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

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms

Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms (1978) dir. Cheh Chang
Starring: Kuan Tai Chen, Feng Lu, Philip Kwok, Meng Lo, Chien Sun, Sheng Chiang

**

By Alan Bacchus

I won't say I'm an expert in Kung Fu cinema, but this also isn’t my first kung fu film, and nor is it my first Shaw Bros kung fu film. I can see how this can be considered a classic and yes, it’s probably influential in the genre, and thus revered by hardcore genre-philes, but its the HK equivalent of a American B-Movie exploitation picture. If you embrace the silliness, brutality, politically incorrectness, awful production values, horrendous acting, makeup, cinematography and screenplay you might enjoy this.

It’s possibly one of the most brutally violent and cruel films I’ve ever seen. The opening is especially audacious and brutal. Rivals of the Tiger Kung Fu clan break into the home of master Chu Twin and proceed to chop off the master’s wife’s legs and his son’s arms. When the master returns he quickly kills them all in revenge and swears vengence by making metal replacement arms for his son in order for him to become an even greater kung fu warrior.

Years later, the son, Chu Cho Chang, is grown up and indeed has metal arms which can crush other objects and shoot flying daggers. Unfortunately he and father Chu have grown bitter and even more brutal than their original attackers, ruling their village like despotic madmen maiming and chopping of limps of innocent citizens for no good reason. A few people try to stand up to them, in particular four warriors, Mr. Wei, the town blacksmith who is rendered mute when he’s forced to drink a dangerous elixir, Yuan Yi tries to fight back but has his head squeezed so tight he's rendered an idiot, another one is rendered blind by Cho Chang’s metal fingers and another who has his legs chopped off.

You get the idea? The original Asian title of this picture translated to Crippled Avengers, a more appropriate title as the rest of the film plays out in traditional kung fu revenge cinema featuring four crippled warriors fighting for their vengence. Of course the cripples retreat to the company of an elderly and bearded kung fu master who teaches them how to use their crippledness to their advantage and defeat the house of the Tiger.

It’s full on Kill Bill cinema here, atrociously fake wigs, beards, sideburns, moustaches a plenty, overly accentuated sound effects, sparse studio sets, bad Shaw Scope lenses which create a weird and likely unintentional focus problems around the outside of the frame, bright red to the point of almost being orange blood and more. The only missing is the badly dubbed American voices. Instead, aghast, we get subtitles! How shameful.

But how are the fight scenes you ask? Well, they are good, for the day. Obviously the skill level and production techniques to make kung fu fighting more acrobatic, faster, energetic and thrilling are better now than then. And so taking that into consideration, their artistry and attention to detail the numerous fight sequences do not disappoint.

‘Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms’ is available from Alliance Films and the Weinstein Company via their kung fu label, Dragon Dynasty Collection.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Robin Hood

Robin Hood (2010) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong, William Hurt, Max Von Sydow

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

A long time ago I ceased to expect anything on the level of Alien or Blade Runner from Mr. Scott. While his filmography is peppered with legitimately fine films such as Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down, Hannibal even Matchstick Men (!), his late career output seems to be more disappointments. So I refuse to be 'disappointed' by a Ridley Scott film anymore, only surprised. And so without any pressure Robin Hood isn’t half bad – but not exactly a ringing endorsement either.

If I put to paper all the criticisms I have of this film compared to what I liked about it, i would be inclined to assign a 2 star rating or even less. But there’s an infectious energy to the picture and a couple of decent action sequences for it to satisfy. Sure it has a bloated running time way past the 120min mark. And sure, it still feels like there are large chunks of plotting and character development missing. And sure it’s another typical brooding dour and humourless performance from Russell Crowe. And sure Crowe and Blanchett are just way too old to play these characters, but let’s not dwell on what the film should have been and focus on the positives.

Sir Ridley and his scribe Brian Helgeland make a clear point to replace the traditional frolicking and swashbuckling adventure story of Curtiz/Flynn variety for a more complex-plotting multi-character narrative weaving in the actual history of the time, that is, the war between England and France, the end of the Crusade and the signing of the Magna Carta.

The action starts out with Robin Longstride, as RH was then known, as an archer in King Richard the Lionsheart’s army, on their way home from their 10 year Crusade – an endeavour which has financially crippled the land. Not understanding economics very well King John feels pressure to tax the people more to bring money in to fight off the surging French.

Sick of fighting for Richard’s ignoble ideals Robin escapes to Nottingham where Robin finds himself assuming the identity of his fallen commander Robert Loxsley, late husband to none other than Maid Marian. And so a reluctant courtship ensues, during which time he witnesses first hand the troubles the King's policies are causing, eventually leading to Robin joining forces with John to fight off the invading French.

This is the just tip of the iceberg. There’s a hell of a lot of plot going on, and though Helgeland’s writing makes everything clear there’s just not enough time to give adequate attention to everything and everyone. What’s lost are the fundamental elements of the Robin Hood story we know and love. There’s little if any robbing from the rich to giving to the poor, the traditional characters are there, including Marian, King John but also Little John, Will Scarlett, Alan O’Dale, Friar Tuck. But unfortunately these compatriots have little character or personality other than the fact that Little John is huge, Scarlett has red hair, O’Dale is a musician and Friar Tuck is fat.

But here I am laying out the criticisms again.... The best performance in the film is actually Max Von Sydow, as the blind Walter Loxley. Von Sydow had the misfortunate lately of being wasted on underwhelming roles in Shutter Island and Minority Report. But as a blind father figure to Robin he becomes the heart and soul of the film.

But what really matters is that Ridley's action scenes have flare and spectacle. Especially the final beach battle between Robin, the English army and the nasty Frenchmen which reminds us of the great finale to El Cid. Every time Russell launches his arrow at someone, or rides his horse with speed through the forest it’s fun, as such I'm OK with this film.

Robin Hood is available on Blu-Ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Karate Kid (2010)

The Karate Kid (2010) dir. Harald Zwart
Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Zhenwei Wang, Rongguang Yu

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Despite it’s mondo box office take this summer The Karate Kid is not a great movie, a glossy but tepid remake of the John G. Avildsen feel good classic about a kid who forms a paternal bond with an aging mentor to order to learn karate and stand up to the school bullies. Adults might get some fun out of authentic Chinese locales, the fine performance from Jackie Chan, a couple of Avildsen-worthy montage sequences or from the rousing kung fu tournament finale, but recasting this film with 12 year olds means anyone outside of the Justin Bieber fan base will find this mostly a cutsey bore.

To the producers’ credit they have cleverly updated the story for a more relevant globally connected modern world and at the same time adhered to the core story elements and narrative formula which made the original so memorable.

This time round the kid, Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is a fatherless child who is a fish out of water, living with his mom who recently got outsourced to Beijing China. Of course it’s a strange culture for Dre who has trouble adapting, especially when a group of bullies who flash some serious kung fu style beat up on him. Dre tries to fight back but can’t match the size and strength of the leader Cheng.

Dre’s taken in as a student by the lowly janitor Mr. Han (Chan), who’s actually a Kung Fu master. Instead of waxing his master’s car or painting his fence Han gets Dre to take his jacket on and off a hundred times as a way to trick him into learning the fundamentals of martial arts. Instead of a Karate tournament, Dre enters a Kung Fu tournament as a way of besting his bullies and fulfilling a sense of confidence and affirming his place in the new culture.

Director Zwart’s glossily on location work in spectacular sites such as Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City give the film a sense of epic scope missing from Avildsen’s distinctly working class vibe of the original. But what fails the film is the recasting from the more universal teenage/high school setting to this pre-teen middle school age bracket, which pretty much dissolves the film of any real connection to the plight of the character – unless you tend to think a lot about those good times in Grade 8.

The teenage social angst of the Avildson version is transported without much change into these 12 year old characters. Like Ralph Macchio’s pursuit of the lovely Elizabeth Shue in the original Jaden Smith falls in love with a child prodigy violinist. Their courtship plays out in a traditional male-female romance we would see in any teenage or post-teen romantic comedy, but when those longing glances, smooth first moves and general courtship rituals play out with children of such young ages it feels so utterly false and contrived.

Of course some people might find Jaden Smith’s first on-screen kiss with the violin prodigy cute, but that’s about it, cute. Luckily though, Jackie Chan gives one of his best performances, one which relies on his acting and not his acrobatics. As the broken down former kung fu master who now lives a meek existence as a handyman Chan brings the same stoic demeanour but strong fatherly wisdom as Pat Morita - and he can actually fight. Chan is given a chance to showcase his skills on a couple of occasions, once in his introduction, when he stops Dre from getting beaten up by the schoolyard bullies and once in a deleted scene when he faces off against the Sen Sei nemesis Master Li. The latter thankfully was cut out. It works as a fun one-off fight sequence but has no place being where it is in the movie. If a sequel gets made look for the scene again at the opening, just like the beginning of Karate Kid 2.

The Karate Kid is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Picture Home Entertainment

Monday, 27 September 2010

Endgame

Endgame (2009) dir. Pete Travis
Starring: Jonny Lee Miller, Chiwetel Ejiofor, William Hurt

**

By Alan Bacchus

The four-year political fight to free Nelson Mandela and end Apartheid got the trendy intelli-political cinematic treatment in Pete Travis’s “Endgame” which premiered at Sundance and went straight cable last year. The “Syriana” style template is applied to this pivotal moment in world history resulting in a surprising unoriginal lesser version of a Stephan Gaghan film.

It’s the late 80’s in South Africa, Apartheid is in full effect and a time when the African National Congress (ANC) is considered a terrorist organization by the government. Riots and violent demonstrations occur in protest of the racist regime. Jonny Lee Miller, a representative of South African business interests, attempts to assemble a meeting with the Afrikaner elite and the ANC leader Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in hopes negotiating a peaceful unofficial ceasefire. Secret deals, backstabbing and covert negotiating of everyone’s personal self-interests trump the needs of the nation.

There’s something manipulative about the consciously 'realist' style applied to this story. Before the abominable “Vantage Point” Pete Travis made a name for himself directing his “Bloody Sunday” companion piece “Omagh” – a documentary-like recreation of the infamous Irish tragedy. Recycling this method for the story of the liberation of South Africa feels like obvious style over substance.

The Stephen Gaghan Traffic/Syriana style casts such a large shadow over the film we get lost in the actual plotting. For 90mins we get a repetitive series of quiet phone conversations, wiretapping and quiet political whispering. Like “Syriana” which purposely held information in order to confuse the audience to actual motivations, actions and reactions of the political players, “Endgame” uses the exact same tools, but to lesser effect.

Travis bombards us with ultra-tight handheld close-ups, dramatic pauses and lingering silent reaction shots to punctuate drama which doesn't seem to be there. Even Martin Phipps' quiet pulsating beats and ambient undercurrents exactly like Alexandre Desplat’s “Syriana” score. So much so it borders on theft.

All of these spy games seem to be rendered moot when, in the final act, F.W. De Klerk takes power and becomes the deux ex machina which cuts through all of the political sneaking around from the previous 90mins. In the end, I can only think, what just happened, who did what and why? An emotional ending is sadly wasted on a subpar film.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz (1939) dir. Victor Fleming
Starring: Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Burke

****

By Alan Bacchus

If someone were to ask me what the most widely seen movies ever made. Not just based on box office figures but on TV and DVD I’d probably only put ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on top that list with much space to the next one down. Both movies transcend time and are invisible to their age.

Like 'Gone With the Wind', ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a producer’s picture, not a director’s picture. In fact there were four directors all of whom left or got fired for one reason or another. Including the only credited man, Victor Fleming, would also go on to direct portions of Selnick’s picture and get sole credit as well.

The opening Kansas sequence, shot famously in black & white and timed for sepia tone, evokes a cinematic period before 1939. By 1939, black & white was so sophisticated, cinematographers could manipulate light and shadows to do anything. So the sepia tone and obviously stagey studio set opening is meant to bring us back to a simpler time even before the relatively simple times of 1939 cinema. Perhaps the anachronistic opening was meant to enhance the great transition to Technicolor which announces itself so grandly when Dorothy exits her tornado-transported home and into Munchkinland.

Rare for its time “Oz” seems to have an awareness of itself.

As a strictly studio picture, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is not much more than a theatrically staged telling of the Frank L. Baum story. Some might describe the choreography as stagey, as there’s an awareness of the interior studio setting at all times. The painted backdrops looks like, well, painted backdrops. The flowers look fake. The colours are overly saturated and unrealistic. The edges and falseness the costumes and makeup worn by the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion are made visible by the bright, unsympathetic lighting. Like a the front row patrons of a Broadway show, there's very little hidden from the audience in Oz.

Even within the constraints of the studio iconic imagery is everywhere. The mere sight of Dorothy and her three costumed companions skipping down the yellow brick road toward the Emerald City is as grand a composition as there ever was in the movies. The foursome framed at the bottom of the screen, with the converging lines of the road creating the sense of depth and the deco design of the castle at the top of the frame is a brilliantly fantastical work of art.

'The Wizard of Oz' is a work of pure and inspiring fantasy. The classical structure of the fairytale hits every beat so precisely in hindsight it’s a template for all fantasy cinema made after. Dorothy’s journey is not unlike Frodo’s in 'Lord of the Rings' or Alice in Wonderland, so innocent and fragile, dainty in her pretty dress and her constant follower, Toto. Even her empty basket which she refuses to put down even in the most dangerous of situations stays on her arm. Dorothy as a farm girl, doesn’t know it but her congeniality and resourcefulness is about to save the world from the tyranny of the wicked witches. Well, Glinda knows it. We can see it on her face when she first introduces herself in Munchkinland, she will be the saviour.

The late second act action sequence in Wicked Witch’s castle is frightening. Not just Margaret Hamilton’s snarling performance as the Witch, but her army of Russian Army-coat wearing minions and flying demon monkeys. The grey and gothic tones of these scenes provoke a truly dark and threatening hazard in Dorothy’s journey.

My favourite performance, no doubt, is Bert Lahr’s Lion – a character of vaudevillian extremes, with an exaggerated New York accent which, of Dorothy’s three sidekicks, best represents the trio’s slapstick comedy.

The Wizard of Oz” is invisible to it age because, if the film were made now – or perhaps before the age of CG – under a producer as smart as Mervyn LeRoy would likely (or should) look exactly the same. Look at the 1971 version of ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ for instance, a film made 32 years after Oz but with the same visual and tonal sensibilities. No wonder that film is also a timeless classic.

The 70th Anniversary of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Bros. Home Video. The special features on the two-disc set are adequate, but mostly older featurettes which unfortunately show their age – especially the Angela Lansbury-hosted 1990 feature, ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic’ urggh.

Find Wizard of Oz Collectables Here

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Catfish

Catfish (2010) dir. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
Documentary

**** (warning, dangerous spoilers below)

By Alan Bacchus

A lot has been written about the production of this movie, some questioning its validity. I refuse to partake and engage in such discussion. This film is stunning, no matter how it was made. It's best to see this film not reading anything about it. But at the end of this review (reposted from Sundance) I will address some of comments and questions surrounding the film

I’ve always said the best documentaries are the happy accidents, the films which reveal themselves to the filmmakers, as opposed to the filmmakers chasing subjects. “Catfish“ reminds us of “Capturing the Friedmans, my personal favourite documentary of the 2000’s and perhaps the best example of an unintentional film which begged to be made. Such is the case with ‘Catfish’ (coincidentally produced by Friedman’s director Andrew Jarecki). At once a complex story of love and romance in the digital age of social media, but also a fascinating psychological character study of how social media can give everybody the opportunity to edit one’s perception of his or her life.

The opening narration explains to us the seed by which their story found its spark. One day, photographer Niv Schulman, brother of the co-director, received a mysterious package in the mail. It was a oil painting artistic rendering of one of his photographs which appeared in a magazine. Not only was the painting good, but it was drawn by an eight-year old girl named Abby from Michigan. Fascinated by the gesture Niv contacts Abby via email and they start up a friendly penpal relationship. In fact, his relationship extends to Abby’s mom, Angela and other members of her family.

Via Facebook, Niv meets Megan, Abby’s half-sister, a talented and gorgeous singer/dancer. Over the course of eight months a few Facebook messages snowballs into a legitmate internet romance. As the romance appears close to blossoming into a formal in person meet up, a curious discrepancy is discovered by Niv, and his filmmaking partners.

The filmmakers stumble upon a larger story, more complex than a mere internet story, but a story in which they don’t know where it might lead. Schulman and Joost expertly convey this sense of discovery in both the participants and to the audience. They manage to wring out hairsplitting suspense just by watching Niv surf facebook, and google some facts about Abby and her family. Thus Niv and the filmmakers embark on a new millennium procedural investigation as thrilling as any detective novel, with social media outlets as their tools.

And when the boys choose to free themselves from the confines of their NYC office to physically visit the family suddenly we find ourselves embroiled in a suspenseful chase. The visit to the Michigan farm in the middle of the night is rendered with astonishing real world Hitchcockian suspense.

And once we know where the film is headed, in the third act, the filmmakers reveal another seismic psychological shift in expectations. The filmmakers handle the truth with admirable poise and respect. Especially for Niv who at one time poured his heart out in the name of love to Megan reconciles a betrayal with Megan’s deep psychological neuroses.

“Catfish” is captivating on so many levels, from the examination of the internet to the psychology of perception and multiple personalities all contribute to this broadening of the documentary form itself. Which brings me back to “Capturing the Friedmans”, which “Catfish” joins on the shortlist of great films of great personal discovery.

Now, as for accusation, and possible even admission by the filmmakers of some manipulation of the real life events, I say it carries little weight. I have no doubt these people exist, specifically Megan and her family. I people the events that occured indeed did happen. Was there fudging of the details? Maybe. Did the filmmakers reshoot scenes after the fact? Maybe. Probably actually. Does this change my perspective of the film, its themes, characters and the point it was trying to make? No. The fact is documentary has a long tradition of dramatizing scenes to enhance the filmmakers' need for visual references. Hell, Nanook of the North was completely reshot after the original negative was destroyed in a fire. So, fuck everybody who questions the validity of this film. It's a magnificent and provocative film no matter what.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Phenix City Story


The Phenix City Story (1955) dir. Phil Karlson
Starring: John McIntire, Richard Kiley, Kathryn Grant, Edward Andrews, Jean Carson and John Larch

****

By Greg Klymkiw

“Somebody just threw a dead nigger kid on Patterson’s lawn. Go out and have a look.” Uttered with a chilling matter-of-fact timbre and an unmistakably Alabamian accent, a fat, sweaty, cigar-puffing dispatcher barks out this line in a dank, dirty and humid police station thick with smoke and the overwhelming karma of human rights violations. It occurs on the heels of the sickening, unforgettable image of a child's battered, bloodied body as it's flung like a rag doll from a passing vehicle and virtually into our laps via a creepy low-angle pull-back.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most brutal and hard-hitting film noir pictures you’re likely to see in your lifetime..

The movie is The Phenix City Story.

And it’s a great movie!

Not only is The Phenix City Story one of the best crime pictures ever made, but feels like it hasn't dated one bit (save for the period in which it's set). The filmmaking seems as fresh and vital as when it first puked up the grotesque reality of the deep American south upon its release in 1955. That said, a number of its techniques may seem familiar to many, but keep in mind - they began here, folks.

Ace crime director Phil (Kansas City Confidential, Framed, Walking Tall) Karlson, working from a sizzling screenplay by Daniel (Out of the Past) Mainwaring and Crane (Andre De Toth's Crime Wave) Wilbur, delivers a picture that gets so under your skin it demands multiple viewings - each more aesthetically exciting and thought-provoking than the last. Karlson's command of cinematic grammar is so sharp and astute that he's able to frame his work within a structure that breaks quite a few rules by always knowing what the rules are and using them when he needs to and flouting them when he wants to shove our faces ever-deeper into the mire.

Phenix City, Alabama is a real place. Bordering the state of Georgia where the mighty Chattahoochee River (one of the locations used for the movie Deliverance) slices through it, Phenix City in recent years has become known as one of the best places in America to raise a family.

It wasn't always this way.

And frankly, I find it hard to believe it's changed all that much. My few visits and albeit limited exposure to that “Great State” suggest that Alabama is one of the nastiest, weirdest, most dangerous and distressingly prejudice-ridden places I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing.

Historically, Phenix City was the site of one of the last big battles of the Civil War and during the 1940s and 50s, it became known as Sin City, USA. On a per capita basis, there was more crime (much of it violent) in this mini-metropolis, than any other region in America. Corruption ran rampant as did gambling houses, prostitution and murder.

Situated near the military training facility in Fort Benning, Georgia, Phenix City was the go-to location for America's fine military to indulge in all manner of debauchery. The American military has always and continues to be one of the largest consumers of prostitutes world wide. Throughout the 20th century and beyond, Uncle Sam’s protectors, due to their gluttonous appetite for no-strings-attached stress-relief have, in a sense, been primarily responsible for the sexual slavery and exploitation of women the world over. (A prime example is the Eastern European sex-slave-trade that exploded during America's involvement in the post-Milosevic struggles in Croatia and detailed in the new feature film The Whistleblower directed by Larysa Kondracki and starring Keira Knightley.)

During the 1950s, Phenix City, thanks mostly to the avid consumption of sexual favours, had the highest rate of venereal disease during WWII and in the post-war period. When off-site furloughs were unavailable, the army allowed truckloads of prostitutes to be brought right into Fort Benning to service the randy recruits. It has oft been rumoured that famed General Patton's death was actually rigged by organized crime since he threatened to clean things up when Fort Benning was under his command.

God Bless America! And the United Nations, of course - as both continue to disgustingly support sex slavery to keep the boys happy in the Middle East.

And, God Bless Phil Karlson - for real! One of America's great movie directors, Karlson chose a blend of docudrama, neo-realism and film noir to tell the story of the late Albert Patterson (brilliantly played in the picture by John McIntire), a lawyer who ran for the State Attorney General position on a major anti-crime-and-corruption ticket and was brutally and brazenly gunned down by the criminal mob running Phenix City.

The story begins with a benign Patterson, trying to live his life quietly. When Albert's son John (Richard Kiley, displaying his almost trademark, and here effective, moral outrage) returns home for a visit and discovers how corrupt things are, he decides to stay and fight the good fight. Albert joins the fight and agrees to run for Senator. Albert's old friend Rhett Tanner (a delectable performance from Edward Andrews - alternately next-door-neighbour friendly and malevolently smarmy), attempts to convince Albert to back down. When he doesn't the violence escalates to such extremes that men who believe in the law are faced with taking the law into their own hands.

Writing in his book Essential Cinema, one of the few great living film critics Jonathan Rosenbaum addresses not only the potential for vigilantism in the story itself, but the sort of audience reaction garnered by The Phenix City Story:

"Though the movie's politics are liberal, its moral outrage is so intense you may come out of it wanting to join a lynch mob."

One of the more interesting thoughts that Rosenbaum's quote elicits is the different ways in which similar true-life situations were treated in the 50s and 70s - especially by director Phil Karlson himself. With The Phenix City Story Karlson creates the desire to "join a lynch mob", yet does so within a story wherein the central figures never quite get to that point and use "the law" to primarily battle the corruption.

In the 70s, Karlson revisited a similar tale - that of Sheriff Buford Pusser in the huge vigilante boxoffice hit Walking Tall. Not only did audiences all over the world want to join lynch mobs (I remember the trailers and TV ads featuring footage of audiences leaping out of their seats and delivering standing ovations at the end of the film), the story Karlson chose to tell was an out and out pro-vigilante tome where its central figure walked softly, literally carried a big stick and used it with abandon. Walking Tall bears all the hallmarks of Karlson's terse, effective direction and manipulation of audience emotion, but does so by going all out in celebrating the notion of taking the law into one's own hands.

Another interesting observation is just how similar the story elements are in The Phenix City Story and Walking Tall. Both films feature the following:

- A young man returns to his hometown to discover it is a den of iniquity and decides to fight back.

- An inveterate gambler wins fair and square, but upon exposing cheating in the gambling club, is beaten to death. This is almost a replay of Walking Tall's opening with the character of Lutie McVey played by Ed Call.

- The primary location of vice in both films is presided over by a butch bull dyke (played by Jean Carson as "Cassie" and Rosemary Murphy as "Callie" respectively).

- The good guys are secretly aided by a hooker with a heart of gold (played by Kathryn Grant and Brenda Benet respectively).

- The good guys are aided by a Black man (played by James Edwards and Felton Perry respectively).

- The Albert Patterson character is similar to that of Pa Pusser played by Noah Beery Jr. in the latter picture.

Looking at both films it's obvious Karlson ordered Walking Tall's primary scenarist Mort Briskin to use Phenix City Story as a model.

One also cannot help but notice that Roger Corman must have taken a cue from Karlson's 1955 true-life depiction of crime and racism in the deep South when he adapted Charles Beaumont's book The Intruder in 1962. Corman shot his thriller dealing with racial integration in education on location in the towns hardest hit with the controversy. Karlson, of course, entered the territory first with his film.

Though in fairness, thanks to producer Mark Hellinger with the much earlier Naked City, noir and the crime genres during the post-war period were both highly influenced by the neorealist movement in Italy and led the charge for a whole new era of location shooting in American cinema.

Stylistically bold and downright daring in the myriad of chances it takes, The Phenix City Story begins with a series of interviews with actual citizens of Sin City, USA - major players in the real-life fight against the criminal element, some of whom admit to the camera that they have been the targets of harassment and death threats. These interviews are shot in the very locations in which the events took place - so real that we see people wandering in and out of the background - REAL PEOPLE - briefly looking at the cameras and/or quickly averting their gaze so as not to be caught on film.

In fact, if we didn't know going in that we were soon going to be seeing a dramatic recreation of the events, we might, during this lengthy pre-title interview sequence think the film was going to be a documentary. It's not, of course, but once Karlson begins the story proper, and shoots his tale on the very street where the Sin City crimes took place and goes so far as to have lead actor John McIntire costumed in the very suit that real-life Albert Patterson was murdered in, we're utterly mesmerized by this strange hybrid of docudrama and neo-realism - thus confirming that what we're watching is a movie that's going to be like no other we've seen.

The Phenix City Story is part of Volume 5 of the continuing series of Warner Home Entertainment box sets The Film Noir Classic Collection - perhaps one of the worthiest DVD boxes one is likely to own.



Thursday, 23 September 2010

American Beauty

American Beauty (1999) dir. Sam Mendes
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

How well does American Beauty stand up today? Remember back then when this multi-Oscar winner, TIFF audience award winner was shit hot? Sam Mendes was shit hot. Same with Kevin Spacey. As Spacey’s career declined (or at least diverged away from film, and more towards theatre) and Mendes career declined, not to mention Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, so it seemed did the reputation of film. Now there seems to a large base of American Beauty haters out there. What gives?

Back in 1999, the film seemed to speak to a new generation of youth. Alan Ball’s brilliant script which told the story of several suburbanites searching for the meaning in their lives, meaning which came from different places for each of its characters.

Perhaps the source of the new hatred for this film comes from the fact that many of the characters, scenes, motifs, themes etc so quickly became part of pop culture lexicon - over exposure, if you will. The satirization of suburbia for instance was nothing new, but under Mendes/Ball’s skewed microscope we saw something new about ourselves we hadn’t seen before. Now, there are innumerable films and TV shows about the subject – arguably more on TV than Film (ie. Ball's own Six Feet Under, Weeds, The United States of Tara to name a few).

What American Beauty still manages to do brilliantly, even from today's cynical eyes, is manage the black comedy with melodramatic tragedy, both in healthy portions.

Wes Bentley’s iconoclastic performance still holds up. His eyes are still mesmerizing even if his character has now become a cliche. Though not a traditional ensemble film Mendes and Ball manage to make almost every supporting role unique, memorable and anything but stock characters. Think about the gay neighbours, both named Jim. These guys can now be considered the stock gay characters, but back in 1999, their characterization by Sam Robards and Scott Bakula were ahead of the curve and funny. It also disarms us to the reveal of Chris Cooper’s character’s homosexuality, which is not treated as a whimsical gay stereotype, but dark self-loathing.

Mena Suvari and Thora Birch can be considered ahead of the curve in terms of complex high school satirical characters. Kevin Spacey, unfortunately, doesn't. He didn’t seem to broaden his acting skills on film since Beauty and looking back his performance, despite the Oscar victory, it feels the most on the nose. His transition from meek ner-do-well to confident uber-mench is telegraphed without much subtly.

The dreamy existential tone works in moments. Jane’s lame pep rally cheerleading sequence is still funny on a number of levels – first the bored expression of Thora Birch exemplifies the role she feels she’s trying to fill as a teenager, and the reason why she becomes so taken with the mysterious neighbour. And Mendes' orchestration of Lester’s dream sequence, as edited by Tariq Anwar and Christopher Greenbury and shot by Conrad Hall Jr., still looks magnificent.

I could use without the Sunset Boulevard narration which opens and closes the film. It doesn’t ring as profound anymore, dated and forced, if anything. But of course Ball was going for an homage to those noir films of yesteryear, like Boulevard or Double Indemnity. Maybe ten years from now, it’ll become relevant and trendy again. American Beauty is still a very good film.

American Beauty is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Dog Pound

Dog Pound (2010) dir. Kim Chapiron
Starring: Adam Butcher, Shane Kippel, Mateo Morales, Slim Twig, Dewshane Williams

***½

By Alan Bacchus

One of the most suprising international co-pro collaborations has to be French-Canadian film Dog Pound, originated by a group of edgy French filmmakers, but shot in New Brunswick with Canadian actors. It played earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, but none of the other major festivals, including Toronto, and now sees a straight to DVD release. It’s a shame, at once it’s a familiar story, a prison film, juvenile prison that is, featuring teenagers locked up for various malfeasant beheaviour. But it's the combination of classic prison film tropes, that hip (Parisian)French toughness and one helluva breakout performance which makes this a fine under-the-radar winner.

Canadian viewers will recognize co-lead Shane Kippel as Spinner from Degrassi The Next Generation. He’s a different actor in a different role here though. He provides a solid co-anchor to this film as Davis a teenaged drug peddler set up for possession and intent to sell and who now finds himself in juvie. After arriving in prison, he seeks to keep to himself and not make waves. But when a particularly nasty bully with two thugs steal his boots he becomes bitch #1 for the local heavies.

Davis finds a protector in Butch (Adam Butcher), a rebellious youth locked up for beating up another guard in another prison. Though tall in stature, he's an unassuming kid, but suppressing a deep deep desire to bust the heads of the bullies who pick on his mates.

Eventually rage rears its head, and Butch the maniac is unleashed with uncompromising force. Same with the performance of Adam Butcher, which is so astounding, it's a star making performance which unfortunately just might get lost. At least to the public - the Hollywood system has a knack of finding and coddeling talent, and with the instantly iconoclastic performance on display in this film, Butcher should be a star very soon.

Other than the breakout of Butcher, the pedigree of this film is fascinating. The filmmaking team seems to comes from a new school of hip young French filmmakers. Chapiron (a male) turned heads with his audacious 2006 horror/thriller film Sheitan starring Vincent Cassel. Scrolling through the end credits and you just might miss Romain Gavras as the 2nd unit director. His first feature just premed at TIFF here, 'Our Day Will Come' also starring Cassel. That film wasn't all that great, but showed enough promise to take him (oh yeah, he's also the son of Costa-Gavras) very seriously.

And lastly, scroll down in the credits even further and you'll see this film is actually a remake of an Alan Clarke film, Scum. Clark of course provided the source material for Gus Van Sant's Elephant, and in general is one of the most highly influential British television directors of the 60's, 70's and 80's..

Dog Pound is not perfect. Chapiron's script isn't as tight as it could be. The plotting gets spotty as plot threads and character arcs jump around. He also relies on the some stock characters, specifically the unsentimental prison guards, and familiar prison situations (yes, people get anally raped). But it's Chapiron's blanket of tension and chaos and his awesome set pieces of violence and destruction which smooth over any bumps in the road. I've visited a prison and spoken to immates and it's fucking scary, really scary. This is not Shawshank Redemption, this is badass, emotionally draining, in-your-face reality-based cinema.

So what gives? Perhaps the timing wasn't good, in the past year we've seen other art house prison film such as Bronson, Hunger, A Prophet all make waves in festivals. Sadly Dog Pound, and one of the best performances of the year, Adam Butcher, seems to get lost in the shuffle. So please discover this one on DVD.

Dog Pound is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

National Lampoon's Vacation

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) dir. Harold Ramis
Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid, Anthony Michael Hall, Christie Brinkley

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Vacation was always one of my favourite comedies growing up a child, and though I had seen snippets of the film on television numerous times between 1983 and today, I don’t know if I ever watched the whole movie through again. Perhaps Ii did, but certainly not the original uncut version, the version not ‘edited-for-television’, the version with pot, boobs, sex and other naughty 80’s behaviour. It holds up marvellously, not because of these fun elements, but the genius of Chevy Chase, comedian extraordinaire, and arguably, at the time, the best comedian working in the movies (Eddie Murphy runs a close second maybe?).

It’s a fun, rambunctious, politically incorrect script without the sappy family-friendly sentimentality or lessons of morality which would be shoehorned into a modern-day version of this story. Clark Griswald (Chase) is a typical suburban dad, living in a suburb of Chicago, a lovely girl-next-door pretty wife, and two perky teenaged kids. It only takes one scene or two for director Ramis and writer John Hughes to paint a clear picture of Clark - his encounter with the slimy used case salesman typifies his false cocksure attitude, specifically his desperate need to project his role as the confident patriarch to his son. This character is remarkably consistent throughout - not matter how absurd the gags get, Chevy Chase never betrays the goals and desires of his character.

After he gets sucked into buying a shitty lemon for a car, and even despite protests from his kids in choosing the Disney-disguised Wally World instead of Hawaii, they embark on a road trip comprised of one disaster after another. Smaller moments of pathetic hilarity such as Clark’s confusion about where the gas tank is located on his car to the bigger set pieces like his visit to wife’s brother in-law it's a goldmine of comedy every step of the way. It’s this trip which helped give reason to create three sequels. Cousin Eddie played by Randy Quaid, is the only doofus that could trump Clark’s doofusness. Together they make a classic comic duo.

Some gags are shamelessly low brow specifically when Aunt Edna’s dog urinates on the sandwiches. The best moments highlight Chevy Chase's brilliant comic timing and skills with physical humour. As mentioned, the gas pumping is great, same with the vibrating bed scene. From the way his picks at the change before placing it in the machine to the pitch change in his voice when the bed starts shaking really fast as well as his sunstroked journey across the Arizona desert to find a gas station, Chevy can make his big lanky frame consistently hilarious.

Anthony Michael Hall turns in a great supporting performance as Rusty who is more mature than his Dad, but conscious of his vulnerability and insecurity as a father figure. Smaller cameos such as Eugene Levy as the car salesman, John Candy as the pathetic Wally World attendant and Eddie Bracken as the spitting image of Walt Disney are perfectly peppered throughout.

The Warner Bros Blu-ray of course, features the original uncut version reinstating rating R moments such as Beverly D’Angelo’s token 1980’s boob shot in the shower, the nudie magazines which Rusty and his cousin bond over as well as the pot Audrey and Cousin Vicki (played by Jane Krakowski!) smoke at Cousin Eddie’s house.

Oh yeah Christine Brinkley is still smoking hot driving that Ferrari. It makes a worthy dose of nostalgia and a good addition to one’s Blu-Ray collection.

National Lampoon’s Vacation is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video

Monday, 20 September 2010

Prince of Persia

Prince of Persia (2010) dir Mike Newell
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemme Arteton, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina,

**

By Alan Bacchus

This latest Jerry Bruckheimer/Disney production seems to be another attempt to create a new franchise in the vain of Pirates of the Caribbean. The title even suggests a chapter format or some sort, as if there’s a library of stories waiting to be told. Apparently there's a number of video games instalments of the story which serves as the source material. The full title of this one is called Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. While there’s plenty of swashbuckling action, there’s little creativity or panache in Mike Newell’s direction, none of the gleefulness of Gore Verbinski’s work in the Pirates pictures, or Louis Leterrier's scope in Clash of the Titans and most importantly there’s no Johnny Depp-worthy character icon to give cause for further instalments in this series.

Set in Persia (aka Iran) Jake Gyllenhaal plays Dastan a former street kid adopted into a royal family who is now one of the King’s trusted warriors. Rumours of illegal weapons being built in a neighbouring city prompts the King to invade and takeover the city. Dastan is the hero of the battle, and along the way comes into possession of a mysterious mystical dagger. Just like George W. Bush’s false pretences of the current Iraq war, the weapons of mass destruction in the film turn out to be a rouse to extract the ‘Sands of Time’ hidden underneath the city which fuels the dagger‘s power to travel back in time.

Soon after the king is murdered Dastan is blamed and forced to flee with the comely princess of the city, Tamina (Gemma Arteton). As fugitives, Dastan and Tamina have to fight to clear their names of the King’s murder and protect the dagger from the evildoers hot on their path.

Gemma Arteton who is in every film now is unrecognizable as the Princess. Her dark face makeup covers up her lilly-white skin complexion, and her black hair and short bangs give her an exotic look. She’s turns out to have the soul of the film. Ben Kingsley is the baddie, which isn’t revealed until the second act, but it’s not spoiling much. Though he’s completely bald he might as well be twirling a greesy moustache in the opening scenes. He’s fooling nobody. Alfred Molina is the best of everyone, but underutilized, if he was 25 years younger, he could have been the Johnny Depp character this film needs.

If anything, the Prince of Persia film would seem to be an excuse to update the old Arabian Nights tales. The middle eastern lands hasn’t been exploited for this type of Hollywood entertainment in years. Jake Gyllenhaal sports a British accent even though he’s playing a Persian. It would be a head scratching decision but it’s been the Hollywood convention to use the British accent to be the non-American catch-all manner of speech. Most importantly Jake lacks the required charisma of an Errol Flynn, Harrison Ford or Burt Lancaster (three of the great swashbuckling heroes) to make this series succeed. His parkour skills are impressive, especially when highlighted by Newell’s super slo-mo camera work, but his sleepy eyes and mostly dour expression is too downbeat to make this film a winner. Put a fork in this franchise, it was worth a shot.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Sunday, 19 September 2010

TIFF 2010 - Gorbaciof - The Cashier Who Liked Gambling

Gorbaciof - The Cashier Who Liked Gambling (2010) dir. Stefano Incerti
Starring:Toni Servillo, Mi Yang, Hal Yamanaouchi

*1/2

By Greg Klymkiw

Do you, perchance, salivate over the prospect of watching a beautiful young Asian woman lovingly massage the dirty, stinking gnarly toes of an old Italian tough-guy-sad-sack-loser-gambler-thief who thinks he's Buster Keaton (albeit with a birth mark on his balding forehead)?

Well then, have I got a movie for you!

Gorbaciof - The Cashier Who Liked Gambling is exactly the sort of movie film festival programmers, purported film critics and pseuds-who-patronize-film-festivals-to-pretend-how-much-they-like-art-films just love to bits.

The rest of us can feel free to vomit anytime.

Starring the great actor Toni Servillo (who played the corrupt longtime Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in the fabulous Il Divo) is the title character in this film. While his world weary, hang-dog mug is fascinating to look at, especially as he wanders about like a cross between Humphrey Bogart and Rondo Hatton, adorned in cheap sport coats and greasy, slick-backed hair, the fascination only lasts so long.

On one hand, the bare bones of the story could have worked. By day, Gorbaciof is a petty clerk in a prison who takes cash deposits from visitors, processes their deposits and places them in a safe he has access to. By night, he's an inveterate gambler who patronizes the back room of an Asian cafe in order to play relatively high stakes poker with the Asian proprietor, a sleazy Italian mob-tied lawyer and many other unsavoury types. He stakes himself by lifting money from the deposits, taking a huge chance that he'll be able to replace the dough next morning - provided he doesn't lose.

That said, the cafe is run by the proprietor's daughter, played by the gorgeous Asian actress Mi Yang. Gorbaciof is smitten with her Oriental charms and when her Dad needs a gambling-related bail-out, he unwisely uses his stake money and winnings to help the unlucky proprietor out. When Gorbacioff begins losing, he gets deeper and deeper in debt with his "borrowings" and soon, he succumbs to securing loans from the sleazy lawyer. He also begins openly courting the daughter and she slowly starts to fall for him, while he lavishes her with gifts and outings.

Needless to say, there's only one way this story is going to go.

Imbued with elements of noir and 70s existential male angst in addition to Servillo's weighty presence plus some truly stunning gritty cinematography, the picture could have been a winner. Alas, several crucial elements render the film dead on arrival.

First of all, the picture goes out of its way to create a central character who is a man of few words. This shouldn't have been a problem, but the manner in which it's executed certainly is. Playing up the silent man stuff so relentlessly, it doesn't take long for it to feel like a major and obtrusive contrivance. Even the fine Servillo seems unable to carry this off since the film strains to keep dialogue from him to such a ridiculous degree that it feels forced.

Secondly, making Yang's character unable to speak Italian is another major flaw. The character quickly descends into the cliche of Asian women being docile and mute.

Thirdly, the contrivance of a love story between two people who cannot communicate verbally is not without merit, but within the context of the ethnic stereotype and the silent trait of the central character, it again feels like a contrivance.

(As a sidenote - contrivance and manipulation are not a bad thing, but they are when you can see them play out so obviously.)

Finally, there's something vaguely offensive of presenting an Asian woman so purportedly lonely and bereft of human contact that she's willing and able to submit to the dubious charms of this misfit Rice King. It could have worked so magnificently if the filmmakers had chosen to present her as someone with some spunk, individuality and the ability to converse, however the whole thing smacks of contrivance again. Oooohhhhh, two people, separated by language, find each other through the universal language of love.

It's sickening - pure and simple.

Even more sickening is when she massages his feet.

Lovingly.

I don't, however, think I need to remind you again of that repellent image. It was enough to make me want to douse my eyes with the kind of heavy-duty optical wash used in factories when horrendous accidents occur.

Even now, I am compelled to wish, as Kirk Douglas wished in The Detective Story for the ability to remove my brain and hold it under a tap of water to clean the "dirty pictures" that were put in there.

And even now, the bile rises at the very thought of those gnarly toes being stroked and massaged by those delicate hands.

This is a memory I desperately need to repress.

And so you will also.

TIFF 2010 - 127 Hours

127 Hours (2010) dir. Danny Boyle
Starring: James Franco, Lizzy Caplan, Treat Williams, Amber Tamblyn

***½

By Alan Bacchus

There seems to be a trend recently of filmmakers challenging themselves with self-imposed cinematic constraints. Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried as the most extreme (and successful) having shot an entire film in a coffin. For Danny Boyle the challenge here is to make a film set almost entirely in a claustrophobic gorge, with one character trapped in between the rocks.

The main hurdle for Boyle is not the location or the isolation of his character but making the film entertaining when the audience knows exactly what happens. For those who don’t know, don’t read on, for those who have been tracking the film since it was announced we know it’s the true story of Aron Ralston a mountaineer/adventurer/thrill seeker who accidentally fell into a gorge and got stuck in between the rocks for 127 hours before committing a shocking act of self-surgery to get himself out. As such, can this film be entertaining knowing exactly how it plays out and where it will go? Thanks for Danny Boyle’s supreme storytelling skills the answer is yes.

The film opens with a typically energetic Danny Boyle sequence, a very bright and colourful split screen sequence representing the fast paced lifestyle of Aron. We then watch Ralston at home gathering his gear for his next adventure, a solo bike ride in a Utah canyon. Extreme closeups of Ralston’s procedure tells us he’s done this before, and that the speed with which he prepares means he also taking for granted the extreme danger of his endeavour. His carefree attitude will literally crash down when a slip of the foot causes a boulder to land down on top of him jamming his arm in between the rock face.

Boyle and his co-writer Simon (Slumdog) Beaufoy carefully craft the character from Ralston’s actions. Ralston approaches his predicament with intelligent logic and a bit of trial and error. He lays out his possessions in front of him to see what tools he has to work with, measures out his foot and water supply, along with a few cries for help which he knows will go unanswered.

By the 20mins mark when Ralston gets trapped Boyle appears to have cornered himself cinematically as well. What can Boyle possibly do to keep our interest up before he frees himself? We know it’ll take 127 hours, we know how he escapes, and so the suspense would appear to be zapped from Aron’s various attempts at escape. And so here is the genius and creativity of Boyle. Like Hitchcock self-imposing restraints in Lifeboat or Rope, and even Rodrigo Cortes equally brilliant Buried, Boyle creates a number of thrilling sequences involving the small details of Ralston’s predicament which have life-threatening stakes. For example, early on Ralston drops his knife on the ground, out of reach, the retrieval of which makes for a very tense sequence.

Boyle and Beaufoy cheat a little bit as well, giving Ralston a video camera to talk into and thus narrate his inner thoughts. Boyle flashes back to thoughts of his childhood like his life flashing before his eyes. Under anyone’s else direction these scenes could have betrayed the intensity of Ralston’s isolation. But seeing Ralston’s parents, girlfriends etc lay a solid foundation of emotional attachment to his character that we desperately want to see him escape.

And then there’s the amputation sequence which we all know is coming, and which Boyle effectively teases us with in a number of ways. Boyle spares us little and leaves almost nothing to the imagination. It’s James Franco though that sells the pain to us, and it’s his resolute desire not to die that gets us through this harrowing sequence. Once out, Boyle, who always has had a terrific ear for music, lays in a fantastic Sigur Ros track to convey the jubilee of Ralston’s release. A beautiful cathartic feeling overwhelms us which sends the film out with a bang in a way few filmmakers can do better.

127 Hours is graphic and you will likely find yourself with hands covering your eyes, but with your fingers slightly open to peak through. Because while it's wholly disturbing, it's like a trainwreck, mordidly fascinating and attractive at the same time. Cudos to Boyle for choosing this film as his follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, a modest, small scale production, but also a demanding and risky cinematic challenge.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

TIFF 2010 - Stake Land


Stake Land (2010) dir. Jim Mickle
Starring: Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris and Michael Cerveris

***1/2

By Greg Klymkiw

Imagine, if you will, Cormac McCarthy's The Road madly copulating with Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. shooting the seed of post-apocalyptic despair that penetrates the foul egg of vampirism. And the result? The unholy vaginal opening eventually spits forth a cinematic love child that is Stake Land - an intelligent, super-cool, super-scary and super-knock-you-on-your-ass dystopic sci-fi horror picture.

It's the end of the world as we know it. A horrendous virus that's turned most of the world's population into vampires forces what's left of the non-blood-sucking-freaks into crazed survivalists.

Set in the heartland of America, the picture presents a portrait of humanity that's not so different from what already exists - ignorant, Bible Belt Christians bearing arms hole up in fortress (gated) communities - killing non-believers and only killing vampires in self-defence. They believe, wholeheartedly, that this pestilence has been wrought by God to rid the world of sinful degenerates.

Into this mess, we're introduced to the young boy Martin (Connor Paulo) whose parents have just been torn to shreds by vampires. He's rescued by the legendary Mister (Nick Damici), a no-nonsense vampire hunter who, like the character of Neville in Matheson's great novel I Am Legend, is known to all - especially the Bible-thumping survivalists - as the meanest, nastiest vampire killer of them all. And, not unlike The Road, man and boy engage in an odyssey across America in search of the "New Eden" (which is, apparently, Canada - and as a Canadian, I only take exception if the destination is Toronto, the smugly fuckling capital of the world.).

The central antagonist, the skin-headed, bible-spouting madman (with one of the best movie names since "McLovin') Jebediah Loven (played with all the relish one would want from a great screen villain by Michael Cerveris) is always on the prowl for Mister and especially, women for rapin' and a breedin'. Even the vampires seem benign compared to this nutcase.

In addition to Jim Mickle's tremendously directed suspense and action scenes, what separates Stake Land from all the rest is the fact that within the genre conventions of horror and the road movie, the writing is extremely first-rate and while I might have preferred it to be a bit less humourless, I'm thankful it didn't descend into the silly tongue-in-cheek laugh-fest-grabbing cesspool that Zombie Land annoyingly dove into.

The screenplay delivers a nasty, solid, straight-up 70s style dystopia - replete with the kind of natural social commentary that never feels like a sledgehammer. In fact, by setting much of the conflict against the backdrop of Christian fundamentalism, the screenplay does what great dystopian tales should do and provide a solid reflection of our contemporary world situation.

Written by star Damici and director Mickle, it's especially gratifying that the script distinguishes between fundamentalism and genuine faith - avoiding the kind of knee-jerk pot-shots levelled against Christianity. Into the mix, they've written a terrific role for Kelly (Top Gun, Witness) McGillis as a middleaged nun who is saved by Mister from a gang-rape led by Jebediah Loven.

Goddman!

I love that name.

Let's all say it together, shall we?

"JEBEDIAH LOVEN!"

Now don't that make you feel good?

But, I digress.

The nun uses her faith to impart the kind of level-headed wisdom missing on both sides of the fence and the character is drawn by the writers so that she's not a total hook-line-and-sinker swallower of dogma, but a genuine human being who is also faced with a crisis of faith. Finally, though, her character embraces the sacrificial notion of Christianity and provides a tremendously powerful and movie story beat within the film. It's also nice seeing a mature McGillis who delivers a complex and heart-felt performance. And yeah, I still think she's a babe!

Intelligence and artistry aside, though, this movie delivers what all true genre fans would want. The carnage is superb, the makeup effects on the vampires is first rate (l love how they look like zombies/demons) and we also get a MAJOR babe in the form of the delectable Danielle Harris who is the token female eye-candy all genre films must have.

Most importantly, and especially given the title, I for one, was utterly delighted that Stake Land features several magnificent sequences involving the driving of wooden stakes into the hearts, throats and bellies of vampires.

These days, a good stake is rare indeed.

TIFF 2010 - Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) dir. Werner Herzog
Documentary

***½

By Alan Bacchus

I can’t believe I didn’t know this… in the opening moments Werner Herzog’s delightfully monotone German voice describes to us the discovery of one of the most influential archaeology sites of our time - a cave in France containing pristine, undisturbed cave paintings from 32,000 years ago (that’s THREE zeroes), which makes is the oldest recorded drawings/artwork of man.

Herzog gets us into the caves and shows us in 3-D these phenomenal works of art. I say works for art, because the technique made by these cro magnon men and women are astounding. First of all, the journey into the caves is a story unto itself. After moving through a dead bolted steel door, with small mobile cameras and minimal crew Herzog travels down a sharp cliff and then along a 3 foot wide steel walkway in order not to disturb the crystallized foundation of the cave. The whole cave is a work of art, the stalactites, the bones and skulls of extinct animals, including bears, tigers, and other wholly creatures.

On the walls are a series of intricately painting mosaics of animals using the contours of the caves walls to emphasize movement. As usual Herzog using his easy-going cinematic style he’s able to make even the most dry perfunctory information interesting and important. But Herzog has never been one to settle just for the information, it’s fun watching the scientists and archaeologists who have spent as many as 20 years mapping the caves and scientifically study the drawings be asked about what’s in the soul of the artists, or whether they dream of the painting.

What Herzog really wants to project to his audience is for us to look beyond the art and into the minds of the artists, to imagine their dreams, the spiritual aspect which separates man from animal and which connects us across these ages.

The 3-D is hit and miss. The low rent hand held camera create a nauseating swooshing effect, which loses all of it’s 3-D depth. But when Herzog is able to put his camera on some sticks we can really enjoy the stereoscopic space. Unfortunately within the caves, there’s not enough light to create definition and perspective as such, it’s not the best showcase of the medium.

The film though is another of Herzog’s phenomenal string of successes, doc or drama.

Friday, 17 September 2010

TIFF 2010 - Autumn

Autumn (2010) dir. Aamir Bashir
Starring: Shahnawaz Bhat, Reza Naji

****

By Greg Klymkiw

The proper pacing of a movie can be a seemingly amorphous goal for many filmmakers. The whole problem, I think, is in the notion of whether something is too slow or not fast enough and what precisely defines and contributes to an audience detecting, then reacting to a picture when it lugubriously shuffles along. That said, and where the confusion can come in is when even a break-neck speed in terms of cuts, movement and/or line delivery contributes immeasurably to creating a dragging effect. Audiences (and I'd argue most reviewers) aren't always aware that it's a supersonic speed that, more often than not, induces boredom and/or sore asses.

I have often tarred and feathered the cinematic output of Iran (and recently added Kyrgyzstan to my ass-numbing-by-country list), but of course, it has less to do with my desire to be obnoxious than with the fact that there ARE rules to the grammar of cinema - the biggest being that a filmmaker must ALWAYS be serving the story and its forward movement, and furthermore, serving the dramatic beats in a style and manner than hammer them home the best.

Autumn is a stunning new film from India that, for the most part, is snail-paced, but in spite of this, I cannot recall a single moment when my mind wandered or when my eye strayed to my iPhone to check email. My eyes were super-glued to the screen. I couldn't take my precious asymmetrical globes off the picture if I tried. Part of this is director Aamir Bashir's desire to tell his story in a manner in which it's all important for us to experience the minute by minute, hour by hour, day in and day out emptiness in the lives of Kashmir's young men.

Living amidst violence, terrorism, poverty and a bleak future, our central character Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat), after an unsuccessful try at militancy following the disappearance of his brother exists in a perpetual walking cat-nap, alternately loafing with his friends and working a dead-end job (morning newspaper delivery). Life for Rafiq moves slowly and is punctuated only by bursts of violence around him. Through the course of the film, scattered gunshots are heard, bombs go off and at one point, he and his buddies find a man on the verge of dying with a gaping bullet wound to the belly (which eventually leads Rafiq to a slightly better job after they save the man).

Though haunted by his brother's disappearance, Rafiq wishes to move on. There is the overwhelming feeling of the inevitable - that his brother has been kidnapped by the security forces and/or killed and certainly, Rafiq seems to accept this, but his parents refuse to believe their eldest son is dead. This cloud of non-acceptance hangs over their home like a heavy, dark cloud. At one point, Rafiq's father Jusuf (Reza Naji) suffers a nervous breakdown - adding more strife and tragedy to a situation foreign to most of us in the West, but a matter of course in so many other parts of the world.

This is the story of a world where death, destruction and corruption are endless and by extension, while life is cheap and can end very quickly, life, while it goes on, seems to be an endless, plodding state of aimlessness and despair.

Director Bashir captures this so eloquently through a camera-eye that seldom moves and captures the day-to-day mundane activities of Rafiq - it's as if the very act of living feels like an eternity - like death itself. Shots will often hold longer than audiences might be used to, but the detail and observation within these shots is so exquisite that we experience a highly evocative portrait of a life lived merely for the sake of survival. This is NEVER boring - it is the stuff of great drama - etched with the kind of command one usually experiences in the work of such masters as Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray or Carl Dreyer, but almost never in the work of young, contemporary filmmakers. Bashir is, by trade, an actor, but I sincerely hope he continues to find subject matter that inspires him as much as that on display in Autumn so he can give up his "day job" and dazzle us again and again with his astounding command of cinematic storytelling.

This is a story that DEMANDS a measured pace. The picture is almost neorealism in extremis and there is little by way of overt lyricism - save for the few lyrical moments in the lives of the characters; most notably when Rafiq's chum sings a haunting song as the young men laze about under the autumn sky and the lads encourage him to enter a television variety show for amateurs with talent and, most importantly, when Rafiq becomes drawn to taking photographs using his late brother's camera. The pace is what PRECISELY allows for small moments like these to take on almost mythic proportions within the narrative itself.

Too many art and/or independent films almost annoyingly wear their slow pace like some badge of honour. This is why such pictures give this slower approach a bad name - their "artistry" feels machine-tooled.

Not so with Autumn. This is one of the most stately and profoundly moving films I've seen in recent years - it is replete with compassion and humanity, using its exquisite, delicate pace to examine and remind us how precious every second of life on this earth is.

TIFF 2010 - Three (Drei)

Three (2010) dir. Tom Tykwer
Starring: Devid Striesow, Sophie Rois, Sebastian Schipper, Senta Dorothea Kirschner, Karl Alexander Seidel

***

By Alan Bacchus

Tom Tykwer returns with a wholly German film, a distinct change of pace. Equal parts comedy, romance and drama but not a romantic comedy, about three people who form a sexual threesome as complicated as it gets in cinema, or in life.

Hanna (Rois) is with Simon (Schipper), a long relationship, yet they remain unmarried and certainly without the sexual spark of old. Hanna meets Adam at a conference on stem cell research, one thing leads to another and well you know. Then Simon meets Adam, by chance, shortly after he has surgery for testicular cancer. In one of the most audacious love scenes of late Tykwer shows Adam court Simon in the change room of the fitness club using Simon’s surgery scar as the first move/icebreaker, then ends the scene with the yuckiest money shot since Crash.

A farsical and supremely entertaining series of deceptions betwen Simon, Hanna and Adam ensue - like a German comedy of errors, which is probably an oxymoron.

I can’t believe this story hasn’t been done before, particularly as a Hollywood romcom. Under Tykwer’s direction he’s constantly battling between taking his characters seriously and exploiting the ridiculousness of the absurd concept. As such the potential of the concept is never quite reached. Other than the coincidental meeting between Adam and Simon, it’s a tight screenplay. Each of the characters act and react as we’d expect considering how complex their knotting situation is.

As usual it’s sharp looking and beautiful images on screen. Tykwer's compositions, camera movement, lighting are pristine and gorgeous. He doesn’t fully abandon the visual or narrative flourishes. There’s extensive split screen usage in a few montage scenes, sequences I could have lived without, but not enough to distract from the core emotions.

The finale is typical of Tykwer and doesn’t disappoint. Tykwer evens the scales on each of his characters, each has equal narrative weight, each one is wrong, each is right. No one’s really to blame for their own action. A perfect circle of accountability. There’s a philosophical completeness to this threesome as well, like three pieces of a puzzle which is incomplete unless all three are together. And in the final glorious scene, Tykwer hits home this metaphor with pure cinematic delight, like only he can.

And as far the rating goes - three stars. could it have been anything else??

Thursday, 16 September 2010

TIFF 2010 - Passione

Passione (2010) dir. John Turturro
Documentary

***

By Alan Bacchus

I loved John Turturro sorely neglected musical Romance and Cigarettes, and so the potential of Turturro’s take on the culture of music of the great city of Naples was a great tease. While not up to the standard of cinematic inspiration of Romance, Passione provides lovers the best slice of Italiana since Dean Martin sang 'That's Amore.'

I exagerrate slightly. Passione is nothing like anything Dean Martin did. It's kind of an unclassifyable experimental hybrid of documentary, musical and music video which acts like an commissioned artwork for the Naples tourism bureau.

In the opening, Turturro steps out in front of the camera to address the camera and tell us what we're about to see. The effect has the flavour of an old documentary, or an old trailer when it was customary for the filmmakers to audience directly.

Naples, Turturro explains to us, is a city which, historically, despite a life cycle war, invasion and volcanic eruptions, has had a rich and unique culture of music. Over the 95mins, Turturro gives us a self-guided tour of Naples through the nooks and crannies of its cobblestone roads, cramped old world streets and on the edges of its magnificent coastal cliffs and beaches, unfolding as a series of narrratively unconnected set pieces. Sometimes, it's interviews with local residents discussing their favourite singers, or a choreographed song and dance routine, maybe a band playing to camera in a garden, or sometimes it's B&W stock footage of a famous Neopolitan crooning on an old Italian variety show.

Lovers of swooning hopelessly romantic Italian music unite, to those inclined it adds up to an orgasm of neopolitan flavour, but for only casually interested parties, its sadly only something we can admire and respect but not fall in love with. We can certainly feel and admire Turturro’s ‘passion’ for the city, but his direction lacks the cinematic inspiration of Romance and Cigarettes which would elevate the film to another level.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

TIFF 2010 - John Carpenter's "The Ward"

The Ward (2010) dir. John Carpenter
Starring: Amber Heard, Jared Harris, Susanna Burney and a bunch of babes I've never heard of.

***

By Greg Klymkiw

Okay kiddies, "Let's do the math."

Veteran genre-meister John (The Thing, Halloween, Vampires, Escape From New York, Ghosts of Mars, Starman) Carpenter directing.

+

A horror film set in the 1960s where none of the babes have hair-styles remotely resembling 60s hair-styles.

+

One mouth-wateringly hot Amber (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) Heard, incarcerated in a creepy old asylum after committing arson in a nightie.

+

As luck would have it, the ward Amber gets thrown into is replete with babes (including a single-bagger woofer who grows on you and is, after all, kind of a babe, too). One of the babessucks her thumb and plays with dolls (Hubba! Hubba!) and another is a mega-sexpot (Double Hubba! Hubba!).

+

One by one, the babes are butchered.

+

Amber keeps seeing some weird chick wandering the halls, but is told it's just her imagination.

+

Amber is manhandled by burly male nurses, zapped with electro-shock therapy and gets trussed-up in a straight jacket. (Triple Hubba! Hubba!)

+

In one of the more disgusting moments in horror movie history, one of the babes is electro-shocked until... well, I won't ruin it for you, but trust me - it's pretty fucking gross!

+

The ghost is one super-gnarly monster: mucho-drippings of the viscous kind.

+

A great performance from Jared Harris as an unbelievably creepy psychiatrist engaging in (what else?) unorthodox experiments.

+

An equally great performance from Susanna Burney as an ultra-butch and thoroughly detestable ward nurse who gives Louise Fletcher a run for her money in the Nurse Ratched Mental Health Caregiver Sweepstakes.

+

Tons of cheap scares that make you jump out of your seat and, God help you, if you have difficulties with incontinence, you better bring along an extra pair of Depends Adult Diapers.

+

A kick-ass climax and a Carrie-like shocker ending.

=

One free blowjob for the Toronto International Film Festival's (TIFF) Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes for selecting the film to premiere at the venerable Hogtown celebration of celluloid and especially for getting me into the sold out midnight screening after I fucked up getting my ticket from the right place at the right time. Said blowjob shall occur once someone carves glory holes into the public washroom stalls of the new Bell Lightbox complex where TIFF is now housed. One free blowjob and rimjob for John Carpenter for making this film. Said delights for Mr. Carpenter shall occur once he finishes (I kid you not!) jury duty in El Lay (which kept him from attending the festival and doing a Q and A session).

And that, kiddies, is your Mathematics lesson for today.

Be good.

TIFF 2010 - Meek's Cutoff


Meek’s Cutoff (2010) dir. Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Rod Rondeau

***

By Alan Bacchus

Arguably the North American Premiere of Meek’s Cutoff is one of the hotly anticipated films, at least for Toronto audiences. For those unfamiliar it’s the next feature film from Kelly Reichardt after her breakout success Wendy and Lucy, which Toronto Film Critics anointed as the best of the film a couple year’s back. This time Reichardt's working in the western genre yet applies the same observational style, a unique slow burning type of realism which historically has divided audience between brilliance and boredom.

This one is no exception. From these eyes while it's just too detached to completely satisfy me in the way Wendy & Lucy did, Meek's Cutoff makes up for its narrative deficiencies with its aesthetic voracity.

It’s exciting to see such a staunch independent auteur female filmmaker venture into a typically male genre. Kelly Reichardt has created real western (I can't recall another western directed by a female?). It’s Oregon in the mid 19th century, three families are on a convoy across the Midwestern desert plains away from the dangers of Indian war parties for greener pastures west. Leading the group is a gruff pack leader, Meek (Greenwood) contracted to guide them across the treacherous land.

In the opening the convoy is already at wits end, lost and disillusioned that Meek actually knows where he’s going. A quiet power struggle results between Meek and the other men, specifically Solomon Tetherow (Patton) who differ which the direction to go. When an indian is captured by the group they take him in, bartering food and shelter in exchange for a safe route to water. Can the indian be trusted? Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) thinks so, a humanistic attitude which comes into conflict with Meek and the other men.

Meek’s Cutoff sits somewhere in between the extremes of brilliance and boredom. At once it’s an often stunning exercise in sustained quiet tension, on the other we wait patiently for the tension to build toward an event, action or conflict of some kind which never emerges. At the very least, Reichardt and her writer Jonathan Raymond, have crafted a completely unique western, the characters and setting are familiar, but with a stripped down dramatic core emphasizing the innate humanism in all of us. Not much happens, but there's enough value in the conviction Reichardt's hero and moral centre for us to feel the gravitas of the endeavour.

TIFF 2010 - Black Swan

Black Swan (2010) dir. Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey

****

By Greg Klymkiw

I am breathless, speechless and frankly, so knocked on my ass as I attempt to write this, that I fear that no words will ever adequately describe the elation I feel at having experienced what might be the best movie of the year, the decade and possibly one of the best pictures of all time.

I love this movie to death!

Is it that obvious?

With Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky, the brilliant director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, has etched in stone his right to be called one of the greatest living film directors in the world. This is such a passionate, sexy, suspenseful, artful and wildly melodramatic movie, that even now I'm obsessed with seeing the picture as many times as possible.

Even one more viewing will do in order to pinch myself to see if I am dreaming how utterly stupendous it is.

I suspect, I'm not dreaming, however - Black Swan feels like it is exactly the sort of film we'll all look back upon as a milestone in cinema history.

It's Powell/Pressburger's The Red Shoes meets Mankiewicz's All About Eve meets Verhoeven's Showgirls with heavy doses of Polanski's Repulsion - and then some!

Aronofsky etches the unforgettable tale of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina driven to achieving the highest level of artistry; brutally encouraged by crazed impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), thwarted by her possessive, narcissistic mother (Barbara Hershey), terrified at the prospect of failure exemplified by an aging prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) and most of all, facing the threat of extinction by Lilly (Mila Kunis), an earthy rival with less technique, but greater raw passion - something Nina desperately needs to wrench from the depths of her soul to move beyond mere technical virtuosity.

The strongest comparison point is the aforementioned Powell/Pressburger 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes, a staggering, highly influential motion picture - the stunning ballet sequences were a huge inspiration to Scorsese for the staging and mise-en-scene of the Raging Bull boxing matches. Powell/Pressburger wanted to make a movie that captured dance the only way motion pictures truly could - not from a proscenium, but on stage - as close to the action as possible.

Aronofsky follows suit with Black Swan and in some ways he matches the Powell/Pressburger approach with considerable aplomb. Where Aronofsky's approach differs is in his use of movement. Powell/Pressburger favoured exquisite compositions from a mostly-fixed camera position with the occasional dolly or crane shot, but often creating movement through delicate montage. Aronofsky, on the other hand, moves and swishes his camera with a sort of controlled steadi-cam abandon. I say "controlled" as this is no mere display of annoying shaky-cam techniques - the handheld movements are gorgeously composed and not a single move feels out of place, indulgent or downright sloppy.

In Aronofsky's mise-en-scene, the camera floats and glides with calculated abandon. In fact, I'm rather embarrassed to admit I caught myself - several times - rocking back and forth, to and fro and in a state of amusement-park-ride bliss. In fact, I've never seen dance sequences on film that inspired me to move in my seat as the image unspooled. I seldom move - period, but that's another story and significant only in that Black Swan compelled me to not remain static and slumped into my chair. And this was not only the case with the dance scenes, but with virtually every moment in the picture.

At times it compels one to literally jump from one's seat during set-pieces of slam-bang suspense. Other moments inspire one to sit forward, eyes up to the screen and literally on the edge of one's seat - at times, in mouth-agape awe at the sheer genius of the filmmaking and at others, because the action is so thrilling that to sit back becomes near-impossible. And then there are the numerous cringe-inducing moments where one squirms and sinks into one's seat, clinging for dear life as the picture deals with the grotesquely painful physical injuries and deformities that dancers - especially ballerinas - are prone to; split, oozing toenails, dislocated joints and other such gnarly realities of the dancing trade. I have not uttered the words "Jesus Christ" so many times in one picture - in utter disgust at witnessing the physical torture these women endure. Nina in particular is afflicted with an obsessive streak to the point where she scratches at her shoulder blades and leaves blood and pus-oozing open sores. And worse, to stop herself from scratching, she continually cuts, trims and buffs her nails to a point where her fingertips, fingernails and cuticles are a raw, pulpy mess.

Jesus Christ!

And the melodrama: O, the melodrama! Some consider melodrama a dirty word. Well, anyone who does is a total knot head. It's a completely legitimate genre. There's bad melodrama and there's good, if not great melodrama. Black Swan is in the latter category. O, glorious melodrama! This great movie, replete with catty nasties of invective hurled with meat cleaver sharpness, literal cat fights, mother-daughter snipe-fests, masturbation, lesbo action, anonymous sex in nightclub washrooms and delicious over-the-top blood-letting, all add up to one motherfucker of an ice cream sundae with not one, not two, not three, but a barrel-full of maraschino cherries globbed with pools of glistening syrup on top.

The performances in Black Swan are perfectly pitched to the heights of melodrama that the film itself achieves. Miss Portman captures her character's intensity and frigidity with such perfection that Nina's gradual soul wrenching ascent/descent takes on the heft of pure tragedy. She commands the screen with such assured bravado that it's probably safe to suggest that hers will be the performance to beat in the year's upcoming awards season. Mila Kunis is gorgeous and sexy. Her chemistry with Portman crackles with the sheer electricity of opposites attracting. Winona Ryder delivers an exceptionally mature tragic portrait, full of bile, resentment and tragedy - a worthy successor and rival to the suffering bitch goddess Susan Hayward. Barbara Hershey wanders through the Grand Guignol territory of those immortal Robert Aldrich heroines of the 60s and drags us deep into the demonic bilge barrel of great movie harridans. And last, but certainly not least, Vincent Cassel is one sexy beast - the perfect ballet impresario: one part genius, one part cocksman, two parts Mephistopheles.

Some critics have referred to Black Swan as "The Red Shoes on acid.". They couldn't be more wrong. The Red Shoes is already on acid.

From my vantage point, Black Swan is pure crack cocaine, and as such, inspires more and heavier doses.