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

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Ran

Ran (1985) dir. Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryû, Mieko Harada

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The 1980’s were kind to Mr. Kurosawa, the legendary cinema master who by 1985, was nothing short of a living legend. After a tepid decade of the 70’s with a couple of odd, though no less interesting features, ‘Dodes'ka-den’, and ‘Dersu Uzala’, Kurosawa returned to his genre of choice, with two astounding epic Samurai films which effectively tied a neat bow to his illustrious career (his 90's non-Samurai films notwithstanding).

The first was 'Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior', a beautiful and powerful film with an endearing humanist core, and second is 'Ran' – perhaps his most brutal and cynical film. Loosely based on ‘King Lear’, Ran is the third film in Kurosawa’s filmography which adapted Shakespeare to feudal Japan. At the outset we meet elder warlord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) who announces he’s giving up control of his empire to his three sons, Taro, Jiro, and Saburo, but with a distinct hierarchy – Taro, the eldest receiving the presitgious first castle and Jiro and Saburo the lesser of the three castles and in essence subordination to Taro. This gesture, which for Ichimonji is meant as a gesture of goodwill, is met with conflict and argument by all. And it doesn’t take long for the brothers to wage war against each other for ultimate power.

The result is Kurosawa’s bloodiest and most violent film, a deep penetrating brutality which digs deeper than mere flesh and blood but actions and choices of his main characters which demolishes the sacredness of family.

As a 'Jidaigeki' film - a Japanese genre refering to the distinct melodramatic dramatic style of Japanese period films - there’s a distinct heightened theatricality to the performances, which for Japanese newbies, might be a little oft-putting. Even I find it difficult to get into many of these films, but like the works of Shakespeare, which are even more daunting to penetrate, Kurosawa’s theme are universal and identifiable. Like the tragedy of his main influence, 'King Lear' , 'Ran' lasers in on the effect of a life of greed on its main character and the dues he's forced to pay at the end of his life.

In the first half of the picture we sympathize with Ichimonji, whom we feel unjustly suffers the pain of his mutinous and greedy sons. But as Ichimonji’s journey progresses we discover the actions of his sons against him represent a shake of bad karma against his own despotic ways. Specifically, the blind character of Tsurumaru, who gives the fleeing Ichimonji shelter, only to discover Ichimonji, himself, was responsible for gauging his eyes out and rendering him blind. And the character of Lady Kaede, who at first comes off as the conniving and manipulative Lady Macbeth of the film, by the end reveals a lifetime of shame at the hands of Ichimonji who destroyed her family’s kingdom and made her marry his son, as a form of brutal subjugating punishment.

At 160mins, ‘Ran’ is no easy task to get through, especially if you have other distractions at home watch a DVD. Many of the scenes linger on and on longer than traditional Hollywood fare – the opening scene which contains the inciting incident could have cut out after 3 or 4 mins, instead Kurosawa stays with the scene for 10-12more mins.

But it's only two scenes in particular which elevate this picture to cinematic high art. The first is the phenomenal midpoint assault on Ichimonji’s castle – a scene of uncompromising brutally, with buckets of bright red blood, comparable to Sam Peckinpah’s carnage in 'The Wild Bunch', but executed with the grace and elegance of a Bergman film. As the armies of soldiers pound each other with swords, arrows and guns, Kurosawa takes out the sound, except for the music for a powerful sublime visual and aural effect.

The final battle scene features some of Kurosawa’s finest compositions, showing his best epic chops, comparable to David Lean’s late career work. Kurosawa uses the engulfing effect of the mountains and landscape to punish his characters and rendering their insatiable actions of greed petty and small. In the end, none of the characters get off scott free, a self-destruction of monumental proportions. And the awesome final shot, featuring the blind and innocent Tsurumaru wandering hopelessly on the edge of massive cliff reinforces this cynicism.

'Ran' is now available on Blu-Ray as part of the Criterion-comparable 'Studio Canal Collection' and via Maple Pictures in Canada. The Blu-Ray transfer is good, though not astounding, but is the ideal way, other than the theatre, to experience Kurosawa's awesome imagery.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Brothers

Brothers (2009) dir. Jim Sheridan
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Sam Shepard

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

I usually hate it when people critique a movie in comparison to its original source material – ie. A book, or comic, or in this case, another movie. After all, the original is always better than remake, an elitist attitude which can be alienating to those approaching it fresh. But it’s impossible not to make the comparison especially when the original film is so dear to one’s heart. For years Susanne Bier’s ‘Brothers’ was one of those overlooked gems I kept recommending to people. It’s a devastating film and a showcase for not only Bier, but writer Anders Thomas Jensen and its three lead actors, specifically Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who plays the Jake Gyllenhaal role.

But the fact is, it’s a story more suited as an American film than Danish, so there’s very little adjustments necessary to adapt it for US audiences and thus, I could not help comparing it to the original. Tobey Maguire plays Sam Cahill, a respected military man with a stabile and loving family who is about to be shipped off to war in Afghanistan, a mission Sam wholeheartedly believes in. Before he leaves he says goodbye to his little brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), the family fuck-up recently released from prison.

But while fighting, the worst happens and Tommy dies, thus leaving his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), a widow and single mother to her two daughters. And so, stepping in is Tommy, who discovers an innate need to nurture and becomes surrogate father to the absent Sam. It’s a relationship that even borders on inappropriate when an innocent kiss threatens to cross boundaries within the family. But miraculously Sam is discovered to be alive and returns back home after a harrowing ordeal of punishment and torture at the hands of Al Qaida soldiers. At home, he finds the addition of Tommy to the family order a threat, and when morphed by the psychological damage of war it results in a mental breakdown with violent consequences.

Jim Sheridan’s direction is more functional than anything else, even admitting on the DVD special features that his job was not to mess it up. But there’s a conscious attempt to distance itself from the handheld, intrusive dogma-style filmmaker of Suzanne Bier and make it his own. Sheridan’s ‘Brothers’ is classical and elegant, and, in general, smooths over the edginess of the material for a broader audience. Even the casting of familiar Hollywood faces like Maguire, Gyllenhaal, Portman, Shepard are safe risk-free directorial choices.

So, here we go with this same ol argument.. the few moments Sheridan does decide to muck up the story unfortunately doesn’t work. Sheridan adds a deeper history of the military into Tommy and Sam’s family. In this version Sam’s father is a Vietnam vet who is too emotionally distant to connect and provide comfort for his son. But the effect of this relationship on Sam’s breakdown is only grazed and never adequately reconciled or addressed, which becomes an unnecessary distraction from the core relationship of brother-to-brother.

The climactic moment of confrontation and violence at Sam’s house is missing the nerve racking suspense Bier injected into this scene. As dramatized by Sheridan, when Sam starts trashing the kitchen, thus frightening Grace and the children, the threat is never elevated beyond personal self-destruction. We never feel the kids or even Grace herself is in danger. Tommy’s appearance in the scene is unmotivated, showing up at the right time. In Bier’s film Sam’s wife calls Tommy (aka Jannik) for help, thus giving Tommy/Jannik his own act of heroism. And chiefly missing from Sheridan’s climax is the most heartbreaking moment in the movie, the violent fight between brother and brother.

But for viewers who haven’t seen the film, I imagine this American version would still be powerful experience. So maybe Sheridan’s treatment of the film has done the original justice, for newbies to the story, the core conflicts and relationships of Anders Thomas Jensen’s original screenplay are there and his characters are brought to life by adequately believable actors. It’s only Jake Gyllenhaal’s shy, pretty boy good looks, which fail to match Nikolaj Lie Kaas’s astounding performance anchor of the original film. For this reason, Susanne Bier's 'Brothers' still the movie to see.

‘Brothers’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada



Here's the original film trailer:

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010) dir. Thor Fruedenthal
Starring: Zachray Gordon, Robert Capley, Devon Bostick, Chloe Grace Moretz, Grayson Russell, Karan Brar, Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn

*

By Greg Klymkiw

This minor surprise hit is the sort of family film that makes me fear terribly for the next generation of children. If the title character is one that kids are supposed to identify with and in fact, do, then all of us oldsters are in for a rough ride in our august years when these brats grow up into bigger brats.

Not that there's anything wrong with upholding and extolling the virtues of a kid who is clearly an underdog, but the character of Greg Heffley (Zachray Gordon) is not only represented ever-so blandly by the generic young actor shoe-horned into the role, but is such an unpalatably dull and spoiled figure of boyhood that the film might be better titled "Diary of a Little Knob". And a little knob he surely is. That said, he comes from an entire family of knobs.

Living in a relatively affluent, bucolic, tree-lined suburb dotted with immaculate pre-war two-story homes, Greg is about to enter middle school convinced that childhood must be left behind n order to fit in, and most importantly to strive for acceptance based on beiing cooler than cool

Alas, he's a wimp.

We know this because the movie (and his character) tell us he is through clunky, all-over-the-map narration (striving to be clever with a myriad of animated comic book techniques, wipes and flashbacks, but falling short and feeling contrived). What's especially odd, however, is that Greg initially appears to be the unlikeliest candidate for wimp-dom. He's a fresh-faced, relatively articulate, seemingly innocuous and even sweet-looking young man. Granted, he's got a shorter, more slender frame than many of the jock-types, but he certainly qualifies as cute. Again, if the movie didn't keep telling us what a wimp he is, we'd have no reason to believe he actually is.

And, I reiterate, as the story progresses, he actually proves to be as big a knob as all the bullies are.

This, of course, is no surprise, since his immediate family are also knobs. The movie keeps telling us that this is the typical and ideal suburban family and while I admit that most suburban-types are, in reality, knobs, this does not appear to be the film's intention. Yet another reason why the movie fails miserably.

His big brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) is an eye-liner-wearing wanna-be basement grunge-rocker who imparts advice to Greg about handling the transition to middle school and then insults his little brother by telling him what a wimp he is and playing one cruel practical joke after another on him.

His mother Susan (played by the abominable Rachael Harris, an actress reeking of TV-Q and not much else) is a shrill, professional working Mom who pays far more attention to her youngest child, an obnoxious and somewhat ugly toddler always sitting on the pooper. As well, she is quick to believe her eldest son when he fixes it so that Greg gets into trouble. Why she puts such faith in this lanky, head-banging poseur is beyond me.

Then there's his Dad Frank (embarrassingly over-played by the woefully untalented Steve Zahn) who secretly sides with Greg, but is ultimately so pussy-whipped and ineffectual that he's unable to do much of anything when Mom and Big Brother cut him down. Zahn's overwrought, eye-bulging, please-like-me school of acting inspires in us, the desire to bash his skull to watermelon-pulp with a baseball bat.

Once Greg comes to school we truly begin to realize what a cowardly knob he is. His friends include Rowley (Robert Capron) the amiable, childlike, Mama's Boy fatso with streamers on his pink bike, the drooling, buck-toothed, snot-eating Fregley (Grayson Russell) and a cute, earnest and bright young East Indian boy Chirag Gupta (Karan Brar). Any one or all three of these boys are much bigger wimps than Greg. They also happen to be far more engaging characters - so much so that when Greg tells us in the insufferable to-the-camera narration how ashamed he is of being seen with them, we like them even more and begin to detest the leading character with a passion.

When Greg meets Angie Steadman (Chloe Grace Moretz) a genuinely stunning and intelligent middle school babe who edits the school newspaper, reads Allen Ginsburg and extends an offer to Greg to help her out on the paper, we begin to detest our leading man-boy even more as he rudely rejects her advances. We get no real or believable explanation why he would do this, he just does. And all one can think is - what a knob!

Eventually, we write this loser off completely when he displays total and irredeemable cowardice and lands his best friend in hot water - betraying him further by not owning up to his guilt (and when he does, doing so with a backhanded apology).

By the time Greg owns up to all his mistakes, he's forgiven - but not by us. He's been such a knob that his turn seems sickeningly manipulative. It's also one of the more moronic plot details. And speaking of moronic plot details, the worst involves a piece of mouldy cheese that sits forlornly on the pavement of the school's play area. It carries an urban legend that anyone who touches it becomes - untouchable. During the climax, some bullies force Greg's geeky fat-boy friend to not only touch it, but take a few bites of it. When the rest of their classmates show up, Greg "bravely" grabs the cheese to save lard-boy the ultimate humiliation and himself becomes, the untouchable. The movie tells us he's learned a lesson, but we never really believe it. Besides, up to this point Greg has been such a supreme knob that the audience not only detests him, but so does the school populace. So big deal, he makes a sacrifice to take himself from pariah to bigger pariah.

The movie, while a mere 90 minutes, feels like an eternity. Aside from the character of Gupta, the sweet East Indian boy, the entire world of the picture is so white and affluent that it's impossible to feel much of anything for anyone. Yes, these worlds exist in real life, but they're populated by people so bland and average that if one is to bother making a movie about them, then part of that movie's perspective and/or mandate should be to examine how such a world perpetuates sameness and condemns diversity. Alas, it sticks to the status quo like a fly to fecal matter. And, of course, let's not forget that Greg, the main character, is a knob who ends up hurting people that seem far more likeable and engaging than he is.

By the end, one is simply drained, sickened and offended. This generic colour-free world is placed on a pedestal and our title character's plight is ultimately so inconsequential that the very cleanliness of the world the film creates makes us feel dirty.

interestingly (and happily enough to me), my own eight-year-old daughter was so bored and disgusted by this movie that she begged me to take her to see another picture immediately after it ended. I took her to see "Green Zone" which not only thrilled her, but inspired a lengthy discussion afterwards wherein she stated that a lot of the "bad people" hurting the Iraqi people seemed like Greg in "Diary of a Wimpy Kid". Delightfully, she cited the persnickety slime-ball American bureaucrat played by Greg Kinnear as seeming to be the Greg character from "Wimpy Kid" and what he'd be like when he grew up.

So much for traditional family values if they're anything like those on display in this abomination. "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" is family cinema of the lowest order. Take the kids to "Green Zone" instead - or, for that matter, ANYTHING else. And if you've already forced them to see it, try cleaning their palate with something worthwhile.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Inside Moves

Inside Moves (1980) dir. Richard Donner
Starring: John Savage, David Morse

***

By Reece Crothers

Part Two in the continuing series 'In Praise of Richard Donner'

'Inside Moves' represents a change of pace for director Richard Donner and is something of an anomaly among his work, a gentle character driven film, although you wouldn't know it from the harrowing first four minutes which features a breathtaking leap from a downtown skyscraper that rivals Riggs' jump, handcuffed to a would-be suicide jumper, in the famous scene from 'Lethal Weapon'.

Here the jumper is John Savage as Rory, a man at the end of his rope. Suicidal Rory crashes into a tree, breaking his fall and lands on the windshield of a parked car. He survives the fall but is crippled. Rory's physical recovery is handled efficiently in the opening credits and the story, adapted by Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin from the Todd Walton novel, concerns itself with Rory's emotional recovery, mostly through his interactions with a motley crew of diabled characters who work or patronize a run down, inner-city bar.

Barry Levinson contributed some of the best "guy talk" in cinema with his 1982 picture "Diner", and the conversations between the guys in the bar, especially between leads Savage and Morse, are the heart of the film.

Morse plays Jerry, the bartender, who eventually recovers from his own injury and abandons his friends at the bar. Morse has become one of the more interesting characters actors of the last two decades, his best work arguably being Sean Penn's "The Crossing Guard", and he is fine here, but the show truly belongs to John Savage. Savage is an underused actor, who also appeared in The Crossing Guard, and held his own with De Niro at his peak in "The Deer Hunter", but never had De Niro's career. He is a real pleasure to watch in this film, portraying Rory with dignity, warmth and passion. He has a great speech where he tells Morse "I'm big, Jerry... bigger than you" - a moment right out of the best Capra. His relationship with a waitress at the bar who is weary about getting involved with a cripple, even though she likes him and feels guilty about her hesitation, is touching and delicately handled, although the performance of Diana Scarwid as the waitress is often flat.

Ultimately it is a story of forgiveness, for our friends and of ourselves, and a tale of rehabilitation. A feel good story that celebrates the best and most optimistic characteristics of human nature without wallowing in self-pity or melodrama. And in Donner's assured hands, the picture moves at a brisk pace, made with the same polish as his action blockbusters. It's also fun to see some of the regulars that feature in his tough action films, like Donner's cousin, Steve Kahan, who has appeared in many Donner pictures and most famously as Lethal Weapon's Capt. Murphy, here playing a bartender. It is a romantic view of rock bottom, that occasionally dips into sentimentality, feeling at times like Sydney Pollack could be at the helm, but the insights are genuine and heartfelt, and the end result uplifting.

For other Donner discussions: Click Here

This is pretty much all I could find on Inside Moves:

Friday, 26 March 2010

Great Moments in Terrible Casting

Great Moments in Terrible Casting:
Because Keanu Reeves is not a respectable English solicitor in 18th century Transylvania.

By Blair Stewart with great help from Mr. Bacchus, Mr. Klymkiw and Mr. Crothers.


Welcome back folks, today we're here for a look at our own favorite casting disasters throughout cinema. The acumen of a filmmaker can often come down to spotting certain actors strengths in certain roles and reaping those rewards on-set. Tarantino, Soderbergh and Mike Leigh alone are some recent examples of being fine judges of talent. Sad as it is, even the great ones can often piss on their shoes by committing the hubris of casting their own daughter in a crucial role opposite Al Pacino. Or a studio executive steps over a rookie director with a 'better choice'. Or the lead actor wants in on the casting process. Or the Weinsteins' grubby little fingers gum up the works.....

Most of the actors selected below are fine if not preferred performers, but let's call a spade a spade and poor foresight for what it is. Sometimes it was their own fault for picking the role, sometimes the wrong takes were selected in the editing room, sometimes the script just plain sucked. Leave your own selections in the comments section and abandon all hope ye who enter here.


Cameron Diaz as Jenny Everdeane in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York"
Occasionally distracting from Daniel Day-Lewis speed-bagging the rest of the cast "Gangs" featured an experiment in Cameron Diaz, she of sun-kissed cheekbones and California twang, playing a filthy Irish street hustler in the diaspora of 1860's Manhattan. The experiment failed.



Gary Sinise as Gabriel Mercer in John Frankenheimer's "Reindeer Games"
If you called me in the middle of the night to tell me Gary Sinise of "Forrest Gump" fame was on his way to kill me I'd just shrug, hang up the phone and go eat a sandwich. A very good actor at times, but not a wrath I'd fear. Wake me up when I've pissed off Michael Ironside or a zombie Klaus Kinski.



Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker in Francis F. Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula"
Little known fact: When the casting took place for "Dracula" in the early 90's there were no legitimate English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Australian, Kiwi, Canadian, Scandinavian, American or Zimbabwean actors who could have possibly played the role of Harker, the vampire's pitiable young legal council. So the part went to the Zen Master and the rest is poorly-accented, nonreactive history.



Gong Li as Isabella in Michael Mann's "Miami Vice"
An arguable choice based on the ludicrous role given to her, Gong Li plays Isabella-the Cuban/Chinese-born financial advisor for a Colombian drug kingpin who goes in heat for an undercover cop played by Colin Farrell's moustache. Uh huh. Watching her phonetically recite her lines to a hilariously butch Farrell is a sight I won't soon forget. Just another nail in the coffin that was once the great Michael Mann; making me wistful for "The Insider" and "Heat" ten years ago. Did Satan reneg on a contract?



Christian Bale as John Conner in McG's "Terminator Salvation"
An unnecessary performance in an unnecessary film, the future saviour of humanity is portrayed as a pathologically flinty insomniac on the verge of collapse from the international "Dark Knight" press junket. Someone give John Conner a sleeping pill and a hug.



Mathieu Amalric as Dominic Green in Marc Forster's "Quantum of Solace"
Look out James! Ernst Blofeld's cat from "You Only Live Twice" has grown up to be an evil Frenchman and wants to steal Bolivia's water! (some of this is the actual plot) Amalric is a swell actor but a meek, forgettable Bond villain next to Mads Mikkelsen's recent Le Chiffre in 2006's "Casino Royale". Put Vincent Cassel down next time against Daniel Craig and I'll keep my big trap shut.



William Hurt as Richie Cusack in David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence"
Shove that 2006 Oscar nomination where the sun don't shine, it means nothing. (see: "Crash", "Forrest Gump", Sean Penn over Bill Murray, Costner over Scorsese) If William Hurt is running your Irish mob then your mob is going to lose vast sums of money and lives in a turf war, especially with that accent o' malarkey, "broheim".



Matthew Broderick as Dr. Nick Tatopoulos in Roland Emmerich's "Godzilla"
A 60,000 ton nuclear lizard behemoth is laying waste to New York and rapidly reproducing asexually to boot (as I slap my forehead in the theater), and only Matthew Broderick can stop him/her/fuck it! from destroying his Tony Awards collection. The disappointing box office may have saved us from a sequel with Nathan Lane as Mothra. When I pay good money to see a monster-movie spectacular "Biloxi Blues" should never cross my mind.



Adrien Brody as Inspector Enzo Avolfi in Dario Argento's "Giallo"
Whether "Giallo" is indeed a spoof of Argento's mighty slasher work in the 70's Adrien Brody still makes for one lousy, mush-mouthed Italian via-New York detective. If you watch "Giallo" you'll notice Brody sleepwalks through the film with that same damn shaggy-dog expression he's had since "The Pianist" won. Perhaps Brody and Argento should have fired their on-set Italian-English translator: "Signore Brody, the Maestro wants you to gaze at your navel some more...."



Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Blake Edwards's "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
Because in the early 60's no Japanese men could speak English nor act across the globe so the role HAD to go to Mickey Rooney, aka the Man of a Million Faces. It's a good thing Rooney never ran into a moody Toshiro Mifune.



John Wayne as Genghis Khan in Dick Powell's "The Conqueror"
"Wow, Genghis sure likes chewing tobacco and baseball, huh?"



Paul Dano as Eli Sunday in P.T. Anderson's "There Will Be Blood"
The least offensive and thankless job on this list, Paul Dano's role was expanded beyond his excellent cameo as twin brother Paul to Kel O'Neill's preacher Eli when O'Neill was replaced. Dano's Eli has already drawn the mild ire of Quentin Tarantino in a recent British inteview in part for facing off with a great Day-Lewis performance. If Dano had more preparation for his part perhaps the conflict between Daniel Plainview's unchained capitalism and Dano's unfettered churchiness wouldn't have felt so one-sided. He'll have greater roles down the road.



Orlando Bloom as Paris in Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy"
"You've used a bow-and-arrow before, right?"
"Yep. Tons of times. It's my thing."
"You can just stand there and look pretty, right?"
"Obviously."
"You got the part, 'Lando. Don't make eye contact with Mr. Pitt when he's in character, ok?"
"Sure."



Rebecca Pidgeon as Susan Ricci in David Mamet's "The Spanish Prisoner"
In the midst of an elaborate con involving Rebecca as a femme fatale I was confused as to who this plank of wood was. And then I found out afterwards: She's David Mamet's wife. *rubs temples repeatedly*



Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese's "The Departed"
In an alternate universe 'Hollywood Jack' would have acted for once instead of screwing around with his tired old gags. That or Nick Nolte/Ed Harris/Gary Oldman/Anybody Else would put in a solid day's work as the twisted Boston crime boss. Don't agree? The 'smell a rat' scene stopped the movie dead.



Brendan Fraser as Alden Pyle in Phillip Noyce's "The Quiet American"
I didn't mind him so much in this career-stretching part, but DFD's Reece Crothers submitted it and hated him opposite Michael Caine. Fraser's got the right aloof outlook as a CIA stooge but he seriously lacks the bastard charisma needed for the part.



Keanu Reeves as John Constantine in Francis Lawrence's "Constantine"
Not to pick on Keanu as I usually find myself pulling for the guy in the hope he makes a critical breakthrough-I loved his trippy dentist in 2005's "Thumbsucker". But he was asking for trouble playing the chain-smoking, sardonic, Hades-bound Englishman from the "Hellblazer" comic series. You might see this as an overreaction from a fan of the source material but I'd like to see your face if I told you Zac Efron was going to play the next Harry Potter.

Sarah Jessica Parker in Anything
Added by DFD's Greg Klymkiw and joining her husband on this list, therefore ensuring that Daily Film Dose is a no-fly zone in the Broderick-Parker household. Too many horse jokes, you know?

Thanks for your time, and may the actors mentioned above go on to better things. Except for John Wayne, due to being dead.

ps-The entire cast of "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" excluding Michael Wincott and Alan Rickman also belongs here, but let's all try to forget it ever even existed.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Loft

Loft (2009) dir. Erik Van Looy
Starring: Koen De Bouw, Matthias Schoenaerts, Filip Peeters, Koen De Graeve, Veerle Baetens

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Loft arrives on DVD in Canada with little previous traction in North America. It received neither a theatrical release nor any major film festival screenings, and so it'll require some heavy lifting to get this into public consciousness. Well, let this be my small part.

This 2009 Belgian thriller unravels a very steamy potboiler about five buddies who co-own an ultra-cool loft specifically for the purpose of their extramarital trysts. When one day they walk in and find a nude dead girl on the bed suddenly they all suspect each other of murder. From this salacious set-up we're in the world of Joe Eszterhas, a trashy, '90s-era, pseudo-sexual throwback, or something in the genre of airport paperback writers like Dean Koontz. But after a first act hump we quickly find ourselves ensnared in a surprisingly well thought out and near-airtight, white-knuckle whodunit.

After the discovery, the men have to figure out A) what to do with the body and B) who could have perpetrated such a crime, and through flashbacks, we learn about the events that led up to this grisly murder. Each individual is drawn with simplistic characterizations, such as the coke-snorting playboy, the awkward nice guy and the manipulative, rich architect. But after the tedious exposition the film catches fire in the second act when writer Bart De Pauw starts to reveal each character's motivations and drops a good helping of red herrings involving the possible vengeance of their wives and the corporate intrigue of their business dealings.

Director Erik Van Looy embraces the steaminess of the genre and assumes his right to use all camera tricks and visual slickness to embellish the melodrama and produce a compelling genre thriller.

I'm also reminded of Guillaume Canet's 'Tell No One', a similar foreign language genre thriller that couldn't sustain its brilliant cinematic teasing in its third act. With this in mind, I was prepared for the film to fail at the end, and so as each loop hole got tied up, red herrings discarded and just the right number of subplots twisted, Loft actually worked all the up to the end. While Loft is no masterpiece, it's worthy of standing out in the mountain of other new releases on the shelf.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) dir. Wes Anderson
Voices by: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwarzman, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe

****

By Alan Bacchus

Upon seeing this film for a second time, which makes for an experience as glorious if not more than the first, I’m convinced ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is Wes Anderson’s best film. In fact, it might be my favourite animated film since the Disney Golden Era of animation in the late 30’s early 40’s.

I get frustrated every year with each new Pixar release generating near unanimous critical praise and gobbling up loads of money. Despite the clever writing and technically proficient computer animation each and every one of these films (including the other studio knock offs) are the same - the same tone, same mix of characters, and even the same visual look. Which is a shame considering the creative possibilities open to the CG medium.

This is why ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ makes for a marvellous experience. Since Wes Anderson brings his unique auteur live action cinema perspective to a medium primarily operated by committee than by the creative mind of a single director we get a wholly unique animated film unlike anything we’ve seen before.

As written by Anderson and co-writer Noah Boambach, who would seem as the most unlikely pair of writers to do this type of children’s story, the cinema version of Roald Dahl’s story is perfectly enhanced by the feature film medium. In the special features Anderson admits, though he loved the book as a child, as a standalone film, the story doesn’t work and so even the Dahl family themselves acknowledged bookending the original material with new first and third acts were the necessary addition to elevate the story to a feature film.

Though its Dahl’s story, Wes Anderson’s thematic fingerprints are in the every corner of the story. Outside of the rambunctious action plotting, at core the film again brings up Anderson’s career predilections with the relationship of father to son. George Clooney is perfectly cast as the swashbuckling shit-disturber who just can’t help himself from being the sly fox he was born to be. While he’s selfishly expressing his own inner desires he doesn’t realize he’s alienating his teenage son who unfortunately just doesn’t have the same guile as his father. This connection further expands on the relationship between the Tanenbaum children to the father, same with Owen Wilson to Bill Murray’s characters in “The Life Aquatic” and the three brothers on the Indian journey in “The Darjeeling Limited”. And the fun comic robbery shenanigans perpetrated by Fox's family brings us back to the silliness of the heist plans in 'Bottle Rocket'.

Wes Anderson’s visual style and idiosyncratic tone is front and centre as well, and while his immaculately-framed tableaus seemed repetitive in his last few pictures under stop motion animation it feels as fresh and inspired as his early work. So if Wes Anderson gave up live action and only made stop motion movie, I probably wouldn't complain.

The texture achieved from stop motion technology is also a marvel, the real world feeling we get from the tedious frame by frame advancement of the animator’s models, cannot be replicated by computer. The last time animation felt this invigorated is 1993’s ‘A Nightmare Before Christmas’, another stop motion film authored by a live action feature auteur.

‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox (who else) Home Entertainment

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Rocky Balboa

Rocky Balboa (2007) dir. Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia

***

By Alan Bacchus

I managed to miss this one back in 2006. After all, could this film really be any good? Were any of these films made after the 1976 original any good beyond my own nostalgic memories of a child? With these questions in my mind, I didn’t bother to see Rocky 6 – ‘Rocky Balboa’. But having received the full 'Rocky' Blu-Ray set to review, I didn’t have to shill out money to see this one. And so, why not give it a go and close this chapter of cinema history.

This 2006 version of the character has lost most of his wealth he had earned and flaunted in 'Rocky IV', though he’s not the street bum he was in 'Rocky V'. Now he lives in Philly and owns a respectable and profitable restaurant. His two main issues are his son Rocky Jr. who resents his father and his shadow which cannot get out from under, and his late wife Adrienne, who has been two years in the grave.

After an ESPN computerized mock-fight between current heavyweight champion Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon and Rocky causes arguments about who was the better pound-for-pound fighter Rocky induces himself to make a miraculous comeback to face-off with Dixon. Meanwhile Stallone manages to overcome his grief for Adrienne and court another local wallflower, using the same affable awkward charm to find love again.

It’s also virtually impossible to review this film objectively and so, like Stallone's next franchise closer-offer 'Rambo', the mere fact that this film doesn’t royally suck ass is a miracle. The fact that Stallone managed to write and direct another 'Rocky' movie, essentially remaking beat-for-beat the first movie except as an old man, and not making himself look as a fool, both as a director and an actor, is astonishing.

After 10 years in acting purgatory and 21 years since directing his last film ('Rocky IV') 'Rocky Balboa’s a decidedly triumphant effort. Stallone employs an easy-going and relaxed directorial style, with natural performances across the board. Stallone, himself, exercises the same muscles he used in ‘Copland’ portraying new millennium Rocky has a soft-spoken and humble man, but still competitive and determined to achieve his goals.

Stallone admirably updates the milieu of the modern sports scene. His incorporation of ESPN, its commentators and even their cameras and camera set-ups during the climatic boxing match adds a welcomed dose of authenticity which was absent for most of the franchise.

The Rocky movies under Stallone’s directorial watch have always been anchored by their numerous montage scenes. Of course, these scenes have become legendary and sometimes laughable in their repetitive depiction of Rocky’s old school working class training method's to get in shape. But look back at with a creative eye and you’ll find these scenes very precise in composition and editing, and, really, a marvel in rousing cinematic energy.

Stallone’s screenplay which hits all the same beats as his original Oscar-winning film including one fabulous montage scene. Arguably it’s a better film than ‘Rambo’ which fed off the tone of excessive violence of the Rambo sequels as opposed to the tense character-based tension of ‘First Blood’. 'Rocky Balboa' is a legitmate good film

Monday, 22 March 2010

Collateral

Collateral (2004) dir. Michael Mann
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Back in '04 I remember appreciating Michael Mann’s return to crime filmmaking after the awful disaster of ‘Ali’. And now, re-watching the new Blu-Ray release, the film comes off as surprisingly dull and glorified high concept action film morphed into the Michael Mann cool styling of his other crime films.

I’ve expounded on this at great length before, but Michael Mann’s switch over to high definition has not been kind to him. While filmmakers like David Fincher can retain the same look as his 35mm films and taking advantage of the freedom the digital medium allows, Mann’s newer films lose more than it gains. To start, Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron’s colour scheme is superb. The Los Angeles exteriors are lit up with an eye-pleasing hazy glow, like a permanent magic hour or a giant fluorescent lighting up everything. As a result, under the high definition format, it’s as crisp a film as Mann’s ever made. Unfortunately he also loses texture, specifically in the action scenes. Fast motion across of film has a smearing effect which our eyes are used to, under the crisp high definition image, much of the swoosh is gone resulting in what’s known as the ‘video look’. ‘Public Enemies’ and ‘Miami Vice’ suffered badly from this, mainly because well, there just more action in those films than ‘Collateral’.

The technical aside, not even Michael Mann slickness could correct some staleness of the material. The script by Stuart Beattie (subsequently polished by Mann himself) had been circulating for years and had fingerprints from a number of other directors, specifically those whose names remained on as Executive Producers, Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont. Under the direction of Michael Mann, he tries to coverts it to be his own. Vincent, for example, the lead character, a steely eyed robotic terminator like hit man with his salt and pepper hair and grey jacket looks a lot like Neil Macauley from ‘Heat’.

The film suffers most from the incongruence of Michael Mann’s aesthetic with the prefabricated action movie plotting. The strengths of all of Mann’s films have been his attention to realism of his characters and the environment. No matter if it’s a crackerjack thief, a beat cop, or a stone cold killer, within these genre characterizations Mann has always been able to draw his characters from the inside out. While none of us could identify with Robert De Niro as a lifer criminal or James Caan as a burgler, Mann crafted the world of the characters with such authenticity, they seemed more real than other crime films.

The against-type casting of Tom Cruise actually worked for me, but his character is fumbled and unnecessarily overwritten. Cruise and Foxx have some interesting conversations along the way, but conversations which never would happen if Vincent were indeed a real hit man killer. Mann at first portrays Vincent, his unhesitating trigger finger and forthright attitude, with the ruthless workmanlike intensity he’s known for. But the Michael Mann from ‘Thief’ or ‘Heat’ or ‘The Insider’ would never have Vincent confess his childhood father-issues to Max. This scene feels slapped on, to give depth to a hit man where this kind of depth is not necessary.

Jamie Foxx as Max, the cabbie, never ever feels real. From the outset he’s drawn from the outside in - a stock hero character with his personality traits stamped onto him in order to make him relatable as an everyman. The postcard on his sun visor, the pamphlet of his dream car he hopes to buy someday, his charismatic self-deprecation and his working class integrity never fit together, or least don’t seem to fit on the shoulders of Jamie Foxx the actor.

Mann also fumbles on the depiction of the police. Mark Ruffalo, as a Latino cop, is underutilized and Peter Berg is completely out of place as his partner. Berg and Ruffalo shouldn’t even be occupying the same space. It feels like Mann trying to inject a cat and mouse chase between cops and criminals a la 'Heat', or ‘Manhunter’, but just not enough time or attention is given to the cops for us to feel the pressure or suspense or attachment to these characters. As such when Ruffalo is unceremoniously killed, the jarring effect Mann intends never really hits us.

‘Collateral’ works best in its three showcase scenes. Vincent and Max’s confrontation with the Jazz musician is marvellous bit of misdirection and Max’s confrontation with Javier Bardem shows Foxx’s acting skills at its best. And of course, the taut gun fight in the club is why the film would seem to exist in the first place. The final act, which has Max rescuing the damsel in distress, again, is shamelessly engineered to close off Jamie Foxx’s stamped-on character.

“Collateral” is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Couples Retreat

Couple’s Retreat (2009) dir. Peter Billingsley
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau, Kristin Bell, Malin Akerman, Kristin Davis, Faizon Love, Kali Hawk

**

By Alan Bacchus

Just about the only thing this movie is good for is as a tourism video for Bora Bora. The failed comedy ensemble/Vince Vaughn vehicle is stunning to look at, but too good to look at.

You should never notice the cinematography in a comedy, nor the colour of the water, or the mountains in the background. Such is the case with Couples Retreat, co-written by Favreau and Vaughn, directed by Favreau’s Iron Man partner (and of course, former child star) Peter Billingsly and produced under the Vince Vaughn’s shingle Wild West Show Productions.

Old buddies David, Jason, Shane, Joey and their wives, Ronnie, Cynthia, Lucy and Trudy decide to go on a ‘couples retreat’ to Bora Bora in hopes of supporting Jason and Cynthia through their therapy sessions in paradise. When they arrive, it’s the most beautiful place on earth to them but before they even get to take in the activities, they get the ‘catch’- that each couple has to go through these same agonizing and intrusive therapy.

Each one complains about getting up at the crack of dawn to talk about their feelings. And as the sessions progress it brings up harboured insecurities and latent conflict which threatens to break up everything and thus, make the entire trip a disaster. To add fuel to the fire, is a ‘singles’ resort on the other side of island where all the fun is taking place, the ultimate temptation for the wary.

The first act has the couples in Chicago engaged in overly-long inane conversation setting up the shenanigans. In fact, just about every scene is twice as long as it should. It takes almost 25mins before they even get to the island. I guess Vaughn and the bunch forgot their Shakespeare: ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’. There’s also four or so characters too many. Getting rid of Faison Love’s awful plotting with his new 20 year old girlfriend and the reunification with his wife at the single’s resort is never funny. And even Favreau and Davis’ plotlines verge on sick and twisted.

'Couple’s Retreat' keeps their ‘relationship humour’ on the surface, never quite digging deep into the comedy of how men and women relate. Much too many sexual sight-gags and boner jokes, European speedo references go for the easy laugh.

As mentioned, the stunning locale and its impossibly blue waters (which looks to be colour timed to be even more blue) hypnotize into a trance where we forget we’re even watching a comedy. The casting of a bunch of hotties as the wives and girlfriends helps distract us from the fact that they don’t do much in the script other than play off the goofing around of Vaughn and the boys – it was the same way with the male-centred “The Break Up”, also scripted and produced by Vaughn. We can’t help but think how it all would have played with the likes of funnier, though arguably less bikini-friendly gals Jane Lynch, Amy Poehler, and Kristin Wiig

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

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Up in the Air

Up in the Air (2009) dir. Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman

**

By Alan Bacchus

The sick feeling which is caused by this film starts early and continues to steadily towards the end. This sickness is caused by the general tone of self-conscious cinematic inoffensiveness and contrived cleverness masking as profound truth. Instead it all feels so very false. And so when Geoffrey Fletcher 'upset' Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar... oh what vindication.

The metaphors derived from the film’s esoteric details of airline culture, human resource business management, motivational speaking are all very clever and but so exacting with its connections to the lead character’s lonesome and detached life it's like watching a cribs note version of a great book. A film full of metaphors with no meat and potatoes to substantiate it.

You probably know the story by now, Ray Bingham (George Clooney) is a specialist hired by large corporations to fire people. His ability to walk around the difficult words and calm the ex-employees down before they even get a chance to be mad is aided by his sooth-saying charm and good looks. This job takes him on the road 270 days of the year, thus lives his life in hotel rooms, travelling in airports, cabs. Thus he has chosen to eschew the ‘settled’ life. At 'home' he rents a Spartan one bedroom condo in has no relationships, is disconnected with the family, including his soon-to-be married sister.

But when a sprite young college grad Natalie (Anna Kendrick) brings an even more dispassionate approach to the process of firing people through internet-connected webcams, Ray finds his lifestyle threatened. To prove the long distance approach is no substitute for person to person interaction, Ray takes Natalie on the road to show her the ropes. Along the way both of them experience life-changing moments of enlightenment to their own personality deficiencies. Ray develops a relationship with a fellow frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga) which might just cause him to settle down and Natalie finds witnessing the despair on people’s faces after being fired too depressing to continue with her job.

I’m sure Reitman and his co-author Sheldon Turner did their homework to check that these types of companies actually exist, that in big corporations third party specialists are actually hired to fired people, but they set it all up with such smugness it feels like a complete fabrication. This starting point of contrived 'falseness' trickles down into every other corner of the film.

The base and polarized characterization of Natalie as the type-A university grad is a caricature with the grace of a sledge hammer. We’re told exactly what to think of her with nothing to discover. Reitman dresses her up in tight fitting masculine pantsuits, Why? Because she’s ‘tight ass’! Get it, she wears TIGHT clothes, and her character is TIGHT. So clever. Even her last name, ‘Keener’ is a metaphor as shallow as anything else in the film. Keener refers to an obnoxious go-getter if you didn’t know.

For all his charm, good looks, and affable self-deprecated humour George Clooney is sorely miscast. Reitman’s depiction of this industry of third party specialists hired to fire people is set up with such dispicableness there seems to be little value in the job other than. We know Ray is a depressed person, though his voiceover doesn’t say it, Reitman hammers us with every possible metaphor for loneliness and avoidance of emotional risk.

What could possibly have caused such a charming, good looking, intelligent, athletic, near perfect human being in every way shape or form to put himself in such a pathetic position in life? His job is characterized as the worst job on the face of the planet, so why does Ray do it? So he can collect frequent flyer mileage? Without context to his predicament, all we’re have is Clooney’s lovely face and charm to judge his character by. If he were say obese, had social disfunctions, or even a facial disfigurement of some sort I might begin to understand why Ray Bingham has does this to himself. But the charming George Clooney and the loser Ray Bingham don’t add up.

Distilling all the metaphors down to the essence of Ray’s predicament is that he’s never found love. During the film he does find love which opens himself up to being vulnerable emotionally. The film is saved from complete disaster with a neat and admittedly surprising narrative twist in the third act which sends Ray into even further despair. But if the shame of rejection were to happen to someone played by, say, Paul Giamatti, the gravitas of despair would hit us hard. But with someone as good-looking as Mr. Clooney… puh-leeeze! He generates no sympathy whatsoever.

Its all part of Reitman’s concerted effort to please us with attractive and charming people we can't relate to in dire and depressed lifestyles. Reitman barely pushes or challenges his characters resulting in a so a very safe, moderate and ultimately disappointing approach to this particularly relevant story of these economic times.

"Up in the Air" is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Friday, 19 March 2010

The Runaways

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

***1/2

by Reece Crothers

Based on lead singer Cherie Currie's memoir "Neon Angel" and written for the screen by 90s music video darling, (and OCAD grad) Floria Sigismondi, this is a rock n' roll movie that kicks ass and packs an emotional punch.

The performances are uniformly excellent with leads Fanning and Stewart proving their acting chops and standing out among their peers as true actors in a sea of celebrities who are famous for being famous. There is something shocking and dangerous watching the veteran child stars emerge from the awkward teenage period (that most child actors don't survive) and you can't help but feel the authority of their work in dealing with precocious fame and all the pratfalls of excess that come with it. The film works almost as a love story between two artists and you couldn't ask for two actors with more chemistry, their very different energies complimenting each other extraordinarily well.

From the first frame in which she appears, Stewart inhabits Joan Jett. There is nothing of the Twilight Saga's Bella in her portrayal of the rock icon. Her mannerisms, the way she hunches her shoulders, the tough exterior, the drive to be taken seriously as an artist, the vulnerability, it's all over her face.

Fanning, as Currie, is just as impressive, playing the more tragic character, the 15 year old "jailbait", who truly suffers from the volcanic rise to fame of the first ever all girl rock group. There is something of a young Michelle Pfeiffer to Fanning's performance, the cat eyes, the fragile beauty. Like Pfeiffer, there is a lot more going on beside a pretty face and she is able to project a myriad of emotions in a flash of her deceptively vacant expression, the more you look at her the more you see right into her soul.

In a stand out supporting role as Kim Fowley, the record producer who gave The Runaways their start, Michael Shannon steals every scene he turns up in. He seems to really have fun with the role, and especially in the early scenes, there is a warmth to his performance that we haven't seen from him before. Shannon has been turning in exceptional work consistently ever since 'Jesus' Son'. If you haven't seen him in 'Shotgun Stories', get yourself to a video store immediately.

The story may be familiar, a rise-fall-redemprion, sex, drugs and rock n' roll excess tale, but because it's rooted in these great characters it manages to feel fresh. The "rise" part of the film is especially fun, exciting and propulsive. The scene where they write Cherry Bomb, which would become their first hit and launch them towards stardom is a particular highlight.

Writer/Director Sigismondi is no stranger to the music scene, one of the foremost talents in music videos for more than a decade. Like Anton Corbijn's recent Joy Division/ Ian Curtis biopic "Control", she delves deep into the music and it's creators to find the story behind the songs and delivers a stylish, sympathetic portrait of young artists and their work that is compelling whether you are a fan or not. Interesting too is Jett's credit as executive producer. Usually when the subject is credited as a producer it means you are going to get a whitewashed account, a fluff piece. Look no further than Puff Daddy's uber-disappointing Biggie Smalls biopic "Notorious" for proof positive, but this movie has teeth, and claws.

See this for the performances of the leads and enjoy the music as a bonus. I dare you to walk out of the theater NOT singing either The Runaways' 'Cherry Bomb' or Jett's 'I Love Rock n' Roll'.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Red Tent

(image courtesy of DVD Beaver)

The Red Tent (1971) dir. Mikhail Kalatozov
Starring: Peter Finch, Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale, Hardy Kruger

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

One of the grandest adventure/survival films is one you’ve probably never heard of - “The Red Tent” - an oddball fusion of Italians and Soviet filmmakers with an all-star international cast and crew. It tells the true story of a failed Italian expedition to the North Pole via airship in 1928. The great Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov directs his first and last English language film with complete authenticity. Other than the completely realistic arctic disaster story the film is a powerful story of ambition, greed, international politics, heroism and cowardice.

Kalatozov begins the story with perhaps the longest pre-credit sequence in film history. Before we even get to the snow there’s a 13 mins dream sequence from inside the head of General Nobile (Peter Finch) who fatefully led many of his crew to their deaths during the expedition. One by one the participants in the story appear in his subconscious in a makeshift psychological trial. It’s a manifestation of Nobile’s inner guilt and responsibility for the tragic events. Though it’s fascinating from a psychological perspective, as a cinematic device it’s awkward and confusing at the beginning and barely comes together at the end.

But it’s important to get past this first scene, because the film only gets better and more rewarding. The claustrophobia of the surreal dream sequence is released dramatically once Kalatozov gets outside into the open air where he works best. Intimacy is not Kalatozov’s forte. He needs big crowds, big machines, big scope to make his films. Italian General Nobile (Peter Finch) is in charge of leading an expedition to the North Pole. It was an age of nationalism and competition for international discoveries and achievements. Amundsen and Peary had already been to the North Pole, which Nobile has conspicuously missed out on. So Nobile’s mission serves not only to stake a claim for his country but personal pride as well.

Kalatozov stages a wonderful farewell scene – not as grand as the farewell in “The Cranes are Flying” but majestic nonetheless. The addition to Ennio Morricone’s swooning score pushes Kalatozov’s epic style to even greater heights. The airship falters from the extreme cold and crashes to the ground miles from their target. The crash is horrific and directed with complete realism. With the crew stranded in the frigid and unaccommodating arctic it becomes a desperate fight for survival – finding food, shelter, salvaging the radio all become tasks of importance.

The film cuts back and forth between the airship, the Italian basecamp where the news of the expedition has made the incident an internationally covered press story as well as a Russian expedition that hears their distress signal. Not only is it a fight for survival but a race to rescue them.

The stunning visuals anchor this exciting flick. The on-location filmmaking in the desolate tundra is impossible to fake and so, I can only imagine how grueling the shoot must have been. The expansive helicopter shots of the endless ice and snow isolate the characters and pit against their environment, like Lean did in “Lawrence of Arabia”. Kalatozov’s increases the spectacle and scope when he introduces the Russian subplot. In fact, my favourite scene is when the amateur radio operator is tuning into the distress signal from the lost crew. The boy sits on top of his roof with the radio while the other townsfolk watching from below control the antenna with a kite. It’s a classic Kalatozov moment when he frames up the entire town from the roof whose attention is drawn to the one boy on top of the house. The image of the boy on the roof which shows how mass communication can bring people from different cultures together for a common goal is also an allegory to the collaboration of filmmakers from different cultures to tell this story.

Kalatozov’s collaboration with the international talent is a fitting swan song for the Soviet master (see also “I am Cuba” and “The Cranes are Flying”). For a man who plied his trade as a virtual unknown behind the Iron Curtain, his grand emergence into the ‘Western’ world of filmmaking was also his final bow. “The Red Tent” was Kalatozov’s final film. His died several years later. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Prom Night in Mississippi

Prom Night in Mississippi (2009) dir. Paul Saltzman
Documentary

***

By Alan Bacchus

The citizens of Charleston, Mississippi remind me of those stories you’ve heard about stranded Japanese WWII soldiers on remote Pacific Islands, who ‘never got the memo’, and continued to think the War was still on years after the fact. At the time of the making of this film 2008, this small city of 20,000 in the heart of the old confederate South continued to function as a near-racially segregated community. Canadian director Paul Saltzman aims his camera at Charleston high school who somehow continued an atrocious tradition of having two separate proms, a white prom and a black prom.

Almost too impossible to believe - in this day and age, in a bastion of freedom, the United States of America, an activity like this goes on. The effort to integrate is given a very strong push by none other than Morgan Freedom, who is embarrassed by his hometown’s inability to see the field from the trees. Freeman addresses the senior class and questions them on why they continue such policies. Everyone says, it’s the parents, who harbour latent racial tendencies from the pre-Civil Rights Movement days. So Freeman proposes that the students organize their own integrated prom and that Freeman pays for it.

It would seem like an easy solution – having an endorsement from a successful Hollywood movie star, having a blank cheque to make it all happen, not to mention having it all documented for the entire world to see as a feature documentary. Well, this was actually the second offer Freeman has made, the first time in 1997 where it was rejected. This time, the students embrace the opportunity to erase this tradition and make it right.

As the school year progresses, shockingly a silent majority protests, the racist parents of the children organize a separate white prom, thus keeping alive their appalling practice. Saltzman’s gregarious characters made up of students, teachers, and local politicians are lively and frank, and speak from the heart. It’s wonderful mix of the familiar high school personalities, jocks, geeks, princesses who band together in the name of civil unity.

But the biggest missed opportunity is the inability of Saltzman to interview the advocates of the segregation. Saltzman finds one parent, a self-professed redneck, who dislikes his daughter dating a black man, but is not against an integrated prom. Even the participants acknowledge that finding parents to publicly admit to their highly unpopular opinions on camera would be near suicidal. In many ways not this works for the film. This unseen majority acts like a shadowy spectre over the town and the film, a shadow which not even the racially accepting students can get from under.

The film climaxes with a rousing party scene at the integrated prom where the events goes off without a hitch, without the threat of violence some thought might arise. We see participants joyously exclaim racial unity and group love. Yet the film doesn’t quite capture or capitalize on the sad irony of this ending. In the final group photo we only see a small group of white students, which means, despite the accepting the call for action by Freeman at the beginning, most of them would appear to have succumbed to the pressure of their parents either to a) not attend the integrated prom or b) not appear in the group photo.

Despite this claim at victory, I’d say it’s more a sad defeat for the community, where the racist white parents managed to keep the white prom tradition alive, and an even greater defeat, the fact that most of the protesting white students actually attended that event. Either way these complex ambiguities make the film fascinating on levels.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Reel Injun

Reel Injun (2009) dir. Neil Diamond
Documentary

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

North American Aboriginals have a long history with cinema, just about as long as the medium has existed. If you consider the ‘Western’ cinema’s most venerable genre in the century’s most influential form of storytelling then it’s easy to see how much damage Hollywood’s depiction has done to the mainstream perception of the Indian people. I use the word ‘Indian’ not in a derogatory way. Though, it’s not the politically correct word this egregiously erroneous term which had stuck through our language continues to be used by their own people. But it’s part of the down to earth quality which the participants in this film bring to their self-analysis.

Canadian Aboriginal director Neil Diamond uses a familiar first person narrative format through which to frame this very large story, pointing the camera at himself to chart his own journey of self-discovery. He tells us of his childhood when he used to watch Westerns movies and TV shows and found himself always cheering for the 'Cowboys' as opposed to the “Indians’ – yet not recognizing that he, himself, was one of these Indians. While it’s a probably bit of an exagerration it he demonstrates just how wrong the entrenched depiction of his people were on the big screen.

As Diamond hops on the road in an old beat up roadster (affectionately referred to us as a 'Rez car'), he brings the audience back through time and charts the temptestuous relationship of Indians and Hollywood.

Diamond finds all the right footage and participants to tell his story from a number of intriguing angles. A number of Aboriginal leaders, film critics, poets, authors and intellectuals take us through 100 years of cinema. For the Hollywood point of view Diamond even meets up with Jim Jarmusch and Clint Eastwood for their opinions. Ironically we learn in the early silent era Indians were often characterized as the hero, with much reverence shown for the traditions of the culture. But as esteemed Canadian film critic and Ojibwa Nation member Jesse Wente expresses, it was John Ford’s ‘Stagecoach’ (1939) which set everything back and laid a foundation of cinematic mistreatment.

Diamond keeps a light and refreshing sense of humour through everything. One of worst cultural mistakes which permeated into mainstream culture is the idea that Indians wear headbands – a mistruth which came about from the need of the actors to prevent their wigs from falling off during action sequences. Same with the feathered war headdress which was ubiquitously applied to any Indian in the movies.

The film flows in and out of the predictable timeline of cinema history. A good deal of time is spent on the political history of the First Nations, which began in the hippie 60’s when Indian culture became ‘fashionable’ again, and climaxing with the Wounded Knee revolt. Of course Wounded Knee links up with the legendary Sacheen Littlefeather speech in place of Marlon Brando in 1973. Littlefeather who appears in an interview even clears up some of the political discreditation against her which continued to this day – the idea that she was a fake, and not a ‘real’ aboriginal at all.

In fact, a number of the most famous Indians in cinema history were adopted into the culture. One of the most touching stories is of Iron Eyes Cody, one of the most famous Indian actors who appeared in over 100 films, yet was of Italian descent. The effect of his roles in his own family continue to be felt, later in life self-identifying with the First Nations, marrying an aboriginal woman and becoming patriarch to a culturally-aware aboriginal family.

Diamond ends off the film bringing us to the present, where we find ourselves in a Golden Age of Aboriginal Filmmaking. Diamond, Wente and most of the pundits (and myself included) consider Zacharias Kunuk’s “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” is the first ever truly indigenous mainstream film.

'Reel Injun' should be required viewing not just for cineastes but to educators and children. Diamond has created a remarkable statement of history within the context of this highly discriminatory and unregulated teaching tool known as cinema.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Where the Wild Things Are (Blu-Ray)

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

***½

By Alan Bacchus

The 'WTWTA" DVD has the very rare quality of its Special Features actually complimenting the tone and thus enhancing the enjoyment of the main feature movie. While I like to see and read about the creative process of filmmaking, I prefer to experience this much later in the life of the movie after it's had time to breathe and establish itself in the context of cinema history. There are probably many more stories to tell about the making of 'Where the Wild Things Are', after all it took 3 years of publicized production and post-production difficulties bringing this picture to the screen. Without completely lifting the veil of the artistic process, we get a wonderful look into the unique filmmaking and production philosophy Spike Jonze applied to this story.

Jonze has avoided using the awful word 'featurette' in describing his behind-the-scenes footage, opting to call his short 3-5mins segments 'Documentaries'. For instance, the short doc 'The Kids Take Over the Picture' shows the literal childlike influence Jonze wanted to create around the set. By inviting the children of the crew to be part of the production Jonze admirably never allowed the crew lose focus of the big themes of the picture.

As for the movie... upon second viewing it holds up as a wonderful adaptation of a fantasy tale told with an admirable amount of creative restraint - a courageous work of art, a wholly unique experience, meeting and exceeding our high expectations. Under anyone’s else’s watch this film would have been turned into an fantasy extravaganza, replete which mondo special effects, overly designed fantasy worlds, fantasy creatures and Pixar/Disney sappy comedic tones. After all, it’s a familiar story, a troubled and lonely child retreats to his dreams where he finds a fantastical world of monsters, of which he makes himself king.

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

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

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

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

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

In addition, on the DVD there's a 22mins short film 'Higglety Pigglety Pop', another Maurice Sendak adaptation, from Oscar-nominated Canadian filmmakers Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski ("Madame Tutli-Putli") - a very idiosyncratic National Film Board of Canada short film commissioned specifically for the DVD. Like Wild Things, tonally it specifically stears away from the traditional children's picture, in this case something more in the company of Terry Gilliam's wild sense of imagination.

"Where the Wild Things Are" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Bro Home Video


Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Rocket

The Rocket (2005) dir. Charles Binamé
Starring: Roy Dupuis, Stephen McHattie, Remy Girard

***

By Alan Bacchus

The successful Maurice Richard film from 2005 gets another DVD release from Alliance films, this time dressed up with an accompanying NFB documentary from 1998, also entitled ‘The Rocket’ as the second disc special feature. Considering the worship hockey fans and Quebeckers in general still hold for the man, Binamé’s dramatization idolizes and the hockey great with near-saintly deification.

In traditional biopic fashion the film charts the life and career of the man from his humble working class life to his ascension as the best player in the game. All the touchstone events in his career are hit and handled with great care and emotional poignancy – his first season with the club, and his early injury problems, his 50 goal season and his suspension and the subsequent riots which ensued. In particular, his very public chastising of the league’s racism against French Canadians, which could be seen as a germ for the Separatist Movement, puts his career into an even deeper context and significance for the country.

Unfortunately the film is often let down by the abrupt transitions between these benchmark moments which an elegant montage or two could have smoothed over. The film should be cherished and celebrated for its stunning visual recreation of the 1940’s/50’s hockey milieu. Pierre Gill’s cinematography is simply some of the finest images ever shot in Canada. Recreating a 1940’s hockey game with the pinpoint period accuracy needed to satisfy a highly discriminating hockey-loving audience on a limited Canadian film budget is no small task. But these sequences are so astounding they accurately capture not only the artistry of Richard on ice, but the sounds, smells and even the chilliness of the old Montreal forum.

Thus ‘The Rocket’ is arguably the final word of Canadian hockey on film. Jacques Payette’s accompanying NFB doc is decent, if a little dated by the standard of today’s more polished and flashier documentaries. But it works well as a companion to the dramatic film, reflections from Richard and his contemporaries looking back on Richard’s influence on the game. Other special features includes a number of deleted scenes and a featurette.