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

Monday, 30 April 2012

Batman

Batman (1989) dir. Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Jack Palance, Michael Gough

**½

By Alan Bacchus

It was a monumental summer of 1989, the summer of Batman. As an impressionable 15-year-old, I got sucked into the tremendous and then innovative marketing push for this film. Warner Bros. somehow made this film feel like the most important thing in the world – a monumental shift in how we see comic books and superheroes on film. Before anyone even saw it, we were compelled to it. Looking back, the film is not that great. Only in the context of the history of comic book adaptations, Tim Burton’s career and the Hollywood marketing techniques does the film resonate soundly as a milestone in cinema.

In 1989, to the masses, Batman was synonymous with the kitschy satirical Adam West TV series from the 1960s. The only other legitimate comic book adaptation as a feature film was the Superman series, which in 1979 started out with a strong sense of literary credibility, but over the course of its sequels devolved into juvenile parody. Remember, 1989 was long before the Internet, so information was sparse. However, it was made clear by Warner Bros. that this wasn't Adam West’s Batman, but a leaner darker, brooding caped crusader. The teaser campaigns said it all. First, we saw only the ultra cool black and gold logo and then the teaser trailer, which featured starkly under-lit noirish-style visuals of a superhero we hardly see, instead covered in shadow and highlights.



The buzz manufactured on this picture was palpable, and to this 15-year-old it didn’t disappoint. Before I could understand the elements of cinema, I knew Danny Elfman’s score was different than anything we’d heard before, and Tim Burton’s vision was dark but wholly playful, ironic and fun. Nicholson was over-the-top crazy, and Michael Keaton was surprisingly thoughtful, charming and strong as a superhero.

Now, in 2012, we’ve been through a four-film string of sequels since this first Batman film, plus Warner Bros. is just about to begin production on the third chapter of the reboot. The success of Batman helped birth other DC and Marvel stories onto film, including another two Superman reboots, four X-Men films and almost every other recognizable superhero property.

Now, unfortunately, Tim Burton’s Batman seems like a relic, like the aging old champion of former glory. Some parts of the film still feel inspired and fresh. The opening credits, for instance, are driven by Elfman’s aggressive opening cue (which sounds so close to The Simpsons theme), and all of Elfman's music for that matter. The same goes for the Bob Ringwood-designed Batman costume, which has never been improved upon, even 5 or 6 pictures later. Michael Keaton is still better under the cowl than Kilmer, Clooney or Christian Bale.

But it’s also an awkward and stagey film. The action set pieces feel as heavy and inelegant as the gigantic pimpmobile Batman drives. And the attempts at injecting the mythic pathos of the Batman origin story into the Joker’s transition never gets under the surface of the camp. Burton’s retro-campy playfulness still feels original and distinct to Burton, but it certainly doesn’t generate any laughs. If we got the feeling of any kind of real tension in the Joker’s antics, his jokes might have effectively been disarming to the danger, but it’s just too goofy to take seriously.

And so my opinion of the film seems to be coloured by a) my perception of it as a teenager and b) the subsequent films and visions of other filmmakers on similar subject matter. Though it was a career leap into the superstrata for Burton, I suspect it’s as difficult to watch for him as it was disappointing for me.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Mildred Pierce

Mildrid Pierce (1945) dir. Michael Curtiz
Starring: Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carlson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden

****

By Alan Bacchus

This is a depressing story of monumental proportions, but it's also involving and exciting. It's an ambitious and epic story about a woman fighting to find her dignity and independence, and to protect her family from the ravages of life. Yet, she is undone and thwarted by the very thing she’s tried so hard to protect.

The opening is wonderfully noirish, as hard-boiled as it comes. The first shot features Pierce’s husband being shot and killed in a violent hail of bullets. Then comes a taut chase sequence around the house, during which Mildred Pierce is apprehended by the police for murder. During the nightlong interrogation, the film flashes back to chart the course of events that lead to this fateful night.

Back in the past we see Pierce first as a devoted wife doing her expected duty, always in the kitchen and being a mother to her kids. Her husband, Bert, is a lazy layabout. He's jobless and takes advantage of Mildred’s fierceness. She can’t take it anymore though and they split up, with her taking custody of their two children, Veda and Kay. Pierce enters survival mode and uses her determination and perseverance to work her way up from a lowly dishwasher and waitress, eventually owning a chain of restaurants. Three men continually revolve around her life - her ex-husband, her real estate manager and her new playboy beau. While her career is on track and she dutifully works to provide for her kids, Veda develops a taste for money and class. Unfortunately, she continually puts down her mother for stooping to working in the classless restaurant business as opposed to gold digging for a rich husband – a conflict which dissolves Pierce’s lifetime of hard work and results in tragic consequences.

Though it can feel slightly hackneyed, looking back on the history of Hollywood, Mildred Pierce is a socio-cultural time capsule, and a forerunner to the popular and influential ‘women’s pictures of the '50s, and perhaps even the feminism of the '60s and '70s. Remember, it was 1945. The Second World War had just finished, families had barely started moving out to the suburbs and women had barely begun to seek out their independence. And so Mildred Pierce should be seen as a heroic figure, which makes her fate at the end of the picture so devastating.

Historical context aside, it’s also a crackerjack piece of cinema with typically crisp and punchy direction from Michael Curtiz, my favourite of all the old studio directors. Curtiz was a master of pacing. Watch the restaurant scene, which establishes the fast-paced hustle of Pierce’s stint as a waitress and thus the urgency of her goals. Curtiz was also a master of montage scenes that compress time so perfectly. He opens his scenes with close-ups, often pulling his camera back to reveal the establishing shot - a dynamic and modern technique that feels thoroughly modern.

And then there’s his camera movement. Few directors ever used a dolly or crane better than Curtiz. In a biography of Curtiz, Bette Davis, a frequent actress of his, once complained that he would watch his dolly during the shots more than the actors. But Curtiz never had an unmotivated camera move, and everything in Mildred Pierce is motivated by the actors, particularly Joan Crawford. Her performance is so commanding and powerful she deservedly won her only Oscar as Best Actress.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Oceans

Oceans (2009) dir. Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud
Documentary

**

By Blair Stewart

2001's Winged Migration was one of the finest nature documentaries made due to an ingenious idea by the filmmakers, Jacques Perrin & Cluzaud. In order to gain access to the migratory patterns of birds the filmmakers raised them from birth, therefore their subjects weren't shy when the time came to roll camera. Soaring above the continents in an ultralight amongst the company of eagles, the documentary gave a fantastical new perspective of life on Earth.

Now, after 5 years of delicate filming, another perspective is shown in Oceans. Plunging deep into the watery two thirds of our planet, the two Jacques strive to bring awareness to the fragile time-bomb awaiting us in the seas, with the North Pacific Gyre (aka "the Great Pacific Garbage Patch") growing to twice the size of a plastic Texas while you read this. As brief narration presupposes the question of why man searches the stars when we haven't yet mastered the seas, the cinema alights with creatures from the deep.

Dive-bombing birds blitzkrieg M.C. Escher schools of fish with dolphins cutting through like apparitions of squeaky grey-blue torpedos. An exodus of baby sea turtles from surf to sea under swooping bird-claws becomes an anthropomorphistic reversal of the D-Day invasion, and in the deep crab vs. shrimp becomes a clash of the titans.

The flexibility required to film sea life may have eliminated bulky 70mm, but the subject matter is worthy of the format, especially when the killer whales arrive. What is captured above water is impressive, further down even more so, but in some of the more spectacular moments an ugliness reared its head: C.G.I. The graceful chaos is helpfully sculpted by digital compositors
alongside nature, which stings during a number of "too good to be true" moments. This practical decision for entertainment/education value doesn't undermine the film as much as a glaring narrative one, wherein Perrin (a famed actor in 50+ years of Euro cinema) and his googly-eyed kid lament for marine life in a space-age museum.

Witnessing the vulnerability of a Dugong in its habitat does much more for my desire to preserve the planet over a close-up of a French brat's tear-ducts. If the film hadn't strayed from its path, Winged Migration would have been surpassed. As it remains, Oceans is a flawed contender that still demands viewing on the big-screen for the awesome scope of nature.



Wednesday, 25 April 2012

For a Few Dollars More

For a Few Dollars More (1965) dir. Sergio Leone Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volonté, Luigi Pistilli, Klaus Kinski, Panos Papadopulos

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

I would never dispute that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West were Sergio Leone’s best films – two of the best Westerns ever, really. And I wouldn’t argue about the importance of A Fistful of Dollars as the first spaghetti western. But we don’t talk much about For a Few Dollars More. After all, it’s the middle chapter in the unconnected Dollars trilogy, and it wasn’t the first spaghetti western, nor is it the best.

But looking back on the picture, For a Few Dollars More is indeed a near masterpiece of the genre and very close to the awesomeness of Leone’s aforementioned later pictures. Unlike the cynicism and sheer brutality of A Fistful of Dollars and even The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars More is the only other film to come close to the humanity Leone shows us in his characters in Once Upon a Time in the West.

While Clint is billed as the star, the heart of the film is Lee Van Cleef, who plays Col. Douglas Mortimer, a former soldier turned bounty hunter plying the Wild West for wanted criminals and reward money for their capture. Clint, whose character actually has a name, Manco, is also a bounty hunter treading the same ground as Mortimer, an equally beguiling killer who stacks up bodies for money.

The two eventually meet in El Paso following the villainous El Indio ( Volonte), who aims to take down the well fortified El Paso bank. Manco attempts to join the gang to help take the score while plotting with Mortimer to collect the bounty of each gang member. The bank job is completed with Indio escaping to the small town of Agua Caliente for a final showdown of good versus evil, with Mortimer eventually revealing the source of his hatred for Indio and exacting satisfying revenge for a grievous crime against his family in the past.

Mortimer is portrayed like Charles Bronson’s Harmonica Man in West. While he is as cold and calculating as the other killers in the film, there’s a deep pain that motivates the man on his journey. Leone crafts some wonderful tension between the two gunslingers. When Clint and Van Cleef are on screen together it’s a marvel of gritty eye-squinting machismo, with Van Cleef matching Eastwood’s screen charisma and confidence in character.

Leone and his writers use some of the same plotting devices that he’d elevate to higher levels of grandiloquence in West. Like in that film, Mortimer’s backstory is seen through a repetition of a single flashback and the significance of the mysterious timepiece, which is featured prominently throughout and is revealed dramatically in the final Mexican showdown.

So, you might call For a Few Dollars More a testing ground for Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but the picture stands up well on its own as a great and often underappreciated Leone Western.

The Dollars Trilogy is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers (2011) dir. Ti West
Starring: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis

**

By Alan Bacchus

There’s much to admire in Ti West’s creepy and understated haunted house film in which a pair of lowly minimum wage underachievers attempt to capture the essence of an alleged ghost in a rundown mountain view hotel. It’s a playful film with a consciously restrained quality, a mix of comedy and suspense without ever succumbing to exploitative gore and horror. That said, there’s just not enough guts to this story to truly satisfy its audience beyond the atmosphere and tone.

Taking place largely in a single location, a quaint Victorian inn which comes off like a low budget version of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, West introduces us to Claire and Luke (Paxton and Healy), who are employed as the last two staff members of the inn on its last day before closing down. Luke, who runs a paranormal ghost hunting website, is there to take audio samples of a ghost named Madeline O'Malley, rumoured to have haunted its confines for decades, with the unambitious Claire tagging along mainly for the fun.

There are a few guests for the evening, each with their own idiosyncrasies that contribute to the uneasy feeling of dread. Kelly McGillis turns in a creepy performance as a has-been actress staying for the night. And the presence of an old man who arrives to spend one night in his old room to rekindle the feelings of his honeymoon is chilling.

West succeeds in creating the gothic tone of a Hammer Horror mystery, from the moody atmospheric music to the classical widescreen photography reminiscent of John Carpenter’s great films of the ‘80s, right down to the chapter breaks written in old gothic script and designed like 1920s title cards.

While The Innkeepers plays directly off of The Shining, West's aesthetic sensibilities resemble 1980's John Carpenter (i.e., The Fog, Prince of Darkness), floating his widescreen anamorphic camera through empty hallways with Carpenter-like panache. But unfortunately West is missing the bravura escalation of action and horror marked by both Carpenter and Kubrick. Indeed there is a ghost with a grisly backstory who looks downright scary in her brief flashes, but we simply don’t see enough of the spectre. With murky or non-existent motivations, we don’t ever see O'Malley as a character, thus we don’t really fear her either.

Ti West’s camerawork is teasing, building up a number of moments but rarely paying them off. For example, he crafts a terrific sequence in which Claire investigates an open cellar door. West gives us a traditional false scare when the terrifying silence is interrupted by a bird flying out of the dark space, but he leaves the scene without paying it off with a real punch. The cellar does come back into play in the final scene, but it’s still a wasted set piece, indicative of the underwhelming quality of the film as a whole.

The Innkeepers is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Entertainment One in Canada.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Sleepless Night

Sleepless night (2011) dir Frederic Jardin
Starring: Tomer Sisley, Joey Starr, Julien Boisselier, Laurent Stocker, Birol Unel

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Bad ass Turkish, Caribbean and Corsican bad guys and a team of slimy IA agents battling a tough-as-nails French cop in one slammin' nightclub over a dozen kilos of coke makes for one sleepless night. Hence the title of this crazy-intense French thriller, which lays a trump card over those Luc Besson thrillers.

We're thrown into a hyperactive heist to open this film, and when accompanied by a cool crackerjack music cue reminiscent of The Dark Knight, we're immediately in the mood for action. The chase sets up the conundrum of our hero, Vincent, who seemingly has stolen a bag full of coke from a very bad Corsican gangster, Jose Marciano. Little does he know that he was identified by some other corrupt cops secretly working for Marciano. Vincent arrives home to find his son kidnapped and held as ransom for the dope at Marciano's nightclub. But when an intrepid internal affairs agent steals the bag, Vincent is forced to improvise. It becomes a long night of close-quarters action, aggressive dealings, fistfights and chases all in virtually real time.

Under the wicked lensing of Clint Eastwood's DP Tom Stern, it's as stone cold slick as Michael Mann's roster and as shake-tastically intense as a Paul Greengrass film. It's certainly not Eastwood's staid style at play here, as Stern instead employs a high energy agile camera that bobs and weaves through the throngs of party goers drinking and dancing to the music in the club.

The thumping beat echoes through almost every foot of the film, sometimes droning in the background when the characters are in the bathroom and at other times beating loud and strong when the action moves onto the dance floor.

The preposterousness of the plotting sometimes fails the picture. Arguably it loses some steam in the second half, but the film is utterly realistic. We can practically feel the sweat, smoke and dry ice in the club. Vincent's stakes, his young boy, are genuine and his love for his son fuels a strong emotional core.

This is the kind of movie that action stalwarts Walter Hill, William Friedkin and Michael Mann did so well in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Jardin matches these expert filmmakers almost to the letter.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Funny People

Funny People (2009) dir, Judd Apatow
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan, Leslie Mann, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman

***

By Alan Bacchus

It’s a shame there was no one around to put the brakes on Mr. Apatow because there’s a great picture in Funny People, a really great picture, which unfortunately gets squandered by its excessive running time, as it goes 30 minutes past its stop sign.

It’s the third film as director for Apatow after two critical and box office hits. So it’s no surprise, really, that this effort would stray from the fluffy male-centric situation comedies and delve into something more serious and sophisticated. As such, Funny People feels like his Magnolia – a film that, come hell or high water, would appear on the screen in the form imagined in his mind.

Adam Sandler plays a version of himself, a successful actor/comedian called George Simmons, who has become a superstar celeb via a series of money grabbing kiddie comedies. While selling his soul he’s replaced his once loving relationship with his wife with a depressingly huge mansion, a series of emotionally detached sexual affairs and a general air of sullen self-loathing. When he learns he’s come down with a life threatening blood disease he decides to cleanse his career with a stand up comedy tour.

Enter Ira Wright (Seth Rogan), a budding comedian sleeping on his buddy’s couch, trying to make it big in Hollywood along with a million other like-minded performers. Ira happens to be at the right place at the right time when he does a short stand up gig after a surprise visit to the club from Simmons. Impressed by his writing, Simmons employs Ira as his assistant and joke writer. With Ira under his wing Simmons goes through the process of medication for his affliction and his soul, a relationship that grows slowly and reluctantly into the type of genuine male romance Apatow is so skilled at creating.

For 1 hour and 45 minutes Apatow crafts a touching, but not sappy, relationship drama between two interesting characters. Sandler’s portrayal as Simmons rings true as the decadent celeb with buckets of money but nothing to spend it on. Sandler plays Simmons with little sympathy for much of his relationship with Ira, showing him tough love as a mentor, and Seth Rogen brings across genuine optimism, warmth and sincerity in his performance as Ira.

Between Rogen and Sandler, Apatow uses humour, grace and truth to show the constantly conflicting life of celebrities and specifically comedians. Bipolarism and other such psychological disorders seem to strike comedians more often than other entertainers, which is why many of them turn to drugs to feed a pain that jokes can’t mask. Apatow keeps drugs out of this picture, but reveals these self-hatred and lonely afflictions with poignancy.

He deftly manages tones of melancholy and gut busting raunchy dick-joke humour. The milieu of the LA stand up circuit is rich with authenticity and, of course, teaming with enough gags to satisfy the comedic quotient of any of his other films.

And then there's the third act. The film wraps itself up in character and plot satisfyingly at the 1 hour 45 minute mark, leaving the audience at a place of reflection and revelation for both Ira and George. But Apatow keeps the film going, introducing Eric Bana as the husband and father to George’s pined-after ex-wife (Leslie Mann). This third act essentially reboots the film and its characters without the focus and inspiration of the previous two acts. It meanders on as a domestic drama toward a sloppy slapstick conclusion that leaves all the characters in the same place as at the end of the second act.

It’s a shame. I can only discount this ill-conceived detour to a point. But the film’s excessive length is just too much to ignore, thus reducing a potential four-star film into a mere three-star one.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Contraband

Contraband (2011) dir. Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Lukas Haas, Giovani Ribisi

***

By Alan Bacchus

The success and quality of this film might come with some surprise. For a January doldrums release combined with a ho-hum trailer, there seemed to be no prestige associated with this picture. But dig into the production team involved and its quality and success is not surprising at all. The story of a working class smuggler gone straight but pulled back into his life of crime for one last job makes for a robust actioner in a relatively untapped milieu (port to port seaway lifestyle) told with high-energy plot-turning intensity.

The fact is Contraband is more than just a forgettable piece of studio fluff. First, it comes from Working Title Pictures, the British production company with great taste and genre range, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Shaun of the Dead, The Big Lebowski, Atonement, Bridget Jones. Mark Wahlberg’s also a producer, a fine one with surprisingly good taste. And the director in this endeavour is the Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormakur, known for a varied career of art house (101 Reykjavik) and genre (the fine neo-noir piece A Little Piece of Heaven) pictures, but a consistently strong cinematic style, not to mention the lead actor (not director) of the original Icelandic production. But to execute an action thriller with Hollywood genre expectations? Aiding Kormakur is action lens master Barry Ackroyd, Paul Greengrass’s nimble DOP who handheld those masterpieces of action The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. As such, Kormakur delivers.

Contraband is competitive with any moderately budgeted action film, but it was made outside of Hollywood. Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a regular working class family man in New Orleans. He and his pals seem to be tripping the life fantastic when his disreputable brother-in-law gets his nose into trouble in a smuggling run where he’s forced to dump his goods. But Chris is no ordinary Joe. He’s a reformed smuggler himself, forced back into the world of crime to repay the debt to his maniacal mob boss, Tim Briggs (Ribisi).

So Chris and his pals hatch one last plan to buy some counterfeit money in Panama and smuggle it back into New Orleans. This begins a wild ride, an actioner with a pot boiling plot that turns just about every 15 minutes.

The film cleverly moves from the local gangster plotting in New Orleans to the open waters aboard a transport ship wherein Chris and company have to quietly plot their heist under the nose of the tight ass ship captain (JK Simmons). And when the crew lands in Panama, suddenly we’re in a new country and almost a new movie, an action film anchored by a raucous heist of an armoured car. Kormakur cleverly connects the action to the home front by bringing Chris’s wife and kid into the fold as an added threat.

Then Chris has to get back on the boat with the counterfeit money, which makes for an adventure unto itself, before sailing back and making the final deal with the slimy Briggs. All this plot-turning action is executed with a great sense of pace and strong muscular production value as good as anything at the Tony Scott level of action filmmaking.

Barry Ackroyd’s camera isn’t as shaky as it is with Greengrass, but the stamp of realism is there. The production value achieved with the relatively small budget is admirable. By moving the action from the harbour to inland to the transport ship, Panama and back to New Orleans, it gives the film a larger quality than what was probably on the balance sheet.

But Contraband succeeds because everything is played for real, from the authentic New Orleans locations to the working class men not that far removed from you or me. It's another deceiving performance from Mark Wahlberg, not unlike his modest performance in The Fighter, a hero under extraordinary circumstances played with a humble understatedness. Wahlberg’s ability to be tough and tender at the same time is a rare quality, seemingly innate to him as a person. It’s just one stop in a remarkable overachieving career of a former one-hit wonder rapper and underwear pitchman, now an influential Hollywood star and producer.

Contraband is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

War Horse

War Horse (2011) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson,

**½

By Alan Bacchus

There's a great deal going on in War Horse, but enjoyment of the film essentially comes down to how much you can stomach the Spielberg brand of syrupy schmaltz, where metaphors are loud and clear, no emotions are left unexpressed and almost nothing is between the lines.

If this was a year in which modern films paid homage to the past (i.e., The Artist and Hugo), War Horse would also fit in with this company, harkening back to not only the "mature" Steven Spielberg of the late '80s (The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Always), but the dreamy cinema of John Ford. Ford has creeped into almost all of Spielberg's films in some form of another, but at times, War Horse is, shamelessly, The Quiet Man revisited.

Certainly the opening act does, which feels like a film within a film - the story of the birth of the warhorse Joey and how he came into the company of the Narracott family, specifically smitten young son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), with whom he develops a unique bond. This all takes place in the rolling green hills of Devonshire, beneath impossibly beautiful cloudscapes, shot with the same kind of compositional perfection that made Ford famous. The overly tender sweetness of Albert's unspoken love for the horse, which seems to hypnotize both he and his father (Peter Mullan), is devoid of any kind of reality. For good and bad, it's the stuff of old world Hollywood dream factory filmmaking.

Spielberg settles down for much more accessible second and third acts, where the horse is brought into the cavalry to fight in WWI. This is where Spielberg never misses a beat – choreographing and directing phenomenal action scenes with breathtaking scope and intensity, a talent still unrivalled by even the hottest young directors. The story cleverly follows Joey's Odyssey-like journey from owner to owner, each of whom exhibits their unconditional attachment to the horse. Twists occur that allow us to see both sides of the battle and show the confounding tragic irony of the war as a conflict of cockeyed gentlemen fought by innocent and naive kids with nothing at stake except their lives.

Despite the mushiness, Spielberg does engineer a satisfying and cathartic reunification at the end, a moment drawn out to excess, but a scene in keeping with the storybook tone of the rest of the film, and thus earned dutifully by Spielberg.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) dir. Stephen Daldry
Starring: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max Von Sydow,



By Alan Bacchus

Stephen Daldry's (The Reader, The Hours) latest slice of grief-stricken melodrama (based upon the Jonathan Safran Foer novel of a young boy dealing with the tragic effects of 9/11) is so brutally over-conceived it's tortuous. In fact, young Oskar Snell might just be one of the most annoying characters in recent memory, a boy characterized as too smart and too mature for his age, a savant growing up idolizing his saintly father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), before he tragically died in the World Trade Centre on 9/11.

Daldry, working from another syrupy, magic-realist script from Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), moves back and forth before and after Thomas's death. In flashbacks and narration, we learn of Thomas's odd education of his son, sending him on a series of "reconnaissance missions," challenging Oskar to expand his perception of the world and solve riddles using intelligence, deduction and guile. Several montages show Oskar engaging in impossibly wistful sleuthing, the kind of next-level empowerment and education we expect from privileged, home schooled children, or something perhaps in an episode of The Cosby Show.

After Thomas's death, when Oskar discovers a key hidden in a vase in his closet, he endeavours to discover its lock, a task he accepts with the same dedication and precision as any other reconnaissance mission. The name written on the key is "Black," which sends him on a meticulous but ridiculous search for all the "Blacks" in NYC. Of course, there are hundreds. Yet, each stranger he meets actually welcomes him and engages him in profound conversations on life.

I would forgive this lapse in reality if the film didn't double back on itself and provide an even more ridiculous explanation as to how and why. Not satisfied simply with the idiosyncratic Hardy Boys mission, the filmmakers pile more peculiarities onto Oskar. When he's not making profound pronunciations, he's pinching and scarring himself in secret. He also does Tae Kwan Do, carries around a tambourine to sooth himself, has a fear of subways and bridges, and carries around a gas mask.

Max Von Sydow, curiously nominated for an Oscar here, plays a crotchety old man renting a room in his building, whom Oskar befriends and takes along the journey. Not satisfied with simply having Von Sydow in his movie, Daldry and company have him as a mute, choosing not to speak since the breakdown of his marriage decades ago. Thus, instead of dialogue, Von Sydow writes his thoughts on scribbled pieces of note paper for Oskar to read or follow like breadcrumbs around the city.

All of this hubbub leads to what is intended to be a profound existential reconciliation of the tragedy of 9/11. Using this important event as the background and theme of this tired hodgepodge of melodrama makes this pill even more difficult to swallow.

In the special features, of course, the proclamation of the filmmakers and actors involved would make this picture seem like the greatest film ever made. There's a decent making-of documentary and a casting featurette on the young role of Oskar Snell. But the best segment is the sidebar story of Daniel McGinley, a real person who died in 9/11, whose photo was used in a quick close-up of the memorial wall in the film. What seemed like an innocuous bit of set dressing turns out to have a unique story, one infinitely more emotional and resonant than this film's.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Monday, 16 April 2012

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jerermy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Michael Nyqvist

***

By Alan Bacchus

Tom Cruise is one resilient guy – not just his Ethan Hunt character, who gets knocked around like a fumbled football, but the movie star himself, who is currently on a fine career comeback of sorts from his low point – the couch surfing debacle, his stupid Scientology pronunciations, as well as the horrific Knight and Day. Doing another Mission Impossible movie (a fourth one) seemed, perhaps, to be like going back to a dry well.

But then the film became a massive hit, one of the biggest films of the year and genuinely a terrific action film, arguably the second best of the series. The De Palma-directed original is still unrivalled, a film that actually gets better with age. I doubt Ghost Protocol will last as long as the first film – already on second viewing, it’s not as thrilling. But it’s still better than the John Woo or the JJ Abrams entries.

In this film Ethan Hunt begins the film in a Russian prison, about to be broken out by his crack IMF team, this time featuring the luscious Paula Patton and the witty Simon Pegg. It’s a tense and yet surprisingly humorous scene, equal parts Cruise’s muscular showmanship and Spielberg comedy. Once free, Hunt and company track down some stolen Russian launch codes. In order to locate them they have to infiltrate the Kremlin to find files on the #1 suspect, Cobalt. Here we move to set piece #2 in the film, a terrific combination of new wave techno gadgetry and delicately paced Hitchcockian tension, ending in a running chase and a huge CG explosion.

The Americans are blamed for the Kremlin blast, rendering all IMF teams disavowed. Thus, the group is forced to fend for themselves. They are joined by a slick new analyst, William Brandt (Renner), who is not used to the crazy lifestyle of the field operators on a globe-trotting mission to recover the nuclear launch codes before an evil Swedish scientist can destroy the world.

As with most action films and the Mission Impossible series in particular, MI:4 is anchored by its set pieces. However, the best moments of these films and the original series aren't necessarily the action, but rather the heist-like covert operations and tactics of the crew. The prison sequence is decent and gets the film going, and the Kremlin sequence has the gadgets and detailed subversion plotting we like to see. But the film reaches its high (pun intended) in the Dubai Burj sequence, in which Hunt and company have to break into the computer room of the building from the outside 130 floors up. The sight of the real Cruise hanging (albeit with a digitally removed safety harness) up that high is astonishing. More so in Imax, less so on the small screen, of course. This scene continues with an equally well executed sequence exchanging the aforementioned launch codes for a set of diamonds. Here Bird uses somewhat realistic high tech devices like contact lens-sized cameras that can photocopy documentation remotely in the blink of an eye. It’s a stretch, but not that much to have us suspend our disbelief.

This sequence leads to a chase in a sandstorm, which perhaps might pay homage to the ultimate sandstorm sequence in cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman. I doubt it though.

Unfortunately, MI:4 never gets better than the Dubai scenes. When the film moves to Mumbai, the two main set pieces – Jeremy Renner crawling inside a computer mainframe looking to deactivate a nuclear missile and Cruise battling Dragon Tattoo alum Michael Nyqvist in a remotely operated parking garage tower – never trump the Kremlin or Dubai sequences. And the ticking clock, a race to disarm a nuclear missile midfield, is the stuff of bad James Bond plotting.

Pixar vet Brad Bird makes a strong live action debut as director, though he doesn’t have a sense of his own style yet, not like JJ Abrams did in his outing. However bad, at least John Woo’s film felt like a John Woo film. And of course, Brian De Palma’s is an action-suspense masterpiece. That said, this film, and in fact all of the MI films (even John Woo’s), make the tired old James Bond films look like amateur work. Credit goes to Tom Cruise and his resilience, as evidenced in the Blu-ray special features. He appears to be a passionate cinema junkie who gets a kick out of making entertaining action films from this series. I just wish he didn't take his shirt off so much – for some reason it makes me uncomfortable.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Fly Away Home


Fly Away Home (1996) dir. Carroll Ballard
Starring: Anna Paquin, Jeff Daniels, Dana Delany, Terry Kinney

***½

By Alan Bacchus

The notion of a ‘family film’ usually either means dumbed-down cartoonish characters like Alvin and the Chipmunks, retread CG-heavy mythological fantasy pictures like The Golden Compass or Disney Channel exploitation like Hannah Montana – certainly not films that play to an age above the children who beg their parents to see them.

This is what makes Fly Away Home a marvelous gem to be treasured and rediscovered. In addition to having all the elements that would appeal to kids, specifically an independent young girl equaling or besting adults with hordes of cute animals playing with humans, the film is never "childish”. Director Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) executes his tone of awe-struck wonder and discovery with an artistic integrity comparable to Days of Heaven.

In the opening scene we meet Amy Alden, who has just been in a car accident in New Zealand that killed her mother. She wakes up half-way across the world in Canada with her father, whom she barely knows, staring at her. Jeff Daniels, who plays her father Tom, is framed in a bold close-up, immediately expressing his warmth and compassion (a testament to Daniels’ marvelous acting skills, which anchor the film). Anna Paquin, who plays the young 12-year-old Amy, is a perfect match for Daniels. Fresh off her Oscar win for The Piano, her performance is so natural it’s perhaps one of the most underrated child performances I’ve ever seen.

In Canada, Amy is forced to adapt to life in a new environment with a new father and without her mother. Exploring the beautiful Eastern Ontario landscape she finds a group of neglected goose eggs, which, unbeknownst to her father, she weans into the world. When Tom and Amy discover that the government authorities have a law against domestically raising wild birds, the duo take it upon themselves to find a way to get the geese on their natural migratory path. Tom’s knack as a hobbyist inventor and amateur pilot gives him the idea to teach the birds to migrate using his newly invented ultra light glider. Thus, Amy and Tom achieve the impossible and fly with their adopted birds across the continental US to their migratory home in the south.

The metaphors in the recent Hannah Montana/High School Musical brand of Disney films rarely run deeper than grade school clique-ism, and so the distinct existential themes of Fly Away Home make it a fascinating film in the genre. Obviously, the notion of the bird’s migration and finding a home far away echoes Amy’s displacement from New Zealand, and her replacement of her mother with her own maternal instincts for the geese are clear but never preached.

Caleb Deschanel, whose cinematography received a deserved Oscar nomination, has his stamp all over the film. He collaborated with Ballard on The Black Stallion and he brings the same elegance to this picture. The same goes for Deschanel’s sense of wonder, which he also elevated to mythic proportions in The Natural and The Right Stuff.

Alfonso Cuaron’s A Little Princess makes a good comparison as well. It’s the film that got him his Harry Potter gig. It’s an interesting comparison because watching Ballard execute his tone of awe and wonder made me think that he would have been a fine choice as director of one of those movies.

Fly Away Home gave me a chance to look into director Carroll Ballard’s filmography. Despite a career of solid and successful films, including The Black Stallion (1979) and Never Cry Wolf (1983), his output has been sparse. Fly Away Home comes after a four-year absence after his last film, Wind (1992). In all, Ballard has made only six films in 30 years, an admirable career of quality over quantity. Oh yeah, he also happens to be the son of Sam Peckinpah’s legendary cinematographer, Lucian Ballard, who was classmates with Francis Coppola at USC and shot second unit photography on Star Wars.

"Fly Away Home" is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Friday, 13 April 2012

Elvis on Tour

Elvis on Tour (1973) dir. Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel
Documentary

***½

By Alan Bacchus

In the usual fan-generated or even critic-generated lists of best music/concert films of all time, Elvis on Tour rarely seems to come up. Perhaps it’s because it depicts the elder Elvis in the twilight of his career, the Elvis with the jumpsuit, rhinestone belts, rings, cape, sideburns and choral grandiosity of his performances.

I admit to never really being a fan of the music, the blues-based early rock tunes that is, because, well, I was always a Beatles man. And so watching Elvis on Tour is like being introduced to the King of Rock and Roll for the first time. I found myself watching Elvis perform for an hour and a half, taking in the details of his stage persona, vocal range, musicianship, audience rapport, etc. It's also like watching Elvis doing an impression of someone else’s impression of Elvis. The wild gestating arms and legs, the aforementioned jumpsuits and the snarling Tennessee accent all suddenly seem accessible and authentic. This is the real deal, the real Elvis, not shown as camp or through the filter of nostalgia, but Elvis as it happened.

And it’s a thrill.

It’s 1972 and Elvis, the King himself, embarks on a 16 city, 15 day tour of heartland America with documentarians Adige and Abel following him on and off stage. It was a different time back then. The venues were more off the beaten path with most of the footage used from performances in Richmond, Virginia, Hampton Roads, Virginia and Greensboro, N.C. And despite being the King, it’s a mostly no frills stage set up (imagine what kind of visual spectacle he could generate in today’s demand for old rockers). Instead, it’s the phenomenal swagger and performance of Elvis providing the pizzazz.

Elvis classics such as Don’t be Cruel, Love Me Tender and even ‘new’ tunes (for 1972) like Burning Love and A Big Hunk of Love are played. Elvis’s voice is fantastic, projecting his unique mix of blues, gospel and country to the devoted fans. In traditional fashion the directors go behind the scenes and watch the movements of Elvis back stage, through hotels and in the public over these 15 days.

The attention around Elvis is still astonishing, and his ability to project an air of modesty and humbleness shows why he was so adored. Of course, Elvis died 5 years later, and who knows what kind of pills he was on at the time. But for these 15 days he seems to be in the best shape of his life. In several scenes we watch Elvis, at an age close to 40, being chased through the streets and stands by grown women, like the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night.

It’s all part of the filmmakers’ theme of fan appreciation. Abel and Adige continually cut between Elvis performances and the fans, an over-the-top exaltation of the King before it skyrocketed to the level of big business and industry that it is today.

The film is a visual delight as well. The directors, influenced by the success of Woodstock, used the same split-screen effects to show Elvis from various angles at the same time and allow the viewer to take in the atmosphere of the entire concert experience all at once. Martin Scorsese, who cut some of Woodstock, even supervised the ‘montage’ sequences in this film – a number of scenes that show the rise of Elvis’s career, as well as the fast paced lifestyle he led back then.

There’s a distinct use of repetition, specifically the song Hail Elvis used to bring Presley to the stage in each show. We hear the song half a dozen times, effectively conveying the constant grind of the rock and roll touring lifestyle.

Despite all the fan exuberance, the film ends on a very eerie and somber credit sequence – a tone of quiet melancholy, as if Elvis was already dead, or was going to die soon. But of course, Elvis was very much alive when the film came out, and so it’s a little spooky, but surprisingly emotional when watching it today. With Elvis on Tour being his last film, it now serves as the unintended swan song for one of music’s greatest performers.

Elvis on Tour is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven (1961) dir. John Sturges
Starring: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz, Brad Dexter, Charles Bronson

**½

By Alan Bacchus

I won’t even compare The Magnificent Seven to the Seven Samurai, the legendary Akira Kurosawa epic that inspired this remake. The fact is, despite the difference in quality, Kurosawa’s film was ripe for adaptation. The Western frontier setting closely resembles feudal Japan, and the bushido code of honour serves as the unwritten form of law that governs the motivations of the heroes of the western genre. Though immensely popular and successful, John Sturges’ film is so remarkably straightforward and uncomplicated, and thus merely watchable, compared to other more revered American westerns of its era.

The poor Mexicans in this film are victimized with maximum sympathy, and the American heroes are characterized as honourable knights riding in to save the day. In the opening scene a Mexican village is raided by malicious bandits led by a particularly nasty looking Eli Wallach. It’s an annual ritual for these poor people, and now for three of the humble residents it’s time to fight back. But gosh darn-it if they don’t know what to do. And so, they take advice from their respected elder, who tells them they need guns!

After travelling to the local town, they discover there are men to hire who do this kind of work, two of whom are Chris (Brynner) and Vin (McQueen). These characters are introduced boldly confronting some racist gunslingers protesting the burial of an Indian in their graveyard. After their courageous confrontation, the three Mexicans quickly sign up Chris and Vin, who then go about finding four other worthy hands to complete their team. The others include the knife throwing expert, Britt (James Coburn), the gentlemanly northerner, Lee (Robert Vaughn), Chris’s old buddy, Harry (Brad Dexter), and Irish-Mexican strongman Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson). The seventh member, as in Kurosawa’s film, is the wannabe slinger, Chico (Horst Buchholz), who tags along and proves himself worthy and courageous despite the doubts of the others. While staying in the Mexican village the heroes ingratiate themselves with the local women, who of course see the men as heroic saviours and subservient to their desires.

Several steely-eyed, tense confrontations provide some decent action scenes, but everything is played so on-the-nose with absolutely no subtext or shades of grey in between. This is typical of most of John Sturges’ late career work as an action director who became an expert at big action films with large casts (e.g., The Great Escape).

The Magnificent Seven delivers on what it aspires to be, an uncomplicated showcase for its ensemble of actors for the brain-dead populace. It’s a popcorn movie – a low-risk exercise in studio filmmaking. But sometimes we all need some meat and potatoes to fill us up, and The Magnificent Seven just barely satisfies this appetite. Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score and the strong actors filling those seven Magnificent roles makes it all watchable. But that’s all this film is – watchable.

The Magnificent Seven is available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Carnage

Carnage (2011) dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Christophe Waltz

***½

By Alan Bacchus

Recalling the power of the fiery words of the four adults in Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Carnage, the latest Roman Polanski film, based on the stage play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, has the same kind of effect. In this film Polanski assembles two couples bickering about the restitution deserved when one child assaults the other child in a play yard spat. Carnage’s approach is more suitable and satirical than Wolf, keenly skewering the conservative elite, liberal wonkheads and in general the ineffectiveness of civilized dispute resolution – intellectual nihilism at its best.

Jodie Foster is a wound-up tight liberal writer/librarian harbouring strong feelings of inadequacy about her weak writing career. John C. Reilly, her husband, is a salt of the earth bathroom fixture salesman, partly emasculated by his current domestic status as equal caregiver to his son. Together they have a son, whom we never see, but whom was the victim of a blow from another boy in the school yard, which has left him with some facial lacerations and in need of dental work. Kate Winslet is a lawyer in a doomed marriage with a workaholic investment banker, Christophe Waltz, who spends most of his time on his Blackberry. They are the parents of the other boy committed the assault.

The film opens with the negotiation process of the formal apology letter, nitpicking every word in a passive aggressive way to exert their authority over the other. When it's time to leave, Alan and Nancy (Waltz/Winslet) can’t seem to get out of the door, or get in the elevator without being sucked back into their argument. Michael and Penelope (Reilly/Foster), likewise, just can’t let go of the damage inflicted upon their son. The rest of the day is spent in a complex and evolving dialogue between the four boobs, fueled by scotch. Their unspoken opinions of each other and themselves devolve the get-together into a satirical spat for the ages.

Polanski is certainly at home working in a cramped apartment, deftly moving his camera from character to character and around the room while escalating tension before spilling over into its angered catharsis. The film is scripted by Reza and Polanski, who are very careful not to assign full culpability to any of the characters. Foster is delightfully grating as a ball of neuroses, the turning point represented by her attachment to an art book coffee table decoration that gets puked on by Kate Winslet. Initially, Reilly appears to be the mediator but then reveals his former life as a bully, not unlike his son, who revelled in his school yard status and quiet envy of Waltz's alpha male persona. Waltz’s droll reactions to all the shenanigans makes him the audience’s point of view into the absurdity, always maintaining his composure with a straight face, but still annoyingly crass and self-absorbed. Winslet is perhaps the most normal of the bunch, but once the scotch starts flowing she unleashes her own form of verbal vengeance on Michael, Penelope and her husband, Alan.

The title of the film refers to the God of Carnage, discussed by the characters, which serves as a mythological metaphor for the effectiveness of simple school yard justice versus the inane dance of manners. For fear of indulging in too much intellectual hyperbole, Reza brilliantly has Kate Winslet puke over Penelope’s coffee table, a ridiculous absurdist act that gleefully pays homage to the surrealist king, Luis Bunuel. But Carnage stays on the side of realism. We can't help but see ourselves in each of these characters, who make the discussion thoroughly engaging, hilarious and powerful.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Our Day Will Come

Our Day Will Come (2010) dir. Romain Gavras
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Olivier Barthelemy

**½

By Alan Bacchus

Young Remy is a redhead, which has fostered an inferiority complex. He’s pushed around by his schoolmates, his mother, his sister and even his World of Warcraft internet girlfriend. And so when Vincent Cassel, playing a disaffected therapist named Patrick, meets up with him, it sparks Remy’s inner nihilist, which puts him on a mission to travel to Ireland and unite with his redheaded brethren.

Romain Gavras (son of Costas Gavras) has created something in the realm of a French Fight Club, but without the fighting and the satire. The film works best in the first half when we see Patrick take the emasculated Remy under his wing and teaches him to stand up for himself. He starts a fight with some Arabs in a café just to see Remy's reaction. Patrick then gives Remy an alter ego, assuming the guise of a kick boxer in order to pick up a couple of girls on the street. Once Remy has taken control of his life and asserted his dominance as a redhead, they embark on a rambunctious road trip to Ireland.

Vincent Cassel is typically magnetic as the Tyler Durden figure in Remy’s life. He’s also credited as producer, which perhaps explains how he could be convinced to shave his head and eyebrows, appear full monty and engage in a rather eye-popping three-way sex scene in which he actually lights a woman’s chest on fire.

After a rather involving setup, the film loses focus fast, and in the second half it devolves into a series of increasingly random events and inexplicable behaviour from the characters. Patrick loses his sanity completely after the aforementioned drunken chest fire lighting incident and finishes out the film in a zombie-like daze.

Barthelemy as Remy is a good match to the Cassel aura of debauchery. By the end, Gavras successfully transforms Remy into a cross bow-armed badass Travis Bickle, rescuing Patrick from society in a balloon.

Gavras does manage to salvage the film with the odd but strangely beautiful ending as the two men escape the world and sail off into the sunset. I’m not quite sure what it means, or how it completes their journey, but somehow it feels right.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Insomnia

Insomnia (2002) dir. Christopher Nolan
Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt

***1/2

By Alan Bacchus

After the success of Memento, choosing to direct this film based on the 1997 Erik Skjoldbjærg Swedish thriller was a smart career decision for Christopher Nolan. For several reasons; 1) he didn’t have to write the film, and thus exercised his muscles at adapting someone else’s work; 2) he could shoot it back-to-back with Memento, and even before the previous film had come out; 3) he was working with a more conventional story with the rules of the procedural/serial killer genre as a safety net.

The result is a resounding though modest success, not a mindblowingly ambitious production in the vain of the Batman pictures, Inception or even The Prestige, but an unpretentious yet beguiling little one-off nonetheless.

Will Dormer (Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Donovan) are a pair of big city LA cops who have come to a cosy little northern Alaskan town to investigate a grisly murder of a young teenaged girl. Dormer in particular is carrying the baggage of an internal affairs investigation involving tampered evidence in an earlier case. The stress of this case combined with the ever-present sun, which because of their high latitude provides perpetual sunlight, puts Dormer in a perpetual haze. Despite this, Dormer is all business and picks apart the case with the precision of a surgeon, instantly taking command.

But on their first sting, Eckhart is accidently shot and killed by Dormer, and a split-second wrong choice by Dormer to cover it up results in a steady downward spiral in which his personal ethics become foggier and foggier. Dormer finds himself teaming up with the serial killer to cover up his partner's killing and save his own ass. He would be home free if it wasn't for a spry and ambitious brownnoser, Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who is close on Dormer’s trail.

There was no need to fuss with the original material, as Hillary Seitz's script is written with efficiency, a near carbon copy of Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg’s screenplay. It’s an unflashy yet deceitful story that provides a number of unexpected turns - not twists in the sense of shocking moments of revelation, but choices made by the protagonist, which turn the vice of tension and stakes. These moments are spaced out throughout the 90 minutes of the film. First there’s the death of Eckhart and Dormer’s decision to cover it up. Then there’s the introduction of Robin Williams as the serial killer at the halfway point, a new active character in the film and the quiet partnership they form together. And lastly, there's the slight twist of betrayal of Dormer against Finch in the end.

Along the way Nolan finds time to draw just enough attention to a couple of smaller powerful moments of insight into Dormer’s character. The most important of which is when Dormer refuses to sign Ellie’s police report on Eckhart’s death. It comes towards the end when Dormer is at his most haggard. With the report closed off, the trail of Dormer’s cover-up would have been cut off too. But Nolan makes Dormer stop and pause, and without overt motivation he tells Ellie to double-check her report before filing it. It’s dramatized without much of a beat, but looking back it serves as Dormer’s unspoken confession and desire to give himself up and one of the most important moments in the film.

Insomnia is a mostly dour thriller, but what serial killer films aren't? It doesn't have the visceral impact of Seven or Silence of the Lambs. It's part of the simmering tension that underlies the story, but never really explodes with the force of those other two films. Nolan’s frequent musical collaborator other than Hans Zimmer is David Julyan, who composes a moody score not unlike his work on Memento and The Prestige, and perhaps influenced by the atmospheric scores of Howard Shore. It perfectly complements Nolan’s slow and steady pacing and the foggy mountain vistas and overcast sunlit visuals.

Despite the praise and mondo box office success, from these eyes Inception was more of a mess of ideas than anything else. It will be a while before we see if Nolan returns to the intimate close-off style of filmmaking of Insomnia or Memento. We’ll have to wait until after the third Batman movie to find out.

Insomnia is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Titanic


Titanic (1997) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo Di Caprio, Kathy Bates, Billy Zane, David Warner, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton

****

By Alan Bacchus

It’s been 15 years since the Titanic phenomenon. It shattered the domestic and worldwide box office records by such a margin, only recently trumped astonishingly by Cameron's next dramatic feature, Avatar. Like most successes, the bigger it got the more people wanted to tear it down. It’s been trounced on like a dirty old carpet ever since. Sure, the dialogue is ham-fisted and the romance is a little syrupy, but with a fresh set of eyes Titanic is still great entertainment and worthy of its records.

James Cameron wanted Titanic to be his Doctor Zhivago, and so, like David Lean, the film begins in present day and flashes back to retrace the memories of a tragic love story against the background of a large scale historical event. The opening introduces Rose (Gloria Stuart), who is brought aboard a ship of a treasure hunter looking for a lost diamond necklace from the wreckage of the Titanic. Rose recounts the story of her fateful trip in 1912 to the high-tech treasure hunters.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jack, a poor American looking for a ride back to his homeland. He wins his ticket during a game of poker, hops on the boat in the nick of time and sails off. When he rescues the lovely erudite Rose from a suicide attempt he becomes the local hero and finds himself hobnobbing with the upper class elite, namely Rose’s impudent fiancé, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Longing glances from across tables turn into gleeful flirting around the boat then passionate sweaty sex in the back of a car. Then, of course, the boat hits an iceberg and the crew and passengers have one hour to get off before it sinks. Despite numerous attempts by Cal to separate them, Rose and Jack stay together all the way into the freezing cold water where their fleeting romance will eventually go down with the ship.

Indeed, much of the film is clunky as hell and the sappy paperback romance is replete with some of the worst dialogue and two-dimensional characterizations, but James Cameron has a knack for good casting, and his lead actors are so likeable the dialogue is more than tolerable. In 1997, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were young, and though not household names, both were already Oscar-nominated actors. DiCaprio is just about the perfect everyman, and Kate Winslet, who was practically born in a corset, falls into her character like an old shoe. Together sparks are palpable, something only the big screen can create.

Looking back, Billy Zane as Cal Hockley is still grating and nearly unwatchable. His performance is so bad, despite being the biggest movie ever made, it was a career killer. Virtually every word out of his mouth is like bile.

With the star-crossed lover romance firmly in place and the antagonists identified, once the ships starts going down the tech-master Cameron takes over and delivers an awesome 90-minute disaster sequence. It’s an Irwin Allen extravaganza with every penny of its $200 million budget on the screen. Cameron had a gimballed full-scale replica of “Titanic” docked in a man-made tank in Mexico. Some of the CG effects during the first half of the film look cartoony now, but everything blends in well during the nighttime scenes. My favourite moment is that poor digital person who falls and gets hit by the propeller on his way into the water. The three editors, one of whom is Cameron himself, deserve much of the reward for cutting together the moments of disaster-related suspense with the emotional anguish of joining Rose and Jack together.

For intrepid cinephiles I highly recommend going back to Roy Ward Baker’s take on the Titanic story, 1958’s A Night to Remember, now on Criterion Blu-ray and reviewed just a few days ago. Imagine Titanic without the love story. You will find many similarities between the two films, including several blatantly stolen shots from the 1958 version. The production value is surprisingly high. Check it out.

Okay, so take out Leo’s “I’m king of the world” line, Billy Zane and maybe Danny Nucci, and you have a perfectly enjoyable film. Leave them both in there and chew some potato chips over those moments and you still have a fine film. 

Friday, 6 April 2012

Body Double

Body Double (1984) dir,. Brian De Palma
Starring: Craig Wassen, Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry,

**½

By Alan Bacchus

It would be easy to instantly dismiss Body Double as a grade B Hitchcock thriller and shamelessly exploitative ‘80s skin flick because with the naked eye that’s pretty much what this picture is. The twists in the potboiling plot are forecastable from the outset, most of the acting and dialogue is atrocious, and the excessive skin would appear to be the worst kind of gratuitous nudity synonymous with ‘80s genre filmmaking.

Appreciation of this film, though, requires a deep knowledge of cinema history past and present. There’s a reason Brian De Palma’s pictures, especially his suspense thrillers, captured the attention of esteemed critics like Pauline Kael, newer generation filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and cinephiles like me. Certainly the style and craft of the look and sound of his films are striking, and even in his absolutely worst pictures De Palma has the ability to craft stand-alone set pieces of cinematically visceral power.

Body Double is in the genre of his ‘Hitchcock-influenced’ (or some might say Hitchcock-obsessed) suspense films, along with Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Raising Cain. Written by De Palma himself, Body Double mashes obsessive elements of Vertigo and the voyeuristic themes of Rear Window. Craig Wassen plays Jake Scully, a struggling actor who gets fired from his latest horror movie for his extreme claustrophobia, an ailment which prevents him from functioning properly in enclosed spaces. In one of his acting classes he meets a fellow actor looking for a house sitter to occupy a large home in the Hollywood hills. One of the attractions of the space is its vantage point to peer into the neighbour’s homes, in particular the bedroom of an attractive young gal who likes to dance naked in front of her window.

When Scully witnesses a robbery in her home, he turns his obsession for the woman into a sense of protection and follows her around town. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, he’s unable to prevent her despicable murder at the hands (or should I say 3-foot drill) of her shifty and elusive stalker. The cut-and-dry murder for money motive unravels into a complex game of deception involving a porno actress and Scully‘s own claustrophobic ailment.

The theft from Vertigo is obvious, as Scully is a poorly masked shadow of Jimmy Stewart’s character, substituting out a fear of heights for Scully's fear of enclosed spaces. The narrative structure rolls out with the same timing as Vertigo. Like the death of Kim Novak's character in Vertigo, the neighbour's murder occurs at the midpoint, thus spinning the plot into a direction back onto the main character, revealing a diabolical plot exploiting the hero’s ailments and obsessions. With Rear Window, the homage is even more obvious but also more superficial than Vertigo. In fact, most of De Palma’s pictures use this point of view of voyeurism as a theme.

Below this surface lie even more fun cinematic layers. The title has a dual meaning for De Palma. Sure, it refers to Melanie Griffith’s character’s role in the plotting, a metaphor for the ease of deception men can be tricked by when it comes to sex. The final scene, which would appear to be gratuitous nudity, a film-within-a-film scene featuring Scully as a vampire fondling a naked woman in a shower, actually references De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and the body double used by Angie Dickinson in her infamous opening shower scene. Perhaps reacting to the critical drubbing that picture and that scene in particular received, De Palma lampoons himself with his own recreation.

Quentin Tarantino has never been shy to express his interest in De Palma’s films. There was that particularly gleeful De Palma homage in Kill Bill Vol 1 in the hospital. But look carefully at the climax of Body Double when Scully finds himself trapped in a grave being buried alive by his assailant. During this scene De Palma cuts away to a lengthy flashback/dream sequence within the character’s head, which gives him the strength to escape - a scene which appears to directly influence the Bride’s great graveyard escape in Kill Bill Vol 2.

Other goodies in Body Double include the glorious centrepiece, the lengthy foot chase sequence in the shopping mall. It's a classic cat and mouse De Palma set piece choreographed elegantly and set to the wonderfully melodramatic tones of Pino Donnagio’s swooning score. There's also the lengthy and aesthetically out of place Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video sequence.

After the then-perceived failure of Scarface, Body Double represents one of the few major lows in De Palma's career. De Palma would eventually pick himself back up with the Untouchables and Casualties of War later in the decade. But with most of De Palma's career behind him, we're able to appreciate Body Double in the greater context of his career and cinema history.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

A Night to Remember

A Night to Remember (1958) dir. Roy Ward Baker
Starring: Kenneth More, Michael Goodliffe, Frank Lawton, Richard Leech, David McCallum

****

By Alan Bacchus

Timed with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, not to mention the 3D version of James Cameron’s Titanic, is The Criterion Collection edition of the glorious version of the Titanic story. This is a must-see picture, a little-discussed epic masterpiece astonishing in its production value and moving emotional power.

The James Cameron version is no doubt a massive spectacle, which, however corny at times, delivers the drama of the event on every level. The same can be said of Roy Ward Baker’s British film, made 40 years earlier. Cameron has never been shy to borrow, cheat or steal from films of the past. Terminator successfully reworked some of the time travel cleverness of Chris Marker’s La Jetee. His Aliens film, though not cinematically linked, certainly has a reverent use of Robert A. Heinlein story elements. And True Lies definitely gave credit to the 1991 French film, La Totale!

There’s no doubt Cameron took influence from Baker’s film, resorting to blatant theft in numerous scenes that are choreographed and shot exactly the same as Baker’s. This, of course, is the sincerest form of flattery.

Baker begins his film by introducing a number of his characters kissing their loved ones goodbye before their short-lived journey aboard the famed ill-fated boat. It doesn’t take long before we’re on the boat sailing off into the Atlantic. Baker expertly introduces a number of characters, many of which are the familiar roles from other Titanic adaptations - Edward Smith, the ship’s captain; William Murdoch, the first officer; Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line Chairman; Thomas Andrews, the ship builder; and Charles Lightoller (More), the second officer. The latter two serve as the de facto ‘heroes’ of the film, who fight the hardest to save the crew.

Baker hits all the well established events that lead up to the sinking, including the sighting of the iceberg, the response of the neighbouring ships, the Carpathia and the California, the quick acknowledgement of the engineer and the captain of the fate of the ship, the shamefully inadequate evacuation procedures of the crew and the frightening wait for rescue in the icy Atlantic waters after the sinking.

He expertly lays out all these events with procedural-like efficiency. They’re so good and effective, many of Baker’s scenes are carbon copied into Cameron’s. Like Cameron’s, the production design of the ship’s interior and exterior is impeccably recreated, and the use of a scale ship model in a studio water tank lends the same kind of invisible authenticity. Cameron directly lifts the scene when the band, dutifully playing through all the chaos of the evacuation, splits up to go their separate ways then is coaxed back together when one of the violinists stays to play on by himself.

Before Cameron, Baker plotted out a mutiny of sorts by the Irish steerage passengers, who break through the barred-in doors despite the protests of the ineffectual and naive crew members. The final moments for Andrews, the engineer who goes down with the ship but not before he takes the time to adjust the clock as a testament to his calm heroic demeanour, are as poignant as Cameron’s. And lastly, the disgraceful departure of White Star Line Chairman Bruce Ismay is duplicated shot-for-shot by Cameron with Ismay shamefully stepping into a lifeboat, witnessed by the judgemental eyes of the second officer. In both versions it becomes a touchstone moment for the cowardice of Ismay and the tragic irony of the whole affair.

What is certainly missing from Baker’s film is a love story, though not at the sacrifice of the tragic and deeply emotional individual stories of heroism and tragedy from the point of the varied crew members. The central through line in A Night to Remember is the scathing theme of class hierarchy and the stubbornness of the arrogant rich folks who believed the ship couldn’t sink. The tragically ironic story for the ages is made into a spectacle for the ages.

A Night to Remember is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Vanya on 42nd Street

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) dir. Louis Malle
Starring: Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Brooke Smith, Larry Pine, Andre Gregory

****

By Greg Klymkiw
"When we come to die, we'll die submissively. Beyond the grave we will testify that we've suffered, that we've wept that we've known bitterness. And God will take pity on us and we will live a life of radiant joy and beauty and we'll look back on this life of our unhappiness with tenderness and we'll smile. And in that new life we shall rest, we shall rest to the songs of the angels in a firmament arrayed in jewels and we'll look down and we'll see evil, all the evil in the world and all our sufferings bathed in a perfect mercy and our lives grown sweet as a caress." - Sonya's final monologue in David Mamet's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play "Uncle Vanya".

If your idea of a good time is not watching two hours of wasted lives, think again. When those same wasted lives come to the collective realization - almost like a series of epiphanies - of just how much they've failed to fulfill their dreams and/or promise, you'll have been rewarded with a journey that will have enriched your very being.

Vanya on 42nd Street is raw in its emotion and approach. Watching Louis Malle's film of the David Mamet adaptation of the great play "Uncle Vanya" is one of the best ways to experience Anton Chekhov on film.

The final product represents the culmination of Andre Gregory's grand theatrical experiment of taking some of New York's greatest actors and rehearsing Vanya for two years with no intention of ever staging it. Gregory, (the Andre of Malle's My Dinner With Andre) had a dream - to create an ideal opportunity for great actors to intimately dive into the depths of Chekhov's multi-layered work - to get to know the text so deeply that the journey's end would, in fact, never end. The goal was to infuse these actors with Chekhov's genius and, at the same time, for very select audiences - usually in the living rooms of friends' apartments - to experience, from Gregory's vantage point, both the journey of the actors and that of Chekhov's characters.

Malle attended one of these legendary living room performances and immediately decided a film version that captured both Gregory's vision and the truly astounding interpretations of Mamet's adaptation of Chekhov's work was in order. With Malle's unique eye as a cinematic storyteller - blending both his documentary background with his deft and delicate touch for drama, Malle framed a performance of the play as a run-through with the actors - in their street clothes and in the environs of a crumbling old theatre on 42nd Street in New York.

At first, we're quite aware of this conceit, but as the magic of Chekhov overtakes us, it's impossible not to be drawn in by the brilliance of the original play, Mamet's adaptation (more of an edit, or polish - to strip out a few formal tropes of theatre from Chekhov's period), a gorgeously composed, though unobtrusive camera and last, but not least, a cast that includes actors who seem like they were born to evoke Chekhov's universal themes and language.

Vanya (Wallace Shawn, the writer of Malle's My Dinner With Andre and who played the "My" of the title) is the brother-in-law of Serebryakov (George Gaynes), a stuffy academic who acquired an old country estate by marrying his first wife (Vanya's late sister) and has now, left his widowhood behind to marry the unmistakably beautiful Yelena (Julianne Moore). With his niece Sonya (Brooke Smith), Vanya manages the estate and the business affairs of his late sister's blusteringly pretentious husband. The family receives visits from Astrov (Larry Pine), a physician constantly called to tend to Serebryakov's ailments - most of which are of the psychosomatic variety.

Vanya and Yelena are greatly suited to each other in every respect - save for the fact that she finds him physically repulsive. Astrov, along with Vanya, is madly in love with Yelena. She's physically attracted to him, but they clearly do not share the intellect and humour she enjoys with Vanya. Then there's Sonya - who is madly in love with Astrov, who barely notices she's there - hanging on his every move, word and gesture. Serebryakov loves Yelena, but fears he is too old for her. Yelena, clearly has no love for Serebryakov, but she is intent to stay faithful to him.

These roiling passions - all unrequited - come to a head when Serebryakov decides he wishes to sell the estate and move to Finland. This would displace the whole family and housekeeping staff. Vanya is finally, after years of subservience and servitude, forced into action.

Wallace Shawn is a perfect Vanya - a funny, charming, yet occasionally sad-sack nebbish. His lovely performance elicits an equal number of laughs and tears. Julianne Moore is utterly radiant as the object of everyone's affection and Larry Pine as the physician who abandons everything for a love that will never be, is a perfect skewed-reverse-image of Shawn's Vanya. The revelation is the sad, funny and yes, beautiful Charlotte Moore as Sonya - her character creeps about in the background, yet when she exudes a force before unimagined, it instills the overwhelmingly expressive feeling that, "Of course! Her actions and words make total sense!" Moore deliver's Sonya's final speech from the play with such gentle, persuasive force that I can't imagine anyone watching it dry-eyed.

Vanya on 42nd Street is an extraordinary experience. Malle's career was one in which he delivered many great films. This one in particular made me and his numerous admirers wait with baited breath for his next work. Sadly it never came. It was his last film before he died of lymphoma one year after making the picture.

I can't think of a more perfect swan song.

"Vanya on 42nd Street" is currently available on a gorgeous new Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. In addition to the stunning new transfer, it is accompanied by modest, but at the same time, extremely informative and revealing extra features.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Chinatown


Chinatown (1974) dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston

****

By Alan Bacchus

Chinatown is a unique Hollywood concoction – a gumshoe thriller in the classic noir genre, but also modern and beguiling. It’s a twister that unravels to reveal a salacious melodrama motivating a big business urban conspiracy.

Jake Gittes is an L.A. private detective in the 1930s. One day a woman named Evelyn Mulray enters his office and hires him to spy on her husband, Hollis Mulray, whom she suspects of cheating. Jake is initially hesitant to take the case, as he honestly explains that she’s better off not knowing because it would cause more pain for her. Mulray is insistent that Jake take the case. Jake follows Mulray around for several days. He discovers he’s the chief engineer of the city’s water department. There’s a major drought in the city of Los Angeles, and Mulray is in the middle of a heated debate about an expensive new dam project. Despite all this, Gittes’ investigation reveals a conspiracy involving the city dumping precious water in secret overnight. Gittes performs his job and captures Mulray’s rendezvous with a young girl. But when Hollis Mulray turns up dead the next day, and a different woman shows up claiming to be the real Evelyn Mulray, Gittes realizes he’s been set up in an elaborate murderous plot.

With his pride and reputation on the line Gittes retraces his steps to uncover the conspiracy. He develops a relationship with the real Evelyn Mulray (Faye Dunaway). Evelyn, a good-looking erudite woman with an emotional detachment to the mysterious goings-on, intrigues Jake and he takes her case to find the other woman who was seeing her husband. No one seems to be telling the truth, not even Evelyn, and as Gittes moves through the city of Los Angeles, the stakes get higher and higher. When he meets Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston), who owns the water company, we realize the conspiracy is as personally motivated as it is money-driven. Chinatown’s byzantine plot expands larger as the film moves along becoming a big business conspiracy about the creation of modern-day L.A. and a searing melodrama with operatic plot twists.

I’ve seen the film several times and it still confounds me. The mechanics of the plot, like The Big Sleep, are notoriously difficult to follow. And though I do get lost each time I watch it, I’m comforted by the intermittent expository lines Towne gives Jake to say, which always helps me catch up.

Roman Polanski directs the film to perfection. Nobody has shot Los Angeles better than Polanski and his DOP, John Alonzo. For a film noir, they chose to shoot the film as bright and sunny as possible. Film noirs are traditionally shot in shadows and are under lit to complement the secretive elements of the genre, but Alonzo and Polanski hide nothing from us. They choose to beautify Los Angeles and bathe their characters in the brightest colours. Polanski’s camera follows Gittes very closely the entire film, much of it behind his neck. With a 2.35:1 wide angle frame we are able to see everything Jake sees and still see Jake’s wandering eyes and furrowing brows up close and personal. The handheld work is subtle. It’s so close to everything it becomes part of the action, but without the jerky movements that overtly remind us a camera is there. Sometimes the camera is so close to the actors we can feel it getting in the way. Watch the very end, after the shootout in Chinatown. When Jake and the cops run up to the car and see the damage done, Nicholson actually knocks the camera. It’s unintentional but unobtrusive and natural to the film.

Chinatown never tires. It contains so many indelible characters and situations, an unravelling plot that gets bigger and bigger as it goes along, beautiful locations and a modern quality that continues to resonate today.

Chinatown is available on glorious Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment, the treasure of which is an audio commentary discussion between Robert Towne and David Fincher.