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

Sunday, 28 February 2010


Bronson (2009) dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance, Kelly Adams, Amanda Burton


By Alan Bacchus

One of the wildest, most idiosyncratic and uniquely cinematic films in recent memory might just be “Bronson”. Anyone familiar with Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s muscular crime films, “The Pusher Trilogy” will recognize his provocative style. Bronson’s joyous sense of anarchy stands up to the chaos of “Fight Club” and the synaptic stimulation of “Natural Born Killers”.

Michael Peterson, who coined his own alternate name, Charles Bronson, is Britain’s most famous criminal. An infamous celebrity manufactured by Bronson himself through a life of almost impossibly violent behaviour. He loves violence, loves civil disobedience, loves fighting people. He marvels at his fists like deadly weapons. From this reputation as the most violent man in Britain Bronson has been lived 30 of his 34 prison years in solitary confinement.

Refn’s brilliant film tells Bronson’s story from the fractured and fantastical point of view of Bronson himself. The film opens with the bald headed, curly-moustached man talking to a tuxedo-clad audience. This is the mind of Bronson telling the highlights of his story like a narrated three-ring circus. We see his violent working class childhood segue into his first stint in jail, his eventual release, a shortlived relationship with a woman, his stint in a mental hospital, his escape and then the rest of the bloodcurdling fights which led to his solitary incarceration.

Refn’s inspired direction has the same anarchic cinematic satirical madness of “A Clockwork Orange”. Bronson has the same addiction to violence as Clockwork’s Alex DeLarge, and like Kubrick’s movie Refn makes no apologies for aggrandizing Bronson’s reprehensible behaviour.

Refn directs the film with a language equal to the brawny self-confidence and swagger of Bronson himself. Refn uses a wild mix of music selections to compliment the muscular visuals. He uses Wagner’s dramatically gothic ‘Prelude to Parsifal' in an early prison scene just because. His bold and bass pumping synth pieces from the 80’s represent the cutting edge of the decade’s pop culture. Bronson is hip, really hip.

The film also makes no attempt to be narratively coherent, Refn moves in and out of dream sequences, advances in time without the need for explanation. Scenes exist not to move the story forward but to express Bronson's state of mind. Refn’s cinematic tools consists of bold wide angle lenses, dark and bloody textured art direction, a gritty super 16mm film format, elegant slo-motion and statuesque framing of Bronson’s posturing.

Refn’s carefree attitude to the social irresponsibility of celebrating and mythologizing the violent life of a heinous criminal adds to the film’s distinct humour. Great films push buttons, and Refn’s buttons hit hard like a solid fist to the face. Enjoy.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, George Wyner, Richard Kind


Larry Gopnick has lived his life doing everything right, everything he thought he should do to make a living and succeed. It’s the 1960’s and he lives in saccharine suburban Minnesota, with a wife and two kids, a stabile job, decent health and a protective circle of Jewish friends and relatives. And so, when, in a matter of weeks, piece-by-piece, Larry’s life comes crashing down seemingly at random, he’s befuddled and unable cope.

It’s a familiar arena for the Coens, a skewed perspective of everyday life from a humble everyman just trying to get by. Larry Gopnick (played well by newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg) is a hero not unlike Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane character from ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ who just cuts the hair, or the meek and ineffectual Barton Fink – an affable boob who finds himself pushed around without a shred of backbone to enable him to take charge in his life. Depicting Larry as a mathematics professor is the introduction to the overriding theme of action and consequence. Cause and effect is the stuff of math and physics and for Larry every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And so when his wife reveals she’s leaving him, his university job is suddenly in jeopardy, his brother who is found out to be a defiling pederast the equation doesn’t compute.

This is the story of “A Serious Man” a film more in the league of the morose, cynical and very skewed take on suburban life of ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ than the plot driven noir of ‘No Country For Old Men’ or the slapstick farce of ‘Burn After Reading’ and ‘The Big Lebowski’.

With it’s loose plotting, the Coens rely on the episodic and situational absurdities to drive the story. And indeed there are some real zingers. There’s Larry’s obnoxious wife Judith who announces with stone-faced smugness she’s leaving Larry and remarrying his good friend Sy Abelman. There’s his son Danny who is both studying for his Torah reading and dealing pot on the side. There’s a Korean student who tries to bribe Larry into changing his F into an A. There’s his brother Arthur who has to use a suction device to remove the liquid from the boil on his neck daily.

Unfortunately the whole is not equal or greater than the sum of it’s parts. The film suffers most, obviously, from Larry’s inactivity as a protagonist. We don’t need to get out the Syd Field book to recognize that we desperately want Larry to take action, fight back, stand up for himself. The Coens are aware of this and make it part of the story but this acknowledgement does not make it less frustrating.

As well the Coens again refuse to provide us with a real ending, as if their free association of scenes, moments and characters just ran out, and decided to pack it in and call it a day with a cut to black. With the aid of the bookending Jefferson Airplane song it’s made more palatable than the jarring final cut in ‘No Country For Old Men” or sudden ending of “Burn After Reading”, but the film feels no more complete.

‘A Serious Man’ should be savoured for its inspired personal reflections on the Coen’s youthful experiences with Judaism. Laughs are big and small, and most of the time a constant smile on face persisted past its failings but we require more from the brothers and though I wanted to love the film, it has to rank as a disappointment.

Friday, 26 February 2010


2012 (2009) dir. Roland Emmerich
Starring: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson


By Alan Bacchus

You don’t go into a Roland Emmerich films expecting Steven Spielberg, you expect an adequate knock off with, hopefully, enough explosions and worldly destruction, to placate the shameless repetition.

...before I continue...to add some context, I actually liked ‘Stargate’ and ‘Independence Day’, was indifferent to ‘The Patriot’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, and ‘Godzilla’ and ’10,000 BC’ were unbearably awful and two of the worst pictures I’ve ever seen...

With these low expectations, miraculously ‘2012’ still manages to be even more awful than expected and will join 'Godzilla' and '10,000 BC' as part three of his trilogy of awfulness.

Roland Emmerich, this time at the helm of his own script shamelessly remakes Stargate, ID4, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow with different actors and with different world monuments destroyed. His opening scenes are the same: somewhere in some remote part of the world, some lowly schmuck discovers a small detail which reveals the coming of a cataclysmic event in the near future. In this case, it’s a scientist in India who finds the liquid at the earth’s core is boiling which means the world is heating up and ripe for a massive series of apocalyptic disasters.

Meanwhile, another schmuck, a lonely everyman from the U.S., with relationship problems, either stumbles upon this evidence or has his own evidence to corroborate said disaster and fights to a) convince his estranged family to believe in him and b) overcome his own personality deficiencies to save the world from disaster.

In 2012, Emmerich uses John Cusack, in place of Jeff Goldblum, James Spader or Matthew Broderick and uses the random shifting of techtonic plates to be his ‘Godzilla/Alien/extreme weather force of nature antagonist. His baddies are the usual crop of idiotic governments suits who can’t see the field from the trees.

The film is anchored by a number of narrow escapes from worldly destruction scenes. In every case John Cusack finds himself either outrunning massive earthquakes and tectonic plate displacements via car, or piloting a plane off a runway, being torn apart by said tectonic plate shifting. And so Cusack and his group of innocents hop from one famous landmark to another escaping in the nick of time.

The third act is even more awful throwing us into a series of calamities and narrow escapes aboard a Noah’s Ark-like ship built to withstand the flooding and sail away the remainder of the world’s human and animal population to safety.

Two and a half hours later the film ends. Save yourself some time and just watch the trailer.

2012 is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Everybody is Fine

Everybody is Fine (2009) dir, Kirk Jones
Starring: Robert De Niro, Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale


By Alan Bacchus

2009 saw the death of Miramax, and by the end of the year, the once powerful champion and promoter of independent films was gasping for air. An unfortunate casualty of their demise is this truly endearing little film, ‘Everybody is Fine’, based upon the Guiseppe Tornatore’s 1990 Italian film, ‘Stanno tutti bene’.

Robert De Niro, once again finds himself in the middle age conservative everyman role of those awful Fockers movies. As Frank, he’s a recent widower, living in a depressed vacuum of a life desperately trying to maintain a connection to his four children, all of whom have moved far away and assumed busy productive lives. He’s introduced buying ‘expensive wine’ at the grocery store to impress his ‘kids’ - though his children are all in the 30’s this is how he still refers to them. But when they all cancel on him at the last moment, his world is shattered, causing him to go on a roadtrip to visit each one of them by surprise.

His inability to see his kids as grown-up adults with all the flaws, anxieties and personal problems as regular adults clouds his point of view. Through all these years, Frank has kept an idealized vision of his children’s lives as successful and stabile adults. With each visit Frank detects that his children’s stories may not entirely all be true.

Amy (Kate Beckinsale) for instance, would appear to be a successful ad exec with a stabile family, until a deep rift in their domestic household reveals something otherwise. When Frank visits Robert (Sam Rockwell), he finds out he’s not the conductor of the symphony, but a lowly percussionist who just ‘beats a drum’ – a compromise in life and career which Robert has accepted personally but has been ashamed to reveal to his father. Same with Rosie (Drew Barrymore), who claims to be a dancer in a high profile Las Vegas show but appears to be hiding a number of personal details for fear of disappointing her father. Lastly, David, the artist, is nowhere to be found, a more extreme failure and a secret which all three kids hide from Frank.

Robert De Niro, who seems to have been in a decade long slump of forgettable and embarrassing comic roles which play against his former acting glory, finally has a role to dig his teeth into. It’s not Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta, but there’s a wealth of emotional baggage in Frank for De Niro showcase the great subtitles of his unflashy, but no less involving roles such as ‘Mad Dog and Glory’. Under De Niro’s sad eyes and lumbering gate, Frank comes off as both lonely and depressed but with a spirited fire inside waiting to come out. He relishes his ability to ‘just leave’ on a whim without anything tying him down. Saying that, at each stop along the way he’s also a glaringly obvious fish out of water, someone who looks like he’s never left home in his life.

This is the dichotomy which permeates every scene. Frank seems like such a warm and supporting father, yet the actions and deceptions of his kids suggest the opposite. Why would each one of them need to portray an idealized life, and lie to their father? This relationship of father to child is dramatized with refreshingly honest reality. Writer/Director Kirk Jones, in most cases, steers the film away from big moments of conflict and melodrama, instead finding conflict where most families hide it, repressed in their often subconscious memories.

Unfortunately, the film misses a four-star review by tying up a number of beats, subplots and character actions too neatly in the third act. The revelation of David’s whereabouts provides a powerful emotional climax, but also lets the other three characters off the hook for their own acts of deception against Frank. In the end, the children come out as more innocent than they should be and only reactive to their hard-line father.

But these last minute failings doesn’t diminish the film’s remarkably poignant and thought-provoking slice of familial relationships and the lengths we all go to get approval from our parents.

“Everybody is Fine” is available on DVD from Walt Disney Home Video

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Bright Star

Bright Star (2009) dir. Jane Campion
Starring: Ben Wishaw, Abbie Cornish, Paul Schneider


By Alan Bacchus

This dignified costume romance between doomed poet John Keats and his smitten lover Fanny Brawne enraptured most critics, unfortunately dignified or not, it’s also a slow art house slog. Of course, some people find Campion’s frilly lace bonnets blowing in the breeze, and the corset-constrained old world emotions fascinating, but after 118mins it all just seemed mind numbingly repetitive and for lack of a better word, dull.

Abbie Cornish plays Fanny Brawne, a comely young gal, who’s in love with local poet John Keats (Ben Wishaw), who’s completely broke but being supported by his wealthier best friend Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider). Brawne who is a seamstress and fashion clothier is admittedly naive to the 'esotericness' of poetry and asks for his guidance in such literature. Yawn. To Mr. Brown though, Brawne is his Yoko Ono, a meddling presence who gets in the way of Keats’ work and their own manly bonding. To this end Brawne is forced to put up with Brown’s constant belligerence. But romance pushes through and Keats and Brawne go through the stages of courtship and romance.

Meanwhile, as her mother watches the romance bloom, she pushes back against the idea of Fanny marrying an artist without any monetary means whatsoever. No matter though, because, as some of you might know from history, Keats develops a case of tuberculosis resulting in a lengthy, drawn out slow death thus crushing Fanny’s tender heart.

Admittedly the only thing to keep me going through the endless repetitious scenes of longing glances, tender handholding and linen’s swaying with the breeze, was (shamelessly) waiting to see if the two handsome actors would ‘get it on’ on screen. Knowing Campion’s track record with stripping down her actors to complete nudity I thought I, at least, might catch a decent glimpse of Ms. Cornish’s lovely naked skin nuzzling against Mr. Wishaw’s manly body. Nope. The romance remained cinematically unconsummated.

Though we don’t get to see their nude bodies, Cornish and Wishaw are indeed great fresh-faced actors, and especially Wishaw, who was unforgettable as the olfactory killer in ‘Perfume’ and one of the Bob Dylans in ‘He’s Not There’. And here he’s just as magnetic even when he’s playing a boring ol’ romantic TB-diseased poet.

Viewers interested in the fashion of the era might have their interest piqued, as the costumes are given acute attention. Its Oscar nomination is richly deserved and probably should win.

"Bright Star" is available on DVD from TVA Films in Canada

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

J’ai Tué Ma Mère (I Killed My Mother)

J’Ai Tue Ma Mere (I Killed My Mother)
Starring: Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval, François Arnaud, Suzanne Clément


By Alan Bacchus

If you’re remotely involved in Canadian film you would have to have been living under a rock not to be influenced by the hype associated with Xavier Dolan – the 19 year old wunderkind writer-director-actor who self financed his own feature film, got accepted into the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, won 3 major awards there and was subsequently heralded as a new voice in Canadian auteur cinema. That was almost one year ago. After a solid and very profitable theatrical run in Quebec, the film finally arrived in English Canada a couple weeks ago (presumably waiting to see if it got an Oscar nomination – which it didn’t).

And so I went into the theatre with all this baggage, and yet came out full of the same fresh zest and youthful cinematic inspiration which came out of Cannes. It’s a remarkable effort, not only for a 19-year-old, nor as independently produced debut feature, but a great piece of impressionistic auteur cinema.

Dolan plays a version of himself, a teenager high schooler, named Hubert, living with his single mom Chantale (Anne Dorval). It’s a tempestuous relationship to say the least, two bold and selfish personalities who claim they don’t understand the other. Every conversation is blocked by an invisible barrier of spite and ends with someone saying ‘fuck off’ (in English). Beneath these slurs is a deep and fundamental love between the two which we know is there, but needs a jackhammer to unearth.

Ironically the only stabile thing in Hubert's life is his confidence with his sexual orientation. His homosexual relationship with his boyfriend Augustin, providing a surrogate domestic lifestyle is desperately desires from his own home.

Things look up when Hubert takes the initiative to connect to his mother, surprising her one day by cooking dinner, doing laundry, and making polite conversation. But when his mother dismisses and ignores his actions, suddenly we realize it's more than just youthful angst, but a two-way street of miscommunication, anger and pain.

Dolan's screenplay cruises along without too many twists – an art house narrative but with a conscious respect for traditional cinematic storytelling. The film never wanders off course, and every action, even the most wild dream sequences and other visual embellishment advance the story.

For his age, Dolan is remarkably confident and consistent with his visual palette. He handicaps himself by almost exclusively using ‘two-shots’ for each scene - the most boring of all shots in the director’s shot list. Yet by keeping two people visible in frame Dolan maximizes the effect of the conflict. At all times we see Hubert spacially connected to the other characters, and in particular, his arguments with his mother feel organic, natural and not encumbered by cinematic artifice of editing.

At the same time his two-shots are as stylishly excessive as any first time filmmaker. Dolan’s compositions often put his characters in the corner of frames, or at the bottom of the screen, engulfing by negative space, or furniture or art work on the walls. His single shots are often anti-framed having his character looking against the natural direction of the frame. Dolan’s knows his cinema lore as well, centre framing characters, use slo-motion, shooting behind people’s heads, visual cues from great first features from Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson et al – all hallmarks of a director who wants to stand out.

However accomplished, there's no doubt "I Killed My Mother" feels very much like a first feature, but a confident and exciting new filmmaker with big ideas and an innate sense of cinematic storytelling.

Monday, 22 February 2010

The Green Berets

The Green Berets (1968) dir. John Wayne and Ray Kellogg
Starring: John Wayne, David Janssen, Jim Hutton, George Takei and Aldo Ray


By Greg Klymkiw

For me, one of the best things about blu-ray discs is getting an opportunity to see favourite movies from one's childhood in a format as pristine and gorgeous as when I first saw them on a silver screen. The recent Warner Home Entertainment blu-ray release of John Wayne's "The Green Berets", a film that is as spectacular an action picture as it is a politically reprehensible war movie, has NEVER looked better, save for a time - over forty years ago - when I sat in a grand old 3000-seat picture palace with my Dad during the picture's first Friday showing in my hometown of Winnipeg.

John Wayne was and to some extent, still is, the perfect father and son idol. (Daughters can love Wayne, too, as witnessed with my own little girl who will sit with Dad and watch a John Wayne picture ANYTIME.) Even now, though, I remember that the majority of public screenings of Wayne movies I experienced with Dad were comprised of grown men and their bean-shaved boys and in fact, I think I saw almost every John Wayne picture ever made, old and new, western or war, on a creaky old black and white TV set with rabbit ear antennae or in the most opulent and now extinct temples to cinema - with Dad.

No Mom, no Sis and only with schoolboy chums for second, third or more helpings.

To my Dad, John Wayne WAS his screen father and for me, the feeling was mutual. Wayne represented the Father my Dad wanted to be and the Father he wanted. As a child, I shared the latter sentiment, though in reality, I can genuinely say, Dad did not ever really disappoint in the manhood stakes of patriarchy - especially during his years as a cop when he would proudly regale me with his tales of his head-busting daring-do, all in the service of protecting the good and punishing the bad.

John Wayne was the Father. And as any lad brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition knows, GOD is the Father!

Along with "The Searchers", "True Grit", The Cowboys" and some of the other Batjac productions of the 50s, 60s and 70s ("Hondo", "Chisum", "The Alamo" and "Big Jake" to name a few), "The Green Berets" was, for many years, the kind of picture Dad and I treated with the solemnity of a Sunday church service. For good reason, I might add.

Or at least, so we thought.

One of the many fascinating aspects of "The Green Berets" was the fact that it was one of the few war pictures actually set against the backdrop of Vietnam to be made DURING the Vietnam War itself. Stranger still, the picture was released several months after the TET offensive - one of the biggest U.S. debacles of the war. Though the Communist forces suffered huge losses during TET, this was something that was almost ignored and/or repressed by the media (who began blasting American involvement in the war more violently than ever before) and American power-brokers (this was the year when gung-ho Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara did an about face on his own battle escalation strategies and resigned his position).

With respect to TET, the scrutiny on behalf of media and public was clearly aimed at several factors that eventually forced many Americans to seriously re-evaluate their country's participation in the war:

1. American casualties were higher during this offensive than all the years of the war combined.

2. The Communists proved they were stronger in numbers than anyone thought.

3. America was completely unprepared for this offensive and only won technically through their sheer numbers.

4. The ambitious and complex battle plan on the part of the Communist forces was not successful in the cities, but - almost more importantly - gained considerable ground in "the country", the heartland of Vietnam.

5. America launched one of the largest draft policies of the entire war - further inspiring ire in both press and public. 15,000 American soldiers were killed and now, the government was demanding the forced conscription of close to 50,000 young Americans.

6. South Vietnam, the ones America was purportedly fighting for, was hardest hit by TET and its aftermath yielded thousands upon thousands of civilian casualties and such a massive destruction of homes that almost one million people were now refugees.

And then, amidst the above mentioned came John Wayne's "The Green Berets", a thoroughly fictional (and loose adaptation of Robin Moore's bestselling book of the same name). Here was a movie that had absolutely NOTHING to do with the reality of what was happening and presented a scenario and style NOT unlike every run-of-the-mill war film ever made. In retrospect, what was even more jaw-dropping was how the movie-going public embraced Wayne's propagandistic rah-rah rally cry for continued American involvement in Vietnam.

"The Green Berets" was a huge hit at the box office!

As a kid, I certainly saw no dichotomy whatsoever. Though I'd occasionally see the rather graphic war footage on television news, it seemed "dull" compared to the daring-do of my Celluloid Dad. For my real Dad, any protests generated by TET and its aftermath, were, no-doubt, merely the product of dirty, long-haired hippie commies.

For me, my Dad and many like us, "The Green Berets" was a thrilling, kick-ass war picture with the sort of carnage and heroism that seemed to dwarf real life. To gain access to the finest American military hardware, Wayne needed to abandon most of Moore's book, which portrayed the Green Berets in a manner the government had issues with. As well, this was still in advance of Sam Peckinpah's classic western "The Wild Bunch", a western that used the Old West as a metaphor for Vietnam, in addition to changing the way we looked at violence on-screen forever.

The simple narrative of "The Green Berets" begins with the sour castigation of those brave fighting men by lefty American journalists. Representing the Pinko hordes is none other than a reporter played by David Janssen (a huge T.V. star of "The Fugitive" fame and, lest we forget, Albert Zugsmith's utterly insane piece of sentimental war propaganda "Dondi"). His criticism of America's involvement in Vietnam, and most importantly, his assertion that the fighting men of the Green Berets are as unquestioning as those within Nazi Germany. This, of course, is in response to a soldier who admits that "foreign policy decisions are not made by the military. A soldier goes where he is told to go, and fight whom is told to fight." Janssen's comparison to a Totalitarian regime seems perfectly reasonable under the circumstances, but instead, inspires Green Beret head honcho John Wayne to foam at the mouth a bit before offering Janssen a free, uncensored, ground-zero view of what America is fighting for.

So, with his knapsack on his back, Janssen accompanies the likes of John Wayne, his tough beefy right hand man Aldo Ray, the noble South Vietnamese military ally (played by George "Mr. Sulu" Takei) and the lovably baby-faced and irascible Ensign-Pulver-like conman Jim Hutton. For close to three hours, Janssen's character and indeed, we the audience, are face-to-face with the utterly inhuman savagery of the Viet Cong and their dirty Commie ways and the noble, heroic and successful eradication of said Commie Pigs at the hands of John Wayne and his fighting men.

From the opening titles of the picture, the lyrics of Sgt. Barry Sadler's stirring hit song "The Ballad of the Green Berets", lead us on an odyssey devoted to extolling the virtues of those who would dare risk life and limb for the oppressed.

Sadler's lyrics tell us so:

Fighting soldiers from the sky
fearless men who jump and die
men who mean just what they say
the brave men of the Green Berets . . .
Back at home a young wife waits
her Green Beret has met his fate
he has died for those oppressed . . .
make him one of America's best.

As the movie progresses, we bear witness to Pinko journalist Janssen and his conversion to the cause - so much so, that he himself even engages in battle against the Commie Pigs. (As a young lad, I bought this hook, line and sinker. These days, I must admit to buying it solely on the level of knee-slapping unintentional humour.) We see baby-faced Jim Hutton befriend a Vietnamese orphan (not unlike the Short-Round character from Samuel Fuller's immortal and decidedly anti-war WWII drama "Steel Helmet" - a character who was later represented in homage by Spielberg in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom") and when Hutton dies a hero's death, it is John Wayne himself - everyone's surrogate Father - who picks up the torch and leads the little Vietnamese boy into the setting (or rising) sun, presumably adopting the lad and proudly intoning that it is the CHILD whom the entire war is being fought for. (Much derision has been levelled at the Sun setting in the East of Vietnam, but in fairness, the movie does not specifically state it is sundown, and could just as easily be sunrise - in which case, there's nothing technically wrong with the closing shot.)

This was indeed rousing stuff to experience as a kid; working on a level of propaganda, to be sure, but mostly, within the mythic elements of the genre which I had already been inundated with thanks to the likes of all the great WWII pictures I'd already seen (many of which starred John Wayne).

Amongst the many vicious pans the picture received at the time, none is more eloquent than Roger Ebert's now-legendary piece wherein he states:

"The Green Berets simply will not do as a film about the war in Vietnam. It is offensive not only to those who oppose American policy but even to those who support it. At this moment in our history, locked in the longest and one of the most controversial wars we have ever fought, what we certainly do not need is a movie depicting Vietnam in terms of cowboys and Indians. That is cruel and dishonest and unworthy of the thousands who have died there."

Ebert's assertion that the picture works on the level of a simple by-the-numbers Western is not far from the truth. When Janssen is led into the American camp in Vietnam, he raises his eyebrows at a handmade sign nailed at the entrance which says: "Dodge City" - that rough and tumble town of innumerable American westerns where the men were mean, violent and only able to be tamed at the end of a gun. This, however, is the only time in the picture where we get a glimpse of something that might lead us into the territory of "M*A*S*H" rather than a Rory Calhoun oater, but very quickly, we realize this is no touch of irony - the picture means it fair and square. When Janssen queries Wayne about the execution-style slaying of some Vietcong, Wayne replies - with the kind of venom only Wayne could spit out: "Out here, due process is a bullet!" Even now, I remember my Dad and the rest of the audience applauding this.

Wayne, after all, was the father of us all.

That "The Green Berets" is only one of two feature films Wayne directed (the other being "The Alamo") is not without significance. Wayne was, and probably still is the biggest movie star of all time. In role after role, he embodied the values of both America and manhood. One of the best books to ever deal with Wayne is Gary Wills's "John Wayne's America - The Politics of Celebrity" which presents a biographical portrait of Wayne as an instrument of propaganda. This, of course, is a point of view that would be impossible to refute. Wills asserts that Wayne "made an impact when he carried his Manifest Destiny assurance into compromising situations." Given the huge positive response of audiences to "The Green Berets" in spite of clear evidence that the values inherent in the picture are a complete bald-faced lie, it's not hard to believe just how important a figure Wayne was and, to a considerable extent, still is.

Granted, unlike a picture such as John Ford's "The Searchers", where the clash of cultures is treated with several layers of complexity, the same clash in "The Green Berets" is about as complex as a square-holed puzzle with nothing but square pegs. When endlessly useless wars against Muslim countries are perpetrated, not in the name of freedom, but in the name of oil, when George W. Bush can outright steal the presidency under the noses of the American public, when an entire nation has no proper system of health care and probably never will, when too many people believe the results of the Warren Commission, when people are jailed and persecuted in a supposedly democratic society, when everyone in America believes that ONLY America was able to win both World Wars, it's obvious that Wayne's influence as a star and the kind of heroism he represents in over 150 pictures "seems", according to Wills, "to suggest that the need for this hero will call up again the kinds of story where he operated best." Wayne, of course, is not the only star to have been used in this fashion, but he was and still is, the most influential. He knew it, believed it and so did his adoring public. Wills maintains that Wayne, more than any other star reflected American society back upon itself which was "the source of his appeal, and of his danger."

I cannot, then, even for a second, defend "The Green Berets" on its politics and I am forced to separate them from the picture itself. Is that even possible? I'd suggest it is. It's a picture I enjoyed a lot as a kid and as an adult, I was certainly able to sit through it and gain some amusement value on a number of levels. As a movie in the context of a contemporary viewing, it's not without moments that are creaky and clunky - the first 45 minutes is especially a bit of a dull slog, but once the action revs itself up, the movie is as spectacular an entertainment in the war genre as many similar pictures which preceded it. To use the parlance of contemporary action pictures, "It blows up real good" and even its dollops of sentiment have the power to move. Does it go any places that GREAT war movies go? Not one bit. It's paint-by-numbers action. No more. No less.

As a director, Wayne doesn't display the surest hand in "The Green Berets" which probably isn't helped by the fact that he chose Ray Kellogg to be his co-director. Kellogg was the brilliant special effects designer and cinematographer for Twentieth Century Fox who, among other astounding accomplishments, worked on the first-ever CinemaScope production, "The Robe". He was also a solid second-unit director of note. All of these accomplishments give us some sense of why the "blowing up real good" blows up, real good! As a solo director, it's probably important to note that he directed two feature films produced by and starring Ken (Festus on "Gunsmoke") Curtis, "The Giant Gila Monster" and "The Killer Shrews". While Wayne had an uncredited Mervyn LeRoy wandering around the set of "The Green Berets" and lending a helping hand, Wayne's previous effort as a director, "The Alamo" was a happier experience - at least on an artistic level. He had none other than John Ford puttering around and lending his painterly eye to some of the proceedings (but when "Pappy" started to take over, Wayne sent him out to shoot some second-unit footage). Aside from some annoying longueurs, it's a pretty damn fine epic western with a great cast, a solid screenplay and magnificent battle sequences. It also features an unbelievably tear-wrenching death scene with the immortal Hank Worden (Ole' Mose from "The Searchers"). And how can one NOT enjoy seeing John Wayne and Richard Widmark as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie? Alas, Jim Hutton in "The Green Berets" doesn't quite wrench as many tears in HIS death scene, but I suppose he can't be entirely blamed. After all, there IS only one Hank Worden.

"The Green Berets" is, no doubt, a dangerous, reprehensible and politically boneheaded picture, BUT it is ALL JOHN WAYNE!

And John Wayne is still the Father of us all. His very being is sacred and as a motion picture star, he is truly unparalleled. Gary Wills refers to Wayne's image as "mixed and terrifying... full of the unresolved contradictions" of America itself. True enough, but John Wayne was a star all over the world and as such, I'd suggest those "unresolved contradictions" resonated well beyond America - they permeated every square inch of our planet's ground. Wills wonders if America has, or will ever escape "the myth of the frontier, the mystique of the gun..." and again, I go wonder if we ALL will ever truly escape those things. To answer that, Wills leave us with a line from "The Searchers", a line that was, after John Wayne's single greatest line of dialogue ever. It's one, I too, am happy to leave you with.

"That'll be the day!"

"The Green Berets" is currently available on the Blu-Ray format from Warners Home Entertainment.

Sunday, 21 February 2010


Here's a wrap of some of the films I've seen that stuck out. I'd like to take a moment to thank DFD editor Alan Bacchus for his invaluable guidance, the Berlinale staff for the opportunity, my Frau Daniela for her patience and Jacob Sullivan for his couch and ashtray. And thanks to you for your support of Daily Film Dose.

By Blair Stewart

How I Ended the Summer (2010) dir. Alexei Popogrebsky
Starring: Grigori Dobrygin and Sergei Puskepalis


The most Herzogian of films in the festival, "How I Ended the Summer" has a gruff man and a punk kid stuck together on a remote weather station waiting for their ship to come in literally. Alone in the Arctic, the setting is haunting with the endless horizon and the threat of polar bears, so when the younger meteorologist makes a crucial error and keeps screwing up afterwards I believed the psychological strain he was under. Takes far too long to reach its tense conclusion, but Popogrebsky is a director I'll keep an eye out for in the future.

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle "Eu Cand Vreau Sa Fluier, Fluier" (2010)
dir. Florin Serban
Starring: George Piştereanu and Ada Condeescu


Much lauded at the Berlinale, "If I Want to Whistle" is a Romanian handheld docu-drama set inside a reform school that should quickly remind one of the Dardennes output. A hand-wringer about a young convict in his last days of incarceration who deals with a family crisis in a novel way is both revealing and packed with a few twists, but I don't feel its worthy of a Golden Bear, it just didn't reinvent the wheel for me. The performance by newcomer (and non-actor) Piştereanu should earn him the attention of future leading roles, perhaps Romania's answer to Vincent Cassel or Russell Crowe. He has that fire in his belly.

Please Give (2010) dir. by Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Cathrine Keener and Rebecca Hall


A bright spot in female-driven comedy direction, Nicole Holofcener's ("Lovely and Amazing, "Friends with Money") latest "Please Give" is nice and kinda funny, but also twee and kinda forgettable. Somewhere Woody Allen just felt a chill. Concerning the guilty consciences of uptight Manhattanites in personal relationships and public appearances, Catherine Keener plays against type as a bleeding-heart used furniture store owner who preys on the collections of the newly dead to turn a profit. My crush of Rebecca Hall and her acting abilities continues as the granddaughter of the next-door neighbour; a potential mark for Keener's re-sale value. A few laughs and all but I failed to reach the transcendence the self-absorbed characters may have achieved.

Red Hill (2010) dir. by Patrick Hughes
Starring: Ryan Kwanten, Tom E. Lewis and Steve Bisley


Based on the recent gems coming out of Oz and my love of "The Proposition" I skipped Noah Baumbach's latest to see this. Whoops. A modern Antipodean bloody revenge Western where the writer, director and editor might know the music of Walter Hill, "El Mariachi", Carpenter and early Raimi but they sure as hell don't know the beat. Suffers from a stilted pace, a wildly unnecessary 3rd act expository-flashback-monologue by the protagonist and most damning for a debut, an interesting sub-plot with a cheap CGI pay-off. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.

Caterpillar (2010) dir. by Koji Wakamatsu
Starring: Shinobu Terajima and Shima Ohnishi


Koji Wakamatsu's scorched-earth rant of the foolhardy ideals placed in the minds of Japanese peasants during the wars in China and the Pacific, "Caterpillar" is an agonising experience with two brave performances. A hideously deformed soldier returns from the second Sino-Japanese War and his wife feels forced to take care of the "War God" as he is called. Gradually she'll regard him in much less lofty terms and we'll experience flashbacks to his abuses both in the household and on the battlefield. A soldier with a belief in his status as a Deity of Battle would be unlikely to have qualms with the Rape of Nanking, it is in his right after all as the victor, no? Intelligent in its commentary and the acting by Terajima and Ohnishi but undone by a garish, exploitative visual style shot with a lousy digital camera. Cut out the crap and this would have been the best of the festival. Unforgettable in part due to the amputee sex.

Puzzle "Rompecabezas" (2010) dir. by Natalia Smirnoff
Starring: Maria Onetto


An Argentinean charmer I would take my old Lady to see if it passes through town, "Puzzle" is about a browbeaten housewife who comes into her own in the high-stakes world of puzzle solving. A plain critique of Argentina's stuffy attitudes toward women (the lousy male bastards get away with murder down there!) that was also enjoyably frothy and easy on the eyes.

Saturday, 20 February 2010


The Killer Inside Me (2010) dir. by Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba


By Blair Stewart

And it was all just going so damn well before the ending. Arriving at the Berlinale after a controversal Sundance premiere, the prolific Michael Winterbottom's latest is a frank adaptation of Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me" with a 1950's small-town 'aw' shucks, ma'am' wacko-killer sheriff. If you feel resentment for revealing that nugget of info or failing to put down a 'spoiler warning' beforehand, I suggest you refrain from reading the title of the film, ok?

Central City, Texas is enjoying the post-war oil boom and the clean streets are patroled by the chipper and handsome Casey Affleck as Deputy Lou Ford. If you're familiar with the younger Affleck's work from his debut in Gus Van Zant's 'To Die For" to his Oscar-nominated Robert Ford in "The Assassaination of Jesse James" you'll know the ease with which he can flick on a creepy switch-like a bug is going to up and crawl out of his throat at any moment. Good-ol' boy Lou gets mixed up with a connected prostitute played by Jessica Alba as one of the more improbable ladies of the night in American film history since Julia Roberts worked the streets.

Deals will go bad and folks will find themselves dead and Sheriff Lou will spin longer and longer yarns at the D.A. to stay out of the electric chair. As the film progresses Lou's sadism (and peculiar childhood activites, spanking fetish ahoy!) towards the women in his life is revealed, hence the controversy which itself is a quaint idea in the age of Google search engines. Watching Lou's psyche being peeled back makes for hypnotic viewing as Affleck's eyes have the right shade of ice to them when he needs it. Surrounding the Sheriff is a cast of Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, Elais Koteas and Bill Pullman doing their Southern twangs well as his potential victims if they hang around long enough.

I'm sure Winterbottom was amped up to direct "The Killer Inside Me", it has a certain appeal for a Brit with Thompson's singular pulp Tex-Mex setting. You can see that joy in the lovingly-designed opening credits and the camera work of Marcel Zyskind, and for 98.5 % of the film it works-something nasty and slippery with a Lone Star bite, another "Blood Simple" was coming down the pike.

And then the ending happened.

While the final moments are true to Thompson's classic the delivery by Winterbottom and John Curran's script is flubbed. The finale is intended as a cruel death's head joke but it arrives with the bumbling execution of an audible fart on the soundtrack. Where I should have felt a punch in my gut instead I had to make due with the Benny Hill theme song playing inside my own mind from the plot and character inconsistencies pilling up. What a shame.

A missed shot at a classic, but if Winterbottom continues to churn out work he'll likely make up for this.

Friday, 19 February 2010


Jew Suss: Rise and Fall "Jud Suss" (2010) dir. Oskar Roehler
Starring: Tobias Moretti, Moritz Bleibtreu and Martina Gedeck


By Blair Stewart

In 1939 Austrian actor Ferdinand Marian got in bed with Joseph Goebbels to make the National Socialist version of "Jew Suss" and paid a far heavier price than fame.

As played by Tobias Moretti for a vain fool who cracks under the weight of Nazi-influenced pressure, Marian succumbed to the same temptations as the fictional star of István Szabó's "Mephisto" (or as the famed Dutsch performer Gustaf Gründgens did in real life to which the book and film were based). It's all so wonderful; the fame and the girls and the rallies and the parties and whatnot, it would be a real shame if we lost the war, you know?

Taking examples from other European performers' lives who were torn asunder by the undesirable status of their bloodlines, director and co-writer Oskar Roehler lays on the melodrama thickly for the doomed life of Marian. His wife Anna (Martina Gedeck) is secretly a Jew, and Marian himself is flush with guilt from his swordsman reputation towards his comely fans. Ferdinand is no match for the recruitment prowess of the Propaganda Minister Goebbels when he comes casting, and so Marian allows himself to become a victim of history by appearing in the titular role (according to diaries Marian held out on the role for over a year).

For those not familiar with the infamy of the 1940 Veit Harlan version of "Jew Suss", it was to anti-semetism what sugar is to a kid's energy level: fuel.

Now this right here is a great story:

You have human tragedy on both a minor and a grand scale. You have vanity, personal deceit, professional duty and the crushing weight of history.

You've got the seduction of evil, true evil in the persona of Herr Goebbels, better know as Hitler's talking head.

You have the cinema and the manipulation of truth through storytelling to breed madness.

You put this in the hands of a great filmmaker and the film takes off like a rocket. Unfortunately Oskar Roehler is not that filmmaker, and "Jew Suss: Rise and Fall" is not that film. It begins as a stiff monochrome effort in the guise of studio dramas from the late 1930-40s and never moves beyond it. Despite the fine performances including Moritz Bleibtreu as a Goebbels who makes you want to mop the floor clean after he's walked by, nothing new is brought to the table. We could just as well be watching Gründgens or Harlan's story and because Ferdinand Marian is presented in the opening as a weak prick I felt only mild pity when he died a weaker prick in the end.

This material is the stuff of epics, and the debacle of Goebbels reign deserves a bigger stage.

Thursday, 18 February 2010


The Illusionist (2010) dir. by Sylvain Chomet
Starring: An animated Jacques Tati


By Blair Stewart

A heart-warming animated tale that had been collecting dust for a half-century, Sylvain Chomet returns long-dead film legend Jacques Tati to the cinema in "The Illusionist".

Tati and writing partner Henri Marquet ("Mr. Hulot's Holiday", "The Big Day") had collaborated in 1956 on the story of an erstwhile great magician and a young girl tagging along around Europe. The script was intended as a personal letter to Tati's abandoned daughter Helga but circumstances, shame and the immense production of "Playtime" scuppered the film. Years later Chomet, with the success of "The Triplets of Belleville," was handed the idea by Tati's family (thankfully we'd been saved the live-action sight of Roberto Benigni or Steve Martin as Tati's great creation-the stiff, bumbling galoot that is Monsieur Hulot in magician's robes).

What follows is standard for Tati's body of work; non-existent dialogue, an anachronistic character at odds with changing times with little bits of visual humour throughout. The setting was originally meant for 1950's Czechoslovakia but Chomet fell in love with Edinburgh's stones and fog and rain (having been there I'll emphasize it: tons of rain) and wisely moved the story there, it has the mystique of an animated world.

"The Illusionist" doesn't try to overwhelm with emotion and laughter like Disney's work but the breezy charm may win you over. Don't regard it as highly as Chomet's 2003 surreal spectacular "Belleville", but as a muted little film in comparison, and I might be too forgiving with my rating, but every time we see the cartoon Tati/Hulot created by lead animator Laurent Kircher on screen my heart grew three times it's size. What can I say, I'm just a big softy when it comes to Tati and Chomet. Take your kids.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010


By Blair Stewart

Hi everybody, I'm averaging four films a day here so now's a good time to catch up on some of the work I've seen so far.

Winter's Bone (2010) dir. Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes


The big winner at Sundance this year, and already lauded here at DFD, "Winter's Bone" is a classical western moved to the crank-stained hills of the Ozarks. Star-in-the-making Jennifer Lawrence is Ree, the daughter of a meth cooker who's vanished like a puff of smoke around the same time bail bondsmen are coming to collect either him or the family home. Ree will have to spiral down into a white-trash Dante's Inferno to find him while failing to stay on the good side of her terrifying Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes of "Deadwood" and "American Gangster" acclaim playing mid-70's Dennis Hopper as Charlie Manson). The characters and setting are true to the very marrow, and "Winter's Bone" is made for the Criterion collection.

Submarino (2010) dir. Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Jakob Cedergren and Peter Plaugborg


Thomas Vinterberg's comeback attempt since wandering out in the ether after "The Celebration" is a hearty dose of Danish misery disguised as realism. Jakob Cedergren delivers the best male performance of the Berlinale I've seen so far as one of two brothers traumatised by their youth, but outside of a strong opening the navel-gazing soon overwhelms as I saw where we were heading. Wildly over-praised so far by the press ("it's just so honest and gritty!"), and could very well win the Golden Bear despite my meagre protests. We've seen this tragedy before and it was told far better.

Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man "Portretul Luptatorului La Tinerete" (2010) dir. Constantin Popescu
Starring: Constantin Ditá


Displaying the unwavering stubborness of a pedant who can't edit himself, Constantin Popescu's "Portrait" is a potentially great 100 minute film trapped inside a sluggish 163 minute opus. The story of Ion Gavrilă-Ogoranu and his Romanian freedom fighters rebelling against the Reds could have been a masterpiece if it wasn't assembled in this order: Skirmish, retreat, speech, repeat. Skirmish, retreat, speech, repeat. And onwards. The only number higher than the body count of the freedom fighters was the amount of critics prematurely fleeing the screening. The letdown of the festival in my books, but one that could be saved by a re-edit.

One Day "You Yi Tian" (2010) dir. Hou Chi-Jan
Starring: Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh and Gwen Yao


Executive-produced by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, I figured a Taiwanese dreamscape would be up to snuff with the craft of Bunuel, Lynch and Kar-Wai. Sadly Chi-Jan appears only to dream of watching paint dry with an occasional horse turning up. Next!

The Initiation "Blutsfreundschaft" (2010) dir. Peter Kern
Starring: Helmut Berger and Harry Lampl


The worst film I've seen at a film festival since 2001's "Suicide Club" in Vancouver. An unholy fusion of skinhead "Apt Pupil" via early Almodovar as directed by Edward D. Wood Jr., "The Initiation" shoves amateur comedy where drama should be and vice-versa. Should the braintrust of the Pentagon ever catch this poorly-written, incompentently directed offensive shit-box on a future episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" the Marine Corps will be dispatched to Austria.

Berlin 2010-THE ROBBER

The Robber "Der Rauber" (2010) dir. Benjamin Heisenberg
Starring: Andreas Lust and Franziska Weisz


By Blair Stewart

If you're going to pick an interesting hobby, you could do worse than a bank robbery. A dry procedural about an extraordinary man makes for one of the surprises of the Berlinale.

"The Robber" relates the life of Austrian marathon runner, thrill junkie and career criminal Johannes Rettenberger. Adapted from the book "Der Rauber", Rettenbergen, as played with quiet pathological menace by Andreas Lust, had a public 'lust' for running and a private one for stealing. Upon his release from prison Johannes easily shifts back into his old habits with an animal compulsion to do only what he knows and desires, often for the spike of his heart rate as he barrels across Vienna from police gunfire. In due time Johannes hooks-up with his old lady Erika, who as a criminal case worker for the local government has another form of weakness-she loves the bastard.

Relinqished of melodrama, "The Robber" observes a man who's great at the skill of his own downfall with a clinical eye and a shrug. No explanation of a tortured childhood or disgust with modern society, Johannes just wanted to go fast, and all the better while being chased. This was an objective tactic used recently in Mann's "Public Enemies" to middling effect; John Dillinger was presented both as a tough-guy myth and a mortal who just enjoyed stealing, whereas Rettenberger comes across as a single-minded force of nature in a run or on the run.

Director Heisenberg shows a great skill for action that's becoming lost in American cinema, there's fast-cutting chases but for once it's action we can follow. The script is tight and drained of artifice, and as serious as a German bellhop. Worth seeing alone for the third act surprise, and worthy of being remade by Hollywood down the road should it be noticed.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) dir. by Banksy
Featuring: Banksy, Space Invader and Thierry Guetta


By Blair Stewart

A good documentary that could well be another elaborate prank from a renowned King amongst pranksters, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" plays the magic trick of exchanging the filmmaker and subject halfway through the story.

Over the past three decades vandalism has wrought street-art, therefore turning exposed public cement into blank canvases. Shepard Fairey of the iconic Barack Obama "Hope" campaign stands at the forefront of the movement alongside the cheeky mosaic work of Space Invader, spackling his work from Perth to Prague that's likely on your own street. But one figure has consistently grabbed headlines while remaining in the shadows, the legendary satirical political-art provocateur Banksy. The English artist who's moved well beyond humble grafitti days in Bristol, an international reputation has grown for Banksy with the following stunts:

1. Sneaking a Guantanomo Bay blow-up doll into Disneyland.
2. Putting his framed work up on the walls of the Louvre...without telling anyone.
3. Turning the Gaza Wall in Palestine into a public gallery under Israeli gun sights.
4. Spraying on the Tate Britain "MIND THE CRAP" with an arrow pointing towards the ceremony for the Turner Art Prize.
Basically, the man has a good sense of humour with a pair of iron-clad nuts.

As Banksy and co. were having their jollies Thierry Guetta was constantly filming them, a Frenchman who purported himself to be a documentarian on street-art and becomes the focal point of "Exit...". Gradually it will be revealed that Thierry is as much a cohesive filmmaker as Peter Sellers in "Being There" was a worthy Presidential candidate: He just happened to show up at the right place.

To the annoyance of Banksy after inheriting the tape back-catalogue, the attention-deficit stricken Guetta's life will take further twists that call into question art appreciation, media hype and the fine line between stupid and clever. The narrative that comes from Thierry's opportunistic life is the result of Banksy and his editors doing enough yeoman's work with the found footage to exhaust an experimental art-film collective.

Using the same self-deprecating wit (with a pint of fist-pumping accomplishment) that has endeared him to fans of his monkey-faced self portraits, Banksy takes a minor subject and shoves in enough human comedy to make it cohesive.

Interestingly, the heights to which the director has gone for socio-political commentary makes me question whether Guetta is genuinely real or a creation of Andy Kaufman proportions. As city councils whitewash their efforts away "Exit Through the Gift Shop" shows the zeitgeist of urban artists laying claim to their environment before the imitators show up.

See it for the art world's Zorro, less so for the crap that trails him.

Monday, 15 February 2010


A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop "San Qiang Pai An Jing Qi" (2010)
dir. by Zhang Yimou
Starring: Honglei Sun, Dahong Ni and Ni Yan


By Blair Stewart

A self-explanatory title for a cultural oddity, Zhang Yimou has remade the Coen Bros. debut "Blood Simple" into a mildly-forgettable show of buffoonery in Technicolor.

Taking Godard's theory of filmmaking and shoe-horning a noodle shop in there, the backwater pulp tale is moved from 80's Texas to imperial China in the belly of the Gobi desert. The Noodle Shop owner (Dahong Ni) is a spiteful ol' burlap sack who hires the local policeman (Honglei Sun riffing on Beat Takeshi's stone-faced countenance very well) to whack his trophy Wife (Ni Yan) and her hired 'help' (Xiao Shen-Yang).

If you're already familiar with "Blood Simple" you'll know all the double-crossings and grave-diggings will stack up like pancakes and if you aren't you should be by now. *smacking the latter-half of readers with a rolled-up newspaper*

What Zhang Yimou brings to this sidewinder tale apart from changing the setting is a digitally-enhanced colour scheme that would surely make Baz Luhrmann tip his light meter and added some very broad traditional Chinese comedy as well. And when I say broad I mean pratfalls, prop teeth and loads of shrieking, hoo-boy. While the film is not without merit because of the intensely beautiful surroundings it also doesn't have enough substance to surpass the American version, despite Sun's deadpan and Yan's screen luminosity.

If you want a good fix for down-and-dirty behaviour you should surely pay well for the pure stuff, not the imitation knock-off.

BTW-"A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop" was in dire need of more noodles.

Sunday, 14 February 2010


The Counting of the Damages* "El Recuento de los Daños" (2009)
dir. by Ines de Oliveira Cezar
Starring: Eva Bianco and Santiago Gobernori


By Blair Stewart

1. If you're making an exploration of family grief in present-day Argentina don't short-change your audience's intelligence with an unwieldy mass of head-shaking coincidences.

2. Only use a numerical chapter system in your film if each section either advances or diverges from the expectations of the previous chapter. See "Dogville" for a good example. Otherwise you might find yourself in a dark cinema praying for 'ocho' to become 'nueve'.

3. When the brother-in-law said he was an 'astrologer' was that supposed to be a joke? If so the script's sign is in Cancer.

4. Labourious non-action and detachment is a poor substitute for storytelling verve and emotional involvement.

5. I now have a better understanding of that whole 'la bronca' thing that ex-pats from Buenos Aires are always talking about.

6. You can only have so many shots of characters mournfully standing alongside waterways before one wishes for said characters to go for a swim.

7. It's nice to make a metaphor for the scars of the defunct military dicatorship but it also fills the audience with the desire to see Polanski's "Death and the Maiden" instead.

8. Whoever suggested the plinky-plonky piano score may in fact be a saboteur. Flush them out!

9. Is Argentina berefit of Zoloft?

10. As the end credit rolled I fought an immense desire to raise my arms aloft and shout out 'Pour Que?!?'.

*If you give yourself the albatross of a pretentious title you should expect the theme of a snarky review to be 'The Airing of the Grievances'.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Berlin 2010 - SHUTTER ISLAND

Shutter Island (2010) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Michelle Williams


By Blair Stewart

Let's get the fat out of the way quick so we can get to the meat: "Shutter Island" is in my opinion the best Martin Scorsese has done since "Casino" and a career high for Leonardo DiCaprio. After the thematic disapointment of "Gangs of New York", a tepid highlight reel that was "The Aviator" and the wealth of overpraisement for "The Departed", the director and his current muse have hit paydirt on their 4th try.

Based on the Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River", "Gone, Baby, Gone") novel, U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Dicaprio) and Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) are dispatched to an asylum on the outer-Boston hub of Shutter Island to find a missing child-killer (Emily Mortimer) in the 1950's. A prison sans an exit for the criminally insane, Ashecliffe Asylum is on the cusp of a gathering storm and therefore a foul haunt for the unravelling psyche of the widowed Daniels. The ex-GI's mind is besieged with trama from the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, and his dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) keeps popping up to offer worthy detective/spousal advice. As Daniels and Aule stumble through the fog of bullshit blowing in from Ben Kingsley as the chief psychiatrist the private stratgems of Daniels, the Doctor and the inmates intertwine.

That's as far as I'll describe a plot that allows Scorsese to indulge in his adulation of the cinematic trickery Welles, Fuller, and Hitchcock once employed in the realm of psychological thrillers. It's a shame to think that Saul Bass couldn't have provided an iconic opening credit sequence, it would have been a fat, juicy cherry on top. Some of the script material is shlock-Lobotomies! Crashing Thunder! Ted Levine as the Warden!-and some of the material is deeply tramatic-the Dachau flashbacks have a particular brutality for a major Hollywood release.

The genius of Scorsese, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and cameraman Robert Richardson, and Dante Ferrati's sets, and Laeta Kalogridis's adaptation, and finally Robbie Robertson bringing his best for the music supervision (so, so, so good this time around), is all the elements come together seemlessly. This surely could have been an overwrought headslapper, and there is noticable flab in later sections of the film, but Scorsese is a great chef and he wants to feed you something both familiar from his "Cape Fear" period and something strangely new for him, venturing well into the expressionist horror of Wiene's "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". You might even guess the ending as I suspected it to be but the journey there earns the above rating.

The flaws of some moments that might better have been left to the imagination can be overlooked when you come across Dicaprio and Patricia Clarkson making plot revelations sing like a jailbird. If the thrill of that reel wasn't reward enough having Levine, Elias Koteas and Jackie Earle Haley show up to heist scenes feels like a surprise party for lovers of character actors.

Tarantino recenly spoke of the ruefulness that DePalma had felt towards Scorsese as "Raging Bull" was coming out and Tarantino might now understand that same feeling-Martin Scorsese is still very much Martin Scorsese. In regard to Dicaprio, who is both painting himself into a corner with these ulcerous roles and still managing to find new pockets of mental despair, he's wonderfully growing into the next James Cagney minus the dancing chops. As I once looked forward to Scorsese and DeNiro teaming up I now wait with anticipation for more work from one of the last remaining Maestros and his star performer.

In closing, you should get your ass to the cinema.

Berlin 2010 - THE GHOST WRITER

The Ghost Writer (2010) dir. by Roman Polanski
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams


By Blair Stewart

Topical and skillfully made, Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" will likely be dealt the same stiff box-office opposition that "State of Play" and "Body of Lies" faced from a public enraptured with blue aborginal space-cats instead of Afganistan and Homeland Security. Regardless, the latest from the Polish master takes the post-9/11 political climate and uses the tools for a display of his ingrained caustic wit and understanding of filmic suspense.

A nameless scribe (Ewan McGregor) is hustled into a lucrative book deal to ghost-write the memoirs of recently deposed British Prime Minister Alan Lang (Pierce Brosnan, well cast with his smarmy ageing charm as a stand-in for Tony Blair). Lang's book has been on hold since his previous ghost writer became a literal one under iffy circumstances along the shores of Lang's property on Martha's Island. Brought into Lang's inner circle as a shitstorm erupts around the ex-PM's condoning of illegal rendition while in office, the Ghost Writer picks up the threads left by his deceased predecessor. He'll also find himself uncomfortably close to Lang's discarded wife played by Olivia Williams, who has had a great comeback year with her supporting role in "An Education".

One of the adult thrills is seeing McGregor and Williams strike sparks off of each other with fine banter. Another joy is watching Polanski and Robert Harris adapting from his own novel take your standard hokum thriller and wring moments of brilliance out of it, where the tension of a note being passed at a party would make Clouzot's phantom happy.

Much of the action unfolds inside the Lang compound, a post-modern cement bunker that the protagonists of "Repulsion", "The Tenant" and "Rosemary's Baby" would feel a kinship with.

I had deep reservation going into the film; any work featuring the questionable supporting cast of Jim Belushi, Kim Cattrall and Timothy Hutton will do that to me. And yet I've forgotten an old rule that I've bludgeoned film-geek friends with in the past: A great director can make lesser actors look good, and in that regard Belushi, Catrall and Hutton are well cast.

Unfortunately problems still cropped up in my first viewing. The film has the distracting air-brushed sheen of a movie that's passed through the D.I. suite too many times in post, and it also suffers from a lag in the middle when the pacing should be picking up towards the climax.

Despite these faults that kept "The Ghost Writer" from joining "Chinatown" and "The Pianist" on Polanski's top-shelf work, well-made adult suspense is still cause for celebration. Enjoy.

Berlin 2010 - HOWL

Howl (2010) dir. by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: James Franco, Bob Balaban and Jon Hamm


By Blair Stewart

"I just find animation to be so....didactic."
-Actual quote from a jackass I knew in Toronto, August 2008

Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman tackle 1950's poet Allen Ginsberg underground masterpiece "Howl and Other Poems" as its noterity took him overground in a triptych of re-enactment, courtroom drama and visual art. His slim collection of work that touched on drug use and homosexual sex in America brought about the ire of the conservative Right onto the indie publisher, setting up scenes of verbal sparring between David Strathairn prosecuting in the name of decenency and Jon Hamm in defense of free speech with Bob Balaban holding the gavel. Inter-cutting this drama is a Time magazine interview and the first public reading of "Howl" with James Franco as Ginsberg.

As the (in)famous writer Franco continues on a path of excellent career choices he's made since that burnout Saul in "Pineapple Express", his performance relaxed and unshowy barring the nerves on opening night when he let a bunch of drunk college students peek inside his brain. As Ginsberg launches into "Howl" the film once again inter-cuts to its final piece: Animation, and the reason why I started this review with that memorable quote.

In comparison the similiar work of Berman and Pulcini's "American Splendor" brilliantly broke the fourth wall to communicate Harvey Pekar's humanist autobiographical comics while Cronenberg grafted his own twisted fetishes on Burrough's "Naked Lunch". (Burrough's himself likely knowing a thing or two about a thing or two when it came to fetishes) What causes me concernation is the fact Epstein and Friedman of documentary acclaim with "The Celluloid Closet" and "The Times of Harvey Milk" keep returning to the same pail of water once the courtroom and Ginsberg readings run dry-I can only see the poems of "Howl" literally visualised with animated men playing flaming saxophones and bulldozers mowing down fields of flowers on female-shaped hills before I get queasy with baby-boomer nostalgia.

It's about as enjoyable as listening to another damn story concerning Woodstock, Hendrix and Haight-Ashbury or all of the above. On top of these repeated transgressions we also have to deal with the boldly underlined "free speech!" moment and the impact of Ginsberg's genius being expressed by the camera crash-zooming on the faces of kids hearing "Howl" and just having their minds totally blown, man. That might fly on HBO, but not so in the cinema. Ginsberg work had pockets of subtlety, pity the same can't be said for this film.

I couldn't resist:
"Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir!"
-"The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen, March 1998.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Berlin 2010 - APART TOGETHER

Apart Together "Tuan Yuan" (2010) dir. Wang Quan'an
Starring: Lisa Lu, Ling Feng and Monica Mo


by Blair Stewart

The 2010 Berlinale opens with a sublime look at the seeds sown from the division between China and Taiwan and the old world and the new.

Elderly grandmother Qiao Yu'e(Lisa Lu) remembers well the final days of the National People's Party in the Shanghai of 1949 and the last time she saw her lover Lui Yangsheng (Ling Feng). The soldier Lui fled for Taiwan over a half-century ago, leaving Yu'e with a cracked heart, a baby on the way and the Cultural Revolution around the corner.

Fifty years on as tensions relax between the nations the door opens for a still-spry Lui to return to Yu'e side, upsetting the applecart of her new family as around them the glass-and-metal smokestacks of New Shanghai bares down on what is left of the old city quarters.

A small film on the big subject of modern China shedding dying skin that's been depicted in Jia Zhang-Ke's "Still Life" and "The World", Wang Quan'an's "Apart Together" won't blow down your door but sneaks up on you with wry observations visualized by excellent long-takes. Lu and Feng certainly have a chemistry as two wrinkled old farts raising each others' pulses but it's the performance of Xui Caigen as Lu's hilariously windbaggy husband Lao (who happens to be a former Mao-era army officer) that pushes the film from 'decent' to a 'memorable'. It's worth seeing alone for the unexpected songs that made this reviewer's head and heart all soft.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Love Happens

Love Happens (2009) dir. Brandon Camp
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Jennifer Aniston, Martin Sheen, Judy Greer

By Alan Bacchus

Somemore Valentine's Day content for you...

Could the writers or producers of this film not think of a better title? Seriously ‘Love Happens’ as a title is as innocuous, non-specific, and dull as its content - a motivational speaker who uses his wife’s death to further his seminars on grieving is given new verve in life when he meets a Jennifer Aniston-type single gal (played by Jennifer Aniston).

The dramatic irony of the core concept is not left to much imagination or intellectual discovery – Aaron Eckhart plays Burke Ryan (a ridiculous character name to start with) who is unable to reconcile his wife’s death, yet he’s a motivational speaker who teaches how to cope with grieving. This solves the screenwriter’s checklist need for contradictions in his character, but it’s so front and centre the irony of Burke not practising what he preaches feels just shamelessly manufactured. And if we didn’t get it, there’s the recurring symbolism of lemons, a bitter fruit which Burke uses for his vodka to taste sweet.

The title perhaps is in reference to Burke’s romance with Aniston which ‘happens’ upon him with ease. In fact, there’s little for Burke to surmount to find love, as it keeps landing right in his lap with very little effort.

Jennifer Aniston as a flaky bohemian florist who drives a Volkswagen and listens to ‘slam poetry’ is bad casting. Of course, she looks gorgeous all the time, perfect hair, perfect skin, perfect body. That’s right she’s flawless, and represents no challenge at all to Burke. A cheque cashing role for Aniston, just hanging around, waiting to show up at the right time to help. If only relationships were that easy.

There’s comes a point in the film when Burke steals his father in law’s parakeet in order to free it which, I think, becomes the epiphany for him that letting go is the answer to his problems. Whatever the reason, it’s as sticky and thick as dried syrup.

Amongst other things one of the annoying threads left hanging is a series of cryptic graffiti wordplay games between the lovers - love letters, or inspirational message left underneath hanged pictures in a hotel room was completely lost on me.

“Love Happens” is a complete disaster and something to stay far far away from.

“Love Happens” is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Time Traveller's Wife

The Time Traveller’s Wife (2009) dir. Robert Schwentke
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Eric Bana, Ron Livingston


By Alan Bacchus

Despite huge missed opportunities to wholly exploit this wildly complex premise, ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ is an adequately enjoyable new age romance.

We meet our hero Henry DeTramble as a child about to get into a car accident which will kill his mother. Instead of dying, he disappears or teleports himself away from danger. He soon finds himself watching the grisly crash disembodied from the street. Shortly after, an older version of himself (Eric Bana) appears and tells him he’s a time traveller, and that his life is about to get really confusing.

Henry spends his life in very brief moments in the present before inexplicably travelling to other periods of time. These moments can last minutes, or weeks and once teleported, he wakes up in the oddest places, without his clothes, and scrambling to get cover. One day he meets Claire (Rachel McAdams) whom Henry had been meeting secretly over the course of her life. So even though Henry’s the time traveller, he’s the one confused and left in the dark.

Claire and Henry hold together a relationship for 30 plus years even though their moments together get interrupted by his annoying time travelling. Love prevails until Claire and Henry want to have a baby, which if it has the same affliction as Henry will cause more even more trouble for them.

I don’t know if there ever was a clear explanation of the rules of time travel in this movie, but I must have missed it. As for the cinematic history of time travel, it strays from some of the usual code of conduct – time paradoxes don’t happen, nor can altering the course of the future. They were clear about that. But the spacial dimension of travelling is murky. Why Henry always emerges somewhere neither too far, nor too near Claire is a headscratcher.

Where The Time Traveller fails is not in these nitpicky holes, or Time Travelling logic, but the lack of conflict and obstacles in between the lovers. Despite Henry’s affliction, it doesn’t seem to bother Claire or Henry too much because conveniently he seems to be able to run back to her within moments. Schwentke seems so intent on getting the characters together and putting them on screen to sell us a romance he forgets the story's emotional guts are when the characters are apart. The moments when Henry disappears leaving both of them alone is where the relationship is tested most. Unfortunately, on each and every occasion, Schwentke convenient cuts back to the moment when Henry walks back into Claire’s life to continue the interrupted conversation.

The unusualness of the relationship and the new perspective of two people in love does surmount most of these problems. As a whole the film tells the same story as 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' – a love story told on the macro level of time - two films, for better and for worse, with big ideas and big flaws.

“The Time Traveller’s Wife” is available on a DVD two-pack from Alliance Films with that other Rachel McAdams romantic potboiler, ‘The Notebook’ – arguably the most popular romantic film since ‘Titanic.’

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Golddiggers of 1933

Golddiggers of 1933 (1933) dir. Mervyn le Roy
Starring: Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Warren William, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee


By Alan Bacchus

The first of one of the most successful and beloved musical franchises in the cinema - the Gold Diggers films, a series of musicals in the 30‘s portraying predatory attitude of the poor against the rich with comedic fervour and eye-popping musical spectacle.

Busby Berkeley provides the staging and choreography of the musical sequences and the great Mervyn Le Roy ('Wizard of Oz') directs this spectacular and topical comedic musical about men and women trying to 'put on a show'. Of course, it was the time of the Depression the mixture of frenetic comic fever with Berkeley‘s distinct kaleidoscope-like visual spectacle makes all of these films classics beyond compare.

While intended for the working class audiences, Le Roy execution of themes of class struggle is just as biting and clever as, say, the sophisticated Renoir films of the same period. The first half of plotting finds poor musician and lyricist Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) struggling like everyone to make a living as an artist in bad economic times. But after hearing him play his own little ditties, bombastic stage producer Barney Hopkins hires him to write his next great musical. But without the money to finance it, Brad miraculously and mysterious ‘finds’ the $15,000 needed to make it all happen.

After Brad is forced to perform in the musical, his identity is revealed as the heir to a rich and respected business family. When his father and brother find out they arrive at theatre to chastise him and bring him home. Enter Brad’s vivacious female dancers who weave their sexual charisma around the stuck up suits in hopes of keeping Brad in the theatre and squeezing as much money out of them as possible.

Surprisingly Le Roy cleverly switches our sympathy from Brad and his desire to buck his family legacy and live the honest life as artist, to his brother Lawrence and father Fanuel, who after being set up as the prototypical 30’s upper class snobs become putty in the hands of the women, and in the case of Fanuel, revealing forlorn love from his past which his greed for money had tried to suppress.

Interspersed between the comic shenanigans are the scenes from Barney’s new show, the tone of each sequences cleverly reflecting the mood of the characters behind the scenes. As typical of the Berkeley style his musical numbers are born from the stage setting of the story, but are played and choreographed 100% for his expressive composition and dynamic moving camera.

In addition to the stunning dance sequences, as a precode film, we can also appreciate the not-so-subtle suggestive subtext. LeRoy takes delight in showing us some rather salacious skin, women undressing freely in front of men, the dances overtly using their bodies to seduce men out of their money, and we even get to see some stark naked bodies in silhouette in one of the dance sequences. The musical segment ‘Petting in the Park” is particularly naughty, dramatizing just as the title suggests making out in Central Park

If anything, the film ends rather abruptly leaving us hanging as to the fate of Lawrence Roberts. But not before we're supremely satisfied with the final Forgotten Man sequence.

Monday, 8 February 2010

The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon (2009) dir. Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaussner, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Praxouf, Leonie Benesch, Rainer Bock, Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Tukur


By Alan Bacchus

Fuck you too Michael Haneke. There you go. You insult me I insult back. Your concerted effort not to pay off the drama and mystery you teased me with for two hours and twenty minutes felt like a slap in the face and is thus deserving of this long distance insult and this 2 1/2 star review.

It'll be of no consequence though as the film has already been lauded for almost a year from Cannes, to Toronto, to the Golden Globes and very soon, the Oscars. Is it too greedy to want more from this story? More people like me should be throwing popcorn at the screen demanding their money back, or at the very least asking management if there's another reel in the back which didn't get projected. For those who don't ejaculate from Haneke's arty, obtuse and rather sudden ending will likely be left with this feeling.

It's frustrating because for two hours and twenty minutes Michael Haneke is on fire, mesmerizing us with a small scale yet rich, muted horror film, shot with stunning and Black and White compositions. It's Germany circa 1913-4 a quaint little one horse town with an Agatha Christie-like cast of characters, the baron, the doctor, the farmer, the midwife, the teacher, the pastor, their wives and their children. It’s an orthodox village, a culture of tradition and obedience, a hierachal class system which dictates the rules of authority. At the top of each household is the man, who in each home rules with absolute power, unspoken, unquestioned. In many ways the set up felt a lot like Lars Von Trier’s sound stage village in Dogville – except with real buildings as opposed to white lines on the floor.

Haneke starts off by telling us of an accident involving the doctor falling off his horse, sending him to the hospital. But it’s no innocent accident however, but a trap set with fishing wire, by some unknown assailant. Who would want to harm the doctor?

With patience and skill Haneke strips back the veils of secrecy revealing other despicable acts of malevolence within each of the homes. As we discover the cause of each of the acts, the assumed rights of man of the women and children in their lives, whether its corporal punishment with a stick, or heinous sexual assault on a child, or as small as being overbearing and dispassionate, the children of the village take their revenge.

Sounds exciting, doesn't it? A village of the damned, Michael Haneke style. Though most of everything takes place off camera, behind closed doors, in the darkness, or simply off told to us by the narrator, Haneke's ratchets up the tension to high levels of discomfort. The violence which simmers clandestinely underneath the idyllic but isolated setting evokes the same moodiness and sense of dread of a Grimm’s Fairytale. Keeping us moving forward are the words of the narrator in the future, and the actions of the teacher in the present trying to make sense of it all.

Though never characterized as a Sherlock Holmes or even a Hardy Boy, by framing the film around the teacher a revelation is implied to be seen through the eyes of that character. In the final moments, we appear to get that moment, when the midwife claims to know who has been committing these acts. It’s a red herring perhaps meant to disguise an even more despicable act, which Haneke never really pays off, only implies.

So just at the moment when the film has my utmost attention, sitting on the edge of my proverbial seat, waiting to know what comes next, practically salivating at the cinematic tension, Haneke slowly fades out on nothing. Agony!

This is not my first Michael Haneke film, so maybe I should expected the unexpected. The unexpected being, to be left hanging at the moment of greatest interest and attachment to the story. Though I didn’t much care for Dogville, at least Von Trier was conscious enough of his audience to pay off his setups with a cathartic blood bath execution at the end. Unfortunately the biggest moment of violence is his painful fade out, like a dagger in my heart.

It's a shame I'm forced to concentrate so much on the final moments of the lengthy, complex and rich film. Because all the praise that has been heaped on this film is actually well deserved. Haneke masterfully aims his microscopic look at this small village with a spectre of a century of future atrocities which will likely befall these people even more. Perhaps the most profound moment is when the father of the teacher's pined-after girlfriend tells him to wait a year before asking her hand in marriage. It's only a year, 'not much can happen in a year' - a great propetically ironic line. And so my extreme reaction to the very end is a testament to the power of the director to dictate the emotion of the audience, even up till the last frame.