DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: January 2010

Sunday 31 January 2010

This Is It

This Is It (2009) dir. Kenny Ortega


By Alan Bacchus

Admittedly I had suspicions about releasing a film about Michael Jackson at the height of the sometimes over the top exaltation and extreme public mourning of the man’s death. Admittedly my impressions of him was as an aging pop icon who hadn’t performed in public for over a decade, and who had become a frail shadow and parody of his former self.

And so this is what makes ’This Is It’ so enjoyable, the complete opposite of my expectations.

As we all know Michael Jackson had announced a 50 day concert in London to be his swan song, his last performances maybe? In any case, the potential to give his fans a once in a lifetime chance to plays his greatest songs and rekindle the great choreography he was famous for. Of course, Jackson died before the premiere of the concerts, but left a rather extensive video documentation of the rehearsal and preproduction of the shows.

What was intended only for EPK usage and for Jackson’s personal archives got turned into a feature documentary by the stage director Kenny Ortega.

Admirably Ortega leaves the most of the Jackson ‘heal the world’ hyperbole on the floor and concentrates on showing as much performance footage as he can. We get to see a dozen or so songs of Michael’s greatest hits performed on stage backed up by his live band and back up dancers.

With minimal stage pyrotechnics and elaborate costuming, we get to concentrate solely on Jackson;s performance as singer and dancer. Its actually quite remarkable what we get to see, a man at 50 years old, dancing step for step with the best dancers in the world in their primes and half their ages. Considering Jackson's frail physique his skill and stamina is astounding, And even more astounding is that for most of the footage Jackson’s only rehearsing, therefore working at half speed, preserving his voice and his strength.

What the film ultimately turns out to be is a fascinating look into the process of an artist. Watching Jackson shape the talents of collaborators - dancers, musicians, choreographers and lighting technicians - is the greatest thrill. Jackson comes off detail oriented, fine tuning the details to fit his artistic sensibilities and to deliver the best show possible to his fans. Behind the curtain Jackson is much like his public persona, soft spoken, but firm, modest and accommodating of others. He’s certainly no Bob Fosse, but a great artist with his own effective method.

Jackson’s dancers, who have the most privileged gig for their profession get well deserved screen time, confessing to the camera their appreciation for this opportunity to work with their idol.

Saying that, it also feels like a half produced film, which ironically aids in the experience of the film as an unfinished work of art. There’s a moment when Jackson describes his request to have a spotlight move around on stage, for Michael to step into and thus begin Billie Jean. Since its just a rehearsal we don’t ever see that light, we just have to imagine its there, imagine Jackson in costume, and imagine him singing at full capacity to a real audience. This is the sense of loss, an emotional resonance which underpins the film without overloading it with sympathy or any of the shameless and kitschy public remembrance ceremonies which followed his death back in the summer.

“This Is It” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Saturday 30 January 2010

Sundance 2010 - WINTER'S BONE

Winter’s Bone (2010) dir. Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Kevin Breznahan


By Matt McUsic

In 2004 Debra Granik won the Sundance Directors award for Down To The Bone. She returns to Sundance in 2010 with a masterwork that slowly lures in an unsuspecting audience, taking them on a harrowing tale through the Ozark methlab underworld. Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is simultaneously a fish out of a water and an unwilling insider by blood in the impoverished hillbilly organized crime scene. If you think Mafia movies are scary, try toothless, tattooed greasers who have truly nothing to loose by killing you. Such is the lot Ree is forced to deal with when she finds out her missing Father has put the family home up for bond and now risks repossession if he doesn’t show for his court date. Already on edge having to raise her younger brother and sister, Ree is forced to find her Father within a week or prove that he is dead.

The characters may sound cliché on paper, but Winter’s Bone is so genuine in mood and dialogue that we completely accept this world and the drama that enfolds within it. We sit on the edge of our seats enraptured as Ree tries every conceivable avenue to find her Father in his diabolical circle of “friends”. In a deeply patriarchal world with a barbaric code of conduct the stubborn Ree is in over her head from the very start, and knows it. But she’s a woman on a mission to save her family, and so Daniel Woodrell’s story has set up a complex character that must overcome her fears if she is to prevail.

Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Ree is the stuff of indie-oscar material and reminded many at the festival of Melissa Leo’s tour-de-force performance in Frozen River. But it’s John Hawkes who steals the show as Ree’s Father’s brother, Teardrop. His intensity and dark-charisma on screen is mesmerizing and unpredictable. Debra Granik keeps the string tight, maintaining the suspense with enough plot while taking advantage of every opportunity to infuse the film’s world with rich detail. Music, cinematography, location (filmed in Missouri) and writing all work together under an auteur’s unifying hand. The result is a focused, deeply layered piece of cinema that will leave you hungry for the next Debra Granik journey.

Friday 29 January 2010


Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) dir. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg


By Alan Bacchus

The filmed document of a year in the life of Joan Rivers, at 75 years old, still energetic, ruthless and talented, becomes a great metaphor for not only the philosophy she has applied to her entire career but the struggle for any comedian or entertainer who has to mix entertainment with business savvy in order to make a living.

The film opens up with Joan having her make-up put on, a labourious process which involves painting a layer of brown foundation to substitute for a tan. Rivers has been the butt of jokes for years for her multiple plastic surgeries, but as the film will reveal, being a woman without traditional good looks in the entertainment business has made her highly self-conscious, which ultimately helped fuel her desire to succeed.

After her make-up we meet Jocelyn, her assistant for over decade, who goes through her agenda - a black book, which upon seeing the blank white pages puts the fear of God in Joan. The filmmakers portray Rivers as a chronic workaholic, a career which Rivers she once described as like an entity unto itself, like another person in the family.

And so we watch a year in the life of Joan, booking gigs via her manager and agent, from her television appears on the shopping channel to the struggles of her stage play in Britain to her appearance on Celebrity Apprentice and Comedy Central Celebrity Roasts. Every step of the way she candidly looks back on her rise to fame, the ups and downs including the absolutely worst moment, the suicide of her husband Edgar.

Joan Rivers doesn’t come off as completely modest and grounded as many celebrities claim to be. But admirably Joan is self aware enough to admit she appreciates the good things her money has afforded her in life, like her ridiculously extravagant bourgeois NYC condo which as looks as if its been decorated by Marie Antoinette herself. This of course has been part of her act for years, her ability to self-deprecate herself as much as she critiques people.

The film is a breeze, with a surprisingly quick pace. Like her act, there never a dull moment, constantly taking the piss out of herself and the people and places she encounters along the way. We never ever sense superiority though, as a veteran of the entertainment business she’s respects the rules, that at any moment she could be out of business, forgotten and a has been. And so at 75 years, her ability to still make ‘em laugh is admirable, but to keep working no matter what the gig is the goal.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Sundance 2010 - TWELVE

Twelve (2010) dir. Joel Schumacher
Starring: Chace Crawford, Emma Roberts, Rory Culkin, Zoe Kravitz, Curtis Jackson


By Alan Bacchus

Having knowing nothing about this film, from the opening scene, listening to Kiefer Sutherland’s voiceover describe the landscape - Upper West Side Manhattan, Chace Crawford as a high class dealer supplying the superficial children of the wealthy elite with drugs, I doublechecked the press notes, is this Gossip Girl: The Movie? No, apparently it’s based on an acclaimed novel by Nick McDonell. Whatever form the novel took, Schumacher has turned it into a grade z version of Gossip Girl.

The story, setting and casting is the just tip of the iceberg of crap. The title refers to a new street drug called ‘12’ a mixture of coke, ecstasy and other expensive drugs which is getting all the upperclass kids high, Crawford plays ‘White Mike’ (seriously that’s his name), a drug dealer who doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs, just sells them. His cousin Charlie, addicted to the new stuff has gotten himself killed by Lionel (Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson).

Meanwhile Chris (Rory Culkin), a runt of a kid and wannabe of the in crowd hosts a bunch of parties as his house, which serves as the gathering place for the good looking people to get wasted.

Molly is a clean cut gal with good grades, who accidentally takes some of the new drug and instantly gets hooked but finds herself doing anything to score some '12.'

There’s also Claude, Chris’s older brother, a psychopath who returns from rehab to hole up in the family mansion to lift weights and practice his skills with a samurai sword.

Rounding out most of the other characters some of the typical stock airhead rich girl characters from Gossip Girl.

All the subplots come to a head at one raucous party at Chris' house with the demand for the ‘12’ drug at the centre of the conflict. Molly gets raped and Claude goes off on a shooting rampage

Kiefer Sutherland’s faux poetic narration is so intrusive, when he’s not explaining what’s in the character’s heads, he’s giving us inane and useless details of the characters lives.

All character speak ridiculously overwrought soap opera melodramatic dialogue that makes Gossip Girl look like Shakespeare.

The plotting, the drug deals, and the petty teenage cliquey conflicts are written and executed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, I’m still not sure it was intended as comedy or drama.

The final nail in the coffin occurs at the very end, the inclusion of a quote from Albert Camus.

The only respite comes when Schumacher blasts a Julian Plenti song 'Only If You Run', which pulses over the picture credits.

How does Joel Schumacher keep making movies? ‘Twelve” is the unintentionally hilarious non-comedy of the year and the biggest disaster of the Festival, which puts it in the company of ‘Showgirls‘ and ‘Glitter‘. A drinking game based on this movie is not far off.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Sundance 2010 - FOUR LIONS

Four Lions (2010) dir. Chris Morris
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay


By Alan Bacchus

‘Four Lions’ positions itself to be the ‘In the Loop’ of this year’s festival, a jet black British comedy about four hapless wannabe Islamic terrorists who have declared their own personal Jihad. Director Morris throws caution in the wind with the biggest set of cinematic balls this side of Werner Herzog. Miraculously Morris manages to make terrorism hilarious.

Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a British Muslim, living in conspicuously unnamed London. He’s disillusioned with the treatment of Muslims around the world and thus desires to join Al Queda. He joins up with a three other likeminded stooges to plot their own act of terrorism at home. The hapless foursome includes a blue collar Joe and convert to Islam, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), Waj (Kayvan Novak) is a complete dufus who lets Omar do the thinking for him and Faisal who is even more hapless and clumsy than Waj.

After a training mission in Afghanistan goes wrong - Omar accidentally firing an RPG backwards into their own desert encampment - Omar and Waj return home to wage war.. Their target is a city marathon whereby they intend to dress up as costumed clowns with bombs hidden under their clothes. But as the clock ticks down second thoughts about their action conflict with the patriotic fervour.

The similarities to ‘In the Loop’ go even beyond the tone and subject matter. Both are productions of Channel Four film in the UK and Chris Morris, the director, comes from the Armando Iannucci think tank of comedy, having worked with he and Steve Coogan on the BBC2’s ’The Day Today.’

The film scores big points for its sheer audacity, the stuff of great black comedies, the ability to skewer what’s sacred and delicate. Morris conducts his farce with the same rhythm in the tradition of the great Brit-coms. Jokes are of the deadpan and slapstick variety in the tradition of the cinematic idiocy of say, ‘Spinal Tap’.

“Four Lions” unfortunately is missing some of the cinematic quality of “In the Loop”, often feeling contained and closed off like a television series rather than a larger canvas of a feature film. As well, the film suffers from a sameness in the some of the characters. Although the four actors have the right type of deadpan comedic timing and charm, there’s little to differentiate between Waj, Barry and Faisal with the jokes are interchangeable within these three characters.

But for sheer audacity and its tone of irresponsible comic nihlism ‘Four Lions’ is a whole lot of fun.

Sundance 2010 - GROWN UP MOVIE STAR

Grown Up Movie Star (2010) dir. Adriana Maggs
Starring: Tatiana Maslany, Shawn Doyle, Andy Jones, Steve Cochrane, Jonny Harris


By Alan Bacchus

No one can accuse writer/director Adriana Maggs of being a moderate, polite, subdued Canadian. The Newfoundland-shot ‘Grown Up Movie Star’ sends a grenade into the coming-of-age subgenre of cinema. Innumerable films have been made about the entrance of boy or girl into adulthood, including two or three here at Sundance alone, but few have been able to draw characters as fresh, honest and lovable from such extreme emotional turmoil as the newfies in this film.

Perhaps its the fact that it comes out of 'The Rock', the affectionate term for the our eastern-most province, Newfoundland, which allows it to avoid all clichés of the genre. With its complex melodramatic family plotting “Grown Up Movie Star” threatens to fall apart at the seams at any moment, but Maggs precariously balances boundary pushing edgy sexual comedy with sharp biting humour and holds it all together.

Maggs sets up a very complicated household situation for much her fractured family. Ray (Shawn Doyle) is a former hockey player and the downtrodden father to two daughters, whose mother has left them for Hollywood to pursue an acting career. Ruby (Tatiana Marslany) is a mature and sharp 14 year old who has stepped up to take care of herself and her 11 year old sister Rose (Julie Kennedy). The idea of Ray raising two daughters going through adolescence, on his own is challenging enough, but when he’s trying to reconcile his own personal sexual complications, he’s going through a headspinning labyrinth of emotions. Ruby’s increasing awareness of her sexuality causes her to have her own dreams of grandeur of becoming a Hollywood movie star, and so she cozies up to her Uncle Stu (Jonny Harris), a wheelchair bound photographer with a creepy predilection for young girls - a dangerous concoction which will bring to a head a history of family conflicts.

For once Maggs has written in a sophisticated version of a small town modern family. Ray and Ruby’s relationship is written with such realism, we can’t predict the reactions of each other to their own emotional revelations which arise throughout the film. Yet Maggs’ precise control of tone and remarkably realistic characters say exactly the right things at the right time. From drugs, homosexuality, pedophilia, rape, blow jobs, broken foreskins, Maggs admirably never gives her characters a break, and is miraculously on the mark with everything.

Despite the melodramatic plotting there’s some dark comedy to be mined from these absurd situations as well. Though Maggs is a writer of television comedy she doesn’t manufacture traditional set-up/punch lines jokes or gags, her comedy simmers underneath the intense dramatic moments, and emerges naturally out of her characters’ reactions to the extreme situations.

For example, Ruby's reaction to walking into Dad getting a blowjob from her high school gym teacher - a shocking discovery which she approaches with real world honest intelligence. Despite being from a small town, homosexuality is not frightening to her, she’s a child of a pop culturally aware generation familiar with gay culture. So she’s not so much angry with Dad for his sexuality but the lies he’s been hiding from her all this time.

Perhaps the greatest marvel of the film is the discovery of Tatiana Maslany who breathes life into Ruby. The young actress has a face that can express maturity and emotional vulnerability, a performance that leads ‘Grown Up Movie Star” to be one of the boldest and ballsiest coming of age films in a while and certainly one of best films of the festival.

Sundance 2010 - SKATELAND

Skate land (2010) dir. Anthony Burns
Starring: Shiloh Fernandez, Ashley Greene, Heath Freeman, Brett Cullen


By Alan Bacchus

‘Skateland’ plays like a more genuine ‘Adventureland’. The similarities are there, both films have amusement parks as their key locations, both use the early 80’s as the time period to express to pivotal life changing moments of the lives of young people stuck between youth and adulthood and between freedom and responsibility. Yet ‘Skateland’ is able to capture a genuine poignancy about the era and thus deliver a surprisingly satisfying and lingering coming of age drama.

It’s the early 80‘s and Richie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez) is a customer service manager of the local Skateland roller rink in Austin Tx, which like ‘The Last Picture Show‘ is about to be shut down. Ritchie spends his days rollerskating, drinking, hanging with friends and all the activities of someone’s senior year in high school. But Richie’s graduated and still without a distinct path in life. He’s a great writer though and even with encouragement from his supporting little sister he still won’t commit to his future.

Arriving back into town after a shortened career racing motorcycles is Ritchie old buddy Brent Burkham (Heath Freeman), a big man on campus, a confident and cocky playboy and the supreme guys’ guy. But he’s been courting a new girl, who happens to be the ex of the leader of a group of dickwad assholes. Periodically this group called the Four Horseman confront Brent and Ritchie looking to start a fight. Meanwhile Ritchie develops a relationship with Brent’s sister who encourages him to make plans and realize his full potential. Over the course of the summer Ritchie weighs his options, and ponders life’s new possibilties.

We’ve been bombarded with 80’s nostalgia throughout this past decade, and so ‘Skateland’ would appear to have jumped the shark as yet another attempt by the filmmaker to ‘write what he knows about‘. But somehow Burns manages to surmount all the clichés inherent in his conventional plotting.

Burns’ biggest aid is newbie lenser Peter Simonte luscious super 35mm cinematography. It’s so well lit and shot we expect to see high profile and recognizable actors underneath the beautifying light. But nope Burns has all no-namer, all of whom do more than just hit their marks, they bring a kind of freshness we didn‘t get from ‘Adventureland‘.

What‘s refreshing is Burns’ classical composition and minimalist editing philosophy, a style harkening back to the 1960’s where scenes would play out in wide shots without cutting in for traditional coverage. Burns trusts his actors to play a scene and get the proper timing and rhythm of the picture without the need to excessive editing. As such our eyes are allowed to relaxed, and our brains are less strained, thus contributing to the laid back languid enjoyability.

Burns’s score, as expected belts out a mix of 80’s pop classics from Blondie to Queen, as well as some lesser one-hit wonders to get your foot tapping. Burns is not afraid to overload his music on us if it accurately expresses the inner emotional state of the character. Take the finale for instance, Burns holds for a lengthy walking steady cam shot of Ritchie walking through the mall to find Michelle, the Modern English song ’I Melt With You’ expresses the foot tapping excitement of Richie as he’s about to give Michelle the good news.

Admittedly, by the mid point of the film I questioned what this film was about, a paper thin narrative with little forward movement, and little conflict. But I was never bored, and cared deeply for Burns’ characters. Much like ‘The Runaways’ the film admirably coasts full steam ahead on a full tank of genuine nostalgia and enthusiasm for its bygone era.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Sundance 2010 - THE DRY LAND

The Dry Land (2010) dir. Ryan Piers Williams
Starring: Ryan O’Nan, America Ferrera, Melissa Leo, Wilmer Valderrama


By Alan Bacchus

‘The Dry Land’, an utterly depressing version of the post war traumatic experience of a US soldier from Iraq unable to integrate back into regular society, is a beat down of monumental proportions. A beat down with cinematic flare, or a unique sense of character can make for great cinema, but with only moderate or adequate cinematic skills the despair on screen transfers into despair for the audience.

James (Ryan O’Nan) is greeted at the airport returning home honourably discharged from his tour in Iraq. He’s all smiles for about 5 minutes before James displays his first bout of mood swings, strangling his wife Sarah (America Ferrara) while sleeping in bed.

Why his family isn't surprised that James hasn’t coped well with his war experience is a headscratcher as its established James' father was a Vietnam vet who died of postwar self-destructive alcoholism. I guess why he even went into the army in the first place is the ultimate question.

Anyways, he needs a job of course, and without any options he’s forced to work at his father-in-law’s meat packing factory killing cows, slitting their throats and skinning them. If it couldn’t get any more depressed we meet James’ mother (Melissa Leo) who is a shut-in with emphysema attached to an oxygen tank. Eventually James gets up and leaves his wife to recall and reconcile the event which had him discharged.

Not more than five minutes ever goes by without a character crying, or fighting one another physically or emotionally. The film attempts to lighten things after James recruits his former army buddy (Wilmer Valderrama) into going on a road trip to find their old buddy crippled from battle. Writer/Director Williams attempts to humour us by showing the duo joy riding while shot gunning beers, and robbing convenience stores. Good times! Though curiously when it comes to partying with local motel prostitutes James draws the ethical line there.

Add in a whiny lap steel melancholy guitar score and it’s the sinks the film down even further into complete despair.

It’s all part of the string of clichés strung together to form this dull and depressing entry in genre of postwar trauma cinema. Best go and see ‘Brothers’ (the Danish version) which tells the exact same story right down to the police confrontation at the end, or ‘Coming Home‘, or ‘In the Valley of Elah‘, or even going way back to ‘The Best Years of Our Lives‘.

If the point of the film were to sympathize with and shed light on the poor situation many veterans of the Iraq war find themselves in, it does no justice for the cause. The best way to convince the Government to either get the hell out of the Middle East, or provide adequate post-war counselling is to make a good movie.

Sundance 2010 - CYRUS

Cyrus (2010) dir. Jay and Mark Duplass
Starring: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener


By Alan Bacchus

It’s exciting to see the staunch indie duo, the Duplass Bros, who have created their own brand of dramatic comedy, whether you want to call it mumblecore or not, step up their game. Well, first off, let’s put stop beating that dead horse, I promise I’ll (try) not to mention the ‘M’ word again.

With Fox Searchlight on board and Ridley and Tony Scott on their backs, The Duplasses have their biggest toybox to play in. They’re able to afford their first ‘Hollywood’ cast, employing McKay/Apatow players John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill as rivals for the affection of single mother Marisa Tomei.

Despite whatever increase in budget these guys were allowed everything else in the film seems to adhere to their usual modus operandi. The Duplasses use simple domestic relationships with an tinge of the absurd to create a quirky but sentimental heartwarming comedy about the fine line between love and war.

Reilly plays John, a late 30-something divorcee who just can’t seem to move on life. His world crashes fully when his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) reveals she’s about to get married. John goes on a wild embarrassing drunken bender at the engagement party, but also happens to meet and impress hottie Molly (Marisa Tomei). Sex comes quickly and so does true love which both people are not afraid to admit to each other. One problem… Molly lives with her slightly deranged man-boy son Cyrus (Jonah Hill) whom Molly is careful integrating into their relationship.

John tries his best to make friends and so does Cyrus, but John notices a particularly strange relationship between mother and son. They literally and figuratively have an open door relationship, where even the most delicate of subjects is not out of bounds. John is completely shocked when Cyrus boldly jokes to him, with poker-faced deadpan if he’s fucked his mother yet.

As John negotiates his way into the relationship he discovers a dubious game being played by Cyrus to get John to break up with Molly. Stubbornly John is not willing to back down resulting in an absurd childish and immature cold war.

Using a creepy false congeniality and a great psychopath stare, Jonah Hill wonderfully creates agonizing awkwardness between the trio. The brothers hold this stalemate out long enough before giving John the chance to pull back the veil of deception and get into the meat and potatoes of the conflict. Under anyone else’s watch in Hollywood, the battle between Cyrus and John would have started much earlier in the film, and heightened dramatically for broader comedic effect. But the brothers stay true to the ‘M’ filmmakers in them and draw out the agony of politeness with each other long enough to make the truth more satisfying.

Cyrus is not completely cynical like say, ‘The Puffy Chair’, there’s a warm tenderness which emerges, not unlike ‘Baghead’. Unfortunately what the final verdict comes down to is that the brothers have just not made their film funny enough to win over non indie-art-house audiences, but the genuine optimism in love and romance makes ‘Cyrus’ a modest though unmemorable addition to their filmography.

Sundance 2010 - THE RUNAWAYS

The Runaways (2010) dir. Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Kristin Stewart, Michael Shannon


By Alan Bacchus

This rock ‘n’ roll girl power film is the ideal showcase for Floria Sigismondi’s first feature. Music aficionados know her as the primo visual artist and the music video pioneer responsible for the grimy textured videos of Marilyn Manson and many other eye popping videos for artists such as Sigur Ros and Christina Aguilera. And so when Ms. Sigismondi writes and directs a drug-fuelled bad ass punk music film about Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford and the rest of the girl rockers The Runaways we must pay attention.

While the final film is spotty on its story and character, Ms. Sigismondi’s powerful visuals and 70’s punk attitude is like rocket fuel, moving us through the decade so fast, we barely notice its shortcomings.

The movie is being billed as the Joan Jett film, but its actually the story of Cherie Currie, the flamboyant drug addicted lead singer, which also serves as Dakota Fanning’s coming out party as a mature woman mixing it up, snorting coke and doing the nasty all over the place.

In fact, the movie begins with Currie’s entry into womanhood, the opening shot, a drop of blood on the ground, which when the camera moves up reveals it’s from between her legs. The symbolism is not lost on us, as quickly Currie turns into a full fledged woman once she realizes the power of her body and sexuality. But it takes the bombastic music producer Kim Fowler (Michael Shannon), who is looking for a female singer for the all girl rock band spearheaded by Joan Jett, to coax her into revealing her inner superstar.

Fowler quickly assembles the band and educates Jett, Currie and the rest of his girls how to be rockers. Once again Michael Shannon, who is currently on a remarkable string of scene stealing supporting roles, is a firecracker of inspired idiosyncratic creativity, playing Fowler as a glamed-up motivational speaker on speed. Fowler is willing to shamelessly exploit everything to do with the girls’ sexuality and abilities to cock tease his intended audience. And Fanning successfully sexes herself up relinquishing any preconceived memories of her as a ‘child actress’.

In the story, it takes just one rockin’ montage sequence to get the girls from naïve wannabe musicians to full fledged coke snorting, hotel room trashing rockers. The middle act sails along fuelled by all these debaucheries, raw guitar riffs and sexual energy of the band at its peak. The usual tropes of the rock and roll genre creep in, the downfall of the band from Cherie Currie’s out of control ego, Joan Jett’s conflict over the need for respectability and ultimately the core emotional arc, Cherie’s need to reconcile with her former family life she left behind years ago.

Along the way a few balls are fumbled. A relationship between Currie and the roadie fizzles, and her drug addiction and ego problems appear much too suddenly in the third act, as if Sigismondi forgot there needs to be narrative shifts in conflict and character to abide by.

Although the film is beautiful to look at with eye candy in every corner of each frame, surprisingly Sigismondi holds back enough not to make it look completely like a music video. And in a few sequences where Sigismondi’s music video look rears its head, against the rip roaring punk attitude, we have no problem forgiving these dalliances. Rock on.

Monday 25 January 2010

Sundance 2010 - BLUE VALENTINE

Blue Valentine (2010) dir. Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, Ben Schenkman


By Alan Bacchus

Derek Cianfrance would appear to have assembled the two best people for the job of bringing to life his loose and seemingly semi- improvisational neo-realist anti-love story. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams both veterans of naturalistic indie darlings ‘Wendy and Lucy” and “Half Nelson” feel like Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands in this one, a John Cassevetes couple who are at the end of their marriage, two people going different directions in their lives, but with the complication of having a young daughter.

It’s a particularly ambitious effort to show us a tender and hopelessly romantic courtship intercut with the said romance’s demise. We’re constantly shifting between two extremes - heartfelt expressions of love, which borders on preciousness and scenes of simmering hatred and anger which spills off into inarticulate bickering and conflict.

Despite Gosling’s high regard in these types of indie pictures, he’s the weak link in the duo. His character Dean is seen in the romance stages as an impossibly charming working class poet who, as a moving man, decorates the room of one of his elderly clients, a man who at once lifts heavy mattresses for a living but also plays sweet lullabies on the guitar and piano. In the present, he’s just a blue collar joe with failed potential. And there’s little subtlety in this transition with his balding hair, unironic moustache and Brando-esque carefree mannerisms, not to mention the annoying cigarette perpetually hanging from his mouth.

Michelle Williams as Cindy, on the other hand, is a marvel, and seems more suited to this working methodology. Even when Cindy's a complete shit to Dean, unreasonable and cold as ice, Williams riveting to watch, genuine and believable.

At 120 mins, it’s ridiculously long for such subject matter, but then again Cassevetes made near 3 hour films about the same stuff. Then again, I can barely sit through the overindulgences of Cassevetes which many people praise.

As such ‘Blue Valentine’ is a hit and miss affair. The two parallel stories of romance and tragedy works well in tandem with each other but standing alone suffers from the filmmaker’s over enthusiasm for his own work. But Cianfrance admirably wears his heart on his sleeve and goes for broke emotionally. He cannot be faulted for that.

This type of film is the toughest nut to crack, and contrary to what some might think, doesn’t entirely rest with the actors, instead the ability of the director and editor to shape the loose realism into something more formal and engaging. While not everything works, this could become quite a hit for those bohemian/New Wave romantics.

Sundance 2010 - ANIMAL KINGDOM

Animal Kingdom (2010) dir. David Michod
Starring: James Frecheville, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Jacki Weaver


By Alan Bacchus

With “Animal Kingdom’ the debut feature from Aussie director David Michod, we are bear witness to one of the most exciting new voices in masculine-fueled muscular cinema.

Michod wears his influences proudly on his sleeve, from Michael Mann to Paul Thomas Anderson and even the new crime masterpiece from Jacques Audiard, “A Prophet“. “Animal Kingdom” is an Aussie crime tour de force of its own, an elegant saga worthy of the same breath as these filmmakers and their own great films.

James Frecheville is Joshua ‘J’ Cody, Michod’s Henry Hill, or Michael Corleone or Malik from “A Prophet“, who enters the film wet behind the ears and exits the film a stone cold killer. We first see him watching Aussie game shows on TV while his overdosed mother lies dead on the couch. With nowhere to go he calls up his grandmother to ask what to do. And so J joins up with his estranged family of criminals, who up until then had been kept separate from him by his mother. There are his three uncles, including Baz (Joel Edgerton), the paternal leader, and the lady MacBeth mother of the group J’s grandmother (Jacki Weaver). Later, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) the most wanted and dangerous member of the family arrives and plots vengeance against the police Armed Robbery Squad which has instigated an all out bloody war against the family.

Though we’re in present day Melbourne, Michod crafts his world like the lawless west. J, the innocent, is thrown into the deep end of a precarious band of thieves. Under the leadership of Baz, the group is a disciplined family unit, under Pope’s command, he’s like Sonny Corleone leading the family into doom. J’s torn allegiances remind us of Clint Eastwood playing both sides of the gang war in Fistful of Dollars. But Michod arguably wrings out even more tension, because only we the audience are aware of the double crosses on the horizon.

As a first feature Michod is clear to project a muscular cinematic style. More specifically he’s channelling the auteur crime work of Michael Mann. His portrayal of his characters as family members first and criminals second has the same natural realism Mann adds to his genre pictures. Even Michod’s sound work and musical score is reminiscent of Mann’s ambient atmospheric soundscapes. Like Mann, Michod’s music overlaps and bridges scenes an effect which keeps the characters closely tied together.

He would appear to be a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, who like PTA, is not ashamed to slow down and admire his own work. Michod consciously lingers closely on his best shots, emphasizing the most minor of moments for heightened dramatic effect. At one point his camera moves around to reveal Pope ogling J’s girlfriend sleeping on the couch. The ironic Air Supply song which plays in the background has no real motivation being there, yet it works as the same kind of dramatic counterpoint as PTA’s firecraker scene set to Sister Christian in ‘Boogie Nights’.

Admirably Michod’s props up his admittedly thin narrative for the first two thirds with these extravagances. Under less capable hands these moments would reek of overindulgence, but Michod’s tone is consistently on the mark and thus we can appreciate these cinematic expressions as tools of a great auteur filmmaker.

‘Animal Kingdom’ is not perfect and works best as a great debut feature, the announcement of a new filmmaker to be excited about. Arguably the picture tends to sputter in the third act, but Michod admirably keeps his film under two hours, though I doubt the same will be said of his next film.

Sundance 2010 - BURIED

Buried (2010) dir. Rodrigo Cortes
Starring: Ryan Reynolds


By Alan Bacchus

‘Buried’ is one of the most remarkable executions of a high concept idea I’ve seen put to film in a long while. Spanish director, Rodrigo Cortes gains inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense who frequently shot his films with self-imposed restraints as a way of streamlining story and suspense.

‘Buried’ takes a note from Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” which took place entirely in as the title suggests, a lifeboat. That was an admirable venture for Hitch and his ability to create innumerable camera angles from this tight space, without being repititive and thus boring his audience. Cortes has even tougher assignment, shoot an entire movie inside a 7 foot by 3 foot box, with only one on screen character.

“Buried” starts with a great screenplay by Christopher Sparling, an American from Rhode Island who has engineered the great claustrophobic drama. The location cannot get any tighter than this. Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy who wakes up in a wooden box in the ground. As a truck driver in Iraq whose convoy had recently been attacked he can only assume he’s been captured by insurgents or terrorists. Curiously there’s blackberry, a flashlight, a knife, a pen and a flask in the box with him.

The cell phone even gets reception, and so his calls for 911, FBI, his employer and anyone else he can get a hold off has to overcome to absurdity of this extreme situation. Using ingenuity, common sense and just plain old persistence Paul gains as much information as he can about his location, his kidnappers and the cause of incarceration in order to engineer his escape.

Cortes miraculously makes 90 mins in a box as thrilling any Indiana Jones film. In fact, ‘Buried’ could even be considered an extension of the traditional cliffhanger serial. Over the course of 90mins in real time Paul has to surmount a number of increasingly dangerous hurdles, bindings on his hand, language barriers on the phone, dying flashlight and cell phone batteries, all dramatized with spinetingling suspense. At one point a snake even enters the box producing an intense raucous standoff between man and snake.

Ryan Reynolds is a tour de force, sustaining 90minutes in a box moving himself through a wide range of emotions - fear, pain hope, humour, sadness etc etc. And as photographed by Eduard Grau (“A Single Man”), the small space is given a number of different lighting schemes based on the mood of Reynolds' character.

‘Buried’ works on levels deeper than the high concept idea. Underneath the drama of the situation is a stimulating corporate indictment of big business' irresponsibility to its employees and the US government’s contradictions of its ‘leave no man behind’. And so, by the end, “Buried” reveals itself as more cynical than a traditional genre film and one of the most terrifying movie experiences in a long while.

Sundance 2010 - SMASH HIS CAMERA

Smash His Camera (2010) dir. Leon Gast


By Alan Bacchus

While Leon Gast examined the cult of personality so effectively via Muhammad Ali in “When We Were Kings”, in “Smash His Camera” Gast turns his camera back onto the men behind the lens who help create the persona of celebrities like Ali. “Smash His Camera” is no less fascinating than “When We Were Kings”, an utterly captivating portrait of the king of all Paparazzi Ron Galella, who famously stalked Jackie Onassis for 30 years and was even more famous for getting punched out by Marlon Brando.

For every four letter word he’s had thrown at him Galella has shot hundreds more stunning photographs of the world’s most famous people captured in truthful realism. There are few people who would condone the behaviour of a man like Galella, who plies his trade like a bottom feeding stalker jumping out at his subjects from any possible covert vantage point. Yet when Gaella and Gast show us the results of his work we can’t help but marvel at his artistic creations.

And when you hear the war stories from Galella‘s mouth as well as his domestic life with his devoted wife of over 20 years, our perception of Galella as the devil incarnate changes. Through interviews with admirers and denouncers Gast captures this contradiction with a light and humourous tone for maximum entertainment value.

Early on one of the interviewees, a fellow photographic artist, remarks that photography is an art form that anyone can do competently, but its the most difficult medium to master - a skill which doesn‘t require dexterity but an innate ability to capture truth on film with just one‘s eye. Gaella has that knack, but unfortunately it took 35 years of abuse and vilification to get respect for his work.

Gaella is from the old school of photographers, when they shot on real film, in black and white, and without the relentless competition today from anyone with a point and shoot digital camera. Because of Galella’s gung ho style and refusal to take no for an answer Galella became the best of his business.

As a subject Gaella is a fascinating personality, a New Jersey working class professional with an affable self aware and self-deprecating quality. In fact, one of his most famous photos wasn’t taken by him but features Galella photographing Marlon Brando from behind wearing a football helmet. Gast gets Galella to recount his encounters with Brando, Robert Redford, Liz Taylor and others. But it’s his 30 year subject of choice, Jackie O who gets in depth analysis. When asked about why he chose Ms. Onassis as his favourite subject he can only answer that perhaps he was in love with her. The constant chase between the two indeed when described and documented by Gast feels like a long rocky marriage.

Its too bad we don’t get reactions from Jackie O herself or the celebrities he harassed all these years. Though perhaps its for the best, for that would be a different documentary, and arguably a lesser one. ‘Smash His Camera‘ works so well because due to Galella‘s affable sense of humour and quirky obsessions Gast manages to get us to love this man who has caused such frustration and nuisance to the people he encounters on a daily basis.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Sundance 2010 - SPLICE

Splice (2010) dir. Vincenzo Natali
Starring: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, David Hewlett, Delphine Chanéac


By Alan Bacchus

With ‘Splice’ Vincenzo Natali continues his distinct mix of auteur intellectual science fiction he established so boldly with ‘Cube’, then broadened with ‘Cypher’ and ‘Nothing’. The high concept Natali has chosen to explore in his latest film is the area of bioengineering and genetics, an intense retooling of Frankenstein for the genetics generation.

Natali, working under the guidance of Guillermo Del Toro as executive producer, boldly pushing his cinematic boundaries of genre cinema producing a film so audacious he dares critics, and audiences, for good or bad, not to stand up and notice his film.

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley plays Else and Clive, a husband and wife team of superstar biochemists, whose work on creating animal hybrids finds them on the cusp of some major biomedical discoveries. But when the corporate heavies threaten to shut down their laboratories Else recklessly tries to combine human DNA with their test subject. The result is a unique new form of animal, a hairless anthropoid with tiny arms, squinting eyes and rabbit like legs. The duo soon discover the creature is growing like a fetus outside the womb into a woman-like beast creature.

Despite violent debates about the ethics of manufacturing such a creature without proper trial and experimentation there’s no doubt the creature is semi-intelligent and a full fledged growing and learning life form. Under the nose of the company the duo become father and mother to the animal whom they name Dren. But the blissful family dynamic doesn’t last as conflict from within and outside the trio threaten them all.

With today’s special effects technology available Natali masterfully manages the temptation to overdesign his creature effects. He approaches this aspect of his visual design with delicate kid gloves. The birthing scene of the creature is rendered with spine tingling suspense and its reveal as a cute humanoid, hairless rabbit like creature is thrilling. We’ve never seen anything like this before.

While the ethical questions raised about playing God, or playing Dr. Frankenstein, are intellectually stimulating if not obvious, Natali keeps a sharp sense of humour in the foreground. Natali and his characters are aware of the absurdities of playing mother and father to a hybrid genetic beast who looks like a female centaur and they maximize the comic opportunities to lighten any over seriousness which threatens the enjoyment of the film.

And so “Splice” oscillates between progressive science fiction and old school b-movie tones. I think Natali knows his movie is not far removed from the monster movies of the 50’s substituting nuclear fears with trendier biomedical fears. “The Fly” is a good comparison. And in fact, as a Canadian filmmaker Natali cleverly plays on the foundation of fellow Canadian David Cronenberg’s predilections with bio-horror.

Admittedly Natali makes some creative choices in the second half which test the audience’s acceptance of this fine line between b-movie silliness and being just plain sick and twisted. But in horror and sci-fi what’s the point in holding back. “Splice” is the perfect Midnight Movie, a rousing and wildly imaginative neo science fiction cult classic in the making.

Sundance 2010 - SINS OF MY FATHER

Sins of my Father (2010) dir. Nicholas Entel


By Alan Bacchus

The highly literal title of the picture adequately tells the story of a son atoning for the sins of his father. In this case, the son is the child of notorious Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

Having known little about Pablo Escobar’s story prior to the screening, the film works well as both a comprehensive history of the controversial and violent life of the cocaine king of the 80's and the effect of such a life on the children involved.

Pablo Escobar died in 1994, and to separate himself from his sordid legacy his son, Juan Pablo Escobar chose to change his name to Sebastian Marroquin, and live in exile in Argentina. In present day Argentinian director Entel follows Sebastien’s attempts to reconcile his father’s violent past and connect with the sons of the men Escobar killed during the violent political drug war.

Going back into television archives, still photos and home movies of Escobar himself, we learn of the rise of Escobar’s Medellin’s cartel into a billion dollar business. Early on Escobar’s contributions to the poor communities of Columbia, establishing infrastructure, relocating ghetto housing communities and building soccer fields for kids gave him the moniker of a Columbian Robin Hood. But when his attempts to get into legitimate politics are stymied by his own political colleagues the lustre of Escobar-the hero rubs off revealing him as a vengeful despotic madman.

Escobar famously ordered the assassination of two of Columbia’s most prominent politicians, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla and Luis Carlos Galan. These two events not only made Escobar an enemy of the Columbian people, but caused the sons of Galan and Bonilla to take up the torch of justice against Escobar’s stranglehold on the country.

And so the forgiveness of the sons of Galan and Bonilla becomes the symbol of catharsis for Sebastien.

Entel captures Sebastian’s journey to connect with his rivals, finding honest and genuine revelations of personal guilt and sorrow in a series of interviews at various stages in the journey. With competence he successfully interweaves the parallel stories of the Galan/Bonilla sons in the present revisiting their memories of their own father’s deaths and their own feelings of vengeance they once harboured. The men are sophisticated and self-aware and have clearly reconciled the events in the past a long time ago and so there‘s a distinct lack of suspense for this meeting. While their conversation is polite and congenial and accommodating, between the political lines, knowing the entrapment the drug trade has had on the nation for the past 30 years, the gravitas of the meeting for both them and their country is wholly palpable.

Sundance 2010 - CATFISH

Catfish (2010) dir. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost

**** (warning, dangerous spoilers below)

By Alan Bacchus


I’ve always said the best documentaries are the happy accidents, the films which reveal themselves to the filmmakers, as opposed to the filmmakers chasing subjects. “Catfish“ reminds us of “Capturing the Friedmans, my personal favourite documentary of the 2000’s and perhaps the best example of an unintentional film which begged to be made. Such is the case with ‘Catfish’ (coincidentally produced by Friedman’s director Andrew Jarecki). At once a complex story of love and romance in the digital age of social media, but also a fascinating psychological character study of how social media can give everybody the opportunity to edit one’s perception of his or her life.

The opening narration explains to us the seed by which their story found its spark. One day, photographer Niv Schulman, brother of the co-director, received a mysterious package in the mail. It was a oil painting artistic rendering of one of his photographs which appeared in a magazine. Not only was the painting good, but it was drawn by an eight-year old girl named Abby from Michigan. Fascinated by the gesture Niv contacts Abby via email and they start up a friendly penpal relationship. In fact, his relationship extends to Abby’s mom, Angela and other members of her family.

Via Facebook, Niv meets Megan, Abby’s half-sister, a talented and gorgeous singer/dancer. Over the course of eight months a few Facebook messages snowballs into a legitmate internet romance. As the romance appears close to blossoming into a formal in person meet up, a curious discrepancy is discovered by Niv, and his filmmaking partners.

The filmmakers stumble upon a larger story, more complex than a mere internet story, but a story in which they don’t know where it might lead. Schulman and Joost expertly convey this sense of discovery in both the participants and to the audience. They manage to wring out hairsplitting suspense just by watching Niv surf facebook, and google some facts about Abby and her family. Thus Niv and the filmmakers embark on a new millennium procedural investigation as thrilling as any detective novel, with social media outlets as their tools.

And when the boys choose to free themselves from the confines of their NYC office to physically visit the family suddenly we find ourselves embroiled in a suspenseful chase. The visit to the Michigan farm in the middle of the night is rendered with astonishing real world Hitchcockian suspense.

And once we know where the film is headed, in the third act, the filmmakers reveal another seismic psychological shift in expectations. The filmmakers handle the truth with admirable poise and respect. Especially for Niv who at one time poured his heart out in the name of love to Megan reconciles a betrayal with Megan’s deep psychological neuroses.

“Catfish” is captivating on so many levels, from the examination of the internet to the psychology of perception and multiple personalities all contribute to this broadening of the documentary form itself. Which brings me back to “Capturing the Friedmans”, which “Catfish” joins on the shortlist of great films of great personal discovery.

Sundance 2010 - BOY

Boy (2010) dir. Taika Waititi
Starring: James Rolleston, Te Aho Eketone-Whitu, Taika Waititi


By Alan Bacchus

Writer/Director Taika Waititi (Eagle vs. Shark) delves back his own childhood experiences expanding his Oscar-nominated short ‘Two Cars, One Night“ into this, his sophomore feature.

It’s 1984 and Boy is a young parentless child who has invented tall tales of his absentee father whom he hasn’t seen since the death of his mother. To Boy his father is a war hero, a deep sea diver, and crack escape artist. In his idiosyncratic kiwi style Waititi crafts a clever and imaginative pre credit sequence visualizing Boy’s adventurous life he has invented for his father

And so when his father, named Alamein after the WWII battle, actually shows up at his door, we’re quickly brought back down to the reality of his pathetic existence. It’s no surprise his dad is anything but the courageous adventurer, only a shadowy petty criminal who arrives with two of his dimwit buddies in search of a bag of cash buried before his incarceration. With his poofed out afro and handlebar moustache Alamein struts around Boy’s village like big man on campus, with Boy in awe of his boisterous but shallow presence. For Boy though, despite Alamein’s irresponsibility, he idolizes his father making up for lost time by engaging in paternal bonding in samurai posturing, and marijuana picking.

Like Eagle Vs. Shark, Boy coasts on the same whimsical tone of absurd deadpan comedy and melancholy personal reflection. The skewed Kiwi humour mixes well with his rather indistinct Wes Anderson/Jared Hess visual style.

It’s the year of Thriller and even in the far corner of New Zealand, on the other side of the world the king of pop has managed to touch the dreams of this humble 11 year old boy. Though the early 80’s aesthetic is past being played out cinematically admittedly it produces some fun dream sequences involving Boy’s idol Michael Jackson. The end credit sequence in particular, an extended Maori version of the Thriller, dance provides a rip roaring finale.

But its Waititi’s ability to mix fantasy with a real world humanist sensibility conveying a genuine bittersweet feeling of what its like to see witness the disintegration of one’s family. A remarkably profound flashback to Boy’s life before his mother’s death late in the picture elevates the poignancy of this picture to a level of maturity above “Eagle Vs. Shark” thus making the film a success.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Sundance 2010 - HESHER

Hesher (2010) dir. Spencer Susser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Natalie Portman, Piper Laurie, Rainn Wilson


By Alan Bacchus

TJ, an 11 year old boy dealing with the recent death of his mother just cannot seem to find a way to channel his grief. In the opening scene he’s chasing a tow truck driving the damaged family car which became the instrument of his mother’s death. For much of the film TJ sees this car as his last attachment to his mother, thus a misdirected symbol of his inability to move on.

His father Paul (Rainn Wilson), is not helping, moping around the house in jogging pants refusing to raise an inflection of his voice above a soft whimper. Living with the two, and trying to maintain optimism is the spry grandmother.

Thus arrives Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a teenaged metal head anarchist wearing long head-banging hair, and a tattoo of his middle finger on his back. Hesher enter TJ’s life as a force nature and becomes both the devil and the angel on his shoulder, a big brother and surrogate father. After a brief meeting in a vacant housing community where Hesher lights firebombs he arbitrarily shows up in TJ’s house to do laundry. Hesher doesn’t take no for an answer and by confidence, force and chutzpah manages to become part of the family.

Hesher’s a walking contradiction, at once a protector for TJ, a Tyler Durdon, who helps him loosen up and take confidence and authority in his life, and on the other a firecracker with tendencies toward dangerous violence against TJ. When the boy develops a crush on the waifish young grocery store clerk, Nicole (Natalie Portman) TJ forms a unique oddball trio of misfits on a ride of anarchic destruction around LA.

In dollups Hesher is the work of a creative talent with a unique voice in black comedy. Hesher is a hurricane of a character and director Susser even gives him heavy metal music stings to announce his presence. As played by the star-in-the-making Joseph Gordon-Levitt Hesher becomes the heaviest burden on the film. While his outrageous behaviour continually shocks us in humorous ways - the swimming pool scene is a standalone masterpiece scene of destructive rage - Susser doesn’t seem to be able to reconcile his character’s motivations consistently throughout the film. One moment he’s acting like a protective big brother, the other he‘s strangling the kid or punching his father.

Despite Levitt’s loud and boisterous performance, Piper Laurie steals the show. She’s almost unrecognizable as the sweet but sickly grandmother who doesn’t have enough energy to heal and consol TJ and Paul on her own. Yet, in one remarkable scene, Hesher and Grandma bonding over a bong, she manages to see through Hesher’s bravado (almost). Laurie’s performance echoes Alan Arkin’s Oscar-winning turn in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, and don’t count out this type of award consideration this time next year.

In the end, TJ's arc goes it where it should, Hesher providing the impetus for the family to move on. But the unevenness results in the film feeling like a collection of characters, tones and ideas without fully congealing into a whole equal to the sum of its parts.

Sundance 2010 - HIS AND HERS

His and Hers (2010) dir. Ken Wardrop

By Alan Bacchus

After christening the Festival with the grisly ‘7 Days’, Ken Wardrop’s ‘His and Hers’, was the best antidote - a delightful heartwarming documentary ode to women and their relationships with men.

Ken Wardrop, an Irishman, is kind of a legend in short filmmaking with a dozen or so idiosyncratic shorts which have won numerous awards around the world. Now, with the chance to make the big leap to features, his creative ingenuity successfully translates to the longer form.

It’s a remarkably simple concept - Wardrop attempts to tell the general story of women’s relationships with men from every age group of womanhood, from birth to death. A series of unrelated interviews with women who don’t know each other or have no connection whatsoever remarkably makes for a profound existential experience with the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Wardrop’s sense of humour and overall light tone is evident from the very first interview with a 3 month old infant in a crib. Of course the baby can’t talk, but its just the first form of life when a female comes into contact with a man - her father staring down at her in her crib. The next set of interviews are with young girls aged 1, 2, and 3, responding to offscreen questions telling stories about their dad or brother which is surprisingly profound and engaging from their unique point of view.

We start to notice the pattern at this point and one by one Wardrop’s interviewees age slowly and surely. As the women age their stories change. The pre-teen girls talk about their bratty brothers or annoying fathers, the teenagers talk gossipy about their adolescent crushes and the twenty-somethings talk boyfriends and marriages. And at the age when most women start bearing children we become privy to the joyous bond between woman (as mother) and child (as son).

And suddenly we notice the types of stories doubling back on itself, seeing the perspective change from childhood to adulthood.

The personalities differ with each interview and though all common sense would say that to tell a good story - documentary or fiction - we need to attach and identify with the characters - strangely with each 2-3 min interview Wardrope manages to find a dialogue so identifiable to the audience that all we need is this short period of time to fall in love and get sucked in by their lives.

And by the end, when the last elderly woman reflects on her life as a woman in relation to her family which is below her age, I was reminded of that great children’s book “Love You Forever” by Robert N. Munsch about the child born and loved by her mother, then gradually grows up and has her own daughter to care for and eventually in elder age must be cared for and loved by her own daughter. Like Munsch‘s book ‘His and Hers’ is a great and profound story about this cycle of life, love and family.

I need to go and hug my mom, my wife and my young 4 months old son now.

Sundance 2010 - 7 DAYS

7 Days (2009) dir. Daniel Grou
Starring: Claude Legault, Remy Gerard, Martin Dubreuil, Fanny Mallette


By Alan Bacchus

On a level of visceral nastiness Grou delves deep into the darkest emotions and examines the effect of the absolute worst kind of violence man can commit against fellow man. Based on the plot synopsis, and the Midnight Madness program in which the film plays, one might think the film as a revenge genre picture. For good and bad, 7 Days is a concerted effort to provoke and shock without any mainstream allusions - the Lars Von Trier, Michael Haneke tradition of visceral uncompromising physical and psychological torture.

In the opening sequence the absolutely most horrific event happens to the Hamels, Bruno and Sylvie (Legault and Mallette), a well-off upper middle class Montreal couple. After a brief domestic spat with their young 9 year old daughter, they get the news that she has been abducted from school, raped and murdered - an opening reminiscent of Antichrist, a horrific death due to the irresponsibility of the parents.

While Von Trier choreographed a stylish and lyrical sequence out of this painful event, Grou dramatizes it as dispassionate matter of fact. When Bruno goes to the site of the murder Grou puts his camera into a series uncompromising close-ups of the murdered body.

When the murderer is caught this sparks Claude’s grisly journey for revenge. Grou observes Claude’s cold and calculated step by step procedure to set up his plot. As a doctor Claude is able to remove the emotion of his actions and execute his plan like a clinical procedure. And so we get to watch, over the course of seven days, some of the most ungodly torture ever committed to the big screen. Stripped naked Claude smashes his knee, whips him with chains, and performs surgical operations to produce the most painful experiences while keeping him conscious and alive.

If the point of the graphic images were to shock us into a state of depression Grou has succeeded. But if the film were solely this relentless assault of pain, I would have left the theatre. The heart of the film emerges in the parallel story of Herve Mercure (played by the wonderful Remy Girard), the police detective, who is also suffering the loss of a loved one, his wife murdered in a petty theft convenience store robbery. Herve’s investigation is constructed like a classic cat and mouse procedural pursuit, with the detective passionately seeking to save Claude from permanently destroying his life in the name of revenge.

Grou’s tone echoes the quiet precision of David’s Fincher’s most dispassionate films. A cinematic formalism, simple and subtle camera moves continually draw the audience into Claude’s dark and damage psyche. But ‘7 Days’ actually fits into a larger prevailing movement of observational realism by a new wave of young Quebec filmmakers - Stephane Lafleur, Raphael Ouellet, Denis Cote and Maxime Giroux, and Yves Christian Fournier. All of these filmmakers and their films using a similar tone of detached realism to convey dark unspoken psychological emotions.

While this attention to detail in style and tone is admirable, Grou’s obsessed need to go where no director has gone before overshadows the film’s strength, the core character relationships between Claude and Herve - a missed opportunity bypassed in favour of cinematic cynicism.

Friday 22 January 2010

The Searchers

The Searchers (1956) dir. John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood, Vera Miles, Ward Bond


“The Searchers” is one of the all-time great Westerns. It deserves the title because “The Searchers” personifies best the mythologized period of time that Hollywood perfected. Ironically it’s one of John Ford’s later pictures (he was in his early 60’s), but his age doesn’t show. It's mesmerizing Hollywood studio classic.

John Wayne plays Uncle Ethan, a Civil War vet with a nefarious past who has returned to his brother's home for food and shelter. The return of Ethan is a joyful occasion for the kids but a sore spot for his brother. Unexplained conflict between the brothers hints at a lifetime of domestic differences. But while out on a scouting mission the ranch is attacked an Indian war party, his family murdered and his niece Debbie is kidnapped. From here on in Ethan's life becomes focused on revenge. Ethan, along with his half-nephew Martin Pawlsey (Jeffrey Hunter), embark on a decade-long journey to find the kidnapped niece and avenge his brother's death.

Ethan Edwards is one of the all-time great anti-heroes. In the cinematic mythological West, law and order is a relative entity. Ethan can be a stubborn racist, but a noble gentleman with his own personal set of ethics and morals. For Ethan, considering the heinous crime committed against his family, any and all means of rescue is justified. Edwards is singular in his mission, his character is superior to anyone and everthing he comes across.

"The Searchers" is a fascinating film because of the length of its narrative timeline. Ford takes us up and down the span of the U.S. West, across desert, mountains, and snowy fields. By the end of the journey Debbie is 10 years older, no longer the innocent victim Martin knew. She has spent most of her life in the company of Ethan's sworn enemy. As a result she becomes the enemy to Ethan. So what is Ethan's motivation? To find and rescue Debbie, or exact his own personal revenge against a lifetime of battles against the Commanche?

The High Definition presentation is a glorious experience - Ford's elegent compositions never looked better. One of the best scenes is Ethan's first confrontation with the Commanche. Watch the staging and build up of the action as Ethan's party is tracked by the Commanche's war party silently from a ridge off in the background distance. Ford was a master of composition, and though it wasn't his first film shot in Monument Valley, he uses the landscape to greatest effect.

While John Wayne's immense screen presence and star power invigorates every scene he's in, arguably the weakest moments is the subplot involving Jeffrey Hunter's character. Over the course of his journey Martin develops and undevelops a relationship with his childhood sweetheart Laurie (Vera Miles). It's provides comic relief but it's often pedantic and distracting from the sharply focused journey.

And there's the opening and closing shots, which never cease to send shivers down my spine - those two great book-ending of John Wayne in the distance seen through a doorway. These two moments are enduring because of three key elements - 1) the frame within a frame composition which, despite the long shot focuses our attention on Wayne's tall and sturdy frame. 2) The strong wind which seems to carry Ethan away. 3) The somber and graceful Stan Jones tune "The Searchers" played by 'The Sons of the Pioneers'.


Here's the fantasic opening:

Thursday 21 January 2010

Soul Power

Soul Power (2009) dir. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte


By Alan Bacchus

Like Leon Gast’s great ‘When We Were Kings’ documentary about the Rumble in The Jungle fight, it took 20 years after the event for the film to be completed. Well, a documentary on the accompanying music festival, has finally surfaced as well – an energetic instant classic as memorable as some of the greats music documentaries of its era, Gimme Shelter, Woodstock, and Monterey Pop.

Everything from the organization of the event to performances is covered with superb camerawork which appears to be everywhere at once, so why did it take so long to bring this great story and footage to the screen? Did the footage sit in someone’s basement waiting to be edited?

Unfortunately the DVD doesn’t enlighten us on the making of the film, so we just have to assume some legal and financing issues prevented the film some seeing the light of day until now.

As background, the bombastic fight promoter Don King, sought not only to create the greatest boxing match spectacle in the world, but in the spirit of black pride adjoin it to an equally spectacular 3-day music festival featuring an international array of Afro-American, African and Caribbean performers. King and fellow promoter Stewart Levine gathered an army of (film) cameras, cameramen and sound men to chart this event from its coordination in New York, the flight across the Atlantic, the great musical performances and its big picture effect on the Zairian people.

Music is everywhere in this picture - the stage, the streets, the airport. Even on the airplane, a sequence which could have made its own movie. The 13 hour flight from NYC to Zaire, featuring impromptu performances and instrument players in the seats of their plane is simply magical.

After watching from a verite perspective some of the hiccups it took to get everything set up logistically, at the 35mins mark the music starts. While not everyone we see are household names, each one has a distinct soulful and contributes to the energetic feeling of black pride.

The opening act, The Spinners, perform a fun and funky diddy complete with 6 part Motown-style choreography. The click song sung by Miriam Makeba, a South African woman singing in the native language which uses a clicking sounds generated by her mouth as part of her speech. BB King’s ‘Thrill is Gone’ has never ever sounded bouncier or funkier, and Celia Cruz’s Latino Cuban beats is exhilarating. And of course, James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, is at his creative peak.

If anything, I wished there were more superimposed titles telling us who we were watching and listening to. Other than Ali, Brown, BB King and a few others like George Plimpton, to ignorant eyes, they are just strangers. But during the credits we do get a recapped picture titles letting us in on the names of everyone we just saw.

With black pride is in full force, between James Brown, Ali, King and the others expounding joyously on the significance of ‘returning’ to their roots, watching the film with 30 years of hindsight adds even greater context knowing of the plight of African nations like Zaire, through the famine, Aids and the irresponsibility of leaders like Mobutu Sese Seko.

'Soul Power' admirably shines a strong light on this marginalized area of the world with maximum soul

"Soul Power" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Random Harvest

Random Harvest (1942) dir. Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Ronald Colman, Greer Garson, Philip Dorn, Susan Peters


Alan Bacchus

I know don’t much about amnesia other than some personal moments of memory loss after a heavy night of boozing. But if you look at the frequency and severity at which amnesia occurs in cinema it would seem like a frequent ailment. I don’t know anyone who has had amnesia, but it certainly makes for a great device for storytellers and the perfect solution for many screenwriting dilemmas.

In ‘Random Harvest’, Ronald Colman is introduced as a British soldier in the First World War who wakes up as a John Doe in a military hospital in England, without his memory. He’s not just without any memories, but he’s barely even able to speak. During his time in the hospital he eventually relearns to talk, and when an opportunity to leave the hospital presents itself, he wanders out into the streets. There he befriends a lovely and kind dancer/performer Paula (Greer Garson) who she names ‘Smithy’. But when she finds out he’s an escapee from the hospital, having develops an interest in him, she hides him. A romantic relationship blossoms and they progress toward marriage, and a settled life together.

But on a trip to Liverpool by himself, Smithy is hit by a bus and thrown back into hospital, with all his memories back of before the war, but without his memories of his life with Paula.

And so, Smithy lives out his former life as Charles Rainier, a wealthy businessman without ever bringing back the old memories of Paula. He’s courted by a young family friend who confesses her love for him and they begin their own settled relationship. But what ever happened to Paula? Years later, after an exhaustive search for Smithy shows up as his new secretary. Having been told by a psychotherapist that Smithy has to discover his memories by himself she is forced to work with him without revealing their previous love affair with each other. What torture!

Much like ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and Michael Winterbottom’s sci-fi romance ‘Code 46.’, losing memories, fate and love work hand in hand and will draw people back together. But if you’re going to use a cinematically contrived concept as amnesia, might as well milk it for all its worth. The contrived situation serves to examine the subliminal power of love which extends deeper in the mind and body beyond conscious memory.

Despite the contrived set up the film doesn't quite wring all the drama. The threat of the authorities finding the John Doe from the insane asylum isn't exploited enough. And the opportunity for dual lovers competing in the mind of Rainier is lost. As a result there's little conflict. It takes him 12 years to even contemplate the common sense test of retracing his steps in Liverpool to try and draw back his memories. Boyer in both his Rainier and his Smithy characters are consistently inactive with both Kitty and Paula, the women, taking the initiative in establishing the relationships. In fact, Paula has to remind Smith to kiss her after he proposes.

While poking holes in the common sense logic might seem like shooting fish in a barrel, with its fairytale-like simplicity and soap opera melodrama, the picture works on the level of Hollywood escapism and the ‘amnesia’ sub-genre of movies.

Tuesday 19 January 2010


Spartacus (1960) dir Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, Charles Laughton


By Alan Bacchus

Sure ‘Spartacus’ is not a ‘Stanley Kubrick’ picture. It has none of his usual visual hallmarks, hell there’s nary a wideangle tracking shot anywhere in the picture. But ‘Spartacus’ represents a great achievement for the great director man nonetheless, one of the benchmarks of his career, and arguably one of his best pictures.

The story behind the making of the picture is well known, the vehicle for Kirk Douglas, serving as star and executive producer of the legendary story of the Roman slave who rose up against the his tyrannical captors, united his fellow slaves and fought against the powerful Roman army. The first director Anthony Mann, a fine director in his own right, displeased Douglas for his ‘lack of scope’ and thus was fired a week into principal photography. Douglas, having established a good working relationship with Stanley Kubrick on ‘Paths of Glory’, hired Kubrick, then 30 years old, to step in and direct the picture.

Thinking back, the idea of Stanley Kubrick as a hired gun, parachuted into a studio picture and working completely under the auspices of is ridiculous. And indeed Kubrick famously quarrelled with Douglas and didn’t get to have the full command and final cut of his film. But it was a learning experience and since then Kubrick famously worked independently, outside Hollywood, as his own producer and always with complete control of the film.

So what would have Kubrick changed of ‘Spartacus’ if he had control? Apparently some gory battle scenes were cut out. I’d also wager he would have plunked much of Alex North’s music. Despite the acclaim, it’s hit and miss score. In the great montage scenes and the aggressive fight and battle sequence, North provides a rousing rhythmic build up, while in the love scenes, hammers home a whiney overwrought tenderness. Of course Kubrick doing tender romance has never been his strong suit - in fact, he’s never tried it since - and so it makes for the weakest elements of the film.

The best personalities exist on the Roman side of the field. Peter Ustinov is loveable as the foppish slave trader and gladiatorial trainer, especiall his banter with crass and cruel Charles Laughton. And Lawrence Olivier relishes his ambiguously gay legion commander role converting all that homosexuality into typical evilness - as is customary in Hollywood.

As for the heroes, Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus with such godlike deification, and lacking any edge, flaws or internal conflict. Same with Jean Simmons as the devoted wife, Varinia, as mentioned a role softened like melted butter by Alex North’s syrupy leitmotif. Even Tony Curtis who plays the former slave whose skills only include juggling and singing songs is monotone and dull throughout. And so in the final act without action we only have these personalities to drive the picture to its finale. Instead it sputters to a mere whimper.

Such is the trap of many of these epics, especially the ones which present its money shot at the end of the second act. The best moments in the third act include the heroic ‘I am Spartacus’ scene and the heroic fight between Antoninus and Spartacus wherein, the ‘winner’ gets crucified! I still have trouble trying to figure out the motivations in that scene.

So the final act is a stinker. The previous two and a half hours provide some of the most rousing sword and sandal entertainment ever produced in the Hollywood. The entire opening gladiator camp sequence is a truly magnificently extended sequence. The gladiatorial training, led by the gruff-voiced Marcellus (Charles McGraw), shows the fuel for Spartacus’s anger and inhuman barbarism of the Romans. Though, it’s Woody Strode, as the silent Ethiopian who wants to keep to himself and eventually heroically sacrifices his life for Spartacus who steals everyone’s scenes. He’s arguably, the most ‘Kubrick’ of any of the characters.

And of course, when it comes to the climatic confrontation between the Gracchus’ army and Spartacus’ there’s few if any battle scenes hyped up and delivered with more cinematic awesomeness. And to think it was all conceived and choreographed by a 30 year Hollywood outsider with only two comparatively smaller features under his belt. To have and disown a film like this on one’s resume is one of the great anomalous asterixes in Hollywood history.