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

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Silence of the Lambs

Silence of the Lambs (1991) dir. Jonathan Demme
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald

****

By Alan Bacchus

There’s no real need to shower ‘Silence of the Lambs’ with any more praise. Its place in cinema and pop culture history is as rock solid as the ‘Wizard of Oz’. I’ve seen it a dozen times, and even catch snippets of it from the numerous A&E HD replays on TV. But this film is not meant to be seen on Sunday television, or with commercials, or in snippets when flipping through channels at the halftime break during televised football games. Nor was it meant to be seen in grossly edited versions for family friendly television – shame on you TBS.

It had been years since I’ve actually devoted adequate time to this picture - a quiet anti-social uninterrupted Saturday night with the lights down and with a crisp high definition Blu-Ray presentation – the next best thing to the theatrical experience.

I knew the film was good, even great, but with my full attention, mood, environment, and viewing quality all aligning properly it becomes a pure transcendental engrossing cinematic experience, nearly as good as seeing it for the first time. And think that a dark (really dark) genre picture released in February could sweep all major categories of the Oscars proves that every once in a while the Academy can get it right.

Director Jonathan Demme achieves cinematic perfection in bringing Thomas Harris’ brooding and wholly disturbing serial killer tale to screen with all its gothic tones and grimy seediness intact. Sure the performances are great, not only the award-winning lead performances but the dozen or so character actors that really make the picture work, and make Hopkins and Foster look so good. Anthony Heald as the loathsome and slimy Chilton, Scott Glenn as the FBI heavy Jack Crawford, Charles Napier as the Tennessee cop over his head with Lecter in his custody, the soothing gentle giant quality of Frankie Faison as Barney, even the two geeky bug experts who help Agent Starling identify the moth are memorable in two small scenes.

It’s easy to dismiss Demme's unflashy camera work - a style not all that different than his other films, most of which were warm-hearted Hal Ashby-esque dramatic-comedies. Demme’s close-ups, many of them centre-framed with the actors looking straight into the camera, helps lock in the audience to the characters – like what Errol Morris does with interrotron interviewing device. Tak Fujimoto’s visual design would seem more natural, and less stylish than say, Michael Mann/Dante Spinotti’s icy-coolness of “Manhunter” or David Fincher/Darius Khondji’s underlit tattered texture of “Se7evn”, but look closely and you’ll find it a precise and controlled look. Careful camera placement is used to subliminally subjugate Starling to both her environment and the other male characters; even his steadycam is used differently. The camera movement isn’t meant to be smooth and steady, instead using longer lenses on a steadycam allows the camera to move unencumbered by dolly track, yet keep the same organic shake as with traditional dolly moves.

Lambs has a remarkable sense of urgency, leapfrogging over ‘Manhunter’ and especially the oft-stolid “Se7en” in terms of pace. Hannibal Lecter’s introduction is a marvel. We all know it’s a great reveal from Starling’s lengthy walk past the grimy prison cells of Lecter’s basement neighbours, but the scene is the climax of a lengthy and expertly directed sequence of shots. As the slippery Dr. Chilton leads Starling through the cavernous hallways of the Hospital his dialogue controls the pace of their movements, editor Craig McKay punctuating each beat with a smash cut to a door opening or door closing, creating a relentless momentum enhanced by Howard Shore's heavy music.

Actually all the technical achievements above are glued together by Howard Shore’s ominous and brooding score. Before scoring films Shore was best known as the original musical director of Saturday Night Live. He then began his feature film career collaborating on all of David Cronenberg’s pictures starting with “The Brood”. Shore’s trademark sound, in what I can only describe as a soundscape of slow, pulsating, ambient noises, which increases in volume and power with the intensity of the emotion, helped Cronenberg achieve the ungodly squirm inducing terror of his great 80’s films. Though he composed a few scores for other directors in the 80’s, it wasn’t until Demme tapped him for ‘Lambs’ did he reach a new level in his career. David Fincher recognized the power of his music and got him to essentially recreate his ‘Lambs’ score for ‘Se7en’. Shore, of course, reached his career pinnacle winning three Oscars for his “Lord of the Rings” music.

I think we take “Silence of the Lambs’ for granted. Horror/thrillers are a genre which encourages stylistic flourishes. And so Demme's muted style makes 'Lambs' an enigma for auteur enthusiasts (me included). Unlike Michael Mann, or David Fincher’s films we can’t track the stylistic or thematic evolution of this film through Demme’s filmography. Even after ‘Lambs’, Demme hasn’t attempted anything like this picture again.

Perhaps the proliferation of its quotable lines, the subsequent exploitation of the Lecter character for more sequels, the numerous DVD releases of the film and it’s healthy supply in Wal-Mart dump bins has overexposed this film. Well, another version is out in the market, a MGM-packaged Blu-Ray Hannibal Lecter Collection, containing ‘Lambs’, ‘Manhunter’, and ‘Hannibal’. At least its in Blu-Ray decently transferred to high definition. The belle of this bunch certainly is 'Silence of the Lambs'.

'Silence of the Lambs' is available on Blu-Ray from MGM Home Entertainment in 'The Hannibal Lecter Collection'

Monday, 28 September 2009

Hazard

Hazard (2008) dir. Sion Sono
Starring: Jô Odagiri, Jai West, Motoki Fukami, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Rin Kurana

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Shinichi is a restless Japanese youth bored of his saccharine lifestyle in suburban Tokyo and looking for excitement. He picks up a handbook of the most dangerous places on Earth and finds New York City. So there he goes, an adventure in the urban and exotic environment many Japanese youths only know by its Hollywood depictions and it’s once sordid reputation.

Quickly Shin finds himself an alien in the big city and even gets mugged on his first day. But when he meets Lee, a Japanese-American hustling on the street with a coterie of minor gangland troublemakers he finds his way into the subculture of urban anarchy he’s been looking for. Imagine a mash-up Kubrick’s droogs, Trainspotting’s Begbie and those crazy Italian youths from 'Gomorrah' with Lee as their ‘Artful Dodger’.

We’re in the strange world of Japanese extreme cinema here and this one is off-the-wall even by Japanese standards. The New York in this picture is a cinematic impression of the city completely outside of reality but that peculiar Japanese point of view of a big, bad, alien and thus hazardous environment.

Of course, we don’t get traditional storytelling either, instead Director Sion Sono coasts on constant flow of freewheeling narrative chaos. He shoots the film using a mixture of English and Japanese on location in New York with super grainy lightweight cameras. I imagine few if any permits or organized crowd control was involved and Sono has his actors often interacting with local New Yorkers on the streets with an kinetic run and gun, ‘let’s steal the shot’ attitude.

There’s an exhaustion which sets in somewhere at the midpoint when social disturbance after social disturbance becomes repetitious as Lee and his gang, seemingly without an off-button, continue to throw their hands in the air and yell ‘whoooo’ in praise of their disdain for authority. 'Hazard' is definitely not for the mainstream, but might pique the interest of fans of Japanese cinema and urban subculture, or fans of the edge-pushing filmmakers like Larry Clark or Harmony Korine.

The Evocative Films disc is well packaged with a healthy liner notebook of thoughtful essays and stills about film. The special features include a behind the scenes making of documentary (in Japanese only) and an informative interview with Sono discussing his inspirations for the film.

This review first appears on Exclaim.ca

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Mesrine: KIller Instinct

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (2008) dir. Jean-Francois Richet
Starring Vincent Cassel, Gerald Depardieu, Cecile De France and Roy Dupuis

***

By Blair Stewart

Jacques Mesrine was France's answer to John "Public Enemy" Dillinger, a supercrook who'd caused enough havok the police were willing to bend the rules in order to take him down. Spanning several countries including Canada, from bank robbing to kidnapping to murder, ol' Jacques had his fingers in many pies while he taunted the authorties. And when Mesrine was caught and thrown in prison he broke out-four times in fact.

Having a criminal career this expansive French action director Jean-Francois Richet has enough material for two films - the sequel "Mesrine: Public Enemy #1" to be reviewed seperately.

Starting with his military career in late 50's Algeria where he was used as muscle(and an executioner)on prisoners, Jacques returned to Paris and quickly fell in with his old gangster buddies led by an impressively hefty played by Gerald Depardieu.
After a string of crimes Jacques is eventually jailed and upon his release attempts at going straight to save his marriage. Once this is thwarted and the marriage is pitched off to the dust-bin Mesrine returns to his roots with ferocity, enough so that he flees to Montreal to avoid getting wacked. Together with his hoodlum lover Jeanne(Cecile De France) and FLQ buddy Jean-Paul(Roy Dupuis) they mix up the concept of 'laying low' with 'kidnapping their millionaire boss for ransom'. This leads to Jacques being caught and imprisoned in the notorious Quebec SCU prison where he escapes with new-found purpose in his ways, so much so that he actually returned to stage a disastrous large-scale breakout. The film ends with Jacques heading back to France to leave a new trail of destruction.

As the notorious subject Vincent Cassel plays Mesrine as a constantly shifting entity of charm and violence, prone to boasts of entitlement and delusion. The film presupposes Mesrine was shaped by the guilt of his father's complicity with the Germans during WWII and his own sorrid history in France's occupation of Algeria that turned him into a quick-tempered wildcard.

Cassel is surperb in the lead, unconcerned with vanity as he packs on the pounds while his subject blazes through criminal history. Interestingly, the film was shot in reverse so Cassel could shed the pounds and avoid a lengthy split in filming like DeNiro's four month binge for the second half of "Raging Bull". In support Roy Dupuis brings pride to the Quebec film scene with a charismatic turn as his Canadian partner-in-crime.

Containing enough split-screens for a De Palma retrospective, filmmaker Richet and scriptwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri condemn Mesrine's actions( more so in the sequel) while reveling in the brazen shoot-outs and the chutzpah of a man who would rob a bank across the street of another bank he just robbed.

"Mesrine: Killer Instinct" can be tremdendously entertaining, but it still lacks
the kinetic energy and audacity of Scorsese's "Goodfellas" and "Casino", two of my preferred 'realistic' gangster films. After seeing this first-part, the second-part's ending is obvious, but the life of Mesrine demanded you keep an eye out for him even when he was in handcuffs.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Manhunter

Manhunter (1986) dir. Michael Mann
Starring: William Petersen, Dennis Farina, Joan Allen, Tom Noonan

***1/2


By Alan Bacchus

In many ways “Manhunter” is the ultimate modern police procedural. Historically there had been a few antecedents, specifically Fritz Lang’s “M”, and Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low”, but Manhunter seems to serve as a modern template for the rash of 2000’s procedural TV shows - namely CSI, which of course stars Manhunter’s own William Petersen.

Based on Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon we get to see Hannibal Lector for the first time helping his captor Will Graham (Petersen) track down a killer known as the tooth fairy for his penchant for biting his victims. The story begins with a grizzly crime scene of a murdered family in their home. Graham is a working class ‘method’ cop, with an ability to get inside the killer’s head, and psychologically predict his moves. When he hits a wall in the investigation he’s is forced to take drastic steps and enlist his former nemesis, the recently imprisoned Hannibal Lector for help. It’s a cat & mouse game between Graham, Lector and the killer. With Graham is on the verge of having a mental breakdown, but not before he figures out the crucial piece of the puzzle which enables him to track the killer.

‘Manhunter’ is icy cool as they come, a continuation of the style Mann had been developing since ‘Thief’, ‘The Keep’ (Paramount: please Blu-Ray-ify this one please!) and ‘Miami Vice’. Precise control of his colour scheme and compositions compliment the formalism of the professional of police investigation. We also get to see Mann at his best showing the workmanlike aspects of the job.

Emotions are kept in check as the men go about their business. Back in the day, the details of fingerprint analysis, and other forensic aspects were the stuff of laboratories and scientific details which only served the story. Mann creates lengthy sequences out of these moments. Part of the thrill is watching Graham and his team confidently goes through each step of the investigation. The three way telephone conversation between Graham, Dr. Chilton, and Jack Crawford (also characters in “Silence of the Lambs) jumpstarts the second act when the Tooth Fairy’s message is found on a piece of toilet paper in Lector’s cell. Crawford’ quick but authoritative instinctual instructions to his secretary is quintessential Michael Mann.

His auteur desires are embellished with a number of dream sequences, and tonal detours which explore Will’s mind and the duality of his idyllic Floridian domestic life. And watch for Mann’s cinematic fetish for the telephones. Screenwriting courses will tell you telephone conversations don’t make for good drama, but much of ‘Manhunter’s dialogue occurs over the phone between Graham and Crawford. Perhaps it serves the needs of the story, keeping Graham isolated and alone in his investigation, but watch “The Insider” and you’ll see most of that film’s best scenes are played over telephone conversations.

Hannibal Lector doesn’t get the dramatic build up or even an elaborate and grandiose production set as in ‘Silence of the Lambs’, but his effect on the story is important and influential. Brian Cox chews the scenery less than Hopkins, and of course, it’s not Hannibel’s picture, but Cox gets one magnificent sequence creatively using (of course) a telephone to get Graham’s address.

The final sequence doesn’t do the film justice. Although the use of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita creates an intense rhythm, Mann’s experimental freeze frames and camera speeds changes are sloppy and distracting. As well Mann’s depiction of the photographer subplot is the weakest element, hammed up as more a clichéd slime ball paparazzi than real world character like Graham or Crawford. Of course Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs’ would get everything right the second go around with essentially the same material.

“Manhunter” is available on Blu-Ray in MGM Home Entertainment’s ‘Hannibal Lector Collection” also containing “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal”


Friday, 25 September 2009

Broken Embraces

Broken Embraces (2009) dir. Pedro Almodovar
Starring: Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo and Jose Luis Gomez

**1/2

By Blair Stewart

After taking a drubbing at Cannes I expected Pedro Almodovar's latest to be a weak offering when in fact "Broken Embraces" only suffers in part from coming after the acclaimed "Volver".

Featuring many of his regular players and hang-ups with illness, filmmaking and carnal desires, Almodovar spins the yarn of Harry Caine/Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), a blind writer-director in exile. Having found out the wealthy industrialist Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) has died, Harry/Mateo and his godson Diego untangle Harry's past in flashback involving the deceased millionaire, the millionaire's mistress Lena (Penelope Cruz) and their flameout movie project together.

The movie within the movie "Girls and Suitcases" is a fun throwback to Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" past in the foreground while Harry/Mateo and Lena (who's been cast in the lead role with Ernesto footing the bill) go off-script in the background. Adding another layer, Ernesto dispatches his creepily fey son Ernesto Jr. to make a documentary of the filming while he keeps tabs on the affair. Although the star-crossed lovers can find a brief respite from the world its tough to outlast a powerful man ruling it. The results are pitched into Almodovar's melancholic wringer of bawdy laughs and tears, but the slack payoff isn't on par with the likes of "Talk to Her" or "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!"

Penelope Cruz, as the star, is still very much Almodovar's ideal muse, he films her sexual vitality better than anyone else and she acquiesces in his fetishes for wigs and cinematic-mythology (Audrey Hepburn, Hitchcock's ice-queens, Almodovar's work). Lluis Homar as Harry/Mateo centres the film as it jumps between 1992 Madrid and 2008, and he has the right amount of dramatic weight to carry the plot while looking like an older Catalan matinee idol.

The film thankfully begins with an erotic seduction of a good Samaritan by Harry/Mateo, a Tarantino-like introduction with sex in place of violence. In supporting roles, Almodovar sometime-players Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo and Angela Molina make good with the melodrama of the script. But because of the meandering it takes to reach its end even when the results are obvious "Broken Embraces" strikes me as minor Almodovar.

Regardless of the pace, minor Almodovar is still worth seeing if you're a fan.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Misery

Misery (1990) dir. Rob Reiner
Starring: Kathy Bates, James Caan, Richard Farnsworth, Lauren Bacall

***

Its obvious 'Misery' is not the work of a genre director or even anyone with any experience with horror. Rob Reiner’s work on Stephen King’s intense novel is workmanlike, unflashy, but anchored by William Goldman’s tightly plotted script and two fine lead performances. After 19 years 'Misery' remains a highly watchable light horror film for people who don’t like horror films.

It’s a classic Stephen King set-up, a high concept picture which began from King’s own neuroses as an author dealing with the confining feeling of his audience’s expectations. King writes himself into the character of Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a romance novelist excited because he’s just completed his first non-romance novel, a cathartic feeling of freedom as an artist. But when his car runs off a snowy road in the mountains with his manuscript, he becomes face to face with the greatest challenge of his life.

He wakes up from consciousness in the spare bed of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), Sheldon’s #1 fan, a Susan Boyle-like spinster and shut in who lives vicariously through Sheldon’s romance heroine, Misery. In just seven minutes King, Reiner and Goldman establish the rules of Sheldon’s shut-in world. With his legs broken, in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm, it’s the same narrative shackles King loves to revel in. Whether it’s the car in 'Cujo', or the Overlook Hotel in 'The Shining', its a Stephen King world with characters isolated in spaces and a psychological and physically duel to the death.

Goldman uses King’s novel as a jumping off point effectively detailing the common sense predicament for both Annie and Paul. He finds the right amount of details to weave into the struggle and paying them effectively throughout the film. The opening shot of the wine glass, cigarette and match is no coincidence, a clever detail which serves two narrative purposes 1) the symbol of Sheldon’s accomplishment as an author and 2) the instrument which Paul uses to defeat Annie.

It was Barry Sonnenfeld’s last picture as a cinematographer, and he employs a very ungenre-like bright and flat lighting scheme for a horror flick. Under someone else’s watch Annie’s home would be a nourish, Norman Bates-like layer lit with deep shadows and gritty textured surfaces. Most of the film is played in daytime, in a warm, quaint and protective home, counter-playing the madness residing inside.

Reiner’s inexperience with the genre is visible. His execution of the suspenseful moments are adequate, because of Goldman’s well-timed plotting and Caan and Bates’s perforamnce. And so it takes only the bare minimum to pay off the half a dozen key set pieces. Though we can’t help but think how a John Carpenter, or Roman Polanski or even an M. Night Shyamalan would have done with say, the hobbling scene, or the dinner table scene when Paul tries to poison Annie. With Reiner’s visual style, the suspense feels like an artificial injection of fear, a cinematic suspense, manufactured from editing and the nature of the concept as opposed to a pure visceral horror.

“Misery” remains a fun movie to this day in part because of Reiner's funny bone and his desire not to take the film too seriously. The wink of self-acknowledge allows mainstream audiences to enjoy being scared - a disposable kind of horror film which leaves you immediately and doesn’t give you nightmares.

“Misery” is available on Blu-Ray from MGM Home Entertainment


Wednesday, 23 September 2009

One Step Beyond

One Step Beyond: Season 1 (1959)
Starring: John Newfeld

***

Before ‘Twilight Zone’ there was ‘One Step Beyond’, CBS' original paranormal anthology series. Premiering 10 months before T-Zone, the series created by Merwin Gerard and hosted by John Newland had a remarkably similar concept, a half hour show devoted to unique stories of the paranormal. While Twilight Zone’s short stories sought to examine current social and political hot button topics under the guise of science fiction, OSB’s hook was that each of their stories were real life documented cases.

This added sense of spooky realism is enough to separate itself from innate comparisons thus holding its own in the annals of classic television. Young and early performances from Cloris Leachman, Patrick McNee, Warren Beatty also add to the surprises in each episode.

Erudite and very serious host (and director) John Newland introduces each episode entering the first scene of the show and teasing us with the real life backstory of the paranormal event we’re about to see. Newland’s persona is effective, though not the chain smoking gritty voiced enigma of Rod Serling, Newland’s upper class authoritative demeanour lends some respectability to its tricky and doubting subject matter.

Over the 22-episode first season, packaged on DVD by Paramount Home Entertainment, scoured the history books for instances of paranormal evidence and events - a compendium of spooky campfire tales and urban legends.

The pilot episode, entitled A Bride Possessed (great title), tells the story of a newly married woman, who while driving with her husband through a small town seems to inhabit the life of another person. Suddenly without provocation, she claims to have another name, her voice changes, she doesn’t recognize her husband, with the twist being that she has been possessed by woman who has died in an apparent suicide. But with a series of flashbacks the bride uncovers a plot of murder thus solving an undiscovered crime.

Episode 3 ‘Emergency Only’ resembles the concept of the 'Dead Zone', an innocent woman with psychic powers foresees the death of a cynical party goer aboard a train journey. Knowing only snippets of the future the man believes wholeheartedly it’s bogus, until one by one the moments told by the woman come true and he finds himself face to face with his murderer. With a clever twist presenting a surprise worthy of a M. Night Shyamalan film.

Production values are kind of a marvel for 1959 TV. The pilot was shot by the great cinematographer Russell Metty (‘Touch of Evil’). The B&W imagery, all around, are often stunning, and the producers make good use of stock footage where necessary to embellish the scene. Watch the Titanic episode to see how they manage to recreate that disaster in a small scale yet completely believable manner.

“One Step Beyond” only lasted three seasons, but clearly its influence on television and thus feature films deserves to be rediscovered.

"One Step Beyond" is available on DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Informant!

The Informant! (2009) dir, Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Melanie Lynskey, Joel McHale

***

Matt Damon may not get an Academy Award nomination for this film, but his performance which balances a precarious mix of comedy and drama in Steven Soderbergh's 'The Informant', is a difficult and complex character to pull off. The film might turn off as many people as it turns on but Damon shines through as the glue which holds everything together in this clever and twisted unclassifiable picture.

If you count the two 'Che' pictures which were released early in the New Year, and the 'The Girlfriend Experience', 'The Informant!' would be Soderbergh's 4th film of the year - an output as prolific as the old Hollywood studio system. If one were to group Soderbergh's films into genres, we would have his 'art house' persona of 'Schizopolis', 'Bubble,' 'The Girlfriend Experience'; his serious persona of 'Traffic', 'Solaris', 'Che' and his comedy persona of 'Out of Sight', and 'Ocean's 11'. 'The Informant!' is sledgehammered to us as a comedy, with its 70's-style title graphics and anachronistic Marvin Hamlisch score - a curious choice of tone considering the real life subject matter from which we're told this story is derived from...but more on that later.

Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre a technical executive for a food science company ADM. He lives a seemingly normal life of middle class comfort with his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) and his two 'adopted' kids. Early on in a power point presentation, he's chewed out by his superiors for the company's losses in recent times. He's told bluntly and rudely simply to 'fix it.' Mark seems to take this as a ultimatum and starts digging into the company's business practices discovering some illegal price fixing activities with their Japanese partners.

So Mark turns informant for the FBI who assigns Special Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) to the case. Over the course of several years Mark becomes a secret agent, recording all the shady activities and dealings of ADM. Mark seems to relish the attention of the operation. Even the most risky of tactics like wearing a wire which most informants might think twice generates enthusiasm and excitement. As the case gets deeper and deeper though, Mark starts exhibiting strange behaviour which seem to run counter to his perceived intentions. Slowly, cracks in the case appear which cause the investigation to spin around on its head in unpredictable and truly bizarre directions.

Despite all those Ocean’s movies, I don’t think Soderbergh has much of a funny bone and the stylistic embellishments in 'The Informant!) simply slap on a tone of comedy which isn't there in the performances or the script. This artificial injection of comedy is a strange approach. On one level, its easy to see why he chose to score his film with the peculiar 70’s comedy styling of Marvin Hamlisch. In this case, truth is stranger than fiction and Witacre's story which, if told as a 20/20 piece would probably be narrated by someone like ‘John Stostle’ or ‘Keith Morrison. On the other hand it’s a marvelous bit of misdirection of Soderbergh away from the deep-rooted and sad psychological breakdown of his main character.

But we can't be distracted from Matt Damon in the film though. He's a mustached, pudgy white collar trickster, with complexities cleverly revealed to us as the story unfolds. Soderbergh does tease us and tip us off to who Mark Whitacre might be. His voiceover is occasional but nonsense, random sound-bites, personal anecdotes and trivia, which suggests obsessive compulsive behaviour but also a hint of mercurial capriciousness.

Whatever confusion and uncertainty you might have along the twisting narrative of this film, it all pays off wonderfully in the third act. 'The Informant!' might fall under everyone's radar when other more hyped up films get released this Fall season, but don't count out the 'The Informant!" and Matt Damon at Oscar time.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Sin Nombre

Sin Nombre" directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (2009)
Starring Paulina Gaitan, Willy Flores and Tenoch Huerta Mejia

***1/2

Guest review by Blair Stewart

By all means we've already seen the story of "Sin Nombre" when a young girl falls for the bad kid on the run in dangerous terrain, but I haven't seen this plot in such peculiar circumstances before.

Hondurian teenager Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) joins her father riding-rough a North-bound train through hostile Mexican territory to cross the border into the States. While this is occuring recent events shake gang member "El Caspar" Willy (Willy Flores) out of his bearings and he hops on the tracks while his hoodlum buddies hunt for him.

A gentle one-sided love blooms between Sayra and Willy as rocks, bullets and border police whiz by about them. As the train rolls up through the scorched earth child footsoldier Smiley is dispatched by the gang to kill his old friend Willy and become a 12-year old 'made man'.

A multiple-award winner at the 2009 Sundance festival, "Sin Nombre" storyline has a shop-worn quality to it, but is also blessed with a striking similarity to the 2002 heavyweight "City of God". Both give the appearance of access to third-world no-fly zones, with "City" the Rio favellas and with "Sin" the crowded shantytown trains of Mexico. Both also allow a view into their respective underworlds, the focus here being on the Central American syndicate Mara Salvatrucha with the gang's prison ink and strict codes of conduct. Despite a number of unexpected dolly and crane movements for me "Sin Nombre" doesn't have the same visual fireworks as its Brazilian counterpart, but to its own quiet benefit.

The film takes time to admire the performances of its two fledgling leads along with a good baddie turn by Tenoch Meijia, and occasionally marvel at the good/bad of the industrialized countryside.

Talented rookie writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga now faces a great challenge that has overwhelmed a number of young Sundance winners in the past: his second feature. He could be North America's answer to Walter Salles, or he could keep plumming the same well as Inarritu has done since "Amores Perros". Based upon "Sin Nombre", I'm looking forward to the former.

"Sin Nombre" is available on DVD in Canada from Alliance Films.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

TIFF 2009: Wake In Fright

Wake in Fright – also known as: Outback (1971) Dir. Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Al Thomas, Jack Thompson, Peter Whittle and Sylvia Kay

****

Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw

It seems unthinkable in this day and age of film preservation and restoration that a motion picture classic made – not during the silent period of the early 20th century, but in 1971, a Cannes Palme D’Or nominee no less, and often cited (along with Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout” from the same year) as the beginning of Australia’s revitalization as a filmmaking force – was one week away from having all of its original negative elements destroyed. After a two-year search all over the world at his own expense, the film’s editor Anthony Buckley finally discovered the elements in the bowels of the CBS vaults in Pittsburgh (no less) in a pile of items marked to be “junked” (industry parlance for “destroyed”) and, I reiterate, ONE WEEK from the date he found them.

Because of his Herculean efforts as well as the frame-by-frame restoration by the National Film and Sound Archives of Australia and Deluxe Labs, Ted Kotcheff’s “Wake in Fright” (released outside of Australia as “Outback”) has a new lease on life – to shock and mesmerize audiences all over the world. Screened at Cannes in May of 2009 (only one of two features ever to be screened on two separate occasions at Cannes) and in a special presentation featuring Kotcheff in a personal dialogue on the film at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, “Wake in Fright” stands as one of the most powerful explorations of male savagery in the context of a topography that seems as rugged and barren as the surface of the Moon. In a world of Samuel Fuller and Sam Peckinpah, Kotcheff’s brilliant film holds its own.

I first saw the movie when I was about 13 or 14 years old as “Outback” during a late night showing on the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) when, during this time, Canadian content guidelines allowed for the broadcast of ANY film that came from Britain’s Commonwealth to meet said guidelines. (Because of this, we saw some really fine movies and TV series during the 60s and 70s.) It was a movie that completely bewildered and obsessed me. Even a full frame standard telecine transfer did not detract from its strangeness, its terrible and terrifying beauty and its depiction of a world so foreign to my own, yet seeming to be imbued with a quality that suggested to me, even then, that what I was seeing was the stuff of life itself. For over thirty years I looked and waited, seemingly in vain, to see it again. To think I almost didn’t have that opportunity because of the aforementioned disappearance and death sentence is now, after seeing it again much older and (hopefully) wiser (on a big screen in a pristine, lovingly restored 35mm print), makes me feel like I have been witness to a miracle.

And what a miracle this movie is! Kotcheff, the Canadian born, raised and trained director (trained via and not unlike Norman Jewison, within the legendary CBC television drama department of the late 50s and early 60s), has made his fair share of good pictures – most notably the Berlin Golden Bear Award winner “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz”, the droll “Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” and the first and best Rambo picture “First Blood” – but nothing in his canon comes close to the mind boggling perfection of “Wake in Fright”.

Stunningly photographed by Brian West, the picture opens on one spot of the desolation that is the outback of Australia and the camera proceeds to do a slow 360 degree turn – shocking us with the reality that the land is the same whichever direction one looks and that it seems to go on forever. Into this environment we’re introduced to the impeccably groomed and fussily attired schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) who is about to leave the two-building rail town for a much-needed vacation to Sydney. Grant describes his position as being enslaved to the Ministry of Education as they have required all new teachers to post a one-thousand-dollar bond to ensure they serve their entire first term in the most desolate postings imaginable. During a stopover in the bleak mining town of Bundanyabba, Grant meets Jock (played by legendary Aussie actor Chips Rafferty), an amiable policeman who plies him with beer and gets him into a card game where he loses all of his money. Stranded, perpetually drunk and eventually and brain-numbingly hung-over, Grant is hosted by a motley crew of locals (several hard drinking macho men and one extremely horny single female) who proceed to take him into the very heart of the Australian darkness. Grant is practically force-fed steady supplies of beer, seduced by the lonely woman (which is scuttled when he pukes while trying to penetrate her), taken on a mad, drunken and vicious kangaroo hunt and finally locked in a sweaty, smelly and almost violently homoerotic coupling with the mad alcoholic doctor Tydon (a malevolent Donald Pleasance).

At first, we are shown a passive observer, but as the film progresses, he regresses to the same savage state as the men he initially holds his nose up to and he decidedly and actively engages in acts so barbaric that he is forced to confront his inner demons to the point where he is sickened to the point of contemplating suicide.

Not unlike the world of playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee, we find ourselves in the realm of alcohol-fueled depravity and game playing. Like any respectable Walpurgisnacht, booze is sloshed into empty cups with abandon and full cups are drained greedily, but these pagans who celebrate ARE the tortured spirits walking amongst the living and any bonfires they create seemed to be aimed squarely at themselves. Furthermore, the movie presents a “Paradise Lost” situation where depravity is merely presented and much like John Milton’s “hero”, Grant makes a conscious choice to immerse himself in the foul macho shenanigans like a pig in shit.

This is one daring, nasty piece of work and without question, the movie Kotcheff will ultimately be best remembered for. He not only elicits fine performances from a stellar cast, but his mise-en-scene is pretty much perfect. It’s also no coincidence that he is Canadian and perhaps the perfect director outside of Australia to have tackled this story so rooted in that nation’s pathology. Given that the vast majority of Canada’s population resides within 100 kms along the Canadian and U.S. border, the rest of this vast country north of the 49th parallel is not unlike the world of the Australian outback. (To all non-Canadians: just think of a land populated by SCTV’s hosers Bob and Doug McKenzie – seemingly benign, but below the simpleton surface, a roiling, frustrated, angry, bitter nation of moose-hunting psychopaths.)

As well, it is no surprise that it was Anthony Buckley, the editor of the film, who searched high and low for the lost negative elements, since the cutting in this picture has few equals. For the most part, things are delivered at a steady, unobtrusive pace, but when we’re in the territory of dreams or overtly physical action, the editing veers from measured to positively Eisensteinian. At times, the action borders on the hypnotic, while at other points, it’s as jarring and disturbing as the images and action engaged in by the characters.

This action, as designed by director Kotcheff, is expertly blocked. His shot choices are impeccable and most importantly, he seems perfectly at home in capturing the claustrophobic nature of both barren exteriors and interiors – where the only way to break free is to rage against the dying of the light that has, for the characters who populate this world, become life itself.

This picture rages, alright! It’s one hell of a ride and we’re all the better for it.

TIFF 2009: Lebanon

Lebanon (2009) dir. Samuel Maoz
Starring: Itay Tiran, Yoav Donat, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Shtrauss

***

The presence of the Venice Film Festival purposely scheduled a week before TIFF has meant it often gets a jump on the discoveries normally attributed to this festival. While at TIFF most of us bloggers, critics, cinephiles wait for what film emerges with the Golden Lion - an award not as coveted as say, the Palme D’Or but as shown by history, an award as influential. Before garnering acclaim at TIFF films like Brokeback Mountain, and The Wrestler won awards there.

And so when Samuel Maoz’s “Lebanon” was announced as the Golden Lion winner I immediately looked it up to see when it was playing. So did every other writer/agent/distributor last Sunday at it’s first P&I screening where an enormous crowd showed up with only about half the number of seats as the demand. The second screening was equally packed but I did manage to get in.

It’s an intense adventure using the same subject matter as “Waltz With Bashir” - another Israeli take on the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This time we’re put into a tank with four Israeli soldiers. There’s Assi the commander, Shmulik the gunner, Yigal the driver and Hertzel the loquatious loader. Being friends as well as comrades means that Assi often has difficult asserting his orders to the group - specifically with Hertzel who questions the logic of the chain of command and the hierarchy of duties. It makes for light humorous banter, dulling us to the horror going on outside the tank.

But when Major Jamil enters the tank orders get thrown down with authority. With clarity Jamil makes it simple, proceed through the recently demolished village, look for surviving enemy soldiers and contain any lingering threats. We’re told it’s a walk in the park until they get to their next destination, an impending battle in San Tropez.

The tank has two points of view, a wide angle pigeonhole target sight of the gun, and a closer zoomed in view from the same angle. From these two shots we watch as Shmulik slowly go stir crazy from the brutality he’s forced to watch happening on the outside - a family being shot to death in a vacant building, an innocent muslim blown apart in his car, even a cow clinging to life with his stomach torn open are indelible images to both Shmulik and us, the audience.

For the others, the intensity increases from earth quaking of the explosions and devastating sounds of war echoing through the steel machine. Like the metallic claustrophobia of the German sub in ‘Das Boot”, the confines of the metal tank serves as the film’s only location. The space is tight and perhaps Maoz’s used Alfred Hitchcock's 'Lifeboat' as inspiration to maintain a dynamic and non-repetitive visual experience from such a small place.

The few sources of light create enough creative light schemes to play with and the occasional time the hatch is opened up sends a blinding beam of light into the tank is enough to remind us that there is another world outside.

Admirable as it is in creating a intense war film without really seeing anything, the film suffers from our uncertainty as to whether the filmmakers are actually taking a stand on something. War is bad, we know. Perhaps it’s the singular point of view of the tank as a metaphor for the unwavering partyline of the Israeli military. Maybe. It’s an implied theme which we have to stretch to find, but it lacks the passionate confessionary tone of “Bashir”. And so it fails to raise itself to the cinematic level of brilliance the concept and the era in history demands.

Friday, 18 September 2009

TIFF 2009: Soul Kitchen

Soul Kitchen (2009) dir. Fatih Akin
Starring: Adam Bousdoukos, Moritz Bleibtreu, Birol Ünel, Pheline Roggan

***1/2

What a 180 shift for Fatih Akin, the (deserved) winner of the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes 3 years ago for his so very serious contemplative Alejandro González Iñárritu-like international drama, “Edge of Heaven”. “Heaven” was a great film, but so formal, so clever and earnest in its message about forgiveness and empathy, it was on the exhausting side of cinema. Thus, Akin’s new film, a brilliant comical farce set in a down and out German restaurant feels like a film made after sniffing some potent smelling salts.

Zinos Kazantsakis (also co-writer Adam Bousdoukos) is a hapless restauranteur introduced to us serving frozen vegetables, Captain Highliner fish sticks and other uncreative truck-stop foods to his satisfied but uninspired working class clientele. When the public health inspector gives him a bad report card, his beautiful girlfriend decides to move to Shanghai for a journalistic assignment, and he slips a disc in his back, Zinos' world teeters on the edge of collapse. But when he hires a fired primadonna haute cuisine chef Shayne (Birol Ünel) to run the kitchen things start to look up. Shayne’s creativity making chicken fingers look like Fois Gras appears to turn his business around. Suddenly Soul Kitchen becomes a hopping joint with full on DJs, rock bands, and nightclub dancing.

Enter Zinos’s brother, Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu), fresh out of prison on dayleave, who has been given co-power of attorney authority on the property. Illias gambles away the building in a poker game to a bullish real estate investor. Add to the fact that Zinos’ girlfriend has left him for another man in China puts Zinos on near suicide watch. But a number of events, and unplanned coincidences result in a miraculous turnaround of luck throwing Zino back in contention in the restaurant business and with a new girl on the horizon.

Fatih Akin mixes the pace of screwball classics, with a “Raising Arizona’ zaniness, anchored by a real world everyman hero in Zinos. Akin has his running shoes on at all times, never letting us rest in between clever character introductions, brilliantly choreographed food preparation set pieces, and a number of wild energetic musical numbers.

Akin and Bousdoukos's tight screenplay is of the American romantic comedy template variety. But with the fresh German faces, frenetic reckless pace and a willingness to go for every gag it barrels over any Apatow, Sandler, or Ephron comedy over the last few years.

If any film this year were to come close to ‘Slumdog Millionaire’-feeling of exuberance and warm fuzzies upon leaving the theatre it would be “Soul Kitchen”. The final credit sequence doesn’t feature a choreographed Bollywood dance sequence, but the flashy graphic credits set to it ‘It’s Your Thing” by The Isley Brothers comes pretty close.

TIFF 2009:Trash Humpers

'Trash Humpers' (2009) dir. Harmony Korine
Starring Harmony Korine, Rachel Korine

*

Guest Review by Reece Crothers

When David Cronenberg's "Crash" (shame on you Paul Haggis) was released late in the last century, it received a rating of "N or NNNNN" in our local NOW Magazine. That was confusing. Was it great or terrible? Most people said it was a "love it or hate it" kind of picture, but usually one or the other. How was that possible? How could the reviewer have such extreme ambivalent feelings about the picture? After thirteen years and one screening of Harmony Korine's new movie, I finally understand. I cannot say whether 'Trash humpers' is a good film or a terrible one, only that there has never been anything like it, which was the director's intention, and in that respect it is a stunning achievement.

In the Q&A that followed the TIFF screening, Korine explained some of his motivations behind making this movie as a sort of archival, or "found object", and it is a huge departure from the sweet and dreamy, and super-slick 'Mr. Lonely', Korine's previous picture. I thought Korine had really matured with that movie. It was playful and surreal and poignant and clever and it showed the young auteur in a slightly more vulnerable mode, actually revealing something romantic and even sentimental. The new film is a return to the nihilism of "Gummo" without the innocence of "Julien Donkey Boy" or the melancholy heart of "Mr. Lonely".

Korine in person was much more lucid and candid than his reputation would suggest. Though he playfully sparred verbally with an obnoxious audience member who felt he was owed a personal explanation for the exploits he had just been subjected to on the big screen: "Is that supposed to be artistic?" Obnoxious Audience Member demanded. "I don't know..." Korine jabbed, "Is your hat artistic?"

The emphasis was on "artistic" as a dirty word and it actually suits the picture just fine. I refer you back to the title: 'Trash Humpers'. This is not a title like "Magnolia" or "Reservoir Dogs" that serves as a tonal indication without any reference to the subject or content of the film. This is a film all about humping trash. It's dirty, but it's also beautiful. The VHS photography (blown up to 35mm) is a nostalgic requiem for our analog past. Anyone who ever edited their movies from one VCR to another will get a warm fuzzy feeling.

When asked if "Trash Humpers" was part of the Dogme95 films (the style made famous in 1998 by Thomas Vinterberg with "Festen" and by Lars Von Trier with "The Idiots", and a school to which Korine's JDB is a certified member) Korine responded that "it probably would be if I thought about it". It's hard to tell how much thought was actually put into the film or even should be put into analyzing it. To describe "the plot" would be misleading. The picture works best as a primal sensory experience.

Korine explained to the crowd at the TIFF screening that the origins in the project began when he was handed a VHS tape by a fan who simply asked "Watch this" before walking away. Korine played the tape at home with his wife and a friend. After twenty minutes of bizarre, juvenile, violent stunts, Korine's wife and friend wanted to turn it off, afraid the tape may veer into snuff territory at any minute. But Korine was captivated and couldn't bring himself to shut the video off prematurely. "Someone's gonna get killed on this tape" they warned. That scenario, a famous artist and friends are handed a snuff tape, would probably make for a better plot than the one actually strung together for this movie. After all, what is at stake for the average trash humper? But that is obviously not the point. We are meant to observe the antics of the TH's in the same way that Korine et al screened that original VHS fan tape. It is an alternately hilarious and terrifying and almost always baffling horror story of three degenerates in latex "old people" masks who just can't get no satisfaction. If a stranger gave you this tape, my advice would be to stay the hell away from them. They are probably insane. Coming from Korine, it's harder to dismiss.

"Kids" (1995) still ranks as the most sobering morality tale of my personal film watching life, ranking with "Trainspotting" (1996) as the ultimate cinematic warnings about the consequences to the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll ethos that defined those pictures on the vanguard of decades previous. And Korine was only 19 when he wrote "Kids". There is no doubt that he is one of the most brilliant and individualistic filmmakers working in American movies today. I really couldn't say whether I liked this film or not, and personally probably would have enjoyed seeing Trash Humpers in a gallery setting rather than in a cinema, but I am glad I saw it. Korine's vision is truly his own. He follows his own voice. He knows his audience is not a blockbuster one, yet he has a strong cult following. Time will tell whether or not he will be able to exist as a filmmaker in both worlds like Gus Van Sant has been able to (Van Sant executive produced "Kids" and Korine made a cameo in "Good Will Hunting", arguably Van Sant's most commercial film).

"If you are the kind of person who walks out of movies.... if that is something you do... and that's cool... but like, you should probably just go now. You aren't going to like this movie. But if you are into seeing something called "Trash Humpers", and that's what it's about really, then I hope you like it". Those were Korine's words to the crowd at the screening just before the lights went down and we all had our minds blown. Consider yourself warned, or initiated, depending on your appetite.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

TIFF 2009: Solomon Kane

Solomon Kane (2009) dir. Michael Bassett
Starring: James Purefoy, Meredith Crowhorn, Jayson Fleming, Pete Postlethwaite, Max von Sydow

**

In 'Solomon Kane', writer/director Michael Bassett is intent on creating an iconic and serialized character the likes of Indiana Jones, Ash, Jack Sparrow. While it’s clear Bassett has put a lot of passion, energy, and money on the screen to create a loud, rain-soaked muddy, sword-swinging medieval cult classic, unfortunately it's not cult film in the making, just a decent one-off.

Bassett sets the film in 1600 in puritan England, a well-chosen era for action purposes as it has both guns and swords as well as violent religious conflict between pagans, puritans, Protestants, and Catholics. Soloman Kane (James Purefoy) is a badass pirate introduced busting into a North African palace intent on stealing some treasure. He’s stopped by the devil himself who tells him his soul is owed to him for all his bad deeds in his life. Kane escapes back to England and retreats to his church and swears to be a man of peace.

Peace and redemption comes in the form of a humble god-fearing family of four (inc. Pete Postlethwaite) who take Kane along in their travels to the New World. But before they get anywhere they’re ambushed and killed by a horde of devil slaves. With their innocent virginal daughter kidnapped Kane must betray his oath of peace and kick some major ass to save the girl. His journey takes him back to his birthplace where he’s confronted by a long lost family rival hell bent on personal vengeance.

Solomon Kane seems to be carefully crafted for Halloween costume and merchandized action figure possibilities. He has a distinct hat and cape and Bassett often has him brandishing two swords in numerous hero worship poses. His hair which barely covers his face is a mix of Van Helsing meets The Undertaker and James Purefoy as Kane comes off as a doppelganger of Hugh Jackman with less chest, but more tattoos.

There’s nothing we haven’t seen in any film before this. Though adequately directed with full production value, each swordfight is choreographed with the same rhythm of editing, and all the same dramatic beats are hit, including the flashbacks to Kane’s tragic past and dishonour as a child. Bassett is heavy on the religious motivations and so at times it feels like being one Kirk Cameron away from being a laughable evangelical Christian film - Kane's allegories to Christ even includes a crucifixion scene with Kane escaping by ripping his hands out of the nails. Even Kane’s name is a combination of Old Testamenters, Solomon son of David, and Cain of the ‘Cain/Abel’ story.

When adding in Klaus Badelt’s Batman-like score, it becomes one giant melodramatic opera requiring us to take it all so very very seriously. There’s not an ounce of humour not even when Kane rips the mask off the deformed henchman of the devil or Kane rips his through the nails which have stuck him to the cross. Both are over-the-top moments ripe for comedic exploitation. But, no.

It’s all part of Bassett’s inability to elevate the material beyond mere overly-archetypal characters, familiar situations, and all-around recycling of all other swashbuckling/medieval actioners. ‘Soloman Kane” therefore sits somewhere above ‘In the Name of the King’, equal to Stephen Somers’ ‘The Mummy’ and below ‘Wolfhound’ in the genre of fantasy.

TIFF 2009: Kirot

Kirot (2009) Dir. Danny Lerman
Starring: Olga Kurylenko, Ninet Tayeb and Vladimir Friedman

***1/2

Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw

When Galia, a ravishing, raven-haired, almond-eyed, high-cheek-boned Ukrainian prostitute firmly and proudly demands the restitution of her passport and monies owed, a grotesquely evil and dripping-with-rancid-gooey-oil-of-slime Israeli pimp snarls at her with contempt, “Nothing is yours.”

In a cold, mantra-like timbre he adds: “I own you. I own your pussy. I own your soul.”

In reality, this prostitute would be beaten and forced to keep turning tricks until she was so used up and strung out that she’d receive a bullet to the head and her body would be burned to ash and scattered to the winds of Israel.

But this is a movie.

And the talented, criminally, insanely and mind-numbingly gorgeous Ukrainian model and actress (and Bond girl from “Quantum of Solace”) Olga Kurylenko plays the role of Galia the prostitute and Galia (with pouty lips, leather jacket and an itchy trigger finger on a smoking second generation Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol) is not going to take this lightly. She’s suffered too much and there’s more than just her life and dignity at stake. She has a new friend, Elinor (played by the talented, criminally, insanely and mind-numbingly gorgeous Sephardic Israeli pop star Ninet Tayeb), a pregnant neighbour who needs to be saved by her brutal abusive husband.

Rest assured, things will blow up real good.

The movie is “Kirot” (the Hebrew word for “walls”) and as written and directed by the talented Israeli filmmaker Danny Lerner, it’s a picture that does for Ukrainian prostitutes enslaved in the sex trade what Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Bastards” does for the Jews in Nazi Germany. It’s a brutal, fast-paced and stylish thriller that delivers all the goods any action fan would want, but also manages to do it with evocative characters and having something to say – not in any dull didactic manner, but with all the sizzle and steak one would ever want from a genre picture.

The sexual slavery imposed upon Eastern European women is a subject that’s finally getting its big screen due this year. Other than a TV movie or two and Lukas Moodysson’s powerful 2002 feature drama “Lilja 4-Ever”, this is subject matter that the movies have been reluctant to tackle. But this year we’ve seen Liam Neeson decimating Albanian pimps in the surprise hit “Taken” and the Slovenian drama “Slovenian Girl”. “Kirot” joined this smattering of pictures devoted to the subject of women who are kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery as the opening film of a new City to City series focusing on Tel-Aviv at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a fresh and welcome take on the subject – just the sort of thing that movies seem to be made for.

It’s been several years since hard-hitting investigative journalist Victor Malarek shocked the world with his powerful non-fiction book “The Natashas” – a book that brought the issue of contemporary sexual slavery to the forefront of the world’s consciousness. In his book, Malarek focused on the real Israeli pimp “Tarzan” and how women from Eastern Europe were being duped and/or outright kidnapped and forced to work as sex slaves. Malarek reported on every disgusting detail – from the “breaking-in” period wherein women are raped into submission, forced to serve hundreds, if not thousands of clients, have their passports stolen and receive threats of violence towards their family if they don’t submit and in Israel, are forced to engage in un-protected sex with “devout” Orthodox johns who refuse, for cultural/religious reasons to waste their seed (as it might offend God).

“Kirot” is not only a rip-roaringly entertaining movie, it’s an important one since it might well be the first mainstream picture to reach a wide audience and bring this issue to light.

Make no mistake, though. It’s brutal. The treatment of women at the hands of the Israeli pimps is sickening. While the movie does not go into the same graphic detail as Malarek’s book (thank the God of Abraham!), the opening few minutes contain some of the nastiest depictions of violence against women I’ve seen in quite some time. But, take heart, gentle souls, when Miss Kurylenko starts brandishing her gun, the satisfaction level will skyrocket amongst even the most liberal sensibilities.

Lerner paints a grimly realistic underworld portrait – a world of cheap rooms, dark, wet streets and gold-chained scumbags. There are no police, no law enforcement – why should there be? Most countries turn their back on this issue by paying mere lip service to it. In fact, the Israeli government is one of the biggest offenders here – in some cases, actually charging the sex slaves with prostitution and deporting them back to their home countries, further stigmatizing and torturing them. Luckily, governments are not the people and it’s taken the brave effort of Jewish women’s groups to fight this scourge head-on. (One more reason why we should NEVER confuse government with individuals and/or groups.)

The movie opens with an extreme close-up of Galia’s fiery eyes as she sits sullenly in a tacky whorehouse. Her “employer”, Mishka (Vladimir Friedman), orders her to smile. She forces one and escapes at the first opportunity. Upon recapture, she is beaten, and then promised a choice – make a “hit” or two and all will be forgiven. If she refuses, her infant daughter in Ukraine will be kidnapped and forced to work as a child prostitute.

What’s a girl to do? She dolls up, girds her loins and dives in headfirst. She’s set-up in an apartment, given cash, new duds and a chance at freedom. Alas, with pimps, and the underworld in general, there’s never such a thing as freedom and after she makes her first kill, she’s strung along. She knows she’s never going to escape, now.

Action must be taken. And believe me, it is.

That said, the picture is not all brutal pyrotechnics. Lerner allows numerous scenes of contemplation, builds complex characters and delivers a movie that’s one part Jean-Pierre Melville, one part Walter Hill, one part Scorsese and some deliciously delectable dashes of Michael Winner’s “Death Wish”. The action scenes, especially during the picture’s final third are brilliantly, heart-poundingly suspenseful and the violence is directed with the skill and precision of a true master (though this is only Lerner’s second feature). These sequences of relentless bloodshed are offset by gentle, evocative dream sequences involving Galia and her daughter and the true bond of friendship that develops between Galia and Elinor. In one of a few profoundly moving scenes, Elinor takes Galia to a Mikveh where she can purify herself and become immersed in the Holy glow of Judaism in the Eyes of God. This is exactly what the Doctor ordered. Cleansed and rejuvenated, our heathen Cossack warrior princess is now able to shed all her guilt and filth and proceed with her redemption by extracting revenge on her slavers and also save the life of a Jewish mother and her child.

This is the stuff great movies are made of – journeys where the stakes are high and the results of extreme actions in extraordinary situations are rewarded with the holiest ascensions into purity.

“Kirot” kicks ass!

Major ass!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

TIFF 2009: The Disapperance of Alice Creed

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009) dir. J. Blakeson
Starring: Eddie Marsan, Gemma Arterton, Martin Compston

****

With only his first feature film we can immediately sense special things to come from J. Blakeson - an ingenious three-hand kidnapper noir conceived and executed with the same kind of cinematic confidence as a young Christopher Nolan or David Fincher.

There should be very little said about the plot of this picture other than 2 kidnappers grab and hold for ransom the daughter of a wealthy man. That’s it. That’s all you should know before diving into Blakeson’s razor sharp, twisty and utterly beguiling chamber drama.

Blakeson takes one of the most basic of Hollywood genre-premises, the kidnap-ransom plot, distills everything extraneous to the three main characters, and boils the picture down to its essential emotions. We don’t meet any of the characters before the kidnapping, never see a money exchange or any conversations outside of the room, and never ever do we see a policeman.

There’s only three people in the film: Vic (Eddie Marsan) the alpha-criminal who goes about the business of crime with steely-eyed efficiency; Danny (Martin Compston), the apprentice, who follows orders from Vic and the only one who appears to have a conscience in the affair; and of course, Alice Creed (Gemma Anderton), the poor victim who spends most of the film gagged and bound to four corners of a bed.

The opening sequence is marvel of thriller montage scenes. Blakeson cuts together a stunning preparation sequence as we see Vic and Danny go to the hardware store, buy all the necessary tools and supplies for the job and construct their kidnappers' layer inside some kind of vacant apartment flat.

Blakeson’s formal and precise compositions, pacing and ultra-sharp lighting scheme resembles a David Fincher-like attention to detail, a style which compliments and subliminally establishes the precision of Vic and Danny’s plan.

The duo seems to have everything covered including a bed pan for Alice to pee in when required. What they don’t plan for is the emotional attachment to the job. As much as possible Vic commands Danny NOT to think, to remain focused on the work, Danny just can’t do that and when his motivations for the job are revealed, it becomes the first wrench in the works. Just when we think we know where the film is headed we learn about Vic’s motivations for the job. Even Alice’s needs and presence complicates things. Soon it becomes a complex Mexican stand-off, each one trying to hold their poker faces as best they can to get out alive. And by focusing on character as much as the procedural details as the scheme starts to unravel we’re never quite sure who, if anyone, will come out on top in the end – Vic, Danny, or Alice.

Many great directors have begun their careers with this type of noir. Blakeson’s work stands tall beside neo-noir classics such as “Bound”, “Shallow Grave”, “Memento”, “Blood Simple”. Watch for great things in the future from this guy.

P.S. On the IMDB it appears Blakeson is the writer for the 'Descent' sequel, which instantly puts that film in a whole new light.

TIFF 2009: The Most Dangerous Man in America

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) dir. Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
Documentary

***1/2

The spectre of Richard Nixon continues to produce more compelling stories and interesting characters than ever before. With this documentary the microscope zooms in on the story of Daniel Ellsberg's leak of the Pentagon Papers and its influence into activisim in the 60’s, the Vietnam War and the fall of Richard Nixon- a film which successful links itself to the other great Nixon/Vietnam era political films such as ’Frost/Nixon’, ’All The President’s Men”, ’Nixon’, and ’The Fog of War’.

In many ways Daniel Ellsberg symbolizes the best qualities of the zeitgeist of political activism in the 60's - a man who risked family, career and public reputaion for the sake of the fundamental constitutional values which in his mind appeared to be forsaken by the country's elected powers. Ehlich and Goldsmith's film serves as a cinematic memoir for Ellsberg who reveals his motivations, regrets and the moment-by-moment emotions of the two year period between the leaking of the Papers and his ultimate exoneration.

To refresh.. the Pentagon Papers was the notorious term for a top secret study prepared by the Department of Defence on U.S./Vietnam relations from 1947-1968 - a study which revealed a scathing lies from four Presidents about the motivations, execution and escalation of the Vietnam War.

In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg, a former political advisor to Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara and researcher with the Rand Corporation leaked these to the New York Times, the effect of which saw him arrested for espionage, as well as causing the snowball effect of Watergate and Richard Nixon's eventual resignation.

Ellsberg is still alive and provides the narration and key interviews recounting this complex story. We learn about his Harvard education and recruitment into the exclusive political think tank, The Rand Corporation, where he made a name for himself with his ability to think outside the box. During this time his work drafting military risk strategies and decision-making theories helped influence Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara escalate the war in Vietnam. It wasn’t until he met his wife, an activist and protestor, did he awaken to the real world effects of his work. And so Ellsberg recounts the difficult moral conflict he found himself faced with. With this knowledge in his possession, does he have moral obligation to disclose it for the greater good of the nation?

We learn about the connections he makes with colleague Anthony Russo to steal the papers and covertly send them to the papers. When the news hits the streets we get to hear the first hand reactions of Nixon, John Ehlichman, and Henry Kissinger via Nixon's own White House wiretap tapes sounding off on the shit storm fallout caused by the leak.

The uncomplicated tried and true documentary techniques are not flashy but effective visualize the story. Talking heads are formally composed, artistic recreations borrowed from the Errol Morris, or ‘Man on Wire’ school of oblique close-ups do the job visualizing what could not be shown by news footage or stock photos. Ultimately the emotional power is in the voices and faces of the participants.

At 75 Ellsberg emerges as a hero and a champion for political activism and perhaps the original and most important whistle blower ever. Ellsberg’s moral conflict is articulated best by one of the interviewees who discusses the need to have young people on the jury of his trial. Anyone of middle age would likely find disdain for what Ellsberg did, not because of ethical differences, but the fact that Ellberg's actions would have revealed the cowardice of those ordinary men and women who wouldn't have had the guts to do the right thing - the decicion to risk family and career for one’s morals is something few of us have face, and for those that do, even fewer would go through with it.


TIFF 2009: Harry Brown

Harry Brown (2009) Dir. Daniel Barber
Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer and David Bradley

*1/2

Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw

A new vigilante picture starring Sir Michael Caine as the title character, a senior citizen who cleans up the scum in his neighborhood whilst avenging the murder of an old pal should be music to the ears of most movie-goers. It certainly was to mine. But as this turgid, poorly paced, humourless, somewhat pretentious and far too precious picture un-spooled, all I kept thinking was: “Oh no, say it isn’t so!” As hard as I tried to like the picture, it was pretty much impossible to muster any enthusiasm.

The screenplay by Gary Young (“Shooters”) is serviceable enough. It opens with some brutal violence, lays the groundwork for Harry’s seemingly mild mannered character (an ex-Marine as it turns out, who served Britain in Ireland during the “troubles”), efficiently stacks the deck for the audience to enjoy watching our title hero take out all the filth and paints several vivid portraits of youth run amuck that are guaranteed to convert even the most liberal sensibilities to the noble cause of vigilantism (or send them running for the door in disgust at how lower class kids are portrayed as vicious irredeemable psychopaths who deserve only death).

The problem lies mostly with first-time feature director Daniel Barber, whose previous work includes television commercials (always a bad sign) and an Academy Award nominated short film (no real guarantee of talent). The clichéd bleach-bypass-ish lighting that contrasts with the deep, semi-noir-ish deep blacks is not without mood, but there’s no real imagination to the compositions – no urgency, no real edge. The cutting is even more by the numbers and lacks the same kind of drive and build-up that made a lot of the 70s crime pictures so intense.

The picture that comes immediately to mind is Mike Hodges’s stunning 1971 crime and retribution thriller “Get Carter” (which also starred Caine), but even the mere thought of that picture’s relentless nastiness serves to constantly remind us of how little oomph “Harry Brown” has.

“Get Carter” is a rollercoaster. “Harry Brown” is the kiddies’ car ride.

All that said, Sir Michael handles himself magnificently and his restrained, intelligent performance comes close to saving the movie. His depiction of seeming stoicism that is ultimately unable to hide the sadness in his eyes when he gazes upon a photograph of his long-dead daughter or his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife or his best friend who expresses fear and anger at being harassed by neighborhood thugs is powerful and moving. As the indignities are heaped upon Harry, we can see the anger dancing and flickering in his irises – a guarantee that much carnage will follow.

In spite of Caine’s performance, though, the movie is pretty much a slog. Barber metes everything out at a snail’s pace and appears to do so in order to give the movie the sort of weight he clearly hopes will raise it above a simple vigilante picture. It’s this precious, holier-than-thou attitude towards the material that destroys all potential for entertainment value. Clearly, the director wants us to question our reactions to the proceedings, but all we end up questioning is why in hell the movie is so boring? Why is their no nastiness to Caine’s actions? Where’s the relish the director should be taking in all the displays of carnage. And while I am thankful to Barber that he does not resort to the fashionable, but annoying and lazy herky-jerky style of shooting and cutting the action – he often hangs back and lets things play out naturally – it’s the overall pace of the picture and attitude of “I’m above exploitation” that affects the picture’s ability to involve us.

Great vigilante movies get under our skin by forcing us to cheer the actions of the person who seeks retribution so that maybe, just maybe, we WILL genuinely question our own reactions to the violence as it is being perpetrated. They do this by bringing a pulp sensibility to the material much like Hodges did in “Get Carter”.

The only straw of entertainment value to grasp at is Caine’s terrific performance, but it’s simply and finally not enough.

One especially annoying speed bump in the movie is the performance of Emily Mortimer as a homicide detective who is investigating the murder of Harry’s old pal and begins to suspect that our hero is the person committing a series of killings amongst the neighbourhood’s underworld. Not only is she miscast, but her dour demeanour is singularly unattractive and we long for one of the thugs to erase her completely from the proceedings.

“Harry Brown” commits a cardinal sin – it tries to gussy itself up as something it isn’t. This has produced a picture that MIGHT appeal to a politically correct minority who can pretend they’re NOT watching the movie for the carnage and would normally not be caught dead in a theatre showing a kick-ass vigilante picture, but all the rest of us – who like our action straight-up (morality be damned!) get supremely short-changed. That said, however, Sir Michael is great, and that, I suppose, is not to be sneezed at.

“Harry Brown” is playing at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and will be theatrically released by E1 Films.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

TIFF 2009: Chloe

Chloe (2009) dir. Atom Egoyan
Starring: Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Max Theriot

**1/2

It’s a shame ‘Chloe’ turned out to be what it is. For two thirds, it’s an entrancing Hitchcockian thriller under the filter of Atom Egoyan sophistication. Unfortunately a concerted effort to stay in the mainstream sees the film play out on the straight and narrow path toward cliché and familiar genre storytelling - thus revealing itself as nothing more than a recycled sexual genre thriller from the 1990’s.

Catherine (Julianne Moore) is a sexually frustrated doctor married to David (Liam Neeson), a university professor, both lead busy lives and barely have any romantic time for each other. Their teenaged son, Michael (Max Theriot), is just discovering the joys of sex and spends plenty of time locked in his bedroom with his girlfriend. When Catherine suspects David of cheating, she’s not so much upset as jealous of him. Enter Chloe, a sexy high priced call girl who plies her trade in the same posh upper class Toronto restaurants as Catherine. After a brief meeting Catherine tracks her down offers her a proposition to flirt with her husband as a test of his fidelity.

Chloe turns the trick, and gets paid and reports back on the results. Not satisfied with just one encounter Catherine pays her again and again to increase the affair, the effect of which actually turns Catherine on. Catherine and Chloe's relationship deepens creating a situation even more dangerous than a naughty affair.

It's Julianne Moore’s picture here, our hero really, carrying the burden of the action and with all the emotional conflict on her shoulders. It’s a demanding role to manage the direction in which her character sways - from sexually frustrated alpha-female to emotionally naked sex slave - but Moore pulls it off. Seyfried is alluring when her character needs to tease us with her mantrap flirtations. Egoyan even opens up eying her stunning nude body being clothed, shot discreetly of course with carefully placed camera angles. Her big blue eyes and lusciously full lips are nothing short of perfect. When her dangerous side is revealed so does Seyfried's inadequacies, failing to convince us her psychotic obsessions don’t rely on the “Single White Female‘ or ‘Fatal Attraction‘ precedent.

Egoyan’s biggest strength has always been his ability to hide and reveal information for maximum emotional impact. Maybe it’s the linear narrative or the genre requirements which hold him back here but it’s a predictable and unmemorable course charted. As the chess pieces are setup brilliantly I was hoping the film wouldn’t go where it appeared to be headed. And as the running time clipped along the realization slowly set in that it was the only place it could possibly go. And so, by the third act we find ourselves in a full fledged 1990’s sexual thriller, no more intelligent, original or sophisticated than anything we’ve seen before.

Going through the credits it’s easy to see how this picture went off the rails - or stayed on the rails, depending on your perspective. Ivan and Jason Reitman are credited as producers (instead of the arthouse-leaning Robert Lantos) and the ones who found the property and recruited Egoyan. Its the first picture where Egoyan hasn't written his own script, and the mainstream direction the film goes has someone else's fingerprints all over it.

It’s Egoyan’s most mainstream film which perhaps might satisfy audiences put off by his usual psychology ruminations but it will likely only tease naughty boys looking to catch sight of Amanda Seyfried's lovely breasts.

TIFF 2009: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) dir, Werner Herzog
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Vondie Curtis-Hall

***1/2

The new 'Bad Lieutenant' feels like one big cinematic joke leaving those who don’t get it alienated and dumbfounded and those who do laughing in hysterics. When this movie was first announced - idiosyncratic director Werner Herzog remaking or refashioning Abel Ferrara’s great character study of hedonism, depravity and redemption - none of us knew what to expect, but if anyone could possibly rework this material for the best it would Werner Herzog. The result indeed its an oddball film of monumental proportions, the work of a complete madman with total freedom with his cinematic canvas.

Nicolas Cage is Terence McDonough, the film’s title character. Like Harvey Keitel he’s addicted to drugs - explained to us this time in a flashback - and has the confidence that he can get away with anything. He and his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) get assigned to a case of a family murdered as part of a Senegalese drug vendetta. As the investigation progress the events of his personal life interweave and interfere with the work.

Along the way Terry crosses paths with a number of oddballs. There’s Frankie (Eva Mendes) a prostitute who’s also his girlfriend and #1 drug partner who will develop the urge to kick the habit. Terry's also a gambler taking bets on college football with his weirdo bookie played by Brad Dourif. There’s his father and alcoholic stepmother who, and there’s his father’s dog which he has to take care of. There’s the child of the murdered family whom he brings along with him to his many sordid escapades, there’s the drug kingpin, ‘Big Fate’ (Xzibit) who proposes to Terry a partnership in organized crime, and there’s his police chief (Vondie Curtis-Hall) who tells him he’s close to having his badge revoked.

I can honestly say this is the only film to ever pull me back from ‘one of the worst pictures I’ve ever seen’ to become a headshaking instant cult classic in the same sitting.

It takes over half way through to figure this picture out. On one hand some scenes serve to recreate the hedoism and train wreck journey of Harvey Keitel’s character, others serve the tone of an investigative noir and other times we're watching Lynchian black comedy.

The opening scenes which appear to be played straight are executed with strange amateurish and uneven quality. Val Kilmer is unintentionally hilarious as Terry’s loose cannon partner, and the scenes meant to rival Keitel’s more audacious notorious scenes end up painfully overplayed and rotten.

Slowly we get accustomed to the general theme of wackiness, anchored by Nicolas Cage's wonderful performance. His acting style is perfectly suited to this material. Herzog appears to allow Cage to let loose like never before resulting in a number instant classic set pieces. Terry’s visit to the pharmacy to refill his vicodin prescription is priceless, and arguably the film's eye popping climax is the surreal drug deal shoot out - a scene which will likely be talked about for some time to come.

At some point it all clicked. Like I was out of sync throughout the picture. Once I got engaged the film dissolves away all its chaff revealing an utterly fascinating and entertaining surreal fantasy worthy of David Lynch.

The presence of Herzog’s other film, 'My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done' is important to understanding this picture. Though I haven't seen that film yet I defer by colleague Reece Crothers' assessment of Lynch's collaboration in that picture and assume a similar influence creeped into this one. So audience must come in with an awareness of both filmmakers’ previous films, as well as the original 'Bad Lieutenant' in order to fully appreciate the mad genius of this picture.