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

Monday, 31 October 2011

Kuroneko

Kuroneko (aka Black Cat) (1968) dir. Kaneto Shindô
Starring: Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, Kei Satô, Kiwako Taichi

***

By Alan Bacchus

Delicious Gothic atmosphere from the fog-filled and misty bamboo forests is the star of this loopy and often haunting Japanese ghost story of female revenge against malicious Samurai soldiers.

It’s the Senguko period in Japan, that is the 17th century when most other Japanese Samurai films are set, and like most places in times of war, men go off to fight and women stay home for sometimes years waiting for their husbands to return. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. For Gintoki it’s been three years since her husband was literally snatched from their house leaving her and her mother-in-law, Yone, home alone. We’re exposed to a particularly brutal opening, which has a rogue band of soldiers wandering through Gintoki’s farm stopping for some water. It’s an innocent visit at first, but quickly turns into a heinous rape and murder of the two women and the burning of their home.

But with the help of a wandering black cat the women are reincarnated as ghosts to exact revenge on their assailants. Now the women ply the lands of the neighbouring forests as sirens of sorts seducing wandering Samurai into their home for room, board, sex and then vicious, blood curdling, vengeful murder. But when Gintoki’s husband returns, she finds herself at odds with her Faustian bargain. She must either kill her husband, who as a Samurai is now her sworn enemy, or lose her ghostly abilities and cross back over into the land of the dead.

Billed as a ‘horror film’ this picture is less a shocker than a brooding and existential psychological study. Shindo creates a haunting atmospheric feeling during the sirens' frequent seduction sequences. The crisp and contrasting black and white cinematography is gorgeous – jet black frames delicately populated with splashes of light, creating a feeling of eerie Gothic strangeness.

This film was made in 1968, and there’s a strong psychedelic tone to the staging of the film’s key sequences. Gintoki’s love scenes are tastefully choreographed, covered up skin appropriately with flowing drapes and such, but Shindo sure teases us with artistic silhouettes of Gintoki’s supple nude body.

The attacks on the men are vicious and perhaps speak to a feminist movement in the world zeitgeist at the time. But the emotional core of the film arrives in the third act when Gintoki’s husband learns the truth of his wife’s apparitions. A forlorn and tragic love story emerges from the Gothic horror.

Unfortunately the film is also bogged down by a stiffness in performance that is common with these types of period Japanese films. The extreme reactions and emotions of the characters are far from the naturalism we usually expect from Western films. But this is a purposeful convention of Japanese cinema – take it or leave it.

Kuroneko is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Bad Seed


The Bad Seed (1956) dir. Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Patty McCormack, Nancy Kelly, Henry Jones, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden, William Hopper, Gage Clarke, Joan Croydon

***1/2

By Greg Klymkiw

"I thought I'd seen some mean little gals in my time, but you're the meanest." - Henry Jones as Leroy in THE BAD SEED
Movies about kids who kill is a most noble tradition.

It's yielded a cornucopia of depraved little buggers who've sliced and diced their way through a variety of thrillers and horror films with all the requisite aplomb required to deliver maximum visceral impact. Few will forget the shot of little Michael Myers in John Carpenter's Halloween, standing ever so still in the front yard of the quaint suburban home in the leafy innocence of Haddonfield, Illinois, grasping a butcher knife, staring with the eyes of a shark and splattered with the fresh blood of his nubile teenage sister who was previously lolling about in post-coital bliss. Damien, the pubescent Antichrist from Richard Donner's The Omen remains one of the more memorable killers in movie history - especially the magnificent moment when he pedals furiously on his tricycle and knocks his pregnant Mom off her plant-watering perch and sends her crashing to the floor from the balcony. Then there's my personal favourite of all kids-who-kill pictures, Alfred Sole's criminally neglected 70s thriller Alice Sweet Alice which features some of the most repulsive killings imaginable. It matters little that the true murderer appears to eventually be someone else - for most of the film's running time, we're convinced the killer is sexy tweener Paula E. Sheppard and we do get to see her, with the most sickening smile imaginable, grabbing a kitten by its neck and strangling it in front of its owner, the disgustingly corpulent, unwashed Mr. Alphonso, adorned in piss-and-shit-stained pants, and screaming in falsetto, "You little bitch! You've killed my cat!"

The cinematic patriarch of this delightful genre is, without question, Mervyn LeRoy's still astounding late 50s film adaptation of William March's bestselling novel and Maxwell Anderson's hit play The Bad Seed.

Opening with the departure of Col. Penmark (William Hopper, "Paul Drake" from Perry Mason) for an extended business trip to Washington, we're introduced to his beautiful, love-starved wife Christine (Nancy Kelly), who pleads with him to come home soon and their insanely precious daughter Rhoda (the unforgettable Patty McCormack), adorned in a frilly white frock, tap-dancing delightfully into everyone's hearts, her blonde pigtails bobbing, her smiles ever-so warm, her language precise and formal and greeting all who enter the home with a curtsy.

Rhoda is the perfect child for the perfect All-American family.

Wrapping her arms around Daddy, she chirps: "What will you give me for a basket of kisses?"

Daddy responds, as he clearly does every time she asks: "Why, I'll give you a basket of hugs!"

Rhoda is perfection incarnate.

She's also spoiled, jealous and a sociopath.

With Dad out of town, Christine begins to notice a few oddities in Rhoda's behaviour (odder than usual). Her daughter expresses the most vitriolic banter about a schoolmate, little Claude Daigle who has won the penmanship medal at the exclusive private school she attends. Rhoda is convinced she deserved the medal and obsessively natters on about how Claude was singled out for favouritism - pure and simple. There might be some truth to this. Rhoda is almost insufferably aware of her perfection and Claude is an adorable young lad from a "lower-class" family who have sacrificed and scrimped to get their boy into a good school.

At a school picnic, the unthinkable happens. Claude drowns. Foul play isn't suspected, but there are some very odd crescent-shaped marks on his face. We eventually learn these quarter moons are identical to the steel plates affixed to the soles of Rhoda's tap shoes. As the tale progresses, Rhoda engages in behaviour that becomes ever-more nasty and self-centred. Christine discovers a few surprises in Rhoda's room and also learns how she herself was an adopted child - that her own birth mother was, in fact, a notorious serial killer.

Uh-oh!

Is Christine's own flesh and blood afflicted with the bad seed?

Was that previous accidental death in the town they used to live in, all that accidental? Was little Claude Daigle murdered? Who tossed lit matches into the basement storm shelter, locked it and listened to the blood curdling screams as the suspicious caretaker burned to a crisp?

Not much of this is presented as mysterious. We know pretty early on that all is not right with Rhoda and soon, her Mom knows it too. What we're presented with is not so much a thriller, but a delicious melodrama. And who better to deliver the goods than the brilliant Mervyn LeRoy? Retaining much of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the play and its original Broadway cast, he lets the actors emote as if they were on stage and renders many of their key moments in closeup so that the melodrama is heightened further.

LeRoy, of course, delivered the goods on some truly great melodramas from his old studio days: the grand amnesia romance Random Harvest, the weepy tale of orphans Blossoms in the Dust and one of the finest tear-jerkers about the effect of war upon the women who are left behind in his great remake of Waterloo Bridge. He also presided over the nobility of Margaret O'Brien suffering in Little Women, the grand melodrama of Christians being led into the lions' den in Quo Vadis and, lest we forget, Edward G. Robinson croaking out his final words in Little Caesar, "Is this the end of Rico?"

With The Bad Seed, LeRoy acquits himself magnificently. There are a few tiny clunky moments, but they're easily forgiven. When the movie is working at the peak of its power, it has few equals. The subplot involving Claude's alcoholic mother is especially heart wrenching. Played by the brilliant Eileen Heckart, her handful of appearances in the film are accompanied by one of the most astonishing pieces of music from Alex North's score. (I highly recommend the soundtrack album - in particular, the piece referred to which is titled "No More Children".) Heckart's performance is bigger than big - she suffers and stumbles through her scenes with all the passion required AND a mordant wit. One of the movie's great lines is when the booze-soaked Heckart matter-of-factly quips, " It's a pleasure to stay drunk when your little boy's been killed."

Henry Jones as the demented, half-witted borderline pedophile caretaker is also a high point of the picture. Jones oozes creepiness and slime with such abandon, that he might well have rendered one of the greatest on-screen villains of all time. He recognizes the evil in Rhoda because he feels it within himself. It's implied that he might well have eventually sexually assaulted Rhoda, so his death, while shocking, also feels strangely justifiable.

The movie's pace, at first deliberately slow, but deliberately amps itself up to a shattering climax and a very weird conclusion - tacked on by the Hays Code so that Rhoda doesn't get away with murder. Strangely enough, this censor-initiated coda seems even more horrific than what was there to begin with.

The Bad Seed is completely and utterly over-the-top. Some have suggested it's a product of the time it was made. I'd dispute this vigorously. The movie is a melodrama, and as such, is GREAT melodrama.

At one point, Eileen Heckart remarks: "Children can be nasty, don't you think?"

Indeed they can. And nasty children deliver first-rate entertainment value.

The Bad Seed is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment. It's a great transfer and includes a terrific commentary track from Patty McCormack.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Green Lantern

Green Lantern (2011) dir. Martin Campbell
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard



By Alan Bacchus

It would be overkill to beat this failed franchise starter down again, but the fact is Green Lantern is clearly scraping the bottom of the barrel of the old school comic book superheroes. The story of an Air Force test pilot chosen to be a member of an intergalactic policing squad to fight off their encroaching arch enemy from taking over Earth should have stayed on the page.

The over-ambitious intergalactic plotting and mondo special effects sequences sink any attempt to humanize this story. This was the same problem with Thor, which mostly took place in another universe, thus lowering the stakes on Earth and reducing our ability to identify with any of the conflicts at play.

That said, in Green Lantern the filmmakers make no allusions that this is "realism." While more successful films like Iron Man, Spider-Man and Batman have a shred of plausibility, Green Lantern is pure fantasy. In fact, in the Blu-ray special feature "focus points," the filmmakers and actors look genuinely confident that they're doing great work, a hubris derived from their honest integrity for the tone of the original comic.

This universe is played for serious and, if anything, it's actually refreshing to be saved from another self-aware superhero. Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is a straight-up old-fashioned superhero transplanted directly from the pages of the comic, a square jawed jock heavily flawed and in need of inspiration and emotional cleansing, which he receives from his gifted superpowers. Reynolds' warm, accessible personality is ideal for this role, but sadly he's subdued by the grandiosity of the story and the excessive technical tricks.

Visually there's also a strong whiff of Battlefield Earth: the green cinematography and elaborate alien creatures serving as key supporting characters, in particular Peter Sarsgaard's enormous head, which recalls John Travolta's ludicrous headgear in the L. Ron Hubbard flop.

But, really, the commonality is the uninspired direction, in this case from Martin Campbell, who fails to make us care for his characters or excite us in any way. The Blu-ray special features comprehensively break down the origins of the comic, the film and the key aspects of making this huge effort. Ironically, I found myself interested more in the disconnect between the enthusiasm of the artists involved than the dismal result on screen.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Friday, 28 October 2011

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983) dir. Richard Marquand
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Billie Dee Williams, David Prowse, Anthony Daniels

***

By Alan Bacchus

Even at age 8, after seeing this film in the theatre, I remember having a feeling of being let down. I even remember my reaction to the revelation that Leia was Luke’s sister. Even to my then unsophisticated movie brain I knew this twist was unnecessary and didn’t add anything substantial to the big picture story at play. I also remember my disappointment at Lucas for his decision to bring back another Death Star for Jedi, robbing us of a fresh new piece of cinematic awesomeness to top what came before it. Another Death Star, even to an eight-year-old, felt like lazy writing.

But I also remember the fear that overcame me when Luke Skywalker surrendered himself to Darth Vader and resigned himself to facing the Emperor, putting his own life on the line to convert his father back from the dark side. This is the strength of Return of the Jedi, a flawed finale, which, as I mentioned in my Empire Strikes Back review, has the daunting task of having to wrap up a beautifully unveiled story of moral corruption and one man’s redemption across generations through his estranged son. Space, lightsabers, Wookies and Ewoks aren’t even mentioned in this one-sentence summary, which demonstrates the thematically profound story that is the foundation of this popcorn franchise.

It’s a similarly structured film as Empire containing a lengthy opening action-packed set piece like the Hoth sequence. Here, the heroes from Empire have convened on Tatooine to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hut. Looking back, the scene is hit-and-miss. Luke’s introduction is terrific. No longer an innocent teenager, he’s wearing his new all-black duds and has a strong air of Jedi-confidence – a long way from his introduction two films prior. The idiotic musical sequence, which attempts to trump the original Cantine sequence, is just plain awful – as awful to my 8-year-old eyes as it is to my 36-year-old eyes. The barge siege from Luke, Leia, Chewy, Lando and the droids is well shot and cut, and Carrie Fisher still looks sexy in her Jabba-bikini. If there was something Lucas did right in his revamped ‘Special Editions’ it’s the digital touch-up work he did to erase those ugly green-screen lines around the actors superimposed in front of the Rancor.

Once outside of Tatooine, the film hits a funk. Han Solo’s recruitment as the squad leader for the Endor attack doesn't befit the former selfish space smuggler. His lovestruck p-whipped softness is a sad trajectory for his character. And sure, the Ewoks don’t really work. The irony of the pint-sized teddy bears taking down the mighty Empire, like Solo, only results in severely softening the dangerous allure of the Stormtroopers.

Thankfully, the final confrontation between Luke and Vader is not bungled. In fact, the escalation of suspense through the Emperor’s temptations of Luke to the dark side is frightening. It’s a wholly credible threat elevated higher and more threatening than Vader’s confrontation with Obi-Wan in Star Wars and Luke and Vader’s first meeting/fight in Empire. This is really all we wanted from this chapter of the series – a moving and emotional reconciliation of father and son. Jedi, thus, does not disappoint.

And for the record, I do abhor the newly added voiceover of Vader yelling ‘NO!’ when he picks up the Emperor and throws him in the cavernous pit. No, it’s not as bad as Hayden Christensen’s Vader yelling ‘NO’ at the end of Revenge of the Sith, but it’s still unnecessary. Vader’s unspoken actions resonate infinitely stronger than his inarticulate monosyllabic grunts.

And so, while Jedi is the lesser of the three original films and lacks the freshness of the first film and the sustained suspense and urgency of the second, it adequately concludes this great trilogy – something many other franchises (The Matrix) have not been able to do.

Return of the Jedi is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The Woman - Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011


The Woman (2011) dir. Lucky McKee
Starring: Pollyanna McIntosh, Sean Bridgers, Angela Bettis, Lauren Ashley Carter, Zach Rand, Shyla Molhusen

****

By Greg Klymkiw

The Cleek family are living the American Dream! Chris (Sean Bridgers) is a successful back country real estate lawyer with loads of cash, oodles of prime land, a beautiful, devoted wife Belle (Angela Bettis) who puts June Cleaver to shame, three lovely kids including his chip-off-the-old-block son Brian (Zach Rand), a cute-as-a-button little girl with a name to match, Darlin' (Shyla Molhusen) and Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), an intelligent, attractive teenage Emo girl privately suffering morning sickness due to possibly being impregnated by her Dad. In the barn are some crazed German Shepherds and a blind, naked feral woman raised with the dogs and tended to by Brian who physically abuses them.

Like all corn-and-steak-fed American men, Chris wakes early in the morning, eats breakfast lovingly prepared by Belle and then, packing a scope rifle and adorned in hunting garb, he smiles and declares how much he loves the quiet of the country before revving up his ATV and tear-assing into the woods for some hunting. To complete this portrait of All-American bliss, one of his hunting trips yields a live trophy - a buxom, beautiful, feral woman from the backwoods that he manacles in the fallout shelter where she is forced to eat food from the floor and/or a Tupperware container and gets scrubbed raw by wifey after being good and hosed down by Dad. When she's first introduced to the family, one of the kids asks if they can really keep her. The answer from Dad is a resounding: YES! After all, she needs to be civilized - a charitable act on Dad's part; even more charitable considering she's already bitten off his ring finger when all he wanted to do was inspect her teeth.

Trussed up and manacled in the dank fallout shelter, the civilization process includes being raped late into the night by Chris while son Brian watches jealously through a peephole. The lovely daughters sleep soundly in their warm, comfortable beds and wifey Belle weeps in the properly accoutered conjugal boudoir at the thought of hubby getting his manly satisfaction elsewhere and, of course, as any eager All American Boy would do, the feral woman, is eventually tortured with wire cutters and sexually abused by the randy little chip-off-the-old-block.

America.

Love it or leave it.

As rendered by director Lucky McKee and his co-screenwriter Jack Ketchum, The Woman is, without a doubt, one of the most foul, wanton and viciously humorous movies of the new millennium. It also seems to be a part of a new wave of films (including those of the brilliant Bobcat Goldthwait) which take family dysfunction several steps further - where dysfunctional depravity has become the norm.

McKee has his actors play everything in a straight deadpan. There isn't a single, out-of-place performance in the entire movie. McKee's mise-en-scene is distinctively sun-dappled-with-dollops-of-blood-and-nastiness and the movie works as both vicious satire and thriller. To say the movie is brutal, would be an understatement of the highest order, but the horrors on display never feel cheap and exploitative the way most torture porn horror films are. This is a savage, raw-nerve-ending-exposed portrait of life in the mean, new America.

As such, it's an unflinching, unyielding ride on the locomotive of excess that has turned one of the world's strongest nations into a veritable third-world country. The movie requires a strong stomach and open mind - anything less and you'll feel like you stepped into your worst nightmare.

So grit your teeth, gird your loins and, enjoy!

The Woman was a closing night film at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011. It's currently in very limited theatrical release and will soon be available on DVD.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Page One: Inside the New York Times

Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) dir. Andrew Rossi
Documentary

***

By Alan Bacchus

As the pinnacle of print journalism, the New York Times sits at a precipice of change in the media industry. With the gatekeepers of news now spread out a thousand-fold given the proliferation of the Internet, how will the Times adapt and reclaim its status as the ‘newspaper of record’?

This is the fundamental purpose of Andrew Rossi’s documentary, which attempts to bring audiences inside the revered establishment and show the inner turmoil that has been rocking the paper for the past few years. Rossi’s activist and ideological style gives the film some urgency and the feeling that American culture, and society in general, would suffer from the loss of this great paper.

While the mere fact of watching the absolute best-of-the-best in journalism working on a daily basis is indeed compelling and watchable, a lack of focus and discernable ‘ending’ prevents the film from successfully moving us emotionally or engaging in the journalistic crisis.

It’s a gigantic institution, but Rossi’s entry point is the Media Desk, a newly created department reporting specifically on the changing landscape of media, including the Times’ place in the new world order. David Carr quickly emerges as the ‘star’. He’s a forthright and opinionated reporter, as well as a former crack cocaine addict who emerged from addiction in his 20s and 30s to become one of the world leaders in media journalism.

Carr’s gravelly throat, which crackles from years of abuse through smoking and drugs, gives him the right kind of working class authoritative edge we associate with journalists of old. His confrontations with young, hip bloggers attempting to denigrate the institution result in some fine verbal ass-kicking from Carr himself. With that said, Rossi also features a number of younger hot shots who have cracked the Times through their media savvy and youthful energy.

The spectre of WikiLeaks looms over most of the film as well. The breakthrough of that site into public consciousness provides a thought-provoking contemporary contrast to where the NY Times used to be. Rossi connects the influence of the NY Times on breaking the Watergate scandal in the ‘70s with Julian Assange’s modus operandi with his controversial whistleblower.

But what about the integrity of journalism, a moral foundation that WikiLeaks seemingly has broken down over the past year? Rossi’s question about the Times’ potential obsolescence in comparison to WikiLeaks is never successfully answered. But then again, this story has not ended and continues to be written.

So while Page One lacks closure, it’s indicative of how journalism works today – a self-sustaining, rapidly evolving organism challenging everyone, including the most entrenched newspapers such as the New York Times, to keep up with the Joneses.

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Ides of March

The Ides of March (2011) dir. George Clooney
Starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright

****

By Alan Bacchus

George Clooney’s The Ides of March can be summed up by quoting the oddly simplistic yet precise description of Citizen Kane on its poster, ‘It’s Terrific!’ Has this film fallen off everyone’s radar already? If so, what a shame. Don’t let this fascinating, thrilling and wholly thought-provoking and cynical new millennium political thriller fall through the cracks. It’s one of the best films of the year.

Stephen Myers (Gosling) is a hot-shot assistant campaign manager for Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), who is running for the Democratic nomination in the lead-up to a Presidential election. Although he is no less influential in the race, Myers is the number 2 guy behind Paul Morris (Hoffman). Like most young political whips, Myers’ idealism about his place in the political system and his faith in Morris, the DNC and U.S. politics in general is a rarity. Paul has his own equally high moral standard, yet, by experience, has a strong armour of pragmatism.

Morris has the lead in the race, and with the delegate support of Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), he could seal the nomination. The wrench in the machine comes in the form of Myers’ competitor, Tom Duffy (Giamatti), campaign manager for the other side, who makes a play to bring Myers over to his candidate. This represents the beginning of a series of psychologically and morally complex issues for Myers as he attempts to spin-control the fallout of his decision. Clooney and his writers deftly play out three separate political subplots, and in the third act they snake them around each other in perfect structural screenplay form. To provide additional details about the thought-provoking plot twists would be criminal.

But by the end, Myers’ character arc – that is, where he begins the film vs. where he ends up – is so deep and profound we can’t help but think of Michael Corleone’s gradual descent into moral corruption. Yes, the same Michael Corleone from The Godfather. In almost half the running time (a refreshingly slim 101 minutes), Clooney crafts a similar tale of corruption and the effect of career ambition, jealousy and revenge on one’s moral conscience.

Aiding Clooney are the two best character actors on the planet as his trench-war fighting rivals. Hoffman and Giamatti sharing the same space is akin to the monumental occasion when Robert De Niro faced off against Al Pacino in Heat, or when Christopher Walken tortured Dennis Hopper in True Romance. Both actors match each other in dramatic weight, bringing working class grit to their roles in equal measure.

The ability of Ryan Gosling to fit himself into these two powerhouses and emerge with his head above water is testament to his abilities as well. He embodies both the optimism and cynicism of American politics.

George Clooney has successfully dipped this fine picture into the hardline, pessimistic and distrustful era of ‘70s filmmaking, matching the stone cold integrity of films like All the President’s Men. Clooney refuses to give us the Capra ending. Instead, he force-feeds the American people (not me, I’m Canadian) a healthy dose of political reality, however conniving and malicious it may be.

The Divide - Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011


The Divide (2011) dir. Xavier Gens
Starring: Michael Biehn, Laura German, Milo Ventimiglia, Michael Eklund, Rosanna Arquette

***1/2

By Greg Klymkiw

We've seen it before, but we all know it's the ride that counts, and if nasty, darkly humorous, character-driven dystopian science fiction is what you're into, The Divide is one chilling, hair-raising, white-knuckle roller coaster charging into the horrors of a crazed post-apocalyptic Hell. In fact, the primary setting for the film is beneath ground in the laundry and storage rooms of an apartment building that's been otherwise levelled in a full-scale nuclear attack upon the city of New York.

It's Hell, alright. Though we're without the traditional trappings of Hades hellfire and bubbling lava, there's certainly plenty of roiling emotion within the ravaged, terrified, paranoid and even sociopathic minds of those who find themselves trapped in this coffin below the inferno of radiation and mass destruction.

Mickey (Michael Biehn) is the wired and wiry cigar puffing ruler of the roost - the building's super who lives in the basement and has equipped it with all the elements necessary to survive in the event of a Post-9/11 attack that makes the destruction of the Twin Towers seem like a zit-burst. He agrees to take in a few survivors, but as the story progresses, he clearly seems sorry he bothered. After all, this is his home, his own personal safe harbour and he expects compliance and downright subservience in accordance with his rules and manner of living. Alas, some of his charges are live wires - questioning his moves and motives every step of the way.

In this role, Biehn is nothing short of brilliant. In the late 80s and early 90s, he was one of the most exciting young actors in American cinema and poised to be a star with considerable leverage and longevity. As the stalwart hero in several James Cameron classics; The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss, as well as his complex and electrifying performance in William Friedkin's criminally neglected courtroom thriller Rampage, Biehn eventually became a solid working actor - appearing in a lot of crap - always doing fine work, but ultimately rising as far as anyone could above substandard material. Exceptions to this were his appearances in Bereavement and Planet Terror, but his performance in The Divide is not only dazzling, but rendered in a movie worthy of his considerable talents. It's not quite what you'd call a comeback role, since he's never really been gone, but I'd still say it's a breakthrough performance and one that makes me hope he'll be on the receiving end of increasingly better roles. (I'd happily, for example, donate my right testicle to science to see him opposite Michael Shannon in a new William Friedkin picture. Hey, a boy can dream, can't he?)

Happily, Biehn is surrounded by a terrific cast in a movie that's directed with all the pizzaz and unyielding aplomb of the talented Xavier Gens (I loved Hitman). With Gens at the helm, The Divide is one splendidly horrific tale that features a microcosmic look at humanity under duress. We have a young, married couple on the brink of divorce, a tough-minded African American who senses their protector is hiding something, a middle aged Mom (the welcome presence of Rosanna Arquette) with a terrified young daughter and two foul bad boys who get a whole lot badder than we're prepared to imagine.

And then there are the armed, weird-ass scientists in protective garb - kidnapping surviving children and performing the most horrendous experiments upon them.

And, lest we forget, there's the septic system. Once the ragtag band of survivors are literally welded into the underground coffin with no means of escape, we discover that a swim through a tunnel of fecal matter is the only way out. Any guesses whether someone eventually wades through the gloppy, glistening, stench-ridden tunnels?

As tensions rise, so do the acts of inhumanity - bullying, beatings, murder, torture, and even forced sexual slavery. If you're looking for a shred of hope, you might not find it in The Divide, but like all well constructed drama of this kind, the thing you look for in earnest amidst the depravity, comes from the unlikeliest places at the least expected moments. Yes, humanity is buried deep within this pit of horror.

Without question, the tense human conflict and emotion of this film is charged to the max. Gens seldom lets us rest easy as an audience. We always have to be on our toes - evil lurks around every corner and the movie jolts us time and time again. This is not to say the exploitative elements are paint-by-numbers. They're earned. They're rooted in character and story. The movie terrifies, dazzles AND moves us tremendously. Most amazingly, we almost NEVER leave the confines of the basement. Lesser films blatantly use this as a cost-cutting measure, but in The Divide, it never seems like a story rooted in a machine-tooled setting to yield maximum production value for minimum dollars. So many lower-budgeted genre films are too self-aware of these limitations and we're taken out of the drama because of it.

Not so, here.

To coin a phrase from George Romero's Dawn of the Dead: "When there's no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth." In The Divide, it's the other way around. Hell is above ground and the living dead walk BELOW the Earth.

And in this Hell, there's plenty of room for the living dead.

The Divide will hopefully receive a proper theatrical release soon. In the meantime, it screened as part of the first-rate Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011, delivering yet another triumph for the premiere genre event in Canada.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Absentia - Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011


Absentia (2011) dir. Mike Flanagan
Starring: Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine, Morgan Peter Bell

***1/2

By Greg Klymkiw

There are horrors - everyday horrors - that we all hear about. If we have never experienced them ourselves, all we can do is try to imagine what they must feel like. But that's all we can do. Imagine. When movies delve into the horrors we hear about everyday, the best of those pictures probably come as close as any of us would want to get to experiencing the real thing.

Perhaps the one thing that's worse than knowing a loved one has died - especially in a fashion of the most heinous variety - is the horror of a loved one disappearing without a trace. It's knowing the truth that offers the most meagre shred of solace, or at least, acceptance. Not knowing, though, is the real horror. It's what we imagine that could, can and would haunt us forever.

Absentia is a micro-budgeted independent horror movie that plays on these fears. Tricia (Courtney Bell) has lived for seven long years never knowing how or why her beloved husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Bell) has simply vanished. Time has healed many of her wounds, but even now, on the verge of awaiting a death verdict for her husband - in absentia, Tricia harbours feelings of heart aching sadness and frustration. Though her financial and legal affairs will have a clean slate once a death certificate arrives, she will always be haunted with never knowing the truth.

Though frankly, once the truth rears its ugly head, she is wholly unprepared for the horror to follow. This is especially draining as she has been attempting to rebuild her life - she's having a baby and is in love with a kind, gentle man.

Her younger sister Callie (Katie Parker) arrives to assist her in coping with this loss and the impending arrival of the baby sired by her lover Mallory (Dave Levine), a detective who has been investigating her husband's missing person file for many long years. Callie is haunted by her own demons. She's a drug-addict in 12-step recovery mode. Tricia copes with her horror and sadness with both Buddhism and psychotherapy. Callie has found Jesus and jogging.

Together, on the cusp of a death certificate being issued, the sisters begin confronting a series of strange, creepy and decidedly horrific occurrences. I'm going to avoid being too specific. Seeing the movie with a fresh perspective (as I was lucky enough to do) is what will yield maximum impact.

In the 1940s, when RKO Studios was on the verge of bankruptcy, they hired the brilliant Val Lewton (producer David O. Selznick's former right hand man) to head up a new horror division to make them flush. Lewton employed a brilliant strategy. Up to this point in movies history, most horror was rooted in the past and had a fairy tale quality to it. Lewton decided that the real horror was in the modern world. Using supernatural backdrops with lurid titles such as The Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, The Seventh Victim and Curse of the Cat People as a lure for audiences, Lewton told a series of mostly contemporary tales that dealt with everything from crumbling marriages, childhood loneliness, madness and, among other real-life themes, religious cults. He also felt that what scared people was what they couldn't see - that horror was found in shadows and darkness.

With Absentia, writer-director-editor Mike Flanagan employs a similar strategy in telling an often scary horror picture which, when it works at the peak of its powers, jolts us with what we cannot always see. What we DO see, WHEN he allows us to see it is numbingly terrifying.

Tricia is haunted by dreams - or are they? - of her husband appearing around virtually ever corner - emaciated and stricken with both grief and anger that she is finally "letting go". Callie, on the other hand, experiences strange appearances of weird people and strange noises in the mountain tunnel crossway just down the street from their Glendale home.

There is, finally an indisputable connection between the two sisterly experiences and as the picture edges along, we're suitably creeped out. The movie is so intelligently written, skillfully directed and magnificently acted that for much of its running time we're on the edge of our seats. Unfortunately, the narrative begins to spin its wheels in the final third and what could have been a great horror movie falls just short of that.

In spite of this, it's an effective and original approach to the genre and the film's subtle slow-burn is finally so horrifying that the flaws in the latter portion of the narrative are almost voided by the overall effect - one, I might add, that lasts long after the film is over..

In this day and age of torture porn masquerading as horror and John Hughes-styled teen romance pretending to be vampire/werewolf thrillers or worse, endless awful Hollywood remakes of great Asian scare-fests, it's nice to experience something so eerily, creepily quiet. It's not only what we don't see, but what we can't quite hear. The silence and deliberate pace renders more than enough scares and for some, it will be just what the doctor ordered to soil more than a few undergarments.

Absentia played at the 2011 edition of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. It will soon be available on VOD and other home entertainment venues, but if you get a chance to see it on a big screen with an audience, you'll be in for an extra special horror treat.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Midnight Son - Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011


Midnight Son (2011) dir. Scott Leberecht
Starring: Zak Kilberg, Maya Parish, Jo D. Jonz, Arlen Escarpeta, Larry Cedar, Tracey Walter

****

By Greg Klymkiw

Jacob (Zak Kilberg) is sick. Very, very sick. He leads a solitary existence in a basement apartment with all the windows sealed shut. By day, he is a brilliant young artist - painting variations on a similar theme: exquisite renderings of the sun. He pays his rent working as a night-shift security guard. He is so sensitive to the rays of the sun that his arm bears the horrendous scars of burned flesh.

Of late, he's been extremely hungry and in spite of wolfing down as much food as possible, he's becoming thinner and more pale. One night he collapses at work - blacking out completely. A doctor examines him and expresses concern that he is becoming anemic from malnutrition. This, of course, can't be so. He's eating more than a 500 lb. circus freak.

Passing by a butcher shop, Jacob decides he needs meat.

Meat.

Pure and simple.

He buys a juicy steak, fries it up, scarfs it down, but alas, he's still hungry. Eyeing the styrofoam platter his steak rested upon, he is drawn to the droplets of blood dappling it. He is compelled to lap up the glistening, treacly red liquid. After doing just that, he visits his friendly butcher shop again and buys an entire container of blood. He greedily guzzles the hemoglobin treat and feels energized like he hasn't in some time.

Jacob knows now what he needs to survive.

Jacob needs blood.

Such are the opening minutes of Scott Leberecht's Midnight Son, one of the most exciting feature length directorial debuts in years. Given what passes for vampires in these dark days of the ludicrous Twilight franchise, it seems almost insulting to toss this original and affecting horror movie (also scripted by Leberecht) into the same putrid bucket containing Stephenie Meyer's rank turds. Still, we must call a spade a spade and a vampire movie it most certainly is. However, Midnight Son is one of the creepiest, sexiest and truly romantic vampire pictures to grace the screens in many a new moon.

Its unique blend of gorgeously gritty camerawork and equal dollops of both neorealism and existentialism, place the picture closer to the tradition forged by George A. Romero's Martin, Larry Fessenden's Habit and Abel Ferrara's double scoop of the horror brilliance that is Driller Killer and The Addiction.

What Leberecht brings to the table that's all his is a tremendous degree of heart. He manages to shock us, creep us out AND move us. This is an astounding achievement.

When Jacob meets the coke-addicted cigarette girl Mary (Maya Parish) they're instantly attracted to each other - two lost souls in the big city who deserve much more out of life and most certainly deserve each other. As played by the beautiful, sexy, but wholly real Parish, the character of Maya has what Twilight's Kristen Stewart is unable to bring to her vampire-loving heroine - a sense of humour and play. She's a character that the audience falls in love with because she has a perfect blend of bigger-than-life and girl-next-door properties (albeit slightly tarnished by the cards life has thus dealt her).

Jacob too feels like somebody we could know, or even be. He's trapped by circumstance and lonely out of necessity. That he should discover his potential soulmate at the worst possible time isn't just the stuff of great drama, it's rooted in realism - an experience so many have had when they find something or someone special, but the timing is so damned inopportune.

Leberecht's mise-en-scene is superb. He captures strange corners and pockets of Los Angeles with the same eye for detail Larry Fessenden brought to Habit and the city of New York. The choice of locations, shots and interiors never feel stock. It's a side of L.A. we seldom see on film. It's gritty, all right, but instead of the almost stereotypical strolls, Leberecht takes us to some mighty strange places - my favourite being a toxic materials dump in a rear lane of a hospital. Here we're also introduced to one of the weirdest pushers we'll encounter in any recent movie - the sleazy blood peddling orderly (brilliantly played by Joe D. Jonz) who discovers a rare, but needy market for what he can provide.

Happily, Leberecht and his production team had the exquisite taste to cast one of the greatest character actors working in American cinema today. Appearing as Jacob's only living cohort in the office tower, Tracey Walter plays the kindly night janitor who dispenses humour, wisdom and assistance. Walter has been in a million or so cool movies, but it's especially cool to see him in a movie that presents such a unique portrait of L.A. since it happily reminds us of the UFO-obsessed trash man he played in Alex Cox's Repo Man (another great picture with a unique sense of place).

Visually and narratively, Midnight Son leads us confidently into territory we almost never see, but even when things start to feel familiar, Lebrecht throws us a curve ball - not just for the sake of tossing one our way, but because it's rooted in the emotion of the story.

One of my favourite moments falls into a category I like to call "Scenes We'd Like To See But Never Will And When We Do We Are Totally Fucking Delighted". Imagine a lovemaking scene where a sexy gal has just snorted several lines of coke, jumps onto her awaiting lover and mounting him in the throes of passion gets a horrendous coke-influenced nasal cavity burst of blood which geysers onto her boyfriend's face. This would be a shocker in any context, but it's especially delightful since the face smothered in blood belongs to an individual who just happens to be a blood-starved vampire.

To that, I say: "Top that Stephenie Meyer!"

Midnight Son is currently on the film festival circuit and was presented at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) dir. Frank Darabont
Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Clancy Brown, Bob Gunton, James Whitmore, William Sadler

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The Shawshank Redemption is a schmaltzy little movie to be sure, but it’s a near-perfectly crafted slice of magic realism. The emergence of the film follows a unique trajectory. Upon its theatrical release, it was mostly forgotten by audiences despite receiving good reviews. Then, after seven Academy Award nominations, people took notice and rediscovered the film after some astonishing word of mouth. Now it's a beloved treasure of cinema of greater contemporary value than the same year’s overhyped tear-jerker Forrest Gump.

Gump and Shawshank have much in common. Both are polished Hollywood schmaltz-fests harkening back to the Hollywood dream factory of old, told in past tense voiceover with ho-hum common man southern charm. They’re inspirational stories of the Frank Capra ilk, men triumphing over adversity against institutions and systems of authority seemingly beyond their control.

Looking back on Gump, it’s shamelessly manipulative and sentimental. Shawshank has much the same quality, and by the midpoint of the film it threatens to dissolve into the same kind of cinematic mushiness if not for the series of remarkable twists orchestrated with superb misdirection, which send the film into the stratosphere of enjoyment.

The screenplay is diabolically clever in its approach. Initially, it shows its hero, Andy Dufresne (Robbins), as a drunken, jealous husband who, in a fit of rage, murdered his philandering wife and lover. Or maybe he didn’t. This possibility falls from our consciousness once the film turns into a prison movie. With Andy, a conservative banker in prison with hardened lifers, it’s a story of survival. Sure, he is gang-raped by gruff prison-homos, but Darabont keeps this film homely and nostalgic.

The prisoners in Shawshank Prison, namely Red (Morgan Freeman), Andy's best friend, are a charming bunch presented with a filter of nostalgia like remembering those great college days drinking beers with your buddies. It’s mostly good times at Shawshank, especially when Andy finds himself working for the warden as a tax consultant. This is the first of the twists that creep up on us without notice and send the film on a sharp right turn in another direction.

The second major turn occurs with the introduction of Tommy (Bellows), a youngster whom Andy teaches to read. But then, in a shocking reveal, he learns that he may be a key witness in proving Andy's innocence. This moment is a delightful surprise because by this point the audience, like Andy, has come to accept his sentence and his new life inside prison. The depiction of the prison as a 'pleasant' place in which he made the best of a bad situation helps to misdirect us away from the fact that Andy is an innocent man.

The third twist is the doozy and one of the greatest reveals in the history of cinema. After misleading us to the thought that Andy might commit suicide, Darabont reveals his grand plan, the seeds of which he had been planting all along – Andy’s escape. The prison drama suddenly becomes an escape movie – out of nowhere – sending our heads spinning in excitement with the thought that Andy might find his freedom and that the prison warden and the other corrupt officials might receive their comeuppance.

Indeed, it’s a great third act, which admittedly goes on way too long, pushing the audience’s need for absolute closure and sentimental happy endings. We didn’t need to see Morgan Freeman’s character reunite with Andy on the beach, a sad stain on an otherwise perfect film.

The Shawshank Redemption is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Les Cousins

Les Cousins (1959) dir. Claude Chabrol
Starring: Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy and Juliette Mayniel

***

By Alan Bacchus

It’s appropriate that this film gets its Blu-ray debut via The Criterion Collection at the same time as Chabrol's previous film, La Beau Serge. Both films represent an inverse of each other, a cinematic yin and yang of sorts.

While Serge features Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy as brothers - Brialy from the city returning to meet Blain from the country - in Les Cousins, it’s Blain still playing the country boy coming to Paris to stay with his bohemian cousin played by Brialy. Tonally, La Beau Serge played like a rebellious and angst-ridden James Dean film. Les Cousins is a playful though quietly disturbing satire on family rivalry.

Here Blain plays Charles, a quiet and humble boy from the country arriving in the big adventurous city of Paris to study law with his cousin. His cousin, Paul (Brialy), is the opposite - a brash, cocky bohemian who struts around his garishly hip apartment leading a pack of other hipster minions and hangers-on. While there’s some warmth and congeniality between the two, at every turn Brialy engages in a series of mental games, passive aggressive behaviour and backhanded compliments to exert his authority.

At stake here are their education and their women. In their studies, Charles as the responsible one is careful not to lose sight of his goal, while Paul shrugs off the shackles of academics in favour of a carefree way of living. When Paul notices Charles’ attraction to one of Paul’s frequent guests, Florence (Mayniel), he aggressively goes after her in order to subjugate his cousin.

For most of the film’s nearly two-hour running time Chabrol plays these mental games without much conflict or threat. From the outset, it’s clear that Charles’ responsibility and studiousness will eventually get the better of Paul. As such, it’s a playful tone, as loose and easy-going as Paul’s lifestyle. Some exhaustion and repetitiveness sets in late in the picture, as we are unsure where this is all going. But Chabrol pulls a wicked trump card out of his back pocket by engineering an intense third act and denouement, which pays off the unfocused pacing.

With this picture I suspect Martin Scorsese may have found some influence in Taxi Driver and a number of his other pictures. Chabrol’s meandering camera moves with the same kind of precision as Scorsese’s, and at times it moves on its own motivated by the character's emotions as opposed to physical movements. Chabrol’s key set piece, Paul's attempted subversion of Charles on the night before his exam, set to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyres has the same kind of slow brewing intensity as some of Scorsese’s celebrated sequences.

Florence’s seduction of Charles during his desperate attempt to cram for his exam the next day is a nail-biting scene and echoes Robert De Niro's seduction of Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear. By now, knowing that Paul has passed his exam, Charles is set up to be completely humiliated for Paul’s sadistic enjoyment. And in the denouement Chabrol again turns the table for the dark, pessimistic finale, turning the film completely upside down from where it started two hours prior.

Les Cousins is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Salo: Or the 120 Days of Sodom

Salo: Or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring:Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti

****

By Alan Bacchus

It's been 36 years since Salo was released, and the notorious final film from Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini is still the sickest, most gruesome and controversial film ever made. It’s a tonally faithful adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s torture novel, 120 Days of Sodom, written while in prison and set in Fascist Italy. The story follows a small group of libertine Italian aristocrats who gather and kidnap 18 young men and woman and subject them to four months of heinous sexual acts, torture, rape and basically any kind of sexual defiance known to man.

However depraved, Salo actually works as a jet black comedy. It’s admirable as a piece of bourgeois surrealism mocking class systems and the rights of men over other men in the tradition of Luis Buneul and Salvador Dali. Pasolini bravely doesn’t hold back showing us the most despicable acts of sex and violence, including bondage, forcing people to eat feces, body mutilation and, of course, lots of sodomy in order to a) exercise his own personal fetishes on screen and 2) give another stab at the notion of the right and title of the class system.

There's very little in the way of a through line, characters or even a narrative purpose. And perhaps the most disturbing aspect is that the torturers never get their comeuppance. So what’s the purpose of all this? Made in Pasolini’s elder age, it serves as an artistic statement to test the boundaries of cinema and art. The final moments of torture before the boys and girls are executed are the most horrific displays of torture ever put to screen. Thus, the film becomes a metaphor for the degradation of man and civilization told with terrifying audacity.

Taking away the raping and debaucherous acts, visually Pasolini photographs nudes as artists have been doing for centuries – another contrast between sophistication and the sordid. His imagery is continually fascinating; the site of the naked men and women on leashes crawling up the stairs is an indelible image. The formal compositions and classical Roman art direction match well together. Pasolini’s style even resembles Stanley Kubrick with his symmetrical compositions and use of the female nude body as background art decoration. The orgy rituals are also evident in Eyes Wide Shut.

Salo isn’t a film to 'enjoy' per se, but rather to be shocked by. Pasolini doesn't 'enjoy' showing us these images. It's different than Lars Von Trier, who seems to enjoy punishing the characters in his films. Of course, we don’t ever get to know any of the characters in Salo, as they all seem to be props and furniture for the film more than emotional beings. Pasolini purposely doesn't have his characters react to any of the torture either, thus keeping a distance emotionality from the events like a clinical analyst.

Curiously, in a truly bizarre moment of life imitating art, Pasolini was murdered shortly before the picture was released, apparently killed by a male prostitute who ran over Pasolini’s body numerous times near his home. The boy confessed, although he later rescinded his story claiming he covered up for a more nefarious group of anti-communists. Is this perhaps an act of karma? Michelangelo Antonioni remarked that Pasolini was a victim of his own characters. Regardless, Salo continues to be a film that cinema simply cannot ignore.

Salo: Or the 120 Days of Sodom is available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars: The Empire Strike Back (1980) dir. Irvin Kershner
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, David Prowse, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels

****

By Alan Bacchus

The celebrated second entry in the Star Wars saga indeed still packs an emotional punch more grand than the first and third films. After the campy but terrifically exciting first film, Lucas and his team expertly delve into the characters’ back stories revealing a bigger story at play – one of father and son, the corruption of the innocent by greed and anger, and the search for redemption across the generational gap.

Few, if any, franchise films can share the effect of this second chapter on the series. It’s not hard to remember my reaction upon hearing Darth Vader proclaim his true identity to Luke Skywalker high atop that precariously hanging structure in the bowels of Cloud City. I remember being shocked. But I was five years old. How would I have reacted as an adult? Would I have foreseen this reveal? It doesn’t matter because each and every time I watch this scene it still sends shivers down my spine – it’s a monumental shift in our perspective engineered so perfectly across two films.

In this entry in the series, Lucas and company split up their heroes after the initial Hoth battle. It’s a terrific opening taking us into a new environment we didn’t see in the first film. We’re introduced to burgeoning relationship between Han Solo’s charming ruggedness and Princess Leia’s hard-to-get aloofness. We’re also teased some more by Luke Skywalker’s abilities with the force. In battle, the rebels get a tough beat down at the hands of the Empire attacking in those intimidating Imperial snow walkers (though the practicality of such a piece of machinery I could never really figure out). It all looks very cool and kick-starts the film with the heroes on the run from the Empire, a chase that will encompass most of the film.

With Han/Leia/Chewy separated from Luke, Lucas is free to manipulate the suspense and tension of the film with ease. Every scene seems to end with a minor cliffhanger of intrigue as the film cuts between the Millennium Falcon on the run from the Imperial space destroyers, Luke on Tatooine learning the force from Zen-master Yoda, and Vader in space orchestrating the conflict with supreme malevolence. And John Williams’ magnificent music-stings provide delightfully teasing punctuation, thus keeping us all constantly on the edge of our seats.

This type of pacing is in keeping with Lucas’s original inspiration for the series, an homage to matinee serial films like Flash Gordon, which he used to watch as a kid. I’ve seen a few of these films, and indeed Lucas achieves the same rhythm and sense of impending jeopardy. And key to achieving this is the ability to cut from the film's hero at the point of maximum jeopardy.

I wouldn’t argue against The Empire Strikes Back being the best of the series, but we should acknowledge that it cheats a little. After all, the film doesn’t have an ending. Lucas and company are allowed to end the film on a giant emotional and narrative teaser – Luke discovering Darth Vader is his father, Han being frozen and taken away to Jabba the Hut, and Darth Vader still alive and searching for Luke. Providing adequate closure after building up such an action packed narrative is not easy. And so Empire’s benefit is Return of the Jedi’s loss, as the latter had the unfortunate expectation of wrapping up all angles of the story. There's more on that later when I look at Return of the Jedi.

All Star Wars films are now available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Night Flight


Night Flight (1933) dir. Clarence Brown
Starring: John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Helen Hayes, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, William Gargan, Irving Pichel

***

By Greg Klymkiw

Night Flight was unseen for over 60 years due to MGM allowing a lapse in the rights to the excellent novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (The Little Prince). The book thrillingly fictionalized the author's experience as an airmail flyer in those dangerous days when night flying - due to a lack of radar, proper lighting and iffy radio communication - was, for the brave pilots who manned the controls, an act of taking one's life in one's hands.

I had never seen the picture and was more than delighted when TCM picked up the tab on the underlying literary rights to this historically important picture which then freed Warner Home Entertainment to properly release it on DVD. It's not a great movie, by any means, but is replete with enough engaging cinematic elements to merit a viewing or two. It's especially unique as it explores an issue that - when the film was made - was contemporary to the period and now sheds a fair bit of historical light on those early days of aviation.

Night Flight, produced by David O. Selznick (Gone With The Wind), is an episodic, star-studded drama that takes place over a 24-hour period in the burgeoning days of air mail. Riviere (John Barrymore) is the tough-as-nails General Manager of a French aviation company in South America. He's out to prove that the danger inherent in night flying is a risk worth taking. On one stormy night, a package of serum for infant paralysis desperately needs to get over the Andes mountains, but oddly, what's more important to Riviere is that ALL the mail must get to where it has to be and ON-TIME!!! He will accept no excuses - none whatsoever - and threatens to severely fine any of the company's pilots if they fail in their respective missions. He's cold, callous and obsessed with the bottom line.

On this long, dark night, he's breaking in his new second-in-command Robineau (Lionel Barrymore, John's equally famous, brilliant real-life brother), an ex-cop who knows something about loyalty to men in the line of fire. Riviere has contempt for this and tries to drill the virtues of being a martinet into him. Robineau, afflicted with severe eczema, is constantly scratching his irritated skin - a physical reminder for him in his more humane instincts and his inability to successfully master the dubious virtues of heartless automatons. Hell, he even hits a club in Rio with a pilot for some steak and booze for which Rivière chastises him - fraternizing with hired guns does not a good martinet make.

In addition to the trials of these men behind the scenes, we follow the stories of three pilots on their dangerous air mail runs: a Brazilian (William Gargan), whose loving, happy-go-lucky and ever-so-sexy wife (Myrna Loy) waits to be reunited with him, the dashing girl-in-every-port Auguste (Robert Montogomery) who lives for adventure and fleshly variety and finally, the ace pilot Jules Fabian (Clark Gable) who flies with his eyes closed whilst dreaming of returning to his wife (Helen Hayes) who has a romantic dinner party just-for-two waiting in celebration of his making the first nighttime flight clear across the Andes Mountains.

And, let it be said, that Helen Hayes weeps enough buckets of tears in this picture to sink the Titanic.

Let it furthermore be noted that, in grand old Hollywood tradition, no attempt is made to saddle the American actors playing any character of the Gallic persuasion with fake French accents. This is a happy decision and one I wish more contemporary films would do.

The whole affair is compelling stuff and a good deal of the credit goes to the legendary studio director Clarence Brown who in previous lives before Hollywood, was one of the youngest men to earn a degree in electrical and mechanical engineering, the owner of a successful auto dealership and while on hiatus from movie making, served his country as an ace fighter pilot during World War One. (I suspect Brett Ratner, Michael Bay and others of the woeful contemporary ilk have little life experience to bring to their action pictures - resorting solely to whatever they were spoonfed in film school.)

On his background alone, Brown might well have been the perfect man for the job, but let's just add that he mentored as an assistant director under the pioneering filmmaker Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques Tourneur) and once on his own as a solo director, generated as many hits for MGM "as there are stars in heaven" (to coin the studio's own phrase). In spite of generating over one hundred Academy Award nominations for those associated with his films, Brown never once copped the Oscar for Best Director and remains tied with both Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman in having the most directing nominations, but no statuette. Not that this should really mean anything, but I do think it's significant that Brown failed, in the loftiest of all peer-voted awards, to cop even a booby prize (as Martin Scorsese was finally tossed for The Departed on his sixth nomination).

What's great about Brown is not only his excellent work with actors (Garbo adored him), but his terrific eye and adherence to an expressionistic visual style that enhances his visual storytelling with considerable panache.

Brown also placed a great deal of value in the cinematic properties of monologues and Night Flight is replete with them. The best, of course are John Barrymore's rantings and ravings in his office (against the backdrop of a humungous deco-style wall-sized map of South America) about how the value of human lives pale in comparison to conquering the air of the night skies. He does, though, occasionally drop his guard and attempts to convince those who will listen (including himself) that he's human and DOES have a heart.

Brown also knows when to unfold the action without any dialogue. Many of the flying sequences capture the loneliness, claustrophobia and sheer terror in the cockpits of the pilots. The best sequences are those involving Clark Gable who utters few words and is masked with his flying cap and goggles as he alternates between fear, bravery, compassion, love and finally, grim acceptance of his fate. These are some of the most moving sequences in the film - due to both Gable and Brown.

One especially heartbreaking moment involves Gable writing a note for his co-pilot to broadcast to head office over the radio. The first few lines are all business until Gable pauses and begins to write: "Tell my wife how much I love her." He regards the words, then stalwartly crosses them out - not so much as an act of manliness, but because he needs to write and see the words himself.

Allow me to digress briefly and admit to the innumerable geysers of tears I spewed out over this scene.

The flying sequences are also superb. They're gruelling and suspenseful - especially Gable's. As his character is caught in a horrendous storm over the Andes - there's a great blend of stock footage and cockpit closeups with background process shots. Given the period, some of these effects seem clunky now, but it's a testament to Brown's brilliance as a director that we ultimately focus upon the characters themselves.

One of the most amazing things about watching this movie was seeing it with my 10-year-old daughter. She was absolutely riveted by it and the cockles of my heart are always warmed when she is gripped by movies sans digital effects and/or Miley Cyrus.

Two terrific things occurred during the screening. When the first process shot came on screen, she proudly beamed, "That's green screen!" I paused the picture and explained the difference between green screen digital effects and optical effects. That, was Homeschool Lesson #1. Even more important was Homeschool Lesson #2 when I needed to pause a few times and answer her questions about the beginnings of aviation.

This, of course, is why I urge all parents and/or parents-to-be to expose their children as early as possible to the oldest movies before tainting them with anything contemporary. It helps them learn so much about storytelling techniques, assists in their media literacy and offers ample opportunities to discuss any number of subjects in a historical context. My own child - having been exposed to thousands of movies from all periods of cinema (and the majority of them being pre-1940 titles when she was a toddler) has allowed to her to appreciate and learn from ALL movies. It also helped her realize - ON HER OWN - why most contemporary films are crap.

At the same time, it's not stopped her from enjoying Hannah Montana or, for that matter, Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Frankly, it seems lazy and pointless to me when parents subject their toddlers to The Lion King and/or Star Wars as entry-level viewing material when there's a hundred years worth of great work to show them.

Interestingly enough, Night Flight came at a perfect point in my daughter's life. If she'd seen it earlier, she'd have probably been bored, but because she already had a wealth of great films under her belt, she was able to appreciate the film for what it is, learn from it and be entertained all at the same time. (She even commented how she loved the optical effects because they were more like a fairytale than digital effects! Is this awesome, or what?)

The ultimate triumph was after Night Flight ended.

My little cherub beamed and said, "Wow! That was cool!"

Indeed!

Night Flight is available on DVD from Warner Home Entertainment in a decent official release (as opposed to an overpriced Archival DVD-R).

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Beats, Rhymes and Life

Beats, Rhymes and Life (2011) dir. Michael Rapaport
Documentary

***

By Alan Bacchus

The story of A Tribe Called Quest gets a comprehensive documentary treatment from the colourful character actor and former super-fan Michael Rapaport. His love of this band’s signature smooth rap music and the unique and exciting era of hip hop music from which they grew are infused in this film. For those already converted, it probably fits one’s expectations. But for non-hip hoppers and anyone not between the ages of 25 and 35, a crucial thematic throughline prevents it from being fully accessible.

The story starts in the mid ‘80s, when rap was a burgeoning music and cultural movement in New York; when young music fans found a way to lay hip rhyming lyrics over break beats and riffs from other songs to create a new form of artistic expression. This is what happened to neighbourhood school chums Kamaal Ibn John Fareed (aka Q-Tip), Malik Taylor (aka Phife Dawg), Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White, who would in their teens form A Tribe Called Quest. Rapaport brings these four guys back to their humble beginnings in Queen’s to recount their relatively quick rise toward their first record deal in 1989.

Rapaport expertly puts us into 'the scene' at that time, when a number of artists from New York with a similar sound created their own musical collective movement known as Native Tongues. Instead of expressing anger and aggression, like groups such as Public Enemy and NWA did, Tribe and its contemporaries, such as De La Soul and Black Sheep, expressed a more soulful reflection of their African-American cultural experience.

The most important information in the film comes from other hip hop artists, including Beastie Boys, Common and Pharrell Williams, who articulate with clarity the transformative experience Tribe’s music provided them. In particular, they discuss specific songs, beats or lyrics that made a lasting impression on them. Their enthusiasm fuels our enthusiasm and provides the modern contextualization of Tribe’s influence on their own music.

The prevailing story within this story is the slow burning conflict between the band’s two main players, Q-Tip, the producer/celebrity presence of the group, and Phife Dawg, Q-Tip’s childhood friend and lyrical partner. During separate interviews with them, the film reveals a strong lingering antagonism that caused the band to break up in 1998. Rapaport even manages to find cinematic gold by capturing a dramatic flare-up of this conflict 10 years later during their reunion tour.

Phife Dawg and Q-Tip are terrific yin and yang personalities. Q-Tip is the suave, charming and handsome leader, who rose to stardom on his own, and Phife Dawg, the smaller-in-stature underling who could only live with Q-Tip’s control fascination for so long. The tit for tat jabs at one another are strong and passionate, but in the grand scheme of things petty and childish. This is the irony of the creative process, as strong opposing forces sometimes have the power to create great works of art and destroy the strongest of relationships at the same time.

Beats, Rhymes and Life is available on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Mr. Lucky


Mr. Lucky (1943) dir. H.C. Potter
Starring: Cary Grant, Laraine Day, Charles Bickford, Paul Stewart, Gladys Cooper

***1/2

By Greg Klymkiw

As a light romantic leading man, endowed as he was with infinite charm and that distinctive, mellifluously clipped delivery, nobody will ever really come close to the perfection that is Cary Grant. When we see his dark side - which is rare - there's no question he has had few equals as an actor. In spite of its cop-out conclusion, Grant presided over Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion with equal parts charm and malevolence. His brave work playing against type as a layabout Cockney in Clifford Odets's magnificent downer None But The Lonely Heart is, perhaps, the ultimate testament to his versatility.

Though he collaborated with Hitchcock four times, (Hitch loved him more than any other actor - including James Stewart), I think it's Grant's collaborations with the great George Stevens that yielded two of his finest performances: In Gunga Din, Grant proved he was equally at home in rock 'em sock 'em boys' adventure and in the exquisite, almost-criminally forgotten Penny Serenade, Grant not only wrenches tears from us, but delivers one key scene where he breaks down with such sadness, desperation and unflinching raw emotions, that one almost wishes he made more pictures like it - even if it were at the expense of forgoing some of his magnificent comedy.

Mr. Lucky is a picture I saw many times during those halcyon days of the seeming innocence of my childhood. From my first helping on a Sunday afternoon television broadcast to the numerous times I hunted down listings for it and watched the picture each and every time I could, it was a movie that - even then - obsessed me. I recall sensing just how odd it was - it felt, for much of its running time, like a breezy comedy, though with few laughs. When the laughs come, though, they're big, but for much of the picture, its wispy veneer needs only a few scratches to reveal a dark tale of deception and redemption.

I finally re-visited the picture for the first time in some 40-or-so years and was delighted to find its as strange, confounding and eminently compelling as it ever was.

Grant plays Joe Adams, a gambler, con man and owner of a gambling boat who fakes his death to avoid the draft (WWII) and assumes the identity of a lower-drawer dead thug called Joe Bascopolous. When he discovers that his new "identity" is a wanted three-time loser, he needs one major score so he can take it on the lam. He finds the perfect mark in the rich society gal Dorothy Bryant (Laraine Day) who is leading a major War Relief campaign. He charms her - of course - and convinces her to hold a major casino event that he will run for her. His goal, is to run the casino, steal the dough and hit the road - or in his case, the high seas.

It's a perfect sting.

The spanner in the works is that he genuinely falls in love with Dorothy. With the law on his tail, however, and Zepp (the deliciously smarmy Paul Stewart), his nasty, greedy partner putting the screws to him, Joe finds himself in a major pickle barrel.

Love or survival? These are his choices.

As directed by H.C. Potter, Mr. Lucky, is shrouded in portent. There's no doubt about it - the picture is strange. Some might say "flawed", but I think the movie's blend of doomed romance, redemption and desperation against the backdrops of both world war and the criminal underworld, is what makes it one of the most tantalizingly original films of this period and perhaps one of the best works to come out of RKO, the studio that gave us King Kong, Citizen Kane and the atmospheric Val Lewton horror pictures.

Potter was a brilliant Broadway stage director who made very few films. As a filmmaker, his output was erratic, but when he was good, he was great. His film version of the hit Olsen and Johnson Broadway show Hellzapoppin' was inspired insanity of the highest order and his helmsmanship of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (which also starred Grant), rendered one of the best film comedies of the 1940s. I also hold a special soft spot for his film adaptation of William Saroyan's Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Time of Your Life which featured one of James Cagney's best performances ever.

Mr. Lucky is a film that grapples with issues of shirking duty, responsibility and love. It's an incredibly complex and sophisticated work and even more surprisingly, was a huge hit for RKO. Perhaps the truly hilarious comedy set pieces were enough to inspire audiences of the day - God knows the sight of Cary Grant learning to knit is a mega-knee-slapper. But for all of the mirth, it's an extremely dark movie and is, in fact, rather daring in terms of blending light comedy with big themes that surely must have resonated with wartime audiences. They had to accept - even if the role WAS played by Cary Grant - that the protagonist was a liar, cheat, criminal, unrepentant womanizer and draft dodger.

Much as I'm going to sound like some old curmudgeon, I think the audiences of that time were, frankly, smarter. I find it hard to imagine a picture as strange and compelling as Mr. Lucky being a big hit in this day and age.

Mr. Lucky is available on DVD via the Warner Home Entertainment Archive Collection. This, of course means, a special order online of a DVD-R pulled from best available sources - at a premium price and including shipping costs. Of course, you'll find some retailers and rental houses do, indeed, carry it. In Toronto, Canada the best places are the Sunrise Records flagship store at Yonge and Dundas and the old Starstruck Video at Tomken and Dundas. Check your independent dealers. The transfer on this picture is pretty decent, but for the big bucks the studio is asking, you get the movie and a trailer in a keep case. I could care less about extras, however, as the movie is all I really want. $30 for a DVD-R is highway robbery. Alas, the studios know there are enough nutcases out there willing to pay it for movies they want.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz (1939) dir. Victor Fleming
Starring: Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Burke

****

By Alan Bacchus

If someone were to ask me to name the most widely seen movies ever made, not just based on box office figures but on TV and DVD, I’d probably put only Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz on top of that list with a lot of space between those films and the next one down. Both movies transcend time and are invisible to their age.

Like Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz is a producer’s picture, not a director’s picture. In fact, there were four directors, all of whom left or got fired for one reason or another. This includes the only credited man, Victor Fleming, who would also go on to direct portions of Selnick’s picture and get sole credit as well.

The opening Kansas sequence, shot famously in black & white and timed for sepia tone, evokes a cinematic period before 1939. By 1939, black & white was so sophisticated, cinematographers could manipulate light and shadows to do anything. So the sepia tone and the obviously stagey studio set opening are meant to bring us back to a simpler time even before the relatively simple times of 1939 cinema. Perhaps the anachronistic opening was meant to enhance the great transition to Technicolor, which announces itself so grandly when Dorothy exits her tornado-transported home and enters Munchkinland.

Rare for its time, Oz seems to have an awareness of itself.

As a strictly studio picture, The Wizard of Oz is not much more than a theatrically staged telling of the Frank L. Baum story. Some might describe the choreography as stagey, as there’s an awareness of the interior studio setting at all times. The painted backdrops looks like, well, painted backdrops. The flowers look fake. The colours are overly saturated and unrealistic. The edges and falseness in the costumes and makeup worn by the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion are made visible by the bright, unsympathetic lighting. Like the front row patrons of a Broadway show, there's very little hidden from the audience in Oz.

Even within the constraints of the studio, iconic imagery is everywhere. The mere sight of Dorothy and her three costumed companions skipping down the yellow brick road toward the Emerald City is as grand a composition as there ever was in movies. The foursome framed at the bottom of the screen, with the converging lines of the road creating the sense of depth and the deco design of the castle at the top of the frame is a brilliantly fantastical work of art.

The Wizard of Oz is a work of pure and inspiring fantasy. The classical structure of the fairytale hits every beat so precisely, in hindsight it’s a template for all fantasy cinema made after it. Dorothy’s journey is not unlike Frodo’s in Lord of the Rings or Alice's in Alice in Wonderland. She’s so innocent, fragile and dainty in her pretty dress accompanied by her constant follower, Toto. Even her empty basket, which she refuses to put down even in the most dangerous of situations, remains on her arm. Dorothy, as a farm girl, doesn’t know it, but her congeniality and resourcefulness is about to save the world from the tyranny of the wicked witches. Well, Glinda knows it. We can see it on her face when she first introduces herself in Munchkinland that Dorothy will be the saviour.

The late second act action sequence in the Wicked Witch’s castle is frightening. It’s not just Margaret Hamilton’s snarling performance as the Witch, but also her army of Russian Army-coat wearing minions and flying demon monkeys. The grey and gothic tones of these scenes provoke a truly dark and threatening hazard in Dorothy’s journey.

My favourite performance, no doubt, is Bert Lahr as the Lion – a character of vaudevillian extremes with an exaggerated New York accent, which, out of Dorothy’s three sidekicks, best represents the trio’s slapstick comedy.

The Wizard of Oz is invisible to its age because if the film were made now – or perhaps before the age of CG – under a producer as smart as Mervyn LeRoy it would likely (or should) look exactly the same. Look at the 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for instance. That film was made 32 years after Oz, but it has the same visual and tonal sensibilities. It’s no wonder that film is also a timeless classic.

The Wizard of Oz is available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros. Home Video.

Find Wizard of Oz Collectables Here

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses (2011) dir. Seth Gordon
Starring: Jason Bateman, Jason Sudekis, Charlie Day, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell

***

By Alan Bacchus

Bateman/Sudekis/Day make an affable trio in this over-the-top workplace/bromance comedy about three doofuses plotting the murder of their ‘horrible bosses’. It’s a decent though unoriginal premise, but it’s the population of strong actors self-effacing themselves in the name of crude humour that makes the picture a watchable and warm disposable comedy.

Nick (Jason Bateman) is a corporate middle manager subjugating himself to his maniacal boss (Spacey), thinking he’s in line for a promotion to VP. Recently engaged Dale (Charlie Day) is an emasculated dental hygienist subjected to reverse sexual harassment by his cougar-esque dentist boss, Julia (Jennifer Aniston). And Kurt (Jason Sudekis) is a charming playboy suffering underneath the cockhead son (Farrell) of his recently deceased boss.

After Dale is blackmailed by Julia into performing sexual favours on her, this becomes the straw that broke the camel’s back and the reason to resort to murder. The trio hire an equally dimwitted hitman (Jamie Foxx) to do the job. Instead, as their ‘murder consultant’ he suggests each of them murder the other friend's boss to hide their motives. These bad decisions lead to increasingly outlandish and therefore hilariously disastrous results.

Though we can all relate to the premise of three best friends all stuck in jobs with ego-maniacal bosses making their lives miserable, the film unnecessarily exaggerates the boss’s behaviour, which takes us out of the realm of identifiability. It's a weak start establishing the plight of these guys, but the film gains momentum with the escalation of the plotting and complexities of their schemes in the second act, which pits them as fish out of water in the world of crime.

The casting of Spacey as the psycho egomaniac attempts to rekindle our memories of his fun turn as the hardline movie executive who gets kidnapped by his assistant in Swimming with Sharks. Unfortunately, Spacey is not the same actor he was back then, and mostly everything he does is a bland play off his former roles.

Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston, on the other hand, pull surprising turns in their respective roles. Though his false comb-over is an overused site-gag, Farrell renders his douchebag extraordinaire with full commitment, which is further evidence that he is better at comedy than drama. Aniston, as a conniving man-shark, adequately subverts our expectation of the former Friend as wholesome good girl.

But it’s Foxx as the wannabe gangsta who wears badass head tattoos a la Mike Tyson but also sips his drinks with a straw like a dainty woman that shines the most. His poor math skills make him a hilariously inept businessman and negotiator. Ironically, he becomes the heart and soul of the film.

Horrible Bosses is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.