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

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Lost Highway


Lost Highway (1997) dir. David Lynch
Starring: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake

***½

By Alan Bacchus

At any given time David Lynch has the ability to make the scariest movie of all time. He hasn’t because he’s purposely avoided making mainstream movies for virtually his entire career. Lost Highway displays the best of Lynch’s supreme talent in creeping us out with seemingly minimal effort. It’s one of his most beguiling films even by Lynch's standards – a twisting nightmare about the dual identities and dimensions of a man who’s framed for murdering his wife – I think.

Bill Pullman plays Fred Madison, a guy who lives in L.A. with his ravenous wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). It appears to be a relationship that is cold as ice, as the two rarely share more than a few even-tempered words with each other. A series of anonymous packages start appearing at their door containing video cassettes that have been mysteriously taped from within their house. When one of the videotapes shows Fred killing his wife he’s suddenly found to be a murderer and is sent to prison. While in jail Fred morphs into a younger man with a different identity – Pete Dayton (Balthasar Getty).

After Pete is released from prison the film switches gears to observe his doppleganger life. He encounters some of the same seedy L.A. underworld creepsters involved in setting Fred up for murder. Pete is seduced by a blonde version of Renee – Alice Wakefield – who is married to the mob boss heavy, Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), who also goes by the name Dick Laurent in the Fred Madison dimension. When the time is right Pete morphs back into Fred just in time and enlists the help of a creepy, eyebrowless mystery man (Robert Blake) to exact revenge on his enemies.

Out of all of Lynch's films, Lost Highway features some of his best cinematography. Peter Deming (Scream) is at the helm on this film, and the darkness and shadows play a large role in creating the suspense of the unknown. The audience is continually trying to figure out what is going on, and Deming enhances this feeling by limiting what’s visible on screen and purposely framing in the shadows. The film is so delicately underlit that it’s difficult for ordinary standard definition DVDs/televisions to hold the heavy contrast of black and white. It’s a shame that a Blu-ray version is not yet available.

Patricia Arquette deserves some kind of award for her performance as Renee/Alice. She undresses for Mr. Lynch in no less than five scenes, not including the black and white porno film her character appears in late in the film. Though she’s always ravishing and incredibly sexy, I couldn’t help but feel a little dirty for watching and enjoying Arquette get naked so many times. If the film wasn't directed by Lynch and was perceived as experimental art cinema, would we call it exploitation?

Of course you can argue that the film is about exploitation. But who exactly is being exploited? Fred appears to have been set up for the murder of his wife, but by whom? Is it Alice, Renee’s doppleganger sister? Or is it Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent? Or is it Renee/Alice who is exploited by Laurent into being his porn-star sex slave. I’d argue it was manipulation as opposed to exploitation. Either way, does it justify Arquette’s depiction on film? Since the last DVD release from 2008 is devoid of all special features, we don’t get to know Ms. Arquette's reflections on the film. They will likely remain a mystery.

I’ve had many debates comparing this film to Mulholland Drive. The themes of dual identities and the subconscious ability to switch between them in times of trauma or need inevitably marry the two films together. I personally prefer Mulholland Drive, which moves the audience between extreme emotional highs and lows and makes a clear statement about the dreamworld vs. reality of Hollywood. If there’s a fault to Lost Highway it's that it never succeeds in making a clear point. But as an exercise in style, it’s a masterpiece of psychological horror and sustained suspense. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Unstoppable

Unstoppable (2011) dir. Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Dunn, Ethan Suplee

***

By Alan Bacchus

Yesterday in southern Ontario a train derailed killing three engineers and injuring many other passengers. It was a sad day, which also happened to be the day after I watched this Tony Scott action movie on Netflix, as I happened to miss it last year. The train has been such an important part of our economy and culture for a couple of centuries, and it has also been a frequent setting for cinema.

There’s something cinematic about the power of a train, from those first Edison films to John Ford's breakout film The Iron Horse to Hitchcock’s use of the metallic beast as a metaphor for his characters' isolation and confinement (and in the case of North By Northwest, the consumation of his characters’ sexual tension).

In Unstoppable action veteran Tony Scott finds an interesting film in a real story of a train carrying flammable diesel fuel running wild out of its depot on a crash course with a small Pennsylvania town. The accident happens when a lazy and portly train engineer (Suplee) gets out of the train to switch tracks while it's moving. Unfortunately, when the throttle level moves on its own, it accelerates the train, leaving the ol’ fatty gasping for air.

Enter Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, an old cynical veteran paired with a wet-behind-the-ears engineer. They’re off on their own journey, business as usual, but bickering about union gripes and various other working class burdens. Suddenly, on this random day both men get thrust into this adventure with a chance to save lives and reclaim their confidence and pride in their jobs.

This is disaster filmmaking 101, where the threat of an inanimate object on people’s lives serves as the chief antagonist, and the screenwriters plug into interpersonal conflict as a proxy for a non-existent human enemy. In this case it’s Kevin Dunn playing the white collar, suit-wearing lackie who wants to derail the train on purpose to avoid disaster. But Scott and company aren’t content to characterize Dunn in standard black and white terms. He’s clear to show Dunn as a former rail yard workman instead of an ignorant desk jockey. His end goal is the same as our heroes, but they have a differing opinion on which plan will work.

For our working class heroes, they desire to use their own train engine to catch up to the half-mile-long wild train, hook onto its back like a caboose and slow it down enough for it to successfully navigate past a dangerous dogleg turn.

Scott successfully cuts back and forth between Washington and Pine, the men and women relaying instructions from the dispatch centre, and a whole lot of helicopter shots, crash zooms and quick cuts of the run-amuck train zooming past the camera. We don’t get too many of these disaster pictures anymore. In the '90s we regularly got one or two every season, thus over-saturating the genre. And so, in moderation, a film like Unstoppable can successfully stimulate us.

After watching the film I just had to look up the ‘real story’. According to the news clip I found on youtube, the film could barely warrant the use of the term ‘inspired by’. There were very few, if any, lives threatened in the real story, but there were just enough for Hollywood to turn it into money making entertainment.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Pretty Woman


Pretty Woman (1990) dir. Garry Marshall
Starring: Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Hector Elizondo, Jason Alexander

**½

By Alan Bacchus

Has there ever been a more glamourized movie about prostitution? Garry Marshall's rom com classic about a hooker with a heart of gold who falls in love with a luxorious millionaire birthed the enormous career of Julia Roberts and perfectly represents her working class spriteliness.

Pretty Woman was made in 1990 and reflects the tale end of the finance-sharking 1980s. It’s really just another retelling of the classic rags-to-riches story. Whether it’s Cinderella, Pygmalian, My Fair Lady and even The Elephant Man, it’s a universal story that seems adaptable in almost any medium - poor lower-class woman is plucked from obscurity and thrown into upper-class society. That’s what happens to Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts), a Los Angeles hooker with integrity who’s broke and risking eviction. Like a knight in shining armour, corporate raider millionaire Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) drives down Hollywood Blvd. looking for directions. He picks up Vivian and instantly takes a liking to her. But he's not hot for sex. For some reason he wants to bring her back to his hotel and chat. He’s so smitten with the Julia Roberts spunkiness, he pays her to be his companion for the week.

While Vivian is flush with the royal treatment, new outfits, trips to the country club and the opera, her innate goodwill causes Edward to change his ruthless business ways for the better.

Stucky, Edward’s lawyer, is dramatized with maximum sliminess. There’s no disguising him as the antagonist. Jason Alexander’s short, bald, desperate persona is a perfect physical fit. And subtle visual cues, such as his allergies to the outdoors and sunlight at the polo match, as well as his emasculating miniature pool table in his office, further castrate his character.

Pretty Woman is almost as famous for its continuity errors. In fact, I had to study the errors as an exercise at film school, specifically the infamous breakfast scene, which is rife with mistakes. But the fact that this film can get away with these errors is a testament to its immersive storytelling.

In perhaps the grossest example of double-dipping, director Garry Marshall would essentially remake his own film with 2001’s The Princess Diaries, cast Hector Elizondo in the same role and even reuse some of the same dialogue.

Pretty Woman still holds up as a minor classic in the genre. Richard Gere and Julia Roberts best all of the syrupy romantic clichés – many of which were popularized by this film.

Pretty Woman is available on Blu-ray from Walt Disney Home Entertainment.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Destry Rides Again


Destry Rides Again (1939) dir. George Marshall
Starring: James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Mischa Auerm, Brian Donlevy, Samuel S. Hinds

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Destry Rides Again showcases Jimmy Stewart in one of his earliest starring roles. As a spry 29-year-old, Mr. Aw Shucks is as amiable, compelling and undeniably a star as he ever was.

The film portrays a typical situation in the western genre. A corrupt frontier town (appropriately called ‘Bottleneck’) has difficulty maintaining law and order. The local sheriff is completely ineffective and is beholden to the local criminal syndicate. Even the mayor is under the corruptive influence of the malfeasants. Marlene Dietrich plays Frenchy, the local saloon owner who quietly helps the criminals cheat and steal their way to money and power.

When the new Sheriff is knocked off by a cheating gangster, Kent (Brian Dunlevy), Mayor Slade gives the badge to the town drunk, Washington Dimsdale. Instead of doing Slade and Kent’s bidding, Dimsdale considers the appointment as an opportunity to make something of his life. And so he hires an old friend and the son of a legendary lawman, Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart). Destry arrives in town gunless and is ridiculed for his passivity toward armed violence. But beneath his easy-going demeanour is a stone cold hombre who refuses to back down against the local tyranny.

The film takes its time establishing the situation. In fact, Jimmy Stewart doesn’t appear until 30 minutes into the film. George Marshall, a stock studio director with over 150 directing credits but few classic titles, directs the film with the utmost of studio perfection. Watch the scenes from the opening titles to just after Destry arrives in town. Though most of the film takes place in the saloon through camera movement, shot selection and creative staging, Marshall manages to sustain 45 minutes of high cinema energy and action.

After Destry's introduction, Marshall stages one of the all-time great cat-fights in cinema history. It’s Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy versus Una Merkel, who plays the wife of a husband who was cheated out of his money. The fight starts out as a fall-down, hair-pulling match between the gals, but when Destry breaks it up Frenchy continues to battle the new deputy for a total of 5 minutes of bottle-throwing and chair-smashing action. The sequence is a lengthy but exciting and inspired duel of wills. Of course, it’s played for humour, but Marshall’s staging is invisible to the extensive stunts required to make the scene look real.

Though Stewart refuses to carry a gun and uses intelligence to best his opponents, the filmmakers are clear to tell us that Destry is no sissy. In fact, he’s a crack shot with a gun. At one point he picks up a pistol and nonchalantly shoots six targets with his six bullets. But in a genre where the attitudes toward violence are defined by the liberal 'western code of honour', Destry's 'non-violent' approach is a smart nod toward pacifism. These themes would be reworked and remade a number of times after Destry. Marshall would remake the film again in 1954 with Audie Murphy, and Support Your Local Sheriff with James Garner borrows its central concept of a lawman with guns. Enjoy.

Destry Rides Again is available on the James Stewart Westerns Collection from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

Oher related postings: THE FAR COUNTRY

Here's the classic catfight scene:

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness (1970) dir. Robert Mulligan
Starring: Michael Sarrazin, Barbara Hershey, E.G. Marshall, Arthur Hill

**

By Alan Bacchus

Not to be confused with the Will Smith tearjerker, director Robert Mulligan’s story of a liberal student whose personal morals are challenged when he’s sent to jail mixes some genuinely honest and thoughtful reflection on the clash of liberal and conservative values while confusing illogical and cartoonish idealism, which for 1970, might have been risky and enlightening, but now is just plain silly.

The late Michael Sarrazin plays a bleeding heart liberal college student, William Popper, who is conflicted by his conservative and well-off family background. When he gets into a car accident that kills a pedestrian he suddenly finds himself charged with vehicular manslaughter and is thrust into the American establishment of courts, lawyers and police. His journey takes him from innocent student to convict to escapee and by the end he is confronted with the choice of existing in an establishment in which he doesn’t believe or fleeing for some other utopia.

It’s unfortunate the film has to start with an excruciating Randy Newman song. In fact, Newman scores a number of montages throughout the film creating a tone of cartoonish cornball – a boneheaded creative decision from a normally astute Robert Mulligan. In particular, Mulligan crafts a ridiculous transition from William’s shocking sentence of prison time to a joyous, happy song, thus diffusing all the drama of the judge’s decision. We then watch William frolicking nude with his girlfriend in complete bliss, as if he’s unaware he’s about to enter the lowest form of humanity in our social foundation. Is this the same Robert Mulligan? The same celebrated director of honesty and integrity who made To Kill a Mockingbird?

Of course it’s 1970, and though it seemed like a liberal film at the time it is completely out to lunch and is Hollywood fantasy of the highest order. It’s a shame because the opening act sets up an interesting intellectual take on the difference between moral idealism and reality. Unfortunately, the film shamelessly separates the pack into liberals good and republicans bad.

The Pursuit of Happiness constantly rides a teeter-totter of honest realism and complete ineptitude. At one point William breaks out of jail with one week left in his sentence, an act completely out of character, not to mention illogical. Add to this scene another puke-inducing Randy Newman song and it’s more cartooning around. The prison life is ridiculous. Dramatized with quirky characters and fun personalities, it’s a summer camp-like fantasy prison.

Mulligan also completely destroys the suspense of William’s flight to Canada with barely even a roadblock in his way. Sarrazin is a fine actor and extremely likeable, but his character and his morals are never really challenged, especially when the consequences would be going back to that fun Shawshank prison.

The title refers to William’s central, though slightly abstract and non-specific, goal of disillusionment of the hippie culture with the steadfastly conservative competitive culture of American society. His pursuit for utopia involves escape from family, prison and ultimately his own country with a selfish egotism, which, unfortunately, is never acknowledged by the filmmakers.

If you keep reminding yourself that this film was made in 1970, likely shot in 1969, at the height of the anti-war, anti-government and anti-establishment peace-loving hippidom, The Pursuit of Happiness could be enjoyable. If you can’t suspend your disbelief that a main character who abandons his country and cowardly refuses to stand up for his personal morals in the face of a government ideal he despises is actually heroic, then this film is not for you.

The Pursuit of Happiness is branded under the ‘Martini Movies’ DVD label from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Hugo

Hugo (2011) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen

***

By Alan Bacchus

Yes, it's true. I'm not as enamoured with Martin Scorsese's ‘kids’ film and multiple Oscar nominee as most others. Firstly, it's not really a kids film at all. It’s a warm-hearted whimsical fantasy for sure, but it’s something more directly related to the Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Terry Gilliam/Baz Luhrmann adult magic realism.

While there's a strong emotional core to this picture, that being the reclamation of spirit of turn-of-the-century filmmaker Georges Méliès through the journey of its young hero Hugo Cabret, the film is also overloaded with visual paraphernalia, which actually feels more derivative (of said filmmakers above) than fresh or unique to Scorsese.

The opening act seems to show off the production design and special effects. Unfortunately, the frames are too busy for the film’s own good. The CGI-enhanced compositions are overloaded with wide-angle imagery, leaving everything in focus and confusing our eye. I'm also put off by the 'three-strip colour process' visual design of Robert Richardson's lighting (the same look as The Aviator), which means everything seems to have a distracting teal coloured tint.

But this is all surface gloss. The guts of the story are fascinating. However, it really doesn't kick in until the halfway mark with a brilliant mid-point turn (admirably hidden to audiences in its marketing push), which sends the film in a whole new direction. In fact, it’s essentially a two-act film, cleaved in half by the reveal of Ben Kingsley’s character as the real-life Georges Méliès.

This moment occurs when Hugo (Butterfield) and his investigative partner, Isabelle (Moretz), use the heart-shaped key to turn on the automaton robot, which sketches out a scene from A Trip to the Moon. It's a great moment connecting all the key characters in the film, including Hugo, Isabelle, Hugo's father and, of course, Georges. It plunks the film down in something real and tangible rather than the overly processed 3D retro fantasy world. This is when Hugo gets interesting. The rest of the film plays out like an hour-long third act with Hugo and Isabelle plotting to get Georges to acknowledge his place in cinema history.

I don't know if children would appreciate the significance of this switch or the real identity of Georges, the grumpy train station vendor. This is magic for adults, the Spielberg kind of magic, and the omniscient hand of God or fate guiding our characters to fulfill their dreams.

Scorsese's direction is functional but certainly not of the auteur quality we expect of him. He's a great talent, and thus he's comfortable wearing the skin of a Jeunet or Spielberg. But it's still a disguise for Marty, and it just doesn't feel like his movie. Thus, it’s not a masterpiece.

Hugo is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Tiny Furniture

Tiny Furniture (2011) dir. Lena Dunham
Starring: Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Jemima Kirk, Alex Karpovsky, David Call

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Tiny Furniture is a remarkable little quirky gem from a then 24-year-old wunderkind of sorts. This is Lena Dunham, a New Yorker who, even before turning 25, established a unique voice in cinema by satirizing the New York Art Brat scene. Tiny Furniture wasn’t even her first feature film. Before that she honed her self-referential life story into a smaller film, Creative Nonfiction, and two web series, Tight Shots (2007) and Delusional Downtown Divas (2008), as well as a number of shorts.

The themes, characters and situations of her previous work merge like those of a young Quentin Tarantino into her breakthrough film, Tiny Furniture, which famously won the SXSW Narrative Feature Film Award in 2010. This led to her soon-to-premiere Judd Apatow-produced HBO series, Girls.

Lena courageously puts a thinly disguised version of herself onto the screen as Aura, a college film school grad returning home to Manhattan to live with her mother and hopefully figure out what to do with her life. The imposing figure of her immensely successful mother, who owns an impressive studio loft and makes a living creating art from photographing ‘tiny furniture’, is a passive burden on Aura. Same with her younger sister, who isn’t out of high school but has achieved more as an artist than anything Aura has done. Add to her woes being dumped by her boyfriend and the presence of her former childhood friend, Charlotte, an over-privileged brat.

For most of the picture we see Aura moping around in unglamorous bedroom attire with no makeup and her hair unconditioned in a perpetual bed head. It’s a far cry from the meticulously coifed hipsters she hangs out with. Despite her appearance, Aura is bubbly, effervescent and optimistic on the outside. She takes a job as a hostess at a local restaurant and is sort of dating a couch-surfing fellow art brat, Jed. In fact, most of the film is conflict-free, as we follow Aura around in her post-grad malaise, which doesn’t really seem to concern her.

The shoe drops when her mother’s confrontation about Jed sparks the anger-fueled shouting match of frustration we’ve been expecting to see. In order to reconcile her angst, Aura engages in a mild sexual bender with a restaurant colleague and eventually confesses her insecurities to her mother.

Ms. Dunham would probably be the first to admit the problems of her character are tepid at best, certainly not melodramatic – an understated emotional journey. But it’s Dunham’s remarkably addictive character and performance that has us glued to the screen. There seems to be a conscious effort for Dunham to expose the most unglamorous parts of her body, often walking around the house in a long t-shirt with no pants, glorifying her pear-shaped body. Dunham’s comfort with her own body is not lost on us, as it conforms to the honesty she puts into her character. The hipster art world environment also threatens to make us all feel inferior, and yet Aura is someone we’d actually want to be friends with. She’s an unpretentious, down-to-earth woman with the same struggles of insecurity as the rest of us.

There’s also Dunham's superb eye for composition and unique mise-en-scene. She maximizes the small spaces of her mother’s loft as well as the real Manhattan cafes, bars and streets in and on which she films. As such, Tiny Furniture is stylized but real and honest – qualities that are rare for such a young filmmaker.

Tiny Furniture is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, George Sanders, Edna Best

***

By Alan Bacchus

Part haunted house story, part searing cross-dimensional love story, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir paints a wonderfully textured gothic romance with all the intrigue and heartbreak of a steamy romance novel. But with Mankiewicz's moody tones and Bernard Herrman’s typically entrancing music, the movie waxes and wanes with much emotional grandeur.

Gene Tierney, as Mrs. Muir, is a recently widowed mother, who leaves her former life behind to live in a hilltop Victorian seaside house. The landlord is not shy to inform her that the ghost of the former owner, a grizzly but handsome seaman named Capt. Daniel Gregg, continues to inhabit the house. But ironically, Mrs. Muir loves the idea of a house with 'character'. The ghost is quick to make his presence known and introduces himself to the lady. The ghost then inspires Muir to express her creative side by 'ghost' writing his memoirs.

Meanwhile, Miles Fairley, a smarmy fellow author whom she meets at her publisher's, pines after Mrs. Muir with a suspicious aggressiveness. His possessiveness slowly comes to bear under the nose of Muir. Of course, Daniel notices and knows the truth about Fairley but needs Muir to discover the truth herself, no matter how painful that will be.

As the ghost/former sea captain, Rex Harrison embellishes all the clichés of a gruff sailor with charm and scene-chewing delight. Under the Hollywood production code, a surprisingly lustful sexual desire between him and Mrs. Muir is buried beneath the surface. Part of the deal between Muir and Gregg is that he can appear only in Muir's bedroom, which brings its own naughty connotations. In fact, one could argue Mrs. Muir is drawn to the ghost by a deep sexual attraction she never experienced with her former husband. Her drab marriage is characterized by a statement to her landlord – that her pregnancy with her daughter 'just happened'. And the dirty old sailor even remarks about observing Muir's naked body, but can't touch it.

Under the direction of Mankiewicz the production design and lighting of the grand old house contributes as much to the gothicness as the salacious material. The exterior backdrop behind the grand bedroom changes from lovely sunset to harsh lightning storms to foggy engulfments in order to express the mood of the scene. The night time moon, which comes in through the window as it reflects off the bustling waters, creates some deliciously expressive shadows at night.

But the film is made memorable by the genuine relationship that emerges between the ghost and Mrs. Muir. The emotional climax hits a surprisingly profound moment when Capt. Gregg says his painful goodbye to her while she's sleeping, asking her to “choose life”.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

If a Tree Falls...

If a Tree Falls... The Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011) dir Marshall Curry
Documentary

***½

By Alan Bacchus

I have to admit, I groaned at the thought of watching another heroic activist film. Yet, Marshall Curry's story of the Earth Liberation Front, the so-called 'eco-terrorist' group that aggressively pushed their agenda of saving the planet with hardcore violent radicalism in the late ‘90s/'00s, is a deceptive film, which, at a glance, would purport to aggrandize the organization. But as it gradually reveals a non-partisan approach, both championing the cause and revealing the ironies and fallacies of their idealism, the film exposes more fascinating complexities than most issue-driven films.

For Curry, Daniel McGowan is the face of the organization. He’s an environmental activist responsible for two acts of arson, which has him up for a life sentence in prison. But based on his middle-class appearance, he certainly doesn't fit the mold of a left-wing extremist. As Daniel awaits his trial under house arrest, the camera acts as his confession booth through which we learn about the E.L.F., including Daniel's involvement and the events that led to his arrest.

We learn of the environmental movement in general and their non-violent activities and protests, such as the WTO protests in Seattle where many others from his organization, in the name of the cause, were subject to brutal policing tactics. But when Daniel meets the men and women involved in the E.L.F., who in one swift stroke can physically erase the cause of environmental destruction, the non-violent tactics look grossly ineffective in comparison. Over the course of a few years in the early 2000s Daniel becomes involved in a number of arsons, deemed by the authorities to be domestic terrorism.

But at one point, upon witnessing the grief of the owner of a lumber company after touring the carcass of his charred building, Daniel has a change of heart and gets out of the organization. Here's where Curry admirably switches viewpoints, telling the story from the side of the authorities set on taking down Daniel and his cohorts.

It's a refreshingly pragmatic approach to a traditionally partisan subject, something that tarnished films like The Cove and The Corporation, proving there's value in showing both sides of a story. Curry effectively humanizes the investigators, the FBI and even the cops videotaped beating protestors in Seattle. The drive to find the perpetrators thus becomes as involving as the E.L.F.'s fight against corruptors of the environment.

And Daniel's downfall comes from a sad, tragic irony squeezed out of the movement – betrayed and sold out from within by the same extremists who accused corporations of selling out the earth for a buck. It not only makes for a fascinating twist in the story, but in the bigger picture it forces us all to confront and put a price on our own convictions.

The final act question posits whether Daniel should be considered a terrorist. Curry is clear with his opinion that Daniel is not, something I personally disagree with. Yet, it doesn't harm my enjoyment of the film.

If a Tree Falls... is deservedly up for an Oscar for Best Documentary. Please watch this film and challenge yourself to answer some of the questions posed to Daniel and the other participants involved.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Rampart

Rampart (2011) dir. Oen Moverman
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright, Ice Cube, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ned Beatty, Sigourney Weaver

**½

By Alan Bacchus

Dave Brown is a despicable human being, an old-school LAPD cop – the Rodney King-beating/Mark Fuhrman type known for outrageous racism, heinous corruption and all around overly aggressive, inhumane policing tactics. Under the hardboiled pen of James (LA Confidential) Ellroy and Oren (The Messenger) Moverman's concerted directorial style, Rampart becomes a character study of an anti-hero to the extreme.

While it's an admirable second film after Moverman's acclaimed and slightly precious The Messenger, it has the misfortune of being closely linked in theme and tone to Bad Lieutenant, albeit a much softer version than both Abel Ferrara's and Werner Herzog's insane films.

It's 1999 and Dave Brown is introduced as a shithead LAPD cop who's constantly being reprimanded for his bad behaviour. He's a member of the controversial 'Rampart' division known for its questionable policing tactics, and specifically for Brown, an incident involving the cold blooded killing of a serial date rapist. This is the last time we'll ever think of Brown as a heroic vigilante.

After a car accident Brown goes bonkers and beats the driver to near-death, an incident caught on camera and thus made public. As he tries to negotiate his way around that shit storm, he somehow charms and beds a hot lawyer (Robin Wright). Covert advice from a retired cop and former colleague of Brown's father results in more bad decisions, as Brown descends into hell, a snowball effect of violence and corruption he just can't get out of.

While intended not to fit into traditional forms of narrative drama, the film seems to neither commit fully to an Abel Ferrara-style Alice in Wonderland journey for his character nor the intricate noirish-style plotting we know from Ellroy's LA Confidential. These two movies fight each other, resulting in a mostly confused state for the viewer.

We're supposed to notice Woody Harrelson as a monstrous anti-hero, but everyone seems to be trying so hard to get him an Oscar nomination. We never sympathize with his character even though he seems to find continued support from his friends and family.

What never fits into the puzzle is that Dave is a charming pick-up artist who can bed women at will. He is seen picking up numerous beautiful ladies, including Robin Wright, yet he has no charm or grace – only red flags taped all over his body that say STAY AWAY!

The subplotting of Dave's two children born from two sisters (Heche and Nixon) and yet still living in the same house is an outlier that could have been its own movie. But here it’s just more unnecessary complication to confuse us.

And the film just ends as if they ran out of story to tell, or that there wasn't one in the first place. This is the kind of picture we may come to appreciate years down the road if Moverman turns into someone like a Martin Scorsese, when we can appreciate its place in some kind of iconic career filmography. But for now it's just an unfocused pale version of Bad Lieutenant.

Rampart opens this Friday in Canada from eOne Films.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Footnote


Footnote "Hearat Shulayim" (2011) dir. Joesph Cedar
Starring Shlomo Bar-Aba, Lior Ashkenazi and Micah Lewensohn.

**

By Blair Stewart

What a wonderful plot for a comedy. What an utterly over-directed film.

Footnote, a Foreign Language Oscar nominee from Israel, prods at two universal sources of humour – the persnickety egos of tenured professors, and the buffoonish moods of fathers and maybe, just maybe, their sons. Perhaps.

Professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) has been buried so deep in Talmudic studies he's emerged on the late side of life a grumpy old homunculus. One of his many rivals in Jewish academia on the opposite end of what he regards as frivolous research happens to be his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), who is more gregarious but retains that Shkolnik family touchiness.

From the opening, comprised of a close-up of Eliezer listening to a long, painful speech, the backstabbing and pettiness in their insular world bleeds out. Eliezer has been waiting on the coveted Israel prize for his painstaking study of his peoples' history, but several decades of zilch has reduced him to a curmudgeonly existence. Shkolnik's disposition hasn't been helped by the cherry-picking of his life's work by his arch-rival, Grossman (Micah Lewensohn, blessed with one of the great knotted brows in cinema, as he appears to have sand dunes attached above his eyebrows), and his only claim to fame is a throwaway mention in an obscure book: Eliezer is the footnote. The story shifts around leading up to that speech, as the Shkolnik clan all spin off in their different trajectories.

An intelligent comedy that lampoons the intelligencia, Footnote distracts from the humorous performances of Ashkenazi, Bar-Aba and Lewensohn with unnecessarily flashy inter-titles, cross-cutting and a deadweight voice-over. It's a droll comedy, directed like a David Fincher thriller.

The stylistic choices are the director's literal expression of Bar-Aba's study, and the film needed something much more subtle. After the first scenes of witty dialogue supported by actors with chemistry and pace, they're let down by moments of tedium. For instance, why are there needless moments of characters walking about, often away from the camera? Is their ass supposed to be funny, or is it a break so I can catch my breath from the guffaws? I appreciate a film told with clarity. We don't need to see the short-ends.

A few notable supporting characters are also either vastly underwritten or have had their lines splashed across the cutting room floor. Earlier scenes of promise featuring the supporting cast members never receive a payoff, which makes the previous time spent with them wasteful. Lastly, the score of Footnote is painfully insistent throughout, as it constantly crashes into the movie as if it was a drunk elephant on a cruise ship. Silence would have sufficed.

Footnote is a waste of talent, but my dad just might enjoy it for Bar-Aba's grouchiness.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Branded To Kill & Tokyo Drifter - Seijun Suzuki X 2


Tokyo Drifter (1966) dir. Seijun Suzuki
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani

***1/2

Branded To Kill (1967) dir. Seijun Suzuki
Starring: Jô Shishido, Kôji Nanbara, Isao

****

By Greg Klymkiw

Nobody. Seriously. Nobody. Nobody. Nobody. Nobody - and I'm dead serious - NOBODY ever or will ever make crime pictures like the supremely stylish and (possibly) clinically insane Japanese maestro of strange gangster shoot-em-ups - Seijun Suzuki. In the span of just over a decade, Suzuki directed 40 - count 'em - 40 B-movies for Japan's Nikkatsu studios.

Suzuki's favourite setting was against the backdrop of the Yakuza and his pictures just got increasingly delirious as he continued to grind out one after another. He hit his peak with Nikkatsu in 1966 and 1967 with, respectively, Tokyo Drifter and Branded To Kill. The latter picture was so confounding, so over-the-top, so disinterested in narrative logic, that the studio fired him - even though he delivered consistent product that made money for Nikkatsu.

He successfully sued the company for wrongful dismissal, but his high ideals and legal victory effectively blacklisted him from making a movie for over ten years.

Tokyo Drifter, shot in lurid technicolor and scope a pure visceral rollercoaster ride of violence and - I kid you not - musical numbers. Even John Woo in his Hong Kong prime NEVER delivered such inspired nuttiness.

The plot, such as it is, involves a loyal hit man, Phoenix Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) who respects and acquiesces to his mob boss' desire to go straight. However, Tetsu is one bundle of trouble and every rival gang is drawn to creating a nightmare for his boss. Tetsu does the only thing honour will allow - he imposes a strange self-exile and becomes a drifter; a man without a country, so to speak. Loyalty, only goes so far, however, and when he realizes he's been set-up as a fall-guy, there is hell to pay.

One action scene after another is shot in near-fluorescent colour with lurid, yet stunning backdrops. The guns blaze and the blood flows freely. I'm also happy to declare that the climactic shootout ranks way up there with all the greats.

Oh, have I mentioned yet that there are musical numbers?

Tokyo Drifter made absolutely no sense to the top brass at Nikkatsu and they demanded that Suzuki tone it down for his next movie.

He agreed.

And he lied.

The next picture was the hypnotically demented Branded to Kill. Shot in glorious widescreen black and white with wall-to-wall sex, violence and tons of delectable nudity, it told the tale of hit man Goro Hanada (Jô Shishido) who is currently rated as Killer #3. When he screws up a job, his status in the Yakuza is threatened and soon, he finds himself the target of several hit men and hit ladies (including his mistress and wife). And soon, he is embroiled in a cat and mouse dance of death with the almost-ghost-like Killer #1.

Like Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill has absolutely no need or respect for issues like continuity and narrative clarity. Suzuki can barely acknowledge the plot and in its stead, stages one brilliantly shot and choreographed action set-piece after another.

If Luis Bunuel had been Japanese, not even he would have approached the surrealistic heights that Suzuki ascends to so dazzlingly.

Branded to Kill is populated with some utterly delicious babes - all of whom sport guns and remove their clothing a lot. Our hero Goro, is played by the suave, ultra-cool Jô Shishido. With his odd puffy cheekbones and wry expression, Shisedo invests his role with steely intensity. The movie oozes with style like lava chugging out of a roiling volcano. The stunning black and white photography is worthy of John Alton's great noir work and the movie is driven by a terrific score that blends ultra-cool jazz styling with Ennio Morricone-influence spaghetti-riffs with crazed orchestral action genre music as if performed by the Kronos Quartet on crack cocaine.

If the picture has one crowning glory (and frankly, it has many) it surely must be Goro's fetish for the smell of boiling rice. Any excuse Suzuki can give his hero to demand it and then sniff away with abandon he manages to find it. Sometimes, there isn't even a good reason for it. Sometimes, it's just the thing to do. Sometimes, a man's just got to sniff boiling rice.

This, I understand. I hope you do, too.

If not, go to Hell.

"Tokyo Drifter" and "Branded To Kill" have been released with mind-bogglingly stunning Blu-Ray transfers on the Criterion Collection label. Both films are replete with fine added content, but ultimately, it's the movies that count. These are keepers and belong in any self-respecting cineaste's collection.



Friday, 17 February 2012

Miss Bala

Miss Bala (2012) dir. Gerardo Naranjo
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, Irene Azuela, Jose Yenque

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Despite honourable inclusion in the Cannes En Certain Regard program and the Toronto International Film Festival, Miss Bala has gone much too far under the cinematic radar. It’s a Mexican thriller about a beauty pageant contestant who inadvertently gets roped into a violent drug war served up with a unique point of view on a familiar genre story.

We first meet Laura with her friend, Jessica, auditioning for a Tijuana beauty pageant. Laura indeed passes the test and subsequently gets invited to an industry party. While at the party a group of drug dealers busts in, kills a bunch of DEA officers and kidnaps Jessica, during which Laura, hiding out in the bathroom, comes face to face with the ruthless leader, Lino Valdez, who inexplicably allows her to live.

While searching for Jess the next day, she is kidnapped by Lino and his men, seemingly at random, and instructed to participate in some kind of elaborate scheme or heist. From here on in, Laura inexplicably gets picked up and dropped off several times by Lino. She is forced to drive their getaway car, spy on Mexico’s drug czar and is even forced back into the pageant without preparation; however, it’s rigged for her victory.

Told exclusively from Laura's perspective, Naranjo’s camera never leaves her. It's a risky approach, which alienates the audience for much of the film. At one point there’s a grandiose gun fight in a hotel room, yet we don't see any of it. Instead, we see only the reactions of actor Stephanie Sigman, who plays Laura. The plotting and narrative cause-and-effect is just as alienating and confusing, which only comes together in the final scene.

But there's also something inspiring in Naranjo's rigorous approach. The mystery of the film stems from the unconventional point of view. Every film needs to have a point of view, whether it’s one character, a group of characters, a political side or a shifting point of view. But in Miss Bala our viewpoint into this world is like a racehorse with blinders on. We only know what Laura knows, and Naranjo never wavers from this concept. All of this is part of his grand plan to blindside us with his beautifully set up wallop in the end.

Naranjo’s technique reminds us of the Dardennes Bros’ Le Fils (The Son). In that film Olivier Gourmet was shot exclusively using medium shots, and there was also a grand plan hidden from us until its great reveal. Naranjo’s anamorphic and elegant steadicam long-takes create a different cinematic experience, less like Le Fils and more like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.

The ending reveals more than just a clever plotting device. It reveals, or perhaps exploits, the entrenched corruption of Mexico’s socio-political infrastructure. Miss Bala is uncompromising and tough, a ruthless picture that puts its hero through the most harrowing journey imaginable. And in the final frame it leaves us with a big question mark suggesting another dangerous journey ahead for Laura Guerrero.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Annie Hall vs. Manhattan

ANNIE HALL vs. MANHATTAN: A WOODY ALLEN THROWDOWN
By Alan Bacchus

Annie Hall and Manhattan are two seminal films from a master filmmaker made nearly one after another (with Interiors sandwiched in between), both nominated for Oscars. Although, Annie Hall was the bigger winner for Best Picture and Best Director (Manhattan received Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress noms). Having the opportunity to watch both films again on Blu-ray back-to-back, they make an interesting comparison.

Manhattan or Annie Hall? Which film is better? Which do you prefer? It's an often discussed point of debate among Allen fans and filmgoers in general. Full disclosure though – I don’t consider myself a Woody Allen fan. Although I admire his prolific ability to write original material and be successful, I also think he has suffered from making too many films and choosing quantity over quality. But Annie Hall and Manhattan are both magnificent studies of human relationships, exemplary to Woody Allen's innate filmmaking skills.

In Annie Hall, Allen charts the ups and downs of the relationship between Alvy Singer, a stand-up comic living in Manhattan (the thinnest veil of himself he’s ever written), and an effervescent up-and-coming singer, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). In Manhattan, Allen leads the four-person ensemble of characters/friends and the complexities of their relationships. After his second divorce with his ex (Meryl Streep), Isaac Davis (Allen) finds himself in a relationship with a 17-year-old (Mariel Hemingway). His best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), though married, has an affair with the slightly psychologically damaged Mary (Diane Keaton), who eventually falls for Isaac, thus disrupting his friendship with Yale.

Stylistically, the two films couldn’t be more dissimilar. In Annie Hall Allen applies a distinctly flashy and unconventional narrative technique, including quick flash cuts to Alvy’s inner thoughts. The most memorable, perhaps, is the quick insert shot of Alvy as an orthodox rabbi eating dinner with Annie’s waspy parents. The entire film is filled with these clever editorial innovations, including talking directly to camera, subtitles expressing the characters’ unspoken subtext and split-screen conversations.

Manhattan is classical in style, subdued and mature, visualized under a slick anamorphic black and white visual palette. If anything, it resembles something Francois Truffaut or Billy Wilder might have shot in the ‘60s. Allen also lets his other actors command the screen, whereas Annie Hall could be seen as a narrative expression of his stand-up act, like Seinfeld. There’s a distinct naturalism to the narrative in Manhattan, but it doesn’t sacrifice its dreamy-romantic, optimistic and cinematic finale. Annie Hall’s trajectory is mostly downward, an anti-romance with Allen himself left holding our sympathy.

Allen takes his character to task in Manhattan, at first unceremoniously dumping Mariel Hemingway’s character so he can get with Diane Keaton. This causes his need for repentance and reconciliation in the rom-com-worthy finale scene. In Annie Hall, Allen always seems to be the victim to the chase of Annie's enigmatic personality.

Interestingly, both films were shot by the great Gordon Willis (the Prince of Darkness!), famous for shooting The Godfather films. But here he shows remarkable range in accommodating the two different tones of these two films. Annie Hall, shot with natural light, is also quick and mobile. Manhattan’s stark black and white, combined with the delicious Gershwin music, evokes a romantic and more classically cinematic tone.

Both films are terrific, funny and moving, as well as profound examinations of adult relationships. Whichever film one prefers, the resonance of both is enhanced by the differences from the other, demonstrating Allen’s great ability to experiment and innovate within his beloved medium.

Annie Hall and Manhattan are available from MGM Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Fort Apache

Fort Apache (1948) dir. John Ford
Starring: Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen

***½

By Alan Bacchus

This is the first film in John Ford's 'Cavalry Trilogy'. It’s a story of the frontier wars from the point of view of the special military regiment set up for the mobile protection of America's frontiersmen. Henry Fonda is the stuck-up Colonel Thursday, who is put in charge of a ne’er-do-well Cavalry division on the outskirts. The group comes into conflict with soldiers and officers used to policing the frontier with a different and more nuanced set of rules.

As with many of Ford's westerns, it's a lengthy film (128 minutes), which takes time to get going. The first hour or so, in repetitive fashion and without much subtlety, sets up a ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ scenario between Thursday and his soldiers. As an officer of privilege forced out of his previous and respectable posting in the civilized East, Thursday is introduced as a bitter old warrior who is set in his ways about military conduct. When he arrives at Fort Apache he discovers a group of soldiers without the traditional whip-cracking discipline he's used to. Most of the first half of the film establishes the stubbornness of Thursday with respect to the men, as well as his disapproval of his daughter's courtship with a young and less refined Lt. O'Rourke. John Wayne is also underutilized standing quietly in the backdrop for most of the first half while Fonda controls the stage.

After the hour mark when the Apaches enter the story the stakes are raised with more complex conflicts, not to mention some solid action scenes. When an Apache threat emerges after a period of an agreed-upon peace, John Wayne's character, Captain York, investigates and discovers that the peace was broken by the hubris of an American settler. York becomes torn between his loyalty to Thursday, who wants to go to war, and his admiration, respect and word given to their chief adversary, Cochise.

Here we soon realize this is not a traditional cowboys and Indians picture. Cochise is aggrandized and given much respect and admiration from the American cavalrymen, and York's devotion to Cochise's honour becomes a deeper, more resonant point of conflict than the mere blowhard stubbornness of Thursday. Thus, Fort Apache admirably challenges America's place as imperialists and policemen of the North American frontier.

Fort Apache is also a story of manners and the examination of class in America. Colonel Thursday speaks to his troops with the barrier of military rank, but also the barrier of class, presumably born from his eastern upbringing. This prevents him from earning his troops' true respect. Fonda's performance is on the mark. He's characterized in the extreme, but we sense in Fonda's soulful eyes an insecurity and honourable conviction at odds with his chosen profession.

Of course, Ford once again shoots the picture in the majestic Monument Valley locales. The landscape under the crisp B&W cinematography is magnificent if not taken for granted given the vast number of times we've seen the backdrop. We're treated to some of the best of Ford's classic compositions, often filling up the majority of his frames with the dreamy cloud formations high above the actors.

Despite a laborious opening, Fort Apache evolves into one of the more challenging and exciting Western action movies in Ford's filmography.

Fort Apache is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) dir. Carl Dreyer
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugène Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz

****

By Alan Bacchus

The legend and mystique around Dreyer’s landmark film certainly helps its appreciation – the original version of the silent masterpiece appeared to have been lost after a number of fires destroyed what was thought to be the only remaining complete film elements. But when a near complete version was found in a janitor's closet at an Oslo mental institution in 1981, along with an exhaustive restoration, The Passion of Joan of Arc was rediscovered.

My moderately articulate words cannot possibly describe how great this film is. We all know the story of Joan of Arc, the teenaged French peasant who heard the voice of God command her to join the French army and lead them to victory for the nation. Dreyer’s film picks up the story when she was captured by the English then imprisoned, tried and eventually executed.

Dreyer distills the production down to its bare essential elements using a few unadorned interior sets – the courtroom, Saint Joan’s prison cell and other rooms in the prison. The walls are white with little in the way of art decoration or props – just the powerful words of the judge, jury and executioners and the expressive face of Joan, played by Maria Falconetti (sometimes referred to as Renée).

The story of Ms. Falconetti is even more legendary than the recovered film print. As lead actress it was her one and only performance, which emphasizes the astonishing artistic achievement. It’s a performance that stands alongside Max Schreck’s as one of the great ‘one and only’ film acting roles in cinema history.

Dreyer almost exclusively frames Falconetti in a close-up, rarely placing her in a two shot with other actors and rarely in anything wide enough to show below her shoulders. Within these constraints, Falconetti expresses the anguish, fear and courage of the heroine with amazing intensity in arguably the greatest ever female performance on film. Rumour has it that Dreyer’s direction of Falconetti was so emotionally draining it pushed her into emotional collapse, thus she never acted again.

Even if Falconetti’s performance was merely adequate, the film is a masterpiece based on Dreyer’s stunning stylistic visual treatment and camerawork. His distinct compositions are simply astounding. The minimized aesthetic allows him to create a fresh visual dynamic by experimenting with creative and unorthodox framing. At Joan’s loneliest moments, watch Dreyer frame her awkwardly in the bottom half of the picture engulfed by the negative space above, and at her most powerful with her eyes framed at the top of the screen with the rest of her face and head dominating the lower half.

No shot is wasted and everything has a purpose. Dreyer’s stark white colour scheme and his reliance on close-ups emphasize the duel of wills between Joan and her captors. The way he moves his camera feels thoroughly modern as well. The camera rarely sits still and is constantly roving throughout the courtroom, panning and tilting around the frame to guide the viewers’ attention and pushing into the English characters’ faces to boldly emphasize their intimidating strength. Dreyer exclusively holds on Falconetti’s close-up repeatedly with the same frame size, subliminally conveying her resolute faith in God.

Dreyer makes up visually for what he loses in his minimalist mise-en-scene by using a sharp editing style, which resembles how filmmakers cut their films today. He uses multiple close-ups from different angles and multiple reaction shots, which control the pacing of the scenes. In fact, if I didn’t know about the film it could pass for one of those modern films shot in the style of old silent pictures – like the Lumiere Bros’ omnibus film or the opening sequence of PTA’s Magnolia.

It’s obvious that The Passion of Joan of Arc works well as a metaphor for the Christian crucifixion. And anyone who's seen both this and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ will see the heavy influence, with Gibson paying direct homage by borrowing the 'Passion' from the title.

Dreyer’s lasting message is more secular than Gibson's. If you’ve ever felt doubt in yourself, or loneliness or questioned your faith in something you believe in, The Passion of Joan of Arc is as good a remedy as any confession.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Unforgiven

Unforgiven (1992) dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher

***½

By Alan Bacchus

This was the career turning point for Mr. Eastwood after two decades of decent, though ultimately unmemorable, feature films. From Play Misty for Me to The Rookie, Clint had made 15 films, but none with the power and gravitas of Unforgiven.

Much like the story of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the script for Unforgiven was one Eastwood optioned in the early ‘80s, but he didn’t make the film until he was old enough to play the lead role. He knew the importance of the film for the genre and in his career, so timing would be the key to its success. After a decade of only a handful of Westerns and with the new decade starting with the revisionist Western and multi-Oscar winner Dances With Wolves, perhaps it signaled that this was the right time for Unforgiven. And perhaps it was also Eastwood's self-acknowledged maturity in Hollywood that indicated it was time.

Acclaimed as a watershed film of the genre, a Western that ‘demystified’ the myths of the era and the tropes of the genre, Unforgiven is a violent, angry film about a former gunslinger’s journey of atonement through the hit job from a group of women prostitutes avenging the brutal disfigurement of one of their own. Back in 1992 I admired the film, but it was no masterpiece. 20 years later, I’m still of the same thought. The fact is it's not really a landmark film. Sam Peckinpah’s whole career demystified the genre, as did idiosyncratic efforts from Robert Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller). These films showed, as Unforgiven does, the frontier as anti-romantic and unheroic.

Unforgiven works best as a razor sharp revenge story, playing into and around the familiar themes, characters and ‘rules’ of the genre. As William Munny, Eastwood is deified as a rogue family man caring for his family on his ranch. His wife is not present, but he has two kids. When approached about doing a hit job on a group of nefarious troglodytes, who, in a fit of rage, cut up a poor town whore, Munny reluctantly accepts, internally conflicted based on a past with details that are unclear but point to a ‘history of violence’.

In town, the prostitutes are sick of the ill treatment from their boorish male superiors, specifically their despicable ‘owner’, who claims to have lost potential earnings from the disfigurement and demands ‘repayment’ from the perpetrators. Gene Hackman’s character, the town sheriff Little Bill Hackett, is complex. While he’s positioned as Munny’s chief antagonist, he’s at first shown, like Munny, as a humble family man, tending to his handcrafted home and reluctantly pulled into adjudicating the matter at the whorehouse. Gradually, when the cards are placed on the table, he sides against the moral right and thus comes to odds with Munny, the vengeful killer.

The film ends with one of the genre’s great scenes, the dramatic rain soaked confrontation between Munny and Little Bill. It’s a stand-off as tense as any duel in Western cinema. The rich cinematography of Clint’s then go-to man, Jack N. Green, is key to creating the atmosphere of fear and violence in that room at that moment.

This is why Unforgiven should be cherished as a simple, well told genre film from a venerable old master.

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

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Easy Money

Easy Money (2010) dir. Daniel Espinoza
Starring:Joel Kinnaman, Matias Padin Varela, Dragomir Mrsic

***

By Alan Bacchus

Did you see Safe House this weekend? Well, the job that got director Daniel Espinoza the gig was probably his home spun Swedish thriller Easy Money, which premiered at TIFF 2010 and was repped by the Weinstein company.

Jorge is a Spanish-speaking immigrant who has recently escaped from prison and reunited with his pal and partner-in-crime. In conflict with Jorge is Mrado, part of an Eastern European mob with whom he has a beef in the competitive underground cocaine syndicate. The only Swede of the bunch is JW, a ladder-climbing university student secretly working as a cabbie in order to afford the expensive suits and other high-class accoutrements it takes to get in with the rich kids he idolizes. When presented with an opportunity to make some really big money, JW finds himself caught in the cocaine drug war between Jorge and Mrado.

Espinoza’s treatment of crime is in the world of Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet and Animal Kingdom version of cinema, a world treated with realism and characters painted with various shades of grey. Heroes and villains aren’t so easy to define. Espinoza is clever to subvert our expectations and shift around his heroes and villains, double-back on his characters and reveal realistic motivations for everyone involved.

The common denominator of the three characters is the desperate need for survival and the desire for security and success. For JW, it’s his need to escape the life of poverty from his childhood. For Mrado, it’s his young daughter he finds himself protecting. And Jorge’s sister and newborn niece prompt him to re-evaluate his priorities.

Each of the fine actors playing the roles brings freshness, deep commitment and an inhabitation of their characters. Dragomir Mrsic as Mrado gives the best performance, and his best scene is a touching car ride confession after he has taken custody of his daughter. In this scene he reveals the abuse he received from his father, which caused him to become the hardened criminal he is today.

The social realism visual effect is laid on thick – too thick, perhaps. The handheld camerawork is a given in these types of stories now, but Espinoza shoots his characters so tight all the time that the film is essentially a series of close-ups. As a result, the director loses the power of this cinematic tool.

With everything presented as a close-up, the world is too closed in visually, barely allowing us time to breathe. Consequently, Espinoza’s realism dies out towards the end and is replaced by heightened melodrama. The double-crosses, betrayals and bloody sacrifices of brotherhood in the third act take us into a less satisfactory sensationalized crime genre. Espinoza does leave us with one last fantastic scene before he cuts to black. It’s a terrific bookend to the opening scene, which completes JW’s dramatic arc in grand fashion.

Missing


Missing (1982) dir. Costa-Gavras
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemmon, John Shea, Melanie Mayron

***

By Alan Bacchus

Quick, name the Palm D’Or winner from 1982… You’re right, it’s Missing, Costa-Gavras’ American-made political drama. It also nabbed Lemmon a Best Actor trophy at Cannes and three of the major Oscar nominations that year – Best Actor, Actress and Picture. Until its Criterion Collection coronation on DVD a couple of years ago, it was a classic ‘missing’ from DVD shelves for years.

Unfortunately, the integrity of the film and its political message trumps its entertainment aspects. While there’s a passionate desire for truth, a slow pace and truncated narrative structure make it more an admirable venture then great cinema.

Before Oliver Stone, Costa-Gavras was perhaps cinema’s best known and most experienced political dramatist. Unlike Stone, Costa-Gavras is not so much a provocateur as a truth seeker. In Z with uninhibited anger he dramatizes the unjust murder and cover-up of a disguised version of assassinated Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis.

In Missing, like Z, we never know the location of the story, but subtle clues tell us it’s Chile and an indictment of Augusto Pinochet’s military junta rule. John Shea and Sissy Spacek play Charles and Beth Horman, newlyweds who have chosen to live in the unnamed volatile South American country to get closer to the political pulse of this hot button region. One day the military presence is suddenly heightened and before they realize it the government has been taken over in a military coup. And then out of the blue Charles disappears – snatched from his home in the middle of the night.

Enter Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon), Charles’ father, who arrives in town on a mission for answers and to ensure a forthright investigation by the American consulate. When the Americans present a standoffish front, Ed takes it upon himself to lead the investigation. And so Beth and Ed become an unlikely team – Beth, the young leftist radical, and Ed, the elderly conservative father. Together they uncover clear American culpability in Horman’s disappearance as a pawn of appeasement for their participation in the coup.

Despite the political procedural details, Missing is at heart a picture about the two people who get to know each other amidst the cloud (or fog) of war. As a showcase for Lemmon Missing is a triumph, as the film is so heavily weighted to his performance. Costa-Gavras even delays this satisfaction until the second act after a lengthy and tedious opening act before Horman disappears and Lemmon enters the picture.

From then on Jack Lemmon owns the film.

His performance, like a couple of his other great late-career serious roles (The China Syndrome and Glengarry Glen Ross) is magnetic and electrifying. His glances and small mannerisms are the stuff of acting royalty. I can think of only a handful of actors with this kind of presence and power.

The actual narrative details, the movements from A to B to C and the political revelations aren’t as profound as they may have been in 1982. American participation in military coups is not even contested anymore – they are an accepted fact of their Machiavellian roles in world politics. And so the film leads to where we expect it to go, thus reducing its controversial power.

But Missing is still a film to be rediscovered merely for the presence of Jack Lemmon, one of the greatest actors ever, in an amazing Brando-worthy performance that is rarely seen and discussed today.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Moment of Truth

The Moment of Truth (1965) dir. Francesco Rosi
Starring: Miguel Mateo 'Miguelín', Linda Christian, Pedro Basauri

***½

By Greg Klymkiw

It's probably a "cultural thang", but I just don't get bullfighting. It's a vicious, cruel and morally reprehensible "sport" (if you can even call it that) that involves teasing, torturing, then murdering a bull for the enjoyment of blood-lusting plebes (I include the "elite" here too) in mostly Spanish-speaking countries. Actually, I'll go further - call it ethnocentric or even racist if you will (and I will care less) - but anyone who would engage actively or enjoy watching this odious "art" (if you can even call it that) has got to have something seriously wrong with them. Yes, I'm aware of bullfighting's historical "importance" to Spanish "culture" (if you can even call it that), but why and how this crime against animals can continue in this day and age is beyond me.

And yes, I consider the teasing, torturing and wanton slaughter of animals a crime. Just because it's "cultural" doesn't mean reasonable, thinking people must accept its existence.

There is a long tradition of bullfighting movies; the most well-known being the various versions of Blood and Sand (most notably the silent 1922 Rudolf Valentino version and Rouben Mamoulian's 1941 effort for Fox) and Budd Boetticher's studio butchered and recently restored The Bullfighter and the Lady. The above films are not without merit as films, but none of them can hold a candle to Francesco Rosi's The Moment of Truth.

I hate this movie, BUT The Moment of Truth is important on three fronts. First of all, it's dazzling filmmaking. Secondly, it reflects the society and politics of Spain in the 1960s in ways that also shed light on the macho-blood-lust culture that would so proudly continue to extol the virtues of this heinous activity. Finally, it is an exquisite addition to the canon of the brilliant Italian director Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, Hands Over the City, The Mattei Affair, Lucky Luciano) and, in fact, is a perfect melding of his Neo-realist and operatic tendencies (and influences).

The movie does not glorify bullfighting, but rather, it takes a no-holds-barred look at the entire world of the "sport/art" - behind the scenes and in the public spotlight. Rosi's film charts the rise of bullfighter Miguel Mateo 'Miguelín', an aimless young man who desperately seeks a better life and painstakingly learns the bullfighting ropes and rises to the top of the game. In spite of his stardom, he's still a simple country boy at heart and his handlers push him to ever-dangerous heights - exploiting him with absolutely no regard for his well-being. Miguel kills the bulls, but the men of influence kill his spirit and, in so doing, further feed the the centuries-old blood-lust of the "people".

Rosi's mise-en-scène is phenomenal. Attacking the tale with a mixture of classical, yet baroque shots reminiscent of his mentor Luchino Visconti, yet training his eye on the proceedings as a neo-realist storyteller and documentarian, this is a film that clearly springs from the loins of a born filmmaker. Sequences involving the running of bulls through the streets as their hides are pierced with ribbon-adorned harpoons, the dank basement of the bullring where Migeulin is trained by retired bullfighter Pedrucho (Pedro Basauri), the dusty rings themselves - surrounded by hordes of slavering, blood-crazed fans - these images are clearly unforgettable and, most importantly, are the real thing.

When we see fear in Migeulin's eyes as he faces an angry, snorting bull, this is not acting - it's the real thing. No rear-screen projection or opticals a la Blood and Sand are used here. It's real bullfighters, real swords, real gorings and real bulls.

While it is clear that Rosi's intent is to expose the macho myths of this world, I still find it sickening to watch. Even though it's SUPPOSED to be sickening, having to watch it is not unlike what it must be for non-pedophiles to watch real kiddie porn. Filmmakers who must take horrendous things to extremes in order to expose truth (like Kubrick, Pasolini, Scorsese, Friedkin etc.) do so within the realm of recreating violence. In The Moment of Truth, violence, pain and suffering happen for real and Rosi captures it on film with all the power and panache one would expect from a great filmmaker.

For Rosi to tell this story and explore the theme of the violent exploitation of man and beast - for him to break-down the perverse sense of masculinity that infuses the lives of those on both sides of the bullfighting world - he must, like all great artists avoid any sense of morality that will interfere with the horrors he seeks to display.

I understand this, but it doesn't mean I have to like it.

The most upsetting thing is seeing animals being teased painfully with the harpoons and to witness these beasts actually being stuck with swords, to watch - mouth agape - as real blood gushes out of these poor animals and worst of all, to bear witness to these animals having their spinal columns crushed with the cold steel of the torero's sword (and see even more blood gushing out of thee animals) is, frankly, more sickening than watching the re-created scourging and crucifixion of Our Lord in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

In spite of my revulsion, I cannot deny that Rosi is at the top of his game here. This is brave and brilliant filmmaking. However, in order to expose exploitation, Rosi must also exploit his human and animal subjects. It's even more detestable that he focuses his camera so astoundingly and unflinchingly upon the balletic grace with which the bullfighters taunt their quarry and then kill it.

There's no two ways about it.

I admire this film and I respect it.

I also hate it and wish it had never been made.

"The Moment of Truth" is available on an exquisitely mastered Bluray on the Criterion Collection - a widescreen Technicolor print that's a perfect example of a terrible beauty. The release includes a new English subtitle translation, a handsome booklet and an interview with Rosi himself.



Thursday, 9 February 2012

Wings

Wings (1927) dir. William Wellman
Starring: Clara Bow, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen and Gary Cooper

****

By Alan Bacchus

Renowned for being the first ever ‘Best Picture’ Oscar winner at the Academy’s inaugural awards ceremony in 1928, this film gets its Blu-ray debut 85 years later. Perhaps it’s timed with the success and acclaim of The Artist and, alas, the release of Red Tails (sad, but true). Wings, however, deserves much more than the minor historical significance of its Oscar win, as it’s one of the greatest film spectacles of all time and one of the greatest war films ever made.

Jack Powell (Rogers) and David Armstrong (Arlen) are chums from a small town, friends but also rivals, who compete for the same local hottie, Sylie. While Jack is ogling Sylie he fails to acknowledge the affections of his neighbour, Mary (Clara Bow!). Once word arrives of America’s involvement in the War (WWI), like all boys their age Jack and David quickly sign up, leaving both gals at home. The boys join the Air Service as pilots, trained in dog fighting against the German Air Service and the likes of the Red Baron.

The film takes us through some of the traditional stages of war combat, including basic training, the fun experiences during R&R and, of course, hardcore wartime combat.

As produced by Lucien Hubbard with a $2 million budget (then, ENORMOUS), every aspect of the production is huge. As for the combat, Wings is untouchable for its awesome aerial sequences. Through some great hustling by Hubbard and the Paramount execs the production received full cooperation from the US military, including use of their air force base, planes, men and weapons. The result is some of the most authentic, exciting, visceral and visually spectacular war action scenes we’ve ever seen on film.

In the air, cameras capture the actual actors in real bi-planes. With no rear projection, green screen or CGI, Wings spares no expense for realism, and the effect is more effective than anything of its equivalent produced today.

On the ground, Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton’s script anchors the film in a melodramatic, but no less tragic and triumphant, human story. The two friends are torn apart by their love of the same girl and by Mary’s desperate plea for attention from Jack. The final act is almost Shakespearean in its tragedy. After the monumentally epic Battle of St. Michel, David is shot down behind enemy lines and presumed dead. But when he escapes and commandeers a German plane he comes face to face in the air with his best friend, who, in the most tragic of ironies, is hell bent on avenging David’s death. The final moments between the two friends are truly heartbreaking and bordering on homo-erotic (but I won’t go there).

Other than the Oscar, Wings is notable for its influence on George Lucas in cutting Star Wars, not only in the choreography of the Millennium Falcon-Tie Fighter battle, but actually using footage from Wings as temp cuts before his special effects were finished. And I doubt any filmmaker making a war film about aerial combat hasn’t referenced Wings or used the film as a yardstick.

The new Paramount Blu-ray special edition is a decent package, featuring two soundtracks, a completely new track with new music, and sound effects created by Ben Burtt, as well as a traditional organ music track one would have heard back in the day. Either version is fine and doesn’t significantly alter the superlative experience of the film.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Armored Car Robbery

Armored Car Robbery (1950) dir. Richard Fleischer
Starring: Charles McGraw, William Talman, Adele Jergens, Douglas Fowley

**½

By Alan Bacchus

Old Hollywood b-movies were never shy about using extremely literal titles to tell audiences exactly what to expect. This one is perhaps the most literal of noir pictures I’ve seen.


Indeed, Armored Car Robbery is about an armed car robbery. William Talman is Walter Purvis, the mastermind of a new heist job, which, if all goes right, will make him and his buddies rich. Purvis is tough as nails and like clockwork in his method. But the job doesn’t go quite right, and one of the gunmen, Benny, is shot and injured. Despite Benny’s pleas he can’t go to a hospital, and after a confrontation he is shot and killed.

With Benny found dead it gives the cops the one lead to track down Purvis and the money. A cat-and-mouse chase between cops and robbers ensues with a buxom stripper named Yvonne Le Doux at the centre of it all.

Armored Car Robbery works best as an iron clad procedural in the tradition of the crime work of Michael Mann. In fact, the rhythm and construction of the police investigation with the perps' escape recalls the Pacino/De Niro dynamic in Heat. On the side of the cops is the equally ruthless hardliner, Lt. Cordell (Charles McGraw), who, like Pacino’s character, commands his troops and analyzes the evidence with workmanlike efficiency.

But let’s not aggrandize this film too much. Heat this is not, nor is it M or High and Low, the two essential classics of the procedural genre. In Armed Car Robbery we’re never quite sure who to root for. Most often in heist films we cheer for the robbers, who often steal for a purpose other than just money, or because they are charming or charismatic. Purvis is no hero – not even an anti-hero – and thus, we never really feel any warmth or attraction to him. Is it the cops? Do we want the cops to catch the thief? Unfortunately, Lt. Cordell is thinly drawn and not much deeper than a mere characterization of a cop instead of a hero with a journey.

As such, this noir is simply an exercise in style – a series of crafty set pieces choreographed and directed with considerable flare by director Richard Fleischer, who is certainly no hack. He would later go on to a successful career of populist entertaining classics such as the Fantastic Voyage, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Soylent Green and even all the way up to 1984’s Conan the Destroyer.

Armored Car Robbery is available in the Film Noir Collection Vol 5. from Warner Bros Home Video.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas


A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas (2011) dir. Todd Strauss-Schulson
Starring: Kal Penn, John Cho, Elias Koteas, Neil Patrick Harris

***

By Alan Bacchus

We're into the third entry in this series, a time when characters are usually farmed out to cheaper actors to accommodate lower budgets and the straight-to-video market. But this series seems to be improving with each new film proving that Harold and Kumar is one of the more surprisingly venerable comic franchises.

This film justly satisfies the requirements established in the previous two films. Returning are the two buddies and former roommates that form an odd couple scenario – Harold (Cho) is the conservative one, a Korean-American family man who is at odds with his pot smoking, med school drop-out, Indo-American friend, Kumar (Penn).

The film revels in shocking us with outrageous behaviour. Drug use is, of course, front and centre, and it’s not just weed and bongs. Even cocaine is featured with fun-loving humour. There are fewer cultural jokes than usual, the kind that play into the stereotypes of Koreans and Indians as overachieving academic math and tech wizzes. And we don't really miss those jokes, as it seems the franchise has successfully 'matured' from its slight concept into a series anchored by its likeable characters and perfectly cast comic duo.

This was a 3D film in theatres, and on Blu-ray, of course, it's 2D. But we can still laugh at the self-acknowledgement of the technology and all those sticks, eggs, candy canes, cocks and other debris shamelessly shoved in our faces for an exaggerated 3D effect.

As for the 'story', Harold and Kumar's new adventure has them gallivanting around town on Christmas Eve looking for the perfect tree to replace Harold's valued family tree, which they destroyed in a fire. A couple of tag-along characters, Kumar's douche bag buddy and Harold’s ultra-conservative neighbour, add some freshness. Along the way the neighbour's baby gets doused in cocaine and spends the rest of the film on a twitchy coke high. Ukrainian gangsters also come into play, as do Harold and Kumar's respective wife and girlfriend, who provide the requisite closure to their personal journey of self-realization.

A surprisingly enjoyable raunchy comedy, the Harold and Kumar franchise continues to satisfy and provide dumb laughs through its unintentionally endearing characters.

A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.