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

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) dir. Oliver Stone
Starring: Shia Laboeuf, Michael Douglas, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Frank Langella

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Usually these ‘nostalgic’ sequels don’t work. That is, films that continue characters and stories years atfer the original. The Godfather Part III for example, or Texasville (Bogdanovich’s sequel to The Last Picture Show), or The Color of Money. Well, it’s not so much that they don’t work, because these three films are actually pretty good, but considering the immense prestige of the originals they are following, the extraordinary expectations are always too high to live up to.

Wall Street is probably the best of this lot. A film which manages to eschew the nostalgia factor and create a stand alone story relevant to it’s time, without being reliant on the previous work. In this day an age, Stone and company set the world at the time of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the government bailout and those volitile few months which saw some of the biggest financial institutions in the world go out of business. Like he did with JFK, Nixon and W, Stone expertly interweaves compelling characters within real world political conflicts for maximum dramatic effect.

The connector between the 1987 version and Wall Street and this 2010 Wall Street is Gordon Gekko, the bombastic caricature of predatory investors of the 1980’s as realized in his Oscar-winning performance by Michael Douglas. The opening is a comical wink to the audience showing Gekko being released from prison in 2001 and accepting the possessions he went in with, including his giant boxy ‘cellular’ phone.

The main story takes place in 2008 following a talented investor, Jake Moore (LeBoeuf), who’s interest and experience in energy industries has made him a fast ladder climber. In fact, his mentor Louis Zabel (Langella), founder of a big investor firm not unlike Lehman Bros, has given him a bonus cheque of $1.5million. But when Zabel finds himself crashed and stomped out of business by his competitor Bretton James (Brolin), owner of a rival investment firm, Moore finds himself out of job, near broke, and stressing our his new fiance Winnie (Mulligan). Soon James comes knocking on Moore’s door and the two, despite their conflicts over Zabel, work together, until the subprime mortgage occurs rendering them bitter enemies, on track for a bitter stock market battle not unlike the frenetic market rally which closes the original film.

Moore’s girlfriend Winnie is also Gordon Gekko’s estranged daughter. For good and bad Moore tries to engineer a get together to mend their relationship, which means Moore having to ‘trust’ the notorious swindler whose motto is ‘Greed is good.’

Well, there’s actually a few other fun connectors which are more subtle. One of the visual techniques for instance, the rapid fire split screen effect which helps craft the fantastic montage scenes, are expertly moved over into this film. One of the thrilling aspects of Wall Stone was the cacophany of technical information thrown at us. The schemes of Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko are crafted with perfect pace in these montage sequences. As with the original these montages have enough of a dizzying effect without being confusing.

Listen closely and you’ll notice the soundtrack consists of primarily David Byrne/Brian Eno songs, who contributed some memorable music in the original film. Byrne’s voice isn’t quite what it used to be, but it sufficiently enhances the tone and changing moods of the film.

Shia Leboeuf gives one of his most mature performances. If you were scared off by the possibilities that the Leboeuf/Douglas dynamic would tread on the familiar hot shot/mentor relationship of films like ‘The Color of Money’, Stone admirably sidesteps these expectations. Shia’s portrayal as a gifted and passionate investor holds it’s own, and trumps Charlie Sheen’s arguably weak and one-note performance as Bud Fox. Carey Mulligan is terrific once again as the tortured daughter of Gekko. Her emotional reconciliation with Gekko on the steps outside the restaurant in which the meet for the first time in 20 years is one of the best and most emotional scenes of the year, of ANY film.

But the most satisfying moment is another conversation, which I won't reveal, but makes for the type of closure all Wall Street fans needed to have. Thanks Oliver Stone for making it happen.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Fantasia

Fantasia (1940) dir. Ten people get credits, but really, it’s Walt Disney
Animation

****

By Alan Bacchus

It’s kinda hard to believe that Fantasia was made in 1940, and was only Disney’s third feature film (after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio). And since Pinocchio was released the same year as Fantasia, 1940, we can realistically say the film was conceived and produced after only having one animated film released. Snow White, of course, was a huge hit, but it was a narrative feature based on a fairy tale, with singing and dancing, a love story, a prince and a princess!

Fantasia is a non-narrative film, without dialogue, without singing, without any traditional characters all timed with classical music. In short, an experimental film in a time when there was no such word. It was cookie-cutter studio system at it’s peak. What a gamble, and what a success. Well not initially, the film was a financial failure, and took years before audience caught up to Disney's forward thinking.

It’s actually a slow start to the picture. A live action introduction, Deems Tayler, music critic, talking to the camera tells us exactly what we’re about to see, and listening to the warming up of the orchestra. The first musical segment, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, features an abstract piece of animation, which to audiences used to the rambunctious qualities of Disney’s work must have been shocked, or bored or both.

In fact, the majority of the eight sequences are abstract in nature. The Rite of Spring for instance tells an ambitious and the possibly controversial 'non-creationist' history of the earth, from the planetary formation to the evolution of dinosaurs into man. It, like every thing else in the film, is a delight to watch, imaginative and intellectually stimulating. One of the most most traditional or mainstream accessible segments is the Nutcracker Suite featuring Tchaikovsky’s marvellous, foot tapping compositions, along with a series of brilliant shorts showing the ballet dancers as mushrooms, thistles, blossoms and goldfish.

The Scorceror’s Apprentice is the celebrated piece, with Mickey Mouse battling the army of wooden brooms endlessly filling his water basin with water, thus causing a biblical-worthy flood.

The Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven offers a fun and delictable showcase of Greek and Roman mythology including blatantly nude female centaurs, and..ahem... Bacchus, Roman God of Wine, partaking in his debaucherous behaviour.

The varied animation styles and changing tones from comedic to dark, brooding and heavy to light and ethereal is what makes the film so special. But there’s no doubt we can see the German expressionism influence and prevailing gothic style of the 1930’s. Especially the big finale, the first part, set to Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain , featuring a dark demon giant, a Chernabog, summoning up the evil creatures of the dead to roam the earth, before being turned away by the sound of a Angelus bell and a procession of torch-bearing monks. The perfect composition work combined with the Ava Maria music makes for a heavenly finale and in fine Disney fashion, the triumph of good over evil.

It’s the first time on Blu-Ray for Fantasia, packaged with the 2000 revival version Fantasia 2000, a very minor film in comparison, a noble effort to use Disney’s inspiration and create a modern version his celebration of music. Unfortunately without the real Walt Disney at the helm, the ‘magic touch’ just isn’t there. The 1940 version is the real treasure here.

“Fantasia and Fantasia 2000” is available on Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment


Fantasia | Movie Trailer

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Collapse

Collapse (2009) dir. Chris Smith
A documentary featuring Michael Ruppert

***

By Blair Stewart

At some point in our present existence predicated by its own existence civilization will run low on oil. In lockstep with this fact is the exponential swelling of our populace while entrenched battles for fossil fuels causes the global economy to pinball around. Until then.

Made by Chris Smith, the documenatarian responsible for "American Movie" and "The Yes Men", "Collapse" probes the career of Michael Ruppert; former LAPD officer, investigative reporter, publisher of the underground newsletter 'From the Wilderness' and possible Oracle of western civilizations decline. Together they sit in a grubby warehouse for an interview as tentacles crept their way around my plans for a fat retirement.

Locked into a single-person bull session with an old man shouldn't make for an unsettling experience and yet the intelligence and the paranoia and the devout cynicism of Ruppert did just that to my placidity. Switching between Ruppert's talking head and related footage of his scorn for most media, government, higher law enforcement and alternative energy, "Collapse" maps out the fierce bush humanity may need to hack through for progression. No doubt an ego boost for survivalist and vegan hippies alike. Like a knowing horror film where bloodshed outside of the frame is far worse for the imagination a similar effect is had just from Smith's subject talking. This doesn't make everything Michael Ruppert is saying to be cardinal virtues from hell; it's that he has a convincingly burnt-out way of pointing out likely cataclysms and the realities of overpopulation and peak oil overpowers my personal horseshit detector.

"Collapse" is a stylistically unusual documentary for Smith as it has an Errol Morris "Fog of War"/"Mr. Death" touch to it from the film's setting to the Philip Glass-ish soundtrack down to the poster design. This is akin to Soderbergh blatantly aping Wong Kar-wai's style and odd as Smith is one of the best in his field. A form of flattery perhaps, and possibly the proper (only?) way to approach the singular personality of the cigarette-punishing Ruppert. A good documentary on a great mouthpiece, and worthwhile viewing for everyone who has a stake in the derivatives of oil.

N.B. One piece of sage advice is passed along: buy perennial vegetable seeds for your garden, you might need them down the road.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Avatar (Special Edition)

Avatar (Extended Collector's Edition) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Giovani Ribisi, Stephen Lang

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

There’s nothing really special edition about a Collector's Edition of Avatar, which comprises of 16 extra mins added to the original film, bringing it now to a near 3-hour running time. It’s not very special when the film came out not less than a year ago, with absolutely no time to let it even breathe and have it’s scenes, characters, motivations, special effects, and it’s individual moments of anger, sadness and comedy become etched in cinema history. It’s $700million take notwithstanding, is the film that memorable enough (yet) to justify having new footage added in?

It’s not like Lord of the Rings where there’s the books whose characters and events are already entrenched in pop culture and with an already loyal fanbase who desire to see such excised portions reinstated. And so, watching the new Avatar, I couldn’t even feel a difference in the two versions. Sure, I know the opening scene is different, because it takes place on earth, but, it took me an internet search to figure what exactly these other extra scenes are.

Why didn’t Mr. Cameron, and the fellows at Fox, wait, till say, the second and third Avatars come out before rewarding us with this special edition? Well, it surely maximizes the revenue possibilities releasing this just prior to Black Friday and at the beginning of Christmas shopping season. Or maybe it’s because secretly the filmmakers know that the film might have a shorter shelf life than it’s box office take might suggest?

I doubt the latter is the case, but I do believe 10 years from now Avatar will seem like a fun fantasy adventure, a disposable and forgettable slice of entertainment from the bygone era of 3D hyper and over-exuberance.

Looking back on the film, a third time, twice on Blu-Ray and once in 3D on the big screen, my opinion on the film has changed little.

The plotting of Cameron’s sci-fi version of Dances With Wolves borrows characters, dramatic arcs and story beats are all rooted in familiar storytelling, in addition to Wolves, films like Braveheart, Last of the Mohicans, The Matrix and a number of westerns all contribute to Cameron's screenplay. Although I’ve heard Mr. Cameron expound again and again that ultimately, ’it comes down to story’, it’s all BS because clearly story here takes a backseat for special effects and spectacle. So let’s leave the story as that - a functional skeleton for Cameron to hang all his fantastical creations.

The creatures are all rendered as perfect as can be compared to other CGI films. The blue creatures look almost real. But of course they can never look 100% real, because there is no such creature as a Na’vi. They run just like humans, can shoot guns and arrows just like humans and embrace and kiss just like humans. Everything works as good as it can. But their computer generated facial expressions can never substitute for the expressiveness of the humans - though Cameron would argue against that as well. And so, true immersion into the material comes down to whether you don’t mind watching nine-foot talk blue people interact and act like humans. ‘Titanic’ had worse dialogue and worse characters, yet when Jack was saying goodbye to Rose as her lifeboat was being lowered into the water the moment hit us in the gut because Leonardo Di Caprio was a real person and Kate Winslet was a real person. Avatar does not have that luxury and thus these moments never quite work as well.

The action is a marvel and mind blowing. The final twenty minutes, Transformers-like army vs. army battle, the kind of battle which could have easily been a wash of random swooshing imagery, quick cuts and incomprehensive movement is executed with typical Cameron panache. Even after 15 years, Cameron it appeared to me he hadn’t lost a step in that department.

And yet, after I saw Aliens again, I think he has. The organic feeling we get from the action between physical humans and physical aliens (puppets, of course, but animate objects no less), can not be fully substituted with CGI. And this is where Avatar never reaches it’s full potential, no matter how hard Cameron has tried (and believe me, on the accompanying documentary, he tried really really hard), he just can’t make me feel true emotions for these characters and buy into their journey.

Your sincerely,

A humble but grumpy curmudgeon.

'Avatar (Extended Collector's Edition) is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Friday, 26 November 2010

Aliens

Aliens (1986) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn, Bill Paxton, Paul Reiser

****

By Alan Bacchus

One of the consistencies of all four Alien films is the launching pad of the four directors who helmed each of the films. For Scott and Cameron, it wasn’t their first films, and for Cameron specifically, he was already shit hot after The Terminator. For David Fincher it was his first film, and though Alien 3 wasn’t a hit, his career has grown substantially. For Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it was his first American film, and like Alien 3, it’s not his best work, but influential on his career nonetheless.

As scripted by Cameron, the sequel finds Ripley floating in space in the module which blasted away from the Nostromo at the end of the first film. When she's picked up she discovers decades have passed, her family long since dead, and now her skills and life obsolete. Except for her experience with the mysterious Alien which the people at the nefarious 'company' want to research, capture and exploit. When Ripley finds out that the planet where that ominous alien spaceship had crashed onto was now occupied by innocent planet colonizers (terraformers), she decides to face her demons and return to find survivors.

Ripley tags along with a very masculine and chauvinistic platoon of gung ho space marines. Once on the planet, their high tech weaponry is employed but against the steath manoeuvring of the aliens, their acid blood and those nasty piercing jaws the marines are no match and Ripley finds herself taking control again of the situation. Stakes are raised for Ripley when she discovers a little girl Newt is the only survivor of the bunch, a child who reignites Ripley's latent motherly instincts.

Aliens is James Cameron at his most brawny and muscular, a film from which would further his mostly consistent visual design aesthetic seen throughout his later pictures - his proficiency for blue, grey and sliver tinted colour schemes, his penchant for big heavy machinery designed to be as functional and practical as looking cool on screen, and his love of big heavy guns.

Great characters realized in the military crew include the heroic Hicks and the whiney Hudson, the oily company man Burke and the butch dyke ass kicker Vasquez. In fact the treatment of the military is a clever mixture of the literature of sci-fi novelist Robert A. Heinlein and timely metaphors of the bombastic approach of the technically superior American troops vs. the low rent guerrila tactics of the Vietcong in the Vietnam War.

It's fantastic authoritative but warm performance from Weaver, who takes command of the platoon, a transition which happens quick in the narrative but feels completely natural and believable. Miraculously Cameron even finds time to adds a quiet romance between Ripley and Hicks in a matter of a few scenes, something which took him 3 hours to do in Titanic.

The organic model work, matte photography and rear projection doesn’t hold up as well, but it’s a product of its time, and the texture inherent in these real world accessories adds to the realism of the film - something gravely missing from say, Avatar.

On Blu-Ray the grain of the original film stock which persisted in the DVD and Laserdisc versions has been mostly removed in here. James Cameron’s 2003 commentary even mentions why the grain is so visible.

The original cut differs greatly from the director’s cut. Both are fantastic films, but there’s no doubt the added scenes in the director’s cut adds much more depth. Specifically Ripley’s character whom we learn had a child of her own but died during her 57 year trip back home. This knowledge adds another layer to her protective relationship with Newt, not to mention another reason why she decides to go back to the colony in the first place.

There’s also a couple of fantastic individual sequences including the opening tease showing the first impregnation of the terraformers, Newt’s father. On the other hand, there’s also value in the increasing pacing of the 137mins version. The point of view is more consistent in the theatrical version, not having any knowledge of the terraformers.

And then there's the aggressive James Horner score which is now iconic, having been used in hundreds of trailers after then.

Sadly the heroic escape of Ripley, Hicks and Newt at the end is negated when the David Fincher version had all but Ripley unceremoniously killed off while floating in hypersleep before the start of the next film, Alien 3.

'Aliens' is available in Blu-Ray in the lovely Alien Legacy Box Set from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


Thursday, 25 November 2010

Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) dir. John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett, Alfonso Bedoya, Barton MacLane, Robert Blake and John Huston

****

By Greg Klymkiw

"The creative person should have no other biography than his works." - B. Traven

I have always believed that the best movies are made by filmmakers – more often than not – who infuse their work with a combination of life experience, style and craft. While good, if not great movies can be made with one or two of the above elements, the stuff that stays with you and, in fact, lives well beyond the mere ephemeral is endowed with all three.

It feels to me, then, that great lives and furthermore, great works of literature can make great movies.

John Huston, certainly more passionately and abundantly than most other American filmmakers, held onto this belief until his final breath. As an artist, John Huston always kept himself in the public eye. His life was bursting with the sort of adventure most of us only dream of. In addition to working as a screenwriter, playwright, actor and film/theatre director, Huston enjoyed a life that included light-middleweight boxing, journalism and, remarkably, as a soldier in the Mexican cavalry.

As a film director, Huston often insisted upon using the film’s production as an excuse to engage in exploits of the grandest variety. Peter Viertel, the un-credited scenarist of The African Queen wrote the terrific fact-based novel (later made by Clint Eastwood as the movie White Hunter Black Heart) where it detailed Huston’s insistence upon shooting on location in the Congo so he could participate in an elephant safari.

With an enlarged heart and kidney disease in his early life and suffering from an aneurysm in later years, Huston never let these ailments stop him. He even steadfastly fought a battle with emphysema to keep alive in his last weeks on Earth to render one of his greatest works, The Dead, based upon James Joyce's exquisite story from his book "Dubliners.”

Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston’s classic film from 1948 is based on the magnificent novel by the mysterious B. Traven. Without question, one the great movies of all time, it owes much to its source material.

Traven, unlike the very open Huston, lived his life in almost complete anonymity, writing primarily about the "working man", the downtrodden and, in general, the disenfranchised. His books, often of the two-fisted variety, are endowed with observations on human behaviour that are so brimming with the stuff of life, that it is, in spite of the aforementioned quotation, a bit of a shame that the author chose a life free of the public scrutiny that most other writers chose and/or endured.

Other than his work and a few pungent quotations, Traven did not leave a body of observations, ideas and thoughts beyond his work. He was, no doubt, an incredible human being who lived the sort of high adventure life that someone like Ernest Hemingway experienced. What little is known about Traven ultimately suggests that his work is, at the very least, semi-autobiographical.

Few credible sources can claim to have known Traven – not even his publishers had ever met him face-to-face. That said, it is highly conceivable that Huston and Traven, who engaged primarily through correspondence, did actually meet. Traven was scheduled to visit the set, but in his place, sent a mysterious figure with written authorization from Traven that this individual had power-of-attorney to represent Traven’s interests. He then proceeded to spend a good deal of time on location. It’s widely believed this man was, indeed, Traven himself. If he privately revealed himself to Huston, the great director never betrayed this confidence. Huston, given the sort of stories he loved to tell as a filmmaker believed in the fellowship of men, and in particular, honour above all.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the great motion pictures about greed and as such, honour plays a great role in the proceedings.

Set in a small Mexican town during the mid 1920s, we’re introduced to Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), an itinerant down-on-his-luck labourer who is living off handouts, and in particular, more than one spare piece of change from a wealthy fellow American (played by a dapper and un-credited John Huston himself). When Dobbs encounters an amiable oilman and fellow countryman Barton MacLane (Pat McCormick), he and Curtin (Tim Holt), another downtrodden American, are hired as labourers on an oil-drilling rig.

After the backbreaking work, MacLane disappears and the two men are still penniless. Spending the night in a flophouse, they make the acquaintance of Howard (John Huston’s father Walter in his great Oscar-winning performance), a crusty, old prospector who fills the men’s heads with talk of gold - how with a modest stake and considerable elbow grease, a fortune can be found. Howard also declares that few people - especially honest working stiffs - can ever hope to keep their fortune since gold fever, once it sets in deeply, can instil both greed and insanity in even the best of men.

Though the tale has been plenty compelling to this point, it’s here that things get really interesting. One of the amazing things about the film is how our central protagonist quickly becomes an anti-hero and by a certain point, Fred C Dobbs becomes one of the most miserable, petty and reprehensible leading characters in film history. It takes a star of the highest order; one who is as great an actor as Humphrey Bogart to pull this off. (A recent example of this is Daniel Day Lewis in P. T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.)

Dobbs insists he’d never fall prey to such greed. Having recently scored a local numbers-racket lottery (he's sold a ticket by a grubby little boy played by future wife-killer Robert Blake), he even offers to add stake money to a gold prospecting expedition without recompense. It is, however, a steely obsessive look in Bogey’s eyes that betray his proclamations of generosity and goodwill. Even at this early stage we’re convinced that the contradiction of these assertions seem likely.

This, of course, is what makes the picture a fine example of storytelling. We’re sure from the outset that our hero will fall prey to greed, yet we’re rooting for him NOT to. And even when the worst happens and our hopes become so much dust in the wind, we're still hanging on to whatever wisp of the character's humanity that clings to him - praying that Bogey's going to turn around, but knowing all the while it's never going to happen. When Dobbs crosses an unmentionable line of foul behaviour much later in the film, he can only go down further than Hell itself.

Bogart is so great in this picture. He infuses the role with such personality – the tough, downtrodden workingman who just wants to score a fair buck for his labours that we’re also pulling for him.

After the night in the flophouse, Dobbs spies his erstwhile boss Barton MacLane. He demands his pay and when it’s clear he won’t get it, he beats the unscrupulous exploiter to a pulp (the brutality of this is still shocking). That said, when he retrieves the wad of cash from the unconscious profiteer, he takes only the amount owed to himself and Curtin and when he offers the bar owner recompense for damages, he takes it out of his share of the dough.

The actions after he beats Barton don’t seem like the actions of someone who will turn gold crazy against his partners - men who become the closest thing he has to friends. Again though, it is a combination of storytelling brilliance and Bogart’s extraordinary performance that leads us to believe that all will not be right. Bogart infuses the beating with such cool, nasty precision that he’s clearly not a simple working stiff with a clearly defined moral code – he’s a mean, two-fisted bastard. When push comes to shove, he doesn't just shove back, he'll cold-cock his opponent across the face with a two-by-four.

Yes, life’s given Dobbs more than his fair share of hard knocks, but he’s not going to accept fair shares of anything.

From here on in, working from his screenplay adaptation of Traven’s novel, Huston ups the ante. The following ensues with all the power and excitement one wants from such a tale;

- A thrilling gun battle from the train between our three prospectors and a group of bloodthirsty Mexican bandits (led by the grinning psychotically amiable Gold Hat and brilliantly played by Alfonso Bedaya),

- An arduous journey,

- The painstaking building of a mine,

- The retrieval of a fortune in gold dust,

- The growing paranoia and mistrust amongst the partners (especially the increasingly crazed Dobbs),

- The appearance of an interloper wanting a cut of the mine,

- The contemplation of cold-blooded murder (not once, but twice).

- Another thrilling gun battle with Gold Hat and his bandits,

- More paranoia,

- More violence,

- And last, but not least one of the greatest surprise endings in movie history and, for good measure – peace, hope and redemption - though not for one and all.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre simply cannot be beat as pure motion entertainment with heart, soul and a cornucopia of food for thought. Few American films deserve to share breathing space with it.

The picture is so great, I'm compelled to wonder: Where are our John Hustons, B. Travens and Humphrey Bogarts? Will we again see a time when our film artists will live great lives, write great stories and mount them for all eternity on the silver screen? Sure, there are a few out there still living, but they’re getting old. Who will take their places? Who will dazzle us with movies that will live for all time - movies that are the stuff of their own great lives?

"Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment. It’s jam packed with a whole mess of terrific extras. Oddly, while I cannot fault the pristine transfer to HD, I was occasionally disconcerted by a look that seemed untrue to the spirit of the picture. I find this happening more and with Blu-Ray and old classics. The transfers are great, but the fact remains that film negative was never designed for such close scrutiny and transfer – it was meant to stay as celluloid, be projected through light and thrown onto a huge screen. On occasion, a transfer manages (often by mistake and/or laziness and/or cheapness) to be more "cinematic". It’s not often enough, frankly, but if Blu-Ray transfers of classics in any form gets new generations thrilling to the material, I suppose that’s enough and the rest of us aging movie geeks can just shut up.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) dir. by Apichatpong Weerasethakul Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar and Jenjira Pongpas

***

By Blair Stewart

Like an animal rejoining its pride, Uncle Boonmee returns to his rural Thai birthplace to die as he has died many times past. This is the jumping-off point for the narrative of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which isn't concerned with telling his story as much as it wants to instill in the viewer a languid, surreal spiritualism.

While fading with kidney disease Uncle Boonmee's sister and nephew have joined him on his farm along the dense jungle of the Laotian border. As Boonmee is making peace with his most recent life his house welcomes the arrival of his long-dead wife and the presence of his missing son in the form of a simian-like entity with beaming red eyes. While his life winds down Boonmee reflects on his previous incarnations around his stomping grounds; a rebellious ox gone walkabout in the countryside, a talking catfish who has a tryst with a Princess-or was that Boonmee who was once the Princess? Boonmee will express guilt from his time spent spilling blood for the military, his fears of a future police state for his nation, all the ebb and flow of departed time.

This would be silly if it weren't for the hypnotic nature of the film's mood from the first shot on; no manipulative bedside performances, instead a Zen acceptance of death on moonlit rice paddies. It helps that both the night pilgrimage of Boonmee towards his possible destination and the ghostly appearance of his son are so full of sublime imagery that they've stayed with me for days afterwards now. I'll say further that the introduction of his dead son's ink-black apparition is a moment of profound dread and wonder rarely found in today's theaters.

The performances by a cast of unknowns and non-actors are unruffled in matching the relaxed nature of the graceful old man's passage. As a director who shares the talents of Wong Kar-Wai's detached romanticism, Tarkovsky's haunted mysticism and Buñuel's playful weirdness, Weerasethakul also has a habit of esoteric onanism at the expense of my patience. If you enjoy elegant plotting or you prefer your ghost tales with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore you'll likely want to avoid this work. The many transgressions from Uncle Boonmee's main story can often frustrate but I see why it won film's highest honour, (the 2010 Cannes Palme d'Or) Weerasethakul has an understanding of filmic mood that can translate into masterpieces. Despite its memorable qualities, I don't think Uncle Boonmee is that masterpiece, but still a perplexing and spiritually rewarding piece of cinema.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Carlos (full length version)

Carlos (2010) dir. Olivier Assayas
Starring: Édgar Ramírez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

It’s most certainly an exercise in cinema attrition, but also one of the event films of the year and thus something I could not miss out on – that is, the five and half hour cut of Carlos, the epic biopic about the famed international terrorist Carlos the Jackal. It made a big splash at Cannes, Venice and has been showing in the glorious new Bell Lightbox theatre here in Toronto.

Including the two intermissions the whole event actually equals six hours, almost a working day of movie watching. For the most part it’s an impressive achievement for Assayas, who has crafted one long procedural thriller which spans 20 years, and a number of different countries across the globe.

Split into three parts, which at one hour and 45mins each, constitutes 3 separate films. Unlike Steven Soderbergh's Che though, it’s impossible to watch one part without seeing the other. These narrative breaks serve only allow us to get up and pee, or grab more popcorn.

Part One introduces Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (aka Carlos, played with maximum style by Edgar Ramirez), an idealistic Venezuelan political student who desires to contribute to the global action against the ills of capitalist imperialism, namely American influence in the Middle East. We see him connect with international terrorist backer, Wadie Haddad and the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Assayas dramatizes these early activities with great speed, rushing through assassination attempts, parcel bombings and other smaller tasks with a whip fast montage effect.

The second part, after Carlos completes his training in Beirut, Assayas slows down the timeline to show the step by step procedural details of the notorious Vienna OPEC Raid in 1973 where Carlos led a six person team into OPEC headquarters and taking over 60 hostages on a ride from Austria to Algeria to Libya and Yemen. After zipping through years of Carlos’ early activities, virtually the entire second chapter takes place in the two days of this hijack. Even within this shrunken timeline, Assayas makes every movement, action, and decision a nail biting affair, ringing out genre-style suspense and thrills as good as any Hollywood crackerjack.

Part three shows the last 15 years of Carlo’s career, the downfall which started from the fallout of the OPEC event to his last days as a free man in the 90’s in Africa. Arguably after reaching the high at the midpoint of Part Two, the film peters out from the excessive running time. The final hour could have been compressed into 20mins, and it’s quite possible the 2 hour, 45mins cut might just do that. But the domestic vs. political life of Carlos which part three broadens tries to humanize Carlos as a man being unable to commit to anything, a life of ideals but no substantial foundation of heroism. Assayas is partly successful in conveying this, but his consistent detachment renders the finale anti-climactic.

The shear length of this endeavour, despite the lulls, is bravura filmmaking, but I couldn’t help but question, why this film was made, and why it was made the way it was. The mere fact so much time has been devoted to the life and actions of a terrorist, without really having his character called to task for his actions, arguably glorifies his story. It’s an elephant in the room, which is never really addressed. While Assayas has every right to make a story from the point of view of a terrorist, he also has an obligation to judge his actions. And so, by the end of this five and half hours, we’re left with only a vague opinion of the man and his politics.

To compare, I wonder how we would feel if a similar film would have been about Osama Bin Laden, a five hour procedural showing his actions which led to the 9/11 attack and his subsequent retreat into the caves of Afghanistan or Pakistan, or wherever the hell he is. But Bin Laden’s film couldn’t be made the same.

A sublayer theme which exists, but only directly referenced once or twice, is the celebrity which attracted Carlos. In the 70’s, however disturbing, in the Western world, there was a factor of 'cool' in Carlos, to go along with the anti-capitalist movement, of which there was many enigmatic organizations which were looked upon as justified (the Baader Meinhof Complex presents a similar story of terrorists as heroes). And so, there's a strong contradiction in the glorification of Carlos, a man who terrorizes and murders in cold blood, but someone who in Western pop culture comes off as cool and iconic.

These contradictions and complexities when placed into a razor sharp epic thriller elevates Carlos to the high bar of commercial art.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender (2010) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Noah Ringer, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Cliff Curtis

**

By Alan Bacchus

The unanimous critical speedbagging of this film astounds me. It stands at 6% on Rotten Tomato Meter, out of 162 reviews. It’s really not that bad. Of course, it’s not great either, and I can’t help but defend a film I’m completely indifferent about only because I seem to be the only one who doesn’t think it’s the worst film of the year.

Reading some of the high profile reviews, three factors not related to the actual storytelling/filmmaking involved seemed to be the main stumbling blocks. 1) The retrofitting 3D onto what was shot as a 2D picture. 2) The recasting of some of the roles, originally written as Asian, for white actors 3) comparing the filmed version to the original TV series.

I personally think 3D is BS and no one should have reviewed the 3D version of this film. In fact, I’m surprised the producers even allowed a 3D press screening. As the track record of retrofitted 3D films go, they instantly shot themselves in the foot. And as for points 2 and 3, I’m surprised critics had even heard of the original source material, Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, let alone watched it, or knew it well enough to make such detailed analysis between the two. Maybe I’m the nave?

This is probably a reviewer’s faux pas, but what the hell, this seems like a special case. Two of the more obtuse reactions I have contentions with included:

“Its special effects are atrocious.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times. I’m not sure what the big screen 3D version looked like, but ILM's work on the film was the best thing going for it, quite strong and dramatic. The bending sequences, water, fire, air and earth admirably exercised some restraint and kept the motion and design of this fancy-schmancy weaponry as realistic as possible.

“Poorly staged and edited action sequences” – Lou Lemenick, New York Post. If anything, I’m confident to say his action scenes were quite marvellously staged, showing grace and showmanship with this type of fantasy action stuff. Take extra special care to notice the fact that there's very little editing at all in these scenes. Most of the major set pieces are directed in long one or two shot takes, in some breathtaking wideangle shots. This admirably harkens back to the old Fred Astaire demands of showing his dancing sequences in a full shot, with minimal editing. Same with much of the best Asian kung fu films.

But we shouldn’t lean so heavily on these headscratcher reactions, because really The Last Airbender sits right next to the glut of failed post-Potter/LOTR kids’ fantasy series starters, ‘The Golden Compass”, “Bridge to Terebithia”, “Stardust”, “The Seeker”, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” etc. Airbender suffers most from the near incomprehensibly plotting, which reminds me of the effect of watching David Lynch’s Dune for the first time (before father time and the other films of Lynch’s career allowed us to appreciate it on different level). Not five minutes goes by before we’re completely lost in this new world. Nothing ever really sinks in, we never find the drama in their quest, and thus we're never really sure what our heroes need, want or desire.

Dev Patel, Cliff Curtis, Jackson Rathbone are all passable bodies saying passable fantasy dialogue. That said, the poor young actor, Noah Ringer, has some great tai chi and Shaolin moves, but should never have been allowed to open his mouth.

So have some pity on The Last Airbender, and unlike the words of James Berardinelli this is not the ‘death knell of his (Shyamalan's) career’. When great filmmakers fail, they fail badly. This is a bad failure, but I’ll still go and see his next picture.

PS Apologies to all critics I’ve quoted in my review

“The Last Airbender” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

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

***

By Alan Bacchus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) dir. by Tsui Hark
Starring Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Li Bingbing and Tony Leung Ka-fai

**

By Blair Stewart


A timely response to Guy Richie's recently daft "Sherlock Holmes", Tsui Hark's long-gestating "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" fancies a Tang-Zhou Dynasty court official as that of a wuxia ass-whupping crimestopper.

Di Renjie was a 600 A.D. chancellor during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian whose pluck in matters of political stratagem were such that centuries later he has reemerged as the imperial gumshoe in a mystery novel/film adaptation fighting against the status quo and the supernatural. And by supernatural I refer to our hero drop-kicking a pack of CGI-talking deer. As one would.

The coronation of Wu (Carina Lau) as China's sovereign comes fast as a towering Buddha is being erected to honour her but a rash of self-combustions amongst her lackeys forces the Empress's release of Dee (Andy Lau) to crack a case tied to her own hubris. Tailing the erstwhile revolutionary Dee is Wu's loyal right-hand, the fetching Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing), and together they join forces with albino policemen and syphilic dwarf witch-doctors to solve the riddle. From the plot synopsis I digress that most Mandarin folk tales were conceived by monks and poets on epic opium binges the night before their telling.

Using his powers of deduction, foresight and body blows, Dee goes high in the Imperial Court and low in the underworld bartering caves to figure out why Wu loyalists are turning to ash. Andy Lau makes for a charming rogue in the lead; his spiky beard twitching in the company of his unscrupulous royal bailbondsman. It would be a geek pleasure to see Lau's Dee bounce ideas off of Poirot and Holmes, but that's a crossover for another day. There's a good cast in "Dee" mostly buried under silly costumes with Carina Lau's Empress showing interesting shades of grey in her role and Tony Leung's most welcome inscrutable mug in a small appearance.

Despite their work the fundamentals of a good film are often ignored in "Dee" to make room for some lousy f.x., creaky plot machinations and wan fight scenes. This latter problem exists despite the presence of wire-fu choreography by Sammo Hung and the director being, you know, Tsui Hark of "Once Upon A Time in China" and "Time and Tide" action acclaim. Too many damn computer effects and quick-cuttings I say, not enough in-camera tricks and long takes.

Along with these qualms I was also bothered by the obvious digital look of the film that often took me right out of the story (a similar problem I had with Gibson's "Apocalypto"), and the same nagging sense from the revealed theme late in the story as I had watching Zhang Yimou's 2002 "Hero" for the first time: Sacrifice yourself for the good of the people, a unified country is most important for the people, and sometimes those people need a ruthless leader. Somehow I don't think this film would have been made with yuans paying the budget if it had been called "Detective Dee vs. the 1000 Corrupt Party Members".

A promising Asian compliment to "Harry Potter" mysticism and "Indiana Jones" daring-do is stunted by these flaws, but perhaps success will iron out those kinks in Dee's future Detective adventures. Mind the flying unconscious deer.

Friday, 19 November 2010

The Sound of Music

The Sound of Music (1965) dir. Robert Wise
Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer

****

By Alan Bacchus

For about 5 years The Sound of Music was the highest grossing film of all time. It was a phenomenon back in the day, besting the box office record held for 25 years by Gone With the Wind. It’s a touchstone film, and a treasure of pop culture moments. I hadn’t actually seen it in full from beginning to end, until now this splashy Blu-Ray release, yet I seemed to know the story intimately, and I even knew the lyrics of most of the songs. Such is the penetration of this movie into our public consciousness.

It’s an elegant heartwarming family film, one of the best 'Disney' movies, Disney never made. Based on the real story of the Austrian von Trapp signing family of seven children, their father, and their stepmother who escape their Nazi-infested homeland. But the actual escape is really just a suspenseful climax to an endearing story of family, motherhood and love between two polar opposite people.

The matriarch of the von Trapp is Maria (Julie Andrews), whom we see in the opening as an absent-minded nun who’d rather spend time singing songs on top of the glorious green hills around her quaint village in the Alps than be on time for her prayers. Her fellow nuns recognize her infectious personality is not really suited to a nunery, instead she gets assigned as the new governness (an elaborate term for ‘nanny’) to the aristocrat and recent widower Captain Georg Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). With the rub being, Captain has seven children who’s aggressive activities have scared off all other previous candidates.

Of course Maria is resolute and warm and makes a great impression despite the children’s attempts to break her. Captain is different though, the death of his wife has hardened him reverting back to a military-like authority within the house. But Maria warms him up too, with song and dance, and eventually they fall in love. When one of Captain’s colleagues discovers the musical talents of the children, he books them to perform at a local concert, something which Captain continues to forbid. But as the Nazi’s encroach on their lands, Captain realizes his country and his lifestyle are in danger and engineer’s a daring a risky escape at this very concert.

Andrews exhibits such magnetism, that Shirley Temple, Natalie Wood, Julia Roberts type of magnetism that lights up a room, or in this case, a cinema. Christopher Plummer is a fine actor too, and has a different kind of stage presence. Captain von Trapp is characterized rather obviously as a stuck up old widower with a pickle up his ass, and Plummer's change to a smitten love struck young man is a great transition. Though a born Canadian, he wears the skin of an Austrian aristocrat with a British accent so well. And he can sing. Who can forget the romantically patriotic Edelwiess song he plucks away during the final concert in the faces of the nasty Nazis in the front row.

As mentioned, these songs, which feel like a Hollywood national anthem of sorts, are so familiar: Edelweiss, My Favouite Things, So Long Farewell, Do-Re-Mi and of course the opening ditty where we see Ms. Andrews belting out ‘The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music!”. In fact, I can’t think of a grander introduction to a character on film than Ms. Andrews' in this moment. It comes after Robert Wise’s long helicopter journey taking us across the impossibly beautiful mountaintops of the Alps before finding Maria on top of her grassy hill signing her heart out.

On Blu-Ray Ms. Andrews looks amazing, so does Wise’s absolutely perfect compositions. The real world on location scenes shot in Austria, Bavaria and other fabulous places in Europe ring out great authenticity. And remember this film was shot on 70mm as well, making everything extra crisp. You don’t even need to go past the first song to see the pictoral perfection. Just watch the clouds in the background, the formation of which is pastoral, exquisite, and just the right shape to create the perfect composition complimenting the green mountaintop and Ms. Andrews’ position on it.

Next to a 70mm big screen revival, the Blu-Ray makes for the next best reason to rewatch this film once again.

The Sound of Music is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) dir. David Lean
Starring: Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, William Holden, James Donald, Jack Hawkins

****

By Alan Bacchus

I once met a WWII veteran who was imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp not unlike the one depicted in this film. Not surprisingly, his opinion of the realism of this film was bunkum. In Kwai, David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel romanticize prison camp life, dulling down the shear brutality and torture that occurred, but as someone once said, "the truth should never get in the way of a good story" and The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greats.

Lean was a master of framing great characters against huge canvasses of war. Such is the case with Kwai and his duelling rivals: Col Saito and Col Nicholson. Saito is the hard-line commandant of a POW camp in Western Thailand charged with building a bridge to complete the Burmese Railway, while Nicholson is the British career officer determined to maintain his dignity and pride, even if it means collaborating with the enemy and thus building a bridge better than the Japanese could to prove his superiority as a soldier and man of honour.

Character depth is heavily weighted towards Nicholson, unfortunately, as, after the first act, Saito gets the short shrift. But it's a magnificent character arc for Nicholson, culminating in blowing up his own bridge, a great cinematic representation of the contradictions of war, not unlike the absurdities in Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket or Renoir's The Grand Illusion.

Lean contrasts Nicholson's British snobbiness with the pragmatism of the American Shears, played by William Holden, who provides the parallel story to the action in the camp. His un-heroic escape from prison and eventual return to regain his pride and dignity links up memorably with the grand finale.

The standard plastic jewel box just wouldn't cut it for a film of this grandeur and prestige. As such, though it's not bursting at the seams with extras, the new Blu-Ray comes in a large, beautifully designed, sturdy box worthy of the greatness of the film inside. Along with the pristine looking high-def image, this "collector's edition" comes with a glossy hardcover book with photos and liner notes to go along with some of the requisite, but unnecessary, "lobby cards."Seriously, does anyone really care about lobby cards?

Though British soldiers in Japanese war camps weren't whistling military marches during their incarceration, in terms of cinematic storytelling, The Bridge on the River Kwai is still a jolly good show.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge (2001) dir. Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Ewen McGregor, Jim Broadbent, John Leguizamo, Richard Roxburgh



By Alan Bacchus

I hated this movie when I first saw it on the big screen and I still hate seeing it for a second time on the brand spanking new Blu-Ray almost 10 years later . What many found and loved as a wild extravagant melodramatic rock opera to these eyes and ears is just an overly dramatized two hour long garish pop video version of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The story finds a young writer Christian (McGregor) in Paris at the turn of the century employed by a really weird group of stage producers, which includes John Leguizamo shrunked down to the five-foot sized Toulouse-Lautrec, looking to write and finance a play around the debaucherous nightclub, 'Moulin Rouge'. Christian ingratiates himself with Moulin Rouge's owner Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) as well as the club's luscious courtesan Satine (Kidman). They fall in love, which runs counter to Zidler's plans to use Satine to woo their moneybags investor 'The Duke' (Richard Roxburgh). Meanwhile Satine's days on earth are numbered as she suffers from TB.

The love triangle of Satine, the Duke and Christian continues all the way up to the premiere of their show 'Spectacular Spectacular' where true love triumphs, just in time before Satine falls victim to a melodramatic death.

Remember that scene in Dumb and Dumber, when Jim Carrey's character, says, 'Wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?" and then proceeds to scream wildly into the ear of Jeff Daniels? This is a similar feeling I get when watching 'Moulin Rouge'. Of course to critique the film for being 'over-the-top' would be useless. It's a rock musical which needs to have a big top razzle dazzle quality. But Luhrmann executes his stylish pop opera like a shrill cat in heat.

Let's start with the editing, there’s some terrific production design in the celebrated stage sequences, but Baz Luhrmann chops everything up so fast and with a non-sensible montage sensabilities we lose the sense of scope. I'd even argue that the production design is too busy for it's own good. Like ill-matching plaids, we can barely even find the actors in the frame out of the mess of colour and velvet drapes in the background.

When the film is not mashing together overplayed pop songs, the plotting of the actual story is put through an extreme screwball comedy machine. Unfortunately it takes funny actors and funny dialogue to get some laughs, not shameless sound stings accompanied by excessive camera whip pans.

No one can really sing in the film that well either. Ewen McGregor's voice is not really that bad, but not great either, and a lead in a cinema musical needs to have a great voice. And this film in particular his deep vocal tones just doesn’t fit the needs of the heightened rock opera. His opening ditty, Elton John’s My Song is downright awful. Nicole Kidman is also only passable, but would be crushed into submission by anyone on Broadway, or even Glee. She also doesn’t seem natural as a seductress, she still comes off as a demure prude which most of her other roles have type cast her as.

And so to lay the point down as bluntly as Luhrmann has done with this film, it's simply unwatchable.

But Moulin Rouge lovers rejoice, the Blu-Ray transfer is actually pretty good, and is now available from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) dir. Milos Forman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Danny De Vito, Will Sampson, William Redfield

****

By Alan Bacchus

This film gets me every time. The final moments, when the Chief discovers McMurphy’s been lobotomized, kills him out of pity, then completes Mac's metaphorical task of lifting the water fountain off the ground, plunging it through the window, thus releasing him into the wild to freedom, is as triumphant a climax as their ever was in cinema.

It’s not even the climax of the film really, it occurs in the denouement after the already devastating discovery of Billy Bibbits body, self-mutilated to death because of the degrading emotional punishment inflicted by Nurse Ratched. This moment caps off the wonderful third act set piece, the final hurrah for RP who throws a debaucherous party for his cookey companions in celebration of his last day before his escape.

It’s the last act of defiance, which brought a brief moment of sanity to the lives of the residents and inmates of their mental institution. It’s a perfect ensemble of actors which play those lovable crazies. I can think of few other films where every role is cast just right, and even the most insignificant character finds a memorable moment which contributes to the greater whole of this picture. Charlie Cheswick, for instance, played by Sydney Lassick, a bubbling cauldron of stress, anger and self-loathing, who is controlled by the intellectual boob Harding (William Redfield). The interaction of Harding and Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd) even has it’s own substory, specifically Taber’s hatred of Harding superiority complex and manipulation of Cheswick. And there’s the quiet Martini (Danny De Vito) who barely whispers a word, and who is astoundingly short in stature, yet has an immeasure watchable star quality.

The three stand out performances of course, are the leads. Nicholson’s first Oscar is richly deserved. In fact, back then, the consensus was that the trophy was long overdue, after having nominated performances passed over in Easy Rider, The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown. As McMurphy he is the personification of screen magnetism and easy naturalism.

Nurse Ratched has become legendary as the evil stuck up and resolute antagonist to McMurphy’s. But as acted by Fletcher and directed by Forman Ratched never overtly expresses unwarranted antagonism. At all times, on the surface she’s a professsional caregiver who puts the mood of the ward as a whole above the individual needs of the patients. Fletcher's performance is never short of awesome. She doesn't have much dialogue, instead the Oscar winning moments occur in those unspoken facial reactions to McMurphy’s outrageous behaviour. And has someone’s haircut ever been more important to one’s character than Nurse Ratched? I’ve never seen that V-Shaped updo anywhere else than on Louise Fletcher, almost as if the hairdo was invented just for her.

As great as Nicholson and Fletcher are in this, our heart is with Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit. Just as Nicholson fit perfectly into the skin of RP McMurphy so does Brad Dourif and Billy Bibbit, the meek stuttering teenager who suffering from a gross maltreatment by the women in his life. And in terms of cinematic turnarounds – that is, those moments in film when the high of a character quickly turns to a low in an instant – Bibbit’s victory bedding Candy, and for that oh so brief fleeting moment, losing his stutter, turns heartbreaking so quickly when Ratched stabs him in his achilles heal by threatening to report his actions to his mother.

And tying everything together is Jack Niztsche’s timeless music, using the unique sound of the musical saw creating the oft-kilter yet melancholy tone which sets just the right mood.

The Warner Home Video Blu-Ray Box Set is gloriously packaged in a solid and beautifully decorated hardtop box and includes a lovely colour glossy bound book and a decent standalone documentary on the making ofthe film.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Come Undone

Come Undown (2009) dir. Silvio Soldini
Starring: Alba Rohrwacher, Pierfrancesco Favino and Teresa Saponangelo

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Two ordinary, seemingly normal people start an affair. It's a familiar story we‘ve seen before, but one which always seems to make for good cinema. After all, if done right we get to live vicariously in the lives of people who fall victim to their carnal desires, but without suffering the pains of the damage which always occurs.

Co-writer/director Silvio Soldini doesn't break new ground with Come Undone, a modest Italian festival traveller, but a pair of completely accessible and grounded performances, including smoldering red hot chemistry bordering on alchemy by his two leads makes this a marvelous little gem.

Anna is a middle class gal with a loving husband. Nothing's particularly wrong in her life, but like a random strike of lightening, or cupid arrow if you will, she falls victim to the coy flirtations of a handsome caterer. Domenico is the caterer, a working class charmer struggling to make ends meet supporting his wife and two children. The build up to their first sexual encounter is well played. A couple of meetings, and even a couple of attempts at consummating fail. Their inability to get together, both due to their jobs and their domestic situations has the sexual tension is bursting at the seams. But eventually they do finally get a room and merge as one in sexual splendor.

It can't be all bliss and we know something has to go wrong. And it's Anna who turns into the crazy stalker bitch when she turns up unexpectedly at Dom's scuba class, a turn which perhaps comes too suddenly and betrays the sensabilities and accessibilies of the characters. The film threatens to fall into Fatal Attraction territory, but thankfully Soldini regains his footing and charts the course of the demise of their relationship with real world believability.

The love scenes are arousing but natural without being stylized in an Adrian Lyne sort of way. The couple have sex passionately and we feel the cathartic feeling of them being together. To compliment the mood the motel room is lit with warm yellows and reds, contrasted with the coolness of their outside world.

Melodrama is kept to a minimum, instead Soldini lets his actors gain our trust. We're strictly in their characters' point of view, and though they're commiting heinous acts of adultery we feel their pain and anguish of the illicitness of their affair.We feel the pressures of the domestic lifestyle they have put themselves into, and the trueness of their love they just can't express outside of their bedroom.

There's a scene towards the end showing Anna and Domenico waiting for their bags in an airport. They are embracing one another causally, with physical skin on skin contact and gentle naturally carassing of their hands together, subtle but dramatic realization of their true love for one another. Come Undone succeeds because of moments like these.

'Come Undone' is the November selection for the DVD-of-the-Month club. Visit http://www.filmmovementcanada.com/ to sign up.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Sex and the City 2: The Legend of Curly's Gold

Sex and the City 2: The Quickening (2010) dir. by Michael Patrick King
Starrin:g Sarah Jessica Parker, Chris Noth, Kim Cattrall and Father Time

*1/2

By Blair Stewart

I recall watching the first "Sex and the City" movie in a half-empty gravel courtyard on a ratty screen showing a used 35mm print along the shores of the Adriatic. Slouched in a plastic lawn chair, drunk on Karlovačko with the heavens above me and a fine lady by my side, my eyes occasionally glanced at the on-screen circus before I would drift back to the Milky Way's brushstroke and Orion's belt above.

The film, as they say, was not my cup of tea.

Move forward several years and despite the advances in digital film presentation the theater I was in couldn't project a clear Croatian night-time sky along the ceiling as I watched "Sex and the City 2". If only, if only.

Picking up two years after their successful heist of the Lindbergh baby (as I seem to recall), Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her gang of upper-lower-eastside-westside Manhattanite B.F.F.'s Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha (Cynthia Nixon y Kristen Davis und Kim Cattrall) from the HBO show team up to whinge about their frenzied relationships, workplaces and the lousy Mexican/Korean/Puerto Rican help raising their kids. As Carrie grows distant from the hairdresser's dummy that is her husband (Chris Noth cruising along in 2nd gear and squinting to read the cue cards just off of the 'A' camera sightlines) she joins her gals in a runaway trip to Abu Dhabi to shop passionately and talk about penises. Cue that Alicia Keys song about 'Newwwww Yorkkkkkk' to highlights scenes of 'life lessons' and 'friendship' with all the subtlety of clanging death.

Sadly the film was released over a year after the 'global downturn', therefore making "SATC2" as out-of-touch with the mainstream line as Norman Mailer hanging out with 1978 gutter punks at Max's Kansas City for a Ramones gig. "Sex and the City" once mattered when the audience could still pay their bills, now it just seems wasteful. Regardless of reality our plucky gals still buy the fancy shoes and make awful puns, like the traumatic moment when Cattrall cracks the line of "Lawrence of my labia" and I had to leave the theater due to the whooshing sound of my deflating genitals. Exacerbating the patchwork script is Michael Patrick King's episodic direction-lots of reaction shots, lots of montages, lots more sound and fury. I'd bitch some more but I'm tired of swinging a crowbar at this corpse and I can tell from the confidences of a few "SATC" fans that this is a watered-down version of the original they once loved.

Only in two moments could I understand the initial draw of the TV series from the results on film; in the scene where Charlotte and Miranda speak frankly of the anxieties in raising children as career women, and in the later stages when the girls are clued-in to the hypocritical nature of a decadant modern Middle East where women are kept invisible. A little more sharp writing as the motherhood scene attests, a little less Liza Minnelli-singing-at-a-gay-wedding cliches, and perhaps "SATC2" would have dragged itself out of the used clothes bin.

My gal also wanted me to tell you I liked this film more than the above review claims, but she's just a catty, lying slut.
Meeeeeooooooooooowwwwwww.

Sex and the City 2 is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Warner Home Video

Friday, 12 November 2010

Dames

Dames (1934) dir. Ray Enright
Starring: Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keelor, Guy Kibbee, Zasu Pitts, Hugh Herbert

***

By Alan Bacchus

Warner Bros has packaged yet another fabulous, reasonably priced four pack of Hollywood classics under their label association with Turner Classic Movies, this time, the films of Busby Berkeley, the unique choreographer/director/magician/showman renowned for visually inventive dance sequences.

Dames, a film Berkeley only directed the musical sequences for, finds his usual leading man Dick Powell playing Jimmy Hughes, a broadway actor and producer looking to 'put on a show', but lacking the financial backing to make it happen. Remember this was the time of Great Depression and many of these populist movies pitted big business vs. the common working man. In this case, Jimmy targets his rich Uncle Ezra Ounce (Hugh Herbert) for the cash. Problem is Ezra is a right wing boob and thinks anything to do with the arts, especially shows with 'dames' as immoral. And so the scheme is on to free Ounce's money from his tight reins and to put it to good use, that is, a lavish Busby Berkeley revue full of scantily clad ladies with pretty smiles and long legs.

Like most of the Berkeley pictures, it's 60mins of screwball plotting and one long 30mins musical sequence wherein our young hero finally gets a chance to put his work on the stage. In this case, Ray Enright's direction in especially stodgy compared to when Berkeley's whirling dervish of a camera takes over.

Berkeley wasn't a dancer by trade, in fact he couldn't dance at all. But his eye for design and patterns and composition is what put him in the business of Hollywood musicals. Once Jimmy's show starts, it's truly a magical experience, something no other director then or now could recreate. Even Berkeley would admit the dancing of each individual is not perfect, but watching all the dancers elegantly move in time with one another is majestic.

Two numbers anchor the big grand finale, which of course, takes place in a theatre. The "I Only Have Eyes For You" sequence has Jimmy in song confessing his love to Ruby Keelor's character on a journey through the streets of New York and aboard a subway ride, intercut with expressive fantasy sequences visualizing Keelor's eyes and head in Berekley's grand kaleidoscope style.

The other song, is shamelessly sexist, “What Do We Go For? Beautiful Dames!”, which is Jimmy's answer to a question asked in a dramatized financial meeting in the story within the story. To visualize Jimmy's theory, Berkeley has his camera travelling through the lilly white legs of a hundred dames wearing nighties, and then having them lather up their naked bodies in a hundred bubble baths.

Who can resist that? Luckily the new TCM set has four of these pictures, and even better ones than this gem, specifically 42nd Street, Footlight Parade featuring James Cagney, and The Golddiggers of 1937. More coverage on these pictures to come. Enjoy.


Thursday, 11 November 2010

Alien

Alien (1979) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, Tom Skerrit, Veronica Cartright, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt

****

By Alan Bacchus

Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of the best Blu-Ray transfers of this new medium, from standard definition DVD to high definition BD it's a tremendous leap in the viewing experience. Scott’s innovative visual design looks as clean, crisp, and as visually progressive and modern as anything made on the latest film stocks or the most robust High Definition cameras and lenses of today.

Anyone remotely familiar with his work knows Sir Ridley is very attentive to the details of the frames. As a former art director on TV commercials, the feeling derived from the look of the picture is just as important as how the words are said by his actors.

That said, unlike some of his other films, his actors DO NOT take a backseat to the art in Alien. It’s a perfect collection of character actors who make up the ‘truckers in space’ crew of the Nostromo. In fact, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley who emerges as the heroine was the least known of the seven actors at the time.

Going back, Alien was the brainchild of Dan O'Bannon, former classmate of John Carpenter and co-collaborator of his first feature Dark Star, the failure of which propelling him to write something of similar genre but scary as opposed to comedic. After living in Paris writing a script for an ill-fated Dune project, and meeting sci-fi conceptual artists Moebius, Chris Foss, and HR Giger, Alien was born.

But it took the vision of Ridley Scott to birth this beast of a franchise and elevate horror and sci-fi above either b-movie pastiche of the past or the new space opera stylings of Star Wars.

It's a slow build up to the reveal of the alien. First introducing the audience to the working class characters aboard the mining spaceship Nostromo which has awoken its passengers from its hypersleep early to take a detour on a derelict planet. Once there, via John Hurt (Kane) , in a typically self-effacing performance, we get to see the beautifully grotesque designs of Moebius and Giger inside the crashed alien spaceship.

After Kane is brought back to the ship with a facesucker attached to his head we're treated to the infamous chest bursting scene which is set up beautifully and misdirected by Scott during a fun raucous dinner table conversation. With the alien lose, it quickly grows into adult size and terrorizes the crew taking them down crew members one by one. Until it's one on one with Ripley in her undies with her cat Jonesy.

The other sinister aspect outside of the alien threat is the unseen 'company', which brought them to the planet in the first place and rendered the crew 'expendible' in order to capture a speciman. This theme of corporate malfeasance and high tech imperialism would be one of the common threads through four Alien pictures.

Scott was a notoriously tough artist, pushing his crew to the max to realize his incredibly dense visual designs. In Alien, it's his most intense film, a tone which is achieved through the tough performances from Weaver and her fellow actors and the craftsmen that created all the smoke, flashing lights, and the monster effects of the beast.

One of the other consistencies of all four Alien films is the launching pad the franchise served as for the series' four directors. For James Cameron, he was already shit hot after his hit The Terminator. For David Fincher it was his first feature film, and though Alien 3 wasn’t a hit, his career has grown substantially. For Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it was his first American film, and like Alien 3, it’s not his best work, but influential on his career nonetheless. For Ridley Scott, it was arguably the peak of his career, when he was already legendary in the commercial world, and with this film ultimately became responsible for one of the most venerable movie franchises.

The Alien Legacy set from 20th Century Fox features all four films in both their theatrical cut and director's cut version, and of course mondo special features, commentaries etc.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 (2010) dir. Lee Unkrich
Voices by: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Don Rickles

****

By Alan Bacchus

Those who read this blog might know my difficulty in reviewing these CG animated films and my often overly critical buzzkiller opinions of lauded Pixar films such as Cars, Wall-E or Ratatouille, films which admittedly are technical marvels, cleverly written, but suffered from a stale cartoonish sameness which has left me desiring more from the medium.

There's nothing new about Toy Story 3, after a 10 year hiatus from the series which started this new medium of animation. After all these other successful and critically acclained Pixar films, Toy Story is still the best of this bunch, consistently maxing out the potential of the computer animation technology.

So why does Toy Story 3 feel so much more entertaining from these adult eyes, than Up or Ratatouille, or Wall-E?

For one, human characters are kept to a minimum, something in which CG is still light years behind. As such crafting a story made almost entirely from inanimate toys render animate with the same scale, detail and articulation as they are in real life is the best way to present this medium.

The beautiful photorealism is as astonishing as it was in 1995. Even after all these years and all these CG films, I still haven’t gotten used to to the dramatic eye popping effect of seeing these pristine images flash before our eyes.

The opening is a rambunctious Western style action sequence aboard a train, a sequence not unlike the opening action of a Bond film, a scene which has no real narrative purpose other than to jumpstart us on the rollercoaster ride of fun.

The core story fits in naturally with the time elapsed since Toy Story 2. Andy, the owner of the loveable group of toys which includes Buzz Lightyear and Woody, has grown up and is off to college. Woody finds himself in Andy's dufflebag ready to go to college with him while the other toys, destined for the attic, inadvertantly get shipped to the local daycare. Woody escapes the duffle bag and hopes to save his buddies from onslaught of toy-destruction that is Sunnyside Daycare. Once there, the toys find a sinister authority figure in Lotso, a disgruntled stuffed bear that rules the other toys like Stalin.

Eventually Woody engineers an exciting escape from Lotso's clutches and back into their home at Andy's house. But without Andy do the toys have a purpose or are they obsolete?

Other than the technical action sequences, witty dialogue and stunning visual design of the Toy Story world, the film resonates warmly as a metaphor for the obsolence we all feel once we are past our prime and without need or purpose.

The characters we remember from the first two films are still the same, but we never get bored of Woody and Buzz, because as voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen they are as endearing characters from serialized television (the best part of serialized television).

Lotso, the obsolete teddy bear make's a fine new adversary. His flashback which shows the origin of his self-loathing is particularly emotional. It not shows how his obsolence morphed into displaced anger, but 'humanizes' the enemy and even foreshadows the fate of Woody and Buzz if they can't make a new life without Andy fulfilling.

Lotso's gang of hoodlum toys provide great support. The ambiguously gay Ken doll for instance who has an obsession with his wardrobe is marvelous, same with the grotesque and brutish mute baby doll who assumes the silent strong man role of the group.

Every character seems to be given adequate attention and relevance to the grander world of Toy Story at large. Though I have no doubt Pixar could adequately produce more of these films with almost equal entertainment value, but the final moments of this film close out the lifecycle of these characters so perfectly, it's the absolute best way to go in style.

Toy Story 3 is available on Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment