DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: January 2012

Tuesday, 31 January 2012


Spellbound (1945) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Leo G. Carroll, Rhonda Fleming, Michael Chekhov


By Greg Klymkiw

Of the four official collaborations between producer David O. Selznick and director Alfred Hitchcock, I've always considered The Paradine Case the worst, Notorious the most romantic, Rebecca the best and Spellbound the most utterly insane. The latter description of the latter film is entirely appropriate since it's a murder mystery set in an asylum wherein psychoanalysis is utilized to discover deep meaning in a recurring dream (designed, no less, by surrealist Salvador Dali) in order to find out exactly whodunit.

If this isn't insane, then I don't know what is.

Spellbound also has the distinction of being wildly, deliciously melodramatic, almost crazily romantic and when it needs to be, thanks to the genius of the Master himself, nail-bitingly suspenseful.

Selznick was responsible for bringing Hitchcock to America and signing him to a longterm talent contract. For much of their association, Hitchcock was lent out to other studios, which suited him just fine as he was able to do his own thing without having to tolerate (what Hitchcock perceived to be) the constant interference of the famous auteur producer of Gone With The Wind. Of the four aforementioned collaborations, Notorious was eventually sold outright to RKO in the midst of production while the other three proved to be one of the most dynamic producer-director battlefields in movie history.

Hitchcock and Selznick detested each other. Hitch thought of Selznick as a meddling vulgarian whilst Selznick viewed the portly Brit as a mad genius who needed his sure and steady hand (or psychoanalysis, if you will). To this day, Rebecca, a virtually flawless film that more than ably sets the stage for Hitchcock's extremely mature latter work (notably Rear Window and Vertigo) is casually (and sadly) dismissed by the Master of Suspense in the famous interviews with Francois Truffaut as not really being "a Hitchcock film", but rather, "a David O. Selznick film".

In many ways, it seems to me that Spellbound might well have been the most ideal collaboration between the two men. Selznick wanted desperately to make a film that extolled the virtues of psychoanalysis (which he felt had been an enormous help to himself - though there appears to be no proof he ever really "got better" as Selznick's maniacal megalomania followed him to the grave). Hitchcock wanted to make a great suspense film and was certainly drawn to the notion of psychoanalysis being used to unravel a mystery.

Add to this mix, the magnificent talent of Hollywood's best screenwriter Ben Hecht (The Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred, Gunga Din, The Front Page, Scarface and among many others Wuthering Heights) and Salvador Dali to design the dream sequences and you've got a picture that guaranteed success. (And yes, it was a multi-Oscar-nominee/winner and a huge hit at the box office.)

Hitchcock, purportedly refused to have anything to do with Dali's dream sequences (other than adhering to their imagery as scripted for purposes of the plot) and they were ultimately directed by the ace production designer/director William Cameron Menzies (Gone With The Wind, Things to Come). The hearty cinematic stew that is Spellbound also features a most flavourful ingredient, a great over-the-top score by the legendary Miklos Rozsa - replete with plenty o' theremin usage.

What this ultimately yielded was a wonky, intense, romantic and thoroughly engaging murder mystery wherein the director of an asylum in Vermont, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), is being forced into an early retirement to make way for a younger, more vibrant head head-shrinker Dr. Anthony Edwardes (the handsome, sexy, stalwart Gregory Peck). The asylum's ace psychoanalyst, Dr. Constance Peterson (the mouth-wateringly gorgeous Ingrid Bergman) is so committed to her work, that most of her colleagues view her as an impenetrable Ice Goddess. This chilly demeanour, however, stands her in good stead in the results department and she's probably the only person who can adequately handle the asylum's most over-the-top nymphomaniac (Rhonda - "hubba hubba" - Fleming).

But even ice is susceptible to eventually melting and soon, Constance gets definitely hot and bothered and drippingly wet as she succumbs to the rugged, manly charms of Dr. Edwardes. Even more tempting is that on the surface, this stiff rod of manhood is the sort of gentle pansy-boy Constance needs.

Deep down, he is sensitive and most importantly, he is… wait for it - in pain.

Yes, pain!

He needs a good woman for more than amorous attention, he needs her to PSYCHOANALYZE him.

When it becomes plain he's not all he's cracked up to be and might, in fact, be a murderer and impostor, it's up to the head-over-heels healer of heads to solve the mystery lodged in Dr. Edwardes's mind.

This is all, of course handled with Hitchcock's trademark semi-expressionistic aplomb and untouchable knack for rendering suspense of the highest order. There isn't a single performance in the film that isn't spot-on (Leo G. Carroll is suitably and alternately sympathetic and malevolent, whilst Peck acquits himself admirably as the troubled leading man), but it's Ingrid Bergman who really carries the picture. Her transformation from Ice Queen to a sex-drenched psychiatrist with a delightful blend of matronly and whorish qualities is phenomenal. She's mother, lover and doctor - all rolled into one magnificently package. And she's never looked more beautiful. Selznick knew this better than anyone and Hitchcock himself knew all too well how to compose and light for beauty.

In one of Selznick's delightful memos from when he first brought Ingrid Bergman to America he wrote:
"...the difference between a great photographic beauty and an ordinary girl with Miss Bergman lies in proper photography of her – and that this in turn depends not simply on avoiding the bad side of her face; keeping her head down as much as possible; giving her the proper hairdress, giving her the proper mouth make-up, avoiding long shots, so as not to make her look too big, and, even more importantly, but for the same reason, avoiding low cameras on her...but most important of all, on shading her face and invariably going for effect lightings on her."

They don't make movies like this anymore!

How Bergman was nominated the same year for an Oscar for her luminous, but limp-in-comparison performance in The Bells of St. Mary's over Spellbound is yet another mystery of the Oscars we all must put up with.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Spellbound is, indeed, spellbinding and it's easily one of the great pictures by both Masters - Selznick and Hitchcock.

"Spellbound" is now available on Blu-Ray via 20th Century Fox/MGM. The copious extras are a mixed bag. A commentary with film historians Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg is a real disappointment compared to the great Marian Keane commentary on the Criterion DVD. These guys are all over the place with spotty info and critical analysis bordering on the, shall we be charitable and say, rudimentary. There are a series of docs including one on the film's place as the first to deal with psychoanalysis, a backgrounder on the Salvador Dali sequences, a cool interview with Hitchcock conducted by Peter Bogdanovich and a really delightful doc on Rhonda Fleming. There's a Lux Radio play version of the movie with Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli and a trailer. The movie looks wonderful on Blu-ray, but I have to admit to preferring the care taken with the Criterion DVD transfer which ultimately has a better grain structure and seems closer to 35mm without all the over-crisp qualities that high definition adds/detracts when it comes to older films.

Monday, 30 January 2012

War of the Worlds (1953)

The War of the Worlds (1953) dir. Byron Haskin
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Lewis Martin, Les Tremayne, Bob Cornthwaite


By Alan Bacchus

Based on the famed H.G. Wells 1898 novel, which told the story of a Victorian town overrun by alien ‘tripods’ with advanced weaponry, the 1953 George Pal-produced sprawling epic is a violent, destructive, balls-out action picture that holds its ground even today as one of the greatest science-fiction pictures ever made.

It’s been over 50 years since the release of this film, and the special effects, tension and suspense render the b-movie material so immersive it’s almost invisible to its age. Sure, it’s low tech by today’s standards, but Pal and director Byron Haskin manage to create a film with such unrelenting force and destruction, it feels even more violent and vicious than any disaster movie made today.

Of course, the story was famously adapted by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio program in 1938 as a real event (perhaps the first-ever mockumentary), and based on legend it caused mass panic in many cities and towns across America. With the bar set as high as it was by Welles, Hungarian-born puppeteer-animator turned sci-fi movie producer, George Pal, had to reach higher than Hollywood sci-fi had ever gone before.

The marvel is in its simplicity – Martians land on Earth and attack. But it has a sense of epic scale that’s executed to perfection. The setup is simple: in the peaceful Southern California town of Linda Rosa, physicist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), along with most of the town’s citizens, watch a meteorite crash to the ground. Later that day the meteorite uncorks and reveals giant alien warship lifepods inside. Attempts at appeasement are deadly, as the powerful ray guns make for an easy kill and much destruction. When the American government discovers that these pods have landed in another area on Earth, they know the planet is under attack.

Send in the Marines!

Southern California soon becomes a battle ground for an Army vs. Aliens battle with buildings, tanks and most of the landscape scorched to flames. We watch the movements of Forrester as his girlfriend, Sylvia, flees the warzone only to have her plane crash behind enemy lines. With the couple split up, Forrester has to navigate his way through the warzone back into town to find his beloved.

War of the Worlds is mean, tough and merciless. The aliens are faceless, and they go about their mission of mass destruction without any remorse or pause. The mere sounds of the alien’s cannons are so loud and ear-piercing they imply a level of violence equal to that in any Roland Emmerich disaster movie. And the violence seems even more destructive than in the films of today. There’s nothing sanitized or restricted for the audience.

Steven Spielberg's 2005 version was surprisingly literal to Pal's film. The introduction of the pods in the ground is built up with the same kind of tension. The humanist struggle from Forrester's point of view is attempted but made too sappy and on-the-nose preachy lacking the violent nihilistic edge of Pal's penchant for destruction. Spielberg smartly kept the home invasion scene intact from the ‘53 version. A suspenseful moment when Forrester and Sylvia fight off the prying eye of a pod tentacle while holed up in a vacant home is choreographed and shot almost identically to Haskin's version.

I'm sure Mr. Spielberg is proud of his own film, but I'm sure even he will admit that it doesn’t come close to the power and resilience of the original.

Sunday, 29 January 2012


Drive (2011) dir. Nicholas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks


By Alan Bacchus

There should be a caveat at the beginning of this film, or maybe on the poster or the trailer, that says, "This is NOT a car chase movie." Instead, it’s an oddball mix of neo-noir plotting and retro pop '80s aesthetic forming a bizarre but unique and invigorating genre film.

I suspect this project started with a rather rudimentary crime script featuring a stunt car driver who moonlights as a getaway man in Los Angeles and becomes a protector of sorts to his motherly but attractive neighbour and her young child. But under the stylized lensing of hip Danish director, Nicholas Winding Refn (Bronson, The Pusher Trilogy), it becomes a bold statement much greater than what was on the page.

The opening sequence is thrilling. It's a quiet but suspenseful heist, which introduces us to the unnamed getaway driver (Gosling), who goes about his job with exacting precision and professionalism. After that we get a retro-style credit sequence featuring hot pink script-like font (Forte-like for font nerds), like something fresh out of Miami Vice, To Live and Die in LA or Something Wild. This oddball duality colours the entire film.

After introducing the neighbour, the driver’s mentor and a gang of nefarious criminals that surrounds them, the criminal plotting gets ratcheted up when the neighbour’s husband, freshly released from prison, moves back in. The driver, who now sees himself as protector for the young gal’s son, teams up with the husband to complete ‘one last job’ in order to repay an outstanding debt. Of course, things don’t go as planned and the driver finds himself on the run and targeted for death.

Refn shifts us between these familiar noir story beats and a self-consciously syrupy love story punctuated by synthesized retro-cheese love ballads. The mix of blood curdling violence and this overly sweet tenderness generates the same feelings as David Lynch’s emotional extremes in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, and even the Hitchcockian thrillers of Brian De Palma.

Drive aspires to achieve the same results by turning familiar melodrama into something unfamiliar and fresh. These aesthetic choices might turn off a lot of viewers, especially those expecting a stone cold Walter Hill, but for a fan of stylish experimentation Drive burns some serious rubber.

And once again, thank you Cliff Martinez for another delicious electronic score, just like his work on Contagion, and for helping to subvert all those forgettable copycat music scores heard in most other action films. Regretfully, the Academy not only snubbed Gosling and Refn, but even worse, they ignored Cliff Martinez's work in a category that, considering John Williams' two nominations this year, is lacking in credibility.

Drive is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Alliance Films in Canada

Saturday, 28 January 2012

SUNDANCE 2012: Keep the Lights On

Keep the Lights On (2012) dir. Ira Sachs
Starring: Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson, Paprika Steen


By Alan Bacchus

This emotionally explicit odyssey of two gay men and the ups and downs of their relationship over the course of 10 years could just be a landmark film for queer cinema. With the amount of coverage and praise this 'gay' film made without any semblance of 'straight' sensibilities, it could be the first of its kind to crack the mainstream. Unfortunately, when all is said and done there's more to admire than truly fall in love with.

Erik (Lindhardt) is a documentary filmmaker living in New York, introduced calling some kind of phone sex hook-up line. Though he desires the pleasures of sex, his soulful eyes want more, a lasting and loving relationship. He finds this in Paul (Booth), whom he meets in one of those one night stand encounters. But Paul's in a straight relationship and not fully out of the closet. Despite the challenge, Erik can't abandon his heart and chases after him. Paul finally commits to switching sides and enters into a relationship with Erik.

It doesn't take long before cracks start to show, as Paul's drug addiction taints their sex life, and his demands as a workaholic lawyer conflicts with Erik's more flexible freelance lifestyle. Over the course of the 10 years Paul moves in and out of Erik's life, sometimes just disappearing without a word of notice. And yet Erik continues to want his affection, something he continually refuses to give. At several points in the relationship ultimatums are given, eventually forcing Paul and Erik to make a full-stop decision to be with each other or not.

Despite the intertitle cards that signify the change in time, we never get the feeling of time passing. Their haircuts certainly don't change, but neither do the characters. And apart from the graphic sex they engage in frequently there's not much chemistry. Erik, the documentarian, is the more passionate of the two, constantly evaluating the relationship and looking to express his feelings. Paul, whom we see less of, is conservative, mostly aloof and independent.

Their conflicts over the period seem to be a continuous struggle between Erik's emotional needs and Paul's independence. Their descent is as tragic and frustrating as the doomed love story in Blue Valentine.

More subtly, we notice time pass through the gradual change in visual palette. Early in the film, Sachs filters his world through a grainy verite look, a wonderfully textured cinematography, though unpolished and rough, but still artful and rich. Gradually, the graininess disappears over time and, by the end, without being noticeable, the film is clean and spotless.

But the honesty in Sach's storytelling breaks through the narrative deficiencies, achieving a mood and feeling of heartbreaking sadness without the bleakness of Blue Valentine.

Friday, 27 January 2012

SUNDANCE 2012: Where Do We Go Now?

Where Do We Go Now (2012) dir. Nadine Labacki
Starring: Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Layla Hakim, Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf, Antoinette Noufaily, Julien Farhat


By Alan Bacchus

When the peaceful cohabitation of Christians and Muslims in a small Lebanese town becomes threatened by bigger-picture political conflicts it takes a group of like-minded village women from both sides of the religious divide to stem the tide of violence.

The TIFF Audience Award winner from last year's festival slipped under everyone’s radar prior to its surprise win. But playing under the Spotlight Program here at Sundance it's a great chance for rediscovery. Indeed, it's a clever yet profound microcosm of those entrenched centuries-long religious conflicts that have been the cause of so many unnecessary wars. In this case it's Christians and Muslims, both living in a small Lebanese village, and though their churches sit side by side, they've lived peacefully for years. But when news of a newly sparked conflict in the outside world trickles in, Amale (Labaki), Takla (Moussawbaa), Afaf (Hakim), Yvonne (Maalouf) and Saydeh (Noufaily) band together to plug the leaks of information.

While the threats are dangerous, the methods of the women are comical, a duality in tone controlled masterfully by Labaki. The ruses range from burning newspapers, disrupting television reception, hiring a troupe of Russian showgirls to distract the men, and even holding a town meeting and serving hash-brownies for snacks.

Labaki also peppers some unexpected musical sequences into the narrative. Some proponents have latched onto these scenes and called the film a musical, but if anything they are so few and far between and not integral to the narrative that they are actually distracting.

The ingenuity to praise here is Labaki's artful ability to mix cinematic whimsy with the bleak backdrop of Middle Eastern politics. She populates her village with warmth and flavour – the kind we would see in those small town British comedies like Local Hero and Waking Ned Devine. And Labaki's trump card that she holds in her back pocket is the final scene, which explains the reason for the film's title. Just when we think the women have successfully solved their problem, one last choice to be made could set them back to the beginning. It's a delightful open-ended final frame, which speaks to the never-ending saga of the conflicts in that part of the world.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

SUNDANCE 2012: The House I Live In

The House I Live In (2012) dir. Eugene Jarecki


By Alan Bacchus

It's been over 40 years since the term 'War on Drugs' was coined by Richard Nixon, and the fight has still not been won. Very little has changed, and according to Eugene Jarecki and the participants in his film it's even worse now than it was then. Considering Jarecki's success with political films, such as Why We Fight and Reagan, one would think he would be capable of handling such a broad topic. Unfortunately, like the authorities who can't seem to make any headway in their struggle, such is the result of this film. With the greatest of intentions, Jarecki's film is just too broad and unfocused to make its point dramatically.

To tackle the War on Drugs, Jarecki starts off with one of the best personalities to share his experiences, David Simon, the former investigative journalist and creator of The Wire, the last word on crime on television. He provides the most articulate insights, specifically related to the police’s culpability and their internal incentive policies toward arrest stats.

Jarecki also finds some very poignant reflections from his former nanny, a black woman whose family succumbed to the damaging effects of drugs after Jarecki’s family moved away from the city. Jarecki also puts his camera in cop cars that patrol America's streets, the courtrooms that lay down the sentences and the jails that keep drug dealers locked up for life.

Including the policing incentives and the corporate prison industry, Jarecki's thesis hits a number of culprits, but none more damning than the judicial system, including the minimum sentences and the shameful bias against crack cocaine used by the urban poor vs. powdered cocaine used primarily by the middle- and upper-classes. As such, Jarecki claims the drug war is a class and race war in disguise, consciously targeting the poorest Americans.

In the final act Jarecki overextends himself by making specific comparisons to the Holocaust and its five stages of genocide – identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration and annihilation. While the topic and themes are of grave importance, Jarecki's ambitiousness is his undoing, as he tries to cover all the bases without the sufficient connections to make a precise, powerful and effective statement.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

SUNDANCE 2012: Bones Brigade: An Autobiography

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (2012) dir. Stacy Peralta


By Alan Bacchus

Just how many documentaries can Stacy Peralta make about skateboarding? Well, there's plenty of material and stories within the sport to tell. This new picture serves as the ideal continuation of Dogtown and Z-Boys, Peralta's personal chronicling of the sport of skateboarding into the ‘80s and his move from athlete to entrepreneur as manager, mentor and sponsor of a new crop of skating kids, including megastar Tony Hawk.

After Peralta's Zephyr teammates split up in the late ‘70s, he was the only one able to monetize his talents and turn skateboarding into a career profession. Along with skateboard designer George Powell, Peralta formed one of the sport's most successful boarding enterprises, Powell-Peralta. After watching the negative effect of success on his friends, Peralta decided to form a new team of unknown but talented skaters from around the country to compete and promote themselves as professional athletes. From this came the Bones Brigade, which encompassed 40 or so members but featured a core group of five skaters that were influential to the sport in their own unique ways.

First, there's Tony Hawk, the Wayne Gretzky of skateboarding, who, because of his success, became intensely disliked by his competitors; Steve Cabellero, the small but talented acrobatic skater; Mike McGill, the inventor of the McTwist manoeuvre; Lance Mountain, the joker of the bunch, who became a celebrity after starring in Powell-Peralta's first skating video; and Rodney Mullan, the freestyle extraordinaire, whose skills with the board on the ground were unrivaled, but a guy who also suffered from the repression of his disapproving parents.

Peralta admirably tones down the cinematic language compared to his flashy technique in Dogtown and uses a more formal, restrained style reflective of his new position as mentor in this phase of his career, as well as his growing maturity as a filmmaker. Each of his interviews is shot in the same location – a well art-directed skateboard workshop with boards filling the frame from top to bottom. Again, the ingrained culture of self-documentation of skaters means there's a wealth of footage and stills to help visualize his story. Stills, video footage and super-8 footage are combined for a fun time capsule of ‘80s aesthetic.

The prevailing theme that emerges here is the sense of family that Peralta infuses in the kids, which manifests itself in their supremely innovative athletic feats. This contrasts sharply with the painful destruction of compatriots in Dogtown.

As in Dogtown, The Bones Brigade treads on self-aggrandizement, as Peralta himself is a key character in this story - he even interviews himself. But this time he adds the subtitle 'An Autobiography', which kind of prevents us from criticizing the film for any bias. But we should look at these films as personal filmmaking at its best, a superbly entertaining diary of sorts, with maximum flare, energy and exuberance in the prevailing art form of our generation. I also doubt that this is the end of the story, as there are two more decades of skateboarding to examine, something I will certainly welcome with open arms.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

SUNDANCE 2012: Searching For Sugarman

Searching For Sugarman (2012) dir. Malik Bendjelloul


By Alan Bacchus

Ever heard of the artist Rodriguez, a Detroit area folk singer from the early '70s? Didn't think so. After two unsuccessful albums he faded into obscurity. But to South Africans, through luck and circumstance, his albums became as popular as Elvis's, and part of the counterculture anthems that helped spark the anti-Apartheid movement. But no one knew anything about him other than that he was dead, a victim of a horrific on-stage suicide.

This is the starting point for Malik Bendjelloul's fascinating documentary about the myth and aura of this strange but immensely talented artist, who, according to the producers he worked with, was as talented and poetic as Bob Dylan.

Bendjelloul follows a pair of obsessed fans, who sleuth their way back in time in the hopes of shedding light on this decades-long mystery.

Bendjelloul establishes a teasing procedural narrative as the South Africans describe their analysis of the evidence available to them, including the album credits, the lyrics, the record label and the trail of money that would hopefully lead to answers.

The twists and reveals in this story are fascinating and help piece together a character of an artist whose integrity trumped his perceived failure. At the same time they give us a deafening history lesson in South African Apartheid.

Looking back there perhaps wasnt much of a mystery to tell, but the director expertly includes the point of view of the fans, who, with little knowledge and information, had to solve the case with determination, dedication and perseverance.

And what a pleasure to discover the music of Rodriguez, whose melodies and lyrics are as haunting and moving as described in the film. Searching For Sugarman is superb storytelling and a perfect example of the power of the documentary form.

Monday, 23 January 2012

SUNDANCE 2012: Father's Chair

Father's Chair (2012) dir. Luciano Moura
Starring: Wagner Moura, Mariana Lima, Lima Duarte, Brás Antunes


By Alan Bacchus

Father’s Chair is a well intentioned family reconciliation drama in which a self-absorbed dictatorial father needs to embark on a life-changing road trip in order to find his missing son and find himself in the process. The real attraction here is seeing the fine Brazilian actor Wagner Moura (Elite Squad) at work. He's considered Brazil's most famous actor, and indeed he holds the picture down even when it threatens to over-indulge in its own self-importance.

Theo (Moura) is a middle- to upper-class workaholic who has recently separated from his wife and has become more angry and controlling of his son. He also has his own father issues having been estranged from his dad for most of his life. The shoe drops for Theo when his son receives a chair for his birthday from the mysterious grandfather. This sets Theo off into an angry rage, which causes his son to run away from home. Theo’s subsequent frantic search for his son takes him through the salt of the earth countryside and poverty stricken slums giving him an eye-opening and cathartic experience.

We can sympathize with Theo and the devastating fear of having a son go missing. Indeed, Moura plays out Theo's franticness with a strong sense of suspense and danger. Theo's road trip sleuthing unfortunately seems to come too easily for him. One step leads conveniently to another lead, resulting in a rather comfortable and conflict-free journey. We also know where this film is headed from the start, and Moura never deviates from its telegraphed trajectory.

By the end Theo learns the necessary lesson to be a better man with a predictable meeting of reconciliation. This film wears its heart on its sleeve, but just a bit too loudly and proudly to elevate itself over the conventionality of the melodramatic contrivances.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

SUNDANCE 2012: Me @ the Zoo

Me @ the Zoo (2012) dir. Chris Moukarbel, Valerie Veatch


By Alan Bacchus

A decent cinematic essay about the YouTube effect, that is the new millennium speaker's corner of sorts, which has become the influential platform for online personal expression.
Few people have expressed themselves more dramatically than Chris Crocker, a celebrity-chasing Britney Spears addict, but also a repressed gay teen living in the bigoted hillbilly world of small town Tennessee. Being an outsider is an understatement for Crocker, who, with the creation of YouTube, found his mechanism for expression. His self-produced video rants have made him a sensation of sorts for the 15-minute famers that YouTube creates - specifically his Britney rant, which went viral in 2007.

Somehow Chris lasted longer than most, but as per Moukarbel and Veatch's thesis, he gets spit out and demolished just like his idol Britney Spears.

Using ample YouTube videos and other footage, Moukarbel and Veatch create a unique character study of Internet celebrity. Crocker comes off as a performer at heart but also deranged and delusional - the perfect personality for this kind of success.

But they also expose the fallacy of Internet stardom and the fact that people just don't want to pay for Crocker's act, which seems to work only in the confines of his own home. His failed attempt at a reality TV shows that his kind of fame comes from the creation of unaltered truth. While Crocker's YouTube success came from a place of honesty and passion, he was simply faking it for television.

Me @ the Zoo succeeds in telling the story of the YouTube phenomenon through the voice of one of its biggest stars in an effective and innovative manner.

SUNDANCE 2012: The Other Dream Team

The Other Dream Team (2012) dir. Marius Markevicius


By Alan Bacchus

The Other Dream Team is an unbelievably inspiring story of freedom and liberation from repression told through the triumph of the Lithuanian basketball team, which toiled under the Soviet regime before their bronze medal victory as a sovereign nation in the 1992 Olympics.

Sports has always made for great documentaries, the drama inherent in the competition, the visual spectacle of world class athletes, and the wealth of footage and coverage devoted to sporting events are a gold mine for filmmakers.

The Other Dream Team is no exception. But with the added gravitas of the political upheaval of the Iron Curtain and the deeply emotional human story at its heart, this picture becomes a truly epic and powerful piece of cinema.

Filmmaker Marius Markevicius charts a 50-year odyssey of the small Baltic country of 3 million people from pre-war prosperity to annexation and poverty under the Soviets to their violent revolution in 1991. All the while we learn about the country's mad obsession with basketball, which birthed superstars Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis. The film charts their success in the Soviet league in the 80's to their courtship by the NBA and all the political and cultural conflicts they encountered.

Interviews with Marciulionis, Sabonis and other players confirm all the preconceived notions of poverty behind the Iron Curtain. But the biggest tragedy is not the absence of bread or blue jeans, but their lack of freedom to express their culture, language and identity as Lithuanians. Even the seasoned journalist Jim Lampley tears up when recounting the pain of these players during this period.

The players’ stories are so rich that Markevicius doesn't even get to the 1992 Olympics until the final act, which feels like a bonus track on a masterpiece album.

The coda to this story comes after the liberation of the country and the fall of Communism. But once we get embroiled in the drama of the Olympics it becomes a film within a film. The involvement of The Grateful Dead in funding the basketball team's trip to the Olympics is zany enough to make up its own documentary. Same with the awesome sight of other marginalized peoples competing under new flags (e.g., South Africa and Estonia). We're also treated to some astonishing footage of the US Dream Team demolishing opponents. But the dramatic climax to the picture comes in the form of a storybook matchup between the former Soviet Union and Lithuania, which is so emotional and moving it didn't leave a dry eye in the house.

The Other Dream Team is so powerful it transcends its sport, instead serving as the representation for our instinctual desire for freedom.

SUNDANCE 2012: The Pact

The Pact (2012) dir. Nicholas McCarthy
Starring: Caity Lotz, Casper Van Dien, Haley Hudson, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Sam Ball, Agnes Bruckner


By Alan Bacchus

The Pact is a smart, well written and genuinely scary haunted house movie with equal parts B-movie pastiche and visceral horror movie thrills.

After her sister disappears inside her own house, Annie is forced to return to her childhood home to play surrogate parent to her 8-year-old daughter. It doesn't take long before she starts hearing things in the house. A creak in the floor, closet doors opening inexplicably, broken picture frames on the ground and maddening nightmares are the stuff of horror films 101. Yet director Nicholas McCarthy is so damned resourceful and creative within his tiny spaces, it's a marvel.

There's also a heavy hand at work directing his actors with blockhead subtlety, egregiously over-killed music stings and overly lit texture-less cinematography, which is so bright it reminds us of a soft core porno film. But hell, Casper Van Dien is in the picture, which means we can't watch it with too much seriousness. It takes a while to set up the story, but there's a strong backstory established that is weighted equally with a dangerous presence in the present.

However silly and obnoxious the performances get, McCarthy absolutely floors us with his stunning horror images and nail-biting set pieces. As bad as the film is good, there is some major genre talent in this guy's bones.

SUNDANCE 2012: Simon Killer

Simon Killer (2012) dir Antonio Campos
Starring: Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Michael Abiteboul, Constance Rousseau, Lila Salet, Solo


By Alan Bacchus

Just like with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Simon Killer is a film I can admire for its intense devotion to examining a despicable character. But it’s a film I have no desire to watch again.

Here, Simon (Brady Corbet) is more Tom Ripley than Henry, a charming rogue we know only from the lies he's been telling. Simon is introduced arriving in Paris where he is subletting a friend's apartment. After a breakup with his girlfriend, presumably because of her infidelity, he's ready to relax in the city of lights. He's immediately drawn to the red light district where he meets a stripper, gets a lap dance and a little bit more off the meter, and eventually forms a genuine relationship with the girl. Unfortunately, it's not an equal give-and-take. When he's not reciting his 'canned answers' and anecdotes, he's loafing on the relationship, moving into the girl’s flat, using her money and having crazy, crazy sex.

Simon crosses the thin line of decency when he conspires to extort money from the girl’s clients. It's just the start of a long descent into the depths of despair and, eventually, violence.

Campos' directorial style is very conscious of itself, playing out many of the scenes using long, slow extended takes with untraditional coverage and trendy European-style compositions. His musical choices, which capture the hypnotic effect of Parisian club music and new wave pop, add more cinematic hipness.

But this is Brady Corbet's film as much as it is Campos'. Campos rarely takes his camera away from Corbet, who exhibits the kind of naive charm and creepiness he showed in Michael Haneke's American Funny Games.

While the title is a bit of a misnomer, it certainly casts doubt on the intentions of the character. Simon is clearly a despicable human being. But like a car crash, it’s something we just can't take our eyes off.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

SUNDANCE 2012: Hello I Must Be Going

Hello, I Must Be Going (2012) dir. Todd Louiso
Starring: Melanie Lynskey, Christopher Abbott, Blythe Danner, John Rubenstein


By Alan Bacchus

Flashbacks to the invigorating experience of last year's Grand Jury Prize winner Like Crazy result from this finely crafted cinematic character study and treatise on love. It's a marvelous picture, which, despite the sense of a pending tragedy, doesn't sacrifice its sharp funny bone. It’s a real winner featuring an infectious performance from Melanie Lynsky.

Three months into divorce proceedings has left Amy Minsky (Lynskey) a shell of a woman. Lounging around her parents' house in oversized sweats, out of shape and with a perpetual vacant expression on her face makes her ripe for a cinematic reincarnation. This comes in the form of Jeremy (Abbott), a nineteen-year-old actor invited to their home by her parents for a dinner party. After so much wallowing in self-pity the attraction from just a few glances across the table is palpable. And their quick movement to sexual consummation is intoxicating.

With love juices flowing it's a hardcore love affair full speed ahead. So what's the catch? The problem is that Amy's parents are in a courtship of their own with Jeremy's parents for a key business deal that could ensure the security of the family. As a mature woman with life experience this weighs heavily on Amy. For Jeremy, he wants to throw caution to the wind with the idealism of youth.

This is the core conflict that makes for such a fascinating love story. Two lovers at different stages in life in a different world destined to be with each other. But director Louiso's cold dose of honest reality transforms the rather melodramatic romcom-style plotting into a rock solid real-world scenario.

But this is Melanie Lynskey's film, and she owns our attention from start to finish. Despite spending much of the movie in the 'blahs', Lynskey is interminably infectious and we yearn for her to find solace and reconciliation with her troubles.

Louiso directs the film smartly with little interference to the actors, perhaps a modus operandi of his when one looks back at the performance he drew out of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Love Liza. This picture proves Louiso is a major talent and Lynskey a full-fledged leading lady. Hello I Must Be Going is one of the best new films at this festival.

SUNDANCE 2012: This Must Be The Place

This Must be the Place (2011) dir. Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Sean Penn, Judd Hirsch, Frances McDormand, Eve Hewson, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton


By Alan Bacchus

This Must Be the Place is a Cannes entry from last year from the director of Il Divo. Unfortunately, where there was much potential in that film to announce a cool new voice in cinema this awful, overly eclectic exercise in self-indulgence is a major disappointment.

Sean Penn is a former musician, Cheyenne, dressed in goth black, pale face powder, black mascara and lipstick, thus a spitting image of The Cure’s Robert Smith. Though he lives in a swank Irish mansion with a completely devoted wife (McDormand) something's eating him, as he spends his days wandering around Dublin speaking in whispers and meek tones.

When he meets an old Nazi hunter (Hirsch) who knew his estranged father he's inspired to embark on a quest to kill the former concentration camp comandante that tormented his father.

After a misleading and essentially useless first act set in Dublin the film settles into a kind of eccentric road movie. As such, we're never sufficiently grounded. Just as we get used to goth Sean Penn living in Ireland, for no apparent reason we're shifted to another inexplicable location – Utah.

But this seems to be the foundation of Sorrentino's comedy – unpredictability. The point of the picture seems to beat us with random quirkiness, cinematic stylishness and Sean Penn's wicked hair. Admittedly, the sight of Mr. Penn with Robert Smith-hair never really tires, but it's also not the basis for a movie.

The stylish excesses also rampant in Il Divo are almost insufferable here. Sorrentino throws in too many mismatched characters, quirks, locations, music and camera language.

The casting of McDormand as Penn's wife, a middle-class ex-hippie, is like oil and water. And considering this film takes place in Dublin and the American southwest, made by Italian filmmakers with music from David Byrne and Will Oldham, there are just too many mismatched puzzle pieces that don't fit together.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Kramer vs. Kramer

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) dir. Robert Benton
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Justin Henry, Meryl Streep


By Alan Bacchus

Anyone remember what the Best Picture Oscar winner was in 1979? It was Kramer vs. Kramer. Like Revolutionary Road, Benton’s film examines a domestic situation relatable to many couples. It’s the definitive film on divorce made at a time when more American couples were getting divorced than ever. The situational drama between the three family members still has first-person relevance and poignancy.

The opening of the film features the haunting and beautiful face of Meryl Streep as Joanna Kramer saying goodbye to her son, Billy (Justin Henry). For reasons not completely revealed to us Joanna is preparing to leave her husband and son. Dustin Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a career driven ad exec whose working life moves too fast for him to notice his wife’s disillusionment. And so when Joanna suddenly announces to Ted that she’s leaving the family it’s a complete shock.

Instantly, Ted finds himself as a single dad having to raise his child and be a real parent for the first time. Hoffman and Henry form the heart of the film. It’s a tenuous relationship, as they both have to learn quickly how to support each other. A year-and-a-half later, just as Ted gets comfortable with his new life, Joanna returns wanting full custody of Billy. Ted takes Joanna to full divorce court to battle her.

Joanna Kramer has much in common with Kate Winslet’s character, April Wheeler, in Revolutionary Road. Both women have a sense of despair in their lives – an early midlife crisis and the realization that they don’t love their husbands. The emotion of their realization clouds their ability to make rational decisions. As a result, however extreme and heinous, we can believe how Joanna can do the unthinkable and leave her own son.

In the history of Hollywood Kramer vs. Kramer appears to fall in that category of middle-of-the-road conservative films that win over the riskier and arguably more memorable films of the year. Other great films from 1979 include Apocalypse Now, Manhattan, Alien and All that Jazz. Unlike any of those films, Kramer vs. Kramer is an intimate film, a small-scale drama anchored on two career defining and Oscar winning performances from Hoffman and Streep. No one can take anything away from Hoffman’s Oscar. His own real experiences helped shape his character, and according to the making-of documentary, Justin Henry’s performance as well. Hoffman’s hands-on involvement in the development and production of the film could have given him a co-director credit.

If anything, Benton lets Hoffman go over-the-top in that familiar Hoffman manner. However internal or method his process is, in some of the key scenes there is a falseness to his behaviour – specifically his reunification with Joanna over coffee. In this scene Hoffman explodes with a fury too hot and violent for a man who's supposed to have changed.

And so Kramer vs. Kramer suffers from some of the same “Hollywoodisms” as Revolutionary Road. However, unlike Road, Kramer vs. Kramer is the definitive film on this subject. Enjoy.

Kramer Vs. Kramer is available on DVD in Sony's 'Columbia Best Pictures Collection'.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools (1965) dir. Stanley Kramer
Starring: Oskar Werner, Simone Signoret, George Segal, Lee Marvin, Jose Ferrer


By Alan Bacchus

There’s something about being on a boat that makes for good cinema. Perhaps it’s the seclusion from the public, the diversity of guests and characters, the theme of neutrality or even the vulnerability on the open seas. Stanley Kramer’s 1965 adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter's novel is a big ol’ glossy Hollywood production – Grand Hotel on the seas – at times a cumbersome exercise in ensemble cinema, but also an oddly infectious piece of Hollywood melodrama.

It’s 1933 and a cruise ship departs from Veracruz, Mexico bound for Germany. On board are a varied group of intellectuals, political refugees, artists and romantics. Director Stanley Kramer takes us deep into the relationships and conflicts of a dozen passengers. For 28 days the ship exists as a microcosm of political and social conflicts.

With the threat of war on the horizon and in the midst of the Depression, the petty prejudices and chauvinisms contrast the state of superior nationalism in the world. Jose Ferrer's bombastic German businessman character heads an upper-class clique that alienates the Jewish guests and provides the obvious foreshadowing of the Holocaust. Simone Signoret plays an exiled Spanish socialist looking to kick her addiction to sleeping pills. She falls in love with the equally anguished ship's doctor, Wilhelm Schulman (Oskar Werner), and their sparks provide the most interesting subplot. Some stories don't stand the test of time though, specifically Lee Marvin's washed-up and racist ballplayer suffering from alcoholism, and George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley's relationship squabbles are the stuff you fast forward through.

The wonderful dwarf actor Michael Dunn gives the warmest performance as the humble gentleman outsider who introduces us to the characters and every once in a while addresses the camera to give his own personal comments on the events we see on screen.

At 150 minutes in duration it’s a long film, and like many epics of its era it does wear out its welcome. Where Ship of Fools doesn’t succeed is during the increased stakes and conflict in the final third. As the ship gets closer to its destination, the conversations continue at the same pace as before. The resolutions of the individual plotlines are satisfactory and provide adequate closure, but considering the early Nazi-era time period there was much more room for greater hindsight perspective.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012


Traffic (2000) dir. Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Michael Douglas, Benecio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, Erika Christensen, Topher Grace, Steven Bauer


By Alan Bacchus

Looking back on my favourite independent films of the late ‘90s/early 2000s, some survive well and others don’t (like Magnolia - ew). Despite many imitators, Traffic has lost none of its power since 2000. It’s a film about ideas, as fresh, innovative, thrilling and emotionally satisfying now as it was then.

At this time there was a whole lot of high-profile studio dreck making big noise. But it was mostly hot air – lots of tepid Hollywood product from big names like Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, What Lies Beneath), Ridley Scott (Gladiator), Gus Van Sant (Finding Forrester), Robert Redford (Legend of Baggar Vance), Ron Howard (The Grinch Whole Stole Christmas) and other 'forgettable' studio product.

It was an astonishing year for Steven Soderbergh, who had two critical hits that year, including Erin Brochovich. He was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director for both and won for Traffic.

Based on the British TV mini-series, Traffik (1989), Soderbergh’s opus captures the broad scope of the drug trafficking network in America, specifically the cartels in Mexico selling their wares in the United States. Arguably, much of the heavy lifting on this story was done by Simon Moore, who wrote the British series. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s challenge was to transport it to America, bring it down to two-and-a-half hours and make it cinematic.

It’s a simple starting point to tell this broad story – three separate threads that converge with each other in the third act. There’s Benecio del Toro’s character, Javier Rodriguez, a soft-spoken Mexican cop, who, despite using dirty tactics, has a moral conviction at heart that will emerge throughout the picture. He’s our point of view into the Mexican cartel war, in this case the Obregon/Juarez cocaine kings, whose battle incites the action in the film.

There’s also the point of view of the DEA, including officers Montel Gordon (Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Guzman), affable undercover partners leading the case against the American distributor of the Obregon drugs, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), who, following the arrest of a low-level pawn, uses him as an informant against Ayala.

And lastly there’s the government angle with Robert Wakefield (Douglas) as the Presidential-appointed drug czar, who, while navigating his way through the drug politics of the border, is also dealing with his daughter's own drug addiction.

While one of its more famous imitators, Crash, used the same gimmicky device but with a block head treatment of its sociopolitical issues, looking back Traffic feels as credible, honest and thought-provoking intellectually as it did 12 years ago. This is due to Steven Soderbergh's precise control of his tone. Many of his key turning points could have been embellished, but at all times we can feel the restraint on the reigns whenever the film threatens to spill over into melodrama.

Soderbergh continues his fascinating creative collaboration with composer Cliff Martinez, his go-to man for his serious films. Using quiet ambient tones, both synthesized and organic, a quiet intensity brews, keeping the drama to a whisper.

And despite the truncated screen time we come to love Soderbergh’s heroes, specifically the DEA agents whom we discover are in over their heads against the powerful, unstoppable force and deep pockets of the clandestine drug cartels. It’s the same with the rogue underachiever, Javier Rodriguez, who, after witnessing the horrors of the drug war at ground zero, engineers a remarkable and heroic stance against the hand that fed him.

Of the three storylines Michael Douglas’s feels the most on the nose, specifically the dramatic irony of his daughter’s addiction competing against his responsibility as drug policeman for the country as a whole. That said, it's one of Douglas's best late-career performances. And the only other false note to reference is Dennis Quaid’s obvious turn as the shady lawyer scheming against Ayala’s pregnant wife.

But these are minor blips in an otherwise perfect movie. It’s an 'important' film recognizable as a product of its time – just as All the President’s Men and its distilled conspiratory style was a product of its time.

Traffic is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. But as a note to readers, Soderbergh’s carefully crafted colour-coded cinematography doesn’t quite hold up on Blu-ray. It takes much fiddling with your contrast/brightness settings so as not to blow out the hot spots in most of the scenes.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express (1974) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Goldie Hawn, William Atherton


By Alan Bacchus

Pauline Kael famously remarked about The Sugarland Express that it was “…one of the best directorial debuts ever.” How prophetic Ms. Kael was at the time. Revisiting Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature now is still a wonderful experience. At only 27 years old and already with four years of extensive television directing experience and one of the best made-for-TV films ever made (Duel), Sugarland was a natural extension from Spielberg's previous work.

Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) visits her convicted husband, Clovis Poplin (William Atherton), in his pre-release correctional facility. Clovis has only four months before he is released, but Lou Jean threatens to leave him if he doesn’t escape from prison and help her reclaim their foster-homed child. Clovis does what he’s told and together they skillfully flee the premises unnoticed by the guards.

As soon as Lou Jean and Clovis are on the road the momentum starts to build. They quickly find themselves in a car chase with a state policeman, after which they kidnap the cop and steal his car. Now speeding away in a stolen cop car holding a cop hostage, the stakes are sufficiently raised to alert virtually every officer in the state.

Spielberg’s innate skills in producing order out of chaos are in full force. Much of the film takes place in one long convoy – the threesome in front with 200 cop cars behind them. It’s overkill to the nth degree, but hey, we’re in Texas and it's a comedy. Spielberg's instincts are impeccable in this regard. A relationship between hostage and hostage-taker develops, and much of the humour arises from the absurdity of this unusual relationship. Overnight, Lou-Jean, Clovis and officer Slide become 15-minute celebrities. Like the Bronco Chase, the citizens of the small towns they pass through surround them, touch them and throw gifts at them – a virtual Christ-like adulation. It’s refreshing to see how natural and organic Spielberg portrays old country Middle America.

The journey ends at the home where their child is in foster care. At this point, for the first time, Clovis and Lou Jean are forced to face the reality of their situation and come to grips with the decisions they’ve made. Spielberg is tougher on his characters in the end than he would be in later pictures. SPOILERS...Clovis is shot and killed and Lou Jean is sent to prison for five years. Spielberg cleverly manipulates his audience by emphasizing the care-free aspects and only freckles hints of their inevitable demise into the story. The tonal shift in the ending is not unnatural and is earned, the same way as in Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

It’s fun to see Spielberg’s favorite cinematic trademarks developing right before our eyes – his use of overlapping dialogue, his confidence with crowds, big set pieces, and his love for quirky characters and natural dialogue. However, in the past 20 years he’s clearly lost this ear for dialogue, which is a shame. His cinematography looks much different than today, but his camera moves are all the same, tracking and craning to reveal his characters in the most innovative (and motivated) ways.

Most cinephiles have memorized shot-for-shot the early Spielberg classics, including Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and so there are no surprises when watching those films multiple times. That’s why The Sugarland Express is worth a visit, as it gives you a chance to rediscover a great filmmaker straight out of the womb and with a clean, unblemished slate.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane (1941) dir. Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comongore, Anges Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Everett Sloan, Erskine Sanford


By Alan Bacchus

Even heady proclamations like the ‘Greatest Film Ever Made’ cannot overstate how powerful this picture is. The story of a mercurial newspaper magnate who began his career as an idealistic entrepreneur raised with a silver spoon in his mouth who, over the course of his life, breaks down to an egomaniacal tyrant is like an insatiable addiction. Welles’ tale of American big business and the cult of personality which arises from unabated success has become as fundamental to cinema as The Odyssey is to classical literature.

The layers of complexity and intrigue entwines itself both inside and outside this work of art. Not only the technical advances of the film's production, but the thematic connections of character and the fallibility of great men, the analysis of genius is fascinating, and even more so when connecting the filmmaking author of the picture Orson Welles to his target of attack, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst - elements which converge like a perfect storm of culture, art, politics and the American dream. Citizen Kane is like a cockfight of monumental proportions.

The magnificent deep focus cinematography, the superlative transitions, the long take scene coverage, the time-compression editing and the structurally innovative narrative plotting are impossible not to miss. It’s a technical triumph, a stylistic landmark film, but we can’t look past some of the emotional moments which move us profoundly. One of the most striking scenes is the sequence which gets Kane to travel with his first wife by car to his mistress, Susan Alexander’s house. The sequence is built up to terrifying levels. We know where it’s going to go, outing Kane’s tryst with Alexander, which, as we know from the March of Times sequence broke up his marriage. But when Jim W. Geddes is revealed also in the house, we’re shocked into a stunned silence. The conversation in Alexander’s bedroom, which Kane, Geddes, Mrs. Kane and Alexander is the key turning point in the film and sends Kane on his descent into madness.

It's an arc as grandiose as the rise and fall of Michael Corleone, or Lawrence of Arabia. These characters, whether real or not, fascinate us because of what is kept hidden. Throughout the film we’re purposely kept a distance from Charles Foster Kane, his hubris and confident arrogance, acting like a impenetrable barrier to his inner turmoil. Welles’ restraint in keeping this from us is like a striptease of sorts – a theme foreshadowed in the opening montage where we get the public summary of his life. Through the film, the private summary of life is as beguiling and mysterious.

This is why the seemingly trite Rosebud maguffin works so well. It might feel like a wonky device used to drive the story. Until the last moment, the reveal of Rosebud ceases to be a maguffin, but an earth shatteringly profound revelation of Kane’s deep-rooted agony. In one image we get it. We get it all. Like Susan Alexander’s jigsaw puzzle metaphor, the piece which opens us up to Kane, however small and slight, the loss of his mother and the loss of childhood - a monumental tragedy worthy of the bible.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2010) dir. Niels Arden Oplev
Starring: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven-Bertil Taube, Lena Endre, Peter Haber


By Alan Bacchus

Since the discussion of the first Tattoo movie in relationship to the new film comes up all the time for me, why not repost my original review of the Niels Arden Oplev version. For the Fincher version, click HERE.

The success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy books is widely known – a European phenomenon, which over this past year has finally broken in North America. All three films based on the three books, including The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, have already been shot, completed and released abroad to mega box office success. So, for once, North America has been left as the ‘last to know’ about these stories.

Not much has been made of the success of its North American theatrical release yet, but it’s an achievement. Considering the ‘in and out and get to the DVD release’ pattern of most films these days, its 13 weeks in release in a modest number of theatres is remarkable. Though it's only garnered a modest $7.3 million dollar take, the distributors and exhibiters seemed to have hit the sweet spot of its release – just enough theatres for it to maintain a solid word of mouth momentum and profitability, and a precedent for how smaller films can have lasting power in the cinema.

As for the movie, it’s just as remarkable. It’s a thrilling slice of Euro-pulp and a heavily plotted investigative, serial killer, feminist melodrama. Slick production value, salacious subject matter and an instantly iconic performance by Noomi Rapace make this the guilty pleasure of the year – a truly epic and inspired piece of airport trash.

Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a shamed investigative political journalist who has found himself sentenced to prison for apparently slandering a prominent politician publicly in his latest article. At his worst moment he receives a call from an even more prominent Swedish businessman, Henrik Vanger, who wants to hire Mikael to investigate the murder of his niece from 1966. With six months of freedom before having to serve his sentence and without a job, Mikael accepts the offer and soon becomes embroiled in a complex and sordid 40-year-old trail of family squabbles, neo-Nazism tendencies, gruesome sexual fetishes and grisly murder.

Meanwhile, a young 24-year-old tattooed and pierced goth chick, Lisbeth Salander (Noomie Rapace), the anti-social yet brilliant investigator who hacked into Blomkqvist’s computer on behalf of Vanger, is on her own path of adventure. Out of the blue she’s been told her guardianship (she's still being recognized as a youth) has been transferred to an especially slimy attorney. He turns out to be a masochist who subjects Lisbeth to humiliating sexual torture. That is, until she turns the tables and exacts some sweet revenge against him. After this escapade she joins up with Blomkvist to help solve the 40-year-old cold case.

This rather quick synopsis only scratches the surface of hair-raising peculiarities that make up this narrative. Particularly gruesome is the lengthy build-up to Lisbeth’s history. We don’t know much about her, but her physical appearance suggests a rebellious attitude and a hardened emotional exterior due to some trauma in the past. When the despicable court-appointed guardian enters her life her character is taken to the extreme. The actions of the guardian don’t make much sense logically, but it reinforces with severity Larsson’s pervasive theme of misogyny. The film successfully teases us with flashbacks to Lisbeth as a child and the death of her father via a lit match and some gasoline – a history we just might see fleshed out in The Girl Who Played With Fire.

As a serial killer genre film, director Oplev hits all the right buttons stylistically to entrap us in the complex web of evidence, back story, politics and the delightfully bad deeds of his killer. There’s a lot of procedural information thrown at us, but it’s expertly revealed like peeling the layers of an onion to provide maximum tension. If anything, the final reveals don’t quite elevate its shock value to anything higher than what we saw happen to Lisbeth at the beginning. And the rather sappy reunion that happens in the denouement is a tad too soft for this otherwise darkly cynical film.

Unfortunately, looking ahead to the other films, it appears the director Niels Arden Oplev directed only the first film and another director helmed the last two. In a few months we’ll see if the other two meet the expectations satisfied by Tattoo.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Alliance Films in Canada.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Hanover Street

Hanover Street (1979) dir. Peter Hyams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Lesley-Anne Down, Christopher Plummer


By Alan Bacchus

A young Harrison Ford in a romantic lead makes this obscure wartime romance an interesting discovery of the past. Peter Hyams, director of some decent ‘70s/’80s action thrillers (Narrow Margin, 2010, Capricorn One), directs this hopelessly tragic romantic war film channeling the sweeping epic qualities of David Lean, unfortunately, at times, with the heavy bluntness of Joe Wright.

Harrison Ford is an American pilot, David Hallerin, stationed in London in 1944. He catches the eye of a beautiful and well mannered erudite British gal, Margaret Sellinger (Lesley-Anne Down), and immediately develops an infatuation with her. An illicit romance starts, dramatized with gentle touches, heavy breathing and all the guilt that follows. Poor Margaret is actually in a happy marriage to a dull but well meaning bore of a man, Paul, played by Christopher Plummer.

Meanwhile, David continues to fly his bombing missions into France, becoming more belligerent and disillusioned about the danger his superiors are putting him in. Coincidentally, David and Paul meet on a secret mission inside Germany and are forced to work together for the cause without knowing their connection with each other. Love, courage and heroism collide with full-on heartbreaking tragedy and exhilaration so often featured in these sweeping epics.

The picture was shot right after Star Wars, so it’s fun to see a young and spry Harrison Ford with maximum charisma, rebellious confidence and foolhardy innocence. He looks damned fine in military garb and Lesley-Anne Down's big doey eyes are also irresistible, so it's not hard to sell us on this romance, which is thrown at us without much set-up other than the fact that they are the two most beautiful people in the room.

Peter Hyams’ trademark photographic look is pastoral beautification personified. His long lenses crush the edges of the frame squeezing out the periphery of the populated London streets to concentrate solely on his two lovers. The opening scene on the trolley where David and Margaret first meet is poorly written, but with such lovely compositions, Ford at his charismatic best and John Barry’s grand swooning score it sets the mood appropriately.

There’s not much on-screen chemistry that isn’t forced down our throats with these other cinematic embellishments. The age and relative obscurity for a Harrison Ford-led picture allow us to excuse contrivances I would normally pounce on.

The third act climax is reverse engineered without much nuance. Out of the blue David is assigned to pilot his lover’s husband on a dangerous mission into France. And for much of the journey they get to know each other without knowing they’re sleeping with the same woman. We see where it’s going a mile away, but Hyams manages to make it all exciting by dulling us to the outrageousness of it all - he even throws in a well choreographed chase scene (also a specialty of his).

Hyams certainly does not reach the mark of the David Lean-inspired romantic grandeur, but with top notch production values and a handsome and young Harrison Ford as an anchor, Hanover Street is rendered watchable. Enjoy.

Thursday, 12 January 2012


Thief (1981) dir. Michael Mann
Starring: James Caan, James Belushi, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky


By Alan Bacchus

Some filmmakers take years to hone their style and aesthetic tastes. Others announce their vision right out of the gate. Such is the case with Thief, which instantly established Michael Mann’s unique, unmistakable viewpoint on the world. It also features one of James Caan’s best roles (including The Godfather) as a professional thief who yearns to establish a legitimate domestic life with a wife and child, but who instinctively gets pulled back into the world of crime.

The opening scene is riveting, establishing Frank (Caan) as a crackerjack jewel thief breaking into his next score and going through the elaborate procedure of cracking the safe. Frank’s use of heavy steel drills and welding equipment feels more like a tool and dye operation than the whimsical fun of say, a Jules Dassin picture, or other heist romps of the ‘70s, like The Brink’s Job or Dollars. This is part of Mann’s modus operandi for most of his career, depicting criminals as working class men albeit on the fringe of legitimate society.

After the heist, Frank connects with a new source, Leo (Prosky), who offers him a chance at more scores and more money. Frank’s instinct is to decline, preferring to work on his own. It’s a noble stance to take, but after reconnecting with his girlfriend, Jessie (Weld), with whom he wants to start a new life, including marriage and kids. With these prospects staring at him and with little money in his pockets he needs the scores and decides to go against his judgement.

Much of the second half of the film is prep for the big score, a diamond heist in an ultra-secure high-rise building. From the casing of the joint to purchasing the supplies and hiring the team, Mann makes the details of the preparation for the job as important as the actual theft.

Of course, as one would expect, there’s a double-cross threatening both Frank and his new family, which forces him to make some tough but pragmatic decisions about his family and his career in order to escape the web of criminal deceit he’s caught in.

Mann managed to create a resolute stone cold attitude to his world not present in other crime pictures before it – not even Sydney Lumet, William Friedkin or Don Siegel achieved this kind of realism. And combined with the precise but textured cinematography – glowing street lamps reflecting off rain-soaked Chicago streets would be a hallmark of Mann's later work too – it became a style Mann could call his own. Other than his rigorous attention to detail, the other thematic hallmark established in this picture is Mann’s characterization of thieves as identifiable men with many of the same domestic problems as the audience. One of the best scenes in the film is a long dialogue between Caan and Weld, lovers and life partners who are trying to figure out how to make their relationship work.

There’s also the electronic magnificence of the Tangerine Dream score, some of which dates the picture badly, but most of which sizzles with a feeling and tone unlike most other pictures of its kind. The synthesized sounds are diametrically opposed to all other styles of movie up until that (very short) period in Hollywood. Now with films like Tron: Legacy, Drive and Contagion, the electronic score might just make a comeback. But I don’t think any modern film would attempt to recreate the extremity of Tangerine Dream’s unorthodox sounds here.

Like any auteur’s work it’s fun to connect the themes, plotting, visualizations and tone of Thief to Mann’s other work, such as Heat, Manhunter and Miami Vice. The connections to Heat are the most direct. In fact, the narrative structure and building of characters in Thief seems like a trial work for the more expansive, epic and ambitious work of Heat.

As mentioned, as much as Thief was a showcase for the new American voice of Michael Mann, so it was for James Caan, who never really fulfilled the promise of The Godfather. Sure, Sonny Corleone was an iconic character that was impossible to forget, but look no further than Thief to find arguably Caan’s best work.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Strawberry Blonde

The Strawberry Blonde (1941) dir. Raoul Walsh
Starring: James Cagney, Olivia De Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Jack Carson, George Tobias and Alan Hale


By Greg Klymkiw
Casey would waltz with a strawberry blond,
And the Band played on,
He'd glide cross the floor with the girl he ador'd,
and the Band played on,
But his brain was so loaded it nearly exploded,
The poor girl would shake with alarm.
He'd ne'er leave the girl with the strawberry curls,
And the Band played on.

- Chorus, "The Band Played On" by Palmer & Ward, 1895
He was one of the original two-fisted, piss and vinegar Old Hollywood filmmakers - a man's man and then some - and yet, in spite of this reputation and a canon that included sprawling, dusty westerns, brutal gangster dramas and some of the most effective and affecting war propaganda, Raoul Walsh directed one of the most grandly entertaining, politically astute and decidedly progressive romantic comedies of the 1940s, one that placed women's roles and rights in a society controlled by men at the forefront of its narrative and thematic concerns while, at the same time focusing on a very different male figure, a regular guy from the wrong side of the tracks who is drawn to the surface attributes of both beauty and success, but discovers in himself something deeper.

The Strawberry Blonde is set against the backdrop of a simpler, gentler time in American history - the Gay 1890s - where every Manhattan street corner seemed equipped with a cheerful barbershop quartet crooning away to whomever would listen and when a man's biggest worry was what young lass he'd stroll through the park with on a Sunday afternoon. Life was sweet and an innocence and complacency gripped the towns and cities of America with the promise of new beginnings and sky's-the-limit opportunity.

Biff Grimes (James Cagney) is a working stiff with a dream. He wants to be a dentist. His pal from the old neighbourhood, the amiably smarmy Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) wants wealth and power. What they both have their sights on is the flirty, charming, strawberry blonde of the picture's title, Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth). In all things that SEEM to matter to Biff, Hugo wins and Biff loses, but in the process, Biff learns a few lessons in life when he ends up genuinely falling in love with Virginia's free-thinking, generous suffragette girlfriend Amy Lind (Olivia De Havilland) who has devoted much of her life to the profession of nursing.

On the surface, the movie is a grass-is-NOT-always-greener-on-the-other-side tale of love, friendship and what the true meaning of happiness is, but within the context of a shiny bauble, we get a story that, for its time was AHEAD of its time and in contemporary terms, is a drama for OUR time and frankly, universal enough to be for ALL time.

Walsh was a director imbued with such a strong sense of place and time. Film after film, characters moved through interior and exterior sets, backlots and locations endowed with meticulous attention to detail. Walsh played his characters thoughtfully and carefully, like chess pieces crafted from the ivory of Wooly Mammoth tusks and he moved them on sets as painstakingly rendered as the famed Staunton-crafted wooden boards. There are seldom false moments in a Walsh film and the reason for this is how he blocked his action with only the best actors - making sure that interior and exterior landscapes surrounding them were rooted in WHO they were as characters. To do this required scrupulous attention to every detail and he had the eye of a true Master. (In fact, one of Walsh's eyes was savagely extricated during a car accident when a jackrabbit jumped through an open window as he drove to the In Old Arizona set in the late 1920s. For most of his directing career he only had one eye, but WHAT an EYE!!!)

The Strawberry Blonde is a movie that pulsates with the life of a world that is both magical and real - so much so, that the visuals come close to conjuring actual smells. The spittoon-laden beer halls where Biff and his ne'er-do-well boozing Dad (Alan Hale) wind up in brawl after brawl practically reek with the stench of cheap tobacco smoke and draught-soaked floors. The barber shop where Biff hangs out with his master hair-stylist buddy Nick Pappalas (George Tobias) is so perfectly accoutered with the fixtures and implements of the trade that one's olfactories are gently pummelled with the aroma of pomades, lotions and talcum powder.

The gaslight illuminating the streets at night, the fresh leafy parks, the grocery-market-lined streets, the stuffy, oak-paneled boardrooms and offices of Hugo's construction empire, the gaudy, ornate nouveau-riche mansion Hugo lives in, the warmth of Biff's eventual hearth and home - all are teeming with sounds and sights that embrace all the characters in a world that's as bygone as it is familiar.

And the sounds!

Even in the 40s, this is a movie that delivers a richly layered soundtrack that rivals (if not downright trumps) the over-mixed, over-crowded digital aural blankets so prevalent in contemporary movies - but in glorious, delicious optical mono. And the music! Bands playing, tenors trilling; the movie is blessed with all this in addition to the almost continuous use of vocal and instrumental renderings of Palmer & Ward's insanely popular ditty of the period "The Band Played On" (which was re-popularized after the release of The Strawberry Blonde).

Walsh lays an incredibly rich tapestry before us. It's all that money could buy and then some - not surprising as The Strawberry Blonde was born out of the glory that was Warner Brothers studios. Walsh, began his career as an actor during the silent era and eventually moved into production. He worked as an assistant director to the legendary, groundbreaking D.W. Griffith - the height of Walsh's mentorship under cinema's first true master of cinematic narrative was assisting in the direction and co-editing the immortal Birth of a Nation. In addition to learning the ins and outs of narrative, editing and the use of the frame, Walsh even credited Griffith with his learning everything about techniques of production and production management - all contributors to Walsh's command of the film medium. In spite of this, Walsh was a contract director at the staid Paramount Pictures during the early sound period and his work here was perfunctory at best. However, when he moved to Warner Brothers, he positively exploded.

Walsh was one of those directors who thrived on collaborative relationships with people as brilliant as he was. Never surrounding himself with uninspiring yes-men, he worked in tandem with only the best artists and craftsmen. This aroused a spirit of artistry that was even greater than what he was naturally imbued with. At Warner Brothers, many of his best films were in collaboration with the visionary producer Hal B. Wallis (who would go on to produce Casablanca). Wallis was a showman par excellence and Walsh was a cinematic storyteller of the same order. They were formidable creative collaborators. Add to this that Walsh was always fixated on stories about "the little guy" or regular "Joes" against the backdrop of worlds bigger than they were, he and Wallis made ideal bedfellows - Wallis loved heroes, Walsh loved making all his characters bigger than life (yet in so doing, infusing them with a life force more real and sophisticated than most studio productions).

The Strawberry Blonde excels in this notion of making its little guy a hero. Biff is someone who wants more out of life than what's normally dealt to Joe-Blows, but he doesn't think, even for a second, that it will be handed to him. He works his butt off in matters of both his career and the heart. When he falls big-time for the coquette-ish Virginia, he's briefly afforded a taste of what he thinks would be Heaven-on-Earth, but as the film progresses, she has her sights set on bigger things and she not only breaks his heart, but eventually, her true colours are revealed. She's as exploitative and manipulative as Biff's "friend" Hugo. Virginia and Hugo become a match made in Heaven - or rather, Hell. Biff, on the other hand, is saddled with a fifth wheel in the romantic roundelay - though eventually, Amy offers the sort of love and support he needs - this is no mere infatuation as it was with Virginia, but deep and soulful. Even when Biff is offered a high-paying, high-ranking position with Hugo, he desperately wants to work hard and learn the business and experiences considerable frustration that his only job appears to be reading the morning papers and signing contracts he doesn't understand.

The character of Amy is beautifully rendered and way ahead of both the times of when the movie was made and certainly during the times in which the movie is set. She works as a nurse, and on the first double date twixt herself, Virginia, Biff and Hugo, she shows up adorned in her nurse uniform. Virginia - dolled up in all her finery - scolds Amy, but the fifth-wheel will have none of it. She's proud to be a working woman, a caregiver and intends to go straight to a nightshift at the hospital after a night on the town. She's also surprisingly and delightfully straightforward (modern, if you will) with respect to sexuality and in one of the best scenes in the movie, she shocks a horrified Biff with her modern frankness in matters of amore.

In contrast, Virginia is a gold-digging tease - all talk, no action - and unlike Amy, Virginia's talk is bubbly and empty-headed. Amy displays her own brand of froth, but her sex appeal comes from open-mindedness, intelligence, a keen wit, political savvy and overall, a deep, genuine sense of caring. Virginia chides Amy for being a suffragette, but she's unapologetic - Amy is a firm believer and fighter for the rights of women, but at the same time, she wants to make a place for herself in the world with a man - not as her ruler and/or protector, but in an equal partnership founded in love, mutual respect and making a better life for both of them and those around them.

One of the aspects of this tale that resonates in contemporary terms is the notion of how the rich exploit and deceive the poor. A turn in the tale has overtones of tragedy. Once Biff is duped into joining Hugo's company, he becomes the fall guy in an illegal development scam. Even here, though, Walsh focuses on the indomitability of the working guy and we see strife metamorphosize into strength and Biff's character is deepened in his resolve to get free of the shackles imposed upon him by the dishonesty and thievery of the "ruling" class.

All of this is played by an astounding all-star cast. As Cagney proved time and time again, he was more than just a movie tough guy. Certainly in Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy, he was a spectacular song and dance man and here, he's a terrific, (though pugnacious) romantic leading man with a great sense of humour. Olivia De Havilland offers up a snappy, sexy leading lady, far removed from the whiny, helpless, long-suffering Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. Rita Hayworth is her super-sexy self, while Jack Carson, George Tobias and Alan Hale lend the sort of magnificent support as character actors that the Warners stable always offered up.

Not only was Walsh endowed with an eye to championing the rights of the impoverished (or, in the cases of some, at least understanding when impoverishment led to socially deviant behaviour), but he was, thanks to producer Wallis, given magnificent material to work with. Based on a popular play, this was the second of three screen versions of this tale. Its screenplay was provided by the brilliant Epstein twins, Julius and Phillip (Daughters Courageous, Four Wives, The Man Who Came To Dinner, Casablanca) and with the outstanding Raoul Walsh at the helm, Strawberry Blonde is a truly delightful and intelligent romantic comedy - one for the ages and beyond.

"Strawberry Blonde" is available through the on-demand Warner Archives. Better video retailers (like Toronto's Sunrise Records at Yonge and Dundas and My Movie Store at Dundas and Tomken) will also carry it.

Other great Raoul Walsh pictures that MUST NOT BE MISSED ARE:

White Heat, The Roaring Twenties, Objective, Burma!, High Sierra, Pursued, They Died with Their Boots On, They Drive by Night, Manpower and Gentleman Jim.