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

Friday, 31 December 2010

Mesrine Part I: Killer Instinct

Mesrine (2010) dir. Jean-Francois Richet
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Roy Dupuis, Gerard Depardieu,

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

French international criminal Jacques Mesrine gets his life story told on film in a rare two-part feature event. Perhaps he's famous in France or Quebec, but it's curious to see such a relatively obscure gangster receive such mainstream attention. But I'll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt that Jacques Mesrine is a big deal , one deserving of being glorified in dual-feature fashion, like Che or Carlos.

Director Richet starts off in 1955 during the French occupation of Algeria, where Mesrine served as a soldier in the French Army, proving his salt as a killer by callously murdering an Algerian prisoner. We then catch up with him in '59, leaving his humble middle-class parents to join the growing drug trade in France. A tempestuous marriage that produces a daughter who's quickly discarded in favour of his chosen lifestyle leads to a series of colourful bank robberies and other criminal acts in the '60s.

In the late '60s, Mesrine escapes French authorities to Quebec, where he links up with FLQ terrorist Jean-Paul Mercier (played by Roy Dupuis) for more rampages abroad. Mesrine: Part 1 Killer Instinct ends with a raucous sequence where we see Mesrine escape a Quebec prison, arm himself to the teeth then go back to free his fellow prisoners. If this actually transpired, what balls!

Where a Canadian director might have slowed the pacing, French director Richet's experience with action (helming the Assault on Precinct 13 remake) helps keep a quick tempo. Vincent Cassel is typically engaging, the perfect type of iconoclast to play this madman of a character. For us Canadians though, the real fun is the rare opportunity to see a French star share the screen with a bonafide French-Canadian star. Roy Dupuis doesn't have a great deal to work with, but he grits his teeth well, looks mean and wears a grizzled tough guy beard as best he can. Despite the limited role, he's the perfect match for Cassel.

By the end, we unfortunately don't receive a great deal of emotional payoff: Mesrine and Mercier kill a pair of innocent park rangers in particularly brutal fashion then the film fades to black. It's difficult to form a critical opinion of Mesrine Part 1 without knowing the rest of the tale; it doesn't stand alone, like Che Part 1, and lacks the wonderful teasing of Kill Bill Vol. 1, Back to the Future 2 or even The Matrix Reloaded, so I'm not sure I care about seeing Part 2: Public Enemy #1.

The final text tells us Mesrine's time in, and escape from, the Quebec prison helped a shine a light on the brutality of these establishments. But without seeing any of this on screen, this final adjunct comes across like a desperate attempt to allay the inevitable accusations of glorifying Mesrine's violent, heinous actions.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Best of 2010 Part II

Adam Butcher in Kim Chapirion's 'Dog Pound'

So here’s the top ten as posted earlier HERE, listed in random order without the supporting summaries.

The Fighter
Catfish
Buried
Let Me In
The Social Network
The Wild Hunt
Black Swan
Tales From the Golden Age
The King’s Speech
127 Hours
Toy Story 3

Ok, if you’re sharp, you’ll see there’s 11 films listed, because I shamefully posted this list before seeing The Fighter.

With the exception of Catfish I purposely left out some of great documentaries from this year. If I were to list the ten best docs, consider this an equally fabulous list as above:

1. CATFISH (dir. Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost)
As mentioned above, the most psychologically intriguing film of the year. A story of a facebook romance which slowly reveals a dark troubling secret of the participants involved.

2. TABLOID (dir. Errol Morris)
As usual with Morris, he manages to find intriguing characters who find themselves in extraordinary situations. Tabloid is no exception, an enthralling and humourous true crime story and salacious tale of sex, religion and obsession. It's Errol Morris at the top of his game.

3. INSIDE JOB (dir. Charles Ferguson)
I’ve seen many films and journalism news segments which attempted to explain the incredibly complex chain of events which caused the financial collapse of the past 2 years, from 60 Minutes to Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story nobody seemed to get it straight. And no one’s really told the whole story. Remarkably Ferguson does this in spades.

4. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP (dir. Bansky)
The notorious graffiti artist turns his camera on the man who turned his camera on himself. Confused? It’s a complex unpredictable journey of Thierry Guetta, a French stalker of Bansky’s who manufactured his own career as an artist on the back of Bansky’s and other more renowned artists' notoriety.

5. CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS 3D (dir. Werner Herzog)
The iconoclastic filmmaker gains unprecedented access for his 3D cameras into the magnificent caves in rural France where the oldest discovered drawings by mankind were created.

Five best scenes/set pieces of the year:

1. The finale of I AM LOVE:
Luca Guadagnino’s Visconti/Bertolucci inspired film is a handsome production, highlighted by the mesmerizing and hypnotic final scene wherein Guadagnino’s heroine escapes her drab existence and searches out true love.

2. The opening sequence of THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALIVE CREED
J Blakeson’s crackerjack three-hand thriller opened with a bang, a fun montage sequence showing the meticulous preparations of the film’s two kidnappers. The crisp and perfectly composed imagery reminds us a young David Fincher

3. The red-eyed Monkey Man in UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES
The most suspenseful sequence of the year ironically comes from the Thai art house auteur Apichatpong Weerasethaku. It comes when the Boonmee’s family is sitting at dinner talking the ghost of his wife who suddenly appears at the table. Then, the sounds of footsteps coming up the stairs. We’re then completely frightening out of our pants by the sight of a beast creature with haunting red eyes approaching the family with careful ominous pacing.

4. The entire second act of CARLOS
I saw the full five and a half hour version of Carlos. It was a long day highlighted by the second act OPEC sequence wherein the legendary 70’s terrorist holds hostage the entire OPEC committee, and hijacks a plane for three days taking them from Germany to Libya to Sudan and Yemen. It’s an hour long set piece as riveting and intense as anything in any thriller made this year.

5. The sex scenes in MACGRUBER
The sight of MacGruber jackrabbitting Kristin Wiig in one scene and later the ghost of his dead wife in a cemetery and is hands down the most hilarious scenes of the year.

Best Male Performances of the Year (in no particular order), some obvious, some not:

1. Adam Butcher in DOG POUND
Who? What? Dog Pound, a French/Canada co-pro won Best Director honours at Tribeca last year for edgy French director Kim Chapirion. This tough and impressive juvenile prison flick is anchored by a stunning breakout performance from young Adam Butcher, who plays his character Butch with a James Dean/Marlon Brando/Robert De Niro–type of iconoclastic zeal.

2. Christian Bale in THE FIGHTER
Bale's performance goes much deeper than the physical transformation into an underweight crack addict. His bond of brotherhood with Mark Wahlberg is so heartbreakingly genuine and profound.

3. Colin Firth in THE KING’S SPEECH
Yes he’s good. Not earth shattering news, that’s for sure. Like Bale, Firth’s performance is more than just a stutter, or an impression of King George, but an intimate look into a famous man, warts and all.

4. Michael Shannon in THE RUNAWAYS
Michael Shannon continues a terrific run of scene stealing performances, this time as the bombastic manager of the all girl teen band from the 70’s.

5. Ryan Reynolds in BURIED
One man in a box in the ground. Reynolds makes it all so believable.

Best Female Performances of the Year (in no particular order):

1. Jacki Weaver in ANIMAL KINGDOM
This tough ol’ Aussie broad commands the screen as much as she commands her gangster family.

2. Melissa Leo in THE FIGHTER
Like Jacki Weaver above, Melissa Leo is commanding as the manager and mother of Mark Wahlberg’s character, Micky Ward.

3. Michelle Williams in BLUE VALENTINE
Williams outshines Ryan Gosling in Derek Cianfrance’s ode to John Cassevettes.

4. Natalie Portman in BLACK SWAN
Portman goes psychotic like only Darren Aronofsky can direct her to. Portman does what Sean Gullette and Jared Leto did in Pi and Requiem for a Dream respectively.

5. Noomi Rapace in GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO et al.
Rapace is simply electric as the whip smart investigative hacker. Despite her slight stature she manages to show such immeasurable strength after a history of spiteful mistreatment by the men in her life. It’s impossible not to take your eyes of her in all three of these films.

Five New Filmmakers to Look Out For:

1. David Michôd (ANIMAL KINGDOM)
Aussie Michôd aims for the stars in his Melbourne gangster epic. An ambitious style and tone that reminds us of the early cinematic confidence of Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Mann.

2. J Blakeson (THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED)
UK director Blakeson does miracles with three actors in a hotel room, dressed with nothing but a bed, and cardboard covering the windows. His precise look reminds us of a young David Fincher.

3. Alexandre Franchi (THE WILD HUNT)
With under $1million Franchi injects some superlative production value into his melodramatic medieval tale set in the world of LARPers.

4. Kim Chapirion (DOG POUND)
This French filmmaker, known for edgy music videos in France has smartly angled his way into the Vincent Cassell circle, which includes Romain Gavras, son of Costa-Gavras. Chapirion’s robust juvenile prison flick won him Best Director Award at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

5. Debra Granik (WINTER’S BONE)
Unfortunately this just missed out on my top ten, but Granik’s reworking of the Western genre into a nourish thriller set in the depressed Ozarks demonstrates a smart knowledge of cinema and fine storytelling skills.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Fighter

The Fighter (2010) dir. David O. Russell
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee

****

By Alan Bacchus

Shame on me for doubting this picture. After all, I had the choice of holding off posting by ‘Best of 2010’ list until I saw this film, but my impatience had me doubting that The Fighter would be able to crack the top ten. After all, the story of a down and out boxer, overcoming the odds to win a title shot is perhaps the oldest story in Hollywood, and also played out. Also, knowing that this once was originally a Darren Aronofsky project, passed off to David O Russell had me questioning the passion of the filmmakers behind this film.

And so what a joy to be shocked to life by Russell’s impeccable skills, a story so perfectly crafted and executed it hits those core, base or fundamental emotions we have toward brotherhood, ambition, survival in life. A true triumph of the human spirit giving us the same sort of chills up our spine as other classics of the genre, Rocky, The Wrestler and Million Dollar Baby.

My DFD colleague Greg Klymkiw described Clint Eastwood’s Invictus as a meat and potatoes film. The Fighter fall into this category as well. We know these characters – so well. Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) are half brothers from a working class town Lowell, Massachusetts. Dickie, the eldest who fancies himself once as the ‘pride of Lowell’ is a failed boxer who clings to his one triumph, knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard once in a fight 14 years prior. Now he’s a crack addict with one foot in the grave were it not for his younger brother whom he trains to be the next ‘pride of Lowell’.

Micky Ward, the younger brother, is actually near the end of his career, three losses in a row and who needs a victory to keep him in the game. A painful loss to a heavier fighter cripples the relationship between the two, a loss blamed on Dickie and his headstrong mother/manager Alice (Melissa Leo). Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), a red headed bargirl/college drop out who gives Micky the confidence that if he breaks with the family he could be a success.

And so, Micky is presented an agonizing internal conflict, the desire to live up to the pedestal his brother places him on, and the loyalty and love he deeply desires to give to his family. This is the strongest kind of decision-making we can see in cinema, decisions we ourselves in the audience subliminally make in our heads as we watch the film. We imagine confronting our own older brothers, or dedicated mothers who have nurtured us our whole lives.

The Fighter has the rare spark of truth, a miraculous kind of truth which exists in every moment of the film. Russell impressively mixes the emotions conveyed by Micky’s decisions, Dickie’s heartbreaking fight with substance abuse with the same unique sense of irreverent humour from all of his other films (ie. Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings). Much of the humour comes from the authenticity he finds in the working class milieu of Lowell. Micky’s seven sisters for instance, all of whom look like haggard cougars-in-training pulled from the seediest bar in Lowell. They appear, always together in almost every scene in the background, like a peanut gallery.

Performances are top notch in every role. It’s one of Christian Bale’s best, one which goes beyond the superficial physical transformation he goes through to become an underweight crack addict. We feel the genuine love for his brother and his desire to win no matter kind of trauma he finds himself in. Wahlberg admirably assumes the less showy role, a reactive straight man performance, which usually gets overshadowed by the histrionics of the more rowdy characters. Amy Adams and Melissa Leo both shine as two strong women who antagonize each other with Micky in between. Both are fighters in their own way who won’t back down from each other.

Though it’s a story of two brothers and moves around the very masculine world of professional boxing, The Fighter is not a macho film. It’s a universal story of family, of mothers, daughters, brothers and the inexplicable bond which can push us all towards extraordinary things.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Best of 2010

For these top ten lists I’ve always ranked them from one to ten. Why? Because that’s how my brain works. And there’s value in knowing what the BEST film of the year is. This year, it’s a different case. There just wasn’t that one film that stood out. As such it's a random order of the top ten. Regardless, here’s 10 fantastic pictures to find and watch and be bedazzled by (click on the title link to find my reviews of each film):

But before we get to the list, I shamefully posted this before seeing David O Russell's glorious and inspiring The Fighter, which makes this a list of 11, not 10.

The Fighter (US, dir. David O Russell)
So let's start with The Fighter, a film about two brothers, one a crack addict former fighter whose sole purpose in life is to see his kid brother achieve what he never did - a championship belt. It's classical cinematic storytelling at it's best, elevated by four stunning performances by the leads - Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams. The film hits those fundamental core feelings, which allows us to put our own lives into the characters as we watch the film, resulting in a deeper more penetrating emotional experience than perhaps all of the films listed below.



Catfish (US, dir. Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost)
I usually don't put documentaries on my top ten list, instead creating a separate list for those. Yet, if there were any film this year which blew me away, took me by surprise, it was theatrical experience of watching Catfish. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and of course I had no knowledge of the film before going in. The publicity people were so secretive, they had two separate press notes, one of which was sealed, not to be opened until after the film. The fact is, Catfish, is the most intriguing and psychologically stimulating film of the year. A story of this new information age, when identities are mallable like characters in a story, or a film.


Buried (Spain, dir. Rodrigo Cortes)
Another Sundance experience. And just about everyone knows the hook of this film. The story of a man trapped inside a coffin buried in the ground. That’s the movie, 90mins of it. And every minute is rivetting. It's filmmaking ofthe highest order, from a first time Spanish filmmaker. But the script (by an American) was strong enough to attract Ryan Reynolds, whose performance is astounding, but sadly will likely not get recognized during awards season. No bother, it proves Reynolds’ chops as an actor.


Let Me In (US, dir. Matt Reeves)
Cries afoul of genre-geeks who idolized the original Swedish film, who forsaw yet another Hollywood bastardization of a great foreign language film. Matt Reeves got the last laugh, delivering a film not only reverent to the original, but frankly, IMHO, better. I wouldn’t have though that possible but it is. The quiet ‘vampire’ story of a young girl bloodsucker befriends a young bullied boy in a small northern California town is remarkably poignant and affecting.


The Social Network (US, dir. David Fincher)
Ya yeah. Not that this film needs any more praise, but it is a terrific film. One of the films that captures the time and place attitude of a current generation – like Easy Rider, or All the President’s Men.


The Wild Hunt (Canada, dir. Alexandre Franchi)
What is this you ask? The Wild Hunt is so devious, so clever it almost defies description. Or at least I’m hestitant to reveal anything about why this film is a masterpiece. Canadian director Alexandre Franchi puts us in the weird cultish world of LARPers (Live Action Role Playing), you know those Dungeon’s and Dragon’s players who inhabit their characters, dress up like knights and pretend fight each other on weekend retreats. Within this world Franchi crafts both a lovely romantic comedy and horrifically suspensful melodrama, mixing humour and horror in equal measure and sending us on the most intense journey of the year this side of Black Swan.


Black Swan (US. dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Black Swan is indeed the most intense, viscerally penetrating film of the year. A trippy ‘experience’, more than anything. It’s a particularly salacious and contrived plot fitted to meet Aronofksy’s sensabilities as an American ‘enfant terrible’. If you've seen his 90’s films Pi or Requiem For a Dream, you kind of know exactly where this film is going from the outset. So in many ways, there’s not much surprise in the end, but the joy of Black Swan is the ride that Aronofsky takes you on to get there. He’s at the peak of his filmmaking powers in this one.


Tales From the Golden Age (Romania, dir. Cristian Mungiu, Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, Constantin Popescu, Ioana Uricaru
This film seems to have been around forever, a Cannes premiere in 2008, the film finally got it's North American release this year. It's a rare anothogy film that work, a Romanian one directed by four of the country’s emerging filmmakers, but really commanded and supervised by the celebrated 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days auteur Cristian Mungiu. While that film was a harrowing, dark and disturbing look into the illegal abortion network of communist era Romania, Tales is a humourous antidote to that film. A five film compendium of urban myths from the oppressive era of Nicolai Ceauscescu, a Stalin-esque tryant who ruled the country with fear. The tales marvelous spin around the fear of these manical man to create five hillarious tales of black comedy. It’s the funniest film of the year.


The King's Speech (UK, dir. Tom Hooper)
More than just another handsome period film about the privileged lives of frivolous Royals. The story of King George VI shows us with heart breaking emotion the intimate life of a shamed man. The inner conflict of the King's speech impediment matches up miraculously in the inspiring finale to the fate of the Allies in WWII, and thus the fate of the world at large. And Hooper, Firth et al nail it.


127 Hours (UK, dir. Danny Boyle)
Even more than Black Swan, we know exactly where this film is headed. After all, it’s based on a true story everybody's heard about, the self surgery of hiker who got his arm caught between two boulders in a Utah ravine. We know what happens to his arm, and by the title we know how long it takes him to cut it off. Yet Danny Boyle manages to make these 127 hours suspenseful and utterly frightening. Boyle swings us through all the emotions of Aron Ralston from his carefree ambitiousness, to his self-depricating humour, to his melancholy reflections of his family, his near psychotic emotional breakdown and finally in the glorious finale earth shattering triumph and elation. The final moments of this films is perhaps the most inspiring, life-affirming moment in cinema this year.


Toy Story 3 (US, dir. Lee Unkrich)
Like docs I rarely if ever list animated films on my top ten list. Yet I’m confident enough to say that Toy Story 3 is the best film Pixar has ever made. A fun, exciting, emotional ride with those lovable characters going back the original CG animated film in 1995.

Thanks for reading, but this list actually continues. Check out PART II HERE.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Tron Legacy

Tron Legacy 2010) dir. Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen

***

By Alan Bacchus

There’s a strong whiff of the Matrix wafting through Tron Legacy for good and bad. It’s a retro action jamboree, the 80’s nostalgic cyberpunk aesthetic of the original film injected with the best of modern special effects, action moviemaking sensibilities as well as some super hot Tron babes in neon latex jumpsuits. But like the Matrix films, familiar and recycled characterizations renders anything other than the non-action scenes mostly struggle to get through.

It’s certainly the best eye-candy of the year, a stylistic extravaganza of eye popping fluorescent duochrome colours as in the original. Like Star Wars, Blue = the good guys, Red = the bad guys. For the few cinephiles who actually remember the old film, back in 1982 the hero Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) was an ambitious video game designer who inadvertently injected himself into the corporate mainframe, a new virtual world where programs were represented by living breathing people fighting the video games for real like gladiatorial death matches.

Back then Flynn escaped the computer and exposed the corporate malfeasance of his company. But between then and now Flynn apparently went rogue and disappeared years later never to be seen again. His son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), unfortunately got left behind, and although he’s still heir to the now global media conglomerate, he still desires to complete his father’s altruistic goals of his legacy. A mysterious text message from Flynn sends him back to the old arcade from the first film, where his old transmuting device still operates, which of course, throws him back into the game where his father remains a prisoner.

Perhaps the most audacious aspect of Tron is the digitization of Jeff Bridges as a younger version of himself – Clu, a computer program doppleganger created by Flynn back in the day, but who turned on his maker and took control of the virtual world. It’s kind of astonishing what they’ve done. Bridges’ young face looks remarkable, though not perfect and so we can always tells it’s not a human. But since Clu is supposed to be a computer program the CG qualities of his face make the character passable. Though if Clu were in the real world, it would be a different story.

The first half of the film features one stunning set piece after another. Like original the first fight for the hero is a flying disc battle. Of course, as influenced by the Matrix Sam’s opponents are now high flying parkour ninjas that can jump and spin and do Hong Kong flips. Back in the day, Flynn’s opponents were just snarling stuntmen in hockey helmets. We also know there’s going to be a light cycle race and Kosinski delivers on making it all as spectacular as can be.

His directorial style with the action is precise and could cut glass, complimenting the binary digital technology which comprises the world. Thus the two-colour blue-red system, the endless straight lines into the infinite background and the deep black background, which create a unique depth of field, which actually compliments the 3D process.

Unfortunately midway through, Kosinski loses his inspiration and starts leaning on his presumed aesthetic influences, Star Wars and the Matrix. In fact the final act wherein the emotional beats of the grubby and failed father figure Flynn steps up for his heroic young son and confronting his younger former self, reworks the core Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader climax too closely. It’s so rudimentary we don’t care at all what happens to whom. We know exactly what’s going to happen and with Kosinki using up all the best set pieces early, the final moments seems like just a wash of exploding light.

But going back to the 3D, it’s by far the best 3D ever produced, a film which reignites my interest in the new medium. Avatar game me a headache. With less colours, less cutting, the simplicity of the design, instead of the two eyes fighting to keep with chaotic visuals, Tron allows our brains to relax.

I can go without applauding Daft Punk’s score adds a giddy nightclub quality electro dance pulse which is pitch perfect as well.

All things considered, Tron is just about as good as it can be, and although it won’t be a bank breaking blockbuster, it should be considered a successful film.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

This Is England

This is England (2007) dir. Shane Meadows
Starring: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Joseph Gilgun, Andrew Shim

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

British filmmaker Shane Meadows makes personal stories set in his hometown – the so-called Midlands of Northern England. “This is England” is appropriately titled because it’s a story how the depressed working class of England in the 80’s created racist xenophobic gang warfare in the name of English Nationalism. Meadows shows to us, with complete accuracy, what it was like to live in these depressed English towns. It was a scary place – a time of violent gangs and nihilistic hooliganism. Meadows turns this world into a scary, tough and tragic film.

Meadows sets the time and place perfectly in the opening sequence. It’s 1982 and the time of Margaret Thatcher and the Falkland Island War. A young 12 year old boy, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), lives in a typical Northern English industrial town. With his father recently brought back deceased from the Falklands War, Shaun lives alone with his mother. He’s also a loner who’s picked on at school. At his lowest moment he is befriend by a local group of older kids – a skinhead gang led by the charismatic Woody (Joseph Gilgun). Shaun is ingratiated by the group, who take him in and give him an identity and a place where he belongs. He’s even given a skinhead uniform – Ben Sherman shirt, Doc Martin boots, and suspenders. They may be skinheads but they are far from malevolent racists that terrorized the new wave of Indian and Pakistani immigrants.

The good times come to a crashing halt when Woody’s old friend returns from prison to join the group. Combo (Stephen Graham) is a menace to society. Immediately he exerts his superiority to the group and institutes a mission of racial hatred. Combo splits the bunch, usurping Woody from leadership and ostracizing him from the group. Shaun fascinates Combo though. He’s small but passionate and feisty particularly when the Falkland War and his father are discussed. Combo takes Shaun under his wing and brings him into the violent world of Nationalist Skinhead politics. Though Shaun has found a kinship with his new friend his violent and irrational ways will soon rear its ugly head with drastic consequences.

The heart of the film is the relationship first between Shaun and Woody – which is like a big and little brother, and then Shaun’s friendship with Combo, who becomes his surrogate father. The lack of male guidance is important and even referenced in the film. Combo is a complex character. Though we don’t learn much about him we instantly recognize him as a once troubled kid, much like Shaun. Therefore the audience knows how influential and damaging Combo can be to the vulnerable youngster.

The subject of neo-Naziism has been filmed successfully three times in past 10 years – “Believer”, “Romper Stomper” and “American History X”. “This is England” is worthy of these great films because Meadows avoid all cliches of the genre. There are no lessons learned or comeuppance received from Combo. Everyone’s true colours are revealed but without the preachy sensationalism of “American History X”. The film also manages to identify the cultural differences of this particular brand of neo-Naziism to the early 1980’s area of Northern working class England. The xenophobia stems from the depressed nature of their once thriving community. With inflation and unemployment at all time highs frustration turns into hatred. This isn’t particular to England; France and the Netherlands are currently in the middle of similar racial divide. Meadows uses the distinct music of the period which influenced Skinheadism, as well as the fashion of the times. On the DVD there includes a fine essay dissecting the fashion, music and culture of this movement. The finest moment of the film is a conversation between Combo and his second generation Jamaican immigrant friend who form an unlikely bond over some good ganja. But as the conversation progresses Combo slowly turns into a vulnerable monster with psychotic tendencies.

This is England” is a tough kitchen sink stuff, but wholly satisfying and engrossing. The lesson learned for today’s generation is not necessarily racial tolerance but a political lesson for Tony Blair. With many of the country’s soldiers in Iraq stubbornly fighting a similarly questionable war, the film warns the country of the dangers of a complacent government which, without proper social infrastructure, could turn these communities into an urban racial battlground again.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

True Grit

True Grit (2010) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

***

By Alan Bacchus

Just last week I watched the original True Grit for the first time on Blu-Ray. Knowing I would see the Coen’s version a week later it was cause for pause. After all, which ever film I saw first would likely colour my opinion of the other one. I was pleasantly surprised at the original True Grit, it’s a fine film and perfectly suited to an update because of its strong foundation of the genre, its progressive themes and a modern style that it looks terrific with today’s eyes.

And so now we have the Coen Bros version which is surprisingly reverent to the original film and likely the original novel (which I haven’t read). Like the Hathaway/Wayne version, the core story of a sprite young girl seeking revenge against the death of her father and the cross-generational relationship with an aging alcoholic gunslinger is classic stuff. Like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven there’s pathos in the journey and resonant themes of violence, vengeance and the tropes of the Western genre itself.

Hailee Steinfeld playing Mattie Ross, just as Kim Darby played her, is the driving force of the film. The Coen’s open it up with a familiar tone, a melancholy introduction, opening narration complimented by a pitch perfect piano melody by Carter Burwell. We see Mattie Ross’ father lying dead on the ground, as described by Ross, a heinous murdered committed by a criminal named Cheney. We then see Mattie arrive into a small Arkansas town looking to bring his father’s body home, close off his assets and affairs and hire someone to bring his killer to justice. She finds her man in Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed U.S. Marshal described as having ‘grit’ – true grit.

Despite being 14 her confidence and aggressiveness as a businesswoman pushes herself passed everything that stands in her way. Not only does she hire Cogburn, she makes $350 selling off her father’s useless ponies to the coral owner who had no desire to buy them. Mattie also meets up with a smarmy Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) who also desires to bring in Cheney, but to Texas to see him hanged for his crimes in his state. Soon the unlikely trio find themselves on a lengthy journey to catch their killer.

Each of the key events and set pieces along the way are almost identical to the John Wayne version. And why not, it was a marvellous original screenplay, and so the Coens are smart not to mess with what’s working. They even quicken up the pace by jumping right into the story of Mattie’s search. Gone is the opening sequence showing her father travelling to town and getting killed.

Stylistically the Coens hold back from their idiosyncratic tendencies from A Serious Man and No Country For Old Men. Their reverence of the genre means everything is played straight, letting the characters, conflict and story lead us. The dynamic trio of Ross, LeBoeuf and Cogburn creates a fine narrative anchor. LeBoeuf in particular is the perfect foil for both Cogburn and Ross. We immediately identify with Ross, the innocent young gal avenging her father. And for Cogburn, we know his character inside and out. He’s the antihero of the Western. He’s those John Wayne heroes, like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, or Alan Ladd’s Shane, aged, but still an anti-establishment loner. LeBoeuf compliments both characters perfectly. His conflict with Ross, who constantly disapproves of her presence in the posse and his fun repartee with Cogburn over the merits of the US Marshal service vs. Texas Rangers service is a fun humourous throughline.

Where this new version fails to supersede the 1969 version is the performance of Steinfeld. Her version is good and she sells the mature confidence of Ross, but there was some kind of spark in Kim Darby that is absent in Steinfeld. Perhaps it was the feminist bent to Darby’s performance, reflective of the year in which that film was made – the liberal 60’s.

But where the Coens’ version is elevated above the original is the fantastic third act wherein that magical touch of dreamy melancholy takes the film to another level. The courage and heroism of all three characters to support each other as a team wonderfully completes their combined arc of unity. By the end Cogburn, Leboeuf and Ross form their own little family, and the Coen Bros' tender treatment of this is emotionally satisfying in a way the original never achieved.



Friday, 24 December 2010

Howl

Howl (2010) dir. by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: James Franco, Bob Balaban and Jon Hamm

**

By Blair Stewart

"I just find animation to be so....didactic."
-Actual quote from a jackass I knew in Toronto, August 2008

Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman tackle 1950's poet Allen Ginsberg underground masterpiece "Howl and Other Poems" as its noterity took him overground in a triptych of re-enactment, courtroom drama and visual art. His slim collection of work that touched on drug use and homosexual sex in America brought about the ire of the conservative Right onto the indie publisher, setting up scenes of verbal sparring between David Strathairn prosecuting in the name of decenency and Jon Hamm in defense of free speech with Bob Balaban holding the gavel. Inter-cutting this drama is a Time magazine interview and the first public reading of "Howl" with James Franco as Ginsberg.

As the (in)famous writer Franco continues on a path of excellent career choices he's made since that burnout Saul in "Pineapple Express", his performance relaxed and unshowy barring the nerves on opening night when he let a bunch of drunk college students peek inside his brain. As Ginsberg launches into "Howl" the film once again inter-cuts to its final piece: Animation, and the reason why I started this review with that memorable quote.

In comparison the similiar work of Berman and Pulcini's "American Splendor" brilliantly broke the fourth wall to communicate Harvey Pekar's humanist autobiographical comics while Cronenberg grafted his own twisted fetishes on Burrough's "Naked Lunch". (Burrough's himself likely knowing a thing or two about a thing or two when it came to fetishes) What causes me concernation is the fact Epstein and Friedman of documentary acclaim with "The Celluloid Closet" and "The Times of Harvey Milk" keep returning to the same pail of water once the courtroom and Ginsberg readings run dry-I can only see the poems of "Howl" literally visualised with animated men playing flaming saxophones and bulldozers mowing down fields of flowers on female-shaped hills before I get queasy with baby-boomer nostalgia.

It's about as enjoyable as listening to another damn story concerning Woodstock, Hendrix and Haight-Ashbury or all of the above. On top of these repeated transgressions we also have to deal with the boldly underlined "free speech!" moment and the impact of Ginsberg's genius being expressed by the camera crash-zooming on the faces of kids hearing "Howl" and just having their minds totally blown, man. That might fly on HBO, but not so in the cinema. Ginsberg work had pockets of subtlety, pity the same can't be said for this film.

I couldn't resist:
"Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir!"
-"The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen, March 1998.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Alien 3

Alien 3 (1992) dir. David Fincher
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Paul McGann, Brian Glover

***

By Alan Bacchus

I like Alien 3, always have, though the opening is especially depressing and frankly shameful to the throughline of the series. After the harrowing narrow escape by Hicks, Newt, Ripley and the severed body of Bishop, at the end of Aliens, the producers of Alien 3 open up the movie killing off all but Ripley while in hypersleep.

Perhaps Michael Biehn didn’t want to come back for another film, or perhaps no one wanted him back. As for Carrie Henn, Aliens was her only role and she left the business. Either way, there’s no problem writing them out of the movie, but killing them off just after they escaped from the last picture, robs their characters of their narrative purpose in this big picture cinema reality.

But it’s Hollywood and we shouldn’t be looking back at these other films as sacred right? That’s debatable. To the filmmakers’ credit they did give appropriate screentime to Ripley’s grieving of their loss as well as a decent funeral, along with a fantastic eulogy by Charles S. Dutton’s character Dillon.

If you can get over the loss of Newt and Hicks, Alien 3 makes for a rather enjoyable chapter in the saga. As mentioned, we join up with Ripley recovered from her derelict spaceflight by a ragtag group of space prisoners, incarcerated on a planet not unlike the island prison of Alcatraz or Australia for that matter. Ripley suspects an alien was on board which caused the havoc, but an autopsy of Newt proves negative. But what about Ripley? She has had a funny feeling in her chest lately...

Meanwhile on the prison planet, her female presence is unwelcomed by certain inmates who have taken a vow of chastity and found God in pennance for their crimes of rape and murder. Ripley finds friendship in the kind and soft spoken doctor Clemens (Charles Dance) and the inspiring people’s leader cum gospel orator Dillon (Dutton). Of course, yes , there was an alien on board, and yes, he’s run amok again killing the prisoners one by one. Ripley assumes leadership and uses the resources of the decrepit prison to evade the creature and hopefully kill it for good.

This was David Fincher’s first feature, and the on set conflict has become widely known, something which is honestly addressed in fine making-of documentary on the Alien Legacy Blu-Ray Box Set (though it’s the same feature from 2003 DVD release). And so, knowing Fincher’s track record of great films since, there’s even more value looking back at his artistry in this film. His music video look is more apparent here than anything he’s done since. I mean just look at the camera angles, 75% of which are shot from the ground look up at his characters. It’s a stylized look which over time tends to wears it's welcome.

The design of the new alien is fresh though. This new beast is more nimble and fleet of foot than aliens of past. The final chase sequence is a terrific set piece, highlighted by the great point of view shots of the alien scurrying over the floors, walls, and ceilings of the cavernous tunnels.

Three great characters anchor the emotion of the film. Charles Dutton is simply marvelous whenever he says anything. The cadence in his voice is soothing and dramatic and inspiring. Charles Dance is a delightfully warm character, a tortured soul and we can see why Ripley so quickly hops into bed with him. Yes, Ripley gets laid, and by god, it’s about time. After all, it’s been about a hundred years!

SPOILER ALERT... Sadly the film ends with a terrible sequence involving Ripley committing suicide falling into a pit of molten metal, in slo motion, while an alien rips out of her chest. Like the fate of Newt and Hicks, I begrudgingly forgive this silliness, in order to enjoy the rest of the film.

Alien 3 is available on Blu-Ray in the Alien Legacy Set from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Easy A

Easy A (2010) dir. Will Gluck
Starring: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Dan Byrd, Lisa Kudrow

**

By Alan Bacchus

The Scarlett Letter scenario gets turned around in this high concept teen comedy, which according to the compendium of critical opinion, Rotten Tomato-meter of 87%, would probably make it the most acclaimed teen comedy of all time. High expectations usually disappoint and this is no exception. Other than the literary link up to the Nathaniel Hawthorne book, Easy A is an unmemorable rudimentary comedy.

Olive (Emma Stone) is the grounded down-to-earth type who presumably watches all kinds of movies and TV and thus can see through the cliches inherent in her high school life. Specifically her nemesis Marianne (Amanda Bynes), a straight-edge Christian princess who acts like a very bitchy sexual Teetotaler and thus disapproves of any kind of naughty sexual behaviour. After an innocent lie to her best friend Rhiannon that she went on a date with a college student, she’s asked the immortal question – did you lose your virginity? Rhiannon’s persistence prompts Olive to further the lie and yes, admit she popped her cherry.

Via emails and texts, the information flies through the school and instantly Olive is looked at like she’s a different person. Whether people she thinks a slut, or whether guys think she’s now more available Olive becomes popular. When her gay best friend asks her to pretend they slept together in order for him to appear straight Olive furthers her reputation. Soon she’s accepting bribes for ‘fake sleeping’ with people.

Though Olive hasn’t actually slept with anyone, she has replaced one sin (sex) for another (lying), and this will of course backfire on her. Unfortunately, the problem with this film is that Olive never truly feels threatened by any of the backlash. Nor did we ever feel as if she truly desired the popularity. Olive stays ‘grounded’ and ‘superior’ to everyone and everything around her no matter what happens. Only when she’s nearly date raped do her actions ‘kind of’ set in.

And her parents played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are acting in a completely different movie altogether, with a completely different script. Curiously they are even more laid back and disaffected by Olive’s actions and new reputation. Perhaps they’re supposed to be characterized against type, as liberal parents, accepting of the new realities of adolescent life, but there’s no conflict and thus they have no purpose being in the film.

Also, the consistent pop cultural references to John Hughes and Cameron Crowe feel played out many many years too late. For example the emotional climax for Olive comes in the form of Woodchuck Todd (Badgley) doing his John Cusack impression from Say Anything, holding a pair of speakers over his head proclaiming his love to her. There’s also a whole montage of clips from other teen classics inserted directly into the movie.

Will Easy A make for another teen classic? The critical consensus might suggest that. But what moments from Gluck’s film would we add to it’s own montage? The final shot of Todd and Olive riding a lawn mower off screen with their fists in the air like Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club – certainly not.

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

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The King's Speech

The King’s Speech (2010) dir. Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Timothy Spall

****

By Alan Bacchus

There seems to be an endless number of Oscar-worthy stories to be produced from the Royal Family. This year’s awards fodder is the story of King George VI, the quiet king, the father of Queen Elizabeth II, who took over from the abdicated Edward VIII, and who famously had a stutter. As usual it’s a classy affair full of handsome performances, but Hooper manages to avoid the usual stodginess of this type of material with a distinct visual design and a deep affection and accessibility of his characters.

Hooper starts off in 1925 wherein then Duke of York, Albert (his real name), played by Colin Firth, is all sweaty palms in anticipation of a speech he’s required to make at Wembley Stadium. Due to his stammering, the speech is a disaster, an event which public humiliated him. Moving on to 1932, after numerous speech therapists Albert, or Bertie, as he was affectionately known, swears off all treatment. That is, until his devoted wife Elizabeth, aka, ‘the Queen Mother’ (Bonham-Carter), seeks out a renowned but ‘common’ Australian ‘speech defect’ therapist, Dr. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). A meeting is engineered, where the sly doctor manages to prove to the doubting-Thomas Bertie that his condition is psychological. With trust fully in place the pair embark on a decades long journey toward rehabilitation of body and soul.

Upon this routine narrative skeleton, that is, the close relationship of doctor and patient, Hooper hangs a rather far reaching and expansive story of not only tumultuous British Royal politics but the dramatic events of the 1930’s which led to WWII.

Rush and Firth make tremendous friends and adversaries. The initial stand off between doctor and patient goes deep through a number of fascinating levels. First there’s the obvious embarrassment of Albert who has to open his inadequacies to a total stranger; there’s also the socio-economic/class separation, which, at a glance, would seem petty and frivolous, but considering the time and place in which the film takes place, there’s both realism and drama when Albert says something like, ‘I’ve never been alone in a room with someone like you (SIC).’ Indeed Logue meeting Albert is like oil and water, but a remarkably profound and emotional relationship which develops ever so slowly over these years.

King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson, the twice divorced American socialite whom he marries forcing him to abdicate the throne are made out to be the villains and as played by Guy Pearce and Eve Best, pompous boobs really. A curious choice, considering history has always portrayed the pair as romantic heroes for choosing love over fame, power and celebrity. It was a little oft putting, though I guess the reality lies somewhere in between these two characterizations.

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush rightfully deserve their acclaim, and both might just win Oscars for their roles, but Hooper’s direction should not go unnoticed either. His lenswork is more than than just point and shoot or beautifying the era, he makes a conscious effort to show us something fresh. All things considered it’s a rather awkward visual philosophy, using wide angle lenses to open up vertical space in the frame vertically. Most of his compositions frame his characters in the lower half of the screen, filling the negative space with the expansive rooms, staircases or cloudy London skies. But with this approach Hooper is forced to put his actors closer to the camera, which translates subliminally to being closer to the audience.

The screenplay is as perfect as any of these period dramas. The lengthy time frame is compressed with just a couple montage scenes, and when the film does abruptly cut to 3 or 4 or 5 years later, we never feel as if we’ve missed out or been hopscotching through history. The final act speech is inspiring stuff, not only does it narratively bookend the opening and close off George’s character arc, but shows the effect of his personal journey on the fate of the world at large. The stakes couldn’t be any higher and the gravitas of the moment is paid off by Hooper’s superb direction of this final set piece.

In the end, The King’s Speech manages to humanize these entitled Royals better than any other film or recent memory. Despite George’s right, title and privilege, he’s a self-hating broken man, emasculated by his stutter. And Hooper makes us feel every moment of his pain as well as his eventual triumphs.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Stuck

Stuck (2007) dir. Stuart Gordon
Starring: Mena Suvari, Stephen Rea, Russell Hornsby

***

By Alan Bacchus

“Stuck” has a delightfully intriguing film concept – a man is hit by a car and gets stuck in the windshield. The female driver fears prosecution and drives him to her home where she leaves him to die in her garage overnight. And ironically the film is inspired by actual events. Veteran horror-film director Stuart “Re-Animator” Gordon and writer John Strysik tackles the story with a unique b-movie spin turning the film into an effective absurdist black comedy.

Stephen Rea plays the humble protagonist Tom. He’s just been evicted from his apartment and forced out onto the street with a handful of clothes as his only possessions. He’s met by a kindly homeless person who graciously gives him a grocery cart to carry his belongings. Tom thinks he’s at the lowest possible point in his life, until he meets Brandi that is.

Brandi (Mena Suvari) is interestingly drawn. She’s a decent care-worker in an old age home. She seems to have her head on both shoulders – career-oriented, responsible and hardworking. But Brandi’s not all red roses. She’s got a gangster-streak in her. Brandi’s hair is braided into atrociously inappropriate cornrows, and her nails are intricately painted like museum artwork. Her boyfriend – Rashid (Russell Hornsby) is a drug dealer who supplies her and her friends with a steady supply of ecstasy and weed. After a night of partying Brandi drives home high and crashes into friendly Tom. The crash is horrific, dramatized in super slo-mo, breaking his shins and sending him hurdling into the windshield. Brandi is so shocked she drives him home into her garage to gather her thoughts.

Fearing criminal charges she doesn’t tell anyone, until the next day when he enlists Rashid into ‘taking care’ of the problem and making Tom disappear. But Tom is a resilient crash victim and so begins a battle for survival against Brandi and Rashid.

The first half struggles with the tone. The opening sequence is a slow-motion parody of rap videos inside the old folks home. And when we first see Brandi’s cornrows, it’s a shock – in fact, I couldn’t not take my eyes off them the whole film. After the crash, with Tom stuck in the windshield, their interaction is off kilter. I couldn’t figure out if the film was horror, comedy, drama or all of the above. As the film moves along and Tom has to find safety the film’s tone made sense. It settles nicely into a b-movie absurdist black comedy territory which could have played along side Tarantino and Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse” doublebill.

The sex scene with Brandi and Rashid is shown in graphic length. It’s exploitive and funny at the same time. The hallucination of Tom coming through the windshield while Rashid is on top of Brandi confirmed the tone. And the battle in the garage is wonderful Grindhouse-like sequence of events.

Mena Suvari, who also serves as one of the producers, is surprisingly good and turns in a darkly comic outrageous performance. She has no problem having fun with the role, braiding her hair and stripping down for some nasty sex.

Stuck” knows its place in the genre. Like “Snakes on a Plane”, it's a fun experience for a cine-loving audience. “Stuck” bests “Snakes” because it doesn’t coast by on the premise, it brings us some genuine thrills, chills and laughs with a Ripley's Believe it or Not authenticity.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Salt

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

***

By Alan Bacchus

Top of the list of red flags coming into this picture was director Phillip Noyce – the Aussie filmmaker who startled us with 1989’s ‘Dead Calm’ a thrilling Polanski-esque three hander, but then quickly sold out to Hollywood studio filmmaking and movie and movie which never lived up the promise of Dead Calm – there were the two dull Harrison Ford Jack Ryan pictures, Sliver, The Saint, The Bone Collector all films which were technically competent but unmemorable. (note: Rabbit Proof Fence was acclaimed but OK, and I never saw The Quiet American)

Then along comes Salt, starring Angelina Jolie, which seemed to be another high concept action vehicle with the same stench of girl power awfulness as, Wanted or the Tomb Raider movies. But after 10mins or so it became apparent this isn’t just another Phillip Noyce hackfest or Jolie-feminism, but a sharp as nails, tight, no frills actioner.

Part of the surprise is the adherence to an old school action aesthetic. Running, shooting and good old fashioned stunt work provides all the thrills, very few of which are enhanced/engorged with CG, the cinematic equivalent of steroids.

Angelina Jolie portrays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative, who can shoot guns, fight, ride motorcycles, and MacGyver a bazooka from a fire extinguisher as good as any action hero we’ve seen. What separates Salt from Wanted or Tomb Raider though is the surprising degree of humanness in the character. Before she takes off on her journey, we see her, believably, as a dedicated wife to a supportive and loving husband – and the reason why she exercises her fight or flight syndrome.

The disruption in her domestic life comes in the form of a captured Russian politician who claims Salt is actually a Russian spy planted in the US when she was a child. Fearing retaliation against her family Evelyn takes off, on the run from her own colleagues. On her heels is the whip smart Peabody (Ejiofor) and Salt’s old pal Ted (Schreiber).

Whilst Ms. Jolie is being chased Noyce and company cleverly manage to keep us in doubt as to Salt’s real affiliation – is she a spy? Or is she not? And if she is, does she still have allegiance to mother Russia? Or has she become a card carrying American?

Looking back, perhaps Phillip Noyce was the best person to direct this script. On the surface the idea of a stone cold spy with some memory problems would appear to be another Bourne knockoff with a female twist. But Noyce’s modest production philosophy separates it from the Greengrass’ shaky action. In fact, the tone actually harkens back to 1993’s The Fugitive. Director Andrew Davis, another competent though unflashy action director, never made a better before or after The Fugitive, but the adherence to a simple visual style, but with expertly choreographed action in the realm of realism made for sublime entertainment.

Same goes for Salt.

Other key creative responsible for this success are the editing work of action editor extraordinaire, Stuart Baird, Kurt Wimmer’s script, which is as lean as it can be considering the complicated set-up, and perhaps most important James Newton Howard’s aggressive pulsating score which is quite phenomenal.

The major quibble of implausibility over and above the plot holes (which don’t matter too much anyway) is the leap of faith we must take to believe that Ms. Jolie, who looks all of 100lbs of rake thin skin and bones could actually fight off trained spies twice her size. It's just a small leap though. Salt is a real 'wimmer'.

'Salt' is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Everyone Says I Look Just Like Her

Everyone Says I Look Just Like Her (2010) dir. Ryan A. Balas
Starring: Deidre Herlihy, Jace Nicole, Ryan A. Balas, Joe Swanberg

**1/2

By Reece Crothers

The tone of Ryan Balas' second feature film, much like it's title, is occasionally reminiscent of middle period Woody Allen, and in its best moments evokes the grim, pretty, heartwrenching moments between intimates in claustrophobic settings that Woody perfected in Interiors and September.

The story follows two half sisters, one white and one black, and their awkward boyfriends, who spend a weekend together in a cozy cabin in the Michigan woods. The girls are waiting for the arrival of their father for the tenth anniversary of their mother's death. In a more traditional film the suggested impending confrontation with the father might make for the climax, but we never get to the father's arrival. Likewise, you might expect the drama to concern itself with issues of race given the different backgrounds of the sisters. Instead the talky story's drama is mostly made up of tiny moments, small disagreements or misunderstandings, while waiting. It's an interesting narrative choice to avoid the expected dramas the filmmakers set up in the first act, but one with not much of a pay off as it also afflicts the film with the same aimlessness as its protagonists.

There is one playful moment of tonal shift when three of the main characters are paid a surprise visit and the movie suddenly feels like it is about to shift into "Halloween" territory. But that moment passes quickly and the film's trajectory returns to a mumblecore chamber piece. I guess if I want to see a mumble-horror I'll have to finally watch the Duplass brothers' "Baghead" (Which I avoided because of "Puffy Chair" but am now reconsidering because of "Cyrus").

The end result here is something like a really intense exercise in an improv-acting class. Everybody digs deep and reaches cathartic emotional moments but it takes a long time to get there and it doesn't all hold together as one thematic whole. That's why acting classes don't have audiences. They are emotionally messy, occasionally profound, but designed for the benefit of the actor, not the spectator. The story's aimlessness robs the film and the audience of the same catharsis that its players seem to reach. The film feels authentic because of the mumble-core aesthetic, like watching someone elses home videos, or like going away for the weekend with two couples who seem to be having a great time but never ask you to join in on the fun. And here they actually don't seem to be having that much fun.

It's one of the mumblecore genre's shortcomings, that it's films so often confuse "awkward" with "dramatic". Perhaps it is a side-effect of the youthful filmmakers behind the films. But the youth of its filmmakers and its protagonists is also mumblecore's greatest asset. It's a catch 22. It's hard to know how to relate to others when you still haven't figured out who you are. That seems to be the central thesis of all of the mumblecore films. It's an astute observation, but the insight often ends there. The filmmakers, like the characters (and often the filmmakers are also the actors playing those characters) are still working through these confusing feelings, still searching for an identity, and they lack the clarity of hindsight.

Co-starring here as the fuck buddy, Joe Swanberg has always been a fascinating filmmaker, but he really blossomed in his last picture "Alexander The Last" because his characters seemed to finally figure things out, finally grew out of the confusion that is so much of your 20s. When I wrote about that Swanberg picture I titled the piece "The Film That Killed Mumblecore" because after that movie I didn't think one could go back to asking the same questions that it already seemed to answer. "Alexander" basically ended the need for further examination of the themes that have dominated the mumblecore films en masse.

While I felt myself craving a more, dare I say it, traditional central narrative to drive the plot forward, I actually enjoyed many of the technical aspects. Balas continues mumblecore's fascination with documentary aesthetics - handheld cameras, over-use of tightly framed shots, low-lighting, etc) and the film feels very intimate and personal. Too much so at first. There is an uncomfortable voyeurism in the frank sexual depiction of the first couple early in the film because we don't know the characters well enough yet to be in bed with them. But as the film plays we slowly get to know the young couple, the visiting sister, her new fuck buddy, and start to care about them too. There is a quiet assuredness in the pacing (that would really have worked with more punch to the dramatic bits) and the restrained use of music is very effective in a few almost transcendent sequences. The best of these comes right at the end.

It's actually the ending that I loved most, and all is usually well that ends well. It is unexpectedly sweet and moving and beautifully shot. The cast stands in a field at sundown and lights paper lanterns that rise and disappear into a darkening sky. That may be the most accurate metaphor for the end of youth in any mumblecore film yet. I'm looking forward to what Balas does next.

Friday, 17 December 2010

The Other Guys

The Other Guys (2010) dir Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Michael Keaton, Steve Coogan, Eva Mendes, Dwaybe Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson

***

By Alan Bacchus

If Step Brothers was the most ridiculous mainstream comedy to be made in the last 10 years (and it IS), then The Other Guys, Adam McKay’s next feature film is certainly the most ridiculous action comedy in a long time.

The fact is, this latest film from the Funny or Die team is a subversive, funny but also frustrating experience. The story of The Other Guys is negligiable – a turnkey cop flick about two pencil pushing policemen who get to go in the field for once and take down a nefarious group of white collar criminals in New York.

Considering how much money is spent on these Adam McKay films, we owe the studio some credit for the fact that these movies appear to be made on the fly without much of a script. While most films, even comedies, start with a script, these films succeed in the ability of its stars Ferrell, Wahlberg and their myriad of talented supporting actors to let loose and free associate comedy in front of their million dollar cameras, lenses, lights and crew.

This is why the special features on these movies are as important as what actually made it to the screen. I couldn’t wait to get to the ‘line-o-rama’ featurette which accompanies all these types of film, including the Judd Apatow produced ones as well. It doesn't disappoint.

All things considered The Other Guys isn’t really that good. Does it even qualify as a movie? Do we care what happens our two heroes in the end? As I write this, I can’t even remember how it ends. Will Ferrell’s character has so very little grounding in either a real world context, or even a Hollywood reality.

Will Ferrell’s captain Gene Mauch starts off as an indentifiable accounting geek who prefers the safety of his desk. His awe and fear of the action cops in his precinct such as the supercops played by Samuel Jackson and Dwayne Johnson is endearing and makes a terrific starting point for a dramatic character. It doesn’t long for this arc to go askew once his backstory is revealed. However ridiculous, Ferrell keeps a straight face in telling us how he befriended a female student on campus at university, ‘helped’ her get dates and acting as a go-between her and the men in exchange for money. ‘You mean you were a pimp?”, says Wahlberg. From there the joke goes off, over the top, into full fledged velvet suit, gold tooth wearing pimping. At this point most of the character established in the opening is lost in favour of this outrageous and extreme characterization.

However inconsistent, it’s all in aid of a good laugh. And few other comedy teams go for it more then McKay and Ferrell. However boring the actual narrative story, we’re constantly on the edge of our seat for the next comic set piece. My favourite might just be Will Ferrell’s freakout at Steve Coogan’s office where he plays bad cop, bad cop instead of good cop, bad cop. Or the wicked funny montage featuring Ferrell and Wahlberg succombing to Coogan’s bribery in the form of Jersey Boys tickets, courtside Knicks seats, even the cucumber water served in the office.

Also, I have to say thank you Adam McKay for casting Michael Keaton, who is sorely neglected and underused in Hollywood these days (Tim Burton, please throw him a bone too).

“The Other Guys” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Going the Distance

Going the Distance (2010) dir. Nanette Burnstein
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Justin Long, Jason Sudekis, Charlie Day, Christina Applegate

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The long distance relationship is the hook of this romantic comedy, which moderately succeeds as a vehicle for then real life BF/GF Drew Barrymore and Justin Long. These supremely engaging and accessible leads are perfectly cast as boyfriend and girlfriend stuck on two different coasts trying to maintain some semblance of a relationship.

Garrett (Long) is a NY record exec and Erin (Barrymore) is an aspiring writer finishing an internship also living in New York. After Garrett gets dumped he meets Erin, hits it off, sleeps with her then debriefs and debates the activities with his uber-male roommates played by Charlie Day and Jason Sudekis. Unfortunately Erin is due to go to University on the West Coast. All signs lead to a doomed relationship, and despite their misgivings about continuing their relationship they are simply in love.

Visits every few months are momentary fits of bliss, but invariably temptation creeps in for both lovers and they soon finding themselves fighting to maintain their relationship against the odds of the 3000miles between them.

I can certainly sympathize with the frustration doing the ‘long distance thing', and the writer and director never strays from this core conundrum. Director Burnstein (a solid documentary director, now branching out into drama) adequately conveys the conflict between the emotional needs of her characters to be together and their mutal stubborness (and fear) of sacrificing their careers for a relationship. It’s a fundamental choice most of us continually face in our lives everyday, and this connection is not lost on us.

It’s refreshing to see actors like Justin Long in lead roles such as this. He’s extremely funny, but in a droll, relaxed way. His humour is understatated and doesn’t overwhelm the drama of the situations. He’s also a normal looking, relatable guy. As opposed to older beefcakes like Gerard Butler, or Matthew McConaughey who exist in some other kind of fantasy world of Hollywood stardom.

For good and bad, the film fits snugly into the rom-com template. The supporting characters act like the angel and devil both the shoulders of Garrett and Erin. SNL alum Jason Sudekis and Charlie Day are passably funny, but overwritten, over playing their comic relief roles too much. The wonderful Jim Gaffigan, on the other hand, is marvelous in his brief role as Erin’s emasculated brother-in-the-law. Christina Applegate’s comic chops serve the film well as Erin’s sister who’s by-the-numbers passionless marriage acts as a red flag for Erin to truely take the plunge with Garrett.

Missing is a memorable and creative finale (warning, some spoilers ahead...) After the lovers agree to call it off, we know they will eventually get back together, but it's dramatized in the denouement, like an added on scene at the end to provide closure. The actions of the characters which lead to their reunification happens off screen and over the course of a year long flash-forward when Garrett finds the impetus to leave his soul sucking job and move to San Francisco. And so at the end Garrett just ‘shows up’ like magic.

Going the Distance makes a decent Sunday rental when you’re hungover from a heavy night of drinking with the girlfriend and his or her girlfriend pals.

“Going the Distance” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Warner Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

True Grit

True Grit (1969) dir. Henry Hathaway
Starring: John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall, Strother Martin

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Before the Coen Bros remake, True Grit was known as the film which won John Wayne an Oscar. I’m sure the public consensus back in ’69 was that the win was one of those soft victories recognized more for his body of work than being the best performance of the year. The movie survives surprisingly well with today’s eyes though. Despite having an old studio director (Henry Hathaway) in his 70's directing a film in a time when the Hollywood rules were being broken by its ambitious youth, it doesn’t feel at all old fashioned. And John Wayne fits in perfectly with the times, playing against his diametically opposite in Kim Darby.

Wayne plays the aged Rooster Cogburn, an alcoholic Marshall who’s hired by a young but determined girl looking to track down the killer of her father. It was John Wayne’s only Academy nomination, but was it the best performance of that year? No. Was it even the best performance of his career? Probably yes, as there’s some magic and charisma in Wayne which few other actors, ever in cinema, can lay claim to.

The heart and soul of the film and the reason the film is not only watchable but supremely entertaining is Kim Darby who plays the spunky Mattie Ross, a teenager who comes to town looking to hire Cogburn to track the killer of his father because she’s heard he has ‘grit’. Darby is so magnetic, lovable and inspiring she’s a minor miracle. Her diminutive stature, boyish haircut and Christian innoncence contrasts perfectly against Cogburn’s eye patch and haggard appearance.

Every frame of the film is full of life and energy. The intergenerational conflict between Ross and Cogburn never slows down and if that were to get predictable there’s the character of Leboeuf (Glen Campbell), the handsome opportunist looking to make some money off of the warrant issued on the killer. The common thread between three characters is their mutual appreciation for the values and rules of the Old West.

Henry Hathaway, was aged 71 when True Grit was made and compared to the late career output of other directors his age, such as Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, this film is best of these other directors' latter films. The on location work throughout the mountains and valley of Oregan is simply stunning. Little if any process studio work was used and so, Hathaway delivers a film which seems as visually vibrant and modern as say the youthful and stylish ‘Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid’ which also came out that year.

It’s no surprise this material teased the pallette of the Coen Bros. They’ve always been drawn to films with a journey and there’s plenty of warm and wonderful supporting characters the heroes meet along the way makes this a highly updatable and reworkable old film.

True Grit is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Home Entertainment

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder (1990) dir. Adrian Lyne
Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Matt Craven, Macauley Culkin

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Before Shutter Island, there was Jacob’s Ladder, a comparable but much superior version of a man’s psychological troubles haunting him, causing him to see all sorts of demons, ghosts and other grotesque creatures. Whereas in Scorsese’s silly and contrived melodrama it was Leonardo Di Caprio’s long dead wife who plagues his mind, in Jacob’s Ladder it’s the Vietnam War which is on trial here.

Jacob Singer (Robbins) is a Vietnam vet trying to find answers to a series of frightful hallucinations and dreams he finds himself in. The film is manipulative, fractured and structured as a series of dreams, flashbacks, and alternate realities. Adrian Lyne’s direction and frightful situations he places Singer and us, the audience in, make for a wild ride. It’s a real mind fuck of a film and tough to place in a genre - part psychological thriller, part political paranoia, part horror, part war but in the end, ultimately, it’s a sad tragedy about the gentle mind of a man manipulated and destroyed.

We first meet Jacob Singer in Vietnam – smoking up with his Nam buddies, enjoying the camaraderie of soldiership. But when a sudden attack hits their camp something takes over their bodies. Jacob’s company start convulsing rapidly as a powerful unknown force strikes at their brains. We then cut to Singer waking up from this dream. He’s back home traveling on a New York subway train. Even when he’s not dreaming surreal people and events happen to him at random. Whether it’s a train of creepy demons that almost hits him in the subway, or an un-anaesthetized brain operation in a decrepit mental hospital, his life is a waking nightmare.

Singer’s wife is the lovely Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña). She’s a supportive and loving partner but when Singer’s surreal flashbacks and hallucinations move into his domestic life their marriage starts to crack. But Singer also had a previous life with another wife and three kids one of whom (played by Macauley Culkin) died tragically in a car accident. Singer frequently flashes back to Vietnam as well. All of these flashbacks seem so real to Singer we never know which is reality and which are hallucinations. With the help of his surviving Vietnam platoon-members Singer uncovers a government conspiracy about secret drug testing and psychological experimentation. But it isn’t until the very end do we really know what is going on in the head of Jacob Singer. It’s not a “Sixth Sense” twist shocker, but it does put the entire film into perspective and provides poignant closure.

Jacob’s Ladder” puts style and substance on equal ground. The film looks fantastic. Adrian Lyne perfects the mood and atmosphere from the outset. The subway scene is a tremendous sequence, capped off with the haunting image of a demon in a subway car watching Jacob as it speeds away in the distance. The house party dance sequence is simply magnificent set piece. Starting off with the Lady Marmalade pop anthem it’s an innocent dance party until James Brown kicks in, the strobe lights starts, people’s heads start convulsing wildly, then his girlfriend appears to be getting banged from behind by a demon with a tail.

The film was made in 1990 and it has that late 80’s, early 90’s look of the British commercial generation (which includes Tony Scott, Ridley Scott and Alan Parker) - long lenses, underlit interiors with strong backlighting, and the ever-present hazy smoke-filled rooms. The result compliments the dreamy haze of Singer’s life.

Adrian Lyne is an interesting director. He’s only made nine films in 30 years – and only six since 1983’s hit “Flashdance”. Yet each of his films have been successful in one way or another. He should be getting more work than he does. Maybe he’s picky, or enjoys taking his time with his projects. He hasn’t made a film since 2002’s “Unfaithful” and his next film is still unknown. His career is as mysterious and thought-provoking as his films. “Jacob’s Ladder” is one of his best.

Jacob's Ladder is available on Blu-Ray from Maple Pictures in Canada