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

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Rocky Horror Picture Show

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) dir. Jim Sharman
Starring: Tim Curry Susan Sarandan, Brian Brian Bostwick, Richard O’Brien, Meatloaf

***

By Alan Bacchus

I like musicals, but don’t much care for rock operas, that is, the brand of song and dance motion picture which emerged in the 70’s and featured reworked pop rock tunes instead of traditional broadway style numbers. So this is not really my cup of tea, but if there was one film I could appreciate in this subgenre it would this gleeful, irresponsible and audacious cultish schlockfest.

Susan Sarandan is Janet Weiss, a virginal small town girl betroathed to the equally nerdy and virginal Brad Majors (Bostwick). The night of their engagement they find themselves with a flat tire and stranded in heavy rain. Their nearest respite is an old haunted castle-like mansion off the beaten path. They are quickly welcomed to a group of Transylvanians singing the Timewarp song.

The leader of this cooky gang of strange and swinging group of men, women and trannies is the ultimate tranny Dr. Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), who has just finished creating his own gay version of Frankenstein’s monster, an Apollo-like beefcake figure named Rocky, who will serve as his own personal sex slave. After Frank, in disguise, beds both Janet and Brad, Janet discovers her own repressed carnality and goes sexual haywire. Then Janet and Brad’s old high school teacher Dr. Everett Scott shows up only to get killed and served for dinner to Frank’s guests. Then it turns out the Transylvanians are actually aliens from another galaxy and eventually blast off into space in the castle-cum-spaceship.

Predictable is not the word to describe the effect of watching Rocky Horror Picture, fucked up quaalude trip or ecstasy bomb might be more appropriate. The plot seemingly gets made up as the film goes along, but mostly it’s a parody of classic b-movie sci-fi of the 50’s, with a lot of gay sex.

I forgot how gay the film was actually. And I forgot how liberal the 70’s were, in comparison to the decades of the 80’s and 90’s when material like this would have been scared off by the AIDS epidemic. Few commercial or even remotely mainstream films are as graphic and shamelessly explicit.

For straight dudes, we get to at least marvel at the stunning beauty of Susan Sarandan, her saucercup eyes and ample bosum which is featured prominently in that white cross-your-heart bra she wears through most of the film.

Stylistically, Jim Sharman’s direction and camerawork embrace all the shlockiness it’s trying to parody. There’s little aesthetic continuity going on. Sharman moves between extreme camera lenses, to rough handheld work, to traditional locked off photography. As with the story, anything goes.

Though the Blu-Ray looks sharp on my 42 inches, the small screen is just too small, and insular to really capture the magic of this film. Rocky Horror should be a shared experience, preferably at midnight, in a dingy old rep theatre on Halloween night in ful regalia and chemically enhanced. Happy Halloween!

Rocky Horror Picture Show is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Saturday, 30 October 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

How To Train Your Dragon (2010) dir. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Starring the voices of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse

**

By Greg Klymkiw

There's nothing especially bad about How To Train Your Dragon, but there's also nothing especially good about it.

Each time I see a new animated feature on a big screen these days, the first question that courses through the rivulets of my brain is, "Haven't I seen this somewhere before?" The second is, "Uh, like, why did they make this?" The answer to the former is a quick and resounding "Yes!" The answer to the latter comes when I look away from the screen and/or up from a rousing game of "Bejeweled" on my iPhone and realize I'm sitting amongst several hundred little nippers and their surprisingly engaged parents. It's like what James Earl Jones says in Field of Dreams: "If you build it they will come."

Parents these days seem so starved for family entertainment that the studios just keep piling on one derivative 3-D digital delight after another. It's one of my familiar rants, actually. Why do today's parents keep dragging their kids to see this crap? There are so many other movies they could be taking them to.

When I was a kid, I saw every Disney release, to be sure, but most of them were classics from the Golden Age and re-released every seven or so years to capitalize on new generations of avid viewers. But these weren't the ONLY movies my parents took me to or that, when I hit the age of seven or eight, went to by myself. I saw the original Planet of the Apes and its multitude of sequels between the ages of 7 and 13. I went to all the Sinbad movies. I saw every John Wayne and Clint Eastwood western. Dad took me to see The Wild Bunch when I was 9. I remember making a deal with my Mom that if I had to sit through Mary Poppins, she had to promise to take me to see The Battle of the Bulge. Hell, I remember going to grindhouses as a kid and sitting through Hammer Horror films, motorcycle movies, war pictures and British Carry On sex comedies. And aside from Disney, I really don't remember there being that many animated movies being made, released or re-released. Going to the movies meant going to the movies - ANY MOVIES - so long as it wasn't pornography.

It's not like there AREN'T movies today that are similar to the abovementioned titles. There's plenty of action, fantasy, comedies and even straight-up drama for families to see. Why then, must audiences keep encouraging the studios to grind out these mostly empty and derivative bowls of treacle?

How To Train Your Dragon, as uninteresting as it is, at least has dragons in it. But, God help me, the story is appallingly familiar. A young Viking lad wants to battle dragons like his Dad. Dad doesn't think his son is ready to do so. Boy Viking makes his mark by downing a dragon but not killing it. Then (barf!) he discovers dragons are nice and he turns his former quarry into a pet. And, guess what? I'm sure this will surprise you. I know it surprised me (though in fairness, my attention drifted between the movie and "Bejeweled", so anything would have surprised me). Viking boy teaches everybody that dragons are not what they seem. Aaawwww, isn't that nice?

And aside from the annoying digital 3-D animation that will never hold a candle to traditional animation and the equally maddening cutesy-pie voice work from an all-star cast, the biggest problem with this picture, and so many others of its ilk, is just how goddamn nice it is. Makes me want to sing "Everything is Beautiful (In Its Own Way)" or worse, "Cumbaya".

Critics who don't know any better (most of them these days) and even audiences, always have this moronic knee-jerk comment about classic Disney - that it's trite and treacly.

Uh, sorry to disillusion, you all - classic Disney often borders on straight-up horror. It's deliciously cruel and perverse. That whale in Pinocchio can still scare the shit out of me. Bambi still kicks me in the stomach when the kiddie deer's Mom is shot. Dumbo separated from his mother, teased mercilessly by everyone and drunkenly facing those "Pink Elephants on Parade" all continue to knock me on my ass and give me the willies. It was even more intense as a kid. And don't even get me started on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - are we talking unrequited freak love, or what?

And what do we get now? We get mediocrities like How To Train Your Dragon - designed to make everyone feel all touchy-feely, but THAT, oh sensitive ones, is more falsely corrupt a message to shovel down our kids' throats. Classic Disney toughened the little buggers up AND entertained them, but all that this contemporary stuff does is teach lessons of conformity and understanding and getting along. And of course, that stuff is important, but it's also important for kids to know that prices are paid dearly on this Earth to even begin the process of understanding and healing, that evil and terror exists, that entertainment (and healing) should not always come easily.

When I think about the best work by Spielberg like E.T. or Joe Dante's deliciously nasty Gremlins movies, I think that THESE are the ultimate family movies. Spielberg rips your heart out and Dante microwaves gremlins until they explode. Now THAT'S entertainment! For the whole family, no less.

While some might wonder if the studios still make 'em like they used to, I can say that in the area of animation, the answer is a resounding "NO!" However, there are plenty of "adult" movies that are far better entertainment for kids than How To Train Your Dragon. I took my 9-year-old to see Vincenzo Natali's brilliant sci-fi thriller Splice. She not only loved the picture, it provided so much in the way of really intelligent and vital discourse between us. Another recent picture she saw and loved was Precious. This was perfect entertainment and of the highest order.

Look, at the end of the day, you'll see a lot worse than How To Train Your Dragon, but I'm picking on it precisely because it's so offensively inoffensive and middle of the road. It's hardly illuminating and leaves little room for any real discourse of substance with your child.

"Enough," I say. Enough with the touchy-feelie, already.

"How To Train Your Dragon" is available on homevideo in a handy Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Dreamworks, but do your kids a favour - rent or buy something like "Splice" instead.

Friday, 29 October 2010

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (1941) dir. John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Gladys George, Elisha Cook Jr.

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

“The stuff dreams are made of” is Bogey’s final line of this film, and one which ambiguously explains what exactly the Maltese Falcon really is. It’s arguably the most recognizable of maguffins in film history, a metallic statuette, made of some unknown substance, but has such innumerable value that is drives the entire story without the need of an explanation.

What is the Maltese Falcon? In cinematic terms it’s an excuse to get a punch of tough, greedy, backstabbing characters in a room together to scheme, fight and kill each other over.

For novelist Dashiell Hammett’s hero Sam Spade, the adventure starts when a lovely young woman Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) enters his San Francisco office and hires Sam (Bogart) and his partner Miles Archer to find her sister, who has seemingly attached herself to a nefarious slimeball whom we never see named Floyd Thursby. While tailing Thursby Archer is killed, which sends Spade hell bent on revenge.

That same night Thursby is found dead as well, and according to the cops Spade is one of the suspects. So Spade not only has to clear his name but find the murderer of his partner. He tracks down Ruth and discovers a complex web of lies and deceipt which track back to the aforementioned precious artifact being transported from abroad into San Fran harbour - The Maltese Falcon.

Bogey is at his most confident here, playing Spade as a determined and unflappable gumshoe who has the ability to get out of any situation, either by his impressive abilities to find the angles in every scheme, or simply by brute force. In fact on numerous occassions when he’s targeted at gunpoint, he can simply swat the gun out of his assailant’s hand with ease without getting shot. It’s fun, but it’s also a rather shallow characterization of the protagonist. Spade, although he has the skills as Bogey’s Rick Blaine from Casablanca, he lacks the vulnerability and broken heart which makes him identifyable and endearing.

As such, like say, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon is a plot driven affair. A completely dispassionate potboiling film noir, before there was such a term. Despite its sterling reputation though, Falcon doesn’t hit the hit high water mark of Bogey’s The Big Sleep. Both are complex and confusing crime stories, but I think the difference comes down to one scene at the end of Falcon when Bogey literally asks big ol charming Sidney Greenstreet who did what and why. It’s shamefully expository and the worst scene in the movie. The Big Sleep on the other hand, is purposely oblique and baffling which adds an element of cooky brainteasing fun. One of the death in that film is never solved and is debated by film buffs to this day.

That said, Falcon is still an enjoyable and entertaining cynical and tough noir piece. Watch Spade’s continual put downs of the effeminate hoods played by Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr., a treatment which, in the documentary The Celluloid Closet, was famously analyzed as concealed homophobia. Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s a fascinating layer in subtext and characterization as well an interesting viewpoint into the time and place in which the film was made and one of the reasons why the film continues to be watched and discussed to this day.

The Maltese Falcon is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Goodfellas

Goodfellas (1990) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino

****

By Alan Bacchus

What are best uses of voiceover in film? Terrence Malick in Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line perhaps, The Magnificent Amberson's maybe? The use of omniscient narration describing off screen action, motivation, character's inner thoughts can be seen as a lazy tool for screenwriters. But when it's done right, it's can be a magical thing. Few can argue the tremendous effect of the voiceover from Goodfellas, one of the great pop cultural landmark films of our time.

Martin Scorsese's return to the streetwise, low level gangster characters of Raging Bull, Mean Streets and served as kind of an antidote to the Godfather effect, that is, the glorification and romanticism of the mafia as charming, well dressed pseudo bourgeois aristocrats. Scorsese's gangsters are working class bullies who use the tantalizing temptations of capitalism to the extreme, living a life free of all control.

The opening scene in 1970, finding the body of Billy Bats still alive in the trunk of Henry Hill's car, is a classic, parachuting us into the narrative, then doubling back to continue the scene midway into the picture. And it’s not just an arbitrary scene, but the key decision in the film by the main characters which ultimately spelled their downfall. After this prelude Scorsese's hero Henry Hill opens up the story with one of the best lines - "as far back as I can remember I've always wanted to be a gangster". It begins the amusing, violent, grotesque and bystantine epic story of the New York/New Jersey mafia in the 70's and 80's.

Henry Hill's voiceover provides an intimate entry into the world so familiar in movies and TV, yet completely fresh and authentic. In the opening act, Henry moves from child wannabe to young hot shot hoodlum who ingratiates himself deep into the mafia. While he surrounds himself with two of the most ruthless gangsters we've ever seen in film - Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) - watch closely and you'll see Henry characterized as an outsider who never really gets his hands dirty in the dirtiest parts of the business. The death of Billy Bats for instance, Scorsese is careful to show Hill's shocked reaction at Jimmy and Tommy's violent beating. This allows the audience to see the world through the eyes of a man with a conscience, and however delusional and drugged out, he's the film's everyman.

Back to the voiceover...the great moments occurs early in the film. Take the introduction Karen for instance. In the restaurant Scorsese switches from Henry’s voiceover to Karen’s voiceover, which comes completely of left field, yet, as cut by Thelma Schoonmaker and the sound editors, the transition is seemless. The voiceover reads not like inner monologue but documentary interviews. This style ties in so wonderfully in the end, in the inspired moment when Henry Hill, on the stand,suddenly breaks the fourth wall and starts talking to the camera. As if the entire movie were part of his confession to breaking the two cardinal rules told to him by Jimmy Conway, 'never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut'.

As much as the film is visceral and violent, his mix of violence with humour has never been done better. Again, the Billy Bats killing is brutal, but watch the transition into the next scene, the riotously funny dinner scene with Scorsese’s mother, a contrast which keeps the audience oscillated between these two extremes- what is it, a paw? A hoof?

Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing compresses the time brilliantly, rendering an ambitious 20 year narrative into a elegant flow of image and sound that washes over the viewer like a bedtime story. One of the best scenes is the Bamboo Lounge sequence. In a matter of 60 seconds the restaurant is partnered with the mob, they make tones of money, then it’s a losing venture and its being torched.

But when they want Scorsese and Schoonmaker slow down to highlight the key moments in Henry's journey. The best scene, and one of greatest ever set pieces in motion picture history is the day which leads up to Henry's capture. After spending almost two hours over the course of 20 years, Scorsese throws a microscope on one particular day in Henry's life. A thrilling sequence which shows Henry giving instructions to his brother over the phone how to make the pasta, in paranoia watching the skies for a helicopter which may or may not be spying on him, driving around town delivering guns for Jimmy Conway and overseeing a drug deal while coking himself out to the max. In one great scene, Scorsese sums up the lifestyle of Henry Hill playing edge at all times, and a hair's breath away from being put away for life and the reason why Goodfellas is the greatest gangster film ever made.

"Goodfellas' is available on Blu-Ray as part of Warner Home Video's compilation of his recent work for Warners called The Martin Scorsese Collection.



Wednesday, 27 October 2010

What's Up Doc?

What's Up Doc? (1972) dir. Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O'Neal, Madeline Kahn, Austin Pendleton, Kenneth Mars, Michael Murphy, Sorrell Booke, Stefan Gierasch, John Hillerman, Randy Quaid, M. Emmet Walsh and Liam Dunn

***1/2

By Greg Klymkiw

If anyone on a silver screen was virtually indistinguishable from a whirling dervish, that ancient and most holy of all spiritual dancers, there's no doubt that few will ever come close to Barbra Streisand in Peter Bogdanovich's classic screwball comedy What's Up Doc? - a terrific picture that is as much an homage to a bygone genre as it is the thing itself - so gloriously re-invented for a contemporary audience (in the 70s), yet as fresh today as it was then.

Playing the irrepressible poor little rich girl who makes life so beautifully miserable for Ryan O'Neal's befuddled musicology professor Howard Bannister, Babs explodes on screen like Fanny Brice channeled through the splicing together of genes from Carole Lombard and Jean Arthur. With her floppy, oversized checkered Armand of Beverly Hills newsboy cap resting comfortably over her gorgeous strawberry blonde tresses, her moist full lips at their most luscious, her exquisite profile at its most stunningly aquiline, her winning smile never more sparkling, her kookiness never more insanely, deliciously skewed and her dancing eyes drawing you in with some kind of berserk "fuck me immediately" magnetism, La Streisand commands our attention from entrance to exit.

And like the aforementioned whirling dervish, she exists on a plane somewhere between Heaven and Earth, spinning full tilt to a precise rhythm that places both herelf and the viewer in a trance.

This is what makes a star! Pure and simple. She's Streisand all the way! But like all true stars, she outshines her persona to deliver the ultimate dramatic/comedic roundhouse smack - and then some!

With a terrific screenplay from David Newman, Robert Benton and Buck Henry (based upon a story by helmer Bogdanovich), she melds her stunning personality, almost superhuman photogenic qualities and seldom-parallelled thespian talents to bring to life one of the great female roles in the movies. As Judy Maxwell, perennial ivy league student and con artist extraordinaire, she's on the run from responsibility and Daddy and immediately sets her sights on winning the heart of one bespectacled Bannister, a cutie-pie geek academic in a perpetual fog who is attending a convention of fellow musicology eggheads at a gathering that could surely only exist in the movies.

On the surface, Judy seeks escape, but deep down, all she wants is the love of a man who needs her more desperately than he can bear to admit. And Bannister has a lot of things he can bear admitting. His number one problem is securing foundation financing to continue his studies of the prehistoric rocks that he believes are the first musical instruments. (In fact, he pathologically carries his rocks in a red plaid satchel and can hardly bear the thought of parting with them.) These, however, are rocks he's happy to be saddled with. His equally serious problem is the dead weight clutching grotesquely at his side, a most burdensome rock - a ball and chain, if you will. His fiance is Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn in her outrageous movie debut), and boy does Eunice burn - not unlike the hellfire spawn of Satan. She is a harridan of the most loathsome kind - needy, grasping, domineering - the penultimate teratism of womanhood, a screeching monstrosity who's going to bring her man so far down the career ladder, that he'll be lucky to teach accordion in a strip mall or better, to take an eventual hot bath with a Schick razor to plunge in his veins.

Judy will have none of it, but she will have ALL of Bannister. Streisand's performance is so riveting that it's impossible to avert one's eyes from her hawk-like gaze. She targets her wants and needs with diamond-sharp precision. Again, this is what makes a star. Streisand's actions speak louder than words - she's a huntress with a mission straight from her heart and she pulls out all the stops - no matter what obstacles are flung in her direction, she charges over them with verve, courage and smarts. And let it be said that part of her actions ARE her words. Never have such zingers torn out of a contemporary character's voicebox. It's astounding to watch Streisand, to study her every move - eyes first, brain next, then action! Babs has rendered a lot of great work, but I daresay none of it (and it's all mostly wonderful) holds a candle to her work here.

Judy harries and harasses poor Bannister until he's putty in her hands, but instead of arsenic, she traps her quarry with honey. She brilliantly and deftly takes Eunice's place at the convention and dazzles the powers-that-be until they're on the verge of signing Bannister a blank cheque for his rock studies. There are, however, even more complications to contend with - Judy wins many battles, but she has her work cut out for her in order to successfully win the war.

And let it be said now, Streisand commands this picture like Patton, but in addition to the laugh-out-loud-funny script, director Peter Bogdanovich masterfully captures this screwball comedy with the skill and artistry of a Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey and George Cukor rolled into one. Though some of the pratfalling and mistaken baggage handling verge on distraction, Bogdanovich handles the romance and banter like an old pro.

A great star needs a great director and Streisand couldn't have hoped for someone better than Bogdanovich. As mentioned earlier, this is no mere homage to screwball comedies - it is, pure and simple, a great screwball comedy in its own right. Bogdanovich not only has filmmaking in his very DNA, his encyclopaedic knowledge of American cinema lets him deliver his own series of roundhouse punches, drawing from the masters he clearly loves, while putting his own stamp on the picture. It's no surprise he was one of the great directors of his generation - from his staggering debut with the clever and chilling Targets, to the nostalgia of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, the freewheeling and sadly maligned Nickelodeon and, lest we forget, his romance of all things sleazy in Saint Jack, Bogdanovich kept serving up one great picture after another.

What's Up Doc? is no exception! It's one knee-slapping, roll in the aisles rollercoaster ride!

And then there's Streisand! But there's also a delightful Ryan O'Neal and an unforgettable collection of terrific character performances - from Austin Pendleton's dweeby, lascivious foundation director to Kenneth Mars as the snooty Croatian academic, Bogdanovich assembled a dream cast.

And yes, then there's Streisand! She's a peach, but someone had to cast her!

What's Up Doc? is available on a luscious new Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video that highlights Laszlo Kovacs's cinematography beautifully and comes replete with a nice selection of bonus features including a fine Bogdanovich commentary and even some scene specific words from Babs herself.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Three Kings

Three Kings (1999) dir, David O Russell
Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Spike Jonze, Ice Cube

****

By Alan Bacchus

David O Russell’s now legendary on set behaviour notwithstanding, he’s a fantastic filmmaker, and Three Kings, a tonally ambitious black comedy/ action film is one of the great political satires of the past 15 years.

It’s the end of the first Iraq War, an event signified by the absurd first line from Mark Wahlberg “are we shooting people?”, after which Wahlberg’s characer Sgt Troy Barlow hits a shooting duck Iraqi in the chest from far far away. After a rather fun rock and roll montage sequence portraying the victory like the US just won the Super Bowl, we’re also introduced to Major Archie Gates (Clooney), Sgt Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Pvt Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) who, using a treasure map in found in a captured Iraqi soldier’s ass, go awol in search of Saddam Hussein’s secret stash of Gold.

The foursome (yeah, it should really be called ‘Four Kings’) find Saddam’s once hidden bunker and the cooperation of the freed Iraqi citizens who help them move the gold bars. But when the Saddam’s soldiers attack the citizens, the Bush-ordered cease fire prevents them from intervening. Caught been personal ethics, military duties and their own monetary greed Gates and the gang gradually turn themselves into a sort of Seven Samurai fighting for the freedom of the Iraqis.

The opening act is especially inspired. The introduction of the US presence in Iraq and the almost casuality-free easy victory on the part of the Americans over Hussein’s army is characterized with sharp absurd humour. Same with the global connectness of Iraq with American culture. The site of Iraqi soldiers helping the three Americans load gold bars into Louis Vutton bags, for example, or the room full of exotic automobiles Gates gets to choose from to help rescue Barlow from capture are examples of the pitch perfect absurdities of that war. Barlow’s absurdly comic phone call to his wife using a found junk cell in his makeshift cell typifies the measured balance between comedy, political commentary and disturbing violence and torture.

The men on a mission actually begins like a refashioning of Kelly’s Heroes – that is, a group of dissillusioned soldiers looking to score a buck to spite the war. It’s a great film to compare and contract. In 1970, politics were much different. For Heroes, it was during Vietnam and it reflects the distinctly 60’s government-hating attitude of liberals. In Russell’s film in the second and third acts the character find their heart and their principles, stripping itself of the 60’s cynicism toward new millenium global activism.

When the Kings turn good and move toward the right side responsibility to military and country, the film threatens to lose it’s edge. Miraculously the satire remains, and at the same time we’re also treated to a number of thrilling action sequences and a heartbreaking series of events in the finale. The mortar sequence sequence in particular is beautifully shot by innovative DP Newton Thomas Sigel and edited by Robert Lambert. And the final moments of Pvt Vig are surprisingly emotional.

And Cudos to George Clooney who managed to hide his well publicized displeasure with his director delivering his first real ‘George Clooney’ performance outside of ER. It was also a great year for Spike Jonze, who turned in some fine acting chops, before he went on to direct the equally wonderful Being John Malkovich that year. It's interesting to see how the satire plays in light of the new Iraqi War which by contrast is a clusterfuck of enormous proportions - an added layer of depth and poignancy to an already intellectually stimulating film.

‘Three Kings’ is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video

Monday, 25 October 2010

Jindabyne

Jindabyne (2006) dir. Ray Lawrence
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Laura Linney

***

By Alan Bacchus

Jindabyne is a trainwreck of a film – for the characters, not the film itself. This Aussie sleeper from 2006 tells the story of the gradual destruction of a man’s married life when he innocently discovers the dead body of a girl while on a fishing trip. The film is notable for being one of the Raymond Carver short stories that was included in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts.” “Jindabyne” is not a remake, but a different vision of a fractured marriage and a racially divided Australian community.

The title refers to the name of a small town in Australia. Stewart is an Irish emigrant living there with his American wife, Claire (Laura Linney) and their young son, Tom. There’s immediately some palpable tension between Stewart and Claire. Some of it stems from the isolation in their adopted home, some from Claire’s meddling mother-in-law. One day Stewart and his three buddies, like in “Deliverance”, take a male-bonding fishing trip. Before they even get to catch a fish Stewart discovers the dead body of young aboriginal girl lying in the river. We, as the audience, recognize this girl from the creepy opening scene when we saw her stalked and kidnapped by a local Aussie hillbilly.

When Stewart returns home, he doesn’t tell his wife until the cops show up at their door in the morning. Claire is shocked at the incident, but even more shocked she was the last to find out. The event causes their rift to increase and further distance themselves from each other. In the news Stewart’s name gets dragged through the mud when it’s revealed they kept fishing after finding the body and didn’t report the death until days later. Because the girl was aboriginal they become the target of anti-white hate crimes from the native community. Claire mourns the death of the young girl in order to cleanse her own soul from the dirt she’s been dragged through by her husband.

Jindabyne” feels like an Andre Dubus (“In the Bedroom“) story. There’s a constant sense of dread that hovers over the film at all times. The fishing trip doesn’t occur until almost 40mins into the film, but director Ray Lawrence teases us with meditative camerawork, quiet dialogue with no music, and slow inquisitive zooms into characters faces to increase the tension. Even after the deathly discovery emotions are kept in check. Eventually Claire and Stewart have it out in one fantastic shouting match. It’s great to watch two great actors face off in an intense cathartic emotional scene.

The film also has a sense of aboriginal mysticism – like God watching over the actions of the white man and punishing them for their desecration of the land and the murdering of their people.

Lawrence crafts some very creepy moments – specifically the little girl’s cruel and almost fatal trick against Stewart’s son in the lake. The mood and atmosphere turn what could have been a 90min film (or even less in the case of “Short Cuts”) into a two-hour seat-squirmer. Since the dialogue is so quiet and soundtrack virtually devoid of music it’s an awkward film to watch and hear. At times I had the volume cranked to the max just to catch an important line of dialogue. Though it’s frustrating, it adds to the thick air of unease Lawrence seems to be an expert at creating.

Most viewers will be turned off by the slow pedantic pace, but with patience you may be reworded with, at the very least, two terrific performances from Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne. Enjoy.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness

Prince of Darkness (1987) dir. John Carpenter
Starring: Jameson Parker, Dennis Dun, Victor Wong, Lisa Blount, Donald Pleasance

****

By Alan Bacchus

“Say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the subatomic level... into ghosts and shadows”

That's a great line from one of the great underrated horror pictures...“Prince of Darkness”, according to John Carpenter, was born in part from his desire to work with some of the Asian actors from his previous ‘Big Trouble in Little China’. Carpenter did indeed bring back Dennis Dun and Victor Wong, but really PoD serves to scare the crap out of the audience, using all the tools, tricks, and recurring themes of Carpenter’s cinematic arsenal.

Carpenter’s film plays on one of the great traditions in the horror genre - spooky Apocalyptic premonitions of the Catholic Church – in this case a two thousand year battle between the God and Devil which will manifest itself in physical reality during the course of the picture. There’s something inherently scary about Christianity, whether its old Church basements or scrolls of ancient Latin text, even the artistic depiction of Jesus on the cross which is in every Catholic Church is terrifying. And so, like ‘The Exorcist”, and “The Omen” Carpenter exploits the real world fear of God Catholics harbour deep in their bones to maximum effect.

Carpenter opens up the film with death of an elder priest from a depressed low income district parish in Los Angeles. Before he dies he gives away a mysterious box and key to his underling played by Donald Pleasance. Who would guess that this little church, an obsolete relic amongst its modern surroundings, would harbour a dark secret held from the world for thousands of years? With as much tension and suspense he can wring out, Carpenter reveals behind the door unlocked by the aforementioned key the imprisoned soul of the devil himself – a soul which now has slowly been awakened.

Sensing the danger which lies in the room, the Priest employs a group of PhD students headed by philosophy professor Howard Birak (Victor Wong), to document the paranormal disturbances and thus prove to the world the existence of the Devil. Like the four horseman of the Apocalypse, or seven, or however many there are, the students experience many of these environmental signs – an eclipse, homeless people possessed like zombies outside, ants and bugs gathering, cold air wandering into rooms.

This is the stuff of John Carpenter, employing the same mood, tone and pacing of his 1980 classic, “The Fog”. Like that picture the antagonist is force of nature, in this case, the soul of the devil which takes over the bodies of regular humans to do his nasty work. Most of Carpenter’s films refashion in some form of another the work George Romero. And so, like ‘Assault on Precinct 13”, ‘The Fog’ “Escape from New York” and others, the physical form of the antagonists turn out to be relentless hollow brained zombies. The possessed homeless people in PoD are more than just lumbering troglodytes, their organized formation and lethal skills with sharp objects are more menacing. Take Alice Cooper’s creative use of the broken bicycle which he uses to impale the nerdy physicist. Or the evil bagwoman’s deadly garden shears which kills the smug scientist Wyndham (who, twice, uses the word ‘Ca Ca’ in a sentence).

Jameson Parker, that handsome blonde TV actor from ‘Simon and Simon’, is the hero playing Brian Marsh, a thoughtful intellectual with an impressively bushy chevron moustache and healthy libido, who has just fallen in love with one of his students. A decent romance emerges during the 48 hours of terror he and his colleagues become subject to which elevates the stakes beyond the mere destruction of the earth. Parker’s shows surprisingly decent leading man chops, but sadly these were the days when television and film rarely cohabitated and thus, when the film did not succeed, Parker never graduated fully to the big screen.

During my prepubescent youth John Carpenter was my absolute favourite filmmaker and ‘Prince of Darkness’ got much play on the VHS. His slow, pulsating slow score acts like a metronome of tension which builds up perfectly to the film’s truly awesome grand climax. And the numerous individual moments of shrieking terror still haunt my nightmares. Let’s list my top five:

5) Possessed and sweaty Calder (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson) singing ‘Amazing Grace’ before sticking himself in the neck with chairleg – ouch!
4) The communal dream experienced by the research students resulting from tachyon-beamed signals from the future – how awesome is that!
3) The insect-infested body of mullet-headed Wyndham (Robert Grasmere) collapsing like a sack of potatoes in the parking lot
2) The terrifically freaky ‘radiologist with glasses’ who becomes the devil’s #1 minion of death
1) The final shot, a classic Carpenter moment – a terrorized Brian reaching for the mirror looking for his lost girlfriend.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Exorcist

The Exorcist (1973) dir. William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb

****

By Alan Bacchus

The scariest movie of all time? Perhaps. But it’s the arguably the horror film (along with Psycho) that had the biggest cultural impact on cinema. If Rosemary’s Baby laid the foundation for this type of ‘Catholic-centric’ horror exploiting ingrained fears and guilt of the venerable old religion, The Exorcist gave us all a little bit of Catholic guilt whether we were religious or not.

My last viewing of the picture was the director's cut, years ago, when it got a small rerelease. At the time I had thought the film lost a bit of it's edge, the physical effects, specifically, rendering the scares more corny than chilling. But going back to the original theatrical edition on glorious Blu-Ray, it's a different experience. Though it was on the small screen and not the big screen you can still that get that feeling why it was such a phenomenon almost 40 years ago

It's a peculiarly structured film. Of course we all know the story, a single mother and her daughter struggling to understand, makes sense of, and ultimately cure the young Regan of a nasty case of demonic possession. It's a very careful build up to the celebrated shock value scenes in the second half. Wonderful moments such as a game of Quija board, or some curious noises rustling about in the attic, form a great foundation of tension. And William Friedkin's knack for creating documentary-like realism from salacious stories renders everything that much scarier. The story of the film's co-lead Father Karras has its own completely separate parallel story for over half the movie. Karras has his own problems, his mother who has just died has given him with a large empty hole in the heart and a decent helping of guilt for not being there at the end. The convergence of these two storylines with the confrontation of Regan in her bedroom makes for an intense and dramatic second half.

There's also the film's peculiar and oblique opening, a lengthy sequence in Iraq introducting Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) involved in an architectural dig for some kind of relic. Then the film cuts to Georgetown for the main action involving the lead characters. Other than Father Merrin and the reappearance of the beastly sculture after the death of Burke Dennings, there’s little if no direct narrative connection between the opening and Regan’s predicament. Yet the scene is so important in establishing the scope of the film, that either, something evil has been released unto the world from man’s archeological intervention or that the devil’s fingers can imprint itself on any part of the world, whether it’s the Middle East or a humble street corner in middle class America.

There’s almost no dialogue in the sequence, instead Friedkin’s use of enhanced sound effects, atmospheric ambiance creates a quiet creepy tension which warns and teases us with the shitstorm of horror we’ll eventually have to face. And so what a bold and risky stroke for Blatty/Friedkin to use this scene as tonal context (Friedkin would use this same type of narrative discordia in his 1977 film Sorceror). And once we’re in his grasp, Friedkin carefully plays out the events which lead up to the possession of Regan and the emotional torture of her poor mother.

Since The Exorcist, the themes, tone, and even plot structure has been repeated by a number of other fine horror films since. The Omen, in particular, which is also a masterpiece in its own right, seems like a near carbon copy of The Exorcist’s template, same with John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, a delicious merging of William Friedkin and George Romero. Even Poltergeist, which doesn’t have any overt religious references but could be argued as the New Testament/Evangelical version of The Exorcist.

Like most of the great horror films, cause and effect is left more obtuse and loose than obvious. The best of horror cannot be explained.What is the cause of Regan’s psychosis, or why has the devil targeted her, or perhaps even Chris? The film never really makes this clear. While in most films, characters who suffer tend to suffer for a reason, or that suffering becomes the catalyst for the character to change. In horror and in particualr The Exorcist, the horror is random, striking ordinary, humble, decent people, testing their internal strength and the bond of their family. And so, ultimately, The Exorcist is story of a single mother and her only daughter and the inexplicable connection by blood and soul which fights off the devil.

The Exorcist is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video

Friday, 22 October 2010

Dog Days

Dog Days (2001) dir. Ulrich Seidl
Starring: Maria Hofstätter, Erich Finsches, Gerti Lehner, Claudia Martini, Viktor Hennemann

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

In 2001 renowned Austrian documentarian Ulrich Seidl made his dramatic feature debut with his provocative surrealist satire, "Dog Days". There have been many films satirizing the mind-numbing decay of suburban living, but with "Dog Days" Seidl skewers the lifestyle deeper and more sadistically than anyone before or after him.

Around a quaint Austrian township, so non-distinct it could be any Ontario suburb, or California, or Texas or wherever, lives a group of peculiar citizens whom we observe going about their days with the usual routine.

The film opens on a crazy club-goer, Mario, abusing a group of voyeurs who gawk at his dancer-girlfriend in a German dance club. In the ride home the obsessed maniac physically and mentally abuses her in the car before throwing her out of the car on the side of the road. There is abuse like this in every corner of this seemingly mundate and overly average suburban enclave.

There's the curmudgeon old widower when he's not complaining about the inaccurate weight of his packaged dog food at the grocery store he, torments his maid by treating her like his wife.

There's the mentally challenged young girl who wonders parking lot shopping malls and grocery stores looking for car rides - encounters which start out like congenial neighbourly favours which turn into obsessively annoying verbal abuse by the girl.

One of most surreal relationships is a middle-aged woman whom we first see having sex in a brothel, then routinely showering, getting dressed and coming home to her emotionally distant former husband. Despite being divorced she continues to live with him, often smugly tormenting with him other sexual encounters in front of him.

There's a door-to-door security salesman pitches his wares to the frustrated householders on the block. When he succombs to the pestering by the mentally challenged girl, he'll use her to exact sadistic revenge as reparations for all the abuse he's taken in his pathetic job.

It's also an intensely hot day in the picture. Seidl has his characters walking around in lingerie or bathing suits, randomly stipping off their clothing exposing their unflattering bodies. At one point one of the women takes off her panties and trims her pubic hair. This becomes one of the most peculiar scenes when the elderly callgirl and her two drunk clients argue about 'shitting in their living room'. It then devolves into a frightening scene that pushes the boundries of cinematic abuse comparable to the home invasion scene in "A Clockwork Orange".

This mix of absurd humour and genuinely intense emotional realism keeps us on edge. We never know what to expect and while it may seem like a random series of events and encounters for our characters, it's all in aid of Seidl's disturbing commentary on the false pretentious utopia this lifestyle presents.

At 121mins, its probably 30mins too long, but there's something thrilling in it's audacity, reminding us of the best of the Dogme era when those crazy Danish filmmakers replaced the polish of their films for the honesty of raw storytelling and an often sick self-deprecicating sense of humour.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire (2010) dir. Daniel Alfredson
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre, Peter Andersson, Michalis Koutsogiannakis

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The sad realization that the film version of The Girl Who Played With Fire was going to disappoint set in early. The previous and highly successful Dragon Tattoo film was a marvellously trashy serial killer thriller featuring a dense but understandable narrative, complete in its own right but with enough backstory to tease us that another entry in the story could be just as good.

But, for some reason the producer hired another director to shoot Fire, and even the final episode, The Girl Who Kicked in the Hornet’s Nest. As the opening scene trotted along it was clear there was a different directorial hand at work. Under the eyes and ears of Niels Arden Oplev, the first film had style to burn, a cold and emotionally detached formalism which kept the audience on edge. In Fire under the artistic hand of Daniel Alfredson, it’s a dull uninspired ‘television look, some handheld photography marred by inconsistent look opposite to Oplev’s streamlined visuals.

As for the story, we’re back in the shoes of goth hacker Lisbeth Salander, whose hair is longer and more businesslike. She’s still blackmailing that sicko pederast parole officer who raped her in the previous movie. But when he turns up dead, suddenly she’s framed for murder and on the run from the police. Poor Lisbeth also gets framed for the murder of a couple of young journalists doing a story on sex trafficking, to be published by none other than Millenium Magazine. Enter Dragon Tattoo’s hero Mykael Blomkvyst who endeavours to track Lisbeth down and help her clear her name.

The link-ups to the previous film and the expansion of the Salander backstory are welcome, but we don’t sufficiently learn anything new about Lisbeth the character that we didn’t infer from the first film. We knew she had daddy issues, as seen by the grisly flashbacks to her burning her father with some gasoline and a match.

There’s a bunch of news characters, the most peculiar of which is this film’s heavy, a robotic henchmen characterized as an indestructible robotic beast not all that dissimilar from Jaws from the Bond franchise. A number of fight scenes with this oaf go on way too long, in particular a lengthy hand to hand combat with a muy thai boxer, the most inexplicably long fight scene since Roddy Piper and Keith David wrestled over a pair of sunglasses in They Live.

Other than the staid direction, Fire suffers mostly from the staleness of the material. Salander, Blomkvist and the three decades long serial killer was exciting. In Fire, the sex trafficking linkup with Salander’s backstory finds Salander is not as fresh.

Knowing that this Alfredson guy directed the last episode, my hype factor of Hornet’s Nest is very low but also encouraged that there's room for David Fincher to improve on this material.

'The Girl Who Played With Fire' is available on Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Mission

The Mission (1986) dir. Roland Joffé
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The Mission won the Palme D’Or in 1986, was nominated for a bunch of Oscars, but 25 years later the film’s lasting reputation seems to more about its score than the movie. Ask most people what they first think of when asked about The Mission and they’ll likely say that film with the great score.

Indeed Ennio Morricone’s music is beautiful, a grand orchestral epic feeling full for hypnotizing indigenous choral chanting. Unfortunately it sets a pace that the film itself just can’t keep up with.

The story finds a Jesuit priest Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) scaling up the impressively beautiful Iguazu Falls to meet up with the very remote and ‘uncivilized’ Guaraní peoples. After ingratiating Christianity to them they are rudely interupted by a hired mercenary/slave trader Rodrigo. Curiously the film cuts away from a violent attack back to Rodrigo in more civilized city setting wherein we learn of strife with his brother who has gone on and married his girlfriend. After a nasty duel Rodrigo kills his brother sending him into severe depression.

Enter Gabriel again who recruits him for a mission back to the Guarini to redeem himself and repent his sins. They journey up the falls and back into the welcoming arms of the peaceful peoples serves as a kind of rite of passage transforming Rodrigo into a man of peace. But with the aggressive Portuguese slavers encroaching on the land, Rodrigo rallies his new people in defence of land and God.

Another interesting note is that the screenwriter Robert Bolt, who penned the David Lean classic Lawrence of Arabia. Joffe has nothing on Lean though, but there’s similarities in the introduction of Western values and cultures on old world populations. Visually the location work in the jungles and rivers and the placement of the New World white men in with the Old World indigenous population of South America look echo John Toll/Terrence Malick’s work in The Thin Red Line and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath of God.

The film works best as a series of set pieces, which on their own are as powerful and epic as Morricone’s great score. The opening is stunning. Joffe and Bolt creates a powerful visual metaphors by placing their hero Gabriel next to the awesome power of nature. Sound and music and visuals combine to create one of the most beautiful opening scenes of any film.

Robert De Niro gives a typically intense performance as the hardened and doomed Rodrigo. It’s De Niro in his prime using his supreme skills in the Method, producing an inside-out physical performance, and with little words.

Despite De Niro, Joffe’s visuals and Morricone’s score Joffe never finds the heart of film. It all seems an admirable technical exercise without providing a moving transcendental experience we desperately need. By the end of the nearly three hours of The Thin Red Line, we know the narrative is scattershot but Malick enlightens us spiritually the final moments provide a pleasing wave of satisfaction. Although Joffe’s chosen subject is that of Christianity and religion, there’s no spiritual depth to the material.

Other than Rodrigo, the film is bereft of any other characters with adequate weight. Jeremy Irons doesn’t do much and the relationship of Gabriel and Rodrigo is sorely underdeveloped. Irons, for most of the picture, observes and we certainly do not see any inner journey across the arc of the story.

And so, recently rewatching the film on Blu-Ray confirms why, Palme D'Or notwithstanding, the film’s soundtrack rose above the rest of the film in prestige and admiration.

'The Mission' is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Dead


The Dead (1987) dir. John Huston
Starring: Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann, Donal Donnelly, Dan O'Herlihy, Marie Keane, Helena Carroll, Cathleen Delany and Frank Patterson

****

By Greg Klymkiw

There aren't many perfect movies in this world, but I can say without question or hesitation that John Huston's final picture, an exquisitely wrought adaptation of James Joyce's equally flawless short story The Dead, is the very quintessence of perfection on film. Even now, I can recall my first viewing of it in 1987 - sitting alone in my seat as the end titles rolled in the dark, my body drained of energy from the unbridled sobs the picture wrenched from deep within my very being. The final twenty minutes were ultimately responsible for turning me into a quivering mass of roiled Jello, but even that would have been nigh impossible if everything that preceded the profoundly moving conclusion hadn't steadily, gorgeously and delicately built to this sequence that in and of itself is so inextricably linked to every frame of the picture.

Such is the case with Joyce's story - which, on the page can barely feel like anything is happening at all and yet, every word, every sentence, every beat of the subtle drama compels you and draws you further into that moment when the central character Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) reveals his innermost thoughts to us and in voice-over declares:

"Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age."

And so it goes with Huston's perfect adaptation of Joyce's story. The story unfolds ever-so slowly - so much so that you might wonder if there even is one. But you'll ponder this thought only briefly since you'll be taking in every detail, every nuance, every gesture with rapt attention and, I might add, delight.

Dubliners is the name of Joyce's great book that works, on one level, as a collection or cycle of short stories focusing upon a series of characters connected only by the city in which they reside and the individual journeys that lead to a substantial state of self-awareness, or perhaps, more aptly, an epiphany. Given the book's structure, some consider it a novel, not unlike Sherwood Anderson's great book Winesburg, Ohio wherein the central character is a place, the individual stories are chapters and the narrative arc of the stories as a whole comes, not only from their arrangement, but by how the reader is taken on a literary journey with those who reside in that place - a literary journey that has an epic quality to it; albeit an epic of intimacy.

The Dead provides the climax and conclusion to Dubliners, in which the self awareness gained over the course of our journey through Dublin boils down to realizing that a life, no matter how long or short, must be measured by the level of passion to which that life has been lived.

The tale begins at the annual dinner party hosted by the elderly Morkan sisters - Kate (Helena Carroll) and Julia (Cathleen Delany) - and their niece Mary Jane (Ingrid Craigie). It is the Feast of the Epiphany, the final day of the twelve days of Christmas in Western Christian tradition where the devout (and even not-so-devout) celebrate the adoration of the Magi (the Three Wise Men) as they first lay eyes upon the Baby Jesus. In Eastern Rite tradition, it is the baptism of Christ that is the event celebrated. Neither of these would have been lost on Joyce, and certainly not on director John Huston - in both the story and film, we are witness to both adoration and baptism - certainly in a metaphorical, if not literal sense.

The warmth of the Morkan house is fuelled by the anticipation within the Morkan sisters of their guests and in particular, the Conroys - Gabriel and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston). In the beginning, there is much tut-tutting about the eventual arrival of Freddy Malins (Donal Donnely) and his Mother (Marie Keans). Freddy, it seems, is a bit of a tippler and there is an implication how much his poor, dear Mother has suffered over this. The reality is that Freddy is a rather delightful drunk, but his Mother, hardly suffering, seems so overbearingly condescending towards him that surely he's been browbeaten into his affliction. Mr. Browne (Dan O'Herlihy), the only Protestant in attendance is also a drunk, but certainly not loud, cheery and demonstrative like Freddy is. Well kept and well dressed, his quiet inebriation is tolerated due to his gentlemanly comportment.

When the grand Conroy couple finally arrives, the celebrations begin in earnest. We follow the characters throughout the evening - one of considerable gaiety - speeches are made, recitations are given, songs are sung, a piano is played and there is dancing and dancing and more dancing. Dinner is eventually served, all eat heartily until eventually, the time comes for the evening to draw to a close.

Then, it happens - the series of events that will open the tear-duct-floodgates of any audience member with a soul. The party, a brief night's journey into the depths of a divine revelation that gently floats into a deeper night and yes, a light - a light within the deep recesses of the heart that ignites with a force the movie doesn't brace you for.

The Conroys are about to leave. Gabriel, who has spent much of the evening nattering and puttering and nervous-nellying about the speech he must give, is fully dressed and looking about for his wife Gretta. Glancing up from pulling on his galoshes, he spies Gretta as she descends the staircase. An off-screen tenor begins to sorrowfully begin a musical lamentation and she freezes, listening intensely to The Lass of Aughrim. The song moves her deeply. She and her husband leave the Morkan household and check into a nearby hotel for the rest of the evening. It is here where Gretta reveals the secret she has carried deep within for her entire adult life. Frank, hearing her sad tale, watches as she cries herself to sleep. Staring at her on the bed, then out the window as the snow falls gently, he shares an epiphany with us.

There isn't a single false moment in this film. Huston's eye is so perceptive, his sense of the story's natural cinematic rhythm is so acute and the staggering brilliance of every single performance that Huston elicits are enough to commend The Dead to its rightful place as one of the great films of all time.

Gretta on the stairway landing, listening to this mournful song, is so perfectly rendered that at first, we think she is responding solely to the lyrics:

The rain falls on my yellow locks
And the dew it wets my skin;
My babe lies cold within my arms;
Lord Gregory, let me in.


As we watch her listen to the tenor, we soon realize, there is more to this tremendously moving song than the lyrics which are affecting Gretta - Huston holds the camera's gaze on his Anjelica Huston (his real-life daughter) with consummate frame composition - perhaps one that only a father can compose of his own daughter playing a role he cherishes more dearly than life itself - framed and held raptly in service to the story he's telling.

As noted earlier, perfection in cinema is rare. Huston, with his bold gift for adapting literary works to the screen (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Moby Dick, The Man who Would Be King, Wiseblood, Under the Volcano, etc.) creates, with The Dead, his crowning achievement.

The Dead was Huston's last film. He was in his eighties, on respiratory support and in a wheelchair when he made this picture. Clearly, Huston knew exactly how to "pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age".

We should all be so lucky.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Tales from the Golden Age

Tales from the Golden Age (2010) dir. Cristian Mungiu, Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, Constantin Popescu, Ioana Uricaru
Starring: Alexandru Potocean, Avram Birau, Diana Cavallioti, Radu Iacoban, Tania Popa, Vlad Ivanov

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

I don’t know much about Romanian history or politics, but I do know that former Communist era dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was a brutal tyrant dictator, the Stalin of Romania if you will. In Tales from the Golden Age, star director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days), has managed to find humour in this terrifying regime with this sublime and delightful comedy about five urban legends of the era – absurdist tales told with the now familiar neo-realist cinematic style of this new generation of Romanian filmmakers.

The opening film Legend of the Official Visit is the best, a charming story of a small village expecting an official Party visit. As the townsfolk scramble to complete their preparations, which includes finding pigeons, corraling cows, and possibly hanging fruit from the bare trees, shattering news of the concellation of the trip results in a riotously funny alternative.

The next entry Legend ofthe Party Photographer equals if not bests The Official Visit’s sharp absurdist wit – a story about Ceauşescu’s publicity staff who madly rush to doctor a photo of the dictator meeting with the French President before the paper hits the streets. Mungiu transforms the stone cold fear of Ceauşescu’s wrath into hilarious comedy of errors and irony and one great gag to payoff the episode.

Only the fourth segment, Legend of the Greedy Policeman, hits the same level of brilliance of the first two, showing the absurd lengths to which a regular working class joe will go to slaughter a pig under cover of his fellow residents of his housing complex. Episodes three and five, Legend of the Chicken Driver and Legend of the Air Sellers are more morose and melancholic, telling stories of hopeless romances which never consummate.

Tales miraculously manages the subvert the difficulties with most omnibus films by maintaining a consistent tone and style throughout each of the segments, each of the tales finding humour in the desperation, poverty, and general fear of the authority which blanketed most of the working population of the country during this time. With Mungiu as the sole writer it means there’s a consistent voice, which makes the whole greater than the sums of its parts.

Unfortunately the film falls short of greatness, which is annoying because it could have been corrected with one easy fix. Everyone knows in these types of compilations, whether it’s a program of short films, or something like Paris Je t’aime, the best one always goes last. It’s headscratcher of a decision to anchor the film with the oblique Legend of the Air Sellers, the slowest and tonally subdued entry of the bunch. Leaving the audience with the hilariously absurd and poignant final shot of the townsfolk of Vizuresti swinging on the roundabout endlessly in the Official Visit would have left a much better taste in the audience’s mouth than the unresounding final shot in Air Sellers. Regardless, Tales is the most delightful comedy of the year and another grand achievement for Romanian cinema.

Also, it’s important to note that six episodes were actually filmed and presented in Cannes, but not all at the same time. For each Cannes screening five shorts were screened with one alternating episode missing. In this theatrical version currently playing in Toronto, and soon in select cities around the country, it’s the five short version minus the Legend of the Zealous Activist, an episode I can’t comment upon, but assume will eventually show up on the DVD.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Bomber

Bomber (2009) dir. Paul Cotter
Starring: Shane Taylor, Benjamin Whitrow, Eileen Nicholas

***

By Greg Klymkiw

A terse, tight-lipped old Brit and his seemingly vivacious wife coerce their touchy-feely layabout son into driving them to a village in Germany to fulfil Dad's decades-old obsession of finding a building dotted on a 60-year-old aerial photo and in this odyssey on the backroads of Europe, the family reaches new understandings about each other and Dad finds redemption in the unlikeliest of places.

Road trips in the movies are certainly not without merit. Tried and true, this is a genre wherein an old chestnut of a story premise will not trouble anyone due to familiarity with the narrative backbone if the ride itself proves rewarding.

Given the title Bomber, one has a fairly good idea what the "secret" revelation and need for redemption will be in this film written and directed by Paul Cotter, but again, that's less important than the journey itself. For such yarns to still have punch, there are several questions that need to be answered in the affirmative. Is the pilgrimage rife with drama and emotion of the highest order? Is it compelling? Is it plausible? Are the literal twists and turns in the road carefully and evocatively mirrored with twists and turns of the thematic and psychological kind? Are they layered, original and, most importantly, entertaining and thought provoking?

These then, are the challenges, not only of the filmmaker in general, but frankly, the reviewer who must assess the worth or lack thereof in this specific film. And the answer to each question above is, rather maddeningly - yes... and no.

Bomber is certainly a film worth seeing, though the whole is definitely not equal to the sum of its parts. Granted, with any film, one takes away individual moments, scenes, sequences and the like, holding on to them long after we've seen the picture, but I think what separates the good from the great in cinema (we can leave the mediocre and merely wretched behind in discussing this work) is when everything comes together in the actual process of watching the film - when what we see while we see it is as seamless as possible, so that questions about character, motivation and plot are answered in due course as the picture unspools. Questions should (almost) always come after. Analysis and thought about what we've seen is richer when the picture delivers a narrative that has as few speed bumps as possible to take us out of the drama, unless taking us out of the drama is an intentional tool to enhance the drama as the film progresses.

For example, Bomber has an uphill climb in gaining our avid interest. This is not a case of a film leisurely giving us necessary information in order to lull us into acceptance of the narrative and/or tone and pace, but rather the fact that the picture seems to start off on the sort of footing that strains credibility in the actions of the main character - who, as it turns out, is not necessarily the father figure, but the son.

At the outset, we are introduced to the son as he tries silently waking while his live-in girlfriend sleeps. Alas, she wakes up and he needs to explain to her that he's popping out to see his parents off on their trip to Europe. The girlfriend reminds him they have an important commitment and that he must not blow it "again". He emphatically assures her he won't, but just as forcefully insists how important it is he visits with his parents.

So far, so good.

He shows up at Mom and Dad's house, helps them pack their car, says his goodbyes and offers his well wishes. We're given an excellent series of clues and character traits about all three characters and their relationships with one another. The son hugs and kisses Mom. When he goes to give Dad a hug, it's rebuffed in favour of a handshake. It's true-to-life, intriguing and entertaining.

And then... Dad and Mom start the car, back out of the garage and... KAPUT! The car dies.

This is where you start to get a sinking feeling as the next series of shots are of the son transporting Mom and Dad to Germany in his van - accompanied, sadly, by some horrendous up-tempo folkie tune. We don't actually see the son's decision to screw things up with his girlfriend (presumably yet again) and drop everything to drive his parents which, in and of itself is not a big problem, but because considerable running time passes with ho-hum driving shots and scant few clues as to how the son agrees to let this happen, all one thinks while watching is, "Why the hell is he doing this?" and "Oh, give me a break, I'm not buying this." Not only is credibility being strained, but also we're not given enough clues for quite some time as to why the son would do this. All the while, we're taken out of the narrative and left with borderline cutesy-pie quirkiness.

Annoying as hell, really. Here we are at the beginning of the road trip and we're NOT buying it, but instead are forced to feed upon a few jaunty dollops of whimsy. Ugh!

Eventually, we come to understand the son's motivations, but frankly, this has taken far too long to occur and it becomes a real chore to stay with the movie. Once we eventually do, there are considerable pleasures to be had, but they come in fits and starts - the entire film being marred by either lapses in credibility or forced quirkiness.

All that said, when the film is clicking, it's funny, bittersweet and often very moving. The trio of performances from Shane Taylor, Benjamin Whitrow and Eileen Nicholas are uniformly fine. Whitrow, in particular offers up knockout work. The scene where he finally encounters what he's been looking for sees him deliver such a moving monologue that we're riveted and though his "audience" in the film is finally less than enthralled, we're moved and shattered to see this character redeem himself. When he discovers the real truth behind the thing he's been haunted by for over sixty years of his life, I defy anyone to control the opening of their tear duct floodgates.

Bomber is without question a flawed work, but in spite of this you'll experience any number of moments so profoundly moving that you'll be grateful to have experienced the parts, if not the whole.

"Bomber", a SXSW 2009 Selection, is now available on DVD from Film Movement.


Saturday, 16 October 2010

Machete

Machete (2010) dir. Ethan Maniquis, Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro, Jeff Fahey, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, Cheech Marin, Steven Seagal

**

By Alan Bacchus

I was totally predisposed to enjoy this movie. I love the Grindhouse double-feature, specifically Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, which I actually thought was one of the best films of the year, and even Scott Sanders’ Black Dynamite from last year. The film even has the most dynamite cast you could ask for: Robert De Niro using his Cape Fear accent as a corrupt right wing Senator, the monstrously ugly character actor whom Rodriguez personally created a career for, Danny Trejo, the comely Jessica Alba from Sin City fame, and Lindsay Lohan as a revenge-seeking nun.

And the plot, of course, expanded from the riotous fake trailer created specifically for the Grindhouse double-bill. And so what a disappointment when the ingredients don’t add up. There’s a helluva lot going in Machete, which unfortunately feels like a ill-matching patchwork quilt of contrasting plaids.

Danny Trejo plays a former federale Machete who in the past saw his family killed and himself left for dead at the hands of a maniacal Mexican drug dealer played by Steven Seagal. In the present, as a daylabourer he’s recruited by a nasty politician to assassinate a controversial Senator John McLaughlin who has a hardline stance against Mexican border crossers. The plot is a doublecross and Machete finds himself set up and framed for the murder. With the cops, politicians, the CIA and the drug dealers all after him Machete fights and fucks his way out of all kinds of danger, eventually going face to face with the man who killed his family.

Admirably Rodriguez and his filmmaking partners throw in as much ridiculous plotting and character to compliment to salacious b-movie plotting of grindhouse films of old. Side characters emerge all over the place for key cameo moments. Ie. Tom Savini, Don Johnson, even Rodriguez’ own nieces Electra and Elise Avellan who play the same deadly nurse duo Planet Terror. But it’s just too much going to on for anything to stick properly to the core narrative.

The action is also disappointing, though it has all the giddy carnage of Mariachi trilogy and Planet Terror, there’s no panache. Hell, where are the machine gun firing guitar cases?

We all know Danny Trejo can’t really carry a movie which is why the film is balanced with so many other better actors. But there’s just not enough done with say, Lindsay Lohan or Steven Seagal to capitalize on their talents and screen personas. Lohan only dons her nun’s outfit at the very end, and for the rest of film looks spaced out and vacant. And Steven Seagal barely gets to fight, instead looks like a bad Michael Madsen – which, come to think of it, would have been a better casting choice.

But kudos to Jessica Alba who was professional enough to be able to french kiss Danny Trejo while riding backwards on a motorcycle. I hope there was a bonus in Alba’s rider for that one.

Extra points for cinematic enthusiasm, but not enough for its execution.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Robocop

Robocop (1987) dir. Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Ronnie Cox

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

I grew up watching Robocop, a lot. I mean A LOT. To the point of being able to quote the entire movie. Rewatching it again, I still knew all the lines, but is it really that quotable, or memorable if I wasn't an impressionable 12 year old? How does it stand up to adult eyes? Surprisingly well.

As it did back then, the mixture of childish and silly comic book sensabilities with wholly disturbing graphic violence feels like an irrresponsible problem child let loose to run amuck. In this case the child was Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch filmmaker who had made a name for himself in Europe with a number of salacious and trashy films about sex and violence.

In his first American film, Verhoeven brought a cold and dirty working class aesthetic to go along with his flare with the camera. He and DOP Jost Vacano’s visual pallette is almost exclusively greys and blues, with little or no colour at all in the frames. Verhoeven use of steadycam is effective, a constantly moving camera which is more rough and shakey than the traditional smooth and elegant feeling of the device.

The peformances are as gritty and truly delicious, especially the baddies. Ronnie Cox’s dispicable Omni Consumer Products VP, Richard (Dick) Jones is awesome, but bested by Kurtwood Smith’s terrifying yet charasmatic performance as the drug boss Clarence Boddicker. Who can forget when he playfully blows Murphy’s hand-off with a shotgun, singing, 'na-na-na-na-na'. Boddicker’s cronies which includes Twin Peaks alum Ray Wise and ER alum Paul Crane are just as dispicable and nasty. But it’s Miguel Ferrer’s performance as the egomaniacal creator of Robocop, Bob Morton, the epitome of white collar revulsion aggression which is the most memorable.

Although it’s not indicated on the packaging of the new Fox/MGM Blu-Ray edition, which contains all three Robocop films, the first film is indeed the director’s cu, which Robocop fans know is the ONLY version of the film they would be satisfied with. For those who haven't memorized the film, there’s only a handful of frames added to the original, but enough violence and bloodshed to send the film way over the top – the most graphic addition shows the head of the Rob Bottin-created Peter Weller mock-up exploding from Clarence Boddicker’s fatal gunshot. Ouch.

I don’t know how much of the violence was in the script, but writers Michael Miner and Ed Neumeier certainly take an accurate pulse of the 1980’s corporate malfeasance, as well as say, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street did that same year, but with a more cookey and deranged comic book sensability. Whether its the privatization of the police, which has not yet happened, but a semi-privatization of the military/security in Iraq is not that far off base, the cutthroat corporate battle between the white collar assholes, Dick Jones and Bob Morton, or even good ol’ coke snorting off hooker's tits – it’s 80’s excess to the max, thank God for that.

I can’t imagine any filmmaker today getting away with shocking level of violence and depravity from a tentpole film such as this. In today's climate Robocop would have been turned into a lunchbox friendly kids flick. But the Black Swan's Darren Aronofsky is currently tapped as the new helmer of the reboot, so the future looks bright for the franchise. Whether it actually comes to fruition is questionable.

Look out for more Robocop coverage in the next couple of weeks.

The Robocop Trilogy is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

King Kong

King Kong (1933) dir. Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Starring: Faye Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy

****

By Alan Bacchus

Arguably the spectacle of all spectacle films, an enormous achievement of special effects, drama and romance. It was an enormously ambitious production, the story of an ambitious filmmaker looking to capture on location cinema reality in a remote lost world-type island whose crew encounters a giant vicious ape who has a soft spot for young blondes. The film not only showed us a huge monster battling dinosaurs and climbing the skyscrapers of New York City, but an undeniably sincere romance of beast to woman, and the heartbreaking tragedy of human folly.

It's a great opening, a lengthy build up to reveal the big monster. We meet the wily film director Carl Wenham on a ship docked in a foggy New York harbour, figuring out what to do about finding a leading lady for his latest production. He has enough confidence and guile to think he can find a desperate woman on the street in the middle of the night, someone willing to travel across the world for a chance at adventure and fame. Well he find it, in the person of the innocent and determined young actress Ann Darrow. After a quiet cup of coffee, the pitch worked and soon they're sailing toward their mysterious destination.

Once there they find the deliciously-named Skull Island inhabited by surley natives who seem to worship some kind of large creature housed by giant wooden doors. When the natives kidnap poor Ann and tie her up to rock in a sacrificial ceremony we finally get to see the monstrous beast which plies the land – a giant ape named Kong. Kong takes Ann into the jungle, an even more dangerous environment with old world dinosaurs and other strange creatures. Carl, his crew and Ann’s new beau Jack Driscoll go into the jungle to save Ann, eventually stunning Kong. When they bring Kong back home he’s turned into a circus performer, as the Eighth Wonder of the World. As we all know, the chains refuse to hold Kong, and he escapes into the city to find his one true love, the luscious Ann Driscoll, while destroying much of art deco Manhattan.

One of the miracles of this picture is the life which renowned animator Willis O’Brien creates out of his clay Kong figurine. It seems like rudimentary stop motion with today’s eyes, Kong’s fur constantly shifting around his body even when nothing in happening, for instance, and even the rough transitions between the 22 inch clay Kong and the large scale model of his head for close-ups, but there’s a character there, real emotions, rendered better than any actor in the film.

This leads to the heartbreaking finale. As King Kong battles the biplanes from the tippy top of the world’s tallest building, his feet barely hanging on, on the brink of falling off, a sitting duck target for the machine gun fire of the brutal military instruments of man, not a soul in the world doesn’t feel saddened by Kong’s fate.

The fact is, King Kong is the tear jerking for guys. Some may say it’s Braveheart or Gladiator. If you don’t get that lump in your throat, or a tear in your eye from watching Kong fall off the building, you’re not a man.

And for fans of this picture, please check out the pedigree of these filmmakers. There's a bit of King Kong in the other Cooper/Schoedsack pictures, Four Feathers, The Most Dangerous Game, Last Days of Pompeii, and Rango and the Merian C Cooper/Irving Pichel production of She.

King Kong is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video