8.28.2010

Canadian Cinema

You could be excused for not knowing who Xavier Dolan is. His first feature film J'ai tué ma mere (I killed My Mother) caused a bit of a a stir at last year's Cannes film festival, winning all of the categories it was entered in and receiving an 8 minute standing ovation at its Cannes premier. The film shuffled around the 2009 festival circuit (TIFF last September, and dozens of others), nabbing a bunch of awards along the way. It was picked up for theatrical distribution in 20 markets, a rare feat for an indie film about a young gay man's turbulent relationship with his mother. It was announced the film had been selected as Dolan's native country's submission for Best Foreign Language film at the 82nd Academy Awards in the fall of 2009. Not bad for a director who was then just 20-years-old.


All of this would make for an interesting side note except for one frustrating fact. Dolan is Canadian and beyond a couple of festival screenings outside Quebec, J'ai tué ma mere, remains nearly unknown (and mostly unseen) in the rest of Canada. Two solitudes indeed. I grant you that indie pictures like this one remain difficult to market at the best of times with English Canadians. Toronto, for all its talk of being a sophisticated film market, remains a city of festival attendees and not cinephiles. If you doubt that contention, take a quick look at the English language films currently showing in Paris right now... check this out

While in Montreal this past week, I spent some time scouting around for DVDs that haven't been released in Ontario. On past trips, I've picked up a few terrific Quebecois films (C.R.A.Z.Y. and Days of Darkness come to mind) and some solid French pictures that didn't get any real distribution outside Quebec (MR 73, OSS 117, Department 36, to cite a few numbered ones). On this trip, I found 1981, a Genie-nominated and generally well-reviewed feature from Quebec director Ricardo Trogi, and Luc Picard's 2009 Detour, a film that sounds pretty good, but received mixed reviews. We'll see.

I also found a DVD release of J'ai tué ma mere but only bought one copy because, as per fucking usual, it doesn't have subtitles. AHHHHHHHHHHHRRRRRRRRR! What gives? It would have taken about $100 with of post-production to include an English-language subtitle track and release the film to the rest of Canada, but no.... Xavier Dolan's world-renowned film (films actually, he's on his third now) will continue to remain nearly unknown (and mostly unseen) in his native country, at least until Here! (a U.S. label specializing in gay and lesbian film who picked up the U.S. rights) gets around to releasing it in the States.... so we can then import it here to Ontario.

It simply boggles the mind.

Sporgey

8.27.2010

CAGE MATCH

Here's my 5000 word Cage Match. Will be wittled down to more manageable size for the year-end Buff mag, but here is the unabridged version for those who want to enter the CAGE!

CAGE MATCH

Nicolas Cage is an enigma. He is Jekyll and Hyde. Born out of Hollywood royalty (his birth surname is Coppola) only to recently descend into a critical black hole that on the surface seems to shame any connection, however untenable, to Apocalypse Now. My thesis is that both Nicolas Cage, the A-list, oscar winning actor, and Nic Cage, the current king of trashy B-movies, can be celebrated equally, and are in fact more impressive when they stand side-by-side.

Cage began his career as a goofy hunk with roles in films such as Valley Girl (1983), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and Vampire's Kiss (1988). These titles are little more than 80's fluff comedies, and Cage shows spark, but in the end can do little more than squint and flex his muscles, due to the overall quality of the film making. With a few killer scripts and memorable performances, however, Cage ensured his career had staying power. With Moonstruck (1987), Raising Arizona (1987), Wild at Heart (1990) and Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and more recently with Adaptation (2002) and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) he combined his goof-hunk with a more energized, manic presence on screen. In these 5 titles he is a tour-de-force, brilliant and off-beat, a raving hound-dog. This is Nicholas Cage. Strangely he is a relative anomaly in his own filmography.

Starting with The Rock in 1996, he transformed himself into a leading action star and a huge box-office draw. He has made over 20 over-the-top B-Action movies over the last 15 years. This Is Nic Cage. With steadily receding from the brow yet ever-growing towards the shoulders hair and scrawny jowls he now blasts through scripts whose plots are so far-fetched as if to make up for his relatively stoic poor-man's Bruce Willis. In titles such as Knowing (2009), Bangkok Dangerous (2008), Next (2007), Ghost Rider (2007) and others, he is often saving the world and a damsel in distress, and appearing to be the least likely to do it. He doesn't nail one-liners like his action-star peers do, but tentatively mumbles them to himself while looking up like a sweating mannequin. The Nic Cage of the late 90's and 2000's has brought us an unlikely bunch of self-reflective B-movies, that (jn the right mood) are a total blast. In the hands of Schwarzenegger or Stallone, these would be forgettable. With Cage there is more fun than muscles to be had; he is consciously making films to suspend disbelief. Nothing is realistic, or even nerd-serious as are many of the comic book movies being pumped out of the studios these days.

As a result of this professional bi-polarism his filmography is singular in the history of film. The Cage Match below uses the play-off structure familiar to pro-sport fans and will be a face/off between Nicolas and Nic, between the star of hip coke addled comedies and dramas and the current King of B-Movies.

First Round

Nicolas Cage

Moonstruck v. Valley Girl

Moonstruck (1987)

Acclaimed at the time of it's release, but steadily forgotten as time goes by, this a heart-felt comedic gem. Cage is sensational in his over-wrought melo-dramatic portrayal of a blue-collar Italian who covets his brother's wife. With his rippling muscles and tortured-romantic monologues, in this film he breaks out and shows how much he can get out of a good script.

Valley Girl (1983): One of Cage's earliest appearances on the big screen, Valley Girl is noteworthy for capturing the excessive vanity of teens in the 80s. Basically the plot follows the culture clash of a doomed romance between the 'hardcore' punk of the inner-city (Cage) v. the sheltered valley girl of the suburbs (Deborah Foreman). The hip dialogue between the 'valley' teens is so dated at this point that they appear to be speaking in code, and takes a few moments to digest their insipid conversations. Cage gestures towards his abilities as a hyperbolic performer. Note: The director of the film, Martha Coolidge, was upset when Cage showed up on set with his chest hair shaved into a bizarre sort of triangle (which we glimpse in the opening moments of the film where he does his best 'Bay Watch' impression).


Winner: Moonstruck. Really not much of a fight here. Valley Girl is charming in it's way, but really doesn't compare to the comic/melodramatic gem that is Moonstruck.

Raising Arizona v. Matchstick Men

Raising Arizona (1987): Simply one of the funniest films of all time (as well as in the mix for the best Coen Bros. film (no small feat)). Cage has never been better as he decides to remedy his wife's barren womb by stealing one the quintuplets recently born to local furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona. Still in burly hunk form, Nicolas foregrounds his breakout in Moonstruck with a laugh-out-loud slapstick performance. He nails the role as a dopey white-trash ex-con.

Matchstick Men (2003) : A cool little caper comedy where Nicolas and Sam Rockwell run a successful con, selling water-filtration devices at ten times the price. Cage plays an agoraphobe, constantly sweating and wringing his hands, playing off the success he had with Adaptation the year previous. The long-lost child plot device is mined for it's comedic affections on Cage, until the forced happy ending leaves much to be desired. A step below some of Cages best comedies, but still worth a look.

Winner: Raising Arizona. Another early round knock-out from where I'm sitting. While Raising Arizona is a film that can be easily re-watched every couple years or so (even for those who aren't Cage fans), Matchstick isn't memorable enough to have that staying power or reach cult status.

Wild at Heart v. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Wild at Heart (1990): Although it won at Cannes upon it's release, it is now generally viewed as one of David Lynch's lesser efforts. Perhaps that has merit when viewed next to Lynch's other master-strokes, but out of that context it's still accomplished film making. Half rock n roll road movie, and half Wizard of Oz re-make, it flounders with perhaps too many ideas and bizarre characters. The reason to watch this is Cage as Sailor Ripley, the snakeskin wearing outcast, who takes his girlfriend (Lynch favourite Laura Dern) out on the road upon his release from prison. Lynch gives Cage free-reign to channel his inner cocaine Elvis and it's a hoot to watch. Overly ambitious and a little to drawn-out towards the end, but necessary viewing for any Nicolas Cage fan.

Bad Lieutenant:Port of Call - New Orleans (2009): The most unhinged Cage has been on screen w/o being unwatchable (re: Christopher Coppola's 'Deadfall'). He is spectacular. He plays a New Orleans detective, lurching and grimacing from chronic back pain and self medicating said pain with a motley medley of illicit drugs. Werner Herzog deserves a standing ovation for bringing Nicolas out of retirement. He pilots Cage into a bizarre downward spiral as he works a drug/homicide case, complete with violent interrogations of old women (ripping out their breathing tubes) and crack-induced visions of a man's soul dancing over his own dead body. Not everybody will love it, particularly viewers expecting something cut from the same cloth as the Ferrera original, but for Cage/Herzog fans it will not disappoint.

Winner: Bad Lieutenant: POCNW. My love for Lynch runs deep and Sailor Ripley is one of my favourite characters to grace the big-screen – so props to Wild at Heart. But Cage's performance as Terrence Mcdonagh is an unstoppable force. It doesn't hurt that he's got the inimitable Werner Herzog in his corner, either. Latter round TKO in favour of Mcdonagh, who continues to throw punches at Ripley's “soul” after the referee calls the fight.


Leaving Las Vegas vs. Adaptation

Leaving Las Vegas (1995): The most harrowing performance of Cage's career hands-down. Nicolas plays a Hollywood screen-writer who turns to alcohol once his wife and child leave him. Cage's filmography contains other roles where Cage's manic behaviour is a product of substance abuse, but only in LLV do we see the catastrophic effects on the mind and body so clearly and without humour. He doesn't simply drink, but drowns himself in alcohol. The only scenes where he isn't throwing one back are ones where he is in withdrawal, shaking and sweating uncontrollably while searching for another drink. At the heart of the story is an unlikely romance between drunk and whore. A film that is unsettling in it's honesty and un-flinching look at people at their ropes end. With a great soundtrack and expert direction by Mike Figgis, fans of recent hard-done by dramas such as The Wrestler or Crazy Heart should take note, but be weary that this film is one to be endured, not to be enjoyed.


Adaptation (2002): After re-watching this film while writing the 'Cage Match', Nicolas Cage's performance as Charlie/Donald Kaufman might be the most impressive of his career. This film marks an end to a 7 year drought of acclaimed dramatic roles, during which Cage's alter ego Nic ascended to box office dominance. Adaptation has the elements of a vintage Nicolas role, including the sweating, twitching and nervousness, but he is no longer exploding out of the screen with violent, drug infused outbursts. Whether it's his sobriety, older age, withering hairline or simply the phenomenal script penned by Kaufman – Cage creates an absorbing portrait of a mid-life crisis. The persona he's developed in the aforementioned films is humbled and embarrassed in Adaptation. As a result his character is more accessible here than in the aforementioned films; in large part due to the voice-over narration that saturates the film, where director Spike Jonz gives the audience a direct line to Kaufman's thoughts. Inventive story telling and a fantastic ensemble cast that revolves around Cage's affecting performance combine for an outstanding example of modern film making.

Winner: Adaptation. A man who is drinking himself to death v. an overweight nervous and depressed writer. Not exactly the stuff of Pay-Per-View and Las Vegas, but a very close fight nevertheless. A split decision is awarded with both contestants ailing in their respective corners, both sweating and being ill, but for different reasons. The deciding vote is awarded to...Adaptation. Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper celebrate, while Elizabeth Shue is nowhere to be found. But seriously, Adaptation gets the nod here for inventive storytelling and a performance by Cage that demands multiple viewings to truly appreciate. Leaving Las Vegas won Cage an Oscar, but Adaptation is the more important film.

Nic Cage

Next v. National Treasure

Next (2007): Stars Nic as a Las Vegas magician that can see a few minutes into the future. He is kidnapped by the FBI to help them with a significant terrorist attack they believe will strike New York City. Next is perhaps the best litmus test for whether or not someone can enjoy a Nic Cage action movie, in most part because it is so ridiculous and revelling in B-movie-dom. It exemplifies the outlandish plots, bizarre and hammy love interests, and disturbing receding hairlines that, if enjoyed, can make for very entertaining results.

National Treasure (2004): A G-rated archeological adventure with Nic Cage playing Indiana Jones' screwed up brother. This is the third Jerry Bruckheimer film Cage has starred in, but this one marks the first where both have worked under Disney's jurisdiction. Bruckheimer seems to have sold his already flawed soul to the Mickey Mouse empire- so I'm thankful that Cage only cashes in his Disney cheque every few years. This film is perfect for quasi-adults who are either babysitting or indulging in a hungover wake-and-bake session. The target audience is definitely children, so keep that in mind before popping it in after Leaving Las Vegas during a Cage marathon.

Winner: Next. Next gets the nod here, because there's no way a Disney film could ever win a real Cage Match!

Bankok Dangerous v. Con Air

Bankok Dangerous (2008): Universally derided by critics and viewers, who recommended the 1999 original or just about anything else rather than BD, I sat down and was surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie. It is a stylish, neon-at-night, motorcycles and weapons affair. The kill-scenes are inventive and it doesn't linger around past its welcome, clocking in at under 100 minutes. There is definitely a sense that there is some sort of compromise by the Hong Kong directors, yielding to Hollywood writing and acting(!). But even the Hollywood overtones are the stuff of B-movie lore, particularly the token romance between Cage and a local pharmacy girl. He gets hurt while out on a 'hit' and therefore has to go to the pharmacy in order to get patched up. The young woman is (rightfully so) afraid yet intrigued by this strange white man and helps him out as best she can. Out of the blue, there is a scene where Cage is standing in the street, laying into her with a desperate stare-down and a few seconds later they are in each others arms trading wet kisses. Simply put, a very abrupt and most unlikely romance. All in all more proof that Cage is, yet again, the strangest action star to ever grace the screen.

Con Air (1997): This is the second in a string of films during the mid-nineties of big-budget, box-office smashes that have become the bed-rock on which Nic Cage has built his latter-career reputation as B-movie action guy. The Rock, fresh of the heels of Leaving Las Vegas, was the first of these films and was a bombastic production and Cage found himself between the towering presences of Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay, and Sean Connery. It is an A-list action/thriller and a little to obvious, so it has been omitted from this list. Con-Air, made the following year, is a true Nic Cage vehicle. It proves the subject matter of The Rock to be no fluke and that Nicholas Cage, the witty manic actor, is only to be manifested once in a blue moon from now on. It features another ensemble cast (including a seriously disturbing Steve Buscemi, who makes you forget your supposed to be watching a stupid testosterone blitz), but the movie revolves around Cage's character, and he owns the movie. This one marks the rough blue-print for the character he is to play in the majority of the B-movies to come; a good blue-collar guy, whose been ensnared in a bad situation due to a mistake or error in judgement and now has to pay a sacrifice and/or fight for redemption. Pretty standard tough guy plot, but (too risk repetition) Cage makes you give his character a double-take; is he just another cardboard cut out that is stringed through huge explosions and professions of love, or is there something else there? I'm not sure there is, or even whether this distraction registers with others, but his strange presence on screen is certainly one of a kind.


Winner: Bangkok Dangerous. BD is the winner due to the fact that it doesn't take itself as seriously as Con-Air. I feel like it might be hard to nail the magic of B-movies with John Malkovich's prancing, i mean acting, in a starring role, most likely halting the shooting in order to have asides with the director about the true 'motivations' of his character, Cryus 'The Virus' Grisson.

Knowing v. Face/Off

Face/Off (1997): Cage teams up with Director John Woo and John Travolta to make one of the quintessential Hollywood action movies of the 90's. In the back of my mind I know Chow Yun Phat and Tony Leung could pull this one off better in the streets of Hong Kong, but then of course, there would be no Nic Cage. Thankfully, John Woo's peculiar gift of mixing hyper-melodrama and endless bullets, all set in symbolic/religious backdrops is not lost in his emigration to Hollywood – there is even a duel between Cage and Travolta in and around a church a la 'The Killers'. Face/Off takes the standard Hong Kong crime film premise of pitting a cop and a criminal against each other, but reversing the roles. Usually this is done by each of the main players being a double agent; the criminal is working from within the police force and the cop is deep undercover in the higher ranks of a crime syndicate, or some variation of this predicament. The most famous example being the 'Infernal Affairs' trilogy. As this is a somewhat complex story to tell, American audiences have been spared any head scratching in Face/Off, as the cop and the criminal not only switch roles, but switch faces and their entire physical appearance to in essence become their rival. Without the baggage of actual story telling, the movie becomes a duel of wit and charisma between Cage and Travolta. It's almost a shame that Cage only gets to play the severely whacked bad guy Castor Troy for the opening 20 mins of the film before he has to play the conservative cop Sean Archer for the rest of the film – but on second thought I don't think I could swallow Travolta hamming it up as a wronged-good guy for an hour and a half. Travolta does his bloated prancing and squeaking as power-drunk bad cop thing and it's at the very least charming (and thankfully not 'Michael' charming). Cage has to play it conservative, and there are only a few moments where his manic energy is on display. A fun and, although dumbed down, interesting action movie that likely has more wide-spread appeal than the other Nic Cage movies on this list.


Knowing (2009): Equipped with one of the most unbelievable plot lines this side of Next, Knowing is a strange cult gem, blessed with spectacular special effects and disturbing religious imagery. Cage plays a math/science teacher who's son brings home a 50 year old piece of paper carefully filled with numbers, a document he received from a time capsule opened up at his school. Upon investigation, Cage figures out that the numbers a creepy little girl (disaster-damus) wrote on a piece of foolscap correspond with the dates and locations of all the major world disasters that happened after the creepy little girl wrote them out. The scariest discovery is that the list stops in 2009, which Cage extrapolates into meaning not that she had simply ran out of room, but that there is one final judgement day, i.e. the end of the world is nigh. Thus, Cage tries to uncover what the disaster will be, how to avoid it, etc. Highlights include the riveting plane crash scene, where Cage gets out of his car and races straight for the crash for no apparent reason and almost runs into a screaming flaming man (as in on fire, not flamboyant). Cage is taken a back at the apparent rudeness of this man, dusts of his coat and exclaims 'C'mon!', in his classic drawl. Very strange. The ending also needs to be acknowledged – Cage is proven correct in his prediction that the world will end in 2009, but is proven incorrect in his assumption that the human race will be eradicated. Aliens are at the root cause, and Cage manages somehow to barter with them and strike a deal where they pluck a boy and a girl from each of Earth's about-to-expire 'cultures' in a strange glowing ball and dump the mini adam and eves on a positively thriving planet that resembles Eden. Seriously. Needs to be seen to be believed (or more accurately known).

Winner: Knowing. In almost any other context Face/Off would get the nod since it is a superior film. But this is a Cage match, and therefore I think a lean desperate world-saving professor beats down on a magnetic boot wearing cop who's got Travolta constantly tittering in his ear. And that Alien/Eden ending has to be worth something.



Ghost Rider v. Snake Eyes

Ghost Rider (2007): Joe Neumaier from the New York Daily News has come to the 'sad realization' that, “this once-vibrant and witty actor (Cage) is completely controlled now by his inner teenager”. No more is this true than in Ghost Rider. A long time comic book fan (he has tried several times to play Superman in a feature), Cage lets his inner-nerd get the worst of him in his role as the flaming skeleton on a motorcycle. Apparently the terrible script (which includes lots of pointing and gestures instead of words, and when the players do speak it's in monosyllabic deadpans like 'You...Guilty' and so forth), and cheesy special effects weren't enough to deter Nic from signing on. Nearly unwatchable from the very start, it falls in the classic shitty comic-book movie trap by spending three quarters of an hour doing a boring origin story that I won't bother to summarize. There are a few charming moments Cage pulls out of his ass, such as eating martini glasses full of candy beans and finding chimpanzees doing kung-fu unbearably funny, but these are few and far between, and really not that great anyways. I squirmed and shielded my eyes for an hour waiting for a single glimpse of the actual 'ghost rider' – and about five minutes after that I had to shut it off. For me it's Cage's career low and I can only recommend a sober viewing of the movie as a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

Snake Eyes (1998): An engaging, creative little hitchcockian thriller that has Cage playing a corrupt Atlantic City cop caught in the midst of an assassination of a high ranking government official during a heavy-weight boxing match. It looks great, with lots of colour and spectacular long takes that follow Cage breathlessly pacing around the arena greeting people, talking on the phone, taking and making bets, all the while grinning and fist pumping and shouting. The first forty-five minutes are quite brilliant and sets up an intriguing murder-mystery. From there the film spins its tires a little bit and takes far too long to end, but overall is an oft-overlooked thriller by the equally overlooked Brian De Palma.


Winner: Snake Eyes because even Industrial Symphony No. 1 is easier to sit through than Ghost Rider. Because Snake Eyes isn't like watching a huge bag of manure for forty five minutes only to be lit on fire and become too nauseating.

Note: Industrial Symphony No. 1 is a David Lynch industrial ballet/musical, that has Cage and Laura Dern reprising their roles from Wild at Heart as a sort of prelude to the totally bizarre broadway on acid production that follows.



Second Round

Nicolas Cage

Moonstruck v. Adaptation

Winner: Adaptation. By all accounts, the young, virile and muscular Ronny Cammareri should truly pummel the fictional Kaufman Bros. But Ronny gets confused and distracted by the incessant verbal interplay and bickering by the Kaufmans. Ronny is sucker punched simultaneously in the gut and kidney in the fifth round and is convinced that staying down past the count is a good idea. Adaptation out-wits the polished Hollywood comedy while what's supposed to be Cher these days fails to recall what Moonstruck is in a garbled vox-box voice.

Raising Arizona v. Bad Lieutenant: POCNW

Winner: Raising Arizona. Probably one of the tightest and hard fought bouts in this entire round-robin. The veteran comedy wins out against the fresh-off-the-reels crime thriller with a combination of gut-wrenching laughter fits and the seasoned swagger of a champion. My gut tells me that if a re-match is scheduled for 2020 we may have a different outcome, depending on how well Herzog's modern masterpiece ages.

Nic Cage

Next v. Snake Eyes

Winner: Next – Snake Eyes is savvy film making, but Next is one of the pinnacles of the Nic era, the second coming of Cage. Rick Santoro (of Snake Eyes) is crafty in the ring, but as Cris Johnson can see everything a few minutes ahead of time, Mr. Santoro has no chance.


Bangkok Dangerous v. Knowing

Winner: Bangkok Dangerous. It's a close second round battle, but BD has more cajones. The vanilla assassin plugs the tweed prophet.



Third Round

Nicolas Cage

Raising Arizona v. Adaptation

Winner: Raising Arizona.

Adaptation did well to make it so far, but is simply outmatched by the charisma and staying power of Raising Arizona. Making a comedy that balances slapstick and a script that gets the most out of its actors is a tall task. Even more impressive and rare is the fact that Raising Arizona makes people laugh hard twenty years down the road. A perfect film example of its genre and that's what you ask for in a champion.

Nic Cage

Bangkok Dangerous v. Next

Winner: Bangkok Dangerous

This is a worthy Nic Cage title fight. Evenly matched in terms of B-movie plot lines, action, and unlikely love-interests. Both performances by Cage are strangely wooden, his eyes like Liz Taylor in A mirror Crack'd. But when it comes down to it BD is the more enjoyable movie – it revels in it's artificial, glitzy Bangkok while Next maybe tries a bit too hard to be serious in it's handling of terrorists. In other words, Julianne Moore is the difference between the champion and the contender.


TITLE BOUT

Raising Arizona v. Bangkok Dangerous

Draw: First off, let's acknowledge that this fight is between two films who draw their greatness from two vastly different systems of thought or rubrics. It's like having a champion from both the heavy-weight and light-weight face/off against each other; both have earned the right to be the best of their class and have completely different skill sets. What makes Raising Arizona great (terrific writing and manic comedy gold) isn't what makes Bangkok Dangerous great (strange hair styles, campy make-out sessions and guns). Standard film criticism would give Raising Arizona the win hands-down, but in the Cage a different rule of thumb is used. The pairing of these two films awards us a perfect distillation of what makes Nicolas/Nic Cage such an enigma in film history. Raising Arizona has Nicolas burning up in the fire of his youth, an off-balance but magnetic comedy star. 20 years later the same, but yet completely different actor stars in BD, with an almost vacant look on his withered face, dashing around a foreign city and raining down bullets and stiff kung-fu on bad guys. I find it hard to attribute the (non-physical) changes in Cage to simply a case of growing older – as his role choices seem to have gotten progressively more immature. And so it does look like Cage has been consumed by his “inner-teenager”. But then every 2-3 years, Nicolas Cage comes out of retirement to derail that thesis to some extent and makes a Bad Lieutenant or Adaptation. He is one of the more prolific actors of the last 30 years but is far from one-note (ex: George Clooney). In conclusion, although a cop-out in sporting mythology, this final bout is a tie. One can't stand above the other. Only when they stand side by side do they illustrate the genius/disgrace complex of Mr. Cage.

Bonus Fun: http://niccageaseveryone.blogspot.com/

8.23.2010

"Walken Hair" dominates this week's new release slate....

City Island is one of those films that takes a while to get going. About 15 minutes into this Andy Garcia-produced dysfunctional-family indie-comedy, I wondered where it was all going. The same thought crossed my mind at about 30 minutes and then again about the hour mark. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, but there also isn't anything particularly right with it either. It plays out like a sit-com with a good cast. Nothing more. I sat through to the end mostly because I didn't have anything better to do. Perhaps I've become just a little too jaded to slurp up another Little Miss Sunshine wanna-be, but this one is best left for the oldsters and bland hipster crowd. It's not horrible, just predictable, dull and sentimental. Alan Arkin is in it briefly (again). Garcia stars and does a decent job, the rest of the cast delivers nicely as well. Ho-hum. Recommend it to the 50+ crowd.

I simply can't explain the 81% it received on Rottentomatoes.com





The Christopher Walken indie-comedy $5 a Day also releases this week. Strangely, this film also centres on a father/son relationship that mirrors the one in City Island. Seems everyone in the movies these days has an ex-con family member and not just Kadas. Give this one a pass unless you just love Walken and don't mind seeing him in a film we've all seen a dozen times before. Some good moments and nice casting again, but this is an airplane movie at best.


Walken's hair, however, is simply amazing and appears to have taken on a life of its own. It's also taking the Hollywood scene by storm, with nearly everyone sporting a variation of the "Walken look" these days.








The best new release this week by far is the Israeli film Ajami, co-created by an Arab Israeli, Scandar Copti, and a Jewish Israeli, Yaron Shani. Ajami might just be the best crime film of the year, an Israeli City of God that bristles with energy and dread throughout. The whole film feels like a lit fuse winding its way through the crowded and racially-fractured Ajami District in Jaffa where Arabs, Jews and Christians live in close proximity, but in vastly polarized worlds. An extended prologue sets the stage for what's to come, but as the film follows multiple characters toward the inevitable events that open the story, we discover that our initial perceptions are incorrect, our judgements misguided.

This is a brilliantly-constructed action-thriller that belays any thoughts that all Middle-East filmmaking is exclusively devoted to 20 minute still long-shots of three palm trees in a scrubby desert (take that Abbas Kiarostami!). What makes Ajami different from most Arab/Israeli films I've seen (which to be fair isn't all that many) is just how eminently watchable it is. Sure it's subtitled and set in a place completely foreign to us, but this is basically a crime story that has its source in a long and unending blood feud between people who simply refuse to accept one another. It's a story that contains universal themes that makes it easy to get into but hard to shake. Winner.

A rainy Sunday caught me up on the new movies.

Sporgey

8.22.2010

Modern Film Culture and Josef Von Sternberg

Jonathan Rosenbaum is a Chicago-based film critic who writes extensively about both movies, film culture and the industry. He often comes off as a bit of a pompous ass, but there's no denying his writing talent and extensive knowledge on the subject of cinema. The latest issue of Cineaste (an art house film quarterly, excellent) is focused on DVD's and how they've changed the face of cinephilia in recent years. Rosenbaum writes the preamble essay which advances the case that film culture is undergoing a metamorphosis into a kind of social media that finds its voice via the internet. It's an interesting thought.

In the past, film was almost exclusively a collective experience. Programmers programmed and audiences watched what was presented to them. The dialogue that arose about film tended to be written reviews by a relatively small group of critics. Early on in the video tape era, the quality of the prints (and the TV's we watched movies on) were sadly lacking. The cinema experience remained superior in every regard to the home viewing alternative. As the video era advanced, technical improvements have significantly narrowed the gap to the point that these days the theatrical experience can be recreated fairly closely on a modestly priced home theatre system. What has changed film culture probably more dramatically however, is the rise of the Internet as a forum for discussion about cinema. Even though the DVD experience is a solitary one, the dialogue that the internet facilitates makes it entirely collective, just in a different way. Film criticism has become far more egalitarian, less focused on the professional critic and entirely more communal in nature. This metamorphosis has both upsides and downsides. Weeding out the dross from the myriad of voices in the amateur film review world can be daunting, but the idea that film awareness is now often a function of shared movie experiences exchanged on blogs, twitter and other social networking platforms is a truly new phenomena and it's damned exciting as well.

We have, in essence, all become our own film programmers and it's opened up a whole world of amazing cinematic experiences that a few short decades ago simply didn't exist. I sometimes have to remind myself of this because it seems so natural to have nearly instant access to John Ford's or Hitchcock's or Preston Sturges entire cinematic catalog these days. We live in a film fan's paradise. Taking advantage of this treasure trove however, takes some motivation and focus. I've found myself on far too many occasions opting for some slight Hollywood fodder because I didn't have the energy to try something more engaging. TV on DVD tends to be my worst weakness. I can blow through hours watching Burn Notice, Damages, or The Mighty Boosh with nearly no effort. They're entertaining to be sure, but an exclusive diet of mindless television and new releases does not make a cinephile and in an effort to bite off something a little more substantial, I recently watched the three Josef Von Sternberg films that make up Criterion's new box set on the director's late silent period works.

Von Sternberg made nine silent films in all, only four of which survive; three of them "Underworld" (1927), "The Last Command" (1928) and "The Docks of New York" (1928) are contained in the Criterion set. Watching an 80 year old film takes a bit of patience I grant you, but it's worth every ounce of effort. I'd see a terrible print of Underworld years ago so I sort of knew what to expect going in. The film is both a forerunner of the gangster picture and a mood-soaked proto-film noir. The opening scene with its moonlit streets, foreboding urban maze and deep shadows drips with atmosphere and sets the mood for the rest of the film.

The second film in the set, The Last Command, is about a former general in czarist Russia now living in exile and reduced to, of all things, a Hollywood extra. He's cast in a movie about the Russian Revolution, essentially playing his former self, directed by a fellow émigré who happens to be his one-time political adversary and romantic rival.



The best film of the three by far is the extraordinary "The Docks of New York," a film that was apparently largely ignored in its day. George Bancroft (also the star of Underworld) plays a steamboat stoker on shore leave in New York who rescues a suicidal damsel (played by an impossibly gorgeous Betty Compson) from the East River. A long, eventful night follows that includes carousing and brawling in a wharf-side dive, a tentative seduction, an impulsive marriage, and a murder. Von Sternberg's depiction of the working-class world of the New York docks is riveting – poetic and harsh without being condescending or sentimental. It's fresh, inventive, adult and sexy, far from what you might expect your great-grandparents to be watching back in the late '20s. If you can muster up the resolve to skip the 3rd disk of Mad Men Season 3 one night, do yourself a favour and watch just this one instead. I guarantee you won't be able to shake the films imagery from coming back to you again and again. Docks of New York is a monumental piece of forgotten film making.


Which brings me full circle back to Rosenbaum's piece in Cineste. The Criterion release of Von Sternberg's silents isn't an art house retrospective, but rather a beautifully restored DVD box set that will hopefully find it's way into more hands than it might have if it played at exclusively at the Cinematheque for a couple of nights. Hopefully they will find greater exposure because people will experience them in different places, under unique conditions and then exchange their views about the films with all sorts of other people in forums, chatrooms, on facebook, twitter and blogs. I can appreciate those who lament the fading away of the once-thriving art house theatre scene, but we have to accept that as the medium changes, the social arrangements that facilitate our participation in it changes too. 'not sure that's a bad thing either.

As the business side of the DVD world changes, I'd be more than happy to ride out those changes as a source for films like these three. If it means less business because alternative avenues exist to watch Steve Carrell and Tina Fey in Date Night, I'm pretty sure I can live with that.

Sporgey.

8.21.2010

The Slasher...

In lieu of Aronofsky's trailer for his new film Black Swan, which has been taking the internet by storm.
Kris and I thought we should post a youtube classic...

8.19.2010

Totally Sick!

The Future is Now!

This cuts a little too close to the bone(r).  Never before have horror and comedy been melded so seamlessly.

Well and Truly Screwed - The Square (2008)

In a slight reworking of Jean-Luc Godard's famous adage “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”, I'd like to suggest the addition of ….“and a big pile of cash” because it's often the cinematic lubricant that makes normal people do bad things. In Joel and Nash Edgerton excellent Aussie thriller “The Square” (2008), it all begins with one bad decision, and like a lot of bad decisions in the movies, this one involves a satchel full of dirty money. The two main characters are lured to it and spend the rest of the film trying to extricate themselves from a series of increasingly horrifying ramifications tied to the act of stealing it. This is neo-noir at it's finest – a small, nearly unknown film that delivers in spades. In a world for full of glee and idols, it's downright refreshing to see a movie about people getting fucked because they deserve it. ....and we're not talking porn here.


The mood of The Square is measured, paranoid and slippery and its suspense a different, crafty sort of accomplishment. The script follows a pair of adulterers and their doomed plan to escape their mundane and loveless lives. It's similar in structure and tone to the Coen's "Blood Simple" but with fewer visual flourishes and a subtler brand of irony. The married (but not to each other) lovers are Ray (played with exquisite control by David Roberts), whose construction project gives the film its title, and Clara (Claire van der Boom), a hairstylist whose husband is a low-level criminal. Early in the film Clara witnesses her scuzzy husband hiding a bag of money and you can almost see the wheels turning as she puts together her plan Dough... Ray.... Me.... 

The screws tighten. The lovers hire an arsonist to dispose of Carla's house, but not before they clear out the money. The arson job goes rather badly, and from there, The Square becomes a study in Roberts' increasingly distraught efforts to maintain a facade of normalcy while guilt, evasion and bodies pile up all around him. A blackmailer enters the narrative, their identity unknown both to Ray and to the audience, at least for a nice long while, and the screws tighten some more. Coworkers start sniffing around ...ditto.

This isn't going to end well for the lovers.

I know I can sound like a broken record heaping kudos on one Film Noir after another, but these little studies in human weakness and frailty afford a distinct, if sour, kind of satisfaction that I rarely get from other genres. The Square is just that kind of film. Along with Terribly Happy and Revanche, it's one of the most engaging films I've seen this year. It got excellent notices from real critics and complaints from amateurs who said the leads lacked chemistry and weren't sexy enough. I'd like to invert that and suggest that The Square works because the leads aren't movie stars but rather people who could live next store. (and on that topic, actor David Roberts is the spitting image of Mark Ellwood, a west end customer)

.... quick side note. Before watching the film, go to the extras and watch the director's short film “Spider”. It sets the mood for the feature beautifully and man o' man …. it's truly sick.

Winner.

Sporgey.

8.17.2010

Midnight Madness titles announced

So, if you've been following this blog for a year, (or if you're smart enough to simply click on the archives sidebar for last September), you'll know that Kris and I get awfully fired up about the Midnight Madness programme at TIFF.  We bought our ticket packs a few weeks ago, and as of 11 AM this morning, all the titles have been announced for this year's program.  Just like last year, Kris and I will each review the movie we saw the night before, for 10 straight days!  If you liked it last year, you'll love it this year; if you didn't like it, you probably know Kris or I personally.  Join in on the Madness, starting Sept. 9, right here on this very blog.  I'm starting to get really excited.  I mean, John Fucking Carpenter - how can you not be?  Below is a list of the titles to be screened, and their respective links:

Fubar II
Insidious
Stake Land
The Ward
Red Nights
SUPER
Vanishing on 7th Street
Fire of Conscience
Bunraku
The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman

8.13.2010

Near Dark (1987)? More like damn Near Perfect


Before Kathryn Bigelow masterfully directed The Hurt Locker which led to her winning an Oscar and before creating the "100% pure adrenaline ride" that was Point Break, there was this 1987 vampire classic.

In the last few years, vampires in popular culture have seen an impossibly high resurgence. Twilight, True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Day Breakers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and worse... Angel. I never thought I'd see the day when 14 year old girls at the Dufferin Mall food court would all be wearing t-shirts that read "I Love Vampires" in sparkly pink writing. What would Nosferatu say if he could see these kiddies now? Most likely nothing, his mouth would be too full with their flesh.

Joe described this one to me as "what Twilight should be" and I can not concur more. What a modern day vampire love story needs to understand is that the story actually involves VAMPIRES! Sorry Team Edward fans, but vampires don't glitter in the daylight... they burn the fuck up. Let's see Robert Pattinson run across a highway in day light while lit on fire like the vamps in this movie do.
Today's media has romanticized the idea of the vampire. While vampires started as mere monsters in the human psyche the idea of being bitten and turned has become more and more sexualized. True Blood is a soap with vampires who can't stop sexing each other. I am not saying it is a bad show... I'm sure I would be impaled for such blasphemy, all I'm saying is that it has little to do with vampires. It more has to do with human drama surrounding the characters much like Battlestar Galactica really wasn't about space battles. Twilight is the kiddie-lite version where instead of steamy sex scenes there's some fundamentally flawed story about Christian values... Christ, I hate Twilight. Still the sentiment is the same with both True Blood and Twilight; vampires are sexy.

I predominately mention these two examples because they both feel strongly influenced by Near Dark. Near Dark is mainly a love story about a young Texan man who falls in love with a young Texan woman who happens to be a vampire. She bites him and tries to teach him how to become like her. She's been traveling the country with an interesting group of vamps who have been terrorizing regular folk every night. The group decide to give their newest recruit a week to prove he can be one of them or they'll kill him. You see, turns out being a vampire is a tough business which is what recent incarnations of vampires in the media haven't presented well enough. As a vampire you may live forever, but the high price is you can only drink blood. And there's no cheating allowed, no drinking animal blood, you HAVE to drink human blood... sorry, dems the rules of vampire-ism. This film shows the young man struggle with the idea of killing innocent people every night to continue his existence. He also has to learn to let go of the earthly pleasures of normal food and drink as well as (sorry True Blooders) sex and, like I mentioned before, the ability to be in sunlight. He wonders if it is really worth it in the long run. When the group of vamps come across his family it's a no brainer to him.

Look no further for the deromanticizing of the vampire than a superbly crafted ten minute scene where the group slowly terrorizes and murders everyone in a roadside bar they come across. Definitely the highlight of the film.
Classic vampire stories were predominately written by men, this is where we get this "I waannnt to succcckk yeerrr bllloooddd" business. Our ideas of vamps were mostly men who snuck into the rooms of beautiful women while they were asleep so they could feed. Here with a woman's perspective it's a great flip to see the man who is the victim to the dangerous woman who wants to suck his... er... blood.

Such a well casted and terrifically executed effort Near Dark is the definitive vampire film. Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton are the stand outs as out of their mind vampires who enjoy the killing and the long nights maybe a little too much. The great soundtrack by Tangerine Dream accentuates the emotional tones of the film but it does seriously make this one feel 80's. However the synths mix well with the southern nights in an odd way, which creates it's own timeless atmosphere.

The only flaw I can mention from this one is the ending, which was a little too optimistic for my taste. However, the sequences leading up to it are mind blowingly good.

I can't recommend this one enough. Not only is it the best vampire movie I've ever seen but it's going in my top ten... or twenty... or whatever. Let's just say this is one of my favourite movies.
So there's the verdict people, Near Dark is the best vampire story committed to screen ever... and if you say different, i will fight you.

Terribly Happy is Awfully Good

Most reviews of Henrik Ruben Genz's Terribly Happy include the word “dark”. Quite right, but it's also frequently quite funny too... in a really dark way. The plot revolves around an on-probation Copenhagen police officer named Robert Hanson (Jakob Cedergren) landing a position as the sole police presence in some backwater Danish town named Skarrild, penance for some unknown transgression that happened earlier back in the big city. The chief stationed in the next town suggests “You'll be fine, nothing ever happens here” as he drops him off and drives away. Quite wrong, as it turns out for in the marshland of southern Denmark, everything is rotten ...including the people.


Terribly Happy is a terrific example of a modern neo-noir. As nearly everyone has suggested, it's dark and plays a little like U-Turn reimagined by David Lynch. The village folk are downright creepy and sweat a lot. There's a bog outside of town where, among other things, they bury their sins and secrets.

This bleak, middle-of-nowhere town has little that's welcoming and much that's ominous. Terribly Happy is a strangely violent film that flits ever so slightly with horror at times, but contains only a few scenes of violence. Genz somehow infuses it all with a twisted, unsettling beauty. He rarely resorts to fists or guns to convey the town’s violent nature, instead relying on powerful imagery like a blood-soaked carpet squishing beneath an unsuspecting man’s feet and a drinking duel between Hanson and bad guy Jorgen (Kim Bodnia of Pusher fame, excellent) that outshines most movie bar fights.

In the end, we come to realize that Hanson, much as he may want to, isn't heading back to Copenhagen anytime soon. Watching him slowly get mired in the local bog is an absolute treat.

And can anyone tell me why they didn't use this brilliant image for the DVD boxart?

A dark gem.

Sporgey

Civility

I'm not sure how many of you caught the story about Steven Slater, a 38-year-old veteran steward for JetBlue who earlier this week became an instant folk hero to front line customer service workers everywhere, but it's an interesting one. The confrontation/melt-down occurred when Slater apparently asked a passenger to sit down while the plane was taxiing (as is legally required). The passenger then told Slater to “go fuck himself” and, according to many accounts, he proceeded to do exactly that. Slater took to the plane's PA system to deliver a colorful, profanity-laced lecture on rudeness and airline travelers, grabbed a couple of beers, deployed the plane's emergency's exit chute, slid down, and went home. He was later arrested.

If the world was a fairer place, they would have redacted the passenger off to Algeria, but that's not the way things work.

I'm sure anyone who has ever worked a cash register felt some sympathy for (and solidarity with) Slater and as a result, the story went viral. It's a real life version of Falling Down (the Michael Douglas film). It's an amalgam of Network, Office Space and Deathwish and it guaranteed Slater his 15 minutes of fame. The reaction to this story has been twofold. On the one side are the millions of people who have faced similar circumstances on the job and support Slater's dramatic Robin Hood escape from the service industry. On the other, countless people who have faced the inverse experience – getting dusted off by some cheese-eating high school boy at a local box store. So who's right?

The answer is.... it doesn't matter. Both and neither. On a semi-related subject, I responded to the writer of a yelp.ca comment about the FBW today, who complained about one of our staff not being very helpful recently (see P.J.) The situation as it was described didn't sit all that well with me, because it was completely unnecessary. I'm not casting dispersions here, because I don't know the entire story, but from what is posted, our customer service was lacking in this particular circumstance. Regardless of the specifics, this customer left our shop and proceeded to post disparaging comments about our store and staff. It reflects badly on all of us. In an age where consumers have been empowered to the extent that they have and moreover, have access to a multitude of platforms from which to air their grievances without repercussion and with complete anonymity, front-line employees and the businesses that employ them are faced with a nearly no-win situation. Regardless of how many times you get it right, the one time you get it wrong will likely end up on something like yelp.ca. 

But that doesn't mean we should stop trying. Experiences, both good and bad (and on either side of the counter), are cumulative. A day of pleasant exchanges and limited conflict in the trenches generally equates to a good one. A day of endless whinging and relentless displays of hipster-entitlement can grind you into a seething paste of bile-spewing hate-monkey. Too many of the later and you face retail burnout and the next you know you're doing a Douglas, sliding down the emergency chute screaming obscenities at shocked-looking toddlers eating crunchy-frog baby cones. Customers (well,...everyone, in fact) face similar days. They might have had to talk to Bell Canada, or worse Rogers, that day. They might have got 2 parking tickets in 45 minutes picking up the kids from dance camp. They may have had to go into a bank or Walmart for something. Their A/C might be on the fritz and it's 42C outside. The point is, nobody seems to want to cut anybody any slack these days and it's undermining our society and its civility. Acts of goodwill, respect and polite sincerity, even in the face of a hostile and selfish world, elevates us all, but there's too few of them.

Joe faced a difficult former customer at the FBE yesterday who'd been banned several years ago for countless late, lost and damaged disks. In this age of entitlement, the customer demanded she be reinstated because “she was once our best customer” Psshaw! Well, to make a long story short, I reluctantly agreed to a restricted trial-run membership. I hated to undermine Joe's firm and reasonable approach with the customer (no, you can't rent here because you wouldn't play by the rules back when you did), but rather than face another negative yelp.ca entry, where only one side of the argument gets aired, I acquiesced and folded like a cheap suit ...mostly because it was the path of least resistance. It might have been the wrong thing to do, but we'll see.

How do we reconcile all this? We can't. People have bad days and good days. We have good days and bad days, but on balance it's in our best interests to remain respectful and helpful, even in the face of aggressive and rude behavior. Responding in kind is a recipe for disaster and it serves no purpose. When in doubt, take the high road, smile a lot and avoid doing a Douglas if at all possible. If you get it right, it can be done with grace and moral authority ...and it doesn't mean you have to be anyone's doormat either.

Civility is the goal, because it's something our society is in desperately short supply of these days. It's the reason people are in The Film Buffs in the first place....because we get it right most of the time.

Sporgey.

8.11.2010

Night Train to Munich (1940)


Just recently released on Criterion, Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich is a World War II spy thriller set throughout Europe.

Made and released in 1940, just one year into the war, the story is set in 1939 and begins just before the Nazi's invade Prague. A scientist working on armor-plating, who has been approached by the Nazi party before for his work, decides to flee to England but his daughter is caught before she can join him and is held in a concentration camp. Here she strikes up a friendship with a charming Czech man who is also being held in the camp. The Czech tells her of a cunning plan to break out of the camp and run away to England. She agrees and all is well and good when they arrive in England... that is until the daughter is caught once again, this time with her father in tow and are being transported straight to the Fuhrer.
A British spy (played by the hyper-masculine Rex Harrington) makes it his duty to single handedly retrieve the two before they are brought to Hitler's mercy.

It takes the film the better half of its opening act to find its legs, once it does the action moves briskly. This is the pre-cursor to a James Bond film, our protagonist is intelligent, witty, and can get himself out of any tight squeeze. Here, he may lack gadgets but he makes up for it in disguises and (unconvincing) German accents. Harrington's charisma alone as a spy who can't fail is worth the watch, however, the film's setting of Europe in the beginning stages of World War 2 really carries this from great to classic.
Instead of recreating war images or using the classic spinning newspaper trick, Reed uses actual footage from the early stages of war. Most of which I hadn't seen anywhere else; these scenes are the most interesting and really place you in the mindset of when this was filmed.

War was only beginning in 1940 and this film has such an air of charisma and rest assuredness about it. There are no depressing elements here, just a whimsical spy adventure that at times seems almost too tongue and cheek for the seriousness of the events unfolding around the characters. There are two reasons for this; one being that classic cinema was used more as an escape and producers wanted entertaining action sequences and happy endings to make sure they got more butts in seats; second, at such an early stage of the war the world was hopeful it would end quickly and Britain would prevail.

Indeed, there are many scenes in the film that are there just to make fun of Nazi's almost to slap-sticky effect. At the same time the bigger villains of the film are ruthless and cold. The actual scenes on the train to Munich feature two British civilians who are traveling Europe when they are told that they can't go back to Britian. These two are our comedic relief, calling Nazi's "old chap" and asking the wrong guys for tea and so on. The two keep the film from feeling too serious and keep up a feeling of fun throughout the duration.
Also an interesting fact; if these two travelers look familar you may have noticed them in Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" where they were also featured played by the same actors with the same names. This led many to regard Night Train to Munich has an unofficial sequel of sorts to Lady Vanishes. Maybe not quite a sequel but these two films would definitely make a great double feature.


The last action sequence involving a cable car shoot out with what seems like infinite ammo is terrific. Reed makes great use of miniatures throughout the film and here is the highlight of what the director is capable of. Many of the shots involving miniatures are quite telling but Reed has a way of shooting them and integrating them within a living set that makes you believe it. Some of his shots involving models make me think of present day action directors.

While nowhere near as great as some of his other works (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol) Night Train to Munich is a great watch. A war spy thriller with gusto and an air of fun to it, another great release from Criterion.

8.10.2010

Hi Joe.

How's it going?

Nun's on the Run - Black Narcissus and Red Lips

Black Narcissus (1947) Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

I thought it worth mentioning that Black Narcissus is one of those truly fascinating classic films that I doubt any of you will ever get around to watching... which is a shame. I completely understand why – there are nuns on the original cover (although in an effort to trick you, you might have noticed that the recent Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray re-release sport substantially nun-reduced box art). Once you pop it in however, there are nuns in nearly every frame of the film and, perhaps more interestingly, all of the subplots that don't involve them are a little dull, overly stagey and almost take away from the power of the film.

Nun too safe
The story is straightforward enough. Deborah Kerr (nun) leads a group of other British nuns whose isolated Himalayan outpost inflames their imaginations in ways not at all in keeping with vows of chastity. This is a smartly-written, outrageously sensual psychology lesson and was, like most films directed by the great British director Michael Powell, at least 20 years ahead of its time. It's also one of the darkest, most “noirish” human dramas I can think of. There are times toward the end when it almost borders on horror. Among other things, this is a film about sexual repression, colonialism, jealousy and the lack of understanding between cultures.... fairly heady stuff for a movie from the forties.

Creepy Nun
Which isn't to say that Black Narcissus doesn't have its fair share of flaws. There are some cringe-inducing subplots that simply haven't dated well and the acting - including Kerr's - is a little suspect now and again. Much of the nuns-have-urges-too shock and controversy that accompanied the original release of the film seem almost quaint now, but the retrained sensuality of the picture is still there.

But that's not why I'd recommend you watch it. The pure pleasure associated with this film stems from the astonishing cinematography by Jack Cardiff. There's been nothing like it before or since and it remains jaw-dropping 50-plus years later. The depth, dimension and detail of the camerawork blows away anything in the digital era. From a visual perceptive, this is the reference film to end all reference films.

Nun's come undone

The new Criterion releases (both the DVD and the Blu-Ray) simply dazzle the senses in spite of a story that might seem a little dated. Highly recommended, even if you just skip to the visual highlights, just like you would with any nun-porn.

Oh.... and Sabu's in it too.

Sporgey

8.08.2010

The Two Most Dangerous Men in America

Quick reviews of two completely different docs that arrived this week from KRK.

first up.....

The Most Dangerous Man in America (2009)

In a chapter of U.S. history that came and went before most of you were born, the leaking of what became known as the “Pentagon Papers” by defense contract employee Daniel Ellsberg in the early '70s is the topic of a new Oscar-nominated documentary by co-directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith called The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. It's a great story, but only an average documentary. To be fair, the film actually manages to tell Ellsberg's story reasonably well. It plays a little like a dark conspiracy thriller in the History Channel mold, sticking close to the typical documentary conventions we've seen many times before. It attracted an Oscar nomination because it's the kind of film that attracts Oscar nominations. It also serves as an eye-opener for anyone who believes governments have the best interests of the people in mind when they make policy, but then again, anyone stupid enough to think that isn't likely watching a documentary anyways. What it isn't (and desperately needed to be) is an Errol Morris doc, a perfect followup to The Fog of War, but alas... that never happened.

The film employs the standard talking heads, a collection of often self-satisfied interviewees droning on about how earth-shattering Ellberg's monumental act of defiance was. One New York Times reporter goes as far as to suggest that the media's publication of the classified documents enabled press independence ever since. An activist champions the Supreme Court's decision that allowed the publication as a great victory for the First Amendment. All of which is, of course.... horseshit. The media didn't really want anything to do with the story and only published excerpts of the the documents to cover their asses.

If we move to the present, when the modern press is unwilling to confront a former vice president who openly brags on television that he endorsed what is, by all relevant legal standards, torture, one has to ask themselves “what's the point of winning your freedom if you're too cowardly to exercise it?” Plus ca change, plus ce la meme chose. All I took away from this film was an added layer of callous disillusionment. The whole thing smacked of reverse déjà vu. Imagine.... getting stuck in an immoral war without end because the government lied to the people.

.....Ridiculous.

and secondly....

Graphic Sexual Horror (2009)

Speaking of Oscar-magnet documentaries and torture, a documentary that is decidedly unlikely to garner a nomination anytime soon is Barbara Bell and Anna Lorentzon's highly controversial film - Graphic Sexual Horror, (which could quite easily have used the title of the aforementioned Daniel Ellsberg film). The subject of the film is the creator of a U.S. based bondage and S&M website called insex.com. By the time the site was shut down in 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security (no, that's not a typo), it had accumulated 35,000 members who paid $60 a month for access. If you do the math, that's nearly $2M a month, "Taliban money" the goverment claimed (again...horseshit, see above). I wondered aloud whether Dick Cheney had been a member. User Name: Dick Password: Chainy.

Chortle, snort, chuckle....

GSH premiered at Slamdance in 2009 and played at a number of festivals including Hot Docs, Fantasia, and CineKink. It was released to Amazon's VOD site and then pulled due to understandable complaints about the film's content. Synapse Films releases the DVD on August 23rd but it arrived in our KRK box yesterday. Morbidly intrigued by it's serial-killer boxart, I tossed it in last night to see what all the fuss was about. I lasted about ½ an hour, not because it wasn't interesting, but due to the unbelievably graphic nature of film. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that a film called Graphic Sexual Horror contained scenes of graphic sexual horror, but I'll admit that I just didn't anticipate that it would be as explicit as it was. Nothing is left to the imagination and at the risk of succumbing to the slippery slope that is censorship, there's just no way that little Roncey hipsters could handle this film. Their tiny glasses would melt and their dogs would run away to hide under the porch and whimper.

After a couple of brief moments of contemplation, I decided that this film was going east.... to the FBE that is. Coincidentally, I'd just hijacked Joe's 17-movie Elvis mega-boxset from the same order and figure that I'll just trade him straight up for GSH. It will likely find an audience out there once/if the Pelletiers bring it back. If I could be so bold, might I suggest it for your limited-access FBE movie night at some point? Make sure Kate and Hudson are out of town and Jules is properly bound and gagged. Lurid, disturbing and extremely hard to look at, Jules GSH is one of those films that you just don't know what to make of. It one makes Zoo look like a Dora the Explorer movie, if that helps.

.....and I'm not watching the Human Centipede when it comes out either. Thankfully, I've got like 35 hours of Elvis movies ahead of me ....so you guys and your "exclusive" film club can eat shit.

Sporgey

8.06.2010

I might see dead people

On the heals of two masterful, but largely ignored films (Read My Lips '01 and The Beat that My Heart Skipped '05), French writer/director Jacques Audiard scores big time with his latest film, Un prophèt (aka: A Prophet '09), a nearly perfect modern crime masterpiece and one of the best films of the year.

A Prophet is an ambitious crime saga in the Goodfellas vein, but condensed into the lead character's 6 year stint in le grande maison. French/Arab actor Tahar Rahim completely inhabits the role of Malik El Djebena, who arrives in prison a scared, aimless 19-year-old and grows into a criminal of formidable skill and remarkable cunning. So much for rehabilitation.

In an effort to avoid spoilers, I'm going to skip discussing details of the plot because it benefits from remaining a little in the dark about where the story is going. The title, for example, isn't an absolute abstraction: the viewer is left to decide whether Malik has premonitions or if it's just his conscience playing out in some strange way. They don't impact on the story in any specific way, but Malik's appartently supernatural visions lend themselves to the mystery and magic of the film.... where by all rights it shouldn't work, it somehow does.

This is undoubtedly Audiard's best film (and that's saying something considering how good his earlier works are), a rare movie that bites off more than it can chew and then chomps it up with ease. The themes and characters are complex, multifaceted and expertly portrayed by a brilliant group of actors (Rahim and the Corsican crime boss played by long-time French character actor Niels Arestrup are particularly amazing). The film starts with a peculiarly-blank lead character (about which the audience knows nearly nothing about) and rather than working backwards to tell how he arrived in prison at 19-years-old, Audiard instead slowly builds him into a fully flushed-out character that we completely understand by the film's terrific finale. The story is told in a purely linear fashion, unlike most crime stories these days, and that too, somehow works.

This is the real deal boys, a film that knocks it out of the park and then some. They don't get much better than this. Winner.

Sporgey.

8.04.2010

It was the worst of times..... it the worst of times

About half way through reading Joe Queenan's much-commented-upon editorial on the state of this year's film crop (last Friday's Wall Street Journal, here), I started to recognize similarities with any number of my own bitchy tomes about the same issue. Queenan, a humorist, critic and author posits that 2010 might be the worst movie year ever. He's probably right. It likely IS the worst year of cinema.... since last year that is. Like all pop culture, mainstream film oscillates through short spurts of creative fertility followed almost immediately by long periods of tired, cliché-riddled, populist crap. While we're probably in the middle of one of the later spells right now, 2010's list of duds pales in comparison to 2008 (see here) or 2007 (see here), or any other year for that matter. The only certainty is the 2010 film season will be amazing..... compared to next year's slate of even-dumber summer blockbusters.

Mea Culpa: Before any of you comment, I'll readily admit to being endlessly guilty of falling into this same trap. Semi-literate film criticism is a full-on past time for the chronically pissed-off and, quite frankly, it's rare for me to find myself on the other side of the argument.

Ripping the state of present-day cinema is far too easy. It's a little like shooting a deer tied to a tree. There's just no sport in it. While it may be true that this summer's theatrical releases ranked somewhere between cruddy and awful, I'm not sure if the same can't be said for nearly every summer release schedule in recent memory. After a little flurry of film consumption back in the winter, I took a few months off watching movies. In 3 months during the late spring and early summer, I might have watched 5 flicks (and a bit of TV on DVD), but for the most part I temporarily swore off cinema. After this little hiatus, I've watched maybe 20 films since and, in varying degrees, enjoyed most of them (Cop Out notwithstanding). I haven't seen any of the summer theatrical releases, in part because nothing really grabbed my attention, but mostly because humans are at the cinema and they should be avoided where at all possible.

At the risk of stating the obvious... who really cares whether Sex and the City Part 2 or the Last Airbender suck? I mean of course they do. They're almost supposed to be awful. That's why they make them – so people can stay cool in the summer. And for that matter, is a grotesque ode-to-consumerism like Sex and the City, Part Duh any worse than say, the ludicrous orgy of commercial nonsense that were the Winter Olympics? What about the disturbingly-jingoistic World Cup? The best anyone could seem to come up with was - “well, there weren't any commercials” Jesus Christ people... It was one giant commercial. That's why they do it.

Iron Man 2 wasn't very good. Well, neither was Iron Man 1, lest we forget. Shrek 4 wasn't very good either. Really.... and you were expecting based on 2 and 3 exactly what? Grown Ups...ditto. The A-Team....I pity the fool. The list goes on.

So, in a rare effort to champion the recent efforts of Hollywood (but mostly films from elsewhere), I'm going to try and make a case for 2010, the year that couldn't. This should be interesting. I'm going to start with The Losers. I already wrote a little piece about this film but it needs to be said that little B flicks can still hold their own in a sea of 3D extravagance. I liked it. It made me feel like a little boy. I liked Kick-Ass too. I don't know who the demographic was supposed to be, but I somehow fit into it. It was mean and fluffy like no film I can remember. I liked Polanski's Ghost Writer, a film with a laugh-out-loud silly ending, but some genuine chops for most of its running time. I liked Green Zone. I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. I quite liked Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard, but recognize that most won't.

I loved Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, a near-masterpiece just released to DVD (and available from Amazon.com today). I think The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is Herzog's best film since Fitzcarraldo. It's the most fun I had watching a movie this year, maybe ever. The Danish thriller Terribly Happy is just fantastic and will rank up with my best of the year picks. If you can forgo the normal need of plot, pacing, proper editing and credible acting, even Clash of the Titans worked in it's own truly bizarre way. OK, that might have been a stretch. While Shutter Island got panned by everyone, I really liked it too. You, The Living from Norway's Roy Anderssen was also a treat. IP Man was a hoot. Everybody was Kung Fu fightin'. Cop Out sucked.

Of the current theatrical releases, I'm looking forward to Inception, Get Him to the Greek, How to Train Your Dragon, Splice, Salt and Get Low. Later this year I've got my eye on David Fincher's The Social Network, Peter Weir's The Way Back, David O Russell's The Fighter and Aronofsky's The Black Swan. I guarantee you that at least one of them will be great.

On a final note, there's a good reason most summer film-fare is aimed at youngsters, a point regularly  made by adults writing on film these days. That's who goes to the cinema. While there may be a counter if-you-build-it-they-will-come argument, the fact remains that most old people like me would rather watch Matlock and Murder She Wrote reruns on the tube than venture out to the cinema these days. It may be a shame but it's the reality the film industry has to contend with. Toy Story 3 rules the multiplex because it makes money and lots of it. The glory days of Three Days of the Condor are three decades past us and not coming back any time soon.

While Joe Queenan is probably pretty well on the money with his rant about shitty movies, as usual, you just have to dig a little deeper to find the good stuff. It's still there. We just have to stop bitching long enough to seek them out. The glass may be 3/4's empty but it's still 1/4 full.

Sporgey.

8.02.2010

Triangle (2009)

As part of our fledgling film nights in the east end, last week was my pick and we had a look at Christopher Smith's Triangle starring Melissa George. I thought Smith's Severance was something special, and having heard excellent things about his earlier subway-terror, Creep, I've been wanting to see Triangle since it came out on DVD a few months ago.  However, between the two shops we have one Blu-Ray copy, and I figured this was my chance to see it.  Plus, it kinda fit in with the loose theme of the movie nights (which is to say, robberies/robots/explosions/killers/spaceships=good, foreign shit=bad).

This time, Jules and I brought growlers from a couple local brewers, Duggan's and Mill Street.  It seems a fair way to repay Tom's hospitality and the assault on his olfactory senses.  Anyway, we were each handed a chilled glass (snob faux-pas, but given the weather, it was perfect), and proceed to open the growler of Duggan's brand new Canadian Wheat Ale.  It goes down nice as we begin to get into Triangle...

You know it's a bad sign when Jules is already monologuing and the movie isn't even 10 minutes old.  There's something about an autistic son, who one of the characters in the film calls "retarded", offending both Tom's PC leanings and Jules' very existence.  The film is set up with a few friends going out sailing for the day, but from the get go, we see something is wrong with Jess (Melissa George).  Does she miss her son?  Is she haunted by some unexplained memory?  Do we care?  I think we've (rather rapidly) polished off the first growler and have cracked the second, the delightful, but strong, Mill St. Helles Bock.  Little did I know, 'twas the beginning of my downfall.  We all agree it a fantastic beer.  Hudson begins licking my leg.  I start to sweat, then try to stop, fearing for the dog's sobriety.

Jess and the crew set out into perfect sailing weather, but before long, a storm is brewing, both onscreen and in Jules' small intestine.  Acid reflux or a physical reaction to the inanity onscreen?  I think it was about this point that we all agree something really NEEDS to happen in the film, or it won't be on for much longer.  After 20-odd minutes of brooding stares and portentous phrases, it's all really going nowhere.  So, good thing about the storm.  The protagonists' small craft is battered by waves, but remains afloat.  The storm eventually passes and out of nowhere(?) a massive ocean liner drifts into view.  Our beleaguered heroes think they are saved, but they don't know how wrong they are.  Upon boarding the new vessel, they find it deserted....but not for long.  And it is at this point, 2 growlers deep and nearly 40 minutes into the film, that shit starts getting interesting.  So how do we celebrate?  Let's open another growler!
                                        I don't think I'll be going on Scott's boat anytime soon.

Mill St. IPA is next up, and its malty, hoppy balance goes down very nicely.  Too nicely.  Jules continues rolling the joint he started 20 minutes ago, and Hudson has finally stopped searching for the imaginary bag of Zesty Cheese Doritos and accepted the fact that Jules' feet are here to stay.  I wisely opt to keep my shoes on, as after a summer of no socks, the smell of my feet can kill canaries.
                                      Asleep or passed out?  Dangerously close to the "black death".

Triangle combines elements (and not always the best ones) of Time Crimes, Primer and any number of stalk 'n' slash films, and while it is certainly flawed [not the least by bad CGI and a script on par with Oh (it is love)], at its heart lies an intriguing, somewhat mind-bending, concept.  I'm not sure if I'd recommend it, but personally, I'm glad I saw it.  There are some tense moments, and a couple of good scares (one which caused J-Dawg to literally jump and cry out "AAAAHHH"!), and the confines of the ship provide a good sense of claustrophobia and deja vu, not unlike the Overlook Hotel.  The payoff in the film is a good one.

We all discuss the film's merits and shortcomings, and agree that it was, in general, a worthy watch.  We decide to crack more beers and start watching Robocop.  I opt for a Mill St. Lemon Tea Beer, while Jules and Tom share Amsterdam's Boneshaker IPA.  It's getting quite late, things are getting hazy, and I still have to bike across town to get home, so I quickly quaff my brew and graciously stumble out the door, leaving my two compatriots in the capable hands of Paul Verhoeven.  The next morning (my day off, mercifully), I awake to one of the more injurious hangovers I have experienced, and when I finally start resembling a human once again near dusk, I ask Tom online if he was in as bad shape as I had been.  No, he informs me, he had a morning frolic on the beach with his new best friend, although Jules had been so bombed he couldn't even speak when he eventually left.  Glad I took my leave when I did...things could have been worse.

Really looking forward to Smith's newest film Black Death (incidentally, premiering at this year's Toronto After Dark Film Festival in a few weeks); less so to Jules' pick next week.  I don't want to imagine what he's going to make us sit through - though he did hint at Night Train to Munich, so it's not all bad.  Also hoping Kris shows up one of these times, that'd be fun.  These are good nights, and they will be continued...