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

Friday, 30 April 2010

Project Grizzly

Project Grizzly (1996) dir. Peter Lynch
Documentary

****

By Alan Bacchus

There’s something about grizzly bears that just make people go mad. Lynch’s masterpiece documentary, ‘Project Grizzly’ would make a good companion piece to Werner Herzog’s equally great though more well-known ‘Grizzly Man’. Both films tells stories of psychologically-challenged mad men, who, in the name of science, are as much in search of personal fame as they are the research they purport to be gathering.

Lynch’s hero is Troy Hurtubise, after a chance meeting in the woods with a grizzly bear, which left him mesmerized with the animal, took it upon himself to build a suit of armour impenetrable to bear attacks thus allowing him to study them up close. Lynch joins in Troy’s journey after 10 years of trial and error. In a riotously funny sequence of stock footage we see each of Troy’s previous attempts at making Grizzly armour (signified with a military-style numeral – Mark IV, Mark V, Mark VI etc) fail, and then get improved upon. Troy is a glutton for punishment having guns fired at him, logs dropped on him, even being through thrown down an escarpment – all in the name of science.

Or is it?

Troy is a character, a man with a persona, aware of the camera and people’s impression of him. Fashioning himself as a rugged mountaineer/cowboy/rebel, his attire includes a Davey Crocket buckskin jacket, two huge bowie knives strapped to his chest and leg, a red beret, and moccasins.

Troy talks with the confidence of a mythic wilderness hero, a John Wayne-like legend in his own time. Certainly in his own mind. What Lynch’s miraculously manages to discover, just by having his camera observe without prejudice is the damaged inner soul of Troy – a self-conscious regular Joe, with passive aggressive tendencies which manifest itself as severe delusions of grandeur.

Troy’s coterie of minions only feed his hunger for adulation. His brother and other Canadian hoser buddies idolize him with supreme reverence. As we watch the boys interact and talk tall tales in the local donut shop it might as well be the high school cafeteria, with Troy serving as the alpha-male leading the weaklings along in his travails.

His suit of armour, a mash-up of hockey equipment, scrap metal, and duct tape, stands beside him at all times, like a trophy for him and us to admire and perhaps distract from the inner sadness which quietly plagues him.

In discussing the film with Lynch at my most recent Canadian Cinema in Revue screening he confirms the finer and fascinating details of Troy’s personality. Peter admits he could have painted a portrait which would have made the audience hate the character. But, like all great documentaries, Lynch’s film is his impression of the man – not the full story, but one impression.

What we see is a man with hubris is as large as Captain Ahab, and perhaps with more perseverance. His journey, not unlike Moby Dick, at once admirably in his determination and guile, but sadly comes off as delusions of grandeur.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Hobson's Choice

Hobson’s Choice (1954) dir. David Lean
Starring: Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales

****

By Alan Bacchus

David Lean’s marvellous humanist comedy, based on the play by Prunella Scales, is invisible to its age. Lean’s visual flare and eye for composition combined with working class rags to riches story looks as fabulous now as it did then.

Before David Lean started making colour films with big canvases on location he made even more and arguably even better smaller studio films in Britain. Lean was a dynamo with the camera, a style not that dissimilar from one of his contemporaries, Orson Welles. From 1942 to 1955, including 'Oliver Twist', 'Great Expectations', 'Brief Encounter', 'Hobson’s Choice' and 'Summertime', Lean managed to open up his confined locations using expressive constrasty lighting and deep focus photography techniques more in common with film noir.

Charles Laughton plays Hobson a cantankerous shoe store owner who works his three daughters to the bone, without any pay, for the sake of the family. But they are all marrying age and so Hobson has to deal the prospect of a) losing his workstaff and b) having to pay a ‘settlement’ to their prospective husbands. Ever the stingy capitalist, Hobson has avoided this ‘choice’ as long as he can. With no other options Maggie decides to take it upon herself to find a husband. She doesn't look farther than the shoe shop and target's Hobson's best bootmaker Willie Mossop. Maggie convinces Willie of marriage not as romance, but mutual convenience, a business relationship which would help them start a new shoe business, find mates as well sticking it to the rueful Hobson.

London never looked better than through Lean's eye. The photography of the city’s fog drenched skies and rough cobblestone roads add invaluable texture and realism to the environment. His interior scenes mostly take place in the confined spaces of Hobson’s shop, or Maggie/Willie’s flat, yet Lean’s camera is surprisingly mobile and moves with elegance (and motivation) around the rooms with ease.

As a working class triumph of will, the journey of Maggie from a subjgated worker drone spinster into an independent business woman and eventually loving wife is great storytelling. Charles Laughton is at his crabby best playing the stubborn and oppressive patriarch of the family who in his selfishness just can’t bear to see his daughter’s succeed. And so when we see Maggie decide to take her life into her own hands and choose her own destiny it’s marvelously inspiring.

In the second act, as we see Maggie lift herself up and go through the machinations of starting her own shoe business it becomes a smart business story. In fact, I was reminded of how we saw Claudette Colbert engineer her own pancake business with Louise Beavers in ‘Imitation of Life’.

John Mills as Maggie’s husband is perhaps overly characterized as a childish nave completely naive and complicit to whatever Maggie says or does. If anything Willie’s roll could have been strengthened by emphasizing his contribution to Maggie’s business as a real boot artist. But as comedy, his simplicity overcomes any deficiencies. In the final act when Willie and Maggie have to get married, and thus, CONSUMATE Lean takes his time to craft a humourous climax (pun intended) showing the frightening moments before Willie has to finally go to bed with Maggie. Of course sex is never mentioned, but the subtextual and visual suggestions make the buildup surprisingly tense.

“Hobson’s Choice” expresses themes of feminism, humanity and both condemns and celebrates capitalism with a light British comedic flare, and of course David Lean’s superb filmmaking skills.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria (2009) dir. Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Mark Strong, Jim Broadbent

***

By Alan Bacchus

The relationship of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert is one of history's great storied romances, which makes for a decent period wig and costume film. Having Dutchess of York Sarah Ferguson listed as Executive Producer gives it the smell of a royal puff piece, but Jean-Marc Vallée (a Canadian) manages to sufficiently capture the romance of the age and the complicated politicking which Victoria faced in those early years.

A great montage scene introduces Victoria with elegance at the top. We learn about the ungodly attention Victoria received in her childhood, to the point of having someone literally hold her hand up and down stairs and virtually everywhere she went. The picture joins her in her teenaged years when Vic starts to exert some desires to be independent of her dotting mother the Dutchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and her snarling hardline watchdog Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). Since Vic is of marrying age a number of suiters line up including young German prince Albert (Rupert Friend), who angles on behalf of his greedy family back home.

As it usually goes, despite objections from her mother, Vic wants to marry Albert (they were actually first cousins but, whatever). She shows some political guile by aligning with Liberal PM Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) for support. Of course, as we know from history Vic gets her way and marries Albert and takes control of the monarch from the assigned ‘Regent’ who had been running the show until now. But with great power means some male envy from Albert who tries to overexert some authority in lieu of his emasculation as the lowly Prince Consort and thus #2 in the household.

'The Young Victoria' doesn’t establish too much new ground or stray too far from the period costume genre. Jean-Marc Vallée, the award-winning French-Canadian director of the stylish masterpiece C.R.A.Z.Y. employs a formal style and doesn’t do too much to rock the boat. If anything his most significant creative contribution is his distinct editing rhythm which eases some of the stodginess these films tend to suffer from.

Saying that, there was a great missed opportunity to catapult the film above the familiarity of the genre. Jean-Marc Vallée initially had the fine progression art-rock band Sigur Ros do a full original score for the film, but unfortunately the producers exercised their authority and opted for a traditional score. New composer Ilan Eshkeri actually does deliver some wonderful music, but the potential of Sigur Ros plugged into this material will be added to the 'what if' list of rejected film scores (ie. Daniel Lanois’ rumoured magnificent score for Billy Bob Thornton’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’).

Unlike the 'Elizabeth' films, there's isn't a war to follow, or the grisly threat of beheading, so to follow to elevate the stakes, writer Julian Fellows (‘Gosford Park’) amplifies the complexities of the politics. It gets a little confusing at times following who is aligned with who and for what reason. But if you get confused with that, the love story between Victoria and Albert is simple and uncomplicated. The performances of Blunt and Friend generate genuine sympathy and love for their characters even though they are two of the most privileged people in the history of the world.

“The Young Victoria” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Secret in their Eyes

The Secret in their Eyes (2010) dir. Juan José Campanella
Starring: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Guillermo Francella

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Besting among others Michael Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’ and Jacques Audiard’s ‘A Prophet’ for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar certainly adds some high expectations to this film. Unfortunately it isn’t just expectations which cloud this overwrought and mishandled Argentinian thriller. A handful of fantastic individual set pieces and a fine performance from Ricardo "Mr. Argentina" Darín, aside, ‘El secreto de sus ojos’ suffers from an uneven mix of traditional procedural investigative thriller stuff with steamy romantic melodrama.

Darín plays Benjamin Esposito, a former federal court investigator whose unsolved case of rape and murder of a beautiful young girl 25 years prior dogs him to this day. In the present, he’s introduced as a writer trying to write a book on his experiences as a form of closure and catharsis. In addition to recollecting the details of the grisly case he also brings back memories of his colleague Irene Menéndez Hastings who was not only his partner but his one true love which never consummated.

Flashing back between the present and the various years in between Campanella tries to create an epic story of obsession and passion. Obsession of the case and Esposito’s passion for Irene.

The inclusion of this film on the Oscar shortlist is curious let alone winning the big prize. Granted there is one absolutely stunning scene at the midway point which is worth the price of admission - a one take long shot which is so astonishingly choreographed it rivals anything done in ‘Children of Men’. It’s a cat and mouse action chase within a soccer stadium, a magnificent (though digitally manipulated) unedited shot which starts on a helicopter flyover and joins into a handheld and mobile foot chase through the stadium stands, walkways and finally the field. It’s a riveting set piece, which perhaps is too good for the film, and actually makes us wonder or ask was this shot by another director? It’s about the only exciting moment in the film, the only time Campenella injects a sense of urgency.

The rest of the film plays out with a slow methodically culmination of angst-ridden reflections by Darin. Though the film spans 25 years we never get a sense of this time, other than some makeup wrinkles on Darin and some grey hair in his goatee. The procedural aspects of the investigation fail to draw us in, like say David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’ did. Films like these live and die by the details, and sadly there’s isn’t much of a mystery to this case. There’s a suspect who gets chased and goes to prison but beats the system and is released. Unfortunately many of these details we don’t even see, instead receive as information dispensed by other people. For example, when Esposito finds out about the killer’s release it’s a wasted dramatic moment, which occurs when Esposito sees him on TV.

So maybe the film isn’t about the case at all. Most of Campanella’s time is spent dragging along Esposito’s forlorn love for Irene. Towards the end Campenella engineers a classic Hollywood ending aboard a train – Esposito’s agonizing goodbye to Irene which has him chugging away from the train station with Irene running behind after her. Like the chase scene, it's well shot, scored, blocked and acted, but so overly produced it jumps out at us like it’s from another movie.

The climax, I won’t ruin, but it too feels like directed by another director – Bryan Singer or Christopher Nolan in fact - a tightly edited and scored summation of the film’s details at the moment of Esposito’s dramatic final discovery. It’s a shocking moment, which again, works as a set piece, not adds nothing to the slothlike rhythm of the rest of the film. At best 'The Secret in Their Eyes" is trashy airport paperback fiction.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Armageddon

Armageddon (1998) dir. Michael Bay
Starring: Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare

***

By Alan Bacchus

Hell yes, I said, I like ‘Armageddon’ (As Alan gets pummelled by rotten fruit). I think there is a place for Michael Bay in cinema. And there is a place for 'Armageddon'. This preposterous high concept actioner, likely born from a night of heavy drinking wherein Jerry Bruckheimer, was likely dared into making a movie about oil drillers who fly into space, drill in a nuclear bomb and blow up an asteroid hurdling toward earth. I imagine the first draft likely appeared on a cocktail napkin from Spagos.

What the final film turns out to be from this one-liner pitch concept is Hollywood excess at its worst and best. Though it’s Michael Bay’s film, it takes a good producer to put together a film of such absurd magnitude to make it work. First of all, check out the number of writers involved: Jonathan Hensleigh, Tony Gilroy, Robert Ray Pool, Shane Salerno, and yep, J.J. Abrams. And with all the uncredited polishes involved, including a rumoured Robert Towne, it could be double that number. Such is the Hollywood way, the ability of a super producer like Jerry Bruckheimer to coalesce the writings of the cacophony of voices into a unified direction, however preposterous.

This film succeeded so admirably because it knew it’s audience and fine tuned it to hit the Red Stated Nascar bible belt demographic right on it noggin like that mole-wacker game in penny arcades. From the opening narration the film panders to the conservative right – hell, even NRA spokesman CHARLTON HESTON narrates the backstory – the death of the dinosaurs via a giant asteroid, which inevitably will hit earth at some point again in the future. It's characters are well-defined as working class American heroes surmounting their humble, classless or physically challenged meagre lives.

Billy Bob Thornton, for example, who plays 'Truman’, the NASA team leader and good ol’ boy with penchant for breaking down the complicated science talk into simple metaphors like ‘it’s about the size of Texas’ exudes the same George W. Bush naive charm. And the idea that a bunch of working class oil drillers saving the world and besting their ubermensche Astronaut equivalents and the academic elite is underdog screenwriting 101.

And for a pre 9/11 film the flag waving patriotism is as extreme as anything Hollywood has produced - a conscious we’re-number-one attitude we hadn’t seen since the 80’s when Hollywood had to dumb down its politics to Democracy-good, Communism-bad simplicity.

At every turn the film is remarkably consistent with this tone and knowing its target audience. 'Armageddon' actually benefits from this simplicity, never attempting to be more serious than the mushy emotions of it's characters - the journey into space serving to get the characters to confront their fears and achieve the latent potential which 'real life' has stunted for them, as well as to craft a good montage scene or two.

Michael Bay’s rat-a-tat style which extends from his music video visuals, to his hectic editing style, to his dialogue creates a rhythm of hurried pace allows us to skim over the implausibilities, clichés, bad lines, and overwrought melodrama and unnecessary rah-rah patriotism. So for good and bad ‘Armageddon’ is astoundingly ambitious and for the brash, amphetamine-style cinema-brain of Michael Bay, this film will likely become his defining film.

‘Armageddon’ is available on Blu-Ray from Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Sunday, 25 April 2010

General Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait

General Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (1974) dir Barbet Schroeder
Documentary

***

By Blair Stewart

In 1974 a documentary crew including acclaimed filmmaker Barbet Schroeder and cameraman Nestor Almenderos went down to Uganda and recorded a murderous fool. Said fool was General Idi Amin, a man whose reign in his prosperous land cost thousands of lives while he mugged for the camera and waved at crocodiles he'd feed his enemies to.

As we are intially charmed by Amin's charismatic presence layers are unwound of Amin's true nature beyond the joviality, the touchstone of Forrest Whitaker's performance as Amin in "The Last King of Scotland". After being put into a position of military power by president Milton Obote (himself corrupt too, sadly) despite contrary proof of his competence, Idi ousted Obote in a coup d'etat and started kicking Uganda down a few notches. Along with unabashed cronism for his military buddies receiving government positions, Amin expelled Jews and Asians (80% of Uganda's wealth and trade) and culled his countrymen while making outlandish statements to the world. Before Amin went into forced exile, Schroeder won the documentarian lottery in sitting down with the dictator in 1974 for interviews and a staged highlight tour of the land.

As the interviewer asks about bizarre love letters to fellow world leaders and his anti-semitic stance based upon crackpot theories, the General laughs and jokes. The punchline was Uganda.

During these interviews, two crucial moments play out that sees beyond the facade of Amin. In one, we sit in on a cabinet meeting as Amin blathers on about his favorite subject, the importance of Ugandans loving him, when he accuses the Minister of Foreign Affairs of dissent. On the reaction shot of said Minister, Schroeder uses a freeze-frame to tell us this man will be killed within a fortnight. The effect on the viewer is no different than the Minister being executed right in his seat. In another passage Amin is lecturing Ugandan surgeons on profiteering amongst their ranks when a brave fellow representing the surgeons corrects him on who he should direct his concerns to. The expressions on the faces surrounding this man, along with the unsettling close-up of Amin listening, is ghoulish.

Barbet Schroeder has led a charmed life in cinema. Notable stateside for his critical and box office successes with "Reversal of Fortune" and "Single White Female", Schroeder had previously found international acclaim in the 1970's with the the Pink Floyd alligned "The Valley (Obscurred by Clouds)" and "More". He was a contemporary of the French New Wave directors as he has produced numerous works of Eric Rohmer, and now still finds time to act in films like "The Darjeeling Limited". His direction in "Idi Amin" is invisible outside of a few moments due to the control granted to his subject.

Unsurprisingly upon viewing an early cut of the documentary Amin had a group of French citizens in Uganda held hostage until Schroeder made changes to please the General. Only after Amin was run out of Uganda in 1979 did the film return to its correct version. Idi Amin spent his last days secluded in Saudi Arabia beyond justice, driving luxury cars and eating fast food. This film remains as meagre punishment.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Dollars ($)

Dollars ($) (1971) dir. Richard Brooks
Starring: Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Gert Frobe

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

“Dollars” has much in common with “The Anderson Tapes,” (a film I reviewed last week) – both are heist genre pictures from 1971 directed by respected Hollywood vets and newly reissued by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment under their ‘Martini Movies’ banner. Richard Brooks’ “Dollars” does everything right which Sidney Lumet’s “The Anderson Tapes” does wrong. Unlike Lumet’s sloppy film, Brooks’ is a precisely planned out heist dramatized with maximum charm, intrigue and suspense.

As is standard with the genre, the film’s three acts are broken into the three stages of a heist – the set-up/casing of the crime, the robbery and the getaway. Warren Beatty plays Joe Collins a bank security consultant who has recently revamped a Hamburg Banks’ vault with the latest security measures. His partner in crime is Dawn Divine (the delectable Goldie Hawn), a call-girl who has helped Joe choose their next victims. They include two sets of criminals who coincidentally hold their cash in Joe’s newly secured bank. It’s seems to be easy pickings for Joe, whose guile and attention to detail allows him to literally steal the money right from under their noses. But when the victims put two and two together quicker than Joe thinks he is sent fleeing for his life with the baddies hot on his tail.

Since “Dollars” was made in 1971 it unfortunately emulates the free form experimental style of that psychedelic era. Usually I can’t stand the erratic, non-sensical editing, those ugly crash zooms and silly and random sound design. While this influence is not entirely invisible to “Dollars” Brooks’ precise storytelling skills trumps these faults.

The psychedelia is apparent in the opening act, a lengthy set-up sequence which, through sloppy editing creates more confusion than intrigue. Characters are never introduced properly, we see exchanges of money, drugs, and meetings between gangsters, military men etc which are not explained and thus make no sense. But then Richard Brooks turns on the magic and the film gets good, really good.

Heist films live or die by their details and Brooks expertly thinks everything through and precisely edits the robbery to create maximum suspense. The heist is intelligently laid out from the common sense point of view. After Dawn calls in a fake bomb scare, Joe heroically grabs a valuable gold bar on display in the lobby and locks himself in the vault. Since it’s on a timelock no one can get in there for hours. And only the security camera can see inside. Of course Joe knows the timing of the motion controlled camera and commits the robbery in one-minute time intervals so his actions can’t be caught on camera.

Brooks also knows that audiences want their characters to get off with the money. This tension is made palpable in the third act, which is essentially one lengthy, and impressive chase/getaway scene.

At a full 120mins it’s about 15-20 mins too long, especially in the opening act, but once the action starts Brooks never lets up and the final hour is a breeze. Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn, two of the more charming of Hollywood stars in their day, or ever, anchor this smart and satisfying film. Enjoy.

“Dollars” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Other related postings:
THE ANDERSON TAPES
THE NEW CENTURIONS

Friday, 23 April 2010

Control Alt Delete

Control Alt Delete (2010) dir. Cameron Labine
Starring: Tyler Labine, Sonja Bennett, Geoff Gustafson, Keith Dallas, Alisen Down

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Cameron Labine’s directorial debut, opening this weekend in limited release in Vancouver is another entry in the long line of Canadian sex comedies. Everyone has a fetish, and Labine decides to give his lead character, Lewis, one of the sickest and most headturning - sex and desktop computers. Wait, let me clarify sex with desktop computers. It’s a wild ridiculous concept, something which could only be gotten away with in Canada or Scandinavia. Unfortunately, despite the concept the film has difficulties sustaining its humour beyond its festish raunchiness.

The running theme of “Control Alt Delete” is fetish and how our insecurities about them can cause us to do some pretty outrageous and silly things to cover them up. This is what happens to Lewis Henderson (Tyler Labine), our portly computer programmer hero. It’s December 1999 and Lewis works in a company devoted to fixing the “Y2K” bug for its clients. He’s successful at his job, but his domestic life is in shambles. Lewis can’t perform sexually with his girlfriend Sarah (“Ready or Not’s” Laura Bertram, whom see in a 69 position as the first shot in the film – awesome!). Lewis retreats to sneaky porn-watching in the middle of the night to jerk off. But not even that can get him off.

The only thing that turns him on is his computer. So why not fuck it? Lewis literally drills a hole in the side of his PC and fucks his computer. It’s one of the most ridiculously absurd moments in film I’ve seen. Lewis takes his fetish to work and starts drilling holes and screwing other computers in the office late at night. Meanwhile, Lewis starts up a relationship with the office wallflower Angela (Alisen Down) who proves to be more liberal in bed than her conservative demeanour would suggest. Lewis’ career becomes threatened though when the office douchebag who’s investigating the serial computer-fucker gets close to exposing Lewis. Lewis is forced to confront and accept his own responsibility and his own fetish in order to right everything that’s wrong.

Labine’s film appears to be born from the singular concept of a man fucking a computer. Unfortunately slapped onto this gag is a note for note recycling of Mike Judge’s “Office Space” which casts a shadow over the entire film. “Office Space” shouldn’t make other office comedies out of bounds, but there’s very little that differentiates the two films. In addition to bottling Judge's absurd/satirical tone, each character seems like an overly familiar fusion of Judge's characters, with some slight tweeks to the extreme. Angela, the office manager (Alisen Down), operates in the same manner as the excruciating Lumbergh. Down adds a nervous behavioral twitch, which, in it’s extremity becomes annoying very quickly. Lapine even has a running gag with the character’s names. Everyone’s last name ends in ‘son’- Frederickson, Gustafson, Medelsson – perhaps borrowing from the identity confusion gag in “American Psycho”.

The fetish gag is hung on a traditional romantic comedy structure. Thankfully lead actor Tyler Labine, known for his work on “Reaper”, is an oddly lovable hero (also check him out in 'Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil' this summer). Despite his reprehensible behaviour, including the computer-fucking, the screen loves the man and we desperately want him to get the girl and defeat his douchebag rival. His leading lady Sonja Bennett (last seen in “Young People Fucking”) gives Jane a more aloof personality, but she is also highly watchable and girl-next-door alluring.

“Control Alt Delete” is not this year’s “Young People Fucking”, but it’s good see there’s still more enthusiastic sex comedy filmmakers emerging in Canadian cinema. Enjoy.

'Control Alt Delete' opens theatrically this weekend in Vancouver only via E1 Entertainment.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The Guns of Navarone

The Guns of Navarone (1961) dir. J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, James Darren, Irene Pappas

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Arguably the 60’s wasn’t Hollywood’s greatest decade. Other than a handful of benchmarks (ie. ‘The Graduate’, ‘The Wild Bunch’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘Easy Rider’), to generalize, much of the decade was mired in unmemorable and forgettable post-studio system films. What did flourish during the period was the epic picture (‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Ben Hur’). While David Lean was winning awards and acclaim for his big movies, perhaps second to him, and much lesser well known is the career rise of fellow Briton J. Lee Thompson.

Throughout the late 50’s Thompson helmed a number of British action/adventure films, featuring expansive and spectacular outdoor locations, specifically ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ (1959) and ‘Northwest Frontier’ (1959). His workmanlike efficiency and calm British demeanour made him popular with his actors, perhaps the equivalent of a Clint Eastwood of today.

No film was more popular in his filmography than ‘The Guns of Navarone’, one of the original ‘men on a mission’ war films of the 60’s/70’s which would greatly influence Quentin Tarantino’s revision of the genre in ‘Inglourious Basterds’.

Based on the Alistair Maclean adventure novel, Thompson and producer Carl (‘Bridge on the River Kwai’) Foreman spared little expense in adapting it for maximum entertainment value. Gregory Peck’s commanding presence anchors the picture as Capt Keith Mallory, a rock climber turned solider recruited by the British to assemble a team of men to travel to the remote island of Navarone in the Aegean Sea, scale a giant rock face and destroy a pair of gigantic Nazis artillery guns which overlooks and protects the region. His team includes Capt. Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle, a ubiquitous figure in these films), Mallory’s rival climber Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a demolitions expert (David Niven), a Greek revolutionary, and two tough guy heavies for muscle.

As the team travels from British ground zero in Keros, Greece to Navarone, they find themselves engaged in a number of thrilling set pieces of high stake jeopardy – disguised as Greek fisherman they confront and fight off a suspecting Nazi patrol boat; they make it through a violent sea storm (a scene rendered with complete cinematic intensity and believability); a daring cliff face climb which tests Mallory and Stavros' trust between each other, and in addition to a number of other tense confrontations, the grand finale at the ‘guns of Navarone.’

Thompson/Foreman’s use of the exotic and stupendously beautiful Mediterranean locations is one of the film’s great legacies. So much so, the filmmakers gave the people of Greece a large and dedicated acknowledgement of thanks at the head of the picture. Thompson’s skills at composition and attentiveness to scale and production design creates a strong sense of ‘bigness’. Even when the men are just talking quietly near a rock or in a cave, the masculine bravado and wartime heroism compliments his full-bodied direction.

If anything, Thompson’s reliance on then-trendy ‘day-for-night’ cinematography results in a muddied and rather visually-dull third act. The penetration into the fortress housing the guns feels easy compared to other scenes of jeopardy throughout the rest of the picture. But Production designer Geoffrey Drake’s two massive phallic canons which stick out into the Aegean Sea do not disappoint, a formidable and worthy final opponent for these men on a mission.

‘The Guns of Navarone’ would end 1961 as the highest grossing film of the year and receive seven Oscar nominations include Best Picture and Best Director. The year after, J. Lee Thompson would direct ‘Cape Fear’ with Peck again, and number of other big action pictures in including my colleague Greg Klymkiw’s favourite ‘Taras Bulba’. By the 1980’s though, he would become a talented hack churning out Charles Bronson films before becoming fully obsolete. But what a remarkable career for a man most filmgoers have never even heard of.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Tombstone

Tombstone (1993) dir. George P. Cosmatos
Starring: Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Booth, Michael Biehn, Dana Delany

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

‘A good story well told’ the often-referenced axiom of Hollywood screenwriters is applicable to ‘Tombstone’. George P. Cosmatos’ unflashy, uncomplicated yet taut and engaging retelling of the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday/OK Corral story is wholly disposable yet wholly entertaining genre picture.

The cast is roll call of Hollywood b-listers, those character actors with good acting chops yet less screen charisma to command a picture on their own. In addition to the names listed above, look closely and you’ll find heavies, Michael Rooker, Stephen Lang, a pre-Slingblade Billy Bob Thornton, a pre-Wings Thomas Haden Church, a pre-Sex and the City John Corbutt, a pre-Lost Terry O’Quinn, and Frank Stallone!

Kurt Russell came very close to being an A-lister and perhaps ‘Tombstone’ was the height of his celebrity stature, or at least smack dab in the middle of his impressive 20 year career plateau. Though he’s much shorter than the actors who play his two brothers he embodies the confidence of Wyatt Earp admirably.

As written in this version, Earp is a man of contradictions, a former lawman, looking to get out of the peacemaking business and settle down with his family. With his reputation from Dodge City now legendary, wherever he goes people expect him to be on the side of justice. His impartiality only lasts so long, until a group of nasty cowboys start provoking the Earps and their successful gambling establishment. Even when his two brothers take a stand and get deputized as lawmen, Wyatt is resolute. But after some drunken posturing and a fight is declared at the infamous OK Corral, Wyatt finds his neutrality in conflict with his obligation to stand with and protect his family. As such Earp gets deputized, kicks ass at the OK Corral and becomes the new lawman in town.

Val Kilmer managed to rise above everyone else in this one, playing his Doc Holliday with pasty-white sickliness and drenched in buckets of sweat and a drunken James Dean swagger. His confrontation with Michael Biehn who exchange a clever tete-a-tete of gun slinging is a classic scene. Everyone else fits their roles like their worn-in leatherchaps: Sam Elliott as the morally conscious older brother, Bill Paxton as a whiny newbie, Powers Booth's commanding presence as the cowboy leader and Michael Biehn as the wiley assassin. If anything , girl-next-door cute Dana Delany as Earp's temptress is miscast, though she is lovely in that corset.

Despite my high star rating, ‘Tombstone’ won’t make anyone’s list of great Westerns (certainly not mine). Under the Disney/Touchstone magic wand it lacks the texture of say 'Unforgiven' or even the very flawed Kasdan/Costner film 'Wyatt Earp', but perhaps this is why ‘Tombstone’ succeeds. George Cosmatos delivers functional direction to an iron tight script, and when dramatized by his impressive cast of 90’s b-stars, everything just fits right.

‘Tombstone’ is available on Blu-Ray from Disney Studios Home Entertainment


Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Kick Ass

Kick Ass (2010) dir. Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong, Nicolas Cage

****

By Alan Bacchus

Cudos to the filmmakers who refused to ‘tone down’ this film and thus make it palatable to broader audiences and thus more box-office friendly. Unfortunately it’s a shame the film didn’t make more waves at the box office, because ‘Kick Ass’ is a great picture and by far the best of this new wave of self-reverential graphic novel filmic adaptations.

‘Kick Ass’ is as up-to-date to modern youth as possible. In an era of hyperfast information dissemination, the film smartly plugs in technological tools, youtube, skype, twitter and other viral social networking outlets, to tell its origin story of superheroes in the modern world - superheroes who are acutely aware of what an ‘origin story is’. It’s perhaps the only film that has used these tools as organicly as it does (Although if anything, with the prevalence of MySpace and the absence of Facebook, likely due to an exclusive product placement deal, loses the film some credibility points).

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a typical high schooler, he masturbates a lot, is self-conscious and fearful of his place in the teenage social strata and, of course, he voraciously reads comics and watches hip ultraviolent movies. While he and his pop culturally-aware buddies natter on about geek cultural benchmarks like John Woo and Scott Pilgrim, Dave questions the plausibility of a real world omic book hero. And so, after getting mugged he dons a wet suit, assumes the name ‘Kick Ass’ and goes out into the world as his own personal vigilante of justice. After his first altercation with crime gets videotapeded on a cellphone and then youtubed for the world to see, he becomes an internet sensation.

Meanwhile there’s a real vigilante out on the streets fighting some more nefarious criminals – a former defrocked cop and his 11 year old daughter affectionately named Big Daddy(Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Morentz) who pack more firepower, street smarts and real hardcore violent tendencies than Kick Ass could ever dream of. When they discover they have a mutual enemy in local gangster thug Frank D’Amico (baddie du jour, Mark Strong), Kick Ass, Hit Girl and Big Daddy team up forming a legitimate crime fighting team.

The intensity of action, violence, and relentless teen-aged angst transformed into cursive bloodletting seems like a cathartic reaction to get everything right that Hollywood has ever gotten wrong in the world of comic-to-film adaptations. As if Vaughn is making up for all the griping of the fanboys of the world for the collective disappointment at say, ‘The Punisher’ or ‘The Watchmen’.

Kick Ass achieves what the “Watchmen” couldn’t seem to do - self-analyze the influence of comics as an influential form of storytelling for today’s youth. Vaughn’s influences range from the naughty depiction of Luc Besson’s violent child assassin in training character in ‘Leon/The Professional’ to the archetypal deconstruction of the genre in ‘Unbreakable’ to action-influenced bullet-porn of ‘The Matrix’.

'Kick Ass' succeeds not because of its genre due diligence but its core relationships and despite its clever self-awareness we’re never let the audience off the hook for an emotional and melodramatic attachment to its characters There’s a death in this film, which, amid mondo bullets, blood, slo-mo jumping, explosions etc, manages to hit us so deeply with great sadness, it’s the moment in the film when as an audience member, you realize you’re watching something truly memorable.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Last Tango in Paris

Last Tango in Paris (1973) dir. Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Massimo Girotti

****

By Alan Bacchus

Anyone familiar with ‘Last Tango in Paris’ can’t really say or hear ‘pass the butter’ without a least a slight pause, double-take, or smirk of recognition to the now infamous line of dialogue uttered by Marlon Brando near the midpoint of this film. Of course, it refers to the use of that smooth, spreadable substance used by Brando’s character to lubricate a certain orifice on the body of the character of Jeanne, as played by Maria Schneider. After the butter is passed the scene then plays out with Brando’s character climbing on top of Jeanne and performing an act sodomy which would inexorably split these two voracious lovers.

Could you imagine Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks or Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon playing this scene and the effect on their image? Marlon Brando, on the other hand, had disdain for image, his role in pop culture and most of all of his celebrity endeavours. Marlon Brando, as soon as he came to Hollywood, achieved an instant fame, virtually unrivalled in the history of cinema – a persona shaped as much by his phenomenal acting talent as his rebelliousness. And so his role as Paul, the grieving widower who strikes up a torrid affair with said young Parisian girl, Jeanne, he’s shattering his image and daring his audience to hate him.

The character of Paul is one of the most self-destructive characters in cinema history. Like Nicolas Cage’s drunken death wish character in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, without saying those exact words, is on a collision course with death. In the magnificent opening shot we see Bertolucci’s camera push in on Paul screaming in pain. We’ll eventually come to learn that his wife had recently and inexplicably committed suicide. As he wanders aimlessly through the fabulous Parisian portico a spry young girl (Maria Schneider) skips on by. He’s instantly attracted to her carefree innocence, and so when they meet coincidentally in an empty rental apartment the thick sexual energy hanging in the air cause them to break out into spontaneous fornication.

As directed by Bertolucci, the sex is rough, dirty, sloppy, Paul barely even taking his clothes off, feebly fumbling to ‘stick it in her’, and then falling helplessly on the ground after climaxing. Never had we seen sex on screen like that – so unromantic, so primal.

This is the energy which moves the film forward. With very little traditional plot, Bertolucci achieves a heightened state of emotional transcendence, a flow of feelings and gestures fuelled by the energy of the two characters as well as the energy of the city of Paris. Much of the dialogue between Brando and Schneider is improvised, and arguably, not even improvised very well. We can see Brando even struggling to find words to express his character’s feelings. Paul’s admonition to Jeanne against using names with each other for instance, is an awkward scene, but with a rawness that captivates as much as it confounds.

Outside the apartment, movement is important. We rarely see Paul and Jeanne together, but when Jeanne plays around with her filmmaker boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Leaud) or when Paul performs the tasks of closing off her wife's estate, the characters seem to be in perpetual motion. And in time with Bertolucci’s expressive camera, stylistically the film flows like a couple of dancers moving in perfect synchronicity.

In 1973 we find Bernardo Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro working together at the height of the creativity. Perhaps less so with Storaro whose career flourished into the 1990’s but for Bertolucci, who can argue against his command of the camera in both ‘The Conformist’ (1971) and ‘Last Tango in Paris’ as nothing short of perfection? Bertolucci elegantly moves his camera to enhance the emotions of the characters, which lives and breathes as much as his characters. His colour palette, aided by Storaro’s lighting and Philippe Turloe’s art direction, finds even more depth in the character’s lives. Take the costuming of Paul and Jeanne. In their first sexual encounter Paul is wearing a dark tan overcoat, which virtually blends into the colour scheme of the apartment while Jeanne’s white furry jacket in contrast stands out as a freshly bloomed flower in a world pain and suffering.

While ‘The Conformist’ was clearly a ‘director’s movie’, Bertolucci freely gives up “Last Tango in Paris” to Brando alone. As mentioned above, from the day Brando first set foot on either a theatrical stage or a studio stage he’s had an aura of innate talent for the art of performance. His talent is not som much in in characterization, or even emotion, but a screen magnetism which cannot be taught or bottled. Even in Brando’s worst movies – ie. virtually the entire decade of the 60’s was one bomb after bomb – he is captivating. In “Last Tango” he is at his most alluring. Bertolucci and his cinematographer maximize this star power for greatest effect. And so, even when Marlon Brando says ‘pass the butter’ then sodomizes Maria Schneider using we never hate him for it, but pity him and never cease to love him.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) dir. Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellan, David Wenham, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis

***

By Alan Bacchus

Despite linking up in real time moments after the ending of the previous ‘Fellowship of the Ring’, Peter Jackson manages to give the 'Two Towers' enough of a distinctive tonal shift to differentiate it as its own film.

We’re introduced to a whole new bunch of characters in this second part. After the hillside fight with the Orcs which saw the death of the Boromir, the Fellowship finds themselves split up. Frodo and Sam have taken off by themselves with the ring to Mordor, the other hobbits, Merri and Pippin become captured by the Orcs to be taken to Isengard and the evil Saruman, and Aragon, Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli find themselves chasing after Merri and Pippin and fighting the larger battle of middle earth which is encroaching on the lands of men.

The most significant advancement in story is the inclusion of Gollum (Andy Serkis), that grotesquely deformed and malnourished creature which had been following the gang through the Mines of Moria. Gollum’s presence is a physical manifestation of the stakes that burden Frodo. As a former Hobbit himself, his transformation into Gollum the demon, is one possible future for Frodo if he doesn’t complete his task. As played by Andy Serkis, Gollum is still a phenomenal achievement – an advancement in performance-based special effects which leap-frogged over anything in George Lucas’s world of CG creatures and still looks believeable 8 years later. The full effect of Serkis’ performance on the character is seen in the special features where we see the physical strenuousness it took to make Gollum flesh and blood.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the Ent sequence which features Pippin and Merri being carried through the Fangorn Forest by a talking tree for half the picture. It’s the weakest special effects in the series by far, a rudimentary large scale model + blue screen backdrop + some CGI which looked bad then and even worse now. These sequences interspersed with the actions of Frodo and his gang, Aragon, and Gandalf stop the film dead.

Stylistically, the tonal shift is complimented with an aesthetic change in colour palette. Gone are the lush greens of the shire and the blue glow of Galadriel’s forest world, instead favouring the dull grey Gollum’s diseased skin and indistinct browns of the depressed environment of Rohan. And we no longer get the cinematic pauses to admire the scenery, the romanticism of the land and creatures giving way to a greater sense of danger and urgency.

Jackson admirably ramps up the spectacle of the climax in the ‘Two Towers’ above The Fellowship of the Ring’. I remember originally questioning why Jackson’s climax was so restrained. By the end of the entire trilogy Jackson’s escalation of epic scale was the right move. And so, the final Helm’s Deep battle in TT, it makes for the Army vs. Army battle we never really saw in FOTR. That said, the best part of that scene is the build up, the suspense rung out by Jackson during the preparations. Arguably Jackson’s execution of the fight is more adequate than glorious. As a director of ‘action’ there’s a certain panache missing from his mise-en-scene, a panache which say, Mel Gibson exhibited in “Braveheart”.

In the final chapter action and emotion would be brought to an even higher level and grandeur, arguably at the expense of the fantastical sense of wonder from the first film and less so with this second one, but more on that later...

“The Lord of the Rings” is available on Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Art and Copy

Art and Copy (2009) dir. Doug Pray
Documentary

**

By Alan Bacchus

There's a feeling of desperation to the DVD release of Art and Copy. I was in Sundance when it premiered, with a certain degree of hype, no less. Nowhere, that I can recall in the then infinitesimal marketing push was a comparison to Mad Men made.In general, it didn't premiere as well as predicted and so a year later suddenly the DVD cover features a distinctly Saul Bass-esque cover art with the quote "The Real Mad Men." I wonder if the admen in this film would have approved of this campaign? I doubt it, because the people Doug Pray has assembled to provide discourse on the nebulous and nefarious advertising business seem to be producing high art.

It's part of the foul stench of self-congratulation that plagues this film. So much so, from beginning to end, I couldn't figure out what this movie was actually about. It's certainly not about the characters, a group of intellectually superior millionaires patting themselves on the back for making their clients a lot of money. Granted, there's been some great art produced in their advertising business.

Indeed, the mad men (and women) of this film do shed some light on how memorable campaigns such as "Got Milk" were born, but there's so much distance from the nuts and bolts of these stories that we don't really learn much. The marketing of Tommy Hilfiger and the Nike "Just Do It" slogan are also great stories, but Pray only grazes the surface with a few sound bites and trivial titbits of information from his subjects. But certainly not enough to truly understand the effect marketing has on our culture, or what kind of brainpower it takes to get people to move one way when they're pointed in the other direction.

Rarely does anyone ever mention how many hamburgers or Volkswagens were sold because of their campaigns, as if these people have forgotten that advertising is about selling people shit, and mostly shit that they don't need. As such, 'Art and Copy' is just too esoteric and tonally oblique for anyone outside the advertising business itself to truly appreciate.


Friday, 16 April 2010

Never Take Candy From a Stranger

Never Take Candy From a Stranger (1960) dir. Cyril Frankel
Starring: Gwen Watford, Patrick Allen, Felix Aylmer, Niall McGinnis, Bill Nagy, Michael Gwynn and Budd Knapp

***

By Greg Klymkiw

In the movies, Canada never gets a break. As noted in Pierre Berton's almost pathologically well-researched (and very funny) book "Hollywood's Canada", he outlines Canada's penchant for offering up its anus to any two-bit non-Canadian huckster in exchange for the equivalent of coloured beads. In the case of Berton's book, the Canadian government gives away its aspirations to manufacture an indigenous film culture (save for National Film Board of Canada documentaries) with the promise from all the major studios in Hollywood that Canada will be featured prominently as a setting in Hollywood films to promote tourism to Canada.

The product yielded from this was mostly B-movie westerns that portrayed voyageurs as boozing lechers looking primarily for white women to rape (since they get "it" easily from Native women), peaceful Canadian Plains Indians as blood-thirsty psychos wildly attacking wagon trains, geographical locations completely unlike what they were in reality and pole-up-the-butt Mounties bent on "getting their man". Burton details over 600 such films.

Berton even gives examples of how Hollywood gets their fingers into the pie of Britain's indigenous film industry during the "quota quickie" period (where unscrupulous Brits generated micro-budgeted trash to appease the government quotas, yet still make money) by hiring a puppet Canadian to be the "producer", use Hollywood-based British talent - on and behind the camera - and then to collect the financing and profits. This was an especially easy way to exploit Britain as well as Canada since anything made in Canada, counted as British, since Canada was essentially a colony belonging to the monarchy.

"Never Take Candy From a Stranger" is a low-budget Hammer production from Britain. It's not a western, nor is it a British "quota quickie".

It is, however, set in Canada.

And while, as the film's narrator tells us, this story could be set anywhere, we will see the tawdry events unfold in Canada.

And what, you ask, is the tawdry event?

CHILD MOLESTATION!!!!!

Yes indeed - child molestation in Canada! Eastern Canada, to be precise. What the makers of the film mean by Eastern Canada is somewhat unclear since that would place the film in the rugged, rocky landscape of inbred territory in the Maritimes. Funny though, it looks like the backlot of Bray Studios - in Mother England, not in the Dominion of Canada. An Eastern Canada setting in the fiddle playing environs of the Maritimes would also mean that the child molestation was being carried out by Roman Catholic priests upon young boys in orphanages and troubled-boy schools. As well, none of the law enforcement people in the film appear to be the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but are in fact, a lot like sheriffs and state troopers from the good old Red, White and Blue below the 49th parallel.

No matter, Canada it is. Britain has always had a long history of misrepresenting their own colony in the Great White North. One of my favourites is Powell-Pressburger's "The 49th Parallel" which depicts Nazis entering Canada via U-Boat through Hudson's Bay, encountering a Quebecois fur trapper played by Laurence Olivier, dining in the swinging city of Winnipeg, hooking up with some Mennonites on the prairies, encountering a war-weary non-patriot played by Leslie Howard and finally, an American soldier played by the Canadian actor Raymond Massey.

But, I digress.

We open with little Sally Carter (genuinely well played by Gwen Watford) as she plays with a new chum. Sally is a new arrival to this Eastern Canadian enclave of perversion. The gentle rough-housing between the two girls leads to Sally losing 35¢ in the grass. She laments that this was to be her candy allowance for the week. Her all-knowing new friend helpfully offers to take her to a place where they can both get all the free candy they want. Lo and behold, just behind them is a creepy old mansion and from a top window we discover they are being spied on by a foul, dirty old man, Clarence Olderberry (Felix Aylmer).

Later that evening, Sally admits to her parents that she and her friend went to visit a kind old man for candy and stripped naked for him and did a little dance. Dad (Patrick Allen) is furious. He is the new principal of the school in this small town (though it looks reasonably urban) and he is a square-jawed type looking for justice. When he visits the local constabulary, he's told not to press charges since the old man really didn't "do anything" to the children. They also mention that the old man is essentially the patriarch of the town - responsible for starting its chief industry. He's been a highly influential citizen and well respected. Besides, the sheriff/state-trooper/constable/RCMP-officer adds, Olderberry's son, Clarence Jr. (CANADIAN ACTOR Bill Nagy) will use all his power to make their lives miserable and defend his Dad which will end in complete acquittal for the disgusting, slavering old lecher who, as it turns out, has quite a long history of child molestation that's been hushed up.

Peter is even more intent than ever to press charges and go to trial. From there, we go to an extremely intense courtroom battle, followed by a beautifully directed sequence of nail-biting suspense.

Canadian flubs aside, I really have to say this movie was a great find. The scenario as depicted more-than-adequately, depicts how child molestation was, for far too long, ignored, repressed and misunderstood. As well, far beyond its time period, it shockingly and frankly depicts the horrors that victims of sexual violence go through during a trial where unscrupulous defence lawyers will pin blame and shame upon them instead of their repulsive clients who deserve a bullet between the eyes rather than the mollycoddling afforded to them.

Cyril Frankel's direction is lean and mean. In addition to directing endless hours of British cop, crime and sci-fi TV series, he also delivered one of the most terrifying and sadly underrated Hammer Horror pictures of all time, "The Witches" as well as "The Trollenberg Terror", one of the trippiest genre blenders you'll ever see. "Never Take Candy From a Stranger" barrels along with the force of a souped-up GTO engine and the suspense set piece at the end is worthy of J. Lee Thompson's school "chase" between the Bob Mitchum's brutal rapist and Greg Peck's daughter in "Cape Fear". It might actually dazzle further as certain twists and turns during this final sequence in "Never Take Candy From a Stranger" had me on the edge of my seat until the devastating resuts. Add to the stew some truly rich cinematography from the legendary Freddie ("The Straight Story", "The Elephant Man", his first Oscar win " Sons and Lovers" and his second Oscar win "Glory") Francis and you have an intelligent, suspenseful, powerful and slam-bang little thriller.

On a side note, one of Canada's greatest stage, television and voice veterans, Budd Knapp, appears in a small supporting role. Mother England was always happy to toss us colonial savages a few bones.

"Never Take Candy From a Stranger" is currently available on the great new 3-disc DVD set entitled "Icons of Horror - Hammer Studios" from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Minority Report

Minority Report (2002) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Cruise, Max Von Sydow, Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell, Peter Stormare, Tim Blake Nelson

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Oh what promise... I remember the excitement this combination of story, star, genre and director conjured up when first announced. Steven Spielberg doing a pure sci-fi action picture with then respectable, pre-couch jumping Tom Cruise, from a story by high concept master Philip K. Dick. Unfortunately Spielberg’s inability to edit himself results in a needlessly engorged and extended movie which goes on half an hour too long.

For two thirds it’s a marvellously executed genre-film. John Anderton (Tom Cruise) as a near future cop who leads a team of pre-cognition crime solvers who use a trio of soothsaying human vegetables to predict murders before they happen. Using images retained from these fractured memories and a pretty darn cool interactive editing system John becomes a 21st century sleuth. But when precogs predict the next murder to be committed by Anderton himself, it’s the hunter being hunted. The chase is on, with a number of thrilling set pieces pushing the film forward toward its overly twisty glorified whodunit mystery.

‘Minority Report’ succeeds a technical exercise and an excuse for Spielberg to craft a number of creative and visually stunning set pieces. None better than the opening scene when we see John execute his skills at cyber sleuthing, running, chase, tackling. Spielberg’s uses some familiar Hitchcockian cinema techniques to ratchet up the suspense of whether John can make it time to save a cheating housewife and her lover from getting knifed to death by her vengeful husband.

When John finds himself on the run, Spielberg engineers at least two more stunning action sequences. One, a very long running and car chase which has John fighting off his old colleagues zipping around in jet packs and ending in a fist fight in a robotically controlled automotive plant. The other features John getting an eye transplant at the hands of a seedy underground doctor played memorably by Peter Stormare and then being tracked by a group of robots spider sentries.

Unfortunately everything else in between these scenes creatively dull and tedious. Virtually all of the dialogue is information and exposition about who is who and what the fancy gadgets do what. Colin Farrell’s presence as a devout internal affairs wonk who is morally opposed to the procedure of imprisoning people before they commit crimes engages in some interesting existential discourse, but under the blockhead writing and Spielberg’s hurried direction, these themes are conveyed to us with zero subtlety.

The actors talk as wooden as their dialogue. Max Von Sydow, assuming the slippery and thus evil European bigwig role is just awful. Tim Blake Nelson who plays the quirky archivist is robotic and just plain creepy for no good reason. Lois Smith as the elderly woman who created the precognition system has only exposition to spew out and has much trouble masking this dubious narrative purpose.

If the movie ended squarely on that one hour and 45min mark when John discovers he is indeed the murderer he didn’t think he could be, Spielberg would have had a perfect ending. Killing Leo Crow not only puts the film and its lead on a precarious moral tightrope, it hits home the dark sci-fi cynicism which makes Dick’s material so thought-provoking. But Spielberg lets everyone off the hook and neutralizing this moment with another twist which sends the film in a completely different direction. The revenge of John’s son’s death represents the highest emotional gravitas for the lead character, and so when it’s revealed this as a red herring for a considerably lesser significant betrayal by John’s boss for political reasons, it’s a buzzkill of monumental proportions.

The final 30 mins involves so much catch-up, backtracking, and exposition it’s a strain for everybody involved to keep up. And by the end, a good film is wasted by Spielberg’s inability to say cut, print, call it a day.

‘Minority Report’ is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) dir. Philip Kaufman
Starring: Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall, Luke Askew

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Philip Kaufman is a venerable old filmmaker, a career which spans 40 years with a variety of memorable and culturally significant films. Perhaps ‘The Right Stuff’ is his most famous film – certainly his best. But scouring his filmography you’d see a some sci-fi, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1978), the Daniel Day-Lewis starrer, ‘The Unbearable Likeness of Being’, ‘Quills’, ‘Henry and June’, of course, his screenplay credit on ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

His breakout film ‘The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid’, though a flawed, has enough sparkles of greatness to warrant our attention.

The title refers to famous failed bank robbery by the James/Younger gang. This is not a Jesse James film though, but a vehicle for Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger, the charismatic leader of the gang. After a violent gunbattle with the Pinkertons, the gang finds themselves split up – Jesse James and his brother taking half the gang to Northfield to violate an amnestry agreement with the government and rob their new bank, and Younger who apparently is working with the Northfield bankers to trap James. Once in Northfield, it’s a doublecross and a reunification of James and Younger to take down the bank. But thanks to the new fangled time lock device installed the gang runs into some major problems and soon finds themselves under siege by the citizens of the town who band together to protect their own money.

Kaufman’s dank and dirty environment replete with muddy outhouses, a grim and psychotic depiction of James by Robert Duvall and the especially bloody treatment of the violence positions the film in the revisionist subgenre of Westerns. Part Altman, part Peckinpah, part (Arthur) Penn, it’s a conscious and admirable attempt by Kaufman to show us another side of the mythologized James gang. Unfortunately Walter Hill did this story monumentally better with ‘the Long Riders’ just 8 years later, a film which renders Kuafman’s film virtually irrelevant.

There’s an awful 'television' quality to much of it - specifically Paul Frees' voiceover which unnecessarily sets the scene with Dukes of Hazard-like hokiness. The only line missing is ‘previously on ‘The Great Northfield Massacre' . Add in Dave Grusin's cooky and bumbling country score and we’re in Bonanza territory. And lastly the title sequence featuring bubbly yellow font put the audience in a completely different tone of film to what Kaufman needs to establish off the top.

What we can still cherish is Cliff Robertson who is fantastic as Cole Younger, and so it was no surprise to see he was one of the producers, and thus, likely a passion project for him. The actual Raid sequence is superbly directed - not quite 'Long Riders' artistic grandiosity, but Kaufman’s use of the plummeting rainstorm echoes the famous waterworks in Akira Kurosawa’s ‘The Seven Samurai’ climax. Robert Duvall is grossly miscast, or perhaps grossly misdirected. As an unintelligible hillbilly psychopath he lacks all the lustre the name Jesse James conjures up. Perhaps it was by design from producer/actor Robertson who didn’t want his character overshadowed.

For Western genre fans, 'The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid' is still essential viewing as a decent benchamrk in the evolution of the Western.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Lord of the Rings (1978)

Lord of the Rings (1978) dir. Ralph Bakshi
Voices by: Christopher Guard, William Squire, Michael Scholes, John Hurt, Simon Chandler, Anthony Daniels

***

By Alan Bacchus

Timed well with the Blu-Ray release of the Peter Jackson version of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is the first screen incarnation of the story, the Ralph Bakshi animated version. It runs 132mins, which is less running time than any one of Jackson’s Rings movies, and sure it ends on an unsolved cliffhanger, and sure it condenses much of the dense text of Tolkien, but for non-Tolkien devotees for such as I, it makes for a surprisingly well told ‘abridged’ (though aesthetically-dated) version of the story.

Bakshi's version represents 'Fellowship of the Ring' and 'The Two Towers' books, with the misfortune of having an unsolved cliff-hanger ending. The film was not a success and thus, the sequel and final chapter of the story was never completed.

Ralph Bakshi's unmistakable animation style, for the most part, creates a unique mood and tone for the story. And looking back at the time period when serious sci-fi and fantasy were non-existent, Bakshi’s (time-constrained) reverence to the material and his commitment to telling an adult fantasy picture is a remarkable achievement and decades ahead of his time.

To create a sense of serious realism Bakshi used rotoscoping techniques to animate his characters. Rotoscoping is a rarely used cinematic art form which involves hand drawing over top of live action footage, frame by frame. The result is a fluidity in motion difficult to achieve through traditional handdrawn cell animation. Of course, this meant that Bakshi had to film the entire movie with real actors, sets, locations, props, horses etc before animating the film. Again, a remarkable achievement.

Bakshi’s film is actually enhanced by the presence of Peter Jackson’s film. For those who haven't read the novels, we get to use Jackson’s near full text adaptation as a reference point to Bakshi’s abridged version. And so as the film clips along with a sharp pace, plot wise, we realize how little Bakshi’s version differs from Jackson’s. Credit to writers Chris Conkling and Peter Beadle who manage to squeeze in all the major set pieces of the books, and getting in and out of each scene at the right time to conserve precious running time, arguably at the expense of the ‘breathing room’ and internal reflection of the characters.

The film opens with the same voiceovered preamble to the rings forged for Men, Elves, Dwarves and of course, the one ring to rule them all. Then there’s the introduction to the Shire, Bilbo, Gandalf and Frodo. The one major difference involves the timeline of Frodo’s possession of the ring. In Bakshi’s version Bilbo gives Frodo the ring, which he holds for 17 years before Gandalf returns to send him on his way to Rivendale. Jackson’s condensing of Tolkien’s timeline creates a greater sense of urgency and instinctual action which benefits these scenes better.

Once on his way the events which befall Frodo are scene for scene exact to Jackson’s version, save for the elimination of the Arwen character who brings Frodo to Rivendale. The midpoint of the film is the Rivendale sequence and thus, the second half condenses the second half of 'Fellowship of the Ring' AND 'The Two Towers' into just over an hour of screen time. Bakshi even manages to trump the emotional gravitas of Boromir’s death. While Jackson’s overloaded this scene with exaggerated music and melodrama, Bakshi’s is arguably the more elegant and genuine of the two.

While there’s innovation in Bakshi’s style of animation, it’s also inconsistent aesthetically, and for lack of a better word dated. The characters are a mix of comic strip simplicity and the rotoscoped realism. Legolas for instance looks like he's pulled from TV Fun House, or an episode of He-Man, while the Aragon is drawn like the brooding hero he should be. What we miss most from Bakshi’s style is the details of landscape and the environment which seem glossed over likely for budgetary purposes. As such the characters often seem to be moving through matted backdrops instead of a fully realized alternate world.

Regardless of your opinion of this version, Bakshi’s cultural importance in cinematic animation is never questioned. The Blu-Ray contains a decent half hour documentary looking back at Bakshi’s bold career which up to him creating ‘Lord of the Rings’ – a rebellious career which bucked all traditions of the genre.

'Lord of the Rings' is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video

Monday, 12 April 2010

Worst Moments in the Spielberg Canon

You’re watching a Steven Spielberg movie, one of the cinema’s greatest filmmakers and you’re enjoying the picture, and suddenly you double-take, ‘oh no, did I just see that?’ You rewind the DVD, or VHS cassette and watch some a bunch of costumed children skateboarding through conveniently placed ramps around the Peter Pan neverland set. This is one of those moments where Spielberg ‘goes wrong’ – a momentary lapse in judgment which against, the mostly magnificence of his body of work, sticks out like amateur hour.

His filmography is peppered these moments, which makes it worth compiling and discussing.


Monkey Swinging in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS

There's a few cringe moments in the latest Indiana Jones film, but none more awful than the moment Shia Lebeouf's character, during a hectic chase sequence through the jungle, starts swinging on vines like Tarzan to catch up to the baddies.


Gymnastics Routine in THE LOST WORLD (1997)

I could have put the moment in “The Lost World” – in general, the unfairly trounced Jurassic sequel – when we first see Dr. Malcolm’s adopted child emerge rambunctiously into the picture and run into his arms. I think there was a collective groan by everyone – throwing a child into the situation inevitably invites childish scenes. Indeed we get it at the end when Spielberg completes Kelly Malcolm’s (played by Vanessa Lee Chester) character arc by having her use her failed gymnastic skills on a conveniently placed high bar to kick out the oncoming velociraptor out of the shack.


Going Inside the Mothership in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND

The story behind the multiple editions of Close Encounters is well known. Despite the enormous success of the film in 1977, Spielberg felt rushed and that he didn’t get his ‘director’s cut’. Spielberg managed to convince Columbia to give him money to shoot an additional scene inside the big ol’ mothership as an added bonus to get people into the theatres again. Even Spielberg admitted, it was a wrong decision, a scene which extends and essentially ruins the flow of the majestic otherworldly and spiritual finale.


“I am free!!” – AMISTAD

Who could forgot the moment in the final act court room trial when Djimon Honsou stands up so dramatically from his bench and loudly proclaims in broken English, ‘I am Free! I am Free!’


Kamikaze CPR in EMPIRE OF THE SUN

'Empire of the Sun' had the makings of a great movie. For two thirds, the journey of Jim Graham (based on author JG Ballard’s real experiences) from the upper class British privilege to Japanese war prisoner is a remarkable film, with some of Spielberg best scenes and characters. Until the third act… throughout Spielberg shows us a parallel story of a Japanese youth of similar age who like Jim is smitten with airplanes and thus recruited into the air force. After a failed Kamikaze mission Jim tries to revive the boy life’s from death resulting some awful over-the-top melodrama.

Skateboarding Lost Boys in HOOK

Easily Spielberg’s worst movie, a shameless attempt to rekindle the childhood ‘magic’ some had claimed he had lost while he was making more mature films in the 80’s. The introduction of his version of the JM Barrie’s lost boys just proves how out of touch his sensibilities were with the youth of then.


Alien/Robots in AI: Artificial Intelligence

You’d think he would have learned from his mistakes on Close Encounters, yet when he came to write and direct AI, Spielberg essentially ruined one of his best films by needlessly extending a fine two hour film by another 20mins. After Gigilo Joe is captured by the corporate robotmakers, David is left in the helicopter, which subsequently crashed into the water and floats to the bottom. If the film ended there Spielberg had a decent and profound revelation of David’s self-acknowledgement as a robot. The 4th act set years into the future with hyper-intelligent robots and David’s revived memories of his mother which only last one day is contrived nonsense.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Assassins

Assassins (1995) dir. Richard Donner
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, Julianne Moore

*1/2

Review by Reece Crothers

Part of the continuing series In Praise of Richard Donner

This is one of those perfect storm movies where everything is wrong, from the director to the stars, to the composer, and even the screenwriter doing the rewrite. Everyone involved seems out of their comfort zone and awkwardly struggling to find sure footing. The picture is ridiculously overlong, joyless, unfocused and badly dated. Like the technology it over-relies on to tell it's story, it was already obsolete before it even saw release, a film hopelessly stuck in 1995, the year after Tarantino changed the whole game.

By the mid 90s Quentin's influence had spread like wildfire through all kinds of pictures, but the ones that were really wrecked by the spell 1994's "Pulp Fiction" cast over audiences, were the male action hero pictures. Stallone and his pectoral contemporary Schwarzenegger looked like something out of the 50's once the cool, pop-culture-obsessed, violent, sickos and cowboys of "Reservoir Dogs", "True Romance", and "Pulp Fiction" were let loose on cinema screens. The Joel Silver special, the wise-cracks and big explosions formula, was beginning to feel like a relic of the cold war. Only Bruce Willis would survive and prosper in the ensuing shake-up, largely due to his roles in "Pulp Fiction" and "The Last Boyscout" (directed by "True Romance" helmer Tony Scott) and later Robert Rodriguez' s "Sin City"(Guest directed by Tarantino). Stallone's only blip in an otherwise fading career-trajectory throughout the 90s was his Miramax-produced picture "Copland", and as we all know, Miramax is the "house that Quentin built".

Sly's actual performance isn't bad, really, just uninteresting. And he looks dorky. Not in a fun, ironic, Rambo-wears-a-headband kind of way, but in a Banana Republic, shirts-tucked-into-your-high-waisted-khakis kind of way. What would "Cobra" say about this? Somebody get this man some aviators.

Banderas does what he can with an uninteresting villain, but whenever he is on screen you can't help but wish you were watching Rodriguez's "Desperado" (released the same year) instead, a film that knew how to use his charm and physicality to great effect. Here, he is just swarthy.

Interesting to note is the performance of Julianne Moore, not yet come into herself, still waiting for P.T. Anderson's "Boogie Nights" to ignite her career. She floundered early on in the decade with forgettable parts in pictures like "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle" and "Body Of Evidence" but made a strong impression in "Benny & Joon" as Aiden Quinn's love interest, and with a brief cameo in "The Fugitive". I would bet she signed on to do this before she garnered arthouse acclaim in Altman's "Short Cuts" or Louis Malle's "Vanya On 42nd Street" the previous year. Despite those pictures, it was P.T. Anderson who best knew how to highlight Moore's talents. She has never been as good in any other picture as she was in "Boogie Nights", but she was so good in that film that no one seems to mind. Here, in the Donner picture, we see evidence of the kind of overly serious and miscalculated performances she would give later on in movies like "Next" and "The Forgotten". She is so awkward in her manner, her beauty so fragile, that like everybody else in the picture, she just doesn't fit.

The story, about a good assassin (Stallone) and a bad one (Banderas) going all "Highlander" on each other in a cat and mouse game over their latest "mark" (Moore), occasionally sparks to life in the action sequences and we are reminded that this is indeed from the man with the megaphone on classics like "Superman" and "Lethal Weapon", but those moments are far too few and despite the promise of an early scene that recalls the famous "Look into your heart..." speech from "Miller's Crossing", the picture feels like it should end 40 minutes before it actually does.

The spec script was written by The Wachowski Brothers and picked up by Producer Joel Silver at the same time as The Wachowski's "The Matrix". Silver gave the script to his friend and frequent collaborator, Richard Donner, one of those old-fashioned action-directors who must've hated Pulp Fiction at the time, and Dick, bless his heart, brought in Brian Helgeland to rewrite it. Helgeland has been involved in some good pictures ("Payback"), some great ones ("L.A. Confidential") and some awful ones ("The Order", anyone?). His writing is incredibly stiff and sluggish and occasionally a film is great despite his contribution (Eastwood's direction and the performances of the cast in "Mystic River" cover up a poor adaptation of Dennis Lehane's brilliant novel). The Wachowski's are no Robert Towne but if they wrote this back in their Matrix 1 days, I would bet their script was much more entertaining that what Helgeland did to it. There is a rumour that when producer Joel Silver saw the Wachowski's directorial debut "Bound", he apologized for his part in "Assassins" and let them do "The Matrix" their way. And the game was changed again. For The Matrix whetted the appetites of an audience now craving more and more effects, more and more spectacle. The blockbuster killed the indie by the end of the decade. Just as it had done at the end of the 70's. The 70's belonged to Coppola, the 80s to Spielberg. And so it goes. As we enter a new decade we can only hope the next game changer is ready to throw down, because shit is getting stale again, and while nobody was minding the store Michael Bay has been having too much fun.