Friday, 30 September 2011
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, and Mark Strong
By Blair Stewart
John Michael McDonagh's "The Guard" approaches the hoary old fish-out-of-water/mismatched buddy-cop genre and leaps nimbly over those critical beartraps as if it were a ballerina in the pub avoiding a snoring drunk. Brendan Gleeson, the Irish character actor of great repute and anamorphic girth, is the local Guarda (Gaelic for 'Cop') none too perturbed about his work as long as it's not interrupting his casual whoring and chemical intake. As amusing as it would be to spend a few hours or so with the big ginger lug shirking duty a great calamity befalls our Sergeant Gerry Boyle: he has to get off his ass when big city criminals-tailed by sedulous FBI bigshot Wendell (Don Cheadle)-show up in County Galway.
On cue a corpse pops up in the area after the rumour of a boat carrying half-a-billion in street value coke ("What street are you buying your cocaine on?" -Gerry) is on the way, and our anti-hero pairs with Wendell to take the piss out of the Yank while they slap down the bad guys. Said bad guys on the opposite end of the thin blue line (that Gerry crosses all the time with gusto) is a trio of enjoyably literate thugs played at descending levels of cynicism by Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot. Eventually they'll all run into each other and wackiness will ensue.
Typically when faced with a plotline that could reasonably be described as an 'easygoing Lethal Weapon meets Local Hero with a dash of Western Ireland malarky' I would attempt to pull a fire alarm or commit an act of self-harm, and yet McDonagh's film works for me. In the tailored role Gleeson is superbly entertaining as Gerry, his dopey grin taking the edge off of the small-town racism/tactlessness booming from his mouth. I can only count on two hands a cinematic character as enjoyable to watch as Gleeson's Gerry, somewhere between Tom Regan and Sanjuro on the right one. How much better Hollywood would be if Officer Gerry could pop into some earnest Oscar chaff to dress down the Sean Penns and Will Smiths in a cameo, I'd happily pay top dollar to see that. Don Cheadle's Southern accent slips a few times but one of his strengths has been his ability to sell a reaction shot, and The Guard (which he helped produce, good on him) has a slew of those while Gleeson does his shtick.
As unfortunately most mainstream (or even indie whether local or abroad) films demonstrates it is unwise to slavishly follow the formula of a genre completely. Where a tired formula can be improved upon is in individuality, as McDonagh trots out memorable oddballs from his neck of the woods-or his parents really, John and his brother Martin of "Six Shooter"/"In Bruges" fame grew up in London-to liven up the surroundings, and in treating his audience with respect by making his oddballs witty, and thankfully, intelligent. "The Guard" earns it's climax when I actually cared about what happens to Gerry and Wendell, something very few films succeed at.
If the disposable likes of "Cowboys and Aliens" depresses the hell out of you and you enjoy a filthy joke as much as the next guy, give this film a chance. After all, Ireland's economy needs the money.*
*Sorry, couldn't resist.
Thursday, 29 September 2011
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skargaard, Anthony Hopkins
By Alan Bacchus
I’m not a comic geek, but something tells me after watching this movie that Stan Lee never imagined this story on the big screen. Sure, Thor is part of the Avengers series, thus requiring this character to have a presence in the film, but the creative concept of this comic hero just doesn’t complement the stories of Iron Man, The Hulk or Captain America.
This movie fails because, unlike those other films, there’s very little connection to the human or Earth experience. Instead, most of this movie plays out in outer space, another dimension featuring real-life gods battling out a sibling rivalry. Yes, these are relatable human conflicts, including jealousy and the desire for acceptance from one’s father, but when these battles take place through interstellar portals with hand-to-hand combat fights on top of light bridges spanning different planets, it’s much too difficult to relate to anything that’s going on.
This is Stan Lee writing ambitiously on a different and almost limitless canvas. On film there are boundaries of production restraints, running times and the jigsaw puzzle being formed with five other movies. Thor simply doesn’t fit.
The film barely even needs Earth to exist, and most certainly it doesn't need any of its characters other than the teaser introduction showing a trio of scientists chasing down a storm system in the desert, which they think could open up a portal in space. Out of this wormhole lands someone we will learn is Thor, God of Thunder, moralized in human form on Earth. Flashing back we get to know Thor on his home planet of Asgard. He is the son of the revered king (another lazy performance from Tony Hopkins), who is dying and about to relinquish his throne to him. Sadly, Thor’s half-brother, Loki (Hiddleston), is left behind raging with internalized jealousy. When Loki learns that at birth he was actually stolen from Thor’s mortal enemies, the Frost Giants, he schemes to plot Thor’s downfall and claim the throne of Asgard.
After going against his father’s wishes, Thor attacks the Frost Giants, thus breaking their peace and re-sparking war. For this, Thor is banished through the aforementioned wormhole to Earth to live out his life as a mortal, and without his main weapon and source of power, his hammer. On Earth, he’s a fish out of water trying to fit into the ways of humans while speaking his formal godlike English tongue to a group of collegiate do-gooders. The key battle of conflict which emerges out of this mess of a plot is between the two brothers, vying for power and the almighty hammer.
There's actually very little action to even distract us. The main set piece occurs at the end when Thor battles a giant robot that can throw fire and blow things up real good. But there's so little creativity in the action, they're at best deleted scenes in a Michael Bay movie.
This is my second time seeing this film, and even on sparkling Blu-ray the dank cinematography doesn't hold up. The big screen, ironically, was even worse.
With The Avengers coming out next year and including an only slightly better Captain America as the final piece of the puzzle, there's much less cause for excitement for this series than when Iron Man was released.
Thor is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Home Entertainment
Wednesday, 28 September 2011
Airplane! (1981) dir. Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, David Zucker
Starring: Robert Hays, Julie Haggerty, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges
Recently I reviewed the film on which 'Airplane!' was based, 'Zero Hour!' Click here for that review. Otherwise, enjoy this look back at one of the best comedies of all time. But I must note that this review was written before I saw 'Zero Hour!'
Airplane! wasn’t the first spoof film – Mel Brooks probably takes that honour – but it was so successful and influential, it is most certainly responsible for spawning the dozen or so spoof knock-offs that seem to be an annual tradition these days. It was an essential film of my youth. It's juvenile nature and crudeness date the film compared to the politically correctness of today, but it's still one of the funniest films of all time.
Airplane! spoofs the '70s trend of disaster films, such as The Poseidon Adventure and Airport 1970. Robert Hays plays Ted Stryker, a former pilot and war vet who pines after his estranged lover, Elaine (Julie Haggerty). When Elaine leaves him at the airport for a flight, Ted overcomes his fear of flying and buys a ticket to chase after her. While in the air a sickness overcomes the crew and Stryker finds himself the only pilot who can bring the crew and passengers to safety. He gets the girl and redeems himself for his painful mistakes during the war.
Hardly sounds like a plot synopsis of one of the funniest films of all time. This is the reason why Airplane! works so well – and where the recent crop of spoof films fail. Airplane! is rooted in a real story, which if told in another genre could actually work. Although the filmmakers try their best to score every gag, not everything hits the mark for everybody. But in between the lewd, rude and crude behaviour, there’s engaging and likeable characters. So when you’re not laughing, it’s not a chore to actually watch the film.
There’s an interesting psychological study in the viewing experience of this film - something about the inhibition and contagion of laughter. Having seen the film numerous times in my youth and loving every minute of it, this recent viewing after several years was different. The jokes were all very familiar, but I didn't find myself laughing. The set-up/punch line mechanisms were transparent and so it took a third of the way to get settled in.
The first joke that actually made me laugh out loud is one of the least famous. It occurs when the passengers are on the plane and the stewardess is handing out reading material. The old lady sitting beside Ted requests something light. So the stewardess suggests a small one-page pamphlet on “Great Jewish Sports Figures”. It’s a throwaway joke, but for some reason it had me laughing out loud for minutes. It was like a release of built-up laughter with this minor gag setting me off. With this seal broken, for the rest of the movie I found myself laughing at almost everything that was thrown at me.
The second half is aided by Leslie Nielsen’s presence, which takes the film to another level of painful laughter. Has there ever been a better deadpan? Seriously. Leslie Nielsen in his youth was a serious actor (see the great sci-fi picture The Forbidden Planet). In fact, Marlon Brando once said he was Canada’s greatest actor – besting Donald Sutherland and Christopher Plummer. But after Airplane!, Nielsen gained a second career as a deadpan comedian.
His Dr. Rummack is so wonderfully over-the-top serious. In fact, perhaps the most famous line in the film comes from him – Rummack: "Can you fly this plane and land it?" Stryker: “Surely you can’t be serious?” Rummack: “I am serious and don’t call me Shirley."
The entire film is deadpan, and along with Nielsen, the ZAZ team round out the supporting cast by raiding some of the great authoritarian figures from television. Lloyd Bridges, who plays the Air Traffic Commander McClosky, was known for his adventure TV series, Sea Hunt; Peter Graves (Captain Oveur) was Jim Phelps in TV’s Mission Impossible; and Robert Stack was serious-personified as Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.
The new Paramount Pictures Blu-ray feature remarkable resolution and clarity, and after years of watching the badly 'edited-for-content' television version, seeing it commercial free with all the nudity, swearing and crassness intact made me feel like a naughty, perverted youngster all over again. Enjoy.
Tuesday, 27 September 2011
Starring: Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Bernadette Lafont, Claude Chabrol, Philippe de Broca.
By Alan Bacchus
Though most people consider Francois Trauffaut’s The 400 Blows to be the first of the French New Wave, fellow Cahier Du Cinema writer Claude Chabrol beat him by a year with his melodramatic, angst-ridden, but no less moving feature about sibling rivalry in small town France. It’s a beautifully stark and moving character film that jump-started the Nouvelle Vague, and yet it feels more akin to the angst-ridden rebel films of the James Dean/Marlon Brando Hollywood era.
Francois is an erudite but sickly city slicker returning home to his humble rural roots for an extended vacation. It’s not exactly a homecoming for Francois, as he immediately searches out his brother Serge, who, by reputation, is now a drunk reeling over the stillborn death of his child. Even with a new baby on the way with his wife Yvonne, he’s still on a downward bender into oblivion.
The return of Francois certainly doesn’t improve Serge's recovery. The mere presence of Francois, quietly basking in success and throwing pity at his brother, is as transparent as his brother’s alcoholic coping mechanism. A love triangle emerges with Yvonne’s friend Marie, who once had a fling with Serge. Adding even more conflict into the small town shenanigans is Marie’s father, Goumand, a dangerous presence who resents Francois’ courtship of his daughter resulting in a heinous act of revenge.
Despite these narrative layers, La Beau Serge is anchored in the story of two brothers. It's a complex relationship, at once contradictory and violent, but also loyal and loving. Like all boys, Francois and Serge are quick to fight and quicker to make up - an unbroken and unspoken bond of brotherhood, warts and all.
There's a strong hint of 1950s method angst. In fact, Gerard Blain's anxious, disaffected look is often compared to that of James Dean. He's also ruggedly handsome like Marlon Brando, but even more self-destructive than Stanley Kowalski. Despite his perpetual drunken stupor and his characterization as a rural hick left behind by his ambitious brother, Serge is still able to analyze Francois and put him in his place. And if Serge is Dean or Brando then Francois is probably Karl Maldon, the moral conscience of the film, but considerably less angelic and saintly.
While A Streetcar Named Desire skirted sexual connotations delicately in Hollywood, Chabrol is more direct, helping to eschew these increasingly obsolete moral traditions. The rape of Marie by the man assumed to be her father is tragic and alarming. And the frank depiction of Yvonne’s pregnancy difficulties also feels modern.
Under the crisp Criterion Collection Blu-ray treatment, Henri Decae’s cinematography is striking. The moody look with strongly contrasting light and dark creates a brooding, almost ‘Slavic’ sense of tragedy (think Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood or anything by Bela Tarr). The quaint town and use of real locations and non-actors lend invaluable neorealist credibility and poignancy. And by the end the film it reaches heights achieved by only a few in the New Wave. The triumphant finale is emotional, moving and poignant, reminiscent of any number of great John Ford pictures.
Le Beau Serge is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
Monday, 26 September 2011
By Alan Bacchus
I love a good conspiracy, and I love a good mystery. The best conspiracy is one that is actually true. Such is the case with the fascinating Toynee Tile phenomenon. Across the United States and South America, but primarily in Philadelphia, pasted onto the ground in numerous places on seemingly random streets is a series of secret, coded messages written with a unique artistic penmanship that can only be attributed to one person.
Each tile has a similar wording:
On Planet Jupiter
There are hundreds of such tiles in dozens and dozens of cities. For over 20 years a cult has developed around the mystery of these messages, which still remains unsolved.
Director John Foy creates a magnificently suspenseful and engrossing investigative Sherlock Holmes-worthy mystery following three young men, equally obsessed, as they go about solving the case.
Foy channels some of the best qualities of Errol Morris, in particular his masterpiece investigative doc The Thin Blue Line. Foy matches Morris for his rigorousness and his ability to parse out information in a clear and dramatic way, not to mention his sharp sense of humour. This is pure cinematic storytelling at work, maximizing drama from just a few characters in limited space.
Essentially, the three characters recount their stories of the investigation. Some of it is real-time on-camera detective work, but much of it happened in the past and is recounted in talking head interviews. Fun on-screen graphics and text provide a thoroughly entertaining way to visualize the details.
And this film lives and dies by the details. It’s a fascinating collection of leads, false leads and red herrings. Believe it or not, weaving into the evidence is an old David Mamet one-act play from 1983, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the literature of American philosopher Arnold Toynbee, shortwave radio fanatics and a group of fascinating neighbourhood Philly folk who help the threesome uncover the mystery.
Of the three characters, Foy concentrates on the leader of the bunch, Justin Duerr, whose back story of pain and obsession fuels his desire to connect with the artist of these tiles. For the filmmakers, the film echoes the obsessiveness of its characters. Years in the making, it was shot independently with a low budget funded with the director's wages as a house cleaner. The final product is admittedly missing some of the polish of the HBO Docs made for many times the cost of this one, but what Foy doesn't sacrifice is his magnificent score, which he composed by himself. Foy's dramatic, brooding deep bass string arrangements are another source of comparison to The Thin Blue Line, whose score was composed by Philip Glass.
Resurrect Dead could be this year’s Exit Through the Gift, and though it’s early, I’ve no doubt this will be one of the best documentaries of the year.
Sunday, 25 September 2011
Hero's Island (1962) dir. Leslie Stevens
Starring: James Mason, Kate Manx, Warren Oates, Rip Torn, Harry Dean Stanton, Neville Brand, Robert Sampson and Brendan Dillon
By Greg Klymkiw
"Revenge. Revenge. REVENGE!!! I am the devil! Oh yes I am. I have lived in Hell. I've wrecked and burned a hundred ships. I don't pull a plough!" - James Mason as Blackbeard the Pirate in Hero's IslandWhat's not to love about James Mason?
He was, without question, one of the most versatile screen actors of all time. It's impossible to take one's eyes off the guy and that distinctive mellifluous voice worked perfectly whether he played a hero, villain or everything in between. Who will ever forget him in any number of roles that he might as well have patented: Johnny McQueen in Odd Man Out, Carol Reed's classic crime thriller about "the troubles"; the ill-fated Hendrik van der Zee in Albert Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman; the two-faced Roman turn-coat Brutus in Julius Caesar, the doomed boozer Mr. Norman Maine in A Star is Born; the suave villain VanDamm in Hitchcock's North By Northwest; the lecherous pedophile Humber Humbert in Kubrick's Lolita; the heavenly bureaucrat Mr. Jordan in Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait; his stunning supporting turn as Paul Newman's nemesis, the sleazy, slimy powerful lawyer Concannon in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict.
Of course, my favourite Mason performance is that of the breeding plantation owner Warren Maxwell in the best movie of all time, Richard Fleischer's Mandingo where, sporting a first-rate accent of the Deep South, Mason reeled off one great line after another - the best being advice he imparts to his son: "Your wife craves you has wenches. She wants for you to have wenches. Keeps her from havin' to submit."
Oh, and have I mentioned yet that he played Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Captain FUCKING Nemo!!!
The above are some of his quintessential roles, but as a producer, he also generated a handful of extremely interesting films - Michael Powell's deleriously sexy Age of Consent where he played the middle aged artist who falls in love with a mostly nude 22-year-old Helen Mirren and most notably as the prescription-drug-addicted Ed Avery in Nicholas Ray's astonishing Bigger Than Life.
One of the pictures Mason produced was, however, completely unknown to me until recently. It's a corker of an 18th century boys' adventure story called Hero's Island.
Written and directed by Leslie Stevens (who would go on to direct William Shatner in Incubus, the only feature film made entirely in Esperanto), we follow the adventures of Devon and Thomas Mainwaring (Kate Manx and Brendan Dillon respectively), their two children and their loyal friend Wayte (Warren Oates) - indentured servants who have recently been given their freedom and bequeathed an entire island in the Carolinas. Here they look forward to a new life of freedom and as landowners no less. Alas, the Gates family - inbred fishermen led by Enoch (Robert Sampson) and his knotheaded brothers Nicky (Rip Torn) and Dixie (Harry Dean Stanton) are laying claim to the island and order the settlers out. In an altercation, they murder Devon's husband. She's devastated, to be sure, but she orders Wayte not to seek vengeance through violence. As an indentured servant, she was raised in the (I kid you not!!!) Quaker Christian tradition.
Things change when a bearded sailor who goes by the name of Jacob (James Mason) is washed ashore, tied to a plank and bearing a sign that reads: "Dead Man". Clearly there is more to him than meets the eye. He's cultured, well-versed in the seafaring tradition and still has his fancy sabre strapped to him. Wayte immediately suspects Jacob is someone rather notorious who has been the victim of a mutiny. This would be true. He is Blackbeard the Pirate.
Well, this is a pretty good deal for all concerned. Blackbeard can handle these yahoos no problem.
When the Gates brothers bribe the evil governor, Kingstree (Neville Brand) and his henchmen on a neighbouring island to take back the land by force, Blackbeard decides he's not about to risk his freedom (being a wanted man and all) for the sake of a piece of rock in the open water.
This, is clearly NOT a good deal for all concerned. How is a Quaker woman and her children going to handle this one?
Well, she IS a gorgeous Quaker woman, her kids are blonde cherubim and when Blackbeard witnesses Kingstree committing a horrific, merciless act of murder (no, I won't spoil it and tell you who it is), he clearly must leap into action.
Carnage ensues and, happily, the Quaker woman discovers the value of firearms. This IS America after all.
Okay, I'll be honest here and say that Hero's Island is clearly no undiscovered cinematic diamond mine, but as far as swashbuckling adventures go, it's a solid vein of Amethyst. First off, we've got James Mason. 'Nuff said. Secondly, take a look at that supporting cast - Warren Oates, Harry Dead Stanton, Rip Torn and Neville Brand! 'Nuff said. Thirdly, Kate Manx (the director's real-life wifey) is mighty babe-o-licious!
From a directorial standpoint, Stevens handles the proceedings with solid craft and even attempts a few daring approaches to the material - one of which is a terrific, long single take where Manx and Mason each reveal their innermost turmoil to each other. There are also a couple of tremendous POV shots from behind Neville Brand (a really great villainous turn, by the way), one of which has his tall black hat in the foreground and James Mason walking towards him - arms outstretched like Christ. Finally, there's a really well-choregraphed sabre duel between Mason and Brand that puts many contemporary herky-jerky action scenes to shame.
Stevens eventually made his mark in American television as the creator, writer, producer and occasionally director of such excellent series as the original The Outer Limits, McCloud, The Virginian and the original Battlestar Galactica.
And, of course, lest we forget Stevens's most notorious achievement - the only feature shot completely in Esperanto - with Bill Shatner, no less.
Hero's Island is a recent release from the MGM Archives. Like many studios we'll be seeing more and more of these on-demand DVDs. The problem is that it delivers movie fans a whole mess of films for premium prices and straight-up transfers to DVD-R. The widescreen transfer for Hero's Island looks just fine on a laptop, but leaves a bit to be desired on a bigger monitor. It's also hard to get them. Only a few retailers stock any titles at all (in Toronto, Canada the Yonge-Dundas Sunrise Records carries a huge number of them as does the old Starstruck Video located at Dundas and Tomken) and the only other option is online ordering which not only costs the premium price but shipping and handling. This is well and good for titles people are willing to buy at any cost, but given that something like Hero's Island was unknown even to me (someone who has psychotically seen over 30,000 movies), it seems a shame that a decent James Mason swashbuckler isn't available at a more reasonable price point.
Saturday, 24 September 2011
Starring: Sybille Schmitz, Hans Nielsen
By Alan Bacchus
Before James Cameron’s Titanic and before A Night To Remember was the now infamous Nazi-based Titanic, the German retelling of the doomed sea vessel made as a propaganda film by Joseph Goebbels during the Third Reich. It was a massive production in its day with its dramatic license grossly exploited for propaganda purposes. Many of the people (Bruce Ismay, John Jacob Astor) and events were familiar, but it included a German hero as the moral conscious of the film, which served as the injection of Nazi misinformation designed to help the Nazi war cause.
The film itself is certainly watchable from this historical perspective, though it doesn’t rise to the artistic heights of Leni Reifenstahl’s films. However, it does remain a robust action film with top notch production values worthy of the other Titanic films I mentioned, all taken with a large dose of salt knowing whose intentions the film was meant to serve.
The film shamelessly establishes the evils of Western capitalism when we see the executives at White Star Lines, including the real-life Bruce Ismay, plotting a scheme to raise the falling price of its stock by overextending the seaworthiness of the Titanic.
We’re then quickly put on the boat, the launch of which is visualized competently through stock footage of its real-life sister ship, HMCS Olympic. Ismay’s scheme involves not only publicizing the launch of the biggest ocean liner to sail the seas, but also breaking the cross-Atlantic sailing record by bringing it into New York ahead of schedule. To do this requires pushing its engines to the max and disregarding the danger of icebergs floating in the area.
Ismay’s opponent comes in the form of the German First Officer, Herr Petersen (Nielsen), who opposes the self-centered money grubbing hedonism of the Western capitalists for the sake of the safety of the crew, in particular the poor third class patrons in steerage. Peterson’s characterization is shamelessly heroic, an outcast on the ship under constant suspicion of the ignorant Brits and Americans.
The choreography of the actual disaster is adequate for the era, but it leaves much to be desired compared to A Night To Remember or Cameron’s Titanic. There’s a palpable lack of suspense to the tragedy. In fact, it all happens so quickly. Perhaps it was so Goebbels could bring us quicker to the denouement, a court inquiry sequence featuring the trial of Ismay and his exoneration, and the hilarious final postscript text, which reads: “the deaths of 1,500 people remain un-atoned, forever a testament of Britain's endless quest for profit.”
Of course, this movie isn’t fooling anybody anymore, and we can laugh at such ludicrous propaganda. Back in the day, the production was controversial, as conflicts between the director Selpin and Joseph Goebbels resulted in his imprisonment and ultimate ‘suicide’. After its premiere, Goebbels banned the film when he realized the Allies were so close to Berlin and winning the war, the effect of showing such mass destruction would not serve his purpose. After the War the film virtually disappeared only to be resurrected by Kino Video in its current uncensored state.
Friday, 23 September 2011
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro
By Alan Bacchus
I am one of those viewers who initially dismissed this film upon first viewing and yet grew to appreciate it with age. Why so many critics and regular movie-goers feel the same way is a curious phenomenon. Some talk about the expectations following Fargo, a morose melancholy noir picture vs. Lebowski, a rambling piece of comic fluff designed solely to generate laughs. I’m not sure my expectations had anything to do with it.
Looking back at the film it’s a heavily plotted story, which requires some attention to ‘follow along’ the accidental journey of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski from being a pot smoking couch potato to a reluctant gumshoe scouring the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles for the answers to the kidnapping of his benefactor’s daughter.
Getting caught up in the abc’s of the plot can certainly distract a viewer from the truly delightful and sublime interactions of the three affable heroes. The Dude, as played by Jeff Bridges, is disarmingly funny. We don’t realize he’s funny because he’s so serious and sure of himself. John Goodman’s character, Walter Sobchak, is a hail fire of rage and intensity peppered with random idiosyncrasies, such as his devotion to Judaism and his post-war trauma rages. And Steve Buscemi is rendered so meek and sympathetic as a willing subject to Walter’s brutality, he ceases to be a character and becomes more of an inanimate comic punching bag.
And yet this trio is so magnificent, their comic timing is as close to perfection as comedy gets. Just watch Goodman’s face, the intensity of his eyes and the commanding presence of his sitting posture. And watch Bridge’s posture, almost always lounging or at an angle in his chair, a champion of the world of his own. And hell, every time Walter says, “Shut the fuck up Donny,” it's hilarious punctuation to every scene.
The Coens throw just about anything they can to keep us off kilter and stimulated with new startling imagery. The introduction of Julianne Moore’s character, Maude, a radical abstract artist flying in on a rope to splatter her latest creation with paint from above, is dreamy fun. And the fantasy sequences exercise those stylish cinematic muscles that lay dormant in Fargo, but rear their head so magnificently here. The bowling sequences beautify the garish working class playground of the bowling alley, culminating in the bizarro but beautiful Busby Berkeley sequence later in the film.
The film is a delight to watch over and over again because knowing the plotting from the first viewing allows the audience to relax and enjoy these individual moments, specifically putting oneself in the shoes of the Coens’ affable and naive hero, The Dude, Bridges’ most inspired character of his career.
The Big Lebowski is available on Special Edition Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment.
Thursday, 22 September 2011
Starring: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones
By Alan Bacchus
Well, it’s been five X-Men films thus far over 10+ years, and by now it’s pretty clear there’s a formula that doesn’t quite fit the big screen. This latest entry in the saga suffers from the same problems as the first four. Despite some excellent sequences and genuine emotional attachment to some of the characters, the need to ‘go big’ and bombard us with overly produced set pieces of earth-encompassing grandeur drowns the picture in excess.
Kick Ass was an excellent comic book film. It was comedic, tragic and horrific in equal measure from a shit-hot director with keen visual and aural sensibilities. With X-Men: First Class we definitely get the sense it’s a Matthew Vaughn film. Here Vaughn has fun with some James Bond-style world domination plotting, dancing go-go girls in hot pants and bras, and fun ‘60s split-screen effects. Considering his two main characters are British, his style effectively matches them.
Cleverly, Vaughn and the producers go back to the original opening sequence of the Bryan Singer-directed X-Men (2000), as we see Magneto as a child being removed from his parents in a concentration camp and then demonstrating his powers to the Nazis. It’s a great sequence that expertly sets up the misdirected rage Magneto exhibits in the present. X-Men: First Class expands on this scene and shows exactly what happened to that kid and his relationship with the Nazis, specifically a particularly cruel (and hidden mutant) Sebastian Shaw played by Kevin Bacon.
In the ‘60s we get to see the elder child Magneto (aka Erik Lehnsher), now in his 20s, hunting down the Nazis who had his mother murdered in front of his eyes. Meanwhile, we also get to see the Cold War played out by Russian and American spies in the backdrop of real history (i.e., the placement of US missiles in Turkey and the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis). Charles Xavier gets recruited by the CIA to find fellow mutants whose powers just might help the cause. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) shows up starting off as an ally of Xavier’s before meeting and falling in love with his future enemy, Magneto. A host of other mutants include Beast, Angel, Riptide, Havok and Banshee, who all learn their powers in the first congregation of the X-Men school – hence the title, First Class.
Michael Fassbender is the star here. His edgy, internalized trauma trumps the boyishness of James McAvoy’s Xavier. The film works best in his journey to personal vendetta. Everything else in the film is fodder. Vaughn and company expertly execute the true conflict that lies at the heart of the X-Men stories, which is the opposite philosophy of Xavier’s peaceful integration and Magneto’s survival by any means necessary. Vaughn cleverly shows how thin a line exists between good and evil, and how Magneto’s noble but warped mind would result in the massive destruction we would see later in the series. This is the stuff the best comic book films are made of.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from an overload of characters and overly produced set pieces in the second half, which dilutes the beautiful and powerful moments in the opening half. Jennifer Lawrence, while terrific in Winter’s Bone, feels miscast here. Her performance is lifeless, and sadly but honestly, her baby-ish face doesn’t look that great in the blue makeup. Sure it’s crass, but it’s important. Like all the other X-Men movies, there’s too wide a range in the mutants' abilities. Some characters get to raise tornadoes, while others simply have big feet. And really, a lot of these characters look plain silly.
Going back a few months, I remember being disappointed at the departure of Darren Aronofsky from his Wolverine picture. Despite multiple directors not being able to truly ‘crack’ this franchise as well as Iron Man and Batman, perhaps it's the fault of producer Lauren Shuler-Donner, as she is the common thread between all these pictures. I can’t help but think an effort to squeeze Aronofsky into this blockbuster formula resulted in him leaving the project. If so, then it’s for the best.
X-Men First Class is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Wednesday, 21 September 2011
Straw Dogs (2011) dir. Rod Lurie
Starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods
By Greg Klymkiw
God knows I love a good remake. When a great story can be repositioned to present the same tale in a completely different time and place and is rendered by a director with vision, it can generate really fine work. Genre pictures are especially ideal for remakes - horror, sci-fi, suspense, mysteries and on occasion even musicals. The first three film adaptations of Jack Finney's cold war sci-fi novel "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" rendered three excellent and thoroughly distinctive films in the '50s, '70s and '90s - directed respectively by such diverse talents as Don Siegel, Philip Kaufmann and Abel Ferrara. Howard Hawks' classic '50s production of The Thing eventually yielded John Carpenter's bone chilling 1982 remake. And frankly, if it weren't for remakes, John Huston's 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart (the THIRD film version of Dashiell Hammett's novel) wouldn't exist, nor would George Cukor's exquisite Judy Garland-James Mason version of A Star is Born (also the the third screen telling of the classic tale that began with the film What Price Hollywood?)
Some movies aren't so perfect for remakes because they are so tied to a specific time and place. The filmmaking techniques aren't necessarily dated, but the inherent values infusing the era are so inextricably linked to the story that applying contemporary mores half-cocks them. A good example of this is the great J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck where the clear divisions between good and evil are what contribute to the horror and suspense. When Martin Scorsese updated the film for his remake, he tried to be clever and blur those lines. That's why his remake doesn't work. Sure, it has his astounding direction and a few visceral moments that pack a punch, but ultimately, by creating moral ambiguities in the character of the lawyer, you actually end up muddying something that was, in its very simplicity, far more complex and, frankly, a lot more terrifying.
Some movies, however, are so perfect, so universal, so AHEAD of their time, that the necessity of a remake is simply uncalled for. In fact, the very notion of remaking them can only be pure commerce, pure greed and worst of all - pure and utter stupidity.
Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs is such a picture.
Based on the terrific pulp novel by Gordon Williams, the original 1971 shocker has, in my estimation, not dated one bit. It's as powerful and universal in its disturbing ambiguities as it ever was. (Unlike the original Cape Fear, for example, it is ambiguity that DRIVES Peckinpah's engine.)
The story of both the original and remake are simple enough, and on the surface, are identical. An intellectual and his sexpot wife move to a house in the country where the woman grew up. The husband is a dyed-in-the-wool city boy, but looks towards the solace of country living to complete his work. The wife's self-perceived inadequacies fall from her shoulders once she's back in her old stomping grounds - she's on familiar turf, hubby is not.
The local rednecks, one of whom had a passionate affair with wifey before she left for greener pastures in the big city, chide the city slicker hubby and drool over wifey. What wifey wants more than anything is her hubby to stand up and be a man - to rise (or in his mind, lower) to the level of the inbred ruffians. Eventually, the couple's pet kitty is strung up in the bedroom closet, wifey is raped and in a final showdown, the rednecks lay siege to the couple's farmhouse where hubby proves his manhood and defends his home with a brute force resulting in the savage deaths of the crazed marauders.
Peckinpah's film worked on two basic levels. Number one, it was a slowly stomach churning thriller that exploded into an orgy of bloody violence. Number two, it worked as an intense study of a marriage on the brink of extinction. Rod Lurie's remake works on neither level, though it pathetically attempts to deliver the goods with the former.
Lurie's film is shot and lit with all the artistry of a television drama. The genuinely suspenseful situation is never tense. The explosion of violence is on the level of a lower-drawer low-budget action picture. Worst of all, the acting is borderline incompetent - Marsden and Bosworth in the roles originally and so brilliantly played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George prove to be such non-entities that they don't even appear to belong in this movie at all. And what can one say when even the king of supreme cinematic scumbaggery, James Woods, looks severely bored and in need of a paycheque as the drunken, psychotic redneck villain.
One of the remake's many boneheaded decisions is to set the film in America. Peckinpah's version works so well BECAUSE it is about an American and his British sex pot wife moving to a tiny village in England. Though Hoffman's character is, on the surface an educated, Liberal pacifist, he is American - he's left the New World behind and brought his trophy wife to the Old World - her home turf. It's the journey across the Atlantic that helps create the divide necessary for the film to work. Lurie, on the other hand, has no great cultural and geographical chasm to deal with. Granted, Los Angeles and rural Mississippi are regionally distinctive locales, but this is never explored in any intelligent, tangible way.
As a Canadian who has visited many corners of America, one of the most indelible impressions left emblazoned on my psyche was the genuinely alien feeling I had in Mississippi. No matter where I went I was greeted (as it were) with a malevolent sounding “Y’all nawt frum ‘round heah!” That, of course, was what I only vaguely understood when I could ascertain what belched from within the mush-mouthed chewing-tobacco-plugged maw of the speaker – lazily muttering words that appeared to be in the English language. The greeting (as it, uh, were) was never a question, but a statement of fact – one hurled with as much bile as possible. One of my visits occured soon after the free trade agreement between Canada and the USA had been signed, sealed and delivered. A common refrain from Mississippians was: "Whut's with yew'all Kun-ay-dee-yuns? Yew all wants to trade witch us fo' free?"
God bless Mississippi!!!
Racism, in addition to general ignorance and brain deficiency in Mississippi also ran shockingly and openly rampant. I could, for example, walk into a restaurant and the greeter would manage expel the aforementioned salutation with a somewhat more modest degree of literacy than gas station attendants and convenience store clerks and proceed, once confirming that I indeed was “not from around here” lead me into a section of the restaurant where I was surrounded by African-Americans. The other side of the restaurant was where Americans of the NON-African-American persuasion were sitting. A dark-skinned family seated in the next table made a point of offering words of welcome. One of them leaned over in my direction, smiled, and said in a FRIENDLY way, “I see, Sir, that you are not, in fact, from around here.” I confirmed this fact to him. He laughed and said, “That’s good. You’re in good company on this side of the restaurant.” I could only concur heartily.
The bottom line is this: Tied with the equally horrendous state of Alabama, Mississippi was one of the most dementedly scary places I'd ever been.
Not surprisingly, the woefully untalented Lurie captures none of this in any REAL way. His movie TELLS us that “White Trash” Mississippians are ignorant rednecks, but if it didn't, they'd all look like affluent city slickers playing dress-up.
One of the things that MIGHT have allowed a Straw Dogs remake to soar is the very idea that in one's own country one can feel like a foreigner. This is, in America, not at all difficult to swallow. Lurie, however, glances upon this potential with a vague, "Oh-must-I?" nod and moves on to "better" things. What those things are I can only guess at because whatever they might be they're invisible to me.
The other boneheaded decision is to turn hubby into a screenwriter instead of Dustin Hoffman's egg-headed mathematician in the Peckinpah film. Making the character a city slicker academic in the original made far more sense in terms of how he'd be viewed with disdain by the locals. In Lurie's version - especially in the context of contemporary society - I doubt a screenwriter for Hollywood movies would be viewed with so much contempt. I'd suspect the opposite. He'd be welcomed with pretty open arms. Everyone loves the movies - even inbred rednecks.
Where Lurie completely drops the ball here, though, is in making use of hubby's screenwriting prowess during the final showdown - or rather, NOT using it. Peckinpah made brilliant use of Dustin Hoffman being a mathematician - numbers, formulas, patterns: all the stuff that go into assisting his character in crossing over from benign academic into blood-lusting killer.
So why, oh why, oh why, does Lurie turn the character into a screenwriter, then have the knot-head express a prissy, "Oh, I don't do action or horror movies." Uh, why the fuck not? What a lost opportunity. It might have been very cool to have hubby utilize his "screenplay" to carry out his carnage. As it is, Lurie does have his screenwriting character working on a war picture set in Stalingrad.
Uh, Rod! Hello? Stalingrad? One of the bloodiest battles in history?
Uh, screenwriting 101 opportunity for cool shit here, Rod.
It's not surprising he doesn't exploit this. Lurie pretty much screws everything up. He drops the ball on all the brilliant religious allegory; he makes the evocative title literal and can't direct action to save his life. Where he really blows it is with the rape scene. In Peckinpah's original, it's shocking to see how Susan George expresses conflicting feelings of revulsion and lust when her ex-boyfriend rapes her.
This, Mr. Lurie, is called complex characterization. You, on the other hand have the somewhat moronic-looking Miss Bosworth ONLY reflecting revulsion when her ex forces himself upon her. I'd suggest, however, that the conflicting feelings Peckinpah displayed in the face of Susan George during the rape scene are precisely what plunged her into the sort of horror that would reside deep within for the rest of her life - especially when the culmination of succumbing to her ex-boyfriend results in being violated by his friend. Having all those feelings of anger at her husband, deep-seeded remembrances of the ex-boyfriend she once loved, having someone take charge in the lovemaking department are the things seared on her brain in Peckinpah's rendering and this is why audiences have never been able to forget the scene.
In comparison, Lurie's rape scene IS exploitative in the worst possible way. It’s lurid and nasty and in fact, simplifies everything so that her husband’s explosion at the end could be seen as inadvertent vengeance for the rape when, in fact, it is asserting his right as a man to defend his home, his family and his ideals. None of this comes through in Lurie’s version. Lurie has essentially transmogrified the tale into pornography – pure and simple. Anything resembling the deeper mechanics of story telling are ignored – as if they would sully the porn.
As well, Peckinpah's film is at its most bloodcurdling when it's quiet. Lurie replaces that with dull, meandering, misguided filler. This is no surprise. It’s exactly what happens when a hack is unleashed on remaking a classic that had no reason to be remade in the first place.
We've got enough hacks making movies and unlike Lurie and his particular ilk, at least many of those hacks have something resembling craft under their belts. Lurie has none. Under Lurie's belt lurks whatever's filling his lower intestines and waiting to be expunged into a toilet bowl.
I say: Loosen thine belt, Mr. Lurie.
Let it flow, brother.
Only next time, please try not taking a crap on someone like Sam Peckinpah.
Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard
By Alan Bacchus
Contagion is a film to enjoy in the moment and forget once it's finished. While it portends to be a film about 'ideas', the only thing to savour is its technical acuity, which makes it effectively nothing more than an action film.
The central idea here is the relation of the spread of a deadly SARS-like or H1N1 virus to the unruly panic of our human response. It starts well, hopping around the world showing how Gwenyth Paltrow spread the virus from Hong Kong to Chicago to Tokyo and other places around the world. When people start dying, CDC (Center for Disease Control) officials, FEMA and other organizations start tracking the virus and formulating a cure.
The quick pace and ticking clock urgency, as well as a lot of scientific terms and techno-speak, create a sense of realism for this intense thriller. Unfortunately, once the metaphor to the spread of panic and fear at the human level clicks in, the sense of realism is lost. Soderbergh never devolves to the level of ham-fisted moral ironies of say Edward Zwick's The Siege or even a number of Stephen King stories, but it's still a familiar and obvious lesson. Ordinary citizens so quickly reverting to looting and other primal, uncivilized survival 'instincts' is simply not believable and rings as false.
The globetrotting set-up playing out the drama is teasing, but the broad scope eventually undermines the human drama, as we don't spend enough time with anybody to truly care about them on an emotional level. Soderbergh would have done better if he just stuck with the procedural aspects of the virus containment. And curiously, the usually watchable Matt Damon is the weakest link with a dull performance that is falsely understated. It's as if Soderbergh didn't want to commit to shooting a character film, thus leaving us hopelessly in between two different films – or it needed to be three hours long to fully realize his intended film.
Looking back, the best moments in the film are the fabulous montage sequences driven by the pulsing electronic score by the underused and underappreciated Cliff Martinez (Traffic). In fact, this would likely be abysmal and unwatchable if not for Martinez. Of course, this demonstrates Steven Soderbergh's directorial inspiration to present this film with an insignificant aesthetic shift away from the regular paint-by-numbers dreck.
The technical precision is truly magnificent. His cinematography, once again shot by himself under his pseudonym, Peter Andrews, is crisp and clinical. The bold placement of saturated colours results in them popping out of the frame as startling as the best 3D imagery. And once again, the music of Cliff Martinez complements the visual design with such electro-magnificence it singlehandedly keeps us going through the overly ambitious, under-executed socio-political allegories.
You might not travel the globe at the same speed as Contagion, but wherever you are, you can still watch movies online with LOVEFiLM: your go-to site for the best and latest releases to watch online
Monday, 19 September 2011
Starring: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfieffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia
By Alan Bacchus
I love this movie, but I freely acknowledge the bombastic, bizarre, heightened reality in which it resides. Scarface represents the best and worst of Brian De Palma, the controversial auteur reviled as much as he is revered. Whatever your opinion is of his films, we can’t deny his expertise in delivering stimulating, thought-provoking movies, however corny, vulgar and exploitive they might be.
Scarface is perhaps his grandest achievement, a superlative epic that represents more a time capsule of 1980’s excess and overkill than the morally-confused gangster pic that was its intention.
Despite the 60-year difference, the original Howard Hawks/Ben Hecht Scarface (1932) is remarkably similar to De Palma's. At the core, like the ’32 version, Scarface is an immigrant story of an ambitious Cuban refugee/criminal exploiting the freedom of the ‘American dream’ to create a wealthy drug empire only to have it all come crashing down in a hail of bullets. Al Pacino is Tony Montana, introduced magnificently in a close-up while being interrogated by the immigration officers in Miami, which was opened up to Cuban refugees very briefly in 1980.
Through Pacino’s strong performance we see Tony as a charismatic, passionate, uncouth young man, but streetwise, tough and full of four-letter f-bombs. His best friend, Manny (Bauer), is an elegant Cuban, handsome and suave, who serves as his right hand man. But Tony is not afraid to put him in his place. After a successful hit in their holding facility they're both released and quickly negotiate their way into the underworld of cocaine trafficking.
The infamous chain saw sequence early on, which shows Montana’s loyalty and strength in the face of adversity, still haunts me. I saw this film on VHS when I was 10 years old. The horrific depiction of Angel’s death, handcuffed to the bathroom shower curtain while his body is dismembered by a chainsaw scarred me. We don’t actually see limbs getting hacked off, but it’s De Palma’s visceral depiction of the massacre that is as powerful as seeing it literally.
De Palma’s version links up with Hawks’ version when the love triangle dynamic is set up between Montana, his new boss Frank Lopez (Loggia) and his wife Elvira (Pfieffer), whom Montana instantly falls for. Same with the near-incestuous love triangle with Manny and Tony’s sister Gina (Mastrantonio), which culminates in the monumentally tragic third act in which Tony commits a heinous and brutal act of jealous rage against his best friend. This moment is deeply affecting in both versions.
This is the core of Scarface. Despite the grandiose gunplay and posturing in the final siege, including lines like, “Say hello to my little friend,” and “I’m Tony Montana, you fuck with me, you fucking with the best,” which make for great posters or t-shirts, they glorify the film in the wrong places.
The key to the resonance of this film is Giorgio Moroder’s score. It’s a synthesized score, which was fashionable for only a brief period in cinema history, but it contributes a wholly original feeling and tone. It certainly places the film within the 1980’s trend in pop music instrumentation. At first glance the harsh electronic sounds might sound like shrill nails on a chalkboard compared to traditional classic scoring, but it's memorable nonetheless.
The sound of the opening chords, for example, which drones like an organist at a funeral, is so memorable, as it accurately sets the mood for the tragic operatic finale. Even the overly tender love theme that signifies Tony’s protectiveness of Gina and the innocence of his mother’s home is simplistic musicianship but so deeply sad and effective. I could probably do without the ‘Razor’s Edge’ montage music, but hell, if we’re going to go fully electronic in the ‘80s, it’s in keeping with the fun.
Scarface is a helluva lot of fun indeed, but it’s sad and tragic in equal measure. The best qualities of De Palma are present, which see him manipulate his narrative to swing us through all these emotional extremes and titillate us with unforgettable imagery.
Scarface is available on Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment.
Sunday, 18 September 2011
50/50 (2011) dir. Jonathan Levine
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Phillip Baker Hall
By Greg Klymkiw
I hate cancer. Who doesn't? It kills friends and family and before they're dead it tears them apart physically and mentally. The pain is, for those who've never been afflicted, unimaginable - though I often recall the worst pain I've ever suffered (in my case, kidney stones) and magnify it several thousand times. The thought of that is, frankly, sickening.
Even the process of successfully battling cancer is painful and debilitating. With all the technological and medical advancements, there is no real perfect cure. I must speak plainly on that front and assert: That's just completely fucking stupid!
Fuck you, cancer. Fuck you!
50/50 is a comedy about cancer. The incongruity of this might seem off-putting, but the fact remains that with any illness - no matter how deadly (or not), humour is - in my humble opinion - the best medicine. Furthermore, there is much to be said, on an aesthetic level, for rendering the drama of illness - especially cancer - WITH humour. 50/50 does so with utter perfection. It's the laughs, the human comedy, the on-screen knee-slappers that are the very elements which render the drama with so much poignancy and yes, pain.
This might well be one of the best comedies of the new Millennium. Time will ultimately be the true judge of this proclamation, but for now, it's sure feeling like it's going to be right up there.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) is a public radio reporter with talent, commitment and a bright future. When he is diagnosed with cancer - one in which his chances of living are the 50/50 of the title - his life quickly unravels. His beautiful, but self-absorbed girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) is completely unable and unwilling to assist with the debilitating effects of the aggressive treatment needed - in spite of her insistence that she is more than up to it. She is, in fact, the biggest problem facing his mental health and well being. This involves having an affair behind his back - with, I might add, a major fucking loser.
Now before you get the impression this is a total downer, allow me to say two words:
One of the best young actors in the business, Rogen plays Adam's mega-pot-ingesting ('natch) best buddy Kyle. He offers friendship, company, support, endless laughs (for Adam, but by extension, the audience) and dope (a most convenient painkiller for cancer victims anyway). A slimmed-down Rogen has not meant any less hilarity. His goofy charm and one-liners continue to offer-up belly-laughs of such intensity that the resulting effect upon audiences (as they were with me) might well be severe abdominal cramps.
Bring on the cramps, baby! Seth, you rock my world!
There's also a terrific performance from the almost criminally cute and mouth-wateringly delightful Anna Kendrick as Katie, Adam's hospital social worker. Needless to say, romance brews with these two. Anjelica Huston as Adam's loving, smothering Mom is funny and moving as is the great character actor Phillip Baker Hall as one of Adam's fellow cancer-sufferers.
One of the great things about Will Reiser's semi-autobiographical and superbly structured screenplay is that it doesn't only deliver the requisite laughs and tears, but it never feels like it's hitting the kind of false, overwrought notes so many contemporary comedies are saddled with. The humour is natural and comes with ease from both character and situation. We get all the clinical detail of Adam's treatment and while it always seems rooted in reality, it doesn't get in the way of the picture's humanity, but adds to it.
Humanity, especially in a movie about cancer, is clearly a necessity. However, the movie never feels overtly dour and/or tear-jerking and I loved the way it even exposes flaws and foibles in Adam's character. For example, his "vengeance" upon the philandering girlfriend is genuinely mean-spirited. Yes, it feels somewhat justifiable, but at the same time, the character's treatment of her (no matter what SHE has done to him) exposes more than a hint that he's not some flawless, doomed, Camille-type, but has it in him to be a major prick. Yes, even cancer victims can be pricks. Welcome to the world, folks!
This is all achieved in good measure due to Jonathan (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) Levine's exquisite direction. It's not show-off-ish in any way, shape or form, but covers the excellent written material with the assured hand of an old pro. That said, Levine's only in his thirties and this is his third feature film. One can only wonder what the kid's going to generate when he actually IS "old".
The bottom line on this picture is thus: If you let the cancer theme scare you away from rushing out to seeing it - don't. 50/50 is a great picture - infused with laughs, love and hope.
These are good things!
Note to Seth Rogen: You look great, bud, but please put back a tiny bit o' girth. Those love handles were sexy. Besides, it's not healthy to be so thin. Next time you're in Toronto, remind Sarah Polley to have me recommend where you can get some great popcorn-chicken-in-a-sausage-sack kishka. This will work wonders. Trust me.
50/50 received its official unveiling at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2011) and will be theatrically released by e-one Entertainment.
Saturday, 17 September 2011
You're Next! (2011) dir. Adam Wingard
Starring: Sharni Vinson, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Margaret Laney, Barbara Crampton, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, Amy Seimetz, Ti West and Larry Fessenden
By Greg Klymkiw
This energetic, crisply directed home invasion horror thriller delivers up the scares and gore with considerable panache. I absolutely loved the delightfully grotesque look of the killers in You're Next! Wearing ultra-creepy animal masks (like those really cute lifelike ones you can buy for your kids at Zoo gift shops), the deadly home-invading carnage-purveyors might only have been creepier if they all wore matching Larry Harmon Bozo the Clown masks. (Or even creepier than that, if they WERE actually ALL Larry Harmon - but that, I'm afraid is another movie.)
In addition to the aforementioned, the picture is chock-full of babes including a mega-kick-ass Aussie chick played spiritedly by Sharni Vinson whose character, it is revealed, was raised in a survivalist compound Down Under. (I kid you not! An Aussie Survivalist Babe!!!)
So, what's not to like?
Well, not that I expect much in the way of originality from this sort of movie, especially if the killings are conceived and dispatched with both humour and aplomb - as they most certainly are in the picture, but the big disappointment is one of those: " Oh fuck, I can see an obvious 'twist' coming from miles away and I hope to Christ it's just a red herring and the filmmakers surprise me with something as sick and twisted - if not more so - than what's already on display in terms of the gore." But no! There it is in all its dullsville glory - the dreaded twist I won't reveal for the great unwashed who don't see it coming!
Come on, guys! Give me a break. Frankly, I'd have been happier if there was NO reason given for the killings save for a whack of psychos just doing what psychos do best. That really would have been better than the, uh... twist.
In any event, the first half of the movie proceeds like a delightful bat out of hell. An affluent couple (the female half played by the still-delectable Re-Animator babe Barbara Crampton) are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary in their ultra-chic country mansion and have invited all their kids and assorted significant others to join them. The characters sharing bloodlines are straight out of some lower-drawer Albee or O'Neill play and the conversation round the dinner table plays out with plenty of funny, nasty sniping.
Then the killing starts!
And then, the aforementioned plot twist!
Uh, not great! Not good! Not even passable.
Thankfully, the carnage continues, but for this genre geek, the movie never quite recovers from a twist that was probably meant to be clever or something. I hate that! This is exactly the sort of thing that can drag potentially great genre pictures right down the crapper. It's too bad, really, because I really think screenwriter Simon Barrett has a lot more going for him that resorting to crap like that. He delivers a decent backdrop, first-rate sniping and a passel of great killings.
And, of course, let's not forget the babe raised on a survival compound in Australia.
Now that is truly inspired!!!
You're Next was unveiled at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2011) and while as of this writing it has not secured a distribution deal, it will. And it will no doubt be gangbusters at the boxoffice - in spite of the stupid... God I want to spoil it for those of you who are too boneheaded to not see it coming, but I won't.
Carré blanc (2011) dir. Jean-Baptiste Léonetti
Starring: Sami Bouajila, Julie Gayet
By Greg Klymkiw
Those who cling to wealth and power by forcing conformity, stifling creativity and crushing the very essence of humanity are the faceless dominant evil that exploits the most vulnerable aspect of what it means to be human. It is ultimately our spirit which is, in fact, not as indomitable as we'd all like to believe. Through indoctrination and constant scrutiny we are reduced to lumps of clay. We are moulded in the image our true rulers want to see. They want us tied to the consumption they control. Call them what you like, but they are indeed The New World Order.
And, they are winning.
And, worst of all, the loser is love.
And, without love, we all become prey.
Harkening back to great 70s science-fiction film classics like The Terminal Man, Colossus: The Forbin Project, A Boy and His Dog, Silent Running and THX 1138 - when the genre was thankfully bereft of light sabres, Wookies and Jabba the Hut - when it was actually ABOUT something, Jean-Baptiste Léonetti's debut feature film Carré blanc is easily the finest dystopian vision of the future to be etched upon celluloid since that time.
The future it creates is not all that removed from our current existence.
Léonetti announces himself as a talent to be reckoned with. This low budget science fiction film astounds us with its visual opulence. That, of course, is because it's so obvious that Léonetti has filmmaking hardwired into his DNA. NEVER does the film feel cheap or low budget. Never do we feel like the film has structured itself around all the usual budget-saving techniques that so many other first-time filmmakers unimaginatively opt for. Leonetti has wisely, painstakingly chosen a number of actual exterior and interior locations that fit his vision perfectly and work in tandem with the narrative. His compositions are rich and because his location selection has been so brilliantly judicious, he clearly had the time to properly light and dress the images.
The next time I hear some young filmmaker whining about the "challenges" of their one-set low-budget production I will consider placing them on my list of those who shall feel the wrath of my Baikal semi-automatic Russian assault rifle when civilization collapses and it becomes one giant free-for-all.
Though Carré blanc shares a specific approach from past work to a genre that can - perhaps more than any other, effect true analysis and possibly even change, there is nothing at all retro about the picture - no obvious post-modernist nods here. It is completely unto itself.
Carré blanc is fresh, hip, vibrant and vital.
Blessed also with a deliciously mordant wit, Léonetti delivers a dazzling entertainment for the mind and the senses.
The tale rendered is, on its surface and like many great movies, a simple one. Phillipe (Sami Bouajila) and Marie (Julie Gayet) grew up together in a state orphanage and are now married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Muzak constantly lulls the masses and is only punctuated by announcements occasionally calling for limited procreation and most curiously, promoting the game of croquet - the one and only state sanctioned sport.
Phillipe is a most valued lackey of the state - he is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator - and he's very good at his job. In fact, with each passing day, he is getting better and better at it. Marie, on the other hand, is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Phillipe is transforming into indifference. In this world, hatred is a luxury. It's a tangible feeling that the rulers would never tolerate and punish with death.
Indifference, it would seem, is the goal. It ensures complete subservience to the dominant forces. Love, however, is what can ultimately prove to be the force the New World Order is helpless to fight and the core of this story is just that - love. If Phillipe and Marie can somehow rediscover that bond, there might yet be hope - for them, and the world. It is this aspect of the story that always keeps the movie floating above a mere exercise in style.
So many dystopian visions suffer from being overly dour. Happily, Léonetti always manages to break the oppressive force of the film and its world by serving up humour. Most of the laughs in Carré blanc occur within the context of tests delivered by the interrogating indoctrinators. In the world of the film, suicide is often the only way out for those who have a spirit that cannot be crushed. One early scene features Phillipe as a young teen and another boy his age who have both attempted unsuccessfully to kill themselves (by hanging and wrist-slashing respectively).
Both boys are led into an empty room where smiling corporate lackeys speak to them in tones of compassion. They are both asked to engage in a test to cheer them up. Lying before them is a body bag. The test is thus: which one of them will be first to go inside the bag? They hesitate. They're assured how much fun it will be. The other boy dives down immediately and enters the bag.
The lackey zips the boy inside, hands a club to Phillipe and orders him to begin beating the boy within the body bag. Phillipe hesitates. The lackey praises our young protagonist - assuring him he's made the right choice and that anyone who would choose (as Phillipe has not) to go into the body bag is not worthy of life. Phillipe continues to hesitate and the lackey strikes him viciously with a club, ordering him to strike the boy repeatedly. When Phillipe beats the boy in the bag, but halfheartedly, he is again punished by the lackey. Phillipe knows what he has to do now and does so with vigour.
Here we laugh in horror as Phillipe beats the child in the body bag. (I wasn't the only one laughing in the packed house at the film's premiere screening. A few sick puppies belched out appreciative guffaws.)
Narratively, this sequence reveals that Phillipe is clearly an interrogator-in-the-making. The test itself is a perfect way to not immediately "waste" potential "talent" by snuffing them out before seeing what they're really made of. As the film continues to unspool, some of the biggest laughs and equally chilling moments come from the tests Phillipe concocts and metes out to discover those who must be weeded out of society - permanently. Other laughs derive from the odd announcements and pronouncements over the endless loudspeakers.
To Monsieur Léonetti, I offer a tip of the hat for coming up with so many dollops of darkly humorous nastiness throughout the proceedings. They not only offer entertainment value, but are inextricably linked to the world he creates, a world so similar to the one we live in and one which feels just around the corner if humanity does not prevail over the force of a very few.
Love becomes the ultimate goal of Léonetti's narrative and as such, he delivers an instant classic of science fiction. At the end of the day, the best work in this genre IS about individuality and the fight to maintain the indomitability of spirit.
It might, after all, be the only thing we have left.
Carré blanc was unveiled at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2011) and if there is any hope for both cinema and mankind, it will be released theatrically as soon as humanly possible.
By Alan Bacchus
Perhaps only Michael Apted's Up series could compare to the effect of Berlinger/Sinofsky's 15-years-in-the-making documentary. This third film surrounding the now famous West Memphis Three case is a triumph, a powerful compendium of all three films combining evidence compiled over the years, which ultimately brought justice to three men wrongly accused. PL3 is a haunting, tragic and frustrating look at not only a flawed justice system, but also the cloud of ignorance, bigotry and hatred that has warped the minds of the angered members of the West Memphis community.
To recap, in 1996 these same filmmakers produced the first Paradise Lost movie, which recounted the murder of three young boys in the woods of West Memphis Arkansas, and the outrageous, inquisition-style witch hunt that resulted in three Goth-like youths, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, convicted and sentenced to either life in prison or, in the case of Echols, a death sentence. The success of this film led to the creation of a public plea to retry and exonerate the West Memphis Three. In 2000, Berlinger/Sinofsky returned to the case to update us on new evidence and theories that arose after ‘96, including suspecting one of the fathers, Mark Byers, as the murderer. Unfortunately, despite overwhelming evidence and public outcry, the West Memphis Three are still in prison.
Berlinger and Sinofsky deftly move us between the years from the murders and today. We don't need to see the previous films to follow the story, nor do we get an obligatory or expository recap. It's like the pair are remaking their films from a new point of view without compromising the integrity of the first two.
Some characters remain the same, others are remarkably different. Mark Byers, previously the ringleader against the egregious accusations of Satanism, which was the apparent 'motivation' for the murders, does a remarkable about-face by taking responsibility and apologizing for his ignorant reactions. A new suspect arises, someone we've been looking right in the face all these years, and it’s a revelation that provides a chilling new reflection on these events.
Paradise Lost 3 blurs all barriers of subject and observer, which contributes to the feeling that we’re participating in the lives of the people involved in real-time. Dramatic news about the case emerged prior to this festival, which causes us to watch the film differently, resulting in a feeling of real-time journalism but with a wholly cinematic artistic treatment.
Consistent with the tone of the original films, Berlinger/Sinofsky cast a net of dark, brooding horror, which fits in well with the witch hunt theme and allegory to the Salem Witch Trials. The new songs contributed by Metallica are magnificently chosen, conveying the same tone of grungy melancholy, both disturbing and thoughtful, as in the previous films.
The one frustration comes at the very end, as we know that the final outcome of this case occurred mere days after the completion of the film. According to HBO, a new cut will be made to incorporate the very important postscript.
I doubt this is even the end of the story. The lives of the three men back in society would make an ideal fourth chapter, hopefully more triumphant and inspiring than the previously three.
The record of these films, this third one in particular, is a monumentally important achievement. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory features something we're wholly aware of at the beginning, middle and end of the film, resulting in a cinema experience unlike any other.
Friday, 16 September 2011
The Day (2011) dir. Doug Aarniokoski
Starring: Shawn Ashmore, Ashley Bell, Cory Hardrict, Dominic Monaghan, Shannyn Sossamon
By Greg Klymkiw
Okay, so we all know when we’re watching a genre picture that’s low-to-no-budget - we’re out in a wilderness setting with one primary location and a relatively small cast. This normally isn’t a problem when the filmmakers go out of their way to make up for a lack of dough by:
(a.) Taking the genre into territory we’ve never quite experienced before and/or;
(b.) Maintaining a sense of dark (and hopefully not tongue-in-cheek) humour and/or;
(c.) Showcasing really good writing in terms of character, theme and dialogue.
This, I think, is especially important for post-apocalyptic thrillers, because the last thing you want to offer fan-boys is a dour, humourless, low-to-no-budget post-apocalyptic thriller.
This is often, shall we say, apocalyptic in more ways than one.
The Day hits zero out of three on the aforementioned checklist of low-to-no-budget genre thriller requirements. It’s a dour, humourless been-there-done-that post-apocalyptic thriller with by-rote writing that no doubt thinks it’s smart. The screenplay by Luke Passmore loads up all the clichés of the genre with a heap of dull blah-blah-blah in confined spaces and stock characters (the cool collected leader, the kick-ass babe with smarts (as it were), the loner kick-ass babe who is seemingly off her rocker, the supposedly funny team member who is sick and holding everyone back and, for the life of me, I can’t even remember who the fifth team member is, but I can assure you he’d probably be more memorable if I bothered to watch the movie again.
The picture focuses on one day in the life of five apocalypse survivors trying to stay a step ahead of crazed cannibals (identified by an “I’m a cannibal” tattoo) looking for fresh meat. Food is in short supply so humans are the best bet for good eating. The one-day-in-the-life conceit could have been interesting, but it’s not fully exploited in any meaningful and/or useful fashion. The device appears to be there because the filmmakers think they're being clever and/or have used it as a let’s-keep-exigencies-of-production-in-mind convention.
None of this is surprising since the movie is all about setting up expectations and then not delivering (and when it does, it's much ado about nothing). For example, early on in the film, the survivors come upon a seemingly abandoned farmhouse. We sit back in anticipation as director Doug Aarniokoski draws out the “suspense” whilst our team slowly susses out the situation. This drags on for what feels like an eternity until… nothing.
All seems well.
We then have to suffer through a whole lot of dialogue where the actors get to emote and be characters we could care (less) about and it then seems to take another eternity before something vaguely exciting happens. When it does, it’s exactly what I predicted when they first discovered all was well. I have no doubt you'll figure it out too. My apologies, then, for having seen too many movies and knowing exactly where things are going, If you’re going to make a picture like this for no money you better damn well think of shit that geeks like me aren’t waiting for. Or, if you do utilize obvious genre tropes, you better damn well do something interesting and/or funny with them. Instead, the movie plods along with no surprises, no thrills and nothing new under the sun. At times, it’s hard to believe the movie is only ninety minutes. It's so dull it feels like ninety hours
About the best one can say is that The Day is at least professional and borderline competent. The performances are as fine as they can be under the circumstances and director Aarniokoski (director of the incomprehensible hack job Highlander: Endgame and the ludicrous Animals) handles the suspense and action with rudimentary competence.
This, however, is hardly a compliment.
If the movie had at least been utterly incompetent, it might have been blessed with something resembling entertainment value.
The Day had its unveiling at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2011). If it's theatrically released, civilization as we know it will be dead. Most likely you'll find it direct to home entertainment.
Shame (2011) dir. Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
By Alan Bacchus
Steve McQueen's follow-up to the acclaimed Hunger is a more controlled and precise film. Perhaps it's because he's working with another writer from source material in a novel, but either way this film shows McQueen's superb skills with a conventional narrative. McQueen's confidence in directing this picture is through the roof, as he executes scenes of astonishing visceral and emotional power and creates a technically stylish and emotionally intense experience on par with Black Swan.
The title refers to the affliction of his main character, which is an addiction to sex. Whether it's picking up women on the subway, hiring prostitutes or surfing the Internet for porn at work and jerking off in the bathroom, Brandon (Fassbender), despite being incredibly handsome and charming, is a man shamed by his addiction, which has caused him to create a silo of emotional detachment from everything around him.
We are strictly within Brandon's point of view, both sympathizing with and being reviled by his salacious behaviour. By day he seems to be well put together, a successful Manhattan executive living comfortably in his swanky apartment. Beneath this veneer is a broken down man full of self-loathing caused by his inability to control his libido. Threatening to interrupt his perfect charade is his sister, Sissy (Mulligan), who is equally messed up, possibly because of the same sexual afflictions as Brandon. Over the course of the film, Brandon’s downward spiral becomes near operatic in its tragedy.
McQueen’s metaphors are uncomplicated, as this is clearly a story of addiction. Sex for Brandon is primal, and most of the acts in which he engages are fleeting pleasures like an addict getting a fix.
Fassbender, who is already being celebrated for his performance, projects onto his character a shell of invulnerability to mask the inner torment and shame of his addiction. Carey Mulligan’s character complements Brandon, as she is also able to create a mask of success for the public while being a fragile wreck inside.
The opening scene is majestic, driven by a piece of music remarkably similar to something composed by Hans Zimmer in The Thin Red Line. Whether it’s an homage or outright theft, it works. The music creates the feeling of a grandiose battle at play. The looks and glances of courtship between Fassbender and the anonymous prey are intoxicating and ooze sexual energy.
Throughout the film the game of courtship is anti-romantic and treated like a predator and prey scenario. And by setting the story in Manhattan filled with alpha male, cockswaggering businessmen, it gives it a distinctly ‘80s quality when coke, sex and making money contributed to this exaggerated social competitiveness.
Like Hunger, Shame is anchored by a number of visually stunning, emotionally visceral set pieces, the most intense being Brandon's third act descent into his carnal super ego – a sexual 'bender' equivalent to a drug overdose.
Brandon's controlled performance is complemented by McQueen's astonishing control of his palette. Tones of blue and light, and touches of warm yellows equal the sadness that blankets the film. Shame is a film that is impossible to forget.
Thursday, 15 September 2011
God Bless America (2011) dir. Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring: Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr
By Greg Klymkiw
Frank is a very kind person.
He kills people.
But they deserve it.
Played brilliantly with pathos and deadpan humour by Joel Murray, Frank is a hard working American for whom life keeps dealing one losing card after another. He's been diagnosed with a fatal disease. His wife has left him for a hunky young cop in a suburban paradise. His daughter has turned into a shrill spoiled brat who doesn't want to visit him on custody days because he has no cool stuff at home like video games. He "forces" her to do "boring" stuff like art, going to the zoo and playing in the park. In fact, his progeny is so indifferent towards him that when Mom calls Frank to see if he can stop one of the brat's petulant gimme-gimme-gimme outbursts, the little bugger’s response is, "I don't want Daddy! I want an iPhone!!!"
Frank is plagued and beleaguered by the Decline of Western Civilization In his world, the decay currently sending America straight into the crapper is one of the things forcing him to lie around his squalid home after mind-numbing work days as an insurance company executive.
Home is a man's castle, but not this man, not this home. His next-door neighbours are genetically moronic White Trash filth - living poster children for strangulation at birth. He is forced, night after night, to crank up the volume on his television to try drowning out their subhuman conversation, the endless cacophony of verbal and physical abuse, the wham-bam sexual activities, the constant caterwauling from their no-doubt genetically stupid infant and the grotesque sounds emanating from their stereo and/or TV.
What he has to endure on television is, frankly, just as bad – the sort of stuff feeding the feeble minds of America – most notably his mind-bereft neighbours. There’s Tuff Girlz, a reality-TV program. Just as Frank channel hops to it, a white trash woman digs a blood-soaked tampon out of her vagina and flings it towards an equally foul white trash douche. Then there’s the endless parade of right wing wags dumping on the disenfranchised of America or insisting: “God hates fags” or presenting images of Barack Obama as Adolph Hitler – replete with Swastikas. News reports of homeless people being burned alive or true crime info-docs on the likes of mass murderer Charles Whitman buttress programs like Dumb Nutz where grown men engage in horrendously painful physical practical jokes on themselves. The airwaves are choked on the self-explanatory Bowling on Steroids or American Superstarz where a celebrity panel insults an untalented retarded boy with no talent whatsoever.
Perhaps the most repellent of all is reality TV star Chloe, a nasty teenage girl who treats anyone and everyone like dirt. She must die.
Poor Frank. Even when he drives to work, every station on his car radio is an aural assault from Tea Party types. Once he gets to the office he has to endure the boneheaded water cooler talk of his simpleton colleagues as they moronically regurgitate everything he was forced to endure on television the night before. Capping off Frank’s miserable existence is a tiny bright spot that quickly turns dark. The fat, ugly sow that handles reception at the front of the office and openly flirts with him files a sexual harassment complaint behind his back and he loses his job.
When he gets home, all he has to look forward to is turning on his TV full blast, yet again, to drown out his jelly-brained neighbours. There is, however, a solution.
Frank, you see, is a Liberal – a Liberal with a handgun.
Cleaning up begins at home, so he pays his neighbours and their grotesquely squealing infant a visit. With his gun in hand, Frank upholds the values of Liberals everywhere – he does what it takes to do what all Liberals must do when civilization is on the brink of collapse.
Okay, we’re only about 15 minutes into God Bless America and at this point I laughed so hard I suspected I might have ruptured something.
From here, the movie doesn’t let up for a second – especially once Frank begins a spree of violence against intolerance with a gorgeous, sexy teenage girl (winningly played by Tara Lynne Barr) who takes a liking to both him and his ways. They’re birds of a feather – a veritable Bonnie and Clyde – fighting for the rights of Liberals and anyone else who might be sick and tired of the mess America is in.
God Bless America is one of the best black comedies I’ve seen in ages. Bobcat Goldthwait makes movies with a sledge hammer, but it's a mighty trusty sledge hammer. He has developed a distinctive voice that began with the magnificently vile Shakes the Clown and with this new film he hits his stride with crazed assuredness. Some might take issue with the way he lets his central characters rant nastily and hilariously - well beyond the acceptability of dramatic necessity - but I have to admit it is what makes his work as a filmmaker so unique. He creates a world that exists within his own frame of reference which, at the same time, reflects aspects and perspectives that hang from contemporary society like exposed, jangled nerves.
With God Bless America, Goldthwait delivers a movie for the ages – one that exposes the worst of America and delivers a satisfying Final Solution to the problem of stupidity and ignorance. The pace, insanity and barrage of delightfully tasteless jokes spew from him with a vengeance, but they're not only funny, he uses them to create movies that challenge the worst elements of the Status Quo.
It's a movie that fights fire with fire.
Or rather, with a handgun.
It’s the American Way!
Even for Liberals.
God Bless America was unveiled at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2011) and if we’re lucky, it’ll be released theatrically very soon.