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

Friday, 31 July 2009

Classe Tous Risques

Classe Tous Risques (1960) dir. Claude Sauntet
Starring: Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michael Ardan, Simone France

***1/2

In the 1960’s, the French, in addition to the New Wave, produced a wealth of influential crime films - flicks which were both influenced by the classic Hollywood gangster genre and which would go on to influence filmmakers of today. One of the best is Claude Sauntet's 'Consider All Risks', a film which doesn't much glorify gangsters as empathize and humanize them outside of the traditional genre stereotypes.

Sauntet drops us right into the action as we meet Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) and family, his wife Therese and his two young sons, and his compatriot in crime Raymond. They are all on the run from the authorities in Italy for a series of heists. It's a breakneck chase with the cops around Rome, on foot, on car, on boat, Abel and Raymond using their professional attitude and expertise and their ruthless willingness to kill to evade their pursuers. But when Raymond and his wife get shot and killed in a gunfight, Davos finds him alone with his kids.

Davos connects with his syndicate in Paris, a brotherhood which provides him with security, a home base and some semblance of trustworthy familial companionship. But when a total stranger is sent Davos' trusted friend Vintran, he suspects he may be cut off from the clan. Surprisingly a friendship develops with Davos' new driver, Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a man who seems to have the same loyal integrity and code of honor as he. And so when Davos gets to Paris, he finds himself on the run from his own brotherhood, with only his new friend to trust.

I suspect Risques was a major influence on Michael Mann’s 'Heat' - the modern model of character-based crime films. By telling crime from the point of view of the criminals, we sympathize with them and their acts. In Risques, when Abel shoots and kills two innocent patrol cops, we don’t think twice about the heinousness of that crime, instead we’re immediately concerned about Abel’s partner and his wife.

Like Mann Sauntet is careful to show the effect of the women and their relationships on the lives of these men. In other gangster pictures women are objects for the taking, either prostitutes or disposable accessories expendable when the heat is turned on. The relationship of Stark and his girlfriend is given attention and allowed to blossom, and the effect of Therese's death on Davos haunts him throughout the film. Davos' two young children adds even more complications to the traditional gangster hedonism - he recognizes his duty to his children but also knows that without a mother figure in their lives, they could end up like him.

Like 'Heat' the men are torn between the need for comfort and security and their chosen profession. This is why Abel’s family of gangsters is so important to him – a safe coterie of trusted compatriots who stick together for the good of them all. And so when this circle breaks down, Abel’s is forced to scramble and re-evaluate the effect of his lifestyle on his life and his children. Stark and Abel’s relationship plays into this gangster code. Stark has no need to help to Abel, yet he’s sworn into the gangster code, and is compelled to help. Abel recognizing this loyalty and develops a unique and sincere friendship.

All the while, Sauntet executes his lighting fast narrative with stone cold efficiency. Abel is as professionally ruthless as he needs to be, and the cops and robbers who chase each other are equally adept. The first half establishes Abel's character exclusively in action, a series of suspenseful confrontations, near misses and chases choreographed with headlong cinematic momentum. The chases continues in the second as well, but Sauntet allows us and his characters to take a breather to contemplate the situation. A chess and mindgame ensues which tests Abel's loyalty and commitment to escaping his life of crime.

"Classe Tous Risque'" makes for a marvelous history lesson of the roots of modern crime films, in relation to it's modern masters.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Park Chan-Wook's THIRST Contest!!



Hey Park Chan-Wook Fans!

The Korean master's latest film THIRST opens in limited release Friday July 31. Watch the Red Band trailer HERE

Care of Focus Features DFD has procured a director-autographed poster and the official movie soundtrack.

So here's the contest:

Please send me your top 3 picks for this weekend's box office. Send me the films and their figures. The person who has the top three correct in the right order and the lowest cumulative differential in box office figures wins.

Email your entry to dailyfilmdose@hotmail.com

Good luck!

Acclaimed director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy; I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK) returns with his highly anticipated vampire film Thirst, an official selection at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival. Everyone's favorite actor Song Kang Ho plays a respected priest who turns into a vampire after a medical experiment gone wrong. His newfound thirst for blood and deadly attraction for his best friend's wife, played by Kim Ok-bin (Dasepo Naughty Girls), drives him down a road of lust and depravity.

For the Thirst soundtrack, Park Chan Wook teams up again with music director Jo Young-wook, who also provided the music for I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Old Boy, and JSA. The film's score draws from Bach's Cantata BWV 82a Ich Habe Genug and Jo Young Wook's original compositions, with an emphasis strings and woodwinds. Songs by 1930s and 40s trot legends Nam In Soo and Lee Nan Young are included on the soundtrack.


Stone of Destiny

Stone of Destiny (2009) dir. Charles Martin Smith
Starring: Charlie Cox, Kate Mara, Billy Boyd, Robert Carlyle

**

Director Charles Martin Smith, after delivering the beautifully layered and rich Snow Walker, does a 180 back towards the fluffiness of his Air Bud beginnings. 'Stone of Destiny' sails through the middle ground of cinema as a saccharine dramatization of the heist of the obscure titular Scottish relic.

In 1296, the Stone of Destiny, once part of the throne of Scotland, was stolen by the evil English and for over 600 years was held in Westminster Abbey to be spitefully admired by tourists. And as the movement towards Scottish independence caught fire in the '50s the Stone became a symbol for the nation to rally around. Enter Ian Hamilton (Charlie Cox), a restless university student looking for a way to contribute to the Scottish cause.

An old journal from his deceased father, which has a description of the Stone, becomes his eureka moment: steal the Stone, bring it back to Scotland, skyrocket the cause of Scottish nationalism and stick it to his disapproving uncle/foster parent for good measure. All he needs is three friends, 50 quid and the cojones to make it happen. Hamilton and his accomplices — girl-next-door cutey Kay (Kate Mara), redheaded strongman Gavin (Stephen McCole) and local dweeb Alan (Ciaron Kelly) — travel to London and stake the joint the out in hopes of stealing the stone.

Since the film is based on the real life story of Ian Hamilton, the film can't be faulted for historical inaccuracy but it's certainly badly in need of some cinematic embellishment to push the story beyond the written page. Smith, as writer and director, doesn't challenge his characters enough to get us deeply involved in their journey. It's all smooth sailing with barely a credible threat or insurmountable speed bump towards the goal.

Smith also completely forgets he's making a heist film. There's a resemblance to the classical heist structure — find the target, recruit the team, do the research, case the joint, do the burglary, execute the escape — but films like these (The Italian Job, Topkapi) live and breathe with the details in between these beats and for comic heists, the characters that execute the plan. Stone of Destiny is unfortunately lacking both. The planning of the robbery is seen in a montage racing much too quickly through the procedural minutiae that puts the audience in the shoes of the characters.

The heroes are too earnest, their personalities largely indistinguishable from each other and as dull as their knit sweaters. Charlie Cox as Hamilton comes across like a Scottish Robert Sean Leonard: conservative and unmemorable, with everyone else cut from the same mould. The DVD's documentary is better than the average featurette, showing us the behind-the-scenes production stories, a breezy, conflict-free affair that perhaps lulled the filmmakers into overconfidence with what was going onto the screen.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Coraline

Coraline (2009) dir. Henry Selick
Feature voice talents of: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French

**

I’m not sure what I was expecting with “Coraline” but certainly everything I had read about Henry Selick’s latest stop motion venture, an adaptation of revered fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s book about a girl who discovers a doppelganger fantasy world in her new home, led me to believe this was one of the best stop motion animated films ever made. And so being underwhelmed by an emotionally vacant story led me to believe that I missed something crucial from the 3-D theatrical experience.

The set-up is simple, due to financial problems young Coraline (voice by Dakota Fanning) and her two parents have moved to a new home, in a desolate town in a wasteland of isolation. Living in a sparsely decorated house with no friends and a set of parents who take no notice of her concerns has thus retreated the girl into an inward depression. One day while exploring the nooks and crannies of the house she discovers a small door which leads to mysterious portal. Like any youngster, she crawls into the unknown to see where it will lead.

She emerges in a Wizard of Oz-like doppelganger world, a mirror of her house, inhabited by duplicates of her parents and other citizens of her town. It’s identical except everyone’s eyes are removed and replaced with buttons. The creepiness of these images is tempered with overly-gracious hospitality from her ‘other parents’. And so this other world acts like a joyful carefree version of her real world. Eventually Coraline discovers nefarious ulterior motives from her other parents, a trap to ensnare Coraline, steal her eyes and imprison her.

Before we discuss, I should get out of the way that the film meets all technical expectations of a filmmaking method which is notoriously labourious but wondrous in it’s visual possibilities. Henry Selick arguably is the pre-eminent feature stop motion animator in the world – the man responsible for “A Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach” and indeed the craftsmanship behind this film equals those two others.

The gothic imagery and sometimes truly frightening characters and situations Coraline encounters is a certainly a fresh departure from the usual Pixar-influenced fare we get from Hollywood studio animation. But Selick's film accompanies his uniquely dark adult-oriented tone with frustrating unsophisticatedness in story and character, which results in a palpable hollowness. The story borrows from the familiarness of classic fairytales – a troubled child develops her own fantasy world. For the first 45mins it's a conflict-free set-up of this alternate world. The shoe drops on an arbitrary piece of information we learn from the cat – thus, a discovery not earned by the character. Once Coraline learns the true nature of the other world, we expect a change of pace, an increase in stakes and heightening of action from Coraline. We don’t get it. Coraline continues to moves between the worlds at will – sure her parents are gone, why? And how, we’re never sure.

Perhaps because the boundaries of this new fantasy world are never quite clear, with new rules added as the film goes along. And so we never get the feeling that Coraline is trapped or will not get out of her predicament. And from a character perspective, does Coraline learn a lesson or enrich her appreciation of her own parents, or does her real parents learn something from Coraline’s journey or heroism? No. Her parents have forgotten everything that has happened. Maybe it was all just a dream?

I missed the theatrical 3-D experience, and perhaps that spectacle would have distracted me from these nickpicking story-points. The DVD contains both 2-D and 3-D versions of the film, but sadly the 3-D is more of a distraction. The red & blue tinted glasses means a constantly shifting colour palette – ie. In the opening scene the sky switches between yellow and white as my two eyes never could combine the two colours properly. And so, unless their eyes work better than mine (which is possible) I suspect most DVD viewers will eventually take off the glasses and settle on the 2-D version, and thus, an inferior version of the film.

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

Monday, 27 July 2009

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes (1948) dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook, Irene Brown

****

What does it take to be a great artist? More than just talent and skill, but complete dedication to one’s art. This question is the driving force behind one of the great films of the Powell/Pressburger oeuvre, ‘The Red Shoes”. An unconventional picture for 1948, compared with the traditional Hollywood musical, Powell/Pressburger’s film feels like an experiment in storytelling, less a song and dance routine than it is about the artists make who the art.

Julian Crastner (Marius Goring), an aspiring composer, and Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), a young dancer desperately want to break into the renowned Lementov Ballet. Crasnter manages to finagle his way into a meeting with the legendary Boris Lementov and eek out a small gig with the orchestra. Vicky uses her family influence to get some face time with Lementov and secure an audition. Both impress the man so much they quickly rise through the ranks of the company to be the stars of the ballet.

Crastner's musical masterpiece comes in the form of a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen's fable The Red Shoes - the story of a desperate ballerina who sells her soul to buy a pair of red shoes which cause her to dance morning, noon and night causing her demise. With procedural detail we see the birth of the play from the idea to its premiere with all the creative steps in between, however grueling. And over the course of this time Crasnter and Page fall in love, which goes against Lementov's unbreakable rule that the dancers never ever fall in love. With Crastner and Page split from the company Lementov is forced to reconcile his uncompromising professional convictions with his most talented artist's personal lives. But for Page, she finds reconciling professional and personal priorities even more difficult, soon driving her to madness like her character in the Red Shoes.

Coming from Powell/Pressburger, two filmmakers working in Britain, outside of the studio system, there's a freshness to their approach to this story. At heart 'The Red Shoe" is a tragedy, executed with genuine love and appreciation for the process of making art. For two thirds, the film charts the upward path of its three main characters Lementov, Page and Crastner, with an almost procedural level of detail behind the scenes of the stage. There's very little music or dance until the filmmakers take a 25mins time out to show us the Red Shoes being performed. The scene is marvelous, with Powell/Pressburger starting the ballet on the stage, and freely moving the audience through cinematic interpretations of the work. This is the only musical sequence in the film, but its so glorious it lingers through the rest of the picture.

The key point of conflict only occurs at the 1:40 mark when Page's romance with Crastner is revealed. It would seem an arbitrary beat - a romance which emerges quickly and never on screen, only told to us by one of the other characters. But we're brought back to the opening of the picture when the stubborn Lementov fires his prima ballerina for becoming engaged, thus defying Lementov's strict policy that his dancers must never fall in love. It's a seemingly arbitrary rule to create conflict, but it informs the key flaw of Lementov’s character. His ego and power over everyone around him is how he gets the best out of his artists.

The moment also reveals the dark side of the life of an artist - the soul that both Page and Crastner have sold to achieve their success. This sacrifice is also hinted at in Lementov’s first meeting with the ambitious and naive Vicky. Lementov asks Vicky ‘why do you dance’. Vicky responds, “why do you live?” This is the answer he wanted to hear, complete dedication to the art, and under Lementov’s direction and his own ambition.

And so the rest of the picture plays out like a great Shakespearean tragedy, paralleling the same path toward self-destruction as the poor ballerina in the Red Shoes.

Powell and Pressburger’s direction and visual design is delicious – a fast paced visual delight in every scene. Of course Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography is glorious, using colour magnificently as an expression of the vibrancy of the theatre and the lives of Page and Crastner.

It's easy to see why Martin Scorsese has famously been a longtime supporter of Powell/Pressburger and this film in particular. There's a distinct Italian operatic sensibility - a heightened realism and dark obsession which subverts the traditional formula of a Hollywood musical.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

St. Elmo's Fire


St. Elmo's Fire (1985) dir. Joel Schumacher
Starring: Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy, Mare Winningham

*1/2

“St. Elmo’s Fire” was successful, a film from which the term ‘Brat Pack’ term was coined. In addition to the familiar cast of young actors hopping in and out of each other movies, the film also became Joel Schmucher’s first hit, and the beginning of a career of big budgeted, successful but underwhelming movies.

“St Elmo’s Fire” is so underwhelming, it’s almost unwatchable. The story of six college grads searching for their place in the world and reconciling their increasingly divergent lifestyles in a world of 1980's decadence.

Most of the characters are unequivocally written to be dislikeable. I imagine this was the pitch – to showcase these young actors without the John Hughes softening of ‘The Breakfast Club’ and with real issues facing young people. Unfortunately writers Schumacher and Carl Kurlander choose to dramatize his characters and scenes with base emotions, base relationships with less complexity than those Hughes films.

There's Alec (Judd Nelson) a Republican aide whose own immoral and idiotic internal logic has convinced himself that if he marries his girlfriend Leslie (Ally Sheedy) it will stop him from cheating with other women. There's Kevin (Andrew McCarthy) the writer whom everyone is convinced is gay because he actually respects women and whose pining after Leslie will eventually cause a rift in his best friendship with Alec. Rob Lowe is Billy a trainwreck self-destructive drunk who walks around everywhere with a saxophone, who is also married with a child whom he never sees. Demi Moore is Jules, a party girl, who desires to use her good looks to sleep her way to the top. Mare Winningham is the rich girl wallflower virgin Wendy who actually is in love with the big douche and deadbeat dad Billy. And then there's Kirby (Emilio Estevez) the law student who lasers in an older woman with headlong love-smitten abandonment.

Making someone a coke abuser, a drunk driver or an adulterer is not enough to complicate their character if their scenes are written and acted with blockhead subtly. In virtually every scene the internal logic of interaction of the characters is headshaking. Emilio Estevez’s entire existence in the film is based on his love-at-first-sight pursuit of a woman he hasn’t seen in 4 years since high school, and despite the fact she has not given him even a wink of acknowledgement in return for his irrational desire.

The only thing Schumacher gets right is the attitude of 1980's Reaganomics which trickled down into social behaviour - and era of irresponsible self-indulgence. Films like "Wall Street", "Bright Lights, Big City" captured this, but "St. Elmo's Fire" relies so heavily on embellished character and literary stereotypes everyone, including the nice characters, ring false. The only reason this film hasn't faded into obscurity is David Foster's pop-magnificent score, which is dates the film in a good way.

"St. Elmo's Fire" is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Saturday, 25 July 2009

A River Runs Through It

A River Runs Through It (1992) dir. Robert Redford
Starring: Craig Sheffer, Brad Pitt, Tom Skerrit, Brenda Blethyn

***1/2

The elegiac story of simple midwestern life and fly fishing now takes on greater significance as the coming out party for superstar Brad Pitt. In 1992, it was Redford's third shot at directing, and the acclaimed 1976 story of Norman Maclean which publicized this film. But now we can't watch "A River Runs Through It" without fixating on Pitt's performance and the quick weaning of Pitt from scene stealing character actor in "Thelma & Louise" to leading man personified in this picture.

In prohibition era 1920's, in Missoula Montana, the Maclean family is depicted by the storybook narration of it's lead character Norman Maclean. The son of a Presbyterian preacher (Tom Skerrit) Norman Maclean (Craig Sheffer) grew up fearing God and fearing his father's gloomy shadow of discipline and expectation. When they weren't reading the bible or going to school the boys decompressed with zen-like relaxation fly-fishing in the river gorge . As told to us by Redford's narration and Phillippe Rousselot's lovely photography fly-fishing is a metaphor for the grace, art, and workmanlike discipline it takes to master the sport.

When Norman returns from four years of college, he's a changed man, so is Paul. The once inseparable brothers now have to reconnect and break any social barriers built up between them. Paul has become a charming newspaper man, master storyteller and expert fisherman. Norman has an East coast education, but still all the uncertainty of youth, and his fishing skills have suffered. The burden of the family legacy is carried on Norman’s shoulders, which leaves Paul invisible to the family, thus vulnerable to the vices of the world. It’s a simplified, but archetypal relationship which runs its course in classical, yet satisfying manner.

If anything the film is burdened by Robert Redford’s annoying and intrusive voiceover – overly poetic literary storytelling, removing all the subtext of the performances and Redford’s own direction, as well as an umbrella of period stodginess and over mythologizing. Warming up to this in the first act is the major hump to overcome. The movie escapes the tedium when Norman returns from college. From his point of view the Montana life is foreign compared to his east coast formality, finding Paul a changed man. Their first fly fishing venture is well directed. Brad Pitt’s control of the scene and command of the screen changes the dynamic of the brothers and the actors. Suddenly Norman, as lead protagonist, has layers to his character to examine – his unspoken hatred for his father, his ambivalence to his old way of life, and his uncertainty about his future.

This is where Norman’s jealously of Paul develops. Despite no education his life is uncomplicated - he's loves his home, his fishing and writing for the local paper. Paul's confidence also clouds Norman big brother instinct. Paul’s self destruction is played out maximizing all its tragedy. It’s a shame Pitt’s performance is so charismatic, because Craig Sheffer, the duller of the two actors, is clearly in a different league – yet his character demands this weakness. It's an overshadowed but necessary and unheralded performance.

Like 'Ordinary People' Redford knows how to show us the awkward love hate relationships of families and the powerful unspoken conflict which permeates and grows over time.

A River Runs Through It is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Friday, 24 July 2009

Nickelodeon

Nickelodeon (1976) dir. Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, John Ritter, Stella Stevens, Jane Hitchcock, Tatum O’Neal, Brian Keith, Don Calfa.

***

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

“Nickelodeon” is a mess, but WHAT a mess! This notorious Peter Bogdanovich boxoffice and critical failure from the 70s is a big budget, star-studded love song to the pre-D.W. Griffith pioneers of the motion picture industry. Reviled in its day as a clumsy attempt to cram early movie history into a pastiche of early film techniques, it’s a picture that not only managed to keep audiences away in droves, but (at least for me) inexplicably alienated Bogdanovich’s biggest supporters – the critical elite of both the popular mainstream and alternative press. To dump truckloads of manure onto a picture for excess is one thing, but when the excess seems somewhat justified and not without entertainment value, it’s incumbent upon some of us to refute the elitism of the predatory gaggle of scribes who were clearly looking for any excuse to take Bogdanovich, the critic-turned-filmmaker, down a few notches.

Set at a time when Thomas Edison and his cronies maintained the position that they held exclusive patents to the motion picture camera, we follow the adventures of a ragtag band of moviemakers who refuse to shell out royalties to the inventor-thug who stopped at nothing to shut down all the independent businessmen who sought to grab their fare share of the profits from the new magic called movies. Edison hired gun-toting strong men to seek out these upstarts and rough them up and destroy their labs and equipment. In “Nickelodeon”, one such upstart is the blustery showman H.H. Cobb, insanely portrayed by a crazed Brian Keith. Failed lawyer and Harold Lloyd look-alike, the bespectacled Leo Harrigan (Ryan O’Neal) literally pratfalls into this independent company and is quickly nominated to the position of screenwriter. Dispatched to a sleepy, one-horse California waterhole to take over the filmmaking operations, Harrigan discovers that a teenage girl, Alice Forsyte (O’Neal’s daughter Tatum) is an even better screenwriter than he is and when he furthermore discovers that the director has gone on a drunken bender, absconding the unit’s working capital, he is further nominated to the position of director. The group includes a sexy leading lady (Stella Stevens), a near-sighted ingénue (Jane Hitchcock), an amiable sad sack cameraman (John Ritter) and best of all, a two-fisted galumphing galoot from Texas played with good humour and cheer by a thoroughly delightful Burt Reynolds.

All of this probably sounds terrific. It’s not, but it should have been. Where Bogdanovich errs is when he spends far too much time on meticulously recreating slapstick farce from the period. While technically proficient, it’s seldom funny – not so much out of familiarity with the style of humour, but that many of the set-ups are so meticulous that instead of seeming freewheeling and fresh, the laughs – what few we actually get – are utterly predictable. They’re also at odds with what should/could have been a thoroughly compelling story – taking us out of the action to grind everything to a standstill in order to watch one set piece after another.

When the humour works, it works not because it is mannered, meticulous and stylized, but when it’s rooted in the story, characters and backdrop. These moments work so beautifully that they come close to canceling out all the moments that don’t. Many of these well-wrought sequences happen when Bogdanovich doesn’t play over-the-top moments… well, over-the-top. When he plays them straight or relatively straight, they’re as fresh and funny and downright exhilarating as any great comic moments should be. It’s also no surprise that the best stuff involves Burt Reynolds. A scene where Burt is recruited to mount a house for the first time in his life, dressed in full KKK garb and hold a burning cross aloft IS the stuff great comic set pieces are made of. Another, great moment involves Reynolds, who is terrified of heights, and is bamboozled by Ryan O’Neal to get into an air balloon which instead of rising only to the height of a horse, is released and set on a wild course into the Heavens. As well, there are a number of fun scenes involving Tatum O’Neal as she unleashes her trademark “Paper Moon” precociousness and gives us one fine display of cutthroat negotiation after another.

When the movie sticks to moviemaking and does so in a muted fashion, it IS terrific. One can only wish Bogdanovich hadn’t indulged his slapstick muse so often.

The best thing about the movie, though, is a truly exciting and moving recreation of the world premiere of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”. This astounding sequence is so elegiac, that one is inclined to forgive the movie any and all of its flaws.

One of the main reasons to give this picture a whirl on DVD is the fact that Bogdanovich has been given an opportunity to present the film in black and white. When it was first made, the studio balked at such an expensive picture being unleashed in shades of grey rather than all-out colour. Bogdanovich and his cinematographer, the late great Lazlo (“Easy Rider”) Kovacs acquiesced, but with new digital technologies, the film has been transformed into gorgeous black and white with a lovely range of tones and a mouth-watering grain that looks especially stunning when one plays the regular DVD on a Blu-Ray machine with an HD television monitor. In spite of its flaws, “Nickelodeon” was always a picture I liked, but I have to admit that in black and white, I do believe I like it a whole lot more.

“Nickelodeon” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in a two-disc with Bogdanovich’s masterpiece “The Last Picture Show”

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Curse of the Golden Flower

Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) dir. Yhang Yimou
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Ye Liu, Dahong Ni, Junjie Qin

***

“Curse” is a decent wrap-up to Zhang Yimou’s trilogy of mythical martial arts epics which included “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”. This time Yimou employs less action and more melodrama, crafting a yellow-paletted Shakespearean-tragic extravaganza. One more of these films is just enough for us and since the 2000 release of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, this subgenre of Chinese action is officially played out.

We’re in 10th century China (the Tang Dynasty), the lands are ruled by a despotic Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat) and his three sons. While Ping is off fighting, his wife, Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) holds down the court spending her days lavishly being waited upon with the highest degree of decadence. When Ping returns to the palace for the annual Chrysanthemum Festival, a Hamlet-worthy inter-family rivalry is sparked which threatens the peace in the land.

The Empress resents the so-called medicine she’s forced to take as commanded by her husband, and when she’s told the medicine has become laced by poison, revenge is plotted. But her husband is not the culprit, his former lover, Jiang Shi (Chen Jin), and mother to his illegitimate child – the crown prince – enters the story as the architect of these diabolic deeds. But when Ping’s second son is discovered to be having an affair with Jiang's daughter, the complex battle lines become crossed. The lovers’ quagmire results in a gigantic war which erupts pitting father against son and wife against husband and much much bloodshed.

It might seem like a complicated plotting, but you don’t really have to follow along too hard to recognize the influences from Shakespearean and Greek theatre, sampling the incestual rivalries of Hamlet, King Lear and Oedipus Rex. Most of everything is on the nose though, and Yimou doesn’t the take to the time to enrich the characters outside of the ornate costumes on their backs. Ping is no King Lear and Phoenix is no Lady Macbeth.

As with "Daggers" and "Hero", most of everything becomes overwhelmed by Yimou’s astounding production design and visual choreography. And indeed, it fits in well and often trumps the grandeur of those two predecessors. In the final act, the plotting is so complex and regurgitated with haste, we’re not really sure who is fighting whom and why. As a result things get very big very fast when armies of thousands appear out of no where ready for battle The choreography and shear epic scope of this scene is as big as anything in the LOTR trilogy. And we can't help not feel it was all just practice for the Yimou's opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

Three of these films is more than enough for Yimou to prove him as a master of this genre. It’s time for him to move on and show us something we haven’t seen – again. Believe it or not, his next film is a Chinese remake of The Coen Bros’ “Blood Simple” – this will be something not to miss.

“The Curse of the Golden Flower” is available in a new Blu-Ray box set from Sony Picture Home Entertainment including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of Flying Daggers”

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker (2009) dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, Evangeline Lilly

***

"The Hurt Locker" might be the best of the recent Middle East-themed films - the story of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq is told with documentary-like realism and with Bigelow's trademark flare for rough and rumble action. It's certainly a well deserved comeback for Ms. Bigelow, but I just had the knawing feeling that it's all been done before.

Jeremy Renner is staff sergeant William James, a soldier through and through, a fearless renegade who seems to have already accepted his death, and thus he's the perfect man for the job of disarming bombs. When he joins B-Company, he quickly takes the frontline detail. Shocking his superiors, he boldly puts on his armour gear and approaches his bombs without a second thought.

Few people in B company want to be there and few want to go above and beyond the call of duty especially after the tragedy of the intense opening scene. Does James have a death wish? His loyal wife and daughter who remain at home awaiting his return seems to contradict his carefree attitude. He rarely opens up and keeps an emotional distance from his fellow soldiers, only to the audience does he expose his fragile emotional state - like being alone in the shower. So Bigelow saves from military melodrama and dramatic confessions, keeping it all on the sharp edge of reality.

While Renner is a fine discovery, showing us some skills in arena of enigmatic cinema loners, he's also a familiar character. We're specifically reminded of Colin Farrell's breakout performance in Joel Schumacher's "Tigerland" - a rebellious anti-hero, marching to his own beat eschewing the traditional military procedures. And as expected he's also kind and protective of the local children as well as his overwhelmed younger, more scared compatriots.

The action scenes are intense and compelling but the dramatic sniper ambushes and tense bomb disarmings are nothing we haven't seen any other war films. And the central conflict of James, who seems addicted to the rush of combat and who finds himself out of place in the real world, is also familiar.

For fans of Kathryn Bigelow, it's an important addition to her body of work. Bigelow has always seemed to capture the rawness of masculinity better than most others. The distraction of the soldiers' hardcore video games and the thrashing metal music they listen to are classic Bigelow touches. There's also a sloppiness to her male characters, and like "Near Dark" and "Strange Days" Bigelow exposes the juvenility of men and their instinctual need for self-destruction. At one point Bigelow shoots a scene of James and Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) wrestling aggressively on the ground for no reason other than boredom. It's brutal and rough, ending in a knife being drawn. While it shows the fragile state of James it points the finger at the military for training these youngsters with base animal aggression.

"The Hurt Locker" is a good war film, though not the earth shattering masterpiece as proclaimed by many other critics. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Blue Thunder

Blue Thunder (1983) dir. John Badham
Starring: Roy Scheider, Malcolm McDowell, Candy Clark, Daniel Stern, Warren Oates

***1/2

One of the great directors of the 80’s is John Badham, and one of the best action films of that decade is “Blue Thunder”. The title might conjure an impression of a film capitalizing on the 80’s trend of machinery as basis of high concept screenplays, but “Blue Thunder” is NOT Knight Rider, nor “Airwolf”, not even its own lame TV show spin-off. Badham’s film in invisible to its age, an expertly executed actioner with a surprisingly astute social commentary which feels as relevant today.

The perfect everyman star Roy Scheider, plays Frank Murphy, an LAPD pilot in the urban aerial patrol unit. He’s also a Vietnam vet, with latent post-traumatic stress and those annoying recurring ‘Nam flashbacks (I know, it was already a cliché then). But he’s the best of the PD pilots, and when a new high tech military-style surveillance copter is introduced, Murphy is chosen to fly it.

Nicknamed “Blue Thunder”, it’s a high tech beast of a vehicle, capable of capturing infrared video, long distance sound, full PD computer connectivity, stealth abilities and with a badass phallic rotating machine gun at its chin. After a city councilwoman is murdered Murphy stumbles upon a conspiracy involving the same people who have brought the copter to the force. When Murphy discovers a more nefarious intention for the vehicle, Murphy goes rogue in order to set things right.

If you ever thought “Blue Thunder” was an 80’s high concept hackjob, you just have to look at its writing team once of which is Dan (“Alien”) O’Bannon who knows his way around tense genre action. O’Bannon takes his concept very seriously. While the helicopter is central attraction of the picture, overriding themes of police corruption and public privacy does not take second fiddle.

The year 1984 was like a shadow on much of pop culture – the arrival of George Orwell’s the prophetic year and title of his seminal 1950’s work of speculative fiction. Fears of the future and technology were in the air. And it’s no coincidence one of the other great thrillers of the decades is John Badham’s own “War Games”, which, like Blue Thunder, captures the fear of computer technology as accessible mainstream entertainment.

As piece of action cinema, John Badham directs with the heighest order of skill. Badham’s aerial photography is simply the best-ever put to screen. Badham takes great care to use as little blue-screen as possible, finding clever ways to mount his camera on the actual helicopters with the actors at its controls. A number of visually stunning aerial scenes are staged – the finale being the finest aerial combat sequence I’ve ever seen. There’s not fakery in the choreography of the battle between the Scheider’s “Blue Thunder” and Malcolm McDowell’s sleek military gunship. Astonishingly Badham stages the scene in around the high rise buildings of Los Angeles, complete with full gunfire, rockets firing and the destruction which would likely ensue. Of course, there’s no CG to be had, instead clever use of scale models and good old fashioned practical effects.

Badham’s cast does their work diligently without being upstaged by the cool machinery. Roy Scheider rarely made bad movies, and like his other cop roles fits naturally in the uniform. Malcolm McDowell hams it up as the foil, Murphy's smug British rival with his own catch phrase – ‘Catch ya later.’ Candy Clark, like always, exuded warmth as Murphy’s dedicated wife, Daniel Stern as the affable rookie cop, whom we know by the rules of buddy cinema will likely die horribly. And of course, there’s Warren Oates, in his last role, as Murphy's gruff yet loyal captain.

A film like Blue Thunder would never be made with as much realism as Badham did it. CG would certainly be employed – a lazy device, which gets director’s off the hook for actually being creative. John Badham hasn’t made a feature in a while, instead taking paycheques from TV series’ like “Heroes” and “Crossing Jordan”, “Las Vegas”. He’s 68 now and thus earned his right to relax and take the money and run. His legacy of pictures from “Saturday Night Fever”, “War Games”, “Blue Thunder”, "Nick of Time" and more should keep his reputation intact. Enjoy.

“Blue Thunder” is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Monday, 20 July 2009

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer (2009) dir. Marc Webb
Starring: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

***

While (500) Days of Summer threatens to become another hopelessly romantic and disposable Sundance whimsy comedy, Marc Webb’s film emerges victorious, rising above other recent hipster crap-outs like “Adventureland” and “Away We Go”. There’s nothing particularly original, playing like a Woody Allen picture told with Cameron Crowe’s pop culture sensibility, but it’s a combination which rings out all the blinding joy and heartbreaking tragedy of love with a lingering poignancy which stays with you for a while.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Tom, a twenty-something greeting card writer and a closeted architect. Summer is the new admin assistant in his office. The omniscient narrator tells us the story of Tom’s 500 day rollercoaster ride of infatuation with Summer. In sometimes random order, we see all the stages of courtship from the silly attempts to get her attention to the blockhead advice from his single buddies, and all the insecurity of making the first move. The relationship stage is fanciful, impossibly romantic and pure bliss, which makes the break-up that much more tragic.

We see everything from the deep internal point of view of Tom – however clouded. At times his joy is expressed through a spontaneous dance sequence in the streets, other times through the movies he’s watching, or the songs he’s listening too. Smartly Webb makes Summer as enigmatic to us as she seems to Tom. There are few other name actresses at the right age who naturally inhabit the qualities of Summer like Zooey Deschanel. Her whole career has been built on her unique flighty personality and hypnotizing wide-eyed naiveté. Webb embellishes these qualities making Summer an enigmatic wandering soul – a puzzle Tom and the audience try to solve. We perhaps sense where things might go, when she tells Tom outright that she doesn’t believe in true love. Either Tom will succeed in changing her view or he’ll crash and burn.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, since his lead role in “Brick”, has quickly perched himself on the edge of major stardom. His uncanny resemblance to Heath Ledger hopefully doesn’t curse him, but Levitt’s role in this film as well as the as-yet unreleased festival release “Uncertainty” show off a different kind of romantic side. Levitt exposes Tom’s vulnerability with compassion and grace. Webb reverses our expectations of the malecentric point of view – not the beastly male chauvinistic uber-male view but a literary romantic protagonist. Levitt fits it like a glove.

It's kind of a predictable path, but having been put so deep into Tom’s pain and sorrow, when the finale arrives it's as fresh and exciting as if being in his shoes.

There’s a cleverness, which at times feels overly tooled. The visual device of Tom’s architecture drawing is overemphasized as are those overused indie-titles of “Juno” and “Away We Go.” Webb saves us from the tender acoustic renditions of "Juno", or "Garden State". It’s all recognizable pop music you’d find in your own I-Pod – from the Smiths to Wolfmother.

“The Graduate” is a recurring reference. Aspiring to emulate that great film is a tall order, and so under a lesser film it would be easy pickings for critics to pounce on. Referencing, let alone using actual footage of a (better) film one aspires to be, is a no-no. But in the self-aware pop cultural world we live in today we have to accept this. In "(500) Days of Summer" it's a consistent device which projects Tom’s mood and the reference point of his mind. So I’ll let that one slide. If it were used in “Away We Go” I’d be all over it.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Blue Velvet


Blue Velvet (1986) dir. David Lynch
Starring: Kyle Maclachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern

****


A mixture of heart-on-one’s sleeve sentimentality and hardcore terrorizing brutality anchor David Lynch’s classic nightmarish love poem. After suffering the indignation of failing to deliver on the big budgeted sci-fi franchise in waiting, Dune, in 1986 Lynch seemed go back inward summoning latent fears and closeted fetishes for inspiration. The result is one of his three or four masterpieces - and the film that first defined the term ‘Lynchian’.

“Blue Velvet” lays the stylistic and thematic groundwork which he would expand upon in his later films. Of course the Lumberton locale, which Lynch’s opens up and like his rotten apple visual metaphor, becomes the environment for his seminal Twin Peaks TV series.

The actual plotting of the film, lead character Jeffrey Beaumont's investigation and the movements and motivations of the nefarious elements of the story, quickly fall to the background once Lynch starts the film’s headlong cinematic momentum. Starting with the third visit to the apartment, the film goes deeper into Lynch’s subconscious and by the time Jeffrey’s fateful night is over, we don’t care about who the ‘well-dressed’ man is, or who the 'yellow man' is.

The wonder of “Blue Velvet” lay in Lynch's amazing control of tone. And it doesn’t take him long to hypnotize us. The opening credit sequence is masterful. An ominiously dark and brooding music cue laid over his flowing curtain of blue velvet is enchanting. The film then segues into a dreamlike melancholy of the slow-moving rural life of Lumberton.

Throughout the picture Lynch moves us back and forth between these two extremes with supreme confidence and command of the medium.

The performances are typically subdued. Jeffrey, as played by Kyle Maclachlan, isn’t so much a developed character as another pawn for Lynch to use to express his mood. His love story with Sandy serves to allow Lynch to craft his grandiloquent melodramatic set pieces. The house party dance scene for instance, set to Angelo Badlamenti & Julee Cruise’s swooning dreamsong could melt butter. It takes us completely out of the film, at a point, when, in traditional screenwriting 101, the film should be maintaining it's A-Plot momentum, but for Lynch (and us) its more important than any of the action.

Sit this this scene next to one of Dennis Hopper's maliciously over-the-top sadistic fuck-tirades and it's the cinematic equivalent of bipolar syndrome.

Before Quentin used pop music as a counterpoint to violence Lynch did it masterfully here. Who ever thought Roy Orbison or Ketty Lester could be made so frightening? If I ever here Bobby Vinton crooning Blue Velvet again, it now brings a spine-tingling sense of danger, that in combination with the sound of nitrous oxide hissing from a gas tank will likely have me running out the door.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome (1979) dir. James Bridges
Starring: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas

***1/2

At heart a pointed political commentary but out of the procedural details emerges expertly executed razor sharp thriller. The hit film from James Bridges captures the tail of the 70’s paranoia genre - the story of a near nuclear melt down captured on tape by a news crew and the dramatic fight to uncover the big industry falsifications and spin control which ensued.

Jane Fonda plays Kimberly Wells a female TV news reporter, successful at fluffy puff pieces looking for that big break into serious journalism. She finds it when she’s asked to do a routine story on the local nuclear power plant. Her breakthough story seemingly falls in her lap when her tour of the facility is interrupted by a near nuclear meltdown. Trapped inside the glassed-in observation deck, camera operator Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) covertly catches the entire event on camera. Adams films the tense moments as shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) watches powerlessly the water level lower and almost expose the nuclear core.

Wells and Adams think they’ve got an important news story on their hands, until it get kyboshed by the uncourageous media bosses. Fearing a law suit against the organization for filming illegally it will take the stamina of Wells and Adams to fight the good fight and win. Adams, the bleeding heart, is full speed ahead, but Wells is skeptical of risking her job and possibly her neck for the cause. Together they have to convince the workmanlike Godell who holds all the cards needed to expose the company’s nefarious culpability.

Bridges uses common sense intelligence and strict realism without cinematic embellishment to capture a mood of quiet suspense. The crucial accident scene is played without music, with little dialogue, instead using carefully chosen shots, the ambient noise and silence of the room to capture the tension. We never see the water level rising, or the nuclear core shaking or any other literal visuals of the accident, Bridges puts us in the point of view of Godell who only watches a dial slowly wind down to zero. And so it’s up to Jack Lemmon to sell us ungodly fear. Lemmon is a master thespian and his unspoken facial reactions are as full of life as any over the top chaotic action scene could have dramatized.

Very topical in its day the film was made at a time with nuclear power was becoming a popular substitute for coal, and oil. The title refers to the analogy of what could happen if that nuclear core were exposed – a meltdown of such extreme proportions that it could literally melt through the earth emerging on the other side of the world – in China. The description of this possibility puts into perspective the type of fire humanity constantly plays with. Eerily 12 days after the release of this film the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island occurred– the same geographical area as this fictional story.

“The China Syndrome” is one of only 8 films James Bridges (“The Paper Chase”, “Bright Lights Big City”) ever made. His sparse but selective body work shows a distinct integrity, truth and honesty. His faith in realism has consistently resulted in an ability to project all the cinematic emotions proper without traditional Hollywood embellishments. Sadly Bridges died early at age 57 of cancer.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The King and Four Queens


The King and Four Queens (1956) dir. Raoul Walsh
Starring: Clark Gable, Jo Van Fleet, Eleanor Parker, Jean Wilkes

**

Clark Gable in one of his last roles stars in this recently DVD-revived 1956 western, directed by studio vet Raoul Walsh, about an escaped desperado who happens upon a desolate town inhabited by four widows and their old gun-toting mama. It makes for a very disposable Western with both Gable and Walsh well past the prime.

Gable is Dan Kehoe, a classic Western protag; he's a womanizing, ethically challenged, lonesome wanderer. The legend of buried treasure watched over by four widows and their mother-in-law is enough to get Kehoe to the ghost town of Wagon Mound in hopes of an easy con. Once there he finds that the gals have more self-respect and honour than he thought, specifically the elder widow (Jo Van Fleet), who packs heat with her mouth and long shotgun.

Walsh and company try their best to skirt the old Hollywood "production code" with coy sexual games, tossing around numerous double entendres. Gable shamelessly goes from woman to woman, trying to score with everyone. I couldn't be sure if we're supposed to find him attractive or not but his slickly greased hair and 'Gone With the Wind' moustache makes him more dirty old man than charmer.

There's a pot of gold hidden somewhere in the town by one of the widows' dead husbands, though much of this discussion is really just a metaphor for the ladies' sexuality, which, for most of the film, they refuse to give up to Kehoe. And so the film becomes an interesting spin on the chauvinistic attitudes of men — a feminist Western where the women always have superiority. It is no surprise the writer is a woman (Margaret Fitts), who crafts her smart screenplay with everything between the lines.

Unfortunately there's no action in the picture and very little suspense. Walsh hopes his star casting and glorious widescreen Cinemascope process, shot by the great Western cinematographer Lucien Ballard, will become the spectacle. With today's eyes it's not, though the DVD transfer is as crisp as they come. Western cinephiles will be more than disappointed, as there are no special features, not even subtitles or a menu screen! Seriously, it's just the roaring MGM lion and the movie.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Deconstructing the Cinema of the 2000s - Part 1: THE TENT POLE FRANCHISEES


We’re just past the halfway point of 2009, and thus under 26 weeks left on the cinema calendar of the decade. So it’s not too early to start breaking down and looking back on the decade that was for the movies. What are the most memorable films of the 2000’s? Several clearly stand out, many won’t likely emerge until the passage of time allows the cream of the crop to emerge and linger as era-defining cinema.

Perhaps the best way to start the discussion of the best films of the 2000’s is with the distinct trends which dominated the movies. This is the first of several articles analyzing the decade of cinema in the 00's.

PART 1: THE TENT POLE FRANCHISEES

In 1999, of the top ten highest grossing films, only 2 were sequels, or franchise-related films - Star Wars Episode 1 and Toy Story 2 (The Matrix was also released but had yet to be a franchise). By the middle of 2009, 5 of the top ten films were sequels. In fact, of the entire 90's only 5 'sequels' appear in the top 20 grossing movies of the decade, compared with (so far) 16 for the 2000's! This the tent pole phenomenon.

As it relates to movies, a 'Tent Pole' refers to a film, which, because of an already established broad audience, becomes the cash cow for a studio to float the losses of other riskier film ventures. The need for tent poles increased the need to establish movie franchises - material and characters which could be reused and recycled for maximum impact and minimum risk. Arguably James Bond was the first modern franchise. But it wasn't until the 00's when studio's exploited its successful films over and over again ad nauseum. This is why we saw so many TV shows, comic books, remakes, and sequels on our screens.

Throughout the decade, it was rare for a year to go by with either a Pirates film, a Shrek film, a Harry Potter film, Lord of the Rings film or a Marvel/DC Comic franchise film to be out in the theatres at any one time. In fact in 2007, the four top grossing films (worldwide) of the year were four of the biggest-ever Hollywood franchises:

1. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End ($960,996,492)
2. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ($938,212,738)
3. Shrek 3 ($890,871, 626)
4. Spider-man 3 ($798,958,162)

The top ten grossing films of all time, which used to be a barometer for audience-pleasing quality, is now diluted with these tent pole sequels. Kind of like the steroid era in baseball - average players with inflated statistics.

Even older franchises which had seemingly run its course could be given new life with the concept known as the ‘reboot’. Anything is possible in Hollywood. And so, this is how the 40 year old Star Trek franchise was made as fresh and modern any new fangled high concept film. It’s been a late-decade phenomenon, but one that produced reboots for Halloween, Friday the 13th, James Bond with even more to come in the '10's

Arguably the belle of this bunch is The Dark Knight and in many ways an anomaly of the blockbuster world. An intelligent adult comic film, perhaps more in keeping with the structure and tone of a classic crime film than a comic book extravangza. Nolan's previous reboot Batman Begins was successful in the box office ($205million domestically in 2005) and similar numbers were expected. No one would have predicted it to challenge Titanic as alltime box office champ. The untimely death of Heath Ledger undoubtedly contributed to the mass interest in the film, as well as Christopher Nolan’s experimentation with true Imax shooting and projection.

With much talk in the latter half of the decade about how filmmakers could tear young people away from youtube and Bit Torrent, get them to take their money out of their wallets and continue to stick their butts into the theatres, the answer came from a film system which had been staring us in the face for 30 years but never capitalized on. Now it seems a no-brainer to use the pristine resolution and awe-inspiring spectacle of true full screen IMAX. It’s only been a year since The Dark Knight, but with Transformers, Harry Potter and Iron Man franchises shooting partially on IMAX, it’s now a standard for new blockbusters to keep up with.

With the success of these films every studio was looking to establish their own franchises, and new reboots – many of course to fail. The Catholic right drowned New Line’s much lauded Golden Compass prospective franchise. Same goes with Bryan Singer's much-reviled Superman reboot (which I actually enjoyed),

So here's my top five Tent Pole flms in the 2000’s

Batman Begins (2005):

On a personal level, I actually prefer Batman Begins to TDH, less muscular and more mythological than The Dark Knight. Nolan's explorations of the Batman's past and the epic journey to embrace and channels his fears and guilt against crime took on a grand emotional quality.

The Dark Knight (2008):

As mentioned, Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel feels more like an accompany-piece of Michael Mann’s Heat, than anything in the current Marvel/DC film universe. Special effects kept to a minimum, organic street level action and tension anchor the Gotham conflict in the real world.

Spider-man 2 (2005):

On the opposite spectrum of the Chris Nolan school of comic filmmaking Sam Raimi’s Spider-man sequel is pure popcorn entertainment – a colourful extravangza of pop culture. But Raimi exposes the emotional core of his characters with more depth than his first and third films, producing a rare combination of style and substance in the genre.

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001):

With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think many will complain that Peter Jackson’s first chapter of the Tolkein franchise is the best. Though it lacks the gigantic finale battle scenes of The Two Towers or Return of the King, it’s lyrical, romantic and pure literal fantasy are at its creative peak in FOTR.

Iron Man (2008):

The one-two punch of TDK and Iron Man made ’08 a glorious summer. The enjoyment of Iron Man perhaps had to do with how for out of left field its success came from - Jon Favreau was hardly a top-tier action director, with a comic franchise as yet untested in cinema or television. And so how welcome it was when Robert Downey Jr. charmed us with a great anti-heroic performance as Tony Stark. Add to that Favreau’s controlled and streamlined visuals, the simplicity of the Iron Man design and his enemy rivals seemed like an antidote to the over stimulation we got from films like Spider-man 3 and Transformers.

Over the next few weeks and months look for more articles deconstructing the themes, trends and great films of the decade, including Documentary, Social Realism, Political Trends and more. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Two Lovers


Two Lovers (2009) dir. James Gray
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwenyth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Elias Koteas

***

After going 6 years between his first and second film and 7 years between his second and third director Gray quickly made “Two Lovers” on the heals of “We Own the Night”. With much less genre-pretention, Gray’s low key character study accomplishes more than either of “Night”, or the “The Yards” (though I confess not haven’t seen “Little Odessa”).

Beginning a film with a suicide attempt is always a difficult set-up. This is what happens to Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), a depressed late 30-something, who appears to be at his lowest place. We learn that Leonard’s has been suffering from depression since his ex-fiance left him for the innocuous reason of incompatible blood types (setting a new cinematic bar for break-ups). He’s since spent the last three years living with his parents regressing in maturity with increasingly inward anti-social behaviour.

But within a matter of days Leonard has two attractive women cross his paths – Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw) is a family friend whom Leonard gets set-up with, a lovely gal who aggressively takes the lead with the flirtation. But it’s Michelle (Gwenyth Paltrow) Leonard's neighbour whom he's truly smitten with. A more volatile emotional personality than Sandra, but a carnal lust prevents him from truly committing to Sandra. His platonic friendship with Michelle soon turns into a romance, which will either bring Leonard out of his shell or perhaps send him further into despair.

Gray drops us into Leonard’s life at his absolute lowest point. As an audience member understanding and sympathizing with your main character who has just tried to commit suicide is a tall venture. As a result the first half of the film is an uphill emotional battle to understand Leonard.

It’s not subtle that the two lovers in question represent the different paths in Leonard’s life. As we watch Sandra’s advances go dismissed and his immature lies and deceipt against her compile, we have expectations of where the story will end up.

As a character study, Leonard is a curious case. A late 30-something who lives with his parents? Who lies and deceives everyone around him like a neurotic immature teenager? How do we identify with someone like this? Thinking back to the selfish awkwardness of adolescence might help put you in Leonard's headspace.

There's a lot of Travis Bickle in Leonard and so reconciling his anti-social behaviour with Sandra and Michelle's attraction to him is a hurdle to overcome. And perhaps Phoenix chews it all a bit too much with his Brando mumbling and twitchy mannerisms, but Gray’s emotional honesty and simple love triangle does eventually trump this. Leonard and Phoenix slowly got under my skin and by the third act, I found myself committed to seeing Leonard complete his journey.

In addition to his characters Gray’s love for his hometown New York City is admirably worn on his sleeve. Gray’s carefully chosen locals and unintrusive long lens shooting style compresses the endless nightlights and corridors of grey buildings in the background. At all times we know it’s New York, and not Toronto, or any other city doubled for it.

The timing of Phoenix’s David Letterman meltdown is said to have irked Gray, perhaps implying it hurt the box office of the film. But success for a film like “Two Lovers” should not be judged on box office. On DVD the film should find its audience, American indie cinema romantics who chart the careers of filmmakers like James Gray. I think audiences will find it to be his freshest and most personal film he’s made. Enjoy.

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

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Seraphine


Seraphine (2008) dir. Martin Provost
Starring Yolande Moreau Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Geneviève Mnich, Nico Rogner

***1/2

Guest review by Blair Stewart

One of the great joys I have in watching films are those scenes devoted to 'doing things' - the process of building, creating or teaching, however banal. Philip Baker Hall showing John C. Reilly the ropes of casino gambling in "Hard Eight" is oddly thrilling, same with the Mikado coming together for Gilbert and Sullivan in "Topsy-Turvy", and the detailed schemes in Michael Mann's "Heat" and even, my guilty pleasure, the Japanese tea making scene in the "Karate Kid II". Martin Provost's "Seraphine", a big winner at the Cesars (the French Oscars) this year, has that same quality.

Seraphine Louis (1864-1942) was a French outsider artist whose still-life paintings had an unusual vibrancy - earthly and erotic, made from unknown materials brushed onto wood canvases. The material was unknown in part due to Seraphine's social status as an orphaned cleaning lady. Too poor to buy paint she made use of butchers' blood and nicked church oils to create her works. For the private and devout woman her paintings brought about ecstacy, as if her hands were guided by the Virgin Mother before they scrubbed the floors bare in the morning. Into the town of Senlis came the German art critic Wilhelm Udhe who inherited Seraphine as his housecleaner and was baffled by the gruff woman. As Udhe had done with Rousseau and Picasso, he spotted Seraphine's talent and nutured it before the First World War, the Depression and madness interupted their plans together.

Yolande Moreau, a recongnisable face from European cinema, is excellent as Seraphine - an Cesar-winning lead role that jumps between the poles of sensibility and frenzy, admirability and maddening. Veteran actor Ulrich Tukur as Udhe provides a fine performance as the professional, secretive man who kicks over stones looking for gold.

The film maintains intact truth and integrity to the story without sacrifice to the cinematic art. Seraphine experiences success for the first time, spending money wontonly and reverting to a spoilt child when it dries up. It also doesn't gloss over Seraphine's deteriorating mental state where she spent her last years in an asylum while her art was in the MOMA.

Martin Provost's work as the co-writer and director is unsentimental and attentive, sympathetic characters become petty and human, petty characters suffer loss and gain dimension. Glimpses of Seraphine creating are a joy in part to Moreau's singing voice, a finished painting brought about loud hymns to Mary and Provost provides witty cutaways to her sleepless neighbours.

Like the other films and scenes mentioned above, we get great pleasure in watching Seraphine's process. The act of finding paints, mixing them to the final brush strokes show the great artist as a headstrong 'peasant' raising herself above her impoverished circumstances. And so her downfall becomes that much more tragic knowing the great care and attention she gave to the discipline of her art.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Fido


Fido (2006) dir. Andrew Currie
Starring: Billy Connolly, Carrie-Ann Moss, Dylan Baker, Henry Czerny, K'Sun Ray

***1/2

It sounds absurd but 'Slingblade', meets 'E.T.', meets 'Lassie' meets 'Night of the Living Dead' could have been the pitch for Andrew Currie’s wholly original 'Fido'. The deliciously delightful comedy about a tamed zombie who is bought by a humble suburban family to do household chores but ends up developing a brotherly relationship with their young son, smoothly combines Douglas Sirk-style 50’s suburban melodrama with a post-modern zombie subversion of “Shawn of the Dead”.

A masculine and guttural voice of a 1950’s radio announcer in the opening voiceover explains the backstory in the style of a classic newsreel. Instead of a World War, Earth, in this fictional world fought a “zombie war” against a zombie infestation. A company called Zomcon was able to tame the zombies with a collar around their necks. With this device zombies became robotlike servants available to ordinary families to do their daily chores.

One day Helen Robinson (Carrie Anne Moss) surprises her husband, Bill (Dylan Baker) with a new zombie (Billy Connolly) for the home. Their young boy Timmy (K'Sun Ray) makes friends with the zombie and names him Fido. Fido performs his tasks well, but Bill is still suspect of his presence. Painful memories of the Zombie War are brought back which causes a disruption in the family. Fido is watched carefully by the neighbourhood skeptic Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson) and one of the Zomcom executives (Henry Czerny) for fear that Timmy and Fido’s relationship might result in another potential zombie-outbreak.

Everything in the film, no matter how ridiculous is played deadpan straight. Director Currie assembles a perfect ensemble cast, Billy Connolly, as the sad indentured slave-zombie, Carrie Anne Moss as the perfect 50’s homemaker, Dylan Baker as the conservative suburban father, young K'Sun Ray is gawky enough to play the curious Timmy and Henry Czerny is perhaps the stand out playing his customary bad guy role with despicable menace.

Parodying the dull 1950’s suburban lifestyle is not new, but when combined with the absurd revisionist history Currie and co-writers Dennis Heaton and Robert Chomiak create with the zombies, it’s downright hilarious.

The film, shot by DOP Jan Kiesser, looks fantastic as well, shot with a beautiful widescreen frame, bright saturated colours and great use of the B.C. landscape. Composer Don MacDonald produces a top notch Elmer Bernstein-esque score and complements the heightened recreation of the period perfectly.

“Fido” manages to find surprisingly clever metaphors between zombies and the paranoia of the 1950’s - the fear of losing jobs to mechanical automation, the communist scare, and the need to keep up with the Joneses. But the heart of the film is the relationship between boy and zombie, which would have made an awesome pitch.

"Fido" screens tonight as part of the monthly 'Canadian Cinema in Revue' series at Toronto's Revue Cinema

Sunday, 12 July 2009

12


12 (2008) dir. Nikita Mikhalkov
Starring: Sergey Makovetsky, Nikita Mikhalkov, Sergey Garmash, Alexey Petrenko, Yuri Stoyanov

***

A Russian remake of “12 Angry Men” is concept behind this Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee from last year. At 160mins, it’s an imposing epic length version of the 1957 film, which originally ran a scant 96mins. Under Mikhalkov’s rich directorial style and a dozen inspired performances, “12” is watchable for the original 96mins and most of the extra 54.

The film has been described as a loose remake, or an inspiration from Bernard Rose’s original screenplay. Despite the added length, it’s as much a traditional remake as we see in Hollywood today. The concept and narrative structure is the same. We never see the trial, instead we meet the jurors once they've arrived in their sequestered room (a school gymnasium this time) to deliberate over the case of a young man accused of murder. In this case a young Chechnyan boy accused for killing his foster parent – a respected officer of the Russian police. The men are exhausted, home sick and ready to jump to their first knee jerk reactions to the case – a guilty plea. Eleven men say guilty, one doesn’t.

Over the course of the day, one by one, the tide begins to turn against guilty. Two opposing steadfast personalities clash, in the Sidney Lumet version Henry Fonda was the voice of reason, and Lee J. Cobb as his stubborn foe. In “12” Sergey Garmash inhabits Cobb’s racist bully part and Sergey Makovetsky instantly expresses the warmth required to replicate the Fonda everyman persona. In between are a number of bravura moments, highlighted by Sergei Gazarov’s coy mindgame with the racist who claims to know his way around a knife. In a scene of wonderful dancelike choreography and editing Gazarov’s half-Chechen surgeon character turns the tables demonstrating how a Chechen uses a knife (Note to the audience, do NOT get into a knife fight with a Chechen).

Mikhalkov’s directorial style has macho-masculine bravado. Visually Mikhalkov’s moves his camera around with confidence and lights and frames each of his men like they are the star of the film. Each character is important to him, each gets his dramatic speech which results in a tidal change of opinion and contributing to the impression of the case as a whole.

Each actor is a force of nature, commanding the stage when necessary. It’s a guess, but the original play was called "12 Angry Men", for the simple reason of politically incorrect male superiority on the part of the writer. Why write a woman into a picture if there’s no chance of a romance? In “12”, men is not in the title, and so, a woman could have been cast, but Mikhalkov sticks with 12 males. His reasons take on greater significance in the dynamic of the room. The case could stand alone as a distinctly male story of father and son and the responsibility of men as protectors – a system which failed the boy. As the men wrestle with their duty as citizens and men to the boy, the finale takes on even greater emotional resonance.

“12” is not perfect either. There's a predictability in how things will play out. We know each man will get his speech and the tide will eventually turn. It’s not a breezy 160mins either, the first 25 are a slog, setting up a tone of immaturity with the men - the school gymnasium easily distracts the grown men like attention-deficit children. The intention is good, but10mins could have sufficed. A stray bird which has flown into the room becomes a visual metaphor though not as profound or significant as implied. We expect the bird, which is even featured in the movie poster, to play a part in the story so there’s a lost opportunity to have this elegant, almost feminine presence, influence the decision of the men.

The finale presents us with a wonderful denouement adding even more panache to Mikhalkov’s treatment of the original story. After spending so much time with the lifestory of the accused, in deciding his fate, for good or bad, one of the jury members brings up the responsibility the 12 of them have for the boy even after the trial is over. The final scene is not necessary, but one of inspired cinema with continues the story beyond the final credits bringing Bernard Rose’s original screenplay to a grander level of cinema. Enjoy.

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

Saturday, 11 July 2009

The Towering Inferno


The Towering Inferno (1974) dir. John Guillerman & Irwin Allen
Starring: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway

***1/2

I LOVE the “Towering Inferno” - the best disaster movie ever made. Admittedly I hadn’t seen it since childhood and it holds up beyond my memories of a child enraptured by the fire engines. A fire engulfing the tallest building in the world? Top notch, near-invisible special effects; Paul Newman and Steve McQueen occupying the same space? Plus William Holden and Fred Astaire and OJ Simpson! "The Towering Inferno" is a supreme guilty pleasure.

Irwin Allen made a career out of cinematic spectacle, an entertainer at heart who, despite his kitschy subject matter knew the movie business inside and out.

Made in 1974 perhaps in response to the skyscraper battle between the World Trade Centre (1970) and the Sears Tower (1973), Allen’s story is set at the opening of the world tallest building in San Francisco. Paul Newman plays the building's architect, Doug Roberts, who arrives to attend the lavish party arranged by the builder, Jim Duncan (William Holden). It doesn’t take long before the building engineers discover a fault in the electrical capacity of the wiring. All it takes is a spark from a cut-rate wire barely above safety code to start a fire.

Upon discovering the shoddy craftsmanship Roberts pleads to Duncan to delay the party, but with the dignitaries already getting smashed on the 135th floor Duncan chooses to save face. The small fire soon turns into a big one, thus trapping the party-goers above the fire. Chief O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) commands the fire fighters with an intense workmanlike manner using his creativity and experience to get everyone to safety.

As typical with the disaster-genre, the antagonist is the environment, which strikes usually in response to man’s efforts to tame mother nature. In this case, the fire which rages and grows uncontrollably. And often the moments of jeopardy can seem like overtly manufactured contrivances resulting in a fragmented collection of conspicuous set-pieces. Conflict inevitably arises from between the characters, at a sacrifice to common sense relationships. Allen and Guillerman manage to avoid these trappings admirably.

Take the Richard Chamberlain character the corner-cutting engineer, and son-in-law to Duncan, the builder. While he’s written to be a clear antagonist, his backstory as the working-class social climber looking for appreciation from his upper-class father in law anchors him in the real world. It's this concerted effort toward realism which elevates this disaster pic above most others in the genre.

Steve McQueen’s immersive performance as the chief exemplifies the Irwin Allen’s throughline of integrity. When McQueen arrives on the scene, he systematically goes through the procedural details of the job, retaining an unbiased professionalism and never losing his cool. A working man, just doing his job McQueen stays consistent to the very end up - to the final shot even, when we see him exit the building, non-chalantly hop into his car and drive away – like punching out of the clock.

In these final moments screenwriter Sterling Silliphant writes in a blatantly expository moral message about the dangers of architects and builders erecting skyscrapers higher and higher above their reach – “You know we were pretty lucky tonight, body count's less then 200. You know, one of these days, you're gonna kill ten-thousand in one of these firetraps, and I'm gonna keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies…” – a statement which could have caused audience groans in 1974 but resonates prophetically in a post 9/11 world.

We shouldn't over-analyze "The Towering Inferno" for profundities though, instead watch and appreciate it as a great epic adventure picture and blockbuster cinematic spectacle.

"The Towering Inferno" is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment