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

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Call Girl

Call Girl (2009) dir. Damjan Kozole
Starring: Nina Ivanisin, Peter Musevski, Primoz Pirnat, Marusa Kink, Uros Furst

***

By Alan Bacchus

Free market capitalism in the still relatively young communist-free and EU unified country of Slovenia gets a sharp critical treatment in Damjan Kozole’s engaging festival drama, previously entitled ‘Slovenian Girl’. In the past few years, the quality of films examining the effect of the late/post Commy era is astounding. Unfortunately over its festival run last year Call Girl didn’t garner the attention that say, those Golden Age Romanian filmmakers seem to get. It’s a shame, but thankfully Film Movement picked it up, and it's now available on DVD as their August DVD of the Month.

Alexandra is a typical twenty-something gal. She’s moved to the bustling city of Ljubljana from her humble rural childhood in 'the country’. Once in the big city she finds herself quickly corrupted by the attraction of wealth, the need for an education and the discovery of the power of her burgeoning womanhood. When the film starts she’s just told her best friend she’s bought a fancy new apartment downtown. How can she afford such luxury as a student? Somewhere along the line she’s turned to prostitution to pay her way. But not the street hooker or cracked out pimp-clinging type, but a private enterprise newspaper call girl with integrity. Having sex with the occasionally guy doesn’t seem to bother her if it’s a means to an end, but two events quickly put a wrench in her five-year plan – 1) the death of one of her clients from a Viagra overdose and 2) the introduction of a couple of gangster pimps who control the market of prostitutes.

Suddenly Alexandra has to quit tricking, which means she can’t pay the mortgage, which means she’s so stressed she’s failing her classes. During this well orchestrated plotting, which, under the sure hand of director Kozole, comes off like a razor sharp, nail-biting thriller. While evading the pimps Alexandra desperately avoids the one person who could help her out of the mess, her father.

Under the guise of a thriller, Kozole manages to draw attention to the egregious crimes of the sex trafficking business which afflicts much of these Eastern European nations. Kozole’s elegant direction, which compliments Alexandra’s level-headedness and accessible character, separates it from the kitchen sink European social realist films of the Dardennes or those Golden Age Romanians (ie Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days). A marvelous set piece anchors this first half, a tense meeting and stand off between Alexandra and the pimp gangsters in her hotel room, which leads into a desperate cat and mouse chase across town.

The second half deepens the relationship of Alexandra and her father, a tenuous relationship, but one which she cherishes so much she refuses to ask for his help. Without saying it, we know she desperately wants her father’s forgiveness and protection, but she can’t bear the devastation it would cause her father if he knew the truth. It’s a warm, honest and subtle relationship, but unfortunately the film seems to be missing a third act. Curiously, the threat of the gangsters dissipates and never materializes substantially in the second half. Same with the open case of her dead client, Alexandra seems to be let off the hook.

As such, despite a glorious opening Call Girl loses its vice-like grip on the audience for a slower, more melancholy release of tension. Twenty years from now though we’ll look on this period of time as an notable era of post-Communist/post EU unification filmmaking, stories of the lure of capitalism and the lengths and risks ordinary people will do to grab the carrot of success.

‘Call Girl’, a 2009 TIFF Selection, is now available on DVD from Film Movement Canada. Click HERE for more information.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Red Riding Trilogy

Red Riding Trilogy (2009) dir. Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker
Starring: Andrew Garfield, David Morrissey, Paddy Considine, Warren Clarke, Rebecca Hall, Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

David Peace’s novels The Red Riding Quartet published between 1999 and 2002 looks to be Britain’s equivalent to the Millennium trilogy. Police corruption, sicko psychopathic serial killer stuff, dead children, period UK politics all contribute to three robust investigative thrillers in which the whole adds up to be greater than the sum of its parts.

The series, originally made for UK Television by Andrew Eaton's (and Michael Winterbottom’s) Revolution Films, saw a brief US theatrical run before arriving this week on DVD. Each film is shot by a different director, and set in three different time periods 1974 (dir. Julian ‘Becoming Jane’ Jarrold), 1980 (dir. James ‘Man on Wire’ Marsh) and 1983 (dir. Anand ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ Tucker). The common creative thread other than the producer is writer Tony Grisoni, a seasoned screenwriter known for his collaborations with Terry Gilliam. No surrealism here though, it’s a straight forward procedural set around the real life Yorkshire Ripper case, a noirish Chinatown feel under the modern serial killer genre.

The series opens in 1974, with a young journalist (Andrew Garfield) from ‘The South’ (that is, the affluent upper class London) coming back North to Yorkshire to do an investigative piece on a particularly grisly series of murders involving young kids found murdered with swan wings stitched to their backs. Ick. What starts out as a simple case unfolds revealing more sinister elements that connects to a wide network of corruption involving the Yorkshire Police and a local nefarious businessman.

Garfield, who will become much more famous after he dons his new Spider Man suit, does his Jake Gittes performance, engaging in an illicit steamy relationship with a damaged victim, Rebecca Hall who is the Faye Dunaway character. Garfield’s character, like Gittes, is a glutton for punishment, as the deeper he gets into the case the more beatings he takes. Throughout the picture, his hands, face and arms get smashed in, and his balls crushed twice. There’s also no less than three love scenes with Hall.

The three filmmakers seem have to been encouraged to have their own look and style applied to each picture. And in the case of 1974, director Jarrold's forced 70's look unfortunately becomes the biggest crutch on that film, employing a yellowish/brown filter look, difusing the contrast perhaps to enhance the feeling of other movies of that era but which unnecessarily distracts us from the film.

The second chapter is the best. James Marsh, who won an Oscar for the documentary Man on Wire, employs a more realistic visual approach. His doc skills show up in the opening which features intelligent use of stock footage to set the scene and tone for the six year jump from the first film. Paddy Considine turns in a better lead performance as well. He’s an internal affairs cop from the South sent up north to investigate a series of grisly rape/murders of local women. His sad eyes and honest facial features renders the even greater tragedy which befalls him with more resonance than the 1974 chapter.

The third episode features a lawyer (Mark Addy) once again going back into the case of the first film, and retracing the trail of corruption and deceit from the baddies who have been pulling the strings all these years. Tucker’s anamorphic cinematography, full of JJ Abrams lens flares, is the most cinematic of the bunch. It works to heighten the scope of the series and give the audience a bigger cinematic bang to the story.

All three Red Riding films combined manages to capture the best qualities of both the film and television mediums - the depth of character and situation which long form serialized television can bring forth, and the spectacle of the feature film medium. The trilogy leans more toward television though and thus, at the end of the entire venture we never feel truly moved by the machinations of Peace’s characters over this long period of time.

That said Grisoni does a fantastic job of laying ground work of plot, character and other details for the other films early on. When films 2 and 3 doubles back on itself to link up the actions of characters seen from different points of view, I found myself nodding in appreciation and wanting more.

Each separate film leaves us both with enough closure for it to become its own story and with the door open teasing us for what’s to come. The final resolution in Tucker's film however fails to elevate the series to another level of great storytelling and thus doesn’t quite fully satisfy our whetted appetite. Without spoiling anything, the A Plot of the murders is closed off but the political/economic angle B plot is left hanging. And not with an effectively open-ended tease, but a feeling that the writer just forgot about that angle of the story. It's a shame because the potential was in the filmmakers' grasp.

I can’t fully compare Red Riding to the Millenium Trilogy, having only seen parts one and two of the Swedish series. But I can tell already, the Larsson stories have a different kind of perversity. Both series feature ghastly crimes, but somehow the grisliness of Larsson’s saga are so sensationalized it produces an echo of cinematic fun not present (and missed) in Peace’s story. Regardless, it’s an ambitious effort on the part of these Brits which succeeds enough and thus deserves to be discovered on DVDs by television and true crime aficionados.

'The Red Riding Trilogy' is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada


Sunday, 29 August 2010

Lethal Weapon 4

Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) dir. Richard Donner
Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Chris Rock, Joe Pesci, Jet Li, Rene Russo

**

By Reece Crothers

From the continuing series In Praise of Richard Donner.

There is an amusing story about Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone, who famously fell out over their uneasy 'collaboration' Natural Born Killers (a film I think is a masterpiece and one of the best pictures of the 90s) wherein Stone tells Tarantino that while the younger director makes "movies", Stone makes "Films". I like that for two reasons: First, it is exactly the type of pretentiousness that we all love to hate Oliver for, and second, because it provides an appropriate context to discuss the fourth installment in the Lethal Weapon franchise. Is LW4 a great film? Of course not. But is it a great action movie? Well, it's a very good one at least.

It loses some points off the top for the rushed intro to the characters and the story. It's like the opening of LW3 on fast forward. There is no set up whatsoever. If you haven't seen the previous pictures you have no idea who these two cops are. And if the filmmakers aren't taking the story seriously, how are we supposed to? The best sequels are films which stand alone. Do you need to see the first Terminator to think that T2 is awesome? I don't think so. Same goes for The Dark Knight, which pretty much renders Batman Begins as obsolete. This is not one of those sequels.

The warning signs in Part Three that things were starting to get a little stale come to full bear here. Most of what happens feels forced. The screenplay by Channing Gibson lacks the cohesion of Jeffrey Boam's work on the previous sequels, and it lacks the explosive wit and energy of Shane Black's benchmark work on the original. But should you really apply expectations of originality on a part four of anything?

So what does this film offer, other than recycled ideas from the first three? Well there is the welcome addition to the team of Chris Rock, as an eager young detective who unbeknownst to Danny Glover, is about to have a baby with Glover's eldest daughter. Glover's growing pains regarding his daughter's sexual maturation is a key component to any Weapon picture, even if it is one of the more sitcom-y elements. Remember how nervous he looked when his teenaged daughter Rianne flirted with his then-new partner in the first picture? Then of course their was Rianne's condom-commercial in the second picture, and here she is about to have Chris Rock's baby. Rock is fun to watch but imagine what he could have done back when the franchise still had edge?

Glover handles his scenes well, and a lot of things work that shouldn't simply because Glover is so damn lovable in his signature role. He hasn't changed much since the first movie back in 1987. And that's the way we like him. He was never a complicated guy. Gibson, however, as in the last picture, has lost all of his edge in his performance as Riggs. How much so? He finally gets to utter the overused "I'm too old for this shit" line. Actually it's a nice moment when he says it, but then things get sort of embarrassing as Riggs and Murtaugh start chanting "We're NOT to old for this shit!". It was nice when they acknowledged it, kind of pathetic when they disputed it. Looking especially worn and retired is Joe Pesci, who despite a rather poorly written, sentimental monologue, does his best with a character who ran out of juice between LW2 and LW3. Is this film to blame for Pesci's 8 year hiatus between this and 2006's The Good Shepherd? Even that was only a cameo and since it was directed by De Niro, his co-star from the great Scorsese pictures that represent his best work, and produced by The Godfather, Francis Coppola, himself, one has the impression that that particular performance was an offer he couldn't refuse. Only recently has Pesci resurfaced in a role of any significance, though in an ultimately forgettable picture - Taylor Hackford's 2010 drama Love Ranch.

Other than Rock, the other reason to watch is Jet Li. His climactic fight on the rain battered bridge near the end of the picture is actually superior to the goofy Gibson/Gary Busey karate match at the end of LW1. Li kicks Riggs and Murtaugh's asses SIMULTANEOUSLY. Of course, he can't win in the end and so he ultimately meets a brutal death when Gibson gets lucky and spears Li through the chest with a metal pole, but it's the best scene in the picture and is right up there with the best of Richard Donner's action sequences. Actually in a film that is cranked up to deafening levels, Li's quiet portrayal of the villain is maybe the best thing about LW4. And while he is a household name now, this picture served as Li's American film debut and an introduction to western audiences unfamiliar with his Hong Kong filmography. Li is a much finer actor than many of his films require. What he does is closer to Buster Keaton than Bruce Lee. I found him strangely affecting in his Luc Besson-produced collaborations Unleashed and Kiss Of The Dragon, though I would really love to see him in a film actually directed by Besson.

It does nothing to disprove the law Of diminishing returns, but LW4 is an entertaining, if disposable, action picture. And while it never reaches the heights of the original Weapon picture, it is still far superior to the majority of films that are little more than clones of that first iconic classic. Donner is still in fine form here as an action director. The best sequences make me think that someone from Marvel should get Donner to direct one of their next pictures. Fuck the guy who did 500 Days Of Summer. How is that an audition for Spider Man? Seriously, this guy did the best Superman, still one of the most commercially and critically successful comic book adaptations ever, despite all of the advances in special effects wizardry and cgi since the 70s. Give him the next Iron Man or something already. Jon Favreau should go back to material like Made. But that's a conversation for another day.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Messenger

The Messenger (2010) dir. Oren Moverman
Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Samantha Morton

***

By Alan Bacchus

How many ways from Sunday can the effect of the Iraq war be deconstructed? Back in the Vietnam days there was Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now – that’s it. We seem to have it all in perspective now, even though the war is still going on. It’s not that The Messenger doesn’t feel disingenuous, but we are just bombarded with these films.

It’s different era than the 40’s when Hollywood made unabashedly patriotic propaganda films about the War being fought. Casablanca is perhaps the best example. Even in the Vietnam War, a successful film like John Wayne’s The Green Berets was shamelessly rabble-rousing and also controversial in its inaccurate portrayal of the reality of the fighting in Vietnam.

And with so much information available to us, we can’t dress up the general feeling of distaste that is the Iraq War. Few if any of us want soldiers fighting over there. Even those who think the War is necessarily politically and economically would likely never want to use propaganda to fool the homefront for the sake of patriotism.

The Messenger actually manages to find a point of view of war that surprisingly no one else in cinema, to my recollection, has shown. That is the job of the soldiers who go door to door to give the wives, mothers and fathers the news of soldiers’ deaths in combat.

Ben Foster Sgt Will Montgomery, a newbie to the gig, is partnered up with Cpt Tony Stone the more experienced of the two who has a textbook approach to bed side manner. In the film’s best moments, Stone educates Will about what to do and what not to do when telling someone their son or daughter has just been killed in action – show no emotion, no hugs, no physical contact of any sort, even small details like parking one's car a block away from the house. Absurd as it sounds; I believe there is such a book and that the job of bereavement has been turned into a science by the military.

After a number of encounters, Will betrays almost every rule by attempting to start a relationship with one of the widows played by Samantha Morton. It's relationship played very delicately but one which arises from their mutual desperation for love. The film loses its direction (pun intended) when Will and Tony drive off on a wacky road trip which ends at the engagement party of his former girlfriend, played by Jena Malone.

Woody Harrelson is very good and probably deserves his Oscar-nomination. Miraculously despite his oddball, pot smoking behaviour in real life he manages to find roles which best take advantage of his deranged view of the world. Perhaps credit goes to his agent. Think of his roles in the past couple of years – a wacky cultist in 2012, a deranged vigilante in Defendor, a hillbilly zombie fighter in Zombieland, and now a serious but also slightly off-kilter former soldier.

It’s also fun to see former child actor Jena Malone doing the nasty with partial nudity with Foster in the opening. The poor girl stayed under the celebrity rader of the Lindsay Lohans in Hollywood, but unfortunately has not yet became the adult star Kristin Stewart is or Dakota Fanning will become.

It’s Ben Foster’s film though and like almost everything else he does, he’s intense and magnetic in a 50’s tortured James Dean kind of way. It’s only a matter of time before Foster finds his role of a lifetime and becomes a Robert De Niro of his generation.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Elvis on Tour

Elvis on Tour (1973) dir. Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel
Documentary

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

In the usual fan-generated or even critic-generated lists of best music/concert films of all time, Elvis on Tour rarely seems to come up. Perhaps it’s because it depicts the elder Elvis, in the twilight of his career, the Elvis with the jumpsuit, rhinestone belts, rings, the cape, the sideburns, and the choral grandiosity of his performances.

I admit to never really being a fan of the music, the blues-based early rock tunes that is, because, well, I was always a Beatles man. And so watching Elvis on Tour is like being introduced to the King of Rock and Roll for the first time. I found myself watching Elvis perform for an hour and a half, taking the details of his stage persona, his vocal range, musicianship, audience rapport etc. It's also like watching Elvis doing an impression of someone else’s impression of Elvis. The wild gestating arms and legs, the aforementioned jumpsuits, the snarling Tennessee accent all suddenly seem accessible and authentic. This is the real deal, the real Elvis, not shown as camp or through the filter of nostalgia, but Elvis as it happened.

And it’s a thrill.

It’s 1972, Elvis, the King himself, embarks on a 16 city, 15 day tour of heartland America with documentarians Adige and Abel following him on and off stage. It was a different time back then. The venues were more off the beaten path with most of the footage used from performances in Richmond Virginia, Hampton Roads Virginia, and Greensboro NC. And despite being the King, it’s a mostly no frills stage set up (imagine what kind of visual spectacle he could generate in today’s demand for old rockers) Instead it’s the phenomenal swagger and performer of Elvis providing the pizzazz.

Elvis classics such as Don’t be Cruel, Love Me Tender, and even ‘new’ ones (for 1972) Burning Love and A Big Hunk of Love are played. Elvis’ voice is fantastic projecting his unique mix of blues, gospel and country to the devoted fans. In traditional fashion the directors go behind the scenes and watch the movements of Elvis back stage, through hotels, and in the public over these 15 days.

The attention around Elvis is still astonishing and his ability to project an air of modesty and humbleness shows why he was so adored. Of course, Elvis died 5 years later and who knows what kind of pills he was on at the time, but for these 15 days he seems to be in the best shape of his life. In several scenes we watch Elvis, at an age close to 40, being chased through the streets and stands by grown women, like the Beatles in A Hard Days Night.

It’s all part of the filmmakers’ theme of fan appreciation. Abel and Adige continually cut between Elvis performances and the fans, an over the top exaltation of the King before it skyrocketed to the level of big business and industry that it is today.

The film is a visual delight as well. The directors, influenced by the success of Woodstock, used the same split screen effects to show the Elvis from various angles at the same time and to allow the viewer to take in the atmosphere of the entire concert experience all at once. Martin Scorsese who cut some of Woodstock even supervised the ‘montage’ sequences in this film – a number of scenes which show the rise of Elvis’s career as well as the fast paced lifestyle he led back then.

There’s a distinct use of repetition, specifically the song ‘Hail Elvis’ used to bring Presley to the stage in each show. We hear the song half a dozen times, effectively conveying the constant grind of the rock and roll touring lifestyle.

Despite all the fan exhuberance, the film ends on a very eerie and somber credit sequence – a tone of quiet melancholy, as if Elvis was already dead, or was going to die soon. But of course, Elvis was very much alive when the film came out, and so it’s a little spooky, but surprisingly emotional when watching it today. With Elvis on Tour being his last film, it now serves as the unintended swan song for one of music’s greatest performers.

'Elvis on Tour' is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Movie That Killed Mumblecore

Jess Weixler & Amy Seimetz in Joe Swanberg's Alexander The Last.

By Reece Crothers

Joe Swanberg's most recent picture proves that there is indeed life after mumblecore. In fact this film may be the last time you need to use the "M" word while discussing Swanberg's work. But for the uninitiated, a quick history:

Attributed to Andrew Bujalski, the director of Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, the term "mumblecore" refers to a very loose collective of young filmmakers whose d.i.y. aesthetic, youthful protagonists, improvised dialogue and non-professional casts, contributed to a sense of community before there actually was one. The south-by-south-west festival in Austin, Texas brought together Bujalski, Swanberg and other filmmakers like the Duplass' Brothers (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus) and Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quiet City), and provided context to discuss the films in relation to each other. But unlike the French "Nouvelle Vague" or the Danish "Dogme '95", the filmmakers behind this alleged movement did not have a conscious agenda or manifesto, they didn't even know each other. But since those first films, the mublecore filmmakers have gone on to collaborate, both in front of and behind the camera, further creating the impression that they, and the actors they share, are members of a film family spanning cities and states. Swanberg appeared on screen in Katz' Quiet City, and Bujalski, along with Duplass brother Mark, both appear in Swanberg's 2007 film Hannah Takes The Stairs, for example.



Andrew Bujalski and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes The Stairs.



Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes The Stairs.

The upside to the idea of a movement is that the films provide a context for each other and help small, independent pictures that often fly too far under the radar to reach the audiences they deserve. The downside is that it discredits the unique voice of each of the filmmakers, by lumping them all together, and for audience members who are less able to digest the rough around the edges aesthetics, experimental editing, and occasionally raw, improvised performances, they may dismiss one filmmaker's work because they had a bad experience with another's. I didn't like The Puffy Chair, for example. Not one bit. (Although I loved the Duplass brothers' non-mumblecore Cyrus) And if you told me that was the defining mumblecore movie, I would have missed out on Swanberg's pictures, or Katz's films, or Bujalski's. But there is no defining mumblecore movie. Even aesthetically, the films are only superficially relatable becuase of their small crews and budgets. Compare the stark almost Jarmusch-like black and white film photography of Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation with Swanberg's sharp, digital, colour photography.



Justin Rice in Bujalski's 'Mutual Appreciation'.



Jess Weixler and Justin Rice in Swanberg's Alexander The Last.

To my taste, Swanberg is the best of the bunch. He is certainly the most prolific. Since his 2005 debut Kissing On The Mouth, Swanberg has released a new picture every year, and four seasons of his sexy, innovative IFC web series Young American Bodies, a new documentary series The Stagg Party about Photographer Ellen Stagg, while also acting, shooting, and/or producing films for other filmmakers. That kind of output makes Swanberg the Woody Allen or Steven Soderbergh of his generation. And each of Swanberg's films has improved on the one previous. Considering that he accidentally started a new movement with his first, it is not intended as small praise.

The trend continues with Alexander The Last, Swanberg's most mature and accomplished work, and in many ways the culmination of themes and ideas he has been working on in all of his previous pictures. Working with a name producer this time, Noah Baumbach (writer and director of The Squid & The Whale, for which he recieved an OSCAR nomination for best screenplay), and featuring Hollywood stars like Jane Adams (Happiness, Hung) and Josh Hamilton (Baumbach's Kicking & Screaming), Swanberg has transcended the limitations of mumblecore and created a film that is at once both a breezy romantic comedy AND a challenging drama about commitment - in art and relationships - as a young actress is tempted by a crush on her her co-star while her musician husband is away on tour, and to complicate things further, plays matchmaker between her crush and her fragile, beautiful sister, well played by the lovely Amy Seimetz (Wristcutters, A Love Story).

The subject of romantic entanglements that arise when artists collaborate is the perfect fit for Swanberg whose earlier pictures and web series featured actors performing real sex on camera. The same dramatic question is being asked here as in Martin Scorsese's New York, New York, albeit on a much smaller canvas, which is essentially, "Is it possible for two artists to find true love and happiness together?". In the audio commentary Swanberg explains that he navigated the same moral quandaries as his central character in "Alexander" while working on his previous projects. This film is dedicated to Swanberg's wife and frequent collaborator, Kris, and the film is both a love letter and an apology to her for exactly the kind of entanglements that the story dramatises.

If you've seen the very intimate Nights & Weekends, Swanberg's 2008 film with Greta Gerwig, you can imagine that the vulnerability and emotional commitment required to play such an intimate chamber piece could very easily bleed into the actors' off-screen lives. Watching Nights & Weekends is like watching certain Cassavetes films, it is so intimate, that it is emotionally exhausting to experience. It stays with you for days after. The blurry line between what is real and what is drama is what gives the film its edge. Seeing Gerwig and Swanberg introduce the film together at a screening at Toronto's Bloor Cinema a few years back, one had the impression of watching two weary soldiers just home from the war.



Swanberg & Gerwig in Nights & Weekends

Gerwig has since gone on to mainstream success, co-starring in Noah Baumbach's recent Ben Stiller dramedy, Greenberg. Baumbach got Gerwig and Swanberg got Baumbach. There is a nice symmetry there. Greenberg served as the perfect vehicle for Gerwig's transition to bigger budget, more mainstream work, and her oddly affecting, aloof charm, has made her something of a Diane Keaton for this generation, but it is unlikely that she will ever do anything as raw as her work with Swanberg in any Hollywood productions. Unless maybe they're directed by Joe Swanberg.



Gerwig with Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach's 'Greenberg'.


In his first picture without Gerwig since 2006's, LOL, Swanberg casts the talented Jess Weixler in the central role as Alex, a young, theatrical actress torn between her commitment to her husband and her desire for her handsome new co-star. It is a great observation on Swanberg's part, rendered with insight, warmth and humour, that when we want to be with someone we cant, we play matchmaker to keep them close. It's a flawed, self-defeating logic, and the stuff of great romantic comedy. The sexual tension on display here between Weixler, as the girl with a crush, and Barlow Jacobs as her hunky co-star, provides plenty of sparks. Both actors come to "Alexander" fresh from dynamic, breakthrough performances in well recieved independent pictures (Teeth, and Shotgun Stories, respectively) and share great chemistry. But their relationship is just one of many that make up Alexander's narrative , all equally insightful and finely rendered.

Justin Rice (star of Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation") is great as the musician husband. A talented pop musician in his own right (his band Bishop Allen was featured on stage in Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist) Rice performs a wonderful musical interlude that underscores the bittersweet tone of the whole picture. Also very strong is Seimetz's heartbreaking turn as the sister who has no idea that she is being set up to have her heart ripped out by her selfish sibling. As Seimetz falls for Barlow Jacobs character, we hold our breaths in gut-twisting anticipation for the moment we know is coming, when she will discover her sister's true feelings for her new boyfriend.

In smaller roles, Adams and Hamilton are fun to watch, too, as the writer and director of the play-within-the-film. Adams in particular seems to have fun with the role. She may be the best comedic supporting actress since Lilly Tomlin at her peak. Watch HBO's Hung if you don't believe me. I wish Altman was still alive. He would know how to craft a picture for her as a lead. She actually appeared in an Altman picture, 1996's Kansas City, but Jennifer Jason Leigh was the star. Leigh also happens to be Baumbach's wife in real-life. All roads lead to Baumbach. You wouldn't have guessed it back in the Mr. Jealousy days. Though I loved that movie. I digress...

The Duplass brothers, despite making the worst mumblecore picture (in my opinion) have had the greatest success in the mainstream, attaching stars like John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, and Marisa Tomei for their last picture Cyrus, not to mention RIDLEY AND TONY SCOTT(!!!!!) as executive producers, but Swanberg's next picture is Silver Bullets and it's about werewolves...sort of. And since we're living in Twilight times (whether we want to be or not) this might be the one that breaks Swanberg into the mainstream, too. No one needs to mention Dogme 95 when they talk about Lars Von Trier anymore because he is bigger than dogme. I think the same will be said of Swanberg. Personally, I can't wait to see what he does with Silver Bullets. And I told you he was prolific, it's only one of two new Swanberg pictures coming out in the near future. Keep your eyes open for Silver Bullets and Uncle Kent.



Awesome poster for 'Silver Bullets', Swanberg's next picture.

And if you haven't already checked out his earlier pictures, here's an essential viewing list of the films mentioned above, and some not mentioned, to scratch that mumblecore itch:

-Alexander The Last (dir. Joe Swanberg, 2009)
-Nights & Weekends (dir. Joe Swanberg, 2008)
-Hannah Takes The Stairs (dir. Joe Swanberg, 2007)
-Dance Party, USA (dir. Aaron Katz, 2006)
-Quiet City (dir. Aaron Katz, 2007)
-Funny Ha Ha (dir. Andrew Bujalski, 2002)
-Mutual Appreciation (dir. Andrew Bujalski, 2005)
-Team Picture (dir. Kentucker Audley, 2007)
-The Goodtimes Kid, (dir. Azazel Jacobs, 2005)
-In Search Of A Midnight Kiss (dir. Alex Holdridge, 2007)
-Frownland (dir. Ronald Bronstein, 2007)

and you can watch his Young American Bodies series free online here: http://www.ifc.com/youngamericanbodies/



Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Jailhouse Rock

Jailhouse Rock (1957) dir. Richard Thorpe
Starring: Elvis Presley, Mickey Shaughnessy, Judy Tyler and Dean Jones

****

By Greg Klymkiw

Make no mistake about it - Elvis Presley was a great actor! While one would be hard-pressed to agree based on most of his post-military titles, cobbled together and foisted at him by the dubious Col. Tom Parker, everything Elvis Aron Presley did onscreen prior to his service to Uncle Sam was really special.

Though King Creole is, without question, the best Elvis Presley movie ever made, a recent re-screening of Jailhouse Rock via the Warners Home Entertainment Blu-ray release, has convinced me that it's only a pubic hair or two below the former title. Rather than calling it Mr. Presley's second-best movie, let's just say it ties with the Michael Curtiz-directed King Creole.

Presley was a natural for the silver screen. The camera loved him and he charged his early work with the same kind of smouldering intensity provided by such greats as James Dean, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. The difference with Elvis was that he could dance and sing - and man (!) could he sing.

Jailhouse Rock features Presley as Vince Everett, a young man who serves a two-year term in prison for manslaughter (he pounds the bejesus out of a woman beating pimp). While in stir, Vince bunks with cellmate Hank (Mickey Shaughnessy), a former country and western singer who recognizes the talent Vince has and mentors him in all things musical. When Vince is released, he promises to split his earnings with Hank. While out of stir, Vince hooks up with a gorgeous young music promoter Peggy (Judy Tyler, a former regular on "Howdy Doody" and the victim of a fatal auto accident soon after shooting wrapped). Peggy uses her connections to get Vince in the door of a major record company, but he is screwed so mightily, that Peggy begins her own label to promote Vince. Our hero becomes a huge star, but has a thing or two to learn about loyalty and humility as he becomes an egomaniacal knob to both his old prison pal and Peggy. Eventually, Vince gets his much-earned comeuppance and shoots into the stratosphere - clean and pure.

While the picture is a basic rags to riches show business tale, it's full of lots of frank, tough talk, sex (by late 50s standards), two-fisted action, some great music and with the title song, one of the greatest musical numbers ever committed to celluloid. Most of all, the picture has Elvis - giving his role a depth and sensitivity most actors can only dream of delivering.

Director Richard Thorpe was no grand stylist, but the sort of meat and potatoes craftsman who was probably what the doctor ordered for the picture. Thorpe was a grand studio hack who directed almost 200 (count 'em!) feature films over his long career (including the 30s "Huckleberry Finn" and a few excellent entries in the "Tarzan" and "Thin Man" series). Thorpe doesn't let his lack of style get in the way nor detract from the proceedings. He captures the action like a pro and makes sure to keep his camera trained on Elvis in a variety of succulent poses.

Elvis was lucky with this picture. Instead of the usual studio suffocation, he and the team were left to their own devices to create movie magic. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that legendary studio producer Pandro S. Berman was in charge. One of David Selznick's junior producers at RKO and eventually a major talent there before he was snapped up by MGM to work his magic (which, more often or not yielded superb work), Berman produced a great picture.

And thanks to producer Berman, the burgeoning star that was Elvis Aron Presley had a script worthy of his talent, an excellent overall production, a superb supporting cast and solid direction from Thorpe.

Most of all, the picture had that great title musical number choreographed by Alex Romero with Elvis and a whole lot of hunky guys - gyrating with devil-may-care abandon in a splendidly homoerotic mash-up in prison clothes.

And trust me - it doesn't get sexier than that.

Jailhouse Rock is part of a three-film "Elvis Collection" on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video. It features an informative, but occasionally monotonous commentary track and a cool little short on the creation of the title musical number. And, of course, the picture looks great on Blu-ray.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

For a Few Dollars More

For a Few Dollars More (1965) dir. Sergio Leone
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volonté, Luigi Pistilli, Klaus Kinski, Panos Papadopulos

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

I would never dispute that The Good, the Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West were Sergio Leone’s best films, two of the best Westerns ever really. And I wouldn’t argue about the importance of A Fistful of Dollars as the first spaghetti western. But we don’t much talk about For a Few Dollars More. After all it’s the middle chapter in the unconnected Dollars trilogy and it wasn’t the first spaghetti western, nor is it the best.

But looking back on the picture in glorious Blu-Ray, courtesy of Fox’s Dollar Trilogy Set, For a Few Dollars More is indeed a near masterpiece of the genre and very very close to awesomeness of Leone’s aforementioned latter pictures.

Unlike the cynicism and sheer brutality of A Fistful of Dollars, and even The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars More is the only other film to come close to the humanity in his characters Leone shows us in Once Upon a Time in the West.

While Clint is billed as the star, the heart of the film is Lee Van Cleef, playing Col. Douglas Mortimer, a former soldier turned bounty hunter plying the wild west for wanted criminals and reward money for their capture. Clint, whose character actually has a name, Manco, is also a bounty hunter treading the same ground as Mortimer, an equally beguiling killer who stacks up bodies for money. The two eventually meet in El Paso following the villainous El Indio ( Volonte) who aims to take down the well fortified El Paso bank.

Manco attempts to join the gang to help take the score while plotting with Mortimer to collect the bounty of each gang member. The bank job is completed with Indio escaping to a small town of Agua Caliente for a final showdown of good and evil, with Mortimer eventually revealing the source of his hatred for Indio, and exacting satisfying revenge against a grievous crime against his family in the past.

Mortimer is portrayed like Charles Bronson’s Harmonica Man in West. While he is as cold and calculating as the other killers in the film, there’s a deep pain which motivates the man in his journey. Leone crafts some wonderful tension between the two gunslingers. When Clint and Van Cleef are on screen together it’s a marvel of gritty eye-squinting machismo, with Van Cleef matching Eastwood’s screen charisma and confidence in character.

Leone and his writers use some of the same plotting devices which he’d elevate to higher levels of grandiloquence in West. Like West Mortimer’s backstory is seen through a repetition of a single flashback and the significance of the mysterious timepiece which is featured prominently throughout is revealed dramatically in the final Mexican showdown.

So you might call For a Few Dollars More a testing ground for Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but the picture stands up well on its own as a great often underappreciated Leone Western.

“The Dollars Trilogy” is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Monday, 23 August 2010

Hamlet

Hamlet (1996) dir. Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie

****

by Alan Bacchus

One of my most cherished cinema experiences is the 70mm special presentation of “Hamlet” in 1996 at Toronto's now-defunct Eglinton cinema. It was the first film exclusively-shot and projected in 70mm since Ron Howard’s “Far and Away”. It was a dying form of cinema and the “Hamlet” experience will likely be the last (we haven't had a 70mm since then). On the big screen, properly screened with a 70mm print, and in the wonderful gothic-style cinema it was a majestic experience.

Now Kenneth Brangh's "Hamlet" gets its long overdue Blu-Ray release for the first time. And though the small screen is never the best venue for a big film such as this, it’s still a wonderful movie and one of the best filmed adaptations of Shakespeare.

Shakespearian language is always a tough nut to crack, and though I've studied the play, seen multiple versions of the movie, and seen it on stage I still only retain about a quarter of the dialogue. Some characters speak more elaborately than others but it's Hamlet, the most psychological of the characters, who is the most complex. His metaphors, puns, similies and other witty jargon is almost incomprehensible. But Branagh is sure to use body language and voice emotion to convey the meaning of his words visually. At times, during his soliquies Branagh overacts, expounding loud, boisterous shouting, then seguing into quiet careful whispers. When performing this with no one around it can look like bad acting, but it's in service of making the film understandable and it works.

“Hamlet” is Shakespeare’s longest and densest play. And Branagh’s “Hamlet” is the first version to film the full, unedited text of the play. This resulted in a film with a 4-hour running time, one of the longest English-language Hollywood films of all time. But the full-text, 4 hour, 70mm aspects are not just gimmicks, Branagh delivers a truly epic film bigger than any filmed version of Hamlet.

Branagh sets his version in a bright and colourful late 19th century Russian-inspired estate – perhaps inspired by “Nicholas and Alexandra”. It seems to be a conscious choice to escape the usual dark and echoey medieval confines of most other Hamlet renditions. Branagh is aided by Alex Thomson's lush 70mm photography. Take a closer look at the shallowness of the depth of field. Branagh has remarked that on some closeups, depending on the camera angle, he often had to choose which eye to hold focus on - note: 'depth of field' refers to how much of a shot is in focus. The longer the lens length, the less depth of field, but also the bigger the format the less depth of field. This combined with the bulky 70mm camera can make shooting more time consuming, but for Branagh and Thomson the result was some amazing and sumptuous images. And with the extensive steadycam work involved someone must have developed severe back problems.

In making a full-text, 4-hour version Branagh has given us an 'epic' which the play was meant to be. The key addition is the inclusion of the Fortinbras subplot - the Norwegian counterpart to Hamlet who invades Denmark. The famous sword-play showdown is intercut with Fortinbras' massive army attacking the castle. For the first time we get to see how the melodramatic actions and events of Elisonor resulted in not just tragic death of a family but about the loss of kingdom and country. Enjoy.

Hamlet is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video


Sunday, 22 August 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) dir. Edgar Wright
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Allison Pill, Jason Schwartzman, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Anna Kendrick

***

By Alan Bacchus

Yeah Toronto! The city featured as the location and setting of Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Wright, working for the first time, outside of Britain and without his mates from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, turns in a wild ambitious cinematic romp of monumental proportions. Its a fun, though ultimately soulless, film, but a must see for it's impressively complex cornucopia of visual styling.

The phantasm of stylistic flourishes which tells O'Malley’s far out cosmic romance of a meek 20-something bass player and his Blue-haired Anna Karina-type obsession, feels like a fanboy cumshot of geekdom – a mash-up of videogames, kung-fu sword play, dirty punk rock and hip beats supplied by Radiohead produced-turned composer Nigel Godrich, slapped onto the tried and true story of boy meets girl. Wright updates the notion of post modern pop culture beyond mere self-reference with a new paradigm of post modernism.

If there’s a comparison film, it’s probably the Oliver Stone’s treatment of celebrity in Natural Born Killers. With reckless abandon, and his foot firmly on the accelerator Wright, like Stone assaults us with sight and sound. Miraculously, Wright is completely in sync with the times, using his style to comment on the zeitgeist in the present.

The story, which you probably already know by now, goes like this. Scott Pilgrim (Cera) who has just broken up with his girlfriend rebounds to be in the company of a perky 17 year Chinese gal named Knives Chau, but when he catches sight of the aloof Ramona Flowers (Winstead) Pilgrim, he ditches Chau, and lasers on his latest obsession. But in order to date Flowers he has to defeat her 7 evil ex’s, in a series of one-on-one video game style Mortal Kombat duels.

Meanwhile Pilgrim plays bass in a rock band with his buddies, Stephen Stills (Webber), Young Neil and another former girlfriend Kim (Pill), as the drummer. Soon the confluence of her exes, his exes and his rock band with come into conflict with each other for a final battle for love.

It’s style over substance taken to near pornographic levels. Other than the video game iconography, kung-fu chop socking and thundering punk bass licks, the key aspect of Wright’s unique rhythm is his astonishing transitions - a term referring to the editing of one scene to another. The meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail of every frame results in an overall feeling that the film is one long set piece, which goes on and on, and arguably, losing some steam in the third act.

Wright's editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss employ every trick in the book, whip pans, smash cuts etc and whole set of new techniques – including transitioning in between the coverage of multiple conversations, match cutting dialogue, too many to keep track of really. It’s a style which is not entirely unmotivated. It all fits into Pilgrim’s impulsive obsessive mindset and Wright/O’Malley’s themes of new millennium attention deficit connectivity.

Wright employs the veteran DOP Bill Pope, perhaps a nod of respect to one of the film’s stylistic influences ‘Army of Darkness’ and ‘Evil Dead II’ – two Sam Raimi films with the same joie de vivre and innovation with transitions and camera gymnastics.

Unfortunately as much as we are impressed with the technical visual and aural extravaganza, there’s little beneath the surface to truly move us or even have the characters and the actions linger with us. Comparing to Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead’, which was as clever and aware with pop culture as Pilgrim, there was a heart and soul to Shaun's characters which stood over and above the style. In Pilgrim, there’s almost no romance going on, and we don’t care for a single moment if Pilgrim gets the girl at the end – or even which girl he’ll get at the end.

But there’s no denying that for most of the picture I sat with my mouth agape at the sheer thrill of delightful eye and ear candy of Wright’s film. It’s a phenomenal achievement and ride like few others offered in the cinema right now.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Predator

Predator (1987) dir. John McTiernan
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Sonny Landham, Kevin Peter Hall

****

By Alan Bacchus

“If it bleeds we can kill it”. A great line from one of the great action films of all time.

Schwarzenegger (Dutch) and his team of elite soldiers are assigned to rescue a group of South American politicians from some terrorists. After an impressive landing in the middle of the jungle the team has no trouble infiltrating the jungle encampment and blowing the hell out of everything. The gunpower is awesome, especially Jesse Ventura’s chain fed mini-gun. After they discover another military team skinned alive and hanging from the trees, they realize there’s more to the mission than just politics. The jungle is inhabited by an invisible alien creature playing his own version of the Most Dangerous Game. One by one Schwarzenegger’s crew is picked off the predator.

The star of the film is the predator (played by 7 foot tall Kevin Peter Hall) which spawned a not-so-bad sequel, a slight reboot in Predators and two cross-over vehicles with “Alien”, another Fox property.

Predator makes a good comparison with Alien. Like the original Dan O’Bannon/Ronald Shusett scripted Alien, Jim and John Thomas’s (spec) screenplay is as expertly constructed. They follow the rules of the creature feature to the line. Under John McTiernan’s direction, we only get snippets of the monster – first it’s his heat-source point of view, then brief sightings of his camouflage, eventually we see close-ups of the hands, legs, and body armour, and only at the second act turn, do we see him in his full glory.

McTiernan’s staging of this moment is great stuff, Dutch runs away from the predator and accidentally falls 100 meters off a cliff into a lake. He crawls away, only to discover the Predator has made the same jump. Dutch crawls through mud to shore and is ready to accept his death, when he realizes the mud on his body has rendered himself invisible to the predator. Here we see the Predator for the first time in the flesh.

The design of the Predator is the work of the great Stan Winston. From his wrist-operated, self-repair bio computer system, luminescent green blood, double mouth jowls to his shoulder-mounted laser sighting device, it’s so detailed, there’s a wikipedia entry about it HERE. Of course Dutch’s description of him is a bit more blunt - “you’re one ugly motherfucker”.

Predator” is highly quotable, especially when you, ahem…watch it over 20 times between ages 12 and 15. Remember Mac’s psychotic last words, “I’m gonna have me some fun, I’m gonna have me some fun”, or the Schwarzenegger one liner before blowing a hole in someone, “knock knock”. But it’s Jesse Ventura’s Blaine who has the best lines: “I ain’t got time to bleed”, or “this place makes Cambodia look like Kansas.”

Remarkably “Predator” it’s also responsible for some notable career changes of its cast: Arnold (Governor of California), Jesse Ventura (Governor of Minnesota), Sonny Landham (ran for Governor of Kentucky), Shane Black (once Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter) and Bill Duke (now a successful director). McTiernan recently had become famous himself outside of his film career having served a four month prison sentence for a wiretapping fraud.

Looking back on the Predator, John McTiernan’s direction is still top notch. Between 1987 and the mid 90’s, he was arguably the best director of action in Hollywood. Unfortunately these actions movies (inc. Die Hard and The Hunt For Red October) has overshadowed his other skills, including his superb eye for casting and working with actors – ahem, remember what Bruce Willis was doing before Die Hard.

It’s a shame John McTiernan doesn’t get the good scripts anymore. His later work – Rollerball, 13th Warrior, The Thomas Crown Affair, Basic – is disappointing, but I can always watch a McTiernan picture, if only to sit back and marvel at his elegant visual style. Even in his worst movies, his mise-en-scene with actors and the camera is magnificent.

"Predator" is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Date Night

Date Night (2010) dir. Shawn Levy
Starring: Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg, Taraji P. Henson, Common, William Fichtner

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

It’s disposable turnkey Hollywood entertainment, but in terms of the action-comedy genre, Date Night, does not make a wrong turn. Consistently funny and exciting from beginning to end, it was a delight to actually be surprised by a mainstream film these days. As such, Date Night, earns its rather high three and a half star rating.

Claire and Phil Foster (Fey and Carell) are a typical suburban working parents. Living in the New Jersey suburb they commute daily to the ‘big city’ and lie about how it’s 'not that bad’, Since their lives revolves around the kids sex is a perfunctory and thus it takes a conscious date night to create a spark in their lives. Their night out consists of driving into Manhattan and attempting to get into a chic restaurant without a reservation. Having stolen the rezzy from a delinquent couple, the 'Triplehorns' they dine in high style until they're interrupted by a couple of hoods looking for a certain flash drive containing some valuable information.

The mistaken identity results in an often hilarious fish-out-of-water scenario of dull soccer mom and soccer dad battling it out with nasty big city gangsta villains. Steve Carell and Tina Fey fit each of their roles like well worn gloves. It’s not much of a stretch for Fey, but we don’t really want her outside of her comfort zone, that is, the self-effacing middle-aged socially challenged nit wit from 30 Rock. And Steve Carell is the same whip smart but geeky under achiever from his 40-Year Old Virgin roles.

Shawn Levy, taking a break from his Night at The Museum franchise, executes a handful of well choreographed action sequences, the main set piece being a clever car chase involving the Fosters car and a taxicab stuck together. A fun rowboat chase sequence in ‘the Central Park’ also results in some of the funnier sight gags.

Carell and Fey are supported by a number of fine supporting performances. Mark Wahlberg, is deadpan hilarious as a shirtless Israeli security officer who helps the Fosters. James Franco and Mila Kunis also turn in a fantastic scene as the real Triplehorns (and despite a quick reference, no, Jeanne Triplehorn does not make an appearance). The great character actor William Fichtner chews some great scenery as the corrupt city official. He, Fey and Carell cap off the hilarity with a raucous dance sequence, a dual strip tease with Fey as a Eastern European prostitute dressed as whore from the Old West and Carell as her eastern Europeon pimp, which attempts appease the sexually perverted Fichtner.

Unfortunately most of everyone else are weak and clichéd. Oscar nominated Taraji P. Henson’s roles is awful and Common and Jimmy Simpson suffer through underwritten stock bad guy thugs.

As expected in the genre, over the course of the night the couple learns lessons about love, marriage and compromise resulting in some warm fuzzies at the end, but not before taking through a truly entertaining comic joy ride.

"Date Night" is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Friday, 20 August 2010

I Spit On Your Grave - Toronto After Dark Film Festival (2010)


I Spit On Your Grave (2010) Dir. Steven R. Monroe
Starring: Sarah Butler, Daniel Franzese, Jeff Branson, Rodney Eastman, Tracey Walter, Andrew Howard and Chad Lindberg

**

By Greg Klymkiw

During the question and answer session following the Toronto After Dark Film Festival screening of his remake of Meir Zarchi's inept 1978 scumbag movie of the same name, director Steven R. Monroe responded to queries from the moderator and audience with a degree of humility and sensitivity that one wouldn't expect from a filmmaker who had just served up an extremely well-crafted 107 minutes of gang rape followed by torture-porn styled revenge.

Given the controversial nature of the picture he was asked if there were any crew members who walked off the film due to the extreme subject matter. He then referred to some "idiot" on the local Shreveport, Louisiana crew with a "drinking problem" who up and disappeared, but that nobody else abandoned the proceedings and certainly not due to the graphic recreation of various indignities perpetrated against virtually every character in the movie.

Monroe, for some reason, was bemused to relate this story about the "idiot" and perhaps it was because he thought it was funny or infused with irony. All it was infused with, frankly, was considerable insensitivity towards a fellow human being who might well be an alcoholic and as such, is/was suffering from a horrible, debilitating disease that should inspire empathy at the very least and certainly not derision.

I honestly couldn't figure out why Monroe chose to relate this anecdote with a goofy grin accompanied by a bit of nervous laughter, but it came close to tempering my response to the movie - which was already not all that positive to begin with. I girded my loins prior to writing this piece and tossed it off as perhaps nervousness and/or being thrown by the question.

Ultimately though, it reminded me what a danger it is to art when an artist comes across one way while publicly discussing their work and then foolishly and/or mistakenly throws something out that contradicts his initial feelings towards the work he's created. All of Monroe's attempts to deflect the notion that he was exploiting sexual violence for the edification of scumbags became so much dust in the wind.

So, does the film exploit sexual violence? Of course it does. In all fairness, however, all movies - to varying degrees - are exploitation. One manipulates and exploits in order to derive an audience response, so I'm not going to level any ill will towards the notion of exploitation in the movies, since this is the job of filmmakers - every last one of them (whether they want to believe and/or admit it or not).

That said, I did wonder, just as I wondered when I first saw Meir Zarchi's original 1978 rendering of this tale what, exactly, was the point of this movie? Zarchi's picture was so dreadful, one could barely consider it anything other than a disgusting pile of crap thrown together to give a bunch of sick fucks their jollies.

Zarchi's movie is what it is.

Monroe's is a bit more problematic - especially because it's very well made. In spite of Monroe's craft and that of his key creatives and actors, I still am not sure why the movie exists other than to make a buck off of revelling in the suffering of its characters.

That, I suppose, is the only point. One can try to justify it on a moral or political level - but that's all it would be, justification. I say, let's just call a spade a spade without condemnation. The movie is there simply to shock and titillate. End of story.

And, speaking of story, such as it is, the movie (for those who've been on Mars) is about a woman who seeks solace in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, gets gang-raped and then gets the most gruesome, satisfying revenge. There you have it. There not much more to it than that.

Does it do its job well?

Extremely.

There really isn't a single bad performance in the movie. Each actor playing the rapists is suitably and believably vile and reprehensible. The performance of Sarah Butler as the female victim is certainly brave and delivered with complete professionalism. I will admit, though, it was hard to buy her as a professional novelist since she carried herself with the air of a young freelance magazine journalist trying her hand at writing a novel. That might have been more "realistic", but the filmmakers chose a more implausible role for its heroine.

I will not even begin to suggest that the gang-rape is handled with any sort of sensitivity, but it is definitely presented in the most horrific, graphic fashion and seldom does the extended sequence resort to inspiring (or even attempting to inspire) hard-ons amongst the fellas in the audience (thank Heaven for tender mercies). Monroe shoots the rape in a way that pretty much forces an audience to react as it did - with cheers and hoots of approval when the rape victim eventually gets back at her violators in the most grotesque, nasty, painful ways. I should, perhaps also mention that just because the gang-rape is not shot with the intent to titillate, chances are good that with certain segments of the audience, it will.

So, if you've a desire to see:

(a) a man forced to watch a video monitor with fish hooks keeping his eyelids open whilst fresh fish guts, thrown in his open mutilated eyes, inspire crows to peck his eyeballs out;

(b) a man drowned in a tub full of lye until his head and face are rendered to a pulpy mass;

(c) a man castrated and forced to choke to death on his own testicles and penis;

(d) a man repeatedly sodomized with a shot gun which then goes off, the bullet plunging through his anus, out his mouth and hitting yet another rapist in the head;

then this, ladies and gentlemen, is the movie for you.

Enjoy!

The Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2010 schedule can be accessed HERE.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Centurion - Toronto After Dark Film Festival (2010)

Centurion (2010) dir. Neil Marshall
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West and Olga Kurylenko

**

By Greg Klymkiw

Neil Marshall is one terrific director, and he comes to every film he makes with the pedigree of being an editor - in fact, two of his directorial efforts, Dog Soldiers and Doomsday were edited by himself. Sadly, it is the editing that fails his latest picture Centurion.

Marshall's brawny screenplay, loosely based on a historical record that is itself a bit murky, focuses on imagining what might have happened to an entire Roman Legion in what is now Great Britain in the early part of the first millennium. It's a solid, simple script that should have yielded a much better picture.

It tells the story of a brave centurion, Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) who promises his superior, General Titus Virilus (Dominic West) that he will lead a small group of Roman soldiers to safety after the entire legion has been savagely decimated in a guerrilla-styled offensive perpetrated by the merciless Picts. The rest of the movie is one long chase scene punctuated by dollops of vicious fighting. Leading the Picts is the sumptuous near perfection that is Olga Kurylenko as Etain, a warrior goddess who had her tongue cut out by the Romans when she was a child.

Kurylenko is quickly becoming one of my favourite actresses. Not only is she mind-blowingly gorgeous, the camera loves her like nothing else and I appreciate the diversity of roles she takes on. She could be an action star on the level of her Ukrainian compatriot Milla Jovovich (and probably even bigger), but if she plays her cards right, she also has the stuff to take on more roles in non-genre pieces and still deliver bigtime. In Centurion, she conveys a wide range of emotions even though, and perhaps especially because, she is forced to present her character without the benefit of dialogue. She conveys everything through action.

Speaking of "action" (in the Jerry Bruckheimer sense of the word), with a picture like Centurion, how the action scenes play out is virtually the whole shooting match. Unfortunately, much of the film feels as if it were edited with a series of multiple rapid golf club swings and slices. The first 20 minutes of battle and exposition is so choppily cut, that it's almost hard to believe the film comes from such a precise craftsman as Marshall. One only has to recall the superb craft in Marshall's The Descent where the cutting was measured for maximum impact. Even worse in Centurion, is how the relatively easy-to-follow setup is rendered utterly confusing and takes far too much effort to piece together while watching the movie. (This takes some doing considering how simple it all really is.)

It's obvious Marshall had more than enough coverage to allow for a cutting style that could hang back a bit, yet the movie's story and set pieces are foisted upon us using the currently fashionable quick cutting. Where this annoying cutting hurts the most is in the action scenes. For all of the great fight choreography and Marshall's exceptional eye, it's pretty much all for naught. The only sequence that packs a wallop the way it should is when the handful of centurions are on the run from Kurylenko and her bloodthirsty Pict warriors. The sequence works because Marshall's compositions are exquisite and the less frenetic cutting style allows the action to play out in ways that are both emotional and rooted squarely in narrative.

I detest this wham-bam-thank-you-mam style of cutting because it has little regard for how a cut can not only move things forward, but, in fact, disregards the fact that a cut is in and of itself - inherently dramatic. The cutting here has little drama - just noise and fury. One of the few directors who knows how to make this kind of cutting work is the extraordinary Paul Greengrass with his Bourne pictures, Bloody Sunday, United 93 and his latest thriller Green Zone. But with his pictures, they are designed from the get-go to be cut in this fashion and you can even tell that he knows exactly where his herky jerky shots are going and how they'll cut together. Alas, when the cutting style is employed in such a haphazard, all-over-the-place fashion as in Centurion, one fells that its makers are trying too hard - the , effect is visceral, but seldom works in service to the narrative.

The photography, production design and performances are all fine, and Marshall's distinctive approach to onscreen violence remains as vivid and original as ever. Unfortunately, the cutting - aimed at the ADHD-challenged not only sucks the life out of everything that could have worked beautifully, but in fact, for all the whizbang slicing and dicing, the picture becomes exhausting and as such, is often borderline boring. This is the sort of cutting one expects to see in a J.J. Abrams or Christopher "One Idea" Nolan effort - filmmakers who are not really born filmakers and make movies anyway in spite of having no idea how to make them.

In spite of all this, I remain a steadfast champion of Neil Marshall (hell, I'm probably one of the few people who genuinely likes Doomsday - a really fun ode to the George Miller Mad Max pictures) and I very much look forward to his next picture with considerable anticipation.

I just hope it will be better than Centurion.

The full schedule for the Toronto After Dark Film Festival can be found HERE

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

All About Evil - Toronto After Dark Film Festival (2010)

All About Evil (2010) Dir. Joshua Grannell
Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Thomas Dekker, Mink Stole, Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson and Noah Segan

*

By Greg Klymkiw

There are some movies you want to love - especially if you're a lover of movies, and most notably, a lover of genre movies. However, it ultimately matters very little how well intentioned, how securely the movie's heart is in the right place, how much its filmmaker shares your love for all the same things, the bottom line is always a heartbreaker - if the movie stinks, the movie stinks, and there's not too much else to be said.

All About Evil is such a picture.

This tale of revenge, murder and artistic blossoming against the backdrop of the Grand Guignol of el-cheapo splatter films, keeps feeling like it should work, but it simply doesn't. The talented child star turned train wreck, Natasha Lyonne top-lines as the much-beleagured mouse of girl, Deborah - accent on the second syllable, please. Her Dad always dreamed she'd be a star. Her Mom had nothing but contempt for her. In the end, she became a librarian while Dad continued to run his tiny little picture palace where he screened mostly movies he loved.

Upon Dad's death, Deborah tries to keep the old place going by running a repertory selection of camp horror classics of the Herschell Gordon Lewis variety. She has one loyal customer in the form of teenager Steven (Thomas Dekker) and a scraggly band of miscreants. When Mom demands she sell the theatre for its real estate value, Deborah goes berserk and viciously slaughters Mater on security cam, no less. When the footage mistakenly goes up on the screen instead of the title on the marquee Blood Feast, the audience goes nuts.

They love the surprise movie to death.

Deborah knows a good thing when she sees it and she quickly rediscovers the acting bug her Dad unsuccessfully encouraged in her to his dying day. Deborah now needs to feed her hungry public, but also feed her ego, and most importantly, her hatred of anyone who fucks her over and/or just plain offends her. She collects a motley group of like-minded souls and proceeds to make a series of gruesome snuff films. The public has no idea they're seeing real killings, however, and Deborah goes undetected.

This is pretty much the whole movie until it accelerates and explodes in an orgy of bloody mayhem.

This could have been entertaining, but there are a few things keeping it from working on that level. The most significant failing is that it's just plain bad. Worse than that, it's campy. Not that there's anything wrong with camp, but when camp is bad (and yes, there's good camp and bad camp), there's nothing more excruciating to sit through.

Not to get too high falutin' here, but I think it's apt to haul out a bit of Susan Sontag and her Notes on "Camp". Sontag, I believe, hits the nail on the head when she states: "One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp ("camping") is usually less satisfying." This, of course, is exactly what keeps All About Evil from working. In fact, it's not just a matter of being "less satisfying", the movie intentionally or inadvertently tries so hard to live up to the Sontagian essence of Camp in "its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration", that it becomes extremely dissatisfying.

Writer-Director Joshua Grannell (AKA drag queen extraordinaire, Peaches Christ) pummels us with his knowing artifice to the point of boredom. Even worse, his approach seems to exemplify the more horrendous Sontagian notion that "Camp is esoteric -- something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques." Granted, filmmakers like John Waters or Guy Maddin cudgel us with esoterica, but they do so with genuine filmmaking virtuosity.

Grannell has the cinematic equivalent to a "tin ear". He is not the kind of filmmaker that has cinema hard wired into his DNA. Every detail is forced to the point of exhaustion. Waters, for example, has a crackling sense of pace, but Grannell has none. Between each ultra violent set piece, the movie plods along like some fruity Apatosaurus on downers and when the set pieces become more over-the-top, the movie simply takes a nose dive.

One of the more regrettable aspects of the movie is its nastiness. Now don't get me wrong, I love nasty as much as the next fella' - especially when it blends the kind of brilliant dark humour and dazzling imagery one finds in the best work of someone like Brian DePalma, but from a narrative standpoint, Grannell loses our empathy with Deborah completely when she goes after the matronly librarian she used to work with. There's really not a darn thing wrong with the old bird - she's kindly and genuinely concerned about Deborah's well-being. To see Deborah sewing the woman's lips shut in graphic detail pretty much flushes any shred of humanity her character might have been endowed with right down the toilet. Just because there is "artifice" involved in camp, it doesn't mean humanity must be abandoned. Then again, to the fakes who create such material and those who lap it up, humanity is just a little too cool for school.

I saw the picture during the Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2010 and while I applaud the decision to show the film (camp, even if its bad, has a place within the context of such a festival), watching it was extremely painful. It was especially horrific being surrounded by a full house that included a healthy dollop of the "urban cliques" Sontag referred to. This particular urban clique is the worst sort of urban clique. They force laughs out of their bellies and I'm convinced that at a subconcious level, they're forcing themselves to enjoy the movie because they think (or desperately and pathetically want to believe) that's what is required. This rarified vantage point is, ultimately, what gives camp a bad name and in fact, encourages makers of such work to keep foisting their trifles upon us. Interestingly, the full house was not as raucously appreciative as the minority in the house who managed to annoyingly make their holier than thou anti-art presence known.

And as awful as the experience was, I'm glad to have had it. Any excuse to think about camp - something I genuinely love - is always welcome. And for me, it's important, every so often, to have an experience like this to remind me of how special and wonderful camp can be and that it takes great or pure artists to pull it off. Seeing something this inept is an extra forceful reminder of that fact.

The After Dark Film Festival 2010 edition has a number of more exciting prospects ahead including a new Neil Marshall, a new Phillip Ridley and, God help us, the remake of Mair Zarchi's I Spit On Your Grave. The schedule can be accessed HERE.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Last Exorcism - Toronto After Dark Film Festival (2010)

The Last Exorcism (2010) dir. Daniel Stamm
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones and Tony Bentley

***

By Greg Klymkiw

I suppose we have to thank The Blair Witch Project for all the mock-doc shaky-cam thrillers of the past decade, though God knows, I really don't want to because frankly, it pretty much stinks. It had a vague visceral effectiveness upon a first viewing, but the real test for all these pictures is how they hold up on repeated viewings. Blair Witch doesn't hold up to that kind of scrutiny at all. Much like other one-trick-pony efforts such as Christopher "One Idea" Nolan's Memento or the reprehensible pile of filth Man Bites Dog, the aforementioned titles live and then die a miserable death because so much of them rest on the shoulders of their gimmick.

In fact, a much better film in this genre, might well be the patriarch of them all, Jim McBride's utterly haunting and creepy David Holzman's Diary which, after over forty years still has the power to blow an audience away as it has way more going for it than its conceit (though its central figure is indeed the walking, talking embodiment of conceit). My personal favourites of the recent forays into this form of telling creepy stories would be Oren Peli's stunning Paranormal Activity and the funny, twisted and strangely moving District 9. Both pictures are rooted in humanity against extraordinary backdrops and bear up under repeated scrutiny.

And now we have, from producer Eli (The Bear Jew) Roth, a very effective horror picture directed by Daniel Stamm which, presents its nerve jangling tale of demonic possession with a reasonable degree of intelligence and style. I suspect it will hold up to repeated viewings on a number of levels. The Last Exorcism is an apparent documentary about preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), famous and popular man o' God who began his career (much like the real-life Marjoe Gortner) as a child evangelist and worked his way up to being a lower drawer Jimmy Swaggart. Cotton supplements his earnings as an exorcist, which is where he's really made his mark, but recent events have tested his faith and he invites documentary filmmaker Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr) to enter his life - warts and all.

Cotton receives numerous requests to perform exorcisms, but his belief in their effectiveness has more to do with the healing powers he wields through his performance. He goes so far as to rig the exorcisms with simple, but really compelling special effects. He randomly picks an exorcism request off a pile of letters on his desk and off the crew goes to watch him do his stuff. His hope is to expose himself, to expose all exorcists, to expose his own lack of faith. He doesn't believe in the devil and he doesn't believe the exorcism has any special Heavenly significance. He believes in his skill to heal, but due to some recent tragedies where other holy men have committed exorcisms that have traumatized the "possessed" - so much that they have actually died - he hopes to expose the absurdity and inherent danger in such practices - especially by those not as skilled as he.

He enters the world of the Louisiana backwoods Sweetzer family who have been plagued with livestock mutilations and very odd behaviour from 16-year-old Nell (Ashley Bell). Cotton is convinced the problem is psychological and he exorcises, with the help of his bag of tricks, the demon from the girl's soul.

Sooner than you can say "The power of Christ compels thee!" it becomes obvious that there's more to the girl than meets the eye. She's obviously suffered a severe trauma - possibly sexual abuse or... she really is possessed by a demon.

Horror ensues.

And much of the horror is extremely effective - lots of creepy crawly stuff and numerous all-out shit-your-pants pyrotechnics. Most impressively, these are bereft of CGI and delivered by the actors. Ashley Bell is especially astounding in a performance that is highly physical. The gymnastics of self mutilation are rendered by Ms. Bell and Ms. Bell alone. She's not only brilliant physically, but she plumbs the depths of an incredibly tortured young woman with the sort of skill that signals a great talent to keep an eye on.

Equally impressive in the acting sweepstakes is Patrick Fabian as Cotton. Bringing the right balance of showmanship, charm and sleaziness to the table and as the film progresses, a very strong sense in the character's rekindling of faith, Fabian makes us believe as readily as he makes his "patients" believe.

It's to the film's credit that faith still plays an important role in the story. While critical of organized religion, it follows the intricacies of Cotton's own spiritual struggles and ultimately, places stock in this, or if you will. his belief in God.

One of the more astounding elements is that the picture not only features lots of magnificent exorcism, but in what must be a first, we also get some mega-devil-worship dolloped lovingly into the mix. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I don't recall seeing anything (or at least anything good) where we are plunged into a movie about exorcism that then pulls the delicious, tantalizing card of devil worship.

I love devil worship. And let me guarantee you, The Last Exorcism features devil worship so profoundly disturbing that it rivals some of my favourite devil worship sequences in such classics of the genre as Hammer's The Devil Rides Out, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and Race With The Devil.

This is one of those movies where horror aficionados can do the math on all the expertly handled moments of major-league delivery and determine the picture's ultimate worth - especially if the picture is good even beyond the math.

So here's the tally: Mutilation (of animals and humans), provocative sexual overtones, lots of "in-the-name-of-Jesus" prayers. Latin recitation. One can never get enough of that. And last, but not least, one of the most harrowing devil worship sequences replete with a bloody, goo dripping deformed demon baby with blood gushing geyser-like from the nether regions of the woman trussed to the unholy altar of Satan.

Seriously.

What's not to like?

For the rest of this week's amazing schedule, be sure to click HERE.

As a side note, a tiny two minute short film preceded The Last Exorcism during the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. While I usually use this time to stand outside and smoke a ciggie (purchased from a reserve in order to support our Aboriginal brothers) before the feature, I was compelled to sit through the entire live introduction of Eli Roth, the very cool After Dark promos, a couple of trailers for upcoming pictures in the festival and, Hot Damn! am I glad I didn't suck back the lovingly honey roasted tobacco. Fireman kicks holy motherfucking ass. I normally hate spoof trailers to movies that don't exist (at least not until Grindhouse, but this grotesque and hilarious 80s style pyromania thriller is tremendously engaging. For the first time in a long time, I actually wanted them to screen the short again. Written and directed by Adam Brooks of the oddball Winnipeg-based trash-movie collective Astron-6, Fireman was worthy of any fake trailer in Grindhouse. I suspect Mr. Brooks has horked down one too many Salisbury House Mr. Big Nips and washed them down with a few too many jugs of Labatt's 50. The result, however, was worth it.