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

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Please Give

Please Give (2010) dir. Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet


By Alan Bacchus

Please Give is one of those ensemble character films digging deep into the lives and problems ordinary people who could be your friends and neighbours. In this case director Holofcener paints a portrait of a group of middle class Manhattanites and their interrelated domestic problems not that far removed from any of us slightly neurotic self-analytical reasonably secure yuppie movie goers.

This isn’t the stuff of high drama, or high stakes, instead the appreciation and enjoyment of the picture relies on the audience’s ability to fall in love with Holofcener’s characters and identify with their moral dilemmas.

Holofcener centres on Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) a couple who run a used furniture business in NYC, and who ply their trade off the remnants of elderly persons who have died and thus have furniture to unload. One of Kate’s goals is to expand into the neighbouring unit which is occupied by one of the types of elderly women who she chases for merchandise. Though Kate is respectful and honest, she does harbour some guilt for ethical dalliances, which fills her with a need to ‘give back’ (hence the title). Whether it’s giving change to homeless men on the streets or becoming a volunteer caregiver to mentally challenged kids Kate needs some cleansing.

Her husband Alex doesn’t really help. He’s charming but self-involved and lacking an emotional attachment to his wife. So it’s no surprise when he picks up an affair with Mary (Amanda Peet) the shallow tan-orexic daughter of his elderly neighbour. Mary’s sister Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is going through her own very mild emotional crisis having to take care of her elderly grandmother and manage the superiority complex of her sister. These moral complications are all held internally within the characters without the expected outbursts, confrontations, or dramatic reversals of fortune.

Holofcener applies a palpable sense of American middleclass urban realism, like a female Alexander Payne film. Holofcener’s film is unfortunately not nearly as funny. Without satire, absurdity, parody, or slapstick the laughs are subdued greatly, instead I found myself ‘kinda smiling’ at situations that were mildly light hearted without producing actual laughter. Does that count as funny? I dunno, but other critics did.

While there’s nothing false, forced or contrived my appreciation of Please Give is as boisterous as the gentle arc of its characters. The very slight emotional journey Kate/Alex/Rebecca et al go through is perfectly summarized in the metaphor of Kate’s teenaged daughter’s search for the perfect pair of jeans. After going through the picture complaining about being fat and not fitting into the jeans she wants, in the end Abby’s pulls herself into a snug new pair of pants. She is blissful and content. The closure of these characters will not light any fires, but we feel a mildly warm glow of content.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

A Perfect Getaway

A Perfect Getaway (2009) dir. David Twohy
Starring: Steve Zahn, Mila Jovovich, Timothy Olyphant, Kiele Sanchez


By Alan Bacchus

There’s much to admire and much to groan about A Perfect Getaway, David Twohy’s vacation thriller, which at first glance would appear to be throwaway genre pic, but its decent receipts and tempered praise suggested more. On one hand, it’s a smart genre-aware thriller which has the ability to genuinely surprise and shock us, on the other, a transparent exercise in cinematic reverse engineering and thus ultimately the empty throwaway picture we expected.

By the way... If you haven’t seen the film, best not even read further, because some major plotting and SPOILERS needs to be discussed in order to analyse this picture.

Now back to the film... when I mean ‘reverse engineering’, I mean the whole purpose of this film’s existence is its third act twist, which either comes as a total and thus thoroughly satisfactory surprise, or as an exercise in futility to astute audiences who catch on early.

Twohy, a veteran writer/director of high concept but unmemorable films like ‘Pitch Black’, 'The Chronicles of Riddick', and ‘The Arrival’, is clever in setting it all up. First, the casting of Steve Zahn and Timothy Olyphant. Zahn, the highly recognizable character actor known for his affably goofy and geeky roles, versus the menacing and brooding presence of Olyphant set us up for a classic confrontation of good and evil.

Early on, Twohy establishes the honeymooning Cliff and Cydney (Zahn and Jovovich), are a couple of naive vacationers in Hawaii throwing around money, talking loudly and thus making themselves a target for a serial killing couple that has been stalking the islands.

Cliff and Cydney meet Nick and Gina (Olyphant and Sanchez), Nick being a highly nosey and overly friendly hiker with large eyes that never seem to blink. He’s so obviously the bad guy, right? Not necessarily. Twohy teases us with a number of potential baddies. There’s another wandering couple, a guy with nasty looking mouton-chops, tattoos and chiselled hard body who speaks in raspy tones. He’s seems pretty evil too. We also see a local moustache-twirling Hawaiian dude who coyly watches Cliff taking out his wad of cash from his wallet to pay for his hiking permits. He’s a potential threat too. So we three potential baddies, with Twohy hoping our attention is distracted by oscillating between these three red herrings.

Back to the casting... Hiring Zahn and embellishing his meek persona, nervous anxiety and dressing him in nerdy blackrimmed glassed enhances this distraction. At the same time, Twohy’s lack of subtlety with these base characterizations might also have smarter audiences think twice about what actually is going on. Eventually it’s revealed that Zahn and Cydney are the mysterious serial killers, a twist, which I caught on late in the movie, and thus didn’t get the full shock value intended by the director.

Under Twohy’s ‘either/or’ treatment of the film – that is, either you guess the ending or you don’t – the picture clearly works for those who don’t guess the ending and doesn’t for those who do. Arguably it didn’t have to be this way. In the final act, after the big reveal Twohy’s direction takes a sudden turn for some overly stylized and laughable action sequences. The lengthy flashbacks run on too long, and betray the cleverness of Twohy’s set-up, essentially dumbing the picture down and telling the audience how he tricked us. The violence is also ramped up for some gore, which is awkward and doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the picture.

And so, I have to sit on the fence on this one, leaning neither for nor against. Twohy’s mix of genre-savvy cleverness and self-awareness is liberating, but his blockhead inconsistent direction betrays his own writing.

Monday, 28 June 2010


Sideways (2004) dir. Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh


By Alan Bacchus

“Sideways” was a great success story. The modest comedy without any particular marketable hook other than great characters turned critics’ heads around in 2004 and garnered a well-deserved Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar as well as nominations in most of the major categories.

With five years of hindsight, the film the ages well and packs as much of an emotional punch as it did back then. At its heart its a unique male buddy film – the word du jour would be a ‘bromantic comedy’. Two guys bonding on a weeklong roadtrip in Napa Valley. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a forty-something divorcee and struggling author. He has arranged a relaxing week of wine-tasting with his buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who’s about to get married. Jack's agenda is for he and Miles to get laid – specifically Miles whom he's desperate see to break out of his two-year long post-divorce depression.

Jack, as wingman, brokers a four-way date with a pair of attractive middle-agers and fellow wine connoisseurs Maya and Stephanie (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh). While Stephanie and Jack’s libidos explode immediately Miles’ courtship of Maya is carefully, slowly revealing his neurotic fears and painful regrets. But Jack’s heinous lies burden both relationships resulting in even more painful heartbreak.

Characters rules in "Sideways" and each actor inhabits their skin with complete honesty. In some way or another we can all relate to their situations. For Miles, his internal pain is a lifelong pattern of failure – career failure and relationship failure. In addition to complete self-absorption, to replace his emptiness Miles obsesses about everything to do with wine. Jack as the womanizing pick-up artist is both the angel and devil on his shoulder. While his philandering behaviour is completely reprehensible his devotion to his best mate is admirable. It’s a classic male relationship, which Payne characterizes with perfection.

Payne has remarkable control of his tone, moving fluidly between somber reflections on life to absurd comedy and all the shades of grey in between. Aiding this is Payne’s modest camerawork, unstylish and unassuming, but hardly rudimentary. Perfect framing and camera placement, subtle camera moves emphasize and aid all the poignant and comic moments with pinpoint accuracy. Rolfe Kent’s music is equally unflashy but so important to Payne’s tone, a gentle mix quirky and melancholy.

From the four films by Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor, they could be argued as one of the great writing duos in film comedy. From “Citizen Ruth”, “Election”, “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” (as well as marvelous segment in “Paris Je T’Aime”) this eight-year examination of ordinary middle class America and the variations of character neuroses reminds us of Woody Allen’s remarkable output from late 70’s to the late 80’s.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Yes Men

"The Yes Men" (2003) dir. by Dan Ollman, Sarah Price and Chris Smith
Starring: Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos


By Blair Stewart

Two men on a stage for a World Trade Organization conference somewhere in Stockholm or Cleveland gloss over collusion between business interests and local governments with a steep price paid by the countries of the third, second (Cuba? North Korea?), and occasionally first world.


Then two other men get up and in a factually roundabout method that might segue into gold lame bodysuits and edible shitburgers say what the intentions of the W.T.O. and their global enablers really are.

I'd much prefer watching the latter. The W.T.O. would not.

Taking the prank-conscience activism of 'Adbusters' with a splash of the Situationists and swinging a wrecking ball at globalization, "The Yes Men" are a pack of good samaritans shaming corporation flunkies worldwide. An eponymous documentary on the two main wise-asses, 'Mike Bonanno' (Igor Vamos) and 'Andy Bichlbaum' (Jacques Servin), who go about these conferences nodding, shaking hands and smiling in suits until they get up on stage and stir shit up with their truth-telling. They've accomplished this by posting fake websites with subtle jibes towards the corporate world. Predictably by not reading-deeper this has lead to trade organizations inviting our heroes to conferences all over the globe, with the occasional appearance on primetime news. Poker-faced, the Yes Men argue in preference towards 'remote-controled foreign labour' and recycling fast-food burgers so we can sell them back to Bangladeshians. An inflatable phallus even puts on a show for the crowds.

Overwhelmingly in these situations 'Bichlbaum' as his alter-alter ego "Hank Hardy Unruh" (love that name) is met only with blank faces from the donkeys he's pinning a tail on.

A chilling reveal on the inhumane nature of capitalism while also being an enjoyable lark of a documentary, "The Yes Men" isn't exceptional in part due to an ending that peters out and the slight reveal on the real lives of the subjects. I found my latter issue surprising as co-directors Chris Smith and Sarah Price were responsible for such highly-praised works as “American Movie” and “Home Movie”, especially with “American Movie” digging right under the skin of its sad-sack dreamer Mark Borchardt.

Despite these qualms the anti-W.T.O. story is told with a lighter touch than Michael Moore's to which I am grateful, and I look forward to watching the sequel “The Yes Men Fix the World”, which involves the Halliburton-designed 'SurvivaBall', used to combat the effect of climate change. But of course.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon (2009) dir. by Michael Haneke
Starring Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur and Ursina Lardi


By Blair Stewart

In the traditional German kids collection 'Der Struwwelpeter' a thumb-sucking child has his digits cut off by giant scissors to learn a lesson, and another won't eat his soup until he starves to death. If you don't abide by the rules the rules will be taught sharply. In hindsight the subtitle of "A German Children's Story" for the Cannes-winning "The White Ribbon" is most appropriate for this film.

The village of Eichwald sits under a heavy silence as it experiences a fit of 'incidents' in 1913-1914. Tripwire is laid for the local Doctor on horseback; a peasant dies in a grain silo accident, children are found in the nearby forest savagely beaten. As is standard in a Michael Haneke film the threat(s) won't be fully revealed, but the private skeletons of the locals and a few clues will come tumbling out.

Looming behind the tension in the community is Europe's Great War holding its breath. The young schoolteacher is our protagonist (Christian Friedel), who also acts as an uncertain old narrator looking for reason in the madness within and beyond the village during his lifetime.

His fortunes in the town will rise and fall over the seasons along with the strict Priest, the Doctor, a twittering pack of young and the darkly muttering peasants toiling under the Landbaron(Ulrich Tukur from "Seraphine"). This would make for a standard thriller with a sadistic bent if it weren't for a number of factors coming together superbly, none more so than the fantastic performances of children in several roles vital to the story.

Featuring an awkward and surprisingly sweet romance unusual for his work ("Benny's Video" and "Funny Games" would make for terrible family viewings unless your parents are humourless psychoanalysts), Haneke otherwise uses his talent for hidden menace where the most violent on-screen action is a cabbage fields destruction. Stating his intention for "The White Ribbon" as an exploration of terrorism in its many forms and consequences, the Austrian director's black-and-white setting has elements of Clouzot's classic "Le Corbeau" and Miller's "The Crucible", all containing similar themes of secrecy and retribution.

While well over two hours long the story never dragged for me, with a script of over twenty characters carrying a story that could have been adapted from an unknown classic novel. A work of repression made with the confidence of a director in command of his form, "The White Ribbon" joins Haneke's "Hidden" as the best film of his career, and one of the finest of the past decade.

'The White Ribbon' is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Friday, 25 June 2010


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 step up their game. 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.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Death Race 2000

Death Race 2000 (1975) dir. Paul Bartel
Starring: David Carradine, Sylvestor Stallone


by Alan Bacchus

In the mondo special features of this latest DVD incarnation of Death Race 2000, Roger Corman describes his reaction to reading sci-fi novelist Ib Melchior's 1956 short story The Racer, then a serious, cautionary, futurist tale. Corman, ever the astute producer and money maker, saw this story as a comedy and thus turned it into a raucous road movie, part action, part comedy, part science fiction and part cultural satire.

Twenty-five years later, when the millennium rolled around, we didn't exactly see our society debased to the level of nihilism of Death Race 2000, but with the onset of reality TV, which was only a couple years away from really breaking out, Corman wasn't that far off, and as social commentary, it's surprisingly sharp. While proponents might overdo the profoundness of the film's critique on the media and society's growing insatiability for violence, we can't forget that it's also a b-grade action picture with some titties.

It's a story that has been told in many other forms since 1975. Natural Born Killers, The Running Man, Battle Royale, Speed Racer and much of the modern videogame culture, whether conscious or not, all take influences from Corman/Bartel's vision, however kooky and bizarre.

It's the year 2000, and society has devolved into a Roman-like world where the people's need for violence is organized into a gladiatorial event called the Death Race: a cross-country car race/game show where contestants earn points by killing opponents and pedestrians. Among the contestants is Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (played well by a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone), Roberta Collins' Matilda the Hun, Martin Kove's Nero the Hero and the best of the best, Frankenstein (played with cool, iconic aloofness by David Carradine).

As the racers cruise the highways running down innocent victims with glee, we see a clandestine resistance movement angling to subvert the games and take down the government. Frankenstein feels the threat from all angles, including his trusted navigator, who may or may not be working for the resistance

Most of the laughs come from the audacity of the extreme concept and the audience's ability to embrace the kitsch. The cartoonish tone aids in the satire, as well as taking our attention away from the production deficiencies.

The DVD is chockfull of special features, more than enough to please geeky film buffs and collectors. There are multiple commentaries, including Corman, assistant director Lewis Teague, editor Tina Hirsch and director John Landis, interviews with Corman, Carradine and story author IB Melchior, and multiple featurettes on many of the film's production elements.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010) dir. Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen


By Alan Bacchus

Being a Canadian male I grew up listening to and knowing about Rush since birth. Until my teenage years I hated Rush, the piercing high pitched vocals from Getty Lee, the complicated overly produced instrumentation was distasteful. But then as my taste in music broadened with my own maturity, I somehow became in sync with the music. What seemed like nails on a chalkboard before, suddenly lyrical and supremely rockin’.

At the helm of this documentary are the heavy metals gurus of cinema Sam Dunn and Scot Fadyen whose Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Global Metal and Iron Maiden: Flight 666 showed surprising intelligence and analysis of the genre of heavy metal music. So it was inevitable this film would get made by them.

Heavy metal is a genre which has always produced the most loyal fans in music. If you love heavy metal in high school, odds are you were unpopular in school. It’s no exception either with Rush, who has always will be a love or hate it band, but with enough lovers around the world for them warrant a documentary about their career.

Their journey, which is told us in traditional documentary fashion, charts their careers from their childhood days in Toronto in the 60’s to the rise of their career in the 70’s to the peak in the early 80’s and beyond.

The filmmakers are so reverential to the music the lack of traditional cinematic conflict doesn’t inhibit the film from being feature-worthy. We learn about the upbringing of the band’s founders, Getty Lee and Alex Lifeson, both sons of European immigrants who moved to Toronto post WWII. Unlike other life stories, Lee and Lifeson had stable and supportive families. When Lee wanted a guitar, his parents didn’t have a problem with it, when Lifeson decided to quit school to form a band, it was met with some disappointment, but with genuine love, support, and a safety of another career in an autobody shop waiting back home.

Even over the course of their 30 years career, other than the firing of original drummer John Rutsey after the first album and the hiring of Neil Peart, there’s little conflict in the band. So where’s the drama in this relatively easy ride to the top?

The film isn’t so much about the rise (and fall) of a band, but the deconstruction and evolution of three men as artists. As a power trio (guitar, bass, drums), Dunn and Fadyen pay close attention and give ample screen time to the different artistic phases of the band. To compliment thi, they even break the film up into the type of roman numerical chapters their lengthy epic songs had, say, on their Hemispheres album.

There’s the hard rock stage of the early period, which includes a classic rock ‘n’ roll story of discovery by a Cleveland radio station. It’s an anecdote I’ve heard before, but which makes for a great retelling. There’s also the progressive rock era when the band’s lyrics and musicianship became more and more complex and thus alienating and divisive to its audiences. There’s the early synthesizer period of the early 80’s when the band was at its peak. And they’re even self-critical of its mid-to-late 80’s full blown synth period – the albums which most people hate.

The filmmakers adequately tie their artistic evolution to the personalities of the artists. From the beginning, the band members seem to have the music and the business first in the minds. Gene Simmons even recounts his impression of them with a funny story - when they were on tour with Kiss in the mid-70’s when Simmons and his band members were choosing the groupies to sleep with after the show, Rush always seemed return to their hotel rooms to watch TV. That’s probably an exaggeration, but indicates the congruence of the dedication to their music and their niche fans.

Like their previous efforts Dunn/McFadyen assemble a terrific roll call of influential rockers who sing the praises of Rush, and provide us the time and place context for their historical overview – Billy Corgan, Jack Black, Trent Reznor, Matt Stone, Zakk Wylde, CBS newsman John Roberts, who was a local rock reporter in the late 70s/early 80’s.

Unfortunately without the universal dramatic conflicts of cinema, for the non-Rush fans, this might just seems like nails on the chalkboard. But fans rejoice, Rush finally gets its due, the perfect comprehensive summary and examination of that humble but powerful trio from Toronto.

‘Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage’ is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

A Star Is Born (1954)

A Star Is Born (1954) dir. George Cukor
Starring: Judy Garland, James Mason, Charles Bickford and Jack Carson


By Greg Klymkiw

The devastating effects of alcoholism have seldom been captured with the kind of force that permeates director George Cukor's 1954 rendering of this classic tale of a star rising, another star burning out and the bond of love between them.

A Star is Born as a much-beloved screen entity began with David O. Selznick's early attempt at R.K.O. Pictures to tell a true-to-life story about Hollywood. Securing Adela Rogers St. Johns to write the story and subsequently employing a myriad of screenwriters, Selznick teamed up with his good friend George Cukor to bring the world What Price Hollywood? in 1932. It's a solid film with an especially great performance from Lowell Sherman as the alcoholic who feels he is holding back the genius of the woman he loves and subsequently commits suicide to "free" her. Constance Bennett in the female role was good, but not great.

In 1937, Selznick returned to the material and delivered what would be the first picture officially bearing the title "A Star is Born". This fine version, sans Cukor and helmed by the stalwart William Wellman, starred Fredric March as the drunken star and also featured exquisite production value. Alas, Janet Gaynor as its leading lady was simply no match for Mr. March. The film, whilst good, fell short of the greatness it was clearly striving for.

The cinematic marriage made in Heaven for this material occurred when Judy Garland's husband, Sidney Luft, seeking a comeback project for his troubled wife, convinced Warner Brothers to bankroll a musical version of the tale with George Cukor directing and the inimitable Moss Hart writing the screenplay adaptation of Dorothy Parker's 1937 screenplay. The casting of James Mason as Judy Garland's husband was a stroke of genius and for once, the material had two great stars - evenly matched in talent and screen presence.

The simple, well-told tale involves singer Esther Blodgett (Garland) who meets-cute with Hollywood star Norman Maine (Mason) at a ritzy film business fundraiser wherein the completely sloshed actor ends up on stage with a chorus line of performers, one of whom is our heroine. Esther knows who Norman is, and also realizes how drunk he is, but she's both star-struck and charmed and engages him in a fun, silly dance that entertains the audience and, in so doing, allows Norman to retain the dignity of a stalwart performer letting loose (as opposed to being seen as a buffoon).

Eventually, the two becomes friends and lovers and most importantly, Norman becomes Esther's benign Svengali and he uses all his powers to turn her into a huge star. The paternal studio head Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) gets Esther to change her name to Vicki Lester and further builds her into the studio's most valuable asset.

Alas, Norman's continued drunken antics have made him a huge liability to the studio and his contract is not renewed. People he thought were his friends ignore him, and the slimy studio publicity chief played by the inimitable Jack Carson, tell hims to his face how much he's always hated him and pretended to be his friend because it was his job. This latter blow comes after Norman is off the wagon and leads to him hitting the bottle even harder.

Esther/Vicki rises to the top, and Norman falls further than anyone could have imagined. Loving his wife desperately, but feeling he is holding her back, Norman makes what he thinks is the ultimate sacrifice so she can truly shine.

While there are plenty of musical numbers in the picture - including Garland's knockout rendition of Arlen and Gershwin's great song "The Man That Got Away" - the movie is at its absolute best when Garland and Mason share the screen together. Cukor and his two great actors brilliantly capture the initial attraction, their growing love, the mutual dependency upon each other (positive and negative) - all the ups and downs one expects from characters that are deeply wrought and ultimately, sympathetic because of the simple, delicate humanity with which they're handled.

An extremely interesting aspect to this story is that so many pictures from the Golden Age of Cinema were weepers of the highest order and often used female characters in the position of feeling like a millstone around either their lovers' or children's necks and making huge sacrifices to free those they love from their burdensome presence. "A Star is Born" - especially in this version - is a powerful reversal of this storytelling tradition.

One of the more astounding sequences in the movie is when Esther/Vicky is at the Academy Awards, desperately awaiting to see if she wins, but even more desperate as she wonders and waits where an absent Norman is. Garland's performance here is heartbreaking, but when Norman finally appears at the awards ceremony - completely plastered, Garland's performance reaches stratospheric heights when she deals with how Norman humiliates her.

Mason captures his character's pathetic inner helplessness while Garland displays pure love - not a stalwart attempt at maintaining dignity, but love! A love that means helping her husband at all costs and no matter how much he's made a fool of himself - Garland conveys that it is her love that is stronger than his illness and that sacrifice is perhaps the greatest force of love. In fact, her kind, resolute handling of the embarrassing situation plays as a sacrifice and yet, below the surface, there is the subtext - delivered mostly through Garland's performance - suggesting that for Esther/Vicki, helping someone you love maintain THEIR dignity might be SEEN as a sacrifice, but that she doesn't view it that way. It's what one does when one is in love.

One of the reasons Garland's Blodgett/Lester seems so evenly matched is the juxtaposition between one character's discovery and the other's loss - the latter clearly being the loss of one's way in the world to the point where the only way to move forward is to seek death. Garland discovers, not only her talent, but that she has the capacity for undying love and sensuality while Mason can only empower himself in making a star out of someone even as he has lost all of his lustre.

While there is a certain surface bravery to Mason's sacrifice, there is a cowardice to it as well - a cowardice that is only too human, and in so being, FEELS heroic. His sacrifice, however, pales in comparison to the endless sacrifices Garland makes.

It was my most recent viewing of this film, on the new Warner Home Entertainment Blu-Ray Special Edition release where my eyes were drawn almost inextricably to the eyes of both performers. It was, perhaps the clarity of the format itself that allowed me access to the souls of the characters through these two pairs of eyes. Both Garland and Mason express a myriad of emotions and there's never a false note from either of them. And as truly great as Garland is in the film, we once again have a film version of the story where the actor playing Norman - in this case, Mason - is such a compelling tragic figure that it's impossible not to be deeply moved by him to the point where our heroine becomes somewhat muted in comparison.

Thankfully, though, Garland is only occasionally overshadowed by Mr. Mason and is certainly a match for him. At the conclusion of the film, when she proclaims that her name is "Mrs. Norman Maine" - suggesting, of course, how their souls are inextricably connected for an eternity - we realize just how utterly perfect Cukor's handling of this vital love is.

That said, Mason's last scenes in the magic hour of his final day on Earth, come close to ripping one's heart out of one's chest. The little looks and smiles of love and determination he delivers, wrench such pure emotion from an audience, that it's easy to see how Mason comes close to walking away with the picture. As well, anyone who has suffered from alcoholism either directly or indirectly will realize just how great Mason is in the picture.

It's truly a testament to Mason, Garland and Cukor that alcoholism is treated with all the sad truth the subject requires and most of all, that its viewed as it should be - a disease that can rip the lifeblood out of everyone, not just the individual afflicted with the disease.

A Star Is Born is a classic - end of story.

It might well be over fifty years old, but it feels as fresh and vital as if it had been made just yesterday.

A Star Is Born" is now available on Warner Home Entertainement in''' DVD and Blu-Ray with a restoration that brings the recut 177 minute version - as close to Cukor's original cut (over 180 mins.) before the studio truncated it to 154 minutes soon after its initial theatrical release. You'll also note I have made absolutely no mention of the execrable 1970s film version of the story. The less said about it, the better.

Monday, 21 June 2010

This Movie is Broken

This Movie is Broken (2010) dir. Bruce McDonald
Starring: Greg Calderone, Georgina Reilly, Kerr Hewitt and Broken Social Scene


By Alan Bacchus

Bruce McDonald has found er, rediscovered, his place in the world. From Tracey Fragments, Pontypool, this film and two others in the can and in post-production (Trigger and Hard Core Logo 2), he’s on a string of mighty good films, a rare Canadian filmmaker that just keeps on working and makes one intriguing film after the next.

I have no reason to pause when I say he’s a national treasure, one of the most exciting filmmakers who, with each new film can bring a refreshing mix of experimental indie cred with genuine audience-pleasing satisfaction. Such is the case with the high concept ‘Broken Social Scene movie’. For those who may not know Broken Social Scene (aka BSS) is a Toronto-based band, known as much for its large extended family, numbering 14 or so, as the quality of its audience and critically-appreciated music. They also love their own city, Toronto, and in this film desire to paint a portrait of hogtown life in addition to expressing themselves on film.

McDonald would likely be the first to admit, the concept’s not all that original, the idea of shooting a concert documentary film and intertwining a loose fictional narrative. Michael Winterbottom did it with 9 Songs, but you could go back to Haskell Wexler’s Chicago Democratic National Convention film , Medium Cool, as well another antecedent.

Via first person narration we’re introduced to Bruno (Greg Calderone), a hip cat who is over the moon because he just woke up next to, and thus slept with, his long time crush – Caroline Rush (great character name) . Caroline (Georgina Reilly) is much more reserved than Bruno and passes off their tryst as a playful one-time thing than a real relationship, after all she’s moving to Paris at the end of the summer.

Sucks to be Bruno. But enter, Bruno’s BFF Blake (Kerr Hewitt) who pushes Bruno to aggressively throw on the charm in hopes of making her stay. As it so happens, Caroline’s favourite band BSS is playing a concert that night, and Bruno and Blake endeavour to get backstage passes for Caroline. The rest of the day plays out like a Nouvelle Vague film, a breezily paced and shot romantic ode to the city, the band and the easy unencumbered relationships of youth. The trajectory would appear to be familiar when Bruno’s blissful evening is interrupted with Caroline’s sudden cold feet towards the relationship, but writer Don McKellar stings us with an unexpected but wholly invigorating third act twist.

McDonald, along with McKellar who helps out behind the camera, shoot the narrative with an easy-going, handheld, follow-them-around-town style, through Toronto’s Kensington market, Harbourfront - even the Toronto Indy figures prominently. If anything McDonald’s compositions are at times tight and restrictive, closing off the background when shooting his characters. I suspect the guerrilla –shooting style is the reason for this, to avoid framing up bone-headed bystanders who stare into the camera. It’s a shame, because the activity of the city in the summer is exciting and vibrant and there’s a missed opportunity to capitalize on that more.

No bother though, because there’s also a fabulous Broken Social Scene concert on the big screen as well which is wide open and full of the scope we expect from a concert film. An army of high def cameras capture a dozen or so truly awesome rock/pop songs. Matthew Hannam finds the absolute right tone when intercutting the movements and emotions of Bruno and Caroline with the performances of the band. BSS fans will recognize the classics tunes as well as some from the new album. And the final coda, 'Lover's Spit' which brings us into the rolling credits sores and sends the audience home with the chills of romantic melancholy.

We don’t ever have to confuse the film as an advertisement for the band or its new album. Whether you’re from Toronto or not, and thus get all the references should not affect the enjoyment. Canadians (and Torontonians) tend to have some penis envy when it comes to the notion of culture. What is Canadian culture? And what is Toronto culture? Cities like Montreal, Halifax, Vancouver have an easier time self-identifying themselves. For Torontonians, we now have This Movie is Broken to reference - freespirited, slightly neurotic, but open-minded and hopelessly romantic hip-cats. I'll take that.

'This Movie is Broken' will be released by Alliance Films in Canada this week.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Holy Rollers

Holy Rollers (2010) dir. Kevin Asch
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Danny A. Abeckaser, Ari Graynor and Mark Ivanir


By Greg Klymkiw

As I watched "Holy Rollers" unspool, I really wanted it to be a movie I would love (or at least like). Based on the 1998 real-life case of seemingly devout Hasidic Jews smuggling Ecstasy into America on behalf of Israeli drug lords, the picture had all the makings of being a gritty, low-budget Scorsese-like crime picture with the dichotomy of faith and crime driving it forward.

As the picture progresses, however, it ambles far too frequently and bears one of the more ubiquitous hallmarks of machine-tooled independent American movies. "Holy Rollers" seems to detest mainstream filmmaking so much, it forgets there are clear and simple cinematic storytelling techniques that it could have employed to tell a fascinating tale with the kind of crank to knock it right out of the park.

Alas, director Kevin Asch keeps everything so annoyingly muted that the slow burn at the beginning of the movie loses all effectiveness as the picture - especially given the subject matter - demands a steady mounting of tension and dollops of real suspense. This never happens and this is indeed the main problem with the film.

The movie begins well enough, establishing the character of protagonist Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), the son of Mendel (Mark Ivanir), a garment merchant. Our young hero is being groomed to become a Rabbi and is potentially on the verge of being betrothed to an excellent match for a wife. Sam, however, thinks he is not going to land the young lady in question because he is not rich enough. In fact, he has such fine instincts for business, negotiation and haggling that he even criticizes his father for not making enough money in their store and being too easy with the prices.

When things are looking their bleakest for Sam (and they're not really that bad, he's just young and impulsive), in walks his slightly older pal from next door, Yosef (Justin Bartha), a ne'er do well always on the make. He convinces and recruits Sam to become a mule and smuggle Ecstasy into the U.S. from Amsterdam. The drug is undetectable and Hasidic mules in full Holy garb make for such unsuspecting drug smugglers that they get through customs completely undetected. When Sam meets Yosef's boss Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser), an unlikely friendship/mentorship begins. As well, Jackie's moll, the sexy Rachel (Ari Graynor) seems to take a liking to Sam and he, is naturally attracted to her as well.

As Sam gets deeper into the business, the movie should really start moving. It doesn't. It keeps up the deliberate pace and is so bereft of suspense, that one even begins to question whether director Asch was on the right track in the film's first third - that maybe the solid slow burn was just a fluke. Ultimately, I don't think that's the case. Asch's visuals have a consistency to them and he elicits several terrific performances (especially from Eisenberg, the young star of "The Squid and the Whale" and "Zombieland").

One feels, finally, that director Asch is deliberately avoiding any trappings that could be construed as "mainstream".

This, of course, is a huge mistake on his part. All we're left with, finally, is a good story that's told in the dullest manner possible. It's not bad, but it's not particularly good either - a fate worse than being awful.

"Holy Rollers" is currently in national release.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Enforcer

The Enforcer (1976) dir. James Fargo
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Tyne Daly


by Alan Bacchus

Dirty Harry is one of cinema's unlikely venerable characters, a conservative, anti-social, pragmatic, asexual who fights crime like a vigilante on the legitimate side of the law. Harry seems to have been born from a frustration by the conservative right for the ineffectiveness of the increasingly politically correct bureaucracy of the new liberal America.

And so, Dirty Harry Callahan, the San Francisco cop who packs a Magnum .44, the most powerful handgun in the world and could blown you head clean off (sorry for the digression), is like the poisoned pill of the police department who exacts vengeance like he's in the lawless West, with his own personal code of justice.

But there's a reason why Dirty Harry has persisted in pop culture and is enjoyed by all audiences, both liberal and conservative: Clint Eastwood's immeasurable star power, which cuts through the rather dull investigative plotting of these films.

By the time of The Enforcer, it was the third run for Dirty Harry. In most cinematic institutions, we would start to see self-parody and exhaustion in the character. And sure, there are some decreasing returns in enjoyment, but The Enforcer is still a fun romp. Sterling Silliphant's script sings with snappy one liners for Clint, including this film's catch phrase, "marvellous," Harry's rather succinct reaction to the absurdities of liberalism encroaching on his old world ways.

Unlike Harry's desperate search for the Zodiac killer in the first Dirty Harry, we don't much care about the investigation in this one. This time round, Harry chases down a group of extreme activists who use terrorism as their primary form of shock and awe. The anchor of this picture is his relationship with a new female partner (played by Tyne Daly), who seems to have been hired by a committee for affirmative action. This type conflict is the stuff great screenwriters hit homeruns with and veteran scribe Silliphant indeed sculpts a solid movie from this dynamic.

Unfortunately, the treatment of race in all these pictures is rather alarming. Black people are treated as threats at every turn. In one scene in The Enforcer, Harry questions the leader of a black militant gang while his female partner waits in another room filled with suspicious-looking African-Americans with surly looks on their faces, implying that the innocent white girl just might get raped. But then again, we have to watch these in the context of its period.

The finale on Alcatraz sends the audience out on an odd sombre tone. The gravitas of the death of his loyal partner is not quite handled properly and not given enough room to breathe and for both Harry and the audience to reconcile this with Callaghan’s methods.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Tom and Jerry Deluxe Anniversary Collection

Tom and Jerry Deluxe Anniversary Collection
By Alan Bacchus

Warner Bros’ newly package two-DVD set contains all the essential Tom and Jerry short films from 1940 to 1958, originally produced and released theatrically by MGM– 30 ten minute cartoon featuring those two tempestuous combatants, Tom the cat and Jerry the mouse, their predilections for torture, pain and violence, not to mention Tom’s faceless black house servant with knee high britches and screechingly high Southern plantation voice. Though the set is missing some of the more notoriously unPC entries, it’s still a treasure chest of memories for me, having grown up rewatching all these films over and over again as Saturday morning and after school cartoons.

Not having seen these films since the early 80’s it was surprising to see that the two creators were none other than William Hanna and Joseph Barbara, who as ‘Hanna-Barbara’ created the Scooby Doo/Flintstones/Jetsons/Yogi Berra institution in the 60’s. Well, years before that they created cartoons for TV they produced them as high art for the cinema. Between 1940 and 1958, Hanna/Barbara created 114 shorts which played on the big screen in front of features, of which 13 received Academy Award nominations and 5 of which won Oscars. And they’re all in the set, split off into two discs – Disc 1: Oscar Winners and Classics and Disc 2 - Through the Decades.

But before we even get to see any of them on the DVD Warners holds up a disclaimer – not so much warning the audience about the politically-incorrect insensitivity toward racial stereotypes which exist in all of these shorts, but an acknowledgement of the creators’ own failings in this department. They also admonish the fact that these shorts were a ‘product of its time’ and should be watched with that in mind.

While this is appreciated, but not all that necessary, it’s not surprisingly it’s up there. Because as a child watching Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny the era in which these shorts were made were completely unknown to me. And though it doesn’t make it OK, as a child I didn’t notice any of the stereotypes, nor did I ever think that violence is the way to solve my disputes nor that all African American women were like Tom’s owner.

It’s a shame that Tom and Jerry is considered unacceptable to kids now. On the back of the DVD box, there’s also another disclaimer that says this set is intended for adult collectors not children? The fact is these cartoons have been treated as contraband for some time. It all started toward the end of my cartoon-watching youth – the mid to 80’s. In my Saturday morning-watching prime Tom and Jerry was the absolute best cartoons on television – better than any of that other Hanna Barbara stuff. By the mid 80’s we started seeing ‘edited for content’ versions of Tom and Jerry less violent, less racially insensitive, safe and sanitized cartoons.

Did I know these films were not only not new, but 30-40 years old? Nope. But did I notice the sanitization and re-editing of these films? Yes.

Well finally Warner Bros have made these films available again to us children, now grown up, 25 years later. In addition to the previously mentioned disclaimer on the back, the packaging is distinctly subdued, a dull blueish/purple, as opposed to the eye-popping primary colours reserved for regular children’s fare - colours are likely designed so kids DON’T notice the box on the shelves.

I haven’t been into a retail store, but I doubt it’s even in the children’s section. It’s a shame if adults won’t allow their kids to see these films, but we could likely be the last generation to demand and appreciate these films. What will happen when we all die off? If our children never see these films, what will become of them – bound for the ‘cult’ ‘shelves in video store (if there will be video stores in the future) – or next to the porn selection, the real naughty stuff children were never supposed to see?

'Tom and Jerry Deluxe Anniversary Collection' is available on DVD from Warner Home Video

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The A-Team

The A-Team (2010) dir. Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copely, Quinton Jackson, Jessica Biel


By Alan Bacchus

There was much potential to create a viable new movie franchise here. The A-Team TV series, after all, had the wonderful hook: a group of soldiers of fortune, on the lam, who help out ordinary beleaguered citizens fight off their enemies – kinda like The Seven Samurai with cartoonish simplicity.

The producers started off right, casting the honest, trustworthy and commanding physical presence of Liam Neeson as Hannibal Smith, the grey-haired cigar-smoking leader who ‘loves when a plan comes together’. Bradley Cooper, the fine up-and-coming actor, who possesses a Cary Grant quality of comic timing and handsome good looks is perfect as the suave ladies man Lt. Faceman. Sharlto Copely, who was simply awesome in District 9 is a spitting image of Dwight Schultz who played the raving lunatic helicopter pilot Murdoch. And UFC fighter Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson has enough of a physical presence to adequately fill the shoes of Mr. T.

The Joe Carnahan/Skip Woods/Brian Bloom script is heavily problematic however. In essence this film works as an ‘origin story’, showing us exactly how these four soldiers became the heroes of vigilante justice of the TV series, with Iraq subbing in for Vietnam (ok, no problem there). The first meeting of the foursome makes up the lengthy introduction, which has Hannibal racing to rescue Face and Murdoch from their respective incarcerations. Carnahan then spends the rest of the film orchestrating an overly complicated double-crossing military plot involving the search for some counterfeit money plates from Iraq.

We only get to know 'military' characters, CIA operatives and various other spy personnel, all of whom seem slimy and untrustworthy. Other than the four A-Teamers there’s no real 'people' to cheer for, and so it feels like a subpar version of Mission Impossible. Part of the A-Team branding are the ‘plans of action’ which Hannibal dreams up to exact revenge on their enemies. Unfortunately Joe Carnahan doesn’t seem to have the chops to direct with the panache required to make Hannibal’s plans sing with giddy cartoonish enjoyment. The potential is there, but the execution is lacking.

Carnahan’s action is over-the-top in a Stephen Somers way. Each action scene is so overly imagined with characters falling from the sky or swinging from ropes in virtually every scene. And the reliance on low rent CG and a sloppy editing style means it's a mess somewhere in between Van Helsing and GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

The lack of a distinct bad guy is cause for more frustration. Patrick Wilson walks around with an air of supreme egotism, and we’re confused because he’s not overtly identified as the team’s main antagonist until much later. There’s also an underused Henry Czerny as a shift-eyed CIA Director, 80’s throwback Gerald McRaney (yes, Simon and Simon!) as a suspicious military general who assigns the Team to the case, and co-writer Brian Bloom as the B-team leader Pike who tries to subvert the A-Team’s movements at every turn. The result in an unnecessary melange of activity without the necessary focus and simplicity the concept demands.

It’s only by the end do we realize the A-Team movie is an origin story, and that we would need to wait for subsequent movies to really and truly have fun with the 80’s nostalgia. If these movies ever get made hopefully Carnahan won’t be at the helm.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Kelly's Heroes

Kelly’s Heroes (1970) dir. Brian G. Hutton
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles


By Alan Bacchus

Quentin Tarantino paid wonderful reverence to Kelly’s Heroes when he used one of composer Lalo Schifrin’s music cues in the final act of Inglourious Basterds. I knew the music right away and grinned ear to ear when I heard it. Thinking back, I bet Tarantino was chomping at the bit to use the even more fun theme song of Kelly’s Heroes, ‘Burning Bridges’ by The Mike Curb Congregation.

The fact is, the song perfectly represents the offbeat and affable tone in Kelly’s Heroes, Brian G, Hutton’s WWII/Heist comedy, which in today’s era of cinema would likely be vilified for insensitivity to the veterans of the War. But the fact is, it’s one helluva a movie and likely one of the inspirations for Tarantino’s revisionist war film.

Clint Eastwood plays Kelly, a defrocked lieutenant, now a private, who while interrogating a German officer learns about a stash of gold bars ($16million dollars worth) in a French bank behind enemy lines. While on a three day rest Kelly gathers together his platoon to go AWOL and score the perfect heist. The eye-popping sight of his sample bar of gold is enough to convince everyone to join in, even Kelly’s tough and cynical captain Big Joe (Telly Savalas). Among these ‘men on a mission’ there’s the cagey opportunist Crapgame (Don Rickles), and the hippie tank captain Oddball (Donald Sutherland).

With fine subtlety Hutton and company sharply satirize the heroism of war. At every turn the bunch of working class soldiers freely subvert the notion of fighting honourably and valiantly for one's country, instead their collective mantra is survive at all costs, ‘stick your neck for nobody’ and make it home alive – and, rich, if possible. It’s a decidedly anti-heroic stance of war – something we absolutely NEVER see in today’s cinema.

There are no direct allegories to modern war and no overt statement-making, but the theme of anti-heroism fits in with the then prevailing liberal reaction to the Vietnam War, which was in full force when the picture was made. From the naive General played by Carroll O’Connor to Captain Maitland who bugs off to Paris to sail his boat, each of the authority figures in the film are portrayed as bumbling idiots and out of touch with the hell fire and carnage on the frontlines.

Kelly is not much different from Eastwood's portrayal of his 'man with no name' characters, or his Dirty Harry Callaghan character – a pragmatist loner with surly disposition and no patience for bureaucratic bullshit. In fact the tone of the Spaghetti Westerns play a big role in establishing the heightened fantasy-reality of the situation. Lalo Schifrin even lays down a Morricone-esque piece of music for Hutton’s Leone showdown with the German Tiger Tank operator at the end of the film.

Despite the numerous battle scenes, at heart Kelly’s Heroes is a heist comedy, in the realm of The Italian Job or Topkapi. The journey to the Clermont bank is filled with hurdle after hurdle, but we so desperately want Kelly and the boys to come out on top and complete the scam. And so in the final moments when the ambitious Engineer Sgt Bellamy who has been desperately following Kelly to beat them to the bank walks in and finds the killroy scribble in the empty bank we know Kelly’s Heroes have gotten away with the gold. It’s a thoroughly pleasing ending – and for the third time in the film, The Mike Curb Congregation’s ‘Burning Bridges’ send this rousing action comedy through the roof, with all the fuzzy-wuzzies of a satisfying movie-going experience.

'Kelly’s Heroes' is packaged with another Brian Hutton/Eastwood collaboration 'Where Eagles Dare' on Blu-Ray from Warner Bros Home Video.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland (2010) dir. Tim Burton
Starring; Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover


By Alan Bacchus

I have a pretty good intuition about the movies I watch and I certainly had expectations about Alice in Wonderland after seeing the trailer earlier in the year. And so, despite the presence of Tim Burton on this picture, I decided not to see it. Then the movie made mondo bucks at the box offfice, was a big hit and with some decent reviews, and good recommendations from some people I know.

And so on Blu-Ray I just had to check it out – completely forgetting what my initial reservations were. And yes, low and behold, the film fit neatly into my very low expectations.


Alice in Wonderland is a treasured book so ingrained in our collective pop culture consciousness. Hell, I even played the King of Hearts in my grade four school play. But Tim Burton’s treatment of the story is one of the laziest, uninspired adaptations of classic literature I’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately this has mostly to do with the technical aspects of the film, which I hate to single out over the story, but is indeed the cause of my displeasure.

Despite Burton’s unique artistic gifts, he chose to put Wonderland on a big circular green screen with only a handful of real people to populate this largely computer generated world. Sure, computer graphics are 20 years old now, and part of the regular vocabulary of cinema, but when overused with such veracity we lose all sense of depth, texture and thus ‘wonder’ of Wonderland. In fact, I was reading an interview with Christopher Nolan about the use of CG, and his opinion sums my thoughts up perfectly, "..however sophisticated a process of animation is, the audience can always, on some level, tell the difference between something that has been photographed and something that has been animated by an artist.”

Burton’s story diverges from Lewis Carroll’s original book slightly, which is ok. In this version Alice is 20 years old, living in a stuffy upper class British estate and promised to marry a foppish boob. After rejecting his proposal she runs off to follow a peculiar march hare dressed in a waist coat, only to fall into the now-famous rabbit hole which takes her to Wonderland – a colourful, but claustrophobic and flaccid green screen Wonderland.

She’s identified as not the right Alice, as the creatures that inhabit this world seem to expect another girl named Alice who has been there before. The evil Queen of Hearts is expecting this Alice, who is prophesized to defeat her gargantuan beast the Jabberwocky and usurp her authority over the land. Thus she is her bitter enemy. Alice eventually teams up with the Mad Hatter and the White Queen to defeat the Red Queen and fulfil her destiny as saviour of Wonderland.

In addition to laziness of using almost exclusively computer generated character, backdrops, props, costume etc, Burton’s designs feel like another recycling of his other films – a pasty-skinned blondie as his leading lady, big eyed monsters, with big mouths full of sharp pointy teeth, ornate gothic looking trees with branches snake around themselves etc etc.

And of course without the visible texture of either stop motion clay figures as in ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ or just plain old tangible objects we never feel like Alice’s world is real, nor a tangible fantasy. Instead it all feels like a forgettable cartoon, like Shrek or Madagascar. This is what I thought this picture would feel like after seeing the trailer, and sadly I was right.

‘Alice in Wonderland’ is available Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Monday, 14 June 2010

The Last Lullaby

The Last Lullaby (2008) dir. Jeffrey Goodman
Starring: Tom Sizemore, Sasha Alexander


by Reece Crothers

Recently released on DVD I picked up a copy of this Tom Sizemore Hit-man drama because it's been a long time since I've seen anything good from the actor I used to have great artistic admiration for. From Tony Scott's "True Romance" in 1993 through Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" in 2001, Sizemore had a run as one of the most thrilling character-actors working in American movies. Sandwiched between those Scott brothers films are stand-out performances in pictures like Natural Born Killers, Heat, Saving Private Ryan, and Bringing Out The Dead, to name a few.

Then Sizemore got addicted to methamphetamine, had eight hours of sex tapes surface on the internet, beat up his girlfriend - the famous Hollywood Madam, Heidi Fleiss and, and by 2007, he had landed himself in jail. He had fucked up big, Robert Downey Jr big. But Sizemore, lacking the charm of his Natural Born Killers co-star, has had nowhere near the comeback Iron Man has. And it's not for a lack of trying. His imdb filmography since 2007 lists a staggering 40 credits (if you include his Celebrity Rehab and Shooting Sizemore reality TV appearances). Not one out of the 40 is in league with his 90s work. I was hoping this might be the hidden gem among a plethora of cheque-cashing appearances in forgetable pictures and a return to form for once-great, now-disgraced, artist.

Sizemore's performance in The Last Lullaby is interesting because it's a lead role and one in which he exercises a great deal of restraint. His face shows the wear and tear of a decade in oblivion. He seems humbled by it. Like a great ball player sent down to the minors, it's hard not to watch him play and get nostalgic for the old days, or to lament the wasted years, or to wonder about where he might be now without the meth, and domestic abuse, and porn, and reality TV. But there are hints at redemption in this modestly enjoyable picture. The wear and tear becomes a character actor after all.

So what about the movie itself? The story fits the actor well. A hitman who has been out of the game attempts a comeback, but is conflicted when he develops a personal relationship with his latest target. The DVD jacket claims that it the screenplay is from the co-writer of Road To Perdition, which is slightly misleading. It is co-written by the author of the graphic novel that Perdition is based on. Writing character and dialogue for film is an entirely different beast than writing for graphic novels, and the script for The Last Lullaby never would have attracted someone of Sam Mendes' calibre. The plot is well-worn and the story cliched, but the naturalistic approach and execution by the filmmakers, which focuses more on drama than action, provides many fine character moments for Sizemore, though the rest of the cast is pretty flat, especially his female lead Sasha Alexander. It's better than most direct to video features, but looks and feels like TV. And I don't mean HBO. It probably should be added to the list of titles that would have been better as a series pilot. It isn't quite that hidden gem I hoped it would be, but it suggests that one is possible. There is a glimmer of hope that his career is salvageable.

Aside from those 40 pictures, Tom is apparently attached to the long-gestating Fahrenheit 451 remake that Frank Darabont is developing. That could be the start of something beautiful, a return to working with the A-listers.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

How The West Was Won

How The West Was Won (1962) dir. Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall
Starring: Carroll Baker, Walter Brennan, Lee J. Cobb, Andy Devine, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Raymond Massey, Agnes Moorehead, Harry Morgan, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, Thelma Ritter, James Stewart, Russ Tamblyn, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, Richard Widmark and narrated by Spencer Tracy


By Greg Klymkiw

Cinerama was one of the more insane technological advancements in motion pictures during the 50s to keep butts in theatre seats rather than said butts complacently sinking into comfy living room couches in front of the idiot box.

In its original form, though, Cinerama sounds pretty spectacular.

To make the picture, three 70mm cameras were strapped together with one shutter capturing the images. Eventually, the finished project would be screened in a specially built picture palace where the images were projected by three projectors onto a massive curved screen with a 146-degree viewing field. The screen itself was a series of intricately woven cloth strips while the seven track sound was apparently a spectacular precursor to the various permutations of Dolby Digital, etc.

Most of the movies made in Cinerama were of the travelogue variety (not unlike the majority of IMAX productions), but there were two dramatic feature films made in this fashion - the most spectacular and artistically successful being the rip-roaring epic western adventure entitled "How The West Was Won".

Sadly, I never had an opportunity to see a real Cinerama presentation of anything.

However, the Cinerama corporation created a "fake" form of the process, which frankly, seemed pretty spectacular to my young eyes - especially since the first movie I saw in the "fake" format was "2001: A Space Odyssey" which unspooled at the National General Cinema chain's mighty Grant Park Cinerama in the burbs of Winnipeg. This theatre was an odd duck since between long-run screenings of blockbusters it also featured strange pornographic filler titles like the X-rated "Alice in Wonderland", "The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio" or ribald British sex comedies like "Adventures of a Taxi Driver" with Barry Evans. Eventually, this fabulous cinema was acquired by the Cineplex Corporation and carved into a bland multiplex.

In any event, the "fake" Cinerama kicked butt, but in retrospect, I still think I would have given anything to see one of the original Cinerama productions in a venue specifically designed for the original Cinerama process.

As for "How the West Was Won", my first (and subsequent) big screen helpings were in a 3000-seat picture palace with a flat screen and an optically enhanced 70mm print projected on to it.

Given the rousing, non-stop western action the picture delivered, I was more than enamoured with the results as a youngster. Sadly, many venues featured anamorphic 35mm screenings that must have paled miserably in comparison to the real thing and/or the 70mm screenings. The image is so wide and sprawling that it would have been impossible to even make out the individual characters since in the 35mm format, everyone would have looked like dots against the big scenery.

This, of course, was a problem with subsequent home viewings. Over the years I saw the film on Beta, VHS, Laserdisc and DVD and they all paled in comparison to the big screen 70mm version I'd seen as a kid. That said, the movie was as rollicking as ever - not the most sophisticated western one would ever hope to see, but still rather interesting in terms of its story structure.

Based on a series of Life Magazine photo journals about the gradual migration to and domination of the American west, the movie follows the adventures of the same family through several segments entitled "The Rivers", "The Plains", "The Civil War", "The Railroad" and "The Outlaws". In fairly hefty roles were Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Debbie Reynolds, and George Peppard, whilst the tale was narrated rather portentiously by Spencer Tracy.

Stewart plays a mountain man who falls for Debbie Reynolds's little sister and after some spectacular action sequences including a log raft gone amuck on the rapids and a violent encounter with an evil band of thieves led by Walter Brennan (mustering up his nuttiness from "The Westerner" where he played the psychotic Judge Roy Bean), drawling Jimmy settles down to a life of domesticity on a ranch. Reynolds becomes a famed dance hall singer who falls for the shady, slippery, but charming Gregory Peck, an unrepentant conman and riverboat gambler. Stewart and wife eventually sire George Peppard. Civil War strikes. Stewart perishes in battle, whilst Peppard considers deserting until he is faced with a situation where he not only becomes a hero, but stays on with the army.

After the war, Peppard becomes responsible for protecting the railroads from the Indians. He is more sympathetic to the plight of the Indians and with the help of Stewart's old mountain man buddy Henry Fonda, attempts to broker a deal between the evil railroad builder Richard Widmark and the Indians.

Peppard eventually leaves the army and becomes a law man. He is renewed with his aunt, Debbie Reynolds, marries and eventually settles for a peaceful life on a ranch Reynolds owns. Peace doesn't come easy, however, and he must first settle a score with an evil outlaw played by Eli Wallach.

Once justice is dispensed, all settle down to enjoy the prosperity and splendour of the American West.


The picture is as cliche-ridden as they come, but in spite of this, the action scenes are truly stunning and it's a lot of fun watching the huge all-star cast wander ever-westward across America. Even using three credited directors and a few uncredited helmsmen, doesn't detract from the movie's overall entertainment value.

And luckily, at home, on a high definition television with the marvels of Blu-Ray, one is finally able to experience a reasonable facsimile of what the original Cinerama must have been like. An excellent restoration of the picture elements coupled with a bonus disc in the box set that has been manipulated anamorphically with a very cool curved image, makes this a must-see for technophiles and/or western fanatics. Called a "smilebox", instead of a letterbox, it will probably never truly convey the majesty of the original Cinerama, but it gives you a terrific taste of what it must have been like and I urge everyone to take a gander at the picture in this format first.

"How The West Was Won" is available in a magnificent special edition released by Warner Home Entertainment" packed with tons of extra features and two versions of the film - one flat letterboxed version and the aforementioned smilebox version.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Bad Boys

Bad Boys (1995) dir Michael Bay
Starring: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Tea Leone, Tchéky Karyo


By Alan Bacchus

Kudos to Jerry Bruckheimer for jumping starting both Michael Bay’s and Will Smith’s (and to a lesser extent Martin Lawrence’s) careers in one film. For Bay, the jump from music videos to feature film was not a big leap. Anyone familiar with his work on the Celine Dion, Meat Loaf and Aerosmith videos he did in the early 90’s you could see his brand of grandiose melodrama and excessive style in those videos.

With Bad Boys Bay makes the most of a dusted off throwback buddy action comedy and injects it with as much cinematic testosterone as he can to make he and the film stand out in the crowd. Ultimately it feels like an outcast from the bygone 80’s era of ultraviolent and stylishly excessive 80’s action era.

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence play Mike Lowry and Marcus Burnett a pair of drug cops chasing down stylish baddies around bright and sunny Miami. Mike is the single man, the suave womanizer and loose cannon – the Mel Gibson of the duo. And Marcus is the Danny Glover, the family man, who continually butts heads with Mike’s aggressive style.

After a stash of heroin disappears from the evidence roomof the police Mike and Marcus are put on the case by their hot headed captain played Joe Pantoliano. When a beautiful witness shows up in need of witness protection Mike and Marcus get assigned to protect her, the hang up being that Mike and Marcus have to switch names and personalities in order to gain her trust. And so a comedy of errors ensues between the normal conservative Marcus having to become a charming bachelor under cover of his suspicious wife.

Though he has different writers for each of his film cadence and rhythm of the dialogue is surprisingly consistent. In BB, Smith and Lawrence feel like a wrestling tag team riffing and rolling with one another with ease, but Bay’s dialogue is read so fast and with such gusto, it becomes a pantomime performance.

Arguably Michael Bay was just getting warmed up in terms of action. There are a few action scenes which only adequately arouse our primal needs for violence and speed. The opening heist scene is well planned out, but is edited with such aggressive force, we lose the true rhythm of the scene.

A few other shoot outs and chases tease us with Bay’s skills in these departments, but it wouldn’t be until Bad Boys 2 where Bay’s skills as an action auteur would come to bear fully. While the sequel was almost universally reviled and cut down by critics, its one of the most astonishing action films ever made – so audacious and derogatory to our senses it becomes almost farcical. And in terms of blowout action comedy few films can rival Bad Boys 2. But more on that later...

Bad Boys is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Friday, 11 June 2010

It Came From Kuchar

It Came From Kuchar (2009) dir. Jennifer M. Kroot
Starring: George Kuchar, Mike Kuchar, John Waters, Bill Griffith, Buck Henry, B. Ruby Rich, Wayne Wang, Guy Maddin, Christopher Coppola and Atom Egoyan.


By Greg Klymkiw

Over the years, whenever I have asked young filmmakers whose work they adore, and more importantly, what work they find especially cool, I always get the same pathetic responses: Christopher ("One Idea") Nolan, Wes ("Geek Chic") Anderson, Quentin ("I finally made a genuinely Great movie") Tarantino, Noah ("My generation is so downtrodden") Baumbaugh and, God Help Us, George ("I used to make cool movies before Star Wars") Lucas.

On rare occasions, I breathe a sigh of relief when someone mentions David Lynch.

However, when I mention the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky, John Waters, The Brothers Quay, Jan Svankmajer, Ulrich Seidl or Doris Wishman, their faces become as blank as a white sheet of paper. More disturbing to me, though, is that when I mention the Kuchar Brothers (George and Mike), their faces seem to dissipate into some sort of optical effect of nothingness that reminds me of Claude Rains transforming into "The Invisible Man".

This was and is truly depressing.


The answer is simple: The Kuchar Brothers are as important to cinema as any genius iconoclasts like Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Welles, Corman, Altman, Bergman and among others, yes, even Quentin Tarantino (post "Pulp Fiction").

And guess what? The Kuchars aren't only important, they're cool.

And Thank Christ Almighty, someone has finally enshrined these cool cats in a feature length tribute worthy of their status.

"It Came From Kuchar" is a finely honed and entertaining documentary that also carries with it a considerable degree of import to burgeoning filmmakers as well as cineastes. Some documentaries are important for content, some for form, and yet others for both. The fact that this documentary focuses so winningly upon their work, their influence and their personal lives is enough to make it a must-see motion picture.

I'd even argue that cinephiles aren't the only people who might derive considerable pleasure from this picture - by so clearly introducing the movies and the men behind the movies, there's a considerable chance (if they get an opportunity to see the doc) that even some relatively "normal" audiences may want to see the Kuchar pictures.

Such is the filmmaking dexterity of the doc's director Jennifer M. Kroot. Granted, she is one of the converted - she was, after all George Kuchar's student at the San Francisco Art institute where he became her mentor, but she goes out of her way to paint both a loving portrait and a movie with a strong narrative arc that draws audiences magnetically to its subjects.

The first portion of the movie simply, seamlessly and amusingly places the Kuchars within the context of 20th century cinema. First and foremost, we get a sense of their place as filmmakers with a series of introductory interviews with the likes of Buck Henry, Atom Egoyan, John Waters and Guy Maddin - interviews that are laudatory, to say the least. We get a nice taste of the whole underground cinema scene of the 60s and most importantly, we get a strong sense of what influenced the Kuchars.

Mike Kuchar talks about how they adored going to the movies in the 50s and he describes movie theatres as "temples" which, of course, they were. This was long before the age of the multiplex - where one could be sitting in a packed-to-the-rafters picture palace (many of which boasted thousands of seats). The movies the Kuchars adored were garishly colour-dappled melodramas by the likes of Douglas Sirk or such overblown Hollywood star turns like "Butterfield 8" with Liz Taylor.

Kroot also wisely focuses on introducing us to the underground cinema scene of the early 60s where in contrast to the picture palaces, young hipsters went to tiny hole-in-the-wall joints like The Bridge in New York City to groove on ultra low budget experimental works. Many of the projects were super cerebral and contrasted the narrative qualities and huge entertainment value inherent in the works of the Kuchar Brothers.

I especially love the simple, direct way doc director Kroot juxtaposes the films of the Kuchar Brothers with the blockbuster soap operatic features they loved. Seeing samples of such works as "The Craven Sluck" or "The Devil's Cleavage" up against their loftier influences such as "Imitation of Life" and "Butterfield 8" respectively displays how much they loved movies. This for me, is one of the things I personally always loved about the Kuchars - their almost slavish devotion to motion pictures, yet placed within the context of worship.

The Kuchars were funny, but their renderings of the likes of Liz Taylor did not, for me, fall into the often despicable form of spoof or even parody - the pictures they made had a satiric edge wherein they overplayed the conventions of melodramatic mainstream cinema, yet did so not to mock the cinema itself, but to expose innumerable truths found in everyday human behaviour and relationships.

What is so astounding about the work of the Kuchar Brothers is that for all the lurid details, the shock value, the intensely overblown melodrama, the cult-ish qualities, these movies are so uniquely personal that they are often extremely moving. One alternates between laughing and crying - and sometimes, both laughter and tears mingle with a force that one seldom sees in the cinema.

One of the few relatively contemporary films that manages to do this is David Lynch's "Eraserhead" which, in spite (or because) of the nightmare qualities brings us smack into the narrative wall that is inescapable - that this is ultimately the harrowing portrait of a single parent struggling with a sick child.

The Kuchars, however, manage to do this magical blend of the grotesque and heartbreakingly emotional truths again and again and again.

These guys are true Masters.

These guys are the real thing!

And certainly, one the things I love about this documentary is seeing and hearing how the Kuchar Brothers' love of melodrama created their own unique work, which in turn, inspired the next generation of filmmakers. When I hear Guy Maddin waxing eloquently about George's use of makeup - especially on women - wherein their eyebrows are ludicrously inflated to look like "chocolate bars", I can only smile and recall Guy's own unflagging boldness in applying raccoon-eye styled makeup on all his female characters. Guy also cites the "aggressively stylized voices" of the actors, I can only think of the same voice style employed by John Waters and even Guy himself, though in his repressed, muted fashion.

The Kuchar Brothers were born in New York City at Bellevue Hospital, which as George notes in the doc, is known as the hospital where 50s/60s heart-throb Tab Hunter was also born, and most notably as a hospital devoted to treating the insane. A few years later, the Kuchar family moved to the Bronx - a neighbourhood of blasted-out empty buildings and endless vacant lots. This is where George and Mike (twins, though neither knows if they are identical or fraternal) really discovered themselves. They loved the Bronx and using their bountiful imaginations, they turned this seemingly grotesque world of the abandoned into a veritable paradise - Disneyland for the sons of working class Eastern Europeans.

Their Dad was a handsome, rough and tough truck driver of Hungarian descent and Mom was a gentle, supportive book binder of Ukrainian descent. Dad had an eye for the ladies, or as George says in the doc, he was "very carnal". This resulted in continual friction, but the boys dismiss it as typical family squabbling. I especially was fond of George's recollections of how his own Dad eventually came around to partially accepting their love of filmmaking when the boys started putting lots of nudity in the work. Dad, as it turns out, was an avid collector of "Red Reels" (8mm porno films for home consumption) and he avidly encouraged the boys. Gotta love it when fathers and sons find common ground. That said, George drew a line at refusing his Dad's request for some private porn requests.

Very few stones are left unturned in Kroot's documentary. We get generous footage and background on George's work as a film professor and mentor at the San Francisco Art Institute, a tremendously moving section on George's creative and romantic relationship with the late filmmaker Curt McDowell, some wonderful early recollections on George and Mike's career as graphic artists on Madison Avenue (yikes!) as well as George's friendship with Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffiths that led to his work as a cartoonist in Arcade and Bill Griffiths's astounding revelation that Zippy the Pinhead was partially inspired by George. Mike's illustrations of gay porno comic books, George's incredible Weather Diaries, the brothers' devotion to caring for their aging (now deceased) Mother and even the differences in approach to storytelling when the brothers work apart are all on the table.

It's all fascinating material.

And while the wealth of information in this movie is staggering, it NEVER feels like everything but the kitchen sink. Each piece of information, each recollection, each clip, each interview, each piece of the puzzle that is the Kuchar Brothers is meticulously placed and honed to move the story forward in an entertaining and informative fashion.

Most importantly, we are blessed with George Kuchar's secret to providing the exquisite turds on display in so many of his movies.

My life is now complete.

"It Came From Kuchar" begins a limited run in Toronto at the fabulous rep cinema The Bloor and can also be seen in festival and other special screenings all over the world.