Sunday, December 30, 2007

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson | 2007 | 158 min | USA

When I took my seat last night at the advance screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, There Will Be Blood, I didn’t know anything about it other than what the trailer gives away – which is next to nothing. I knew Daniel Day-Lewis starred in it, and I knew he was an oil man with a sinister and menacing demeanour. That’s it.

Pretty much, that’s all you need to know going into this two and a half hour epic, a deep and disturbing character study set against the backdrop of the western frontier as it transforms from a place of homesteaders and cowboys into a cold and industrialized expanse, waiting for the right man to come along and harness the wealth it has to offer.

Without giving anything away about the film, here are three reasons to see it, even if you aren’t a fan of Anderson’s films (and really, why wouldn’t you be?), because while there are parallels of theme and tone, it is actually quite a departure from his previous work.

First: Daniel Day-Lewis. He acts the living hell out of this role, transforming his voice, his posture, adding a calculating glint in his eye and creating a perfect image of a man whose sheer force of will and unrelenting drive will chill you to the bone. Day-Lewis is one of those great character actors who’s cursed with a pretty face. Maybe it makes him work twice as hard to prove himself. Either way, I thank him for this, perhaps the most show-stoppingly incredible performance of the year. Paul Dano (the sullen older brother from Little Miss Sunshine) as the creepy, cherub-faced preacher is no slouch either.

Second: The soundtrack. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has never done better work. His creepy, avant-garde orchestral score made the tiny hairs on my arms stand on end for 158 minutes. It’s haunting, beautiful, and fits the tone of the film perfectly. In a way, it reminded me of Damon Albarn's work on the score for 1999's highly enjoyable tale of cannibalism during the time of the Mexican-American war, Ravenous, except way better. Both those guys should quit their stupid bands and do this full time.

Third: The ending. Along with No Country for Old Men, this film is ushering in a new era – not since the 1970s has mainstream American film been able to deliver such satisfying finales. Thank god for these brave soldiers who are willing to step inches outside of the usual script writing formula to surprise, delight and confound the movie going public just a tiny bit.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Jon Turteltaub | 2007 | 124 min | USA

I knew when I rented the first National Treasure that it wasn’t going to really be a good film. I figured it’d be a decent, America-centric Indiana Jones knockoff, crossed with the less weird parts of that Tom Robbins book where he talks about the pyramid in the dollar bill a lot. Essentially, I like conspiracy theory adventure / mystery films. And I have to be honest, on that front, National Treasure delivered a satisfying rental experience. Considerably more satisfying than The DaVinci Code, if that gives you any sense of my personal rating system.

However, by no means did I consider it stellar enough to warrant a sequel, so when I saw a preview for National Treasure: Book of Secrets a few months ago, I was genuinely puzzled. I went to see it mostly because I wanted to find out how they could concoct yet another convoluted plot about secret signs that the Masons have embedded all around us without it seeming a bit hackneyed. The answer is, they didn't really.

In a way, I wasn’t disappointed. In another way, this movie was crap. The plot centres around the Gates’ boys (Nicholas Cage and John Voight) transcontinental crusade to clear their ancestor’s good name, after a handsomely aging Ed Harris comes forth with a document that implicates him in Lincoln’s assassination. There are a few pretty funny moments, at least one decent car chase and some solid fake history.

Unfortunately, large chunks of this film feel like they've been copied straight out of the first one, only none of the excitement of putting the puzzle together is really there, because “uncovering the secrets hidden in the elaborate web our founding fathers wove around us” is actually a bit of a one trick pony, as far as film premises go.

By far the strangest part of it all is that the film left itself wide open for a third installment by introducing a new mystery in the third act, then clumsily reminding us of it again in the film’s final scenes. I kind of hope they rush National Treasure: Curse of the Monkey’s Paw, or whatever, so that it comes out in time to compete with Indiana Jones and the Kindgom of the Crystal Skull in 2008. Excellent double bill of stupid ideas.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem

Brothers Strause | 2007 | 86 min | US

Don't listen to anybody who tells you to avoid this movie because it is quote unquote bad. Of course it is. From doctoral candidates to retards, everyone knows this is going to be a bad movie in every traditional sense of the word. No one is going to be let down to find that an Aliens vs. Predator movie is full of poor acting and cliched, predictable plot points. This isn't going to knock em dead on the festival circuit, but who wants to think all the time? This is a wildly fun, frenetic, and gory break from thinking.

Thankfully the 'Brothers Strause' (the visual effects nerds behind The Nutty Professor, Constantine, et al) have done away with the finer points explored in the prior Aliens vs. Predator in favour of a higher body count and a much higher melted-body-parts to non-melted-body-parts ratio. Your effort is appreciated, friends. The set-up is fast and nigh wordless; the action relentless. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem could stand as a silent movie, save for the importance of those alien skittering and predator rattling/ gurgling sounds. You might want to bring headphones and an ipod loaded with the Iron Maiden catalog.

AVP:R had more in the way of character development than I wanted (ie. more than none), but it did help to answer such burning questions as: can two old friends on opposite sides of the law work together? Can an estranged mother reconnect with her young daughter? Will the bad boy win the cute girl? Are babies afraid of aliens? AND MORE.

Destined to become a B action-horror classic.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Jason Reitman | 2007 | 92 min | USA

Juno has some fantastic moments, and a great cast, but writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman have made the filmic equivalent of Joss Whedon, Kevin Williamson, and Cameron Crowe jerking off into the same cup and then inseminating a desperate to regain some sort of relevance, Amy Heckerling.

If this is the new Napoleon Dynamite, I'm going to cry.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Walk Hard

Jake Kasdan | 2007 | 96 min | US

Judd Apatow has become a powerhouse over this past year. His comedy brand, for lack of a better term, deftly combines gutter humour, identifiable underdog characters, and sweet sentimentality. His style could not find success on television, but he seems to have found a loving home in cinema. Walk Hard continues his roll.

The Walk Hard trailers create the impression that the film might be a one trick pony with barely enough material to fill those two minutes. In the hands of lesser talents that might very well have been the case, but Walk Hard is loaded with talent behind and in front of the camera. The result is a note perfect parody of the musical biopics that have flooded the last couple awards seasons. It includes all the prerequisite elements: childhood tragedy, shocking rise to fame, drugged debauchery, and clumsy namedrops. Filling the roles of historical music figures are hilarious cameos by Frankie Munix, Jack White, and Jack Black, Justin Long, Paul Rudd, and Jason Schwartzman as The Beatles. The leads John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer are hilarious to watch as star crossed lovers, and Apatow alum Jonah Hill has a scene stealing bit part, as well.

The laughs are steady, and the movie does not overstay its welcome with a breezy ninety minute runtime. What more do you want? Greedy.

Black Sheep

Jonathan King | 2006 | 87 min | New Zealand

Black Sheep takes the classic zombie outbreak set-up and transplants it to a pack of genetically modified sheep in sheep-heavy rural New Zealand. Though it was promoted as a comedy in the vein of Shawn of the Dead it is really anything but. Certainly the concept is comedic and the movie is not without some gags, but for the most part it is played as straight horror. In fact, it works far better when it is played straight than when it is played for laughs. It is much heavier on the gore than one would expect, too. The effects and make-up work are outstanding, especially considering how modest the budget was for the film. It is not the greatest movie, but I enjoyed this one a lot more than I expected to. There are some genuinely tense moment, some good jolts, and some ridiculously over the top violence. Always appreciated. If there is gore to be seen let the people know, movie studios.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Death Race 2000

Paul Bartel | 1975 | 84 min | USA

I got a chance to see Death Race 2000 on the big screen this week, not knowing much about the film going in except that it is “awesome” and “totally mind blowing”. The basic plot of the film is that, in a totalitarian future United States, the most popular annual sporting event is a cross country race in which drivers get points not only for arriving faster than their opponents, but for pegging off as many people as they can along the way. Five top notch driving teams assemble, made up of a motley crew of ridiculous characters (Sly Stalone as Italian-stereotype Machine Gun Joe Viterbo is a favourite) and hot babes.

The film provides some pretty satisfying gore as the drivers run down an assortment of victims on the roads, as well as some excellent explosions as part of a sub plot involving an anti-race resistance movement. The good guys and bad guys seem pretty clearly identified at the outset, but as with most good action films, nothing is quite as it seems.

I expected to like the film. What I didn’t expect was that I’d fall in love.

Enter: Frankenstein.

Paying homage to the classic horror character, this indestructible driving champ is first wheeled on screen under a white sheet, where he rests in suspended animation, awaiting the big race. As he lumbers past the reporters, shot from behind in his all black outfit (consisting of a skin-tight leather jumpsuit, satin cape and mask to hide his hideously disfigured face) he is indeed a terrifying sight.

However, as his foxy navigator Annie soon discovers, the mask is just that – a clever ruse hiding the handsome face of a young David Carradine. On their first pit stop, when Frankenstein strips to nothing but a black pair of briefs and his mask, and asks Annie to dance with him in their ultra-modern red & white hotel room, I couldn’t help but lean over to my seat mate and whisper “he’s my ideal man”.

I’m pretty sure that she thought I was joking at the time, but as the film progresses, and the villainous Frankenstein starts to show his softer side, it became clear that I’d chosen wisely. Unsurprisingly, the soft hearted, flaxen haired Annie turns out to be a resistance sympathizer, assigned the dangerous task of capturing the hard-edged man she now finds herself falling in love with. And, perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, Frankenstein turns out to be more complex than he appeared at first glance.

A clever commentary on an all too familiar dystopian future, a stylish action flick and goofy gore-fest, and oh, what a dreamboat.

Monday, December 10, 2007

American Genius: Charles Burnett (retrospective)

When Cinematheque Ontario recently presented four features (and a bunch of shorts) by Charles Burnett, I decided to watch them all. I felt woefully under-informed about this apparent ‘lost genius’ of American filmmaking, but what I knew of his cinema-vérité approach, naturalistic acting (often aided by the obvious mix of professional and non-professional actors, scripted scenes and improvised ones), and 'sombre but not hopeless' tone, really appealed to me.

Charles Burnett is singularly fixated on the theme of male impotence. His leading men are broken, defeated, paralyzed, ghettoized. Whether it’s real or imagined, their feeling of being unable to give to the world what the world asks of them is so ingrained, it leaps off the screen in every film. His depiction of a deeply disturbing and real African American disaffection is more effective than any I’ve seen on screen.

He's also incredible at endings. Not one of his films falls apart in the third act. The endings are all pretty much perfect. Basically, all these films are totally worth seeing, and I feel a bit ashamed that it took me till the age of 30 to see them for the first time.

Here’s a quick rundown of the four features:

Killer of Sheep
Director: Charles Burnett | 1977 | 83 min | USA
Arguably Burnett’s most famous accomplishment, follows slaughterhouse worker Stan as he goes through the motions of his life, unable to enjoy his time with his family, unable to make love to his desperately lonely wife, and unable to change the circumstances that keep him down.

My Brother’s Wedding
Director: Charles Burnett | 1983 | 115 min | USA
Young Pierce Mundy helps out in his mom’s dry cleaning shop while his yuppie brother plans to get married to a rich girl. When his troublemaking best friend gets killed and the funeral is scheduled for the same day as the wedding, Pierce has to decide between the two. He’s disaffected, resentful and totally incapable of making a real decision about which direction to take his life in.

Bless Their Little Hearts
Director: Billy Woodberry | 1984 | 80 min | USA
Written but not directed by Burnett, follows a similarly downtrodden man, Charlie, as he unsuccessfully tries to get a job and maintain peace in his home while having an affair across town. As Charlie’s wife (Kaycee Moore from Killer of Sheep) reaches the end of her rope, the two begin the film’s climax, a long, no-holds-barred improvised fight that lays it all out on the table in a gritty, real and powerful way.

To Sleep With Anger
Director: Charles Burnett | 1990 | 92 min | USA
This later film is a pretty great example of the Burnett style, made subtler and more refined by the passage of time. Danny Glover gives the performance of a lifetime (seriously) as Harry, a friend from the past who disrupts a middle class family’s comfortable existence. Harry is a charming trickster whose influence seems to corrupt anyone who comes into contact with him. His dark power is chilling and palpable from the first moment he comes onscreen. Strange, dark, full of subtle, nuanced characters – I think this one was my favourite of the bunch.


Michael J. Bassett | 2006 | 93 min | Scotland

Imagine Predator set on a deserted Scottish island, where Dutch and the gang are a bunch of juvenile delinquents left to rot, and where the Predator is a man who the young and tender hooligans would probably rather be the actual Predator. Oh... And it's directed by the director of Waking Ned Devine's Electronic Press Kit.

I really loved it, if that wasn't clear.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Exile

Max Ophuls | 1947 | 95 min | US

I can't believe I waited so long to track down a fun swashbuckler parable about escaping Nazi Germany! The Exile stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (who also wrote the script) as the dashing King Charles II of England. He is in hiding in 1660's Holland, trying to stay one step ahead of the Puritan "Roundheads" and awaiting the day when he might return to reclaim his crown. I think. Look, I don't know history, but I do know sword fights, and this film has some ace sword fights. Plus a whole lot of escape-skipping and what I like to think of as Post War Parkour.

Loaded with long takes, long shots, and painted backgrounds, The Exile is very reminiscent of the live threatre. It amazing how much conventions have changed in popular film. It is not just the visuals of the film that are strikingly odd, either. The delivery of every line by every bizarre faux-foreign accent creates a picture which is impossible to be totally absorbed by. For the better, I think, particularly when there are so many nods toward the heavy underpinnings of the story. Still, it is strange to think that the widely used aesthetics of only sixty years ago are now wildly alienating.

And yes, it is very clearly a parable about escaping Nazi Germany, despite what that woman whom I argued with outside the cinematheque thinks. No? Let's look at the evidence: It was Ophuls first American film after World War II; Ophuls was himself exiled from Germany to Holland; Holland was a stronghold for resistance forces where many fled to after being persecuted in Germany; The Roundheads of the film are portrayed as severe, black leather uniformed soldiers. What else? Should I include that it is an airy celebration of freedom and romance that is unparalleled in modern cinema? Cause it is.