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

Thursday, 30 April 2009


Star Trek Season 1 (1966)
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan


What a joy to travel back in time to 1966 to those campy sci-fi studio sets, pastel sweatshirts and rubbersuited aliens. Much has changed since those days, a franchise born by audience demand (the original fanboys) which includes six TV series, seven feature films and numerous ancillary merchandising spinoffs.

The original Star Trek Season One, now available on Blu-Ray, is full of so many quotable pop cultural landmarks it’s probably only rivaled by "Casablanca" for quotable lines. It’s interesting to see how polished the franchise has become, the JJ Abrams reboot is arguably the most anticipated movie of the summer, and on a technical level far above the 1966 series. But it’s the content which is king in the Star Trek world - a series originally billed as a 'western in space' deeply exploring themes of sociological, class, politics, economics, racism and feminism, within the numerous adventures in space.

And on the level of entertainment, it's as watchable as when I first saw these shows, for me, in the early 80’s on syndicated re-run television.

Of course, the consistent relationship in the series involves the three leads - Kirk, Spock and Bones. William Shatner as Kirk expresses all the chutzpah, leadership, humanism and ego needed to command a vessel. Shatner is an actor much parodied for his unique speech cadence, but also capable of making the most ridiculous of sci-fi chatter riveting. He stands right in the middle of the dichotomized personality spectrum of Spoke and Bones. Leonard Nimoy is continually fascinating as the emotionally distant half Vulcan-half Human science officer. And Bones McCoy (DeForest Kelly) is the antidote to Spock's extremely logical leanings. As doctor, his bedside manner often helps Kirk understand and appreciate the illogical humanistic flaws which govern decision-making.

The first season features some of the franchise’s best episodes:

Episode 1 is “the Man Trap”. Although Trek purists, consider the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before” as the first. But prior to airing, the pilot and six individual episodes were filmed before the series first went to air. CBS chose to air “The Man Trap” first. There’s no origin story or exposition in this episode, the show opens up with the Enterprise routinely stopping and picking up a pair of explorers on a nearby moon. Little do they know one of them is a shapeshifter looking to take over the ship. It's kind of amazing to watch how many crew members die in this first episode. But the series has never shied away from killing off random crew members, famously tipped off to viewer by their red shirts.

The Romulan episode, "Balance of Terror", introduces one of the great villains of the Trek world. In this episode, Kirk battles wits with a Romulan commander as cunning and crafty as he. It's one of the great 'action' episodes, the characters never leave their vessels, instead playing out the tete-a-tete battle like a couple of WWII u-boats captains encircling each other in the Atlantic Ocean.

The two-part episode "The Menagerie" makes for clever storytelling. Gene Roddenberry makes wonderful use of the original unaired TV pilot "The Cage", which couldn't be shown due to the fact that it used a completely different actor and character as the captain - Cpt. Christopher Pike played by Jeffrey Hunter. In "the Menagerie" the Enterprise meets up with the old Cpt Pike and plays out the episode as if the events in "The Cage" actually happened. Spock takes lead in the episode and covertly commits mutiny against Kirk and the Enterprise. Of course, it's all part of a logical altruistic plan intended to save his old Captain Pike, who is now a helpless invalid. The episode tests the relationship of Kirk and Spock, by putting the crew at the brink of disaster. Of course, JJ Abrams has put the character of Pike in his own reboot film, a clever way of linking back to the original series.

The other treasure of Season One is "Space Seed", the precurser to "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn". It's another action-heavy episode which has Kirk discovering a lost penal colony of genetically-engineered criminals from the 20th century led by Ricardo Montalban's iconic character, Kahn. It's a thrilling episode made even better watching it with the great movie sequel in mind.

The Blu-Ray picture doesn't quite 'pop' like it does in other films. The Blu-Ray medium is only has good as it's original cinematography and like most television of its day, it was a largely flat look. But compared to the washed-out re-run episodes I used to watch, it's like watching a whole new show. The episodes contain 'enhanced' special effects, specifically the transition shots and commercial bumpers of the Enterprise flying past the camera. For the purity of the show, I don't really need to see anything other than the picture quality enhanced, but to their credit the new effects have been created with a look and feel in keeping with the original shots - a sign of the appreciation the Trek franchise producers have for their fans, and the reason for it's longevity in cinema and television. Enjoy.

"Star Trek: The Original Series" is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Wednesday, 29 April 2009


Bicycle Thieves (1949) dir. Vittorio De Sica
Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell


"Bicycle Thieves" (sometimes singularized as 'Thief' which I prefer') is routinely cited as one of the greatest films ever made, and justly so. It truly is a timeless classic, as powerful today as it was back in its day.

“Bicycle Thieves” is one of the quintessential films of the post-war 'Italian Neorealism' era, a period of raw, minimalist social-conscious films made on location and with largely non-professional actors. Lamberto Maggiorani's performance as Antonio is so marvelous it's difficult to believe prior to filming he was just a regular factory worker plucked out of obscurity by De Sica. His soulful eyes express instant compassion before he ever has to say a single word.

It’s a remarkably simple concept – it's postwar Rome and jobs are scarce, especially for a humble Italian working class man like Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani). He’s offered a job postering billboards, which he can only take if he’s got a bicycle. Though he's doesn't have enough money for one he takes the job anyway. His kind and resourceful wife (Lianella Carell) sells her bedsheets from her dowry so Antonio can complete the purchase. Working life bliss until the bike is stolen right under his nose.

Antonio and his young and impossibly cute little boy Bruno (Enzo Staiola) go out on an arduous adventure scouring the city in search of the bike. With the help of his friends, they search the markets, the soccer stadium and all other high traffic areas to no avail. Along the way we watch as the loyal Bruno follows with absolute worship Antonio’s every move. Their bond as father and son grows culminating in the ultimate test of Antonio’s personal ethics and his ability to set an example of moral strength.

De Sica make Antonio’s predicament as frustrating as possible. He and his wife have sacrificed a symbol of their marriage for the bicycle, something which he needs to provide for his child. There is nothing in Antonio’s character that should cause this unfortunately accident, except as a test of his moral fortitude.

As Antonio's obsession increases he gradually loses sight of his own personal ethics. Though Bruno remains intensely loyal Antonio increasing treats him like a tool or instrument of his search, often whistling at him like a dog. The finale brings Antonio over the edge of righteousness completing a role reversal from victim to thief. He, himself, steals a bike, as an act of desperation, one which he knows is wrong and thus hides from Bruno. And the biggest indignation for Antonio, and us, the audience, is the disappointment in Bruno’s face when he sees his father's shameful act.

It’s a simple but profound lesson to cherish. We don’t know what happens after Antonio reconciles with his son, but we assume he will get his bicycle back somehow – life has a way of evening things out, but not before Antonio's learned a little more about the priorities in his life.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009


Wendy and Lucy (2008) dir. Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Wally Dalton, Will Patton


The relationship between man/woman and dog has produced some beautiful films over the years. Kelly Reichardt’s acclaimed film strips out anything not essential to the journey of Wendy, a transient single girl and her trusty canine companion, Lucy, producing a transcendental minimalist cinema experience.

Reichardt’s careful pacing falls into the, for lack of a better term, ‘not-much-happens’ genre of indie films. And there’s a lot of these films lately, but an honest, immersive and performance from Michelle Williams elevates “Wendy and Lucy” above most others.

In fact, "Wendy and Lucy" more in common with Vittorio De Sica’s “Umberto D”, the 1952 Italian neo-realist classic about an elderly Italian man and his Jack Russell. Like De Sica’s hero, Wendy is jobless and near penniless and only has her dog to share her love with. Wendy does have a car though and is on a journey to Alaska where apparently there are jobs waiting for her. She wanders into a small Oregon town for a rest in a Walgreens parking lot, but when she awakens her car won’t start. With barely enough cash in her wallet as she needs for the trip, this is a huge roadblock.

While her car's in the shop she makes a crucial mistake of trying shoplift some kibble for Lucy and gets caught. Forced to leave her behind at the store she spends the night in the police station, and of course, when she gets out, Lucy is gone, nowhere to be found. The search becomes an emotionally draining journey, helped through a random friendship with the Walgreen’s security guard - an elderly man, who recognizes the genuine goodness in Wendy, a legitmate victim of life's unfortunate circumstances.

Michelle Williams has one of those embodiment performances and we yearn so badly for her to turn things around and make it to Alaska. Even though she’s a transient person, we don’t doubt she’ll make it. The careful close-ups of her notebook mathematically detailing the expenses she needs to incur to get to Alaska show there’s determination and forethought in her journey. And so knowing how much she has in her wallet, and how much she needs to get there, every time she has to pay a cabbie, take a bus, or any expenditure of money hurts us a little bit too.

With such sparseness in the story, oddly enough it's the ambient sounds of the town that moves to the forefront. We find ourselves noticing the humming of the fluorescent light blubs in the Shell station bathroom, the shuffling of feet on the ground when Wendy walks, or the omnipresent train rattle which echoes in the distance. And so it’s never quiet for the audience, we’re constantly stimulated by something, no matter how banal. 

The joy of “Wendy and Lucy” is in this minutiae, point-of-view filmmaking at it’s best. The finale is one of those optimistic yet tragic moments, a painful decision Kelly makes for the good of the dog. With such narrative minimalism the impact of this melodramatic scene is multiplied to a multi-hanky moment putting an exclamation point on this powerful film.

Monday, 27 April 2009


Dog Days (2001) dir. Ulrich Seidl
Starring: Maria Hofstätter, Erich Finsches, Gerti Lehner, Claudia Martini, Viktor Hennemann


In 2001 renowned Austrian documentarian Ulrich Seidl made his dramatic feature debut with his provocative surrealist satire, "Dog Days". There have been many films satirizing the mind-numbing decay of suburban living, but with "Dog Days" Seidl skewers the lifestyle deeper and more sadistically than anyone before or after him.

Around a quaint Austrian township, so non-distinct it could be any Ontario suburb, or California, or Texas or wherever, lives a group of peculiar citizens whom we observe going about their days with the usual routine.

The film opens on a crazy club-goer, Mario, abusing a group of voyeurs who gawk at his dancer-girlfriend in a German dance club. In the ride home the obsessed maniac physically and mentally abuses her in the car before throwing her out of the car on the side of the road. There is abuse like this in every corner of this seemingly mundate and overly average suburban enclave.

There's the curmudgeon old widower when he's not complaining about the inaccurate weight of his packaged dog food at the grocery store he, torments his maid by treating her like his wife.

There's the mentally challenged young girl who wonders parking lot shopping malls and grocery stores looking for car rides - encounters which start out like congenial neighbourly favours which turn into obsessively annoying verbal abuse by the girl.

One of most surreal relationships is a middle-aged woman whom we first see having sex in a brothel, then routinely showering, getting dressed and coming home to her emotionally distant former husband. Despite being divorced she continues to live with him, often smugly tormenting with him other sexual encounters in front of him.

There's a door-to-door security salesman pitches his wares to the frustrated householders on the block. When he succombs to the pestering by the mentally challenged girl, he'll use her to exact sadistic revenge as reparations for all the abuse he's taken in his pathetic job.

It's also an intensely hot day in the picture. Seidl has his characters walking around in lingerie or bathing suits, randomly stipping off their clothing exposing their unflattering bodies. At one point one of the women takes off her panties and trims her pubic hair. This becomes one of the most peculiar scenes when the elderly callgirl and her two drunk clients argue about 'shitting in their living room'. It then devolves into a frightening scene that pushes the boundries of cinematic abuse comparable to the home invasion scene in "A Clockwork Orange".

This mix of absurd humour and genuinely intense emotional realism keeps us on edge. We never know what to expect and while it may seem like a random series of events and encounters for our characters, it's all in aid of Seidl's disturbing commentary on the false pretentious utopia this lifestyle presents.

At 121mins, its probably 30mins too long, but there's something thrilling in it's audacity, reminding us of the best of the Dogme era when those crazy Danish filmmakers replaced the polish of their films for the honesty of raw storytelling and an often sick self-deprecicating sense of humour.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

FROST/NIXON – Interview with Todd Hallowell, Executive Producer

One of the collaboration consistencies in Ron Howard’s career has always been his producer Brian Grazer. Look closely though in the credits and you’ll see Todd Hallowell’s name on every film since Parenthood (1989). First as production designer, then as Executive Producer/Second Unit Director. 

I had a chance to talk with Todd about Frost/Nixon, the magnificent film version of the 1977 David Frost-Richard Nixon TV interviews, now on DVD and Blu-Ray, and his close collaborative relationship with Ron Howard.

DFD: It seems like every 10 years or so there seems to be a great movie about Richard Nixon. What makes Nixon such a good character for film?

Todd: I think it because he’s so unexpectedly complex. Everyone assumes they know something about him and research continues to reveal so many different aspects to him. When I was in high school, I was so completely willing to vilify him in the most extreme terms possible. Especially as the chance of my draft number being called increased. He was Satan, pure and simple. Luckily the number never came up. But when you really begin to do some reading, research and spend some time in the Nixon library, and begin to meet people involved with events during his time in office, there’s so many conflicting versions of who he really was. From a filmmaking standpoint, it makes him a fascinating character because there so many different ways to look at the guy.

DFD: And he comes from a more humble, different background than other Presidents. It seemed he had to work harder than others.

Todd: Yeah. He viewed himself as a real second-class citizen, a real underdog. Which is part of a sense of ‘persecution’ he had. But also one of the points the movie makes, one of the ironies the film underlines, is the similarity in that respect between Frost and Nixon, both of them having come from relatively lower/middle class or working-class conditions. And that both of them in their ascension felt they had been made to feel second class, that it was part of what was motivating both of them.

DFD: Going back to the genesis of the film. Obviously it started with Peter Morgan’s play. Talk about the transition from the stage play to the script and ultimately the screen. What kind of direction or inspiration did you guys give Peter Morgan in adapting it for the screen?

Todd: He had pretty much adapted the play into a screenplay, or at least begun the process by the time Ron saw the play in London. As I understand it, this was Peter’s first foray into actual theatrical production. He had written several screenplays and also done quite a bit for television. He was much more experienced in the film world than he really was in the world of the theatre. Not to speak for Peter, but I don’t think he faced it as the kind of challenge as a lot of people might, who perhaps were coming strictly from the world of theatre and then trying to open up the piece cinematically and turn it into something that wasn’t just talking heads, for the big screen.

DFD: When you guys came on board, was there a fully complete script? How ready was it to go? Were there your own additions to make?

Todd: There were the beginnings of a full fledged screenplay, but Ron worked with Peter quite a bit, and Brian Grazer too, to open that up and to create a stronger sense of time and place. And things you can do cinematically that you just can’t do on stage – although I thought the stage production was phenomenal.

DFD: When you guys were shooting, for Ron Howard and his creative team, was there a visual philosophy that they came up with?

Todd: The visual philosophy… it’s a good phrase…was to try and really create an accurate portrayal of the period without resorting to what had become the threadbare clichés of the period - the cheap or easy visual clichés. What Ron wanted I think was, kind of the tasteful version of the 70’s, that was accurate but is often overlooked. So I think the production designer Michael Corenblith and the costume designer Daniel Orlandi did a phenomenal job of keeping it true, but the version we prefer to remember of that period.

DFD: I assume Michael Sheen and Frank Langella were automatically first choices for Frost and Nixon?

Todd: They were and both of them have worked extensively in film. So that was a big help to Ron in terms of having actors who know how to play to a camera, instead of a great big audience. They both understand the difference. So, because they’re both accomplished film actors, it helped a great deal in the adaptation.

DFD: How did he work with those guys – obviously they knew the material inside and out (at least the stage version). How did Ron work with them to make it different? What kind of changes to their performance did they do to make it more cinematic?

Todd: Extensive rehearsals to really allow them, organically, to begin within their performance open it up, to understand that you’re not limited to four chairs on a black stage. We told them we really going to go to Casa Pacifica, the Western White House. We’re really going to go to a lot of the places where these events actually occurred. And the opportunity to move around and be more literal was available to them. That was something they responded to. Another part of it, from Ron’s standpoint, and I’ve been with him now for 15 movies, is that he really loves working with an ensemble cast. When he’s got a group of actors that he really feels are hitting on all cylinders it’s just about the happiest I’ve seen him. He’s in his element.

DFD: The casting was great. Just having Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell bantering with each other on screen is pretty awesome.

Todd: Yeah. They took such delight having the time to do the research, meeting a lot of times their real life counterparts. Getting in there working with one another, they were positively gleeful in getting to come into work. It was really terrific. I think the leads also feel that they’re being supported in such a strong way it allows them to really begin to feel comfortable as well. Because they know they’re so completely supported by capable people.

DFD: I was looking on the IMDB going the evolution of your career, and it’s interesting. You came up through the art department, became a production designer and then executive producer. Can you talk about that transition?

Todd: Sure. It’s a bit odd. It’s worked out for me in terms of satisfying the left half and the right half of the brain. I started out in the art department, I became a production designer on a handful of films. Started working with Ron on a picture called Parenthood with Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen and it was a enjoyable experience. He asked me if I would come back and do Backdraft. He said, ‘I don’t want you to be the production designer though,’ And all I could think of was, ‘oh god, I’m being demoted, this is depressing.” He said, ‘there’s gonna be a huge second unit, I want you to come over and handle that and kinda keep an eye on the production side, and we’ll get you some kind of producing credit. Is that something you’re interested in?’ I didn’t have to think about that too long. So started working for him on that and we’ve done 14 or 15 pictures together. It’s become a very close working relationship between Ron and Brian Grazer and I. They’re very trusting and very supportive. Good news for me is that Ron continues to reshuffle the deck and constantly wants to do different types of films. So there’s an ongoing challenge, which is the best part for me. He doesn’t seem at all interested in repeating himself. Each film has it’s own unique set of challenges. That keeps me interested. Keeps me on my toes.

DFD: What kind of second unit work did you do on Frost/Nixon?

Todd: Frost/Nixon was really a lot of pickups, inserts and cleanup when first unit had finished. To go in and figure out all the stuff that was still owed, the minutiae, the little tight stuff. And then there was some driving work, some roadwork, an establishing shot in London, some work in Washington. Not heavy duty, by no means, not anything compared to Angels and Demons where we shoot 46 days of second unit. This was far more contained.

DFD: Must be busy for you guys right now, with that film coming up too?

Todd: Yeah, it really is. We’re really looking forward to getting it out there. It’s really been an interesting experience.

DFD: You guys must have done that literally back to back.

Todd; We actually did the early pre-visualizations for visual effects on Angels and Demons and basically put that in a box and switched our attention to Frost/Nixon, went through the whole process on that then swung back to Angels and Demons. It was a pretty interesting way to approach two movies that couldn’t be anymore different. But it made for a really interesting two-year process.

DFD: To close off, are there any filmmakers or films that get you excited as a filmgoer? Anything you’ve seen recently that turns your crank?

Todd: Yeah sure. I really liked Observe and Report. I thought it was terrific. Travis Bickle as the mall cop. I really enjoyed that….. You know we got into the race for the Academy. We didn’t win, but we lost to a film I had incredible respect. I just loved Slumdog. All the films that were up for contention I was blown away by. I though The Wrestler was phenomenal. I thought last year was a great year for films – of every type. Ron has an interesting philosophy, or viewpoint; he told me once that a good film is a film that delivers on it’s own promise. Whatever genre, whatever it is, if it delivers on what it promised you, it’s a good film. It might not be a great film, but at least it delivered on what it said it would do. There’s sort of an implied honesty to that point of view, and it’s not snobbery, by any means, it’s the opposite - just deliver on what you say you’re gonna do. I thought a lot of films last year really did that.

"Frost/Nixon" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Saturday, 25 April 2009


Crips and the Bloods: Made in America (2008) dir. Stacey Peralta


With the rise of gangsta rap in the 1990’s, the two rivals gangs of L.A., the Crips and the Bloods became household names to suburban teenagers like me even though I lived thousands of kilmeters away. Like the outlaws of the old West or the depression-era gangsters of Chicago, the Crips and the Bloods were the outlaws for the hip-hop generation, the stuff of legend which music and movies aggrandized to make money.

Director Stacey Peralta, once a worldclass skateboarding entrepreneur, turned into a legitimate filmmaker with his definitive skating doc, “Dogtown and Z-Boys”. He proved it was no fluke with his equally impressive, surfing flick “Riding Giants”. With “Crips and the Bloods”, Peralta's stepped outside his sports theme to bring the story of the Crips and the Bloods to the screen, and now DVD.

Like his previous efforts, Peralta manages to make still images feel like three-dimensional live action, and boring old archival footage is edited with a fresh rhythm and pace. Editor T.J. Mahar's work is phenomenal conveying both information and emotion from traditional stock footage, stills and a few cool graphics.

Before he gets to the gangs, Peralta takes his time setting the scene and offers us a detailed history of race relations in Los Angeles. From WWII to the mid-70’s, Peralta and his co-writer Sam George compile all the ingredients and variables which led to rise of the gang culture. It’s no surprise it’s the ingrained racism of the authority figures of the city which consciously created racial segregation. Elder black leaders discuss at length the abuse and belligerence they received day in and day out from the LAPD, a simmering pot of anger which boiled over during the 1965 Watt’s riots.

It isn’t until 20mins in do we learn of the formation of the Crips and the Bloods. But while the context and backstory is impeccably researched and documented curiously we're never given a proper segue to the gangs. We’re told of the general optimism of the late 60’s, early 70’s black power era, and a general decrease in crime, and so when the two gangs are brought into the fold, the switch to violent cynicism is never adequately explained.

And there’s actually very little information about the two gangs. A brief 8mins sequence discusses the territories of the gangs and we meet a few generations of gang members, but little else. Other than the territory war how did two gangs manage to be at war for 25 years, kill a reported 15,000 people and become a nationally known piece of pop culture lore? This question is never explored.

So the film’s title turns out to be a misnomer. Instead it’s about the general effects of gang violence, the mothers and family members who suffer from this extreme form of macho bravado. Ultimately and rightly so, blame is put on the absentee fathers, in some areas of the city 70% of whom are not part of their children’s lives. As a result, those who become gang bangers fill the void of the fathers with the comfort of the gang.

While the film is a clearly a passionate call for action for greater community responsibility and social cohesion, for good and bad the film never really gets at the heeart of the mythology behind these two gangs - the reason I know about them in the first place and the reason I saw the film.

"Crips and the Bloods" is available on DVD from Docurama Films.

Friday, 24 April 2009


Together (2000) dir. Lucas Moodysson
Starring Lisa Lindgren, Michael Nyqvist, Emma Samuelsson


Guest review by Blair Stewart

Human nature has a way of gumming up utopias. In 1970's Stockholm, Elizabeth is an abused housewife who grabs her two kids and heads for the hills to crash at 'Together', the hippie/Marxist/anarchist commune of her brother Goran. Although the household's intentions are good, the intrusion pokes the communers out as being baffled hypocritical twits inside their walls, much like everyone else outside them. While Goran is the head of the house he lacks a backbone as his childish girlfriend Lena takes the 'open relationship' thread and runs off with it.

Down the hall Anna is going through a 'lesbian phase' and her ex-husband and present roommate Lasse is going through a 'bitter phase'. Also thrown into this melting pot is an insufferable politico and an aggressive gay guy with a bowl haircut that's unlikely to get him laid.

Below their worldview Elizabeth's children Eva and Stefan are suffering from a lack of meat, personal space and toys, except for Anna and Lasse’s boy Tet and his lousy homemade wooden Legos (and if Tet strikes you as an odd name for a child, I suggest you brush up on your Vietnam war history).

As the sparks fly inside the house we move outside to several subplots, including the conservative neighbour's kid making nice with Eva, and her hopeless father Rolf quitting the sauce and getting his life together, with the exception of an hilarious meltdown at a restaurant. The result of all this is unexpected for most art-house films and wonderfully optimistic at that.

"Together" gently skewers both hippies and the straight-laced, taking a handful of well-chosen comedic fools and letting them bounce off of each other. Moodysson has long been an international festival darling for his variety, including "Together”, a comedy, "Lilya 4 EVA”, a gutkick human drama, and "F**king Amal", likely a porno? His direction and visual technique is playful, a spry documentary profile, crash-zooms by cameraman Ulf Brantas, traditional dissolves, and a soundtrack which cranks-up the ABBA.

Moodysson’s script is both extremely quotable and attentive to enough characters that any of four kids, or Anna and Lasse’s relationship could justify their own film. I share the same fondness for “Together” as I do with Wayne Wang's "Smoke" and the Coen Bros’ "The Big Lebowski", films linked by their loose-knit communal themes. If anything I'm disappointed that "Together" is only a stand-alone film and not episodic TV series, which can continues the stories of Goran’s grow-op or Elizabeth’s journey into existentialism. Enjoy.

Thursday, 23 April 2009


Only (2009) dir. Ingrid Veninger and Simon Reynolds
Starring: Jacob Switzer, Elena Hudgins Lyle


From TIFF to Slamdance to Rome and more, "Only's" been racking up mondo air miles on the film festival circuit and now it finally lands back home for it's Toronto release. Less is more is the filmmaking mantra behind this latest low budget 73mins entry in the genre of 12-year-olds coming of age on film. A tender friendship between a girl and a boy amongst the snowcapped environment of Northern Ontario anchors this sparse but tender Canadian DIY indie.

Daniel (Jacob Switzer) is the single child of a hippie couple operating a low rent motel in Northern Ontario. His days are spent repetitively cleaning the motel rooms, changing garbage bins and for fun, diving in the pool and trying on accessories from the absent motel patrons.

After witnessing a domestic dispute between a bickering couple, Daniel is drawn to help their young daughter Vera (Elena Hudgins Lyle) who wanders off in protest. And so begins the movie, essentially a walk in the woods which becomes their mutual coming of age, culminating a brief but so so satisfying kiss – first base!

The 12-year-old dialogue feels like that, conversation topics which emerge at random without subtext or ulterior motives. After all, kids like Daniel and Vera are just learning to talk, so there's both a naturalism and consequently a degree of banality in their dialogue. But thankfully Veninger and Reynolds never resort to overwritten false profundities of say a Dakota Fanning performance. They also know how to play as well and a number of fun scenes are staged showing that they have yet to replace their playful rambunctiousness with teenage cynicism. An imagined tennis match on a snow filled tennis court is the most wonderful moment of the kids' still vibrant imaginations.

A number of tonally precise indie pop tunes are introduced at the right moments to break up the dialogue and literally push the movie along when things slow down. On one hand this could be seen as an artificial crutch of support, but the music which the kids carry with them at all times in their I-Pods literally act as the soundtrack of their lives, thus earning the filmmakers this license.

The filmmaking methodology would seem to fit the en vogue mumblecore genre (I recently watched 'The Puffy Chair', so this is in my mind) – two characters and a camera, and indeed for most of the film, this is what it is, but visually the film is more than just a repetition of coverage. Veninger and Reynolds frame the journey beautifully against the awesomeness of their environment, only jumping in for that close-up when absolutely necessary. Mountains, distant bridges, rock formations and the naked maple trees look down on our characters observing the action as much as the audience.

And in the spirit of this DIY filmmaking (also the name of their production company) look carefully for co-directors Veninger and Reynolds who play both sets of parents to Daniel and Vera!

“Only” has much in common with Kelly Reichardt’s deliberately-paced buddy film “Old Joy”. Instead of contriving falsely profound life-changing moments or like most one-night nostalgia films compressing the best moments of youth into one film, “Only” concentrates on developing just one life-changing moment – first kiss. Enjoy.

"Only" is playing from April 24-28 at the Royal Cinema in Toronto

Tuesday, 21 April 2009


The Last Picture Show (1971) dir. Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson


Peter Bogdanovich is one of cinema’s great historians. Though his directorial output is sparse in his older age, he’s still writing novels and celebrating the history and art of Hollywood cinema. He regularly appears on DVD special features discussing the stories and anecdotes he’s collected over the years from his relationships with Hollywood’s greatest personalities. In the 70's he was one of the most prolific and celebrated directors of the 'film school generation'. Of course, Bogdanovich never went to film school, but learned his craft through watching and studying the great filmmakers.

His breakout film, "The Last Picture Show" is a product of his love for cinema. Years later it's still a masterpiece, a timeless elegant classic about a dying Texas town in the 1950's and the coming of age of it's youth. Timothy Bottoms plays Sonny, a typical jock high school student, good looking, popular, but with a palpable sense of doubt and worthlessness. His best buddy Duane (Jeff Bridges) is his fellow pick up artist and backfield partner. There’s also Cybill Shepherd as Duane’s on and off again girlfriend who tests the waters with almost every guy in town in an effort to lose her virginity. In his last year in high school, the future seems bleak for Sonny, his vulnerability causes him to start up an affair with his high school football coach’s wife (Cloris Leachman) – his elder by 20 years. The events of the year play out the narrative with the subtext of the dying town and it citizens getting left behind with the dust and the tumbleweeds.

While the film is based on Larry McMurtry’s novel, the material allows Bogdanovich to express himself using the language of his mentors. It’s a unique mixture of tones, the sombre reflection on lost youth and the spiritual connection to the town echoing the themes of the great Westerns. Yet, there’s a distinct liberal dramatization of the sexual discovery of the characters. There’s much uninhibited nudity and frank sexual discussions, which echoes the progressiveness whimsy of the French New Wave.

The film is filled with wonderful characters and honest and truthful relationships between them. It's a pitch perfect lead performance from Timothy Bottoms who expresses his disillusionment with his future by taking up with Cloris Leachman, a performance which her won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The relationship is played more with frankness than traditional romance, or even comedy (as in 'The Graduate'), but it's the just the right mixture to pull out the dramatic emotional conflict from both characters. Cybill Shepherd, in her first role, is both gorgeous and awkward as the virginal Jacy. It's intriguing watching her discover the power of her beauty, and how her manipulation can drive men crazy. Ben Johnson (also an Oscar-winner) has the most endearing scene, a beautiful speech to Timothy Bottoms on the shore of the river confessing the secret love affair of his youth which he never really got over. Later on we'll find out who his secret lover was making for a remarkably emotional climax.

Visually Bogdanovich uses the language of Ford and Welles. His exteriors creates that breathless mythological John Ford world. The ever-present wind creates a continuous motion in the frame literally sweeping us off our feet and into this bygone time and place. DP Robert Surtees employs the great elegance of Gregg Toland’s famous deep focus photography - a technique birthed by Welles and Ford in the 40’s.

"The Last Picture Show" plays like a southern "American Graffiti" - George Lucas' 1973 breakout ensemble youth film. The music in "Last Picture Show" is all source music heard from radios in the background. While Lucas' soundtrack of his youth was early rock and roll, Picture Show uses classic country and western tunes like Hank Williams, Pee Wee King, Johnny Ray. It not only sets the time and place, but it outmoded tone of depressed melancholy.

"The Last Picture Show" is a treasure for cinephiles, made with the same kind of reverent passion for the art as the films of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Francois Traffaut.

"Last Picture Show" is available on a new two-disc DVD set which also features Bogdanovich's atrocious 1976 flop 'Nickelodeon'


Sin City (2005) dir. Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro


The most subversive of mainstream films in recent years has to be Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City”. Perhaps only the genuinely independent Rodriguez isolated from Hollywood in his self-sustaining mini studio operating out of his home in Austin could pull off such a feat. With fine cinematic recklessness Rodriguez shows us some of the most violent, vile and misogynistic portrayals of violence ever put to screen and made it successful.

Rodriguez takes several of Miller's storylines and combines them together to form a unique episodic narrative. There's Bruce Willis as Hartigan, a former cop, who, while saving a child from kidnap, rape and murder, unjustly takes the blame for the rap and is jailed. When he gets out he must race to save the girl, now grown up to be Jessica Alba, from the same maniacal perpetrators. Also being chased throughout the city is Marv (Mickey Rourke), a bruiser of a man whose lover is killed in bed by a mysterious sicko cannibalist played by Elijah Wood. Clive Owen rounds out the triptych as Dwight who desperately tries to stop the city from imploding under a brewing street war between the cops, mob and street whores.

It’s all told with an eye popping extreme expressionistic style – a mixture of hard boiled noir and comic book fantasy sensibilities. The dialogue from each of the three stories’ protagonists is read with heighten self-awareness. Like the narration in “The Watchmen”, Marv, Hartigan, and Dwight, speak with grandiose melodramatic eloquence to an audience aware of the noir-speak of cinema past.

If these out-of-this-world characters weren’t played with complete seriousness and integrity, the dialogue would have drowned them in ridiculous overindulgence. Before the so-called comeback or 'resurrection' of Mickey Rourke, he managed to stun us with his portrayal of Marv with sympathy and surprisingly genuine sincerity. Beneath the heavily made up false nose and boxtop haircut, Rourke somehow managed to humanize the muscular-bound monster figure. And has Bruce Willis’ expressive eyes been used to greater emotional effect than in “Sin City”? Perhaps only “Pulp Fiction.” The third anchor, Clive Owen, has the most difficult role. It’s the most talky and least heroic of the three roles, but a testament to Owen’s talents to breathe life into Dwight. And in every corner of the picture is a fun supporting performance, my favourite being the surprisingly passionate performance of Brittany Murphy as the spunky waitress from Kadie's bar.

Years from now the filmmaking philosophy and literal adaptation of the graphic novel medium will be seen as a benchmark in filmmaking. And the immersive blue-screen production methodology has never been used better. With any camera angle Rodriguez can think of at his disposal, it’s his brevity and his adherence to Miller’s frames which elevate the material to high pop art.

The new Blu-Ray edition is a must-have for any fanboy. In addition to the already in-depth special features on the well-packaged extended/recut edition from three years ago, some added goodies make it worth while. Stunningly pristine image quality aside, perhaps the gem of the BD version is a fun ‘audience audio track’. With this clicked on you get to hear the proper 5.1 mixed audio along with the recorded audience reaction to the film’s premiere at the legendary Alamo Draft House in Austin TX. More than just some canned laughter, it's a neat way to bottle the movie experience you can only get from a darkened theatre.

Now I just wish Rodriguez would get going on "Sin City 2"...

"Sin City" is available on Blu-Ray from Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Monday, 20 April 2009


The Puffy Chair (2005) dir. Jay Duplass.
Starring; Mark Duplass, Kathryn Aselton, Rhett Wilkins


One of the new cine-buzzwords floating around the film world is ‘mumblecore’, a new form of American neo-realism. The movement which includes filmmakers Lynn Shelton, Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers, began in the early 2000’s and is characterized by ultra low-budget production values with seemingly natural, almost improvised performances. One of the quintessential films of the movement is “The Puffy Chair”, a quiet little endearing gem of a film. The kind of intimate character film that reaffirms your faith in independent cinema.

Mark Duplass plays Josh, a 20-something failed musician and now struggling booking agent embarking on a cross-country road trip with his unabashedly romantic girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton). His journey, to pick up a Ebay-purchased Lazy Boy chair and drive it to his father as a gift. Their first stop is at his brother Rhett's (Rhett Wilkins) house. The sympathetic Josh decides to bring the freespirited and lonesome Rhett along the journey, thus severely changing the dynamic of the romantic roadtrip. Along the way the three personalities clash resulting in profound personal revelations about each of their relationships.

A film like this runs the risk of caving in under it's own Sundance hipness. Shaky camera road pictures are a dime a dozen in low budget cinema, but it’s the performance of Mark Duplass that anchors the film in such complete naturalism. His soothing voice and confident swagger has the same appealing quality of a calm Vince Vaughn, a talent, I’m surprised no one in big budget Hollywood has yet capitalized on (well, actually he’s filming Noah Boambach’s next film with Ben Stiller).

The comic situations evolve naturally from Josh's character. For example, his stubborn need to save $20 at their first motel stop provides a wonderful comic set piece. In the scene Josh gets a motel room for one, thus avoiding the extra person charges. Which means his girlfriend and his brother have to sneak into the room without the manager noticing. It’s a great moment of physical comedy, but a scene which also reveals and instigates a crucial piece of conflict in Josh and Emily's relationship.

This relationship is the core of the film and it’s a subtle reveals. While our attention is diverted by Josh's goal of buying the chair and giving it to his father, we watch the gradual disintegration of their relationship. And it's painful for both the characters and us. Without giving away spoilers, the ending is powerful and played for suspense as much as raw tragic emotion. What will happen to Josh and Emily? After travelling the three days with them, we desperately want them to be together and work it out, this deep attachment to their characters is a testament to this power of this new breed of mumblecore filmmaker to strip away cinematic artifice like those Danish Dogme filmmakers did 10 years ago. Enjoy.


The Wrestler (2008) dir. Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood


Perhaps a bit too much was made of the Mickey Rourke's 'comeback'. Just have a look at his filmography and you'll see he's always been working, and in recent years has had a number of fine performances in bigger films ("Sin City" and "Domino"). If anything the comeback is Darren Aronofsky’s. After the long road to bring the muddied and overwrought “The Fountain” to the screen a couple years ago, Aronofsky’s latest film feel like a cathartic return to authentic filmmaking, free from special effects, stylistic excesses and pretentious melodrama. Now on DVD “The Wrestler” is as honest as films come – a beautifully executed story about a broken man struggling to make something of his life.

Mickey Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson once a king in the world of 80’s wrestling, now a middle-aged has-been struggling to make ends meets. The 20 years since his heyday haven’t been kind, his face wears all the battle scars of a life fighting, alcoholism, steroids and many other vices. He speaks with a smokers rasp, and wears a hearing aid. The wrestling meets he fights at are not televised, not performed in large stadiums, it’s the no frills independent circuit – the ‘minor leagues’, if you will, performed in high school gymnasiums and legion halls. The Ram may be old but he still has the passion and talent of a great performer. He honourably throws every ounce of sweat and blood into the ring for entertainment. Everything comes to a halt though when he suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal match.

He’s now unable to fight, but things start looking up when The Ram makes contact with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), his grocery store job starts to pan out and a tender relationship with his stripper ladyfriend (Marisa Tomei) progresses. But when the demons of the old warrior come back Randy turns to the only thing he’s ever been good at for redemption – wrestling.

Writer Robert Seigel and director Aronofsky get the milieu of this little seen world of independent wrestling exactly right. The authenticity of these characters make it a fascinate environment just to observe. Though the entire film has a free form quality, the backstage scenes in particular sing with organic naturalism. Despite the brutality of the work, there’s warmth and respect amongst the wrestlers. So it’s easy to see why Randy never left the sport.

Mickey Rourke’s performance anchors every foot of the film. He’s in every scene, and he embodies the sad life of this man. The reunification scenes with his daughter are truly heartbreaking and the tender romance with Cassidy has us rooting for Randy to succeed and assemble the pieces of his life once and for all. But Aronofsky sustains a simmering dread and tension – a tragedy in the waiting. No matter how good things get for Randy he’s always walking a tightrope and could fall at any moment.

Like 'The Puffy Chair" (also reviewed today - see above) “The Wrestler” is like a breath of fresh air - a deceptively simple film but the result of hard work from Seigel, Aronofsky and Rourke; A film that ‘just works’ on all emotional levels and “The Wrestler” works perfectly.

It’s a shame though, just when as Aronofsky seems to have found his stride with truth and authenticity he’s going back into the high stakes artificial world of blockbuster filmmaking. “Robocop” appears to be his next project. If anything the confidence he’s received from this triumphant masterpiece will hopefully spill over into his next work. Enjoy.

"The Wrestler" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada

Sunday, 19 April 2009


Hunger (2008) dir. Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam Cunningham


“Hunger” which has been coasting through festivals piling up accolades since it’s Cannes debut in 2008 finally bows theatrically in North America. Renowned film experimentalist, Steve McQueen with his feature film debut tells the true story of Bobby Sands and his group of Irish dissidents held in a Northern Irish prison in the early 80’s. Harrowing is too small a word to describe the brutality brought to screen by McQueen and his astonishing lead actor Michael Fassbender.

McQueen’s dramatization of the elaborate means of the inmates to fuck with the guards and practice their technique of aggressive protest is mesmerizing. While it can be a sickening experience to watch Davey and his cellmate smear their own faeces on their wall, or the whole cellblock dump their urine into the hallways for the guards to mop up, McQueen shoots the film with a beautiful artistic cinematic eye. Instead of the fashionably gritty handheld techniques of social realism McQueen opts for lengthy and often stunning shots of artistic beauty to contrast the brutality.

While “Hunger” is an impressive display of physical brutal, the film arguably suffers because of its realism. In the final act during Sand’s agonizing hunger strike, McQueen plays these days of terminal sickness as mind-numbingly squeamish matter of fact. After 90mins of constant beatings we desperately want some to express an emotion towards Sands. No one ever does, not even his parents ask him to stop. Not even the doctors ask to stop.

There are also some glaring stylistic inconsistencies. The first half of the film is completely different from the first. We are introduced to a depressed prison guard Ray (Stuart Graham) who day after day beats and pummels the prisoners in an effort to maintain authority and discipline. We see his unhappy wife frown as Ray checks under his car every morning for IRA explosives. He is given much screen time, but leaves the story quickly with cause, but without the effect. There’s also Davey (Brian Milligan) a newbie prisoner who becomes our point of view into prison. We watch him slowly and carefully undress and enter the Belfast hellhole. He is framed as the protagonist early on, but literally disappears from the film unceremoniously at the midpoint.

The second half is Sand’s personal revolt, his hunger strike. One head-scratcher of a shot is a static long take of Sands and an IRA leader in dialogue for 10mins uninterrupted. Of course, I enjoy long takes (I wrote a lengthy article on it), but McQueen’s extends his shot so long (much of it with extraneous dialogue), it becomes a piece of cinematic aggrandizement drawing so much attention to itself the film is stopped dead.

Much talk will be about lead actor Michael Fassbender’s Christian Bale-like physical transformation. Losing weight for a role doesn’t impress me, but Fassbender offers a performance deeper than the mere physical. The aforementioned long take dialogue scene, while excessive and meandering, features a dynamic moral and political tête-à-tête with his priest. The two debate the ethics of starving oneself for one’s beliefs, and whether it’s the right way to convince the British to make concessions. The Priest calls it suicide, but Sands calls it murder. Fassbender is magnetic and utterly convincing as a stubborn but passionate man who is willing to make his own body a vessel or statement for the cause. Enjoy.

Saturday, 18 April 2009


State of Play (2009) dir. Kevin MacDonald
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren


The original British Mini-Series “State of Play” produced in 2003 was supposed to have been so good it got director David Yates the directors gig on the last two Harry Potter films, and possibly the final chapter, yet to be filmed. I confess not having seen it, so I can only judge on this filmed version without any context.

The big screen adaptation turns out to be a surprisingly conventional investigative thriller aided by heapings of Hollywood gloss from star power casting of Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck et al and esteemed writing triplicate of Matthew Michael Carnhan (‘The Kingdom’), Tony Gilroy (the Bourne Series, and ‘Michael Clayton’) and Billy Ray (‘Shattered Glass’, ‘Breach’).

Russell Crowe is perfect as the determined but flawed uber-professional newsman Cal McAffrey, an old-school Woodward and Bernstein type of journalist, who drives an old Volvo and shits upon his young coworker who writes for the paper’s ‘blog.’ McAffrey becomes embroiled in the case of a lifetime when the mistress of US Congressman and McAffrey’s former roommate, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is killed under mysterious circumstances. But it’s the young and energetic blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdam) who breaks the case and runs with it. In an effort to help his old buddy McAffrey secretly aids in Frye’s investigation, securing evidence directly from the sources without police approval. As McAffrey digs deeper into the case larger stakes are revealed thus endangering his career and himself.

“State of Play” is one of those men-in-suits films - intellectual, career-minded power players with big egos, battling white collar crime in the political arena. Casting is king in these films. And heavy-weight thespians turn up in every scene – Crowe, Helen Mirren, Viola Davis, Robin Wright Penn all lend their weight to the seriousness. And Jason Bateman's fun cameo midway even adds a fresh bit of humour.

For two thirds director Kevin MacDonald executes a razor sharp thriller anchored with rock solid believeability and integrity by Russell Crowe. His foppish hair and portly swagger contrast well against his creative and quick thinking mind. The contradiction bleeds into his ethically controversial decisions he makes about the case.

Key to the conflict of the first half is the battle between the newspapers and the cops for the story. The newspaper guys, at every turn, seem to have an edge on the authorities, which results in a couple of key deaths. Unfortunately the moral and ethical responsibility of this on McAffrey and Frye never goes deeper than a light brush of the surface. And to the detriment of the film the cops are discarded from the plotting in the second half and become largely an ineffectual non-entity in the events.

Looking at the big picture, the film also suffers from the inherent predictability of the genre. Kinda like a blues song. No matter how modern you make a blues song, the pattern of notes is always the same. Same goes with “State of Play”, the payoff for a film like this rarely ever exceeds the excitement of the buildup. As the plot is resolved with traditional ‘hook and twist’ tactics the final emotional statement made is vacant and empty.

I think a story of this kind is best delivered by the television medium, which is why most critics will probably direct you to the mini-series after watching the film. The supreme example of the effectiveness of serialized television with this material is "The Wire" – HBO’s underrated yet supremely awesome cop series - which had five seasons to play out similar angles. With only two hours to work with “State of Play” ultimately feels entertaining in the moment but disposable in the end.

Friday, 17 April 2009


Living in Emergency (2008) dir. Mark Hopkins


Doctors Without Borders gets the documentary treatment in this Venice Film Festival entry from last year. Founded by French doctors as Médecins Sans Frontières (aka MSF) in 1971, Doctors Without Borders has become one of the most important humanitarian organizations in the world providing medical care to the world’s most dangerous and underrepresented areas in the world. Director Mark Hopkins puts his camera over the shoulder of four of the volunteer doctors who ply their trade within the most harrowing of working conditions.

Between the warzones of Liberia and Congo, Hopkins centres on the actions of: Dr. Chris Brasher, an Aussie anaesthetist and nine-year veteran of the organization, Dr. Chiara Lepora, a young Italian toxicologist and ambitious idealist, Dr. Tom Krueger, an American surgeon who sold his practice in order to come to MSF, and Dr. Davinder Gill, an Australian and first-timer in the field.

After a brief news footage intro to the unbelieveable carnage and near perpetual civil war these countries have been going through in the past 15 years, Hopkins drops us right into the action. We barely get to meet the doctors before we see them operating on bullet wounds of elderly men and diagnosing obscene ailments from young children. With very little knowledgeable staff support and industry-standard supplies its survival for both the doctors and the patients. Brasher is an anaesthetist but he finds himself diagnosing and treating all kinds of problems outside his knowledge base. He says the first loss (or death) is always the worst, but you always adapt learn to take the losses in stride.

We watch as the stress gets to some of the doctors. Specifically Davinder Gill, who is by far the most interesting subject. It’s his first mission here and many of the doctors can see the insanity slowly building. It’s clear he’s not meant to last more than his first mission, but who can blame him. We often see Gill treating patients in the middle of the night using a flashlight to see and his staff includes ineffectual aides, not the well-trained support he’s used to in Australia.

They’re on call 24-7 and working ridiculously long and stressful hours, and so when they have an opportunity to let loose they party as hard as they work. Dr. Lepora freely admits to the stress relief sex can provide during a mission. Although we don’t see anything naughty a relationship is implied between Gill and Lepora.

While we get see some of the eye-popping third world conditions up close there are as many missed opportunities to deeper the impact of the film. The characters expound on numerous occasions of the insanity of the conditions and the no-win situation the doctors continually face. So what makes these individuals leave what life they had back home to work for no pay and what seems like often little respect? is it just to help? Are they all idealists? Unfortunately we never get to know Gill outside the Congo clinic, what events in his own life led him to MSF. For Dr. Basher, there's some obvious pain he's looking to avoid back home (possibly a drug addiction?), but nothing is explored.

The film also lacks momentum - a forward-moving narrative revealing character and story. Each scene could have been rearranged without confusing the audience at all. In verite films like this characters are developed through action as opposed to exposition. Has Dr. Gill changed over the 90mins of screentime, no? He begins frustrated and end frustrated – a frustration which unfortunately bleeds into the audience experience too.

“Living in Emergency” screened as the final event in the monthly ‘Doc Soup’ series in Toronto. It continues to travel the world in festivals. Look for it in your region of the world.

Thursday, 16 April 2009


The Optimists (1973) dir. Anthony Simmons
Starring: Peter Sellers, Donna Mullane, John Chaffey, David Daker, Marjorie Yates


Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

This is the sort of neglected (though slightly tarnished) gem that, on the surface, appears to have had the recipe for success.

The ingredients are as follows:

Peter Sellers in a restrained, delicate performance plays a cranky, poor, old music hall singer living in a slum who lives alone with his memories and his sick old dog.

Two cute working class kids (Donna Mullane and John Chaffey) want to rescue a cute orphan puppy from the pound.

When the abovementioned first meet, the Old Man is surly towards the children. In spite of this, they find his eccentricities, old songs and dog most amusing. He secretly enjoys their company and eventually the three become friends. He even helps them get a puppy from the pound.

Add to this recipe songs and music by Lionel (“Oliver!”) Bart and George Martin (yes, THAT George Martin!).

Sounds like a winner, right?

Wrong. The picture was barely released, garnered less-than-stellar reviews (when anyone bothered to review it at all) and even now, has found its way into the home entertainment market with barely a peep.

While I’d like to report that it’s some kind of forgotten masterpiece. I cannot. I can, however, suggest that it’s worth a look for both Sellers and the kitchen sink glimpse into the landscape that was working class London in the late 60s and early 70s. If it wasn’t as depicted in this film, it sure feels like it was, anyways. Smoke belches steadily from factory chimneys, everything feels wet and mucky, there’s seldom a sunny day, the interiors feel worn and grimy and everyone, save for the kids, have the most dour expressions on their faces.

Aside from the wisps of plot described above (in addition to a thrown away sub-plot dealing with the children’s parents who neglect them only because they’re slaving to keep food on the table), this is pretty much what comprises the picture and alas, the running time is far too long to sustain an audience’s interest in such muted and dreary goings-on.

It might have been a different story with a Tony Richardson or Karel Reizs or John Schlesinger directing, but Anthony Simmons, directing from a screenplay adaptation by Tudor Gates of Simmons’s own novel “The Optimists of Nine Elms” is, as a director, barely competent. Scenes run on too long, the camera is often in the wrong place at the wrong time and many sequences feel truncated, not because of poor editing, but because the poor editor (a usually crackerjack cutter), John (“Frenzy”, “A Fish Called Wanda)” Jympson, clearly didn’t always have the proper coverage (footage, shots) to work with.

In spite of this, Sellers is quite remarkable. He puts his heart and soul into his performance and there are numerous moments where his command of the role and the screen itself are so powerful that it’s almost impossible to divert oneself from the picture when he’s on-screen. His eyes convey decades of hurt and lost dreams and the only time he explodes with joy is when he bursts into song. Sellers is heartbreaking in this picture. The performance itself is on a par with his work in “Being There” or his supporting bits in the Ealing comedies. Too bad the movie isn’t up to snuff.

All that said, though, any movie that climaxes in an abandoned pet cemetery with the weather beaten headstones of long-ago departed canines and Peter Sellers burying his old dog, whilst inheriting a new one, can’t really be all that bad, can it?

“The Optimists” is currently available on the Legend Films DVD label as part of the series of titles that Paramount Pictures did not feel like distributing themselves.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


So, you’re a character in a movie, and you’ve just been in an action scene. You’ve been fighting off, either the hero, or the villain of the picture and mostly likely you’re on the run from the law, or have no access to a hospital or any sort of medical practitioner. What do you do? You’re only option is self-medicating yourself, whether it’s self-surgery, self-suture, bullet removal etc.

The most common form of cinematic self-medication is 'cauterizing of the wound', the act of burning the wound to stop the bleeding, a method most dramatically demonstrated to us in Rambo III:

Removing shrapnel from Stallone's waist in RAMBO III

After some mondo action and bloodshed John Rambo finds himself with an annoying piece of shrapnel embedded in his waist. Unfortunately he’s without his trusty needle and thread, but ‘MacGyver's’ a solution with a little gunpowder and a flame. Rambo carefully pushing the metal out of his body, then tears apart a bullet and yikes! pours the gunpowder into the open wound, then inserts an enflamed twig into his body to ‘cauterize’ it. 

Cauterizing Chow Yun Fat’s Wound in THE KILLER

After the famous cabin shootout and escape from the white jumpsuit wearing gunmen John and Inspector Li escape into the woods to rest. Li helps John fix the bullet wound on his arm with the same Rambo technique. Opening up a shell casing, pouring gunpowder on the open wound and lighting himself on fire. Thank God for the twig John clenches on to relieve the pain of having one's appendage partially exploded.


Going back to 1970, Don Siegel's western "Two Mules for Sister Sara" may have been the first use of cinematic cauterization. The unlikely heroic duo of Clint Eastwood as a mercenary and Shirley MacLaine as a nun, both travelling to Mexico to help in their revolution. After an attempt to blow up a train Clint is shot in the shoulder with an arrow, nothing a simple cauterizing technique of pushing through the arrow along with some lit gunpowder couldn't fix.

Arrow Wound in BRAVEHEART

After the Battle of York, that old Scottish dude, the elder Campbell played by John Cosmo gets a nasty arrow to the shoulder. With some whisky to dull the pain, his fellows warring lads proceed to pull out the arrow, then blast the wound with a red hot poker. Ouch.

Thank God for the basic element of fire which seemingly can seal up just about any wound. In real world practise, you may want to think twice before applying that hot poker to your skin, or lighting yourself on fire with gunpowder. Here's the real medical take on cinematic cauterization, courtesy of Toronto-based doctors, Dr. Michael McDonald and Dr. Jennie Johnstone:

In the setting of a penetrating trauma wound with a non-sterile object (arrow, bullet, shark bite), the major immediate concerns are hemorrhage and infection. Severe hemorrhage can be fatal within minutes while infection is more insidious, claiming victims within 72 hours. Cauterization in the “Rambo” sense of the word refers to the application of a heat source directly into the wound in an attempt to stem the blood loss and sterilize the region of any bacteria. Although theoretically attractive, this practice paradoxically creates more injury; even if large blood vessels are spared from thermal damage, layers of surrounding inflamed and necrotic tissue coalesce into an ideal medium for harmful bacteria to grow and spread.

Anecdotally, cauterization may have been used with some measure of success prior to availability of antibiotics and antiseptic surgical techniques (approximately 100 years ago) in rare circumstances. For example, in the amputation of a limb, the benefit of cauterizing the stump to control bleeding from large arteries, which was almost always fatal, exceeded the risk of dying from subsequent septic shock. Today, however, an individual forced to self-manage a penetrating injury in the absence of immediate medical care should instead focus efforts on damage control. This is best accomplished by 1) applying continuous pressure to any accessible wound until the bleeding stops and 2) moving any dirty external debris, keeping the surrounding area clean with alcohol or boiled water. These simple measures may offer the best chance for survival until proper medical attention has been found.

Cauterization isn't the only method of self-medication we've seen on screen. Here are some other, though not necessarily medically-sound, techniques:

Anton Chigurh’s Knee (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN)

During the impeccably choreographed street shootout scene Moss manages to throw a hail of buckshot into Chigurh’s knee. When the opponents crawl away injured but alive they both have to repair their own damage before continuing on their journeys. Watching Chigurh direct the attention of the pharmacy staff away with a gasoline tank explosion outside, makes us think that’s he’s done this before – scary. This allows the mop-headed villain to steal his tools and go about his business. While at his hotel room, the procedure of cutting off his pants, cleaning the wound, injecting painkillers into his shot knee and removing the bullet fragments is given squirm-inducing bold close-ups from the Coen Bros. I can’t even imagine how he would repair his broken arm at the end of the film.

Stitches for Rambo (FIRST BLOOD)

After a violent escape from the Sheriff’s office of Backwater USA, the softspoken, former Green Beret, John Rambo retreats to the woods fending off the ineffectual National Guard and local police. After falling a hundred feet from a rockcliff, Mr. Rambo is left with a nasty slice on his arm. Since he’s out in the woods all by himself, suddenly that needle and thread kit which always seemed useless in a compass, has a purpose. With precision we watch as Rambo sews up his arm, as the wound oozes out some wonderful blood squirts.

Removing Arnie’s Eye (THE TERMINATOR)

Perhaps it’s not fair to use Terminator as an example, because he’s technically a robot, but what the hell. With patient skill James Cameron shows his terminator perform some masterful surgery to his damaged eye. The grossest moment is no doubt when Arnie puts the scalpel into his eyeball thus freeing it up for removal. Of course Stan Winston’s animatronic special effects make it all look so real and gruesome and nothing a handy pair of black sunglasses couldn't hide.

Ash’s Chainsaw Arm (EVIL DEAD II)

One of the greatest fanboy scenes ever is Sam Raimi’s hilarious satire of Hollywood ‘montage scenes’. While fighting off the evil spirit which took control of his own arm, Ash ‘wins’ the battle by chopping off his own arm, which leaves our hero minus one appendage. No need to worry, a trip to the toolshed will fix that. With a series of quick cuts we watch Ash construct his now-famous chainsaw arm out of scrap metal accompanied by his sawed-off boomstick. Groovy.

Flourescent Flesh Wound (PREDATOR)

Midway through 'Predator', Dillon and his overmatched commando unit manage to fight the Alien off. In a wonderfully edited sequence, once again, realized by the master of physical and mechanical effects, Stan Winston, we get to see the vulnerability of the Predator for the first time. Alone in the trees the Predator opens up a neat little first aid kit on his arm, which has just the right instruments to heal his nasty flourscent blood-filled leg wound. The sequence is capped off with a loud bellow of pain which reverberates throughout the jungle. 

So think twice about emulating the methods used by these cinematic action heroes, consult a doctor first before performing any of these techniques.