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

Friday, 30 November 2012

Alien 3

I like Alien 3. I always have. Although, the opening is especially depressing and frankly shameful to the throughline of the series. For me, this illogical choice is the only bad stain on this film - a new flavour for the series, but consistent to the franchise's trend of experimenting with a new tone and visual style with each successive film. It may be a minority opinion, but Alien 3 succeeds admirably.


Alien 3 (1992) dir. David Fincher
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Paul McGann, Brian Glover

By Alan Bacchus

After the harrowing narrow escape by Hicks, Newt, Ripley and the severed body of Bishop at the end of Aliens, the producers of Alien 3 open up the movie killing off all but Ripley while in hypersleep. Perhaps Michael Biehn didn’t want to come back for another film, or perhaps no one wanted him back. As for Carrie Henn, Aliens was her only role and then she left the business. Either way, there’s no problem writing them out of the movie, but killing them off just after they escaped from the last picture robs the characters of their narrative purpose in this big-picture cinema reality.

But it’s Hollywood, and we shouldn’t be looking back at these other films as sacred, right? That’s debatable. To the filmmakers’ credit they did give appropriate screen time to Ripley’s grieving of their losses, as well as a decent funeral and a fantastic eulogy by Charles S. Dutton’s character, Dillon.

If you can get over the loss of Newt and Hicks, Alien 3 makes for a rather enjoyable chapter in the saga. As mentioned, we join up with Ripley after he has recovered from her derelict spaceflight by a ragtag group of space prisoners, incarcerated on a planet not unlike the island prison of Alcatraz or Australia for that matter. Ripley suspects an alien was on board, which caused the havoc, but an autopsy of Newt proves negative. But what about Ripley? She has had a funny feeling in her chest lately...

Meanwhile on the prison planet her female presence is unwelcomed by certain inmates who have taken a vow of chastity and found God in penance for their crimes of rape and murder. Ripley finds friendship in the kind and soft-spoken doctor, Clemens (Charles Dance), and the inspiring people’s leader cum gospel orator, Dillon (Dutton). Of course, yes, there was an alien on board, and yes he’s run amok again killing the prisoners one by one. Ripley assumes leadership and uses the resources of the decrepit prison to evade the creature and hopefully kill it for good.

This was David Fincher’s first feature, and the on-set conflict has become widely known, something which is honestly addressed in the fine making-of documentary on the Alien Legacy Blu-ray Box Set (though it’s the same feature from the 2003 DVD release). And so, knowing Fincher’s track record of great films since this one, there’s even more value looking back at his artistry in this film. His music video look is more apparent here than in anything he’s done since. I mean, just look at the camera angles, 75% of which are shot from the ground looking up at his characters. It’s a stylized look, which tends to wear out its welcome over time.

The design of the new alien is fresh though. This new beast is more nimble and fleet of foot than aliens of the past. The final chase sequence is a terrific set piece, highlighted by the great point-of-view shots of the alien scurrying over the floors, walls and ceilings of the cavernous tunnels.

Three great characters anchor the emotion of the film. Charles Dutton is simply marvelous whenever he says anything. The cadence in his voice is soothing and dramatic and inspiring. Charles Dance is a delightfully warm character, a tortured soul and we can see why Ripley so quickly hops into bed with him. Yes, Ripley gets laid, and by god, it’s about time. After all, it’s been about a hundred years!

SPOILER ALERT... Sadly, the film ends with a terrible sequence involving Ripley committing suicide by falling into a pit of molten metal in slow motion while an alien rips her heart out of her chest. Like the fate of Newt and Hicks, I begrudgingly forgive this silliness in order to enjoy the rest of the film.

***

Alien 3 is available on Blu-ray in the Alien Legacy Set from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Bourne Legacy

I admire Tony Gilroy’s desire to depart from the Paul Greengrass methodology, that is the hyper-intense speed-fueled filmmaking which made the last two Bourne movies so memorable. Though both films were written by Mr. Gilroy, as director he opts for a consciously morose and patient style of film. Impatient audiences expectating the Greengrass thrill ride will be uncomfortable with the languid opening act, 35 minutes or so of quiet CIA-speak between politico-heavies and the sparse action before the rip-roaring finale.


The Bourne Legacy (2012) dir. Tony Gilroy
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacey Keach

By Alan Bacchus

The lengthy opening act features very little action, instead establishing Jeremy Renner’s character, Aaron Cross, as another agent, like Bourne brainwashed by another black-ops mission to be a stone-cold killer. Instead of the amnesia-induced Treadstone operation, Renner is brainwashed through a series of ‘chems’ – drugs which control his emotions, temperament, intelligence and fighting skills. And while Bourne runs amuck in the previous films, Gilroy doubles back to show how the CIA wonks move to dispose of the other assassins who might just go wild like Bourne. Of course, when Renner’s character is targeted he fights back and embarks on his own globe-trotting adventure.

Cross moves from the desolate and zen-like serenity of Alaska to Washington where he saves Rachel Weisz as Mart Shearing, a chemist who supplies him with the chems, from assassination. He then moves on to Manila where he and Shearing seek out the manufacturing plant of the chems to save Cross from shutting down into death. The baddie orchestrating the action from afar is Edward Norton, commanding the action much like Straitharn in the previous films from the ultra high-tech CIA surveillance rooms at home.

On the ground Cross is missing a main foe, other than the roll call of counter-assassins that attempt to take him down. Late in the film the introduction of an Asian super-assassin, another chemically enhanced soldier, attempts to create a climactic showdown, which unfortunately materializes into nothing particularly dramatic. Gilroy and company keep the action quick and sparse, saving his energy for the final 20 minutes, a superbly choreographed motorcycle and running chase scene through the streets of Manila.

There’s no doubt Tony Gilroy’s overtooled plotting fails this film, and the potential of having this Jeremy Renner film run parallel to the previous two Matt Damon films is intriguing. Unfortunately it never works, or it is never fully realized. In fact, the brief appearances of characters from the previous films, specifically Joan Allen’s character Pamela Landy and David Straitharn’s Noah Vossen, as well as Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine, Albert Finney and Corey Johnson, only distract us from the main action.

The Bourne Legacy is not a bad film, and without knowledge or preconceptions based on the previous three films, under any other circumstances this would be a terrific stand-alone thriller. Unfortunately, we do have expectations and inevitable comparisons we can’t get out of our minds – such is the nature of tentpole sequel filmmaking. But I do believe there’s still potential for the series with Renner as the figurehead. The producers just need to engage us with the pace and intensity of the Liman/Greengrass films.

The Bourne Legacy is available on Blu-ray from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

***

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Horse Soldiers

A lesser John Ford is still an upper tier Western on anyone else’s filmography. It’s an odd choice really to give this film the Blu-ray treatment when there are currently so few Ford films available in glorious High Definition.


The Horse Soldiers (1959) dir. John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers

By Alan Bacchus

This Civil War epic is as big a film as Ford has ever made, a rousing adventure wherein John Wayne plays a Union Colonel commanding his cavalry troop deep into Southern territory to capture and destroy a Confederate railway station. It’s a classic men-on-a-mission set up, but as executed by John Ford, the film moves through all the high and lows of the dramatic cinema, the light and affable to the bloody tragic and deadly serious.

The key conflict in the film comes from William Holden’s character, a physician assigned to the troop. Due to a deep-rooted hatred, Wayne’s character, Marlowe, resents the presence of the peaceful doctor, who prefers to save lives then destroy them. Of course, the arc of the story ensures that by the end the two men would eventually find common ground and mutual respect for each other’s professions.

The superstar pairing of Holden and Wayne is not lost on us. Wayne is Wayne, the grizzled and stubborn leader, but also a man of honour and pride. Wayne exercises his thespian muscles in a dramatic drunken confession scene when he tells the story of his dying wife who received ill advised brain surgery. It’s a dramatic moment of painful reflection we don’t often see from the big man. Holden, as the equally confident surgeon, conflicts with Wayne’s military mentality and fight-to-win attitude. Holden’s easy-going congenial nature perfectly represents the humanism of the character and the historical resonant qualities of the picture as a whole.

As usual there’s not much female representation, but Constance Towers holds court admirably against the star heavies as the Confederate tag-along gal who at first tries to subvert the actions of Marlowe but then comes to side with the motivations of the Union men.

It’s not all shits and giggles here though. The often obscene tragedy of the brutal violence of the Civil War is given deserved attention. At one point as the Union approaches their destination, the Confederates use a troop of boys to defend Marlowe’s army.

Ford fans will marvel at the brilliant widescreen colour cinematography. We’re also treated to the familiar Fordisms, which earns The Horse Soldiers the distinction of being 'a John Ford film’. There are plenty of awesome, perfectly composed wide-angle shots of the cavalry moving elegantly through the landscape. There is also plenty of action, including a raucous gun fight in the town of Vicksburg. And when required, Ford lays on the frontier sentimentality, which allows even the most hardened of male filmgoers to shed a tear without guilt.

***

The Horse Soldiers is available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Sound of Music

For about 5 years The Sound of Music was the highest grossing film of all time. It was a phenomenon back in the day, besting the box office record held for 25 years by Gone With the Wind. It’s still a touchstone film and a treasure of pop culture moments. I hadn’t actually seen it in full from beginning to end until the last few years, yet I seemed to know the story intimately. I even knew the lyrics to most of the songs. Such is the penetration of this movie into our public consciousness.


The Sound of Music (1965) dir. Robert Wise
Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer

By Alan Bacchus

It’s an elegant heartwarming family film, one of the best 'Disney' movies Disney never made. Based on the real story of the Austrian von Trapp singing family of seven children, their father and their stepmother who escape their Nazi-infested homeland. But the actual escape is really just a suspenseful climax to an endearing story of family, motherhood and love between two polar opposite people.

The matriarch of the von Trapp is Maria (Julie Andrews), whom we see in the opening as an absent-minded nun who’d rather spend time singing songs on top of the glorious green hills around her quaint village in the Alps than be on time for her prayers. Her fellow nuns recognize her infectious personality is not really suited to a nunery. Instead she gets assigned as the new governess (an elaborate term for ‘nanny’) to the aristocrat and recent widower Captain Georg Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). The rub is that Captain has seven children whose aggressive activities have scared off all other previous candidates.

Of course Maria is resolute and warm and makes a great impression despite the children’s attempts to break her. Captain is different though. The death of his wife has hardened him and he had reverted to a military-like authority within the house. But Maria warms him up too with song and dance, and eventually they fall in love. When one of Captain’s colleagues discovers the musical talents of the children, he books them to perform at a local concert, something which Captain continues to forbid. But as the Nazi’s encroach on their lands, Captain realizes his country and lifestyle are in danger and he engineers a daring and risky escape at the concert.

Andrews exhibits such magnetism. It's that Shirley Temple, Natalie Wood and Julia Roberts type of magnetism that lights up a room, or in this case, a cinema. Christopher Plummer is a fine actor too, and he has a different kind of stage presence. Captain von Trapp is characterized rather obviously as a stuck-up old widower with a pickle up his ass, and Plummer's change to a smitten love-struck young man is a great transition. Though a born Canadian, he wears the skin of an Austrian aristocrat with a British accent so well. And he can sing. Who can forget the romantically patriotic Edelwiess song he plucks away during the final concert in the faces of the nasty Nazis in the front row?

As mentioned, these songs, which feel like a Hollywood national anthem of sorts, are so familiar: Edelweiss, My Favouite Things, So Long Farewell, Do-Re-Mi and, of course, the opening ditty in which we see Ms. Andrews belting out, "The Hills are Alive With the Sound of Music!". In fact, I can’t think of a grander introduction to a character on film than Ms. Andrews' introduction in this moment. It comes after Robert Wise’s long helicopter journey takes us across the impossibly beautiful mountaintops of the Alps before finding Maria on top of her grassy hill singing her heart out.

On Blu-ray Ms. Andrews looks amazing and so does Wise’s absolutely perfect compositions. The real-world on-location scenes shot in Austria, Bavaria and other fabulous places in Europe ring out with great authenticity. And remember this film was shot on 70mm as well, making everything extra crisp. You don’t even need to go past the first song to see the pictorial perfection. Just watch the clouds in the background, the formation of which are pastoral, exquisite and just the right shape to create the perfect composition complementing the green mountaintop and Ms. Andrews’ position on it.

Next to a 70mm big-screen revival, the Blu-ray makes for the next best reason to watch this film once again.

****

The Sound of Music is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Nobody Walks

I admire Tiny Furniture and some of Girls, but the art-brat characterizations and New York hipster conflicts of the Lena Dunham world arguably overstay their welcome in episodic form. But in cinema her voice is most effective. As written by Dunham, this quiet and seemingly trite and trendy indie picture surprisingly turns into a deft examination of the powerful force of female sexuality and the fallibility of the male libido.


Nobody Walks (2012) dir. Ry Russo-Young
Starring: Olivia Thirlby, John Krasinski, Rosemary DeWitt, Justin Kirk

By Alan Bacchus

Martine (Thirlby) is an attractive gal, a film director working on her own massively pretentious B&W art film about insects. Her work is less important than her demeanor. Early on when she arrives in L.A. we see her flirting with her seat partner and then vigorously making out with the stranger in the parking lot. She denies his desires for a quickie and goes on her way.

This scene, and the whole film for that matter, is shot with an observational, realist style which admirably misdirects to the very strong thematic statement, the idea of the four women in this film representing four stages of a woman’s sexual awareness, and the exploration of the powerful psychological effects on libidinous ID-powered men.

Martine arrives at the guest house of Peter (Krasinski) and Julie (DeWitt) and their two kids to live and sound edit her film with Peter. Martine’s unconcious sexuality is an immediate attraction to Peter, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Julie. Though while acting as a therapist for an egotistical film director, (Kirk) Julie herself is on the receiving end of sexual advances from her client. It's the same with Julie’s 16-year-old daughter Caroline, who is taking Italian lessons from a brazenly forthright Italian tutor.

The plot turns when Peter gives into Julie’s coy advances and has sex in the house. For Martine it’s just some casual sex, quickly forgotten. But for Peter it’s more, which causes his rational mind to unravel. Meanwhile, the events of Julie and Caroline run parallel to Peter and Julie’s issues, as the feminist themes admirable connect all these characters.

Director Russo-Young establishes a quiet and anti-dramatic tone early using familiar indie aesthetic tools. The film features grainy but rich and textured super 16mm format, grab-it-and-go b-roll footage of Los Angeles, and a melancholy ambient soundtrack by Fall On Your Sword (Lola Versus, Another Earth). While many of these American-indie relationship dramas, including Dunham’s own Tiny Furniture trend towards the esoteric and introspective to the conflicts of the characters, Russo-Young and Dunham leave us with a surprisingly bold feminist statement and a film which resonates as deep as any of the post-Mumblecore pictures.

***½

Friday, 23 November 2012

Holy Motors

Curiosity seekers interested in this picture because of its hyped-up reception at Cannes, as well as descriptions by smitten critics such as ‘exhilarating’, ‘completely bonkers’ and ‘balls-to-the-wall crazy’, will likely be disappointed. That is unless you’re willing to completely give in to Leos Carax’s exercise in inane randomness. But from these eyes, the general acceptance and praise of this film must have Mr. Carax laughing his ass off, having fooled overly analytical critics into thinking that Holy Motors is any good.


Holy Motors (2012) dir. Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Levant, Edith Scob, Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes

By Alan Bacchus

There’s much in common with David Cronenberg’s Cannes inclusion, Cosmopolis - the idea of a man driving around the city in a limousine and engaging in deliriously surreal encounters with minimal overt purpose. There was a semblance of a narrative, theme and purpose in Cronenberg’s film, but in Holy Motors the joke seems to be on us.

As much as I could gather, Oscar (Denis Levant) seems to be some kind of actor or Lon Chaney ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ whose agenda for the day includes nine appointments, each one a surprise to him and us. As such, it’s an episodic work, a film divided into these nine or so (I didn’t really count) scenes.

Driving him around the city is an older woman, Celine, who serves as some sort of shepherd for Oscar, aiding and serving him in his duties. Going by the title, there’s a religious metaphor at play with Oscar perhaps being some kind of angel moving in and out of people’s lives.

Each of the sequences is like a random mélange of writing. Early on we see Oscar turn himself into an old bag lady, panhandling on the street. Nothing becomes of this scene. For his second appointment he turns himself into a troll out of The Lord of the Rings, runs amuck stealing and eating flowers from the gravestones of a cemetery, and then invades a fashion photo shoot, bites the fingers of an innocent bystander and kidnaps Eva Mendes, taking her to an underground lair to show her (and the audience) his erect penis. Nothing pays off from this scene either. Later on, Oscar turns himself into a domestic family man, seemingly returning to his home to be with his wife and child. Only later do we realize his family is a pair of chimpanzees.

Holy Motors fails for me not because of the obliqueness of the big picture connection (this I can accept) but because the individual scenes are impenetrable, each one a free association of inane cinematic rambling. Even David Lynch at his most beguiling can satisfy his audience with individual set pieces or moments of drama and cinema.

The only two vignettes to cherish in this picture are the motion capture interpretive dance sequence featured in much of the publicity and advertising of the film, and the inspired intermission musical sequence featuring Oscar and a band of accordion players filmed in one long take. Everything else is a bore of monumental proportions, the Cloud Atlas of European art films.

**

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Bengali Detective

Rajesh Ji is like a growing number of regular citizens in Kolkata, India, plying his trade as a private detective, which due to an ineffectual police force, has seen a boom. Our first impression is that Rajesh, a bumbling, slightly chubby family man, has no business serving the law, except for the fact that he's a fearless adventurer with delusions of grandeur and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. He makes a fascinating first-person case study, which in the most entertaining and easy-going manner, enlightens us to the state of policing, pop culture and private enterprise capitalism in modern India.


The Bengali Detective (2011) dir. Philip Cox
Documentary

By Alan Bacchus

Philip Cox follows Rajesh through three key cases: a grisly homicide involving three seemingly innocent youths caught in a complex web of familial betrayal; the infiltration of a counterfeit shampoo branding operation; and a salacious and sexy case of adultery. When he's not in the field or managing a staff of investigators, he's angling to become the leader of the next great dance crew, moonlighting as the captain of a troupe in search of reality TV stardom. Yes, this is a real world documentary.

Rajesh is portrayed with the affable intensity of The Office's Michael Scott and the naive charm of Inspector Clouseau. Add in the strong sense of showmanship and false bravado, like the goofs in This Is Spinal Tap, or the zany terrorists in Chris Morris's Four Lions, and the effect is oddly humorous and tragic in equal measure.

I suspect there may have been some fudging of details or recreations of certain sequences, but the film is as much about the construction of its titular character as it is about Rajesh's investigations. The theme of celebrity runs strong throughout. We all know the idolatry of cinema and celebrity in Indian popular culture, and Rajesh and his colleagues' awareness of the camera actually aids in the overall kookiness of this picture.

Cox captures a unique tone, moving naturally from the unintentional hilarity of Rajesh's demeanour and the emotionally complex, downright tragic nature of his clients. Though Fox Searchlight has apparently been developing a dramatic version of this story, this is truth far stranger than fiction, which is the film's main attraction, and thus any dramatic version would lose all this wonderful irony.

***

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Le Mans

It’s hard to say where this film ranks in the history of car racing movies. The fact is, no one’s really been able to crack this genre, specifically the two other films from the same era, John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix and Winning starring Paul Newman. The only value we can find in Le Mans is the undeniable enigmatic charisma of Steve McQueen and his well-documented love for racing.


Le Mans (1971) dir. Lee H. Katzin
Starring: Steve McQueen, Elga Anderson, Siegfried Rauch, Ronald Leigh-Hunt

By Alan Bacchus

Le Mans is the third of this late '60s/early '70s racing trilogy of sorts. There’s a strict adherence to racing realism in this picture, purposely eschewing any semblance of a story for a distinct vérité documentary-like feel. The first 30 minutes of the film is one long preparation scene, building up to the start of the Le Mans race. There’s almost no dialogue, save for the announcer telling the crowd, and thus the audience, the rules of Le Mans. It’s actually a very clever way to dance around the necessary exposition of the film, but the drawn out excessiveness of this opening is just too much to bear.

The only story going on is told in the opening pre-credit sequence. We learn of Michael Delaney (McQueen), an American driver psychologically burdened by the death of his Italian rival, Piero Belgetti, and the mysterious attachment to Belgetti’s girlfriend. In the present, the entire film is about the race and the race only. The reverence for the psychology of the racers and creating an existential mythologization of their lifestyle is clearly brought across on screen. The racers are treated like Roman gladiators, pandered to by beautiful women and looked after by their slave-like female servants before venturing into their respective arenas of danger and death. Unfortunately, the drama of the race notwithstanding, without inter-character conflict, the movie falls flat.

There are two reasons why we should care about Le Mans. The first is Steve McQueen, the iconic actor and racing fan whose passion project this was. His crow’s feet eyes, messy blond hair, striking blue eyes and general elusiveness are Hollywood superstar-personified. Unfortunately, he can’t get by solely on his handsomeness, as Katzin’s staid tone results in lifelessness in his character. And the European actors playing his fellow drivers also suffer the same fate.

The other point of relevance is the race scenes, which are shot with porno-like allure for the vehicles. For strict authenticity, real cars and real locations were used during a real Le Mans race. The cameras rigged to the actual cars accentuate the feeling of speed these drivers experience. But John Frankenheimer also did this (and better) in Grand Prix.

Cinema nostalgics of the '60s and '70s will get a kick out of the frolicking and bouncy score, as well as the equally funky crash-camera zooms, off-kilter sharp editing and grainy film stock. But ultimately, Le Mans is for McQueen aficionados and Euro-racing gear heads.

**

Le Mans is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Abraham Lincoln

It’s weird to say, but Abe Lincoln is hot right now. Piggybacking on the critical praise of Steven Spielberg’s film is a release of the DW Griffith’s 1930 film about Lincoln, one of the last pictures, a talkie, from the cinema pioneer. While virtually unknown, or at least rarely discussed in Griffith’s ouevre, under Kino Classic’s terrific restoration it survives well as a genuinely terrific, visually dynamic chronicle of Honest Abe's life.


Abraham Lincoln (1930) dir. D. W. Griffith
Starring: Walter Huston, Una Merkle, E. Alyn Warren

As the iconic American figure Walter Huston’s strong physical presence and warm affective demeanor anchors the film. Huston ages terrifically from the young Lincoln, the salt-of-the-earth prairie lawyer of his youth, to his final years as the bearded, stately and nearly gaunt President suffering under the toils of a Civil War.

At 90 minutes Griffith has to fast-forward through time quickly, but at each stage of Lincoln's life we can see the formation of the personality and conviction which equipped him to be the man who would free the slaves and still hold the country together (at the cost of his life). Some of the benchmark moments of Lincoln’s early life include the tragic romance with Ann Rutledge, a death which brings out a fine mourning scene from Huston; his courtship of Mary Todd; and his celebrated political battles with Stephen Douglas. By the midpoint Lincoln is chosen to be the Republican nominee for the Presidency and then in a cut, we move into the White House.

Griffith takes most of his time with the events of the Civil War - before, during and after. Lincoln's determination to fight and keep the Union together versus letting the Southern states go puts him at odds with everyone around him. As such, the film portrays Lincoln as a lone wolf fighting the good fight against both his friends and his foes. Griffith’s agenda is clear, and even within the context of the dramatic aesthetics of the era, the themes and character values are on the nose. At one point Huston even looks directly into the camera and says, "We must save the Union."

That said, the film admirably distills out the extraneous focusing in on Lincoln while leaving out the complex political people and events around him. As such, despite Griffith’s reputation for cinematic grandeur, Abraham Lincoln feels like a small and contained film.

And within these constraints the picture looks fantastic and surprisingly nimble and technically proficient for a director at the end of his career. The opening slave boat sequence is especially harrowing and recalls the opening sequence of Spielberg’s Amistad. Throughout the film Griffith uses camera movement and expressive lighting to maximize the visual experience. Aiding him to craft sequences like this are two of the best craftsmen in cinema at the time, cinematographer Karl Struss, who lensed Sunrise for F.W. Murnau, and art director William Cameron Menzies, perhaps best known for his work on Gone With the Wind, but a terrific director as well, as he helmed the genre sci-fi classics Chandu the Magician and Things to Come.

***½

Abraham Lincoln is available on Blu-ray from Kino-Lorber.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Odd Man Out

Carol Reed’s 'Odd Man Out' makes for a great companion piece to John Ford's 1935 classic 'The Informer'. It's the story of a reluctant IRA informant rattled with guilt over his responsibility for the death of his compatriot. Reed’s portrait of a wounded IRA leader stumbling through Belfast looking for refuge from the British authorities plays like a surreal Homer's Odyssey version of John Ford’s story.


Odd Man Out (1947) dir. Carol Reed
Starring: James Mason, Robert Newton, Kathleen Ryan, Robert Beatty, Elwyn Brook-Jones

By Alan Bacchus

At the top, Jimmy McQueen (James Mason), the recently escaped leader of the clandestine ‘Organization’ of Northern Ireland, is plotting a bank heist to help fund the further activities of their war against the British. After the heist goes awry McQueen is stranded from his colleagues, stumbling away from the authorities. As his men scramble to find him, the British hunt is intensified, and one by one McQueen’s men are captured.

Throughout the day McQueen stumbles from one situation to another encountering the citizens of the town he’s sworn to help. Unfortunately his presence in the various bars, cabs or flats he moves through is met with fear and hostility more than anything else. The only one looking after McQueen’s best interests is his girlfriend, who yearns to reconnect with him and save him from British authorities or the opportunistic vultures within his own people.

While The Informer was unabashedly sympathetic to the IRA, Reed’s film is not so clear cut. The explicit non-use of the name IRA in favour of the innocuous term ‘The Organization’ suggests some trepidation on Reed’s part not to make a political statement. Despite some opinions of other critics, from these eyes Reed walks a fine line between condemnation of the IRA movement and patriotic support.

At every turn in McQueen’s journey he’s met with schemers and subverters looking to capitalize or profit on having knowledge of his whereabouts – a particularly negative treatment of Irish nationalism. Whereas in Ford’s picture, other than the lead character’s betrayal at the beginning, there’s a familial feeling of collectivism and support for each other.

Of course, Reed’s picture could be classified tonally as a noir as opposed to Ford’s elegant melodramatic treatment of his story. Made in 1947 Odd Man Out is as tense and unsettling as the noir genre demands. Visually, Robert Krasker’s contrast and shadowy photography seems like a practice run for Reed/Krasker’s cinematic visual perfection of The Third Man a few years later.

Arguably Reed reaches farther than he did in The Third Man in terms of visual image as metaphorical storytelling. Watch the changing environment as McQueen’s state becomes more dour. At the beginning it’s bright and cheerful, reflecting the optimism of his plan. But after he’s shot and begins to wander the city for help, sun turns into rain, then fog, then snow – the full gamut of weather conditions like one’s life flashing before one’s eyes the moment before death.

While the narrative is directed by the movements of McQueen throughout the day, arguably his presence is a mere prop for Reed to craft his rather compartmentalized individual scenes and set pieces. Each new sequence is dominated by a new scene-stealing supporting character. An example is the woman who betrays McQueen’s two men, who at first think they’re in the company of a friendly supporter when in reality she's a backstabbing traitor. The crazed painter who desires to find McQueen in order to paint the emotion of man near death is as treacherous a portrayal of patriotism as anything I can think of.

Films like Odd Man Out and The Informer survive well after many years, not only because of the filmmakers' superlative eye behind the camera, but also because of the complex and intellectually challenging reactions of the characters to their intense situations.

****

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Once Upon on a Time in America

It took 13 years for Sergio Leone to get this, his last film, onto the big screen. For the most part the time away served him well, as this superlative exercise in gangster cinema, dramatically heightened to the max with the same dreamy romantic sensabilities of his Spaghetti Westerns, comes close to being the final word in prohibition-era crime films.


Once Upon a Time in America (1984) dir. Sergio Leone
Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Treat Williams

By Alan Bacchus

The long 229-minute version is available on Blu-ray, and since virtually everyone believes this to be the true version of the film, I doubt we’ll ever see that 139-minute theatrical version ever again. The length does justice to the immensely epic and emotionally dense character study.

Leone and his team of seven writers tell the story of two best friends, David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (De Niro) and Max 'Max' Bercovicz (Woods)and the evolution of their friendship through their life of crime in 1920s New York City. Leone elegantly moves us through multiple time frames without confusing the audience or giving that ‘flashback’ feel. The opening lengthy sequence in 1933 shows us the extended movements of Noodles after the apparent murder of three of his boyhood friends. The scene carries on for 30 minutes, a set piece so dazzling, it almost seems out of place in the context of the expansive nature of the rest of the story. We don’t really know why Noodles is on the run or why he’s aloof and melancholy as opposed to angry and vengeful after such a horrific act of violence. Ennio Morricone’s swooning romantic score tells us there’s a deeper level of emotion going on, something which Leone’s flashforwards and flashbacks tease us with.

After the opening the film settles down into a more traditional narrative, starting with Noodles and his gang as kids in the '20s moving from petty crime into organized crime in step with flashes to Noodles as an aged adult in the late '60s returning to New York on a mysterious agenda, retracing the steps of his youth.

From the golden brown cinematography to the rich and textured production design of the era to the thematic and narrative connections to the action in the present, the influence of The Godfather Part II is felt through this 1920s storyline. This delicate touch of Leone’s equals Coppola’s work in these scenes. Leone’s detail in the exterior street scenes is magnificent, teaming with people in every corner of his frames and as far as the camera can see. Leone never attempts to cheat his scenes, instead playing almost all of his action in widescreen grandeur.

The miracle of America is Leone’s ability to not let the sheer size of his canvas overshadow the finer details and individual moments of drama. His big and small moments have equal weight in all his pictures, and it's never more important here. Just note how little dialogue there is in the film, in particular the opening 30 minutes, a beautiful choreography of camera and actors. Leone's use of all elements of cinema: editing, camerawork and sound design is sublime and masterful. The drone of the telephone ring used in the opening sequence is a surreal use of digitec sound but draws our attention to the significance of a key decision Noodles will make later in the picture. Same with Leone’s attention to the locker key or the charred body in the street – all details set up to be paid off later.

This is the Leone modus operandi, peppered into all of his previous films. The incessant drone of that telephone ring recalls Leone’s multiple references to Charles Bronson’s harmonica in Once Upon a Time in America or Lee Van Cleef’’s musical pocket watch in For a Few Dollars More.

A couple of wonky moments fail the film. The performance of some of the children as well as the casting of Elizabeth McGovern as Noodle’s object of desire, Deborah, never works. In fact, I could never see why McGovern got so much work back in those days. I could never take her babyface look seriously in high drama such as this.

But the scene I’ve never been able to reconcile with the rest of the picture is Noodles' rape of Deborah. It comes just before the intermission after the moment Deborah tells Noodles she’s leaving for L.A. to pursue an acting career. Noodles rapes her multiple times in the back of a car. Rape is something most of us don’t desire to see in a film, let alone the veracity with which Leone orchestrates the scene. Deborah’s pleas for Noodles to stop only encourage him to rape her even more aggressively. I understand the purpose of the scene, to create a source of regret for Noodles, destroying the only thing he ever loved, and to find a strong enough story beat that would split the pair before their reunion at the end of the film, but this comes at the expense of any kind of sympathy for the character Leone establishes up this point. Save for an earlier rape during the diamond robbery scene, Noodles was an honourable gangster with convictions and loyalty to his friends. After Deborah's rape, Noodles is never truly taken to task for his despicable actions.

This kind of scene would fit into Leone’s stylized and misogynistic Spaghetti Western genre, but in this more romantic and authentic world he creates for Once Upon a Time in America, the scene is a major crutch for the film.

And so it takes some mental smoothing to get over this scene and some of the wooden acting to appreciate Leone’s swan song as a dreamy, indulgent and grandiose genre film, which it is.

***½

Once Upon a Time in America is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Forgiveness of Blood

A very curious second film for Joshua Marston after his Oscar-nominated 'Maria Full of Grace', a fully Albanian-language film set in that very culturally specific country with no allusions to an American viewpoint. Marston’s desire to tell a non-American story in a different language is wholly admirable, but the slowburn pacing and staid emotional tone prevents the film from becoming the sad ironic tragedy it desires to be.


The Forgiveness of Blood (2011) dir. Joshua Marston
Starring: Tristan Halilaj, Refet Abazi, Sindi Lacej, Ilire Vinca Celaj

By Alan Bacchus

Nik (Halilaj) is an Albanian teenager connected to his friends by his cell phone like any of us in North American would be. But he also rides unpaved roads on a cart pulled by a horse, a mixture of old and new which fuels the conflicts in Marston's morally confounding picture. Early on we see Nik having lunch at a pub with his family where he witnesses a verbal standoff with a rival group from his extended family. The tension in the room is thick, suggesting a long-standing intra-family feud.

Another confrontation with Nik’s sister triggers a domino effect of events culminating in the death of one of the other family members. By the cultural rules dating back to the Middle Ages, as a member of the extended family Nik is in this war too and could be a target for retaliation. Thus, he and his sister are forced to sequester themselves in their home in what amounts to a voluntary domestic imprisonment, which, judging the history of these confrontations, could mean years.

Marston finds his conflict not between the two warring groups but within Nik's own family unit, specifically his stubborn uncle who represents the bullish adherence to the outmoded cultural ways of life, which are obsolete in the technologically interconnected world in which Nik wants to live.

As an American, Marston’s reverence to the Albanian culture is admirable and makes us believe this predicament completely. His themes of family unity and the conflict of the old world and new world are strong and clear. And by putting the audience in the point of view of Nik, the idea of losing years off one’s life to this baffling and pointless conflict within one’s own greater family is mind-boggling and utterly frightful.

But perhaps in an effort not to sensationalize the subject matter in the typical Hollywood way, Marston seems to overcompensate and under-dramatize this wholly troubling story. Tristan Halilaj’s performance is too restrained and internalized, thus zapping the film of the desired tension or suspense.

***

The Forgiveness of Blood is available on The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Legend

Only a filmmaker as talented as Ridley Scott could make a film so grand and admirable a failure. No matter which version of Legend you watch - the 90-minute one with the then-'modern' Tangerine Dream score or the lengthier version with the Jerry Goldsmith score - neither one works. It’s not the score or the running time, and it’s not about what was cut out or left in. Simply put, the problem was Mr. Scott’s overindulgence with his visual palette related to character, story, tone and all the other storytelling elements.


Legend (1985) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, Tim Curry

By Alan Bacchus

Poor Ridley Scott. After the torturous efforts to film Blade Runner, not excluding the fight for editorial rights of the final picture, his next film, Legend, was even more in conflict.

The idea of Legend began from Ridley Scott himself and his desire to film a fairy tale with traditional themes of mythology and fantasy. The result of his collaboration with author William Hjortsberg was a rather simple screenplay about a boy thrust into a journey to save his girl from the clutches of a beastly form of devil incarnate. Elves, unicorns, trolls and other beasts contribute to the familiar fairy tale quality that Scott visualized.

When it came time to film, Scott’s detailed and demanding directorial style foiled his own movie. After 10 days of filming, the entire UK Pinewood set burned to the ground, and it was over a year of shooting before the end of principal photography. In post-production, Jerry Goldsmith’s original classical score was mostly discarded in favour of the electronic synthesized music of Tangerine Dream, and of course the running time was cut down from 113 minutes to 90 minutes. Previous DVD releases, as well as the current Blu-ray release, have all of this reinstated as best as possible.

Tom Cruise is sorely miscast as Jack, a humble forest boy smitten with the lovely virginal Princess Lily (Mia Sara). As told in the opening prologue, good and evil are kept in balance by the magic of the unicorns. The evil lord (Curry), who wants a world of darkness instead of light, plots to capture and dehorn the unicorns. When Lily is caught in the way of the goblin Pix’s plans she becomes the Dark Lord’s prisoner, thus sending Jack on his quest to find Lily and save the world from perpetual darkness.

It’s a sparsely detailed narrative at best, buoyed by Ridley Scott’s sumptuous art direction and cinematography. The film is impossibly beautiful. The entire movie was shot inside a studio, with all of the exterior forest scenes recreated indoors for maximum visual control. And it’s all on the screen and pristine on Blu-ray. I can’t even imagine the painstaking efforts it took to shoot those slow-motion shots of the unicorns galloping through the forest and through the lightly descending flower spores in the air. In moments like these, the film is spectacularly breathtaking and arguably one of the most beautiful films ever made.

That said, there does exist the problem of having too much of a good thing. And Scott’s verisimilitude for visual texture severely overwhelms and bogs down his narrative. Even at 90 minutes it’s a slow crawl. The actors seem more like furniture to the lovely spores or drops of water from the cave stalactites. Tim Curry is completely imprisoned in his gargantuan and gothic devil’s headdress makeup effects by Rob Bottin. Again, the red devil is an impressive technical design, but it furthers the rigidness and stunted feeling of the narrative.

Legend typifies the frustration with many of Scott's films, commercially driven movies aimed at the mainstream but overly consumed by their own visual texture. As a result, they’re often emotionally vacant, hallow and inert.

**

Monday, 12 November 2012

Skyfall

Perhaps the best action scene ever in a Bond film is a remarkable hand-to-hand scrap in a Shanghai high rise, elegantly shot in silhouette with a colourful neon advertisement in the background. It’s short but indicative of director Sam Mendes’ admirable modus operandi – brevity, judiciousness and evocative imagery – which help make Skyfall the most cinematic of all the Bond films.


Skyfall (2012) dir. Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Naomi Harris, Judi Dench

By Alan Bacchus

We finally have an exciting director at the helm. With that said, it comes after a series of increasingly disappointing pictures since Mendes’ celebrated American Beauty, so we can’t help feel the perception of his involvement as an attempt of career rejuvenation. Well, it worked. There’s an added skip in Mendes’ step, as he delivers a film with all the energy and aggressive action, as well as a sense of the cinematic, that is missing in every other Bond film.

The idea of using only adequate technical directors to helm these now 23 Bond movies always irked me. Why did it take so long for the MGM and EON production team to realize film was a director’s medium, not a producer's? Tom Cruise, as producer of the Mission Impossible films, knew this. I guess the reasoning was that the franchise was bigger than the director, and that an auteur vision could scramble their money-making formula. The one-off success of Casino Royale notwithstanding, this ignorant view has resulted in a franchise continually stymied for creativity and freshness.

Long gone is the usual opening circular frame of the gun’s viewpoint that traditionally opens these movies. Instead Mendes cuts right into his first action sequence, the theft of the film’s maguffin, a stolen file listing all the MI6 names and their aliases (not unlike the stolen NOC list in Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible). As 007 chases the villain through the streets of Istanbul, it’s all monitored and controlled from London’s MI6 office via satellite surveillance. The end of the sequence sets up the film’s central premise, Bond as a rogue agent outside the comfort zone of the tech gadgetry we’re used to seeing – an organic, grassroots Bond, if you will, with only his wit and guile as his weapons.

This concept plays out in several forms throughout the film – at first working as a missing agent presumed dead; then after a devastating terrorist bomb, which destroys their building, the entire department is forced to work in a WWII bomb shelter with Cold War-era tools; and lastly in the third act a retreat of sorts to a completely threadbare Bond, as he confronts his enemies in a Straw Dogs-like siege in isolation.

Mendes’ employment of one of the world’s best cinematographers, Roger Deakins, is another signal of the reboot mindset of this Craig-era Bond. Casino Royale had already discarded most of the bubble-gum elements of the Brosnan Bond. But under Deakins' visual guidance we finally have a film with some memorable evocative imagery.

The Shanghai action scene is most memorable, but Deakins' underwater imagery and the fog shrouded field chase in Scotland are emotional and haunting. And almost every action scene is directed with seemingly in-camera reality. Though there were hundreds of personnel credited with CG effects, for the most part computer effects were invisible to my eye – an admirable production constraint considering the ‘anything’s possible’ abilities of today's CGI.

The final act is also an inspired climax. After a tremendous gunfight in downtown London, Mendes and his writers turn the film inward, engineering a smaller scale actioner, a confrontation which recalls the dramatic finale of High Noon or Witness, or as mentioned, Straw Dogs – references that complete Mendes' wholly cinematic Bond film.

***½

Friday, 9 November 2012

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A heartbreaking emotional story of a 2nd generation Irish immigrant family struggling in near squalor in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. Though it's a still a revered novel, it's perhaps most significant for being Elia Kazan's first feature film, which brings to bear his distinct working class and socialist sensabilities.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) dir. Elia Kazan
Starring: Dorothy McGuire, Peggy Ann Garner, James Dunn, Lloyd Nolan, Ted Donaldson

By Alan Bacchus

Dorothy McGuire play Katie Nolan, a mother of 2. With her artist/husband Johnny (James Dunn) continually on the road and bringing back little money, she is forced to bring up the kids all by herself. Her kids recognize the struggle and have even taken to petty theft and scheming to bring home more money. Kazan empathizes with the kids, and their ability to cheat and steal are portrayed as admirable traits of social and economic self-preservation.

Financial challenges on the family provide the external conflict. And within the family dynamic between Katie, Johnny and their kids simmers a cauldron of internalized anger. When Johnny comes home he’s welcomed with such warmth, Katie comes to resent it. Her husband's genuine joie de vivre and carefree outlook fuels Katie's strong and sad self-loathing.

Like Frank Capra's You Can’t Take it With You, another fine film about family, Kazan’s fundamental conundrum for his characters is the difference between financial stability and true emotional happiness. Johnny, at his core, is an optimistic and loving person, but he's also a drunk, who in reality was unable to take care of his kids. So is Katie’s hardline way of life the right way to raise her family? Kazan is pretty clear the latter outlook of life is the way to go.

In fact, Kazan, an immigrant himself, also went on to make the epic immigration film America America. With A Tree Grows in Brooklyn he portrays even greater levels of sympathy and understanding of the immigrant experience. The title makes for a wonderful metaphor for the American dream. While in Europe the well rooted class system acts as a barrier, in America, through shear hard work, anyone can rise over obstacles and grow through concrete to become a tree.

****

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Sessions

Good intentions both help and hinder this now celebrated story of a polio-stricken man, also a virgin, who hires a sex surrogate to learn the ways of sexual intercourse. It’s a feel-good affair from start to finish celebrating the triumph of one’s mind over one’s body, as well as the empowering nature of the sexual act. But what you see is what you get. Lewin’s simple, uncomplicated approach to the narrative is admirable, as he declutters the scenery, but it also feels staid and unmemorable.


The Sessions (2012) dir. Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, W. Earl Brown, Blake Lindsley, Adam Arkin

By Alan Bacchus

Over John Hawkes’ filmography the familiar character actor seems to be characterized by two contrasting faces: the snarling hillbilly psychotic exemplified by startling turns in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter’s Bone, and the sympathetic ne’er-do-well as in The Perfect Storm or Contagion. As the emaciated polio victim, also a romantic poet bound to live horizontally on a gurney, Hawkes is most certainly the latter to the extreme, but he has never carried a picture before and he achieves this admirably.

Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, inspired by a real person who authored the novel How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence and was the subject of an Oscar-winning Short Documentary. His dilemma is simple; he’s never had sex and wants some. Other than the physical deficiencies, his faith would appear to be his complication. As a devout Catholic he’s constantly in confession and seeking advice from his minister, played by William H. Macy, who looks like he just stepped off the set of Shameless to appear in this. Macy’s role as the sounding board for Mark is too obvious. The religious conflict of sinning by fornicating outside the role of marriage is glanced over for humour, but nothing else in this relationship truly challenges him.

As the surrogate Helen Hunt is endearing. Initially she plays the role as sexual mentor with clinical detachment but she eventually succumbs to Mark’s romantic charms. Hawkes plays the awkwardness, fear and elation of his first sexual acts with the utmost integrity and realism. While not as explicit as the film has been made out to be in the press, it’s Helen Hunt’s comfort as an ‘older’ woman on camera in full nudity and the verbal expression of the stage-by-stage details of sexual intercourse that are most salacious.

In the background, the conflict from Hunt’s husband who feels threatened by Mark’s emotional attachment feels overly engineered, and the comic banter between Mark’s doting and conservative assistant and the motel manager, who is enthralled by the idea of a sex surrogate, only generates a mild smirk or two.

Unfortunately the drama in this unique situation is entirely on the surface. But The Sessions coasts remarkably far on the precise casting choices and the awkward but fulfilling sex education.

***

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Crossfire Hurricane

It's a snappy and appropriate title to Brett Morgen's entertaining HBO documentary on the Rolling Stones. While the phrase comes from the memorable song Jumping Jack Flash, it also expresses the aggressive public lifestyle of the Stones, and the theme on which the movie is based - counter-culture icons and the epitome of the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll persona.


Crossfire Hurricane (2012) dir. Brett Morgen
Documentary

By Alan Bacchus

The arc of the Rolling Stones from swinging '60s Beatles rivals to massive drug-using psychedelic superstars to their status as venerable arena supergroup veterans is entertainingly put together by Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) and timed with the 50th anniversary of the band.

By focusing almost solely on the vagabond media-aware lifestyle of the band, the film eschews the familiar narrative style of other rock-docs. This is the story of the Stones from the media's point of view, and the Stones' evolution in tandem with the audience's perception of them. Morgen admirably concentrates on the best years ('64-'74) and only breezes through the rest of the lesser and insignificant latter years of the band.

It's a curiously rocky start to the film though, as it takes 12 minutes or so of loosely cobbled stock footage edited together without form in the opening before settling down into its formal narrative. We're saved the childhood beginnings storyline, instead jumping right into the launch of the Stones in England as a scruffy blues band looking to find its place in pop music landscape heavily weighted to the Beatles. The relationship of the band to the media is succinctly articulated by Keith Richards when he explains that from the outset the Stones were given the black hat to wear, while the Beatles had the white hat. Beatles: good - Stones: bad was the simplistic division but a comparison the band embraced and furthered to the extreme.

Morgen's assembly of black and white stock of the Stones' early days playing riotous shows in England is riveting. At every show riots were routine and security guards fighting off hysterical fans from storming the stage was commonplace. Wearing the bad boys label allowed Richards to push his increasingly hedonistic lifestyle, becoming a very public figure for drug use. Everyone in the band was doing it though, and Morgen seems to have free rein to show shots like Mick taking a bump off a Bowie knife in full view of the camera.

Audio portions of a modern interview conducted without cameras present allow the band to reflect on these fast times without us having to see them as the withered old men they are today. So it's the Rolling Stones in their full glory all of the time. The familiar events in the history of the band are given adequate attention, including the Brian Jones death, the Altamont concert, Richards' and Jagger's numerous drug-related arrests, and all the touring debauchery in between. That said, while explicit with the drugs, Morgen never delves into the sexual appetites of the men - an aspect only implied from the healthy use of backstage footage.

If anything, what we miss most is a more detailed look into the artistic process of the band, the creation and evolution of the signature sounds and the recording of their classic songs. As such, Crossfire Hurricane doesn't seem to be the last word on the band, but perhaps the leanest, most invigorating and stimulating account of the influential rock and rollers.

***½

Crossfire Hurricane premieres on HBO on November 15

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Terror Train

At a glance this rarely discussed slasher film from the 1980s featuring libidinous teenagers getting hacked up by a masked villain, revenge for a fraternity prank gone wrong years ago, in the context of the sociopolitical significance of horror cinema, which is now a fully analyzable genre, is fascinating and admirable for reasons beyond pure entertainment.


Terror Train (1980) dir. Roger Spottiswoode
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield

By Alan Bacchus

This film has the distinction of being the first horror film I ever saw. And as a 6- year-old, the experience of watching a sadistic murderer kill innocent teenagers dressed up as Groucho Marx had a palpable imprinting effect on my life. I’ve never forgotten the fear and sheer terror this film caused me. Years later I was distraught to find out that most of the critical world didn’t feel the same way.

But the idea of a pristine Blu-ray version (via Shout Factory) of this highly personal film was akin to unearthing a time capsule from one's youth. I certainly wasn’t expecting a diamond in the rough. In fact, I had the opposite expectations, which had me even question whether re-watching this movie would tarnish my selective and biased childhood memories. Alas, no, I had to watch it.

Indeed, the film is not great. But it is fascinating.

The story can be summed up in a sentence or two. In the preamble we see Jamie Lee Curtis roped into participating in a cruel joke from her fraternity friend/jerk extraordinaire Doc Manley (Die Hard's Hart Bochner). Of course the prank goes wrong, the poor naïve kid is humiliated and for years he's treated for mental trauma. Cut to three years later, Curtis and the same group of pre-med students are partying it up on a New Year's Eve train ride full of booze, pot and heated sexual libidos. When one of the students is killed before boarding the train, and whose costumed identity is assumed by the killer, we assume it’s the same poor kid and that there’s going to be a bloodbath.

Curiously, the film is spare with its blood. Most of the kills are hidden from us, like a consciously PG version of the traditional slasher film. This point specifically is interesting to examine from the point of view of horror film history. Terror Train was made in 1980, thus it was one of the first of the modern teen slasher films. And if you look at Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) explicit gore had yet to become a prerequisite for the genre.

As forgettable as the plotting and characterizations of the story may be, for genre enthusiasts the narrative deconstructs perfectly into the genre formula - the Inciting Incident: a community of people responsible for an immoral act against the villain in the past; Location: An isolated environment disconnected from the outside world; Villain: a masked avenger burdened by the trauma of the past; and a Twist: a whodunit mystery with misdirected cues and red herrings about the killer’s identity.

From a political point of view, this film was made in the heyday of the Canadian tax shelter, produced entirely in Canada with American money but independent of the studio system - though 20th Century Fox would later acquire the film for US distribution. Production values are surprisingly strong, especially the cinematography lensed by the great John Alcott (famous for shooting Kubrick films such as Barry Lyndon and The Shining). It also happens to be Roger Spottiswoode’s first feature, and his ability to choreograph suspenseful action within the tight space of a real train shows remarkable talent. And even the performances manage to surmount the rickety material. John Ford and Sam Peckinpah stalwart Ben Johnson as the heroic conductor is the heart of the film and lends immeasurable credibility to the action. And Jamie Lee Curtis, as usual, oozes screen charisma from her pores. David Copperfield also does a surprisingly good turn as a magician aboard the train who becomes the audience’s main suspect for the murders.

The Shout Factory Blu-ray/DVD disc holds deep reverence for the picture, as evidenced by the four well produced and informative featurettes centring on the production reminiscences of the then-young production executive Don Carmody, US producer Daniel Grodnik and the fine work of production designer Glenn Bydwell and composer John Mills-Cockell. Each of these men, while not claiming to have made fine art, take their work seriously. Their candid enthusiasm is refreshing and infectious, aiding in the appreciation of this picture in the context of the genre.

***

Monday, 5 November 2012

Reagan

In the demythologizing of the Reagan mystique there was a deliberate campaign perpetrated in the past 10 years by the Republican Party to make the two-term President a beacon of right-wing values. Coming from the director of angry finger-pointing documentaries such as 'Why We Fight', it seems to be a surprise to the filmmaker himself, as well as the audience, that Jarecki’s film is as conventional and reverent to the man as it is.


Reagan (2011) dir. Eugene Jarecki
Documentary

By Alan Bacchus

This is what Jarecki admitted in the Q&A following the Sundance Premiere in 2011. Using the simplified title of Reagan's last name suggests a thorough examination of the man. It's a smart decision for Jarecki to stay on the side of fair play, as a black-white vilification of the man would be as irresponsible as those Republican myth-makers.

Though it’s fair, it’s no less enthralling, tracing back through 100 years of American history - from Reagan's humble childhood in Illinois to his career in Hollywood to his career as a pitch man for GE to his political career as Governor of California and finally to his eight years as President, which saw him preside over an amplification of the Cold War, as well as beginning the process of dismantling it.

Jarecki’s metaphors successfully link the pillars of Reagan's personality to a number of key decisions in his life. Namely his success as a lifeguard in his youth, during which, despite being poorly sighted, he saved over 70 people from drowning in a lake over the course of this job. This desire to protect the innocent cleverly feeds his motivations in the Iran-Contra affair some 50+ years later when he famously broke the law in order to trade guns for the lives of the Lebanese hostages.

Same goes for his career as a pitchman for General Electric, which becomes the prevailing metaphor for his victories in politics. Jarecki demonstrates Reagan’s unquestioned success as a figurehead for the nation while strengthening the American position in the world in place of sound informed decision making.

Like Reagan’s conservative politics, Jarecki sticks to a traditional approach to the story. It's a meat-and-potatoes film for a meat-and-potatoes President. Talking heads from his family and close political advisors paint the picture of the man we saw in office. Reagan comes off as both the shrewd conservative that presided over the controversial and unsuccessful voodoo economic policies, as well as that flag-waving friendly cowboy that patriotically united the country.

Surprises are few. Jarecki confirms some of the tales of Reagan as an aloof simpleton who left much of the decision making to either his wife or his trusted and more experienced colleagues. He also rips through the hyperbole of Reaganites, such as Grover Norquist, who deify him. The truth is Reagan was complex and demonstrated shades of grey in all of his dealings.

Reagan is mostly riveting stuff for its 100 minutes, capturing all the jubilation, optimism, fear and despair from his career in politics. And though the film is undoubtedly impeccably researched, he's still an enigma who no one will really ever know completely.

***½

Friday, 2 November 2012

12 Angry Men

Perhaps the ultimate chamber drama, the celebrated story of a jury of 12 men presiding over a homicide trial, for good and bad, is as much a sociopolitical touchstone film as it is a damn good entertaining yarn. It's a courtroom drama full of clever twists and turns, heated dialogue and showcase acting.


12 Angry Men (1957) dir. Sidney Lumet
Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsalm, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman

By Alan Bacchus

The 1950s was a unique decade in cinema, and 12 Angry Men exemplifies many of the hallmarks of this era in Hollywood. It comes in the post-war era of cinema, a new age influenced by the increasing political activism of the period as much as the need for escapism. As such, there arose the ‘issue’ film, something rare in Hollywood’s Golden Age, a film in which sociopolitical themes were as important as the story itself. While important in the context of the betterment of the world, it also meant often heavy-handed proselytizing and statement-making.

For instance, the films of Stanley Kramer, who made The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, were perhaps the models for this new movement. In 12 Angry Men, Henry Fonda, the unnamed central character and the man who is initially the lone proponent of the not-guilty verdict and eventually sways the whole jury his way, exemplifies the theme of social justice, racial harmony and democratization of everyone’s voice within a populace.

At times it all comes out with such aggressive force we have to roll our eyes. The character played by Lee J. Cobb, for instance, brow beats us as the clear antagonizing force to Fonda. His bull-headed prejudice against youth and somewhat less obvious racial bigotry are engrossed by Cobb’s over-the-top performance. However, we’re meant to sympathize with him because of his fractured relationship with his estranged son.

The '50s also saw the influence of television against the big-screen medium. This was Sidney Lumet’s first film, handpicked by producer Fonda based on the strength of his television work. Lumet’s direction is flawless, as he remarkably choreographs his actors and camera to create a visual dynamic mise-en-scene and visual design out of a small undecorated space. Lumet’s wide-angle lenses and crisp black and white photography look as impressive now as they did then.

Fonda’s performance as the social conscience of the picture fits in naturally with his career-long support of the underprivileged and downtrodden in society, complementing his work on John Ford’s films The Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln, as well as the socially conscious classics The Ox-Bow Incident and Mister Roberts.

What holds up best is the script adapted by Reginald Rose from his own stage play. The narrative is a near-perfect construction which surmounts its own clever concept. Rose expertly lays out the criminal case in the dialogue exchanges among the jury and the twists and turns of the story as each character rethinks each key item of evidence or testimony. The personal backstories of the characters, which are as important as the conflict in the present, while heady and forthright at times, are also expertly woven into the fabric of the fascinating, thrilling and clever criminal investigation.

***½

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Wind Journeys

Ciro Guerra's festival piece from a few years ago is an under-the-radar stunner. The story of a travelling musician looking to unload his cursed accordion makes for a lengthy and epic journey across the stunning landscape of Colombia with allusions to the American Western, the good ol’ fashioned road movie and the familiar literary rites of passage and mythological resonance of an Odyssian journey.


The Wind Journeys (2009) dir. Ciro Guerra Starring: Marciano Martínez, Yull Núñez

By Alan Bacchus

In the Colombian rural countryside that is the setting of this film, the accordion player is characterized, like a doctor or priest, as an important and valued member of society. These travelling musicians, called Troubadours, fulfill a number of roles in society, most importantly bringing light through entertainment to the very poor farmers.

Guerra’s lead character, Ignacio Carrillo, is one such man, an elderly and revered soft-spoken musician as loquacious as Alan Ladd’s Shane. But success in life has come at a price. After the death of his wife, he’s convinced his accordion is cursed, not unlike the blues legend Robert Johnson who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. The only way to break the curse is to give the accordion back to its maker – like The Lord of the Rings but with an accordion. Along for the ride is a younger musician who may or may not be Ignacio’s son, but an apprentice who desires to absorb the essence of the type of musician his absentee father might have been.

It’s these familiar and grounded archetypal relationships that give this minuscule Colombian festival art film immense pathos and cinematic gravitas. It’s a stunning piece of cinema, one of those miracle discoveries which falls into one's lap by chance. It’s the July DVD of the Month from the Film Movement – the unique film distributor that essentially chooses and programs these films to its subscribers.

Along the journey the pair encounter a number of situations that make for often stunning set pieces. There’s a lengthy accordion duel in the first half, which features the village champion squaring off against any claimers to the title of champion - a thrilling trash-talking show-off, like an 8 Mile with accordions. There’s also an encounter between two men who duel to the death by machete on a bridge over water. And the young man's baptism by the blood of a lizard after proving his worth on the bongo drums is the stuff masterpieces are made of.

It’s also very arty and thus imposing to mainstream viewers. Guerra sets a ‘deliberately paced’ elegant and almost rhythmic style. Some might also call it 'slow'. But it fits in well with the use of landscape, pastoral widescreen compositions and the controlled pacing of a Carlos Reygadas film (Silent Light or Japon), or even the revered existential films of Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry).

The treasure of this film, though, is Paulo Andrés Pérez’s stunning cinematography. It's one of the best-looking films in international cinema I've seen in a while - rich colours pop out of the dense and textured frames. Fluid camera moves enhance the elegance and beauty of the Colombian landscape. Along the way, Guerra places his characters atop mountains peaks and in frames against stupendous god-like cloudscapes and sharp cliffs, which reminds us of the ethereal Herzog classic Aguirre: The Wrath of God.

Director Ciro Guerra, only 28 when he made this film, shows remarkable maturity and restraint, in addition to some solid chops of cinematic grandeur. He is a major international talent waiting to break out. The Wind Journeys never quite broke through, but with his next film Guerra is poised for Palme D’Or deification.

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