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

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Phone Call from a Stranger

Phone Call from a Stranger (1952) dir. Jean Negulesco
Starring: Gary Merrill, Shelley Winters, Michael Rennie, Keenan Wynn, Bette Davis

By Alan Bacchus

Phone Call from a Stranger is a fine underappreciated ensemble potboiler from the 1950s, which finds a group of one-way ticketed guests, each with a hidden past, forming a unique bond of friendship during a flight delay. But when the plane crashes the sole survivor of the group is compelled to contact their families and finish the personal journeys of each of his friends.

David Trask (Gary Merrill) is introduced as a broken man who has run away from his family. He’s taken a one-way flight to Los Angeles under a fake name and left a seemingly loving wife and two kids. His painful past is left hidden to the audience. On the flight he meets Bianca Carr (Shelley Winters), a vivacious actress and singer who has a fear of flying and a painful and rocky relationship with her singer husband. Dr. Robert Fortness (the humble Michael Rennie), a kind doctor, is also on a flight to escape his troublesome past as an alcoholic. The foursome is rounded out by Eddie Hoke (Keenan Wynn), a travelling novelty salesman who uses his wild sense of humour to mask deep-rooted pain in his home life.

The group call themselves the four Muskateers and make a pact to revisit each other a year after the flight. The pact becomes an omen when the plane crashes leaving Trask as the only survivor. Despite the crash he makes good on his pact and proceeds to contact the families of each of his surrogate friends and help heal the familial conflict that divided each of the families.

Writer/producer Nunnally Johnson was a prolific Hollywood screenwriter with a great talent for creating suspenseful character-driven stories. His range across genres included fine screenplays for The Dirty Dozen, Black Widow and Three Faces of Eve. Johnson and director Jean Negulesco create great tension before and during the flight by teasing the audience with hints of the backstories and characters we’ll meet later in the film. The anxious performances from Winter, Rennie, Merrill and Wynn set up the revelatory actions in the second half.

As Trask makes his phone calls and visits the families he becomes a guardian angel to each of them and is a source of comfort and solace. It’s fun, though, to watch how easily the families are accepting of his intrusion into their lives. The old world hospitality toward strangers is unintentionally humorous compared to the fearful suspicion we have toward our neighbours in today’s world. At one point Trask physically restrains Fortness’s son in his own house just minutes after meeting him.

If you accept the contrivances of this classical style of study storytelling, Phone Call from a Stranger will be a fun experience. At the very least you will be rewarded with a great cameo from Bette Davis. She plays Keenan Wynn's kind wife, who enables Trask himself to accept the love from his own family again. Enjoy.


Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Safe House

Safe House (2012) dir. Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington, Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga

By Alan Bacchus

An unlikely success to be sure, Safe House surprisingly garnered over $120 million at the North American box office. Unfortunately, the story of a lowly CIA safe house operator who finally gets to see some action when a notorious counterspy arrives to stay with a lot of international baddies trailing behind plays like a decent though forgettable Tony Scott knockoff.

That said, we’re put into a unique setting for this picture, Cape Town, South Africa. Denzel Washington’s character, Tobin Frost (great name), is trading a secret file with a rogue CIA agent. After an attack by some big-nosed, slick haired and overall nasty looking gunmen, Frost escapes into CIA custody and is moved to a safe house. Enter Matt Weston (Reynold), a nebbish family man whose career is more like a glorified housekeeper. But when Frost arrives he finds himself eye to eye with a legendary international criminal.

When that big-nosed baddie returns to the fray and finds Tobin at the safe house, it becomes a desperate chase with Weston and Tobin forced to work together to survive. As expected, a few twists and turns in the action involve characters switching allegiances, ultimately revealing Tobin as the keeper of some of the CIA's darkest secrets.

The course of action and its execution play out with only adequate cinematic skills. It’s Daniel Espinosa’s first American film after his decent international hit Snabba Cash. That film showed some promise of a tough action filmmaker, but the underwhelming and turnkey nature of Safe House instills little hope that Espinoza will be anything special.

Reynolds and Washington, the great actors that they are, make a good duo. Denzel commands most of the film, playing his nebulous baddie role with the same kind of aplomb as recent minor hits Unstoppable and Book of Eli. Denzel can do so much with very little. He rarely needs to speak, instead showing the confidence of his character with action and reaction. All the other character actors, including Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga, have grossly underwritten stock roles borrowed from other new millennium action thrillers.

The third act plays out the expected expression of mutual admiration and brotherly loyalty developed between Weston and Tobin, and the final gunfight, in which all the characters are blasting each other in one confined space, lacks any cinematic imagination. As such, despite very strong creative minds involved here, Safe House settles into ordinary boilerplate filmmaking.


Safe House is available on Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

La Haine

La Haine (Hate) (1995) dir. Mathieu Kassovitz
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui

By Alan Bacchus

Although La Haine feels so thoroughly relevant and modern, the film is 17 years old, made at the time of Boyz in the Hood and Menace II Society. La Haine is less a time capsule of the era, like those urban American films, and more a grand artistic statement comparable to the early angry works of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee.

Kassovitz follows the day in the life of three low-level street hoods, Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Kounde) and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui). It's just after a violent riot in Paris, which saw one of the leaders of their community beaten and in the hospital. Anger, fear and frustration fills the air, and the three boys are not sure how to channel their anger.

When hotheaded Vinz (think Johnny Boy from Mean Streets) finds a missing policeman's gun on the ground it becomes a symbol for him to exercise the power and force he's always wanted. Hubert seeks an escape from the ghetto so he doesn't suffer the same fate as his imprisoned brother. And Saïd is left in between the two divergent paths of Vinz and Hubert. We just spend one day with the guys as they cruise the streets of Paris rambunctiously disturbing the peace while contemplating their futures in the Paris ghetto.

I don’t know anything about urban Parisian life other than what I see in the movies and read on the news. Between now and then it would appear that little has changed for the underprivileged youth of Paris – a mixture of races, who through their urban poverty and racial discrimination congregate together in gangs for strength. This is the story of any major ethnically diverse urban centre, be it the streets of South Central LA or Toronto. But the trio in this film is not defined by race. Hubert is black, Vinz is Jewish-White and Saïd is Muslim, three lost souls who have little in common culturally other than their mutual poverty. It wasn’t the first and won’t be the last film on this subject, but La Haine is one of the most powerful and accessible of these urban stories.

Though this wasn’t Mathieu Kassovitz’s first film, it certainly was his coming out party. Shot in stark high contrast wide-angle black & white, La Haine is a beautiful piece of celluloid. Black & white captures youth so eloquently, and the deep focus look in this film reminds us of Francis Coppola’s Rumble Fish or Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show.

So far I’ve referenced five great filmmakers, so there’s a palpable acknowledgement of cinema in Kassovitz’s style. He’s supremely confident with his camera and the direction of his performances. Characters are framed carefully with attention-grabbing compositions – whether it’s the back of someone’s head or a bold macro close-up, Kassovitz finds clever ways to orchestrate the characters in the spaces - an expressionism borrowing heavily from Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese.

Despite the stylish visuals, Kassovitz compensates with a natural freeform narrative that evolves without burdening us with traditional plot devices. Using the time of day as the only narrative reference point, he makes every scene special. And when the final scene comes, only then do we realize how well his characters have been drawn and made flesh. In the final moments Hubert, Vinz and Saïd are tested in a dramatic confrontation that leaves the audience gasping - and with a little bit of auteur ambiguity for good measure to let us all know it's a director's film. Enjoy.


La Haine is available on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection

Monday, 28 May 2012

Red and the White

The Red and the White (1968) dir. Miklós Jancsó
Starring: József Madaras, Tibor Molnár

By Alan Bacchus

Trying to describe Jancsó’s ode to the Russian Revolution is difficult. There is no traditional plot and there are no traditional characters – it drops the audience into the front line of the war between the Reds and the Whites in the violent years just after the Russian Revolution. Jancsó matter-of-factly shows us both sides of the conflict with complete dispassion. It’s not documentary-like either, as in Bloody Sunday – it’s a cinematic experience unto itself and a dazzling anti-war film.

The film starts on the front line of the Russian Civil War of 1919 (aka Red and White War). The Reds are the Bolshevik Army, which has just overthrown the Czarist monarchy. They were comprised not just of Russians, but also workers from Romania, Hungary, Poland and other European countries. The Whites were a coalition made up of Czarist loyalists who wanted to overthrow the new Communist government. They were backed by, and in many cases fought by, other European soldiers and armies.

The film opens in the Russian countryside with a wonderful dolly and crane shot as a platoon of Whites pursue a group of Hungarian Reds across a hillside. Some are captured and some escape. The escapees wander into a hospital barracks where they receive care. Soon after, the Whites catch up to them and pillage the premises looking for more Red soldiers. The film fluidly moves back and forth across both sides of the war. In the hospital the point of view inconspicuously moves to the White side of the battle. At times the soldiers don’t know who is on whose side and neither do we. After all, it was a civil war fought by multinationals on both sides. Jancsó doesn’t care about confusing the audience though - the brutality of war is his main concern.

The film was meant to be propaganda, but often great films come from these political restraints. The films of Mikael Kalatozov (I am Cuba), Sergei Eisenstein (October) and Leni Reifenstahal (Triumph of the Will) come to mind. In fact, The Red and the White was born from a commission by the Soviet government to make a film commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

There is more than just a thematic kinship with Kalatozov’s fantastic I am Cuba. Both films use breathtaking long takes and wide-angle black and white cinematography. The scene when the Red captain makes the White captives take off their shirts and run throughout the barracks like released animals at a fox hunt is brutal and humiliating, but it's expertly shot and choreographed. The use of wide-angle landscape shots in the final battle is a tremendous piece of cinema and reminiscent of the epic battle in Spartacus.

Ironically, The Red and the White is an anti-war film masquerading as propaganda. Despite being a commission of the Soviet government, the Soviets were not pleased with Jancsó’s cut and had the film re-edited to make the Reds more heroic. The film was eventually banned in the Soviet Union, but not before it was released in the U.S. and Hungary and became one of Jancsó’s most beloved films.

Kino has a barebones DVD available. The transfer is from the print, which means the cigarette burns and handling scratches are visible, but it’s still beautiful to watch and a must-see for all cinephiles. I can't wait to discover Jancsó's other films. Any suggestions? Enjoy.


Friday, 25 May 2012

Golden Boy

Golden Boy (1939) dir. Rouben Mamoulian
Starring: William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Lee J. Cobb, Adolphe Menjou

By Alan Bacchus

The year 1939, supposedly Hollywood’s greatest year, produced William Holden’s first film. It's a well written and well crafted film about a boxer who wrestles between a love for fighting and a talent for playing the violin. The strength of the film is its screenplay by the legendary writer Clifford Odets, who adapts the film from his own play. Aside from dated politically incorrectness, the film manages to avoid most clichés and exists beyond the ‘boxing film’ genre.

William Holden, the gruff maschismo-man we know from his later roles, is almost unrecognizable as a young and rebellious 21-year-old. He plays Joe Bonaparte, who has a talent for playing the violin but chooses a life of down and dirty boxing to make a living. He’s managed by Tom Moody (the great character actor Adolphe Paths of Glory Menjou) and his smart and sexy assistant, Lorna Moon (a luminous Barbara Stanwyck). Joe is tempted to the dark side by a local gangster, which further alienates him from his disapproving father and eventually from Lorna, his girlfriend-in-waiting.

Stanwyck, as usual, is super sexy as Lorna, and the boxing subplots are typical and adequate fare for the genre. The reason to watch the film is the relationship between Joe (William Holden) and his father, played by Lee J. Cobb. Behind the atrocious fake moustache, fake eyebrows and Italian accent, Mr. Bonaparte is a realistic character we can all relate to. He’s an immigrant who struggles hard to put food on the table for his family. He cherishes his son’s blessed artistic gift of music, which dignifies his working class lifestyle. But when Joe’s interest turns to the violent and dirty sport of boxing Bonaparte fears his son’s life will revert to the inner city immigrant lifestyle into which most other of his kind are stereotyped.

You can’t fault Bonaparte for wanting a peaceful and respectable life for his son. This is a familiar conflict in cinema, but Odets chooses an unfamiliar conundrum for the Bonapartes. Odets could have given Joe a scholastic talent, which would have been a clearer point of conflict between the father and son – i.e., being a successful lawyer vs. fighter. But a conflict between art and violence is a far more complex decision because Joe’s decision is not driven by money.

Unfortunately, what we never get a clear sense of is where Bonaparte develops the need to beat down people for adulation. If his talent is that good, he can certainly achieve fame from playing the violin. So is there a deep-rooted carnality to the sport that attracts Joe to boxing? Perhaps it’s the violence in his home that causes him to transfers his aggression to the ring. If so, it’s in the sub-sub-subtext. There’s a scene when Joe’s brother-in-law, Siggie, hits his wife on the head during an argument. The father Bonaparte is in the room and scolds Siggie saying, “Please, you shouldn’t hit your wife in public. Do it in private!”. Unfortunately, I don’t think this was subtext but rather behaviour that was acceptable in its day. It’s a shame Odets never clarified the root of Joe’s inner conflict.

The other highlight of the film is the final fight scene. For a boxing film, not seeing a fight until the end was curious, but director Mamoulian makes up for it with a thrilling and well staged main event. The scene must have cost a fortune to shoot - it begins with the entrance of the boxers into the ring. Mamoulian doesn’t trick us with cheating close-ups; he fills all the seats in the arena with real live bodies. The lighting and framing by legendary lensman Karl Freud in collaboration with Nicholas Musuraca brings to mind the contrasting look of Scorsese’s fight scenes in Raging Bull. I suspect this film was a major influence on Scorsese’s film.

William Holden had a long 40-year career – roughly book-ended by two great films – Golden Boy and Network. In between he gave us many great films, including Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Wild Bunch. Golden Boy is a quality jumpstart to his career. Enjoy.


Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Red Tent

The Red Tent (1971) dir. Mikhail Kalatozov
Starring: Peter Finch, Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale, Hardy Kruger

By Alan Bacchus

One of the grandest adventure/survival films is one you’ve probably never heard of - The Red Tent - an oddball fusion of Italians and Soviet filmmakers with an all-star international cast and crew. It tells the true story of a failed Italian expedition to the North Pole via airship in 1928. The great Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov directs his first and last English language film with complete authenticity. Other than the completely realistic arctic disaster story, the film is a powerful story of ambition, greed, international politics, heroism and cowardice.

Kalatozov begins the story with perhaps the longest pre-credit sequence in film history. Before we even get to the snow there’s a 13-minute dream sequence from inside the head of General Nobile (Peter Finch), who fatefully led many of his crew to their deaths during the expedition. One by one the participants in the story appear in his subconscious in a makeshift psychological trial. It’s a manifestation of Nobile’s inner guilt and responsibility for the tragic events. Though it’s fascinating from a psychological perspective, as a cinematic device it’s awkward and confusing at the beginning and barely comes together at the end.

But it’s important to get past this first scene because the film only gets better and more rewarding. The claustrophobia of the surreal dream sequence is released dramatically once Kalatozov gets outside into the open air where he works best. Intimacy is not Kalatozov’s forte. He needs big crowds, big machines and big scope to make his films. Italian General Nobile (Peter Finch) is in charge of leading an expedition to the North Pole. It was an age of nationalism and competition for international discoveries and achievements. Amundsen and Peary had already been to the North Pole, which Nobile has conspicuously missed out on. So Nobile’s mission serves not only to stake a claim for his country but personal pride as well.

Kalatozov stages a wonderful farewell scene – not as grand as the farewell in The Cranes are Flying but majestic nonetheless. The addition to Ennio Morricone’s swooning score pushes Kalatozov’s epic style to even greater heights. The airship falters from the extreme cold and crashes to the ground miles from their target. The crash is horrific and directed with complete realism. With the crew stranded in the frigid and unaccommodating arctic it becomes a desperate fight for survival – finding food and shelter and salvaging the radio all become tasks of importance.

The film cuts back and forth between the airship, the Italian basecamp where the news of the expedition has made the incident an internationally covered press story and a Russian expedition that hears their distress signal. Not only is it a fight for survival but a race to rescue them.

The stunning visuals anchor this exciting flick. The on-location filmmaking in the desolate tundra is impossible to fake, and so I can only imagine how gruelling the shoot must have been. The expansive helicopter shots of the endless ice and snow isolate the characters and pit them against their environment, like Lean did in Lawrence of Arabia. Kalatozov increases the spectacle and scope when he introduces the Russian subplot. In fact, my favourite scene is when the amateur radio operator is tuning into the distress signal from the lost crew. The boy sits on top of his roof with the radio while the other townsfolk watching from below control the antenna with a kite. It’s a classic Kalatozov moment when he frames up the entire town from the roof whose attention is drawn to the one boy on top of the house. The image of the boy on the roof, which shows how mass communication can bring people from different cultures together for a common goal, is also an allegory to the collaboration of filmmakers from different cultures to tell this story.

Kalatozov’s collaboration with the international talent is a fitting swan song for the Soviet master (see also I am Cuba and The Cranes are Flying). For a man who plied his trade as a virtual unknown behind the Iron Curtain, his grand emergence into the ‘Western’ world of filmmaking was also his final bow. The Red Tent was Kalatozov’s final film, as he died several years later. Enjoy.


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Duchess

The Duchess (2008) dir. Saul Dibb
Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell, Charlotte Rampling, Dominc Cooper

By Alan Bacchus

The obscene arrogance of British royalty is scathingly brought to the screen via this true story of Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire. I normally loathe these costume dramas, but the talented scribe Anders Thomas Jensen (After the Wedding, Brothers) elevates this wig and corset tale to the tragic levels he’s used to.

The opening shot of The Duchess features a woman seen from behind trotting about the English countryside wearing a grossly exaggerated garish wig. This is Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley), who wears this symbol of high fashion with confidence and pride. Early on when Georgiana is informed by her doting mother (Charlotte Rampling) that she has arranged her marriage to a Duke (Ralph Fiennes) in the royal family, Georgiana’s dreams of being a woman of privilege, power and entitlement are within her grasp.

Little does she know the price of privilege will become a life of subjugation to her controlling and obsessively unemotional husband. Ralph Fiennes is cast correctly as the arrogant pompous Duke. The marriage is to serve only one purpose, that is to produce a male heir – a task which the Duke treats like the ability to serve tea. So when Georgiana cannot produce a son, the Duke turns to his mistresses for comfort. When the Duke flaunts his new mistress and Georgiana’s former best friend conspicuously about the castle, Georgiana takes up her own affair, the effects of which will be her unjust downfall in the family.

Knightley plays the Duchess with a strong sense of pride and confidence. Despite the Duke's neurotic behaviour and sexual dalliances, Georgiana always seems to hold a superiority over the beleaguered man. Unfortunately, it’s a man’s world and the Duke’s shamefully controlling and indecent behaviour cannot be matched or battled on equal grounds by Georgiana.

And so we wait for the Duke to get his comeuppance for a lifetime of obscene manipulation, but we never get it. This becomes the sad, tragic irony. Georgiana, who believes so strongly in freedom, is trapped in her own prison – the archaic feudal oppressiveness of aristocratic life.

Though it’s not explicitly told to us in the film, Princess Diana is reportedly a direct descendant of Georgiana’s, so it’s no coincidence that Georgiana’s fashion savvy and this early celebrity culture surrounding royalty at the time is the film’s contemporary metaphor. Non-royalty elected politics played a strong role in Georgiana’s life, and her support to Grey in the public helped get Grey elected to Prime Minister. The press are seen following her around at parties, making comic strips of her bold fashion statements. The subtle allegories to Princess Di’s unhappiness with the Royal Family, Charles’s dalliances and the ultimately tragic ending to her life add a profound modern context to the film. Enjoy.


The Duchess is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012


¡Alambrista! (1977) dir. Robert M. Young
Starring: Domingo Ambriz, Trinidad Silva, Linda Gillen and Ned Beatty

By Alan Bacchus

Like recently revived indie landmarks The Exiles and Killer of Sheep, Robert M. Young’s immigration story, Alambrista, is a milestone in socio-political independent American cinema - a powerful salt-of-the-earth journey told with remarkable honesty and integrity.

Shot in 16mm with a unique verite aesthetic, at the time it was too didactic to become a hit like Easy Rider. Today its claim to fame is being the first-ever recipient of the Cannes Camera D’Or for Best First Feature. Now it's available in a wonderfully packaged and crisp-as-possible-looking Blu-ray transfer dutifully annointed by the arbiters of classic cinema, The Criterion Collection.

Gregory Nava’s El Norte (also Criterion) was a landmark film, but Young beat Nava by five years in telling the story of Mexican immigants making a living illegally in the United States. With the techniques learned from Young’s documentary background, Alambrista follows the journey of Roberto, a Mexican husband and new father who ventures across the border like thousands of others each year to make a living for his family in the most treacherous of lifesyles.

Young’s mobile camera, shooting wonderfully grainy 16mm film, follows Roberto on a roadtrip of sorts as we meet the men and women along the way who aid in his journey. Across the border in California Roberto is aided by a cocky and confident Joe, who shows him the ropes of being an Alambrista (meaning an ‘Illegal’), such as ordering breakfast in a diner or train-hopping or making oneself look American.
Young mixes his pathos with light humour and nimble, suspenseful action scenes. His ability to place his lightweight camera virtually anywhere he pleases enables him to shoot on trains, in nightclubs and other scenes with overachieving production value.

The film finds its emotional core when Roberto develops an unlikely romantic relationship with a local naïve diner waitress/single mother charmed by Roberto’s sensitivity and blind innocence. Young plays out this relationship wonderfully, at first passing it off as a means for Roberto to survive without disrespecting his abandoned family back home. But the relationship lasts longer than expected, eventually forcing Roberto to confront his immoral behaviour when he realizes he’s become a mirror of his own absent father.

Thus, Alambrista becomes more than just a slice of life or a documented aspect of American culture. It's a beautifully rendered and deceptive character study, brilliantly told.


¡Alambrista! is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Player

The Player (1992) dir. Robert Altman
Starring: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Vincent D’Onofrio, Fred Ward, Peter Gallagher, Cynthia Stevenson

By Alan Bacchus

The Player was a turning point in the career of Robert Altman, a dramatic shift from relative obscurity in the '80s to a renaissance of great pictures in the '90s and '00s comparable to the late career work of Clint Eastwood. It’s no slag on him though, as the cinema of Robert Altman had no real place in the decade of shitdom that was the '80s.

But Altman was never out of work. In fact, under the radar he produced a number of acclaimed and intriguing works, including Tanner ’88, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Secret Honor. But in 1992 it was the old Altman back in the form of his greatest picture, Nashville, made 17 years prior. In The Player he made a multi-layered, multi-character, complex story featuring comedy and tragedy in the vein of modern Hollywood movie-making.

One of the consistencies of Hollywood over the years has been its ability to self-analyze, critique and satirize itself. From Hollywood Cavalcade to A Star is Born to Sunset Boulevard and to The Bad and the Beautiful, Hollywood could always take its own pulse more accurately than anyone else. The Player is as sharp, biting and scathing as all of the above films - mixing some sharply tuned noirish tension with a wicked sense of deadpan comedy.

Tim Robbins plays a studio executive, Griffin Mill, who’s one step away from the chopping block to be replaced by his rival, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher). He’s also being threatened by a disgruntled writer in a series of nasty postcards. When he discovers whom he thinks is the writer, he confronts him then accidentally kills him in a heated argument. While covering up the murder he finds himself in the company of the widow, June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), with whom he slowly engages in a relationship, which then becomes a heated affair. But with the cops creeping up on him Griffin also has to negotiate his way out of the predicament with his job, evade the cops and reconcile a former relationship with his story editor.

The celebrating opening clears off most of the complicated backstory in one remarkable unedited shot, a shot which also references Orson Welles’ grandiose opening in Touch of Evil. It’s one of a series of clever details and Hollywood references that are layered all over this film. Anyone even remotely familiar with how development works will chuckle at the script pitches that continually get thrown at Griffin, even at his worst moments.

Tim Robbins’ scattered and aloof performance as Griffin is arguably the best of his career. And the roll call of quality cameos and bit players is still astounding. Vincent D’Onofrio’s violent confrontation with Griffin in the parking lot is incredibly tense – some of the best work he’s ever done. Watch out for Whoopi Goldberg’s hilarious performance as the very direct, though affable, police detective. And even her partner, Lyle Lovett, who curiously skulks around the scenes, is a scene stealer. Great character actors such as Brion James, Fred Ward and Dean Stockwell provide unsung and unflashy supporting performances, not to mention Greta Scacchi’s very steamy bit as the alluring yet approachable June Gudmundsdottir. And who could forget Richard E. Grant’s fantastic pitch for 'Habeous Corpus', which would tie the film back on itself so cleverly at the end – an ironic twist, which has been reused and copied by numerous other films.

Altman’s distinct filmmaking style is front and centre, displaying an auteur sensibility that links up marvellously with all his other work. His ability to navigate multiple storylines and characters, especially in the same space and same room, is a thing to behold in this picture. His now legendary techniques of overlapping sound contribute to a truly stereoscopic soundscape of dialogue, music and ambient noise.

It’s one of the treasures of the '90s, and it gets better and better over the years.

The Player is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.


Thursday, 17 May 2012

Late Spring

Late Spring (1949) dir. Yasujirô Ozu
Starring: Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura

By Alan Bacchus

For most of this film Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is a happy-go-lucky spark plug of energy with a perpetual smile on her face, but at 27 years old pressure from her father and her auntie to marry takes its toll, eventually stripping the woman of her pride and independence. This simple conundrum fuels this quiet domestic masterpiece from Japanese cinema-giant Yasujirô Ozu.

Professor Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu) is a widower, left with only his unmarried 27-year-old daughter to take care of him. It’s an honourable duty, which Noriko accepts with considerable pride. But for Shukichi, Noriko needs to be married off to fulfill a life of her own and to appease the social expectations of the family. At first, Noriko, who wears a mask of infectious optimism, is impervious to her father's and auntie’s nudges. But it’s the pressure of her own friends, her peers in whom she can no longer confide, that eventually causes the intense pain and stress she can no longer bear.

It’s a remarkable emotional journey delicately executed with the kind of Japanese neorealist sensibilities that Ozu has made his career from (e.g., Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds, Late Summer). The qualities of his most renowned picture, Tokyo Story, notwithstanding, Late Spring connects deeper with its audience. The inter-generational conflict - traditional values versus progressive self-determination - feels as relevant today as in Noriko’s day.

Ozu never settles with base characterizations either. It would have been easy to portray the father as a stubborn autocrat unable to adapt to new social mores, and it would have been easy to portray Noriko as the bastion of feminist freedom. Instead, Ozu’s characters are built from the inside out and are more complex than any hip post-collegiate comedy of today - which is how a story like this would be packaged these days.

As usual, Ozu keeps his characters’ emotions in check for most of the film - buried deep behind the duty of family. Without words we can sense Noriko’s trembling and painful inner turmoil. Her devotion to her father is heartbreaking. Even when she's expressing deep sorrow her smile breaks through, making her pain that much more sad. The effect of Noriko's smile is much like the final smile in Chaplin’s City Lights.

Part and parcel to this delicate balance of emotions is Ozu's trademark visual style, which is in full force here. Immaculate compositions featuring low camera angles, static frames and 180-degree coverage slow down time allowing drama to ooze into our pores. Ozu’s distinct dialogue coverage, shot very close to the actors' eye line, has the effect of the characters looking into the audience’s eyes – a technique also used heavily by Jonathan Demme – which subliminally creates a strong connection between audience and character.

Recently many critics have been posting their top ten lists for this decade's Sight and Sound Best of Cinema list. Ozu might again find his Tokyo Story in the top ten, but the earlier film Late Spring is better. It's like a Japanese John Ford film with cinematic tenderness personified, impossible to forget and guaranteed to affect you emotionally.


Late Spring is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff (1983) dir. Philip Kaufman
Starring: Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Sam Shepard

By Alan Bacchus

The Right Stuff is made great because of its unabashed American zeal - a cinematic rendering of the U.S. Mercury Space Program as novelized by Tom Wolfe, that great American novelist/satirist. It’s one of the great films of the 1980s and invisible to age - an era-defining mosaic of American history.

The film begins cleverly by first establishing the legend of Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), the iconic test pilot who first broke the sound barrier. These scenes bristle with American machismo – the aloof loner who risks life and limb for personal glory and the thrill of speed. One day a group of government suits arrive in the Californian desert to recruit for the new Space Program. It’s greeted with ridicule by Yeager and his clique, but also curious adventure from pilots like Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward).

The film quickly moves forward to show us the unbelievable rigors and tests required to choose the first seven American astronauts. The first seven pilots become our seven heroes, with John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom and Alan B. Shepherd (Scott Glenn) as the leaders. For those who don’t know their history, Kaufman builds some nice suspense as to who would be the first American in space and climaxes with Gordon Cooper’s flight, not a historically significant event, but one born from character. Meanwhile Kaufman keeps Yeager in the film occasionally cutting back to his life as a test pilot still pushing the envelope on Earth while his compatriots receive the glory of going into space.

There wasn't much memorable from the '80s, but few could argue against it being the decade of the film score. And The Right Stuff is aided by one of the great ones. Bill Conti (Rocky) won an Oscar for his music, which is as grand and soring as its subject matter – a rarity in today's cinema. It's a mixture of classic orchestral sounds and then-modern synth sounds. Nothing is dated though. In fact, it transcends time.

Kaufman fills the screen with inspired iconic frames. There’s the much referenced long shot of the seven astronauts walking down the hall toward the camera on their way to a press conference. There are numerous shots glorifying Yeager, including his heroic walk back to the base after his final crash. And there are the images of John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Gordon Cooper jammed in their cockpits looking up into the awe of space.

The special effects are a marvel and completely invisible to the audience. There’s little or no noticeable blue screen work, instead the near lost art of model making, awesome aerial camera work and untraditional light and chemical effects.

The Right Stuff feels like the Nashville of the '80s - an American classic about the power of American spirit, innovation and perseverance.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Organizer

The Organizer (1963) dir. Mario Monicelli
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Bernard Blier, Raffaella Carrà

By Alan Bacchus

Nineteen Sixty-Three was a great year for Italian cinema, among others the year brought us Fellini’s 8 ½ and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. Arguably on par with these two pictures, though much lesser known, is Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer, a superlative, visually stunning, period labour film featuring a bearded Marcello Mastroianni as a beleaguered professor who wanders into a small industrial town to incite a labour strike.

We can feel the weight of the film instantly. It’s the late 1800s in Turin, Italy, the heart of the European Industrial Revolution, and a power struggle has developed between a hopelessly exploited labour force at odds against a privileged bourgeoisie. Eighteen-hour work days, little pay, poor working conditions and inadequate benefits were the result of early unbridled capitalism. Out of this powder keg of conflict came labour unions, strikes and, ultimately, socialism in Europe.

This is the just context for Mario Monicelli, who covers the labour strike of one small Turin community at this time, the fear and trepidation of workers just beginning to organize. Marcello Mastroianni plays a bearded vagabond professor arriving in town, illegally hitching a ride on a train. Once in town he finds a room with a local worker, and while overhearing talks of a labour strike, he can’t help but intervene and offer advice. What the professor quickly realizes is that the town, while passionate about solidarity, is missing leadership. The professor turns out to be a brilliant orator and rallies the workers in a lengthy strike that tests the internal fortitude of the entire village.

It’s not all reverie, as Monicelli takes his characters to task for their decisions. The fight against the factory owners is bloody without the heroic ‘workers of the world unite’ propaganda one might expect from a ‘labour film.’ At the time the movie was billed as a period neo-realist film. Indeed, the use of local non-actors, real locations and distinctly working class themes are prominent, but it’s the dose of cold hard realism at the end that resonates best.

However, the reason the film justly sits alongside The Leopard and Fellini’s 8 ½ is the superlative visuals engineered by dynamo DOP Giuseppe Rotunno and the authentic production design of Mario Garbuglia (who also designed The Leopard). Rotunno’s magnificent black and white photography is rich with detail, particularly the scenes in the textile mill, which are a wonder. The wide-angle compositions showing the machines and men working in unison are awe-inspiring, capturing with utmost authenticity the look, sound and feel of the Industrial Revolution. Few films have captured more faithfully the flavour of this period (David Lynch’s The Elephant Man being one exception).

The Organizer comes at a time when, arguably, B&W cinematography was at its peak – the '60s - the last decade before colour almost fully took over. Thus, we get to see pristine, immaculately lit, stark imagery in beautiful widescreen, creating a truly epic feel, incomparable in quality to any colour films at the time. Though I have no quantitative evidence to base this on, I don’t think it would be too presumptuous to say it would take another 20 years before colour film stock caught up to the quality of B&W film in the '60s. From technical to creative to historical, The Organizer is a triumph on all levels of filmmaking.

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

Monday, 14 May 2012


Camelot (1967) dir. Joshua Logan
Starring: Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero

By Alan Bacchus

The story of King Arthur, told through the music and lyrics of Lerner and Lowe (My Fair Lady), was a cultural touchtone of the '60s, both the Broadway version, which John F. Kennedy famously identified with, and its big screen adaptation, a lavish, "spare no expense" production shepherded by the last studio mogul then still in business, Jack L. Warner. Sadly, its place in pop culture history notwithstanding, the film has withered with age; it's a dated spectacle without the memorable songs or performances of its '60s contemporaries, such as West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Oliver!

The story plays out as we expect, told mostly in flashbacks before the moment of Arthur's confrontation with old friend Lancelot. We see Arthur's romantic courtship with Guinevere, their unification as king and queen, the formation of the round table, the introduction of the master French knight Lancelot du Lac, Arthur's conflict with Morgana and his illegitimate son, Mordred, and the overarching, strenuous love triangle between Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur.

The themes that stuck with Kennedy are strong ― the internal struggle of being a man and a king, and the responsibilities as leader first and husband second. Unfortunately, these nuances get lost in a shabbily designed and executed film dated by the prevailing and ugly aesthetic trends of the psychedelic era, from Richard Harris's atrocious haircut and furry costumes to the choppy editing style, which at the time may have seemed progressive, but today just looks sloppy. Vanessa Redgrave is typical '60s eye candy as Guinevere, dressed in swinging '60s high hair and faux fur. And Franco Nero, the original Django, is campy and somewhat laughable as Lancelot.

Joshua Logan's direction is sporadic, often astounding with big scenes of epic scope but underwhelming when it comes to intimate dialogue. Sadly, despite the Blu-ray, the HD treatment is lacklustre, producing no pop or spark of clarity to wow us. As with the content, the picture looks dull and flat. Energetic commentary from critic Stephen Farber is enjoyable, providing unbiased critical opinion, both good and bad, along the way. While clearly a fan of the film, he's not shy in making us aware of its follies. The Warner packaging, as expected, looks great and includes the glossy liner notes and the accompanying CD soundtrack. As well as the the Farber commentary, there's a wealth of production featurettes that will likely satisfy die hard fans of the film. But for mild curiosity seekers, this isn't the best representation of the grand musical spectacles of the '60s.

Friday, 11 May 2012

A Man for All Seasons

A Man For All Seasons (1966) dir. Fred Zinneman
Starring: Paul Schofield, Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Orson Welles, John Hurt

By Alan Bacchus

Over the past 40 years the political life of Richard Nixon continues to make for great drama. The same goes for the court of Henry VIII. That period in history with its religious, political, military and romantic conflict provides more than enough intrigue for these stories to be retold again and again.

Numerous movies have been made from the points of view of the period’s colourful cast of characters: Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, young Elizabeth I, Cardinal Wolsey, Jane Seymour, etc. A Man for All Seasons tells the story from the point of view of Sir Thomas More, the legendary British statesman who defied the King’s decision to secede and was ultimately beheaded. The film was the big winner at the Oscars in 1966 winning the major awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. The film still stands out above most other dramatizations of the period thanks to Robert Bolt’s smart screenplay and Paul Scofield’s mesmerizing Oscar winning performance as More.

As everyone knows, it’s the 16th century and King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) has fallen in love with Anne Boleyn and desires to get a divorce from his current wife, Spanish Royal Catherine of Aragon. This would require an annulment by the Pope – a request which would likely not be granted. The King desires the support of his good friend and new Chancellor of the kingdom, Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield). Despite their friendship and the political ramifications of defying the King, More’s personal scruples and stubbornness with the law prevents him from going along – an act which would see him tried for treason.

There is such a large story to be told, but Bolt (whose screenplay was based on his own play) and Zinneman make a smart and concerted decision to stay with More’s point of view. We never see Anne Boleyn or Catherine, and the locations include only More’s home and the court in which he is tried. As a result, the filmmakers assume the audience has some background knowledge of this political situation.

Anchored by More’s performance, the heart of the film is his steadfast belief in the law. The internal struggle for More is not whether the King has the right to divorce his wife, but the effect his decisions would have on his family. More has the noble belief that in death his surviving family will retain the honour of his sacrifice. Of course, in the reality of the situation his wife cannot see the value in this. It all makes for a complicated web of conflict.

A Man for All Seasons is not a biopic of More, and so there’s lots about this influential man left out of the movie. His ardent discreditation of Protestantism is briefly explored, but we're teased enough to think that More’s stubbornness is idealistic but ignoble. And Scofield plays these contradictions with great subtlety.

The finale of the film is More’s trial, which is dramatized with the same battle of intellect, words and wills as the finale of Frost/Nixon. For More, it's a fight to retain his freedom without the sacrifice of his moral beliefs.

Thursday, 10 May 2012


Haywire (2012) dir. Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton

By Alan Bacchus

The inspiration for this picture is well known. Steven Soderbergh, who upon watching an MMA fight with Gina Carano, developed a spy thriller action vehicle around her as an ass-kicking international super spy. It’s an admirable experiment for the man known for a career of varied cinematic experiments, such as casting a real-life porn star in a film about a call girl. The end result of this film, like The Girlfriend Experiment and others, is a mixed bag, but certainly not a full tilt action film to compete with James Bond or the Bourne films. Instead it's a measuredly paced, quiet and ultimately underwhelming thriller.

Ms. Carano is a surprisingly striking figure, a classic Mediterrean beauty with a nice body. But unlike Angelina Jolie in Salt, Carano is physically impressive enough to whoop some ass. However, I don't think the two qualities - beauty and strength - are mutually exclusive. Carano's acting skills have been unfairly trounced in many fan reviews. She has very little to say, smartly playing the quiet, understated assassin-type.

The plotting, as is typical with Soderbergh, is loopy by design, starting in the middle during which we find Mallory Kane (Carano) in upstate New York on the run from some government heavies, including Channing Tatum, who gets beaten down pretty good in a diner. This jumpstarts the film. From there Kane sort of kidnaps an awestruck teenager to whom she confesses her secrets. Along the way Soderbergh flashes back to the events which led her to New York, including a covert ops job from a private militia firm who hired her to free a kidnapped agent in Barcelona. This leads her to Dublin, where she’s set up to be a fall guy (girl) for the previous job. After being doublecrossed in Dublin, Kane seeks to turn the tables by tracking down her enemies and freeing herself from the bullseye on her back.

All of this is shot with a consciously minimalist style. Crisp colour-coded cinematography looks like Soderbergh’s recent work in Contagion, and the bouncing David Holmes soundtrack reminds us of the Oceans films. Despite the complex plotting, the pacing is slow, which results in an awkward viewing experience.

Sadly, Soderbergh doesn’t execute his fight scenes either. The set pieces are clear and defined, and they arrive very suddenly. There’s a disconnect between the realism of the direction between these fights, which feel like cinematic choreographed fight scenes. Soderbergh admirably shoots his scenes with as little cutting as possible, but as a consequence there’s a stagey, overly rehearsed feel to the movement. The fights do feel violent, specifically with the incorporation of Carano’s MMA moves, but everything seems to be set up around them and we’re taken too far out of the film. That said, Soderbergh does intergrate a fun old Asian cinema trick, changing the camera frame rate to ever so slightly speed up the film, and also cutting out a frame or two to make some of the kicks and punches seem harder.

While not a fully satisfying film, it’s another stop in Soderbergh’s fascnating career - never content to deliver what's expected and an admirable attempt to tell a familiar story in an unconventional form.

Haywire is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) dir. Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter

By Alan Bacchus

As an exercise in research, I read some of the original reviews for A Streetcar Named Desire, both the 1951 film and the original Broadway play. Surprisingly, very little was made of Marlon Brando, then brand new to both Broadway and Hollywood. Brando's role as Stanley Kowalski, of course, is now almost universally recognized as ground zero for the dramatic shift away from the classical Hollywood studio form of acting to the immersive method style. And yet the original Variety review is surprisingly understated in their praise, writing, "Marlon Brando, at times, captures strongly the brutality of the young Pole, but occasionally he performs unevenly in a portrayal marked by frequent garbling of his dialog." And in the original New York Times stage review, Brando barely gets a mention, "…the rest of the acting is also of very high quality indeed. Marlon Brando as the quick-tempered, scornful, violent mechanic." These statements, with today's eyes, read as hilariously gross understatements.
Today it's impossible not to watch Kazan's film adaptation of Streetcar without centring on Brando; he's so dominant. And, honestly, its illustrious place in cinema notwithstanding, other than Brando, the film is plainly modest and stagey. Tennessee Williams' brooding, loquacious dialogue, read with singsong lyricism by Oscar-winner Vivien Leigh, always feels written and performed, never naturalistic, as intended by the method.
"The method", of course, refers to the way in which actors inhabit their characters, working from the inside out to bring their emotions and experiences to the outside. Here, it's not just Brando but the performances of Kim Hunter and Karl Malden as well. But this was also a time when actors took themselves very seriously, and much of the film feels heavy and weighed down by the lumbering devotion to Williams' words.
All except for Brando, who appears to be transported from another dimension into this film. He's so good, so magnetic ― a dynamo. Stanley Kowalski here is less a creation of Williams then an expression of Brando, his personality commanding the screen. His outward appearance is a thing to behold, boldly showing off a kind of musculature we never saw in leading men, nimbly moving around the set with ease, eyes wandering around the space, his hands, fingers and feet constantly in motion. "Actor's business" it's called: little gestures to hypnotize us to Stanley Kowalski's magnetism.
It was the ideal showcase for Brando; it wasn't his first role, but the one best suited to launch him. The creation of Stanley Kowalski was synonymous with the creation of Brando the star ― elusive and enigmatic. And so anyone trying to analyze Streetcar always goes back to Brando.
As expected, the Warner Blu-ray is beautifully packaged with featurettes on the influence of Brando, as well as his treasured screen test, in which he performs a scene from a then un-produced A Rebel Without a Cause! Other features have been cherry-picked from the DVD special edition, including Richard Schickel's documentary on Kazan, a commentary track featuring Schickel, Maldon, Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young, and unmemorable minute fractions of outtakes unseen in the final film.
This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Tuesday, 8 May 2012


Hunger (2008) dir. Steve McQueen Starring: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam McMahon, Liam Cunningham


By Alan Bacchus

This debut feature, re-released on Blu-ray to coincide with the release of Shame, is still a magnificent introduction to the former new media artist and designer Steve McQueen (no relation to the Bullitt star) and an impassioned story about the 1981 hunger strike by Irish revolutionaries in Maze Prison.

Passion and intensity overcome the rather orthodox narrative; it's hard to ignore the misleading flow, which can confuse the casual viewer. McQueen initially introduces us to Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), a prison guard we watch go about his mundane morning routine: showering, getting dressed, eating breakfast and, lastly, checking under his car for bombs before going to work. Once at work, McQueen goes into the details of his exhausting task of overseeing a group of miscreant prisoners united in the name of Irish freedom against their captors. McQueen then switches to the POV of Davey Gillen, a boyish-looking, incumbent inmate identified as having a nonconforming attitude. Once in his cell, which has been grotesquely decorated with faeces by his new mate, Gerry Campbell, we realize Gillen has entered a new kind of hell. And yet, the film isn't about Gillen, Campbell or Raymond the prison guard.

Finally, after a ceremonial beat down session by the guards, we glimpse Bobby Sands for the first time, who will takeover the film from hereon in. First, we see him as a feral beast of a man, with long hair and a long beard, being dragged kicking and screaming to get his hair cut. At the end of the ordeal, we see Sands the man for the first time, cut and bruised but absolutely resolute in his determination.

In the context of cinema history, it's also a magnificent introduction to Michael Fassbender the actor and Hollywood star in the making. Fassbender's embodiment of Sands' unbelievable dedication of mind and body to the cause of Irish freedom has the same kind of visceral power as Robert De Niro's Jake LaMotta or Brando's beatings in On the Waterfront.

The final act, wherein Sands wastes away on a bed, refusing all food, is brought to life by McQueen in the most uncompromisingly painful manner. And yet, at the moment of his death it's an existential, ethereal moment, beautiful and serene.

After Sands takes over the picture we never see Gillen again, nor Campbell, nor the young Swat member who guides us through the harrowing riot sequence. As such, upon my first viewing, I was admittedly confused, not knowing who to follow. But looking back, McQueen's intentions are clear. Hunger is not a political film, but a work about the effect of the Irish conflict from all sides, sympathizing with everyone engaged in the fight, whether it's Sands' voluntary commitment or the guards just trying to make a living. Everyone suffers in Hunger, but in the process we are enlightened about the power of our resolve and commitment.

The Alliance Blu-ray is devoid of special features, which makes the Criterion Collection Blu-ray the keeper for collectors. But McQueen's immaculately controlled visual colour palette looks as beautiful in high definition and thus is worth every penny.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Monday, 7 May 2012

The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome (1979) dir. James Bridges
Starring: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas


By Alan Bacchus

At its heart The China Syndrome is a pointed political commentary, but out of the procedural details emerges an expertly executed, razor sharp thriller. The hit film from James Bridges captures the tail end of the '70s paranoia genre - the story of a near-nuclear meltdown captured on tape by a news crew and the dramatic fight to uncover the big industry falsifications and spin control which ensued.

Jane Fonda plays Kimberly Wells, a female TV news reporter who is successful at fluffy puff pieces looking for that big break into serious journalism. She finds it when she’s asked to do a routine story on the local nuclear power plant. Her breakthrough story seemingly falls in her lap when her tour of the facility is interrupted by a near-nuclear meltdown. Trapped inside the glassed-in observation deck, camera operator Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) covertly catches the entire event on camera. Adams films the tense moments as shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon)powerlessly watches the water level lower and almost expose the nuclear core.

Wells and Adams think they’ve got an important news story on their hands until it gets kyboshed by the uncourageous media bosses. Fearing a lawsuit against the organization for filming illegally, it will take the stamina of Wells and Adams to fight the good fight and win. Adams, the bleeding heart, is full speed ahead, but Wells is skeptical of risking her job and possibly her neck for the cause. Together they have to convince the workmanlike Godell who holds all the cards needed to expose the company’s nefarious culpability.

Bridges uses common sense intelligence and strict realism without cinematic embellishment to capture a mood of quiet suspense. The crucial accident scene is played without music and with little dialogue. Instead he uses carefully chosen shots, the ambient noise and the silence of the room to capture the tension. We never see the water level rising, the nuclear core shaking or any other literal visuals of the accident. Bridges puts us in the point of view of Godell, who only watches a dial slowly wind down to zero. And so it’s up to Jack Lemmon to sell us ungodly fear. Lemmon is a master thespian and his unspoken facial reactions are as full of life as any over-the-top chaotic action scene could have dramatized.

Very topical in its day, the film was made at a time when nuclear power was becoming a popular substitute for coal and oil. The title refers to the analogy of what could happen if that nuclear core was exposed – a meltdown of such extreme proportions that it could literally melt through the earth emerging on the other side of the world – in China. The description of this possibility puts into perspective the type of fire with which humanity constantly plays. Eerily, 12 days after the release of this film the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island occurred – in the same geographical area as this fictional story.

The China Syndrome is one of only 8 films James Bridges (The Paper Chase, Bright Lights Big City) ever made. His sparse but selective body of work shows a distinct integrity, truth and honesty. His faith in realism has consistently resulted in an ability to project all the cinematic emotions without traditional Hollywood embellishments. Sadly, Bridges died early at age 57 of cancer.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Funny Games

Funny Games (2008) dir. Michael Haneke
Starring: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet


By Alan Bacchus

Funny Games is a simple story about a husband, wife and their young boy who become victims of a home invasion by a pair of bourgeois psychopaths. Haneke skewers the slasher/horror film genre by avoiding all salacious aspects of these other films, instead building suspense to excruciating levels before letting it out with shocking force. Putting aside the debate about whether his original 1997 film needed to be remade at all, Haneke has redelivered one of the most frightening film experiences you’ll ever see.

Having seen the original and knowing his other work, I was completely confident in Michael Haneke’s ability to deliver the goods. He is no sell-out, that’s for sure. Haneke has a sick mind, and as one of cinema's 'Enfant Terribles', my only curiosity was how far he would go. Here he has created essentially a shot-for-shot remake of his original. The only difference being the different actors playing the roles. It’s still a sick and twisted experience with very little lost in the translation.

The film begins so innocently. Ann (Watts) and George (Roth) arrive at their serene country home for a weekend of relaxation. Ann hears a knock on her door and meets Peter (Brady Corbet), a polite young man dressed in Wimbledon white, who kindly asks for some eggs. Ann obliges, but the simple request becomes an awkward and soon annoying lengthy game of words. Peter is then joined by Paul (Michael Pitt), Peter’s equally polite friend and accomplice. Ann senses some pushiness and she asks the pair to leave. When George arrives the argument turns violent and he is hit on the knee, handicapping him for the rest of the film.

The pair of psychopaths hold the family hostage for the evening. Violence is rarely threatened, as their insincere faux politeness clearly masks their hidden agenda of torture and humiliation. It will take Ann’s strength of will to find her way out of the situation and save her family.

Haneke is hyper-aware of his audience and their expectations for such a film. And so Funny Games is as much about torturing the audience as the characters. Haneke can do shock and awe as good as anyone – remember the gruesome throat-slash in Cache? Or the room destruction scene in Seventh Continent? And there are some shock and awe moments in Funny Games – specifically the long take showing us the aftermath of one of the violent acts. But it’s Haneke’s skills in building terror and suspense and agonizing discomfort in the audience that is the marvel. Paul and Peter’s games are sick, but watch the effect of Haneke’s subtle shot selection and camerawork. He doesn’t waste a shot and cuts away only when necessary. The opening moments before Peter knocks on the door are made agonizing by Haneke’s placement of the camera. He uses an old Polanski movie trick by shooting Watts against an open door in the background. The horror comes from the anticipation of filling the space behind it.

Haneke breaks the fourth wall on numerous occasions. This is an old cinema trick as well, but he maximizes its effect at one crucial point when he cruelly rewinds the film in front of our eyes and replays the scene again with less satisfying results for the characters and, thus, the audience. It’s Haneke at his cockiest, showing us his manipulation of the audience up front and in our faces.

Funny Games U.S. could never top his original film. Having familiar faces in the lead roles and the fact it's the second time around certainly lessens the impact. But at the very least he will also expose new audiences to one of the most disturbing and sick films ever made. I also get satisfaction knowing that some people, going by the title, will see the film by accident, thinking it's a comedy. I'd watch it over and over again just to see people's reactions after leaving the theatre.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Happy Birthday To Me

Happy Birthday to Me (1981) dir. J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Melissa Sue Anderson, Tracey E. Bregman, Lawrence Dane, Glenn Ford


By Alan Bacchus
A forgotten-about entry in the golden era of early '80s Canadian tax shelter cinema – an era which produced numerous genre knock-offs of American films. While Happy Birthday to Me is no classic and barely a cult film, it’s not embarrassing and it's worth a look for fans of slasher cinema.

On the campus of private school Crawford Academy one by one students from an overachieving clique of friends are disappearing without explanation. While the students are in the dark, the audience watches them get murdered in gruesome fashion by an unknown assailant identifiable only by a pair of black gloves. Who can it be? A number of red herrings try to keep us guessing. Is it Alfred, the freaky geek with a pet rat and a taxidermy collection; or Rudi, the hot-headed jealous boyfriend; or Etienne, the creepy Frenchman?

Virginia (Ginny) Wainwright emerges as the hero – a girl suffering from painful memories of her mother's death and some kind of experimental brain surgery, which may have turned her into the sadistic killer.

Veteran British director J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear, Guns of Navarone) directs with some panache. Production values are top notch rendering the film completely invisible to it’s ‘Canadian-ness’, and if anything, it's a decent, stylish knock-off of Brian De Palma schlock. Bo Harwood adds an effective, classical, brooding score for even more polish.

The film has more integrity than most of its '80s contemporaries. We’re actually deprived of the youthful skin and bedhopping we'd expect from having so many good looking young people in a picture. The addition of Glenn Ford adds some gravitas to the role of Ginny’s psychologist, Dr. Faraday. But what we’re not deprived of is a number of creative deaths, including gruesome uses of a shish kabob skewer and a bench press, in addition to the usual throat slashings. The DVD is light on extras giving us only a classic trailer to enjoy.

This review was first published on Exclaim.ca

Wednesday, 2 May 2012


Loft (2009) dir. Erik Van Looy
Starring: Koen De Bouw, Matthias Schoenaerts, Filip Peeters, Koen De Graeve, Veerle Baetens


By Alan Bacchus

Loft arrived in Canada straight to DVD in 2009, with little previous traction in North America. It received neither a theatrical release nor any major film festival screenings, and so it'll require some heavy lifting to get this into the public consciousness. Well, let this be my small part.

This 2009 Belgian thriller unravels a very steamy potboiler about five buddies who co-own an ultra-cool loft specifically for the purpose of their extramarital trysts. When one day they walk in and find a nude dead girl on the bed suddenly they all suspect each other of murder. From this salacious set-up we're in the world of Joe Eszterhas, a trashy, '90s-era, pseudo-sexual throwback, or something in the genre of airport paperback writers like Dean Koontz. But after a first act hump we quickly find ourselves ensnared in a surprisingly well thought out and near-airtight, white-knuckle whodunit.

After the discovery, the men have to figure out A) what to do with the body and B) who could have perpetrated such a crime, and through flashbacks, we learn about the events that led up to this grisly murder. Each individual is drawn with simplistic characterizations, such as the coke-snorting playboy, the awkward nice guy and the manipulative, rich architect. But after the tedious exposition the film catches fire in the second act when writer Bart De Pauw starts to reveal each character's motivations and drops a good helping of red herrings involving the possible vengeance of their wives and the corporate intrigue of their business dealings.

Director Erik Van Looy embraces the steaminess of the genre and assumes his right to use all camera tricks and visual slickness to embellish the melodrama and produce a compelling genre thriller.

I'm also reminded of Guillaume Canet's Tell No One, a similar foreign language genre thriller that couldn't sustain its brilliant cinematic teasing in the third act. With this in mind, I was prepared for the film to fail at the end, and so as each loophole got tied up, red herrings discarded and just the right number of subplots twisted, Loft actually worked all the way up to the end. While it is no masterpiece, it's worthy of standing out in the mountain of other new releases on the shelf.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Mon Oncle Antoine

Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) dir. Claude Jutra
Starring: Jacques Gagnon, Lyne Champagne, Jean Duceppe, Claude Jutra


By Alan Bacchus

Mon Oncle Antoine is like the Citizen Kane of Canada. In numerous polls conducted in this country over the years, this film ranked as the greatest Canadian film ever made each and every time. The story of a rural and wintery Quebec mining town as seen through the eyes of a young teenage boy, Mon Oncle Antoine is deservedly revered internationally for its poetic depiction of an aging and soon to be outmoded way of life. It's a timeless classic with John Ford-worthy elegance transplanted to a French-Canadian winter.

We’re told it’s a long time ago but never exactly how long ago (it's actually the 1940s). Jutra dramatizes Benoit's journey like a grandfather telling a bedtime story, recounting his youth through the filtered lens of nostalgia. Young Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), 15, lives with his drunk and surly uncle Antoine and his aunt. He works at the general store owned by his aunt and uncle helping to serve the miners who work extracting asbestos from the nearby quarry. Antoine is also the town undertaker, a job which has him moving bodies around by horse-powered sled. For most of the film we're observing the relationships of the townsfolk through the eyes of Benoit. The romance of these working class folks is surprisingly sweet, tender and humorous, as their healthy libidos often cause them to find trysts in barns and attics on a whim.

Benoit is thoroughly fascinating, offering us the point of view of this bygone era. The young actor, Jacques Gagnon, has a remarkable face like Jean-Pierre Leaud in 400 Blows. He barely speaks. Instead, we find emotion through his silent and stoic reactions to the events around him. The moment Benoit sees the corpse of the young Poulin child who has died is heartbreaking, and even more so as seen through his innocent eyes.

This terrific scene leads to the stunning and poignant third act journey home where we see the dramatic confession of Antoine and the completion of Benoit's rite of passage and ascendancy into adulthood. The final, supremely emotional image of the boy watching the grieving family is as powerful as it gets in cinema.

The asbestos mine looms over the town and thus the historical context of the movie. Health concerns are not mentioned, but knowing the dangers involved and the likely exploitation of the miners adds another level of sadness and melancholy. In fact, though it's not mentioned, we can't help but wonder if the young boy's death was not influenced by the asbestos we see billowing into the sky from the quarry.

Those who know their Canadian history will find links to the landmark labour strikes, which would occur shortly after this time and the beginning of the 'Quiet Revolution', which provided the seeds for the French separatist movement in the '60s. These levels are never referenced overtly, yet they profoundly affect us subliminally.

The poetic and melancholy tone is remarkably affecting. The relationship between the characters and their environment, including the omnipresent snow and wind by which the characters seem to be guided, reminds us of Terrence Malick’s characters drifting through the wheat fields in Days of Heaven. Perhaps the best comparison would be another film from 1971, Peter Bogdanovich’s Last Picture Show, another Ford-influenced coming-of-age story from another era. Mon Oncle Antoine is as good as all of the above.

Mon Oncle Antoine is available from the Criterion Collection, the ideal showcase for one of the greatest films ever made.