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

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Sparrows

'Sparrows', the silent Mary Pickford-produced masterpiece, features certainly one of cinema’s most despicable villains with a concept even more frightening than the most grotesque from the horror films of today. It's the story of a baby farm run by a diabolical landowner, Mr. Grimes, who steals babies and interns them on his ranch for ransom, sale or anything else he desires. As one of the most celebrated Pickford films, it was a controversial talking piece in the day, a Gothic nightmare of monumental proportions, but also a riveting and inspirational adventure film featuring one of cinema's greatest escape sequences at the end.


Sparrows (1926) dir. William Beaudine
Starring: Mary Pickford, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Charlotte Mineau, Roy Stewart, 'Spec' O'Donnell

By Alan Bacchus

In the middle of a remote and treacherous bayou swamp lives Mr. Grimes (von Seyffertitz), a hunchbacked devil of a man. And judging by his sickly visage and ominous presence, he’s like Fagan meets Nosferatu. Huddled in the barn are a group of seven children who have been kidnapped by Grimes and his wife. The eldest is Molly (Pickford), who tends to the children like Mother Teresa, both sheltering them from the evil Grimes as well as educating them in the eventuality that they may escape or be rescued.

Early on, Grimes receives a doll intended to be given to one of the children, but in the most diabolical fashion he throws the gift into a mud sink hole and gloriously watches it slowly get sucked into the earth – a chilling visual metaphor for the danger these children face. When Grimes breaks into the mansion of one of the local plantation owners and steals their two-year-old daughter it sets in motion his demise and the escape of Molly and the children.

Perhaps what is most chilling is the fact that the film never really tells us why the children are there. Most of them are certainly too young to work on the land. Thus the nebulous purpose of this prison renders the mood and threat even more bone-chilling.

The film is not shy to characterize Molly like the Virgin Mary, a near-deified protector of the children. Her education of them includes quoting scripture and referencing God who watches over them. The most emotionally stunning sequence is the celebrated Jesus scene in which Molly, while nursing a starving baby, imagines Jesus himself entering through the barn to take the child away from her, only to wake up and find the baby dead in her arms. I can think of fewer moments in cinema as powerful and moving as this scene.

The finale is equally stunning, a riveting escape/chase sequence out of the compound and through the treacherous swamp. As Molly and the children climb across branches above the snapping jaws of snarling alligators and avoiding the trappings of the mud sinkholes, it’s one moment of tense jeopardy after another rendered all the more dangerous because of the children’s lives at stake.

If anything, the film pushes the chase one scene too long. After escaping the swamp and after Grimes is sucked into it, it turns into a boat chase between Grimes’ accomplices and the police. But it’s all in aid of the feeling of spectacle, as led by Pickford herself, who championed the film and served as its producer.

So look past the usual Halloween fare and seek out Mary Pickford’s Sparrows for a jolt of spine-tingling Gothic horror from the silent era.

****

Sparrows will soon be available on sparkling Blu-ray in the Milestone Films’ Rags to Riches: Mary Pickford Collection. It includes three Pickford films - Sparrows (1926), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) and Hoodlum (1919) - as well as invaluable audio commentaries, Pickford home movies and short film accompaniments, which add value to the reverent package.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

The film’s demise among the glut of summer blockbuster fare is not surprising. The idea of a revisionist history story of Abe Lincoln’s alter ego as a Van Helsing-like vampire hunter playing against the historical story of the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves should never have been elevated above B-movie production values. Thus, the amount of money spent to make this movie (reportedly $70 million) is staggering. At best this is a Bruce Campbell movie (like Bubba Ho-Tep), an effect which raises our expectations for this idiosyncratic story of alternate history to actually penetrate the mainstream. It’s not all that bad, most of it is watchable, but at the end of the day, all people will remember of this film is its failure at the box office.


Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (2012) dir. Timur Bekmambetov
Starring: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie

By Alan Bacchus

There’s no doubt the mere title of this movie is intriguing, the kind of cross-pollination project screenwriters spitball and discard just for fun. Somehow this one stuck. Well, first it started with Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel, which he adapted into his own screenplay for this film. Secondly, there was the attraction of Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, who also paired on the animated film 9. Presumably on the strength of this power pair it was a good bet for 20th Century Fox, who produced and distributed it.

At its core it’s a superhero origin story, initially introducing Lincoln as a child witnessing the murder of his mother at the mouth and fangs of a particularly nasty blood-sucking vampire. Lincoln spends the rest of his life vowing revenge against this beast of a man. Eventually finding his Jedi-mentor figure in Henry Sturges (Cooper), Lincoln learns the ways of the vampire and the skills to hunt and kill these creatures, which clandestinely have permeated America and are plotting to take over the country.

And thus, while Lincoln is building his career as a lawyer, by night he’s killing vampires one by one with his expertly wielded axe until he reaches the killer of his mother. Years later, after he become President and once again faces the threat of vampires aiding the Confederate military in the Civil War, Lincoln comes out of retirement to kick some more vampire ass in the name of American freedom.

Courageously, Burton/Bekmambetov cast a new face in the role of Lincoln with Benjamin Walker, who wears the Lincoln top hat nicely and makes a good young Lincoln in the opening half of the film. Like most superhero films the origin stories are the most intriguing, and while Grahame-Smith follows the mythological template to the letter, Walker’s fresh-faced performance and Bekmambetov’s flare with the action make it all visually stimulating.

The film loses steam in the second half with the elder President Lincoln (Walker in heavy makeup) dealing with the political ramifications of Emancipation and the Civil War. The use of the historically significant ordeal of black slaves in this uniformly pulpy material is kind of off-putting. The strong feeling of guilt watching Anthony Mackie’s Will Johnson, who becomes a target for the racist Vampire Confederates, was enough to make me uncomfortable. Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith’s message here is trite and thus too exploitative of the issue of slavery.

But the film fails because of the lazy third act, an unmemorable action scene aboard a train, full of engorged and ridiculously unrealistic green-screen action, most of which is impossible by the laws of physics. And we don’t even get to see the assassination of Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth played out in the end – what a gyp!

**½

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is available on Blu-ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

This soft and unambitious indie hit from this year’s Sundance Film Festival arguably overachieves from its aspirations as a low-rent love story with a sci-fi bent. Executive produced by the Duplass Bros., the story of a lowly magazine intern who falls for a batty backwoods loner who thinks he can travel in time, with mild doses of humour, science fiction and romance, fits into the organic roots of the Northwestern brand of indie cinema.


Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) dir. Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Mark Duplass, Jenica Bergere

By Alan Bacchus

By design, director Colin Trevorrow begins his story with a pair of extremely unlikable characterizations of his co-leads; Darius (Plaza), a magazine intern introduced doing the dreck work for a glossy Seattle magazine, an underachiever due to her extremely cynical Gen-X viewpoint on life; and Jeff (Johnson), an arrogant and monumentally annoying writer who ropes Darius into helping him write a story on a curious classified ad in a local paper. The ad states that a man is looking for a partner to travel back in time with him, with the cautionary warning, 'Must bring own weapons, safety not guaranteed’.

Venturing out of the big city, Darius, Jeff and tag-along intern IT nerd Arnau (Soni), embark on a road trip of sorts which has them bonding over their strange assignment. The trio seek out and stalk the owner of the ad who turns out to be Mark Duplass as Kenneth, a shy recluse with delusions of grandeur.

Going undercover, it’s up to Darius to cozy up to Kenneth to digest the man’s idiosyncrasies and find the information and back story through which to mock and shame this poor man publicly for the trite urban magazine.

At this point it’s a typical romcom set-up, a lie which begins the relationship then changes from observe-and-report to romantic love, at which point the lie from the beginning will bite back as true identities become revealed. Indeed Trevorrow, working from Derek Connolly’s script, moves in this direction, but it’s his evolving characterizations that break through these worn-out genre conventions.

As much as we hate the egocentric writer Jeff, there’s some talent in crafting such a despicable douchebag who self-identifies himself by his cool condo and his Cadillac Escalade. Trevorrow gradually reveals a soul beneath Jeff’s bravado. When he reconnects with a female lover from the past from whom he states he ‘once got a blow job,’ we see a fragile man deeply in love with this brief memory and the elusive figure from the past.

While Darius’s attraction to Kenneth and his savant-like afflictions are telegraphed clearly, it’s Jeff’s transition from grade-A urban asshole to a soul-bearing romantic opening his vulnerable heart to the woman he’s always loved which blindsides us. That said, there’s still an air of subdued emotion purposely avoiding melodrama in favour of cinematic disaffection. And so the tragedy of Jeff’s life is only a minor emotional blip reconciled by his encouragement and guidance of Arnau’s first foray into manhood.

A minor twist at the end pays off the time travel scenario, opening up the possibility that Kenneth wasn't a crackpot after all. While somewhat delightful and humorous Safety Not Guaranteed ends up being a satisfactory but unmemorable addition to Sundance’s alumni.

**½

Safety Not Guaranteed is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

I like musicals, but don’t much care for rock operas, that is, the brand of song and dance motion picture which emerged in the '70s and featured reworked pop rock tunes instead of traditional Broadway-style numbers. So this is not really my cup of tea. But if there was one film I could appreciate in this subgenre it would be this gleeful, irresponsible and audacious cultish schlockfest.


The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) dir. Jim Sharman
Starring: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O’Brien, Meat Loaf

By Alan Bacchus

Susan Sarandon is Janet Weiss, a virginal small-town girl betrothed to the equally nerdy and virginal Brad Majors (Bostwick). On the night of their engagement they find themselves with a flat tire and stranded in heavy rain. Their nearest respite is an old haunted castle-like mansion off the beaten path. They are quickly welcomed to a group of Transylvanians singing the Time Warp song.

The leader of this cooky gang of strange and swinging group of men, women and trannies is the ultimate tranny, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), who has just finished creating his own gay version of Frankenstein’s monster, an Apollo-like beefcake figure named Rocky, who will serve as his own personal sex slave. After Frank beds both Janet and Brad while in disguise, Janet discovers her own repressed carnality and goes sexual haywire. Then Janet's and Brad’s old high school teacher, Dr. Everett Scott, shows up only to get killed and served for dinner to Frank’s guests. Then it turns out the Transylvanians are actually aliens from another galaxy and eventually blast off into space in the castle-cum-spaceship.

Predictable is not the word to describe the effect of watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show - fucked up Quaalude trip or ecstasy bomb might be more appropriate. The plot seemingly gets made up as the film goes along, but mostly it’s a parody of classic b-movie sci-fi from the '50s with a lot of gay sex.

I forgot how gay the film actually was. And I forgot how liberal the '70s were in comparison to the '80s and '90s when material like this would have been scared off by the AIDS epidemic. Few commercial or even remotely mainstream films are as graphic and shamelessly explicit.

For straight dudes, we get to at least marvel at the stunning beauty of Susan Sarandon, including her saucer-cup eyes and ample bosom, which is featured prominently in that white cross-your-heart bra she wears through most of the film.

Stylistically, Jim Sharman’s direction and camerawork embrace all the shlockiness the film is trying to parody. There’s little aesthetic continuity going on. Sharman moves between extreme camera lenses to rough handheld work to traditional locked off photography. As with the story, anything goes.

Though the Blu-ray looks sharp on my 42-inch screen, the small screen is just too small and insular to really capture the magic of this film. Rocky Horror should be a shared experience, preferably at midnight, in a dingy old rep theatre on Halloween night in full regalia and chemically enhanced. Happy Halloween!

***

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

In the Mood For Love

Significant for a number of reasons, 'In the Mood for Love' is not only a great film, routinely voted in polls as one of the best movies of its decade, it also completes Wong Kar-Wai’s decade-long examination of the barriers to human connectivity, a series of now-iconic and influential HK films which includes 'Chungking Express', 'Happy Together', 'Days of Being Wild' and 'Fallen Angels'. It also comes at the end of the millennium, which has the impression of being cinema’s last word on the theme of love and romance in the 20th Century.


In the Mood for Love (2000) dir. Wong Kar-Wai
Starring: Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung

By Alan Bacchus

Part of the allure of the cinema of Wong Kar-Wai is it’s relation to the prevailing action genre in Hong Kong at the time. After the proliferation of John Woo/Jackie Chan-inspired action and kung fu extravaganzas in the '90s, Kar-Wai seemed like the supreme antidote to these overly produced, emotionally excessive exports. In the Mood for Love is like a delicate porcelain doll. With a wisp of a story, the film coasts on the constrained angst of the characters, but always with a supreme cinematic eye, as cool, stylized and memorable as those engrossed action movies.

It’s 1962, and here Kar-Wai’s frequent collaborator Tony Leung plays Chow Mo-wan, a journalist looking for an apartment for him and his wife. Same with Su Chan (Maggie Cheung), his comely neighbour, alluring and gorgeous in her 60s bees nest hairdo and form-fitting pattern dresses. But Su’s also married to a man as busy and unavailable as Chow’s wife. Conscious efforts are made not to see the faces of Chow's or Su’s spouses, a commonality the audience subliminally recognizes, thus connecting the two characters together.

Gradually through a series of impressively edited montage scenes we learn of an affair between the two spouses. The sequence ends in a magnificent restaurant scene, in which Chow and Su question each other about their respective accessories - Chow’s tie, which resembles the same tie Su gave her husband from abroad, and Su’s bag, which resembles a bag Chow gave his wife.

A love affair develops between the two without consummation. Together they vow not to ‘become like their spouses’ and betray their marriages. Kar-Wai turns these screws extra tight as Chow gradually grows fonder of Su, subtly inviting her to consummate their relationship. Thus, Su’s increasing apprehension and teasing love furthers the sadness of their forlorn love. And after a series of time shifts forward into the late '60s where we see a downtrodden Chow return to the same apartment years later looking for Su, Kar-Wai elevates his drama to near-Odyssey-like tragedy.

Before In the Mood for Love, Kar-Wai was celebrated for a unique fluid visual style, his camera seemed free to float in and around the busy HK streets at will. But here Kar-Wai consciously sequesters himself in the tight spaces of the cramped apartment space. Even with these limitations he manages to find evocative compositions in which to frame his characters. We never see Chow’s wife but immediately identify her by the semi-circular window overlooking her office. And the frequent meeting place for Su and Chow in the early days of their courtship is simply the landing of the building’s staircase. Kar-Wai maximizes these repeated and simple slow-motion shots with help from the indelible music cue from Shigeru Umebayashi, and of course Christopher Doyle’s lauded cinematography and lighting.

It took four years for the follow-up, 2046, to come out and three years after that came his English-language film, My Blueberry Nights. These lengthy intervals suggest perhaps, much like the effect Apocalypse Now had on Francis Coppola’s career, In the Mood for Love exasperated Wong Kar-Wai's remarkable creative juices. I hope this isn't true.

****

In the Mood for Love is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

James and the Giant Peach

Looking back, 'A Nightmare Before Christmas' and 'James and the Giant Peach' represent a remarkable double-shot of painstaking, onerous, yet thoroughly delightful stop motion animated features from Henry Selick/Tim Burton. While the stop motion animation holds up remarkably well compared to the best animation of today, the live action sequences, and in particular the musical numbers, backdate the film to 16 years ago.


James and the Giant Peach (1996) dir. Henry Selick
Starring: Paul Terry, Joanna Lumley, Pete Postlethwaite, Miriam Margolyes

By Alan Bacchus

This time ‘round Selick adapts Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book James and the Giant Peach for the big screen. Dahl’s story features a young boy, James, saddened by the death of his parents in a violent storm, who now lives an oppressed life under the guardianship of his two nasty aunts, Spiker and Sponge. Then a mysterious stranger appears with a solution to his problem - a bag of crocodile tongues, which have the power to make his dreams come true. This comes in the form of a giant peach that grows in his yard, which James uses to sail to New York City and complete the unfulfilled dream of his parents.

Selick employs both live action and stop motion – live action to show the world of James at home on land and in the real world, and animation once he is inside the peach and on his journey toward the Big Apple – a clever cinematic pun, which may or may not have been intended.

The live action world doesn't hold up as well as Selick’s glorious animation process. The opening 20 minutes or so before James enters his peach fantasy world is adequate but not inspired fantasy stuff. Once he is on his journey, the film comes alive. James’ new friends, Old Green Grasshopper, Mr. Centipede, Mr. Earthworm, Miss Spider, Mrs. Ladybug and Glowworm are distinct and quirky characters reminiscent of the skewed townsfolk of Nightmare’s Halloween town - and for fun, Jack Skellington even has a cameo as the captain of a sunken pirate ship.

Like Nightmare, the narrative is peppered with a dozen or so musical numbers, most of which are unmemorable, and at least from these cynical adult viewer’s eyes, don’t add much. They may even detract from the enjoyment of the picture. Unfortunately, it dates the film badly, back to the Disney classically animated period of the '90s when everything was animated as a song and dance movie. Now, as evidenced by Selick’s Coraline and most of the CG animated films of today, these sequences of characters digressing into song and dance are a rarity.

Selick/Dahl present a number of well constructed and resonate themes which arc throughout the action. After being subjugated by his aunt via the peach, James is allowed to become a leader, accept responsibility and commit his boyhood rite of passage. There’s also a bit of cold revenge in there as well, as the second act climaxes with his confrontation with the evil storm marvellously transformed into the form of a charging rhinoceros.

Overall, while Nightmare exploded with action, comedy, music and that dark edge of Tim Burton, James and the Giant Peach is light, fluffy and satisfying but no classic.

***

James and the Giant Peach is available on Blu-ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Killing

Like most of Kubrick’s films, 'The Killing' is absolutely impervious to time. While the film is one of his most ‘conventional’ films, it is remarkable for his forward-thinking narrative structure, showing the mechanics of a crime from multiple points of view in different spaces of time. Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled dialogue and Kubrick’s youthful cinematic flare with the camera still pulsate with a different kind of energy than the more formal and stolid works he’s most known for.


The Killing (1956) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Jay C. Flippen, Timothy Carey

By Alan Bacchus

There’s a strong sense of aggression in this picture. Starting with the score by George Fried, a loud and almost angry music cue opens the picture and helps to create momentum for the film as it snowballs throughout. There’s also the supremely imposing figure of Johnny Clay (Hayden), the ring leader of the racetrack heist who speaks with a larger-than-life deep voice, oozing confidence. Clay’s barely even a movie character, but more a caricature of someone like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and the Hollywood crimesters of the past.

We don’t care that Clay exhibits no other emotions other than his devotion to the job and supporting his dutiful wife. We may just be meant to identify with the affable George Petty (Cook Jr.), who is manipulated by his overbearing wife, Sherry (Windsor). But even then, his characterization as the ‘patsy’ is written to the extreme, an indulgence of Kubrick’s which doesn't really fit into his body of work, but within the rules of the crime/noir genre it is completely acceptable.

While most of the visual hallmarks we associate with Stanley Kubrick were birthed in his next film, Paths of Glory, we can see some stylish commonalities incorporated here. The omniscient voiceover, which tells us exactly what we see going on in front of us, is featured again in Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon. And while the information presented seems unnecessary to help us understand the story, Kubrick uses the narration to convey a distinctly documentary-like realism to the film. Kubrick’s staunch adherence to real location flavour and almost consciously un-cinematic newsreel-like imagery of the racetrack adds to the unique procedural qualities.

There’s also the mask used by Clay during the heist, a recurring visual motif used so dramatically in Alex Delarge’s home invasion in A Clockwork Orange, as well as during the costume party flashback in The Shining and the infamous sex party in Eyes Wide Shut.

Rashomon was Kubrick’s cited influence in this regard, but as applied to the stone cold film noir/American heist genre it resembles little of Kurosawa’s rigorous technique. While the idea of showing a heist from the different perspectives of the participants often doubling back on each other was clearly in Lionel White’s original source novel (titled Clean Break), it was Kubrick’s confidence as a filmmaker which made it work for cinema, thus influencing later filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Atom Egoyan, who regularly use this approach.

Kubrick may have also looked to Europe for this influence in tone. We can’t help but see the connection to the cool, emotionless fetish for details in the great crime films of Jules Dassin (Rififi), Robert Bresson (Pickpocket) and Jacques Becker (Le Trou). It’s no surprise because these three films are some of the best heist/escape pictures of all time, with The Killing lining up proudly beside or arguably even above them.

****

The Killing is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Page One: Inside the New York Times


As the pinnacle of print journalism, the New York Times sits at a precipice of change in the media industry. With the gatekeepers of news now spread out a thousand-fold given the proliferation of the Internet, how will the Times adapt and reclaim its status as the ‘newspaper of record’? While the mere fact of watching the absolute best-of-the-best in journalism working on a daily basis is indeed compelling and watchable, a lack of focus and discernable ‘ending’ prevents the film from successfully moving us emotionally or engaging in the journalistic crisis.


Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) dir. Andrew Rossi
Documentary

By Alan Bacchus

This is the fundamental purpose of Andrew Rossi’s documentary, which attempts to bring audiences inside the revered establishment and show the inner turmoil that has been rocking the paper for the past few years. Rossi’s activist and ideological style gives the film some urgency and the feeling that American culture, and society in general, would suffer from the loss of this great paper.

It’s a gigantic institution, but Rossi’s entry point is the Media Desk, a newly created department reporting specifically on the changing landscape of media, including the Times’ place in the new world order. David Carr quickly emerges as the ‘star’. He’s a forthright and opinionated reporter, as well as a former crack cocaine addict who emerged from addiction in his 20s and 30s to become one of the world leaders in media journalism.

Carr’s gravelly throat, which crackles from years of abuse through smoking and drugs, gives him the right kind of working class authoritative edge we associate with journalists of old. His confrontations with young, hip bloggers attempting to denigrate the institution result in some fine verbal ass-kicking from Carr himself. With that said, Rossi also features a number of younger hot shots who have cracked the Times through their media savvy and youthful energy.

The spectre of WikiLeaks looms over most of the film as well. The breakthrough of that site into public consciousness provides a thought-provoking contemporary contrast to where the NY Times used to be. Rossi connects the influence of the NY Times on breaking the Watergate scandal in the ‘70s with Julian Assange’s modus operandi with his controversial whistleblower.

But what about the integrity of journalism, a moral foundation that WikiLeaks seemingly has broken down over the past year? Rossi’s question about the Times’ potential obsolescence in comparison to WikiLeaks is never successfully answered. But then again, this story has not ended and continues to be written.

So while Page One lacks closure, it’s indicative of how journalism works today – a self-sustaining, rapidly evolving organism challenging everyone, including the most entrenched newspapers such as the New York Times, to keep up with the Joneses.

***

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Trouble the Water

'When the Levees Broke', Spike Lee's comprehensive and definitive third-person documentary of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, is a damned near-perfect film. Thankfully, Deal and Lessin's film doesn't compete with this, instead offering the ideal companion piece: a uniquely personal Ground Zero account of the Katrina disaster that goes beyond the harshness of Mother Nature, past the deep-rooted governmental inefficiencies and exposes the bright light of America's spirit of ambition, competitiveness and survival.

Trouble the Water (2008) dir. Carl Deal & Tia Lessin
Documentary

By Alan Bacchus

Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott were invisible to American society before Katrina - a couple of poor, black, struggling, lower-status citizens living day-to-day. In August, 2005, before the storm hit, Kimberly, sensing the gravitas of the situation, grabbed their cheap consumer DV Camera and started shooting. And so Rivers, the entrepreneur, opportunist and now documentarian gives us a tour of her near-poverty-stricken Ninth Ward district of New Orleans. When the storm hits we become witness to Mother Nature's aggressive wrath and the heroic acts of ordinary people fighting to survive.

As we all know, the storm was only the beginning, and Rivers continued to film the sad aftermath, eventually linking up with another documentary crew, who combine and merge their stories into what would become Trouble the Water. Kimberly goes from camera operator to documentary subject and continues to guide us with an astonishing ground-level point of view through the absurdities and bewildering, discombobulated bureaucracy that embarrassed America in front of the world. The botched rescue effort is exemplified by the one-on-one conversations with the military personnel who refuse to let the starving and homeless citizens into their base for shelter.

Trouble the Water succeeds because of the infectious personality of Ms. Rivers, an affable and candid subject whose anger and fury are tempered with warm Southern charm. But in the end, it's the realization that her steadfast determination to make good on the American dream is what allowed her to survive and make the best of the disaster.

The DVD features some worthy deleted and expanded scenes, and offers us a chance to see Kimberly and the filmmakers revel in the success of the film. A Q&A with Richard Roeper at the Roger Ebert Film Festival and a one-on-one meeting with the New Orleans Mayor at the Democratic National Convention show the effect of the documentary on Kimberly and her husband as advocates for social change in the country.

***½

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Game

Looking back on David Fincher's two early films 'Seven' and 'The Game', which were made two years after one another, they have more than proximity of time in common. Both clever genre films seem to be like two sides of the same coin, both overachieving in execution, transforming what could have been generic indistinguishable and unmemorable thrillers into enthralling psychological examinations of our human character.


The Game (1997) dir. David Fincher
Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn, Peter Donat

By Alan Bacchus

Games are at play in both Seven and The Game. In Seven, the reigns are held by a psychopathic serial killer testing the will and unwilling victim played by Brad Pitt. John Doe (Kevin Spacey), upset with the world, forces the perfect-specimen of society to see the evils of the world in the most horrific way possible. In The Game, Nicholas Van Orten is somewhat complicit in his game, but he enters into his harrowing journey under false pretenses. For Van Orten, the problems with his life are visualized elegantly in a beautifully morose opening sequence, shot in earthy and haunting 8mm film, fake home movies which show the wealthy but depressed life of Nicholas’s father. The sequence ends with his father jumping off his balcony to his death,

As a result, Van Orten’s lifestyle is typically cold. His relationship with his co-workers and ex-wife are unemotive two-word sentences at most. And as a ruthless capitalist, he's introduced firing one of his father’s older colleagues (Armin Muehler-Stahl) in order to save some falling stock, but perhaps subconsciously to finally exert his authority of the ghost of his father. If anything, Van Orten is an on-the-nose caricature of Douglas’s Gordon Gekko, the '80s shark, perhaps updated for the '90s – devoid of the enjoyment of the corporate game, now simply numb to everything around him.

Enter Nicholas’s brother (Sean Penn), who gives him a CRS (Consumer Recreation Services) gift card as a birthday present. He’s not interested in any games, but through some cleverly placed covert clues Nicholas is subliminally persuaded to participate.

Fincher takes his time with the mechanics of the game. The initial adventures Van Orten finds himself in are overly telegraphed, feats of physical strength, a chase here and there, or, as Nicholas himself puts it, ‘elaborately staged pranks’. All of this is either an illusion to mask the true and devious goals of CRS to scam Van Orten out of his money, or to gradually put the man into a hallucinogenic daze in order to push him through the other side of consciousness. At all times throughout, in the back of our minds, we know that it's possible that it's all fake, all part of the game. And so the genius of this film is Fincher’s ability, through shear awe-inspiring cinematic skill, to put us in the mind of Van Orten and have us think from his point of view every step of the way.

This was my experience upon first viewing, as malleable as the puppet Van Orten finds on his driveway, pulled and push at will by Fincher into every dark corner he wants us to go. Thus making every twist a surprise or a shock, and in the case of the impressive climax, a complete revelation.

Seven had the same effect, but while that film bludgeoned its audience with a cold hard dose of cynical reality in the climax, The Game subverts these expectations by taking another direction, transforming its main character into a new person, Van Orten free of the lifelong shackles of his father and able to make his life thereafter his own.

***½

The Game is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Keep the Lights On

This emotionally explicit odyssey of two gay men and the ups and downs of their relationship over the course of 10 years could just be a landmark film for queer cinema. With the amount of coverage and praise this 'gay' film made without any semblance of 'straight' sensibilities, it could be the first of its kind to crack the mainstream. Unfortunately, when all is said and done there's more to admire than truly fall in love with.


Keep the Lights On (2012) dir. Ira Sachs
Starring: Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson, Paprika Steen

By Alan Bacchus

Erik (Lindhardt) is a documentary filmmaker living in New York, introduced to us as he is calling some kind of phone sex hook-up line. Though he desires the pleasures of sex, his soulful eyes want more, a lasting and loving relationship. He finds this in Paul (Booth), whom he meets in one of those one-night-stand encounters. But Paul is in a straight relationship and not fully out of the closet. Despite the challenge, Erik can't abandon his heart and chases after him. Paul finally commits to switching sides and enters into a relationship with Erik.

It doesn't take long before cracks start to show, as Paul's drug addiction taints their sex life, and his demands as a workaholic lawyer conflict with Erik's more flexible freelance lifestyle. Over the course of the 10 years Paul moves in and out of Erik's life, sometimes just disappearing without a word of notice. And yet Erik continues to want his affection, something Paul continually refuses to give. At several points in the relationship ultimatums are given, eventually forcing Paul and Erik to make a full-stop decision to be with each other or not.

Despite the intertitle cards that signify the change in time, we never get the feeling of time passing. Their haircuts certainly don't change, but neither do the characters. And apart from the graphic sex they engage in frequently there's not much chemistry. Erik, the documentarian, is the more passionate of the two, constantly evaluating the relationship and looking to express his feelings. Paul, whom we see less of, is conservative, mostly aloof and independent.

Their conflicts over the period seem to be a continuous struggle between Erik's emotional needs and Paul's independence. Their descent is as tragic and frustrating as the doomed love story in Blue Valentine.

More subtly, we notice time pass through the gradual change in visual palette. Early in the film, Sachs filters his world through a grainy verite look, a wonderfully textured cinematography, though unpolished and rough, but still artful and rich. Gradually, the graininess disappears over time and, by the end, without being noticeable, the film is clean and spotless.

But the honesty in Sach's storytelling breaks through the narrative deficiencies, achieving a mood and feeling of heartbreaking sadness without the bleakness of Blue Valentine.

***

Monday, 15 October 2012

Cinderella

While the spark of the Golden Age Animation was lost somewhere in the WWII years, 'Cinderella' still resonates as a marvellous example of classical Disney animation, a style and tone absolutely non-existent in today's animated films - a purity to its subject matter devoid of self-acknowledgement and no post-modern cinematic or pop-culture references whatsoever.


Cinderella (1950) dir. Clyde Geronimo, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
Voices by: Ilene Woods, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton, Rhoda Williams, James MacDonald

By Alan Bacchus

History could define four specific phases of Disney classical animation: the pre-war Golden Age of Animation (1937 to 1942), which included Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi; the post-WWII films, from Cinderella (1950) to The Aristocats (1970); the post-Walt period of films conceived after his death, from Robin Hood (1973) to Oliver and Company (1988); and finally, the studio resurgence under the Jeffrey Katzenberg regime ― the pre-Pixar period, from The Little Mermaid (1989) to The Lion King (1994).

The Golden Age of Animation is still the height of Disney's artistic endeavours, a monumental creative output that put the "magic" in "the Magic Kingdom." Arguably there were lesser returns post-WWII; it took eight years after Bambi for Walt Disney to produce his next full-fledged animated feature, Cinderella, a return to the bread-and-butter subject matter. It's the well-known fairy tale about a downtrodden step-child of an abusive mother, who, with the help of the magical creatures of the land and a fairy godmother, usurp the destinies of her evil step-sisters to capture the heart of the handsome prince.

Uncle Walt always preferred the collaborative method of animation, assigning sequences to different animators, the effect of which made each film feel like a series of sequenced set pieces. In Cinderella this feeling remains. Of the memorable standalone scenes there's the action-oriented interactions of Lucifer the evil cat and the helpful mice; the dressmaking sequence, where the magical animals of the kingdom work together to craft the dress for Cinderella to wear to the ball; and, of course, the fairy godmother's transformation of Cinderella in preparation for the ball, including the memorable "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" song.

Cinderella features some of the most striking visual compositions of any of the Disney features; it was the most baroque of the Disney films up until then. The step-mother's castle is wonderfully Roman-esque. Inspired by the Neuschwanstein Castle of Bavaria, it became the most iconic of the Disney brand imagery. Disney uses this elegant but imposing extravagance throughout the film ― look for the expressive use of long shadows and other haunting noir and Gothic imagery to create the film's unique, brooding, Germanic feeling.

The special features of the Disney Diamond Collection include an alternative opening scene, a look back at the real-life inspiration for the memorable fairy godmother character, a more comprehensive making-of featurette and a short film based on a new CGI animated feature Tangled. It's a curious addition that shows the dramatic difference of animation styles between 1950 and today.

This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca

Friday, 12 October 2012

Dial M for Murder

Murder was never more fun and exciting for Alfred Hitchcock than in 'Dial M for Murder', a delightful chamber-piece murder mystery of sorts, now restored in its original 3D state, with those old fashioned red/blue style glasses (though modernized slightly for more comfort). Though the trauma of poor Margot Wallace (Kelly) going through an attempted murder is cause for a brief pause for reflection, Hitchcock keeps the mood light and gamely, treating murder like an intellectual chess match.


Dial M for Murder (1953) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, Anthony Dawson, John Williams

By Alan Bacchus

Historically Dial M always seems to have gotten the short shrift compared to Hitchcock's later and more revered pictures, such as Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho. Dial M certainly demands less of its audience than the psychologically intricacies of other films, but it more than makes up for its psychological shortage by being one of Hitchcock's most focused and thus entertaining films.

Hitch confidently has us rooting for the charming but devious Tony Wendice (Milland), a former tennis pro, long since retired but married to the well-off socialite Margot Wendice. Tony’s back story is lightly touched upon, but upon closer examination it reveals his disdain for his wife and his personal insecurities, which have driven him to the point of first degree murder. On the surface it’s Margot’s infidelity with an American writer, Mark Halliday (Cummings), but we can’t help but postulate this scheme as a long con. Perhaps Tony quietly ignored Margot on purpose, which caused her to seek the company of another man, thus indirectly giving Tony permission in his own mind to plan a murder.

Tony’s plan and alibi are impressively elaborate. At first he sets up a former school mate of his, Anthony Swann, a man with a checkered past, with the ability and experience for killing but also naïve enough to be the fall guy if need be. This is all spelled out in one long carefully written and performed dialogue scene between Ray Milland and Anthony Dawson, Tony’s persuasion of Swann being utterly diabolical, nasty and Faustian in its manipulation.

With the plan set and details planned out and expounded to Swann, Hitchcock sets off the Rube Goldberg chain of events, with the audience placed as spectators to Tony’s game of murder. Hitch, of course, throws in a wicked twist when Margot survives the death, causing Tony to improvise a new plan. Hitchcock’s direction of Milland is precise. Every glance and gesture in the fallout of the attempted murder is carefully shot. Milland’s thought process and reaction to every detail of evidence oozes tension and suspense. Here Hitchcock is in full command of his audience: as Tony scrambles to put together a new plan, we desperately want him to get away with it!

Enter the fanciful police chief Inspector Hubbard (Williams), who has a different kind of disaffecting charm masquerading as ice cold intelligence. Hubbard’s dissection of the murder is as quietly surgical as Tony’s scheme. And in between the polite and polished game of mental chess between the Brits is the American mystery writer Halliday, who as a typical American is delightfully bullish with his methods. He backs into Tony’s alibi and accidentally unravels the case.

Stylistically, the film is controlled in the usual Hitchcock fashion. Hitch, like he did with Rope and Lifeboat, voluntarily sequesters himself into one location, the Wendice apartment, finding innumerable ways to shoot the same space over and over again without the feeling of staleness. Most of the film is shot with traditional coverage, thus enhancing the effect of his unusual dramatics angles, specifically his use of the high-angle shot when relaying the geographical details of the plans.

If anything, the 3D effect is underwhelming. For years watching the film in 2D I wondered how Hitch’s use of the seemingly omnipresent table lamp seen in the foreground of many of the shots would look in 3D. Sadly it’s minimal. But the greatest effect is the expansion of the depth of the space/set back into the screen. Thus, instead of objects jumping out at the audience, Hitch's 3D pushes them back into the screen. But this is now the modus operandi of today’s 3D filmmakers, once again proving Alfred Hitchcock’s position way ahead of the curve.

****

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Blue Collar

One of the greatest performances in cinema, barely recognized by the Hollywood establishment, is undoubtedly Richard Pryor’s astonishing turn as Zeke the conflicted auto worker in Paul Schrader’s amazing directorial debut 'Blue Collar'. The racial barrier in Hollywood was never more egregious than the lack of recognition for Pryor’s work here. Pryor is so utterly compelling from the very first frame on screen only Brando’s dramatic Hollywood coronation in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' might compare.


Blue Collar (1978) dir. Paul Schrader
Starring: Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto

By Alan Bacchus

The performances of Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto match Pryor’s, a unique dynamic which helped each of the actors inject infallible honesty and sympathy, even at their worst moments, to their characters. Pryor, Keitel and Kotto play three friends, Zeke, Jerry and Smokey, toiling away on the line of a Detroit-area car manufacturing plant, each of them barely making a living. When they’re pushing up against the corrupt Union or suffering from the financial pressures of raising a family, or in Smokey’s case trying to make a living as an ex-con trying to go straight, the tension of their lives is thick.

Pryor articulates these frustrations, frustrations of all blue collar workers living in America at the time, emphatically in his dramatic speech during their Union hall meeting. It’s Pryor’s first speech, running about 2 minutes in length, a scene written to play off his notoriety as a stand up comic, but also to establish his credibility as a dramatic actor.

With this scene Schrader successfully breaks our preconceptions of Pryor as a comedian and this picture as a comedy. The rest of the film plays out the dramatic journeys of Zeke, Jerry and Smokey with earth shattering fury. After a wild (and controversial) party scene involving some coke and some local prostitutes the three hatch a plan to rob the local union office. Unfortunately, when they do the job they don’t find money but something more lethal, a smoking gun ledger of illegal loans borrowed from union funds.

From here the bond of the three characters is pushed to the extreme. Schrader masterfully shows how the union uses the isolation of the three heroes to dissolve their bond of friendship - a tragic irony considering it's an organization originally set up to unite brothers of labour. Whether it’s overt violence or financial incentives to buy off their morals, they must either stick to the principles so dramatically articulated by Pryor’s introductory speech or sell out and become the enemy.

Schrader, notable as a critic before becoming a celebrated screenwriter, wears some of his influences on his sleeve. The social realist tone of Rossellini and Bresson is strong, even the Peckinpah-esque opening sequence, a series of freeze-frame credits, punctuated by Jack Nitzsche/Ry Cooder’s bluesy music cue adds a strong cinematic Scorsese-like flare.

The behind-the-scenes production of this film has made for good anecdotal stories over the years, particularly the conflict between the three actors. Schrader has cited an on-set punch-up between a drug-addled Pryor and Keitel (likely drug-addled as well) causing the director to have a mental breakdown. None of the conflict inhibited the execution of the story or the chemistry of the characters on screen. What did get imbued was the resounding passion for this story and the sharp commentary the film makes on the influential union movement in America at the time, including the socio-economic hardship of its salt-of-the-earth workers.

Blue Collar is one hell of a film anchored by a Richard Pryor performance that is criminally underrated.

****

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Paul Williams: Still Alive

The once prominent singer-songwriter Paul Williams, writer of such great songs as 'We've Only Just Begun' and 'Rainbow Connection' and star of the cult musical 'Phantom of the Paradise', who became horribly overexposed in the celebrity zeitgeist of the '70s and quickly disappeared after the '80s, attempts resurrection by filmmaker/superfan Stephen Kessler. What emerges is less a documentary of Williams himself than an unintentional story about the relationship between filmmaker and subject. While the magnificent 'Searching For Sugarman' seemed to be the film Kessler was striving for - a rescue film of Williams from depressive obscurity - the film is most admirable for Kessler’s ability to adapt to his subject’s unpredictability and closed-offness and to find its story along the way.


Paul Williams: Still Alive (2011) dir. Stephen Kessler
Documentary

By Alan Bacchus

The image of Paul Williams is unmistakeable. He's extraordinarily short due to male hormone supplements he received in his childhood, which ironically stunted his growth. This event, as well as his tempestuous relationship with his father, an alcoholic who frequently drove drunk with his kids and who subsequently died in a car accident when William was 13, is recounted by Paul, but quickly shut down by Kessler, the director, in favour of questions about his celebrity. This curious interaction between filmmaker and subject is the first hint of the unconventionality of the filmmaking approach.

Why Kessler wasn’t interested in hearing Williams’ story, which clearly relates to the man’s struggles with drug abuse later in life, is strangely short-sighted. Kessler is clear to show us Williams’ disappointment as well, which for the rest of the film closes Williams off to much of Kessler’s desired access.

As Kessler follows Williams around his celebrity circuit gigs, his inability to get candid footage of Williams as a has-been celebrity is palpable. He compensates for his lack of drama by using his intrusive voiceover, which explains everything that is going wrong with his film. It’s an off-putting method, being aware of the filmmaker at all times and aware of his own shortcomings, and it doesn’t make for a story. But it seems to be the only option left for Kessler to make his film.

Gradually we watch Williams warm up to the camera and slowly reveal himself, thus validating Kessler’s approach. By completely stripping away the artifice or barrier between the camera and subject to the audience, Kessler is able to show Williams with the honesty that both he and Williams desire. He clearly had preconceptions of how Williams sees himself, which creates a unique character arc, the idea of the filmmaker himself learning and growing as a character. Kessler does manage to get Williams to self-acknowledge himself candidly and complete the film’s examination of celebrity.

In between the rocky beginnings and cathartic reconciliation, Kessler shows us a fun slice of '70s celebrity stardom. Williams is a man who started out as a creative songwriting genius, overcame his physical restrictions and found himself sharing space with the elite of the pop culture world. His downfall, evidenced dramatically by his coke-out epic-fail performance on the Merv Griffin show in the '80s, shows Williams as a victim to the powerful effects of celebrity, ego and drugs with the adulterous behaviour striking precisely at Williams’ own insecurities. It’s a familiar story but always a fascinating one.

***

Paul Williams: Still Alive is available on VOD via Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Bright House, iTunes, VUDU, YouTube, Amazon, Sony (Playstation), Microsoft (Zune,Xbox), Blockbuster, AT&T, Direct TV and DISH.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

12

At 160 minutes, the Russian remake of '12 Angry Men' and Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee from its year is an imposing epic length, especially considering the original 1957 film ran a scant 96 minutes. Under Sergey Mikhalkov’s rich directorial style and a dozen inspired performances, '12' is watchable for the original 96 minutes and most of the extra 54.


12 (2008) dir. Nikita Mikhalkov
Starring: Sergey Makovetsky, Nikita Mikhalkov, Sergey Garmash, Alexey Petrenko, Yuri Stoyanov

By Alan Bacchus

The film had been described as a loose remake, or an inspiration from Bernard Rose’s original screenplay. Despite the added length, it’s as much a traditional remake as we see in Hollywood today. The concept and narrative structure is the same. We never see the trial. Instead we meet the jurors once they've arrived in their sequestered room (a school gymnasium this time) to deliberate over the case of a young man accused of murder. In this case a young Chechen boy is accused of killing his foster parent – a respected officer in the Russian police. The men are exhausted, homesick and ready to jump to their first knee-jerk reactions to the case – a guilty plea. Eleven men say guilty - one doesn't.

Over the course of the day, one by one the tide begins to turn against guilty. Two opposing steadfast personalities clash. In the Sidney Lumet version Henry Fonda was the voice of reason, and Lee J. Cobb was his stubborn foe. In 12 Sergey Garmash inhabits Cobb’s racist bully part and Sergey Makovetsky instantly expresses the warmth required to replicate the Fonda everyman persona. In between are a number of bravura moments highlighted by Sergei Gazarov’s coy mind game with the racist who claims to know his way around a knife. In a scene of wonderful dance-like choreography and editing, Gazarov’s half-Chechen surgeon character turns the tables demonstrating how a Chechen uses a knife (note to the audience: do NOT get into a knife fight with a Chechen).

Mikhalkov’s directorial style has macho-masculine bravado. Visually Mikhalkov moves his camera around with confidence and lights and frames each of his men like they are the star of the film. Each character is important to him and each gets his dramatic speech which results in a tidal change of opinion contributing to the impression of the case as a whole.

Each actor is a force of nature, commanding the stage when necessary. It’s a guess, but the original play was called 12 Angry Men for the simple reason of politically incorrect male superiority on the part of the writer. Why write a woman into a picture if there’s no chance of a romance? In 12, Men is not in the title, and so a woman could have been cast, but Mikhalkov sticks with 12 males. His reasons take on greater significance in the dynamic of the room. The case could stand alone as a distinctly male story of father and son and the responsibility of men as protectors – a system which failed the boy. As the men wrestle with their duty as citizens to the boy, the finale takes on even greater emotional resonance.

There's also predictability in how things will play out. We know each man will get his speech and the tide will eventually turn. It’s not a breezy 160 minutes either. The first 25 are a slog, setting up a tone of immaturity within the men - the school gymnasium easily distracts the grown men like attention-deficit children. The intention is good, but 10 minutes would have sufficed. A stray bird that has flown into the room becomes a visual metaphor, though not as profound or significant as implied. We expect the bird, which is even featured in the movie poster, to play a part in the story, so there’s a lost opportunity to have this elegant, almost feminine presence influence the decision of the men.

The finale presents us with a wonderful denouement adding even more panache to Mikhalkov’s treatment of the original story. After spending so much time with the life story of the accused, in deciding his fate, for good or bad, one of the jury members brings up the responsibility the 12 of them have for the boy even after the trial is over. The final scene is not necessary, but one of inspired cinema which continues the story beyond the final credits, bringing Bernard Rose’s original screenplay to a grander level of cinema. Enjoy.

***

Monday, 8 October 2012

Robocop

As it did back then, the mixture of childish and silly comic book sensibilities with wholly disturbing graphic violence feels like an irresponsible problem child let loose to run amuck. In this case the child was Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch filmmaker who had made a name for himself in Europe with a number of salacious and trashy films about sex and violence.
Robocop (1987) dir. Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Ronnie Cox

By Alan Bacchus

In his first American film, Verhoeven brought a cold and dirty working class aesthetic to go along with his flare with the camera. He and DOP Jost Vacano’s visual palette is almost exclusively greys and blues, with little or no colour at all in the frames. Verhoeven's use of the steadicam is effective, a constantly moving camera which is more rough and shaky than the traditional smooth and elegant feeling of the device.

The performances are gritty and truly delicious, especially the baddies. Ronnie Cox’s despicable Omni Consumer Products VP Richard (Dick) Jones is awesome, but it's bested by Kurtwood Smith’s terrifying yet charismatic performance as the drug boss, Clarence Boddicker. Who can forget when he playfully blows Murphy’s hand off with a shotgun while singing, "Na-na-na-na-na"? Boddicker’s cronies, which include Twin Peaks alum Ray Wise and ER alum Paul Crane, are just as despicable and nasty. But it’s Miguel Ferrer’s performance as the egomaniacal creator of Robocop, Bob Morton, the epitome of white collar repulsive aggression, that is the most memorable.

The director’s cut, as Robocop fans know, is the ONLY version of the film they would be satisfied with. For those who haven't memorized the film, there are only a handful of frames added to the original, but it's enough violence and bloodshed to send the film way over the top. The most graphic addition shows the head of the Rob Bottin-created Peter Weller mock-up exploding from Clarence Boddicker’s fatal gunshot. Ouch.

I don’t know how much of the violence was in the script, but writers Michael Miner and Ed Neumeier certainly take an accurate pulse of the 1980s corporate malfeasance as well as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street did that same year, but with a more cooky and deranged comic book sensibility. Whether it's the privatization of the police - which has not yet happened, but a semi-privatization of the military/security in Iraq is not that far off base; the cutthroat corporate battle between the white collar assholes, Dick Jones and Bob Morton; or even good ol’ coke snorting off hooker's tits – it’s '80s excess to the max, and thank God for that.

I can’t imagine any filmmaker today getting away with the shocking level of violence and depravity from a tentpole film such as this. In today's climate Robocop would have been turned into a lunchbox-friendly kids' flick. But Black Swan Darren Aronofsky is currently tapped as the new helmer of the reboot, so the future looks bright for the franchise. Whether it actually comes to fruition is questionable.

***

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Taken

How this atrociously scripted minimalist actioner, the type of picture Steven Seagal used to make year after year in the ’90s - kidnapped daughter brings her former CIA agent father out of retirement to give some major beatdowns to the international baddies du jour - managed to make $125 million at the US box office and generate a theatrical sequel is kind of astounding. Until you watch the film and marvel at the filmmakers' ability to tap into the post-9/11 fears of many Americans in this increasingly hostile global world. That, and an immeasurable kind of cinematic momentum, narrative focus and precision.

Taken (2008) dir. Pierre Morel
Starring: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace

by Alan Bacchus

In Taken it’s the Albanians that are up against Seagal... I mean Liam Neeson. The first half-hour features some of the worst exposition I’ve seen on film in a while. Liam Neeson is Bryan Mills, a retired military man, divorced from his wife and 17-year-old daughter, now turned annoyingly over-protective father. This backstory is told to us with the subtlety of a blunt hammer. We can almost see the director rolling his eyes at the inconvenience of having to establish these character traits to us before getting to the action.

Begrudgingly, Mills lets his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, 25, playing a 17-year-old?) go to Paris on a trip with her friend. Once in Paris, while on a phone call to Daddy, she is kidnapped. Mills immediately goes into military mode and uses his lifetime of skills and training to track down the baddies.

It’s a slogging 30 minutes to get through before the film really begins. Its plodding nature arguably aids the picture, setting us up for failure, but then delivering a film so utterly badass thrilling it's a shock. After Kim is 'Taken', instantly brainchild co-writer Luc Besson and his director Pierre Morel bring the film to life. Like Jack Bauer, Mills becomes robotically obsessive about every detail of evidence he has. With not much more than a scratchy cell phone recording of the kidnapper saying, "Good Luck", Mills manages to systematically retrace Kim’s movements from her hotel room to the dingy brothels of Paris.

Neeson is impressive in his action debut, Morel directing the action well and making Neeson look as good as Seagal but without the black belt and ponytail. Mills’ rampage of revenge is appropriately violent and unrelenting. Morel shows us exactly what we want to see – Neeson kicking major Albanian ass all over the place. Whether it’s bone-breaking hand-to-hand combat, violent gun battles or car chases, Mills is consistently merciless.

It’s difficult to justify Taken truly as anything but a terrible movie. But I remember something Todd Hallowell, one of Ron Howard’s producers, told me in an interview about Howard’s philosophy of watching movies - “A good film is one that delivers on its own promise. Whatever genre, whatever it is, if it delivers on what it promised you, it’s a good film. It might not be a great film, but at least it delivered on what it said it would do.”

I think Luc Besson has become the Roger Corman of our time. After supposedly 'quitting' directing in the 2000s (he's since come out of retirement) he’s become a factory of successful euro-action flicks as writer and producer and launched the careers of many young directors. In Taken there’s a deceptive and perhaps unintentional intelligence in how Besson manufactures its success. As a Frenchman, he exploits America’s hatred of his own people as one of the main audience attractions of the film. It’s clear the success of this film in the U.S. is partly due to the idea of a single American man using his American military training to best an entire country of ineffectual Frenchmen. It would seem an unpatriotic treacherous manoeuvre for Besson, but with $125 million at the box office, the joke is definitely not on him.

***

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Everything to do with this film points to it as a phenomenal achievement. The challenge of adapting the dense Tolkien material for the big screen, making it visual and not literary and rendering it palatable to both Tolkienites and lay audiences is miraculous. The cinematic achievements made these films the high bar of technical cinema of their day. The special effects, which used a mixture of modern CGI and old fashioned camera sleight of hand, are clever and near seamless (though less so now). The consistency of tone, pace and visual design over these three films - from pre-production of the first film to post of the last film spanned 5 years - is remarkable. Hell, shooting three movies back-to-back-to-back was unheard of. So why am I left unmoved by any of these pictures?


Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) dir. Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortonsen, Ian McKellan, Sean Astin, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchet, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler

By Alan Bacchus

The experience of watching the entire Lord of the Rings saga is one of supreme admiration: 3 x 3 hours overloaded with every possible emotion, so many wondrous creatures and lands, so many sweeping epic landscapes trying really hard to take our breath away.

For good and bad, Peter Jackson and his team, for the sake of satisfying the broadest possible audience, gave everybody a little bit of everything they wanted to see. And so he inevitably alienated and dissatisfied some.

As for the first film, to bring people into the world of Tolkien, FOTR is by far the most baroque of the three. It doesn't take long to introduce the world and characters. The opening sequence tells us of the forging of a number of rings for the purpose of keeping order in the world (though it’s consciously oblique with the details of exactly how rings can do this). We’re then told about the ONE ring forged in ‘secret' to rule all other rings. Again, we're not supposed to question the physics/mechanics or even logic of this statement. And so this becomes literature’s - and now cinema’s - biggest ever maguffin, the impetus to send us on Jackson’s epic journey.

The opening moments in the Hobbit Shire introducing Bilbo Baggins passing the ring off to Frodo are perhaps the best moments in the entire series. Ian Holm’s frightful and twitchy performance realizes a huge backstory of pain and suffering by the ring (a backstory which, of course, will likely be fleshed out by the new Hobbit films). In fact, the entire first half of Fellowship is spectacular. The horse riding ringwraiths, who resemble the evil ghosts in The Frighteners, are the scariest creatures in the whole series, but we unfortunately rarely get to see them in the latter half of the first film and the other two films. Weighing the film down is the lengthy Galadriel forest sequence, which is full of visual CG wonder and foreshadowing, but it's a slow uneventful section that only adds to the running time.

The second half of the film shows the Fellowship united and fighting off the beasts in the Mines of Moria and the Orcs on the hillside in the film’s climax, as well as the eventual demise of Boromir, who succumbs to the lure of the ring. On first viewing I questioned the lack of scope in the final battle, but after seeing the escalation of action in the second and third films, Jackson’s instinct not to blow his wad early was a good one. In hindsight, the contained forest battle to end FOTR is perhaps the best action sequence in the series. Free of the grossly exaggerated CG multiplication of huge armies, which now looks awfully unreal, the use of real creatures and actors with real make-up makes the fight that much more violent and intense.

Looking back, Wood and Astin make a good team as the Hobbit leaders mixing drama and humour well. Unfortunately, Billy Boyd is a Jar Jar-worthy waste of space and most of the time excruciating to watch. Dominic Monaghan is barely noticeable, which is probably a good thing (as an actor, he would be challenged much more in Lost). Orlando Bloom’s silent but stoic presence is also barely noticeable, but when he’s fighting and launching arrows at the Orcs with speed and accuracy during the action sequence there's no one better. John Rhys-Davies is disguised well as a 3-foot dwarf, but the camera tricks required to make the tall actor into a short character prevent us from seeing the character fight in his full glory. His tight close-ups have to be used over and over again to avoid recognizing the size differences and thus becomes a visual handicap.

Perhaps the most irksome quality of this film, and much of the trilogy as a whole, is Jackson’s inability (at least to this viewer) to make me believe in the emotions of his characters. In The Fellowship of the Ring in particular, Jackson's emotional histrionics are hit so hard he’s forcing us to feel his characters’ pain harder than he needs to. Just look how hard Jackson wrings out the tears shed by the death of Gandalf. After the magnificent Mines of Moria sequence, which has the Grey Wizard sacrificing himself against the impressive Balrog monster, Jackson lingers heavily on the Hobbits' excruciating pain, including the use of slow motion and Howard Shore’s melodramatic swooning. We get this same feeling during Samwise Gamgee’s fitful attempt to chase down Frodo, who has floated away in a boat. Frodo’s dramatic rescue of Sam feels like Jackson again not trusting the investment we have already made in the characters and pulling too hard for emotion where force is not required.

Then again, even as I write this, it feels odd to critique so finely a film, which, as mentioned, I admire so much. But then again we can’t just settle to admire a film. To be moved by a film is to have the amalgam of its scenes, sequences, characters, music and special effects be greater than the sum of its parts. There’s so much in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring that in fits and starts there are moments of greatness. But as a whole, it’s just an admirable film.

***

Monday, 1 October 2012

Now, Voyager

Now, Voyager is an astonishingly emotional and epic melodrama of the highest order. Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce from last year was a decent re-imagining of the novel that was turned into the now classic Warner Bros. Joan Crawford vehicle in 1945. Now, Voyager, however, dramatizes a character arc so grand and powerful, in terms of shear emotional distance it trumps both versions of Mildred Pierce.


Now, Voyager (1942) dir. Irving Rapper
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Bonita Granville

By Alan Bacchus

Poor Charlotte Vale (Davis) lives a privileged life as the youngest daughter of an old wealthy widow, Mrs. Vale (Cooper). While she stands to inherit the family fortune as her mother’s unwanted child, Charlotte become the runt of the family, indentured by her tyrannical mother to be husbandless, childless and a broken down mirror of her sad mother.

When a good natured and concerned psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith (Rains), comes along, the ugly duckling is given a chance to break out of her shell and blossom into a real woman. After a period in the doctor’s solitary care, Charlotte’s new social skills are tested when she’s sent on a vacation cruise to Brazil. The exotic locale and social freedom become a transformative experience, especially when she finds love with a handsome fellow traveller, Jerry Durrence (Henreid). Unfortunately, Jerry is married, though unhappily. This is just one complication in the epic journey for Charlotte. Battling the near psychotic, passive-aggressive evils of her mother, her desire to become an independent woman and find true love with a man seem to run counter to each other.

It’s a landmark role for Davis, the epitome of the strong female lead roles which were commonplace in the Hollywood heydey but gradually disappeared. Just the physical transformation from the dowdy and depressed homebody she’s introduced as to the strikingly beautiful, sophisticated socialite she becomes is astonishing, let alone the subtlety of her posture, rhythm of speech, walking gait and emotional confidence.

In the Todd Haynes version of Mildred Pierce, he seems to have attempted to strip out the melodramatic tone, instead plugging in a new kind of modern realism. Without this filter, much is lost. The Hollywood melodramatic filter applied to Now, Voyager is the stuff of great storytelling and pure cinema. The core conflicts are identifiable to all of us. Whether or not we are the child in a wealthy family, the power and control a mother has over her child is a fundamental conflict with which we can identify.

Director Rapper directs Charlotte’s mother into such extremes that she becomes a pure kind of evil – that Lady Macbeth or Iago kind of evil, so diabolically manipulative we can’t help but yearn for Charlotte’s escape. We’re always rooting for Charlotte to transform her life from the outset.

Even Jerry Durrance, who represents the pull away from her mother, is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When it appears that Jerry and Charlotte could be together, Rapper and his writers throw even more obstacles in front of her attaining complete satisfaction. By the end, Charlotte’s victories are earth-shatteringly triumphant and her losses severely tragic. Moving so boldly and quickly through these extremes is what makes melodrama so effective and entertaining.

And this is one of the greats.

****

Now, Voyager is available on the Bette Davis 4-Film Collection, along with Dark Victory, Old Acquaintance and Jezebel from Warner Home Entertainment/Turner Classic Movies.