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

Monday, 31 August 2009

Gruesome Cinematic Beatdowns (and How to Avoid Them in Real Life)

We’re all attracted to violence, especially on film, which makes for a cathartic and often harmless means to fulfill our base needs as homo-sapiens to exert dominant aggressive behaviour. Sometimes that means enjoying the sight of someone getting a car door slammed in the side of their head, or having one’s head batted around with a baseball bat, or a good ol’ fashioned punch to the face. And so, I’ve compiled this list of gruesome, great and certainly memorable beatdowns, which, for good or bad, will always stick in our memory.
Pistol Whipping the Neighbour – GOODFELLAS (1990)


Martin Scorsese’s name will come up on this list a lot. One of the most shocking moments was Henry Hill’s demeaning punishment inflicted on his douche neighbour for groping his wife. Watch Ray Liotta’s seething rage as he crosses the suburban street before beating down the pathetic neighbour and his lame attempt at verbal confrontation with the side of his gun. Lesson learned from this beatdown – Check who your neighbours are before you grope someone else’s wife.


Garbage Can to the Head – THE GODFATHER (1972)



Even more satisfactory rage than Ray Liotta’s pistol-whipping above perhaps is Sonny Corleone’s reaction to hearing about Carlo’s physical abuse of Connie over the phone. Francis Coppola built up Sonny’s loose cannon character to wonderful effect, exploding in rage with a very public and embarrassing beat down of Carlo in the middle of the street. Lesson learned: self-explanatory.


Head Meets Marble – WILD AT HEART (1990)


A person’s skull and marble flooring are not a good combination, and especially in a David Lynch movie, set to the music of Gwar. Thus is the eye popping opening of ‘Wild At Heart’. After a poor hitman sap pulls a knife and attempts to stab Sailor, Sailor proceeds to beat his head against anything he can find, the wall, the banister and finally, after being tossed down the stairs onto the marble floor, he shatters his skull with sickening overkill. Lesson learned: If you get in a fight use Gwar as your internal soundtrack.


Curb Smiley – AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998)


This key moment in Tony Kaye’s classic film we don’t even see on screen, but the implications of what Ed Norton’s Derek Vinyard character does to the young man that tries to steal his truck is so monstrously cruel I get shivers just writing this. Lesson learned: If someone tells you to open your mouth and bite down on the edge of a roadside curb, take whatever punishment is the alternative.


Fire Extinguisher Meet Face – IRREVERSIBLE (2002)


Shot scene-by-scene in reverse order is more than just a gimmick in Gasper Noe’s controversial ‘Irreversible’. Early on we watch Vincent Cassel march into a nightclub and attack seemingly at random a guy known only as ‘tapeworm’. The tapeworm fights back only to be bludgeoned to death by Marcus’ buddy Pierre with a fire extinguisher. Seemingly without provocation and with such brutality, we think, what could possible justify such action, let alone the director showing the poor man’s face literally caving in with each blow? At the midpoint of the movie, when Noe gives us a scene of even greater barbarism against Marcus’ girlfriend we understand everything. Lesson learned: You can kill a person with just about anything.


Car Door Meet Face – RAGING BULL (1980)


Ever had your finger caught in car door? It hurts eh? Think about having your head caught in a car door, and multiple times with Joe Pesci slamming it with as much force as humanly possible. Lesson learned: If someone has a grudge against you, not even your own car is a safe place.


Billy Batts Stompfest – GOODFELLAS (1990)


Other than blood-curdling violence the commonality of these scenes is that each of them either marks a key plot point in the film, or reveals a violent aspect of one of the characters. In ‘Goodfellas’, the killing of Billy Batts represents the key transition of Henry Hill from the dream world of gangsterism to the sick realism of the lifestyle. The Billy Batts beat down is the climax of a scene which Scorsese draws out magnificently, ringing out buckets of tension like the great master he is. Oh yeah, that’s actor Frank Vincent again from the car door in ‘Raging Bull' getting stomped on. Lesson learned: If you’re in a pub in New Jersey and hear Donovan playing on the radio, call it a night.


Psychoboy vs. Angel Face – FIGHT CLUB


Up until this fight in the film, Jared Leto didn’t do much except hang around the background wearing platinum blonde hair and hardly even speaking a line of dialogue. His narrative purpose arrived when Ed Norton decided to take his sexual frustrations out in the ring. With fist pounding fury Norton sits on Leto’s chest turning his angel face into a mess of flesh, blood and teeth chicklets. Lesson learned: Don't underestimate your opponent.


Moonwatcher Beatdown – 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY


Maybe it’s not the most gruesome, but perhaps the most famous beatdown. The warring Neanderthal tribes in the Dawn of Man sequence culminates when the so-called Moonwatcher ape with his newly discovered bone weapon claims his territory by killing his rival and getting his other pals to join in the kill. Of course, he rejoices by throwing his weapon in the air… you know the rest. Lesson learned: Bring weapons, and like Sean Connery’s great line in “The Untouchables”, ‘They pull a knife, you pull a gun’.


Bowling Pin – THERE WILL BE BLOOD


For almost three hours I kept wondering ‘where is the blood in this film?’ Daniel Plainview’s final act of vengeance against his nemesis comes after Paul Sunday’s just been told his fortune of oil has been sucked dry. And so with nothing else to ruin him by, Plainview decides to beat Sunday to death with a bowling pin. And notice Anderson’s precise composition and framing which looks like the Moonwatcher's first discovery of his weapon in '2001'… Lesson learned: Sometimes you just have to beat a dead horse.

And I just can’t get out of here without mentioning these honourable mentions:

Robert De Niro’s batting practice with his poor unsuspecting colleague’s head during dinner in THE UNTOUCHABLES.

The 20 guys who get walloped with a single hammer in OLD BOY

Joe Pesci and his brother who become batting practice themselves in CASINO

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy taking punches like Christ for the sake of his fellow longshoremen in ON THE WATERFRONT

Private Pyle getting beaten with soap in bed in FULL METAL JACKET

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Repulsion

Repulsion (1965) dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Yvonne Furneaux

***1/2

'Repulsion' not only represents a unique place in the filmography of Roman Polanski as his second feature and first in English, but in 1965 it’s plays as an antidote the prevailing attitude of exuberant sexual freedom, a horror film of sorts for the swinging 60's.

Carole (Catherine Deneuve) is a French beautician working in a salon and living with her sister Helene. Something's eating her, and we’re not quite sure. Lately she’s been absent minded at work, perpetually distracted by mundane shapes and patterns around her. She seems uncomfortable outside, preferring the shelter of her cramped London flat. When her sister and her boyfriend leave for a weekend vacation, Carole is left alone at home. A compendium of deep psychological fears slowly break her down.

Chief among them is a local bloke who despite Carole’s rejections continually pines after her. In fact, men of all sorts starting appearing in her nightmares and even waking dreams. Polanski’s perverse imagery of cracking walls and a decaying cooked rabbit become literal metaphors of her broken down psyche, eventually culminating in gruesome violence and murder.

Polanski is teamed up with his frequent writing partner Gerard Brach for the first time, but they consciously keep the story light and almost frustratingly coy with Carole’s backstory and explaination of her condition. While there’s some remarkable and influential filmmaking on display, we tend to concentrate on the second half of the picture, disregarding the lengthy and for lack of a better word, boring, 45mins it takes to get the good stuff. We’re constantly waiting for something to happen, Carole to break, to snap, to get hit on the head or something.

The wait eventually does pay off. “Repulsion” and “Psycho” arguably invented some of the fundamentals of horror cinema today. Polanski's transitions in and out of Carole’s dreams have been standard scare tactics every since, and one in shot in particular provides the film’s biggest jump. At one point Carole, alone in the apartment and scared to death moves a mirror, revealing a man in the background. It’s an overused technique today, but when used in “Repulsion” must have sent audiences through the roof.

“Repulsion” is all style, Polanksi’s cinematic exercise of the muscles. His command of the camera for sophomore 32 year old is masterful. It’s the first of his apartment films (inc “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Tenant”), showcasing a remarkable ability to shoot in tight spaces. His precise camera movements through corridors, door frames, around furniture in the room using wideangle lenses while still maintaining the ability to edit for pace would become his trademark.

What is the meaning of “Repulsion”? Though we don’t understand what in Carole’s life triggered this frenzy of psychological disturbance. I’d wager the film was about Carole’s fear of men, and as evidenced by the final frame, perhaps even some kind of childhood abuse. Having been made at a time when the game of male-female courtship was more open to reveal the sick sexual appetites of men, Carole finds herself constantly bombarded and attacked with the unabated male libido. It’s no coincidence the only scenes which don’t involve Carole are with Michael and his sexist pals discussing their female conquests. At one point Michael's friend even advises not to go after 'the virgin', because 'they're not worth it.' Arguably there’s a lesbian subtext to Carole’s behaviour as well. The only moment we see her smiling is a joyous laughter she shares with her female colleague, and played very close together by Polanski.

Minor frustrations aside "Repulsion" is a magnificent piece of celluloid. On Blu-Ray, its sharp, contrasty black and white imagery pierces through the high-definition screen like Carole's straight razor..

Friday, 28 August 2009

You Might As Well Live

You Might As Well Live (2009) dir. Simon Ennis
Starring: Joshua Peace, Michael Madsen, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Clark Johnson

***

Guest review by Reece Crothers

Some films are just destined to become cult classics. I'm putting my money on Simon Ennis' hilarious "You Might As Well Live" to join the rank and file of other Canadian comedies to achieve that status, from "Strange Brew" and "Highway 61" through "Trailer Park Boys" and "FUBAR", the latter of which is all the more appropriate here as that film's director, Michael Dowse serves as executive producer.

It all begins when our hero Robert R. Mutt is deemed "too happy" to remain in the care of the mental institution that has been his recent home. He doesn't want to leave, and feels he isn't ready for the outside world. This narrative jumping off point has been used before, whether for comedy in Wes Anderson's "Bottle Rocket" or for drama in Louis Malle's "The Fire Within", but even if we start from a familiar place, where we end up and how we get there is something you've never seen quite like this. "You proved to me that you're a real somebody, " his friend, the mental asylum orderly, tells Mutt. "Now, you gotta go out there and prove it to everybody else."

Dowse is not the only hero of Canuck cinema along for the ride. The list of local talent is staggering: the reunion of Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk following harrowing turns in Sir David Cronenberg's (he's Sir David to me) "History Of Violence"; Liane Balaban of "New Waterford Girl" fame; Clark Johnson of "Nurse. Fighter. Boy", who kicked ass both in front of and behind the camera on HBO's The Wire; "Slings & Arrows" alum Martha Burns; honorary Canadian Julian Richings, one of the great faces in movies; and Tony Nappo, who after years of solid supporting work playing baddies and bit players (Four Brothers, Incredible Hulk) is really due for some leading man roles. Bryk and Johnson are particular standouts, lending warmth and compassion to characters that, in a lesser film, might have been cartoon caricatures, but this is really true of the entire cast. Non-canadian (but I won't hold it against him) Michael Madsen, who usually shows up in roles you know he took for the paycheck when Tarantino has nothing for him to do, finally gets to play a nice guy, and he's terrific here as Mutt's hero and mentor, Clinton Manitoba.

All of that talent and I haven't even mentioned the main reason to see this movie: the wonderfully goofy and surprisingly heartfelt performance of lead actor and co-writer (with Ennis) Josh Peace as Robert R. Mutt. The actor so totally immerses himself in his character that I found myself adding him as a friend on facebook before realizing he was fictional (and you should to, his facebook video is also hilarious). Peace's Mutt is so sweet, so genuine and heartbreakingly funny that it's easy to overlook the film's occasional lapses in good taste. "Irreverent" is a word you will likely hear often in describing this film's sense of humour.

When Billy Wilder wrote the infamous Chicago St. Valentine's Day massacre into the set-up for "Some Like It Hot", he was taken to task by studio execs who cautioned that murder won't play in a comedy. He proved them wrong. I wonder what those same execs would have thought about the constant threat of chemical castration our hero faces from McHattie as Mutt's neighbour, the circus clown who lives across the street and who, in one of those lapses in good taste, has targeted our protagonist as patsy for child pornography his wife has uncovered on the home computer. Among the myriad of bizarre comic entanglements Mutt encounters on his quest to prove he is "a real somebody" are, his uncle's exploitation of his over-sexed, would-be, tween pop star sister; his comatose mother; a TV weatherman who advises Mutt to "grab adversity by its ears and fuck it in the face". "Everybody in this town hates me" Mutt cries "they treat me like I'm a turd". Strangers drive by screaming "Douchebag" at him. But Mutt is an eternal optimist. He might want to throw himself off a bridge every once in a while but he wears goggles in case there's something neat to see at the bottom of the lake. It is this goofy, unflappability that gives Mutt, and the film, its charm. There may be a few cheap shots here and there, but more importantly there are laughs, a whole lot of 'em, and most of them of the laugh out loud variety. In the end the film also has a heart as big as its hero. Robert R. Mutt wants to be your friend. You might as well give him a shot.

"You Might As Well Live" opens in theatres today in Canada from E1 Entertainment

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Sugar

Sugar (2009) dir. Anna Borden, Ryan Fleck
Starring: Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Ellary Porterfield, Ann Whitney

*1/2

Baseball was never rendered more boring than as it is depicted in Ryan Fleck and Anna Borden’s “Sugar”. The story of the culture shock of a Dominican minor leaguer playing ball in the U.S. seems a conscious effort not to make a ‘sports film’ purposely avoiding all opportunities to stroke the audience’s expectations and desires to see the lead character succeed. Though there's value in the attempt to subvert a genre in the name of realism but it unfortunately results in one long anti-climax and an emotionally distant and cold film about a warm subject.

Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) lives a poor and simple life devoted to family and baseball. He’s got a wicked ‘knuckle-curve’ which has made him a successful firethrower in the Dominican minors. His dream comes true when he and a trio of his teammates get the call to play Single-A ball with the Kansas City farm team in Bridgetown. Santos thus has to leave his loving family and girlfriend for the big bad USA.

The Midwest life couldn’t be more different. He’s boarded by a god-fearing but welcoming elderly couple with a long list of house rules and, of course, no one speaks Spanish other then a few of his fellow players . The language barrier and his inherent shyness makes it difficult for him to make friends outside of his Dominican teammates. Santos’ dream starts to crumble when his friends one-by-one leave the team, and a playing slump puts him in the bullpen. His all-around homesickness leads him to near depression prompting him to go back and find the source of his inspiration.

Borden and Fleck try really hard to maintain some kind of honest integrity to the life of a Dominican ballplayer. Unfortunately Algenis Soto just doesn't have the chops to carry the picture. He mopes around the entire film with a sullen and sad look, barely even cracking a smile even when things are going good for him.

The goals of Santos and the underlying purpose of the film is just as precarious. We get it, "Sugar" is not about the triumph of sport, nor is it about the American dream, nor is it about even baseball. In the third act, Santos inexplicably leaves the team and his dream to find his old Dominican teammate who left baseball (which kinda comes off with homosexual suggestions?). 'Not that there's anything wrong with that,' but if it’s a character film, this bait and switch might have worked if we actually liked him and if he were a strong actor like a Ryan Gosling, who in Half Nelson who triumphed over his weak and paperthin script. Otherwise it becomes dull and lifeless.

We probably don’t need to dwell too much more on the details but a number of plot threads are left hanging, plot threads which would seem to move in the direction of mainstream genre expectation, but leave us hanging. A potential relationship between Santos and the young granddaughter of the elder couple teases us. Subtle glances and coy flirting leads to a move for first base by Santos, but is rejected by the bible-thumping tease. That’s the end of that relationship, without barely a word and reflection. This narrative and emotional failure sums up the film.

So it’s a nice try but the only thing the directorial pair reveal is that with a joy for the sport baseball is dreary and boring. If that’s the point, that they have succeeded, but it’s not a movie I need to see.

"Sugar" is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Crying Fist

Crying Fist (2005) Dir. Seung-wan Ryoo
Starring: Choi Min-sik, Ryoo Seung-bum

**

Imagine two parallel Rocky pictures mixed with Asian extremes and that peculiar Korean cinematic wit. Unfortunately, at 135 minutes it's just way too long to keep anyone other than Asian cinema fans nailed to their couch.

Tae-shik (Choi Min-sik) is a middle-aged former boxer, and father and husband, who is so down on his luck he's forced to make ends meet as a street performer, offering to be beaten up by anyone with some spare change. Sang-hwan (Ryoo Seung-bum) is a young punk who disappoints his family when he finds himself in prison for robbery. An amateur boxing competition becomes the salvation for these characters, a parallel trajectory that leads them to fight each other in the ring, both looking to reclaim their lost honour.

Choi Min-sik, most likely remembered by North American audiences as the tortured hero in ‘Old Boy’, has a remarkable face. His uncanny ability to evoke earth-shattering sadness and stone cold rage reminds us of Takeshi Kitano or Robert De Niro. His character is so loveably pathetic we desperately yearn for him to escape from his despair. Less so with Ryoo Seung-bum; the younger protag who seeks to regain the pride of his dying grandmother is as sullen but less endearing than Min-sik.

Even if both stories were equally compelling the film needs to be shortened by 45 minutes. The boxing competition isn't announced until the one-and-a-half-hour mark; it would be either the mid-point or first act turn in most movies. Before then it's a series of repetitious scenes that continually beat us down with the depravity and lifelessness of the characters.

But of course, this is Asian cinema, specifically Korean, which has its unique peculiarities. For fans of the genre it fits in well with the themes of self-flagellation and humiliation, bringing the characters down to their lowest moments. Tae-shik's dishonourable humiliation at being beaten daily in the streets by regular people is darkly humorous. At one point Tae-shik's loan officer, in an attempt to regain his honour, eats a man's freshly cut fingernail droppings as repentance.

Curiously, it's only been three years since its original release and the film already shows its age. The striking cinematography is comprised of blown out white highlights and overexposed backgrounds — the "Tony Scott look" that's now passé even for television. Even many of the Asian extreme elements, including the fingernail bit, in 2009 feel like they've jumped the shark.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Melinda Dillon and Teri Garr

****

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

Aside from being a great science fiction picture, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is one of the most evocative tales of obsession ever to be etched on celluloid and as such, this is as much a review of the film as it is a reflection on this writer’s personal obsession with the picture that has not abated for some thirty or so years.

On a crisp Winnipeg winter night in December of 1977, as I floated in a daze from within the warm confines of an old 2000-seat downtown picture palace called the Odeon, my eyes looked immediately to the Heavens. A typically clear mid-western prairie sky presented a dazzling display of the cosmos – stars danced and twinkled above me and it was near impossible to shift my gaze from the limitless expanse of the universe and beyond. I kept watching the sky for some time in total bliss and ignorance of the sub-zero temperature that, as per usual, threatened to freeze exposed skin in less than a minute or two.

I had, of course, just seen a preview of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, a motion picture of such staggering power that it seemed perfectly fitting that my first helping of its magnificence be within the cavernous expanse of this classic theatre built in 1907, its screen enveloped by a mighty proscenium, sitting in plush seats surrounded by an interior rich in ornate white Italian marble and bathed in a flickering light of utter magic that was, at this early stage of my life, a picture unlike anything I had ever seen before. This one screening proved to be so epiphanous that on the first theatrical release of the picture, I saw it on a big screen – in this same cinema – well over forty times.

I simply could not get enough of the picture. I needed to see it as much as one needs nourishment. A week could not go by that I did not feel the mysterious pull of this extraordinary motion picture.

By now, everyone knows that this classic motion picture charts the journey of everyman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) who experiences the unexplained appearance of something other-worldly and abandons his life, his job, his family – everything he holds dear – to obsessively track down the meaning behind this occurrence. In a tale steeped in Judeo-Christian resonance – from Moses to Christ – Roy makes a perilous journey, climbs Devil’s Tower and comes face-to-face with the answer to his visions until he, along with twelve apostolic “pilgrims” ascends to the Heavens, arms outstretched in what is surely the most benign crucifixion image imaginable.

It’s quite perfect, really. Aside from the obsessive quality of the central character, the picture itself is relentless in its adherence to the basic principles of UFO-ology and a system of extraterrestrial classification as posited by the late astronomer Dr. Josef Allen Hynek – the close encounter. According to Hynek, a close encounter of the first kind is seeing unexplained phenomena, while the second kind involves hard proof of some sort of physical manifestation from what was originally witnessed and, finally, the close encounter of the third kind is contact.

Using this classification system as the basis for his screenplay, Spielberg fills in his story with a sound and compelling three-act structure – one that is so exquisitely classical and presented with such flair, that the experience of seeing the film is not only entertaining, but frankly, borders on the spiritual. This sense of spirituality is almost divine in nature and makes perfect sense considering Hynek’s own belief in the notion that a technology must exist which blends both the physical and psychic. Spielberg believes this too, but his approach is that of a master showman imbued with the innocence and wonder of a child. This, finally, is what makes “Close Encounters” such a supreme entertainment – we’re engaged and dazzled, finally, by the sheer physical beauty of what Neary sees, but also, we feel and perhaps even understand what HE feels.

Over the years, Spielberg has tinkered with various cuts of the film. After the initial theatrical release, he issued a “special edition” in 1980, which trimmed a few bits that needed trimming, but he also cut several key moments that contributed to Neary’s humanity and his relationship with his family. This was, frankly, a mistake, but an even more egregious error was taking us beyond Neary’s walk onto the Mother Ship, but inside as well. This version comes close to destroying what was almost perfect. Years later, Spielberg rectified the situation by restoring the film closer to the original release, dumping most of the new footage (and thankfully, ALL of the interior Mother Ship footage). All three versions are presented on Sony’s exquisite Blu-Ray and watching them back-to-back provides an extremely rewarding look at a great artist’s process at trying to “get it” right.

On one level, the third version from 1998, is probably the best version of the film, but for me, it’s hard to separate myself from the slight raggedness of the 1977 version. It’s the version that first obsessed me and I feel that ultimately, even its minor flaws weirdly contribute to the picture’s enduring, obsessive quality.

Steven Spielberg is unquestionably a born filmmaker. He’s delivered some of the finest entertainments we’ll ever see in this bigger-than-life medium, but ultimately, it’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” that will probably resonate with the greatest power in the decades to follow. After all, it comes from a special place. It comes from the heart – that mysterious, delicate muscle that pumps lifeblood and seems, more so than the mind itself, to harbor the soul. It’s what makes great pictures and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is nothing if not great.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is currently available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Monday, 24 August 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009) dir. Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brat Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Melanie Laurent, Eli Roth

****

Quentin Tarantino has made his best and most all-together entertaining film since “Pulp Fiction” – a film which curiously received tepid response at Cannes – yet stateside seems to have won over audiences and the majority of critics. The disconnect between what people saw overseas and what people see know perhaps has something to do with hot, late summer disposable cinema we want to see from an August event film. At Cannes, the overly critical search for masterpieces from the gluttony of social realism films would easily render this film a quick glance without pause.

Tarantino’s stamp is on the film from the opening credits – his trademark yellow font, and the anachronistic and obscure Ennio Morricone-type music cue which sets up Chapter One, ‘Once Upon a Time… in Nazi-occupied Germany’. A lengthy dialogue scene occurs between a sly German SS Col, Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and an innocent French farmer. Landa is looking for a missing family of Jews and suspects the farmer as the abetter. The lengthy dialogue scene pays off demonstrating Landa’s sadistic pursuit of his prey and Tarantino’s skills with words.

The scene must go on for 15mins of unbroken dialogue, and indeed it’s an imposing length which might indicate another wordsmith masturbation film for Tarantino, but no, Tarantino manages to weave a clever and tightly-plotted war film with all the dark humour, sudden violence and cinema zeal we expect from the man.

Although its chronological Tarantino plays with the traditional movie narrative by structurally condensing his two and a half hour film into a dozen or so individual scenes. Each scene could act as it’s own film, complete with its own ebb and flow, beat changes and twists. We track a number of Nazi-fighters looking to covertly take down the Third Reich from within. As the title suggests there’s the Brad Pitt-led Dirty Dozen/Kelly's Heroes of Jewish-American soldiers who travel the countryside literally scalping as many Nazis as they can. There’s the British contingent, led by Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), a staid upper-class scotch-drinking Brit sent to connect with the Basterds and plot the assassintion of Josef Goebbels. And then there’s the lovely Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) the beautiful survivor of the massacre from the first scene who now runs a French movie theatre and finds her method of revenge through a young German soldier smitten with her beauty and love of cinema.

Each of these stories converges like a Hitchcock thriller in a cinema and the premiere of a hilarious Nazi-propaganda film-within-a-film. We've seen in previous Tarantino films his frustrating penchant for self-stroking his own personal cinematic agenda often in substitute for audience’s desires. With Besterds, Tarantino couldn’t have written a more energetic and satisfactory conclusion, paying off every subtle character embellishment from the previous two and a half hours.

For good and bad, Tarantino still seems to be in his grindhouse/spaghetti western phase from 'Kill Bill'/'Death Proof'. A number of Morricone music pieces are used in addition a roll call of idiosyncratic musical choices – one of which I recognized from the great Eastwood war film “Kelly’s Heroes”. Other than the music cinematic style is less intrusive than in Kill Bill or Death Proof and there’s actually very few foot fetish close-ups.

Tarantino’s eye for casting is as sharp as ever, discovering two great new talents in Christoph Waltz who brings to life Tarantino's dialogue as good as anyone of his usual players, and the alluring Melanie Laurent who plays Tarantino’s new vengeful female character Shosanna Dreyfus. There’s enough characters that Brad Pitt doesn’t need to carry the picture and so his depiction of Lt. Aldo Raine as a hillbilly version of George C. Scott’s Patton is more than tolerable. Tarantino also makes good use of Michael “Hunger” Fassbender and non-actor Eli Roth who makes the most of his demented Jew Bear character.

A refreshing delight in general is the respect Tarantino shows for the languages in the picture. Dialogue is equal parts French and German and English - as well as a hilarious moment or two in Italian. Other than Mike Myers' anomalous but playful casting as a pompous British general, all actors play their own nationality, Germans as Germans, French as French, Americans as Americans etc. And in a couple of scenes when actors don't speak the language they're supposed it becomes a tool for Tarantino to ratchet up the tension of the film.

The increasing idiosyncratic nature of his films post-Pulp Fiction had me acquiescing that we’d probably never see a film equal to his sophomore masterpiece, which makes the altogether entertaining experience of “Inglourious Basterds” that much more glourious. Enjoy.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

In the Company of Men

In the Company of Men (1997) dir. Neil LaBute
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Matt Malloy, Stacey Edwards

****

Neil La Bute’s feature debut, though made in 1997, expresses the same themes of the prevailing attitude of 1980’s culture –a world of incessant greed, self-indulgence and all around individualistic Darwinian attitudes. It's one of the darkest and most disturbing satires ever made, and while La Bute wants to make you laugh at his two heinous and maniacal creations of man, he also wants you to feel really bad about it.

Chad (Aaron Eckhart) is one of cinema’s most sinister creations. He’s made even more sinister than traditional movie bad guys because he operates within legal boundaries, in a social environment we all walk around in, but with an arsenal of emotional weaponry as dangerous as daggers.

Think of the most despicable thing someone could do to someone else within legal boundaries. Whatever you can think of, it’s part of Chad’s master plan – a plan to exercise his authority and capabilities of a man.

Chad and Howard are a couple of consultants starting a 6 week job for an unknown company in an unknown city. Chad (Eckhart) is good looking, fast talking, charming on the outside but hateful and misogynistic on the inside. His wife has just left him rendering him bitter and in need of revenge. Howard (Malloy) is a follower, bald, meek, shy, but, strangely, has been put in charge of the consulting team. During a heated discussion about their hatred of politically correctness Chad posits a scheme to find a wallflower-type girl, date her from two different angles and then at the same time dump her with as much malice as humanly possible. Why? Because they can. Howard admits it's 'way out there' but gives in to Chad's charming persuasion.

The woman in question becomes Christine (Stacy Edwards) who also happens to be deaf – all the more perfect for them. Indeed both Chad and Howard wine and dine Christine with maximum attention, showering her with compliments and for Chad, eventually sleeping with her. Everything goes according to plan until Howard actually starts falling for her. But of course, if Christine had her choice, Chad is the man for her. And so the reverse starts to happen, through Chad's passive aggressive games Howard becomes emasculated eventually breaking him down to pieces with regret, guilt and seething defeat.

The film works on so many levels, told with as much subtlety and restraint as it is bold and in your face. Chad's schemes run deeper than mere misogyny. As Howard's participation in the game breaks him down Chad is slyly climbs over him and takes his place as leader of the consulting team. By the end, we're never quite sure whether his plan was to break Stacey or Howard himself as an act of corporate ladder climbing. Either way Chad emerges as the devil incarnate, more maniacal than anyone you could think of in the history of cinema.

On the level of independent filmmaking 'In the Company of Men' is an even more remarkable achievement, using his miniscule $35,000 budget to his advantage. With minimal locations and actors, La Bute creates a cold sparseness, a unique tone of isolation and danger. Each scene is shot with a minimum number of camera angles framed with a clever eye for composition complimenting the clinical precision of his sadistic characters. Enjoy.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

The Five Deadly Venoms

Five Deadly Venoms (1978) dir. Chang Chen
Starring: Sheng Chiang, Philip Kwok, Feng Lu, Pai Wei, Meng Lo

***

The house of the Venoms is in turmoil! The master of the famous kung fu training school is dying and sensing a plot by his former students to steal some hidden treasure he sends his latest apprentice Yang Da to investigate. The identities of his former students are unknown, but one of them has killed the Naun family and stolen the master’s treasure.

The Five Venoms include:

Snake – a martial arts master who uses his two hands like a snake's striking head for one and a whipping tail as the other.
Toad – a strongman technique which renders the fighter impervious to fists, swords, spears and other weapons, but also highly vulnerable in one unknown weakspot
Gekko – a wall climbing technique which allow the master to fight from walls, ceilings defying gravity to his advantage
Scorpion – the deadliest of the Venom skills, which uses sweeping leg kicks to mimic the striking tail of the scorpion
Centipede – aka man of a thousands hands – a fight technique so fast which appears like a thousands hands fighting at once.

The film has actually very few action sequences, substituted by a complex Machiavellian whodonuit plotting the murderer's identity and theft of the secret treasure map. While the innocent youth Yang Da is our point of view into the world, the redeemed hero turns out to be Mr. He (aka Gekko) who is introduced as a slimy opportunist looking for the treasure but turns intoa heroic champion of the moral values and reputation of the House of Five Venoms.

The venoms do eventually fight each other but unfortunately the 70's-style action unfortunately shows its age. It’s a slower, more controlled and obvious choreographed staging – more like a dance than believable combat - but there’s the same elegance and beauty with the graceful martial arts movements.

Toad vs. Centipede fight which takes place in the street surrounded by onlookers is slow and obviously choreographed, but as the first fledged fight scene it’s a marvellous representation of classic Shaw Bros 70’s Kung Fu with just enough wire work and slow-motion to highlight the key beats of the fight.

Though lacking in the intense awe-inspiring stunt work of modern kung-fu cinema, ‘Five Deadly Venoms’ makes up for it with all the pastiche we expect from the genre.

Creative torture is part of the fun of 70s’ kung fu. At one point one of the suspects is stabbed in the nose with an iron knitting needle, thus piercing his brain and killing him. The Toad vs. Snake fight ends with Toad’s entrapment in ‘coat of a thousand needles’ – an glorier version of a medieval iron maiden - thus rendering him impotent from a hundred nail stabbings. Later he’s branded with a red hot metal chest plate. .

The fake facial hair, sideburns and hairpieces are unintentionally hilarious, obviously in some kind of virile attempt to be tougher and manlier. The ‘Shaw Vision’ anamorphic camera lenses are so conclave, whenever the camera pans it grossly distorts the image like a fishbowl. And we can't forget the bright red blood, the looped dialogue, aggressive grunting sounds and and those crash zooms!

And yes, that’s Philp Kwok – for HK action junkies the brilliant badass from John Woo’s Hard Boiled – as the redeemed Mr. He. Another reason to rediscover "Five Deadly Venoms" as an influential benchmark of Hong Kong action cinema. Enjoy.

"The Five Deadly Venoms" is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada

Friday, 21 August 2009

Speed

Speed (1994) dir. Jan de Bont
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Daniels, Dennis Hopper

***

Quentin Tarantino recently revealed a list of his 20 favourite films made since he start making movies in 1992. One of the films on his list was Jan De Bont’s 'Speed' which prompted me to rewatch this film and write this review.

"Speed" would not made if not for 'Die Hard', a film which lingered over every terrorist-hostage movie for years. The script was probably offered to John McTiernan first before it was give up to Die Hard’s DOP Jan De Bont. This scenario is an even higher concept, a bomb placed on a bus that blows up if it goes less than 50mph. That’s quite a narrative and production hurdle for the filmmakers to realize into a two hour action film.

It’s a bit of cheat though because we spend less than an hour on the bus and even during this time de Bont often cuts back to scenes of the police's search for the bomber. But considering there’s only so much that can realistically be done on a bus and stay within the realm of plausibility an hour of action is quite an achievement.

Structurally the film only exists as one-hour film. The opening elevator sequence is a disaster movie set-up with the heroes rescuing innocent bystanders from an elevator shaft. The film doesn't get rolling until, of course, we get to the bus and the contrivance of keeping Sandra Bullock around the picture for the third act is a hamfisted and unnecessary complication. But it’s part of De Bont’s Spielberg/Indy Jones school of jeopardy and conflict.

The film unfortunately suffers from Jan De Bont’s inability to deal with the humour and handle Graham Yost’s stock supporting characters. Though Reeves, Bullock are marvellous everyone else on the bus is unbearably annoying.

Bullock is highly addictive. Her first lead role, and she embellishes all the innate spunk and girl-next-door cuteness sparkle in her personality. Dennis Hopper plays Dennis Hopper with a typical madman crazy - Frank Booth light - passable as an action baddie but without much memorable charisma. And Keanu is more than sufferable as the cocky, over confident and highly reckless cop hero.

All other action cinema technical elements add the necessary gloss. De Bont, as a former (and expert) DOP shoots a beautiful film. Exterior locations glow in the beautiful golden Los Angeles sunshine. De Bont’s usual anamorphic lenses open up the frame maximizing the big screen and softening the background thus isolating the characters in focus in the foreground. And Mark Mancini's score is so memorable, having not seen the film in 15 years, it was instantly recognizable.

It’s not one of best movies in the past 17 years, and it’s not even one of the best action movies in the past 17 years, but for sheer cinema audacity and Hollywood high concept few pictures have been realized more effectively. Enjoy.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Class


The Class (2008) dir. Lauren Cantet
Starring: François Bégaudeau, Nassim Amrabt, Carl Nanor, Franck Keita, Esméralda Ouertani

**1/2

Laurent Cantet’s “The Class”, based on actor/writer Francois Begaudeau’s experiences as a middle school teacher in urban Paris is so authentic to inner city classroom life it’s indistinguishable from a documentary. Many films try for the documentary look, feel and tone and not even the Dardennes come near Cantet’s invisible realistic drama. We appear to be watching a new form of cinema reality we’ve never seen before. I've seen the film twice, and while I gave the film the benefit of the doubt for it's narrative banality, I have to take a more cynical point of view the second time round.

Cantet opens with introductions of the teachers to each other. One of them is Francois who teaches French. Francois is never characterized as righteous; he’s flawed and as vulnerable as many of the students.

Over the course of the school year we watch how Francois’ teaching methods both inspire and come into conflict with the students. When he’s put into a difficult situation he always maintains his professionalism but Begaudeau’s fine performance reveals defenseless weaknesses that threaten his reputation and career.

In the first half Cantet is a fly-on-the-wall in the classroom as we watch the many lengthy discussions of subjective adjective and verb conjugation. The kids interact with Francois with the attention deficit disorder we’d expect from 13 years olds. Gradually interclassroom conflicts arise not related to schoolwork as a number of students standout from the bunch.

There's a conscious attempt not to become “Dead Poet’s Society”, “The Blackboard Jungle”, “Dangerous Minds” and “To Sir, With Love”. And thus, any temptation to manipulate reality for the sake of traditional cinematic plotting is avoided.

So as admirable as "The Class" is, maintaining the integrity of its characters at all times, the lack of any cinema conventions is also frustrating. It doesn't take more than 15mins to establish credibility with his world, at which point the film is ripe for a plot point. We never get it. The film finally becomes focused when the young and angry black male Souleymane challenges Francois’s off the cuff slur to one of his fellow students. Unfortunately it takes an hour and a half to get here.

And so what starts out as documentary observance finally develops into a sharp battle of wills and wits. The aloof giggling and gossiping schoolyard children become powerful enemies. It’s a worthy journey but one which require much much patience to get there. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Earrings of Madame De...

The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) dir. Max Ophuls
Starring: Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica, Danielle Darrieux

**1/2

If it were not for Tim Lott's refreshingly honest article in the UK Guardian a few weeks ago 'The Worst Best Films Ever Made' it might have been difficult justifying this tepid response to Max Ophuls's “Earring of Madame de…” - a film whose respectuation precedes it, as, by the words of Village Voice critic J Hoberman, 'gem-hard, crystalline, and superbly impervious..' Earring" is not a bad film, but it's not impervious to criticism. Even after a couple of viewings, over the span of 10 years I’ve never been as enraptured as say, Mr. Hoberman's high praise.

For the unaware, "The Earrings of Madame de..," tells the agonizingly tragic story of an illicit romance of a Viennese debutante with an Italian baron and her cruel husband who seeks to keep them apart. Madame de (Danielle Darrieux), whose's last name always elludes us, is a erudite woman in an arranged diplomatic marriage, whom we see in the opening scene choosing from her many luxorious items and settling on her diamond earrings to pawn off to pay her debts. Her husband Andre (Charles Boyer) is a philandering military general with a mistress on the side who treats his wife like furniture. Madame's new lover is Baron Donati (Vittoria de Sica), an Italian poltician inexplicably drawn to Madame after first seeing her at the customs border.

Fate drives the two lovers together from Constantinople to Vienna symbolized by Madame's diamond earrings which are coincidentally bought by the Baron and then given back to Madame as a gift. The coincidence of this exchange is key to the film - a metaphor for fate and the hand of a higher power guiding our lives. Perhaps this influenced Paul Thomas Anderson to write 'Magnolia' whose opening sequence discusses at length the nature of chance. Anderson even expresses his admiration for the film in an introduction to the Criterion Collection DVD.

At heart "Madame de..." is a turgid melodrama. Madame is set up as a classic romantic trapped in a loveless marriage - most likely arranged by her aristcratic geneology. And so the experience of love at first sight, especially with the suave and cultured Italian sweeps her off her feet. The social norms of the aristocratic late 19th century period present the hurdle Madame just can't overcome which makes the illicit relationship that much more dangerous.

When the two are apart the swooning music creates a heightened sense of pain and longing for them to be together. When the Baron finally meets up with her upon her return the embrace is as over the top grandeloquent as anything in Hollywood.

All of this is dramatized consciously at a distance from the characters. We never really get to know who the Baron, Madame or the Baron are, and are meant to accept the lovers' random attraction to each other as just that. Fine. The film's reputation seems to be in the technical design. There's the 'tracking shots' and Ophlus's constantly dollying camera which according some critics are par with the work of Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. Puh-lease! While I noted a few elaborate moves Olphus has nothing on Kubrick, Welles or even Curtiz. Unfortunately on a 1.33:1 ratioed frame Ophuls' film feels cramped and screams for a cinemascope widescreen process.

There's the revered ballroom montage which looks like one dance but spans several weeks of the lovers' burgeoning relationship. This is clearly influenced by Welles' famous dinner table scene in 'Citizen Kane' which compresses years of a dissolving marriage into a short meal. Ophuls' scene is an obvious and conscious set-up and and lacks any of Welles' cinematic magnificence.

The gentlemanly manners of the period contains all the seething and unspoken tension between the Baron and Andre, but unfortunately the final duel which should have climaxed the film is painfully under-dramatized. In fact, we never even see a shot, or the two fighters squaring off – a missed opportunity to pay off the contrived melodrama with a rousing finale this film needs to have.

So I have be the one to throw a wet blanket on this revered classic. Perhaps if I was impressed by the jewellry, lavishly designed locations, the gowns, the waltsz I might agree with Hoberman, or Andrew Sarris or Roger Ebert, but from these eyes it's a decent romantic costume drama at best. Fire away!

Wolfhound

Wolfhound (2007) dir. Nikolai Lebedev
Starring: Aleksandr Bukharov, Oksana Akinshina, Aleksandr Domogarov, Igor Petrenko

***

Perhaps it’s the sheer size and uncompromising environment that brings out the heart and soul of the Russian people from their art. Though it’s no “War and Peace”, or “Doctor Zhivago” “Wolfhound” – a large scale sword and sorcery fantasy is in the tradition of these “big” stories. Billed as “Russia’s” “Lord of the Rings”, it comes close to being one of the best in the genre of medieval fantasy.

“Wolfhound” towers over and stomps on most other medieval epics like a blow from a blunt mace to the head. The opening sequence establishes the lead character’s journey, when we see in flashback our hero’s innocent farming parents brutally murdered right in front of the child’s young eyes. Like William Wallace after his new bride is murdered, “Wolfhound” makes it his lifelong mission to avenge their deaths.

When he takes down his first victim in a violent and brutal fight in a castle, he takes with him a female tagalong Princess Helen, a Russian Goddess who will soon be crowned Queen of land. Wolfhound and Helen are joined in their quest by a blind wizard and a few other warriors, slaves and scholars, Wolf's pet bat as his sidekick – a definite first for the genre. Like R2D2 or Twinkle Bell his bat as his trusted ally comes to his aid on a number of occasions. There’s also a love story between the scarred warrior Wolfhound and the Princess. Of course, her hand is already taken by another prince, but Wolfhound’s sensitive power is able to win her love. It's all food for the sweeping majesty, melodrama and gleeful enthusiasm for the genre.

“Wolfhound” apparently had the largest post-Soviet budget for a film. And it’s on the screen. The special effects are mostly invisible to the eye. Even though people told me the bat was CGI, I still couldn’t tell. The film also has an early 80’s Dungeon's and Dragons-era feel to it, like genre classics “The Sword and the Sorcerer” or “Flesh and Blood”. “Wolfhound” is no nostalgia-fest though, it’s taken very seriously and there’s ample bucks on screen to make it look believable.

Direcor Nikolai Lebedev crafts at least 6 to 8 blood pumping, adrenaline flowing actions sequences. At one point Lebedev intercuts three transition scenes – the Princess’ coronation, the evil lord’s preparations for battle, and a ceremonial goat killing –set to a heart pounding drum score, turning what could have been a perfunctory montage scene into fun music video style exercise. There’s great battle between “Wolfhound” and a lifelike white fog that’s one of the more creative action sequences I’ve seen in a while and Wolf’s final battle against the tornado rock creature has certain biblical allegories and Lebedev’s framing of the gothic imagery feels like a Wagner score put to life.

Lebedev is clearly steeped in the cinematic fantasy and action cinema. There’s lot of “Excalibur”, “Braveheart”, “Gladiator”, “Lord of the Rings”, and a subtle dose of “Raiders of the Lost”. Though there’s a lot Spielbergian camera movements, it’s the attitude and joyful cinematic tone of Indiana Jones that really shines through. Corniness goes over-the-top and indeed the love story and Wolfhound’s overly dramatic arc of revenge moves well into sappy melodrama, but it’s a genre film, and though it may not match “Lord of the Rings”, there’s plenty of room at the top to make it worthy companion film. The Russians wear their hearts on their sleeves and considering their history of pain and suffering, and the damned cold weather, they are allowed to rejoice loud and grandiose as they want. I'll always listen. Enjoy.

"Wolfhound" is available on DVD in Canada from Alliance Films

Monday, 17 August 2009

District 9

District 9 (2009) dir. Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, David James, Vanessa Haywood

**1/2

After the death of the Jackson/Blomkamp adaptation of Halo, director Neill Blomkamp quickly dove into 'District 9', an expansion on his 2005 short film ‘Alive in Joburg’ – a youtube sensation for cultist scifi fanboy junkies.

Like Joburg, this near future revisionist world is introduced like a documentary, featuring interviews with fake experts recounting the day, in 1982, when an alien ship entered our atmosphere and parked itself overtop of Johannesburg South Africa. The aliens inside the ship, which looked like humanoid prawns, were corralled and ghettoized in an area called District 9. Twenty-eight years later, the district, now a shantytown filled all sorts of illegal and sordid behaviour, is to be moved to the outskirts of town.

In charge of moving the creatures, all of whom speak a Star Wars-type language but understand English, is a pencil-pushing dweep named Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). During the raid, Wirkus becomes exposed to some illicit alien liquid which starts having unruly effects on his body. When Wirkus becomes the target of the government for study, suddenly he finds himself on the run and working with the aliens in hopes of reversing his evolving biological condition. Wirkus bonds with one of the aliens thus forming a unique companionship of male bonding.

If “District 9” were made three years ago in 2006, the mockumentary/realist aesthetic convention would have made a much greater impact. But “Cloverfield”, “Rec”, and even a whole video game ad campaign with the same faux documentary style, makes “District 9” feels like old news. Even the concept of aliens living with humans on earth, like marginalized second class citizens has been done before in “Alien Nation”. And even the imagery of the spaceship hovering over Johanesburg has been played out.

What makes “District 9” deserving of our attention is Neil Blomkamp’s bold visual designs and muscular action sensibilities, which actually bring to mind a younger James Cameron. The third act introduction of the robotic creature which Wirkus uses to fight off the enemies is built up and revealed with the same type of cinematic awesomenews as Ripley’s final confrontation in 'Aliens'.

Unfortunately as with “Cloverfield”, the mockumentary technique is an annoying distraction. While Matt Reeves was consistent in his approach Blomkamp moves back and forth inexplicably between documentary and traditional storytelling. Gradually the camera ceases to become part of the story and the mockumentary is discarded. And so I couldn't help think why we had to endure an hour of a mockumentary instead of just watching the story played out like a real dramatic film.

Wirkus is a typical Peter Jackson protagonist, a doofus, played over the top by Sharlto, with matted down hair, and an unironic moustache. Somewhere before shooting Blomkamp probably nixed he pocketprotector. Copley is thoroughly annoying for two thirds of the picture, until he finally loses his false skin of cliché to become a real character we feel like investing our time in.

With the transformation of Copley from button pushing follower to an active character with goals the film finally clicks into gear. This is when the Neil Blomkamp, whose short films and astoundingly robust commercials excited us all, comes to life. Losing the crutch of the mockumentary Blomkamp is finally allowed to walk by himself, crafting a good 20mins of original and thrilling sci-fi entertainment we had been waiting for. It’s one long awesome action sequence full of massive guns, bodies exploding and all sorts of creative heavy machinery.

It's all a little too late though. The stylistic crutches and narrative familiarity overrides Blomkamp's visual acuity, rending 'District 9" a film more to admire than to enjoy.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Hanover Street

Hanover Street (1979) dir. Peter Hyams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Lesley-Anne Down, Christopher Plummer

**1/2

A young Harrison Ford in a romantic lead makes this obscure wartime romance an interesting discovery of the past. Peter Hyams, director of some decent 70's/80/s action thrillers ('Narrow Margin', '2010', 'Capricorn One'), directs this hopelessly tragic romantic war film channeling the sweeping epic qualities of David Lean, unfortunately, at times with the heavy bluntness of Joe Wright.

Harrison Ford is an American pilot, David Hallerin, stationed in London in 1944. He catches the eye of a beautiful and well mannered erudite British gal Margaret Sellinger (Lesley-Anne Down) and immediately develops an infatuation with her. An illicit romance starts, dramatized with gentle touches, heavy breathing and all the guiltiness which follows. Poor Margaret is actually in a happy marriage though, to a dull but well meaning bore of a man, Paul, played by Christopher Plummer.

Meanwhile David continues to fly his bombing missions into France, becoming more belligerent and disillusioned to the danger his superiors are putting him in. Coincidentally David and Paul meet on a secret mission inside Germany and forced to work together for the cause without knowing their connection with each other. Love, courage, and heroism collide with full-on heartbreaking tragedy and exhilleration that goes with these sweeping epics.

The picture was shot right after “Star Wars” so it’s fun to see a young and spry Harrison Ford with maximum charisma, rebellious confidence and foolhearty innocence. Ford looks damned fine in military garb and Lesley-Anne Down's big doey eyes are also irresistible, so it's not hard to sell us on this romance which is thrown at us without much set-up other than the fact that they are two most beautiful people in the room.

Peter Hyams’s trademark photographic look is pastoral beautification personified. His long lenses crush the edges of the frame squeezing out the periphery of the populated London streets to concentrate solely on his two lovers. The opening scene on the trolley where David and Margaret first meet, is poorly written, but with such lovely compositions, Ford at his charismatic best and John Barry’s grand swooning score it sets the mood appropriately.

There’s not much on-screen chemistry that isn’t forced down our throats with these other cinematic embellishments. The age and relative obscurity for a Harrison Ford-led picture allow us to excuse contrivances I would normally pounce on.

The third act climax is reverse engineered without much nuance. Out of the blue David is assigned to pilot his lover’s husband into a dangerous mission into France. And for much of the journey they get to know each other without knowing they’re sleeping with the same woman. We see where it’s going a mile away, but Hyams manages to make it all exciting dulling us to the outrageous of it all - Hyams' even throws in a well choreographed chase scene (also a specialty his).

Hyams certainly does not reach the mark of the David Lean-inspired romantic grandeur, but with top notch production values and a handsome and young Harrison Ford as an anchor, "Hanover Street" is rendered watchable. Enjoy.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The Cove

The Cove (2009) dir. Louie Psihoyos
Documentary

***

The Cove, the controversial and award-winning doc about the fight of a group of environmentalists to stop the ritualistic killing of innocent dolphins, is a very good documentary, don’t get me wrong. It’s wholly riveting and revelatory told with a cinematic urgency of great action films. But the dogged preachiness of its agenda actually reduces the power of its message. In the final moments, the film continues to preach to the converted to the point where I was expecting someone to ask for donations on the way out of the theatre.

Ric O’Barry is Mr. Dolphin, a long history with the treasured creature, starting out as the animal trainer on the TV show Flipper, but after a tragic eye-opening experience which revealed an innate human-like self-awareness of the animals, O’Barry abandoned his profession and sought to free all of the dolphins of the earth from captivity.

Hell for dolphins happens to be Taijii Japan, the hub for the international dolphin business. Whether it’s as meat secretly placed in Japanese children’s lunches or for Sea World shows everything comes from Taijii. It’s a dirty business, so dirty, the nefarious fisherman annually enact a ritualistic slaughter undercover of all media and pedestrian eyes. Under the inspiration of O’Barry, a team of underwater photographers, ex-military ops personnel, and even Hollywood special effects experts engage in high stakes covert surveillance activities to secretly film and reveal to the world the illegal and inhumane practices against the dolphins.

It's a well constructed and polished piece, with all the credit due to the picture and sound editors who, much like the covert procedural detail recounted in last years Oscar-winning ‘Man on Wire’, compiled the footage shot by these enviro hijackers, and cut together a film with the suspense, tone and pace of a thriller. And concurrent to the present day story the life-history of O’Barry perfectly connects our fascination with dolphins with his own obsessions for freeing them.

But I couldn’t help but think that this barbaric ritual is made so horrific because the Dolphins are, for lack of a better word, cute. The film tries to diffuse the counter-charge that this dolphin slaughter is simply part of Japanese culture by showing the shocked reactions to this information from everyday Japanese pedestrians. Or the contention that it’s not much different than the cattle or poultry industry in North American, which indeed has its own issues with animal barbarism, with the rebuttal that Dolphins are intelligent and self-aware and capable of feeling pain and all the stress humans experience. Of course, if someone showed me graphic imagery of chickens getting their heads cut off, I would likely recoil in disgust as well.

This is why the shameless call to action which spreads across the screen telling us how to support to the Oceanic Preservation Society irked me. Were we just watching a 90mins advertisement for a charitable organization?

The most poignant thing the filmmakers could have done would have been to point the cameras at the audience and ask us rethink the animal slaughters which go on everyday in our own countries – a slaughter, which, like the one in the cove is kept out of sight of regular people.

This is a system all non-vegans implicitly accept. As part of a meat-producing society, we silently accept and trust our regulatory bodies to ensure the animals we eat are treated as humanely as possible before being killed and shipped off to our grocery stores. But every once in a while we need to audit and examine these practices and point cameras at people who don’t want to be filmed. And so, this is why a film like the Cove is necessary. Enjoy.

Friday, 14 August 2009

I Love You, Man

I Love You Man (2009) dir. John Hamburg
Starring: Paul Rudd, Jason Segal, Rashida Jones

**1/2

“I Love You Man”, though not quite a barrel of the gut busting laughs is surprisingly clever reversal of a romantic comedy, charting the bromance between two dudes with all the familiar formula beats hit.

Paul Rudd plays the emasculated role of Peter Klaven, a man who has lived his life more comfortable around women than men, he’s always had a girlfriend, and so never had the quality male bonding in takes to develop those distinctly male habits. He can’t appreciate geriatric porn, can’t hold down his liquor, he’s polite and accommodating to his girlfriend, and objects when his wife talks openly about his sex life with her girlfriends. He’s even less manly than his gay step-brother. So when it comes to finding a best man for in wedding, he has no one to be his pal.

So Peter employs an online manfriend dating service setting him up with potential man friends. The dates he goes on all go awry until he meets the perfect bro-buddy, Sidney Fife (Jason Segel), a suave, carefree, beer-drinking, often obnoxious, ladyloving super-dude. The perfect dude to teach him how to be a man. The closer their relationship gets, of course, the more he alienates his girlfriend. The bizarre romcom scenario plays out all the way to the wedding when the two dudes who have broke up have to reconcile their conflict and reunite on the alter.

Paul Rudd is entertaining as the dweeb milking every opportunity to embellish his character's pathetic girliness. The scene which shows Peter catching wind of a conversation among his fiance's girlfriends while he waits sadly holding a tray of finger food is so wretchedly feeble and impotent.

Peter’s education into the world of men provides an opportunity to explore some of the sillier but truer aspects of the simpleton that is man. Sydney’s masturbation table for instance, a conveniently placed end table containing all the instruments and accessories necessary to jerk off; his full drum-kit, guitar and bass next to his television and their mutual love for the glorious progressive rock sounds of the most repellant of bands to women – RUSH.

Watching the two rock geeks squeal out the lyrics to 'Tom Sawyer' uninhibitedly at the concert made me look inward in shame – do I look like that when I mimic Getty Lee in the car? The details of the airbass Peter plays - the choice of holding it high, or low, and when to pluck or walk the strings - which Peter’s fiance just doesn’t understand, conveys these subtle but important differences to men. Depends on the occasion, but for Rush, it HAS to be played up high and plucked.

Women just don’t know this stuff, and so there’s an admirable appreciation for co-writer/director Hamburg to even go there and make a movie about this stuff. But it’s also a completely adequate and forgettable film which I will never watch again, and rarely even recommend it to people other than to point out these esoteric Rush details. If there’s one, two or even three movies to see out right, it’s not “I Love You, Man”, but if you catch it on a plane you might just learn something about yourself and maybe chuckle occasionally. Enjoy.

“I Love You Man” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Sling Blade

Sling Blade (1996) dir. Billy Bob Thornton
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, John Ritter

****

Despite the ornery moodiness and general public strangeness of Billy Bob Thornton his breakout film, 'Sling Blade', still lingers as a quiet and haunting masterpiece of Southern American gothic cinema.

Billy Bob willed this film into being, first by shooting a short film, then using it as leverage to make the feature version, then covering three of the main roles of writer, director, actor - a solo creative effort which still stands as one of the most uniquely personal stamps in recent film history.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Karl Childers who, after 30 years, is recently released from the local mental institution and forced to reintroduce himself into regular society. Karl is mentally slow and has trouble socializing with the Arkansas locals. But he gets a job fixing engines at a local body shop and meets a young kid Frank (Lucas Black), who becomes the older brother and father figure Frank lost years before. When Karl ingratiates himself into the home of his kindly mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), he's now forced to deal with her abusive boyfriend and monstrous redbeck Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). As Karl’s friendship deepens with Frank he realizes the danger Doyle presents to the safety of he and his mother, forcing him into a heroic act of self sacrifice that will affect everyone’s lives including his own.

"Sling Blade" essentially plays out like a modern "Of Mice and Men". Billy Bob's guttural voice, forced overbite and lumbering gate visualizes the gentle giant characterization of Steinbeck's seminal Lenny character. Same goes with the threat of violence which blanket's Steinbeck story. A increasing sense of dread accumulates as "Sling Blade" gains momentum and the brief moment of violence which results is quietly disturbing and powerful.

Billy Bob sets the story in a peculiar place in rural Arkansas, a world he appears to love and hate. The slow pace and southern charm of the townsfolk is captured with poetic beauty and warm feelings of nostalgic memories, contrasted with the ignorant and lingering racist leanings of the old world. Dwight Yoakam, the foil for Karl, doesn't exist more than as a cancer upon Frank and Linda's lives. It's a base characterization, which is boiled down as pure evil for the purposes of the film's simplistic narrative.

The young Lucas Black is marvelous discovery. His sadness as a neglected, fatherless child living in a regressive world with little hope is instantly recognizable to both Karl and us. John Ritter as Vaughn, Linda's homosexual best friend, is played with subtlety. We admire his nobility standing up to Doyle after a drunken fight in Linda’s home. In many ways Vaughn is as much of a hero to the family as Karl is. Without Karl in Frank’s life we assume Vaughn will become the ‘in absentia’ father figure.

The other star of the film is Daniel Lanois's pitch perfect dreamlike musical score. Some may know him as a respected producer for Brian Eno, U2, and Bob Dylan, but he leaves a unique stamp on “Sling Blade” - a wave of melancholic southern gothic sounds, sliding guitars and ethereal bible-belt chanting.

Other than acting Billy Bob hasn’t had much success since. His second film “All the Pretty Horses” was such a disaster professionally, personally, commercially and for the most part critically. Has anyone seen “Daddy and Them” with Laura Dern ‘released’ in 2001 but actually shot before “All the Pretty Horses”? Enjoy.

"Sling Blade" is available on Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Friends of Eddie Coyle



The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) dir. Peter Yates
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Alex Rocco.

****

Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

The fate of Eddie Coyle, the title character of this grim Peter Yates-directed crime drama, is imbued with such a profound and palpable inevitability that some might wonder what the point of it all is. For those who hang in, the point becomes abundantly clear and is rendered all the more powerfully since “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is so sensationally acted, written and directed that it truly doesn’t take long to realize you’re experiencing a classic of the crime genre.

Right from Eddie Coyle’s first appearance – heavy-lidded, baggy-eyed, paunchy, world-weary and shuffling with the gait of a once-physically-powerful man now consigned to the throbbing aches of late middle age – we pretty much know he’s doomed. Late at night and under the cold glare of fluorescent lights in a cafeteria-styled diner, Eddie places a slice of rubbery pie and a cup of coffee onto his tray and joins the table of a greasy, long-haired, bug-eyed young thug. Wolfing his pie down between slurps of watery coffee, Eddie’s manner is been-there-done-that as he negotiates with the thug to purchase a battery of powerful and highly illegal handguns. The thug’s clearly an upstart, oozing bravado – peppering it with promises he has no experience to keep. Eddie sets the thug straight by casually explaining how he got the nickname “Knuckles”. Holding his battered fists in front of the thug Coyle explains how he has twice the number of knuckles most people have – derived from having his hands crushed as punishment for believing a promise from someone he shouldn’t have believed at all.

But Eddie’s not bitter. It’s business, he explains. It’s The Life – a life he chose in the only world he ever felt comfortable in. But now, Eddie needs a big score and he needs favours. If he can’t get them, he’s headed straight for hard time. His wife will have to collect welfare and his kids will face the cruel taunts of their classmates for having a no-account Dad. More than a miracle, what Eddie really needs are friends, but it’s obvious he has none – at least none that he can count on.

Robert Mitchum – one of the screen’s greatest actors, plays Eddie Coyle. Playing everything from cops to cowboys to soldiers and everything in between (including his stunning turns as the evil Max Cady in “Cape Fear” and the utterly malevolent lay preacher Harry Powell in “Night of the Hunter”), Eddie Coyle is a role that not only fits Mitchum like a well-worn baseball glove but also is, I think, his best role. He delivers us a man who is a hardened criminal – a marked, desperate man who knows what he needs to survive, even if it means succumbing to the lowest rung of his kind and turning stool pigeon to cops who seem, frankly, no better than the criminals they seek to incarcerate.
As a director, Peter Yates was certainly no stranger to the crime genre when he made “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”. He’d already directed the Donald Westlake heist picture “The Hot Rock”, the gritty British-produced “Robbery” (a realist, almost semi-documentary-styled dramatization of 1963’s notorious “great train robbery” starring Stanley Baker), numerous episodes of such classic TV crime series as “Danger Man” and (one of my personal favourites) “The Saint” and last, but certainly not least, “Bullitt”, the slam-bang Steve McQueen detective thriller that set the bar for all cinematic car chases that would follow. There was always, however, another side to Yates who gave us the gentle comedy of “Breaking Away” and the tragic gay love story “The Dresser”. It is finally this combination of the macho stylist and the gentle humanist that made Yates a natural to direct “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”.

It is these seemingly dichotomous qualities that make the picture so great. “Bullitt”, for example, showcased McQueen’s baby blues, Jacqueline Bisset’s feminine perfection and a car chase that has seldom been matched, but most importantly, it was the ultimate location picture that stunningly extolled the virtues of the city of San Francisco. “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is set in Boston and the last time I checked, it was and is a city of great beauty. You’d never know it from “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”. Yates seems to almost go out of his way to show us a Boston that nobody, save perhaps for Eddie Coyle and other underworld denizens of that ilk would bother to live in. In seedy cafes, dank bars, endlessly indistinguishable parking lots, near-tenement slums, lifeless suburbs, cold, almost Kafkaesque inner city cement financial districts and other equally unflattering locales, Yates and gritty, versatile cinematographer Victor (“Dog Day Afternoon”, “The Gambler”, etc.) Kemper train their lens on the non-descript and do so with harsh light or no light and lots of grain.

Paul Monash’s excellent script beautifully distills George V. Higgins novel of the same name. Higgins, a former prosecuting attorney turned crime writer always displayed a knack for dialogue that crackled with life and constructed narratives that defied typical crime story structures.

Like the character of Eddie Coyle, the movie seems to have utter contempt for the nasty, brutal crimes committed as a result of Coyle’s efforts. Coyle is peripherally involved as a supplier to the criminals, but Yates and his writers lavish considerable attention and detail upon the various bank robberies that take place – none of which ever directly involve the title character.

And though our “hero” never gets so much as a moment to brandish a weapon, (which is, in and of itself highly unconventional), we are flung back to the reality and inevitability of Coyle’s eventual demise. Yates never lets us forget just how doomed poor Eddie is. Nowhere is this more haunting and downright moving than the heart-achingly tragic sequence where Coyle’s “friend”, the two-timing killer Dillon (Peter Boyle) takes him to a Boston Bruins hockey game, plies him with endless pints of beer and engages in pleasantries, all the while knowing that at the end of the evening, he has been entrusted with the mission to blow Eddie Coyle’s brains out.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” as a kid with my ex-cop Dad. It was a movie that stayed with me and haunted me for the thirty or so years since first seeing it.

What I don’t think I’ll ever forget was my Dad’s response at the end of the movie. “That’s the way it is, kid, that’s just the way it is,” he said to me, with more than a little sadness in his voice, and with many long years under his belt dealing with guys just like Eddie Coyle.

Seeing the movie now, those words still hold true. Only now, I’m able to see Eddie himself, lumbering through the inevitability of his doom – those same words emblazoned, no doubt, on his brain.

That’s just the way it is.

“The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is available on the Criterion Home Video label.