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

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Night of the Creeps

Night of the Creeps (1986) dir. Fred Dekker
Starring: Tom Atkins, Jason Lively, Steve Marshall, Jill Whitlow

***

By Greg Klymkiw

Fred Dekker is a genre director who, with his first two features, “The Monster Squad” and “Night of the Creeps”, displayed so much promise, that even the toilet-bowl-plunge of his third feature, the lamentable abomination that is/was “Robocop 3”, would have led to a canon of first-rate genre pictures. It didn’t. Instead, he has, for almost 20 years, slogged about the wasteland that is television drama – working occasionally as a writer, director and consulting producer on material that ranged from mind-numbingly mediocre (“Star Trek: Enterprise”) to tolerably mediocre (HBO’s “Tales From The Crypt”).

One cannot believe this was his chosen path. That would be very depressing. Instead I prefer to think that Dekker’s idiot box purgatory had more to do with the fact that his third feature, “Robocop 3”, was such a total washout, that nobody in their right mind wanted to take a chance on him anymore. A man needs to fill his belly and there is no more consistent trough than that of television. Well, that’s MY fantasy, anyway.

And let’s make no mistake about it, no apologies – “Robocop 3” stinks! Why Dekker and those who green-lit the picture thought a kid-friendly Robocop was a good idea is beyond me. Not only was it dull, toothless and stupid in all the wrong ways, but it had the dubious distinction of being one of the last releases of the once-mighty mini-studio Orion – and this after sitting on the proverbial shelf a couple of years and suffering the indignity of starring a no-name in the title role when Peter Weller didn’t bother to reprise the role that made him a star.

Dekker’s sophomore feature, “The Monster Squad” was a deliciously entertaining homage to the Forrest J. Ackerman-inspired fan boy appreciation of monster movies. The picture was an absolute joy – especially to anyone who loved the sensibilities of the Universal Horror programmers of the 30s and 40s. This, alas, might have been exactly why it didn’t click at the box-office. Late boomers and early Gen-X-ers would have keyed into Dekker’s headspace perfectly, but sadly, too many kids during the 80s were either into the kinder, gentler Loserville of John Hughes, or if they were into genre at all, they were brought up on the likes of Leatherface, Michael Myers, Freddie Krueger, Jason Voorhees and any number of anonymous slasher epics or worse – much worse – “The Goonies”.

At the end of the day, the monsters in Dekker’s film must have been so “uncool” and/or beyond anyone growing up in that cultural dead zone of the 80s.

And of course, let us now turn to the reason we're all here - Dekker’s fine first feature, “Night of the Creeps”. This funny, clever and terrifying horror picture should have been a hit. It wasn’t. The picture had a miserable theatrical run and found its way quickly onto home video, but with little fanfare.

It’s too bad. In fact, with both of these features, Dekker was probably, depending on how you look at it, just behind or just ahead of his time.

“Night of the Creeps” is a horror geek’s wet dream. It begins in a small college town during the 50s where an alien parasite infects a studly college-aged jock. After committing a grisly murder, he is subdued and – get this – is cryogenically frozen. Uh, like…why? Well, because it makes it more convenient to flash forward to the 80s when a horny young geek is assisted by his wisecracking, handicapped and even geekier pal to perform a fraternity house pledge initiation. The goal is to steal a body from the campus med-school anatomy morgue. Of course, they happen upon the conveniently and cryogenically frozen stud and idiotically nab his body and dump it in front of a sorority house. A night of horror begins when Mr. Cryogenic Stud wakes up and begins vomiting parasites into the mouths of his victims, turning them into psychopathic zombies hell bent on vomiting their own parasites into unsuspecting open mouths.

Okay, did I say, at any juncture, that this was Bresson?

Phew! For a minute, you had me worried.

Nope! “Night of the Creeps” is pure, unbridled trash. And it is exquisite – which, I suppose, IS a word one might use to ALSO describe Bresson. Full of in-jokes, references to other great horror movies, but still working on its own steam and merit, this is an extremely well-crafted, good-humoured and effective fright fest.

One of the delightful aspects of the picture is the central performance from stalwart genre tough guy Tom Atkins as the local police chief who delivers one hilarious line of dialogue after another. The most famous line Dekker wrote for Atkins was also used as the picture’s tagline. How this movie could have bombed with a line like this is beyond me, but here goes. Barricaded in a sorority house with a bevy of vixens, Atkins looks out the window at one point and says, “Well, girls. I have good news and bad news. The good news is your dates are here.” One of the bubbleheads asks what the bad news is and Atkins retorts with a straight face, “The bad news is they’re dead.”

Mayhem ensues.

This is a fun, stylish and scary picture. Fred Dekker is a terrific genre director. He needs to make more pictures. It’s not too late. His time might actually be NOW!

Oh, yeah – in addition to all the hilarious dialogue, genuine scares, delicious gross-outs, perfectly pitched performances and stylish direction; did I mention that “Night of the Creeps” also features gratuitous nudity?

Get thee to a video store!

"Night of the Creeps" is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Friday, 30 October 2009

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Frankenstein (1994) dir., Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Robert de Niro, Tom Hulce, John Cleese

**

By Alan Bacchus

Like another attempted monster staple resurrection in 1994, Wolf, which I reviewed last week, Kenneth Branagh’s take on ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ is a big ol cinematic mess and an eyesore on Branagh's filmography. By 1994, Branagh was still a hot young director who energized Shakespeare with the vibrant and violent dramatization of Henry V, which reminded many critics of Orson Welles' strong treatment of Shakespeare in his youth.

And however grandiloquent Branagh’s nourish murder mystery ‘Dead Again’ was, it proved his worth beyond the Bard and as a slick visual stylist. Combine these pictures and Mary Shelley’s seminal novel of gothic horror and the ingredients would seem a natural fit.

Having Francis Coppola’s name attached as Executive Producer automatically links the film up with his larger-than-life operatic ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’. While Stoker’s theatrical and technical bravura worked on its own level of retro cinema revival, Branagh’s feels egotistical, bombastic and over-the-top.

Using the author’s name in the title announces that this is not a Boris Karloff version of the story we're used to – instead, a reverent dramatization of the original novel. Dr. Frankenstein, as played by Branagh, is introduced as a troubled youth traumatized by seeing his mother die during an especially bloody and graphic childbirth. In his adulthood he becomes obsessed with overcoming death and recreating life. When his mentor Professor Waldman passes on, Frankenstein steals his research and vows to complete his work on creating life.

Cue the fantastically choreographed “live live!” scene. Using stolen body parts, amniotic fluid from another woman’s water breakage, some electric eels and Gilliam-esque-designed laboratory Frankenstein gives life to his MacGyvered monster (Robert De Niro). Eventually the momster discovers he’s been built as an experiment, gets angry, runs away and vows revenge against his maker. His ultimatum to his father – make him a bride or he’ll kill as many people as possible. Unfortunately when Frankenstein’s own wife is murdered by the monster she becomes the body whom Frankenstein will give away to appease the beast.

With maximum budgetary tools at his disposal Branagh’s like kid in a candy store screaming frantically on a sugar high with no Ritalin in sight. Even Branagh’s best films (Henry V, Hamlet) he often trips over his own inability to censor his enthusiasm for sake of drama. As much as his performance as Hamlet was deft and quiet he would often burst out with over-the-top audacious shouting. Frankenstein exaggerates all of these tendencies to the effect of screaming at the top of his lungs for 2 hours straight.

Every shot seems to begin and end with sweeping crane movements and in between dazzling us with spinning gimbaled acrobatic camera moves. Even Branagh’s physique is pumped up. Remember the innocent baby fat he hadn’t lost in Henry V? Now he’s rough and buff, with rock hard abs and pulsating veins – a new body he never seems comfortable in.

The casting of Robert De Niro is a bold bit of anti-casting which, unfortunately is mostly distracting. De Niro’s hideous make-up covers up most of his expressive facial features, and his big drape of a coat reduces the effect of his unique physicality. Saying that, the film works best in the second act detour when the monster flees his laboratory into the rural townships and befriends the local victimized family. De Niro’s tender side triumphs providing the film’s true emotional core.

Branagh’s career didn’t seem to be phased by the film’s failure. He produced his best film a couple years later – the even more ambitious four-hour full text version of Hamlet (in 70mm). Even afterward he’s continued to make his own personal films under the radar of most of top tier Hollywood. With his new gig as helmer of the new Marvel 'Thor' film, I’m curious and enthused to see what he’s learned since the days of 'Frankenstein'.

"Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Summertree

Summertree (1970) dir, Anthony Newley
Starring: Michael Douglas, Jack Warden, Barbara Bel Geddes, Brenda Vaccaro



By Alan Bacchus

Summertree, this hippie-era drama based on a play by Ron Cowen, tells the tender and thoughtful story of a typical young man in the 60's, resentful of his father’s expectations, determined to go his own way in life but road blocked by his draft into the military. Produced by Kirk Douglas in 1970, it served as a way of getting Douglas a lead role in a film, thus and jump start his career.

Douglas, attractive, handsome and amiable as ever has the charm of a movie star right out of the blocks. His character Jerry embodies the zeitgeist sentiment of many 20 year olds of the day. His sociology studies in college doesn't jive with his ambitions to live free of the constraints which plagues his insurance-salesman old man (Jack Warden). When he returns home during spring break, he lets it out that he's going to quit and pursue an education and career in music. Naturally his conservative father is disappointed, but such is the folly of youth. In an effort to make a difference in life, Jerry even signs up to be a 'Big Brother' to a young urban child named Marvis (a plot thread which is curiously discarded somewhere in the second half). Jerry falls in love with a nurse who harbours a secret of a past relationship. When Jerry is drafted into the military his vicarious life comes crashing to a halt quickly, thus finding himself faced with two options - leave for Canada or fight in a war he doesn't believe in.

Director Newley never really challenges Jerry enough for his actions and decisions. When he is rejected from the musical conservatory, thus rendering him eligible for the military, the news and ramifications never really set it dramatically. In 1970, even though the horrors of the Vietnam, were well known the film refuses to put the fear of god into Jerry. He takes it all in stride, and continues to skulk around waffling. Other than going to war his only other option is going to Canada, which he doesn’t actively consider until late into the film. And the gravitas of leaving his parents, his girlfriend and his country only gets a glance of pause.

As a product of counter culture 60's the film's disrespect for the country and the government which drafts Jerry is treated as a given. While in today’s cinema, if a filmmaker were to tell this story, in the light to today’s over the top patriotism, there would be an outrage of Dixie Chicks-sized proportion.

The final shot is a curious inclusion. Just as Jerry is about to leave he witness's his father's last ditch attempt to stonewall his son's flight to Canada. Jerry breaks down and gives in to his father's will and stays (and presumable goes to Vietnam), which essentially ends Jerry's emotional arc, and thus, the film. But just before the final credits Newley cuts to a shot of Jerry’s lifeless body being hauled across a TV news story reporting the latest Vietnam casualties. It’s a throwaway shot, a hasty denouement, which curiously ends the film. A note of arbitrary but sad irony which muddies even further the point of the film.

A message of Peace? Of protest? It accomplishes neither and renders almost everything before it inconsequential, by nullifying Jerry’s reunification with his father. Jerry loses everything, a victim of oppression from his country, the educational system and his own family. What a downer.

No wonder this film stayed in the Sony/Columbia vaults for so long, and resurrected under this catch-all compendium called ‘Martini Movies’. “Summertree” feels like tepid nihilist propaganda in a world of raw raw Hollywood patriotism - a tone without much of a demand in today's market.

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

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity (2009) dir. Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs

****

By Alan Bacchus

I love these types of success stories - a low budget, truly independent film getting picked up for a six-figure advance, released nationally to what could be a $100million dollar film - success derived simply from good filmmaking, or ‘pure cinema’.

With $60million under its belt, the film is no doubt the event movie of the year. That kind of lottery ticket film every filmmaker dreams of. As much as it is inspiring, it’s also frustrating to think, ‘why didn’t I think of that?’The story behind the success of the $15,000 film, which took 2 years to get its theatrical release after first premiering at the Slamdance film festival is summarized as an inspiring story of filmmaking luck, serendipity, persistence and a lot of marketing savvy on the film’s wikipedia entry HERE.

By now most people know the story, a couple haunted by a ghost in their house and shown to us via the videocamera documentation of its characters, on paper would seem like blatant rip off of 1999’s ‘The Blair Witch Project’. Back then I had thought that film was a one-off outlier of success, something we’d never see again. We’re all eating our words now.

The genius of “Paranormal Activity” is more than just concept. The idea of fake footage, found by police and seemingly shown to audiences in this theatrically edited form is not new. While some people thought Blair Witch Project was real back in 1999, by 2009, the technique is now old hat and doesn’t really fool anybody. It doesn’t matter though, people want to believe its true, and thus when a film as immersive, believeable, and real as this comes along, we all revert to immature, innocent and emotionally vulnerable little children and go along for the ride. This is the effect of 'Paranormal Activity.'

Katie and Micah (actors using their real names to help blur the line between fact and fiction) are a couple attempting to document a spirit which has appeared to have taken over their house. Micah as the alpha-male forces a camera upon Katie in order to get it on record, but we suspect most likely to get rich. Katie is a girl-next-door cute innocent nave, who seems to have been haunted by this supernatural spirit on a number of occasions throughout her life.

Though Micah films everything meticulously, his affable disrespect of Katie’s trauma, and his refusal to take the situation seriously angers the spectre. A series of incidents caught on tape during the nights escalate eventually turning Micah’s doubting mind. The events are innocuous at first, a creaking door, thumping sounds, a gust of wind, slowly escalate into freakish physical confrontations with an invisible spectre.

Unless, like my colleague Greg, who managed to watch and review the film with NO information about the film at all (click HERE for his review), it’s impossible to evaluate this movie without the context of its now legendary discovery and journey to our screens and overall subversiveness in comparison to all mainstream Hollywood genre filmmaking.

If I saw this film at Slamdance without any hype, would I have the same reaction?? Maybe not. Hype aside, Paranormal is effective, plain and simple. There’s a major filmmaking talent on display here, which on quick glance would be easy to dismiss.

Essentially the guts of the film are a number of scary surveillance ghost moments seen from the same stationary camera angle. There’s only about 6 or 7 of these moments, and so Peli admirably anchors the film with the solid direction of two newbie inexperienced actors and a character-based screenplay. Peli knows his craft and admirably misdirects our attention with humour while planting seeds for some twists and turns in a cleverly woven in backstory.

Despite the success and praise of other conceptually-similar genre pictures ‘Cloverfield’, and ‘Rec/Quarantine’ the mockumentary concept, for me, always seemed to be an artificial and transparent storytelling crutch, something which distracted as opposed to enhanced the experience. ‘Paranormal Activity’ is the real deal, legit, a fully realized and credible concept entwined perfectly into Peli’s genius little film.

Back to the hype... I’d wager even knowing about the background of the film doesn’t tarnish the surprise and thrill of the picture. But watching the film at home without the big screen and the communal experience of being in a room with 300 scared teenagers is, so go and see it now.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Room

The Room (2003) dir. Tommy Wiseau
Starring: Tommy Wiseau, Juliette Danielle and Gregory Sistero

* or **** (see for yourself why)

By Blair Stewart

When I first started working in film I befriended a nice, honest, dedicated and extremely milquetoast co-worker. Forging a minor alliance that I would refer to as an "acquaintanceship" and he a "friendship", the co-worker handed me his screenplay that would be his own ship to success. He told me it was a romance and he wanted my opinion. It had an awful title for starters.

Me: How would you describe the lead role?

Him: Sarah Michelle Geller.

Me: Like Sarah Michelle Geller?

Him: Sarah Michelle Geller, she's the perfect girl. I wrote it only for her. I'll play the lead and direct, that why I took two years of acting lessons.

Me: Oh, good stuff.

The 'script' was 100 pages of flat dialogue, non-action, a dearth of subtext and for a 'romance', a pox on lust, sex or insight into what it is to love or be loved. (As a fellow Movie-Dork-Virgin-Cliche, I wasn't one to talk either) It took place in Edmonton and unless you're making a Guy Maddin rip-off or another "Road Warrior" no film should ever take place there, ever-ever-ever. I was blunt and my involvement with the script ended there, despite my hope his fortunes have improved.

The reason I bring this up is writer/director/lead actor Tommy Wiseau and his opus "The Room" reminds me a great deal of my buddy's lousy script. Both of them had their hearts in the right place. Both of these gents should be commended for putting in a mighty effort on a personal project and both bravely put that private passion out in the world to be seen. Both of them also lacked basic cinematic talent and understanding. The similarities end though between the co-worker and Mr.Wiseau on two vital fronts: Tommy Wiseau had $6 million dollars in private finance. And Sweet Jesus if he didn't make his film.

A fast-spawning cultural phenomenon with midnight screenings around the globe, "The Room" stands as a wonderment of inepititude and rueful audience laughter. Shot simultaneously on 35mm and digital because no one knew better, "The Room" is Wiseau's stab at a Tennessee Williams/Kazan/Brando bravura achievement. Taking place in San Francisco with a lion's share of Golden Gate Bridge cutaways and dodgy CGI backdrops of the city, poor sap Johnny(Wiseau) is the fiance of the witchly Lisa(Juliette Danielle) who's having an affair with his Zen bread-loaf of a best friend Mark(Greg "Sistsoterone" Sistero). All is well and good for a mediocre film plot but several additional elements send this lil' rocket into the Crazy Stratosphere. Firstly, the chipper man-child orphan Denny(Philip Haldiman) shows up at wildly inappropriate places leading to the classic line: "Denny, two is great, but three is a crowd".

Then you have Lisa's shrewish mother Claudette(Carolyn Minnott) casually mentioning she's contracted life-threatening diseases which are shrugged off by the rest of the uncaring cast. Strangers will arrive late into the plot and offer opinions on the doomed relationship or just have sex in Johnny's house, leading savvy "Room" crowds to shout at the screen "Who the fuck are you?". Rose pedals are strewn everywhere, footballs are awkwardly tossed around and in several queasy Cinemax sex scenes, stomachs are graphically trusted into again and again and again. At the center of this Schadenfreude buffet is the theme 'Woman are crazy and shouldn't be trusted', which is hammered home by the tragically bipolar Lisa like a vengeful Britney Spears on a PCP binge.

Once again this would all make for a memorable rental if it wasn't for the master touch to rank alongside the likes of Ed Wood and Uwe Boll: The legendary Tommy Wiseau himself.

Sporting a preposterous tone-deaf eastern-bloc accent with thrash-metal raven locks and a dark-side-of-the-moon face, Wiseau resembles a henchman Bruce Willis knocks off in the first 3rd of a "Die Hard" instead of the soulful Everyman required. His Johnny is prone to questionable bouts of laughter during tales of spousal abuse and bleats repetitive blood oaths of fidelity and companionship to those around him. When Tommy indulges in his 'big actor's moment' a la "Stella!" or "You're tearing me apart!", the buried corpses of Marlon Brando and James Dean are attacked by ravenous hedgehogs as karmic retribution. If the unintentional comedy of "The Room" was indeed intended Wiseau would be a subversive genius far exceeding that of Andy Kaufman or Sacha Baron Cohen. Sadly "The Room" is not, but the awesome glee it brings out in a packed crowd of fans is a sight to behold.

A must-see for those who haven't seen it, and a must-see for those already familiar with the words of Mark the Best Friend: "Oh man, I just can't figure women out. Sometimes they're just too smart. Sometimes they're flat-out stupid. Other times they're just evil."

This is a keeper, folks.

PS-After its release in LA in 2003, a billboard ad paid by Wiseau for "The Room" compared it to the works of Tennessee Williams. Tennessee was misspelled on the billboard.

Monday, 26 October 2009

War of the Worlds (1953)

The War of the Worlds (1953) dir. Byron Haskin
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Lewis Martin, Les Tremayne, Bob Cornthwaite

****

By Alan Bacchus

Based on the famed H.G. Wells 1898 novel which told the story of a Victorian town overrun by alien ‘tripods’ which advanced weaponry, the 1953 George Pal-produced sprawling epic is a violent, destructive, balls out action picture which holds its ground even today as one of the greatest science-fiction pictures ever made.

It’s been over 50 years since the release of this film and the special effects, tension and suspense render the b-movie material so immersive it’s almost invisible to its age. Sure its low tech by today’s standards, but Pal and director Byron Haskin manage to create as film which such unrelenting force and destruction, it feels even more violent and vicious than any disaster movie made today.

Of course, the story was famously adapted by Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre radio program in 1938 as real (perhaps the first-ever mockumentary), according to legend causing mass panic in many cities and towns across America. With that bar set as high as it was by Welles, Hungarian-born puppeteer-animator turned sci-fi movie producer, George Pal had to reach higher than Hollywood sci-fi had ever gone.

The marvel is in its simplicity – Martians land on Earth and attack, but with a sense of epic scale executed to perfection. The set up is simple: In the peaceful Southern California town of Linda Rosa, physicist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) along with most of its citizens watch a meteorite crash into the ground. Later that day the meteorite uncorks revealing giant alien warship lifepods inside. Attempts at appeasement are deadly as their powerful ray guns make for easy kill and much destruction. When the American government discovers these pods have landed in other place around the world, they know the planet is under attack.

Send in the Marines!

Southern California soon becomes a battle ground for Army vs. Aliens battle with buildings, tanks, and most of the landscape scorched to flames. We watch the movements of Forrester and his girlfriend Sylvia flees the warzone, only to crash their plane behind enemy lines. With the couple split up Forrester has to navigate his way through the warzone back into town to find his beloved.

‘War of the Worlds” is mean, tough, merciless. The aliens are faceless, and go about their mission of mass destruction without any remorse or pause. The mere sounds of the alien’s cannons is so loud and ear-piercing it implies a level of violence equal to that any Roland Emmerich disaster movie. And the violence seem even more destructive than films of today. There’s nothing sanitized, or restricted for audiences.

Not even Steven Spielberg could better the Pal/Haskin version. Spielberg's 2005 version was surprisingly literal to Pal's film. The introduction of the pods in the ground are built up with the same kind of tension. The humanist struggle from Forrester's point of view is attempted, but made too sappy and on-the-nose-preachy lacking the violent nihilistic edge of Pal's penchant for destruction. Spielberg smartly kept the home invasion scene intact from the 53 version. A suspenseful moment when Forrester and Sylvia fight off the prying eye of a pod tentacle while holed up in a vacant home is choreographed and shot almost identically to Haskin's version.

I'm sure Mr. Spielberg is proud of his own film, but I'm sure even he will admit it never even came close to touching the power and resiliance of the original.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity (2007/2009) dir. Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat and Mark Fredrichs

****

By Greg Klymkiw

Any and all clichés one could utilize to describe the overall effect of this magnificently directed, utterly extraordinary and near-perfect no-budget horror movie would be apt – it’s heart-stopping, nerve-jangling and pulse-pounding. More than suitable descriptions, one and all, but in some ways a disservice to use because “Paranormal Activity” is such an exquisitely rendered creep-fest that any superlatives it deserves (clichéd or not), will ultimately pale in comparison to the experience of bearing witness to what unfolds. There is also the fear that as much as one wants people to see it, any overwrought praise has the ability to set up the sort of high expectations that no picture could ever live up to.

Well, let it be said that I had absolutely NO expectations.

As per usual, I managed, in advance of seeing the picture, to avoid reading all reviews. No puff pieces for this fella, either, since I can’t stomach reading them anyway. I partook of no trailers, nor any of the usual hype used to hawk movies. All I knew going in was the title. Knowing even that, I assumed it would be a horror movie, and, being a rabid fan of the likes of late-night radio stars Art Bell and George Noory of “Coast-to-Coast” fame, I furthermore suspected the picture would be dealing with one of my favourite subjects in horror movies – paranormal activities, of course; those forces in the universe that are received with as much scepticism as profound belief.

With no expectations or knowledge, I sat back and let it happen.

And happen, it most certainly did.

On the surface, the picture falls into the shaky-video-cam thriller mockumentary tradition of “The Blair Witch Project”, “Cloverfield” and “Quarantine”. It blows all of them into near oblivion – not because there’s anything profoundly original about “Paranormal Activity” (well. there is, actually - more on this later), but because it’s endowed with the sort of relentless, obsessive quality one might find in the very best horror thrillers and feels less machine-tooled than the aforementioned.

It’s also just plain scary - something that I never really felt about the mock thrills within the trio cited above; due, I suspect, to the feeling that I could feel the hands of the filmmakers at work just a little too obviously.

“Paranormal Activity” elicits the sort of unexpected explosions of fear-induced fecal matter into my undies that all great horror films wrench out of you because writer-director Oren Peli creates mounting dread by avoiding so many of the trademarks of the shaky-cam genre. Number one, it is not overwrought – at least not all the way through and ONLY when it needs to be. Secondly, the performances are fresh and naturalistic. The attractive leads seem like any normal young couple flung into a situation that is clearly out of their realm of experience. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the shaky-cam is actually not all that shaky. In fact, it’s mostly very, very still. Locked off in tableau for a good portion of the picture, the camera is a silent witness to some of the most horrifying images I have yet to experience (which takes some doing since about 1/3 of the over 30,000 titles I've seen in my life are affiliated with genres devoted to terror). There’s no blood – not too much, anyway: there’s no elaborate, over-the-top digital effects and there are no cheap shocks (well…maybe just a few, but – Goddamn! – if they aren’t effective).

While we are presented with the terror in the familiar stillness and darkness of night, the manner in which many of the scares are delivered are rooted in an approach that is less common in this age of torture pornography masquerading as horror. And it is the stillnes that resonates most profoundly in the picture. This is the stuff of most of the nightmares that haunt us.

It is a terror of the creepiest kind and as such, comes far closer to the work of Val Lewton and/or William Friedkin by way of Jim McBride’s legendary mockumentary “David Holzman’s Diary”.

Lewton was the legendary producer and head of the RKO horror unit in the 40s where he created a series of brilliant works like “The Cat People”, “I Walked With A Zombie” and a handful of other creepy pictures that not only revolutionized how horror films were made, but still work in a current context - mainly for their adherence to finding terror in ordinary, (and mostly) contemporary situations touched by some form of psychic or psychological malevolence. As well, Lewton's pictures discovered utter horror in what is NOT seen – stillness, quiet, shadow, darkness and obsession. These are the real monsters in Lewton’s work. “Paranormal Activity” is replete with these attributes.

Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” battered us with the most horrendous, extreme images that still shock to this very day – yet the reason they shock is that they are framed in the clinical detail of how Regan, the devil-possessed child, is run through a battery of painful and intrusive tests and, most importantly, how the horror is rooted in the lives and locale of normal people. “Paranormal Activity” has a clinical precision in the obsessive detailing of every moment of the lives of the central figures and it is terrifying.

If the abovementioned were then filtered through the birthplace of the mockumentary, Jim McBride’s 1967 “David Holzman’s Diary”, an obsessively grainy vérité look at the psychological disintegration of a man who uses a camera to chart his descent into madness, one would come very close to experiencing the brilliant, visceral terror of “Paranormal Activity”.

Following 20 days in the lives of a seemingly normal man and woman trying to videotape and live with the horrible entities threatening the woman’s sanity and eventually, both their lives, “Paranormal Activity” draws from well-honoured cinematic traditions and manages to go its own unique way. In fact, it is the normal people and locales in this picture that make us squirm whenever night falls and the camera just sits there – a quiet observer of the mounting horror. These are normal people in an extraordinary situation who are recording the strange events in their lives.

“Paranormal Activity” is a clever variation on pinching oneself to confirm that either there is nothing to worry about or, in the worst case, that it’s not a dream. And if it’s not a dream, the only solace our characters (and we, the audience) can take is that the central figures (and by extension, us) are not completely out of our minds. Unfortunately, what befalls the two main characters is so terrifying that insanity, or death would be better than having to live yet another night – face to face with evil incarnate.

This is a movie that demands being experienced on a big screen. It takes the home movie aesthetic and swallows us whole. The very essence of a big-screen experience is what envelopes and virtually consumes us. Every small, subtle and horrific detail explodes in our faces with the kind of power and force that big-screen features are meant to do. Subsequent small screen viewings will also prove interesting, especially when the alternate “first version” (without the reworked and decidedly kick-ass “theatrical” conclusion) is also watched – but only AFTER seeing it theatrically.

“Paranormal Activity” is a corker of a horror film. Another cliché for your edification, but one that is perfectly appropriate. One leaves the theatre drained, quiet, and alternately contemplative and stunned.

It’s the magic of movies, and for that, I am most grateful.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The September Issue

The September Issue (2009) dir. R.J. Cutler
Documentary

**

By Reece Crothers

The September Issue is a satisfying bit of fluff, a light, digestible entertainment. It is not the behind the scenes expose one hopes for considering the poster's promises that this movie "does for fashion what The War Room did for politics". There is nothing here we don't already know from The Devil Wears Prada. We do not get to peer behind the mask of Anna Wintour, the notoriously icy matriarch of the Vogue magazine empire, and there is less insight into her person here than in Meryl Streep's portrayal of her in the Prada film. Neither are we privy to the Devil-ish side to Wintour, who is always composed, detached, almost bored. Her face rarely forms into anything you might call an expression. On the rare occasions when she does smile, it is as if the muscles of her mouth have lead a revolt against the rest of her face. The one bit of revealing portraiture comes from Anna's admission that her family finds her work "amusing" which is to say, not very important, a point driven home later in the film by Wintour's Ivy-league-bound daughter who says matter-of-factly that she doesn't take her Mother's job very seriously, has no interest in following her footsteps at the magazine, and instead wants to be a lawyer like her dad. If we look closely we see a flash of the injured Wintour before she shrinks back into her fur-coat cocoon.

I wish the filmmaker took Wintour a little more seriously, too. The film is all too comfortable playing it cute with a pop music soundtrack that makes it feel like we're just watching a really long episode of Fashion Television. Like the magazine itself, it's glossy, vibrant, beautiful to look at, but not very profound. When we want to take it seriously as art we instead are treated to bitchy, superficial moments like the editors hovering over proofs of September's cover girl Sienna Miller, complaining about her teeth or that her hair is "lacklustre". In moments like these, it doesn't feel like art, it just feels catty. I mean, Sienna Miller is lacklustre? Really? Did they see Layer Cake?

The redeeming element here is the secondary portrait of Grace Coddington, Creative Director of American Vogue, who seems to wield every bit as much power and influence as Wintour does at the magazine. Grace is fiercely talented, funny, and prickly. Her love-hate relationship with Wintour, as she struggles to keep her favourite pieces from getting edited out of the tent-pole September issue, is the heart of the movie, as she is the only one who will (or maybe can) stand up to Wintour. Grace is an odd-looking figure when we first meet her, a stark-contrast to Wintour, pale and thin with a wild main of orange hair. She began her career as a model, a trajectory that was interrupted by a car crash, and she evolved into the industry's greatest stylist. As Wintour herself puts it, "No one can do what Grace does." After seeing her incredible designs on display in Cutler's movie, I'm inclined not to think of Wintour's praise as hyperbole. Grace lends the picture much warmth, humour and character.

There are plenty of other "characters" that show up to bow down to queen Wintour, or bitch behind her back, and some are wonderful to watch and to listen to, none more so than Andre Leon Talley, who is runway-perfect even while playing tennis. The footage of Talley sweating through his mandatory tennis practice ("Anna says I have to lose weight", he tells us matter-of-factly) is one of the picture's high points, a truly likable guy who comes off like a gay, black, John Candy as he comically struggles to keep up with his instructor. We don't know if its a bit of cruelty or compassion at the root of this imposed exercise Wintour has doled out to the hefty Talley, and the answer is probably a bit of both. Whenever Talley shows up the picture is a little more vibrant. Someone should give him a reality show while they're handing those out.

At the end of the day, The September Issue has more cultural weight as a magazine than a movie and I prefer the Meryl Streep version. And for an art film with fashion at its core, I would recommend the equally fluffy, but much underrated Robert Altman picture, "Pret A Porter". This doc just didn't have enough of the devil, and come to think of it, there wasn't much prada either.

"The September Issue" opens in theatres in limited release in Canada by E1 Entertainment

The September Issue


The September Issue (2009) dir. R.J. Cutler
Documentary

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Note: Here's another take on The September Issue...

Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine, has been a formidable and intimidating figure in fashion for 25 years. Industry followers know her reputation as the “ice queen” of fashion, but it wasn’t until her persona appeared in the novel “The Devil Wears Prada”, and then via Meryl Streep’s infamous thinly disguised and Oscar-nominated version of her in “The Devil Wears Prada” was she put into mainstream pop culture consciousness.

For the first time we get to see up close and personal the real Anna Wintour in R. J. Cutler’s high profile high budget audience friendly documentary, “The September Issue”. The September issue of Vogue is always the biggest and most important issue of the year (600+ pages), and for 8 months Wintour gives Cutler an all-access pass to the behind-the-scenes stress and drama it takes to craft a magazine this size.

Fashion fanatic will devour every morsel of the pomp and circumstance and hijinks of the unveiled industry. Unfortunately with the prevalence of fashion industry TV shows there’s not much so unveil that we haven’t seen dramatized in “The Devil Wears Prada” or “America’s Next Top Model”, “Project Runway” or even “The Hills”.

Those expecting the outrageous behaviour we saw from “The Devil Wears Prada” may be disappointeded. Wintour comes across as an intelligent but demanding ambitious professional. Her achievements in the industry are unprecedented. Almost anything or anyone that breaks in some way or form has to go through the gates of Ms. Wintour’s scrutiny. The film in energetic and entertaining ways attempts to show the effect of Wintour’s top-down method of authority in business and art.

There’s something fascinating about watching top professionals in their field go to work and influence the world. As Ms. Wintour walks down the racks choosing the outfits to be featured in the magazine we are witness to how quickly the future of fashion and the careers of the designers are beholden to the decisions of one woman.

There’s much to tell about Anna Wintour’s life as well. We get a brief peak into her personal life, her kids, her upbringing and the surprising neuroses she harbours about her career. We get to see a number of familiar fashion characters interact professionally with her, Jean-Paul Gauthier, Oscar de la Renta, Karl Lagerfeld and the flamboyant Andre Leon Talley who is so fashion conscious we see him at one point playing tennis dressed in Louis Vouton couture.

But the key relationship that emerges is with Grace Coddington, Wintour’s creative director. As we learn the history of Anna’s career director Cutler also tracks the parallel path of Ms. Boddington. Wintour’s decisions about which photos and outfits to feature appear to subvert Coddington’s authority as creative director, a mini cold war of fashion which becomes the most solid throughline in the film

If you’re expecting cat fights and outrageous diva-like behaviour you won’t get it. Decisions are made with subtle glances and gestures. Sometimes decisions are quick, but there’s nothing arbitrary or whimsical about Ms. Wintour’s choices. She has a passion for fashion and her magazine. There are plenty of conflicts, but when they arise it becomes a complex game of personality management.

A solid runway worthy soundtrack is the polish on this entertaining documentary. Enjoy.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Wolf

Wolf (1994) dir. Mike Nichols
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfieffer, James Spader, Christopher Plummer

*1/2


By Alan Bacchus

As evidenced by the general ambivalence of audiences at the time of its release, never mind that few people talk about ‘Wolf’ in either Jack Nicholson’s career or Mike Nichols’, its no surprise there are no special features on the new Blu-Ray disc. Even the HD transfer is dull and unimpressive. Its one of the worst films in both Nicholson's and Nichols' careers.

It’s an extremely dull opening act and a forgettable unimpressive introduction to the werewolf. Will Randle (Nicholson), high power literary editor, is driving home at night in his car under painfully obvious and unironic studio process driving shots when his car swerves out of the way of a animal lying on the ground. Will examines the creature, thinking it's dead when it suddenly comes alive and bites him. Of course a werewolf has bitten him and he will eventually start to exhibit signs of canis lupus behaviour - heighten senses, immense strength and of course excessive hair growth.

By day, Will's publishing company employer is currently under threat by another rival company for a takeover. While Randle is wrestling with his newfound animalistic behaviour he's forced to negotiate equally treacherous hostility in the workplace. His good buddy Stuart (James Spader) goes behind his back to snatch his job sending Randle into his new wolf-like rage.

The parallels of corporate politics and vicious predatory instincts of the wooded hunter animal is not lost on us. It’s just about the only interesting aspect of the picture. Casting Jack Nicholson is a curiosity. While we expect Jack to be in full “Jack’ form, overacting and chewing the scenery, he’s actually a subdued and quiet. And I'm not even sure it works. His wife even cheats on him with James Spader’s character (like we didn’t see that coming). For better or worse, Jack actually blends into the background.

Wolfmen are one of the more venerable of Hollywood genre monster characters. Like Vampires, and Zombies, it represents a physical manifestation of the inner Freudian nature of ourselves, expressed literally. The dull performance of Jack is part and parcel with Nichols’ overall treatment of this salacious subject matter as poker-faced serious. Take the scene which has Randle visiting the Indian healer and animal-possession expert played by Om Puri. At this point Randle is so self-aware of his predicament, he appears to take it all in stride without pause.

By the second half of the picture when the corporate story runs dry and the romantic story with Michelle Pfieffer’s literary heiress character is brought forward, the film slowly drowns itself into its own pool of cinematic excrement. The final act which builds up to a series of action scenes between the two rival wolf characters is atrociously choreographed, acted, designed and directed. Mike Nichols is a great filmmaker, and he’s earned his share of missteps, which is why he and everyone involved quickly threw this one in the closet.

"Wolf" is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Cape Fear (1962)

Cape Fear (1962) dir. J Lee Thompson
Starring: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, Martin Balsam, Telly Savalas

****

By Alan Bacchus

It came as no surprise that Martin Scorsese’s version of J. Lee Thompson's original classic ‘Cape Fear’ was as closely aligned to the original as it was. Considering his integrity for the history of cinema Scorsese's version was reverential to the original, a masterful remake, tinkering only a few narrative plotting, but just enough to expand and re-evaluate and thus make the film his own.

Going back to J. Lee Thompson’s original film, written by scribe James Webb from a novel by John D. Macdonald, ‘Cape Fear’ plays out a terrifying psychological cat and mouse game between a released criminal hell bent on revenge and the witness that sent him to prison.

After 8 years incarcerated, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) has returned to a quaint town in North Carolina to find and torment Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a humble lawyer and family, who barely even remembers the incident when he testified against Cady for a sexual assault. With utmost steely-eyed intensity, Cady lasers in on Bowden with a force as relenting and focused as ‘the Terminator’. With an education in law from his jail cell, Cady’s revenge is beyond mere physical intimidation, but a psychological torment under the rights of law, which threatens to send Bowden over the edge.

Martin Scorsese’s movie blurs the lines of a hero and villain more than Thompson’s which makes a key delineation between right and wrong, good and evil. In Thompson’s version, in one of the half dozen or so exchanges of dialogue between the adversaries we learn of Cady’s domestic family life which was destroyed by Cady’s incarceration. This background leads to a compelling confession of the effect of Cady’s incarceration on his wife and child who doesn’t exist in the Scorsese/De Niro version.

Some surprising character depth is revealed in the scene after Diane is raped by Cady. The Illeana Douglas character who is named Diane here, is just a random prostitute/barfly who is picked up and beaten by Cady. While it doesn't have any horrific face-biting gruesomeness Thompson directs the scene masterfully nonetheless. We don’t ever see the act, but the aftermath is horrific and the pain visible in the bruises on her face. With direction from Thompson, the shame Diane feels and expresses with few words but emotionally devastating glances to Telly Savalas’s private eye characters is imbued with real-world complex sophistication. Instead of prosecuting, Diane feels shame for succumbing to Cady’s advances which becomes another victory in his calculated psychological games.

Scorsese adds some more depth to the plotting of Bowden’s daughter Leigh. As played by Juliette Lews, she’s less vulnerable and more attracted to Cady’s charm and magnetism. This direct threat to Bowden’s family admirably increases the stakes in the 1991 version and at Cady and Leigh’s first meeting in the vacant high school, allows Scorsese and De Niro to craft a stunning scene of intense stillness.

What Scorsese gains with this scene he loses by removing Thompson’s thrilling chase between Cady and Leigh. It’s a different kind of intensity, Hitchcockian chase action replaced by subversive and teasing sexual terror, capped off with a clever moment of misdirection.

Thompson couldn’t have cast the film better than having Gregory Peck, the righteous Gary Cooper-like integrity. The film was made the same year as ’To Kill a Mockingbird' and the two roles fit into each other naturally. And of course, Mitchum, one of cinema’s great villains, is played with frustrating affability and Southern charm. Though Mitchum is a few inches shorter than Peck his confident swagger, and imposing broad chest and upright posture commands the space even more than his 6’3” frame.

Where Scorsese and Thompson sync up perfectly is Thompson’s constant sense of terror. Even in the daylight, in public places Cady’s amiable presence hides a palpable threat with complete freedom under his rights as a regular citizen. Cady uses the law to his advantage, outsmarting a lawyer, getting under his skin to the point of reversing the stakes and getting Bowden to implicate himself. It’s a brilliant and terrifying psychological game.The escalation of events plays out wonderfully, the intensity, fears and stakes get stronger as the film goes along - a narrative perfection Scorsese was smart not to mess with.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Ruins


The Ruins (2008) dir. Carter Smith
Starring: Jena Malone, Jonathan Tucker, Laura Ramsey, Shawn Ashmore

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

“The Ruins’ released last year earned a modest $17million domestically, but against its meager $8million budget it’s proven to be fine successes in low budget horror. Like its closest cousin “The Descent” it’s a near-perfect execution of the ‘Vacations-Gone-Bad’ subgenre of horror.

The film has a great pedigree – the literary source material is provided by Scott B. Smith, who wrote and scripted the great Sam Raimi drama “A Simple Plan”, Ben Stiller serves as producer, the great DOP Darius Khondji lenses the film and the leads are played by Jena Malone and Jonathan Tucker, a couple of talented former child actors, who always choose interesting projects. Add in Peter Jackson's production designer Grant Major and there’s some major creative talent behind this little horror film.

The story follows four good-looking college students enjoying the last days of their Mexican resort vacation. They meet a fun German dude, who brings them on an off-the-beaten-path trip to an unknown Mayan ruin. Despite warnings by the locals the tourists use their good ol’ American greenback to bribe their way into the uncharted jungle. When they arrive at the ruins, the locals, who only speak an aboriginal dialect, are immediately hostile. They are chased up the pyramid to the top for a siege-style standoff. Once on top they discover the locals are keeping them on the pyramid for a reason and where a much more sinister presents waits.

“The Ruins” would appear to have a bunch of hurdles to surmount – the location is the top of a pyramid, with very little location space to traverse; There’s a mineshaft at the top which creates some wonderfully suspenseful sequences, but there’s only so much one can do with a vertical space; Around the pyramid are the omnipresent locals, but there’s very little interaction or direct conflict against our heroes; And the ultimate enemy remains faceless.

But essential to the horror genre is the location, and in it’s great films claustrophobia is as important as character. Confined spaces helps isolate the characters from the outside world, amplifying their fear and forcing them to confront their assailants face to face. In “The Exorcist” it was Regan’s bedroom, in “The Evil Dead” it was the cabin, for “The Blair Witch Project” the woods confined its characters and “The Descent” used the dark and wet underground caves to create fear. In the “Ruins” Smith, Carter and company isolate their conflict and fear atop an ancient Mayan pyramid.

It’s a wonderful device – a lost pyramid, with a supernatural curse. It’s actually believable.

This is what makes “The Ruins” so effective. Like the first half of the “The Descent”, and even M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” it’s man vs. nature. The location not only isolates their characters against their enemies, in this case, the location is the enemy.

As consequence, character takes a back seat to these hooks and devices. It’s interesting to compare the adaptation of Smith’s first novel “A Simple Plan”, which puts it’s characters above its genre (in that case, a noir). In “The Ruins” genre trumps character. Though four good actors play the roles, they are indiscernible from each other and lack development of any kind. The horror genre forgives this oversight, but fans of “A Simple Plan” should change their expectations.

“The Ruins” should be separated from the pack of sub-standard horror films which bombard us. This one is the real deal. Enjoy.

“The Ruins” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Monday, 19 October 2009

Young Frankenstein


Young Frankenstein (1974) dir. Mel Brooks
Starring: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Madeleine Khan, Marty Feldman

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

While some may argue “Blazing Saddles”, or “The Producers” Mel Brooks, himself, considers this the favourite of his films. I don’t disagree. This passion project began during Brooks’ “Get Smart” days in the 60’s. Co-scripted by his great collaborator Gene Wilder, it’s a pitch perfect homage to the mad scientist horror and sci-fi films of the Golden Age of Cinema.

Gene Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein, a university science professor, and grandson to the Shelley character Victor Frankenstein, who, by now, has become famous for his mad experiments. Frederick, who despises the family reputation chooses to pronounce his name Fronk-en-steen. One day Frederick is given a letter by a creepy lawyer who informs him he has inherited the family estate. In order to claim his entitlement he must travel to his grandfather’s spooky Transylvanian castle.

Once at the castle Frederick is assigned a lovely German assistant Inga (Teri Garr) and a loyal hunchback servant Igor (pronounced – Eye-Gor) to be his guides. As Frederick discovers the scientific secrets of his family legacy he becomes possessed with finishing his grandfather’s experiments. And so, Frederick goes about his own method of graverobbing to produce his constructed body through which he’ll produce artificial life. His ‘monster’ comes in the form of a growling Peter Boyle, who, like in the Shelley version, escapes and reeks havoc on the community and then is brought back to his home by the soothing sounds of music.

This is just the skeleton of the story, which Brooks' embellishes a number of wild subplots and graceful comic detours. One of cinema's great cameos is Gene Hackman’s unlikely comic turn as a blind man who puts up the monster for a night. It’s only one scene but it is marvelous interaction of a blind Hackman and an unemotive, mute Boyle.

While the gags don’t quite ‘zing’ as fast as they did back in 1974, “Young Frankenstein” had transcended its jokes to become fully entrenched in pop culture. The famous “Putting on the Ritz” musical sequence with Wilder and Boyle, which itself is a parody of Fred Astaire’s version in “Blue Skies”, was parodied by “The Family Guy”. Peter Boyle’s version of Frankenstein became the basis for Phil Hartman’s SNL version of the monster, and like "The Producers", it's now a musical adaptation on Broadway. 

As a piece of technical celluloid it’s also a masterful achievement. Gerald Hirchfeld’s gorgeous black and white photography is still a stunner (and even more on Blu-Ray), as well as Dale Hennesey’s retro production design. His recreation of the 1930’s style mad scientist lab is so wonderfully cool, and this in a time long before retro became hip. Brook's inspirations start with the classic James Whale 1931 'Frankenstein", but he also sneaks in homages to the comedy of the Marx Brothers, and the production design and lighting style of German expressionism films like "Metropolis".

“Frankenstein” is a film made by and for film lovers. Nowaways pulp Hollywood is often sources of inspiration, and so for Mel Brooks to catch (or start) this trend early makes him a couple of decades ahead of his time. Enjoy.

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



Sunday, 18 October 2009

Amreeka

Amreeka (2009) dir Cherian Dabis
Starring: Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

A Sundance and Cannes success, this multi-pronged international co-production indie has seen great success in a very competitive market. The title which means, simply America in Arabic, reflects the real life internal and external conflicts of writer/director Cherian Dabis, who as a second generation American in her youth, felt lost with a national identity split between her American home and her Arabic roots. Dabis’ makes up for manipulative and contrived conflict with a palpable emotional honesty and cinematic integrity.

Meek and innocent Muna (Nisreen Faour), a Palestinian mother living in the West Bank, feels like a foreigner in her own country. She takes shit in her job as a bank administrator and on her drive home everyday has to go through the daily humiliation of having her car searched at the military checkpoints.

Dabis doesn’t need to get into the details of Middle East politics or even show any bias for us to believe that this is reality. Discrimination extends within her own religion and culture as well. She has a sour relationship with her husband, a man whom she still feels accountable to even though he freely runs around with other women - a right seemingly afforded to him by the nature of his gender. Dabis’ observational/social realist visual style immediately puts us in the shoes of a Palestinian woman.

Muna’s eureka moment occurs when her teenage son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) receives acceptance into an American exchange program. The story thus switches to the U.S. depicting Muna’s new struggles to adapt to another foreign society and a different kind of discrimination. Unfortunately the genuine and inspired realism wanes when the narrative starts to get propped up with familiar story plotting.

Muna bunks with her sister Raghda and her Americanized children near Chicago. Immediately Fadi, her son, gets picked on by local school bullies, Muna’s finds more covert discrimination in her search for a job, even her own family who feels the financial stress of Muna and Fadi’s stay starts to resent her. Muna settles for a menial job at White Castle, and while embarrassed at first, she eventually reconciles her expectations with reality and comes to realize that the American dream is not a handout and must be earned.

I’ve discussed this in my feature of Social Realism in the 2000’s and Amreeka’s observational, naturalistic style falls right in line with this prevailing movement of the decade. What seems so easy and natural is difficult to pull off. As mentioned above Muna’s plight in Israel/Palestine is established with acute precision. While there’s genuine honesty and sympathy to the story there’s uneven mixture of superficiality and surprising unsophisticatedness. Many of the key second act conflicts rely heavily on clichéd situations and relationships. Amreeka’s naïveté with American culture rings false. Her confusion with the scrutiny at airport customs is overplayed and the way she loses her money at the airport (which turns out to be the key plot point in the film) is a shamefully artificial contrivance. Muna even seems to be ignorant to the idea of fashion, as she's inexplicably confused when Fadi's new cousin chides Fadi for having ‘pleated pants’ in his closet. At one point Muna asks ‘How far is Disneyland?’ Do they not have internet or maps on the West Bank? With the global connectedness these days, the fascination with Disneyland as the romanticized American institution is an anachronistic ideal.

And so it’s the honesty of newcomers, Nisreen Faour and Melkar Muallem, which hoists the picture up past the false and contrived moments. Muallem, despite this being his first film, is a natural in front of the camera. And Faour’s round face and unpolished lumbering gate comes off with the same sympathetic naturalism as Vittorio De Sica’s real world casting in ‘The Bicycle Thief’.

And so, I’m of two minds with ‘Amreeka’ – it’s a noble and admirable effort which wears its heart on its sleeve, but without hitting all the beats as authentic and natural is it needs to elevate this film to high cinematic art.

“Amreeka” opens in theatres in Canada via E1 Entertainment on Oct 30

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Drag Me to Hell

Drag Me to Hell (2009) dir. Sam Raimi
Starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao

****

By Alan Bacchus

On DVD/Blu-Ray this week is perhaps the best film of the year. Hell yes, I said it!

It had been 14 years since the third Evil Dead movie, “Army of Darkness”, which doesn’t really count as a horror film anyway, so really it’s been 22 years since “Evil Dead 2”. Expectations couldn't have been higher, and deep down I did not think it was possible for Raimi to turn back the clock and produce a film anything close to the gleeful cinematic subversiveness of 'Evil Dead'. I think we all thought Raimi had sold out a long time ago. My own skepticism couldn't have slapped me in the face harder than the cinema experience of 'Drag Me to Hell' this the summer.

I was even a little skeptical watching it for the second time, on Blu-Ray, at home, on the couch, without an audience shrieking in sync at every scare, and without any surprises, it still works wonderfully.

We know we’re in for a return of something magical when we see the old 1980’s Universal logo at the head of the picture. Much like the first two Evil Dead pictures, Raimi films essentially a series of precisely crafted set pieces loosely strung together by a plot. Alison Lohman plays Christine Brown, an underachieving loan officer who desperately wants the vacant assistant manager’s job at the bank. When Mrs. Ganish (Lorna Raver), a ghoulish old spinster with a false eye and rotten dentures requests an extension on her missed mortgage payments, to impress her cutthroat boss Christine breaks her personal ethics and rejects the poor lady. Ganish goes bonkers and puts a curse on Christine.

Gradually Christine starts to go crazy seeing Ganish’s haunting image everywhere she goes. Desperate to break the spell she goes to see a fortune teller, much to objections of her doubting Thomas boyfriend Clay (Justin Long). We learn of an ancient demon which looks to claim her body to hell. Christine tries exorcisms, animal sacrifices, but the secret lies in a simple cursed button which must be given away in order to break the curse.

Raimi is on fire with his trademark mixture of physical low brow comedy and spine-chilling suspense. Raimi and his screenwriter brother Ted execute what seems like 22 years of cool ideas saved up for this specific movie. The first major confrontation with the raving mad woman in the underground parking lot is inspired stuff. Raimi wrings out every drop of suspense leading up to Ganish’s frightening reveal in the car, which leads to a riotous slapstick fight scene.

Many other scenes exist solely to stand alone. The clever fight between Christine and Ganish’s animated veil which invades her car, the dinner table conversation with Clay’s parents when the curse invades Christine’s homemade harvest cake, and a number of dream sequences exists unabashedly as technical exercises satisfying Raimi’s urges to please us.

Alison Lohman makes a delightful and warm lead character. She gallantly gives herself up to Raimi’s torture, as he embellishes every opportunity to drench Christine with blood, drool, embalming fluid, mud and any nasty liquid substance he can think of. She’s the receptacle for Raimi’s underlying message about what happens when you sell yourself out to God.

“Drag Me to Hell” is a perfect genre picture can say legitimately say its one of the best pictures of the year. Raimi never goes easy on his characters nor the audience. Even up until the last scene Raimi is in absolute control of the genre and though it might take a few more viewings to make this determination, I’m might be bold enough to say “Hell” trumps “Evil Dead”.

"Drag Me to Hell" is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Friday, 16 October 2009

Hannibal

Hannibal (2001) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Ray Liotta, Gary Oldman

***

I remember really digging this film when it first came out. Sir Ridley Scott, recently resurrected after his success with 'Gladiator', with 'Hannibal' seemed an unusual follow-up film to that Best Picture Oscar winner. Even more peculiar was the Pulitzer Prize-winning working class scribe, David Mamet (with help from prolific Hollywood writer-for-hire Steven Zallian) who adapted the screenplay.

It still is a weirdly peculiar product of Hollywood. Clearly Thomas Harris was lured by Hollywood to write another book featuring his Lambs protag Clarice Starling chasing after the escaped criminal Hannibal Lecter. While his two previous efforts, Lambs and Manhunter were brooding psychological and procedural police-cum-horror films, ‘Hannibal’ is made into a comic book superhero with a kind of grotesqueness meant to better the atrocities and vileness of the Lambs with an over-the-top sense of black comedy.

Anthony Hopkins, more aged, a little stockier, doesn’t quite have the controlled physique and thus quiet menace of the 1991 version. And the inability of the producers (and not even the revered Ridley Scott!) to bring back Jodie Foster hurt its credibility. Julianne Moore is good actress though and tries her best, but that Southern drawl accent never quite fits her and Scott’s attempts to continue the exploration of her insecurities in the police force are peppered throughout but never manifest in a substantially effective way.

‘Hannibal’ works best as a disposable but elegant B-thriller. The middle act is jumpstarted with the introduction of the film’s best character, (Giancarlo Giannini), the broken-down and corrupt Italian police inspector who wants to claim the private ransom money. Driven with a great music pulse from Hans Zimmer, act 2 sails along with a brisk pace. Scott's always been a slower paced director, but by cutting to characters in a number of locations and different characters in the US and Italy creates a heady momentum. And the inclusion of bombastic performances from Ray Liotta and Gary Oldman should be taken as black comedy.

If anything, the film suffers from the flaws which have plagued Sir Ridley in films' past. Fans of his might welcome the application of his familiar baroque and extravagant visual design. Others, like myself well attuned to his body of work, may only see more long flowing drapes, smoke-filled atmospheric and overly decorated interiors. And the opening drug bust sequence is typical of his new methods of filming action scenes – a multi-camera simultaneous coverage approach which results in dull television look.

"Hannibal" is available on Blu-Ray in MGM Home Entertainment's 'Hannibal Lecter' Collection, along with 'Manhunter' and 'Silence of the Lambs'. The Blu-Ray transfer is atrocious and indistuingishable from the DVD. For shame.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Monsters Vs. Aliens

Monsters Vs. Aliens (2009) dir. Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon
Voices by: Reece Witherspoon, Seth Rogan, Will Arnett, Stephen Colbert

**

By Alan Bacchus

I recently watched Shane Acker’s ‘9’ the first American feature film to tell a story outside of the Pixar aesthetic which seems to have held computer animation hostage. Ever since 'Toy Story' I've been waiting for a Hollywood filmmaker to use the medium for something other than family-friendly talking-animal Randy Newman-scored cookie cutter films. Sure, 'Up', 'Wall-E' and 'Madagascar' etc are fun and clever and even well written movies, but with seemingly endless technological possibilities these movies are all so remarkably similar.

‘Monsters vs. Aliens’ is one such film. If it were made ten years ago we might find interest in the stunning and vibrant visuals created by the computer graphic technology and forgive the film’s vacuous plotting and even more vacuous characters. Throwing a bunch of b-movie monsters into a single movie to battle it out with space aliens is a wonderful premise. Unfortunately ‘Monsters Vs. Aliens’ never even attempts to capture the tone and flavour of the b-movie experience, thus rendering the film flat and for kids only.

To open the picture young Susan Murphy (Reece Witherspoon) is about to get married when an alien ship falls to earth, releasing some toxic gas which causes her to grow into a giant woman. Immediate some kind of secret task force which had been monitoring the activity descends on Susan, ties her up like Gulliver and takes her away.

She wakes up in a secret government laboratory housing a number of other mutated monsters captured by the Feds over the past 50 years. There’s B.O.B. (Seth Rogan), an affable blue blob cyclops creature, Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a former scientist who accidentally turned himself into a half insect-half man hybrid, Missing Link (Will Arnett), a scary reptilian creature and Insectosaurus, a giant lumbering moth creature. When an alien invasion threatens the earth the blockhead American military leaders have to unleash their monster captives to save the day.

The film relies solely on pop culture reference for its jokes and most of them are obvious and well-trodden sci-fi gags - the musical tones used for communication in 'Close Encounters', ET phone home, and even the Vulcan greeting from Star Trek for instance. In fact the entire premise plays on the famous b-movie monsters of 50’s – Susan as the 50th Foot Woman, Insectasaurus who mutated from late 40’s nuclear fallout is a disguised Mothra, B.O.B. is like the animate ooze from ‘The Blob’ and Dr. Cockroach’s man/insect hybrid is from ‘The Fly’. Only genre cinephiles will likely catch the direct references, but most people should subliminally get the joke.

Even the look of the monsters and robots are familiar recycled designs from ‘Monsters Inc’, 'Toy Story', 'The Incredibles'. Most of the supporting characters spew played out stereotyped personalities, the idiot president, the bombastic square jawed military general, science geeks who first discover the aliens, the Dr. Strangelove war room set. The filmmakers didn't seem to watch and learn why 'Mars Attacks' didn't succeed. These references are supposed to be the fun Easter eggs peppered in between plotting of the core story and character development - a strategy which worked with the Dreamworks’ Shrek franchise but fails here.

“Monsters vs. Aliens” is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Gladiator - Extended Cut

Gladiator – Extended Cut (2000) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Honsou and David Hemmings.

**

By Greg Klymkiw

On the recent release of the “Gladiator” extended cut via the Sapphire Edition Blu-Ray, director Ridley Scott tersely admits in an ever-so-dour tone that the true director’s cut is not this one, but the 155-minute theatrical version. Why Paramount Home Entertainment bothered to include this introduction is rather beyond me since Sir Ridley’s bitterness could put one in a rather negative frame of mind before viewing the next 171 minutes. For me, though, it wasn’t much of a bummer since I’ve never particularly enjoyed the picture anyway. While “Gladiator” is not that much better in this form, the extended version is a tad more cohesive and, dare I say, blessed with a bit more depth – not much, mind you, but at least a pubic hair’s worth.

There has also been some controversy surrounding this Blu-Ray Sapphire Edition. If I actually liked the movie more, I doubt I’d be THAT disappointed. It’s crammed with tons of extra features – many of which are kind of interesting to watch and if you ever craved to get more Ridley Scott than you ever imagined, you sure get healthy doses of him here on the commentary track and all the various introductions to the extra features. What many geeks have complained about is the high definition transfer itself. Not that I’m much of a Blu-Ray-o-phile, but the transfer looked quite fine on my 32-inch flat screen and was crisp enough to reveal that the film’s leading lady appears to have a woeful skin condition. Either that, or it IS a dreadful transfer.

As for the picture itself, everyone is, I’m sure, rather familiar with the plot – a fictional rendering of the beginnings of the fall of the Roman Empire. General Maximus (Russell Crowe as the imaginary title character loosely based on a number of personages – most notably, Spartacus) is loved as a son by Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Marcus’s jealous psychotic progeny Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) murders his father and orders the execution of our hero.

A badly injured Maximus narrowly escapes death and is sold into slavery to eventually fight as a gladiator under trader/trainer Antonio (Oliver Reed). Here he befriends the gorgeous black warrior Juba (Djimon Honsou) on the blood-soaked coliseum grounds and plots his revenge against Commodus, the new Emperor of the Roman Empire.

In Rome, the ex-lover of Maximus, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) plots with Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) to overthrow her insane Emperor brother who not only runs amuck like a headless psycho chicken, but also has incestuous designs upon her. When Maximus enters Rome, he becomes a star of the Coliseum games, presided over by the foppish Cassius (David Hemmings). Maximus threatens to become more popular than Commodus amongst the rabble. Revenge follows, but only after lots and lots of bloodshed.

At the end of the day, “Gladiator”, for all its Oscar glory, surprisingly positive critical response and huge boxoffice, is little more than a sword and sandal epic in the tradition of innumerable Steve Reeves epics of the early 60s – albeit with a budget far exceeding the sum total of every Steve Reeves movie ever made (and there were many). Sadly, for all its multi-millions-of-dollars, the pectoral and firm buttock action in “Gladiator” is a pale shade of the glory that was the Italian sword and sandal epics of the 60s. (For those so inclined, the entertaining “300” served up some mighty juicy homoerotic goods for the edification of libidinous lassies, Nancy Boys and closet cases the world over.)

Some of the scenes that appear in the extended edition of the “Gladiator” Blu-Ray are actually pretty decent. In spite of this, Scott natters on during the extended scene intros about how they weren’t all that necessary in moving the story forward. A few quasi-literate moments with Derek Jacobi spouting mock philosophical dialogue might bolster Scott’s snooty argument, but within the context of this longer version, one would, I’d argue, have been quite happy to listen to Derek Jacobi recite the contents of a Racing Form, so one wonders why Scott is so high and mighty about this. Odder still is Scott’s dismissive attitude to a great scene where the men responsible for lying to Commodus about the death of Maximus are executed. It’s one of the few moments where Commodus displays the kind of despotic evil that goes beyond mere insanity, yet Scott was quite happy to dispense with it in his theatrical “director’s cut”.

However, one does not wish to reserve all one’s bile for Scott since many sequences are genuinely well directed in the manner that all works by great hacks are directed. He manages to elicit some extremely fine performances – especially from such stalwarts as Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and David Hemmings – and under his command, the picture is blessed with some fine production and costume design.

What one really wants to question is why this movie was made at all in the manner in which it was made and with the somewhat dull script it was made from. As a machine-tooled semi-remake of “Spartacus”, one can acknowledge the business decision to green light the picture, but frankly, “Gladiator” is a case of where truth is definitely stranger than fiction and could have been far more entertaining if it had been adhered to.

I suppose it’s not fair to imagine a movie that could have been instead of what was eventually delivered, but the hell with it – life’s not fair, and “Gladiator” is definitely a movie that deserves a bit of trouncing for being so tediously by the numbers. The bottom line is this – Maximus, as presented, is a bit of a dullard. He’s certainly not the piss and vinegar of Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus” and he is most definitely not endowed with the magnificent pectorals of Steve Reeves. Maximus, as a hero, is a bit of a washout – a pudgier Charles Bronson in sword and sandals.

In any event, the really cool character from this period of history was the nut bar Commodus. In real life, this bloodthirsty bonehead was not only a poor substitute for his philosopher king of a father, but he was so clearly and utterly out of his mind that his antics would have been way more entertaining than watching Joaquin Phoenix mince about like some Roman Snidely Whiplash. Commodus, you see, fancied himself a bit of a gladiator and often went into the ring himself to fight with real gladiators – though he seldom killed anyone in the ring since all of them were instructed to let him win so he could grant them their lives in front of the rabble. Commodus instead murdered the gladiators he sparred with in preparation for the games. He also had this truly bizarre habit of instituting wholesale public slaughter – by his own hand, no less – of various cripples who were defenceless and hundreds of exotic animals that Commodus butchered in front of the masses. Tigers, lions and even elephants kind of made sense, but he also delighted in chasing ostriches around the coliseum and eventually beheaded them. The weirdest thing Commodus did in public was to hack a giraffe to death. I kid you not! A giraffe!

This sounds like a movie I’d like to see.

But until such time as someone (Terry Gilliam, perhaps) makes “Commodus: Giraffe Slayer of Rome”, we have Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” – in an extended version no less.

Enjoy!

Monday, 12 October 2009

Clubland

Clubland (2009) dir. Eric Geringas
Documentary

***

By Alan Bacchus

Every year at this time much is made of the annual Queen’s University Homecoming extravaganza when thousands of students descend on the campus and carouse in the streets intoxicated like typical restless youths. The student arrests, minor scuffling, skirmishes, and general public disturbance of this weekend always seems to spark nationwide debate. Well in Toronto, this happens every Friday and Saturday, in the city’s notorious ‘Entertainment District’ – 1.4 square KM area in the heart of the city where nightly 50,000 young people inhabit 60 nightclubs for four hours and then emerge into the streets after last call for even more drunken rowdiness.

All major cities and specifically ‘college/university towns’ have this phenomenon to some degree. And so it’s not unique to Toronto, but the fact it’s a grossly exaggerated and heightened event weekend after weekend indeed makes it one of the ‘unofficial’ attractions of Toronto. You won’t see it on listed on tourist guides, or in subways ads, but 3am on a Friday night at Richmond/John, for good and bad, it’s something to behold. Violent? Yes. Debauchery? Yes. Utterly fascinating like a trainwreck? Yes.

This is the subject of Eric Geringas’s one-off hour long doc “Clubland” which played at Hot Docs this year and now premieres on television tonight at 8pm on Global. Geringas serves the subject matter adequately showing us several angles of this Toronto experience. We get to see the clubgoers who drive in from the suburbs in droves, bribe the bouncers to get past the monstrous line-ups, spend hundreds of dollars on overpriced bottle service tables and navigate the tricky game of picking up. There’s the nightclub owners, like veteran Charles Khabouth, Toronto’s club king and the one who famously brought Paris Hilton to town to promote one of his venues. There’s the policemen who strap on riot gear and patrol the streets nightly like it’s a G20 summit meeting. And there’s Adam Vaughn the city counselor who represents the interests of the residents (thus the voters) of the area, locals who, of course, resent the ritualistic disturbance.

Geringas’ visual palette compliments the electricity of these nights. Eye candy is all over the place – spotlight, lasers, and neon of the nightclub interiors, good looking young people dressed to the nines and acting like drunken ragdolls. The bright lights of the nighttime streets are so well lit up it becomes a natural expressive lighting for his cameraman. Even the camera light offers a fluorescent softness to the interviewee’s faces blending them in with the general look and artistic design of the clubs.

While it all works for a one-off, the film doesn’t get much deeper than the surface of the issues. We’re told nothing we don’t know already from the frequent nightly reports on local news and even our common sense of the issues – the residents complain, the business owners scoff back, nothing solved. The characters are mildly interesting and represent an adequate slice of the modern club scene, but we don’t spend enough time with any of them to really get to know them. With commercial breaks the film clocks in at 42mins or so, so that’s about all we can expect. With 90mins our expectations change drastically.

“Clubland” is thus successful and provides us a fun glimpse into this world I have long since bypassed, but like to get a taste of every once in a while to remind myself that little has changed, or will change, about how young people party.