NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD
Directed by: Mark Hartley
Cast: Barry Humphreys, Jack Armstrong, Brian Trenchard-Smith, George Miller, Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Quentin Tarantino
The unjustly marginalized subject of "Ozploitation" is finally given its due in newcomer Mark Hartley's exhaustive--and exhausting!--chronicle of the Australian b-movie era of the 1970s and early 1980s. Pummelling the viewer with its dizzying pace, wild, hallucinatory graphics, and flurry of boobs, blood, and bravado, Not Quite Hollywood takes its cues from Ron Mann who has built a career on challenging the definition of what a "documentary" can be.
For those who associate Australian cinema with prestige fare like Picinic At Hanging Rock and Breaker Morant, it will come as a surprise that many of the creators of such acclaimed art house darlings frequently dabbled in exploitation films--sex comedies, slasher yarns, action marathons--tales whose production histories are arguably as raucous and entertaining as the films themselves (as someone who's seen most of them, I can make such a claim with a fair degree of authority. That, and I've worked with Brian Trenchard-Smith...).
While some, like Trenchard-Smith and Philipe Mora never broke out of the exploitation ghetto (and from their gleeful reminiscences, never aspired to in the first place), it's a kick to learn that Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) and Peter Weir (Master And Commander) recount their early efforts with affection, candor, and not a trace of regret or even ironic detachment. There's a wealth of information here (no one, apparently, denied Hartley the rights to any clips).
A giddy, "let's clean out the big ol' barn and put on a show" mentality propeled the era, even if "the show" required untrained drivers to drive at breakneck speeds while cameraman hung off the vehicles mere inches from the ground, and explosives unleashed without any training and assurance of success, or safety. Deservedly, late stuntman Grant Page (who could have been the model for Danny McBride's pyrotechnics berserker in Tropic Thunder) gets a substantial amount of screen time and is warmly remembered by directors, actors, and fans alike--some of whom he almost killed.
While these early entries may not be well know in mainstream circles, their pioneering spirit and cultural significance has not been lost on a new generation of Australian filmmakers, with James Wan (Saw) and Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) on hand to validate their importance. Of course, these films weren't exactly heralded by the critical community at the time of their respective debuts, and some pundits, like Bob Ellis, are still lamenting their creation, calling onscreen for one particular producer's entire body of work to be "burnt to the ground and the ashes sown with salt’.
Trenchard-Smith spins a hilarious, if bitter, anecdote about Steve Railsback on Turkey Shoot (I saw it under its U.S title Escape 2000). For "fair and balanced coverage", Railsback himself gives his account of the production, which only serves to illustrate Smith's claim that the American star was a pampered primadonna (who obviously is still carrying the baggage of this now 25 year old quickie production).
Richard Franklin, who recently passed away (and whose last film Visitors, is an interesting psychological thriller involving pirates and the ghost of Susanna York) was one of my favorite Australian filmmakers (he's probably best known for "Psycho 2") and his classic 1981 Hitchcock riff, Road Games, receives long overdue gushing from uberfan Quentin Tarantino and testimonials from U.S. stars Stacey Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis (and to think, as a die-hard follower of his thrillers, I didn't know Franklin's early features were softcore porn!).
I'm old enough (just) to have seen a great many of the 80s entries in their first run as a precocious high schooler who could sweet-talk the box office cashier into letting me in underrage in what was then stodgy Ontario under the rule of Mary Brown's vile censorship cabal. At film school, Australian cinema was part of the faculty's hoity-toity anti-Hollywood agit prop (you know, all American movies are bad, except for a select few by Welles, Ford, Scorcese, etc.), but it was the austere, mannered dramas of Weir, Beresford, and Campion that were shoved down our throats--not the adrenaline-surged post-nuke westerns of George Miller's Mad Max series or the AIP-spirited monster romps Razorback.
Humorous, frank, and at times, contradictory (if a lot of it ain't true, it should be), documentaries like this are difficult to review, esp. those with such scope, so I'll leave it to you to discover its unique joys. My viewing experience was strangely personal, as I noted that at roughly the same time in Canada, a parallel movement was in full-swing during what's become known at the 1970s "Tax Shelter" era, one that was regarded with even more scorn--abroad, and especially at home.
Whereas many still-thriving careers were formed behind and in front of the camera, a majority of the key participants have sought to distance themselves from their potboiler roots (a claim I can make first hand, having worked on a handful of latter-day exploitation entries, and having tried for years to develop a documentary and/or written book-length study of the period, only to find veterans unwilling to cooperate. Caleum Vatsndal's 2004 "They Came From Within", a chronicle of Canadian horror films, relies mostly on anecdotal testimonies and archival quotes, with very few first-person interviews).
But this documentary shows that the Aussies celebrate their low-rent romps with affection and nationalistic fervor as a grand "f-you" to the austere pageantry of their imperialistic homeland (compared with Canada, again, where British cinema is held up as the model over that of our American neighbours). As scene-stealer Barry "Dame Edna" Humphries puts it: "I never thought that Australia needed culture...culture after all is cheese."
It'll be a good long time before we ever see a Canadian-financed documentary lauding Al Waxman's exploding head in William Fruet's killer snake opus Death Bite--but in "Not Quite Hollywoo, the werewolf ballerina from Philipe Mora's Howling 3: The Marsupials is celebrated as an iconic image. Oy, indeed!
©2008 Robert J. Lewis
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD
Monday, September 15, 2008
IT MIGHT GET LOUD
Directed by: Davis Guggenheim
Cast: Jimmy Page, The Edge, Jack White
So AC/DC's music has become a Wal-Mart exclusive, Dylan and McCartney sing only for Starbucks, and legions of teenagers are picking up guitars but are plugging them into gameports instead of stacked Marshall amps. Sure, it's hard to be a saint in the city, but it's just as hard not to be another sanctimonious boomer when one realizes that today's definition of "three chords and the truth" is a series of prefab joystick maneuvers. Look what they've done to my song, ma!
Thankfully, a documentary has come along just in time to celebrate what the late critic Lester Bangs coined as “the outburst of inchoate obnoxious noise” from Les Paul’s momentous creation, presented, after an exhaustive week of high art and noble, in glorious Dolby to all but drown out the rumbling of the subway tunnel directly under the Manulife Centre...
I'm not really a boomer--technically, I'm one of the original Gen-Xers (a label I initially detested but have come to miss now that it's been taken away from me), which makes me something akin to Burl Ives' "Mr. In-Between"--too young for the 60s renaissance, not quite old enough to have been immersed in the dogma of punk and thus tolerant of 70's cheese, and loathe to completely ridicule the 80s given that it provided the soundtrack of my teen-and-university years.
I suppose that's why I enjoyed It Might Get Loud so much (fyi--it does and gloriously)--it celebrates a certain old school “purity” without being nostalgic (well, a little) and didactic (which is a lot coming from the director of An Inconvenient Truth). Davis Guggenheim captures a meeting and jam session between three generations of rock-n-roll royalty, each an iconoclastic talent, eternal student of the art form, and master of his craft. Need I introduce Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Edge of U2, and Jack White of The White Stripes?
Their mojos were forged in wildly different generational and cultural factors: Page, of course, is the elder statesman of the trio, and arguably an entire musical genre unto himself. Here, nattily attired and silver mane'd, he waxes romantically on his musical influences as he pulls nuggets from his floor-to-ceiling shelves of vintage vinyl LPs (he lovingly air guitars to Link Ray's "Rumble"), revisits the halls of Headly Grange where Led Zeppelin IV (and most notably, "Stairway To Heaven") was recorded, expands on the real reasons behind his signature inventions (the double neck, for example), and unveils some rare archival television recordings of himself as a 14 year old guitar prodigy named "James" who fronted an accomplished skiffle band.
The Edge, aka David Evans, hails from a generation that in many ways was a response to the excesses of Page and his brethren who pioneered "heavy metal", "progressive rock" and multi-disc concept albums. Since these days U2 sells everything from iPods to global consciousness, it's easy to forget that the band began as a quartet of DIY wannabees, and the Edge still wears his post-punk pedigree with pride. In Dublin, The Edge pulls out the original four-track rehearsals of “Where the Streets Have No Name”, reveals the techniques behind all those foot pedals and digital delays, and tours his old high school, right to the precise spot where he first noticed the ad posted that would unite him with Paul “Bono” Thewson, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullens, Jr.
Jack White has yet to achieve the iconic status of the others, but no one can dispute his range and passion. As frontman to The White Stripes and sometime member of The Raconteurs (and now a film composer, having written the theme for the upcoming new Bond sequel), White's a hybrid of both sensibilities: a Detroit punker obsessed with analog effects and retrofitting old instruments—his one-man rebellion against the electronica deluge and AOR bombast of the 80s. In the opening scene, he fashions an instrument from a block of wood, a Coke bottle, a guitar string, and a thrift shop speaker. "See, you don't even need a guitar". From his home in Tennessee, while interacting with an identically clad child (who resembles a Damon Runynan version of “Mini Me”), White cites the raw style of bluesman Son House as his musical inspiration. Revisiting his Detroit haunts, White admits nearly joining a seminary, tours his former upholstery company, and reveals his rare debut album, recorded with a business partner.
But the biggest kick is the free form chat and jam session on an LA soundstage in which they exchange secrets, gossip, and riffs--Page is impressed by the chord work on White's "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground", and marvels at The Edge’s pedal effects. All three get to trade slide guitar licks on Led Zeppelin's "In My Time Of Dying", a moment that despite being staged (and slickly lensed by DOPs Guillermo Navarro and Erich Roland), comes off as intimate, genuine, and definitely infectious.
©Robert J. Lewis 2008
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Who'd have thought that there was filmmaker out there aspiring to be the next William "One Shot" Beaudine? J.T. Petty's The Burrowers debuted at this year's Midnight Madness and has been trumpeted as some sort of breakthrough in high concept--a horror western--but some of the first films I can remember watching were Beaudine's Billy The Kid Vs. Dracula and its co-feature Jesse James Vs. Frankenstein's Daughter--no, I'm not that old...such fare was typical of what my hometown theatre offered easily-entertained youngsters on matinees in the 70s.
Not that Beaudine's potboilers would ever be considered the definitive take on the subject, and of course, Petty is certainly a much more accomplished filmmaker (but really, who wouldn't be?)--I suspect the buzz has more to do with the acclaim for Petty's documentary S&Man (a deserved MM hit in 2006, and for reasons unknown, unavailable on DVD) than The Burrowers strengths as a film. It's a serious-minded and handsomely mounted exercise in genre-mashing, offering a solid horse opera scenario that ultimately gives away to a ho-hum creature feature.
It's 1878, shortly after the end of the Civil War: Irish farmhand Coffey (Geary, who goes back to Petty's first feature Mimic: Sentinel) works up the courage to propose to fetching Maryanne Stewart (Donahue), and rides off to her family's cabin to ask for her family's blessing. But at the Stewart homestead, the family is under seige from unseen marauders. The men barricade the women and children in the barn, and struggle to fend off what they assume are marauding Indians. When Coffey arrives, he finds the men butchered, but the women and children missing, including Maryanne.
The local ranchers assume they've been kidnapped by Commanches, and have formed a scout party lead by the local sheriff (Brown, who could save any film, and usually does...). Coffey offers his services, and makes a friend in ex-slave Callaghan (Thomas, who gets all the best one-liners). The prognosis is hardly encouraging: when shifty Parcher (Mapother, fast becoming the "oh that guy" of the early 21st century after appearances on Lost and In The Bedroom), the group's experienced tracker, is asked if he's ever successfully found anyone, his curt response is "not alive".
The posse joins up with the preening Colonel Henry Victor (Hutchison, literally twirling his moustache) and his cavalrymen, who have vowed to exterminate any Indians--Commanche or otherwise. They navigate settlements along the Dakota Plains with Parcher acting as translator, and are warned by the Ute tribe that the attacks are actually the work of "the burrowers", flesh-eating creatures who live below the earth. It soon becomes obvious to Geary that racist Victor and his Bluecoats have no interest in the search and are only interesting in killing Indians. When some of the men go missing, they are later found half-alive and buried in shallow graves--the burrowers don't kill their prey right away and use a venom to paralyze them and induce madness. This offers some hope for Maryanne's rescue--but, as Parcher offers, would she be better off dead?
The Burrowers takes its lugubrious cues from recent revisionist westerns like Unforgiven and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, than say, the coy Cinemascope pageantry of How The West Was Won or the hyper-stylized melodrama of Sergio Leone. But I couldn't help but think what a vicious wit like Joe R. Lansdale--who knows a thing or two about supernaturally-themed oaters--could've brought to a premise that begs for a few B-movie frissons to lighten its precious load (you can't help but think of Tremors, but it isn't nearly as much fun). Petty's heart is in the right place, but the entire enterprise seems more like an opportunity to wallow in period fetishes and stage Malick-influenced tableaus than to create any real sense of menace, or allegory, even though he's clearly striving for something topical with the theme of the white settlers' destruction of the ecosystem (the burrowers are said to feed on man because the buffalo were wiped out) and mistreatment of the natives (represented none-too-subtley by Victor's xenophobic bloodlust).
The script plunders The Searchers and Red River in all the right places but it's hard to get worked up over all the teeth-clenching of this buckskin testosterone fest when you realize it's all a delay mechanism until another grizzled cowpoke gets sucked into the ground by a fairly shoddy (by today's standards) CG-beastie.
Dubious effects aside, the film is otherwise beautifully shot by Rob Zombie's regular DOP Phil Parmet, who shows some real range here--er, on the range--composing the big grassy vistas and craggy facial landscapes the genre demands, complemented by an appropriately Morricone-esque score by Joseph LoDuca.
©2008 Robert J. Lewis
Thursday, September 11, 2008
It's the year 1595, at the end of a twenty-five year war between Sweden and Russia. New borders are literally being drawn up as joint teams of Finns and Russians navigate the endless forests and marshes to establish bounderies mutually satisfying. A pair of Finnish brothers, Eerik and Knut Spore, are dispatched by their King to rendevous with a team of Russian soldiers. Eerik, the oldest, is a decorated Cavalry commander and patriot who has spent much of his life fighting (and loathing) the Russians, whereas Knut is a cartographer and intellectual with a position waiting at a university in Sweden once their tasks are done.
During a stay at a village, Eerik kills a man whom he suspects of paganism and Russian sympathies. Knut protects the man's young daughter from his hotheaded brother's temper by locking her way in a root cellar, oppressing his own lustful urges. The brothers flee before the other villagers notice, leaving the girl locked up.
Exploring the ravaged northern landscape with the two Russian soldiers and their commander, the brothers come upon a mysterious, uncharted village surrounded by a large swamp, where the denizens seem to be neither Swedish nor Russian. Guilt-ridden Knut is drawn to the ominous stone sauna at the village's centre, which is both feared and respected by the townsfolk as a place of power. Knut learns that no children have been born in years, the old do not die...
While definitely violent and less-than-rose-coloured in its view of humankind, Sauna doesn't suffer from the suffocating nihilism of recent French efforts like Frontieres or Martyrs, or Rob Zombie's Sid Haig vehicles.
The film's titular object is an ominous white, marble structure central to the village that rises out of a shallow marsh, the reflection of its dark doorway creating a reverse silhouette that probably-none-too-coincidentally suggests the monolith of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I'd not seen Annnila's debut feature, the acclaimed Jadesoturi (The Jade Warrior) but after Sauna it definitely shoots to the top of my Netflix queue (actually, I don't subscribe to Netflix and am a terrible renter. I'll probably just buy it when I happen upon a copy). The widescreen imagery is evocative and immersive--reminiscent (in a good way!) of Guillermo Del Toro's chiaroscuro palette--and the pacing more assured and confident than one would expect from a sophomore effort.
©2008 Robert J. Lewis
Written by: Tony Burgess
Directed by: Bruce McDonald
Cast: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak
It's been bemoaned that the art of conversation is dead, but I've long maintained that people talk too damn much. Every time I step out, I feel like I'm the paranoid wreck in the "Tell Tale Heart" under constant auditory assault from all directions-- incessant chirping behind me at movies and concerts, in lineups and packed elevators, and now, with the innovation of the cellphone, it's become a full-fledged pandemic. These days, when you see a guy walking down the street talking to himself, you have to pause to consider: stark raving loon, or merely another Bluetooth poseur? That's why I knew I was going to love Bruce McDonald's first horror film when I was handed the promotional postcard bearing the tag line: "Shut Up, Or Die".
Just when you think you've had your fill of flesh-eating and "aim for the head" set pieces, novelist/screenwriter Tony Burgess figures out a fresh spin on the red-eyed, slobbering horde. This taut, clever adaptation of his novel "Pontypool Changes Everything" proposes: what if the zombie virus didn't come from a Venus probe, or a rampant virus, or a supernatural curse--what if it was spread by language?
Grant Mazzy (McHattie) was once the Canadian Don Imus (right down to the cowboy hat), until his abrasive wit and divining rod for controversy got him demoted to the guy who reads the obituaries, weather, and school closings in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario. CLSY-AM, aka "The Beacon" broadcasts out of a former church basement and might not offer the audience base of a big city like Toronto, but it provides Mazzy with a forum for his cynical observations and mocking contempt for his new digs--much to the chagrin of his oh-so-patient producer Sydney (Houle) and engineer Laurel Ann (Reilly). It's Valentine's Day, but Mazzy expects a typical mind-numbing shift until he's accosted by a deranged woman on his way to the station.
Over the course of the broadcast, reports come in of increasingly strange local activity: an OPP standoff with some unruly ice fisherman results in gunfire, death, and loss of limbs for both sides. A violent mob attacks a psychiatrist's practice. Mazzy dismisses it all one big stunt, until he's contacted by the BBC for his take from Ground Zero (they initially think it's got something to do with French Separatists--what other conflicts could erupt in peaceable Canada?). Mazzy can decipher only a single common element amongst the reports: the attackers seem to be speaking gibberish, repeating the same unintelligible mumbo-jumbo over and over...
As the community unravels, the Beacon proves to be a safe stronghold from the madness outside, and Mazzy is determined to stay on the air. But they get an unexpected visitor in the form of psychiatrist Dr. Mendez (Alianak), who escaped the seige on his office. He's concocted a theory that languages are a form of benign parasite in the brain--one that's somehow become malignant. The first words to be infected are benign terms of endearment— "sweetheart", "honey", "baby" (it is Valentine's Day, remember?)--could changing the meaning of commonly-used words stop the outbreak? A considerable challenge--considering the hordes have gathered at the door and the virus has now infected the station...
Godard once opined that all you need for a movie is "a girl" and "a gun". While Jean-Luc was definitely onto something, substitute "ghoul" for "girl" (but keep the gun) and I'm putty in a filmmaker's hand. I've seen and adored just about anything that pits man against the rise of a new (often cannibalistic) world order --admittedly with varying degrees of "adore", mind you (sorry, Paul W.S. Anderson)--from my first encounter Romero's seminal Pittsburgh allegories as an underage viewer to Fulci's Italian maggot-fests during my high school years to Boyle's UK-based apocalypses as a so-called mature adult--seems as long as mankind invents new things to screw up, the zombie will remain relevant. Pontypools zombies are not the undead--they're closer to the "Rage" infected in 28 Days/Weeks Later--but they're out to eliminate us, one syllable at a time...
A decade in the planning, Pontypool began with an offer from the CBC to create a radio drama. McDonald wanted to pay homage to Orson Welles' infamous 1941 War Of The Worlds broadcast, using Burgess' novel as a springboard. Burgess kept his novel's hook but changed the lead character to a radio announcer--an occupation and location ideally suited to the linguistics angle. When that fell through, McDonald realized the confined location and small ensemble would be perfect for an inexpensive, horror film. Financing was raised independently (no help from the CBC there) and the film was shot in Stayner, Ontario by McDonald's regular DOP Mirolsaw Baszak on the Red One HD hard drive camera system.
The press notes pay lip service to the likes of Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky and Carlos Castaneda, and while I won't deny the film its literary and philosophical cred, Pontypool reminded me a lot of John Carpenter's underrated Prince Of Darkness, which came and went to audience and critical indifference in 1987. It, too, was a high-minded, character-based and dialogue-driven thriller that posited questions of religious faith, alternative history, and quantum physics against a "trapped in a church" yarn featuring a mathematically-replicating evil (and a Satanic legion lead by a zombified Alice Cooper).
Best known for brief-but-memorable character turns in Seinfeld, A History of Violence, and 300, Canadian journeyman actor Stephen McHattie is superb in a rare lead role that requires him to carry a good part of the entire enterprise in close-up. His laconic charisma and leathery drawl are the film's chief strengths, and McDonald is wise to let the staging and direction serve what should be a career-making performance (he deserves a place amongst the esteemed company of Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio and David Strathairn in Good Night And Good Luck). Little Mosque On The Prairies Alianak has fun overacting as the frenzied academic-who-figures-it-all out--a clearly stylized touch that has polarized some viewers but I thought worked in the spirit of McDonald and Burgess' arch concept.
Where McDonald's past films like Highway 61 and Hardcore Logo were more sprawling and breezily absurdist affairs, Pontypool shows a remarkable gift for maintaining tension in a single location (it shares a certain kinship with Vincenzo Natali's one-room s.f. thriller Cube), mining horror and humour from a largely unseen menace (there are a handful of effectively utilized gags from the effects house Mr. X)--the director must've spent at least some of his formative years studing the pros...or he's a very quick learn. Too bad the intensity and breathless pacing of the second act is diluted by a hurried, too-convenient climax (but stay tuned for the truly bizarre end-of-credits coda!).
Heady themes won't secure an audience, of course: some of Canada's better recent genre films--Fido, the aforementioned Cube--have failed to connect with homegrown moviegoers and have found warmer reception overseas. It'd be a shame if Pontypool was met with all the enthusiasm of another sequel to The Gate (we'll see when it's finally released next spring), but considering its central conceit--the English tongue as epidemic--McDonald could well score his first major hit in Quebec...
©Robert J. Lewis 2008
THE SKY CRAWLERS (SUKAI KURORA)
Directed by:Mamoru Oshii
Written by: Chihiro Itō
Voice Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shosuke Tanihara, Ryo Kase
Produced by the renowned Tokyo animation house Production I.G.--perhaps best known to North American audiences for the epic Ghost In The Shell series and the animated sequences in Kill Bill--The Sky Crawlers stands out against the glut of anime not so much for its visual invention, but for its quiet, contemplative pacing and ambitious mixture of genres.
In a futuristic world where war has been eradicated, the human hunger for bloodshed remains, and is sated by mock conflicts staged as entertainment. Two different "companies"--Rostock and Lautern--have been engaged in a long-running campaign without any apparent political or social motivation. Born into battle are a unique race of humanoids called Kildren, adolescents who do not age past their teen years and would otherwise live forever if they were not inevitably killed in combat. In the opening skirmish, a young pilot engages a superior foe whose plane is marked with a black panther insignia.
Yuichi Kannami lands at Urisu base to report for duty as a fighter pilot. He soon makes friends with Suito Kusanagi, the airbase commander and also a Kildren, who feels they've been destined to meet for quite some time. But all Yuichi can remember of his past is that he's an expert flyer. Although he is denied his request to meet his predecessor, oddly, Yuichi is assigned his plane. Even the mysterious pilot's friends and lover (a prostitute) can't determine whether he's alive or dead.
Yuichi befriends his fellow pilots and they become close during their candid meets in and out of the barracks, including a local diner and even a brothel (!), even though what he really wants it to get closer to Kusanagi. Eventually Kusanagi admits that she killed the pilot he's been drafted to replace, in order to free her former lover from the cruel cycle of meaningless violence. The other pilot, bearing the black panther logo, left her company to join his rivals with the promise that he could become an adult. Aware of Yuichi's skills, she pleads for him to kill her in battle and free her, too. But he cannot.
The stakes of the game eventually find Yuichi taking the skies against the black panther, now an "adult man" who proves to be almost supernaturally unstoppable. His moment of truth arrives just as he he becomes aware of the lies behind the sport and his love for Kusanagi. But if his skills and aircraft fail him, another pilot will surely be on the way....
Oshii takes an oft-mined Rollerball/The Running Man scenario and plays up the existential ennui with expansive vistas and ambient soundscapes that threaten to suffocate the diminutive characters as they wait out their doomed lives--there's as much Malick in play here at there is Miyazaki.
Like the replicants of Blade Runner, the Kildren were initially bred for mankind's benefit but eventually developed human emotions and an awareness of their mortality. They're a lot less violently "proactive" than the likes of Roy Batty and Pris--rather, they're a mopey, melancholy lot, prone to longing gazes and hushed conversations punctuated with even longer silences. Their simple cel-shaded renderings make them seem a lot like anemic androgynes sporting identical faces and emo hair cuts--thankfully, the retro costumes handily preserve "his" and "hers" accoutrements to help tell some of the characters apart.
The aircraft design is inspired and convincing, like Bruce McCall versions of vintage WW2 Spitfires and Corsairs. They're showcased in a series of pulse-pounding dogfights that burst off the screen with gut-wrenching 3D choreography and impressive photorealism. The theme here is as schizo as the imagery: the whammo factor, for some, will seem an odd fit with the obvious social commentary at the heart of its admittedly timely premise--children bred for warfare, flag-waving propaganda copped from classic Hollywood war films, European imperialism has gone awry, and videogaming's clean violence without consequence. And yet the tone is too prosaic to express any real outrage.
But the pretty pictures and sheer oddness of it all will keep anime enthusiasts and euchronie readers engrossed for its lengthy, 2-hour-plus running time.
Sony Pictures will distribute the film in North America and will reportedly submit The Sky Crawlers as their entry for Best Animated Feature consideration for 2009's Academy Awards.
©2008 Robert J. Lewis
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
THE DUNGEON MASTERS
Directed by: Keven McAlester
Cast: Scott Corum, Richard Meeks, Elizabeth Reesman
In the fall of 1982, my friends and I were dealt our own Night That Panicked America that shook our god-fearing, Ottawa Valley hamlet. CBS premiered an otherwise unremarkable TV movie entitled Mazes and Monsters that paired Meatballs star Chris Makepeace opposite a then-largely-unknown Tom Hanks. Based on a novel by Rona Joffe (and shot in Canada, with a musical score by Hagood Hardy!), it was a dramatization of the events surrounding the disappearance of Michigan university student James Dallas Egbert III, whose mind was apparently destroyed by his obsession with the insidious social menace of the day: role-playing games--specifically, Dungeons and Dragons.
While overwrought and heavily fictionalized (the case's investigator disproved most of Joffe's account, blaming the youth's problems on drug addiction and homosexual intolerance), it didn't matter: the sentiment drove home with the usual reactionary parental and religious groups looking for an easy blame for society's ills. All role-playing games were immediately banned in my high school, (even my favorite, Car Wars!) and "D&D" became a perjorative only slightly less prestigious than "slasher flick" and "heavy metal". Of course, typical of such media circuses, the controversy didn't hamper TSR's sales in the least--D&D sales reportedly quadrupled within a year of the film's broadcast!
While I was a serious sci-fi and comics buff, I was never a disciple of role-playing games...their slow pace bored me silly, their concepts smacked of a third-rate Terry Brooks novel, and I couldn't stick within the rules--why couldn't my cleric just pull out a sword and decapitate everyone? If this was indeed "role playing", then why couldn't I do what I wanted? Besides, I was too hooked on Robotron and Defender...
...which brings me to this age of Jack Thompson's specious, reactionary crusades against Rockstar Games (echoed, unfortunately, by persons who-should-know-better like Hilary Clinton) and the surfeit of "studies" linking videogames with everything to childhood obesity to youth crime . Compared to the outcry over "Hot Coffee", preaching the evils of role playing games, which usually involves bunch of aging geeks tossing six-side die and scribbling over character sheets while hopped up on Diet Coke and Pizza Pockets, seems about as absurd as the Frederic Wertham trials.
Filmmaker Keven McAlester's engaging documentary The Dungeon Masters (the film's title echoes the name of the book by the investigator of Egbert III's tragedy) explores the current state of role-playing games--yes, people actually still play them--by following three devotees who are well into adulthood and whose mundane lives are both enlivened and arrested by their committed fandom.
The subjects, at first glance, embody the stereotypical image of an aging sci-fi geek who's spent a little too much time under convention hall flourescents getting acquainted with spirit gum and Joe Louis cakes, but beneath their respective defensive bravado are more complex individuals. There's more than a little bit of The Simpson's smug "Comic Book Guy" in slovenly Scott, an unemployed hypnotherapist who lives in a rat's nest apartment in California where his wife toils as the building's custodian and mother to their infant son while he plods away on a fantasy novel and assorted filmmaking efforts. His cable access series Uncle Drac’s Magical Clubhouse (check out a clip here) has won him local cult status but his treatment for an epic fantasy novel has him courted by a major fantasy publisher until his meddlesome agent costs him the deal.
In Louisiana, computer programmer Elizabeth has endured a series of bad jobs and an abusive marriage, retreats into her alter ego as a "Drow elf", right down to ash-hued makeup and pointed ears. In the elfin society, women wield the power and can have men executed. Surviving Hurricane Katrina, she begins a new relationship with a fellow male "Drow" (love means never having to hide the greasepaint) and aspires to steady employment in a "corporate" job until circumstances find her single again.
Middle-aged Richard freefalls through life in Florida as a motivational speaker, nudist, U.S. army reservist, and dungeon master-for-hire as he seeks to reconnect with an adult stepson in the military whom he abandoned as a child, and ultimately, renounces the fantasy realm to re-embrace his Jewish faith.
It's Richard's story that is the most bittersweet, but I suppose if I related to any one character more than another, it would be Scott, who clearly has talent but whose impatience and fractured work habits have cost him the creative path he'd prefer to emulate than simply follow as a dutiful fan (although I am thinner and have managed to forge a profitable, if not exactly illustrious, living as an artist). By virtue of Elizabeth's comparative youth (she's only 23), she has time to mature and develop (I hope!) a better taste in partners.
Documentaries about obscure subcultures, esp. those with boomer/Gen-X cache, are nothing new these days--witness the recent sensation King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters and the glut of reality TV that sets up its vain, washed-up subjects for ridicule. But rather than do the obvious and chide the subjects for their extended adolescence and self-denial (and kudos to Scott, Richard, and Elizabeth for placing so much trust in the filmmakers), McAlester structures each of their tales as something of a personal, heroic journey, with dramatic pay-offs that shrewdly suggest that their fervid imaginations and obvious (if misguided) intellects are as empowering as they could be deemed imprisoning.
A former music video director and video artist, McAlester has an eye for composition that's complemented by the work of Richard Linklater's DOP Lee Daniel (whose distinctive work on Slacker and Dazed And Confused was good prep for these subjects and locales), and a playful, evocative score by Blond Redhead.
If I found the film lacking in one aspect, it's that I wouldn't have minded some screen time with D&D creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson who likely could have never foreseen the phenomena they created as a series of fanzines back in 1974, or perhaps author Steven Johnson, whose book Everything Bad Is Good For You dares to take the contrarian view and praises marginalized media (like role-playing games) for their unique, even beneficial, developmental and cognitative strengths.
©2008 Robert J. Lewis
Monday, September 08, 2008
There's a terrific scene in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler in which Mickey Rourke, as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is assigned to deli counter duty at the supermarket where he works stocking shelves. Even with his thinning Vince Neil locks under a hair net, he works the room like a champion huckster--charming the ladies, patiently doting on an indecisive old biddie, chucking "long bombs" to the guys. Years in the ring (along with too much booze, drugs, and steroids) have eroded Robinson's physique and his health, but not his capacity to excite a crowd. It makes you realize how much you've missed that Mickey Rourke--the Reagan era's once magnetic heir to Brando and Pacino until he blew his ride on an ego-fueled bender that had him plummeting from one bad career choice to another...
The Wrestler is being trumpeted as a comeback not only for Rourke, but also for the director himself. I’m not sure why—since his debut with the homemade mathematics oddity Pi a decade ago, Aronofsky hasn’t been the most prolific filmmaker, but he’s been busy, mostly with efforts that have hit a variety of detours. After the innovative and acclaimed Hubert Selby adaptation Requiem For A Dream, he announced his "Batman: Year One" project, which became Nolan’s reboot. Then, he took a kick at Watchmen, before being usurped by Paul Greengrass, who was usurped by Zach Snyder. Then, of course, there was the first incarnation of The Fountain, which saw its production halted, sets dismantled in Australia, and megamillions wasted when headliner Brad Pitt left the production.
Somewhere along the line, he campaigned to direct an episode of Lost. The one pursuit that wasn't in vain was his engagement to actress Rachel Weisz, with whom he eventually made The Fountain opposite Hugh Jackman.
Perhaps, then, the comparatively uncluttered dramatics and kitchen sink milieu of The Wrestler appealed to a filmmaker usually consumed with--and probably exhausted by--big themes and grand visions that would've taxed Kubrick. It's the first film Aronofsky hasn't had a part in writing himself (the screenplay is by Robert D. Siegel), but thematically, it's a fit: it's another tale of a marginilized obsessive consumed by his addiction.
Randy Robinson--born Robin Ramzinksi--works weekdays at a New Jersey supermarket and spend his weekends on the regional wrestling circuit, struggling through matches in school gyms and low-rent venues for a percentage of the door and a reminder of his former glory. Back in the 80s, he was the subject of compilation videos, a WWF video game, and even spawned his own action figure. Well into middle-age now, he pumps his battered body with steroids and can barely take the blows he choreographs with the young bucks hoping for a shot at his former stardom. Once in a while he persuades one of the kids in the trailer park to take him on in a round of Nintendo, but they're not impressed by their neighbour in 8-bit mode. His truck radio blares the hits of Cinderella and Ratt--from cassette tapes, no less.
When he suffers a heart attack after a fight, Randy takes stock of his life and attempts to woo the stripper with whom he's spent too much money and many platonic nights: Cassidy (Tomei) is also well-past forty and a single mom, and welcomes Randy's sincere, if aggressive, attentions and protection from the college rabble. He also seeks to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Stephanie), now college-age but still harbouring heartbreak over his absence. He follows her home and offers a gift--a hideous jacket he's picked out (despite Cassidy's protests)--and after a bitter, cathartic exchange, Stephanie agrees to meet her father for dinner. But he never shows up--he misses the date for a last minute match and a drunken tryst with some groupies. Randy tortures himself over his stupidity--but the ring and whatever-passes-for-an-adoring-crowd are an addiction that clouds his better judgement.
Then along comes the tempting offer of a twentieth anniversary rematch against The Ayatollah, with whom he once clashed at Maple Leaf Gardens. While Randy has been warned another fight could kill him, this could be his legacy for Cassidy, Stephanie, and his fans...
The Wrestler in many ways is another straightforward palooka melodrama ala The Champ and of course, Rocky. But it's a unique environment for a sports movie: not the Vince McMahon Pay-Per-View spectacles merchandised out the wazoo, but the low-rent rasslin' I saw on TV as a kid, when beefy, unbuff galoots would knick their skulls with razor blades so the wounds would open during the match and the blood would splatter the old ladies in the front row.
Siegel and Aronofsky stage some absorbing "fly on the wall" moments with the fighters backstage, many of whom discuss their craft with the seriousness and devotion of Cirque Du Soleil acrobats and the extremes to what they'll put themselves through to entertain even a spottily-attended house--metal chairs, broken glass, barbed wire, and then there's the staple gun--earned my begrudging respect.
Rourke invests the role with a commitment that rightly has been drawing parallels to DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull but with nary a trace of New York-honed "method"--rather, the performance brims with authenticity that could only come from having lived a life not too far removed from the one imagined onscreen. Aronofsky delays showing us his face (the first few scenes play out terrifingly like a body slam version of Gus Van Sandt's Elephant) but after the opening credits that chronicle Randy's--and Rourke's--once haughty starpower, it's a shock when we finally see him revealed as a shambling, leathery, peroxided hulk to whom even the most minor physical movement seems to sear him with pain . For me, it harkened back to his nuanced performance as Johnny Handsome from Walter Hill's underrated 1988 crime drama, as a man whose soul was fractured than his surface appearance.
Notable, too, is the support from Tomei, on a career resurrection of her own after her strong turn in Sidney Lumet's Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, who brings a defiant dignity to what could've been a hackneyed "hooker with a heart of gold" role (they're clearly made for each other--80s relics both who blame Kurt Cobain for ruining the party).
In his intro, Aronofsky remarked that all one needs to make a good film is "a lens and good performers". And, I'd add, a director as willing to dive off the ropes as his protagonist . Rourke rewards that risk by giving The Wrestler his all--body, and soul...
© Robert J. Lewis 2008
Sunday, September 07, 2008
Written by Don McKellar
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Cast: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael García Bernal, Alice Braga, Don McKellar, Danny Glover, Yuseke Iseya, Mitchell Nye, Maury Chaykin
Fernando Meirelles' Blindness gradually lacquers its images with a bleached, milky white sheen that suggests a forgotten William Castle process--"Glaucom-A-Rama"? (and a complimentary eye-exam in Coward's Corner?) It's suitable that this allegorical saga of a planet-wide plague of "white sickness" (a sudden loss of vision, but at no risk to one's capacity to brood) eventually becomes hard to discern visually--the pics match the dramatics, adapted from Jose Saramago's much-lauded novel, which have an awful lot to say about The Human Condition, but at the expense of any real sense.
Of course I'm being cheekily cynical here--but then I'm always weary of those important sure-this-has-a-sci-fi-plot-but-it's-not-a-Hollywood-movie efforts that co-opt genre fiction's trappings but feel they're taking the high road by withholding the pulpy pleasures (the powerful Children Of Men excepted, in which its doom-laden drudgery was infused with humanity and urgency, but does the world really need another No Blade Of Grass or The Quiet Earth?). And the history of literary adaptations sporting international ensembles is a spotty one: go back to At Play In The Fields Of The Lord, right on up to Love In The Time Of Cholera. Maybe it's a conspiracy from the beleagured publishing industry, because if you leave this thing utterly stymied, the obvious answer is it's because you didn't read the book. Well, mission accomplished: I'm kinda-sorta of tempted to tackle the novel now, because I found the film's premise intriguing enough to want to try and figure out just what the hell this was all about.
Never have I pined so hard for Rod Serling to step into the final shot, take a drag, and beat me over the head, and tell me what I'm supposed to be feeling.
While hardly the Cimino-esque disaster you might think it is given the Cannes fall-out, the film, while ambitious, is damn frustrating, but not due to a deliberately obtuse/David Lynch-y/Lost Highway surrealist vib--rather, it's maddeningly inert, and illogical, with burdened with random character motivations (from characters who are never named). Although based on a Portugese novel, it's very Canadian (relax, I'm born n' bred here, and have worked on many-a-homegrown production), with its multicultural cast, existential themes, chatty exposition, careful avoidance of American-style spectacle. Think Atom Egoyan's Day Of The Triffids (without the walking plants, obviously), and the scene will be set...
It begins innocuously enough with a traffic jam in an unnamed city. A young Japanese man (Iseya) has suddenly lost his sight while at the wheel. He insists on no hospitals, so a good samaritan drives him home--and then steals his car. The young man's wife comes home, and convinces him to see an eye doctor. The opthamologist (Ruffalo) can find nothing wrong physically--even thought the man describes the condition vividly as a blinding blanket of whiteness--and concludes it's a psychological condition. Until he himself succumbs to the syndrome the next morning, and concludes it's an ocular virus contagious by touch. Soon, more and more citizens become afflicted--the car thief (McKellar), a prostitute (Braga, far less a survivalist than she was in I Am Legend)-- prompting a nation-wide quarantine. When the government disease control squad comes for the the opthamologist, his wife (Moore) fakes the condition so she can go off with him. They're interned in an abandoned mental hospital along with the young Japanese man, the thief, the prostitute, a young boy (Nye), a gentle old man (Glover),and others.
Seemingly forgotten by the outside world, save for periodic food and medicine drops, the inmates learn to navigate around the cramped, filthy interior thanks to Moore's aide. But in a neighbouring ward, a young hothead (Bernal), declares himself kingpin and assumes control of food distribution, which he enforces with random shots of his pistol. Payment is at first taken in the form of cash and jewelry, but when the offerings run out, he demands that the women of Moore's ward provide sexual services or he'll let everyone starve. After days with sustenance, the women comply. But after a single night of brutal rape, Moore leads a revolt and engineers a fiery escape from the hospital, only to find the outside world a horrifying wasteland of squalor and starvation...until...
...that would be telling. Suffice to say that Don McKellar's adaptation seems intent on cramming in too much of the source material--to the point of having to shoehorn in a narrator (Danny Glover's character) at the halfway point. For those who have seen McKellar's charming end-of-the-world elegy Last Night, Blindness is a nihilistic 180 on a similiar scenario. But while attempting to translate the novel's symbolism visually to the screen is a noble pursuit, the literalness of the motion picture medium works against Saramongo's high-falutin' ideas and interior passages. Because everyone else in the cast is so enfeebled, Moore becomes our sighted surrogate, but her characterization is illustrative of the film's many problems.
Moore defies authorities to stand by her man and joins Ruffalo in the asylum, but once there, shrinks away the moment Bernel and his crony Chaykin take control of the ward and food supply. Somehow, this diminutive little cur has smuggled in a handgun and a seemingly endless supply of ammo, which is enough to keep the inmates at bay (a stray bullet is deadly, sure, but his aim is sloppy, so why not chance it?). Moore could've snatched the weapon from this fool's hand in about ten seconds, and yet, she shrinks away and lets him starve the others and rape the women as payment. It takes a woman's death by beating to prompt her to action, but why allow it to happen at all, when she's had the upper hand from the very beginning? Obviously, it's in service of another grand statement, but the film lost me at this point. What's more---all the adult males are either blubbering idiots, government cronies, sage-like patricians, thieves, or violent rapists. So why betray the female empowerment subtext by having Moore suddenly degenerate into a shrinking wallflower, just to serve the plot?
I'm not sure how the blind will react to being portrayed as completely helpless--reduced to clawing at window glass and pawing unopened canned goods like George Romero zombies when not being fed on by wild dogs--surely in this age where so much of the essentials of urban life are carried out through automation, international business is conducted via desktop terminals, and technology developed to assist the visually impaired and the physically challenged (sight restoration thru stem cells having recently been successful in some candidates) there would be many who could continue to live their lives comfortably and even assist in the transition for the newly-afflicted. Had the story been a generation removed from the epidemic, we might buy the fact that the details and the "whys" have been forgotten in favour of immediate, day-to-day survival. But the time-frame here--presumably only a few months--is so compressed that the complete breakdown of society is absurdly quick, leaving ciphers to scavenge where only nameless ciphers once lived before.
While Blindness is handsomely shot by César Charlone (who also photographed Meirelles' far-superior City Of God), I was underwhelmed by the film's non-milky visuals, possibly because after last year's I Am Legend, 28 Weeks Later, and even Wall-E, I've finally become numb to derelict megalopolises, esp. when they seem no worse off after the apocalypse than they did before.
©Robert J. Lewis
ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO
Written & directed by: Kevin Smith
Cast: Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, Brian Halloran, Jason Mewes, Brandon Routh, Traci Lords, Justin Long, Katie Morgan
Before I begin: Kevin, enough with the Star Wars. Look, I'm as big a fan of the Classic Trilogy as anyone of a certain age, but peurile jokes about Princess "Lay-yah" were probably doodled in countless Scribner notebooks well before Empire was released (I know they were in mine...thank goodness for the pre-digital age, where everything lost is justly so...). Hell, you already gave us that hilarious debate over the Rebel Alliance vs. The Empire's independent contractors in Clerks, schtick about Jedi mind tricks in Mallrats, and cast Mark Hamill as a villain (complete with lightsaber) in Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back. Time to move on...have you looked at the box-office receipts for The Clone Wars? The rest of the world (and presumably, much of your fan base) has...
Recycled jokes and moth-ridden pop culture references aren't the only problem with Smith's latest attempt to expand his cinematic horizons--while he was too busy writing unfinished comic book sagas (which I'm still stewing about, obviously) and thesping opposite the likes of Jennifer Garner, Bruce Willis, and the cast of Degrassi: The Next Generation, along came Judd Apatow and his killer brood to declare themselves the new kings of raunch comedy and the Red Band trailer, and make Jay And Silent Bob's stoner schtick seem as dated as an old Cheech N' Chong LP . But committed fans who have lamented Kevin Smith's bold (and after a decade-plus, terribly familiar) statement that he was abandoning the "Askewniverse" for good will breath a sigh of relief (or whatever) at his latest foul-mouthed farce, which true to form, layers on the scatalogical gags and arch dialogue around a soft, sentimental centre.
Twentysomethings Zack (Rogen) and Miri (Banks) are best friends since childhood who share a ramshackle apartment in a blue collar hockey town. While each is bright and good-hearted, neither has set the world on fire, career-wise, with Zack slumming at the counter of a chi-chi coffee shop. Suffice to say, the monthly demands of rent, food, and hydro are taxing, and their platonic relationship doesn't generate much heat to get through the long Pennsylvania winters.
At their miserable 10-year high school reunion, Miri discovers, among other indignities, that she's become the YouTube phenomenon "Granny Pants" thanks to a slacker's cell phone camera, and the happiest alumni (Routh and Long, who almost steal the show) have found notoriety as gay porn stars. Zack gets the idea to exploit her celebrity status as a viral video star for their financial gain, given that their utilities have been turned off and eviction looms. They'll make their own skin flick, he offers, because 1) if everyone's seeing Miri's ass for free on the web, why not get paid for it? and 2) "everybody wants to see everybody else naked, even if it’s two nobodies from the mid-west". Zack pursuades his workmate Delaney (The Office's Robinson) into coughing up some seed money (his tax refund courtesy of Dubya, which he'd planned to blow on a plasma TV), enlist Deacon (Clerks star Anderson) to work the camcorder, and hire a few adult "professionals" for authenticity (Lords, Morgan, and Mewes). Their opus will be entitled "Star Whores", sort of a latter-day Flesh Gordon, with a ready-made audience and lots of sequel potential.
...until the ramshackle building housing their set and equipment gets demolished.
Undaunted, Zack moves the production moves to his employer's digs, and an entirely new scenario is concocted. But Zack and Miri's cavalier friendship is tested as the shooting day of their debut coupling approaches, and Zack grows resentful of Miri's decision to "perform" with another cast member...
(Cripes--"seed money", "shooting day", "member", even "concocted"...somehow, the more I try to verbally dance around the subjects, the more I sound like a hormonal 14-year old...)
By the time the gang moves the production to the coffee shop for an after hours shoot, we're back in Clerks 2 territory, with a scatalogical "backdoor" gag that will replace any lingering trauma of that film's biker dude attempting to mount a goat. I'm not sure why Zack and co. set out to make a "real" porn programmer of the Vivid Video/Jenna Jameson variety, with deliberate bad acting and stagey production values--wouldn't it have been more timely, and accurate to Zack and Miri's demographic, to have gone for a homemade sex tape ala Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, Paris Hilton, or (gawd help us) Fred Durst? The laughs are solid, sure, but much of it smacks of discarded scenes from Boogie Nights.
The Monroeville, PA location affords Smith the opportunity to mine some nods to another George..."Romero", with a visit to the infamous Monroeville Mall (the Maceys is still there!), a local hockey team named "The Zombies", even a Tom Savini cameo. But the film owes it successes to the familiar presences of Smith's rep company--acerbic Halloran and the inimitable Mewes, neither stretching here--and the Sid And Marty Kroft-ish charm of the competition's MVP Rogen, who takes some of the preciousness out of Smith's sometimes too-precious verbal melees--although I laughed the loudest at the cameo from another Apatow alumnus, 40 Year Old Virgin's Gerry Bednob, here again required to deliver a hilarious profane diatribe against his slacker staff.
Some years ago, Smith after the epic closing chapter Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, he attempted a more dramatic venture with Jersey Girl, until any hopes of an image change were squashed by the Bennifer/Gigli fallout, tainting the good-natured effort with a Ben Affleck backlash and forcing him to remove J-Lo's scenes, only to have the film die a quick death. So he was back with Clerks 2, an equally enjoyable-but-unremarkable confection that, for reasons I can't imagine, was awarded an 8-minute standing ovation at Cannes...
Zack And Miri is more spirited and less guarded than Jersey Girl, and has thus far avoided the controversy of his ambitious anti-Catholic romp Dogma, although I'm sure once it's released there will be those bluenoses who will call for its destruction based on the title alone (and despite his past battles with the MPAA, Smith was able to secure an "R" rating for what might be his most gloriously profane screenplay thus far). The inevitable sex scene between the two leads is undeniably sweet and touching (thanks largely to the natural chemistry between the leads, since Smith, by his own admission, isn't much of a director), and the overall tone benign enough to calm those less liberal-minded viewers who only know Lords' work from her John Waters films and Melrose Place appearances.
Unfortunately, the film never recovers from a third act detour into a series of painfully drawn-out relationship spats played out at top volume, to the annoyance of the porno crew, Monroeville's citizens (living and undead), and certainly this viewer. Smith should've studied the competition a bit more closely--the film could've used a lot less Chasing Amy, a little more Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd...
©Robert J. Lewis 2008
Saturday, September 06, 2008
Written by: Mabrouk El Mechri, Frederic Bendusi, and Christophe Turpin
Directed by: Mabrouk El Mechri
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Francois Damiens, Saskia Flanders, Karim Belkhadra, Alan Rossett
Jean-Claude Van Damme is just about the last person I ever thought I'd see given the Charlie Kaufman treatment, but in what the programmers have labeled a "discovery year" (read: "What? No Miike?"), here it is and it's the damnedest thing: Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD has become, incredibly, one of TIFF 2008's most talked-about films, and one of the few Midnight Madness sell-outs in that program's 20 year history. It's also the first Van Damme effort I've sat through top-to-bottom since, well, whatever the last DTV potboiler was in which he played another set of kickboxing twins/clones, and I don't think I've shelled out money for a JCVD theatrical feature since Maximum Risk (wait, wasn't he a twin in that one, too?). While I found him to be a skilled martial artist (on the other hand, I always thought that if pushed, I could take flabby Seagal), he never struck me as particularly charismatic, and his choice of scripts smacked of leftovers from the Golan/Globus era. Turns out I may have been wrong--for once, it didn't take a Tarantino homage to convince me to reevaluate another washed-up B-movie icon.
Although QT's spirit can certainly be felt throughout, with its mobius loop structure, dizzying tonal shifts, verbal duels overstuffed with cinematic ephemera (mostly en francais, but hey...), hell, there's even a vintage soul track over the opening titles. It's an amazing trick--managing to work as a show business satire, gripping kidnapping yarn, blistering autobiographical confessional--and not a word of it is true.
The film opens with the single best action sequence Van Damme has ever done: to the oft-sampled groove of Curtis Mayfield's "Hard Times" (the superior Baby Huey cover), our man storms a desert camp and, in a stunning four-minute continuous take, dispatches various nogoodnicks who come at him with everything from guns to knives to flamethrowers in a sinewy ballet of bomb blasts and broken limbs. That is, until our hero reaches the enemy bunker and one of the flats falls over. The young hack directing the spectacle demands another take, to his star's exhausted protests ("I'm 47 years old!"). But JCVD's has little choice but to comply--his funds are tight, and he's in the midst of a child custody trial, where his filmography is the key evidence used against him as proof as to why he's unfit as a single parent to his daughter (Flanders).
His bottomfeeding Hollywood agent (Rossett) tries to sell him on another action cheapie shot in Bulgaria, but Van Damme pleads a shot at a studio film, even in a smaller role. He takes a time-out to his home in Schaarbeek to visit his family and reboot. After posing dutifully with some fans (who just seconds earlier were dissing violent American genre cinema), he rushes to the post-office to collect a wire transfer of a cash advance on his next project.
Flash forward: the police have formed a tactical command post around the post-office, led by Chief Bruges (Damiens). It appears that JCVD has suffered a psychotic meltdown and has taken the staff and customers hostage in return for a hefty ransom. The local media has a field day--it's Belgium, after all--vintage interviews replayed and dissected, his parents are brought in to help negotiate, and the adoring throng cheers on the local boy as an anti-hero.
©Robert J. Lewis 2008
Friday, September 05, 2008
ME AND ORSON WELLES
(United Kingdom, 2008)
Written by: Holly Gent Palmo, Vincent Palmo
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Cast: Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Ben Chapman, Zoe Kazan, James Tupper, Eddie Marsan
It's somehow inevitable that Richard Linklater would eventually latch on to Orson Welles as a subject--each filmmaker made their respective directorial debuts at a criminally young age, instantly forging a personal and independent sensibility, remaining prolific while constantly experimenting with cinematic technique and form, and not above hanging up the auteur cap once in a while to play in more commercial sandboxes. But whereas Linklater seems to have had no trouble getting his eclectic body of work produced, Welles spent the better part of his career shilling for cash to finance projects that were either compromised beyond his bold intentions or never completed for a variety of reasons, some entirely his fault.
The Welles we meet here is a long way from corpulent, Mephisto-bearded patrician of Vivitar commercials and four-walled Nostradamus documentaries: it's 1937, and the tireless multi-hyphenate prodigy has, at the ripe old age of 22, already polarized the New York theatrical world with a "voodoo" version of "Macbeth" (actually, a groundbreaking collaboration between FDR's Federal Theatre Project and The American Negro Theater of Harlem) and a truncated radio adaptation of "Hamlet" (which eliminated the "To Be Or Not To Be" soliloquy!). He's about to embark on a radical take on "Julius Caesar", one which will modernize the themes to (then) contemporary fascist dress, eschew the traditional stage ornamentations, ramp up the violence, and run a mere 90 minutes. A tall order for what would be Broadway's first-ever Shakespearean production, which Welles proudly boasts to anyone within earshot.
But it's the Me of the title through which this formative period of Welles' career is recounted. Based upon the novel by Robert Kaplow, it's the kinda-sorta true story of a 17-year old New Jersey dreamer, Richard Samuels (Efron), who's bored with the hive mind of high school and who, like Welles, aspires to conquer the Manhattan stage--to the chagrin of his single mother and grandmother, of course. In his spare hours, he frequents a music shop for inspiration, where he strikes up a friendship with shy Gretta (Kazan), who hopes to one day sell her short stories to The New Yorker.
Outside of the newly refurbished Mercury Theatre on 41st Street, Richard comes upon Welles' (McKay) announcement of his avante-garde, modernist interpretation of "Caesar", as it will be displayed on the marquee. Through a happy accident, Richard is invited to join Welles' troupe in the bit part of Lucius, one that'll require him to learn the ukelele and sing...
Sucked into the whirlwind pace of Welles' world, Richard is inspired by his newfound mentor's bravado (who is only five years older than he is!), but also intimidated by his ruthless and unpredictable temper. He becomes enamoured with "older woman" Sonja (Danes), the production's secretary and Welles' sometime girlfriend--a secret everyone in the troupe conspires to hide from his pregnant wife, Virginia. Richard accepts a bet from actor "Joe" Cotton (Tupper--an uncanny lookalike) that he'll get her into bed before anyone else, and engineers a date. But he finds that while Sonja is a willing partner, her first duty is to herself and her own career advancement, and she's using Welles to get to producer David O. Selznick.
When Welles betrays her, Richard confronts him on the subject, and is promptly fired. Then re-hired. Such is life with Welles, who'll charm anyone and promise anything to secure a historic opening night...
Me And Orson Welles is hardly the first backstage fantasia about life with Welles--in the last decade and a half we've seen Cradle Will Rock, RKO 481, and even Ed Wood. What's unique about this one is its source: author Kaplow was inspired by a backstage shot of a young bit player next to Welles, and conceived this "what if" scenario about the cruel realities of showbiz (during the post-premiere Q&A, we were told the boy in the photo is one Arthur Anderson, still living and in his 90s).
Linklater maintains a breezy tone with the expected Noises Off antics as the days lead up the big premiere, tempered with the very real incidents of anti-Semitism and the misogyny of the era. As with his delightful mainstream hit School Of Rock, the idealistic young leads are dealt a hard life lesson without the usually treacley sentiment--in the end, everyone's better off for having had the experience at all. It's also a rare period drama that's a lot less earnest and grandiose than most its type (unlike Tim Robbins' Cradle will Rock, Efron and Kazan don't walk off into a lament over Andrew Lloyd Webber).
Never much of a visual stylist, Linklater keeps things decidely non-fancy and avoids the monochrome grit of most period recreations in favour of a warm Rockwellian palette and colourful costumes that could almost have come from Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. Using vintage production drawings, audio recordings, and eyewitness testimony of the event, Welles' unique take on "Caesar" has been restaged with a high degree of accuracy, on sets constructed on, amazingly, The Isle Of Man (also, London's Pinewood Studios and New York locations). According to the film's production notes, the nearest replica of the Mercury Theatre that could be found was in England, with many of the extras drafted from The Royal Shakespearean Company.
Much will be made of the presence of teen sensation Efron, who, for those sleeping under a rock, is something of a tween icon these days based upon his association with Disney's High School Musical franchise. While no match for Welles at the same age (as of this writing, he's just shy of 22), he's perfectly fine here in what is essentially the ingenue role--methinks he might be a little too elfin and contemporary but he's an agreeable, if slight, presence. Efron seemed genuinely thrilled in the post-screening Q&A to have been offered the opportunity to show some range, and he accomplishes just that.
As an adult performer, Danes continues to win me over. She's very good here in a potentially unlikeable role: Sonja is hardly the sweetheart Richard thinks she is--while manipulative and self-serving, she's at least honest about it.
But the film soars because of newcomer McKay, having previously portrayed the man on stage, who perfectly embodies Welles' brilliance, charisma, and fearless ego. In a standout scene, Welles' segues into a passage from his The Magnificent Ambersons script during a live radio drama opposite Les Tremayne, eliciting equal parts awe and contempt from the cast and crew--a perfect Wellesian contradiction. McKay follows in the considerable footsteps of Liev Schreiber, Vincent D'Onfrio, Angus McFadyen, Jean Guérin, and Danny Huston (I suppose it's worth mentioning voice actor Maurice LeMarche as well) and eclipses them all--not bad for his screen debut.
On my way out of the theatre, I overheard a couple of killjoys who had a problem with Efron--but more so with his sizeable teenage fan presence in the audience, I would suspect--and one of them sniffed indignantly "how many of them have ever seen any of Welles' works?" I say "who cares"? If this entertaining little fable leads even a handful of teenage girls to sample Citizen Kane or The Third Man, then what's the harm? Cineaste-types too often act like they own these films, and are quick to become resentful when someone outside of their hermetically-sealed subculture dare to intrude. Welles felt Shakespeare was for everyone--so are his own films and how one comes to discover them really doesn't matter.
"What will I do to top this?!" McKay wonders in the final moments. That's a good question, Richard...
©Robert J. Lewis 2008
Directed by Ed Harris
Written by Ed Harris and Robert Knott
Cast: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortenson, Rene Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henriksen, Timothy Spall
The most anachronistic thing about Ed Harris' Appaloosa is how straight-forward it is--post-Unforgiven and Deadwood, whatever audience endures for the Western (or, at least, me...) has become so used to "deconstructionism" that when faced with an old-fashioned "oater" that's as unpretentious and straight-shooting as a tattered Zane Gray paperback you might unearth at a yard sale, one can't help but go looking for the allegory behind every swing of a saloon door or glint of gun metal. Is the jailhouse supposed to represent Abu Ghraib? And those cattle rustlers--they're Blackwater, right? Plus, there's less spoken profanity in its entire 114 minute running time than in a single Al Swearengen soliloquy--this thing could almost play in the Gunsmoke time slot on Peachtree TV.
After the impassioned--and at times, histrionic--biopic Pollock, which Harris nurtured obsessively for several years for his directorial debut, this sophomore effort displays a surprisingly warm touch from such an intense and devoted actor, who ambitions here were simply to create a type of film he enjoyed in his youth. Not a terribly radical notion, admittedly--with Open Range and the remake of 3:10 To Yuma having also attempted to resurrect the horse opera in recent years to varied success, but Harris' take is easy, breezy stuff, chock full of genre conventions--yes, that's "Camptown Races" playing on the saloon piano! and the Indians belt out war whoops--that are only dutifully addressed in favour of oddball character bits.
Based on a novel by Spenser creator Robert B. Parker, the story is set in the titular town in New Mexico, circa 1882. When Appaloosa's Marshall and deputies are murdered in cold blood under the orders of rancher Randall Bragg (Irons, taking cues on masking his accent from Daniel Day Lewis), the town elders waste no time in hiring nomadic lawman Virgil Cole (Harris) and his long-time friend and deputy Everett Hitch (Mortenson) to do something about the Bragg's campaign of terror. They reluctantly agree to Cole's rather extreme set of laws, active immediately. Within the day, the seasoned gunmen have already unholstered their weapons and sent Bragg a message that he won't be tolerated nor his reputation feared. A guilt-ridden young man, who witnessed Bragg's execution of the lawmen, offers to serve as a witness if Cole and Hitch will ensure his protection--an arrangement that leads to the rotter's immediate arrest.
When Allison French (Zellweger) arrives in town in search of work as a church organist ("you're not a whore?", Cole asks matter-of-factly, when considering the notion of an attractive young woman traveling alone), both men begin a boyish rivalry for her attentions. Cole, who’d previously been with only "horses and squaws", wins Allison's hand--and more--and soon, they're moving in together and building a house, to the chagrin of Hitch, who regards Cole as his permanent life partner.
When Allison makes an aggressive pass at Hitch, he rebuffs her out of loyalty to his friend, and learns of her true colours when she threatens to blackmail him. Meanwhile, an uncharacteristically beaming, lovestruck Cole is suspicious when some familiar faces from his past suddenly arrive in town for Bragg's trial, especially the oily Ring (Henriksen). Bragg is convicted and sentenced to hang, but Cole's old friends have other plans. In cahoots with Ring, Bragg's gang bust their boss out of custody during a thrilling train siege, and kidnap Allison to keep Cole and Hitch at bay. In pursuit, Hitch is faced with dilemma: should he tell his best friend of his lady's dubious loyalties? Would Cole's emotions jeopardize the hunt for Bragg?
Mortenson and Harris were obviously born to wear Stetsons and strap on six-guns, but the film's standout moments crackle when their masculinity falters and they become tongue-tied over picking out fabric for curtains, discussing previous romantic dalliances, or when Hitch plays Cyrano to Virgil's limited vocabulary (even though he's been seen thumbing through a tome by Ralph Waldo Emerson). While they've worked together on only one film previously (David Cronenberg's A History Of Violence), their effortless rapport suggests they could well have been lifelong friends off-camera as well.
Unfortunately, Zellweger (replacing original choice Diane Lane), is badly miscast, mincing about daintily in Allison's hoop skirt and parisol about as believably as Jodie Foster vamped in Miss Kitty's wardrobe in Richard Donner's Maverick update. Ally's affections are conditional, and seemingly airborne to whatever alpha cowpoke is in the immediate vicinity--is this the advent of the "modern" woman to further rock Virgil's old timey world views (although Emerson did support the 19th women's rights movement), or, are we meant to see Zellweger’s use of her feminine charms as her survival tool against all this rampant testosterone? Whatever the intention, Zellweger never pulls it off--she comes off as manipulative and vaguely pathological, rather than resourceful.
Harris has admitted to studying the Western classics of Hawks and Ford--My Darling Clementine, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Red River specifically--seeking to "keep it simple visually, and [with as] as few cuts as possible" (from the press notes). He also sought inspiration from the iconic Wild West paintings of Frederick Remington. Dean Semler's photography is pretty and functional but not particularly distinguished, perhaps in service to Harris' no-bullstuff approach to the material. The film lacks Ford's painterly vistas or Peckinpah's gritty, sunbaked textures, although Sergio Leone would have surely fallen for the four great craggy faces in play (Harris, Mortenson, Irons, and of course, Henriksen), and likely Zellweger's shiny, squinty countenance as well.
Not only did Harris purchase the rights to the novel, hand deliver a copy to Mortenson at The Toronto International Film Festival, cowrite the screenplay (with Robert Knott), direct the adaptation, and take on the lead role, he even sings one of the two end title songs (the other is by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers)! Thankfully, his commitment is evident in every frame, even if the experience is, in the end, a little underwhelming, considering the magnitude of the talent involved.
©Robert J. Lewis
Monday, September 01, 2008
Incredibly, TIFF 2008 marks the 10th straight year that Movieforum has covered The Toronto International Film Festival--back in 1998, shortly after our original hub's launch from the digital dust of eDrive and Tapehead, Canadian Correspondent (and longtime TIFF supporter back to the days when the event was known as "The Festival Of Festivals") Robert J. Lewis charmed himself some special screening vouchers and the following year, his thorough and thoughtful reviews awarded us official accreditation that the kind folks in the press department have granted us each successive year since.
With the first screening only days away, we've resurrected our blog incarnation for daily coverage of the 33th annual Toronto International Film Festival, which officially begins Thursday, September 4, 2007. As per our usual format, Robert's daily capsule reviews will appear shortly, with a more thorough and formal overview to follow at the fest's conclusion.