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

Saturday, 31 January 2009

TOP TEN TELEVISION OF 2008


Guest commentary by Matt Reid

I started this annual TV summary a few years ago when I noticed a number of friends sending Top 10 Movies and/or Music lists at year end, so thought I'd throw my hat in the ring. Why so late? Well, it probably means I'm busier and/or lazier this year, but we won't dwell on that (hey, at least it's not February, right?)What qualifies me, you ask? I guess nothing more than the fact that maybe I watch too much TV.

First off, a couple notes & sub-categories for this year's list:

The programs on my list were ones that I (personally) watched in 2008 (some people may have seen them in 2007, but due to my lack of Pay TV, I may have watched later than some of you)

This also means there are shows that aired this year that I haven't seen yet (e.g. Season 3 of Dexter) so I can't put that on until next year's list

Another perennial favourite missing this year: Friday Night Lights (Season 2 was on the 2007 list and Season 3 just started, so it will have to wait for next year)

Best Use of PVR Award:
SNL - nothing is better than skipping through a too-long skit or terrible musical performance to find the truly funny nuggets hiding in there

2009 Top 10 Futures Award (for new shows with promise that aren't quite top 10 worthy yet):
Fringe, Life on Mars

Summer Guilty Pleasure Award:
Swingtown

Hoping That It Can Rebound Award:
Heroes (here's hoping the new volume starting next week will feel Bryan Fuller's returning influence sooner rather than later)

Getting More & More Ridiculous But I Just Can't Stop Watching Award:
Weeds

5-day-a-week Show Award:
Jeopardy

Canadian Shows I enjoyed this year:
jPod, The Rick Mercer Report

I've Been Watching So Long I Have To Give It An Honourable Mention:
Scrubs

Reality Shows That I've Started Watching Again Due To Some Unknown Influence:
The Amazing Race, Survivor

Now that's those are done, here's the actual Top 10:

10. HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER/BIG BANG THEORY
Two more traditional sitcoms that have found their way through my usual 'laugh track snobbery' armour. HIMYM is my favourite of the two and does a great job of providing a good dose of heart amongst all the great laughs (plus, Neil Patrick Harris's performance is 'legen....wait for it.....dary'). Big Bang is also worth the price of admission for Jim Parson's performance alone

9. DAILY SHOW/COLBERT REPORT
Sad as it is, this is the way I keep up on current U.S. events.....it is the best way to get them though: through a prism of sarcasm and mockery. This election year truly brought out the best in both shows and when they teamed up together for a live show on Election Night, the results were incredible....

8. PUSHING DAISIES
Obviously the last year this show will make the list (which is really too bad), but it's fantastical look, top notch cast and quirky murder mysteries made for a great mid-week pleasure. The upside of the cancellation is Bryan Fuller's return to Heroes. [By the same token, I quite enjoyed Eli Stone, which also was a breath of fresh air but not in the Top 10 as it just wasn't as good as Daisies]

7. THE OFFICE
A perennial Top 10 on my list, they've kept it fresh by shaking things up. Toby's shorter than planned vacation, Pam going to school, Ryan returning at the bottom. Amy Ryan's guest turn as Toby's replacement was a favourite of mine. Not as good: the hour long episodes, which feel a little stretched.....

6. EXTRAS
I watched all of Season 2 and the Finale all together at the start of this year. Ricky Gervais has created another classic character to go right up there with David Brent. The decision between selling out and sticking to your principles makes us all wonder what we'd do in that situation....while keeping us laughing, of course

5. BREAKING BAD
High school teacher dying of cancer sells meth to support his family? Come on, everyone will love that! It may sound like a ridiculous concept, but it's executed so well (most notably by Bryan Cranston, who deservedly won an Emmy for this role) that you can't help but be drawn in. I can't wait for a (full) Season 2 (Season 1 was cut short by the strike) to see what happens next....

4. 30 ROCK
My favourite weekly sitcom continues to win awards and critical praise, but can't quite find that broad audience. Maybe that's a good thing and they'll give up on the big-name guest stars, which is my only real complaint about the show. Just keep the focus on the core cast and you've got so much funny, I often need to watch twice

3. FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS
This is one that I'm sure a lot of you saw in 2007....well, I'm not quite lucky enough, so it was a DVD marathon for me. And, wow, I'm glad I did - the struggles of Bret & Jemaine only became funnier when put to music (Murray may just be my favourite though). Getting the album for my iPod allows me to drive along laughing as the Hiphopopotamus takes on the Rhymenoceros...

2. MAD MEN
Brilliant show that got even better in its second season. Now that all the characters have been set up, we're able to dive more into the stories about their fascinating lives. Top notch writing and performances are supported by the gorgeous look of the show and its meticulous attention to details. What's next for the Sterling Cooper group? I can't wait for July to find out.

1. LOST
Back on top again. After changing the entire game in 2007 with the switch to flash forwards, this year took us on an intense adrenaline ride. Mystery? Check. Compelling characters? Check. Action? Check. This show has it all and I can't wait to experience these final two seasons.....which, by the way, I've given up trying to solve all the mysteries. I'm just enjoying the ride now.....

Would love to hear your thoughts on my choices if you so wish to share.....and then we can end up in a vicious, no-holds-barred debate......

Friday, 30 January 2009

UNFAITHFUL


Unfaithful (2002) dir. Adrian Lyne
Starring: Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Olivier Martinez

***1/2

Few people  talk about Adrian Lyne. He reminds me of Peter Weir, a talented and picky director with a slim but memorable output of films. Since the 80’s he’s only made 4 films, and in his later years it’s been at least five years between films: "Indecent Proposal" (1993), "Lolita" (1997), "Unfaithful" (2002).

In this, his latest (yes, he hasn't made a film since 2002), Diane Lane and Richard Gere play Connie and Ed Sumner, seemingly stabile, middle class parents living in the New York suburbs. One day while in Manhattan during a windstorm Connie's knocked off her feet injuring her leg. She is helped by a kindly and impossible handsome Frenchman Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez). Paul’s European charm is intoxicating to Connie and slowly she begins to see more of him until they blossom into a full-fledged affair.

Ed suspects something’s up and starts snooping around. Connie’s conscience starts eating away at her but before she decides to call it off Ed finds her out, which results in a violent confrontation. Lies compound upon other lies the effect of which will test Connie and Ed’s commitment to each other.

Lyne's jumping off point is Claude Charbol’s 1969 thriller, "La Femme infidèle". Not having seen that film I can’t compare the two, but interviews with Lyne suggest it serves more as inspiration than a remake.

Lyne definitely makes “Unfaithful” his own - a deceptively clever spin on his 1986 classic “Fatal Attraction” (click HERE for that review). Both films are simple in plot, pulling suspense from three-way character dilemmas. In “Fatal Attraction” of course it’s the father character that is seduced and has to reconcile his actions with his family. Connie’s situation is much different though. Her conflict is internal. She desires to stop but is addicted to the Paul’s youth, exoticness and sensuality. Richard Gere as ‘the other man’ is against type and his character is deepened more Anne Archer’s other woman character. The third act twists the point of view sharply to Richard Gere. Ed’s actions and lies add a tense Hitchcockian edge which contrasts the soft and romantic beginnings.

Lyne smothers the film with a familiar 1980's soft look. It was a style common to all those British commercial directors in the 80's - Ridley Scott, Alan Parker, Tony Scott. Long lenses, smoke-filled interiors and lush backlighting create an almost fantasy-like look and feel. It works for “Unfaithful”, because Lyne closes off most of the outside world to his characters. Only in the end do the police come into the picture, but even then the decisions made by the characters are internal choices not induced by outside forces.

Lyne still hasn’t made a film since “Unfaithful” and so we just have to wait patiently for him to be inspired and surprise us once again. Enjoy.

“Unfaithful” is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment



Thursday, 29 January 2009

THE AMERICAN RULING CLASS


The American Ruling Class (2008) dir. John Kirby
Documentary

**1/2

A peculiar DVD, John Kirby's self-described "documentary drama musical," a socio-political examination of the American elite from long-time Harper's editor Lewis Lapham. The only comparative film would be Richard Linklater's Waking Life, a series of very dense and esoteric philosophical discussions. The American Ruling Class is live action though, and yet, despite its scholarly approach and rudimentary visuals, it's fun and strangely addictive.

The concept is this: Lapham, playing himself, pretends to hire two recent Yale grads (actually actors) to attempt to penetrate and understand the American ruling class by two means: via the accumulation of wealth and through the pursuit of goodness. Lapham introduces each character to a number of influential pundits, politicians, intellectuals, businessmen and artists who are either part of the ruling class or have opinions on the ruling class.

It's a roll call of fascinating men (seriously, only one woman is interviewed): Robert Altman, James Baker, Pete Seegar, Mike Medavoy, Bill Bradley, Walter Cronkite and plenty more. In between the interviewees waxing on subjects such as unemployment, wages, class and success we're treated to a number of Mark Russell-like political folk tune musical sequences.

Lapham projects an easygoing style, a non-confrontational approach without the overt partisan swagger of other liberal activists turned filmmakers. At times, his congenial nature resembles a grade six teacher educating a group of ten-year olds, yet his language is so full of non-specific ideological exposition it will likely alienate non-intellectuals. Did I learn anything at the end of Lapham's lesson? As much as I retained from my University philosophy classes — very little.



Tuesday, 27 January 2009

CINEMATIC REUNIONS WE'D LIKE TO SEE


At Sundance, North American audiences got to see the reteaming of “Y Tu Mama Tambien” stars Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal once again in “Rudo Y Cursi”. While they're not Bogie and Bacall, 'Y Tu Mama Tambien" gave each actor enough publicity and accolades to grow and develop with bigger and bigger roles. Now eight years later they have reteamed with their “Tambien” co-writer Carlos Cuaron. “Rudo Y Cursi” is one the highest grossing films in Mexico right now.

This brings up the question. What other creative reunions of cinema would we like to see?

Ewan McGregor/Danny Boyle
Danny Boyle’s first three films starred Ewan McGregor (including the massive hit “Trainspotting”). But when Leonardo Di Caprio trumped McGregor’s casting in “The Beach” it produced a rift in their working relationship that hasn’t been mended. The careers of both men have grown enormously and it’s time we saw them bury the hatchet and work together again.

Robert De Niro/Martin Scorsese
Of course, De Niro was Scorsese’s go-to actor for 20+ years. They made 8 films together – 3 in the 70’s, 2 in the 8o’s and 3 in the 90’s. The last film we saw them together was 1995’s “Casino”, that’s over 13 years ago. De Niro was almost cast as Queenan in “The Departed”, but opted to direct “The Good Shepherd” instead. While there’s no broken relationship here we desperately need a new De Niro/Scorsese movie before these guys get too old.

Michael Keaton/Tim Burton
In the 80’s Tim Burton’s alter-ego was Michael Keaton. They made three films together, “Beetlejuice”, “Batman” and “Batman Returns”. Since then its only been Johnny Depp. Burton didn’t even find a cameo for Keaton in “Mars Attacks”! What gives?

Oliver Stone/Robert Richardson
One the most influential collaborations behind the camera are the great films of Oliver Stone shot by DOP Robert Richardson. From Salvador to Platoon to Born on the Fourth of July to JFK to Nixon, Richardson with Stone created an ever evolving body of highly creative work. Their last film together was the abominable “U-Turn”. Perhaps this experience spoiled their creative relationship. According to the IMDB they are working together on “Pinkville”, but who knows if that will come to fruition.

Sam Raimi/The Coen Bros
In the early 80’s Sam Raimi hired Joel Coen as an assistant editor for “The Evil Dead”. Though their working relationship resulted in only two more collaborations, Sam Raimi’s 1985 comedy “Crimewave” (co¬-written by the Coen Bros) and the Coens’ “Hudsucker Proxy” (co-written by Raimi) they still share a kinship is their distinct visual humour. Since the careers of all three filmmakers have exploded since the 80's, surely it wouldn’t take much to greenlight a “Raimi/Coen Bros” production?

John Woo/Chow Yun-Fat
A reteaming of the gunplay masters John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat almost happened with John Woo’s period epic “Red Cliff”. The actor was cast but dropped out after production started, his co-star in “Hard Boiled” Tony Leung took his place, but the film never found a theatrical release in the U.S. In any case, 'Red Cliff" wasn't the traditional Hong Kong gunplay film we'd want see the two make again. Just one more double-gun slo-mo blood ballet please?

Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell
While a Coen Bros/Sam Raimi reunion may be far-fetched we badly need to see Sam Raimi cast Bruce Campbell in a leading role again. Of course we saw Campbell in cameo roles in each of the Spider-man films but a lead role is badly needed. Whether or not it’s “Evil Dead 4”. Raimi needs to slow some more love to “The Chin”.

Kate Winslet/Melanie Lynskey
Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” introduced to the world Kate Winslet, a marvelous performance as the crazed psychopathic teenager Juliet Hume. Next to Winslet’s performance is Melanie Lynskey’s less glamourous but equally stunning portrayal of Pauline Parker. Multiple Oscar noms later Kate Winslet is one of the most sought after actresses in the world. Quietly Melanie Lynskey has had an ever growing career. Lay audiences would know her most from TV’s “Two and a Half Men”, but also fine supporting roles in “Sweet Home Alabama”, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Shattered Glass”. A key role in Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming “The Informant” might push her more into the public consciousness.

Other interesting re-unifications to salivate to could also include:

James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger
Not “True Lies 2” and not another “Terminator” film. A cameo in “Avator” please?

David Lynch and Dennis Hopper
Remember Hopper’s mesmerizing and career-saving performance as the crazed oxygen-mask-wearing foul-mouthed Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet”? Come David, get Dennis on the horn.

Woody Allen/Gordon Willis
Like the Stone/Richardson relationship DOP Gordon Willis’ work with Woody Allen was magical (“Annie Hall”, “Manhattan”, “Purple Rose of Cairo”). Problem is Willis hasn’t worked on a feature since 1997. Throw in Diane Keaton and its marketing gold!

Jean-Luc Godard/Anna Karina
Both are still alive. One last kick at the can, perhaps with Jean-Paul Belmondo, could produce another “Ginger and Fred” - Fellini's 80's reunion film with Giulietta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni?

Paul Thomas Anderson/Mark Wahlberg
One great film together is not enough for these two. PT likes to keep his family together. Why not Mark Wahlberg?

Monday, 26 January 2009

LAKEVIEW TERRACE


Lakeview Terrace (2008) dir. Neil LaBute
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington

**1/2

When neighbours go bad is the theme of “Lakeview Terrace”. Neil LaBute’s take on a familiar story has moments of the thought-provoking storytelling we expect from the director, but a couple of wrong turns lumps the film into the standard throwaway thriller genre.

Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington play Chris and Lisa Mattson, an interracial couple who moves into a middle-to-upper class Los Angeles suburb. Sucks to be them because from the moment they drive into their driveway they get dirty looks from their neighbour and curmudgeon of all curmudgeons, Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson). Abel is a single parent to two young kids and since his wife left him years ago it's left him in a really really bad mood.

Abel breaks Chris’ balls with some unsettling psychological torture. He introduces himself to Chris by pretending to carjack him on his driveway and later that day installs some blinding security lights to shine in their bedroom. Chris nervously shakes it off as good ol’ neighbourly eccentricities. Since Abel is a cop for a brief moment Chris feels safe. But as the days and weeks go by it’s clear Abel has a fundamental hatred of them. His behaviour escalates to more than mere nuisance. Suddenly Chris and Lisa find their life in danger.

Neil Labute works best when exploring the dark side of ordinary characters. Think about the heinous psychological games of his monstrous Chad character in “In the Company of Men” or Rachel Weisz’s manipulative Evelyn in “The Shape of Things”. Abel Turner fits that mold. 

The fact that Samuel L. Jackson is black and someone who resents the Mattson’s interracial marriage is meant to twist some kind of expectation. It reads as obvious manipulation and the portrayal of Lisa’s father as an uptight upper class conservative reeks of that same overly sophisticated portrayal of Sidney Poitier’s character in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. The fact is the Mattson’s are saintly as hell, and lacking in any edge. So the Turner vs. Mattson battle is a dichotomized good vs. evil characterization with grey areas left unexploited.

If the writers or Labute imbued any goodness or goodwill in Abel Turner the film could have been more “The House of Sand and Fog” and less “Pacific Heights” or “Single White Female.” We expect LaBute to subvert around our expectations and when that doesn't happen here, it becomes even more frustrating.

And like most thrillers, you’ve seen the trailer you’ve unfortunately seen the entire film.

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


Watch the trailer for Lakeview Terrace - Watch more Entertainment

Sunday, 25 January 2009

2008 OSCAR NOMINATIONS


It’s one of the most exciting times of the Hollywood calendar. Having just got back from Sundance, watching a new crop of great films, I got home and immediately put my head back into last year’s films. The Golden Globes were handed out two weeks ago, and, like usual, those results will be discarded from everyone’s memory and trumped by the awards that actually count, the Oscars. Click HERE for the full, easy to read list.

Here’s some general impressions:

Gran Torino

Perhaps the most notable omission was “Gran Torino”. The film received no nominations, a surprise considering the box office success it’s had over the past few days and that the Academy loves Clint Eastwood. Ironically Clint’s lesser film “Changeling” received three nominations (Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction). Most likely Eastwood’s Best Acting nod was taken by dark horse Richard Jenkins. Personally I have no complaint with these omissions.

Michael Shannon

The best part of “Revolutionary Road” was Michael Shannon’s entrance at the midway point of the film. The nomination is not only well-deserved, it also brings much needed recognition to one of the best character actors working today. His performances in “Bug”, “Shotgun Stories”, “World Trade Center” and almost anything he does steals his films. Although he has no chance to win against Heath Ledger the nomination is as good as a win for Shannon.

The Wrestler

The biggest disappoint for me personally is the lack of recognition of “The Wrestler”. It’s the most honest and truthful film in a long time. Of course Mickey Rourke’s powerful performance is the strongest part of the film and should be favoured to win, but Hollywood likes comeback stories, and I think Darren Aronofsky’s transformation as director is as compelling as anything behind the scenes of this film.

Frozen River

The inclusion of “Frozen River” on a some key critics' best-of lists helped this Sundance success story score some two huge nominations (Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay). Somewhere Sally Hawkins is cursing the name of Melissa Leo. I haven’t actually seen the film, but now I will definitely seek this one out.

Waltz With Bashir

The fantastic and powerful animated war film (for adults, not kids) ‘Waltz With Bashir’, scored a Best Foreign Language Film nod – yeah! Curiously it didn’t get a nomination for Best Animated Film. Really, who thinks “Bolt” is a better film than ‘Waltz With Bashir’???

Roger Deakins

Eighth time a charm? One of the best cinematographers working today just scored his eighth nomination. He has never won yet. Unfortunately his work on ‘The Reader’ is not his finest work. Expect Anthony Dot Mantle or Wally Pfister to take this one.

Best Directors

This year each Best Picture nomination was matched by a Best Director nomination. So there’s no sour grapes from a ‘wildcard’ addition. And thankfully we won’t have to suffer from that repetitive griping, ‘What? Did the movie direct itself?”

Stephen Daldry

Stephen Daldry (‘The Reader’) has made three feature films and received a Best Director nomination for each film. (‘Billy Elliott’ and ‘The Hours’ are the others).

Werner Herzog

Veteran maverick Werner Herzog scores his first Oscar nomination (Best Documentary ‘Encounters at the End of the World’). Though ‘Man on Wire’ is a better film the thought of Herzog on the stage on Oscar is too exciting not to cheer for him.

Bruce Springsteen

No Boss?? What happened here??


Saturday, 24 January 2009

SUNDANCE REPORT #15: More Sundance Shorts


Abbie Cancelled (2009) dir. Jessica Burnstein, Robbie Norris
Live Action Short

***1/2

Amir and Amanda are in the car on their way to a dinner party when they get a call from their friend Abbie that she has cancelled at the last minute. The party continues as a foursome, a night of squirm-inducing awkwardness. It all makes for a surprising astute situational comedy. Norris and Burnstein capture the common early midlife crisis of late twenty-something middle class yuppies. Amanda's career envy of Karen makes for some fine awkward comedy as well as an engaging emotional revelation from Karen. Meanwhile Grayson and Amir, bond like bros while sniffing gasoline together in the basement. The mix of absurd and situational realism make ‘Abbie Cancelled’ a fine example of the short film medium.



Copper on the Chopping Block (2009) dir. Kai Orion
Live Action Short

**

A man lives alone in the woods. He calls his girlfriend who doesn’t answer, he kills his cat with some poison in the sauna, he chops some wood, he’s drinks beer, he chops some wood again, he lights firecrackers. Twelve minutes later these banal actions lead up to a violent action. Despite giving away little information, “Copper on the Chopping” is an ultimately predictable effort. Predictable in the sense that it falls into the common trappings for short films – audience unfriendly naval gazing.



Little Canyon (2009) dir. Olivia Silver
Live Action Short

**1/2

A newly separated father and his three kids drive away from their home to a new life in Los Angeles. From the point of view of the youngest daughter we feel the pain of the disillusionment of a family. Writer/Director Silver shows competence with storytelling and a reasonable assured visual style. She pulls some natural and believable performances from her young actors, especially young Tessa Allen. Unfortunately it’s a subject that doesn’t fit the short film format. There’s just not enough time to find the truth with the characters. Silver likely has a feature film version of this story in her head, and the pacing of her short reflects this. While it’s a decent calling card, it makes for a mostly dreary short film.

Friday, 23 January 2009

SUNDANCE REPORT #14: Good Hair


Good Hair (2009) dir. Jeff Stilson
Documentary

***

Chris Rock co-writes, produces and stars in this insightful and entertaining documentary about black women’s hair. Really? Can this provide enough material for a feature length documentary? For sure.

According to the interviewees every black woman in America, whether it’s celebrities, or regular working class gals, will tell you they spend a fortune on their hair. As a result a very profitable culture of hair has developed in the African-American community. Chris Rock’s documentary sources out the products, personalities and politics of the American-American hair industry.

Director Stilson”s camera follows Rock around the world in search of the answers to his questions. How big is this industry? To demonstrate America’s obsession with hair Rock takes us to the annual Hair Styling Battle in Atlanta GA – a garish and corny Super Bowl of black hair stylists. We get to see several of the top performers prepare and execute their lavish broadway style production numbers. It’s all laughably absurd.

Rock also discusses the culture of weaves, the elaborate form of wigs – a formerly discreet form of hairstyling which only recently has been publicly talked about by women. The global phenomenon is explored as Rock travels to India to find where the hair from these weaves actually comes from. The contrast between the Hindu ritual of shaving one’s head and where there hair actually goes to and how much it costs is shocking.

Ironically, at times Chris Rock himself feels like the crutch of the film. Having to wing most of his gags on the spot with the fly-on-the-wall camera rolling produces many dead jokes. His voiceover (of course, he’s not a professional VO man) feels unncesssary, telling us we already iknow. I wonder how the film would played without Rock in it? Just as good, if not better actually.

The strength of the film are the characters Rock introduces us to. The barbershop scenes zing with honest naturalism. Of course, an African American barbershop is historically a place of social congregation. The real honest opinions come out with the effervescence and zeal of a speaker’s corner podium.

The topic of hairdos provides an entry point to examine a vibrant culture and style many of us outside of the community only see on sitcoms and movies. Enjoy.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

SUNDANCE REPORT #13: Black Dynamite


Black Lightning (2009) dir. Scott Sanders
Starring: Michael Jai White

***1/2

In the tradition of “Grindhouse” Scott Sanders delivers his own timecapsule of 1970’s Blaxsploitation. Action and self-reflexive camp provide us of absurd post-modern instant classic.

For those unfamiliar with ‘Blaxsploitation’, it refers to a decade of low budget action films made for African-American audiences. From Shaft to Superfly to Black Caesar, the films featured the same plot, a tough-talking urban private detective or undercover cop solving crimes involving pimps, drugs or other inner city vices. Watching the films today the low budget aesthetic provides as much unintentional humour as the thrills they were intended for.

Michael Jai White plays Black Dynamite a former government agent who now protects his urban community from crime. When his beloved younger brother dies under suspicious circumstances, Dynamite goes on investigation and rampage of revenge from the inner city all the way to… well, I can’t spoil anything yet, but it’s an over-the-top fun action/comedy extravaganza.

Every minute detail of these films are recreated to replicate the 70’s blaxsploitation experience – gratuitous nudity (Dynamite is first seen in bed with three nude gals, (one black, one white, one asian), poorly written dialogue delivered with utmost seriousness, poor production qualities, including visible boom mics and bad lighting, classic 70’s art direction including atrocious wallpaper and stucco ceilings, split screens and of course a funktastic bouncing soundtrack.

At 90mins it actually feels too long. Inevitably the camp start to lose some gas. It would be a stronger film if it were 10 mins shorter.

It's minor snag, because at Sundance “Black Dynamite” is one of the great success stories (Sony Picture Classics picked up the film for a rare seven figure advance). Most of the credit should go to its star, Michael Jai White who also co-wrote and co-produced this passion project. White holds the picture with great confidence, his kung-fu is bad-ass and he shows great comic timing.

I think any fan of genre action cinema has been disappointed with the career of Michael Jai White. Its been ten years since “Spawn” and the talents of the star have been grossly under-realized. From its Sundance reception and the revitalization of White’s career “Black Dynamite” will certainly please audiences in its eventual release. You dig?




SUNDANCE REPORT #12: Endgame


Endgame (2009) dir. Pete Travis
Starring: Jonny Lee Miller, Chiwetel Ejiofor, William Hurt

**

The four-year political fight to free Nelson Mandela and end Apartheid gets the trendy intelli-political cinematic treatment in Pete Travis’s “Endgame”. The “Syriana” style template is applied to this pivotal moment in world history resulting in a surprising unoriginal lesser version of a Stephan Gaghan film.

It’s the late 80’s in South Africa, Apartheid is in full effect and a time when the African National Congress (ANC) is considered a terrorist organization by the government. Riots and violent demonstrations occur in protest of the racist regime. Jonny Lee Miller, a representative of South African business interests, attempts to assemble a meeting with the Afrikaner elite and the ANC leader Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in hopes negotiating a peaceful unofficial ceasefire. Secret deals, backstabbing and covert negotiating of everyone’s personal self-interests trump the needs of the nation. 

There’s something manipulative about the self-conscious 'realist' style applied to this story. Before the abominable “Vantage Point” Pete Travis made a name for himself directing his “Bloody Sunday” companion piece “Omagh” – a documentary-like recreation of the infamous Irish tragedy. Recycling this method for the story of the liberation of South Africa feels like obvious style over substance.

The Stephen Gaghan Traffic/Syriana style casts such a large shadow the film we get lost in the actual plotting. For 90mins we get a repetitive series of quiet phone conversations, wiretapping and quiet political whispering. Like “Syriana” which purposely held information in order to confuse the audience to actual motivations, actions and reactions of the political players, “Endgame” uses the exact same tools, but to lesser effect.

Travis bombards us with ultra-tight handheld close-ups, dramatic pauses and lingering silent reaction shots to punctuate drama which just isn’t there. Even Martin Phipps' quiet pulsating beats and ambient undercurrents exactly like Alexandre Desplat’s “Syriana” score. So much so it borders on theft.

All of these spy games seem to be rendered moot when, in the final act, F.W. De Klerk takes power and becomes the deux ex machina which cuts through all of the political sneaking around from the previous 90mins. In the end, I can only think, what just happened, who did what and why? An emotional ending is wasted on a subpar film.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

SUNDANCE REPORT #11: Bronson


Bronson (2009) dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance, Kelly Adams, Amanda Burton

***1/2

One of the wildest, most idiosyncratic and uniquely cinematic films in recent memory has to be Sundance fave, “Bronson”. Anyone familiar with Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s muscular crime films, “The Pusher Trilogy” will recognize his provocative style. Bronson’s joyous sense of anarchy stands up to the chaos of “Fight Club” and the synaptic stimulation of “Natural Born Killers”.

Michael Peterson, who coined his own alternate name, Charles Bronson, is Britain’s most famous criminal. An infamous celebrity manufactured by Bronson himself through a life of almost impossibly violent behaviour. He loves violence, loves civil disobedience, loves fighting people. He marvels at his fists like deadly weapons. From this reputation as the most violent man in Britain Bronson has been lived 30 of his 34 prison years in solitary confinement.

Refn’s brilliant film tells Bronson’s story from the fractured and fantastical point of view of Bronson himself. The film opens with the bald headed, curly-moustached man (brilliantly played by Tom Hardy) talking to a tuxedo-clad audience. This is the mind of Bronson telling the highlights of his story like a narrated three-ring circus. We see his violent working class childhood segue into his first stint in jail, his eventual release, a shortlived relationship with a woman, his stint in a mental hospital, his escape and then the rest of the bloodcurdling fights which led to his solitary incarceration.

Refn’s inspired direction has the same anarchic cinematic satirical madness of “A Clockwork Orange”. Bronson has the same addiction to violence as Clockwork’s Alex DeLarge, and like Kubrick’s movie Refn makes no apologies for aggrandizing Bronson’s reprehensible behaviour.

Refn directs the film with a language equal to the brawny self-confidence and swagger of Bronson himself. Refn uses a wild mix of music selections to compliment the muscular visuals. He uses Wagner’s dramatically gothic ‘Prelude to Parsifal' in an early prison scene just because. His bold and bass pumping synth pieces from the 80’s represent the cutting edge of the decade’s pop culture. Bronson is hip, really hip.

The film also makes no attempt to be narratively coherent, Refn moves in and out of dream sequences, advances in time without the need for explanation. Scenes exist not to move the story forward but to express Bronson's state of mind. Refn’s cinematic tools consists of bold wide angle lenses, dark and bloody textured art direction, a gritty super 16mm film format, elegant slo-motion and statuesque framing of Bronson’s posturing.

Refn’s carefree attitude to the social irresponsibility of celebrating and mythologizing the violent life of a heinous criminal adds to the film’s distinct humour. Great films push buttons, and Refn’s buttons hit hard like a solid fist to the face. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

SUNDANCE REPORT #10: The Vicious Kind


The Vicious Kind (2009) dir. Lee Toland Krieger
Starring: Adam Scott, Brittany Snow, Alex Frost, J.K. Simmons

**

Lee Toland Krieger’s slice of rural melancholy is a mix of David Gordon Green and Neil La Bute. In fact, Neil La Bute is credited as executive producer. Unfortunately unlike La Bute’s or Green’s films this intimate four-hander fails to find the truth in character, instead relying of Hollywood characterizations to entertain us.

Krieger’s protagonist is a petulant son-of-a-bitch Caleb (Adam Scott) who is introduced with an extreme misogynist hatred of women. It’s clear he’s had women troubles in life - from the death of his mother to his former girlfriend who cheated on him. As a result he’s fallen back into a funk of self-destruction and self-loathing.

Enter Caleb’s brother Peter (Alex Frost) who is returning home from college with his new girlfriend Emma (Brittany). Immediately Caleb is confrontational with the poor girl. Peter doesn’t seem too concerned, ‘oh, it’s just Caleb, he’s like that’. Emma doesn’t seem to care too much when Caleb calls her a whore and physically manhandles her in a grocery store. Emma’s cool with this behaviour because she’s actually falling in love with him and he with her. Sexual tension lead up to events which resolve deep-rooted family conflict.

Krieger’s portrayal of Caleb as an anti-hero who smokes and drinks and gets away with his loathsome behaviour rings as false or at least some kind of out of place Tennessee Williams character. In fact the prevalence of Krieger’s smoking is so in our faces it’s distracting. Caleb is shot to look very cool smoking. Krieger uses slo-mo close-ups of his zippo lighting up, and often has actor Adam Scott speaking his dialogue with the obligatory cig dangling from his mouth. I think the film is supposed to take place in the 80’s, which seems to be an arbitrary explanation for all the smoking.

We would never notice this superfluous bit of actors’ business if the dilemmas, actions and reactions of the characters rang true. Unfortunately they don’t. There’s an aggravating theatrical quality to the story and conflict. We’re meant to believe that Emma would fall in love with Caleb because he of his Marlon Brando/Stanley Kowalski bravado. Girls like the bad boys right?

All real world logic is disregarded in the orchestration of the final act. Warning, spoilers ahead….After Emma and Peter fail to lose their virginity with each other, Emma retreats to smoking (again!) outside, where Caleb seems to sense Emma’s call for help. He arrives at the house with no explanation. Their passion ignites and they have maddening wall pounding sex in the spare bedroom without anyone noticing.

I kept thinking of films like "The Wrestler", "Happy Go Lucky" and even "Humpday" which are bringing a fresh sense of realism to familiar stories and characters. "The Vicious Kind" feels strangely out of touch with reality.


SUNDANCE REPORT #9: The Mystery Team


The Mystery Team (2009) dir. Dan Eckman
Starring: Donald Glover, DC Pierson, Dominic Dierkes

**

It’s a great success story for this trio of ambitious online sketch comedians known as ‘Derrick Comedy Group'. The trio of actors listed above and their director Dan Eckman have for four years been building a viral fan base via a series of youtubed comedy short films. On the heels of this success they have delivered their first feature to Sundance, screened last night in the Park City at Midnight Program.

Inspired by those kids vs. adults kids flicks of the 80’s (anyone remember “Cloak and Dagger” with Henry Thomas and Dabney Coleman?), “The Mystery Team” tells the story of a trio of teenagers who solve ‘mysteries’ around town for their local community. There’s Jason the ‘master of disguise’ (Donald Glover), Charlie ‘the strong man’ (Dominic Dierke), and Duncan 'the boy genius’ (DC Pierson). While this was a cute endeavour when they were kids, as teenagers they are seen by their peers as pathetic losers. Their latest mystery is their most challenging and dangerous, one which will test their dedication to their hobby and their bond of friendship.

It’s a very difficult film to crack. Using John Williams-esque music stings, Spielbergian camerawork, soft pro-mist filtered frames and heightened noir/gumshoe performances the actions of the kids are seen through the filter of their fantasy bubble of self-reflexive irony. Unfortunately everything comes off more like a corny parody of the Hardy Boys, or “Ace Ventura” without Jim Carrey.

Standing out amongst the “Goonies” wholesomeness are a number of ‘fucks’ and penis and pussy gags, which made me think, who is the audience for this film? This raunchiness combined with the TV sitcom ‘set-up and deliver’ comic timing are like oil and water. Is this an adult comedy or a kids flick?

The comedy troop hangs its hat on the same simple joke for too long before delivering the real laughs. At one point the trio enter a strip club and engage in a lengthy sequence of nudity and graphic sex jokes, including a farting milk fetish. Finally some edge we expect from a Midnight screening.

What started off as insufferable in the first half becomes mildly tolerable in the second. A number of gutbuster laughs, specifically Donald’s drunken party experience, and his burgeoning romantic relationship score some points. It’s all a little too late though.

“The Mystery Team” suffers from the same problems as Reno 911 and those Broken Lizard Films. There’s clearly some cohesive talent within the group, unfortunately too many misses than hits. Therein lies the dilemma of sketch comedy in the feature film medium – that unquantifiable cinematic element which the big screen demands and what makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.


SUNDANCE REPORT #8: Big Fan


Big Fan (2009) dir. Robert Siegel
Starring: Patton Oswald, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Rapaport

***

It’s great timing for writer/director Robert Siegel. If you didn’t recognize his name, he’s the red hot talented scribe of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”. Hot off the heals of that film, Siegel has made his directorial debut, a low budget 70’s style loner film/black comedy about an obsessed NY Giants football fan. Like “The Wrestler” honest characterizations trump the pitfalls of other lesser films of its ilk.

Patton Oswald is Paul Aufiero, a parking lot ticket checker who lives in his mom’s basement. While his friends have all moved on life, gotten careers, marriage etc, Paul appears to lead a stunted existence. His only respite are his beloved NY Giants. His Sunday night ritual after watching the game is to phone in to his favourite call-in show to gloat and insult his crosstown rivals the Philadelphia Eagles. Aufiero is so obsessed he meticulously writes down a word-for-word transcript before making his call.

One night Paul and his buddy Sal (Kevin Corrigan) happen to see their idol, QB Quantrell Bishop, pumping gas. The superfans proceed to follow him and his pals across town and into a strip club. After a couple of pathetic attempts to make contact Aufiero gets the balls to say hi. Unfortunately an inappropriate comment causes Bishop to snap and give Paul a violent beat down sending him to hospital. When Bishop is suspended for the incident and the Giants start losing Paul has to make a number of crucial decisions about his team and his life.

Siegel is not shy about his influences. In his Q&A Siegel unabashedly said he wanted to make a “Martin Scorsese’ film. Paul Aufiero certainly fits in with Scorsese’s obsessive loners. He’s part Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), part Rupert Pupkin (King of Comedy). Like Pupkin, Aufiero’s basement serves as his bomb shelter of private secrets. A place where he lives out his fantasy life without ridicule (except maybe by mom).

Siegel refused to say what the budget on the film was, but it was low. Considering his limitations it’s a film of reasonably professional quality. If he’s aspiring for the greats, it’s no surprise Siegel's direction is auteur-like, some long takes, untraditional coverage, but all very modest and not excessive - think two other Scorsese-influenced debuts, "Hard Eight”, or “Buffalo 66”.

The major crutch on the film is the second act which has Aufiero in the hospital and his family and police urging him to take legal action against Bishop. At this point we're in Paul’s mind but we know his decision. So without action or narrative to drive the act, it stalls. Fortunately Siegel’s finale is a stunner. Siegel sets up expectations and lets his hero take action and stand up for the team he loves.

It’s a marvellously shot and edited sequence, creating some unbearable and uncomfortable tension. This finale echoes Vincent’s finale confrontation in “Buffalo 66”. The apperance of Michael Rapaport for the last scene is inspired casting. He sells the character of Aufiero’s douchebag nemesis in a brief but memorable performance.

Like his characterization of Mickey Rourke’s character in “The Wrestler” Siegel’s writing stays true to his character. Aufiero’s journey is not about growing up, moving out of his basement or achieving success, it’s about coming grips with who he is, and supporting the team he loves through thick and thin.

Though it’s not “The Wrestler”, the two films make for a decent one-two punch for Siegel, a new name to watch out for in American auteur cinema. Enjoy.

SUNDANCE REPORT #7: In the Loop


In the Loop (2009) dir. Armando Iannucci
Starring: Tom Hollander, Peter Capaldi, James Gandolfini, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Clumsky

****

I must be lucky here at my first year in Sundance, it’s been great film after great film. One of the best is Armando Iannucci’s uproariously funny political satire – “In the Loop” Inevitable comparisons to “Dr. Stangelove” will be made, and it would not be unfounded. Razor sharp dialogue anchor this one-of-a-kind comic masterpiece.

The film opens on Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the UK Prime Minister’s Director of Communications. When he hears the Minister of International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander,) sound off on a radio program that war in the Middle East is ‘unforseeable’ the PR snafu sets off a shit storm from the UK to Washington. Tucker goes into spin control and tries to put out the fire before the world catches on that the UK might want a war.

Iannucci revels in taking the piss out of everyone and everything. Nobody is out of bounds Tom Hollander brilliantly plays his Minister of International Development character like neurotic affable boob and his profane exchanges of ass-stripping insults with Peter Capaldi are almost Shakespearean in it’s elaborate verbology.

Iannucci sticks his daggers into both the American political culture as much as the British (the Canadians and the French even get a sharp stab). One of the great sequences involves a trip to Washington by Foster and his aide. The duo marvel at the extent of security given to their politicians. Their motorcade ride to the Capitol gives us more than a few hilarious zingers.

Iannucci’s visual style would appear to put the film in the ‘Stephen Gaghan’ genre of political thrillers. Handheld, documentary like camerawork compliments well the wild comic absurdity which Iannucci bombards us with unrelenting force. At times the film feels like ‘The Office’ meets ‘Syriana’ – an ambitious combination to merge but pulled off with great confidence and comedic chutzpah.

Though this is Iannucci’s first feature he honed his comic style in a number of classic British comedy series. In fact “In the Loop” grew out his acclaimed 2005 series, ‘The Thick of It”, so it’s no surprise the comic timing, and assured satirical tone is pitch perfect. The manic complexities of the dozen or so character goals never get bogged down with overplotting. And all the actors riff and roll with one another like a well-oiled machine.

If one scene could sum up the film’s satirical brilliance, it’s the absurdly funny sequence which has James Gandolfini’s brash military general character calculating the potential loss of life from an Iraq war using a child’s talking calculator – a clever nod to George C. Scott’s great speech in the war room in “Dr. Strangelove”.

“In the Loop” is one of the funniest films in a very long while.

Monday, 19 January 2009

SUNDANCE REPORT #6: Sergio


Sergio (2009) dir. Greg Barker
Documentary

****

I can remember vividly the Al Queda bombing of the UN building in Iraq in 2003. The significance of the event other than the heinous act of terrorism was the death of Iraq’s UN Special Representative of the Secretary General. Before Sundance, unfortunately I couldn’t remember his name, but after seeing Greg Barker’s phenomenal film, no one will ever forget Sergio Vieira de Mello.

We know this is no ordinary political figure when two of the first interviewees we see are Tony Blair and Condelezza Rice. They are just two of the dozens of family and professional colleagues of Sergio Vieira de Mello who describe to us his professional life and career.

De Mello is described by his colleagues as a combination of James Bond and Robert Kennedy, an impossibly handsome man, fluently charismatic in at least four languages and a man who could walk into any conflict anywhere in the world and take control – what’s described as the UN’s ‘goto guy. Before his Iraqi mission Sergio had already proven his dedication to peace in a number of war torn countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sudan and East Timor. Though he opposed the U.S. War in Iraq when asked to lead the UN movement there Sergio felt compelled to go. As we all know Sergio was tragically killed in that car bomb which struck the UN headquarters in 2003.

Barker takes a two-pronged approach to tell Sergio’s story. It’s important to know the context of this man, why he was in Iraq and the big picture tragedy of the event. But Barker is clever to intercut Sergio’s life history with the minute-by-minute detailing of the bombing of Aug 19, 2003. Like some of the best films of Errol Morris, and even last year’s great doc thriller “Man on Wire” Barker's procedural recreations are, and sorry for mixing metaphors, page-turning. Barker cuts together impeccably shot recreated footage, and an almost endless number of camera angles from news footage to recreate the day.

The two American military personnel who were at the scene and trying to get Sergio and his co-worker Gil Loescher out from buried rubble are featured prominently. Barker’s documentation of Bill von Zehle and Andre Valentine’s efforts to rescue the two men are as brutal, blood curdling, harrowing and heroic as any 9/11 rescue story. Barker and his editor craft these scenes with such drama it drew tears from a sometimes jaded Press and Industry audience.

At the film's climactic moments Barker appears to stretch out the emotion to such agonizing intensity it borders on going over-the-top. The emotional breakdown of de Mello’s mother as she mourns once again the loss of her son almost has the audience begging for Barker to stop the pain.

His death is never mentioned until the end, and so even though we know he did not survive the explosion, in 90mins De Mello touches us so deeply that we mourn his death the same as his fiancé, his mother, or any of the close colleagues of his life. Sergio Vieira De Mello is so extraordinary nothing can overstate the impact of his life. “Sergio” is great film. Enjoy.

SUNDANCE REPORT #5: The September Issue


The September Issue (2009) dir. R.J. Cutler
Documentary

***1/2

Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine, has been a formidable and intimidating figure in fashion for 25 years. Industry followers know her reputation as the “ice queen” of fashion, but it wasn’t until her persona appeared in the novel “The Devil Wears Prada”, and then via Meryl Streep’s infamous thinly disguised and Oscar-nominated version of her in “The Devil Wears Prada” was she put into mainstream pop culture consciousness.

For the first time we get to see up close and personal the real Anna Wintour in R. J. Cutler’s high profile high budget audience friendly documentary, “The September Issue”. The September issue of Vogue is always the biggest and most important issue of the year (600+ pages), and for 8 months Wintour gives Cutler an all-access pass to the behind-the-scenes stress and drama it takes to craft a magazine this size.

Fashion fanatic will devour every morsel of the pomp and circumstance and hijinks of the unveiled industry. Unfortunately with the prevalence of fashion industry TV shows there’s not much so unveil that we haven’t seen dramatized in “The Devil Wears Prada” or “America’s Next Top Model”, “Project Runway” or even “The Hills”.

Those expecting the outrageous behaviour we saw from “The Devil Wears Prada” may be disappointeded. Wintour comes across as an intelligent but demanding ambitious professional. Her achievements in the industry are unprecedented. Almost anything or anyone that breaks in some way or form has to go through the gates of Ms. Wintour’s scrutiny. The film in energetic and entertaining ways attempts to show the effect of Wintour’s top-down method of authority in business and art.

There’s something fascinating about watching top professionals in their field go to work and influence the world. As Ms. Wintour walks down the racks choosing the outfits to be featured in the magazine we are witness to how quickly the future of fashion and the careers of the designers are beholden to the decisions of one woman.

There’s much to tell about Anna Wintour’s life as well. We get a brief peak into her personal life, her kids, her upbringing and the surprising neuroses she harbours about her career. We get to see a number of familiar fashion characters interact professionally with her, Jean-Paul Gauthier, Oscar de la Renta, Karl Lagerfeld and the flamboyant Andre Leon Talley who is so fashion conscious we see him at one point playing tennis dressed in Louis Vouton couture.

But the key relationship that emerges is with Grace Coddington, Wintour’s creative director. As we learn the history of Anna’s career director Cutler also tracks the parallel path of Ms. Boddington. Wintour’s decisions about which photos and outfits to feature appear to subvert Coddington’s authority as creative director, a mini cold war of fashion which becomes the most solid throughline in the film

If you’re expecting cat fights and outrageous diva-like behaviour you won’t get it. Decisions are made with subtle glances and gestures. Sometimes decisions are quick, but there’s nothing arbitrary or whimsical about Ms. Wintour’s choices. She has a passion for fashion and her magazine. There are plenty of conflicts, but when they arise it becomes a complex game of personality management.

A solid runway worthy soundtrack is the polish on this entertaining documentary. Enjoy.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

SUNDANCE REPORT #4 - Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire


Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009) dir. Lee Daniels
Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey

****

By Alan Bacchus

Another stunner of a film is Lee Daniels’ harrowing urban character study of an inner city overweight black teenager who strives to overcome her lifetime of socio-economic despair.

Claireece Jones (Sidibe) is known as “Precious” by her mom Mary (Mo’Nique) after the embroidered pillow she lay upon in her bed as an infant. Unfortunately it’s been a while since she was treated as precious. Her entire life she has endured daily physical and emotional fits of rage from her mother, a chronic welfare case who continually degrades her daughter as ‘fat’ and ‘stupid’. Precious has been out of school ever since she gave birth at age 15 to a child. Since then her mother demands that she get on welfare to bring money in. When Precious is invited to attend an alternate studies school to help her literacy and get her GED the decision makes for a viciously violent fit of rage from Mom.

But Precious does go to school where she finds optimism in her caring teacher Ms. Rain (Patton). It takes a while but Precious’ social barrier weakens and for the first time she develops a coterie of friends. Just when things are looking up a dramatic plot turn sends all her progress back down to the depths of despair. Her escape from the abuse in her life will take the loving and caring of her friends and the personal ambition to make something of herself.

We’ve never seen a film like this before. The gritty urban decay of the inner city welfare families is brought to life with earth shattering fury.

It isn’t until the end when the depths of Mary’s emotional despair are revealed. In a stunning scene of raw acting power Mo’Nique who plays Mary instantly announces herself a lock for a Oscar nomination. While the anger and rage of the earlier shouting matches are visceral enough to startle us it’s Mary’s dramatic confessions with Precious’ welfare officer which elevate Mo’Nique’s performance to astonishing levels.

Mariah Carey, dressed down and without make-up, plays the welfare worker. It’s a surprisingly truthful and compassionate performance, a far cry from her exploitive fleshy music videos and that Razzie Award for “Glitter”. Carey has the chops.

But it’s the fresh face of Gabourey Sidibe who carries and holds the picture down and roots it in real world authenticity. Her obese figure immediately makes her stand out. Precious is a large woman, caused by her mother’s force feeding through her innate need to subjugate and punish her daughter. One would expect to find an inner beauty beneath her exterior, and indeed it’s there but we can see an edge in Precious which could bring her down the same path of gloom as her mother.

At times the film would appear to beat us down with Precious’s obstacles, not only is she obese, illiterate, and has an illegitimate child at 15 there’s a number of other jaw-dropping revelations which complicate her life even further (I can’t ruin anything here this early).

“Precious” is a special film and will make its waves here at Sundance. It announces a major acting talent in Mo’Nique and enlightens a recurring cycle of welfare abuse in inner city America. The film should have no problem finding a distributor and commanding the attention of audiences.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

SUNDANCE REPORT #3: Johnny Mad Dog


Johnny Mad Dog (2008) dir. Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Starring: Christophe Main, Daisy Victoria Vandy

***1/2

Despite numerous brutal African civil wars in the past decade, no one has successfully captured the brutality of the atrocities in Rwanda or Liberia or the Sudan. Johnny Mad Dog seizes this claim with uncompromising vicious force. Jean-Stephane Sauvaire doesn’t soften anything and shows us with extreme cynicism exactly the kind of senseless violence which resulted in millions of civilian deaths.

The film opens with a particularly harrowing scene, in an unknown African country, a group of armed rebels storm a village looking for young children. They find one innocent young boy and force him to shoot his own father. The idea is that the militia will take the child in his formative years and bring them up to be sadistic followers of the regime. This is what happened to Mad Dog, the leader of a platoon of young boys aged 8-15. Mad Dog is a loyal deputee to his gang leader, and in the closed-in world of his militia family he is a successful and ambitious soldier.

Over the course of the film we watch Mad Dog and his fellow youngsters terrorize, maim, kill and rape their way across the country in the name of his tribe’s revolution. Concurrently we get to see the journey of young Laokole whose parents were recently killed by Mad Dog and now seeks to reconnect with her missing younger brother.

In the opening scene the film announces itself with muscular force. Mad Dog and his mates shout and yell and fire their guns in an effort to frighten the shit out of the villagers. It’s a highly effective method of chaotic terrorism. The tribe moves through the villages with the speed of a Nazi blitzkrieg. The director employs a Greengrass-style shaky camera to compliment the madness.

While the film is not social realism in the European version of the trend, Sauvare’s cinematic world is completely believable. When put in the reality of the life of Mad Dog there is not much optimism to find. Surviving in this world means being more ruthless, unemotional and detached than your enemy. Men and women are no longer seen as such, they are treated like animals to be herded, and killed if necessary.

A brief glimmer of optimism does emerge in the final act. Unexpectedly Mad Dog is saddened by a loss in his life. Only seen by the audience his shell is cracked revealing something resembling humanism inside. At the same time, as the U.N. takes over the area and stunts the rebels activities, suddenly Mad Dog find himself outside the only world he’s ever known. When his loyalty is rejected the disappointment on his face is palpable – a small form of comeuppance for his tragic life of violence.

The definitive image of the film is after the opening scene when we see the troop of boys strutting down the village road each wearing some form of costume: angel wings, a Mohawk, and the most absurd, a wedding dress. Absurdities like this which arise from senseless violence achieves the same tone as “Full Metal Jacket” or “Apocalypse Now”. In time we may well be talking about “Johnny Mad Dog” in the company of some of these great films about war. Enjoy.


SUNDANCE REPORT #2 - Humpday


Humpday (2009) dir. Lynn Shelton
Starring: Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, Alycia Delmore

***1/2

The first film off the bat here at Sundance is true masterpiece of comic realism. Remember Kevin Smith’s “Zach and Miri Made a Porno”? Imagine that film told with complete in-your-shoes realism, and funnier.

Ben (Mark Duplass) is a 30 year old middle class male, with a loving wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) in a decent job and in a healthy relationship. They’re about to take the next step and ‘start trying” for a baby. On their ‘humpday’ , in the middle of the night Ben hears a loud knock on the door. It’s Andrew , Ben’s former college roomie, now a journeyman vagabond back from a 12 year global adventure, who, like gangbusters interrupts their quiet life. As Ben and Andrew rekindle their backslapping glory days, we can’t help but think it’s alienating Anna.

During a rambunctious booze and bong filled party, Andrew announces he wants to create an art project for a Porn film festival. During their drunken chatter (and without Anna present) Ben challenges Andrew to make a straight-male porno… together! The next day in a surprising twist both men want to go forward with the idea. The task will challenge their relationship and disclose profound personal revelations within themselves.

It’s kind of a minor miracle for writer/director Shelton who dramatizes such absurdities with unwavering truth and cinema realism. The success perhaps is no surprise as Shelton spent a decade in documentaries before making features. Still the consistency in realism is astonishing. Shelton covers all bases, and in her writing, has thought about the situation from every point of view. Like a thriller genre film has to fill ‘plot holes’, Shelton fills all the ‘emotional holes’. How would Ben approach Anna with the proposition? How would Anna react? What would the two men do once they got in the room and had to do the deed? However disturbing Shelton puts us in their shoes and forces us to ask ourselves, ‘what would I do in that situation?’ No stone of emotional logic is left unturned and the film never falls back on cliché, or Hollywood fakery to pull a laugh.

And no laughs are sacrificed either. Duplass and Leonard have natural bromantic chemistry. Their dialogue feels natural without resorting to painful improvisation. Both characters are both affable and intelligent. And the finale is a tour de force of comic timing, a perfectly set-up climatic scene when the duo are forced to confront their deepest fears.

With such a simple set-up Shelton manages to twist the plot and thus our expectations with ease. As the audience we expect a story like this settle into some kind of Judd Apatow, or Kevin Smith genre comedy, and just as we think we’ve figured out all three characters (including Anna) Shelton will make a sharp left turn to keep us on the balance of realism.

The finale is so satisfying because despite the unconventionality of the storytelling the arc of each character is wrapped up with out-of-the-textbook structural perfection. The black and white notion of Ben as the middle class sell out and Andrew as the worldly bohemian artist are made grey as both characters are brought closer together in ways which relieve our personal neuroses about fitting into such pre-defined archetypes.

This film is a quiet masterpiece and deserves to find a broad audience. Enjoy.

Friday, 16 January 2009

SUNDANCE REPORT #1 - Shorts


Sundance has made available FREE 10 films from it’s Short Film Programs. The shorts will be available as downloads through iTunes stores in the US, UK and Canada beginning January 15 and running through January 25, 2009.

JAMES (2008) dir. Connor Clements (Ireland)
Live Action Short

***1/2

The transition from childhood to early teenage years is hard on everyone, but for James, a young Irish middle class teenager, it’s even more complicated when he suspects he’s gay. As a result he’s withdrawn and shy. He wanders through his school, his neighbourhood and his house barely speaking to anyone. The only one he can confide in is his teacher. But when his cry for help is rejected he goes after a more dangerous form of exploration. It all makes for a highly cinematic slow burning character film. The type of approach is difficult to pull off in a short film, but director Clements’ control of tone is consistent and therefore continually intriguing. Clements is clever to time out his dramatic reveals, building a palpable suspense which pays off in the tragic final scene.

INSTEAD OF ABRACADABRA (2008) dir. Patrik Eklund (Sweden)
Live Action Short

****

In the vein of Napoleon Dynamite Eklund tells this wonderful story of a pathetic twenty-something magician who still lives at home without any passion other than entertaining people with his magic. When he meets a gorgeous young woman who shows an interest in his him, he’s forced to make crucial decisions with his life and career. In exchange for agreeing to take a ‘real job’ to appease his parents he’s allowed to perform at his father’s 60’th anniversary – his only shot at impressing the girl of his dreams. At heart it’s a redemption and comeback story with a well-structured and cinematically pleasing narrative arc. The visual design, quirky wideangle lenses, geek-chic costuming and décor, all seem natural. No one does quirky better than the Scandavanians. This one’s a real winner. Seriously, download this film. “Chimay”!!

I LIVE IN THE WOODS (2008) dir. Max Winston (USA)
Animation

**1/2

Winston’s stop motion/live action quicky about a wildly violent hillbilly punk is told with the energetic momentum of a Road Runner cartoon, and a fresh Henry Selick meets Terry Gilliam meets Sam Raimi style. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any throughline whatsoever other than the random bombardment of manic energy, pace and bloodsplattering gore. At one point our Hillbilly hero pummels God’s head to smithereens with his boot. Proceed with caution.

HUG (2008) dir. Khary Jones (USA)
Live Action Short

**

In some unnamed urban downtown setting, a couple of young black aspiring musicians are chatting in their car. Drew is about to sign a record deal, but seems to have cold feet. His friend and motivator Asa is frustrated with Drew’s erratic behaviour. Drew is highly emotional and all he needs is a hug to settle him down. Khary digs deep into his Drew’s emotional motivations. Despite this we never quite get who he is other than the frustrations of his passive aggressive mood swings. We’re never sure how we’re supposed to feel by the end of it all - is it a story about male friendship, a reconciliation with his sister, or a deep character examination? The mixture of tones never quite mesh harmoniously. A feature film version would work better.

FROM BURGER IT CAME (2008) dir. Dominic Bisignano (USA)
Animation

**

A telephone conversation between a son and his mom reminiscing about his fears of the discovery of his homosexuality is visualized with a hodgepodge of animation styles. The man’s description of a childhood dream that he got AIDS from eating a hamburger is the entry point to this obtuse and not all too successful animation short. As the visual style moves from ‘Ren and Stimpy’ to B&W Mickey Mouse cartoons, to Gilliamesque surrealism to Wallace and Grommit, it feels more like free association of fractured memories than a satisfactory narrative piece.

FIELD NOTES FROM DIMENSION X: EPISODE B:11: OASIS (2008) dir. Carson Mell (USA)
Animation

*

The pretentious title will tip you off to the tone of this experimental animated piece. With a lo-fi 2-D animated style an unidentified narrator waxes poetically while sitting in an oasis in the desert. The oblique spoke word narration is just too wordy and arty to penetrate. One of the profound lines reads, “Even if the soul dies without vanity, the ego can live on bread crumbs.”

COUNTERTRANSFERENCE (2008) dir. Madeleine Olnek
Live Action Short

*1/2

Therapy sessions with a meek middle aged woman is intercut with everyday banality of her dayjob. Olnek employs documentary-like visual style and dead-pan humour to show the point of view her unconfident protagonist. Olnek is clear to set her main character’s goals – to stand up to her subtly abusive boss and achieve the happiness she desires. But the unfocused comic detours with the therapist make the film feel like unstructured improv sessions with no clear ending or point in sight.

MAGNETIC MOVIE (2008) dir. Ruth Jarman + Joe Gerhardt (UK)
Live Action/Animation

***1/2

A unique abstract mix of science and art commissioned by Channel 4 and the Arts Council of England. As NASA scientists discuss, via narration, the findings of their studies on properties of magnetism we are treated to a beautiful abstract animated rendering of science. The animators reveal an invisible world of magnetic forces which appear to exist with beautiful choreography of colour and shape.

SUNDANCE PREP


For the first time Daily Film Dose will be covering the Sundance Film Festival. It’s the 25th year, and despite an attempted boycott and an economic downturn the Festival is going full speed ahead.

As usual the U.S. Dramatic Program is comprised of mostly premieres, showcasing a new crop of fresh perspectives on cinema. As with the Toronto International Film Festival I will be covering a mix of high profile star-driven films and some promising no name independent films.

Here’s a sampling of what you’ll see covered over the next 7 days:

Documentaries shine at Sundance, and this year is highlighted by “The September Issue”, R.J. Cutler’s documentary on Anna Wintour, that fashion publishing diva famously played by Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Doug “Surfwise” Pray is back with “Art and Copy” about the effect of advertising on modern culture. “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” tells the story one of high profile civil rights lawyer William Kunstler.

From the U.S. Drama Competition, there’s been surprisingly little buzz on Robert Siegel’s directorial debut, “Big Fan”. But this film is high on my hit list. If Robert Siegel rings a bell, that’s the talented scribe of “The Wrestler” and former editor in chief of ‘The Onion’. “Big Fan” was the spec script which drew Darren Aronofsky’s attention to Siegel. This low budget dark comedy is also low on the radar but with much potential to break out. Lee Daniels’ “Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire” is being hyped by the Festival programmers as ‘setting a new standard for cinema of it’s kind.’ “Sin Nombre”, a Focus Features film, will appear to launch Cary Joji Fukunaga as a bold new filmmaker to watch. Festival head honcho Geoffrey Gilmour describes it as, “at once a love story and a chase film, a thrill ride and a vision of an apocalyptic hell.” And how about Marc Webb’s topsy turvy romance featuring and irresistible pairing of Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschannel?

In the World Drama Competition how can I resist “The Clone Returns Home” a Japanese sci-fi flick with what's described as deep philosophical Solaris-like tones. The French/Liberian/Belgian co-pro “Johnny Mad Dog” piqued my interest as a potenial African “City of God”. And look out for my review of “Rudy Y Cursi” the reteaming of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna with their “Y Tu Mama Tambien” co-writer Carlos Cuaron – of yeah, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu and Carlos’ bro Alfonso Cuaron produce.

And in the Park City at Midnight Program we’re promised some badass genre goodness from the Nazi zombies of “Dead Snow” to the Michael Jai White doing blackspoitation in “Black Dynamite” to the dark Hardy Boys meets American Pie comedy “Mystery Team.”

As well, look out for postings on my general impressions of this Sundance virgin’s first taste of the festival, and a number of filmmaker interviews. Enjoy.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

CHARLIE CHAN IN PANAMA


Charlie Chan in Panama (1940) dir. Norman Foster
Starring: Sidney Toler, Sen Yung, Lionel Atwill, Jack La Rue and Jean Rogers

****

Guest review by Greg Klymkiw

I have gushed enthusiastically about director Norman Foster on many occasions – the great, unsung stylist who not only brought us the best of the great Mr. Moto series, energized the Sidney Toler Chan series, gave the world some fine noir pictures and even delivered great television such as Disney’s “Davy Crockett” series. He is truly a filmmaker worth gushing about.

“Charlie Chan in Panama” crackles with excitement and it bears Mr. Foster’s exquisite individual stamp of distinctive, varied and always-effective key lighting, his rich and crammed to the brim frame compositions and pacing (in narrative, action and dialogue) that careens with the ferocity of a rollercoaster. Foster always delivered the goods and this picture is no exception as it is, along with “Charlie Chan at Treasure Island”. truly one of the greatest Chan pictures.

Along with Erle Ford’s delightful “Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise” and Lynn Shores’s eerie “Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum”, this thrilling Panamanian-set mystery adventure is one of three terrific Chan pictures released by 20th Century-Fox in 1940. It is also a wonderful entry in the various series-styled pictures that brought their heroes into the world of war and espionage. During this time it was not uncommon for characters such as Tarzan and even Sherlock Holmes to be in the thick of battling Nazis and other assorted evil threats to the American – and by extension, democratic Western way of life.

Here we have Chan assisting the American “secret service” to thwart a potential terrorist action to destroy the Panama Canal. Sidney Toler, the more genial Chan thespian to the fabulous, but decidedly more dour Warner Oland, is on undercover assignment in the guise of an Asian entrepreneur who runs a small shop specializing in – I kid you not – Panama hats. A murder occurs right in Chan’s store that sets the wheels in motion for an action-packed and downright suspenseful mystery-thriller set against an exotic world of back-alley stores and markets as well as a nightclub jammed with American and European expatriates (pre-dating, but not unlike Rick’s Café Americain in “Casablanca”). That Foster comes close to recreating this world semi-realistically on a Fox back-lot is one of many testaments to his considerable prowess as a filmmaker.

The Chan pictures are always replete with magnificent acting. Toler, as usual, delivers Chan’s Cheshire grin and epigrammatic sayings with humour and considerable aplomb. Sen Young, also as per usual, bungles about hilariously as Number Two Son Jimmy. The supporting cast offers the expected delicious mixture and we are treated to yet another appearance from the demented Lionel Atwill (“Son of Frankenstein’s” oft-parodied wooden-armed Inspector Krogh) as a novelist with more than a few secrets. Jean Rogers, the luscious beauty queen and former “Flash Gordon” (1936) Dale Arden appears as a slinky songstress with a mysterious past and lest we forget, “Charlie Chan in Panama” features the ever-delicious scumbag Jack La Rue as the sleazy club owner Manolo who is blackmailing the aforementioned dish into spying.

Manolo’s club is also a marvel of atmosphere. Then again, the whole film is overflowing with atmosphere – ceiling fans galore, bright nightclubs with marimba bands, shadows aplenty and oodles of evocative single key lighting effects. Not only is director Foster on the ball; he is aided by stunning production design and the unparalleled cinematography of Virgil Miller. Miller was the pioneering Director of Photography on the early Technicolor extravaganza “Garden of Allah” in addition to numerous Moto, Chan and Sherlock Holmes pictures. (Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until the 50s when both Foster and Miller were recognized with Oscar nominations – but for a movie far removed from the magical, stylized studio worlds they were known for, but the vérité-styled semi-documentary “Navajo” which was closer to the tradition of Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North”.)

All in all, “Charlie Chan in Panama” is a first-rate entry in the Chan series – so much so that one does wish that Foster and his numerous collaborators had more critical and awards recognition. At the end of the day, however, they had the greatest recognition of all – audiences. With this film and many others, Foster and company generated hit after hit – proving, of course, that audience recognition should ultimately be the highest form of recognition for filmmakers.

Who else would and should they be making pictures for if not the audience?

“Charlie Chan in Panama” is available on DVD as part of Volume 5 of the Charlie Chan Cinema Classics Collection from 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

RIDE LONESOME


Ride Lonesome (1959) dir. Budd Boetticher
Starring: Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, James Best, Jams Coburn, Lee Van Cleef

***1/2

“Ride Lonesome” is the fifth film in the great Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott saga. Boetticher crafts this story on a grander scale than his previous four films, a classic tale of revenge with specific plot points and imagery which would directly influence Sergio Leone.

Randolph plays a tough bounty hunter Ben Brigade who picks up wanted criminal Billy John (James Best) to take back to Santa Cruz. Along the way while stopped at a staging post he encounters Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) a woman left by her husband to fend off an Indian attack. When she realizes he must be dead Ben brings Carrie along to save her from certain death at the hands of her enemies.

The trio then meet up with a nefarious duo Sam and Whit (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn) who form an oddball group of shifty outlaws. In between persistent Indian attacks, like an episode of ‘Survivor’, the individuals tempt and tease each for alliances. Billy tries to convince the not-so-smart Whit to set him free. Sam conspires to get rid of Ben and take the bounty for himself. As for Ben, his true intentions are kept secret - a desperate but focused mission of revenge.

Karen Steele’s character Carrie would seem to be lost in the plotting. An extraneous element designed to get a pretty face on the screen perhaps? Carrie purpose is deeper than mere plot. As a woman, her presence causes much restlessness among the hombres. While the men speak in chauvinistic bravado there’s a fear and misunderstanding of her which puts them all on edge. Carrie exudes such power over the undersexed men, it’s both dominant and dangerous.

Randolph Scott’s character is the classic Western loner – hence the title. A broken man whose wife died and whose sole purpose is a focused desire for revenge. Scott’s journey mirrors Charles Bronson’s ‘Harmonic Man’ character in Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West’. The final climatic moments which reveal his elaborate plan is a direct influence on that film. In fact, as Leone and his co-writers (including Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci!) were crafting their story, they specifically watched quintessential Westerns to inspire them. Clearly the Boetticher films and specifically “Ride Lonesome” were on their list.

“Ride Lonesome” is perhaps Boetticher’s most beautiful film visually. For the first time he used a Cinemascope process, the effect of which is a crisp wide angle frame which further isolates his archetypical lonesome characters against the environment. But it’s the final shot which is the resonating imagery of the film. After the climax Boetticher cuts away from Brigade to wrap up the other characters. We don’t know what happened to Brigade until we cut back to the scene of the final shootout showing Brigade standing in front of the burning ‘hanging tree’ – an awe inspiring image and arguably one of the great ‘closing shots’ in film history. Enjoy.

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