Wednesday, September 29, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 28 September


America the Beautiful
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
Dean Spanley
Family Guy: Partial Terms of Endearment
Get Him to the Greek (also BluRay)
Immaculate (Sans laisser des traces)
Iron Man 2 (also BluRay)
Outback, The
Party Down: Season 2
Reel Injun
Scrubs: Season 9
Shaun the Sheep: Party Animals
Superman/Batman Apocalypse
Thorn in the Heart, The


Bourdain, Anthony: No Reservations Season 5, Part 1
Breathless (BluRay)
Dark Night of the Scarecrow
Eros Perversion
H.M.S. Pinafore
Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries: Set 2 (Murder Must Advertise / Five Red Herrings / The Nine Tailors)
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (also BluRay)
Midsomer Murders: Days of Misrule
Midsomer Murders: Magician's Nephew, The
Midsomer Murders: Midsomer Life
Midsomer Murders: Talking to the Dead
Mr. Palfrey of Westminster
Not Now Darling
Return of the Five Deadly Venoms, The
Satan's Wife
Thin Red Line, The (also BluRay)

Wendy's Films of 2010 #97: Escape from New York (1981)

Escape from New York is a sci-fi action film directed by John Carpenter (who has his own section in the store! It's back with the horror) The story goes that sometime in the future (1997), the US president's plane crashes into Manhattan, which is now a massive prison. The badass Kurt Russel plays convicted bank robber Snake Plissken is sent in with 24 hours to rescue the president from America's worst criminals in exchange for his freedom.

As for minor details, my memory begins to fail me, but I remember dark streets filled with garbage, a bare-chested Russel with a snake tattoo fighting to the death in a wrestling arena, Ernest Borgnine as a goofy Molotov cocktail-tossing criminal cab driver, and Issac Hays as The Duke driving up in a hydraulic car decked out with chandeliers. The visual style actually reminds me of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight a bit. If that and the above photo aren't enough to persuade you, then perhaps this movie isn't for you.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Lifetime's Narratives, Condensed

#105. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

There is a point halfway through this film, inspired by the true story of a man who stabbed his mother to death, when director Werner Herzog holds before his viewers three men in near tableau. The man on the bottom right is the murderer, Brad McCallum (Michael Shannon), in a flashback long before he barricades himself in his house with two hostages, an action demanding the full attention of Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) until SWAT arrives. The man on the bottom left is Brad's Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif), who claims to have once raised the world's largest chicken and now operates a sprawling ostrich farm when Brad brings his theatre director, Lee Meyers (Udo Kier), to pick up a sword prop for a production of "Orestes," in which Brad's character slays his own mother to bring an end to a bloody line of vengeance-seekers. The third man, standing on what one character claims is the "biggest tree on the planet" (I would argue "stump"), is a dwarf in a tuxedo, who speaks no lines in this film at all.

If you have never before seen a Herzog film, I would almost urge you to start My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? right here, in the full minute we spend just watching these three watch us back: not because the half of the film that comes before it is lacking; but because here Herzog takes a simple matter of setting his camera on three men, three arresting points against a backdrop of wilderness, and in so doing provides for his viewers a level of estrangement, of implacable restlessness, that has virtually no equal in the cinematic world. You simply cannot take in the image as a whole, and, forced to rely instead on component parts, one at a time, you quickly discover there is no one place to rest your eyes: despite their varying levels of importance to the plot, the film as a whole, no primacy exists at all between these three characters. They simply are, and they are waiting; Herzog is waiting, too; therefore so must you.

The notion of component parts comes very easily to bear on the rest of this film, intersecting as it does with so much of Herzog's preceding canon, and yet administered with such delicacy amid artifice that one can never be quite certain of intentionality. Certainly, the interaction between German theatre director and mad, disruptive actor cannot help but be seen in the light of Herzog's years with the irascible Klaus Kinski. Nor can the flashbacks set amid the mountains and rapids of Peru help but bring to mind the madness narrative of Aguirre: The Wrath of God or the futility arc of Fitzcarraldo. And of course, the very setting, the central framing of the tale around the day's work of a city detective, brings to bear all the genre-specific styling Herzog tinkered with in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. With so much obvious reference gently laid out for his viewers, the mind begins to see signs everywhere. Is the dwarf a testament to Even Dwarfs Started Small? Is the entire premise of Brad holding so many others to the light of his madness by barricading himself in his home, his fortress, indicative of Signs of Life?

And what of all the birds? Flamingos, ostriches, talk of chickens (which Herzog famously hates); what reptiles were to Terence McDonagh in Bad Lieutenant, birds are, explicitly, as nemeses or alter egos, to Brad here. As Havenhurst deconstructs the events in Brad's life leading up to this slaying of the all-too-doting mother (Grace Zabriskie), he is aided by Lee, the theatre director, and Brad's fiancee, Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny, who looks like she walked off the set of Big Love without a wardrobe, hair, or character change), and witnesses to the murder, Miss Roberts (Loretta Devine) and Mrs. Roberts (Irma P. Hall). The stories therein told cut between past and present with Herzog's usual indifference to gradual transition, but for this abruptness he permits us to linger instead on the unexpected whenever we're thrust upon it -- a "tunnel of time ... a perfect stage for a cosmic melodrama" in the Calgary airport; a cattle market in lowlands Peru; a wide and bracing shot of Havenhurst venturing unarmed into the static cactus and pink stucco landscape of Brad's surrounded home.

Havenhurst's partner, an unseasoned detective named Vargas (Michael Pena), holds up only as a foil in this film, an unexploited nod to the necessities of the cop drama; but Herzog's camerawork sustains no fealty to the slick demands of the same. If Herzog wants a tableau, say, he won't take the easy shortcut of snapping a still, but instead ask his actors to be still, then capture the intimate failings of the human body's every attempt. Similarly, if he's going to zoom in on a murder, he's also not going to worry about getting the shot without minute shaking around corners of the rooms; nor is he going to play that instability to hyperbolic effect: the middle ground simply is what it is. It is "real".

But "real" is, of course, a difficult concept in any Herzog film. At times one might wonder, for instance, why characters like Ingrid and Lee permit so much from Brad for so long -- why he is gently accepted in his bewildering statements and actions, and not left without job or companion. However, in My Son, My Son... Herzog is not stingy with his moments, his glimmers, through which you can see how Brad might have been when fiancee and director first met him: the sense of humour, the intuitive flair for the dramatic arts. Moments, that is, when viewers are left room to assert their own brand of sanity, of inner calm, upon the quiet madness still and always brewing in Brad's converted mind, and from this imposition incur the same, niggling hope for natural recovery that must surely exist in fiancee and friend.

It is, in the end, this unending tension between the blatant, the abrupt, the clearly artificial, and the nuance, the subtlety, the telegraphing of intent without injuring the journey, that sustains this film and establishes its director's brand so classically and elaborately. Viewers know from very near the outset of the piece who Brad's two hostages are, and in that way are freed from a sense of tension, of dread, about outcome as they traverse Brad's richly troubled world. In My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? the monstrous has already happened by the time the film begins; the beautiful alone remains to be revealed -- which is why, of course, Herzog's come.

Pose Reviews A Movie. #43: Zoolander (2001)

Zoolander presents a deep, philosophical spelunking into the depths of one of the most important and divisive questions with which humanity will ever come to grips.

...isn't there more to life than just being really really good-looking?

Well, in Derek Zoolander's case...not really.

This classic comedy about the world-famous male model with the IQ of a hammer has aged quite well considering it's coming up on its ten-year anniversary.

The premise is indisputably unique, centering around the title character (Ben Stiller) whose critically acclaimed domination of the modeling industry is disrupted when his rival, Hansel (Owen Wilson), takes the coveted Male Model of the Year award.

It's at this point that Zoolander starts to reconsider the value of his career, making him vulnerable to the tempting advances of the evil fashion guru Mugatu (Will Ferrell), who uses Zoolander's all but absent intelligence to lure him into an assassination plot.

In the tradition of Dodgeball, Anchorman and Wedding Crashers, Zoolander sports the absurd and hilariously effective comedic delivery of comedy giants Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell. And with fantastic additions made by Jon Voight, David Duchovny and Jerry Stiller, the movie is full of the all-star heavy-hitters of Hollywood.

In much the same way that "the clothes that make the (wo)man," it's definitely Zoolander's cast that makes the film.

The concept is good, the script is good, the plot is good, but the characters are great.

Plus, Zoolander is also saturated with fantastic (and numerous!) cameo appearances, most notably David Bowie as the Right Honourable Judge of the epic walk-off between Zoolander and Hansel.

And if you're upset that I gave that away, let's be honest--don't you want to see it more now that you know there's

a) David Bowie
b) The necessity for a walk-off judge?

I'd definitely recommend Zoolander to fans of the aforementioned comedians who star in the film, but I'd also recommend a re-watch for anyone who hasn't seen it in awhile. Having not watched it myself since its initial release in 2001, I had forgotten a lot of the great gags, and even the ones I remembered wear quite well.

Often, what separates the goods from the greats in the comedy genre is the films' ability to endure over time. I think Zoolander admirably stands this test of time, and whether you've seen it already, or didn't surface from under your rock until its popularity had died down, I would give it a second look.

And if you don't like it? Well, I have something that will cheer you up...ORANGE MOCHA FRAPPUCCINOS!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #67: Aeon Flux (Peter Chung, 1991)

Peter Chung’s cerebral and post-modern animated series, not that other thing from 2005 that you and I should never speak of. That which cannot be named.

The good Aeon Flux, the animated Aeon Flux, happens to feature my favourite femme fatale: the fearless, sexy, elite assassin - you guessed it - Aeon Flux. She’s deadly, anarchic, and downright impenetrable. You’re never quite sure what she’ll do, or, once she’s done something, exactly why she’s done it. She’s a stylish renegade of abstract proportions, without border or precise definition, and fiercely individual. And that’s the nature of the series on a whole. When you add a spastic, gritty and idiosyncratic animation style to the mix, you have a pretty surreal and engrossing experience on your hands.

It’s refreshing now and again to immerse yourself in an anti-story, an anti-TV series, where you’re not so much watching a story unfold as you are watching a story deconstruct and re-apply itself in liberating ways. I get the impression that like the heroine of the series, Peter Chung lives to shake things up. I thank him.

So: A wicked piece of animation, style, and paradox. Don't try to put it all together as you watch it - you're not supposed to.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #66: Krull (1983)

Read it and weep, boys.

I’d first like to thank Krull for giving the Glaive to the world. Once I find it, locked away in some (no doubt) nearby mountain, life’s going to be a whole lot more interesting. I can’t think of one life-situation where a glaive couldn’t be applied to achieve great success.

If you don’t know what the Glaive is I’d imagine you’ve never seen Krull, and I would think, furthermore, that you’d better get on that before the Slayers arrive. They’re evil and blackly armoured juggernauts that take people’s planets from them. Then they give the enslaved worlds over to their boss, who is the Beast. I don’t think you want that. If you do, you are what’s called a bad person.

The Beast will likely kidnap a princess and try to wed her, and if you, dear reader, are a prince, I’m afraid you’re going to have to do something. You’re going to have to find some British actors, band together, and find The Beast’s wonderfully surrealist fortress. Getting in and saving the day is going to be dangerous.

But at least there’s the goddamned Glaive, which is shaped like a big starfish and has retractable blades and you can throw it around and control it with your mind. And guess what! The Beast fucking HATES it.

All in all Krull is a glittering and melodramatic science-fantasy done well, which makes it a lot of fun. It might feel a bit long, but the amazing James Horner score should make up for it. And the Beast looks like the creature from the black lagoon after his black lagoon became a toxic nightmare.

So: Give Krull a try so you’ll know what to do when the Slayers come.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pose Reviews A Movie. #42: Desperado (1995)

A quick Google search of action movies that came out in 1995 will easily explain the merit of Robert Rodriguez's Desperado. That year, Rodriguez's film competed with:

-Mortal Kombat
-Judge Dredd
-Batman Forever
and who could forget...
-Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers: The Movie

Of course, 1995 also sported the debut of Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in Goldeneye, and the return of Bruce Willis as John McLean in Die Hard: With A Vengeance; films which, at the time seemed pretty cool, but after being rerun on television every week for the following ten years, became (to put it gently) "passé."

This, ladies and gentlemen, was the standard of action flicks at the time Desperado appeared on the proverbial scene. And, when considered within that context, it seems pretty damn good.

Unfortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to watch Desperado's precursor, 1992's El Mariachi, but the updated model is pretty effective as a brainless, shoot-em-up, Benevolent Vigilante vs. Evil Drug Dealing Villains kind of blockbuster.

First, it features Antonio Banderas as one of the greatest badasses since Dirty Harry--a man whose skills in the area of bad-guy-death-killing are second only to his admirable morality in good-guy-looking-out-for. (Read it twice--it's a sentence.)

Banderas is pretty impressive in his portrayal of El Mariachi, a stealthy and cunning stranger who comes to a small Mexican town looking only for "a man who calls himself Bucho," but finding a whole lotta other people in the interim.

After all, Bucho (Joaquin de Almeida) is a man of considerable means, and our hero ends up with a lot of anonymous henchmen to plow through before he gets to him.

Throw in a romance with Salma Hayek and a wicked awesome soundtrack by Los Lobos? Well, you've got yourself a movie!

Certainly, Desperado isn't really going to make you think. But it's sure as hell fun to watch. The action sequences are awesome, and reasonably overdone for effect, and the script isn't as terrible as it usually is when you're dealing with an action movie from 1995.

And it's especially fun to watch Danny Trejo in his role as a hired gun (or...knife), now that Machete has been released. (And if you haven't yet seen Machete, watch it afterwards for some delightful homages!)

Essentially, I'd recommend this slightly formulaic, action-packed feature if you're looking to give your brain a rest, but still want to watch something that doesn't suck. If you're in the right mood, it can be a real treat.

After all, Desperado is pretty decent. You know...for 1995.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 21 September


30 Rock: Season 4
Batman: Under the Red Hood
Bored to Death: Season 1
Collapse (National Geographic)
Community: Season 1
Dark House
Desperate Housewives: Season 6
Experiment, The
How I Met Your Mother: Season 5
John Rabe
Modern Family: Season 1
Petals: Vagina Dialogues
Piece montee (The Wedding Cake)
Pig Hunt
Robin Hood (2010) (also BluRay)
Secret in their Eyes, The
Spartacus: Blood and Sand: Season 1
Stripped Naked
Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job!: Season 4
Year of the Carnivore


Banana Peel
Come on Children
Day of the Nightmare / Scream of the Butterfly
Dying at Grace
Fatty Arbuckle: Forgotten Films
Five Evenings
Life Is a Bed of Roses
Married Couple, A
Memory: For Max, Claire, Ida and Company
Slave of Love, A
Without Witness

Monday, September 20, 2010

Maggie 2010: Horror Season, Part Deux

#104. In The Mouth of Madness

I didn't even have cable as a kid, and I still remember the corn-ball quality of Nickelodeon horror films, so when I say, "Remember those corn-ball Nickelodeon horror films?" as a lead-in to this friendly chat about John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, you have no excuse for not getting my drift. None.

And speaking of excuses, I have none myself for watching this film alone -- a big, rookie mistake you just can't get away with after viewing other Carpenter classics, like Escape from New York (which some whippersnapper* at Gen X told me was too "old" a movie to satisfy his desire for wanton violence--hah!) and They Live. Ah, They Live. Most amazing fight to plant a pair of sunglasses on someone else's eyes ever. What was my point again? Company, yes! Get some. Seriously: you just can't watch Carpenter on your own. Believe me, I tried. The result? You'll find yourself shouting such delightfully incredulous lines as, "Are they serious?", "Is this a joke?" and "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" with nobody around to prove that Carpenter isn't in fact driving you insane.

True fact: Carpenter's films will probably drive you insane.

What makes his films so ridiculous? In a phrase, short-term memory loss. Remember where you were when the story begins? Well, that makes one of you. Just like those Nickelodeon flicks of old, Carpenter horror films seem to be written at a break-neck pace with no looking back, ever, to see if everything jives with what came before. And who really cares, anyway, when the movie just spirals further and further into outlandish twists and turns riffing on the most hackneyed plot devices ever invented? Forward, not backward! Upwards, not forward! And always turning, turning, turning towards -- ah, you get the idea.

So In the Mouth of Madness stars Sam Neill as John Trent, an insurance claims investigator commissioned to find a missing author who's "bigger than Stephen King," and whose works have a (pun alert!) "monstrous" effect on their readers. Man, I bet King wishes he'd written this script, too--but alack, no, it's Michael De Luca. And you know what? I also get Neill being down with this script. I can see him saying, "You know what, Carpenter? I fought motherf$#*ing dinosaurs two years ago. Can ya beat that? Well, can ya (punk)?"

And Carpenter can. We're talking worlds pulled out of a fictional writer's behind, garish invasive species taking over human forms by infecting their minds through stories, killer old ladies, mutating hotel paintings, small town sacrificial cults--man, you name it, Carpenter vomited it out for this film.

(On a quick aside, if you're familiar with Southern Ontario, you'll also be pleasantly surprised to see notable Canadian locations like Waterloo County's own kissing bridge in West Montrose, the last covered bridge in all Ontario!, feature prominently in this film. Who knew horror could be so cozy and familiar!)

If you are now of the opinion that I'm against this film, TIME FOR THE TWIST! I'm not. Really! Honest and for realz! Because, let's face it: every now and then we all need films so absurd we can put them on as guaranteed conversation starters--especially at parties, but especially on first dates. Can you just picture it? "Gee, honey, this movie seems pretty crazy, but it's too late to go back to Gen X for another one. Anything else we could do to pass the time?" You just can't go wrong. Really, you can't: not when Carpenter already corners the market on "disaster on celluloid." Unexpectedly addictive disaster on celluloid.

*Yes, I'm aware I wasn't even *born* when Escape from New York came out, but when customers *think* I was around when it hit theatres, I get to be just as cantankerously indignant about "youth these days!"

Maggie 2010: Horror Season Begins!

#103. The Mothman Prophecies

Every now and then a mainstream horror film will tackle grief in a coherent, thought-provoking manner. The film will use grief not as a throw-away lead-in to wanton, senseless violence, but as a means of deconstructing the horror genre as a whole.

To my great surprise, The Mothman Prophecies was such a film. Starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney, and directed by Mark Pellington (whose CV hardly champions him for the genre), I didn't expect this based-on-"true"-events number about supernatural sightings in small-town America to leave any impression on me at all.

Take, for instance, the blatant telegraphing in the opening act -- Gere's character, John Klein, building a future with his lovely wife on the back of a newly-acquired home, only to have a car accident shatter all their dreams, and leave him with a mystery viewers just know will play a central role in events thereafter. Pretty standard stuff, as far as horror/thrillers go, establishing the film's imagery and forging a sympathetic bond between viewer and protagonist.

Nonetheless, The Mothman Prophecies executes this convention well, and even some pretty heavy-handed camerawork near the beginning resolves itself into intelligent scene transitions. Indeed, one of the strengths of this film is easily the level of ambiguity it allows to exist in the details -- even if the conventionality of the form requires the ending to be more blatant, pat, and absolute than viewers might prefer.

But the real strength of the film comes from the director's understanding of why grief works so well as a foundation for horror. In John Klein we see a man who has lost everything that matters--or so he thinks. The events of this film will teach him what remains--and in that remainder, what else can still be lost. Far from being ham-fisted, this message is conveyed gradually, respectfully, and with some interesting twists and turns along the way. Whatever the supernatural agent in The Mothman Prophecies is, whatever greater power it draws upon, in the end the real agency always lies with the humans, not the monsters: the choices we make, and what we can or cannot bring ourselves to take from tragedy, when it strikes.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #95 and #96: Shogun Assassin (1980) and Ninja Assassin (2009)

For some reason the picturesque Côte d'Azur reminds me of Asian assassins.

I'm not really sure why, but today I found myself pondering the qualities of films about martial arts and assassins and wondering how much these two actually had in common. At first I was quick to think they were very different, but it seems that all good martial arts heros are out to get revenge. Now this revenge is not to be wasted on just anyone, but it's a special kind of hate reserved specifically for their former management/commanders/employers. This hate is often based on the senseless and tragic murder of a beloved female. For the Shogun it was his wife, for Raizo it was his potential future lady friend. This revenge is exacting, ruthless and satisfying. Usually with a lot of bloody mayhem. It is always entertaining.

This entertainment is especially pronounced when I've spent the day wandering around beautiful medieval towns like Eze and looking out onto the stunning blue Mediterranean water. On these days I most enjoy pondering the excellent qualities of carnage and slaughter. Shogun Assassin's style is particularly humorous as it takes the first two films in the Lone Wolf and Cub (the first of which I previously reviewed here) series and cuts it down to one film, highlighting fight scenes, angry man faces, and boobs. I would give this film several thumbs up if I had more than two. Not only is it a gratifying and farcical, but it pretty much emanates the best aspects of words like "awesome" and "suberb." Ninja Assassin also contains a lot of excellent entertainment, particularly on the slaughter side. It's done beautifully, with plenty of blood and lots of neat weapons. I'd say it's not as good as Shogun Assassin (which I definitely recommend) but it's a film I thought was pretty fantastical and worth your while if you like to be entertained with death and martial arts. Perhaps the quality of these two films is what drew me toward them while admiring the beauty of Southern France, I'm not sure, but Monaco is supposed to be pretty nice.

p.s. I just reread my Lone Wolf review and noticed that on the 29th of May I wrote "It's the first in a 6-part series, 7 if you include Shogun Assassin (which I'll hopefully write a review for soon.)" I would like to note that "soon" apparently means "almost 4 months." I apologize for potentially misleading hopeful readers and will try to be more productive in the future.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #94: Shaft (1971)

So I was in Cannes the other day, thinking, "Hmm, I haven't written a post for GenX in over a month, perhaps I should get on that." Then I strolled casually down the beach whilst pondering my thoughts on Shaft and admiring the yachts simultaneously, as I often do in France. Shaft had long been on my list of films to see; I'd caught the beginning credits before and admired their fantasticity, so seeing the rest was clearly inevitable. In this film, private detective Shaft must fight evil for the bettering of mankind, or does he? Is retrieving the kidnapped daughter of a mob boss a good thing? I suppose it is, since Bumpy's innocent daughter didn't do anything wrong. But what message does it send to other mobsters? That their actions can continue because Shaft, the defeater of evils, will rescue them from potential harm? These are questions that you might want to ponder while watching this film, which happens to be filled with awesome quotes. Like when Willy says, "That's some cold shit, throwing my man Leroy out the window. Just picked my man up and threw him out the Goddamn window." Or when Sergeant Tom Hannon asks, "Hey, where the hell are you going, Shaft?" and Shaft replies, "To get laid, where the hell are you going?" Moments like these pollute the film with their delicious stench, adding to its putrid awesomeness. Perhaps you should watch it.

Who's the black private dick...
that's a sex machine to all the chicks?


Ya damn right.

Maggie 2010: A Scholar Reviled

#102. American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein

"Believe me: sometimes I wonder whether it's worth it. ... Speaking as a devout atheist, thank God that in His almighty wisdom He made us mortal. We don't have to endure this for all eternity."
Free speech is one of the most difficult concepts to apply in a democratic society -- and also one of the most important. For Norman Finkelstein, son of Holocaust survivors and active critic of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinian people, free speech lies at the centre of his life's work. Critics think him a self-hating Jew, or no Jew at all, for condemning the actions of the Israeli government and also the use of the Holocaust as a "trump card" forever protecting the Israeli state from accusations of tyranny and oppression all its own. For the controversy stirred up by his books, he has lost his professorship twice and faces hate mail demanding eviction from his home. But is he entirely without fault? Do individual vendettas and rhetoric as high-handed as that which he rails against in the scholarly world make him in some ways personally responsible for the professional setbacks and criticisms he's incurred?

These are the questions asked by American Radical, which I watched after reviewing comments for and against the piece on IMDB. To create a documentary about any controversial figure is always to fail in the minds of certain viewers -- either by not criticizing the figure enough, criticizing him too much, or daring to create a film about the figure in question at all. But I was pleasantly surprised to find in Ridgen and Rossier's documentary an even-handed portrait of a human being, warts and all, whose works are gratefully received by some and reviled by others.

If the film can be said to have any failings, they would include those questions that the directors could do no more than note, including the matter of authority, and of responsibility. In the former case, as critics point out that Finkelstein's fame arises from the fact that he's a "Jew criticizing Israel," and insist that if he weren't Jewish he'd be called out for anti-Semitism in a heartbeat, I'm both inclined to concur and also to sympathize less with that counterargument for being made at all. One rabbi in the film says that it's all right to criticize Israeli (just not as Finkelstein does), but we're never given a sense of just what this "appropriate" criticism might look like. However, far from being a failing of this film, I'm given to suspect it's not a question that can be explored without the film becoming more than a simple biopic; indeed, without the film addressing Israel-Palestinian politics as a whole.

Then there's that second matter, of responsibility: According to critics among university students, as observed around his Canadian lecture tour, Finkelstein's words are dangerous because they give strength, however unintentionally, to explicit anti-Semites, including members of the KKK and Middle Eastern terrorists. The documentary never pushes the question of whether or not a person should self-censor to protect their words from being exploited by others, and again the question seems beyond the reach of a straightforward documentary.

On a personal note, I remember Finkelstein's famed visit to the University of Waterloo, depicted in this documentary at some length, and with it the heated community response that plagued his lecture in full. What I didn't know -- what I couldn't have known -- were Finkelstein's words to his driver after, when criticized for giving time to questions that would undoubtedly drown out Finkelstein's own message in the next day's newspaper articles. American Radical filled in that blank:
"I think it's a question of priorities. I spoke for two hours, and people showed an enormous amount of tolerance in letting me speak for two hours, and therefore I have an obligation to let people have their say. You know, I'm saying things which deeply upset many people in the audience; if they control themselves for two hours, and show me their respect, then I have an obligation to let them let out their feelings and thoughts."

This, I thought, was a beautiful observation, and one that deserves to exist above and beyond the particular politics of American Radical. To give time to an idea with which you do not agree; and which you in fact find deeply offensive, is one of the most difficult acts of civility any human being can manage. Yet even to strive for it is to see the best side of democracy in action. For this reason I think there's a little something for everyone in watching American Radical; and I know I at least came away from it only wanting to challenge my convictions even more.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Little Too... Precious

#101. Precious

Lest I be accused of hating films with "happy" endings, let me first come out explicitly asserting that, yes! I do in fact like films with happy endings. And no, I'm not just talking about the kind where a beautiful woman takes a well-deserved cryo-nap after kicking some serious alien butt. When a happy ending is earned in any genre setting, it's a beautiful thing. It's George Bailey gathering Zuzu in his arms and watching Clarence's bell ring amid New Year's caroling. It's the Tramp too speechless with love to do anything but gaze upon the woman his hard-won charity has spared from blindness, and having her identify him by the gentlest touch. Among more recent films, it's a triumphant Maori girl named Pai surviving immense prejudice to follow her dreams, or an old man touching down in the foreign land he and his late wife had so long hoped to explore. Happy endings are wonderful, especially when achieved despite tremendous losses and through unrelenting hardships; and for this reason, again, yes, I enjoy them as much I do their far bleaker, more unsettling counterparts.

However, I most emphatically draw the line at any film writer/director who thinks they can heap up suffering like so many cold pig's feet on a plate of heavy mash and then sprinkle the magic fairy dust of "BELIEF IN YOURSELF!" to wring a sense of catharsis out of their thus-fatted viewers. As you can well imagine, this is how I felt myself being used while watching Precious.

And I wanted to like Precious. I really, really did. I find the main character, an illiterate sixteen-year-old bearing a second child of incest in a household permeated by abuse, played to perfection by the young and talented Gabourey Sidibe. She really could not have done anything more to make the film a success; I just fervently wish she had a director, a producer, and a script backing her up every step of the way. Yes, to an extent director Lee Daniels was working under the constraints of the film's source material, a 1996 novel by Sapphire called Push, but that remains little excuse for the heavy-handed stylistic choices that reveal monstrous details of personal suffering for emotional effect, then conveniently push them aside whenever the reality of those details threatens the feel-good, YES-YOU-CAN, I-read-The-Secret-and-it-changed-my-life message that's supposed to make us all believers in ourselves by the time the credits roll.

The most obvious example of this is the means by which acts of violence against Precious are immediately glossed over with dream sequences (mostly of Precious-as-celebrity blowing kisses at many admirers). This technique is used a handful of times throughout the film -- when her mother throws objects at her head, when Precious is shoved by punks, when she's giving birth, when she's being raped by her father -- and each and every time it's telling viewers something we already know: that Precious wishes she were anywhere else but then, and there, and in that skin. Well, duh.

The problem with this directorial choice is that it takes the act of empathy out of our hands. Instead of being able to bear witness to Precious' immediate, real-world discomfort or outright suffering, and in the process evaluate her experiences in contrast to our own, we are forced to focus instead on the persistent dreaming that seems to emphasize how she in particular is deserving of escape. In consequence, the audience is not given time to personalize its exposure to Precious' suffering, and Sidibe is similarly denied a crucial opportunity to let her truly striking portrayal of Precious convey those emotional truths all on its own.

Perhaps I wouldn't be so hard on this film if it weren't built on so sensational a groundwork, but as it is Precious packs some pretty heavy subject matter, from incest and rape to physical and verbal abuse, to the transmission of HIV, to basic child neglect, and hunger, and poverty. Yet for all that these issues are foregrounded and indeed blatantly attested to in narrative and dialogue throughout the film, none of them are addressed with the rigour and consistency they deserve.

The most absurd example of this arises when Precious tells a social worker (Maria Carey) she's been raped by her father: oddly enough, no mention is even made of a police report being filed pursuant to that conversation. Thelma and Louise may have questioned the use if calling the police in their rape case (and subsequent manslaughter), but social workers have a duty to report. Another conveniently underdeveloped thread is the question of future romance: Lenny Kravitz, playing a benevolent nurse in the maternity ward after Precious gives birth, is the only clue the audience gets as to how Precious will interact with men from here on out, and even he skedaddles before the HIV matter pops up, a debilitating can of worms all its own.

In fact, one would do well to ask "Where are all the men?" when watching this film. Even the impassioned alternative school teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who opens her doors to Precious for Christmas, is conveniently in a lesbian relationship -- a mainstream presentation I'd usually be celebrating, except that here it feels suspiciously like another means by which to avoid having Precious interact with other men in her new life. All Precious' new classmates are female, too, as if boys never need alternative, rudimentary schooling in author Sapphire's world. Precious never even so much as re-evaluates her initial daydream of a life with her math teacher, a male, in her new, post-literacy world.

Indeed, so far as this film is concerned, Precious has essentially waltzed into a fiercely protective women's commune, and that whole other sex, with all their raping and familial abandonment, is of no great import when resolving the film's own crisis points. Confronting the abusive mother is central to this film's conclusion, yes! But when Precious learns how permanently her father's out of the picture, where is even a moment's struggle with the notion of never being able to confront him for what he's done?

Obviously the notion of descending into a community of nurturing women to escape one's traumatic past is a common one: it's at the heart of such films as The Secret Life of Bees, The Joy Luck Club, Fried Green Tomatoes, and The Color Purple (also all novel adaptions).

But ultimately, it's this director's heavy-handed stylistic devices, which so often and so annoyingly supplant an excellent performance from Sidibe, that makes Precious nearly intolerable while the aforementioned others all bear their own strengths (with The Color Purple in particular winning my endorsement over this film, for its integration of men in the protagonist's quest for resolution). So by all means, watch Precious for Sidibe's acting, which amply deserved the 2009 Oscar nom for Best Actress, but don't hold your breath waiting for an ending that's both optimistic and earned. You won't find one here.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #65: Highlander: The Source (2007)

No. Just no.

Now, I love Highlander. I love the concept. I love swords, I love immortals. What I don’t love are films that are made with an ethos something like HEY MAN REMEMBER THAT MOVIE WE LOVED WHEN WE WERE YOUNG LET’S DO ANOTHER ONE BUT MAKE SURE THAT EVERYBODY ON THE PROJECT IS A HACK AND A DUKE OF MEDIOCRITY.

I’m sorry fans, but it shines from every facet with a stupefying lack of talent. And most glaring is the writing.

So: the world has ended for some unexplained reason. Civilisation has crumbled and there’s this thing called The Source. Duncan Macleod and his pals decide to look for it after all the planets in our milky-way galaxy suddenly align. But there’s a problem – The Source is guarded by a fucking Looney-tunes character.

It turns out that the “Guardian” of the nexus of the galaxy is a goof in S&M gear. He gets his fun by killing and by shouting hello really loudly after he sneaks up on someone, or sometimes when he just sees someone. Like when Joe smacks into him with a truck. As the Guardian flies backwards through the air, the writers thought it best to have him shout HELLO JOE! like a fucking clown, arms and legs held out like he was doing a jumping-jack.

That’s cute. He’s the Guardian of the nexus of the galaxy.

I'm going to spoil it for you, so stop reading if you actually want to see this movie with friends, piss yourself laughing, and get surprised (or not surprised) by the Guardian's defeat. Here’s how Unkie Dunk beats him: Duncan Macleod of the clan Macleod runs so quickly around the Guardian that he is actually drilled into the ground and is trapped. Before he explodes for some reason, he screams NOOO! I’M GONE FOREVER.

I’m not kidding.

But that’s not really the ending. There isn’t one, I’m afraid. And I don’t mean that in a great No Country For Old Men way. I mean that instead of actually showing the audience much of what occurs after Macleod makes his “I’m done with this immortal life of killing” choice, the film fades. And the unthinkable happens. They recap the film for about three minutes. All the major, ultra boring plot points that you don’t need or want to see ever again. A recap just for fun, as though you hadn’t been paying attention, which, in all fairness, could well be true. When that’s done, instead of seeing much of what happens we get a voiceover telling us what happens: The Source is won and now Duncan and his love have a child, since she can suddenly feel her new pregnant-ness. The Source is god and he gives people babies. We see a quick shot of Macleod and Mrs. Macleod floating naked.

So: This is the way the franchise ends, not with a bang but a recap.

Here are some things IMDB forum folk learned from Highlander: The Source:

  1. In a decimated post-war Eastern Europe you can easily gain access to sophisticated ultra-modern communications equipment since it's protected by one security guard.

  2. Being a 5000 year old immortal that has traveled the length and breadth of the world does not mean you can pull off wearing a leather jacket with tassels.

  3. When planets align they will appear bigger and closer to us than Earth's own moon.

  4. If you want a big explosion in your movie, have a guy decide to drive a post-apocalyptically valuable gas truck through a brawl and crash it.

  5. If you want to move characters quickly onto an island, have one of them say "We need a boat," followed by a shot of them on a boat. Then show them at a pier, watching the boat move away. All this can be done in two minutes.

  6. When a woman enters the Source her clothing changes and her hair is braided.

  7. Three Immortals with thousands of years of battle-honed experience cannot see or hear cannibals tromping through a sparse forest until they are surrounded.

  8. ‘Lawlessness’ means the cops show up just in time to witness a stabbing and begin pursuit.

  9. Although they have firearms and motorcycles, cannibals prefer to chase people around on foot and horseback with wrenches and knives. It is more satisfying.

  10. Queen doesn't sound good when ‘updated’ as generic hard rock.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #64: Survival of the Dead (2009)

Oh! Who put this neck here?

The original Dawn of the Dead is one of my favourite films of all time. I've got a lot of respect for Romero as a filmmaker. But I can't follow him into his newer works.

The problem with Romero films (and they get progressively worse for this as he gets older) is that they don't seem to be terribly well-reasoned. As time as peeled away, he seems less and less interested in making sense and more and more interested in being unfunny. He likes to throw things away so he can have a silly scene now and again, things like logic, physics, reasonable human behaviour, consistent character. You kind of need these for movies to be somewhat believable and worth investing in. Not always, but usually. Normally this tendency is forgivable in a comedy, but that is dependent on your comedy not SUCKING. Unfortunately, as GenXMike pointed out to me, Romero has the sense of humour of a 70 year old man. Probably because he's 70. Somehow, this works to give him the comedic sensibility of a 10 year old boy.

I can never quite accept just how often people refuse to shoot someone they know, either friend or family, that is clearly a zombie. Now, I know that I can't quite say just how a person would react in a horrific and zombie related crisis, but to my mind, if people were faced with a 100 percent lethal and highly contagious plague that caused the infected to attack and kill the uninfected with abandon, they would have little trouble pulling a trigger. Society has collapsed. You can't let an infected person to touch you or your loved ones. You also don't want one of your loved ones to devour another one of your loved ones. Everyone in this film has seen what a zombie will do. You'll pull the trigger.

But we get an island community that's torn down the middle and fighting amongst themselves as to whether or it's kosher to put down the zombies that are clearly trying to eat them. It's the reasonable "We should make sure they don't kill us." people vs. the crazy "They're human beings even if they're dead!" people. The big ethical question is whether or not we should kill all the zombies or teach them to eat something that isn't us. Again, it's a no-brainer. Put down dangerous infected corpses or spend all of our time keeping them penned up and fed with fresh animals. Sarcasm will here be shown in bold. Gee! We best do the latter! I just can't bear to see these lovable shambling horrors killed!

Oi. Onto the characters. They're pretty annoying. Particularly the tech-obsessed emo teenager wearing his headphones around his neck (in a zombie apocalypse) and surfing the web on his iPhone. I guess society hasn't entirely collapsed. The kid seems to be a crack shot with a pistol for some reason. Then there's the embarrassingly horny lesbian soldier that can't keep her hand out of her pants.

The film wastes most of its time on a ridiculous feud between two Irish families, and all drama is weightless and forced. There is also, sadly, a serious lack of zombie action. When the zombies are there, they're actually pretty non-threatening. Now, I tend to prefer slow moving zombies to the modern fast type, so it's not that. It's the fact that you can apparently just push a zombie around and kill them gingerly. When a zombie does get someone, it's played up for its comedy so lamely that Romero is effectively de-horrorising his own genre. He's making zombies a joke, and I can only assume it's out of some kind of spite. Spite not for fans, but for something I can't quite place. Spite for the film industry? I have the sneaking suspicion that he has spite for filmmaking in general. That he hates the money and the teeth-pulling, so he goofs around on screen. Or madness over the fact that there are a great many 'of the dead' films and he owns very few of them. In the special features he seems absolutely exasperated about filmmaking, and laments about what a slog through horrible conditions his film productions tend to be.

So: Poorly reasoned. Not funny. Excruciatingly boring. Reeks of Canadian mediocrity.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pose Reviews A Movie. #41: Dillinger È Morto (Dillinger Is Dead) (1969)

Marco Ferreri's 1969 feature, Dillinger Is Dead is an exemplary instance of minimalism done properly.

Frankly, I loved it. But I could definitely see how some people might hate it. After all, "exemplary minimalism" to some is probably "frightfully boring" to others. So I will do my best to present a fair and honest description of the film, and what I saw in it.

Dillinger Is Dead takes place over the course of one evening, and exclusively takes the perspective of Glauco (Michel Piccoli), a middle-aged industrial designer of protective masks.

The film begins with a short glimpse of Glauco's work-life, then moves swiftly toward documenting his evening at home. His wife is in bed with a headache (though we get the impression that she's probably on drugs), and he is left to eat dinner alone in the dining room.

Glauco's dinner has gotten cold, however, and he decides to take to the kitchen and cook himself a stunningly elaborate, multi-course meal.

When going through a cupboard looking for ingredients, however, he stumbles upon something unusual. An old, rusted revolver, wrapped in the front page of a newspaper from the day John Dillinger was killed in 1934.

Stay with me.

What makes this symbol fascinating (to me, anyway) is its ambiguity. Surely, we are meant to believe that this was indeed, at one point, John Dillinger's gun. But how did it get into Glauco's home? Has he owned it for years, and merely forgotten about it? Did someone plant it there? Was it left by a previous owner of the house? And what does it mean that Glauco spends the rest of his night repairing it?

Because he does.

With a running time of 95 minutes, the vast majority of Dillinger is Dead consists of Glauco cooking, occasionally interacting with his wife and their maid, watching some strange reels of film (including a weirdly awesome hand-dance on a sort of mirror, the entirety of which would probably be life-altering to someone who had taken powerful hallucinogens) and meticulously restoring what may or may not be John Dillinger's gun.

That's it.

But the entire time, you get the feeling that the film is building up to something profound. No matter how uneventful the majority of the picture is, you can't help but shake the sense that something big is going to happen.

And that's all I'm going to say.

(About the plot, anyway).

There is very little dialogue in the film, which makes the soundtrack feature quite prominently. And it's a cool soundtrack to boot! The film's music seems to flow in waves of genre--everything from Italian pop to American rock n' roll to salsa--and there's so much of it that you're bound to find something in there that you like.

But aside from the music, I think what I loved most about Dillinger is Dead is its commentary on modern social isolation. Because Glauco himself is a very powerful personification of isolation.

After all, he is a man who makes a living constructing masks which allow human beings to survive on their own in conditions we aren't meant to endure. We almost don't need to watch him spend an entire night in his home to know he must know a thing or two about isolation.

But to watch Glauco is to watch a modern man--alone amongst people, and obsessed with deconstructing and rebuilding an artifact from a previous age.

And I think that the point of the film is to have the audience determine what this means.

Or, at the very least, why Dillinger's gun?

This is the kind of movie with endless potential for post-film discussion.

So find your closest film-nerd friend (and I'll bet if you're reading this blog, you have at least one!) and give Dillinger is Dead a shot.

No pun intended.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 14 September

All Men Are Brothers
Big Bang Theory: Season 3
Black Cauldron, The
Boogie Woogie
Broken Lizard Stands Up
Chuck: Season 3
Cohen, Leonard: Bird on a Wire
Equality U
Fringe: Season 2
Glee: Season 1.2
Grey's Anantomy: Season 6
Hannah Takes the Stairs
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Season 5
Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town
League, The: Season 1
Letters to Juliet
Looking for Eric
Maher, Bill: But I'm Not Wrong
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (also BluRay)
Skins: Volume 3
Soul Train: Best of
Star Crash
Twice Upon a Garden

Pose Reviews A Movie. #40: Pirate Radio (2009)

Lovers of rock and/or roll, lend me your ears!!! your eyes for a minute.

It's time to promote the coolest, rockiest and probably funniest nautical comedy ever to grace international waters.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present for your viewing consideration: PIRATE RADIO!

Pirate Radio, much like Do The Right Thing (the subject of my last review) is largely character-driven, but it presents one of the most lovable casts of characters since music-movie classic, Empire Records.

The film is set in 1966, and it depicts life on board Radio Rock, a ship that broadcasts rock n' roll music from outside the jurisdiction of the British government, since at that time Britain was hosting a decidedly ungroovy ban on broadcasting rock over the radio.

Pirate Radio mostly takes the perspective of Young Carl (Tom Sturridge), a troubled lad whose mother has sent him to live on the ship under the guidance of his godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy) in a misguided attempt to straighten him out after he's been expelled from school.

However, sending the boy to live amongst rock 'n roll DJ's in order to make him a more disciplined, upstanding citizen turns out to be as ridiculous as sending a six-year old to work in a candy shop in order to enforce responsible eating habits.

Carl is swiftly taken under the wing of the ship's record-spinnin', jam-pushin' crew, consisting of radio DJ's all along the spectrum of wackiness. There's The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Dr. Dave (Shaun of the Dead's Nick Frost), Angus (Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby) and the mysterious late-night DJ, Smooth Bob (Ralph Brown), who is more of a legend than a man, since he only emerges from his cabin once every twenty-four hours to spin ditties for all the lovers out in Radio-Land.

The cast of characters are what make Pirate Radio such a charming feature, and the personalities of each DJ really shine through when the suave "King of the Airwaves," Gavin Kavanagh (Rhys Ifans) rocks the boat with his return.

And let's not forget Kenneth Branagh as the crusty government minister who tries to shut down Radio Rock from the shore. He really steals the show.

Pirate Radio is full of great moments, and although it's not an outrageous laugh-a-minute gag-fest, it strikes the right balance between substance and humour to make it really worthwhile.

The story is also richly multifaceted, since focus is placed on each of the wonderfully diverse characters, delving into their personal lives, their squabbles with one another, and their reconciliations.

Conflict also occur both on and off the boat, which gives the audience a number of storylines to follow, while the coming-of-age story for Young Carl that underlies the entire film.

And it's impossible to talk about Pirate Radio without mentioning the epic soundtrack. Pretty well every song in this movie is a Britrock hit from the 1960's, and when each scene is kicked off with a classic tune, it's music to any music-fan's ears.

Pirate Radio is a great, lighthearted comedy for music-lovers and movie-lovers alike. I'd recommend it to anyone who digs slightly absurd, character-driven narratives, and also likes to rock out.

This is DJ Pose, signing off.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #43: Resident Evil 2 - Torontocalypse!

You will believe Milla Jovovich can run down the face of Toronto City Hall in Resident Evil: Apocalypse! This is the second movie in the series of motion pictures based on the video games of the same name. I am not a gamer, but my understanding of their attitude towards this series is that it sucks because they did not call it Biohazard like the original Japanese versions, and that the games have no Milla Jovovich character in them and that will not stand.

The sad thing about this is that you can't take Milla Jovovich out of the Resident Evil movies because, while these movies have many pleasures, not many of these pleasures actually have anything to do with being quality movies. The primary pleasure is always Milla Jovovich and whatever supporting female character the films give her kicking zombie dogs in the face and shooting many many many but never enough bullets. I don't have a lot of time for male action stars, but Uma in Kill Bill and Milla Jovovich in these movies make me understand why other people might.

Resident Evil is not the kind of movie I would ever have seen but for a recommendation. An acquaintance who is now a highly paid movie critic at a notable publication told me it was like a Dario Argento movie. I still think he is insane for saying that, but I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it for creative moments like people being sliced into cubes by lasers and then sliding apart, but mostly for Milla Jovovich kicking zombie dogs in the face.

These visceral thrills can get you all excited while you watch them, but they do tend to fade as the distance from your last viewing grows. So I didn't see any of the other Resident Evil pictures until I had a marathon this last weekend so that I could go see the new one at the drive-in. A visit to the Mustang Drive In in Guelph is an annual ritual for me and not much they showed this year had turned my crank so to speak. So a double bill of Resident Evil 4 and Piranha 3D not in 3D? That is the kind of thing drive-ins were made for.

Anyway this second installment begins where the first one ends, with Milla emerging from the death trap of the first movie to find the entire city around her descending into zombie madness. The city is called Raccoon City, a hangover from the game, and one which never fails to shake me out of the movies and say "oh right, this is based on a video game". In reality it is Toronto, and I will say this: if the mere sight of a Pizza Pizza sign gives you cravings, do not watch this movie unless you have cash on hand to pay the delivery guy.

The city has been quarantined by the evil Umbrella Corporation, to prevent the zombie plague from spreading. Milla meets up with a ragtag group of uninfected comrades including a woman in a Lara Croft costume who is almost as enjoyable to watch as Milla. Richard Harris' son, an evacuated scientist, gets in touch with them and tells them that if they rescue his left-behind daughter, he will get them out of town. It all ends with a rootin' tootin' showdown at Nathan Phillips Square, with Milla taking on snipers and a genetically mutated killing machine who was formerly a guy she knew.

I was not bored watching this movie, but I will not pretend it is any good, not even on the non-Milla levels the first one succeeded on. If it had not been shot in Toronto, I may not have enjoyed it as much, but it also probably wouldn't have looked so cheap and loaded with actors you see in Canadian Tire commercials and the like. So, a win-lose situation there.

I hope it will not spoil things too much to reveal that Milla survives and shows up in Resident Evil 3 as well.

Maggie 2010: Two Classic Takes on the Courtroom Drama

#99. Anatomy of a Murder

In an age of exceptional distrust for politicians, lawyers, police, journalists -- anyone, really, with any modicum of formalized social power -- it's sometimes nice to take a trip back to an era of film championing such professions with no blind eye to their faults, but also a sense of play that is certainly absent in today's criminal dramas. As a society, we're much more a fan of the dark, sobering moral puzzles -- everything from Law & Order to Law-Abiding Citizen, so long as it leaves us with a bleaker presentation of reality than we had upon entry. Can we even imagine a time when the weight of all those professions' potential failings wouldn't cast an unending pall on the whole of our lives?

Jimmy Stewart plays just such a balanced man, a lawyer called Paul Biegler, in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder. The film as a whole, following the court case of a man accused of murder, is famous for clearly outlining all the stages in the criminal justice system, highlighting the role of human fallibility in the pursuit of justice, and also being one of the first films to address certain subjects (sex and rape) simply and directly. But in the midst of all this dark happenstance, it's Stewart's personable good-nature that drains the courtroom drama of all its potential grimness.

Near the beginning of the film we find Biegler, the former District Attorney, with a great deal of spare time on his hands, fishing so often his icebox is packed from top to bottom with seafood; and playing piano to pass the idle hours. He's joined in this endearing portraiture of lawyers as gentle scholars of simple means and wants by a dear old friend, Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell), whose alcoholism and age are meant to soften our minds to his life teetering on the edge of professional work. These are good, decent people -- free spirits amply reigned in from time to time by Biegler's underpaid secretary, Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden)-- whose love for their work will ultimately have them (literally) laughing off all the bizarre twists and turns this case takes, and inviting viewers to do no less. Just you try to find an episode of Law & Order that does the same.

The case itself finds a decorated soldier, Lt. Frederick Manion, charged with the murder of Barney Quill in plain sight. Yet he pleads "not guilty," and after a contentious bit of witness coaching, Biegler gets him to the argument of "temporary insanity" on the grounds that Manion's wife, Laura, claims Barney Quill raped her that very evening. The questions that arise in and around the courtroom find this story more complicated than first meets the eye--Was Manion abusive? Did Laura welcome Barney's advances? How much time passed between Manion's discovery of the alleged rape and his murderous rampage?--and anyone seeking easy answers won't find them here. Answers aren't really the point. The point is to get a man off for murder because that's the defense lawyer's job; and because, as strange as the concept seems to people today, there was once a time when the primacy of taking personal pride in a job well done, regardless of the job itself, was nigh on unimpeachable.

#100. The Paradine Case

Or was it? In both Anatomy of a Murder and The Paradine Case, a passionate lawyer is bewitched by the beauty of a woman involved in a court case (in the former, it's Laura, Manion's flirtatious wife), but in The Paradine Case alone the target of these affections has a dangerous bite, and that bite casts a measure of doubt back along the justness of a lawyer trying to win his case by any available legal means.

Despite the general slickness of this criminal drama set in London, England, you can easily recognize Hitchcock's involvement as director in two exquisite camera shots in the courtroom--the first, of the accused's face from all angles as the lynchpin in the case, Andre Latour, enters the courtroom; the second, Latour's unchanging view of the back of the accused's head as he exits the courtroom. These are haunting, gripping shots, and alone well worth viewing the whole film.

But Hitchcock's presence manifests in more than just some pretty camerawork, and no less than when he takes notions of desire and faithlessness to truly intricate and nuanced depths. In The Paradine Case, Anthony Keane plays the barrister defending one Mrs. Paradine, who stands accused of poisoning her blind husband. Keane's wife, Gay (Ann Todd), is a loving, attentive woman who recognizes quickly that Mrs. Paradine has caught her husband's eye--so much so that he will not for a moment entertain the notion of her guilt--and asks only that her husband win the case so that this moment's fancy will have time to peter out, and not be forever, inextricably bound to the spectre of "what if" should Mrs. Paradine be hanged for murder.

Also at stake for Keane is a sense of where his sensibilities lie: not born into rich circumstances, he is surprised to be labelled by his client as part of the upper crust, despite the fact that his work as barrister has certainly granted him all the comforts and securities of one and the same. Mrs. Paradine is herself of lower beginnings, but denies her fealty to any of them when the suggestion is made in court that she made unbecoming advances on her husband's servant. This question of an affair also brings Keane's jealousy to the fore; and as the film progresses it becomes clear that part of his reason for trying to build a court case around the servant-as-true-murderer has to do with trying to keep Mrs. Paradine as an object for his affections alone.

It's all quite monstrous when so outlined, such that the film's only moments of lightness come from Keane's perceptive wife, Gay, and the delightfully well-versed Judy Flaquer (Joan Tetzel), who helps explain various turns and implications in the courtroom to Gay and also to viewers. Where the later Anatomy of a Murder presents a case rife with ambiguities that can happily be sloughed off when the verdict's been decided and the bills are paid, Hitchcock's The Paradine Case outlines only how deeply emotionally invested a man can become in his work, risking all and losing much when relying solely on the surety of his convictions to guide the long arm of the law.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pose Reviews A Movie. #39: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Touché, Criterion Collection. Touché.

I'm not sure why it took me this long to see Spike Lee's canonical breakout, appropriately included in the Criterion Collection, but I'm very glad I did.

The film, which takes place in a small neighbourhood in Brooklyn in the midst of an almost biblical heat wave, provides an excellent examination of race relations and the unfortunate power of groupthink, but it does it with a cast of colourful characters in a way that's genuinely entertaining.

Over the course of one ridiculously hot Saturday, Do The Right Thing takes the time to introduce the audience to the eccentric and diverse staples of the neighbourhood. The action centres around Sal's Famous Pizzeria, and we spend the film following Mookie (Spike Lee) as he puts in a day's work delivering Sal's pizzas. (A clever excuse for capturing all kinds of neighbourhood interactions on camera? Indeed, Spike Lee. Indeed.)

Through Mookie's wanderings, we meet people like:

-Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), an endearing old lecturer whose taste for Miller High Life gives him something of a bum rap on the block.

-Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), a maternal figure who (quite literally) watches out for the community from her front window.

-Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a friend of Mookie's and an outspoken protégé of Malcolm X.

-Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the boombox-totin' giant pictured above.

-And Mister Señor Love Daddy, a radio DJ played by a young Samuel L. Jackson who periodically offers a narrative voice for the events of the film.

And, of course, there's a host of other nearby dwellers, all of whom add to the film's rich tapestry of characters.

The film looks at racial tensions between several ethnic groups, and its inclusion of all forms of prejudice, from the virtually unspoken to the outright violent, makes its message more effective.

It's also interesting that Do The Right Thing doesn't have defined heroes or villains. Each character seems to have elements of both, except perhaps Sal's villainous, racist and hostile son, Pino, fastidiously played by John Turturro.

Overall, Lee's cinematic breakthrough provides a piece of relevant and effective social commentary that's presented not in a preachy way, but in a way that's entertaining and engaging.

After all, you need to feel for these characters in order to care about what happens at the film's explosive climax.

Luckily, if there's anything Spike Lee can do, it's instilling that kind of caring in his audience.

A brief trip to Wikipedia informed me that Do The Right Thing has been identified as "culturally significant" by the U.S. Library of Congress, and I certainly don't disagree.

I'd recommend Do The Right Thing as a classic example of cinematic importance, and invite anyone with an interest in social dynamics to check it out.

I mean, come on--clearly it's the right thing to do.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #63: Metalocalypse Season 1 (2006)

So the end times really must be near, since never in my wildest imaginings would I have expected this show to grace the screens. Not even via the twisted hearts working within Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Metalocalypse is clearly the cartoon comedy I hadn't realised I wanted.

Here's the deal: Dethklok, a death metal band, has become the most popular musical force on the planet. An album’s delay will result in world-wide rioting. Their home-base and recording studio is the size of a small country; their staff a standing army, darkly hooded and fitted with medieval weaponry. The band’s mission is to make all things metal. Clowns, sea-life, coffee, doorknobs, everything. It is the Metalocalypse, and each episode a secret society comprised of religious figures, military generals, and specialists (voiced by various heavy metal legends) try to stop it from coming to pass. It’s a wicked engine of hilarity and heavy metal hooplah, filled with absurd violence, satire, fantasy, nods to subculture, and genuinely well-crafted death metal. A live incarnation of Dethklok tours now and again (I managed to see them in concert last year with Mastodon), lead by series co-creator Brendon Small of Home Movies fame. Small is apparently music grad and evidently a master shredder. 'The Dethalbum' features the amazing songs from the show and belongs in any honest metal collection.

It’s all absolutely wonderful. You’ve guessed, I’m sure, that this is pretty much a dish served for metal heads and geeks, and that if you’re neither of the two, there won’t be much for you to appreciate. But that might not be entirely true – if you’ve seen and liked any Adult Swim cartoons, I dare say you might like this. The humour is in the same vein, chiefly delivered through bizarre, meandering conversations and random occurrences. But, this time, with a heavy touch of heavy metal.

So: Can't recommend this show enough. One of my favourite shows of all time.

Maggie 2010: Dreams, Deconstructed

#98. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

In an important introduction to this last Heath Ledger film (as Imaginarium cannot help but be referenced) Terry Gilliam explains a bit of his intent with the piece, and how that intent was tested by Ledger's passing before production finished. He leaves ambiguous whether certain, key plot points changed specifically to better integrate the three other actors (Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell) who would supplant Heath Ledger's absence in the role of Tony, a hanged man Dr. Parnassus' travelling troupe comes across in the depths of a rainy night, or if this level of "two-facedness" was planned from the get-go.

But of more interest than this account of Ledger-related cinematic hardships is Gilliam's explanation of the film's primary ideation:

"I decided to make a film that was hopefully original; that wasn't based on an adaptation of a book or something else, or another script that somebody else had written. I decided to start with a blank page."

This statement was extremely provocative, and in my opinion set the bar high for the film to follow. And yet, I'm no stranger to Gilliam's work. He's in many ways a more lurid, fantastical version of writer Douglas Coupland, who similarly imagines wild and unworldly scenarios that, fierce in construction and fabulous in presentation, still have a way of descending into ordinariness or absolute obscurity by their ends. Imaginarium is the former -- a fantastic tale leaping out in wild directions, all of which winnow themselves down to a few more predictable thematic and archetypal outcomes.

But even being so forewarned, I was genuinely surprised to discover that Gilliam's "blank page" was a clear (and literal!) variation on the classic Deal with the Devil tale, with the equally comfortable, ageless threat of a young daughter's eternal damnation thrown in. Certainly, Gilliam adds some wonderful visual flourishes to his tale, which has Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) as champion of the imagination, a sort of ancient Bodhisattva willing beauty and hope into the world as facilitator of other people's dreaming, and the Devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a curious reversal of his Judeo-Christian predecessor, promoting ignorance instead of earthly knowledge. But at the heart there still remains the same basic tension between good and evil, and with it an oversimplification of the human spirit as part of a game waged by immortals almost as old as time itself. The film almost inevitably resolves itself into only more stringent thematic absolutism over time.

However, Imaginarium does embody some pleasing qualities: The acting is fairly engaging, the visuals provocative, much of the dialogue commands your attention, and glimmers of a cohesive spectacle flit about like fireflies in the dark. I also cannot stress enough a delightful attention to detail, which first struck me when Parnassus and Mr. Nick meet millennia prior to the story's main events and debate the order of the universe over a game that looks suspiciously like the Royal Game of Ur, considered by archaelogists the earliest board game thus far unearthed. This detail marks the timing of that meeting as clear as a calendar might in more contemporary settings -- a welcome luxury in a film where certain structural facts (where Parnassus' powers come from, for instance) are accepted as non-questions, simply woven into the overarching rules of Gilliam's incredible universe. All of these are aspects of the film to be treasured -- a fact I had to remind myself when Gilliam's initial explanation started to heighten my disappointment with the film itself.

I wondered, too, at that time, if Gilliam's descent into the familiar was only natural, even inevitable -- proof positive that there really is no such thing as a "blank page" where creative enterprise is concerned; and that all one can really hope to do is contrive an inventive variation. Because of such subsequent thoughts, provocative in their own right and wholly supported by the artistic discourse in the work itself, I don't hold Gilliam too harshly by his own, declared intentions for this film. Regardless of the originality question, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus remains a bright and lush opportunity for viewers to sink into Gilliam's particular artistic style, and even its less than impressive conclusion can do precious little to mask the indomitable spirit of play that inhabits his every film.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #62: The Film Crew: Hollywood After Dark (2007)

Lovers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 rejoice. Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy graced our screens for a handful of films under the alias of 'The Film Crew.' And they certainly haven't lost their utterly unique charm. For those unfamiliar with MST3K, the concept is this: three friends watch a terrible movie together and poke fun at it as you watch along with them. I find few things in life more entertaining than this indestructible arrangement. So sticking pretty close to the MST3K formula, they give you a comically scrutinised and ridiculed B-film, peppered here and there with short asides where the guys gather together for lunch and tomfoolery.

Hollywood After Dark (1964) is their film under review this time, and stars the late Rue McClanahan (Blanche from Golden Girls). The Film Crew doesn’t let you forget that. The film itself is a warning to young would-be actors thinking they’ll find success in that dismal place second only to dread Mordor: HOLLYWOOD. Well, the two may in fact be the same place, since it’s dirty and people will betray you and do evil things. And the bigwigs have taken to dressing in black robes and riding matching black dragons.

There are a few others in the Film Crew series, and they’re all worth checking out. On top of that, you can visit to see their latest project – downloadable commentary tracks to watch along with new DVD releases! Highly recommended.

So: Can't think of a better 'night with friends' kind of plan.