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

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

OLD JOY


Old Joy (2006) dir. Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Will Oldham, Daniel London

***

A good friend of mine and DFD contributor Blair Stewart said of “Old Joy”, some films are served better by a short running time. Specifically if “Old Joy”, which only runs a scant 76mins, were 10 mins longer would have seemed like an eternity.

It’s remarkably simple – Mark (Daniel London) is a comfortably married 30-something, with a child on the way. Kurt (Will Oldham) is his old friend from childhood, who lives a carefree, bohemian, almost transient existence. They decide to go on a camping roadtrip in the Oregon mountains in an effort to respark a friendship which seems to have gone in two separate directions. Their destination is a derelict natural hot springs spa somewhere off the map, a place literally and metaphorical Mark needs to go in order take the next steps in his life.

Very little happens. I think I get it, the journey serves as a way for Kurt to break Mark out of his bottled self-control. Until the duo reach they’re journey Mark questions Kurt’s directions, phones home to his wife to report on his trepidations with following Kurt blindly without a map. For Kurt, it’s all an exercise, a grand plan of sorts to open Mark’s mind the world outside his own personal needs, goals and petty problems. All of this inferred – we don’t know what problems Mark has, or if he has any at all. It doesn’t matter though, because Mark represents us, the audience. For all the city or suburban dwelling yuppies Will Oldham’s free-spirited worry-free lifestyle is not a threat but a guide toward freedom.

Oldham – who is also folk musician Bonnie Prince Billy – who plays Kurt, is the perfect muse for Mark. Physically, his unkempt beard and straggly balding blond locks immediately seems threatening to Mark’s conservative lifestyle. As the two embark on their journey we feel as if Kurt is leading Mark into a disaster waiting to happen.

If there were a climax it would be the natural spa bath Mark and Kurt take together. Both naked, completely vulnerable in the desolateness of the environment, Kurt moves out of his bath and gives Mark a massage. It’s not sexual, but the contact has a delicate imtimacy which clearly makes Mark uncomfortable. In this short scene Mark’s discomfort gradually dissolves sending him into the transcendental state, Kurt was seeking for him.

Writer/Director, Kelly Reichardt, one of the stars of a new brand of American independent filmmaking – a stripped down raw, ultra-low budget aesthetic merging social realism with Dogme 95, but remaining wholly American.

I certainly disagree with how many critics have praised "Old Joy" as a masterpiece. While admirable, it doesn't really add anything more than any other contemplative roadtrip film. The result is the same with them all - the act of the journey is more important than the destination. This seems to the point of "Oldjoy", distinguished solely by it's insistance on avoiding making its point.


Sunday, 29 March 2009

LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST


Landscape in the Mist (1988) dir. Theo Angelopoulos
Starring: Michalis Zeke, Tania Palaiologou, Stratos Tzortzoglou

****

Greek master Theo Angelopoulos, whose career which began in the 1970’s and produced several ‘masterpieces’ according to international critics, never really made it big in North America like other European directors did (ie. Almodovar, Kieslowski). In 1998, he won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for “Eternity and a Day” and even that couldn’t make him break into North America. And so, Mr. Angelopoulos has remained a European master.

Many of his films are available on DVD through those wonderful niche distributors like the now-defunct New Yorker Films, or Artificial Eye. I’ve only seen a couple of his films, but by reputation alone, they've have been described as slow moving, meditative art films, with obtuse themes which have difficulty translated to mainstream audience.

“Landscape in the Mist” is no exception, but with patience, this film provides an accessible, emotional and artfully profound entry point to this man’s career.

The film’s opening narration is from a young 12 year old girl Voula (Tania Palaiologou) who reads a bedtime story of creation to her five-year old brother Alexander (Michalis Zeke), ‘in the beginning there was dark, and then there was light’. Heavy stuff to begin a film for sure, but it feeds directly into the theme of discovery of one’s origins. We then see Voula and Alexandre embark on a journey from Greece to Germany to find their unknown father, and escape the detached life with their mother.

They soon get kicked off the train for not having a ticket, forcing them to move on foot. They meet up with Orestis (Stratos Tzortzoglou) a handsome young stagehand of a travelling theatre group. He has a bus and space, and so the pair quickly become a threesome. The trio split up and reconnect several times over the journey, but the more they travel together the more they develop a deep emotional connection with each other – a bond which makes the journey that much more difficult to complete.

From the lengthy opening shot, which tracks across a busy train station framing the two children waiting on the platform, it’s clear Angelopoulos has a unique cinematic eye and a statement to be made with his technical craft. His frames are immaculately composed, usually in a wideshot, rarely edited beyond a single shot and take for each scene. Just the visual look of the two children, one short, one not-so-short beside each other, engulfed by the stark environments they pass through is evocative. Angelopoulos replaces the power of the close-up with the power of the juxtaposition of the innocence of the children with the stark industry wasteland looking down at them.

The slow deliberate pace, timed with Angelopoulos languid camera movements reward the viewer with a number of devastatingly emotional scenes. The final departure of Orestis from Alexandre and Voula is a real weeper, and Voula’s painful experience in the back of a truck is a frightening off-camera moment.

Theo Angelopolous is not for all tastes – I didn’t even think I would have a taste for him – which is what makes “Landscape in the Mist” a profound discovery I will treasure for a while.

Sorry, I couldn't find a decent English trailer:


Saturday, 28 March 2009

POLYTECHNIQUE


Polytechnique (2009) dir. Denis Villenueve
Starring: Maxim Gaudette, Karine Vanasse, Sébastien Huberdeau

***

Almost everyone in Canada of a certain age remembers where he or she was when they first heard about the Montreal Massacre. That day, Dec 6, 1989, a disgruntled and unstable young man, with hateful misogynistic fervour, took a gun into Montreal Polytechnique University and killed 14 female engineer students and injuring 14 more, before killing himself. It was an event not unlike the Columbine tragedy, or 9/11, which brought the nation together as every year since, on its anniversary, Dec 6 is commemorated as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

All these years later, a cinema version of this story has been produced. With careful trepidation Denis Villeneuve's film “Polytechnique” pays respect for the victims without sacrificing the needs of storytelling, creative license, and art.

With a tragedy so recent and as yet undocumented, there was really only one way to tell the story. Thus Villeneuve uses the two best examples, Gus Van Zant’s “Elephant” and Paul Greengrass’ “United 93”,  combining tones of dramatic realism and artful meditation for a unique mixture which avoids imitation.

Immediately Villenueve’s use of black & white, seems just the right visual aesthetic. With B&W, the blood used on screen looks black, an effect which retains the startlingly intensity without overwhelming the audience with gore.

To show the events of the day Villeneuve follows the movements of two students, one female and one male as well as the shooter. We see the mundate real world details of their routines, getting up in the morning, eating breakfast, getting dressed, walking to school, conversing with friends. On this day Valerie (Karine Vanasse) is going to an interview with a faculty head looking to transfer into Aeronautical Engineering, a field which the administrator curtly explains is a difficult program for women. The demeaning statement which shocks and angers Valerie introduces the hateful motivations of the unnamed shooter.

When Villenueve follows the shooter (Maxime Gaudette) into the school we know his motivations from seeing his suicide note being written earlier in the day – a very specific anti-feminist mind-set. Where this comes from, we don’t know, but it’s hateful enough to premeditate his multiple murder-suicide. The violence in the school is shown with uncompromising systematic realism as Villenueve follows the man through the halls, barely talking, just pointing and shooting.

The third point of view is a young male friend of Valerie's, Jean-Francois (Sébastien Huberdeau), who's forced to leave the room when the shooter divides one of the classes of students into male and female. We watch as his conscience commands him to retrace his steps back into the warzone to find and save his friend.

The only piece of artificiality unfortunately is the English-language version currently playing in English Canadian theatres. The film was dually shot in both official languages, but knowing that the Polytechnique was a French-language school at times took me out of the realism of the film. I completely understand the need for an English version, as it will certainly help penetrate the American market, but as a Canadian I did not want, nor need, to see the English version of this story.

This creative decision aside, Villeneuve has done this story right. Villeneuve’s statement is made complete with his emotional third act, which shows the audience the lingering effect of violence on those involved, and how the Montreal Massacre has both traumatized lives and inspired them.



Friday, 27 March 2009

STORYTELLING


Storytelling (2001) dir. Todd Solondz
Starring Selma Blair, Paul Giamatti, John Goodman

***

Guest review by Blair Stewart

Todd Solondz, agent-provocateur of American cinema, followed up the success of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness" with "Storytelling", his least regarded and most revealing work. Split into two parts of 'Fiction' and 'Non Fiction', Solondz uses taboo subjects of society as target practice before pointing the gun at himself.

In the brief chapter, "Fiction", Selma Blair plays Vi, a weak college student taught by a black teacher who's moral straight-jacket leads her to a night of unpleasant sex. Using this experience as writing fodder, she's further humiliated when her work is picked apart in class after a reading - possibly the sensation that a filmmaker has upon releasing a film into the open waters of public criticism.

Robert Wisdom is great as the predatory Mr. Scott, with brave work by Blair and an unrecognizable Leo Fitzpatrick as Vi's cerebral palsy inflicted boyfriend. The theme of this section is an attack on political correctness, with the creative writing classroom a Greek chorus of stupidity in public mores to tweak the audience. In a reoccurring conceit of the director's work, "Fiction" ends on a darkly funny punchline like a slap to the face.

In the longer chapter, "Non Fiction", Paul Giamatti shlubs it up as Solondz's alter ego Toby Oxman, an awkward documentarian making a film on the zeitgeist of adolescent slackers including Jersey suburbanite Scooby (Mark Webber). Beyond his listless subject Toby finds a goldmine of material in Scooby's family, with John Goodman channeling his old Walter Sobchak bit as Dad and Scooby's adorable, possibly sociopathic, younger brother Mikey (Jonathan Osser). Mikey will go and wander off into an excellent plot detour which pays off darkly when he takes an interest in the life of the long suffering Salvadorian maid.

The self-awareness of Solondz's reputation as both a commentator on middle-class values and a geek-show enthusiast is explored in this section. In a key moment, as Toby is questioned about his integrity towards the filmed subjects, he unconvincingly blurts out 'But I love them!" As the ambiguity of Toby as Solondz 'love' for his subjects lingers, the film also takes a moment for an unsubtle nut shot at the pretentious "American Beauty".

In the scenes devoted to Scooby's blooming sexuality and the secret pacts between brothers Solondz shows his evolving tenderness, something which would continue into next film "Palindromes". These moments elevate "Storytelling" from a marginally amusing black-humoured shooting gallery to something more meaningful. And the soundtrack by Scottish kings of twee-rock Belle and Sebastian provides a nice counterbalance to the plastic and dinnerware surroundings of the film.

His next project is a possible sequel to "Happiness" called "Forgivness", which after viewing is a title I hope won't be meant ironically. Enjoy.


Thursday, 26 March 2009

THE ROBE


The Robe (1952) dir. Henry Koster
Starring: Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Michael Rennie, Victor Mature

***

The first ever Cinemascope film gets a stylish Blu-Ray treatment timed well with Easter. Like most Bible-themed epics the intended scope and grandeur of the form is met with often laborious old-world dialogue, and heavy-handed symbolism.

In his breakout role, a young 28-year-old Richard Burton plays Marcellus Gallio a Roman tribune, both a playboy and antagonizer who quarrels with the Emperor incumbent Caligula. Gallio and his Greek slave/assistant Demetrius (Victor Mature) is exiled to Jerusalem. Once there, a certain Messiah named Jesus is making waves amongst the Romans, and when it comes to his Crucifixion Gallio finds himself involved.

Things changes when Gallio wins Jesus robe in a bet. Though he thinks nothing of it, the robe starts to haunt him, causing him nightmares and mental instability – the effect of which would ultimately change his outlook against the prevailing witchhunt against Christianity.

“The Robe” is a cinema benchmark and so, regardless of the quality of the film, it makes for interesting viewing. A fine High Def featurette explains in a comprehensive history lesson of the cinemascope process, from both business and creative points of view. We learn about the impact of “This is Cinerama”, which wasn’t really a movie but a theatrical showcase of the power of widescreen photography. The development of Cinemascope and the difficulties shooting are given the right amount of detail to satisfy the techie cinephile.

Even the making-of featurette summarizes a good chunk of post-war Hollywood, complete with all the Golden Era nostalgia, anecdotes and tall tales about the great moguls like Darryl F. Zanuck and William Fox. The history of the screenplay involves many of the people involved with McCarthy House of UnAmerican Activies Committee and the imprisoned Hollywood Ten, which enlightens the non-so-subtle witchhunt allegories in the film.

“The Robe” falls in the middle ground of this period of sword and sandal film – for my money, somewhere between John Huston’s “The Bible” and “Fall of the Roman Empire”. Other than the Cinemascope achievements, watch out for the great Ray Kellogg’s amazing matte photography work which realistically puts the audience into the Roman Period with maximum visual grandeur.

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



Tuesday, 24 March 2009

TO CATCH A THIEF


To Catch a Thief (1955) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Jesse Royce Landis, John Williams

**

Alfred Hitchcock made over 60 films, so there’s bound to be a dud or two in there. “To Catch a Thief” is arguably one of his weaker and most disappointing. Hitch making a heist film, in 1955 – in the middle of his greatest decade of work – should have been a knock out of the park, instead it’s one of his most sanitized unHitchcocklike films.


Cary Grant plays John Robie, a suave playboy and former cat burglar living in the French Riviera under an assumed name. When another burglar starts knocking off rich ladies' jewellery in his neck of the woods Robie becomes the chief suspect. By necessity and, in part, a gamely challenge, Robie comes out of retirement and puts himself in the line of fire in order to catch the imposter thief.

Robie decides to case the jewelry collection of an older American woman and her daughter vacationing. The younger gal, Frances (Grace Kelly) develops a close relationship with Robie, first as innocent flirting then revealing an attraction to his criminal burgling skills.  With the help of Frances and her Lloyds of London insurance agent Robie tracks down the elusive cat burglar in order to clear his name.

Of course, this radical two-star rating is in context of the other Hitchcock classics, as the film is not without merit. Grace Kelly and Cary Grant create major sparks, so much so Hitch shot their great seduction scene with a grand fireworks display in the background. Grace Kelly is stunning and obviously caught the eye of Prince Ranier of Monaco who would soon take her away from Hollywood and into European royalty.

A couple of car chase sequences are staged through the Cannes countryside, creatively shot entirely from a helicopter’s view. And every exterior location, shot in brilliant and bold widescreen technicolor, are stunningly beautiful.

But it’s the lack of effort Hitch shows with his heist scenes which disappoint most. A heist scene should be a showcase for Hitchcock’s best skills – stand-alone set pieces, focusing on action and suspense. The burglaries are shot with minimal if any tension with rudimentary shot selection.

1955 was also the year of "Rififi", Jules Dassin’s masterpiece, featuring the immaculately conceived and executed heist scene shot entirely in silence. Sadly both films were at the same time, we thus missed out on some creative one-upmanship.

"To Catch a Thief" is available on DVD in a new reissued Special Edition from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment


Monday, 23 March 2009

EL NORTE


El Norte (1983) dir. Gregory Nava
Starring: David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, Lupe Ontiveros, Trinidad Silva

****

One of the first Criterion Collection movies on Blu-Ray was Gregory Nava’s “El Norte”, released this January – a film I had honestly never heard of before, but was struck by Roger Ebert’s notation as “The Grapes of Wrath of our time”. While I think Nava’s work is a long way from John Ford’s, the themes and reach of the film and its success in dramatizing the then untold story of Latin American illegal immigrant migration is as remarkable.

The opening act is entitled 'Arturo Xuncax', introducing Arturo, father to teenage siblings Enrique and Rosa, poor peasant Guatelaman coffee farmers who ply lands operated with despotic control by rich landowners. When Arturo attempts to form a labour union with other peasants the landowners' military soldiers seize and murder him, leaving the kids with no options but to flee. Their destination is ‘El Norte’ – America, an alien world only known to them from stories and images from their Aunt’s dog-eared glamour magazines.

The second chapter, 'El Coyote', shows the arduousness of their journey from Guatemala, through Mexico and into California. In order to cross from Tijuana into San Diego, Rosa and Enrique have to crawl for miles underground through a tiny sewer pipe infested with hundreds of rats, a frightening scene of uncompromising horror . The third chapter, 'El Norte', takes place in Los Angeles once the pair reach their destination and become part of the illegal immigrant network of Los Angeles. While the pair appear to be living the dream, they are out of place and emotionally detached from their true home, which turns out to be their greatest struggle to overcome.

The journey makes for a film of surprising epic humanistic scope. Nava presents to the audience the politics and economics of three countries (Mexico, Guatemala and America) strictly from Enrique and Rosa’s optimistic point of view. The American business owners who hire Enrique and other illegal labour are never vilified, but presented as foreign alien society. We never know why the American business woman who presents Enrique with the option of leaving Rosa for a chance at a green card, wants to hire him, and we never know what work she wants him to do. Consistently we never feel Enrique and Rosa as being exploited – they are in control of their own destiny.

As leads the soulful faces of David Villapando and Zaide Silvia Gutierrez exhibit such honest humanity. For most of the film Enrique and Rose are unabashedly portrayed as righteous untarnished victims. Ironically this simplistic approach helps Nava avoid overt melodramatic manipulation. Their relationship is kept conflict-free, which makes Enrique’s climactic decision in the end, to either to go Chicago or stay in L.A with Rosa, heartbreaking.

Made in 1983, it was Gregory Nava’s second feature, financed outside of traditional theatrical channels via television pre-sales from PBS and Channel 4 UK. - an independent financing scheme which afforded Nava and his writing partner Anna Thomas their creative freedom. As a result 'El Norte' has a distinct new world, matter-of-fact social realist quality, a modern style which was so remarkably against the trend for 1983.

Gregory Nava has since become one of the most successful Latino-American directors. Nava would go on to direct “Selena”, “Mi Familia” and write Salma Hayek’s biopic, “Frida”. The sparkling and prestigious Criterion Collection Blu-Ray is the ideal showcase to rediscover this great film.

The corny trailer doesn't do the film justice:


Sunday, 22 March 2009

WON TON TON: THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD


Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) dir. Michael Winner
Starring: Bruce Dern, Madeline Kahn, Art Carney, Teri Garr, Phil Silvers and Billy Barty

*

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

When the notion of movies so bad they were good came to prominence in the 80s and 90s, thus yielding the Golden Turkeys, The Razzies and eventually Mystery Science Theatre 3000, it maddeningly gave license to critics and audiences to shove their pretentious tongues in their cheeks and knowingly wink at each other over the incompetence of whatever slobs had created and foisted these less-than-stellar works upon the movie-going public. A major target of this high-falutin’ derision was director Ed Wood Jr. and, in particular, his “Plan 9 From Outer Space”, proclaimed by these elitists as the worst film ever made. Wood’s films and many other Grade-Z efforts – incompetent or not – were replete with the pure joy and fun of moviemaking and more-than made up for their lack of production values with an obsessive quality that placed them in a class all on their own. The truly bad pictures were not Grade-Z efforts but rather, bloated studio misfires replete with big bucks and not one iota of joy, not one drop of entertainment value and certainly devoid of voice, style and a distinctive personality.

One such studio debacle was (and still is) the celluloid cesspool that is “Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood” – a total misfire – a movie so moronic and jaw-gapingly terrible it’s a mystery as to how it could have been green-lit, never mind made.

In 1970s Hollywood, perhaps in a pathetic search for the old glamour, the studios were obsessed with turning the camera back on their past and generating film after film set against the backdrop of “Old Hollywood”. While this resulted in some good work – most notably a clutch of terrific Mel Brooks movie parodies, John Schlesinger’s flawed, but still powerful “The Day of the Locust” and the “That’s Entertainment” franchise, one must come to grips with the nadir of the 70s; films like “Under the Rainbow”, “Gable and Lombard” and, among too many others, “W.C. Fields and Me”.

At some ill-conceived point, during this odd 70s zeitgeist, someone thought it might be funny to craft the story of early Hollywood and satirically focus on a canine star (not unlike that of Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and other doggies of a similarly heroic kind) and meld an innocent kids’ movie with Mel Brooks-like anarchy and fill it with interminable appearances by near-dead Old Hollywood stars in mostly cameos. On paper, this might have seemed like a good idea. In practice, however, it was quite the opposite.

One wonders why Michael Winner, a solid hack with a flair for nasty, brutal and extremely macho action, directed the film. Between 1971 and 1974, Winner delivered a series of near-classic action pictures including “Scorpio”, “Lawman” and four Charles Bronson shoot-em-ups: “The Mechanic”, “Chato’s Land”, “The Stone Killer” and “Death Wish”, but he was certainly not the wisest choice to direct a comedy. Did someone think he would bring an edge or sense of darkness to the material? He does neither. All he brings is utter incompetence.

In “Won Ton Ton…”, Bruce Dern is cast calamitously against type as a wannabe screenwriter-director and tour bus driver who uses his studio access to pitch ideas to a mogul played blusteringly by the otherwise great Art Carney. Along the way, Dern meets and romances a struggling ingénue played by an extra-shrill Madeline Kahn. The title character – a German shepherd takes a liking to Kahn and eventually joins her and Dern in an unholy trinity of Hollywood domination as they collectively contribute to the production of numerous blockbusters where the canine takes top billing.

The plot, if you can call it that, is a fortunes rise, fortunes fall and fortunes rise again trifle that might have been less offensively simplistic if the whole film wasn’t awash in bad casting, bad direction and bad taste. I have no problem with bad taste when it’s entertaining, but the sort of bad taste infusing “Won Ton Ton…” is risibly incompetent, stupid and mean-spirited. For example, the film has the tone of a family-oriented kiddie picture, but is rife with sniggering casting couch rape attempts and other sordid activities that make one wonder just who this picture was aimed at and most importantly, why and how the film was made at all.

The other noteworthy lack of taste is the use of cameo appearances by faded stars of the Silver Screen – most of them look bored, embarrassed and/or near death. Guy Madison, Huntz Hall, Victor Mature, Milton Berle, Johnny Weismuller, Dick Haymes, Joan Blondell, John Carradine, Alice Faye, Dorothy Lamour, Mike Mazurki – the list goes on – appear to be trotted out for the filmmakers to proclaim: “Here are a bunch of Old Hollywood stars who have been forgotten and will be dead soon! That’s okay; they’re getting double scale! Enjoy ‘em while you can!” One of the saddest cameos is that of the great comic actor Stepin Fetchit duded up in tails and top hat and performing a little shuck n’ jive – in extreme wide shot! We don’t even get to see his deliriously expressive face. For all the stereotypes he was forced to play in Hollywood over the years, his talent shone through. Here, he’s just an old Black man a shuckin’ and a jivin’. That’s what the filmmakers have reduced him to. It’s not funny. It’s not fun. It’s just plain sad.

Which brings me back to my original point. Laughing at movies BECAUSE they’re bad is ultimately a fool’s game. Detest what is truly awful. Detest what is devoid of joy. Detest incompetence. To laugh at it, to hold oneself up higher and take the Fifth Amendment of “Guilty Pleasures” is to raise (lower) oneself to the position of those who make truly bad pictures. Watching “Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood”, the only impression I am left with is that its makers attacked the material with the same kind of high-mindedness – to say they were better than those who came before them, to say how hip and sophisticated they were in comparison to the filmmakers and audiences at the dawn of cinema and in so doing, they ended up with a… well, uh… a dog.

“Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood” is currently available on the Legend Films DVD label as part of the series of titles that Paramount Pictures did not feel like distributing themselves.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK


Synecdoche New York (2008) dir. Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Tom Noonan

****

Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival I saw Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut and marveled at how incomprehensible and impenetrable it was, but acknowledged that a great movie was in there somewhere, I just had to find it. Rewatching the film, while completely awake, without the burden of having watched three other films before that very day, “Synecdoche New York” has finally become the transcendental experience I couldn’t find the first go ‘round.

It’s certainly Kaufman’s most idiosyncratic work of all his films – the story of a depressed hypochondriac playwright who literally puts his life into his next play and vice versa. It assembles all the themes, elements, humour and distinctive characteristics of his work with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry and placed it all on an even grander scale.

Kaufman’s alter ego in this film is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre writer with a seemingly loving wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and daughter Olive. Caden appears to suffer from a series of escalating ailments, which has Caden thinking he’s close to death. His wife has a career as a miniature painter – she paints really tiny canvases that can only been seen with a magnifying glass – and suddenly she finds herself becoming more famous as a bohemian contemporary artist. When fame calls she quickly dumps Caden and leaves for Europe with Olive. With his heart shattered Caden puts his life into his work to create his true masterpiece of the theatre.

In order to see into his own soul, Caden decides to hire an actor Sammy (Tom Noonan) to play himself who is writing and playing the production of this ultimate play. Except the ultimate play is a real time dramatization of his life. Even his assistant Hazal (Samantha Morton) gets in the act and casts an actress, Tammy (Emily Watson) to play herself. Since Sammy is playing Caden, like a true method actor Sammy wants to hire someone to play him, and so another version of Caden appears. Get it?? The real Caden falls in love with his assistant Hazal, but is confused when he develops an attraction to her alter-ego Tammy – same goes with Caden’s double. Get it??

Any narrative confusion disappears quickly on its second viewing, freeing the viewer up to soak up the film’s dreamlike melancholy. First time viewers will find Kaufman’s emotional core the rock solid anchor, conveying an overarching theme of the introspective artist with surprising clarity. The details in between are constructed like a stream of consciousness writer running wild without an editor - a David Lynchian nightmare from the perspective of Charlie Kaufman.

There are some truly wonderful Kaufman-esque moments. Caden’s wife Adele disappears early in the film after she moves to Germany, but her burgeoning career is referenced in numerous subtle ways. Adele is given a parallel existence alongside Caden’s, which we see in various media coverage placed innocuously in the background. I was reminded of that dramatic shift in “Being John Malkovich” when Craig Schwartz suddenly becomes a star puppeteer with a skyrocketing career.

There’s much in common thematically with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, both films take place over a long period of time, and depict aging in remarkably profound ways. Unlike the steady flow of time in Fincher’s film, Kaufman’s time frame is erratic. With little warning, the film moves forward years in time without any traditional transitions to bridge the gap. The second half of the film has a snowball effect of temporal paradoxes. The closest metaphor to use is one of those MC Escher paintings of a man walking down a set of stairs without moving anywhere. Though the film takes places over 40+ years, with Hoffman gradually getting older via prosthetic face make-up the film doesn’t appear to move anywhere. The effect is that feeling of, ‘where did the time go?’ With Caden engrossed in his work, time literally flies by, when suddenly one of the crew members says, “when are we going to get an audience in here, it’s been 17 years.”



Friday, 20 March 2009

KNOWING


Knowing (2009) dir. Alex Proyas
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury

**

I think it’s safe to say that most genre fanboys continue to hold hope that Alex Proyas would deliver on the promise shown in “Dark City” and “The Crow”. It’s been over 10 years and Proyas still seems to be chasing those movies. After “Knowing” fanboys will still be waiting. “Knowing” has grandiose ambitions, a story about apocalypse proselytizing, alien worlds, and existential themes of randomness vs. fate, which ultimately plunders from an illogical script.

A prologue shows us a little girl in 1959 haunted by ghostly voices commanding her to scribble a series of random numbers on a piece of paper to be deposited in school time capsule. 50 years later, in 2009, the son of MIT Mathematics professor John Koestler, Caleb Koestler, is given the capsuled letter after the opening ceremony. Koestler notices the numeric combination of 91101 in the sequence and deciphers the page as a prediction of all the major disasters of the past 50 years, plus three new ones, including the final apocalypse.

Naturally, John’s attempts to convince the authorities of this fall upon deaf ears, and so he’s forced to save the world all by himself. Caleb becomes endangered when he starts hearing the physic voices and becomes the target by a mysterious group of other-worldly shadowy men. As John unravels the mystery he comes face-to-face with the end of the world, and one beyond Earth.

You need a great script into order to squeeze high concept scientific theories of alien existence, numerology and apocalyptic philosophy into a 2 hour thriller. “Contact” attempted this approach, but of course, the two writers of that film were working from a novel by Carl Sagan. Ryne Douglas Pearson’s script (with the help of four other co-writers) doesn’t have the logical due diligence for it to make any sense at all.

At every turn Nicolas Cage’s character, who is supposed to be an MIT Professor reacts with blockhead common sense. For example, having knowledge of where and when the next major disaster will strike, John, decides to make an anonymous call of a bomb threat to the New York police. When he checks up on the location the next day and finds there’s no security he decides to chase after the first shifty-eyed suspect he sees. Narratively these actions serve only to provide us with an action scene and a telemarked twist of misdirection. Guess what, the shifty-eyed suspect was only carrying bootleg DVDs!

With no script to work with, and likely no time to develop it or re-write properly, Proyas attempts to make up its failings with three super-duper disaster set pieces. Each scene is visualized with an astonishing amount of graphic imagery. While intense, to see men and women flailing in pain from being burned alive from a plane crash seems grossly irresponsible and out of tone with the rest of the film.

Somewhere in “Knowing” there was a possibility for a great film. There are a number of well-executed chilling suspense scenes involving the mysterious ‘shadow men’. We’re reminded of those creepy cloaked Nosfertu creatures in “Dark City” with long black trenchcoats and scary albino hair. Proyas crafts three or four stunning stand alone sequences dripping with bone-chilling suspense, unfortuately sandwiched between cringe-worthy illogical nonsense.

The film is cast very badly as well. A film like this needs an honest character like Mark Ruffalo to sell the believability of the situation. Imagine what Blindness would have been if Nicolas Cage was cast? I’m also sorry to say that young Chandler Canterbury playing the prominent role as Cage’s son is sorely lacking the abilities.

“Knowing” has much in common with the grand missteps of Shyamalan’s “The Happening”, some scenes of legitimate suspense, mixed with ill-conceived apocalyptic and philosophical gibberish.

PS. Like James Newton’s Howard’s score in "The Happening", the music in "Knowing", possibly Marco Beltrami's best work, is wasted.



Thursday, 19 March 2009

NIXON


Nixon (1995) dir. Oliver Stone
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Woods, J.T. Walsh, Paul Sorvino

****

Certainly the last great film from Oliver Stone is “Nixon”, which came at the end of a remarkable 10-year streak of diverse and provocative films that both commented on and became hallmarks of contemporary culture and politics. It's a bold 192mins sprawling epic which never loses sight of the intimate complexities of its main character.

The film begins in 1974, towards the end of his quick decline and before his impeachment. We get to see Nixon drunk in his private study listening to those wiretap recordings and destroying the famed 18 1/2 mins gap of tape which some assumed to be his smoking gun. Through a number of ongoing flashbacks Stone moves back to chart the course of his life from his humble childhood in Whittier CA, where we see Nixon’s family life and how the expectations of his family affect his decisions in the present to his failed Presidential attempt against Kennedy in 1960 to his two terms in the White House and the Watergate scandal.

“Nixon” makes a great accompany piece to 1991’s “JFK”. Stone’s “Nixon” is less concerned about conspiracy as creating a composite of his political life and a character study of an admirable but flawed man.  While the extensive hallucinatory multi-media editing of archival footage in “JFK” compliments the conspiratory and hypothetical nature of that film Stone uses just the right amount of restraint with his technique in “Nixon”. While similar stylistically it never feels like Stone repeating himself.

The cavalcade of talented actors who fill the shoes of real life characters is a treat to watch. Stone smartly identifies each character with his role in the opening credits to give us all a head start (ie. David Hyde Piece as John Dean) allowing Stone to jump right in without labouring us with exposition.

The actors playing these characters 'sing' their often complex political jargon dialogue with complete honesty and conviction. We get to see James Woods as H.R. Halderman at the top of his acting career, in one of his best performances, and as his compatriot John Erlichman, J.T. Walsh, then one of the best character actors working in Hollywood. Walsh would sadly die only 3 years later robbing us of more fine performances. A roll call of great character actors too numerous to count make every scene in “Nixon” a delight.

The character of Richard Nixon seems to have enough complexities as to warrant repeated tellings of his story. Both Frank Langella’s Nixon and Anthony Hopkins' version explores the man's internal self-loathing and inferiority complex which allowed him to think he needed to cheat win his election. From two different stories Ron Howard’s film and Stone’s film show the crafty intelligence of Nixon and his supreme work ethic to maintain power.

"Nixon", in many ways, captures the best and worst of the American dream, the story of a poor farmer’s boy from Whittier California who rose to the top of the world through his shear will power and desire to win, but fell hard from the exploitation of that dream. Enjoy.



Wednesday, 18 March 2009

VIBES


Vibes (1988) dir. Ken Kwapis
Starring: Cyndi Lauper, Jeff Goldblum, Peter Falk, Julian Sands, Michael Lerner

*

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

At some point in the development of this property, there might have actually been something resembling a good movie waiting to get made, but this dull, clumsy romantic comedy without laughs and dollops of “Indiana Jones” and “Romancing The Stone” is one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had to endure in my many long years of slavish devotion to ingesting as many movies as humanly possible.

The movie that should have been good involves two psychics – one male and one female, with very different and ultra complimentary extra sensory skills who meet cute in a parapsychology lab and find themselves thrust together on a dangerous journey/mission and in the process, solve a mystery, nail the bad guys and fall in love. On the surface, this is, indeed, what happens, but alas the journey as rendered by director Ken Kwapis and the overrated screenwriting team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (“Night Shift”), requires the audience to nail its collective feet to the floor in order to actually sit through the picture in order to live to tell about it. The aforementioned simple storyline is a solid enough narrative coat hanger, but one needs a bit more than that to make a good movie.

First of all, one needs some cool shit to actually adorn the coat hanger with and the famed screenwriting duo do little more than dress it with the most dire, hackneyed events as the couple journey to a Latin American hell hole in order to help a crusty old rascal locate his missing son and find instead that they’re being used for more nefarious purposes.

An even greater sin is that the characters do little but exist beyond the status of cardboard cutouts. The male psychic has the ability to touch inanimate objects and both feel and see the people and events that have also touched the same objects. Not a bad idea, but the writers do little beyond using it as a mere and rather clunky device to move the story ever so conveniently forward. The female psychic is saddled with something far less interesting – she is endowed with a living voice in her head that imparts sage advice for her to impart, in turn, to others. This particular ability kind of renders the character as relatively passive and even the relationship between her and the voice in her head is not explored/exploited beyond being the most rudimentary of storytelling devices.

The less said about Kwapis’ lame, unexciting direction the better. He does little more than cover the action in the most basic manner. It’s vaguely conceivable that a director with some visual style might have rendered this tedious script with enough life to keep it at least watchable, but Kwapis, being a TV hack, is unable to do even this. Not that it’s surprising. One need only turn to the sort of feature work Kwapis did long after this film was made (“The Beautician and the Beast”, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and He’s Just Not That Into You”) and realize that he’s only as good as the material he gets and even then, like a Garry Marshall and others of that loathsome lack-of-style ilk, he can’t turn excrement to gold and he most certainly has it in him to turn gold into excrement. Worst of all, he basically makes mediocre television for the big screen and there’s nothing more annoying than that.

Finally, there is the matter of casting. Jeff Goldblum as the male psychic is ALWAYS worth watching. His handsome, yet geeky facial features, his lanky physique and those magnificent bright eyes come close to carrying him unscathed through the mess that is “Vibes”. Alas, Goldblum must share screen time with one of the most loathsome leading ladies ever to find her way onto a movie set.

Pop star Cyndi Lauper, five years after she recorded the hit girlie anthem “Girls Just Wanna’ Have Fun”, was shoe horned into this film and she attacks her role with all the grace of a hippopotamus. In what possible world did anyone think that she was going to be even remotely palatable on a big screen? Needless to say, when a romantic comedy displays absolutely no chemistry between the leads, not even an eminently watchable figure like Jeff Goldblum can remain untarnished.

Finally, while it’s always fun to watch Peter Falk at his trademark crusty and crotchety best, he’s not in his finest form here and he really does seem to be sleepwalking through this picture, dreaming no doubt about his pay cheque.

“Vibes” is a perfectly abhorrent affair. I dare you to watch it without clutching, for dear life, to an airsickness bag.

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

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

ROLE MODELS


Role Models (2008) dir. David Wain
Starring: Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott

**1/2

Before "I Love You Man", currently in theatres, the last round of musical chairs from the frat back of comedians was “Role Models”, starring Paul Rudd (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, “Anchorman”) and Seann William Scott (“Old School”). Near unanimous praise for this film has me scratching my head. With familiarity both leads fulfill their assumed roles, Rudd as the neurotic but lovable n’er do well, and Scott the obnoxiously crass manboy. Some decent gags are hit for singles in between an overriding arc of family values and goodness.

Danny (Rudd) and Wheeler (Scott) are a pair of best buds working in a pathetic dead end job promoting one of those Red Bull style energy drinks called Minotaur. The two old buddies have not grown up since their hey days in high school, and for Danny, his emotional stunting has resulted in the break-up with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks, again). Just when things are at their worst, their reckless behaviour causes them to trash their Minotaur truck, thus sentencing them to 150 hours of community service.

Their court-ordered good deeds comes in the form of a Big Brothers-type charity called 'Sturdy Wings'. Danny is teamed up with an uber-nerd Augie (Christopher Mitz-Plasse) whose life has disappeared into dungeon's & dragons culture. Wheeler is teamed up with a foul-mouthed kid who mentally abuses his mentors without impunity. Both kids test the patience of the cynical duo, but without knowing it, gradually learn how to mature without compromising the distinctiveness in all of us.

As usual for the genre the supporting characters take over the leads in the second act, a time when films like this inevitably struggles through laboured plotting. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, fresh off of "Superbad", plays Augie, the same character as his breakout role, except even geekier. He’s a teenager who is ridiculed by everyone even his parents for his uber-geeky participation in a medieval club (the unofficial rock bottom of loserdom) Bobb'e J. Thompson, who plays the foulmouthed trouble-child, offers some of the most absurd inappropriate gags, including a penchant for the f-word and calling all white people Ben Affleck. And Jane Lynch, who plays the ego-proud founder of the Sturdy Wings organization, steals almost everything in the film.

But the best of them all are the pathetic renaissance losers who antagonize Augie with their geek superiority. Ken Jeong who plays King Argotron is frequently a minor player in the Judd Apatow/Adam McKay/Will Ferrell bunch having had spot roles in "Step Brothers" and "Knocked Up" as is Joe Lo Truglio ("I Love You Man", "Pineapple Express", "Superbad") who plays Argotron number one knight Kuzzik.

"Role Models" is the mainstream conventionality breakout film for David Wain who, in addition to writing and directing odd perverse TV comedy like the sketch show "The State" spun his wheels with old school raunch-fests "Wet Hot American Summer". Perhaps something more in the middle of these two films would have made this stick better with me. If I were to rank "Role Models" against the other films of it's ilk, it certainly wouldn't reach the comic heights of "Knocked Up" or "Anchorman", perhaps a notch below "Saving Sarah Marshall", and on par with "I Love You Man". Enjoy.

"Role Models" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment



Monday, 16 March 2009

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE


Things We Lost in the Fire (2007) dir. Susanne Bier
Starring: Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro, David Duchovny, Alison Lohman

***

In the last scene of “Things We Lost in the Fire” Benicio Del Toro’s character Jerry Sunborne speaks to camera, repeating the line “one day at a time, one day at a time”. This mantra is the running theme in former Dogme 95 director Susanne Bier's first American film - an honest humanistic story about recovery from tragedy.

Jerry Sunborn is a recovering heroin addict and Halle Berry’s character, Audrey is recovering from the sudden death of her husband, Brian (David Duchovny). These details are carefully laid out to us in the opening act like a non-linear puzzle. The first scene takes place after Brian's death, when Audrey remembers she forgot to invite David’s childhood friend Jerry to the wake. Who is Jerry? Flashing back we see Brian and Jerry interact, revealing a pair going in opposite directions – Brian’s secure family life and Jerry’s irresponsible downward spiral of drug dependency.

When the characters and inciting events are unraveled we’re left with a woman with two children widowed and an addict lost without his own trustworthy friend. Instinctively Audrey invites Jerry to stay with her and the kids – in part to help around the house, but really to be someone to take Brian’s place. As Jerry becomes closer with Audrey’s children the more she realizes the irresponsibility of replacing their father as such.

The events of film, despite the heavy material, manages to eschew melodrama and surprisingly come out hopeful and optimistic. Off the top the films bears the heavy weight of Brian’s death – a man characterized as near saintly, well-educated family man, with an enviable moral core. There’s no tarnish on Brian to discover only an ideal life Audrey may never be able to find again.

And so Audrey’s actions are taken “one day at a time”. Her invitation to Jerry to stay is made with dishonesty, at one point she ponders trying heroin to provide her an escape from her pain. Actions and thoughts like this aren’t made with the long term in mind, but the day by day thought processes of someone struggling to fit themselves back into a previous life.

Jerry Sunborn’s recovery is not as complex. Jerry is too reactive, instead following Audrey, her kids and her friends, rarely questioning or conflicting substantially with her actions. Sunborn’s goals and desires are never broaded past his need to go straight. Bier and writer Allan Loeb even let the character off the hook when we learn that Jerry was a lawyer before his addiction – a revelation which easier allows the audience to accept Jerry’s recovery.

“Things We Lost in the Fire” was Susanne Bier’s first American film. If you haven’t seen her previous work, specifically her trilogy of intense humanistic Danish dramas (“Open Hearts”, “Brothers” and “After the Wedding”), best to start with these other titles. In this film her characters are never challenged strongly enough to think, despite the despair of the situation, they won’t come out stronger in the end. Specifically “Brothers”, is her most powerful film about a family torn apart by tragedy. Try and find that title.

“Things We Lost in the Fire” is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment



Sunday, 15 March 2009

MGM: WHEN THE LION ROARS


MGM: When the Lion Roars (1992) dir. by Frank Martin

**1/2

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, once the great studio of Hollywood glamour and prestige, now a mere shadow of itself, is brought back to life with this two-disc, three-part, six-hour saga. The series, which originally aired on Turner Network Television in 1992, chronicles MGM from its heyday to downfall. Unfortunately director Frank Martin channels the melodrama of those early films to create a tone of pompous self-importance.

Patrick Stewart, who in 1992 was at the height of his fame, introduces each segment dressed in a ridiculous robe and cravat, looking through a telescope into the fake stars behind a garish studio style set. With today's eyes it's as dated and painfully overwritten as those sickening musical montage tribute numbers we used to see at the Academy Awards.

A roll call of greying movie stars like Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Maureen O'Sullivan and Mickey Rooney wax poignantly and exaggerate on what sounds like tall tales of bombastic studio moguls, temperamental directors and other Hollywood hyperbole.

As a time capsule of the studio system though it's remarkably comprehensive and never uninteresting. From the studio's founding in 1924 to Hollywood's "greatest year," 1939 (the year of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind"), to its steady downfall in the '60s, nothing is left on the cutting room floor. We get to see clips, interviews and anecdotes from some great film rarities. The clips from the original 1925 "Ben Hur", then the most expensive movie ever made, are remarkable. MGM has managed to stay afloat thanks to its smart brand marketing of this Hollywood mythology.

This film and its musical compilation series, "That's Entertainment", continue to keep alive this remarkable period of creative production and remind us to look back at these roots of cinema to inspire us today. Look past the hackneyed gloss and it's a must see for any film buff. Enjoy.



Saturday, 14 March 2009

A MIGHTY HEART


A Mighty Heart (2007) dir. Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Will Patten, Archie Panjabi

***1/2

Rewatching "A Mighty Heart" brought back memories of “The Kingdom,” Peter Berg’s immature take on Americans/Islamic relations. The comparison only makes “A Mighty Heart” that much stronger – a more accurate and ultimately compelling version of essentially the same issues and themes.

In 2001, Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped by Muslim extremists in Pakistan. The film is told from the point of view of Mariane (Angelina Jolie) who patiently manages to navigate through the false rumours, politicking, and worldwide press fervour surrounding the case and focuses on finding Daniel. Dan Futterman is well cast as Daniel whom we get to know in the first act of the film and periodically in flashbacks throughout. Prior to his capture, he is a soft-spoken dedicated journalist and husband. The Pearls travel to Pakistan the day after Sept 11 to report on the activities of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. When Daniel gets a chance to interview Sheikh Gilani, a notorious terrorist, he knows he’s entering dangerous territory. Everyone Pearl talks to warms him but Pearl is ambitious and puts the story ahead of his safety. The night Pearl is to meet Galani, he disappears, never to return home.

When the Pakistani police become involved a complex web of terrorist connections slowly unravels. Like “All the President’s Men” one suspect leads to another, which leads to another etc etc. The names are so hard to keep track of Mariane and her friend Asra (Archie Panjabi) have to use a whiteboard to keep track of everything. We aren’t meant to follow or understand the trail, only to know that Pearl’s kidnapping was not random but a targeted and premeditated act of terrorism.

The film is directed by the multitalented Michael Winterbottom, a British filmmaker, who can work in any genre, but who recently has developed a naturalistic style of on-the-fly street filmmaking, an aesthetic with much common with Danny Boyle's. Winterbottom and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind shoot the film with local non-actors, in authentic locations with documentary-like believability. Watch, “24 Hour Party People”, “In this World”, and “Road to Guantanamo” to see the evolution of this style. The result is a film with 100% authenticity.

The film is edited with great pace. The lead-up up Pearl’s kidnapping is told with a fractured non-linear montage technique. Winterbottom enters conversations already in progress and exits before they are finished. At times this can be frustrating, especially when a new character is introduced but whom we don’t get to know until many scenes later. For example when we first see Will Patton, who plays an American authority, we only get a few lines out of him before Winterbottom cuts away. It’s a shame because Patton is such a good actor and I wanted to hear what he had to say. So this style can be obtrusive to the story, but since this is Mariane’s point of view I guess the motivation was to mimic the chaos of the event.

Unlike, Peter Berg, who turned his story into kill-at-all-costs action film, Winterbottom avoids all possible Hollywood traps. It would have been easy to inject internal conflict into the film by portraying the Pakistani police as backwards and unaccommodating to the Americans, instead the captain of the Pakistani counterterrorism unit who leads the investigation is as smart, dedicated and unwavering in his search as any of the Americans. Winterbottom is also able to create tension and suspense without resorting to guns, overt violence or action scenes. There’s a couple of moments of gunfire, but it’s not embellished.

Much of the credit of the film should go to producer Brad Pitt, who had the courage to put the film into Winterbottom’s hands as opposed to someone like Peter Berg’s. As a result “A Mighty Heart” may be a less accessible film, but it’s been told the best way possible, by preserving the integrity of Daniel and Mariane Pearl and all those involved in bringing the terrorists to justice. Enjoy.

"A MIghty Heart" is now available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Friday, 13 March 2009

Exclusive Screening of THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT

Hey Toronto Horror Junkies,

Come on out to an exclusive screening of THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT presented by Maple Pictures at the SKYY Cinema Lounge at CiRCA (126 John St, Toronto), March 25 6pm-10pm.

For $20, you get a preview screening of the film, an invite to the exclusive after party, and three comp drinks and food.

All proceeds go to support the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) - Canada's future storytellers. Tickets must be purchased in advance. Contact Tovah Barocas: tbarocas@cfccreates.com or 416-445-1446 x 272



DONNIE DARKO


Donnie Darko (2001) dir. Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell

***1/2

“Donnie Darko” had the misfortune of being released less than a month after 9/11. Having a plane crash and some domestic terrorism prevalent in the story and its general nihilist anti-establishment attitude effectively buried any chance of box office success. On DVD, the film became a word of mouth hit, and deservedly so. It’s an ambitious, sprawling and beguiling personal vision of teenage despair.

Richard Kelly puts us in the mind of a suburban teenager Donnie Darko, who, in the opening scene wakes up from unconsciousness in the middle of a desolate road with no memory how he got there. Donnie appears to suffer from a form of emotional distress for which he takes drugs and regularly sees a therapist. We get the feeling there something deeper than a mere psychosis – a deep rooted out-of-body experience, which has him imagining a grotesque monster bunny proselytizing the end of the world.

Donnie meets and falls in love with the new girl in school Gretchen (Jena Malone) who is attracted to his aloof loathing of the establishment – a love affair which seems inexorably linked to the looming doomsday and the connection with the grotesque bunny.

“Donnie Darko’s” trippy time-looping paradoxes certainly teeters on incomprehension, but there’s something invigorating about not knowing every last mechanical detail. Perhaps its by design, perhaps not, but its the same feeling we got from the mysteries in TV's "Lost". Arguably, the systematic connecting of the dots we see now in that show tarnishes some of its enigmatic luster. The medium of cinema allows for those mysteries to remain without explanation and Richard Kelly relishes this right.

“Darko” is driven not by plot or character but by a tonal throughline of disorder and chaos – perfectly capturing the cynicism of teenage youth. Kelly’s pop music choices are precise and pitch perfect. The despair of British new wavers The Smiths, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnyman represent the rebellion against Reagan/Thatcher-era conservatism and false Cold War paranoia of the 80's..

For a first film, Richard Kelly has remarkable control of pace and tone, twisting the high school genre with David Lynch-like surrealism and wit – a true auteur debut if there ever was one. Kelly would go on to prove his chops as ‘writer-for-hire’ on Tony Scott’s “Domino.” Both these fine pieces of work only made his sophomore debacle “Southland Tales” that much more disappointing. In that film his ambition outreached his grasp. Kelly's new film "The Box", based on a Richard Matheson "Twilight Zone" episode comes out later this year.

“Donnie Darko” is now available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.



MILK (DVD)


Milk (2008) dir. Gus Van Sant
Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsh, James Franco, Diego Luna, Josh Brolin

***1/2

Harvey Milk, the inspirational gay rights leader had a triumphant and tragic life. Just by the nature of his unique name, I was aware of the man, yet I knew nothing of him. Milk was to the gay rights movement in the 70’s as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was to the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s – a man whose life was dictated by his movement, and whose life, in death, became synonymous with the cause.

By coincidence with the shocking reversal of the gay marriage laws in California, Harvey Milk is as relevant now as in 1978. Gus Van Sant, one of the most consistently intriguing independent filmmakers working today is the ideal man to bring this story to the big screen. His career has shown range even broader then Danny Boyle's - from quality schmaltz like “Good Will Hunting” to intensely personal and experimental art statements like “Elephant” or “Last Days”. And really, does anyone want to see Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg make this story?

In “Milk” Van Sant exercises his “Good Will Hunting” muscles executing an inspirational political biopic which reaches the dramatic high bar it needs to reach to do justice to his cause. Van Sant, working from a script by new Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black, condenses the years of 1970 to 1978. Second time Oscar-winner Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, a local camera store owner in the Castro district of San Francisco who single handedly creates the gay rights movement and becomes the first openly gay elected official in California. We meet his colleagues and lovers who he befriends and alienates in the name of the cause. We see the political battles in front of and behind closed doors and the sneaky deals and backstabbing it takes to create action.

Van Sant appears to have watched some of the great biopics to both borrow from and improve upon in telling the “Milk” story. Fans of his phenomenal experimental work of the past five years may be disappointed with how traditional he is. Van Sant frames the story with a familiar 'narration in the present'/'flashbacks to the past' method of storytelling. In order to condense eight years of time inevitably this leads to an episodic feel. But Van Sant’s visual skills minimize this as much as possible.

Perhaps inspired by the work of Oliver Stone he smartly uses as much archival footage as possible to set the scene and put us in the time and place of 1970's San Francisco.(Coincidentally, it's shot by Harris Savides who also shot David Fincher's epic San Fran film, "Zodiac"). His careful shot choices and creative editing elevate the stock footage use beyond mere exposition.

Yet even within the most traditional scenes Van Sant finds a way to frame a dialogue scene with his unique artistic sensibilities. Take the first scene when Milk picks up his longtime lover Scott Smith (James Franco). It’s a classic courtship scene, shot in a two-shot profile with a unique angle to the camera. It’s barely noticeable, just enough a tilt to make us pay attention.

Van Sant assembles a superb cast of actors who get intimate with each other and the audience. Sean Penn, kept in check by Van Sant, is near-pitch-perfect as Milk. In a couple of scenes toward the end Penn does let loose like only he can, but by the time they come we believe 100% he is Harvey Milk. James Franco, Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna all give sympathetic and inspired performances, but once again, it’s Josh Brolin (richly deserved Oscar Nom) who comes in and steals his scenes as Milk’s sometimes friend, sometimes political enemy, Dan White. Kudos to Van Sant and Black for not letting the antagonistic aspects of his character run away turning him into a ‘villain’. It’s a very special and important role.

By using his “Good Will Hunting” muscle its apparent Van Sant’s goal is to get mainstream audiences to watch and learn from the film. In the final act, Van Sant hits the right buttons and maximizes the impact of the tragic end of Milk’s short life. And so the timing of “Milk” with current events is a stroke of decent luck, but it’s an uphill battle to sell a gay political film biopic to mainstream America. Enjoy.

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

Thursday, 12 March 2009

AUSTRALIA (BLU-RAY)


Australia (2008) dir. Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Bryan Brown

**1/2

New to DVD and Blu-Ray is Baz Luhrmann’s much maligned romantic epic. During development Luhrmann wasn’t shy about his desire to make a sprawling "Gone With the Wind"-style epic. His first attempt to make a film about Alexander the Great faltered, which seems to have been replaced with this story with the slightly pretentious title of “Australia”. It's interesting for most of the film but completely let down by it's third act melodramatic shenanigans.

It's 1939 and Nicole Kidman plays Lady Ashley, a British aristocrat, who travels to Australia to join her husband on his cattle ranch. When she arrives she finds him dead, apparently shot by a wandering Aboriginal chief. Her neighbour, King Carney has been buying up all the ranches in the area so he can monopolize his industry. Ashley's unwilling to sell and hires her hunky guide Drover (Hugh Jackman) to help her drive the cattle to Darwin. Drover and Ashley are worlds apart in the class system, but both are single, good-looking and isolated from anyone else, so naturally an attraction, courtship and then relationship begins.

Narrating this story is a young 'half-breed' aboriginal boy, Nullah, who becomes central to the story. One of the heinous and overtly racist laws in Australia at the time was a relocation policy which allowed authorities to remove half-breed children from their mothers and train them for the military. Ashley attempts to protect the boy, but in doing so reveals a vulnerability which her enemies can use against her. When the Pacific War begins Australia finds itself a target of the Japanese. In a surprise attack on Darwin, Ashley, Nullah and Drover find themselves separated and desperate to save each others lives.

Surprisingly despite a running time of 165mins, the film is remarkably focused. It takes place over a timespan of only a few years, and is confined to two main locations – the port city of Darwin and Lady Ashley’s Outback cattle ranch – as well as the long distance between them. Even the conflicts are paired down to Ashley’s feud with her neighbouring rivals and her fight to keep Nullah from relocation by the government.

The backbone of the film is a lengthy movement of Ashley’s cattle from her ranch to Darwin. This journey is built up well and executed with the tension and drama of a great epic action scene. There’s no doubt Luhrmann aspires for the grandeur of Lawrence’s journey to Aqaba in “Lawrence of Arabia” or Tom Dunson’s cattle drive in “Red River”. It's the centerpiece of the film and it holds everything together sufficiently.

The film is let down by the obligatory relatively conflict-free love story. When the prudish Ashley first meets the rugged Drover they are like oil in water – Ashley even says clichéd line - “Even if you were last person on earth I would never go to bed with you (sic)”. The professional relationship turns into some not-so-sweaty sex and then they are together. Afterwards their relationship is barely challenged. At one point Drover’s desire to get back into the Outback and drive cattle for six months causes a break-up, but their reactions seem unnatural and unthreatening.

The main concern with selling this romance to the audience is unfortunately the ages of the characters. Kidman is 41, Jackman is 40. The last two most popular romances arguably are “Titanic” and “The Notebook” (and maybe even Luhrmann's own "Romeo + Juliet". In these films their lovers were in their early twenties – a time when audiences can recall for themselves those innocent years when love was fresh, exciting and all consuming. The prospect of losing it made the characters make risky, questionable decisions. Ashley and Drover never have that spark and it’s never exciting.

As for the look of the film most discussions, reviews and commentary I’ve read acknowledge the visual beauty of the expansive Australian vistas and Mandy Walker’s cinematography. Sure there are some stunning shots and big scenes of breathtaking beauty, but what astonished me more was the frequent use of what appeared to my eye as unnecessary green-screen process shots. In almost every major set piece Luhrmann used these painful green-screened shots of the actors against the often blown-out white backgrounds. Each and every time these shots jumped out at me and took me out of the picture.

There's enough honesty and integrity in "Australia" to recommend the film, but unfortunately not enough emotional investment or gravitas to truly hit the high mark it aspires to be.

"Australia" is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


RiP: A REMIX MANIFESTO


RiP: A Remix Manifesto (2009) dir. Brett Gaylor
Documentary

***1/2

We’ve all seen on youtube, the multiple videos of that “Star Wars Kid” twirling his lightsabre remixed with different music and effects, or the dance version of the Christian Bale rant, even that kid in the backseat of the car who just came back from the dentist has been remixed with Christian Bale. All are part of a new form of creative expression called the “mash-up” or "remix", the act of taking pieces of existing art, cutting them up and rearranging them to create a wholly different piece of art. It's not restricted to video, DJs have been doing it for years in music, and most recently with the purchase of a $1500 computer anyone can make professional quality remix art. 

Out of this has emerged a new type of artist that has increasing been legitimized and, 'aghast', people have been paying money to see and hear their works. Of course using someone else's work, no matter how it's cut up, is still considered stealing and subject to the lawsuits and sometimes criminal prosecution by the deep pocketed corporations. 

With the same leftwing idealistic fervour of Michael Moore and Naomi Klein new media junkie Brett Gaylor examines the culture around this new form of art and artist and the shrinking of the public domain in his new documentary. Gaylor's intellectual themes are made accessible and entertaining with an elegant mix of classical documentary polish and the new media techniques of his subject.

After travelling the world, consulting those on what he calls 'the copyright' and 'the copyleft', Gaylor came up with his own call for action, or Manifesto:

1) Culture always builds on the past
2) The past always tries to control the future
3) Our future is becoming less free
4) To build free societies you must limit the control of the past

Driving us through the history and current state of the nebulous world of copyright is the ultrahip remix musician named “Girltalk”, who, instead of two turntables and a microphone, only presents himself and a Mac notebook on stage, gyrating violently with aggression to his heavy beats of mixed music. He's the ideal guide for this journey, the Generation Z artist, self-aware and adaptable to the changes in his environment.

For historical context, Gaylor shows us that copyright and public domain infringement battles have been going on longer than the internet age. A number of hilarious absurdities emerge from Gaylor’s research, the idea of Warner-Chappell earning millions of dollars each year for the publishing rights to “Happy Birthday”, the numerous lawsuits resulting from MP3 downloading, the Rolling Stones/the Verve "Bittersweet Symphony” debacle, the ridiculous public campaign by Arnold Schwarzenegger against infringement as well his gloriously awkward meeting with Canadian PM Stephen Harper.

The Disney corporation gets some well-deserved attention for its heinous lobbying to change the copyright laws and the hypocrisies of Uncle Walt himself who ‘borrowed’ likenesses and ideas from other artists work to create his great characters. Aging hippie Dan O’Neill offers a hilarious anecdote about his subversive Mickey Mouse cartoons he gained a following for in the 60’s. But the most ridiculous act of counterfeitism is the fake Disney World in Japan which expertly replicated the California theme park with gleefully grandiose audaciousness.

Gaylor’s metaphors go beyond art. We learn by day, Girltalk is Gregg Gillis, a biomedical engineer who finds commonalities with his scientiftic job of culling the research, work, and data used by other scientists to create his own work in the lab. The state of patent laws is similar to that of copyrights. We learn about how unethical selfishishness has meant AIDS medicine is still not widely available to those who need it, but can’t afford it.

Hypocrisies run both ways though. With the technology available and the youtube phenomenon, clearly the Remixers are still able to create their works of art and have them shown. So why the desperate fight? Perhaps it's just the need to create in freedom without fear of prosecution. Perhaps its to make money? Perhaps it’s the principal of it all, to get mainstream 'recognition', a word though which would seem to contradict the value system of the artists.

After being bombarded with mounds of legal and techno-geeky information, the film takes a fun detour to Brazil to explore one of the only countries that has defied the American copyright bully tactics. Brazil has created a vibrant public domain haven where sharing is encouraged, a value brought down from the Portuguese missionaries centuries ago.

RiP succeeds because Gaylor finds a place where form meets content, and we expect nothing less than a technologically creative form. Gaylor's visual aesthetic is a mesmerizing mélange of new media imagery and information, complimenting each other like a tandem bike.

RiP: A Remix Manifesto is in theatres in select cities in Canada starting Friday, but in the spirit of sharing, "RiP' is an 'open source' film, available for download and remixing to anyone at Open Source Cinema.

The screening I saw was hosted by The First Weekend Club, for my Canadian Film Dose coverage of this event CLICK HERE



Wednesday, 11 March 2009

JOHNNY HANDSOME


Johnny Handsome (1989) dir. Walter Hill
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Morgan Freeman, Lance Hendrikson

***

One of the great directors of the 70’s and 80’s is the muscular Walter Hill, once a protégé of the most muscular of all directors Sam Peckinpah. Hill's career was jumpstarted when he wrote Peckinpah’s great heist flick, “The Getaway” (1972), and from then developed a career influenced by the great master of beautiful violence and masculine fury. "Johnny Handsome" was one of the last good films from the man, a neo-noir/updated Western with a surprisingly sentimental touch.

Mickey Rourke plays John Sedley, also known as Johnny Handsome on account of his facial deformations from birth. Since his broken youth, Johnny has used his innate intelligence for crime and become a sought-after crack heist expert. In the opening, he’s recruited by his lifelong friend and mentor Mikey (Scott Wilson) into doing a bank job with a couple of smarmy hoods, Sunny and Rafe (Ellen Barkin and Lance Hendrickson). The duo indeed double-cross them, leaving Mikey dead and Johnny in prison.

While in the joint a kindly doctor (Forest Whitaker), looking to test his new facial reconstructive procedures, offers Johnny a chance at freedom in exchange for being his guinea pig. The procedure works and Johnny is actually turned 'handsome'. Once out he gets a job working the New Orleans shipyard and even catches the eye of a comely office gal (Elizabeth McGovern). Johnny’s desire for revenge eats away at his soul and decides to take action against Sunny and Rafe no matter what the cost.

Walter Hill was the master of close quarters action, and in this film, as usual, the action bristles with anger and intensity. From "The Driver" to “The Long Riders” to "Extreme Prejudice" Walter Hill loves to stage a good heist scene, but you won't find any Jason Statham tongue-in-cheek wittiness here.

The film, and in particular the opening heist scene, is aided by two of Hill's frequent collaborators, editor Freeman Davies and composer Ry Cooder. The opening credit and heist scenes have the same tight montage-style rhythm which Sam Peckinpah birthed in "The Wild Bunch". Davies' quick cuts to lines of dialogue and moments of action are punctuated with Ry Cooder's distinct blues-inspired slide guitar.

While there's elements of a neo-noir, Hill films the story with a particularly Western genre sensibility. Mickey Rourke’s soft-spoken, big-stick carrying protagonist is lifted right out of the Western template. Equal parts Shane, Tom Destry, Randolph Scott, Johnny Handsome is a classic aloof antihero.

Without being misogynistic Hill uses women as points of conflict for Handsome, pilons for him to maneuver around to get to the end of the journey. Johnny is heroic and distant, a gentle lover and protective, but also too stubborn to accept a new way of life, a distinctly male viewpoint into human tragedy, which Westerns typically explore. When he has to reconcile crime with his lover, he chooses the score and the need to avenge his best friend’s death.

Unfortunately the new DVD reissue from Lions Gate is full screen, and available in standard definition only. But the form doesn't reduce the quality of the content, so try and find it. Enjoy.