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

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Waste Land

Waste Land (2010) dir. Lucy Walker
Documentary

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The title of this film refers to the hopeless environment in which its subjects ply their trade as ‘garbage’ pickers in the world’s largest landfill in Rio de Janeiro. For avant garde artist/photographer Vik Muniz, this serves as the source for his next international artistic creation.

Best known for his ‘Pictures of Chocolate’ series from the late 90s, the Brazilian native drew pop art style portraits out of chocolate syrup while working in New York. Now in 2006, Muniz, along with his documentary crew helmed by Lucy Walker, attempts to create great art from the most useless of substances – garbage.

This goal comes after declaring to the camera that after achieving his wealth and success, he had become dissatisfied with fine arts. And this latest project serves as a homecoming for Muniz, an effort to give back to his homeland where he grew up with little opportunity to succeed other than his own talent and desire for success.

Muniz is clear with his plan and enters the landfill with his still camera and his assistant looking for subjects that will serve as the chief artistic associates for his venture. With Walker’s camera behind Muniz we get to meet a unique subculture of labour, colloquially called ‘garbage pickers’, but more appropriately ‘pickers of recyclable materials’ or catadores in Portuguese. These individuals have one of the most unenviable jobs in modern society – sifting through waste to pick out plastic bottles, cans and other materials to sell to recycling companies for very little money. Like vultures, we watch in astonishment at the kind of muck and filth these people will search through in order to find their objects of value.

But within this despair, Walker and Muniz find an insatiable verve for life. All the catadores get paid and make a living, and they all have an interesting story about how they ended up in such squalor. The most emotional story is from Isis, a beautiful young girl whose life spiralled downward when her three-year-old son died of pneumonia – a story recounted by Isis in a devastatingly emotional confession. Tiao’s story is the most inspiring, as he has been a catadore since age 7, but his perseverance and pride in his job helped him develop a union for the pickers, protecting them from being exploited for their labour.

Muniz doesn’t so much give his subjects a free helping hand as encourage them to express their own latent artist talents and transform the ugliness of their world into something profoundly beautiful. The works of art that result are astonishing. They include large-scale reproductions of other famous works, such as the Death of Marat, made entirely out of garbage and photographed into entirely new works of art.

By the end we come to love Muniz’s subjects like members of our own family, completely invested in their journey. And with the proceeds fully split among the catadores, when we watch the auction price of Tiao’s Marat piece go up and up and up, it’s a wholly satisfying realization of their collective dream.

Waste Land is available on DVD from EOne Home Entertainment in Canada.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver (1976) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Albert Brooks, Cybil Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel

****

By Alan Bacchus

Last year a fresh new 35mm print of Taxi Driver was shown around Toronto and the country enabling fans to see the film in its originally intended medium again, or for many of us, on the big screen for the first time. Now the Sony Blu-ray release comes along, just as pristine and beautiful on the small screen, even though it's thunder had been stolen somewhat. The BD has the same featurettes as in the previous 2-Disc DVD from 4 years ago, but the most intriguing addition is the Scorsese/Schrader audio commentary from the 1986 Criterion Collection laserdisc edition. This is significant because a) it was likely one of the first audio commentaries ever recorded and b) it’s from 25 years ago, when the filmmakers had a different perspective on the film than today. And remember, it had been only 10 years since the film was originally released. Yes, we hear some of the same anecdotes and descriptions of the film’s influences, but knowing that it’s recorded before Scorsese even had a chance to make Goodfellas or Casino or The Last Temptation of Christ is fascinating.

In terms of the film itself, what’s there to say that hasn’t been said already? Not much. So pretend you’ve never heard of the film before. Taxi Driver is one of a half-dozen pure masterpieces in Scorsese’s collection. It’s unlike any other film – it doesn’t fit into a genre, it’s difficult to summarize and it moves with an awkward pace. It’s part social commentary, part character study, part violent thriller, part comedy, partly personal filmmaking, part noir and on and on and on.

The film opens with shots of New York from various points of view from a taxi cab. It’s a hallucinogenic sequence intercut with a close-up of a pair of wandering eyes. The taxi is a character, the street is a character, and so is its driver – Travis Bickle, one of the most unique and analyzed characters in film. As Bickle describes to his employer during his job interview, he can’t sleep at night. He’s a glutton for punishment though and will work “anytime, anywhere.” He’s also a Vietnam vet – but more on that later. Bickle gets the job and drives the streets of New York encountering all sorts of people – high class, low class, politicians, prostitutes, pimps, maniacs, etc.

He’s a lonely person with no direction, just looking to fit in with society. Finding a girlfriend or some sort of companion seems like the right thing to do. His attempt to ask out the concession stand girl in a porno theatre fails. Then he tries to court one of the most beautiful people on the planet – Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), a political campaign representative for a Presidential candidate. Needless to say, she’s way out of his league, but he actually has enough charm to get a date with her. He dresses the part, says all the right words, but makes one ghastly mistake. He takes her to a porno theatre. Oh Travis, no! As the audience, we’re rooting for Bickle to succeed, but the moment the camera reveals the X-rated marquee, our hearts collectively sink. It’s only the second act, but it’s downhill all the way from here.

Bickle tries to compensate by taking in a twelve-and-a-half-year-old street prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster). They develop a unique friendship, but Bickle is still hurting from Betsy’s rejection of him. He abandons all hope of traditional social interaction and plots a violent course of action that will make him a martyr for society.

As mentioned, Taxi Driver is many things. It shows the chaotic world through Bickle’s eyes. Like Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom or any number of Hitchcock protags, Bickle is a voyeur, and Scorsese is careful to show Bickle’s reactions to the most mundane and irrelevant people, places and things. Watch the scene in the coffee shop when he asks the Wizard (Peter Boyle) for advice. Bickle fixates on the foaming tablet in his water, Charlie T as he exits the store and the limping street hustler walking past him on the street. We can practically see the gears in his brain turning, taking in information, calculating an answer and reconciling the world.

Bickle is a stunted human being and likely mentally ill. We don’t know if it was Vietnam that caused his malfunction, but the fact that it’s hinted at only at the beginning of the film and never referenced again is an interesting decision for writer Paul Schrader. Since it was made in 1975 (and released in ‘76), Vietnam films had yet to be made, and the war had finished only a year before. I suspect Schrader and Scorsese didn’t want to provide a clear answer to Bickle’s actions because it would become an entirely different film.

By staying ambiguous and vague, the film remains personal for both filmmakers. Schrader put his heart and soul and some of his own experiences as a lonely writer into the screenplay, and Scorsese shows the ‘warts and all’ of his beloved city like only he can. It's also a time capsule of the state of the city at that time. Taxi Driver could never be made today because New York is a completely different city.

My favourite moment in Taxi Driver is a quintessential Scorsese scene. After Bickle shoots the corner store thief, the owner says he’ll take care of it. He grabs Bickle’s gun and proceeds to beat the man with an iron bar even though he’s 100% dead. Then the film cuts to a brilliantly ironic song, Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne. Bickle is sitting with a gun in hand watching American Bandstand. It’s another voyeur moment – Bickle watching on TV the life he so desperately wants to have, one that he will soon abandon and reject.

Taxi Driver is available on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, William Hurt, Frances O’Connor, Sam Robards

**

By Alan Bacchus

After the untimely death of Stanley Kubrick in 1999, Spielberg was given this project as a gift to adapt into his own film as his expression of his 20-year friendship with the master. Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t work. Sure, as the stories recounted by Spielberg and Jan Harlan on the DVD featurettes say, it fit the sensibilities of Steven Spielberg better than Kubrick, but an intriguing concept is bungled by Spielberg’s aging tin ear for subtext.

I admire the all ‘round good intentions, the idea of two completely opposite but equally great cinema masters collaborating on one film. All roads are paved with good intentions, but this road wanders around aimlessly en route to its destination.

There’s a terrific idea at the core. And it’s probably Brian Aldiss’s, the author of the sci-fi story upon which this film is based. The moral question asks what the human responsibility is to a robot that is made to be just like humans. If a robot can love like a human and thus feel the pain of love as a human, are we obliged to treat him or her like one?

Unfortunately, Spielberg articulates this moral question with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head in the opening scene. It comes in the form of William Hurt’s speech declaring his intention to create a robot boy who can love, and in the counter-argument from his articulate female associate (April Grace), the ethical conundrum of such a venture. It’s a particularly awful and shameless speech written by Spielberg, depriving us of the ability to infer the theme based on what’s said between the lines. This is called subtext, a fundamental necessity for good cinema. And how Mr. Spielberg forgot this is astonishing.

This is not thinking man’s science fiction. This is children’s storybook entertainment. Even less so, because even when we do tell our kids the moral of our bedtime stories, it’s always done AFTER the story is over, not before.

It’s a shame because discarding this opening scene would make the experience of A.I. completely different. Of course, we would also have to get rid of the blockhead Pinocchio metaphors that continually hammer us with the subtext front and centre. So maybe this film with Spielberg at the helm was doomed from the start.

Along the way, we can appreciate the craft of many of the set pieces. Janusz Kaminski’s superlative lighting, for instance, creates an interesting sci-fi look combining the neon-drenched slop of 80s cyberpunk with the blinding backlit look usually seen in Spielberg’s pictures. And whether or not you find the Flesh Fare scene grossly juvenile, the explosion of light and colour is spellbinding.

Same with most of the performances, particularly Jude Law as the dervish lover robot who talks like he’s Fred Astaire singing and dancing his dialogue in an MGM musical. And Haley Osment's gradual arc from monotone robotic articulations to full fledged human emotions is deft and effectively subtle.The second act road trip and male bonding of boy and gigolo is enjoyable and adequately distracts from how far off the rails this film goes.

Even with the opening scene and the Pinocchio nonsense included, the film could have been salvageable if the third act wasn’t an hour long. This film just keeps going and going, one climax after another and doesn’t want to stop. Ultimately, I think the failure of this film is a product of Spielberg's age. The attempt to bring back that 'Spielberg magic' of his youth fails, as it has disappeared. As such, A.I. feels like a sad knockoff of his earlier work.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Mousehunt

Mousehunt (1997) dir. Gore Verbinski
Starring Nathan Lane, Lee Evans, Christopher Walken

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

I have to admit, I have a soft spot for this one. Have an open mind and dig into the vaults to find this film. Mousehunt is actually a hidden gem that defies expectations. And if you recognize the director, indeed, it’s the helmer of the Pirates of the Caribbean films and now Rango, as well as the decent remake of The Ring. So, for reasons I'll summarize below, Mousehunt got him the Pirates gig and jumpstarted his career.

Ernie and Lars Schmuntz are brothers whose father has just died and bequeathed to them the family business of string manufacturers. They are also in receipt of an old run-down mansion. Ernie (Nathan Lane), the responsible one who is now a successful chef, wants the house and business sold so he can claim his share of the money, and Lars (Lee Evans), the childish one, has a soft spot for Dad and wants to keep the house and run the family business.

Ernie and Lars move into the house together to determine whether they should keep it or sell it. On their first night they discover that a pesky mouse has made a home there as well. Ernie and Lars go through a multitude of scenarios to trap the mouse. As their frustration over the mouse’s resilience grows and grows, so does the grandness of their traps.

Meanwhile, a real estate speculator has discovered that the house is in fact a lost treasure from a Frank Lloyd Wright-type of architect named George La Rue. Instantly, their money pit makes them almost-millionaires. They decide to auction off the house to the highest bidder, which fuels their desire to clean it up and exterminate the mouse.

The bumbling duo eventually manages to excise the mouse only to have it miraculously return on the day of the auction. The finale is a madcap series of Rube Goldberg consequences that may or may not jeopardize their chances of selling the house and getting rich.

Mousehunt is a visual delight – a live-action equivalent of a Tom and Jerry cartoon mixed with Tim Burton sentimentality and the manic, madcap pace of a Coen Bros film. Admittedly, Verbinski’s influences border on outright theft, but the mash-up is very clever in the detailed mechanisms of the narrative. The film elegantly mixes its grand scale action and comedy with quiet moments of genuine sentiment. The 'big' scenes go way over the top to satisfy the kids, but it's the quick gags in the dialogue and the reflective moments that make the film a little gem. And watch for the wicked cameo from Christopher Walken.

If anything, the leads Lane and Evans are the weakest link. They seem to try too hard to be funny, too concerned with channeling Abbott & Costello or Laurel & Hardy instead of bringing their own comic personalities to the roles. And in that way, the humour often feels forced.

It’s easy to see how this became Verbinski’s calling card film. His compositions, production design, and editing, as well as his natural skill for crafting exciting action sequences, obviously caught the eye of Mr. Jerry Bruckheimer, who gave him the keys to the Pirates franchise. You should take a chance on this one too.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

eXistenZ

eXistenZ (1999) dir. David Cronenberg
Starring: Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Don McKellar, Willem Dafoe

**

By Alan Bacchus

This is an honourable failure for David Cronenberg. Coming after the curiosity-seeking art houser Crash, at a glance eXistenZ appeared to have been a mainstream antidote to the niche audience of that other film. It comes from an original script from Cronenberg, his first since Videodrome (1983) and we indeed get all of the kooky bio horror we expect from the Baron of Blood, but excessively-loopy plotting and some truly oddball and inconsistent performances results in an unevenness which fails the film.

Set in the future, Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a new age game designer – virtual reality-type games played via the organic processes of the body. She is demonstrating a new version of her game to a test group. Allegra’s new gaming techniques have made her a celebrity, but she has also created a legion of radical dissidents called “Realists”, who disapprove of the unethical aspects of the game. The “Realists” infiltrate the test and manage to kill off a few of the gamers, but Allegra and her PR man, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), manage to escape. While on the run, Allegra and Ted enter the game to try and recover lost data from the disruption (I think).

The design of the game system is classic Cronenberg – organic materials made from body parts of other animals. Repairs to the game pod are performed like surgery by doctors. The connection between mind and body and the sensory experience of the game is a thought-provoking and somewhat plausible scenario. These are just the peripherals to the story though; the actual narrative plot of the film feels terribly recycled and uneventful.

Allegra and Ted’s journey takes them through a “Grand Theft Auto”-like world of smarmy villains and double-agents. Together they must navigate their way through the game and back into reality. Sufficient jeopardy and stakes for Ted and Allegra are never there because we know they’re in the game, and despite all the manufactured rules, we know they can always get out of the gaming world.

The timing wasn't good for Cronenberg. After The Matrix and Dark City, the concept is not as progressive as it may have sounded in development. We can clearly see how the film will end and predict the twists. The climax, which involves a badly staged and acted confrontation with Callum Keith Rennie, Jude Law and Ian Holm, feels as if the filmmakers were rushing to shoot the scene and get all the information wrapped up that one night. And, of course, the film makes a left turn in the final moments, which is supposed to surprise us, but instead becomes predictable in its unpredictability.

And despite one erotic scene, we don’t even get to see Jennifer Jason Leigh get it on with Jude Law. Considering Cronenberg’s track record, that was the only unexpected twist – no kinky sex.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Imitation of Life


Imitation of Life (1934)
Starring: Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, Warren William

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The classic Hollywood studio melodrama based on a popular Fanny Hurst novel notable for breaking Hollywood's early racial barriers is still a surprisingly powerful film. The story of two women – one black, one white – and their bond of friendship and family over 20 years was popular and critically acclaimed in its day, so much so that it spawned a successful remake in 1959 with Lana Turner. It's a film about time and place, and so with today's eyes the stereotypical characterizations could be seen as offensive. But at the heart of the story is a searing emotional drama about racism and female empowerment that in 1934 was decades ahead of its time.

Claudette Colbert plays Bea Pullman, a widow with a young daughter, Jessie. When she meets Delilah (Louise Beavers), a black woman who is also widowed with a child of similar age, they quickly strike up a friendship of commonality. Delilah offers her services as a maid in exchange for room and board. Bea and Delilah soon go into business together and open a pancake restaurant featuring Delilah's secret pancake recipe (influenced by the Aunt Jemimah brand). Bea's career aspirations outpace her pocketbook, but that doesn't stop her from negotiating her way into buying and renovating a vacant store on credit. Over the course of many years the store expands into an internationally successful business making Bea and Delilah rich. But Delilah honourably retains her modesty and continues to serve Bea as her maid.

Despite the success, Delilah's relationship with her daughter Peola becomes strained. Peola was born with light skin, which appears as white. Throughout her youth Peola experiences racist contradictions and embarrassment about having a black mother. In her teenager years it becomes so extreme that she leaves home to start a new life with a new identity, never to see her mother again.

These plot threads when written out and described seem more like daytime television than respectable cinema, but the story is never sensationalized. Director Stahl and his writers never give their characters a helping hand. In a series of scenes, we watch Bea's guile and business-savvy in building her business from scratch. Bea and Delilah, despite all their family hardships and personal struggles, never stray from their personal ethics.

Though the film was made 25 years before the Civil Rights movement, it’s as liberal and empowering as anything to come out of that era. At a glance, Delilah can be seen as a stereotypical black maid, as she is referred to as "Mammy" and speaks with a tongue now seen as racist. But she is a powerful figurehead for honour, stability and strength of character – elements much stronger than her stereotypes.

Delilah's final moment as she calls out for Peola is one of the most powerful images I've seen in film in a long time. The simplicity of her needs and emotions reminds me of a John Ford film, and when Peola is reunited with her mother it’s a heartbreaker.

The Universal DVD released a few years ago also contains the Douglas Sirk 1959 Technicolor version with Lana Turner. It's an interesting comparison – specifically because it was made 25 years after the original. Bea's character (renamed Lora) is put ahead of Delilah's character (renamed Annie). Sirk's film is more in line with his other 'women's melodramas', such as All That Heaven Allows and Written in the Wind. It retains the empowerment of the female lead, but the statement against racism and segregation is less powerful. The 1934 version is by far the better film.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Lebanon

Lebanon (2009) dir. Samuel Maoz
Starring: Itay Tiran, Yoav Donat, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Shtrauss

***

By Alan Bacchus

The surprise Venice Golden Lion winner of 2009 is an intense adventure using the same subject matter as Waltz with Bashir—another Israeli take on the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This time we’re put into a tank with four Israeli soldiers. There’s Assi the commander, Shmulik the gunner, Yigal the driver and Hertzel the loquacious loader. Being friends as well as comrades means that Assi often has difficulty asserting his orders to the group, specifically with Hertzel, who questions the logic of the chain of command and the hierarchy of duties. It makes for light, humorous banter, dulling us to the horror going on outside the tank.

But when Major Jamil enters the tank, orders get thrown down with authority. With clarity, Jamil makes it simple—proceed through the recently demolished village, look for surviving enemy soldiers and contain any lingering threats. We’re told it’s a walk in the park until they get to their next destination, an impending battle in San Tropez.

The tank has two points of view, a wide angle pigeonhole target sight of the gun and a closer zoomed in view from the same angle. From these two shots we watch as Shmulik slowly goes stir crazy due to the brutality he’s forced to watch happening on the outside. A family being shot to death in a vacant building, an innocent Muslim blown apart in his car and even a cow clinging to life with his stomach torn open are indelible images to both Shmulik and the audience.

For the others, the intensity increases because of the earth-quaking caused by the explosions and the devastating sounds of war echoing through the steel machine. Like the metallic claustrophobia of the German sub in Das Boot, the confines of the metal tank serves as the film’s only location. The space is tight and perhaps Maoz used Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat as inspiration to maintain a dynamic and non-repetitive visual experience in such a small place. But it's important to note this film was made before the rash of single location thrillers of 2010 (i.e., 127 Hours, Frozen, Buried, etc.)

The few sources of light create enough creative light schemes to play with. And the occasional time when the hatch is opened up, a blinding beam of light is sent into the tank, which is enough to remind us that there is another world outside.

Admirable as it is, in creating an intense war film without really seeing anything, the film suffers from our uncertainty about whether the filmmakers are actually taking a stand on something. War is bad, we know. Perhaps it’s the singular point of view of the tank as a metaphor for the unwavering party line of the Israeli military. Maybe. It’s an implied theme, which we have to stretch to find, but it lacks the passionate confessional tone of Waltz with Bashir. And so it fails to raise itself to the cinematic level of brilliance the concept and the era in history demands.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (1956) dir. Cecil B. DeMille
Starring: Charlton Heston, Yul Bynner, Edward G. Robinson, Anne Baxter, John Derek

***


By Alan Bacchus

Is there any point in 'critiquing' this film, since it's already permanently inked into pop culture and cinema history? After all, like It's a Wonderful Life is to Christmas, The Ten Commandments is to Easter/Passover. It would be easy to completely dismiss this film as a terribly dated, overly preachy and simplistic treatment of the Moses story, which, to fresh eyes, it might seem. Watching all three-and-a-half hours of it straight, it's hard to avoid squirming in my seat, checking my iPhone and finding other things to pass the time in between the slow parts. And yet there is something special and magical about this film that renders it relevant in today's overly stimulated post-modern cultural landscape.

The story, which has been the foundation of archetypal storytelling for centuries, is told with a clear, unclouded simplicity. Sometimes we desire our characters to tell it to us straight. And this is what we get from Cecil B. DeMille's second crack at this story (the first being his silent film from 1926). Before we even get to the story and after a bit of Elmer Bernstein's grand score in the overture, the head of Paramount Studios introduces the film to tell us about the importance of the picture and the source texts used to create the narrative. Already we're intrigued and on the edge of our seats. Then we're shown the early events in Moses' life, including The Pharaoh's decree to murder the newborn children of every Jewish household in order to kill the prophesized 'saviour' of the Jews from living. We see Moses being put in the basket by his mother and being found and taken in by Egyptian royalty.

The most interesting part of the film is the chapter of Moses' life in which he was the 'Prince of Egypt' engaged in a heated rivalry with his brother Rameses (Yul Brynner) to be the heir to the Pharaoh's throne. We know Moses will be the saviour of the Jews and so his actions as the enemy of his own people are wonderfully intriguing and filled with all kinds of internal conflict and subtext. Ok, sure the subtext is hit squarely on our heads with little to confuse us, but the drama of, say, Moses saving his mother from being crushed by the giant rock being driven by the autocratic Egyptian slave driver is highly dramatic and resonant. The same goes for Moses' conversion back to Judaism, forgoing his place in royalty for his birthright home as a Jew. The internal conflict is not lost on us, and as dramatized by DeMille, Heston, et al, we can feel all the archetypal significance of this decision.

Where the film loses momentum is during the events after Moses' conversion when he seems to instantly become a deified hero channelling the word of the Lord. As such, Moses becomes castrated and devoid of any significant internal conflict or flavour. The events in the second half of the picture simply recount the roll call of Biblical events we expect to see: the ten plagues, Passover, the Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea and the proclamation of the Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai. By the end, the dialogue sounds like pure scripture lifted directly from the Bible and preached to us like a sermon.

But it's in this latter half where we get the spectacle of Cecil B. DeMille, the legendary cinematic showman—light on character but heavy on spectacle. DeMille was in his 70s when he made The Ten Commandments and sadly the film looks 20 years out of date. DeMille's insistence on strict studio-created locations, both interior and exterior, can't compete with the film's epic contemporaries. We can look past the theatrical staging of the dialogue scenes, especially the wooden 'period' dialogue (something no one, not even Kubrick, could crack), but the action scenes and moments of grandeur are ineffectually aided by rudimentary blue screen work. Of course, we have to remember it was 1956, and this film was one of the first to use this kind of compositing, which differed from the in-camera use of rear projection. But here the optical process work is so distractingly garish, it's hard to forgive.

That said, the parting of the Red Sea sequence is still a thrilling set piece built up and teased to us with great skill by DeMille. The ominous grey cloud cover that envelopes the land before Moses channels the power of God and parts the waters is the best special effect in the film.

On Blu-ray, we also get an added sense of scope not present in non-theatrical presentations of the film. It's impossible not to be mesmerized by the bold colours that pop out at us, the crisp sound of Elmer Bernstein's score and the restored 5.1 HD sound restoration.

The Ten Commandments is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Last Play at Shea

Last Play at Shea (2010) dir. Paul Crowder, Jon Small
Documentary

***½

By Alan Bacchus

It was such a surprise to see how terrific this film is. It’s a straight-to-video release presumably timed to coincide with baseball spring training fever, which has just begun. With this clever and surprisingly insightful documentary, we get to experience the significant pop culture events that surrounded the famed (and infamous) Shea Stadium in Queens, New York—home of The New York Mets.

In 2010, the stadium was demolished to make way for a brand-spanking new facility, a dramatic leap in comfort compared to aging old Shea. After the final baseball game, fans were treated to a farewell concert from Billy Joel, a Long Islander, whose career seemed to mirror that of Shea itself. Directors Crowder and Small cleverly intercut footage from Joel’s concert with the history of the revered facility, and as a surprisingly profound bonus, the career of Joel himself, which seems inextricably linked to Shea.

Filling in the gaps is narrator Alec Baldwin (yep, another Long Islander). His smooth voice is the perfect choice to give us the omniscient historical information about the Stadium and its relationship to the city of New York.

I have no connection to New York, but I am a sports fan and at one time I was a die-hard baseball fan. And so when Crowder and Small relive the key events of Shea, we get to experience some of the most dramatic moments in baseball history again. There are those first few years when the team was the worst in baseball history, losing 100+ games five years straight. Then they miraculously won the pennant and the World Series in 1969 with some supernatural help from a random black cat that ran onto the field and in front of the rival Dodgers’ dugout. There’s also the glorious 80s featuring that great team of Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Gary Carter, et al, and that dramatic victory over Bill Buckner and the Red Sox. If the film stopped there, we’d have a great sports documentary worthy of HBO’s sports series or ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.

Equal to the baseball dramatics is Shea’s significance as a concert hall and the site of that legendary Beatles performance in 1964, which signalled both the birth of Beatlemania in the United States and the introduction of the stadium to the world. Outside of the U.S., Shea became synonymous with The Beatles and was thus in demand by the biggest bands in the world for their concerts. Footage of The Beatles, The Police, and of course Joel himself is thrilling to watch.

Again, if the film ended here, Crowder and Small would have had a terrific documentary on their hands. The third through line involves the storied career of Billy Joel himself, from his humble beginnings in a hard rock band to his management troubles, his hiatus and his reinvention as a solo artist. Crowder and Small don't settle for periphery information or B-plots to cut away to, they dig deep into Joel’s personal life, including the career victories and setbacks that make up this fascinating artist. It doesn’t hurt to have Christie Brinkley’s full participation. Egads, even in her 50s she’s still a stunning beauty. And thankfully for Joel, she’s still on good terms with him and a key person in his life.

Tying everything together is the presence of Paul McCartney, who makes an appearance at Billy Joel’s concert. It’s dramatized to maximum effect, as his appearance brings the past full circle to the present. It’s a shame this film was not included in the A-list film festivals (it premed at Tribeca, which is pretty good actually) and that it didn’t even have a theatrical release, where it could have received its due publicity. Now, it will sadly be relegated to a one-sentence inclusion in the DVD releases columns in your urban weekly. So all you fans of sports and music, please seek out this film.

The Last Play at Shea is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Batman Begins

Batman Begins (2005) dir. Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson

****

By Alan Bacchus

It's remarkable the feeling we get from watching this picture and the sequel The Dark Knight. Despite the fact that these films were made only a few years apart, Batman Begins feels like a completely different picture, and IMHO a better one. According to the special featurettes, Nolan's cited influence was Richard Donner’s original comic book film Superman the Movie. Donner's tone of adult-oriented dramatic realism and mythic literary grandeur is plugged directly into Nolan's film.

Nolan magnificently connects the events of Bruce Wayne's entire life into the emotions and motivations of the present using three time periods. Firstly, there is Wayne as a child and the trauma he experienced from seeing his parents killed, specifically his idolized and righteous philanthropic father. There's also his university-age youth where, fearing failure and feeling the pressure of living up to the standard set by his father, Wayne goes on a walkabout of sorts to discover the criminal mind. An attempt to be recruited into the 'League of Shadows' pits Wayne against his first mentor, the charming yet devious Henry Ducard (Neeson) and his leader Ras Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) - I mean, how awesome are those character names to start! And then comes the main through line, the present day, where Bruce Wayne assumes the form of his greatest fear, the bat, and becomes a symbol of justice that the regular police can't uphold.

Each character rings true with an arguably deeper sane of realism than The Dark Knight. Despite Heath Ledger's fine performance as the Joker in that film, the fact that he was insane and that his motivations weren't explained meant we ceased to identify him as a character. Although highly entertaining, he was simply a robotic antagonist no more complex than say The Terminator. Ducard, on the other hand, is wholly fascinating. Introduced first as a saviour and mentor to Bruce, Nolan and his writer David Goyer elegantly morph him into an antagonist closely tied to Wayne's goals.

To convey this sense of pathos, Nolan employs a complementary cinematic eye. Look at the colour palette for instance. While The Dark Knight utilized colder colours more in line with police procedurals, Batman Begins is distinctly golden brown, like a faded old photograph or newspaper. The look adds a level of aged texture and a resonance of the past.

The opening sequences in Tibet also add to the feeling of spirituality and existential enlightenment. The glaciers of Iceland, which double for the Himalayas, look fantastic. But the mere fact that we're in the middle of devout Buddhism adds a subtext of Zen-intellectualism.

Admittedly, Christopher Nolan still has some learning to do in terms of filming action scenes. His hand-to-hand combat scenes never seem to be cut right. Perhaps it's that darned Batsuit that makes it impossible for an actor or stuntman to be flexible. That said, he shoots a decent car chase and his roller tank sequence is pretty darn awesome and certifiably trumped in The Dark Knight. But the primo sequence that represents the 'epic' tone is Batman's rescue of Rachel Dawes. With Batman at the top of a staircase, his army of bats storm the building and provide the definitive image in the film. The bats that represent true fear, which Wayne has controlled and channelled, become his greatest asset – a physical manifestation of the overall theme of the film.

Batman Begins is available in a lovely SteelBook packaging on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Carlos

Carlos (2010) dir. Olivier Assayas
Starring: Starring: Édgar Ramírez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The Blu-ray cover of this exciting new release looks like a cross between Terminator Salvation and a robot character from Transformers. It's actually the face of Edgar Ramirez as Carlos. It's a bold cover that will likely attract more mainstream Blockbuster shelf surfers or Netflicks surveyors than the retro-cool theatrical poster of this film. The title of the movie was even changed to Carlos the Jackal to exploit the nickname by which the public knows this story but is actually never mentioned in the film. I have no problem with this – the more eyes on this work the better. Assayas brings Euro-art house credibility to what is essentially a procedural action film told with maximum realism, cinematic swagger and panache.

The new Blu-ray features both the five-and-a-half-hour mini-series version, which also played out of competition at Cannes, and the theatrical cut, which runs a bit over two-and-a-half hours. Though one version is literally half the length of the other, they both feel remarkably similar. Each film is anchored by its three acts. The first covers the introduction of Carlos to the International Palestinian Liberation movement funded indirectly by the Iraqi government via white-collar terrorist Wadie Haddad.

Carlos's early movements and cocksure attitude are dramatized with great speed, as we rush through assassination attempts, parcel bombings and other smaller tasks in a whip-fast montage effect. Both films feature a remarkably similar second act. It shows the step-by-step procedural details of the notorious Vienna OPEC Raid in 1975, where Carlos led a six-person team into OPEC headquarters and took hostages from Austria to Algeria to Libya and Yemen.

After zipping through the early years, virtually the entire second chapter takes place in the two days of this hijacking. Even within this shrunken timeline, Assayas makes every movement, action and decision a nail-biting affair, ringing out genre-style suspense and thrills as good as any Hollywood crackerjack.

Where the long version departs from the short version is in the third act, which shows the last 15 years of Carlos's career. It presents the downfall that began with the fallout of the OPEC event, leading to his last days as a free man in the '90s in Africa. Arguably, after reaching the high at the midpoint of part two, the film peters out due to the excessive running time, and it never achieves the true cinematic climax it deserves. And unfortunately, neither version cracks the third act.

Narrative deficiencies aside, Carlos succeeds magnificently because of the remarkable state of realism achieved by Assayas. We never feel like we're being manipulated by cinematic conventions or "action scenes." It's distinctly un-Hollywood without the art house pretension. We're also privy to one of the best performances of anyone last year (including Colin Firth) from Edgar Ramirez, who speaks numerous languages, endures De Niro-worthy weight gain to change his appearance over time and, most importantly, conveys the swagger that made Carlos one of the most unlikely political celebrities in the world.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Morning Glory

Morning Glory (2010) dir. Roger Michell
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Patrick Wilson

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Morning Glory comes from the director of Notting Hill and the writer of The Devil Wears Prada. But those factors weren’t the reasons I was attracted to this film. Instead, it was the fact that Roger Michell directed Changing Lanes, in which he elevated a humdrum script to one of the best thrillers-with-a-brain in the past 10 years. Of course, Morning Glory is not a thriller but a genre film with the potential to be elevated by the direction of a smart filmmaker. Unfortunately, Michell fails in this task, as he delivers only an adequate film while meeting the expectations of the genre.

This is not a traditional romantic comedy per se. But like The Devil Wears Prada, it’s a "career comedy." Here, our hero, Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams), is a young, ambitious career gal in the cutthroat "entertainment" business – in this case, morning television. She works at one of those saccharine morning shows that serve mostly to warn commuters about inclement weather and traffic jams. Yet behind the scenes, it's not so warm and cozy. When the unemployed Becky takes a job as the producer of the lowest rated morning show on the lowest ranked network, she finds herself up to her neck in complicated office politics, bloated egos and high-stakes pressure from network execs. Becky's big gamble is hiring aging former news anchor Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), now a drunken egomaniac with a superiority complex.

Despite the battling of egos between Mike and co-anchor Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton), Becky manages to lift the show from the doldrums of the ratings basement, making her program respectable both to morning show purists and upper-crust journalists, to whom Pomeroy feels beholden.

The love sub-plot with colleague Patrick Wilson is relegated to b-story insignificance, as it's clear Michell and McKenna want to tell a story about a strong, young woman making it in the fast-paced world of television in glamorous Manhattan. There isn't much of a curtain to lift in this area, as films such as Network, Broadcast News and Tootsie have already done this 20-plus years prior. That being said, Michell's fast-paced direction props up the predictable trajectory of the script higher than what would be expected from a lesser filmmaker.

Unfortunately, everyone is let down by the presence of Harrison Ford as Pomeroy. We all know Ford is well passed his expiry date as a leading man. And while he doesn't "lead" the show here, he's the main foil for Becky and is thus integral to the film's success. Ford's well-known public surliness aids somewhat in Pomeroy's characterization, but like most of everything Ford has done lately, there's no energy or life in the performance. It's phoned in via his star time machine. Ford's former glory, intensity, rogue charm and comic affability are completely gone. Films like these live and die by casting, and while this film isn't dead, it's inert and unmemorable.

Morning Glory is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

King of Kings

King of Kings (1961) dir. Nicholas Ray
Starring: Jeffrey Hunter, Siobhán McKenna, Robert Ryan

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

It’s almost Spring, which means March Madness of course, but it also means another kind of March madness of sorts – biblical movies! With Lent, Mardi Gras, Easter and other significant Christian holidays coming up, we’ll start to see all the familiar religious epics again. A bunch of them will be re-released on Blu-ray. I love these pictures, even though most of them are not very good. And I’m not anything remotely close to religious; hell, I’m not even baptized, but I do love my biblical epics.

First up is King of Kings starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus. As I mentioned, I love these movies, but I particularly love Samuel Bronston films. Mr. Bronston was one of the great independent international producers working in Europe but with Hollywood talent. Unfortunately, he fell into bankruptcy and eventually financial fraud. But before that, he produced two of my favourite spectacle films – El Cid and Fall of the Roman Empire. However, the film that helped birth both of those pictures was the success of 1961’s King of Kings.

Unfortunately, it’s not Bronston’s finest hour (or should I say three hours), but it contains all the corny and demonstrative pomp and circumstance common to this brand of historical epic. It has widescreen expansive shots featuring thousands of extras populating the huge canvas, sharp and colourful 70mm photography that pops so beautifully on Blu-ray and a rousing inspiring score by Bronston’s preferred composer Miklós Rózsa.

The opening 20 minutes or so is terrific, a lengthy bit of exposition narrated by Orson Welles describing the historical background of Rome and its relationship to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Then the film settles down into the expected scenes starting with Jesus' birth in the stable, his early adulthood and 40-day/40-night fast in the desert, his Baptism, his miracles, his entry into Jerusalem, his incarceration, his trial, and his eventual crucifixion and ressurection.

Unfortunately, Bronston and director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) seem utterly frightful of painting Jesus in any other light than complete deification, so much so that Hunter rarely has to act or express any emotions. He floats around the movie impervious to any conflict from his enemies. This is in stark contrast to say, Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ.

Most of the life in the film comes from the people around Jesus who are affected by his presence, particularly the Apostle Judas, Barabbas and John the Baptist. The Romans are given equal, if not more, screen time then Jesus and his followers. It results in the usual 'Roman-speak' and the political jabbing we saw in every Roman film before it. Oddly, Barabbas, who I believe does little in the actual story of Jesus, is expanded into a significant character who organized the Jews against the Romans. It’s perhaps the only resonant aspect of the story, which comments upon imperialism and the Western occupation of other 'third world' countries.

Despite the success of the film, King of Kings is Bronston’s weakest and least rousing spectacle film, an adequate re-creation of the bible for puritan interests only.

King of Kings is available Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Soylent Green

Soylent Green (1973) dir. Richard Fleischer
Starring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotton, Brock Peters

*1/2

By Alan Bacchus

This uniformly awful sci-fi semi-classic based on the 1966 science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison still clings to pop cultural significance because of its phenomenal twist at the end. Spoiler alert: I will try hard not to reveal the twist, but I guarantee I won’t drop the p-bomb.

Yes, that 'twist' at the end is fantastic. I still remember seeing the film as a kid, and indeed the significance of that reveal (a more appropriate word to use) on the overall impact of the movie was enough for it to stick in my mind. What didn’t stay in my mind was the rest of the film, which is laughably bad. Charlton Heston is at his worst, and director Richard Fleischer destroying potentially lethal source material with bone-headed directorial decisions.

Ok, the story – it’s NYC in a typically 1970s dystopian future. The population has overrun to 40 million people in that city. As a result, food has become scarce, which results in mass shortages of even basic sustenance. Government via third party corporations have stepped in to supply people with mass-produced soy-based food products. When a wealthy businessman is murdered, Richard Thorn (Heston) is called in to investigate. Clues and evidence lead him to the Soylent Corporation, where he discovers a particularly shocking secret ingredient in Soylent Green, the newest food product on the market.

Heston is simply laughable as the disreputable cop Thorn. He saunters from scene to scene like a lazy John Wayne impersonator and sports the queerest cap ever worn by a straight man in film. His dialogue is the stuff drinking games are made of – unintentionally hilarious – and definitive of this part of Heston’s career, which slowly eroded his former Hollywood star-value.

But there are two things to savour from Soylent Green. The first is Edward G. Robinson playing Sol, Thorn’s father figure. The movie is billed as Robinson’s 101st film, and indeed some 40+ years into his career he’s still magnetic. Unlike Heston, Robinson embodies the humanism in Harry Harrison’s original writing and trumps Fleischer’s blockhead direction.

Secondly, on the page, Soylent Green could have been a memorable and haunting sci-fi film. The themes of environmental destruction, the overuse of the planet’s resources and extreme free market capitalism feel wholly relevant today. The final scene featuring Sol, who decides to commit suicide after he learns of Soylent’s cover-up and who can’t bear living in a world that has devolved to the most extreme form of social dysfunction (cannibalism), offers a glimpse of how resonant this film could have been. In this moment, in exchange for his death and his body, he is treated to a spa-like, pampered assisted-suicide set to calming classical music and images of Earth’s once plentiful natural resources.

This is a profound existential moment for Sol, Thorn and the audience, which makes for the best scene in the movie. However, it also shows what Fleischer righteously bungled up.

Of course there’s also the famous final line of the film read by Heston, repeated several times actually with the same grandeur as he exclaimed, “Damn you all to hell!” in Planet of the Apes. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities between these two films end.

Soylent Green is available from Warner Home Entertainment.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Hereafter

Hereafter (2010) dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Matt Damon, Cecile de France, Bryce Dallas Howard, Frankie & George McLaren, Jay Mohr

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

For those who haven’t seen this film, some of you may already know based on the publicity of late that Hereafter begins with a re-creation of the Thailand tsunami disaster a few years ago. This is frightfully timely given the recent events in Japan. Apparently the film has been pulled from theatres in Japan and even some airline flights. This is the right thing to do, but it should be known that Hereafter certainly does not exploit the disaster for the purposes of action or thrills, as in a Roland Emmerich film, but it serves as a dramatic introduction to the notion of near-death experiences.

This is the subject of Clint Eastwood’s latest, a tasteful yet overly delicate film about three people from three different countries dealing with the metaphysics of death. It’s the latest in a remarkable run of films in his senior years, as he has made 10 films in the past decade. Some of them were successful and some weren't, but all special or intriguing in their own creative ways.

In Hereafter, Clint tells the story of three people dealing with death. Marie Lelay (de France) is a French journalist who miraculously survives the Southeast Asian tsunami, but not before she comes so close to death that she ‘sees the light’. Marcus (McLaren) is a young child living in London trying to deal with the death of his twin brother. With that unique bond broken, he searches for a way to connect with him in the afterlife. George Lonegan (Damon) has the psychic ability to communicate with the dead. However, it’s more of a curse than a gift, as his relationships always fail after his secret is revealed.

In terms of cinematic authorship, after his first 30 years as a director it seems that Clint has finally found his voice. A Clint Eastwood film is now instantly recognizable. This is due in part to his superlative collaboration with Tom Stern as Director of Photography. Stern’s distinct high contrast lighting and remarkably crushed blacks look fabulous both on the big screen and on Blu-ray. Clint’s music, which he now almost exclusively composes himself or with his son, also helps define the consistent tone of his films.

Hereafter is no exception, as it employs an especially staid tone, the same kind of delicacy Eastwood displayed in the final act of Million Dollar Baby. Unfortunately, he’s so careful not to sensationalize his subject matter that it comes across as overly precious. For most of the film, Lonegan, for example, is characterized as a lonely and tortured soul burdened by his gift. Damon’s unemotional performance is sympathetic enough, but Eastwood overkills this sympathy with one too many shots of Lonegan pathetically eating dinner by himself in his apartment or watching TV with the lights off in his hotel room.

There are no surprises in this picture either, the trajectory of which is telegraphed from the first act. The mere fact that the characters’ scenes are completely separate from each other tells us that they will have to come together somehow in the end. We realize that it’s just a matter of watching nature take its course as we fill the gaps of the rather obvious theme of spiritual and divine connection from the living to the dead, and even from the living to the living.

I admire Eastwood and company for wearing their hearts on their sleeves and telling what is essentially a religious story without overt proselytization, but it’s too weary and dull to achieve its goals.

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

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Gerald Pratley (1923-2011)


An appreciation and memoir

by Greg Klymkiw

"It's strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

-Henry Travers as Clarence Oddbody - A.S.#2 (Angel - Second Class), dialogue from Capra's It's a Wonderful Life

A giant died on Monday.

His name was Gerald Pratley.

Gerald was 87 years old.

Though he wasn't a household name, it's no exaggeration that anyone in Canada who TRULY cared about cinema, knew or knew of this titan who devoted every fibre of his being to the study and appreciation of that great gift to mankind - the movies.

Gerald Pratley was a critic, author, teacher, historian, programmer and founder of the Ontario Film Institute - twenty years of curating, screening and archiving film history that was extended and preserved as the Ontario Cinematheque, a year-long stomping grounds for movie nuts in Toronto and most importantly, with the support of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Pratley's vision morphed into the TIFF Lightbox.

As Clarence Oddbody pointed out to George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, "Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole..."

Without Gerald Pratley there would have been no Cinematheque and no Lightbox. It's especially shameful and ultimately to the loss of both the Toronto International Film Festival and its followers that Gerald's important place in cinema (and that organization) was relegated to a buried acknowledgment in their staff/contributor listings and that he was never given a proper venue within the organization to share his wealth of knowledge with movie lovers.

Gerald Pratley was to cinema in this country what George Bailey came to represent to the millions upon millions of people who saw Frank Capra's masterpiece. His incalculable list of achievements as a promoter of great cinema are a matter of public record. Named as a member of the Order of Canada, Gerald was subsequently brought into the fold as an officer of that order and he was honoured with a special prize for his devotion to cinema at the 2002 edition of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television's Genie Awards. (I do remember, however, that our publicly-funded network, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CBC, in collusion with the Academy decided to relegate the full extent of Gerald's honour in the non-broadcast portion of the program and during the live broadcast threw up a clip of Gerald accepting the award with some innocuous voice-over. This, of course, was a notable precursor to the Oscars' idiotic recent habit of relegating such important awards - the most egregious being Roger Corman's lifetime achievement award - to a similar corner of the show. Certainly not a trend worth setting, but significant that with Gerald at the Genies it was the first time I noticed the film industry making the boneheaded omission of its pioneers in awards ceremonies.)

Gerald's myriad of accomplishments in the world of cinema rival in number and importance the number of "begats" in the Book of Genesis. Why shouldn't they? Cinema is a temple - all seeing, all showing, all holy - and Gerald Pratley was one of cinema's High Priests.

Though He is no longer with us in a physical form, Gerald continues to touch us all. He continues to touch those who had the honour of making his acquaintance and with equal force, he will touch so many others who never met him (as well as those who might not have even heard of him).

He most certainly touched my life and perhaps, through my personal experience and respect for him, he will touch others.

In fact, I hope all who knew him will spread his love.

And it was a special love.

Gerald loved movies and this love was infectious. His was the business of making the adoration of cinema spread like some pathogenic agent. While for some, the unconditional, obsessive love of cinema may seem like an "abnormal" condition, I think most of us who have been touched by the magic of movies will happily take aberrance over "normal" anytime.

And of course, Gerald loved the company of those who loved movies. His devotion to ensuring that movies in all their splendour could be seen and revered not just as mere baubles, distractions and ephemera was equalled by very few.

Movies - GREAT movies - were meant to last forever and Gerald used every means at his disposal to make this a reality.

I had known of Gerald and his work for many years (that part of life when movies mattered more than most anything) and while I admired him from afar, I never dared approach him for fear of imposing myself on someone I so revered. This was, of course, typically Canadian of me. When I was finally introduced to Gerald in 1994 at the Montreal World Film Festival, I realized I was clearly in the presence of a force exuding an unbridled level of love and appreciation of movies, but he did so with such humility and warmth, that I simply wanted to kick myself in the head for not making his acquaintance at an earlier juncture.

Over the years, I continued to see Gerald at film festivals and various industry functions. The level of discourse was always a treat and I fell in awe with his knowledge of cinema history and critical acumen.

I fondly recall an evening at the Berlin Film Festival in 1995 where we shared a ride to a party for Patricia Rozema's "When Night is Falling". I think everybody was in the mood to celebrate Rozema's magnificent achievement, but upon arriving in East Berlin, the thump-thump-thump of the house music inside the lesbian dance club was so shuddering, so deafening, so - dare I say it? - uninviting, that a whole group of us stood outside in the freezing cold for a long time.

Accompanying me in the frigid Berlin clime was Cynthia Roberts (the director of the film I had produced called "The Last Supper", also being honoured in Berlin that year), the late Jim Murphy (a veteran film distributor and, at the time, a promoter of Canadian cinema through an agency of the Ontario Ministry of Culture), Risa Shuman (the legendary producer of the long-running film appreciation series "Saturday Night at the Movies" on TV Ontario) and, of course, Gerald.

We all (like good Canadians who knew very well how to weather sub-zero temperatures) stamped our feet, blew into our freezing cupped hands and talked about movies - anything but enter that club of ear-splitting dance music.

Soon, however, it was Gerald who donned the bravest face I think I'd ever seen and it was he who led the way into that dark den of fierce party hounds. This was a Canadian celebration for a Canadian film from a Canadian director we all loved and admired. What else could one do, but follow the Leader?

Our Leader, once ensconced within the cove of celebratory depravity, made an immediate beeline for one of the many silver-painted waitresses to imbibe in a bit of cheer.

About ten days prior to Gerald's passing, I journeyed from Toronto to the Pickering Flea Market to visit Michel Harmouche's astounding DVD Wave stand and while perusing stacks upon stacks of movies, I caught myself having imaginary conversations in my head with the aforementioned late and great Jim Murphy. It was uncanny. I was genuinely having a conversation with my old pal who came with me every Saturday for years to buy movies here.

Very pleasantly, my thoughts that day in Pickering turned to Gerald and in almost photographic detail, I remembered a Saturday morning several years ago in which Jim convinced Mr. Pratley to join us on one of our pilgrimages to this temple of boundless, superbly priced home entertainment product. Gerald's eyes widened to saucer-like proportions upon his inaugural gander at the ocean of movies in Michel's stand and soon yielded the kind of magic I seem to only experience with friends and colleagues who share my pathological love of movies. Gerald dove into the infinitesimal chasm of DVDs and immediately fished out a title which, he promptly handed to me.

Eureka!

On the car ride to Pickering - Gerald in the front passenger side and Jim in the middle of the rear seat - one of the many movie-related subjects included the work of director Robert Aldrich. Of course we jawed enthusiastically about the crime and action pictures he made like "Kiss Me Deadly" and "The Dirty Dozen", but when the topic turned to Aldrich's penchant for overripe melodrama, I lit-up like a bank of footlights and Gerald proceeded to wax ever-so eloquently on Aldrich's harridan hag oeuvre which, of course, included such taste treats as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. This direction in the conversation pleased me to no end - I was (and still am) a sucker for hags (and babes) slugging it out in psychological and/or literal movie cat fights.

When Gerald asked my opinion of a certain Aldrich fraulein-freak-show and I ashamedly had to admit I'd never seen it, the resulting magic at DVD Wave was indeed Gerald plucking right out of that bin none other than Aldrich's The Killing of Sister George. How I'd managed not to even see the movie is one thing, but to have not found a DVD copy of it after a few years of diving into Michel's stock is (and indeed was) beyond me.

When I heard about Gerald's death, I couldn't stop thinking about my imaginary conversation with Jim Murphy in Pickering ten days earlier and how THAT inspired me to think about the long-ago halcyon journey to the same hamlet of all-bargains-cinematical. Damn! I even remember thinking - whilst I was there ten days ago: "Hey, Gerald lives in Belleville. That's not too far from here. It's been too long. Maybe I should just hop in the car and make the trek."

I didn't, though.

And now I wonder if I'll be constructing similar imaginary conversations in my head with Gerald. The ones I had with Jim certainly seemed very real, so maybe, at some point something will tweak me and I'll be sitting in Belleville with Gerald Pratley talking about movies.

One can, I suppose, chalk up the idea of such imaginary conversations enveloped in a tangible clarity as being the direct result of mental illness and/or an overactive imagination.

But you know, dismissing the reality of imagination takes NO imagination - none at all!

Movies are dreams and dreams fuel us.

It's dreams and imagination that fuel filmmakers to deliver all those endless pieces of time.

It's dreams and imagination that keep the spirits of those we hold dear alive forever.

And they are alive, but to keep them living, we must always keep their spirits within us.

Their spirits must course through our dreams and imagination.

They have, after all, touched so many other lives and can continue to do so through US.

That day with Gerald and Jim in Pickering will always stay with me. The excitement of unwrapping The Killing of Sister George and feeling that delectable gooseflesh of joy as I watched it courses through me even now.

I want to relive that Saturday sojourn again and again.

That day and everyday that followed was touched by Gerald's presence.

It was magic.

Just like the movies.

Just like the inimitable Gerald Pratley.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Love and Other Drugs

Love and Other Drugs (2010) dir. Edward Zwick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, Josh Gad

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The problem with most of Ed Zwick’s films is the disconnect between the need to tell an important story about issues, whether they’re political, social or otherwise, and the disposability of the genre conventions in which he operates. It never seems to work. For example, Blood Diamond, his film about the diamond trade in Africa, lost its credibility due to the numerous explosions, gunfire and action movie peril in which Leonardo Di Caprio’s character found himself.

Based on the trailers and advertising campaign for Love and Other Drugs, it appeared that we were headed for the tried and tested romantic comedy genre featuring two of Hollywood’s hot young and viral actors. Yet midway through this picture following a second act that consists of one fleshy sex scene after another, we’re bombarded with Zwick’s issue-du-jour.

However, the surprise is that it almost works. Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) is a new drug rep for Pfizer, and his job entails travelling to doctors’ offices to pitch his wares. He’s the ideal person for the job. He’s handsome, gregarious and someone who treats ‘picking up’ women like a science. Indeed, Jamie swoons and beds as many secretaries as he can in order to get his products on the shelves. When he meets Maggie Murdoch (Hathaway), he’s immediately attracted to her whip-smart confident ways – and the breast she pops out of her bra while on the doctor’s table.

They strike up a quick physical love affair, banging just about anywhere they can. Surprisingly though, she’s the one who wants no strings attached. The more time they spend together the more Jamie’s lustre wears off, which reveals his deep connection with Maggie. A life-changing disease gradually enters the fray, and that threatens any kind of permanent bliss James desires. When the passion wears off the pair are forced to deal with the dead serious realities of life and forecast the type of relationship they would have given Maggie’s debilitating predicament.

Maggie’s illness is treated carefully and respectfully. We never really get a bombshell dropped on us, which Zwick could have used to jerk us around. We know from the first meeting with Maggie that she has Parkinson’s, but it’s such a flippant comment that we barely even take her seriously. In fact, I questioned whether she was lying in order to get her hands on some drugs. This misdirect doesn’t quite work, but it’s an admirable attempt to respect the disease.

The film feels like two halves – one fun and wistful and the other sobering and reflective. The picture might have been aided be a permanent switch in tone from one to the other. But where it falls off the rails is the incorporation of romantic comedy tropes once the story is on the trajectory of doom. The lightness in tone and the rom-com chase finale, which is to be expected in this genre, never quite feel right.

It’s a difficult corner for Zwick to back himself into. Part of the story is a powerful existential drama about a man and woman dealing with the eventual dissolve of one’s mental capacity. But of course, this betrays the expectations of the rom-com genre, which could be like the black plague at the box office. There was a chance for Zwick to shatter the notion of the disposability of romantic comedies by force-feeding us a dose of real life to his characters. But the mix of comedy, romance and heavy drama doesn’t quite congeal.

Love and Other Drugs is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Monday, 14 March 2011

The Fighter

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

****

By Alan Bacchus

Back in December I shamed myself for doubting this picture. As I was posting my ‘Best of 2010’ list, I had the opportunity to hold off until I saw this film, but my impatience had me doubting The Fighter. After all, the story of a down-and-out boxer overcoming the odds to win a title shot is perhaps the oldest story in Hollywood, one that is also played out. Knowing that this was originally a Darren Aronofsky project that was passed off to David O. Russell, I questioned the passion of the filmmakers behind this movie.

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

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

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

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

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

The performances in the film are top-notch in every role. It’s one of Christian Bale’s best, as he goes beyond the superficial physical transformation to become an underweight crack addict. We feel the genuine love he has for his brother and his desire to win despite the personal trauma he experiences. Wahlberg admirably assumes the less showy role, a reactive straight man performance, which usually gets overshadowed by the histrionics of the more rowdy characters. Amy Adams and Melissa Leo both shine as two strong women who antagonize each other with Micky in the middle. Both are fighters in their own way who won’t back down from each other.

Although it’s a story of two brothers with a focus on the very masculine world of professional boxing, The Fighter is not a macho film. It’s a universal story of family, mothers, daughters, brothers and the inexplicable bond that can push us all toward extraordinary things.

The Fighter is available on Blu-ray/DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Stand By Me

Stand By Me (1986) dir. Rob Reiner
Starring: Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Kiefer Sutherland

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The expert casting by Reiner and company solidifies the legacy of this fine film. I can’t think of any other group of child actors that commands the screen more effectively and with greater emotional depth than Stand By Me. This is a movie with almost no adult presence. Sure, Kiefer Sutherland and his gang of bullies provide periodic glimpses of young adults, but for 90% of this film we are with four 13 year olds holding their own on camera.

Directors will tell you the secret to directing child actors is casting the right kids and letting them be themselves. For Wheaton, Feldman, O’Connell and arguably River Phoenix, this was the pinnacle of their careers.

Including The Big Chill, The Wonder Years and others, Stand by Me fits in with a common theme of the 80s, filmmakers looking back on 1950's/60's post-war era from the skewed point of view of dreamy nostalgia. Of course, this story originated in a novella by Stephen King, his first non-horror film adapted as a feature. It’s the story of a group of four young teens in a lonely rural town who embark on a two-day hike to find the body of a dead boy.

One of the four kids is Gordie Lachance (Wheaton), a meek and skinny kid with feelings of inadequacy after his older brother passes away. Since the death of his brother, Gordie has retreated to the comfort of his childhood friends and his love of writing. There’s also Teddy Duchamp (Feldman), a loudmouthed shit-disturber who’ll do anything to wind people up, a defence mechanism masking his fractured home life. Vern Tessio (O’Connell) is the fat kid teased and pushed around by his buddies, but still a respected member of the foursome. And lastly, Chris Chambers (Phoenix) is the confident rebel and defender of the group. He’s from a hardened criminal family and desires to escape the expectations of failure that society has placed upon him.

Rob Reiner’s invisible direction is subordinate to the kids’ performances and the mood and tone of the period. The journey is effectively broken down into a number of set pieces along the way. Gordie’s tale of the pie-eating contest, for example, is cleverly incorporated as a story-within-a-story. The chase scene across the train bridge provides the most suspenseful moments, and sharp R-rated humour misdirects us from the sombre finale that awaits the kids.

The film’s narration is essential to conveying the nostalgic qualities of the story. The theme of memory and storytelling mix elegantly. We watch the film from the memories of Gordie as an older man reflecting on the times. We all know the effect of the passage of time – reality shaped by what we choose to remember about the past. As a result, the elder Gordie becomes an ‘unreliable narrator.’ We don’t really know if the actions, altercations and events of these four kids happened exactly as we see them. But based on Gordie’s memories, the tall tales significantly convey the importance of this time on his life as an adult and a father.

Casting Richard Dreyfuss adds even more rich texture to the film. Sure his nasally radio voice has a soothing effect on our ears. But his mere presence connects us to one of the film’s antecedents, American Graffiti, a similar film recalling the same era told with the same style of embellished nostalgia. Stand By Me stands tall beside George Lucas's own celebrated masterpiece.

Stand By Me is available on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Tourist

The Tourist (2010) dir. Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff

*1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Considering the immense talent and money involved with The Tourist, its failure is completely shameful. Everyone deserves a naughty slap on the wrist for this picture. Hell, look at the writing credits – three Oscar winners contributed to this stinking coiler.

It’s as bad as everyone says it is – an elegantly shot and designed yet lifeless comic romance spy thriller set in Venice, where an international thief and his gorgeous girlfriend are due to meet up. It’s a teasing opening, during which Elise (Jolie) is given a letter from a courier while she sips coffee at a Paris cafe. The note is from her lover, Alexander Pearce, who tells her to take a train to Venice and befriend a man who looks similar to him to act as an unwitting decoy. With the British authorities and some Eurotrash gangsters hot on her tail, Elise uses Frank (Depp) as her decoy. Frank is a humble high school math teacher on vacation in Europe by himself – as if.

Despite Elise’s angle, there are some sparks between her and Frank, and when the action and chases start, Frank is caught in the fray. He tries to convince the people shooting at him that he’s just a tourist. The twists are telegraphed from the outset and fool no one about how this film will end.

In between, the emotionless performances from Jolie and Depp will have most people falling asleep on that first train ride to Venice. Jolie still seems to be playing the elusive spy Evelyn Salt and Depp’s only bit of business is his goofy muggings from his Tim Burton comedies.

Everyone phones this one in, including co-writer/director von Donnersmarck, who directs his action without any pacing, creativity or inspiration. Even his studio-shot, blue-screened scenes stand out like bad Hitchcock-era process-work.

Even the usually fantastic composer James Newton Howard was smart enough not to waste his good stuff on this picture. His score disappears into the background and brings up little if any of the emotions of the film.

The most annoying part of the whole endeavour is the amount of time wasted by the director, who previously directed the magnificent The Lives of Others. This is the peak creative period for von Donnersmarck, and arguably at least a film and a half is now lost from him. Let’s try and forget this movie ever happened.

The Tourist is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Enterainment

Friday, 11 March 2011

127 Hours (Second Look)

127 Hours (2010) dir. Danny Boyle
Starring: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara

***

By Alan Bacchus

Looking at this picture for the second time, its strengths remain the same; however, the flaws seem amplified. It’s not an altogether masterpiece, but a commendable and slightly cumbersome ‘experimental’ film from Danny Boyle.

OK, we all know the story... Aron Ralston, a foolhardy independent hiker, embarks on a solo hike into the canyons of Utah where he trips, falls and gets his arm stuck between a rock and the wall of the canyon. After three days and with no other options, he commits an astonishingly gutsy and resourceful act of self-surgery to free himself.

Where the film succeeds, which I pointed out in my first TIFF review, is Danny Boyle’s ability to maintain a level of suspense despite the fact that the outcome of the story is already known. He does this by executing his electric visual style and fantastic ear for music.

Unfortunately, the shortcomings in the first act burden the film even more the second time ‘round. Boyle’s attempts to create an enlivened pace in the opening scene to jumpstart the film, which has been one of his modi operandi throughout his career (see opening chase sequences in Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, etc.), feels forced and unnatural compared to the inherent pace of the story. The split-screen effect showing masses of people moving around and playing sports would seem to imply some kind of metaphor for Aron’s life, which never really emerges substantially. I imagine it’s supposed to present Aron’s frenetic lifestyle, but it feels like too much of a reach for Boyle to create action where there is none.

The bombardment of visual stimuli Boyle throws at us provides terrific eye candy and complements the film’s unique point of view. However, he never goes deep under the surface of Ralston’s predicament. In particular, the earth-shattering instantaneous acknowledgement of what Ralston needs to do to himself in order to escape seems sudden. Like all of Boyle’s movies, 127 Hours is pure visual and aural stimulation but lacks psychologically.

That said, once Ralston starts taking that dull knife to his forearm in the third act, we’re into another movie – an ‘action set piece’ of astonishing emotional power. The grotesque realism of the surgery is wholly necessary, leading us to the powerful flight to safety powered by the awesome music of Sigur Ros. Despite the reservations I have about the first two acts, the third act still makes the hairs on my arms stand on end, not to mention the shivers down my spine and the lump in my throat it produces. And in the big picture, 127 Hours remains a commendable and enviable addition to Danny Boyle’s body of work.

127 Hours is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Four Lions

Four Lions (2010) dir. Chris Morris
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay

***

By Alan Bacchus

Director Chris Morris throws caution to the wind with the biggest set of cinematic balls this side of Werner Herzog. He co-wrote and directed this jet black British comedy about four hapless wannabe Islamic terrorists who declare their own personal Jihad. Miraculously, Morris manages to make terrorism hilarious.

Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a British Muslim living in conspicuously unnamed London. He’s disillusioned with the treatment of Muslims around the world and thus desires to join Al Qaeda. Omar joins up with three other like-minded stooges to plot their own act of terrorism at home. The hapless foursome includes Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a blue-collar Joe and convert to Islam, Waj (Kayvan Novak), a complete dufus who lets Omar do the thinking for him, and Faisal, who is even more hapless and clumsy than Waj.

After a training mission in Afghanistan goes wrong - Omar accidentally fires an RPG backwards into their own desert encampment - Omar and Waj return home to wage war. Their target is a city marathon where they intend to dress up as clowns with bombs hidden under their clothes. But as the clock ticks down, second thoughts about their actions conflict with the patriotic fervour.

Four Lions sits closely with another British black comedy, In the Loop, and the similarities go beyond the tone and subject matter. Both are productions of Film4 in the UK, and director Chris Morris comes from the Armando Iannucci think tank of comedy, having worked with Iannucci and Steve Coogan on BBC2’s The Day Today.

The film scores big points for its sheer audacity, which is found in all great black comedies, as it skewers what’s sacred and delicate. Morris conducts his farce with the same rhythm as the great Brit-coms. Jokes are of the deadpan and slapstick variety in the tradition of the cinematic idiocy of say, Spinal Tap.

Unfortunately, Four Lions is missing some of the cinematic quality of In the Loop, as it often feels contained and closed off, like a television series rather than a larger canvas of a feature film. It also suffers from sameness in some of the characters. Although the four actors have the right type of deadpan comedic timing and charm, there’s little to differentiate between Waj, Barry and Faisal, and the jokes are interchangeable between the three characters.

But for sheer audacity and its tone of irresponsible comic nihilism, Four Lions is a whole lot of fun - just not the gut-buster the high concept implies.

Four Lions is available on DVD in Canada from EOne Entertainment