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

Friday, 31 August 2012

La Grande Illusion

The futility of war was never more intelligently articulated with wit and poignancy than in Jean Renoir’s 'La Grand Illusion', a prison-escape film which presents almost no conflict or action in favour of a sharp commentary on the absurdities of war.

Grand Illusion (1937) dir. Jean Renoir
Starring: Jean Gabin, Erich Von Stroheim, Dito Parlo, Pierre Fresnay

By Alan Bacchus

Here war is a gentlemanly game, where mutual respect and admiration for each other extend from the front lines to war camps. In the opening scene the German captain hosts a shot-down officer for a splendid dinner. Everyone is polite and accommodating and orderly - a far cry from the gut-wrenching pain and agony the soldiers on the ground conduct against each other. I’m not sure if this was the reality of WWI, but for sophisticated cinema Renoir is making a statement not unlike his satire of class system stupidity in Rules of the Game. The officers’ first meal is ‘the best they ever had' - chicken, foie gras, fine spirits and wine.

If it was so good for these soldiers at these prisons then where’s the drama? I can’t answer this, but Renoir doesn't need traditional notions of cinematic conflict to make his point and tell an engrossing dramatic story.

Admittedly, it took me a few viewings for this picture to really sink in. It's consciously anti-climactic, not a traditional war film at all, and not even a traditional prisoner of war film either. There are three distinct stories. At first we see Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) being shot down behind enemy lines in WWI Germany. As officers they’re greeted at the German base with honour and respect by their captor, Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim).

They’re then sent to a formal POW camp, and once locked into their prison cells the pair discovers an affable group of international prisoners. Despite their joyous carousing they’re also plotting their escape, tunnelling underneath the camp and beyond the fence. The procedural mechanics of their scheme are choreographed beautifully – arguably influencing the granddaddy of prison escape films, The Great Escape.

But it’s an anti-climax, as Maréchal, de Boeldieu and their new friend Rosenthal are shipped away to another camp in the mountain region, headed by the same Captain Rauffenstein from earlier. Due to Rauffenstein’s aristocratic roots and respect for de Boeldieu’s lineage, their stay is even more laid back and they enjoy good food and respectful treatment. But again, it’s a rouse with the trio plotting their escape to return home and endure more fighting.

And so after a dramatic escape, aided by the sacrifice of de Boeldieu, Renoir changes gears by showing Rosenthal and Maréchal’s comfy stay as borders at a local German widow’s home. As Maréchal and the girl fall in love, Renoir remarkably shifts us emotionally with a deeply emotional love story.

If this film was made today, we would have seen the love story placed before the trio’s movement to Rauffenstein’s camp, thus ending the film with the action-oriented escape and likely the reunification of the estranged war torn lovers at the end. But somehow, as arranged by Renoir, it works.

For Renoir theme runs deeper than conflict, and here his commentary on patriotism is thought provoking. For Maréchal, de Boeldieu and Rosenthal their desire to escape from a prison despite being well fed and far from the carnage of the trenches stems from their instinctual need to subvert the enemy and fight the war by whatever means necessary.

While Von Stroheim is characterized like an Emperor with No Clothes, I don’t see this as an anti-war statement. Instead, Maréchal's and de Boeldieu’s duty as soldiers to escape and fight is as patriotic as it gets. And with the onset of WWII at the time of the making of this film, La Grand Illusion is as encouraging to French citizens to stand up against aggressive authority as any war propaganda at the time.


La Grande Illusion is available on Blu-ray from Alliance Films in Canada.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012


In hindsight, the rare double Cannes winner (Best Picture and Best Actress) looks to serve as the basis for the predominant Social Realist movement of European cinema in the 2000s. Though the Dardennes' 'La Promesse' predates this, arguably 'Rosetta'’s vigorous documentary techniques and intense focus on its working class protagonist jumpstarted this movement. It’s still a magnificent picture - bold, unconventional but brilliant storytelling at its core rendered even more exquisite by the Criterion Blu-ray treatment.

Rosetta (1999) dir. Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne
Starring: Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Anne Yernaux, Olivier Gourmet

By Alan Bacchus

Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne) is a sad case, living in a trailer park, subject to the whims of her irresponsible mother who prostitutes her body to the superintendant to pay for their heating bills. She has everything working against her. But shining through this cloud of poverty and depression is a fierce determination to succeed. The Dardennes, armed with their handheld camera, follow the impressive Émilie Dequenne around the city with the utmost of urgency, a thrilling journey of body and soul.

Émilie sets her sights on a job at a waffles stand – a meager low-paying job but a legitimate occupation which instills pride in her work. That said, her means of achieving this are dubious. Not unlike how her mother sells herself to their landlord, Rosetta ingratiates herself with her friend, Riquet, who works the stand to convince his boss (Dardennes stalwart Olivier Gourmet) to hire her. The job doesn’t last long when she’s let go in favour of the boss’s son. The result is a magnificent scene for Dequenne, a violent and desperate anger-fueled fit of rage.

Rosetta’s next step is even more dubious, as she rats on her boyfriend for skimming the till and stealing from the boss. It’s a devastating turn of events; a heartless betrayal by Rosetta, the anguish of wish is expressed on the quiet intensity of Dequenne’s remarkable face.

When Rosetta’s mother lapses into alcoholism, thus threatening her life, Rosetta’s priorities are in conflict, forcing her to make some even more powerful life decisions. All the while the Dardennes keep their camera tethered to Dequenne’s shoulder for maximum emotional impact.

Rosetta is the second of the Dardennes' continuing series of Social Realism pictures which target the poverty-stricken urban peoples. After La Promesse and Rosetta, Le Fils and L’Enfant impressively furthered their examination of the impoverished. The thrill of the Dardennes' modus operandi is their ability to laser in on their characters so precisely that we become invested and involved in even the most insignificant of activities in their lives, including Rosetta’s fixation on her makeshift fish-trap, which she’s placed in the river and checks every day. It’s slightly pathetic, but it's an indication of her active desire to do anything, however futile, to be self-determining and self-reliant.

The greatness of the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is the profound nature of scenes like this.


Rosetta is available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012


Peter Hyams' fantastic directorial eye and superlative visual design make this obvious 'Alien' clone one of the more underrated, if not one of the best, science fiction films of the early '80s. Often referred to as 'High Noon' in space, Hyams, as writer and director, indeed borrowed heavily from the minimalist Western showdown films such as 'High Noon', but also from Budd Boetticher and most certainly the working class ‘trucker in space’ concept of Ridley Scott’s 'Alien'. Hyams’ thoroughly modern stylized visuals elevate this film above a mere copycat picture though. It's a riveting and beautiful-to-look-at sci-fi yarn.

Outland (1981) dir. Peter Hyams
Starring: Sean Connery, Peter Boyle, Frances Sternhagen, James B. Sikking

By Alan Bacchus

Sean Connery plays US Marshal William O’Neil, who is stationed for a one-year tour as chief policeman on the Io mining colony outside of Jupiter. He immediately butts heads with the station manager, Mark Sheppard (Boyle), who wants O’Neil to look the other way from the shady social discretions of his workers – namely rampant drug use and prostitution.

But when a number of workers inexplicably commit suicide or take on aggressively violent tendencies, O’Neil steps in to find justice, thus pitting him against the big corporate interests of the mining company that feeds its employees dangerous amphetamines to get them to work more efficiently.

The first two-thirds of the film build wonderfully to the final act, which fulfills the comparisons to High Noon, a taut homage to Gary Cooper’s dramatic confrontations with the three assassins en route in that film. Hyams’ builds up the tension of this fight not-so-subtly referring to the countdown to the arrival of the next passenger transport ship from earth. Armed with only a shotgun and his guile, and aided by the wily and inventive scientist played by Cheers’ Frances Sternhagen, Hyams’ crafts a terrific Western-style shootout in the bowels of the near-empty space ship.

While the production design of the ship’s interior is indeed intricate in its details, Hyams is not content to lock his camera down and admire the view. He moves his camera elegantly through the space, in and out of corridors and across the stacks and stacks of living quarters, which resemble shelves at a big-box store. Hyams' lighting scheme using primarily visible light sources in the frame certainly doesn’t predate Ridley Scott’s look from Alien, but certainly influences the later work of David Fincher and other fluorescently lit trend films of the '90s. The result is part and parcel to the mood and tone of the film. Watch the inspired design of the space helmets for instance. Each character’s face is lit by a circle of lights inside the helmet, enhancing the drama of the story.

Hyams was also one of the masters of the chase scene. He engineered a marvelous car chase in 1978’s Capricorn One. And despite being in the confines of a clunky tin can in space, Hyams choreographs an even more thrilling running chase through the base station.

If anything, the optical effects show its wear and don’t rise to match the film’s bigger budget contemporaries such as Alien and Star Wars. But for good old fashioned production design, lighting and visceral sci-fi thrills Outland overachieves admirably.


Outland is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Good Will Hunting

Gus Van Sant’s to-the-letter conventional drama is cinematic comfort food at its best. Fifteen years on from its monumentally over-exposed Oscar run and Oscar victory for awestruck Hollywood newbies Matt and Ben, 'Good Will Hunting' remarkably still remains a highly watchable film. The successful careers of both these guys, as actors and filmmakers, is a testament to the effort behind the scenes to launch their careers and make a poignant and lasting coming-of-age film for working class males.

Good Will Hunting (1997) dir. Gus Van Sant
Starring: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgård

By Alan Bacchus

In terms of story, perhaps the real triumph of this film is the ability of Damon/Affleck/Van Sant to surmount the ridiculous concept that there exists such a character as Will Hunting, a good-looking charismatic guy's guy who works as a measly janitor but is mind smart enough to be one of the world’s top mathematicians. Not to mention he’s a man who can quote Shakespeare, rattle off passages from obscure American history texts and any other academic study you can think of.

Good Will Hunting does just this by making virtually every scene a memorable one. Sure, the story of two out-of-work actors writing a high priced, in-demand Hollywood screenplay is a great story, one which likely influenced the Academy voters at the time, but Damon's and Affleck’s screenplay is as close to structural perfection as it comes and deserving of its win.

The dialogue exchanges in the film have the same intricacies as the best work of David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin. The scenes with Robin Williams and Matt Damon in particular are the showcase pieces in the film. Williams’ Sean Maguire character is not-so-subtly influenced by Judd Hirsch’s character in Ordinary People, the bearded psychologist who provided warm and comforting therapy to Timothy Hutton’s tortured character.

Here, Sean is hired by his old roommate, math professor Gerald Lambeau (Skarsgård), to counsel Will in the days before his 21st birthday, when he’s free of his juvenile status. The iron will of fellow Southie, Sean, is an unlikely match for Will’s uber-intelligent wit and repartee. Each visit feels like it's crafted with the precision of a set piece. Each of the half-dozen scenes are shot with their own flavour. At first it's a passive aggressive intellectual arm wrestle with Will feeling out the new doctor while testing for weaknesses. Then it's a quiet staring contest followed by Sean's analysis of Will, which completely disarms his intellectual edge. And then it's Will countering Sean, forcing the doctor to look inward at his own social deficiencies. The last scene featuring Will's final catharsis cleverly skirts cliché yet provides us with maximum melodrama and waterworks.

In between this core relationship Matt and Ben craft well-drawn portraits of familiar characters: Will's homeboy buddies from Southie, specifically Chuckie, who seems to have little impact on the story until Ben Affleck's deeply affecting speech to Will about his responsibility to his friends to use his intellectual gifts; and Lambeau, who serves as the only antagonist, has his own rich parallel backstory with Sean, and provides its own share of shouting matches and male vs. male posturing. If anything, it's the only female character that gets the short shrift in Skylar (Driver), Will's girlfriend, a Harvard student from a rich British family who provides the emotional challenge to Will to shape up and take risks in life.

As conventional as Good Will Hunting is, Van Sant admirably retains his indie cred by using staunchly independent singer-songwriter Elliot Smith to provide the musical voice of the film. Though the score is credited to Danny Elfman, it's the haunting melancholy acoustic songs from Smith that set the tone of the film, recalling Mike Nichols' use of Simon and Garfunkel in the seminal coming-of-age film of the 1960s, The Graduate. With adequate time to reflect, Good Will Hunting and The Graduate match surprisingly well.


Good Will Hunting is available on Blu-ray from Alliance Films in Canada.

Friday, 24 August 2012


The truer than fiction story of a charismatic assistant funeral director who finds himself in a sensationalized crime that tears apart the allegiances of the gossipy townsfolk of a small town in Texas has become a minor sensation. It’s the little film that could in the independent film world. At the time of gargantuan summer super hero films 'Bernie' coasted under the radar, found its niche and garnered an impressive $9 million+ at the box office.

Bernie (2012) dir. Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley Maclean, Matthew McConaughey

By Alan Bacchus

Bernie is described as a non-resident, who for some reason moved to the small town of Carthage, TX, a place most people want to leave. As a smooth talker naturally he finds a job as a salesman, but in a funeral home. He's very successful, someone meticulous enough to dress the corpses, talented enough to sing lovely gospel songs at the ceremonies and warm-hearted enough to be able to grieve harmoniously with the older widows, but also smooth enough to upsell them on the funeral amenities.

While he charms all the older ladies in town, Bernie sets out to please the bitchiest woman in town, Marge Nugent (Mclean), a widow with some wealth but stingy and vicious. Bernie is a glutton for punishment but manages to cozy up close enough to be her personal assistant. However, Bernie reaches a breaking point, murders the old hag and spends the next nine months covering up her disappearance. A sensationalized trial sets the record straight, but many in the community, despite the opinion of the law, refuse to believe their beloved Bernie is a murderer.

Jack Black as Bernie carries this film as impressively as anything in his body of work. His performance as the affable and charming title character is wonderfully nuanced. The details about Bernie, Nugent and the story are told by the descriptions from the townsfolk in Carthage, real people shown in traditional documentary talking head interviews. The unconventionality of this approach aids in anchoring this story in reality.

Rich in theme, Bernie also becomes a film about identity and deception, specifically for Bernie, who is both open and welcome but also a subtly closeted homosexual gossiped about by the community but not rejected or shunned. The prevalence of the church complements the town’s skepticism of the proven facts of the case. Like their unwavering devotion to God, Carthage refuses to accept even the most heinous and glaring details of Bernie’s case.

Matthew McConaughey plays the town solicitor who prosecutes Bernie. He fits in well with the small town flavour, dressing himself down with unstylish policeman glasses and a cumbersome six gallon hat. He also has a personality as bold and absurd as Bernie’s. And Shirley Maclean is a welcomed return to cinema, chewing her role as the maniacal superbitch Marge Nugent.

But it’s Jack Black’s understated performance that puts the twinkle in this modest little indie gem.


Bernie is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Days of Thunder

In honour of Tony Scott, here's a reposting of Days of Thunder:

Looking back this has to be one of the silliest yet strangely lovable examples of blockbuster entertainment. It's 'Top Gun' reworked for Nascar and told with complete seriousness. Superlative visuals and production value, melodramatic plotting and some unintentional humour make it a fun guilty pleasure.

Days of Thunder (1990) dir. Tony Scott
Starring: Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Michael Rooker, Randy Quaid, Nicole Kidman

By Alan Bacchus

Tom Cruise’s introduction sets the tone for the film, and it’s a lengthy one. Nascar race team owner Tim Daland (Randy Quaid) recruits a reluctant retired mechanic, Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall), to build him a new car to race on the circuit. Harry is like the Michaelangelo of mechanics, and his work is a beautiful masterpiece. Nascar champion Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) tests it out on the race track, and it runs fine. But Harry won’t be convinced until he sees Tim’s new driver test it out. Cue Cruise’s introduction. Tommy enters the stadium riding a Harley Chopper with Hans Zimmer’s stinging guitar lick screaming in the background. He proceeds to approach and talk to the esteemed racers with supreme macho aloofness and confidence.

This is the tone of ridiculousness everyone contributes to the film. If you remember, it was a Simpson/Bruckheimer summer release, so naturally all the drama is exaggerated to near mythological heights.

And how about those drivers' names? Everyone gets their own razor sharp name. Like porn stars, Nascar names have their own branded identity: Tom Cruise is Cole Trickle, Cary Elwes is Russ Wheeler, Michael Rooker is Rowdy Burns and John C. Reilly is Buck Bretherton.

Towne injects the film with the same amount of uber-macho male bravado as Top Gun. But it’s shoved down our throats with even more childish conflict. No conversation in Days of Thunder is complete without two men wrestling with each other, shouting at each other, swinging bats at each other or good old fashioned trash talking.

Few directors complement this material better than Tony Scott. Like most of his pictures at the time, the frames are bathed in a blanket of golden magic hour sunlight. Scott has a knack for shooting big toys really well – whether it’s the fighter jets of Top Gun, the submarines of Crimson Tide or the beastly cars of Nascar, his machinery are given as much attention in his frames as the human characters. Arguably no other filmmaker has shot professional racing better than his work in this film. With seemingly innumerable camera angles at his disposable Scott is able to add a rich textured authenticity to the sport. Scott’s cockpit camera angles in particular heighten the intensity of his key racing sequences. He gives an intense but manageable shake to his camera in his close-ups, distracting us from the fact that the actors are either being towed by a camera car or are cruising around a track at the speed limit.

This is why Days of Thunder can be strangely enjoyable – the ultimate in muscular and macho escapism, so utterly preposterous yet beautifully excessive at the same time. Enjoy.

Days of Thunder is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Mean Streets

One of the most valued treasures of the Scorsese canon, 'Mean Streets' birthed Scorsese's distinct cinematic vision of the world: street-wise, working class hoods with foul mouths and hair-trigger tempers seen through the lens of a dynamic camera with bursts of slo-motion and jumpy editing, set to a soundtrack of '60s vinyl and Italian crooning classics.

Mean Streets (1973) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, David Proval, Richard Romanus

By Alan Bacchus

The opening 30 minutes established Scorsese's style emphatically ― it's a riveting introduction to the characters, location and flavour of the film. There's Charlie (Keitel), the confused gangster torn between his loyalty to his friends, his girlfriend and his faith, and the mentorship of his mob heavy uncle; Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), the irresponsible loose cannon and boyhood pal of Charlie's; Tony (David Proval), the nightclub owner and host to the film's character interactions; and Michael (Richard Romanus), the affable loan shark chasing down the debts owed by Johnny Boy.

But the film essentially begins in the nightclub, bringing this foursome together. In particular, two shots in this scene essentially announce Martin Scorsese as a master: Charlie's entrance to the club, with Keitel moving through the crowd, the camera following elegantly behind; and Johnny Boy's arrival, with De Niro sloppily prancing around, two women on his arms, set to the rip-roaring Stones classic "Jumpin' Jack Flash." These are two great character introductions, the contrast of which expertly foreshadows their intense conflict, which drives the movie.

The rest of the film is a mix of these lively, rambunctious moments and anger-fuelled confrontations, which result in an aggressively violent ending reminiscent of the bloodshed in his next milestone film, Taxi Driver. But the experience of Mean Streets is less traditional narrative storytelling than a cathartic expression of Scorsese's youth and the intimate connection to filmmaking, an obsession that famously permeates his very being.

Sadly, despite being so influential in his career, Mean Streets always gets the short shrift. It's one of the last Scorsese pictures to get the Blu-ray treatment and sadly only a "catalogue" treatment by Warner, which means cribbed extras from a previous DVD release, a plain plastic box and uninspired cover art with none of the glossiness given to other (arguably lesser) Warner films of late. But the high definition transfer is decent, considering the grainy, run-and-gun, unpolished look employed by Scorsese. The vintage featurette is rudimentary and short, showing Scorsese and the two boyhood pals who inspired the film walking through the authentic Little Italy filming locations. Audio commentary by Scorsese should always be cherished, but, as usual, his comments are a mix between informative and meandering.


This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Monday, 20 August 2012

The Hunger Games

On second viewing my issues with this film still remain. It's a pillowy soft treatment of dark, grisly and wholly disturbing subject matter. How do you tell a story about such a sick and twisted blood sport which inexorably leads to everyone dying and not have it violent with grisly bloody and thus rated R, or at least address the sadistic nature of the society in which this film occurs? With the exception of a couple of decent performances from Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson, this film fails.

The Hunger Games (2012) dir. Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz

By Alan Bacchus

The opening is especially clunky, establishing the near-future and dystopian world where a 'Pan American' state, post-WWIII, is divided into 12 districts policed in part by the aforementioned annual spectacle of death called The Hunger Games. The visual design of this world is dull and unimpressive, combining the rural future landscape of say, The Postman, where technology is only in the hands of the elite, and the garish pop art world of Speed Racer, wherein the Games organizers strut around in renaissance-style coloured wigs and caked-on makeup.

The set up involves showing how a boy and girl are chosen from each state to compete in the games to the death. Naturally, there's immense fear and trepidation from all who qualify. We know Jennifer Lawrence's character, Katniss Everdeen, will get chosen (well, kind of), but it's the male choice, Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), a character we don't know, that allows the gravitas of the situation to set in. Unfortunately, this fear is gradually whittled away as the film moves along.

A high concept like this requires bulletproof plotting and character motivations in order to suspend our disbelief. If this can't be achieved the filmmakers have a couple of other options at their disposal. Tone, specifically humour, allows us to glance past illogical plot holes. Most of the comparable films made in this genre are satirical. Battle Royale, for sure, had a sharp acerbic wit and Death Race 2000 had similar political overtones but under the guise of a shameless b-movie. The Truman Show figures prominently in the mix as well, but that film had a very direct and effective statement on reality television and voyeurism. The Hunger Games does not appear to allude to anything or have any kind of message. We're simply asked to accept this world as reality without question. It's a world where civilization has devolved to such a bloodthirsty state that the population at large would not only allow this to happen but cheer it on. I didn't buy it for a second.

That said, I don't disapprove of spilling the blood of minors for the sake of entertainment. Indeed, this is what I wanted to see, but I was willing to accept an alternative if there was some kind of intellectually superior substitute. Nope - it turns out to be a love story, setting up a Twilight-like love triangle in the ensuing films.

Blood or not, we don't even get to see some cool action. Gary Ross's abysmally directed action scenes are shot with that generic 'television-style' shaky camera where you don't really see anything. Thus, there is no panache, no flair, no excitement and he avoids bloodshed at all costs, which is most likely the reason for the annoying camerawork. Of course, this goes back to the audience, young adults, the Twilight audience who can't pay to see R-rated movies. There's nothing wrong with that, but it just makes Ross's job more challenging - something at which he sadly fails.

Another shameful creative decision was to portray the other kids in the Games as 'evil', violent baddies who revel in the sport, as opposed to the innocent youth, simply chosen at random by the state. We don't get to know any of the other contestants other than their black and white characterizations.

The only thing to praise in this film is the section after the participants are chosen and before they are put into the arena. It's this 'training period' where we meet Katniss and Peeta's mentors, played by Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson, who engage the pair with genuine affection, forming the strongest relationships in the film. Unfortunately, I think we have to wait until parts 2 and 3 before we see how these relationships play out.


The Hunger Games is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Seven Year Itch

Boasting Marilyn Monroe’s signature image with her standing over the subway grating on the street allowing the rush of wind to run up her skirt, 'The Seven Year Itch' is buoyed by Monroe’s oozing sexuality. Looking back over the years, the film is stagey and overly dependent on Tom Ewell’s miscasting as a loyal husband tempted by the allure of Monroe. Though a tad dated, it's Monroe who continues to dazzle us so many years later.

The Seven Year Itch (1955) dir. Billy Wilder
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Tom Ewell, Evelyn Keyes

By Alan Bacchus

We’re in Billy Wilder territory here, a coy sexual comedy constantly riding the edge of moral acceptability by the then-ancient Hayes code. Richard Sherman (Ewell) is saying goodbye to his wife and son, who vacation upstate in the summer. Left on his own, he waxes on about his own virility and his peers’ falling victim to the flirtations of women when on their own. For Sherman, he’s at the seven year point of his marriage, the seven year itch, thus the period when the allure of the opposite sex is most tempting.

And along comes Marilyn Monroe, the occupant of the apartment upstairs, who arrives like gang busters, hot and sweaty on the hottest day of the summer. Sherman has air conditioning and the girl doesn’t. And so begins the comedic courtship with Sherman desperately trying to stave off Monroe’s indirect but arousing sexual advances.

Watching Ewell’s uncharismatic fumbling, we can’t help but wonder why Jack Lemmon wasn't in this film. Tom Ewell was cast because of his performance on Broadway from where this film originated. In fact, as featured on the DVD, Walter Matthau auditioned for the part. Sadly we’re left with Ewell, mostly inert and dull.

It’s an extremely difficult part. Richard Sherman dominates the film, much of it with him alone on the screen imagining his relationship with Monroe and much of it literally talking to himself in soliloquy. Where a stage production could get away with this omniscient inner voice, the sight of Ewell expounding at length on his thoughts and actions in the first person is at times excruciating.

The film sizzles when Ms. Monroe is present. She admirably plays up her image as a sextress, playing Sherman’s neighbour as a dim blonde unaware of her magnetic effect on men. Monroe fits the skin of this character as well as her eye-popping, form-fitting outfits. And there are a number of them, from the white flowing sundress in the subway scene to the randy jungle-pattern dress in Sherman’s early fantasy sequence, Wilder maximizes Monroe’s presence.

Famously, Monroe was a difficult performer on set. Her marriage with Joe DiMaggio, who was present on set, disrupted a number of suggestive scenes. And her periods of depression helped billow production costs and the schedule beyond the original budget. But these effects are invisible to the final result, one of the iconic Monroe films, a landmark in the era of the Great American sex comedies of the '50s and '60s.


The Seven Year Itch is available on Blu-ray in the Forever Marilyn Collection from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

A Separation

Conflict in this film has the structural complexity of a spiderweb. One event or turn of the plot fuels everything in this surprisingly intense conversation film, causing each of the mostly humane and decent characters to turn on one another in sometimes aggressive, sometimes passive ways, but it's always thoroughly thought-provoking.

A Separation (2011) dir. Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi

By Alan Bacchus

In the opening Nader and Simin, husband and wife, well-dressed, articulate and educated, are engaged in a heated discussion in front of a judge. Simin has made an application for divorce, which Nader denies. Simin wants to take their daughter abroad to give her a chance for more career opportunities in life. Nader needs to stay to care for his Alzheimer’s-inflicted father. Simin doesn’t leave the country but moves out of the house, leaving Nader and their daughter together at home with his ailing father.

Requiring a nurse to watch the old man, Nader hires Razieh, a desperate woman, pregnant with an unemployed husband. And so, it’s no surprise that the job is a burden to her physically and emotionally. The shoe drops when Nader comes home to find his father alone, tied to the bed with Razieh nowhere to be found. When she returns, an argument turns physical as Razieh is pushed out the door and falls to the ground. The next thing Nader knows, Razieh is taken to the hospital, miscarries and Nader is charged with murder.

From here, Farhadi crafts a riveting battle of wills, primarily between Nader and Razieh’s husband, Hojjat, a hot-head with a violent streak who not only challenges all of Nader’s excuses but could just be a physical threat to him and his 11-year-old daughter.

It’s a confounding moral twister. We sympathize with each of Farhadi’s characters, as each of them articulates a reasonable argument for guilt and innocence in the matter. Farhadi is clear to make Nader the everyman in this situation, an innocent subject to an accident and tumultuous conundrum into which any of us could have been thrown. But everyone is a victim in this story, and Farhadi’s objective approach causes us just as much confusion as we wrestle with own personal sense of judgment. Is Nader guilty for pushing Razieh, however justified? Is Razieh guilty for not disclosing her pregnancy? Is Simin guilty for leaving the family, forcing Nader to hire a stranger to look after his father?

Being an Iranian film, Farhadi also manages to subvert our expectations of commenting on the controversial political or social issues associated with the country. Admirably Farhadi does not pass judgment on the Iranian law, politics, religion or social mores, he simply takes them for granted and plays his conflict within the constrained bubble of the country’s customs and traditions of society. For example, one of the sources of conflict is the fact that Nader gives the nurse the job without consulting the nurse's husband – something protested by Hojjat in the heat of one of the many verbal arguments.

In Western/North American culture it’s impossible not to reject this as a point of argument for Hojjat, but in Iran this is the way things are and Farhadi never asks us to pass judgment on this. The result is a culturally sensitive film accessible to even the most ignorant or culturally insular audiences.


A Separation is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in Canada.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Le Havre

A very slight but heartwarming picture no doubt, from the master of Euro deadpan, Aki Kaurismäki. The story of a humble shoeshiner who takes in an African refugee works best as a quiet comedy, delightful but not profound, and arguably over-praised in its Cannes/Toronto festival journey.

Le Havre (2011) dir. Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: André Wilms, Blondin Miguel, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Kati Outinen

By Alan Bacchus

Aki Kaurismäki’s films certainly won't provide shock and awe, but they do give a very palpable optimistic and humanistic viewpoint on topical and serious issues. Here, Kaurismäki is in France, specifically the French port city of Le Havre, a city famous for being the demarcation point for refugees fleeing the continent for the UK and beyond. Kaurismäki’s hero is a Capra-esque loner, Marcel Marx, a ne’er-do-well elderly man, eking out an existence as a lowly street shoeshiner. As played by Andre Wilms, Marcel silently cries out for our sympathy. And it’s not hard to dish it out when early on we see his wife admitted to the hospital with a potentially fateful but unnamed diagnosis.

Marcel finds his solace in the most unlikely of places, namely a young black teenager called Idrissa who escaped custody after he and a group of fellow refugees were found holed up in a cargo container at the docks. The pair barely speaks to each other, but Marcel senses Idrissa’s pleas for help and Idrissa senses Marcel’s compassion. On their tail is the passively persistent detective who pursues Idrissa and casts a suspecting eye on Marcel. It's Marcel’s neighbours who create a Capra-like rally of support for Idrissa and Marcel and help the pair best the weary detective.

Kaurismäki’s distinct cinematic visual style complements the eccentric tone and silent-cinema approach. There’s something about Timo Salminen’s cinematography that creates a sense of artificial but effective drama. It’s partly an overlit studio style, lighting the characters with strong sources of light, unafraid of the harsh shadows which sometimes appear in the background. A stagey look results, like the dioramic look of Wes Anderson.

Kaurismäki’s modus operandi, his deadpan style, is always front and centre, perhaps overly so. Marcel’s glum demeanor can feel forced, as he seems to be begging too hard for our sympathy when it's not warranted. And forgotten-about almost completely is Idrissa, who is less a character than a cipher for the plot. Kaurismäki cleverly makes a statement without the need to push the buttons most issue-driven films bombard us with. And the ace in his hole is a marvelous denouement, Marcel's reunion with his wife, which might seem like an unmotivated deus ex machina, but it's an ending that works because it just 'feels right.'

Le Havre is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Jaws (Blu-ray)

Hot off the terrific ‘Spielberg-approved’ digital print of 'Jaws', ultra pristine and perfect, playing in select cities across the continent (including TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto), comes the first-ever Blu-ray edition of the film. It’s been over 5 years since Blu-ray won the HD war (we miss you HD-DVD), and for some people it has taken longer than expected to get master titles such as 'Jaws', 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'Star Wars' onto Blu-ray. I always knew flooding the market with all these titles at once would dilute the value of each of these releases. Unfortunately, 'Jaws' had to wait this long…

Jaws (Blu-ray) (1975) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary

By Alan Bacchus

It's been worth the wait and the re-release on Blu-ray has given the film another shot of acclaim and appreciation as one of the greatest films of all time (despite not making the Top 50 cut from Sight and Sound Magazine).

The film is amazing no matter what format (even VHS!). On Blu-ray, it’s spectacular. It’s one of Spielberg’s least glossy films. Filming mostly in exteriors on locations and on the ocean meant there was little artificial lighting to be done. Instead Spielberg relied on Bill Butler’s camera realism for dramatic effect. But hell, the film looks sharp enough to cut glass. Filmmakers in the mid- to late-'70s often used trendy diffusion filters, which created a soft look to many films. Jaws has edges - razor sharp edges like shark’s teeth, a look only enhanced by high definition.

If anything, the special features offer minimal extra bonuses that have not already been seen in previous incarnations. The ‘new’ materials include a fan-created documentary entitled The Shark is Still Working: The Impact and Legacy of Jaws. It’s actually an older documentary, up-rezed in HD specifically for this disc. Unfortunately, it’s pretty awful and dated. Roy Scheider’s voiceover is overwritten and offers a simplistic examination of the making of film featuring anecdotes already familiar to us but told as if we’ve never heard of the film before.

The treasure of this disc is still the Laurent Bouzereau-produced 2-hour making-of documentary, originally released on the Jaws LaserDisc in the '90s. Bouzereau’s doc, comprehensively told, tells us everything about the production and has the story of Jaws covered from every angle. The candor of Spielberg, who is never shy about revealing details of the production, is still a joy to watch, and no one can tell a story better than Richard Dreyfuss.


Jaws is available on Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Raid: Redemption

The influence for this picture is clear - the final scene in John Woo’s 'Hard Boiled'. It's the hospital scene, a 20-minute siege/blow-out extravaganza of monumental proportions, often regarded as the greatest action sequence ever filmed. 'The Raid: Redemption', the acclaimed actioner which wowed genre audiences at TIFF, Sundance and SXSW, takes inspiration from Woo’s final scene and applies it to the entire movie. It makes for an action movie for the ages, combining the great gunplay of John Woo and the super aggressive realistic hand-to-hand combat of Tony Jaa.

The Raid: Redemption (2012) dir. Gareth Hew Evans
Starring: Iko Uwais, Ananda George, Ray Sahetapy

By Alan Bacchus

The simplicity of the set up is awesome. A Jakarta police SWAT team raids an Indonesian drug lord’s lair, a 30-story building inhabited by bad-ass thugs, martial arts experts and a whole lot of heavy machinery and fire power.

We become invested in two hero characters. Rama is a rookie cop, who has a pregnant wife at home, which means every bullet that passes his way could make his wife a widow and his child fatherless. These are the stakes. The other hero is the team leader, who runs into conflict with a shifty-eyed G-man who seems to have his own agenda in the raid. Of the baddies, the maniacal leader is Tama, a sadistic criminal who revels in death, destruction and torture and takes every shot at him like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface. His number one hit-man, Mad Dog, does the barking for him, a lethal weapon who will eventually face off with Rama in the end.

There are a few twists and turns in the story, which is not quite plotted out to our satisfaction. With so much fist-flying, bone-breaking and bullet-squibbing going on, it’s virtually impossible to get the character dynamics of the narrative right. A somewhat compelling emotional connection between Rama and Mad Dog is revealed, enough to justify the real purpose of the film – the action.

The action is indeed inspired stuff, beginning first as a John Woo-style gunplay epic. Once everyone’s bullets run out, it transitions into a martial arts beat down. Unfortunately, director Evans uses his moves early, and by the time the final confrontations happen we’ve just about seen everybody’s best stuff. And so exhaustion from the onslaught overload inevitably sets in. As such, the film doesn’t go out with a bang as Woo’s epic does. It kind of just peters out.

Ironically, director Gareth Evans is British but filmed his movie in Indonesia in the native language. Clearly he knows that in order to do an action film right these days, it has to be done in Asia with no holds barred.


The Raid Redemption is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy is a man-hunting classic featuring Marilyn Monroe as a shameless gold-digger on a cruise with her showgirl partner, Dorothy (Jane Russell), a horny brunette who prefers her men athletic and viral. As part of Fox’s Marilyn Collection on Blu-ray, Hawks’ superlative Technicolor production is an eye-popping musical delight.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) dir. Howard Hawks
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Charles Coburn, Elliot Reid, Tommy Noonan

By Alan Bacchus

After getting engaged to Gus, a rich but meek and shy nave, Lorelei and Dorothy have to travel to Europe to meet and appease Gus's controlling father. Unbeknownst to them, Gus's father has hired Ernie Malone, a private detective, to spy on them. While on the cruise, Lorelei becomes distracted by an elderly but wealthy diamond tycoon, Piggy Beekman, which Malone catches on camera. Enter Dorothy, Lorelei’s watchful protector, who uses her sexual allure to retrieve the disparaging photos. Complicating matters is Dorothy actually falling for Malone, just one of the many complications in Charles Lederer’s delirious screwball plotting.

Marilyn Monroe is at her most luscious, desirable and awkwardly hilarious. As the ditzy blonde sexpot, she is in fine form. Her cutesy voice can break glass, but her voice occasionally falters into a regular woman’s voice, hinting at some vulnerability beneath her persona. Jane Russell is no slouch for sex appeal either. Though I didn’t keep track, both Monroe and Russell seem to change outfits in almost every scene. At the very least, from a fashion standpoint the film predates the Sex and the City effect of setting fashion trends.

Hawks’ musical sequences are crafted to perfection. The opening number, ‘The Wrong Side of the Tracks’, essentially establishes the backstory. Lorelei and Dorothy, who had their hearts broken by men, leave the small town for fame and fortune in New York only to discover that men are the same everywhere. Thus, we establish a pair of career gals. Over the course of the film they fall in and out of love, but they never relinquish their control and independence in their lives.

Russell offers strong support, but the film is clearly written around Monroe. Dorothy’s confident and authoritarian attitude is a terrific contrast to Lorelei’s wondering eyes. Russell gets one solo musical number featuring a dance around a couple dozen shirtless and vain men bathing in the swimming pool, a sequence which coyly speaks to Dorothy’s libidinous desires and empowers her with sexual control.

The most famous sequence comes in the third act. ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ is iconic in its imagery of Monroe dressed in bright pink against a red background being carried around by tuxedo-clad men and singing about her penchant for diamonds. Jack Cole’s choreography is expertly executed by Monroe, arguably solidifying her as the most desirable celebrity in the world at the time. It’s less of a traditional dance sequence, but something Busby Berkeley might have designed, a sequence masterfully designed and composed to worship Ms. Monroe.


The glorious high definition transfer of the picture also deserves worship. The 20th Century Fox box set features other Monroe classics 'How to Marry a Millionaire', 'River of No Return', 'There’s No Business Like Show Business', 'The Misfits' and 'Some Like It Hot'.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Searching For Sugarman

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.

Searching For Sugarman (2012) dir. Malik Bendjelloul

By Alan Bacchus

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.


Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Total Recall

To his credit, Len Wiseman admirably creates enough of a different looking world that rarely does the Paul Verhoeven version come to mind while watching this film. He also has the basis of an unusually strong humanist theme built underneath the familiar story from the Verhoeven film. Ultimately, the picture is a merely serviceable lens-flare heavy sci-fi action film, soulless and stale, despite its strong foundation of character, theme and visual design. So what's missing between the lines? Style. A sense of cinematic authorship present in all the other notable Dick adaptations - 'Blade Runner', 'Minority Report' and the original 'Total Recall'. Even when those pictures didn't work, we admired the cinematic hand of the director.

Total Recall (2012) dir. Len Wiseman
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Jessica Biel, Bill Nighy

By Alan Bacchus

Instead of a story of Earth and Mars, this film tells us about a global environmental crisis during which the world’s population has been confined to two places on Earth, Great Britain and Australia (referred to as The Colony). And instead of a 16-hour flight between countries, it’s a comparatively shorter elevator ride of sorts through the earth’s core. I have to admit that was pretty cool.

This is where Wiseman excels, creating separate but equally detailed visual worlds. The Colony is where our hero Quaid (Farrell) lives. He's a man with dreams of another life, but he's coolly steered away by his dutiful and super-hot wife, Lori (Beckinsale). Wiseman creates a neon, wet and seemingly perpetually dark world with a jigsaw puzzle of shantytowns - think Hong Kong crossed with a Brazilian Favela. There’s also the new Britain, a wealthy urban world and a jigsaw puzzle of concrete, skyscrapers and skyways.

As an assembly line factory worker building robots, we see these two worlds through Quaid’s eyes. He's a man with a failed career, continually passed over for promotions by the intellectual white collar elite, stuck in a monotonous soul-sucking job. This emotional conflict is sharply conveyed by the duality of this future world – a great thematic basis for this film.

Wiseman builds this human story into Philip K. Dick’s ultra-cool story of implanted memories and the clandestine world of espionage in which Quaid finds himself after having his brain jacked. The underrated John Cho delivers a terrific speech to Quaid as his pitch to get him to buy in, a speech which further supports the theme of duality and conveys important plotting exposition. This is a terrific scene.

From here it’s a rock ‘em sock ’em sci-fi chase picture, following the path of the Verhoeven film with enough deviations for us to forget about the original. Unfortunately, everything else here is cribbed from other people’s films. Some directors, such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, can get away with it because of the value added from their own unique artistic sensibilities. But in this case Wiseman’s film just feels like cardboard cutouts.

The world of the Colony aligns too closely to the wet Asian fusion world of Ridley Scott’s LA in Blade Runner and the concrete urban world aligns itself with Steven Spielberg’s bleak vision in Minority Report. It’s not hard to see Wiseman’s motivation here. After all, both films were based on Dick novels, thus he is paying homage to the original cinematic incarnations while trying to combine both worlds into one. But Wiseman falls under his sword and the action suffers from his overly detailed designs. Whereas Scott’s and Spielberg’s chases were carefully choreographed and precise, Wiseman’s action is chaotic and too confusing in the overly complex geographical space.

And something has to be said about the implausibility of Kate Beckinsale’s character portrayed as a relentless ass-kicking Terminator-like assassin. Sure, we can applaud the notion of female empowerment here, but Wiseman has 104-lb Beckinsale going toe-to-toe with the uber-ripped hardbody of Farrell (consciously shown shirtless in the opening). This is simply not believable, even for a mindless popcorn movie. If it was Arnold Schwarzenegger on the screen, he certainly would not stand for such gross inaccuracies.


Monday, 6 August 2012


Kevin Macdonald’s epic documentary does right by the influential life and career of reggae icon Bob Marley. While it’s largely unflashy, meat-and-potatoes filmmaking, Macdonald expertly gives us everything we want to know, enough anecdotes we didn’t know and enough head-bobbing music to satisfy everything we wanted from a comprehensive Bob Marley documentary.

Marley (2012) dir. Kevin Macdonald

By Alan Bacchus

As only a casual fan of Marley, I was surprised to know the lineage of the man. He was the son of a working class black mother and a wealthy white landowner, thus a ‘half-caste’ child dismissed by his father and bearing all the identification problems of being neither ‘black’ nor ‘white.’ Macdonald cleverly makes this Marley’s emotional throughline, including his childhood pains, which helped contribute to the monumental artistic and business successes of Bob Marley.

Macdonald takes his time tracing the kind of upbringing Marley saw as a child. His father, Captain Noval Sinclair Marley, who married Bob’s 18-year-old mother, is portrayed as the typical aristocratic plantation owner. At 60 years of age he impregnated a young woman but performed none of the assumed paternal duties.

Other formative events in Marley's youth include his ska influences in the early '60s and the creation of the Wailers in 1962 at age 17, which also then included a young Peter Tosh. Though he and his bandmates lived in near poverty, we get the sense that music was so ingrained in their culture that it didn’t take much money to convince people of their talent.

Marley’s introduction to Rastafarianism offers an informative film within a film. I admit, other than the dreadlock and ganja rituals, I knew little about the religion. We learn about the devotion to and sacredness of one’s body, as well as the curiously random deification of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Salassie as its God incarnate.

As time moves along and Marley's career grows, Macdonald constructs chapters of sorts covering the key aspects of his life and personality: his ‘womanizing’ persona, the burgeoning gang warfare in Jamaica, his deliberate political neutrality, his competitive nature and business savvy, which contrast greatly to the laid back culture of Rastafarianism and his assumed role as an international Jamaican ambassador. All of this supports Macdonald’s overarching theme of Marley’s internal struggles for peace, love and racial harmony within his community.

And we all know there’s an impending tragedy at the end of this story, although it's never referenced until Marley’s cancer is revealed to him, subliminally we can feel this emotional weight throughout the entire film. The final scenes that document the quick change from Marley on top of the world as a music superstar and father figure to millions of fans and idolizers, to the sudden realization that his body was riddled with cancer and at the short end of his life is devastating.

I’m convinced the British have a sixth sense for documentary technique. Arguably the best documentarians are British, as they're able to realize real-life subject matter with cinematic flare and gravitas better than anyone in the world. And Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, One Day in September), at the top of this class, dutifully does justice to this great artist and important cultural story.


Marley is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Eone Home Entertainment in Canada.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Saving Private Ryan

The opening 30 minutes of this film so heavily weighs people’s opinions of it – negatively and positively. Many people love the D-Day scene and dismiss the rest. Like the ‘Schindler’s List’ detractors, this group seems to become more populated the older the picture gets. I certainly didn’t have this opinion when I first saw it in the theatres. I, like many others, went along with the bandwagon of Spielberg’s visceral rebooting of the modern ‘war film’. But more than 10 years later it’s interesting to watch the picture again with a more critical eye.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ed Burns, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Jeremy Davies

By Alan Bacchus

The first scene is still a doozy. And with it Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, essentially wrote a new language manual of war/battle cinematography. The ‘documentary-look', which moved beyond mere hand-holding the camera, was given even greater gritty texture with Kaminski’s unusual de-saturated look, flashed film and short shutter angles. Absolutely no one was using 45-degree shutter angles at the time, and now it’s a staple of a cinematographer’s bag of tricks.

I don't agree with the extreme naysayers who feel the first 30 minutes is brilliant and the rest is crap. Though it makes good hyperbole, it’s also quite valid. The fact is, the final Remmel sequence – the ambush by Tom Hanks’ infantry platoon and their last stand at the Alamo bridge - is as thrilling an action sequence as any ever made. And in my opinion it's a better sequence than D-Day. Remmel is better because a) we know the characters by now and thus have greater attachment to their survival; b) Spielberg and his writer, Robert Rodat, split up the sequence into a number of tense set pieces resulting in more controlled rhythm and pace; and c) despite the chaos, Spielberg achieves a sense of geography so that we know where everyone is at any one time.

In between these two scenes includes enough smaller moments of action and battle to successfully keep our adrenaline and wits up until the raucous Remmel ending. The scene featuring Vin Diesel’s Caparzo character falling victim to sniper fire, pulled right from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, is a fine set piece.

Unfortunately, when guns aren’t firing and bombs aren't exploding, Spielberg is also as heavy-handed with his character-based drama to near excruciating annoyance. I never liked the bookended scenes in the present day featuring the older version of Private Ryan revisting the soldier’s graves in France, and I hate them even more now. They are so god-awful they open and close the film with such a sour taste it almost taints the entire film. The characterization of the older Ryan as a feeble old man hobbling toward the graveyard weeping as he searches the graves for Capt. Miller is an emotional stink bomb. I’ve met many veterans of the War through a number of war documentaries I’ve worked on and none of the men I met would have been weeping with such uncontrolled restraint. Even the awful actors in the background, the old man’s family members who look like beauty pageant queens tenderly following the man from behind while walking on eggshells and taking quick snap photos, have the subtlety of a bull in a china shop.

The final bookend scene hammers home an overarching journey which attempts to put war, courage and sacrifice into greater perspective by bringing it to the present. After witnessing the well orchestrated death of Captain Miller at the bridge, we should have felt the emotional gravitas enough to see Hanks bite the dust by the bullet of that German POW released by Miller himself. And then there’s that awful morphing dissolve from Damon to the old man... but enough of that.

When Spielberg exits the D-Day sequence he puts us into the Allied basecamp with General Marshall and the discovery of the deaths of the Ryan brothers, thus causing the mission to save Private Ryan. It’s an awkward transition from the visceral realism of D-Day to the shameless political maguffin, with General Marshall’s eye-rolling, heavy-handed speech about Abraham Lincoln stretching our ability to suspend our disbelief. There's even more bluntness through the rest of the picture, although not as sickening as these scenes, which reinforces the fact that Saving Private Ryan is an action picture.

Despite the problems with Spielberg’s picture, it should be savoured best as an action film – one of the greatest ever made. It's a film that defined a new cinematic language for war and set a new bar for military realism for the future.

To contrast the lingering effect of Saving Private Ryan with the ‘other WWII film’ that year, The Thin Red Line, there’s little doubt about which is the better picture. Terrence Malick’s spiritual elegance is like a fine wine aging gracefully, adding more tastes and flavours with each tasting, leapfrogging over Spielberg’s technical proficiency.


Thursday, 2 August 2012

Bad Lieutenant

Back in 1992 as a 15-year-old watching ‘Bad Lieutenant’, the experience seemed as naughty as watching porn, and thus became a sensation. After all, there was full frontal male nudity, rampant drug use, masturbation, and a vile and disgusting act of rape. For these reasons, it’s a film not easily forgotten, but rewatching the film as a mature adult, the film floats above its salacious subject matter as a near masterpiece of cinema.

Bad Lieutenant (1992) dir. Abel Ferrera
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Zoe Lund

By Alan Bacchus

It’s one of the most literal and appropriate titles in the history of cinema. We’re dropped into the trainwreck lifestyle of a nameless NYC Lieutenant played by Harvey Keitel. We first see him dropping his kids off at school, swearing, shouting, not wearing seatbelts, and when the kids are gone, doing a couple of bumps of coke to jumpstart his day. The coke is the tame stuff for the Lieutenant. Though we’re never quite sure what drug he’s doing, we see him go through about every procedure there is to administer coke, crack, meth and heroin. To fuel his addiction, without second thought, he rips off dealers and steals evidence to trade for more drugs or to sell for cash to feed his gambling addiction.

It’s the baseball playoffs and he’s placing bets on every game with as much recklessness as his police actions. With each loss he doubles his wager to make back the money he’s lost, and pretty soon he’s betting tens of thousands of dollars, which he doesn’t have. It’s not hard to see where this is going, but when he encounters the gruesome rape case of a nun, he finds, however small, a moral conscience and a sudden desire to confess, repent and seek forgiveness.

The Lieutenant is more than just a bad cop, he's a carcass of a man, so undignified, so irresponsible, so depraved he makes Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth look righteous. From his point of view the narrative timeline is like a blur, days and nights meld together, people move in and out of his presence, sometimes motivating him, sometimes feeding him like a child.

It’s easy to see Harvey Keitel’s performance as one of the greatest ever exhibitions of thespian skills on screen. His ability to expose himself literally and figuratively and find such a raw emotional core is incredible, which makes it easy to miss the marvel of Abel Ferrara’s direction of the picture. With the aid of his wideangle handheld camera, Ferrara allows Keitel to freely move around and create his own space. Often we’re just following Keitel around town, through a nightclub, in a dingy and dark alley, or in his car listening to the radio. The script, which, according to the special features documentary, was a mere 60 pages, served as a loosely structured creative platform to allow Keitel to build his character naturally.

Ferrara captures the drug use with startling realism. The most painful scene occurs late when Keitel, already stoned out of his skull, walks into the apartment of his supplier/mistress, calmly sits down and with a slow and deliberate procedure the woman injects him with heroin. The scene is so frightening to us because we can’t help but be fascinated with how this must feel for Keitel. Thus is the power of the film, the ability of Ferrara and Keitel to almost make us feel what it’s like to do these drugs.

In fact, the woman who administers the drug is Zoe Lund, the co-writer of the film who unfortunately had her own tragic story of addiction and overdose, a story recounted with poignancy on the special features documentary.

Ferrara’s viewpoint on the Lieutenant’s life is the same viewpoint of Martin Scorsese in many of his films – a distinctly Catholic take on the subject. The Lieutenant’s fascination with the Church and the heroic figure of Christ could be seen as an extension of Keitel’s Charlie character from Mean Streets - a man who wants to be devout but is unsure what that means. At the end of the film, from someone else’s point of view, his act of forgiveness for the rapists might seem futile, but as dramatized by Ferrara it allows him to accept his own death with as much peace as possible.


Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Bright Star

The dignified Campion costume romance between doomed poet John Keats and his smitten lover Fanny Brawne enraptured most critics. Unfortunately, dignified or not, it’s also a slow art house slog. Of course, some people find Campion’s frilly lace bonnets blowing in the breeze and the corset-constrained old world emotions fascinating, but after 118 minutes it all just seemed mind-numbingly repetitive and, for lack of a better word, dull.

Bright Star (2009) dir. Jane Campion
Starring: Ben Wishaw, Abbie Cornish, Paul Schneider

By Alan Bacchus

Abbie Cornish plays Fanny Brawne, a comely young gal who’s in love with local poet John Keats (Ben Wishaw), who’s completely broke but is supported by his wealthier best friend, Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider). Brawne, who is a seamstress and fashion clothier, is admittedly naive to the 'esotericness' of poetry and asks for his guidance in such literature. Yawn. To Mr. Brown though, Brawne is his Yoko Ono, a meddling presence who gets in the way of Keats’ work and their own manly bonding. To this end Brawne is forced to put up with Brown’s constant belligerence. But romance pushes through and Keats and Brawne go through the stages of courtship and romance.

Meanwhile, as her mother watches the romance bloom she pushes back against the idea of Fanny marrying an artist without any monetary means whatsoever. No matter though because, as some of you might know from history, Keats develops a case of tuberculosis resulting in a lengthy, drawn out death, which crushes Fanny’s tender heart.

Admittedly, the only thing to keep me going through the endless repetitious scenes of longing glances, tender handholding and linen’s swaying with the breeze was (shamelessly) waiting to see if the two handsome actors would ‘get it on’ on screen. Knowing Campion’s track record with stripping down her actors to complete nudity I thought I might at least catch a decent glimpse of Ms. Cornish’s lovely naked skin nuzzling against Mr. Wishaw’s manly body. Nope. The romance remained cinematically unconsummated.

Though we don’t get to see their nude bodies, Cornish and Wishaw are indeed great fresh-faced actors, especially Wishaw, who was unforgettable as the olfactory killer in Perfume and one of the Bob Dylans in He’s Not There. And here he’s just as magnetic, even when he’s playing a boring ol’ romantic TB-diseased poet.

Viewers interested in the fashion of the era might have their interest piqued, as the costumes are given acute attention. Its Oscar nomination in 2009 was richly deserved.