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

Monday, 28 February 2011

Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs (1992) dir. Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Reservoir Dogs seems like eons ago. At the time that movie was just about the coolest thing on earth for the 20 and 30 somethings. It’s almost 20 years later, and whether the film looks or feels dated or overexposed is moot, it's importance in the cultural zeitgeist assures it a sort of untouchable tenureship in cinema-history. Love him or hate him, the influence of Quentin Tarantino and this film in particular throughout the 90's and beyond was long reaching.

Reservoir Dogs premiered at Sundance 1992, played at TIFF in the Fall and was released later that year, but it wasn’t until it's video release did it catch fire. From the opening conversation Tarantino was announcing himself to the film world. We never heard a conversation like that – Mr. Brown’s graphic description of the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” as well as Mr. Pink’s rant about not-tipping. Then the music kicks in, a little known 70’s track by god-knows-who which sounded so cool. Cigarette smoking, sunglasses wearing bank robbers walking in slo-mo. Whatever it was this was a cool movie so far. Then we see two of the same characters we saw in the first scene Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) who just committed a heist driving in a car, except Orange is bleeding like a stuck pig all over the pristine white interior of their car. The film just got even more intriguing.

As White and Orange convene in their agreed-to abandoned warehouse to figure out exactly what went wrong, the film flashes back to retrace exactly how each character got put on the job. With everyone accusing everyone else of being the rat, Mr. White defends Mr. Orange to the end and in doing so develops a fraternal bond with him.

Scene after scene bristles with originality in the post-modern way. Tarantino culled some of his favorite scenes and lines from his favourite films and mashed them together with his instantly trademark dialogue creating the first “Tarantino-movie”. Somewhere in the film are pieces of: “The Killing”, “Taking of Pelham 1,2,3”, “The Professionals”, “Point Blank”, “Do the Right Thing” even obscure Italian genre films Django.

Even the truncated time-shifting was fresh and soon to be copied everywhere. There was nothing formula about this genre film. Tarantino wasn’t concerned with the heist, or whether they get away with the diamonds, but the relationship of Orange and White. Tarantino even reveals to the audience midway through the film that Mr. Orange is actually the undercover cop who sold out the crew. But the main reveal is when Orange confesses to White. This is more powerful because we know the emotional pain this takes on both Orange and White. It still is a remarkably dramatic moment.

Has Tarantino changed over the years? Yes and no. He’s certainly gotten egotistical with his dialogue. In both Kill Bill and Death Proof, Tarantino could have used an assertive editor to challenge him into trimming and shaping his meandering conversations. Yet, in Inglourious Basterds, though equally long-winded every line seemed just right. And his films seem to get more anachronistic and insular. Death Proof was his least accessible film by far. Even Kurt Russell fans have to be scratching their heads. But each film is an impassioned personal piece of work, whether it’s a hit or a miss, Tarantino will never sell out and make someone else’s film.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

His and Hers

His and Hers (2010) dir. Ken Wardrop
Documentary

***½
By Alan Bacchus

If you're in Toronto next Sunday, please come on out to the inaugural Toronto Irish Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox, celebrating a number of fine films the Emerald Isle has to offer. Specifically, Ken Wardrop's delightful heartwarming documentary ode to women and their relationships with men.

Wardrop is kind of a legend in short filmmaking with a dozen or so idiosyncratic shorts which have won numerous awards around the world. Now, with the chance to make the big leap to features, his creative ingenuity successfully translates to the longer form.

It’s a remarkably simple concept - Wardrop attempts to tell the general story of women’s relationships with men from every age group of womanhood, from birth to death. A series of unrelated interviews with women who don’t know each other or have no connection whatsoever remarkably makes for a profound existential experience with the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Wardrop’s sense of humour and overall light tone is evident from the very first interview with a 3 month old infant in a crib. Of course the baby can’t talk, but its just the first form of life when a female comes into contact with a man - her father staring down at her in her crib. The next set of interviews are with young girls aged 1, 2, and 3, responding to offscreen questions telling stories about their dad or brother which is surprisingly profound and engaging from their unique point of view.

We start to notice the pattern at this point and one by one Wardrop’s interviewees age slowly and surely. As the women age their stories change. The pre-teen girls talk about their bratty brothers or annoying fathers, the teenagers talk gossipy about their adolescent crushes and the twenty-somethings talk boyfriends and marriages. And at the age when most women start bearing children we become privy to the joyous bond between woman (as mother) and child (as son).

And suddenly we notice the types of stories doubling back on itself, seeing the perspective change from childhood to adulthood.

The personalities differ with each interview and though all common sense would say that to tell a good story - documentary or fiction - we need to attach and identify with the characters - strangely with each 2-3 min interview Wardrope manages to find a dialogue so identifiable to the audience that all we need is this short period of time to fall in love and get sucked in by their lives.

And by the end, when the last elderly woman reflects on her life as a woman in relation to her family which is below her age, I was reminded of that great children’s book “Love You Forever” by Robert N. Munsch about the child born and loved by her mother, then gradually grows up and has her own daughter to care for and eventually in elder age must be cared for and loved by her own daughter. Like Munsch‘s book ‘His and Hers’ is a great and profound story about this cycle of life, love and family.

I need to go and hug my mom, my wife and my young 17-month-old son now.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Dogtooth

Dogtooth (2009) dir. Giorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis

***

By Alan Bacchus

The opening scene is especially confusing, three siblings in a bathroom playing some kind of cryptic game, an endurance test to see who can hold their fingers under the hot water tap the longest before pulling away. It’s not so much the task at hand which is odd, it’s the language used. It’s in Greek, though the words they refer to just match up. Sea' becomes a 'chair', 'motorway' means 'strong wind' and 'carbine' means 'a white bird'? Just typos by the subtitler? Nope, this is just one part of the extraordinary and audacious subversion at play in Giorgos Lanthimos’ sick and twisted art house black comedy.

This film original premiered in Cannes 2009, winning the Prix En Certain Regard, but has seen public release in US or Canada until now, when it received an Oscar nomination of Best Foreign Language Film. If anyone doubted the Academy willingness to go dark and edgy and risky, they just need to watch Dogtooth.

This film perhaps sets new benchmarks for torture and brainwashing. None of the characters have names but it appears the five main characters in this film are a family, living in some kind of enclosed compound. Father (Christos Stergioglou) is leader, and the only one allowed to leave the compound, mother (Michele Valley) is allowed to make phonecalls and seems privy to what’s going on, but is still clueless. The three children, identified as son (Hristos Passalis) , eldest (Aggeliki Papoulia) and youngest (Mary Tsoni), live like captive slaves unaware of the social existence outside of what Father has fed them since birth – a wholly deranged experiment is domestication commanded by Father presumably over the course of 20+ years.

A staid and dead pan tone is established by the director early. We see long almost silent takes of the characters looking, reacting, observing without editorial manipulation. The awkward camera angles and wide angle lenses enhance the twisted nature of this domestic story.

Lanthimos’ objective, non judgemental point of view means we’re left to our own to infer what exactly is going in. After the first scene, wherein characters seem to be talking in a jumbled up version of their language, we slow figure out what’s going on. A cruel experiment by the father to shape or mould his children into a mutated social beings. Early on we see Father go to a dog kennel to check on the progress of his dogs who are being trained as attack dogs. At this point most of us will clue in to the metaphor. But the purpose of this bizarre game remains clouded in mystery.

Lanthimos moves quietly from scenes of surreal black comedy to shocking violence and depravity, with a consistent undercurrent of monumental existential tragedy and despair for these children. A life wasted on the deranged whims of a madman, and yet they are completely unaware of their plight.

The sexual development of the children is carefully handled. A young woman from the outside is pimped out by Father for the gratification of his son’s urges. The sex, of course, is immoral and cruel for the son, but it never feels like pure exploitation. On the other hand Father has also trained his family when in danger to go down on their hands and knees and bark like dogs.

As audacious and beguiling the concept, there’s a repititiousness which sets in. Like some of the great cinematic enfant terribles, Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier Lanthimos pushes our buttons, pushing the audiences willingness to be in the point of view of pure madness, without a traditional dramatic arc to suspend our disbelief. In the back of my mind I was prepared for the film to cut to black and at any moment, leaving us shocked and wanting – the same effect I had at the end of The White Ribbon. Lanthimos is not quite as cruel as Haneke and he engineers a semblance of a third act, a glimmer of hope for the children to escape their prison.

Whether or not this film wins the Oscar is inconsequetial as the recoginition it will receive when announced as a nominee by some Hollywood celebrity on Sunday night will be monumentous. The film will thus attract an audience of curiosity-seekers, many of whom will experience something they’ve never seen before.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Last Tango in Paris

Last Tango in Paris (1973) dir. Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Massimo Girotti

****

By Alan Bacchus

Anyone familiar with ‘Last Tango in Paris’ can’t really say or hear ‘pass the butter’ without a least a slight pause, double-take, or smirk of recognition to the now infamous line of dialogue uttered by Marlon Brando near the midpoint of this film. Of course, it refers to the use of that smooth, spreadable substance used by Brando’s character to lubricate a certain orifice on the body of the character of Jeanne, as played by Maria Schneider. After the butter is passed the scene then plays out with Brando’s character climbing on top of Jeanne and performing an act sodomy which would inexorably split these two voracious lovers.

Could you imagine Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks or Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon playing this scene and the effect on their image? Marlon Brando, on the other hand, had disdain for image, his role in pop culture and most of all of his celebrity endeavours. Marlon Brando, as soon as he came to Hollywood, achieved an instant fame, virtually unrivalled in the history of cinema – a persona shaped as much by his phenomenal acting talent as his rebelliousness. And so his role as Paul, the grieving widower who strikes up a torrid affair with said young Parisian girl, Jeanne, he’s shattering his image and daring his audience to hate him.

The character of Paul is one of the most self-destructive characters in cinema history. Like Nicolas Cage’s drunken death wish character in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, without saying those exact words, is on a collision course with death. In the magnificent opening shot we see Bertolucci’s camera push in on Paul screaming in pain. We’ll eventually come to learn that his wife had recently and inexplicably committed suicide. As he wanders aimlessly through the fabulous Parisian portico a spry young girl (Maria Schneider) skips on by. He’s instantly attracted to her carefree innocence, and so when they meet coincidentally in an empty rental apartment the thick sexual energy hanging in the air cause them to break out into spontaneous fornication.

As directed by Bertolucci, the sex is rough, dirty, sloppy, Paul barely even taking his clothes off, feebly fumbling to ‘stick it in her’, and then falling helplessly on the ground after climaxing. Never had we seen sex on screen like that – so unromantic, so primal.

This is the energy which moves the film forward. With very little traditional plot, Bertolucci achieves a heightened state of emotional transcendence, a flow of feelings and gestures fuelled by the energy of the two characters as well as the energy of the city of Paris. Much of the dialogue between Brando and Schneider is improvised, and arguably, not even improvised very well. We can see Brando even struggling to find words to express his character’s feelings. Paul’s admonition to Jeanne against using names with each other for instance, is an awkward scene, but with a rawness that captivates as much as it confounds.

Outside the apartment, movement is important. We rarely see Paul and Jeanne together, but when Jeanne plays around with her filmmaker boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Leaud) or when Paul performs the tasks of closing off her wife's estate, the characters seem to be in perpetual motion. And in time with Bertolucci’s expressive camera, stylistically the film flows like a couple of dancers moving in perfect synchronicity.

In 1973 we find Bernardo Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro working together at the height of the creativity. Perhaps less so with Storaro whose career flourished into the 1990’s but for Bertolucci, who can argue against his command of the camera in both ‘The Conformist’ (1971) and ‘Last Tango in Paris’ as nothing short of perfection? Bertolucci elegantly moves his camera to enhance the emotions of the actors, which lives and breathes as much as his characters. His colour palette, aided by Storaro’s lighting and Philippe Turloe’s art direction, finds even more depth in the character’s lives. Take the costuming of Paul and Jeanne. In their first sexual encounter Paul is wearing a dark tan overcoat, which virtually blends into the colour scheme of the apartment while Jeanne’s white furry jacket in contrast stands out as a freshly bloomed flower in a world pain and suffering.

While ‘The Conformist’ was clearly a ‘director’s movie’, Bertolucci freely gives up “Last Tango in Paris” to Brando alone. As mentioned above, from the day Brando first set foot on either a theatrical stage or a studio stage he’s had an aura of innate talent for the art of performance. His talent is not so much in the characterization, or even emotion, but a screen magnetism which cannot be taught or bottled. Even in Brando’s worst movies – ie. virtually the entire decade of the 60’s was one bomb after bomb – he is captivating. In “Last Tango” he is at his most alluring. Bertolucci and his cinematographer maximize this star power for greatest effect. And so, even when Marlon Brando says ‘pass the butter’ then sodomizes Maria Schneider using we never hate him for it, but pity him and never cease to love him.

Last Tango in Paris is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, sadly coinciding with Maria Schneider's death just a few weeks ago

Thursday, 24 February 2011

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) dir. Woody Allen
Starring: Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Gemma Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

There’s nothing to really dislike about this picture, but the fact it’s Woody Allen and another film in a mostly continuous string of forgettable features in the past 15 years or so, it's a mostly frustrating film to watch.

If Woody Allen’s name weren’t on this picture, I might have thought this was an extended episode of some HBO television show. Certainly nothing big screen worthy or even remotely comparable to his body of work in the 70’s and 80’s.

Woody’s warring couple in this one is Sally and Roy Channing. Sally (Watts) an underachieving art curator who’s recent got her foot in the door getting coffee and lunch for an esteemed Museum director (Banderas), Roy (Brolin), her hubby, is a self-centred failed author who desperately needs his latest book to find a publisher. There’s also Sally’s mother and father Helena (Jones)and Alfie (Hopkins), recently separately and both silently competing with the each other to move on with their lives.

As the title suggests, each of the characters will find new love, which will test the inner moral fortitude of each of the characters. For Roy, he becomes smitten with a young gal living in an adjacent building, Sally is tempted by the flirtations of her boss, Alfie starts dating a prostitute after showering her with lavish gifts and poor Helena, jealous of Alfie’s arm candy, finds the most promising love affair after drowning her sorrows in the false hope of a fortune teller.

This is a phoned-in film, Woody fails to truly put his characters through the ringer like he did in his far and away best picture in 15 years, Match Point, wherein Allen puts Jonathan Rhys-Meyers through excrutiatingly painful journey of love, sex and murder, Roy and Alfie only receive a light dusting.

It’s the usual whimsical tone of Allen here, dramatic conflict and humour in equal amounts, but light as air, and ultimately unexceptional and unmemorable. The best character is Roy, played with delight by Josh Brolin, who proves he can do just about anything right now. He’s a classic Allen character, egotistical but wholly juvenile and subject to the whims of his libido. His career trajectory provides a rather fun punchline to his shameless actions against his poor and suffering wife – a devious black comedic moment which reminds us of the only inspired moment of the past 15 years of Woody, the treachery of Rhys-Meyers in Match Point. If Woody mined the drama and suspense from Roy’s final moment he could have had a movie on par with Match Point.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

48 Hours

48 Hours (1982) dir, Walter Hill
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Nick Nolte, James Remar, Sonny Landham, Frank McRae

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Co-written by prolific action scribes/directors Steven E. De Souza, Roger Spottiswoode, and Walter Hill, this film acts like a template for 80’s action cinema. Buddy conflict 101 which begat other franchises such as Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys and lesser knock offs.

Here we have gruff cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) paired up with a wily and charasmatic con Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) hunting down a cop killer and recent prison escapee who’s made off with Reggie's car and a briefcase full of cash.

It’s the buddy cop formula par excellence, one black, one white with much racial conflict dividing the two; we also have Frank McRae as the vein-pulsating chief at odds with Jack’s hot dog style of policing spouting now cliched dialogue like “If you screw up, I promise you you’re going down” (that's direct quote) a role he'd later lampoon in John McTiernan's Last Action Hero. We also find a compendium of 80’s thematic fixtures, obscenely foul mouthed characters, high body count, mondo bullet squib work, misogynistic attitudes to women and some 80’s titties added for good measure. We can find strange admiration for these genre elements which started a long and successful trend in Hollywood, but what we can’t find humour in is the shameful racial conflict which fuels much of the humour in this film.

The N-word is flung around much too casually it comes off as embarrassing as Eddie Murphy's AIDS rant in his Delirious stand up routine. In particular, the redneck bar sequence wherein Jack and Reggie search out accomplices to their suspect. in this scene Reggie is looked upon as if he entered a KKK rally, and the n-word insults he endures for sake of comedy is atrocious. Of course Reggie has the last laugh as he single-handily disarms the entire bar. But it’s part of the general exploitation of racial stereotypes which permeates every part of this film.

What we can admire is the film's place in the filmography of Walter Hill’s, his most successful film. Hill was simply one of the best directors of action in the late 70’s through the early 90’s. Once a protege of Sam Peckinpah’s Hill brought the same tough Western sensibilities of Peckinpah’s to modern period films such as Johnny Handsome, The Driver, and Extreme Prejudice.

Look for some of Hill’s stylistic hallmarks, including strong nighttime photography (when much of this film takes place). The look fits in well with the prevailing visual style of the times: soft and well lit blueish backgrounds and rainwashed streets reflecting the coloured neon brings to mind Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Michael Mann’s Thief and later Walter Hill’s own Streets of Fire.

Not only was this an early Joel Silver production, the film also featured an early score by James Horner (Aliens, Braveheart, Titanic). But instead of his now familiar orchestral melodies, Horner delivers a tough jazzy score using synthesizers and steel drums. Though it dates the film it represents the musical trends of the day in the best light possible.

Looking past the obscenities, 48 Hours serves chiefly as an Eddie Murphy vehicle, his first film outside of Saturday Night Live, and indeed it showcases his rapid-fire comedic skills and on screen charisma.

48 Hours is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Inside Job

Inside Job (2010) dir. Charles Ferguson
Documentary

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Though I work in the film industry and write this film blog, I actually have a degree in economics. From my very first econ course back in school we were aware of the concept of ‘deadweight loss’. This is a calculation of profit loss due to market inefficiency, which in real world terms means price controls and any other regulated markets in the economy. This was ingrained in our minds from high school all the way up to university.

This is also the heart of the problem with the collapse of the US (and thus, global) financial markets, which Charles Ferguson makes so clear in his incendiary, comprehensive and really, the last word, on this monumental financial disaster of recent years.

There’s a palpable sense of anger from Ferguson, a filmmaker, who must have poured though reams and reams of unintelligible figures, pages of dry research papers and really heavy university textbooks in order to understand what happened. As he questions and confronts some of the smartest and craftiest men in the world, we can hear Ferguson in the background admirably go toe to toe. And now his work is our benefit, and worth much much more than the $13.00 or less it will cost to see this movie.

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

His approach reminds me of Spike Lee’s comprehensive and final word on the Katrina disaster When the Levees Broke. Inside Job has the same desperate need and desire to find the truth and expose one of the world’s worst acts of conspiracy and criminality.

Ferguson applies a distinct cinematic approach to the film. It’s evident in the opening scenes. First a prologue telling the story of Iceland’s financial collapse, which occurred remotely on its own before the US collapse, a kind of warning sign not unlike the Easter Island parable to today’s current environmental crisis. Then there’s a lengthy credit sequence featuring freeze frames and soundbites of the numerous executives, government wonks, professors etc who will appear in the film.

This background and tonal build up is key to making sense of what’s to come.As narrated by Matt Damon, Ferguson systematically breaks down all the details of exactly what the fuck happened. All the way back to the 1930’s through the prosperity in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s to the series of collapses in the 80’s and 90’s which led to that fateful week of Sept 2008 when everything went bankrupt.

Despite Ferguson’s careful use of graphics and charts to help make clear, what the hell credit default swaps, or CDOs etc. There’s just so much information we have to process, it’s difficult to keep up even for an economics grad. But I was also reminded of Oliver Stone’s JFK, where the overkill of information actually helped prove his point of the complexity of government, business and wealth which helped effect the assassination of JFK.

We’re not meant to understand every detail in Inside Job, and it’s all there for those attentive and smart enough to understand it on the first go. But he never loses sight of the big picture, which isn‘t lost on the less-economically inclined. The recurring theme is simply - greed - the need for the individuals on Wall Street and Washington to grab that piece of deadweight loss and put it into their own pockets.

Many of the key players refuse to give interviews, all of which are noted as text in the film. Their silence speaks volumes though, which is how they managed to get away with it all. The villains he does manage to interview are typically smarmy and evasive, which furthers the frustration of the entire affair. These guys are so smart there’s actually little criminal activity going during this period. Which is the most frightening aspect, is that the collapse was all legal, which makes the title of this film absolutely perfect. This is fantastic film.

Inside Job is available Blu-Ray and DVD March 5 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Monday, 21 February 2011

Bambi

Bambi (1942) dir. David S. Hand
Animated voices by: Hardie Albright, Stan Alexander, Peter Behn, Tim Davis, Donnie Dunagan

****

By Alan Bacchus

In terms of Disney chronology, by release date, Bambi was Disney’s fifth feature film, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio and Dumbo, but more importantly, it was the last in the remarkable ‘Golden Age of Animation’. If John Ford made an animated film it might be this one, a tender and dreamy romanticization of the majestic North American forest and wilderness.

Bambi's closest relative in the Disney canon might just be Fantasia, more an visual/tonal essay than a traditional fairytale or other narrative story. There’s very little story to be told at all here, instead, using a dance of image, sounds and music Disney shows us the cycle of life of the creatures of the forest, specifically the majestic deer.

Over the course of four seasons we see the titular Bambi, birthed by her mother into the ecosystem of rabbits, skunks, birds under cover of the enormous trees which look upon these animals. As each season passes, Bambi moves through each stage in his lifecycle, learning to walk, playing with friends, learning the pack hierarchy of his fellow deer, and even procreating for the next generation.

Disney compartmentalizes his scenes in distinct set pieces not unlike Fantasia. The magical work of the handdrawn animators is exquisite, the ice-skating sequence for instance, each movement of Thumper's to teach Bambi how to stand and move on the ice in time with the music creates a touching and delightful dance. Tonally Disney masterfully moves the audience between moments of pure cuddly cuteness to dark and heavy emotional turmoil. The death of Bambi’s mother is a legendary moment in animation – a scene which has stayed with all of us who watched it as children. Looking back with adult eyes, it feels a lot different, quicker than I had remembered. In fact we don’t even see the mother die, the moment is played entirely off screen, leaving us only with Bambi's heartbreaking tear rolling down his face to tell us what happened. A moment so powerful it ranks up with Chaplin’s smile at the end of City Lights in terms of tearjerking moments in cinema.

In between Disney takes time to craft a number of scenes of just pure visual delight. The storm sequence for instance feels right out of Fantasia, and the stag sequence, that is, the running of the male deer through across the plains is like Howard Hawks' cattle stampede sequence in Red River, or the Buffalo Hunt in Dances With Wolves.

It’s interesting to note on the Disney Diamond Edition Blu-Ray, the year of the film’s original release is never stated. Obviously it's a conscious choice by the studio to not place Bambi in a specific era, literally creating a timelessness to its products. Indeed although children may notice differences in animation styles between now and then, Bambi is a film for the ages, adaptable for each new generation. Disney has always done this well, timing their re-releases of their films so that each time it comes back on the market it’s as if we’re all seeing it again for the first time.

Bambi is available on Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Home Entertainment


Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Time That Remains

The Time That Remains (2009) Dir. Elia Suleiman
Starring: Elia Suleiman, Saleh Bakri, Samar Qudha Tamus, Shafika Bajiali and Tarek Qubti.

****

By Greg Klymkiw

I was initially unable to put my finger on it, but I knew there was something quite perfect about Elia Suleiman’s “The Time That Remains”. It became abundantly clear during an extraordinary scene wherein a group of Palestinian children are sitting in a dark classroom within the confines of an Israeli-colonized Arab School as their wide-eyes are utterly transfixed upon the flickering images emanating from a rickety 16mm projector. The pieces of time dancing before them, projected onto a tiny screen, yet retaining a scope bigger than life itself are none other than the sprawling spectacle of the Stanley Kubrick-directed epic “Spartacus” – Hollywood’s ultimate big-screen allegory of Zionism. It is this scene that precisely defines the perfection of Suleiman’s great film for a number of reasons. First of all, the scene flawlessly demonstrates the differences in approaches to the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “Spartacus” is, of course allegorical and an epic tale of subjugation presented with all that money can buy. “The Time That Remains” is also an epic, but with comparatively meagre resources, it focuses – not on spectacle, but on the smaller, more confined details of humanity in the realm of subjugation. Secondly, the scene demonstrates the perfection of Suleiman’s delicate, poetic and quiet approach to the subject, in direct contrast to the violent, spectacular bombast of Kubrick’s picture which, in fairness to Kubrick is an exquisitely directed gun-for-hire job and not the personal, poetic, from-the-heart and primarily autobiographical approach that Suleiman takes. As well, Suleiman shares with Kubrick that magnificent stylistic approach to the tableau – finding just the right composition and holding on it. Thirdly, the scene expresses the notion that all cinema, no matter what side of the political fence it sits on, is rooted firmly in some form or another of a perspective that is almost always propagandistic in nature. “The Time That Remains” takes a side and sticks to it in a black and white manner with an occasional splash of grey in order to present its tale of subjugation with an equal mixture of sadness and humour.

Set against the backdrop of the city of Nazareth, the film charts the life of a simple, loving Palestinian family from 1948 to the present day and is delivered to us in a number of different time periods. Based on his father’s diaries and his own recollections, Suleiman presents the lives of his family, friends and neighbourhood and examines the absurdity and injustice of people being forced to live as strangers in their own land. In fact, the Palestinians who choose to remain in Nazareth instead of being exiled are categorized by their oppressors – not as Palestinians, but as Israeli-Arabs. Suleiman presents all of this with a strange mixture of humour and tragedy. In one scene – which is as beautiful as it is bizarre – the same group of children described above are seen proudly singing a rousing, pro-Israeli song in Hebrew on a national holiday while a group of adults look on proudly. In yet another, a group of young Palestinian men sit outside a café in the blazing sun and watch with a poker-faced bemusement as a soldier runs back and forth, occasionally asking which way he should go to the battlefield and when told which way to go, he argues that it must be the wrong way – especially since the sounds of battle seem to be coming from every which way. Another scene involves Israeli soldiers decked out in Arab gear and marching along the street when a Palestinian woman congratulates them on their victory. She receives a bullet to the head for her salutations in a shocking, deadpan and screamingly funny manner – recalling that famous moment (in of all movies) “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when Indiana Jones casually blows away the sword-wielding turban-adorned bad guy.

Since Suleiman’s film spans several different periods and doesn’t follow (on the surface) the traditional and comfortable storytelling checkpoints, it’s not an easy movie to describe in terms of plot, but in a nutshell – it is a story that begins with resistance to subjugation, moves through to acceptance of subjugation and ends up in a seemingly ambiguous place of “Where am I?” While the narrative feels unconventional, Suleiman does indeed adhere to the principles of basic storytelling, but cleverly masks them to create the feeling that with the passage of time, not much changes. In spite of this, things DO change, but the changes are incremental and subtle.

The primary reason for this overwhelming sense of the unconventional is that Suleiman establishes a rhythm and structure early on in the film and adheres to it passionately – one that involves the repetition of certain actions and situations – the funniest being one in which the family’s neighbour, a mad old man, unsuccessfully and repeatedly attempts to immolate himself, dousing himself with kerosene and lighting his match improperly, and upon subsequent tries is continually talked out of it by Suleiman’s father.

As a character in the film, we also follow Suleiman who, in the early portions casts some extraordinary look-alikes to play himself in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood before taking over the role proper in the latter sections of the film. Suleiman and his surrogates continue his silent Keaton-like poker face from earlier films to especially powerful effect in this new picture.

Many have commented on Suleiman’s debt to the likes of Keaton, Harry Langdon and Jacques Tati and while I will not quarrel with this, I also feel strongly that he infuses his work and performance with the same sublime qualities so prevalent in the best work of Chaplin. “The Time That Remains” has several moments that come close to matching the incredible emotional wallop of Chaplin’s final smile at the end of “City Lights” and this is finally why watching this film is such a breathless and awe-inspiring experience.

The Time That Remains” might well be a masterpiece, though time, as always, will be the ultimate judge of that.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Assessing the Social Network/King's Speech Battle

So you have your Oscar pool voting sheet in front you and can't decide between The King's Speech and The Social Network? I've been thinking about it too.

After the string of Critics’s Awards at the end of 2010, The Social Network was the clear runaway leader in the Best Picture/Best Director race. Other categories such as actor, actress, supporting and all that jazz were still close, but the Fincher/Rudin/Sorkin dream team were flexing their muscle.

Now with Tom Hooper's rather surprising victory over David Fincher at the DGA Awards for Best Director, suddenly The King’s Speech has gained significant ground, and in some opinions might be the odds leader.

This opinion is not unfounded. I think we all know the track record of how the DGA Award has aligned with the Best Director and thus Best Picture Oscars in previous years. The 2000 Gladiator/Traffic year and the 2002 Chicago/Pianist year were the recent anomalies. As well, the Academy has had a history of chosing prestige older-skewing films over younger/edgier material. The 1990 Dances With Wolves triumph of Goodfellas for instance, the 1989 Driving Miss Daisy victory of Born on the Fourth of July, and the 1980 Ordinary People victory over Raging Bull.

These are travesties of justice, which cinephiles still take to heart. Dances With Wolves, Ordinary People and Driving Miss Daisy are all good movies, and maybe back in the day, seemed better movies that those others. But over the course of time their competitors have risen in prestige and timelessness, arguably above and beyond the Oscar victors.

I wholehearted believe this is such a case this year. I can see it now. The King’s Speech is a great movie, right? So is The Social Network? Doesn’t matter which wins right, because both are terrific films? But think 20 years from now, which film will we still be talking about? Which film will represent the zeitgeist of the times? I think this is painfully clear, and yet there may not be anything to do about it.

That said, in recent years, the tastes of Academy have skewed considerably more to the edge than ever before. Victories of the nihlistic No Country For Old Men and The Departed are two of the toughest films the Academy has ever voted as the top dog. So maybe the Academy will swing back to youthful The Social Network.

If Academy wants to even things out, Original Screenplay and Best Actor wins are assured for The King’s Speech, same with Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network. Other than the cinematography, music, editing type of awards, the only other high profile categories it has are Best Director and Best Picture.

My office pool vote is still undecided.. and what it will likely come down to, as it does every year, is who I think will win versus who I want to win. While it’s not Sophie’s Choice, it’s heartbreaking still the same.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Paranormal Activity 2

Paranormal Activity (2010) dir. Tod Williams
Starring: Sprague Grayden Katie Featherston, Brian Boland, Micah Sloat

***

By Alan Bacchus

This movie is just about as good as it could be. A surprisingly successful and very decent sequel to the now classic found footage indie darling of last year. The filmmakers’ adherence to the techniques and narrative of the first film adds substantial credibility to what could have been seen as a shameless knock-off capitalizing on the original film's brand appeal.

PA2 takes place a couple of months before the original, but in the same city, and with many of the same characters. This time we’re in the house of Kristi Rey, sister to the demonized hero Katie, in the original. Kristi lives with her hubby Daniel, teenaged daughter Ali and super cute toddler, Hunter. After their house appears to have been vandalized, the Reys set up some security cameras around the house.

Of course these cameras, as well as Ali’s camcorder become the ‘found footage’ used to construct this faux documentary. Night by night, mysterious paranormal phenomenon scares the bejebees out of the family. Young impressionable Ali believes wholeheartedly the house is haunted, slowly mom Kristi, becomes a believer, Daniel, despite evidence in the recorded videos remains a sceptic. Katie and Micah from the first movie shows up from time to time to visit, dropping hints her and the family history with hauntings.

For the majority of the film Williams builds the same kind of nail biting tension as Oren Peli did from watching those bland security videos. Even in complete stillness when nothing is happening we find ourselves riveted to those frames. Williams mines fantastic suspense with little sound, or movement, just the anticipation of the worst. Like Peli, when Williams holds on those frames for inordinate amounts of time, as audience members, we finds ourselves scanning the image for movements, in the windows, the doors, the furniture. It’s Peli who deserves all the credit for tapping into this primal reaction of ours to this kind of fear and Williams smartly doesn’t fool with the formula. Healso admirably expands the scope, using several security angles, which results in a more visuals to stimulate us, while staying true to the realism of the set-up.

But as the father of a 16-month old, the aspect of PA2 which got under my skin is the presence of young Hunter, the little boy of similar age to mine who is completely oblivious to the haunting, though often reacts to the unseen paranormal presence. With a child in the picture, the stakes suddenly becomes elevated another notch. While Micah from the first film seemed to get his comeuppance for his egotism and male chauvinism, Hunter, is a pure innocent, who, according to the story’s internal mythology is meant to suffer from the sins of the family’s past.

The action-oriented third act, admittedly is silly and fails the picture, but not enough to dismiss the marvellous spine-tingling lead up and broadening of this now legitimate horror film franchise. Just how much more dramatized 'found footage' will be too much? Tough to say, but by the end of this picture, I wouldn’t mind seeing another.

Paranormal Activity 2 is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Exiles

The Exiles (1961) dir, Kent McKenzie
Starring: Mary Donahue, Homer Nish, Clydean Parker, Tom Reynolds, Rico Rodriguez

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The reputation of Kent McKenzie’s “The Exiles” precedes it. The famous USC student film about aboriginal youths living in Los Angeles was often discussed as a landmark film in American independent film, yet its inaccessibility, and lack of a video release made the film kind of a myth. The expertly assembled special edition from Milestone Films does justice to this cinematic treasue.

Made and set in 1961, “the Exiles” is a time capsule of the era, without nostalgic hindsight and told with largely amateur actors and in real locations, the film becomes an authentic depiction of 1960's youth run wild.

McKenzie, with documentary-like realism, follows 12 hours in the lives of a group of aboriginals who have chosen to leave their reservation to live among the white people in the area of LA known as Bunker Hill. It’s a Friday night and the group of 4 or 5 youthful and rambunctious men decide go out for a night on the town. Their journey involves boozing, fighting, driving recklessly and doing whatever it takes to pick up women. Unfortunately poor Mary, the innocent and pregnant wife of one of the men is forced to stay home and wander in aimless loneliness throughout the night. In particular, McKenzie's cuts from the boys’ high speed convertible drunk-driving to Mary sitting alone in a movie theatre is earth shattering.

Narratively the film doesn't adhere to traditional character arcs or the needs of conventional storytelling. All McKenzie needs to do is observe the behaviour of his characters for us to figure out the 300-year long arc of despair of the aboriginal people. The effect of the city of Los Angeles on the youth in the film is embodied by Homer, the drunken gambler who left Mary alone at home, the energy of the nightlife acting like the inebriating and soul-sucking effects of alcohol on the Aboriginals’ society at large.

This blanket of sadness, clouds the entire picture, with a sense of inevitable doom. The effectively morose narration which reveals the characters’ inner thoughts sound like documentary voiceover - insightful and often unemotive revelations which don’t necessarily relate directly to the images on screen but expresses a contrasting tone of intelligent self-reflection against the drunken, testosterone fueled irresponsibility.

The high contrast black and white transfer is pristine and stunning. The night time exterior lighting is simply phenomenal capturing the bright lights of Los Angeles with authentic vibrancy - a look which echoes Haskell Wexler's great work on 'American Graffiti'.

The film is by no means as polished as Graffiti though and the rough 'indie' aesthetic aids in its gritty realism. McKenzie’s tone of New Wave authenticity is reminiscent of not only early Godard, but the great Canadian neorealist indie 'Nobody Waved Goodbye'.

It resonates best in the big picture - a powerful statement about Aboriginal socio-economic and racial politics, and a remarkably poignant story of the troubled integration of all marginalized people into the social fabric of white middle class-dominated American life.

“The Exiles” is available on DVD from Milestone Films.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Get Low

Get Low (2010) dir. Aaron Schneider
Starring: Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Sissy Spacek, Gerald McRaney

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

There’s a strong whiff of the Coens Brothers through most of Get Low – Aaron Schneider's indie success from last year, the story of an old hermit who organizes his own funeral as a means of repenting for the sins of his past. The staid anachronistic tone, golden brown cinematography and dead pan humour reminds of the Coens at the most idiosyncratic – A Serious Man, Barton Fink, et al.

Robert Duvall plays Felix Bush, a ragged hermit, who for 40 years has lived in isolation in the outskirts of a rural 1930’s Tennessee town. As a result much gossip and rumours of Bush, who wears an intimidating scraggly beard and blown out hair, has grown. One day he walks into a church, first contact in many years with the outside world, and asks about how to arrange his own funeral – not when he’s dead, but now.

For Buddy (Lucas Black) a young funeral home worker, it becomes a chance to bring in some business for his opportunistic boss Frank Quinn (Bill Murray). With less people dying these days and with them badly in need of money they accept the job and go about Felix’s demand to bring as many people to his wake to tell stories about the man. So what’s eating Felix? A complicated backstory emerges of guilt and regret involving an old friend played by Sissy Spacek, a history which requires Felix to repent and find peace with the people he’s hurt.

While there may have been influences by the Coens it’s an impressive achievement for a new director, as it appears from outset he’s found a unique but familiar voice. The dark comedic tones, absurd concept and American hinterland setting contributes to the gothic fairytale quality.

It’s a meaty role Duvall who relishes every bit of business he can milk from the character. It’s not quite the dream matchup we hoped from the casting of Bill Murray opposite Duvall. Their scenes together are fun but understated, consistent with the tone of the rest of the film. Lucas Black turns in another sympathetic role. He was of course a former child actor, plucked from obscurity by Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. He’s matured well into a legitimate adult actor, but still with the same aw-schucks Ozark charm he had when he was a little boy.

Looking into Schneider’s bio, it’s not surprising he started out as a cinematographer and lighting technician, the experience of which he has obviously put into Get Low. The film is beautiful, shot in the increasingly rare 35mm anamorphic format. The compressed and then expanded image we get from the camera lenses results in a distinct epic feel, with lovely textured backgrounds. The lighting is also exquisite, delicate and controlled.

Get Low is unfortunately too heavy on visuals and tone propping up a script to sparse to connect with deeper than the aesthetic level, the emotional juice of which is concentrated into one revelatory scene at the end, by which time the film has used up its welcome. But overall, an admirable effort from Schneider to showcase Duvall again in all his iconic glory.

Get Low is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Thelma and Louise

Thelma and Louise (1991) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Susan Sarandan, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald

****

By Alan Bacchus

Thelma and Louise, when first released was a big hit, deservedly nominated for several Oscars. After a series of middle-of-the-road but mostly disappointing films post-Blade RunnerT&L was kind of like Ridley Scott’s comeback film. Looking back the film survives well over the past 10 years or so. With today’s eyes it’s better than I had remembered, a passionate feminist road movie, and the best of a rather large batch of similar films from the 1990’s Tarantino-era.

Ridley Scott adapts well to the rural sundrenched southern locales of Oklahoma, finding complete authenticity in the world of Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise Susan Sarandan), two girlfriends who embark on two–day fishing trip away from their husbands. After their first stop at a dingy country bar Louise shoots and kills a drunkard attempting to rape Louise. From there, they are on the road on the run from the police.

There’s a reason this film is discussed so prominently by script gurus like Robert McKee, Callie Khouri’s screenplay is the closest thing to perfection - structurally perfect, like the Parthenon. Khouri hits all the right dramatic beats without having the film feel stale or predictable.

The characterization of the two spry gals makes for supremely engaging banter and conflict even outside of the big picture threats on their lives. Susan Sarandan as the elder gal, with years of emotional baggage behind her, a cynical attitude of men and the police is born from a rich backstory which is never quite made known to us. Louise is expertly drawn as well. Her carefee instincts run counter to Louise’s pessimistic and pragmatic outlook on their stituation.

Supporting characters are terrific, scene stealers popping up periodically in every scene, but who never overshadow the leads. The Brad Pitt role of course is a celebrated introduction to a future movie star. Harvey Keitel’s ‘comeback’ as the sympathetic cop Slocumb trailing the gals plays out as an emotional parallel story unto itself. As Slocumb gets closer to the girls and reconstructs these two characters from his investigation, we can feel the admiration and familial love between these characters who never meet. Christopher MacDonald is hilarious as the affable but cruel domineering husband. More importantly Scott populates his scenes with the most genuine and colourful background players, full of piss, vinegar and good old country charm.

These characters compliment the typically rich and textured visual design from Scott. Thelma and Louise is no exception. Though not overly decorated as in some of his other films, it's stylishly cool without being overbearing.

We saw a rash of these throwback crime spree road movies in the early 90's. Thelma and Louise may just have been an influence into Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance script. Other than the connection of the brothers Scott directing each picture and the casting link-ups with future QT players Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen and Brad Pitt both scripts portray the same kind of passionate melodramatic storytelling and a thorough knowledge of the history of the genre.

After Alien and Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise is undoubtedly Scott next best film and a tier above anything else he’s done.

Thelma and Louise is available on Blu-Ray from Fox/MGM Home Entertainment

Monday, 14 February 2011

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom (2010) dir. David Michôd
Starring: James Frecheville, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Jacki Weaver

***½

By Alan Bacchus

This is the second time seeing Animal Kingdom, now on DVD/Blu, over a year since I first saw it in Sundance. It was a special screening, an inspiring Aussie crime film made with the same auteur-like precision as Michael Mann and Paul Thomas Anderson. Second time round, it feels like a slightly different picture, a slower paced, meditative crime film, but no less enjoyable. It's still not a masterpiece, but an indication that one or two masterpieces will come from this new director.  

Director Michôd wears his influences proudly on his sleeve, the aforementioned Mann and Anderson and even the new crime epic from Jacques Audiard, “A Prophet“. “Animal Kingdom” is an Aussie crime tour de force of its own, an elegant saga worthy of the same breath as these filmmakers and their own great films.

James Frecheville is Joshua ‘J’ Cody, Michod’s Henry Hill, or Michael Corleone or Malik from “A Prophet“, who enters the film wet behind the ears and exits the film a stone cold killer. We first see him watching Aussie game shows on TV while his overdosed mother lies dead on the couch. With nowhere to go he calls up his grandmother to ask what to do. And so J joins up with his estranged family of criminals, who up until then had been kept separate from him by his mother. There are his three uncles, including Baz (Joel Edgerton), the paternal leader, and the lady MacBeth mother of the group J’s grandmother (Jacki Weaver). Later, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) the most wanted and dangerous member of the family arrives and plots vengeance against the police Armed Robbery Squad which has instigated an all out bloody war against the family.

Though we’re in present day Melbourne, Michôd crafts his world like the lawless west. J, the innocent, is thrown into the deep end of a precarious band of thieves. Under the leadership of Baz, the group is a disciplined family unit, under Pope’s command, he’s like Sonny Corleone leading the family into doom. J’s torn allegiances remind us of Clint Eastwood playing both sides of the gang war in A Fistful of Dollars.

As a first feature Michôd is clear to project his own cinematic style. His character-work seems to channel the films of Michael Mann. His portrayal of his characters as family members first and criminals second has the same natural realism Mann adds to his genre pictures. Even Michôd’s sound work and musical score is reminiscent of Mann’s ambient atmospheric soundscapes. Like Mann, Michôd's music overlaps and bridges scenes an effect which keeps the characters closely tied together.

He would appear to be a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, who like PTA, is not ashamed to slow down and admire his own work. Michôd consciously lingers closely on his best shots, emphasizing the most minor of moments for heightened dramatic effect. At one point his camera moves around to reveal Pope ogling J’s girlfriend sleeping on the couch. The ironic Air Supply song which plays in the background has no real motivation being there, yet it works as the same kind of dramatic counterpoint as PTA’s firecraker scene set to Sister Christian in ‘Boogie Nights’.

Admirably Michôd props up his admittedly thin narrative for the first two thirds with these extravagances. Under less capable hands these moments would reek of overindulgence, but Michôd's tone is consistently on the mark and thus we can appreciate these cinematic expressions as tools of a great auteur filmmaker.

The characterization of J as a naive teenager, mouth-agape and detached from everything around him is never reconciled. It's the biggest crutch on the film. This aloofness conflicts with the big picture stakes and quells any intensity which is badly needed in the third act. After attending Sundance for the past three year, the problem of pacing always seems to be common denominator with first features. Recently I keep going back to David O Russell's The Fighter when referencing pace, a terrific film which has ebbs and flows in dramatic intensity, comedy, and tragedy - Animal Kingdom has one note (albeit a terrific, pitch perfect note), but something which experience and maturity will correct.

Animal Kingdom is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from EOne Entertainment in Canada

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Snow Angels


Snow Angels (2008) dir. David Gordon Green
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Michael Angarano, Olivia Thirlby, Griffin Dunne

**

By Alan Bacchus

Before he even reached 30, David Gordon Green has delivered three unique and personal auteur films, “George Washington”, “All the Real Girls” and “Undertow”. Unfortunately “Snow Angels” is his first failure – a depressing small-town character film represents a new benchmark in the ‘life sucks’ genre of films.

Snow Angels”, based on the Stewart O’Nan’s novel of the same name, is set in small town Pennsylvania. It’s a depressed environment inhabited by depressed people. There’s Annie (Kate Beckinsale), a separated single mom working a dead end job as a waitress in a crappy diner. Annie’s separated husband is Glenn (Sam Rockwell) who’s even farther down in the dumps, living with his parents, jobless and recovering from a suicide attempt. Arthur Parkinson’s (Michael Angarano) parents are also going through separation, which has him in the dumps as well. Arthur's only respite is a burgeoning high school crush with a cute wallflower Lila (Olivia Thirlby). A local tragedy sends these characters into further despair which will eventually result in violence and more tragedy.

I appreciate a little of bit depression on screen. If it provokes proper emotional response, the film has done its job. But depression has to be part of the ebb and flow of the narrative and play against emotions of joy and happiness. But in “Snow Angels” things start low and get lower and lower and lower, until in the very end the actions of the characters are so dire and destructive, it becomes an exercise in torture.

Green has an affinity for ‘regular people’ in America – the working and underrepresented classes. And in “Snow Angels” his actors deliver these natural unHollywood performances. I think everyone knows one or more people like Glenn. Sam Rockwell plays him as a man who may have been one of the popular guys in high school, and even wedded the hottest girl in school. But without drive and motivation, success in life never moved past the scope of the town. I appreciate Rockwell as an actor, but he’s a scenery-chewer and in this film his reliance on mumbling speech and ‘actor’s business’ is especially distracting. In the second half of the film when things start to go really bad, Green turns Glenn from a natural character to movie character. He’s given no less than three rambling drunkard scenes, which essentially ruin the film. Kate Beckinsale gives a fine performance as Annie. And even though she’s still stunning beneath the atrocious outfits she has to wear, she is believable as the confused mother.

The film fails in the third act when the film goes into darker places it doesn’t need to go. After the tragedy the film has an opportunity to build back up its characters. Instead they are agonizingly beaten down to such disparity the film becomes as torturous to the audience as the characters.






Saturday, 12 February 2011

All the President's Men


All the President’s Men (1976) dir. Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford

****

By Alan Bacchus

All the President’s Men is a film that will stand to the test of time as the quintessential political thriller. Yet, it’s a work of surprising matter-of-fact simplicity.

The film is based on the best-selling book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on how they broke the story of the Watergate Scandal. Woodward and Bernstein are the main characters, two young hungry journalists from the Washington Post trying to uncover a scandal involving a break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the famed Watergate Hotel. They quickly learn the break-in was not a simple burglary but an elaborately-planned wiretapping scheme organized by the Committee to Re-elect the President (appropriately acronymed, C.R.E.E.P.). Woodward and Bernstein unravel the conspiracy by tracing the cause and effect up the political chain all the way to the President’s office.

The title is appropriate because the film is a series of ‘connect-the-dots’ to solve the puzzle. One man’s information leads to another man, who leads to another man and so on and so on. These are the “President’s men”, whose the orders of an anxious President trickled down to his subordinates and caused such heinous crimes against the democratic system.

We learn a lot about the procedures and workmanship of journalists in a CSI-like procedural fashion. It’s fascinating. The telephone proves to be a powerful weapon for the journalists. Many of characters we don’t even see, only hear through the multitude of phone calls from Woodward and Bernstein. We learn of their techniques to gain credible information, yet keep the identities of their sources safe. It’s also a little history lesson in investigative journalism before the age of the internet and the cell phone. For a good companion piece to this, also watch Michael Mann’s The Insider.

The newsroom is exciting, the constant sound of typing, printing, ringing telephones, televisions, and news chatter permeate the working environment. Gordon Willis’ camera follows the characters across the expansive room, moving through cubicles like a football player towards the endzone.

All the actors are in top form and perfectly cast, Redford with his charm and suave good manners allows him to cut straight to the point, Hoffman portrays Bernstein like a bull, who’ll get the information he wants no matter what. The great character actor, the late Jack Warden, brings working-class humour to his role as their department head, and Jason Robards is perfect as the consummate editor-in-chief, who supports his staff to the end, but from whom he demands the absolute best work.

All the President’s Men breaks many rules of conventional filmmaking, other than telling a good story. There is no action or fighting or death, there’s no physical antagonists, no subplots, no romantic relationships, and the main characters don’t arc in traditional ways, in fact, we don’t learn anything about their lives, they are simply instruments to uncover the facts. But these facts are like daggers, because we all know the stakes and the damage caused by the actions of these men. Despite these anomalies the film is suspenseful, dramatic and gripping from beginning to end.

All the President's Men is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment

Friday, 11 February 2011

Conviction

Conviction (2010) dir. Tony Goldwyn
Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher, Ele Bardha

***

By Alan Bacchus

It’s a clever double-meaning for the title, Conviction, referencing both the result of Kenny Water’s arrest and trial for a 1984 murder of a former babysitter, as well as his sister Betty Anne’s long fight and internal fortitude to exhonerate Kenny from his seemingly wrongful sentence.

We’re in the increasingly popular world of working class Massachussets (ie. The Fighter, Gone Baby Gone, The Town, The Departed). Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), a loose cannon n’er-do-well is arrested for murder of a former babysitter. He beats the rap until two years later he's picked up again for the same crime. This time his wife testifies against him which sends him to life inprisonment. Enter Betty Anne (Hilary Swank), a poor single mother, but with a moral conscientious made of iron, who believes whole-heartedly of her brother’s innocence, something even Kenny seems to doubt.

After realizing she just doesn’t have enough money to pay a lawyer, she decides to go to law school in order to represent Kenny herself. She's fighting for justice both in and out school as well as raising a family. It takes two decades before vital evidence can come to light which might just astonishingly get Kenny out of prison. You’ll have to watch to see what happens.

The timing of all this is important. It was the mid 90’s when DNA evidence first became influential. We even get to see Peter Gallagher play Barry Scheck, the diminutive lawyer on OJ Simpson's trial of the century, who used DNA evidence to get a real murderer off – go figure. Maybe his switch to the side of the right and just, was in response to his manipulative work with OJ.

If this weren’t all true, I’d find it a contrived, unbelievable and overly righteous John Grisham-type story. The idea that Betty Anne could even afford to go to law school let alone get Kenny a lawyer is ridiculous, but it happened. And so knowing this is true we have to accept this as plausible, right?

In many ways some Grisham-ness might have served the film better. Goldwyn stays as far away from salacious melodrama as possible, telling a mostly minimalist and contained story considering the long time frame involved. As such there’s a cable-tv HBO feel to this, not particularly cinematic or big screen worthy. The threat of Betty Anne’s commitment is slight. We’re supposed to feel that her family and her kids are at stake, but everyone is just so well put together we know, no matter what, they will be OK in the end.

Same with Kenny, who is in prison, but exhibits such extreme self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour prison might just be the best place for him. We rarely see him in pain or depression in prison. If anything, he almost seems to enjoy the camraderie.

What sizzles is the procedure of Betty-Anne’s investigation and the big picture journey frmo start to end. It’s turnkey lawyer plotting, Betty Anne digging into old files, revisiting old witnesses and such. I couldn’t help but think of Zodiac, which is the ultimae epitome of criminal procedurals. Conviction is character-based Zodiac. Goldwyn takes his time to show the details of the case, which is fun stuff, but he neither aspires for Zodiac, nor Reversal of Fortune, not even CSI.

Goldwyn pays most of his attention to Ms. Swank and her character Betty Anne. Her journey from lowly single mom to star lawyer is inspiring, and sole reason why this film, despite it’s faults, succeeds.

Conviction is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Wagon Master

Wagon Master (1950) dir. John Ford
Starring: Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Joanne Dru, Ward Bond, James Arness

**

By Alan Bacchus

Warner Bros/TCM has packaged together a fine four-pack collection of somewhat lesser known John Ford westerns. The mix bag includes his second to last film, the epic Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the second entry in the ‘Cavalry Trilogy'.She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); the Magi Story transplanted to the wild west, 3 Godfathers; and this picture, Wagon Master, a non-John Wayne western but reportedly one of Ford’s favourite pictures.

Unfortunately despite Ford’s own preference, it’s not his finest hour. A rare dud, for the most part lacking in the genre elements he helped give birth to and even his stylistic cinematic hallmarks of the rest of his body of work.

Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. play a couple of drifters, Travis and Sandy, hired by a Morman elder to guide his family convoy across the frontier to the San Juan Valley. Along the way the group has run ins with a some prostitutes, a medicine man, some Indians, and a snarly trio of bandits.

In the wild west with hostility threatening at every turn the film sadly feels under-dramatized. We never feel the stakes of the journey, and as protagonists Travis and Sandy fail to undergo any signficant change, or even feel any sacrifice for their decisions in the film.

As the Elder Wiggs, Ford has fun with his moral conflict in dealing with the ‘ladies of the night’ who join the group. Perhaps my indifference to this picture lies with the casting of leads. Without Henry Fonda or John Wayne, Ford's leads fail to rise to become heroes or stars whose personalities jump off the screen.

Even the normally scenic Utah locales lack that 'Fordian'  mythic resonance. The musical songs by Stan Jones as performed by the Sons of the Pioneers recalls their more inspiring work later with Ford on The Searchers, but certainly doesn’t come close to providing the same sense of period romance.

That said, this fine sets two of Ford’s best films, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and 3 Godfathers, both teaming with the resonant genre qualites we desire from his work. I haven’t seen Cheyenne Autumn yet, so look out for a future look back at this picture – a late career epic from a man whose creativity, though it had brief ups and downs, never seemed to age.

Wagon Master is available via Warner Home Entertainment and Turner Classic Movies

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Tillman Story

The Tillman Story (2010) dir. Amir Bar-Lev
Documentary

***½

By Alan Bacchus

At the Super Bowl last weekend among the drawn out ceremonial coverage of the big game was a tribute to the soldiers of the US military – something now commonplace for big events. The moment, orchestrated by the director of the broadcast, featured American flags hanging calmly in the background, a recent medal winner standing respectfully in the endzone, and Troy Aikman and Joe Buck praising the work of all the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. I understand the need to do this. After the ostracizing of the soldiers of Vietnam in the 60's, the collective American public wants to atone for the damage done to those shamed soldiers.

In The Pat Tillman Story, this need to blindly create heroes of the soldiers slides horribly to the side of egregious disrespect and contempt for the wishes of the families of those fallen men and women. The very public story of Pat Tillman, a former NFL football player who quit the league to fight for his country and who was killed by friendly fire in Iraq is comprehensively broken down and analyzed from the point of view of Tillman’s grieving family, who only the desired the truth, but instead were fed lie after lie by the military PR spin controllers.

Director Amir Bar-Lev unveils the story to us carefully, telling us the minute details of the events which led to his death.  He also approaches the events which led to Tillman’s family learning of Tillman’s death and the public hoopla which followed with the same careful consideration. The tragedy of which, considering the miscommunication of the friendly fire shootout, is heartbreaking, but soldiers admit the fog of war can easily create such havoc. The military never covered this up, and the family was even accepting of this sad reality or war, but the need to create a story of deified heroism and to parade their son's image in the name of military rabble-rousing was something they could not stand for.

The key moment of conflict which sends his parents on the two year long odyssey for justice comes when they question the military for more details on the official interpretation of events pertaining to their son’s death. With Tillman already in the public eye the family accuses the military of manufacturing a heroic spin on Tillman’s death in lieu of revealing the true grisly details none of us ever want to hear.

It’s as remarkable a character study as it is an investigative piece. Bar-Lev goes into the young life of Tillman as a rambunctious young boy, one of three brothers in a strong tight-knit family, to his feats of excellence in athletics. The connections of Tillman’s internal fortitude and his physical strength becomes a profound metaphor to his mother and father’s conviction to learn the truth.

The Tillman Story is thus both inspiring and frustrating. Inspiring for Tillman’s parents’ stubborn refusal to accept anything less than the truth, a fight which takes them all the way to a Congressional Oversight Committee hearing and frustrating for the US Government’s even more resolute stubbornness to save face and refusal to admit the lies they’ve been feeding the public – an admonition which would likely open up other old wounds from these post 9/11 conflicts.

In a year of great documentaries, this one has sadly fallen under the rradar during awards season. Don't miss it.

The Tillman Story is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time in America (1984) dir. Sergio Leone
Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Treat Williams

***½

By Alan Bacchus

It took 13 years for Sergio Leone to get this, his last film, onto the big screen. For the most part the time away served him well, as this superlative exercise in gangster cinema, dramatically heightened to the max with the same dreamy romantic sensabilities of his Spaghetti Westerns, comes close to being the final word in prohibition-era crime films.

The long 229min version is available on Blu-Ray, and since virtually everyone believes this to be the true version of the film, I doubt we’ll ever see that 139mins theatrical version ever again. The length does justice to the immensely epic and emotionally dense character study.

Leone and his team of seven writers tell the story of two best friends David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (De Niro) and Max 'Max' Bercovicz (Woods) and the evolution of their friendship through their life of crime in 1920’s New York City. Leone elegantly moves us through multiple timeframes without ever getting confused nor experiencing that ‘flashback’ feel. The opening lengthy sequence in 1933 shows us the extended movements of Noodles after the apparent murder of three of his boyhood friends. The scene carries on for 30mins, a set piece so dazzling unto itself, it almost seems out of place in the context of the expansive nature of the rest of the story. We don’t really know why Noodles is on the run, or why he’s aloof and melancholy as opposed to angry and vengeful after such a horrific act of violence. Ennio Morricone’s swooning romantic score tells us there’s a deeper level of emotion going on, something which Leone’s flashforwards and flashbacks teases us with.

After the opening the film settles down into a more traditional narrative, starting with Noodles and his gang as kids in the 20's moving from petty crime into organized crime in step with flashs to Noodles as an aged adult in the late 60’s returning to New York on a mysterious agenda, retracing the steps of his youth.

From the golden brown cinematography to the rich and textured production design of the era to the thematic and narrative connections to the action in the present, the influence of The Godfather Part II is felt through th is 1920's storyline. This delicate touch of Leone’s equals Coppola’s work in these scenes. Leone’s detail in the exterior street scenes is magnificent, teaming with people in every corner of his frames and as far as the camera can see. Leone never attempts to cheat his scenes, instead playing almost all of his action in wide screen grandeur.

The miracle of America is Leone’s ability to not let the sheer size of his canvas overshadow the finer details and individual moments of drama. His big and small moments have equal weight in all his pictures and it's never more important here. Just listen how little dialogue there is in the film, in particular the opening 30mins, a beautiful choreography of camera and actors. Leone's use of all elements of cinema: editing, camerawork and sound design is sublime and masterful. The drone of the telephone ring used in the opening sequence is a surreal use of digetic sound but draws our attention to the significance of a key decision Noodles will make later in the picture. Same with Leone’s attention to the locker key or the charred body in the street – all details set up to be paid off later.

This is the Leone modus operandi peppered into all of his previous films. The incessant drone of that telephone ring recalls Leone’s multiple references to Charles Bronson’s harmonica in Once Upon a Time in America, or Lee Van Cleef’’s musical pocketwatch in For a Few Dollar’s More.

A couple of wonky moments fail the film. The performance of some of the children as well as the casting of Elizabeth McGovern as Noodle’s object of desire Deborah never works. In fact, I could never see why McGovern got so much work back in those days. Her babyface look, I could never take seriously in high drama such as this.

But the scene I’ve never been able to reconcile with the rest of the picture is Noodles' rape of Deborah. It comes just before the intermission after the moment Deborah tells Noodles she’s leaving for LA to pursue an acting career, after which Noodles rapes her multiple times in the back of a car. Rape is something most of us don’t desire to see in a film, let alone the veracity with which Leone’s orchestrates the scene. Deborah’s pleas for help for Noodles to stop only encourages him to rape her even more aggressively. I understand the purpose of the scene, to create a source of regret for Noodles, destroying the only thing he ever loved, and to find a strong enough story beat that would split the pair before their reunion at the end of the film, but this comes at the expense of any kind of sympathy for his character Leone establishes up this point. Save for an earlier rape during the diamond robbery scene, Noodles was an honourable gangster, with convictions or loyalty to his friends. After Deborah's rape, Noodles is never truly taken to task for his dispicable actions.

This kind of scene would fit into Leone’s stylized and mysoginistic Spaghetti Western genre but in this more romantic and authentic world he creates for Once Upon a Time in America, the scene is a major crutch on the film.

And so it takes some mental smoothing to get over this scene and some of the wooden acting to appreciate Leone’s swan song as a dreamy, indulgent and grandiose genre film which it is.

Once Upon a Time in America is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment

Monday, 7 February 2011

All About Eve


All About Eve (1950) dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Hugh Marlowe

****

By Alan Bacchus

All About Eve” – an enthralling satire about the nasty politicking in the New York theatre scene and a great American film about ambition and greed. With today’s current eyes, it survives well as a commentary on the country’s own socio-economic values system.

The film opens with an awards ceremony in honour of a lauded theatrical actress, Eve Harrington. Instead of focusing on Eve we see the reaction of a group of people attending. It’s surly bunch, politely applauding but thinly hiding their disdain for the diva. Much like “Sunset Boulevard” tells the fall of Joe Gillis, the film flashes back to tell the sordid story of Eve Harrington.

Eve Harrington is introduced as a starstruck fan waiting outside the theatre to catch a glimpse of the stage’s top star, Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Eve gets the introduction of a lifetime when she’s allowed backstage to hang out with Channing's theatrical coterie - the same group of people at the awards ceremony. Margo empathizes with Eve’s dreams of working in show business and takes her under her wing. Slowly the innocent charity-case becomes a leech that needs to be burned off. Margo’s behaviour with Eve becomes abrasive and she soon lets her go. But by this time Eve has already cozied up to Margo’s friends, which make her look like a raving mad Diva. Eve’s stock rises and becomes a bigger star than Margo alienating all her friends and becoming a ego-driven maniac.

Eve takes Margo’s charity, then exploits and warps it creating her own career from the burned bridges of everyone she stepped over. In many ways, “All About Eve” dramatizes the old show business adage, be careful who you step on on the way up because you'll meet them on the way down. Writer/Director Mankiewicz manages to avoid all cliched traps and never let anyone fall back on caricatured or familiar performances.

All About Eve” is a big film told small. The film spans many years and shows the gradual transition of Eve’s character from naïve outsider, to a sly conniving show diva. But the film is remarkably small in production scale and budget. Only a few studio locations and sets are used, and even when the action moves outside the director employs some rather rudimentary (and dated) process shots.

What doesn’t date is Bette Davis’ magnificent performance and Mankiewicz’s bristling dialogue, which is virtually incomparable to today’s films. If this film were made today, it would have been easy to play into the archetype of the bitchy Broadway diva, a la, “The Devil Wears Prada”. But watching the progression of the story, we side with Margo. Though she’s caught in the bitchiest political catfight, Margo's frustrations rarely boil over and she manages to escape with her own personal pride intact.

Its theme of greed and corruption translates well to today's world as well – in fact, it will be relevant in any day, because as long as we live in a free-market democratic world there will be climbers and cheaters who will stop at nothing to get what they want. Enjoy.

“All About Eve” is available on Special Edition Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go (2010) dir. Mark Romanek
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Boy, I’m glad I knew nothing about this film going into it, because after a first act of very clever teasing I was absolutely floored by the dramatic midpoint reveal. As the buzz on this film heats up, mostly likely this dramatic moment will become known to audiences and thus diminish the experience of the film. If you can hold out reading these advanced reviews and blindly let Mark Romanek guide you through his haunting existential humanist journey it will be a joyous reward.

I’ll be as brief with the plot as possible, Karen, played by Carey Mulligan is a caregiver in present day watching an operation of one of her patients. Her narration recalls the story of her and her friends in a quaint English countryside boarding school, a particularly snobby school with strict teachers and such. Nothing we haven't seen before. Within the class are three sympathetic characters, Kathy as an intelligent and introspective younger girl, Ruth, the A-type popular gal and Tommy, an awkward wallflower prone to outbursts of rage.

There's something wrong afoot, but we can't put out fingers on it. It seems to be a storybook idyllic place with a few inconsistent additions - an electronic monitor device worn by each child, there's no parental figures, and almost no contact with the outside world. What gives?

Romanek and writer Alex Garland, who adapted the novel of the same name, make a concerted effort to keep the audience in the contained point of view of the three kids. It’s part of the clever deception going on, an intimate three-way love triangle over top of a high concept scenario, which we’re kept in the dark from for most of the movie. The core emotions are the same though, and enhanced by the limitations forced upon the characters by the science-fictiony concept.

Tonally it’s the kind of movie M. Night Shyamalan used to make. The pacing is deliberate, dialogue quiet and subtle, small scale character-based intimacy against a larger backdrop of big ideas and big threats.

Like Children of Men, we are asked to accept the alternate future society as is, without the usual backstory explanations. And Romanek never diverts from this point of view. Naturally I wanted to know more of outside world, and admittedly there was much room for more salacious plotting. The film could have easily turned into a thriller like Children of Men, but admirably Romanek remains true to his tone and character-based emotions.

Andrew Garfield is compelling as the man in between Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley's affections. He has a unique physicality, an immensely interesting face and a lanky gate, which adds more depth to his character than his dialogue. Carey Mulligan, like her performance in An Education, can also say as much with a glance of her expressive eyes than her words.

Like great science fiction, the speculative concepts allow us to examine our own place in the world. Never Me Let Go is almost as good as any of the great humanist sci-fi films such as THX 1138, Gattaca, The Truman Show, Moon. It’s a sombre haunting and memorable film which penetrates deep in one’s mind, body and soul.