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

Friday, 28 September 2012

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Even as a nine-year-old with limited experience in critical thinking in cinema I remember being disappointed with the sequel to 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. Perhaps it was the grating performance of Kate Capshaw, or the outright racist treatment of the Indian culture. Twenty-seven years on, surprisingly this picture improves greatly over time. Without the burden of high expectations, 'Temple of Doom' emerges as a highly watchable adventure film, politically incorrect, but tolerable considering its intent as an homage to other culturally insensitive Hollywood films, such as 'Gunga Din' or 'King Kong'.


Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Ke Huy Quan, Amrish Puri, Philip Stone

By Alan Bacchus

As we all know, the story begins before Raiders of the Lost Ark in Shanghai in 1935. The Paramount logo fades into a giant metal gong, which sounds the beginning of an elaborate Busby Berkeley style musical number featuring American singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) singing “Anything Goes”. Our hero, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), is also in the bar making a deal for the lost remains of Nurhaci – last emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Fighting and action ensues, which finds Indy fleeing the scene with Willie Scott and Indy’s young protégé, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan). Next thing you know, they’re on a flight across the Himalayas before they’re forced to abandon the plane using only a yellow dingy for a parachute. After a rollercoaster ride down the mountain, off a cliff and through treacherous rapids they settle down and are found by a kindly old Indian man.

At the man’s village, Indy is tasked with finding a lost Sankara stone, a rock with magical powers, which Indy thinks can bring him 'fortune and glory'. The trio travel to Pankot Palace where they soon find themselves battling sword-wielding warriors, a shaman with the power to rip a man’s beating heart from his body and a young Maharaja who uses voodoo dolls to subdue his enemies. In addition to rescuing the magic stone, Indy frees the children from the village and wins the heart of the nation. Breathe.

If it’s even possible, this second entry of the series moves at a pace more blistering than Raiders. In fact, the film is one long journey from one place and event to another with no time for thought or decision making. It’s as if a supernatural force of nature is blowing Indy and his troops to the Indian village and compelling them into their mission.

Again, as with Raiders, Indy goes through a series of trials and unbelievable obstacles. There’s a greater undercurrent of evil through this journey. In Raiders it’s the physical and transparent threat of the Nazis, but in Doom the enemy isn't revealed until the middle of the film, when Mola Rum (Amrish Puri) rips the heart from the shell-shocked slave. Throw in brainwashing elixirs and enslaved children and you have a really dark and violent film.

Among the great set pieces is the fantastic opening musical number, which teased us at the thought of Spielberg revitalizing the classic Hollywood musical (it hasn't happened yet). In fact, the next scene showing the exchange of the Emperor’s remains is a wonderful sequence cleverly using the table’s ‘Lazy Susan’ for suspense (Hitchcock would have been proud). There’s a rollercoaster/theme park action scene which feels like just that – a theme park ride, and the glorious finale – the rope bridge confrontation - is shot with David Lean-like perfection.

Spielberg, Lucas and the boys certainly didn't set out to make a culturally responsible film. In fact, it's a series of egregious racial and cultural clichés and stereotypes. Is there anything vaguely close to “Chilled Monkey Brains” or “Snake Surprise” in the Indian cuisine? Has the Indian culture ever had a history of ritualistic human sacrifices? And voodoo dolls are not even in the right hemisphere. But really, who cares? The dinner scene is now a classic from the series – completely ridiculous and hilarious in its excess.

How could Temple of Doom match Raiders? It couldn't. Watch this film as pure fantasy - even more over-the-top and self-reverential than the first film - and rediscover a great adventure. Enjoy.

***½

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Grey

While the terrifying depiction of the wolves in 'The Grey' has been the centre of the praise directed toward this film, for me it’s Carnahan’s ability to capture the harshness of the north with a kind of intensity rarely equalled. It’s certainly not the best Arctic survivalist film. I might give the trophy to Mikael Kalatozov’s 'Letter Never Sent', but Carnahan manages to play into the expectations of this sub-genre and deliver a powerful and reflective adventure film with balls and pathos.


The Grey (2012) dir., Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo

By Alan Bacchus

This is one of the benchmark stops along the way for Liam Neeson’s monumentally unlikely career turn as a legitimate action hero. Obviously, it was Taken that turned him into an ass-kicking leading man, and here he’s much the same but with a tortured soul. He’s John Ottoway, an outdoorsman contracted by an Alaskan oil company as security of sorts against the dangerous wolves which prowl the landscape. Ottoway’s a man of few words, a man of action but with sad eyes which hide a painful past. Dreamy flashbacks to encounters with his wife suggest she’s dead, or she’s left him, which is perhaps why he’s now off the grid hunting wolves.

His next assignment goes awry when he and his convoy of drillers become stranded after a plane crash in the far north. With civilization far, far away, it’s that familiar set up, a group of men against the wild, conflicts oscillating between man and nature, as well as amongst themselves. While Ottoway’s experiences in the outdoors makes him the natural leader, it's inevitable that there’s some conflict, specifically with the pessimistic Diaz, played by Frank Grillo.

Carnahan, who has over-stylized most of his films in his filmography, indeed applies a strong visual look, including grainy faces combined with over-exposed white skies that enhance the harshness of the environment. Here it all works. Carnahan’s camera work is precise, handheld some of the time, but never shaky. And his near invisible use of CG effects (snow and background matting) effectively put us in one of the most violent environments on Earth.

Evocative music and artful detours to flashback sequences take us out of the harsh world creating a sad feeling of inevitability for these characters. Never do we feel a happy ending is coming, nor do we want it. For Ottoway it’s about coming to grips with the trauma in his life and challenging his angst and rage into a final battle with the relentless wolves.

Carnahan relaxes his inspired realism on a few occasions when a character or a set piece or two lapses into stock conventionality, but not enough to tarnish the experiential nature of this film, thrilling and moving, and not easily forgotten.

***½

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

ET: The Extra Terrestrial

It would be hard to argue against 'E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial' being Steven Spielberg’s best film, the one film that fulfills all the promise of the once wunderkind youngster whose childlike viewpoint of spectacle cinema resulted in a monumentally successful and influential career. Looking back, E.T. is a culmination of all of Steven Spielberg’s skills, the man firing on all cylinders, delivering a film so silly, corny, unhip and yet impossible not to be moved by.


E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, Robert McNaughton

By Alan Bacchus

The fact is E.T. represents the perfect storm of creative inspiration. It would seem everything in Steven Spielberg’s career had been leading to this point. The personal story of a young boy, burdened with the divorce of his parents, who finds solace in another forgotten soul - an alien botanist accidentally left on Earth by his extra terrestrial colleagues - is told with a lean and energetic directorial style and filled with beautiful backlights, elegant camera moves, naturalistic comedy and magic realist wonder.

To say Spielberg doesn’t emphatically push his emotional buttons would be denying the inherent joys of this picture and its whole purpose of being. Spielberg, who like his idol Alfred Hitchcock always made ‘point of view’ a conscious thematic touchstone, is more explicit with this than in any of his previous films. Spielberg views the world through a child’s eyes. It's not only his camera placement, as he composes his adult actors at the waist and never shows their faces, but the dramatic treatment of the story. This was the first film of the adults vs. kids theme of '80s family cinema, and at every turn Spielberg presents the world from the mindset of the children. Whether it’s the childlike logic of using Reese’s Pieces to make first contact with E.T., or camouflaging him amongst the various toy dolls in Elliot’s bedroom, Spielberg is remarkably consistent in tone.

There was also something marvelous about Spielberg’s dialogue in those days – a spark of naturalism not present in his movies today. And certainly the performances he gets from Henry Thomas, the precocious Drew Barrymore and the teenaged Robert McNaughton are one of a kind. Even a small role from C. Thomas Howell and his BMX cronies made an impact. And Allen Daviau’s cinematography and John Williams’ aggressive music score, as if directed by an energetic child with an expensive toy box, are amplified for maximum impact.

E.T. would not be made as well by Spielberg today. Think about how risky this venture is for a filmmaker at the height of his career: a story about a space alien who befriends a young boy going through the pains of a divorce, a film with no stars, hung on the performance of a 10-year-old and a goofy-looking rubber alien that doesn’t talk. And so in spite of its obstacles, E.T. hangs on the unique singular unabated vision of its director, free of the safety net of the older mature filmmaker he is today. Only the spark of Walt Disney in the 'Golden Age of Animation' can compare.

Sadly, there was a palpable shift in Spielberg’s career after this. He just wasn’t the same. There were two lesser Indiana Jones pictures later in the decade, a couple of admirable but equally flawed ‘mature’ films in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun and a failed return to the awestruck magic realism in Hook. And although Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and his other varied films of the 2000s were well crafted, exciting in parts, sometimes moving, and critically and commercially successful, he was never the same.

The spark in Spielberg had gone out after E.T.. This is not uncommon with artists and filmmakers. Francis Coppola’s career can easily be defined as before Apocalypse Now and after. For Spielberg the shift was palpable, as if he exhausted all of his creative energies into E.T., the end of one phase of his career and the beginning of another.

****

E.T. is available on Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment. It's chock full of extras, including those from the 20th Anniversary Edition. But thankfully, aside from a digital restoration in picture and sound, the film edit has reverted back to its 1982 state. Excised are the deleted scenes inserted into the special edition from 2002. Gone are the CGI E.T. and those pesky 'walkie talkies' that digitally replaced the guns from the original version. Thank you, Mr. Spielberg, for coming to your senses.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Red Heat

Those who don’t know Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna would certainly identify them from the shiny Carolco logo which appeared at the head of some of the most visible action pictures of the '80s and '90s (‘First Blood’, ‘Terminator 2’, ‘Total Recall’). Kassar and Vajna were successful as producers because they hired some of the best action directors to ever film a gunfight, such as James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven and Walter Hill.


Red Heat (1988) dir. Walter Hill
Starring: James Belushi, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ed O’Ross, Peter Boyle

By Alan Bacchus

Walter Hill in particular was one of the great action auteurs who apprenticed under the great Sam Peckinpah. Hill’s pictures in the late '70s and early '80s, including The Warriors, The Driver and Extreme Prejudice, mixed western genre sensibilities with modern and mainstream action.

Unfortunately Red Heat is not one of Hill’s best pictures, but it has enough of his muscular masculine panache to produce a decent action boner.

The opening is a fun homoerotic suspense sequence inside a Russian bathhouse. Arnold, playing an undercover Russian cop called Ivan Danko, is scoping for Russian drug dealers and enters the steamy sauna populated by muscle-bound Russians lifting weights. He's no pushover, and he easily kicks some major ass all over the place.

The key perp, 'Rosta' Rostavili, played deliciously by Ed O’Ross, escapes to the U.S. to complete a huge multi-million dollar deal with some Chicago black Muslim thugs. Danko follows him and connects with local Chicago cops to catch Rosta's trail, partnering up with affable but tough detective Art Ridzik (James Belushi).

The culture clash between Commie and American produces some decent sight gags but very little substantial political commentary. The mechanics of the investigation are also rudimentary. Hill goes through the motions of using dirty tactics, including threats of violence to witnesses and staking out hookers and brothels to find Rosta.

By Hill’s standards the action scenes are minor and only adequate – none rival some of the great heist sequences in Johnny Handsome and Extreme Prejudice, or the chase scenes in The Driver. Even the buddy comedy dynamic is a pale version of the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte pairing in 48 Hours.

The final bus chase through Chicago is the highlight – a preposterous chase sequence indicative of the prevailing attitude of over-the-top carnage in 1980s action.

**½

Monday, 24 September 2012

Best Moments in the Indiana Jones Series

In celebration of the Blu-ray debut of the Indy Jones series, and using a vote from Fanboys and Fangirls (from a post several years ago), Daily Film Dose has compiled a list of 20 favourite moments from the series. These moments define the charisma, style, humour and awesomeness of the brainchild of Spielberg and Lucas - Indiana Jones.

What’s clear is that the series is made so enjoyable because of its counterpoint of action with humour. Spielberg is a master of mixing scenes of incredibly tense action with well-timed comic punchlines. You’ll see that this list captures not necessarily whole scenes but very specific moments, actions or lines of dialogue.

1. Indy’s Gun vs. The Sword
Raiders of the Lost Ark

The unanimous defining moment in the Indy series is the famous scene during his frantic search to find Marion in the streets of Cairo. When he happens upon a terrifying foot soldier with impressive sword-brandishing swordsmanship, Indy rolls his eyes, pulls out his gun and shoots him down easily causing mass elation from the crowd. It’s a moment that defines the self-deprecating wit of the character and the irony of the series as a whole. Years later it was revealed that this moment was one of those ‘happy accidents’ on set. With Harrison Ford suffering badly from the flu, an elaborate fight sequence on the day was cancelled in favour of the quicker and more succinct solution of the single gunshot. The rest is history.


2. The Boulder
Raiders of the Lost Ark

The heightened comic book quality action of the series was established in the fantastic opening sequence of Raiders. After Jones negotiates his way through the booby traps and poisoned darts in the cave and steals the golden Idol, he inadvertently sets off a self-destruction device in the cave. Indy desperately runs back while dodging more traps. But he stops when he finds his traitor colleague Sapito harpooned through the face with a spear. Indy grabs the idol and trips another trap. He doesn’t know what it is until he hears a rumbling, looks up and sees a massive rock boulder hurdling towards him. Indy, of course, makes it out of the cave alive. The stunt was filmed with a real-sized boulder. Though it was made of fibreglass, it was still heavy and a dangerous stunt for Mr. Ford.


3. Coat Hanger Reveal
Raiders of the Lost Ark

This classic moment occurs midway through Raiders during Marion’s and Belloc’s drinking game courtship. After Marion drinks Belloc under the table, she pulls a knife and is about to walk out of the tent when the intimidating Nazi, Toht, stops her. Toht methodically pulls out a menacing chain device and twists it around, forming some kind of torture device. John Williams’ music helps build up the moment to a wonderfully humourous bit of misdirection when Toht calmly twists the device into an innocent coat hanger for his jacket. It should also be noted that this gag was borrowed from a deleted scene from Spielberg's previous film, 1941.


4. Indy Crawling Under the Truck
Raiders of the Lost Ark

One of the greatest action chases in the history of film occurs midway through Raiders of the Lost Ark. After Indy chases down the truck carrying the Ark by horse, and after he leaps onto it and fights off half a dozen soldiers, he meets his match with the last remaining Nazi in the truck. After he is thrown through the window onto the hood of the truck, the only place for Indy to go is underneath using the axels as handles and his bullwhip to pull him back onto the truck. It’s a thrilling scene featuring some of the finest stunt work ever put to film. It should also be noted that this scene was borrowed from one of Spielberg’s main influences – John Ford’s Stagecoach, which features a similar stunt performed by the great stunt man, Yakima Canutt.


5. Anything Goes
Temple of Doom

Though it constitutes an entire scene, the list couldn’t be complete without mentioning the amazing opening musical sequence in Temple of Doom. After the Paramount logo fades into the banging gong we are treated to an inspired Busby Berkeley-esque musical sequence featuring Willy Scott (a stunning Kate Capshaw) singing “Anything Goes” in Mandarin (or is it Cantonese?). It’s filled with the flashy tap dancing, sparkly cinematography and big-screen choreography of the classic MGM musicals. The only other scene comparable in Spielberg’s oeuvre of great scenes is the dance-hall chase scene in 1941. In the film, though, we were teased with the potential of what Mr. Spielberg could do if he made a traditional musical – which, at the time, was not in fashion.


6. Hitler Autograph
The Last Crusade

The Indiana Jones series is filled with great moments of comic misdirection. The coat hanger reveal in Raiders is a great example, but so is the moment when Indy comes face-to-face with the ultimate villain, Adolf Hitler. In The Last Crusade Indiana and his father travel to Berlin to recover the stolen Grail diary. After he has just reclaimed the book Indy finds himself in the middle of a Nazi rally where he bumps into the Fuhrer. Hitler grabs hold of the book and slowly opens it up. Indy's face falls thinking the gig is up, but Hitler non-chalantly takes his pen and signs his autograph on one of the pages. It's a great moment of suspense with a hilarious comic punchline.


7. Chilled Monkey Brains
Temple of Doom

The famous dinner scene at Pankot Palace in Temple of Doom is a legendary scene of excessive emotional manipulation. After a long tiring elephant ride through the jungle, Indy, Willy and Short Round finally have a chance to relax and enjoy a decent meal. The series of over-the-top-digusting dishes served in front of Willy and Short Round’s shocked faces is completely ridiculous. It’s also culturally irresponsible, which became a central part of the backlash against the film. But 20+ years later, who cares? It’s a hilarious scene. After snake surprise, boiled cockroaches and eyeball soup the scene is capped off with the delicious chilled monkey brains. Wow! I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like that again from Mr. Spielberg.


8. Indy Fighting Dirty at the Airfield
Raiders of the Lost Ark

One of the most memorable scenes in the series is Indy’s fight with the German strongman in Raiders. As Indy looks for an escape via a German plane parked on an airstrip he fights off a lowly pilot. In doing so he attracts the attention of a German bull of a man, who rings his hands at the pleasure of a good ol’ fist fight. It’s clearly a lopsided bare-knuckle match and so Indy does what he can to get an advantage. He resorts to the dirtiest fighting in the book – distracting his attention, throwing dirt, kicking the groin and biting. The shady tactics exemplify the Jones character perfectly - a man with conflicting morals and scruples – a man determined to do anything it takes to win.


9. “So long, Lau Che!”
Temple of Doom

After the rousing fight scene in the Café Obi-Wan to start Temple of Doom, Indy, Short Round and Willy Scott elude their Chinese pursuers and escape to the airport. Just as Indy is about to enter the plane and take off he sees his opponent drive up at the edge of the runaway, about to accept defeat. Indy impudently mocks his pursuer with the smug line, “So long Lao Che,” then slams the airplane door shut, revealing the words “Lao Che” emblazoned on the door. As much as Indy is an escape artist, he also has a knack of getting himself into deeper trouble. And of course, the plane trip is just the beginning of a long adventure ride of non-stop terror and jeopardy.


10. Junior?
The Last Crusade

The reveal of Sean Connery, who plays Indiana's father, was no secret. But Spielberg still has an obligation to introduce his characters and stars with flare. We see the elder Jones twice prior to his big reveal - the back of Jones' head in the flashback opening scene and once in a photo cutaway in Jones' ransacked home. Sean Connery officially enters the film in dramatic fashion after Indy crashes through the window to rescue him. Jones smashes a Ming vase over Indy's head before he realizes its his son. And Connery's first line is, "Junior?" which reveals that Indiana's name isn't actually Indiana, but Henry Jr. The scene gets even funnier when Henry's attention is distracted by the smashed vase. It's a great piece of casting, perhaps the only Hollywood hero who could match the charisma and machoness of Indiana Jones - James Bond.


11. “He No Nuts, He Crazy!” 
Temple of Doom

The big finale of Temple of Doom comes after a lengthy escape from the Pankot caves, a fantastical rollercoaster ride through the mine shafts and a narrow escape from a flood of water off a narrow cliff. Somehow Indy gets separated from Willy and Short Round and meets them on a rickety rope bridge over a hundred-foot drop to a river of snarling and hungry alligators. Indy finds himself cornered in the middle of the bridge with Willy and Shorty hostage and the evil swordsmen slowly approaching. The build-up to Indy’s shocking escape is punctuated by Shorty's wonderfully timed line of broken English, “He no nuts, he crazy!”


12. Indy Swims from Steamer to U-Boat
Raiders of the Lost Ark

As a kid seeing Raiders for the first time, my favourite moment was near the end of the film after we’ve seen Indy elude rolling boulders, getting dragged under moving trucks and fighting off gargantuan German strongmen. Indy should have been dead or at least limping a bit. But when the Nazis take over the Jamaican steamer and kidnap Marion and the Ark into their U-Boat, Indy is left with no other option but to swim from one to the other. The brilliance of Spielberg makes the moment work. We don’t ever see Indy swimming the route, only the reaction of the steamer crew after he has accomplished the feat. John Williams’ rousing score also helps puncuate the moment.


13. Toht’s Melting Face
Raiders of the Lost Ark

At the end of Raiders Spielberg kills off his three villains in the most despicable manner imaginable. After the Nazis open the Ark and those ghostly ghouls emerge and wreak havoc on the spectators, they kill Toht by melting his face down to the bone with his bloody skin slowly sliding down his face – leaving his eyeballs alone in their eye sockets. Col. Dietrich gets it bad too. His face literally sucks in on itself like a paper bag. And of course Belloc’s head actually explodes into a million pieces. The sequence continues on as the Ark kills all the other Germans in a hail and brimstone climax of epic proportions.


14. The Handle of Bugs
Temple of Doom

In Temple of Doom when Indy and Short Round venture into the secret passage and the darkened bowels of Pankot Palace, we encounter some of the most ridiculous moments of cinematic jeopardy ever put to screen. After some comic banter between Shorty and Indy, a booby trap is tripped and the ceiling lowers onto their heads. Then a series of long pointy knives emerges adding even more threat. Willy is summoned against her will to rescue them. The manicured showgirl has to stick her hand in a hole filled with the largest creepy-crawlers ever seen in order to pull the level, release the trap and save the day. Spielberg extends the moment to excruciating levels of tension, as he cuts back and forth between Indy, the spikes, Willy’s hand, the bugs, etc. And, of course, the punchline to the scene is when everything is fine, Willy accidentally starts the trap again…


15. Brody Lost
The Last Crusade

Dr. Brody (Denholm Elliot) gets a bigger role in the The Last Crusade. We all knew him as the enthusiastic partner of Indy's at his University in Raiders. In this film we finally get to see him in action with Indy. With Indy and Henry captured by the Nazis, Dr. Schneider figures Indy's given the crucial map to Dr. Brody. Henry is aghast that Brody is in charge of finding the lost site of the Grail. But Indy is so confident in his plan he describes the legend of Brody - "He's got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan. He speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom. He'll blend in, disappear. You'll never see him again. With any luck, he's got the Grail already". Then Spielberg provides the comic counterpoint by cutting to Brody haplessly wandering the foreign streets for someone who speaks English or Ancient Greek.


16. The Lazy Susan Exchange
Temple of Doom

Right after the great "Anything Goes" musical sequence in Temple of Doom Indy engages in a tense exchange of a bag of diamonds with Indy’s newly recovered ashes of Nurhachi. Spielberg makes clever use of the table’s lazy susan as a device to generate suspense. His camera slyly tilts and pans between the characters’ poker faces and the movement of the items on the table. Watch how Spielberg barely shows the martini glass, which ultimately poisons Indy, being placed on the turntable. It’s a great moment of suspense worthy of Spielberg’s idol, Alfred Hitchcock.


17. "Why'd it have to be Snakes?"
Raiders of the Lost Ark

It was a great moment for Indy after sneaking his way into the map room and finding the Well of the Souls under the noses of the Nazis. But when Indy and Sallah crack open the chamber, Indy's worst fears are imagined. Sallah asks Indy, "Why does the floor move?" After Indy throws down a torch into the pit revealing a floor filled with dangerous snakes, he says his famous line, "Why'd it have to be Snakes?" And then John Rhys-Davies adds his great well-timed addition, "Asps, very dangerous. You go first". It was the first crack in Indy's armour, and it wouldn't be until The Last Crusade when we'd learn the origin of that fear.


18. Henry Jones’s Umbrella vs. the Nazi Plane
The Last Crusade

Throughout The Last Crusade Henry Jones plays the comic relief, the affable old man and disconnected father that Indy desperately wants approval from. Jones is freed from captivity by Indy and brought along for the ride to recover the Holy Grail. After a daring escape from the Nazi airship, Indy and Henry find themselves alone and vulnerable on the beach with a Nazi fighter plane bearing down on them. With nowhere to go, Indy seems to accept his fate. But Henry has a moment of inspiration in the form of his trusty umbrella which he has been carrying with him the whole time. Jones opens the umbrella and scares all the birds on the beach to fly into the path of the plane, thereby saving the day. The scene ends with a great line delivered by Connery who 'remembers his Charlemagne'.


19. Indy's First Fedora
The Last Crusade

The opening scenes of The Last Crusade feature a young Indiana Jones in an early adventure where we discover the origins of some of his idiosyncrasies, including his famous Fedora hat. After Indy successfully steals Coronado's cross from the rival archeologist he is forced by the authorities to reluctantly give it back. As compensation the archeologist gives Indy his own Fedora as a gesture of respect. When River Phoenix puts on the hat, Spielberg crafts a wonderful transition to Harrison Ford pulling his head up into frame wearing the same hat. And then Spielberg's comic punchline is the classic punch to the face. A great Indy moment.


20. Marion's Introduction
Raiders of the Lost Ark

A good director should be conscious of how he introduces his characters. The first reveal, or line of dialogue, should in part define who he or she is as a character. Steven Spielberg does it better than anybody. One of the great screen introductions of the Indy series is for Marion Ravenwood, Indy's old flame who owns the valuable amulet which tells the location of the Ark of Covenant. Spielberg introduces Marion in a bar in Nepal in the middle of a heated drinking game with a burly competitor and a horde of gambling Sherpas around her. After almost passing out from her latest shot, Marion pulls it together, turns her glass upside down and slams it on the table. The burly man downs his shot but passes out, crowning Marion the winner. Later, her life will be turned upside down when her old beau, Indiana Jones, soon enters the door.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Children of the Paradise

One of the most critically and commercially successful films for France at the time has the misfortune of losing its lustre over the years. While a sufficiently entertaining sprawling melodrama telling the story of a half-dozen characters revolving around a vaudevillian-like theatre group in Paris, it fails to match the contemporary resonance like the films of Jean Vigo or Jean Renoir.


Children of Paradise (1945) dir. Marcel Carne
Starring: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Pierre Renoir,

By Alan Bacchus

The film’s lengthy 190-minute running time is split into two very digestible halves. The first half sets up the situations and conflict of the main characters, five wandering souls surrounding the Funambules theatre district situated on the ‘Boulevard du Temple’ or the ‘Boulevard of Crime’ as it's called by the characters for its attraction of undesirables. Central to everyone’s attention is Garance (Arletty), a mysterious courtesan who exerts a magnetic attraction to everyone she meets. This attraction is especially strong with four men - Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), an up-and-coming actor; Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou), an aristocrat; Pierre François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a charming but nefarious thief; and Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault), a soulful but shy mime.

Carne moves between the courtship and connection of each of these men with Garance while they endeavour to make a living either in the business of the theatre or in the case of Pierre Francois conspiring to steal from it.

Paradise is described extensively in the liner notes of the Criterion Blu-ray as poetic realism. This is certainly a new term for me. I’ve heard of magic realism, and even that moniker is nebulous. Poetic realism is even more confusing. Perhaps the term references the filmmaker’s desires of purely populist acceptance. It exists purely for its own sake, and for the audience to soak up and be entertained by. Like the characters in the film who perform in the staunchly working class genre of the pantomime, Children of Paradise seems to consciously separate itself from the politically conscious works of say, Jean Renoir at the time.

The film was a great success, billed in North America as the Gone with the Wind in France. Its running time surely invites comparison, but the languid and under-dramatic methods of storytelling leave much to be desired. Although there are four men in the mix, Carne divides our allegiance between two of them, Frederick the actor and Baptiste the mime. Frederick is characterized as an ambitious distrustful egomaniac, muscling his way into the Funambules, usurping Baptiste’s title as star of the show and womanizing Garance to sleep with him. All the while we see a deep, more emotional connection between the humble Baptiste and the enigmatic Garance. And yet, as the best melodramas show, it’s Frédérick who succeeds and Baptiste who fails. The forlorn romance buoys most of the second half of the film, which takes place seven years after the first half.

Unfortunately, we never feel the stress and anguish of unconsummated desire as dramatically as we should for this type of film. Maybe it’s the French who traditionally understate their feelings compared to the engrossed emotions of America’s Hollywood. But with praise from modern critics and cinema masters such as Terry Gilliam, who provide reverent words to the film in the Special Features, Children of Paradise is certainly not a film to dismiss, but rather a film one should approach with a different set of expectations.

***

Children of Paradise is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Titanic

Even between the ridiculous base characterizations, the awful dialogue and the Harlequin romance-novel plotting, there’s a spark in 'Titanic' that can’t be denied. It’s the reason why it became the biggest film of all time. It’s partly James Cameron’s skills in creating a spectacle for the big screen, in the fashion of David O. Selznick and Cecil B. DeMille, but it's more about the undeniable chemistry between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, who make every heavy handed, on-the-nose line believable and sincere. This is why 'Titanic' remains a supremely watchable guilty pleasure.


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

By Alan Bacchus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***½

Titanic is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment in Canada.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Katy Perry: Part of Me

It seems that a big-screen documentary accompaniment to a big-selling album is now a requisite for emerging pop artists. Over the last few years we’ve seen the Jonas Bros, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber all on the big screen, in 3D, a well disguised but well produced promotional swag made to heighten the brand awareness of each of these artists. That said, it doesn’t mean these films can’t also be immensely entertaining. I’m not ashamed to say I enjoyed the Jonas Bros concert film and Justin Bieber’s 'Never Say Never' - and now 'Katy Perry: Part of Me'.


Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012) dir. Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz
Documentary

By Alan Bacchus

There’s something fascinating about looking behind the curtain of the creation and process of art. Whether it’s the vérité peak behind the stardom of Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back or the sensation of following Elvis on the road in Elvis on Tour or the manicured bubble gum pop of superstar du jour Katy Perry, the process of creating celebrities is captivating.

In Part of Me, as customary to these films, we see a mix of concert footage from the recent worldwide tour, backstage antics (heavily filtered for a G rating) and a look back to the beginnings and the long road to overnight success. For Perry it began as the daughter of an evangelical preacher, thus she was a bible-thumping child who started singing Christian tunes and then (sort of) rebelled into conventional mainstream pop. After moving through a few record labels without success she found her niche, her voice and her brand in Capital Records. Her salacious “I Kissed a Girl” launched her permanently into the stratosphere of celebrity in her mid-twenties after years of toil and failure.

Her well documented marriage and break-up with Russell Brand gets good coverage and, to her credit, Perry’s not shy to show the ups and downs of the relationship, all structured neatly in classical screenwriting form.

The fact is, Katy Perry: Part of Me is good storytelling with personable characters, both genuine and real, high stakes, high pressure and a rollercoaster of emotions. What emerges in this film and in the others cited is a dedication to both the craft and creativity of the business. It’s a 24-7 job to be a celebrity with total life-immersion into the world. The perks are there, but at the sacrifice of a normal life.

I don’t own any of Perry’s music, and for me 90 minutes is just enough to learn to appreciate Katy Perry as an artist, and to tap my foot to the admittedly fun pop anthem "Firework".

***

Katy Perry: Part of Me is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Lonesome

What a magnificent Criterion discovery, a long since forgotten (at least in mainstream cinephilia) silent masterpiece comparable to the revered 'Sunrise' or 'Man with a Movie Camera'. A whirling dervish of a film, under the direction of eccentric cinema Renaissance man Paul Fejos combining an extreme mobile camera with innovative sound and colour technique at this unique juncture of cinema technology.


Lonesome (1929) dir. Paul Fejos
Starring: Barbara Kent, Glenn Tryon

By Alan Bacchus

It’s the 4th of July in New York and Fejos magnificently captures the vivaciousness of the city back in the roaring '20s through the eyes of two singles, a man and a woman, who through serendipity and happenstance find, lose and find each other again on this one rambunctious day in the city.

To begin, Fejos intercuts the routine actions of a man, Jim (Tyron), and a woman, Mary (Kent), both lonely single cogs in the wheel of the rat race of American industry. Jim is a factory worker and Mary is a telephone operator. Fejos choreographs their actions through montage, thus foreshadowing their eventual meeting. On a whim they both decide to go to the beach at Coney Island. Of course they meet and proceed to spend the day together drinking in the spectacle of the midway, the water and the throngs of people, all the while falling in love.

But when a storm hits sending the crowd under cover, the raging mob separates the pair. As in the beginning, Fejos intercuts the frantic search by each of them in the hopes of finding the other and rekindling their romance.

One of the delights of the silent film era has always been the emphasis on the visual, and in this case the inventiveness of the camera as an expressionistic storytelling device. This was also 1928 and the end of the silent era, a period when some of the most dynamic and stylish films were being made. Comparisons to the effect of the camera movement in Murnau’s Sunrise are appropriate. From the subtle but wholly modern motion of the camera following the day-to-day mundane activities of Jim and Mary in the opening moments to the complex gymnastics manoeuvres in the Coney Island sequences, it’s a phantasm of visual splendor from start to finish. Fejos even places his camera on a rollercoaster, which makes for a truly awesome action sequence.

Fejos' experimentation with colour tinting portends to have the effect of a 3D enhancement or those set piece Imax sequences in The Dark Knight. The ferry wheel sequence, for instance, is particularly astonishing with pulsing lights like the vibrant neon hues from Blade Runner.

The entire film has its own soundtrack of music and effects, but Fejos shoots two dialogue scenes with sync sound. The effect here is most distracting, especially the squeaky voice cadence of the actors. But who cares? The marvel of the picture is its ambition, from an independent filmmaker on the fringe of the studio system, much like the positions of today’s ambitious independents such as James Cameron and George Lucas.

****

Lonesome is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. Also included are two other equally ambitious features from Fejos - 1929’s 'The Performance' and a 1929 sound musical 'Broadway'.

Monday, 17 September 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. His 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 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 into 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.

**½

Snow White and the Huntsman is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Home Entertainment.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

TIFF 2012 - Room 237


Perhaps the ultimate cinephile's playground, 'Room 237' is a fun look into the detailed obsessions of devoted fans of Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining', the now legendary, much discussed and debated horror film, which at a glance appears to be a simple story about the breakdown of a psychologically damaged writer from the effects of isolation. Yet, with microscopic frame-by-frame analysis there emerges some equally deranged but sometimes irrefutable dramatic subtext that deepens this already beguiling film.

Room 237 (2012) dir. Rodney Asher
Documentary

By Alan Bacchus

There are some great documentary films made about obsession. The entire body of work of Errol Morris is an examination, to some degree, of obsession. More specifically, there are also a number of great films made about conspiracy theories, most recently the masterful Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. Room 237 plays in this arena but with an even more savant-like fastidiousness.

Director Rodney Asher respects the audience and wastes no time with establishing the background to the film. He jumps right into the first analysis, which is the repeated use of Native imagery and references to this imagery in the background of many of the frames. But it's really meant to introduce and establish the characters and style.

As each interviewee gives their own personal theories we never see their faces. As such, the entire film consists of stock footage, often much of it from Kubrick's other films. But there are also memorable and non-memorable films which delightfully lampoon the notion of dramatic recreations.

The theories posited range from a very deep subtext of the American Indian genocide, allegories to the Holocaust and Kubrick's involvement in shooting the Apollo 11 fake moon landing. While many of these theories are ludicrous, what is indisputable is the number of continuity errors, which, considering the attention to detail Kubrick devotes to composing his frames, can only be purposeful.

Asher also recounts the substantiated story that Kubrick consulted advertising agencies to discuss how subliminal imagery could be used to affect an audience's perception of a film. Whether any of this is true or not is beyond the matter, as one of the interviewees adroitly reminds us of a common axiom of art criticism - the authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding the work of an artist.

Room 237 works on the level as a brilliant post-modern comedy, but more importantly it furthers the reputation of Stanley Kubrick as a master of cinema. He was so far ahead of the curve, all these years later we're only starting to break the surface of this mind-bending film.

***½

Friday, 14 September 2012

TIFF 2012 - To The Wonder


With almost no dialogue, a wisp of a story and a vigorous repetition of images and sound Terrence Malick has entered full-on self-indulgent mode in this relative quickie from the revered enigmatic director. However beautiful and elegant the imagery is, given the issues noted above we can feel the director's hand at work creating a greater disconnect between style and substance than in any of his previous films.


To the Wonder (2012) dir. Terrence Malick
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem

By Alan Bacchus

When we look back on Malick's career I have no doubt that To the Wonder and Tree of Life will inexorably be linked together. The small amount of time between these films makes them seem like Siamese twins. Although in each of Malick's films there's a commonality in his use of voiceover and a fetishness with respect to the relationship between his human characters and nature, his style and tone change ever so slightly with each picture. But in To the Wonder and Tree of Life his wide-angle roving camera work, as lensed by Emmanuel Lubeszki, never stops moving and subliminally links these two films. In fact, as per the final credits, Malick even uses footage shot for Tree of Life in To the Wonder.

While Tree of Life spans the life of the universe before settling into a short period in 1950s Texas, here we're in contemporary Oklahoma. Well, first we're in France to establish the frolicking love affair between Neil (Affleck) and Marina (Kurylenko), an American and a European drinking in the culture of Europe's landmarks, including the luscious mystique of Mont Saint-Michel.

Then Malick moves Marina and her daughter to Neil's home in Bertlesville, OK, the worst kind of antiseptic suburbia imaginable with huge cookie-cutter houses, big-box stores and cul de sacs barren of foliage other than then manicured lawns. Malick charts the disillusionment of Marina's and Neil's marriage starting with Marina's inability to adapt to the environment, but even deeper, her inability to connect with Neil.

With only orchestral music (some composed, but mostly classical pieces), a disconnected voiceover and scraps of dialogue from the actors, To the Wonder pushes the Terrence Malick aesthetic to the extreme. In fact, there's almost no dialogue with some from Kurylenko and Bardem and none from Affleck. In fact, Affleck seems less of a character and more of a mere presence, an anonymous male figure in Marina's life representative of the foreign land in which she lives but never really connects with.

Rachel McAdams, in a minor role really, enters as a former girlfriend with whom Neil has an affair while he is separated from Marina. When Marina returns to America married and with a full green card in hand life is not better but worse, a down slide into emotional hell culminating in another act of infidelity.

As an experiment in narrative story telling with Malick's unique visual sensibilities, we have to admire the artist's attempt to push the medium beyond conventionality. And certainly at less than two hours in length, despite the massive critical disparity between the two films, the experience will be more accessible to some than the lauded Tree of Life.

But at the end of the day, this experiment just doesn't sustain itself and fails to generate the emotional attachment to the character that Malick desires of his audience. Thus, the break-up between Neil and Marina fails to move us, leaving us only with a shrug of acknowledgement or admiration that Malick managed to show a film about a romance and break-up without any dialogue.

**½

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

TIFF 2012 - Looper


Despite its faults, glaring plot holes and unanswered questions, Rian Johnson's inspired and energetic direction injects the sci-fi action genre with a fresh new vision reminiscent of the Wachowskis' bold ingenuity with 'The Matrix'. Looper is possibly the most inspired American action films in years.


Looper (2012) dir. Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Paul Dano, Emily Blunt, Piper Perabo

By Alan Bacchus

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's necessary voiceover explains the near future rules of this time travel yarn. With the forensic technological abilities of authorities in the future criminals looking to whack their enemies choose to send them back in time to be murdered. Loopers who live in the past know when and where these people will be sent and literally sit, wait and shoot ducks in a barrel. Gordon-Levitt shoots his victims on the outskirts of a farm and disposes their bodies in a local incinerator.

This leads us to plot hole #1, which is how Loopers in the past receive their orders. Oh well, let's move on. One day Gordon-Levitt receives a new victim and it's Bruce Willis, the version of himself targeted for death in the future to be killed by his younger self. In Looper terminology this is called 'closing the loop'. Eventually all assassins are forced out of the business and have to be offed by the earlier versions of themselves.

Thus we have plot hole #2 - why do Loopers have to be killed by themselves, and why would someone want to be a Looper knowing they might eventually have their loop closed?

Johnson moves his film at such great speed these questions only come up after the film is over. Or perhaps because of his lightning fast pace, I missed these kernels of information. But the reason why we don't give a damn about these deficiencies is Johnson's triumph in creating a film so fresh and creative in a genre so saturated with mediocrity.

With two versions of the same man sharing the same space, just how would these two people interact? Johnson finds a cool time travel anomaly not seen in any other time travel films - the idea of instantaneous shared memory and existence. We first see this early on when a fellow Looper (Paul Dano) is targeted to have his loop closed. When younger Dano is caught and tortured by his assailants we see older Dano's body, in real time, suffering the ravages of the younger Dano's torture - an awe-inspiring and intellectually thought-provoking action sequence.

Johnson is also not content to sit back and wax intellectually about mind-bending time travel paradoxes. It's one hell of an action film punctuated by innovatively staged and shot action sequences, both gory and beautiful, the same way the Wachowskis rebelled in their Matrix set pieces.

***1/2

TIFF 2012 - Rust and Bone

A log line certainly does not do this film justice. It's a marvelous evolving story, which starts out with a happenstance meeting at a night club between two completely different people - one a hapless bouncer, the other a beautiful Marineland whale trainer. 'Rust and Bone' hardly has the genre coolness of Audiard's previous prison gangster film 'A Prophet'. With its remarkable and melodramatic ebbs and flows, in many ways 'Rust and Bone' makes for a more accomplished film.


Rust and Bone (2012) dir. Jacques Audiard
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Mattias Schoenaerts

By Alan Bacchus

Cotillard is the whale trainer, Stephanie, who is introduced to Ali (Schoenaerts), a bouncer and dead-beat dad trying to raise his son while being a part-time MMA street fighter. After rescuing Stephanie from a night club scuffle a platonic bond forms, but it's deepened even further after an even more violent tragedy affects Stephanie.

The platonic friendship blossoms in the most intriguing way, resulting in one of the unique cinematic courtships in recent memory.

Audiard expertly weaves the edgy machismo tone he's done well in his previous films with the delicate feminine touch for Cotillard.

The artful treatment of the tragedy that afflicts Stephanie recalls the dreamy hopefulness of Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Audiard is comfortable messing with muscle bound MMA street fighters and being delicate with the beautiful and elegant whale sequences. Establishing Stephanie's role as a whale trainer at Marineland results in a terrific energetic sequence, which features the first of numerous inspired uses of pop star Katy Perry's song Firework.

Music is key to the changing faces of this film. The bass-pumping nightclub is booming and heart pumping, Alexandre Desplat's score is delightfully melancholy and the use of Bon Iver is downright haunting.

But the real joy of this film is the unpredictable trajectory of the story. The tragedies that strike both Stephanie and Ali are shocking but natural and avoid melodrama. Rust and Bone is a wonderfully enlightening film.

***½

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

TIFF 2012 - At Any Price

With his social-realist cred from acclaimed festival hits 'Man Push Cart', 'Chop Shop' and 'Goodbye Solo', Bahrani appears to venture out with something more accessible in 'At Any Price'. The casting of familiar Hollywood actors like Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron promises to open up his fanbase beyond critics. Unfortunately, this picture is a mixed bag of soap opera melodrama and morally thought-provoking situations with his familiar salt of the earth characters, a blend which never coalesces into something memorable or believable.


At Any Price (2012) dir. Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham,

By Alan Bacchus

We’re in the Midwestern prairies and its small-town rural working class farmers. But it’s definitely not a quiet idyllic lifestyle. By the transactions of land owners, farmers, suppliers and dealers the business of corn is as competitive and cut-throat as big oil. Bahrani centres on the Whipple family, specifically Henry Whipple (Quaid) and Dean Whipple (Efron), father and son with two different views on life. Henry has inherited the family farm and treats his business as a typically aggressive capitalist enterprise. Dean, on the other hand, has gotten the short shrift in his family compared to his deified older brother, and he desires to become a champion race car driver.

Henry is pretty shady, typified by the opening scene in which he shamelessly tries to buy a man’s land from the son of a recently deceased land owner. And when he speaks to people, his pasted-on smile and false modesty wreaks of the most disreputable slime ball salesman.

For much of the film we’re waiting for the shoe to drop. Before then it’s a slow-burning character study of Dean and his contentious relationship with Henry. Henry’s shady dealings have treated him well, but his comeuppance is near and the Jenga tower of lies and deceit threatens to topple down due to a couple of key plot turns.

Though very little happens through two-thirds of the film, Bahrani admirably makes up for the slow burn by turning the screws extra tight on his characters in the third act. What’s revealed is a morally complex series of choices for Dean and Henry with immensely dramatic ramifications for them and the family.

Unfortunately, Bahrani falters in a number of places throughout. The imprecision with his tone is a distraction. For much of the time, we’re never quite sure whose film this is. When we realize its Dennis Quaid’s film, his miscasting or weak performance fails the film. At once Henry is an arrogant business man, but he's played with strange awe-shucks affability.

Zac Efron as the wild child living in the moment and on instinct recalls James Dean’s most famous roles in East of Eden and A Rebel Without a Cause. Efron's performance is the best, and his character is the most interesting. He has long since graduated from teen-mag stardom and is magnetic on screen. His blue eyes are beautifully expressive, and despite his handsomeness he can pull off the working class ruggedness of a young Tom Cruise.

Next to Zac is the fine character actor Kim Dickens as the pragmatic mom, Irene, who at every turn seems to be the only one who can see the forest from the trees. She easily sees past her husband’s attempts to hide his infidelity, yet her subdued response implies that she knows a divorce would make their precarious situation even worse. In the final act her acceptance of her husband’s even more diabolical scheme is outright breaking the law, but in accepting all of her husband's immoral behaviour she admirably takes ownership of the family and earns the title of the film.

The melodramatic soap opera plotting never really matches up with the slice-of-life realism of the first half of the film.

**

Sunday, 9 September 2012

TIFF 2012 - The Master

Almost every aspect of this beguiling new film from Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be designed to create discomfort for the viewer - the truly off-kilter and abrasive performance from Joaquin Phoenix, the oily slickness of Philip Seymour Hoffman's L. Ron Hubbard-esque character, and the idiosyncratic Jonny Greenwood score, which seems to be written more as a counterpoint to the drama on screen than as a complement. While PTA's previous 'There Will Be Blood' pushed these same buttons, 'The Master' looks to be a film to admire rather than embrace with love.


The Master (2012) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams

By Alan Bacchus

We could easily split PTA's evolving career into two specific phases. The first is the youthful wunderkind era of heightened melodrama punctuated by show-off visuals aping the hyperactive coke movies of Martin Scorsese, a trilogy of sorts which ended with the monumentally engrossing saga Magnolia. The second period shows a distinct shift, a new modus operandi, significantly less conventional, more understated, oblique, purposefully awkward, befuddling and obtuse - seemingly a conscious antidote to the criticisms of his first three pictures.

The Master finds PTA at his most oblique. The lineage of the story is no secret. It's a not-so-subtle look at L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the controversial Scientology. This is a bold choice of subject which brings to mind Orson Welles' hubris making a film about William Randolph Hearst.

As such, coming from Anderson we kind of expect something as ambitious and grandiose as Welles would have done. The film is certainly not a comprehensive biopic nor an overly ambitious film, but a strange character study of two eccentric personalities and their unlikely symbiotic relationship.

We don't meet the Hubbard character until approximately 20 minutes into the film. Instead Anderson introduces us to Freddy Quell (Phoenix), an oddball to the extreme, cut from the same cloth as Adam Sandler's character in Punch Drunk Love. Freddy is a drunk, someone who concocts his own moonshine from various poisonous solvents we were not meant to drink. Phoenix's extra coarse face shows him as a man of rock-hard constitution, a sociopath ethic Freudian nightmare to the extreme.

Early scenes brilliantly show him wandering through situations and lives trying to fit in but failing spectacularly. Freddy's brief stint as a department store portrait photographer is perhaps the film's most inspired scene. The Master is top-heavy with these scenes, including a raucous scene with a moonshiner on a share-cropping farm.

Eventually Freddy meets the Hubbard character, known as Lancaster Dodd, a perfectly superfluous name thought out as carefully as Anderson's porn star names in Boogie Nights. Dodd seems to be the only one able to corral Freddy's wild behaviour. Their conversation on his boat before his daughter's wedding is another master scene, which shows his calm authoritative demeanour that instantly dulls Freddy's abrasiveness.

The next two hours chart their symbiotic relationship. For Lancaster, Freddy represents the ultimate challenge for his religion, a deeply deranged psychotic who is ripe for 'processing' and a cure. For Freddy, Lancaster is the only one who can stand being in his presence.

The film plays out their evolving relationship, sometimes consensual and sometimes at odds. And while There Will Be Blood strung together a collection of bold memorable set pieces and became an instant pop culture anchor, The Master is humble and understated, a slow burn which gets under your skin and lingers long after the lights go up.


***

Friday, 7 September 2012

TIFF 2012 - Motorway

Motorway is a somewhat shameless Drive knock-off but with all the car chases that weren't in Nicolas Winding Refn's film. Slight plagiarism aside, Soy Cheang's driving film exemplifies why Hong Kong has been the king of slick action cinema for years.

Motorway (2012) dir. Soi Cheang
Starring: Anthony Wong, Shaun Yeu

By Alan Bacchus

The plotting of the good guys vs. bad guys has the same ice-cold professionalism as a Michael Mann film. There are no throwaway gags or witty one-liners here. But while Mann made a fetish of procedural details of the heist, for Cheang it's the escape that gets him hard.

To support the dozen or so chase sequences anchoring the film there is a roll call of familiar action movie plotting devices. To start, our hero (Yeu) is introduced as a hot-shot young cop, who at every turn contradicts his superiors' orders in order to exercise his love for chasing people in his police car. Partnering him is Wong's character, the grizzled veteran, not exactly days away from retirement (that cliché would too obvious), but a cop with his best days behind him who prefers to sit back and take the cautious route to policing. Of course, we eventually learn he was once like his partner, a dervish behind the wheel, but he's suffering from post-traumatic stress related to an accident in the past.

We're in Shane Black buddy cop territory here, and if it wasn't for the superlative Hong Kong slickness and supercool, this would be a tedious affair.

But it isn't. Motorway cashes in on the director's desire to simply make a car chase film that fetishizes the steel machines with Zen-like reverence. Unlike the muscular fetishness of the Fast and the Furious films, the characters' attachment to their cars in Motorway is like Chow Yun Fat to John Woo's guns - ridiculous but impressively passionate.

***

TIFF 2012 - Argo




The real-life mission to rescue six American hostages from Iran in 1979, previously classified by the CIA and now public knowledge, has been realized into Ben Affleck's best film as director. It's both a taut and slick political thriller, as well as a witty Hollywood farce. The film's greatest strength is its ability to switch modes on a dime providing maximum commercial entertainment value and mostly controversy-free political intrigue.


Argo (2012) dir. Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Clea Duvall

By Alan Bacchus

To set things up Affleck crafts a terrific siege sequence wherein the angry Iranian mob storm the embassy in Tehran nabbing 70+ American citizens - a sequence which expertly weaves period news footage with authentically recreated scenes to put us in the time and place of the era. And before that Affleck provides us with a fine history of the background players contributing to the big picture stakes.

Affleck is as good a hero leading man as he is a director here. He plays Tony Mendez, an experienced but lonely family man who has recently split for his wife and child. After dismissing the ill-conceived schemes by the State Dept. brass to get the Americans out of the country, Mendez hatches a plan to get them out via a fake Hollywood movie being made by Canadian filmmakers.

Mendez is thus forced to ingratiate himself with the oddball eccentrics of Hollywood, specifically producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) and special effects artist John Chamber (Goodman) to build the elaborate rouse, which includes finding a real script, drawing real story boards and generating real publicity for Mendez's fake movie, entitled Argo.

Unfortunately, Argo is top-heavy with most of the tension, intrigue and humour at the beginning of the film. By the time Affleck is in the country and executing his plan it's relatively easy-going. Conflict exists between some of the Americans, who are skeptical of the ridiculous scheme. Suspense is manufactured through presumably exaggerated events of ticking-clock jeopardy. At one point the group finds themselves at the airport checking in, but they learn that their tickets have been cancelled by the White House. It's a scene conveniently cut in real-time with frantic phone calls made to the CIA colleagues at home to have their tickets reinstated into the computer system. And the final race to get on the flight and have the plane take off before the Iranian guards can catch them on the tarmac and runway feels completely false and manufactured.

And so sadly, despite the impressive beginning, Argo ends with a slight whimper. And for Canadians it's a feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, as we discover that our great political triumph, taking credit for the heroic escape, was a sham and part of the CIA classified cover-up. These revelations also negate the 1980s Made for TV Escape From Tehran, which dramatizes the Canadian cover-up version.

But this is Ben Affleck firing on all cylinders as a new director, free of his Boston comfort zone and working with a new script that he didn't write.


***

TIFF 2012 - No

The simplistic title of this film refers to one of the choices given to the Chilean public during the monumental national plebiscite in 1988. The issue at hand was the continuation of General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictator regime. NO meant down with Pinochet; YES meant stay the course. Pablo Larrain’s new feature tells the story of this contentious period leading up to the vote from the point of view of the dueling advertising agencies charged with convincing the public to vote YES or NO.


No (2012) dir. Pablo Larrain
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal

By Alan Bacchus

Of course, Larrain centres on the NO side, specifically Gael Garcia Bernal’s character, Rene Saavedra, a hot-shot ad man who treats the political issue like selling soda pop. Prompted by international pressure, rules were set to ensure a fair campaign. Each side was allowed 15 minutes of airtime in each of the 27 days leading up to the election to convey information, state their case and convince the public.

Obstacles facing Rene include the angry liberal left, which wanted to vilify Pinochet as a violent tyrant who imprisoned thousands of innocent citizens during his reign; the apprehensive public, who feared even going to the polls; and the conniving opposition headed by Rene’s old boss, Lucho Guzman, an equal match to Rene’s commercial savvy.

Larrain throws us into the war room of activity as ideas get bounced around, and he's sure to highlight the absurd and uproarious comical options discussed. He consistently oscillates between the socio-political gravitas of the stakes and a strong farcical tone. Bernal's goofy visage makes him the ideal hero in the endeavour. Of course, he's rugged and handsome as a leading man, but also his youth and small physical stature reminds us of the David vs. Goliath challenge in which he finds himself.

No won the a special Art Cinema Prize at the Director’s Fortnight Program at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, due in part to Larrain’s bold stylistic choice to shoot on ordinary, old-school video and with a decidedly undramatic 4:3 full frame. It’s an inspired choice. The ugly graininess of video image immediately puts us in the time and place of the era and it integrates invisibly into the cleverly edited stock footage of the period. The result is an immersive political statement and the ideal artifact of this momentous period in Latin American politics.

***