s “Rope”). So it was natural coinciding with liberalization of Hollywood that gays could comfortably come out of the closet on screen.

The film, written by Mart Crowley based on his successful Broadway play, portrays the ups and downs of a night in the life of a group of gay men in New York. Michael (Kenneth Nelson) has assembled his coterie of close friends for a surprise birthday party for his pal Harold (Leonard Frey). But when Michael’s old college roommate (straight roommate that is), Alan, shows up it spurs conflict which will test the relationships with each other.

The film waxes and wanes between comedy and tragedy. It’s a telegraphed trajectory, often contrived to create and maintain conflict. At one point Michael’s friend Alan starts a physical fight with Michael’s most flamboyant and thus threatening friend Emory. Despite punches being thrown Alan, for some undiscernable reason, continues to hang out at the party.

Friedkin lays on the metaphors a little heavy too. At the height of the party it starts to rain, bringing everyone inside, which is when the film turns darker (cinema note: bad things happen when it rains on screen). Once the party goes inside, Michael, seemingly without reason, turns into devilish manipulator – forcing everyone into a complex game of telephone truth or dare.

Crowley via Michael’s character reveals the dark internal self-loathing many closeted homosexuals felt at the time. It’s on the nose, but Crowley and Friedkin needed to be very clear about the film and it message. After decades of closeted cinematic sexuality, subtly with these issues understandably takes a backseat.

Friedkin’s direction is sharp. He does his best to lift the material outside of its inherent ‘theatricalness’ – with some confident camerawork – sometimes handheld and documentarylike (as in “French Connection”) sometimes traditional locked off coverage. His assured direction makes the confined apartment seems less clausterphobic.

“Boys in the Band” seems surprisingly relevant today, the dialogue uses terms, like “the closet”, “ménage” which were probably new to audiences at the time, but are commonplace now. The variety of gay personas seems authentic and up to date – free of clichés, which would be assumed for such an early film. Watching the film as pure entertainment may disappoint, but as a cultural benchmark it's an important film. Enjoy.

"Boys in the Band" is available on DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Thursday, 20 November 2008

KUNG FU PANDA


Kung Fu Panda (2008) dir. Mark Osborne, John Stevenson
Starring: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Seth Rogan, Jackie Chan

***

An unassuming kung-fu fan goes from lowly noodle chef in the family business to an ass-kicking saviour of the land. Sounds like the plot of “Forbidden Kingdom” – the recent Jackie Chan/Jet Li vehicle. The cute talking animals of “Kung Fu Panda” was a major turn-off during it’s ginormous summer hype machine. It turns out the filmmakers did their research and studied the classic elements of martial arts films. So it’s no surprise that "Forbidden Kingdom" sounds the same as “Kung Fu Panda” – both are surprisingly decent family action flicks rooted in fanboy appreciation.

Jack Black provides the voice of Po, a youngster who dreams of becoming a martial arts master. But Po is a fat Panda with no athletic skills whatsoever. His destiny seems to lie in the family business of noodle making. When local kung fu master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) foresees an attack by his former protégée Tai Lung (Ian McShane) in an attempt to conquer the Valley of Peace Lung decides to crown his next Dragon Warrior – 'the one' who will save the people and conquer Lung.

During the ceremony Po breaks into the arena and inadvertently gets crowned as the Dragon Warrior. Oogway’s talented disciples, the Furious Five, are outrated. Especially Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) who has to train Po. Po proceeds to fail every test Shifu presents him. At Po’s worst moment his disapproving father tells him the secret which made him succeed at his business. Po then discovers his own strength which will defeat the evil Tiger warrior.

It’s a fairly predictable path, which ends with a rather silly Eureka moment for Po. Essentially Po discovers that his greatest weakness will become his strength. You guessed it, Po’s fatness defeats the mighty Tai Lung. It’s probably not the best lesson for young kids, but the bigger picture message is about being comfortable in one own skin, and that anyone can achieve their goals no matter what.

The computer animation, as expected, is great. In fact, these phenomenal technical achievements are now taken for granted. The directors craft a number of stylized fight sequences – the most impressive is Tai Lung’s escape from prison. Because the camera can be placed anywhere and moved at any speed the action leans toward the chaotic than exciting. For a kids movie exaggerating action and movement we have to accept, but I wonder how the film would have played if even a little bit of physical realism stayed in the picture.

With a box office of over $200million "Kung Fu Panda" 2, 3 and more are inevitable. But there more than enough kung fu lore to mine for more material. Enjoy.

“Kung Fu Panda” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

BAND OF BROTHERS


Band of Brothers (2001) dir. Various
Starring: Damian Lewis, Donnie Wahlberg, Scott Grimes, Ron Livingstone, Peter Youngblood Hills

****

After “The Sopranos” bowed in 1999, one of the next programs in HBO's dominance of quality television was 2001’s “Band of Brothers”. The series is comprised of 10 hour-long episodes, so it’s neither a traditional TV series nor a traditional mini-series. Just a unique benchmark in television history.

Of course it was the brainchild of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, who wanted to parlay their “Saving Private Ryan” success onto television. The source material came in the form of Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same name. With over $120 million to spend, it was easily the most expensive television ever made.

So it’s a given that the series looks and sound 100% authentic. It’s certainly authentic to the new cinematic language of war, that is, the bleached out, desaturated look of “Saving Private Ryan”. Other than CG animation, the new Blu-Ray version of the series is certainly the sharpest looking pictures I’ve seen on my television.

The budget also ensured that the technically complex battle scenes are up to the Spielberg quality. And indeed, it fits right in with “Saving Private Ryan” and any filmed war scenes ever put on the big screen.

But a repetition of battle scenes for 10 hours will get tedious very fast. Where the series succeeds is how the filmmakers mixed action with character. Take the first two episodes. Ep1 begins showing Easy Company in basic training. They are raw and enthusiastic soldiers ready to be shaped into soldiers. David Schwimmer does a good against-type turn as the anxiety-stricken drill sergeant who makes the soldiers’ lives a living hell. Amid the abuse and backdoor military politics the soldiers bond with each other and become surrogate brothers (hence the title). The series continues the company’s journey starting with D-Day and all the way to the liberation of Europe.

Action is not constant, but intermittent, sometimes planned out, sometime random and unexpected. The second episode begins exactly where Ep 1 left off – in a plane ready to drop the soldiers from the air and onto the ground. The episode leads up to the first action for the Company. After the paratroops regroup on the ground, their mission is to take out a trio of artillery guns which have been pounding the Normandy Beaches. The filmmakers are careful to have us understand the tactics, choreography and strategy of the battle.

No episode of “Band of Brothers” is the same. As the Company moves through Europe so does the audience, experiencing all the sights, sounds and pain of combat. Using “Saving Private Ryan” as it’s bible, we’re saved from overdramatic heroics, patriotism, romantic rendezvous, love letters home or other syrupy melodrama. I never been in combat before and I know nothing on television will come close to the real thing, but I’m glad to know my enjoyment of the series is not mutually exclusive of a real soldier’s enjoyment of the series. Enjoy.

“Band of Brothers” is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

MILK


Milk (2008) dir. Gus Van Sant
Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsh, James Franco, Diego Luna, Josh Brolin

***1/2

Harvey Milk, the inspirational gay rights leader had a triumphant and tragic life. Just by the nature of his unique name, I was aware of the man, yet I knew nothing of him. Milk was to the gay rights movement in the 70’s as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was to the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s – a man whose life was dictated by his movement, and whose life, in death, became synonymous with the cause.

By coincidence with the shocking reversal of the gay marriage laws in California, Harvey Milk is as relevant now as in 1978. Gus Van Sant, one of the most consistently intriguing independent filmmakers working today is the ideal man to bring this story to the big screen. His career has shown range even broader then Danny Boyle's - from quality schmaltz like “Good Will Hunting” to intensely personal and experimental art statements like “Elephant” or “Last Days”. And really, does anyone want to see Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg make this story?

In “Milk” Van Sant exercises his “Good Will Hunting” muscles executing an inspirational political biopic which reaches the dramatic high bar it needs to reach to do justice to his cause. Van Sant, working from a script by Dustin Lance Black, condenses the years of 1970 to 1978. Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, a local camera store owner in the Castro district of San Francisco who single handedly creates the gay rights movement and becomes the first openly gay elected official in California. We meet his colleagues and lovers who he befriends and alienates in the name of the cause. We see the political battles in front of and behind closed doors and the sneaky deals and backstabbing it takes to create action.

Van Sant appears to have watched some of the great biopics to both borrow from and improve upon in telling the “Milk” story. Fans of his phenomenal experimental work of the past five years may be disappointed with how traditional he is. Van Sant frames the story with a familiar 'narration in the present'/'flashbacks to the past' method of storytelling. In order to condense eight years of time inevitably this leads to an episodic feel. But Van Sant’s visual skills minimize this as much as possible.

Perhaps inspired by the work of Oliver Stone he smartly uses as much archival footage as possible to set the scene and put us in the time and place of 1970's San Francisco.(Coincidentally, it's shot by Harris Savides who also shot David Fincher's epic San Fran film, "Zodiac"). His careful shot choices and creative editing elevate the stock footage use beyond mere exposition.

Yet even within the most traditional scenes Van Sant finds a way to frame a dialogue scenes with his unique artistic sensibilities. Take the first scene when Milk picks with his longtime lover Scott Smith (James Franco). It’s a classic courtship scene, shot in a two-shot profile with a unique angle to the camera. It’s barely noticeable, just enough a tilt to make us pay attention.

Van Sant assembles a superb cast of actors who get intimate with each other and the audience. Sean Penn is near-pitch-perfect as Milk. And rest assured, Van Sant keeps Penn’s tendency to go over-the-top in check. In a couple of scenes toward the end Penn does let loose like only he can, but by the time they come we believe 100% he is Harvey Milk. Jame Franco, Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna all give sympathetic and inspired performances, but once again, it’s Josh Brolin who comes in and steals his scenes as Milk’s sometimes friend, sometimes political enemy, Dan White. Kudos to Van Sant and Black for not letting the antagonistic aspects of his character run away turning him into a ‘villain’. It’s a very special and important role.

By using his “Good Will Hunting” muscle its apparent Van Sant’s goal is to get mainstream audiences to watch and learn from the film. In the final act, Van Sant hits the right buttons and maximizes the impact of the tragic end of Milk’s short life (note, this is not spoiler, this is told to us in the very first scene). And so the timing of “Milk” with current events is a stroke of decent luck, but it’s an uphill battle to sell a gay political film biopic to mainstream America. Enjoy.



Monday, 17 November 2008

THE TALL T


The Tall T (1957) dir. Budd Boetticher
Starring: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt, John Hubbard

***1/2

One of the most influential actor/director collaborations in the history of film are the films of Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher. In the late 1950’s the duo made a number of Westerns which would influence filmmakers from the French New Wave to Martin Scorsese. Admittedly I wasn’t aware of this significance until Sony released its reverent Boetticher Box Set. The first film in this series is “The Tall T”.

Randolph Scott plays Brennan, a typical western genre protagonist – an unattached aged journeyman labourer who specializes in cattle rangling. After years traveling the countryside doing other people’s work, he’s finally bought his ranch and is ready to settle down.

While hitching a ride to his ranch with a pair of upper class newlyweds, their wagon is ambushed a trio of thieves. The cowardly passenger Willard makes a deal with the wily leader of the bunch Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and offers the men a ransom to be paid by his rich father-in-law. This buys Brennan and Willard’s wife Doretta enough time to stage a coup before they become Usher’s next victims.

“The Tall T” exemplifies the aesthetic and allure of the Boetticher/Scott pictures. Boetticher strips down the genre to its bare essentials of character and theme. Boetticher puts his characters in the arena reserved for low budget filmmakers – minimal actors, in a confined space where character conflict and dialogue move the story forward.

In the “The Tall T” characters are not so much confined as 'isolated'. And for two thirds of the film it’s the relationship Brennan and his foe Frank Usher which drives the story. The film was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, coincidentally made the same year as his original “3:10 to Yuma”. Like “Yuma”, Boetticher establishes a charismatic bad guy – not a prototypical gunslinger, dressed in black, killing without reason. Boetticher takes time to get to know Usher and although we never sympathize with him, we admire him. Richard Boone’s characterization reminded me of Alan Rickman’s nuanced and admirable Hans Gruber in “Die Hard”.

Without showing off Boetticher creates a slow burning, quiet but palpable tension. Look closely and you can see the influence of Boetticher’s framing, pacing and editing in Sergio Leone’s stylish westerns. Watch the introduction of the trio of hombres at the train station. As Brennan’s coach approaches, Usher and his men slowly emerge from the shadows. Boetticher’s high angle wideshot is uncannily reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s arrival in the opening of “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

The new Sony Box Set features a comprehensive feature length documentary on the life and career of Budd Boetticher. Since Leone is dead, we can only imply his influence, but heavy-hitters such as Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Taylor Hackford all pay humble reverence to the man Boetticher. Enjoy.

“The Tall T” and the Budd Boetticher Collection are available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sunday, 16 November 2008

THE CINEMA OF DANNY BOYLE


“Slumdog Millionaire”, Danny Boyle’s latest film, is in selected theatres at the moment and everyone should make the time to see it. It’s been a beguiling career for Mr.Boyle. He’s one of the most stylishly distinct filmmakers working today. A “Danny Boyle film” is truly that. Going through each of his films provides a unique pathway of the ups and down, artistic consistencies and changes creating a unique body of work for this ‘auteur’ director.

Danny Boyle’s career began in theatre and then television. Perhaps the most significant early television credit of his is as producer of Alan Clarke’s final film “Elephant” (which would inspire Gus Van Sant’s film of the same name). But his cinematic oeuvre would begin in 1995:

SHALLOW GRAVE (1995)
Starring: Ewen McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccelston

Like many great filmmakers, Boyle began his career with a sublime neo-noir. In Edinburgh Scotland three friends are on the hunt for a new roommate. Their chosen flatmate turns out to be involved in shady racketeering. One day he’s found dead in his room, with a briefcase full of money. Instead of turning it in they bury the body and keep the money. The money becomes the virus of greed which gradually pits the trio as bitter enemies of each other.

This was first of three films with Boyle’s own coterie of key collaborators – Andrew MacDonald, producer, John Hodge, writer, and Ewen McGregor, actor, not to mention his technical collaborators Brian Tufano, cinematographer and editor Masahiro Hirakubo. While at a glance, a far cry stylistically from “Slumdog Millionaire”, the Boyle evolution is evident, clever portrait-style framing, distinct bass-heavy dance music creating a distinct rhythm and control of pace.




TRAINSPOTTING (1996)
Starring: Ewen McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kelly MacDonald

With help from the same creative team as "Shallow Grave" Boyle's second film instantly became a seminal British film. Based on Irvine Welsh’s dark and comic novel, “Trainspotting” tells the story of five Edinburgh lads and how heroin bonds them and breaks them up.

Boyle amplified the cinema language established in “Shallow Grave” creating a blistering assault of music, imagery, violence, sex, drug use, and above all rich British humour. In fact the Scottish accents were so strong an alternate toned down dialogue tracked had to be used for the U.S. release. The film’s opening scene, a rambunctious running chase through the streets of Edinburgh - a device Boyle would reuse in subsequent films – sets the pace early on. Boyle’s ear for music helped make the new wave/Brit pop soundtrack as successful as the film.




A LIFE LESS ORDINARY (1997)
Starring: Ewen McGregor, Cameron Diaz, Holly Hunter, Delroy Lindo, Ian Holm

Boyle famously passed on “Alien Resurrection” to make “A Life Less Ordinary” the last film of the Boyle-MacDonald-Hodge-McGregor collaborations. The success of “Trainspotting” allowed Boyle to cast American stars thus making it his biggest film yet and his first taste of 'Hollywood'. Ewen McGregor plays a naïve Scotsman fired from his job who then kidnaps the boss’ daughter (Cameron Diaz) as revenge. Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter play benevolent angels who seek to bring the couple together in the name of love.

The film was a colossal failure, due to bloated and inconsistent plotting – a common trap for young directors of grabbing farther than one’s reach. Amid the mess are a couple of great stand alone sequences which fit well into the world of Boyle including an energetic barroom dance/dream sequence with Ewen McGregor and Cameron Diaz. But the failure of “A Life Less Ordinary” would mark the beginning of the low valley of Boyle’s career.




THE BEACH (2000)
Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Virginie Ledoyen, Guillaume Canet

Controversy surrounding “The Beach” began before shooting even started. With the casting of Leonardo Di Caprio, who was the hottest actor on the planet at the time, the friendship and thus collaboration of Boyle and Ewen McGregor, who was originally slated to star, instantly ended. Apparently McGregor and Boyle are still not on speaking terms.

Once production started things seemed to get worse. Filming in Thailand, Boyle and the producers intended to ‘give back’ to the country by hiring 300 Thai shadow technicians to work with the crew. The endeavour became an arduous immovable beast stunting Boyle’s famous run and gun style. As a result the film is one of Boyle’s least inspired, and least energetic. But as the collaboration with McGregor closed, serendipitously Boyle entered into a new relationship with writer Alex Garland.




STRUMPET and VACUUMMING COMPLETELY NUDE IN PARADISE (2001)
Starring: Christopher Eccleston, Timothy Spall

In what appears to be a self-imposed demotion. Boyle went back to television to cleanse his soul of his two Hollywood nightmares. In 2001 Boyle experimented with the digital medium and directed two BBC TV MOWs. “Vacuuming” was an absurd black comedy about a pathetic door-to-door vacuum salesman who desires to win the “Golden Hoover” trophy as best salesman. “Strumpet” is even more absurd, a crazy street person who travels with a pack of dogs befriends a lovely young musician, together forming a music act called “Strumpet”.

Neither film quite fits into the traditional world of Danny Boyle – thematically nor stylistically – but as an exercise in lo-fi grassroots filmmaking both were important films to make. Boyle teamed up for the first time with digital master Anthony Dot Mantle as cinematographer – a collaboration which would continue over into the second half of his career.




ALIEN LOVE TRIANGLE (???)
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Heather Graham, Courtney Cox

Before we get to “28 Days Later” we have to discuss this peculiar entry in his filmography. “Alien Love Triangle” was a fully completed 30mins short film which was to be one third of a Miramax sci-fi anthology project. The other two films actually got turned into unimpressive feature films – Guillermo Del Toro’s “Mimic” and Gary Fleder’s “Imposter.”

The imdb summary reads like this: “Physics lecturer Steven Chesterman finally realizes his long cherished dream of perfecting a teleportation device and rushes home to tell his wife, Alice. But she has news of her own - she's a male alien disguised as a human female. Then Elizabeth arrives, another alien who is to escort Alice back to the planet Nulark.”

The film has rarely been seen and still resides locked up in the Miramax vaults. The film did provide material for a fun British television piece about it’s 'record-setting' world premiere (check it out here):




28 DAYS LATER (2002)
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston, Naomi Harris

In response to the bloated studio machine debacle that was “The Beach” and after the soul cleansing catharsis of his two DV MOWs, Boyle returned to the big screen refreshed and energized. Boyle literally stripped out the gloss of his earlier pictures and delivered one of the dirtiest, nastiest and most intense horror films ever made,“28 Days Later”. With the film’s success Boyle single handedly revitalized the zombie subgenre.

This was the days before High Definition, and so Boyle and his DOP Anthony Dot Mantle chose to use a barebones prosumer style PAL camera to shoot their film. The duo managed to create some of the most astonishing imagery ever produced on digital video. Stylistically it represents perfectly the post “Beach” career for Boyle. Mantle’s camera is edited with a pace more breathtaking than anything in Boyle’s Brian Tufano era. Much of the film is handheld, but never ‘shakey’ or nauseating. Boyle mixed well his handheld work with tradition locked-off classic cinematic style. Boyle’s musical tastes remain intact, giving us pitch-perfect choices of pop music from “Grandaddy” to “Godspeed You Black Emperor”.




MILLIONS (2004)
Starring: Alex Etel, James Nesbitt

In 2003/04 Danny Boyle was mere days away from going to camera on “Worchester Cold Storage” a true story about a tragic warehouse fire blaze, but fire fighters’ rallying against the film caused the production to be shut down.

Before this happened Boyle already had in the can this unusual change of pace – a family-friendly heart-warming flick, “Millions”. Based on a story by Frank Cotrell Boyce, “Millions” is about two young boys who find a briefcase full of stolen money. Thinking it’s a gift from God the boys give the money away like silent Santas.

Despite what could be perceived as syrupy wholesomeness the film bears Boyle’s distinct stamp. A number of sequences stand out specifically a raucuous bank robbery scene set to the muscular beat-heavy music of Muse. The larger than life fantasy aspects and Capra-esque feel-good-ness make this film the closest thematic cousin to “Slumdog Millionaire”.




SUNSHINE (2007)
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis

Boyle reteamed with Alex Garland for a third time with another ambitious change of pace – the sci-fi thriller “Sunshine”. Taking inspiration from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Solaris” would set most filmmakers up for disaster. Boyle’s film succeeds as a thought-provoking near-future thriller. Boyle and Garfield stay as close to reality as possible in order to tell a metaphysical story about existence.

It’s a flawed but often brilliant film. The third act, arguably lets its hair down too quickly, but not before Boyle has a chance to craft some exquisitely stunning sequences within the claustrophobia of space. Boyle rises to the challenge of keeping control of pace within the confines of a spaceship and in the quiet slowness of space. Pop music is left off the soundtrack, but he does manage to pull a beautiful ambient soundscape from Underworld musicians Karl Hyde and Rick Smith.




SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008)
Starring; Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Irfan Kahn

And so with all these other pictures in mind, it seems as if Boyle’s career were leading up to this film – if not his best, then certainly his most accessible and crowd-pleasing film.

“Slumdog” is a cornucopia of sound, imagery, and emotions. Without any stars or even Western faces, the film manages to capture to the best aspects of Hollywood escapism. Boyle embellishes every element of cinema – both technically and narratively – with full tilt cinematic force.



Saturday, 15 November 2008

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS - A Second Opinion


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) dir. Mark Herman
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Richard Johnson, Rupert Friend and David Hayman

***1/2

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

This movie should not work. By rights, it should be an utterly unpalatable and, even offensive, overtly manipulative and exploitative drama that renders the tragedy of genocide to something resembling fairytale Holocaust porn, especially since the story is told with three extremely huge hurdles for an audience to overcome. The first hurdle is the entire cast of British actors playing the roles of Germans and a variety of Eastern European Jews replete with full-on natural British accents. The second hurdle is the almost-hard-to-swallow notion that two boys could continue to sit on opposite sides of an electrified barbed-wire fence at Auschwitz and not be noticed – by ANYONE. These are two formidable adversaries to making this picture work. Then there is the third hurdle – the ending. It’s powerful, alright, but getting to it strains credibility.

So, why then, is this a terrific picture?

Simply put – it works – in spite of the abovementioned hurdles, which ultimately, are not that strenuous for an audience to surmount.

The tale is a simple one. Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an eight-year-old boy growing up in the cozy, comfy and idyllic world of Berlin. His Father (David Thewlis), a high-ranking officer receives a new assignment and is transferred to preside over Auschwitz, the horrific Nazi death camp. He moves his whole family – Bruno, an older sister and Mother (Vera Farmiga) to a huge country home. The death camps are just out of view of their new home, but Bruno soon notices that there is a farm he can see from a third story window – a farm populated by workers in striped pajamas. Bruno eventually and secretly makes his way to the “farm” where he meets a young Jewish boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who wears “striped pajamas” and lives on the “farm”. The two boys strike up a close friendship that grows, in spite of the strangeness of both of them living on two sides of the electrified barbed-wire fence. Bruno is innocent to the evil around him – his parents shelter him, to be sure, but his Father shelters the full truth about what’s going on in the camp from even his wife. Eventually, Bruno’s Mother realizes what her husband is presiding over. Her horrified response, the eventual disappearance of a Jewish prisoner who works as a domestic and the reality that a horrible fate awaits Shmuel begin to culminate in a spiral of emotional release and a whirlwind of tragedy.

The innocence of childhood against the backdrop of war is certainly not new territory, but what sets this picture apart from many others is the brilliant and consistent use of perspective. The point of view, for about 80% of the picture is that of Bruno’s. We are almost always seeing and hearing and experiencing things from the eyes of a child. This heightens our emotional response to the story, by forcing us to apply BOTH a perspective of innocence in addition to the awareness of adulthood (our own, that is). Remarkably, this does not split the focus, but has the unique effect of providing a sense of balance as we participate in the actions of the story – not in any journalistic sense, but in an emotional one

One picture I am reminded of when thinking about “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”, is Louis Malle’s immortal classic “Au Revoir, Les Enfants” – a picture that also details the innocent, but ultimately doomed friendship between two children on opposite sides of the fence (as it were). Malle’s picture is rooted, however, in memory. The perspective is that of Malle himself who chose to cinematically fictionalize his own experience as a child who was friends with a young Jewish boy during occupied France. The story is always filtered through that of a much older man who reflects back on his REALITY. “The Boy With The Striped Pajamas”, on the other hand, creates its OWN reality within a completely different structure – that of the fable.

And this is precisely why the picture works. It is, for all intents and purposes a fable – a succinct tale that uses its figures in the landscape to teach us (entertainingly) a moral lesson and, like all good fables, the didactic qualities of the form are supported by storytelling of the highest order. It is a world that first and foremost exists within its OWN world, while at the same time and in so doing, reflects OUR world. Within this context, the hurdles, or, if you will, potential flaws mentioned earlier, seem completely in keeping with the form in which the film is presented to us. The use of British accents, the suspension of disbelief on a number of fronts and the unabashed telling of a tale with a clear moral could, individually and certainly all together, result in wildly disparate and perhaps even negative responses.

It’s a bold move, especially considering the subject matter, and while I am not in the habit of applauding boldness for its own sake, the fact that it works so exquisitely is cause for celebration.

By the end of the picture, I felt transformed. I also felt utter devastation and was unable to leave my seat long after the end titles credits ended. One of the things that contributed to the powerful emotional feelings the picture elicited is the subtle, seamless, powerful and downright brilliant shift in perspective. The final portion of the picture shifts from the eyes of innocence to the eyes of adulthood, and, with eyes wide open, we are finally faced with the grim realities of what face us – not only within the context of the film, but within life itself.

Mankind has always lived in a world where genocide seems to be a sad fact of our existence. Stories such as these are always important ones to be told. Often, one reads criticism that there’s “nothing new” that can be done when examining the Holocaust dramatically. This, of course, is utter nonsense. As long as mankind exists, we will always have genocide until we all face and accept that this reality is so sickening and appalling that maybe, just maybe, as a species we will finally do something about it. Hopefully it will be art that contributes to exposing us to the terrible truths, but will also assist in removing the very definition of the word “genocide” from the dictionary – EXCEPT within a historical context.

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” may ultimately not be for everyone, but it’s a beautifully directed and acted tale of innocence maintained – in spite of the horror and pain of war.

Witnessing innocence NOT being lost is what finally moves us to both tears, and hopefully, to action.

Friday, 14 November 2008

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS


The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) dir. Mark Herman
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis

*1/2

Much praise has been heaped on this new slice of Miramax Oscar-fodder - a Holocaust story taken from the point of view of a child of Nazi parents who befriends young boy in a Concentration Camp, but who is not aware of the full implications of his imprisonment.

It's World War II Germany and Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an eight year old. His father (David Thewlis), a Nazi SS man has been reassigned to the country were he, his wife(Vera Farmiga) and Bruno will be moving to live. Bruno is too young to understand such complicated things like war, death, and specifically concentration camps. We hear conversations and conflicts about the treatment of Jews and the heinous activities in the camps from the child's point of view. Therefore terms like the "Final Solution" are never used, nor even the word Jew.

Bruno, an only child living in a remote area exercises his exploring nature by wondering off the compound to investigate what he thinks is a farm nearby. But its actually a concentration camp. Bruno makes friends with a Jewish boy named Shmuel, who 'looks funny' in his striped pyjamas. Not even Shmuel will let Bruno in on the big secret. Despite objections of his mother Bruno continues to see Shmuel, which, as the war comes to an end, could become a dangerous friendship to maintain.

The film is singular in it’s concept – one paper thin idea of implausiblty is the brush that paints the entire film. It's even told to us in the on screen literary quote off the top. It’s a shame to denounce the film based on a bad reaction to one particular plot hole, but there’s no other layers to examine. The central plot point of the film is that Bruno, an eight year old, can be so completely naïve to everything around him to believe that a Concentration Camp is actually a farm.

It’s possible to believe that Bruno would not understand the concept of genocide or unjust incarceration based on religion, but writer/director Herman (working from a novel as source material) tries to convinces us that Bruno does not even understand the concept of a prison. Really, what eight year old would not know that people wearing striped outfits, who perform manual labour in a fenced-in compound protected by electrical fences and barbed wire are PRISONERS?

If you fail to make this leap of believability then the movie simply falls apart like broken leaves. And so, every emotionally manipulative moment either drips with syrupy preachiness or is fed to us with unsubtle blunt force.

The film also feels so completely inauthentic, which exacerbates its irresponsibility. It’s always been a Hollywood convention to use British actors or British accents as a substitute for real Germans. Unfortunately the fact that no attempt was made to even cast a German in any significant role is too distracting to ignore. Various British accents populate the German landscape, high class aristocrats to working class droles. Asa Butterfield, accent aside, is in almost every scene and performs well. Physically, he could pass as a German. Unfortuately his Jewish counterpoint Shmuel who is supposed to be in a concentration camp looks like a cute British boy with chubby cheeks, big ears and some dirt on his face.

Bruno’s parents played by Vera Farmiga and David Thewlis only react and are so passive they are as important to the film as the furniture in the room. So, other than young Butterfield, there little else to hang one's hat on.

Herman just bombards us with tragic irony, force fed to us with repetitive sadistic force. The finale is emotional and controversial, but it's not earned - just the culmination of a series of manipulative contrivances.