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

Monday, 31 January 2011

Nowhere Boy

Nowhere Boy (2010) dir. Sam Taylor-Wood
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff

***

By Alan Bacchus

The title of this film of John Lennon's youth and his founding of the Beatles is an appropriate play on words. One: Lennon-McCartney song "Nowhere Man", but more importantly, it's a reference to the displaced youth that fuelled his early artistic endeavours.

The latter serves as the predominant theme of the picture. Out of the pain of Lennon's abandonment by his mother and the strict guardianship of his auntie arose the brooding heart and soul of the John Lennon we know today. The relationship with his birth mother, who only enters his life when his cherished uncle dies suddenly, is complex and fascinating. She's characterized as a flighty bird, a day late and dollar short.

Other than the maternal relation, Lennon connects with his mum's artistic side, in particular her skill with the bango. But being in between the pragmatic, yet harsh, care of his aunt and seemingly free-spirited mother brings to the surface the family baggage, which for years has been swept under the carpet.

Newbie director Sam Taylor-Wood avoids the stodginess and hopscotch effect of these types of bio-pics with a robust directorial style, flourishes that include sumptuous anamorphic cinematography and vibrant colours that pop out of the frame.

Nowhere Boy is more angst and pain than skiffle and screaming girls. And the film is much better for it. Backbeat this is not; instead, it's a movie as complex and creative as the artist it portrays.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010) dir. Daniel Alfredson
Starring: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace and Lena Endre

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Instead of ramping up for a thrilling intense finale to the now-revered Millenium Trilogy the series fizzles out with barely a whimper. Daniel Alfredsson is back as director, a considerable step down in vision from Niels Arden Oplev’s stylishly cool The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Like the second film Alfredsson’s direction so annoyingly pedestrian it feels more like a television miniseries than a feature film.

But who knows, perhaps Dragon Tattoo went over budget and the producer’s felt they needed to keep the production at a minimum. After all, by then the American remake rights had been sold, they knew a far superior version would be made, with considerable higher budget and prestige. So what’s the point in spending an arm a leg on these second. With the fan base firmly established from the books and the first film, why not just coast on these successes crank out two more movies at minimal cost, rake in the money and wait for the royalties on the Fincher versions. In interviews Orplev has said the schedule constraints of the second and third movies was the deciding factor not to continue with the series, so between the lines this theory might have some truth.

Well for what it’s worth, Hornet’s Nest is better than The Girl Who Played With Fire.FThis story starts immediately after Fire and continues the story like one film split into two. With Lisbeth Salander in custody after attempting to kill her father, Michael Blomquist and the gang at Millenium Magazine scramble to gather evidence to help in the prosecution against her. We become privy to the secret government agency which brought her father Zalachenko over from Russia and arranged Salander’s incarceration in the mental hospital in her youth. All the details of Salander’s past come to light in adequate though uninspired fashion both in the trial and in the investigation leading up to it.

It’s mostly undramatic as there’s very little to reveal than we already knew or deduced. The only scene to take home is Blomquist’s fight with the Serbian assassins sent to kill him in the restaurant. If anything I couldn’t help imagine what Fincher will do with this scene. Same with the offish Ronald Niedermann, the half brother of Salander who is invisible to any pain. His final confrontation with Salander is a Ridley Scott -stytle cat and mouse chase in an abandoned factory, an action scene which could have been embellished with verve by a director with even a hint of panache.

So with the Swedish version complete, it’s time for the Americans to do it better. It’s a shame the Swedes gave up trying after such a valiant and successful first attempt.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

SUNDANCE 2011 - The Flaw

The Flaw (2011) dir. David Sington
Documentary

***

By Alan Bacchus

The Flaw has the misfortune of telling the same story as Inside Job, one of the best films of last year, and then the only movie yet to have made clear the cause and effect of the financial collapse of 2008.

But the story of the housing market bubble and the collapse of the American financial markets is huge, so pervasive there’s more than enough room for two films. And certainly two films by two great documentary filmmakers, in this case UK director David Sington who directed the fabulous In the Shadow of the Moon.

While Sington's film doesn't quite match the dramatic intensity of Inside Job, The Flaw achieves in it's own way another chilling and frustrating critique of the factors which left so many ordinary citizens in financial peril.

The Flaw admirably goes back to chart the course of financial policy from the 1920's to today, making startling connections in economic variables across the period and putting all this mess into the context of history. Sington finds the absolute right people to interview. You can’t get more credible than economists, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Shiller, and Robert Frank. Sington also makes great use of Andrew Luan, a former Mortgage trader who now operates a NYC Wall Street tour for tourists. Same with Ed Andrews, a financial columnist of the New York Times, who offers a middle class example of someone affected by the disaster.

Visually, Sington makes use of a goldmine of 1950’s public service animated shorts, which provides a humorous counterpoint to the seriousness in the present. Unfortunately the overuse of these clips runs dry, along with the feeling that these gags have been played out many times over by Michael Moore. Same with the over reliance on statistics and graphs, often repeating the same information.

But the clarity and simplicity of the math which Sington conveys helps shed even more light to the atrocious irresponsibility of policy makers in the United States, erasing almost a century of economic stability and relative prosperity. While The Flaw stands in the shadow of Inside Job, it's a worthy addition to the public discourse on this subject.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

SUNDANCE 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

***½

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, or 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 reigns of organized crime in the slums of Rio. Now more of bureaucrat than an officer Nascimento has to navigate a world even more treacherous than the street level policing, the office and board rooms of the new polical corruption which has gripped the city.

Mondo muscular action is the attraction here. And Jose Padilha who 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 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 the film was primarily seen by illegal downloaders. For this film the producers 'four-walled' it, which means they controlled the distribution and exhibition of the film. Instead of hiring a third aprty company to distribute they booked the theatres themselves to ensure no one other than the filmmakers had copies of the film. The result was a $65million (US) domestic take for the film.

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

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

SUNDANCE 2011: Another Earth

Another Earth (2011) dir. Mike Cahill
Starring: William Mapother, Brit Marling

***

By Alan Bacchus

A great ending goes along way in cinema and especially in Another Earth, Mike Cahill’s low budget love story cum sci-fi film. For most of the picture it’s an uninspired brooding two hander only to be buoyed by the remarkably intriguing high concept and the puzzling finale.

The premise is this, one day scientists discover a second earth in the sky. The exact same earth, inhabited by earthlings just like us. Doppelgangers maybe? Alternate versions of ourselves maybe? The possibilities are absolutely fascinating.

This premise is left in the background ineffectual to the plot until the ending. In between, it’s a story of Rhoda (Brit Marling) and John (William Mapother) who are connected by a tragic car accident of which John’s family was the victim and Rhoda the assailant. Four years after serving time Rhoda is out and finds herself drawn to and eventually connecting with John by posing as a house cleaner. Meanwhile Rhoda enters a contest to be on the first crew to travel to the other earth, called Earth 2, a journey which she hopes will help reconcile her mistakes of the past.

Another Earth does what sci-fi does best, open up the spiritual qualities of the human heart indefinable by science. In this case the other version of earth serves as a form of an afterlife. A perfect metaphor both thematically and visually, as the other earth sits prominently in the sky at all times, looming over our characters at home.

Ordinarily with such a confined story, films like these often benefit from its low budget - filmmakers maximizing story and substance and theme - Moon and Primer as primary examples. Unfortunately Cahill’s low rent video camera employed to shoot the film, which looks as if it was dusted off from 1999,  uglify the picture to the point of distracting us from the story. Flat lighting and uninspired camerawork and composition don’t do justice to the sparkling story revealing itself.

Brit Marling and William Mapother are adequate though mostly unmemorable as would be lovers. And the guts of this film, Rhoda’s deception and eventual love story with John, are just as clunky. The second act slows us down to a crawl and the director’s rudimentary visual style wears the film thin.

Cahill’s wild card is the stunning final shot, a shot so powerful holding such immense dramatic gravity it legitimizes the entire movie no matter how banal. I certainly won’t spoil it here, but it’s clear the film has been reversed-engineered from this point. If only Cahill had the same level of inspiration in the 85 mins preceding this miraculous moment. I can’t think of another film tearing me two different ways in such extremes.

SUNDANCE 2011: Take Shelter

Take Shelter (2011) dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Wingham, Katy Mixon, Kathy Baker

****

By Alan Bacchus

Despite being barely distributed Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories was like a force of nature - a film and a filmmaker the cinema world at large just couldn’t ignore, and as such found its audience. As a second film, Nichols shows remarkable confidence with a story less easily definable than the ‘revenge’ drama of Shotgun Stories. Take Shelter is ambitious, complex and deceptive, a serious and painful domestic drama about paranoid psychosis with brain teasing philosophical themes.

What’s eating Curtis La Forche? He’s a regular Midwestern husband and father to a young daughter who is deaf. Nagging Curtis is a series of increasingly disturbing nightmares, not just disposable dreams, but premonitions perhaps which can even manifest itself into a physical reality.

Afraid of turning into his mother, who in Curtis’ youth was hospitalized with paranoid schizophrenia, quietly Curtis goes through the steps to diagnosis his disorder. As Curtis’ delusions increase in intensity threatening to financially corrupt his family, a strong spiritual force pushes him to create a storm shelter in his backyard. Why? If Curtis knows he’s suffering from delusions why does he commit to such a useless endeavour? And why does his wife allow this to happen?

The family commitment to Curtis’s endeavour is the heart and soul of the film, and represents the prevailing theme, a spiritual commitment to something intangible, a feeling that you are doing the right thing.

Curtis’s dream sequences show some rather robust skills in horror and suspense. The surreal and random nature in which these sequences occurs remind us of Adrian Lyne’s work in Jacob’s Ladder. Perhaps the most stunning sequence occurs when Curtis and his daughter are caught in the house during a storm so violent it lifts the furniture up into the air - a scene rendered in Inception-like super slomo. Other scares provide more than enough shocks to keep us on edge at all times.

The most frightening aspect of the film though is Curtis’s real world decent into paranoid schizophrenia. Nichols treats this delicately and with realism, outside of any genre-based superficiality. Curtis’s ailment is serious and we feel every moment of pain for he and his family.

I’ve mentioned Jacob’s Ladder, but tonally the film perhaps which compares best might just be M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, a carefully-paced narrativewhich simmers before paying off the tension with a couple of superlative dramatic scenes. The first comes in the lunchroom, which features a very angry Michael Shannon letting loose, and second in the emotional climax inside the storm shelter. Especially in the latter Nichols’ keen awareness of rendering a climax worthy of lengthy set up shows cinematic skill. And then there’s the denouement, which elevates the film and it’s themes to another level. It might divide audiences, but his desire not to settle with the conventional is also another sign of greatness. Take Shelter is one helluva ride.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

SUNDANCE 2011: Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011) dir.John Foy
Documentary

****

By Alan Bacchus

I love a good conspiracy, and I love a good mystery. The best conspiracy is one that is actually true. Such is the case of the fascinating Toynee Tile phenomenon. Across the United States and South America, but primarily in Philadelphia, pasted onto the ground in numerous places in seemingly random streets, are a series of secret coded messages written with a unique artistic penmanship which can only be attributed to one person.

Each tile has a similar wording:

Toynbee Idea
Kubrick’s 2001
Resurrect Dead
On Planet Jupiter

There are hundreds of such tiles in dozens and dozens of cities. For over 20 years a cult has developed around these messages, which still remains unsolved.

Director John Foy creates a magnificently suspenseful and engrossing investigative Sherlock Holmes-worthy mystery following three young men, equally obsessed, as they go about solving the case.

Foy channels some of the best qualities of Errol Morris, in particular his masterpiece investigative doc The Thin Blue Line. Foy matches Morris for his rigorousness, his ability to parse out information in a clear and dramatic way, not to mention a sharp sense of humour. This is pure cinematic storytelling at work, maximizing drama from just a few characters in limited space.

Essentially the three characters recount their stories of the investigation. Some of it in real time on camera detective work, but much of it happened in the past and is recounted in talking head interviews. Fun on screen graphics and text provide a thoroughly entertaining way to visualize the details.

And this film lives and dies by the details. And it’s a fascinating collection of leads, false leads and red herrings. Believe it or not weaving into the evidence is an old David Mamet one act play from 1983, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the literature of American philosopher Arnold Toynbee, shortwave radio fanatics as well as a group of fascinating neighbourhood Philly folk who help the threesome uncover the mystery.

Of the three characters, Foy concentrates on the leader of the bunch Justin Duerr, whose backstory of pain and obsessiveness fuels his desire to connect with the artist of these tiles. For the filmmakers, the film echoes the obsessiveness of it's characters. Years in the making, the film was shot independently for low budget, funded from the director's wages as a house cleaner. The final product is admittedly missing some of the polish of these HBO Docs made for many many times the cost of this, but what Foy doesn't sacrifice is his magnificent score, composed by himself. Foy's dramatic brooding deep bass strings arrangements is another source of comparison to The Thin Blue Line, whose score was composed by Philip Glass.

Resurrect Dead could be this year’s Exit Through the Gift, and though it’s early, I’ve no doubt this will be one of the best documentaries of the year.

SUNDANCE 2011: Little Birds

Little Birds (2011) dir. Elgin James
Starring: Juno Temple, Kay Panabaker, Leslie Mann, Kate Bosworth, Neil McDonough, JR Bourne

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Lily (Juno Temple) and Alison (Kay Panabaker) are besties, but living in a rundown Salton Sea town with nothing to do except ride bicycles around town, argue with their parents and in general, sulk. It’s another heavy coming of age teen story about runaways jumping into the deep end of life.

As the title suggests little birds will learn to fly and together Lily and Ali throw caution in the wind, steal step daddy’s truck and drive to LA to live it up with a group of badass skater punks. As the adventurous one, Lily clings onto the minute affections of her new boyfriend Jesse. Ali doesn’t even want to be there, sulks, but does go along for the ride. The hothead of the bunch, David, pressures the gals to ‘get down’ - that is engage in petty crime for kicks.

At first it’s innocent fun for the girls, but when David’s schemes become dangerous, illegal and potentially fatal, the girls must make life-changing decisions.

Part road movie, part sexual awakening melodrama, director Elgin James, wastes two lovely and spry lead actresses by infusing their characters with a dull, glum outlet on life. The opening act in the Salton is especially depressing, and even when they leave the city we never really believe they’re enjoying their adventure away. If James disarmed us letting both girls revel in their freedom, the third act turn to the dark would be more effective. But from the outset the skater gang is bad news, and the danger stays with them the entire picture.

The fine Canadian actor JR Bourne shows up at the end for intense and violent confrontation. It’s a well directed scene, but as mentioned, unfortunately it comes as no surprise.

James shows a good eye through the camera, capturing much of the action in Malick-like magic hour. His music selections, in addition to his own original music composed by himself, is terrific and adroitly expresses the girls' moodiness. Ultimately, Little Birds lacks both the aesthetic and narrative freshness, and as such fails to rise about the glut of heavy first time feature dramas

SUNDANCE 2011: I Melt With You

I Melt With You (2011) dir. Mark Pellington
Starring: Thomas Jane, Rob Lowe, Jeremy Piven, Christian McKay, Carla Gugino

*

By Alan Bacchus

Imagine the four young kids from Stand By Me grew up to be raging cokeheads who annually reunite in a week-long hedonistic binge fest pushing their bodies to the limit in terms of shear drug capacity. Minus the Stand By Me reference this is the starting point for Mark Pellington’s monumentally preposterous male-melodrama I Melt With You.

For Jonathan, Richard, Ron and Tim it’s time for their annual reunion, this year in a spectacular rented mansion somewhere on the California coast overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Immediately upon arrival the coke gets spilled out and the fun begins. Long montage scenes show the buddies getting really really high, and drunk and acting like buffoonish cavemen. This lasts for days, some locals kids from the bar even stop by to partake in the action, one of whom is played by the notorious Sasha Grey. By day the boys fish, race cars on the beach all the while doing more cocaine, and set to a every drug-related 80’s pop tune you can think of.

Pellington’s cacophony of mind-numbing visual and aural stimulation is like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers with a dash of Enter the Void as written by Bret Easton Ellis. Unfortunately when laid over the bombastic and soulless story crafted by Pellington and his writer Glenn Porter it's as inert as a stale fart.

Admittedly it takes an hour of repetitious excessive drug use treated as a glorified tool for male bonding and machoness in order for the shoe to drop. The continual beat down of these toxic substances, and stylized montage sequences, had me half packing my bag to get up and leave. The shoe finally drops at the half way mark, when one of the friends commit suicide, a dramatic turn which admittedly piqued my curiosity. Ok, this might finally be going somewhere…

Unfortunately, though the tone shifts to sombre reflections on the nagging issues with each of the men, Pellington and his actors remain high as kites with histrionics cranked to the max. A letter written 25 years ago by the four friends fuels the next set of decisions in this second act. The men make the absolute worst decision possible by burying their dead friend in the backyard, while contemplating the contents of said letter (the exact details of which are hidden from us until the end).

The entire time Pellington intercuts more slo-motion wideangle close-ups of cocaine being hovered into their noses, flashes of preachy white-on-black text, and random stock shots of 9/11 and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. The super-glossy cinematography is too pristine and slick for it‘s own good, lacking any kind of texture, thus rendering it all as superficial and manipulative as a Nike or Levi’s commercial.

There‘s actually some rather strong themes of brotherhood and the male ego gone awry buried in all this mess. In the second half of the picture Pellington admirably takes his characters to task for all their debauchery and immoral behaviour, but without an ounce of grace, respite or shred of realism, I Melt With You, feels as dumb as last year's Sundance bomb Joel Schumacher's Twelve.

Monday, 24 January 2011

SUNDANCE 2011: Another Happy Day

Another Happy Day (2011) dir. Sam Levinson
Starring: Ellen Barkin, Ezra Miller, Kate Bosworth, Demi Moore, Ellen Burstyn, Thomas Haden Church, George Kennedy

**½

By Alan Bacchus

This ambitious multi-character family drama might just set a new benchmark for cinematic conflict. Writer/Director Sam Levinson throws us into the centre of a long family feud which comes to a head on the days leading up to the wedding of the son of Lynn (Ellen Barkin), the film's high-strung protagonist.

The backstory goes back 20 years when Lynn and her then husband Paul (Thomas Haden Church) split up, each taking one of their two kids - one of whom, Dylan, is due to get married in the present. This bad decision, which may or may not have been one-sided, infected everyone else in the family like the plague, where now, in the present, unhealed scars continue to run deep.

Levinson writes in an ambitious number of key characters, a dozen or so, from three generations of the family, all of whom have been scorned at one time another by each other. I've already described Lynn, a lightning rod for anger, but her son from her second marriage Elliott, suffers from suicidal tendencies and has been in and out of rehab; younger son Ben has been diagnosed with autism, or Aspergers even though he shows no symptoms; Alice, Dylan‘s brother, also has suicidal tendencies and has the scars on her wrists to prove it; Paul’s wife, played by Demi Moore, is a raging bitch who resents Lynn’s attempts to mother Dylan whom she abandoned those many years ago. Adding to the despair is Lynn’s father (George Kennedy), who spends much of the picture near comatose on his deathbed, taken care of by her ineffectual mother (Ellen Bursytn). And lastly there’s Lynn’s new husband, who is out to lunch to all the drama, and is too aloof to help his wife cope.

It’s one argument after another between these folks, an emotional beat down of monumental proportions. Levinson tries to inject a dead pan comedic thoroughline, but unfortunately the laughs are just not strong enough to push through the overwhelming heavy drama.

Three quarters of the film works, but sadly Levinson just can’t juggle all these balls at once and deliver a completely satisfying film. And it’s not the downbeat nature of the subject, Paul Thomas Anderson did this so magnificently in Magnolia, same with Robert Altman in A Wedding, and Thomas Vinterberg in The Celebration. Levinson just can’t find a consistent tone to tie all his elements together. For instance, the finale features a strange musical selection laid overtop of a lengthy montage sequence intercutting each character’s movements during the reception dance. Some questionable editing and the tonally off-the-mark music doesn’t add up to the significant payoff Levinson seemed to be building to.

Levinson, as a first-time feature director, seems to be reaching farther than his grasp. But his risk-taking demonstrates that he may just reach his lofty goals in his second or third film.

SUNDANCE 2011: Bobby Fischer Against the World

Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011) dir. Liz Garbus
Documentary

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

We all know the story of Bobby Fischer, who, at the height of his career, was the one of the most famous people in the world - for playing chess. This new HBO feature doc, examines the man's complicated life from his well publicized early years as a wunderkind all the way to his famous reclusion and sad psychological breakdown. In between director Liz Garbus chronicles in the riveting day-by-day details of the 'Match of the Century' with Boris Spassky for the World Championship. It’s a familiar story well told, a fascinating story of sport, pop culture, politics, and most importantly, the rare phenomenon of genius.

To devote one’s entire life to such a complex and brain taxing endeavour such as chess requires another level of dedication more than mere strength training or endurance. And to do it at the World Championship level history has shown requires a dedication of one's mind at the sacrifice of conventional social abilities.

This is what happened to Bobby Fischer who, as the youngest American chess champion ever, was in the public eye before he turned 16. Most children aren't prepared for this let alone a damaged psychological mind such as Fischer's.

Fischer's malaise and erratic behaviour comes up prominently in the lead up to the 1972 Grandmaster Championship - an event more than just for the sport of chess, but a Cold War battle of democracy vs. communism.

The public awareness of chess in the United States during those few months in 1972 is astonishing. A sport completely off the radar for 99.9% of the population was suddenly the most watched event that summer and fall of 1972. With well-chosen pop music tracks, Garbus magnificently captures the flavour, feeling and excitement of those times.

The one frustrating element missing from the picture is our ability to see Spassky and Fischer together playing the match. In the first game well placed film and TV cameras captured every dramatic moment of the match, especially the nail biting intensity of Fischer's face and body posture. But of course, part of the drama of the match was Fischer’s demand for cameras to be removed from the room, a request conceded by Spassky. As such we never get to see the rest of the match, only recreations from other chess masters discussing the strategies after the fact.

After the match Garbus documents the gradual destruction of his mind due to his severe anxiety afflictions - a psychosis which rendered him almost completely anti-social, and ironically anti-semetic and anti-American. After Fischer's 1990 ressurection the public finally got to see the broken-down state of the man, a shadow of his former self, both as a chess player and a human being - a sad, sombre but effective ending to a high energy documentary.

With maximum production value, for the 90 minute running time of the film Liz Garbus rekindles the same kind of collective interest in chess as we saw in 1972.

SUNDANCE 2011: The Devil's Double

The Devil’s Double (2011) dir. Lee Tamahori
Starring: Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi

***

By Alan Bacchus

After the very public outing of Lee Tamahori's personal problems, it’s so very gratifying to praise his latest film, The Devil’s Double, a Belgian film made far far away from Hollywood. Though it’s not a return to the tour-de-force form of Once Were Warriors, it’s certainly a giant leap above sell outs Die Another Day or xXx 2. The true story of Uday Saddam Hussein, the spoiled rotten son of the former Iraqi dictator, a sadistic loose cannon, whose rampage of torture, rape, and murder in the pre-Gulf War days made him infamous and legendary.

Tamahori seems to channel his own now very personql hedonistic demons into his portrayal of Hussein. He turns this story into a gluttonously biopic cum action film, striving for the same shamelessly over-indulgence as say, Brian De Palma’s Scarface but grounded in the same absurd realities of The Last King of Scotland.

Dominic Cooper is simply delicious in the dual role as Uday as well as his double Latif, who in real life was an old school friend of Uday’s but was kidnapped from his family and held hostage for years to be his political double.

As Uday, Cooper plays his bombastic psychopath with high energy. And as Latif, Cooper is able to dial down his rage into an nail-biting internalization of his emotions. Though the physical difference in character is represented only by Uday’s buck teeth and combed down haircut, Cooper’s subtle differences in performance is more than enough for us to distinguish each character.

While there’s some astonishingly gory violence displayed on screen, Tamahori cranks it up so far, it spills over for comedic purposes. Mondo sex, drugs, bullets and blood taken to its extreme to counterplay the unbelievable disregard for humanity which occurred in real life. However grotesque Tamahori challenges us to treat Uday Hussein as entertainment and succeeds.

SUNDANCE 2011: Terri

Terri (2010) dir. Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Jacob Wysoski, John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, Olivia Croccichia, Bridger Zadina



By Alan Bacchus

The trauma of high school receives another creative interpretation in Terri, the story of an overweight teenager, who by the nature of his size, just doesn’t fit in. Though it's heart is in the right place, an ambling unfocused narrative and glacially-paced absurdist set pieces make this an extremely frustrating experience.

Jacoby Wyoski is the title character, introduced with a random set of peculiar idiosyncrasies. Sure, he’s overweight, and he’s made fun of, but not a torturous kind of bullying. He lives with his uncle (Creed Bratton) who suffers from some kind of psychological disease which requires heavy medication. Terri has also recently taken a liking to trapping mice and feeding them to the local birds. He also wears pyjamas at all times, even to school.

At school, his chronic lateness gets him in trouble with the oddball vice-principal (John C. Reilly), a bombastic personality, full of clichéd authoritative hyperbole as well as his own set of deranged idiosyncrasies. There’s also the type-A hot chick, whom Terri ogles over, but of course has no chance of scoring. Wait. Terri somehow ingratiates himself to her, sparking a potential romance, and the chance that he may break out of his shell and achieve normalcy.

The absurd comic interactions are stymied by a frustrating overindulgence in awkward silences, and deadpan expressionless reactions to these shenanigans. Among these is the character of Chad, an oddball goth kid who habitually plucks his hair out. Their trip to the funeral of the principal’s spacey secretary is one such scene which exists for the sake of creating awkwardness, and even fails to deliver enough laughs to justify its existence.

Without defined goals and a concrete narrative through line, the comic dalliances add up to nothing. The melancholy and delicate piano score attempts to tie up the tonal inconsistencies and give us some emotional closure, but it’s just too cerebral to make up for the inane randomness.

God bless John C. Reilly though who saves the picture from complete failure. He generates all of the laughs, relishing the opportunity to make the most of his kooky character.

The only other thing to cling onto is a potentially warm love story between Terri and his unattainable attraction. This doesn’t gain traction until the second half, and even then the opportunity is wasted with an overlong drunken and trippy threesome set piece in the final act.

Admittedly I could see some audiences lapping up the zaniness of the picture, but outside of the easy Sundance audience, there isn't much hope.

SUNDANCE 2011: These Amazing Shadows

These Amazing Shadows (2011) dir. Kurt Norton and Paul Mariano
Documentary

***

By Alan Bacchus

The story of the National Film Registry, the organization administering the library of Congress mandate to preserve the American art form of cinema gets it's own treatment on film. As a celebration of film from the popular to the obscure, though equally significant in the context of the medium, it’s a treasure, unfortunately it’a surface documentary that fails to go deeper than the spectacle of the clips used in the film.

After a brief introduction to the history and purpose of the Registry and some small insights into the challenges of the job, the film settles down into a lengthy roll call of great scenes or highlights of the 300+ registered films.

There’s the usual suspects Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, as well as lesser known though historical and cultural significant such as a Japanese internment home movie entitled Topaz, or Kent MacKenzie'sThe Exiles, or Julie Dash's new black cinema landmark film Daughters of the Dust.

Along with the dedicated staffers of the registrryt, Norton and Mariano assemble an eclectic group of filmmakers to discuss both their own films on the Registry as well as, in general, their favourite films on the Registry. On a big screen we also get to see some fine film clips projected in top quality, such as The Searchers discussed because of its controversial racist depiction of Native American Indians, which is simply stunning to look at.

Unfortunately there’s very little in the way of the actual technical process of preservation, instead favouring the populist approach of the film clips. In fact, other than the categorized segments such as Native American cinema, Black cinema or experimental cinema, there’s long stretches where the National Registry isn’t even mentioned., As such the film often feels like just another one of those AFI specials, heavy on schmaltz and sentimentality.

So, sure it’s not original and we learn very little of what these dedicated cineastes do for a living, but we can never enough celebration of film - the prevailing and most influential form of art we have today.

SUNDANCE 2011: Reagan

Reagan (2011) dir. Eugene Jarecki
Documentary

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Coming from the director of angry finger pointing documentaries such as Why We Fight, we can’t but anticipate a demythologizing of the Reagan mystique, a deliberate campaign perpetrated in the past 10 years by the Republican party to make the two term President a beacon of right wing values. And so it seems to be as much a surprise to the filmmaker himself as well as us the audience that Jarecki’s film is as conventional and reverent to the man as it is.

This is what Jarecki admitted in the Q&A following the World Premiere of his film. Using the simplified title of his last name suggests a thorough examination of the man. It's a smart decision for Jarecki to stay on the side of fair play, as a black-white vilification of the man would be as irresponsible as those Republican mythmakers.

Though it’s fair it’s no less enthralling, tracing back through 100 years of American history - from his humble childhood in Illinois to his career in Hollywood to his career as a pitch man for GE, his political career as Governor of California and finally his eight years as President which saw him preside over an amplification of the Cold War as well as beginning the process of dismantling it.

Jarecki’s metaphors successfully link the pillars of his personality to a number of key decisions in his life. Namely his success as a lifeguard in his youth, wherein, despite being poorly sighted, saved over 70 people from drowning in a lake over the course of this job. This desire to protect the innocent cleverly feeds his motivations in the Iran-Contra affair some 50+ years later when he famously broke the law in order to trade guns for the lives of the Lebanese hostages.

Same goes for his career as a pitchman for General Electric, which becomes the prevailing metaphor for his victories in politics. As a figurehead for the nation, Jarecki demonstrates Reagan’s unquestioned success in strengthening American position in the world in place of sound informed decision-making.

Like Reagan’s conservative politics, Jarecki sticks to a traditional approach to the story. A meat and potatoes film for a meat and potatoes President. Talking heads from his family and close political advisors paint the picture of the man we saw in office. Reagan comes off as both the shrewd conservative that presided over the voodoo economic policies which transferred enormous wealth from the rich to the poor as well as that flag waving friendly cowboy that patriotically united the country.

Surprises are few. Jareki confirms some of the tales of Reagan as an aloof simpleton who left much of the decision-making to either his wife or his trusted and more experienced colleagues. He also rips through the hyperbole of Reaganites such as Grover Norquist who deify him. The truth is Reagan was complex and shades of grey in all of his dealings.

Reagan is mostly rivetting stuff for its 100 minutes, capturing all the jubilation, optimism, fear and despair from his career in politics. And though the film is undoubtedly impeccably researched he's still an enigma whom no one will really ever know completely.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

SUNDANCE 2011 - Tyrannosaur

Tyrannosaur (2011) dir. Paddy Considine
Starring: Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is a spoke in the wheel of domestic abuse, which was handed down by his father to himself. We don’t know what exactly happened in the past but by the sad lonely testy life he leads, his mistakes of the past have carved out a mighty big hole in his heart.

As a character study Peter Mullan’s the right man for the job. His coarse face, gravely smoker's voice and rough working class Scottish accent he’s the epitome of a British hooligan. Joseph’s temper gets the better of him in the opening when, after he’s kicked out of a bar, he takes his anger out on his dog, killing him. Yes, this is the kind of kitchen sink movie we’re in when the dog dies in the first five minutes.

This type of abuse is rampant everywhere in Joseph’s life. His neighbours even, a young boy he takes a liking to, is constantly being intimidated by his mother’s fiery boyfriend and his aggressive pitbull. But when he meets a kindly godfearing lady, Hannah, working in a used clothing store, she’s like a beacon of light through the clouds on the perpetually overcast days.

Joseph just can’t turn off his antagonism though, and he even turns away the kindness of Hannah. But she senses his defensiveness and welcomes him back. Considine, who writes and directs, pulls the rug out from under us with a shocking first act turn wherein Hannah finds herself victim of abuse at the hands of her own seemingly put together and successful husband.

Considine rides a wave between a tender romance of two desperate and lonely souls and sinking his characters further into the depression of their working class shithole. We desperately want the romance to work, not necessarily to consummate but escape their previous lives and start anew. But Considine is ruthless with his characters, choreographing a number of gruesome beatings and touchstones of abuse which cause their characters to change.

In terms of actors turned writer/directors Tyrannosaur’s closest cousin would be Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth. Like Oldman Considine aggressively wants to push our emotional buttons and shock into submission. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I appreciate a good cinematic beat down if there’s a heart and soul still beating at the end. Under Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman’s superlative performances and mutual chemistry Considine succeeds in making us want to spend 90mins in the lives of these tortured characters.

SUNDANCE 2011 - Like Crazy

Like Crazy (2011) dir. Drake Doremus
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlie Bewley, Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead

***½

By Alan Bacchus

It’s been three days and us writers waiting in line of the P&I screenings are constantly trying to figure out the ’it’ film of the year. It may have just arrived Drake Doremus’ epic romantic bittersweet journey of love.

Anna and Jacob are in love. They meet in the first scene in a college class, follow each other home, hang out, giggle, hold hands, eat, play around, maybe they kiss, maybe they don’t. Either way they are hopelessly in love. Oh what bliss, what could possible separate them? Well, Anna is British on a school visa, which of course will run out. But she’s a romantic and nothing can stop her from being with her man. So she stays in the US to stay in bed and make love for two months.

She can’t escape reality though and it comes crashing down when Homeland Security detains her for violating her visa after a brief trip back home to the UK. Now, it’s a long distance relationship with the US government separating them. Thus begins the rollercoaster ride of love, the ups and downs of Anna and Jacob - like Going the Distance made by Michael Winterbottom.

After the opening act, Doremus puts his cynical hat on and tests our ability to believe that these two should be together. So are we watching Blue Valentine? Or (500) Days of Summer? Doremus keeps us on edge at all times. Anna flirts with other boys back home, so does Jacob, but their I-phones always connect them. Doremus constantly oscillates between these extremes of love struck pit of your stomach romance and the agonizing missteps, miscommunications which road blocks us between love. Just when we think they’re splits for good all it takes is a short text across the ocean to jumpstart the rollercoaster ride once again.

Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones are close to the last word as recent on screen romantics. Doremus’ frequent close-ups connect them like intertwining vines. Whenever they’re in the same space together, on screen, they seem to engage in a graceful sensual dance .

Pitch perfect hip music compliments the new millennium courtship these two are engaged in as well as Winterbottom/Boyle visual aesthetic employed by Doremus. And so, just as I’m close to shooting myself having to constantly hear about the authenticity in the highly overrated Blue Valentine, I can latch onto Like Crazy, the superior antidote to that other film.

SUNDANCE 2011: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975 (2011) dir. Goran Hugo Olsson
Documentary

***

By Alan Bacchus

The Sundance program guide lists this film as a Swedish/US production, directed by Goran Hugo Olsson. Huh? The opening text quickly explains to us what we’re watching and why - a compilation of footage from 1967-1975 shot by Swedish television documenting the events and people which made up the larger black power movement in the United States. We’re told that this account should not be taken as a definitive summary of these events, but a unique Swedish point of view.

Why Swedish? The largely socialist and white Scandinavian country serves as cultural and political antithesis to the American way of life. Yet the Swedes are wholly fascinated by American lifestyle, and in their TV footage seem to observe the conflicts within American like animals in a zoo.

Each act in this film corresponds to the nine years in the title. The opening years are the years of Stokely Carmichael and his friendly competition with the non-violent ways of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Carmichael footage, much of it shot during a European visit is a treasure. The articulations of the plight of his people and the justification of his antagonistic ways are truly inspiring.

Curiously a voiceover with today’s black leaders such Talib Kweli, Robin Kelley and John Forte explains the context of the imagery and the 21st century point of view, an inclusion I just couldn‘t reconcile with the guidelines we received at the opening of the film. Thus, despite the magnificent footage, the film seems unfocused, and actually betrays what seemed to be the point of view of the film.

As each chapter passes and we see the tide of support for the movement change over the years these inconsistencies dissolve away, leaving us completely attached to the sights and sounds of what’s on the screen.

Black and white turns to colour in the 70’s and the verite footage of streetwise Harlem in the latter portions of the picture are astonishing. The crisp and pristine images are indistinguishable to its age. In fact, at times it feels as if we’re watching a recreation of these times from a Spike Lee movie.

In the final years, as the documentary moves towards the sombre downturn of Black Power when idealism and political action gave way to drugs, political counteraction by government authorities, the film comes off as a sad time capsule of one of the darker periods in U.S. history.

SUNDANCE 2011: Buck

Buck (2011) dir. Cindy Meehl
Documentary

***

By Alan Bacchus

Real life horse whisperer is the subject of Meehl’s heart warming crowd pleasing documentary. I mean it’s a film full of pretty horses, shot in stunning Midwest ranches with pristine high definition imagery and a whole lot of soothing southern accents and country charm. Buck is the comfort food antidote to an inordinate number of heavy dramas at this year’s festival.

The Buck in this film is Buck Brannaman, the inspiration for the book and movie, The Horse Whisperer. But, as I suspected, there’s no ‘whispering’ involved in Buck’s work and it certainly doesn’t have the ethereal spirituality of Robert Redford’s film, but it’s no less fascinating to watch Buck magically put even the most feral horses at ease and have them following his every move like he’s been training them for years.

For most of the year Buck travels across the country conducting clinics for ranchers, horse trainers and likely Horse Whisperer fans. Meehl’s cameras follow Buck from place to place with his team which includes his equally talented daughter and devoted wife.

Key to appreciating Buck’s methodology is knowing how horses were traditionally ‘broken’ by ranchers and horse training. Meehl briefly goes back to the torturous, almost medieval practises of old - physical abuse using fear and intimidation to beat horses into submission. Buck himself admits to once using these practices, and we can feel the sadness in his eyes when describes his transition into the whisperer through his mentors.

The parallel of Buck’s lifelong goal links up marvellously to Buck’s own painful past. Going back into Buck’s childhood reveals an obscene life of abuse at the hands of his father who in the 60’s put his Buck into show business as a trick roper at the age of three.

The lifelong journey of Buck from abused victim to champion of humane animal practices has the emotional gravitas most Hollywood couldn’t write, The Horse Whisperer included. Nepotism accusations due to the Sundance/Redford connection can quickly be dismissed as there seems to be no doubt Buck is a deserving front runner for an audience award.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

SUNDANCE 2011: On the Ice

On the Ice (2011) dir. Andrew Okpeaha MacLean
Starring: Josiah Patkotak, Frank Outuq Irelan, Teddy Kyle Smith, Adamina Kerr, Sierra Jade Sampson

**

By Alan Bacchus

Qalli and Aivaaq are a pair of Alaskan homies, though they wear parkas and drive snow machines, they talk like regular kids with the language and lingo of hip hop culture. Maclean paints this cross cultural picture with refreshing colour especially in contrast to the recent Inuit-based features from Canada such as The Fast Runner, or Before Tomorrow.

As his first feature out of the gate, director Andrew Maclean shows us a modern version of Inuit life in Barrow Alaska, a cold dreary place with six months of daylight and an endless perspective of white snow as far as the eye can see.

These young kids can have as much fun as any suburban kid, the opening act injects a kind of hip energy reminding us of Lee Tamahori’s aggressive introductions in Once Were Warriors. After a local house party Qalli and Aivaaq and their friend James decide to go on seal hunter trip on the lake. But when a minor squabble sees James accidentally stabbed and killed, the two friends find themselves making split second life changing decisions. In this moment they decide to hide James’s body and make up a story that he fell threw the ice.

This is the boys’ shallow grave and they just don’t have the emotional capacity to survive the psychological turmoil of hiding their crimes. It’s Qalli’s father that heads the investigation, a conflict oddly Shakespearean in it’s complexity. And so Maclean’s unique slice of life becomes a transplanted thriller with the kids‘ lives and once optimistic futures at stake.

Unfortunately Maclean is let down by his actors, most of whom sadly just don’t have the chops to pull off the emotional complexities of their heavy emotional journies. It's the kiss of death really for a film such as this. Frank Qutuq Irelan as Aivaaq has a unique and innate toughness and edge required for the hotheaded role as the clique leader. But as the more conservative academic-smart Qalli, Josiah Patkotak is just too wooden for us to get invested in his adventure. Most of supporting actors are hit and miss, but mostly misses.

It’s a shame, because On the Ice seemed to be one of the buzz films of the festival, generating long lines well in advance of the screening. Maclean’s previous Sundance Awards for his short films and his participation at the Sundance Lab with this project were signs of promise, but the final effort has the misfortune of failing to live up to these enormous expectations.

SUNDANCE 2011: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) dir. Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzie, Brady Corbet, John Hawkes

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Admittedly I’m still trying to process this one, but what I am sure of is this slow burning ambient thriller is absolutely chilling to bone. A terrifying experience which gets under your skin, an itch you can’t scratch, or like watching a turtle on it’s back.

Durkin is slow to let us in on what exactly is happening. A non-descript farm, a house full of young women dressed in white, huddled together like in a harem. John Hawkes looking extra skinny, grisly. When one of these women, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), runs out of the house early in the morning, in a hurry into the woods we know something is afoot.

Durkin unveils a kind of pure evil, that kind of Michael Haneke evil, uncompromising, unglamourized real world nightmares. There’s a palpable fear in Martha’s eyes as she calls her estranged sister, Katie. We still don’t know what’s going on. Durkin splits his time between Martha’s stay with her sister and her new husband, Ted at a swanky upstate New York cottage. Little moments like when Martha freely jumps in the lake naked to swim tell us her time in the cultish commune has stunted her social behaviour.

Durkin flashes back to her time on this farm periodically, revealing ghastly cult-like rituals involving sexual abuse, violence and general social misbehaviour. Under the guidance of it’s leader Patrick (John Hawkes), men and women live like communal living, off the land free from capitalist pleasures. But at the expense of Patrick’s brutal brainwashing.

Durkin’s editing between these two time frames is seamless and by the nature of his matching of scenes implies an impending danger. This spectre of dread hangs over the film, from the first frame to the last. Part of Durkin’s game is how he shoots Martha, played with aplomb by newbie Elizabeth Olsen. Durkin’s camera is constantly lurking over her supple curvy body, teasing us the audience as well as the characters in the film. A subtle trick which supports his theme of sexual exploitation and Patrick’s use of sex as a tool for psychological dominance.

Ambient moody sounds and amplified background noises have us paying attention to every detail in the film. Moments of eerie silence are chilling, and obtuse framing in certain scene have us anticipating fits of violence, sometimes paying off, sometimes not. Though Durkin’s pacing eschews most traditional genre expectations, he does deliver the goods with at least one eye popping shock moment. But it’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening. A throwaway line such as ‘Patrick only has boys’ sends chills down my spine, and the final moments which are played vague and oblique are just as effective as the traditional scares.

With the ending it’s a wrap-up I was half-expecting - half of me wanted traditional closure, the other half had me scared to death at thought of what Durkin would show us if he did. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a mouthful of a title, but a special film, cynical but cinematic, and shows a major new talent in its writer/director.

SUNDANCE 2011: Submarine

Submarine (2011) dir. Richard Richard Ayoade
Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine

***

By Alan Bacchus

Richard Ayoade was recently knighted by Variety in their annual 10 to Watch list, an esteemed list of hot new directors on the block. Ayoade isn’t exactly new, in addition to his experience in stand up comedy, like contemporaries Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), Armando Ianucci, (In the Loop), Chris Morris (Four Lions) he seems to have come the superlative comedy training ground that is British television. Ayoade’s quirky UK coming of age comedy is deserving of the attention, an auteur/idiosyncratic work, not entirely original stylistically but funny and involving enough to anticipate his second film.

Fifteen year old Oliver Tate is from the Wes Anderson family of protagonists, an articulate self-aware youth, too mature for his body and with too much misplaced energy. Through the heavily detailed observance in his voiceover we know exactly who this character is. Early on he describes his efforts to find his niche in high school by experimenting with a roll call of peculiar hobbies from French crooners to silly hats.

Like Rushmore’s Max Fischer Tate wants to have the emotions of an adult, but has no outlet for life’s drama. His parents are emotional detached robots, who barely emote anything above a whisper to each other, his only friends in school are immature children, not yet at the intellectual level Tate desires to be.

But he also has a massive crush on the enigmatic and aloof Jordana who appears as emotionally superior and mature as he. His attempts to ingratiate himself to her involves bullying one of his good friends, resulting in her transfer from school. But it works and soon Oliver and Jordana are moving from first base to second base and beyond. Meanwhile a new neighbour, Graham, a pretentious new age psychic played with delicious 80’s mullet-head tackiness by Paddy Considine, arrives attracting the attention of Oliver‘s mom. With the impending breakdown of his parents’ marriage and inability to deal with Jordana’s own family problems, the drama Oliver so desires eventually arrives.

We’ve seen just about everything in this film already, from the articulate obsessively-specific details of his observant voiceover, to the quirky framing, wideangle lenses, and general tone of oddball kookiness. This genre goes back to The Graduate and was eventually exploited for a handful of Wes Anderson’s films. Taika Waititi’s Sundance entry from last year Boy also comes to mind, and in terms of the hilariously inventive use of absurd voiceover Trainspotting appears to be an influence.

Though it’s familiar territory his characters are honest and seem to derive from a place of real personal angst. Perhaps it’s the source material, a novel by Joe Dunthorne, apparently a semi-autobiography from Dunthorne’s youth in the 80’s. Sympathetic and unflashy performances from the kids, Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige and the cozy warmth of Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor as the parents anchor it all in heartfelt reality.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Enter the Void

Enter the Void (2009) dir. Gaspar Noe
Starring: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Ed Spear, Cyril Roy

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

There’s a conscious effort to titillate our senses and provoke extreme reaction to this film. It almost goes without saying though for Gaspar Noe, who has carved out for himself this title as the current l’enfant terrible of cinema. He certainly gives Lars Von Trier a run, and this film seems to be him matching von Trier’s Anti-Christ experience.

Enter the Void is beyond Anti-Christ though. Beneath the salacious sex, anatomical closeups of the genitalia, hardcore drug use and general loopy psychedelic aesthetic is a warm heart, a genuine love for his characters to succeed and survive in a tough uncompromising world.

This heart also exists in Irreversible, Noe’s previous shock fest, a film known more for it’s graphic beating scene and the infamous rape of Monica Belluci’s character. What people rarely discuss is the genuine romance between his characters, which fueled the monumentally excessive dramatic journey of his hero.

Like Dave Bowman's leap into the infinite so is the neon blasted, strobe-lit rollercoaster ride Noe takes us on in Enter The Void. For most of the time we're behind the head of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American living in Tokyo, presumably a former backpacker who stayed in this electric city and got caught up in the twisted underworld of drug dealing. His estranged sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta) has just arrived in the city, a reunification completing their lifelong promise to each other after they split up in a complicated and melodramatic backstory. Oscar's criminalistic predilections quickly creep into Linda's life, thereby corrupting her as well. First it's a harmless hit of E, then some pelvic grinding with disreputable douchebags in a club, pretty soon she's stripping in a club and destroying everything that is straight and narrow in her life.

A drug deal gone wrong makes Oscar enemies with some nasty gangsters, which results in his death at the hands of the police. In this moment things get even screwier, when Oscar's DHT hormones kick in giving him the ultimate and final trip, flashing us around through the events of his life.

We're literally behind his head for two thirds of the film, as Noe frames his camera either from his point of view or behind his neck seeing what he's looking at. The camera floats around Oscar as he moves through space and time, with no seemingly no spacial or temporal limits. After Oscar fully dies we're still left with 45mins on the running time whereby Noe's camera becomes part of Linda's point of view and eventually a god-like omniscient viewpoint, perhaps Oscar's again from the afterlife watching where Linda will end up. The camera elegantly glides through inanimate objects connecting these time jumps, and in the most salacious camera moves, manages to fit inside Linda's cervix, through her birth canal and into her uterus wherein we get to see the miracle of life up close and in real time.

This is bold aggressive and hopelessly romantic filmmaking at its best, a filmmaker with all the tools at his disposal to challenge us aesthetically and intellectually, a true cinematic experience incomparable to anything we've seen before.

Enter the Void is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from EOne Home Entertainment in Canada

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Raging Bull

Raging Bull (1980) dir. Martin Scoresese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Frank Vincent,

****

By Alan Bacchus

I won’t pretend that Raging Bull is my favourite film, not even my favourite Martin Scorsese film, not the Best film of the decade as some critics proclaimed, and not even the best film of its particularly year (anyone seen David Lynch’s Elephant Man lately?). My slight hesitation is caused by Robert de Niro's thoroughly unlikeable yet effective portrayal as Jake La Motta as a beast with mood swings as scary as any horror film. But that's where my critique ends, the rest is unbridled penance for Martin Scorsese's masterpiece.

Raging Bull is a tough film, emotionally draining yet cinematically and stylistically exhilarating. It was a project started by Robert De Niro, and pitched to Martin Scorsese to direct and Robert Chartoff/Irwin Winkler to producer. As it’s man character, Jake La Motta, a middleweight from the 1940’s, nicknamed the Bronx Bull for his tenacity and brutish style of fighting. Sadly there wasn’t much dividing the ring from his personal life. In Scorsese’s unglamorous streetwise fashion he depicts the abusive relationships, briefly with his first wife whom he divorced after shamelessly courting the local 15 year old neighbourhood girl, and then this same girl Vickie who eventually became his wife.

Vicki's relationship is characterized as the caveman-cavegirl type, one of physical and emotional dominance and submission. As a character study La Motta is both horrific and fascinating. De Niro depicts La Motta as a bi-polar psychopath living in his own world, twisted and grotesque. Perhaps he’s a product of his environment though, as Scorsese is clear to depict this type of aggression everywhere, visible in the streets and clubs and audible through the open windows of the tenement apartments.

The violence and depraved behaviour of La Motta goes to such extremes at times it switches to humour. Scorsese’s treatment of this is razor sharp, constantly walking a delicate line between devastating emotional abuse and jet black dark comedy. La Motta’s obscenely violent mood swings, for instance. In his fight with his first wife the argument starts with an overcooked steak and proceeds toward physical violence. After the harrowing scene La Motta calls ‘a truce’, a throwaway word used when distracted by his brother Joey. And later in that scene La Motta is depicted talking quietly and with sincerity with his brother.

The relationship with Joey is the key relationship in the film however, two brothers so closely tied together, yet something which La Motta destroys after accusing him of sleeping with his wife. This moment represents the last straw in his psychological deterioration. The arc in this relationship is closed in the devastating finale when La Motta, years after that heated argument, approaches Joey on the street and physically embraces him with pure love.

Stylistically the film is still deservedly celebrated for its expressionistic fight sequences. Scorsese is clear not to shoot La Motta’s fights as realistic but what it may have looked and sounded like from La Motta’s skewed point of view.

This was 1980 and here he just about perfected his cinema language, both inside and outside the ring. His slow motion shots used in key moments of focus from La Motta's point of view; his overlapping sound tails which bridge and connect scenes, tails longer than most other films, long enough for us to notice and thus pay attention to; the amplified ambient sounds of the street which put the environment as close to the fore as the actions of the characters; Thelma Schoonmaker’s superlative editing; and of course Scorsese’s pitch perfect use of music, in particular La Cavalleria Rusticana which contrasts the hard edged visuals with graceful melancholy.

The dichotomy of beauty and beast exists in every frame of Raging Bull.

Raging Bull is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox/MGM Home Entertainment

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

RED

RED (2010) dir. Robert Schwentke
Starring: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Mary Louise Parker, Karl Urban, Brian Cox, Ernest Borgnine and Richard Dreyfuss

**1/2

By Greg Klymkiw

Having seen over 30,000 movies is both a blessing and a curse. It gets to a point where good just isn't good enough and RED, the new action comedy with Bruce Willis and an all-star cast genuinely falls short of good. But who knows? If I were less discriminating and/or just a normal moviegoer, it's conceivable I'd have liked this movie better than I did.

The story, or coat-hanger if you will, is relatively simple. Bruce Willis plays a former black-ops CIA agent in retirement who finds himself being targeted for assassination. He rounds up his old crew (John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman), also retired and themselves, assassination targets. Together they fight back the agency thug (Karl Urban) put in charge of their extermination and a veritable army of assassins. Receiving able assistance from a former foe (Brian Cox), our loveable team make sure bullets fly and that things blow up real good. Oh yeah, and Bruce finds love in an unlikely place: a bureaucrat (Mary Louise Parker) responsible for sending out his pension cheque whom he flirts with over the telephone and who, in turn, also becomes a target by association.

The movie has a genuinely amiable quality. The cast is appealing (Helen Mirren is especially sexy when handling firearms), the pyrotechnics passably directed (with a couple of spectacular set pieces) and the script is full of laughs.

Hmm. This is starting to sound pretty good. It's not, though.

So with all of the above, why then, does the picture feel so negligible? Much like The Town (but with lots of yucks) the movie suffers from a bad case of been there, done that. Familiarity can breed contempt, but in the case of RED it breeds occasional yawns. There isn't a single plot twist that seemed original and at every step of the way, I was well ahead of the picture.

While this sort of by-the-numbers thriller can get by on craft alone (which I'll admit it almost does), it's missing several vital ingredients. It's too damn amiable! You never get a sense of real danger - at one point, the film tries to show us what a mean, cold son of a bitch Willis was as a CIA special-op, but soon, he's back to being charming. This flip-flop tone can only really work in the hands of a master. Director Robert Schwentke is hardly in that category, though - he's at best, competent.

Speaking of competence, the movie also has little by way of a voice or even a point of view that feels like its coming from somewhere on or off camera. When Peckinpah occasionally did a straight-up action picture, it was injected with his remarkable style - jittery, nasty AND all the other things that are the attributes of RED. When I think about The Getaway or The Killer Elite, those pictures ramp up the macho zing, but do so in a way where you feel like you are not watching an episode of the TV series The A-Team, only aimed at big screen consumption - kind of like, uh... well, The A-Team movie from this past summer.

It's finally too safe. No chances are taken and subsequently, one leaves the theatre feeling full the way one feels after a Big Mac Meal - it was okay while it lasted, but about half and hour later, you've got a sluggish feeling and, damn it all, you're kind of hungry again and/or nauseated.

I still can't allow myself to completely trash the picture. I think many people will enjoy it in that fast food way and frankly, it's too innocuous to get riled up over. Besides, it IS not without entertainment value. Non-discriminating audiences can check their brains at the boxoffice and have a good time, then go back to whatever pathetic life they have and live it, secure that they have not wasted their hard-earned dough at the box office. (It's sad that movies have come to this - when all an audience wants is to not feel ripped-off, while us cineaste snobs take what crumbs we can find.)

In fairness, though, there are two elements of the picture that are above and beyond the call of duty. First of all, John Malkovich is out of this world. His performance as the nutcase of the bunch is truly inspired comic acting and is the one thing that stays with you long after the picture is over. Not much else does, but he certainly earns his paycheque and then some. Secondly, it's so nice to see a muscular adventure with people who aren't, well... for lack of a better word, young. The old farts in the picture acquit themselves very nicely and the movie should appeal to both octogenarians and teenage boys and everything in between. That said, not a single character believably experiences the pain of old age the way someone like William Holden in The Wild Bunch did. The movie dips its toe into these waters, but never gets its hair wet.

Finally, take this as a compliment or a slag, but RED is never threatening and possesses equal appeal for the ladies, allowing couples of all ages to indulge in genre hanky-panky without feeling sullied.

As mentioned earlier, I feel like I could almost love or, at least, like the movie.

Luckily or sadly, I don't and can't.

"Almost" is the operative word here.

And yes, it's supposed to be a comic book movie, but that certainly doesn't mean it needs to feel so featherweight. I'm a huge fan of Raimi's Spiderman pictures - all of which have that extra snap, crackle and pop that this film lacks - a little something called style.

In its favour though, the film features a great cameo from Ernest Borgnine and, at the very least, doesn't feel like a Brett Ratner film. Hell, that's almost enough to recommend it highly.

RED is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from EOne Entertainment.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Color Purple

The Color Purple (1985) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover,

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

You take the good with bad with Steven Spielberg, especially with The Color Purple, his first ‘serious’ movies, a movie outside of sci-fi/thriller/adventure genre he’d made his name in. Though Spielberg treads for the first time in such important subject matter like race, poverty, abuse in the deep south, his trademark magic realist sentimentality inadvertantly conflicts in almost every scene and the tragic events which befall Alice Walker’s main character Celie.

It’s a large scale, epic story told over a period of 30 years or so from the point of view of a woman scorned with almost every conceivable act of maltreatment one could inflict on another human being. The opening shows Celie giving birth to a child conceived with her father, then taken away from her arms, presumably to be given away or even thrown into the wintery wild to die. The core relationship for Celie is with her devoted sister, Nettie, the only person who ever loved her. And so when Celie is married off to a dispicable farm owner Albert (Danny Glover), she goes from frying pan to the fire. Albert’s dominance is even more aggressive than her father's, eventually kicking Nettie out Celie's life never to receive contact with her ever again.

The rest of Celie’s life is one long physical and psychological beatdown by her tyrannical husband. It’s not until Albert’s love-struck former companion, sophisticated lounge singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), comes to town does Celie find a confidente. Gradually over the course of 20 years Celie’s grows into her own skin and embraces her own womanhood, and some degree a lesbian sexual orientation she doesn’t fully understand, nor reconcile.

As I rewatched The Color Purple in high definition Blu-Ray, it was same the odd contradictory experience as always. As usual there’s a superlative inventiveness in mise-en-scene in almost every scene. Spielberg’s ability to choreograph the actors and the camera with dance-like precision in order to highlight every emotional beat to the audience is astounding. There’s a palpable classical approach reminiscent of his main influences John Ford, Michael Curtiz and even Alfred Hitchcock. Watch the scene when Celie and Nettie are handclapping in their room early on, a scene which plays out without ever seeing Celie, instead visible only as shadows on the wall. Or the emotionally-charged finale where Celie meets up with Nettie for the first time. It’s a John Ford moment ripped right out of The Searchers and a dozen other of his classics.

And yet, the concerted effort to be visually clever hogties the scenes. Spielberg’s formality skews the emotions toward artificial melodrama. Spielberg's enthusiasm runs wild and unabated, overdramatizing many of the key beats. The separation of Celie and Nettie for instance, when Albert drags her kicking and screaming from his farm, with Nettie screaming with engrossed exagerration “Why!!!? Why!!!?”

Most of the supporting characters, in particular the men, are characterized without an ounce of depth or colour. Both Celie’s father and husband Albert are indignified beyond belief as immature tail chasing children who lose their marbles and act like cavemen in pursuit of their women. Even Harpo and Sophia are characterized as a cartoonish antidote to Celie’s quiet introspection.

Spielberg does make up for Sophia by giving her the most extreme and emotionally devastating character arc in the picture. Her transition from a headstrong independent woman, to a broken down housemaid and shadow of her former self is in our face, but dramatized by the best scenes in the film and the best performance as well – Oprah Winfrey. Watching poor Sophia leave her Christmas family reunion to drive her upper class matron back to her home wrings out so much emotional pain.

Miraculously Spielberg, despite drowning us with tears, manages to execute a stunning emotional finale. A series of scenes and actions which lead to the reunification of Nettie and Celie: Celie’s discovery of Nettie’s letters, her confrontation with Albert at the dinner table, Albert’s redemption by engineering Nettie’s return to the country and finally, that John Ford moment I mentioned above when she first see’s Nettie’s car drive up the country road.

Does Spielberg’s blatantly sentimental treatment of such sensitive subject matter betray the gravitas of Walker’s material? I'm still not sure, but either way I will forever be reviled by and inexplicably drawn to this movie.

‘The Color Purple’ is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment

Monday, 17 January 2011

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2009) dir. Alex Gibney
Documentary

By Alan Bacchus

***

I’m only a casual follower of American politics, and know very little of the complex system of the lobbying wherein third party organizations hire non-governmental third party firms to pressure members of Congress into voting and passing Bills and thus affecting the policies of the nation. Casino Jack attempts to make sense of this system so reliant on money and thus susceptible to corruption by telling the story Jack Abramoff, the king of the lobbyists, who was famously indicted and served time for fraud.

It’s no surprise this is a Republican story, when it comes to political controversy, for Democrats, it always seems to be sex scandals, for Republicans it’s always about money. As the most aggressively free market country in the world, success in business seems to go to those who can push the moral and ethical edge to the max in order to squeeze as much money out of the system.

Jack Abramoff squeezed a lot. It’s a head spinning first hour of information thrown at us. Like All the President’s Men or even that lengthy speech by Donald Sutherland in the middle of Oliver Stone’s JFK, Alex Gibney bombards us with names of lobbyists, politicians, dollar figures and organization names which Abramoff used to move money from place to place in exchange for political favours.

The title refers to Abramoff’s association with Native American Casinos which Abramoff exploited in order to cheat and swindle millions of dollars out of the entitlement of these native reserves. Abramoff seemd to scour the world for loopholes to exploit, including supporting sweatshop manufacturing operations in the unregulated US commonwealth nation of Sai Pan.

Casino Jack produces the same effect as watching Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, or even Gibney’s Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room, all of which simplifies the complexities of white collar crimes. Casino Jack arrives on DVD in time with the release of the dramatic version of this story, starring Kevin Spacey and directed by former documentarian George Hickenlooper (who sadly died last year). There’s enough special features to add even more context and information, as if we didn’t get enough in the actual film. Unfortunately we’re also given a rather large pitch for ‘Take Part’ an advocate group against these heinous lobbying practices. It’s an important cause, but ironically we feel as if we’re being lobbied to ourselves by watching this DVD.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Misery

Misery (1990) dir. Rob Reiner
Starring: Kathy Bates, James Caan, Richard Farnsworth, Lauren Bacall

***

Its obvious 'Misery' is not the work of a genre director or even anyone with any experience with horror. Rob Reiner’s work on Stephen King’s intense novel is workmanlike, unflashy, but anchored by William Goldman’s tightly plotted script and two fine lead performances. After 19 years 'Misery' remains a highly watchable light horror film for people who don’t like horror films.

It’s a classic Stephen King set-up, a high concept picture which began from King’s own neuroses as an author dealing with the confining feeling of his audience’s expectations. King writes himself into the character of Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a romance novelist excited because he’s just completed his first non-romance novel, a cathartic feeling of freedom as an artist. But when his car runs off a snowy road in the mountains with his manuscript, he becomes face to face with the greatest challenge of his life.

He wakes up from consciousness in the spare bed of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), Sheldon’s #1 fan, a Susan Boyle-like spinster and shut in who lives vicariously through Sheldon’s romance heroine, Misery. In just seven minutes King, Reiner and Goldman establish the rules of Sheldon’s shut-in world. With his legs broken, in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm, it’s the same narrative shackles King loves to revel in. Whether it’s the car in 'Cujo', or the Overlook Hotel in 'The Shining', its a Stephen King world with characters isolated in spaces and a psychological and physically duel to the death.

Goldman uses King’s novel as a jumping off point effectively detailing the common sense predicament for both Annie and Paul. He finds the right amount of details to weave into the struggle and paying them effectively throughout the film. The opening shot of the wine glass, cigarette and match is no coincidence, a clever detail which serves two narrative purposes 1) the symbol of Sheldon’s accomplishment as an author and 2) the instrument which Paul uses to defeat Annie.

It was Barry Sonnenfeld’s last picture as a cinematographer, and he employs a very ungenre-like bright and flat lighting scheme for a horror flick. Under someone else’s watch Annie’s home would be a nourish, Norman Bates-like layer lit with deep shadows and gritty textured surfaces. Most of the film is played in daytime, in a warm, quaint and protective home, counter-playing the madness residing inside.

Reiner’s inexperience with the genre is visible. His execution of the suspenseful moments are adequate, because of Goldman’s well-timed plotting and Caan and Bates’s perforamnce. And so it takes only the bare minimum to pay off the half a dozen key set pieces. Though we can’t help but think how a John Carpenter, or Roman Polanski or even an M. Night Shyamalan would have done with say, the hobbling scene, or the dinner table scene when Paul tries to poison Annie. With Reiner’s visual style, the suspense feels like an artificial injection of fear, a cinematic suspense, manufactured from editing and the nature of the concept as opposed to a pure visceral horror.

“Misery” remains a fun movie to this day in part because of Reiner's funny bone and his desire not to take the film too seriously. The wink of self-acknowledge allows mainstream audiences to enjoy being scared - a disposable kind of horror film which leaves you immediately and doesn’t give you nightmares.

“Misery” is available on Blu-Ray from MGM Home Entertainment