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

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011) dir. Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn

***

By Alan Bacchus

Malick’s new tone poem about life, existence and our place in the universe, as many critics and this year’s Cannes Jury have attested, is Malick at his most elusive and beguiling. It’s a philosophical treatise writ large, grandiose and passionate, though for most people, including myself, not cohesive enough, both thematically and narratively, to make its point in the most effective manner. That said, The Tree of Life is at times so astonishing, it's no doubt a landmark film worthy of its attention and multiple viewings.

There’s only a wisp of a story at play here, after we see Sean Penn as Jack O’Brien, an older version of one of Brad Pitt’s sons in the present, contemplating his life as a child in the 1950s. Malick doubles back to chart the course of evolutionary history of just how Jack got to where he is and how his relationships with his rock hard father and saintly but passive mother shaped who he is today.

Malick is at his best in the first half of the picture, boldly going back, literally, to the beginning of time to show the birth of the universe, the sun, the earth, water, vegetation, (holy crap!) dinosaurs and eventually humans. These moments, which are clearly influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are conceptually astounding and gutsy. It's Malick the philosopher wearing his heart and brain on his sleeve, forcing us to marvel at our planet and the concept of existence. Does this inform Jack's actions or thought processes in the present? Not really. But does it give the audience a sense of awe and the feeling that our waking life on earth is only a minor blip in the concept of existence as a whole? Yes.

Remarkably, Malick picks up speed with the birth of Jack and the lengthy but masterful montage sequence of moving images, which shows us the growth of Jack from a baby to a boy. This first half of the film is so brisk, it feels like one long montage sequence compressing millions of years before settling into the guts, heart and soul of the film, which is Jack’s relationship with his father. At this point, Malick has sculpted a true masterpiece.

In a rural Midwestern town in the 1950s, Malick shows Jack’s father (Pitt) as a man constantly chasing the American dream and being beaten down by the competition. But if he can’t succeed, by God his sons will. Jack and his two brothers endure tough love from Mr. O’Brien, but not necessarily in the form of physical abuse (for Malick that would be too melodramatic and expected of him). Instead, the father’s abuse is the unevenness of his love and his frustrating emotional contradictions.

In the present we can thus understand Sean Penn’s malaise, and few actors can chew and spit out malaise better than him. But with almost no words, as Malick follows Penn around his extravagant, emotionally vacant urban jungle, we understand how terribly wrong his father was.

It’s only apparent now as I formulate these thoughts how subtly Malick connects these dots. Pitt’s misguided drive for monetary success for his sons results in a wealthy but decayed, agnostic existence for Penn. Whether it’s God or belief in the spiritual power of love, this is what Penn desperately desires, and it’s why his journey takes him where he goes.

By the end, Malick takes us to a rather confounding and oblique heaven of sorts. It doesn’t quite resonate as well as it should though. The main crutch of the film is a plateau in the second half after the evolution montage, as Jack’s life as a boy spins its wheels in comparison to the awesome forward-moving narrative of the first half. Simply put, Malick spends too much time mucking around with the kids.

Malick’s imagery is typically sublime, if not, dare I say, overindulgent. If it's at all possible, he’s overkilled us with beauty, the relentless assault of beautiful images dulling us to their power.

After a dozen or so potential ‘ending shots’, the film does end, well before the two-and-half-hour mark. On anyone else’s watch these grand themes would have translated into an equally excessive running time. Though the second half and finale drag, 135 minutes might just be the right running time. As was my experience with The Thin Red Line, second and third viewings might just elevate this picture into similar ultra strata of existential cinema. But for now, a first reaction is: curiosity, awe, admiration and then a bit of exhaustion.

Tree of Life is playing in selected cities and is released theatrically in Canada by EOne Entertainment on June 10.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) dir. Terry Gilliam
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Gary Busey

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

I’ve only now recognized the mad genius of this picture. Yes, for years I loathed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as an unruly carnivalistic and pointless exercise in excess and glorification of drug use for comedy. I could never see the creativity or challenge in dramatizing a drug trip.

Sure, this new Criterion Collection version of the film is probably the best it’s ever looked, but somehow the maniacal, giddy camera work of Terry Gilliam along with the equally maniacal performances from Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro have now tuned me in and turned me on. Fear and Loathing is a carnival and should be enjoyed as such. It’s an event of pure and harmless visual pleasure, a fun ride through the psychedelic ‘60s.

As Raoul Duke (aka Hunter S. Thompson), we see Johnny Depp in a role tailor-made to his brand of stardom. Depp is not so much an actor as a performer. He will likely never win an Oscar because he fits best into caricatures of people. Think of his best performances and arguably all of them are covered up with actor’s business or over-the-top/grotesque make-up of some sort. Depp, wearing a bald cap and bounding through Gilliam’s wide-angle frames twitching with paranoia, is so darn pleasurable to watch. And that’s really the only way to analyze this.

Del Toro is even more startling, sacrificing mind and body in portraying Duke’s lawyer, Dr. Gonzo. Not only does Del Toro pack on a good 40 pounds of natural unenhanced flab, his manic and aggressive hallucinations while tripping on drugs is terrifying.

Gilliam admirably peppers in numerous cameos, including Mark Harmon, Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin and Cameron Diaz along the way. It’s a roll call of celebrities that fits perfectly with the glitzy Vegas background.

Along the way, Gilliam admirably conveys Thompson’s sharp critique of the American dream and the fallacy of the drug movement as a means to free one’s mind. Instead, he shows the substances debilitating their abilities and stunting their potential.

Thankfully, there isn’t much of a ‘message’ to sober us. Via Gilliam and Hunter S. Thompson, and through the safety of Blu-ray, we can freely enjoy the fruits of their drug experimentation and engage in the hallucinatory experience of LSD, ether, mescaline, cocaine and adrenochrome without ever trying them. Considering the horrifying experience of our heroes, I will forever stay on this side of the TV and trip out only by proxy.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Hustler

The Hustler (1961) dir. Robert Rossen
Starring: Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott

***½

By Alan Bacchus

The opening 30 minutes of The Hustler is pure cinema. It’s a riveting sequence featuring the marathon 40-hour pool match between Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats, during which we establish Eddie as the cocky, brazen, unbridled talent who just can’t match up to the controlled sophisticated swagger of his gentlemanly opponent.

Paul Newman is terrific of course, but watch Jackie Gleason. With little dialogue, it’s his poise and immense stature that captures our attention. He’s also dressed to the nines, which helps, but contrasting his famed Honeymooners character with Minnesota Fats, we can see how underutilized Gleason was on film during his TV heyday.

Unfortunately, The Hustler is not all magnificence. After the first sequence, Rossen settles into a rather dull bit of method acting indulgence. After losing the match to Fats, Fast Eddie goes into a depressed funk, leaving town and hanging out in a local coffee shop where he meets a similarly depressed drunk, Sarah (Piper Laurie). Their relationship consists of getting drunk and having sex, which, due to the Hollywood Production Code, was only implied. Admittedly, whenever Fast Eddie is not in the pool hall, it's time to go the bathroom or the refrigerator.

On Blu-ray, as we also get to marvel at the fantastic and pristine widescreen black and white image. The period between 1960 and 1965 was one of the greatest in cinematography. It comes at the end of the black and white era and before colour was accepted in all genres, not just musicals or epics. It was also the beginning of cinemascope and widescreen photography. The combination of B&W and widescreen is simply sublime.

The 1960s was also a decade in which running times of studio pictures frequently ran past 120 minutes. The excessive 135 minute running time here does not benefit the viewing experience. It’s part of the method indulgences of Newman and Laurie, as unwatchable and eye-rolling as their over-the-top drunken stupors in the first half of the movie.

That said, the ground work laid in these indulgent drunken scenes pays off in the end in a violent act that changes Fast Eddie's outlook on life for good and gives him the life experience to beat Fats in the fantastic final scene of the film. It also informs Fast Eddie's maturity in the Scorsese-directed sequel, The Color of Money 25 years later. And if anything, re-watching The Hustler also allows me to appreciate this underappreciated film even more. Newman’s Oscar-winning performance in The Color of Money was indeed deserved and not the sympathy vote as it has been perceived.

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

Saturday, 28 May 2011

The Hangover Part II


The Hangover Part II (2011) dir. Todd Phillips
Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianikis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, Paul Giamatti, Nick Cassavetes and convicted rapist Mike Tyson

*

By Greg Klymkiw

The boys are back in town. This time it’s not Vegas, but Bangkok.

Surprise. Surprise.

The unexpected comedy hit of 2009 has a sequel.

The Hangover was a fuel-injected, insanely hilarious and almost perfect combination of fish out of water humour, gross-out laugh-grabbers and irresistible bro-mantic styling that took the world by storm and never looked back.

Alas, it looked ahead – to more through-the-roof box office grosses – and frankly, in spite of the earning potential, there really was no other reason to resurrect these characters in the same formula in another city. None whatsoever! Especially since its makers already created a movie that was so original - a tired retread is the last thing one would expect.

Since the first picture delivered endearing characters, it's no stretch to believe that audiences would want to see them again. In The Hangover, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and Doug (Justin Bartha) are a wolf pack of mismatched buddies who end up in Las Vegas to have one last blowout before one of them gets married. Under the influence of copious amounts of booze and drugs, the groom-to-be mysteriously disappears and the other pals, all suffering from hazy hangovers, try to piece together their “lost weekend” and find their missing friend. As the film proceeds, more and more of their adventures come back to them and oh, what a night it was!

The comedy writing was so sharp, funny and unabashedly crude that one assumed the filmmakers would find an entirely new adventure for these guys. These characters deserved better than what this sequel gives them.

In the first film, Phil had a clearly defined character and one that all in the audience (not just "bros'") could relate to - that of the handsome young man who feels caught in what has become the "trap" of comfort and complacency. In the second film, he seems less a character, lost - not because of any clever writing that explores a sense of wayward loss, but because the filmmakers have lazily deciding to let the affable charm of leading man Bradley Cooper carry the picture.

Stu was a great character in the first film - a complacent dentist, a nebbish in a relationship with a gorgeous, but nasty harridan-in-the-making. He eventually discovers a repressed side of his personality that gives him considerable strength. Here, he's a nebbish once more, only now he has found love and faces the conflict of winning over his tight-assed father-in-law. While one could argue that this is a slightly new direction - especially since his adventures here lead to the discovery of a "dark side", his journey is far less interesting as the hurdle seems relatively low-stakes. Sure, there are high stakes involved in the wedding itself being scuttled, but this seems like a convenient extension of his character's "need".

Alan in the first Hangover picture was the archetypal "wild man" - alternately naive and knowing. The character also signaled the big-screen arrival of a comic force to truly be reckoned with in the form of the brilliant and funny Zach Galfianakis. He's certainly the getter of the bigger laughs in this chapter of the tale, but he now seems like an archetype that's had a mix of character traits assigned to him that are supposed to flesh him out. They only seek to confuse the issue and the audience is forced to fall back on the pure archetype and Galfiankis's comic gifts.

In the original picture, Doug was the missing groom and now he has been relegated to the role of the guy who stays behind and acts as a buffer zone between the guys and the gals as they communicate their predicament via cel phone. He seemed barely a character the first time around, but now is reduced to a mere device.

The "missing man" turns out to be the younger brother of Stu's gorgeous Asian fiancee. He's the apple of the family's eye and his disappearance definitely adds much needed repercussions to the narrative. That said, the narrative is essentially rooted in the exact same formula of the first movie - boringly, unimaginatively repeated, only this time in Bangkok rather than Vegas. This truly does not a good movie, nor sequel, make.

Insane and over-the-top as The Hangover was, it actually had a sense of credibility going for it, which, in this sequel, is thrown completely out the window. Okay, so it’s a gross-out bro-mance, you say. Who needs credibility? Well, I’d argue that it was that very credibility that made the proceedings in the first movie so damned funny. Here, all we get are intermittent gags within the now-tired formula that are genuinely, albeit infrequently, funny.

The full house I saw it with sat silently through much of the movie with smatterings of scattered laughter and a few humongous collective belly laughs. For the most part, the overall disappointment was quite palpable. Maybe the movie WILL die the horrible death it deserves, but I'm not going to put money on that.

Look, I’m all for offensive, politically incorrect humour, but this sequel managed to make even me want to become a card-carrying Bleeding Heart PC-Nazi. I’m even a huge fan of ethnic stereotypes used for gags, but this movie manages to very unpleasantly go beyond the pale, even for me. When such humour is used successfully, it casts a mirror upon ourselves and allows its characters to come to new understandings.

No such thing happens here.

In The Hangover Part II, petty bourgeois American values rear their heads far too often. Here we essentially have a group of well-to-do young men from America in a land so foreign to them that while watching this movie one gets increasingly sickened to see joke after joke tossed off at the expense of all the squalor and poverty around these characters.

In a city (Bangkok) and country (Thailand) renowned for its illegal sex tours for paedophiles and bearing the huge weight and disgrace of sexual slavery, it soon becomes draining and yes, nasty, unnecessarily offensive and downright appalling to see one joke after another at the expense, not only of the poverty around the main characters, but by extension, of those who continue to suffer under the yoke of sexual exploitation.

The endless cudgel of Asian stereotypes was funny a couple of times, but to have it play out all the way through the movie was beyond any reasonable tolerance level for such humour. Ken Jeong as the fey Asian gangster party boy Chow is, to be sure, a stereotype, but in the first outing he was used sparingly and within the context of the narrative, he was an example of an "offensive" element that seemed rooted - not only in story, but as a reasonable credible addition to the anarchy. Here, he is overused to a point of distraction. While Jeong is a brilliant comic actor, his first appearance in the sequel was pleasing - in so far as he is a delightful presence - but alas, he becomes the primary whipping boy for milking offensive stereotypes, especially in the gags involving his microscopic penis.

I feel little need at this point to list all these stereotypes. The movie does are more than sufficient job at utilizing and perpetuating them.

Frankly, the makers of this film should be ashamed of themselves. They won’t be, of course, since The Hangover Part II is almost sure to make money and thus justify the producers' unimaginative retread of the same idea in the context of thumbing its nose at cultures different than their own. If there had at least been an attempt to turn the tables on the insular ignorance of the American characters as a significant part of the humour, this otherwise boneheaded reprise might have worked in a passable fashion. That, however, might have taken something resembling intelligence - which, by the way, it takes to make great stupid comedies. (Mel Brooks, ZAZ, Farelly Brothers anyone?)

Fish out of water is one thing, but to glorify insular American ignorance and crudity without any of the characters or the audience genuinely breaking through the stereotyping and good-naturedly coming to a true understanding of the very different cultural experience they undergo is not only borderline evil, but mean-spirited and racist.

Oddly enough, the film’s producers, with the support of many cast members, decided to fire Mel Gibson from a cameo appearance in the film after his last public outburst of alcohol-and-violence-charged racially insensitive comments. It didn’t stop these people from making a film as racist and insensitive as Gibson’s outbursts. But even more hypocritical and disgusting, they were more than happy to reprise a Mike Tyson cameo from the previous film. In The Hangover, Tyson’s appearance was credible AND funny. In that film, Tyson was the owner of the tiger our crazed heroes steal. In spite of Tyson's real-life crimes, one was almost able to look past them (or even incorporate them) into the excess of both Vegas, America and Tyson himself. In the sequel, his cameo is not only gratuitous, but lacking in any sort of the wacko credibility that made it work so well the first time around.

Most regrettably, Tyson's appearance in The Hangover Part II is proof positive of how disingenuous the actions of the filmmakers were in giving Mel Gibson the boot from the cameo appearance as the tattoo artist (replaced by Liam Neeson and further replaced by Nick Cassavetes). Mike Tyson is not only a disgraced former heavyweight boxing champion, but he is a convicted rapist.

Tyson duped, forcibly confined, brutalized and raped an 18-year-old woman.

Nobody on the creative team of The Hangover Part II seems to have had a problem with that and to reiterate, Tyson's cameo was an excellent comment on the excess of Vegas and show business in general. He was playing himself and using him was cleverly rooted in the narrative. Here, there is barely a narrative, just a pallid retread job so that's really the only reason for him to be here. Gibson, on the other hand, would have been playing an actual part. That said, he might have been a good enough sport to play Mel Gibson - reduced to working as a tattoo artist in Bangkok after his numerous falls from grace. Chances are, though, nobody on this team thought about doing that. They just reacted in a knee-jerk fashion to another of Mel's rants and dumped him. Keeping the rapist was fine though.

This, of course, speaks volumes about the kind of foul, indecent and duplicitous thinking that went into the making of this film. I'm the first to defend political incorrectness when it's funny and has some sort of point beyond indulging in a few cheap laughs. Lots of cheap laughs might have been slightly preferable, but that's not the case here. It's a bad movie - period. That's certainly not worth defending. Accepting the above hypocrisy of dumping Gibson, but keeping a "good-natured" rapist in the film is indefensible to the extreme.

My hope would be that any future sequel might actually have a story for the characters from the first film and that anything that happened here could just be ignored.

I'm not going to hold my breath.

The Hangover Part II is currently in wide release through Warner Brothers.

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Rite


The Rite (2011) dir. Mikael Hafstrom
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga and Rutger Hauer

*1/2

By Greg Klymkiw

I think my 10-year-old daughter summed up The Rite quite perfectly as the end titles popped up. “That wasn’t scary at all, dad,” she declared. When I queried her further on this response she offered the following: “I kind of liked it at the beginning because it was cool to learn a bunch of new stuff and that was pretty creepy, but when the movie tried to be scary, it wasn’t.”

Ah, the wisdom of 10-year-old girls.

At her age I was a movie geek, but nowhere near the level of her critical acumen.

This, of course, is the primary reason The Rite doesn’t work, and as a proud parent, I’m happy my daughter’s assessment mirrored my own when I first saw the movie on a big screen.

Slowly telling the story of Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), a small town lad who works in the family business as a mortician with his father (Rutger Hauer), he dreams of a life beyond the confines of a fluorescent-lit abattoir where he pretties up corpses for their final viewings. So he does what any dissatisfied junior mortician would do. He enters the seminary. After all, he’ll get a free education, and, as a bonus, explore within himself his late mother’s belief that the hand of God touched him at birth.

Upon graduating, Michael resolves to resign from the priesthood until discovering his entire tuition will convert to a humungous student loan. This is ample impetus to receive training as a soldier of the Lord. It’s what any doubting Thomas seminarian would do.

The Vatican has issued a decree that every diocese be staffed with a fully trained exorcist. Turbulent times have yielded more aggressive measures. With Satan stepping up his game, the Catholic Church must raise an army to battle the ultimate evil. It's what any organized religion needing a public relations fix would do.

We follow our hero on an all-expense-paid trip to Rome. A good deal, if you can get it. Living la dolce vita on the tab of Catholic parishioners, Michael attends classes with Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds), who delivers considerable background on the exorcism game. When Michael displays utter disinterest in the proceedings, the picture gets narratively annoying since we the audience would rather stay in class with Father Xavier than watch Michael mope around.

Even the introduction of religion journalist Angeline (Alice Braga) bears little fruit, as Michael has no interest in plucking the juicy apple from her bountiful garden.

Eventually, Michael is placed under the one-on-one tutelage of the unorthodox exorcist Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins). Here the movie shifts from measured and creepy to dull, predictable and decidedly lacking in the horror and suspense the film’s makers would want to instill.

This is not due to any lack of enjoyable ham-slicing on behalf of Mr. Hopkins – he attacks his role like a sow nursing a full load of suckling piglets. The problem is the movie itself at this point. We follow, pretty much by rote, the teacher-student duo as they do battle with a particularly nasty demon possessing a young pregnant woman. Everything we expect to happen happens (and boy, do I mean EVERYTHING!). Michael is skeptical. Lucas is unorthodox (and why wouldn’t he be with Anthony Hopkins playing the role?). The possessed woman hurls expletives. She vomits (though not green pea soup, but – admittedly a nice touch – bloody nails).

Eventually, the demon is cast out, though glory is bittersweet. It results in the death of the woman and her unborn child. But oh, surprise-surprise, it is one clever demon. It leaves the woman to possess one of our exorcists who must then be exorcised by his partner. I will not tell you whom the possessed turns out to be, but if you would not be able to guess at this point, you deserve a spoiler right about now.

Do not worry, though. I will keep it to myself. When it happens, trust me, you will not be surprised in the least.

Ho-hum.

Seeing it all done before is not, however, why The Rite fails as a movie. The few surprises in tone during the early going turn out to be bone-headed filmmaking. The seemingly measured pace of the first third, in retrospect and upon a second helping on Blu-ray, is less about a director engaging in a slow burn and more the result of a camera jockey who has no real feel for what a genre picture needs. Worse yet, Hafstrom simply has no sense of humour, and as he lacks a discernible voice, we get a movie that wants to have its cake and eat it to, but does so in the dullest fashion imaginable.

I should say this is not all Hafstrom’s fault since the script also fails to deliver on either side of the to-scare-or-not-to-scare fencepost.

Watching it a second time, I was reminded of my first helping on the big screen and thinking at the time that the film was going to go into some very exciting and dangerous territory. When it did not, I drifted in and out of catnaps. I am also pleased to admit these catnaps were extremely edifying, resulting in mini-dreams of the most horrendous variety.

Watching the movie on this go ‘round, I was wide awake. I was, in actuality, primed to see what I had missed whilst in the Land of Nod during my first screening of the film. I thought that perhaps the movie would live up to my initial response to the first third. Alas, watching it a second time on Blu-ray, I experienced nothing as pleasant as occasional forays into sleepy time. Instead, I started to feel not unlike Alex in A Clockwork Orange – his eyelids fastened open as he is forced to endure images that drive him to a state of utter revulsion.

I, for one, might have preferred utter revulsion to utter disinterest.

There are so many potentially interesting story elements introduced in the picture that are either dropped, go nowhere, or worse, forge into utterly dull directions. Let us, for example, take the whole subplot involving Rutger Hauer as Michael's father Mr. Kovacs.

Let us do the math on this:

Number one - RUTGER HAUER AS A MORTICIAN!!! 'Nuff said on that.

Number two - in flashback we see Rutger working his magic on dead mommy.

Number three - Michael, as a child, watches from a distance and is invited into the morgue for a closer look.

What's all this add up to?

Total Creepville! Mind you, only on paper.

Well, not even that, because the script never goes deeper than the above named surface details.

From a directorial standpoint, there is a bit of sizzle to these scenes, but absolutely no steak. These moments in The Rite kept reminding me of just how creepy, sick, scary, darkly funny and even strangely/genuinely moving the scenes are in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, where a father psychologically abuses his little boy in all manner of deliciously foul ways, which leads the boy in adulthood to seek the "career" and "hobby" that he does. This is hinted at in The Rite but never followed through in a satisfying way.

Then again, Hafstrom is no Michael Powell. He is, in fact, barely a cut above a television director. I would have loved to see what someone with style and humour might have done with this material – someone like Brian DePalma, for instance. He would, at least, have demanded a script punch-up, taken the fine cast, all the great craftspeople (the movie is exceptionally well shot) and then delivered something truly memorable. Even if it had been dreadful, DePalma is a director whose dreadful movies are spectacularly abysmal – so much so that you never forget them.

However, when a studio tries to have its cake and eat it too, the result is more often than not, truly forgettable – kind of like The Rite.

Hiring a barely competent hack to direct also never helps. Zack Snyder, for example, is a bit of a hack, but man-oh-man, he does have a voice and can direct action and suspense with the sort of ferocity so lacking in this ultimately dreadful movie.

The Rite is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment. The picture and sound transfer are predictably excellent, but if it is extras of any substance that you are looking for, you will not find them here. The cover promises an alternative ending that will knock you on your proverbial posterior. While it is probably a preferable ending to the lame ending the movie has, it is of the trick pony surprise variety and would probably be better suited to an episode from a television anthology series. The additional deleted scenes are okay, but only worth seeing for some great Rutger Hauer stuff that was cut. The added film purports to be a documentary on the real-life exorcist the feature drama was inspired by. This might have been great, but is, instead, far too short and features more footage than we need of the cast and key creative types and clips from the film. It is, in essence, not much more than a glorified electronic press kit.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon (1975) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Leon Vitali

****

By Alan Bacchus

I’ve seen this film numerous times, but for some reason this latest viewing has convinced me that it’s one of Stanley Kubrick’s best. Despite critical praise and some Oscar nominations, the film wasn’t considered a success. No surprise, really. Even by Stanley Kubrick’s standards it’s a slow-paced three-hour epic featuring the director at his most dispassionate, cynical and cold. The story of Redmond Barry, the lowly Irish lad who worked his way up from a pathetic brat to being at the helm of a British aristocratic family, only to have it tumble down in devastating fashion, is perhaps the most structurally conventional film Kubrick has made.

Kubrick has always crafted the endings of his films very carefully, mostly favouring the oblique and jarring for thought-provoking effect. To this day, I still don’t know why he ended Eyes Wide Shut so abruptly on us. The Shining does this as well, though at least we know Jack’s dead at the end. And then there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the most beguiling of them all.

In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick arguably leaves us with his most satisfying ending, a fully complete character arc for Redmond, broken down both physically and emotionally, a comeuppance for his lifetime of deceit, immoral ambition and betrayal. But that’s the ending – let’s roll back to the opening.

Barry Lyndon’s three-hour running time is roughly split into two halves sandwiching a short intermission (customary back in the day for historical epics). The first half of the film describes Redmond Barry’s ascent to success with the wordy inter-title, ‘By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon.’ The elaborate title fits into Kubrick’s general themes of class and the utter silliness of how men and women were divided into preferential groups of right and title. But this is the ambition of Redmond, whom we first see as a youthful brat smitten by the flirtations of his cousin. Unfortunately for Redmond, the cousin has been ‘promised’ to a British Lord for a sum of 6 pounds a year. The conflict boils over into a duel of pistols between the Englishman and Redmond – a remarkably tense sequence bookended by a duel in the final act of the film (but more on that later). This duel is won by Barry, thus sending him out of the country and off on his lengthy journey.

It’s an episodic journey in the opening half of the film, the benchmarks of which include his recruitment into the British Army, his desertion, his recruitment into the Prussian Army, the companionship of an Irish ex-pat living as a gambler stealing the riches of other aristocrats and finally, by the end of the first half, his meeting of Lady Lyndon. Barry becomes her husband and partner to her family fortune.

The compartmentalization of the individual scenes is a delight, each sequence self-contained as a great cinematic set piece. And yet, with each new encounter, Barry gains experience and insight, which informs his decisions in the second half of the film. Barry observes and participates in the class warfare as an outsider, green with jealousy at the privileges their title affords them. And so when Barry joins this club, he exploits his position with the same naive, bratty entitlement of his youth.

The second half of the picture is markedly different, as its scenes are shot like a series of immaculately composed still images, glacially paced, slowly showing the destruction of Lyndon’s life. The more Lyndon self-destructs through fornication, ill treatment of his stepson and wanton disregard for the family’s finances, the more stolid the picture becomes. At times, an entire scene shows Lady Lyndon simply lounging morosely on a chair (a recurring image in all of Kubrick’s films) with the camera slowly zooming out to reveal the state of depression and decay of the household.

The conflict between Lord Bullington, Redmond’s stepson, and Redmond himself is marvellously engineered. Bullington’s sequestered and conflict-free life of privilege is no match for the life experience of Redmond. The performances of Ryan O’Neal and Leon Vitali are spot on. Vitali is delightfully pathetic as a quivering doofus scared to bits during his confrontations with Barry, and O’Neal always has the Kubrick ‘look of steel’, confident in his abilities to outduel his opponents, both physically and mentally.

One of the knocks on Kubrick has been a lack of emotion in his films. Fans and critics usually point to that scene at the end of Paths of Glory, which features the German song leading the soldiers to tears as his high moment of unabashed sentimentality. While not sentimental, no other scene in Kubrick’s body of work can compare to the earth-shattering tragedy of the death scene of young Bryan in Barry Lyndon. As Bryan lies on his bed, aware of these last moments of his life, the reactions of both Redmond and Lady Lyndon are simply earth shattering. And the subtle use of the recurring musical cue by Handel's Sarabande hypnotically lulls us into a trance. Kubrick’s glorious sharp cut to Bryan’s funeral after this scene is just as startling and masterful.

Kubrick surprisingly ends the journey with every thread tied up. Barry is fully punished for all his wrongdoings in the film, which thoroughly satisfies everything Kubrick has set up for us. There’s little to confuse or confound us. By the end, though aesthetically challenging, the film is unintellectual – a simple and ‘common’ story of greed. A true masterpiece.

Barry Lyndon is available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

I Am Number Four

I am Number Four (2011) dir. D.J. Caruso
Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Diana Agron, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Callan McAuliffe

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

An ancient war between alien races makes its way to earth in a cozy rural American Midwestern town where a handsome and cool ‘chosen one’ experiences the social conflicts of high school before battling disgusting malevolent baddies to death for the sake of mankind. This is the one-liner for this quickie, but not all that forgettable, attempt to create a new Twilight franchise from the young adult sci-fi novel of the same name.

John Smith (Pettyfer) is the new boy in town, an elusive loner trying to keep to himself while hiding in exile from his war-torn planet from afar. Along with his mentor, Henri (Olyphant), John has settled in this non-descript American township, but he’s always looking over his shoulder. Somehow he gets put into high school and as is customary, he immediately gets targeted by the local bullies for some hazing. Unfortunately for the bullies, John has extraterrestrial telekinetic powers like ‘the Force’ and thus kicks ass all over the place.

Meanwhile, the former girlfriend of bully #1, Sarah (Agron), has taken a liking to John and flirts up a storm. At the same time, the alien baddies are on John’s trail. These bald, tattooed giants wearing Matrix-style trench coats find their way to town to confront John, Henri and his new friends.

With Michael Bay attached, whether it’s as producer or director, we are certain that a) there will be lots of beautiful people, b) lots of palatable family-friendly destruction and c) slick candy-coloured visuals.

The slickness of this picture is not lost on us. Director D.J. Caruso takes this familiar place and story and injects a strong visual style and keen eye for action. The fights, whether they involve local cops who get in the way, the bullies or the truly grotesque evil aliens, are well choreographed and visually inventive.

The familiarity of everything in I Am Number Four results in a fluffy, disposable quality to this aspiring franchise. There’s an allusion to a lengthy and complex back story and an unresolved ending, which could result in some kind of trilogy or multi-sequel/prequel series. But without the strong fan base of a Twilight, the literary credibility of a Narnia/LOTR or even an established star on which to piggyback, this will likely be a one-off fantasy flick.

This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy some sappy romantic plotting, laser fights and the Star Wars-style mythic journey plotting. Just don’t get too attached to the material.

I Am Number Four is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Walt Disney Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) dir. John Frankenheimer
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh

****

By Alan Bacchus

John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate predated the trend of cynical political films of the 1970s by eight years or more. Born from deep distrust of the actions of the American intelligence community during the Cold War, and in the 1960s, at a time when John F. Kennedy was about to be assassinated by the same establishment, it was at the time shockingly prophetic and powerful. Today, the film's skewered notion of heroism feels as dark, scathing and dangerous to the establishment now as it did then.

Frank Sinatra is Major Bennett, the leader of a platoon of soldiers captured by Korean forces. However, the platoon fights its way home, eventually winning a Congressional Medal of Honor for Raymond Shaw (Harvey). But when a recurring bad dream reveals itself to Bennett as a brainwashing experiment by the Communists while in prison, he is compelled to uncover the details of an astonishing plot of political assassination and government subversion

The picture was famously pulled and its theatrical released delayed due to the unfortunate timing of the JFK assassination. And this was even before the conspiracy theory connected with the CIA was discovered. This is just the background context and historical relevance of the film. As a movie-going experience in the present, John Frankenheimer’s cooly stylish direction is still as exciting now as it was then. At the time it was his third film after a long and successful career directing during the Golden Era of Television in the '50s. After all that experience with practically helping invent the medium, Frankenheimer brought a hip freshness to the big screen. His sharp black and white photography used the moody tones of film noir, as well as the deep focus visual aesthetic of Orson Welles. His editing was sharp and predated many of the experimental techniques used later in the decade.

Looking back, few would argue that the lasting performance of the picture belongs to Angela Lansbury, the diabolical matriarch and puppet master of the big picture conspiracy at play. We can’t help but think of Mama Islen as a mix of Nancy Reagan and Joe Kennedy.

Watch the terrific editing in the dream sequences, during which Bennett and his troops are subjected to the terrifying brainwashing ordeal. Intercutting the two realities for the troops – the audience of communist officials watching the session in delight and the troop’s point of view of the elderly ladies book club – produces a delightfully terrifying scope of horror conducted by these powers that be.

The film magnificently reveals its cards carefully over its 126 minutes, ringing all the terror and suspense up to its violent and powerful climax in the end.

The Manchurian Candidate is available on Blu-ray from MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Horse Soldiers

The Horse Soldiers (1959) dir. John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers

***

By Alan Bacchus

A lesser John Ford is still an upper tier Western on anyone else’s filmography. It’s an odd choice really to give this film the Blu-Ray treatment, when there are so few Ford films at the moment, available in glorious High Definition. Recently Warner Bros’ TCM 4pk was a lowly standard def DVD release, but this is MGM/Fox who admirably take the expense to showcase John Ford in the new format.

This Civil War epic is as big a film as Ford has ever made, a rousing adventure wherein John Wayne plays a Union Colonel commanding his cavalry troop deep into Southern territory to capture and destroy a Confederate railway station. It’s a classic men-on-a-mission set up, but as executed by John Ford, the film moves from through all high and lows of the dramatic cinema, the light and affable to bloody tragic and deadly serious.

The key conflict in the film comes from William Holden’s character, a physician assigned to the troop. Due to a deep rooted hatred Wayne’s character, Marlowe, resents the presence of the peaceful doctor who prefers to save lives then destroy them. Of course, the arc of the story ensures that by the end two men would eventually find common ground and mutual respect for each other’s professions.

The superstar pairing of Holden and Wayne is not lost on us. Wayne is Wayne, the grizzled and stubborn leader, but a man of honour and pride. Wayne exercises his thespian muscles in a dramatic drunken confession scene when he tells of the story of his dying wife who received ill-advised brain surgery. It’s a dramatic moment of painful reflection we don’t often see from the big man. Holden as the equally confident surgeon conflicts with Wayne’s military mentality and fight to win attitude. Holden’s easy going congenial nature perfectly represents the humanism of the character and the historical resonant qualities of the picture as a whole.

As usual there’s not much female representation, but Constance Towers holds court admirably against the star heavies as the Conferedate tag along gal who at first tries to subvert the actions of the Marlowe, then comes to side with the motivations of the Union men.

It’s not all shits and giggles here though. The often obscene tragedy of the brutal violence of the Civil War is given deserved attention. At one point as the Union approaches their destination, the Confederates use a troops of boys to defend Marlowe’s army.

Ford fans will marvel at the brilliant widescreen colour cinematography. We’re also treated to the familiar Fordisms which earns the title, 'a John Ford film’. There’s plenty of awesome, perfectly-composed wide angle shots of the cavalry moving elegantly through the landscape. There’s plenty of action, including a raucous gun fight in the town of Vicksburg. And when required, Ford lays on the frontier sentimentality which allows even the most hardened of male filmgoers to shed a tear without guilt.

The Horse Soldiers is available on Blu-Ray from MGM Home Entertainment

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Leaving Las Vegas

Leaving Las Vegas (1995) dir. Mike Figgis
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elizabeth Shue, Julian Sands

****

By Alan Bacchus

Mike Figgis’s tragic love story in which Nicolas Cage drinks himself to death while falling in love with Elizabeth Shue’s hooker with a heart of gold is still as powerful now as it was when it was first released.

Looking back, this film plays like the same kind of dreamy romanticism of Wong Kar Wai, who was making movies like this at the same time – tonally improvisational and natural but also visually stylized and wholly cinematic. But it’s perhaps Bernardo Bertolucci with whom this film shares a kinship most. Figgis’s tale of sex and self-destruction fuelled by character, location and a whole bunch of graphic sex reminds us of Last Tango in Paris.

The opening 15 minutes of Figgis’s film is simply masterful, as it features the establishment of Nicolas Cage’s life in Los Angeles as a Hollywood screenwriter at the end of his career of self-destruction. Hell, Figgis is even bold enough to let the first act play out before the title sequence. The rest of the film is a torrid and tragic love affair between a hooker and a drunk, a relationship ironically not consummated until the final scene. It's a transcendental affair of mind and spirit.

Cage, who deservedly won an Oscar for his work, is at his most effective as a sad but charming drunk with a remarkable sparkle in his eyes. He generates such strong sympathy for such a depressing character. Figgis, one of the few directors to get in sync with Cage’s unique talents, pulls an inside-out method performance from the idiosyncratic actor. We can really only look to the Coen Bros., Norman Jewison, Spike Jonze and Werner Herzog as the others who tapped into Cage’s unique expressive personality as well as Figgis did.

In addition to the performances, Figgis’s working methodology affects all elements of the film bringing a seemingly effortless feeling, like a master jazz musician on a freeform solo – a literal example that compliments Figgis’s own self-composed jazz score.

Though it’s narratively ambitious and unconventional, Figgis’s visual palette is pure cinema. Declan Quinn’s 16 mm photography looks fabulous. The attraction of 16 mm in the pre-video, pre-HD times, other than the smaller and mobile cameras, is a distinct colour saturation you can’t get from 35 mm. Of course, on Blu-ray it doesn’t quite 'pop', but this is a film that shouldn't pop. It’s a grainy and dirty little masterpiece, just like the seedy town in which it’s set.

Watch for interesting cameos and early bit parts from Danny Huston as a bartender and Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermey as a bar patron, as well as Marishka Hargatay, Lou Rawls, Bob Rafelson and even Julian Lennon!

Unfortunately, I could do without the songs from Sting, which are peppered throughout the film, but they surely fit the times. Sting’s mid-90s jazzy crooner stylings fit the all-around blue mood. It's a minor distraction from an otherwise great film.

Leaving Las Vegas is available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

True Grit and the Resurgence of the Western


Every once in a while there will be a somewhat successful Western. Before last year, James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma remake was the most recent example, and with it, as always, came the discussion about the resurgence of the genre. But sorely, back then the resurgence never emerged. It was the same with Unforgiven, Dances With Wolves, Maverick, etc.

Prior to the 70s, the Western was one of the most venerable of Hollywood genres, one which spoke to the quintessential qualities of the American spirit. But in hindsight, the genre also furthered the history of bigotry and the marginalization of groups such as the North American First Nations peoples.

The genre has never fully gone away, nor will it ever. It’s an entrenched institution, so full of history, great filmmakers always seem to want to carry on the tradition and ‘make a Western.’

And then True Grit came along, an unlikely hit from the Coen Bros. With $171 million in earnings at the US box office, it’s by far their most successful film to date. It struck a chord with everybody, yet it’s a very traditionally-executed genre film and arguably the least ‘Coen-Bros.-esque’ of all their films.

Is the Western coming back? Who knows?

But everyone seems to be scrambling to take advantage. Take note of some of the catalogue releases on Blu-ray this month. No less than seven Westerns are given the high-def treatment timed with the BD/DVD release of Paramount's True Grit. Father’s Day is coming up, and clearly our sons and daughters are being tempted with these fine looking titles. Admittedly, I’m no exception. Let’s run them down:

From Paramount Home Entertainment:

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Sergio Leone’s romantic epic and ode to the American romanticism of the genre.

A Man Called Horse (1970)
Richard Harris as a British Lord captured by the North American Sioux Indians, who gradually embraces the tribe's way of life and of course falls in love with the Chief's daughter - Avatar anyone?

Rio Lobo (1970)
Howard Hawks' last film starring John Wayne in this Civil War-era action picture.

MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment:

The Horse Soldiers (1959)
John Wayne and William Holden directed by John Ford; another Civil War actioner featuring Wayne as an ornery cavalry leader banging heads with Holden as a peaceful surgeon along for the ride.

Comancheros (1961)
Michael Curtiz's last picture and his only one with John Wayne.

The Misfits (1961)
Sure, it’s not a traditional Western, but it has Southern Western sensibilities; Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable's last picture, directed by John Huston.

So do that man in your life a favour and indulge him with a good ol' Western or two. They’re coming back!

Friday, 20 May 2011

Fat Girl

Fat Girl (2001) dir. Catherine Breillat
Starring: Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida and Libero De Rienzo

****

By Alan Bacchus

Much controversy surrounded this picture back in the day, as it contains the frank and dispassionate discussions and depictions of sex of an underage teen seen through the eyes of an even younger pre-teen girl. There’s also the title – so direct and sensational, typical of the body of work of its director, the French provocateur Catherine Breillat, who, previous to Fat Girl, cast real-life Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi in her film Romance, another direct and sensational title. That film featured real sex, which was its own cause célèbre in 1999. And if you go back even further to the 1970s, she appeared as an actor in Bernardo Bertolucci’s seminal sex-art film Last Tango in Paris.

It’s a remarkably simple and small-scale story constructed here. Anais is a pre-teen French girl on vacation with her parents and her older sister Elena. Their sibling rivalry is palpable. Elena, who has come into her own physically, recognizes her sexual superiority and uses it to cruelly obliterate Anais’ self-confidence. Together they discuss sex and freely pontificate about what their first experiences should be like. Elena desires sex with a man she loves, but Anais prefers to just get it over with.

Breillat’s benchmarks are two key sex scenes. The first is the central set piece in the film, which encompasses nearly a third of the film. Elena, who has met and become infatuated with a hunky Italian law student, Fernando, succumbs to his relentless and sly sexual advances to the point that they end up in bed together (with Anais sleeping in the same room). She has no intention of giving up her virginity on this night, but Fernando’s tactics are just too much for her.

It’s a magnificent scene, a sexual encounter drawn out in length, a slow and methodical courtship that turns out to be a heinous act of date rape. Fernando’s manipulation of Elena is hypnotic and intense in a way Martin Scorsese used to do. It’s a conversation dripping with earth shattering tension. I can’t help but be reminded of Jake La Motta’s conversation with his brother, questioning him about an affair with his wife in Raging Bull or Max Cady’s seduction of young Danielle Bowden in Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear. Breillat's dialogue is so intoxicating, and this scene is up to this Scorsese standard.

Anais’ perception of virginity is quite remarkable for such a young girl. It’s not difficult to believe she’d feel this way. Breillat’s point of view is the key to this understanding. We’re either watching what Anais sees or we watch Anais watching her surroundings. As such, we understand that she observes the world more than she participates in it. And through the cruelty of Elena, Anais will rise above the pitfalls she will suffer in her youth.

The ending is certainly a shocker and confounding. We expect Anais’ passiveness to usurp. Though there are some shocking acts of violence that come at us suddenly, it pays off in Anais’ journey – however oblique and confusing it may be.

Fat Girl is a deserved masterpiece, worthy of the Criterion label. The provocative effect of the exposed male and female genitalia never overwhelms Breillat’s smooth and calculated character study. And yet the graphicness of the sex is wholly necessary to the mood. Fat Girl is art house primavera – devious and challenging, but so rewarding.

Fat Girl is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Vanishing on 7th Street

Vanishing on 7th Street (2010) dir. Brad Anderson
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo, Jacob Latimore

**

By Alan Bacchus

The title of this picture has a very Twilight Zone feel to it. Perhaps it's by design. After all, the high concept at core here is clearly influenced by the seminal work of TZ writer Richard Matheson. It’s the I Am Legend/Last Man on Earth scenario recycled again. Some kind of unexplainable apocalyptic disaster results in a massive power outage, but not just electronics – the sun itself. There are no zombies or vampires in this case. Instead, it’s simply darkness itself representing the evil lurking and stalking the survivors.

The director, Brad Anderson, is the main attraction here. Genre-philes know him from his brilliant low-budget horror film Session 9. Unfortunately, his subsequent efforts, the moody, atmospheric mind-bender The Machinist and the Hitchcockian train-actioner Transsiberian were too faulty to match the promise of Session 9. Despite some minor tingling of the spine in the opening act, Vanishing on 7th Street is not a return to form.

It’s a terrific opening. Bone-chilling, actually. Hayden Christensen is a television news producer who is caught in a massive power outage. But when he searches out others in the building, he discovers everyone is gone – literally vanished, with their clothes on the floor the only remnants of their places on earth. We see the same thing happening through the eyes of Paul (John Leguizamo), an AMC Cinema projectionist. The imagery of the clothing left on the floor outlining the vanished bodies is stunning.

Where did they go? What happened to them? We don’t know exactly, but some kind of evil force in the shadows creeps up and steals their bodies and souls. Much like The Fog encroaching on the villages of John Carpenter’s seaside town, the shadows on 7th street are eerie and scary supernatural entities.

Brad Anderson shoots these scenes with great precision, using a slow and purposeful pace to amplify every moment of suspense. But after this set-up with the four main characters congregating together, the second act stalls. Unlike Night of the Living Dead or 28 Days Later or even Shaun of the Dead, the foursome, which also includes a young boy and a hysterical mother who has just lost her child, is hopelessly dull and uninteresting. As customary, the group tries to piece together what’s happening in the rest of the world, hypothesizing about what kind of apocalypse they’re in, and specifically, how to get to some kind of safe haven located in Chicago. Unfortunately, the group is too passive, and without this forward momentum the film runs out of gas quickly.

Thandie Newton, who plays the crying and inconsolable grieving mother, is like fingernails on a chalkboard and plainly looks lost in this kind of genre film. Hayden Christensen does a decent job portraying Luke as a twitchy, reluctant leader. John Leguizamo’s back in this kind of role – remember his turn as the obsessed parent in the similarly-themed Shyamalan film The Happening? He’s crippled with an injury for most of the film, which is an unfortunate and unintentional metaphor for the staleness of the film’s second and third acts.

Brad Anderson does the best job he can, creating a unique and unsettling atmosphere. But like The Machinist, with very little script or characters to work with, his tonal aspirations amount to just another forgettable horror film.

Vanishing on 7th Street is available on Blu-ray and DVD from EOne Entertainment in Canada.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

CANNES 2011 - Wu Xia


Wu Xia "Swordsmen" (2011) dir. Peter Ho-San Chan
Starring: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Jimmy Wang Yu

**1/2

By Blair Stewart

A dash of Rashomon, a pinch of A History of Violence, with Donnie Yen's left foot crushing your windpipe, Wu Xia takes a few chances with the Asian martial arts genre and mostly succeeds.

In 1917 China, two marauding bandits of great repute accidentally give up the ghost to local “aw' gee shucks” farmer Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen with blindingly white teeth for a humble peasant) in a foiled village robbery. All appears on the up-and-up to the local officials except for Detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and his B.S. alarm. He's the sort of sleuth who can pull off the calabash pipe look. In a superb sequence, Baijiu's inspection of the crime scene recreates the battle, as the three combatants fling themselves around in slo-mo with projectile CGI teeth pinging about. Questions are raised about Liu's past, as the detective peels away his facade, inadvertently catching the attention of a fearsome Triad with a stake in the matter.

The touch of the detective in Wu Xia is far more subtle than that of Tsui Hark's overblown Detective Dee from last year, as Kaneshiro's character is enjoyably worthy of his own film. It would have been interesting to see him use brains in order to outwit flying-fist Shaolin monks and roadside bandits on his own. The rest of the story in Wu Xia is mostly enjoyable hokum with its x-rayed pressure point brutalities and acupuncture needle assaults. This film mostly suffers from a lack of epic rumble like those the Chans and Jaas have previously delivered. There's just something about one mean hombre taking out an army that puts a hop in my step. Despite Yen's immense skill and screen charisma, the fight sequences often suffer from being cut too quickly. The longer the take holds, the greater my admiration grows for what Ho-San Chan's stars and stuntmen can accomplish. Outside of these qualms, the film is commendable for experimenting with a formula that was once at its most basic – foot + face = awesome.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

CANNES 2011 - The Tree of Life


The Tree of Life (2011) dir. Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain

**1/2

By Blair Stewart

With his fifth feature, Terrence Malick doesn't necessarily need to make another film after The Tree of Life. In gestation for decades, it’s his Apocalypse Now, his Ran, his Once Upon a Time in the America. There is a hugeness about it, as Malick has crafted a work about life, the afterlife and all known creation that boomingly expresses his philosophies and elements of his childhood. The Big Bang (or Genesis) is painstakingly re-enacted from the first pop to forms of interlacing DNA with the consultation of Douglas Trumbull, which gives the film a 2001 star sequence quality. I should mention that the birth of the universe through to evolutionary bloom occurs in the 2nd reel. What could a director possibly do afterwards to top that?

Tree is an unabashedly spiritual experience that irked my inner Agnostic. And yet, overlooking the predictability of whispering voice-over as hands brush past rock and weed as we'd expect from Malick, the film's scope was quite humbling – a one-second shot of a supernova is still pestering me hours later. Just about every thistle in existence is preciously filmed, as Malick and returning New World cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki tilt the image upwards to turn an oak orchard, crevasse or Brad Pitt into iconography. The film is mostly a multimillion-dollar home movie for the director and merges into a dense narrative successor to Godfrey Reggio's QATSI series.

The more recent planetary-bound story is split between little Jack O'Brien's (Hunter McKraken) Texas childhood with his father (Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain), embodying combustible nature and gracefulness, and the cross-cutting of the grown Jack (Sean Penn) and his alienation within cityscapes. Pitt is the featured star, but his role is more of a presence than a performance, a figure of mythical proportions in the household to his children as their saintly mother (Jessica Chastain) is in tune with their nature. The Tree of Life might plumb overwrought moments of golden-era 50s innocence, but the brief sparks of transcendence (kids shadows at play shot with an upside-down camera, Pitt's mute reaction to an unpleasant phone call, the fog of pesticide, Saturn) act as a counter-measure to occasional sappiness.

My star rating is a smokescreen. The Tree of Life could be four stars next week or one. I'm baffled by its leaps in logic and scenario, as Malick's impatient cinematic language is spoken quickly. I'm only certain that it is worth seeing. And my head is throbbing right now.

Monday, 16 May 2011

CANNES 2011 - The Kid with a Bike


The Kid with a Bike "Le Gamin au Vélo" (2011) dir. The Dardenne Brothers
Starring Cécile de France, Jérémie Renier, and Thomas Doret

***

By Blair Stewart

Belgium's Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Son and The Child) return to Cannes with their winning cinéma vérité formula. Approaching films with a focus on lower-class European sociology, the Dardennes' storytelling engages you with films of emotional complexity that are told with what initially appears to be docu-drama simplicity.

The Kid with a Bike follows the lousy situation of 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret), dumped by his father (Jérémie Renier, a grown-up follow-up to his role in The Child) into foster care. Cyril is a ball of thwarted energy, furiously pecking away at his perceived imprisonment by jumping fences, badgering his councillors and doing anything to burrow back to his absentee pa. He breaks out of the home and runs smack into hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France), who in turn establishes an often fraught relationship with Cyril as she becomes his surrogate mother. The baggage and vulnerability of Cyril is a weighty task for Samantha, with the child's greatest danger coming from a mentorship with an adolescent thug cut from the same cloth as the boy. In the thug, the Dardennes effortlessly sidestep trite judgement of Cyril's bad company with a simple moment involving the thug caring for his invalid grandmother. A moment like that sticks with me, as a dimension is added to a stock character who has his own motivation for why he would commit crimes. The story has a circular purpose to it, with Cyril's behaviour dictated by his father's choices in another pleasant surprise where I'd almost taken the Belgian filmmaking duo for granted with their script.

The Kid with a Bike doesn't break new ground for Jean-Pierre and Luc, but of their major releases over the past two decades, this is their most overtly sympathetic film – it hurts to watch Cyril. Cécile de France is lovely in her working-class role, as she communicates the interior scheming of a good woman nursing a damaged kid. Thomas Doret is a wonderful child actor, his buzzing restlessness reminiscent of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows. I thought of Truffaut's film often during the long moments of Cyril riding his bike, urgently trying to gain a step in a hopeless situation.

What's kept me from rating The Kid higher is that with each new film, the Dardenne pair tread closer to old grounds and could certainly expand well beyond their safety net. The film's soundtrack is also periodically breached with an overwrought score yearning for catharsis rather loudly.

While The Kid with a Bike doesn't have the heady morality questions of The Son and its payoff, the Dardennes' latest is a fine film that will reward their audience.

CANNES 2011 - Footnote


Footnote "Hearat Shulayim" (2011) dir. Joesph Cedar
Starring Shlomo Bar-Aba, Lior Ashkenazi and Micah Lewensohn.

**

By Blair Stewart

What a wonderful plot for a comedy. What an utterly over-directed film.

Footnote from Israel prods at two universal sources of humour – the persnickety egos of tenured professors, and the buffoonish moods of fathers and maybe, just maybe, their sons. Perhaps.

Professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) has been buried so deep in Talmudic studies he's emerged on the late side of life a grumpy old homunculus. One of his many rivals in Jewish academia on the opposite end of what he regards as frivolous research happens to be his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), who is more gregarious but retains that Shkolnik family touchiness.

From the opening, comprised of a close-up of Eliezer listening to a long painful speech, the backstabbing and pettiness in their insular world bleeds out. Eliezer has been waiting on the coveted Israel prize for his painstaking study of his peoples' history, but several decades of zilch has reduced him to a curmudgeonly existence. Shkolnik's disposition hasn't been helped with the cherry-picking by his arch-rival Grossman (Micah Lewensohn, blessed with one of the great knotted brows in cinema, as he appears to have sand dunes attached above his eyebrows) of his life's work and his only claim to fame a throwaway mention in an obscure book: Eliezer is the footnote. The story shifts around leading up to that speech, as the Shkolnik clan all spin off in their different trajectories.

An intelligent comedy that lampoons the intelligencia, Footnote distracts from the humorous performances of Ashkenazi, Bar-Aba and Lewensohn with unnecessarily flashy inter-titles, cross-cutting and deadweight voice-over. It's a droll comedy, directed like a David Fincher thriller.

The stylistic choices are the director's literal expression of Bar-Aba's study, and the film needed something much more subtle. After the first scenes of witty dialogue supported by actors with chemistry and pace, they're let down by moments of tedium. For instance, why are there needless moments of characters walking about, often away from the camera? Is their ass supposed to be funny, or is it a break so I can catch my breath from the guffaws? I appreciate a film told with clarity. We don't need to see the short-ends.

A few notable supporting characters are also either vastly underwritten or have had their lines splashed across the cutting room floor. Earlier scenes of promise featuring the supporting cast members never receive a payoff, which makes the previous time spent with them wasteful. Lastly, the score of Footnote is painfully insistent throughout, as it constantly crashes into the movie as if it was a drunk elephant on a cruise ship. Silence would have sufficed.

Footnote is a waste of talent, but my dad just might enjoy it for Bar-Aba's grouchiness.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

CANNES 2011 - Michael


Michael (2011) dir. by Markus Schleinzer
Starring Michael Fuith and David Rauchenberger

**1/2

By Blair Stewart

The man is a blank.

Balding, pasty, forgettable. Bland suit, bland shoes, bland words. He arrives home from the insurance office, removes the bland suit and shoes, makes a snack, goes downstairs to his padlocked basement, into the playroom of the 10-year-old boy he's held captive for months, and he rapes the boy. That's his routine.

This is the reality of Michael, Markus Schleinzer's debut feature after cutting his teeth as a casting director, most notably for Michael Haneke. His influence hangs over so many of the art-house releases these days, he's like a trend instead of an auteur. Michael deals with the outrage of the Josef Fritzl revelation and other cases of child enslavement within our generation.

Michael Fuith is Michael the adult, an obsequious middle-manager type of deep silence, hard-wired as a sexual predator, matter-of-fact and mostly competent in his crime. David Rauchberger is the boy, required to engage Michael in sex, expected to play the role of a playmate and chattel. The film shifts between the man's outside existence and his casual trips down to the basement, absolute evil reduced to banality. The scenes of molestation are mostly implied but brutal to fathom, even if you're not a parent. The film doesn't insist exploitation or controversy, it confronts an aspect of human nature that's existed since the catamites; it could occur, and has already, in small-town Austria, Afghanistan, California.

As a film, in regard to design, Michael is accomplished but unspectacular and quite predictable. But to be fair, if the story was sensationalized, I'd be furious – Schleinzer has made a mostly honest film from an unfathomable source. It does pander though in having Michael as a vacant monster, Todd Solondz was much braver in humanizing Dylan Baker's paedophile in Happiness. Fuith and Rauchberger are committed in their roles and commendable in their bravery. Michael is a film of great unease that I don't want to watch again, but it’s worth respecting.

"But I... I can't help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment!"
-Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's M.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

CANNES 2011 - Miss Bala


Miss Bala "Miss Bullet" (2011) dir. Gerardo Naranjo
Starring Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez

****

By Blair Stewart

Sometimes I come out of a movie theatre and the film I've just seen is mighty enough that I want to walk along the streets afterwards and express my happiness to passing strangers. Tonight I had that rare joy. Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala is pure cinema, a head above the mostly minor works I've seen so far at Cannes, a coal-black rat maze of a film with a young woman tumbling up the steps of Mexican border anarchy towards absurdity.

Stephanie Sigman is Laura, the dirt-broke shirt-vendor in Tijuana, starting her day by entering into the local beauty pageant and ending the night an ensnared accomplice in a freeform ground battle between kingpin Lido (Noe Hernandez), his army of triggermen and Lido's local wonk officials going all-in against the gringos of the D.E.A. After witnessing Lido's Darwinistic housecleaning aptitude, Laura's safety is now tied to the drug-runner with her prospects on par with that of Schrodinger's cat. The story takes the humble girl and pitches her through unceasing sequences encapsulating Naranjo's disgust with the systemic rot of the federales, the silence of the feminicidios and the cartels above all, from the Baja to Tamaulipas state and San Diego to El Paso.

Miss Bala shifts so many gears it could enter an off-road rally and win, and it often appears to be heading towards preposterousness before wantonly leaping right into it. Lately, having watched so many unambitious releases coming from the mainstream and the art-house, it is so gratifying now to see a film that ignores plausibleness and the audiences' expectations to just keep running you ragged for two hours.

The tension of Laura's endangerment is perfectly sustained, only for Bala to dip into cruel satire until the story once again kicks into escalating carnage of ambitious direction. Stephanie Sigman is the same kind of sympathetic 'living barometer' of vast human destruction as Polanski had done when he focused on the plight of one man to express the enormity of the Holocaust in The Pianist. In his first role, Noe Hernandez as Lido has a fearsome Charles Bronson quality about him with dull black eyes and the odd charisma of a man who massacres casually.

Naranjo takes the myriad of ongoing violations between/against his countrymen, distills them into the plight of a lone girl at the mercy of Mexico's (and America's) phantom war dividing her land, then uses action as a Trojan horse to unleash his indignation when the audience might be hoping for entertainment. How awesome.

The script by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz is economical and confident in character and action, but the tandem of Naranjo and his cinematographer Mátyás Erdély is where the film succeeds. It’s a collaboration reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron and Emmanuel Lubezki's best work together. Dollies, brilliant crane shots, Steadicam, mise-en-scène – the film is in constant, justified movement to match the pace of the story, and Naranjo knows what a camera is capable of and how it should really move.

I expect Miss Bala to be somewhere high up on my year-end list of best films.

Friday, 13 May 2011

CANNES 2011 - We Need to Talk About Kevin


We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) dir. by Lynne Ramsay
Starring Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller

***

By Blair Stewart

Tilda Swinton faces terrible labours as a mother in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay's beautifully flawed return after her 2002 masterpiece Morvern Callar.

To Eva (Swinton), her first child Kevin (played at various stages through youth by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller) is not a welcome addition to the tidy life she keeps with husband Franklin (John C. Reilly). From an early age the child plays sides between his parents effortlessly, with Eva usually holding the losing hand during the potty-training and spelling lessons stages. We see from her splintered memories of Kevin's upbringing the irksome stare he commands in diapers at a tender age, as if the boy is channelling Vincent D'Onofrio's Pvt. Pyle from Full Metal Jacket.

Kevin acts like a little monster, but surely most kids can be bastards in the playground sandpit. Kevin's ambiguity as a major brat/minor sociopath is out of his mother's grasp, and the film jumbles up Eva's past with her raw present as a subjective bookend to the tragedy of Van Sant's Elephant. Could we be seeing the sum of her mistakes as a parent that lead to disaster, or did she do all that was within her power to steer her supposedly loved child from his deeds?

This is Swinton's film, as the camera locks on her face like sunlight through a magnifying glass baking a crippled ant. There is a moment early on in which Swinton, with a look to an off-screen character, accomplishes more with her silence than pages of superfluous dialogue could possibly accomplish. All that cauterized emotion comes right out of her eyes, and she really is one of the great actors working today. On point and a coup for Ramsay is Billy Hopkins' casting of Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin skulking about the house. In Millers’ uniqueness, Ramsay chooses to indulge in fetish-like close-ups of his shredded skin and open pores like an insect in the pupa stage, a kind of grotesqueness that would fit well with the fleshy horrors of Cronenberg.

While We Need to Talk About Kevin is heavy material to digest, with the mesmerizing and unexpected opening to the framing of Kevin's actions, it's skillfully made throughout. There's been much acclaim for this film thus far here at Cannes. Where I differ is in the non-linear structure of the story that saps the work of tension. By the middle half of the film, I wasn't engaged with the events as much as I was watching a rockslide gain momentum where the end results were fairly obvious. There's also the niggling issue of why Eva would stay in a town of often broad American caricature in which she is a pariah akin to that of Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, but just as well she could be carrying a mother's great burden into extremity.

Kevin is a powerful view at the nasty before and after of accumulated mistakes.

CANNES 2011 - Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty (2011) dir. by Julia Leigh
Starring Emily Browning and Rachael Blake

***

By Blair Stewart

Few subjects raise the hackles of cinema-goers quite like a sexual power-play when the woman is the willing submissive, as Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty portrays. Arriving from a familiar but far crueler vein to Bunuel's Belle de Jour, young Lucy, as played by Emily Browning, is a striking, almost-pubescent college student with a hazy past of addiction and the trashy roots of the low-class family she's shucked. She's also a trendy bar-bathroom prostitute, earning her keep and dirty knees in the stalls when an offer arrives to join sex games for the contentment of elite men – Berlusconi himself just as well could show up as the master of ceremonies.

Lucy's job offer is that of a 'Sleeping Beauty', a doped-up, unresponsive play doll to be used by old-moneyed hands for any vice 'excluding penetration'. Leigh's film charts the spiral of Lucy's warped sense of curiosity and loathing through this degradation. This is neither a straight drama nor an erotic seduction piece, as the graphic scenes of Browning being pawned by sagging leathery men would corrupt most libidos. Having withheld Lucy's backstory (I'm certain every art-house film withholds backstory these days) and left us with just scraps of dialogue and small twitches of personality indicating why she's chosen her unique, necrophilic field, the work has the quality of an airless art gallery piece, or the political sex-bombs that Catherine Breillat has tossed in the past.

The unconscious transactions with Lucy's clientele have a creeping dread in them helped greatly by the hum of Ben Frost's ambient score. The film itself is pieced together with a minimum number of cuts, or as a fellow critic pointed out, the movie doesn't have scenes as much as vignettes. The framing is classical with brief but soft camera movements, which show us an influence from Michael Haneke's own twisted works.

It's an interesting time for Australian film. Since the productions of the Star Wars prequels and the Matrix films, Hollywood has largely left Oz's shores. Now the homemade independent/arts-funded films have stepped into the spotlight again. At the same time, the films themselves have looked to foreign influences in their themes, with Animal Kingdom sharing a kinship with Michael Mann's L.A. crime swagger, The Proposition an Outback mule-kick that could have been transported to the Rio Grande, and now Sleeping Beauty with the European austerity of ruling-class perversity.

Under the mentorship of Jane Campion, this is the film debut of praised author Julia Leigh. Given the choice of subject matter, attention will likely be focused on the grimy parts of her film. But her star, Emily Browning, a ballsy actress for such a petite woman, and Rachael Blake as Lucy's sangfroid Madam, are both sterling. The film is decisive and unpleasant but also undeniably skillful in its creation, reminding me of the glow of a Francis Bacon painting: both striking and terrible to look at. As you have already gleaned, the American Midwest is surely going to love this.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

CANNES 2011 - Midnight in Paris


Midnight in Paris (2011) dir. by Woody Allen
Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard and Michael Sheen.

**1/2

By Blair Stewart

I had a dear old friend so hung up on the past that not one conversation went by without him whining about his disgust at being born 40 years too late. Music back then had a genuine animal strut to it; revolution applied to politics instead of a buzzword used for the latest flavours of Coke; early Godard was a genius instead of the cranky old hermit he is now. In hindsight, that friend depressed the hell out of me, and as his time-displacement dilemma is central to Midnight in Paris, I hope my old mate watches Allen's latest when it's released. But he'll likely complain about the cost of tickets nowadays.

The old spoilt trollop that is Paris is given more praise, as Woody Allen eavesdrops on neuroses along the Seine, and his camera professes love for her streets while conveniently overlooking the banlieues. On holiday with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her ugly American in-laws, Gil (Owen Wilson), a milquetoast scriptwriter, is overcome by the nostalgia of the city's belles-lettres heyday of Stein, Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Making a midnight jaunt to avoid his fiancée’s faux-intellectual admirer (Michael Sheen), Allen nicks from his own Purple Rose of Cairo, as Gil strolls into a 1920s phantasmagorical Madame Tussaud's exhibit where he can hobnob with his dead heroes (Cole Porter, T.S. Eliot, the Surrealists) until the tourist needs to wake up to the present or before Ernie H. gets too drunk and punchy. Gil's dallying is complicated by the arrival of Picasso's fetching muse played by Marion Cotillard as a gal most folks would happily build a time-bending DeLorean for.

As is the case with his recent, too-kind travelogues of Barcelona and London, Woody Allen portrays Paris in the kindest light possible and doesn't upset his own aesthetic applecart at all – faint praise for a comedy that has a couple of smart jokes sprung from characters that, in order to get belly laughs, thankfully lack a) cheap profanity and b) sexual depravity.

Midnight in Paris is a mostly enjoyable, though slightly forgettable, work by Allen, not surprising as the last great film he's made goes back to the previous decade, 1999's Sweet and Lowdown. Back to his Bottle Rocket roots, Owen Wilson is as likable as always, Corey Stoll does Hemingway justice, and Marion Cotillard is the charming quasi-ingénue as all heck.

If anything, Midnight is worth seeing for Adrien Brody's small but fantastic turn in one of the more memorable bits of screen-thievery in recent years.