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

Friday, 30 March 2012

Clash of the Titans

Clash of the Titans (1981) dir. Desmond Davis
Starring: Harry Hamlin, Lawrence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Judi Bowker, Burgess Meredith

***

By Alan Bacchus

First of all, let me give you some context. I saw Clash of the Titans at the age of 6 in theatre, and being a youngster of such an impressionable age the film has stuck with me as a seminal part of my childhood.

Though my memories of the viewing experience are sketchy, I do remember, even at a young age, noticing the sloppiness of its special effects. After all, I had already seen Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Superman in the theatre and so even back then I could discern that those hand cranked special effects weren’t up to snuff compare to those other films. But I also recall that not distracting me from the enjoyment of the film.

Though made in 1981, Ray Harryhausen managed to make a film which looked and felt like one of his adventure classics from the 50’s and 60’s – Jason & the Argonauts as the more directly comparable.

Watching it after all these years confirms my impressions as a child. Harryhausen’s use of stop motion combined with matte and model photograph results in many of the same familiar compositions to used in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ or the ‘Seven Voyages of Sinbad’ – sectioning off the frame into two halves, one for the live action and the other for the stop motion.

While these moments aren’t neatly sewn into the fabric of the live action as CG graphics can do in today’s films, or even how Dennis Muren did back in the late 70’s early 80’s with the more expensive effects films, there’s an unmistakable pleasure in watching Harryhausen’s work. The movement of stop motion has always marvelled me because it’s a hybrid of traditional animation, and live action. Unlike CG the creatures created in stop motion are tangible three-dimensional objects with texture and grain and our eyes recognize this no matter how jerky it may be.

The film also features some admittedly awful worst blue screening. The scenes of Poseidon unleashing the Kraken for instance features a no frills superimposition of Jack Gwillim laid over an underwater shot of a gate opening. Bad matting lines can be seen surrounding the actor, who is shrunken into a tiny corner of the frame, In hindsight, these moments we have no problem forgiving as b-movie pastiche and nostalgia.

Despite the humour camp, there’s actually some solid fantasy storytelling at work. By following closely the Perseus myth, it's difficult to go wrong.

In the opening Perseus (Harry Hamlin) who was the favoured half-human, half-God son of Zeus (Lawrence Olivier), is saved from ritual slaughter at young age by Zeus and brought up under protection of himself and the other Gods of Olympus. But when Thetis (Maggie Smith) requests that her own earth-bound son Calibos be forgiven for his crimes and spared punishment, Zeus denies her and deforms the once handsome hero into a grotesque beast. This sets off a conflict between Zeus and Thetis with Perseus caught in the middle. Perseus finds himself armed with heavenly weaponry from the gods which he uses to fight off Cerebus, giant scorpions, Medusa, The Kraken and his arch enemy Calibos in order to save the girl.

Calibos for instance makes for a wonderful villain. We never see him as a handsome man, just the beast form, but considering the fact that he used to be engaged to Perseus’ new love Andromeda, Calibos’ goals and desires are deepened further than being a mere beastly villain.

The Greek violence is especially brutal – again, Calibos takes much of damage specifically when Perseus chops off his hand as an offering to Andromeda – now THAT’S cruel! The truly magnificent Medusa scene generates some spine-tingling suspense, ends with a nasty head chopping and some fun blood oozing from her dead corpse.

The acting collective all appear to be having fun with their roles. Lawrence Olivier as Zeus is both paternal and egotistical. Same with Thetis as played by Maggie Smith. The fate of her son is tragic from her point of view we understand her desire punish Zeus through Perseus and Andromeda.

Under direction of Desmond Davis and producer Charles Schneer Clash of the Titans showcases best Harryhausen’s innate skills in cinematic spectacle, in what turns out to be one of the better 80's fantasy movies.

"Clash of the Titans" is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Casablanca

Casablanca (1942) dir. Michael Curtiz
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt

****

By Alan Bacchus

This is my favourite movie of all time, the zenith of Hollywood studio system, a war time romance, pot boiling noir and razor sharp thriller all rolled into one, crafted to perfection with one of the greatest screenplays of all time. It’s also the culmination of the creative skills of one of the great directors of all time, Michael Curtiz, a shamefully unheralded genius, a rare studio-era auteur whose influence spread for decades into the work of pulp masters like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

It was also the launching film for Humphrey Bogart, who, before then, was a primarily a character actor, playing second bill heavies, supporting more notorious thugs like James Cagney. Here Curtiz takes a chance on Bogie as brooding anti-hero and romantic leading man. He plays Rick Blaine, owner of Rick’s a popular club in Casablanca (Morocco) a port city known for exporting anti-Nazi resistence spies. But Rick’s there because he’s escaped his own persecution in other parts of the world, as well as a failed relationship with his former fling. Once burned twice shy, now ‘he sticks his neck out for nobody.’

Then, of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, in walks Isla Lund (Bergman), his former flame with her Residence hero husband Victor Laszlo (Henreid), looking to buy letters of transit which would send them abroad in safety. The Nazi thug Major Strasser (Veidt) and the Casablanca chief of police Capt Renault (Rains) know this and tries to intercept. With Rick in the middle, and torn between his rekindled love affair and his innate desire to fight against oppression, he’s forced to make a crucial decision, leave with Ilsa or give up the letters to Laszlo. This decision,  choose selfishg love, or sacrifice for the good of the world, becomes one of cinema’s great surprise endings.
Plenty of analysis has done on Julius and Philip Epstein’s legendary screenplay. It’s perhaps rivalled only by Chinatown for it’s structural perfection, like the Parthanon of screenplays. Michael Curtiz’s direction is even sharper and to the point. Watch his editing, and punctuation scenes, his brilliant montage scenes and pacing of action. The opening sequence is magnificence, powered by the pulsing Max Steiner score, Curtiz throws us into the fast paced, multi-cultural world of urban Casablanca. Few films kickstart with a better bang than this.

Curtiz's mastery of the visual cinema language is on the level of all the revered masters of the era – Ford, Welles and Hitchcock. His camerawork is unmistakable. The master of the dolly shot, but always motivated  by the movement of his actors. But since Curtiz loved to move his camera, it meant his actors were constantly in motion, criss crossing the frame in the foreground and background to create the elaborate choreography on screen. His lighting represents the best of early studio noir. His use of shadows is a hallmark as well – often framing the shadows of his characters to convey the secretic world of the covert activities.

The awesome new Warner Blu-Ray boxset commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the film is chock full of goodness. In fact before even before I popped in the Blu-Ray of the actual film I watched the accompanying documentary: Michael Curtiz: The Best Director You’ve Never Heard Of. The comprehensive chronicle of his career confirms everything I love about the man, his artistic triumphs as well as his gruff cantankerous personality. The testimonial of Steven Spielberg alone, who owes as much to Curtiz as he does to Ford, is perhaps the greatest compliment to the man.

Casablanca 70th Anniversary Box Set is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment

I also suggest going through Michael Curtiz's great body of work to discover some great films made in the style of Casablanca, such as:

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
The Sea Hawk (1940)
Mildred Pierce (1945)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
The Sea Wolf (1941)
Flamingo Road (1949)
Young Man With a Horn (1950)

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Red Riding Trilogy

Red Riding Trilogy (2009) dir. Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker
Starring: Andrew Garfield, David Morrissey, Paddy Considine, Warren Clarke, Rebecca Hall, Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan

***½

By Alan Bacchus

David Peace’s novels The Red Riding Quartet published between 1999 and 2002 looks to be Britain’s equivalent to the Millennium trilogy. Police corruption, sicko psychopathic serial killer stuff, dead children, period UK politics all contribute to three robust investigative thrillers in which the whole adds up to be greater than the sum of its parts.

The series, originally made for UK Television by Andrew Eaton's (and Michael Winterbottom’s) Revolution Films, saw a brief US theatrical run before arriving straight to DVD a couple years ago. Each film is shot by a different director, and set in three different time periods 1974 (dir. Julian ‘Becoming Jane’ Jarrold), 1980 (dir. James ‘Man on Wire’ Marsh) and 1983 (dir. Anand ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ Tucker). The common creative thread other than the producer is writer Tony Grisoni, a seasoned screenwriter known for his collaborations with Terry Gilliam. No surrealism here though, it’s a straight forward procedural set around the real life Yorkshire Ripper case, a noirish Chinatown feel under the modern serial killer genre.

The series opens in 1974, with a young journalist (Andrew Garfield) from ‘The South’ (that is, the affluent upper class London) coming back North to Yorkshire to do an investigative piece on a particularly grisly series of murders involving young kids found murdered with swan wings stitched to their backs. Ick. What starts out as a simple case unfolds revealing more sinister elements that connects to a wide network of corruption involving the Yorkshire Police and a local nefarious businessman.

Garfield does his Jake Gittes performance, engaging in an illicit steamy relationship with a damaged victim, Rebecca Hall who is the Faye Dunaway character. Garfield’s character, like Gittes, is a glutton for punishment, as the deeper he gets into the case the more beatings he takes. Throughout the picture, his hands, face and arms get smashed in, and his balls crushed twice. There’s also no less than three love scenes with Hall.

The three filmmakers seem have to been encouraged to have their own look and style applied to each picture. And in the case of 1974, director Jarrold's forced 70's look unfortunately becomes the biggest crutch on that film, employing a yellowish/brown filter look, difusing the contrast perhaps to enhance the feeling of other movies of that era but which unnecessarily distracts us from the film.

The second chapter is the best. James Marsh, who won an Oscar for the documentary Man on Wire, employs a more realistic visual approach. His doc skills show up in the opening which features intelligent use of stock footage to set the scene and tone for the six year jump from the first film. Paddy Considine turns in a better lead performance as well. He’s an internal affairs cop from the South sent up north to investigate a series of grisly rape/murders of local women. His sad eyes and honest facial features renders the even greater tragedy which befalls him with more resonance than the 1974 chapter.

The third episode features a lawyer (Mark Addy) once again going back into the case of the first film, and retracing the trail of corruption and deceit from the baddies who have been pulling the strings all these years. Tucker’s anamorphic cinematography, full of JJ Abrams lens flares, is the most cinematic of the bunch. It works to heighten the scope of the series and give the audience a bigger cinematic bang to the story.

All three Red Riding films combined manages to capture the best qualities of both the film and television mediums - the depth of character and situation which long form serialized television can bring forth, and the spectacle of the feature film medium. The trilogy leans more toward television though and thus, at the end of the entire venture we never feel truly moved by the machinations of Peace’s characters over this long period of time.

That said Grisoni does a fantastic job of laying ground work of plot, character and other details for the other films early on. When films 2 and 3 doubles back on itself to link up the actions of characters seen from different points of view, I found myself nodding in appreciation and wanting more.

Each separate film leaves us both with enough closure for it to become its own story and with the door open teasing us for what’s to come. The final resolution in Tucker's film however fails to elevate the series to another level of great storytelling and thus doesn’t quite fully satisfy our whetted appetite. Without spoiling anything, the A Plot of the murders is closed off but the political/economic angle B plot is left hanging. And not with an effectively open-ended tease, but a feeling that the writer just forgot about that angle of the story. It's a shame because the potential was in the filmmakers' grasp.

I can’t fully compare Red Riding to the Millenium Trilogy, having only seen parts one and two of the Swedish series. But I can tell already, the Larsson stories have a different kind of perversity. Both series feature ghastly crimes, but somehow the grisliness of Larsson’s saga are so sensationalized it produces an echo of cinematic fun not present (and missed) in Peace’s story. Regardless, it’s an ambitious effort on the part of these Brits which succeeds enough and thus deserves to be discovered on DVDs by television and true crime aficionados.

'The Red Riding Trilogy' is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) dir. Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
Starring: John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam

****

By Alan Bacchus

After watching this film countless times in my youth, I'll admit my once boisterous laughs have turned to much quieter chuckles. Thus I envy those young people who will be seeing this for the first time. The fact is, in my life, there are only a handful of films that produced as much riotous, gut-wrenching laughter as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The legendary comic troupe needs no introduction, featuring six men― John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam ― each with their own brand of comedy, working in complete harmony. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was their first original feature film, after the highly successful television series in the '60s/'70s and their first equally riotous sketch compilation feature, And Now For Something Completely Different.

The narrative is sketchy at best, inspired by the Arthurian tales, but it's just an excuse to string a bunch of new sketches together to lampoon the treasured medieval myth, dress up in period costumes and even mock their attempt to tell a legitimate story. Back then, the idea of breaking the fourth wall and self-referencing one's movie was ahead of its time. In the packaging of this new Blu-Ray edition and the previous DVD special edition, they've kept that theme going strong. Their cast commentaries are referred to as "Enlightening Commentaries by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, Plus General Complaints and Back-Biting by John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin." It's these throwaway gags that have kept the troupe relevant and fresh all these years.

The sketch-like plotting of the film means fresh new characters and gags constantly bombard us every minute. Leading the gang and playing Arthur is Graham Chapman, the most erudite of the bunch, who, as in The Life of Brian, often played the straight man to the more audacious antics of the others, thus underrating his contribution to the troupe's best bits. Some the more famous scenes include the "flesh wound" soldier, played by John Cleese; Eric Idle calling the townspeople to "bring out your dead"; the killer rabbit of Caerbannog; and the supremely silly failed Trojan Rabbit plan.

Not everything lands with a laugh. For what it's worth, I've never liked "the Knights who say, 'Ne'" gag, nor the three-headed knight. Much discussed in the Blu-Ray commentary is the arduous shoot, hampered by its low but ambitious budget. Gillam and Jones, however, executed some smart cinematic tricks to fool us, including some fine forced perspective work with the castles in the background, and for comedic purposes, using squires banging coconuts together instead of horses, resulting in one of the film's best gags. All of this information is conveyed to us in the mondo special features, with a mixture of informative reflection and irreverent silliness.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Monday, 26 March 2012

Unfaithful


Unfaithful (2002) dir. Adrian Lyne
Starring: Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Olivier Martinez

***½

By Alan Bacchus

After posting '9½ Weeks' last week, here's a reposting of Adrian Lyne's surprisingly good, well-directed 'Unfaithful'.

Few people talk about Adrian Lyne. He reminds me of Peter Weir, a talented and picky director with a slim but memorable output of films. Since the 80’s he’s only made 4 films, and in his later years it’s been at least five years between films: Indecent Proposal (1993), Lolita (1997), Unfaithful (2002).

In this, his latest (yes, he hasn't made a film since 2002), Diane Lane and Richard Gere play Connie and Ed Sumner, seemingly stabile, middle class parents living in the New York suburbs. One day while in Manhattan during a windstorm Connie's knocked off her feet injuring her leg. She is helped by a kindly and impossible handsome Frenchman Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez). Paul’s European charm is intoxicating to Connie and slowly she begins to see more of him until they blossom into a full-fledged affair.

Ed suspects something’s up and starts snooping around. Connie’s conscience starts eating away at her but before she decides to call it off Ed finds her out, which results in a violent confrontation. Lies compound upon other lies the effect of which will test Connie and Ed’s commitment to each other.

Lyne's jumping off point is Claude Charbol’s 1969 thriller, La Femme infidèle. Not having seen that film I can’t compare the two, but interviews with Lyne suggest it serves more as inspiration than a remake.

Lyne definitely makes Unfaithful his own - a deceptively clever spin on his 1986 classic Fatal Attraction (click HERE for that review). Both films are simple in plot, pulling suspense from three-way character dilemmas. In “Fatal Attraction” of course it’s the father character that is seduced and has to reconcile his actions with his family. Connie’s situation is much different though. Her conflict is internal. She desires to stop but is addicted to the Paul’s youth, exoticness and sensuality. Richard Gere as ‘the other man’ is against type and his character is deepened more Anne Archer’s other woman character. The third act twists the point of view sharply to Richard Gere. Ed’s actions and lies add a tense Hitchcockian edge which contrasts the soft and romantic beginnings.

Lyne smothers the film with a familiar 1980's soft look. It was a style common to all those British commercial directors in the 80's - Ridley Scott, Alan Parker, Tony Scott. Long lenses, smoke-filled interiors and lush backlighting create an almost fantasy-like look and feel. It works for Unfaithful, because Lyne closes off most of the outside world to his characters. Only in the end do the police come into the picture, but even then the decisions made by the characters are internal choices not induced by outside forces.

Lyne still hasn’t made a film since Unfaithful and so we just have to wait patiently for him to be inspired and surprise us once again. Enjoy.

“Unfaithful” is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Hunger Games

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

**

By Alan Bacchus

I knew two things about this film before going in: One, that it's the story of a group of teenagers thrown together in a forest-arena of sorts to fight out some kind of battle to the death; and two, that it originated from a series of books aimed at young adults. And assuming the target audience for the film would be those same young people, something just didn't add up. 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, grisly bloody and thus rated R?

Simple, you cheat the audience, and deliver a syropy and soft ultra light version of Battle Royale, the monumentally superior version of this story made in Japan in 2001.

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 those 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 wittled away as the film moves along.

A high concept like this requires bullet proof plotting and character motivations in order suspend our disbelief. If this can't be achieved filmmakers have a couple other options at their disposal. Tone, specifically humour, allows us to glance passed illogical plotholes. Most of the comparable films made in this genre are satircal. Battle Royale, for sure, had a sharp acerbic wit, 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 which 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. 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 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 ensuring 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, no panache, no flair, no excitement, avoiding bloodshed at 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' job more challenging - something he sadly fails at.

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 mentor, 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.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Raid Redemption

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

***½

By Alan Bacchus

The influence for this picture is clear, the final scene in John Woo’s Hard Boiled, the hospital scene, a 20mins long siege/blow out extravaganza of monumental proportions - often regarded as the greatest action sequence ever filmed. The Raid, the acclaimed actioner which wowed genre audiences at TIFF, Sundance and SXSW, takes inspiration from Woo’s final scene and applies it to his 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 simplicity of the set up is awesome. A Jakarta police Swat team raiding a Indonesian drug lord’s lair, a 30 story building inhabited by bad ass thugs, martial arts experts and whole lot of heavy machinery and fire power.

We become invested in two hero characters: Rama, 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, 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’s 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 and once everyone’s bullets run out, transitioning to 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 the Indonesia in their language. Clearly he knows in order to do an action film right these days, he has to do it in Asia with no holds barred.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Letter Never Sent

Letter Never Sent (1960) dir. Mikhail Kalatozov
Starring: Tatyana Samojlova, Yevgeni Urbansky, Innokenti Smoktunovsky, Vasili Livanov

****

By Alan Bacchus

Part of my own personal cinematic bucket list has been achieved with the release and viewing of this film. It comes from Mikhail Kalatozov, a master director virtually unknown by most of the cinematic world. It’s the second film in a remarkable trio of films, sandwiched between The Cranes Are Flying (1957) and I Am Cuba (1964), three pictures marked by a impassioned patriotic zeal, romanticized melodrama in the grandest form and virtostic camerawork unrivalled by few if anyone in cinema.

For decades, even being a Palme D’Or winner for The Cranes Are Flying, Kalatozov was off the cinematic radar, that is, until the rediscover of I Am Cuba by Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola and its restoration by Milestone Films in the 90’s. The discovery of that film was akin to finding a Federico Fellini, or Stanley Kubrick toiling away behind the iron curtain unknown to the West. Years later the Criterion Collection restored and released The Cranes Are Flying in 2001. Looking on Kalatozov’s filmography I knew of the Letter Never Sent, released in between these two pictures, which made its unavailability immensely frustrating. A few years ago a print of Letter played at the Tribeca Film Festival, but it still remained unavailable to the public at large - until now.

The film gloriously lives up to my own personal hype, resulting in an awesome cinematic experience as moving and astounding as say, Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a simple story of survival, four Russian geologists dropped off in remote Siberia digging for diamonds in hopes of discovering a repository of new wealth for the State at large. Kalatozov’s wideangled and mobile camera captures first the joys of discovery of the propective diamond mine and the horrors of nature's cruelty when the group gets lost in a rampaging forest fire.

All the while a love triangle brews within the group between Tanya (Samojlova) and her lover Andrei and the forlorn attraction of poor Sergei who desperately pines after Tanya. The juxtaposition of this interpersonal conflict against the background of the most harrowing of climates on earth is staggering. But at all times Kalatozov’s weighs the scales evenly between the human experience and the spectacle of the adventure.

The key set piece in the film is the awesome forest fire sequence. For about 20mins the foursome is forced to escape the KMs-long rampage of flames, a sequence marked by impossibly realistic set design and intense visual compositions and mise-en-scene.

Gradually the environment wittles the crew down to three, then two and then one. The final act is unbelievably harrowing and dramatic. The final two crew members huddling together to survive, with no food, no water, and blistering cold winds. There’s a death scene shot in this sequence that is so utterly emotional and sad. At this moment, it becomes just one person against nature in a sequence which has the remaining survivor drifting down a river on a log, virtually frozen, waiting for a miracle. The miracle that does arrive which pushes the film into the stratosphere.

Fans of Cranes and Cuba will find Letter Kalatozov’s least stylish in terms of camerawork. Some of the flashier moves, such as the spiral staircase shot in Cranes or the astonishing long takes in Cuba are mostly absent, but replaced by equally startling compositions against the stark Siberian backgrounds and elaborate choreography of his characters through the thick forest wilderness.

Part of Kalatozov’s modus operandi, which is perhaps why he was persona non grata for so many years, is the strong feelings of patriotism and support of the Soviet socialist agenda. There’s no doubt I Am Cuba is was made under strict propaganda rules. In the Letter Never Sent, the motivation of the four characters to succeed is firmly established for the good of the Soviet people as opposed to personal wealth. And never is there any conflict amongst the group for this. Regardless of one’s politics, their selfless devotion to their cause is so passionate we desperately want our heroes to live and survive.

A shame it took this long for most of the world to find the Letter Never Sent. There’s no doubt in my mind it should be considered one of the greatest adventure films ever made, and despite it’s mere 96min running time, an epic as grand conceptually and thematically as there’s ever been in cinema.

Letter Never Sent is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2009) dir. Alex Gibney
Documentary

By Alan Bacchus

***

I’m only a casual follower of American politics and know very little of the complex system of the lobbying wherein third party organizations hire non-governmental third party firms to pressure members of Congress into voting and passing Bills, thus affecting the policies of the nation. Casino Jack attempts to make sense of this system so reliant on money and thus susceptible to corruption by telling the story of Jack Abramoff, the king of the lobbyists, who was famously indicted and served time for fraud.

It’s no surprise this is a Republican story. When it comes to political controversy, for Democrats it always seems to be sex scandals and for Republicans it’s always about money. As the most aggressively free market country in the world, success in business seems to go to those who can push the moral and ethical edge to the max in order to squeeze as much money out of the system.

Jack Abramoff squeezed a lot, and it’s a head-spinning first hour of information thrown at us. Like All the President’s Men or even that lengthy speech by Donald Sutherland in the middle of Oliver Stone’s JFK, Alex Gibney bombards us with names of lobbyists, politicians, dollar figures and organization names that Abramoff used to move money from place to place in exchange for political favours.

The title refers to Abramoff’s association with Native American Casinos, which he exploited in order to cheat and swindle millions of dollars out of the entitlement of these native reserves. Abramoff seemed to scour the world for loopholes to exploit, including supporting sweatshop manufacturing operations in the unregulated US commonwealth nation of Saipan.

Casino Jack produces the same effect as watching Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job or even Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, as they all simplify the complexities of white collar crimes. Casino Jack arrives on DVD at the same time as the release of the dramatic version of this story, starring Kevin Spacey and directed by former documentarian George Hickenlooper (who sadly died last year). There’s enough special features to add even more context and information, as if we didn’t get enough in the actual film. Unfortunately, we’re also given a rather large pitch for ‘Take Part’, an advocate group against these heinous lobbying practices. It’s an important cause, but ironically we feel as if we’re being lobbied to ourselves by watching this DVD.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

9½ Weeks

9½ Weeks (1984) dir. Adrian Lyne
Starring: Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke

**½

By Alan Bacchus

The career of Adrian Lyne fascinates me. He's a man of immense cinematic talent, who has made some of recent cinema’s most recognizable films. Whether it’s boiling Michael Douglas’s cat or having a barrel of water dumped over Jennifer Beals, Lyne has a knack for iconic imagery. And in 30+ years, despite many hits, he’s made only 8 feature films.

Lyne, of course, was part of the new wave of British commercial directors of the '70s, which included Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and Alan Parker, celebrated for their stylish lighting and moody atmospheric visuals. Lyne’s visual style is unmistakable and remarkably consistent over all his films. Looking back on his work, he’s also a filmmaker who has improved and matured considerably since his first two successes, Flashdance and the topic of this piece, 9½ Weeks.

As a curious seven-year-old, this film's reputation preceded itself. I never saw it as a child, only heard about the rumours of salacious sex scenes, nudity, etc. That said, I’m not surprised to be disappointed that the film is significantly less salacious than expected. There’s actually very little nudity and the sex scenes are so stylized and melodramatic it’s almost laughable. There’s also very little holding this film together other than the softcore pornographic plotting of a hip New York art gallery administrator (Basinger) who shacks up with an aloof Wall Street banker (Rourke) for nine-and-a-half weeks. I imagine it was pitched as Last Tango in Paris for the '80s, right down to the use of the city as a character and a sexy food sequence. But sadly, it’s merely a handsome piece of fluff, interesting to view only in the context of Lyne's career and its place in the creation of '80s pop culture.

The food sequence is probably the most recognizable scene, wherein Mickey Rourke feeds syrupy liquids to Kim Basinger, not so subtly mimicking the excretion of our sexual bodily fluids. It's the stuff out of The Red Shoe Diaries. This is no coincidence, mind you, as the film was written and produced by that czar of soft core filmmaking, Zalman King.

The entire film would be as completely laughable as The Red Shoe Diaries if it wasn't so well directed by Lyne. The fact is, 9½ Weeks exemplifies the 1980's visual aesthetic as well as anything filmed in that era. Mickey Rourke's awesome stand-up hair is rivaled only by Val Kilmer's Ice Man cut in Top Gun, and Kim Basinger's messy blonde locks are also seductive as hell. Lyne’s visual hallmarks are front and centre. His colour schemes consist of bone white tones representing the polished but soulless lifestyle of Mickey Rourke's character. The intense backlighting gives his characters a beautiful halo-like glow, and the use of long lenses creates dense and rich visual compositions.

The other grossly exaggerated scene is Basinger's backlit strip tease sequence, a ridiculously long music video sequence to the music of Joe Cocker. Instead of being teased I just couldn’t help but think where the hell that enormous backlight in the apartment was coming from. Nearly as ridiculous is the chase scene with a couple of frat boy homophobes resulting in a hand-to-hand fight scene in front of a backlit wind turbine in a rainstorm.

Adrian Lyne would go on to make much better films, including Fatal Attraction, Jacob’s Ladder and Unfaithful. These were all successful films, and yet he hasn’t made one since 2002’s Unfaithful. Maybe he’s hard to work with, or maybe he’s just picky and respects his own legacy as a commercial auteur and provocateur. Either way, there's some admiration in having a near pristine filmography of quality films (even including 9½ Weeks).

9½ Weeks is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Despite being completely dumbfounded by the murky-to-the-point-of-nauseating narrative obscurity of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the film stayed with me, lingering for weeks like an itch I couldn’t scratch before I was compelled to see it again. Tinker Tailor is kind of addictive – a puzzle likely never to be solved, but so utterly compelling we don’t need to understand everything.

Alfredson’s long lenses, which subliminally make us feel like we’re silently looking over the shoulders of his characters, allow him to feel the delicateness of all the proceedings. The Cold War spy games in this case mean finding a mole that may or may not be placed at the top of the British intelligence community – specifically the 'Circus', a subcommittee of nervous British spies headed by a very anxious man named Control (John Hurt).

Alfredson effortlessly moves us back and forth in time, to the point of complete temporal confusion. And by adding the possibility of tactics of counter-intelligence, that is false information planted by competing spies to sniff out double-agents, the machinations becomes dizzying.

The performances of the characters are so compelling, even though we may not get the details (or the big picture), the emotional stakes are real. Mark Strong, for instance, who seems to be playing the heavy in every picture these days, is given a very tender role and a relationship with another character that may or may not be homosexual. Same with the remarkable Benedict Cumberbatch, who, while committing everything to the cause of finding the mole, is forced to give up something so vital to life, and it’s devastating to watch.

Gary Oldman glues all these great actors together without doing much other than holding his poker face and staying calm. His ability to keep his emotions out of the conflict results in a performance that is icy cold but heroic at the same time.

The editing of this picture is also remarkable. Dino Jonsater assembles Alfredson’s luscious imagery like one slow-moving montage scene. Jonsater is bold enough to cut an entire scene with one slow reaction shot of a character turning around and gazing curiously into the eyes of another.

This is the palette of the picture – snippets of glances, words, whispers and scenes, glimpses of the parts, never the whole, but with the main hero, George Smiley (Oldman), always a step ahead of the audience. I understand the conscious obscurity of the plotting will turn people off, but Tinker Tailor triumphs for its ability to create emotion and feeling from its profound themes of brotherhood and betrayal.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is available on Blu-ray from EOne Home Entertainment in Canada. For admirers of the film who were confused as hell, commentary from Alfredson and Oldman provides good insight into some of the vague and confounding plotting elements.

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Machinist


The Machinist (2004) dir. Brad Anderson
Starring: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Larry Gillard Jr. Michael Ironside, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón

**

By Alan Bacchus

Back in 2004, having been a huge fan of the underrated and little-seen horror flick, Session 9, I remember greatly anticipating this follow-up picture – a moody thriller about a hypochondriac suffering some kind of mental breakdown. Unfortunately, it never really manages to work entirely. Anderson tries his best to intrigue us with his expert abilities with mood and tone, but there’s just not enough going on to truly entertain us.

Christian Bale plays Trevor Reznick, a grossly underweight machine operator harbouring such internal hidden trauma he’s feared by just about everyone he comes in contact with. He enjoys spending time either with his favourite call girl, Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), or buying coffee from an airport diner waitress, Maria (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón).

Creepy things start happening to him, which fuels a deep-rooted paranoia that eventually comes to light. Reznick starts seeing mysterious post-it notes placed on his fridge, has nightmares of an amusement park ride called Route 666 and sees a creepy stranger wearing mirrored sunglasses, who appears to him at random. It's all randomness until the final act when the puzzle pieces are revealed to be fractured memories of a painful moment from the past, which his mind and body are desperately trying to forget.

One of the main talking points of the film was Christian Bale's dramatic weight loss. To the detriment of the film, his physique has an effect outside the context of the story. Bale is beyond weight loss, as his character is emaciated and malnourished, an effect of his deep psychological trauma. It’s an overpowered device and a distraction from the film.

Like Bale’s body, the story has only a bare bones skeleton of a plot on which to hang. The central problem is that so much of the film occurs in Reznick’s head. The entire thing feels like a dupe to the audience – a single piece of information held back from the audience fuels the entire film.

And so, Anderson has only his genre skills to work with. He creeps us out as best as he can with some wonderful surrealist imagery, which would be used more effectively in a better film. The factory scenes feature long close-ups of the machinery grinding and churning out the molded metal. A number of these scenes build to a moment that we know is bound to happen - one of the workmen getting caught in the machinery. We do get that scene, and it’s a doozy. But to what end? A great scene wasted in a dull movie.

The ending, which neatly ties up all the randomness of Anderson’s imagery, feels like a cop-out, a matter of convenience revealing only an obvious manipulation of a single plot twist into an entire feature film.

The Machinist is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Ratcatcher

Ratcatcher (1999) dir. by Lynne Ramsay
Starring Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews and William Eadie

***

By Blair Stewart

Being a child of the '80s I was deprived of first-hand experiences of the previous decade, but one impression left with me from the '70s is garbage. Rotten, stinking, fetid, obese black plastic bags plump with vermin, spilling their messy guts out of city dustbins over every street. That's the imagery I've taken away from Western cinema during the period with Scorsese's 1976 Manhattan buried under trash (both figuratively and literally) in Taxi Driver, and a refuse-strewn London in the grip of public-works strikes and punk anarchy in Julien Temple's ode to the Sex Pistols with The Filth and the Fury.

Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay's own turbulent life experiences included a 1973 sanitation strike while growing up in working class Glasgow. And by 'working class' I mean the dwellers of housing estates, the odourless British euphemism for ghettos. Against the backdrop of poverty Ramsay colours her 1999 near-autobiographical roughneck debut with streaks of childhood bewilderment to salve young James's (William Eadie) dire existence atop playground trash piles.

Da (Tommy Flanagan of Sons of Anarchy recognition) is an unrepentant drunkard through-and-through, while Ma (Mandy Matthews) is tenuously holding her family together with the older sister in the micro-skirt sneaking off for carnal knowledge. Just below their eye line wee James will gain an understanding of death as his playmate drowns in the local open sewer - a more terrible form of adult knowledge known than his elder siblings. The guilt spins James away from his family towards the used neighbourhood bike's comforting arms and the empty outskirts of the city where a better life might come with the construction of nicer housing estates for all. Not exactly the stuff of Wonder Years, but an honest take on systemic rot, and despite a false note in the final scenes, often a superb one.

By occasionally using surreal mise-en-scène Ramsay strips away the brutal reality of U.K. kitchen sink/working class drama covered in the works of Loach, Leigh and Clarke from the protagonist's eyes as he grasps onto his innocence. Ramsay's cast is excellent but nearly unintelligible, their Glaswegian brogue impossible to my Canadian ear, which is saying something since my Mom comes from a bunch of thick old Weegies. Regardless of necessary subtitles, the actors are well chosen and appear as suited to their surrounding in front of the camera as desperate Hollywood starlets in search of spiritual enlightenment in India aren't to theirs.

According to the hallowed annals of the IMDB most of the actors in Ratcatcher haven't made another film, which is a damn shame based on the results. Thankfully, after an eight-year hiatus, Lynne Ramsay returned with last year's controversial We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Dead Man

Dead Man (1995) dir. Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Hendrickson, Michael Wincott, Robert Mitchum

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Jim Jarmusch's idiosyncratic western plays like a delirious Coen Bros. movie, which also fits into the auteur stylings of the man whose Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law are two of the best movies in a dismal decade.

In Dead Man it's much the same, but set in the western frontier. Johnny Depp plays an accountant from Cleveland named William Blake, who travels west for a new job but becomes an outlaw on the run from a maniacal trio of desperado hit men.

It's a great cast, with the core relationship being Depp's character and a wandering Indian (Gary Farmer), who combine to form a unique cinematic buddy relationship. It's a great heartwarming performance from Farmer inspiring every other supporting character.

Look out for Robert Mitchum at his grizzled best playing the loose cannon entrepreneur hunting down Blake. The trio of Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop and Jared Harris makes a great sequence in itself. Iggy Pop wearing a dress is weird enough to capture our attention, but look for a then unknown Billy Bob, who steals the scene.

Mixed into the thought provoking Native American mysticism of Gary Farmer are some very bloody death scenes and set pieces of rather shocking violence. Gabriel Byrne's brief appearance is marked by an inspired gunfight and two awesome death scenes.

Robbie Muller's black and white photography is beautiful, evoking the idiosyncratic mood of Jarmusch's early films.

Dead Man is memorable because there's just something not right at every turn in this picture - Eugene Bird playing a black hit man for sure, Crispin Glover playing a batshit crazy train porter, Neil Young's whiny guitar score and even the fade outs, which mark the beginning and ending of each scene.

And yet we wouldn't want anything normal or expected in this film. It's a haunting, beautiful and strange cult classic.

Dead Man is available on Blu-ray from Alliance Films in Canada.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (2003) dir. Takeshi Kitano
Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Gadarukanaru Taka, Yûko Daike, igorô Tachibana

***

By Alan Bacchus

Zatoichi is one of Japan’s treasured fictional heroes, a blind wandering masseur/samurai whose unassuming, quiet and lumbering gate fools his opponents into underestimating him. As a champion of justice, Zatoichi travels the lands of 19th century Japan helping those in need of protection against evil.

Between 1962 and 1989, 26 films were made starring the character’s original actor, Shintaro Katsu, as well an American remake, Blind Fury, with Rutger Hauer. And so in 2003, Japanese screen legend Beat Takeski’s version arrived with both excitement as well as a certain amount of caution. Having not been familiar with any of the other depictions of the character, Takeshi’s makes for pure cinematic entertainment - humour, action, music and dance blended seamlessly in a package hyperaware of its audience and its need to entertain. For this reason it gobbled up the prestigious Audience Prize Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Silver Lion at Venice as Best Director. Though, for one of my trusted colleagues familiar with Japanese cinema, it’s a pale comparison to Shintaro Katsu's legacy.

Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano) is no ordinary masseur. He's a blind Ronin samurai wandering the land with his trusty blade hidden in his red cane, always at the ready. In the opening scene, limping, hunchbacked and featuring a strange died blonde hairdo, Zatoichi is approached by a gang of malfeasants looking for an easy score. Before one of the thugs even blinks an eye Zatoichi reveals a sword from his cane, slices it through the thug's body and replaces it back in its sheath. Wow. That’s just one guy, but when the whole group of them attack at once, their defeat is just as fast, grisly and effortless. Zatoichi soon wanders into a poor rural town controlled by this same group of gangsters. Fighting back against the gang are a brother-sister duo masquerading as geishas and looking for revenge against their parents' death. Like the covert politicking in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More the geishas attempt to sabotage and subvert the action of the gang from within. And when they team up with Zatoichi, hell be damned for the gang.

The notion of a blind swordsman is ridiculous, and indeed it makes for fun, irreverent physical humour. Kitano walks around embellishing all the precariousness of an old, poor blind man, with the pay-off being the pinpoint accuracy of his striking. In fact, there’s really nothing he can’t do that a full-sighted man can. So what’s the point of making him blind? Well, it makes for great gags and it changes way the other characters relate to him. But it works as an extreme version of the archetypal lonesome unsuspecting hero.

But Takeshi’s charisma is maximized. His head tilt and twitchy facial ticks embellish the actor’s already enigmatic persona as well as his archetypal characters. We barely even get a full-frame shot of his face, his head always angled away from the camera.

The film’s swordplay scenes are lightning quick. Death comes in one or two quick movements, a conscious decision of Kitano to avoid the monotony of lengthy and repetitive unrealistic sword clanging. The use of digital blood that splatters across the frame with each kill is not invisible to us. Although in the Blu-ray special features Kitano tells us his motivations are for added ‘realism’, its effectiveness is the opposite, a cinematic hyperrealism and that distinct Romero-like carnage of a zombie movie.

The story beats are plotted out with the same western genre familiarity, and then there’s the surprise of the final sequence, which plays like the Ewoks' group song at the end of Return of the Jedi – in a good way. Kitano teases us with the rhythmic sounds of the farmers throughout the picture. And by the end the monotonous plowing and wood chopping syncs up forming a musical beat. This evolves into a large-scale choreographed tap dance sequence played straight to camera - a finale, which, like the Bollywood dance number closing out Slumdog Millionaire, sends the audience out with a bang and a smile. Enjoy.

The Blindswordsman: Zatoichi is available on Blu-ray from Miramax/Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) dir. Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox, John Lithgow

***

By Alan Bacchus

Revolution is in the air – Apes revolution. It’s hard to believe this Apes franchise continues to fascinate people and have legs. The original film was high-concept science fiction at its best – metaphors for our own human frailties in the real world at present. The concept here, of course, is a future world turned upside-down, where apes have replaced man as the dominant species. Rupert Wyatt’s take on the series has him going back in time for an origin story, something we were first exposed to with 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, but with little resemblance other than the setting in the past. Here, the depth and complexity of the CG-enhanced Apes characters tips the scales past the uniformly cardboard human characters resulting in a surprisingly absorbing, exciting and fresh invigoration of this series.

Of course, the first film based on Pierre Boulle’s original novel was the best. Nothing will take away from the power of Charlton Heston’s discovery of apes riding horseback wrangling up human slaves, or the astonishing revelation of the Statue of Liberty lying collapsed on the beach at the end of the film. There are no moments or twists as such in this picture, and the film doesn’t need them. We know the story, we know where it leads and the thrill here is showing the tragic irony of hundreds of years of man’s blind arrogance playing with science, and the catharsis of having animals fight back against a lifetime of subjugation by their higher intelligence ‘superior beings’.

In this case, all the blame falls on James Franco’s character, Will Rodman, a biological scientist looking for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, he’s experimenting on chimps and when one of them starts to exhibit signs of intelligence his superiors in the corporate office take notice and encourage it. But after the experiment fails and the chimps escape, they’re all put down with the exception of one cute little infant named Caesar (Serkis). Will brings up Caesar like a child in his home along with his Alzheimer’s-stricken father (Lithgow) and lovely girlfriend (Pinto).

The ethics of raising a chimp with humans never enters Will’s mind, but the subjugation of his animal instincts are offset with his broadening intelligence. All the while, this internal conflict simmers within Caesar. After an anger-fuelled attack on a neighbour, Caesar is forced to go to an animal shelter managed by a heartless and cruel Brian Cox and Tom Felton. Here, Caesar uses his intelligence to communicate with his fellow simian prisoners and plot escape, revenge and ultimately the takeover of the world.

Admittedly, the human characters are uniformly forgettable and sometimes laughable. Franco, in particular, should never have been in this film. It actually takes a special kind of actor to make pseudo-science and other expository stock dialogue sound believable. Franco’s lazy acting style, which works in comedy and other stoner-persona performances like Milk, is not a good fit here. In fact, he seems to be in the same funk as his Oscar hosting gig. Everyone else is a cardboard characterization in the extreme. Brian Cox and Tom Felton as the cruel animal shelter caretakers are low-grade comic book villains at best, and the money-grubbing corporate suits are similarly one-dimensional.

But the complexity of the ape characters more than makes up for these deficiencies. Andy Serkis, who by motion capture portrays Caesar from birth to his ascension as leader of the Ape revolution, is phenomenal. The technology has little to do with the performance. I bet if Serkis were put into the old make-up style of the original series, he’d give the same quality performance. The fact is we can see the development of intelligence in his delicate facial movements. As we see Caesar grow up in the company of Will, a prison of its own sorts, sequestered from his own kind, we can’t help but identify with him. The need to be free is a universal quality of all living species, but self-determination is distinctly human. And the discovery of this trait within Caesar occurs gradually and with subtlety. That said, it also helps that the apes actually look like apes. The Weta-Digital CG technology achieves this in spades.

Despite the shameful characterization of the animal shelter, these scenes sufficiently put us on the side of the apes and by the end we desperately want Caesar and his growing army of prisoners to throw some beatdowns on the humans. There’s very little action in the film until the third act, and even when the intensity is ramped up there’s more logic than we would expect from the big scenes.

And at the end of the day, Apes accomplishes its goal as a continuation of its high-concept antecedents. Without overwhelming proselytization, we can’t help but think twice about the effect of keeping animals as pets, or using them to experiment with in science, or as beasts of burden. And at the very least we will recognize the precariousness of our place in the bio-lifecycle of the planet.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The War Room

The War Room (1993) dir. Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker
Documentary

***½

By Alan Bacchus

With film just about gone now, almost certainly in the documentary form, we probably won’t ever see a film like The War Room anymore. Documentary verite features shot on film have the true "fly on the wall" aesthetic pioneered by the co-director of this film, D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop).

Cinema verite represents a style of documentary filmmaking born in the '60s, accompanying the trends of the French New Wave. It's a term traditionally associated with the films of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. But with The War Room, we could be even more specific and call it ‘Direct Cinema’, using a type of filmmaking that is the least intrusive and most observational documentary technique, rendering the camera and filmmakers as invisible as possible to the filmmaking process.

With the prevalence of reality television and the use of talking head interviews or confession-cams, subjects are aware of the camera. But with no sit-down interviews, very little stock footage and voice-overs, and no direct-to-camera discussions, The War Room exerts a style rarely used in such purity.

It’s a supremely entertaining and enlightening film, justly nominated for a Documentary Oscar. It follows Bill Clinton through his immensely dramatic Presidential Campaign in 1991, during which he was labelled the ‘Comeback Kid’. He overcame a tough early loss in the New Hampshire Primary, survived a sex scandal with Gennifer Flowers and managed the GOP onslaught against his controversial draft record in the Vietnam War.

And yet the film is not about Bill Clinton, but rather the youthful, aggressive and passionate campaign staff behind the scenes controlling the action like control room directors of a live television show. Now recognizable political voices James Carville and George Stephanopoulos become the stars of the picture. They are a dynamic duo of sorts - one (Carville) tall, lanky and jovial, the other (Stephanopoulos) short and handsome, but both political dynamos.

Within the nerve centre of activity, Pennebaker and Hegedus capture the improvised spin control against a number of political obstacles with the utmost of naturalism and believability. The subjects seem invisible to the camera, as they go about their work passionately and without inhibition.

Late in the film after his Presidential victory, Clinton thanks his staff for their unconventionality and revolutionizing of how campaigns are run. And before that, in an impassioned speech, Carville describes how campaigns used to be run, with compartmentalized departments working in silos and in strict hierarchy. The film shows us Carville's horizontal approach by empowering each of the workers to innovate and improvise and take their own lead. Unfortunately, if there's anything to fault in the picture, we never get to see the other side, the old guard system as described by Carville.

But this is the filmmakers' medium of choice. By using the language of direct cinema, unless we see stock footage or other manipulative devices, this information can only be implied to us. But The War Room is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of the history of political campaigning. Instead, it's a slice of time in 1991 with these specific people, and the context of history can only be implied to us.

But we get it, and the film doesn't need expository explanations to make its point. The War Room is cinematic observation, the cinema verite form at its finest.

The War Room is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Young Adult

Young Adult (2011) dir. Jason Reitman
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswald

***½

By Alan Bacchus

It's interesting that despite being Reitman’s least successful film at the box office, Young Adult is probably his best. Thank You for Smoking was an interesting premise and a decent first feature, Juno, its Oscars notwithstanding, seems too sweet and conflict-free with today’s eyes, and Up in the Air was a shamelessly contrived new millennium tragi-comedy.

Young Adult, written by Juno scribe Diablo Cody, is the most honest film of the four. It’s the story of a hack writer from Minneapolis, recently dumped by her boyfriend, who rebounds with a vengeance on her suburban hometown and her old high school boy toy.

Mavis Gary (wonderfully played by Charlize Theron) is damaged goods. She’s insecure, lonely, depressed in her job, and when she’s cc’d on a baby announcement by her former high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Wilson), she decides to jump in her Mini, go back home and steal him away from his suburban hellhole. But when she arrives, he’s a changed man, happily married and domesticated. That doesn’t stop her from aggressively and pathetically pining after him.

Mavis finds solace in another damaged soul, Matt (Oswald), a former loser afflicted with a leg injury from high school bullying. Together they drown their mutual sorrows in his homemade whisky. All the while Matt discovers his own inner beauty by witnessing Mavis’s self-destruction.

There’s a strong, relatable but bitchy, sympathetic human being at the core of this picture. Cody’s absurd plotting and witty dialogue masks a sad and lonely character study of a woman suffering from a feeling of displacement and inadequacy. Part of this is physical – Reitman is careful to show Mavis checking herself in the mirror constantly, stuffing her bra for more cleavage and coiffing herself to the max in order to exert her superiority over her old friends. Even though Mavis (via Theron) is still a gorgeous figure, it’s her self-loathing with which we can identify.

Reitman seems to make a fetish of the mundane details of people’s regular life routines – not only Mavis plucking her eyebrows or doing her nails, but pathetically using her own spit to fool her shitty ink jet printer into squeezing out one more faded print-out. These minute details speak volumes and are key to establishing the humble middle American realism in which the film is grounded.

The supporting actors are all well cast, specifically Patrick Wilson playing into type as the handsome doofus, Buddy Slade, who’s characterized as a former hot shot now relegated to bagging pumped breast milk. Cody admirably reverses our pre-conceived notions of Slade and the residents of the community as emasculated failures living in a depressingly moderate small town by revealing Mavis as a pathetic poseur who clings onto her shabby career and Minneapolis city lifestyle as her defense mechanism to life.

Young Adult is the most challenging and profound film of Reitman’s and Cody’s career. It's a mature shift for both filmmakers. Sadly, the failure of the film might have them going back to precious filmmaking of the Juno and Up in the Air variety.

Young Adult is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.

Monday, 12 March 2012

North West Frontier

North West Frontier (1959) dir. J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Kenneth More, Lauren Bacall, Herbert Lom

****

By Alan Bacchus

If you haven't brushed up on your history or geography, the title of this film might suggest a western, perhaps set in the snowcapped Rockies. In fact, North West Frontier refers to the contentious Muslim province of India, now Pakistan, once ruled by the British during their colonization of the country. It's a fresh environment for what turns out to be an underappreciated rediscovery, a near masterpiece of classic action cinema.

It's the turn of the century and the palace of a six-year-old Hindu Maharaja has just been overrun by a group of Moslem rebels. With his coterie of caretakers, British officer Captain Scott (Kenneth More) leads the survivors on a journey to a secure military base on a ramshackle locomotive engine. For fans of action and epic cinema, how can you not be intrigued by a story that takes place entirely on a train armed with a rotating automatic machine gun and people on the run from an army of horseback riding, gun-toting rebels set in India?

Before he hacked out all those atrocious Charles Bronson pictures in the '80s, J. Lee Thompson, a prolific director of action/thrillers such as Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, shows the inspiration of youth in 1959. He shoots the majority of the film on an actual train through the real landscape of India. Perhaps influenced by the on-location realism of David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai, Thompson's cinemascope action is unencumbered by stagy process shots or studio fakery — an integrity and authenticity that is not lost on today's eyes.

Tagging along with Scott and the young prince are a number of warm and conflicting characters that make the non-action scenes more than tolerable. Lauren Bacall is a commanding presence, not to mention stunning, as the free-spirited American widow who, when not protecting the boy, quarrels with Scott about the differences between Americans and the British. The smarmy Dutch journalist, Van Laydan, played with wonderful Peter Lorre-esque creepiness by Herbert Lom, is the unknown traitor within the group. It's not all imperialist heroism though, as the affable train engineer, Gupta, emerges as a courageous hero.

But it's the razor-sharp action and focused plotting that keeps this film on the rails. Politics are kept to a minimum (Thompson never leaves his heroes), and the train never (or rarely) stops moving. In fact, when the train does stop, the quiet stillness makes for a handful of scenes of remarkable Hitchcock-worthy tension. Like other recent MGM releases, it's a no frills, menu-less release. No matter, we don't need Peter Bogdanovich analyzing this one; we should just be happy to have this minor cinematic revelation on DVD.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Friday, 9 March 2012

The Namesake


The Namesake (2007) dir. Mira Nair
Starring: Kal Penn, Irfan Kahn, Tabu

***

By Alan Bacchus

The Namesake is a universal story about a second generation immigrant who feels the pressure and pull of his two cultures (his parents and his home). It’s a pressure many young people can relate to, particularly in North America, where much of the population has, within one or two generations, emigrated from a different culture. Mira Nair’s film hits all these buttons, sometimes too hard, but ultimately telling a relevant story rarely told in today’s cinema.

The film is structured in two defined halves. The first belongs to Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Kahn), a Bengali Indian who, after suffering a near fatal train accident, decides to move to New York City to pursue his dreams. Ashoke’s story spans his years as a student to his traditional arranged marriage to his wife, Ashima (Tabu). Once in America, Ashoke and Ashima struggle with fitting into the Western lifestyle, but once their two children are born they finally feel comfortable and secure in their new home.

We are then introduced to their son, Gogol (Kal Penn), who is your typical Americanized youth. Gogol rolls his eyes at the cultural differences of his parents and prefers a traditional melting pot life. Throughout Gogol’s youth he is plagued with his unusual name. Gogol announces that he wants to change his name so he won't be judged on the basis of something unpronounceable on his resume. He faces the continued conflict between the expectations of his Indian culture, the expectations of his parents and the expectations he places on himself to lead a fulfilling life.

The title refers to Gogol's name and what seems like the hidden story behind it. The name should have been used as a metaphor for Gogol's inner conflict, but Nair keeps referring to the name over and over again - especially in the first half of the film. Therefore, we expect a dramatic reveal about the source of the name. The trailer also alludes to a dramatic reveal, but when Ashoke does tell Gogol where and why he chose the name, it's a letdown. The opening scene tells us everything Ashoke tells Gogol. As a result, we are left saying, "Is that it?"

Things get interesting in the second half when Gogol grows up and has to experience life on his own. This feels like a different film. The first half, which is essentially a long extended first act, tries to hit every beat in Ashoke's life. As a result, his story feels like a series of disconnected scenes. These scenes jump around across time without letting us get attached to a single subplot in the present. The film settles down and is allowed to grow and develop traditionally with the introduction of Kal Penn.

The theme of cultural conflict has been told before (e.g., Bend It Like Beckham), but Nair successfully dramatizes it without the comic support. Gogol's journey is not as simple or predictable as one might expect. His emotional conflict is not solved with his acceptance of his heritage. It's not a simple solution of marrying a Bengali to appease his parents. Nair makes it more difficult for Gogol, which, for the audience, means a more interesting and satisfying film. Enjoy.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg

****

By Alan Bacchus

International audiences embraced this film to the tune of $395 million. Sadly, American audiences did not. Perhaps people didn’t know what Tintin was. Rin Tin Tin the dog maybe? A cartoon for kids maybe? Either way, most of America missed out on one of the best films of the year, a great adventure story from an old master in a new medium.

What’s remarkable is the authorship Spielberg injects into the film. Despite working in a sterile motion capture studio without an actual camera and in animation, nothing looks fake or cartoonish. In fact, it’s arguably the most photorealistic animated film I’ve seen. Other than the faces of the characters, Tintin is a real world.

The backstory of the project is now well known, first optioned by Spielberg in the 1980s. While making Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg put the film on hold until he could find a way to shoot it without making it another Indy Jones film. And so, when Spielberg teamed up with Peter Jackson's Weta Studios, which created Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Tintin the film was born, as was the Jackson/Spielberg collaboration.

The story of the intrepid young amateur sleuth, who, through the purchase of a model ship at a local market, incites a globetrotting adventure for lost treasure is lean and mean action filmmaking. Writers Peter Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish honour the fun in discovering the mystery of the Lost Unicorn ship and crafting delightful pot-boiler characters to support the heroes. For instance, the moustache twirling villain, Rackham, is a deliciously upper class snob out for revenge; the affable Thomson/Thompson cops feel like a comic duo plucked out of the silent era; and of course Tintin's trusty four legged partner, Snowy the dog, is part of a long tradition of cinematic dog sidekicks.

As such, despite the most advanced new millennium technology, the film still feels like old fashioned swashbuckling adventure this side of a Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn.

The Blu-ray special features are clear to point out what separates this film from other motion capture pictures, including Avatar, Spielberg’s mise-en-scene, and they don’t get lost in the technological mumbo jumbo. Tintin looks and feels like a Steven Spielberg film, from the delightful comedic action right down to the composition, lighting and pacing that are distinct to the man.

And if you’re scared off by the thought of watching another kids’ film, I was pleasantly surprised to see as much guns, blood, violence and questionable behaviour as in any of the Indiana Jones films. Hell, Tintin is barely out of his teenage years and he carries his own pistol! Captain Haddock’s alcoholism, which serves as a major plotting device, is the main hurdle in his character arc and recalls the character traits of a politically incorrect bygone era.

In the end, Tintin still feels like an Indiana Jones film. However, it’s not a knock-off but rather a revival of that youthful energy in escapist entertainment Spielberg used to have as a young director. In the past 20 years, every one of Spielberg’s attempts at recreating the fun of Raiders, ET or Jaws has either failed or under-delivered. Films like Minority Report and War of the Worlds were failed by weak attempts at adult characterizations and adult themes. There’s nothing mature or serious about Tintin. It’s full-tilt retro action cinema at its finest.

The Adventures of Tintin is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Mother

Mother (2009) dir. Bong Joon-Ho
Starring: Hye-ja Kim, Bin Won, Ku Jin

****

By Alan Bacchus

One of Asian cinema’s current giants, Bong Joon-Ho is primarily known for his cross-over creature feature The Host. But in his follow-up picture, Mother, he executes a deeper, more emotionally driven character story, a powerful masterpiece about the impenetrable bond of mother and son.

Hye-ja is a single mother to mentally challenged Yoon Do-joon, a young man who follows around his tougher miscreant buddy, Jin-Tae. After a night out on the town Do-joon follows a young village girl home before turning in for the night. But when she turns up dead the next day as a victim of a brutal murder, Do-joon gets the blame.

Witnessing the callous indifference to her son’s pleaded innocence, the mother begins an epic journey to clear her son’s name. Fuelled by her unerring need to protect her naïve son, she comes face to face with a cacophony of hard-ass cops, slimy/drunken lawyers and varied petty criminals in the name of justice.

Joon-ho’s magnificent script never rests, as it constantly changes pace and sends us on a number of sudden and shocking twists. While The Host elevated Joon-ho to international genre auteur of the highest order, Mother lines up more with his murder mystery Memories of Murder, an equally beguiling and intense pot boiler. His razor sharp criminal procedural plotting creates an intense and sometimes frantic pace. And we’re putty in his hands as he moves us elegantly through sequences of absurd humour and heartbreaking moments of emotional release.

Hye-ja’s performance might just be the last word in female revenge heroes. Forget about Lisbeth Salander or Thelma & Louise, hell hath no fury like this woman scorned (sorry, I couldn’t resist that line). Hye-ja’s supremely interesting face contains a range of remarkable emotions, from supreme sadness and pity to laser-sighted intensity. Joon-ho subverts our expectations through a number of turns, giving us a couple of red herrings to tease us before unveiling a climax that turns Hye-ja’s character inside-out.

Unlike the generic and salaciously titled Memories of Murder, Mother is the only appropriate title for this film. By the end it ceases to be about who did what to whom and more about the clouded version of justice a mother conceives for her son.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Legend of Drunken Master

The Legend of Drunken Master aka Drunken Master 2 (2000) dir. Chia-Liang Liu
Starring: Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Long Ti, Andy Lau

***1/2

by Alan Bacchus

Even before the American release of this film, HK action buffs already knew it as Drunken Master 2, a legendary film certainly in my household for its astonishing fight sequences featuring Jackie Chan at his most lethal, most athletic, toughest and funniest. Remember, these were the days before the internet, and thus accessibility to foreign films not released stateside was limited. But for me access to Drunken Master 2 came from my membership at my local strip mall LaserDisc-renting Chinese videostore in Mississauga.

After the release of Rumble in the Bronx in North America in 1995, Jackie Chan finally had success overseas 15 years after he made his American debut in the early '80s. Other than the retched Rush Hour movies, Chan’s subsequent releases were older HK films re-dubbed and sometimes re-edited for North America. 1992’s Police Story 3 became Supercop in 1996, Police Story 4 became First Strike, and it was the same with Operation Condor, Twin Dragons and Mr. Nice Guy, each with decreasing box office returns and general public hype.

And so in 2000 when The Legend of Drunken Master was released, it was just another Jackie Chan movie to most people. But to the LaserDisc-watching freaks like me it was something special. However, what a shame that a meager $11 million box office take meant that arguably the film with the greatest ever hand-to-hand fight sequences was only glanced over.

What are the best kung-fu movies ever made? Maybe those Jet Li/Tsui Hark Once Upon a Time in China flicks? Or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Or the Yhang Zimou mystical epics? Enter the Dragon? The old school Five Deadly Venoms? Drunken Master 2 is a marvel because its kung fu is boiled down to hand-to-hand combat, achieving a fresh 'purity' in action largely unaided by elaborate weaponry, pyrotechnics, highflying wire techniques and, most definitely, computer graphics - just the beautiful and astonishing choreography of hands and feet flying.

It’s the turn of the century in China. Jackie Chan and his family have just bought a rare and potent root of ginseng from a neighbouring province and are crossing the border to get back home. Chan, aged 40 at the time, plays the ‘teenaged’ Fei-hung and son to his disapproving father, Kei-ying (Long Ti), who runs a martial arts school and garden/nursery. Fei-hung the troublemaker decides to hide the ginseng in a fellow passenger’s suitcase to avoid the customs charges. Of course, there’s a mix-up and Fei-hung winds up with some other kind of valuable artifact coveted by a nefarious group of imperialist thieves.

When the baddies come looking for the artifact, Fei-hung is forced to defend himself, protect his mother, get back his ginseng and do it all without pissing off his father. Fei-hung’s technique is ‘drunken boxing’ – his own personal style which mimics the wobbling and swaying of a drunken person, thus putting his opponent off guard. But when he actually gets drunk, like Popeye, Fei-hung gets stronger, quicker and more badass.

As usual, it’s disposable plotting for Jackie Chan, but the old world China setting is made more bearable than say the 'New York' locale of Rumble in the Bronx or the international espionage of First Strike. Again, Chan’s vaudevillian/silent cinema comic timing is ramped up, creating a fast-paced, zany comedy or errors. The family core of Fei-hung, his father and his step-mother forms a fun three-way comic dynamic. Anita Mui is the stand-out as the stepmother (actually 9 years Chan’s junior!). She appears to be acting in a film all her own, as her heightened and exaggerated mannerisms go beyond even Chan’s tone of silent-era influenced anachronism.

But it’s the awe-inspiring fight sequences that made Drunken Master 2 the best kept secret among us suburban LaserDisc genre-junkies. If not the greatest fight sequence ever put to film, then at least my personal favourite is the incredible tea-house scene in the middle of the picture. Fei-hung and his buddy sit down on the upper floor of a tea house for a peaceful drink when out of nowhere a hundred axe-wielding thugs storm the building and attack them. The duo proceed to beat down these badasses and tear apart the entire building with bamboo poles and brute strength. It’s over-the-top and implausible, 2 vs. 100, but the choreography is so precise we actually believe two people could do such damage and fend off a hundred guys. The Wachowski Bros. would later film their own version in Matrix Reloaded with their Neo vs. 100 Smiths fight but with the aid of mondo computer effects.

This is just one of a half-dozen equally inspired and monumentally artistic and brutal hand-to-hand fight sequences and the reason my LaserDisc player in the 1990s got a good workout replaying it over and over again.

The Legend of Drunken Master is available on Blu-ray from Miramax/Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, in addition to three other martial arts classics – Hero, Iron Monkey and Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman.