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

Saturday, 31 December 2011

1941

1941 (1979) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Bobby Di Cicco, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Treat Williams, Toshiro Mifune, Nancy Allen,

**½

By Alan Bacchus

No one talks much about this picture these days, as it has been mostly forgotten by those who are old enough to have seen it when it was first released, and it's barely been seen by younger people. That said, with Steven Spielberg at the helm in the prime of his career - sandwiched between Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark - we can't dismiss this film entirely. It's a loud, grating and obnoxious film to be sure, but there's still some memorable moments and sequences to marvel at, as well as an unforgettable rousing score by John Williams.

Penned by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (Back to the Future), Spielberg takes inspiration from the true story of a false alarm of a Japanese attack on Los Angeles, which put the city on high alert for one terrifying night in 1941. In an attempt to move away from the dreamy, epic sci-fi existentialism of Close Encounters, 1941 became an over-produced slapstick comedy of epic proportions.

The converging stories involving the varied cast include Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee as Japanese and Nazi sub captains encroaching Los Angeles by sea, Tim Matheson as a failed pilot trying to bed Nancy Allen aboard a B17 bomber, Bobby Di Cicco trying to avoid a fight with the bully figure of Treat Williams, Ned Beatty as a civilian who has been entrusted with guarding a massive artillery gun on his front lawn and John Belushi as a trigger-happy pilot running amuck through everything.

Some of the more astounding set pieces include the destruction of L.A. Harbor, finishing with the awesome site of a Ferris wheel rolling off the pier. There's also a brilliantly choreographed airplane dog fight low over the streets of Hollywood, and one of Spielberg's best ever sequences in the USO dance sequence featuring Bobby Di Cicco dancing his way around Treat Williams for the love of his girl.

Between these sequences is a whole lot of screaming, explosions and massive destruction. Most of the fine cast is wasted with Spielberg's exaggerations. Other fine actors showing up with unheralded roles include Slim Pickens, Murray Hamilton and Lionel Stander.

Spielberg himself has acknowledged this as a massive failure but also as a learning ground for his more controlled, efficient and economical productions from Raiders on. Take everything with a grain of salt in this one, but cherish this for Spielberg’s confident hubris and impressive production values, however grotesque they may be.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Best of Cinema 2011

It’s been a decent but not outstanding year for cinema. There was a lot of very good movies and few, if any, ‘great’ ones. And so, after compiling my 10 best list, it unfortunately results in a series of mostly dark and grisly films about death or other tragedies of some sort. Sorry.

As well, usually I separate my fiction films from documentaries to create two separate lists. But this year there were so many fantastic docs, three in particular that were so memorable, they needed to be included with the others. So here goes:

RESURRECT DEAD: THE MYSTERY OF THE TOYNBEE TILES
This independently produced documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, stayed with me for months. It still does. John Foy's procedural conspiracy film attempts to unravel the 20-year-old unsolved mystery of a series of tiles stamped onto the streets of dozens of cities across America, secret coded messages written with a unique artistic penmanship that can be attributed to only one person. 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. He matches Errol Morris for his rigorousness and his ability to parse out information in a clear and dramatic way, but with a sharp sense of humour. This is pure cinematic storytelling at work.


TAKE SHELTER
As a second film, writer/director Jeff Nichols shows remarkable confidence with a story less easily definable than the ‘revenge’ drama of Shotgun Stories. Take Shelter is ambitious, complex and deceptive, the type of film M. Night Shymalan used to make.


I SAW THE DEVIL
A two-and-a-half hour tete-a-tete revenge film, Korean style. Jee-woon Kim takes influence from the Korean landmark genre thriller Old Boy. It’s so grisly, disturbing and relentlessly violent, but it’s something you can’t help but rubberneck your head around to watch.


THERE'S SOMETHING WRONG WITH AUNT DIANE
You may know the story already – the strange case of a seemingly normal, well-adjusted middle-class mom travelling home from the cottage with her two young kids and three nieces. She inexplicably loses her sense of direction and starts speeding the wrong way on the highway before tragically killing eight people, including herself and all but one of her passengers. Under the careful direction of Liz Garbus, Aunt Diane resounds as a fascinating documentary so tragic and confounding it has haunted me ever since.


THE ARTIST
Sure, this isn't news now. And pretty soon French director Michel Hazanavicius's love letter to the silent film era will be over-hyped, but we can't deny that this is a remarkably entertaining film.


SHAME
McQueen's odyssey of a sex addict, while narratively sparse and controlled, is a triumph for its astonishing visceral and emotional power – a technically stylish and emotionally intense experience on par with Black Swan.

LIKE CRAZY
Pitch perfect anti-romance about a long distance relationship plays like Going the Distance made by Michael Winterbottom, presented with a pretension-free hip style from director Drake Doremus.


THE IDES OF MARCH
Don’t let this fascinating, thrilling and wholly thought-provoking new millennium political thriller fall through the cracks. It's a superb character study that ambitiously strives for an arc as grand as The Godfather. In almost half the running time, Clooney crafts a cynical tale of corruption and the effect of career ambition, jealousy and revenge on one’s moral conscience.


TYRANNOSAUR
Paddy Considine's directorial debut is a chronicle of the cycle of abuse in the grand tradition of great British kitchen sink dramas. It’s a deeply emotional story of two lost souls, victims of the cycle of abuse, who find solace with each other from their working class shitholes. But through Peter Mullan’s and Olivia Colman’s superlative performances and mutual chemistry, Considine succeeds in making us want to spend 90 minutes in the lives of these tortured characters.


PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY
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.


Honourable Mentions:

Drive - a unique creative collaboration between director Nicholas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling and composer Cliff Martinez

Moneyball - a surprisingly accessible sports drama about the effect of the science of statistics on the sacred American game

Myth of the American Sleepover - think Dazed and Confused or American Graffiti as made by Gus Van Sant. An under-the-radar winner that signals a new voice in American indie cinema in David Robert Mitchell

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil - a fun horror comedy with a wicked hook and two great comic performances from Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II - for someone who had given up on this series after the third episode, I was won back by this surprising final chapter, which manages to connect all the previous films for a satisfying and emotional conclusion

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within - this Brazilian cops and robbers action film, which aspires to have the same epic weight as Michael Mann's Heat, was the highest grossing domestic film of all time in Brazil

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Niels Arden Oplev's version of this story played like a solid David Fincher rip-off. Now we have the real thing, executed with cold, pulpy perfection and everything we wanted to see from this well put together cinematic collaboration

Senna - an uplifting turned tragic documentary about the life of world champion Formula One driver Ayton Senna, who died on the racetrack in 1994.

Bridesmaids - hands down the comedy of the year, featuring the supremely talented Kristin Wiig as both writer and actor.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Rocky IV

Rocky IV (1985) dir. Sylvestor Stallone
Starring: Sylvestor Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Brigitte Nielsen, Talia Shire, Burt Young

***

By Alan Bacchus

Rocky IV has so much wrong with it, it’s an easy film to pick apart, chew up and spit out. But it makes it so difficult to do that when the film is so damned fun. Why is that?

First of all, the film is a huge cheat on the part of Stallone. There’s barely a film here, almost no story whatsoever. As usual, in the opening moments we see a flashback to the end of the previous Rocky film – Stallone coached by his former nemesis, Apollo Creed, fighting and defeating the snarling Clubber Lang (Mr. T).

Cut to Rocky Balboa, once a street-level hood who walked around in baggy, ill-fitting clothes on the streets of Philadelphia, now a multimillionaire living in a swanky mansion with a robotic waiter (nice try Sly, the household robots never did catch on). Rocky is now retired and so is Creed, who, like Rocky, has nothing to do but relax alone in his backyard swimming pool. But when Apollo hears about a champion Soviet boxer, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), splashing himself all over American television he decides to take on the bulky blond for a comeback fight in the name of Cold War patriotism.

Despite Rocky’s protests that Apollo is too old, the show must goes on, and after a ridiculous and embarrassing musical sideshow introduction by James Brown, Creed gets his butt whipped and is actually killed in the ring. Rocky won’t stand for it and wants revenge against the evil Commies. Thus, he challenges Drago to a match in Russia on Christmas Day. Despite Adrian’s fears, Rocky has to do it because he’s a man and a fighter. And without the fight, he’s not a man.

Cue a series of musical montage scenes, which contrast the scientific training methods of Drago with the old fashioned organic method of training – push-ups, sit-ups, log lifting, snow shovelling and wooden cart pulling. The fight starts and Rocky wins and earns the respect of the Soviet people.

The film is a cheat because Stallone actually gets away without telling a story. He fast forwards through the most difficult part of writing and essentially crafts two fight scenes sandwiched between half a dozen montage scenes. One after another, we’re shown the same match-cut edited training sequences. Each piece of music is bigger and grander and more inspiring than the next. There’s ‘Burning Heart’ by Survivor, then ‘Hearts on Fire’ by John Cafferty, then ‘Man Against the World"’ by Survivor (again) and the appropriately titled ‘Training Montage’ by the film’s composer, Vince Di Cola.

But it all works beautifully. The montage scenes are crafted very well and shot and composed perfectly by Stallone. Even though it’s a glorified music video these scenes create great anticipatory energy. Stallone has earned his right to use the sequences. He was already at the fourth film in the series, each one as popular and successful as the one before it. So he’s just giving the audience what it wants. Sure it’s a sell-out to the spirit of the original film, and Stallone indeed would attempt to reboot the series – twice!

Rocky IV is disposable franchise filmmaking at its best, an invigorating guilty pleasure, impossible not to love, at least on some kind of juvenile level.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park (1993) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Samuel L. Jackson

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Back in the day, this picture was considered a bit of a 'comeback' film. After nearly a decade of successful but tepid films from the hit maker, the headlong, thrill ride-style of filmmaking in Jurassic Park signalled a return of sorts to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s period of Spielberg’s career. That said, Jurassic Park feels a lot different than Jaws or Raiders. It has the mark of an older filmmaker, a family man with a little edge lost, but still a master of action, suspense and cliffhanger cinema.

With today's eyes, any soft spots, false notes, bad casting and sappy sentimentality are glossed over by Spielberg's remarkable adaptation of Michael Crichton's techno-action novel.

The novel was a terrific page-turner with a cleverly structured narrative written as a mysterious scientific puzzle of sorts before launching into a full-blown adventure story. The novel worked best in the set-up and less so with descriptive action. As co-writers, Crichton and Koepp did the best they could to retain as much of the scientific, historical and ethical diatribes of the novel with the need to satisfy the demand of tent pole/blockbuster entertainment.

Spielberg's film works essentially as a series of impeccably crafted set pieces. The opening sequence still dazzles with a group of park rangers trying to corral some unearthly beast inside a seemingly indestructible cage. Some critics at the time complained that he showed us his dinosaurs too early in the film. On the contrary, look closely and Spielberg is very clever with his reveals. While he does show off some of his dinos in full wide shots early on, it's the kinder, softer dinosaurs, like the gentle and graceful Brontosaurs. Yet, he conspicuously hides his menacing creatures until the midway point, including the famous T-Rex sequence.

Before then, Spielberg masterfully teases us with a brilliant first-half set-up. By the time the T-Rex reveals itself and attacks with full force, the scene is a confluence of layers and subplots - the fearless ignorance of Hammond, the sabotage of the clandestine corporate rival and the science lessons effortlessly supplied to us.

The scene is still remarkable, particularly the CG-rendered dinosaur, a technology still in its infancy. The CG dinos still look fantastic because of their placement against real live sets, actors and props as opposed to the overuse and reliance on CG in George Lucas's new Star Wars films.

For cinematography fans, the film is also significant for being Spielberg’s last collaboration with a cinematographer other than his current go-to man, Janusz Kaminsky. While I admire Kaminsky's work, there was something to be said about the varied lighting Spielberg received from working with a variety of cinematographers over the years (e.g., Allen Daviau, Mikael Salomon, Douglas Slocomb, Vilmos Zsigmond). Dean Cundey's work here is terrific, as he provides a significantly different look than Kaminsky's work in The Lost World. Cundey's bold colours and brilliant backlighting pop Spielberg's characters out of the frame better than Kaminsky could ever do.

Rick Carter's production design is deservedly celebrated. While the dinosaurs are wonderful, it's the details of his sets and props that put Jurassic Park in the relatable and believable world of today. The design of the park, from the gift shop toys to the detail on the ID badges of the employees, is all from Spielberg and Carter, who spared no expense in putting the audience into an identifiable situation.

Sure, Sam Neill and Laura Dern are mostly boring as the heroic duo, and the injection of the two children into the story still has me rolling my eyes. But the ability of Spielberg to ratchet up the tension and sustain a level of spine-tingling suspense from beginning to end is the stuff of cinema geniuses like Alfred Hitchcock.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Dumbo

Dumbo (1942) dir. Various
Voices by: Sterling Holloway, Edward Brophy and James Baskett

****

By Alan Bacchus

The second last of the great 'Golden Age of Animation' Disney films, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi and Dumbo sparkle with a kind of cinema magic unlike any other films in history. The incredibly touching story of a ridiculed baby elephant with big ears born into a circus troupe who realizes his ears can make him fly and achieve unrivalled greatness and success resonates so strongly because of its universal message of marginalization and triumph over adversity.

The scant narrative with barely any dialogue and the artistry with movement, colour and music give this (and all Golden Age Disney films) the same kind of lyrical grace as a silent film. There isn't one credited director on Dumbo. Instead, Walt Disney created his films by assigning sequences to several animation directors who worked independently but with creative guidance from Disney himself. In today's environment, Walt Disney would have been credited as director, which makes it all so ironic that, other than the opening presentation, he doesn't even have a credit on the film.

This is one of the reasons why these Disney films feel so different and special compared to feature animation films today. Looking closely at the narrative, Dumbo is essentially a series of linked set pieces, like Fantasia but with a through line and narrative arc. Take the opening sequence, for example, during which the storks drop off the bundles of joy to the circus animals. The animation of the baby animals is impossibly cute, ending with the endearing sadness of poor Jumbo the elephant left without a newborn. The arrival of Dumbo from the late stork is its own sequence, as is the bounding preparation montage scene of the faceless humans building up the circus tents.

Of the minimal dialogue scenes, the female elephant colleagues of Dumbo's that act like a peanut gallery of sorts who bully and ridicule poor Dumbo are characterized as a group of snobby neighbourhood gossipers who resent Jumbo’s and Dumbo's assimilation with their group. Their comeuppance at the end when Dumbo shows off his ability to fly results in a truly awesome sequence. Dumbo and Timothy the mouse falling from the burning building without Dumbo's trusty magic feather is a tense sequence, climaxing when Dumbo's ears successfully pop out and help them glide overtop of the circus crowd and the awestruck elephant group.

And in between the traditional story, there's the remarkable 'parade of elephants' sequence, which sticks out like a psychedelic fantasy 25 years before people were dropping acid. Under anyone else's watch, the shear length of the sequence, which cuts into the third act of the film, might have threatened the forward flow of the film. But it's consistent with the episodic nature of all these Golden Age pictures and Uncle Walt's innate knowledge of what stimulates children's imaginations.

Remarkably, Dumbo is only a 63-minute movie and features a simplicity in both story and structure that is missing from today's 'family' pictures. Sadly, with America entering into WWII at the time, Dumbo was the penultimate picture of the pre-war period films. Bambi would be released a year later – arguably the best of the period. And, with the exception of the 'packaged features' (feature length compilations of Disney shorts), it wouldn't be until 1950's Cinderella that Disney would make another animated feature.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) dir. David Fincher
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgaard, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright

***½

By Alan Bacchus

I don't think we should consider this picture a remake of the original, but considering the close proximity of the Niels Arden Oplev version, let's call the Swedish version a trial run of sorts for this film adaptation. The fact is the first film was pretty good, a decent adaptation the novel visualized with a David Fincher-like style – a grisly crime procedural told with a slow-burning, cold tone and precise visual compositions. Well, now we have the real thing, the real David Fincher at the helm of the 'American version', a film not all that dissimilar from Oplev's but with the full and authentic Fincher experience.

Fans of the book (or the first movie) that feared the Americans would 'Hollywoodize' these universally loved 'Swedish' stories can relax. Fincher has dutifully honoured Stieg Larsson and his Swedish heritage by making this as Swedish as possible. Not only is the film set in Sweden, it was shot there and co-produced by Yellow Bird, the producers of the Swedish films. Other than the lead players, Fincher populates most of the supporting roles with real Swedes. Hell, even Robin Wright does a decent Swedish accent!

The story is the same with few changes from the original (note: I have not read the book). Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist for Millennium magazine who has recently been indicted for libel for a scathing article on a high profile financial tycoon. At this lowest moment of his life, he gets a call from Henrik Vanger, an even more powerful corporate tycoon who offers Mikael a job – to investigate the murder of his beloved niece, Harriet, who, after disappearing in 1965, has been tormented by her killer with flowers each year on his birthday.

Holed up in an icy cold estate up north, Mikael systematically goes through all the old evidence, but the most intriguing aspect of the case is the tempestuous Vanger family, one of whom must be the killer. Vanger's siblings, nieces and nephews are portrayed as a motley crew of spoiled aristocrats sequestered from regular working class life. Mikael's investigation hits its stride when he employs a goth super hacker and the person after whom the film is named – the tattooed girl, Lisbeth Salander. Though suffering from psychological damage from a life abused by men, she's created a stone cold kickass feminist attitude that allows her to get what she wants. By the end, the secrets of the case are revealed in traditional pot boiler plotting, including a dramatic confession by the killer at the end. But it's the tease of Salander's back story and Mikael's connection to the Vangers and his professional issues with the magazine that enrich the experience.

Noomi Rapace was a brilliant Lisbeth Salander, and Rooney Mara does a fine job keeping up with her. Her expressionless composure and physical attributes (piercings, tats, goth attire) create an imposing first impression, but Rooney adequately shows us the deep-rooted pain and fear from her years of emotional torture. Fincher plays out her character as I imagine Larsson had intended, as a superhero of sorts, not someone to replicate some kind of realist character portrait, but someone to root for and stimulate us like an aggressive martyr fueled by revenge. The back story of Salander, as mentioned, is perfectly teased to us, but by proxy Harriet Vanger's story we assume is also Lisbeth's.

Daniel Craig is curiously cast perhaps because he's a better looking version of Michael Nyqvist, the Swedish blonde with a poxy face who played Mikael in the original film. Craig embodies the intellectual and political savvy of Blomkvist with aplomb. He's not glorified with sexual allure like in the Bond films. Craig's attractiveness comes from his ability to analyze the minutiae of data and evidence.

As expected, Fincher plays out the procedural aspects of the story with a wicked sense of pace. Under the tough but moody sounds of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, he makes the 158-minute running time fly by without notice.

Unlike the first film, Fincher ambitiously extends the narrative beyond its natural ending for another 20 minutes to close off the plotting of Blomkvist's legal troubles and to some degree his relationship with Salander. It's a tightly plotted montage sequence, the kind that normally exists in the second act to compress time, and by all rights as a denouement it shouldn't be there. But this all works simply because of Larsson's intriguing pulp narrative, rich with multi-generational back stories and strong themes of feminism under Fincher's singular and unwavering vision and filmmaking skills.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes (1938) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

A delicious early Hitchcock classic featuring all the familiar Hitchcock tropes – contained and precise choreographed action aboard a train, an ordinary female heroine inadvertently caught in a world of international espionage, a mysterious but high-priced maguffin and that dry British wit to ensure the film never takes itself too seriously.

Hitch places us conspicuously in a fake European country with the continent on the brink of war. A varied group of travellers includes a couple of British fops desperately trying to get updates on the cricket scores back home, an Italian magician, a suave British folk singer, a trio of sexually charged gals, and a host of inept locals. Before anyone steps on a train or anyone 'vanishes', we're introduced to our ensemble of characters stranded in a small town with only one hotel while snow is being cleared from the tracks. We're not even sure who the hero will be. Perhaps it’s the affable cricket fans, the musician, the old British Governess or the betrothed young woman at the end of her world tour of sowing her wild oats (Hitch is very coy but clear about this). This opening act is nothing but comedy, completely disarming us to where the journey will ultimately take us.

Once aboard the train, Hitch spends more time with Mrs. Froy, the Governess, and the bride-to-be, Iris. The shoe for this picture drops when Iris falls asleep in her train car only to wake up and find Froy missing, gone, vanished into thin air. The magician, who now sits across from her, claims he's never seen Froy. It’s the same with everyone else on the train. Is Iris crazy? The conveniently placed psychoanalyst on board thinks so. But just as she's about to accept her own insanity she finds an ally in Gilbert, the folk singer, who after finding a shred of evidence that Froy is real, becomes Iris’s sleuthing partner.

The entire second act plays out aboard the train, a frequent motif for Hitchcock and a device that serves to create claustrophobia and containment of the characters, as well as a metaphor for the intensity of the chase that ensues. Hitchcock remarkably shot all these train sequences within a 90-foot space with only one replica train car, meticulously storyboarding his shots, of course, to create an efficient production.

The film's most famous and celebrated scene comes midway in - a confrontation between Iris and Gilbert and one of the kidnapping suspects, during which the suspect attempts to poison the duo with drinks. Hitchcock squeezes out every drop of tension from the exchange by shooting the scene through the wine glasses placed mere inches away from the camera.

The film arguably loses its edge once the train comes to a stop and a gunfight ensues between the heroes at the clandestine political enemy faction. The Lady Vanishes works best in motion in the moments of confusion and mystery from Iris's point of view. Hitch not-so-subtly drops hints about the mystery along the way, unbeknownst to Iris, but very clear to the audience. We know that Froy's dropped eyeglasses, which are given a bold close-up, will pay off somewhere down the line, same with the Governess' handwritten name on the foggy window, or the very specific herbal tea she requests on the train, fun clues to trace back later on to prove Iris' sanity.

The Lady Vanishes, which was extremely popular in its day, was one of Hitchcock's last British films before he moved to Hollywood, and it marks the end of this pre-war espionage pictures, such as The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much. His move to Hollywood and his work under David O. Selznick would be marked by significantly higher budgets and production values. But there's something more inspiring and vivacious in the production constraints through which Hitchcock crafted some of his best works. The Lady Vanishes exemplifies this unique period of his career.

The Lady Vanishes is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Carnage

Carnage (2011) dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz

****

By Greg Klymkiw

I had to see Carnage again to experience everything I missed the first time. It's the funniest movie of the year, so be prepared to laugh so hard that you too will need to see it a second time. Then, you'll probably want to see it a third time - just because it's so terrific.

The movie is also blessed with the distinction of being one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations ever committed to film. Based on Yasmina Reza's award-winning play "God of Carnage", the author could not have asked for a better director than the great Roman Polanski to guide its four characters through a mud-swamped, mustard-gas-infused battlefield of nasty sniping - not in Beirut, mind you, but within the upscale luxury of a lovely New York apartment.

So much of Reza's ferocious knee-slapping dialogue is worthy of that which pulsates through Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf". Though overall the play/movie as a whole is not as dangerously devastating as Albee's classic four-hander, (nothing ever could/would be) Carnage is, as a movie, so much more honest and brilliant than, say, the fake nastiness of such overrated crap as Alan Ball's screenplay for American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes. With American Beauty and his loathsome screen adaptation of Revolutionary Road, the marginally talented Mendes specializes, it seems, in rendering drama that purports to expose all the raw nerve endings of human existence, but does so for those who only pretend they like the lower depths of domestic bile puked up on a platter - but really don't.

Carnage, on the other hand, expunges its smorgasbord of bilious goods with Polanski's trademark aplomb and sheer delicious, vicious glee. (There's even a great moment in the movie that comes close to the shock and hilarity of the now-famous Trelkovsky-in-the-park sequence in The Tenant.) This picture is possibly even more claustrophobic than all of Polanski's previous "apartment" pictures combined - though it's brilliantly bookended with (and scored by the wonderful Alexander Desplat) by two phenomenal exterior sequences. Other than those, though, we're smack dab in the living room, kitchen and hallway of an apartment.

Two relatively affluent 40-something couples meet over coffee and cobbler to discuss, in a civilized manner, the fisticuffs which broke out between their respective pre-teen sons. The conversation zig-zags between several topics, all related in some fashion to the initial offending action. However, once the coffee and cobbler is abandoned in favour of a bottle of scotch, the relative restraint gives way to a no-holds-barred, rock-em-sock-em, to-the-death cage match of verbal assaults and, much to everyone's surprise, an uncorking of everything that's wrong with both marriages.

The hosts of this afternoon meeting of minds are clearly the odd couple of the two. Michael (John C. Reilly) is a borderline boor who runs a successful wholesale firm that specializes in fixtures. His wife Penelope (Jodie Foster) is a pinched prig with a penchant for fine art catalogues and coffee table books and labours in her not-so successful career as an author (her latest book is about the suffering of Darfur). The guests of the host couple seem, on the surface, a perfect fit. Alan (Christoph Waltz) is a sleazy lawyer who represents dubious pharmaceutical companies and Nancy (Kate Winslet) is a chicly-attired trophy wife.

As the afternoon progresses, battle lines are drawn, re-drawn and the balance of power shifts ever so deftly from one side to the other. In no time, the blades come out. The eviscerations are at first levelled from hosts to guests and vice-versa, but when each respective husband and wife begin on each other, the nasty accusations and finger pointing become far more revelatory than any of the characters bargained for that day.

When Michael, the seemingly happy-go-lucky schlub opines, "We're born alone and we die alone," he quickly adds, "Does anyone want a little scotch?" Offering booze to quell a tense situation, is frankly akin to aiming a thermonuclear device at the Hoover Dam.

The cast is uniformly fine. Reilly plays on his goofy, hangdog appeal but brings a heretofore unexplored malevolence to his bag of thespian tricks. Jodie Foster delivers another trademark slender thread performance, but reveals a terrific sense of humour. Kate Winslet beguiles us with her full-figured beauty, but eventually lets rip with her fair share of verbal daggers. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) proves again why he is one of the best actors working today - he careens from cutthroat to pathetically needy and everything in between.

Some critics who should know better (my familiar refrain), have admired the movie grudgingly, but toss it off as a "filmed play". Nothing could be further from the truth. Polanski is a master of enclosed spaces (Repulsion, The Tenant, Rosemary's Baby, etc.). His deft camera placement and movement is pure cinema. More importantly, he adheres to what ultimately makes the best big-screen adaptations of theatre - he refuses, by and large, to "open-up" the action.

This knee-jerk attempt by filmmakers to render their work more cinematic serves - more often than not - to dilute the power of the text and thus rendering it MORE lacking in the hallmarks of cinematic storytelling. (Let's NOT forget the moronic decision on the part of director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman to "open up" the otherwise GREAT film version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by shifting the locale briefly to a nearby roadside bar. The sequence sticks out like a sore thumb.)

Polanski refuses to take the easy way out. He throws us into the four walls of this apartment and forces us, for eighty minutes, to engage in the superb verbal jousts which, I must assert are plenty nasty and screamingly funny. Carnage is ultimately a class act all the way and once again, Roman Polanski proves he's one of the great living filmmakers.

Oh, and guess what? It's about adults.

"Carnage" is being released by Mongrel Media and will be seen in both mainstream cinemas and at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as the cherry on the sundae of a superb mini-retrospective of Polanski's claustrophobic masterworks.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

City of Life and Death

City of Life and Death (2009) dir. Lu Chuan
Starring: Ye Liu, Yuanyuan Gao, Hideo Nakaizumi, Wei Fan

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Lu Chuan’s massive dramatic recounting of the atrocious Nanking massacre will probably become a new benchmark in historical cinema. It’s an epic 2 hour and 15 minute black and white, violent, disturbing, shocking and heartbreaking experience that shows the atrocities of soldiers in war with maximum power and effectiveness.

To refresh your knowledge of history, prior to WWII China and Japan were at war with each other and in 1937 the Japanese conquered China’s then capital city, Nanking (or Nanjing). The battle resulted in the killing of 300,000 Chinese soldiers, and in the six weeks that followed tens of thousands of women were raped ritualistically in a massacre for sheer dehumanizing brutality on par with the holocaust.

This event is not widely known and certainly not in the public consciousness like the Holocaust, but Chuan’s dramatic cinematic record should change this. It’s a precise and painstakingly detailed account put to screen with seemingly no production expense spared.

Yu Cao’s breathtaking anamorphic B&W cinematography immediately puts us into a distinct world of cinematic integrity and realism. The opening 30 minutes recreates the last stand by the Chinese to hold the city. The battle scenes are as rough, noisy, intense and harrowing as anything put on screen. If the final battle scene in Saving Private Ryan was shot in B&W, it would have looked like this. With a history of realistically rendered war films behind it, and with Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers as benchmark precedents, it’s difficult to make cinematic war fresh. But by shifting his point of view between the Japanese and Chinese, Chuan manages to create a distinct omniscient view of battle. And between the frenetic handheld gunfire and explosions he takes time to pull out and frame some truly awesome compositions. The sight of hundreds of Japanese surrendering with their hands up in a church is the stuff of David Lean, and the awe of watching hundreds of soldiers gunned down to their deaths in a single wide shot is almost unparalleled.

For the second and third acts, Chuan shifts to the even more gruesome plight of the civilian refugees in the aftermath. We watch as the Japanese soldiers, seemingly left to their own devices and unmonitored by Japanese generals, sadistically corral and torture the women with a disturbingly organized system of ritualistic rape. From here Chuan moves from Saving Private Ryan to Schindler’s List. The cinematography is certainly a visual reminder of the effect, but the tone of random, inexplicable violence and genuine heroism and courage echoes Spielberg’s benchmark film as well.

Out of all this gruesomeness emerge a number of distinct and developed characters. Tang, who starts out as a representative of the Nazi party and who cowardly desires to save his own ass, goes through the greatest change, rising at the end of the film to become a selfless hero and courageous leader. And the sadistic Japanese leader is as cruel and vicious as Ralph Fiennes' summation of Nazi evil, Amon Goeth.

A film like City of Life and Death needs to be made as a matter of dramatic cinematic record. However, it demands more of its audience than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. The cinematic brutality on display can be sickening and an emotional beat down, but by providing us with an impeccably authored piece of art, Chuan accomplishes everything this film needs to be.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

To Catch a Thief


To Catch a Thief (1955) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Jesse Royce Landis, John Williams

**

By Alan Bacchus

Alfred Hitchcock made over 60 films, so there’s bound to be a dud or two in there. Hitch making a heist film in 1955 in the middle of his greatest decade of work should have been a knock out of the park. Instead it’s one of his most sanitized un-Hitchcock-like films. All things considered, To Catch a Thief is weak.

Cary Grant plays John Robie, a suave playboy and former cat burglar living in the French Riviera under an assumed name. When another burglar starts knocking off rich ladies' jewellery in his neck of the woods Robie becomes the chief suspect. By necessity, and in part as a gamely challenge, Robie comes out of retirement and puts himself in the line of fire in order to catch the imposter thief.

Robie decides to case the jewellery collection of an older American woman who is vacationing with her daughter. The younger gal, Frances (Grace Kelly), develops a close relationship with Robie, first as innocent flirting and then revealing an attraction to his criminal burgling skills. With the help of Frances and her Lloyds of London insurance agent, Robie tracks down the elusive cat burglar in order to clear his own name.

Of course, this radical two-star rating is in context with the other Hitchcock classics. But the film is not without merit. Grace Kelly and Cary Grant could start fires together, so much so that Hitchcock shot their great seduction scene with a grand fireworks display in the background. Grace Kelly is stunning and obviously caught the eye of a certain Prince Rainier of Monaco – the rest is history...

A couple of car chase sequences are staged through the Cannes countryside, creatively shot entirely from a helicopter’s view. And every exterior location, shot in brilliant and bold widescreen Technicolor, is stunningly beautiful.

But it’s the lack of effort Hitch shows with his heist scenes that disappoint the most. A heist scene should be a showcase for Hitchcock’s best skills – stand-alone set pieces with a focus on action and suspense. The burglaries are shot with minimal, if any, tension and feature rudimentary shot selections.

1955 was also the year of Rififi, Jules Dassin’s masterpiece featuring the immaculately conceived and executed heist scene shot entirely in silence. Sadly, both films were released at the same time, thus we missed out on some creative one-upmanship.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Tora, Tora, Tora

Tora, Tora, Tora (1970) dir. Richard Fleischer
Starring: So Yamamura, E.G. Marshall, James Whitmore, Martin Balsam, Jason Robards, Tatsuya Mihashi, Joseph Cotton

****

By Alan Bacchus

What a terrific picture this is despite being considered a failure in its day, perhaps because of the concerted attempt to de-heroize the era and create a realistic portrait of war from both sides of the battle. If anything, the matter-of-fact modus operandi at play here reminds me of Paul Greengrass’s procedural approach to 9/11 in United 93. This picture is utterly believable and because of the hefty budget the production values are virtually invisible to its age.

The title, which Hollywood execs probably fought the filmmakers on, refers to the Japanese code word for the green light given to attack on that fateful day of December 7, 1941. Under the meticulous research efforts and strong adherence to historical credibility, Tora Tora Tora by proxy represents an antidote to the shameless tragedy-turned popcorn entertainment Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay version a few years ago.

Among other things, what separates Michael Bay from Richard Fleischer here is the fact that Fleischer and company believe wholeheartedly in the drama and power of the event, as opposed to manufactured character-based dramas injected into the story. Without the distraction of a brotherly battle between troops, a black cook who overcomes racial prejudice to become a hero on the day or a romantic dalliance between a pilot and a nurse, the riveting day-by-day, minute-by-minute details leading up to the attack is pure cinema, as tense and thrilling as any genre film can create.

The film goes back months before the attack to the planning stage from the Japanese point of view and the systematic piecing together of details by the Americans. If anything, the dual storylines feel like the cat and mouse chase in the Day of Jackal. In that picture, the Jackal and his pursuers begin far apart, but gradually become closer together as the picture goes along. Unfortunately, we can't fictionalize an ending in this case. In the magnificently staged action climax, a 45-minute long attack sequence, it's Hollywood destruction at its finest.

With that said, there is something missing in the emotional detachment. In United 93, it was the fine editing work that created a singular moment of pain and triumph felt by the audience in the very last frame. Of course, in this film WWII has just started for the United States, so closure would have been impossible without such Bruckheimer dramatic manufacturing.

The producers famously recruited Japanese directors Kinji Fukasaku (who would go on to direct Battle Royale in his older age) and Toshio Masuda to direct the Japanese sequences. This is more than a gimmick. Admirably, the Japanese side is humanized as much as possible. Sure the Imperial army and its commanders are certainly made out to be power-hungry strategists looking to expand their control of the ocean, but the rationale for the attack is sufficiently justified. And the doubt expressed by many of its leaders creates a powerful inner conflict from this opposing side.

The American side of the story focuses on the various generals, chiefs of staff and other officers piecing together the Japanese plan. Accurately, the attack is never portrayed as a true 'surprise' attack, nor is there any embellishment of conspiracy theories about the Americans' pre-conceived knowledge of the attack. Again, the filmmakers always land on the side of realism and the truth.

Sadly, Tora Tora Tora is rarely ever spoken of in terms of the great war films in history. Perhaps it’s because of lingering effects of the film's perceived failure and its budget overruns. But discard these notions and discover this terrific picture.

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

Monday, 19 December 2011

Revanche

Revanche (2008) dir. Götz Spielmann
Starring: Johannes Krisch, Irina Potapenko, Andreas Lust, Ursula Strauss

****

By Alan Bacchus

Some spoilers below...

Götz Spielmann's Oscar nominated Revanche is an inspired masterpiece of a thriller, which doesn't really turn out to be a thriller in the end, but something more emotionally complex and profound than a mere genre film.

Alex and Tamara are lovers desperately trying to make a life together. First they have to get out of the sex traffic business. Tamara is a hooker/stripper working for an Eastern European gangster and Alex is the club’s hardened but ineffectual barkeep. Alex makes a plan to hold up a small town bank, grab the cash, pay off their debts and ride away into the sunset in freedom. Plans go wrong, of course, when the heist and their escape are interrupted by a humble cop, Robert.

Spielmann is clever to subvert our expectations, steering the movie in the direction of a lovers-on-the-run road movie in the first half before pulling the rug from under us and making a dramatic left turn to something deeper and more complex. The second half deals with the fallout from Alex/Tamara’s encounter with the cop, the details of which I won’t reveal here. Soon Alex finds himself alone hiding from the authorities in the home of his elderly grandfather and his kindly female neighbour, Susanne, who happens to be the wife of the cop who disrupted the heist.

The title Revanche means revenge in German, but it can also mean ‘second chance’ – the prevailing theme that dominates the rest of the film. Alex wrestles with the choice between his desire for revenge and his inability to commit to another act of violence, and whether his grandfather and the town will become his second chance at making a real honest life for himself.

After the heist, Spielmann disposes of the urban setting and the strip club, and we don't see the slimy pimp or club owner again. As such, it’s a greyer area of conflict. What was easily characterized as good vs. bad, hero vs. villain and protagonist vs. antagonist is much more difficult to identify with.

The relationship between Susanne and Alex is particularly intriguing. Alex appears to have contempt for Susanne a) because of her association with the cop that prevented the bank robbery and b) because of Susanne’s nosey small town congeniality, which threatens Alex’s grieving process. Then, out of the blue, Susanne seduces Alex. It’s a shock to us, but it’s an instinctual carnal attraction between desperate souls, not unlike Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton’s smouldering love affair in Monster’s Ball.

But Susanne’s agenda is more devious than Alex’s. Alex easily succumbs to passion, because well, he’s a man, and it doesn’t take much to seduce a man. For Susanne, it’s a desperate attempt to save her marriage by secretly conceiving a child even if it’s not her husband’s.

Spielmann sets a quiet tone with a trendy observational style, a languid easy-going pace and non-stylized though pristine visuals. Without overt violence or conflict he slowly simmers his situations and characters with internalized emotions. Like Hamlet, Alex, who desires revenge against Robert, is unable to make a decision and take action – a trait that is planted by Tamara’s pimp in a throwaway conversation early in the film. So we sense there’s a possibility of violence at every moment, whether it’s against Robert, Susanne or even himself. Spielmann’s repetitive use of the wood chopping is almost pornographic, suggesting that it’s either groundwork for its significance later in the movie or that at any time Alex, who is so wound up, could lose control, chop off a finger or lose a limb.

Revanche succeeds masterfully because Spielmann makes us love Alex, Susanne and Robert so much that we desperately want all of them to achieve their dreams and make good for themselves.

Revanche, nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar in 2009, also received the Criterion Collection treatment on Blu-ray, a format that renders Spielmann’s compositions sharply and immaculately.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Velvet Goldmine

Velvet Goldmine (1997) dir. Todd Haynes
Starring: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, Eddie Izzard, Toni Collette

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

Velvet Goldmine was a perceived failure in its day, but it’s a film that showed up on a lot of critics' Best of the Decade lists at the end of the ‘90s. Even I was dumbfounded by the preposterous indulgences of Haynes' love letter to glam rock. The mixture of fantasy and realism under the New Queer Cinema banner had me scratching my head. But there's much to admire in Haynes' ambitiousness and ability to recreate the feeling and tone of those ‘70s rock operas, all with a strong emotional character-based anchor.

The opening moments signal the epic-like ambition of Haynes – a scene set in the 1800s, visiting the gay author Oscar Wilde, who we're told was dropped from a UFO at birth, and in his childhood yearns to be a pop star. The reincarnated pop star we're meant to think he became is Brian Slade (Meyers), who in his youth grew up idolizing an out-of-control Iggy Pop-like rocker, Curt Wild (McGregor).

An audition with a star-making producer (Izzard) leads Slade to create a Ziggy Stardust-like alter ego through which to channel his audacious and overt bisexuality and hardcore lifestyle. The rocky journey of Slade and Wild are chronicled via a not-so-disguised Citizen Kane narrative set in 1984 featuring another fame-chaser, a smitten reporter (Bale) who investigated the rumoured fake-death of Slade years prior.

A strong theme of fame and obsession fuels Haynes' wild stylistic flourishes, which attempt to put us in a grandiose rock opera world like Quadrophenia and Phantom of the Paradise. That said, other than the trippy UFO/Oscar Wilde opening, most of everything we see on screen could have actually happened.

Haynes' loose narrative consists of short set pieces and montage scenes that hopscotch us through the ‘70s at a sharp pace, an energy which Haynes remarkably keeps up for almost two hours. Without a semblance of traditional movie coverage, everything we see on screen is a stimulus brimming with life. And great period music, both real and fake, merges perfectly to create visual and audio harmony.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' androgynous features and palpable screen presence should have been a star-making performance. Unfortunately, the failure of the film prevented this. Eddie Izzard's bombastic performance as the manager steals scenes, but it's Christian Bale we notice above all others. He could have blended into the background of the 'traditional' segments of the picture, but his aching internalized desires to be like Slade or Wild and inhabit their worlds carry more emotional weight than anything else. At the end, we get the film's most infamous scene – anal sex with Ewan McGregor on a rooftop. It's tastefully done, and we don't see much, but I think even the most bigoted homophobes might shed a tear for Bale's character, who in the most transcendental manner achieves his dream.

Looking back, Velvet Goldmine works so well because it takes the best of those ‘70s rock operas (none of them great films anyways), keeps the good stuff, throws out the bad and infuses itself with hopeful and passionate nostalgia.

Velvet Goldmine is available on Blu-ray from Alliance Films in Canada.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Most Dangerous Man in America

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) dir. Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
Documentary

***½

By Alan Bacchus

The spectre of Richard Nixon continues to produce more compelling stories and interesting characters than ever before. With this documentary the microscope zooms in on the story of Daniel Ellsberg's leak of the Pentagon Papers and its influence into activism in the ‘60s, the Vietnam War and the fall of Richard Nixon. It’s a film that successfully links itself to the other great Nixon/Vietnam era political films, such as Frost/Nixon, All the President’s Men, Nixon and The Fog of War.

In many ways Daniel Ellsberg symbolizes the best qualities of the zeitgeist of political activism in the ‘60s – a man who risked family, career and public reputation for the sake of the fundamental constitutional values, which, in his mind, appeared to be forsaken by the country's elected powers. Ehlich and Goldsmith's film serves as a cinematic memoir for Ellsberg, who reveals his motivations, regrets and the moment-by-moment emotions of the two-year period between the leaking of the papers and his ultimate exoneration.

To refresh... the Pentagon Papers was the notorious term for a top secret study prepared by the Department of Defence on U.S./Vietnam relations from 1947-1968. It was a study that revealed scathing lies from four presidents about the motivations, execution and escalation of the Vietnam War.

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a former political advisor to Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara and researcher with the Rand Corporation, leaked these details to the New York Times, the effect of which saw him arrested for espionage and caused the snowball effect of Watergate and Richard Nixon's eventual resignation.

Ellsberg is still alive and provides the narration and key interviews recounting this complex story. We learn about his Harvard education and recruitment into the exclusive political think tank, The Rand Corporation, where he made a name for himself with his ability to think outside the box. During this time his work drafting military risk strategies and decision-making theories helped influence Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara escalate the war in Vietnam. It wasn’t until he met his wife, an activist and protestor, that he awoke to the real-world effects of his work. And so, Ellsberg recounts the difficult moral conflict he found himself faced with. With this knowledge in his possession, did he have a moral obligation to disclose it for the greater good of the nation?

We learn about the connections he made with colleague Anthony Russo to steal the papers and covertly send them to the papers. When the news hit the streets we get to hear the first-hand reactions of Nixon, John Ehlichman and Henry Kissinger via Nixon's own White House wiretap tapes sounding off on the shit-storm fallout caused by the leak.

The uncomplicated tried and true documentary techniques are not flashy, but they effectively visualize the story. Talking heads are formally composed and artistic recreations borrowed from the Errol Morris or Man on Wire school of oblique close-ups do the job of visualizing what could not be shown by news footage or stock photos. Ultimately, the emotional power is in the voices and faces of the participants.

At 75, Ellsberg emerges as a hero and a champion for political activism and perhaps the original and most important whistle blower ever. His moral conflict is articulated best by one of the interviewees who discusses the need to have young people on the jury of his trial. Anyone at middle age would likely find disdain for what Ellsberg did, not because of ethical differences, but because of the fact that Ellsberg's actions would have revealed the cowardice of those ordinary men and women who wouldn't have had the guts to do the right thing. The decision to risk family and career for one’s morals is something few of us have had to face. And for those that have, even fewer have gone through with it.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Cul de Sac

Cul de Sac (1966) dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Lionel Stander, Françoise Dorléac

**½

By Alan Bacchus

However inspired and influential Roman Polanski’s remarkable body of work in the '60s was, there are a few duds. Cul de Sac, hot off Polanski’s two previous films (Knife in the Water and Repulsion), the story of an American gangster holding a meek faux-bourgeois couple hostage in northern Britain might suggest another psychological drama of domestic terror. Unfortunately, there’s a strong injection of swinging '60s comedy, a unique haphazard kind of rambunctious madcap tone that doesn’t really translate well to today.

Think of the silliness of say Casino Royale or It’s a Mad Mad Mad World, a comedic randomness perhaps born from the psychedelic effects of the hallucinogenic drugs at the time. Ok, Cul de Sac is not Casino Royale by any means, but the uncontrolled zaniness is cut from the same cloth, a product of its time.

Like most of his famous pictures, Polanski keeps his production contained. Although in this case the environment of Cul de Sac is more in line with the open containment of his characters in Knife in the Water than walled in claustrophobic Catherine Deneuve’s apartment in Repulsion.

Lionel Stander plays Dickie, a grossly exaggerated American gangster injured from some kind of robbery, on the lam in a car with his partner, who is also injured. When the car breaks down he holes up in a castle, which happens to be inhabited by a young couple; George, a neurotic boob (Pleasance) and his sexually alluring French wife, Teresa (Dorleac). It's not your typical home invasion, as the three engage in numerous oddball activities and discussions. There's really only a hint of a threat from Dickie - partly due to Lionel Stander's gruff but high-pitched and affable voice.

There are a number of levels of theme and humour running through Polanski's surreal and often lunatic indulgences. The placement of these characters in the obscenely antiquated 11th century castle amid a near desolate part of Northern England perhaps forces the audience to reconcile the socio-political differences between three nations - France, America and England. The French (as played by Dorleac), flighty and flirty, America (Stander, pushy opportunists and movie heavies who like to get their own way, and the English (Pleasance), drunken dithering buffoons.

Polanski's superb visual eye is impressive, as always. The castle seems to be perpetually engulfed by ominous and beautifully photographed cumulus clouds in the sky and by an expansive beach tide on the ground, which has the power to isolate the castle entirely in water for large stretches of time.

The fun of Cul de Sac is finding connections across Polanski's body of work, like his penchant for wide-angle interior handheld camerawork placed mere inches away from his actors, as in Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby. The castle setting and the visual motifs of the changing tides remind us of his spectacular and often underappreciated work in his grisly version of Macbeth (1971).

Unfortunately, other than these connections there's not much to take home from Cul de Sac except for maybe Donald Pleasance's oddball performance, another kooky role from the always curious and off-kilter actor.

Cul de Sac is one of a number of Polanski films, including Chinatown, Knife in the Water and Rosemary's Baby, screened this month at TIFF Bell Lightbox, timed with the premiere of his latest, Carnage, next week.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) dir. Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Colin Firth.

***

By Blair Stewart

Espionage writer John le Carré created one of fiction's finer bureaucrats in George Smiley, a grey splotch of a man you'd think nothing of challenging to a duel until you've found he's outwitted you out of all your bullets. Forcibly retired from the early 1960's spy trade due to circumstances similar to the plotline, le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy rebuffed the good-times fantasia of Ian Fleming's James Bond series. Spy work in Cold War-era Britain was lousy business-Agent 007 never had to take a red-eye flight to East Berlin in winter, and he likely would have snapped and killed a few of his superiors from paperwork-induced boredom in the 'Circus' (le Carré's affectionate term for the HQ of the British intelligence arm MI6). In bald contrast to Fleming's more well known creation, George Smiley isn't a very dapper or handsome gent, and yet he's the dog to pick in a fight between the two. Smiley is gifted in memory and anticipation, all sangfroid calm, and loaded with connections throughout the branches of government intelligence-he's a worthy adversary for the the KGB foil of the Circus, the Russian spymaster Karla who hovers just out of reach.

Less a remake of the original BBC serial of Sir Alec Guinness' career-best Smiley, Tomas Alfredson's new release is more so its own stuffed adaptation of the book, compacting the spycraft jargon and labyrinthine relationships into a concise narrative that nearly satisfied my inner "Tinker" fan. Based on what they've managed to retain from the book the script by Bridget O'Conner, Peter Straughan and Peter Morgan has similarities to a clown car with enough space to successfully fit a full troupe.

Gary Oldman stars while looking as anemic as he did in Bram Stoker's Dracula, his Smiley having been shuffled off to early retirement when the operation to out a Russian mole within the Circus by his boss Control (John Hurt) nosedived. Despite Smiley's suspicions about Control's failed trap that devastated his department he can't nose around further until the appearance of the prodigal field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) on British soil confirms the Circus has indeed been compromised. Smiley enlists the help of other forcibly retired Circus staff (Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham) and his now-downtrodden former protege Peter Guiliam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to reveal who's the fink among the bureau's top brass: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), with Control once having suspected Smiley as well.

While successful in Scandinavian film for some time Tomas Alfredson came to light in the (English-speaking) mainstream with 2008's Let the Right One In, his superb take on the John Ajvide Lindqvist novel linking a forever-pubescent vampire in early 80's Stockholm with a sheltered boy in need of schoolyard protection. Alfredson was not only competent enough to hire the correct technicians to believably recreate and capture the fluorescent plastic dourness of Eighties state housing but he also communicated a sweetly-creepy sense of adolescent love/lust between the two leads. As a director Alfredson is capable of establishing le Carré's mood of Red Scare secrecy through his expansive framing and chilly Scandinavian colour palette (this is his second collaboration with DOP Hoyte van Hoytema) while making do with his cast of a Murderers' Row of English acting talent who mostly fit except for Graham and Mark Strong performing while appearing unintentionally hilarious in 70's threads and hair - no fault of their own, it was just a lousy decade for menswear. Oldman, despite seeming to speak all of three words in the first thirty minutes, is nearly equal to Guinness as Smiley, especially in scenes of contained fury when he's interogating the culprits of MI6's downfall.

Despite Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being finely made adult entertainment that's pretty much catnip for year-end 'Best of' film lists a few problems emerge: while the script's inclusions of period music is damn fine (Julio Iglesias's "La Mer", Sammy Davis Jr.'s "The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World") the score by Alberto Iglesias is underwhelming, especially in comparison with the use of Danny Elfman's 'Wolf Suite Pt.1' for the film's first trailer. Another problem is the choice made by director Alfredson in several instances to extinguish suspense from the film, particularly in the climax, which is an admirable approach to an anti-Hollywood spy movie yet still left me dissatisfied, the audience has been patient for two hours, might as well give them something. Overlooking flaws with the adaptation there's still a great deal of quality in quantity with le Carré old-school espionage classic, a Smiley's People follow-up to Tinker by Alfredson would be most appreciated. Karla would approve of it.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens theatrically in Canada on Friday from EOne Films.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Hangover Part II

The Hangover Part II (2011) dir. Todd Phillips
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helm, Zach Galifinakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong

***

By Alan Bacchus

Not only is this film ‘not that bad’, it’s actually a very funny and worthy successor to the original. Of course, I’m coming at this months after its near unanimous vilification by critics, yet it was a resounding box office success with audiences. So what gives?

What seems to be cited most often in the negative reviews is the template-like methodology this sequel places itself into. Beat-for-beat, The Hangover Part II repeats the formula of the first film, like déjà vu or perhaps a Groundhog Day time loop. Is it as fresh as the original? No. But while some saw this as shamelessly uncreative, I found this approach strangely appropriate, providing a level of comedy befitting the original film. Let’s remember, The Hangover was funny, but no masterpiece, certainly not sacred material, and thus ripe for the kind of repetitive comedy used in other movie franchises, such as James Bond, Austin Powers, Back to the Future and a half-century of situation comedies on television.

And to qualify the television reference, this film is by no means small screen material. There is some awesome cinematic comedy on display, appropriately pushing the boundaries of good taste and decency for comedic purposes. And it always stays on the right side of comedy.

The fact is, the ‘wolf pack’ in this picture – Phil, Stu and Alan, all losers incapable of holding their liquor and drugs and susceptible to the vices and temptations of man – are delightfully lovable. In the first film this trio made for a fun lampooning of the thin line between the feint veil of social maturity and the primal nature of our male desires. And here, the fact that the same thing happens to these guys again is a sad reminder or the failings of man.

Moving the situation over to Thailand appropriately ups the stakes. The exotic foreign location and xenophobic cross-culture fears of middle Americans adds a level of unpredictability that’s not present in the relative safety of Las Vegas. There's also ample room to exploit some fun ethnic stereotypes – all very lightly and fairly. Bringing back Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) as the fey Asian coke addict who finds himself embroiled in the wolf pack's journey is key to this.

The missing person in this film turns out to be Teddy, Stu's soon-to-be brother-in-law and his father-in-law's prized possession – a genius teenager destined to fulfil his father's dreams. And so, after they wake up from their substance-influenced amnesia night of hell with Teddy gone missing, Stu's life comes crashing down.

The monkey featured in the poster makes for some good ol’ 'simian' humour involving mimicking human behaviour, which historically always makes for good comedy. Phillips even engineers a truly fantastic car chase in the mix, racing a motorcycle through the streets of Bangkok.

Not all of the gags score, specifically Mike Tyson's appearance in the end and Paul Giamatti's casting as an American gangster. But the authentic locations and the genuine warmth and chemistry of the three actors make this picture highly watchable and undeserving of such critical lambasting. So just chill out and enjoy The Hangover Part II.

The Hangover Part II is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Chandu the Magician


Chandu the Magician (1932) dir. William Cameron Menzies, Marcel Varnel
Starring: Edmund Lowe, Irene Ware, Bela Lugosi

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Chandu the Magician is a rare and near forgotten adventure film from the great period of early horror/adventure classics. The ‘30s was the era of King Kong, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and more. Chandu the Magician stands up well against all of these films for its production value, cinematic energy, exuberance and innovations in cinema that inspired the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Edward Lowe plays Frank Chandler, a British secret agent trained in the eastern mystics of “Yogi,” which has given him powers of hypnosis and mind control. After completing his training he’s told to “go forth with his youth and strength to conquer the evil that threatens mankind.” Chandler is assigned to combat the nefarious Egyptian megalomaniac, Ruxor (Bela Lugosi), who is seeking world domination. Ruxor has kidnapped Chandler’s brother-in-law and scientist, Robert Regent, who has developed a dangerous death ray with the ability to kill many people half-way around the world. Chandu encounters a series of spine-tingling adventures and daring escapes in order to save the world from destruction.

Chandu appears to be one of the main influences on Stephen Somers to make his version of The Mummy. In fact, I'd argue that this film was more influential than even the original 1932 The Mummy. Chandu’s three main protags – Chandler, his sister and the drunken comic relief, Biggles – form the same bumbling trio played by Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and John Hannah.

Chandu is credited with two directors, Marcel Varnel, a stage director who directed the actors, and William Cameron Menzies, who was in charge of the technical design of the picture. Even by b-movie standards the acting is mostly atrocious, but with today’s eyes, Edmond Lowe’s mixture of British superiority and uber-seriousness is just too silly to criticize. It’s so much fun.

Menzies is the real star of the show and one of cinema’s most ambitious filmmakers. He was a director or co-director in the 1930s on pulpy films such as Chandu. Perhaps his crowning achievement is the British science-fiction masterpiece Things to Come – a cautionary tale of war, which spans 2000 years of history. In Chandu he sets the tone of adventure, mysticism and intrigue with a number of inspired sequences, which, unlike the acting, stands up against any of the films of its era, including King Kong. You just need to watch the opening sequence for evidence. It’s a wonderful shot that introduces us to Chandler’s Yogi training fortress. The shot starts with a miniature of the Yogi castle high atop a mountain (dramatically lit with noir-like texture by the great James Wong Howe), then seamlessly transitions to a tracking shot through the hallways of the lair. The sequence is capped with a wonderful showcase of Menzies’ fine superimposition photography demonstrating Chandler’s new mystical powers.

Chandu the Magician is a whole lot of pulpy goodness, a wonderful time capsule of the ambitiousness of early Hollywood to entertain its audiences and amaze them with new worlds, mad scientists, death rays, charming heroes and exotic villains.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Myth of the American Sleepover

Myth of the American Sleepover (2011) dir. David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Claire Sloma, Marlon Morton and Amanda Bauer

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Another ensemble coming-of-age film involving a handful of high schoolers on their last day of summer experiencing the pains of love? But wait, with little fanfare outside of festival play and the Independent Spirit Awards, and almost no penetration into the mainstream consciousness, this picture is arguably the best high school movie produced in years. Just when you thought it was impossible to find a fresh way to tell a high school saga, writer/director David Robert Mitchell manages to find realism and truth in almost every frame of this picture.

We’re in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. It’s the last day of summer, and the film finds a number of lost, disaffected teens trying to reconcile their confused feelings of lost love and satisfy their sexual urges and social frustration. There’s Maggie (a remarkable debut for Clara Sloma), who in the opening scene ogles a shaggy-haired older boy poolside. Tagging along with her is her socially awkward and not as physically developed best friend. Together they pass on a girls’ sleepover with the cool crowd to chase after the boy at a lakeside cottage party. There’s also Claudia (Amanda Bauer), the new girl in town who does go to the sleepover but ends up attracting the host’s vacant zombie-like boyfriend.

Rob (Marlon Morton) attends a guys’ sleepover (not called a sleepover of course) but, not unlike Richard Dreyfuss’s character in American Graffiti, feels compelled to comb the streets of Detroit looking for a nameless blonde with whom he’s blindly become smitten.

Sadly, there’s one bad apple on this tree. It’s the plotting of one of the school graduates, who returns home after flunking out and now pines after a pair of twins from his year who are attending the University of Michigan. His journey to Ann Arbour and his idealistic attempt to barge into the girls’ dorm and convince them that he loves them is the stuff of John Hughes and all the imitators Mitchell seems to be trying to avoid.

But for the most part, the actions, attitudes and reactions of his characters to life’s most complicated situations feel more natural and honest than anything depicted in any John Hughes movie. While Linklater’s and Lucas’s high school opuses (Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti, respectively) anchored their films in raucous set pieces and nostalgic melancholy, Mitchell chooses a Gus Van Sant approach. There’s no self-awareness like from the Hughes imitators, and no raunchy lollygagging like in the Apatow approach. Mitchell’s characters exist in a vacuum of emotional disaffection, true to their immaturity, acting on instinct and completely unaware that they are indeed ‘coming of age.’

That said, even in the non-melodramatic progression of their individual journeys, the non-professional actors portraying these mundane lives are intoxicating and impossible not to fall in love with. Clara Sloma is decidedly un-Hollywood looking and has a palpable cinematic je ne sais quoi ‘screen presence,’ which could make her star. She has the best scene in the film – a drunken dance sequence during which Maggie impulsively jumps into a choreographed dance sequence in front of a group of stunned male teenagers. Of course, in any other hackneyed high school film she would have been verbally ridiculed or embarrassed somehow. Yet the boys in the film, like the audience, can only marvel at Maggie’s innate brilliance. David Robert Mitchell's film matches the quirky brilliance of Maggie's performance.

Myth of the American Sleepover was picked up by IFC Films after receiving acclaim at SXSW and is now available in sparkling High Definition on Netflix.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Freaks

Freaks (1932) dir. Tod Browning
Starring: Harry Earles, Olga Baclanova, Wallace Ford

****

By Alan Bacchus

Tod Browning’s Freaks is a sublime piece of cinema. Despite the title and its cultish reputation, it's a wholly accessible film and simply one of the greatest films ever made.

Browning was light years ahead of his time. Upon the film’s release the parade of deformed and physically challenged actors that make up the main characters were dismissed as grotesque monsters people didn’t want to see on screen. And so for Browning it was art imitating life, as the film suffered from the same type of stigmata that afflicted these physically disabled persons.

But the fact is Freaks is both a terse and emotionally engaging melodrama on a trajectory that is wholly disturbing beyond the surface freakiness of the circus milieu.

The film opens with the introduction of a brand new circus act freakier than anything anyone has ever seen. Before we get to see the monstrosity, Browning brings us back into the past and into the unique subculture of circus life. It’s a vagabond lifestyle of living in trailers and being in constant flux and travel, but it’s also a microcosm of regular domestic life. There are all sorts of wonderful characters, including the half man/half lady, the Siamese twins, a legless man, the human torso, small headed women, pinheads, midgets and more.

While Browning revels is showing us the deformities of these people, at the heart is a deeply affecting romantic relationship between two midgets, Hans and his girlfriend. It’s a love that is tested by the greed and deceit of a conniving femme fatale trapeze artist named Cleopatra. When she hears of Hans' large inheritance, she seduces him with charm and affection, eventually resulting in marriage with the intention of killing him and eventually claiming his money.

Though his girlfriend and his friends can see through this deceit, Hans is blinded by the attention he never received from an able-bodied person. Harry Earles is so marvelous as the love-stricken midget, his sad face generates so much sympathy the action plays out like a classic Greek tragedy.

Eventually, Hans catches on and fights back against Cleopatra, tricking her into revealing her true intentions, which sparks an intense finale during which the freaks band together to exact revenge on the evil woman. And the link-up with the scene at the beginning of the film is astounding and easily one of the most shocking scenes I’ve seen in a film – a reveal that makes as much of an impact today as it did in 1932.

Whether conscious or not, it’s easy to see the influence of Freaks in the work of Tim Burton and David Lynch, specifically Edward Scissorhands and The Elephant Man. But it took more than 30 years, after Browning's work (Dracula) started replaying in revivals in the ‘60s, before there was a demand to revive Freaks and rediscover it as the masterpiece it is. Nonetheless, even to this day the film is shamefully categorized as a 'horror' film in video stores.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Dead Zone


The Dead Zone (1983) dir. David Cronenberg
Starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

The Dead Zone was Cronenberg’s first venture into mainstream films. After a series of uniquely gruesome horror films (The Brood, Shivers, Scanners), in 1983 Cronenberg took on Stephen King’s bestseller.

Despite the auspicious pairing of King and Cronenberg, the film is more cerebral and brooding than the gorefest one might expect. Bloodletting is kept to a minimum, and instead the psychological impact of predicting someone’s own death keeps up the intensity.

Christopher Walken plays Johnny Smith (one of cinema’s lamest screen names), a school teacher with a good career and a burgeoning relationship with his girlfriend. Suddenly all that topples down when he’s involved in a near fatal car accident. He wakes up from a coma to discover that not only has he been under for five years and his girlfriend is remarried, he’s also developed an extra sensory perception. When Johnny physically touches someone he’s able to see their future, past and darkest secrets.

Johnny’s ability is more a curse than a gift. Not only does he see other people's secrets, he also experiences them. Therefore, his premonitions are painful and utterly frightening for him. Johnny knows he will never be the same person he was before – he will forever be exploited, abused and misunderstood. And he can never have a true relationship with another woman. The physical intimacy would be a little frightening for him.

So Johnny’s new life progresses toward a selfless act of sacrifice he chooses to make in order to save the world. The ending is tragic considering the investment the audience makes in this unique hero.

The Dead Zone features one of Christopher Walken’s definitive roles. His twitches, pauses and voice cadence are in peak form. And this is before he became a parody of himself, so it’s a job to see Walken in a serious role. Cronenberg gets great emotion and intensity from him in this film. Rumours have it that Cronenberg would actually fire a pistol during some of his lines to keep Walken on edge. Also, watch for Martin Sheen’s comically over-the-top performance as the southern Republican Senate candidate, Greg Stillson.

Cronenberg tells the story plainly without his trademark sex and flesh. It’s a simple progression of scenes and events that lead up to Johnny’s fateful decision at the end. If it means anything, apparently it’s Stephen King’s favourite adaptation of his novels. Enjoy.