DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: August 2011

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010) dir. Eli Craig
Starring: Tyler Labine,


By Alan Bacchus

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil manages to find an angle in the cabin movie horror genre still untapped. Eli Craig lampoons these films by putting his audience in the point of view of hillbilly psychopath characters creating a great comedy of errors pitting a couple of lovable but hapless hillbillies against a group of pretentious college students. It makes for a riotous comic horror affair.

Tucker and Dale (Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk) are a couple of backwater hillbillies lifted from Deliverance, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, except they’re actually really conscientious, genuine and respectable citizens. But to a bunch of spoiled college kids on a camping trip who’ve seen all these movies they look like psychopaths.

They first meet at a local gas station where Eli Craig cleverly intercuts the two conversations of the two sets of characters. The college kids can only see crazed maniacs based on the hillbillies’ actions and words, but from Tucker and Dale’s point of view, they’re just trying to make friends. Tyler Labine plays the trivia-smart/common sense-dumb Tucker with great sincerity. Early on, Tucker tries to ask the blonde hottie Allison (Katrina Bowden) out on a date. Despite his good intentions, he comes off as more than awkward and, to Allison, a psychotic inbred killer.

Tucker and Dale and the college kids (which becomes Tucker’s generalized term for them) convene again at a decrepit cabin in the woods. What looks like an Evil Dead cabin to the kids is the ‘summer home’ purchased by Tucker and Dale, who have become proud homeowners.

The comedy of errors escalates into action when, by accident, the kids start killing themselves in horrific ways, which of course make Tucker and Dale look like murderers. At one point, while Dale is chopping some wood, one of the kids runs after him and accidentally jumps into the chipper. A fun love story emerges between Tucker and Allison, a beauty and the beast romance, which caps off this ingenious genre twister.

Tucker & Dale is fun midnight madness entertainment. Like Shaun of the Dead, Craig has an intimate love for the genre, and his knowledge of the tropes of cabin-in-the-woods storytelling makes for a movie as genuine as it is honest. And Craig has heaps of comic gore to satisfy the blood quotient of the genre. But it's Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk, who riff and roll like a great Laurel and Hardy comedic duo, that make this even more fun than the twisty concept.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Zero Hour!

Zero Hour! (1957) dir. Hall Bartlett
Starring: Dana Andrews, Stirling Hayden, Linda Darnell, Peggy King


By Alan Bacchus

Ted Stryker is a shamed WWII pilot suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after failing his squadron and taking the blame for their deaths in battle. In the present he’s a wreck, as his wife recently walked out on him with their young boy. When he learns about her location and gets a seat on a flight across the country, he’s suddenly thrust into another traumatic situation. With half of the passengers, including both pilots, sick from food poisoning, Stryker has a chance to redeem himself by flying the plane to safety – if his nerves don’t knock him down first.

No, this is not the summary for Airplane!, the wild Zucker/Abrams/Zucker comedy from 1980. But Zero Hour! was their main influence – a disaster film, which, looking back, serves as a near carbon copy of their film, right down to the exclamation mark at the end of the title!

I know Airplane! intimately. It’s one of the greatest and most influential comedies ever made. And yes, I know the film was intended as a satire disaster film. And yes, I even know Zero Hour!, made years before the genre trend in the ‘70s, was a plotting influence. This would be considered blatant theft, but the filmmakers had such reverence for the material they outright purchased Arthur Hailey’s screenplay rights (originally broadcast for television on the CBC!) to remake the movie as a comedy.

Remarkably, both films line up perfectly side by side. Even the character names are the same. Dana Andrews as Ted Stryker in Zero Hour! is just like Robert Hays – a sweaty, twitching shell of a man ruined by his war experiences. The opening flashback sequences to 'the War’ resemble Airplane!’s Vietnam sequences right down to the superimposed images of Stryker’s anguished face over the battle footage. Once on the plane, even the compositions and mise-en-scene are the same.

Geoffrey Toone, playing the doctor character, chews the scenery so marvellously, rendering Leslie Nielsen’s over-the-top serious recreation of the character even funnier. And like the comedic version, as we see the tense decisions made on the plane we also get to see the cigarette-smoking air traffic controllers sweating buckets on land. Midway through, Sterling Hayden enters the picture playing Stryker’s former Captain charged with guiding Stryker to safety. Like Robert Stack’s egotistical Capt. Kramer, his bravura presence and cigar-chomping, no-bullshit attitude trumps even Toone’s authoritarian presence. And early on, Joey, Stryker’s wide-eyed boy, is introduced to the pilot in the flight deck. Watching that scene play out knowing how deliriously naughty Peter Graves plays it is difficult to take out of one’s mind.

So how can I even judge Zero Hour! on its own merits? It’s impossible. But, looking back on my old review of Airplane! I have to quote myself:
“Airplane! is rooted in a real story, which, if told in another genre, could actually work. Although the filmmakers try their best to score every gag, not everything hits the mark for everybody. But in between the lewd, rude and crude behaviour, there’s engaging and likeable characters. So when you’re not laughing, it’s not a chore to actually watch the film."

The fact is, Zero Hour!, however overdramatized, is a lean, mean tense thriller. At 90 minutes, it’s a white knuckle action film. There’s almost no inter-character conflict, and it is suspense cinema stripped down to its essential elements – all the chaff is stripped away. The fact that both versions are supremely watchable on their own and are enhanced by the presence of the other is a testament to the words originally put onto paper by its creator, Arthur Hailey.

Monday, 29 August 2011


Elephant (2003) dir. Gus Van Sant
Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Timothy Bottoms, Elias McConnell


By Alan Bacchus

Like Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, in Elephant Gus Van Sant magnificently manages to create great art out of great tragedy. Indeed, both works of art are comparable. From the bombing of the city of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, Picasso rendered his most recognizable painting. For Gus Van Sant, his inspiration for Elephant, his universally celebrated Palme D’Or-winning film, was a reaction to the Columbine school shooting – a seminal event in recent US history. Years from now when we look back on his career, this might be his crowning achievement.

Van Sant’s determined minimalist style is so very deceptive and wholly cinematic. It’s cinematic in the sense that the languid and quiet pace creates an eerie tension. This serves to establish realism and makes us believe that the high school and students depicted in the film could actually exist – a high school with nameless, faceless kids free of all preconceived notions of a movie ‘high school’. But it also establishes a sense of boredom, which disarms the viewer to the inhumane tragedy about to unfold.

The film is a technical touchstone of cinematic technique. Harris Savides’ steadycam achieves some rather unique accomplishments, moving both inside and outside the school with complete unity in the lighting and depth of field. Whether or not you notice this specifically, the fluidity of the camera that creates a feeling of elegant motion is front and centre. The visual design of placing his characters in the centre of the frame moving through hallways might even connect, whether purposefully or subliminally, with the point of view in which computer games are played by the two killers in the film. Or maybe Van Sant intended to echo the eerily cold feeling of the overlook hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Look closely to follow the shifting point of view. In mid-shot, Van Sant often moves from a tracking shot following a character to a reaction shot of other characters looking down the barrel of the camera. This occurs specifically when the handsome jock turns the heads of the nattering bulimic girls in the hallway.

If there’s a false note in the film it’s the depiction of Alex and Eric as emotionless stone cold killers. When the film switches to their stories, he’s clear to show their inane and confounding activities prior to the carnage, including their planning process, executed without an ounce of remorse or self-doubt, or an acknowledgement of their fate. There’s also the gay shower scene, which creates even more confusion and questions. Regardless of how the Columbine killers conducted themselves before their rampage, their detachment from reality is frightfully terrifying.

The massacre scene that fills the third act admirably does not sensationalize the murders. The depiction of death and the often confusing actions of some of the kids just before death feel so utterly real. Benny, for instance, skulks around the school like a brainless zombie thinking he’s immune to the killers’ weaponry. And his death, so undramatic and thoughtless, is difficult to comprehend or make sense of, yet it makes sense given the way Van Sant plays out Benny’s movements.

That said, Elephant is not meant to make sense of any aspect of this tragedy, other than, like Guernica, an abstract instinctive visceral reaction from the soul of an artist.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Chasing Madoff

Chasing Madoff (2011) dir. Jeff Prosserman


By Alan Bacchus

The latest subject of white-collar crime activist filmmaking is Bernie Madoff, that detestable Wall Street fraudster and conspirator of a 50 billion dollar Ponzi/Pyramid scheme. Based on the title, Chasing Madoff isn't about the man himself. Rather, it’s about the team of men chasing him down, specifically chief whistleblower Harry Markopolos, a Boston financial manager, who at first sought to compete directly with Madoff for clients until he discovered the damning evidence of market fraud, thus compelling him to embark upon a decade-long journey to expose Madoff's crimes.

Like the fine financial docs Inside Job (Charles Ferguson), Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Alex Gibney) and the Sundance-screened The Flaw (David Sington), Chasing Madoff is effectively harsh towards not only Madoff, but also the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), The Wall Street Journal and other checks and balances that are set up to prevent this shocking miscarriage of justice.

Director Jeff Prosserman takes an especially clinical approach, employing most of the same cinematic techniques as the great Errol Morris (Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, Tabloid): centre-framed interviewees against monochrome backgrounds looking directly into the camera. Morris has been doing this for 30 years, and as used by Prosserman, his techniques are still effective. Prosserman also employs a significant amount of well-executed digital effects to transition between interviews ― the effect of scrolling through photos on a touch phone or iPad. His dramatic recreations are also in the Morris style: abstractly visualized scenes that fill in the visual gaps of his subjects' testimony.

Prosserman's clinical approach wears though, specifically Markopolos's emotionally detached testimony, which dampens the dramatic tension. Unlike Inside Job, Chasing Madoff simmers but never boils.

After the 10-year odyssey of Markopolos risking the safety of his family to "do the right thing," Madoff is caught by the same market he manipulated for so long ― the financial crisis of 2008. Not even Madoff could escape the pressure of the sub-prime mortgage affair, thus toppling his precarious house of cards almost instantly. Does this render Markopolos's efforts obsolete? Perhaps. With or without Markopolos, the financial crisis would have happened, and Madoff would have gone down, which consequently reduces the dramatic power of the film.

And though it's a different film, we also can't help but want to know more about the actual Bernie Madoff and how a wealthy, educated man would commit such heinous crimes. I suspect that might be a better story. That said, Chasing Madoff accomplishes its goals and is a strong cinematic documentary informing us about the events that led to the indictment of this now infamous Wall Street criminal.

This article first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Terminal Man

The Terminal Man (1974) dir. Mike Hodges
Starring: George Segal, Joan Hackett, Richard A. Dysart, Jill Clayburgh, Donald Moffat, Matt Clark, Michael C. Gwynne, James B. Sikking and William Hansen


By Greg Klymkiw

Forces increasingly dominate us beyond our control. In this respect, Mike Hodges’s brilliant 1974 science fiction thriller The Terminal Man, adapted from Michael Crichton’s chilling novel of the same name, seems more scary and necessary than ever.

A few nitpicking details from when the film was made over 35-years-ago – outmoded robots and doctors puffing away on cigarettes in a hospital – are not enough to seriously date it.

The Terminal Man is a movie that displays a keen ahead-of-its-time sophistication in both execution and subject matter.

Harry Benson (George Segal) is a brilliant young computer scientist. He suffers from epileptic blackouts wherein aberrant behaviour, including vicious uncontrollable acts of violence lead to criminal incarceration. Adding to this mix is Harry’s paranoia-fuelled mistrust of computers themselves – an especially queer fear for someone considered above the curve in terms of his research.

In seeming desperation, Harry agrees to become a human guinea pig for a group of surgeons who believe behaviour can be controlled by implanting chips and electrodes in the brain, which, in turn, are connected to a mini-computer within the body.

Like any great Frankenstein tale, shit goes wrong - horribly wrong.

What makes The Terminal Man such a terrific picture is screenwriter-director Mike Hodges. Working at the peak of his powers (having just rendered Get Carter, the extraordinary and deliciously nasty British crime thriller with Michael Caine), Hodges infuses the movie with an ultra-creepy mise-en-scene that, for its first half, keeps you super-glued to your seat, eyeballs locked firmly on the screen.

What gets to you is how quiet the movie is – the hollow, late evening reverberations permeating the hospital wherein much of the movie is set, slithering so deeply into your guts that every sound you DO hear is fraught with urgency and where the hushed tones of doctors and nurses infuse everything with paranoia.

One of the stranger cutaways in the picture is when Hodges occasionally directs us to a group of proletarian orderlies guffawing as they disparage their charges. It’s an odd visual and aural juxtaposition between opposite ends of the hospital hierarchy – those on the “bottom” are upfront about their contempt while those on “top” hold their proverbial cards close to their chests. On one hand, this seems like an obvious directorial touch. It is obvious. Importantly it doesn’t take you out of the drama, but forces you at the proper juncture in the story to come to this juxtapositional conclusion and, in fact, adds to the overall feeling of manipulation that is directed at Harry. It also suggests that the world is increasingly fraught with a lack of caring and where self-preservation and contempt are perfectly comfortable bedfellows.

There is also no traditional musical score save for the occasional use of Glenn Gould tinkling his creepy ivories with one of the Goldberg Variations and a brief moment when hospital Muzak filters onto the soundtrack and into Harry’s brain as he is wheeled into the operating theatre. Lack of a full-bodied orchestral score for a thriller was – even in the 70s – a brave, unconventional move. These days – when every thriller is replete with herky-jerky cutting and bombast – such a touch is virtually unheard of (much, I think to the detriment of the genre, audiences and cinema on the whole). Val Lewton’s thrillers for RKO in the 40s were a perfect example of how true horror could be found in the dark and by what you didn’t see. With The Terminal Man, it’s what you don’t HEAR that adds to the terror.

One of the more grotesque elements of Hodges’s terrific picture is how so much of the film is set in a hospital, but even more intense is the inclusion of a brilliant sequence when the operation itself is performed upon Harry. He keeps his lens trained on virtually every pre-op, post-op and during-op moment – the sweat, the rubber gloves, the clamps, the needles, the scalpels, the blinding lights, the fluorescent glare and the ever-present view of white-coated officials viewing the proceedings from above behind glass.

The look of the film also adds to the creep factor. The movie is drained of primary colour – white rules, as does the darkness, the black shroud of evil. The only colours to ever punch out are (appropriately enough) red (during several shocking punctuations of blood-letting) and a typically sad 70s climax/conclusion set amidst the grey tombstones in a lush, green cemetery. Hodges's compositions are straight forward and many of the shots play long - allowing for maximum dramatic impact. One of the more chilling shots that recurs throughout the film is an eye through a peephole, surrounded only by pitch black and framed so that our eyes are drawn immediately to the exposed image and stay there - almost as if we were one the other side being examined.

The cast is first-rate. The gorgeous Joan Hackett provides a bit of offbeat warmth as a psychiatrist who doesn’t trust the operation being performed on Harry. She is surrounded by stalwart 70s character actors like Richard A. Dysart, Matt Clark, Michael C. Gwynne, James B. Sikking and Donald Moffat all delivering their cold, calculating best as the raft of bureaucrats, doctors and scientists. There’s a terrific cameo from the great William Hansen as a doctor from the “old school” who delivers a stirring condemnation of the use of surgery for mental illness and a very young and hot Jill Clayburgh briefly lights up the screen as Harry’s sex kitten girlfriend.

As the title character, George Segal is the true revelation. He was the go-to guy for 70s romantic comedies – in fact, a whole whack of great comedies, my favourite being the thoroughly insane black comedy Where’s Poppa where Ruth Gordon pulls down his pants to kiss his “tuschy”. Segal was, and still is, a great actor and certainly, as he proves in this picture, no mere lightweight. He always had an edge that many comic actors lacked. His performance as Nick in the Mike Nichols film version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf proved that in spades. Here, he blends his edgier qualities with his lighter leading man qualities to present a character we’re with from beginning to end.

The Terminal Man suffers slightly from inevitabilities inherent in both the genre and narrative itself – it’s a Frankenstein story, after all and only a matter of time before Harry runs amuck and must be hunted down. The journey to get there, however, is tremendously compelling.

Mike Hodges is a tremendous underrated director. Not only is it worth seeing The Terminal Man, but I highly recommend the aforementioned Get Carter, his strange crime comedy Pulp, the wonderful, Flash Gordon, a joyous 80s celebration of sci-fi cheese with a score (no-less) by Queen and one of the best British films of the past couple of decades, Croupier.

The Terminal Man is available via on-demand special order from Warner Home Entertainment via the Warner Archives collection. You’ll also find it for sale or rent in specialty video stores. In Toronto, Canada the only places that carry a wide selection of these titles are the flagship store of Sunrise Records at Yonge and Dundas and the newly resurrected Starstruck Video at Dundas and Tomken. As per usual, it’s a simple on-demand package. It features the movie and the trailer. The transfer is from best available materials. One can see the reel change markers every so often, so it has obviously been taken from a solid archival print. The colours – when Hodges allows them – are vivid and the whites are suitably stark. I was especially impressed, as I have been with many of the Warner Archives transfers, with the grain. It’s there!!! And it’s doing its magical dance as only grain can. I’m thankful no over-zealous control room hack has taken the time to mute it.

I’m disturbed, however, that Warner Bros. has chosen not to release this film properly. It’s a sci-fi picture that the core audience – especially of a certain age – absolutely love. Those who missed it the first time round (I was a 15-year-old genre geek when I saw it first-run in the 70s on a big screen), will love it. As well, a whole new generation of geeks deserves to experience it. Given that director Mike Hodges, stars George Segal, Richard A. Dysart, Michael C. Gwynne, Donald Moffat and Matt Clark are all still alive and also given the film’s many admirers (one of whom is Terrence Malick), I’m sure there would be a huge audience if the movie was properly transferred to Blu-Ray (where I think it would look magnificent) and featuring a solid Laurent Bouzereau-styled documentary and one or two commentary tracks. Warner Home Entertainment: ARE YOU LISTENING?

Friday, 26 August 2011

Three Colours - Red

Red (1994) dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski
Starring: Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Frédérique Feder, Jean-Pierre Lorit, Samuel Le Bihan


By Alan Bacchus

Red, White and Blue, the glorious trilogy of French films from legendary Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski are essential viewing for lovers of international cinema. Using the three national colours of France, representing Equality, Liberty and Fraternity, Kieślowski creates a thematically complex yet wholly accessible linked trilogy. Unlike traditional film franchises, sequels and threequels, each of these films is unique and self-contained. There’s no particular order in which they need to be seen, with the films freely weaving themselves in and out of one another with grace.

Kieślowski specifically chose three different cinematographers to shoot his films resulting in three distinct ‘looks’. Blue, shot by Slawomir Idziak, is dark and brooding, using predominantly blues (of course), but also deep yellows and noirish grey shadows concealing much of his frames. White is the least stylistic, a bright and traditionally composed imagery subordinate to the narrative, while Red is shot with a dreamy, romantic, effortless style, both energetic and effervescent.

While it’s painful to even consider ranking these films, arguably Red is the standout picture. It’s the last of the three colours films, garnering Mr. Kieślowski two Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay. Portraying the theme of Fraternity, Kieślowski puts us in the shoes of Valentine (Irene Jacob), a model who accidentally hits a dog while driving home after a photo shoot. Her compassion for the animal causes her to seek out her owner, thus sparking a remarkable, enlightening journey of discovery and reconciliation of her own inner anguish.

Red is the most romantic of the three films, hence the use of that colour prominently throughout. Yet, Kieślowski’s heroine never experiences love. We can feel love in the air, like God almighty moving his characters around like chess pieces on a board to be in a position to fall in love, or at least release themselves of their fates. Such is the happenstance meeting of Valentine and Kern, the dog’s sad owner, who spends his days listening in on his neighbour’s conversations before his emotional reconciliation brought out by Valentine’s gentle innocence.

As with the other two films, Kieślowski uses coincidence and chance to express his themes of existence, love, repentance and forgiveness. His use of parallel narratives that twist and turn within one another and even double-back through the other films of the trilogy (although sometimes obliquely) gloriously connects all three characters as one form of human conscience. Red is elliptical without being self-consciously clever. It’s a glorious finale to this landmark series.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Still Life

Still Life (2006) dir. Jia Zhangke
Starring: Tao Zhao, Zhou Lan, Sanming Han, Lizhen Ma, Hongwei Wang


By Alan Bacchus

The Three Gorges Dam is China’s massive hydroelectric dam, a marvel of engineering built in 2006 and the largest power station in the world. As a manmade structure that tamed the great Yangtze River, it became a symbol of the might of the new Chinese economy. But because of the ensuing environmental impact and displacement of millions of rural citizens, it’s also seen as a stake for liberal activism in the country.

Ironically, out of this massive economic change and upheaval begat a number of great international films in the past few years. Yung Chang’s great documentary, Up the Zangtze, showed this change from the point of view of a tourist sailing a boat on the river. Jia Zhangke’s celebrated Venice Golden Lion winner, Still Life, is arguably the crowning artistic statement of this period of change.

It’s a challenging piece that magnificently juxtaposes the journey of two lost souls in search of their loved ones against the background of a centuries-old rural way of life about to be drowned for all eternity by rapid progress.

Han Sanming is a coalminer arriving in the town of Fengjie, which is about to be flooded. He’s searching for his wife who left him 16 years ago with a daughter he’s never seen. Han goes from person to person asking about his wife and where she might be, with each person guiding him to the next, like connect the dots. There’s also Shen Hong, a nurse in Fengjie, who is searching for her husband, Guo Bing, who hasn’t come home in 2 years. Like Han, she wanders through the near wasteland of vacant buildings and impossibly beautiful mountainous landscapes looking for answers.

Through the compartmentalization of Han's and Shen’s scenes (Han is featured in the first third, Shen in the second, then Han again in the final third), Zhangke forms a rudimentary three act structure. But nothing at all feels familiar in Zhangke’s world. While the real-life personalities he finds and uses as actors in his film along the way lend an observational documentary-like feel, there’s a strong tone of mystical realism. At one point from Shen’s daydreaming point of view we see her imagining one of the derelict building skeletons suddenly launching into the sky like a rocket ship. Zhangke elegantly weaves these elements of spiritual fantasy into deeply emotional personal character stories.

Despite the title, Still Life seems to be constantly in motion, albeit slow and methodical at a snail’s pace. But it is motion and we can feel it. In every frame, people are constantly working like worker bee drones in unity for the greater purpose, either swinging sledgehammers to demolish the massive buildings that now look like industrial carcasses of the former Communist era, or operating large and complex machinery while making trinkets for the West.

Or perhaps it's a Maoist metaphor for the ability of the Chinese people to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Zhangke’s camera complements these themes, moving at the same pace, creeping into its subjects like a Hitchcockian voyeur, or just elegantly gliding across the often astonishing visuals.

It truly is a visual masterpiece featuring one stunning composition after another, at all times making us reconcile in our minds the achievements of man against the achievement of nature and earth.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Things to Come

Things to Come (1935) dir. William Cameron Menzies
Starring: Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke


By Alan Bacchus

Things to Come is an early and largely unheralded masterpiece of cinema and one of the all-time great science fiction films. H.G. Wells, the famed novelist, actually wrote the screenplay adapted from his book The Shape of Things to Come. It’s one of the most ambitious films ever made and tells the story of a fictional city in England from 1940 to 2040 – a hundred-year journey of technological and political progress filmed with the most advanced special effects and production design of its time.

The English city of “Everytown” is a not-so-subtle double for London. The film begins in 1940, when the world was at the brink of a war (and remember the film was made in 1935, four years before WWII broke out). Though most people knew a World War was imminent, the damaging effects nobody could predict, and so when war does break out in the film and literally destroys the world, we get to see an extreme view of our future.

The second stage of the film takes place in 1970, when the world is still reeling from the destruction caused by the war. The world is divided into smaller warring communities – a world where scarce commodities like gas, oil and water are the prime necessities. Communication and technology have disappeared, and people live spartan post-apocalyptic lives of need. Out of this environment emerges a tyrannical Nero-like despotic leader, Rudolf, who leads Everytown into battle against its neighbours. But when a member of a more advanced group arrives to the city in an airplane, hope of a better future is clear on the horizon.

The final chapter fast forwards to 2040 where it’s a completely futuristic world of peace. But the progress that brought the peace is moving too fast for some. A backlash against the technological advances ironically creates more tension, and a new rebellion moves to reverse technology and revert society back to where it was. The film climaxes with a riot as the leaders of the city launch the first manned mission to the moon.

Despite some clunky on-the-nose dialogue, the film is highly entertaining and a technological marvel. Wells writes his dialogue in the form of ideological speeches warning viewers about the dangerous world we’re headed towards. The ideas and themes of war and the irony of progress and conflict are simplified, but a 1935 pre-war point of view makes it remarkably profound and thought-provoking.

But the production value is the star of the film, including the design, editing and cinematography. More impressive is that it’s a wholly British production with no Hollywood ties. It was directed by the renowned production designer William Cameron Menzies, who would go on to win an Oscar for designing Gone with the Wind and shooting the famous Burning of Atlanta sequence. He would also direct the sci-fi classic Invaders from Mars in 1953.

The staging and set design in Things to Come are unbelievable and rival any film of its day or since. The design of the demolished city bears a striking resemblance to the bombed cities of Europe after the war – Berlin, Tokyo, etc. – and matches the destroyed city designs of Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan. The futuristic city in 2040 is even more impressive. Model work, matte photography and rear projection imagery are seamlessly combined to create a visually stunning future world. Menzies chooses a series of awe-inspiring frames that would set the bar for all other science fiction films to come.

Legend Films distributes the fine Ray Harryhausen-restored DVD. I highly recommend picking up Things to Come either to complete your science fiction collection or to start it. If you’re a cinephile, this needs to be on your shelf.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Something Borrowed

Something Borrowed (2011) dir. Luke Greenfield
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Kate Hudson, Colin Egglesfield, John Krasinski, Steve Howey, Ashley Williams

By Alan Bacchus

Laziness and complacency in screenwriting were never more apparent than in the latest Ginnifer Goodwin romcom. A potent internal conundrum of conflict for Goodwin’s character is wasted with dumbed down characterizations, diffusing the film of all substance.

Writer Jennie Snyder, adapting Emily Griffin’s novel, has an audacious conundrum for her main character. Rachel (Goodwin), an underachiever in the romance department, has been in love with her law school buddy, Dex (Egglesfield), for years. Unfortunately, her sexually adventurous bombshell of a best friend, Darcy (Hudson), already scooped him up years ago. Now they’re set to be married with Rachel as the maid of honour. But when some kind of romantic spark randomly hits Rachel and Dex after her birthday party, they sleep together, thus bringing to the fore years of suppressed desires and many complications.

While there's a romance going on between two souls seemingly destined to be together, at odds with these desires is a strong lifelong friendship – a relationship that goes back much longer than the romance. This is the stuff of great drama.

Like the indecisiveness of Hamlet, Rachel continues to see Dex, undercover of Darcy, and though she knows she has to tell her friend, she just can’t do it. It’s the same with Dex, who reciprocates all romantic signals but just can’t decide between Darcy and Rachel.

The guts of this situation are that it’s a zero-sum game. Rachel can’t get Dex without losing Darcy, and if she keeps Darcy’s friendship, she can’t be with Dex. Unfortunately, Rachel and the audience are immediately let off the hook from her indiscretion by Darcy’s cardboard characterization as a self-centred, shallow bitch, who cares little for Rachel’s needs. We quickly learn that despite 20+ years of friendship, Darcy is a terrible friend, unworthy of Rachel.

By portraying Darcy with such disdain, there’s no real decision for Rachel to make. The situation is no longer a zero-sum game. The choice is obvious, thus robbing the audience of Rachel’s internal conflict. And without any sense of realism or colour, Hudson simply becomes set dressing.

I understand why she was written this way. It’s easier, plain and simple. Writing Darcy as a cliché antagonist bitch is like putting together Ikea furniture. Even on Dex’s side, his parents are portrayed as money grubbing stuck-up assholes who tell their son not to do what’s right, but what’s expected.

Perhaps the biggest insult goes to John Krasinski’s character, who represents the ‘Ducky’ (from Pretty in Pink) character. He’s the barely-straight best friend who has loved Rachel all along but has never expressed his feelings. In the end, when he confesses his secret crush to Rachel, he’s so easily dismissed and discarded by Rachel. The moment is meant to get Rachel to finally make her decision and tell Darcy the truth about her feelings. But instead, it represents the tragic irony of this movie – opportunities lost with lazy screenwriting.

Something Borrowed is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Entertainment.

Monday, 22 August 2011


Senna (2011) dir. Asif Kapadia


By Alan Bacchus

Senna continues a recent trend towards giving real-life stories in sports the treatment of a feature documentary. With the recent HBO Sports docs playing at festivals and on pay cable, and the great ESPN 30 for 30 series, people have finally started to realize that looking back at sports with a journalistic and artistic eye will produce cinematic experiences far and above what can be done with good old-fashioned fiction.

Why reinvent the wheel when sports by their very nature feature dramatic characters going through immense physical and emotional stress that pushes their bodies to the limit, often putting themselves in danger? Add to that the fact that all of these great dramatic moments have already been captured on film/video.

Senna, as a documentary feature, is no exception. Asif Kapadia’s film brings us back to arguably some of the most exciting years of Formula One racing between 1984-1994. These were the years of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, one of the great rivalries in the history of sports featuring two personalities in the big money, high stakes arena of Formula One. Senna chronicles this decade-long journey of the humble Brazilian’s rise to become the best driver in the world, one of the best ever, pushed by his teammate and fierce competitor, Frenchman Alain Prost, to create a sympathetic and deeply tragic study of a man fighting battles on and off the racetrack toward a tragic destiny. Senna is a deeply moving and emotionally affecting character study.

Kapadia is surprisingly lean with his information, certainly not wasting time getting into things. With as little time as possible dwelling on Senna’s childhood or upbringing, we're almost immediately thrown into his rookie season in Formula One – off to the races if you will.

The stylistic hook at play here is the exclusive use of stock footage through which Kapadia tells his story. The footage is fantastic. Even the lesser quality ‘80s and ‘90s video, which threatens to subvert the big screen polish of the film, is given a clever filter treatment that translates to a nostalgic feel for the era.

What this means is that we never see the interviewed colleagues and journalists we hear providing the commentary. We also never see any of Senna’s private life. Like the tunnel vision of a racer on the track, Kapadia lasers in confidently on Senna’s racing career from the media’s point of view. It’s an admirable self-imposed challenge, but we also miss out on the reactions of, say, his dear friend and F1 doctor Sid Watkins reacting to Kapadia’s questions. Same with Alain Prost – other than the media interviews at the time, we don’t ever hear from him until the end of the film.

The lingering effect of the film, though, is the remarkable face of Senna. The cameras capture through Senna’s eyes enormous humility, grace and honour. After spending an hour-and-a-half watching him in competition, with his family and simply reacting to the cacophony of media attention on him, even though we know he dies, it’s a truly heartbreaking moment.

Though I rarely advise learning about a subject before watching a film, knowing how and when Senna dies at the end of the movie adds a level of intensity and tragic destiny to the experience. Every moment of jubilation is tempered by the sad knowledge of Senna’s ultimate fate.

The moments just before Senna’s death on that day in San Marino will rip your heart out. Kapadia holds dramatically on an on-board camera shot from Senna’s car, a frequently used camera angle in this film that creates a unique kind of personal intensity we don’t get from a regular Formula One broadcast. The sheer length of time for which Kapadia holds the shot sets us up for what we all know was coming as soon as we started watching the film.

Leaving the theatre, the tragedy lingered in my mind longer than most other film experiences, even some of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Thus, Senna triumphs as a legacy for the great racer and as a sports documentary in general.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Creature with the Atom Brain

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) dir. Edward L. Cahn
Starring: Richard Denning, Angela Stevens, Michael Granger, S. John Launer, Gregory Gay


By Alan Bacchus

Sam Katzman is one of cinema’s great schlockmeisters – a Roger Corman-like producer of 1950s B-Horror films. According to the IMDB he has 250 various producer credits to his name. My first entry into the cinema of Sam Katzman is Creature with the Atom Brain, a classic piece of disposable celluloid fom the atomic era.

The film jumps right into the story with not an ounce of backstory explanation. A zombie-like man with a scar across his brain follows another man to his office late at night. The zombie moves to the windows and rips open the covering steel bars with Hulk-like ease. The zombie then approaches the man and strangles him to death. Somewhere else in the world, a maniacal gangster and his German scientist partner, Dr. Wilhelm Steigg (Gregory Gay), watch the action from the point of view of the zombie. They are able to control his movements remotely with simple instructions read into a microphone.

The gangster is the diabolical Frank Buchanan, who has returned from exile in Europe to exact revenge on his enemies. One by one his former colleagues and lawmen that did him wrong die at the hands of his army of remote-controlled humans. There’s a fantastical scientific explanation for how they can control their brains, but essentially they are zombies before there was such a term. The army is called in to help and the authorities, led by mild-mannered scientist Dr. Chet Walker, hunt down Buchanan and Steigg.

I doubt Sam Katzman ever thought this film would last beyond its life in the theatre. In fact, he’d probably be shocked that someone like me would be discussing it 50 years later.

But a film like this changes over time. What was probably a very scary movie for teenagers in its day is now a time capsule comedy – a hilarious slice of the times. Modern films about the 50s frequently make fun of the blindfolded view of the world that cinema showed its audiences (e.g., Far From Heaven and even the Canadian horror-comedy Fido). Domestic suburban life was a blissful fairytale world, and politics and war was noble, heroic and fun. And so, the naiveté of films like these provide us with unintentional absurdist humour.

Remarkably, as a piece of disposable low budget cinema, it actually survives as a polished piece of entertainment. With the help of a fantastic DVD transfer, the black and white image is as crisp and clear as it was in 1955 (probably better, actually). In fact, the sharpness of the image rivals any black and white film made today – try doing a comparative analysis of Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck and this film. It’s surprisingly difficult to find the technical differences.

The film plays to the lowest common denominator of intellect. The actors are there to tell the audience, on the nose, what is going on – and to set up the fun action horror sequences. Some of the acting is horrendous, but excusing this in the context of time is necessary to enjoy the film. Though it’s not particularly scary, once the film gets moving at its brisk pace I got caught up in the melodrama.

The finale will provide some laughs, as the zombie-warriors engage in a huge hand-to-hand battle with the police on the lawn of a suburban home. Director Edward L. Cahn frequently uses a point-of-view shot to show the zombies strangle their victims. It’s overused, but I can imagine it causing a fright to ‘50s teenagers.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Heiress

The Heiress (1949) dir. William Wyler
Starring: Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson


By Alan Bacchus

The story of a frumpy spinster and wealthy Heiress who is unlucky in love, finds her soulmate in a penniless gentleman and fights to keep him against the wishes of her controlling and oppressive father would seem like ripe material for a triumph of love over money. William Wyler’s adaptation of Augustus Goetz’s play, itself a refashioning of Henry James’ Washington Square, is one of the most unexpectedly cynical takes on romance in studio Hollywood.

It's the story of love from the angle of the courtship ritual, in this case the Victorian way – a brutal class system transported to America fits like a square peg in a round hole. Olivia De Havilland, one of the most radiant movie stars to ever grace our screens, plays the dowdy, shy and, believe it or not, unattractive spinster, Catherine Sloper. She's the heiress to a family fortune, but only if she can find a husband to marry. Her knight in shining armour appears to her at a party. He’s a polite gentleman, Mr. Townsend (Clift), who courts her while adhering to all the rules of the Victorian aristocracy. It’s a very specific procedure, articulated with precision by Wyler, consisting of dance while calling upon formal greetings and, most importantly, paternal approval.

Ralph Richardson plays the father, a successful and wealthy doctor with a very doubting eye. He’s characterized early as an oppressive figure with expectations that are too high, but in general he is disappointed in his daughter’s inability to fit into the social culture of his 'class'. While he can be a complete shit and disrespectful at times, we do feel he has his daughter’s best interests in mind. And so for much of the film he walks a fine line between being fatherly and being overprotective.

Montgomery Clift plays Townsend with his usual sympathy. He pours out his love for Catherine so quickly. It’s romantic and honourable until Catherine’s father starts poking holes in his character. And the judge of character was never more important as in this society, as it was tendered as currency back in these days.

Old man Sloper approaches his suspicions of Mr. Townsend like he’s diagnosing an illness. Through his conversations at tea and dinner and meetings with his family he slowly sands off the lustre of his charm and finds potentially nefarious motives.

But what it ultimately comes down to is his contempt for his own daughter, feeling that the only thing she has to offer is her money. By the midpoint, we’re kept in the dark about whether Townsend is genuine and whether the love between the two can surmount Sloper’s obstructions. Is Townsend a gold-digger? Or does he truly love her?

Admittedly, I expected up until the very end that studio Hollywood optimism would prevail, and so when the carpet is pulled out from under Catherine, it’s a sharp jolt to the audience as well. Wyler completes a dark and pessimistic character arc for Catherine, the stuff of great tragedy. Of course, if I had read Henry James, I wouldn’t have had this expectation. And so the ability of Wyler and Fox to tread such dark territory and fool me so easily is admirable.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Top Gun

Top Gun (1986) dir. Tony Scott
Starring: Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerrit, Michael Ironside


By Alan Bacchus

Despite being an ‘action film’, this immensely popular touchstone of pop culture cinema ironically succeeds not because of the action but because of the strange homoerotic machismo, which Quentin Tarantino famously articulated in the 1994 film Sleep With Me.

I (and probably QT) exaggerate for comedic effect, but the fact is Val Kilmer’s obscenely cocky and confrontational jarring with Tom Cruise is the heart and soul of this film – not the romance between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis’s Charlie character, which feels more like an arranged marriage pre-fabricated by the needs of the tentpole genre; certainly not the Reagan-era Cold War air battle that bookends the film; and certainly not Tom Cruise’s emotional journey from brazen yet vulnerable cocksure pilot harbouring a father complex to, well, the exact same character by the end of the film.

In the opening we see Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell flying manoeuvres in the Pacific Ocean against some Soviet MiG planes that are antagonizing their American rivals. His confidence and cockiness in the skies scares off the Russkies, but at the same time his friend Cougar suffers a nervous breakdown and quits the squad. The surly commander (James Tolkan) sends Maverick and his co-pilot Goose (Anthony Edwards) to ‘Top Gun’, the school for the top 1% of the pilots in the country.

At Top Gun, Maverick immediately discovers that Tom ‘Iceman’ Kozanski (Kilmer) is his rival, someone who, certainly in the battle for the coolest hair, wins outright. In the skies, Iceman’s skills are matched, but Maverick’s inability to play by the rules has him losing out every time. Meanwhile, Maverick has his cheesy pickup lines and sexual innuendos pointed at one of the school instructors, Charlie (McGillis), who is torn between being a tough but fair mentor and his smitten lover. After a tragic setback, Maverick threatens to quit, but he is talked back in by the Chief Instructor, Viper (Skerrit), to fight with Iceman against some more MiGs for the sake of the country.

In between all this are slow-motion, oiled up male bodies playing beach volleyball, cool blue-lit and silhouetted love scenes with tongue action, fast motorcycles, cool hair, Kenny Loggins and the muscle cars of the skies, the F14 fighters.

The dog fighting action is repetitive and actually quite dull. As mentioned, the attraction of this film is the pissing contest between Iceman and Maverick to see who is the ‘best of the best’. The whole movie is fuelled by this extreme egomaniacal competition, a strong allegory to the prevailing economic and social trends of the decade. Supporting the cockfight is the Greek Chorus of co-pilots, like the moustached and affable Goose, shamelessly portrayed as a wet blanket family man and the only one who wouldn’t take his shirt off in the volleyball game.

This film single-handedly birthed the Jerry Bruckheimer brand of macho filmmaking, which distinctly seems to rival Steven Spielberg’s classically romantic blockbuster filmmaking of the ‘80s. Tony Scott’s eye for slick and gorgeous cinematography looks better than ever on Blu-ray. Watch out for the bold, saturated colours popping out of the frame and the blacks crushed to annihilation into the screen.

Top Gun is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Life During Wartime

Life During Wartime (2010) dir. Todd Solondz
Starring: Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Allison Janney and Paul Reubens


By Blair Stewart

As we get older we may get a little softer, and to a degree you can say that about Todd Solondz. His ferocious one-two punch of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness in the ‘90s received as many accolades as abuse for their subjects of human perversity and cruelty between the beltways of American cities.

Just behind the ugliness of his characters is the humanity; Solondz can make a child rapist or murderer seem unexpectedly and pathetically human using small details instead of monsters made of broad strokes. A sequel to 1998's Happiness, with returning roles given to different actors (like the abortion-themed quagmire of Palindromes), Life During Wartime is a duller blade than its predecessor with words like 'forgiveness' tossed about often. The film is also thankfully devoid of ejaculate if you're familiar with the original.

Once a down-to-earth family man and pedophile, Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker's best role in Happiness, now Ciaran Hinds) is released from prison and seeks his adult son, Billy, for a chat. His ex-wife, Trish (Allison Janney), has fled with the rest of the litter to the melanoma Jewish strongholds of Miami and her young Timmy is on the cusp of his Bar Mitzvah passage. While Timmy eeks out the meaning of becoming a man, Trish's dysfunctional sisters come back into the fold. Humanity's apologetic doormat, Joy (Shirley Henderson), flees her wayward husband, Allen (Michael K. Williams, or to you fans of The Wire: Omar!), and artist/writer/full-time crazy bitch, Helen, has left the East Coast to screw around in Hollywood. As Trish reaches out for affection from the leftover male side of the Weiner family from Welcome to the Dollhouse, Bill rolls into town. Lacerating humour ensues.

Having sat on Life During Wartime for a few days, my feelings of admiration for Solondz remain, and yet I fear he's bound to a similar fate as Kevin Smith's redundant universe. Both have travelled in circular patterns with their characters, returning to the same well for inspiration, and both provide signposts for us as we age and break down spectacularly. But Solondz has the talent to tell his stories in other categories and genres – Terry Zwigoff is a good example of a parallel talent over the past few decades. The world doesn't need a Solondz comic book popcorn-muncher, but it could use his take on the romantic comedy or the courtroom drama.

The camera of Ed Lachman (I'm Not There, The Limey, Ken Park) is sharper than in previous efforts from Solondz, and the writing and acting are strong with Hinds radiating a sweltering presence as the father figure and Janney chewing on the ironic deadpan gristle of her dialogue. But the spark of the new film from the writer/director has been withered by a decade of Internet porn and Vice Magazine.

The kindness more overtly shown to the players is appreciated, but one of the top American filmmakers of the ‘90s needs to leave his comfort zone.

Life During Wartime is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Attack the Block

Attack the Block (2011) dir. Joe Cornish
Starring: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail, Nick Frost


By Alan Bacchus

Joe Cornish’s new cult-hit Attack the Block feels like a continuation of JJ Abrams’ penance to ‘80s children vs. adults cinema. While Super 8 was unabashedly a Spielberg romance, Attack the Block feels like a tougher Joe Dante movie – a foul-mouthed, gory monster movie full of British piss and vinegar, but with a winning attitude and a heart of gold.

With the concept alone we can envision the movie without ever seeing a frame of film – an alien invasion of beast-like feral creatures from the point of view of a group of inner city South London teens. Director Joe Cornish, co-writer of the upcoming Tin Tin, is a collaborator with Edgar Wright. Wright, in fact, serves as a producer and his genre-referencing British style is front and centre. Cornish assembles a strong group of fresh-faced and wholly authentic badass kids to play his heroes.

The leader of the bunch is Moses (Boyega), a brooding youngster cum anti-hero whom we first meet wearing a hoodie and facemask while mugging a terrified young nurse, Sam (Jodie Whitaker), who is on her way home from work. When Moses confidently hunts a strange creature, which we will learn is actually an alien from space, and kills it out of pure pleasure, he and his mates become the target of an invasion of these nasty Tasmanian devil-like creatures.

In between this very quick and simple set-up, there’s minimal exposition or explanations as to why they’re here. Cornish quickly moves between set pieces sequestered in the ‘block’, a British term for an apartment complex. The design of the creatures is refreshingly old school, a pure black beast with absolutely no detail visible other than the glowing eyes and teeth. That said, during some of the action, Cornish seems forced to cut around the animals to avoid exposing their special effects. As such, there’s an overly frenetic, often confusing visual aspect to the action.

There’s some strong serendipity to the timing of this movie. Released in the US right at the time when the London riots were occurring, Cornish seemed to have tapped into much of the anger felt by these socially-challenged, under-represented youth. The hoodlums, specifically Moses, are wonderfully drawn and characterized as full of bravado – youth who act and feel like they’re supposed to. This is the point of view from Sam, the nurse in the opening scene. Yet, once Moses is disarmed by the terror of the alien, Sam and the audience see him as a regular kid who is honest, decent and sincere.

The only familiar face in the film, Nick Frost, does a fun cameo. It’s a smaller role as a pot-smoking dealer growing marijuana in his apartment building. While not as obviously comedic as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, the presence of Frost provides a giggle whenever Cornish threatens to get too serious.

But this is a post-modern action movie at heart with the four kids against the odds. They use their streetwise guile to overcome an extreme and now familiar catastrophic event and become heroes of their broken-down community. Any lull in the narrative or repetition of action, which unfortunately sets in, is superseded by the strong, youthful enthusiasm and energy of this picture.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Léon Morin Priest

Léon Morin Priest (1961) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Emmanuelle Riva, Irène Tunc


By Alan Bacchus

While the French New Wavers were running around Paris with their handheld cameras reinventing cinema, fellow French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville continued to make his classical Hollywood-influenced Euro-cool crime pictures, including films like Bob Le Flambour, Le Samurai and Le Deuxieme Souffle. Sandwiched into these stylish films is a remarkably gentle and quiet picture, Léon Morin Priest, featuring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a handsome priest who has a profound effect on a cynical widow in Nazi-occupied France.

Barny (Emmanuel Riva) is a recently widowed mother to a young daughter living like many of her girlfriends – scared witless for her family’s future in her Nazi-occupied village. With Jews being extricated from the village and her being half-Jewish, Barny needs to find a new identity. For women like her, the only option is conversion to the Catholic Church.

Walking into the Church she confesses for the first time at random to Léon Morin (Belmondo), a deeply thoughtful and impossibly handsome priest. As an atheist, Barny initially intends only to fake her way through the conversion process for the sake of her and her daughter. But given the combination of Jean-Pierre’s persuasiveness and attractiveness, Barny gradually becomes a true convert and by the end she is completely devoted to God.

The film begins and ends with a naughty and sexual tease of then New Wave heartthrob Jean-Paul Belmondo as a man-in-frock. Belmondo’s rugged and untraditionally handsome face, even with these heterosexual eyes, is the stuff of dreamy Hollywood. Imagine bad boy Steve McQueen wearing a frock and a reverse collar?

This is not The Thorn Birds though. Melville’s screenplay (based on Beatrix Beck’s novel) is one of the most devout and intellectually rigorous films about religion I’ve ever seen. The near two-hour running time is filled with numerous lengthy dialogue scenes between Barny and Morin discussing the contradictions and attractions of Christianity. At times overly intellectual and at other times spiritually stimulating, the film doesn’t quite hold us through its excessive 117-minute running time.

At the very least, this film is something to be cherished for its place in the filmography of one of France’s best filmmakers. It’s an elegant and heartfelt transition to something personal to Melville. The theme of the French resistance also connects well to Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969), as they are two films about the passionate fight for freedom. One is about guns and bloodshed, and the other, in this case, is about a spiritual awakening and liberation of the soul.

Léon Morin Priest is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

DEVI (The Goddess)

Devi aka The Goddess (1960) dir. Satyajit Ray
Starring: Sharmila Tagore, Soumitra Chatterjee, Chhabi Biswas, Karuna Banerjee, Purnendu Mukherjee and Arpan Chowdhury


By Greg Klymkiw
“I stopped going to Brahmo Samaj, [the congregation of men who believed in Brahman, the supreme spiritual foundation and sustainer of the universe], around the age of fourteen or fifteen. I don't believe in organized religion anyway. Religion can only be on a personal level.” – Satyajit Ray (1982 interview with Cineaste)
Great movies survive.

They survive because their truth is universal. Their compassion for humanity astonishes to degrees that are reverent, or even holy. Finally, they must weave every conceivable power of cinema’s vast arsenal of technique and artistry to create expression (narrative or otherwise) that can ultimately and only be realized by the medium of film.

Movies might well be the greatest artistic gift granted to man by whatever Supreme Intelligence has created him, and yet, like so much on this Earth that’s been taken for granted, cinema has been squandered in homage to the Golden Calf, or if you will, has turned Our Father’s House into a market.

Satyajit (The Apu Trilogy, The Music Room) Ray was a director who, on a very personal level (in spite of his occasional protestations to the contrary), infused his films with a truth that went far beyond the disposable cinematic baubles and trinkets that continue to flood the hearts and minds of our most impressionable.

Devi (The Goddess) is a film of consummate greatness. Its simple tale of blind faith springing from organized worship and leading the most vulnerable on a downward spiral into madness is surely a film as relevant now as it was in 1960. Upon its first release it was initially condemned in India for being anti-Hindu. If it’s anti-anything, it’s anti-ignorance and anti-superstition, but even this puts far too much weight upon the film having a political perspective rather than on moral and emotional turf – which ultimately is where it rests.

Set in a rural area of Bengal in 1860, the movie tells the story of a young married couple whose love and commitment to each other is beyond reproach. When Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee) must leave his wife Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) to finish his university education in Calcutta, she begs him to stay and questions his need to leave. Though he comes from a wealthy family, he seeks intellectual enlightenment in order to provide him with a good job so he does not have to rest on the laurels of mere birthright. Doya, so young and naïve, cannot comprehend his desire to leave her for any reason.

During a very moving and even romantic exchange, he informs her – not in a boastful way, but more as a matter of fact and with a touch of dashing humour that she is indeed endowed with an extremely intelligent husband. He is proud of this, as he is equally proud of how much his teachers value his intellect. He seeks to impress upon her that this is a trait that makes him a far more desirable husband for her – more than his money and more than his good looks. His intelligence is part and parcel of the very being that can love such a perfect woman as Doya.

When he leaves, however, things take a very bad turn. At first, Doya goes about her simple, charmed life in the same house they live in with Umaprasad’s father Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas), his brother Taraprasad (Purnendu Mukherjee) and sister-in-law Harasundari (Karuna Banerjee) and their sweet, almost angelic little boy Khoka (Arpan Chowdhury). She proves to be a magnificent in-law and aunt – a friend to her sister-in-law, a respectful servant to her father-in-law and a loving playmate for nephew Khoka. Alas, Doya’s father-in-law has a prophetic dream wherein it is revealed to him that Doya is the human incarnation of the Goddess Kali. While Kali is often viewed as a symbol of death, many Bengalis viewed her as a benevolent mother figure, which Doya’s father-in-law and those who live in this particular region of Bengal most certainly do.

This turns Doya’s life completely topsy-turvy – especially once she is forced to sit in the shrine to Kali whilst the denizens of the region pay homage to her and eventually expect her to grant mercies and miracles. In one sequence in particular, an old man brings his dying grandson to her threshold and pleads that she bestows upon him the ultimate resurrection.

Strangely, this sequence – so gut wrenching, suspenseful and yes, even touching on a spiritual level – had for me a similar power to the climactic moments of Carl Dreyer’s immortal classic of faith and madness Ordet (The Word) where a madman who believes he is Christ questions the faith of the devout and instead, places all the power of faith in that of a young girl to resurrect her dead mother. (This, by the way, would make for one truly amazing double-bill – the parallels are uncanny.)

Hell, as it were, breaks loose for Doya when those around her genuinely have immoveable faith in her lofty, hallowed position and eventually, it is up to her husband to attempt a rescue – using his powers of intellect over superstition to bring back the sweet young woman he married.

Where director Ray takes us on the rest of this journey and how he achieves this is exactly the reason why he is revered as one of cinema’s true, undisputed greats. There are moments of such exquisite truth with images so gorgeously composed and lit that the combination of this indelible pairing can and, indeed does evoke a series of emotional responses - so much so that you may find yourself weeping with a strange amalgam of sadness and joy. The manner in which Doya is lit at various points is especially evocative.

Ultimately, though, it is Ray’s humanity that prevails and seeps into every frame of this stunning picture.

This movie MUST be seen. To not experience Devi is to not acknowledge the magnitude of cinema as the premiere art form of our time.

It's a heart breaker!

On August 14 at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Bell Lightbox, Devi is being screened as part of the phenomenal Fellini Dream Double Bills series during the Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions exhibit. Selected by Deepa Mehta, the director of the Earth, Fire and Water trilogy, Devi plays with Federico Fellini’s utterly perfect and exquisite masterpiece Nights of Cabiria. Mehta’s reasoning behind this pairing is as follows: “I could give many reasons for the affinities between (and the greatness of) these films, but mostly it’s how both Fellini and Ray walk the difficult line between reality and the wondrous, and of course the compassion that pours out of them right into their characters.” Though someday I want to see Devi with the aforementioned Dreyer classic Ordet, I cannot in any way, shape or form quarrel with Mehta’s statement.

As a sidenote, I think it's important to mention a recent first feature from Indian (Kashmir) filmmaker Amir Bashir who, on the basis of "Autumn/Harud", which premiered last year at TIFF 2010, is clearly the most obvious heir apparent to Satyajit Ray. OPEN NOTE to Lightbox Topper Noah Cowan and/or Senior Programmer James Quandt: PLAY THIS MOVIE THEATRICALLY!!! It's, in my humble opinion, one of TIFF's most extraordinary discoveries and demands a proper playdate in Toronto. My original DFD coverage on "Autumn/Harud" can be found HERE and an extensive interview with the filmmaker at my Electric Sheep column is HERE.

My previously published Daily Film Dose review of Nights of Cabiria can be read HERE. My colleague Alan Bacchus's review of Ray's The Music Room can be read at HERE

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Hurricane

The Hurricane (1937) dir. John Ford
Starring: Dorothy Lamour, Jon Hall, Mary Astor, C Aubrey Smith, Raymond Massey


By Alan Bacchus

This little-known, infrequently discussed John Ford picture features what might be the greatest action scene ever filmed. OK, Ben Hur might have it beat, but it certainly has the best action scene you’ve never seen or even heard about.

The scene occurs at the end of this rousing adventure story set in the South Pacific. It’s the colonial era, a passenger ship of British sailors and other imperialists arrives at the fictional Polynesian island of Manikoora to restock on supplies. It’s also the reunification of lovebirds Terangi (Jon Hall), the strong first mate, and Marama (Dorothy Lamour), the daughter of the Tahitian chief. It’s bliss Polynesian-style for everyone in the first act culminating with Terangi and Marama’s wedding – a raucous event filled with lavish drinking, celebration and dancing.

The fun ends when, while celebrating at a Tahitian bar, Terangi is coaxed into a bar fight with a racist white man who resents Terengi’s presence. Terengi is arrested, tried and sent to prison for six months. He is too lovesick to stay put and engages in numerous escape attempts, thus increasing his sentence from half a year to 16 years. The snowball effect of Terengi’s poor judgment in the bar is terrifying.

The journey of Terengi feeds into Ford’s strong themes of resistance, sympathy for the marginalization of people and the tyranny of the imperialist era. These issues fit easily into his body of work and perhaps his personal attachment to the political struggle of his Irish countrymen against their British occupiers.

Terengi is characterized as blindly heroic, accomplishing remarkable feats of strength and courage for the love of his wife. Ford uses this simple motivation brilliantly and increases the stakes and intensity over the course of the film. The time frame expands to encompass several years, which, after Terengi’s dramatic reunion with his wife and daughter he’s never seen, fully realizes the epic scope of this picture.

If the film ended here, we’d all be satisfied. But as the title suggests, The Hurricane ends with a massive Hurricane sequence – a storm of the century teased and foreshadowed to us from the beginning of the film. The sequence does not disappoint. Just as the couple are reunited, the storm hits their island, as if Terengi brought with him all the rage of his imperialist captors.

Of course there’s no computer effects here. Instead, the massive destruction is done in real time with real studio sets and brilliant miniature work. The wind effects alone are unbelievable. Ford blasts his actors and his sets with some of the most powerful wind machines ever used in cinema. Watching Terengi and his family clinging to the palm trees as they bend and sway like straw resisting the force of the wind is astonishing. Ford’s sound design is equally magnificent. The loud roars and whistles of the storm drone on consistently through the entire scene. On a television screen it’s intense. In a theatre in 1937 it would have been something else.

What fails the picture, unfortunately, is Jon Hall’s performance as Terengi, a white person fulfilling a Polynesian role while the rest of the film is populated with real Polynesians. It’s a shame, as Hall comes off as a Tarzan-like cheat on the audience. For the authenticity in all the technical aspects of the film, this cheat on casting is rather shameful. But then again, historical context and cinematic conventions of the time must be taken into consideration.

All things considered, The Hurricane is a remarkable piece of cinema, largely under-appreciated and ripe for rediscovery. A DVD exists somewhere, but it can be seen sporadically on TCM.

Friday, 12 August 2011

La Dolce Vita

La Dolce Vita (1960) dir. Federico Fellini
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Yvonne Furneaux, Anouk Aimee, Anita Ekberg, Alain Cuny, Walter Santesso, Magali Noel, Annibale Ninchi, Nico, Valeria Ciangottini, Alain Dijon and Lex Barker.


By Greg Klymkiw

It has been said that in death we all end up alone.

If we are alone in life, bereft of love, is existence itself then, not a living death?

For me, this is the central theme of La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s great classic of cinema – a film that never ceases to thrill, tantalize and finally, force its audience to look deep into a mirror and search for answers to questions about themselves. This is what makes for great movies that live beyond the ephemeral qualities far too many filmmakers and audiences prefer to settle for - especially in the current Dark Ages of cinema we find ourselves in. It’s the reason why the picture continues to live forever.

What makes La Dolce Vita especially great is that Fellini – as he was so often able to achieve – got to have his cake and eat it too. He created art that entertained AND challenged audiences the world over.

On its surface, La Dolce Vita is cool – cooler than cool, to be frank.

The title, translated from Italian into English means "The Good Life", or more appropriately, “The Sweet Life”. The movie plunges us headlong into a spectacular, decadent world of sex, sin and indulgence of the highest order. Against the backdrop of a swinging post-war Rome, the picture works its considerable magic beyond those surface details and Fellini delivers yet another magnificent entertainment that explores the eternal divide between men and women.

My poor daughter; she’s only ten years old and her Daddy has been showing her more Fellini movies than any ten year old has probably ever seen anytime, anywhere on God's good, green Earth. About halfway through La Dolce Vita – after an umpteenth sequence where Marcello Mastroianni indulges himself in the charms of yet another woman whilst his faithful girlfriend waits home alone by the phone, my daughter (who recently watched I Vitelloni, that great Fellini male layabout picture) turned to me with the sweetest straight face I will always remember and she said, “Dad, when I get older, remind me never to date Italian men.” I reminded her it wasn’t only Italian men who behaved this way. After all, had she not also recently seen Barry Levinson’s Diner? “Okay,” she added, “remind me not to date American men either.”

For those from Mars (and/or anyone who has NOT seen this movie), La Dolce Vita tells the episodic tale of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a journalist in Rome who covers the society and entertainment beat of a major tabloid newspaper. He spends most of his days and (especially) nights, hanging out in clubs, restaurants, cafes, piazzas and parties covering the lives of the rich and famous with his trusty photographer sidekick Paparazzo (Walter Santesso). (The word paparazzi, used to describe annoying news photographers came from the name of this character.)

Downright ignoring and/or paying lip service to his beautiful, sexy long-suffering live-in girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) whilst dallying with an endless parade of gorgeous women he’s writing about, Marcello is as much a celebrity as those he covers. Though he lacks the wealth his subjects are endowed with, he certainly wields considerable power.

It would seem that Marcello is living the sweet life to its fullest – at least on the surface.

It is, of course, the surface details of La Dolce Vita - both its cinematic style and content - that made it one of the biggest Italian films at the box office worldwide.

Of course, though, what audience would NOT be susceptible to the stunning form of one of the picture's ravishing stars, Anita Ekberg? As Sylvia, the Swedish screen sensation visiting Rome to make a movie, Ekberg squeezes her to-die-for curves into a series of fashionable outfits. Ekberg is style personified. From her spectacular entrance from within a private jet, posing willingly for hordes of slavering reporters to her gossamer movements round a huge luxury suite as she throws out delicious quips during a press conference and then, to her lithe, gazelle-like bounding up the endless St. Peter’s staircase until she and Marcello, who follows her avidly to the balcony, enjoy a quiet, magical, romantic interlude, perched in a holy nest towering above the Vatican.

It is the Ekberg sequences that everyone most remembers – possibly because they appear so early in the film and serve as the most sumptuously sexy introduction to Marcello’s world.

Granted, prior to Ekberg’s entrance we’re treated to the famous opening sequence of Jesus Christ in statue form being airlifted into Rome on a helicopter as Marcello and Paparazzo follow closely behind in their own whirlybird, snapping photos and hovering briefly over a bevy of bikini-clad beauties to try and get their phone numbers.

Following closely behind, we’re indulged with the ravishing beauty of Anouk Aimee as Maddalena, the bored heiress who whisks Marcello away from a nightclub, drives him through the streets of Rome in her swanky Cadillac, picks up a street whore, hires her to provide a dank, sleazy, water-flooded basement suite – a sordid love-nest, if you will, for a night of lovemaking with Marcello whilst the whore waits outside for the rest of the night - arguing with her pimp about how much room rent to charge the kinky couple.

To cap off the shenanigans we're further tantalized by Marcello’s gorgeous, heart-broken Earth Mother girlfriend Emma, writhing about from a dangerous overdose whereupon our duplicitous hero races her madly to the hospital professing his love to her all the way into the recovery room until he steps out to telephone Maddalena.

These stunning episodes not only provide insight into Marcello’s stylish rakishness, but also careen us to and fro within a veritable roller coaster ride of pure, unadulterated hedonism.

There’s no two ways about it, Marcello’s a cad, but we love him.

And seemingly, so does everyone.

By the time we get to the aforementioned Anita Ekberg sequences, it’s as if Fellini had structured the movie to luxuriate us in ever-more potent fixes of pure speed-ball-like abandon:

Jesus flying above Rome; screw it, not enough.

Gorgeous heiress banging our hero in a whore’s sleazy digs; nope, still not enough.

Lonely sex kitten girlfriend pumped on drugs and near death; uh, yeah, we still need more.

What act could possibly follow any of this?

Anita Ekberg, of course.

Fellini ups the ante on overindulgence to such a degree, that as an audience, we’re as hyped up as Marcello and those who populate this world.

As if this wasn’t enough, Fellini manages to get Ekberg to out-Ekberg Ekberg with MORE Ekberg. From airport to press conference to the Everest of Rome above the Vatican, he plunges us from the clouds of Heaven deep into the bowels of a party within the ancient walls of the Caracalla Baths. Here Marcello gets to dance arms around waist, cheek-to-cheek and chest to breast with La Ekberg until all Hell breaks magnificently loose with the arrival of the flamboyant Mephistophelean actor Frankie Stout (Alain Dijon). Marcello is banished to a table with Ekberg’s sloshed, thickheaded beefcake boyfriend Robert (played hilariously by the genuine B-movie idol Lex Barker, RKO’s Tarzan and star of numerous Euro-trash action pictures) while Frankie and Ekberg heat up the floor with a cha-cha to end all cha-chas.

Fellini continues topping himself. The next sequence of Ekberg-mania is cinema that has seldom been matched.

Can there be anything more sumptuous and breathtaking in Rome, nay – the world – than the Fountain of Trevi?

Yes, the Fountain of Trevi with Anita Ekberg in it.

I can assure you this beats any wet T-shirt contest you're likely to see.

As Fellini has incrementally hoisted us to dizzying heights, we are only one-third of the way through La Dolce Vita .

Where can the Maestro possibly take us from here?

We go where all tales of indulgence must go – down WITH redemption or down with NO redemption. Fellini forces us to hope (at times AGAINST hope) that Marcello will see the light or, at the very least, blow it big time and gain from his loss.

What we come back to is what I feel the central theme of our picture is – that if living life to the fullest is at the expense of love and to therefore live life alone, then how can life itself not ultimately be a living death?

For me, one of the fascinating ways in which Fellini tells Marcello’s story is by allowing us to fill the central character’s shoes and experience the seeming joy and style of this “sweet life”. For much of the film’s running time, we’re along for the ride – not just willingly, but as vicarious participants.

The magic Fellini conjures is subtle indeed. The whole business of getting the cake and eating it too plays a huge part in the proceedings. So often, great stories can work by indulging us in aberrant behaviour – glamorizing it to such a degree that we’re initially unable to see precisely what the protagonist’s real dilemma is. Not seeing the dilemma in the early going allows us to have some fun with the very thing that threatens to be the central character's potential downfall.

For Marcello, it eventually becomes – slowly and carefully – very obvious. He is surrounded by activity, enveloped by other people, the centre of attention of those he is reporting on, yet he is, in a sense, an island unto himself.

Marcello is, in spite of those around him, truly alone.

His real challenge is to break free of the shackles of excess in order to love. Alas, to love another and, in turn, accept their love, he must learn to love himself. On the mere surface, Marcello is all about self-gratification, but as the story progresses and Fellini places him at the centre of yet more sumptuous and indulgent sweet-life set pieces, we see a man struggling with the demons – not only of excess, but those ever-elusive opportunities to gratify the soul.

Even the roller coaster ride of Marcello’s relationship with Emma, the one constant person in his life willing to die for love of him, is a story element that keeps us with his journey. When he is annoyed and/or even disgusted with her, so too are we – and yet, we have the ability – one that Fellini bestows upon us by alternately keeping us in Marcello’s perspective and at arm’s length from it to see just how unconscionable and even wrongheaded he’s being. Most importantly, we begin to feel for Emma and understand her love and frustration. We see how brilliant and charming Marcello is also and a part of us craves for him to find peace.

Finally, what is especially poignant and tragic is that Marcello can only admit to both Emma and himself that he does love her when he is alone (or as in one great scene - seemingly alone) with her. Strangely, these are the few times in the movie when Marcello is truly NOT alone.

When Marcello is together with Emma in the presence of others, it's a different story altogether. When he brings her along to cover a Madonna-sighting which turns into a wild carnival of Catholic hysteria, he withdraws from Emma and she finds herself caught up in the craze of this "miracle". The miracle is, however, false. The two young children who have been put up to claiming they can see the Madonna by their fortune-seeking family, run to and fro - hundreds of the faithful following madly in their footsteps - even Emma, who begs God for Marcello to be with her exclusively and forever.

When Marcello seeks solace in his old friend Steiner (Alain Cuny) a man who has filled his own life with art, literature, culture and most importantly, a sense of home and family, Marcello sees a potential way of escape. Alas, further set pieces involving Steiner dash Marcello’s hopes.

During a vicious argument that eventually ensues between Marcello and Emma, Fellini once again proves that – in spite of his excesses as a stylist – he is ultimately a filmmaker endowed with considerable humanity. Though the bile rises and invective is hurled violently from both parties, we are placed squarely in front of humanity at its most raw and vulnerable.

The final sequences in this film are laden with excess, but they’re certainly no fun anymore. Nor is Marcello. After a pathetic failed attempt at instigating an orgy amongst an especially ragtag group of drunks (climaxing with Marcello riding on a woman's back horsey-style), the party goers (included here is a cameo from the iconic rock legend Nico) stumble out in the early morning onto the beach.

Caught in the nets of some fishermen is a dead sea creature - a strange cross between a stingray and coelacanth, its eyes still open and staring blankly into the heavens. It's the first of two images Marcello encounters on the beach which he bores his own gaze into.

This one is dead - surrounded by many, but finally, ultimately and unequivocally alone.

He then encounters, from a considerable distance across the sand and water, the angelic figure of Paola (Valeria Ciangottini), a pure, youthful young lady he met much earlier in the film - one of the few times when beauty and innocence seemed to touch him far deeper than surface fleshly desires. They look at each other - as if they can see into each others' eyes. The stunningly beautiful young woman, with her enigmatic smile, tries in vain to communicate with Marcello, but the wind drowns out her words and Marcello, his eyes at first bright, turn blank like the dead leviathan. He gives up, turns and joins his coterie of losers.

There is, however, hope in Paola's eyes - perhaps even the hope of a new generation.

Finally, though, Fellini offers no redemption for Marcello.

All that remains is the inevitability of a living death in a sweet life lived without love.

The sweet life, such as it is, proves sour, indeed.

A gorgeous restored film print of La Dolce Vita is being presented in Toronto at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Bell Lightbox as part of the phenomenal programme entitled “Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions”. The film screens August 13, August 28 and September 2. On August 28, there will be a special pairing of both film and food. Following the screening, moviegoers will feast on delectable morsels prepared by Executive Chef Jason Bangerter. The three-course Italian menu, inspired by La Dolce Vita, will be accompanied by Italian wine via sommelier Anthony Demas. While this seems like a perfectly good idea, I have to admit that a movie that so powerfully and provocatively explores the emptiness of decadence in a world without love might not best be served by bourgeois indulgence. Oh well, ‘tis to be expected, I suppose. It is Toronto, after all. That said, upon experiencing any great work of art, the last things I usually want to do are stuff my face and guzzle wine. But, hey! That’s my trip. You’re welcome to yours. La Dolce Vita is, frankly, a trip enough for this fella’.