Thursday, 30 June 2011
Starring: Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta
By Alan Bacchus
There’s not much to celebrate from ‘80s cinema. I posted an article about this topic a few years back (HERE), and I actually forgot to put Jonathan Demme on this list. Something Wild, new to Criterion Collection deification, stands up as one of the best films of the decade. It sits in a pile of unquantifiable quirky films of the ‘80s, which are distinct to the decade and represent the attempt of filmmakers to subvert the strong capitalist conservative values of that time. We could also include Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and a handful of Jim Jarmusch films (Down By Law, Stranger in Paradise, Mystery Train) in this bucket.
I can distinctly remember my reaction watching this film for the first time years ago, specifically the remarkable midpoint tonal switch from fun, fluffy romantic road movie to a dark and violent kidnapping and revenge tale. The moment occurs in a convenience store, where Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels), a meek suburban schmuck who, on the second day of his rambunctious, spur of the moment road trip with his flighty free spirit girlfriend Lulu, is caught in an armed robbery heist with a dangerous criminal. The scene is punctuated by a raucous punk song and features Ray Liotta losing his cool and throwing around and pistol whipping store patrons, as well as a mighty cool freeze frame in the middle of the action for good measure. It’s a Martin Scorsese-type scene all the way, and we can’t help but think Marty saw this and decided to cast Liotta in Goodfellas.
The scene is also famous for influencing Paul Thomas Andersons' famous midpoint tonal shift in Boogie Nights, when (spoiler alert) William H. Macy’s character, after witnessing his wife boning another dude for the umpteenth time, decides to blow his own head off in the middle of a party. As in Something Wild, this scene represented a distinct turn to the dark side for Anderson.
Liotta is indeed a revelation in this film, a pocket full of rage so dangerous and threatening we can feel it through the screen in our seats. Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith also give fabulous performances. It's one of Griffith’s signature roles, the high-pitch voiced cock-tease character she would hone over the next ten years or so. For Daniels, his “awe shucks” personality represents the conservativeness of Americana in the decade, which makes Lulu’s seduction and corruption as the skewer into the social and political values of the period so delightful.
Demme was a master of using real locations and real personalities from these settings to create authenticity and realism. Watch the scene in the second half, when Charlie, who, while stalking the reunited lovers Lulu and Ray, enters a convenience store to buy a disguise. It’s a comical scene with Charlie donning a garish t-shirt and ludicrously tacky sunglasses. But watch his interaction with the other actors, who seem to exist in the space instead of being ‘placed’ there for the purposes of the film. Same with the end credits when Lulu and Charlie walk away along the sidewalk. The camera pans to a street vendor singing a reggae ditty. Demme has no reason to point his camera at her other than the fact that it feels right for the scene. I doubt this was in the script or even the shot list at the beginning of the day. But it’s the mark of a great filmmaker running on all cylinders and unable to make a mistake.
Something Wild is a classic from a decade with very little classics.
Something Wild is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
Wednesday, 29 June 2011
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Sean Bean, Djimon Honsou
By Alan Bacchus
I’m one of the forgiving critics who can generally look past ridiculous plotting, overwrought hyperkinetic visual stimuli, the often objectionable depiction of women and the general immaturity of Michael Bay’s films and appreciate the pure spectacle of his filmmaking aesthetics. Michael Bay makes Michael Bay movies, and God bless him for it.
Back in 2005, fresh off the relative disappointments of Pearl Harbor and Bad Boys 2, Bay’s attempt to come back with The Island also failed. His brand of glossy eye candy just didn’t fit into the brainy ‘70s intellectual futurist sci-fi from which the concept of The Island stems.
In this film, we experience the point of view of Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor), one of hundreds of men and women living in a sterile futuristic boarding house of sorts, sequestered from an apparent viral outbreak in the outside world. They spend their days exercising, eating right and wearing identical white jumpsuits. Their one goal in life is to win the lottery, which takes them to ‘the Island’, a seemingly pristine world free of their forced confinement and the contamination of the rest of the world. But when Lincoln starts questioning the absurdity of his sterile lifestyle, it begins his journey of escape and the discovery of the heinous deception at play.
Eventually, Lincoln and his tagalong gal pal Jordan Two Echo (Johansson) escape and get chased by the cool looking police cum SWAT team led by the slick Djimon Honsou. Normally with this type of film, say George Lucas’s THX 1138, escape from containment occurs in the third act. But such timing just doesn’t pass for summer blockbuster entertainment. And so, by the 45 minute mark, Lincoln and Jordan are on the run, fish out of water trying to navigate their way in the real world with Bay attempting to extract humour from their wide-eyed naive reactions to the colloquialisms of our world.
The application of the Bay brand of dialogue, that hyperfast delivery of crude jokes and characters talking over each other in loud, shrill voices, is distinct to the director, but doesn’t fit the genre. Same with the overly lit music video lighting. Everything in the film is a bold colour, whether it’s the yellow sunlight that streams through every window like it’s blazing dusk blinding our eyes, or the overly greenish fluorescent lights showing us the grimy and dirty aspect of the conceptual world.
The most disappointing aspect of the film is the Bay action scenes, and action scenes are the main reason to watch these movies. The central set piece, another highway chase, is a near carbon copy of the Miami freeway chase in Bad Boys 2 (Bay would even try this a third time in Transformers). When the action scenes fail to stimulate us in a Michael Bay picture, the film is doomed.
The third act, which runs way too long, surprises us with the introduction of a doppelganger Ewan McGregor. Bay has some fun with the dual character banter, one a slimy disreputable race car driver and the regular Lincoln a sympathetic innocent to the world.
In the end, The Island is even more forgettable than his most brainless features. Bay should either just stick with the brawn, like in the Transformers franchise, or completely shift gears and exercise his brain for a change. I genuine like the guy and would love to see the latter.
The Island is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.
Tuesday, 28 June 2011
Starring: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Jüri Järvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Nikolai Grinko
By Alan Bacchus
Cinema legend has it that Solaris was partly born from a healthy competition with Stanley Kubrick and a bit of Cold War competitiveness from the Soviet government and Mosfilm to trump the West. After seeing and hating the cold dehumanization of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's been said that Tarkovsky sought to make a science fiction film about the emotions of the human condition. The result was Solaris, based on the book by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. And while 2001 was an outward expansion of the scope of our place in the universe, Solaris looks inward into the human soul and the mighty power of our ability to love.
As a movie-going experience, Tarkovsky does indeed infuse his story with a heaping of brooding internalized emotions. But despite the competitive intentions, the film produces the same feeling of an existential dissertation as beguiling as Kubrick’s film.
One central existential question fills the 2-hour mostly non-narrative drama. What is the moral implication of recreating another life from the dead? This is what has happened to the skeleton crew of a Russian space station orbiting Solaris, a planet seemingly without life, but one that has a distinct supernatural force emanating from its vast oceans. The first 45 minutes are spent on Earth with Kris Kelvin, a psychologist who is being coerced into investigating the phenomenon by one of the station’s former cosmonauts.
Once at the station, Kelvin experiences the psychological and physical hallucinations that have caused many of the crew to go insane and even resort to suicide. Kelvin soon discovers these hallucinations are not projections of the mind but physical manifestations of one’s own subconscious. For Kelvin, it’s the mind, body and spirit of his late wife.
The two other cosmonauts have already experienced this phenomenon, and while bringing back the dead seems like a miracle, everyone fears the worst. These new beings take their energy from the planet and cannot return to Earth. And even if they should die, Kelvin’s subconscious will always bring them back to life.
The ethical ramifications of this scenario are known to everyone on board and so most of the film is a lengthy spiritual discussion about right and wrong. While it’s Tarkovsky at his most deliberate and languid, the discussions are intellectually stimulating, thought-provoking and wholly accessible. There’s also a strong sting of emotional pain running through the entire film, mainly the dilemma that although Kelvin has revived his wife, he ultimately cannot be with her.
The film ends with a magnificent reveal reminiscent of the TV show Lost (actually, something few Losties had made connections to when that show was the water cooler topic of the day). Kelvin finds a new home using the planet's gift of life as a solution to his dilemma, a supreme sacrifice of love, tremendously powerful and profound.
Solaris is considerably less ambitious technically than Kubrick’s film, but Tarkovsky still manages to craft a stunningly beautiful science fiction film. Magnificent production design and liberal but effective special effects put us into this realistic near future world. Look closely though and there’s only 3 or 4 sets used. But with clever compositions, he manages to create the appearance of a fully formed derelict space station.
The scenes on Earth are just as important as those in space. There's a masterful traffic sequence early on, which initially seems like a brief transition image with the former cosmonaut Berton riding in his car through a highway. But then the sequence continues on and on for several minutes. As Burton rolls through the urban jungle, noises cascading on him and us, it becomes a surreal, abstract metaphor for the artificiality of our world and Berton’s desire to achieve transcendence like his brief time at Solaris.
The Criterion Collection disc is transferred from a low con print, not the original negative. It’s a shame, as it’s not quite as pristine as it could have been. But the film looks as fantastic and sharp as it’s ever been. I could never figure out the combination of B&W sequences interspersed with colour, but it’s part of Tarkovsky’s artistic vision, which is unexplainable. Nonetheless, it just ‘feels right’. Viewers have to bare garish zoom lenses, which don’t quite fit into the visual design. But it was the’ 70s, and many great films are burdened by this ugly visual device.
Solaris is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
Monday, 27 June 2011
Starring: James Keach, Stacey Keach, David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Robert Carradine, Randy Quaid, Dennis Quaid,
By Alan Bacchus
By 1980, we were just starting the long doldrums of the Western genre. So maybe we can consider Walter Hill's The Long Riders the last great western. The story of Jesse James has been the subject of a hundred films over the last century, and arguably Walter Hill's is the top bar.
Walter Hill, known mainly as one of the best action directors of the ‘80s, was once a protégé of Sam Peckinpah, having written his fine Steve McQueen/Ali McGraw heist film The Getaway. The Peckinpah influence on Hill and The Long Riders is palpable.
Hill was a master of writing and directing mean and nasty characters, and the conflict between the James/Younger Gang and the Pinkerton authorities is tough and bloody. The opening establishes the steely eyed toughness of Jesse James (James Keach), who is introduced robbing a bank with his brother Frank (Stacy Keach) and his cohorts, the Youngers (the Carradine brothers) and the Millers (the Quaid brothers). After the trigger-happy Ed Miller gets kicked out of the gang, seeds of internal dissent within the group are born.
As they move between train robberies, bank heists, visits to whorehouses and even time spent at home with families, we see the concurrent actions of the Federal Government officers, The Pinkertons, to apprehend the gang.
As the opening Ry Cooder bluegrass tune plays over the elegant slow-motion footage of the gang riding across the lush green Missouri landscape, the reverence of both the genre and the history of the period is established. This tone continues throughout the mix of gritty actions scenes and genuine heartfelt nostalgia. Hill paints his characters as real working class people, but also aggrandized criminals who have helped form the myths and legends of the emerging nation.
The numerous action set pieces are phenomenal. The knife fight between James Remar and David Carradine is terrific. The battle between two badass characters – Remar, the muscular half-breed and husband to Pamela Reed's character, and David Carradine, the quiet and Zen-like client of the whore – is an awesome macho standoff.
Hill saves his best scene for last. It’s not only the best of his career, it’s one of the greatest action set pieces ever filmed by anyone. Hill applies all the Peckinpah influence and knowledge he gleaned from the ‘70s into his mesmerizing Minnesota raid bloodbath. The multiple camera frame rates and the same montage rhythm is the finest and most famous Peckinpah homage we've seen.
The Long Riders is available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment.
Sunday, 26 June 2011
RAGE (1972) dir. George C. Scott
Starring: George C. Scott, Richard Basehart, Martin Sheen, Barnard Hughes, Nicolas Beauvy and Ed Lauter
By Greg Klymkiw
In the movies, things often begin innocently enough with clouds, but as we all know, those billowing masses of stratospheric cumuli can also deliver iniquity of the most malicious kind. To my way of thinking, pictures from the 1930s, 50s and 70s had some of the more vile cloud droppings. In 1935, Hitler descended through the visible vapour to preside over the Nuremberg rallies in Leni Riefenstahl's masterwork of Nazi propaganda The Triumph of the Will. During the Cold War in 1957, similar meteorological puff balls brought an incurable condition to the character of Scott Carey (Grant Williams) in Jack Arnold's classic sci-fi thriller The Incredible Shrinking Man. Philip Kaufman's stunning 1978 remake of Don Siegel's hysteria-infused 50s chiller Invasion of the Body Snatchers, alien spores bent on replicating themselves in mankind drifted into Earth's atmosphere from space. Through brumous wisps over San Francisco, the podlike spire of corporate homogeneity, the Trans-America building, stood like a seeming and appropriate beacon for a life form bereft of emotion and bent on destruction.
Those are a few of my favourites. The list of clouds that bring nastiness in the movies could, however, go on.
RAGE was made in 1972 - a decade where paranoia ran rampant in both life and the movies and when belief in conspiracy became commonplace - especially in the sort of urban backdrops as portrayed in Kaufman's picture and the numerous political thrillers of the era.
In RAGE, we are far from the bustle of a metropolis. The town and the country are - in most matters - two solitudes and so it is that the opening of actor George C. Scott's feature directorial debut cascades us - not over a city, but through the lush, heaven-like clouds hovering gently over a rural Nevada landscape. We're in sheep country and Scott plays Dan Logan, a rugged herdsman who lives a quiet life with his pre-teen son Chris (Nicolas Beauvy). The two have a mutual respect and admiration for each other and nature. They go about their laconic business on the open rugged plains - the outside world far, far away.
Or so they believe.
With the exception of a military helicopter blasting over them and Lalo Schifrin's odd score - seeming more at home in an episode of The Waltons than the usual throbbing dischords he generated for films like Bullitt and Dirty Harry et al - father and son eventually bed down for the night under the stars. Dan and loyal pooch nestle comfortably within a canvas tent, whilst sonny-boy sleeps outside, keeping the sheep, crickets and stars company.
The next morning, Dan wakes up to find all his sheep splayed about the fields - barely alive. Chris is in the same condition. Dan attempts to wake his son, but to no avail and he bundles the boy into his pickup truck. Taking one last look at the carnage, Dan's POV reveals a sheep twitching in pain, its tongue hanging out and blood pouring from its nostrils. In bold, blazing red, the title treatment appears over the shuddering wooly ungulate. As the word RAGE smashes into our faces, so does the Lalo Schifrin score. We know for sure we're not in Kansas, Dorothy. Nor, for that matter are we in Waltons territory.
As the previous God-shots of the bucolic countryside return, cinematographer Fred (Patton, Billy Jack, Papillon, The Towering Inferno) Koenekamp captures the overhead fury of Dan's truck racing madly across the Nevada countryside. With Schifrin's trademark grating, grinding music pounding away and ace editor Michael (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, Fatal Attraction, Saving Private Ryan) Kahn's expert cutting, we know for sure we're in the region of full-blown 70s paranoia.
What follows was, and still is, everyone's worst nightmare - the death of a child - compounded by feelings of helplessness when the death has been caused by the idiotic, senseless actions of a government that should serve and protect at all costs and then refuses to own up to its actions and illegally colludes with as many agencies as possible to cover up its incompetence, its callous disregard of the innocent and its inherent evil.
In reality, many of the South Western United States have hosted all manner of nefarious activities and it's no surprise when it is revealed to us very quickly in RAGE that the government has been developing a nerve gas to use in battle and that an accident has released a small, but deadly amount of the poison.
Soon, all of Dan's sheep die and so does his son. He has also been exposed, but to a lesser extent.
Lesser, but still lethal.
All of this information is, of course, withheld from him. Governments - any governments - are not there to tell the truth. Their reason for being is to uphold the status-quo, the war machine and the New World Order. The film believes it to such an extent that it is infused with a calm, matter-of-fact acceptance of this notion and is relentless in hammering it home. (I love the moment when a military scientist calmly explains - between bites, chews and swallows of his lunch - the devastating effects of nerve gas upon all living things.)
One of the best aspects of the screenplay by Philip Friedman and Dan Kleinman is the clinical manner in which we are delivered all the information that is kept from Dan, the character Scott plays. For us, there are no surprises. We hear everything and see everything - what the tests were for, how they screwed up, the need to contain the disaster, the insidious manner in which all will be covered up and most horrendously of all - the knowledge that anything that has come into contact with the deadly nerve gas will die and so, in the name of "science", Dan will not be told about his impending demise so he can be poked and prodded by doctors and the military to study the effects of this weapon of warfare, or, if you will, of mass destruction.
We watch these Mephistophelian machinations with horror and frustration. We know what our central character does not - the truth.
And what a great character! Dan Logan is a true everyman of a generation that believed in the status quo. He honoured country, authority and put considerable trust in professionals - like doctors. After all, he is, by his own admission, a simple sheep farmer who loves solitude, nature and his son - especially his son. Since being widowed, he lives for his flesh and blood. He is the epitome of decency and, as the central character, he is our way IN to this story. Knowing everything while he knows nothing puts us in his shoes. Though knowing and not knowing are opposite sides of the fence, the end emotional result is the same: mounting frustration, sorrow and finally, anger.
This is fine writing and even finer direction. George C. Scott creates a mise-en-scene of astounding power. Even when he uses slow motion to accentuate emotion tied to action or an action to deflect while, at the same time foreshadow a dramatic beat, he successfully uses a potentially cliched technique (especially in first-time feature directors) that it works almost every single time. Yes, he does overuse it and the film has a few dollops of clunkiness, but nothing that detracts from the whole.
Scott especially makes fine use of cinematographer Fred Koenekamp. The lighting in virtually every scene is spot-on - everything from the antiseptic fluorescence of the institutional interiors to the deep blacks of night punctuated (often with a moving camera) with flashes of light. Yes, there are definitely elements of film noir used to great effect in this harrowing conspiracy thriller, but the picture is also infused with a heavy sense of Aristotelian tragedy. (This, no doubt, appealed greatly to Scott.)
As an actor, he delivers - under his own esteemed direction - one of his best performances. Any movie called RAGE and starring George C. Scott is a flashing billboard of what to expect. And yes, rage comes - Oh Boy, does it come!
But it's a slow burn.
Scott the director wisely uses Scott the actor so we believe every turn of his character through the myriad of emotions he expresses (or holds back). Scott, of course, looks great with a stylish down home burr-cut and bushy eyebrows - in addition to his grizzled mug. He's also in terrific physical condition. He might be a tad paunchier than the days he slapped his rock-hard belly as General Buck in Dr. Strangelove, but he looks every bit the MAN who works with his hands. And Damn! As comfortable as Scott seems behind the wheel of a pickup truck, he also looks great on a motorcycle - cooler than cool.
Earlier, I made mention of Michael's Kahn's editing. Many of the cuts are seamless and "silent", but on occasion we are slammed with a cut that rips the breath out of us. One of the most stunning edits occurs on a closeup of George C. Scott's face as he looks - almost without emotion - upon the post-autopsy body of his child and then, in the sweetest spot imaginable we get a smash cut to black. The black holds silently until we hear Scott's off-camera sobs and we realize we are in an exterior black as the camera is moving until a square of light reveals Scott moving with psychotic determination in his gait and pain growling from his throat. This is an incredible sequence and a stunning marriage of every major craft discipline achieving a level of convergence that is exactly the sort of cinematic effect that evokes gooseflesh.
As a director, Scott wisely surrounded himself with a terrific cast. It's great seeing Richard Basehart of the long-running sci-fi TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (in addition to some great film noir pictures and very cool eclectic roles in the work of directors like Federico Fellini and John Huston) playing Scott's longtime family doctor - a country general practitioner of the old school who, like Scott's character, places his faith in authority and briefly, in the younger men of science. Martin Sheen, as one of those youthful medicine men, is positively chilling as the career bureaucrat wearing the Hippocratic Oath as if it were the same chain attached to the ghost of greedy old Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol.
The deliciously evil Ed Lauter makes a great appearance as a hospital orderly who'd be more at home as a strong-arm thug to Richard Conte in The Big Combo, while many of the smaller and bit roles feel like they're either played by non-actors or some amazing character actors who are so good they exude the odious whiffs of reality needed to contribute additional colour to the proceedings. In particular, the actresses playing nurses in the hospital laden with conspiracy are such foul cucumbers they give Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest a definite run for her money. Playing military officials, creepy scientists and department of public health officials, the likes of Barnard Hughes, Stephen Young, Paul Stevens, Kenneth Tobey and William Jordan are not only a who's who of 60s/70s character actors, but acquit themselves brilliantly - especially in a horrific boardroom scene where the conspiracy is hatched.
RAGE is one of the best conspiracy thrillers of the 70s and definitely one of the earliest on the scene. Other pictures are better known and revered, but George C. Scott set the stage and the bar very high for all of them. It's a movie that seems to have fallen through the cracks and anyone who enjoys this genre will no doubt enjoy the picture thoroughly. More importantly, though, it's a movie that resonates with our contemporary world and does its job with equal doses of subtlety and sledgehammers. It's perhaps that very dichotomy that makes it an important work in the canon of American cinema of the 70s.
And the rage? Oh yes, there's plenty of that. The carnage Scott inflicts is vicious. Each blow against "The Man" gives us immense pleasure, but the screenplay and by extension, Scott the director, won't give us the Smores in the McFlurry. The film delivers a devastating conclusion, like many of the great 70s classics. The end is on par with the final moments of Dirty Harry, Night Moves and, among many others, The Parallax View.
RAGE gives us the goods we so seldom get in contemporary cinema.
We can win an occasional battle with "The Man", but we'll never win the war.
Sadly, "RAGE" is only available through the Warners Archives label wherein it must be special ordered online (and will only be shipped to U.S. addresses) or secured at a premium from retailers who import the copies into countries outside of the U.S. In Toronto, Canada the only places that carry a wide selection of these titles are the flagship store of Sunrise Records at Yonge and Dundas and the newly resurrected Starstruck Video at Dundas and Tomken. Thankfully, it IS available, but it deserved better than this (as do many of the titles in this particular library).
Saturday, 25 June 2011
Starring: Ralph Meeker
By Alan Bacchus
Film noir is a well established genre – dark crime tales usually involving ordinary guys caught in tangled webs of intrigue or crime, visualized with dark shadowy cinematography. Often low budget with tier B actors, the sexuality and violence became the attraction rather than star power. Kiss Me Deadly, considered one of the greats, is now immortalized by The Criterion Collection. It’s familiar territory, as described above, dramatizing another hard boiled crime story from writer Mikey Spillane. The film is also famous for influencing Quentin Tarantino’s glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction, Alex Cox’s glowing trunk in Repo Man and Steven Spielberg’s mysterious Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It certainly has the noir mood and tone. But unfortunately, other than its historical significance and the usually terrific Criterion treatment, it doesn’t age well.
Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer, an L.A. private eye who picks up a mysterious hitchhiker named Christina (a young Cloris Leachman). He then gets into an accident by the forced hand of an unknown assailant. When he wakes he finds that Christina has died. With the help of his local P.I. colleagues, Hammer embarks on a dangerous investigation into the accident and discovers a dark and dangerous magical maguffin that’s the root of all this criminal activity.
Two thirds of the film moves with the pace and excitement of a Law & Order episode. Hammer interviews several friends and colleagues trying to track down the source of Christina’s disappearance. Along the journey Hammer evades the usual shadowy but unimpressive henchmen. Hammer is no wimp though, as he fights off a knife-wielding hitman at night and violently throws him down a long flight of stairs; he disarms a bomb planted in his car with ease; and he fights off a half-dozen thugs at the home of local heavy Sugar Smallhouse.
The finale is a classic and the reason to watch the film. The legendary ‘whatsit’ box, which everyone is after, is never really explained, though it has been speculated that it’s one of several metaphors (a caution against atomic testing is the most popular). It’s interesting to see its influences on two important films from two different generations – Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pulp Fiction.
Though the ending packs a wallop, a great noir has to tease us with details, red herrings or false leads. Since the audience has the point of view of the investigator, we must also constantly feel the threat of Hammer moving forward to discover the mystery. For example, in DOA Edmund O’Brien’s character is poisoned and must find his killer within 48 hours in order to live. Or in The Postman Rings Twice, Frank and Cora conspire to murder Cora’s husband because it’s the only way she can escape her drab and boring life. Two acts of investigation in Kiss Me Deadly provide little drama or intrigue. Nothing is learned about Christina or the cause of her trouble until the very end in a rushed but fantastic finale.
Ralph Meeker is a tough gumshoe, but he’s missing the wit and charisma of a Humphrey Bogart and the confidence of a Fred MacMurray. As a character actor (Paths of Glory), he’s effective but doesn’t have the chops to fully carry a film (though I have to give him credit for the best-ever cinematic 'bitch-slapping'). Missing also is a credible antagonist. Where’s the Sidney Greenstreet or Peter Lorre or Orson Welles or Edward G. Robinson? A young and skinny Jack Elam makes an appearance, but his commanding presence just isn’t there yet.
Rudimentary plotting, which moves from scene to scene without impassioned danger or action, stalls the film. The ending certainly takes the film to another level, but the jump is too large, too quick and too much for me to recommend it over other classics of the genre. Watch Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil, Mildred Pierce, The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon first.
Kiss Me Deadly is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
Friday, 24 June 2011
Starring: Ali Suliman, Elia Suleiman, Saleh Bakri, Samar Qudha Tanus, Shafika Bajjali
By Alan Bacchus
Elia Suleiman's autobiographical portrait of 60+ years of his Palestinian family living under occupation in Israel is brought to life with his own brand of silent cerebral comedy. This highly regarded film played notably at Cannes and Toronto, and now a couple of years later it makes its way to DVD. From the mix of sharp and highly personal political commentary and wicked black comedy, indeed it feels like an auteur presence at the helm with very important subject matter. Unfortunately, Suleiman's insistence on style distances himself from his subjects at the most crucial points in the film. But politically it's a powerhouse, in line with other fine political comedies from marginalized peoples, such as Tales from the Golden Age and Goodbye Lenin.
Suleiman begins in 1948 with the victory of the Israelis in creating their own state at the expense, of course, of the native Palestinians, including Fuad, the patriarch of the Suleiman family and a rebellious young man keen on fighting the Israelis in the name of his people. Director Suleiman structures the film in a series of episodes over the course of this period, with Fuad and his family as the throughline.
In the ‘70s, Fuad is a father and a family man, reluctantly accepting of his position, but quietly eager and worried that his son has continued the tradition of rebelliousness. Unfortunately, he would later see his son forced to leave the country when he's an adult and thus more dangerous to the establishment. The film ends with Fuad and his wife quietly contemplating their life together in a land of perpetual conflict.
Suleiman is not shy to wear his opinion loud and proud. The Israelis are portrayed as war mongering control freaks, shamefully denigrating the people they have ‘conquered’. The opening scene of the Israeli leaders giving the Palestinian leaders their one-sided terms of surrender and then in the same breath asking to take their picture with them is utterly painful and comically tragic.
Much of the comedy comes silent without dialogue from the observance of the sad ironies. Suleiman's strong wide-angle compositions and portraits highlight both the absurdity and horror of war. Perhaps the most memorable image comes towards the end of this film. It’s a shot of a tank pointing its gun at a Palestinian man walking casually from his home. The site of the massive gun mere inches away from the innocent man is monumentally absurd, but representative of the statement the film wants to make.
In the final segment, the concerted lack of emotion from the characters wears thin, and as the picture comes to its close we desperately want to engage with them, but don't. Suleiman, who goes in front of the camera to play the elder Fuad (I think?), enacts his Tati/Keaton persona, a sequence wherein Fuad simply walks into rooms, stares at his wife sitting on her balcony and then walks away. Comparisons have been made to the silent mugging of Buster Keaton, but silence is about the only thing these two have in common. Here, the segment is egotistical and furthers the distance from his characters for the sake of his artificial aesthetic.
It’s a shame the film peters out with art house obtuseness instead of elevating and intensifying itself to make a stronger statement.
The Time That Remains is available on DVD from EOne Home Entertainment in Canada.
Thursday, 23 June 2011
Starring: Robert De Niro, Liza Minnelli, Lionel Stander
By Alan Bacchus
Martin Scorsese’s maddeningly uneven ‘coke movie’ New York, New York gets the Blu-ray treatment for the first time. It would be less a disappointment from the man if it didn't come at the time of one of his great artistic peaks – between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. This period was poisonous to many of the great ‘70s filmmakers, as Steven Spielberg's 1941, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate and Francis Coppola's One from the Heart, like New York, New York, were ambitious, admirable failures.
Robert De Niro is like Dick Powell on coke, a cocky skirt-chasing sax player named Jimmy Doyle trying to make it in the post-WWII big band era. If De Niro is Powell then Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) is his Myrna Loy, a beaten down singer/dame who suffers for years as Doyle's creative partner and lover but is continually subject to his violent outbursts and verbal abuse. Minnelli does her best to work with such a shallow and underwritten role, but ultimately she's mostly a victim who only reacts to Doyle’s outrageous behaviour.
The movie really only hits its stride in the final 45 minutes, which includes a series of musical set pieces in the grand MGM style featuring Liza taking the stage to show off her immense talents. The 'Happy Endings' sequence feels like Scorsese doing the final Gene Kelly montage in An American in Paris, and the title song New York, New York, as sung by Liza, is terrific and sends the film out on a high note. But before that, it’s the Robert De Niro show. His talents are unbridled by Scorsese, as he lets loose like a rampaging Jake La Motta and affable oddball Rupert Pupkin.
Unfortunately, Jimmy Doyle lacks the curious charms of these two other characters. One of the film's inconsistencies is the opening sequence, during which he’s introduced as a con man/pick-up artist exploiting the jubilance of VJ Day to try and ‘get laid’. It's in this lengthy opening sequence where he meets Francine, who initially does everything she can to shove him away but instead falls in love with his perseverance.
This sequence plays like a screwball comedy fuelled by Robert De Niro’s rat-a-tat banter and the dialogue rhythms of Mardik Martin’s (Mean Streets) distinct writing style. We can see Scorsese’s skills with big scenes. Effectively populating his frames with hundreds of extras, we can practically hear the ticker rack up the excessive budget. But this scene feels like a different movie and Doyle feels like a different character.
After this comic introduction, Doyle quickly turns into a manic madman artist, a transition, which even after several viewings of this film, just never fits the bill for me. In the second act, as Doyle and Francine make their way towards success, De Niro's aggressive behaviour overpowers each and every scene, especially Minnelli, who can only charm us with her sad expressive eyes.
But, as mentioned, this is an admirable failure. As a musical vehicle for Scorsese, it's no stain on his filmography. His streetwise aesthetic and the primal masculine aggression of Mean Streets and Raging Bull combined with the MGM dream factory genre is a wholly Scorsese vision. While it has never landed softly on me, it's a risk great artists like Scorsese continually need to take. After all, his next (dramatic) film was Raging Bull.
New York, New York is available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment.
Wednesday, 22 June 2011
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Glynn Turman, Noah Emmerich
By Alan Bacchus
J.J. Abrams’ painstaking love letter to the Steven Spielberg films of old cannot live up to the true magical experience of say ET or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but he’s not allowed to try and damned if he doesn’t come really, really close. Abrams does such a good job of aping the kids vs. adults theme Spielberg popularized in the ‘80s, it brought me back to those summer days as a suburban kid playing guns in the backyard, blowing off firecrackers illegally and just about getting into any kind of dangerous shit I could think of. Super 8 is not perfect, but it makes for the most highly entertaining summer film of the year – a genuine love for film, filmmaking and just being a kid.
We’re in a classic small Midwestern American town in the ‘70s, an idolized working class suburban world where kids can ride bikes safely without helmets and without adult supervision. The kids in this film are not unproductive brats but highly motivated pre-teen geeks who have channelled their love of horror and monster movies into their own filmmaking coterie. Joe, Charlie, Preston and their 10-year-old friends are in the midst of shooting their latest 8 mm zombie film for the Cleveland Super 8 Film Festival. Charles (Griffiths), the fat kid, is the director and Joe (Courtney) is the special effects guy. After roping the unattainable blonde Alice (Fanning) into the mix they have their full cast and are ready to film their big emotional scene at night at the train station. The joy of having a real train pass behind the camera to achieve ‘production value’ turns to tragedy when the train derails and crashes in a spectacular accident.
After the accident, funny things start to happen in the small town. Mysterious military men show up to take scientific samples, mysterious electrical disturbances cause power outages and a gnarly beast seems to be chasing away dogs and abducting people from the town. Joe and Charlie have a theory that it’s an alien experiment gone wrong and a government cover-up. Like ET, it’s the kids versus the adults, using their guile, ingenuity and naiveté to save the town and the kidnapped townsfolk from both the beast and those despicable military men.
J.J. Abrams is so reverential to Spielberg it was almost mandatory that Spielberg be involved to shepherd this project as producer. Abrams cherry picks plotting and character elements from Jaws, ET, Close Encounters, Goonies and even Jurassic Park to create a fun, thrilling and supremely entertaining chimera of a film. The town hall scene in which the police deputy answers the questions of the people apes similar scenes in Jaws and Close Encounters. The sharply paced montage scenes pay homage to the great preparation scene in Close Encounters. And a confrontation with the beast in a control unit trailer reminds us of the same scene in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The list could go on and on, but none of it feels like theft. The genuine heart brought to the picture by the fine acting of the children relieves Abrams of crafting a purely technical exercise. Such was the case with the awful steroid-infused Star Trek reboot a couple of years ago.
It’s not completely a Spielberg film either, as Abrams’ own stylistic hallmarks are in full effect. The train wreck, for instance, feels remarkably like the plane crash scene in the pilot episode of Lost. If anything, the wreck is almost over-produced. Lasting minutes, it’s a bombardment of explosions and flying cars tumbling continuously for much longer than what would happen in reality. But he can’t be faulted for pulling out the stops to create a spectacle. As usual, he shoots the film in wide-angle anamorphic and along with it, more lens flares. Though distracting in Star Trek, they actually fit the mood in this film and reference Spielberg’s own play with light to highlight emotion and create a tone of magic escapism.
The film threatens to fall apart in the final act, where the plotting fails us. For example, we see a huge army firing guns and attacking what feels like an army when it’s really just the one beast. The beast, which the kids learn is actually benevolent, never develops into the sympathetic character we’re meant to believe. And the creation of his spaceship just doesn’t make sense. That said, there’s a surprisingly profound moment between the beast, Joe and his treasured pocket watch that hits all the right emotional buttons. Again, it’s not at the level of ET’s dramatic departure from earth, but it’s touching nonetheless.
Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Super 8 (2011) dir. J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Glynn Turman, Noah Emmerich
By Greg Klymkiw
J.J. Abrams has, with his third feature Super 8, finally evolved into a dreadfully dull director with modest competence at jockeying the camera during basic dialogue sequences, but zero talent for anything involving action, suspense or the sort of scope or magic one expects in a feature film.
Seeing his wretched first feature Mission Impossible III, I was, quite simply, appalled. The movie was dull, noisy and jam-packed with one action set piece after another that displayed all the directorial prowess of a career bricklayer who'd inexplicably been hired to direct the back end of a film franchise that in previous helpings boasted such true masters of cinematic grammar as Brian De Palma and John Woo. MI-III was so pathetic that at a certain point, all I could focus my attention on was the question, "Who the hell is J.J. Abrams and why would anyone entrust this picture to such a loser?"
After seeing the film I discovered who he was and why he might have been hired. The guy was a prolific television hack who'd enjoyed enough success in the boob tube world that even I, who more or less stopped watching television in the ‘80s, had at least heard of his series Lost. MI-III gave me no desire to watch Lost or any of the other TV offerings he regurgitated for the greedy open mouths of the Great Unwashed.
I did, however, decide to cut Abrams some slack and see his 2009 Star Trek reboot. Being a huge fan of the original television series (when TV used to be good), Nicholas Meyer's first rate feature Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and not even minding The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, I thought only a gibbering gibbon would be able to mess it up.
While I wouldn't call Abrams's Star Trek a complete disaster - some of his approaches to providing a bit of fun insight into younger versions of Kirk, Spock and the rest of the gang were not without merit - he proved once again that he had absolutely no talent for action, suspense and cinematic grammar beyond the rudimentary. All encounters of the kick-butt variety were cacophonous, sloppily edited and rife with poorly composed and mostly too-close shots.
My expectations for Super 8 were virtually non-existent save for one salient item - Steven Spielberg was producing. So here's the deal: I love Spielberg the director. Always have and always will. As a producer, he's no slouch either and often his hand is played quite heavily in product he doesn't direct himself (the most notable example being Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist).
Unfortunately, Super 8 is pretty lame for the most part. The picture can be tolerated by the discriminating and enjoyed by the indiscriminate.
On the plus side, the acting is almost all fine. The performances by the juvenile leads are perfectly acceptable, but with one exception - Elle Fanning. She goes above and beyond the call of duty and is truly phenomenal as the geek girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The camera not only loves this actress, but she delivers the goods in two ways. As the "love interest" for our makeup-effects-obsessed juvenile lead, she acquits herself very well with the kind of dreamy, romantic, yet mouth-watering innocence - not unlike the great child performances of Hayley Mills in the classic Disney films. Even more astounding is her "acting" in the super-8 horror film that her character plays in. Acting like you're acting is always a tough stretch for any actor, but to deliver this with such expertise as a child actress is frankly astounding.
Most of the adults in the film are ho-hum, but there are a couple of standouts by adults in supporting roles.
Noah Emmerich as the slimy military villain bent on covering up the government's nefarious activities makes good work of his otherwise by-the-numbers role and Glynn Turman as the scientist involved in the said nefarious activities who seeks redemption for his role in the proceedings is terrific.
It's especially great seeing Turman in these supporting roles of late. The former child stage star first blipped on my radar in the terrific and criminally forgotten ‘70s Michael Schultz picture Cooley High. I always thought he'd become a huge star. Instead he toiled as a working actor in the graveyard of television. I hope someone finally takes notice and gives him a major role in a feature film. His memorable supporting performance in Super 8 and the picture's surprisingly decent box office might finally get him upfront and centre where he always belonged.
The plot of Super 8 is pretty straight forward stuff. A group of kids in a bucolic small town setting in the late ‘70s spend their off-time making horror movies on Super 8 FILM (yes, kiddies - FILM - that's what we used to use before tape and/or digital). One night while stealing some after-hours shots at the train station, they witness and capture on film a massive derailment. The train in question is a military train and, of course, its most precious cargo is a monster from outer space. With a creature on the loose, the nasty military decides that they're either going to capture/kill it or contain the whole area. It's up to the plucky kids to discover the truth and come to the rescue.
Okay, so this is all rather familiar, but in genre, familiarity doesn't always have to breed contempt if a filmmaker delivers a terrific roller coaster ride. Alas, J.J. Abrams is at the helm and I'm now convinced he just doesn't have the stuff to more than adequately direct feature films.
Thanks to Spielberg - no doubt - there are fewer annoying close-ups and rapid fire cutting, many of the set pieces are not without visual merit, the period detail is nicely observed (for the most part) and one leaves the theatre about as satisfied as one would be after scarfing down a nice bag of Old Dutch ketchup-flavoured chips. We know the product, it's consistently satisfying and once down the gullet, the feverishly masticated deep fried junk is eventually expelled into whatever receptacle one chooses to relieve their waste matter into.
Abrams is a dullard. He takes the familiar, renders it competently and by the end, all we have is something that keeps us in our seats without generating sore posteriors. Super 8 is the cinematic equivalent to the fine salve for fissures known as Anusol. As familiar as Abrams's movie is, the picture could have been the stuff of something so much greater. But for that, one needed a director who was born to deliver big screen entertainment. Basic craft can be learned, but generating anything beyond that requires the gift of cinematic storytelling be hardwired into the DNA.
Some might argue that television drama is fine stomping grounds for a director and that many of the greats cut their teeth on generating product for the idiot box. True enough. I'd argue that most of those directors, though, worked in European television drama (like Von Trier or Fassbinder) where the standards are often higher and demand a sense of sweep and scope. Or, more notably, the directors worked in the medium of North American television when jockeying the camera, while often the first order of business, wasn't the thing that propelled the filmmakers into bigger than life feature films. What propelled the best directors was the fact that they had "it" to begin with - something that Abrams is clearly without.
Take a look at any of the television work Spielberg himself toiled on before making the leap to feature films. His voice and added frisson in everything from his Rod Serling Night Gallery episodes, a Columbo mystery movie and through to his stunning MOW Duel were more than apparent. John Frankenheimer's live television dramas from the ‘50s are as cinematic as all get out. Just watch his electrifying Playhouse 90 teleplays like The Comedian or Days of Wine and Roses and you see a born filmmaker. Sam Peckinpah's forays into early TV westerns (in particular The Rifleman and his amazing TV movie Noon Wine) are also astounding and crackle with the genius that needed a bigger canvas to truly explode.
Abrams is not such a director. He's a hack - and a barely competent one at that.
The result is Super 8 - a moderately engaging genre picture that always feels like it should be better than it is. Many younger viewers will enjoy it, but try showing them some vintage Spielberg or Joe Dante's Gremlins pictures before dragging them and THEN see how much they like Super 8.
I'm pretty sure that the operative response in that context will be, "It was okay."
Monday, 20 June 2011
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper
By Alan Bacchus
Superman was the original comic book franchise, first immortalized on film in 1978 in the Alexander and Ilya Salkind superlative all-star production as Superman The Movie, followed by three sequels ending with Quest for Peace in 1987 and then the long awaited reboot Superman Lives in 2006. The entire franchise is available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros. in a handsome box, which includes all the films, plus their director’s cuts and making-of documentaries.
But let’s go back to the original 1978 film, which is still the benchmark most comic book filmmakers aspire to achieve. Whether it's Batman, Spider Man or Iron Man, we can see a bit of Richard Donner's film in all of these. It’s just about the perfect example of the transition from page to screen – a film that captures the exuberance, fantasy, charms and pathos of the long history of the Joe Schuster/Jerry Siegel-written stories.
We don’t even see Superman until the 45-minute mark of the film. Before that, we see two key sequences that establish the backstory, motivations and tone of the movie. First, the Krypton sequence featuring Marlon Brando (top-billed) as Ka-Lel, Superman’s father, who warns his planet’s elders of its inevitable demise and then sends his son to earth before his own planet’s final destruction. This sequence is played with complete seriousness and powerful emotions rooted in our own paternal/maternal instincts to nurture and survive. Back then it was a huge creative gamble considering the history of superheroes in film and TV.
The next sequence of scenes in Smallville shows a teenaged Clark Kent living with his adopted parents, Ma and Pa Kent, discovering his powers and questioning his place in the world. These scenes are simply masterful and arguably the best moments in the film. Richard Donner’s brilliant compositions shot with the same kind of American mythic reverence of a John Ford film convey the tone of wholesome Americana, which served as the basis of the original source material in the 1940s. The awareness of this respect and acknowledgement of the original Schuster/Siegel stories is seen in the opening sequence, a preamble in black and white, before blasting us into the awesome high energy credit sequence.
Once Christopher Reeve enters the picture, Richard Donner executes the fun, thrilling and often hilarious action film we expect from Superman. We get to his alternate personality as Clark Kent, the mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter, his burgeoning relationship with Lois Lane and his conflict with Gene Hackman as the world domination super-villain Lex Luther.
The action is fun and executed with top notch special effects utilizing the best practical and optical effects around. As a set piece, look at the fantastic fortress of solitude sequence. The huge scenes of mass destruction of the Krypton and the earthquake scenes on earth still have all the scope necessary to maintain the sense of reality. Sparing no expense to create a film of true spectacle, each of the scenes looks surprisingly good today. Old fashioned organic special effects compare favourably to today’s more elegant and seamless techniques. It's part of Donner’s intelligent use of effects, avoiding the weak points of blue screen and rear projection techniques.
But what will truly stand the test of time 33 years down the road are the smallest moments. Take note of the unheralded acting of young Jeff East as the teenaged Clark Kent. There’s so much curiosity, anger, doubt and promise in those eyes, he’s arguably even better than Christopher Reeve. Same with the casting of Glenn Ford in his brief but memorable role as Pa Kent. His death scene is heartbreaking – so full of pathos and rich texture, which resonates throughout the picture and informs the decision-making throughout the narrative.
Marlon Brando is also terrific, despite his well-publicized surliness on set. As usual, his innate charisma fits well to Jor-El’s commanding fatherly presence in Superman’s life. As a side note, take note of the casting of Trevor Howard who plays one of the stubborn Krypton elders, a neat Easter egg of sorts, which recalls his dramatic matchup as Captain Blighe to Marlon Brando's Fletcher Christian in 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty.
The glue that binds the varied tonal shifts is the magnificent John Williams score. A true hummable classic, one of a dozen scores he‘d write throughout the 70s and 80s, which ranks as some of the best movie scoring in the history of cinema. Hell, I still get chills when, after the end of the Brando speech and effects montage in space that presents the transition from teenaged Superman to adult Superman, we see Brando’s head of ice spin around revealing Superman flying toward the camera with the crescendo of John Williams’ music kicking the film into another gear. This is great cinema.
Superman The Movie is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment in their Superman Anthology Collection. It's a reverent collection including not only all the feature films, but many of the movie serial classics from the '40s and some Chuck Jones shorts as well.
Sunday, 19 June 2011
Starring: Owen Wilson, Jason Sudekis, Christina Applegate, Jenna Fischer
By Alan Bacchus
Rick and Fred are two lame doofuses who suffer the shame of gawking at other woman while never being able to have sex with their own wives. But they receive the ultimate gift from their wives, a hall pass – that is, a week off from the obligations of marriage. Despite featuring two good actors, Owen Wilson and Jason Sudekis, their talents are wasted with on-the-nose comedy and an emotional core that feels more manufactured than genuine.
The Farrelly Brothers' gross-out humour is slapped onto a rather sappy morality tale about the idiom 'the grass is always greener on the other side'. Unfortunately, there’s nothing fresh or new about these jokes that focus on the theme that men are pigs who think with their dicks and their more mature wives can’t understand why they think about sex so much.
The filmmakers throw their characters in the suburbs, another overused comic device, where Rick and Fred are characterized as typically emasculated middle-class males who drive minivans, jerk off in secret, wear khakis, and bitch and moan about their wives with their other pathetic loser buddies while playing poker and eating ribs.
After the boys receive their hall pass we get to see them fail in each and every attempt to rekindle their lost mojo until a couple of gals actually show an interest in them. Consequently, the wives who are also off on their own find themselves similarly tempted by other men. Eventually, both couples will bond over their mutual adventures when they discover that home is where the heart is.
The Farrelly Brothers are well past being prestige comedy directors here. Instead, their names are buried at the end of the credits just like any other routine comedy directors. Their attempts to recapture old glory with their brand of shock gross-out humour never fit in with the blandness of everything else around them. But the problem is those gags wouldn’t be funny in any movie.
At one point Owen Wilson is helped out of a hot tub by two naked dudes with cocks in full view. That’s funny? Seeing a cock on screen? At one point Jason Sudekis helps a drunk gal barf in the bathtub only to end up watching her fart out a nasty explosion of excrement onto the porcelain tiles. Funny? Perhaps. At one point Jason Sudekis jerks off in his car overseen by a couple of nosey cops. Funny? Not really, but at least it’s plugged into the plot.
This lower-class Apatow knockoff is barely a rental and barely something you’d want to sit through on a plane.
Hall Pass is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.
Saturday, 18 June 2011
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (1984) Dir. Chia-Liang Liu
Starring: Gordon Liu Chia, Kara Hui Ying-Hung, Johnny Wang, Lily Li
By Greg Klymkiw
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is often cited as one of the great martial arts pictures of all time and while I won't dispute this proclamation from bigger aficionados of the genre than I, this fella has to admit he wasn't as bowled over as the fanboys. For me, I always found martial arts pictures thrilling enough when the action was hot and heavy, but whenever I saw them, I longed for something resembling characters as opposed to character-types. While I realize all genres are rooted in this form of shorthand, so many of the best pictures rise above and beyond the familiar - taking things to levels that allow for a more enriching experience.
I'll also admit it might be a cultural "thang" on my part, but for me, the preponderance of seemingly stale formulas in the genre of martial arts pictures - formulas that never seemed all that fresh in terms of character, approach and/or storytelling techniques - continue to test my patience, more so than any other genre.
First and foremost, the guiding factor for many Asian martial arts action movies is the notion of maintaining and/or regaining honour through revenge. On the surface, I have no problem with this. Vengeance offers up tons of entertainment value, especially when the violent extraction of an eye for an eye - sometimes literally as in the truly magnificent Five Fingers Of Death - is the very thing that drives the engine of many pictures in this and other genres. And let it be said, loud and clear, that revenge is, for me, the sweetest character motivation of all, but for any picture utilizing it and hoping to work beyond the pleasure derived from salaciously wallowing amidst carnage in the name of retribution, I must selfishly admit to needing a trifle more.
The few times I had any investment in the proceedings of Asian action epics were the pictures of Bruce Lee. He had a great mug that the camera loved, physical prowess in the martial arts that defied belief and he was such a great actor/screen persona, that it was relatively easy to root for him even if the characters he played had little more going on than their desire for revenge. Too many other actors - even if they were skilled martial artists - were bereft of the gifts that made someone like Lee a star persona. He was so rooted in our hearts and minds that even the most rudimentary, derivative plots took on veritable Shakespearean qualities when Bruce Lee commanded the screen.
The martial arts pictures I continue to have the most trouble with are period costume epics. The plots are all variations on the following: One man, family or group defend a particular emperor of a dynasty a long time ago in a land faraway. Betrayal and/or murder lead to revenge and the restoration of order once again. Okay, it's a sure fire formula, but for me, it never works as good drama and is merely the flimsiest coat hanger to adorn with some very cool shit (usually great fight scenes). On occasion there are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare indeed. I also reiterate that it might be some manner of cultural block since there are plenty of genres in the Occident that are saddled with similar attributes and they seldom bother me if the pictures are, at least, well made.
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter has, in spite of its stellar reputation, the same lack of dramatic resonance for me – the been-there-done-that formula of the plot line detailed above (which is, by the way, essentially the 8 Diagram plot) is what drives the picture into an assembly line abyss for me.
That said, what separates it from many of the rest is just how exceptional the fight choreography and camera coverage of the ass kicking is. It's first rate, as a matter of fact. Any number of fight scenes in this picture, especially the climactic one had me on the edge of my seat with eyes glued to the screen. The placement of the camera(s) is always in the right place at the right time. Camera movement is judicious. Cutting is minimal. Close ups are sparing. Wide-shots are plentiful – allowing us to actually see the stunning fight choreography.
How wonderful all these would have been if there had been something resembling emotional investiture in the on-screen fictional personages involved.
The bottom line is that if you love martial arts, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is a four-star picture, but even if you aren’t, it still warrants three stars for one salient reason. The fights in the picture are so stunning that you’ll find yourself, like I did, scanning back to several of them again and again after the initial viewing.
Not surprisingly, I am always happy to watch Akira Kurosawa or John Woo direct action pictures, but they do what most of their Asian colleagues are unable to do – they provide stunning action with great (and yes, often familiar) stories that are replete with first-rate writing and most importantly, characters that are fully fleshed out. While I consider their films to be artistry of the highest order, they often inject and/or pay homage to a pulpy, trashy sensibility to the proceedings. Interestingly, their movies are infused with influence from masters like John Ford, David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, Jean-Pierre Melville and, in Woo's case specifically, movie musicals. (Woo's Red Cliff is a perfect example of a great Asian historical epic - stunning action, great story, etc.)
Many of the rest, while creating their own unique approaches – mostly to action – seem far too insular in their perspective. Their work will often be endowed with the necessary frissons to ensure that the action is fast and furious. but it's the action that takes a front seat to everything else a picture needs to survive both the ephemeral and purely visceral.
In spite of all this, I'm satisfied to report that The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is magnificent pulp and I'm just as happy to take it over all the recent precious, fully formed historical epics of Zhang Yimou or worse, the overrated Ang Lee Crouching Shih-Tzu Flying Pussy nonsense.
Methinks I doth protest too much. It's a good picture. I just wish it and it's ilk were more consistently fleshed out. Even better than flesh, a nicely marbled hunk of barbecue pork is far more succulent with globs of fat attached to it.
Down with lean. Up with porcine. Pass the soya sauce, please.
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is available on DVD and Blu-ray on the Dragon Dynasty label’s series of Shaw Brothers Classics.
Friday, 17 June 2011
Starring: James Mason, Sue Lyon, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers
By Alan Bacchus
Lolita sits as a turning point in Stanley Kubrick’s career. It came after Spartacus, a director-for-hire gig, and thus a film in which he didn’t have his usual meticulous creative control or the stamp of authorship. That said, Spartacus is still a fantastic action epic, one of the best Hollywood has ever produced and a huge success. With Lolita, we see Kubrick working with James B. Harris (Paths of Glory, The Killing) again and outside of Hollywood in England, with the dark comedic and salacious subject matter we would see in his later films.
For most of Lolita Kubrick directs the film with the same invisible style as Spartacus, invisible to the immediately recognizable Kubrick hallmarks. There are few wide-angle tracking shots, no brooding classical music cues and no Kubrick ‘look.’ As such, Kubrick remains, as best he could, faithful to Nabakov’s incendiary material.
And incendiary it is. The relationship of a 14-year-old girl and a grossly perverted middle-aged man is played for serious. Humbert Humbert is never really taken to task for his sick and twisted fascination with Lolita, in what really amounts to statutory rape. That said, Humbert is no innocent man. The trajectory of the narrative leads to his psychological demise, a victim of his own obsessions.
Lolita is not a complete masterpiece, as we usually expect from the great director. It suffers from a fault inherent in the story’s architecture. Lolita has the distinction of featuring the most complex and interesting female character Kubrick has ever directed. Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) is arguably the star of the film, and (spoiler alert) when she dies halfway into the picture the film becomes considerably less funny and less interesting.
Going back to the beginning though. James Mason plays a British professor from New Hampshire who is spending the summer at Beardsley College. While looking for a sublet from a recent widow, Charlotte Haze, he catches a glimpse of her gorgeous and teasing jail-bait daughter Lolita sunbathing in the backyard. What reservations he had about Charlotte are tempered by the intoxicating allure of her young daughter.
And so begins Humbert’s sly and devilish courtship of the young girl. With the male hormones in full control, the dirty old man marries Charlotte in order to get to Lolita. After Charlotte’s suicide, the last hurdle toward full sexual bliss with Lolita is complete. Little does he know another equally devilish pervert, Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), a local bohemian playwright, has his eyes on Lolita as well. The battle of the sexes was never more competitive and dangerous.
Shelley Winters is mesmerizing as the elder nymphet who lusts after Humbert. Her courtship of him, which runs counter to Humbert’s tactics toward Lolita, helps anchor the delicious sexual provocativeness that has made this film as controversial as it is. The key to the complexity of this three-way relationship is the Britishness of Humbert, as the old world gentlemanliness he exudes disarms Charlotte, Lolita and the audience to his sick and twisted motives. And of course it was 1962, and with hardcore censorship in place, like all great directors, Kubrick puts all of these complex sexual layers beneath the surface and between the lines.
The opening half of the film is filled with uproarious banter between Charlotte and Humbert. But as mentioned, when Charlotte leaves the film much of this comic energy leaves with her. Even the great Peter Sellers is unmemorable. As Clare Quilty, his performance is mostly elusive and annoying. Ironically, Sellers' best scene is Quilty playing German guidance counsellor Dr. Zempf, who uses an elaborate disguise to convince Humbert to allow Lolita into the school play. With a running time of two-and-a-half hours, the second half of the film also drags, especially during the road trip journey back from Lolita’s summer camp and their extended stay in New Hampshire.
But this is Stanley Kubrick, and even lower tier Stanley is the stuff of great cinema. Despite its faults Lolita is still essential viewing.
Lolita is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.
Thursday, 16 June 2011
Starring: Rémy Girard, Dominique Michel, Pierre Curzi, Yves Jacques, Dorothée Berryman, Louise Portal
By Alan Bacchus
Denys Arcand’s controversial conversation piece from the ‘80s has a unique claim to fame for being the only film to have been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in addition to its sequel. The sequel was The Barbarian Invasions (2003) and actually won the award. The Decline of the American Empire features a group of men and a group of women talking candidly about sex, love, marriage and infidelity, like a raunchier My Dinner With Andre or Neil Labute at his most bold.
Remy, Pierre, Claude and Alain are a group of middle-aged history professors holed up in a lakeside cottage up north preparing a sumptuous meal. Dominique, Louise, Diane and Danielle are their female counterparts working out at the university gymnasium. For the boys, the conversation consists of either intellectual pontificating about sociology, history and politics or dirty and frank sex talk. Remy and Pierre are the alphas, both of whom are fully proud of their careers of cheating on their wives, despite the fact that neither of them is particular good-looking. Claude is gay and offers his opinion about the thrill of cruising for guys even with the danger of AIDS on the horizon. Yves is young and wet behind the ears, but he admires these guys for their accomplishments.
The gals mostly talk about their current and past relationships, acknowledging and expressing superiority to the likelihood of their husband’s infidelities. After intercutting these two sets of conversations, Arcand joins both groups when the gals converge on the cottage for the feast where much drama ensues.
Looking back, The Decline of the American Empire fits in well with the prevailing attitudes and politics of the ‘80s. It was a decade of capitalist wealth and power in extremes, which begat a hubris of invisibility. For the Western nations it was economic invincibility, and for Arcand’s characters it was emotional invincibility.
Arcand is devious and clever, forcing us to formulate an opinion of this group as detached erudites intellectually superior to their own relationships and thus immune to the ravages of love and human emotion. But Arcand pulls the rug from under us in the third act by exposing their false bravado in dramatic fashion. When one of the gals admits to sleeping with two of the men at the table, despite the intellectual posturing, Diane breaks down like any human being would, devastated and humiliated, stripped of all the emotional barriers that were falsely constructed.
At times the conversations are forced, aggressively pushing the agenda in an essayist form rather than naturalism. And that ‘80s fashion is quite awful, but there's no one to blame for that. There's also some politically incorrect racial references that leave a bitter taste, but the exposure of these intellectual boobs as inexcusable predators of a shameful era resonates soundly. Arcand has his finger squarely on this pulse and puts the sad irony of this most superficial era into the conversations and ulterior motives of his characters.
The Decline of the American Empire is available on Blu-ray from EOne Home Entertainment.
Wednesday, 15 June 2011
Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss (2008) dir. Felix Moeller
Starring: Thomas Harlan, Christiane Kubrick (nee Harlan), Jan Harlan, and Stefan Drosler
By Greg Klymkiw
Veit Harlan was the director of a dreadful picture called Jew Süss.
His movie is dreadful on two counts.
Firstly, it’s no good – awful, in fact. It creaks and groans with storytelling techniques from another age and renders melodrama in ways that allow detractors of the genre to level their knee-jerk criticism at even the genre’s best work because movies like Jew Süss are, simply and purely, BAD MELODRAMA.
Secondly, the picture is the vilest, most hateful, prejudicial anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda ever made. The picture was such a huge hit upon its first release that Jew Süss is credited with inspiring pogroms, became required viewing for the S.S. and took its rightful place in the Final Solution as the film equivalent of a murder weapon. The movie was commissioned by Josef Goebbels, the Minister for Propaganda under the Nazi regime. Released in 1940, this disgusting and poorly made piece of trash told the story of a Jew who rises to power, rapes a Gentile woman (instigating her suicide) until his actions eventually result in all the Jews of the region being run out on a rail - "triumphantly" , no less - by all the non-Jews. And I reiterate, the picture was a HUGE success at the box office in Germany.
And yet, perhaps because of the movie's success, one is shocked at how utterly execrable the picture is as a movie. If you could, for only a moment (God forbid) look past its anti-Semitism and try to assess it as a film, you'll find it works neither as fiction, nor does it APPEAR to even be good propaganda. Sure, bad movies have often been hits in all countries all over the world, but Jew Süss is not just bad, it's a total clunker of a movie. In spite of this, and sadly, even the most cursory analysis of the historical events surrounding the time this picture was made yields complete and total understanding of the picture’s power.
So many examples of propaganda, especially of the dramatic variety (not just in Nazi Germany), are inevitably replete with all the hallmarks of moronic incompetence. [It is, I think, worth mentioning that an earlier draft of this review bore a weird Spell-check-generated typographical error and produced the word “incontinence” rather than “incompetence”.] In essence, effective propaganda is, more often than not, the artistry of the obvious and aimed at the lowest common denominator. That said, Jew Süss, as cinema is in complete contrast to the work of another filmmaker who was working under the same regime, Leni Riefenstahl.
Jew Süss is clearly without the style, artistry and slow burn intensity of Riefenstahl’s great work, The Triumph Of The Will, which, no doubt, brought more than a few Germans on board Hitler’s bandwagon of evil as Der Fuhrer descended from the Heavens to deliver his evil plan to the masses at the Nuremberg rally.
Even now, though, unlike Jew Süss, Triumph has the power to GENUINELY stun, shock, thrill and even (dare I say it?) enchant – simply and almost profoundly on the basis of its sheer cinematic virtuosity. Riefenstahl, the Adolph Mädchenname des Kinos of Nazi Germany was not simply a blonde, beautiful dancer and actress, she was one of the 20th century’s most dazzling filmmakers.
Under the mentorship of Dr. Arnold Fanck, the mad master of German mountaineering melodramas, Riefenstahl was, I’d say, a born filmmaker and a great one at that who, in spite of making Triumph should have been allowed to keep making movies with the same level of support Veit Harlan received – not just during the war, but AFTER, as well.
Riefenstahl’s pariah status after the war was truly lamentable – shameful, in fact.
Not so lamentable in Veit Harlan’s case. Jew Süss might well have been made by Ed Wood (if he’d been an inbred totalitarian nincompoop) as a sort of period Plan 9 From Outer Space, or if you will, Plan Jew From the Middle East.
Pariah? Yes. Working filmmaker? Veit Harlan? Absolutely yes! This is what's even more extraordinary. Harlan kept making movies. Then again, call me a Bleeding Heart Liberal if you will, but I must admit I've always been against the notion of blacklisting any artists for anything, and that includes perpetrating propaganda. So many American films include(d) hateful propaganda at various points throughout its history and in the former Soviet Union, Sergei Eisenstein extolled the virtues of a regime that butchered millions of people in the pre-Stalin era. Once Stalin was in power, Eisenstein, save perhaps for his last film, Ivan the Terrible II and the unfinished Ivan the Terrible III, continued - much like Veit Harlan in Nazi Germany - to strap on the kneepads before his totalitarian boss and extoll HIS "virtues". Stalin murdered many more millions in the former Soviet Union including the Ukrainian Holocaust - the forced starvation of millions of nationalist peasants. Stalin's purges murdered even more.
Certainly Riefenstahl should not have been blacklisted and, I'd argue that maybe even Harlan should not have been made a pariah - a laughing stock, however, for just how dreadful Jew Süss is as a movie would not have been out of line.
Harlan and his place in both the Nazi regime and in cinema always seemed like natural subject matter for a movie and it’s odd it took so long for a documentary on Jew Süss and its maker to materialize, but that it now exists, is cause for some kind of celebration.
Alas, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss is in that horrible never-never land of “it’ll have to do for now“. Director Felix Moeller doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on the story he wants to tell and by covering too much in too short a running time, the movie leaves one with far too many questions – not questions of the philosophical variety, but more along the lines of wanting to simply know more within the context of the material presented. Sadly, the movie lacks a clear focus.
There is, however, a fascinating tale buried in this flawed, half-hearted TV-style feature length documentary. The movie not only focuses on Harlan’s career as a filmmaker in the pre-and-post Jew Süss period, but it includes numerous interviews with his family – children (the great political filmmaker and author Thomas Harlan), grandchildren, nieces, nephews and, I might add, one fairly prominent niece, Christiane Kubrick, the widow of the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (and executor of his estate) and her brother, an equally prominent nephew, Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s long-time producer.
On one hand, Moeller seems intent on telling the story of a family and how they’re connected to a legacy of evil. On the other, Moeller seems equally interested in delving into the career of Harlan himself. Pick one, already, Felix - or if you want the whole boatload of bananas, choose that and do it properly. Oddly, the story of Jew Süss itself, feels almost like an afterthought in this documentary.
Moeller’s movie is a mixed bag.
This, of course, is what makes it the most frustrating type of documentary – its filmmaker has no voice. He has great subject matter, terrific interview subjects (the surviving family who run the gamut of defending, demonizing and being indifferent towards Harlan), carte blanche access to family home movies and photos, rare archival footage and scenes – not just from Jew Süss, but from all of Harlan’s films. While we watch with fascination because of all the elements listed above, the experience and overall impact of this documentary seems lacking.
Just as Harlan’s Jew Süss pales in comparison to Riefenstahl’s The Triumph Of The Will in the Nazi propaganda sweepstakes, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss pales in comparison to Ray Muller’s brilliant documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. With the latter film, Muller sought to provide balance to his cinematic perspective of Riefenstahl’s life and in so doing, he was compelled to infuse the picture with an epic scope. It is this sense of sweep and the presence of a filmmaker’s voice that makes it work. Moeller, on the other, has great material, but has no real idea what to do with it. The picture, and as its title asserts, seems to be more about a family living in the shadow of one picture.
Well I, along with Peggy Lee, must ask, “Is that all there is?”
There’s nothing wrong with the surviving family thrust, but their perspectives don’t have the power they need to because one feels there’s simply not enough focus placed on Harlan himself – his life, his work and finally, why he chose to remain unrepentant.
Perhaps, it was enough that he was the only filmmaker from Nazi Germany to be tried for war crimes (for making Jew Süss in particular) and that he endured two trials and was acquitted both times.
This, however, is one of many maddening aspects of Moeller’s documentary. I longed to get more details about these trials – clearly the materials exist as public record. As well, I wanted to know more about Harlan and what his state of mind might have been before, during, between and after the trials. Surely enough people have thoughts on the matter.
Interestingly enough, the clips used from Harlan’s other films that pre and post date Jew Süss look great – so great I want to see as many of them now as possible. The clips suggest Harlan was a master of melodrama – perhaps even an inspiration to Douglas Sirk – and weirdly, their use in the documentary serves to suggest that he was a great artist in his own right.
Even more weirdly, they lend credence to Harlan’s firm insistence that he was coerced into making Jew Süss and furthermore, my own assumption based upon the documentary’s use of these clips that Harlan perhaps intentionally made a bad picture.
Oh, why must this be my assumption and why do I seriously doubt this was Felix Moeller’s intent?
Because Moeller's picture, as made, is like so many documentaries these days – it’s not been created by a real filmmaker. It’s been cobbled together by a camera jockey with great subject matter and finally, he manages to deliver a film that is still worth seeing because it addresses issues surrounding what might be the most notorious, evil and artistically lamentable film of the 20th century.
For me, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss was and still is a must-see film. Even if it doesn’t quite do what it should, it’s better than nothing at all.
And that is something.
Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss is available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films. It’s a fine transfer and includes a few superb extra features that certainly supplement what’s lacking in the film itself. Definitely worth renting for anyone interested in the subject matter and of special interest to any Kubrick fans in light of the recent Kubrick Blu-ray box set. Scholars of this material may be better off buying the film since it has some excellent footage in spite of the film's lack of clear focus.