DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: 2009

Thursday, 31 December 2009

Best of 2009

Ok, I’ve chosen to bypass the preamble and go straight into my Best of 2009. You’ll find my personal choices below, and as those of my esteemed and valued DFD contributors. Enjoy.

Alan Bacchus's Best of 2009

1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)



Quentin Tarantino admitted when he saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘There Will Be Blood’ it inspired him to step up his game. ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is as tight, focused and supremely entertainment from the first frame to the last. As close to cinematic perfection as he'll ever get to most likely. Anyone thought QT had fallen off the rails, can now get back on the train. Basterds is filmmaking of the highest order.

2. Un Prophet (Jacques Audiard)


This entry from Cannes has gone through the festival circuit and will land in theatres in February – most likely on the back of a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nod. ‘Un Prophet’s’ epic gangster tale has all the some of the same cinematic muscular attitude and bravura of ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘City of God.’

3. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci)


Armando Iannucci’s British political satire has gone completely under the radar of every major awards group. Further evidence of the disrespect for comedy has an award-worthy genre. But the fact is, ‘In the Loop’ is a cinematic force of nature, a masterpiece of comic timing, political savvy, and ensemble acting.

4. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi)


Like ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Sam Raimi managed to revitalize his creativity after years of boring ol' franchise tent pole filmmaking. Raimi seems to have stored 20 years of bloody good horror and comedy material and unleashed it all with the same distinct tone of suspense and slapstick comedy as his Evil Dead trilogy

5. A Single Man (Tom Ford)


Tom Ford’s mesmerizing directorial debut –a profound and visually-stunning story of a man in the 60’s struggling with grief in a closeted world for homosexuals. Art house cinema with a pulse.

6. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)


Spike Jonze’s children story is made fresh with its distinct anachronistic 1980’s design Henson creatures. But it’s his adult tone of meditative melancholy which make it one of the most courageous mainstream artistic visions of the year

7. Moon (Duncan Jones)


Duncan Jones’s intellectual sci-fi picture tells a grand story of existential emotions with small scale intimacy in the coldness of space. One of the great humanist and uplifting films of the year.

8. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)


Like ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ Wes Anderson’s foray into old school stop motion animation feels like a fresh breath air in an unlikely genre. Anderson’s unique visual and tone sensibilities match perfectly with Roald Dahl’s wonderfully surreal adventure tale.

9. Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli)


Forget Avatar, Paranormal Activity is the film event of the year. Oren Peli’s low budget creeper has an uncanny ability to get beneath one’s skin for some of the most authentic creep-out moments ever put to the screen.

10. Precious: Based on a Novel, ‘Push’ by Sapphire (Lee Daniels)


Lee Daniels’ harrowing urban character study of an inner city overweight black teenager who strives to overcome her lifetime of socio-economic despair is brought to life with earth shattering fury

The runner’s up:

11. District 9 (Neil Blomkamp)
12. Soul Kitchen (Fatih Akin)
13. Humpday (Lynn Shelton)
14. Bad Lieutanent: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog)
15. Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn)
16. Sauna (AJ Annila)
17. The Road (John Hillcoat)
18. Bruno (Larry Charles)
19. Watchmen (Theatrical Cut) (Zach Snyder)
20. Up (Pete Docter)

And from my esteemed contributors:

Greg Klymkiw’s Top Ten of 2009
In ALPHABETICAL ORDER:

Antichrist (Lars VonTrier)
Bruno (Larry Charles)
Drag Me To Hell (Sam Raimi)
Hard Name, A (Alan Zweig)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Invictus (Clint Eastwood)
L’affaire Farewell (Christian Carion)
Road, The (John Hillcoat)
Serious Man, A (Coen Brothers)
Time That Remains, The (Elia Suleiman)

Runners-up (alphabetically): Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi), Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore), District 9 (Neil Blomkamp), Hangover, The (Todd Phillips), Hannah Montana: The Movie (Peter Chelshom), Kirot (Danny Lerner), 9 (Shane Acker), Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli), Precious (Lee Daniels), Single Man, A (Tom Ford) Soul Kitchen (Fatih Akin), Taken (Pierre Morel), Tyson (James Toback), Up (Pete Docter/Bob Petersen), Watchmen – Director’s Cut - DVD version only, not the theatrical version or the DVD "ultimate" version (Zack Snyder)


Blair Stewart’s Best of 2009
(based on what was released in the UK over the past year)

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
Tales of the Golden Age (Uricara, Hofer, Popescu, Marculescu, Mungui)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
Antichrist (Lars Von Trier)
Doubt (John Patrick Shanley)
In the Loop (Armando Iannucci)
Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard)
Synecdoche, NY (Charlie Kaufman)
Up (Pete Docter/Bob Petersen)
Coraline (Henry Selick)
Sin Nombre (Cary Joji Fukunaga)

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Extract

Extract (2009) dir. Mike Judge
Starring: Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Ben Affleck, Kristin Wiig

*1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Unfortunately ‘Extract’ is a near disaster of a comedy, but such is the nature with comedies – the riskiest of genres. It comes from Mike Judge who has created many of the pop culture benchmarks ‘Beavis & Butthead’, ‘King of the Hill’ and ‘Office Space’. While some individual moments tease us with the sharp deadpan situational comedy from ‘Office Space’, ultimately its very tenuous premise and a near irredeemable main character doom the picture.

Jason Bateman plays Joel, the owner of a bottled soft drink company called Extract. He has a laundry list of problems from his deadbeat employees, to his obnoxious neighbour, to his wife who never sleeps with him. The latter causes him the most distress – symbolized by a funny gag about his wife’s jogging pants which once they’re on, never ever come off. And Joel never seems to come home before those jogging pants come on.

Meanwhile, running around town disrupting the community is Cindy (Mila Kunis) a petty con artist who has latched onto the arm of a former Extract employee on worker’s comp, and who now targets Joel’s company for even more money. Things get complicated when Joel, in lieu of sleeping of his wife, desires to sleep with Cindy. So at the advice of his deadbeat bar buddy, Joel enacts a plan to pay a pool boy to sleep with his wife, thus allowing him to reciprocate and sleep with Cindy without guilt.

There’s about four interesting comedies in that synopsis alone – four different pictures with different tones. And so, Mr. Judge trying to make everything work results in a sloppy mess with inconsistent humour, nefarious characters whom we never really figure out with an aimless and meandering narrative direction which goes nowhere.

If the film were about Joel’s silly plan to get the poolboy to sleep with his wife, there may be movie there – a very black comedy of errors perhaps in the vain of ‘A Fish Called Wanda’. But there’s also elements of Judge’s deadpan tone of social satire, doing for working class factory life what he did for suburban office culture. I’ve worked at a bottling plant before and there’s much humour to be mined from that oddball environment, but it all feels untapped.

The only moments which work is David Koechner’s annoying neighbour character, who pesters Joel in the most inopportune times for a $120 cheque to cover a prix-fixe dinner table reservation Joel never wanted in the first place. Koechner, a great comedic character actor, combines the patheticness of both Judge’s Milton and Lumbergh’s characters from ‘Office Space’.

And other than Ben Affleck, who provides some decent stoner humour, everything else is a wash. But cudos to Judge for giving it a go, because if he needs to make 2 or 3 'Extracts' to make one 'Office Space' it's worth it.

‘Extract’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer (2009) dir. Marc Webb
Starring: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

***

By Alan Bacchus

While (500) Days of Summer threatened to become another hopelessly romantic and disposable Sundance whimsy comedy, Marc Webb’s film emerges victorious, rising above other recent hipster crap-outs like “Adventureland” and “Away We Go”. There’s nothing particularly original, playing like a Woody Allen picture told with Cameron Crowe’s pop culture sensibility, but it’s a combination which rings out all the blinding joy and heartbreaking tragedy of love with a lingering poignancy which stays with you for a while.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Tom, a twenty-something greeting card writer and a closeted architect. Summer is the new admin assistant in his office. The omniscient narrator tells us the story of Tom’s 500 day rollercoaster ride of infatuation with Summer. In sometimes random order, we see all the stages of courtship from the silly attempts to get her attention to the blockhead advice from his single buddies, and all the insecurity of making the first move. The relationship stage is fanciful, impossibly romantic and pure bliss, which makes the break-up that much more tragic.

We see everything from the deep internal point of view of Tom – however clouded. At times his joy is expressed through a spontaneous dance sequence in the streets, other times through the movies he’s watching, or the songs he’s listening too. Smartly Webb makes Summer as enigmatic to us as she seems to Tom. There are few other name actresses at the right age who naturally inhabit the qualities of Summer like Zooey Deschanel. Her whole career has been built on her unique flighty personality and hypnotizing wide-eyed naiveté. Webb embellishes these qualities making Summer an enigmatic wandering soul – a puzzle Tom and the audience try to solve. We perhaps sense where things might go, when she tells Tom outright that she doesn’t believe in true love. Either Tom will succeed in changing her view or he’ll crash and burn.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, since his lead role in “Brick”, has perched himself on the edge of major stardom. His uncanny resemblance to Heath Ledger hopefully doesn’t curse him, but Levitt’s role in this film as well as the indie festival release “Uncertainty” show off a different kind of romantic side. Levitt exposes Tom’s vulnerability with compassion and grace. Webb reverses our expectations of the malecentric point of view – not the beastly male chauvinistic uber-male view but a literary romantic protagonist. Levitt fits it like a glove.

It's kind of a predictable path, but having been put so deep into Tom’s pain and sorrow, when the finale arrives it's as fresh and exciting as if being in his shoes.

There’s a cleverness, which at times feels overly tooled. The visual device of Tom’s architecture drawing is overemphasized as are those overused indie-titles of “Juno” and “Away We Go.” Webb saves us from the tender acoustic renditions of "Juno", or "Garden State". It’s all recognizable pop music you’d find in your own I-Pod – from the Smiths to Wolfmother.

“The Graduate” is a recurring reference. Aspiring to emulate that great film is a tall order, and so under a lesser film it would be easy pickings for critics to pounce on. Referencing, let alone using actual footage of a (better) film one aspires to be, is a no-no. But in the self-aware pop cultural world we live in today we have to accept this. In "(500) Days of Summer" it's a consistent device which projects Tom’s mood and the reference point of his mind. So I’ll let that one slide. If it were used in “Away We Go” I’d be all over it.

'(500) Days of Summer' is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Monday, 28 December 2009

Up in the Air

Up in the Air (2009) dir. Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman

**

By Alan Bacchus

The sick feeling which is caused by this film starts early and continues to steadily towards the end. This sickness is caused by the general tone of self-conscious cinematic inoffensiveness and contrived cleverness masking as profound truth. Instead it all feels so very false.

The metaphors derived from the film’s esoteric details of airline culture, human resource business management, motivational speaking are all very clever and but so exacting with its connections to the lead character’s lonesome and detached life it's like watching a cribs note version of a great book. A film full of metaphors with no meat and potatoes to substantiate it.

You probably know the story by now, Ray Bingham (George Clooney) is a specialist hired by large corporations to fire people. His ability to walk around the difficult words and calm the ex-employees down before they even get a chance to be mad is aided by his sooth-saying charm and good looks. This job takes him on the road 270 days of the year, thus lives his life in hotel rooms, travelling in airports, cabs. Thus he has chosen to eschew the ‘settled’ life. At 'home' he rents a Spartan one bedroom condo in has no relationships, is disconnected with the family, including his soon-to-be married sister.

But when a sprite young college grad Natalie (Anna Kendrick) brings an even more dispassionate approach to the process of firing people through internet-connected webcams, Ray finds his lifestyle threatened. To prove the long distance approach is no substitute for person to person interaction, Ray takes Natalie on the road to show her the ropes. Along the way both of them experience life-changing moments of enlightenment to their own personality deficiencies. Ray develops a relationship with a fellow frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga) which might just cause him to settle down and Natalie finds witnessing the despair on people’s faces after being fired too depressing to continue with her job.

I’m sure Reitman and his co-author Sheldon Turner did their homework to check that these types of companies actually exist, that in big corporations third party specialists are actually hired to fired people, but they set it all up with such smugness it feels like a complete fabrication. This starting point of contrived 'falseness' trickles down into every other corner of the film.

The base and polarized characterization of Natalie as the type-A university grad is a caricature with the grace of a sledge hammer. We’re told exactly what to think of her with nothing to discover. Reitman dresses her up in tight fitting masculine pantsuits, Why? Because she’s ‘tight ass’! Get it, she wears TIGHT clothes, and her character is TIGHT. So clever. Even her last name, ‘Keener’ is a metaphor as shallow as anything else in the film. Keener refers to an obnoxious go-getter if you didn’t know.

For all his charm, good looks, and affable self-deprecated humour George Clooney is sorely miscast. Reitman’s depiction of this industry of third party specialists hired to fire people is set up with such dispicableness there seems to be little value in the job other than. We know Ray is a depressed person, though his voiceover doesn’t say it, Reitman hammers us with every possible metaphor for loneliness and avoidance of emotional risk.

What could possibly have caused such a charming, good looking, intelligent, athletic, near perfect human being in every way shape or form to put himself in such a pathetic position in life? His job is characterized as the worst job on the face of the planet, so why does Ray do it? So he can collect frequent flyer mileage? Without context to his predicament, all we’re have is Clooney’s lovely face and charm to judge his character by. If he were say obese, had social disfunctions, or even a facial disfigurement of some sort I might begin to understand why Ray Bingham has does this to himself. But the charming George Clooney and the loser Ray Bingham don’t add up.

Distilling all the metaphors down to the essence of Ray’s predicament is that he’s never found love. During the film he does find love which opens himself up to being vulnerable emotionally. The film is saved from complete disaster with a neat and admittedly surprising narrative twist in the third act which sends Ray into even further despair. But if the shame of rejection were to happen to someone played by, say, Paul Giamatti, the gravitas of despair would hit us hard. But with someone as good-looking as Mr. Clooney… puh-leeeze! He generates no sympathy whatsoever.

Its all part of Reitman’s concerted effort to please us with attractive and charming people we can't relate to in dire and depressed lifestyles. Reitman barely pushes or challenges his characters resulting in a so a very safe, moderate and ultimately disappointing approach to this particularly relevant story of these economic times.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Le Trou

Le Trou (1949) dir, Jacques Becker
Starring: Marc Michel, Michel Constantin, Jean Keraudy, Philippe Leroy

****

By Alan Bacchus

Perhaps the granddaddy of all prison escape films?? There’s been some great ones, ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, ‘Papillon’, ‘A Man Escaped’, ‘Grand Illusion’. ‘Le Trou’ achieves a purity of its genre - distilling all other distracting elements, subplots and red herrings out of the picture without sacrifice of some core themes of brotherhood, trust, camaraderie, loyalty and fear.

It’s a simple set-up, young Claude Gaspard, enters a French prison under a charge of attempted first degree murder of his wife. He’s a regular citizen in a prison of hardened lifers. His prison mates look upon him with suspicion, because there's an escape afoot, a plot which will only work if everyone is in on the plan, and working cohesively for the end goal. Can Claude be trusted? The men test him with questions about his crimes, how much he'll serve, what his appeal prospects are etc, all in aid of determine Claude's reliability under pressure and whether it's worth his while stick it out all the way.

Becker has great fascination with the process of the escape and such is the appeal of the genre. The breaking of the ground is an extended sequence seen from a single shot pointed at the ground. When the men first try banging the steel bar against the ground it looks like a Herculean task to dig underneath, but through its shear length of the shot we get to not only progress made, but a hole dug right before our eyes.

Becker’s use of real time is key to put us right into the tension of the details of the operation and importance of even the most minuscule of tasks. The creation of the periscope device is especially precise. Revealing the small mirror hidden in the baseboard, the breaking of the mirror into small pieces and finding the right shape of shard which is small and thin enough to fit onto a toothbrush thus allowing them to poke it outside their peep hole and see down the length of the hallway.

The best escape films live and breath in these details. Which is why films like these are called procedurals. The procedure of action is just as important and character. And in fact, character are shaped by these actions. Becker knows the importance of a close-up of an object is just important as a close-up of a face, with his camera moving with precision between these objects,

'Le Trou' is a little different than other escape pictures in that we don’t know where each step of the way will go. Each layer of their plan is revealed to the audience as the running time clips along. When the men are digging in their cell, we don’t know what is beneath them. Is it earth, or another floor, or basement? Do the men know? Maybe, maybe not. The surprise at each corner of the story of thrilling and edge of your seat drama.

The French have done these films better than anyone. I guess the opposite of the escape film is the heist picture which is breaking into a someplace as opposed to breaking out. Jules Dassin’s classic 'Rififi' thus makes a good companion piece. Like Rififi Becker use silence as a strong builder of tension. The nighttime escape from the cell is played in pin-drop silence - no music, and muted ambience and sound effects. Same with Robert Bresson’s ‘A Man Escaped’ a film which pairs the narrative down even scanter then Becker’s.

And with all the emphasis on procedural details, if you thought 'Le Trou' was a style over substance the final moments pay off an profound emotional revelation between the men. Enjoy.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries (1957) dir. by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Victor Sjostrom, Bibi Andersson and Ingrid Thulin

**

By Blair Stewart

One of Ingmar Bergman's early triumphs and near-universally praised, "Wild Strawberries" is a character study of an ailing Swedish doctor coming to terms with his spent life while cryptic imagery and memento mori assail him. Victor Sjostrom, the 'grandfather' of Swedish cinema, plays Dr. Isak Borg, accused by his daughter-in-law Marianne (the stunning, and I really do stress that folks, stunning Ingrid Thulin) of being a cold-hearted bastard and fathering one too while they drive to his Alma matter for an accolade.

As they travel a countryside littered with the flotsam of his past Isak is overwhelmed by regrets after stopping at the summer house of his youth a la Mr. Watanabe from "Ikiru" or Ebenezer Scrooge from "A Chritsmas Charol". Here we see the origin of the Doctor's withered soul as his beloved cousin Sara (who's future doppelganger he meets on the road as she stirs up painful embers, both played by Andersson) chooses his johnny-on-the-spot brother for companionship.

Later on the Hindenberg of Isak's own marriage is reflected in a bickering, scenery-chewing couple stuck in an infinite loop of shrillness and in his son's own personal failures. Two boys; one an atheist, the other god-fearing vie for the present-day Sara's affection as Bergman dawdles around with surrealist landscapes and sour flashbacks that Leonard Cohen would have sighed about.

A vital work for art-house cinema and Swedish film history, and yet one that never engaged me. The performances by Sjostrom, Andersson and Thulin are lovely but I found myself distracted by some truly broad acting in minor roles in the same way De Palma's one-off background line readers ruined it for the Pacino's in the foreground, carefully watch "Carlito's Way" for my grudge. This acting fault lies at the feet of the unassailable St. Bergman.

The first flashback at the summer house with the bitchy twins and the saccharine lovers and the dinner table jousting was so camp I was hoping for John Waters to spring up from under the table with a dirty punchline. In later moments the symbolism of missing hands on a wristwatch and other jottings from Freud's doodlebook made me admire Bunuel's better talent for powerfully rendered dreams on film-"Los Olvidados" has one in particular that might blow your mind as it did mine.

Covering territory that borders Tarkovsky's "The Mirror", the Russian stream-of-conscience childhood memoirs dug much, much deeper for me in its imagery and tone.

"Wild Strawberries" is a competent meditation on mortality and forgiveness, one that certainly had a great effect on future generations of filmmakers artistically, but one that I will have to again view for a better take 40 years from now when I might be more moved. I think sore bones and bad eyesight will help my reappraisal.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Watchmen - Ultimate Cut


Watchman – Ultimate Cut (2009) dir. Zach Snyder
Starring: Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and now, the voice of Gerard Butler

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The third edition of the ‘Watchmen’ arrives on Blu-Ray. This time even more expanded into what’s called ‘The Black Freighter’ edition. All fanboys knew this was coming. It was no secret that Zach Snyder had the infamous Black Freighter subplot in his back pocket to appease all the Watchmen purists.

Thus this 213mins version of the film is for the hardest core fans only. I tried to read the graphic novel before watching the film (I got ¾ of the way through) and was dumbfounded as to the purpose of these periodic digressions to a 16th century shipwrecked ship captain racing to beat a nefarious pirate ship to land to before it burns and pillages his home. I didn’t get it in the comic and I didn’t get it in the movie, but it's there as Alan Moore intended.

For good and bad Zach Snyder’s ‘Watchmen’ is a conscientious near photostat version of Alan Moore’s revered novel. Almost everything of the epic, obtuse and seemingly unfilmable novel was included the theatrical version of the film. At times it was intoxicating, Snyder making the more bizarre elements of the book make sense (ie. Dr. Manhattan), and in other moments strangely unsophisticated and dated (ie. The final act James Bond villain-style dialogue).

With the ‘Director’s Cut’ released a couple months ago, more live action deleted scenes were reinstated and now with the Ultimate Cut, the Black Freighter scenes are fully integrated. This plotline is intercut with the main story via a series of transitions through a young boy’s comic book being read at the local cabstand. The subplot is told entirely through animation and voiced by Snyder-alum Gerard Butler.

Standing alone, the journey of the loner ship captain actually works as compelling animated drama. I’m sure Watchmen fanatics can tell me how it links thematically to the big picture, but from these lay-eyes it serves no purpose whatsoever in the context of the complete film. Not only does it not work, it further decreases the power of the glorious theatrical cut even more than the director’s cut did.

Moving back one stage in alternate versions of this film, the Director’s Cut in my humble opinion royally fucked up the remarkable pace of the second act of the theatrical version. The scenes from the Dr. Manhattan subplot and his origin story all the way to Rorschach’s prison breakout represented a perfectly constructed and paced sequence which anchored the second act and elevated the film to a transcendental higher state of cinematic nirvana. The reinserted deleted scenes chopped up this sequence thus halting the film’s momentum and thus the most powerful segment in the film. The introduction of the Black Freighter dulls this impact even further.

And so, the theatrical version remains for me the real cut of the film, liberally cutting out the chaff which worked for the novel but not for cinema, and in my mind, improved the book to create a wholly different but equally unique piece of fanboy art.

'Watchmen Ultimate Cut' is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Bros' Home Entertainment

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Avatar

AVATAR (2009) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Jake Sully, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Wes Studi and Giovanni Ribisi

**

By Greg Klymkiw

Given how little use I've had for James Cameron since his great film "The Terminator", I was prepared to hate this movie. I don't, however, hate it at all. Much worse is that I am rather indifferent towards it. On the plus side, it has terrific special effects, a serviceable science fiction premise and it's never boring. On the down side, it has terrific special effects, a serviceable science fiction premise and it's never boring. In other words, the picture is neither a win or a loss, but a draw and in my books, a draw is definitely nothing to be proud of. In fact, there are times when a spectacular loss can be endowed with considerable merit in its folly alone. Alas, this is not such a movie.

Of course, some might wonder why I have no use for Cameron, especially considering my penchant for genre pictures. Well, there are a lot of reasons, but the big three are as follows:

1. Cameron somehow managed to lose the sense of humour he displayed in "The Terminator. Humourless action movies are a dime a dozen and he's been strangely unable to crack a dark sardonic smile since Schwarzenegger uttered the famous words, "I'll be back."

2. Cameron utilizes (save for "The Terminator") lots of noise and bluster to generate suspense and excitement - pounding your pulse rate with wild cymbal-smashes and brute-force baseball bat blows instead of finely wrought and generated thrills that stick in the craw, slide slowly down the throat, burrow into the innards until they shockingly charge back up through the upper torso and uncontrollably spew globs of nasty undigested bits of viscous-enveloped matter into the audience's collective faces.

3. Cameron is earnest. Being earnest is bad enough when it belongs to dour National Film Board of Canada documentaries about children with learning disabilities who find teachers they can really relate to, but when it hangs like a constipated turd from the anus of an action director, it's virtually intolerable.

"Avatar" suffers from all three, but what made it SLIGHTLY watchable for me is that the bluster is finally more controlled, and therefore, ALMOST effective while the earnestness factor manages, at the very least, to generate some surprisingly interesting ideas regarding other life forms in the universe as well as some noodlings on the themes of American colonization, genocidal acts on behalf of corporate superpowers and the exploitation of natural resources

At the end of the day, though, the movie leaves me cold. I admire some of the craft, but I never have the feeling I'm experiencing a picture that truly engages.

One of the primary reasons it doesn't fully engage is that it's impossible to latch wholeheartedly onto any of the characters. If the movie had been endowed with at least a villain on a par with Schwarzenegger in the first "Terminator" instalment (which gave that film something to negate the dour humourlessness of the rather dull Kyle Reese, the "hero" played by Michael Biehn), then structurally and otherwise, "Avatar" might have gone the sort of distance it needed to go to achieve the same kind of relentless energy. Instead, we're forced to follow the slender tale of a paraplegic soldier whose mind melds with an avatar of an alien on a distant planet so he can join a scientific team to gather data that will allow an American corporate superpower to exploit the natural resources of the planet. While amongst the planet's blue-coloured indigenous populace, the soldier comes to understand the simple, spiritual and wholly environmental ways of these New-Agey warriors and joins them in battling the nasty, would-be conquerors.

The characters are finally little more than caricatures and ultimately, since most of them are jolly blue computer generated giants that are oddly not very pleasing to the eye, it's no wonder we're not too wrapped up in their struggle. This is not to say that caricatures in an action picture are always a bad thing, but there has to be some zip and oomph in the writing to give them the resonance that makes you bounce up and down in your seat with the same kind of giddiness that Schwarzenegger inspired in "The Terminator". All "Avatar" has going for it is a humourless hero and heroine and a couple of villains who offer little more than mild amusement value.

Another disappointing element of the picture is the IMAX 3-D format itself and the fact that the true joys of 3-D are never exploited to their fullest because Cameron is so humourless and earnest that he doesn't actually let himself loose and wholeheartedly embrace the real reason anyone might want to see a 3-D picture. In the 50s, when 3-D burst on the screen, filmmakers went out of their way to throw things at the camera lens (or audience) so that it actually felt like a tomahawk or spear or some other projectile was hurtling right towards you. During the brief revival of 3-D in the 70s and 80s, it was more of the same - most notably in Paul Morrissey's film of the Andy Warhol production of "Frankenstein" (AKA "Flesh For Frankenstein") where gooey, blood splattered guts dangled disgustingly before you. In recent years, 3-D has become so boring, so non-exploitative that most of the 3-D films are better off being viewed in flat 2-D. The exceptions to this are few and far between - the otherwise unwatchable "Polar Express" and the unjustly maligned "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" at least delivered on the roller coaster ride pleasures to be had in 3-D. "Avatar" is far too humourless and earnest to engage wholeheartedly in the deliciously exploitative pursuit of throwing stuff in our faces and/or taking us on harrowing amusement park rides. Cameron's more interested in using the 3-D technology to paint a portrait of a "real" fantasy world. This doesn't really cut the mustard since it's not a real world anyway - it all looks and feels computer generated.

This is not to say I have a problem with special effects LOOKING like special effects. The great stop-motion animation of Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen look like effects - in fact, they ALWAYS looked like effects, even when I was a kid I knew they weren't "real". That, of course, never mattered as there was also a huge effort to create a world that existed ONLY on the silver screen while making us care and believe in ALL the characters such as those in "King Kong" or "Jason and the Argonauts". When we watched those movies, we truly felt immersed in a cinematic land of spectacle, but the pictures worked because the stories themselves seemed infused with a heart, a core of human emotion and where the special effects were there to truly serve the STORY and CHARACTER.

With "Avatar", it's the opposite of that. Cameron, always the technophile knot-head, cares more about the effects and visual razzle-dazzle than anything else. This should have come as no surprise since it doesn't take much to remind me of the fact that in the appalling "Titanic", so much time and attention was lavished on making the great ship sets as technically and historically accurate as possible, while spending no time or effort on making the characters SOUND, MOVE or even LOOK (beyond the costumery) like they lived in the Edwardian period (save for Billy Zane's mincingly delicious bit of nastiness and Kathy Bates impersonation of Shelley Winters in "The Poseidon Adventure").

Sam Raimi is the perfect example of a truly great filmmaker since many of his pictures are laden with makeup, optical and/or digital effects, but they're all there in service of the movies themselves, as well as being infused with a delicious, nasty, funny pulp sensibility. Or how about the wonderfully insane Paul Verhoeven who dazzles us with his dark wit and delicious comic-book stylings? These filmmakers are certainly in direct contrast to Cameron who is, finally, a cold, calculating man of craft - a proletarian George Lucas, if you will. And on top of it all (and not the top of the world, by any means), Cameron is just one big square.

One thing in Cameron's screenplay for "Avatar" that I responded to positively was the world of the aliens and how a blend of the spiritual with physical allowed the blue goodies to live as one within their natural world - tethering soul and physiology so that all living creatures are tied together and not just with each other, but with the dimension of the afterlife and the ghosts of the past and the spirits of the planet's ancestors. This is such a lovely and intriguing element that it's sad to note that it leads us to one of the big flaws/holes in Cameron's screenplay. When the scientist, played by Sigourney Weaver, pleads with the corporate boss to not unbalance the delicate balance of the aliens' world, it's simply all too predictable how the New World Order-styled nasty-pants played by Giovanni Ribisi rejects this. What didn't jell with me on this front was the fact that Weaver's character could and should have used her expertise in dealing with corporate lackeys to fund her research by trying to argue that the minerals the Americans are trying to exploit are, in fact, less lucrative than trying to get to the bottom of how the aliens live. This latter secret seems even more ripe for corporate exploitation and that this is NEVER even brought up is an idiotic omission.

As the story, such as it is, is crafted, this logical pitch on the scientist's part is all but ignored (or not even considered) by Cameron's script. One can only surmise that if it HAD been bandied about at the writing stage, the possibility of Weaver pitching the Aliens' ecology as being far more valuable than the mineral deposits might have completely decimated the need for Cameron to blow things up real good.

There would then be no bluster and no noise. And that, finally, is all Cameron is really all about.

Boring!

"Avatar" is cold, lifeless, humourless and only marginally better than Cameron's previous work in this genre (save for the original "Terminator"). Like most of his films, it's aimed at all the fanboy (and fangirl) bone-brains who get off on attending screenings dressed as their favourite characters. No doubt, the "Avatar" fans will be arriving en masse to the theatres with blue paint smeared all over their faces and making all the Star Trek, Star Wars and Rocky Horror deadheads look like Rhodes Scholars.

Happily, the picture's adjusted for inflation gross will still never begin to approach that of a REAL hit like "Gone With The Wind". However, "Avatar" - no matter how you slice it - is going to be one hell of a monumental hit by contemporary standards.

It could, however, have been so much more.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Invictus

Invictus (2009) dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon

****

By Greg Klymkiw

Great screenwriting - and I mean TRULY great screenwriting is in such short supply these days that when you come across a picture as exquisitely written as "Invictus" you're more than likely, as I was, to second guess your impulse to bestow the necessary laurel leaves upon it. Therefore, wanting to make sure I wasn't entirely out of my mind after the first taste, I went to see the picture a second time the very next day and was relieved to discover that on this sophomore viewing, it was as rich and dramatically satisfying as the first. There are, of course, many reasons for this: Clint Eastwood's direction, a fine cast headed by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon and the sort of sumptuous production values one naturally expects from a major motion picture.

And then there's the writing.

With this second helping of "Invictus", I was even more impressed with Anthony Peckham's great screenplay. It is pure meat and potatoes writing of the highest order. As a script, this is no hipper-than-than-hip Charlie Kaufman word-wanking groove-ola-fest, nor is it a James-Cameron-like hodge-podge of every genre thrown into the blender to serve up a mess of special effects. It's a straight-up, classically-structured, old-fashioned story that's actually ABOUT something - REALLY about something. It's replete with food for thought AND works as rousing, thrilling, exciting and inspirational entertainment. In fact, it might actually be what the youth market needs - a movie designed by a team serving the interests of a director who is old and wise enough to be everybody's grandfather.

Clint Eastwood is the father and the grandfather of us all. He might actually even be Jesus Christ Almighty! No, let's make that God!

Eastwood, as if he has anything to prove anymore, proves that he's as great a filmmaker as the very best America has delivered. And, with Peckham's solid script, he delivers a profoundly moving and intelligent story. Adapted from John Carlin's non-fiction book "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation", it focuses upon Mandela's first order of business as President of South Africa after the fall of Apartheid - to bring the country together and to find a way of crossing the divide of race, of colour and to hold to a process of reconciliation rather than revenge.

The film proceeds to detail Mandela's belief in using the country's national rugby team (the Springboks) as the primary tool and symbol of a united front. He has his work cut out for him though since there was a long, deep-seeded history of the Black population intentionally refusing to cheer for their home country. As the team represented South Africa and its subjugation of the nation's Black population, the Black rugby fans would lavish cheers and applause on every OTHER nation. After the fall of Apartheid, this does not change. In fact, the hatred for the green-and-gold-uniformed Springboks becomes even more bilious. Even the White population begins to lose faith in the team since under the leadership of its captain Francois Piennar (Matt Damon), the overwhelming effect of this hatred crushes their morale and the team experiences one embarrassing defeat after another.

Mandela urges his sporting counsel to have faith in the team and he begins a deep courtship/friendship with Piennar, offering mentorship, an almost spiritual guidance and, in an odd way, a bit of side-coaching. With Mandela's near-obsessive support, the Springboks miraculously claw their way out of a deep hole and eventually face the mighty New Zealand All Blacks who have brutally decimated every other team in the world. The showdown has the added resonance as the 1995 Rugby World Cup game is being hosted by South Africa and the eyes of the world are aimed squarely at a country on the verge of major changes.

One of the nice things about Peckham's screenplay is the deft way he manages to focus on Mandela, while at the same time, peppering the story with rich characters at every turn - even down to extras. There is absolutely no on-screen individual who is NOT given an engaging purpose to support the story's forward movement. We get vivid, information-packed snapshots of everyone in Mandela's sphere - from secretaries to assistants, from bodyguards to chief bureaucrats and from visiting dignitaries to domestic politicians. Furthermore, we get colourful portraits of Piennar and his family (including their Black domestic), Piennar's teammates and most extraordinarily, two small, but important characters (verging on being background extras) during the climactic game where we see a coming together of Black and White.

While sticklers might have a problem with seeing all the country's problems solved with one rugby game, both Peckham and Eastwood know there are two higher purposes - to present a general plea for unity amongst race, creed and colour while delivering thrilling, rousing entertainment of the highest order. Eastwood as both an actor and director truly understands the notion that there are ultimately no small parts and Peckham's script provides a great opportunity to fulfil this.

Peckham's screenplay brilliantly takes this one slice of Mandela's life and infuses it with enough details that we get a magnificent snapshot, not only of Mandela's existence up to that point, but a very good idea of the during-and-after of Apartheid. In retrospect, there are a few moments that are obviously expositional, but it is to the screenplay and Eastwood's credit, that the film never wears its exposition on its sleeve while we're actually watching the movie. Even when it threatens to rear its head during the movie, Peckham quickly engages us in some expertly wrought detail that moves us ever-forward. Exposition is just fine in ANY movie, it's only when we feel it and/or see it working that it's problematic.

While the script itself plays a tiny bit fast and loose with actual events, it at least does so in the spirit of said events. (It is a movie, after all, and needs to compress such matters effectively, so long as it does not take us out of the drama as we watch it.) For example, only a persnickety egghead would quarrel with the fact that the title not only represents its meaning in Latin, which is "unconquered", but is used as a dramatic element of the film in that it's the title of a poem Mandela used to keep himself going in prison and which he gives a copy of to Piennar as inspiration. In reality, it was an altogether different poem that Mandela used in real life. Big deal. It works perfectly here, and most importantly, for the story that's being told. As that great line from John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" reminds us: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." (Note to all burgeoning writers everywhere: great drama exposes truth even when you need to bend the truth to create great drama!)

Great drama is, of course, what Eastwood's name has become synonymous with. His direction crackles with excitement. Many critics unimaginatively fall back on the word "stately" to sum up Eastwood's mise-en-scene. While there is definitely a majesty to much of Eastwood's work, it's so much more than that. Having been mentored by some of the best directors in movie history, Eastwood is more than a merely proficient director. He has learned wisely and well, but also knows enough to use that mentorship as a springboard for his own controlled, yet ultimately dazzling approach to the material. Yes, he has his camera exactly where it should be for virtually every dramatic beat, but the work is infused with such a strong, clear voice, it's apparent that Eastwood is ultimately a born-filmmaker.

Given Eastwood's own prodigious talent and experience as well as being mentored by the likes of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, it's no wonder that this particular inspirational tale of mentorship appealed to him and why he attacks it with the frenzy of a zealot.

When we get to the final game, it becomes even more apparent what a great filmmaker he is. Treating the game like a massive action sequence - one of war, one of guts, one of determination - Eastwood creates scenes that had me and the audience trembling with excitement and mounting tension and finally, pure orgasmic elation. Even though I knew the outcome, I somehow forgot about all that and sat on the edge of my seat, raptly paying attention to every detail and occasionally needing to almost look away when the suspense became too unbearable and, I must demurely admit, to finally cheering the team on with the same gusto that has struck me very few times at the movies. (Those moments of pure animal savagery on my part are still vivid in my memory and include Charlton Heston barking the "damn, dirty Ape" insult to the gorillas in Franklin J. Schaffner's "Planet of the Apes", the sweet-faced children in Mark Rydell's "The Cowboys" as they extract the most vicious, brutal revenge upon the killers of John Wayne's character - most notably when they allow Bruce Dern to be dragged to death by a horse, when Will Sampson as the Chief in Milos Foreman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" manages to wrench the huge marble sink out of the ground and use it to crash through the windows of the asylum and escape and, most recently, when Sylvester Stallone single-handedly butchered hundreds of Burmese infantrymen during the climactic bloodbath of "Rambo".) With this in mind, I'll allow you, dear reader, to see "Invictus" and guess for yourself which extraordinary sequence during the final game had me releasing spontaneous "huzzahs" and applause.

"Invictus" is a wonderful movie! Eastwood keeps delivering the gold and at this rate, I pray for the sort of miracle that will keep him going until long after I'm gone. Though, even better, is hoping he will at least make a few more movies with screenplays as magnificently wrought as Peckham's. Great directors can only be as great as their collaborators and the whole kit and caboodle can only really be as great as the script.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Avatar

Avatar (2009) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Giovani Ribisi

***

By Alan Bacchus

If you like nine foot tall blue humanoid aliens, flying dragons, giant lizard creatures, floating mountains, neon willow trees etc ‘Avatar’ is the movie for you. If not, you will hate it. “Avatar” is a film so processed, so glossy, so colourful and so outside of the realm of reality it's purist fantasy of the highest order. But for this reviewer, there’s nothing I wouldn’t have wanted substituted for a real person, a real earth landscape, a real horse instead of a lizard-beast etc. So I therefore must admit, pure fantasy doesn’t turn my crank, so take this all with a grain of salt.

What does turn my crank is balls out action - that is, running, flying, chasing, gun firing, explosions, knife fighting, arrow throwing etc., On this level of filmmaking ‘Avatar’ is a triumph.

The story features a pretty cool sci-fi concept, the idea of a human having the ability to project their mind into the body of harvested aliens, In this film humans are the baddies, an invasive species into the world of Pandora - a pastoral planet full of lush greenery, mountains which reach into the sky, lovely waterfalls, neon trees etc. Two factions of humans have come - the scientists who want to study the species from an anthropological point of view and the military naves who want to rape the land of its natural resources at the expense of the lovely blue aboriginal inhabitants.

A paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives on the planet looking for a way to live the reckless lifestyle he led before he was injured in battle. When he infiltrates the blue native people’s society his orders as a spy comes into conflict with his new found love for one of the aliens and their eco-friendly lifestyle. The rest pretty much plays out like ‘Dances With Wolves’…

Additional plotting, characters, dramatic arcs and story beats are all rooted in familiar storytelling, borrowed from films like ’Braveheart’, ’Last of the Mohicans’, ’The Matrix’ and a number of westerns. Although I’ve heard James Cameron expound again and again that ultimately, ’it comes down to story’, it’s all BS because clearly story here takes a backseat for special effects and spectacle. So let’s leave the story as that - a functional skeleton for Cameron to hang all his fantastical creations.

The creatures are all rendered as perfect as can be compared to other CGI films. The blue creatures look almost real. But of course they can never look 100% real, because there is no such creature as a Na’vi. They run just like humans, can shoot guns and arrows just like humans and embrace and kiss just like humans. Everything works as good as it can. But their computer generated facial expressions can never substitute for the expressiveness of the humans - though Cameron would argue against that as well. And so, true immersiveness into the material comes down to whether you don’t mind watching nine-foot talk blue people interact and act like humans. ‘Titanic’ had worse dialogue and worse characters, yet when Jack was saying goodbye to Rose as her lifeboat was being lowered into the water the moment hit us in the gut because Leonardo Di Caprio was a real person and Kate Winslet was a real person. Avatar does not have that luxury and thus these moments never quite work as well.

As for the action, it’s a marvel and mindblowing. The final twenty minutes is a Transformers-like army vs. army battle, the kind of battle which could have easily been a wash of random swooshing imagery, quick cuts and incomprehensive movement. But even after 15 years since Cameron’s last action picture he hasn’t lost a step. Done.

Now let’s get down to the 3D… I am sure that I will never watch another 3D dramatic feature film ever again until they can do it without glasses. If this movie is supposed to revolutionize the medium and make a profound paradigm shift toward three dimensions of film, it still doesn’t work for me. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s pretty good, but unless its perfect, it’s distracting. I’ve mentioned this in other 3D reviews, but:
a) it takes a miniscule fraction of a second before each shot for my eyes to adjust to the 3D dimensions, thus distracting me from the movie
b) the 3D process, especially with wideangle lenses actually reduce the feeling of scope of the picture. Making the screen seem small, like I’m looking into a tiny diarama or through a kaleidoscope eye
c) The tint in the lenses actually dull the brightness and reduce the contrast of the picture.

Ok, Sure, I sound like an old curmudgeon refusing to accept the future of cinema. Maybe one day 3D will become perfect and equal that of flat 2D imagery, but until that day, 2D will always be the superior way to watch a dramatic film. As long as films are co-presented in 2D and 3D, I’ll be in the 2D theatre. Call me in 10 years or so.

Monday, 21 December 2009

District 9 - A Second Look

District 9 (2009) dir. Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope

***½

By Alan Bacchus

If anyone read my first review of this film during its theatrical release this summer, they’d know that despite the critical and commercial success I found the film more admirable than enjoyable, and distracted by the stylistic crutch of the documentary approach. Well, upon second viewing on glorious blu-ray I take it all back. ‘District 9’ is without doubt a great pictue, a signal of a new talent in science fiction/action cinema - a voice, reminiscent of a young James Cameron, back when he made movies like ‘Terminator’ and ‘Aliens’.

Blomkamp sets up a near future revisionist world we’ve never seen before. In 1982, when an alien ship entered our atmosphere and parked itself overtop of Johannesburg South Africa. The aliens inside the ship, which looked like humanoid prawns, were corralled and ghettoized in an area called District 9. Twenty-eight years later, the district, now a shantytown filled all sorts of illegal and sordid behaviour, is to be moved to the outskirts of town.

In charge of moving the creatures, all of whom speak a Star Wars-type language but understand English, is a pencil-pushing dweeb named Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). During the raid, Wirkus becomes exposed to some illicit alien liquid which starts having unruly effects on his body. When Wirkus becomes the target of the government for study, suddenly he finds himself on the run and working with the aliens in hopes of reversing his evolving biological condition. Wirkus teams up with one of the aliens thus forming a unique companionship of male bonding.

Upon first viewing I was unimpressed with Sharlto Copely as the lead, referring to him as “thoroughly annoying for two thirds of the picture”. For some reason I can now see a great performance in the role of Wikus Van De Merwe, the nerdy pencil-pushing bureaucrat who becomes a part man-alien ass-beater. It’s a great cinematic character arc one which emerges so unexpectedly. If this film were cast in traditional Hollywood, someone like Tobey Maguire would have gotten the role, but by the mere fact that his is a recognizable ’star’ his transition from pathetic nerd to cinema bad ass would have been obvious. By the time we even release that this guy we’ve never ever seen before on the screen, Sharlto Copely is the star of the film, we’re already half way into the picture and deep into his predicament. Thus Wirkus’ redemption comes as a complete and genuine surprise.

The documentary still doesn’t work for me completely. The methodology works as an introduction to this world but Blomkamp’s continued use of the ’fake-footage’ approach is inconsistent and thus, unnecessary. By the midpoint Blomkamp discards the news footage point of view and starts shooting ‘traditional’ coverage and with a cinematic eye. But he still refuses to completely discard the mock-doc, including, almost at random fake ’surveillance’ shots, and even including a watermark logo in the bottom corner for no apparent reason - which makes me think the film would have just as good without any documentary approach at all.

But it’s a minor distraction against the balls out cinematic chutzpah on display. It’s a bit of serendipity that James Cameron’s ‘Avatar is released at the same time, because Blomkamp’s bold visual designs and muscular action sensibilities, bring to mind a younger James Cameron. The second half builds up with remarkable narrative intensity culminating in the third act introduction Wirkus robotic armour, the same kind of cinematic awesomenews as Ripley’s final confrontation in 'Aliens'.

"District 9" is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Here's the original 'Alive in Joburg' short film by Neill Blomkamp:

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Blind Side

The Blind Side (2009) dir. John Lee Hancock
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Jae Head and Kathy Bates

*1/2

By Greg Klymkiw

Watching people be nice to other people is, for the most part, pretty boring. It's simply and unequivocally not very interesting and as such, makes for poor drama. In fact, it pretty much makes for NO drama at all. As Frank Capra proved on so many occasions, the only time in the movies that seeing people be nice to other people had anything in the way of dramatic impact was when the feel-good cinematic epiphanies were preceded by pain, suffering and/or conflict of the most unbearable kind.

"The Blind Side" is pretty unbearable, too, but not because the movie drags us through hot coals to get to the nirvana of feel-good, but because it's just so unbearably... feel-good.

Based on the true story of rich White people who helped a poor Black boy become a football player, "The Blind Side" could have been unbearable on the same kind of political grounds that so many movies have been where rich White people are seen as the real heroes in the salvation of Black people from their "lowly" station. This, however, is the least of the movie's problems.

The picture's biggest failing is that a lot happens, but for most of the film's running time it feels like not much of ANYTHING has happened.

Real-life football legend Michael Oher (surname pronounced like "oar") is fictionally presented to us in his adolescence as a big, quiet, seemingly oafish, physically powerful and possibly retarded Black boy - kind of like Lenny from "Of Mice and Men". His Momma is a crack addict, but luckily, a kindly neighbour from the wrong side of the Memphis tracks has not only provided him with a home, but is especially kind to him by taking the lad to a high-toned private Christian school to get an education and possibly a sports scholarship. The Coach at the school also proves to be very kind to Michael and fights the good fight with the school administration to let him be admitted as a student. Some of the teachers are not pleased with his lack of academic prowess, but sooner than you can say, "White people are the saviours of Black people", the Science teacher realizes how smart he is and becomes very kind to him. Soon, all the teachers are kind to him (with the exception of the nasty English teacher who thinks he is an illiterate moron).

Alas, Michael becomes homeless when the kindly fellow from the beginning of the movie is unable to extend further kindness since his offscreen wife (like in "Diner" where we hear, but don't see Steve Guttenberg's wife-to-be) wants this large homeless boy off their couch. Michael sleeps where he can, hand washes his clothes in a laundromat and dries them in dryers left spinning and unattended. Still, this is a minor setback since by this point, so many people have been kind to him, that it's merely a matter of running time before someone will be kind to him again.

In the school yard, for example, when Michael sees some cute little girls on the swings and tries to give them a push, they run away - thinking, perhaps, that he's Chester the Child Molester. Well, sooner than you can say, "White people say wise things to Black people they could never have thought of by themselves," in walks a horrendously cute little White boy (Jae Head) who is quick with the wisecracks and overflowing with precocity. "Try smiling," Whitey says to the hulking, dour Black boy. And Goldurn' all ta' hail, if'n dis' don't work wonders. Michael smiles and soon, this 200 pounds of brawn is happily pushing pubescent girlies on the swings. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but this CAN work for child molesters, mais non?)

At this point in the proceedings, things could be going a lot worse for our hero, but so far, people have been kind to him. Then one night, the rain comes down like cats and dogs. The White boy and his family drive by our drenched hero and the Mom (Sandra Bullock) is shocked that this boy is homeless. Quicker than you can say, "Rich White people are the only ones who can put roofs over the heads of homeless Black people," she lets him sleep in their suburban mini-mansion. At first, he sleeps on the couch, but when his girth threatens to collapse it, Mom kindly buys a bed and gives him his own room.

Mom takes a real shine to this silent oaf and proceeds, for most of the film's interminable running time, to be... you guessed it!... kind to him. Her kindness is overflowing. One scene after another follows where Mom is not only kind to him, but gets others to be kind to him to.

One of Mom's friends remarks, "You're really changing that boy's life." Mom stares off wistfully and says, "No, he's changing mine." How he's changing HER life is a tad beyond me. She's gorgeous, has a gorgeous husband, two gorgeous kids, a gorgeous mansion and a gorgeous wardrobe. Since she's been very kind to him already, one can only suspect that her life changes since she becomes even MORE kind to him. Eventually, everything this Black boy deserves is handed to him on a silver platter - thanks to the kindness of Mom and so many other kind White people.

But wait! Conflict is on the horizon! To get into college to play football, our hero needs a higher Grade Point Average.Well, you might be surprised to hear this, but Mom hires him a private tutor (Kathy Bates). Damn, this tutor is good! And most of all, she is so kind to him. Even more surprising is that his teachers are kind to him and give him the support he needs to get the grades he needs.

But, hark! Do I hear the sound of even more conflict a-rumbling?

You bet! Remember that mean English teacher? Well, he's still pretty mean and it looks like he might not give our boy the grade he needs.

Oops, false alarm! He's kind too. Those pesky English teachers may seem like old sticks in the mud, but deep down, they're very kind - especially when they're White and want to teach some hard academic lessons to Black people that other White people are afraid to teach.

During the last few minutes of the movie, there is one final bit of conflict when a mean Black lady puts some bad ideas into our hero's head about the rich White lady who is so kind to him and he goes back to the Projects where he meets some not-very-nice Black boys and things get a tiny bit too unpleasant for all concerned.

Thankfully, this does not last long. Kindness rules and all is well again.

Written (I use the term loosely here) and directed (so to speak) by John Lee Hancock, "The Blind Side" is a movie that has very little going for it - no drama, virtually no conflict or tension, a running time that feels at least forty five minutes too long, a vaguely foul odour of racial condescension and globs of un-earned feel-good.

If, however, there is a plus-side to this odious trough of pap, it's oddly displayed in the presence and performance of Sandra Bullock. She is someone I always found incredibly hard to take. Her earnest perkiness, a perpetually stupid grin plastered on that long, horsey face and a yippy-yappy voice that made me long for the incessant barking of a rabid chihuahua always inspired in me a considerable expulsion of bile.

These feelings eventually shifted from nut-sack squeezing to admiration and, I must shyly admit to a regained firmness of a key appendage at the very sight of her. Somewhere around the time of her appearance in Paul Haggis's heavy-handed, overrated glorified TV-movie "Crash", Bullock blossomed into something far more palatable and genuinely appealing. Some age, some maturity, some well-placed heft on her frame have all contributed to the enhancement of her ability to woo the lens of the camera. She also invested her peformance in "Crash" and the flawed, but underrated Alejandro Agresti film "The Lake House" with the kind of chops I never realized she had. In the latter title, she actually moved me. And no, it wasn't a bowel movement. The girl made me cry. And Christ Almighty! I even found her sexy and funny in "The Proposal".

In "The Blind Side", she commands the screen like a pitbull - ravaging the lens with the kind of intensity I wish the movie itself had. Her performance has Oscar-bait written all over it, but within that context, I'd have to say it's entirely deserved.

If "The Blind Side" moves Bullock into a different stream of roles; to movies that might really matter, then I, for one, won't be too sad to see this happen. In spite of my loathing for this otherwise woeful excuse for a movie, I might eventually thank its existence for signalling the kind of blossoming of a star that isn't merely machine-tooled by the industry, but has been, all on her own steam, grown into and earned honestly.

In the meantime, though, we must contend with the fact that "The Blind Side" - an inexplicably huge hit at the North American boxoffice - is, as a movie, almost intolerable.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009) dir. Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christophe Waltz, Eli Roth

****

By Alan Bacchus

I’m so incredible happy ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is getting some decent awards season buzz – a shock really since it's idiosyncratic genre cinema all the way. A film as highly regarded as ‘Kill Bill’ was years early, but somehow the zeitgeist movement of awards buzz shifted positively towards Basterds. I’m not complaining. It’s one of the best films of the year – a great cinematic experience and certainly Tarantino's most wholly satisfying picture since ‘Pulp Fiction.’

The DVD arrives in time to capitalize on this early buzz. Already it’s received some key Golden Globe nominations, whatever prestige that earns. But I respect even greater its award for Best Picture of the year from the Toronto Film Critics Association – a group not known for succumbing to mass buzz and hysteria (last year they chose ‘Wendy and Lucy’ as Best Picture and this year chose Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant as Best Actor).

The DVD experience admittedly isn’t as glourious as watching the film on the big screen, but there’s special features will feed the appetite of rabid fans like myself. There’s no commentary or delete scenes. QT even admits there were scenes cut out, but seems to have had enough integrity for his final cut not to reveal anything else but what was on screen. I highly respect that.

The treasure of the DVD is Elvis Mitchell’s interview with QT and Brad Pitt for KCRW’s radio program, ‘The Treatment’. As usual with Mitchell it’s an intellectual discussion of the film, but it contains enough of cinegeekness not to alienate regular people. Tarantino in interviews can be annoying at times, but he’s also reverential to his cinematic legacy and penitent to the filmmakers who influenced him. He’s also sharp in his self-analysis and articulate about his own personal style of filmmaker. Pitt and Tarantino make a good pairing dissecting the film and the process enough without completely sanding away the allure of the film.

A fun featurette mockumentary about the making of the film within a film – ‘Nation’s Pride’ – features Eli Roth playing a hilariously pretentious German director, proving he’s probably a better performer than director (we’ve yet to see another film since the abysmal ‘Hostel II’).

An extensive interview with minor player Rod Taylor (who played Winston Churchill) reveals the respect he has for even the bit players in his film and that casting down to a single line has personal significance to him. Taylor describes with joy the attention he got from Tarantino and his crew for his great work with Alfred Hitchcock, George Stevens, John Ford and others.

‘Inglourious Basterds’ may not win any award this season but the fact he’s on the radar of critics during this concentrated period of Oscar-baiting entries such as ‘Invictus’, ‘Nine’, ‘Avatar’ is a triumph but for fluffy little war film.

‘Inglourious Basterds’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Alliance Films

This is not part of the DVD, but an indication of his continued and outspokenness on the films of his contemporaries, specifically Paul Thomas Anderson:

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Deconstructing the Cinema of the 2000’s: Part 5 – The Old Guard

The following is part of a continuing series of features breaking down the trends of cinema in the 2000's.
Click below for parts 1-3:
Part 1: Tentpole Franchisees
Part 2: Social Realism
Part 3: Documentary
Part 4: The New Auteurs

So what were the cinema mainstays up this past decade? The old guard consists of the Clint Eastwoods, Steve Spielbergs, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allens whose careers are as rock solid as blue chip stock. Ooops, sorry, there is no thing as blue-chip stock on both Wall Street and the movie business. The decade saw some ups and downs for the established masters. Let’s check them out.

The miraculous renaissance of Clint Eastwood is perhaps the story of the decade. Clint had been directing films for over 20 years before he even got his first piece of hardware (or even nomination) with ‘The Unforgiven’ in 1992. Throughout the rest of the 90’s Clint continued to make decent if not forgettable films with little impact on box office, or cinema history (anyone remember ‘Absolute Power’, or ‘True Crime’?). But starting with ‘Mystic River’ was a completely unexpected career resurgence. Clint followed with Oscar baiters, ‘Million Dollar Baby’, ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’, ‘Flags of Our Fathers’, ‘Changling’, ‘Gran Torino’ and ‘Invictus’. Sure, not all these films were great, or even successful but each were culturally relevant and drew more attention than he ever had. And he did all of this work in his upper 70’s, with an assured easygoing, confident and patient work ethic.

The Coen Bros seem immune to the ravishes of time. Throughout the 2000’s they made almost a movie a year, mixing the idiosyncratic, ‘A Serious Man’, and ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’, with audience-friendly mainstream pictures like ‘Burn After Reading’, as well as another masterpiece of neo-noir, and a few more Oscars for their shelves from ‘No Country For Old Men’.

Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be engineering himself a Kubrickian type career with a sparse output, with 3, 4, and 5 years in between films. His ‘There Will Be Blood’ will be considered one of the great American auteur masterpieces of the decade. His only other film of the decade, ‘Punchdrunk Love’, never did turn my crank like it did other fans, but it did win him at Best Director award at Cannes. But next decade, he really really needs an Oscar.

PTA contemporary Quentin Tarantino became more idiosyncratic and esoteric with his tastes. His gargantuan ‘Kill Bill’ was split into two movies, one good, but disappointing. His Grindhouse event with Robert Rodriguez was a fun experiment satisfying the same but limited cinegeek audience, but was unfortunately buoyed heavily by the Rodriguez’s more enjoyable film as well as the fake trailers in between. Quentin's entry, 'Death Proof' felt like dead weight. QT did end the decade with a bang with ‘Inglourious Basterds’, the quality of which was helped in part due to his unofficial creative rivarlry wiuth PTA. QT publically stated that watching ‘There Will Be Blood’ caused him to elevate his game with ‘Basterds’. We’re all thankful for that!

Gus Van Zant, who was into his third decade as director, elevated his career to new levels of artistry. Through the 00’s he purposely eschewed the mainstream success he achieved with ‘Good Will Hunting’ developing a new and unique minimal/atmospheric brand of realist picture through the middle part of the decade. This string of art house oddities started with 2002’s ‘Gerry’, an odd, obtuse bit of existentialism. He took this tone and style and produced his great Palme D’Or winning stunner “Elephant”. “The Last Days” would appear to complete this unofficial ‘death trilogy’. But then he followed it up with a fourth arty beguiler, ‘Paranoid Park’. Van Zant ended the decade with a return to populism with the multi-Oscar winning ‘Milk’, which proved him one of the most adaptable directors in the world and nothing he couldn’t direct. We need to give him the reigns on a tentpole franchise to really see how subversive he could be. Could you imagine what Gus Van Zant’s “Superman” would look like? If he remade a shot-for-shot version of ‘Psycho’ nothing is out of bounds for Van Zant.

Steven Spielberg was his usual prolific self throughout the decade, making 7 films, a mix of popular blockbusters, ‘War of the Worlds’, ‘Minority Report’ and that Indiana Jones sequel, with his serious fare, the mixed-bag of ‘AI: Artificial Intelligence’ and his unequivocally engrossing ‘Munich’. Sandwiched in between these big pictures is his most unlikely film success ‘Catch Me If You Can’ a relatively low budget under-the-radar pyrotechnic-free breezy comedy. We don’t ever need to mention ‘The Terminal’.

Martin Scorsese had his most commercially successful of decades. Most of the 00's were spent trying really really hard to win an Oscar. ‘Gangs of New York’, he tried and failed, same with ‘The Aviator’, and eventually we all breathed a sigh of relief when he won with a particularly brutal and cynical crime film ‘The Departed’. Though it may not make up for losing out to ‘Dances With Wolves’ at least that monkey is off his back.

Woody Allen was hit and miss throughout the decade, but with his usual pace of a film a year. Allen had been off my radar for a long time, until he made ‘Match Point’ an inspired change of pace for the man. Not only did he make a brilliant black comedy which Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud of, he made it in England! Unfortunately, his decade was also filled with kindling efforts such as ‘Small Time Crooks’, ‘Scoop’, ‘Hollywood Ending’ and ‘Curse of the Jade Scorpion’.

Steven Soderbergh was equally prolific as Woody, and like Van Zant, moving back and forth with idiosyncratic art films with monstrously huge star-driven fare. It was a fortuitous start to the decade for sure, achieving a rare feat of having two Best Director nominations in the same year, ’Traffic’ and ‘Erin Brockovich’. Miraculously the Academy got it right and picked Soderbergh (with ‘Traffic’) over Ridley Scott (‘Gladiator’) that year for the trophy. Though the Ocean’s films were largely disposable and forgettable fluff, their success did allow him to experiment with films like ‘Bubble’, ‘The Girlfriend Experience’, and ‘Full Frontal’, sure none of those were particularly great, but certainly admirable attempts to test the art of cinema. Oh yeah, in addition to his 13 films as director, he produced 16 more films with his buddy George Clooney under his Section Eight prodco banner.

As for some of the other cine-mainstays of the 80's and 90's..David Fincher’s was mostly sparse decade, but did deliver one of his best films, ‘Zodiac’. Ron Howard clipped along the same studio safe tone of the 80’s and 90’s films. The other employer of Tom Hanks, Robert Zemeckis, spent most of the decade developing motion capture and directing three CG rendered live action films – ‘Polar Express’, ‘Beowulf’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’. Oliver Stone was a shadow of his former self, producer lame duck after lame duck. Same with Michael Mann, who lost the magic touch he gained in the 90's, delivering only one decent film in the decade, 'Collateral.' Pedro Almodovar broke further into the mainstream with decent art house returns from 'Talk to Her', 'Volver', and 'Broken Embraces.' David Lynch was still doing his own thing, but getting even more oblique with his audacious 'Mulholland Drive' and 'Inland Empire', proving he's still as relevant as he was in the 80's and 90's.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Funny People

Funny People (2009) dir, Judd Apatow
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan, Leslie Mann, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman

***

By Alan Bacchus

It’s a shame there was no one around to put the brakes on Mr. Apatow, because there’s a great picture in ‘Funny People’, a really great picture which unfortunately gets squandered by its excessive running time which goes 30mins past its stop sign.

It’s the third film as director for Apatow after two critical and box office hits. So it’s no surprise really that this effort would be stray from the fluffy male-centric situation comedies, into something more serious and more sophisticated. As such “Funny People” feels like his “Magnolia” – a film which, come hell or high water, would appear on the screen in the form imagined in his mind.

Adam Sandler plays a version of himself, a successful actor/comedian George Simmons, who has become a superstar celeb via a series of money grabbing kiddie comedies. While selling his soul he’s replaced his once loving relationship with his wife with a depressingly huge mansion, a series of emotionally detached sexual affairs and a general air of sullen self-loathing. When he learns he’s come down with a life threatened blood disease he decides to cleanse his career with a stand up comedy tour.

Enter Ira Wright (Seth Rogan) a budding comedian sleeping on his buddy’s couch, trying to make it big in Hollywood along with a million other like-minded performers. Ira happens to be at the right place at the right time when he does a short stand up gig after a surprise visit to the club from Simmons. Impressed by his writing he employs Ira as his assistant and joke writer. With Ira under his wing Simmons goes through the process of medication for his affliction and his soul, a relationship which grows slowly and reluctantly into the type of genuine male romance which Apatow is so skilled at creating.

For and hour and forty-five minutes Apatow crafts a touching but not sappy relationship drama between two interesting characters. Sandler’s portrayal as Simmons wrings true as the decadent celeb with buckets of money, but nothing to spend it on. Sandler plays Simmons with little sympathy for much of his relationship with Ira, showing him tough love as a mentor and Seth Rogen brings across genuine optimism, warmth and sincerity in his portrayal of Ira.

Between Rogen and Sandler Apatow opens up with humour, grace and truth the constantly conflicting life of celebrities and specifically comedians. Bipolarism and other such psychological disorders seem to strike at comedians more often than other entertainers, which is why many of them turn to drugs to feed a pain which jokes can’t mask. Apatow keeps drugs out of this picture, but reveals these self-hatred and lonely afflictions with poignancy.

Apatow deftly manages tones of melancholy and gut busting raunchy dick-joke humour. The milieu of the LA stand up circuit is rich with authenticity and of course teaming with enough gags to satisfy the comedic quotient of any of his other films.

And then there's the third act... The film wraps itself up in character and plot satisfyingly at the one hour forty-five minute mark, leaving the audience at a place of reflection and revelation for both Ira and George. But Apatow keeps the film going and going, introducing Eric Bana as the husband and father to George’s pined-after ex-wife (Leslie Mann). This third act, essentially reboots the film and its characters without the focus and inspiration of the previous two. The film meanders on as a domestic drama toward a sloppy slapstick conclusion which leaves all the characters in the same place as at the end of the second act.

A shame. I can only discount this ill-conceived detour to a point. But its excessively length is just too much to ignore, thus reducing a potentially four-star film into a mere three-star.

‘Funny People’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment