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

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Clue


Twenty-seven years on from this picture, 'Clue' survives wonderfully as one of the best comedies of the '80s, the black comedic farce based on the Parker Brothers board game featuring six equally great performances as the famed house guests and murder suspects, and a commanding comic performance from Tim Curry as the venerable butler. 'Clue'’s wicked mixture of dead-pan wit and wicked slapstick feels like Mel Brooks lampooning 'Rules of the Game' as an Agatha Christie mystery.


Clue (1985) dir. Jonathan Lynn
Starring: Tim Curry, Michael McKean, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Madeline Kahn, Lesley Ann Warren, Martin Mull

It’s 1954 New England, an Agatha Christie set-up, a rainy night and a group of strangers gathering for a dinner party at a gloomy hill top mansion. Dramatic crashes of lightning and other delicious music stings establish a heightened sense of mystery and intrigue, and the dreamy early rock and roll music cues as a counterpoint to the delirious murder and mayhem to come.

The affable but secretive butler, Wadsworth (Curry), welcomes the guests who are given six fake names, known to us by the charcters in the board game; Prof Plum (Lloyd), Miss Scarlett (Warren), Mrs. White (Kahn), Mrs. Peacock (Brennan), Mr. Green (McKean) and Col. Mustard (Mull). The six deadly weapons are also cleverly integrated into the mix when Mr. Body, the nefarious host who is revealed to be blackmailing all the guests for the various indiscretions, gives each guest a weapon to kill Wadsworth. Of course, it’s Mr. Body who winds up dead and everyone is a suspect.

Jonathan Lynn’s direction is unstylish but effective, choreographing his action using wide shots to put as many characters in his frames as possible. Lynn’s camera moves invisibly throughout the space to capture the reactions of all the characters to the zaniness of the action all at once. And so, it’s the rhythm of dialogue which sets the pace of the scenes. Cast mostly by supporting actors, no one particular character stands out. Each complements the other, bringing their own comic flavours to the table - an ensemble in the best sense.

The actors are just as comfortable timing their witty one-liners as performing pratfalls and other traditional slapstick material. Tim Curry's performance is the most inspired, as he sells gags like the quick insults aimed at the slow-witted Col. Mustard and controls the pace with his remarkable manic physicality.

As written by Lynn (with John Landis), the script could not be any tighter. It only takes an hour or so before Wadsworth proclaims to know who the killer is. The entire third act is a delirious sequence, featuring Curry as Wadsworth retelling and re-acting the entire film we just saw with the aggressive franticness of the Marx Bros.

Equally inspired are the three endings shot for the film and released as three separate movies back in its theatrical release. It was a terrific marketing hook, which to my knowledge hasn't been repeated since. Since it's only been on home video we get to watch all three endings at once, adding one last marvelous post-modern comedic gag to cap off this terrific film.

***½

Clue is available on Blu-ray on August 7 from Paramount Home Entertainment, presumably timed with the release of another board game adaptation, 'Battleship'. The results couldn't be any more extreme.

Monday, 30 July 2012

La Jetee

The deep pop-culture penetration of this short experimental film from the ‘60s is a remarkable achievement. At a mere 28 minutes in length and featuring only still photos, it creates remarkably strong and poignant high-concept science fiction with a strong humanist/existential drama. The piece was surely a vital influence on Terry Gilliam’s '12 Monkeys', as well as James Cameron’s time-bending love story in 'The Terminator' and, by association, any time travel film after that. Even Christopher Nolan’s 'Inception' is born from the perplexing notions of manipulating dreams and time paradoxes. Hell, even 'Groundhog Day' owes something to 'La Jetee'.


Le Jetee (1962) dir. Chris Marker
Starring: Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux

By Alan Bacchus

It’s the aftermath of WWIII in Paris, where most of the survivors have retreated to the underground to avoid the nuclear fallout. A team of scientists experiment with time travel in the hopes of finding resources for the present. The unnamed hero of the story (Hanich), who narrates his childhood memory of waiting outside an airport gate with his mother and seeing a desperate man shot to death, is chosen as the subject because of his deranged mental state, which has the ability to withstand the pressures of the experiment.

Several attempts at going back into the past result in the man meeting an alluring woman from the past. Each journey brings him closer to her, eventually forming a genuine relationship. After completing his mission his doctors turn on him and track him down in the past to assassinate him, but not before he comes face-to-face with a remarkable existential revelation.

As powerful as the moving image has proven to be since the birth of cinema, Chris Marker has not forgotten that the still image can be even more powerful. Each of the 800 or so still images presented in this piece has as much emotional weight and beguiling mystery as anything a motion camera could capture. Marker could have used a motion camera, as the picture cut together has some of the same rules and language as traditional cinema – wide shots, close-ups, traditional coverage, etc. – which makes his choice of stills so inspired. It acts like a scrapbook of the events.

But La Jetee is experimental through and through, and although it resembles the general arc of its feature remake, 12 Monkeys, the film is consciously aloof and mysterious. It’s constructed more like a series of dream experiments than time travel – I don’t know if the term time travel is ever used. But in the end Marker is clear to make his point about the hero's journey, a spiritual love story across space and time, which connects with astonishingly profound satisfaction.

****

La Jetee, packaged with Chris Marker’s 1983 essay doc, Sans Soleil, is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Total Recall: A Masterpiece of Crass


Several years ago I wrote a piece praising the audaciously irresponsible and grotesque action film 'Total Recall'. It was a product of its time, which would never be made today as it was then. Well, now we DO have another 'Total Recall', which makes these cinematic reflections even more interesting (not having seen the new film yet):


From June 19, 2008:

I wonder if we’ll ever see a film like Total Recall again. The film was a major Hollywood blockbuster starring the biggest international movie star at the time. In today’s cinema environment Total Recall would be a tent pole film, written for the widest possible audience and designed to generate a sequel or two, a TV series and a theme park.

Let’s go back in time. According to Wikipedia, Total Recall had the largest authorized production budget for a Hollywood film. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a major star, but not yet at his height of stardom (the following summer's blockbuster T2 would confirm that). Director Paul Verhoeven was coming off Robocop – a sci-fi/action/satire and one of the most violent films ever made. Despite no stars and an R rating, the unexpected success of Robocop allowed him to make Total Recall.

1990 is different than 2008, and a filmmaker like Paul Verhoeven would rarely be given carte blanche with the biggest star and biggest budget in Hollywood to make one of the most eye-popping, over-the-top violent, politically incorrect, lewd and in-bad-taste films ever made. It was a different time then; politics were different, prevailing cultural attitudes were different. Look at some of the films made in the late '80s and early '90s – perhaps the glory days of action violence – Robocop, Rambo III, Commando, The Last Boy Scout, Extreme Prejudice and all those Steven Seagal films. It was a different era. In today’s Hollywood cinema it’s rare for a mainstream film to show even a blood squib (a bloodless Iron Man helped it succeed at the box office).

The original Total Recall deserves to be celebrated. We will certainly miss out on the classic moments:

"Baby, you make me wish I had three hands!"


When Quaid first enters "Venusville", the redlight district of Mars, he is approached by perhaps cinema's most audacious sexual fetish - a three-titted lady.


Kuato Lives!


One of the mysteries of the story is Kuato, the mythical leader of the Martian revolution. Kuato is dramatically revealed to us to be a mutant growing out of Marshall Bell's body.


Human Shield


Cudos to our hero Quaid, who uncaringly uses an innocent bystander’s dead body as a human shield to protect himself against rapid gunfire. Come on - that is totally awesome. Would Jason Bourne even attempt that? No way!


Richter’s Arms


After the dramatic elevator fight between Quaid and Richter, Quaid ultimately wins out by crushing his opponent to death under an elevator platform leaving Richter's two maimed arms in his hands as souvenirs. "See you at the party, Richter!"


Kuato Dies!


Special effects designer Rob Bottin was part and parcel with Verhoeven's ultraviolent streak from Robocop to Basic Instinct. He was a master at organic body and creature effects. And Kuato's 'bullet to the head' slo-motion close-up must surely be on his reel.


Arnie shooting Edgemar in the head


Again, when would a hero so callously blow the head off an unarmed man without pause? In fact, Quaid does pause, thinking he's not a human - but kills him because he is.


Dwarf brandishing a machinegun


OK, it's not crass, but even dwarves and mutants can kick ass in Verhoeven's films. How awesome is that!

Stepping on a Dead Body


After the awesome escalator shootout, Quaid escapes and the bad guys run to follow. Paul Verhoeven takes the time to shoot and edit a cutaway of Richter actually stepping on the bullet-ridden chest of a dead body - presumably that poor sap that Arnie used as a human shield.

Total Recall would go on to earn $120 million at the US box office, good for seventh best that year. But what if the film was made today? Well, it would likely turn out to be Minority Report, which interestingly enough was originally written as Total Recall 2 with Quaid as the cop who solves crime in the future.

Total Recall is now available in a newly packaged Blu-ray/DVD Special Edition from Alliance Films in Canada. It contains virtually the same special features, but here the attraction is a much better HD transfer, digitally cleaned up, improving on the vastly disappointing previously issued Lion's Gate Blu-ray.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Footnote

'Footnote', a Foreign Language Oscar nominee from Israel, prods at two universal sources of humour – the persnickety egos of tenured professors, and the buffoonish moods of fathers and maybe, just maybe, their sons. Perhaps. What a wonderful plot for a comedy. What an utterly over-directed film.


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

By Blair Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

Footnote is available on DVD and Blu-Ray Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Down By Law

The '80s were not kind to American indie cinema. For the most part, gone were the 1970’s mavericks, and with them the distributors and studios willing to bank them. And so, smack dab in the middle of the American conservative cinematic establishment stood the fiercely idiosyncratic and subversive Jim Jarmusch, revelling in the piss and vinegar of life. How remarkable and ironic it was for the director whose creative peak was this decisively uncreative period. 'Down By Law' sits right on top of Jarmusch’s creative peak, a beacon for the future Steven Soderberghs, Quentin Tarantinos and Paul Thomas Andersons.


Down By Law (1986) dir. Jim Jarmusch
Starring: John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni

By Alan Bacchus

Like Jarmusch’s previous Permanent Vacation and Stranger than Paradise, Down By Law sympathizes with the lost souls of the '80s, the weirdoes who couldn’t fit into Reagan’s America, the ones left behind by the sanitization of an extreme free market capitalist mentality. What an inspired trio of actors who fit together in the most unconventional of ways. John Lurie and Tom Waits, for instance, communicate more with their charismatic and intense faces, and Roberto Benigni is a comic sparkplug who lights up every scene he’s in.

There’s only a whiff of a story, the opening scenes of which show how petty criminals Zack (Waits) and Jack (Lurie) – similar names which makes for a great gag with Benigni – fall victim to unfortunate circumstances and find themselves unlawfully in prison. Their days languishing in the jail consist of playing poker, waiting for the guards to light their cigarettes and arguing. Enter Roberto, a naïve tourist who also finds himself in prison inexplicably for manslaughter. Without Roberto, Zack and Jack are like oil and water. But with him in the room they are in harmony. It’s Roberto who hatches a plan to escape (with relative ease), which has them on a Tom Sawyer-like journey through the Louisiana bayou to freedom.

The joys of Down By Law exist in the silences. Jarmusch features long static takes skewed with wide angle lenses. But even in these most undramatic of moments it never feels like dead air. It’s the faces and attitude of his characters that create the pulse of the film. John Lurie in particular, the standout from Stranger than Paradise is interminably watchable even when he’s not doing anything. Even as a pimp trading women on the street he’s a loveable doofus. And Tom Waits brings a laid back coolness, as he's unaffected by anything that crosses his path.

Without being a rock and roll movie, Down By Law has the spirit of the lifestyle without the music. Certainly Tom Waits' presence helps create this feeling, but the key is Jarmusch’s distinctly slacker mentality even before there was such a term. The characters simply exist without any dramatic artifice. Zack, Jack and Roberto are the genuine article oddballs whom we simply want to observe being themselves fighting their way through a conformist sterile world.

***½

Down By Law is available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Chariots of Fire

The iconic shot of the athletes wearing Wimbledon white, running through the beach, splashing water in slow motion set to the synthesized grandeur of Vangelis's score buoys most of this picture. Looking back, the story of a group of British track and field athletes and their collective journeys to the 1924 Olympics in Paris, fighting for King and Country, is as stuffy and stodgy as British period films come, and is arguably one of the least memorable Best Picture Oscar winners.


Chariots of Fire (1981) dir. Hugh Hudson
Starring: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers, Sir. John Geilgud, Ian Holm

By Alan Bacchus

A dual story essentially, Ben Cross, as Harold Abrahams, is a dash-runner and a Jew, who at every turn battles the stubborn, racist British class system, as well as his feelings of self-doubt. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) also runs the 100-meter dash but is a devout Christian and, compared to Abrahams, Britain's golden boy. This is ripe material for dramatic conflict, but director Hugh Hudson never finds the core that connects these stories.

Colin Welland's script hops and skips through the years leading up to the Games, but with little dramatic gravitas. Abraham's fight for recognition as a Jew in the mostly Anglican Christian Cambridge school mildly exposes Britain's legacy of elitism and class hierarchy, but it never really passes any significant judgment. And Eric Liddell's moral stance about not running on Sunday is admirable but hardly heroic or rousing entertainment.

Hudson, who came from the same background in British commercials as Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne, creates a handsome production but shows little of the visual inspiration or inventiveness of his contemporaries. Other than his expressionistic use of slow motion, Hudson's imagery carries very little drama or emotional weight.

Even the sports scenes fall flat. None of the main players ― Charleson, Cross, Nigel Havers or Nicholas Farrell ― look like athletes at all. The Vangelis score is still the highlight, a copy of which is included as a CD in the Blu-ray packaging. The electronic synth sounds date the film to the '80s, but it's the best of this unique era in film scores, providing the only memorable counterpoint to the film's otherwise restrained stuffiness.

**

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Headless Woman

On the festival circuit 'The Headless Woman' got nowhere near the attention of other highbrow international art housers of its year, such as 'Gommorah', 'A Christmas Tale', 'The Class' and 'Waltz With Bashir'. While these other films got picked up for North American distribution by the heavier hitters such as Sony Picture Classics and IFC, 'The Headless Woman' went nowhere, even topping Indiewire’s annual best 'undistributed films' list of 2008. Somehow the resonant feelings of this film persisted to become one of the most revered films of the decade, and justly so. It's a truly spellbinding beguiler..


The Headless Woman (2008) dir. Lucrecia Martel
Starring: María Onetto, Claudia Cantero, César Bordón, Daniel Genoud

By Alan Bacchus

Eventually, The Headless Woman was snagged by the smaller Strand Releasing and quickly gained a critical cult following. With art house word of mouth rising in stature, it was considered THE art house film to see that year, even securing a spot at #25 on The Toronto International Film Festival’s respected ‘alternative’ Decade Best of List.

It's no surprise that the film took a while to gain traction. At a glance, it's difficult to penetrate. Few films have shown greater devotion to their ‘point of view’. There’s only a whiff of a story in The Headless Woman and little or no plot. Yet it’s a remarkable attempt at the execution of a completely unique style of storytelling.

The point of view in question belongs to Veronica (or Vero for short), a middle-aged upper class Argentinean woman played brilliantly by María Onetto, whom we meet on the road as she travels home in her car. As Martel does throughout the entire film, her camera is lasered in on Vero’s profile at the wheel when she hits something on the road. She’s shaken and angry, and it isn’t until she drives away from the scene that we see in the distance a dead dog on the road. Yet through the hours and days after the incident, Vero is still shaken to the core as we watch her wander through the daily movements of her life in a daze, aloof, barely acknowledging her friends and family.

So what’s eating Vero?

Only midway through the film does Vero confess to her husband that she thinks she may have hit a child, but she cannot be sure. As she continues living through these foggy days and nights we encounter details and snippets of information about the accident, a missing child and a blocked canal due to a carcass stopping the water flow, details which may or may not add up to any closure of Vero’s guilt-ridden angst.

When other characters talk, Martel is always on Vero’s face, observing her reactions. If the description of this film couldn’t get more unappealing, Vero barely has any reaction to the information and events after the accident. Martel is singular in her direction, as she shows the internalized anguish and psychological torment of Vero at all times.

Martel is so vigilant with her point of view, her camera never leaves Maria Onetta’s head – I say 'head' instead of 'face' because half the time it’s the back of her head in focus or we see her profile instead of her face. Martel barely even shoots below Vero's shoulders. Not since the Dardenne brothers exclusively shot Olivier Gourmet with one medium close-up in Le Fils has a director been so limiting with his/her camera. But as seen through Martel’s longish lens (which compresses the visual space in perspective ), Onetta is beautified, producing gorgeous and wholly cinematic compositions.

We never really get satisfactory answers about the mysteries in the film, and the last shot, which features the film’s only moment of music, suggests an optimism that Vero will emerge from her haze. Or maybe not?

The open-endedness shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the intellectual melancholy of Martel’s tone. That doesn’t mean it’s any less satisfying. Hell, I love closure and hated the The White Ribbon for not providing any. But The Headless Woman is a different film, and we never feel Martel needed to solve its mystery in order to satisfy us (or at least me), thus earning her the right to leave us hanging.

***½

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Like the 30 lbs of muscle Tom Hardy apparently gained on top of an already ripped body to play the brutish Bane character, Christopher Nolan applies this mentality to every aspect of filmmaking for 'The Dark Knight Rises'. The result is a gargantuan monster of a film, a breathless and sometimes exhaustive experience.


The Dark Knight Rises (2012) dir. Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman

By Alan Bacchus

Both the good and the bad of this series has been spiked. The sense of the mythological pathos from Batman Begins is firmly planted back into the series, the emotional weight of everyone’s backstories (characters past and present) come to a head in grandiose fashion and the stakes are even more dangerous than some psychedelic gas or a couple of boats wired with explosives. It’s now nuclear annihilation. Unfortunately, there's also so much going on, from the nihilistic revolution that occurs throughout all of Gotham to the reconciliation of a dozen character threads, the narrative of this film can barely be contained. But Nolan's assault of cinema admirably dulls us to these deficiencies.

Every actor listed above gets his or her moment (perhaps with the exception of Mr. Freeman), usually complemented with multiple flashbacks to make sure we get the point. This results in the running time elongated to 2 hours and 45 minutes (the first two timed in at 2:20 and 2:30, respectively). But the history of the series has shown that Nolan is dissatisfied treating any character as ‘stock’. While there's perhaps one or two flashbacks too many, we have to admire his consistency of leaving no stones unturned.

Hans Zimmer’s music has been spiked as well, pulsating orchestral compositions wall to wall, which include hypnotizing bass drums, choral tenor chants and forceful string sections. Think Verdi’s Requiem and it comes close (google “Verdi Requiem Dies Arie” if you’re unaware). As an aside... can we now start talking about Hans Zimmer with the likes of John Williams, Max Steiner or Bernard Herrmann as one of the great film composers? From the elegance of The Thin Red Line to the rousing anthems of Pirates of the Caribbean, and now the Nolan films, Zimmer has reigned supreme for 15 years.

This mindset of uniform cinematic enhancement will certainly be grating for some, even me. I questioned the need for a Batplane, but everything must be topped, as these are the requirements of a sequel. And Nolan’s adherence to these genre rules is commendable.

Even when the cause-and-effect action or individual character motivations get muddied through the bloated story, the remarkable assault-like momentum of the film easily carries us over these minor bumps in the road. The last half of the picture maintains such a heightened feeling of tension and action, it’s a rush of monumental proportions.

But the reason this film works is how Nolan leaves us in the end, his chaos cleaned up as neat and tidy as possible without the agonizingly drawn out finale of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

***½

Friday, 20 July 2012

North by Northwest

Hitch’s sprawling cross-country epic adventure has never been one of my favourites. Perhaps it was the overly preposterous maguffin plotting, or the extensive and often distracting overuse of his rear projection process shots, or its length (it was Hitchcock’s longest running time, clocking in at 2 hours 15 minutes). But on Blu-ray it’s a completely different experience, a pristine and stunning high-definition presentation, which makes the entire picture larger than life and as close as ever to the big screen, immersive theatrical experience.


North by Northwest (1959) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Cary Grant, Eve Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau

By Alan Bacchus

The story behind the making of the film, which is revealed to us in the beautifully designed Warner Bros liner notes, indeed stemmed from Hitchcock’s desire simply to make his biggest movie to date - a disposable action picture bereft of the psychological layers he previously dug himself into in Vertigo or would go on to do in his subsequent effort, Psycho.

North by Northwest is breezy entertainment to say the least. The plotting is fantastical and paper-thin at best. Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a NYC ad exec (think Don Draper with a sense of humour) who randomly gets pulled into a cab by a couple of thugs carrying guns who claim he's a CIA spy named George Kaplan. When Thornhill escapes the clutches of the baddies he finds himself on the run, a journey which takes him by plane, train and automobile from NYC to Chicago to Indiana to South Dakota trying to clear his name.

When he inadvertently gets a murder rap pinned on him, he’s made a fugitive from the law, as well as the suited heavies. With no one to trust, he finds himself helped by a mysterious femme fatal blondie, Eve Kendell (Eve Marie Saint), who uses her sexual powers to seduce Roger and then double-cross him back into the clutches of the spies. Thornhill finds trouble and adventure in a number of wild situations, including the UN building, Grand Central Station, the streets of Chicago, the prairies of Indiana and finally, and most famously, Mount Rushmore.

Despite the danger, Hitchcock never lets Thornhill take the situation too seriously. His ability to take the piss out of anyone and any tense situation adds a typically Hitchcockian and British wry comedic tone.

All the other hallmarks of Hitchcock’s style are heightened. The film works best as series of set pieces, all of which are impeccably choreographed to maximum suspense. The crop dusting scene is still one of his best ever directed sequences. As Thornhill stands alone at the desolate crossroads, even before the plane strikes, Hitch teases us with the sound of the bi-plane humming in the background. He misdirects us away from the plane by having Thornhill converse with a waiting bus passenger on the road. And when Hitchcock decides to have the plane strike at him, his use of composition and editing creates teeth-shattering tension and danger.

Though the scene takes place in the wide open and in bright daylight, it's made frightening by the isolation of Thornhill in the expansiveness of the environment. This is a consistent theme throughout. In every scene Hitchcock is conscious of the placement of his characters in space and architecture. The UN scene is a good example. His wide shots frame in the high ceilings and lengthy staircases of the interior design, and the final magnificent exterior overhead shot of the building, which shows Thornhill leaving in a cab, is framed to shrink the character against his surroundings. This is the entire purpose of the Rushmore sequence, his characters having their final confrontation on a mountain sculpted into four massive heads in the rock.

North by Northwest is not perfect. The third act resolution in South Dakota is long and takes too much time trying to explain the narrative jumps it took to tease us for the previous two acts. We’re also left without much to resonate with. The final phallic train shot entering the tunnel is subliminally clever and cheeky but is also as eye rolling as James Bond double-entendres.

I used to have a major problem with Hitchcock’s insistence on cheating studio interiors for exteriors, even into the late '50s when on-location shooting was common in Hollywood. Hitchcock even places his characters on hideous studio-confining treadmills against pre-recorded backdrops to do exterior walk and talks. But under the high definition Blu-ray treatment these scenes blend in better than they ever looked on VHS or DVD.

***½

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Shotgun Stories

Have you ever felt such deep-rooted hatred for someone or a group of people? Have you ever been in a fight or had violence threatened on you? 'Shotgun Stories' captures the visceral fear, adrenaline and emotion of these real-life situations.


Shotgun Stories (2007) dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday

By Alan Bacchus

By Roger Ebert's laudatory review and selection to Ebertfest in 2008 and then almost exclusively by word of mouth, this movie very slowly became recognized as one of the great American true independent films of the new millennium. Jeff Nichols' feature debut concerns a family feud between two sets of half-brothers after the death of their father. Nichols' treatment and examination of violence echoes some of the great '70s films on the topic, including Terrence Malick's Badlands and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs.

Nichols' concept is simple, featuring an archetypal, Shakespearean or even Biblical conflict and the three Hayes brothers - none of whom are given names - the older one (Michael Shannon), the middle one (Doug Lignon) and the younger one (Barlow Jacobs). They live together estranged from their mother and father in a ramshackle home in rural Arkansas. Their father has just died and they decide to attend the funeral. In the backstory, the Hayes's father started a new family whom we learn created animosity between the sets of half-brothers. Michael Shannon's character makes a candid speech about his father's failures, which angers the other clan. This sparks a family war that escalates from minor disturbances to extreme violence and death.

The film's purpose and plot is played loose in the opening act. Some might call it boring. But Nichols is careful to establish this tone and the environment - a slow-moving existence without much hope or dreams.

Nichols starts the film off by putting the audience in the point of view of the Shannon character and his brothers. Gradually we learn about the other family, their estrangement with their mother and the disillusionment they have suffered as a result. The other Hayes clan is dressed differently and carry themselves more confidently and with an air of being well-off. Nichols allows us to imply that envy fuels their anger. The director expertly frustrates us by showing both points of view so we can anticipate where the quid-pro-quo could lead, but we are powerless to stop it. By the mid-point and beyond, the film has its audience in a tight vise and keeps squeezing.

With the realism that Nichols establishes, the tragedy has a biblical quality. Killing a character on film is common, but it's difficult to pull a real reaction from the audience. Somehow the death in this film hits closer to home. Nichols doesn't put specific blame on any of the characters. The violence is an organic force which breeds from the hate and anger of the enemies. We desperately want the two families to let bygones be bygones and so when they can't settle their differences the shock is amplified.

The performances from all of the males help sell the story. With the exception of Michael Shannon, all are unfamiliar and average faces - and the type of people any of us could know.

Nichols tries his damnedest not to sensationalize the story. He clearly makes a point not to show us the actual violence on screen. He often cuts away at the critical moments of a confrontation. It's his way of unglamorizing the violence - by not actually showing it to us. I'm not sure if it makes the film stronger, but it's consistent with his message.

Arguably the ending lets the audience off the hook. Nichols ties a thematic knot to end the film, but he does so in a manner perhaps too subtle for a climax. A Peckinpah gun battle would not be appropriate, but there could have been a moment to really challenge the characters and force them to make a tougher decision than the one made at the end.

Despite this nitpicking Shotgun Stories announced Jeff Nichols as a fresh new voice in American independent cinema. And if you haven't seen Take Shelter, now's the time to discover this talented filmmaker.

***½

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

This film gets me every time. The final moments, when the Chief discovers McMurphy’s been lobotomized, kills him out of pity, then completes Mac's metaphorical task of lifting the water fountain off the ground, plunging it through the window, thus releasing him into the wild to freedom, is as triumphant a climax as their ever was in cinema.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) dir. Milos Forman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Danny De Vito, Will Sampson, William Redfield

By Alan Bacchus

The scene referenced above isn't even the climax of the film really. It occurs in the denouement after the already devastating discovery of Billy Bibbits' body, self-mutilated to death because of the degrading emotional punishment inflicted by Nurse Ratched. This moment caps off the wonderful third act set piece, the final hurrah for RP who throws a debaucherous party for his cookey companions in celebration of his last day before his escape.

It’s the last act of defiance, which brought a brief moment of sanity to the lives of the residents and inmates of their mental institution. It’s a perfect ensemble of actors that play those lovable crazies. I can think of few other films where every role is cast just right, and even the most insignificant character finds a memorable moment which contributes to the greater whole of this picture. Charlie Cheswick, for instance, played by Sydney Lassick, a bubbling cauldron of stress, anger and self-loathing, who is controlled by the intellectual boob Harding (William Redfield). The interaction of Harding and Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd) even has its own sub-story, specifically Taber’s hatred of Harding's superiority complex and manipulation of Cheswick. And there’s the quiet Martini (Danny De Vito), who barely whispers a word and is astoundingly short in stature yet has an immeasurable, watchable star quality.

The three stand-out performances, of course, are the leads. Nicholson’s first Oscar is richly deserved. In fact, back then the consensus was that the trophy was long overdue, after having nominated performances passed over in Easy Rider, The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown. As McMurphy, he is the personification of screen magnetism and easy naturalism.

Nurse Ratched has become legendary as the evil stuck-up and resolute antagonist to McMurphy. But as acted by Fletcher and directed by Forman, Ratched never overtly expresses unwarranted antagonism. At all times on the surface she’s a professsional caregiver who puts the mood of the ward as a whole above the individual needs of the patients. Fletcher's performance is never short of awesome. She doesn't have much dialogue, instead the Oscar-winning moments occur in those unspoken facial reactions to McMurphy’s outrageous behaviour. And has someone’s haircut ever been more important to one’s character than Nurse Ratched? I’ve never seen that V-Shaped updo anywhere else other than on Louise Fletcher, almost as if the hairdo was invented just for her.

As great as Nicholson and Fletcher are in this, our heart is with Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit. Just as Nicholson fit perfectly into the skin of RP McMurphy, so does Brad Dourif and Billy Bibbit, the meek stuttering teenager who suffers from gross maltreatment from the women in his life. And in terms of cinematic turnarounds – that is, those moments in a film when the high of a character quickly turns to a low in an instant – Bibbit’s victory bedding Candy, and for that oh-so-brief fleeting moment, losing his stutter, turns heartbreaking so quickly when Ratched stabs him in his achilles heal by threatening to report his actions to his mother.

And tying everything together is Jack Niztsche’s timeless music, using the unique sound of the musical saw creating the off-kilter yet melancholy tone that sets just the right mood.

****

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

The general grumpiness of people’s attitudes toward this film is palpable. So I’m happy to champion the new take on Spider-Man as a sharply executed shift in tone from the Sam Raimi version. Director Marc Webb finds a happy medium between the brooding, deadly serious tone of Christopher Nolan’s Batman and the colourful cartoony campness of Raimi’s Spider-Man, an admirable modus operandi of comic realism, both in emotion and visual design. I eagerly anticipated future entries in this new series.


The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) dir. Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Martin Sheen, Sally Field

By Alan Bacchus

It was an almost unprecented task to reboot such a successful series, which is less than 10 years old. After all, the last Spider-Man(#3) was in made in 2007, just five years ago. The Marc Webb version apparently comes from the ‘Ultimate Universe’ series (I’m not a reader), wherein the brass at Marvel Comics rebooted a bunch of their old franchises (The Avengers included). Here we get to see the familiar story of Peter Parker but with fresh new layers, including his estrangement from his father, his tempestuous relationship with his Uncle Ben, his interest and involvement with the bio-genetical industry, which, through a spider bite, transformed him into a ‘spider-man’, a more elaborate learning curve of his powers and added spidey senses, as well as a new romantic relationship. In this case, it’s not Mary Jane (whom I suspect might come into play in a sequel) but Gwen Stacy, another bio-genetic geek who teams up with Parker to fight the irresponsible and deranged Curt Connors.

The broad strokes of the story, including Parker’s bullying and his arrogance arising from his powers to the world domination-plotting of the bioscientists, are all standard fare comic book material, but it’s Webb’s tonal adjustments that admirably allow this picture to sit proudly beside Sam Raimi's without ursurping it.

Aiding Webb greatly is Andrew Garfield, a ‘marvel‘ as Peter Parker. From The Social Network to his fine work in his British films, we all knew he could act. But Garfield arguably trumps Tobey Maguire’s dough-eyed Parker, as he feels like a relatable teenager, complex and emotional, without resorting to caricature.

Webb and his writers tease us with a new backstory involving Parker’s father and his innovations with the Oscorp bioscientists. We don’t even get to see Norman Osborn, though his presence is always there – in this case a shadowed figure pulling the strings off camera. But Webb still manages to craft an equally complex villain in Connors, an amputee who wants as much as anyone to find the missing scientific link that would enable him to regenerate his cells and grow back his arm. He’s a reluctant villain, who, through the pressures of the unseen Norman Osborn, takes a risk and tests his formula on himself. Of course, it doesn’t work and he’s transformed into a beast - a green lizard.

Webb’s action sequences are directed with the same realism and integrity he’s given to his characters. With many computer tools at his disposal Webb has exercised admirable restraint using as many organic and practical effects as possible. His spiderwebs looks like a real gooey substance, and much of his web-swinging could have been performed in real time as traditional stunts, as opposed to the overused CGI Spiderman in Raimi’s version.

At 136 minutes, the film threatens to be overlong, yet I can only admire the patience and attention Webb gives to the origin story before launching into the main action. The toughest parts of comic book storytelling are those moments when we have to be convinced that putting on a mask and a costume and fighting crime on one’s own is the right thing to do. This takes time and care.

Webb is in no hurry, and neither was I. The Amazing Spider-Man is one of those rare cases when expectations and execution match up perfectly, which, for this type of popcorn movie, makes for a thoroughly satisfying experience.

***½

Monday, 16 July 2012

Deliverance

Perhaps the ultimate film about the male bravado, four city men, in the outback of Appalachia, out to conquer nature and canoe down the rapids of an untamed river wild, become hunted by a group of hillbilly locals. While some of the character conflict and thematic pronunciations hit the nail on the head, looking back 40 years later, Deliverance is still a riveting adventure film equalled by deep connections of man, nature, class and gender.


Deliverance (1972) dir. John Boorman
Starring: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronnie Cox

By Alan Bacchus

Each character is written to highlight the Freudian core of ourselves. Ed (Jon Voight), a lawyer and organizer of the excursion, serves as the everyman point-of-view into the nightmare. Lewis (Burt Reynolds), a swaggering outdoorsman and Darwinist to the extreme, acts as the group's spirit mentor to their internal expression of their primal desires. Drew (Ronny Cox), the moralist and guitar player, fights the group's amoral decision-making. And Bobby (Ned Beatty), the portly nave, famously loses his bravado and gets raped and humiliated by the sadistic hillbilly woodsmen.

Whether it's the conflict within the foursome, such as Lewis's constant taunting of Bobby, or the culture clash of the mountain men versus the city slickers, it's a passive battle for the ages. Look carefully and there's very little direct conflict. Instead, Boorman simmers his pot with scenes of brilliantly quiet tension and consciously oblique plot turns.

The opening scenes are masterful, featuring the group's stop off at the gas station and the first meeting of the foursome and the locals. Despite their inbred poverty, the locals easily read Bobby's arrogant superiority and tense body language. Lewis's negotiation for the drivers who would take their cars to the bottom of river deliciously establishes Lewis's confidence and respect for these salt of the earth inhabitants. The scene, of course, ends with the memorable duelling banjos sequence, a superlative metaphor for the battle of wills about to commence.

John Boorman and Vilmos Zsigmond's brilliant outdoor, on location cinematography looks stunning in Blu-Ray. Few directors used anamorphic widescreen better than Boorman, and fewer films have are more intimately connected to its location than Deliverance.

The film's most famous sequence ― Bobby's rape ― sits right at the midpoint and represents the only scene of direct, face-to-face violence. At a glance, it's certainly most cruel to the character of Bobby, but it can also be seen as one of cinema's great acts of comeuppance for his passive but brazen superiority complex and disrespect for the environment and its people.

The visual and visceral brilliance notwithstanding, Deliverance is as rich in theme and context. The environmental story of man's desire to tame nature, redirecting the river and flood the valley for the benefit of its largely white, civilized population, is inseparable from America's self-determined, wealth-based class system and the external desires of men to conquer everything they encounter.

The Warner Special Edition Blu-Ray, wonderfully packaged with comprehensive liner notes, does right by the film. Featurettes and director commentary from a 2007 release are present, as well as a new high definition retrospective of the four actors sitting down and discussing the making of the film. The lack of a moderator in the discussion makes it mostly awkward, not to mention its location: the Burt Reynolds museum in Jupiter Florida.

****

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Gunga Din


Apologies to Gunga Din fans, but George Stevens' classic just doesn’t survive too well over the years. The revered action/adventure yarn set in India, once one of the inspirations for the Indiana Jones movies, at one time looked like a rousing and exotic escapism entertainment, but with today’s eyes, it’s still a big spectacle picture, though now mostly dull and limp.


Gunga Din (1939) dir. George Stevens
Starring: Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Victor McLaglen

By Alan Bacchus

Over the past year Turner Classic Movies & Warner Bros Home Video have packaged a number of surprisingly decent movie 4-pks of specific genres as a single DVD purchase. Normally, when I see distributors packaging two or three movies together for a volume discount there’s little value added. But there’s something about these TCM packages that feels like a surprisingly astound programming. For example, their ‘Sci-Fi’ package a few months ago, packaged together a quartet of interesting selections, including Them and The Beast From 10,000 Fathoms. Not all the films were great, but as a program of four films to watch it gave a good broad overview of sci-fi B-movies.

In their ‘War’ package Warner puts together: Battle of the Bulge (1961), The Dawn Patrol (1938), Operation Pacific (1951) and Gunga Din (1939). For me Gunga Din was the main attraction to this package – one of the revered classics from ‘Hollywood’s Greatest Year’ – 1939.

Here in Gunga Din, the Indian legend of the Kali warriors gets its first cinematic treatment. This story has been done a little bit better in The Stranglers of Bombay, the 1960 Hammer picture starring Guy Rolfe, and of course Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In this picture, the infamous ‘Thugs’, sadistic killers and bloodthirsty worshippers of the goddess Kali has just attacked a British outpost, thus breaking the line in communication for the occupying colonists. British Colonel Weed dispatches a trio of soldiers to investigate.

There’s Cutter (Cary Grant) a fist-fighting rabble-rouser, the muscle-man sweetheart MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and the reluctant softy Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) whose recently been engaged but desperately wants to join his buddies on the adventure. Tagging along is their affable Indian guide and wannabe soldier Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe). The team discovers an old Indian cult called the Thugees who worship a goddess named Kali who strangle their victims to death.

While the film does features a number of big sprawling action scenes, the forward movement of the journey and thus the intensity of the action is stifled at every turn with its rather silly comedic side plotting. Sure some decent banter between Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen, but the amount of running time devoted to these scenes diffuses the excitement of the adventure. Specifically Ballantine troubles with his fiancé is given much too much attention, and feels like a romantic comedy dynamic shoehorned into a disposable b-movie cliff hanger serial.

**

Friday, 13 July 2012

American Reunion

Enjoyment of this film will likely depend on whether you find these characters, 13 years on from their modest hit 'American Pie' launched in 1999, interesting enough to revisit. Let’s not forget the original film was a mostly forgettable cheesefest masquerading as lewd Porky’s-style sex-com. This film brings back all these ‘beloved’ characters for an equally cheesy, mildly funny romp, tepidly commenting on the inadequacies of mid thirties life crises.


American Reunion (2012) dir. Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott, Chris Klein, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Eugene Levy, Alyson Hannigan, Eddie Kaye Thomas

By Alan Bacchus

Really this film and the other three are only good for two or three scenes at best - the continued series of excruciatingly awkward and embarrassing situations the affable Jim Lewinstein (Biggs) finds himself in. Here, Jim is married to his sweetheart Michelle (Hannigan) but finds himself in a sexually inert relationship burdened by his status as a dad. But when he’s back in town cavorting around his old stomping grounds with his buddies, he eventually finds himself in a car with his 17 year old hot female neighbour drunk and getting naked and frisky with him. But when he crashes his car into a tree and has to sneak her into her house under cover of her parents, this is genuinely terrific sequence.

The rest of the picture goes through the motions of tracing the feelings of inadequacy of the other characters, all of whom try to project an image of success to their friends, but harbour deep regret and envy. Unfortunately the actors playing these old characters are directed to be the same caricatures as before. Fitch (Thomas) for example, still wears a scarf and talks in pseudo intellectual poetry. Oz (Klein) is a celebrity sports commentator living a shallow lifestyle with his horny girlfriend, but who still has feelings for his old flame Heather; and Kevin, (Nicholas) now bearded because he probably still looks the same as he did 13 years ago, is sadly left to share acting space with a really spaced-out Tara Reid.

Seann William Scott, the best actor of all the young cast, tries too hard to ‘be’ Stiffler, a clear indication Scott moved on from this character a long time ago – watch his brilliance in Michael Dowse’s Goon, for a strong contrast. Surprisingly John Cho (an alum of the directors’ Harold and Kumar pictures) gets some welcomed face time as the ‘milf’ guy who organizes the reunion.

Eugene Levy’s presence is never taken for granted. He’s really the co-star of these films. His awkward relationship with Jim, results in the best humour in any of these pictures. It was the reason why this franchise even exists, the titular ‘Pie’ sequence and the super awkward father-son talk afterwards, a great gag which has buoyed this franchise through four films.

But really, American Reunion barely floats. With the exception Jim and his dad, all these characters are all forgettable caricatures of the cinematic high school experience. If anything, what’s most impressive is the producer/director’s ability to convince everyone that this company of players are still relevant in the pop culture landscape.

**

American Reunion is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Universal Home Entertainment

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild


A magnificent debut from Behn Zeitlin (already showered with awards at Sundance and Cannes) and an immensely moving coming-of-age story (of sorts). 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is a father/daughter survival story (of sorts) set in the fringes of civilization in Southern Louisiana in the most environmentally vulnerable place in the region. Wink and his daughter, Hushpuppy, live a hand-to-mouth existence in abject poverty yet live a life of inspiring freedom and verve. This is an experiential film about youth, stylized with the same kind of dreamy realism as the more accessible and admittedly on-the-nose 'The Tree of Life'.


Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) dir. Behn Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes

By Alan Bacchus

The term magic realism gets thrown around a lot when describing a mixture of fantasy within realistic situations. I never really got the expression, but if anything this picture is the epitome of the term. For one, Zeitlin achieves remarkable freshness and authenticity in his world using a company of completely new, non-professional actors, all of whom perform on camera with the utmost of naturalism.

Beasts rarely gives the audience a chance to rest, as it's fuelled with the cinematic momentum of an action film. The opening scene kick-starts us by injecting us into the lifestyle of a group of people we’ve never seen before on film – a half-dozen families (black and white) living in the area of Southern New Orleans called ‘the Bathtub’. It's just below the levees that protect the city, thus an area prone to flooding and the worst of the hurricanes the area has to offer. Living on a small island without electricity or any semblance of civilization, the group live a salt-of-the-earth life, vagabonds perhaps but with a strong sense of home and community. Their commitment to their home is so strong that when an unnamed but powerful storm strikes, their island is left flooded and they are forced to improvise and survive and avoid the evils of society, including people that would condemn them and their lifestyle.

All of this is told from the point of view of a young child named Hushpuppy, a sprite six-year-old who knows no other way of the world but through the unconventional education of her father, Wink, who through action and observance learns discipline and survival. At first, watching Hushpuppy operate a gas stove with a blowtorch, run around half naked while spraying fireworks into the air or eat fried cat food for a meal is terrifying to watch, especially as a parent. But Zeitlin is clear not to judge his characters. Hushpuppy accepts her existence and lives her life with as much passion, excitement, awe and wonder as anyone else.

The relationship between her and her temperamental father is just as terrifying. Wink often leaves his daughter on her own in their rundown shanty home for days at a time, a plotting element that pays off with startling emotional impact in the third act. But the paternal bond between the two is as powerful as any father-daughter relationship ever put to film.

However unconventional Zeitlin’s cinematic style, his storytelling is as classic and accessible as it comes. Zeitlin sends a laser to our emotional core with such precision, the film ends with a finale so powerful, satisfying and inspiring it sends the film into the cinematic stratosphere. So, after all the magic realism and seemingly 'experimental' filmmaking, Beasts reveals itself as a surprisingly conventional film. It's heart-on-the-sleeve filmmaking at its best.

****

Beasts of the Southern Wild opens Friday in selected cities in Canada from EOne Films.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Planet B-Boy


There are four core elements to the influential art form known as Hip-Hop: Rap, DJing, Graffiti and B-boying (aka breakdancing). Since the late '70s/early '80s Rap has come to dominate Hip-Hop leaving the other elements behind and out of the pop culture loop. And while Rap has become a huge money making and marketing machine, the dance form of the culture - B-boying - has stayed true to its roots. Benson Lee’s exhilarating documentary reveals to the average layman the explosive worldwide phenomenon of the underground B-boying scene and how the passion for this highly expressive art form unites youth around the world.


Planet B-Boy (2008) dir. Benson Lee
Documentary

By Alan Bacchus

At the top Lee gets the housekeeping done quickly. In a fast-paced 5-minute sequence he quickly summarizes comprehensively the history of B-boying from its origins and influences to its status today. Lee then gets down to the real showcase and the focal point of the film - the annual 'Battle of the Year' competition. Every year Germany holds a B-boying competition, which sees 18 of the baddest international crews battle it out to be the best in the world.

Lee criss-crosses the globe at breakneck speed to cover four of the most promising crews competing from Korea, Japan, France and the U.S. Each of the dancers from the crews becomes a character in the film. The more we learn about the backgrounds of the dancers the more Lee reveals their commonality across the different cultures. Whether it’s a Korean teen who continually seeks the approval of his single father, or a 12-year-old French boy who discovers his mother’s latent racism, Lee, in humorous and emotional ways, shows how the passion to dance, compete and entertain allows them to rise above the poverty, discrimination or domestic problems in their lives.

In addition to these great characters, Lee captures some of the most phenomenal dancing you will ever see – period. The Battle of the Year begins with a choreography round during which the crews perform a routine as a group. As each crew takes the stage we get to witness astounding feats of acrobatics, complex leg, arm and body movements, and uniquely creative choreography. The final round is the traditional crew vs. crew battle. The two crews that compete in the end go through a series of jaw-dropping one-upmanships that would have viewers shaking their heads in amazement.

So if B-boying is so much fun to watch, why hasn't television tapped into this? The dance is inherently a freestyle form of expression, and without traditional rules and conventions mainstream media has never been able to find a way to bottle and package this energy. But the dancers wouldn't have it any other way. B-boys continually push their bodies and minds to the limit because there is no rulebook, no manual to learn from and no school to teach it. It’s still a self-taught discipline and an unruly artistic force of nature.

***½

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Tall T

Some of the most influential actor/director collaborations in the history of film are the films of Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher. In the late 1950s the duo made a number of Westerns that would influence filmmakers from the French New Wave to Martin Scorsese. 'The Tall T', with its minimalist aesthetic, masterfully distills the Western genre down to its core as a claustrophobic actioner of the highest order.


The Tall T(1957) dir. Budd Boetticher
Starring: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt, John Hubbard

By Alan Bacchus

Randolph Scott plays Brennan, a typical Western genre protagonist – an unattached, aged journeyman labourer who specializes in cattle wrangling. After years traveling the countryside doing other people’s work, he’s finally bought his ranch and is ready to settle down.

While hitching a ride to his ranch with a pair of upper class newlyweds, their wagon is ambushed by a trio of thieves. The cowardly passenger, Willard, makes a deal with the wily leader of the bunch, Frank Usher (Richard Boone), and offers the men a ransom to be paid by his rich father-in-law. This buys Brennan and Willard’s wife Doretta enough time to stage a coup before they become Usher’s next victims.

The Tall T exemplifies the aesthetic and allure of the Boetticher/Scott pictures. Boetticher strips down the genre to its bare essentials of character and theme. He puts his characters in the arena reserved for low-budget filmmakers – minimal actors in a confined space where character conflict and dialogue move the story forward.

Here, characters are not so much confined as 'isolated'. And for two thirds of the film it’s the relationship between Brennan and his foe, Frank Usher, that drives the story. The film was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, coincidentally made the same year as his original 3:10 to Yuma. Like Yuma, Boetticher establishes a charismatic bad guy – not a prototypical gunslinger dressed in black killing without reason. Boetticher takes time to get to know Usher, and although we never sympathize with him, we admire him. Richard Boone’s characterization reminds us of Alan Rickman’s nuanced and admirable Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

Without showing off, Boetticher creates a slow burning, quiet but palpable tension. Look closely and you can see the influence of Boetticher’s framing, pacing and editing in Sergio Leone’s stylish Westerns. Watch the introduction of the trio of hombres at the train station. As Brennan’s coach approaches, Usher and his men slowly emerge from the shadows. Boetticher’s high-angle wide shot is uncannily reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s arrival in the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West.

A Sony box set released a few years ago features a comprehensive feature length documentary on the life and career of Budd Boetticher. Since Leone is dead, we can only imply his influence, but heavy-hitters such as Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Taylor Hackford all pay humble reverence to Boetticher.

***½

Monday, 9 July 2012

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan

One of the few genuinely decent Trek flicks, 'The Wrath of Khan' brought back one of the great baddies from The Original Series, Khan Noonien Singh, and gave the franchise the shot of nasty adrenaline missing from the tepid 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture'. With that said, you have to remember that before Trek there was almost no precedent for bringing an old TV series to the big screen. The first movie was like the creative team learning to walk again. It was so consumed with awe-inspiring spectacle, it took the second film to get to the action the series deserved.


Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982) dir. Nicholas Meyer
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ricardo Montalban, Merrit Buttrick

By Alan Bacchus

Nicholas Meyer, then a newbie to directing but a renowned writer (The Seven Percent Solution), directs this film with the inspiration of a sea-faring adventure, a dogfight between two ship captains on the high seas or two U-boat commanders engaged in an intergalactic chess match.

To open the film we see the Enterprise crew, minus Capt. Kirk, engaged in a battle with a Klingon warship. A Vulcan beauty, Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley), commands the vessel to its destruction, after which we learn it's just a training exercise - the famous Kobayaski Maru test, which will be featured in the new Trek. It turns out Kirk has been promoted to Admiral – a desk job really, far from the gritty action he’s used to. While supervising Saavik’s training, Kirk and the real crew are called in to investigate a hijacking deep in space.

Meanwhile, Chekov and his new ship, the Reliant, have been taken over by one of Kirk’s old nemeses from The Original Series, Khan (Ricardo Montalban), the 20th Century prisoner exiled by Kirk on TOS episode Space Seed. Khan is hungry for revenge (a dish best served cold) and power, and he serendipitously finds it in the form of the new planet-making device Project Genesis. It will take all of Kirk’s instincts and cunning to defeat the intellectually superior Khan, but when he finds the situation unwinnable, it's Spock who will make the grand sacrifice for his old friend.

The introduction of Khan is a brilliant build-up of suspense - the desolate and decrepit planet leading to Chekov’s discovery of Khan’s belt buckle that reads ‘Botany Bay’ is a great nod to the Treksters who would have remembered the name of Khan’s original ship. And those disgusting beast creatures placed in Chekov’s ear gave me nightmares as a kid for weeks.

Ricardo Montalban, who then was known by most as Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island, plays heavily against type. And he manages to convert his soothing Mexican voice into that of a menacing maniacal psychopath. He’s by far the best villain the franchise has ever had.

James Horner's grand music is masterful. Perhaps the string and horn arrangements steal some from John Williams, but arguably it even soars higher than Jerry Goldsmith's great score from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It thus became a rare occurrence to have two equally great music scores produced for one franchise. For music score fans, the special features of the new Blu-ray disc has a fine featurette with Horner deconstructing his score and his motivations for many of the key scenes.

Khan was the first in an unplanned trilogy, which links directly to The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home. Unfortunately, the other two films didn't achieve the dramatic heights of The Wrath of Khan, and even counting the JJ Abrams version, I'd say The Wrath of Khan is still top of the Star Trek heap. Enjoy.

***½

Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Cove


The controversial and award-winning doc about the fight of a group of environmentalists to stop the ritualistic killing of innocent dolphins is a very good documentary. Wholly riveting and revelatory, it's told with the same cinematic urgency as great action films. But the dogged preachiness of its agenda actually reduces the power of its message. In the final moments, the film continues to preach to the converted to the point where I was expecting someone to ask for donations on the way out of the theatre.


The Cove (2009) dir. Louie Psihoyos
Documentary

By Alan Bacchus

Ric O’Barry is Mr. Dolphin. He has a long history with the treasured creature, starting out as the animal trainer on the TV show Flipper. But after a tragic eye-opening experience that revealed that dolphins possess an innate human-like self-awareness, O’Barry abandoned his profession and sought to free all dolphins on Earth from captivity.

Hell for dolphins happens to be Taijii, Japan, the hub for the international dolphin business. Whether it’s as meat secretly placed in Japanese children’s lunches or for Sea World shows, everything comes from Taijii. It’s a dirty business; so dirty that the nefarious fisherman annually enact a ritualistic slaughter unseen by all media and pedestrian eyes. Under the inspiration of O’Barry, a team of underwater photographers, ex-military ops personnel and even Hollywood special effects experts engage in high-stakes covert surveillance activities to secretly film and reveal to the world the illegal and inhumane practices against the dolphins.

It's a well constructed and polished piece, with all the credit due to the picture and sound editors, who, much like the covert procedural detail recounted in Oscar-winning Man on Wire, compiled the footage shot by these enviro-hijackers and cut together a film with the suspense, tone and pace of a thriller. And concurrent to the present-day story, the life history of O’Barry perfectly connects our fascination with dolphins with his own obsession of freeing them.

However, I couldn’t help but think that this barbaric ritual is made so horrific because the dolphins are, for lack of a better word, cute. The film tries to diffuse the counter-charge that this dolphin slaughter is simply part of Japanese culture by showing the shocked reactions to this information from everyday Japanese pedestrians. When contending the opinion that it’s not much different than the cattle or poultry industry in North America, which indeed has its own issues with animal barbarism, the film argues that dolphins are intelligent and self-aware and are capable of feeling pain and all the stress humans experience. Of course, if someone showed me graphic imagery of chickens getting their heads cut off, I would likely recoil in disgust as well.

This is why the shameless call to action, which spreads across the screen telling us how to support to the Oceanic Preservation Society, irked me. Were we just watching a 90-minute advertisement for a charitable organization?

The most poignant thing the filmmakers could have done would have been to point the cameras at the audience and ask us to rethink the animal slaughtering that occurs every day in our own countries – a slaughter, which, like the one in The Cove, is kept out of sight of regular people.

This is a system all non-vegans implicitly accept. As part of a meat-producing society, we silently accept and trust our regulatory bodies to ensure the animals we eat are treated as humanely as possible before being killed and shipped off to our grocery stores. But every once in a while we need to audit and examine these practices and point cameras at people who don’t want to be filmed. And so, this is why a film like The Cove is necessary.

****

Saturday, 7 July 2012

K19: The Widowmaker


Despite falling off the cinema radar at the time, upon reflection Kathyrn Bigelow's 'K19: The Widowmaker' comes off as a near masterpiece of its genre – certainly one of the best in the narrow genre of submarine/u-boat movies.

K19: The Widowmaker (2002) dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard

By Alan Bacchus

Kathryn Bigelow weaves some cinematic magic within the confines of a Soviet Cold War nuclear submarine, which has been launched as a means of frightening the American government into a full nuclear stalemate. It’s 1961 and the height of the Cold War. With the Cuban Missile Crisis, both Soviet and American governments have their fingers on the trigger. The latest submarine built for nuclear deployment is K19, dubbed the ‘widowmaker’ on account of the number of its crew members who have died. Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) is the people’s captain with a deep connection with the crew; unfortunately, he’s been relegated to #2 when the Soviets assign their hard-line veteran, Capt. Vostrikov (Harry Ford), to command their first mission. Despite the crew and the ship not yet battle ready, K19 ventures off into the Atlantic.

Vostrikov is immediately a hard-ass, drilling his crew to death and coming into major conflict with Polenin. But when their nuclear core goes haywire the two adversaries must work together to ensure the safety of the crew, avoid the Americans and prevent pre-emptive nuclear war in the process.

The story beats ring out all the same dramatic situations we’ve seen in other submarine flicks. The Capt. vs. Capt. battle is the stuff of mutiny films like Mutiny on the Bounty, Run Silent Run Deep and or Crimson Tide. Neeson and Ford square off admirably with neither actor trumping the other. Neeson’s large presence feels like Burt Lancaster’s heroic performance in Run Silent Run Deep. Harrison Ford, who has phoned in virtually all of his roles since the '80s, arguably gives his best performance in the last 25 years. His subtle Russian accent is not great, but it's good enough for us to believe he’s not an American.

Bigelow’s staging of the claustrophobic close-quarters action is typically superb, and as good as the top drawer work of Wolfgang Peterson, Tony Scott, Robert Wise et al. But it's the character work that stands out and makes us believe wholeheartedly in the survival of these sailors. Peter Sarsgaard as the cowardly nuclear technician uses his sleepy eyes to great effect, generating sympathy for his inability to man up and risk his life for his work. And the real-life tragic heroism that befalls the crew members who fight to stave off the radioactive leaks in the ship is heartbreaking.

The film runs a good 20 minutes past its climax, giving us a lengthy denouement, which under anyone else’s watch would be agonizing to sit through. But the landlocked scenes in the aftermath of the disaster, as well as the present-day scenes, remarkably add even more emotional depth to the story. I went to town on Steven Spielberg’s use of present-day bookend scenes in ‘Saving Private Ryan’, yet in the case of K19 the same device is used to infinitely greater effect. Why does Bigelow’s scene work at the end of K19 and not in Saving Private Ryan? For one, Spielberg blows his load early when he opens his film with that scene, whereas Bigelow’s scene comes as an unexpected surprise. But really it comes down to the fact that Bigelow is a better director now than Spielberg is now. Hell yes, I said it!

K19 lingers substantially as the credits role. There’s a speech early on from Liam Neeson when he explains the little known fact that Yuri Gagarin was NOT the first Soviet in space, but rather another man whose death in space was covered up in the name of political pride. It’s a great piece of foreshadowing and a prophetic tragedy, which makes us wonder what other kinds of tragedies occurred behind the Iron Curtain and how many forgotten heroes suffered at the hands of its stifling government.

***½

K19: The Widowmaker is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Gold Rush


The second of Chaplin’s feature films (after 1921’s 'The Kid') loses nothing over time, easily gliding past all technical innovations (sound, colour, widescreen, 3D). And with Chaplin’s natural gifts as a filmmaker and performer, he crafts a hilarious adventure epic with heartbreaking emotional sentimentality.

The Gold Rush (1925) dir. Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Georgia Hale

By Alan Bacchus

In this adventure the Tramp finds himself traversing the Rocky Mountains to join the throngs of treasure seekers during the Klondike Gold Rush. The first set piece occurs when the Tramp seeks shelter from a storm in a small shack along with a fellow prospector and a wanted fugitive. The physical hijinks include the famous storm sequence, which has the Tramp being blown throughout the cabin. The sequence ends with the fugitive killed and the prospector knocked unconscious without any memory of the location of his gold cache.

The next stop on Chaplin’s journey is the prospecting town, where he has given up prospecting and instead tries to find any kind of work. His next gig has him house sitting a cabin, where he falls in love with a local comely gal. The miscommunication of affection between the two is agonizing for us. At one point the Tramp gets a date with the gal on New Year's Eve, but he gets stood up when she attends a local dance instead. The result is earth-shatteringly emotional and heartbreaking.

As perfect and effective as his performance is, Chaplin the director tantalizes us with some bravura cinematic sequences and stunning visual compositions. The Tramp’s entrance into the dance hall for instance, looking at the hundreds of frolicking youth dancing in the barn, is stunningly composed with Chaplin in the centre framed underneath the support beams of the building (see still above).

The dancing sequence features some of Chaplin’s best physical comedy, which can overshadow his directorial skills in choreographing scenes of a massive scale, specifically the final tilting house sequence that shows Chaplin’s panache with spectacle and grandeur.

Three of the most famous scenes in all of cinema include; the dancing of the buns, wherein Chaplin entertains his female guests by sticking his two forks in pieces of bread and dancing a jig to entertain them; Tramp serving and eating his boots for dinner; and the rambunctious frozen Tramp sequence, which has the fugitive throwing a frozen solid Tramp around the room like a pole.

But it’s Chaplin's innate precision with his emotions that makes him a genius. His remarkable simplicity of movement and performance, moving us from extremes of laughter to heartbreaking pity and lasering in on his own core emotions, is a gift only a handful of filmmakers could ever match.

****

The Gold Rush is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.