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

Thursday, 26 February 2009

LAST MAN ON EARTH


The Last Man On Earth (1964) dir. Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona
Starring: Vincent Price

***

Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw

Let’s get this out of the way – Richard Matheson is one of the great American writers of the 20th century and his impact upon popular culture, literature and the art of writing is, perhaps, as insurmountable and important as the impact of someone like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Raymond Carver. The difference between Matheson and the aforementioned scribes is that he gets very little in the way of egghead (academic) respect (save, no doubt, for the likes of screenwriter extraordinaire George Toles and uber-menschian-pop-culture-guru Will Straw) – probably because his genres of choice were horror, sci-fi and fantasy and much of his writing was at the (supposedly lowly) level of screenplays and teleplays. There are, however, few great living and working filmmakers who do not owe a lot to the ground broken by Matheson. His genres of choice are pulp and it is pulp that often does not get the reverence it truly deserves.

That said, Matheson not only wrote some of the best movies and television (the monumental “Incredible Shrinking Man”, classic episodes of the original Rod Serling “Twilight Zone” series, and a number of the Roger Corman big-screen Poe adaptations – among many others), but his astounding novel “I Am Legend”, first published in 1954, still has the power to chill and provoke. Matheson’s terse prose style captures the voice of his central protagonist so expertly that the horrifying, lonely journey taken by Robert Neville, the last man on an Earth populated by vampires, is so simple, yet so complex in its exploration of life in an apocalypse – an apocalypse that can be seen as both the end and a new beginning for mankind.

It’s a great book, and has spawned three film versions. The most recent is the execrable Will Smith action vehicle that takes the novel’s title and premise and does little besides providing a handful of visceral shocks. 1971 brought us Boris Sagal’s supremely entertaining and seriously, almost-hilariously dated Chuck Heston vehicle. And then there is “The Last Man On Earth” – an oddball 1964 film adaptation produced by schlockmeister Robert Lippert and made in Italy with a cast of dubbed-in-English Italians and a very odd, but also very compelling Vincent Price in the title role.

While the picture veers, on a number of fronts, from Matheson’s novel, it manages – more than the other versions – to come the closest to the spirit of this strange, terrifying tale of one man battling post-apocalyptic vampires. Moodily shot in black and white, we watch as Robert Morgan (inexplicably renamed as such in the movie, and played by Price) spends his days bombing around the city in a station wagon, killing vampires and burning their corpses while alternately taking care of mundane errands like shopping (in eerily-empty shops).

As dusk approaches, our hero locks himself in his secured suburban dwelling to calmly sip wine and listen to jazz LPs while roaming hordes of vampires call tauntingly to him from outside, threatening to kill him before he kills more vampires. Luckily, his home is secured with all the anti-vampire accoutrements including clusters of fresh garlic hanging on every possible entrance – the smell of which repels the vampires. (I must admit this particular bit of lore always confused me when it came to Eastern European vampires – you’d think all those bloodsucking Bohunks would be attracted to the aroma of garlic. But, I digress.)

Matheson himself wrote much of the screenplay adaptation for “The Last Man On Earth” and I suspect this is why the picture feels very close to the tone of the source material. In spite of this, Matheson was not satisfied that his script was rewritten by a number of other writers at the behest of Lippert and his pasta-slurping co-producers and he removed his name and had it replaced with the nom-de-plume of Logan Swanson. Oddly enough, looking back over all the film adaptations of his novel, this is still the best of the lot.

In spite of this, the picture is not perfect. The Italian locations look great, but are weirdly masked in the dialogue to be American instead of European. This is especially disconcerting since the locations contribute so much to the eerie quality of the movie. The standard dubbing into English of actors who are clearly not speaking English was de rigeur in the 60s, but seems a bit wonky in a contemporary context. The flashbacks employed feel shoehorned in rather than wended expertly and seamlessly into the narrative (Sagal’s “Omega Man” actually did this rather well – in spite of the kitsch factor of most everything else in the picture).

These are minor quibbles, however. “The Last Man On Earth” captures Matheson’s dark, nasty tone and for much of the picture’s running time, it is a truly creepy and scary sci-fi horror thriller. Especially worth regarding is how this version captures the whole notion of how vampires (creatures of legend) become the new mundane humanity and how the mere mortal becomes the legend. It is this very thematic layer that takes Matheson’s “pulp” into the realm of worthy literature and thankfully, this particular picture is respectful of the theme.

“The Last Man On Earth” is as fine an adaptation of Matheson’s novel that we’re likely to see for some time. Sadly, the Will Smith version will put the kibosh on any future attempts to remake the film. In the meantime, see this version and be sure to read Matheson’s original “I Am Legend” and then you, like I, can dream of a remake in a generation or two that tackles this classic and universal work with EVERYTHING it deserves.

“The Last Man On Earth” is available on many DVD labels, but the best ones are the Legend Films release (that includes an odd, but rather pointlessly colorized version in addition the B/W original) and MGM’s terrific version that is double-billed with “Panic in Year Zero” and appears to be re-mastered from truly pristine elements.


RELIGULOUS


Religulous (2008) dir. Larry Charles
Documentary

***

Anyone who has seen Bill Maher’s talk shows knows his opinion on religion. This travelogue documentary, in which he attempts to ‘discover’ how and why most of the educated world still clings to seemingly obsolete notions of religion, serves as a 90mins one-sided forum for Maher’s extreme opinions. Alas, it's often uproariously funny.

From the trailer parks of red state America to absurd evangelical compounds to the offices of ultra right wing Washington the Evangelical Christian movement are like ducks in a barrel. All religions are on target too. Extreme Judaism, Islam, Scientology all get shit upon as well.

Often Maher and his subjects are talking at cross purposes. No one makes the simple argument to combat Maher that the purpose of religion is not to follow it to the letter, but, in the case of Jesus, to use the example his pious life to improve one’s own. Maher concentrates on battling with zealots who refuse the word of science and make blockhead arguments for the real life existence of the mythological aspects of Christianity.

Like it or not, the film is as much about Bill Maher as it is about religion. Maher carries himself with an impenetrable confident swagger. He arrives at each interview armed with the weapons to battle any argument for religion. Most of the time he’s debating with people with less intellectual skills than himself, and so it’s easy-pickings.

If the film were about an honest and fair debate about religion we could fault Maher and Charles for their carefully-chosen subjects, but the film is about comedy. In fact, it could be argued that Maher’s global tour arguably is a standup routine masquerading as documentary. Like when comedians appear as guests on the Tonight Show, they can disguise their gags in the form of answers to interview questions, the wacky evangelists and zealots serve as sounding boards for Maher’s well rehearsed jokes.

Larry Charles is perhaps too blunt to intercut the absurd ridiculousness of his cooky crazies with bizarre retro videos to pull a few laughs. It’s a cheap tactic from the dirty book of propaganda 101, but with a certain degree of shame I found myself laughing.

If Maher weren’t so damned funny and articulate “Religulous” would be easy to dismiss. With a degree of guilt and maybe a confession at the end, we are given permission to laugh. Enjoy.

“Religulous” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment




Wednesday, 25 February 2009

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (Blu-Ray)


Little Miss Sunshine (2006) dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin

***1/2

“Little Miss Sunshine” that delightful, comedy/road picture was a hit in all stages of its life - starting off as a Sundance hit, then a mild box office success, multiple year-end awards/nominations and now a successful DVD release. It arrives on Blu-Ray for the first time, an ideal title for the crisp picture and sound of the new medium.

Like "Slumdog Millionaire “Little Miss Sunshine” brightened the cinema world through the often downtrodden seriousness of usual Oscar-fare. It still serves as an antedote to Oscar’s self-loathing. LMS is a film to lift one’s spirits - a little piece of joy to get you through your day.

Based in part on the writer’s own personal experiences, a dysfunctional family travels the country so their precocious 7 year old can compete in a children’s beauty pageant. Each member of the family holds his or her own in terms of laughs. It’s a true ensemble, with neither one stealing anyone’s thunder. Greg Kinnear plays Richard, the ultra-competitive-motivational-speaker wannabe Dad, Steve Carell is a depressed suicide-attempting gay intellectual scholar Uncle. Alan Arkin is an “I don’t care because I’m old”, porn-loving, heroin-snorting grandfather. Paul Dano is the disaffected Nietzsche-reading teenager who has taken an oath of silence. Abigail Breslin is the Jonathan-Lipnicky-cute- but-not-gorgeous naïve daughter and Toni Collette is the rock, the mother who has to take up smoking to survive the chaos in the family.

It was the first feature film from Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris. Their “Bottle Rocket,” from which, hopefully, they can build a fruitful feature film career. (Wes Anderson, time to step back up to the plate). The film follows a well-trodden formula of road movies, but told with such genuine sincerity it trumps any familiarity. There are half a dozen brilliant scenes and moments of genuine hilarity. Dayton and Faris, whom we expect to ‘know their music’ based on their extensive music video work, adds pitch perfect songs to the soundtrack (a good way of introducing Sufjan Stevens to the mainstream).

Each actor in the impressive cast supports the film in equal measure. As such “Little Miss Sunshine” remains one of the great ensemble films in recent years.

“Little Miss Sunshine” is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

CHE - PART II


Che – Roadshow Version (2008) dir. Stephen Soderbergh
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Rodrigo Garcia, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Demián Bichir

***1/2 (Part I)
**1/2 (Part II)

So I blocked off a whole Saturday afternoon to sit down and experience the full Che Roadshow Edition of Stephen Soderbergh’s huge epic two-part dramatic take on Che Guevara. The Roadshow version, at $18 (volume discount applied), contains no commercials, trailers, or even opening credits. An overture begins the film, like epics of past, over top of a map a Cuba, identifying the regions and cities important to the film. My colleague Blair Stewart has already written a fine review of Che: Part I (click HERE), which I defer to.

Part II continues where Part I left off. Instead of a map of Cuba, during the opening overture Soderbergh shows us a map of South America, pinpointing all the countries in the continent and focusing in on Bolivia – Che’s next stop in liberating Latin America. Via newspaper reports and a speech from Castro himself we are told that Che has resigned his political post and disappeared. We then watch as a disguised Che secretly flies out of Cuba and into Bolivia. After his exploits in New York Che has become a recognizable name and face.

The first act is a political story a fine contrast to the war film Soderbergh shot in Part I. Che is in espionage mode as he quietly moves across the border. Once in Bolivia he immediately seeks to link up with the leader of the Communist party, Mario Monje, played by a humble Lou Diamond Phillips. Unfortunately instead of welcoming the guerrilla with open arms he rejects his offer to lead a new revolt. Though he never expresses it, perhaps this was an unforeseen blow to his ego. Despite the rejection he assembles a group of young and inexperienced soldiers whom he trains in the art of guerrilla warfare. There’s visible difference between the soldiers we saw in the Cuba and the soldier in Bolivia.

Che’s downfall is not heading to his own words. In part I, when asked about whether he could defeat an army better equipped and with more manpower, his response refers to an incalculable x-factor representing the passion of one’s people determining the ability to win a war. Che fails to see that his troops do not have this passion. Monje knew this and tried to tell Che, and so Che ultimately stretches himself too far. A victim of his own ego perhaps.

None of this is told to us by Soderbergh. While we are greatful for Soderbergh’s respect for his audience not to overtly dramatize these internal thoughts, we never get deeper than these relatively shallow inferences.

The downfall of Che, the man, is matched by the slow downfall of Che, the film. The second and third acts of Part II is a repetition of narrative structure of Part I. We see similar guerrilla movements throughout the jungles and mountains of Bolivia, except the forces he so strongly pushed back are slowly encroaching on him. As my colleague noted in Part I, Benicio Del Toro's performance is unheroic, free of histrionics. Soderbergh attempts to draw his character from the machinations of his guerrilla actions and while the concerted approach is fresh, at 4.5 hours, it ultimately feels like a shallow rendering of the man. A grand technical exercise, a great war film, but a disappointing character study.

Despite most of the negative criticism of this film, it's still a remarkable achievement, the type of risk-taking we want Soderbergh to try.



Tuesday, 24 February 2009

NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (BLU-RAY)


Napoleon Dynamite (2004) dir. Jared Hess
Starring: Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majerino

***

The influence of “Napoleon Dynamite” on popular cinema can not be exaggerated. The film helped popularize the geek-chic trend in cinema, TV and fashion. And I’m sure Hollywood agent’s desks are still piled high with Napoleon Dynamite-like comedy scripts. It was popped up at Sundance in 2004, made a splash and virtually caught fire and blazed its way into indie cinema history – like “Rushmore” for dummies.

Jared Hess and his spouse/co-writer have morphed and stretched the high school genre to aggrandize the most impudent narcissistic geek-nerds ever imagined. Most high school films play off with the stereotypical characters – nerds, jocks, pot-heads, goths. And then there’s Napoleon Dynamite, an under achiever who fails in both academics and social stratas. What Napoleon lacks in behavioural skills he makes up for in confidence.

Trying to explain the plot is an exercise in futility, as the film is essentially made up of a series of quirky characters doing really fucked up shit and taking it all very very seriously. The poker-faced deadpan idiocy escalates to obscene levels, and climaxes with the unbelievable dance sequence. But it’s the warm-hearted romantic closure that still surprises me and completes the full arc of Napoleon’s character.

“Napoleon Dynamite” works because of a few key and essential elements. First, Jon Heder. It’s that rare occasion when the character is defined by the actor. Jon Heder is Napoleon Dynamite and Napoleon Dynamite is Jon Heder. Much like, say, Ace Ventura and Jim Carrey the film would not exist without Jon Heder.

Second, the details. Every frame is filled with a cornucopia of loserdom. I can only assume co-writers Jared and Jerusha Hess sat down before writing the screenplay and brainstormed the most loser-ish things about high school. And so, Hess’s background is his foreground as he jams his frames with everything on his list. This perspective is aided with a creative and colour production design and the usual quirky wideangle cinematography.

Third, the film exists without time or place. It’s a style mash-up of the worst fashion mistakes from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The film is from Napoleon’s point of view – his skewed outlook of the world. Hess shows great skill as a director by staying within this bubble the entire film. Ie. Napoleon’s atrocious 1980’s lunar boots are never referenced. Every ridiculous outfit or action or dance is accepted because this is Napoleon world, of which he is king.

Lastly, the film has a heart. Sure, it’s Napoleon’s point of view but he remains an accessible character because his goals are from the real world. The film ends with a cute romantic gesture as Napoleon finally finds someone who will play tetherball with him. Though “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts will be filed under 00’s fad trivia, the film should not. It stands up to repeated viewings long after the hype.

"Napoleon Dynamite" is now available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

OFFICE SPACE


Office Space (1999) dir. Mike Judge
Starring: Ron Livingston, Jennifer Anistan, Gary Cole, David Herman

****

“Office Space” holds a special place in my heart. In 1999 when I saw the film in the theatres I was about the same age as the characters in the film, grew up amidst the same suburban office wasteland and then working in an office environment with all the same idiosyncrasies of Mike Judge’s razor sharp satirized soul-sucking IT company Initech. It's the 10th Anniversary of "Office Space" and despite two other equally funny office satires on television, Mike Judge's film still feels relevant and holds up as one of the great comedies over the last decade.

The opening scene is so simple, something which could have been a sketch bit on Mr. Bean, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) Judge’s 20-something everyman,  driving to work. His frustration is palpable as he struggles against the deadening commuter traffic, inching his way along the highway slower than a crippled elderly man walking on the sidewalk. Peter works for Initech, an unspecific IT company amongst an army of moderately paid and exploited university grads who don’t have the balls to quit or do something positive with their lives. Among them are Michael Bolton (David Herman), a constant complainer who thinks he’s smarter then everyone and Samir (Ajay Naidu) an immigrant who doesn’t get why no one can pronounce his name correctly – Nagheenanajar.

When Peter gets hypnotized by a psychiatrist to be happy at work, he finds himself with a freedom he’s never experienced. He can show up late to work and not care, and without fear he even asks out the hot waitress (Jennifer Aniston) from the local watering hole. But when the smug ball-busting company President Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) hires a consultant to locate the layoffs Peter and his pals decide to take revenge and rob the company of millions of dollars in a backdoor financing scam, like ‘Superman 3’.

The film is not particularly cinematic, arguably it's a series of situational and observational sketch gags strung together against a screenplay template. But these gags, characters, situations, and jargon are now part of the modern pop lexison - the super chirpy gal who phrases "a bad case of the Mondays", the ‘flare’ Joanna is loathe to wear at her franchised family restaurant, the “O-Face” which the office fratboy demonstrates to entertain his pals with, Lumbergh’s generic bureaucratic TPS reports, and the symbol of Peter’s repetitive petty annoyance, ‘didn’t you get the memo?’. Though Ron Livingston is the hero, he serves not to convert punchlines but as our entry point into Judge's satirical world of corporate culture. It's the supporting characters who prop up the comedy and steal every scene.

Modern shows like “The Office”, and “How I Met Your Mother” offer a similar male-centric take on the twenty-something yuppie demographic – a rom com about males' relationship with other males. Judge precisely nails this distinct middle class male psyche - men who barely have grown up since childhood, who live vicariously through other people’s lives, and exert career envy and frustration with passive aggressive transference.  Like most dudes, we all have schemes and dreams of grandeur. Like Michael's hip-hip gangsta fetish, Peter’s admiration for his laid back construction worker neighbour, and who could forget the pathetic Tom Symkowski who tries to impress his young colleagues with his ‘jump to conclusions mat’.

Everyone in “Office Space” is pathetic. Mike Judge’s spot-on satire of office life is applicable to anyone’s lives and the frustration, fear, regret and self-loathing we all feel about our own careers. And yes, I have moved from that Initech job from 1999, but I can bring it all back with each viewing of "Office Space".

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



Monday, 23 February 2009

FIVE


Five (1951) dir. Arch Oboler
Starring: Susan Douglas Rubes, William Phipps, James Anderson, Charles Lampkin

***1/2

One of the most interesting films I’ve seen in a while is the rediscovered post-Apocalyptic low budget indie film “Five” from 1951. Back then there was effectively no such thing as independent film and so for Arch Oboler, a maverick writer/director and provocateur, it's a great accomplishment to treasure.

Oboler was one of the great storytellers on radio, with a reputation comparable to Orson Welles. In 1937, like Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast Oboler incited panic with a gruesome account of a chicken heart growing enormously engulfing cities and states. Like Welles Oboler was courted by Hollywood and directed a wide range of high concept studio films, including the first-ever 3-D mainstream feature film “Bwana Devil”.

Oboler seemed to be fascinated with American post-war sociological analysis – communist and nuclear fears and the onset of the television medium. His 1945 film “Strange Holiday” starring Claude Rains depicted a man returning home from a trip in the mountains discovering America has been taken over and formed into a dictatorship – perhaps an early inspiration for John Milius’ “Red Dawn.”

In 1951’s Five, Oboler expanded on these themes of social displacement and nuclear extermination, creating arguably the first-ever ‘post-Apocalyptic’ film. Richard Matheson’s novel ‘I Am Legend’ is routinely cited as the most influential work of the genre, but Oboler’s story beats Matheson’s publication by 3 years.

It’s an austere, slow-moving, unsympathetic tragedy, in similar tone to Roman Polanski’s “Knife in the Water”. The protagonist, a pregnant Roseanne Rogers (Susan Rubes), wakes up to find her town, state, and country a desolate post-nuclear wasteland. She rooms the country looking for any other survivors. When she retreats to her Aunt’s country home in the hills and finds Michael (William Phipps) living there. Both have miraculously survived World War III. The duo then meet Oliver, an elderly banker and Charles, a humble, working class black man. The foursome work to rebuild some kind of new life in isolation of the harmful fallout of the main cities.

The harmony is shortlived when they drag Eric out of the water – a mountaineer who was scaling Everest when the bombs hit around the world. Eric’s desire to return to the cities for food is met with disagreement from the rest who fear radiation contamination. Roseanne’s desire to find her lost husband is the fuel Eric needs to break from the group, the results of which could spell doom for the rest.

The film requires some patience to get through a sometimes tediously slow first and second acts. But when the villain emerges and conflict becomes dangerous for the survivors, Oboler’s third act is so uncompromising, so unHollywood in comparison to any other film of its day it will leave a lasting impact. The conflict between Eric’s desire to go out alone to the cities vs. the group’s communal desire to feed themselves from the land suggest some subtle socialist metaphors. Few films, if any, in this genre were made with this kind of thematic depth back in 1951. 

Arch Oboler’s independent production philosophy remind us of the autonomy and methodologies filmmakers like Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick employed to make their great independent films. Oboler shot the "Five" with a skeleton crew at his own Frank Lloyd Wright home in Santa Monica, his credits, in untraditional fashion at the time were listed at the end, and had titles of the cinematographer, editor and sound crew lumped together under one credit.

I haven’t seen any other films from Oboler’s filmography but from what I’ve read about his career it would seem his artistic abilities rarely matched his conceptual and thematic reach. Sony’s repackaging of this title, curiously under their kitschy ‘Martini Movies’ banner, is step in the direction to rekindling interest in this unique filmmaker. Enjoy.

“Five” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sunday, 22 February 2009

DFD OSCAR LIVE!


WELCOME TO FIRST ANNUAL DAILY FILM DOSE LIVE OSCAR BLOGGING

Click on this post for frequent updates as all the live drama unfolds



12:00pm: Slumdog Millionaire is the big winner. The show finished before midnight with time to spare to show us some great clips of some new movies for 2009. Great idea.

11:38PM: Remember when Frank Langella played Skeletor in "Masters of the Universe"?

11:22pm: Danny Boyle's body of work is amazing. I can't believe he just won an Oscar. So happy.

11:07: HUGE upset for Best Foreign Language Film - "Departures" from Japan. Wow! Who picked that one?

11:02pm: The Indian crew members of Slumdog seem infinitely more interesting than the dull Britons (except Danny Boyle of course).

11:00pm: Did John Legend just crash A.R. Rahman's song performance? What was that?

10:50pm: Michael Giacchino's conducting the orchestra this year, breaking Bill Conti's long reign.

10:41pm: Eddie Murphy hasn't aged in 25 years.

10:28pm: When one person speaks on behalf of multiple winners they shouldn't be allowed to make personal thanks to their wives, or children. It's not fair.

10:18pm: Year after year the short filmmakers always have the most honest and sincere speeches.

9:57pm: Ouch. Truly painful musical montage.

9:41pm: I love the tradition of getting really really hot actresses to host the Science and Technical Oscars - for a room full of cine-tech-geeks. Last year it was Jessica Alba. Others have been: Scarlett Johanson, Charlize Theron, Salma Hayek

9:35pm: So glad Anthony Dot Mantle won. A digital innovator. His body of work is incredible.

9:14pm: Wow, I guessed the best Short Animated Short Film right. So far batting a thousand!

9:10pm: Kunio Kato must have won some kind of dare. Great stuff.

8:54pm: Steve Martin is hilarious!

8:49pm: Graceful and classy speech from Penelope Cruz

8:41pm: Meryl Streep has 15 nominations, but hasn't won since 1982 - "Sophie's Choice"

8:38pm: Pretty decent old school opening number. Courageous of Jackman to do that.

8:25: Just looked up Marisa Tomei on the IMDB. It says she's born in 1964 - that makes her 44!

8:21pm: I like looking at the ugly people in the background behind the celebs on the red carpet

8:16pm: I love how Tim Gunn says 'thank you very much' while looking at the camera, not his celebrity guest

8:14pm: Viola Davis is awesome. She had an amazing performance in Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris"

7:51: Was that George Takei?!

7:41: I love The Wrestler and Mickey's performance, but I think this whole comeback thing has been a little overblown. He's never stopped working, and specifically his performances in "Sin City" and "Domino" were pretty awesome.

7:37pm: My wife thinks Jessica Biel's hair looks like a birdsnest, I think she's pretty hot

7:35pm: I love Peter Gabriel's integrity for not singing a medley version of his Wall-E song.

7:12pm: Just clicked on the Jonas Bros on Barbara Walters - very boring

7:11pm: Love Mickey Rourke's white suit!

7:00pm: What's with the 80's style camera quality of ABC's coverage?

6:30pm: Just tuned into very advanced coverage of the red carpet. Switching between the Canadian coverage via E-Talk and Ryan Seacrest on E! Can't wait to see Mickey Rooney. Have I missed him? I know he usually shows up really early.

MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA


Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008) dir. Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
Featuring Voices by: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett-Smith

**

Those wacky animals from the Bronx Zoo are back. When we left the last movie, Ben Stiller’s Alex the Lion, Chris Rock’s Marty the Zebra, David Schwimmer’s Melman the Giraffe and all the others were stranded on the African island, still hoping to get back to New York. In this adventure the bunch get stranded in mainland Africa for more fish out of water hijinks. While the first film offered a decent amount of laughs and giggles the well has likely run dry for the theatrical franchise.

In the opening we see a flashback to Alex’s brief life in Africa with his father, Zuba (voiced by the late Bernie Mac) and his eventual kidnap and placement in the Bronx zoo. In the present the four animal heroes – Lion, Zebra, Giraffe and Hippo (Jade Pinkett-Smith) – resurrect an old plane to be piloted by those shifty penguins in hopes of flying it back to New York. It makes for a fun sequence when the makeshift plane fails and plummets onto the mainland African plains in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Alex soon encounters his father again,  thus reuniting his family. But Alex’s New York upbringing means he can’t adapt to the traditions of the African lion. He loses a fight for pride supremacy forcing his father to relinquish his title as King of the Lions. In banishment Alex and his pals decide to leave the sanctuary of the plains for the unprotected lands to find out why the riverbed has dried up. Naturally an ecological subtext is peppered into the comedy and family-values.

Interesting, knowing Etan Cohen, the comedically irresponsible co-scribe of “Tropic Thunder”, was the writer of this sequel my hopes were up that similar risks would be taken with the talking-animals genre. Instead it all feels stale and repetitive.

I remember the entry of those lemur creatures in the first film set to Reel2Reel’s dance number “I Like to Move it” was a pleasantly ironic bit of schmaltz. When the movie repeats it early in the opening act of this film it just feels overplayed. And the best characters of the first film – the conniving Penguins spies – have no gas or comic energy.

At $179million domestic gross, it’s a respectable success for a CG Animated film. So we may see a third one come along in a couple of years – or, at the very least, a straight-to-video knock off. In fact, there’s already a movie just with the Penguins released in conjunction with this sequel.

“Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment. The Blu-Ray edition, other than the stunning CG clarity, includes more footage of the penguins, music videos and host of other kids games all in high-definition.



Saturday, 21 February 2009

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO


Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) dir. Kevin Smith
Starring: Seth Rogan, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, Jason Mewes, Traci Lords

***

After an almost 10 year drought of disappointing films Kevin Smith has delivered one of his best – a raunchy romantic comedy, mixing traditional genre expectations without completely abandoning that naughty immature crassness which has made him distinct.

The set-up is screenwriting 101. Zack and Miri are roommates, platonic best friends who are having trouble paying the rent. They both work as lowly baristas at a Starbucks-like coffee shop. When their water is shut off, it’s time to put their heads together and make some more money. The idea of making a porn film emerges when they discover a short peeping cell-phone video of Miri undressing becomes a youtube sensation.

With an ironic nod to those Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals – when times are down, ‘let’s put on a show!’ – the duo recruits friends for the crew, host casting auditions and all the pre-production needed to get their project off the ground. They know nothing about making films, but they know porn, and so their production skills are learned while doing, with elbow grease and common sense – like a sweded porno film. A love story emerges between the pair as they eventually have to actually have sex together – an act they’ve purposely avoided to preserve their friendship. Will their movie unite them or break them apart?

Seth Rogan is a natural addition to the Kevin Smith team. His everyman affability and self-depreciating comic style is the ideal alter-ego for Smith. Elizabeth Banks has the ideal girl-next-door hotness to make it believable that someone that goodlooking would have no career and be unattached to anyone at her age. Their romantic arc hits all the right beats at the right times. We know where it’s all going to go, but the actors play their characters with such honesty we forget about the formula.

Though it trumps all the Jay and Silent Bob stuff he’s done over the past 10 years, it’s still a Kevin Smith film. Smith goes back for even more Star Wars humour, with a lengthy “Star Wars” porn spoof sequence featuring great names like Darth Vibrator, Hung Solo and Princess Lay-her. A weathered-looked Jason Mewes is prominent, as Zack's best friend, and porn-star in waiting. Even his original Clerks protag Jeff Anderson is one of the bunch.

Smith’s visual sensibilities are as flat and two-dimensional as ever - In many ways Zack and Miri weren’t meant for Judd Apatow slickness. The film’s naughty nature and amateurish dalliances add to Smith’s still intact indie-cred.

"Zack and Miri Make a Porno" is available on Blu-Ray and DVD in Canada from Alliance Films



Friday, 20 February 2009

ALAN'S OSCAR PREDICTIONS


Ok. You’re filling out your Oscar pool today. Here’s my picks with some explanation to help you with yours:


Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
It has the magic touch this year. A deserving winner though at least.

Actor: Mickey Rourke
It’s between him and Sean Penn, but Mickey had the better performance and absolutely made that film.

Actor in a Supporting Role: Heath Ledger
It’s a sure thing.

Actress: Kate Winslet
Meryl Streep had the best performance, but Winslet will win because of her performance in Revolutionary Road as well

Actress in a Supporting Role: Penelope Cruz
A last minute zeitgeist consensus

Animated Film: Wall-E
The other sure thing

Art Direction: Curious Case of Benjamin Button
A tough call between that and The Dark Knight, but the technical was the only decent thing about Benjamin Button and the film did look great

Cinematography: The Dark Knight
This will win because of its IMAX innovations

Direction: Danny Boyle
Slumdog is still on fire. He deserves the win as well

Documentary: Man on Wire
A stunning film – suspenseful and entertaining. Dark horse would be Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World” or maybe the Katrina film "Trouble the Water"

Documentary Short: The Conscience of Nhem En
My research shows this film about the Khmer Rouge is the best of the bunch. It’s also the first name on the list for voters who choose at random

Film Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
The pacing and energy of the film was helped by the great editing

Foreign Language Film: Waltz With Bashir
It’s a great film, and the Jewish subject matter always helps. The Palme D’Or winner, “The Class” is a decent second choice.

Makeup: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Some of the best makeup work ever. This is a sure thing as well

Music (Score): Slumdog Millionaire
Such a distinct mix of western and Indian rhythms, beats the old standard orchestral sounds from the other nominees

Music (Song): “Down to Earth” Wall-E
Since the other two nominees are from Slumdog they will split the voters. Peter Gabriel will take this one

Short film (animated): La Maison en Petit Cubes
Pixar’s “Presto” would seem the natural winner because it played along with “Wall-E” in theatres. But Pixar has LOST its last four Best Animated Short Oscars. Try “La Maison en Petits Cubes”. My research shows this is a stunning film. You can watch full versions of the nominees yourself HERE:

Short film (live action): Spielzeugland (Toyland)
This Holocaust themed film should take it. Roddy Doyle’s “New Boy” is a close second.

Sound editing: The Dark Knight
Voters give the technical awards to the blockbusters

Sound mixing: The Dark Knight
Same as above

Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Aging Brad Pitt was amazing work

Writing (Adapted Screenplay): Slumdog Millionaire
It’ll be part of the Slumdog sweep, but “Doubt” is my dark horse fave here.

Writing (Original Screenplay): Milk
A tough call here, but the voters need to find a place to give this film an Award, and this should be it.

Good luck!

ELEVEN MINUTES


Eleven Minutes (2009) dir. Michael Selditch and Rob Tate
Documentary

***

Right now, there are no less than four reality television shows on the go about the fashion industry - “America’s Next Top Model”, “Project Runway”, “The Hills” and “The City”. It seems looking underneath the veil of the fashion industry is a nightly ritual. On film the tradition goes back even farther to Izaak Mizrahi’s “Unzipped”, Robert Altman’s “Pret-A-Porter”, “The Devil Wears Prada” and the upcoming Anna Wintour doc, “The September Issue” (read my advance review HERE).

With considerably less famous faces than these other films “Eleven Minutes” does everything right to put us into the world of a struggling fashion designer about to hit the industry’s biggest stage, New York Fashion Week.

Jay McCarroll is not exactly obscure though. He was the winner of the first season of “Project Runway” a competition McCarroll freely admits is 90% talent, 10% personality, with the final 10 pushing him to victory. But after the show’s ending, McCarroll reveals he was cut loose to fend for himself in the industry. After two years of trying to get his design business off the ground, he’s finally secured a spot at Bryant Park – the home of New York Fashion week. The problem is he has 8 months, no financing, and only some drawings on a paper.

And so within these eight months leading up to the big day we watch as Jay goes through the creative and business process of creating a fashion line – drawing and choosing his designs, securing financing, hiring staff, publicists, models, event coordinators etc. The title “Eleven Minutes” refers to the actual running time of McCarroll’s final show, which puts into perspective the ratio of glory to hard work it takes to succeed at the top level. The film captures all the cuthroatness, bitchiness and diva eye-rolling we expect to see.

The “Project Runway” connection is both a blessing and curse for McCarroll. While McCarroll can walk into a room and get noticed, it’s often harder to be taken seriously. Whitney’s old boss from the “The Hills”, the bitchy Kelly Cutrone is featured prominently as Jay's event publicist and confesses to the camera that no one, from any of those reality shows, has ever made it.

So, as much as the film is about the process of art, whether Jay or the filmmakers like it or not, it’s also about reality television. Perhaps this is the strongest part of the film. We’ve seen the process of fashion before, but we’ve never seen a former reality celebrity trying make a living at what he’s famous for. Enjoy.

"Eleven Minutes" is in select theatres starting this week via Regent Releasing.



Thursday, 19 February 2009

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA


Miracle at St. Anna (2008) dir. Spike Lee
Starring: Derek Luke, Omar Benson Miller, Michael Ealy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

*1/2

I confess having walked out of “The Miracle at St. Anna” after 40mins at TIFF. It's an accepted practice at festivals, since you’re watching a movie (especially one with a 2hr 40mins running time)  there are usually two or three other films you could be watching instead. With “Miracle” there were a lot of walk-outs, but I still felt bad to give up on Spike Lee, one of my favourite directors. But now with its DVD/Blu-Ray release I can give it another chance and see if the other two-hours were better than the first 40mins.

Unfortunately no, it’s consistently confusing and headscratching.

It’s important to know the plot in order to understand how so very wrong this film goes, so bare with me: The film opens in the present (actually the mid 80’s). A black, elderly retail postal officer is conducting his everyday business of selling stamps. One of his customers looks familiar, an Italian man of similar age. The postal worker pulls out a luger and shoots the man in the chest killing him. A young ambitious newspaper reporter played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt investigates the case. Found in the man’s home is a long lost head of a statue taken from a bridge in Italy in 1944. Meanwhile somewhere in Italy we see the reaction of two men to the news report of the found statue – one of whom is played by John Leguizamo.

Then the film flashes back to 1944 Italy as the famous African-American Regiment, the Buffalo Soldiers, are making their way across the countryside. After an attack only a foursome survive. A large but gentle youngster Private Train (Omar Benson Miller) discovers an orphaned Italian boy and takes him along the journey to safety. While hiding out in an Italian village they encounter an Italian resistance group one of whom may be a German spy. With the Germans on their heals they have to negotiate their way back to the safety of their Regiment.

The carefully directed opening flash-forward teases us with a dual-story of present and past. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is given much screen time and attention as the do-good reporter trying to break his first story. John Leguizamo and John Turturro appear briefly as well. Oddly we never seen Leguizamo again, nor Turturro and Levitt only briefly at the end for an ineffectual warp-up. The murder investigation is completely discarded for a non-sensical reunion on a beach in the Caribbean. Clearly running time wasn’t a factor in this massive structural omission as the film still ran 2:40mins. It would appear everyone just gave up and stopped filming.

Added to these problems is Lee's ham-fisted and extremely blunt characterization of the relationship of the black soldiers to the white soldiers. The dialogue and direction of the white characters are so poor I can only think it as a means to advance Lee's political agenda. The only saving grace is a well choreographed battle scene in the village – a particularly brutal scene which Lee directs without any heroic artifice. When characters get shot, it’s truly shocking and painful.

Recalling last year's heated quid-pro-quo between Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood over the absence of black characters in Eastwood's Iwo Jima films, if we're judging on the battle of the quality, integrity and reach of the films the winner is now clear.

"Miracle at St. Anna" is available on Blu-Ray from Buena Vista Home Entertainment



Wednesday, 18 February 2009

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL


High School Musical 1 and 3 (2006-2008) dir. Kenny Ortega
Starring: Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu

***

For filmmakers, cinephiles, critics, etc I think it’s important, however much a struggle, to examine a phenomenon like “High School Musical”. Because of the new Blu-Ray editions of Part 1 and Part 3 this chance presented itself to me.

Last year “High School Musical 2” was released on DVD and within days became the highest selling TV movie of all time. I had never even heard of “High School Musical” until these records were announced. Did I miss something? Most certainly. Through the Disney brand machine and venerable star system they manufactured mondo cash through an age-old Hollywood concept – ‘the musical’ but made for television.

Of course these films are absolutely critic-proof, so most of everything I write is mute, but there are some talented actors who will graduate from the Disney school and make films you and I will likely see. So having this stuff on record is not futile.

The franchise opens up introducing the two central characters: Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) a star basketball player and Gabrielle Montez a lovely straight-A newbie. Over the holiday break they meet at a Karaoke contest on a resort vacation with their parents and develop an instant attraction. When they return Troy discovers Gabrielle has just transfered to his school. They rekindle their brief friendship which naturally and easily blossoms into full ‘going-steady’ mode.

Neither student have a desire for the arts, especially singing and dancing, but that magical Karaoke moment has stuck in the heads. When the tryouts for the new school play are announced, with mutual trepidation, they decide to take the plunge. Fearing backlash from their respective cliques they both keep it quiet. When their talent threatens the resident bitchy blonde, Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale), the conniving cat claws come out and it’s all out war. Meanwhile the play proves a distraction for the basketball team, which Troy must reconcile in order to accomplish his dreams. That's the first film. The third follows the same template, except with a prom and the college conundrum adding more conflict.

"High School Musical" has a kind of energy that is hard to ignore. Director Kenny Ortega slaps on the high school clichés and syrupy soap operatics for the tweeners, which has as much engaging and believable drama as an episode of "Degrassi the Next Generation". But within the musical genre we accept it all as part of the fantasy world.

The series wouldn’t have survived if not for the strong and extremely likeable cast. Since the tweeners would likely scream the lights out for just about any reasonable attractive face, it’s often difficult to find a fine performances as such. Zac Efron has clear starpower, not just as a singer and dancer, but his ability to command the screen. The other star is Ashley Tisdale, the bitch-queen – a role not all that difficult to play, but Tisdale plays the ego-driven Sharpay with enough vulnerability to create a third dimension to the stock character.

Surprisingly, the least entertaining aspect of the series are it’s musical sequences. The songs in particular are tier-2 forgettable pop tunes at best and never really got my feet tapping. Even the big screen third entry in the series doesn’t come close to touching it’s main influence “Grease”.

The new release DVD and Blu-Ray of the HSM 3 will help Disney overcome ‘these troubled economic times’, and the new ‘Remix version’ of the original film will mean just more black ink for that title.



Tuesday, 17 February 2009

THE INTERNATIONAL


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

***

Tom Tykwer is one of cinema's most original and adaptive directors. We all know his visual acuity from "Run Lola Run", but his underrated "Perfume", "Heaven" and even his "Paris Je T'Aime" segment show he has some underused talents screaming to break out into the mainstream. Is The International his break out film?

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. I'm ready for a sequel.



Monday, 16 February 2009

SIDEWAYS


Sideways (2004) dir. Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

****

“Sideways” was a great success story. The modest comedy without any particular marketable hook other than great characters turned critics’ heads around in 2004 and garnered a well-deserved Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar as well as nominations in most of the major categories.

With five years of hindsight, the film the ages well and packs as much of an emotional punch as it did back then. At its heart its a unique male buddy film – the word du jour would be a ‘bromantic comedy’. Two guys bonding on a weeklong roadtrip in Napa Valley. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a forty-something divorcee and struggling author. He has arranged a relaxing week of wine-tasting with his buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who’s about to get married. Jack's agenda is for he and Miles to get laid – specifically Miles whom he's desperate see to break out of his two-year long post-divorce depression.

Jack, as wingman, brokers a four-way date with a pair of attractive middle-agers and fellow wine connoisseurs Maya and Stephanie (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh). While Stephanie and Jack’s libidos explode immediately Miles’ courtship of Maya is carefully, slowly revealing his neurotic fears and painful regrets. But Jack’s heinous lies burden both relationships resulting in even more painful heartbreak.

Characters rules in "Sideways" and each actor inhabits their skin with complete honesty. In some way or another we can all relate to their situations. For Miles, his internal pain is a lifelong pattern of failure – career failure and relationship failure. In addition to complete self-absorption, to replace his emptiness Miles obsesses about everything to do with wine. Jack as the womanizing pick-up artist is both the angel and devil on his shoulder. While his philandering behaviour is completely reprehensible his devotion to his best mate is admirable. It’s a classic male relationship, which Payne characterizes with perfection.

Payne has remarkable control of his tone, moving fluidly between somber reflections on life to absurd comedy and all the shades of grey in between. Aiding this is Payne’s modest camerawork, unstylish and unassuming, but hardly rudimentary. Perfect framing and camera placement, subtle camera moves emphasize and aid all the poignant and comic moments with pinpoint accuracy. Rolfe Kent’s music is equally unflashy but so important to Payne’s tone, a gentle mix quirky and melancholy.

From the four films by Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor, they could be argued as one of the great writing duos in film comedy. From “Citizen Ruth”, “Election”, “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” (as well as marvelous segment in “Paris Je T’Aime”) this eight-year examination of ordinary middle class America and the variations of character neuroses reminds us of Woody Allen’s remarkable output from late 70’s to the late 80’s.

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



Sunday, 15 February 2009

OUR MAN IN HAVANA


Our Man in Havana (1959) dir. Carol Reed
Starring: Alec Guinness, Maureen O’Hara, Burl Ives, Noel Coward, Ralph Richardson

***

“Our Man in Havana” reunites after 10 years the team from “The Third Man” – once again Graham Greene adapts the screenplay from his own story and Carol Reed, that venerable British filmmaker, directs. While not the memorable classic of the former “Our Man in Havana” plays well as a companion piece– a satirical spy film subverting the seriousness of “The Third Man”.

Alec Guinness is Jim Wormwold, a lowly vacuum salesman living in Havana Cuba with his daughter Milly (Jo Morrow). As a single father his personal aspirations and the dream life he imagined were put on the backburner for long hours and hard work. One day, a British secret serviceman offers him a job as a spy for the government. Suddenly this regular working class schmo is learning secret codes and other covert spy-novel tactics. His job – to infiltrate the Cuban elite and recruit more spies to work on his behalf – like a pyramid scheme for spies. When Wormwold starts having trouble finding recruits, he invents them in a series of tall tales of surveillance and espionage fed back to London.

One day a secretary (Maureen O’Hara) assigned to him from London shows up. Suddenly he has to prove that his contacts exist deepening further his web of lies. But when one of his fake recruits is killed by real covert agents Wormwold has to become a real spy to protect himself and Milly.

“Our Man in Havana” links up with “The Third Man” in a number of clever ways. Alec Guinness, like Joseph Cotton, is an innocent man caught up in an ever-deepening web of intrigue. With Wormwold characterized as an affable everyman the tone plays more as a satire of the spy genre - a time before the James Bond films, but when Ian Fleming’s novels were popular. Greene and Reed are not so subtle at mocking the naïve stubbornness of British government whom Wormwold cons with ease.

Reed’s glorious black and white wideangle frames capture all the authentic sights and sounds of the real Havana locations. Even the in-car scenes are shot with a properly mounted camera rig, forsaking the in-studio process technique. Reed has fun dutching the angle of his camera at appropriate times, continuing with the same visual language he used with “The Third Man”. And Guinness’ final confrontation with his nemesis Carter, reminds us of Harry Lime’s famous sewer chase through Vienna.

If you notice the year the film was made, it coincides perfectly with the year of the Cuban Revolution. Remarkably the film was shot mere months after Castro took power. How could this happen? Since the film was made before Castro aligned with the Soviets, once the script was oked by the new regime the filmmakers were allowed complete freedom. The result is one of, if not the last, ‘Western’ film production shot with complete freedom in Cuba. Enjoy.

"Our Man in Havana" is available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment" packaged in their new set of 'Martini Movies'.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

MY BLOODY VALENTINE


My Bloody Valentine (1981) dir. George Mihalka
Starring: Paul Kelman, Lori Hallier, Neil Affleck, Cynthia Dale and Don Francks
***

My Bloody Valentine 3-D (2009) dir. Patrick Lussier
Starring: Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith and Kevin Tighe
*1/2

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

“My Bloody Valentine” is one of the best slasher movies ever made, and one of the primary reasons it’s so good is that it’s Canadian. Both of these assertions (proclamations, if you will) might be viewed with a mixture of skepticism and gales of derisive laughter. Well, doubt away and yuck-it-up to your heart’s content, I stand by this controversial claim – especially in light of all the remakes of 70s horror fouling our screens, and most notably the dull, staggeringly competent 3-D remake of “My Bloody Valentine” itself.

Of all the slasher pictures from this period, this delectable Canuck blood spurter splashed onto the silver screen with an indigenous sense of time and place that contributed very significantly to the overall creepiness of the picture. Unlike the demonic, unstoppable, supernatural forces of Jason, Michael and Freddie, the central killer in “My Bloody Valentine” is a disgruntled miner who, due to the carelessness of some colleagues and mine officials, is trapped in a deadly mine explosion wherein he is eventually forced to devour the flesh of his deceased co-workers in order to survive. As the accident happened on the night of a Valentine’s Day Dance at the Union Hall in town, our reluctant cannibal miner begins a reign of terror that forces the mining town of Valentine Bluffs to stop presenting a Valentine dance for 20 years. After two decades, however, the citizenry feel that it’s time to resurrect the annual love-fest, especially since the killer has been safely incarcerated in a loony bin.

Bad move. No sooner than you can spit-out a Valentine salutation or create a saliva rope whilst kissing your best gal (or guy), the mysterious miner – replete with super-scary helmet, goggle eyes, Darth-Vader-like breathing mask, adorned in blacks duds from head to toe and utilizing a variety of fine items like pick axes, nail guns, rope and other mining accoutrements, begins to dispatch a whole passel of townsfolk in some of the most grotesque, stomach-turning killings ever committed to film. (The killings are even more delightful now that they’ve been restored to their unrated, uncensored glory on the new special edition DVD from Lionsgate). My favourites include death by tumble dryer, face-in-a-pot-of-boiling-hot-wiener-water (one of the greatest pot p.o.v. shots ever) and an impaling from the neck and out through the mouth on a gushing water pipe

While some might argue that the abovementioned proceedings may seem stock, if not downright derivative of the earlier work of the likes of Mario (“Twitch of the Death Nerve”, “Blood and Black Lace”) Bava, Bob (“Black Christmas”) Clark and John (“Halloween”) Carpenter, the fact remains that there is absolutely no attempt to hide the fact that this is set IN Canada, IN a real mining town, IN Nova Scotia, IN a real mine and featuring an all-Canadian cast replete with unmistakably Canadian accents (including some obviously “local” extras). This goes a long way to creating an experience that makes the genre’s situations and requirements richer and, dare I say it, more realistic. Not that the film is replete with the typically “quirky” Canadian casting – most of the young leads are suitably hunky and/or babe-o-licious (especially leading lady Lori Hallier), but they look especially appealing in their Canadian-hoser plaid, faded jeans, dirty caps and small town and decidedly (un)chic Woolco/K-Mart duds. (Though one young lady appears to be adorned in an angora sweater – Hubba! Hubba!) That said, there are a number of supporting players who feel a bit more “quirky” including a John Candy look-alike fat guy who ends up being pretty tough and courageous – that’s definitely “Canadian”. And kind of cool, too. (The only obvious non-Canadian thing is that Don Francks plays a sheriff – something Canucks do not really have presiding over the law and order of small towns.)

The way in which director George Mihalka uses his excellent locations is especially welcome. The small-town union hall, the Laundromat, the numerous signs proudly proclaiming the availability of Moosehead Beer and that dank, dark, creepy and VERY REAL mine all contribute to presenting a tale of terror with a real local flavour. In scene after scene, Mihalka makes practical and imaginative use of everything real that’s available to him – certainly something every good filmmaker should do, but especially when directing a thriller. Hitchcock’s rule of thumb in terms of utilizing EVERYTHING that is naturally around you to generate thrills is exploited beautifully in this picture by both the script and Mihalka’s direction.

In addition to the great locations, both the art direction and costume design go a long way to creating a work that lives beyond the stock situations. As well, the cinematography is first-rate. Above ground, there’s a terrific, slightly over lit quality that captures every decrepit detail of the town and in the mine, the use of light, shadow and black is expertly rendered and adds considerably to the terror below.

As for the recent 3-D remake of the abovementioned, the less said about it, the better. It’s certainly not awful – in fact, it’s worse than awful – it’s mind-numbingly competent. No colour, no flavour, an idiotic reworking of a workmanlike script, generic casting (save for a deliciously enjoyable Kevin Tighe) and pretty decent digital 3-D effects are about the best that can be said for it. It is, frankly, night and day compared to Mihalka’s original. Where Mihalka’s picture goes above and beyond the call of duty, this 3-D incarnation is content to keep its tongue planted annoyingly and firmly in cheek and solely delivering on the 3-D gore rather than trying to creating anything resembling character or atmosphere.

The strained changes to the original story and characters in the remake are in no way more layered – they’re merely overwrought and occasionally confusing. Not that I DON’T enjoy movies that are mere excuses for the technology – in fact, I didn’t mind “Journey To the Centre of the Earth” at all because it so un-apologetically was about the effects, but “My Bloody Valentine 3-D” pathetically attempts to have it both ways and because of this, eventually becomes tiresome.

At the end of the day (or night, if you will) it’s great that Lionsgate secured the rights to the original “My Bloody Valentine” from Paramount and expertly restored it to the glory originally envisioned by its makers. The especially cool thing is that these enhancements are JUST THAT – enhancements. “My Bloody Valentine” always felt like an original and stayed in one’s mind for over two decades. Now, it is in a much better form where it can shock, thrill and delight future generations of horror fans.

The original 1981 “My Bloody Valentine” is available on DVD from Lionsgate Home Entertainment. “My Bloody Valentine 3-D” is currently in general theatrical release, but will soon become available on DVD via Lionsgate also.

Friday, 13 February 2009

FRIDAY THE 13TH - PARTS 1-3


Friday the 13th Parts 1, 2, 3 (1980-82) dir. Sean S. Cunningham, Steve Miner
Starring: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Any Steel, Richard Brooker

*1/2 (Part 1)
*** (Part 2)
* (Part 3)

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ah-Ah-Ah. That familiar music sting used to bring chills to my spine and induce nightmares in my childhood. Watching these films back in the day, with its reputation of extreme depravity and gruesomeness, at least to a 5-8 year old was as illicit as watching porn. It couldn't be anything further than the truth. Little did I know they were just cheap Halloween knock offs made to exploit some teenage sex and death.


The first three films have been repackaged and re-released on DVD by Paramount Pictures. The third one, in 3-D, actually contains two pairs of 3-D glasses to watch it authentically at home with your partner. Let's take a look back at these first three films:

If "Halloween" birthed the genre of the masked slasher horror flick, “Friday the 13th” made it a cliché and quickly ruined it. Despite being one of cinema's venerable franchises (and the reboot version is released today) few of these films were actually very good. Unlike "Halloween", a series which started with perfection and gradually gave us lesser returns, “Friday the 13th” started with a bad film and contined to be consistently bad throughout the years.

If taken as intentional the original film can be quite hilarious. A group of 1980-era teenagers wearing ill fitting belly high jeans, bright red hot pants travel to derelict Camp Crystal Lake for some sex frolicking fun. Little do they know years ago a young boy drowned because some similarly aged, equally libidinous teenagers weren't paying attention. As a result a curse has continued to this day which will ensure the untimely death of all of them.

In the early part of the series there was a clear formula, in the first two acts, we only ever saw the murders from the killer's point of view, and only when there were one or two people left was the killer revealed. There’s actually very little suspense in the first film. Seeing the killer only from a POV with the victims looking straight down the barrel of the camera limits the options for scaring us. Foreshadowing includes the bicyle-riding god-fearing town crazy Ralph, a usual second act rainstorm, POV shots from the woods, and the weaponry which will be used by the killer later on the film. Whether its a someone chopping wood with an axe, or shooting a bow and arrow we know the kids will ironically by killed by their own instruments.

After being sorely disappointed rewatching the first film I was genuinely surprised by the second. "Friday the 13th Part 2" is legitamately a good film. Another franchise consistency we see born in the second film is the opening recap. We get to see the final 5mins of the original film replayed at the beginning of the second. While the set up is the same - sexpot camp counsellors go back to Crystal Lake and get slaughtered, the protagonist in the Part 2 is played by an actor who can actually act. 80's TV veteran Amy Steel is a solid anchor, someone we actually want to escape and survive her torturous adventure with Jason. Jason in the second film is at his scariest. He doesn't get his iconic hockey mask until midway through the third film, but in part 2 his mask is a simple white bag over his head. The final act, a lengthy chase through the woods and through the cabins is as intense as any horror film today. At the end we get a legitimately gruesome look into Jason's layer full of severed heads of his victims and a shrine to his dead mother.

Part 3 is just plain terrible - worse than Part 1. Director Steve Miner who elevated the series in part 2 takes it down a few notches by going with a 3-D gimmick. Miner seems to concentrate so much on the 3-D gags that he forgets to make a scary movie.

I recall Part IV with Corey Feldman as being a decent film, but that's my 25 year old memory. I'll need to revisit that one soon to see if holds up. Enjoy.

"Friday the 13th" on Blu-Ray features audio commentary from director Sean Cunningham, and a host fun and irreverant featurettes on the franchise.


Thursday, 12 February 2009

NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST


Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) dir. Peter Sollett
Starring: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Jay Baruchel

**

A forgettable entry in the 'one-great-night' film genre plays like Generation Y version of “American Graffiti” or “Dazed and Confused”. It’s a warm and honest character piece that tries hard not to fall into cliché, or that Garden State earnestness. An aloof superiority threatens to creep in, resulting in an off-putting tone of early 90’s angst.

Michael Cera plays Nick, a high school student and bassist for an unsigned hipster band. He’s just broken up with his girlfriend and still harbours some feelings towards her even though she has moved on without looking back. Norah is in the same boat with her boyfriend whom she just can’t say no to. Norah knows Nick via his elaborate and hopelessly romantic mix CDs he has given to his ex-girlfriend who attends the same school. They meet coincidentally after Nick’s show and spark a fun and rambunctious Before Sunrise-type relationship while they aggressively search for a mystery concert to be played by their mutual favourite band with a ridiculous name of “Where’s Fluffy”.

Michael Cera is the ideal actor to play this role, but it’s also something we’ve seen from Cera before. His geek schtick is in full-force and for me his drole understated humour is more miss than hit. Like Martin and Lewis, he plays better against a Jerry Lewis, over-the-top comic partners like “Superbad’s Jonah Hill” or Will Arnett. And so the film is barely a comedy, and barely a drama – middle ground of self-importance which walks a fine line between thoughtful and just plain boring.

Director Peter Sollett also suffers from having his soundtrack hipper and more enjoyable than his film. As with these abovementioned ‘one night’ flicks the music of the time and place is a character of its own. In this case it’s the indie-hip alt-rock music scene. Great tunes from “We Are Scientists”, “Band of Horses”, “Vampire Weekend” and the Dead 60’s” set the bar high which the content on the screen just can’t keep up with.

“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” moves from event to event, one hip location to another, consciously trying to tap into that idealistic  fantasy which represents all the best moments of one’s high school memories. But perhaps I'm just too cynical. 

“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment



Wednesday, 11 February 2009

QUARANTINE


Quarantine (2008) dir. John Erick Dowdle
Starring: Jennifer Carpenter, Jay Hernandez, Steve Harris, Jonathan Schaech

**1/2

“Quarantine” tests the waters once again of the fake video camera films like “Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield”. Told from the point of view of a news crew on a story about LA Fire Fighters, a zombie horror crisis arises in a locked down tenement building. It’s a remake of the Spanish horror flick “Rec” directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza of which I confess not having seen, so I can’t say, “the original was better’. So take this review as unbiased.

It’s Los Angeles and a young, ambitious and spritely TV news reporter Angela Videl (Jennifer Carpenter) is doing a story on fire fighters. From the point of view of the TV camera we follow her through the fire hall and meet the fun loving working class fireman who gab and joke around with typical male machismo. When a call goes out for a fire, finally Angela gets the action she’s been waiting for.

She and the cameraman (still rolling) tag along covering every moment of the action. When they arrive at the building it’s just a medical emergency, a crazed woman frothing at the mouth has to be subdued by two cops. No big deal right? Wrong. When they think all is well, the body of one of the cops is dropped over the staircase rail to his death. WTF? More and more people start exhibiting strange behaviour. Before long Angela and her pals are in a Romero zombie film. When they find themselves locked in or “Quarantined’ it becomes a clausterphobic game of survival – all in front of the cameras.

I had a major problem with “Cloverfield’s” stylistic starting point – the point of view camera. While it’s an interesting way to tell a story, for me it never enhances the story beyond what could be told with traditional coverage. In "Quarantine" since the camera is actually a TV ENG camera, the picture quality and camerawork is broadcast worthy so we’re saved from the nauseating handycam shake of "Cloverfield". Thank god.

Though the presence of the POV camera is meant to create a world of reality, the filmmakers are still manipulating us with traditional cinema techniques. For example, there’s a scene toward the end when Angela fearfully avoids a meandering zombie. She covers underneath a desk while watching the scary beast wander around. The camera holds on Angela’s close-up instead of the zombie. This is cinema, not reality. If this were a real newsman, he’d film the zombie – a much more compelling image than the news reporter. This is the image I wanted to see as the viewer as well. But Dowdle is a filmmaker before he is a newsman and so his cinema instincts is to show the reaction of his character instead of the action itself. By not showing the zombie he’s teasing the audience (like Spielberg not showing the shark). It works for cinema but not for news. 

This is just one example of the contradiction this new POV technique never gets right, and why “Cloverfield” and “Quarantine” is frustratingly distracting. The irony is that the technique actually gets in the way of the story, as opposed to freeing it up.

But how is the film you ask? Even though rabies is the disease, it’s still a zombie movie – but a decent zombie movie, as cynical and uncompromising as any in the genre. Though Jennifer Carpenter becomes more and more annoying as the picture moves along we genuinely care about Dowdle's characters and want them to escape. Genre fans not bothered by the style will be stimulated by this decent genre film.

“Quantantine” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on Feb 17