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

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (2002) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson


By Alan Bacchus

Gangs of New York divided audiences in 2002. It received 10 Oscar nominations in most of the major categories. Some critics called it the best film of the year. Many, like me, knowing the storied history of this ‘dream project’ for Scorsese, had high expectations and were disappointed with the result. Thus, the majority of people consider the film a rare Scorsese failure.

After a nine-year break I beg everyone to reconsider. This is a terrific picture!

Gangs opens with a pulsating introduction to the “Dead Rabbits” gang. Liam Neeson, an Irish priest, is preparing to go to battle. His little son follows him around watching him gather all his troops and warriors. Their battle tools are unsophisticated – knives, axes, hammers and other bludgeoning objects. As they walk through a series of underground fire-lit caves we still aren’t even sure when or where they are. Is it the Middle Ages? It’s only until after the camera pulls out from the bloody battleground that we realize it’s Manhattan in 1846.

The opening is backstory to the film, which takes place 16 years after this famous battle and finds the priest’s son, Amsterdam (Leonardo Di Caprio), returning home to find his father’s killer, the infamous Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). Revenge doesn’t come easy though. Bill has become a de facto gang leader of the community, and with a new alliance with the city’s de facto politic leader, Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall (Jim Broadbent), he is now an untouchable.

The title is a bit of a misnomer. The film isn’t so much about gangs as it is about the city of New York. Gangs does what the best epic films do, weigh the big story equally with the small story.

The smaller story is about the evolving relationship of Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam Valone. Daniel Day-Lewis is phenomenal as Bill. His casting and performance in There Will Be Blood is clearly influenced by his work in Gangs of New York. Day-Lewis is so good that his performance was a detriment to my first experience with the film. His exaggerated mannerisms chew the scenery and suck all the attention of every scene onto him. Lost in the shuffle is a fine performance from Leonardo Di Caprio, who channels Hamlet-like qualities with his character’s indecisiveness. Like the Danish prince, Amsterdam wants to make a statement with Bill’s death. He says, “When you kill a king, you don't stab him in the dark. You kill him where the entire court can watch him die.” And so when Amsterdam becomes one of Bill's disciples, he finds himself admiring his enemy, complicating even further his indecision and blurring the line between hero and villain.

The bigger story is equally fascinating. During the Civil War, when the country was divided between North and South, New York was on its own – not neutral, but autonomous – like a separate colony within the country. And even within the city, everyone was autonomous, which is where the ‘gangs’ in the title comes from. Like the country itself, New York was constantly at war. So, Gangs is also about the birth of New York and its relationship with the rest of the country.

The finale, which takes place during the famous draft riots, is a great piece of writing – a scene that brings together the big story and the small story. Just as Amsterdam is about to face off with Bill, the riot starts and the federal police fight back. Amsterdam gets his revenge, but he’s alone with the man without the fanfare he once foresaw. Bill the Butcher, one of the great villains in screen history, dies with honour, neither a hero nor a villain. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011


Hannibal (2001) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Ray Liotta, Gary Oldman


By Alan Bacchus

I remember really digging this film when it first came out. Hannibal seemed like an unusual follow-up film for Sir Ridley Scott, whose career was resurrected after his success with Gladiator, which won the Best Picture Oscar. Even more peculiar was the Pulitzer Prize-winning working class scribe, David Mamet (with help from prolific Hollywood writer-for-hire Steven Zallian), who adapted the screenplay.

It still is a weirdly peculiar product from Hollywood. Clearly, Thomas Harris was lured by Hollywood to write another book featuring his Lambs protagonist, Clarice Starling, who was chasing after the escaped criminal Hannibal Lecter. While his two previous efforts, Lambs and Manhunter were brooding psychological and procedural police-cum-horror films, Hannibal was made into a comic book superhero with a kind of grotesqueness meant to better the atrocities and vileness of the Lambs with an over-the-top sense of black comedy.

Anthony Hopkins, more aged and a little stockier, doesn’t quite have the controlled physique, and thus quiet menace, of the 1991 film. And the inability of the producers (and not even the revered Ridley Scott!) to bring back Jodie Foster hurt its credibility. Julianne Moore is a good actress though, and she tries her best. But that Southern drawl accent never quite fits her, and Scott’s attempts to continue the exploration of her insecurities in the police force are peppered throughout, but they never manifest themselves in a substantially effective way.

Hannibal works best as a disposable but elegant B-thriller. The middle act is jumpstarted with the introduction of the film’s best character, played by Giancarlo Giannini, the broken-down and corrupt Italian police inspector who wants to claim the private ransom money. Driven with a great music pulse from Hans Zimmer, act 2 sails along at a brisk pace. Scott has always been a slower-paced director, but by cutting to characters in a number of locations and different characters in the US and Italy, he creates a heady momentum. And the inclusion of bombastic performances from Ray Liotta and Gary Oldman should be taken as black comedy.

If anything, the film suffers from the flaws that have plagued Sir Ridley in films past. Fans of his might welcome the application of his familiar baroque and extravagant visual design. Others, like me, who are well attuned to his body of work, may only see more long flowing drapes, smoke-filled atmosphere and overly decorated interiors. And the opening drug bust sequence is typical of his new methods of filming action scenes – a multi-camera simultaneous coverage approach, which results in a dull television look.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (2011) dir. Jose Padilha
Starring: Wagner Moura, Irandhir Santos, Andre Ramiro, Pedro Van Held, Maria Ribeiro, Seu Jorge


By Alan Bacchus

What happened to Elite Squad 1? I guess I’m not keeping up with my international genre cinema, but ES1 was one of Brazil’s most successful domestic films, a crackerjack cop thriller with comparisons to The Wire and Heat. Along comes Elite Squad 2, a film already released in Brazil, which has become the highest grossing domestic Brazilian film of all time.

The title refers to the special task force police militia established in the first film (which I haven't seen), and now run by the tough-as-nails Nascimento (Wagner Moura). The film opens four years in the past in the city’s most notorious prison where Nascimento commands the squad assigned to subdue a violent riot. Tasked as the negotiator is Fraga, Nascimento’s nemesis, whose desire to peacefully resolve the conflict runs counter to Nascimento’s corrupt bosses. The standoff goes horribly wrong, the fall-out being the loss of Nascimento’s job on the squad.

Most importantly, with many of the key gang members dead, a corrupt and clandestine movement within the police force itself takes over the reins of organized crime in the slums of Rio. Now more of a bureaucrat than an officer, Nascimento has to navigate a world even more treacherous than the street-level policing – the office and boardrooms of the new political corruption that has gripped the city.

Mondo muscular action is the attraction here. And Jose Padilha, whose previous work includes the acclaimed Bus 174 documentary, has all the panache of a seasoned action director. Guns are shot and framed like glorified phallic symbols, aggressive rock music scoring sounds just like something produced for a Jerry Bruckheimer or Tony Scott film and the men who hold these guns are as badass as you’ll find in any crime film.

Elite Squad 2 should not be characterized simply as a disposable action film. Comparisons to The Wire are more accurate than comparisons to Heat. Missing from ES2 is the elegant sense of grandeur present in Michael Mann’s work. Instead, Padilha substitutes style for a strong sense of realism, which legitimizes the film.

An interesting adjunct to this film is the manner in which it was produced and distributed. After the first film suffered from a leak prior to its release, it was primarily seen by illegal downloaders. For the second film the producers 'four-walled' it, which means they controlled the distribution and exhibition of the film. Instead of hiring a third-party company to distribute it, they booked the theatres themselves to ensure that no one other than the filmmakers had copies of the film. The result was a $65 million (US) domestic take.

It's one example of the new financing and distribution scenarios coming out of Brazil. Look for high-profile Brazilian films to come out in the near future on par with this immensely entertaining and robust action flick.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Counting of the Damages

The Counting of the Damages* "El Recuento de los Daños" (2009)
dir. by Ines de Oliveira Cezar
Starring: Eva Bianco and Santiago Gobernori

By Blair Stewart

1. If you're making an exploration of family grief in present-day Argentina don't short-change your audience's intelligence with an unwieldy mass of head-shaking coincidences.

2. Only use a numerical chapter system in your film if each section either advances or diverges from the expectations of the previous chapter. See "Dogville" for a good example. Otherwise you might find yourself in a dark cinema praying for 'ocho' to become 'nueve'.

3. When the brother-in-law said he was an 'astrologer' was that supposed to be a joke? If so the script's sign is in Cancer.

4. Labourious non-action and detachment is a poor substitute for storytelling verve and emotional involvement.

5. I now have a better understanding of that whole 'la bronca' thing that ex-pats from Buenos Aires are always talking about.

6. You can only have so many shots of characters mournfully standing alongside waterways before one wishes for said characters to go for a swim.

7. It's nice to make a metaphor for the scars of the defunct military dicatorship but it also fills the audience with the desire to see Polanski's "Death and the Maiden" instead.

8. Whoever suggested the plinky-plonky piano score may in fact be a saboteur. Flush them out!

9. Is Argentina berefit of Zoloft?

10. As the end credit rolled I fought an immense desire to raise my arms aloft and shout out 'Pour Que?!?'.

*If you give yourself the albatross of a pretentious title you should expect the theme of a snarky review to be 'The Airing of the Grievances'.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Killer Inside Me

The Killer Inside Me (2010) dir. by Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba


By Blair Stewart

And it was all just going so damn well before the ending. Arriving at the Berlinale after a controversial Sundance premiere, the prolific Michael Winterbottom's latest is a frank adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me with a 1950s small-town "aw shucks, ma'am" wacko-killer sheriff. If you feel resentment toward me for revealing that nugget of info or failing to include a 'spoiler warning' beforehand, I suggest you refrain from reading the title of the film, ok?

Central City, Texas is enjoying the post-war oil boom and the clean streets are patrolled by the chipper and handsome Casey Affleck as Deputy Lou Ford. If you're familiar with the younger Affleck's work from his debut in Gus Van Zant's To Die For to his Oscar-nominated Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, you'll know the ease with which he can flick on a creepy switch, like a bug is going to crawl out of his throat at any moment. Good-ol' boy Lou gets mixed up with a connected prostitute played by Jessica Alba as one of the more improbable ladies of the night in American film history since Julia Roberts worked the streets.

Deals will go bad and folks will find themselves dead and Sheriff Lou will spin longer and longer yarns at the D.A. to stay out of the electric chair. As the film progresses Lou's sadism (and peculiar childhood activites, spanking fetish ahoy!) towards the women in his life is revealed, hence the controversy, which itself is a quaint idea in the age of Google search engines. Watching Lou's psyche being peeled back makes for hypnotic viewing, as Affleck's eyes have the right shade of ice to them when he needs it. Surrounding the sheriff is a cast of Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, Elais Koteas and Bill Pullman doing their Southern twangs well as his potential victims if they hang around long enough.

I'm sure Winterbottom was amped up to direct The Killer Inside Me, as it has a certain appeal for a Brit with Thompson's singular pulp Tex-Mex setting. You can see that joy in the lovingly designed opening credits and the camera work of Marcel Zyskind, and for 98.5% of the film it works something nasty and slippery with a Lone Star bite, another Blood Simple was coming down the pike.

And then the ending happened.

While the final moments are true to Thompson's classic, the delivery by Winterbottom and John Curran's script is flubbed. The finale is intended as a cruel death's head joke, but it arrives with the bumbling execution of an audible fart on the soundtrack. Where I should have felt a punch in my gut, instead I had to make due with the Benny Hill theme song playing inside my own mind given the plot and character inconsistencies piling up. What a shame.

It's a missed shot at a classic, but if Winterbottom continues to churn out work he'll likely make up for this.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Three Colours Trilogy

Three Colours: Blue, White, Red (1993/94) dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Irene Jacob, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Benoît Régent, Jean-Louis Trintignant


By Alan Bacchus

Blue, White and Red, 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 created a thematically complex yet wholly accessible linked trilogy incomparable to any other series of films in cinema. Each is unique and self-contained, and there’s no particular order in which they need to be seen. The films freely weave 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, as 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 with bright and traditionally composed imagery subordinate to the narrative. While Red is shot with a dreamy, romantic, effortless style, energetic and effervescent.

Blue, the darkest of the the three films is also the most intimate and contained. After a tragic car accident, Julie (Juliette Binoche) is left a grieving widow and dodging questions from the media about her late husband’s (a renowned composer) last unfinished concerto. Sequestering herself from the world and the emotional pain of her losses, she finds strange solace in a female companion of her husband’s.

Kieślowski represents Blue as Liberty by using the strange irony of her new friendship with the former illicit lover to free herself of her former life and become a new woman. In keeping with Julie’s internalized emotions, Kieślowski employs a distinctly abstract and impressionistic cinematic style. The deep blues and yellows absorb light and constrain his world in shadows and darkness. Unlike the complex plotting of Red, Blue is sparse, fuelled by mood, texture and the brooding emotions of its heroine. The result is intoxicating.

Usually billed as the ‘comedy’ of the three films, White is Kieślowski at his most affable, but also his most cruel. It features an unusual setup, including the supremely absurd opening scene, which shows the complete destruction of his lead character, Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a Polish immigrant who stands agape in a courtroom where his wife is divorcing him for his inability to consummate their marriage. What shame. The casting of Julie Delpy, normally portrayed as a sweet and innocent fanciful girl in other pictures, aids in disarming us to her cruelty and selfishness toward Karol.

After a series of other mishaps, Karol, at his lowest moment, meets another Polish ex-pat who asks Karol to kill him as a favour in exchange for money. Through this random association (a strong theme across all the films) we see Karol build his life and career back up to the point where he is wealthy and successful and finally ready to exact revenge on his ex-wife, who forsake him so many years ago.

Within this noirish black comedy set up Kieślowski presents a sharp political allegory to Poland’s post communist-era financial troubles with the rest of Europe. As an immigrant in a strange land, Karol’s inability to integrate into French society causes him to resort to underground illegal means to achieve his success, something which echoes the rise of Eastern European crime in the '90s and beyond. With nothing to lose, Karol exploits the tenets of the free market capitalist mentality to become a self-made entrepreneur fuelled by his deep-rooted desire to destroy his opponents – in this case, his equally diabolical (though gorgeous) ex-wife.

While it’s painful to even consider ranking these films, arguably Red is the standout picture, 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, while driving home after a photo shoot, accidentally hits a dog. 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, hence the use of the colour of love prominently throughout. Yet, Kieślowski’s heroine never experiences love. We can feel it 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, who spends his days listening in on his neighbour’s conversations. Kern’s emotional reconciliation is brought out by Valentine’s gentle innocence.

Again, Kieślowski uses coincidence and chance to express his themes of existence, love, repentance and forgiveness. Red is elliptical without being self-consciously clever. Kieślowski uses parallel narratives, which twist and turn within one another and even double back through the other films, connecting all three main characters as one form of human conscience and thus a glorious finale to this landmark series.

Three Colours Trilogy is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Thursday, 24 November 2011


Sideways (2004) dir. Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh


By Alan Bacchus

Sideways was a great success story. The modest comedy without any particular marketable hook other than great characters turned critics’ heads around in 2004 and garnered a well-deserved Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar as well as nominations in most of the major categories.

With years of hindsight, the film ages well and packs as much of an emotional punch as it did back then. At its heart it's a unique male buddy film – the term du jour would be a ‘bromantic comedy’. It follows two guys bonding on a week-long road trip in Napa Valley. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a 40-something divorcee and struggling author. He has arranged a relaxing week of wine-tasting with his buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who’s about to get married. Jack's agenda is for him and Miles to get laid – specifically Miles, whom he's desperate to see break out of his two-year long post-divorce depression.

Jack, as wingman, brokers a four-way date with a pair of attractive middle-agers and fellow wine connoisseurs, Maya and Stephanie (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh). While Stephanie's and Jack’s libidos explode immediately, Miles’ courtship of Maya is carefully and slowly revealing his neurotic fears and painful regrets. But Jack’s heinous lies burden both relationships resulting in even more painful heartbreak.

Characters rule in Sideways, and each actor inhabits his or her skin with complete honesty. In some way or another we can all relate to their situations. For Miles, his internal pain is a lifelong pattern of failure – career failure and relationship failure. In addition to complete self-absorption, in order to replace his emptiness Miles obsesses about everything to do with wine. Jack, as the womanizing pick-up artist, is both the angel and the devil on his shoulder. While his philandering behaviour is completely reprehensible, his devotion to his best mate is admirable. It’s a classic male relationship, which Payne characterizes with perfection.

Payne has remarkable control of his tone, moving fluidly between sombre reflections on life to absurd comedy and all shades of grey in between. Aiding this is his modest camera work, unstylish and unassuming but hardly rudimentary. Perfect framing and camera placement, as well as subtle camera moves emphasize all the poignant and comic moments with pinpoint accuracy. Rolfe Kent’s music is equally unflashy but so important to Payne’s tone, a gentle mix of quirky and melancholy.

Based on the four films from Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor, they could be argued as one of the great writing duos in film comedy. With Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways (as well as a marvellous segment in Paris Je T’Aime), this eight-year examination of ordinary middle class America and the variations of character neuroses reminds us of Woody Allen’s remarkable output from the late '70s to the late '80s.

Sideways is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Identification of a Woman

Identification of a Woman (1982) dir. Michaelangelo Antonioni
Starring: Tomas Milian, Daniela Silverio, Christine Boisson


By Alan Bacchus

The great Italian modernist master known for beguiling cinema teasers like L’Avventura and Blow Up was 72 when he made this film. It has the makings of a 70-year-old, waning in creativity but still virile enough to titillate us with healthy doses of graphic Italian sex and a disconnected storyline that fits into his career of narrative ambiguities.

There is a strong connection to Fellini’s here too, with Antonioni’s lead character, Niccolo, like Fellini’s Guido, at a creative impasse, wandering through various affairs trying to connect emotionally with a woman and find a new leading lady for his next film. But is this really what the film is about? At the beginning, Antonioni sets up a mystery of sorts. Early on, after courting a very sexual female socialite called Mavi, Niccolo is threatened by a man advising him to stay away from her. The threat both angers and intrigues Niccolo, who sets off on a journey with Mavi to uncover the identity of the jealous other man.

Midway through, Antonioni crafts his key set piece, a suspenseful chase of sorts in a fog-enshrouded stretch of highway. It’s a lengthy sequence that plays as a metaphor for the murky background of Mavi, as well as Antonioni’s fascination with oblique narratives and loose-ended storytelling.

This film is no exception. Shortly after the fog sequence Mavi inexplicably disappears herself – the victim of the threatening man, perhaps? As expected, Antonioni provides little explanation or closure in this regard. Nor do we require this from him. Antonioni paints a vivid portrait of Niccolo, his leading man, as a sexually liberated middle-aged man with the most confident and casual sex life I’ve seen on screen in a while.

It’s mildly hilarious watching Niccolo approach female strangers with such casual candor. In one scene with a young girl at a swimming pool the gal admits to him in a matter of seconds that her favourite sexual position is masturbation. And yet this admission doesn’t phase Niccolo, who coolly accepts the statement like he’s working on a research project on the female mind and soul. He doesn’t bed the girl from the swimming pool, but he does find gratification with Ida, a comparatively demure actress who is still sexually vivacious and confident. Oh, to be Italian.

This film was also ‘celebrated’ for its sexual explicitness, and indeed we're treated to some truly eye-popping sexual acts and body positions. It also feature some extraordinarily aggressive kissing, which, under Antonioni’s direction, seems to have actor Tomas Milan attacking his partner’s mouth like a feral animal. It’s a head turner for sure. But hey, it’s Italy!

Niccolo’s relationship with Ida plays out more conventionally than the brainteaser plotting of Mavi and the mystery man. By the end, a strong theme of man’s inability to connect with women – or at least Antonioni’s inability to connect with women - develops. And Niccolo’s rejection of Ida in the end resounds with quiet tragedy. That is until a truly bizarre finale (even for Antonioni) when he indulges in a loopy science fiction dream sequence featuring Niccolo blasting into space toward the sun in an asteroid-shaped spaceship. But hey, Antonioni was 72 when he made this. By this time, like Jean-Luc Godard in the present, his career had given him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted.

Identification of a Woman is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander (1982) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Bertil Guve, Pernilla Allwin, Börje Ahlstedt


By Alan Bacchus

Oh, me of little faith. About an hour into this film I embarrassingly posted a Facebook message sarcastically asking when this film was going to get ‘good’. I humbly apologized publicly having been completely blown away by this picture from the moment I posted that note until the end of the film.

It’s the celebrated ‘final’ film of Bergman’s, although he would write screenplays and direct some notable television mini-series afterwards. This was the intention of the great Swedish master of cinema, to create an opus maximus of a very personal nature, essentially the story of his youth, his life in a theatrical family and the deep penetrating effect of Catholicism on his outlook on life. It ended up as a five-hour film released in its full length on Swedish television but a mere three hours in theatres.

While Bergman’s films have been marked by methodical and arguably slow exercises in emotional rigor, which is often unfriendly to lay audiences, Fanny and Alexander is a wholly accessible, truly haunting journey for its two main characters, Fanny and Alexander.

We meet them both as young impressionable children of a stage family, the Ekdahls. The opening act, an hour-long Christmas party during which we see the hedonistic extremes of the more drunken and libidinous family members, establishes their whimsy, flighty lifestyle. If anything the scene reminds us of Coppola’s wedding scene in The Godfather, another story about family set up with a similar scene of domestic reverie. But this is the first hour, which had me squirming in my seat. Without any forward movement in the narrative, the carefree decadence of the family felt indulgent and superfluous. But it’s all part of Bergman’s grand plan, setting up the eventual trough of despair experienced by the kids and their eventual triumphant resurrection by the end.

The shoe drops hard when Fanny’s and Alexander’s father dies during a performance. The anguish of the loss is depicted by Bergman in one magnificently shot scene from Alexander's eyes through the crack of a door. The scene shows his mother and grandmother grieving inconsolably – a point of view that typifies the filter on life and family in which Bergman frames his story. It also showcases his remarkable eye for composition, which remains as precise and controlled throughout all three hours of the film.

It doesn’t take long for the mother, Emilie, to move on when she announces her intention to remarry the local bishop, a hasty decision that doesn’t sit well with the family, but a decision to which she is completely devoted. Once in the care of the clergy, the kids find a most barbarous and cruel household, one in which they are commanded to leave all possessions behind in order to start anew and fresh like newly birthed infants. Things turn from bad to worse when Alexander stubbornly resists the Bishop’s authority thus infuriating the authority figure and creating an even deeper power struggle. Heinous acts of corporal punishment, such as caning and prison-like isolation, drive the kids and Emilie mad until the Ekdahls execute a glorious set-up and escape plan.

Knowing Bergman’s previous work, we have to expect the worse for these children, a brainwashing of sorts in the most cynical manner. Yet the finale, including the Bishop’s comeuppance, is so genuinely heartwarming and triumphant it could have been written in Hollywood.

Bergman’s infusion of fantastical elements, such as the Shakespearean-worthy ghostly haunting of Alexander and the ambiguous magical touches of the theatre troupe, set us in the world of magic realism. It also allows Bergman to craft a few moments of truly terrifying suspense. The most affecting comes at the end, in one of the most haunting shots in the history of cinema (yes!). After fully escaping the clutches of the maniacal Bishop, presumably safe and sound in the company of the theatre, Alexander's life would appear to be back to normal. But the return of the Bishop’s ghost, who pushes him to the ground announcing his ominous return, is truly haunting. This moment had me gasping with earth-shattering shock, an effect rare for me these days and a moment that reminded me of my reaction to, say, the rising corpse in the bathtub at the end of Diabolique. It’s that affecting.

Bergman’s masterful control of tone and imagery is evident, as are his artful cinematic tools, which in this picture come together arguably more cohesively than any of his previous films.

Fanny and Alexander is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Father's Day - Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011

Father's Day (2011) dir. Astron-6
(Adam Brooks, Jeremy Gillespie, Matthew Kennedy, Conor Sweeney)
Starring: Conor Sweeney, Adam Brooks, Matt Kennedy, Brent Neale, Amy Groening, Meredith Sweeney, Kevin Anderson, Garret Hnatiuk, Mackenzie Murdoch, Lloyd Kaufman


By Greg Klymkiw
"Death ends a life. But it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor's mind. toward some resolution which it may never find." - Robert Anderson from his play, I Never Sang For My Father

A father's love for his son is a special kind of love. As such, Dads the world over face that singular inevitability - that peculiar epoch in their collective lives, when they must chauffeur the apple of their eye from a police station, for the third time in a month, after said progeny has undergone questioning upon being found in a motel room with a dead man covered in blood, après le bonheur de la sodomie, only to return home after dropping said twink son on a street corner, so the aforementioned offspring of the light-in-the-loafer persuasion, can perform fellatio on old men for cash, whilst Dad sits forlornly in the domicile that once represented decent family values and stare at a framed photo of better times, until he succumbs to unexpected anal rape and as he weeps, face down and buttocks up, he is doused with gasoline and set on fire, then frenziedly tears into the street screaming, until collapsing in a charred heap in front of his returning son, who reacts with open-mouthed horror as the scent of old penis, wafts, ever so gently, from his delicate twink tonsils.

For most fathers, all of the above is, no doubt, a case of been-there-done-that - not unlike that inevitable fatherly attempt at understanding when Dad gently seeks some common ground with the fruits of his husbandly labours and offers: "Look son, I experimented when I was young, too."

So begins Father's Day - with the aforementioned, AND some delectable pre-credit butchery, an eye-popping opening credit sequence with images worthy of Jim Steranko and a series of flashbacks during an interrogation with a hard-boiled cop. This is the astounding feature film (the second completed feature this year) from the brilliant Winnipeg filmmaking collective Astron-6 (Adam Brooks, Jeremy Gillespie, Matthew Kennedy, Conor Sweeney) who have joined forces with the legendary Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz of Troma Entertainment to generate a film that is the ultimate evil bastard child sprung from the loins of a daisy chain twixt Guy Maddin, John Paizs, early David Cronenberg, Herschel Gordon Lewis and Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer.

Father's Day is a triumph! It happily combines the effects of asbestos-tinged drinking water in Winnipeg with the Bukkake splatter of the coolest artistic influences imaginable and yields one of the Ten Best Films of 2011.

It is the seed of depraved genius that's spawned Astron-6 and, of course, with the best work in Canadian film, it has been embraced by an entity outside of Canada - the glorious aforementioned sleaze-bucket uber-mensch nutters who gave the world The Toxic Avenger. This collective of five (not six) brilliant filmmakers (including the above named quartet and Steven Kosanski, the F/X wizard, writer and director of Astron-6's MANBORG) are part of a new breed of young Canadian filmmakers who have snubbed their noses at the government-funded bureaucracies that oft-eschew the sort of transgression that normally puts smaller indigenous cultural industries on the worldwide map (including its own - Canada only truly supports such work grudgingly once it's found acceptance elsewhere). In this sense, Astron-6 has been making films under the usual radar of mediocrity and steadfastly adhering to the fine Groucho Marx adage: "I refuse to join any club that would have someone like me for a member."

Imagine, if you will, any government-funded agency (especially a Canadian one), doling out taxpayer dollars to the following plot: Chris Fuchman (Mackenzie Murdoch), is a serial killer that specializes in targeting fathers for anal rape followed by further degradations, including torture, butchery and/or murder. Our madman, Fuchman (substitute :k" for "h" to pronounce name properly), turns out to be a demon from the deepest pits of hell and a ragtag team is recruited by a blind infirm Archbishop of the Catholic Church (Kevin Anderson) to fight this disgusting agent of Satan. An eyepatch-wearing tough guy (Adam Brooks), a young priest (Matthew Kennedy), the aforementioned twink male prostitute (Conor Sweeney) and hard-boiled dick (Brent Neale) and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous stripper (Amy Groening) follow the trail of this formidable foe whilst confronting all their own personal demons.

This frothy brew of vile delights includes some of the most graphic blood splattering, vicious ass-slamming violence, gratuitous nudity, skimpy attire for the ladies, 'natch (and our delectable twink), morality, evisceration, hunky lads, delicious babes, compassion, rape, fellatio, chainsaw action, wholesome content, cannibalism, hand-to-hand combat, gunplay, family values, sodomy, immolation and monsters. It's all delivered up with a cutting edge mise-en-scène that out-grindhouses Tarantino's Grindhouse and delivers thrills, scares and laughs all in equal measure.

The film's sense of humour, in spite, or perhaps because of the proper doses of scatology and juvenilia is not the typical low-brow gross-out humour one finds in so many contemporary comedies, but frankly, works on the level of satire, and as such, is of the highest order. It stylistically straddles the delicate borders great satire demands. Too many people who should know better, confuse spoof or parody with satire and certainly anyone going to see Father's Day expecting SCTV, Airplane or Blazing Saddles might be in for a rude awakening. Yes, it's just as funny as any of those classic mirth-makers, but the laughs cut deep and they're wrought, not from the typical shtick attached to spoofs, but like all great satire, derive from the entire creative team playing EVERYTHING straight. No matter how funny, absurd or outlandish the situations and dialogue are, one never senses that an annoying tongue is being drilled firmly in cheek. Astron-6 loves their material and, importantly loves their creative influences. Their target is not necessarily the STYLE of film they're rendering homage to, but rather, the hypocrisies and horrors that face humanity everyday - religion, repression, dysfunction - all wedged cleverly into the proceedings.

Clearly a great deal of the movie's power in terms of its straight-laced approach to outlandish goings-on is found in the performances - all of them are spot-on. Adam Brooks IS a stalwart hero and never does he veer from infusing his role from the virtues inherent in such roles. Hell, he could frankly be Canada's Jason Statham in conventional action movies if anyone bothered to make such movies in Canada on any regular basis. Conor Sweeney as Twink is a marvel. Not only does he play the conflicted gay street hustler "straight", he straddles that terrific balance between genuinely rendering a layered character, but also infusing his performance with melodramatic aplomb. Not only is this ideal for the character itself, but it's perfectly in keeping with the style of movie that is being lovingly celebrated. Anyone who reads my stuff regularly will know my mantra: Melodrama is not a dirty word - as an approach to drama, it's a legitimate genre. There is good melodrama and bad melodrama, like any other genre. End of story. No arguments. Luckily, the Astron-6 team has the joy of glorious melodrama hard-wired into their collective DNA and Sweeney's performance is especially indelible in this respect. Brent Neale as the hard-boiled cop is, quite simply, phenomenal. Will someone out there give this actor job after job after job? The camera loves him and he knows how to play to the camera. He is clearly at home with the straight-up and melodramatic aspects of his role and most importantly, he is imbued with the sort of smoulder that makes stars - he's handsome and intense.

Astoundingly, not a single actor in this film feels out of place. Whether they're emoting straight, slightly stilted, wildly melodramatic or, on occasion (given the genre), magnificently reeking of ham, this is ensemble acting at its absolute best.

The entire movie was made on a budget of $10,000 and once again, for all the initiatives out there to generate low-budget feature films, Father's Day did it cheaper (WAY CHEAPER) and better. The movie uses its budgetary constraints not as limitations, but as a method to exploit what can be so special about movies. The visual and makeup effects as well as the art direction ooze imagination and aesthetic brilliance and it's all captured through a lens that puts its peer level and even some big budget extravaganzas to shame. Imagination is truly the key to success with no-budget movies. The Father's Day cinematography is often garish and lurid, but delightfully and deliciously so - with first-rate lighting and excellent composition. The filmmakers and their entire team successfully render pure gold out of elements that in most low-budget films just looks cheap - or worse, blandly competent (like most low budget Canadian movies). It's total trash chic - trash art, if you must.

I attended this spectacular event in France many years ago called the FreakZone International Festival of Trash Cinema which celebrated some of the most amazing transgressive works I'd ever seen. When I expressed to the festival director that I was surprised at the level of cinematic artistry, he just smiled and said, "You North Americans have such a limited view of trash culture - for us, trash is not garbage, we use the word to describe work that is subversive." This was so refreshing. It felt like a veil had been lifted from over me and I realized what EXACTLY it was that I loved about no-budget cinema - as a filmmaker, a teacher, a critic and fan.

Making a movie for no money that is NOT subversive on every level is, frankly, just plain stupid. What's the point? And Father's Day is nothing if it's not subversive. Besides, I've seen too many young filmmakers with talent galore ruined by initiatives that purported to celebrate the virtues of no-or-low-budget filmmaking but then forced the artists to apply the idiotic expectations of "industry standards" - whatever that means, anyway. This has been especially acute in Canada, but to be fair, in other non-North American countries also, where bureaucrats make decisions and/or define the rules/parameters of filmmaking.

Father's Day and the entire canon of the Astron-6 team should be the ultimate template for filmmakers with no money to seize the day and make cool shit. That's what it should always be about. And in this case, it took the fortitude of the filmmakers, their genuinely transgressive gifts as artists AND an independent AMERICAN producer to ensure that they made the coolest shit of all.

What finally renders Father's Day special is just how transgressively intelligent it all is and yet, never turns its proverbial nose up at the straight-to-video-nasties of the 80s, the grindhouse cinema of the 60s and 70s and the weird, late night cable offerings of the early 90s. It works very much on the level of the things it loves best. This is real filmmaking - it entertains, it dazzles, it makes use of every cheap trick in the book to create MOVIE magic and finally, it's made by people who clearly care about film. They get to have their cake and eat it too by having as much fun making the movies as we have watching them.

Father's Day was unveiled at Toronto's premiere genre film event, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011 where it won several awards: the grand prize of Best Film, Most Original Film, Best Hero, Best Kills, Best Trailer and Best Poster - all voted on by the thousands of attendees of the festival. It will be released theatrically in early 2012 by Troma Entertainment and will be followed with the usual forays into home entertainment formats.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Gold Diggers of 1933

Golddiggers of 1933 (1933) dir. Mervyn le Roy
Starring: Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Warren William, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee


By Alan Bacchus

This film is the first of one of the most successful and beloved musical franchises in cinema – the Gold Diggers films, a series of musicals in the ‘30s portraying the predatory attitude of the poor against the rich with comedic fervour and eye-popping musical spectacles.

Busby Berkeley provides the staging and choreography of the musical sequences and the great Mervyn Le Roy (Wizard of Oz) directs this spectacular and topical comedic musical about men and women trying to 'put on a show'. Of course, this was the time of the Depression and the mixture of frenetic comic fever with Berkeley‘s distinct kaleidoscope-like visual spectacle makes all of these films classics beyond compare.

While intended for working class audiences, Le Roy’s execution of the theme of class struggle is just as biting and clever as, say, the sophisticated Renoir films from the same period. The first half of plotting finds poor musician and lyricist Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) struggling, like everyone, to make a living as an artist in bad economic times. But after hearing him play his own little ditties, bombastic stage producer Barney Hopkins hires him to write his next great musical. However, without the money to finance it, Brad miraculously and mysterious ‘finds’ the $15,000 needed to make it all happen.

After Brad is forced to perform in the musical, his identity is revealed as the heir to a rich and respected business family. When his father and brother find out, they arrive at the theatre to chastise him and bring him home. Enter Brad’s vivacious female dancers, who weave their sexual charisma around the stuck-up suits in the hopes of keeping Brad in the theatre and squeezing as much money out of them as possible.

Surprisingly, Le Roy cleverly switches our sympathy from Brad and his desire to buck his family legacy and live the honest life as an artist, to his brother Lawrence and father Fanuel, who, after being set up as the prototypical ‘30s upper class snobs, become putty in the hands of the women. In the case of Fanuel, the story reveals a forlorn love from his past, which his greed for money has tried to suppress.

Interspersed between the comic shenanigans are the scenes from Barney’s new show with the tone of each sequence cleverly reflecting the mood of the characters behind the scenes. As typical of the Berkeley style, his musical numbers are born from the stage-setting of the story, but are played and choreographed 100% for his expressive composition and dynamic moving camera.

In addition to the stunning dance sequences, as a pre-code film we can also appreciate the not-so-subtle suggestive subtext. Le Roy takes delight in showing us some rather salacious skin, including women undressing freely in front of men and the dancers overtly using their bodies to seduce men out of their money. We even get to see some stark naked bodies in silhouette in one of the dance sequences. The musical segment, ‘Petting in the Park’, is particularly naughty, dramatizing just what the title suggests – making out in Central Park

If anything, the film ends rather abruptly and leaves us hanging about the fate of Lawrence Roberts. But it’s not before we're supremely satisfied with the final ‘Forgotten Man’ sequence.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Water For Elephants

Water For Elephants (2011) dir. Francis Lawrence
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Reece Witherspoon, Christophe Waltz


By Alan Bacchus

The film version of the beloved literary historical romance novel of the same title may not have been scorching box office success, but the handsome production values and meat and potatoes themes of moral decency and ethics are refreshingly old school.

For much of the film it's delightfully cinematic and vividly dramatized. In the present day, an old man is left standing in the rain as a modern circus wraps up its tents to move on to the next city. The manager brings him out of the cold, and over a bottle of gin whisky we learn about his connection to the circus of old – the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show.

Flashing back to the Depression-era 1930s, we see Robert Pattinson as Jacob, a Cornell veterinarian student, distraught over the death of his parents, run away from life and accidentally join up with the Benzini circus. His knowledge of animals impresses the charismatic though slightly deranged owner, August (Waltz), and he gets a job. Once on the road he becomes enlightened to the squalor in which the carnies exist and the heinous maltreatment of the performing animals.

Jacob ingratiates himself with the leading lady of the show, Marlena (Witherspoon), as they bond over the animals, and, of course, their mutual good looks result in an unspoken romantic connection. But Marlena also happens to be the boss’s wife, and so there’s clearly some danger afoot. The more dire the financial situation of the circus gets, the more cruelly the animals are treated, to a point where Jacob must stand up for himself, the animals and Marlena.

For the first half, the film coasts on the vivid depiction of the idiosyncratic circus life. Francis Lawrence, who created the visually striking worlds in Constantine and I am Legend, creates another beautiful cinematic spectacle. Large-scale epic sequences, such as the arrival of the train or the raising of the tents, are breathtaking - the stuff of David Lean and other great epics of the '60s.

Robert Pattison is handsome and adequate as our naïve entry point into the seedy travelling entertainment business. His romance with Reece Witherspoon doesn’t smoulder, and Christophe Waltz only piggybacks on his cruel performance in Inglourious Basterds. Therefore, as the visual awe subsides, we’re left with predictable narrative plotting backed by a mostly dull love story.

Despite the narrative deficiencies, Water for Elephants is one of the most visually pleasing movies of the year. Terrence Malick’s shadow is cast over this aesthetic. The Midwestern prairie locale recalls the awe in Malick’s depiction of wheat fields in Days of Heaven. And the train cars that feature prominently in the background of many of the scenes recall the epic staging of the arrival of the wheat shuckers to Sam Shepard’s farm in Days.

For good and bad (mostly bad) there’s also a strong '90s feel to this. The use of the bookended story in the present – the old person reflecting on the adventures of his life, lost loves and the unpredictable journey of life – reeks of Titanic and other schmaltz fare from writers like Ron Bass (Snow Falling on Cedars), Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and Richard LaGravenese (Bridges of Madison County). In fact, the screenwriter here is none other than Mr. LaGravanese. Unfortunately, we live in different times, and this flavour doesn’t taste as sweet as it did back in those days. But Water for Elephants is still an admirable, under-appreciated, throwback film of sorts.

Water For Elephants is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Friday, 18 November 2011

The Idiots

The Idiots (1998) dir. Lars von Trier
Starring: Anne Louise Hassing, Bodil Jørgensen, Jens Albinus, Troels Lyby


By Greg Klymkiw

To spass or not to spass; that, is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of the bourgeoisie, or to take arms against that which is a shallow sea of hypocrisy, and by the spassing, end them.

With assistance from the Bard of Avon, I ask you: Hast thou found thine inner idiot? No? Well then, get cracking, fool. In The Idiots, Lars von Trier's only official Dogme film - the movement he founded in 1995 during the 100th anniversary of movies with fellow Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg to create pure, unfettered cinema - we are introduced to a group of young people who stage a perverse form of theatre in the arena of life itself where they enter any number of public places and pretend to be mentally retarded. Drooling, screeching, screwing up their face and engaging in overtly aberrant behaviour, these want-to-be activists engage in a theatre of cruelty. Their nastiness in exploiting those who are mentally ill and/or challenged to expose the nastiness of those they accost is lost on them, until a new member to their group begins to question their motives.

Interview segments of the participants which hint at eventual discord amongst the group punctuate several set pieces wherein our ragtag group spass or, in the colloquial parlance of the politically incorrect - "spazz out", have sex, argue, make up, break up and spass with abandon.

Few movies have made me laugh as hard as Lars von Trier's The Idiots. There is no question that the wholesale slaughter of sacred cows has always been a hallmark of the brilliant bad boy from Denmark, though I suspect none of his films are as gloriously, unabashedly, delightfully repugnant in rubbing an audience's nose in the putrid fecal matter of their own prejudices and repressions generated by their holier than thou pretence to political correctness. It is a cinematic declaration of war on bourgeois values, but it cuts much deeper than the surface - Lars von Trier digs his lens like a bayonet into the foul intestines of the bourgeoisie, rips them out and tosses them to the dirt for all to see. That said, those he skewers are also those who believe they are acting in defiance of said bourgeois values, but are as much a part of the problem as they believe they are the solution.

The movie begins brilliantly in an upscale restaurant where a snooty waiter takes an order from Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), a melancholy young woman who scales back her culinary desires due to a lack of funds. Around her are couples and quartets of affluent diners - quaffing expensive wine with their opulent brunch selections and occasionally cleansing their vile bourgeois palates with overpriced mineral water. Karen's eye roams to a corner of the dining establishment where a caregiver tries to control a table of her mentally retarded adult charges. They spit up their food, whine and grunt, then - much to everyone's dismay, two of them get up and begin wandering around the restaurant. One of the retardates is relatively benign - going up to each table, smiling and saying "Hi!" The other charges about in a fury. Hands are wiped on tablecloths belonging to other diners, baskets of bread rolls are removed from others and the caregiver is quite overwhelmed trying to control her charges. When the snooty waiter insists the caregiver control her group for the sake of the other diners, it simply becomes too overwhelming for her. When the benign retard approaches Karen's table, she is touched by his innocence and purity and accompanies the group as they're forced to leave the restaurant.

Up to this point, one is compelled to laugh quite uproariously - not AT the mentally challenged people, but WITH them in their innocent flouting of bourgeois convention and the stuck-up diners who are shocked by this behaviour.

Once everyone is bundled into the cab, it becomes clear that none of them are retarded - especially when they laugh about how they were all able to dine in a fancy restaurant without paying. As it is finally established that these people are engaging in a big practical joke, the laughs the film elicits are very different indeed. Now we laugh at the darkness of this group's actions. Not only do they spass in public, but do so in private as well. Spazzing-out delivers a sense of inner peace, but also a perverse sense of accomplishment that their actions are affecting a change in society. It's somehow even more viciously funny when we discover they're all lounging about on the family estate of the one member of the group who is much a member of the club he, and the group seek to condemn.

The Idiots is a film which belongs to a long and noble tradition of cinema that seeks to shock and provoke - to downright anger an audience. That said, the real anger should be directed at those who ARE angered BY THE MOVIE ITSELF and, of course, for all the wrong reasons. I think it's safe to say that this tradition exploded in full splendour with Luis Bunuel's L'Âge d'or, the scathing 1930 indictment of bourgeois values and, for good measure, the Catholic church. Since the release of The Idiots in 1998, the great Ulrich Seidl stomped about similar stylistic territory with Dogdays and I'm even compelled to include Tom Green's universally reviled, but stunning and vastly misunderstood bit of nastiness Freddy Got Fingered.

What Lars von Trier and those others prove beyond a shadow of a doubt is that if you're going to eviscerate something, it can't be done timidly, or in half measures. As always, pure disembowelment of the bourgeoisie MUST be bold. That's probably why I love Lars von Trier - he's always about being bold. And that, frankly, is what makes for great cinema!

This month, the work of the Danish bad boy genius of cinema is being featured in a TIFF Bell Lightbox retrospective entitled "Lars von Trier: Waiting for the End of the World" running until November 19. The Idiots is just one of several pictures in this series (including his latest masterpiece Melancholia) and this movie in particular will be playing Saturday November 19, 2011 at 8:00 PM - on a big screen and projected in glorious 35mm.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

West Side Story

West Side Story (1961) dir. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno


By Alan Bacchus

The famed Broadway show so vividly brought to life on screen and equally celebrated with 10 Academy Awards, mondo box office bucks and full pop culture infusion arrives on Blu-ray with bells and whistles, as well as a robust high definition transfer.

For the most part it’s still a marvel and a strangely vacant tragic love story. Of course, the original source material is Romeo and Juliet reset in the streets of New York. Although here, with its bubble gum musical treatment, the environment feels significantly less gritty and less threatening than Shakespeare’s 17th century Verona. But more on that later.

The opening scene is still electrifying. After the overture and the calm helicopter view across the city, the film settles in on an enclave of one of the boroughs, a school yard where a gang of 'thugs' snap their fingers in unison. It’s part of their intimidation of the other kids around them to assert their authority. There’s no dialogue and little music. Then, as the guys strut down the street, a glide of the foot, a ballet leap and a twirl signals a full-on dance number, during which we’re introduced to the Jets and the Sharks, two rival gangs, one made up of Polish descendants and the other Puerto Rican immigrants.

Jerome Robbin’s innovative and startling dance numbers combined with the energetic direction from Robert Wise results is a superlative introduction to the film. The first third of the film, in fact, is one eye-popping scene after another. In the tradition of the best studio musicals of the ‘30s, Wise’s camera whips around freely and moves as elegantly as the dancers. And when punctuated by Leonard Bernstein’s punchy score, everything is perfectly in sync.

Where the picture suffers is the love story between Maria (Wood) and Tony (Beymer). Wood, as a Puerto Rican, still distracts us from her star-crossed infatuation with Tony. And Richard Beymer is unfortunately upstaged by both Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris. Tamblyn and Chakiris are so prominent in the first half of the film that we actually forget it’s about the lovers. As leaders of their clans, they both express themselves with wildly different but equally mesmerizing dance styles.

The ‘Dance at the Gym’ sequence is one of the most impressive numbers showcasing both dancers at their best. Chakiris features a tightly wound and controlled Latin-America style while Tamblyn shows off his acrobatic ‘Donald O’Connor’ flips and jumps. The terrific Blu-ray featurettes consist of numerous acclaimed choreographers and dancers breaking down the innovations from Robbins in these sequences for lay viewers like myself.

The film loses much of its energy with the deaths of Tamblyn and Chakiris after their second act rumble. With them out of the picture, we can only rely on the love story to maintain the momentum. Sadly, the romance falls flat all the way to the end. Robbins and company do manage to pull out one great sequence in the second half, perhaps the greatest musical number in Hollywood history. The ‘Cool’ number, which takes place in the dark and claustrophobic parking garage, was famously reworked by Martin Scorsese in his Michael Jackson ‘Bad’ video. There’s no Chakiris or Tamblyn in this scene, but the rest of Jets kick it up a notch with style.

Even though this is the small screen, we can feel the sense of scope from the original 70mm cinematography. The wide shots look bigger, the colours pop brighter and the close-ups are more pristine and detailed than most pictures of its time (or now!). None of this grandiloquence is lost over the years. And although the love story doesn’t work, the doomed finale feels utterly tragic. It’s a strangely downbeat ending to a monumentally successful film.

West Side Story is available on Blu-ray from MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2(2011) dir. David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman


By Alan Bacchus

I was a naysayer of this series in several of my Potter reviews citing the dullness of the three leads and their lack of character development. The plotting seemed to ramp up in the last four movies, which created confusion for those who didn’t care to keep up. This, of course, is my fault. But this time I watched all the previous films over the course of a couple of weeks before completing the franchise. Miraculously, in the final episode, Potter pulls out its best film by connecting the dots from the course of the series resulting in a truly satisfying and emotional conclusion.

When we last left Potter and his pals they were looking for the ‘horcruxes’, trinkets through which Voldemort had transformed his soul during that historic battle with Harry’s mother and father and left Potter with the lightning bolt scar. These horcruxes become the mission du jour, the destruction of which will eventually defeat the dark lord.

Meanwhile, Voldemort has found the 'elder wand', which is all-powerful and certainly no match for Potter. As Voldemort assembles his army, the wizards at Hogwarts are fortifying the castle with a force field of sorts, ready for the eventual siege.

The siege on Hogwarts is exciting, rendered with creative and well designed special effects. And while the action is fast and furious, Harry’s search for the final horcrux located in Hogwarts forces him to finally come face to face with his destiny.

The dramatic guts of the entire series lay in a remarkable and revelatory sequence, which traces the connection of Severus Snape, Dumbledore and Potter himself. It’s a 20-year journey that affects the decisions of Potter in the present. This is the stuff of great epic storytelling and David Yates and company execute these key reveals with maximum dramatic impact.

A secret is revealed, which admittedly I guessed in the last film. However, the best twists are not the sudden or arbitrary reversals of fortune but rather the reactions of the characters to these twists of fate.

With that said, the filmmakers also commit a diabolical CHEAT.

SPOILER ALERT…As implied above, we come to learn that Harry himself is a horcrux. In the back of our minds (and Harry’s) we expected this. And when this information is revealed it is still a shocker, as Harry must die to save the world. What a dramatic decision to make. And indeed Harry makes that decision and sacrifices his life.

Yet when Harry’s death is revealed to Hermione and the other Hogwarts wizards, he comes back to life. WHAT? I’m sure there was a magical explanation for this somewhere, but it’s a cheap bait-and-switch tactic that betrays the build-up before it.

It’s a blip that prevents this film from becoming great and marking itself with cinematic perfection. Oh, how close the filmmakers came to that. Nonetheless, it’s still the most successful franchise in the history of cinema, so no one other than me seems to care.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Margin Call

Margin Call (2011) dir. JC Chandor
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Penn Badgely, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci


By Alan Bacchus

Margin Call does a marvelous job of finding a crucial moment of revelation in the now global financial recession and creating a world of characters, conflict and decision making around this moment. If the unnamed financial firm in this film were Lehman Brothers the film depicts the precise moment at which they knew the world was going to collapse on their heads.

Our entry point into this world is with two low-level, but still brilliant, risk analysts at the firm, Peter Sullivan and Seth Bregman (Quinto and Badgely), who, in the opening, witness the firing of their mentor, Eric Dale, played by Stanley Tucci. Like severing an umbilical cord, Eric is cut off from the company, and most importantly he is unable to finish a key project. Peter takes over Eric’s work and connects the dots, which reveals the enormous crisis that is about to explode.

For the most part, the financial crisis in this movie occurs in one night, in the empty corporate elevators, boardrooms, cubicles and hallways of their building. The crisis management team is called in, including the head honcho, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who impressively flies in via helicopter and lands on the roof of the building.

JC Chandor’s writing feels like David Mamet or Neil La Bute featuring type-A men operating on their own company like surgeons. The film works best in this clinical approach, the high point of which occurs in the first boardroom debrief for Tuld when Peter, who identified the gaping hole in the balance sheet, distills the crisis in one magnificent dialogue exchange.

It takes a third of the movie before this scene arrives, and before that we don’t know what’s wrong with the numbers. Hiding the gory details seemed like a conscious effort to portray the crisis as a nebulous, incomprehensible jumble of numbers. But thankfully Chandor doesn't placate his audience and saves this reveal for the boardroom scene. And although Zachary Quinto’s explanation is financial and mathematical gobbledygook, it seemed accurate and believable based on my rudimentary knowledge of finance.

Comparisons to Wall Street have been made, and indeed they’re not unfounded. The ‘greed is good’ speech from Michael Douglas is almost matched by Jeremy Irons’ breakdown of their situation when he profoundly reminds everyone of his career mantra: "There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter or cheat."

Irons chooses to be first by liquidating their assets as quickly as possible to reduce their exposure to the eventual meltdown. The burden of this ethically challenged decision lies with Kevin Spacey, who only in the second half assumes the heart and soul of the film. The decision to comply with his boss’s demands and divert the financial damage from themselves to his clients becomes the film’s core decision.

Chandor’s approach is laudable, but he occasionally misses his execution. This film works best in its most clinical aspects, like All the President’s Men, which purposefully eschewed character development for the chase of the Watergate story. Chandor attempts to infuse an emotional story for the film’s characters, but it never matches the big world stakes at play. Demi Moore’s character, for instance, is made to be the scapegoat, which causes her much distress. But how can we sympathize for millionaires who lose their jobs? There are a number of these false starts, chiefly with Zachary Quinto’s character, Peter, who is presented as the moral centre of the film, but he is unceremoniously pushed to the background behind Kevin Spacey and Paul Bettany.

Chandor’s ability to create suspense and tension from this microcosm of the financial crisis is in many ways more powerful than an Oliver Stone/Wall Street-like approach, which is what Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps attempted to do. The inhumane scuttling of their own ship is both morally careless and cowardly, which, despite the character deficiencies, is heard loud and clear by the end of the film.

Monday, 14 November 2011

I Saw the Devil

I Saw the Devil (2011) dir. Jee-woon Kim
Starring Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Gook-hwan Jeon


By Alan Bacchus

Call me a masochist, but I want the movies I watch to beat me senseless. Enjoyment of film comes from the ability of the filmmaker to manipulative one's emotions, be it through laughter, sadness or fear. I haven’t been pummelled this hard in a while. And damn does it feel good. Jee-woon Kim’s audacious I Saw the Devil is a thriller/action/horror film for the ages.

This is a two-and-a-half hour relentless car wreck of a film, so grisly and disturbing, but something you can’t help but rubberneck your head around to watch.

Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) is a cop whose wife was murdered in a particularly brutal fashion. Her body was pummelled to unconsciousness in her car, then brought back to the killer’s layer, then brutally chopped up with a meat clever, then deposited in the river. There’s no question in Soo-hyun’s mind that he will make it his life’s goal to exact proper revenge for this crime.

This is also Korean cinema – which arguably redefined the revenge film genre with the Chan Wook-Park films in the 2000s – and director Kim plays into our expectations by ramping up the energy early on for some ass-kicking vengeance.

Soo-hyum systematically goes through the four likely suspects, beating confessions out of each of them. And surprisingly he meets the real killer, Kyung-chul (Old Boy’s Choi Min-sik), with relative ease and less than half an hour into the film. After beating him to near death, he stops and lets him go. Why? This is just the first act of Soo-hyun’s and director Kim’s grandiose plan of vengeance. An eye for an eye is just the tip of this iceberg.

The film then becomes an intense battle between serial killer and cop with Soo-hyum following Kyung-chul, who is still compelled to continue his exercise, including his need for rape, murder and torture. Each time the killer finds a new victim, Soo-hyum is there to save the day and administer more beat downs. Kyung-chul proves to be a wily opponent and one not to be messed with, and the tables are turned magnificently.

The lesson in this film is not subtle, as violence begets violence, a contagion that spreads from the guilty to the innocent, blurring all lines of good, evil and human decency. By the end, both opponents become sadists to the extreme, a quid pro quo of blood curdling torture taken to the extreme.

Kim leaves nothing off screen to infer. He boldly shows Achilles tendons being ripped apart, as well as fleshy stabbings through the hands, cheek and neck. We quickly become desensitized to maimed body parts as each scene becomes more gruesome than the next. The scene to end all scenes occurs midway through a suspenseful and near-insane knife fight in a taxi cab. This is a scene to be seen before it can be believed.

Kim’s filmmaking skills are of the highest order, elevating the picture above mere torture porn. His pacing and ability to create a visceral impact to not just the gore, but also the intense urgency at play for both characters is remarkable, resulting in a picture that is more impactful than anything I’ve seen on screen this year.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet (1986) dir. David Lynch
Starring: Kyle McLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern


By Alan Bacchus

Early on in this film, after we see Kyle McLachlan’s character, Jeffrey Beaumont, find a human ear just sitting there in the pristine high-cut grass in his small Midwestern town, David Lynch’s roving camera magnificently pushes inside the ear. As we move in, Alan Splet’s delicious sound design drones louder and louder, morphing into the prickly sound of insects munching on grass, all of which is amplified and engrossed to creep us out. It’s perhaps the most signature image and sounds of David Lynch’s career, expressing his career-long fascination with finding nightmarish evil behind the fronts of purity and innocence.

After suffering the indignation of failing to deliver on the big budgeted sci-fi franchise in waiting, Dune, in 1986 Lynch seemed go back inward, summoning latent fears and closeted fetishes for inspiration. The result is one of his three or four masterpieces – and the film that first defined the term ‘Lynchian’.

Blue Velvet lays the stylistic and thematic groundwork, which he would expand upon in his later films. Of course, the Lumberton locale, which Lynch opens up and, like his rotten apple visual metaphor, becomes the environment for his seminal Twin Peaks TV series.

The actual plotting of the film, lead character Jeffrey Beaumont's investigation and the movements and motivations of the nefarious elements of the story, quickly fall to the background once Lynch starts the film’s headlong cinematic momentum. Starting with the third visit to the apartment, the film goes deeper into Lynch’s subconscious, and by the time Jeffrey’s fateful night is over we don’t care about who the ‘well-dressed’ man is or who the 'yellow' man is.

The wonder of Blue Velvet lays in Lynch's amazing control of tone. And it doesn’t take him long to hypnotize us. The opening credit sequence is masterful. An ominously dark and brooding music cue laid over his flowing curtain of blue velvet is enchanting. The film then segues into a dreamlike melancholy of the slow-moving rural life in Lumberton.

Throughout the picture Lynch moves us back and forth between these two extremes with supreme confidence and command of the medium.

The performances are typically subdued. Jeffrey isn’t so much a developed character as another pawn for Lynch to use to express his mood. His love story with Sandy allows Lynch to craft his grandiloquent melodramatic set pieces. The house party dance scene, for instance, set to Angelo Badlamenti and Julee Cruise’s swooning dream song, could melt butter. It’s a scene that takes us out of the accelerating criminal plotting for a brief pause of delicious melodrama. Why? Just because. And we love David Lynch because of it.

Sit this scene next to one of Dennis Hopper's maliciously over-the-top sadistic fuck-tirades and it's the cinematic equivalent of bipolar syndrome.

Before Quentin used pop music as a counterpoint to violence Lynch did it masterfully here. Who ever thought Roy Orbison or Ketty Lester could be made so frightening?

Looking back, the reuse of Lynch’s motives in his subsequent films arguably tempers the effect of this film. It’s debatable, but few would doubt the combination of all his motifs reached its zenith in Mulholland Drive – a film more powerful, cynical and therefore haunting than Blue Velvet. And so, watching Blue Velvet for the first time versus watching Blue Velvet after seeing Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire is not the same experience. Thankfully, I still have memories of that first viewing. To this day if I ever here Bobby Vinton crooning Blue Velvet again, it now brings a spine-tingling sense of danger, which, in combination with the sound of nitrous oxide hissing from a gas tank, will likely have me running out the door.

Blue Velvet is available on Blu-ray from MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Cars 2

Cars 2 (2012) dir. John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Featuring voice talents of: OwenWilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Bonnie Hunt


By Alan Bacchus

The first Cars film wasn’t that great, yet after repeated viewings at the behest of my toddler I learned to appreciate the tender message about the feelings of obsolescence and being left behind in an increasingly fast-paced world. In the first film Lightning McQueen, the pre-eminent cocky race car driver, represented the exciting yet superficial life of celebrity and the aw shucks folks of Radiator Springs, a small dead town on Route 66, represented the value of growing roots and staying true to home.

Years later, after Cars arguably became one of Pixar’s most popular ancillary profit centres (after Toy Story), there arose a need for a sequel. In this film, John Lasseter (Pixar’s co-founder/creative leader and director of this film) expands the Cars world, creating an international spy story barely even related to the previous film.

The star of this picture is actually Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the rusted tow truck/country hick who loves to tag along with the fancy-pants McQueen. After seeing the revered Italian racer Francesco Bernoulli disrespect his buddy on TV, he challenges him to an all-star race of sorts with McQueen. This takes McQueen, reluctantly bringing along Mater, to far flung international locations like Japan and England.

Lasseter derives some typical fish-out-of-water hijinks exposing the country bumpkin to the extravagance of Tokyo. While gallivanting around town, Mater accidently gets recruited by a James Bond-type spy, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), to help stop the maniacal world domination plot of a clandestine organization.

Racing is secondary to Mater’s stumbling around with the international British spies. If you enjoy Larry the Cable Guy's self-effacing white trash humour you’ll at least tolerate this film. Lightning McQueen is barely in it – same with those delightfully warm characters of Radiator Springs, including Sally and Mack.

Even the visuals leave much to be desired. Usually with each Pixar film we can see a noticeable step forward in technical achievement in computer animation. Cars 2 is a step backward, less impactful visually than any of the recent Pixar films, and even less so than the original movie. Most of the action is presented in an over-the-top hyper reality, whereas the original film was mostly photorealistic and contained in the physical geography of the Nascar racetrack, the desert highway or the small town of Radiator Springs. The opening action scene in this film, which takes place on a freighter barge, features overly produced gunfire and explosions. Most of this film is painted with this type of brush.

As such, Cars 2 feels like just a cartoon instead of a movie. In fact, it feels like simply an expanded version of the accompanying Pixar shorts, Cars Toons – Mater’s Tall Tales, bite-sized morsels of Cars-action featuring Mater and Lighting in fun adventures.

Cars 2 is the only across-the-board uniform failure from Pixar. Still, after 15 years and 12 movies, that’s a pretty good run.

Cars 2 is available on Blu-ray from Walt Disney Home Entertainment.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Europa aka Zentropa

Europa aka Zentropa (1991) dir. Lars von Trier
Starring: Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Eddie Constantine, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Jørgen Reenberg, Erik Mørk and Max von Sydow


By Greg Klymkiw

In 1990, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin was directing his tragedy of the Great War Archangel which told a tale of lovers afflicted with severe mustard gas apoplexy who forget, at any given moment, who precisely they are in love with. To ensure his actors were always in a trance, he secured, with my deft finagling (in the spirit of full disclosure I was the film's producer) the services of a renowned hypnotist (who, due to a binding non-disclosure policy cannot be named) to place Maddin's on-camera charges in a state of waking and walking sleep during the entire shoot of the film. Complete and utter submission was the goal. Archangel was in black and white, occasionally colour tinted, replete with post-dubbed dialogue (also performed under hypnosis), a cornucopia of in-camera special effects including double (and triple) exposures, matte paintings, rear and front screen projection, as well as a series of optical shots. At the same time, across the pond from the Dominion of Canada, one Lars von Trier was making Europa (renamed Zentropa for its North American release) which, like Maddin's film, was set in a strange never-never land of historical revisionism (though in post-WWII Germany as opposed to Maddin's WWI/Russian Revolution cusp period). It too was in black and white (though with dollops of full-blown colour rather than colour tinting) and was, like Maddin's film, bursting at the seams with wild in-camera and optical effects.

Where they differed, and yet existed in the same zeitgeist, was this: Maddin hypnotized his actors whilst von Trier rendered a movie that literally hypnotized the audience. The results were identical. Much like any living subject of hypnotism, audience-members who opened themselves willingly to both cinematic experiences were, in fact, under the power of suggestion.

Upon first seeing Europa back in the 90s, I was initially coaxed into the alternately pleasurable and disturbing states of waking and walking sleep and as such, became so obsessed with Lars von Trier's vision that I fought hard on subsequent viewings to deflect the hypnotic power in order to fully experience his dazzling, sumptuous genius in all its glory. Twenty years after my initial exposure to his great film, I am not only happy to report that it holds up magnificently, but has deepened for me to such dizzying degrees that I am convinced it is one of the most stunning works of cinematic art I have ever seen.

Over the years, both von Trier and Maddin have been fêted with screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival and its Cinematheque. This month, the work of the Danish bad boy genius of cinema is being featured in a TIFF Bell Lightbox retrospective entitled "Lars von Trier: Waiting for the End of the World" running until November 19. Europa is just one of several pictures in this series (including his latest masterpiece Melancholia) and this movie in particular, (playing Saturday November 12, 2011 at 8:00 PM and Thursday November 17 @ 9:15 PM) will be screened as it MUST be seen - on a big screen and projected in glorious 35mm. This is especially important given the special quality in-camera and optical effects have over the much colder digital approach to rendering screen magic today. It is, finally, the warmth of cinema in the format of its birth that allows us to be enveloped in fluffy white blankets of forgetfulness (in Maddinesque parlance) and the sheer joyful terror of being forced into a unique, trance-like state of both yearning and forgetfulness that is, indeed, TRUE magic.

Europa begins with the hypnotic tones of a voiceover belonging to Max von Sydow (The Exorcist himself and longtime Ingmar Bergman star), whilst we slowly cascade over train tracks engulfed in darkness, save for the soft light beaming gently over the centre of the frame. Lars von Trier plunges us into the black tunnel that is Germany just after World War II. Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of German descent has come to his expatriate father's homeland and taken a job as a railway employee under the tutelage of his persnickety, alcoholic Uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). He meets and falls in love with a fetching film-noir-like femme fatale, Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) who is the daughter of the German rail magnate Max Hartmann (Jørgen Reenberg). He is taken into the family with open arms. Max, in particular, is drawn to the notion of Germany becoming more international and is impressed with Kessler's desire to bring his North American, yet German-influenced know-how to the reconstruction of the country.

This is in vast contrast to the American armed forces occupying the Fatherland. The American commander mysteriously presiding over all matters of a reconstructive variety is Colonel Harris (played by the brilliant, gravel-voiced American expatriate tough guy actor Eddie Constantine, he of Lemmy Caution fame in numerous French movies like Alphaville). Harris knows all too well that Max used his train company Zentropa to transport Jews to concentration camps, but he also realizes that a vast majority of Germany's populace had been, to varying degrees, complicit in the activities of the Nazi regime. He seeks to protect Max since he believes this guilt-ridden rail baron is ultimately important to the American goal of reconstruction. Harris is also embroiled in a secret fight against a mysterious group of German partisan terrorists called Werewolf and while the young American Kessler trains on the railways and romances Katharina, his services are secured to delve into and expose the forces of evil.

Europa is both important and original on numerous fronts. In terms of theme and content, it is one of the most indelible screen portraits of post-World War II Germany ever committed to celluloid. Delivering a narrative which, I think, more than ably points a finger at America's complicity in the evils of Nazi Germany, especially in terms of making it clear how many Americans owned munitions factories IN Germany and did business with the Nazis under the radar. The overwhelming sense that we are in a nightmare world where an occupying force bullies the occupied, yet represents the corporate interests of the occupier is precisely what Lars Von Trier exposes. For all the lip service paid to the needs of assisting Germany with reconstruction, he presents a portrait of American military goons exercising the same sort of encroachment upon basic civil liberties as the Gestapo. While he does not veer away from Germany's rightful guilt in supporting one of the most foul regimes in all of recorded history, his film is not afraid to point a finger at America's military regime and its fascistic defence of America interests - in particular, the corporate interests - using reconstruction as a thin veil over basic greed. Unrestricted sovereignty was not ultimately granted to Germany until reunification in 1990 - a point not lost on von Trier. Both the narrative and mise-en-scène etch a chilling portrait of occupation - juxtaposing the German adherence to bureaucracy with the American adherence to back-door dealing and how both are equally flawed, but also at odds with each other within the context of the political situation.

Mixed into this heady brew of conflicting ideals, von Trier never neglects the thematic elements of complicity, betrayal and redemption. The Americans - in particular, the character of Colonel Harris - are complicit only in their exploitation of the situation while on the German side, complicity is a heavy cross that all the other characters must bear. Betrayal runs rampant throughout the narrative, though von Trier wisely explores this theme within the tropes of film noir elements and melodrama. I place an accent on "wisely" here because at the time the film was made, Germany was on the cusp of reunification and the issues he deals with had repercussions on a world wide scale, but by placing them within this stylized framework, he created a work that is not ephemeral in its power, but is, indeed, truly universal. In this sense, Europa feels less a film of its time, but rather, a film for all times. For example, while I feel the best works of American cinema in the 70s more than adequately capture the overwhelming paranoia of the period WITHOUT feeling dated, these are films directly from the periods of history and culture they represent.

Making a film in any contemporary context and looking back upon a period of history with contemporary eyes, requires an emphasis upon recreating the past world with indelible historical accuracy on as many levels as possible. However, when placing works dealing with historical issues and made during different historical periods - especially a film about the beginnings of occupation in Germany made at a time of German reunification - framing its narrative and themes in an almost post-modern aesthetic allows the artist a context to create a work that's truly visionary. This, is what Lars von Trier accomplishes. Reading reviews from the time of Europa's original release, one sees how even the best of the best acknowledge von Trier's visual gifts, but dismiss and/or outright ignore his narrative and political savvy. This, of course, did not keep the film from finding an audience at the time, but what's phenomenal to me is just how ahead of its time the film actually was, and in a sense, still is. Certainly viewing the film in the context of the current situation we face in terms of the economy, terrorism, the corporate imperialism of America, the domination of the New World Order and the horrendously obvious notion that war is ultimately all about money, Europa is without question a film for our times and, no doubt, will be so in the future as well.

The idea in certain circles, a confederacy of dunces to my way of thinking, that there's something wrong with melodrama is both myopic and elitist. There is, to be sure, good melodrama and bad melodrama, but it is a worthy genre and one that can work quite perfectly when presenting important historical and political themes. I suspect that von Trier and Maddin might well be cinema's leaders in understanding the importance of utilizing melodrama within stories dealing with political, historical and/or humanist subjects. Neither are afraid of filling their work with retro melodramatic devices and doing so, not with tongue in cheek, but playing them straight. When this approach sings ever-so sweetly, it is the humour - both natural and satirical - that comes to the fore - sans the empty spoof-like manner which is the domain of the holier-than-thou, the better-than-that and all the other head-nodding-eye-winking purveyors of mediocrity.

Europa is deliciously blessed with both the crazed big emotions of Douglas Sirk and the humanity of Carl Dreyer. Most amazingly, there are several moments of suspense that even owe their existence to the feverish qualities of D.W. Griffith - notably, several sequences involving the arming of a bomb and the subsequent attempt to disarm the bomb. Von Trier throws in everything including the kitchen sink to extend our dread and anticipation. Our desire for relief to said tension hits stratospheric heights. In addition to the visual flourishes reminiscent of another age, the score is sumptuously derived from a variety of original and pre-recorded pieces - most notably and pointedly from Bernard Herrmann's haunting music from Hitchcock's dreamy expressionistic thriller Vertigo. The stylized performances - aided further with the use of hollow dubbing - are a marvel and in particular, Jean-Marc Barr as the addled protagonist delivers what surely must be one of the bravest performances I've ever seen. He runs the gamut of emotion, but often in a controlled and intentionally stiff manner. He allows himself to be the puppet of Lars von Trier and as such, takes the thankless, but often surprising and engaging task of representing our (we, the audience) point of view. He is our way in to this world and for an actor to expose himself and yield so uncompromisingly to a filmmaker's vision is brilliantly, stunningly, delightfully foolhardy and ultimately, what makes his performance and the film itself so great.

This is razzle-dazzle filmmaking at its best. The bonus is plenty of food for thought and the cherry on the sundae is the occasional laughs and tears von Trier elicits from us. Some have charged that von Trier's approach is, in this, and other films, cold.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you - once again - the aforementioned confederacy of dunces.

One of the more extraordinary achievements of Europa is the narration. It works two-fold. First, it is a hypnotic device - literal hypnotism and I'd argue that anyone open to the picture on a first viewing will, indeed, succumb. Secondly, it's a wonderful use of the great, though rare literary tradition of a second person point of view. In contemporary American literature this was popularized by Jay McInerney in his brilliant 1984 debut novel Bright Lights Big City. The book announces its bold style and brash approach in these extraordinary opening sentences:
"You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy."
The idea of a detached voice speaking directly to its central character in order to relay the narrative was, even in the 80s, not a new approach, but it was one that thrust the pelvis of its literary conceit in the faces of readers all over the world and frankly, proved to be an ideal way of telling the story of a young man in the midst of a cocaine-addled phase of his life. As von Trier's central character Kessler is plunged into a similarly opaque world, we constantly hear Max Von Sydow's "you-are-getting-sleepy"-styled hypnotic offscreen orders to both the character and viewer. In 80s New York, it's coke-fuelled headlong dives into nightclubs. In Post-World War II Germany, its the strange, dreamy, addled world of occupation.

Certainly William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is replete with both second person point of view and narrative techniques and is, in a sense, very close to the territory von Trier explores in Europa. Where Faulkner's novel is rooted in myth, one in which its central character is representative of the myth of the deep South and resulting in his ultimate, almost inevitable demise, von Trier's Europa seems similarly rooted in myth - in particular that of the Greek goddess of Europa who is seduced by a horny, old Zeus. That Europa herself, in mythic terms, was from a long, noble lineage is also a fascinating element in von Trier's film. We have Kessler, for example, seduced by his German roots and his American need to "do good" (or, one might even suggest the deeper American need to "meddle") and his attraction to the female heir to the Hartmann's rail empire.

In Faulkner's words:
"You cannot know yet whether what you see is what you are looking at or what you are believing."
Beat by beat, shot by shot - this is Europa. Images we will never forget rush by - Kessler dashing in silhouette in front of a huge illuminated clock, a scarlet ocean of blood rushing from under a door, a harrowing walk through mysterious cars on the Zentropa train full of caged Holocaust victims, corpses of "werewolf" partisans hanging from knotted ropes round their snapped necks, exquisitely composed Josef von Sterberg-like shots of Barbara Sukowa resembling Marlene Dietrich come-to-life, the desperate flailing of a drowning man as he seeks life and instead finds redemption and finally, the most gorgeous of all - a midnight Christmas mass in a bombed-out cathedral as puffs of snow gently fall upon the devout.

We cannot know yet what we see is what we're looking at, or what we're believing.


Feel free to read my past review of Von Trier's Melancholia and Antichrist.