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

Saturday, 30 April 2011

HOT DOCS 2011: Being Elmo

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (2011) dir. Constance Marks
Documentary

***

By Alan Bacchus

Anyone looking for a salacious and dramatic unveiling of the drama behind the magic of children's puppetry won't find it here. Elmo creator Kevin Clash is not a psychotic introvert with bi-polar syndrome. He doesn't convert his inner angst into the good deeds of his famous red muppet. The inspiration and motivation for Elmo is love, a desire to create a puppet that brings genuine feelings of love and happiness to children. My year-and-a-half-old son loves him unconditionally, and so his success in achieving this is remarkable.

Cinematic theories of storytelling would say that conflict-free stories don't make for good films. Being Elmo is certainly an exception; it's a character study of a very successful, talented and humble man, which leaves the glossy world of Henson puppetry entirely intact and scuff-free.

Director Constance Marks, with help from narrator Whoopi Goldberg, goes back and charts the rise of Kevin Clash, a black man, who, from a somewhat underprivileged household in Baltimore, MD, turned an innate passion for the art of puppetry into one of the most successful children's characters of all time.

Most biographical documentaries of celebrities or artists chronicle the ups and downs of one's career, the struggle to break in, creative challenges and conflicts along the way, and the overall effect of success and celebrity on one's regular life. The most fascinating aspect of this story is the relative ease with which Clash seemingly became successful.

His very first puppet looked like a stroke of genius. Not even his parents understood how an eight-year-old could sew together a puppet with such detail and inspiration as Clash did. From here, it's one success after another. Before he was even out of high school, he had his own locally produced and broadcast TV show. In his early 20s, he was working for his idol Jim Henson on Labyrinth and eventually, Sesame Street. Even the Tickle Me Elmo craze was accidental and not part of Clash's personal ambitions.

There aren't many warts to share in Clash's life. The only negative part of Kevin's journey is his absence in his daughter's childhood. Clash admits during the heyday of Tickle-Me Elmo mania that he put the jet setting publicity lifestyle ahead of his daughter. The elephant in the room that is never addressed is the break up of his marriage. Clash references the mother of his daughter, as his "ex-wife," only once, but curiously never returns to the subject. Other than his childhood and his guilt about his daughter, Being Elmo is devoid of personal details, concentrating only on the fluffy puppets and dream world of Jim Henson.

But this is no puff piece. Strong themes of talent, ambition, mentorship and righteous decency instilled by Jim Henson's legacy run through every experience of Clash's. Being Elmo, which is wholly entertaining and inspiring, provides us with the same genuine warm fuzzies and good feelings we would get from a hug from Elmo, which makes the film just about everything we want it to be.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Friday, 29 April 2011

Somewhere

Somewhere (2010) dir. Sofia Coppola
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

As quiet as a whisper and as light as a feather – blink and you’ll barely miss Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s latest picture. It's a self-confessed antidote picture to the historical and political pressure of portraying Marie Antoinette in her last film. There’s nothing tricky or complex or clever here. It’s a leisurely-paced, poetic vérité film. Take it for what it is.

Coppola admits to wanting to make an experimental film of sorts, a mood piece about feelings and tone and character. But this isn’t really a stretch for Coppola by any means. It’s a natural extension of her continued fascination with the irony of celebrity and the loneliness of fame. Like Bill Murray’s Bob character in Lost in Translation, Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco is a not-too-disguised version of himself, a vagabond actor living in a hotel – the stereotypical life of a bad-boy celebrity. But he also has a daughter, Cleo (Fanning), a sprite 11-year-old, who when her mother abandons her, comes into Johnny’s company. It’s a relationship that might just cause him to change his life for the better.

This is familiar territory, yet Coppola’s no-bullshit style and strict adherence to authenticity and naturalism eschews all the melodramatic clichés of other similar films. Marco changes gradually over the picture, resulting in a very traditional character arc, which satisfies all that we require and desire from any clichéd melodramatic Hollywood picture. This is where Coppola succeeds in creating something personal and experimental but also satisfying and somewhat moving.

While it’s personal, Coppola’s normally vivacious cinematic language is dulled in this picture. There was a palpable sense of energy in both Translation and Antoinette (not in The Virgin Suicides), which is missing here. Her lengthy takes of Marco driving his car in circles (an obvious metaphor for his vapid inner malaise), or Marco staring outside his window, or Marco holding his breath under water are more tedious and uninspired uses of her camera.

With that said, Coppola choreographs a number of brilliant set pieces. Cleo’s figure skating number, for instance, is hypnotic – a simple two-shot scene showing Fanning doing a rudimentary figure skating routine intercut with Dorff’s reactions. Without dialogue, the scene tells us how much Marco has missed in Cleo's life and his innate desire to reconnect with her.

Marco and Cleo’s trip to Italy for his latest junket is also the fun celebrity deconstruction stuff we saw in Lost in Translation. Dorff’s handlers carefully placing him in photo ops and press conferences contrasted against his glum internally tormented psyche is dynamic.

Whether one considers Marie Antoinette a success, Coppola’s ambitiousness to broaden her cinematic world was admirable. And so, some 4 years later, her retreat into the safety net of the Lost in Translation world is disappointing.

Somewhere is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Alliance Films in Canada.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Meek's Cutoff


Meek’s Cutoff (2010) dir. Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, and Shirley Henderson

****

By Blair Stewart

It was around the lengthy shot of Shirley Henderson running across the waste of Oregon's Empty Quarter that I had an inkling I was watching a good film. A pack of emigrants in the awkward stage of the American westward migration follow wilderness trekker Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) on his uncharted hunch towards points unknown. As this film is a bastardized true story, you can assume the settlers’ decision made for a historically unwise shortcut.

A survivalist Western or a cautionary tale from the female perspective, Meek's Cutoff depicts the struggles of human endeavour from the micro-level of three covered wagons at the buffoonish mercy of Meek, all tan buffalo hides and cowboy-shirted bluster, onwards to green grasses that might just be over another hill, thataway. Michelle Williams is Emily, one of the wagoners' wives, cannier than Henderson's brittle missionary, braver than young Zoe Kazan of the fickle gold-seeking couple. Emily and her husband Solomon (Will Patton) stand across the divide of gumption from Greenwood's Meek, and as the wheels croak along dry beds, the campfire whispers grow louder as the water becomes scarcer.

Beyond the dehydration, mountain fever, and Meek's unreliable drunkard shtick that could kill all of them, the tension is further ratcheted up for the travellers with the capture of a lone Indian (Rod Rodneaux), who could be hostile but will also suffice as their saviour if they correctly understand his foreign gestures for water.

Meek's becomes a parable for our age at the fault lines of race and global cohabitation, with the dilemma of the Indian's presence depicted honestly. He thankfully doesn't speak in honourable platitudes, with his strange nature and pagan tongue matching the unease of the dire surroundings. So the wagons stumble down deeper into the valley.

It's rare to view an overlooked perspective on an old-hat film genre such as the lonesome Western, but Meek's succeeds in depicting the quiet dread of the women folk going about their chores while the men folk, out of earshot, discuss the facts of their survival and whether anyone needed to be lynched or throttled that day. Emily and the wives are off-stage extras eavesdropping on a sloppy performance concerning the slim chances of their existence. The mere act of loading gunpowder into a rifle becomes as leaden with portent as the hypothermia killing Jack London's protagonist's in To Build a Fire.

The cast is mostly sterling aside from my indifference for Paul Dano's mannered work, with Greenwood as enjoyably broad as his beard is manky, seeming to arrive straight from the same off-beat travelling Wild West act as Jeff Bridges recent take on Rooster Cogburn. Michelle Williams, in her second lead role for a Reichardt film, plays a fairly modern protagonist (and a mildly unbelievable one based on the time period) with aplomb and admirable cunning when needed. As the director of the praised indies Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt climbs above the modest ambition of her past work into the forefront of American filmmakers making essential stories, as the ending of Meek's Cutoff itself arrived with the surety of buckshot over the plains. So far, it's the best film of 2011 I've seen.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010) dir. David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Frequent visitors to this blog might be familiar with my continued frustration with this series. It might be my fault for not paying attention very closely. But with each successive film after the third episode of the series, the narrative plotting, character motivations and general themes have been like a car spinning its wheels.

It’s been six films now and 10 years, and yet I feel no emotional movement or stake in the jeopardy of these characters. In fact, the most surprising disappointment is the lack of character development for the three leads. I mean, hell, we’ve seen them grow up as kids into teenagers, and other than some minor arguments, cat fights and sullen sulking, these characters are as dull and boring as their child counterparts from The Philosopher’s Stone.

But let’s concentrate on this latest film. Lord Voldemort and his ‘Death Eaters’ have asserted their dominance and control over Hogwarts and placed a dark cloud over the entire world (Earth, I guess? Or just London? Or Britain?). Potter, who is still considered the ‘chosen one’ even though he exhibits nary an ounce of ingenuity, inspiration, or even leadership, has fled to safety using a potion that creates multiple identical versions of himself. While in hiding, a wedding takes place, which alerts Voldemort. This causes Harry, Hermione and Ron to flee to London, where they discover more secrets about the maguffin-like Horcruxes.

The Horcruxes have to be destroyed for some reason, which sends Harry, Hermione and Ron on a Tolkien-like quest across rural England. This leads to the Deathly Hallows, another maguffin-like trio of symbols (a wand, a stone and a cloak), which have to be found before Voldemort discovers them.

Of course, this is a silly summary of the plot, but having been confused by the previous films, it’s the only way to write it. In watching these films now, it’s too late to go back and try to understand who knows what and why, where everyone is and why, and who has what potion or instrument of magic required to kill Voldemort or Harry, so it’s best just to enjoy the eye candy.

Deathly Hallows Part I certainly has the best action of the bunch. In fact, we’re never in the stodgy old Hogwarts Castle (indeed that location has certainly run its course). Instead, we’re treated to some car chases and some gun/wand fights. We never really get a good hand-to-hand fight sequence, but I guess the magic of the wand replaces the need for fisticuffs.

The Potter/Hermione/Ron trio is still boring and dull, and the same goes for Voldemort and the baddies. As an aside, why doesn’t Voldemort have a nose? It’s truly grotesque to look at, and not like a cool bad-guy facial scar or other nasty disfigurement. It’s just plain ugly. As such, Voldemort has never been a bad guy to quietly root for or identify with.

SPOILER alert – there is a genuinely sad moment at the end when Dobby, the little troll-like house elf, dies. He's perhaps my favourite character in the whole series. Tear.

Apologies to all Harry Potter fans for this extremely cheeky review. I’m genuinely glad I’m the only one who doesn’t really get it.

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

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Araya

Araya (1959) dir. Margot Benacerraf
Documentary

****

By Alan Bacchus

The output of distributor Milestone Films is certainly not on the Criterion Collection scale, but over the past 12 years they’ve made some of the most important rediscoveries and preservation projects in international cinema. Among others, there’s I Am Cuba, Killer of Sheep, The Exiles and now Araya.

It stuck out in cinema history as the co-winner of the Cannes International Critics’ Prize in 1959 along with Hiroshima Mon Amour. We all know the other film, but Araya? Never heard of it. While Alain Renais' film became an international success, Margot Benacerraf’s never received thorough distribution and thus got lost.

It’s a magnificent discovery.

With unerring simplicity, Benacerraf creates a marvelous portrait of Venezuela’s working class through the procedural workmanship of the nation's salineros – that is, men and women who mine salt from the earth by hand with only rudimentary tools to aid them.

The stark black and white photography shot with feature film-worthy elegance creates a wholly cinematic feeling to this ‘documentary’. Benacerraf places her camera on dollies and cranes using all facets of the cinema language to showcase the immense scope of the work of the salineros.

Loosely divided into chapters named after each specific subject, we get to see how every waking hour of everyone in the arid Araya region of northeastern Venezuela is dedicated to this menial process. First, there are the men who pull up the salt bricks from the shallow ocean floor, then the hand-powered boats that sail them over to the ‘refinery’ part of the shoreline. By refinery, I mean the men who chop up the bricks into mush from which the salt crystals are extracted. Watching the baskets of salt get transported on top of people’s heads, their feet tortured by the baking hot sun and corrosive salt beneath their souls, is eye-opening. The end of the process is signified by the magnificent image of a series of large salt pyramids dotting the landscape like buildings in a modern skyline.

While the theme of man’s symbiotic connection to nature is clear, the anthropological procedural execution of this system is just as fascinating. Like worker bees making honey or ants organized in their colonies, these people have been doing this job this exact same way for 450 years. From the system of payment to the calculation by hand of each salt ration and the solitary woman whose sole job is to make clay pots by hand, everyone has a place in this society. But with such dependence on one industry so closely tied to the environment, we know by proxy the volatility of this lifestyle.

And this was 1959, before ‘the environment’ was even an issue. But Benacerraf has the foresight to know the shortcomings. Towards the end of the film, she cleverly intercuts a sequence of salt extraction by method of machinery, the speed and efficiency of which tells us exactly what will happen to these people.

This tone of quiet melancholy comes across so elegantly when combined with the lush visuals and poetic omniscient voiceover. Looking back all these years, it’s a shame we’ve only started to talk about this film now. As I was watching it, it unequivocally felt like a classic – wholly accessible, mainstream and compelling. Someone missed the boat in 1959, but better late than never.

Araya is available on Special Edition DVD from Milestone Films.

Monday, 25 April 2011

City Girl


City Girl (1930) dir. F.W. Murnau
Starring: Charles Farrell, Mary Duncan, David Torrence, Edith Yorke

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

By 1930, the ‘sound era’ was well underway. F. W. Murnau (Sunrise), the German emigrant, was still working in the medium. One of his greatest films was made in the sound era – City Girl. Technically, City Girl was a ‘talkie’ as well. Murnau filmed two versions, but unfortunately only the silent one remains. Murnau was a master at silent film, and so it’s difficult to imagine City Girl being improved with sound.

It’s a simple story. Charles Farell plays Lem, a rural farm kid who is sent to the big city of Chicago to sell the family crop. He’s been given specific instructions by Pa to sell it for $15 a bushel or else they won’t be able to survive for the year. Once in the market, Lem sees the price of wheat start to drop sharply, and he sells it for $13.

Meanwhile, when he’s not playing the market, he goes to lunch at a local diner, where he catches the eye of a beautiful young waitress, Kate (Mary Duncan). They fall in love and Lem asks for her hand in marriage before he leaves. Together they move back to the farm. The honeymoon is short-lived as soon as Lem’s crotchety old father takes an instant disliking to Kate. Lem doesn’t stand up for her, which causes their relationship to falter just as quickly as it grew.

The structure provides the audience with two unique film experiences. The Chicago scenes show Lem as the outsider in the fast-paced Big City world – a world so unforgiving and high-pressure that it causes him to sell his crop short. The second half takes place entirely at the farm, where Kate is the one who is out of place. Like Sunrise, the splintered film comments on the differences between city and country.

In Sunrise, Murnau's mobile camera provided a fluid, dream-like point of view into these worlds. In City Girl, his photography of both environments is tableau Whistler-esque portrait-style framing. Though not as flashy, Murnau still frames some stunning imagery.

The remastered DVD from 20th Century Fox, included in their new Murnau/Borzage/Fox box set, is stunning to look at. Ernest Palmer’s B&W is so crisp, it's indiscernible from B&W imagery shot decades later.

Watching City Girl, it’s hard to remember this is the same director of German expressionist classics like Nosferatu and Faust. Sadly, it was the last film from this great filmmaker, as Murnau died a year later in a tragic car accident. Enjoy.

City Girl is available in a special Box Set from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Brighton Rock


Brighton Rock (2010) dir. Rowan Joffe
Starring Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, John Hurt, and Helen Mirren

**

By Blair Stewart

Youthful Pinkie Brown has a pretty boy smile with a heart and soul like a burnt-out piece of meat, nothing left on the plate but some gristle. As the razor-thugs of Brighton cannibalize each other for the protection money and racecourse stubs Pinkie peeps opportunity after his mentor cops it to their rivals. The lad might look a small fry in a sordid haunt but once implicated in gangster payback by a good-girl Catholic witness our wee Pinkie becomes a shark in blood-waters.

Graham Greene's Brighton Rock clawed at the squirmy underbelly of England between the Great Wars, a filthy country stewing in vices and religious angst with Pinkie's teenage psycho on a moral see-saw across from the dull, virtuous Rose flagellating for the Virgin Mary. A 1947 film adaptation by John Boulting not only introduced a memorable creepshow Sir Richard Attenborough in his breakthrough lead role, but the film itself now resides on the same shelf of British film standards along with The Third Man, A Matter of Life and Death and Great Expectations.

Rowan Joffe, son of Roland, who was responsible for The Killing Fields, takes a ballsy step in his debut by updating a classic with Pinkie in the middle of the 1960 Mods and Rockers youth riots of Quadrophenia lore. Sam Riley (who previously made for a bang-on Ian Curtis in the Joy Division biopic Control) steps into Pinkie's shoes, a thirty-year old acting as a teenager more admirably than most people, namely my own broken-down ass. As the Irish waitress, Andrea Riseborough plays an oblivious small-town Red Riding Hood as she mistakes Pinkie's skulking for courtship. Hovering about the curdled love story is Helen Mirren as Rose's knowing boss with raised hackles around the boy, and together with an elegantly wasted John Hurt they play junior detectives. In a cameo, Andy Serkis leaves a trail of resplendent Brylcreem sleaze as the local heavy.

The desperation of scrubs on the margins of the criminal trough produces a yearly crop of worthy film subjects, with David Michod's recent and most excellent Animal Kingdom coming to mind, but this remake (or 're-imaging' or 're-invigorating') of Greene's work has too much starch to it and just ends up poorly baked. Although I can believe Mirren and Hurt as wastrels killing time off the clock in the local pub, the rest of the main cast has a sheen of fakery around them, with a pivotal riot sequence sticking out artificially in example. The 'rampaging' Teddy Boy extras look like they're just going through the motions, and I couldn't buy into Joffe's version of the time, place, or as mentioned, most people. Riley and Riseborough simply don't inhabit their characters, and no amount of vintage set decoration could distract from the dearth of mortal guilt in their eyes when their mouths were saying otherwise.

I came away from Brighton Rock with the impression that the story was updated by three decades for the simple reason of Pinkie on a 60's Vespa looks cool, which just doesn't cut it. Style can only go so far when you fuddle about with the classics. Classics might have heaps of style, but it's the substance that gives a work longevity.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Trouble the Water


Trouble the Water (2008) dir. Carl Deal & Tia Lesson
Documentary

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

'When the Levees Broke', Spike Lee's comprehensive and definitive third-person documentary of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, is a damned near-perfect film. Thankfully, Deal and Lessin's film doesn't compete with this, instead offering the ideal companion piece: a uniquely personal ground zero account of the Katrina disaster that goes beyond the harshness of Mother Nature, past the deep-rooted governmental inefficiencies and exposes the bright light of America's spirit of ambition, competitiveness and survival.

Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott were invisible to American society before Katrina, a couple of poor, black, struggling, lower status citizens living day-to-day. In August, 2005, before the storm hit, Kimberly, sensing the gravitas of the situation, grabbed their cheap consumer DV Camera and started shooting. And so Rivers, the entrepreneur, opportunist and now documentarian gives us a tour of her near-poverty-stricken Ninth Ward district of New Orleans. When the storm hits we become witness to Mother Nature's aggressive wrath and the heroic acts of ordinary people fighting to survive.

As we all know, the storm was only the beginning and Rivers continued to film the sad aftermath, eventually linking up with another documentary crew, who combine and merge their stories into what would become Trouble the Water. Kimberly goes from camera operator to documentary subject and continues to guide us with an astonishing ground level point of view through the absurdities and bewildering, discombobulated bureaucracy that embarrassed America in front of the world. The botched rescue effort is exemplified by the one-on-one conversations with the military personnel who refuse to let the starving and homeless citizens into their base for shelter.

Trouble the Water succeeds because of the infectious personality of Ms. Rivers, an affable and candid subject whose anger and fury are tempered with warm Southern charm. But in the end, it's the realization that her steadfast determination to make good on the American dream is what allowed her to survive and make the best of the disaster.

The DVD features some worthy deleted and expanded scenes, and offers us a chance to see Kimberly and the filmmakers revel in the success of the film. A Q&A with Richard Roeper at the Roger Ebert Film Festival and a one-on-one meeting with the New Orleans Mayor at the Democratic National Convention show the effect of the documentary on Kimberly and her husband as advocates for social change in the country.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Friday, 22 April 2011

Night of the Hunter

Night of the Hunter (1956) dir. Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish, Ben Chapin, Shelley Winters, Peter Graves

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

I can appreciate the reverence of critics and film buff to this film. As shot by the great Stanley Cortez (Magnificent Ambersons), the film is bristling who ominous moody southern Gothic noir-like suspense. There are half a dozen stand alone stunning shots which are simply some of the most memorable shots in cinema history.

Unfortunately, it feels as if the cinematic world at large remembers these few shots more than the film as whole. Which in terms of all storytelling is curiously spotty, and inconsistent.

Let’s start at the beginning. Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell a psychotic evangelical preacher who thinks he speaks to God, which justifies to himself his murderous rampage. While in prison his roommate Ben Harper (Graves) confesses to leaving a fortune from a bank robbery somewhere in his country home. Once out, Harry seeks out Harper and the lost money. Using his good looks and exploiting her susceptibility and fear of God Harry courts Harper’s widow Willa (Winters). But we, the audience, knows where the money is. Young John Harper has it, hidden in his sister doll.

At this point Laughton works on a level of fear of the audience for John. Harry doesn’t know where the money is, but John knows he’s up to no good. Reminiscent of Shadow of a Doubt, Laughton’s direction uses the best Hitchcock technique to create a gritty sense of oncoming doom. While Shadow of a Doubt is precise with it’s narrative, Laughton and writer Agee attempt to create a larger scale chase between John and Harry. The episodic nature of the narrative structure creates an uneven shifts in momentum. At the halfway mark, John and his sister escape into the wild and come into the company of a an elderly widow Rachel Cooper (Gish) who becomes the protector and mother figure to the children.

During this chunk Harry is completely absent. This comes too late in the picture. One of the key images of the film is the awesome shot of Rachel, in the fashion of the Western genre, sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair brandishing a long shot gun, protecting her home stead. This is the revered siege sequence. In the scope of cinema history I always felt the entire movie was this siege. Yet, Harry versus Rachel is less only about 5mins of screentime.

There’s nothing disappointing or ‘misremembered’ from Robert Mitchum’s performance though. He’s consistently awesome and diabolical in the picture. His ‘love/hate’ speech is deservedly iconic – and famously imitated by Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing.

Hunter is also as famous for being actor Charles Laughton’s first and only film he directed. Laughton, of course, was British, and famous for playing in period costume, both characters roles exploiting his enormous girth as in Spartacus as well as iconic literary heroes and villains such as Quasimodo, Captain Bligh, Rembrandt, Claudius and Henry VIII. It’s also an unlikely choice of subject matter, a distinctly ‘American story’, which satirically demonizes the Christian fundamentalist movement in America, and cleverly uses the tropes of two different genres, film noir and the American western.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Pinocchio

Pinocchio (1940) dir. Various
Voices by: Cliff Edwards, Dickie Jones, Christian Rub, Mel Blanc, Walter Catlett, Charles Judels

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

We all remember Pinocchio for the dreamy opening music, ‘When You Wish Upon a Star,’ which became the theme song for the entire Disney Empire. But the rest of the film is a surprisingly terrifying experience, at least for parents. Looking back on the Disney animated version, the story goes like this: a humble and lonely Italian puppeteer, Geppetto, makes a wish upon the first star he sees in the sky, to have his newly created wooden stringed puppet turned into a real boy. Overnight, the blue fairy comes down and grants Geppetto his wish. Pinocchio comes to life, though he is still made of wood and without the ability to grow like a real human.

Though startled, Geppetto accepts the boy puppet as his son and sends him off to school – alone! Pinocchio never even makes it to the school, as he’s intercepted by a nefarious moustache-twirling con artist Fox who tricks him into joining the circus. In reality, the Fox takes a large sum of money from the even more maniacal circus wrangler, Stromboli, in exchange for Pinocchio’s indentured servitude. Hell, Pinocchio even gets locked up in a birdcage as a form of punishment for trying to go home. Pinocchio’s best friend and the embodiment of his ‘conscience’, Jiminy Cricket, saves the day and rescues the boy. But they both soon find out that Geppetto has been swallowed by a whale during his search for Pinocchio. The journey climaxes in the mouth of the whale and a dramatic escape literally from the jaws of death.

As a parent who is about to send his year-and-a-half old son to daycare for the first time, Pinocchio may not have been the best movie to watch. Under Walt Disney’s careful eye, he’s sure to inject all of the thought-provoking moralistic themes of life and death, good and evil. Few ‘cartoons’ had a more palpable and visceral sense of danger or threat on their characters.

Pinocchio is the embodiment of innocence. He’s as naive and inexperienced in life as a newborn child, and so Geppetto’s, and to some degree Jiminy Cricket’s, irresponsibility with Pinocchio’s care is the most grievous act in the film. Both characters let the innocent boy out into the world without any care whatsoever.

Pinocchio’s journey into the seedy underworld of life is wholly traumatic. Stromboli’s gruesome circus prison is dark and disturbing, but the mysterious Pleasure Island, which is cause for nightmares for both adults and children, is downright delirious. After a brief escape, Pinocchio is coaxed back by the Fox to a grotesque amusement park of carnality and debaucherous behaviour. We can’t help but think of what kind of abusive metaphors are at play in this sequence. Sure, we see Pinocchio pressured into gambling, smoking, drinking and engaging in destructive behaviour, but it’s when Pinocchio and the children start sprouting big ears and tails and turning into donkeys that the film starts to warp into a surreptitious drug trip metaphor.

And if there was a lesson for parents to use to educate their children about the dangers of the outside world and the need to guide them toward honesty and decency, read what you like into the creepy conversation between the Fox (aka Foulfellow) and the Coachman, who takes Pinocchio to Pleasure Island:

The Coachman: How would you blokes like to make some real money?
Foulfellow: Well! And who do we have to, eh... [Makes throat-slashing motion]
The Coachman: No, no. Nothing like that. You see...
The Coachman: I'm collecting stupid little boys.
Foulfellow: Stupid little boys?
The Coachman: You know, the disobedient ones who play hooky from school.
Foulfellow: Ohh!
The Coachman: And you see...I takes 'em to Pleasure Island.
Foulfellow: Ah, Pleasure Island. [suddenly shocked] Pleasure Island? But the law! Suppose they...
The Coachman: No, no. There is no risk. They never come back... as BOYS.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Casino Jack

Casino Jack (2010) dir. George Hickenlooper
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Rachelle Lefevre, Jon Lovitz, Kelly Preston

***

By Alan Bacchus

Perhaps three stars doesn’t quite do justice to the tremendous achievement of turning this complex story – the heinous real-life actions of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff – into a sharp, scathing and satirical feature film.

The story of Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), the wily Republican lobbyist who, for however short a time, exploited just about every loophole in American capitalism to establish a wealthy empire, was made into a head-spinning but entertaining comprehensive documentary by Alex Gibney just a year prior to this film. Hell, it even had the same name – Casino Jack – with the subtitle, The United States of Money. The dramatized version could have gone a number of different ways, with numerous stories to be told about the rise and fall of Abramoff, and director Hickenlooper and his filmmaking team confidently find the absolute right tone through which to tell this story.

Hickenlooper begins with Abramoff already established as a super-lobbyist. He’s exploited the low minimum wage laws in the US-controlled Marianas Islands to amass a small fortune, the fruits of which he uses to cozy up to a number of influential congressmen, including the now infamous Tom De Lay. Next up for Abramoff is the cash cow that is Indian casinos. Because of Native American land sovereignty, the casinos can operate with little interference or regulation from the government.

Writer Norman Snider and director Hickenlooper do a remarkable job transforming this story into a very carefully calculated black comedy, the tone of which generates laughs, and most importantly, gets to the heart of how and why Abramoff was able to defraud so much money from the American tax payers. It’s the basis of American capitalism, a system which, for good and bad, encourages people like Abramoff to walk the fine moral and ethical line in order to squeeze as much money out of the system as possible.

Hickenlooper keeps a brisk pace jet-setting around the world to follow his characters. Miraculously, most of this film was shot in Toronto, creatively using Canadian locations to double for numerous international locations, including Miami, Scotland, Washington and more, all contributing the full-scale scope of their influence.

But it’s the performance of Kevin Spacey, who was deservedly nominated for a Golden Globe this year, that makes this film a success. It's a terrific show-offy performance, his best in a decade. Spacey moves between an affable wannabe with delusions of being a Hollywood movie character like the Godfather and the ruthless businessman/entrepreneur only a country like the United States could create. Barry Pepper plays Abramoff’s loose-cannon right-hand man, Mike Scanlan, who makes a wonderful supporting character. Both men are portrayed as naive frat boys intoxicated by money and power and supremely cocky and brazen, amplifying their performances to the extreme for the sake of comedy and to complement the astonishing level of immaturity that brought them down.

Sadly, George Hickenlooper died at a young age last year, before the film even received its theatrical release. It's a shame, but his legacy is strong. Other than Casino Jack, he will also always be remembered for his great Apocalypse Now documentary Hearts of Darknness.

Casino Jack is available on Blu-ray and DVD from E1 Entertainment in Canada.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Way Back


The Way Back (2010) dir. by Peter Weir
Starring Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan.

**

By Blair Stewart

Slawomir Rawicz performed a heroic feat of endurance after the Polish army officer was imprisoned to suffer the likelihood of a wintry death in a Stalin-era gulag. But Rawicz's memoir The Long Walk told the story of him breaking out of the gulag with a ragtag gang of prisoners and their feats of survival as they traversed the unforgiving lands of Siberia, the Gobi desert and even the mighty Himalayas to find a safe haven in British-occupied India. It’s an extraordinary tale of courage and fraternity under the most dire of circumstances, worthy of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's stamina or the Stella Maris College's Old Christians Rugby Team survival while trapped up in the Andes.

Sadly, The Long Walk was mostly bunk.

A Soviet amnesty pardon for foreign soldiers saved Slawomir's hide, not an indomitable will to live, no doubt much to the chagrin of explorers who've retraced Rawicz's steps after being inspired by his negligible exploits. He was also jailed for killing a member of the NKVD (the KGB back in the old days) instead of false charges of spying by the Soviet authorities, as he had stated. I found this out after the film, but with my opinion of The Way Back fairly concrete by the time, I was doubly-disappointed. Oh well, Farley Mowat's a pretty good bullshitter too, and you don't see too many Canadians complaining about Never Cry Wolf, do you?

Peter Weir, as one of Australia's greatest directors, had the rug pulled out from under him on a recent adaptation of Shantaram with Johnny Depp, most likely buying property in development hell for good. This despite Weir's 2003 Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World standing as one of the finest films Hollywood has produced in the past two decades, and a fair reason why I was looking forward to The Way Back. Jim Sturgess stars as a noble Rawicz-ish fellow unjustly imprisoned in Siberia. Our protagonist hatches a plan to escape through the Earth's cruelest terrain with the accompaniment of a wildcat Russian thug (Colin Farrell) of unknown whereabouts, a taciturn American (Ed Harris) of unknown whereabouts, a Polish girl (Saoirse Ronan) of unknown whereabouts and the other escapees consisting of a hodgepodge of unknowns.

Now, the essentials of a great movie are all in play; Weir's directing, Russell Boyd as Weir's cinematographer, a fine, if unspectacular, cast and an epic story from a now-iffy source. And yet the journey becomes a chore.

The obvious challenge of telling the story is taking the viewer from point A to point B while maintaining interest in what happens within the vacuum, and The Way Back can't sustain internal drama during the travels.

The problems build from the title card. After the enjoyably self-indulgent sequence of Hans Landa's verbal jousting in Inglorious Basterds’ opening act, it's hard to view the cross-examination of Sturgess's character by the Russkies in this work and not feel the moment should be filed under 'canned predictable interrogation'. We've watched this scene many times before, so how can it be done better? Perhaps lay a sacrifice at the risky altar of 'artistic license'?

The usual plot boxes are ticked off on the path to the end credits – water and food are found, water and food are lost, a few contract players and a top-liner drop dead, life goes on, roll credits and get the hell out of the theater. I found the predictability of The Way Back crushing. This could have been a subject worthy of a Maurice Jarre sweeping score and iconic roles for all. Colin Farrell does fine work as the wild card murderer, and Ed Harris does his Ed Harris thing, but otherwise it's just English actors doing their best Russian impersonations on the cusp of looking for 'moose and squirrel'.

Now, despite my regard for Master and Commander, there's a flaw to it that still pricks me on subsequent viewings, and it occurs once again in the first half of Weir's latest. It's his disregard for building dramatic action in vital scenes. In the climax of Master and Commander, when the French warship is barrelling towards Russell Crowe's men, Weir eschewed the tension as they quickly leapt into battle, whereas the likes of Leone would have drawn out the drama like putty.

If the audience hasn't walked out on you, why not have some fun with suspense and denial of release? In his latest work, a pivotal moment would be the jailbreak before the death march down to India, where tension can be ratcheted up as the men flee their captors. But what do we get? A few hushed exchanges and then a sharp cut to the men stumbling through a blizzard post-escape. If the source material is faked, surely you could take liberties, no? If the rest of your film is exhaustion, starvation and walking (and walking, walking, walking...), perhaps one should make the most of the opportunity. This struck me as a dry, half-assed approach to the material – a re-hashing of movie tropes to 'just play it safe'. Perhaps the family-friendly influence of benefactors National Geographic Films and Imagenation Abu Dhabi weighed upon the filmed content, as in reality, Saoirse Ronan wouldn't have lasted long in the company of desperate Russian criminals. I'm not too certain of the validity of some of the classic sequences in David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai and Malick's The Thin Red Line (my Dad, after viewing the latter, spoke of the Malick scripted soldier's voiceover as, "Any Marine who started whining and going on about nature like that during the battle of Guadalcanal would have been shot for sedition."), but I can't argue with their cinematic results. You take a risk, you might get an award. You play it safe, and the film passes you by.

I hope this isn't the case with Peter Weir.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Le Plaisir

Le Plaisir (1952) dir. Max Ophüls
Starring: Pierre Brasseur, René Blancard, Henri Crémieux, Claude Dalphin, Danielle Darrieux, Arthur Devère, Paulette Dubost, Jean Gabin

***

By Alan Bacchus

The title of this whimsical French classic translates to 'pleasure', a theme that provides the link between this  highly influential social commentary triptych. For filmmakers today, Ophüls’ relevance and influence can be seen in the works of Paul Thomas Anderson, Baz Luhrmann, Terry Gilliam, Todd Haynes and even Stanley Kubrick.

Some might say those famous tracking shots from Kubrick are directly influenced by the work of Ophüls in his three films from 1950-1953 (including La Ronde and The Earrings of Madame de...). It’s a trilogy of sorts, famous for a supremely languid camera style, in which tracking shots are breezily moved through rooms, hallways and staircases with ease.

In Le Plaisir, his camera is at its most expressive in the first segment, Le Masque, which tells the story of a party-goer who gallivants around parties under the facemask of a young gentleman dandy. But when he suffers a heart attack from his exhaustive behaviour, it’s revealed that the gentleman is actually an older man. The notion of identity and the attempt to replace age with youth in the form of a mask is fascinatingly tragic.

Ophüls' choreography of carnival-type movement in the ball is hallucinatory, graceful and controlled, which contrasts so beautifully with the debaucherous chaos of the drunken festivities. Stanley Kubrick was said to have studied Le Masque as inspiration for how to shoot his own ball sequence in the opening of Eyes Wide Shut. Indeed, it's easy to see the connection in style and their mutual fascinations with the sophisticated and the sleazy.

That said, for myself, I don’t revere La Ronde or The Earrings of Madame de... as much as these other filmmakers. For camera elegance, I prefer to watch the early films of Orson Welles or David Lean, and the grandiloquent Soviet films of Mikhail Kalatozov a few years later.

Ophüls’ films are distinctly French, both for the good and the bad. His critique of social aristocracy and his love for lowbrow corset-wearing French prostitutes is delightfully tawdry, but at the same time vaguely snobby. Between these three films, Ophüls’ grand statement is made in Le Masque, the summation of his greatness in about 20 minutes of film. For Ophüls newbies, I'd start here.

Le Plaisir and the other Ophüls films mentioned here are available from the Criterion Collection.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The King's Speech

The King’s Speech (2010) dir. Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi

****

By Alan Bacchus

I still have sour grapes from the victory of The King's Speech over The Social Network. Until David Fincher gets his Oscar, I might continue to harbour ill feelings about this film. But it's a pretty good movie. I can't deny it that. It's on DVD/Blu-ray now, and it holds up well on second viewing and on the small screen. Here's my original review.

There seems to be an endless number of Oscar-worthy stories produced about the Royal Family. This year’s awards fodder is the story of King George VI, the quiet king and father of Queen Elizabeth II, who took over from the abdicated Edward VIII, and who famously had a stutter. Of course, it’s a classy affair full of handsome performances, but Hooper manages to avoid the usual stodginess of this type of material with a distinct visual design and a deep affection and accessibility of his characters.

Hooper starts off in 1925, when then Duke of York, Albert (his real name), played by Colin Firth, is all sweaty palms in anticipation of a speech he’s required to make at Wembley Stadium. Due to his stammering, the speech is a disaster, an event which public humiliates him. Moving on to 1932, after working with numerous speech therapists, Albert, or Bertie as he was affectionately known, swears off all treatment. That is, until his devoted wife Elizabeth, aka “the Queen Mother” (Bonham-Carter), seeks out a renowned but ‘common’ Australian speech defect therapist, Dr. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). A meeting is arranged, during which the sly doctor manages to prove to the doubting Bertie that his condition is psychological. With trust fully in place, the pair embarks on a decades-long journey toward the rehabilitation of Bertie’s body and soul.

Upon this routine narrative skeleton that is the close relationship of doctor and patient, Hooper hangs a rather far reaching and expansive story of not only tumultuous British Royal politics, but also the dramatic events of the 1930s that led to WWII.

Rush and Firth make tremendous friends and adversaries. The initial stand-off between doctor and patient goes deep through a number of fascinating levels. First, there’s the obvious embarrassment of Albert, who has to open his inadequacies to a total stranger. There’s also the socio-economic/class separation, which, at a glance, would seem petty and frivolous. But considering the time and place in which the film takes place, there’s both realism and drama when Albert says something like, “I’ve never been alone in a room with someone like you.” Indeed, Logue meeting Albert is like oil and water, but a remarkably profound and emotional relationship develops ever so slowly over these years.

King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson, the twice-divorced American socialite whom he marries forcing him to abdicate the throne, are made out to be the villains and as played by Guy Pearce and Eve Best, pompous boobs, really. A curious choice, considering history has always portrayed the pair as romantic heroes for choosing love over fame, power and celebrity. It was a little off-putting, though I guess the reality lies somewhere in between these two characterizations.

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush rightfully deserve their acclaim, and both might just win Oscars for their roles, but Hooper’s direction should not go unnoticed either. His lens work is more than just point-and-shoot or beautifying the era, as he makes a conscious effort to show us something fresh. All things considered, it’s a rather awkward visual philosophy using wide-angle lenses to open up space in the frame vertically. Most of his compositions frame his characters in the lower half of the screen, filling the negative space with the expansive rooms, staircases or cloudy London skies. But with this approach, Hooper is forced to put his actors closer to the camera, which translates subliminally to being closer to the audience.

The screenplay is as perfect as any of these period dramas. The lengthy time frame is compressed with just a couple montage scenes, and when the film does abruptly cut to 3 or 4 or 5 years later, we never feel as if we’ve missed out or been hopscotching through history. The speech in the final act is inspiring stuff, as not only does it narratively bookend the opening and closing of George’s character arc, but it shows the effect of his personal journey on the fate of the world at large. The stakes couldn’t be any higher, and the gravitas of the moment is paid off by Hooper’s superb direction of this final set piece.

In the end, The King’s Speech manages to humanize these entitled Royals better than any other film of recent memory. Despite George’s right, title and privilege, he’s a self-hating broken man, emasculated by his stutter. And Hooper makes us feel every moment of his pain, as well as his eventual triumphs.

The King's Speech is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Brink's Job

The Brink’s Job (1979) dir. William Friedkin
Starring: Peter Falk, Paul Sorvino, Gena Rowlands, Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield, Warren Oates

**

By Alan Bacchus

I guess there’s a reason I’ve never heard anyone talk about this movie, let alone see it. It seems to have been deliberately buried in the filmography of William Friedkin. His back-to-back hit films The French Connection and The Exorcist are legendary. Even his remake of Wages of Fear in 1977, Sorcerer, though not available on DVD or Blu-ray, is a cult hit film, revered by those who know and appreciate it. Hell, even Cruisin’ (1980), the controversial serial killer film set in the gay underworld of NYC, got a decent DVD re-release a couple of years ago.

The Brink’s Job fits right in between Sorcerer and Cruisin’. It’s a ‘caper comedy’ like The Sting or The Great Train Robbery, in which the job of crime is made fun by the dandy personalities of its lead characters, the nostalgic time period (in this case, the 50s) and the overall desire for audiences to see working class Joes ‘stick it to the man’. Unfortunately, The Brink’s Job is so light, fluffy and unmemorable, I now see why it’s only a blip on Friedkin’s radar.

Peter Falk plays Tony Pino, a career criminal in Boston, Mass., who is caught and sent to prison for burglary. When he gets out, his attempts to go straight don’t last too long, and soon his need to steal returns in full force when the sight of the large sums of money being loaded into a Brink’s truck throws him off the wagon.

His first job seems so easy – lifting some money bags from the back of a number of trucks with ease. When this job doesn't make it to the press, the idea pops into Tony’s head that the negative publicity of such a robbery would look bad for the bank's reputation. Thus, they scheme to steal even more money from the falsely impenetrable Brink’s bank. After staking out the joint, Tony and his hoodlum colleagues systematically break in and take ‘em for everything they’ve got. It’s only after the job that loose tongues and internal jealousies compound and threaten to implode the whole affair.

Though the film is based on a true story, once called “The Crime of the Century”, the normally tough writer Walon Green (Sorcerer, The Wild Bunch) turns in a script so slight and undramatic that there’s little, if any, stake for the audience or the characters in these crimes. The tone established is so light and fun, there’s almost no threat whatsoever to these characters. At every turn, the jobs Tony pulls have minimal suspense. It requires little effort for him to steal from the trucks, and his numerous break-ins to the Brink’s building are executed with such ease that all tension is nullified.

Unless you count Peter Falk’s goofy, lazy-eyed antics as funny, other than some silly slapstick from Allen Garfield, the film is a comedic dead zone.

The robbery in this film is the absence of Friedkin’s recognizable robust streetwise style. Though production values are handsome, there’s no edge or semblance of suspense. Hell, not even a chase scene of any kind.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Hazard

Hazard (2008) dir. Sion Sono
Starring: Jô Odagiri, Jai West, Motoki Fukami, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Rin Kurana

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Shinichi is a restless Japanese youth bored of his saccharine lifestyle in suburban Tokyo and looking for excitement. He picks up a handbook of the most dangerous places on Earth and finds New York City. So there he goes on an adventure in the urban and exotic environment many Japanese youths only know by its Hollywood depictions and its once sordid reputation.

Quickly, Shin finds himself an alien in the big city and even gets mugged on his first day. But when he meets Lee, a Japanese-American hustling on the street with a coterie of minor gangland troublemakers, he finds his way into the subculture of urban anarchy he’s been looking for. Imagine a mash-up of Kubrick’s droogs, Trainspotting’s Begbie and those crazy Italian youths from Gomorrah with Lee as their ‘Artful Dodger’.

We’re in the strange world of Japanese extreme cinema here, and this one is off-the-wall, even by Japanese standards. The New York in this picture is a cinematic impression of the city completely outside of reality, but with a peculiar Japanese point of view of a big, bad alien, and thus hazardous, environment.

Of course, we don’t get traditional storytelling either. Instead, Director Sion Sono coasts on a constant flow of freewheeling narrative chaos. He shoots the film using a mixture of English and Japanese on location in New York with super grainy lightweight cameras. I imagine few, if any, permits or organized crowd control were involved. Sono has his actors often interacting with local New Yorkers on the streets with a kinetic run-and-gun ‘let’s steal the shot’ attitude.

There’s an exhaustion that sets in somewhere at the midpoint when social disturbance after social disturbance becomes repetitious, as Lee and his gang, seemingly without an off-button, continue to throw their hands in the air and yell ‘whoooo’ in praise of their disdain for authority. Hazard is definitely not for the mainstream, but it might pique the interest of fans of Japanese cinema and urban subculture, or fans of edge-pushing filmmakers like Larry Clark or Harmony Korine.

The Evocative Films disc is well packaged with a healthy liner notebook of thoughtful essays and stills of the film. The special features include a behind-the-scenes making-of documentary (in Japanese only) and an informative interview with Sono discussing his inspirations for the film.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof (1971) dir. Norman Jewison
Starring: Chaim Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris
Michèle Marsh, Neva Small

****

By Alan Bacchus

A couple of days ago, I discussed the fabulous NFB documentary Norman Jewison, Filmmaker, which is included on the new Blu-ray 40th Anniversary release of Fiddler on the Roof. Here's my discussion of the original film, which is still a fantastic picture.

With his adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof from the successful stage production to the screen, director Norman Jewison executes at once a thrilling and extravagant musical in the grand old ways of studio Hollywood while using the context of the impending Russian Revolution. It’s a sombre reflection on how the march of time can quickly erase centuries-old traditions and history.

As proclaimed in the opening musical number, the film is about 'tradition'. Specifically, it’s about the family traditions of Tevye’s people, Ukrainian Jews, who for centuries have done things a certain way, the duties of the family set out and adhered to without question. Like the grass is green, so are the traditions of Tevye’s life. And so when his three daughters, all of whom have entered marrying age, one by one choose the modern version of courtship over the traditional arrangement, Tevye's life comes crashing down.

The narrative structure coincides with the romances of each of the three daughters. There’s the eldest daughter, Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), who is set up with an older widower because he has money. But the young gal is clearly in love with the lowly tailor – a fact that everyone in the town knows except Tevye. Adding fuel to Tevye's fire is the second daughter, Hodel, who shacks up with the local Marxist, Perchik. And as much as Tevye is a man of principle and tradition, he can't help but give in to their demands. But the last straw is Chava (Neva Small), who elopes with her Russian Orthodox beau, which causes Tevye to put his foot down on faith and disown his youngest daughter.

At three hours in duration, it’s long and indeed the two hours before the intermission fly by at lightning speed. Arguably, the final third is a different film. As the parallel story of the Russian Revolution catches up to Tevye, the film turns serious with a very dark dose of new century reality. Not only are Tevye's traditions crashing down, but his entire way of life will be instantly thrown upside-down. As Jews, they will be thrown off their land, and presumably later in life, they will suffer even worse fates.

As the anchor, Topol is magnetic. The Israeli star appeared in the London production and in the film version, which was nominated for an Oscar. Topol exudes great strength as a father, as well as a vulnerable emotional side when his traditions are challenged by his daughters.

Jerome Robbins’ choreography, like his other great cinematic ventures, West Side Story, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The King and I, is rooted in the reality of the story. Unlike the fantasies of say Gene Kelly, Robbins' sequences don't so much provide audiences with imaginative escapism as they do distinct expressions of the emotion and action of a particular scene. For instance, the great wedding scene at the end of the second act features a number of precise dance numbers, all of which are organically tied to the traditions of the event.

One of the more ironic stories to emerge from the making of this film is the description of the inadvertent error made by the studio in their decision to hire Jewison, based on his name. Well, despite his name, Norman Jewison is not Jewish. But he still delivered a great Jewish movie and a timeless classic.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Now, Voyager

Now, Voyager (1942) dir. Irving Rapper
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Bonita Granville

****

By Alan Bacchus

Now, Voyager is an astonishingly emotional and epic melodrama of the highest order. Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce is running on HBO right now. It’s a decent re-imagining of the novel that was turned into the now classic Warner Bros. Joan Crawford vehicle in 1945. Now, Voyager, however, dramatizes a character arc so grand and powerful, in terms of shear emotional distance it trumps both versions of Mildred Pierce.

Poor Charlotte Vale (Davis) lives a privileged life as the youngest daughter of an old wealthy widow, Mrs. Vale (Cooper). While she stands to inherit the family fortune as her mother’s unwanted child, Charlotte become the runt of the family, indentured by her tyrannical mother to be husbandless, childless and a broken down mirror of her sad mother.

When a good natured and concerned psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith (Rains), comes along, the ugly duckling is given a chance to break out of her shell and blossom into a real woman. After a period in the doctor’s solitary care, Charlotte’s new social skills are tested when she’s sent on a vacation cruise to Brazil. The exotic locale and social freedom become a transformative experience, especially when she finds love with a handsome fellow traveller, Jerry Durrence (Henreid). Unfortunately, Jerry’s married, though unhappily. This is just one complication in the epic journey for Charlotte. Battling the near psychotic, passive-aggressive evils of her mother, her desire to become an independent woman and find true love with a man seem to run counter to each other.

It’s a landmark role for Davis, the epitome of the strong female lead roles which were commonplace in the Hollywood heydey but gradually disappeared. Just the physical transformation from the dowdy and depressed homebody she’s introduced as to the strikingly beautiful, sophisticated socialite she becomes is astonishing, let alone the subtlety of her posture, rhythm of speech, walking gait and emotional confidence.

In the Todd Haynes version of Mildred Pierce, he seems to have attempted to strip out the melodramatic tone, instead plugging in a new kind of modern realism. Without this filter, much is lost. The Hollywood melodramatic filter applied to Now, Voyager is the stuff of great storytelling and pure cinema. The core conflicts are identifiable to all of us. Whether or not we are the child in a wealthy family, the power and control a mother has over her child is a fundamental conflict with which we can identify.

Director Rapper directs Charlotte’s mother into such extremes that she becomes a pure kind of evil – that Lady Macbeth or Iago kind of evil, so diabolically manipulative we can’t help but yearn for Charlotte’s escape. We’re always rooting for Charlotte to transform her life from the outset.

Even Jerry Durrance, who represents the pull away from her mother, is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When it appears that Jerry and Charlotte could be together, Rapper and his writers throw even more obstacles in front of her attaining complete satisfaction. By the end, Charlotte’s victories are earth-shatteringly triumphant and her losses severely tragic. Moving so boldly and quickly through these extremes is what makes melodrama so effective and entertaining.

And this is one of the greats.

Now, Voyager is available on the Bette Davis 4-Film Collection, along with Dark Victory, Old Acquaintance and Jezebel from Warner Home Entertainment/Turner Classic Movies.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Norman Jewison, Filmmaker

Norman Jewison, Filmmaker (1971) dir. Douglas Jackson
Documentary

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Fiddler on the Roof is now available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment. Of course, it looks fabulous. It was a high profile project back in the day. The production values were top notch and it was a slick Hollywood production made in the very un-Hollywood location of Yugoslavia for some Eastern European authenticity. Everyone should pick up the Blu-ray regardless of what else is included on the disc. But even if Fiddler doesn’t turn your crank, the inclusion of the National Film Board of Canada documentary Norman Jewison, Filmmaker is cause for celebration.

It’s certainly not highlighted to stand out in the requisite tiny font under the Special Feature section of the packaging. I’m not surprised. For most of these Special Edition Discs, the marketable element is the QUANTITY of extra goodies, as opposed to the quality. As such, it’s just one of a list of featurettes, commentaries, etc., but there’s something extra special about this feature.

As filmed by the NFB, Norman Jewison, Filmmaker feels like a template for what modern behind-the-scenes featurettes are today. It was extremely rare before the home video days for audiences to see how films were made. Hell, it was shot on real film (either 16mm or 35mm, it’s difficult to tell), thus it has a cinematic look of its own with all the grain and texture of the real film medium.

We get nearly unprecedented access to a great Hollywood artist at the top of his craft executing a very difficult film. Though Jewison has been known as one of the nice guys in Hollywood, he’s not immune to losing his temper, and we get a decent flavour of the pressures that face a producer/director such as Jewison while making an expensive Hollywood film.

Watching Jewison direct a scene is a treat. In the traditional fly-on-the-wall manner, doc director Douglas Jackson observes Jewison directing Topol and choreographing the large musical sequences with complete command and confidence in his craft.

Canadian filmmakers know Jewison as a staunchly patriotic ex-pat who started directing CBC television, made his fame and fortune in Hollywood and then gave back just as much to the domestic industry here in the form of the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) - the equivalent of the AFI in the United States and the BFI in Britain. Even in 1971, the documentary speaks to this maverick voice and passionate supporter of new talent. And his comment on the burgeoning independent film movement shows his hand at the pulse of new Hollywood.

Both Jewison and the National Film Board are Canadian treasures, and the combination of these two great ‘institutions’ of cinema in one place is one of the most joyous, accidental discoveries I’ve seen on any DVD/Blu-ray.

'Norman Jewison, Filmmaker' is available with 'Fiddler on the Roof' on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment.

Monday, 11 April 2011

City of Men


City of Men (2007) dir. Paulo Morelli
Starring: Douglas Silva, Darlan Cunha, Rodrigo dos Santos, Camila Monteiro, Jonathan Haagensen

***

By Alan Bacchus

Following City of God and the Brazilian TV series of the same name, Paulo Morelli’s City of Men continues the tales of youth and gang culture in Rio de Janeiro. City of Men is the less flashy little brother to Mereilles' seminal film, but also a deserving follow up and, in many ways, a more satisfying experience.

Though similar in look and style, Morelli’s film is not a sequel to City of God – only the theme, location and visual style join the two films together. City of Men takes place in present day and portrays the lives of Ace and Wallace, two 17-year-old youths whose futures are uncertain. Being poor and uneducated, university is out of the question. The threat of gang involvement, which is only one degree of separation away from both boys, looms over them. One of the roots of their uncertainty is their lack of fathers.

Ace and Wallace decide to search for their real fathers. If you’re poor, it’s difficult to leave the slum, so their search is a matter of asking the elder locals for information. They discover that both of them descend from the gangster lifestyle, which seems to breed a circle of crime. Ace discovers his father was killed during a gang hit many years ago, and Wallace tracks down his father, Heraldo, now on probation after a 15-year stint in prison. While Wallace’s relationship with his father grows, his friendship with Ace dissolves. When the local gang battles become more violent, suddenly Ace and Wallace find themselves as bitter enemies.

Morelli smartly contains his film and doesn’t try to out sprawl Mereilles’ epic. City of Men is focused on Ace and Wallace for the entire film. It doesn’t rely on the Scorsese-isms that Mereilles injected into his film. City of Men is a slower and more intimate realist experience.

The young men who play the rambunctious but dangerous street kids bring authenticity and warmth to the film. Even though violence and murderous behaviour is present, ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ aren’t so easily definable as in City of God. Midnight is the leader of one gang – he’s an honourable young man who desires to organize the kids of his “hill”. Fasto, Midnight’s rival, splits from the gang after refusing to kill was one of his men for insubordination. City of God gave us true movie villains, like L’il Ze – monstrous (but entertaining) caricatures of gang leaders. As a result, City of Men feels more authentic.

The first half of the film is the strongest – establishing the relationship between Ace and Wallace and the complexities of the street. But when the sensational gang battles enter the picture, Morelli’s characters take a back seat to the gunplay and the action. It provides a rousing final act, but at the sacrifice of its true heart.

What never wavers is the documentary-like street feel of the film. It’s gorgeous to watch. Morelli and cinematographer Adriano Goldman bathe their frames in sundrenched yellows and golds. A nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Gilda

Gilda (1946) dir. Charles Vidor
Starring: Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth, George MacCready

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The Hollywood "Production Code", the 38-year filter for all things ‘inappropriate’ in Hollywood cinema, was in effect during the making of Gilda – Charles Vidor’s classic sexually-charged nourish melodrama, which serves as a great example of how films of the era both benefited from and were hindered by these restraints.

Vidor and his writers establish a Casablanca-type insular world in Gilda. It’s Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Glenn Ford plays Johnnie Farrell, a professional gambler hired by businessman Ballin Munson (George MacCready, the bombastic General in Paths of Glory) to use his skills to manage his casino. Johnnie makes good with his job commanding the reigns with the same confidence as Rick Blaine in Casablanca.

But when Munson comes back from a business trip with a new wife, it’s a red flag for Johnnie. And when he first catches sight of the seductress mantrap Munson's found, he can only see danger. The luscious Rita Hayworth plays Gilda with mouthwatering allure. Immediately we sense a connection between her and Johnnie. Do they know each other? Perhaps not, but Johnnie knows a dame in this business is never good. As Johnnie tries to curb Gilda’s flirtations, they become inexorably drawn to each other. But a love triangle with big money at stake can only result in disaster.

In this "Production Code" era, a distinct style of metaphorical filmmaking resulted from the inability of filmmakers to show or tell us some of the more immoral aspects of their films overtly. Many films benefited from this restraint – a film like The Big Sleep, in which much of the lewd and subversive elements were put deep into the background and subtext of the story.

Few, if any, films compare to the sexual tension Charles Vidor manages to ring out from Johnnie’s relationship with Gilda. For much of the film they hate each other's guts, often spelling it out clearly with lines like, “I hated her so I couldn't get her out of my mind for a minute,” or “I hate you so much I think I'm going to die from it." Yet Vidor’s framing of Hayworth and Ford and the close-ups he lingers on suggest more. Their back story is only hinted at and never fully explained. I still don’t know for certain whether Johnnie and Gilda had a relationship prior to meeting at the Casino, and if so, where did it start and what caused its demise?

It's part of the big tease Vidor holds on us for two-thirds of the picture until finally the two tempestuous ex-lovers break the barrier and kiss. This scene, which occurs in Gilda’s bedroom on the evening of the Carnival celebration, is dripping with sexual tension. Hayworth closes in on Ford so slowly we can feel the carnal urges of his character trying not to do what his libido is telling him to. Johnnie eventually does succumb to Gilda’s advances, at which point a sweaty sex scene would be in order. Of course, we don’t ever see it. Instead, the film jumps forward to a marriage between the two.

A marriage between these characters, under the "Production Code", perhaps wouldn’t have been allowed. After all, the two heroes of the film kissing and (likely) going to bed together without getting married was a no-no. And so, in the final act, the film plays out a scattered plot divergence of this marriage between Gilda and Johnnie. Unfortunately, it’s a dreadful finale to an otherwise pitch-perfect picture.

I can forgive this unhealthy digression in the film because of the 90 minutes of perfection the film achieves before it. Vidor’s keen cinematic eye and Rudolph Mate’s stylish cinematography embellishes all the texture established by the performances. In the history of cinema, few leading ladies have been lit better than Mate’s work on Rita Hayworth. It’s the finest example of lighting used to express the mood and desires of a character. Hayworth’s opening shot, of course, is famous. As Johnnie is introduced to Gilda, we see her pop up into frame in a soft close-up flopping her hair back with a cool flirtatious attitude. But watch Hayworth's movement throughout her scenes, as a strong backlight always seems to follow her (and only her) wherever she goes. At all times she’s glowing like a beacon or a siren tempting us over to her dark side of carnality.

With today's eyes, perhaps it's a sexist view of women as the object of desire with an ability to turn men into mouthwatering dogs at the mercy of their sexuality. Maybe not much has changed, but no film has done it better than Gilda.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

L'Affaire Farewell


L’Affaire Farewell (2010) dir. Christian Carion
Starring: Guillaume Canet, Emir Kusturica, Willem Dafoe, Fred Ward, Alexandra Maria Lara, Niels Arestrup, Dina Korzun

***1/2


By Alan Bacchus

If anything, this absorbing too-real-to-be-true spy story underplays the significance of the real life events of 1981 depicted in this film. In the early days of the Reagan Presidential era, a series of complex spy games resulted in the transfer of vital Soviet documents from Moscow, through Paris, to Washington. The documents included Soviet copies of the NASA Space Shuttle blueprints and a top secret list of Communist spies within the CIA, FBI and the White House.

Christian Carion (Joyeux Noel) executes this potent firecracker story with the sensitivity of an intimate character film. The key relationship is the working friendship between Pierre Froment (Canet), a French engineer working for the French embassy in Moscow, and Sergei Gregoriev (Kusturica), a high ranking KGB operative who risks his life and his family for his political values.

Sergei and Pierre meet almost coincidentally when Pierre is instructed by his superiors to exchange a small package with a suspected Soviet informer. This one act turns into a lengthy series of secret exchanges and increasingly dangerous spy games. Through their intimate meetings, we get to know their characters, both of them humble men who work in secret, fearful of the backlash from their families. At the same time, we see the big picture ramifications of their actions. Fred Ward plays Ronald Reagan and Philippe Magnon plays Francois Mitterand, both of whom trade this information like baseball cards, neglectful of the personal risk taken by their courageous operatives.

Cold War spy games like these always make for great cinema. And Carion’s treatment of this subject has all the quiet tension of a John le Carré novel or something with Gene Hackman in it. There are no action scenes, yet we’re not without a sense of impending danger. Carion clearly shows the importance of family. These are the stakes for Sergei and Pierre. Sergei’s inner conflict is the battle between his patriotic desire to see Russia rise from the idealistic ashes of Communism and his desire to be a family man and care for his son and wife. He commits several acts of betrayal along the way, including having an affair with a secretary in order to get information. This is the stuff of great screenwriting – flawed heroes with obstacles the size of mountains to surmount.

As for Pierre, he’s been lying to his wife the whole time, which threatens to cause the breakup of their marriage. But why does he risk his family? His motives are less clear than Sergei’s. Perhaps it’s his desire to make a difference in the world, or a feeling of inadequacy as a French engineer living outside his home, subject to the strict control of his superiors. Guillaume Canet’s introspective everyman performance renders Pierre as the ideal, identifiable point of view into this secret and dangerous world.

Carion executes a marvellous cinematic third act, during which Sergei comes face-to-face with the sacrifices he’s made. His final conversation with his son is a highly emotional moment, and their final embrace is simply heartbreaking.

An interesting side note is the casting of two expert directors in the lead roles. Emir Kusturica is a Bosnian cinema master and two-time Palm D’Or winner appearing in his first ever lead role speaking both Russian and French. Bravo. And Guillaume Canet is a HUGE mega star in France (husband to Marion Cotillard), but also a budding master director (Tell No One, Little White Lies).

Though L’Affaire Farewell didn’t benefit from a theatrical release, by no means should this film be considered ‘straight-to-video’. This is as important, entertaining and mainstream as any ‘foreign language’ film you’ll see.

L’Affaire Farewell is available on Blu-ray and DVD from E1 Home Entertainment in Canada.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Frankenstein

Frankenstein (1931) dir. James Whale
Starring: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles and Boris Karloff

****

By Alan Bacchus

Mary Shelley’s classic tragic horror fantasy has never been filmed with more genre goodness and tragic Hollywood sentimentality than the James Whale Universal classic. Of course, just as much of the novel was discarded as was retained. Instead, Whale and his writers, under the guidance of producer/studio head Carl Laemmle Jr., embellish the salacious and grisly details of Shelley’s concept and condense it into its own patchwork beast of a movie, not unlike the creature itself.

Although, it should be stated that this film version was in fact not directly based on the novel, but rather Peggy Webling’s 1920s stage play. With that said, despite severe bastardization of the original story, the themes of scientific malfeasance and the attempts of man to become God and create man in man’s own image resonate as strongly as in the original book.

Whale’s direction is simply masterful, employing the prevailing visual trends of the day, German expressionism and art deco to create a deliciously gothic and brooding look to his film. Just look at the fantastic opening sequence during which Dr. Henry Frankenstein (not Victor here) and his hunchback servant Fritz grave-rob the cemetery looking for his individual body parts. Whale’s gothic compositions, such as placing his characters in dark, nearly silhouetted black and white against the ominous studio-constructed cloudscape backdrop is rich with atmosphere.

The Frankenstein castle and his experimental lair are meticulously constructed to reflect the futurism of the art deco style. We can’t help but see Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in both theme and the production design of the sets.

Frankenstein makes an interesting comparison with 1933's King Kong. The monsters in both films are born from man’s insatiable desire to conquer science at all costs. Both Dr. Frankenstein and King Kong’s Carl Denham recklessly attempt to tame science and nature with such careless abandon that they tragically destroy an innocent life. Like Kong, Boris Karloff is an unabashedly sympathetic monster. We compassionately identify with him after he’s birthed into being then frightened with fire torches by Henry and Fritz. Watching the monster cower in fear of Henry’s torches is a heartbreaking scene. And the subsequent heinous torture and imprisonment of the monster is directed with sincere humanism and compassion.

And so when the monster inadvertently murders the young girl in the lake, it’s a sad and tragically ironic moment for the audience because we know the monster doesn’t know any better. He is like an infant, a product of his father or master, and the result of man’s general irresponsibility with the tools of science.

Like King Kong, the hunt for and eventual destruction of the monster by the angry villagers is a tragic and sad moment for the audience. Whale’s magnificent staging of the scene, including the awesome final imagery of the burning windmill behind the bloodthirsty mob, is almost as powerful as Kong’s final fight atop the Empire State Building. They’re two of the greatest humanistic moments ever created in the genre of horror-fantasy.

Batman

Batman (1989) dir. Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Jack Palance, Michael Gough

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

It was a monumental summer of 1989, the summer of Batman. As an impressionable 15-year-old, I got sucked into the tremendous and then innovative marketing push for this film. Warner Bros. somehow made this film feel like the most important thing in the world – a monumental shift in how we see comic books and superheroes on film. Before anyone even saw it, we were compelled to it. Looking back, the film is not that great. Only in the context of the history of comic book adaptations, Tim Burton’s career and the Hollywood marketing techniques does the film resonate soundly as a milestone in cinema.

In 1989, to the masses, Batman was synonymous with the kitschy satirical Adam West TV series from the 1960s. The only other legitimate comic book adaptation as a feature film was the Superman series, which in 1979 started out with a strong sense of literary credibility, but over the course of its sequels devolved into juvenile parody. Remember, 1989 was long before the Internet, so information was sparse. However, it was made clear by Warner Bros. that this wasn't Adam West’s Batman, but a leaner darker, brooding caped crusader. The teaser campaigns said it all. First, we saw only the ultra cool black and gold logo and then the teaser trailer, which featured starkly under-lit noirish-style visuals of a superhero we hardly see, instead covered in shadow and highlights.



The buzz manufactured on this picture was palpable, and to this 15-year-old it didn’t disappoint. Before I could understand the elements of cinema, I knew Danny Elfman’s score was different than anything we’d heard before, and Tim Burton’s vision was dark but wholly playful, ironic and fun. Nicholson was over-the-top crazy, and Michael Keaton was surprisingly thoughtful, charming and strong as a superhero.

Now, in 2011, we’ve been through a four-film string of sequels since this first Batman film, plus Warner Bros. is just about to begin production on the third chapter of the reboot. The success of Batman helped birth other DC and Marvel stories onto film, including another two Superman reboots, four X-Men films and almost every other recognizable superhero property.

Now, unfortunately, Tim Burton’s Batman seems like a relic, like the aging old champion of former glory. Some parts of the film still feel inspired and fresh. The opening credits, for instance, are driven by Elfman’s aggressive opening cue (which sounds so close to The Simpsons theme), and all of Elfman's music for that matter. The same goes for the Bob Ringwood-designed Batman costume, which has never been improved upon, even 5 or 6 pictures later. Michael Keaton is still better under the cowl than Kilmer, Clooney or Christian Bale.

But it’s also an awkward and stagey film. The action set pieces feel as heavy and inelegant as the gigantic pimpmobile Batman drives. And the attempts at injecting the mythic pathos of the Batman origin story into the Joker’s transition never gets under the surface of the camp. Burton’s retro-campy playfulness still feels original and distinct to Burton, but it certainly doesn’t generate any laughs. If we got the feeling of any kind of real tension in the Joker’s antics, his jokes might have effectively been disarming to the danger, but it’s just too goofy to take seriously.

And so my opinion of the film seems to be coloured by a) my perception of it as a teenager and b) the subsequent films and visions of other filmmakers on similar subject matter. Though it was a career leap into the superstrata for Burton, I suspect it’s as difficult to watch for him as it was disappointing for me.