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

Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Devil's Double

The Devil’s Double (2011) dir. Lee Tamahori
Starring: Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi

***

By Alan Bacchus

After the very public outing of Lee Tamahori's personal problems, it’s so very gratifying to praise his latest film, The Devil’s Double, a Belgian film made far far away from Hollywood. Though it’s not a return to the tour-de-force form of Once Were Warriors, it’s certainly a giant leap above sell outs Die Another Day or xXx 2. The true story of Uday Saddam Hussein, the spoiled rotten son of the former Iraqi dictator, a sadistic loose cannon, whose rampage of torture, rape, and murder in the pre-Gulf War days made him infamous and legendary.

Tamahori seems to channel his own now very personal hedonistic demons into his portrayal of Hussein. He turns this story into a gluttonously biopic cum action film, striving for the same shamelessly over-indulgence as say, Brian De Palma’s Scarface but grounded in the same absurd realities of The Last King of Scotland.

Dominic Cooper is simply delicious in the dual role as Uday as well as his double Latif, who in real life was an old school friend of Uday’s but was kidnapped from his family and held hostage for years to be his political double.

As Uday, Cooper plays his bombastic psychopath with high energy. And as Latif, Cooper is able to dial down his rage into an nail-biting internalization of his emotions. Though the physical difference in character is represented only by Uday’s buck teeth and combed down haircut, Cooper’s subtle differences in performance is more than enough for us to distinguish each character.

While there’s some astonishingly gory violence displayed on screen, Tamahori cranks it up so far, it spills over for comedic purposes. Mondo sex, drugs, bullets and blood taken to its extreme to counterplay the unbelievable disregard for humanity which occurred in real life. However grotesque Tamahori challenges us to treat Uday Hussein as entertainment and succeeds.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Last Night

Last Night (2011) dir. Massy Tadjedin
Starring: Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Eva Mendes, Guillaume Canet, Griffin Dunne

**½

By Alan Bacchus

It’s an intriuging start to Last Night, Joanna and Michael Reed (Knightley and Worthington), married, finish off their Manhattan evening party and travel home. Joanna is cold as ice to Michael, so something is up. Joanna is drunk, Michael, only slightly. Once home Joanna proceeds to grill Michael on some dalliances of the evening – specifically some coy flirtations with his female colleague Laura (Mendes).

Though there wasn't any specific funny business, Joanna saw 'something' and she takes serious offence. Michael, of course, claims innocence, after all, nothing happened. Joanna’s drunkenness perpetuates the fight causing a very realistic domestic row, something identifiable probably to most people.

The strong naturalistic dialogue in this scene plays out wonderfully. We feel Michael’s frustration as the brunt of Joanna’s tirade. Nothing he says is the right thing. As the sober man, he should really just shut up, get some rest and deal with her insecurities when she’s sober in the morning.

This opening is the best part of Last Night, an intimate four-hander which shows the temptations of this couple once they split apart for the rest of the film. The next day Michael has to go on a business trip to Philadelphia with Laura, leaving Joanna at home by herself. But when she runs into an old flame Alex (a dreamy Guillaume Canet), she finds herself the target of the same kind of aggressive flirtation as Michael the previous night.

Laura/Michael’s flirtations in Philly match up to Joanna/Alex’s in NYC in a somewhat contrived morality tale. Unfortunately the dual temptations play out with lesser naturalism than the opening act. Alex’s pursuit of Laura is so deliberate it’s almost hostile. Alex is given little shades of grey or layers to explore. He’s characterized simply as a philandering playboy dead set on getting Joanna into bed. That said, it’s Guillaume Canet, and he’s French and thus romantically disarming.

Same with Eva Mendes, she’s as much eye candy as Canet is. We never really get to know her. As such she comes off as merely a cypher for Michael’s unconscious libidous desires. The narrative progresses much too straight forward, with little turns or bumps. We know where this is going to go, and despite a very slight twist in expectations in the end there's little added drama or emotional weight to anything beyond the first act.

If anything, we can take home Knightley and Worthington’s fine performances and director Tadjedin dialogue in the opening, which is as mesmerizing as Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise’s tiff in Eyes Wide Shut. Of course in that film Cruise’s journey thereonin involved a cinematic sex orgy for ages. Last Night is more restrained, but too predictable and less stimulating.

Last Night is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Eone Entertainment in Canada

Friday, 29 July 2011

Captain America

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) dir. Joe Johnston
Starring: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones

***

By Alan Bacchus

The announcement that journeyman visual effects guy-turned-director Joe Johnston was attached to this project wasn’t really a cause for celebration. His body of work consists mostly of adequate, though ultimately unmemorable, ‘effects’ films (Jumanji, Jurassic Park 3, Wolf Man). Johnston’s been around the block and so we wouldn’t even get a fresh new voice into the mix.

However, after watching the first few scenes of Captain America I started to come around. The WWII setting of this picture under the faux war effort-style propaganda filmmaking style of Hollywood in the ‘40s brought back memories of the underrated comic book film from 1990, The Rocketeer, which was directed by... you guessed it, Joe Johnston. The pieces of this puzzle were now fitting together.

Captain America is the last of another puzzle, the Avengers Saga, an ambitious undertaking by Marvel Entertainment that began in 2008 with Iron Man to create a series of independent feature films that fed into a ‘super-group’ movie, The Avengers, due out in 2012. Iron Man was a fantastic film. The Incredible Hulk that same summer was decent and a sign that this might just actually work. Next came Iron Man 2 in 2010, which was a dreadful quickie sequel that betrayed the inspiration of the first picture. And then Thor came out earlier this year, which, like IM 2, was mostly awful. But now the series picks up a bit of its mojo with Captain America , a rousing actioner with spirit.

It’s 1941 and America is recruiting soldiers to fight abroad. One of the hopefuls is Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a meek, scrawny weakling who gets denied service, but through perseverance and a bit of cheating he will not take no for answer. After witnessing Rogers’ steadfast patriotic belief and determination to stand up for himself, German ex-pat scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Tucci), recruits Rogers into the military to be a guinea pig for his experiments in body enhancement. And at the first act turn, the meek Rogers is transformed into a beefcake ubermench with super strength and lightning speed.

But instead of going to Europe, Rogers becomes a spokesman for war bonds, prostituted in recruitment revival shows, ads and USO concerts. When Rogers’ best friend goes missing in Italy, Captain America goes AWOL and arranges a secret rescue mission. All the while, Dr. Erskine’s old rival, Johann Schmid (Hugo Weaving), is conducting similar experiments on his own with his splinter Nazi group called Hydra. Rogers quickly recognizes Schmid as the real enemy he needs to excise, thus sparking a battle of ages, one which will likely spill over into the present and involve the other superheroes from the other movies in The Avengers.

In many ways, Captain America feels like the G.I. Joe movie that never was – a rousing story of triumph over adversity with a strong American patriotic spirit that actually works for the picture. The origin story, like the beginnings of Iron Man, contains the best moments. Chris Evans' digitally enhanced underweight alter ego is a fine bit of invisible CGI. We know it’s not Evans' body. In fact, we know it’s 'face replacement technology' used by Fincher in Benjamin Button and The Social Network, but it works so wonderfully, especially when acted with such earnestness by Evans. Stanley Tucci also does a wonderful turn as Rogers' kindly mentor

Unfortunately, what fails the pictures is Joe Johnston’s action scenes. Once Cap’n America gets to Europe and is engaged in Nazi-fighting, Johnston curiously chooses to show much of this action in montage form. We’re deprived of a few set pieces, full-length scenes with a build-up and payoff. Instead, we see a series of random shots of jumping, punching, motorcycle riding and explosions without anything tying it all together.

Johnston, thought a special effects expert, uses too much of it. As such, we get the feeling that during most of the action Evans is in front of a green screen on soundstage, and NOT in the forests of Western Europe or the snow-capped Bavarian mountains. This takes us out of the anchored reality in which we were placed in the first act.

But what Captain America does better than Iron Man, Thor and The Hulk is set up The Avengers movie and tie together some threads from the other pictures. Dominic Cooper's Howard Stark character, thus Robert Downey Jr.'s father, is a clever link-up. It’s the same with the other worldly motivation of Hugo Weaving's character, which suggests a link-up with the alien gods of Thor. And with the Easter egg clip and trailer at the end of the credit I'm sufficiently teased. That's all I wanted and Captain America delivered.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

People on Sunday

People on Sunday (1930) dir. Robert Siodmak
Starring: Erwin Splettstößer, Brigitte Borchert, Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Christl Ehlers, Annie Schreyer

****

By Alan Bacchus

What a pedigree of talent behind this remarkable landmark in experimental independent cinema. It’s a silent German film at the end of the famed ‘Weimar period’ of German cinema, directed by future ex-pats Robert Siodmak and his brother Curt, and co-written by Billy Wilder. The film was produced by Edgar Ulmer, who was the set designer for Metropolis and M and himself a future Hollywood emigrant. Look closely and you’ll find the great Fred Zinneman (High Noon, From Here to Eternity) as cameraman. All of these guys were hopeful filmmakers in the ‘20s, unable to break into the German film industry themselves and thus, like any young emerging filmmaker today, they were forced to make it on their own with guile.

The result is a film that meets the mark we’d expect from such young and talented collaborators, a freeform kind of neo-realism combining non-actors in an unsecured real-world setting with only a semblance of a narrative script. And it's intoxicating.

The vague title is an indication of the unrestrictive nature of the story at play. A taxi driver, a model, a film extra and a wine dealer, all young Berliners who float about the city as strangers, eventually meet up for a relaxing double date involving a paddleboat on the river on a Sunday afternoon.

The sexual tension between the four of them is palpable. Edwin, the taxi driver, for example, is engaged to Annie who spends her days moping around the house. On the day of their date he finds her sleeping on the bed, but he leaves anyway to meet up with Wolfgang. Together they pick up Christl and Brigitte for said 'double date'. Siodmak and his colleagues never pass judgement on Edwin for possibly cheating on his girlfriend. A carefree 'swinging' attitude is something we’d see in New Wave film or British kitchen sink dramas of the ‘60s.

The sexual liberties can also be seen in a number of suggestive metaphors with creative editing. At one point Wolfgang chases after Brigit, where they make out on the grass. The next scene begins with a shot of a nude mannequin implying they just had casual sex. Wolfgang, in fact, freely flirts with both women in an astute and playful battle of sexes.

Zinneman’s camera is always in a state of flux, capturing the flavour of the city with the same laconic style as the characters in the film. Siodmak’s placement of the 'actors' in real locations with unrehearsed real background crowds lends a remarkable production value to this very small film. And look out for the sharpness of the editing (which is not credited). The brisk pace from the variety of camera angles feels thoroughly modern, arguably taking some strong influence from the famed Soviet editing techniques. In fact, in the Criterion Collection liner notes, Dsiga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera and the Eisenstein films seem to be the filmmakers’ prime influence.

Part of the joy of the film is the contention between all these great filmmakers about who the true author of the picture is. Robert Siodmak denies Wilder had any involvement at all, and Ulmer (the credited producer) worked just a handful of days on the film. In his older age Billy Wilder would once tell Cameron Crowe that ‘they all directed it.’ Much of these speculations are storied in the fine documentary produced in 2000, as well as the comprehensive liner notes included on the Blu-ray disc.

As usual, Criterion outdoes itself by introducing the cinema world at large to a rare gem featuring some of the greatest filmmakers – young, ambitious, carefree and passionate artists looking to make their mark in the great medium of film.

People on Sunday is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Crooklyn

Crooklyn (1994) dir. Spike Lee
Starring: Delory Lindo, Alfre Woodard, Zelda Harris, David Patrick Kelly

****

By Alan Bacchus

After Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn is Spike Lee’s next best fiction film, a nearly forgotten stylish masterpiece. It’s a foot-tapping fast paced colourful jaunt through the memories of Spike Lee’s childhood in Brooklyn in the ‘70s. This is Spike Lee at his most inspired. Watching the technical bravura of Crooklyn is like watching a confident Martin Scorsese at the height of his creative abilities.

Sadly, most people have either never heard of this film or they’ve simply forgotten about it. After all, when Spike Lee is mentioned, people seem to think about Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, his great documentary work and maybe his mid-career commercial renaissance with Inside Man and a bunch of other films.

In the magnificent opening credit sequence, Lee kick-starts the film was a superbly shot and edited montage of various childhood games played by street kids. Before video games, we all played hopscotch, freeze, handball, jump rope, etc. Instantly, a swell of nostalgia overcomes us. These were simple days when time seemed to stand still and kids didn’t have a care in the world. The only thing on these kids’ minds was how to get candy or ice cream, pulling pranks on each other and sneaking around on their parents to watch Soul Train or the Knicks game late at night.

Lee’s point of view into this world is nine-year-old Troy (Zelda Harris), the sister to four rambunctious brothers. Her parents, Woody (Lindo) and Carolyn (Woodard), like everyone, struggle to make ends meet. Carolyn is a teacher with a comfortable income, but the family is burdened by Woody’s more tenuous career as a freelance musician, an artist with integrity but with little means of providing support. While her parents put food on the table, Troy and the other kids do what kids do – run around getting into all kinds of trouble like they own the neighbourhood.

There’s not much of a traditional throughline in the film. Instead, nostalgia and the episodic set pieces push the movie forward. Lee’s technical hallmarks are in full force, including the pathetic glue sniffers, one of whom is played by Spike Lee himself. The film also features wildly spinning camera moves and his signature tracking shots, which have the stationary actors being carried through a scene by the camera dolly. Cross-dressing diva RuPaul even gets a wild set piece in a raucous slow motion dance sequence during which (s)he seduces the diminutive local convenience store owner.

One of the most inspired sequences of Lee’s career is when Troy is sent to the suburbs in the South for the summer. The culture shock of living in the middle-class white picket fence environment is visualized with a distorted and stretched picture effect. Like watching an anamorphic movie stretched on a full-screen television, it creates a disorientation that complements Troy’s alienation.

Like the more celebrated works of Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), Spike Lee uses pop music of the era to help drive the film. Wall-to-wall soul and funk anthems are sharply edited with the camera whips, pans, crawls, climbs and dances so the movement is in step with the bouncing soundtrack.

Lee brings in some rather serious plot turns in the third act, which threaten to put a damper on the whole affair. But even in death Lee finds humour and the joy of life. Perhaps this is why Crooklyn never became remembered as fondly as Boogie Nights, Goodfellas or even Do the Right Thing. However, even in the dark moments Crooklyn is a celebration of black urban youth, a rare commodity in cinema these days. Please go out and rediscover Spike Lee's sorely under-appreciated Crooklyn.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole (2011) dir. John Cameron Mitchell
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Weist, Miles Teller, Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh

****

By Alan Bacchus

There's no doubt that Rabbit Hole is a painful film. It's about a couple dealing with the absolute worst kind of pain – the loss of one’s son, a toddler. Despite the pain and stress between Becca and Howie, we so desperately yearn for them to get through it. Miraculously, the film manages to humanize every character, creating organic conflict without melodramatically exploiting the tragedy. It’s a great film, which received some decent coverage during awards season but sadly not nearly enough.

Nicole Kidman plays Becca, who is in the middle of a grieving period after seeing her 4-year-old son tragically killed in a car accident. She and her husband, Howie (Eckhart), are doing their best to deal with it. It’s been eight months, and the stress is weakening the joints of their marriage. For Howie, coping means going to group therapy, watching old videos of his son and maintaining their domestic lifestyle. On the other hand, Becca needs change. Packing up the baby clothes, removing the car seat and mocking the therapy sessions seem like spiteful reactions to Howie.

Writer David Lindsay-Abaire purposefully evens the scales between the two. No one is right and no one is wrong, yet their marriage is crumbling. They quickly start to lead more independent lives. Becca finds comfort in meeting Jason, the young man who drove the car that killed her son, and Howie quietly flirts with Gaby (Sandra Oh) from group therapy.

Director John Cameron Mitchell rings out some remarkable austere tension in these moments. The chemistry between Howie and Gaby is palpable, and we’re never quite sure what he should do. Though the interactions between Becca and Jason are innocent, there is some sexual tension there. We understand both of their reactions, and the fact that we’re not told who to side with propels the story forward with a surprisingly aggressive thrust.

Eckhart and Kidman are fantastic as Becca and Howie – it’s some of the best work either actor has ever done. But the discovery is the young actor playing Jason, Miles Teller, who is simply astonishing. His mesmerizing and earth-shatteringly real reactions to such extreme sadness are spot-on perfection.

Mitchell satisfies our needs as the audience and hits those strong emotional buttons. Scenes of infinite sadness and loud shouting matches are the stuff Academy voters love to see. But the power of this movie is what keeps the couple together – an inexplicable bond of their love for each other and the love of their son. This is what makes the film so compelling, hopeful and celebratory of life.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Skateland

Skateland (2010) dir. Anthony Burns
Starring: Shiloh Fernandez, Ashley Greene, Heath Freeman, Brett Cullen

***

By Alan Bacchus

Skateland plays like a more genuine Adventureland. The similarities are there, as both films have amusement parks as their key locations. Both films also use the early ‘80s as the time period to express pivotal life changing moments of the lives of young people stuck between youth and adulthood and between freedom and responsibility. Yet, Skateland is able to capture a genuine poignancy about the era and thus deliver a surprisingly satisfying and lingering coming-of-age drama.

It’s the early ‘80s and Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez) is a customer service manager at the local Skateland roller rink in Austin, Texas, which, like in The Last Picture Show, is about to be shut down. Ritchie spends his days rollerskating, drinking, hanging with friends and doing all the other activities people do during their senior year in high school. But Ritchie has graduated, and he’s still without a distinct path in life. He’s a great writer though, and even with encouragement from his supporting little sister, he still won’t commit to his future.

Arriving back in town after a shortened career racing motorcycles is Ritchie’s old buddy Brent Burkham (Heath Freeman), a big man on campus – he’s a confident and cocky playboy and the supreme guys’ guy. But he’s been courting a new girl, who happens to be the ex of the leader of a group of dickwad assholes. Periodically, this group called the Four Horseman confronts Brent and Ritchie looking to start a fight. Meanwhile, Ritchie develops a relationship with Brent’s sister, who encourages him to make plans and realize his full potential. Over the course of the summer Ritchie weighs his options and ponders life’s new possibilities.

We’ve been bombarded with ‘80s nostalgia throughout this past decade, and so Skateland would appear to have jumped the shark as yet another attempt by the filmmaker to ‘write about what he knows’. But somehow Burns manages to surmount all the clichés inherent in his conventional plotting.

Burns’ biggest aid is newbie lenser Peter Simonte’s luscious super 35 mm cinematography. It’s so well lit and shot we expect to see high profile and recognizable actors underneath the beautifying light. But nope – Burns has a bunch of no-namers, all of whom do more than just hit their marks, as they bring a kind of freshness we didn‘t get from Adventureland.

What‘s refreshing is Burns’ classical composition and minimalist editing philosophy, a style harkening back to the 1960s when scenes would play out in wide shots without cutting in for traditional coverage. Burns trusts his actors to play a scene and get the proper timing and rhythm of the picture without the need for excessive editing. As such, our eyes are allowed to relax and our brains are less strained, which contributes to the laid back, languid enjoyability of the film.

Burns’ score, as expected, belts out a mix of ‘80s pop classics from Blondie to Queen, as well as some lesser known one-hit wonders to get your foot tapping. He’s not afraid to overload his music on us if it accurately expresses the inner emotional state of the character. Take the finale for instance, as Burns holds for a lengthy walking steady cam shot of Ritchie walking through the mall to find Michelle. The Modern English song ’I Melt With You’ expresses the foot tapping excitement of Ritchie as he’s about to give Michelle the good news.

Admittedly, by the mid-point of the film I questioned what it was about with its paper-thin narrative with little forward movement and minimal conflict. But I was never bored, and I cared deeply for Burns’ characters. Much like The Runaways, Skateland admirably coasts full steam ahead on a full tank of genuine nostalgia and enthusiasm for its bygone era.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Another Earth

Another Earth (2011) dir. Mike Cahill
Starring: William Mapother, Brit Marling

**½

By Alan Bacchus

A great ending goes a long way in cinema, and especially in Another Earth, Mike Cahill’s low budget love story cum sci-fi film. Most of the picture is an uninspired brooding two-hander only to be buoyed by the remarkably intriguing high concept and the puzzling finale.

The premise is as follows – one day scientists discover a second earth in the sky. It’s the exact same earth inhabited by earthlings just like us. Doppelgangers maybe? Alternate versions of ourselves maybe? The possibilities are absolutely fascinating.

This premise is left in the background, ineffectual to the plot, until the ending. In between, it’s the story of Rhoda (Brit Marling) and John (William Mapother), who are connected by a tragic car accident of which John’s family was the victim and Rhoda the assailant. Four years after serving time Rhoda is free and finds herself drawn to and eventually connecting with John by posing as a house cleaner. Meanwhile, Rhoda enters a contest to be on the first crew to travel to the other earth, called Earth 2; a journey she hopes will help reconcile her mistakes of the past.

Another Earth does what sci-fi does best – it opens up the spiritual qualities of the human heart that are indefinable by science. In this case, the other version of earth serves as a form of an afterlife. It’s a perfect metaphor both thematically and visually, as the other earth sits prominently in the sky at all times, looming over our characters at home.

Ordinarily, with such a confined story, films like these often benefit from their low budgets – filmmakers maximizing story, substance, and theme. Moon and Primer are primary examples of this. Unfortunately, Cahill uses a low rent video camera to shoot the film, which looks as if it was dusted off from 1999. This makes the picture ugly to the point of distracting us from the story. Flat lighting and uninspired camera work and composition don’t do justice to the sparkling story revealing itself.

Brit Marling and William Mapother are adequate, though mostly unmemorable, as would-be lovers. And the guts of this film – Rhoda’s deception and eventual love story with John – are just as clunky. The second act slows down to a crawl, and the director’s rudimentary visual style wears the film thin.

Cahill’s wild card is the stunning final shot – a shot so powerful and holding such immense dramatic gravity that it legitimizes the entire movie no matter how banal. I certainly won’t spoil it here, but it’s clear the film has been reverse-engineered from this point. If only Cahill had the same level of inspiration in the 85 minutes preceding this miraculous moment. I can’t think of another film tearing me two different ways in such extremes.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Nights of Cabiria


Nights of Cabiria (1957) dir. Federico Fellini
Starring Giulietta Masina, Francois Perier, Alberto Lazzari

****

By Greg Klymkiw

Can there be any greater feeling than that which comes from ascension?

Movies at their very best can make you feel this way. They make you soar.

Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria is just such a movie. Screening in Toronto at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Bell Lightbox cinemas on Sunday, August 14 at 6:15pm, it is part of a sumptuous celebration entitled “Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions” and includes a very cool series of double bills that pairs a Fellini picture with the work of another filmmaker treading similar (or contrasting) waters.

(My only criticism of this great collection of pictures is that Il Bidone is not screening at all. In fact, a perfect pairing for it would be something like Your Three Minutes Are Up, the neglected 70s American classic by Douglas Schwartz. A personal note to TIFF Bell Lightbox topper Noah Cowan: "Get on this, bud – it’ll be an evening guaranteed to blow us all away".)

In the TIFF Bell Lightbox Gallery, one will also find a series of exquisite exhibitions that include screen tests of Fellini grotesques, the inspiration for the Trevi Fountain sequence from La Dolce Vita and a whack o’ photos of pure tabloid genius.

As for the upcoming Nights of Cabiria I can freely and happily declare that it never fails to cascade me emotionally into what feels like another dimension. As a filmmaker, Fellini makes it all seem so effortless. His genius notwithstanding, he (nor we) would ever get there, I think, without some experience, or at least understanding of Judeo-Christian tradition (particularly, the Christian portion, and more precisely, that of Catholicism). The maestro was, of course, Italian and what is it to be of that heritage if one has not been touched, shaped, moulded, pounded and cudgelled by the patriarchal power that is the Catholic Church? (Doing the math on this, Fellini's childhood would have corresponded quite neatly with that of Pope Pius XI - Mr. Anti-Contraception and Pro-Sex-For-Procreation himself.)

Fellini knew all too well and continually explored the notion of redemption via false prophets. And I do not mean Christ, but rather, those within, and most often at the highest levels of any organized faith who seek to dominate and control by proselytizing distorted teachings to the weakest and most vulnerable of society.

Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is just such an individual and it’s no surprise that even the film’s title states clearly that we are to journey through the Nights of Cabiria. It’s the darkness of night that roots us in a place from where we are allowed find the light.

One of the picture’s screenwriters was none other than the iconoclastic Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom). In both life and his art, he knew a lot about sexual exploitation – most notably, the world of prostitution wherein the body becomes the sought after commodity through which money is paid to experience la petite mort. (Pasolini was the go-to boy for those in Italian cinema seeking an "expert" on the fine art of whoring and whoredom.) In Nights of Cabiria it is, finally, the “little death” that seeks to undermine our title character – the dashing of hopes and dreams that come from unspeakable and/or unwanted acts of cruelty perpetrated upon those hoping to achieve a higher state – a state of grace, if you will.

And so goes this simple tale of Cabiria, a waif-like, almost Chaplinesque figure of innocence (or naiveté) who works the world’s oldest profession to preserve a standard of living (owning her own home and having a bank account - vaguely and interestingly rather bourgeois values) that is achieved by a life of “sin”.

Her goal is to find love. What she gets in return is redemption. From the opening scene where a loathsome pimp steals her money and shoves her into the river, to the horrendous moments when Carlos (François Périer) the man she thinks loves her, contemplates murder to secure a life’s worth of savings, Fellini delivers a powerful drama. We see, ultimately, a woman who is abused and exploited at the hands of men within a society that is rooted in the abovementioned patriarchy of persecution - indelibly linked, as it is, to the “business” of spirituality, of religion – the monetization of faith.

Thankfully, through all this remains Fellini’s command of the filmmaking process and his faith in the title character. His beloved Cabiria is no fool, nor is she a pushover. She’s a tough cookie in a den of lions – a fighter, a wise cracker, a street-smart streetwalker who, when she accompanies a good Samaritan on the rounds to feed the poor, is still able to see in others a mirror image of what could become of her if she doesn’t remain wary, and most importantly, IN CONTROL.

Control is, of course, the continued plight of those women who work in the sex trade. Their buyers are men and often, their true exploiters are not always the Johns, but rather, a society that allows – through the demonizing and criminalizing of the profession – a systematic exploitation of those same women at the hands of pimps, gigolos and gangsters (many of whom are corrupt cops, lawmakers and more often than not, men). In one of the picture’s more harrowing sequences, we follow Cabiria and a group of other whores as they attend a religious miracle revival outside of Rome as the disenfranchised, seeking quick-fix redemption, are surrounded by the cheap hucksterism and circus-like atmosphere of the root of this exploitation – religion itself, or, if you will, the corruption and exploitation of faith.

It is finally faith that is at once shattered and just as quickly restored in the film’s final moments. Cabiria believes in the lies of the seemingly sensitive and very charming Carlos, but it is her will to survive and to persevere and finally, her belief in her own goodness and that of humanity that allows her to go on – to disappear back into the world and begin again.

None of this would be possible without Fellini. In fact, Nights of Cabiria is really the last of his great works in the neo-realist tradition of I Vitelloni, La Strada, Il Bidone (a film in which Fellini purportedly came to know a prostitute who provided him much of his inspiration for the Cabiria role) and The White Sheik (in which Cabiria appears as a supporting character). From La Dolce Vita and onwards, there would be occasional dollops of neo-realism, but more often than not, his work became increasingly surreal and fantastical. While there is considerable greatness in many of them, nothing really comes close to the overwhelming compassion of this earlier phase.

With Nights of Cabiria, I’d also argue that we see Masina’s finest work as an actress (somehow she truly does embody the spirit of Chaplin) and among a lifetime of indelible scores, Nino Rota’s music for this is at his most heartbreakingly eloquent.

Like I said before, the picture will have you soaring higher than you ever thought possible. That’s the real greatness of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria – it allows you the freedom to be weightless within the overwhelming spirit of humanity.

While “Nights of Cabiria” is currently out of print on the Criterion Collection DVD label, it can still be found for sale or rent.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Legend

Legend (1985) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, Tim Curry

**

By Alan Bacchus

Poor Ridley Scott. After the torturous efforts to film Blade Runner, not excluding the fight for editorial rights of the final picture, his next film, Legend, was even more in conflict.

The idea of Legend began from Ridley Scott himself and his desire to film a fairy tale with traditional themes of mythology and fantasy. The result of his collaboration with author William Hjortsberg was a rather simple screenplay about a boy thrust into a journey to save his girl from the clutches of a beastly form of devil incarnate. Elves, unicorns, trolls and other beasts contribute to the familiar fairy tale quality that Scott visualized.

When it came time to film, Scott’s detailed and demanding directorial style foiled his own movie. After 10 days of filming, the entire UK Pinewood set burned to the ground, and it was over a year of shooting before the end of principal photography. In post-production, Jerry Goldsmith’s original classical score was mostly discarded in favour of the electronic synthesized music of Tangerine Dream, and of course the running time was cut down from 113 minutes to 90 minutes. Previous DVD releases, as well as the current Blu-ray release, have all of this reinstated as best as possible.

Unfortunately, both films are failures. It’s not because of the score or the running time. And it’s not about what was cut out or left in. Simply put, the problem was Mr. Scott’s overindulgences with his visual palette related to character, story, tone and all the other storytelling elements.

Tom Cruise is sorely miscast as Jack, a humble forest boy smitten with the lovely virginal Princess Lily (Mia Sara). As told in the opening prologue, good and evil are kept in balance by the magic of the unicorns. The evil lord (Curry) who wants a world of darkness instead of light plots to capture and dehorn the unicorns. When Lily is caught in the way of the goblin Pix’s plans, she becomes the Dark Lord’s prisoner, thus sending Jack on his quest to find Lily and save the world from perpetual darkness.

It’s a sparsely detailed narrative at best, buoyed by Ridley Scott’s sumptuous art direction and cinematography. The film is impossibly beautiful. The entire movie was shot inside a studio, with all of the exterior forest scenes recreated indoors for maximum visual control. And it’s all on the screen and pristine on Blu-ray. I can’t even imagine the painstaking efforts it took to shoot those slow-motion shots of the unicorns galloping through the forest and through the lightly descending flower spores in the air. In moments like these, the film is spectacularly breathtaking and arguably one of the most beautiful films ever made.

That said, there is such thing as too much of a good thing. And Scott’s verisimilitude for visual texture severely overwhelms and bogs down his narrative. Even at 90 minutes, it’s a slow crawl. The actors seem more like furniture to the lovely spores or drops of water from the cave stalactites. Tim Curry is completely imprisoned in his gargantuan and gothic devil’s headdress makeup effects by Rob Bottin. Again, the red devil is an impressive technical design, but it furthers the rigidness and stunted feeling of the narrative.

Legend typifies the frustration with many of Scott's films, commercially-driven movies aimed at the mainstream but overly consumed by their own visual texture. As a result, they’re often emotionally vacant, hallow and inert.

Legend is available on Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Mann v. Ford

Mann v. Ford (2011) dir. Maro Chermayeff, Micah Fink
Documentary

***

By Alan Bacchus

The participants of this scathing documentary on environmental irresponsibility have high aspirations, using the idealistic powers of the civil court system to take down the mighty corporate giant Ford Motor Company. The crime is the heinous negligence of Ford over a 20-year period in the ’60s and ‘70s when the car manufacturer, with wanton disregard for the health of the inhabitants of a small New Jersey reservation, dumped tons of hazardous waste material onto the land. The health ramifications from this are still being felt today.

The community of Upper Ringwood is home to the Rampaugh Indians, an insular clan of sorts referred to for decades as backward Appalachia depressed by chronic poverty. Poverty is evident, but this hasn’t zapped the spirit of these people, who in the 8 mm home movie footage are seen as tight-knit, joyous free spirits who cherish the value of family and community.

But when Ford bought their land in the ‘60s, they proceeded to use the vacant mines and other derelict ground to dump massive amounts of paint sludge from their plants. Without any care in the world, the kids of Upper Ringwood freely played with this sludge on a daily basis for years, thus exposing them to truly awful and toxic carcinogens, which would decimate their lifespan.

Even after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigation and clean-up, the land is still toxic and dangerous. And now, in the present, a team of idealistic lawyers arrives, led by a sprite Erin Brockovich-type, Vicki Gilliam, to champion the rights of these 'Davids' against the 'Goliath' of Ford.

If there is a lead character in this film, it’s Vicki, a sparkplug personality and southern belle/pageant girl-type mixed with a little bit of trailer trash who speaks in aw shucks hyperbole and metaphors. Her gung ho enthusiasm is matched by a palpable naivety to the difficult task at hand. But at the point when we question her credibility, the filmmaker cleverly doubles back to tell Vicki’s own personal story of an inspiring journey from impoverished single mother and high school drop-out to college grad, law school and a career as a lawyer.

Directors Chermayeff and Fink make superb use of the 8 mm footage. They show the bygone era as an idyllic American dream world capturing the joy of youth, but also a form of Paradise Lost. The duo find memorable characters in the community, specifically a young man named Mickey DeGroat, who was once a spry, good-looking, strapping lad, but is now broken down from a debilitating skin disease. They also tell the story about the death of a 10-year-old boy from a cancerous tumour in his neck.

Unfortunately, there’s also a strong whiff of irresponsible journalism here. Of course, this is a point-of-view documentary, and the filmmakers make it clear that Ford was asked to participate but declined. But at times, the ‘he said’ part of this equation is so grossly exaggerated that the journalistic integrity is threatened. At one point, one of the activists, Bob Spiegel of the Edison Wetlands Association, recounts the details of a story of the bribery of an EPA worker by a Ford Motor Company executive in the back of a limousine only to tell us at the end that this is how the bribery might have happened, in his own mind. That said, there are also a lot of credible journalists, lawyers and scientists who successfully prove their point. The EPA and policy makers of the state of New Jersey and the US Federal Government are featured, which contributes to the high legitimacy of the filmmakers’ endeavour.

Despite the confidence and optimism of everyone involved, as the journey progresses we get a sense of a battle being lost – the latest tragedy in the long history of marginalization of these peoples providing a sad ironic historical context to the problems of today. By the end, the documentary effectively hits its mark with poignancy.

Mann v. Ford is currently showing on HBO in Canada and the U.S.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

It’s Always Fair Weather

It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Starring: Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Michael Kidd, Dan Dailey

***½

By Alan Bacchus

To be honest, I had actually never even heard of this film before it played on Turner Classic Movies this week when I saw it for the first time. It's really a must-see musical directed by the great team of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and their follow-up to the legendary Singin’ in the Rain. Although It’s Always Fair Weather was critically favourable back in the day, it didn't perform as well as Singin’ in the Rain, and thus never achieved the same cultural awareness as that film or their first collaboration, On the Town. That’s a shame, but what a fun 'discovery'. It's Always Fair Weather is a marvellously lavish piece of cinematic spectacle featuring Gene Kelly dancing on roller skates, some early triptych split screen work, and big, bold Cinemascope.

Like the Gene Kelly/Donald O'Connor/Debbie Reynolds team, Weather features another trio of friends, specifically war buddies from WWII who make a pact to meet up 10 years after VE Day to rekindle their friendship only to find in the present that they have almost nothing in common. As typical of the Kelly/Donen collaborations, some remarkably energetic song and dance set pieces are the chief reason to watch this picture. Like a fight sequence from a Jackie Chan movie or a car chase from Michael Bay, the five or six musical sequences in this film are a marvel of choreography, creativity, athleticism and technical artistry.

The characterizations of the three leads are admittedly base archetypes. Gene Kelly plays Ted Riley, a guy who gets dumped by his girlfriend by phone on VE Day and then turns into a womanizing, two-bit fight gambler and fight promoter. The tall, lanky Dan Dailey is Doug Hallerton, a painter who sells out his dreams of being a respected artist for a hum drum life of drawing cartoons for lowly TV advertisements. Angie Valentine (the legendary Michael Kidd) is the chef of the bunch, who lives a humble working-class life as a grill man and owner of a burger restaurant in Schenectady, New York. But characterizations like these are typical of the genre and really a means to get these characters to express themselves so dramatically in the form of song and dance.

The first set piece indeed reminds us of a Jackie Chan sequence. It features the three soldiers stinking drunk in 1945 celebrating their victory in the middle of the streets of New York tap dancing around in and on top of a yellow cab. Like Chan, Kelly and company make clever use of the props in the surroundings in their routines.

It's not always the boys who shine though. Cyd Charisse is magnificent in her main set piece as a Marilyn Monroe-style cock-tease amid the snarling sweaty men in a boxing gym. The most celebrated scene is the roller skating sequence, which feels like the famous Singin' in the Rain sequence, except instead of tap dancing with his shoes along the rain-soaked streets, Kelly elegantly glides around on a pair of roller skates. Kelly's skills on skates are amazing, matched equally by his ability to tap dance with skates on!

Kelly and Donen could have been the Michael Bay of our age. In addition to these musical sequences, they stage a rambunctious comic fist fight sequence at the end showing exactly how the choreography of dance and song in old Hollywood equates to the same creative and technical methodology of action sequences today.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Under the Same Moon


Under the Same Moon (2007) dir. Patricia Reggin
Starring: Adrian Alonso, Kate del Castillo, Eugenio Derbez, Maya Zapata

***½

By Alan Bacchus

In 2007, Under the Same Moon (aka La Misma Lun) never did find its audience. This is no surprise. It’s uncool, unhip, old fashioned and a little corny. But its optimism and heart-on-its-sleeve sentimentality is a welcomed breath of fresh air. This simple tale of a young Mexican boy's journey to be reunited with his mother across the border is a near perfect rendering of the classic Odyssey-style storytelling and a small unearthed gem waiting to be discovered.

The opening establishes the two main characters, nine-year-old Carlito and his mother Rosario. Rosario crossed the border illegally 4 years ago and now lives in LA working as a maid so she can properly provide for her son. Carlito lives with his grandmother in Mexico. His life is safe and secure, but he’s brave enough to mask his desire to grow up in the company of his mother. Breaking the bond of mother and son creates such a strong cinematic hook, the real-world plausibility or logic of such a situation becomes mute. A dramatic event at the first act turn occurs which puts his domestic situation in question.

Carlito goes on a journey to find his mother, a journey that takes him across the border via a series of interesting characters – some good, some not so good – who help at each stage along the way. The less you know about the specifics of the story the better because despite the Hollywood conventions it’s an unpredictable series of narrative twists and turns – something new and exciting is discovered with every new beat, scene and act turn. If I was teaching a course on screenwriting, Under the Same Moon could be a case study on the perfect structure and execution of its genre.

The finale is unabashedly 'Hollywood', but it’s still thoroughly cinematic and satisfying. It’s the perfect ending for this special film.

The anchor is a remarkable performance from youngster Adrian Alonzo – an astonishing performance comparable to any of the acclaimed child performances in recent memory (i.e., Haley Joel Osment, Abigail Breslin, Dakota Fanning, etc.). But the lack of recognition for such work is equally astonishing. Young Adrian holds down the film with complete authenticity. His sad but strong eyes instantly give Carlito the street smarts the character needs for us to believe that he could make this journey.

The characters he meets along the way are introduced casually but are slowly developed under our noses. Check out the loathsome Enrique (Eugenio Derbez), who enters the picture as a fellow border crosser that has no need to hang around a nine-year-old while evading the INS ( I wouldn’t either). But surprisingly, Enrique hangs around long enough to become an integral supporting character who learns something about honour and friendship along the way.

It would be easy to dismiss the film for simplifying complex issues, or the fact that it makes no overt political stance on border relations between Mexico and the U.S. The border exists purely as a cinematic device or barrier between mother and son. The film is bigger than the political issue because it’s a pure form of storytelling, which in the annals of history will survive long past its 'politically divisive' contemporaries.

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) dir. Brad Furman
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Phillipe, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy.

***

By Alan Bacchus

With today's information onslaught, moviegoers can't help but be influenced greatly by the publicity, hype and general hyper-awareness of any movie with any sort of profile. Every once in a while there's a negative effect resulting in a surprise discovery. And, to be honest, there wasn't much to be attracted to from the individual elements of this project – Matthew McConaughey in a rare serious part, perhaps trying to recapture the acclaim from his first breakout role in A Time To Kill. While this isn't a John Grisham story (it's from Michael Connelly, an equally proficient airport paperback writer), it feels like his brand.

That said, what a marvellous surprise to be sucked into this beguiling legal thriller. It’s a '90s throwback of sorts featuring a remarkably well thought out conceptual brainteaser of a hook. McConaughey plays Mick Haller, a bloodsucking Beverly Hills defence attorney specializing in getting criminals off and using the dirtiest tactics to do it. His latest case, in which the privileged son of a rich family finds himself charged with the rape and assault of a prostitute, looks to be another windfall. But as the layers of lies and deceit from the people involved are uncovered, Mick finds himself in a complex legal mousetrap, one that endangers himself, his colleagues and his family.

I've purposely left most of the story vague so as not to ruin some of the genuinely surprising twists along the way.

Matthew McConaughey is decent though unexceptional as the ethically challenged hero. After so many affable rom-coms, he never quite feels comfortable in the skin of this character. That said, as a good-looking, smooth-talking lawyer, he isn't stretched too far.

But director Brad Furman smartly populates his supporting roles with better actors. Watch the astonishing impact of Michael Peña (Crash) in a tiny but influential role as a former client of Haller's who was wrongly imprisoned. William H. Macy plays a greasy but resourceful investigator. Bryan Cranston shows up with little to do except look tough, as does fine character actor Shea Wingham (Tigerland), who turns himself into another terrifying Southern red neck.

Not everything lands perfectly in The Lincoln Lawyer. While the fascinating plot machinations and progression of Haller's case offer up a delightful legal conundrum, Furman and the bunch leave hanging the motivation for the rape that incites this film. As the credits roll, we get the feeling the filmmakers have exploited this crime in order to create a neat legal puzzler without sufficiently reconciling the victim. But this is all fiction, and no one really got hurt. So we can safely enjoy this disposable but excellent, purely hypothetical, conceptual legal thriller without any guilty feelings.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) dir. Werner Herzog
Documentary

***½

By Alan Bacchus

I can’t believe I didn’t know this. In the opening moments of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s delightfully monotone German voice describes to us the discovery of one of the most influential archaeology sites of our time – a cave in France containing pristine, undisturbed cave paintings from 32,000 years ago (that’s THREE zeroes), which makes them the oldest recorded drawings/artwork of man.

Herzog gets us into the caves and shows us in 3-D these phenomenal works of art. I say works of art because the techniques used by these Cro-Magnon men and women were astounding. First of all, the journey into the caves is a story unto itself. After moving through a dead-bolted steel door with small mobile cameras and a minimal crew, Herzog travels down a sharp cliff and then along a 3-foot wide steel walkway in order to not disturb the crystallized foundation of the cave. The whole cave is a work of art – the stalactites, the bones and the skulls of extinct animals, including bears, tigers and other creatures.

On the walls are a series of intricately painted mosaics of animals using the contours of the cave walls to emphasize movement. As usual, Herzog uses his easy-going cinematic style to make even the most dry, perfunctory information interesting and important. But Herzog has never been one to settle just for the information. It’s fun watching the scientists and archaeologists, who have spent as many as 20 years mapping the caves and studying the drawings, discussing what’s in the souls of the artists, or whether they dream of the painting.

What Herzog really wants is his audience to look beyond the art and into the minds of the artists, to imagine their dreams and the spiritual aspect that separates man from animal and what connects people across the ages.

The 3-D is hit and miss. The low-rent handheld camera creates a nauseating swooshing effect, which loses all of its 3-D depth. But when Herzog is able to put his camera on some sticks, we can really enjoy the stereoscopic space. Unfortunately, there’s not enough light within the caves to create definition and perspective as such, so it’s not the best showcase of the medium.

Nonetheless, the film is another one in Herzog’s phenomenal string of successes, doc or drama.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Terri

Terri (2010) dir. Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Jacob Wysoski, John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, Olivia Croccichia, Bridger Zadina



By Alan Bacchus

The trauma of high school receives another creative interpretation in Terri, the story of an overweight teenager, who by the nature of his size, just doesn’t fit in. Though it's heart is in the right place, an ambling unfocused narrative and glacially-paced absurdist set pieces make this an extremely frustrating experience.

Jacoby Wyoski is the title character, introduced with a random set of peculiar idiosyncrasies. Sure, he’s overweight, and he’s made fun of, but not a torturous kind of bullying. He lives with his uncle (Creed Bratton) who suffers from some kind of psychological disease which requires heavy medication. Terri has also recently taken a liking to trapping mice and feeding them to the local birds. He also wears pyjamas at all times, even to school.

At school, his chronic lateness gets him in trouble with the oddball vice-principal (John C. Reilly), a bombastic personality, full of clichéd authoritative hyperbole as well as his own set of deranged idiosyncrasies. There’s also the type-A hot chick, whom Terri ogles over, but of course has no chance of scoring. Wait. Terri somehow ingratiates himself to her, sparking a potential romance, and the chance that he may break out of his shell and achieve normalcy.

The absurd comic interactions are stymied by a frustrating overindulgence in awkward silences, and deadpan expressionless reactions to these shenanigans. Among these is the character of Chad, an oddball goth kid who habitually plucks his hair out. Their trip to the funeral of the principal’s spacey secretary is one such scene which exists for the sake of creating awkwardness, and even fails to deliver enough laughs to justify its existence.

Without defined goals and a concrete narrative through line, the comic dalliances add up to nothing. The melancholy and delicate piano score attempts to tie up the tonal inconsistencies and give us some emotional closure, but it’s just too cerebral to make up for the inane randomness.

God bless John C. Reilly though who saves the picture from complete failure. He generates all of the laughs, relishing the opportunity to make the most of his kooky character.

The only other thing to cling onto is a potentially warm love story between Terri and his unattainable attraction. This doesn’t gain traction until the second half, and even then the opportunity is wasted with an overlong drunken and trippy threesome set piece in the final act.

Admittedly I could see some audiences lapping up the zaniness of the picture, but outside of the easy Sundance audience, there isn't much hope.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Swimming with Sharks

Swimming with Sharks (1994) dir. George Huang
Starring: Frank Whaley, Kevin Spacey, Michelle Forbes, Benecio Del Toro

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

While The Devil Wears Prada has much in common with Swimming with Sharks, an office film featuring a high-strung executive beating down a lowly assistant for the sake of comedy, George Huang's film, even this many years later, has infinitely more truth and heart than the other more successful film.

I was struck by how honest the relationship between Huang’s two combatants is. Kevin Spacey is Buddy Ackerman (apparently a disguised Scott Rudin) and Frank Whaley is his green office assistant, Guy. No matter how absurd or dark the film becomes, Huang always stays within the boundaries of realism. I’ve been in Guy’s position before, working for a few of these types of personalities. They do exist, and in show business this type of behaviour is accepted and encouraged. Buddy Ackerman is a top executive for a Hollywood production company, someone with little time to accept anything but complete subservience from his staff. Guy is the new guy, a sharp young man with dreams of making it big.

Guy’s first lesson comes from the outgoing assistant played by Benicio Del Toro. It’s a fun sequence, as he describes the ins and outs and unofficial rules of the Hollywood game. The banter is funny but also to-the-letter realistic. It doesn’t take long for the battles to begin. Immediately Guy gets reamed for using the wrong sugar in his coffee. Over the course of the year we watch as Guy gains confidence and the relationship shifts from slave to colleague to a competitor for Buddy.

When Guy ingratiates himself to a female producer and client of Buddy's he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. She’s a confidante with whom he can share his frustrations, not to mention a genuinely emotional romantic relationship.

Huang moves the film toward a dark and twisting plot of revenge – a flash-forward sequence is intercut showing Guy's kidnapping and torturing of Buddy for heinous ill treatment.

Swimming with Sharks arrived at a time when independent film began a resurgence. It was the Tarantino era, and we feel it in every foot of this film. Films like The Player and Living in Oblivion opened us up to the inner workings of Hollywood executives. Even the story of Tarantino’s discovery was well known. He was a film junkie and former video store clerk who schmoozed Hollywood into letting him in the door. Guy's journey is much the same as a wet-behind-the-ears nave exposed to the unscrupulous world of Hollywood.

Spacey is fun as Ackerman, spouting some finely crafted insults, but we never fully understand whether this is exaggeration or a caricature. I'm hesitant to even label this as a comedy. The finale ventures into a disturbing area of dark cynicism, like The Bad and the Beautiful or Sunset Boulevard, dispelling all the romanticism of the movie business. I’ve been in Guy's shoes and it’s scary.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Das Boot

Das Boot (1981) dir. Wolfgang Peterson
Starring: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, Hubertus Bengsch, Martin Semmelrogge

****

By Alan Bacchus

A landmark in international cinema, a Hollywood-style war film created outside the US and Britain, and a heroic German film about Nazis, Das Boot was conceived primarily as an action film with a message. Wolfgang Peterson’s strong directorial style and deft abilities to juggle intimate moments of character with intense action are the reasons this film caught the attention of Hollywood producers, received a stateside theatrical release, was nominated for several Oscars (including Best Director) and became a success.

Some spotty production deficiencies aside, Das Boot still looks and sounds great. It’s an intense war film, which arguably tops all submarine films produced by Hollywood over the years.

The new Sony Pictures Blu-ray release features both the original theatrical cut (149 minutes) and the 1997-released director’s cut (209 minutes). I chose to watch and review the film based on the theatrical edition, which is usually the version to stick with. The shorter running time results in a more intense experience, one that’s meant for the big screen and is the reason why the film garnered the amount of attention it did back in its day. At 209 minutes Das Boot is still a fine film, but it requires a much more significant investment of time for the same emotional reaction.

Peterson puts us in the viewpoint of Lt. Werner, a war correspondent assigned to cover the missions of U-96 in October 1941, specifically its charismatic Captain (Jürgen Prochnow). The opening scenes in the German nightclub before the crew is shipped out for battle are key to establishing Peterson’s stand on Nazism. Watch the sullen reactions of Prochnow and his other crew mates to the drunken Nazi oaf mocking Churchill. Here we see the crew as soldiers caught up in the winds of war, not genocidal Nazi tyrants. With the audience on the side of Peterson’s characters, it’s not difficult to invest in their survival.

Once in the boat and on their journey, it’s a taut thrill ride. Peterson moves us quickly from one set piece to another. The thrill of victories in the Atlantic using their ingenuity to take down a number of Allied ships and the third act setbacks, which result in the flooring of the boat at over 200 ft, provide a miraculously energetic finale. The crew virtually rises from the dead and returns home in one piece.

Peterson takes time to show us the horrors of battle and the deep concern his characters have for their opposing combatants. At one point, after the first Allied ship is destroyed, we see the soldiers on fire leaping into the ocean with no rescue in sight. The German crew witnesses this, and given their apparent unease, Peterson once again reminds us these are working class soldiers – ordinary men like you and me.

The celebrated production values still look astonishing, specifically Jost Vacano’s superlative camera moves through the tight belly of the sub. Somehow, Peterson is able to push his camera through the tightest of spaces in long takes and through the tiny portal holes between sections of the boat as his characters run from end to end. These unbroken camera moves effectively ratchet up the intensity and the claustrophobia of their confined environment. At the same time, I'd be remiss if I didn't cringe at some of the lacklustre exterior process shots and some of Klaus Doldinger’s synthesized score. But then again, it was 1981, and just about every movie sounded like this.

The tragic and ironic denouement, which has the U-Boat and crew attacked from the air during the reverie of their return, is a curious way to end the film. But it’s wholly necessary to keep the film in the context of history and punish the soldiers, however unjustly, for the future and past crimes of their country. For this and all the other reasons cited above, Das Boot will always be a great film.

Das Boot is available on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) dir. Michael Bay
Starring: Shia Leboeuf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich

***

By Alan Bacchus

Here we go again – another round of Bay-bashing. And really, it’s so easy to hate this stuff. Certainly in this latest chapter of the Transformers ‘saga’, as before, it's more mind-numbing beat downs of sight and sound. Metal machines pounding each other endlessly, hyper-active human characters talking a mile a minute, American patriotism gone wild.

I had fun with the first film, if anything simply to watch what I had once thought was an unfilmable franchise turned into an impressive array of top notch special effects and eye-popping real world explosions, stunts and action. There were even some genuinely likeable and fun characters to enjoy, namely Sam Witwicky’s affable mom and dad.

By the second film, the repetition wore out its welcome very quickly – like after the first five minutes – thus rendering the theatrical experience assaulting. Even Sam's parents were annoying.

And so, with little expectations other than the smattering of lenient critics calling it the ‘best of the series’, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a pleasant surprise. Sure, it clocks in at two-and-a-half hours, but it moves quickly.

Writer Ehren Kruger’s chief improvement is a simplification in character and plot. The opening establishes the reason for the title, Dark of the Moon – a fun riff on history, wherein Kruger postulates that the reason for the Apollo mission was to investigate and recover a downed alien spacecraft from the early ‘60s. Bay and company have fun with these conspiracy theories, including a jaunt to Chernobyl, and they plot out a fun backstory, which seems to erase what was established in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. So, objection here.

In the present, our hero Sam Witwicky is out of school looking for a job but frustrated that his hero status has been shoved under the rug by the government to cover up the presence of the Transformers robots. The Decepticons still exist in hiding and are plotting a scheme by which they can recover an important artifact from the Moon to revive the body of a long lost Autobot leader. This old robot does come to life in the form of ‘Sentinel Prime’ (voiced well by Leonard Nimoy), who may or may not be working for the Decepticons. Ultimately, the evil robots aim to construct a giant portal that would bring the entire planet of Cybertron to Earth for the purposes of intergalactic colonization.

Surprisingly, Transformers works well in 3-D. Most of the problems with this new medium have been corrected by Mr. Bay – there’s little, if any, ‘double imaging’, the brightness level was normal, the 3-D process accepted Bay’s kinetic action scenes well and I got no headaches! What an improvement from Avatar.

Because of the 3-D process, Bay’s shooting style was significantly toned down, for the better. Longer, wider shots tend to improve the scope of the spectacle aids. In full action, the robots were actually discernible, and for the first time in the series it wasn’t just a swash of colour and light blurred across the screen. In fact, this film might just have the least amount of action with much of it back-ended during the Chicago siege sequence. Bay takes his time and lets humour push the film into the third act when it gets wild and crazy. Arguably the best sequence involves very little robot action. It’s a fun adventure for Sam and his military team sliding across a Chicago building toppling over on its side.

Strong new characters add some freshness where the old ones had become stale. Frances McDormand’s tight-ass Chief of Staff character is fun, and she’s one of three Coen Bros. alum (including mainstay John Turturro) going along with the fun. Burn After Reading’s John Malkovich goes over-the-top in a role as Sam Witwicky’s looney boss. The ubiquitous Ken Jeong does what he does best as an equally looney conspiracy nut. And Alan Tudyk is just plain batshit crazy as a German assistant to John Turturro.

The new Megan Fox, Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, is a marked improvement. She actually might have some acting chops, and she certainly has a better funny bone than Ms. Fox had in the series.

Considering the license to print money this series has become, like the Pirates series, I don't doubt we will see more Transformers movies in the future. But thankfully, I doubt we’ll see Michael Bay back at the helm. Instead, he’ll likely be moving on to more creatively inspiring directorial ventures. We’ll see.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Submarine

Submarine (2011) dir. Richard Ayoade
Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine

***

By Alan Bacchus

Richard Ayoade was recently knighted by Variety in their annual 10 to Watch list, an esteemed list of hot new directors on the block. Actually, he isn’t exactly new. In addition to his experience in stand-up comedy, much like contemporaries Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), Armando Ianucci, (In the Loop) and Chris Morris (Four Lions), he seems to have come from the superlative comedy training ground that is British television. Ayoade’s quirky UK coming of age comedy is deserving of the attention. It’s an auteur/idiosyncratic work, not entirely original stylistically but funny and involving enough to make us anticipate his second film.

Fifteen-year-old Oliver Tate is from the Wes Anderson family of protagonists, an articulate self-aware youth too mature for his body and with too much misplaced energy. Through the heavily-detailed observance in his voiceover we know exactly who this character is. Early on he describes his efforts to find his niche in high school by experimenting with a roll call of peculiar hobbies from French crooners to silly hats.

Like Rushmore’s Max Fischer, Tate wants to have the emotions of an adult, but he has no outlet for life’s drama. His parents are emotionally detached robots who barely emote anything above a whisper to each other. His only friends in school are immature children, not yet at the intellectual level Tate desires to be.

But he also has a massive crush on the enigmatic and aloof Jordana, who appears as emotionally superior and mature as he does. His attempts to ingratiate himself to her involve bullying one of his good friends resulting in her transfer from school. But it works, and soon Oliver and Jordana are moving from first base to second base and beyond. Meanwhile, a new neighbour, Graham, a pretentious new-age psychic played with delicious ‘80s mullet-head tackiness by Paddy Considine, arrives attracting the attention of Oliver‘s mom. With the impending breakdown of his parents’ marriage and the inability to deal with Jordana’s own family problems, the drama Oliver desires eventually arrives.

We’ve seen just about everything in this film already, from the articulate obsessively-specific details of his observant voiceover to the quirky framing, wide-angle lenses and general tone of oddball kookiness. This genre goes back to The Graduate and was eventually exploited for a handful of Wes Anderson’s films. Taika Waititi’s Sundance entry from last year, Boy, also comes to mind, and in terms of the hilariously inventive use of absurd voiceover, Trainspotting appears to be an influence.

Though it’s familiar territory, Ayoade’s characters are honest and seem to derive from a place of real personal angst. Perhaps it’s the source material, a novel by Joe Dunthorne, which is apparently a semi-autobiography from Dunthorne’s youth in the ‘80s. Sympathetic and unflashy performances from the kids, Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige, and the cozy warmth of Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor as the parents anchor it all in heartfelt reality.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Superman II

Superman II (1980) dir. Richard Lester/Richard Donner
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Terence Stamp, Ned Beatty

**1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Yeah, I’m sorry to say, despite my childhood memories of the awesomeness of General Zod and his two other black clad Krypton baddies matching strength with Superman in this film, the film itself doesn’t hold up well. Richard Donner’s superlative Superman: The Movie, as mentioned in my review last week, still resounds as a landmark of the genre, but it’s much maligned sequel is the beginning of the devolution of the series from serious reflection of the superhero genre to candy coded bubblegum entertainment for children.

And yes, I’m talking about the Richard Donner cut, which back in 2005, allowed Donner to, as much as possible, cut the film as he originally intended back in the day, before being fired and replaced by Richard Lester. Unfortunately the fact the second film (and to some degree the first) got bungled up by the meddling of the Salkind producers, who knows how this second film would have turned out if Donner had stayed on through the entire two films.

The changes in the DVD-released 'Richard Donner Cut' are surprisingly extensive, the opening shot brings some of the same feelings of pathos as the previous film. A slow tracking shot across planet Krypton before replaying the scenes of General Zod and his team on trial and being captured in the plate glass prison are powerful.

There’s also the reinstatement of Marlon Brando as Jor-el in the fortress of solitude – first when Lex Luthor arrives to steal Superman’s secrets and at the end when he confesses the mistakes made with Lois. Brando’s presence is invaluable, his droll British accent adds a little more meaning and importance to the film, but not enough to completely save the film.

Admittedly Richard Lester’s ending is actually better. Donner chose to have Superman spin the world back in time again (as in in the first film) in order to erase Lois’s memory of Superman’s identity. But again, this is not Donner's fault. The Salkinds, against Donner's wishes, chose to use the ending of the second film in the first. So on it's own the reversing time segment doesn't work, but in the scope of the fully realized Donner vision it does. Lester’s magical kiss which has Superman simply erasing Lois’ memory with a genuine romantic kiss is a small moment, still Ex Machina, but more emotionally satisfying, connecting the two souls together without the grandiosity to reversing the Earth.

That all said, the internal conflict of Superman as a man and as an alien visitor and saviour of the planet provides a strong character arc for Superman across both films (and even both versions of the sequel). Christopher Reeve is still a marvel, exhibited immense screen presence as the Man of Steel as well as doing a fine Cary Grant slapstick turn as Clark Kent.

The trio of General Zod and the others are much more exciting as a 5 year old back in 1980, than a 36 year old adult today. Spotty effects, maligned by the stingy Salkinds, betray the build up to their eventual confrontation, though Terence Stamp is still imposing in his signature line, ‘kneel before Zod’.

But the absolute best character and actor of both films is Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. He’s not really needed in this film, but Hackman’s magnificent delivery and comic timing elevates his character beyond what most actors could have done with the part.

Superman II both the Richard Lester and Richard Donner versions are available on Blu-Ray in the Superman Anthology 1978-2006 Box Set from Warner Home Entertainment

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Superman Returns

Superman Returns (2006) dir. Bryan Singer
Starring: Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, James Marsdon, Parker Posey, Frank Langella

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

It’s too bad this film missed its mark 6 summers ago. It’s a rather unique and wholly admirable vision for this Superman. Virtually anything could have been done with the character and the franchise, and Jon Peters, the producer, tried many different directors to relaunch the series, including using his old Batman pal Tim Burton with Nicolas Cage as the man of steel. Bryan Singer’s film resonates strongly based on his meticulous precision in plugging it into the style, tone and overall mythology of the Richard Donner films (Superman The Movie and most of Superman II). Perceived success or not, Superman Returns is a terrific film.

What’s to be cherished most from the 1978 Superman The Movie is the treatment of the origin story, both the father-son relationship between Jor-El (as played by Marlon Brando) and Superman (nee Ka-Lel), and Superman's relationship with his adopted father on Earth played by Glenn Ford. What a stroke of genius to bring Brando back from the dead, incorporating outtakes from the original in this new one to provide a unique tie between the two films. In production, the announcement of Brando’s presence signified Singer’s desire to stay in sync with the other films.

Tonally, Singer hits the same marks as Donner. Brandon Routh not only looks strikingly similar to Christopher Reeve, but he possesses some of the same slapstick steps as Reeve playing Clark Kent. Kevin Spacey and Parker Posey admirably step into the shoes of Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty, the sometimes bumbling, sometimes deadly affable opposing duo.

John Ottman’s score admirably reworks John Williams’ recognizable music to find a satisfiable hybrid.

In terms of story, Singer finds a fun medium between continuing the story established by Donner, finding his own journey for Superman and even adapting/recreating a number of the scenes from the original for his own purposes. Lois Lane’s interview of Superman, for example, is choreographed and directed note-for-note with Donner’s memorable scene in the original. After getting the assignment to do a personal piece on Superman, he meets up with Lois on the art deco rooftop flying in from the sky. A fun conversation piece filled by sexual subtext and double-entendres ensues before Superman whisks Lois off into the sky for a nighttime jaunt.

Singer’s new addition, Lois’s child, who may or may not be Superman’s kid, also fits in wonderfully. It connects to his strong feelings for his two paternal figures, Jor-El and Pa Kent. If anything, it’s a shame we couldn’t see Ford, like Brando, somehow return in a flashback. The surprise moment in the third act when the child discovers his powers for the first time offers a pretty darn exciting piece of action, and the denouement, the final admonition of Superman as father to his sleeping son, is deeply affecting.

Where Superman Returns doesn’t land as softly, arguably, are in the overstocked action scenes. Sequences such as the airplane crash and the boat rescue at the end feel perfunctory, exercises in blockbuster excess demanded by its tent pole requirements. The overuse of CGI to replicate Superman during the scenes adds a negative cartoon nature to its generally serious subject matter.

Perhaps this is why the filmed failed – the needs and desires to create an action film conflicted with Bryan Singer’s desire to romance the genre as Richard Donner did so many years ago. Regardless, the work speaks for itself and succeeds as a worthy final chapter in the long yet truncated saga.

Superman Returns is available on Blu-ray in the Superman Anthology 1978-2006 set from Warner Home Entertainment.

Friday, 8 July 2011

A Better Life


A Better Life (2011) dir. Chris Weitz
Starring: Demián Bichir, José Julián, Joaquín Cosio

**

By Greg Klymkiw

The ads for A Better Life proudly proclaim: "From The Director of About a Boy". This is hardly a ringing endorsement. It's also misleading.

The latter picture is one of Working Title's cookie-cutter Hugh Grant comedies-with-heart that, in spite of a central relationship involving a man and boy, bears little resemblance to this somewhat better movie. In fact, I suspect that anyone who liked the insufferable Grant picture will not like this one and conversely, those who either hated or would never go to About a Boy, might genuinely find merit in A Better Life.

Such are the vagaries of contemporary movie marketing.

The reality then, is that none of Weitz's previous pictures (American Pie,Down to Earth and - bleeech! - Twilight: New Moon) resemble this one.

Its closest relative outside of the, uh, Weitz canon, is Vittorio DeSica's haunting 1948 classic of neo-realism The Bicycle Thief, and as such I trust the above mentioned tag line is probably best not replaced by the reality of this one: "Kind of like The Bicycle Thief, but not as good".

That said, A Better Life is a decent enough picture that it can go down the gullet with relative ease by those not seeking explosions, rapid cutting and a cacophonous soundtrack.

It's at least about something – not a boy, mind you, but something.

Working from a screenplay by Eric Eason and screen story by Roger L. Simon, Weitz tells the semi-moving story of Carlos (Demián Bichir), an illegal alien and single father working as a gardener in Los Angeles. His young teenage son, Luis (José Julián), whiles life away watching garbage on television, wandering the streets with friends, being mildly attracted to gang life and skipping school.

Carlos is desperate to make their situation better, as he's beginning to feel an even greater divide between himself and his son. Fearing his spawn will seek out the wrong crowd and become just another statistic, he buys a truck, garden equipment and a healthy client-base from his retiring boss and sets up his own business. On the first day of the rest of his life, Carlos hires Martinez (Joaquín Cosio), a destitute migrant labourer, treats the man with overwhelming kindness and is rewarded (NOT!) when the hired hand steals his truck.

Carlos begins a desperate search to find the stolen truck and is joined in his quest by Luis. Here, Father and Son bond – like they never have before!

Cue the violins, please!

In spite of the narrative's been-there-done-that quality, the movie is often compelling. There are, however, two major problems with the picture and they are thus:

1. The screenplay loads up hurdle upon hurdle for poor Carlos. Each one seems more insurmountable than the last, and the suspense on this front is considerable. However, a pattern sets in far too early where there always appears some deus ex machina device – usually in the form of a decent soul (because to be human is to be saintly) and Presto! – a solution to the problem offers itself up. More often than not, Carlos aggressively and actively places himself in situations where he then passively accepts bone-tosses in positive directions. This is all just a tad disappointing, especially since Carlos doesn't actively solve any problems until he finds and extricates the truck. (I'm not spoiling anything. It's very clear halfway in that he's going to find his truck – mostly because the script telegraphs it from miles away due to the above mentioned easy-way-out mechanics.)

2. The ending is a total crock of bull droppings. It's pure, feel-good fantasy land. In addition to the annoying and incessant above-named hand-of-God saves (which I was prepared to forgive), the final 10 or so minutes strains all credibility and goes completely out of its way to present – UGH! – hope.

Hope? Give me a break. It's not only a jaw-dropping stretch, but it works to scuttle a number of really fine elements – the most important being Weitz's surprisingly strong direction.

I was so impressed with the mise-en-scene. Every frame is packed with finely wrought kitchen sink details. The exterior shots are especially impressive. Every moment, every dramatic beat and virtually every exterior frame has a full life exploding behind and around the main action. The sense of place is extremely acute. It feels like Weitz is adhering strictly to a neo-realist approach by making us believe a whole world is pulsating, teeming with life and death.

The performances of all the leads are beyond reproach, but the true revelation – the one in which Weitz could/should be taken seriously as a filmmaker in spite of his less-than-stellar previous works – is just how good and real all the supporting, bit and background players are. When a filmmaker is as careful with background action as he is with that in the foreground and works to make it all seamless – creating a WHOLE WORLD, so to speak – he is no mere hack of the competent variety (as most of his previous work might suggest).

Weitz is totally on the ball in creating a world we want to believe in, and while he delivers the goods in terms of visual details and performance, he is saddled with middle-of-the-road writing (blessed with only infrequent blips of inspiration and far too many lazy touches). He didn't write the screenplay, but as a director he must still take responsibility for it. I am, however, now excited to see when he makes a picture where the writing is up to his directorial prowess – when the script stops yanking us back, as it does in A Better Life, to the very real problem inherent in too many movies these days – the overwhelming, unearned notion that everything is fine.

It's not.

A Better Life is currently in theatrical release via E-One Entertainment.