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

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

La Haine (Hate)

La Haine (Hate) (1995) dir. Mathieu Kassovitz
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui


Although "La Haine" feels so thoroughly relevant and modern, the film is almost 15 years old, made at the time of “Boyz in the Hood” and “Menace II Society”. “La Haine” is less a time capsule of the era, like those urban American films, and more a grand artistic statement comparable to the early work of Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Vincent Gallo.

Kassovitz follows the day in the life of three low level street hoods, Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Kounde), Said (Saïd Taghmaoui). It's just after a violent riot in Paris, which saw one of the leaders of their community beaten and in the hospital. Anger, fear and frustration fills the air, and the three boys are not sure how to channel their anger.

When hotheaded Vinz (think Johnny Boy from "Mean Streets") finds a missing policeman's gun on the ground it becomes a symbol for Vinz to exercise the power and force he's always wanted. For Hubert, he seeks an escape from the ghetto so he doesn't suffer the same fate as his imprisoned brother. And for Said, he's left in between the two divergent paths of Vinz and Hubert. We just spend one day with the guys as they cruise the streets of Paris rambunctiously disturbing the peace while contemplating their futures in the Paris ghetto.

I don’t know anything about urban Parisian life other than what I see in the movies and read on the news. Between now and then it would appear that little has changed for the underprivileged youth of Paris – a mixture of races who, through their urban poverty and racial discrimination, congregate together in gangs for strength. This is the story of any major ethnically diverse urban centre be it the streets of South Central LA or Toronto. But the trio in this film are not defined by race, Hubert is black, Vinz is Jewish-White and Said is Muslim, three lost souls who have little in common culturally other than their mutual poverty. It wasn’t the first and won’t be the last film on this subject but “La Haine” is one of the powerful and accessible of these urban stories.

Though this wasn’t Mathieu Kassovitz’s first film, it certainly was his coming out party. Shot in stark high contrast wide angle black & white, “La Haine” is a beautiful piece of celluloid. Black & white captures youth so eloquently and the deep focus look in this film reminds us of Francis Coppola’s “Rumble Fish”, or Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show”.

So far I’ve referenced five great filmmakers, so there’s a palpable acknowledgement of cinema in Kassovitz’s style. He’s supremely confident with his camera and the direction of his performances. Characters are framed carefully with attention-grabbing compositions – whether it’s the back of someone’s head, or a bold macro close-up Kassovitz finds clever ways to orchestrate the characters in the spaces - an expressionism borrowing heavily from Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese.

Despite the stylish visuals, Kassovitz's compensates with a natural freeform narrative which evolves without burdening us with traditional plot devices. Using the time of day as the only narrative reference point, Kassovitz makes every scene special. And when the final scene comes only then do we realize how well his characters have been drawn and made flesh. In the final moments Hubert, Vinz and Said are tested in a dramatic confrontation which leaves the audience gasping - and with a little bit of auteur ambiguity for good measure to let us all know it's a director's film. Enjoy.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) dir. Michael Bay
Starring: Shia Lebeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson


Even by Michael Bay standards, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is a mess. I admit being a fan of the first film and even most of Michael Bay’s lesser regarded films (ie. “The Island” and “Bad Boys 2”) so I'm more than predisposed to enjoy this movie, yet it's still mostly a bore.

It’s been two years since Megatron was defeated by the Autobots and the human saviour Sam Witwicky (Shia Lebeouf). In between now and then the surviving robots has acted as a ‘secret’ police searching out any remaining Decepticon around the world. The opening sequence has the Autobots battling a giant wheeled Decepticon attempting to takeover some kind of power plant. Despite the huge battle and destruction this is all done in secret.

Meanwhile Sam has gone off to college. Only two days into his classes he starts hallucinating about weird alien Transformers messages. It turns out a remnant of the ‘all spark’ from the first film got lodged in his shirt, thus transmitting its information to Sam. Now Sam is the target of the Decepticons who desire to harness the allspark power and free their long lost ruler, “The Fallen”.

I thought Megatron was the long lost leader? Remember, he was entombed in the Hoover Dam? Nope. There was another leader buried centuries before at the dawn of civilization, buried in another manmade wonder – I won’t spoil the surprise. Thus, adding to the hook of morphing robots is Da Vinci/National Treasure puzzling solving, globe trotting adventure.

The plot wanders around for two and a half hours charting the path of Witwicky, his girlfriend and the military heroes from the first film across the world with the Decipticons continually in pursuit and always showing up at the wrong time to go to battle.

But, really, we all could care less for the detailed machinations of the plot, it’s just one giant maguffin to get the robots to pound each other to destruction.

This sequel fails because there’s little we see in this film that wasn’t in the first film. Apparently there are more robots in this one, but when shown on the screen, they all look very similar and have pretty much the same abilities. Is a robot airplane stronger than a robot pick-up truck, or camero, or a PT Cruiser? We don’t know because whenever they fight its an incomprehensible swooshing of colour and metal on the screen. Though many people complained about this visual incomprehensibility in the first film, I could follow along, but here it’s even worse, crossing my fine line of Michael Bay visual logic. And there’s also a familiarity to the action as well, specifically the final Egyptian sequence, which looked like a carbon copy to the White Sands sequence in Part 1.

The IMAX presentation is also a disappointment, coming no where near the grandiosity of “The Dark Knight”. Despite reports of four sequences, there is only ONE full IMAX sequence – the forest fight, which admitted looked fantastic. The Egyptian battle has sporatic shots of Devastator in IMAX, but unfortunately when intercut with regular 35mm, just teased us with what we wanted to see.

Ironically the best moments in Transformers 2 were the trademark Bay-banter in between the action. Lebeouf’s interaction with his neurotic parents provide the best moments as well as the Ramon Rodriguez’s conspiracy blogger/roommate character. Everything else is a spitballed series of random and repetitive action.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

South Pacific

South Pacific (1958) dir. Joshua Logan
Starring: Mitzi Gaynor, Rossano Brazzi, Ray Walston, Juanita Hall, John Kerr, Tom Laughlin, France Nuyen


Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

“South Pacific” is a great movie musical. Its detractors will have you believe it’s clunky, theatrical to a fault, hampered by poor casting choices and a waste of actual locations on the Hawaiian island of Kauai because of the aforementioned. It is none of those things. In fact, it’s quite the opposite and I daresay it might well be one of the great movie musicals of all time and as thrilling and stunning a MOVIE musical as the best work of Vincente Minnelli, Rouben Mamoulian, Rene Clair and Busby Berkeley.

Based upon the huge Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II Broadway success (first launched onstage in 1949 and recently afforded a highly acclaimed remount) and in turn taken from James Michener’s bestselling “Tales of the South Pacific” (recounting his own experiences in the Eden-like setting of the title), “South Pacific” charts the love lives of several characters who find themselves in a paradise on Earth. The main love story involves a vivacious female Navy Ensign and nurse, Nelly Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor), who is stationed, along with hundreds of other military personnel on an American island during World War II in order to prepare for an offensive upon the Empire of the Rising Sun and to keep an eye on the nearby Japanese-controlled islands.

A local French landowner and man of mystery, Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi), is courted by the U.S. navy to assist them with gaining access to one of these islands, the enchanting Bali Ha’i. The island, bearing two volcanoes and a bevy of beauties (male and female) and fresh fruits (edible, I would argue, in more ways than one) acts as a magnet for all these sailors, but is, alas, off-limits to them.

When a Hawaiian Earth Mother named Bloody Mary (the brilliant Juanita Hall) beckoningly sings of the island’s virtues to the young Lt. Cable (John Kerr) he, not unlike the other American seamen and women, is drawn to the “special island [where] the sky meets the sea”. And of course, before you can sing “Cockeyed Optimist” (one of the immortal Rodgers-Hammerstein songs in this musical), love begins to blossom between Nelly and Emile as well as Lt. Cable and Bloody Mary’s gorgeous daughter Liat (France Nuyen).

Bring on the bare-chested hunks and grass-skirted babes, please.

Volcanoes were made for erupting, mais non?

And eruption of the most pleasurable kind is what happens to me whenever I see this musical. Aside from the fact that it’s a pretty agreeable narrative with great characters and terrific tunes, what really get my juices flowing are Joshua Logan’s stunning and brave visual choices as a director.

Logan gets a bad rap from most film critics. Originally a stage director (and yes, he mounted the original Broadway production of “South Pacific”), Logan is often criticized for not using the medium of film in a “cinematic” fashion and that his attempts to do so are mistakenly labeled as clunky. Here’s where I really have to disagree with my colleagues on the matter. In fact, the knee-jerk negative reaction to utilizing a proscenium-styled frame in film adaptations always gets this fella’s yarbles in a wringer. I love the use of proscenium, the tableaux approach if you will, as much as I love the dipping, whirling shots of Mamoulian and Clair, the kaleidoscopic, only-in-a-film stylings of Berkeley, the stunning splashes of colour in Minnelli (and most of the pictures out of Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM). The proscenium is only wrong if it’s done without passion and imagination. That’s not Logan’s problem at all. Using the stunning 65-millimeter TODD-AO widescreen process he manages to create one of the strangest and I daresay imaginative visual hybrids ever created for a motion picture. Perhaps it’s the hybrid effect that stymies critics, but for many viewers, myself obviously included, the effect is always a treat – more so because it is rooted in the emotion of the narrative, the characters and the truly magical settings.

First of all, you get the intense clarity of the huge 65mm negative that delivers a truly widescreen image without anamorphic compression. Shooting on location, one gets all the real-thing backdrops instead of theatrical backdrops or, for that matter, the studio-bound backdrops of other musicals. Then, utilizing a variety of coloured filters, Logan brings movie magic to the proceedings wherein we can feel the filmmaker’s hand applying a wash of colour to transport us to a realm of Never-Never-Land so that we ALWAYS feel we’re watching a movie, and most importantly, a world within the movie that feels like a world unto itself. Blending this with stationary chorus line compositions, we get to see the beauty of the choreography and enjoy the various bits of business without a barrage of cuts and cutaways that purportedly move us emotionally through the action using a variety of shots at different lengths. We get to experience all the action in as pure a form as the dance numbers in the RKO Astaire-Rogers musicals. Logan lets the action occur WITHIN his frames. He uses theatrical convention as one piece of his extremely rich visual palette. Logan makes us feel like we’re watching something we’ve NEVER seen before. Ultimately though, we have. By distorting the reality of the on-location settings with both cinematic and theatrical techniques, Logan ventures boldly into the world of expressionism that, frankly, feels perfectly apt for a tale that examines love and magic against the backdrop of war.

This directorial decision is a stunner. Then again, for anyone who loves Logan, it makes perfect sense. His occasional forays into the world of movies almost always yielded strange, uncompromising work. “Picnic”, his film adaptation of William Inge’s play still has the power to move and provoke while “Bus Stop”, also from Inge, is as funny and heartbreaking as any of Marilyn Monroe’s great work and “Sayonara”, a straight-ahead examination of American-Japanese relations and racism taken from writing by James Michener is one of the great dramas on these themes. Even his tremendous flop, “Paint Your Wagon”, is not without the expressionistic qualities of his best work – the mere thought of juxtaposing Harve Presnell’s outstanding vocal rendition of “They Call The Wind Maria” and Clint (I kid you not!) Eastwood half-singing, half-whispering, semi-rasping out “I Talk To The Tress” delivers the kind of satisfying gooseflesh very few movies are capable of.

The new Blu-Ray release of “South Pacific” is a mixed bag. It features both the theatrical and Roadshow versions of the picture. Alas, the Roadshow version is presented from a solid, but definitely standard definition transfer – which is a real shame, since it adds footage that is not in any way, shape or form extraneous. That said, the shorter theatrical version is still a mind-blower and to see it in a high definition transfer is to experience a lifetime of orgasmic pleasure in one huge dollop. Also, the extra-features – including a terrific feature length documentary – are magnificent supplementary materials to an already magnificent motion picture.

“South Pacific” is available in a special Blu-Ray release on the 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment label.

Saturday, 27 June 2009


JCVD (2008) dir. Mabrouk El Mechri
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra


Good on Van Damme and good on Mabrouk El Mechri for humanizing and generating genuine sympathy for a laughable former action star. What makes Jean-Claude Van Damme worthy of cinematic exaltation? Why not Steven Seagal? Why not Dolph Lundgren? Even in roles like “Bloodsport” and “Sudden Death", in between his high kicks and splits, every once in a while there would be a glimmer of sadness in his eyes, a moment of truth and vulnerability behind those muscles from Brussels. Seagal never had it, Dolph never had it, not even Arnold. Chuck Norris had it, Charles Bronson had it, and so does Van Damme.

And so, what brilliant casting and screenwriting to produce an entire film devoted to deconstructing the celebrity of Van Damme, and saving him from the need to go on “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Outta Here”.

We’re in Brussels , Van Damme is broke and on the verge of losing a custody battle for his daughter who disowns him. All he needs is some money to pay his lawyer to get him back on the case. When he walks into a post office to withdraw some funds he finds it’s been taken over by a group of bank robbers. When they find out they have none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme as a hostage they convince the police that Van Damme is the perp as a rouse for their escape.

As the press gathers around the post office in a ‘Dog Day Afternoon’-like situation Van Damme is thrown back into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The event forces him to come to grips with the mistakes of his past and tests his ability to be a hero in real life.

JCVD succeeds solely because of Mr. Van Damme. He delivers an honest Mickey Rourke-like performance as a beaten down pathetic has-been with so much baggage behind him he just can’t escape from. Unfortunately director El Mechri doesn’t know how good a thing he has with his lead, as he continually imposes that Luc Besson-influenced French hyper styling.Van Damme is that good, and if told with a gentle and honest directorial hand, JCVD could have been as powerful as “The Wrestler.”

The cinematography is away overlit, highlights are blown way out of proportion, in what would be distracting even for a 5mins music video. So at 90mins, it had me shouting at the screen – “You dummy, turn the lights down!”

El Mechri is also unnecessarily clever with the narrative, establishing Van Damme as the perp, then doubling back on itself to reveal him as the victim. Unfortunately not enough comedy, or drama is revealed from this tactic and seems only to announce his presence as a director. This is no surprise though, it’s a first feature from the man, and it has the familiar markings of an immature rookie trying to make a name for himself. Even the showcase confession scene for Van Damme is dramatized with Spike Lee styling, as Van Damme breaks the fourth wall and begins talking directly to the audience while the camera and the man elevate into the air above the movie set lights. It’s a bold expression, which, I’d rather have seen told through regular dialogue, say, with his mother or ex-wife on the phone.

Unfortunately, despite the success of the film, I don’t see Van Damme returning to cinema in anything other than his usual brainless action vehicles. They may now get theatrical releases for a brief period of time, but we should consider “JCVD” as a one-off expression of himself as a legitimate actor. And that’s all we really need. Enjoy.

Friday, 26 June 2009


Home (2009) dir. Yann Arthus-Bertrand


Piggybacking on the popularity of enviro-films like “Planet Earth”, and “An Inconvenient Truth” arrives another nature doc showing us pretty pictures while scolding us for our naughty behaviour destroying the natural order of the earth. It’s a heavily preachy affair making us feel very guilty for our irresponsible mass consumption, but the stunning high definition visuals is a wonder to behold and more than worth the rental.

Glenn Close narrates this doc about ‘home’, aka ‘the earth’, aka ‘our planet’, which is shot primarily from air. The beautiful aerial view of earth allows us to see the miracle of nature and the stunning landscapes it has built over millions of years, as well as the mass destruction we have done to it over the last 100 years.

The filmmakers start with a history lesson explaining with clarity the formation of the earth, its gases, the water and eventually the life which was birthed from these unique environmental conditions. We’ve never quite seen these elements – rock, water, gas, ice – in this way before. Sure we’ve seen the National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, but director Yann Arthus-Betrand shoots the world with a grand cinematic scope it's often breathtaking.

The French seem to be the best at these types of films. Listing some of the recent documentary achievements of the last 10 years or so, “Microcosmos”, “March of the Penguins”, “Winged Migration” it’s clear the French have a panache with this material. Luc Besson even lends his name to this production, though I'm not sure what kind of creative hand he had in this, we know for certain, he wouldn't put his name to it if it wasn't a highly stylish visual presentation.

The visuals are superlative showing us the beauty of the planet. From the wondrous vantage point of the sky, the earth appears to us like a canvas of art, organic patterns created by the centuries and centuries of ecological evolution. And so the effects of our own man made patterns of deforestation, or river diversion in such a short period of time is alarming enough.

But in essence this film has already been made before, as "Koyaanisqatsi" in 1983, except Godfrey Reggio’s film didn’t need expository voiceover telling us what we’re seeing. Most of the words spoken to us by the husky voice of Glenn Close is unnecessary and often insulting to our ability to derive our own conclusions from the visuals. Towards the latter half of the film when the science and history makes way for the finger-wagging environmental agenda we feel like we've been duped. Close’s written narration even resorts to the first person, saying “you” and “we” in describing our culpability for our predicament.

It’s not all entirely pessimistic though, the filmmakers actually cite the positive actions by some of our nations to repair the environment - housing communities fueled by solar power in Frieberg Germany, governments who make renewable energy a priority, eco-friendly coal-fire plants in Denmark – an act of cheerleading which is missing in many of the previous enviro-cautionary films.

To spread the word about the film and its causes the filmmakers have made the film available in reasonably decent quality on youtube. See below. But I strongly advise finding a DVD, or preferably Blu-Ray version from Fox Home Entertainment for the maximum experience.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep (1946) dir. Howard Hawks
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall


One Hollywood’s classic products, highly influential, a landmark film of the noir genre is still a beguiling and elusive picture.

Whether by design or not, part of the fun of "The Big Sleep" is attempting to follow along with the byzantine plotting. I admit, I can get about half way through following along clearly and at a certain point always get lost.

Cool and confident private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called in by rich tycoon General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to investigate an extortion scheme against her daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) for her gambling debts by local bookie Arthur Gwynn Geiger. Marlowe is led to Geiger’s bookstore where he tails him to his home, only to discover he’s been killed. Carmen's (Lauren Bacall) sister joins the fray and attempts to secure her own ransom money further complicating the predicament. Nefarious figures pocket every corner of the seedy Los Angeles underworld Marlowe uncovers.

It’s fun to watch The Big Sleep as a template for Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential”, while the lude and nasty sexual elements were put into the subtext of the Faulkner/Brackett/Furthman screenplay, all the elements of the seedy Los Angeles milieu of porno, gambling, drugs, prostitution are there. Bogart’s discovery of Carmen confused and stammering in Geiger's house after the murder suggest influence of hallucinogenic drugs, and her oriental outfit as a sexual fetish for Geiger’s porno racket. None of this is told to us, but inferred through subtle clues which enhance the richness of multiple viewings.

Marlowe only scratches the surface of this grim underbelly. Many of the key characters are discussed but never seen or turn up dead before we ever get to meet them. The most famous is the Owen Taylor character who is killed in a car crash, a murder or perhaps suicide which is never solved in the film, nor, according to some sources, in the mind of it’s original author Raymond Chandler. Same goes with Sternwood’s former heavy Sean Regan who had disappeared prior to Marlowe entering the picture. Regan is discussed as the reason for Sternwood's hiring of Marlowe, but someone we never meet. Even Geiger himself, who is only glimpsed from afar yet remains key to the motivation and plotting.

Bogart and Bacall, a legendary Hollywood couple, sear the screen, not so much because of sexual chemistry or sparks, but as equally cunning adversaries. Bacall’s dialogue is line-for-line delivered with as much snarky conviction and confidence as Bogart’s - a female match for his swaggering cocky persona.

As a Jack Warner (Warner Bros) production, his stamp of tough hardboiled attitude is there, putting the film beside some of his toughest crime films with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. Max Steiner, Warner's #1 composer, delivers a glorious and grand score, as always, heightening all the melodramatic suspense and tension of the picture.

Like Bogey's "Casablanca", the experience of "The Big Sleep" improves on each successive viewing. The initial occasion will certainly cause much confusion and even frustration, and though the confusion remains time and again, frustration soon gives way to gleeful delight. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Diary of Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) dir. George Stevens
Starring: Millie Perkins, Joseph Schildkraut, Richard Beymer, Shelley Winters, Ed Winn, Gusti Huber


George Stevens’ version of the Anne Frank, adapted from the stage play “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl”, tells the story of the many months of hiding by the Dutch 13-year old and her family from the Nazis during WWII. The Hollywood touch is certainly applied to this story, mostly for the better than worse, but without sacrifice to an inspired directorial stamp of authorship from a great director.

Most of us know the story of Anne Frank by now, perhaps not so much in 1959. In a flashforward we see Otto Frank returning to his hiding place in Amsterdam after the War – the only survivor of his family and friends who lived there during Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Flashing back we see group taken in by the courageous Khaler family to live hidden away in the attic of their spice factory. There’s father and mother, Otto and Edith, daughters Anne and Margot, and four members of the Van Daan family and their cat. Later old curmudgeon Mr. Dussell would join the group.

The group must adhere to strict rules in order not to be seen or heard by the workers below – during the working day, shoes must be off and words spoken only whispers. In the evening there are free to talk, sing, listen to the radio etc. But never, ever can they leave the attic. A romance develops between young Anne and Van Daan’s son Peter much to the dismay of Anne’s older sister Margot. As the years go by the tight space causes much conflict between the two families testing their perseverance.

At three hours, it’s an intimidating film to approach, yet Stevens’ sets a surprisingly brisk pace with barely a lull. A number of suburb set pieces elevate the picture to auteur-worthy cinematic art, specifically, the impeccably-crafted Nazi-search sequence. In the middle of the night, after a thief breaks into the factory office below and leaves the door wide open, the Nazi street patrol suspects some foul play. As they search the building and come within a foot of discovering the hiding spot Stevens’ intercuts to the family frozen like mannequins maintaining their silence as well as their adventurous cat which threatens to expose them all. It’s a scene as tense and stylistically assured as anything by Hitchcock.

Though by 1959 there had been films set in concentration camps and the Holocaust, Hollywood was still bound to the limitations of the production code and its studio aesthetic. By 2009, we’ve seen numerous dramatic films and documentares either about the Holocaust or set during the Holocaust told with various ranges of dramatic realism and remembrance.

Thus with today’s eyes “The Diary of Anne Frank” might appear to be a softened, Hollywoodized version of the story. Specifically the casting of newbie, Millie Perkins (aged 20) as a 13-year old and her romance with Richard Beymer’s Peter Van Daan character drastically threatens the realism and integrity of the film. As well Stevens' decision not to show the horror’s of the concentration camp. It’s a choice not made out of fear of the subject matter, but in storytelling terms, Frank’s diary is a complete and separate story than her life in the camps.

William Mellor’s stark, high contrast B&W cinematography in bold widescreen cinemascope won him an Oscar. According to Stevens’ son who also served as Associate Producer and second unit director, the widescreen process was not preferred by the director for this picture. Stevens lobbied for a then more traditional full frame aspect ratio to compliment the claustrophobic interior of the hideout. Since the wideangle scope puts much more of the set in frame, it becomes difficult to cut together shots in small spaces. Though the demands of the studio won out Stevens' blocking and visual design are stunning and his ability to maintain editorial control between his shots is miraculous.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” would be Stevens’ last great film – depending on your opinion of ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’. On the new Blu-Ray look for the treasured 16mm color footage shot by Stevens during WWII. His dedication to documenting and preserving on film the war and the aftermath of the Holocaust clearly fed into his passion for making the Anne Frank story an important film.

“The Diary of Anne Frank: 50th Anniversary” is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

2010: The Year We Make Contact

2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) dir. Peter Hyams
Starring: Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren, John Lithgow, Bob Balaban


Let's just get it out of the way: Peter Hyams is not Stanley Kubrick. With that in mind you can then accept the 1984 "sequel" to Kubrick's landmark film as a surprisingly good sci-fi adventure, with Hyams both paying reverence to the original and bringing his own look and tone to the story.

With a more traditional style, "2010" jumps nine years forward from the original film, following Heywood Floyd (played this time by Roy Scheider) and a team of Russian and American astronauts on a mission to find the derelict Discovery spaceship, which was left orbiting Jupiter. Typical of the '80s, late Cold War U.S./Soviet relations provide the ticking clock drama on Earth, as a Cuban Missile Crisis-like conflict in Honduras threatens the mission. Their journey allows them to confront once again the mysterious monolith, which has become active again, and is building towards another phenomenal event.

A technical marvel in its day, with today's eyes, the film has, surprisingly, lost little of its visual power. Richard Edlund's special effects and Albert Brenner and Syd Mead's production design are some of the best of the decade. Eighties cine fan-boys will instantly recognize Hyams' distinct softly lit anamorphic cinematography. Though it's a more formal style, reference is continually paid to Kubrick, specifically in the recreation of the Discovery set, HAL's voice and Keir Dullea returning as Bowman in his red spacesuit.

Roy Scheider as Heywood Floyd is a solid anchor; his warm, amiable persona reminding us of how underrated an actor he was. Solid actors like John Lithgow and Bob Balaban also appear, as well as a young Helen Mirren doing a surprisingly good Russian accent. Hyams smartly stays away from the obtuse cinematic flourishes of Kubrick, though the lack of any discernable overriding scientific or philosophical theme is perhaps the reason why this film has largely disappeared from the pop culture consciousness.

As a result, "2010" is good but not special. The lasting emotional connection in the film is the exploration of the relationship between man and machine — another common theme of the '80s. In the end, as the monolith threatens to destroy our heroes, HAL is given a chance to redeem himself, thus completing with satisfaction his narrative arc from 2001. Enjoy.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Monday, 22 June 2009

The Hangover

The Hangover (2009) dir. Todd Phillips
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Heather Graham


I decided to wait a week after seeing “The Hangover” before writing my review. Though it made for enjoyable night out, in relation to it’s box office success, I could not help but feel a little underwhelmed. I think this had to do with the fact the trailer, which I had only seen once, spoiled virtually every surprise in the picture. So, needless to say, don't read this review if you haven't seen the movie.

And so with this time to allow the film linger and process itself in my brain, I can write this review.

The notion of the ‘Vegas’ bachelor party weekend has been done in Hollywood. “Very Bad Things”, Doug Liman’s “Swingers”, and even his follow-up “Go” all have attempted to encapsulate the ability of the sin city to turn ordinary people into debaucherous and irresponsible children. The “Hangover” tells essentially same story as these films with the hook being that instead of the actions, we just see the ramifications.

We meet husband to be, Doug (Justin Bartha), who is embarking on a road trip from LA to Vegeas with his fellow partyiers. His compatriots include best friends, Phil (Bradley Cooper), the good looking party captain who relishes the opportunity to escape the bludgeoning boring domestic lifestyle of husband/dad, Stu (Ed Helms), the conservative prude who is constantly emasculated by his overbearing girlfriend, and Alan (Zach Galifianakis), the troubled brother-in-law to be of Doug’s.

After we see them toast their first drink on the roof of Caesar’s Palace, the film fast forwards over the good parts to the morning after. Their hotel room is sacked, a tiger is in the bathroom, a baby in the closet, Doug’s mattress on the roof, but no Doug. The hungover trio who have no memory of the night, and with only 2 days before the wedding, must piece together the evidence of the evening to find Doug with Chinese mobsters, strippers, and Mike Tyson all coming into play.

Writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore use base characterizations to define their heroes. If the roles weren’t inhabited by any less talented comedians and actors, the film could have suffered the death of familiarity. As the boys retrace their steps the explanations don’t quite live up the absurdity of not having the information of recollection of their actions. For example when the source of the baby is revealed as well as Stu’s missing tooth, it all kinda make sense, and not as outlandish as the evidence would seem.

Where “The Hangover” triumphs is the cinematic attitude and character interactions of the three leads. Galifianakis is a revelation as a timebomb of insanity waiting to throw the group into another off the wall situation. His big beard, and unkempt personal hygiene is the showoff performance, but Cooper and Helms are distinct enough not to fall out of the picture.

Cooper has the screen presence to assume the leadership of the group, even though he doesn’t have much character development to dig into. Ed Helms’ journey from feeble yes-man to male vindication is the heart of the film. Ken Jeoung, that marvelous scene stealer from "Role Models" and "Knocked Up" again turns in another absurdly funny performance as the annoyingly mean Chinese gangster, Mr. Chow.

And if you thought Phillips made a mistake not showing us what actually happened that night, wait for the final credits, which adds a loud exclamation mark of enjoyment sending the film into the upper strata of hilarity. Enjoy.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Zombie Zombie: Driving This Road Until Death Sets You Free

Zombie Zombie: Driving This Road Until Death Sets You Free (2008) dir. Simon Gesrel and Xavier Ehretsmann


The geekout discovery of the year occurred this week at the Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto. In festival’s annual ‘Scene not Heard’ program devoted to music videos, the last film to screen was an ejaculation of 80’s fandom – a fan made video for the French electronic band Zombie Zombie, inspired by John Carpenter’s “The Thing” acted out entirely by stop motion GI Joe figures.

I kid you not, this is real.

In the opening after a neat old school movie logo, the film sets the scene, “Antarctica 1983”, an overhead shot of a group of snowsuit wearing scientists gather to extract a piece of ice from the ground. One of the scientists is ‘Snow Job’ the skiing G.I. Joe character from the early 80’s. Yes, I now know this is real.

When the group brings the ice sample back to add to their historical collection of ice pieces, little do they know a virus of some sort is embedded inside, After some melting the virus is released into the air and into vodka bottle of the Dreadnok 'Buzzer'. Buzzer starts stalking the other scientists much like the shapeshifting 'Thing'. The group fight back with all means necessary, flame throwers, shot guns and finally a self-sacrificial explosion of dynamite.

While it’s not a remake of “The Thing”, most likely for logistical reasons, the homage and reverence to Carpenter is clear. Right down to Rob Bottin’s nasty creature effects, the set design of the camp and interior art direction of the base, the digitized film scratches, even the choice of music, a monotonous electronic piece, resembles the same tone as Ennio Morricone’s great score.

The articulate ‘swivel arm battle grip’ which for serious GI Joe players back in the day allowed kids like me to create realistic scenes of battle in the sandbox, on film also makes for surprisingly realistic stop motion characters.

Co-Directors Ehretsmann and Gesrel pull some great tension out of these plastic figures, and full fledged story. They are not just geeking out entirely, their visual eye, shot selection and storytelling abilities are acutely apparent in this brief six mins of fun - which, something tells me will be more enjoyable than the Stephen Somers' GI Joe movie coming out soon.

There’s no real need to write any more, because the film is available in its entirety on youtube. Here it is:

Friday, 19 June 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) dir. PJ Hogan
Starring: Isla Fisher, Hugh Dancy, John Goodman, Joan Cusack, Kristin Scott Thomas


A Jerry Bruckheimer romantic comedy? Why not. The uber-producer's first crack at this genre brings Sophie Kinsella's popular book series to the big screen. Bruck brings back once-hot romcom director PJ Hogan ('Muriel's Wedding', 'My Best Friend's Wedding') to Hollywood and casts scene stealing actress/Mrs. Sacha Baron Cohen Isla Fisher for her first breakout starring role. All the chick flick ingredients are there - fashion, weddings, big city Manhattan lure, a handsome British bachelor - and so the film satisfies all expectations, but doesn't exceed them.

Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) is a single 30-ish New York fashion writer, with an affliction– a love for shopping. Her credit card debt has become so large she's barely hanging on financially. When she loses her job, reality of her insecure lifestyle comes crashing down on, forcing her into a dire situation of finding work, which ironically is as a writer for a financial magazine.

Though she’s a fish out of water in the financial world she finds common ground with her own problems with debt and develops a successful column about credit card financing. Her editor, Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy) is also eligible, good looking, and of similar age and so sparks are ignited between the two. Threatening Rebecca’s escape from economic and personal despair is her deception against her own debt problems and the collection agency which relentlessly tracks her down.

“Confessions” is kinda impressive from a structural screenwriting point of view. Every minor character has a tracked subplot, which ties into Rebecca’s journey. The linking of everything in her life is bullet-proofed and triple-checked for relevance and significant to the plot and character arcs of the film.

First there’s Rebecca, perhaps as a way of distancing herself from her middle class parentage, lives beyond her means and sells out to big bad Manhattan. Her parents – unsung casting of John Goodman and Joan Cusack, represent the conscience in Rebecca’s life, penny-pinchers, who lived humbly their whole lives without ever experiencing the world, like Rebecca has chosen to do.

There’s her personal life, which is a farce, barely floating above mounds of debt. She’s in a wedding party for her best friend and is even forced to make a choice of friendship or career when she can only afford to buy one dress – an ugly bridesmaid gown, or a luxurious dress for her TV interview debut.

There’s her career, which ironically has her preaching not what she practices. Fearing she'll be discovered as a sham, she choses to deceive her boss and her public readers about her own debt problems. The key visual metaphor like her expensive 'green scarf', which she buys at the beginning of the film, becomes her literary pseudonym as well as the symbol of the dual life she’s leading. Like the shameful US mortgage market, we know Rebecca’s house of cards will eventually come crashing down.

Structure doesn’t make a film, but as a basis, the filmmakers are in the right ballpark and set the audience up for a satisfactory cinema experience. As such, “Confessions” has the guts, but misses the heart.

I’d say it’s almost there. Isla Fisher is a welcome new romantic comedy lead. Though I didn’t much care for the slapstick elements, Fisher jettisons her inhibitions and goes for every laugh. Director Hogan sets her free in one marvelous scene on the dance floor when she segues from a tango to an improvised and absurd freeform dance number.

Hugh Dancy, as Rebecca’s romantic interest is watchable, another fresh face for a role which 5-10 years prior would have gone to the excruciating Hugh Grant. It’s an easier role for him to play – essentially the straight man to Rebecca’s silly antics, a man who just needs to look good in a suit and be charming.

It's not saying much but of the chick flicks I’ve seen in the last 3 years – “What Happens in Vegas”, “Sex in the City”, “Bride Wars”, “Fool’s Gold”, “PS: I Love You”, “27 Dresses”, “Definitely Maybe”, “The Nanny Diaries”, “Confession of a Shopaholic” is probably one of the better ones.

"Confessions of a Shopaholic" is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Next Floor

Next Floor (2008) dir. Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Jean Marchand, Mathieu Handfield, Emmanuel Schwartz, Sébastien René


Though only 11mins, Denis Villeneuve's 'Next Floor' stands tall as a magnificent visually stunning allegory to class struggle told with a wickedly dark sense of humour. Villeneuve channels the absurd and surreal metaphors of Luis Bunuel with the visually grandness of Terry Gilliam to create a unique artistic masterpiece."Next Floor" has been gathering awards at various festivals since last year's Cannes Film Festival, and this week opened the Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto.

On the highest floor of a tall building a group of black tie dressed aristocrats have assembled for a pampered meal, complete with formally dressed waitstaff and a three piece orchestra. The meal, gluttonous over-the-top helpings of prepared animals - beef, pork, ham, birds, even a rhinoceros. When signaled to eat the guests proceed to gorge with ravenous carnage, shoveling the food into their mouths like starving hynenas. Suddenly the room starts to shake, and the whole dinner table and its guests literally fall through the floor to the level below. After a brief moment the guests simply brush themselves off keep eating, with the staff quickly running down the stairs to catch up. As more food gets served and the guests continue to eat, the floor is just not strong enough to keep the weight of the table, thus sending them down floor by floor to the bottom.

There's a number of fun influences on display in this piece. Using the building as the metaphor for the plummeting disgrace of these upper class twits perhaps borrows from JG Ballard's novel 'High Rise'. As the dinner table drops a floor lower and lower so does their dignity. With each drop both the individuals and the food they eat becomes drenched in broken plaster, wood, and drywall dust. Yet they keep eating. While most of the tension comes from the waitstaff anticipating when the floor will break, there's a hint that the group might just stop eating, and that the host just might just lose some kind of bet - how long these fools can keep stuffing themselves oblivious to their impending deaths.

Villeneuve tells the story with little dialogue, just the monotonous sounds of the shoveling of food and the scraping of metal on the plates. Villeneuve projects a classical and mannered tone of deadpan humour. No matter what happens to the group, the staff and orchestra continue to play like cold robotic unemotional servants. The music is an aggressive and violent series of heavy drum pounding, like an army going to battle, complimenting the theme of passive aggressive class struggle.

Villeneuve's cast is made up of some marvelously distinct faces. The most interesting is the Maitre D, played by Jean Marchand who is introduced with a magnificent bold close-up lit with texture by DOP Nicolas Bolduc. His bald head and course face and angular facial features shows us supreme professional with resolute determination to serve these guests to the very end.

On a technical level production values sore in the short medium. Villeneuve and his crew were given access to a Heritage building in Montreal set for renovation, and allowed to destroy and demolish at will. And so, despite some carefully placed CG effects, much of the destruction in the film is real. As mentioned, Nicolas Bolduc's cinematography, shot in anamorphic 35mm is a triumph, purposeful underlit with David Fincher-like crispness, showing all the details of Jean-Marc Renaud's gritty art direction. The handsome production is aided by sharp editing and music composition for maximum spectacle and entertainment.

Despite the technical achievement, "Next Floor" is a comedy, a dark satire on the level of Peter Greenaway, Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Marc Caro. But it's perhaps the absurd surrealism of those great Luis Bunuel films, like "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and "The Phantom of Liberty" where the film links up best. But like all influences mentioned above "Next Floor" is a sociologically thought-provoking and wholly unique artistic cinematic statement.

"Next Floor" continues to tour the world. Unfortunately, I'm not sure where and when this will be available to find on DVD. But I'll when a link of some sort becomes available I will post it here

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesay, Raymond Massey


Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

With an opening as staggering as the one on display in this extraordinary Powell/Pressburger production, one is almost distracted by the thought that no picture could ever truly recover from such a dazzling romantic entry point.

How do you go up from up?

Peter Carter (David Niven), a doomed wartime pilot in a flaming airplane spirals to his death and participates in a final conversation with June (Kim Hunter), a honey-voiced dispatcher. As their conversation over the radio waves proceeds, these two souls remain stoic in the face of certain doom, even as they realize what a match made in Heaven they might have been had things been different. He is touched by her spark of life and compassion, and she for his gentle bravery. But as the conversation over the radio waves proceeds and death for Peter is more inevitable than ever before, the time comes for this couple to say their final goodbyes.

How in God’s name can a picture get better than this?

It does, and then some, for “A Matter of Life and Death”, a picture rendered by the immortal Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – a team of filmmakers who, under the corporate moniker of The Archers, hit bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye. Almost every one of their movies (“Black Narcissus” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, “The Red Shoes”, etc.) pushes the boundaries of traditional cinematic storytelling with the kind of ingenuity that has seldom been matched (but is certainly emulated and outright copied).

From a storytelling standpoint, “A Matter of Life and Death” constantly keeps our eyeballs glued to the screen. One moment, we are plunged into a situation wherein we have absolutely no idea where the story can go and the next, we are convinced it’s going one way and our expectations are pleasantly dashed. This happens so often, that when we are actually treated to a moment in the story that we’re convinced is going to go in a particular direction and it actually DOES go there, we’re delighted that it goes into a comfortable, familiar place – not only because it is emotionally the right thing for the movie to do at that point, but because it gives us WHAT we crave at just the right moment.

This is great writing – no doubt about it. The abovementioned opening features our two romantic leads who, as characters, have not even met face to face, but WE see them and WE want them to meet face to face. And hell, they want to meet face to face too, but this is the first few minutes of the movie and our leading man is in a burning plane and he decides to make a suicide jump rather than go down in a crisp. The leading lady, while clearly distraught, has suffered enough and/or witnessed enough suffering during this world war to know that death will almost always be the clear inevitability.

Unfortunately, the original and rather unimaginative American title, “Stairway To Heaven” was enough of a silly tip-off to let us know that the story would occasionally veer into the spiritual/fantastical realm, but even within that context, Powell and Pressburger’s command of the proceedings is so taut that we’re still on the edge of our seats wondering where this could possibly go.

The direction the narrative takes is that our leading man does survive the plunge and does meet the voice on the other end of the radio and, of course, they do fall in love. Alas, the bureaucracy that runs the spirit world on the other side of death has made a dreadful mistake. Peter WAS supposed to die, but someone slipped up. When Death comes a collecting, Peter balks and demands a hearing. His life and the lives of those around him have irrevocably been changed because of this mistake and it seems extremely unfair that he is to be plucked from the physical world after having been given a chance to live longer than he was supposed to.

A trial is needed. However, the trial that proceeds has less to do with a matter of life and death and veers into the political arena of American vs. British superiority. This, of course, is yet another staggering plot element as this captures, quite resolutely, the animosity between the British and American sides during the war on Hitler.

In addition to the magnificent plotting, elegant dialogue and complex characters, “A Matter of Life and Death” is also replete with the Powell and Pressburger visual genius. Not only are images used in thrilling and engaging ways to propel the story forward, but some of the most staggering images and special effects are designed in order to tell the story as well as it is. With a combination of outstanding production design and both optical and compositional genius, this is a picture that not only holds up in a modern context in terms of the effects but also renders many contemporary digital effects to utter shame in comparison.

Last, but certainly not least and what makes this picture one of the greatest of all time is that Powell and Pressburger are not afraid to wear their hearts on their respective creative sleeves. The film is wildly romantic, sentimental and emotionally stunning.

It has heart, and that, if anything is something to be cherished.

Innovation AND heart. It’s an unbeatable combination.

“A Matter of Life and Death” (AKA “Stairway to Heaven”) is available on DVD in a package titled “Michael Powell, The Collector’s Choice” and double-billed with Powell’s “Age of Consent”.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Fugitive

The Fugitive (1992) dir. Andrew Davis
Starring: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Jeroen Krabbe, Joe Pantoliano, Andreas Katsulas


Though a solid and successful action thriller back in its day, seven Oscar nominations including a shot at Best Picture, seems almost unbelievable. Looking back over the last 30 years of Hollywood cinema we can only realistically list “Raider’s of the Lost Ark”, “Jaws” as unencumbered action pictures nominated for the big award.

There's no mistaking "The Fugitive" other than disposable as pure entertainment, with paper thin characters, and no conceivable emotional resonance whatsoever. “The Fugitive” is an action picture. Good on Oscar for choosing this film, shame on them for not using this as precedent to nominate say, “The Dark Knight” or one of the Bourne movies.

The film jumps right into the backstory establishing the murder of Helen Kimble (Sela Ward) and the trial and conviction of her husband Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) for the crime. Despite pleading innocent, claiming it was the work of a one-armed man, Kimble is put onto a truck for prison. When the truck is hit by a train, freeing the other inmates as well himself, Kimble decides to make a run for it thus turning him into a fugitive.

His foil is the cranky and confident U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), a true professional who tracks Kimble down with cold efficiency. Kimble’s no pushover though, he can do the running chases and throw punches with most people, but when it comes to logical brainpower and intellect he’s better than anyone. While evading Chicago’s finest Kimble starts assembling the evidence which will both exonerate him and exact revenge against the murderer of his wife.

Director Andrew Davis, an auteur by no means, directs the film efficiently with an invisible but pragmatic style. Davis uses the environment to his advantage choreographing his action around the Chicago freight tunnels, the El-train, and other popular Chicago landmarks. In hindsight, there’s very little traditional ‘action’ in the film, the electric hasty pace set by Davis’ editors create constant tension, constant movement, thus with the illusion of constant action.

Harrison is just fine as Kimble, not great. It’s an everyman role, a character he will come to exploit over the rest of his 90’s and post millennium career. Ford has his action game face on, but his character is only interesting because he’s Harrison Ford. Tommy Lee Jones, Oscar-winner for his role, is the star. We enjoy Gerard and Jones’ careful in-your-face self-assured style. His mocking of the affable local cops at the escape scene is well-played and his character comes to life shortly after when he confidently ceases reigns of the investigation. There’s no character development, backstory or personal flaws to surmount for Gerard, he’s just a cop doing his job, and Davis’ and Jones’ execution of this modus operandi is fascinating.

David Twohy and Jeb Stuart’s script is well plotted from the screenwriting handbook. The first half has Kimble in escape/reactive mode, operating on instinct. This can only sustain itself for so long, and so when Kimble turns the tables and becomes active and forward thinking in his escape plan, the film finds another gear. While there are many logical question marks (ie. could Kimble not afford a lawyer good enough to track down this evidence during his trial?) we forgive the writer’s dalliances because of the genuine truth in situation put onto the screen.

“The Fugitive” is not the best action/thriller ever made, and so I don’t know why the Academy voters happened to choose this film to receive Oscar acknowledgement, but it shows when the right film comes along, when done right we all love a good genre film. Enjoy.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Away We Go

Away We Go (2009) dir. Sam Mendes
Starring: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Alison Janney, Maggie Gyllenhaal


After four films Sam Mendes, whose career seems to be dipped lower into the overwrought, overly dramatized Scott Rudin-type extravaganzas, “Away We Go” seems a conscious attempt of the man to free himself with an easy-going freeform breezy story.

Mendes employs some new different creative partners more versed in this kind of material, Michel Gondry's DOP Ellen Kuras, Sofia Coppola's editor Sarah Flack, newbie Alex Murdoch as composer, filling in for the usual Thomas Newman. The valiant effort just doesn't work though, and a palpable lack of conflict fails to generate significant emotional investment.

Inspired seemingly by the life experiences of the film’s screenwriter couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, “Away We Go” follows the journey of Burt and Verona (Krasinski and Rudolph) who are six months into their first pregnancy. After they discover Burt’s parents will be moving away to Belgium for 2 years, they're left with a feeling of homelessness. And so, on a whim, they embark on a roadtrip across the country, and even into Canada, to find their new home.

They test out a number of places by visiting some old friends and relatives around the country. No one is the same though since when Burt and Verona last saw them. Verona’s friend in Phoenix turns out to be an obnoxious self-loathing bitch, Burt’s childhood friend in Madison WI is a flaky hippie extremist, and Burt's brother's wife has just left him and their child alone. Each of these steps and misadventures allows them to discover their true home, which fills the void missing in their relationship.

Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski are perhaps cast too well. Rudolph, cute as a button with her freckles and six months prego belly, and Krasinski is basically Jim from The Office, charming as hell, the perfect husband, understanding, witty, good looking and grounded beyond belief.

So what’s wrong with these two? Nothing. And therein lies the problem. There’s very little to discover in Burt and Verona. They are the perfect couple, never bickering (the screenwriters even reference this in the dialogue), seemingly not hard up for money considering the time off work both are taking for the journey, and there's very little at stake. Burt and Verona need to be threatened by some external force, or even an internal personality or emotional conflict to overcome. Egger and Vida make it so easy for these two it becomes a journey of self-indulgence.

And so every quirky adventure seems to distract from the fact there is no emotional foundation for the story. It’s an assembly line of oddball characters introduced at each stop, written with the feeling they've been exported from other scripts: Burt’s wacky aloof parents played by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels, Alison Janney’s loud-mouthed irresponsible crack pot mother character Lily, and Maggie Gyllahaal/Josh Hamilton’s hippie eccentrics are repetitive gag generators. And it's the same joke-punchline execution from ‘the Office”: 1) show someone saying something inappropriate 2) cut to Krasinski/Rudolph silently reacting.

And so without a genuine foundation of character goals, all the Sundance indie-charm jumps out at us as trying too hard. The precious acoustic guitar music, second-hand store costuming, even the scratchy handdrawn poster feels uninspired and played out.

It’s a shame. Krasinski and Rudolph are so likeable, and Melanie Lynsky’s somber pole dancing, which becomes the backdrop for Chris Messina’s character’s dramatic strip club confession is a great scene.

Sam Mendes who so boldly jumped out of the gate in filmmaking seems to have lost his voice. He'll get it back, but "Away We Go" is not it.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

I Knew It Was You

I Knew It was You (2009) dir. Richard Shepard


This film is long overdue. Playing in the “The Picture is Up” Program at this year’s Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto is Richard Shepard's (“The Matador”) ode to John Cazale, one of the great unsung character actors from the 70’s who tragically died after only making five pictures.

If you don’t know who John Cazale is you certainly you know his unforgettable face, and certainly his signature character – Fredo – the hapless older brother of the “Godfather’s” Corleone family. The picture, told in traditional documentary style, assembles some of the great actors and directors who worked with and were influenced by Cazale to produce a reverent portrait of this uniquely talented actor.

At the top Shepard lists the five films he made, “The Godfather”, “The Conversation”, “The Godfather Part II”, “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Deer Hunter” – all FIVE of which were nominated for Best Picture. A stunning track record. Unfortunately Cazale died tragically of lung cancer in 1978 leaving his then girlfriend Meryl Streep heartbroken.

His colleagues such as Al Pacino, Francis Coppola, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman all give wonderful anecdotes about his intense process of acting. Richard Dreyfuss makes an astute comment about Cazale’s dedication as artist. He says, actors always want to play the strong characters, and even when they have to play a weak one, they have a way of overplaying it to show the audience that it’s the character they’re playing. But Cazale had a way of playing weakness in his eyes, a method of ultimate humility to the character at the sacrifice of all ego and pretention.

Younger actors like Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, Philip Seymour Hoffman wax reverentially on the smallest details of his performances which brought life to his characters and his films. A look of the eyes, a movement with his feet, or a gesture with his hands, the power of Cazale's performance seemed to be in the naturalistic details of his movement - like those Brando-esque nuances, moments so memorable for these great actors, which influenced their careers.

Shepard’s film is a must see for fans of cinema, and in particular 70’s cinema, of which Cazale was such an important figure. If you can’t be in Toronto to catch the screening, it was produced by HBO, which means it will likely air sometime on television in the near future. Enjoy.

"I Knew It Was You" plays at Toronto's Worldwide Short Film Festival, which runs June 16-21.

The International (Blu-Ray)

The International (2009) dir. Tom Tykwer
Starring: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Ulrich Thomsen, Armin Mueller-Stahl


On DVD and Blu-Ray last week was Tom Tykwer's "The International", a film which, despite its faults, was a minor crank turning action film. I had hoped this mainstream effort would elevate Tykwer into a higher tier of director status, and though it's not the film I think we all hoped it could be, for much of the second act, it is, and at the very least a worthy rental.

With little exposition, Tykwer parachutes the audience into the middle of a battle to take down a corrupt international bank. When we meet our hero, Interpol Agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), he's about to secure a key whistleblower for the case. Unfortunately, within 24 hours the man dies under mysterious circumstances — just the latest setback after years of toil for Salinger.

As Salinger and his lovely partner, NY District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), obsessively investigate the murder of their informant they get closer than ever to breaking the case. But when the fat cats prove to be untouchable it will take actions beyond the law for Salinger to find justice.

Tykwer makes the best of what he's got here. His images are remarkably pristine. His grey and black colour scheme and high-key, high-resolution frames are as sharp as the bankers' Armani suits. And his traditional, locked-off, classically composed shots reminds us that handheld action isn't all that. Suck it, Bourne!

On the page though it's a run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen corporate thriller script barely rising above an episode of primetime television. With the timely presence of a bank as the megalomaniacal evil empire in this story, metaphors and relevant political commentaries are ripe for the taking. But aside from Ulrich Thomsen's unintentionally funny line, "you control debt, you control everything," it's all about arms dealing, which makes it feel out of date.

Tykwer's investigation and forensic efforts all seem perfunctory actions to get to the set piece everyone will be talking about: the Guggenheim gunfight. And it's a doozy. A slow but tense walking chase through the streets of NY is capped off when Salinger and his colleagues tail an assassin to the Guggenheim Museum. A breathtaking gunfight ensues reminiscent of Michael Mann's L.A. shoot out in "Heat".

Shortly after, with the audience's adrenaline still pumping, Tykwer converts a marvellous second act turn when he forces Salinger to make a life-changing decision, setting up what should be an intense third act. Unfortunately Tykwer's wrap-up is sloppy, cheating the audience from the rip-roaring climax this film deserves.

The International feels like part two of a trilogy. We yearn to know more about our angst-ridden hero, his back-story with Whitman and the mob story that emerges in the third act. While the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, Tykwer's skills and Owen's obsessively intense performance trump its scripts failings.

"The International" is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Saturday, 13 June 2009

The Greatest Game Ever Played

The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005) dir. Bill Paxton
Starring: Shia Lebeouf, Stephen Dillane


Golf hasn't traditionally been the most cinematic of sports. One could probably count the number of golf movies on two hands, and none of them particularly memorable. Other critics’ opinion notwithstanding, I actually dug Robert Redford’s sappy “Legend of Bagger Vance” and there’s of course “Caddyshack”. Disney grabbed onto this fun story from the 1913 US Open, which saw an unknown 20year old amateur battle the world’s best golfers and win, to make a decent golf flick without the usual Disney sport formula.

Shia Lebeouf plays young Francis Ouimet, a Boston kid who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. His boyhood idol was Harry Varden, the legendary British golf champion. When he gets a chance to meet Varden in person as a child, this informs his journey to become a champion golfer. His belligerent immigrant father who reeks of hard work, disapproves vehemently and refuses to acknoledge his son's talent. Despite this, Francis becomes a young star and actually qualifies for the US Open.

In 1913 it's a special tournament which brings the two great British golfers, Varden (Stephen Dillane) and Ted Ray (Stephen Marcus) across the pond to compete against the reigning American US Open champion. While the film is structured around the journey of Ouimet to win the tournament with all that nail biting cinematic sports suspense, "The Greatest Game Ever Played" is a character film, and the parallel journeys of Ouimet, his hero Varden.

Young Shia doesn’t need to hold down the whole film. We’re actually cheering for a number of characters to win. Though it’s a competitive sport golf is not head-to-head conflict but one of man vs. nature. And so it’s fitting writer Mark Frost’s real antagonists are off the course, the upper class twits who continually exploit and express their superiority over the working class golfers. The dramatic 18 hole playoff is between Varden, Ouimet and Ted Ray. Already the crass American champion has been defeated and it’s a battle between three heroes, all competing for their own personal glory.

For Ray and Varden, victory is a vindication against a lifetime of working class discrimination and humiliation, and for Ouimet, his yearning for paternal acceptance. Stephen Dillane, a fine British actor, was never leading man material, but like most of his performances he shows a remarkable ability to internalize his emotions and in this picture, despite the success of his character, the British working class guilt is always etched in his face.

If the name Mark Frost rings a bell, it’s the same Frost who co-created “Twin Peaks”. It’s a completely different ballpark he’s playing in here. Clearly it’s a personal story to him having adapted his own novel into a screenplay, then produced the movie himself and for the most part the final film retains its integrity. Bill Paxton, whose first film, “Frailty” was interesting though mostly flawed, takes the reigns as director. He employs as much visual gymnastics as possible to spitshine the look to maximum gloss. CG effects and macro close-ups give the film an energetic Michael Bay feel, a technique which unfortunately takes the audience out of it’s stuck-up mannered time period.

As so, there-in lies the main problem. A mixture of period detail and new millennium techniques, dialogue and dramatization. Paxton tries to have his cake and eat it too. Every old world thought comes off as out of touch, and the triumph of class comes off as a no-brainer, when in reality Varden and Ouimet’s accomplishments were tremendously empowering. And so Paxton substitutes faithfulness to its time for flashy entertainment. And I can’t really complain about that, we must give Paxton, Frost and even Disney credit for retaining its roots in class and escaping the restrictiveness of period films. Enjoy.

"The Greatest Game Ever Played" is available on Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Pictures Home Entertainment

Friday, 12 June 2009

Fatal Attraction

Fatal Attraction (1986) dir. Adrian Lyne
Starring: Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer, Stuart Pankin


Erotic thrillers were a very popular genre in the late 80’s to early 90’s. In a recent posting I had argued “Basic Instinct” as the quintessential film of the genre, but a recent viewing of Adrian Lyne’s “Fatal Attraction” has changed my mind. Glenn Close is the nails on the chalkboard for Michael Douglas whose brief affair turns into a battle of the sexes for the ages.

Michael Douglas plays Ben Gallagher, a Manhattan big wig lawyer with a beautiful wife Beth (Anne Archer), and their cute daughter Ellen. They seem to have a perfect life together. Which is why when he is hit on by strong-willed professional colleague of his, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), it’s a surprise that he quickly jumps into bed with her. Well, it takes them a while to make it to a bed. After a dinner and some wine, they consummate their affair on Alex’s sink countertop. It’s a rough and dirty scene, so hot that Alex cools herself down while in the act by reaching behind her back to turn on the water faucet.

Their affair lasts only a weekend while unsuspecting Beth is away at her parents’ house. When she returns, Ben goes back to his regular life, assuming Alex would do the same. Unfortunately for Ben, Alex turns needy and obsessive very fast. Ben tries his best to avoid her persistent phone calls, but the more he avoids her the more aggresive she gets. When Alex crosses the line and threatens his family Ben is forced to confess and confront his mistakes. With Ben clearly out of grasp, Alex resorts to violence to punish him.

Adrian Lyne, a great director from the 1980’s, makes a clear effort to control the colour pallette. He opens the film up establishing Gallagher's ‘perfect’ family, their innocence visualized with all white colour scheme. Ben, Beth and Ellen all wear white; the babysitter wears white; even the dog is white. The Gallagher family is perfect – perfect enough to be shattered by what is about to occur.

Lyne came from the class of British commercial directors of the 70's that begat Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and Alan Parker. That school of expressive and stylized lighting and camerwork is on display here as well. Attention is paid to Gallagher's apartment. Lyne uses long lenses to compress space, and selectively uses a limited number of camera setups which gives the feeling of Polanski-like big city clausterphobia

Michael Douglas and Glenn Close are a great pairing, with Close delivering one of the great villainous powerhouse performances. Alex is humanized first as a regular person then transforms into insane psychopathology. At the end of their weekend affair, Dan has to go home to his wife, thus ending the affair, Alex quickly goes from warm to stone-cold crazy bitch. As soon as we see her wrists cut we know we’re in dark thriller territory.

One of the great cinematic moments occurs at the third act turn when Dan walks into his apartment seemingly at his lowest moment, except when he walks in, like nails on a chaulkboard, he can hear Alex's voice speaking to his wife. Lyne continues the scene with some very tense dialogue between the three, and helped by a creepy music sting. Another great moment is the slow reveal of the famous boiling rabbit, which is built up well in advance by some great foreshadowing. After seeing the film twice, you'll never forget her line early in the film "Bring the dog, I love animals... I'm a great cook."

As villainous as Close's performance is, what makes the film great is that Ben is responsible for everything that happens to him. Alex is like the devil who teases Ben with some forbidden fruit, which he enjoys for a short period, then is forced to pay in extremes when he attempts to give it back. Alex though is always made human, even at her most extreme there is sympathy for her.

What would cause Ben, a seemingly intelligent man, who has so much to lose, to strike up an affair so recklessly? This unexplained answer feeds one of the themes of the film – the subjugation of men to women in the business world. Alex enters the picture as the only woman in an office full of macho, suit-wearing, scotch-drinking cigar-smoking ubermen. In one of their last conversations, Dan says to Alex, "I pity you because you're sick". Alex responds, "Why? Because I won't allow you treat me like some slut you can just bang a couple of times and throw in the garbage?" This line expresses the extraordinary complexities of this great genre thriller. Enjoy.

"Fatal Attraction" is now available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Other related postings:
Basic Instinct


Gumshoe (1971) dir. Stephen Frears
Starring: Albert Finney, Frank Finlay, Billie Whitelaw, Janice Rule, Carolyn Seymour


Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

One of the most infuriating things is when a picture cannot decide what it wants to be – throwing in everything (including the kitchen sink) and looking not unlike a ratty patchwork quilt designed to comfort the posteriors of smelly hippies sitting on a cold, rain-soaked, mosquito-breeding patch of earth during some loathsome folk festival. On the other hand, there are patchwork quilts like Stephen Frears’ first feature “Gumshoe” which, like the work of a serious folk artist, is designed specifically for aesthetic scrutiny.

Frears’ long-form debut wanders between loving parodistic homage and straightforward detective drama – a picture that succeeds winningly in spite (or perhaps even because) of its desire to both comment on the form of detective fiction whilst being the thing itself. In this sense, “Gumshoe” comes close to satire, but because it doesn’t have a mean bone in its celluloid body (save for some of the roughing-up the genre demands) and never quite comes close to roasting the folly of humanity over an open fire in the Swift-like fashion we’ve become accustomed to, it doesn’t really earn the right to be called satire either.

It does earn the right, however, to be called one kick-ass picture that will stay with you long after it’s unspooled.

Spinning the tale of clinically depressed schlub Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney) and his obsession to parlay a photographic memory of hardboiled detective movies into his own reality, “Gumshoe” uses every cliché in the Warner-Brothers-RKO book. Of course, so does Eddie, and he’s the one driving the narrative – a narrative where dream gives way to reality.

When we first meet Eddie, he’s undergoing therapy and working in a seedy working class Liverpool nightclub as an emcee, bingo caller and standup comedian. Longing to be part of the world of rumpled Humphrey Bogarts where he can merrily be dispensing wisecracks, justice and indulging in kisses and repartee with a bevy of femme fatales (and potential victims of the evils of higher powers), he’s a man in search of something, anything that can help him escape what a miserable drudge his life has become. Turning 31 years of age, Eddie treats himself to a want ad in the newspaper announcing his services as a gumshoe – a private eye for whom no job is too big, too small or too dangerous. Quicker than he can shoot out a hard-boiled quip, he’s offered a seemingly routine job on as case that eventually extends well beyond its simple surface intrigue.

The convoluted mystery that follows is, like most mysteries, secondary to the world and style of the genre itself. What really sets “Gumshoe” apart is that Eddie’s just a regular Joe and most importantly, his stylized patter and adventures are set against a kitchen sink British backdrop that would definitely be more at home in the Angry Young Man genre of the early 60s where the likes of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Tom Courtenay and Laurence Harvey railed against the injustices of working class life, but seldom found a way to crawl completely out of the muck. Eddie’s character is certainly not unlike those abovementioned anti-heroes. His ex-wife Ellen (Billie Whitelaw), a woman he will always love, left him for his own brother William (Frank Finlay), a shipping magnate who offered the sort of stability Eddie could never provide and, even to the end, has no intention of ever providing.

And, of course, in any great crime drama, betrayal always cuts deeper than anyone involved in the proceedings could ever imagine and in “Gumshoe”, betrayal is laid on thickly indeed, pistol-whipping Eddie constantly in the face.

This is an incredibly strange, beautiful and compelling picture. I’ve avoided detailing too much of the mystery, not so much for the continual surprises it offers, but because there is a political backdrop that, while dated, seems to have as much, if not more resonance in our contemporary world of strife and the gradual discovery of this makes for extremely engaging viewing. Also, Eddie’s family situation is one that figures very prominently in the proceedings and this is an especially poignant touch.

Save for a clunker of a performance from Janice Rule (though she looks great) as a femme fatale, the movie explodes with great acting. Finney fits his role like a glove and frankly, it might be one of his best performances in a very stellar career. As his brother Willie, Frank Finlay is the icy epitome of familial meanness.

Neville Smith’s screenplay bristles with crisp hardboiled narration and dialogue and the characters are full of delightful eccentricities and subtexts that always add to the forward movement of the convoluted, but always compelling narrative. The cinematography by Chris Menges (“The Killing Fields”, “The Mission”) dazzles with its stunning virtuosity. Blending film noir stylings with garish kitchen sink realism, this is perhaps one of the picture’s greatest achievements. The lighting and compositions are in perfect tandem with the strangeness of the screenplay and the two worlds that are often separate, but occasionally blend together, is always a visual wonder to behold. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s weird-ass score that veers from parody to homage to out and out straight up romantic old-Hollywood stylings is occasionally jarring in the wrong ways, but more often than not, hits the notes it needs to.

And last, but certainly not least, threading this altogether is Frears’ bold, yet controlled direction. He clearly loves these characters and this world. And frankly, so do we.

“Gumshoe” is currently available on the Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment DVD label as part of their “Martini Movies” brand, which seems like a convenient way to lump a grab bag of catalogue titles under one banner. Alas, the banner makes no sense whatsoever with respect to the vast majority of films contained under it.