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

Monday, 30 November 2009

Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) dir. Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Andie McDowell, James Spader, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo

****

By Alan Bacchus

Much like the same anointed crown ‘Easy Rider’ has been given as the spearhead for the generation of 70’s auteur filmmakers, Steven Soderbergh’s debut feature, in general, has become has been agreed upon starting point for the resurgence of independent cinema in the 90’s.

Indeed, it was a cause célèbre back in 1989, on the surface, by the very nature of its provocative title, but even in hindsight, it's film of undeniable magnetic power and the mark of a supremely talented filmmaker. It’s a simple set-up, essentially a fourhander about a homely and sexually disinterested gal, Ann (Andie McDowell) who finds herself becoming more distant from her husband John (Peter Gallagher). It turns out John is having an affair with Ann’s sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), the younger and less-attractive of the two who presumably commits the heinous act as some kind of vengeful sibling rivalry. Then along comes the Graham (James Spader) the loner and enigmatic old college buddy of John’s looking to reconnect after 8 years.

Graham reveals to John his predilection for videotaping women who feel the need to confess their sexual secrets as a form of amateur voyeuristic porn therapy. Ann feels an attraction to Graham's exposed soul, which irks the hypocritical and immature John. Eventually John/Cynthia’s secret affair will come to light, thus causing Ann to engage in Graham’s sexual advances thus freeing herself from her own mental and physical repression.

Soderbergh has had a robust and prolific career and since ‘Out of Sight’ has been someone who can make just about any movie he feels like. Yet, looking back at his 21 pictures, “Sex, Lies and Videotape" might just be his best. Though, I would put ‘Traffic’ ahead, no other in his filmography can match up the full cinematic power of SLV.

Soderbergh casts four unique personalities in the roles. James Spader, winner of the Best Actor prize at Cannes, is the showcase. Spader combines a cool James Dean-like rebelliousness enigma with a Mitzelplik-ian agenda...and a blonde floppy mullet. Spader’s everyman quality and lack of traditional square-jawed movie star good looks creeps up on us, delivering a truly great performance. Spader had teased us with some slimy supporting roles in ‘Wall Street’ and ‘Less Than Zero’ but in ‘Sex Lies’ Spader easily sinks into the skin of the impotent, manipulator and manages to make even a perverted and naughty voyeur seem neighbourly.

Andie McDowell has never been better. Her performance as the prudish housewife completely disarms her stunning beauty. Prior to SLV, and her bit in ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’, her only other role in ‘Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan’ received not-so-kind notoriety. McDowell’s dialogue, which was laced with too much of her southern drawl, had to be looped entirely by Glenn Close in post-production. And so her immersive and nuanced performance in 'SLV' is a complete shock. John and Cynthia have the weakest roles on the page, but as performed by Gallagher and San Giacomo the broken family dynamic works.

The film stands out like as least 'Soderbergh' of all his films. Soderbergh’s stylistic hallmarks – timeline shifting, bold musical choices, and most certainly his identifiable colour-coded expressive cinematography - are absent. SLV is a straight-ahead, no frills visual experience – a choice, not necessarily born from budget constraints, as he freely admits to Neil LaBute in the audio commentary. He could have thrown every stylistic device he wanted, but held back to serve the material. Soderbergh’s camera, is not locked down, nor is it roaming endlessly. His camera moves are classical, discreet and motivated.Maybe he’s lying or he really did have that much objectiveness about his own material, but it works.

Soderbergh’s chosen locale, his hot and sweaty hometown of Baton Rouge Louisiana adds even a few more layers of depth. Andie McDowell as the naïve southern belle caught innocently in a sexual triangle feels like the same kind of sexual angst ringer Tennessee Williams put his characters through ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’

In fact, though the film was specifically written for the screen the sophistication in dialogue and performances feels like stage-bound material. Soderbergh has certainly never ever written anything this good since. So we can’t help but think Sex Lies served as some kind of cathartic admonition of his own sexual frustrations and perversions, which make the film even that much more courageous.

'Sex, Lies and Videotape' is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment


Sunday, 29 November 2009

Tales from the Golden Age

Tales from the Golden Age (2009) dir. by Uricara, Hofer, Popescu, Marculescu, Mungui
Starring: Diana Cavallioti, Vlad Ivanov and Alexandru Potocean

***1/2

By Blair Stewart

One of the more memorable comedies to arrive in recent memory comes from an unexpected but sizable wellspring, life under a flailing Dictatorship. Returning to the same period as his tightly-strung 2007 thriller "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days", writer-director Cristian Mungiu with four of his contemporaries (Hanno Hofer, Ioana Uricaru, Constantin Popescu and Razvan Marculescu) trade stories about the ass-end of Nicolae Ceausescu's three decade-long reign of Romania.

A 5-part omnibus of wry humour with one sombre detour, "Tales from the Golden Age" relates 'legends' behind a regime gone senile as the first short can attest. According to the urban myth/wild rumour/private joke that is 'The Legend of the Official Visit', a small-town is buzzing with mild terror at an imminent inspection by government cronies. The local Mayor and Secretary run about to bring cows in from the fields (there isn't that many to go around), pigeons to fly about (pigeons weren't local), fruit to be tied from trees (most goods were exported out of Romania to pay debts ) and the carnival arrives to boot (but everyone needs it's fuel).

A town must keep up its appearances during the 'Golden Age', which was the moniker for the last 15 years of Ceausescu as called by morons or cynics. This is the set-up for several epic punchlines on par with the skewering of the GDR in "Goodbye Lenin" and the burning barn scene in "The Fireman's Ball".

The other mementos passed on include a cautionary tale in apricide by a hungry copper, photographic problems posed to a propagandist when the free-world pays a visit to Bucharest,and a Bonnie and Clyde couple stealing from countrymen their hard-earned air.

While the content could have taken the route of the dour architecture surrounding it, the film mostly remains jaunty in its droll humour, as Ioana Uricara reminisced in her Q&A for the film, this is how you survived when you had nothing else.
This doesn't hold true in the sad middle, "The Legend of the Chicken Driver", which doesn't reveal its purpose until the final moments in a silent, gut-punch reaction shot by Vlad Ivanov.

Outside of this section, "Tales'" humour borders on the surreal of "Monty Python's Flying Circus". The script by Mungiu achieves comically what "4 Months" did dramatically, probing gaps in morality and sanity in a repressive society, and the cast and directors are happy to shovel more dirt on the years of breadlines and Securitate.

This is another triumph for Cristian Mungui and company, and I hope he can join Puiu and Porumboiu in engaging the present day of Romania as well as he has its recent past.


Saturday, 28 November 2009

Kobe Doin' Work

Kobe Doin’ Work (2009) dir. Spike Lee
Documentary

**

By Alan Bacchus

It’s an extremely literal title for this odd sports film directed by cine-master Spike Lee. Produced under the ESPN Films banner, ‘Kobe Doin’ Work’ is just about that, capturing an ordinary day of work of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant– that is, playing basketball for the LA Lakers for two hours every other day.

It’s an intriguing high concept idea, which perhaps riffs off the Zinédine Zidane art film from 2006: ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’. In this film, Lee employing 30 cameras shooting exclusively on Bryant over the course of one NBA game, a concept which, in theory, showcases the extraordinary abilities of a top sports athlete in all aspects of his game, mental and physical. Lee holds true to these creative constraints and shows us Kobe playing a basketball game in a (barely) time compressed version of a single regular season game against their conference rivals the San Antonio Spurs. Overtop of Kobe moving around, shooting baskets, setting picks, talking and motivating his teammates we hear Kobe’s voiceover describing his actions and thoughts about the game like a DVD special feature audio commentary.

And so what we see for 95% of this documentary is one NBA game. But all we get is Kobe, even when he’s just chatting with the ref, or trashing talking the bench, or waving to the crowd. There’s also a lot of basketball, a lot of boring basketball. I play and watch basketball and even appreciate some of the tactics, and even I found it boring.

There’s several fundamental problems – staying exclusively on one person means we have to really have to like the guy to want to spend 85 mins staring at him and listen to him talk. Sure, he’s a good looking guy, but, his talents notwithstanding, is not interesting enough to hear and seen him for 85 mins straight. Second, since we barely hear any of the other players, the film disregards much of the actions and leadership of the other players and coach. Of course, the title of the film is ‘Kobe Doin Stuff” and not ‘Phil Jackson Doin’ Stuff’, and maybe it’s the title which shoots itself in the foot. Thirdly, the game is only a regular season game, 1 of 82 in the season and thus, there are very little stakes in the outcome, and thus no drama. The game ends anti-climatically, with the Lakers winning by such a wide margin that Kobe is on the bench in the final moments.

But the film is a sore disappointment mainly because of the expectations of having Spike Lee’s name above the title. A Spike Lee Joint means something, it means a film told with his unique visual, cultural and cinematic perspective. We always see something different and vibrant in a Spike Lee picture, and so the perfunctory, procedural and undramatic unveiling of this material feels like just a waste of time.

“Kobe Doin’ Work” is available on DVD from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Friday, 27 November 2009

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) dir. George Seaton
Starring: Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood, John Payne

***

The title of this picture is a bit of a misnomer. The film is certainly no miracle, nor are there any profound miracles in the story. The story of the real Santa who inadvertently becomes a fake Santa in the Macy’s Day parade who then has to prove he’s the real Santa in order to get himself out of an insane asylum is a decent Christmas flick. A kind of like Frank Capra-light , with unabashed humanist sentimentalism but without the dramatic and emotional gravitas which gives you those warm fuzzies in the Christmas season.

A jolly old portly guy with a white beard and red suit (Edmund Gwenn) happens to walk into the New York Macy’s Day parade one November afternoon. He happens to bump into Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) the rational thinking business woman who's managing the event. When the hired parade Santa shows up drunk, she’s quickly convinces this other kind gentleman who happens to be wearing the outfit to take his place.

The man’s name happens to be Kris Kringle and is thus the real Santa. After the ceremony, Kris is hired to become the permanent department store Santa at Macy’s. But Kris keeps insisting he’s the real Santa. When Doris and her superiors start to realize he’s not just method acting and that he actually believes he’s Santa he’s sent to the looney bin. But Kris is so effective as the department store Santa, who speaks to the children and adults with a refreshingly honest and optimistic tone. Kris develops a relationship with Doris’ daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) who has been taught all this time that there is no Santa. When Susan is encouraged to just ‘believe’ this causes conflict with the rationally thinking Doris. Eventually when the trial against Santa begins everyone’s faith in myths and joy of the yuletide season are put to the test.

The trio of Edmund Gween, Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood form a solid foundation of Christmas warmth. The portrayal of Doris as a single working mother could be seen as a very progressive characterization of women. She could be seen as doing man’s work, but it’s never referenced, and her upbringing of Susan on her own is admirable and years ahead of its time. O’Hara, the radiant curley haired Irish beauty and favoured John Ford-player is both matronly and cool-confident. Natalie Wood, then a precocious child actor, has the spark of the greatest child actors in Hollywood history. She exudes both innocence and maturity. And Gween, who won an Oscar as Santa is really the final word on Santas on films.

If anything, the story relies too heavily on the trial of Santa, and leads up to the rather silly legal technicality which gets Kris Kringle off. When the postal workers march up into the courtroom and dump all the Santa letters on the judge’s table it doesn’t exactly resound with a cinema aura of goodness, it feels more an attempt at Capra-esque charm.

One can’t help compare “It’s a Wonderful Life” with ‘The Miracle on 34th Street’. Both were made a year apart, and featured shamelessly virtuous titles. If anything, what “Miracle” lacks in miracles it is makes with its modernist view on consumerism and it thus worthy, but not the final word on Christmas movies.

Both the original 1947 “Miracle on 34th Street” and its 1994 remake are available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Monsters Inc

Monsters Inc. (2001) dir. Pete Docter
Voices by: John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi,

***1/2

Alan Bacchus

Sure “Wall-E” is good, so is “Up”. I’m probably alone in the opinion that ‘Ratatouille’ was just OK, and that ‘Monsters Inc’ at least in my personal opinion is the best of the Pixar films.

Pete Docter’s alternate reality runs parallel to our own – a world inhabited entirely by monsters with the ability to move themselves into our own through doorways into children’s bedrooms. The monsters run a business of scaring little kids in the sleep, capturing their screams and using it as a source of energy. It sounds completely ludicrous and slightly sadistic, but Docter manages to make the world logical, consistent and magical.

Docter’s heroes James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) make a great co-protagonist pairing. Sulley is the company’s top scarer as maintained by a running scoreboard, a big burley blue beast tough on the outside but soft on the inside. His manager/business partner is a skinny runt of a monster, a giant great eyeball with arms and legs. Most of these Pixar films are essentially buddy pictures – two differing personalities clashing over the course of some kind of long journey - and on a level of physicality the shape and size of Sully and Mike make a great visual gag throughout the picture – like an animated Midnight Cowboy with Mike as Ratso Rizzo and Sully as Joe Buck.

In the Monsters' world, there’s one steadfast rule, do not bring anything over from the other side. And so when Sully accidently brings over a cute little girl from her bedroom, he and Mike find themselves on the lam and desperate not expose their rambunctious little secret. Much of the film plays out like a ‘Three Men and Baby’ dynamic as these two bumbling monsters try to coral the intrepid little baby. Along the way Sully’s nefarious rival discovers the secret and plots to use her for his own evil deeds.

For the betterment of the picture, emotional depth is kept to a minimum, with Docter concentrating on crafting the details of his doppelganger monster world. The film coasts along quite naturally on its consistently funny sight gags. Each monster is drawn with humourous detail - ie. the low level younger ladder climbing monsters with the teenaged hair cuts and braces, the CDA swat team monsters who emerge whenever there’s a security breech.

Even the little girl, who isn’t so much a character as a prop, or a maguffin for the main characters to chase after, is visual gag – a naïve innocent running amuck through tightrope situations of imminent danger. Even in these moments, the gags are about physical movements, slapstick and comedy of errors.

In the special features of new Disney Blu-Ray edition, Docter describes how he was given freedom to create 'Monsters Inc.' outside of the usual communal collaborative process under John Lasseter’s direction. As the first non-Lasseter film, “Monsters Inc.” would seem to have opened the door for filmmakers like Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird to make even more creative films within the walls of Pixar.

“Monsters Inc” is available on Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

In the Loop


In the Loop (2009) dir. Armando Iannucci
Starring: Tom Hollander, Peter Capaldi, James Gandolfini, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Clumsky

****

By Alan Bacchus

One of the best films of the year is Armando Iannucci’s uproariously funny political satire – “In the Loop”. Inevitable comparisons to “Dr. Stangelove” have been already made, and it would not be unfounded. Razor sharp dialogue anchor this one-of-a-kind comic masterpiece.

The film opens on Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the UK Prime Minister’s Director of Communications. When he hears the Minister of International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander,) sound off on a radio program that war in the Middle East is ‘not unforseeable’ the PR snafu sets off a shit storm from the UK to Washington. Tucker goes into spin control and tries to put out the fire before the world catches on that the UK might want a war.

Iannucci revels in taking the piss out of everyone and everything. Nobody is out of bounds. Tom Hollander brilliantly plays his Minister of International Development character like neurotic affable boob and his profane exchanges of ass-stripping insults with Peter Capaldi are almost Shakespearean in it’s elaborate verbology.

Iannucci sticks his daggers into both the American political culture as much as the British (the Canadians and the French even get a sharp stab). One of the great sequences involves a trip to Washington by Foster and his aide. The duo marvel at the extent of security given to their politicians. Their motorcade ride to the Capitol gives us more than a few hilarious zingers.

Iannucci’s visual style would appear to put the film in the ‘Stephen Gaghan’ genre of political thrillers. Handheld, documentary like camerawork compliments well the wild comic absurdity which Iannucci bombards us with unrelenting force. At times the film feels like ‘The Office’ meets ‘Syriana’ – an ambitious combination to merge but pulled off with great confidence and comedic chutzpah.

Though this is Iannucci’s first feature he honed his comic style in a number of successful British comedy series. In fact “In the Loop” grew out his acclaimed 2005 series, ‘The Thick of It”, so it’s no surprise the comic timing, and assured satirical tone is pitch perfect. The manic complexities of the dozen or so character goals never get bogged down with overplotting. And all the actors riff and roll with one another like a well-oiled machine.

If one scene could sum up the film’s satirical brilliance, it’s the absurdly funny sequence which has James Gandolfini’s brash military general character calculating the potential loss of life from an Iraq war using a child’s talking calculator – a clever nod to George C. Scott’s great speech in the war room in “Dr. Strangelove”.

“In the Loop” is one of the funniest films in a very long while.

"In the Loop" is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Sauna

Sauna (2008) dir. AJ Annila
Starring: Ville Virtanen, Tommi Eronen, Viktor Klimenko, Sonja Petäjäjärvi

***1/2

“Sauna” is a truly wonderful cinema experience – a dark gothic horror near-masterpiece which mashes the existential atmosphere of Andrei Tarkovsky with the mindbending terror of J-Horror and a dash of the Spanish films of Guillermo Del Toro.

As a Finnish-Russian co-production its a unique collaboration, set in a time and place virtually untouched in the movie landscape. It’s the year 1595, on the border between Finland and Russia. A long bloody war between the Swedes and Russians has just ended, with Finland caught in the cross-fire. A group of Finnish and Russian geographers are on a journey to map the new border between the two Empires. When they happen upon an uncharted village in the middle of a giant swamp they encounter a dark ghostly curse which threatens the lives of the group.

Screenwriter Iiro Küttner and director Antti-Jussi Annila have a traditional ghost story on their hands, but execute it with metaphysical and at times confusing narrative. It’s a complicated set-up to start with and the filmmakers are careful about telling too much information which we couldn’t deduce visually. The unfamiliar period of history means there’s a political dynamic which takes a while to grasp. We are given few details of the village, the sauna, the history of its inhabitants and the dark forces around.

But the heart and central conflict of the film is clear. Our heroes are the two Finnish geographers and brother, Erik and Knut. Erik is introduced early as a maddog warrior with 73 killings on his conscience. Knut is along for the journey to help him get a job as a teacher, so he can live a quiet scholastic life. When Erik murders a Russian villager and leaves a young girl locked in an underground cellar to die, their divergent principles put them at odds.

The other point of conflict is the relationship of the geographers with the village itself and the ghosts that haunt it. The presence of these metaphysical forces causes each character to have horrific delusions. This feeds the strongest theme of the film - their moral and religious conflict. Some research into the history of Russian/Scandanavian relations would probably create deeper meaning in the film, but we gather there’s a bitter feud between the Russian Orthodoxy and the Scandanavian Protestantism. But the real conflict is Erik’s own acceptance of God and his need for confession of his laundry list of sins. Though the film is vague about the dark forces, we gather it’s that vengeful one, which Catholics are taught to fear. And so it becomes a truly terrifying Wrath of God.

Like Tarkovsky Annila uses the cold and lifeless environment to create mood. But he also has great lead actors to bring life to the two Finnish characters. Tommi Eronen and Ville Virtanen are a great pairing. Virtanen is the great discovery though. Annila gives his character a natural arc of personal redemption and the need to find family honour, Virtanen's hardened and course face appears to be carved out of stone, each wrinkle and facial crevasse reads as the physical expression of these emotional battle scars.

When Annila is not slowly burying the atmosphere and tension into our skin, he’s shocking us with jolts of traditional horror genre goodness. The climax is a terrifying sequence anchored by a great reveal of the physical manifestation of the dark forces. Annila pays off all the low lying tension with great satisfaction. There’s almost no denouement or lingering time after the climax, which can bring up the question, ‘so what was the point of all that?’

The quick ending allows us to formulate the meaning behind the actions in the film ourselves. While all the dots aren’t connected for us, the themes and conflict are clear enough for the film to make perfect sense. I've seen Sauna twice now and it stands up as well on both the big screen and the small. Enjoy.

"Sauna" is available on DVD from IFC Films

Monday, 23 November 2009

Brüno

Brüno (2009) dir. Larry Charles
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten, Clifford Bañagale, Chibundu Orukwowu

***1/2

It comes as no surprise the ‘Bruno’ wasn’t as successful as ‘Borat’. While Borat cleverly poked fun at America's ignorance and hospitality, “Bruno” puts the country’s own conservative homophobic fears in their faces like a big ol' floppy dick.

I doubt if the financiers who greenlit this project even looked at the script or treatment (or whatever written form this project was in before production). I imagine they saw the film as ‘Borat 2’, and indeed, like the previous film, Baron Cohen and his compatriot behind the camera Larry Charles once again get into costume and run amuck in real live situations.

If you’re living under a rock “Bruno” is another alter-ego of Sacha Baron Cohen (who is positioning himself as the new Peter Sellers) – an Austrian homosexual fashion critic. Like Borat, a dramatic narrative is interwoven into the real world manufactured situations. Bruno desires to be famous, and by watching the talent-less celebrities of America’s reality stars he decides to come to the U.S. to make it big.

Once ashore he gets an agent, and engineers a career as a celebrity interviewer. Among the real people duped by his false personality is Paula Abdul who conducts an interview in an empty room using the hired moving help as furniture. When his journalism career alone doesn’t pan out he decides to adopt an African baby for some trendy notoriety, which produces a number of tense situations. Then Bruno comes to realize that perhaps being gay in America is holding him back and thus seeks out ways to un-gay himself. Within the absurd madness emerges a love story between Bruno, and his assistant Lutz which helps Bruno accept his homosexuality.

My main criticism of Borat was that the film worked best as a compendium of skits, no better than what we saw in his ‘Da Ali G” TV program. “Bruno” works better as a feature film for two reasons: First, the character of Bruno is more self-aware than ‘Borat’ and thus works on several intellectual levels beyond the slapstick. Second, the narrative throughline in 'Borat' which seemed forced and disconnected from the gags, feels natural to this story and to the Bruno character.

Between these two films, Sacha Baron Cohen will likely be seen as a groundbreaking genius of comedy. Few artists can stand beside Baron Cohen for his sheer courageous audacity and supreme audience-accessible entertainment. “Bruno” and “Borat” are both minor miracles.

“Bruno” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Rome

Rome (2005-2007) created by John Milius, Willam J. Macdonald, Bruno Heller
Starring: Ciaron Hinds, James Purefoy, Kevin McKidd

This posting doesn’t really serve as a review but an admonition of excitement about getting to work on watching the lauded television series ‘Rome’. The series, created by muscular 70's/80's writer/director John Milius 'Apocalypse Now'), William J. MacDonald and Bruno Heller, aired for only two seasons on HBO in the US in 2005 and 2007, not a long run but just enough for it to strike an impact in the broadening world of serial television. At the end of the decade many publications including Entertainment Weekly have declared it one of the best TV series of the decade.

This decade of the 2000’s will likely be seen as a second 'Golden Age of Television', or maybe the 'Renaissance of Television'. Since “The Sopranos” first aired in 1999, each year a new must-see limited run television series was introduced. First it was ‘The Sopranos’, then ‘Six Feet Under’, then ‘Band of Brothers’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Carnivale’, ‘Deadwood’, ‘Generation Kill’, ‘True Blood’, ‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’. For someone who doesn’t have HBO, it was impossible to keep up this barrage of must-see content.

Of course, with the discovery of the retail DVD market for television shows, we all have the ability to go back and compress an entire series once spread out over years into a few weeks of concentrated hard core anti-social viewing hibernation.

And so arrives ROME on Blu-Ray this week from Warner Bros/HBO Home Video. The boxset contains all 22 episodes packaged nicely in textured box, the colour of stained or dried blood, in a flipbook style holder resembling an ancient manuscript.

I have no idea what to expect, but I hope to be blown away. Wish me luck.

"Rome: The Complete Series" is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Bros/HBO Home Video

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Godzilla (1998)

Godzilla (1998) dir. Roland Emmerich
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Maria Pitillo, Michael Lerner, Jean Reno, Hank Azaria

*

By Alan Bacchus

However silly and cornball “Independence Day”, there was a thrill in bringing back the simple earth vs. aliens b-movie plotting. And certainly watching major landmarks in New York and Washington get destroyed in such magnificent fashion was a visual delight. Thus “Independence Day” is a genuine guilty pleasure. There can be no pleasure on any level derived from “Godzilla” – a loud, ugly, tedious and repetitive version of the beloved ‘man-in-suit’ Japanese monster franchise.

Emmerich recycles the same plotting from ‘Independence Day’, except replacing the aliens invasion of the earth with a more confined invasion of New York. In the opening credits Godzilla’s existence is explained as a mutation from illegal nuclear testing in French Polynesia, but has now swam off the island toward the United States. While world scientists track this mysterious beast around the world, he seems to be taking the long way around for an attack on Manhattan. Once ashore he runs amuck in the city destroying buildings and fighting off the military. The humans collaborating to combat the beast include nerdy scientist Niko Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), his wannabee TV journalist ex-GF (Maria Pitillo) her cameraman (Hank Azaria) and a slimy French government agent (Jean Reno).

Emmerich commits some of the most blatant creative theft since Brian De Palma’s 70’s-80’s Hitchcock fixation. Emmerich’s victim is Steven Spielberg shamelessly lifting direct shots, scenes, visual composition and camera movement from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘Jurassic Park’ and more. The opening moments which has the scientists tracking the trail of destruction of the lizard across the Pacific is lifted directly from ‘Close Encounters’, and final the stadium sequence is essentially the raptor chase from ‘Jurassic Park’. But it’s Emmerich’s overall tone of wonder and amazement which rings as nasty and deliberate pilfering.

Emmerich’s monster, as designed by Patrick Tatopoulos, who had previously created some wonderful designs in “Independence Day” and “Stargate” chooses to create a literal version of the Godzilla beast – a nuclear fallout-mutated monster which appears to be just an anatomically correct blow-up of a real lizard. As such, Godzilla’s legs are bent out of shape like a four legged creature and his face is a square muscular mass of cold-blooded leather. Emmerich eschews any attempt at creating a personality to the beast – which was one of the endearing hallmarks of the Toho beast – a monster with a distinct personality. This Godzilla is simply a giant lizard.

Emmerich’s tin ear for casting is front and centre. Michael Lerner is a great character actor, but in the skin of a U.S. President rendered as a sour grapes jab at Roger Ebert is an awful creative choice. Same with the casting of “The Simpsons” voice actors Hank Azaria as the Eng camera operator named ‘Animal’ (seriously, his name is Animal), the diminutive Harry Shearer as a womanizing news anchor man and the affable funny man Kevin Dunn as a hardnosed military general (whaat???). Dr. Niko Tatopoulos as played by Matthew Broderick is a typical Emmerich character and carbon copy of the protags from Stargate (James Spader) Independence Day (Jeff Goldblum), The Day After Tomorrow (Jake Gyllenhaal) and though I haven’t seen it yet, most likely John Cusack’s character 2012.

Without a personality to the beast, all of the action is just noise. And with a particularly dark and wet colour palette the entire picture is rendered soulless, inert and dead.

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

Friday, 20 November 2009

Il Divo

Il Divo (2009) dir. Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Toni Servillo, Anna Bonaiuto, Giulio Bosetti, Flavio Bucci, Carlo Buccirosso

**

By Alan Bacchus

The story of seven-time Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti's controversial leadership in the latter stages of his 50-year service, which saw him accused and tried for having an alliance with the mafia, as well as being an accomplice to several murders of his key rivals, is an impressively stylized and cinematically-inspired take on what could have been familiar and morose subject matter.

Comparisons of director Paolo Sorrentino to Martin Scorsese were made after its Cannes premiere, and were not unfounded, as the film works best in its numerous, energetic, pop culture aware montage sequences. Scorsese's style never trumps his substance though, which can't be said about Il Divo, whose dense and near-incomprehensible narrative is neglected in favour of Sorrentino's cinema gymnastics.

If anything, the film comes off like the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels of political films. Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson also makes a good comparison. Like Refn's film, Il Divo works best as a subjective expression of a man, as opposed to a traditional narrative story. Unfortunately, Sorrentino wants to have his cake and eat it too. Even up until the last moments of the film we're still meeting new characters, so many that each person has to be introduced with a graphic describing his/her name, title and relation to Andreotti. Granted, the design and use of these graphics are incorporated with wicked hipness into the composition of the scene, but it's just too much information to keep track of.

Style aside, Il Divo suffers most from Sorrentino's direction of lead actor Toni Servillo; his performance, which has been lauded by other critics as an enigmatic, Yoda-like, zen master portrait of political savvy, comes off as un-expressive, robotic and dull as cardboard, under cover of a bad wig that wouldn't pass muster on a Saturday Night Live sketch.

To each his own, as the virtues and failings of this picture will likely divide audiences. It's a shame foreign releases like these don't get the Blu-Ray treatment because for a film that relies so heavily on its stunning visuals, the boring old standard definition DVD just doesn't cut it. The DVD contains just the movie with no special features.

This review for appeared on Exclaim.ca

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Cars

Cars (2006) dir. John Lasseter
Voices by: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, Tony Shaloub

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

As creative director of the company, over most of the decade John Lasseter had served as a supervisory Walt Disney-like role in the Pixar family. “Cars” was Lasseter’s first feature since 1999’s ‘Toy Story”. Unfortunately while filmmakers like Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter were elevating the craft of CG animation to heights loftier than “Toy Story” the merely adequate story of “Cars” makes it an ironically disappointing film in comparison to ‘Up’, ‘Wall-E’ and ‘The Incredibles".

The opening scene is a well-choreographed, an animated Nascar car race at night. From the wide angles, the details of the event make it almost indistinguishable from an actual television broadcast. Lightning (Owen Wilson) is one of the top race cars and after his last race, there’s a tie for the championship, thus engineering a three-way race-off for ultimate victory. As Lightning is being transported by truck across the country in prep for the big race, he finds himself abandoned by accident in the middle of the desert. Of course, since Lightning is a superstar celebrity car who knows nothing of the open road life of regular cars, he’s like a fish out of water among the rural and working class bumpkins of the small town he wanders into.

As he learns to operate like a real working automobile he discovers love with one of the local gals and connects with a wily old veteran car looking to reclaim his old glory as a once great race car. The film, of course, builds to a big car race which tests Lightning skills and the advice he’s learned from his new friendships.

There are no human characters in the 2006 Pixar film "Cars", as the title suggests its just cars which happens to make it one of the most photo realistic of the Pixar films, the reflective surfaces of the vehicles producing some of the sharpest images in any of the Pixar films.

Key to any rendering characters in any animated film are its eyes and facial features. And on each vehicle Lasseter is clever to create eyelids out of windshield wipers and mouths out the grill and the ears out of the rearview mirrors..

The relation of the make and model of each car to its own personality makes it easy for Lasseter to establish the different characters, The old model T Ford, the rusty old tow truck plays the southern hick, the slick female Porsche, the two small Fiats who play the funny Italian stereotypes Luigi and Guido and the Hummer as a type-a military drill sergeant.

Even though the Pixar films are less than 15 years old, compared with the sophistication of the later pictures, “Cars” feels strangely dated. In particular the James Taylor song interlude at the end of the second act is as sickening and sappy as those hideous Randy Newman songs in Toy Story 1 and 2.

The new Disney Blu-Ray edition is packaged as a box set contain two die-cast rendered collectors toys of the ‘Cars’ characters.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

White Material


White Material (2009) dir. Claire Denis
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Isaach De Bankole, Christopher Lambert

***

By Blair Stewart

A bitter, brittle remark on colonial Africa just before the whites all fled, Claire Denis revisits her childhood days in the great Continent. Isabelle Huppert is Maria, a prime mover, the workhorse behind a desperate coffee plantation on its last legs in a barely-democratic nation on its last legs.

As Maria busts ass to replace fleeing workers and plug holes before the harvest the radio crackles with death against the land's old masters there and abroad. Her motives to stay are perplexing with the anarchy her own family faces if caught between piecemeal child soldiers and the local militia. Initially Maria's son Manuel (Nicholas Duvachelle) chooses to fade away over burning out while her hustler ex (Christopher Lambert) cuts deals for a lifeboat out of the civil war. Emerging from the wild onto the family's coffee fields an enigmatic warrior (Isaach de Bankole) appears. We follow the eerie sight of the sharp, pale figure of Huppert as she crosses a landscape of sanguinary earth and lewd jungle overgrowth, her surroundings shouting blood against her European roots.

An accomplished follow-up to the highly praised "35 Shots of Rum","White Material" is mostly successful in part to the obvious casting of Huppert as a morally specious colonialist with her head just above water. She has a tense intelligence that makes it believable Maria could have long survived in the 3rd world.

As her partner Christopher Lambert returns from the dead in an excellent casting choice as he's always possessed the smile of a Master Bullshitter. Lamentably the charismatic Bankole from Jim Jarmusch's recent work is given scraps for his role while the metamorphosis that Duvachelle's character experiences becomes a stretch on credibility.

While the imagery Denis conceives is effective, and the collaboration with cinematographer Yves Cape bears fruit from a setting of ghostly rescue choppers and the dead below, to open the film with its climax is a regrettable one. What could be accomplished by revealing the fortunes of your players before they have a chance to engage the audience in their fate?

Regardless of the choice in prologue "White Material" is worth seeing for its unsettling 2nd act alone. A worthy addition to Old World griefs in the New World, but not a flawless one.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Exiles

The Exiles (1961) dir, Kent McKenzie
Starring: Mary Donahue, Homer Nish, Clydean Parker, Tom Reynolds, Rico Rodriguez

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The reputation of Kent McKenzie’s “The Exiles” precedes it. The famous USC student film about aboriginal youths living in Los Angeles was often discussed as a landmark film in American independent film, yet its inaccessibility, and lack of a video release made the film kind of a myth. Until now. Milestone Films, who also released the landmark and equally legendary “Killer of Sheep” DVD last year has out done itself in bringing “The Exiles” to audiences with a DVD package chock full of accruements for the highly discriminating cinephile.

Made and set in 1961, “the Exiles” is a time capsule of the era, without nostalgic hindsight and told with largely amateur actors and in real locations, the film becomes an authentic depiction of 1960's youth run wild.

McKenzie, with documentary-like realism, follows 12 hours in the lives of a group of aboriginals who have chosen to leave their reservation to live among the white people in the area of LA known as Bunker Hill. It’s a Friday night and the group of 4 or 5 youthful and rambunctious men decide go out for a night on the town. Their journey involves boozing, fighting, driving recklessly and doing whatever it takes to pick up women. Unfortunately poor Mary, the innocent and pregnant wife of one of the men is forced to stay home and wander in aimless loneliness throughout the night. In particular, McKenzie's cuts from the boys’ high speed convertible drunk-driving to Mary sitting alone in a movie theatre is earth shattering.

Narratively the film doesn't adhere to traditional character arcs or the needs of conventional storytelling. All McKenzie needs to do is observe the behaviour of his characters for us to figure out the 300-year long arc of despair of the aboriginal people. The effect of the city of Los Angeles on the youth in the film is embodied by Homer, the drunken gambler who left Mary alone at home, the energy of the nightlife acting like the inebriating and soul-sucking effects of alcohol on the Aboriginals’ society at large.

This blanket of sadness, clouds the entire picture, with a sense of inevitable doom. The effectively morose narration which reveals the characters’ inner thoughts sound like documentary voiceover - insightful and often unemotive revelations which don’t necessarily relate directly to the images on screen but expresses a contrasting tone of intelligent self-reflection against the drunken, testosterone fueled irresponsibility.

The high contrast black and white transfer is pristine and stunning. The night time exterior lighting is simply phenomenal capturing the bright lights of Los Angeles with authentic vibrancy - a look which echoes Haskell Wexler's great work on 'American Graffiti'.

The film is by no means as polished as Graffiti though and the rough 'indie' aesthetic aids in its gritty realism. McKenzie’s tone of New Wave authenticity is reminiscent of not only early Godard, but the great Canadian neorealist indie 'Nobody Waved Goodbye'.

It resonates best in the big picture - a powerful statement about Aboriginal socio-economic and racial politics, and a remarkably poignant story of the troubled integration of all marginalized people into the social fabric of white middle class-dominated American life.

“The Exiles” is available on DVD this week from Milestone Films.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Deconstructing the Cinema of the 2000’s – Part 3: Documentary



By Alan Bacchus

The following is part of a continuing series of features breaking down the trends of cinema in the 2000's. Click below for parts 1 and 2:
Part 1:
Tentpole Franchisees
Part 2:
Social Realism

It’s not hard to pinpoint the exact moment when documentaries became more than just an art house or 'special interest' genre but a legitimate mass market theatrical entertainment product. It was May 2002, when Michael Moore’s ‘Bowling For Columbine’ was invited into Official Competition at the Cannes Film Festival. It was unprecedented for a documentary to even go to Cannes, let alone secure a spot in contention for the Palme D’Or. It didn’t win the big prize, but Moore did take home the ‘55th Anniversary’ prize, in recognition of its precedent-setting accomplishment.

The film would of course, go on to win the Oscar but not before it became the highest grossing theatrical documentary of all time, taking in $21million in the domestic box office and Moore would eventually win the Palme D'Or in 2004 with Fahrenheit 9/11. But in 2002, with 'Bowling' instantly a bandwagon was formed, and Hollywood was not slow to jump on board. Throughout the decade each year, half a dozen or more documentaries not only trumped the ones before it in terms of intellectually stimulating product, but provided a legitimate alternative to traditional studio product.

Why the sudden change in people’s tastes? Several reasons, all of which influenced each other:

1) The Snowball Effect: Once documentaries proved a viable money making venture, its popularity spread bringing more documentary filmmakers out of the woodwork, and creating healthy competition to be better than the next. And with feature film revenue streams from theatrical and DVD distributors now open, documentaries became bigger.

2) Technology: The 2000’s saw a radical change in the tools of production for filmmakers. Between 2000 and 2009, the affordability, quality and acceptability of digital technology compounded exponentially. In 2000, digital cameras were available to use, though still nowhere near the quality of real film. But its affordability meant that shooting quality footage was cheaper than ever, and with non-linear digital editing already established it didn’t take more than a decent home computer system to be one’s own production studio. Gradually as high definition overtook the lower rent DV, digital imagery became near indistinguishable from film, resulting in low cost high production values. We thus saw feature film sized storytelling in the genre.

3) Reality Television: It’s sad to say but there’s no question the prevalence of reality TV in prime time helped acclimatize audiences to seeing real life as entertainment. Survivor premiered on US in 2000 as an instant hit. The format has proved to more than a fad, and a legitimate form of televised entertainment. However manufactured and low brow, audiences can thus see cinema verite as an extension on some of these reality shows, with The Osbornes or Nick and Jessica serving as training wheels for more intellectually challenging yet conceptually similar entertainment.

4) Political and Social Awareness: After 9/11 and the military presence in Middle East, Americans seemed to be more politically aware of the rest of world than ever before. Suddenly what’s happening in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran immediately influenced people’s lives. Same with socially conscious causes like the Environment, usual topics for documentary filmmakers suddenly became bankable as well. Looking at the top 10 documentaries of all time, there’s a clear influence toward these social and political topics such as the War in Iraq, the Environment, Government Accountability. Audiences not only saw real life as entertainment but ideas, and journalism as entertainment too. The environmental movement of the 2000’s has had the most profound effect on documentary filmmaking. “March of the Penguins”, at a glance, appears no different than programs aired on PBS or National Geographic for decades. But with this increased awareness combined with fundamental storytelling skills and high production values, “March of the Penguins” became a box office smash.

Courtesy of Indiewire, here are the top box office earning documentaries of the 2000's

1. Fahrenheit 9/11 2004 $119,194,771
2. March of the Penguins 2005 $77,437,223
3. Sicko 2006 $24,540,079
4. An Inconvenient Truth 2006 $24,146,161
5. Bowling For Columbine 2002 $21,576,018
6. Capitalism: A Love Story 2009 $14,093,834*
7. Religulous 2008 $13,011,160
8. Winged Migration 2003 $11,689,053
9. Super Size Me 2004 $11,536,423
10. Mad Hot Ballroom 2005 $8,117,961
11. The Aristocrats 2005 $6,377,461
12. Spellbound 2003 $5,728,581
13. Shine a Light 2008 $5,505,267
14. Touching the Void 2004 $4,593,598
15. Food, Inc. 2009 $4,411,489
16. The Fog of War 2003 $4,198,566
17. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room 2005 $4,071,700
18. Young@Heart 2008 $3,992,189
19. Good Hair 2009 $3,826,821*
20. Step into Liquid 2003 $3,681,803

And here are my own personal top five documentaries:

5. The Fog of War (2003) dir. Errol Morris


Errol Morris was already royalty in documentary filmmaking by the 2000’s. His idiosyncratic subject choices, his particularly cinematic visual look and his moody reflective tones were hallmarks of his style going back to the 70's. With the 'Fog of War', he finally won a Best Documentary Oscar, which he should have gotten a long time ago. The first person look at Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara is a riveting look at the military turmoil of the 1960’s and McNamara’s key role and culpability. It’s also a marvelous character and psychological study of an intellectual man full of over confidence and ego.

4. Bowling For Columbine (2002) dir. Michael Moore


Michael Moore has had a string of great films in the decade, all of which seem to relate and connect with each other like a franchise of working class grievances. Columbine is perhaps his best, a film - an angry and emotional chastisement of America’s obsession with guns and its tragic consequences. Moore uses his affable and waddling everyman persona to maximum effect.

3. Touching the Void (2003) dir. Kevin Macdonald


2003 was certainly a good year for documentaries. Kevin Macdonald’s real life story of survival of two mountain climbers stranded for days in the snow capped Peruvian mountains makes for a thriller of a doc as exciting as any dramatic genre picture. Macdonald who freely moves from doc and drama in his career, employs a cinematic style similar to Errol Morris, with impeccably recreated dramatic scenes. In fact, most of the film are these dramatic recreation filmed with such authenticity and emotional drama, the question of whether this film should be consider doc or drama caused much controversy.

2. Man on Wire (2007) dir. James Marsh


The Best Documentary winner of 2007, like ‘Touching the Void’, is a Hollywood heist film fashioned out of a documentary. The personality of Philippe Petit the French acrobat and enfant terrible who walked across the twin towers on a hirewire in 1974 makes for a unique personality study as well as a suspenseful thriller.

1. Capturing the Friedmans (2003) dir. Andrew Jarecki


One of the most astonishing and disturbing real life stories ever documented on film. Friedmans is one of those happy accidents of film. Andrew Jarecki who started making a film on a New City clown, uncovered some dark skeletons in his closet which turned the light comic documentary into a jet black story of family abuse and paedophilia. After interviewing the members of the Friedman family he discovered their entire lives were already documented in their own personal super 8mm and Hi8 home movies they had been filming for years. This accidental goldmine of footage turned his little clown film into an ironic masterpiece.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Up


Up (2009) dir. Pete Docter
Voices by: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Delroy Lindo

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Though I admired “Wall-E” and “Ratatouille” the two recent and arguably best received Pixar films since “Toy Story”, I felt a sense these films wrang out every morsel of cuteness from the little robot and the little mouse to the point of tedium. With “Up”, now on Blu-Ray and DVD, 2nd time Pixar-feature director Pete Docter ("Monsters Inc.) pushes some of the same emotional buttons, but a more genuine characterization of his lead character results in the most satisfying Pixar film.

And I think it has to do with the human characters. The hero in the story is Carl Frederickson, the most sympathetic and endearing of all the Pixar characters. Docter takes his entire first act to tell us the backstory and conudrums of Carl. The film opens with a flashback to the 1920’s when young Carl was in awe of intrepid explorers like the dashing Lindbergh-esque airship flyer Charles Muntz who claims to have discovered a 'Paradise Lost' world in South America. We see Carl bond romantically with his lifelong partner and wife Ellie with a mutual dream of taking a similar journey to this unblemished world.

In a marvelous montage sequence Docter shows the life history of Carl and Ellie and how their dreams consistently got pushed back in favour of real world financial realities. And when Carl’s wife dies leaving him alone in his house, he suddenly finds himself lost without ambition. Before Carl is about to be sent away to an assisted living facility he literally breaks away via hundreds of helium filled balloons bringing him and his house into the skies. Little does he know, the chubby annoying boy scout Russell was on the porch thus bringing him along the adventure. Carl and Russell make it to Paradise only to encounter a nasty villain who threatens the preservation of this natural world.

Carl makes a great hero because there’s a genuine and well-defined life to the man. Docter’s beautiful crafted and edited encapsulation of Carl's life with his wife is a mini marvel. We’re reminded of the landmark dinner table scene in Citizen Kane, where Welles and his editor Robert Wise told the lengthy collapse of Kane’s marriage with only a small number of smartly edited shots. Though Docter’s sequence is longer, with more elaborate visuals at his disposal he manages to create and summarize an entire life, which becomes the dramatic foundation of the film.

Docter also manages to avoid the inherent clichés with his character. We expect Carl to be a curmudgeon, a jaded distrustful old man – much like Clint Eastwood’s character in “Gran Torino”. But Carl has more intelligence and reality-based reactions to his situations than a live action Walt Kowalski, and without sacrifice of inter-character conflict.

The film takes a turn for the childish in the second act when Carl and Russell make it to Paradise Lost. We’re introduced to a group of dogs who can speak using an electronic dog collar. Talking animals within the human world of the film seems more a ploy to satisfy the children in the audience, whom I could see getting bored with the adult-oriented backstory/setup. The adventures on the island are animal slapsticky stuff, but the introduction of Christopher Plummer’s antagonist character brings the joy and sense of adventure back for a rousing action finale.

The visual design is simple and clean, perhaps influenced by the Art Deco designs we see in the early flashbacks. The film is only available in 2-D on DVD, athough it was presented in both 3-D and 2-D theatrical formats. Little is lost though, as the 3-D presentation was decent, and added very little to te experience. Either way the story will suck you in and immerse you completely in Carl’s life. Enjoy.

"Up" along with "Monsters Inc." and "Cars" are available on Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Thirst

Thirst (2009) dir. by Park Chan-Wook
Starring: Song Kang-Ho, Kim Ok-Bin

***

By Blair Stewart

A Korean vampire priest is tormented by Catholic Sin in his lust for sex and fine
ropes of arterial spray in "Thirst", the latest from Chan Wook-Park of "Oldboy" fame.
You already had me at 'Korean Vampire Priest', you sick puppy Chan-Wook!

Asian star Song Kang-Jo(the dopey hero in international smash creature-feature "The Host") is Father Sang-hyun, a missionary traveling into the plague-heart of Africa and falling afoul of tainted blood. Returning as the lone survivor of a virus to his old stomping grounds, Sang-hyun is hounded by his cult status amongst the Priesthood and a private Devil's hankering for the warm red stuff. Further complicating matters, the young man is reunited with childhood sweetheart Tae-Ju(Kim Ok-bin), and her unstable in-laws.

Tempering his blood dependence with after-hours samplings at the hospital, the newly resplendent Sang-hyun lets Tae-ju get between him and his vow of chastity, which then leads to a love quadrangle including his Holy Spirit and her simpleton husband. Based on what follows, this is a minor set-up. If you're already familiar with the work of the director, you'll know Chan-Wook's brand of melodramatic carnage awaits.

Under the cramped shadows of modern Korea Park and his regular cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hoon find as much space for inspired camera movement as Fassbinder
did in the tidy living rooms of 70's Germany. Avoiding the sun, "Thirst" often has the quality of a macabre chamber drama before Sang-hyun goes out into the night to leap rooftops and avoid jugulars. There is a palatable chemistry between Song and Kim and as this is an adult vampire story their sex is hot enough the abstinent punks in "Twilight" should take notes for later.

As the fallen holy man Song Kang-Jo shares a quality with the likes of Tom Hanks, he's a leading man you empathise with regardless of terrible deeds. Playing Dracula's bride, Kim Ok-bin has a very bright future as an actress and a babe.

Despite the creativity of ideas pouring out of the story "Thirst" had me worn me down by the second hour as many of Park's films have done. While not as manipulative as "JLA" or graphically unpleasant as "Sympathy for Mr. Vengence", Park's latest jumps between so many moods that the end arrives like a marathon finish line. His filming style is world-class kinetic but I have yet to see Park do subtle. Despite his lack of restraint, Park is still one on par with Hollywood's best for sustained tension and exceptional set-pieces, although he hasn't surpassed the "Oldboy" hallway battle. Taking more chances than most horror films, "Thirst" is an admirable shot in the arm for the vampire genre.

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

Friday, 13 November 2009

Rocky IV

Rocky IV (1985) dir. Sylvestor Stallone
Starring: Sylvestor Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Brigitte Nielsen, Talia Shire, Burt Young

***

By Alan Bacchus

'Rocky IV' has so much going wrong with it, it’s an easy film to pick apart, chew up and spit it out as film criticism, which make it so difficult to do that when the film is so much damned fun. Why is that?

First of all, the film is a huge cheat on the part of Stallone. There’s barely a film here, almost no story whatsoever. As usual we see in the opening moments a flashback to the end of the previous Rocky film – Stallone coached by his former nemesis Apollo Creed, fighting and defeating the snarling Clubber Lang (Mr. T).

Cut to Rocky Balboa, once a street level hood who walked around in baggy, ill fitting clothes on the streets of Philadelphia is a now a multimillionaire living in a swanky mansion with a robotic waiter (nice try Sly, the household robots never did catch on). Rocky is now retired, same with Creed, who like Rocky, has nothing to do but relax alone in his backyard swimming pool. But when Apollo hears of a champion Soviet boxer, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) splashing himself all over American television he decides to take on the bulky blonde for a comeback fight in the name of Cold War patriotism.

Despite Rocky’s protests that Apollo's too old, the show must goes on, and after a ridiculous and embarrassing musical sideshow introduction by James Brown Creed gets his butt whipped, and is actually killed in the ring. Rocky won’t stand for it, and desires for revenge against the evil Commies, thus challenging Drago to a match in Russia on Christmas Day. Despite Adrian’s fears he’s got to do it, because he’s a man and a fighter, and without the fight, he’s not a man.

Cue a series of musical montage scenes which contrast the scientific training methods of Drago with the old fashioned organic method of training - push-ups, sit ups, log lifting, snow shovelling and wooden cart pulling. The fight starts and then Rocky wins and earns the respect of the Soviet people.

The film feels like a cheat because Stallone actually gets away without telling a story. He fast forwards through the most difficult part of writing and essentially crafts two fight scenes sandwiched in between half a dozen montage scenes. One after another, we’re shown the same match-cut edited training sequences. Each piece of music is bigger, and grander and more inspiring than the next. There’s ‘Burning Heart’ by Survivor, then ‘Hearts on Fire’ by John Cafferty, then ‘Man Against The World"’ by Survivor (again) and the appropriately titled ‘Training Montage’ by the film’s composer Vince Di Cola.

But it all works beautifully. The montage scenes are crafted very well, and shot and composed perfectly by Stallone. Even though it’s a glorified music video these scenes create great anticipatory energy. Stallone has earned his right to use the sequences. He’s already at the fourth film in the series, each one as popular and successful as the one before it. So Stallone’s just giving the audience what it wants. Sure it’s a sell out to the spirit of the original film, and Stallone indeed would attempt to reboot the series, twice!

'Rocky IV' is disposable franchise filmmaking at its best, an invigorating guilty pleasure, impossible not to love at least on some kind of juvenile level.

The entire Rocky ‘Undisputed’ Collection is available on Blu-Ray from MGM Home Entertainment

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Passion of Joan of Arc

Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) dir. Carl Dreyer
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugène Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz

****

By Alan Bacchus

The legend and mystique around Dreyer’s landmark film certainly helps its appreciation – the original version of the silent masterpiece was appeared to have been lost after a number of fires destroyed what was thought was the only remaining complete film elements. But when a near complete version was found in a janitor's closet of an Oslo mental institution in 1981, along with an exhaustive restoration, ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ was rediscovered.

My moderately articulate words cannot possibly describe how great this film is. We all know the story of Joan of Arc, the teenaged French peasant who heard the voice of God command her to join the French army and lead her into victory for the nation. Dreyer’s film picks up the story when she was captured by English, imprisoned, tried and eventually executed.

Dreyer distills the production down to its bare essential elements, a few unadorned interior sets – the courtroom, Saint Joan’s prison cell, and other rooms in the prison. The walls are white with little in the way of art decoration or props - just the powerful words of the judge, jury and executioners and the expressive face of Joan, played by Maria Falconetti (sometimes referred to as Renée).

The story of Ms. Falconetti is even more legendary than the recovered film print. As lead actress it was her one and only performance, which emphasizes the astonishing artistic achievement. A performance which stands alongside Max Schreck as one of the great ‘one and only’ film acting roles in cinema history.

Dreyer almost exclusively frames Falconetti in a close-up, rarely placing her in a two shot with other actors and rarely anything wider than below her shoulders. Within these constraints, Falconetti expresses the anguish, fear, courage of the heroine with amazing intensity – arguably greatest ever female performance put to film. Rumour has it that Dreyer’s direction of Falconetti was so emotionally draining it pushed her into emotional collapse, thus she never acted again.

Even if Falconetti’s performance were merely adequate, the film is a masterpiece based on Dreyer’s stunning stylistic visual treatment and camerawork. Dreyer’s distinct compositions are simply astounding. The minimized aesthetic allows Dreyer to create a fresh visual dynamic by experimenting with creative and unorthodox framing. At Joan’s lonelinest moments watch Dreyer frame her awkwardly in the bottom half of the picture engulfed by the negative space above, and at her most powerful with her eyes framed at the top of the screen with the rest of her face and head dominating the lower half.

No shot is wasted, everything has a purpose. His stark white colour scheme and his reliance on close-ups emphasizes the duel of wills between Joan and her captors. The way he moves his camera feels thoroughly modern as well. The camera rarely sits still constantly roving throughout the courtroom, panning and tilting around the frame to guide the viewers’ attention and pushing into the English characters’ faces to boldly emphasize their intimidating strength. Dreyer exclusively holds on Falconetti’s close-up, repeatedly with same frame size subliminally conveying her resolute faith in God.

Dreyer’s makes up visually what he loses in his minimalist mise-en-scene with a sharp editing style, which resembles how filmmakers cut their films today. Multiple close-ups from different angles and multiple reaction shots which control the pacing of the scene. In fact, if I didn’t know about the film it could pass for one of those modern films shot in the style of old silent pictures – like the Lumiere Bros’ omnibus film or the opening sequence of PTA’s “Magnolia”.

It’s obvious “Passion of Joan of Arc” works well as a metaphor for the Christian crucifixion. And anyone who's seen both this and Mel Gibson’s "Passion of the Christ", will see the heavy influence of one on the other, with Gibson paying direct homage by borrowing the 'Passion' from the title.

Dreyer lasting message is more secular than Gibson's. If you ever felt doubt in yourself, or loneliness or questioned your faith in something you believe in, “Passion of Joan of Arc” is as good a remedy as any confession.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket (1987) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Matthew Modine, Arliss Howard, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio

****

By Alan Bacchus

With each successive viewing “Full Metal Jacket” seems to rise the ranks of the Kubrick oeuvre. For me it sits in his top three just below “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001” A Space Odyssey”. Like his other war film “Paths of Glory” Kubrick cuts the film in two distinct halves. Each half is a masterpiece in it’s own right and when put together greater than the sum of its parts.

The opening starts with some popular music – something we aren’t accustomed to in the Kubrick universe – Johnny Wright’s “Hello Vietnam” while our characters’ hair are being buzzed off. Kubrick is stripping his characters down – bare – so they can be shaped into the stone cold Marines they will become. Then we get a loud introduction to Gunnery Sgt Hartman (Lee Ermey) – a drill instructor with the most foul mouth to ever grace the screen. The opening half of the film which takes place entirely within these training barracks is hell on earth for these characters. As the verbal and physical abuse continues the character of Joker (Matthew Modine) emerges as the leader and protagonist. We also meet Leonard “Pvt Pile” (Vincent D’Onofrio) who is eloquently described by Hartman as a ‘digusting fat body’ and a ‘slimy fucking walrus-looking piece of shit’. The abuse doesn’t harden Pile into a Marine though – his mind is carved into a psychotic who will eventually take his anger out in the most violent of ways.

The second half is like an entire different film. Only Pvt. Joker and Pvt. Cowboy continue on in the film. It’s months after basic training. Joker, looking more relaxed and comfortable with his position in the army, is a war correspondent who writes articles for “Stars and Stripes” magazine. Joker is assigned to cover a platoon on reconnaissance after the famous Tet offensive. Like the first half Joker’s tour becomes a journey into hell. When the platoon gets lost they encounter a lone sniper that will test their physical and moral strength.

The Kubrick style is in our faces loud and clear. He elegantly glides his camera easily across the pristine floor of the training bunks. The rows and rows of beds allows for some immaculately composed shots – mostly symmetrical compositions of course. In the second half, Kubrick spares no expense in the production design – creating Vietnam out of the English countryside. Kubrick’s frame is composed just as carefully, specifically the use of the omnipresent background smoke. I can’t even fathom the logistical nightmare of coordinating the billows of smoke miles in the background. But it’s these details that make the film a visual delight.

The final sequence which follows the platoon into the abandoned town to confront the sniper is the highlight. Watch the amazing long tracking shot from behind the soldiers as they crouch and run into their positions (notice the similarities in these shots to “Saving Private Ryan”). Watch the subtle lighting changes throughout the scene as the sun goes down. The scene moves from standard daylight to magic hour light to complete darkness. Again watch the fire and smoke which seems to breathe a life of its own. And that’s only the background!

The confrontation with a lone sniper presents the soldiers with a moral conundrum. After all the immoral death Kubrick makes us sympathize with his exposed and defenseless victim. This final scene is important not just in conveying the theme of the film – the duality of war – but also the themes of Kubrick's career.

Like most of his films “Full Metal Jacket” is largely inhumane, showing us an emotionally unencumbered world of violence. But after almost 2 hours of dehumanization Kubrick slaps us with a moment of humanity. And the denouement which takes the soldiers back to childhood reinforces his theme of innocence regained. Enjoy.



Tuesday, 10 November 2009

North By Northwest

North By Northwest (1959) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Cary Grant, Eve Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Despite its sterling reputation, Hitch’s sprawling cross country epic adventure was never one of my favourites. Perhaps it was the overly-preposterous maguffin plotting, or the extensive and often distracting overuse of his rear projection process shots, or its over length (it was Hitchcock’s longest running time, clocking in at 2:15mins) but on Blu-Ray, it’s a completely different experience, a pristine and stunning high definition presentation which makes the entire picture larger than life and close as ever to the big screen immersive theatrical experience.

The story behind the making of the film which is revealed to us in the beautifully designed Warner Bros liner notes indeed stemmed from Hitchcock’s desire simply to make his biggest movie to date - a disposable action picture bereft of the psychological layers he previously dug himself into in ‘Vertigo’ or would go on to do in his subsequent effort, ‘Psycho’.

‘North By Northwest’ is breezy entertainment to say the least. The plotting is as fantastical and paper-thin at best. Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a NYC Ad exec (think Don Draper with a sense of humour) who randomly gets pulled into a cab by a couple thugs carrying guns who claim he's a CIA spy named George Kaplan. When Thornhill escapes the clutches of the baddies he finds himself on the run, a journey which would take him by plane, train, and automobile from NYC to Chicago to Indiana to South Dakota trying to clear his name.

When he inadvertently gets a murder rap pinned on him, he’s made a fugitive from the law as well as the suited heavies. With no one to trust he finds himself helped by a mysteriously femme fatal blondie, Eve Kendell (Eve Marie Saint) who uses her sexual powers to seduce Roger then double-cross him back into the clutches of the spies. Thornhill finds trouble and adventure in a number of wild situations including the UN building, Grand Central Station, the streets of Chicago, the prairies of Indiana and finally and most famous Mount Rushmore.

Despite the danger Hitchcock never lets Thornhill take the situation too seriously. His ability to take the piss out of anyone and any tense situation adds a typically Hitchcockian and British wry comedic tone.

All the other hallmarks of Hitchcock’s style is heightened. The film works best as series of set pieces, all of which are impeccably choreographed to maximum suspense. The crop dusting scene is still one of his best ever directed sequences. As Thornhill stands along at the desolate crossroads, even before the plane strikes Hitch teases us with the sound of the bi-plane humming in the background. He misdirects us away from the plane by having Thornhill converse with waiting bus passenger on the road. And when Hitchcock decides to have the plane strike at him his use of composition and editing creates teeth shattering tension and danger.

Though the scene takes place in the wide open, and in bright day light, this scene is made frightening by the isolation of Thornhill in the expansiveness of the environment. This is a consistent theme throughout. In every scene Hitchcock is conscious of the placement of his characters in space and architecture. The UN scene is a good example, his wideshots frame in the high ceilings and lengthy staircases of the interior design and the final magnificent exterior overhead shot of the building, which shows Thornhill leaving in a cab is framed to shrink the character against his surroundings. This is the entire purpose of the Rushmore sequence, his character having their final confrontation on a mountain sculpted into by four massive heads into the rock.

“North By Northwest” is not perfect either. The third act resolution in South Dakota is long and takes too much time trying to explain the narrative jumps it took to tease us for the previous two acts. We’re also left without much to resonate with. The final phallic train shot entering the tunnel is subliminally clever and cheeky but is also as eye rolling as James Bond double-entendres as well.

I used to have a major problems with Hitchcock’s insistence on cheating studio interiors for exteriors, even into the late 50’s when on location shooting was common in Hollywood. Hitchcock even places his characters on hideous studio-confining treadmills against prerecorded backdrops to do exterior walk and talks. But under the high definition Blu-Ray treatment these scenes blend in better than they ever looked on VHS or DVD.

As usual Warner Bros’ respectful packaging, design and special features are worthy of this great film.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are (2009) dir. Spike Jonze
Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo
Voices: James Gandolfini, Maureen O’Hara, Chris Cooper

***½

By Alan Bacchus

After 3 years of publicized production and post-production difficulties bringing this picture to the screen which caused much gossip as to the quality of film it was all worth the wait. In fact, Where The Wild Things Are is better than we could have hoped and exactly the kind of idiosyncratic auteuristic picture we wanted from Spike Jonze.

The notion of Jonze adapting Maurice Sendak’s 1960's children’s book was certainly a risky choice, potential for both triumph and complete failure. After all “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” were both phenomenally original films, but this story NOT a Charlie Kaufman script, but a sparse 19-page picture book, with a wide open canvas for adaptation.

The finished film is a courageous work of art, a wholly unique experience, meeting and exceeding our high expectations. Under anyone’s else’s watch this film would have been turned into an fantasy extravaganza, replete which mondo special effects, overly designed fantasy worlds, fantasy creatures and Pixar/Disney sappy comedic tones. After all, it’s a familiar story, a troubled and lonely child retreats to his dreams where he finds a fantastical world of monsters, of which he makes himself king.

The actual book is only 19 pages, and only about one sentence per page, a very sparse jumping off point for Jonze and his co-writer Dave Eggers. The film version expands on the opening pages of the book, showing us the lonely existence of Max a rambunctious and imaginative 11 year old who is too young to hang out with his newly pubescent sister and who receives little attention from her newly dating single mother. As a result Max has his imagination to retreat to, and when his mother chastises him for standing on their kitchen table proclaiming himself a king, he runs away from home. His flight transforming him not unlike Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, into his own fantasy world of his subconscious mind.

Max finds himself in a world inhabited by giant beasts, or ’Wild Things’ as the title suggests. Max, dressed in his wolf pyjamas, plays the role of a king in order to convince the beasts not to eat him. He befriends their leader Carol (James Gandolfini), a volatile personality who is as innocent and congenial as he is on the edge of destructive violence. Over the course of the next few days Max explores the island and caroses with his new beastly playmates satisfying all the inhibitions and desires he couldn't express at home.

The joy of the film lies in Jonze’s steadfast determination to root the story in reality. His choice of using the Jim Henson Creature Shop ’old school’ designs is retro-inspired. His wild things are a seemless blend of old fashioned men in furry suits and carefully-used and near-invisible computer effects. But its the techniques of the past which have been obsolete for over 15 years now that adds the real-world organic quality.

It's just one aspect of Jonze’s remarkable ability to retain the simplicity of the story. While there’s little plot in the book there’s just as little going on in the film. Yet it sustains its 1 hour, 40mins running time admirably.

Jonze is in tight control of his tone - a melancholy sense of reflection. While the action in the story is generated from Max’s childlike imagination, it's told through the eyes of Jonze, the adult. His direction of the voice actors is inspired, favouring natural, understated voice cadence and dialogue over jokes, punch lines and all traditional template dialogue we hear in kids flicks. The characters are simple, so are the words coming out of their mouths, but the way the lines are read feels sophisticated and complex. Jonze’s camera work is typical of his style. Once again his favourite lensman, Lance Acord shoots the film handheld and natural without it feeling 'shaky'. Carter Burwell’s touching score, which Jonze said, was influenced by listening to Arcade Fire, finds completes the tonal consistency. And so this is how Jonze achieves his vision, an auteur sensibility which fits in perfectly with his two Kaufman films.

“Where the Wild Things” is a kids film made for adults, which, unfortunately means it never ever had a chance to make the big bucks its Disney conpatriots exploit for their adaptations. Though it will not make $100million dollars at the box office, the film is a success, a great success. While children most will not be able to comprehend the dark and melancholic tone there’s no doubt Jonze’s film will last much longer than ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Meatball” or ‘Monsters Vs. Aliens”.