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

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Salt

Salt (2010) dir. Phillip Noyce
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski and Liev Schreiber

***1/2

By Greg Klymkiw

Kurt Wimmer's screenplay for Salt is riddled with the sort of Swiss Cheese plot-holes that normally drive me up a wall, but happily, they only rear their ugly head AFTER the movie is over, and by then, it's too late. As it unspools, the movie is one hell of an amusement park ride and on that level, it delivers the goods and then some.

Wimmer, of course, is no stranger to penning screenplays that border on (or even cross over into) the insanely improbable, but deliver the sort of imaginative, kick-ass set pieces that directors endowed with considerable style and/or proficiency just love. This certainly includes Wimmer himself who directed the studio-butchered, but still wildly entertaining Ultraviolet with Milla Jovovich wreaking havoc in mouth-watering painted-on clothing amidst a dystopian sci-fi setting.

Salt director Phillip Noyce clearly had a ball with Wimmer's script. Whilst dopey as all get-out, the screenplay provides enough forward thrust to keep the audience guessing (though one major climactic plot twist can be predicted right from the beginning) and to provide Noyce with the kind of set-pieces he excels at (being, of course, one of the aforementioned filmmakers who can handle this sort of thing with considerable aplomb). It's a superbly crafted, pulse-pounding summer picture - maybe one of the best action pictures in months. If it weren't so humourless it might well have garnered an even higher star rating from me, but not every genre director can be Brian DePalma.

Noyce, in tandem with ace editor Stuart Baird, has rendered a straight-up, kick-ass action thriller that begins full throttle and escalates from there. In this respect (the only one that really counts with pictures like these), Salt is near-flawless in what it sets out to do.

Noyce, an Aussie helmer who began with smaller art films in his home country Down Under, has made several first-rate and diverse works in a career spanning over thirty years. The chilling 1989 three-hander scare-fest Dead Calm maintains, 20 years after it was first made, a nail biting creepy crawly quality. Starring a lithe, young Nicole Kidman as the fetching trophy wife of Sam Neill (and how they're terrorized by super-psycho Billy Zane on a luxury yacht in the middle oif the ocean), the picture was not unlike a Polanski-inspired version of Knife in the Water or Cul-De-Sac - but with the sort of crank and testosterone that precious Euro-types can only dream of making.

Add to the Noyce mix three bonafide classics of Australian cinema (Newsfront, Heatwave and Rabbit-Proof Fence), the excellent film adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American and his two tremendous Tom Clancy adaptations of the Jack Ryan entries starring Harrison Ford: A Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games, and you've got a director perfectly poised to deliver the goods with Salt, a contemporary Cold-War-styled thriller starring Our Lady of the Lips, Angelina Jolie.

Jolie plays the title character, a CIA operative fingered by Russian defector Vassily Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) as being a Russian spy who will orchestrate an assassination that is going to plunge the planet into an all-out Third World War. Her partner Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) refuses to believe it's true and locks horns with Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) one of his colleagues who believes unequivocally that it is. Lip Lady busts out of the CIA's clutches to clear her name and the movie never lets up with some gorgeously executed gun battles, hand-to-hand ass-whupping, nail biting suspense and chase scenes of the most hair raising variety.

Is any of this vaguely original?

No.

That said, the picture is such a thrill ride that it hardly matters. In fact, Wimmer's script - while all set-piece and little else - does manage enough of a genuine surprise treat in providing a somewhat ambiguous ending which, while it also keeps things open for a sequel - it does indeed leave us dangling in its final moments (but in a thoroughly satisfying manner).

The action set pieces are remarkably well-directed - each shot and each cut delivering blows and the kind of drive that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Noyce is. thankfully, of the old guard when it comes to orchestrating such carnage. There's relatively little in the way of the de rigeur herky-jerky shooting and cutting so prevalent in modern action pictures (notably in the hands of such hacks pretending to be artists like Christopher Nolan). Most of the coverage is solidly framed with a nice mix of shots that not only deliver the goods, but do so in a way that give you a clear sense of geography. Geography is essential in action sequences. It keeps you with the protagonist rather than being bombarded by noise and sloppy cutting.

The performances are all uniformly fine for a picture like this - especially from Jolie. She's an extremely likeable and stylish heroine who must don many visages to make it through the proceedings intact. The only disappointment in Jolie comes early in the picture when she is in the clutches of some nasty Korean interrogators. She's obviously been physically tortured and is about to receive even more punishment.

What doesn't ring true is that Jolie is trussed up, bleeding, bruised and ludicrously attired in her designer bra and panties. Now, I don't want you to think I'm disappointed because she's not buck naked (well, if truth be told, I am), but that all one can think about during this sequence (especially since it's intimated she's been sexually assaulted) is this: Why would her captors strip her down ONLY to bra and panties. It genuinely makes no sense given the context of the scene and you're pulled out of the action thinking only about the fact that (a) Jolie refused to strip down and (b) that the studio didn't want an R-rating.

But, I digress - lack of Jolie nudity is a mere quibble, especially since Salt entertains on the highest possible level and offers just what the lazy days of Summer order.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Losers

The Losers (2010) dir. Sylvain White
Starring: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chris Evans, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, Jason Patric

*1/2

By Alan Bacchus

If this was the year of the 1980’s Delta Force throwback which includes, so far, the dull as dirt, A-Team, it’s a failed revival. Perhaps the third film in this trilogy, Slyvestor Stallone’s The Expendables might redeem these other films, but it would take a miracle to overcome the stench of decay that is The Losers.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Clay, the leader of a Delta Force/Black Ops/Green Berets-type of military squad who in the opening scene survives an assassination attempt by some other drug-supported clandestine organization. Despite being thought dead the force reunites to exact revenge on their betrayers, led by some secret information supplied by a really skinny tough gal played by Zoe Saldana. Their team includes the usual roll call of specialities, demolitions experts, small arms specialists etc etc all of whom contribute in a series of surveillances set pieces, ‘clever’ heist sequences and big wheeling chases and gunfights between the endearing Expendable-Loser- Z-Team and the bad guys.

Of course there’s double-cross and Jason Patric hamming up as the sophisticated baddie. Not even Ray Liotta would touch this one.

The film version of the popular graphic novel of the same name (which I haven’t read) doesn’t so much play as a Delta Force throwback as an over-the-hill mid 90’s Tarantino ripoff. The Tarantino-esque ensemble of actors spewing out some awful eye-rolling, overly loquacious quirky dialogue and, as the still above depicts, the slo-mo shot of the Losers walking towards the camera at a transition point in the film.

It’s no surprise the film is co-written by Peter Berg, the all style, no substance director of throwaway action pictures, The Rundown, The Kingdom, Hancock. Berg is not at the helm of this picture though. Stomp the Yard’s Sylvain White gets the gig. White is even more aggressive with his visual palette, throwing every stylistic toy at us in a attempt to be cool. Everything is overlit and overly colour processed. Swish pans punctuated by music stings transition every other shot with another. The staccato-like camera shutter thingee which makes action looks sharper is also constantly employed, and of course there’s a few ironic pop songs thrown in, such as Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ – which, thanks to The Sopranos, was already rendered old hat, again!

Unfortunately it all feels like hackneyed Guy Ritchie cinema language, but not the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels/Snatch Guy, but the Revolver Guy when he was ripping off his own tired works. So it’s third hand theft of Tarantino.

If anything we can admire the attempt at creating a fun action picture which doesn’t take itself seriously and exists solely to stimulate our eye and ear candy-craving short attention spans. Unfortunately with a style so overused and played out it’s too close to its sources to be ironic and not smart or funny enough to be an homage. Well, maybe an homage to ‘Smokin’ Aces’.

“The Losers” is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Clash of the Titans

Clash of the Titans (2010) dir. Louis Leterrier
Starring: Sam Worthington, Mads Mikkelson, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arteton, Jason Flemyng

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Clash of the Titans is one helluva movie.

The best Hollywood action film of the year.

Unfortunately it was unjustly dimissed upon by many critics earlier in the year, largely I suspect due to 3-D-ification bullshit which distracts the viewer from the experience of a wonderful, exciting, slightly campy adventure picture.

The fact is, in good old fashioned two dimensions, Louis Leterrier has managed to capture the sense of fun adventure of the Harryhausen sword and sandals pictures (its main influence 1981’s ‘Clash of the Titans’ as well as ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and host of other b-movie adventures) with refreshing restraint.

Leterrier plays it all so very humble – it runs a scant one hour and forty minutes, not including credits, a welcomed minimalist philosophy which he seems to have extended into his creative rendering strategy.

While more comparable and more respected genre fantasies like ‘Avatar’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ wallow in overwrought super-seriousness ‘Clash of the Titans’ serves only to give its audience a good time, not to shower them with engorged special effects or convoluted plotting, or even overly designed sets, locations, monsters and like his main influence Ray Harryhausen, he keeps it simple stupid.

The Greek myth of Perseus provides the story for this adventure tale – though I haven’t brushed up on my Greek mythology, the original ‘Clash of the Titans’ is the real starting point for Leterrier. In flashback we meet a young Perseus, who is found by a humble working class fisherman, floating in a coffin with her dead mother. The fisherman raises Perseus to respect the Gods, but when Hades (God of the underworld) rears his evil head to destroy the populous city of Argos and kills his father in the process, Perseus becomes anti-religious and hell bent on revenge against Hades.

Perseus is taken in by the remaining Argos military and is recruited to help fight Hades and save the city from total destruction by the monstrous Kraken. Why not just kill everyone all at once? It’s part of the diabolical plan of Zeus to reestablish fear among the masses, fear of the Gods, and thus reclaim the order of world. Perseus’ quest has him fighting off giant scorpions, Medusa, his vengeful mutated stepfather Carabos, the Kraken and eventually Hades himself.

Leterrier’s version of the story departs significantly in a number of places for the better. Chiefly he discards the romantic angle of Perseus’ love for Andromeda, who in both films, must be sacrificed to appease the Kraken. Too many disposable blockbuster movies force feed us romantic subplots to increase the personal stakes of its hero, and giving us hyperbole like, 'it's not really action film, it's a love story'. Instead Perseus’s goals are refreshingly egalitarian, saviour of humanity, and on a personal level to avenge the death of father by the Gods.

The action scenes are conceived and choreographed in what seems consciously reactionary to the trend of overly-produced special effects extravaganzas of today. The giant scorpion battle for instance is a simple man vs. scorpion battle something which would have easily been conceived by Harryhausen himself. And there’s no need to mutate the scorpions or anything, they are just really big b-movie monster which as rendered expertly by CGI look as real as any human in the picture. Unfortunately and admittedly the Medusa sequence is CGI-heavy and thus one of the weaker sequences in the film, but not before Leterrier redeams himself with the fantastic climax with the Kraken.

The Olympus scenes are dramatized with wonderful campness. When we first glimpse the set and costume design of the heavenly Olympus we’re reminded of a couple other Titans-era fantasy classics – Richard Donner’s “Superman: The Movie” and John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur”. The glowing armour worn by Liam Neeson, Danny Huston, Alexander Siddig and the rest of the actors playing the Gods throwback to the design of Marlon Brando’ costume in ‘Superman’ or the shiny armour in ‘Excalibur’ or even the neon glow of ‘Tron.’

Neeson’s banter with fellow Schindler’s List-alum Ralph Fiennes is fun and free of the complicated dialogue of say the Harry Potter of LOTR films, which feels so desperately reverent to its source material. Sam Worthington is not great, but decent and is a good non-brooding alternative to big heads like Russell Crowe. Mads Mikkelson, the unsung Dane, emerges as the most sympathetic and the hero we silently cheer for. Thus his unworthy and uneventful death is a disappointment. The estrogen is supplied not by the sacrificed heroine Andromeda, but Gemma Arterton playing the helpful Lo, a hero cursed with everlasting life (also look out for her as the title character in a J Blakeson's awesome three-hander noir 'The Disappearance of Alice Creed'). Her girl-next-door demureness and silky pasty white skin which is surprisingly covered up with toga cloth, is a great tease. She’s one of the boys for most of the picture, until a genuine and understated attraction emerges with Perseus. Thankfully Letterier doesn’t betray us and force feed us that the romance he chose to avoid.

Clash of the Titans” need only be reverent to the sense of adventure of the great fantasy pictures of the late 70’s early 80’s. Louis Leterrier has admirably made a reactionary film to ‘Avatar’, respecting the audience and the genre enough not to compete with James Cameron, but to do a picture justice what someone like Stephen Somers would have fucked up beyond belief.

"Clash of the Titans" is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

A Prophet

A Prophet (2009) dir. Jacques Audiard
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi

****

by Alan Bacchus

Audiard’s latest feature is a muscular cinematic tour de force, which could, with time, rank itself near ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Heat’ and ‘City of God’ as undeniable and supremely entertaining and inspiring crime epic masterpieces.

Audiard throws us into a French prison with his young hero, Malik, who’s in for 6 years for assaulting a cop. Since he’s turned 19 he’s been moved from juvie to the big boys. Of course, he’s shy and awkward, but not afraid to stand up and show his toughness to the fellow prisoners. Since he’s Muslim he’s put in B- Block with others of his faith. On the other side are the Corsicans, French of Italian descent, who through their organized connections on the outside are the kings of the joint. Malik becomes ingratiated with the local boss Cesar Luciani when he’s forced into doing a hit on a fellow inmate.

Slowly we watch Malik play with the politics of the prison yard, playing both sides of the racial divide. When Malik is granted periodic day passes of leave, he elevates his influence outside the walls into his own empire of organized crime, eventually overtaking the once feared Luciani.

Tahar Rahim, as Malik, inhabits the skin of Malik. From the first scene, which brings him into the adult prison, we believe in Malik, and sympathize with him. There’s a distinct acknowledgement of Hollywood gangster history as Audiard chart’s Malik’s journey from young nave to sophisticated gangster. He’s part Michael Corleone, part Henry Hill, and through every step of the way Audiard is in Malik’s eyes and ears. Every moment of pause and reflection is dramatized with precision. Malik’s first hit on a fellow Muslim, who genuinely cares for Malik’s well being, is an intense and suspense sequence. We watch as Malik practices placing a razor blade in his mouth, and then removing it quickly to strike at his opponent - a scene, which, throughout the film, lingers in Malik’s memory often haunting him in moments of doubt. The plotting of the gangster politics is complex, and it takes a careful ear to catch everyone’s movements and motivations, but since Audiard never leaves Malik he’s a rock solid emotional base to which he always returns.

It’s prison life here and so it’s the world of men only. Audiard thankfully doesn’t even attempt to engineer a love story or any other attempts at redemption or escape from his life. For Audiard, Malik and thus, us, the audience it’s a struggle survival at every turn.

Thankfully we’re also saved from another social realism treatment of the subject. Unlike the over praised ‘Gomorrah’ (nope, I'm not a fan) Audiard mixes his prison grittiness with an assured cinematic flare. Freeze frame intertitles which tell us who the characters are, and introduce specific chapters of the story, serve no other purpose than for style; Audiard shows us a number of arty subjective dream sequences revealing Malik’s self-doubt; and a number of carefully placed but not overused songs add the right amount of pop culture anchoring as well. Unfortunately an opportunity to send the film into the stratosphere is missed with an ill-chosen ironic Mac the Knife cover by Jimmie Dale Gilmour, which takes the film into the credits. I couldn’t help but think of the effectiveness of Sid Vicious’ ‘My Way’ or Moby’s grandiloquent piano outro from ‘Heat’ or ELO’s ‘Living Thing’ from ‘Boogie Nights’, which ended those films with authority. ‘A Prophet’ unfortunately goes out with a wink instead of a bang. Oh well, its not enough to reduce the power of Audiard’s crime masterpiece.

A Prophet is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment


Monday, 26 July 2010

Barking Dogs Never Bite

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) dir. Bong Joon-Ho
Starring: Sung-jae Lee, Doona Bae

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

There's an old adage in Hollywood: "never kill the dog." Do whatever you can to any of the heroes ― splatter their brains over the wall, rip out teeth, arms, fingers ― but never, ever kill the dog in a movie. Writer/director Joon-Ho not only kills dogs, he strangles them, tosses them off roofs, skewers them like pigs on a spigot and carves them up to be boiled like stew. In Barking Dogs Never Bite, this conceptually unfriendly idea makes for a jet-black comedy of the peculiar Korean variety. And now that Bong Joon-Ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother) has become a celebrated, Cannes-worthy auteur, his first feature finally sees the light of day in North America on DVD.

Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) is an unemployed, frustrated college instructor. He lives in a drab high-rise complex with his overbearing girlfriend. When a yapping dog annoys him past the breaking point, he relieves his stress by stealing it, with the intention of killing it. His conscience won't allow that, but before he can rescue the doggy, a sadistic janitor has already skinned and boiled it for stew. Meanwhile, Hyeon-nam (Doona Bae), a government worker in the area who dreams of becoming a YouTube celebrity, witnesses one of Yun-ju's acts of cruelty and endeavours to be become the local hero she's always dreamt of and take down the mysterious dog kidnapper.

There's no doubt there's an iconoclastic director behind the camera. The audacious subject matter begs critics and audiences not to notice the picture, either to revile it or go along with the subversive ride. On a technical level, Jong-Ho's direction is pitch perfect steady cam work that roams the high-rise building with ease, slo-motion photography that highlights key comic beats in the action and dramatic camera angles that capture the sanitized uniformity and engulfing feeling of condo-living.

Beneath the surface, Joon-ho creates warm, genuine characters who we desperately want to succeed. Even Yun-ju, despite throwing dogs off the roof to relieve his angst, never comes off as cruel, but full of misplaced anger against a corrupt society that has wronged him. And cute heroine Hyeon-nam and her overweight convenience store clerk BFF are wonderfully drawn underachievers looking for a way to break out of their shamed existences.

It's important to note that these heinous acts of animal cruelty are never shown on screen and there's even a clear disclaimer at the beginning telling us no animals were harmed during the making of the picture. So, for those who can at least stomach the notion of killing dogs for comedy, Joon-ho fans will certainly take delight in his delicious screen debut.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Love the Beast

Love the Beast (2009) dir. Eric Bana
Documentary

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Before Eric Bana became famous for either his stand up comedy in Australia or his film work in Hollywood, he was a suburban gear head who loved muscle cars. Well, just one car in particular, his own car, a 1974 Ford XB Falcon Hardtop, the same car that (ahem) Mel Gibson rode in Mad Max. 25 years later, now that he’s famous enough and has the clout to make a personal film and himself and his car, this documentary is birthed.

After establishing the background to Bana’s upbringing in Australia and the source of his love for cars the film moves into the structural coat hanger of the story, that is Bana’s participation in a 5 day rally race through Tasmania. Some decent race footage and some genuine speed demon thrills make this section of the film watchable. But the repetitiveness of the message smells just like burning rubber.

Helping to analyze or support Bana is fellow car freak Jay Leno, some British TV personality named Jeremy Clarkson and Dr. Phil McGraw. Dr. Phil makes some thoughtful analysis of Bana’s obsessions, but Jay Leno makes only one joke in the film, otherwise staying as straight-faced as his post Conan debacle interview on Oprah, once again proving that he just isn’t funny at all.

Save for a brief scene on the red carpet premiere of his film ‘Lucky Numbers’ there’s no inward look at Bana’s celebrity and the effect of his career on his obsession with cars. It’s a shame, because why else would we care about someone else’s car unless it was a celebrity’s? The problem lies with the fact that Bana himself is the producer and director and thus unable to provide a true third person perspective on his own life.

Early on one of Bana’s interviewees explains to us how ‘non-car’ people can’t understand why ‘car-people’ can have a genuine relationship to an automobile, which, as non-car person, also explains my thoughts on this film. There isn’t much else going on thematically in Love the Beast that isn’t on the surface or told to us over and over again. Eric loves his car and we should all love it too – not all that fascinating, interesting or thought-provoking unless you’re a gear head like Bana and his mates.

Normally I hate the idea of having a director’s commentary on a documentary, after all, wasn’t the documentary the commentary? But in this case, Bana’s second hand ruminations on the film, the subjects, his cars, his celebrity life greatly enhance the film. Also included on the DVDs are lengthier but forgettable interviews with Bana and Clarkson, as well as a trailer, featuring the awesome Band of Horses song, Is There a Ghost, which unfortunately isn’t featured in the film.


Saturday, 24 July 2010

Despicable Me

Despicable Me (2010) dir. Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Starring: (Voices of...) Steve Carrell, Jason Segal, Russell Brand and Julie Andrews

*1/2

By Greg Klymkiw

They can doll these things up all they like, but most contemporary animated films are pretty much interchangeable and in spite of inexplicably over-the-top critical orgasms and astounding boxoffice, Despicable Me falls squarely into the been-there-done-that category. I can understand why most critics are raving about the movie. Most of them aren't what I'd bother to call critics - they're mere hacks (at worst) and/or glorified studio publicists (at best). What I don't understand is all the bucket-loads of family audiences filling the theatres for mediocre crap like this. Are these families that desperate for entertainment they can enjoy together that they'll succumb to almost any familiar, over-hyped picture, or are they merely that dull, unimaginative and stupid?

Despicable Me is a pallid reversal on The Incredibles, focusing upon a network of super-villains as opposed to the latter's world of Superheroes. One of the big differences between the two is that The Incredibles is made by a director (Brad Bird) who not only has a great sense of humour and storytelling, but a real appreciation for epic sweep and a true geek's affinity for the kind of derring-do that his fellow "losers" in the audience are also imbued with. Bird's film displays originality, genuine wit and thoroughly pulse-pounding action - action that is rooted in the dramatic beats, but is also expertly designed in terms of overall geography and pace. Despicable Me, on the other hand, is full of stale gags and a ho-hum plot. Most of all, the action sequences are frenetic, chaotic and have absolutely no sense of geography and/or dramatic resonance.

The plot, such as it is, deals with Gru (Steve Carrell), the world's Super-Villain #2 and his desire to unseat the young Super-Villain #1, an upstart by the name of Vector (Jason Segal). With the help of three cute-as-a-button orphans, Gru undertakes to become the most evil, heinous villain in the world. This dastardly curmudgeon is, however, transformed into a much kinder individual thanks to the charms of the orphans and his growing (ugh!) love for them.

Sound vaguely familiar? I thought so. It's a variation on virtually every contemporary animated movie.

For me, I found the whole affair so familiar that I genuinely can't remember much more than the dull plot. None of the jokes resonated with me at all. They were strictly dullsville. The opening sight gag involving the theft of the pyramids in Egypt is decent enough, but has apparently been screened in its entirety for months as a trailer.

Even though it's a family picture, would it have been so hard to shoehorn some delightfully, nastily, almost malevolent dark humour? It is, after all, a cartoon and that's the sort of humour both adults and kids love (a la the Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons from Warners). In the film's favour, we weren't inundated with endlessly annoying contemporary pop-culture references that are supposed to be funny and which, of course, are going to date all the pathetic animated films that do.

The look of the film is not without a few shreds of merit, but many of the gadgets and characters - while serviceable for the film's running time - don't last in the memory banks.

The vocal performances - while competent - are bereft of the sort of Cliff Edwards brilliance that knocks you on your butt and stays with you forever.

The pace, due to the frenetic nature of things, actually bogs the picture down. The Incredibles, for example, is twenty minutes longer and zips by so effortlessly, that one doesn't even want it to end. Despicable Me, on the other hand, inspires endless glances at one's trusty watch.

Other than being relatively inoffensive and reasonably watchable for its 95-minute running time, those are about the only things in its favour. Again, all I can ask is this: are audiences so starved for family-friendly material that they'll gladly watch any dung shovelled down their collective gullets? Frankly, there are any number of solid movies on the big screen and available for rent to watch at home that, while not "family friendly" in terms of being machine-tooled as such, families would be doing themselves and their kids a favour to avoid stuff like Despicable Me and see something else instead.

My own 9-year-old daughter loves the highly imaginative sci-fi horror picture Splice and has seen it several times on a big screen. It thrilled her, entertained her, stayed with her, provoked numerous helpings and most importantly, stimulated the sort of mind-expanding discourse that more kids would benefit from. Recent movies she watched on video included Oliver Stone's The Doors, the tremendously moving Al Pacino-Johnny Depp crime picture Donnie Brasco, a handful of Sidney Toler Charlie Chan pictures from Monogram and the classic Paul Newman-directed adaptation of Paul Zindel's powerful play, The Effect of Gamma Rays Upon Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. The results she derived with those pictures were equally rewarding as the pleasure Splice delivered to her.

So why drag the kids to such unimaginative fare? I don't want to believe that these parents and their progeny are equally unimaginative, but as one animated picture after another with a similar pedigree continues to rake in big dollars, I can only assume the worst.

My esteemed colleague here at Daily Film Dose has already pointed out the utter uselessness of the Real-D 3-D technology and I'm happy to do the same. All the technology really does is point to the emptiness of the work itself and worse, it actually renders mediocrity even more mediocre - due to the fact that all the picture's colours are darkened and muted to a point where one wonders what the point of the technology is? My own daughter, usually removes her 3-D glasses and she's not alone. At a recent screening of Despicable Me, I saw a ton of kids do likewise. Now, when I do bother to suggest an animated or family friendly picture to her, my daughter wants to know if it's in 3-D and if so, asks if we can see it in 2-D. The point of this technology is obvious - it has nothing to do with aesthetic considerations, but is simply a pathetic attempt to rope audiences into seeing something that's completely mediocre.

And finally, that's pretty much what Despicable Me is. It's so mediocre it doesn't even have the benefit of being dreadful enough to elicit utter hatred.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Armored Car Robbery

Armored Car Robbery (1950) dir. Richard Fleischer
Starring: Charles McGraw, William Talman, Adele Jergens, Douglas Fowley

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Old Hollywood b-movies were never shy about using extremely literal titles to tell audiences exactly what to expect. This one is perhaps the most literal of noir pictures I’ve seen. It’s just one of eight, count ‘em eight, film noirs movies included in the latest Warner Bros Film Noir Vol. 5.

Despite including pictures from Don Seigel, Anthony Mann, Edward Dmytryk and Vincent Sherman I chose this one, because well, it was listed as 63mins, and thus could sneak it in fast, and well, the title was just too intriguing to ignore. And Richard Fleischer is no slouch either, but more on that later.

Indeed Armed Car Robbery is about an armed car robbery. William Talman is Walter Purvis the mastermind of a new heist job which, if all goes right, will make he and his buddies rich. Purvis is tough as nails and clockwork in his method, but the job doesn’t go quite right, and one of the gunmans, Benny, is shot and injured. Despite Benny’s pleas he can’t go to a hospital, and after a confrontation is shot and killed.

With Benny found for dead it gives the cops the one lead to track down Purvis and the money. A cat and mouse chase between cops and robbers ensues with a buxom stripper named Yvonne Le Doux at the centre of it all.

Armored Car Robbery works best as an iron clad procedural in the traditional of the crime work of Michael Mann. In fact the rhythm and construction of the police investigation with the perps' escape recalls the Pacino/De Niro dynamic in Heat. On the side of the cops is the equally ruthless hardliner Lt. Cordell (Charles McGraw) who, like Pacino’s character, commands his troops and analyzes the evidence with workmanlike efficiency.

But let’s not aggrandize this film too much though, Heat this is not, nor is it M, or High and Low, the two essential classics of the procedural genre. In Robbery we never quite sure who to root for. Most often in heist films we cheer for the robber, who often steals for a purpose other than just money, or for the fact that they are charming or charasmatic. Purvis is no hero, not even an anti-hero, and thus we never really feel any warmth or attraction to him. Is it the cops? Do we want the cops to catch the thief? Unfortunatly Lt. Cordell is thinly drawn, not much deeper than a mere characterization of a cop instead of a hero with a journey.

As such this noir is simply an exercise in style – a series of crafty set pieces choreographed and directed with considerable flare by director Richard Fleischer, who is certainly no hack – a director who would go onto a successful career of populist entertaining classics such as the Fantastic Voyage, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Soylent Green and even all the way up to 1984’s Conan the Destroyer.

Armored Car Robbery is available in the Film Noir Collection Vol 5. from Warner Bros Home Video.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Storm

Storm (2010 dir. Hans-Christian Schmid
Starring: Kerry Fox, Anamaria Marinca, Stephen Dillane, Rolf Lassgård, Kresimir Mikic

***

By Alan Bacchus

If you haven’t heard of Film Movement, it’s one of the more unique film distributors around, an institution as treasured as say, the Criterion Collection. Film festival-goers know that some of the best films are the ones you have no expectations or advance knowledge about, but unfortunately, despite the quality, many of these never see the light again. Well, the mandate of Film Movement is to ensure these films find a home this side of the continent. And through its unique monthly DVD service club every month one of these films comes directly to you.

The selection for June is Hans-Christian Schmid’s Storm, a multilingual German-Dutch-Bosnian-Serbian co-pro which was lauded in Berlinale in 2009, and only now finds its audience in the US and Canada.

The title refers to the aggressive action taken against the Serbian leaders for their genocidal atrocities in the 90’s. Brit Kerry Fox plays Hannah the prosecutor for The Hague’s War Tribunal against a wily Serbian commander, a fictionalized version of Slobodan Milosevic or Radovan Karadzic. It would appear to be a slam dunk until Hannah’s key eye witness perjures himself and then dies in an apparent suicide attempt.

Hope is restored when the sister of the witness Mira (Anamarie Marinca) reluctantly reveals herself to be the real eye witness. Despite death threats and other terrorism tactics against her and her family Mira ponies up the gumption to talk about the atrocities she’s witnessed and take down the war criminals for good.

There’s a distinct Soderbergh/Gaghan neo-political tone which puts itself into the Syriana, Traffic, Michael Clayton brand of thriller. While there's some threats of violence against Mira and covert spy tactics threatening Hannah, the stakes of the film exist in the big picture demand to see the Serbian War Criminals find Justice. Unfortunately we don’t know the Serb too well, despite having the film’s entire opening sequence devoted to his capture.

For good and bad, the pacing and volume is also deliberately muted –establishing its credibility and responsibility to the struggles of the characters’ real world equivalents who to this day continue to exact justice. In an effort not to sensationalize the subject matter it also means external conflict and tension don’t quite reach the magnitude we need to truly feel the cinematic emotional punch of the story. After all its lawyers vs. lawyers as the baddies, who, for the most part are faceless suits pulling strings off screen and in the background.

That said there’s a fabulous lead performance from Kerry Fox which was virtually invisible to the world cinema landscape at large. Hell, she was better than Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, but I doubt Oscar ever crossed any Academy member's mind. The other added attraction is seeing 4 Month, 3 Weeks, 2 Days’ Anamaria Marinca on screen again. She has such remarkable eyes and reactions, and with very little to work with, she, as in her more famous role, is magnetic.

Storm, a 2009 Berlin IFF winner, is now available on DVD from Film Movement. For info about Film Movement Canada’s DVD of the Month Club, click HERE

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Roman Holiday

Roman Holiday (1953) dir. William Wyler
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert

***

By Alan Bacchus

Like the breezing feeling of driving around the Roman Portico on a Vespa, such is the experience of watching Roman Holiday, the delightful romantic comedy and screen debut of Audrey Hepburn and accidental advertising campaign for Vespa scooters.

Miss Hepburn in first major screen role at the age of 24, plays Princess Ann, a royal from an unspecified country, likely patterned after then youthful princess Elizabeth II who was inaugurated as the Queen the year before. Ann’s come to Rome on an official visit, which means endless days of bows, curtsies, pomp and ceremony. As she watches the vivacious energy of the common people in the streets she desperately yearns to experience the city this way. The night before she’s due to leave Rome she escapes from the room and lands herself in the middle of Rome at night.

Sleepy-headed and thus out of sorts, she falls into the company of a handsome journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), and winds up sleeping on his couch. The next morning, Joe and Princess Ann gallivant around the city riding Vespas, getting her hair done, sight seeing etc. Only Joe knows it’s actually the Princess and hides the fact that he’s a journalist in order to get an exclusive story. Even though they fall in love her royal duties prevent her from being with Joe, but not before Princess Ann admonishes her affection for him in a coy speech to the press in the film’s finale.

Roman Holiday feels like a template film for modern romantic comedies – specifically 'Notting Hill', and virtually every romcom made by Garry Marshall. Despite being a royal of privilege and wealth her character is written as a porcelain doll unable to experience the real joys in life – only the fake, manufactured life of being a public figure to be gawked at like an ornament on the mantelpiece. Thus the audience feels empowered to see the upper class in a position of superiority. But it’s really fairytale stuff, a reverse Cinderella/Pygmalion story which isn’t all the original in the first place.

Conflict is kept to a minimum for the most part, as Joe is never really taken to task for his deception of Ann. There’s also some laughable lapses in cinema logic – specifically the idea that the Princess can walk around Rome not noticed. Or even that by cutting her hair she would be rendered completely invisible. But there’s no such thing as common sense in cinema as long as it fits into the formalized structure of the genre. And this screenplay is crafted to genre-perfection.

The screenplay, written by then blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, who couldn’t take credit for the work, was originally packaged for Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant. When Hepburn replaced Taylor Grant bowed out for fear of being upstaged by the meatier role and Hepburn’s innate on screen charm. Peck admirably shares the screen and the starring credit, furthering his reputation as a Hollywood nice guy. Hepburn even won an Oscar for the work.

In 1953, the on location setting was new and fresh, and even with today’s eyes Rome in the 1950’s is rendered impossibly romantic. And with Peck and Hepburn searing the screen it justly remains a classic today, a dreamy romcom par excellence.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Why So Serious?: An Open Letter to Leonardo Di Caprio


Warning: A minor 'Inception' SPOILER towards the end

Dear Leo,

I think I speak for a lot of film goers in saying that we all are impressed at the rise of your career and the integrity and maturity you have shown your film roles post-Titanic – a film which could have turned you into a completely different actor than the one you are today. In fact, it seemed as if over the past 13years both you and Kate Winslet chose the same path, avoiding trappings of Blockbusterism, youth idolatry, and for lack of a better word‘selling out’ , and converged again recently on Revolutionary Road , which unfortunately represents a sad career misstep which is one of the reasons why this article is being written.

Titanic and beyond, the calibre of filmmakers you have worked with is impressive: James Cameron, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and now Christopher Nolan. Clearly you are choosing filmmakers with a track record of greatness, but also with the exception of Mr. Nolan, filmmakers over the age of 60 and, arguably, past their prime.

Why not seek out Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, the Coen Bros, Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, hell, even Guy Ritchie or Judd Apatow.

But most importantly where’s your sense of humour?



Each of your post-Titanic roles, with the exception of Catch Me if You Can, and Celebrity (which was a cameo appearance anyways and thus doesn’t really count) have been rot with brooding emotional melodrama, tortured souls and dark journeys into madness and heartbreak. Let’s go through them:

The Beach – of course a famous debacle, a film both you and Danny Boyle have probably tried to forget since making it. That saying it looked like you were having fun, frolicking in the wondrously pristine Thai beaches. Sure it’s not a perfect film but there’s some exuberance and energy in your performance which we just don’t seen anymore.

Gangs of New York – As Amsterdam, the Irish immigrant seeking revenge against the enemies of his deceased and martyred father, though few could stand as tall as Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in this film, you hold your own as best you can, playing Amsterdam with a hint of Hamlet’s internalised self-doubt and hesitation. I like the film and I like you, but why so serious?


The Aviator – Sure, I know, it was a passion project for you, bringing it to Mr. Scorsese personally to direct. As Howard Hughes, the strange and eccentric madman/genius billionaire, you got all the right ticks and quirks of his obsessive personality down pat, but despite the film’s praise and your Oscar nomination, why so serious?

The Departed – Again, a very good film. Another Oscar nomination and perhaps your best performance of all these films. You inject in Billy Costigan a bubbling cauldron of tension and rage which, because of your situation as an undercover cop, you cannot express. This is all palpable in your performance specifically your sweaty face and twitchy hands. But again, we never see you crack a smile or make a joke.


Blood Diamond –Your Oscar nomination notwithstanding, it’s a bad movie. I’m sorry, it is. Under the blockhead direction of Edward Zwick the important political message of the heinous diamond trade in Africa got turned into an sup-par action movie. But a humourless action movie with a message, again, why so serious? If you’re going to make an action movie, however silly, I’d prefer National Treasure/Pirates of the Caribbean-style Jerry Bruckheimer vehicle.

Next up was the abominable Body of Lies, co-starring an actor also plagued with an inability to have a laugh or poke fun of himself, Russell Crowe. Lies seemed to be intended as a 70’s paranoia throwback but just never worked. As Roger Ferris, we found yourself in another tough role, without nary an ounce of lightness or humour to counteract the serious political messages.

Revolutionary Road – We enter an especially heavy period in your career. Beginning with Road, your return to the screen with Kate Winslet was a beat down of monumental proportions, taking us into the depths of unenviable despair. Broken dreams, delusions of grandeur, suicides, there was little for us to get behind your performance in this one, flying far over the top with melodramatic emotional histrionics. I blame Sam Mendes on that one. I’m sure you had better takes than the ones chosen for the final cut. I could even detect a hint of regret in your press junket interviews.



Shutter Island – Again, we found you taking a character into the lower depths, lower than even Revolutionary Road, this time into true madness, the 1950’s straight-jacketed lobotomy kind of madness. Again, dead wives, dead kids, the Holocaust are at the heart of this one.



Which brings up to date with Inception , with Christopher Nolan at the height of career and so you can’t no to a Christopher Nolan film. But again, we see you afflicted with the pain of another suicidal wife, in a complex emotionally heavy role not all that different than Shutter Island.

So please take a breather, shave off that goatee, take off that tie, put on some sneakers and chill out. Take a page from Brad Pitt’s book. He’s not particularly funny, but has a knack of choosing a variety of roles from those brooding melodramas like ‘Jesse James’ or ‘Benjamin Button’ but also disposable comedies like ‘Burn After Reading’, the Oceans movies and Snatch. Brad Pitt has much less Oscar nominations than you, equal star status and clout as you. Yet he consistently takes risks, working with new talent like Guy Ritchie, or Andrew Dominik.

I think we all know the story how Paul Thomas Anderson sourced you out for the role of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights but instead chose Titanic. Titanic made you what you are today, but at the same time, gave you a safety net of risk averse comfort which has resulted in many of these serious and unmemorable roles which sadly do not challenge your fine acting skills.

Thank you for your attention,

Alan

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Inception

Inception (2010) dir. Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

In the body of work of Christopher Nolan, if we call the trio of Memento, The Prestige and now Inception, a ‘puzzle trilogy’ of sorts, Inception is the biggest and most ambitious of the bunch – a retooling of Philip K. Dick’s alternate reality stories (ie. The Matrix/Dark City/Total Recall) realm of virtual reality sci-fi. It’s a very big film, too big for it’s own good perhaps, a jenga tower of high concept ideas and sci-fi scenarios which miraculously manages to hold itself together but not without severe strain on its joints.

At times it’s audacious, thrilling and visually inventive and at many other times, tedious plot driven exercise in style which can barely keep up with its own inventions. Sadly it’s Nolan’s weakest film.

Leonardo Di Caprio plays Cobb the leader of a group of near future thieves of sorts who enters people’s dream to extract valuable information to use for nefarious purposes. After their latest job goes wrong Cobb finds himself working for the same Japanese businessman, Saito, he was stealing from in a new and more dangerous game of corporate espionage. Cobb’s mission, should he chose to accept it (oops wrong movie), is to enter the mind of the son of a corporate CEO to implant the idea of dissolving his company thus allowing Saito to take over the market. And.. breathe.

The first hour of Inception is mostly agonizing, watching the fine actors struggle to get through the dense informational dialogue establishing the rules of Nolan’s near future fantasy world. Virtually every word out of the actors' mouths explains either the rules of dream travel or the details of the intending heist. Long-winded pronunciations among the characters are read out with breathless pace in order to the keeping the running time down and to quicker get into the meat and potatoes of the film. And with so much information, there is absolutely no room for character or any relationships between the characters.

Cobb is the only one with any emotional through line, unfortunately Di Caprio is handed down yet another tortured soul character, a widower whose wife committed suicide, a death blamed on him and thus unable to return to his country and be with his kids, it’s dull depressing stuff - the latest in a decade long series of ultra heavy unhumourous roles for Di Caprio.

Despite the strenuous exposition, Nolan’s due diligence has a purpose and it’s all groundwork laid down so we can understand the last hour and a half. The plan of attack Cobb’s crack of team of dreamscapers come up with is rendered logical. Though with every new rule or concept we learn about dreamworld threatens to topple down Nolan’s precarious house of cards.

Though it’s not a traditional action film Nolan crafts a number of action sequences to keep the fire burning under the asses of us the audience and the characters. Unfortunately the chases and gunfire feel more a perfunctory humdrum exercises, action filmmaking 101 with little flare or ingenuity we expect from such an ambitious film. The opening sequence is so poorly shot we have no idea what is going on, and the final snow base sequence comes so out of left field, it feels like we’re plopped into ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, ‘Where Eagles Dare’, or ‘G.I. Joe’.

Where Inception succeeds best is in the execution of the last hour which plays out like a traditional movie heist movie. The choosing of the individual men and women of expertise, the forger, the chemist, the architect set up a triple decker dream within a dream sequence, which Nolan miraculously makes sense out of.

The main set piece action scene taking place in three spheres of reality all occurring at the same moment is truly heartpounding and the stuff of inspiration. The denouement is classic Nolan, the rhythm of editing, music and the obtuse open-ended question mark we’re left with has the same cinematic cadence as the endings of Memento and The Prestige. It doesn’t work as well as those other movies, because, well, it’s the third time round.

I think we can consider Nolan tapped out of this genre, at least for now. Otherwise the repetition would start to stink like Brian DePalma self-thievery. And so, despite much of the praise from audiences and critics, Inception is thrilling but highly flawed, sloppy, but ambitious enough to command my attention, two, three and likely many more times over.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Greenberg

Greenberg (2010) dir. Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mark Duplass, Chris Messina

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Well, I didn’t completely hate the film, which doesn’t exactly make for a quotable recommendation, but after suffering through two thirds of another dreadfully navel gazing idiosyncratic Baumbach comedy/drama, the final act surprisingly moved me from the category of detest to a slight acknowledge of admiration.

There’s no doubt we’re in the internalized emotional world of Noah Baumbach, who makes updated Gen X slacker movies for intellectual hipsters (ie. Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding). This time round he crafts a study of his title character Roger Greenberg (Stiller) who has been released from the hospital for a nervous breakdown (and possibly a suicide attempt). What’s eating Greenberg you ask? He’s forty, with a once promising music career, but now finds himself as a failed artist with a failed relationship who can only make a living as a carpenter. When he arrives in Los Angeles to housesit his brother’s luxurious home in the Hills and their sick German shepherd dog, it becomes the opportunity to reconcile his anxieties with the help of his brother’s flighty assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig).

While we can all relate to some of the career and relationship anxieties in Greenberg’s life Baumbach injects his character with such a self-loathing misplaced by an annoying self-absorption he becomes so unlikeable and unpleasant. Alexander Payne’s Sideways makes for a good comparison. Like Greenberg Paul Giamatti’s Miles suffers from the same ailments but has the ability to turn off his depression to correlate like a regular person. Greenberg wears his self hatred like a badge on his down-filled vest.

Greta Gerwig a veteran of those formerly-labelled mumblecore films is delightful as Florence, a striking beauty demurely hidden behind a dressed down appearance and her character's insecurity issues. Though why she is attracted to Greenberg in the first place is a fabrication too far-reaching for us to understand. It’s the same annoyance I get when Woody Allen casts likes of Winona Ryder or even Diane Keaton or Mariel Hemingway as his romantic co-stars. Manhattan, this is not.

This indulgence of Baumbach’s is the most difficult to hurdle. While Miles in Sideways, could be oddly charming and self-effacing in an attractive way, Greenberg is an annoying shit from beginning to end, causing us to wonder why he was released from the hospital in the first place. The two hook up on their second encounter, and with little small talk or flirting Greenberg kisses Florence and then moves to heavy-petting and oral sex in a matter of seconds. The Florences of this world do not take their panties off for grossly underweight released-released mental rehab patients.

Baumbach’s dialogue and Harris Savides’s observant and unobtrusive cinematography create the same kind of naturalism as in Squid and Margot. Unfortunately the naturalism of tone doesn’t match the ridiculous progression of Greenberg’s relationship with Florence.

As mentioned, the film finally hits its gear in the third act during a rambunctious party of 20 year olds his niece holds at the house. Greenberg is offered and partakes in some lines of coke and turns into a twitchy party monster. Stiller also comes alive believably exaggerating his character’s personality ticks to great effect. As Greenberg bounces about the party and tries to fit in with kids half his age, we finally get to see him in his former glory and why his fall from grace could have caused such severe depression.

And in the end, his dramatic confession to both himself and Florence is cleverly set up and executed. But is it all worth it to be pummelled with pretentious and overly indulgent characters we despise in order to find the heart of the film at the end. I’d say, a reluctant yes.

"Greenberg" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Odd Man Out

Odd Man Out (1947) dir. Carol Reed
Starring: James Mason, Robert Newton, Kathleen Ryan, Robert Beatty, Elwyn Brook-Jones

****

By Alan Bacchus

I recently had a chance to watch John Ford’s 1935 classic The Informer, a story of a reluctant IRA informant rattled with guilt over his responsibility for the death of his compatriot. Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out makes for a great companion piece. Reed’s portrait of a wounded IRA leader stumbling through Belfast looking for refuge from the British authorities plays like a surreal Homer's Odyssey version of John Ford’s story.

At the top Jimmy McQueen (James Mason), the recently escaped leader of the clandestine ‘Organization’ of Northern Ireland, is plotting a bank heist to help fund the further activities of their war against the British. After the heist goes awry McQueen is stranded from his colleagues, stumbling away from the authorities. As McQueen’s men scramble to find him the British hunt is intensified, and one by one McQueen’s men are captured.

Throughout the day McQueen stumbles from one situation to another encountering the citizens of the town he’s sworn to help. Unfortunately his presence in the various bars, cabs, or flats he moves through is met with fear and hostility more than anything else. The only one looking after McQueen’s best interests is his girlfriend who yearns to reconnect with him and save him from British authorities or the opportunistic vultures of his own people.

While The Informer was unabashedly sympathetic to the IRA, Reed’s film is not so clear cut. The explicit non-use of the name IRA in favour of the innocuous term ‘The Organization’ suggests some trepidation on Reed’s part not to make a political statement. Despite some opinions of other critics, from these eyes Reed walks a fine line between condemnation of the IRA movement and patriotic support.

At every turn in McQueen’s journey he’s met with schemers and subverters looking to capitalize or profit on having knowledge of McQueen’s whereabouts – a particularly negative treatment of Irish nationalism. Whereas in Ford’s picture, other than the lead character’s betrayal at the beginning, there’s a familial feeling of collectivism and support for each other.

Of course, Reed’s picture could be classified tonally as a noir as opposed to Ford’s elegant melodramatic treatment of his story. Made in 1947 Odd Man Out is as tense and unsettling as the noir genre demands. Visually, Robert Kraster’s contrast and shadowy photography seems like a practise run for Reed/Krasker’s cinematic visual perfection of The Third Man a few years later.

Arguably Reed reaches farther than he did in The Third Man in terms of visual image as metaphorical storytelling. Watch the changing environment as McQueen’s state becomes more dour. At the beginning, it’s bright and cheerful, reflecting the optimism of McQueen’s plan. After he’s shot and begins to wander the city for help, sun turns into rain, then fog, then snow – the full gamut of weather conditions like a one’s life flashing before one’s eyes the moment before death.

While the narrative is directed by the movements of McQueen throughout the day, arguably his presence is a mere prop for Reed to craft his rather compartmentalized individual scenes and set pieces. Each new sequence is dominated by a new scene-stealing supporting character. The woman who betrays McQueen’s two men for instance, who at first think they’re in the company of a friendly supporter when in reality she's a backstabbing traitor. Or the crazed painter who desires to find McQueen in order to paint the emotion of man near death is as treacherous a portrayal of patriotism as anything I can think of.

Films like Odd Man Out and The Informer survive well these many years not only because of the filmmakers' superlative eye behind the camera but these complex and intellectually challenges reactions of their characters to their intense situations.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Winter's Bone

Winter’s Bone (2010) dir. Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

There’s some really smart storytelling going on in Winter’s Bone. At once, it’s a refreshing thriller/neo-noir anchored in character, featuring actors and locations few of us have seen before. Yet, writer/director Debra Granik builds up her textured film on the foundation of familiar Western genre tropes, resulting in a comforting genre-based familiarity but with all indie production credibility in tact.

The set up has the simplicity of a Budd Boetticher western, that is, the 1950’s Western auteur known for his minimalist collaborations with Randolph Scott. In the sparse, cold and monumentally depressing rural Ozarks, 17 year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is given some awful news. Her father, a lifetime criminal recently arrested for a drug deal, has put up his house as collateral for his bond. This means if Dad doesn’t show up at court Ree and her invalid mother and two child siblings lose their home.

In storytelling terms these are the ‘stakes’ - the characters, environment, the tone and the genre are immediately apparent to us thus jump starting this film. We get this information in a matter of minutes, a common mistake made by inexperienced filmmakers who love to ease audience into their films and consequently boring them to shit. In Winter’s Bone, there’s a mature old Hollywood feeling to this set up.

Ree’s journey doesn’t take her far geographically, but mentally and physically her internal strength is pushed to limits. In order to find her father she immediately seeks out his family, specifically her brother, another nefarious criminal connected deep into the hillbilly meth crime network. As Ree’s Uncle, Teardrop, John Hawkes, the veteran character actor, deliver’s the film’s most iconic performance, with an arc which swings from isolated belligerent loner to heroic champion of his family.

Evil characters seems to lurk in virtually every corner of the Ree’s town, most of whom are directly related to her. Of course, this is also the world of Deliverance, but dramatized and realized with a more reverent tone than the kitchy treatment of Boorman's inbred hillbillies.

When it’s rumoured her father has been killed by his rival drug dealers, suddenly Ree finds herself confronting and negotiating with her enemies to save the lives of her family. In the final act, Ree is offered a means of keeping her house with the completion of one task, which makes for a gruelling climax, but one which leaves the audience a feeling of satisfying closure and a strange feeling of optimism, thus freeing itself from the trap of cinematic cynicism which plagues this modern neo-noir or revisionist westerns.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Tulpan

Tulpan (2008) dir. Sergei Dvortsevoy
Starring: epbergen Baisakalov, Ondas Besikbasov, Samal Esljamova, Askhat Kuchencherekov

***

By Alan Bacchus

We've never seen a landscape as dull as this make for such peculiar and inspired cinema. We're in the desert of Kazakhstan, which is even remoter and more alien than the Borat version, a land of flat, infinite horizons, perpetual gusting winds, camels, sheep, a hut or two and one motor vehicle. That's it. That's all we get visually from 'Tulpan', Sergei Dvortsevoy's feature debut that won the En Certain Regard Award at Cannes in 2008; it's a fresh, funny, emotionally resonant and wholly unique experience.

Asa is one of the stranger movie protagonists we've seen in a while: a Kazakh youth with a funny face, short hair parted in the middle, wingtip bangs and big Prince Charles ears. He's just returned from a tour with the Russian navy and he's introduced telling wild tales of far-off lands to his family members; it's revealed later that it's part of Asa's ritual courtship for the hand of a local gal Tulpan. Unfortunately, despite never meeting, Tulpan rejects him solely based on the size of his ears. It's earth shattering to Asa, whose only dream is to raise a family and a flock of sheep in his homeland. But without a wife this is impossible. Poor Asa, as Tulpan is the only single girl in the vicinity, and like his brother-in-law, Ondas, argues: "he's got two arms and two legs, what's not to like?"

Dvortsevoy isn't so much concerned with detailing a romance as showing us the strange lifestyle of accepted sparseness and solitude of the Kazakh people. The camera lingers on the wide expanses of the land and moves only when motivated by the people and animals that cross its path. Even when nothing is happening the sound of whistling winds and the grunting of camels and sheep are strangely fascinating. Much time is spent with the sheep ― an important aspect of the livelihood of the characters. There's a problem with the pregnant females giving birth to still babies and Asa and Ondas's investigation makes for an eye-opening lesson in sheep birthing and mouth-to-mouth lamb CPR.

There are no overt gags but these strange, otherworldly moments contrasted against the characters' awareness of the world and pop culture is deadpan hilarious. The use of Boney M's "River of Babylon" is a great ironic moment; Asa and his friend 'Boni' in the middle of the desert rocking out to the '70s German/West Indian disco-reggae band is a symbol of connectivity even in the remotest places on Earth.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Smash His Camera

Smash His Camera (2010) dir. Leon Gast
Documentary

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

From the DFD Sundance 2010 archives...While Leon Gast examined the cult of personality so effectively via Muhammad Ali in “When We Were Kings”, in “Smash His Camera” Gast turns his camera back onto the men behind the lens who help create the persona of celebrities like Ali. “Smash His Camera” is no less fascinating than “Kings”, an utterly captivating portrait of the king of all Paparazzi Ron Galella, who famously stalked Jackie Onassis for 30 years and was even more famous for getting punched out by Marlon Brando.

For every four letter word he’s had thrown at him Galella has shot hundreds more stunning photographs of the world’s most famous people captured in truthful realism. There are few people who would condone the behaviour of a man like Galella, who plies his trade like a bottom feeding stalker jumping out at his subjects from any possible covert vantage point. Yet when Gaella and Gast show us the results of his work we can’t help but marvel at his artistic creations.

And when you hear the war stories from Galella‘s mouth as well as his domestic life with his devoted wife of over 20 years, our perception of Galella as the devil incarnate changes. Through interviews with admirers and denouncers Gast captures this contradiction with a light and humourous tone for maximum entertainment value.

Early on one of the interviewees, a fellow photographic artist, remarks that photography is an art form that anyone can do competently, but its the most difficult medium to master - a skill which doesn‘t require dexterity but an innate ability to capture truth on film with just one‘s eye. Gaella has that knack, but unfortunately it took 35 years of abuse and vilification to get respect for his work.

Gaella is from the old school of photographers, when they shot on real film, in black and white, and without the relentless competition today from anyone with a point and shoot digital camera. Because of Galella’s gung ho style and refusal to take no for an answer Galella became the best of his business.

As a subject Gaella is a fascinating personality, a New Jersey working class professional with an affable self aware and self-deprecating quality. In fact, one of his most famous photos wasn’t taken by him but features Galella photographing Marlon Brando from behind wearing a football helmet. Gast gets Galella to recount his encounters with Brando, Robert Redford, Liz Taylor and others. But it’s his 30 year subject of choice, Jackie O who gets in depth analysis. When asked about why he chose Ms. Onassis as his favourite subject he can only answer that perhaps he was in love with her. The constant chase between the two indeed when described and documented by Gast feels like a long rocky marriage.

Its too bad we don’t get reactions from Jackie O herself or the celebrities he harassed all these years. Though perhaps its for the best, for that would be a different documentary, and arguably a lesser one. ‘Smash His Camera‘ works so well because due to Galella‘s affable sense of humour and quirky obsessions Gast manages to get us to love this man who has caused such frustration and nuisance to the people he encounters on a daily basis.

'Smash His Camera' is currently airing on HBO

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Wild Grass (Les herbes folle)

Wild Grass - Les herbes folle dir. Alain Resnais
Starring: Andre Dussolier, Sabine Azema, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Delos and Mathieu Amairic.

*

By Greg Klymkiw

This movie makes no sense.

Purporting to tell the story of George Palet (Andre Dussolier), a seemingly benign old man who finds an abandoned wallet near his car in a parking garage, "Wild Grass" never, at any point, betrays a smidgen of knowing what it's supposed to be about. We most certainly have no idea who the main character is. Very quickly after he finds the wallet, however, we sense he might be a psychopath as he ogles two sexy women and complains in his thoughts about their provocative garb. He even contemplates murdering one of them.

Ah, we think, a thriller.

When he examines the wallet and sees the picture of its owner Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azema), a dour, plain, oily-faced, frizzy-haired carrot top, he becomes instantly smitten with her lack of charm. We're now no longer convinced he's a psycho, but a hapless brick head.

As George mulls over what to do with the wallet - should he deliver it directly to her or take it to the police - we're delivered the most idiotic bit of information imaginable. It would seem Marguerite is a dentist AND an aviatrix. Well, in the movies, anything is possible, so we're willing to be mildly intrigued in spite of smelling more than a few unpleasant wafts of what an irredeemable piece of pretentious crap this is going to be.

Upon deciding he must take the wallet to the police, he encounters Bernard de Bordeaux (Mathieu Amairic), a compassionate desk sergeant who immediately senses that George is indeed troubled. At this point, more than a few hints have been dropped that George might very well be insane.

Hmm. Maybe this IS going to be a thriller - especially when George becomes obsessed with Marguerite and proceeds to harass her on the telephone, stalk her and demand that she meet him face-to-face. She refuses, as she has already thanked him once. However, George keeps insisting that his act of kindness DEMANDS a face-to-face meeting.

Well, he might be crazy, but perhaps he's not a psychopath. In fact, he might just be a lonely old man wanting to reach out to an individual who APPEARS in her photo to be someone who needs him - though, in reality, due to his badgering, she most definitely needs him like a cluster of genital warts on her mons veneris.

When we discover George is obsessed with meeting and seducing the frizz-haired frump in spite of being married to the young, sexy Suzanne (Anne Consigny), a wife who is devoted to him, puts up with his dour nature AND appears to not notice how old and ugly he is, we are for certain convinced he is completely out of his mind.

When he slashes all the tires on Marguerite's car in order to stop her from going to work so he can force himself upon her and then, not having the nerve to face her, he leaves a note of apology and explanation on her windshield, it becomes plainly apparent that this movie is going nowhere fast - especially when the frump begins to obsess over George.

At one point, Marguerite becomes so obsessed with George that she arranges a meeting with Suzanne and the two of them bond while - I kid you not - George seduces Marguerite's mind-numbingly sexy colleague Josepha (Emmanuelle Delos), a dentist who looks like she morphed off a Vogue magazine cover.

At this point, the film becomes so increasingly obtuse, precious and pretentious that the only way to keep watching it is to nail your feet to the floor,

This loathsome pile of artsy-fartsy garbage not only won a Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival, but garnered quite a few stellar reviews. This, I think, is more than enough proof that the fall of Western Civilization is upon us. And yes, Resnais directed the classic "Hiroshima Mon Amour", an art film of compelling, timeless beauty, but it's no reason to cut the guy some slack.

This is, purely and simply, an abominable film experience.

See it at your peril.

Better yet, just go see "Jonah Hex".

Friday, 9 July 2010

Sudden Impact

Sudden Impact (1983) dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Sandra Locke, Pat Hingle, Paul Drake

***

By Alan Bacchus

By far the most monetarily successful entry in the venerable cop series is Sudden Impact, the fourth go around the ornery, vigilante cop who works in the most liberal city in America. This contradictory setup still has legs and results in sustained entertainment.

Though he was born in the 70’s the Callaghan character was made for the 80’s. His staunchly conservative values and shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude fits rights into the zeitgeist of this rather unpleasant decade of cinema. Thankfully Warner Bros execs, who know the crime genre better than anybody, never did let the series fall into self-parody or corny cartoonish action.

The 80s is palpable here though. It’s much grimmer and violent, with a dozen or so extremely grisly deaths throughout. This time round Dirty Harry investigates a series of murders of a group of men all killed in the same manner – a shot to the groin and a shot to the head. Behind the grisy acts is Jennifer (Sandra Locke), a mousy and unassuming gal, and former rape victim who has come back to town to get revenge on her assailants. Locke's performance, deeply psychological and intense, is a stark contrast to Callaghan's bubblegum baddies of the '70s. She is simply fantastic and Oscar-worthy.

Key to Harry’s dramatic arc in this one is his new Magnum gun – not a revolver, but an automatic pistol/phallus which he keeps in a case in his house for ‘special occasions’. Of course, the beast of a gun comes out at the end when he confronts the leader of the rapists.

The picture loses some credibility with a couple of inexplicable narrative coincidences. Chiefly the relationship Harry develops with Jennifer, a random meeting between two people, a cop and his suspect. And Harry in a relationship just doesn’t feel right. The idea of these two people having romantic pillow talk is too chilly to believe. Thankfully we don’t see much a romance, more of a silent acknowledge of respect from Harry to Jennifer for avenging these unpunished bad deeds.

As the only entry directed by Clint, there’s a distinct panache behind the camera not evident since the Don Siegel-directed original. Clint’s usual super 35mm process widens the screen out even more. And as far as the famous catch-phrase, 'Go ahead make my day', it caps off a well-directed sequence - Harry using his Magnum force and a succinct line of dialogue to convince the robber of a cafe to surrender. The scene is truly worthy of this great one-liner.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

A Single Man

A Single Man (2009) dir. Tom Ford
Starring: Colin Firth, Matthew Goode, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult

****

By Alan Bacchus

Primo fashion designer Tom Ford makes an auspicious transition into filmmaking with one of the best films of last year - a truly mesmerizing, intense and passionate introspective look at love, loss and the barriers to grief for a gay man in the 1960’s. And second go around on DVD, the film holds up admirably.

As the former creative director of Gucci, we all know Tom Ford has style, and indeed the wardrobe is impeccable and precise without being overwhelming. In fact the visual design of the entire film seems to trickle down from George Falconer’s suits and black-rimmed glasses into every corner of Ford’s stunning frames. In fact, it’s the most visually-pleasing film of the year, remarkable considering it’s not in 3-D and there is certainly no blue Na’vi.

Ford’s film is based on the novel of the same name written in 1964 by Christopher Isherwood. And so Ford has the both the benefit of the first person thoughts of a gay man written at the time the story is set, as well as 45+ years of historical context post 1964.

Colin Firth plays George Falconer, an English professor in LA who at the beginning of a November day in 1962, gets a phone call that his partner and lover of 16 years has died in a car accident. The phone call is rendered even more heartbreaking when the family member on the other end of the phone informs him that he can’t go to the funeral, that it's for ‘family’ only.

As typical for many gay men at the time, he has a dual and closeted lifestyle with his true emotions directed inward. Thus, his inability to grieve with true emotion catharsis. George tells himself he just had to get through this day. By carrying around a revolver in his bag suicide would seem to be the end of the path. But when a spry young student takes an interest in him, a ray of light shines downon George offering a glimmer of hope.

‘Revolutionary Road’ makes a good comparison film – the tepid suburban tragedy based on Richard Yates’s acclaimed 1961 novel. But ‘A Single Man’ seems to have gotten everything right that ‘Road’ got wrong. While Road’s examination of suburban fears in post-war America felt out of date and played out, ‘A Single Man’ reflects poignantly on this fearful period in time with historical reflection.

Ford also piggybacks on other films with homosexual themes. Casting Colin Firth seems a concerted attempted to continue a foundation of closeted gay character both actors have established in other films, namely Firth’s in the closet characters from ‘The English Patient’ and ‘Where the Truth Lies’. Same with the casting of Julianne Moore, who brings the scent Todd Haynes’ Sirkian melodrama ‘Far From Heaven’ to her role as George’s faghag.

Ford keeps the narrative simple and clear of salacious plotting, instead coasting elegantly on his searing tone of mystery and melancholy. The presence of George’s keeps the threat of death, or suicide in our minds. And even George’s interactions of other potential lovers, with the context of homosexuality in the 60’s brings another level of fear and intrigue. We can also enjoy the film purely on the level of Ford’s classically composed frames, each of which are museum-worthy photographs. Horizontal lines are consistently and carefully placed in the foreground and background to directs our eyes to Ford’s main character, his single man.

Looking back again at the picture, it's a shame the weakest aspect is it's final moments. George's fate at the very end seems arbitrary, a tacked on denouement which doesn't enlighten anything new about his character or his journey. Still, it's only a mild distaste which goes away quickly, leaving us with the elegant imagery and sound to linger in our memory.