Thursday, April 29, 2010


Greetings folks!

Over the next little bit, I am going to busy moving, so updates will consist of a few classic reviews and one of two new ones over the next week.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Losers (White 2010)

The sad thing about The Losers is that for its entire running time, you can tell the filmmakers were trying hard to make this film work. This isn’t a half assed effort of a film; from the directing of Sylvain White to the acting, everyone brought an A level effort to the film, and you have to admire that. The problem is none of that effort ultimately makes The Losers a decent film going experience.

A partial update on the premise of the 1980s television cheese fest The A-Team, The Losers is an adaptation of a mature readers’ comic book series of the same name, following a group of special operations soldiers who are left for dead and framed for the murder of a group of children in Bolivia by their handler Max (Jason Patric). Understandably angry, the group takes up the offer from a mysterious woman named Aisha (Zoe Saldana) to bankroll their return to America in exchange for killing Max. This is only the start of their troubles however as group tensions and the mysterious identity of Aisha threaten to unravel the whole scheme.

The material is standard action fare, but workable for a fun, if vapid, film. So why does The Losers ultimately not work? While the film suffers from several flaws, they are all the result of the film’s attempt to achieve the rarified status of “cool.” While there are many things in both life and film which hope to become cool, the common denominator for most things which do become cool is that don’t actively seek to gain that status, but rather have the status of “cool” pronounced upon them by the culture in a natural way. Actively seeking the status of “cool” more often than not achieves the opposite result, and it is this problem that dodges nearly every moment of The Losers.

The type of “cool” which the filmmakers behind The Losers wish to achieve is clear from the outset, as they try and blend 1980s style “men on a mission” action films with the pop culture soaked wit and syntax of the post-Pulp Fiction era of American filmmaking. The characters which populate this world are media saturated individuals who wear this knowledge on their sleeves and take little of what happens around them in an overly serious fashion, not being quite as ironically detached as some of Quentin Tarantino’s characters while never being as ethically obsessive as Jason Bourne.

What the filmmakers miss however is that the films they are trying to emulate, even at their most frothy, tend to have a better sense of grounding which never exists in this film. While the popular culture may be the way in which many people structure and express their views of the world in both real life and in film, the important thing is that such expressions are still about something tangible. Randal of Clerks and Clerks 2 fame may spend most of his time discussing pop culture, but his choices of topics and the way in which he chooses to talk them tell us much about his concerns, thoughts and ideals. Even the absurd macho posturing of the military unit in Predator tells us something about those characters, as simple as it may be.

The same cannot be said about the characters of The Losers, where nearly every character mouths off in and endless series of light banter which exists solely to be light hearted banter. Consider the characters of Jensen (Chris Evans) and Pooch (Columbus Short): I can honestly tell you next to nothing about these characters because there is nothing to say. One has a wife and another a niece, but those details amount to little. I cannot even tell you which one for sure is the obligatory smartass of the group, because their dialogue is frequently interchangeable. This is not the fault of the actors at all, as they make due with what they have. The problem is that they have nothing of substance to work with, transforming the film into more of a sketch comedy than an action comedy.

The villains fair no better than the heroes in the film, if not worse because they are nearly cartoons with no menace to them. Oh yes, Jason Patric is amusing to watch as Max, but at no moment is he ever a credible threat. He is a bad guy because, well, the film needed a villain, and therefore he must do villainous things. We are constantly reminded about how dangerous he and his organization of criminals are, but we are never actually shown anything to make us believe that. The Losers make frequent note as to how tough and frightening Max’s right hand man Wade (Holt McCallany) is, but the film never gives you one moment to believe that concept. Instead, we are treated to some admittedly funny scenes of misunderstandings, banter and frustrations between the super villain duo, but they would have worked better in an outright parody of the genre than in this film.

All of this is all the more annoying because there are nice moments and elements in the finished production. Chris Evans manages to come out of the film totally unscathed, thanks to a natural charisma and comic timing that rises well above the material, and the idea of environmentally friendly terrorism is an amusing idea, even though it goes nowhere in the film. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the excellent the use of Journey on the soundtrack in the film’s best moment.

That is just the point though: the film is nothing but moments. I honestly cannot recommend The Losers as anything more than a time killer if you actually have some time to kill. It is an entirely disposable film, likely to be forgotten about as soon as it is over, a point that no film wanting to be cool can ever survive.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cash on Demand (Lawrence 1961)

While audience discussions of film might seem to indicate otherwise, rarely ever is it the overall plot which makes or breaks a given work. After all, take a look at perhaps the most popular genre in film at the moment, that of the superhero. Breakdown these films to their bare basics, and you will find a similar overall structure and story which repeats time and again, be it Superman, Batman or Spider-man. This is the same of all genres.

No, what most often makes a work is not the plot, but the details, which shape a work and give it the texture that makes it memorable. It is in the details where the subtext is to be found; it is in the details where the subtleties of character and drama are to be made or lost.

Take the film we are examining today, Cash on Demand. This 1961 suspense thriller from director Quentin Lawrence sounds like a typical heist film, with an innocent bank manager (Peter Cushing) blackmailed by a cunning crook (Andre Morell) into robbing the bank during operating hours. However, instead of being a standard bank heist film, Cash on Demand is a crime thriller update of Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol, exploring class relations in post war Britain, with Andre Morell’s criminal character acting as a twisted, but likeable, amalgamation of the three ghosts of Christmas. This is achieved by smart writing, acting and directing which places emphasis on character and cinematic craft over cheap thrillers and violence, elevating the finished work into something more than a simple genre retread.

Played out real time, the first fifteen minutes or so have little to do with the robbery, but rather focus on the relationship between the bank’s chief executive Fordyce (Cushing) and his staff at a small town bank. A former soldier, Fordyce brings a military style of discipline to his branch and its operations, frequently noting that their job is to service the people of the community in an efficient and morally upright manner. However, Fordyce is totally detached from the very people he serves and, by extension, the people he works with. His service to the community is based in a very vapid ideal, believing in the structures of community, society, and most importantly, authority, without any actual understanding as to what those structures are designed to serve. This lack of understanding seems rooted in a sense of class distinction and generational difference, revealed by his contempt for the younger members of his staff and his obsession with his establishment remaining “dignified.” As played by Cushing, Fordyce is a man who conducts himself as if he were a lord, pronouncing judgments on his staff and believing in fear and respect as the most effective methods of conducting his trade.

It is these complex social and societal dynamics surrounding Fordyce’s authority and personality which explode with the arrival of Hepburn (Morell), and which become the real basis of the drama in the film. Hepburn is not a threat so much because he desires the bank’s money, but because he systematically disrupts, subverts and destroys the very symbols and structures which empower Fordyce, emasculating him and revealing his moral and ethical failings. It is here that the similarities with A Christmas Carol become increasingly apparent, as Hepburn becomes, in a perverse manner, a moral guide for Fordyce. This is all the more peculiar in that the audience is invited to not only like Hepburn, but actively root for him, despite the fact that Hepburn is threatening the lives of Fordyce family in order to gain the bank's funds.

No scene perhaps captures the central drama of the film more than a moment where Fordyce tries to stand up to Hepburn, making a declaration about how he will kill Hepburn if anything happens to his family. In what is a case of perfect acting, writing and directing, what would normally be a moment of heroic rebirth for Fordyce instead becomes a moment of great pity, as we are witness to how empty Fordyce’s threat is: it is pure posturing, with no real authority to be a credible threat. It is a magnificent scene for both Cushing and Morell, as Cushing, normally the most powerful of actors, allows himself to be shown at his most vulnerable, while Morell actually manages to subtly suggest a sense of pity on the part of Hepburn for Fordyce. It is a wonderfully layered scene, demonstrating a level of craft and intelligence missing from most modern thrillers, where the characters are often vapid stock types.

Director Lawrence in fact deserves a great deal of credit here. Working from a script from David T. Chantler and Lewis Greifer, based on a television script from Jaques Gillies, Lawarence careful utilizes the cinematic space, transforming the three room set into a rigidly defined areas designed to segregate and confine, mirroring the class and interpersonal dynamics between Fordyce and his staff. Moreover, the camerawork designed by Lawrence and cinematographer Arthur Grant is careful and controlled, at first distancing the viewer from Fordyce as we observe him, then gradually drawing the viewer into his point of view as his world falls apart.

Where the film fumbles slightly is with its conclusion, which creeps far too close towards sentimentality for a story which begs for a cynical and ambiguous conclusion. While it is a bit much to say the filmmakers cop out at this point, given that the ending was likely crafted to appease censors, it is hard not to feel slightly cheated as the film comes to a close. It isn’t a horrible ending by any stretch, but it is not nearly as satisfying as it could have been.

Regardless, Cash on Demand is well worth a rental, if not an outright purchase. Tense and well written, Cash on Demand is an example of how a stale genre can be transformed into something more by avoiding cheap, gimmicky twists and embracing character and an attention to detail that is often forgotten about in such films.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kick Ass (Vaughn 2010)

Here is the truth about Kick Ass and me: I honestly don’t have much of anything to say about the film, and that is not because the film is awful in any way shape or form. I had a great time watching the film, and the film is one that is jam packed with ideas and moments designed to provoke, shock and move the audience. Everyone, from director Mathew Vaughn down to actress Chloe Moretz, has more or less nailed this adaptation of the comic, save a minor flaw or two. They have crafted one hell of a film out of the tale of a idealistic, superhero obsessed teenager (Aaron Johnson) who becomes an internet sensation after video of him fighting crime (poorly) is posted online.

So, you might be asking, if the film is so great, why am I lacking in having much to say about the film? After all, I am the man who wasted over three thousand words on the Universal Soldier films. Believe me when I say it isn’t for a lack of trying. I have come at this film in every possible way I know how, and all that came with it was pure frustration.

Instead, I have spent a good amount of time mulling over why I have felt no need to say anything about the film, and the answer only really dawned on me over the past twenty four hours. While it is somewhat odd to say, Kick Ass feels like it has already been discussed to death, torn apart and analysed in detail. This is of course absurd, as the film has only just been released. However, when you come right down to it, Kick Ass is really more or less a dramatization of the higher end of comic geek discussions on message forums across the web, about our own forms of spectatorship, our obsession with superheroes, what fantasy means to us as individuals and as a society. And much like a forum discussion, Kick Ass is alternatively insightful, horrifying, vulgar, funny and contradictory.

The catch 22 of this is that because of this familiarity, most of the propositions and satirical observations made are already familiar for the target audience. We have already had these conversations time and time again. It is fun to see these thoughts put on screen, given life, but for long term comic fans, Kick Ass doesn’t provide any new insights or propositions that we haven’t heard before, particularly having gone through the deconstruction tales of the 1980s and 1990s comics.

This leaves the general audience as being the one to which Kick Ass will have the most to offer, and this is the audience who will likely be the least receptive to the finished work, with its moral ambiguity, emphasis on geek culture and moments of grotesque violence. Even the supposed shocking nature of the violence featuring a child is not a major shock for those who have watched films such as Robocop 2 (1990), written by comic auteur Frank Miller.

In the end, Kick Ass is fun, providing plenty of laughs and, more importantly, giving Nicolas Cage a great comic character to play. Is it a classic though? I would say it is a film that is certainly of the moment, and will earn a well beloved cult reputation over the years. But it is not the big watershed event some would like to make it out to be, nor the film to push the comic to film genre to new heights. With all likelihood, the film will become lost as the decade moves on.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

War Inc. (Seftel 2008)

(Here is another classic review from my facebook days, while I work on three new reviews for the upcoming week. Enjoy!)

There is no way to talk about War Inc. (Seftel 2008) without talking about Grosse Pointe Blank (Armitage 1997), John Cusack’s cult classic comedy about a hitman who’s most recent job coincides with his high school reunion, for several reasons. First, much of the underlying structures between the two films is similar, as both revolve around their respective protagonists (Hauser in War Inc., Martin Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank) undergoing a transformation from apathetic existence to attempting some form of redemption. Secondly, in both cases Cusack is not only the star of the films, but a co-writer and producer whose influence is easily found in the finished work. Lastly, I have to consider the two films together because Grosse Pointe Blank is one of my all favourite films, which left me with high expectations going into War Inc., given it was acknowledged as being the thematic sequel to the earlier effort by Cusack himself.

To look back on Grosse Pointe Blank is to see a film which is clearly of a specific moment in time. Like many films of this period, including mainstream blockbuster efforts such as Mission Impossible (De Palma 1996) and Goldeneye (Campbell 1995), Grosse Pointe Blank reflects upon the end of the Cold War and the lives of those whose existence was defined by it. Martin Blank (Cusack), a freelance assassin, is in the midst of an identity crisis, questioning his profession and the direction that his life has taken, which has seemingly descended into a form of mindless capitalism as he works for the highest bidder. Worse, this form of greed is in the midst of being organized by fellow hitman Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), transforming the random mass of freelance hitmen into a unionized force so that they can “make more, (and) work less.”

The film’s central premise of Martin’s return to his high school and attempts to reunite with Debi (Minnie Driver), the woman he failed to take to the prom the night he signed up with the army, serves not only as a point of personal reflection but also of a metaphorical political reflection, attempting to look to the Cold War past in order to find a new direction for the country other than unrestrained greed. As Grosse Point Blank ends, it manages to find an optimism that perhaps a change is possible, as Martin and Debi literally drive out of Grosse Point and their pasts, with Grocer dead and Martin’s target alive.

Cut to eleven years later and War Inc. This time out, Cusack is Hauser, a depressed hitman working for Tamerlane, a company owned by the recently resigned Vice-President (Dan Aykroyd again), and which is running the first completely privatized war in the occupied country of Turaqistan. Hauser is ordered to the country to commit a political assassination, while hiding under the guise of being a Tamerlane executive planning a publicity stunt wedding of a Middle Eastern pop star named Yonica Babyyeah (Hillary Duff). At the same time, Hauser attempts to form some type of relationship with reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), who is trying to expose the sins of Tamerlane.

If Grosse Pointe Blank was an optimistic tale of being able to move past the sins of old, War Inc. is an almost hopeless film which ends on a deliberately ambiguous note (pay close attention in the final few scenes of the film), a world where Grocer won and is getting away with it, almost literally as Aykroyd’s casting as the VP insinuates. Unfortunately, the film also differs from Grosse Pointe Blank in being nowhere near as sharply written, fined tuned, or timely. Whereas Grosse Pointe Blank was riding the zeitgeist of its time, War Inc. is arriving at least a year too late, if not four, offering a pessimistic take on America’s future and politics just as the country seems to be moving in a more hopeful direction.

The main problem with War Inc. is that it goes the exact opposite route of what made its predecessor work: it places its politics before its characters, rather than allowing the politics to be subtext. The film is so overt in its politics that it feels like Cusack and crew were reading H.G. Wells before embarking on the screenplay, didactically denouncing the Bush administration’s policies while forgetting that they were attempting to make a comedy. The near future/semi-sci-fi setting of the film is gratuitous and unnecessary, and the film would have worked better by distancing itself from its very topic , at least overtly. Setting the film in a middle eastern country, fictional or real, is so in the audiences face that the characters are almost entirely reduced to caricatures, rather than real flesh and blood human beings. This could have worked had the film entered into almost total abandon with any sense of reality. Unfortunately, the film does want you to take the supposed drama of the film completely seriously and invest in its characters.

Nothing makes this point clearer than the film’s twist towards the end (MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD). As we learn during the course of the film, Hauser’s wife was murdered years before and his daughter taken, with him completely unable to locate her. However, as Hauser confronts the mysterious Viceroy (at least the film wants the character to be mysterious. It will take you all of five seconds to piece the identity of the character together once you hear the voice), we learn that Yonica is his daughter. This revelation adds nothing to the film whatsoever, rather acting as a convenient plot device. In fact, it really only seems to exist to justify the casting as Duff as a Middle Eastern pop star. Of course, just about everything involving Yonica serves no purpose in the film, seemingly instead to be a tangent about low brow American culture dominating other countries that nobody seemed to ask Cusack remove from his script. (SPOILERS OFF)

However, this is not to say the film is not worth watching. While the satire might be a bust, the character of Hauser remains strangely compelling to watch. While on the surface Hauser might seem much like Martin Blank, Hauser is a far more broken and bitter character. In one of the running jokes throughout the film that actually works, Hauser engages in forms of therapeutic conversation with the disembodied Guidestar employee, voiced by of all people Montel Williams, letting the viewer in on Hauser’s disconnect from the world around him. Furthermore, the banter between Hauser and Natalie is fairly witty and enjoyable. Nothing as quotable as the majority of Grosse Pointe Blank is, but not bad.

In fact, Cusack and the rest of the cast are solid enough. The hitman role is tailor made for Cusack and he delivers in acting, if not in the scripting this time out. Tomei makes for a good “straight man” to Cusack’s Hauser, while Duff manages to surprise by not make me hate her every minute she’s onscreen. Aykroyd however is wasted, as is Joan Cusack who tries her hardest to make every scene she is in work.

As for the direction from Joshua Seftel, it is solid, though the film is clearly the artistic efforts of Cusack more than anyone else. Seftel brings a solid hand to the film, but is hampered by the weaknesses of the script. He does have an eye for action, effectively staging a number of sequences without drifting into too much shaky cam or Michael Bay style editing.

To sum it all up, War Inc. is a well intentioned disappointment, failing to live up to its thematic predecessor or deliver upon the promise that it holds at its core. I would still recommend renting the film, but simply keeping low expectations going in.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hopscotch (Neame 1980)

While I am not surprised to find that Ronald Neame’s Hopscotch (1980) is a deftly crafted comedy, what took me by complete surprise is just how relevant the film remains 30 years after its original release, and 19 years after the conclusion of the Cold War. While the political landscape of the film is clearly that of the late Cold War era, and hence draws upon those tensions for its story, the film in fact is an exploration of political ideology in the broad sense, and its role in the way we choose to live our lives and run as a society, framed in this film within a generation conflict.

The story of Hopscotch is that of CIA agent Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau), a long time field agent who loves his job, only to be confronted with being tied to a desk by the young, incompetent Myerson (Ned Beatty), who cannot stand Kendig and his view of their work as being that of a game. Rather than taking this forced career change, Kendig bolts to Europe and begins to write out his memoirs, full of embarrassing secrets about the CIA, KGB and others organizations. Mailing out the first chapter to his former employers and the KGB, Kendig initiates a worldwide game of hopscotch as he tries to stay ahead of both the CIA and KGB, doing his best to embarrass both in the process.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert gave Hopscotch faint praise and more or less dismissed the film as a lightweight romp, surprising given that the film is anything but. Oh yes, the surface of the film, with its quirky banter between characters, loveable renegade protagonist and well executed series of set pieces might appear to be insubstantial as a film, serving as little more than an escapist fantasy. Yet beneath the surface, Hopscotch is something of an expose about the ideological underpinnings of war, contrasting the beliefs of those on the ground with that of the state.

Kendig is fascinating as a character because of his reasons for being a spy rather than his skills, impressive as they be. Unlike James Bond with his imperialist overtones, or the ever ethically conscious Jason Bourne of modern times, Kendig is totally uninterested in the supposed ideological reasoning for the conflict he and others like himself are caught up in: all he does is play a game, and it is a game he loves. When visiting a Russian counterpart, Kendig reveals that he is not able to act as a double agent for the Russians, not because of any loyalty to the US of A, but because he would be terrible at the “game.” Kendig simply respects players and their level of skill, and the stakes of the conflict only manage to peak his interest rather than acting as a motivator. By all accounts, Kendig could be considered a selfish monster, willing to play a part in any conflict as long as it provides him with the excitement and stimulation he craves.

That Kendig isn’t an out and out monster due almost entirely to that fact that he is honest about this, unlike Myerson. Myerson, like Kendig, is totally driven by selfish pursuits, in this case the desire to move up the ladder of power and maintain his comfortable lifestyle. Unlike Kendig however, Myerson, more likely unconsciously than consciously, tries to hide these drives behind the party line, believing wholeheartedly in the ideological basis for their conflict with the Soviet Union. Kendig’s mission in the film of exposing the hypocrisy, stupidity and emptiness of Myerson becomes one of exposing the hypocrisy, stupidity and emptiness of the supposed ideological nature of the conflict. Kendig knows that the conflict is just a case of showing off before other players, and the anything else reduces the purity of his beloved game.

However, while the filmmakers clearly wish the audience to root for Kendig, he is also not a figure whose interpretation of the world is to be taken without question. Kendig is flanked by two key supporting characters in the film, that of his love interest and reluctant partner in crime Isobel (Glenda Jackson) and Kendig’s replacement Cutter (Sam Waterson, whose appearance here shockingly reminds us that yes, at one time, Waterson was young), who understands Kendig while at the same time chasing him. Like Kendig, both characters share a dislike of stupidity, and a detachment from the supposed seriousness of the world they live in. Unlike Kendig however, they understand fully how dangerous such ideological beliefs can be when acted upon, and thus act as a reminder for the audience, if not for Kendig, that something very real is at stake, even if it is not what fools like Myerson believe it to be.

However, I don’t want to give the impression that Hopscotch is a political treatise, as the film without question is an incredibly fun romp. Gentle in pace and style, the film is a relaxed effort from director Ronald Neame that finds its humour in its characters and witnessing how clever they are in thought and action. Chief among the joys of this is star Matthau who, as ever, is endlessly entertaining to watch, unearthing a youthful cockiness for his role that more than overcomes his physical age and ever harried face. It is something of a shame that my generation will mostly know him as having been the star of Grumpy Old Men and Dennis the Menace, as his older work constantly reminds us that he was an actor that was on par with his frequent co-star of slightly higher acclaim, Jack Lemon, who turned out films of equal greatness late in his career, unlike Matthau.

More than matching Matthau is his co-stars Jackson and Waterson, carefully walking the tightrope of grounding their characters in a sense of realism while absurdly agreeing to go along with Kendig’s plans. Beatty as Myerson is given far less to work with, playing a character that is more of a caricature, but manages to keep his character from becoming too broad despite the easy traps to have fallen into.

Without question, Hopscotch is worth seeing when the opportunity arrives (and like Carnival of Souls, is available for online rental from the Criterion Collection). In fact, it is a shame that Matthau has passed on, as a sequel to this film featuring an even further aged Kendig matching wits with an overly politically conscious and serious spy ala Jason Bourne is ripe with possibilities to extend and expand the thematic framework of this film. Alas, we’ll just have to settle for doing this ourselves.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Carnival of Souls (Harvey 1962)

A group of young women sit in a vehicle as a car of young men pull up, challenging them to a drag race. The young women in the car are up for the race, save one named Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a passenger who sits miserably silent in the vehicle. The race commences, arriving at a damaged bridge which both groups proceed over, only for the women to be knocked over the bridge and into the river. A search of the river turns up nothing, many onlookers commenting the car will never be found. However, out of nowhere, Mary turns up on land, a mess but alive. A week later, she leaves town for Salt Lake City for a job as a church organist, now in the driver’s seat and soon to suffer horrible visions. And that is just the beginning of the ordeal she is to suffer through.

So begins Herk Harvey’s one and only feature film, Carnival of Souls (1962), a blackly comic horror film which explores patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women just as the second wave of feminism was on the rise. While the set up of the film is simple, and as with many B-films, filled with ghastly images made on the cheap, Carnival of Souls is a highly sophisticated little film, relying not on jump scares but atmosphere, playing with narrative and traditional Hollywood conceptions and constructions of space and time.

The reason I have highlighted the start of the film is that it is the most important scene of the film whilst simultaneously being the least important scene of the film. The dramatic conflict of the film is centered on the seeming disconnect Mary feels towards herself and the world around her, being either unable or unwilling to engage with society as a whole. With the accident placed at the start of the film, and the visions Mary experiences, the reason for Mary’s disconnect would appear t be related to the accident, a point she doesn’t believe and yet is insisted upon by many other authority figures throughout the film, including a medical Doctor.

While it is true that the visions Mary experiences may be related to the accident (I will neither confirm nor deny this being the case), given the way the film is structured and the accident presented, there is no evidence that Mary’s disconnect from the world is caused by accident at all. We are never shown Mary before the accident, nor does she say anything during the whole of the race scene. Mary could very well have been as supposedly cold and distant as she is in the film before the accident as much as after, and given how Harvey presents Mary as framed apart from the other women in the car before the accident, she more than likely was.

Yet the opening accident scene is still vitally important, as it is rich in symbolic meaning as it establishes the thematic and subtextual groundwork for the rest of the film. The race is not a race between youths, but between sexes, as the male and female cars battle it out for control on the bridge. It is no mistake that it is the men who knock the women off the bridge, then afterwards try and marginalize their own role in the accident: it is this scenario which is repeated time and again between Mary and various symbols of patriarchal authority throughout the film, figures who are lampooned while still symbols of a very real systemic horror.

Each male figure in the film attempts to marginalize Mary by laying the blame for her supposed problems at her feet, be it spiritually (the pastor), scientifically (the Doctor) or “romantically” (the sleazy John Linden [Sidney Berger]). Much like the young men at the start of the film who attempt to pass on the blame for the accident, each patriarchal figure reacts with shock to Mary’s refusal to merely listen to them lecture her and play the role that they, and society, dictates, oblivious to their own role in assisting Mary’s suffering.

Even the sphere of the unknown is a site of male dominance, as Mary is haunted not by visions of women, but of well dressed men. It is no surprise then that Mary is at her most terrified when presented with situations in which she is rendered speechless, literally: twice in the film, Mary seemingly becomes invisible to the world, lacking the ability to have the world around her listen to what she has to say. This point is driven home all the more when Mary finally comes face to face with a vision of herself as a seemingly lifeless dance partner of one of the male ghouls which has haunted her throughout the film.

While the film as a whole is highly stylized and over the top, natural given the dark comedy of the film, Candace Hilligoss’ performance as Mary is magnificent, bringing a layer of legitimate psychological depth to a role that could easily have become one note. Mary’s resistance to patriarchy in the film is not an overt political resistance, but one driven by a deeply held, even primal, refusal to accept the world as is, and as such is not fully understood by Mary herself consciously. Hilligoss manages to effectively embody this struggle, with much of her performance hinging upon the subtleties of her facial expressions and physical mannerisms rather than on dialogue. No other performer in the film comes close to Hilligoss’ work, though to be fair, the rest of the cast doesn’t nearly have the level of material to work with.

Herk Harvey’s direction however deserves particular attention, transforming his budgetary limitations into strengths, as he and his crew play with Hollywood concepts of cinematic time and space in order to place the viewer into the mindset of Mary and achieve a distinctive horrific atmosphere. Scenes do not so much begin and end so much as they flow into one another or fragment off from the whole of the film, launching the viewer (and Mary) from one location to another without warning, often utilizing the soundtrack to assist in the disorienting of the viewer as the music often bounces from being diegetic to non-diegetic while the editing blends space and time together in surprising ways. This playfulness leads the viewer to distrust the very foundations of Hollywood cinematic practice, and the end result is often unsettlingly, effectively preventing any sense of any space being safe for Mary, and thus by extension, the viewer. After all, how can one escape patriarchy in a society that favours patriarchy?

Occasionally, the low budget and inexperience of the filmmakers does show. A large number of the supporting cast members are fairly stiff, and while Harvey does his best to make this work, he cannot cover it up entirely. Furthermore, Harvey allows the film to occasionally dip too far into the realm of comedy for its own good, drifting too far into an overt parody of horror films rather than playing the fine line between horror and humour and losing sight of his larger thematic goals.

Still, these are minor quibbles in an otherwise great film, and given that Carnival of Souls is such a rarity, a politically progressive feminist film in a genre that more often than not marginalizes and demonises women, these flaws serve more as a reminder of the restrictions facing the filmmakers, both financial and political. The film can be found for rent off of the Criterion Collection website, and has been made available on DVD both by Criterion and other distributors.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Departed (Scorsese 2006)

(NOTE: Ok, so where is the Carnival of Souls review? As anyone who has followed this blog for an extended period of time knows, I have been having laptop problems, with the machine breaking down every few months. To avoid this interfering with the reviews, I decided to start writing them on the family desktop, which has been very reliable.

Until this morning, when the damn thing crashed.

As such, my review is trapped on the machine, meaning I have to rewrite from scratch rather than finish my edit. So, to keep things going here, I am posting a "classic" review from back when I just placed these things on facebook. Carnival will be posted late Monday or Tuesday, but it WILL be next.)

The most fascinating element of the Martin Scorsese film The Departed (2006)is also the element which undermines the film the most. Using the same basic storyline of Wai-keung Lau Siu Fai Mak’s Infernal Affairs (2002), in which moles for both sides of a police/organized crime conflict hunt one another, Scorsese modifies the themes of identity from the original to include a focus upon a Biblical understanding of lineage, exploring the concept of how family shapes not only our immediate self understanding, but also shapes the context of how we are received in the world. Sounds good and rich for exploring, huh?

So how can this rich thematic material be a problem as I have noted? Primarily, it is an issue of execution, resulting in a war between characters for control of the narrative. As the basic story outline would indicate, it is the moles that would seem to be the main characters: the mob mole Colin (Matt Damon), and Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an undercover agent for the Boston police. However, The Departed unbalances the narrative by giving an almost equal amount of screen time to Jack Nicholson’s Costello, head of the Boston Irish mob, who plays surrogate father to both characters in the film. The end result is an unfocused film that doesn’t really seem overly invested in the tale it is supposedly telling.

Costello is a fascinating character, and Nicholson manages to turn in a performance that is his best in a long, long time, requiring him to turn down his Jack-isms that have become standard over the last twenty years. Scorsese paints Costello as a fraud coming apart at the seams, projecting an image of power while being literally and figuratively impotent. As the film opens, we are presented with narration from Costello, where he reveals that he always wanted to be able to impact his environment, rather than it impacting him. Certainly, he is able to achieve half of the goal, as his actions and choices simultaneously destroy and help the lives of others. However, Costello is still birthed from the violent culture around him, with the criminal elements around him helping to facilitate his dreams, and in turn he facilitates the criminal endeavours of others. Yet none of what he seeks, or produces is original. Yet even the simple ability produce an heir escapes him, and the result is an increasingly deranged man on the verge of self destruction. It is an excellent character study.

However, this does raise a big question: why wasn’t Costello the lead in his own film? Costello dominates the film so much that Colin and Costigan become one note characters in their own film. They never become living, breathing people, but stock characters who do only what the plot tells them to do, a plot which itself is mostly dictated by the Costello character.

Furthermore, in being reduced to stock characters, Colin and Costigan's identity crisis, which was supposedly the whole dramatic thrust of the film, is treated in the most superficial manner possible. The original film Infernal Affairs was more about the hell of existing without understanding one’s own identity, where death is presented not as a horrible outcome or justice, but as release from have to live a life of uncertainty. The Departed by contrast defines identity in black and white terms, with the filmmakers stacking the the deck against Colin so much that there is no sense of the identity confusion central to the original film. Colin is clearly a villain, and Costigan so clearly heroic that there is no drama. Instead, the audience sits and waits for the inevitable conclusions to be reached, and for Costello to come back on screen and do something of interest.

As such, the bounty of thematic ideas contained within the film are left undeveloped, being tossed on screen with the connecting tissue between them failing to keep the film together. The personal and political dualities never really come together in a meaningful way, resulting in a frustrating experience for the viewer. Well, at least this one.

The situation is made all the worse by the far too large supporting cast, filled with actors fighting to accomplish something of value on screen. Mark Walberg, Alec Baldwin, and Martin Sheen are among the cast who have nothing to do in the film except go through the motions with little rhyme or reason. Walberg, for example, has little to do except curse and wait to fulfill his role at the end of the film, while Martin Sheen fails to make any impression whatsoever. Baldwin fairs a little better with his somewhat comical department head, but still the character never evolves beyond the “angry Alec” of numerous other films.

It might sound like I am being hard on the film, and perhaps I am. There are many wonderful elements in the film, from Scorsese’s visual style (a shot of a coked out Costello is perhaps the most haunting) and sequences that manage to entertain, such as an alleyway chase that is every bit the equal of the same scene in the original. But the film lives moment to moment rather than existing as a unified whole, which at two and a half hours results in allowing the viewer to reflect far too much on the flaws rather than on what works.

The most frustrating aspect of all of this though is that it was this film Scorsese won his Oscar for. Certainly, the man deserved it a long, long time ago for his previous efforts, including his most recent work before The Departed. But awarding him for this film was a serious mistake: the Oscars are (supposedly) to award the best filmmaking efforts of the year, not the lifetime body of work of an individual (unless, of course, it is a lifetime achievement Oscar). Scorsese has made better films, and will make better films. To award him for this work undermines the value of what such an award should mean to him. With any luck, he will get nominated again for a worthy film, and win this time for the right reasons.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bad Lieutenant (Ferrara 1992)

It is safe to say that I am not a fan of Abel Ferrara’s work for the most part. While I loved his direction on the pilot for the television series Crime Story, Body Snatchers (1993), his remake for the 1950s classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was mediocre at best, while King of New York (1990), along with many of his other crime films, were ultra violent attempts at mimicking Martin Scorsese’s early works.

So consider me surprised to find that I am not only impressed by his 1992 effort Bad Lieutenant, but I am willing to go as far as to say that Ferrara has made a legitimately great film. Moreover, Bad Lieutenant is a film that demonstrates a thoughtful and mature exploration of Christian faith and man’s relationship with God, regardless of where one stands on the spectrum of thought regarding God, faith and religion.

Bad Lieutenant tells the tale of a nameless New York Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel), who is just about as corrupt as they come: he is a heroine addict, a gambling addict, and and adulterer who is prone to violence and extortion when it comes to the people he meets on the job. As the Lieutenant’s life slowly unravels, his bets on a series of baseball games place him in the hole and his drug addictions grow more uncontrollable, he is presented with a shockingly brutal case. A young nun, during a break in at a church, is raped. While initially cynical and dismissive as to the horror of the event, the Lieutenant is shocked when the nun not only reveals she knows her attackers, but forgives them and refuses to give up their names. As his life falls apart, the case becomes a quest for the Lieutenant to understand the choice of the nun, and possibly find redemption for himself.

Bad Lieutenant is a film that is likely to offend viewers across the board. Conservative, religious audiences will likely be turned off by the extreme and volatile character at the center of the film, a character that we follow into the darkest of corners when it comes to his personal failings and vices. Non-religious viewers may very well be turned off by the film’s focus on spirituality and faith. Still others will likely be put off by the fact that the film is not a thriller or mystery, but a character study with little in the way of a traditional plot. All three possible rejections of the film would be a shame, as the film’s complex exploration of the possibility for personal redemption is rich and textured, asking the viewer to really engage with the issue both emotionally and intellectually.

The Lieutenant of the title is not merely a misguided individual, but a truly vile human being: a wretched father, a lousy husband, and a sickeningly horrific police officer who abuses his powers daily. The Lieutenant is the embodiment of every character an audience has ever been asked to root against. His initial reaction to the crime against the nun not only invites disgust from the audience, but elicits shock from some of his fellow officers. He cannot even fall back on the claim of being any good at his job, as the time he spends on his vices leaves little time to accomplish any form of crime fighting. About the only thing he cares about is baseball, where he seems to invest himself both financially and spiritually. By all definitions, he is an irredeemable monster, and there is no reason for us to give a damn about a monster, except for the fact that society has invested this one with power.

Oddly enough however, we do give a damn about this monster. All credit must be given to Ferrara and Keitel, because they somehow manage to find the humanity in this abomination of a character. The nameless Lieutenant is less a character than a walking, talking collection of anger, frustration, self pity and hatred, aimed at anyone and everyone. In lacking a name or much in the way of a defined existence outside of his job, Ferrara allows the viewer to project onto the character, and identify the traces of our own personal dark side within his behaviour. Keitel manages to give the best performance of his career here, portraying a man so convinced in his understanding of the world that the actions of the nun totally shatter his very core.

What differentiates this redemption narrative from others is that the redemption for the title character is of secondary importance. While certainly the Lieutenant’s own redemption comes into play, what he seeks most is to understand the choice of the nun, an understanding also sought by the audience. This search for answers, to seek to understand another point of view of life free of or base traits, ironically further unifies the viewer and the Lieutenant, connecting his attitude towards life and bad behaviour as being typical of part of our everyday lives.

It is debatable whether or not the Lieutenant is able to comprehend the answers to his and the viewers’ questions, and unlikely that all viewers will be open to accepting these answers, but the Lieutenant’s quest for knowledge leaves him by the final third of the film fully stripped of agency, belaying any power he might have over his life. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Whatever redemption the Lieutenant finds by the conclusion of the film has little to seemingly do with his own will, Ferrara and Keitel magnificently establish this redemption as one in which the character has been kicked dragging and screaming from his typical patterns of behaviour. Keitel’s performance is at its best here, as he makes a decision he clearly is tormented by, yet clearly feels he needs to do. His reconnection with humanity has left him broken and in pain, toying with the viewers’ emotions as to how to interpret the conclusion of the film. (SPOILERS OVER).

Ferrara wisely attempts to place the viewer squarely into the subjective point of view of the Lieutenant, following the character as he makes his journey from home to the streets, clubs and grimy apartments of criminals, drug dealers and prostitutes. As the Lieutenant deteriorates, so does the stability of the camera, and the end results helps to add to the grimy world from which escape is seemingly impossible, at least for the Lieutenant.

The deployment of music is also highly notable in the film, mainly for how little music is actually featured in the film. Ferrara doesn’t bother to often highlight scenes with non-diagetic music, instead allowing for the harsh collection of voices and city noise to carry entire scenes, adding a heightened tension to the film, as we lack an audio cue to help navigate just where scenes will head.

Bad Lieutenant will not be for all tastes, but it was not made to be. It is a film which relentlessly tells its tale the way it needs to be told, the audience’s reaction be damned. As such, the film is unquestionably art, and needs to be accepted on that level, along with the work that a viewer must do to understand art. Those seeking easy answers or sheer entertainment, look elsewhere.

A Review will be up tonight, just not CARNIVAL OF SOULS

Hey Everyone! The Carnival of Souls review needs a bit more time to cook to get it right, so my review of the original Bad Lieutenant will be up tonight instead.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Update: April 5th, 2010

Hey Everyone!

Boy, do I have a film to review for you: Herk Harvey's 1962 horror/black comedy Carnival of Souls. The review will be up late on April 7th.

See you then!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The End of "At the Movies" and the Failures of Mainstream Criticism

The announcement last week of the cancellation of At the Movies, American television’s longest running program dedicated to film criticism, most likely came as a surprise to no one who has followed the recent changes made to the show over the past two years, from the ill conceived, vapid and thankfully short lived era of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz to the improved-but-still-wounded past year hosted by A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips. The show has never quite managed to find the same spark as it once had before the death of Gene Siskel in 1999, and the loss of Roger Ebert as an onscreen host more or less left the series vulnerable to the alterations and fate it now faces.

However, as important as At the Movies was to me in my youth, I can't say that the end of the series bothers me at all. The apathy on my part towards the series’ demise is rooted in more than just the loss of the famed duo that once stood at the core of the show. The main problem the series has struggled with over the past decade has been one of identity: just what is/was the point of the show?

At one time, At the Movies it was about seeing two knowledgeable, intelligent, and passionate film fans discuss the subject they loved so much. It was a show that was at the center of the cultural dialogue for serious film fans, at least in North America. While the format of the show has roughly stayed the same over the years, the passion and sense of purpose has been long gone, with its hosts going through the motions rather than feeling a desire to be hosting the program.

The inability of At the Movies to continue to hold this cultural position is due to several factors, the first and most obvious factor being the rise of the internet. I am not just talking about the democratic nature of the internet mind you, as important as it is, but also how the internet broke the rules which controlled the discussion itself. Film conversations on the web are plural, continuous, and fluid, going in several simultaneous directions at any given moment. As brilliant as At the Movies was, even at its peak it was little more than a sampling of not only the films, but of the critics' thoughts. In a half hour format with several films to get through, plus commercials, the conversations were necessarily short and would cut off just as they were getting started. It was the best we had, so we put up with it.

Not so now. In this era, the real loss would be if Roger Ebert’s blog were cut off, as it gives the man the room to let his thoughts out and engage with a series of intelligent individuals from around the globe, unfiltered. What possible function would a truncated version of this serve? While Ebert may continue to talk of starting a new review program, the purpose of such an endeavour seems murky at best, and pointless at worse. Furthermore, given the large number of voices available on the web, the idea of a single series having such influence over the cultural discourse has long since passed.

This brings us to the second key factor, the value of the "day of" review which shows such as At the Movies provide. The value of such reviews are questionable at best. Not only are such reviews generally ignored, but the format plays against the strengths of talents like Roger Ebert, whose best work is reflective and detailed, going beyond simple recomendations. We want an analysis, not a simple recomendation. While a good review may push us to see a film we may not have sought out before, if we are to be honest, if we are interested in a film, will a bad review really stop film geeks from seeing a film? Most likely, we will see a given film to add our own thoughts to the conversation going on about a given work. Since that conversation is what we often crave, we will get it even if it means sitting through a bad film.

Yet the most important factor to consider is the outright failure of mainstream press criticism and journalism in understanding my apathy towards the end of At the Movies. Pick up your local paper or watch mainstream news programs with a film critic on staff, and you will generally find vapid eye candy designed to sell whatever is released to the viewing public, or a group of individuals who are not so much interested in film but rather in showing off how clever they are to their audience.

Ask yourself: why is it that there have been no new critical “rock stars” in the past twenty years, even on the level of borderline joke Rex Reed? Mostly because the recent crop hasn’t been any good, being little more than a group of narcissists who place themselves before their subject matter. Films for this batch of critics are a means to an end, that end being their face and name in the public eye. These “critics” have little love of film, rendering their thoughts rather pointless to those who give a damn. At the Movies, when it was hosted by the “Bens” was an embodiment of such failings, and a sign of where the series would ultimately have headed again eventually were it not being cancelled now.

The cancellation of At the Movies is thus little more than the final admission that the world of film criticism for the serious film fan has been radically altered, a point which the fans themselves have known about for quite some time. Yet at the same time, given that the point of the series was to do little more than to provoke, discussion of film, nothing has really changed. The conversation is where it has always been:

Wherever the hell you are.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Welcome April!

Hello everyone!

Well, I have my laptop back, and my professional calender seems to be clearing up, so from the looks of things, this month the reviews should come out on a more regular basis again. First thing is first though: an article will be posted Saturday :)

See you then!