Monday, 31 May 2010
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto
By Alan Bacchus
Lately we’ve finally started to see some of the Steven Spielberg pictures appear on Blu-Ray. Unfortunately it’s the later post 2000 films when his deal with Paramount had that particular studio working his Dreamworks home video releases. It’s been a fun looking back on these latter films, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report and now War of the Worlds. Each of these films seemed to look better upon first viewing than its subsequent screenings. Maybe it’s because Spielberg’s pictures work best on the big screen. Well, considering ALL films look better on the big screen than on television this isn’t a valid excuse.
Like Minority Report War of the Worlds works best as a series of set pieces with another another crack at reconciling Spielberg's own fractured childhood home life shoehorned in. It worked with Close Encounters and ET, but years later the domestic plotting feels unnatural and overwritten. Once upon a time this was Steven Spielberg’s greatest gift of filmmaking, other than his technical proclivity, his ability to pull naturalistic and warm performances. But over the past 15 years or so, the direction of his actors have become ice cold and stiff - every time someone opens their mouth we get dialogue written to be natural, but in that effort coming off as completely unnatural.
As for War of the Worlds, its best viewed as a technical exercise par excellence and none better than set piece #1. The magnificent build up to the invasion is expertly crafted. It’s a scene which has been done time and time again and most recently time and time again by that Spielberg wannabe hack Roland Emmerich. Under Spielberg's eye for spectacle these scenes are as tense and suspenseful as anything before it. Spielberg wonderfully foreshadows the destruction of the elevated freeway explosion which closes off the first act. The gigantic concrete structure dominates his frames in the opening scene teasing us as to how the structure will come into play (and be destroyed in magnificent fashion) later in the film.
There's a distinct feel for Spielberg's 70's, 80's films in here as well. This is due to Janusz Kaminsky's unique photograhy. It’s certainly one of his best looking films. Through some in camera or post-production process he achieves a wonderfully textured grainy look, a markedly different visual palette to today’s crisp and robust High Definition-shot films.
Spielberg’s reverence to the famed original George Pal version of War of the Worlds, a film which arguably set the bar for alien invasion films, and in my humble opinion, has yet to the surpassed. Admirably Spielberg exercises some restraint creatively and is more reverent to the HG Wells and Orson Welles version of the story than other filmmakers would be. Like the Welles radio program, Spielberg doesn’t expand the world beyond the perspective of these characters. We don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world other than news reports. Spielberg’s camera compliments this as well, using long takes with an expressive roaming camera putting the audience in the point of view of his characters.
And miraculously he keeps his film under two hours.
War of the Worlds disappoints because it’s not hard to imagine what this picture could have been if he directed it in the 70’s or 80’s. It has the look, but not the heart. The fact is, Steven Spielberg is rather tame now, no longer the fresh enthusiastic wunderkind of his youth. As an older married man with kids and maybe even grandkids, the folly of youth and his instinctual edge is long gone. Spielberg has even admitted, if he made Close Encounters of the Third Kind now, he wouldn’t have had Roy Neary leave his family for the aliens. Spielberg is also let down in these films by an aging John Williams, whose scores have become increasing indistinct and forgettable.
I think Mr. Spielberg is badly in need of a reboot. It wouldn’t be too hard. Here’s how to do it:
1) Ditch his awful screenwriting collaborator David Koepp and buy an awesome spec script from the Hollywood black list
2) Take a break from Janusz Kaminsky and hire Christopher Doyle or Harris Savides
3) Send John Williams into retirement and some other young composer looking for a break
4) Keep the running time to 90mins
'War of the Worlds' is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment
Sunday, 30 May 2010
Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker AKA Mr. Ed the Talking Horse, Kristin Davis AKA C.J. the Orangutan, Cynthia Nixon AKA Francis the Talking Mule, Kim Cattrall AKA Willy the Whale, Chris Noth AKA Ben the Rat and Liza Minnelli AKA Clarabelle Cow
By Greg Klymkiw
A few minutes into "Sex and the City 2", you might find yourself wondering, "who let the dogs out?"
Well, look in one direction and one direction only - Michael Patrick King, the worst camera jockey (he doesn't deserve the title "director") who has ever inflicted his utter lack of taste and talent upon the silver screen. Once again, those four dishrags who somehow managed to catch the attention of movie-goers the world over in the horrendous "Sex and the City" (based on the TV series I have never bothered to watch) are on the prowl and those of us who dare sit through all 146 minutes will have been deprived of considerable and precious time on this Earth.
Okay, let me repeat one sad fact: 146 MINUTES!!!
146 minutes in which nothing much happens save for shopping, whining, complaining, shopping, lusting, shopping, travelling, shopping, riding camels, dining, drinking, talking utter bone-headed nonsense, uttering lame double entendres and shopping.
So, where to begin?
Oh, who cares?
No... that's not fair. I am here to review the movie. I must continue.
Let's see if I can remember anything.
Have I mentioned there is... shopping?
Ah yes, I have.
Well, there are a few things I remember.
Early on in the movie, one thing I shall never forget is the sad appearance of Liza Minnelli who, playing herself, is presiding over the gay wedding of those two delightful fellows whose names I can't remember (because I have never bothered to watch the series and I have successfully repressed the first feature). Now, the notion of Liza officiating at a gay wedding is, in theory, not that horrendous an idea. Unfortunately, she can barely utter her lines and we are forced to look at her face which is clearly suffering the ravages of the sort of plastic surgery that, by comparison, renders the hatchet jobs on the likes of Joan Rivers and/or Phyllis Diller so perfectly, that one can even imagine conjuring up their mugs to keep an erection going when ploughing some seed into a triple-bagger.
The gay wedding sequence itself - replete with a choir of gorgeous hunks singing "Sunrise, Sunset", delightful white bridges over ponds and fountains as well as, uh... swans, is enough to make one think that such a wedding reception might well be a lot of fun for gay OR straight couples. However, whatever magic this sequence could have had goes up in a puff of smoke by the fact that Michael Patrick King can't direct. He's not really even a competent TV camera jockey. The camera, during this sequence especially, is always in the wrong place at the wrong time. All we get is the IDEA of the reception rather than experiencing and seeing it as it should be.
Another unforgettable moment involves, once again, Liza Minnelli. She is forced to perform a musical number during the wedding sequence and I swear to Christ Almighty that I thought I was watching a female impersonator. Alas, it was not to be. It was Liza - in the flesh, all several tonnes of it. I also realize I am denigrating the art of female impersonators everywhere by even suggesting such a thing. Nobody, but nobody does Liza in her prime like a great female impersonator and the makers of the film might have been better off doing so rather than forcing us to submit to the abomination of the real thing.
Let's see if I can remember the plot.
Is there a plot? Hmmm. I think so.
It appears to go something like this. Carrie (Sarah the talking horse) and Mr. Big (Chris Noth, furry friend of Willard and subject of Michael Jackson's hit love song to a rat) are richer than ever and snugger than bugs in a rug in their marriage. Or are they? Carrie, damn it all, misses going to fashionable openings and nightclubs every night on Mr. Big's arm. Poor thing. Mr. Big, however, is happier staying at home with his flatscreen television. Now, given that going out on the town with Carrie means he would have to put up with one or all of her ugly, neurotic, pathetic friends put me firmly in his corner on this one.
In fact, watching Chris Noth laying back and watching a flat screen television for 146 minutes might well have had more entertainment value than anything else in this abomination.
Okay, where was I?
Oh yeah, so Carrie's getting bored with marriage. This is no surprise since she has the mind of a 12-year-old. What's up, then, with the rest of the clothes-horse buffalo herd?
Well, Charlotte (Kristin Davis, furry co-star of Clint Eastwood's "Every Which Way But Loose" and "Any Which Way You Can") is happily married and blessed with two beautiful children. But is she REALLY happy? Well, not with that pinched face of hers. She's become obsessed with thoughts of her hubby cheating on her with their Irish nanny with gargantuan bra-less pendulums.
Christ, it's hard being a woman in the modern world.
Then there's Miranda (Cynthia Nixon the talking mule). Well, all seems pretty good with her. She's as bourgeois and stupid as ever and looks like she might be the most satisfied of all the girls.
Of course, none of this would be complete without Samantha (Kim Cattrall, free as Willy) who has not changed much since the last picture. She's still trying to convince herself that she has sex appeal and lusts over anything on two legs with abs of steel. She also gets one of the worst lines in movie history. Ogling a handsome man in the desert she quips, "Lawrence of my labia!"
I'm still laughing. Are you?
When Samantha lands a free, all expenses-paid trip for herself and her three best friends to the United Arab Emirates city of Abu Dhabi, we leave the confines of New York and sally forth to a new city where the gals can do what they do best. For most of the movie's interminable running time, our bovine foursome traipses around aimlessly on this hideous vacation. They shop, they pine, they whine, they sight-see and, oh yes, they shop.
The entire world of this and the previous film is so reprehensible in its unbridled ode to consumerism, but having the sequel primarily set in a world of religious fundamentalism, misogyny and exploitation of the poor while these four bourgeois sows indulge themselves (and supposedly learn something to make their pathetic lives better) is simply beyond the pale. Not only does each woman have their own personal servant (slave), not only do they go camel riding, but they are, at one point, adorned in horrendous fashions modeled after indigenous clothes that are meant to repress the women of Abu Dhabi. It's not only stupid and dull, but it's more offensive than any of the nasty jokes I or anyone else could make about this pointless movie.
And beyond any of the above mentioned transgressions, "Sex and the City 2" is like going out to the movies to watch bad television on a big screen. Replete with closeups and dull two-shots, there is absolutely nothing going on in this picture to qualify it as a feature film other than its 146 minute running. But then, I've mentioned the running time, haven't I?
146 minutes! Of nothing.
I was, and still am, agog!
"Sex and the City 2" is currently in wide theatrical release and will eventually be crowding the racks of video retailers.
Saturday, 29 May 2010
TV Documentary Series
By Alan Bacchus
This title is not to be confused with Oscar and Hammerstein’s musical, or Steven Spielberg’s The Pacific, or even the French theatrical doc Oceans. This BBC series further expands on the monumentally successful series Planet Earth, for another six episodes of stunning high definition nature goodness, this time specifically in the Pacific Ocean.
Why the Pacific Ocean? As the opening narration describes it’s subtropical, relative inhabitability and its sheer girth which covers 1/3 of the earth means there’s a wealth of life in this region of the world which most of us never get to see. In certain parts of the Ocean there are islands so remote their nearest neighbours are thousands of miles away.
But the Pacific Ocean is hardly anything new, and footage of funny jellyfish, great white sharks, snakes, anteater, or tropical birds are nothing we haven’t seen before. But under the super glossy high definition imagery, suddenly animals, nature and people we take for granted becomes as mindbogglingly beautiful as anything in Avatar.
The series splits of into six episodes, each concentrating on a specific aspect of the Ocean. Episode 1, ‘Ocean of Islands’ explores the effects of the relative remoteness of many of the tiny island which dot the 19,800 kilometre-wide blanket of crystal blue water. It’s the same collection of oddball creatures which fascinated Charles Darwin, flesh-eating caterpillars; large crabs which can open coconuts, in addition to the isolated native communities with continue to thrive without much contact with the globally connected world. Perhaps the most delirious are the inhabitants of Pentecostal island who engage in ritualistic bungee jumping using on twist vines instead of flexible cord.
Other episodes include: ‘Castaways’ which looks at how plants, animals and humans colonized even the most remote islands; ‘Endless Blue’ which uses the true story of the journey of a 19th century shipwrecked whaling ship to show us brutality of living on the ocean; ‘Ocean of Volcanoes’ shows us how the violent eruptions of molten rock brings life into the Ocean; ‘Strange Islands’ shows us the usual animal life which evolved from the remoteness of the islands; and ‘Fragile Paradise’ which inevitably has to preach to us the dangers of environmental destruction.
The BBC cameramen, producers, directors use the same visual philosophy of Planet Earth to astonish us once again with the treasures of life and nature which is in abundance in this special place. Ten years ago I would have never have believed that a nature documentary like March of the Penguins, or Winged Migration or Oceans would ever be cinema-worthy films. South Pacific never got to the theatres, but considering the success of the Planet Earth-adapted feature film Earth, the South Pacific could easily have been Oceans.
'The South Pacific' is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Bros Home Video
Friday, 28 May 2010
Starring: Dany Boon, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Yolande Moreau, Julie Ferrier, Dominique Pinion, Michel Cremades, Marie-Julie Baup, Andre Dussolier and Nicolas Marie
By Greg Klymkiw
There is a particular brand of whimsy that forces me to eject globs of bilious half-digested food matter into whatever receptacle might be handy (and God forbid those around me if I am bereft of such a loving cup). My revulsion is so intense that even hearing the word "whimsy" (or seeing it or writing it) can inspire in me, at the very least, the dry heaves. In spite of this, there are many movies of a whimsical nature that I like or even love which leads me to believe that ultimately, not all whimsy is created equal.
Let's take Tim Burton, for example. If I ever have to see even one more frame from "Big Fish" again, I will find a water tower, climb atop it with a high-powered sniper rifle and start shooting innocent passersby at random. "Edward Scissorhands", however, is a movie I am always happy to see - not a steady diet, mind you, but enough to remind me of what I love about it (and to pinch me on occasion with respect to its occasional dollops of minor bile-inducement). Perhaps it's as simple as feeling that the whimsy is machine-tooled in the former and tied genuinely to emotional truth in the latter. Granted, we feel Burton's weighty hand in each movie, and his intentions might well have been true in both pictures, but one seems false, while the other seems perfectly natural in its use of magical realism.
Of late, Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a director who has sadly allowed whimsy to consume his work in a manner that is mind bogglingly sickening. His first major solo directorial effort after the thoroughly decent, but mildly overrated Caro collaborations "Delicatessen" and "City of Lost Children" was "Alien Resurrection", the third sequel to Ridley Scott's absolutely perfect blend of science fiction and horror. While all the sequels to Scott's near-masterpiece "Alien" seem ill-conceived, Jeunet's foray into the franchise was poppy, pulpy and, at times, downright scary - a far cry from the dour, humourless clamour of Cameron's "Aliens" and Fincher's dour, humourless mess that was "Alien3". (While the first AVP was stupid, it was at least kind of fun.) So when "Amelie" finally came along, I was primed for more Jeunet - especially since "Alien Resurrection" was so solid.
I saw "Amelie" with my wife. We had (and continue to have) a silent code at the movies (which now extends to my daughter and I). When we both agree that a movie is intolerable, we leave the theatre and sneak into something else in the multiplex. The code is rather simple and not obtrusive to others in the cinema. I turn my head towards her and just stare until she turns her head and either nods (in which case, we totally walk the fuck out of there) or gently shakes it (and we give it more time). Sometimes it's vice-versa, but usually (and surprisingly, no doubt, to those who know me), I am usually the instigator of the courteous silent "let's hit the fuckin' road!" With "Amelie", I relentlessly drilled holes into the side of my wife's head for what seemed an eternity. She refused to look at me. Her eyes were transfixed upon the screen. Finally, I jabbed her with my elbow. She turned. I had the tell-tale "let's fuck off" look on my face. She returned my gaze with surprising confidence and whispered, "Please let me enjoy this movie." I relented and spent the entire time wanting to rip that idiotic grin off Audrey Tatou's bone-headedly whimsical face whilst swallowing cold lumps of vomit that needed to desperately escape my gullet.
I never bothered to see "A Very Long Engagement" but in order to make my Jeunet-hatred complete and most importantly, truly informed, I suppose I will, at some point, nail my feet to the floor and suffer through the damned thing. For now, however, Jeunet's latest dive into the cesspool that is whimsy, more than makes up for this omission in my cinema literacy.
Strangely enough, "Micmacs" opens rather promisingly. At the beginning, we find ourselves on a Moroccan desert where a group of soldiers are sweeping for mines. Sadly, one of the soldiers discovers a mine and carefully sweeps sand away from it. In doing so, the strangely embossed logo on it is the last thing he'll see as the mine explodes in his face.
Back in France, a dreamy young boy hears the jangling of a telephone. After his mother answers, he hears her grief-stricken sobs. He peers in to see her trembling, her face almost draining of sanity as he stares with a mixture of knowing dread and confusion.
After the funeral, the mourners gather in the family home of the fallen soldier. The boy's mother is catatonic. When presented with a box filled with his father's effects, the boy makes a mysterious find that will become important later in his life. Mom is carted off in an ambulance to the loony bin and the young boy is sent to a private school and orphanage run by the meanest nuns I've seen since my own childhood. At one point we see him forced to kneel for hours on end, his bare kneecaps resting painfully on a long square of thin wood. (For me, it was bare-kneed on uncooked rice, but that's another story.)
Thirty years later, our dreamy young orphan has grown to manhood and promisingly appears to us as Bazil, an even-more-dreamy sad sack working late night in a video store. Happily, Bazil is played by the truly brilliant actor/comedian Dany ("Joyeux Noel") Boon - his gentle poker-face endearing him to us immediately. Even more heartening (and heartbreaking in all the right ways) is how we find him sitting alone in the dusty, old store watching "The Big Sleep" in French and expertly mouthing all of Bogart's dialogue.
Great! So far! No whimsy alarm bells of note and a vaguely melancholy drama with one of the world's great actors.
Bazil's cinematic Heaven is rudely interrupted by a car chase outside the store. Two thugs speed along, shooting at each other. Bazil walks outside to survey the ensuing carnage worthy of a Luc Besson film.
So far, so good. Perhaps we'll be immersed in a noir-like thriller.
And then, my heart sinks. One of the thugs is shot. His gun flies in the air. It discharges as it hits the ground and a bullet propels across the street and directly into Bazil's skull. This would officially be whimsy alarm bell Number One!
In the operating room, the presiding surgeon explains that if they leave the bullet in, Bazil has a chance to live a normal life - but just a CHANCE. There will always be the threat that it could discharge in his brain. If they operate, he will possibly live, but as a vegetable.
Bazil's fate is then decided when the surgeon flips a coin. This would officially be whimsy alarm bell Number Two!
With bullet in brain, Bazil is discharged to find that all his worldly goods have been confiscated and/or stolen, that he has been evicted from his apartment for not paying rent and that he's lost his job at the video store to a cartoon-watching, big-breasted bubblehead who conveniently has found and bestows upon him the casing of the bullet in his brain which also bears the strange markings we've seen earlier. The plot, as it were, is thickening - like a salt-free split-pea soup.
Bazil is forced to become a street performer whose specialty is recreating silent movie comedy routines. He is, in essence, a mime artist.
And yup, you guessed it, this would officially be whimsy alarm bell Number Three! Or, in the parlance of baseball enthusiasts the world over: "Three strikes and yerrrrrrrrr out!"
At this point, my only thought is, how bad can this possibly get?
Well, hold on a moment and you, like I did, will receive the answer.
After a mime performance in the street, he is hailed over to the table of a distinguished looking old rapscallion (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who introduces himself as Slammer (he's spent most of his life in prison - get it?). Bazil is convinced by Slammer that he needs a safe haven, a place to be useful, a family. Slammer bids Bazil follow him to what could be a new home and beginning.
Here is where the vomit-meter overloads. Within the bowels of a dank cave-like environ, Bazil is introduced to a group of fellow misfits who live happily together - away from the cruelty of the outside world, and spend their time assembling other people's junk and ever-so whimsically, transform the trash into a variety of magical contraptions and/or art. Jeunet stalwart Dominique Pinon plays some loser who wants to get himself into the world record books for being a cannonball artist. Claude Zidi regular Michel Cremades plays an especially offensive whimsy-poo who creates all manner of "magical" art and toys and has the stupidest bovine expression on a human face since Audrey Tatou in "Amelie". As if this wasn't sickening enough, there is a female contortionist who becomes Bazil's love interest and some idiotically whimsical young lady who can only communicate through complex calculations (Ulrich Seidl knows such a character needs to be treated disdainfully as a cretin - much like a similar character in the admirable Austrian iconoclast's "Dog Days).
If any of this hasn't invoked bile yet, I've saved the most disgustingly whimsical character for last - a cherry, so to speak, on an ice cream sundae, flavoured with waste-treatment-plant sludge for syrup. The matriarch of this utterly horrid "family" is the porcine Mama Chow who dotes over all the "children" (losers) since she moronically lost her own children when they entered a house of mirrors at the circus and never came out. I can only assume she is meant to be rather challenged in the brain department.
Oh yeah, and if you're still not convinced to avoid this grotesquerie, feel free to become Father Damien and hop onto the isle of Molokai that is "Micmacs" and thrill to this group of loveable spastic lunatics as they band together to destroy the arms manufacturers (yes, the companies bear the same mysterious logos we've seen earlier) who orphaned Bazil with the mine that killed his Dad and turned him into a walking dead man with the bullet that's lodged in his brain.
What finally drives me insane about this picture and "Amelie" (and no doubt, the one I still have to force myself to see) is that Jeunet is clearly a born filmmaker. Cinema is hardwired into his DNA. He is not only an artist of the highest order, but he's proven that he also has proficiency, a sense of humour and the potential to make some great movies that will truly knock us on our ass, or, at the very least, scare the living wits out of us.
This horrendous phase of machine-tooled whimsy must end. Better Jeunet should instil vomit through the GENRE of horror rather than the horror that is this unrelentingly happy-happy-happy-let's-do-good-for-society nonsense. The first fifteen minutes of the picture suggested that greatness would follow. I try to imagine the picture it could have been, but I suppose that's completely unfair. Jeunet decided to crap where he sleeps and instead, delivered a bunch of "loveable" losers to make (a) losers feel good about themselves and (b) those who do not consider themselves losers to feel good about EMPATHIZING with losers.
There are many who will love this film. I'm not one of them. Give me the Caro-Jeunet collaborations or "Alien Resurrection" anytime over this whimsical sack of dung.
In the meantime, I pray that someday Jeunet will make a genuinely great picture. It's in him. He's just got to do it.
"Micmacs" opens May 28 in Toronto and Vancouver via E1 Films. It has already been released in international territories outside of North America.
Thursday, 27 May 2010
Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Huston, Ray Winstone, Jay O Sanders
By Alan Bacchus
I haven’t seen the original BBC Mini Series Edge of Darkness from 1985 so I can only judge the film on its own merits, but even still, without anything to compare it to, it comes off as a completely forgettable thriller without the ‘edge’ required for it to compete with its chief genre competitor, ‘Taken’.
On the surface, the film seemed to be marketed as another vigilante film much like ‘Taken’ or the upcoming ‘Harry Brown’. On paper, this is how it would seem, as the logline would read something like, ‘veteran working class Boston cop sets about to find the murderer of his estranged daughter and exact his own personal revenge’. Certainly casting Mel Gibson, who is his own kind of mentally deranged cinema vigilante and celeb of ill repute, is a good starting place. Unfortunately the film refuses to fully embrace its vigilante genre roots, instead dragging us through a rather dull, straight-ahead procedural which leads to an inevitable conclusion, and without the complexities, surprises, twists or most importantly the visceral and emotional complexities which makes vigilantism such a compelling cinematic topic.
It should have been showcase piece for Gibson who hadn't played the lead in a film since 2002's Signs, but the time away from the craft of acting is evident in his performance, with Mel looking rather shaky in front of the camera and for lack of a better word, ‘old’. The stuntman who doubles for him in most of the action scenes, including rudimentary jumping, running and hand-to-hand combat looks obvious. On occasion Gibson turns on his quirky psychotic tendencies from his Martin Riggs roles, but for most of the picture he skulks around with barely an expression on his face,a dopey visage devoid of any emotional depth.
Competing against Gibson’s performance is a silly political activist plotting involving the devious business practises of a shady arms manufacturer. Danny Huston who plays the uptight upper class company man, is a stock character, recycling the same performances from ‘The Constant Gardner’, ‘The Kingdom’, ‘Birth’ among others. Jay O Sanders' presence and purpose in the story is telemarked from the very beginning. He plays the cop buddy to Gibson’s character, and by his complete inactivity in the story we know he will emerge as the betraying Judas of this story.
Campbell shoehorns in a couple of shockingly brutal violent moments, although are exhilarating, don’t actually fit in with the overall tone of contemplative investigation and weak stream pacing.
Under the watch of another director with some real ‘edge’ Edge of Darkness might have been a snowball turned avalanche of power and emotionm, instead its as dull as a rusty butter knife.
‘Edge of Darkness’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Warner Bros. Home Video.
Wednesday, 26 May 2010
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Raquel Welch, Jack Weston, Tom Skerritt, Steve Ihnat, Yul Brynner, Bert Remsen, Charles Martin Smith, Charles Tyner, Don Gordon, Peter Bonerz, Tamara Dobson, Gino Conforti, Gerald Hiken and Uschi Digart
By Greg Klymkiw
"Fuzz" is a 70s cop-movie with a light touch that I vaguely recall enjoying when I first saw it in 1972. And now, almost forty (!) years later, I was compelled to take another gander. On one hand, I could see why it was so forgettable, but on the other (and because of its forgettable "qualities") I'm pleased to report that it's an extremely pleasant movie, especially as a relatively familiar entity that I was now viewing with fresh eyes - as if I'd never even seen it before.
There's nothing at all earth-shattering or exceptional about the picture, but it's a blast watching a stalwart 70s cast do their thing against the backdrop of a few days in the life of a ragtag police precinct. Burt Reynolds, Tom Skerritt and Jack Weston are the three cops the picture primarily focuses on. They're all working on a variety of cases- the main ones being a local rapist terrorizing the neighbourhood and trying to nab a pair of teenagers (one of whom is played by American Graffiti's "Terry the Toad", Charles Martin Smith) who are dousing alcoholic bums with gasoline and setting them on fire.
The rape case is an especially hard nut for the cops to crack and the brass decides to bring in a policewoman to do the job. That she is Raquel Welch in her absolute prime is especially good news for the all-male environment of the precinct. I've never seen more gratuitous shots of male characters ogling a female character in my life in one movie. And, what the hell - she does look stunning in the picture. Who wouldn't be ogling her - male or female.
Before the key crime wends its way into the film's plot, the most pressing and persistent issue in the precinct seems to be that two inept painters have taken over the detective room and in addition to impeding the cops' work, they are continually annoying everyone with their corny one-liners and routines which suggest they'd have had a great career as Borscht Belt comics. Gino Conforti and Gerald Hiken are so hilarious they come close to stealing the whole movie.
To make matters worse for this group of detectives is that their precinct has been targeted by a potential crank with a series of extortion demands via telephone - threatening the lives of several city officials. The extortionist, with a voice sounding suspiciously like Yul Brynner's, takes care to note that he chose this precinct because it was the most incompetent.
Well, to the men and WOMAN of the 87th Precinct, them's fighting words - so much so, that they can't shove their heads in the sand and pawn it off on another division (which they'd prefer), but have to be forced by the brass to handle the case in addition to all the small potatoes stuff they're bollixing up.
Yup, it's an adaptation of one of Ed McBain's 87th precinct cop novels that he wrote under the nom-de-plume of Evan Hunter and it's a decent enough film adaptation of that world. As I watched the movie recently, all the McBain books I read as a kid came back to me - not so much the details, but the style and world was quite unique in crime fiction. In the film as in the books, there's a fair bit of time spent on the details of police procedure that many might consider dull, but are, in fact, pretty entertaining - especially when played (mostly) straight for the natural humour inherent in such plodding details.
Brynner, by the way, and not surprisingly, is a great villain and he seems to be having a lot of fun. He spits out his invectives with considerable relish. In one scene, his moll (played by the stunning Tamara "Cleopatra Jones" Dobson) expresses boredom as he plots his crime. He offers to take her out to dinner. When she retires to doll herself up, Brynner, with salacious nastiness plastered on his face, takes a sip of champagne and looks in the direction she's departed to. He remarks to his partners in crime, spitting out each word like a series of drum hits: "A marvelous ... empty ... headed ... bitch!"!
Director Richard A. Colla, a prolific TV director whose camera-jockey skills were put to use on tons of small-screen police procedurals - keeps things moving quite briskly. The one-liners spit fast and furious and at times, the scenes in the precinct itself, are admirably handled with a kind of Robert-Altman-Lite touch. Overlapping dialogue, several conversations going on at one, lots of movement filling the frame, but the camera itself moving only in the most subtle ways are just some of the highlights of the picture. Even Altman stalwart Bert Remsen appears as a beleaguered desk sergeant.
And there are quite a few laughs. One of the funniest comic set pieces is a stakeout sequence with Reynolds (and his great 70s 'stache) and Weston (pudgy and oh-so cute), working undercover as nuns with Skerritt and Welch who are literally under covers in a closed sleeping bag pretending to be lovers (only they DO have a thing for each other). Everything that could go wrong, goes wrong, but in the end, the rag-tag cops get their man.
Another great comic set piece is the kind of politically incorrect gag that could almost never be done today where the guys sick a porky, sex-starved, middle-aged woman with an overactive imagination on Welch. Raquel is investigating a rape and this woman claims to have been raped, so she takes it very seriously while Reynolds, Skerritt and most of the other guys in the precinct are desperately trying to hold in their snorts of laughter while the "victim" (who has obviously visited the precinct many times) describes the most outlandish Harlequin Romance-styled rape perpetrated upon her. (Apologies to the politically correct, but it IS funny!)
Yet another politically incorrect gag involves the station Captain walking in on Raquel in the washroom as she's changing. He stutters and stammers his way through a conversation while trying to keep his eyes off her bounteous pendulums secured in a bra (for the PG-rating, of course, but also because Welch refused to peel down completely in any of her pictures).
In fact, many of the gags in the film ARE politically incorrect and often involve the sexist attitudes of the time (though I suspect not ALL that much has changed - especially within the domain of police precincts).
This all eventually converges during a thoroughly insane climax involving the sort of coincidence that can only happen in movies (yet in reality, often happens in real police work). Every cop gets their man at once and save the day! It's decidedly feel-good, though the ending suggests that the filmmakers anticipated a sequel (which never happened). This involves Yul Brynner as the main villain, "The Deaf Man" who, in the 87th Precinct books, is a recurring master criminal character who keeps trying to challenge the 87th precinct klutzes.
As a movie, "Fuzz" is relocated from Manhattan to Boston, but this doesn't detract at all from the picture. So many great crime pictures have been set in Boston, and even though "Fuzz" is far from anything resembling "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" or "The Departed", director Colla captures enough cool locations that this, in and of itself, is one of the picture's highlights.
Besides, as McBain wrote - in mock "Dragnet" style at the beginning of all his 87th Precinct novels:
"The city in these pages is imaginary. The people, the places are all fictitious. Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique."
It's the "police routine" that "Fuzz" captures quite nicely. Besides, it's an early 70s cop picture and even lower-drawer efforts in this genre with mild pleasures like this one are usually worth watching - if, however, you like this sort of thing.
I know I do.
"Fuzz" is available on DVD from MGM Home Entertainment.
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Starring: MacDonald Carey, Shirley Anne Field, Oliver Reed, Viveca Lindfors and Alexander Knox
By Greg Klymkiw
Blacklisted American filmmaker Joseph Losey’s compelling science fiction thriller “These are THE DAMNED,” made for Britain’s Hammer Studios in 1961 and released in the U.S. during 1963 in a severely truncated form, is much closer in spirit to the company’s more subdued 50s efforts such as “X – The Unknown” (which Losey was fired from when the right-wing star Dean Jagger threatened to walk rather than submit to the direction of a “communist”), as well as the marvellous “Quatermass” pictures with Brian Donlevy. In spite of this, “These are THE DAMNED” is still as unlikely a Hammer picture and certainly an even farther cry from the company’s deliciously overwrought 60s and 70s colour horror films starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. In fact, Losey’s near-masterwork goes further than most Hammer pictures, and frankly, most science fiction pictures of the 50s and 60s as it seems even more in tune with the early beginnings of the British New Wave than any of its fantastical genre counterparts.
Imagine, if you will, a kitchen-sink angry-young-man story (an incest-obsessed Teddy Boy) merged with a fantastical fairy tale (involving a strange, sad race of "super" children) and fraught with 50s/60s apocalyptic paranoia (on behalf of everyone in the film). It’s a mad vision, which inhabits a time gone by, yet possesses a timelessness that makes it as relevant today, if not more so. These qualities are inherent in the work due, very considerably, to Losey’s staggering and original mise-en-scéne – a patchwork quilt of movement and composition that ultimately becomes surprisingly linear in creating a world that seems at home, ONLY on the silver screen, yet also possessing mirror-like qualities of our own world. It's a universe where one can recognize a planet - our planet - that’s as fraught with the same kind of orderly disorder we continue to face in these times of economic uncertainty and war – a world fraught with crime, poverty and boneheaded, exploitative government policy and all seemingly on the verge of collapse.
The film’s opening credits run over a bird’s eye view of the sea, waves crashing on a remote shore below, panning ever so smoothly to reveal that we’re on a rocky cliff. The camera dollies gently to reveal a series of grotesque sculptures along the edge of the barren outlook until it settles on a tortured figure – a semi-mermaid with a hawk-like visage and a vaguely human torso. The figure is frozen and faces away from the majestic sea and sky, yet it seems desperate to face the beauty of the horizon. Losey’s “directed by” credit appears in a patch of sky on the upper left of the contorted beauty of the sculpture, then recedes into the clouds.
What a credit sequence! The bronze outdoor sculptures seen here and throughout the film are credited to the iconoclastic British artist Dame Elisabeth Frink and they are very much stars of the film - in addition to the warm-blooded ones.
As if this weren’t enough, we move from these images of nature and art, all presented with stalwart Hammer composer James Bernard’s suitably malevolent score to a smash cut revealing a gorgeous wide shot of the seaside resort of Weymouth perched from a gently lolling camera on the water. Thus begins the movie’s opening dramatic sequence – a brilliantly shot and edited montage which may well be the ultimate British predecessor to Lester’s “rock videos” in “A Hard Day’s Night” and clearly an influence on Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” With music written by Bernard and lyrics by both screenwriter Evan Jones and Losey himself, an unnamed band (worthy of some of the amazing tracks on the “Las Vegas Grind” series) sings:
Black leather, black leather, rock-rock-rock...
Black leather, black leather, smash-smash-smash
Black leather, black leather, crash-crash-crash
Black leather, black leather, kill-kill-kill
I got that feeling – black leather rock!
As the song be-bops along, the camera begins atop a clock tower, makes its way down and reveals a load of leather-clad Teddy Boys led by the suave King (played by an ultra-cool and very young Oliver Reed), adorned smartly in a crisp white shirt, thin black tie and a plaid sport coat to end all plaid sport coats. Perched against a perfectly symmetrical sculpture of a white unicorn (juxtaposed beautifully with the architecture of Weymouth and Frink's sculptures from the previous sequence), King surveys the square as Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey, who starred – for thirty years!!! – on the soap opera “Days of Our Lives”), an American tourist, admires a historical plaque and is quickly seduced into following a fetching, nubile Joan (British ingénue Shirley Anne Field). At first, Joan appears to be King’s squeeze, leading the American along with promises of carnal delight, but it's clearly a trap. King and his Teddy-Boys beat the American to a pulp and steal his watch and wallet.
Joan feels some guilt over her part in this act of savagery and soon tracks Simon down to apologize and, with a strange Daddy-fixation, throw herself at him. This enrages King – not because she’s REALLY his main squeeze, but is in fact, his sister!!! King has rather obsessive and overtly incestuous feelings towards Joan and refuses to let her touch or be touched by any man. Add to this mix, a mysterious military bureaucrat Bernard (Oscar-nominated Alexander Knox for his role in “Wilson”) who seems to be overseeing a secret research operation just on the outskirts of property owned by the sultry, cynical sculptress Freya (the vivacious Viveca Lindfors).
The movie eventually brings all of these seemingly disparate characters together – first at Freya’s studio on the cliffs and finally, behind the barbed wire of the military research facility where a strange group of children are incarcerated within a seawall fortress – subject to observation, experimentation and indoctrination.
This is one crazy movie! And what a movie it is! Dealing with such heavy themes as haves and have-nots, incest, art versus science, science as creation, secrecy yielding paranoia, childhood innocence being exploited for a greater “good” and ultimately, the horrors of nuclear radiation – “These are THE DAMNED” is some kind of lost and decidedly insane masterpiece (albeit with some of the flaws associated with its bare-bones budget).
Based upon a novel by Evan Jones, neither the British nor American titles seem to adequately encompass what this film is about. The novel’s original title was “The Children of Light” which seems to be a far more evocative summation of the picture itself – a film devoted to the ironic loss of innocence of an entire post-war generation to the mad powers that gripped everyone and created a platform that forced subsequent generations to live in a world of fear, paranoia and exploitation with each successive government blunder and lust for power - or, in the parlance worthy of a Teddy Boy: same shit, different pail.
Joseph Losey made a B-movie, all right. He who would go on to direct many more fine pictures, including a rich collaboration with Harold Pinter, but "These are THE DAMNED" is one hell of a great B-movie!
“These are THE DAMNED” is included in the recent Sony Pictures DVD release entitled “Hammer Films: The Icons of Suspense Collection” which also features the very good child molestation thriller "Never Take Candy From a Stanger" in addition to four other pictures from the same period.
Monday, 24 May 2010
Starring: Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Allison Janney and Paul Reubens
By Blair Stewart
As we get older we may get a little softer, and to a degree you can say that about Todd Solondz. His ferocious one-two punch of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness" in the previous decade won as many accolades as abuse for their subjects on human perversity and cruelty between the beltways of American cities.
Just behind the ugliness of his characters is the humanity; Solondz can make a child rapist or murderer, unexpectedly, pathetically human with small details instead of monsters made of broad strokes. A sequel to 1998's Happiness with returning roles given to different actors (like the abortion-themed quagmire of Palindromes), Life During Wartime is a duller blade than its predecessor with words like 'forgiveness' tossed about often. The film is also thankfully devoid of ejaculate if you're familiar with the original.
Once a down-to-earth family man and pedophile, Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker's best role in Happiness, now Ciaran Hinds) is released from prison and seeking his adult son Billy for a chat. His ex-wife Trish (Allison Janney) has fled with the rest of the litter to the melanoma Jewish strongholds of Miami and her young Timmy is on the cusp of his Bar Mitzvah passage. While Timmy eeks out the meaning of becoming a man Trish's dysfunctional sisters come back into the fold. Humanity's apologetic doormat Joy (Shirley Henderson) flees her wayward husband Allen (Michael K. Williams, or to you "Wire" folks out there: Omar!) and artist/writer/full-time crazy bitch Helen has left the East Coast to screw around in Hollywood. As Trish reaches out for affection from the leftover male side of the Weiner family from Welcome to the Dollhouse, Bill rolls into town. Lacerating humour ensues.
Having sat on Life During Wartime for a few days, my feelings of admiration for Solondz remains, and yet I fear he's bound to a similar fate as Kevin Smith's redundant universe. Both have travelled in circular patterns with their characters, returning to the same well for inspiration and as signpost for us as we age and break down spectacularly, but Solondz has the talent to tell his stories in other categories and genres-Terry Zwigoff is a good example of a lateral talent over the past few decades. The world doesn't need a Solondz comic-book popcorn-muncher, but it could use his take on the romantic-comedy or the courtroom drama.
The camera of Ed Lachman (I'm Not There, The Limey, Ken Park) is sharper than in previous efforts from Solondz, and the writing and acting is strong with Hinds radiating a sweltering presence as the father figure and Janney chewing on the ironic deadpan gristle of her dialogue, but the spark of the new from the writer/director has been withered by a decade of Internet porn and Vice Magazine.
The kindness more overtly shown to the players is appreciated, but one of the top American filmmakers of the 90's needs to leave his comfort zone.
Sunday, 23 May 2010
Le passager de la pluie - French Title (1970) dir. René Clément
Starring: Marlene Jobert, Charles Bronson, Annie Cordie, Gabriele Tinti and Marc Mazza
By Greg Klymkiw
Discovering movies you’ve never seen before is always fun – especially when you, like me, have seen over 30,000 feature films and think (wrongly, of course) that you’ve seen everything worth seeing. When those undiscovered titles are gems like “Rider on the Rain”, A.K.A. “Le passager de la pluie,” the rise of tantalizing gooseflesh is all the more deliciously palpable as it overtakes your body and soul.
This thoroughly entertaining and creepy Euro-trash thriller from the 70s has been kicking around for a long time in North America in a variety of downright awful English-language public domain transfers on both VHS and DVD.
Until recently, however, I had no idea how good it actually it was.
This was not for lack of trying. Alas, the public domain copies I saw were truly abysmal - the cropping distracting, the faded colours hard on the eyes and the English dubbing so sloppy that, on each attempt, I didn’t even made it to the rape scene which, of course means, that I never sat through it long enough to even see Charles Bronson make his first appearance.
I recently, however, came across a Russian DVD release of the exquisite Studio Canal re-mastering of the French-language version with English subtitles (and for those inclined, subtitles in Russian, Spanish, German, Hebrew and a variety of Asian languages). I can now say I have watched the rape scene, Charles Bronson’s entrance and then some.
Directing over thirty films from the late 30s to late 70s, René Clément was truly one of the great French directors, but in recent years especially, his remarkable canon seems to have been largely ignored in favour of those of the Nouvelle Vague ilk and some of the more recent works of Breillat, Noë, Cantet, etc. This is not to say that any of the above needs to be dismissed in favour of Clément, but I do think some sort of major re-assessment and appreciation of his fine output is in order.
That said, he still is deservedly acclaimed in many quarters for the heartbreaking tale of childhood and war “Forbidden Games” (“Jeux interdits”) and the magnificently amoral Patricia Highsmith adaptation “Purple Noon” (“Plein soleil”) which reveals Anthony Minghella’s watchable, 1999 version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” as the uninspired wank it really is. In addition to the above, Clément delivered the tense, claustrophobia of “Les maudits” and his marvelous post-war crime drama with Jean Gabin “Le mura di Malapaga.”
In this and his other pulp suspense pictures, Clément’s respect and debt to Hitchcock is clear, but subtle - unlike, say, DePalma. Not that I’d ever crap on Brian DePalma, whose work I love dearly, but his approach to Hitchcockian-styled suspense is clearly and deliciously over-the-top, whereas Clément adds a dollop here and a dollop there of Hitch, while maintaining a sense of ambiguity that is all his own. Chabrol, too, is a fine French suspense director, but I tend to find his films more workmanlike than Clément’s and his voice is certainly not as rich and distinctive.
Clément, like Hitch, is fond of recurring visual motifs, but Clément is careful (as Hitch always was) to make sure they are thoroughly integral to the world of HIS narrative. They’re not thrown in willy-nilly.
For example, the references to date and time as well as the clock shots – especially those focusing upon a pendulum either locking in or not moving – are dazzlingly evocative, but they are always used to move the story forward. Also, Clément’s use of colour, light and composition reveals a great visual stylist and, like Hitch, he wields his palette like a master – a born filmmaker, his very DNA hardwired to the art and business of creating cinema.
With “Rider on the Rain”, Clément even uses a stunningly gorgeous ice goddess (albeit a truly Gallic version of a Hitchcockian leading lady) as the central femme fatale. Gamine, red headed, lightly freckled beauty Marlene Jobert appears as Mélancolie Mau (gotta love that name), the beleaguered wife of Tony (the suitably nasty Gabriele Tinti), a downright horrendously repugnant old world sexist pig who questions her every move and keeps her in an iron-clad grip – in spite of his seemingly endless jaunts all over the world as an airline pilot. Mélancolie’s mother, Juliette (a brilliant Annie Cordy) is a self-hating drunk who operates a bar/bowling alley and turns her self-loathing into a weapon against her own child.
These happy people all live in a seaside resort town. As the movie begins, it is the off-season and few souls wander the empty streets. A nasty torrential downpour brings a tall, creepy, bullet-headed stranger (Marc Mazza) to town on a bus that normally wouldn’t even stop at this time of year. The stranger, whose name is Mac Guffyn (get it?), wanders about the town with seeming aimlessness, but soon it’s obvious he’s targeting our heroine, following her everywhere with a steely gaze.
For her part, Mélancolie runs a few errands, including a dress shop visit to pick up a fashionably hot number to adorn her sultry frame for a wedding she’ll be attending the following day. Speaking of hot numbers, it’s not just the clothing that’s delectable – the ravishing Jill Ireland (Mrs. Charles Bronson) has a small role as the dress shop proprietress, primping and preening our gamine heroine whilst Mac Guffyn stares salaciously through the store window. Mrs. Chuck doesn’t see him, but Mélancolie does. She freezes in terror, but does not reveal to anyone that she sees him.
Well, before you can say “rape”, Mélancolie is back home and the oval-domed Mac Guffyn enters quietly, throws her to the bed and savagely forces himself upon her. She eventually passes out, wakes up alone, considers calling the police, but mysteriously doesn’t. Mac Guffyn shows up again. He’s merely been resting up for sloppy seconds. Mélancolie engages in a brutal physical fight with him, grabs a double-barreled shotgun from the basement, shoots him and finally, blood gushing from his chest, he still attempts to get up and our plucky gamine beauty bludgeons the creep to death. Again, for very mysterious reasons, she does not call the police, but instead, drives his body out to a remote cliff and dumps it into the sea.
The next day, as if nothing has happened, she and her sexist pig husband attend a wedding. During the ceremony, she spies the smirking, gorgeously mustachioed Charles Bronson, drilling holes into her with his intense Slavic eyes. At the reception, Bronson introduces himself as Harry Dobbs (Christ! Another great character name that you’ve just gotta love!), an American colonel of seeming disrepute and predatory intentions. For some reason, he knows she’s murdered Mac Guffyn.
For the rest of the movie, a strange cat and mouse game plays out where Dobbs relentlessly tries to get Mélancolie to admit to murder and she does everything in her power to deflect his accusations. There is, of course, more to all this than meets the eye – one layer of mystery lies on top of yet another and Mélancolie finds herself mixed up in something very creepy, dangerous and well beyond her comprehension. As for Dobbs, his intentions remain murky, but as the film progresses, it becomes obvious that both characters are becoming inextricably drawn towards one another.
While the picture is far more ambiguous than Hitchcock would ever tolerate, it’s still a terrifically suspenseful and entertaining mystery thriller. It’s even been suggested in some quarters that the film inspired Jim Morrison to write his evocative hit “Riders on the Storm” and given certain images and plot elements of the picture, it’s not entirely inconceivable. The opening lyrics that comprise the song's eerie refrain definitely mirror Mélancolie’s situation:
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone…
The “sins” of Mélancolie’s mother have definitely rubbed off on her, though she’s tried her whole life to live with them and “like a dog without a bone”, she seems ill-equipped to deal with the cards dealt her way, but still manages to persevere – with, of course, a little help from a grinning Cheshire-cat-like Harry Dobbs.
Mac Guffyn, of course, is the literal “rider on the rain” of the English title – a serial killer/sexual deviant who is not unlike Morrison’s evocation of:
… a killer on the road/his brain is squirming like a toad…
And finally, in spite of Mélancolie and Dobbs falling for each other, it’s clearly going to remain unrequited – so much so that they each admit their love to themselves, but not each other and Mélancolie stays with her brutish husband and Harry goes off alone in his sports car. Again, one can imagine Morrison seeing the film and penning the lyrics:
Girl ya gotta love your man
Take him by the hand
Make him understand…
Gotta love your man, yeah!
Certainly even the opening shot of the film feels like it could have inspired Morrison and team – a huge body of water looking like a lake or river as rain drops plop violently on the surface of the water until the wheels of a bus splash into frame, revealing that we’re actually looking at a rain soaked highway through a wide angle lens. This is followed by a series of shots of the bus itself - seemingly bereft of passengers until it stops, then drives away to reveal the trench-coat-adorned Mac Guffyn, standing in the rain and clutching a small ref leather bag.
Furthermore, if there is any truth to Morrison being inspired by the picture, surely such inspiration extended to other members of The Doors. The song “Riders on the Storm” is endowed with one major similarity to Clément’s picture – it’s superbly scored by Francis Lai with a number of evocative themes – many of which feature the kind of varied and sophisticated instrumentations favoured by the band itself. This, by the way, is an original soundtrack album worth owning – rare, but not impossible to track down. It works, not only as film score but also as music that bears both close scrutiny as well as its simple ability to create background mood for just about any social situation one finds oneself in.
In spite of the theorizing about the film’s influence upon Jim Morrison, the point might be moot if centred solely on the title since the English title “Rider on the Rain", translates from the French title “Le passager de la pluie” more literally into “The Passenger of the Rain”. While this, in and of itself, might have also been influential, it’s probably less about the title but Clément’s images and themes that might have had a greater impact upon the late, great Lizard King.
Another interesting aspect of Clément’s film is that it opens with the following quotation from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”:
The pit was very deep, or she fell very slowly, because while she fell, she had time to look around and to wonder what was going to happen next.
This is an apt opening quotation for a number of reasons. Firstly, the movie is endowed with odd dream logic to its narrative structure. Secondly, Mélancolie does indeed experience a long, slow fall/descent. Thirdly, she wanders through the picture with a wide-eyed wonder of a naïf being led by a grinning Cheshire cat – none other than Harry Dobbs and Bronson’s charmingly sardonic visage and performance.
Bronson’s performance, by the way, will be a revelation to those ever who doubted his abilities as an actor. He’s always had considerable star power, but many have ignored the qualities he owned below the skin-deep tough guy exterior. His performance here is so compelling, one wishes he had more roles in his career like this one – roles that could have mined his myriad of thespian gifts.
Marlene Jobert as Mélancolie is also a revelation. In spite of her performance in this and Godard’s “Masculin feminin”, she never quite maintained the stardom of many of her contemporaries in France. Her Mélancolie is, however, nothing short of extraordinary. She takes a complex character and breathes the kind of life into it that makes both her and the role nothing less than unforgettable.
And what a role it is – so sexy and so mysterious, especially early on in the proceedings. For example, some of Mélancolie’s head-scratching moves at the beginning of the film (not calling the police and dumping Mac Guffyn's body – moves that set all the picture's wheels in motion – have often been mistakenly seen as either problematic storytelling and/or ambiguities.
I’d suggest they are neither.
This is, after all, the story of a woman who carries and tries to shed the sins of her mother and is locked in a marriage wherein she is constantly abused into submission and, by her very actions, her journey of self-discovery is responsible for finding what it was she loved in her man in the first place and she learns to work at mining those aspects rather than succumbing to his worst traits and/or running away from them. It’s a blossoming, a maturation process. She confronts everything head-on and takes us on a thrilling serpentine journey of sex, murder, mystery and suspense.
What more could one possibly ask for?
It’s a terrific picture!
This is a hard movie to get in the original French version. For my part, I wish to thank the Lord Jesus H. Christ for my obsessive frequenting of Russian video stores in North and West Toronto where I found the DVD. The release even appears legit, as I have seen it advertised on Amazon. The Studio Canal version is also available on Amazon. This is probably the best way to see the picture on this side of the Atlantic, especially since there appears no sign of a North American DVD or Blu-ray release of Studio Canal’s pressing.
Saturday, 22 May 2010
Starring: Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyôko Koizumi, Yû Koyanagi, Inowaki Kai, Haruka Igawa
By Alan Bacchus
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse) smartly leaves the languishing J-Horror genre behind him and branches out creatively with this acclaimed and award-winning art-house, humanist drama. With its absurd, but staid, tone, Tokyo Sonata succeeds in enlightening us, with that familiar Asian peculiarity, to the effects of the global financial crisis from the point of view of a middle class Japanese family.
When Ryuhei (a husband and father of two boys) loses his job, he finds himself helpless, like a turtle on his back, unable to comprehend such upheaval. Embarrassed and hurt, he keeps this a secret from his wife Megumi and continues his daily routine of leaving home in the morning and returning before dinner. His days though are spent walking long soup kitchen lines with other fellow corporate castaways and job-hunting at various temp agencies. Ryuhei's frustrations extend to his domestic life when his inability to control the actions of his two boys sends him over the edge. His elder child decides to enter the military so he can fight for the U.S. Army in Iraq and his young son develops an interest in music, an endeavour of which he stubbornly and vehemently disapproves.
Though I've never been to Japan, my impression of its working culture is that it's an unforgiving powder keg of stress. So, for Kurosawa, Ryuhei's breakdown and inability to ask for help sharply mirror his society's over-protectiveness of its pride and fallibility in the context of their country's financial crisis.
Kurosawa's observational photography looks fantastic, bringing to mind the satirical work of Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor, You, the Living). Tokyo Sonata moves at a very slow pace and might test the patience of those not inclined to relax or sit still, but as it moves towards its third act, Kurosawa brings his characters to the edge, engineering a powerfully emotional climax and an optimistic glimmer of hope at the very end. Thank god for that.
Thursday, 20 May 2010
Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960) dir. Terence Fisher
Starring: Richard Greene, Peter Cushing, Sarah Branch, Nigel Green, Niall MacGinnis, Oliver Reed and Desmond Llewelyn
By Greg Klymkiw
With the theatrical release of Ridley Scott's abominable revisionist prequel "Robin Hood", movie fans have been blessed with the DVD releases of virtually every piece of Robin Hood cinema produced in the western world. Of course, the best film of this great character will always be Warner Brothers' Errol Flynn technicolor epic, but I'm extremely pleased to see a decent transfer of a movie I loved as a kid - "Sword of Sherwood Forest".
Starring Richard Greene, who portrayed Robin for five years on the great British television series "The Adventures of Robin Hood", this big screen rendering was a staple for me during Saturday kiddies matinees and later on Sunday afternoon television movie broadcasts. Even as a young lad, I knew this movie was nowhere near as good as the television series, but that never stopped me from seeing it over and over again. Seeing it now, for the first time in over forty years, I had a rollicking good time and see why I enjoyed watching it so many times. It's extremely entertaining - pure and simple. It also features some robust merry-man comedy and a terrific final twenty minutes of swashbuckling action.
The relatively simple plot involves Robin and his band of merry men thwarting an assassination attempt upon the Archbishop of Canterbury. The wicked Sheriff of Nottingham (played to utter perfection by Peter Cushing) is teamed up with a group of greedy landowners to gain control of some strategically important land to fortify with a new castle - one which would place them in a position of considerable power over the Crown. This, of course, will never do - not with King Richard away at the Crusades - but with Robin Hood on the case, it's never in question that good will triumph over evil.
Seeing the movie now, there's a fair bit about it that's pretty interesting and engaging. First and foremost is how the entire story hinges on assassination. While this flew over my head as a kid, many people would have, at the time, first seen the picture second-run and/or on television soon after JFK's assassination. Because the political intrigue of the film involves cold-blooded murder and conspiracy it probably had some impact on people - though that impact seems even more profound decades later.
In the context of what we know now, there's one sequence that's genuinely well written, expertly directed and very chilling. Robin is recruited by one of the evil landowners who takes considerable interest in Robin's prowess as an archer. Robin takes up this post to gain as much information as he can, but his character soon becomes as appalled as we are as well. Robin is given a series of archery challenges and as they progress, it slowly and creepily becomes apparent that he's being tested for his ability to perform a public political assassination. It's not quite Pakula's "The Parallax View", but director Terence Fisher - no slouch in the suspense department - handles this sequence with the kind of efficiency he was known for.
Fisher, of course, is one of the other interesting aspects of the film. Produced by Hammer Studios, renowned both then and now for their superb science fiction and horror films chose very wisely in assigning their star director to this project. Fisher was not only a director of numerous episodes of the Robin Hood series, but was a highly skilled and stylish filmmaker who delivered such classics as "Curse of Frankenstein", "Horror of Dracula", "Brides of Dracula" and "The Mummy" (in addition to numerous other pictures which, ranged from solid to excellent, if not always in the classic vein).
In addition to the aforementioned assassination test sequence, Fisher handles a number of scenes very well - one in which the Sheriff offers one of Robin's men a pardon in exchange for information and chillingly kills the man in cold blood once he gets what he needs, and another involving the storming of the priory to commit cold-blooded murder which is thwarted by a truly thrilling action sequence. There's also a surprise murder sequence which I won't ruin for you, but Fisher handles it with such vicious relish that on this recent viewing, even I was kind of shocked in spite of all the times I saw the movie as a kid.
The surprise murder is committed by the completely psychotic Lord Melton who is played by none other than the magnificent Oliver Reed. Reed's given so many great performances, but this has to be one of the weirdest he's ever delivered. He plays his character with a truly bizarre, non-descript, but definitely "foreign" accent and he minces about so foppishly, nastily and Nancy-boy-like, that he seems to be auditioning well in advance for a role in "Cruising". One of the more delightful moments involves Reed prissily riding his horse with a beloved falcon on his shoulder that he strokes with the same kind of finger-gesticulating relish as Charles Gray or Donald Pleasance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the Bond pictures. When something completely shocking happens to the falcon, Reed's stuttering, twittering response is priceless.
The picture has other small pleasures. For movie geeks, Desmond Llewelyn who played "Q" in all the pre-2000 Bond pictures, plays a small role and for Hammer aficionados, the unfortunate non-actress playing Maid Marian (the lamentably wooden and rather unfortunately sur-named Sarah Branch) is more than suitably endowed in the mammary department - one of Hammer's more delightful trademarks for all its leading ladies.
I can't actually defend the picture as anything resembling exceptional cinema, but "Sword of Sherwood Forest" is a perfect picture to curl up with on a rainy afternoon.
And like I said earlier, it shames Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood" and was, no doubt, made on a budget SLIGHTLY less than would have been paid to Cate Blanchett's manicurist. And while Richard Greene as Robin is starting to be a tad long-in-tooth for the role, he's at least not as Friar-Tuck-like as Russell Crowe.
"Sword of Sherwood Forest" is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment along with three other Robin Hood pictures in the "Robin Hood Collection" - "Prince of Thieves" with the inimitable Jon Hall, "Rogues of Sherwood Forest" with the astounding John (former husband of Bo) Derek and "The Bandit of Sherwood Forest" starring the always-versatile Cornel Wilde.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr. Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johanson
By Alan Bacchus
Remember when Iron Man came out, and shortly after its success, press swirled about Jon Favreau’s reluctance to quickly put its sequel into production without proper development and prep? And for a while there Favreau's participation really was up in the air. Of course, he smartly stayed on board (his producer Peter Billingsley did not), took the paycheque, delivered a competent movie which has coasted to a huge box office riding on the coattails of the previous film. But the dullness and soullessness of “Iron Man 2” only proves that Favreau was right. IM2 feels like a hastily put together slapdashery without any of the genuine love for character which made the first film so unique for it's genre.
The failure of “Iron Man 2” just shows why the first movie was so good in the first place. It took half the movie before we even saw the Iron Man suit, an hour long build up of suspense to reveal Tony Stark’s alter ego. Now, at the top of IM2, the suit is built, Iron Man is already a superhero, and there’s very little to reveal in this film. Stark's character reverts to his egomaniac capitalist persona again, having started up his own Stark Expo in New York and very publicly fighting off the US Military who want access to his suit.
The baddie this time round is Mickey Rourke as a Russian scientist Ivan Danko who seeks revenge against Stark for his wrongdoings against his father, in some manufactured backstory. Rourke’s scene chewing is to be expected and his overly tattooed and generally dirty appearance is off-putting, and even stranger is that he spends most of his screen time typing away at a computer. His introduction builds up wonderfully to the film’s best sequence, a fight with Stark and Iron Man at the Monaco Grand Prix. Unfortunately his character is left aimless without seemingly much purpose or ‘stuff to do’ until he shows up at the end for another big fight scene, with, of course another big-ass metal suit.
We all knew Rhodey would get more involved, don one Stark’s suits and join him in the fight. Unfortunately Don Cheadle doesn’t fit the suit as well as Terrence Howard might have, in fact he actually looks awkward encased in metal, a suit whose CG rendering looks glaringly obvious this time round.
The sexual tension between Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Pots character which generated the best character development for Stark, is rendered virtually inert in this one. Same with the future Avengers plotting. Of course we know Marvel is laying ground work for an eventual link up of their superhero characters for an ultimate supermovie with Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America. Unfortunately we only get a minor scraping of this story. In fact, most of the Nick Fury/Agent Coulson scenes serve more as comic relief than a broadening of the mythology of the story. Like IM1 and The Incredible Hulk we’re treated to a post-end credits scene teasing us for the Avengers film. “Thor” makes his first appearance, which indeed picks up the excitement factor...
Scarlett Johanson makes the best addition. At once a neat sexual tease and competition for Pepper Pots as well as a good excuse for an action scene which doesn’t involve the Iron Man suit. Her break in to Hammer’s layer and the hand-to-hand choreography is magnificent.
Despite Scarjo, “Iron Man 2” is otherwise a flatline affair. No one really seems to know what to do with Iron Man, the suit, Pepper Pots, SHIELD, Rhodey or Ivan Danko. Everyone seems lost and lacking in guidance. Paramount should have listened to Favreau two years ago.
Wednesday, 19 May 2010
Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtney
By Alan Bacchus
It’s probably unfashionable to love Doctor Zhivago but there’s no need to deny one’s passions. David Lean’s superlative epic wasn’t the first sprawling love story set against the grandeur of history and war, but along with Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago arguably is what every filmmaker hopes to achieve for their own period romances. From Titanic, Australia, Pearl Harbor and on and on, Doctor Zhivago is the benchmark these films are trying to measure up to.
David Lean had spent most of his directorial career on more smaller studio productions, but with the success of Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) his cinematic canvas got larger and larger. Next came Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and then Doctor Zhivago (1965). His 1970 epic Ryan Daughter was a failure, but for the previous three, it’s a remarkable trio of films.
As per Boris Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago charts the illicit romance of a married doctor/poet, Yuri and a gorgeous but emotionally damaged temptress Lara. Lean begins at the end of the story with Zhivago’s Communist brother (Alec Guinness) who operates a giant water dam questioning a young girl about her mother, presumably Lara. Flashing back to before the Russian Revolution we see Lara (Christie) wrestle between a relationship with her Revolutionary boyfriend Pasha (Courtney) and an affair with father’s business partner Komarovsky (Steiger). After a suicide attempt, Doctor Yuri (Omar Sharif) tends to Lara thus, their first meeting.
Yuri, himself, is married and with a child, and it isn’t until years later while a medic in WWI does he formally meet up with Lara who is a nurse on the front lines. Romance now strikes amid the horror of battle, a romance which blooms into the full blown affair which will emcompass the rest of the film. Pasternak and Lean both overcome the hurdle of having their main character generate sympathy despite being an adulterer and abandoning his family.
It’s in these contradictions where Doctor Zhivago triumphs. The complexities of the Yuri’s inner pain rarely come out, instead the tumultuous and violent historical background is the expression of his feelings. In the middle act when Yuri is at his most unlikeable, a man so lustful of Lara, he can’t help but lie to his wife and leave his family alone in their rural home to visit and thus make love to his mistress. Lara, who also recognizes their wrongdoings, also comes off as sympathetic.
Perhaps even more so with Zhivago than in Kwai or Lawrence, Lean manages to put as much attention on the details as the big picture scope. In fact, if anything the spectacle of history is put farther into the background than either of his other epics. Unlike the other two pictures, most of Zhivago is spent indoors, protected from the coldness of the Russian winter. Take for instance the interiors of the Moscow scenes. Lara’s apartment is dimly lit and claustrophobic even, and rarely does Lean go outside the confines of these locations. And when he does, Lean dramatically contrasts this intimacy with awe inspiring scenes, a sharp contrast which enhances the spectacle. The best example is Lean’s reveal of the worker’s revolt which engulfs the streets of Moscow on the night of the Lara’s dramatic breakdown – the emotional fury and anger of people who stand off against the army mirroring Lara’s internal trauma.
Lean’s background as an editor serves him well, he constantly uses abrupt transitions to take us in an out of the flashbacks and compressing time in unorthodox ways. His compositions are masterful from his expansive wideshots to the detailed close-ups, his control of every detail is mindboggling. And Maurice Jarre’s elegant score – his ‘Lara’s Theme', then a legitimate pop music hit – becomes the blanket of tone and emotional feeling which ties everything together.
Call me a softy, but I get chills even as I write this...
‘Doctor Zhivago’ is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video
Tuesday, 18 May 2010
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010) dir. Matt Whitecross
Starring: Andy Serkis, Ray Winstone, Olivia Williams, Naomie Harris, Mackenzie Crook, Bill Milner
By Matt McUsic
Right mate! So Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is a very British, very chaotic, very energetic, trip of a film that truly leaves the viewer with a sense of Ian Dury’s spastic roll in the punk rock era. Unfortunately when the dust clears, there is little more than raw energy. The film is a grotesque and even Andy Serkis’ performance evokes memories of Joel Grey in Cabaret. Unfortunately the style of the filmmaking is trying too hard at the beginning, and by the time it settles into the characters we find that we don’t particularly care for any of them.
To say Andy Serkis’ (Gollum from Lord Of The Rings) performance as Ian Dury is not absolutely bitchin’ would be a fat lie. Andy Serkis’ blows us off the map with his frenetic quickwit and deeply felt portrayal of this legendary entertainer. He’s always fun to watch, but the great performance misses something essential, audience identification. Andy never relaxes enough to truly identify with him. Maybe this is not Andy’s fault, maybe this WAS Ian Dury, or maybe it was that the script back-loaded all the scenes where Ian shows his human side. But for whatever the reason, it’s what cost him the BAFTA to Colin Firth for A Single Man. Naomie Harris (28 Days Later, Pirates of the Caribbean) is particularly good as Dury’s girlfriend. She’s the one we most identify with in the film, actually. Overall the performances are fascinating to watch, but the key element of empathy holds us back from truly becoming invested.
The film does a fine job of hitting the biographical highlights of Dury. One thing I missed was how Dury was an art teacher to pay the bills while struggling in his music career. At a certain point he realized he’d gotten good enough at art to realize he wouldn’t be a great artist, and so he changed paths. While not a huge plot point in his life, even one scene of this might have given us some empathy for the guy before he turned into a complete arse. The plot point about Dury’s experience with polio, and becoming a jaded cripple we get hit over the head with and then get sick of it. Still the way the filmmakers come to show Dury’s writing of “Spasticus Autisticus” is brilliant. I actually liked the way the film breezed quickly over the band’s rise to fame, because it showed that little changed in terms of the way Dury lived his life or treated people around him. It drove home the point that he always knew he would get to this place; it was just a matter of time.
The song numbers also had greater potential than was realized. If the filmmakers had placed them in different settings, on different stages it would have helped keep it fresh. Likewise, the fast cutting style for every song got repetitious. If the filmmakers had found a unique way of shooting and editing each song to fit that given song, it would have felt less lazy and been more engaging. Fast camera movement and cutting doesn’t always make for gripping filmmaking.
But the trouble is not that Sex & Drugs is too fast paced a film or too energetic/spastic a film, the trouble lies in that it is what is expected. When I came into the screening I anticipated a somewhat shallow film that would pack a lot of great music and excitement and little emotional resonance, and that’s exactly what I got. The movie lost me because I couldn’t identify with Ian Dury and by the time he displays any compassion it’s too late in the film to care. Sex & Drugs is a wild ride, but not much of an emotional one, at least for the audience. As Dury said, “There are a couple of ways to avoid death, one of them is to be magnificent, this is my favorite way”. Unfortunately for Ian, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll falls sort of magnificence.