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

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) dir. David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett,

**1/2

Midway through this film when a sense of slogging tedium set in I had flashbacks to another lengthy Brad Pitt mood piece, “Meet Joe Black”. “Benjamin Button” is not nearly as bad, yet some of the same faults nearly drown this sometimes fascinating sometimes dreary tragic fantasy tale.

It’s present day New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina is about to hit, an elderly woman on her deathbed recounts to her daughter the diary of the life of Benjamin Button, her one true love. Flashback to 1920's New Orleans to start the lifecycle of Benjamin Button who began life as an old man (still a baby) and regresses in age to eventually a young handsome man to a young boy then a baby.

Benjamin is brought up by a kindly black woman after the swaddling clad baby is left on her doorstep. The irony is not missed by anyone as Benjamin grows up in her adopted mother's senior citizens' home. He falls in love with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) on first site (is there any other way to fall in love in the movies)? Because of Benjamin's condition their relationship can only blossom when their ages coincide with each other, in the middle. Before then Benjamin tours the world in a tug boat, but always keeping tabs on Daisy. When they finally have a chance to be together it's about 10 years of bliss before Benjamin realizes at some point they will diverge and be unable to grow old together.

The special makeup effects which make Brad Pitt an elderly baby and wrinkly naive child are astonishing. Fincher never jumps far enough in time to provide the drastic physical change we expect. Instead it's a gradual change from old to young. We barely even notice the difference in age from scene to scene. On the technical level the film is a triumph.

“Meet Joe Black” comes to mind because that lengthy Pitt film was plagued with Benjamin Button’s ailments. A distinct and seemingly concerted lack of conflict. The film tries to sustain two hours and forty five minutes of tenderness without a single break of tension, anger, danger or stress, which comes as a major surprise from a director who has made a career from dark material.

Button is drenched with so much tender melancholy and whimsy it’s like Miles Davis playing the harmonica for an entire symphony – one note or one key the entire film. Since Fincher is so obsessive about controlling the tone of his films I don't think he ever forgot to put in the conflict. It's a conscious decision which gives the film it's distinct fairytale quality.

Benjamin never raises his voice, never sheds a tear, rarely even smiles or laughs. Even when he catches up with his age, Benjamin feels like a fish out of water, like Klaatu in ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still”. This alienness to his surroundings feeds into his innate transient nature and the painful decision he makes in the end. The finale brings powerful feelings and emotions mainly because it took so long to get there – a necessity in storytelling terms but often painful and tedious.

The sheer length can be maddening for the impatient, and especially for those who thought “Zodiac” was too long. Are the genuine feelings of sorrow worth the nearly three hours it takes to find this epiphany? It’s worth a shot, but a journey I have no desire to take again.




Tuesday, 30 December 2008

FROST/NIXON


Frost/Nixon (2008) dir. Ron Howard
Starring: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell

****

Time and again the political life of Richard Nixon has made for great drama. Why is a man so reviled and self-effacing as Nixon more interesting to watch than someone like John Kennedy, or Robert Kennedy, or Bill Clinton or even George W. Bush, younger, more interesting people? Other than the fact that he has directly been involved with some of the most significant political events of the last half of the 20th century, Nixon is a man with a character made for Hollywood – one of the great Hollywood villains, an ambitious man of power and intellect, lacking in the charm and good looks of a hero but with enough deep-rooted self-loathing for us to understand and identify with his failings.

Each decade since the 70’s has produced a great film about Nixon and/or Watergate. Alan Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” (1976), Robert Altman’s “Secret Honor” (1984), and Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995). Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” links in well as an accompany piece to each of these distinct films.

As the title suggests the film centers around the interviews British talk show host David Frost did with Richard Nixon in 1977, a television event which, in the eyes of many political watchers, gave America the only public apology and admonition of guilt from the former President.

Frost first hatches the bold idea of interviewing Nixon after watching his exit from the White House on television. After submitting a request to the President, Frost half doesn’t expect even a response, after all just about every major journalist is clamouring for access to the man. But Nixon and his advisors see Frost as more of a fluffy celebrity chaser than a real journalist and accepts the proposal.

Once in the same room Frost quickly realizes how shrewd a negotiator, politician and debater Nixon is. Over the course of a number of days it’s a battle of words between Frost and Nixon. As each day goes by Nixon sails through the questioning unscathed. With Frost’s reputation and personal finances on the line Frost has to find the cajones to truly challenge Nixon on Watergate and give him the trial he never received.

It all makes for a fascinating battle of wills and words. Writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard play the dynamic between Nixon and Frost as a David and Goliath battle. Both make great characters – hero and villain – both looking to surmount their internal character flaws in order to win the battle.

Michael Sheen plays Frost with a fun mix of pompous confidence and insecure inferiority complex. Frost seems content with coasting on the accomplishment of just getting the gig with the President. The name dropping is certainly enough to convince a young girl to shag him on a plane. But when Nixon comes face-to-face with Frost, impeccably prepared and ready for battle the gravitas of the stakes are finally realized.

As for Nixon, he continues to use the same underhanded word game political tricks which gave him the nickname Tricky Dick. Frank Langella’s Nixon is as good as Anthony Hopkins. Though in certain shadows and silhouettes the resemblance is uncanny his performance never falls into impersonation or parody.

Ron Howard’s direction is typically workmanlike. But it’s mostly talk, and he admirably lets the words on the page and his fine actors tell the story. In the final climatic moments Frost bests Nixon at his own game finally giving Nixon his comeuppance. It’s a wonderful moment, likely an embellishment to how the moment played out in real life, but a mark of great cinema. The emotional core of Frost and Nixon’s characters - these dueling personalities finishing their sometimes dirty, sometimes honourable fight - a fight as thrilling and entertaining with words as fists.



Monday, 29 December 2008

VALKYRIE


Valkyrie (2008) dir. Bryan Singer
Starring: Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard

***

Tom Cruise’s celebrity continues to overshadow his work. From the outset of this production there appeared to be an effort as dedicated as the rebellion in this film to knock down this latest Cruise venture. First it was a German protest against allowing the couch-surfing Scientologist to film a German story in their country, then it was an over-the-top slag campaign after a test screening in the summer. 

The reteaming of Bryan Singer, Christopher McQuarrie and John Ottman, the three key collaborators behind “the Usual Suspects” back in a thriller genre they tore apart and re-invented 13 years ago should be receiving top billing in the headlines. The finished film, outside of any hype, is a decent film in the genre of Hollywood wartime thrillers.

Tom Cruise plays Col Claus von Stauffenberg a German officer recently blown half to bits in Rommel’s desert campaign who desires to overthrow the Hitler regime to reclaim Germany’s honour. There happens to be a whole group of similar dissidents within the Nazi high ranks who feel the same. After a botched attempt by Kenneth Branagh’s Nazi character to blow up de Fuhrer he recruits Stauffenberg to command the team with a new plan of attack.

Stauffenberg’s bold single-minded leadership is just the energy the group needs to get the job done. For Stauffenberg killing the man is only half the battle, overthrowing the government is the hardest part. The solution finds Stauffenberg when he hears his child play Wagner’s Valkyrie during an air-raid. Using sharp politicking and crafty progaganda techniques Stauffenberg plans to use an obscure Martial Law action plan called Operation Valkyrie to cease allow his secret SS group to cease control of the government.

It’s a slow and uninspired set-up. McQuarrie skips over the hardest bit of writing by making no explanation as to how Stauffenberg gets recruited into the SS group. I always thought the most difficult aspect of a revolution is finding the like-minded individuals willing to stick their necks out for the cause. For good and bad McQuarrie quickly jumps this hurdle and directly into the scheming and plotting. The hallmarks of Bryan Singer’s talent as director lay dormant in this set-up. But once Stauffenberg is on board the second act is kicked off with the executed plan of action. Singer’s razor sharp pace, impeccable composition and shot selection suddenly jumps off the screen.

As with “Usual Suspects” John Ottman’s unique skills as both editor and composer compliment Singer’s direction. Having an editor the same person as composer though extremely rare in filmmaking is in practise are natural roles to combine. Especially in the thriller genre where montage scenes rule. Singer and Ottman are careful to show the detailed machinations of the plotting, which replacing the lack of no action scenes, gunfights, or stunts.

“Valkyrie” shouldn’t be watched for any kind of history lesson nor anyone looking for profound statements about the war, just another entry in the long history of Hollywood's exploitatioin of the war for disposable entertainment value. Enjoy.



Sunday, 28 December 2008

BARAKA


Baraka (1992) dir. Ron Fricke
Documentary

***1/2

Ron Fricke is known as the cinematographer and key collaborator of Godfrey Reggio on his seminal 1983 film "Koyaanisqatsi". His timelapse imagery were an innovative milestone in cinematography. Almost ten years later Fricke went out on his own and pushed the technology of timelapse cinematography even farther by shooting his own version of "Koyaanisqatsi".

"Baraka" was shot entirely on 70mm film, the experience of which on the big screen becomes an all enveloping immession into Fricke's earthly spiritual journey. On the small screen, the filmmakers have attempted make the Blu-Ray edition of the film a comparitively grand experience. Never-before used 8k resolution scanning and complete digital restoration "Baraka" is billed as the best High Definition transfer of any film on Blu-Ray.

"Koyaanisqatsi" continually casts a shadow on "Baraka". It's difficult not to compare the two. Similar themes of environmental irresponsibility, urban decay, mass consumption are conveyed using many of the same imagery and juxtaposition we saw in the earlier film. But based on Fricke's evolution of his own techniques and the stunningly crisp and detailed 70mm images "Baraka" has every right to stand on its own.

With the environment currently in vogue, "Baraka" seems even more relevant and contemporary today. Unlike the BBC's "Planet Earth", "Baraka" is not only about landscape, nature, environment but the people who inhabit the earth. It's told without narration or subtitles indicating the location or area of the world we're in, the imagery is meant to wash over one's senses like an abstract painting.

The opening intercuts a number of different cultures' specific rituals of worship. The unfying imagery are the faces of the individuals deep in spiritual thought – all have the same expression. Fricke finds the right faces to draw us in. However banal, without any movement expression or emotion an unknowingly observed face seems as fascinating as any of the complicated motion controlled timelapse shots.

The scene which jumpstarts the film into high gear is the beguiling Southeast Asian hand waving tribe. Whether it's dance or some kind of ritual or worship, we are never told which country or tribe their from, or what exactly the purpose of the ritual is. The elaborate ceremony is a beautifully choreographed movement hands and bodies, puncuated by an intense aural chanting accompanyment.

Though many of the images we had seen already in "Koyaanisqatsi" it still a wondrous way of looking at our planet. Clouds floating across mountains become an animate living beings, while the mass consumption of our lifestyle appears lifeless and sanitary. 

The one missing element needed to take the film to the level of Reggio's films is a musical accompany as big as Fricke's cinematography. Michael Sterns' atmospheric moody music doesn’t come near the grandeur of Philip Glass.

For years "Baraka" was revered by pot smokers as a film to get high to and let wash over them like gentle rain. Watching the film high or not produces the same effect, a marvelous visual essay imploring its audience to get of our bubbles and reconnect with the planet like our ancient ancestors. Enjoy.



Saturday, 27 December 2008

THE TRUMAN SHOW


The Truman Show (1998) dir. Peter Weir
Starring: Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone

****

In the late 90’s a number of films explored the notion of artificial or manufactured realities, “The Matrix” (1999), “Dark City” (1998), “EdTV” (1999), “eXistenZ” (1999), “The Game” (1997), “Fight Club” (1999). Arguably, the most profound and relevant of them all is Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show”. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay which tells the story of a man who’s entire life since birth has been unknowing lived in front of the entire world via a hidden camera TV show.

On the surface it could be seen as a rather obvious warning about the direction of reality television, or another piece of big brother Orwellian commentary. But the hook of the “The Truman Show” goes much deeper than a mere satirization of television, voyeurism and celebrityism, it isn’t until the magnificent final scene do we realize the film reaches so far as to pose and answer the question of the meaning life.

The film opens with oblique and fake credits, and fake actors referring to some TV show called “The Truman Show”. These are all the hints we get before we’re launched into the life of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), 30-something insurance broker who lives some kind of idyllic and anti-septic middle class life on a coastal island called Seahaven.

Truman continually expresses an urge to break free from the clausterphobic life, but his wife (Laura Linney) his best friend (Noah Emmerich) even the TV commercials he sees on TV tell him that ‘there’s no place like home’. Strange occurances happen around him as well, a satellite dropping from the sky, a rainshower localizes around him only, strange people seem to know his name. Truman senses something is wrong in his world but he just can’t put his finger on it. Gradually Truman’s world unravels revealing that his life has been manufactured from birth to be a reality hidden camera television running 24-7 for over 30 years. With the whole world watching Truman escapes unaware he's about to confront his own existence face-to-face.

“The Truman Show” works so wonderfully well because Weir is careful to show the world from Truman’s specific point of view. Though we are teased with reactions from the outside world, virtually every shot is taken from the hidden cameras which capture Truman’s life. It’s only until in the third act do we learn of the extent to which this TV show has created this false reality for Truman.

The final scene is one of the great existential moments in film. It has similar impact to, say, the final act of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. After Truman miraculously evades the cameras and escapes into a sailboat to get off the island, and after surviving the intense seastorm which the show’s creator manufactured for him, Truman is at a place of calm and peace – a fulfillment of a lifelong dream. But when his boat strikes literally the edge of the world, Truman faces what at that very moment is the meaning of his life.

In many ways this moment is more profound than “It’s a Wonderful Life” because George’s moment was divine intervention – a deux ex machina, if you will, external to the story – but everything in Niccol’s screenplay builds to this moment. Peter Biziou's choreography of the scene maximizes the emotional impact as well. The set painting which looks like the sky and clouds is the perfect metaphor for the artificiality which Truman has loudly burst through. Weir’s carefully chosen music – an older cue from Phillip Glass – sets the right melancholy tone.

As a piece of speculative science fiction it’s not hard to believe that “The Truman Show” could really happen. Ed Harris’ great line expresses this succinctly, “we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented”. "The Truman Show" is a cultural milestone. Enjoy.

"The Truman Show" is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment


Friday, 26 December 2008

HOUDINI


Houdini (1953) dir. George Marshall
Starring: Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh

***

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

If you’re looking for a penetrating and even modestly accurate dramatic depiction of the life of Harry Houdini, the legendary escape artist, this is probably not it. If, however, you’re looking for a tremendous performance from a great star in his peak years, you could do a whole lot worse than “Houdini”. The handsome, virile Tony Curtis commands the screen so voraciously that it feels almost like a one-man show. It isn’t, however, since he’s supported by the mouth watering Janet Leigh as Houdini’s long-suffering and only moderately supportive wife.

Directed by the prolific hack George Marshall, “Houdini” is a strangely watchable Hollywood biopic. In spite of a script by Philip (“Broken Lance”, “Detective Story”) Yordan, the movie really doesn’t have one of the strongest narrative arcs in the world, but in spite of this it entertains – mostly due to Curtis, but also because Marshall is smart enough to keep his camera trained on the gorgeous leading man so that much of the story is in the title character’s space for much of the picture’s running time. While, the movie plays fast and loose with many of the actual details of Houdini’s life, one gets a strong sense of his drive and charisma and, in so doing, captures the mythic essence of Houdini.

Part of “Houdini’s” considerable entertainment value is probably due to the fine attention to production value from powerhouse producer George Pal who crammed the picture with as much wonder and star-power as could only come from the man who produced and/or directed some of the finest entertainments of the 50s including “The Time Machine”, “Tom Thumb”, “War of the Worlds”, “When Worlds Collide” and, among others, that great series of animated “Puppetoons” that included the likes of “Tubby the Tuba”. It was Pal, no doubt, who saw what a perfect Houdini Tony Curtis would make.

Curtis plays the title character as a driven man – driven to romancing the woman of his choosing, driven to success and driven to seeking greater and more dangerous challenges. While Marshall doesn’t have much in the way of a distinctive directorial voice, he spent much of his career capturing star performances and exploiting them to the hilt. Much of Marshall’s best work was in comedy and he trained his workmanlike eyes on such stars as Bob Hope, Martin and Lewis and Jackie Gleason. He also had one great movie in him – “Destry Rides Again”, a great lightweight western with Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart that never fails to entertain.

“Houdini” is almost up there. The plot, such as it is, begins with a typical Hollywood meet-cute where Houdini catches a glimpse of the gorgeous Bess (Janet Leigh) from his vantage point behind a circus sideshow cage where he is made-up grotesquely as a jungle wild man. He keeps wooing her as a wild man, but when she catches a glimpse of him without the makeup, she’s also smitten. They quickly marry and begin touring circuses and honky-tonk vaudeville houses as a husband and wife magic act. Soon, this life grows wearying for the wifey and she begs Houdini to settle down and take a real job. He does, working at a factory that – conveniently – designs and builds locks and safes. Here he becomes obsessed with the notion of death defying escapes. He soon convinces wifey and re-enters the world of show business, becoming bigger than ever imagined.

Marshall expertly handles the escape routines in “Houdini” – so much so that even though WE know Houdini’s going to beat them hands-down, we still feel considerable suspense as each one is presented. A lot of the credit for the suspense generated in these scenes must go to Curtis and his performance – alternating as it does from boyish wonder to driven madman. Curtis plays Houdini as no mere entertainer, but someone who is not personally satisfied unless he is cheating death every step of the way.

Less successfully rendered is the annoying, obtrusive love story. It is a constant blessing that Janet Leigh is so easy on the eyes, for her character is not so easy on the ears. The character of Bess is almost harridan-like in her constant whining: “Harry, don’t do this. Harry, don’t do that. Harry, get a real job. Harry, I want a family. Harry, I want us to settle down. Harry, that’s too dangerous. Harry, you’re going to kill yourself. Harry, you love your stunts more than you love me.”

Nothing like a babe-o-licious harridan to keep a good man down.

Luckily, she doesn’t. The movie forges on with one daring stunt after another and luckily, one of Miss Leigh’s harridan-o-ramas is certainly not without entertainment value. The sequence involving Houdini’s preparations for his famous dip into the icy waters of the Detroit River are as hilarious as anything I’ve seen recently. Tony Curtis lying in a claw-footed bathtub covered in ice cubes while a team of men pour more bucket loads on top while wifey nags at him is not only funny, but chillingly (if you’ll forgive the pun) reminiscent of numerous moments I’ve experienced or heard about or, even witnessed, with old wives and girlfriends of both myself and other men close to me (they know who they are – the men, that is).

And while I wish to divulge the wildly, wonderful and weepy Hollywood ending which bears absolutely no reality to the real Houdini’s death, suffice it to say that Leigh removes the mask of the harridan long enough and Curtis emotes so expertly that it’s a tear-squirting corker of a finale. And that is worthy of all the Technicolor glory lavished upon this terrific little gem.

“Houdini” is available on DVD from Legend Films.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS


Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007) dir. Tim Hill
Starring: Jason Lee, David Cross, (voice of) Justin Long

**1/2

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

As far as family-friendly Christmas-themed movies go, “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is never going to be considered a perennial favourite in the mold of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “A Christmas Carol” or “Miracle on 34th Street”, but it does provide solid entertainment for the kiddies (lots o’ laughs from anyone 10 or under) and mild entertainment for anyone older (lots o’ smiles and a few chuckles) – especially anyone old enough to have sentimental memories of the “original” Alvin hit songs and TV series from the late 50s/early 60s and the 80s animated revival.

Alvin, to the uninitiated, is the head of a squeaky-pitched trio of singing chipmunks who are pals with the loser songwriter David Seville who hits the big time when he stumbles upon the furry ear-shattering musical stylists. Seville, in the original cartoons, spends much of his time chipmunk-sitting his charges and keeping those pesky, but warm-hearted little songsters from getting into all manner of troublesome hijinx. He also bellows out the immortal, stern cry, “A-a-a-a-a-a-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-vin!!!!!” whenever he discovers something is amiss and realizes that it’s probably the work of the troublemaking-est chipmunk of them all.

The 2007 big screen rendering of these characters, is pretty much more of the same, only with live-action “adult” characters and digitally animated fur-balls. Within the confines of a simple, predictable feature-length tale, Dave (the mildly offensive, barely palatable Jason Lee) discovers the chipmunks, becomes their surrogate Dad and eventually loses them to smarmy Ian (a very funny David Cross), a dastardly music promoter. The sleaze ball, in familiar fashion, exploits the chipmunks, screws Dave, but gets his ultimate and well-deserved comeuppance when goodness prevails and all are reunited in grand fashion.

It’s quite the emotional whirlwind – for seven-year-olds, mostly.

What makes the movie relatively agreeable to less-discriminating adults (and those, like me, who should know better, but have a soft spot for squeaky-voiced chipmunks) is the genuinely funny and, at times, endearing musical numbers. In fact, that insane, insipid, and utterly insidious “classic” Chipmunks Christmas song “Christmas Don’t Be Late” will never leave my brain. Initially left behind in the fog of my wayward childhood, the song has been reintroduced to me by this movie and is now emblazoned, carved, burned and branded into my very soul. My God, I feel like Barbara Steele at the beginning of “Black Sunday” who receives the mark of Satan from a hooded executioner. My psyche has been thoroughly scarred forever by those trilling chipmunks. The fur-balls and their squealing, while never at the forefront of my thoughts, are lodged in there like an admittedly oxymoronic migraine of pleasure.

In case you’ve forgotten the lyrics, let me inflict them upon you. The tune will come ever so quickly to you and remain there forever. Besides, I shouldn’t have to suffer alone:

Christmas, Christmas time is near
Time for toys and time for cheer
We've been good, but we can't last
Hurry Christmas, hurry fast
Want a plane that loops the loop
Me, I want a hula hoop
We can hardly stand the wait
Please Christmas, don't be late

The brainchild behind the chipmunks was the late actor and songwriter Ross Bagdasarian and frankly, there’s no denying his impact upon popular American culture. As a young man, Bagdasarian appeared in the original (and legendary) Eddie Dowling Broadway stage production of William Saroyan’s Pulitzer-prizewinning play “The Time of Your Life”. Bagdasarian and Saroyan, cousins and fellow Armenian-Americans shared a love of the arts and most importantly, sentimentality and whimsy. (In fact, the cousins actually co-wrote the song “Come on-a My House” which became such a huge hit for the legendary songstress Rosemary Clooney.) Alas, unlike his more celebrated older cousin Saroyan, Bagdasarian won no Oscars or Pulitzers. He did, however, snafu a couple of Grammy awards, and in so doing, entertained and delighted millions of children (and a few of those aforementioned adults who should know better).

This particular legacy, which is nothing to be sneezed at, acquits itself very nicely in this fluffy, harmless feature. And for those inclined, the two-disc DVD version includes a handy-dandy digital copy of the movie suitable for iPods and iPhones. This is especially handy for chipmunk-obsessed kids on long car rides. Just make sure they’re watching with earphones so the journey can be chipmunk-free for the driver.

So feel free to stuff your little nipper’s stocking with the version that includes the digital copy. Whilst Alvin and his chipmunks yearn for a Christmas that does not come late, the rest of us can yearn for a Christmas that comes as early as possible and dissipates as quickly so that life, in all its splendour, can move on.

And maybe, just maybe, with the kids plugged into iPods, it can be a peaceful Christmas for all.

And to all, a goodnight.

“Alvin and the Chipmunks” is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.


Wednesday, 24 December 2008

GRAN TORINO


Gran Torino (2008) dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Ahney Her, Bee Vang, Christopher Carley

**1/2

Clint Eastwood’s second release of year reminds me of the year he made the two Iwo Jima films. The first one “Flags of Our Fathers” crumbled from it’s myriad of flashbacks and multiple storylines, but the second film, the much better “Letters from Iwo Jima” benefited from a compacted and manageable point of view on the same story.

After seeing “the Changling” earlier this year which was another ambitious and sloppy potboiler, it appears “Gran Torino” could be a similar ‘reaction’ film.

Torino is indeed what Eastwood does best, small intimate stories about ordinary accessible characters. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, an elderly Korean War vet, widower and all around curmudgeon who’s revels in negativity. He hates his family, the political correctness of the world and especially his neighbourhood which is populated with more and more Asians.

Concerted efforts of his kindly young Asian neighbour Sue Lor (Ahney Her) to talk to him eventually cracks his shell just enough to become friends. As Sue and Walt get to know each other more he takes on her young brother Thao (Bee Vang) as a surrogate son, who is fatherless and without a positive role model. Thao is constantly bullied and pressured by his gangster friends, but when violence turns against Thao Walt becomes the neighbourhood’s protector with Dirty Harry-like attitude.

“Gran Torino” feels like a Western in suburbia. I’ve been watching the great Budd Boetticher films lately and there’s a similar simplification of conflict. For good and bad characters are brought down to base characterizations – Thao as the emasculated orphan looking for a father figure, Walt as the old loner and reluctant mentor, the Asian gangsters as, well… nothing but evil, and the well meaning priest who watches everything play out and tries to prevent the inevitable. All other complexities of life are distilled away. Like a lawless Western town interaction with the police is minimized, leaving only good, evil, revenge, redemption, sacrifice and a community code of honour to uphold.

The first act provides us with a comedic tone, a side to Eastwood we rarely see. The gags derive from Walt's strangely lovable old man racial predilections. He continually refers to Asians with every epithet under the sun, but we don't think it's malicious because he even refers to best friends as the ugly wop or the drunken mick. When mixed with tragic tones Walt's racism comes off as a defense mechanism, disguising the genuine goodness he wants to express. Unfortunately the racism gets old fast, the second and third acts continue to repeat same scenes and same gags.  We get it Clint, you hate everybody, yet every scene reinforces this excessively. When we hear zipperhead for the fourth time 90mins into the film, it's just not necessary.

Unfortunately this simple and touching story is hampered by some truly atrocious acting by most of his supporting actors. In the roles of Thao and Sue, Eastwood casts two absolute newbies to acting. I looked on IMDB afterwards and neither Ahney Her nor Bee Vang have any other credits.  Much of the drama of the key scenes are lost by their inability bring even the most fundamental acting chops to the screen. Bad casting goes beyond the youths though, Christopher Carley looks too strange as the young priest and Brian Haley as Walt’s son can't act out of the 2-dimensional clichés he's given. Even the two nameless cops who appear near the end can't read their simple lines right.

Like “The Unforgiven” “Torino” questions the long term effects of violence on those that use it. The film hides a secret in Walt’s character until the end. And when he confesses to Thao in a clever metaphorical way this reconciles his internal pain. It’s a dramatic moment, but unfortunately we are distracted from this moment by the bad acting from his youngsters on screen.




Tuesday, 23 December 2008

GANDHI


Gandhi (1982) dir. Richard Attenborough
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Candice Bergin, Rosan Seth, Martin Sheen, John Gielgud

****

The phenomenal achievement and lasting power of Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” cannot be overstated. Most attempts by other filmmakers to encapsulate the life and inspiration of great historical figures on film pale in comparison to “Gandhi’s” qualities of truth, integrity and authenticity.

A film like this will likely never be made the way it was back in 1982. Before computer graphics technology gave filmmakers the ability to put as many people in a shot as they like, Attenborough had to do the real thing. While manufacturing the final funeral procession in a computer can be almost indistinguishable from the real thing, the human eye (whether conscious or subconscious) will always pick up on it. It makes for a more truthful and realistic film.

The funeral scene had 300,000 extras (the most ever for a single scene), the logistics of wrangling and coordinating this are staggering. It’s tempting for a director to pull back and marvel at these money shots. Indeed Attenborough is not shy about showing 300,000 people in one shot, but these shots never stand out because he has established the integrity and realism in the film.

Attenborough also pays attention to the small scenes which establish Gandhi’s character. We first meet the young Gandhi on a train to South Africa. When the racist ticket porter confronts him, Gandhi is shocked by the inequality and maltreatment of ‘coloured’ people in the country. It’s a great scene which sparks Gandhi’s journey, anchored by Ben Kingsley’s great performance.

Prior to “Gandhi” Kingsley had been toiling on British television and at the Royal Shakespeare company. His performance is so full of nuanced internalized conflict and commanding and convincing inspirational speeches, his Oscar is well-deserved.

The politics of “Gandhi” are more than relevant today. The moment when Gandhi makes the decision to concede to the British demands of separating India and Pakistan is achingly painful, the ramifications of which we now know is continuous war and conflict for over 50 years. This internal struggle for peace among his own followers was Gandhi’s most challenging fight. Gandhi continually wrestled with not only British colonialism but the internal class system which developed among his own people. Gandhi’s most inspiring moments are his absolute unwavering discipline with the methods of his cause. Every act of civil disobedience and non-violence today owes a debt of gratitude to Gandhi’s struggle.

For it’s message of peace and unity, “Gandhi” is an ideal film to rewatch during the holiday season.

“Gandhi” is available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in their “Columbia Best Pictures Box Set”




Monday, 22 December 2008

BURN AFTER READING


Burn After Reading (2008) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt

**1/2

“Burn After Reading” is definitely a lesser Coens’ film - a slapdash effort of haphazardly put together scenes and ideas, like a bunch of leftovers from their other films loosely strung together. It’s set-up to be a wonderful comedy of errors, in the tradition of great crime-comedies, “A Fish Called Wanda”, “Ruthless People” or “Midnight Run”, but a lack of focus on one character results in an unrealized mess.

Four main characters, each with different agendas provide the anchor-points for this complex cat and mouse spy-comedy. First there’s Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) who’s recently been fired from his job at the CIA. There’s George Clooney as Harry Pfarrer, a Treasury Dept officer who’s sleeping with Cox’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton). In order to plot some divorce action against Osborne Katie copies Cox’s personal finance files onto a CD, which she accidently misplaces at a local fitness gym.

Enter Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) two hapless gym employees who find the disc, and thinking it’s secret CIA information, blackmail Cox for $50,000. Harry Pfarrer is also a sex addict and goes on a blind date with Litzke, not knowing she’s involved with the extortion plot against Katie’s husband. The precarious Jenga tower of plotting and scheming eventually tumbles down once the dead bodies pile up.

The fundamental problem is the lack of a clear protagonist. From the opening scene, it appears to be John Malkovich’s character. His opening scene is fantastic, hilarious, as he get politely fired from his job. But then the film is taken over by Frances McDormand. She is also identifiable as a desperate and insecure woman who is unhappy with the body and her social life. George Clooney appears to be acting in a completely different movie. His smug, permanent grin, lifted out of his other so-called ‘idiot films’ “O Brother Where Art Thou” and “Intolerable Cruelty” masks the lack of character he’s provided with. We’re never introduced to him properly, never learn about who he is, or what his needs are. We’re just supposed to accept his charm because he’s George Clooney.

Despite the frustrations, the film provided the most gut-busting laughs this year, or even last year, and maybe even the year before. John Malkovich steals the movie. He plays the ‘straight-man’ in the whole affair and the only one who questions the absurd actions of the characters from the audience’s point of view. Malkovich’s banter with Brad Pitt is comic gold. Chad Feldheimer’s hilariously ill-conceived and poorly rehearsed telephone conversation with Cox is perhaps the highlight. Malkovich distributes the f-bombs to Pitt’s naïve Feldheimer with David Mamet-like force. It’s Malkovich’s best performance since “Being John Malkovich” and the scene-stealer of the year.

As if they have run out of ideas, the Coens literally give up at the end, and shut the film down just when it’s getting good. The film leads up to a confrontation or some sort with the main characters, all of whom, unknowingly, are at odds with each other. But the Coens tie the loose ends with a conversation, with the final actions of the lead characters described to us by supporting characters in a hasty denouement.

While I appreciate the quick turnaround in content after “No Country For Old Men”, “Burn After Reading” clearly went into production a draft or two before it should have ( I suspect Pitt and Clooney’s busy schedules likely dictated the greenlight). So I’m torn between the sheer laziness of the Coens with the big laughs which I cannot discount. Malkovich alone is worth the price of admission. Enjoy.

"Burn After Reading" is available on DVD from Alliance Films




Sunday, 21 December 2008

DEATH RACE


Death Race (2008) dir. Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Jason Statham, Ian McShane, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson

***

"Death Race" is a surprisingly entertaining exercise in muscular testosterone fueled cine carnage. Roger Corman’s b-movie camp classic of 1975 “Death Race 2000” turns out to be highly updatable to the new Millenium.

It’s 2012, the economy is in the dumps (pretty good prognosticating there) and the bloodthirsty viewing public wants more destructive entertainment. The hottest program is called “Death Race” - a three-day ultra-violent race between the most hardcore badass criminals.

“Death Race” is structured around 3 lengthy action sequences – three stages of the Death Race. Anderson cleverly takes influence from video games with the real-time rules of the race. The television footage is broadcast like one would play say, EA Sports Nascar game. The rules of the race including the spaces which unlock the vehicles’ weaponry are fundamental video game elements.

Despite plot holes the size of massive exploded walls, smartly casted watchable actors like Jason Statham and Ian McShane, minimized uncomplicated dialogue and Anderson’s NOS-boosted pacing rockets us through the story so fast we don’t get a chance to even question the logic.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson ("Mortal Kombat", "Alien Vs. Predator") is a curiously successful director. Though he is reviled by both critics and action fans he continues to get work. Renny Harlin (“Die Hard 2”, “Cliffhanger”) makes an interesting comparison with Anderson. Both emerged in the 1990’s as action-heavy directors, yet while Harlin’s career slowly died after a number of unsuccessful and critically drubbed films, Anderson continues to make bigger and bigger films.

However schlocky and disposable Anderson seems to have been picky with his gigs. Since 1998, he’s only made 3 films (“Resident Evil”, “Alien Vs. Predator” and “Death Race”). Each one has a distinct B-movie attitude with production values which exceed their comparatively medium range budgets (Death Race was made for $45million).

Anderson is no ‘director-for-hire’ either. He receives sole screenwriting credit, so the vested interest in the work is strangely admirable. Anderson takes his work seriously and the fun exhuberance for the material is palpable.

"Death Race" will never reach the cult status of the original film or even it’s other influences, “Escape from New York”, or “The Road Warrior”, but there’s something admirable about the ability of this kind of anarchic style of action cinema to entertain us.

“Death Race” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment


Saturday, 20 December 2008

DECISION AT SUNDOWN


Decision at Sundown (1957) dir. Budd Boetticher
Starring: Randolph Scott, Tate Kimbrough, Lucy Summerton, Noah Beery, Karen Steele

****

Part two of my continuing education of the influential Western director Budd Boetticher is his second collaboration with Randolph Scott, “Decision at Sundown”. After watching only two films (first being “The Tall T”) Boetticher’s inate talent with story and character is apparent. Boetticher distills his films down to its essential elements of conflict, character, theme and plot. But within this minimalism the characterizations of hero, villain, and the damsel in distress are as complex as any genre picture.

Randolph Scott plays Bart Allison, who with his friend Sam (Noah Berry), arrive at a typical western town called Sundown to break-up the wedding of Tate Kimbrough (John Carrol) and Lucy Summerton (Karen Steele). Bart is aiming to avenge the death of his wife and kill Tate, whom he accuses of causing her suicide. Kimbrough is one tough hombre and rules the town with intimidation. His underlings chase Bart out of the church and into a derelict barn for cover.

The remainder of the film is a lengthy siege of Kimbrough’s men against Bart’s pinned down position. During the tense action slowly the details Bart’s wife’s suicide are brought to light revealing a more complex character than the typical western hero.

By the end of the film Boetticher’s hero is a broken man and a disgraced hero, whose anger has clouded his rational behaviour. Boetticher also cleverly turns Kimbrough around. Like Richard Boone’s Frank Usher character in “The Tall T” good and evil is a fine and ambiguous line. It’s Kimbrough who changes the most by the end - at the point of his defeat he accepts his comeuppance and challengeS Bart to an honourable duel.

Boetticher's notions of good and evil, and justice are defined by the western genre – the raw, primitive and lawless way of life governed by man’s individual code of honour. A man’s word is bond and death as a way of reclaiming one’s honour.

“Decision at Sundown” is a great film revered by some of the great filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Leone, Jean-Luc Godard. In the new Budd Boetticher Box Set from Sony all of these filmmakers (save the dead ones) go on camera to show their respect for this great and underappreciated filmmaker. As I watch each successive film in this unique director/actor collaboration my understanding of cinema continues to be enlightened.

“The Budd Boetticher Box Set” is available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment


Friday, 19 December 2008

THE DEADLY BEES


The Deadly Bees (1967) dir. Freddie Francis
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Michael Gough, Patrick Magee, Peter Woodthorpe, Nigel Green and George Coulouris

**1/2

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

Can any movie featuring a whole passel of deadly bee attacks AND a cameo appearance by the inimitable Ron Wood be all bad? The answer is a resounding, “No!” That said, “The Deadly Bees”, a fun Freddie Francis-helmed thriller for British Hammer Horror rival Amicus Pictures is one of many pictures that received derisive scorn from those agog alien movie critics on the legendary spoof show “MST3K - Mystery Science Theatre 3000” (where, for the uninitiated, a feature length movie is screened whilst the aforementioned non-humans barf out a steady stream of mocking verbal wisecracks as the picture unspools). Frankly, I’ve never understood the appeal of MST3K. It’s a one-note joke and not an especially funny one – ridiculing a bunch of supremely easy targets like Grade Z horror and sci-fi and even occasionally mocking genuinely good fantasy pictures like Alexander Rou’s exquisite Russian fairy tale, “Morozko”.

“The Deadly Bees”, another in a series of pictures from the Paramount library that have been farmed out to the cool, little company Legend Pictures for DVD release, is not, I suppose, an especially good picture, but it does pass the time amiably and is definitely not without entertainment value.

Vicki Robbins (played by a scrumptious Suzannah Leigh, Elvis Presley’s squeeze in “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” and the girls’ school dance teacher in the immortal Hammer Karnstein classic “Lust For a Vampire”) is a British pop star suffering from exhaustion and ordered by her doctor to a rustic locale on an island in northern UK for some much needed rest. While there, she becomes embroiled in a strange rivalry between her host Ralph (Guy Dolman), his harridan wife Mary (Catherine Finn) and their neighbour Professor Manfred (the always-great Frank Finlay). Ralph and Manfred, it seems, are rival beekeepers. I kid you not. On an island – in northern England, no less – with a population that appears not to exceed the low budget the picture allowed, there are two – count ‘em – two beekeepers. One, Ralph, appears to have no reason to raise bees. The other, Manfred, is a scientist who is studying them. And what of the rivalry between them? Well, it appears as if both are accusing each other of raising strains of psycho bees to attack and destroy their respective bee farms – and ultimately, each other.

Excuse me, MST3K, but why, pray tell is such a picture worthy of your pea-brained, one-note derision? This is rich material. Stupid, yes – but it is most certainly entertaining and often so ludicrous that there really seems no point in mocking it. In fact, I always find people who dump on pictures like these to be snobs who get off on shooting fish in a barrel. “The Deadly Bees” is NEVER boring and is ALWAYS engaging.

It is, as I said though, unbelievably stupid – especially when our comely pop star turns into Nancy Drew and begins to delve into the mystery of the bees and their decidedly odd keepers.

The team behind this picture has obviously done better work. Freddie Francis, the legendary cinematographer and director will not be forever remembered for “The Deadly Bees”, but he handles the action with considerable proficiency. Co-writer Robert Bloch can rest assured that he’s written better pictures than this, but the plot and dialogue in this one are still exactly what the doctor ordered when it comes to genre amusement-value. The special effects, while old fashioned, have a fun retro quality to them and frankly, I found the bee attacks to be reasonably effective with the blend of makeup and optical printing.

“The Deadly Bees” is not, in any way, shape or form exceptional work. It is, however, not worthy of mockery and if one has 90 minutes to waste, there are many other ways to spend them less entertainingly. Its sting is definitely intact.

And have I mentioned that Ron Wood cameo yet?

“The Deadly Bees” is available on DVD from Legend Films.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

TRAITOR



Traitor (2008) dir. Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Starring: Don Cheade, Guy Pearce, Said Taghmaoui, Neal McDonough, Jeff Daniels

**1/2

Combine the Bourne series with "The Departed" and a hint of “Day of the Jackel” do it on half the budget  and you have this decent the international thriller – “The Traitor”.

Don Cheadle is Samir Horn, an American born in Sudan, who we first see selling weapons to a terrorist group. When the deal is monitored and taken down by FBI agents, Samir comes face-to-face with his adversary early. Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) is a tough as nails jet-setting agent, someone who uses his wits more than his fists or his gun to get the job done. Roy is sent to prison, and while inside he connects with a muslim terrorist Omar (Said Taghmaoui). Together they escape from prison and begin a mission of jihad against America.

It’s doesn’t take long for Roy to pick up Samir’s trail and by using intelligence gathering, surveillance and all the wonderful technological tools at his disposal it’s a race to find Samir and his terrorist cell before the U.S. is hit with another colossal tragedy.

From it’s singular concept, “Traitor” was fighting an unhill but not unworthy battle. “Traitor” is built around the character of Samir, played with typical integrity by Don Cheadle. He’s a devout Muslim, torn between his allegiances to his country of birth Sudan, his adopted country he grew up in, the United States, and his religion. In a flashback we see his parents get killed in some kind of attack. We assume it might have been an American attack, because in the present he’s become a morally ambiguous mercenary, working for ‘the other side’. Yet, Samir is honourable and devoted to abiding by the righteous doctrines of his religion.

Why would an audience want to root for a terrorist? As the film progresses, Samir’s demeanour suggests he may not be what he seems. A clever plot turn occurs which is not unexpected but one which enlightens these ambiguities. But since films about the Middle East and the war on terror never ever succeed it doesn’t relieve the work the film needs to do to win it’s audience.

But whether it wins its audience or not doesn’t really matter, Nachmanoff succeeds in pushing us deep into the story to care for Samir. The character film takes on the face of a thriller with a few actions scenes, some explosions and good deal of global hopping. In fact, the shear number of locations the film moves through may break some kind of record – in 100mins we see: Washington, Chicago, Madrid, Toronto, Halifax, London, Marseilles, Yemen, Afghanistan and more.

It’s probably three or four places too many, and it seems like an effort to over compensate for a lack of traditional action set pieces the thriller genre demands. But do we really need to see another Bourne rip-off? So instead of falling into the trap of a high concept thriller like “Vantage Point”, or relying on eye-ball crunching action like “Quantum of Solace” the characters of “Traitor” are refreshing.

At the film's heart is the moral dilemma of Samir to do what is right for his country and what it right for him as a devout person. Chess is a frequent metaphor for this dilemma and so the idea of sacrificing pawns to win the game causes much internal conflict.

“Traitor” continually weighs it’s standard cat-and-mouse international pulp thriller ingredients with Cheadle’s internal conflict which is taken very seriously. The latter wins out, which saved the film from what should have been a straight-to-DVD release. Enjoy.

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



Wednesday, 17 December 2008

AMERICAN TEEN


American Teen (2008) dir. Nanette Burnstein
Documentary

**

Nanette Burnstein, one half of the team who made two great documentaries “On the Ropes” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture” has gone on her own and directed “American Teen". By having the obiquitous moniker of “American” in the title (ie. American Graffiti, American Pie, American Gangster, American Psycho), the film aspires to be a definitive film on what it’s like to be a teenager in America. Unfortunately after 15 years of reality television behind it, Burnstein’s film feels no more authentic, dramatic or eye-opening than anything on MTV. It's a reasonably entertaining documentary, but not the definitive work on the subject.

Burnstein follows a year in the lives of 5 high school kids from Warsaw Indiana, a typical whitebread Christian red state town in middle America. From the opening Burnstein falls into autopilot by choosing her subjects based on those predetermined social cliques which permeate every high school film since “The Breakfast Club”. There’s Hannah Bailey (the loner), the artistic type who desires to escape the midwest and become a film director, Colin Clemens (the jock) the basketball star who desperately needs a scholarship in order to get into college, Mitch Reinholt (the heartthrob), the easy-going stud and fellow basketball player, Jake Tusing (the nerd), the socially awkward kid with bad hair and zits and Megan Krizmanich (the princess), the classic overachieving student council blonde hottie.

In traditional fashion we get to the see the students' cruel clique infighting and soft bullying. Megan is immediately portrayed as a stuck-up bitch especially when she forwards a naked picture of her friend to everyone in school and when she prank calls her afterwards to rub it in her face.

Jake Tusing is closely followed. He’s an introverted nerd with all the same insecurities about women as any of us did at that age, but he seems bold enough to ask out a bunch of girls and even get a girlfriend. Unfortunately his blasé attitude and droll demeanor is near sleep-inducing.

The best storyline belongs to Hannah Bailey who rides a rollercoaster of emotions including an earth-shattering breakup with her boyfriend at the beginning of the film the trauma of which causes her to miss weeks of school. A genuine surprise occurs midway through when Mr. Stud Mitch Reinholt takes an interest in her and together come to form the odd couple of the moment. It’s a truly satisfying moment to see Hannah bounce back and reclaim her dignity.

It all amounts to no more than an episode of “Friday Night Lights”. The film sails to close to the middle of the road and while we get to know Burnstein’s subjects pretty well, it fails to generate substantial drama or emotional turmoil for us to really care about what they do after they graduate. A sign of a good doc is one which causes you to want to discover where the subjects are now. Like “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”, after that film was over I immediately went to the website to see what the current high score in Donkey Kong was. The only thing I did after “American Teen” was click back to TV and watch “The Hills”.

“American Teen” is available on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.




Tuesday, 16 December 2008

LOST: SEASON FOUR

© ABC Studios. All Rights Reserved
Lost Season 4 (2008) dir. Various
Starring: Matthew Fox, Terry O’Quinn, Michael Emerson, Evangeline Lilly, Josh Holloway

***1/2

Being a fan of LOST, whenever I’m overheard discussing the show I get comments like “Is that show still on?”, or “do people still watch that show?” Though LOST is not a top 10 Nielsen program, the series continues to intrigue and perplex for its loyal fans. After four seasons which take place over only 108 days of time in the reality of the show the series has showed remarkable staying power. For a series that relies on hiding and revealing key information to generate suspense even after four seasons our expectations continue to be subverted.

Season Four begins right where the phenomenal final episode of Season Three left off. We discover the some of the Losties indeed did get rescued from the island – six of them in fact, who have become minor celebrities dubbed ‘the Oceanic Six’. In the flashforwards to the future we come to learn these six have forced themselves to lie about what happened on the island. And for Jack especially this burden has taken it’s toll on his sanity.

Meanwhile in the present we watch as the heroes are split as to whether the new arrivals to the island are there to save or to kill them. The survivors are forced to choose between Jack and Locke’s differing ideologies. At the heart of the conflict is Ben Linus, the conniving “other” who continues to screw with everyone’s heads and manipulate them into getting his way. The season culminates with the dramatic reveal of how the Oceanic Six get rescued and an awe inspiring disappearance of the surviving islanders.

We are introduced to more wonderful and intriguing characters. The rescuers from the offshore freighter include more shifty scientists who can never give a straight answer - Jeremy Davies’ neurotic physicist Daniel Farraday, Ken Leung’s saracastic and prickily psychic Miles Straume, the red-headed Aussie beauty Charlotte Lewis (Rebecca Mader) and the kindly old helicopter pilot Frank Lapidus (Jeff Fahey). One the season's best episodes is episode 2 “Confirmed Dead” where the origins of this quartet are revealed.

Since there are so many main characters, it’s difficult for the producers to give everyone equally screentime. Other than Jack’s background story, Season Four's key character arcs are given to Desmond, Jin/Sun, and Ben. Even the underused Claire gets her first substantial plot participation since Season One. The coincidence of Claire and Jack being half-siblings becomes more significant towards the end of the season resulting in some of the most shocking individual moments in the season – including Claire’s perplexing association with Jack’s father and the mysterious Jacob.

The best episode of the season arguably is “The Constant” which finally reveals what LOST fans have suspected for some time, the involvement of time travel on the island. In the episode Desmond’s mind moves back and forth between past and present which helps him reunite with his long lost love Penny. It's make for the most emotional moments of the season.

One of the consistently impressive aspects of the series from a screenwriting perspective is how, despite such high concept scenarios the writers manage to avoid obvious exposition. This has to do with the constantly changing point of view. The flashbacks and flashforwards allow the audience to see the same action, or same period of time, from a different point of view, thus relieving the writers from excessive explanatory dialogue. Unfortunately in Season Four the producers do resort to this trap – specifically Friendly Tom’s explanation to Michael about the Oceanic cover-up and even Ben’s explanation to Locke of the Charles Widmore connection.

Season Four also suffers from the prevalence of guns. Every episode seems to feature one of more characters pointing guns at each other. It’s a shame the writers had to resort such easy conflict creation and resolution, but perhaps this was inevitable. As well the season was plagued by the writer’s strike which meant only 14 episodes were filmed resulting in a palpable lack of momentum.

These minor failings aside I still believe LOST is the best show on television – a near flawlessly constructed puzzle which continues to unfold unpredictably. Though many questions have to be answered – who is Jacob, where did the Island go, that Season Two mystery of the ancient four-toed rock statue – the end of near and visible. And I have confidence these two seasons will wrap up this series with complete fanboy satisfaction.

“LOST: Season Four” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Monday, 15 December 2008

THE DARK KNIGHT DVD


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

The Movie: ****
The DVD: **

The timely DVD release 3 weeks before Christmas will likely ensure "The Dark Knight" to be one of the highest selling DVDs of all time. While the film (and especially the IMAX) version was arguably the movie event of the year, the DVD version doesn’t quite live up to quality of the film.

One of key innovations of the production was the extensive use of IMAX in key scenes  in the film. On the big IMAX screen the effect of these scenes produced a stunning adjunct to the film. The aspect of ratio change from 2.35:1 to almost square full screen frame was startling. Widescreen televisions will experience a similar, though not as grandiose shift during these scenes. The opening of the film begins with the title credit framed in standard anamorphic 2.35:1, but when the opening bank heist begins the letterbox bars disappear revealing a full 16:9 image. Of course, since the origination medium is IMAX, the difference in visual clarity is stunning. This difference is even more evident on Blu-Ray. Though the IMAX aspect ratio still requires a small crop on the top and bottom of the frame to fit into 16x9 director Christopher Nolan admits it’s a largely unimportant screenspace - an acceptable difference to the theatrical IMAX experience.

So the aspect ratio and resolution differences are acceptable, unfortunately the special features leave much be desired. Disc one features a number of small featurettes called “Creation of a Scene” which documents the production of a number of the key scenes in the film (most often the IMAX sequences). When viewed all together, these segments make for a reasonably insightful ‘making of’ documentary. Many will be disappointed with the lack of on-camera live footage of the key creatives discussing the process. The information is largely told to us using narrated voiceover, from Nolan and the bunch.

Disc 2 contains a number of surprisingly awful featurettes. “Batman Tech” feels like it was produced by Nickelodeon. A gruff voiceover man with no connection to the series whatsoever narrates this featurette like an episode of “Frontiers of Construction” or any other average Discovery Channel program. “Batman Unmasked” features a similar ‘television’ tone and style. In “Unmasked” various ‘psychological experts’ discuss the psyche of the superhero with blockheaded intellectualism. Rabbis, historians and other ‘smart people’ proceed to breakdown and explain the historical context of the character. My favourite is Robert Phillips. identified as a forensic services consultant, who explains to me the subtext of the film.

The extensive fake news footage featuring Anthony Michael Hall’s character which is used as background TV footage in the movie serves just to ‘pad’ the disc with more useless material. This is by no means a “special” feature.

Lastly, the stills galleries are put together without any creativity whatsoever, which reminded me of those old laserdisc galleries requiring the ‘step’ function to scroll through each picture. At the very least they could have added some of the great Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard music in the background.

This special edition DVD appears to have been hastily put together with already produced material, which clearly does not look like anything which the filmmakers would have ordinarily approved of. Don't be surprised if a more definitive edition appears once the producers have time to create something worthy instead of rushing to get something out for Christmas.

“The Dark Knight” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Bros Home Video.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE


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

**1/2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"X-Files I Want to Believe" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment




Saturday, 13 December 2008

DOUBT


Doubt (2008) dir. John Patrick Shanley
Starring; Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

***1/2

Meryl Streep turns in what’s so far the absolute best performance of the year. Streep anchor’s John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize winning play. It’s a battle of wills and words between a nun and a priest over a charge of sexual abuse. Intense performances from the quartet of actors listed above deliver the goods in this intriguing morality tale.

It’s 1963 in a Bronx Catholic School, and the film opens with Father Flynn’s inspiring sermon about the fear which has come about since President Kennedy’s assassination. Flynn is a respected liberal mentor to his kids, especially young Donald (Joseph Foster), who is picked on for being the only black kid in school. Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius Beauvier is a ‘dragon-lady’ of a nun, who, as principal, rules with steely eye coldness and intimidation. Flynn’s progressive ways seem a threat to Aloyious’s traditional ways of discipline.

When a young teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams) comes to Aloysius with accusations of ‘questionable behaviour’ against Flynn, it becomes an opportunity for the nun to combat her rival. With very little evidence Aloysius becomes judge, jury and executioner and attacks Flynn with such brutal force. It becomes a stand off, like a Western duel of wills to see justice prevail.

Shanley’s story is perhaps too light in content to fill an entire feature film. In fact, “Doubt” feels like a two-act story, without a third act to take it to a true cinematic level. But within these parameters words act like daggers and Shanley forms two characters with astonishing depth and subtext.

For most of the film Streep is so deliciously nasty and brutal she is the personification of evil. Shanley is constantly questioning his characters' morals and ethics. Is Aloysius doing the right thing? She suspects Flynn of this heinous crime and serves to protect Donald from harm. But is she? Does she have the right to use unilateral authority in her accusations? Shanley is constantly making us question, or “doubt”, the motivations of his characters.

Hoffman’s Father Flynn is equally as intriguing. He’s set up as a courageous libertarian, delivering inspiring sermons and standing up for the mistreated. But knowing that he could be a child abuser causes us to “doubt” his sincerity. Even the question of what is best for the child reveals an uncertain answer. The phenomenal scene featuring Viola Davis as Donald’s mother adds even more complex layers to the situation. Her reaction to Aloysius’ accusations are not as one might think.

Important to all the reactions and motivations of the characters is the timeframe. “Doubt” is a different film set in the 60’s than the 00’s. Bitter racial and gender differences cloud the differences between right and wrong. And so everything in “Doubt” is a shade of grey.

As mentioned, if anything, Shanley doesn't quite elevate his words beyond the stage and into high cinema. Not even Roger Deakins, the great cinematographer, who lenses the film, nor composer Howard Shore who scores the film helps. It results in a rudimentary visual and auditory palette.

But Jack Nicholson reportedly once said he'd do a film if it had three good scenes and no bad scenes. "Doubt" is anchored by three great scenes - one scene with Viola Davis and Meryl Streep and two scenes with Hoffman and Streep. It seems to be a conscious decision to distill out the background in order to zero in on these three scenes performed of great thespian force. Enjoy.

Friday, 12 December 2008

A NO-HIT, NO-RUN SUMMER


A No-Hit No Run Summer (2008) dir. Francis Leclerc
Starring: Patrice Robitaille, Pier-Luc Funk, Jacinthe Lague, Roy Dupuis, Guy Thauvette, Peter Batacliev, Frederique Dufort

**

The summer of 1969 makes for a nostalgic trip into the memories of playing baseball and coming of age in suburban Montreal. Francis LeClerc’s film is too tender for it’s own good and severely lacking in conflict to be as memorable as it wants to be.

It’s 1969 and the expansion Montreal Expos are in their first year in the Major Leagues. Martin (Pier-Luc Funk) is a typical 12 year old who idolizes the sport and dreams of playing big league ball. First he has to make his local team coached by an ultra-serious wannabe Gilbert Turcotte (Roy Dupuis). Martin is dejected when he doesn’t make the cut.

Enter Martin’s unassuming father Charles (Patrice Robitaille) who hates baseball, but earns the respect of his son when he forms his own team from Turcotte's rejects. Like the ‘Bad News Bears” without the humour the team grows and improves over the summer, enough to challenge their cross-town rivals.

“A No-Hit, No-Run Summer” uses every cinematic trick in the book to ‘move us’ with bittersweet memories of nostalgia. Leclerc crafts half a dozen 8mm home movie montages scenes to bridge the various passages of time. It makes for an uninvolved drab version of “The Wonder Years”. All emotions, drama, and action sails under the radar and with a flat line tone of melancholy.

LeClerc and the producers try their best to liven up the setting with a number of summer of love pop tunes like 'California Dreamin’, sung by cover artists. The low volume helps to distract us from the fact they are cover tunes. Obviously budget didn’t permit getting a hold of the real thing.

Last week I reviewed Jean-Marc Vallee’s seminal coming of age film “C.R.A.Z.Y.” which used real Rolling Stones’, Pink Floyd and David Bowie songs – Vallee was free to crank the volume and blast the audience’s ear and revel in the wonderful music. And so, the half volume level of music sums up the general shortcomings as a whole for "A No-Hit, No-Run Summer".

“A No-Hit, No-Run Summer” is available on DVD in Canada from Alliance Films




Thursday, 11 December 2008

VILLA RIDES


Villa Rides (1968) dir. Buzz Kulik
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson

**1/2

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

Does the name Buzz Kulik ring a bell? Well, it probably shouldn’t because he’s essentially a proficient hack who delivered thousands of hours of American series television, a few forgettable features and a handful of decent made-for-television movies. On the plus side, most of his television work is from the Golden Age and anyone who camera-jockeyed shows like “The Twilight Zone”, “Gunsmoke”, “Perry Mason” and, among many, many others, “Have Gun – Will Travel” can’t be dismissed entirely. He also delivered the goods on two of the best dying-sports-star TV-weepers of all time, “Brian’s Song” and “Babe” as well as an extremely memorable movie-of-the-week thriller called “Bad Ronald”.

In spite of the abovementioned, however, it’s still a disappointment that he is the director of the all-star feature western “Villa Rides” – not because his work is bad, but because the material suggests just how good the picture might have been if its original screenwriter, Sam Peckinpah, had had a shot directing it.

After the studio butchery of “Major Dundee” and his unfair firing from “The Cincinnati Kid”, Peckinpah, that late, great iconoclast of contemporary cinema, took a few gun-for-hire jobs during an extremely low point in his career when he was essentially persona-non-grata in the business. One of these jobs was to write a screenplay about the legendary Pancho Villa.

Watching the picture, one is occasionally distracted from the proceedings by constantly trying to imagine the picture it could have been. On the surface, it tells a relatively simple tale wherein a barn-storming American aviator (Robert Mitchum) runs guns to the Mexican army, witnesses a genocidal slaughter of a Mexican village (a result of his sale of the guns) and his eventual switchover to fight the good fight during the Mexican Revolution with Pancho Villa (Yul Brynner) and trusty right hand (Charles Bronson). From that point on, lots of things blow up real good.

But that’s about all they do in Kulik’s hands. Blow up.

This is unfortunate. Few American filmmakers had just the right feel for Mexico and could bring equal amounts of sentiment, sorrow and brutality to the proceedings. Peckinpah was at the top of this very small list. Considering that Peckinpah’s script (rewritten by Robert “Chinatown” Towne) is replete with tougher-than-nails men’s men who begin on opposite sides of the fence and eventually bond by causing violence for the greater good, one looks in vain for the sadness and obsession that infused much of Peckinpah’s work.

Alas, it is not really there in the final product.

What remains is an engaging stalwart cast and some not-unexciting action scenes. “Villa Rides” has a good amount of entertainment value and makes for fine Saturday afternoon home viewing. One can’t sneeze at this in any, way shape or form. However, knowing who wrote the film and seeing, from time to time, almost-trademark Peckinpah themes and situations within it, one longs for more. Even the extreme proficiency and entertainment value of the action scenes pales in comparison to the mere THOUGHT of what Peckinpah might have brought to them if he were at the helm.

We’ll never get it, of course. It’s not there. It’s solid western action – no more, no less. If you’re able to forget the pedigree of the screenwriter, a rollicking good time can still be had.

And that, finally, ain’t nothin’!

It’s just not Peckinpah.

“Villa Rides” is available on DVD from Legend Films.