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

Friday, 29 June 2012


Bored with over-hyped, under-delivered summer flicks? TIFF Bell Lightbox's antidote is the return to the big screen, in pristine Spielberg-approved digital print, of dare I say his BEST film, 'Jaws'. The verve of a youthful filmmaker from the then 'wunderkind', Spielberg is in every frame of this film, a ripping yarn and pulpy cinematic comfort food at its best.

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

The film opens with a great death scene. A drunken, skinny-dipping female swimmer gets mauled in horrific fashion by some kind of creature of the deep. We then meet Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), a man who is afraid of the water, yet is the chief of police on the island of Amity. He’s there for the peace and quiet, but when he learns the girl was attacked by a shark, he's quickly thrown into the deep end of island politics and shark hunting. Though there's no disputing the shark bite, the stubborn Mayor (Murray Hamilton) refuses to close the beaches. Another kid dies and Brody takes the blame. But when his own child nearly becomes a victim, the gauntlet is thrown down.

Brody teams up with college-bred oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and an old-school, shark-hunting curmudgeon named Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt down and kill the shark. The beast is as tough an opponent as the trio thought. It’s a 25-footer, too big for Quint’s small boat. However, he refuses to go back and takes on the shark in a live-or-die duel.

The success of Jaws was famously aided by, ironically, the film’s production problems. The making-of documentary on the DVD and the old laserdisc chronicles in entertaining fashion the hell Mr. Spielberg went through to get the film made. Shooting on water is never easy, but shooting on water with an electronically gimbaled shark inside the water is just crazy. With the shark not working, Spielberg’s directorial and storytelling instincts were put to the test. As we all know, the shark isn’t revealed until well into the second half, but using some classic cinematic techniques of suspense Spielberg generates more fear in not seeing the monster.

Spielberg was not even 30 when he directed the film and yet most of the hallmarks of his trademark style are on the screen. He's a master of camera movement. Watch how he moves his actors in and out of frame and how the camera moves to follow. In Jaws especially, the camera, motivated by the characters, prowls the scenes like the film’s antagonist. Watch the opening shot, a long take, which slowly dollies across a campfire site before settling on the shark’s first victim.

In other situations where he can't possibly move his camera, Spielberg creates the illusion of movement from a locked-down position. On the boat Hooper spots the shark in the distance. Ordinarily, a director would ‘push in’ to emphasize a reaction. On a moving boat, it’s much more difficult. Spielberg achieves the same effect by having Richard Dreyfuss move from the back of the frame, climb a couple of steps and put himself mere inches from the camera lens, thus achieving his push in without moving the camera. Spielberg would repeat this a number of times throughout his career.

Other than a perfect script, perfect casting and perfect direction, the icing on the cake is the coming out party for John Williams and his classic score. Williams was already a veteran composer before getting the Jaws gig. He had been scoring feature films since the mid '60s, and before that he completed a decade of television work (he wrote the theme song for Gilligan’s Island!). He was already an Oscar winner for Fiddler on the Roof. But for all intents and purposes, Williams' career started with Jaws.

How would a young person view Jawstoday? It's hard to say. Summer blockbusters are buoyed now more than ever by big-scale production value. Though there's only one explosion in Jaws, Spielberg's flare for action and cinematic momentum still trumps most of anything produced today. Jaws still is and always will be a remarkable piece of celluloid - one very big 'happy accident' for Steven Spielberg.


Thursday, 28 June 2012

Sling Blade

Despite the ornery moodiness and general public strangeness of Billy Bob Thornton, his breakout film, 'Sling Blade', still lingers as a quiet and haunting masterpiece of Southern American gothic cinema. Billy Bob willed this film into being, first by shooting a short film, then using it as leverage to make the feature version, then covering three of the main roles of writer, director and actor - a solo creative effort which still stands as one of the most uniquely personal stamps in recent film history.

Sling Blade (1996) dir. Billy Bob Thornton
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, John Ritter

By Alan Bacchus

Billy Bob Thornton plays Karl Childers, who, after 30 years, is recently released from the local mental institution and forced to reintroduce himself into regular society. Karl is mentally slow and has trouble socializing with the Arkansas locals. But he gets a job fixing engines at a local body shop and meets a young kid, Frank (Lucas Black), who becomes the older brother and father figure Frank lost years before. When Karl ingratiates himself into the home of his kindly mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), he's now forced to deal with her abusive boyfriend and monstrous redneck, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). As Karl’s friendship with Frank deepens he realizes the danger Doyle presents to the safety of him and his mother, forcing him into a heroic act of self-sacrifice that will affect everyone’s lives, including his own.

Sling Blade essentially plays out like a modern Of Mice and Men. Billy Bob's guttural voice, forced overbite and lumbering gate visualize the gentle giant characterization of Steinbeck's seminal Lenny character. Same goes with the threat of violence that blankets Steinbeck's story. An increasing sense of dread accumulates as Sling Blade gains momentum, and the brief moment of violence which results is quietly disturbing and powerful.

Billy Bob sets the story in a peculiar place in rural Arkansas, a world he appears to love and hate. The slow pace and southern charm of the townsfolk are captured with poetic beauty and warm feelings of nostalgic memories, contrasted with the ignorant and lingering racist leanings of the old world. Dwight Yoakam, the foil for Karl, doesn't exist more than as a cancer in Frank and Linda's lives. It's a base characterization, which is boiled down as pure evil for the purposes of the film's simplistic narrative.

The young Lucas Black is a marvelous discovery. His sadness as a neglected, fatherless child living in a regressive world with little hope is instantly recognizable to both Karl and us. John Ritter as Vaughan, Linda's homosexual best friend, is played with subtlety. We admire his nobility standing up to Doyle after a drunken fight in Linda’s home. In many ways Vaughan is as much of a hero to the family as Karl is. Without Karl in Frank’s life we assume Vaughan will become the ‘in absentia’ father figure.

The other star of the film is Daniel Lanois's pitch perfect dreamlike musical score. Some may know him as a respected producer for Brian Eno, U2 and Bob Dylan, but he leaves a unique stamp on Sling Blade - a wave of melancholic southern gothic sounds, sliding guitars and ethereal bible-belt chanting.

Other than acting, Billy Bob hasn’t had much success since. His All the Pretty Horses was such a disaster professionally, personally, commercially and for the most part critically. Has anyone seen Daddy and Them with Laura Dern ‘released’ in 2001 but actually shot before All the Pretty Horses? Billy Bob does have a new film completed, Jayne Mansfield's Car, which premiered at Berlin early this year, unfortunately to humdrum reviews.


Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Beverly Hills Cop

'48 Hours', the original Eddie Murphy vehicle and his first feature film, which helped rocket him into stardom outside of his SNL fame, hasn't survived well over the years. With today's eyes it views as a tired, clichéd action-comedy that represents most of what was wrong with '80s cinema. 'Beverly Hills Cop' is in a similar genre but is a far superior film, which, unlike '48 Hours', still generates laughter and arguably shows Eddie Murphy at his absolute best.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984) dir. Martin Brest
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, John Ashton, Steven Berkoff, Ronnie Cox, Lisa Eilbacher

By Alan Bacchus

Opening up in Detroit, we first see Axel Foley fast-talking his way through an undercover cigarette smuggling deal, which ends with a raucous chase between an 18-wheeler truck and the entire Detroit Police Force with Axel being thrown around the back cab. It’s a fantastic action scene set to the fine '80s pop hit Neutron Dance by the Pointer Sisters. As is customary with the genre, Foley’s actions land him in hot water with his police chief, and he’s put on probation.

After the murder of his best friend, Foley goes against the chief’s orders and follows the investigation trail to Beverly Hills, where he is a fish out of water as a streetwise black man in the snobby, stuck-up and surreal world of California. Foley’s radical policing style runs counter to the conservative by-the-book attitude of the Beverly Hills cops, resulting in much hilarity along the way.

Using his street smarts, Murphy shines in his individual comic set pieces of disguise, using his quick wit and exploiting the LA-wanker naiveté to get cheap hotel rooms and nuzzle his way through the offices of the high-powered white collar criminals.

This film, made by Paramount, then headed by Michael Eisner, was produced by Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer, one of the master duos of '80s pop cinema. The trio of Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance and Top Gun make up three of the most recognizable pop culture landmarks in '80s cinema.

Martin Brest does little to get in the way of Eddie Murphy and his act. His opening chase scene still looks great compared to newer and more technologically advanced car chase scenes. But other than that, there’s surprisingly little big-scale action. The final gun battle in the mansion is from the pre-John Woo era and is thus rudimentally choreographed.

Harold Faltermeyer’s electronic score is so recognizable and surprisingly not dated. And though I’d never go out and buy or download the soundtrack, it’s actually kind of catchy. The film itself survives just as well, showing off the best of what Eddie Murphy was to comedy and movies.


Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Mystery Team

It’s a great success story for this trio of ambitious online sketch comedians known as the ‘Derrick Comedy Group'. For years before the film was made, the trio of actors listed below and their director, Dan Eckman, had been building a viral fan base via a series of youtubed comedy short films. On the heels of this success they shot and delivered their first feature, which was screened at Sundance. The film is a clever, though flawed, comic noir and already a bit of a minor cult classic.

The Mystery Team (2009) dir. Dan Eckman
Starring: Donald Glover, D.C. Pierson, Dominic Dierkes

By Alan Bacchus

Inspired by those kids vs. adults kids flicks of the '80s (anyone remember Cloak & Dagger with Henry Thomas and Dabney Coleman?), The Mystery Team tells the story of a trio of teenagers who solve ‘mysteries’ around town for their local community. There’s Jason, the ‘master of disguise’ (Donald Glover); Charlie, the 'strong man’ (Dominic Dierkes); and Duncan, the 'boy genius’ (D.C. Pierson). While this was a cute endeavour when they were kids, as teenagers they are seen by their peers as pathetic losers. Their latest mystery is their most challenging and dangerous, one which will test their dedication to their hobby and their bond of friendship.

It’s a very difficult film to crack. Using John Williams-esque music strings, Spielbergian camerawork, soft pro-mist filtered frames and heightened noir/gumshoe performances, the actions of the kids are seen through the filter of their fantasy bubble of self-reflexive irony. Unfortunately, most of everything comes off more like a corny parody of the Hardy Boys or Ace Ventura without Jim Carrey.

Standing out amongst the Goonies wholesomeness are a number of "fucks" and penis and pussy gags, which made me think, who is the audience for this film? This raunchiness combined with the TV sitcom ‘set-up and deliver’ comic timing are like oil and water - a tone which never evens out.

The comedy troop hangs its hat on the same simple joke for too long before delivering the real laughs. At one point the trio enter a strip club and engage in a lengthy sequence of nudity and graphic sex jokes, including a farting milk fetish. Finally, some edge we expect from a cultish film.

What started off as mostly insufferable in the first half becomes mildly tolerable in the second. A number of gut-buster laughs, specifically Donald’s drunken party experience and his burgeoning romantic relationship, score some points. It’s all a little too late though.

The Mystery Team suffers from the same problems as Reno 911 and those Broken Lizard films. There’s clearly some cohesive talent within the group, but unfortunately there are too many misses than hits. Therein lies the dilemma of sketch comedy in the feature film medium – that unquantifiable cinematic element the big screen demands and what makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.


Monday, 25 June 2012

The Towering Inferno

I LOVE 'The Towering Inferno' - the best disaster movie ever made. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen it since childhood, and it holds up beyond my memories as a child enraptured by the fire engines. A fire engulfing the tallest building in the world; top notch, near-invisible special effects; Paul Newman and Steve McQueen occupying the same space. Plus, William Holden, Fred Astaire and OJ Simpson! 'The Towering Inferno' is a supreme guilty pleasure.

The Towering Inferno (1974) dir. John Guillerman & Irwin Allen
Starring: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway

By Alan Bacchus

Irwin Allen made a career out of cinematic spectacles, an entertainer at heart who, despite his kitschy subject matter, knew the movie business inside and out. Made in 1974 perhaps in response to the skyscraper battle between the World Trade Centre (1970) and the Sears Tower (1973), Allen’s story is set at the opening of the world's tallest building in San Francisco. Paul Newman plays the building's architect, Doug Roberts, who arrives to attend the lavish party arranged by the builder, Jim Duncan (William Holden). It doesn’t take long before the building engineers discover a fault in the electrical capacity of the wiring. All it takes is a spark from a cut-rate wire barely above safety code to start a fire.

Upon discovering the shoddy craftsmanship Roberts pleads to Duncan to delay the party, but with the dignitaries already getting smashed on the 135th floor, Duncan chooses to save face. The small fire soon turns into a big one, thus trapping the party-goers above it. Chief O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) commands the fire fighters with an intense workmanlike manner using his creativity and experience to get everyone to safety.

As typical with the disaster genre, the antagonist is the environment, which strikes usually in response to man’s efforts to tame Mother Nature. In this case, the fire rages and grows uncontrollably. And often the moments of jeopardy can seem like overtly manufactured contrivances resulting in a fragmented collection of conspicuous set pieces. Conflict inevitably arises between the characters at the expense of common sense relationships. Allen and Guillerman manage to avoid these trappings admirably.

Take the Richard Chamberlain character. He's the corner-cutting engineer and son-in-law to Duncan, the builder. While he’s written to be a clear antagonist, his backstory as the working-class social climber looking for appreciation from his upper-class father-in-law anchors him in the real world. It's this concerted effort toward realism that elevates this disaster pic above most others in the genre.

Steve McQueen’s immersive performance as the chief exemplifies Irwin Allen’s throughline of integrity. When McQueen arrives on the scene, he systematically goes through the procedural details of the job, retaining an unbiased professionalism and never losing his cool. A working man just doing his job, McQueen stays consistent to the very end, right up to the final shot even when we see him exit the building, nonchalantly hop into his car and drive away – like punching out of the clock.

In these final moments screenwriter Sterling Silliphant includes a blatantly expository moral message about the dangers of architects and builders erecting skyscrapers higher and higher above their reach – “You know we were pretty lucky tonight, body count's less than 200. You know, one of these days you're gonna kill ten thousand in one of these firetraps, and I'm gonna keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies…” – a statement which could have caused audience groans in 1974 but resonates prophetically in a post-9/11 world.

We shouldn't over analyze The Towering Inferno for profundities though. Instead, watch and appreciate it as a great epic adventure picture and blockbuster cinematic spectacle.


Friday, 22 June 2012

Lakeview Terrace

When neighbours go bad is the theme of 'Lakeview Terrace'. Neil LaBute’s take on a familiar story has moments of the thought-provoking storytelling we expect from the director, but a couple of wrong turns lump the film into the standard throwaway thriller genre.

Lakeview Terrace (2008) dir. Neil LaBute
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington

Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington play Chris and Lisa Mattson, an interracial couple that moves into a middle-to-upper class Los Angeles suburb. But it sucks to be them because from the moment they drive into their driveway they get dirty looks from their neighbour and curmudgeon of all curmudgeons, Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson). Abel is a single parent to two young kids and since his wife left him years ago, it's left him in a really, really bad mood.

Abel breaks Chris’s balls with some unsettling psychological torture. He introduces himself by pretending to carjack Chris on his driveway and later that day installs some blinding security lights to shine in their bedroom. Chris nervously shakes it off as good ol’ neighbourly eccentricities. Since Abel is a cop, Chris feels safe for a brief moment. But as the days and weeks go by it’s clear that Abel has a fundamental hatred of the couple. His behaviour escalates to more than mere nuisance. Suddenly, Chris and Lisa find their life in danger.

Neil LaBute works best when he explores the dark side of ordinary characters. Think about the heinous psychological games of his monstrous Chad character in In the Company of Men or Rachel Weisz’s manipulative Evelyn in The Shape of Things. Abel Turner fits that mold.

The fact that Samuel L. Jackson is black and someone who resents the Mattsons interracial marriage is meant to twist and prompt some kind of expectation. It reads as obvious manipulation, and the portrayal of Lisa’s father as an uptight upper class conservative wreaks of that same overly sophisticated portrayal of Sidney Poitier’s character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The fact is, the Mattsons are saintly as hell and lacking in any edge. So the Turner vs. Mattson battle is a dichotomized good vs. evil characterization with grey areas left unexploited.

If the writers or LaBute imbued any goodness or goodwill in Abel Turner the film could have been more The House of Sand and Fog and less Pacific Heights or Single White Female. We expect LaBute to subvert around our expectations and when that doesn't happen here, it becomes even more frustrating.

And like most thrillers, if you’ve seen the trailer you’ve unfortunately seen the entire film.


Thursday, 21 June 2012


Thinking about this film tears me apart. For each of its 120 minutes, Prometheus is fascinating with a palpable feeling of cinematic momentum, leading to where we all (kind of) know it’s going to go – connecting somehow to the revered and cherished-to-many Alien franchise. Prometheus fulfills these expectations. And yet the film is filled with glaring common sense deficiencies, shamefully inadequate characterizations and a narrative flow that was perhaps meant to be artful ambiguity but comes off as just plan chaotic and confusing.

Prometheus (2012) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce

By Alan Bacchus

In terms of theme, style and tone, there’s very little that connects the two films, which makes this picture even more interesting. While each of the Alien films was an action/suspense film to the core with smatterings of feminism and themes of corporate malfeasance, Alien was about that reptilian creature with two jaws stalking and killing human beings. Prometheus is a story about the search for one’s creator, the existential discovery and first connection to extraterrestrial life.

The concept, build-up and overall arc and payoff of this story are epic and cinematic. Never was I bored or not on the edge of my seat anticipating where the story will lead. Yet the details of the actions, motivations and relationships between the characters were surprisingly ill-conceived, sloppily-written and downright appalling. This oscillation between fascination and frustration is difficult to reconcile.

The metaphor of creationism to our own desires to search for our makers is front and centre. There’s little subtelty in linking theme and plot here, right down to the crucifix prominently worn by Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace), the film’s heroine, as well as the prominent artificial intelligence character played by Michael Fassbender.

The aliens are not what we expect, revealed in the opening as some kind of large humanoid introduced as our own creators on Earth, and who by the end of the film, for some unknown reason, want to destroy our planet. In 2039, after Shaw and her husband/’scientist’ Charlie Halloway (Marshall-Green) discover ancient cave paintings that could only have come from aliens in space, a team is sent away on a spaceship to find answers.

Cut to the Prometheus, the name of the ship, and its motley crew of Shaw, Holloway, lazy blue-collar pilots, cynical geologists only interested in ‘the money’ and the snarly company-woman, Meredith Vickers (Theron), whose company funded the trip. Once on the Earth-like planet they find an underground layer terraformed to house some kind of devious experiments. Experiments, I think, about the creation of life, but creationism gone wrong resulting in a whole bunch of monstrous creatures looking to kill and survive – one of whom might just be the Alien we all know and love.

I can usually forgive lazy science for the sake of entertainment, but the lapses in basic common sense in this picture are inexcusable – like why the multi-billionaire (or trillionaire) Peter Weyland (played inexplicably by a young Guy Pearce in old makeup) would hire such a disorganized, grumpy group of ragtag scientists. And why they would be kept in the dark about their mission until they are in space, years into their mission. The scientific methods employed by these so-called scientists are shockingly amateurish, certainly nothing resembling the professionalism of the characters in Alien, Aliens and the other entries in the series.

The sloppiness in the editing of the picture is even more troublesome. In the final hour, when the shit hits the fan, every character inexplicably seems to be on their own, unable to communicate with anyone else. In previous films Scott, Cameron and the other directors took care to explain the geography of their surroundings, but Scott’s pacing is so off, characters appear and disappear conveniently and without explanation. Also, large chunks of information seem to be missing.

In the end, after-theatre discussions are less about connecting the dots than trying to piece together a fractured, incomplete narrative, which feels more like a collection of scenes than a uniformly constructed story.


Wednesday, 20 June 2012


This TIFF inclusion from 2009 finally emerges on Canadian soil for public consumption on Blu-ray via Shout Factory almost three years later. While not widely known, Soi Cheang's film has one of the most clever conceptual plot hooks since 'Infernal Affairs': a group of assassins-for-hire specialize in elaborately choreographed murders made to look like accidents, thus absolving their clients and themselves of persecution or retribution. It makes for a stimulating, small-scale thriller ripe for a bigger, more spectacular Hollywood remake.

Accident (2009) dir. Soi Cheang
Starring: Louis Koo, Richie Ren, Shui-Fan Fung, Michelle Ye, Suet Lam

By Alan Bacchus

Hong Kong star Louis Koo plays Ho Kwok-Fai, the brain of the team, a foursome not unlike something we'd see in a Mission Impossible film. They're introduced overseeing their latest orchestration: a car accident on a busy Hong Kong street. Seemingly random details, such as a rogue balloon flying in the air covering up a street camera and a blinding flash of reflected light from a mirror, combine to create a perfectly constructed domino effect that results in their pre-planned fake accident. But on their latest job, when a bus seemingly runs out of control, killing one of Ho's colleagues, Ho suspects he might be the target of someone else's accident orchestration.

Director Soi Cheang keeps the action and plotting contained, making Accident a relatively small picture and focusing in on Ho's character and his obsession, paranoia and isolation. Not unlike Gene Hackman's Harry Caul from The Conversation or Leonardo Di Caprio in Inception, Ho's life of clandestine deception has altered his perception of reality. This boils over into a paranoia-fuelled search for his assassin. He rents an apartment directly below his suspect, maps out his floor plan on his ceiling and listens in on his telephone conversations. Doubt and confusion create an obsessed mania akin to the destruction of Hackman's apartment in The Conversation or Guy Pearce's tattooed notes in Memento.

Louis Koo's performance is delightfully intense and focused, portraying Ho as a broken man plagued by the nightmarish memories of his wife's fatal car accident (or potential murder). Koo's attire complements this intensity, as he wears constricting clothes, a form-fitting jacket and large, industrial sniper glasses.

Cheang imbues a distinct visual palette using long lenses almost exclusively to convey a voyeuristic feel and visually compressing the world around Ho.

If anything, where Cheang leaves us short is in detailing the procedural aspects of his characters' schemes, something a Hollywood remake, as made by Christopher Nolan or Martin Scorsese, would map out and visualize with greater fastidiousness and care. But the work presented here is still an intriguing conceptual film that stands on its own, a sharp little gem to find in the glut of other new home video releases.

The Shout Factory Blu-ray features a decent making-of documentary and curiously, a faulty 2:35:1 anamorphic transfer, which appears as a vertically stretched 16x9 full frame aspect ratio. It's difficult to say if this fault applies to all the Blu-rays in circulation, however.


This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Shallow Grave

A sublime introduction to a consistently entertaining filmmaker in a genre (contemporary film noir) used by other great filmmakers (Coen Bros, Wachowski Bros – OK, debatable) as their first foray into feature films. With Boyle’s high energy style to burn, John Hodge’s cynical and laceratingly funny script and Ewan McGregor’s career launching first performance, Shallow Grave fits in well with the overachieving quality of other 1990s indie classics like Sex, Lies and Videotape, Hard Eight and Reservoir Dogs.

Shallow Grave (1994) dir. Danny Boyle
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccelston

We can’t help but watch Shallow Grave now without viewing it as a sort of testing ground for this filmmaking team’s more popular, successful and pop-culturally memorable second film, Trainspotting. From the opening first person confessionary voiceover to Leftfield's foot-tapping, head-bobbing club music we know we’re in the head of Danny Boyle and his writing partner, John Hodge. Like the four Edinburgh lads in Trainspotting, writer John Hodge introduces his three leads as a group of self-obsessed, slightly annoying Scottish hipsters whom we come to love for their forthright, don’t give a fuck attitude on life.

Here they’re interviewing prospective flatmates to make a foursome in their spacious top floor apartment complex. McGregor plays a lowly tabloid writer, Alex Law; Kerry Fox is a demure but alluring doctor; and Eccelston plays David a workaholic lawyer. However assholish it may be, we can't help but indentify with the obsessive, condescending critique of the roll call of losers and weirdos showing up to be considered as a flatmate. They eventually find their mate in a handsome, mysterious gentleman whose cool demeanor easily breaks through the wall of insecurity of the threesome. However, it doesn't take long before the trio find him dead of an overdose in his bed. Before they can call the cops they find a briefcase full of money, ready for the taking.

It wouldn't be a movie if they didn't take the money, dismember and bury the body in a ‘shallow grave’, and agree to keep quiet before splitting the cash. Eventually, a pair of Scottish hoodlums come looking for the money, resulting in a violent confrontation, which sends the normally meek David into a psychotic downward spiral into oblivion.

Borrowing the same darkly comic tone of, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, Shallow Grave revels in the despicable. The dismemberment of the body, for instance, like in Hitchcock’s films, makes for an absurdly humorous set piece, starting with the trio shopping for tools in the local hardware store to the completion of the dirty deed, unfortunately randomly assigned to David.

Danny Boyle’s visual panache is front and centre, laying the groundwork for his distinct visual palette of the pre-28 Days Later period of his career. Wideangle lenses and off kilter, portrait-style compositions expressively place his characters as mere pawns in their environment.

In hindsight, Shallow Grave and its characters are a product of their environment, the post-Thatcher world of decay and extreme capitalist individualism and selfishness, a point articulated by Boyle in The Criterion Collection liner notes. There’s no doubt the cruelty enacted on Alex’s character is a comeuppance for the society’s shameless First World hubris.

But this is all periphery to the delightful plot machinations and youthful filmmaking style of Boyle and the bunch, skewering the expectations of stodgy British cinema as much as anything else.


Shallow Grave is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Monday, 18 June 2012


What are the best uses of voiceover in film? Terrence Malick's 'Badlands' or 'Days of Heaven' perhaps, or 'The Magnificent Ambersons' maybe? The use of omniscient narration describing off-screen action, motivation and characters' inner thoughts can be seen as a lazy tool for screenwriters. But when it's done right, it can be a magical thing. Few can argue the tremendous effect of the voiceover from 'Goodfellas', one of the great pop cultural landmark films of our time.

Goodfellas(1990) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino

By Alan Bacchus

Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas is a return to the streetwise, low-level gangster characters of Raging Bull and Mean Streets. It served as kind of an antidote to the Godfather effect, that is the glorification and romanticism of the mafia as charming, well dressed pseudo bourgeois aristocrats. Scorsese's gangsters are working class bullies who use the tantalizing temptations of capitalism to the extreme, living a life free of all control.

The opening scene in 1970, finding the body of Billy Bats still alive in the trunk of Henry Hill's car, is a classic, parachuting us into the narrative, then doubling back to continue the scene midway into the picture. And it’s not just an arbitrary scene, but the key decision in the film by the main characters, which ultimately spelled their downfall. After this prelude, Scorsese's hero, Henry Hill, opens up the story with one of the best lines - "As far back as I can remember I've always wanted to be a gangster". It begins the amusing, violent, grotesque and bystantine epic story of the New York/New Jersey mafia in the '70s and '80s.

Henry Hill's voiceover provides an intimate entry into the world so familiar in movies and TV, yet it's completely fresh and authentic. In the opening act, Henry moves from child wannabe to a young hotshot hoodlum who ingratiates himself deep into the mafia. While he surrounds himself with two of the most ruthless gangsters we've ever seen in film - Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) - watch closely and you'll see Henry characterized as an outsider who never really gets his hands dirty in the dirtiest parts of the business. With the death of Billy Bats, for instance, Scorsese is careful to show Hill's shocked reaction to Jimmy and Tommy's violent beating. This allows the audience to see the world through the eyes of a man with a conscience, and however delusional and drugged out he might be, he's the film's everyman.

Back to the voiceover...the great moments occur early in the film. Take the introduction of Karen. In the restaurant Scorsese switches from Henry’s voiceover to Karen’s voiceover, which comes completely out of left field. Yet, as cut by Thelma Schoonmaker and the sound editors, the transition is seamless. The voiceover reads not like inner monologue but documentary interviews. This style ties in so wonderfully in the end during the inspired moment when Henry Hill suddenly breaks the fourth wall while on the stand and starts talking to the camera. As if the entire movie were part of his confession to breaking the two cardinal rules told to him by Jimmy Conway, "Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut".

As much as the film is visceral and violent, Scorsese's mix of violence with humour has never been done better. Again, the Billy Bats killing is brutal. But watch the transition into the next scene, the riotously funny dinner scene with Scorsese’s mother, a contrast which keeps the audience oscillated between these two extremes - What is it, a paw? A hoof?

Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing compresses the time brilliantly, rendering an ambitious 20-year narrative into a elegant flow of image and sound that washes over the viewer like a bedtime story. One of the best scenes is the Bamboo Lounge sequence. In a matter of 60 seconds the restaurant is partnered with the mob, they make tons of money and then it’s a losing venture and is being torched.

But when they want to, Scorsese and Schoonmaker slow down the pace to highlight the key moments in Henry's journey. The best scene, and one of greatest ever set pieces in motion picture history, is the day that leads up to Henry's capture. After spending almost two hours showing the course of 20 years, Scorsese throws a microscope on one particular day in Henry's life. It's a thrilling sequence that shows Henry giving instructions to his brother over the phone on how to make pasta while being filled with paranoia and watching the skies for a helicopter that may or may not be spying on him. He then drives around town delivering guns for Jimmy Conway and oversees a drug deal while coking himself out to the max. In this one great scene, Scorsese sums up the lifestyle of Henry Hill playing on the edge at all times. He's a hair's breath away from being put away for life and this makes Goodfellas the greatest gangster film ever made.


Friday, 15 June 2012

The Witches of Eastwick

Time warp back to 1987. One of the higher profile summer movies of that year was the Witches of Eastwick, based on the 1984 novel by John Updike. It was a lavish production, very expensive for its time, with some '80s dream casting of Nicholson, Sarandon, Cher and Pfieffer. It brought decent numbers ($63 million), which in 1987 ranked it as the 10th highest grossing movie of the year. Looking back, the film is mostly forgettable - a silly horror/sex/comedy, which ironically is neither funny nor horrific, and features no sex or nudity. What cinema fans should take from this film is its place in the body of work of the great Aussie director, George Miller.

The Witches of Eastwick (1987) dir. George Miller
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, Cher, Michelle Pfieffer, Veronica Cartwright

By Alan Bacchus

For George Miller, known best for his Mad Max trilogy, it was his first feature in Hollywood. His first taste for La La Land was his segment for Twilight Zone: The Movie, arguably the best episode, a remake of Terror at 20,000 Feet starring John Lithgow.

But with Eastwick, it was his first crack at the money, toys and stars of Hollywood in the feature realm. Those familiar with Miller's work will recognize his trademark visual flare – a constantly moving camera with expressive crash dollies and creative compositions, as well as lavish production design reminiscent of his later work on Babe: Pig in the City.

Unfortunately, other than these technical elements, there’s not much of a story to latch onto. The trio of lovely ladies, dressed in full-on big curly '80s hair, play three sullen single gals who fall victim to the seduction of Daryl Van Horn, a handsome ponytailed stranger played by Jack Nicholson. It’s not overt, but the ability of Van Horn, despite his chauvinistic attitude, is to easily swoon the women with a power presumably derived from Satan himself. Soon the ladies form a sort of coven, and they don’t really do much other than hang with Daryl in his luxurious mansion. When the local cynic, played by Veronica Cartwright, is killed off, the coven suspect Daryl is the cause, which leads to a violent and over-the-top finale featuring some cooky effects from The Thing's Rob Bottin.

I still can’t be sure if The Witches of Eastwick is a feminist or anti-feminist film. In the beginning the ladies desperately desire to find men in their lives to replace their divorced or dead former husbands, and the one who comes along to claim them happens to be the devil himself. The decadence of the '80s is front and centre, with Van Horn portrayed as the ideal '80s bachelor – a successful businessman with all the luxurious fixings, including a Mercedes, mansion, Matisses, et al. Naughty sexual innuendos and double entendres fly back and forth associating sexual conquest with business and money. Religion is mostly kept out of the hijinks, with the exception of Veronica Cartwright’s character, who is characterized as the Evangelical zealot, but who unfortunately gets killed off for her beliefs. Sounds pretty misogynistic to me.

There isn’t much about '80s cinema that is memorable. If anything, it’s the quality of cinematography from the likes of Vilmos Zsigmond. And Zsigmond’s work on Eastwick is typically lush, a beautified look with dense and textured frames and full of rich colours. The '80s produced some memorable film scores as well. And Eastwick has John Williams at his best, turning in a romp of a score, which skips along complementing the tone of fun naughtiness.

But if you're looking for '80s nostalgia, stick with Wall Street or Back to the Future. The Witches of Eastwick is for George Miller, John Williams and Vilmos Zsigmond fans only.


Thursday, 14 June 2012

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

John McNaughton’s low budget independent masterpiece of horror is a different kind of horror. While the more notorious classics 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and 'Halloween' tell horrific stories of torture and murder through the eyes of its victims, McNaughton swung his camera around on the murderers, thus creating a film with an even more visceral kind of terror.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) dir. John McNaughton
Starring: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles

By Alan Bacchus

I can take pretty much anything shown to me on screen, but Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer features one of a few scenes that truly terrifies me and compels me to turn the film off... but more on that later...

Otis and Henry (Tom Towles and Michael Rooker) are two uneducated ex-cons living in Chicago. Henry served time for killing his mother, and despite being free he still has a deep-seated need to kill and has been on a rampage of random but obsessive serial murders. Otis is unaware of his roomie's predilection until one night when they pick up a pair of hookers, Otis watches Henry inexplicably snap the necks of the poor women. Otis suddenly becomes intoxicated with the thrill of murder and follows Henry's trail of serial killing like a trade apprentice.

Complicating Henry's simple anti-social lifestyle is Otis's comely sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), who has come to live with Oits, thus making the twosome a threesome. Becky becomes enraptured with Henry's introverted shyness and reserved internal strength. Otis, on the other hand, expresses his sexually violent tendencies against Becky. Out of this threat emerges a protective side of Henry and a genuine love for Becky, which might just bring him out of his cycle of violence.

We never knew the motivations of Michael Myers or the freaks from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What does Michael Myers do when he's on his own, or when he's plotting his next victim? John McNaughton sadistically digs deep into the minds of these kind of madmen with a remarkably layered and sometimes sympathetic character study.

Henry was shot in 1986 independently for a mere $110,000. It was financed by a pair of indie producers, Malik and Waleed Ali, who were looking to make a quick buck with a disposable straight-to-video slasher picture. But when McNaughton delivered his complex, meditative and unslasherlike creeper, the Ali brothers didn't think it was good and thus shelved it. But finally, after a long and complicated journey, the film was discovered at film festivals years later and hailed as a masterpiece, thus earning its cult status.

It's a great success story, as Henry manages to achieve a kind of terror more horrific and viscerally frightening than anything before it. We don’t even see a murder until the 30- to 40-minute mark. Until then we see only the grisly aftermath of Henry's rage - single shots revealed via subtle camera movements of a strangled corpse or a mutilated and stabbed body floating in the river with the agonizing sounds of the ordeal.

Henry has much in common with Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. McNaughton’s depressed urban working class flavour has much the same effect as Hooper’s backwoods hillbilly approach. The flat, rough and colourless cinematography has the same amateurish aesthetic as Chainsaw. Even the simple music, which seems to have been played on a Casio keyboard, complements this grimy, unpolished feel.

Tracy Arnold as Becky embellishes all the simplicity of an uneducated, foolhardy and naive girl attracted to danger. Her conversations with Henry are sexually teasing, especially the ridiculousness of her enthusiasm at buying her 'I Love Chicago' t-shirt. It's pathetic, but serves as a sexual tease for both Otis and Henry, creating the fundamental teeth-gritting tension between the three. And from a screenwriting point of view her attraction to Henry serves as the engine for him to either turn his life around or perhaps make her another notch on his bedpost of murder.

The cycle of abuse characterized through stories and dialogue, and the implications of their squalor, actually sympathize with the killers - an internalized conflict which keeps the audience on edge. Michael Rooker's career-launching performance shifts with complete naturalism between fear, contempt, deviance, innocence, charm and even heroism. The violence he and Otis commit is choreographed with such unpolished, uncinematic realism it transcends the genre set-piece cinematic death scenes to which we had been desensitized from traditional horror films.

And as far as that disturbing scene which I struggle to sit through... anyone who has seen the picture knows it. For those who don't, it comes midway through the picture and shows the grisly murder of a family via a snuff-like VHS videotaping of the event, which is subsequently rewound and replayed again and again by Otis. It's wholly disturbing and brings to mind the heinous operandi of the Bernardo/Homolka and Luka Magnotta murders, certainly something I don't necessarily think everyone should see. But, for good and bad, it shows pitch perfect control of cinematic tone, however gruesome.


Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is so good at what it does, it requires lengthy cinemtic recovery time.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Classe Tous Risques

In the 1950s and '60s, the French, in addition to the New Wave films, produced a wealth of influential crime films - flicks which were both influenced by the classic Hollywood gangster genre and would go on to influence the filmmakers of today. One of the best is Claude Sauntet's Consider All Risks, a film that doesn't glorify gangsters but rather empathizes and humanizes them outside of the traditional genre stereotypes.

Classe Tous Risques (1960) dir. Claude Sauntet
Starring: Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michael Ardan, Simone France

By Alan Bacchus

Sauntet drops us right into the action as we meet Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) and his family, including his wife Therese and his two young sons, as well as his compatriot in crime, Raymond. They are all on the run from the authorities in Italy for a series of heists. It's a breakneck chase with the cops around Rome on foot, in cars and on boats. Abel and Raymond use their professional attitude and expertise, along with their ruthless willingness to kill, to evade their pursuers. But when his wife and Raymond are shot and killed in a gunfight, Abel finds himself alone with his kids.

Abel connects with his syndicate in Paris, a brotherhood which provides him with security, a home base and some semblance of trustworthy familial companionship. But when a total stranger is sent instead of his trusted friend, Vintran, he suspects he may be cut off from the clan. Surprisingly, Abel develops a friendship with the new driver, Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a man who seems to have the same loyal integrity and code of honor as he does. And so when Abel gets to Paris, he finds himself on the run from his own brotherhood, with only his new friend to trust.

I suspect Risques was a major influence on Michael Mann’s Heat - the modern model of character-based crime films. By telling crime from the point of view of the criminals, we sympathize with them and their acts. In Risques, when Abel shoots and kills two innocent patrol cops, we don’t think twice about the heinousness of that crime. Instead, we’re immediately concerned about Abel’s partner and his wife.

Like Mann, Sauntet is careful to show the effect of the women and their relationships on the lives of these men. In other gangster pictures women are objects for the taking, either prostitutes or disposable accessories expendable when the heat is turned on. The relationship between Stark and his girlfriend is given attention and allowed to blossom, and the effect of Therese's death on Abel haunts him throughout the film. His two young children add even more complications to the traditional gangster hedonism - he recognizes his duty to his children but also knows that without a mother figure in their lives, they could end up like him.

Like in Heat, the men are torn between the need for comfort and security and their chosen profession. This is why Abel’s family of gangsters is so important to him – a safe coterie of trusted compatriots who stick together for the good of the group. And so when this circle breaks down, Abel is forced to scramble and re-evaluate the effect of his lifestyle on his life and children. The relationship between Stark and Abel plays into this gangster code. Stark has no need to help Abel, yet he’s sworn into the gangster code and is compelled to help. Abel recognizes this loyalty and they develop a unique and sincere friendship.

All the while, Sauntet executes his lightning fast narrative with stone cold efficiency. Abel is as professionally ruthless as he needs to be, and the cops and robbers who chase each other are equally adept. The first half establishes Abel's character exclusively in action, a series of suspenseful confrontations, near misses and chases choreographed with headlong cinematic momentum. The chases continue in the second half of the film as well, but Sauntet allows us and his characters to take a breather to contemplate the situation. A chess match and mind games ensue, which tests Abel's loyalty and commitment to escaping his life of crime.

Classe Tous Risques makes for a marvellous history lesson on the roots of modern crime films, in relation to the modern masters.


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Tuesday, 12 June 2012


Madonna spins the historical King Edward/Wallis Simpson yarn into a cross-generational tale of emotional regrets and steamy illicit desire. While having the misfortune of being unfairly trounced by the press last Fall, it’s not that bad. A flawed but sometimes impressive film, consistent to Madonna's entire career both in music and on film. Bold strokes of creativity, in-your-face, passionate and unapologetic for its message, which shuttles between inspiration and pretension.

W.E. (2012) dir. Madonna
Starring: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaacs, Richard Coyle

By Alan Bacchus

W stands for Wallis, E stands for Edward, which makes this picture about the star-crossed romance of King Edward VII and Wallis Simpson, who shocked the world in 1936 when the King was forced to abdicate the thrown because of their disapproved marriage. After The King’s Speech, W.E. makes for a decent companion piece to the more conventional and accessible Oscar winner. Madonna’s film is unique to itself, playing out two parallel storylines – one, the real life historical story of the King and his American lover, and a modern day fictionalized plot of an American woman stuck in an unhappy relationship who finds a strong attraction to a handsome and exotic museum security guard.

Though unconventional, Madonna seems to be influenced by the similarly structured Red Violin, also repeated recently with Café de Flore, films which intersect spiritually connecting human emotions and identities with smatterings of existentialism. As we see the first meetings, courtship and political shitstorm revolving the relationship between King Edward (D’Arcy) and then-married American socialite, Wallis Simpson (Riseborough), we see Wally (Abbie Cornish) in the present, a depressed New Yorker obsessing about a new Edward/Simpson exhibit at a local museum. Not only does her name resemble Simpson’s, but she’s been drawn to the story for her whole life.

Her emotionally abusive husband suddenly tells her he doesn’t want to have kids, which sends a ripple through their relationship and spins Wally's mind out of whack. A strong attraction develops with a Russian museum security guard (Oscar Isaacs), played with the type of exotic allure we expect from Madonna.

As the yarn unspools, Madonna uses artful, though not unconventional, editing techniques to weave her metaphysical connections of the stories. Numerous montage scenes overplay the drama, though in small doses Abel Korzeniowski's music is hypnotic and entrancing. Unfortunately, the pop sensibilities of Madonna don’t quite match up to the subtlety required to make a story like this work. It’s a delicate brush she needs to use, and her hand just isn’t steady enough.

As an American ex-pat under the critical eye of the discriminating British press and public, Madonna is perhaps the right person to tell this story. But ironically her bombast persona and overly-publicized career and private life have made everyone hypercritical of new ventures such as this one, which unjustly helped cause the demise of this picture.


W/E is available on Blu-ray and DVD from EOne Home Entertainment in Canada.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Riding Giants

I’ve never been surfing - never tried, never wanted to try. Yet, I find it fascinating. The visual sight of a man or woman being carried by the awesome power of the ocean’s waves with elegance and grace is an act worthy of any dance or work of art, really. With these powerful images Stacy Peralta's glorious documentary gives us a deep examination of mind and body, something which elevates the film above his more popular and recognizable Dogtown and Z-Boys.

Riding Giants (2004) dir. Stacy Peralta

By Alan Bacchus

Surfing is a big story. It’s been around for years, and many films have been made about the subject. Peralta admirably finds his niche in the subcategory called ‘Big Wave’ riding, referring to the need and desire for surfers to ride the biggest waves possible, not for sport, competition, or sponsorship, but the need to tame the ferocity of nature – and if not tame, then be at one with its awesome power.

After a fun 2-minute animated sequence, which gets the 1000-year history of surfing out of the way, Peralta starts off with the first group of big wave surfers, led by the charismatic Greg Noll. In the mid-'50s, Noll ventured onto the vacant North Shore section of Oahu for the first time and surfed its legendary waves for years with the carefree attitude we’ve come to know as the surfing culture - or, as some might say, ‘beach bum’ culture, a rather derogatory term for their uninhibited connection to the land and the water.

Peralta finds a compelling narrative throughline to follow, which makes each character and each surfing milestone more engaging, fascinating and astounding than the next. And by the end of the doc the actions of Laird Hamilton compared to the early big wave riders is like Lebron James playing one-on-one with Elgin Baylor – two great players at remarkably different skill levels.

Peralta charts the next benchmark in Big Wave surfing as the discovery of ‘Mavericks’, a secluded spot in North California, too cold and remote for the casual surfer, but with waves bigger, badder and more dangerous than the North Shore. Peralta tells the incredible story of Jeff Clark, a Big Waver who discovered Mavericks by himself and surfed it alone for 15 years before anyone else. By this time we're into the '90s when the rest of the Big Wavers catch up to Clark, which puts Peralta into another gear aesthetically, transporting us from Dick Dale to Alice in Chains and Soundgarden in the soundtrack and even more astonishing surfing footage as the visuals.

And if we thought the waves couldn’t get bigger than Mavericks, Peralta introduces Peahi, Maui, better known as ‘Jaws’ – an even more dangerous spot with ungodly gargantuan waves. It also makes for a good entry point for Laird Hamilton, the most legendary Big Wave surfer – a white kid from Hawaii, who is cocky, good looking and completely dedicated to the ocean.

Not satisfied with Jaws, Hamilton elevates the sport to international acclaim with a series of advances in the sport that allow him to go higher and faster than anyone before him, like the toe and surf method of skidooing out miles from the shore to find breaks previously inaccessible to the Greg Nolls and Jeff Clarks. Again, Peralta manages to top the Mavericks footage, ending with some of the most astonishing feats ever performed by man in an extreme sports endeavour. Laird Hamilton, riding a board half the size of everyone else, in the middle of the ocean gracefully being pushed by a 75-foot wave at speeds of 45mph is simply unbelievable.

Unlike the characters in Dogtown and Z-Boys, the surfers in Riding Giants exhibit modesty and restraint. While bravado and boisterous ego was advantageous to the culture of skateboarding, we get the feeling such behaviour is disrespectful to the waves. Because no matter how good Laird Hamilton or Greg Noll is at surfing, they’re always at the whim of Mother Nature and they tempt death every time they go out. Riding Giants thus finds its most compelling voice in this existential and spiritual nature of surfing.


Riding Giants is available on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Boyz in the Hood

John Singleton's landmark slice of South Central gangsta life, which reached international acclaim after its Cannes debut and garnered two Oscar noms for writer/director Singleton in 1991, still stings today. The emotionally powerful morality tale of how youth in the marginalized, poverty stricken African American "ghetto" of Los Angeles can turn to gang life in place of their absentee parents feels as poignant now as it did then.

Boyz in the Hood (1991) dir. John Singleton
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube. Laurence Fishburne, Nia Long, Angela Bassett

By Alan Bacchus

Singleton's point of view into this world is Tre (Gooding Jr.), whom we first see as a naive kid goofing around with his equally impressionable friends, Ricky (the All-American athlete star destined for a college scholarship) and Doughboy (the fatherless miscreant). Fast-forwarding, we see how some significant life decisions caused Doughboy to spend time in a juvenile prison for the murder of a fellow homeboy while Tre and Ricky grow up scot-free. But when the trio are reunited, Tre finds himself inescapably drawn into the neighbourhood gangster wars and drive-by shootings.

Watch the deftness of Singleton's writing. As Doughboy, Ice Cube is more than the aggressive firecracker of violence he could have been characterized as. Instead, Singleton and Cube create a complex, layered young man, both aggressive and spiteful of the world, but also sincere, comforting and understanding of his place in the culture. This can be seen in the final goodbye between Tre and Doughboy, a tearjerker of a scene. Doughboy and his crew drive to the mall to find the rival gang to avenge the death of their friend, but when Tre tells him to stop and let him out, Doughboy puts up no fight, quietly acknowledging that the violent path of revenge is not Tre's job, but his own. With few words, Gooding and Cube quietly acknowledge this complex, streetwise code of honour.

In addition to the race and social issues at hand, Boyz in the Hood also feels like a time capsule of early '90s pop culture that so greatly influenced style and trends throughout the decade. Again, look at Ice Cube, then a hardcore rapper in NWA, with his distinctly curled eyebrow, wearing all black, slurring his n-words with a snarling lip. He's badass L.A.-gangster personified and a walking fashion statement for legions of hip hop fans.

If the film didn't paint such a vivid picture of a small but fascinating subset of American life, and if it wasn't a pop culture trendsetting touchstone, it would still work as a universally poignant father-son story. The process of educating one's son to be a "man" is referred to a number of times, but it's more than just corny hyperbole; it's at the absolute heart of the violence. Laurence (then billed as Larry) Fishburne commands the screen as a strong guiding force for Tre, keeping him on the path of righteousness despite everything pulling him the opposite direction towards violence. This is the stuff of classic storytelling, and when acted with such strong, believable conviction, films like this last forever.

The 20th Anniversary Blu-ray contains featurettes and commentary from previous DVD versions, but the new stuff, and the treasure of this disc, is the newly produced anniversary documentary featuring the cast and crew looking back on their work and its influence on their careers. Ice Cube, Gooding Jr. Singleton, Fishburne and more provide intelligent, articulate ruminations on the film. Singleton candidly describes the somewhat negative effect his success had on him as a 21-year-old. Being put in the company of Orson Welles can give a cinephile a big ego and Singleton admits this. Sadly, Boyz is still the high water mark for Singleton, as he has yet to match the creative inspiration of this picture, a profoundly mature work from such a young person.


Thursday, 7 June 2012

Summer With Monika

Perhaps the most influential film of Bergman’s early work, the one often cited as launching his international career, and certainly one of Woody Allen’s favourite films from the director he famously idolizes. The liberal and frank attitudes toward sex, nudity and its association with violence gained some notoriety in the day, but it's the enthralling dramatic arc of its rebellious lovers-on-the-run characters that resonates so strongly with today’s eyes.

Summer with Monika (1953) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Harriet Andersson, Lars Ekborg

By Alan Bacchus

Like Bergman’s previous Summer Interlude, we’re back in the Swedish archipelago summer vacation spot charting the course of a romantic adventure, which starts out as freewheeling love but devolves when reality crushes their naive dreams of romantic grandeur. While this is Swedish bleakness at its best, it's not the art house alienating kind like much of his mid- and late-career works.

Bergman begins with one of the quickest courtships in cinema history. Harry and Monika are underachieving teenagers, working dead-end jobs with no career prospects. They happen to sit near each other at a local café. It takes no longer than a minute of conversation before Monika asks Harry to run away with him. Monika is escaping her drunken father, who beats her at night, and the sexist ogling of her chauvinist male co-workers. As for Harry, he has a feeling of not fitting in, being ridiculed for dating the town 'slut' and an overall emasculation from his peers. This kind of teenager trauma bonds the two causing them to run away like Bonnie and Clyde.

It’s the start of a long emotional and adventurous journey, which takes them to the Swedish countryside, living an idealistic life off the grid and away from the evils of society. We see Monika and Harry frolicking in the nude, making love whenever they want and living a free life. Eventually, food runs out causing Monika to steal some at a rib roast – a wonderful scene not unlike Jean Valjean stealing his loaf of bread. Bergman has Monika stealing the meat from another vacationing family and running off into the woods eating it like a rabid starving animal. This scene dramatically begins the downfall of the couple. And when Monika gets pregnant they’re forced to move back to the city and assimilate back into the world they so greatly rebelled against.

There’s a strong influence on Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven in this film. They share the lovers-on-the-run theme for sure, but also the dreamy romantic idealistic view of life with a strong emphasis on nature, landscape and an untainted environment.

The flashes of nudity, tongue-kissing and frank references to sex are impossible to ignore. It helped make the film and Bergman a cause-celebre in the day. The film might also have some notoriety for having one of the worst fight scenes ever. It's the culmination of a territorial battle with a neighbouring camper. After catching his rival trashing Harry's boat, the two engage in a ridiculous slapping fight, which looks more like two dolphins flippering each other than violent fisticuffs.

Bergman take his characters to task in the third act by bringing them back to the city, which wonderfully bookends the opening act. New conflicts arise as they try to keep their new family together. Monika's dilemma is visualized with an amazing shot that breaks the fourth wall (a great Bergman moment). The scene involves Monika in a conversation with Harry in a cafe, at the end of which she turns toward the camera and stares right into it. It's not so much a gaze into the audience, but rather the effect of watching Monika looking into a mirror at herself as she contemplates her new life as a mother and adult. It's a shot nothing short of greatness and the mark of a new cinema master.


Summer With Monika is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Where Do We Go Now?

The TIFF Audience Award winner from last year's festival slipped under everyone’s radar prior to its surprise win. Indeed, it's a clever yet profound microcosm of those entrenched centuries-long Middle Eastern conflicts that have been the cause of so many unnecessary wars - a light and whimsical take on heavy subject matter seems to have pissed off some critics, but going by the audience reception at TIFF it's one of the most accessible films on the subject.

Where Do We Go Now (2012) dir. Nadine Labacki
Starring: Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Layla Hakim, Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf, Antoinette Noufaily, Julien Farhat

By Alan Bacchus

When the peaceful religious cohabitation in a small Lebanese town becomes threatened by bigger-picture political conflicts it takes a group of like-minded village women from both sides of the religious divide to stem the tide of violence. In this case it's Christians and Muslims, both living in a small Lebanese village, and though their churches sit side by side, they've lived peacefully for years. But when news of a newly sparked conflict in the outside world trickles in, Amale (Labaki), Takla (Moussawbaa), Afaf (Hakim), Yvonne (Maalouf) and Saydeh (Noufaily) band together to plug the leaks of information.

While the threats are dangerous, the methods of the women are comical, a duality in tone controlled masterfully by Labaki. The ruses range from burning newspapers, disrupting television reception, hiring a troupe of Russian showgirls to distract the men, and even holding a town meeting and serving hash-brownies for snacks.

Labaki also peppers some unexpected musical sequences into the narrative. Some proponents have latched onto these scenes and called the film a musical, but if anything they are so few and far between and not integral to the narrative that they are actually distracting.

The ingenuity to praise here is Labaki's artful ability to mix cinematic whimsy with the bleak backdrop of Middle Eastern politics. She populates her village with warmth and flavour – the kind we would see in those small town British comedies like Local Hero and Waking Ned Devine.

Labaki's trump card that she holds in her back pocket is the final scene, which explains the reason for the film's title. Just when we think the women have successfully solved their problem, one last choice to be made could set them back to the beginning. It's a delightful open-ended final frame, which speaks to the never-ending saga of the conflicts in that part of the world.


Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Summer Interlude

Wow, just when I thought I knew Ingmar Bergman, the master of Swedish cinema known for often impenetrable art house elegies on life and death, the rediscovery of 'Summer Interlude', an early masterwork from 1951, shows us a youthful energy and remarkably taut pacing not present in his more formal and refined works. The story of a professional ballerina looking back on a romantic summer has the brooding rigorousness of 'Black Swan' and the melodramatic pulpy brilliance of 'Mildred Pierce'.

Summer Interlude (1951) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Maj-Britt Nilsson, Birger Malmsten, Alf Kjellin, Georg Funkquist

Tragic and beguiling, Summer Interlude is definitely Swedish and all Bergman. Yet his remarkably accessible storytelling methods could have easily been mistaken for a populist Hollywood production.

In the present, Maria (Maj-Britt Nilsson) is a famous ballerina rehearsing for Swan Lake, exhausted from the rigors of the play and the backbreaking demands of her director. When she receives a mysterious package containing on old diary, she's brought back to one of the few moments in her life when work didn't dominate, a brief 'interlude' of pure unbridled passion, a romantic free spirit broken by a sudden tragic ending.

Summer Interlude fits in with a number of Bergman films from the '50s, including Summer With Monika and Wild Strawberries, which use the Swedish summer vacation as their backdrop. It's not an arbitrary period either as, unlike North American society, summer vacation in Sweden means a two-month break during which citizens free themselves from the shackles of everyday life for the pastoral serenity of the country.

Maria's vacation takes place in a stunning rocky archipelago, and while frolicking in her bikini she meets her romantic partner, Henrik, an idealistic student entranced by Maria's gracefulness and beauty. Their time together is blissful until Maria's devotion to her dance interrupts their impenetrable bond. Bergman intercuts Maria's solemn recollections strolling through the people and places of her past with these dreamy flashbacks of romance. It's a devious narrative arc, taking us from the highs of summer passion to gradually disintegrating their relationship when they eventually come to terms with the fact that their careers will prevent them from going any further than a summer tryst to a tragic conclusion that continues to haunt Maria in the present.

These emotional layers are masterfully controlled by Bergman. If you ever had preconceptions of him as a solemn filmmaker with a methodical style just watch the energy of his mise-en-scene - his compositions and camera movement and the choreography of his actors within the frame. The present day sequences in the ballet are choreographed with remarkable energy. His camerawork is fresh and as lively as the Hollywood studio master of this style, Michael Curtiz (Casablanca). Of course, Bergman was famously influenced by his family's career in the theatre, and so his visualization of this world is strong and dynamic.

With the use of Swan Lake and the attention paid to the half-dozen dance sequences, the intensity of which contrasts with the serenity of Maria's summer interlude, I can't help but be reminded of Darren Aronofsky's use of the same material in Black Swan.

Other stylistic flourishes which draw attention to Bergman as director and auteur include the use of long dissolves moving us elegantly between time frames, but in a way that's more than functional, bringing us into the introspective regret of the lead character. There's even a headscratching animated sequence, hand drawn stick figures that come to life on a record listened to by Henrik and Maria.

The emotional journey and the pulpy and passionate treatment of this kind of tragic love story at best showcases Bergman's tremendous cinematic arsenal and power over the medium, even at a young age. He's a true cinema master who can beguile us with intellectual dissertations such as The Seventh Seal and Persona but also titillate us with romance and Hitchcockian mystery like Summer Interlude.


Summer Interlude is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

After a decade of attempted franchise-starters capitalizing on the success of The Lord of the Rings, Rupert Sanders’ so-called re-imagined fairy tale could have been one of the best of the bunch. Sanders’ slick commercial style makes his expertly designed medieval fantasy world look as dark, mysterious and luscious as anything in the LOTR realm. Unfortunately, the film is let down by its biggest gamble, the brooding Kristin Stewart as Snow White, who sucks the energy out of the film when it should be rousing fun entertainment.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) dir. Rupert Sanders
Starring: Kristin Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Caflin, Ian McShane

By Alan Bacchus

To save us a 2.5-hour running time Sanders opens with an elaborate prologue getting us up to speed on the background of this fairy tale world, the origin story of the Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who, after having her family killed by the war-mongering ravages of evil men, takes over the kingdom of a widowered King and imprisons his gorgeous daughter, Snow White, in their castle. Through the familiar mirror on the wall we learn that the Queen achieves her power by stealing the youth of women more beautiful than her. When Snow White escapes her prison, the Queen needs to find her and her heart in order to solidify all her desires for power.

Enter the ‘Huntsman’, played by the new hunky Brad Pitt-like star Chris Hemsworth, who is charged with finding Snow White. Of course, he kind of falls for her and teams up to fight back against the encroaching despotism of the Queen. It wouldn’t be Snow White without some dwarves, and just at a point when the film plateaus and threatens to wallow in its self-seriousness we’re introduced to those seven gold miners expertly realized with a combination of CG and terrific casting and performances from a well-put together group of British character actors, including Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Brian Gleeson and Johnny Harris.

In between the textbook mythological journey plotting are a half-dozen great medieval fight scenes, not too bloody to make an R-rating but choreographed in concert with the distinct visual design and flare of Sanders’ overall fairy tale/sword/sandal hybrid, which is the real star of this film.

Sanders is the latest filmmaker in a 30-year trend of commercial directors making a large leap directly into tent pole filmmaking. Like Tron's Joseph Kosinski, IMDB shows that Sanders doesn’t have a single credit to his name other than this film. But Hollywood has been graduating the coolest, slickest spot-makers for years, going to back to the famed ‘British Invasion’ of the '70s (Tony Scott, Ridley Scott, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker). And it’s this visual freshness which elevates what could have been a humdrum fantasy vehicle to something inspired.

That said, Sanders can’t escape the disastrous casting of the American mistress of glum, Kristin Stewart, presumably given the role because of teenaged girls’ fascination with Twilight. As Snow White, Stewart extends us yet another brooding, partly sleepy and dull heroine. Hemsworth, nor his male competitor Sam Caflin (playing William, White’s childhood love interest), can prop up a non-existent romance. Ms. Theron, whose aging makeup transitions go from gorgeous to somewhat less gorgeous, chews the scenery as best as she can given her uber-devious role as a fairy tale baddie.


Friday, 1 June 2012

Couples Retreat

Couple’s Retreat (2009) dir. Peter Billingsley
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau, Kristen Bell, Malin Akerman, Kristin Davis, Faizon Love, Kali Hawk

By Alan Bacchus

Just about the only thing this movie is good for is as a tourism video for Bora Bora. The failed comedy ensemble/Vince Vaughn vehicle is stunning to look at, but it's too good to look at.

You should never notice the cinematography in a comedy, not the colour of the water or the mountains in the background. Such is the case with Couples Retreat, co-written by Favreau and Vaughn, directed by Favreau’s Iron Man partner (and of course, former child star) Peter Billingsley and produced under Vince Vaughn’s shingle Wild West Show Productions.

Old buddies David, Jason, Shane, Joey and their wives Ronnie, Cynthia, Lucy and Trudy decide to go on a ‘couples retreat’ to Bora Bora in the hopes of supporting Jason and Cynthia through their therapy sessions in paradise. When they arrive, it’s the most beautiful place on earth to them. But before they even get to take in the activities, they get the ‘catch’- each couple has to go through the agonizing and intrusive therapy sessions.

Each one complains about getting up at the crack of dawn to talk about their feelings. And as the sessions progress it brings up harboured insecurities and latent conflict, which threatens to break up everything and thus make the entire trip a disaster. To add fuel to the fire, there is a ‘singles’ resort on the other side of the island where all the fun is taking place, the ultimate temptation for the wary.

The first act has the couples in Chicago engaged in overly-long inane conversations setting up the shenanigans. In fact, just about every scene is twice as long as it should be. It takes almost 25 minutes before they even get to the island. I guess Vaughn and the gang forgot their Shakespeare: ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’. There’s also four or so characters too many. Getting rid of Faison Love’s awful plotting with his new 20-year-old girlfriend and the reunification with his wife at the single’s resort is never funny. And even Favreau and Davis’s plotlines verge on sick and twisted.

Couple’s Retreat keeps the ‘relationship humour’ on the surface, never quite digging deep into the comedy of how men and women relate. Way too many sexual sight-gags, boner jokes and European speedo references go for the easy laugh.

As mentioned, the stunning locale and its impossibly blue waters (which look to be colour timed to be even more blue) hypnotize us into a trance so that we forget we’re even watching a comedy. The casting of a bunch of hotties as the wives and girlfriends helps distract us from the fact that they don’t do much in the script other than play off the goofing around by Vaughn and the boys. It was the same way with the male-centred The Break-Up, also scripted and produced by Vaughn. We can’t help but think how it all would have played out with the likes of funnier, though arguably less bikini-friendly, gals such as Jane Lynch, Amy Poehler and Kristin Wiig


Couples Retreat is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.