movie reviews and beyond

The Edge

May 11, 1998

One would expect the mingling of such explosive talents as director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) and playwright cum scriptwriter/director David Mamet (House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross) to be a volatile one. Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors is a potent, visceral portrait of human savagery; more like a punch in the face than a movie. Mamet’s talents lie in the waterfall of words that cascade over his character’s lips. His films are, to quote Elvis Costello, ‘like a chainsaw running through a dictionary’.

With Tamahori playing the insatiable id to Mamet’s ego, a film like The Edge should by all rights be, at the very least, watchable.

Watchable it is, but in the distillation of these two talents into one vat, something happened: they bled out the soul and turned the resulting film into something gnarled and distorted. The Edge is not dreadful, but there’s something about it that just feels wrong; something feels missing. Watching The Edge, you get the impression that it’s only a part of a greater, absent whole - a head and phallus cut away from a body, separated from the heart.

If millionaire Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) is the head, then fashion photographer Bob Green (whose name sounds like the host of a bow hunting show, and who is played by Alec Baldwin) is undoubtedly the penis. Morse is a man adrift in the world of words, a voracious book reader who has lost the ability to form connections to anything but letters on a page. Morse’s wife Mickey (Elle Macpherson) is, coincidentally enough, a model (hmm) who may or may not be having an affair with Green, and it’s this uneasy trinity that forms the basic conflict of The Edge.

On a photo shoot in the wilderness (with the Alberta Rockies standing in for Alaska), the plane carrying the two men crashes after a close encounter with a Canadian goose (or something like that). The crash leaves them to fend against the wilds and the increasing tension between each other. As the bookworm, Morse is a treasure trove of information - a millionaire’s MacGuyver, complete with neat nature trickery straight out of a boy scouts manual, while Green is just the photographer - he’s capable only of shooting his camera off, and getting all hotheaded (puns intended). Their close encounter with a big ol’ bear is seemingly the catalyst which will bond the two men closer than a Robert Bly hugathon, but as things progress the rift between the two men’s worlds turns into something more deadly.

The Edge is diaphanous entertainment - it has enough smarts to appeal to those that expect an education while at the movies, albeit a pretty useless one - and some overcranked Dolby surround sound action which will appease those who still feel unfulfilled by another summer of doozy action films. On the whole, though, there’s really nothing here that knocks you out. There’s no single scene that manages to work its way under your skin and stick with you after the lights have come up. As another cold, uncertain film, The Edge tries to please too many and instead pleases few - the action sequences are few and far apart, and the chemistry between the two men is forced and uninvolved. There’s almost nothing worse than a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be, and The Edge is one of them; a two-headed hydra of a film, with both heads constantly bickering, and neither making complete sense.

Trainspotting

“I’m worth a million in prizes Yeah, I’m through with sleeping on the sidewalks No more beating my brains With the liquor and drugs…” - Iggy Pop, ‘Lust for Life’

Trainspotting opens with what may be the most inspired pairing of music and image since the Door’s The End and Apocalypse Now. Youths run wild, careening through the streets with pilfered goods spilling from their pockets like some materialistic breadcrumb trail; and throughout, the Iggster’s menacing yelp goads them on - “I got a lust for life! A lust for life!”

The irony of a new film that finds its perfect lyrical counterpart in a song from 1977 is strangely appropriate. Trainspotting’s Renton (Ewan McGregor) seems to have jumped the tracks of life - and it’s only by going back to a past, less focused stage of life that he can find solace and move forward.

Bouncing back and forth between heroin junkie and clean drifter, Renton struggles with his addiction, all the while enduring and enjoying his motley crew of friends and their wicked, wicked ways. There’s Spud (Ewen Bremmer), a dimwitted by well-meaning Cletus who can’t seem to ever get ahead; Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller), whose obsession with James Bond is overshadowed only by his narcissism and addiction; Tommy (Kevin McKidd), the earnest footballer; and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), the only one of the group not addicted to hard drugs. Begbie is a human pitbull, incredibly violent and one incredibly hard nut. As Renton describes him, “Begbie didn’t do drugs - he just did people.”

Into this already chaotic gathering is injected copious amounts of heroin, which, as Renton tells us, is their replacement for ‘life’ - the nine to five, the wife, the couch and the monotony. “I choose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” But it soon seems that to survive, Renton must choose either life or death. In Trainspotting’s world, though, life doesn’t come cheap.

Trainspotting is based on the 1993 novel by Irvine Welsh, and considering the novel’s style and language, the producers have done an incredible job of translating the spirit of the novel to film. Scriptwriter John Hodge has given the main narrative voice to Renton, who gives the audience a clear entrance into this crazy world. Renton (whose voice-over acts as our guide through the mouth of madness) may be chronically fucked up and unsympathetic at times, but he’s the most human of any of the characters and that’s what keeps us involved.

And involved we are - you can feel director Danny Boyle pull you in and wrap his big celluloid arms around you. Boyle, with cinematographer Brian Tufano (both from Shallow Grave), use a bleak colour palette and an industrialized feel to communicate the utter misery of the characters’ environment. It’s a compelling aesthetic where everything is like an automobile accident, repelling and strangely attractive all at once.

Trainspotting is currently running the gamut of intense hype and accolades from all over the world, and believe it - it’s worth it. Just imagine the film child of Mike Leigh’s Naked and Darryll Wasyk’s H and then keep going. From some overcranked hallucinogenic sequences to its uncompromising brutal depiction of heroin addiction, Trainspotting is a serious kick in the head. And that’s a good thing.

U-Turn

U-Turn is fundamentally a story of endless returns, a tale of a man stuck in a dirty, ugly place, unable to leave. This narrative may be more apt than U-Turn’s filmmaker Oliver Stone may think - in directing what ends up as one of the ugliest and wholly misanthropic films screened since, well, Natural Born Killers, Stone returns to his old stomping grounds, only to find the earth oozing with pestilence. Stone may be the worst kind of filmmaker possible: he’s an ambitious megalomaniac with nothing concrete to say. Here, he revels in the revulsion.

As it stands, U-Turn is one of the oldest nuggets lifted straight out of a Jim Thompson pulp; a standard film noir tale of a man (Bobby Cooper, played by Sean Penn) who pulls into the small town of Superior, Arizona in need of car repairs. Superior is like a white trash version of Wawa, Ontario - once you get stuck there, you can never leave. Cooper finds this out after going through hell with the local red neck mechanic (Billy Bob Thorton), a raven-haired femme fatale (Jennifer Lopez) and the obligatory old sinister fart (Nick Nolte), all who have their own agendas in store for him, with predictably deadly results.

It’s been a long time since we were presented with a cast of characters that were so thoroughly despicable. No single person here is sympathetic or likable - even Penn’s Cooper is unpleasant, and as our eyes into the amoral landscape of Superior, he’s the audience’s only connection to what Stone tries to present. Film noir is inherently an immoral genre, and it’s expected for good and evil to mingle in with the light and shadows, but there’s always at least one route in for audiences. U-Turn lacks anything like this, and ends up feeling more like a cartoon exercise in film techniques than a real movie.

This is probably the biggest problem with U-Turn, and with Stone’s direction. The story is slight and hackneyed, and his stylistic ministrations seem rigged to divert the audience’s attention away from this. Stone has never had any deep talent - his films have always suffered from an excess of bombast and pretension, but at least his pre-90’s films have had some sense of visual flow. Here, as in Natural Born Killers and JFK, his use of images is illogical and often obnoxious; it feels like he’s loaded a scattergun with film stock and fired it at the screen with no thought to anything except provoking a response. He’s like a kid with a killing jar at show and tell, trying to see how far he can push audiences before they turn away.

Stone’s lenses capture everything in a repulsive light - even the beautiful Jennifer Lopez looks blemished and sickly here, as if Stone is incapable of filming anything without twisting it into something ugly. U-Turn is just like Natural Born Killers; it’s void of anything resembling thoughtful filmmaking, designed to incite audiences with visual deformity. People responded to NBK because of the way it forced itself on them - they responded to the way the film pummeled their senses, not because it was good or entertaining. If this is what audiences want when they watch a Stone film, then he’s succeeded beyond his limited capabilities; he’s made monsters out of them, too.

The Arrival

Everyone remembers those 1950's sci-fi paranoia films: Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, It Conquered the World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc. Many of these films set up and followed a now classic genre: the Doomsday scenario. One man discovers (usually by accident) that some great evil (a giant alien zucchini, pod people from space - you know, a nasty) is going to bring on the bells of Judgment day a little early for humanity. Problem is, no one believes him except for his trusty sidekick / girlfriend / wife / dog, so he's on his own to save the day.

The plot is usually wrapped around some sort of message (nuclear power is bad, we're destroying our planet, be nice to one another), and in the end humankind prevails, a lesson is learned, and our hero gets the respect / girl / love he deserves.

Writer / director David Twohy (writer of Waterworld, Alien 3 and The Fugitive) has probably seen a lot of these movies. The Arrival, a present-day version of these great old sci-fi films, echoes the quiet reverberations of the paranoia people felt back in the cold war days. Unfortunately, the doomsday scenario has been jazzed up with some of those annoying computer generated effects, burdened with incredibly wooden acting, and lethally laced with the poison of cinema: boredom.

Charlie Sheen tows this clunker into dry dock with his portrayal of Zane Zaminski, radio astronomer and all-around geek. His lifelong ambition is to prove that extra-terrestrial intelligence really exists, which he does by scanning the heavens for signals from space. He succeeds, to his girlfriend Char's Char-grin (Teri Polo) after yet another girlfriend-ignoring late night at the observatory. As soon as he passes his discovery along to his superior (Ron Silver as "Gordian" - how suspicious is that?), Zane is laid off from his job, pushed around by his girlfriend, and pooped on by life.

Parallels to Sheen's life aside, the movie then launches into a full-out assault on global warming, conspiracy plots, and the ever present death count. You see, Zane's friends start to drop like Mr. Sheen's pants, and all because they (his friends, and not Mr. Sheen's pants) know too much. Along the way to uncovering the cover up, Zane meets up with a global-warming researcher, played by Lindsay Crouse. She is possibly the best human element here, but unfortunately drops out early on, leaving Zane to discover the big secret all by his lonesome. Oh my, aliens live among us already, and they're slowly "terraforming" our planet into theirs by promoting global warming and melting the ice caps. After all, they're just "going to finish the work humanity started."

Sheen doesn't save the day in The Arrival. What he does do is walk around with a weird look on his face, and yell a lot. We do get to see him as if he were a Mexican (in a transformation sequence right out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis), but it isn't enough. He's so wooden in this we keep waiting to see the puppet strings holding him up. It's a shame, because the main idea of the movie is rather intriguing (if derivative of the TV series V).

With a better writer, a stronger director and proper casting, The Arrival could have been an interesting film. With the cast and director it has, it s a loosely directed piece of Hollywood tripe, with a lead actor that looks lost and a supporting cast that generally goes through the motions. Besides a few good special effects (such as the terraforming machine) and a few neat looking aliens, The Arrival will probably leave as soon as it walks in the door.

Shine (1997)

January 20, 1997

Of all the genres of film, the one most likely to teeter between whole grade schmaltz and visual poetry is that cinematic standard, the biopic. Where else could a director or scriptwriter plunge into the sweaty depths of melodrama and malodorous cheese so thoroughly than a project (ahem), "Based on A True Story"? Still, there’s always silver in any cloudy movie screen, and one of these, Aussie director Scott Hicks’ Shine, emanates more of the precious metal than most Hollywood studios produce in a month.

The film is based loosely on the life of David Helfgott, whose musical gifts were nearly destroyed by his father’s (Armin Mueller-Stahl) domineering control. His only friend during his teenage years is an elderly writer named Katherine Susannah Prichard (Googie Withers), who becomes the desperately needed ballast in David’s chaotic life. It’s after her insistence that David finally defies his father and leaves Australian to study piano in London. Painfully shy and ackward due to his sheltered childhood, David slowly learns to unleash his emotions through music, with the aid of his instructor, Cecil Parkes, played by the incredible John Gielgud.

While rehearsing for an upcoming competition, David learns of Katherine’s death. It’s this, coupled with his choice of music, Rachmaninoff’s insurmountable ‘Piano Concerto No. 3’, that leads to David’s mental breakdown. He performs the most difficult piece beautifully, but after its conclusion collapses and is institutionalized for many years, and prohibited from playing piano by the hospital’s staff.

When he is finally released, David is a changed man - his speech patterns are rapid fire and follow a warped stream of consciousness, and he’s become frenetically eccentric. Through this, though, his childlike manner proves to be incredibly charming, and a chance meeting with a kindly bar owner named Sylvia leads to David’s return to the piano as the pub’s entertainer. His marriage to a Sydney astrologer named Gillian (Lynn Redgrave) and return to public performances proves to be the sweetest triumph a movie has depicted in years.

Throughout the film, director Scott Hicks and writer Jan Sardi display a nimble sense of dramatic timing, which manifests itself in the handling of the many high and low points in David’s fascinating story. In most any other film, the emotionalism of many key scenes could have turned hackneyed and overbearing; here, it’s handled with a sensitive touch that keeps the film from sinking with the weight of theatrics. Hicks knows that it's the lit fuse, and not the explosion that creates tension, and thus keeps the cheese firmly in the fridge, where it belongs.

One misstep looms large over the film, however, which threatens to unbalance the care Hicks has invested. His handling of Helfgott's breakdown seems heavy-handed and clumsy. It's almost as if he doesn't trust the audience enough to emphasize with Helfgott's plight, and so punctuates the climactic scene with too heavy an exclamation point. Here, the film veers precariously close to the realm of overstatement. Luckily, the second act manages to smooth out the repercussions from this brief loss of control.

It helps that Hicks has top-notch assistance from his cast. Heartstopping performances abound, from the three Davids (Alex Rafalowicz as a child, Noah Taylor [The Year my Voice Broke, Flirting] as a youth, and stage actor Geoffrey Rush as an adult), the venerable John Gielgud, and Armin Mueller-Stahl (The Magic Box, Night on Earth). Shine has been bestowed with awards and accolades since its release, and rightfully so. It's like beautiful music on a quiet evening at home: lilting, moving, and ultimately satisfying.

Ransom

Director Ron Howard, while seemingly capable of making a watchable film in the Hollywood system, seems dead set on upholding the blazing torch of family values. One only has to glance over his filmography (Parenthood, Backdraft) to realize that, for the most part, Howard seems inclined to make movies where the conflict revolves around the family unit in jeopardy and its eventual reunion. Ol' Richie, it seems, has a beatific vision of a blissful Happy Days still banging around in his subconscious, and it wants out.

With his latest film, Ransom, this theme of the nuclear family surviving intrusion continues. Following Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson) and his family's cathartic trial by fire via the hostage taking of their son Sean, the movie capitalizes on wanton manipulation of its audience's emotions. Beginning with an all stops out blitz of family harmony, to the unsurprisingly creaky boat that the clan becomes after the removal of one member, one gets the unpleasant feeling that buttons are being pressed - hard. While it's fine to have a film lead the audience somewhere, it's another matter to have your butt kicked down the road by a domineering tour leader.

One glaring example in many is the way that the film's characterizations quickly turn monochromatic. Mullen and his wife Kate (Rene Russo) are prime examples of a pristine, buffed couple, looking for all the world like they just stepped out of a TV ad for Club Med, while all the bad guys are either lame gangsta wannabes (one played coincidentally enough by NKOTB chump Donnie Walberg), drunken computer geeks, or scowling cops (Gary Sinise) gone nasty. Still, in response to the Ransom, Gibson's Mullen turns just as evil as the kidnappers, only here, everything is set up for an audience to root him on as he babbles, drools and eventually falls to their level to reunite his family. It's really hard to believe that the story was by James Bond writer Richard Maibaum, and scripted by acclaimed novelist Richard Price (The Color of Money).

Still, Gary Sinise tries his best with what he has to work with, and brilliant actress Lili Taylor (I Shot Andy Warhol) puts in a too brief supporting appearance. Unfortunately, with the film's uneven plotting and cloying over-emoting, not much exists to keep the interest level up. Coupled with some annoyingly shaky point-of-view camerawork reminiscent of TV's NYPD Blue (who thinks this stuff 'puts you in the action?') and the exasperation rises to an overwhelming level.

To boot, Ransom features the worst yelled line since Kurt Russell howled, "That's my brother in there, goddamit!" in Backdraft. Of course, this can only be the Melster's "Give me back my son!", which every person imitated when I told them I have to review this movie. That, sadly, was the most entertaining thing connected to Ransom. Do yourself a favour and watch Robert Aldrich's The Grissom Gang instead. It's got all the elements of Ransom, but won't leave you feeling like you were just taken against your will by the movies.

Men in Black (1997)

May 11, 1997

The movies have often looked to the skies for inspiration, and no wonder - as the profits of E.T.’s glowing phallus or the unbearable jingoism of Independence Day show, there be gold in them little green men. With purses overflowing, Hollywood is loving the alien, and the special effects studios are laughing all the way to the bank. With that in mind, Men in Black comes as no great surprise. It has all the components to be a huge box-office smash: two very bankable stars, a profitable and creative director coming off of back-to-back successes, a great premise, and of course, a whack of computerized aliens.

Still, having all the best ingredients in the world doesn’t necessarily make a quality repast, and while Men in Black is no *batteries not included (old people + cute aliens + Steven Spielberg = celluloid flatulence), it still leaves one feeling rather unsatisfied - a Big Mac wrapped in black.

Inspired by the Lowell Cunningham Marvel comic of the same name, which was itself based on UFO folklore, Men in Black concerns itself with a conspirant’s wet dream; the notion that there exists a secret organization that covers up the existence of an extra-terrestrial presence on earth. Dependable Tommy Lee Jones (MiB Agent ‘K’) and one-line wonder Will Smith (Agent ‘J’) are charged with that responsibility, and spend the bulk of Men in Black gallivanting around in sharp suits while blastin’ some alien butt.

There’s a lot of detail to like here - the gag that Sylvester Stallone, Dennis Rodman and executive producer Steven Spielberg are aliens, the fact that the MiB get a lot of their information from supermarket tabloids, and a nod to Twin Peaks with the inclusion of ‘the Giant’ Carel Struycken as an outer space guy are all nice touches. It’s also great seeing the gruff countenance of Rip Torn (as ‘Z’) on the big screen. Nonetheless, there doesn’t seem to be much going on, with diversions popping up and tripping up the scenario faster than pearls before swine. The small details are great, but a film made up of trivial details is, well, trivial.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family, Get Shorty) is adept at making featherweight movies that don’t insult their audiences, but here seems overwhelmed by the frivolousness of the material. A mindless popcorn film is one thing - light diversions are what Hollywood does best - but a film that’s so buoyant that it floats off the screen is bad news. Less jokes (and less Will Smith) would have made this a much more enjoyable experience.

Aliens-are-among-us films work best when they function as a metaphor for some insidious evil that plagues the establishment. Communism/the Cold War was plumbed extensively for allegory in the 50’s AFI productions, which gave their relatively lightweight films a political counterweight which worked wonders. Here there is no solid parallel that makes sense (except, perhaps, for a fear of unrestrained immigration) - perhaps The Man has just run out of larger-than-life enemies?

To wit, Men in Black is one of those films that, like a UFO sighting, leaves just as many credible witnesses as it zips by like the Flash with dysentery. While it is an improvement over the smoke and mirrors of last year’s Independence Day or The Arrival, it still fails to capitalize on what remains a fertile ground for sci-fi cinema. This movie is merely okay - and in the cramped world of big budget cinema, that just ain’t enough.

Masterminds (1997)

September 1, 1997

You only have to look as far as the unbelievable success of schlock rocker Marilyn Manson or puffsters the Backstreet Boys to realize that, as far as the youth market is concerned, packaging is everything. Lemons into lemonade, spice into the Spice Girls - to paraphrase The Simpsons, getting kids to buy crap is like shooting fish in a barrel. Usually.

With that in mind, there can’t be a doubt as to the target audience for Masterminds. The poster features lead cool kid Vincent Kartheiser, decked out in all the requisite cool things (funny sunglasses, wallet chain and hipster duds) tooling his skateboard on the furrowed brow of bad old guy Patrick Stewart. If this isn’t for the kids, may the Trix rabbit dance on my early grave.

As such, Masterminds is such a poor attempt at capturing teen rebellion on film that it makes those idiotic Speed Kills ads (and local ham Paul Anthony) look positively defiant. Featuring a plotline lifted straight from Die Hard, with liberal sprinklings from other, less worthy sources, Masterminds comes off as light as a feather and as entertaining as one of those loathsome ABC afternoon specials. Judy Blume, eat your heart out.

What we have here is terrorist cum thief Rafe Bentley (Patrick Stewart, looking more and more like a pink dildo in a suit) who takes a private school hostage for the tune of $680 million. The only one who can save the periled pupils is Ozzie Paxton (Vincent Kartheiser), whose calculated cool is matched only by his pouty androgyny, no doubt cast here to drive young girls into a lustful frenzy.

After Bentley and his motley crew (looking for all the world like professional wrestlers) take control of the school, Paxton preps us for what’s to come by quipping, "We’ve got a die hard situation here." He then spends the rest of the movie harrying the hapless thieves while climbing through ventilation shafts, and communicating to the police via walkie talkies. Demonstrating his impeccable computer hacking skills and a MacGuyver-esque talent for transforming junk into traps, Paxton manages to free the hostages and foil the thieves' plans. In the end, Bentley falls into a gigantic pool of shit, and in true Scooby-Doo fashion, curses, "those damn kids!"

Masterminds was directed by Roger Christian, who made a film in the 80’s called The Sender, which was a poor man’s version of Scanners. Masterminds could have been at the very least a poor man’s Die Hard, if it wasn’t for the fact that no one actually dies - they just dust themselves off and keep going. The cartoony atmosphere is echoed in the obnoxious music video lighting (by Nic Morris) and a decidedly campy performance by Stewart, who obviously spent more time looking at his cheque than the script.

There’s a fine line between emanating cool and desperately emulating cool. This je ne sais pas is something teenagers usually pick up on effortlessly - especially when it’s hatched by someone unaware of what really is in. That being said, only the youngest of kids (who are still learning what’s hip) will probably latch onto Masterminds; the rest of us older types will see it for what it really is - calculated, regurgitated trash thrown together to exploit what old farts think kids really what to watch. Stick with the John Hughes classics, and stay far, far away from Masterminds.

Donnie Brasco (1997)

February 27, 1997

It’s interesting that many film critics of late have referred to the organized crime genre as dead, infertile ground that bears no life. Odd indeed, considering the prevalence of cinema today to relive its salad days through remakes and ‘updates’ of old TV shows and classic films… and the willingness of many of the same critics to trumpet these lifeless buck-grabbers as worthy of the theatregoer’s eight bucks. Let’s face it, a good film is a good film - and whether it was created within the Mexican horror-wrestling genre or the gangster genre is just semantics.

Donnie Brasco is just that - a good film, with a solid narrative and compelling performances from its actors. Director Mike Newell has a lot to make up for on this outing after schmalzting audiences to death with the cloyingly sweet Four Weddings and a Funeral, and he delivers the goods in stunning fashion. Donnie Brasco, like the Scorsese / Nicholas Pileggi collaborations Goodfellas and Casino, is based on a true story. Here, the true tale is the harrowing descent of FBI undercover agent Joseph "Donnie Brasco" Pistone (played by Johnny Depp) into the predatory world of wiseguys and made men.

Unlike Scorsese’s violent mediations, though, Newell and writer Paul Attanasio concentrate more on the dynamic relationship between Pistone and one "Lefty" Ruggiero, an aging veteran on the scene who unwittingly sponsors Pistone into his circle of wiseguys. Played astutely by veteran Al Pacino, Lefty is a wise man misplaced in a slovenly mess. Pacino gives Lefty a world-weary veneer that is urgent in its tragedy. This is Pacino’s best performance since Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s as if he’s giving us a peek at what Michael Corleone could have become, had he been beaten by the Mafia world instead of commanding it.

Johnny Depp is equally as adept here, and after his turn as William Blake in the astounding Dead Man, his Joseph Pistone is solid proof that he is one of the brightest talents south of the 49th. Depp’s baby face is wonderfully expressive - it's as if his dialogue is somehow excessive, as his face communicates plenty more to an audience on a more powerful, visceral level. He manages to lose his huge real-life persona within the depths of this character. He becomes Joseph Pistone, just as Pistone became Brasco.

Donnie Brasco is compelling. It almost feels too short, even as its two hours-plus running time zips by. When it’s all over you almost want to leave and come back, in hopes that there’ll be more, as if the characters continue to live even after the film has run out. Even its 1970’s soundtrack seems bearable in context, and who can say that much about the hits of the 70’s? It isn’t the high water mark of mob movies (that’d be aforementioned The Godfather) but Donnie Brasco definitely delivers.

Daylight (1996)

December 5, 1996

Much has been ballyhooed around about the connections between Sly Stallone’s latest vehicle Daylight and disaster films of the past. The China Syndrome, The Poseidon Adventure, even the hokum filled Airport series all laid claim to big stars, big budgets, empty thrills, and, most crucially: camp. Daylight does have camp to burn, humanity in peril, and even a few vacant thrills, but what it lacks is character -- or, barring that, something for the audience to toss raspberries at.

Daylight arrives with an interesting premise that quickly becomes trite. An explosion in the Manhattan tunnel (caused by some "grungies" crashing into a convoy of chemical-laden trucks) kills hundreds of hapless motorists, strands a dozen survivors within its collapsed frame, and prompts a transit official to proclaim, "We’ve got a live one here!" Well, duh. Enter their savior, Sylvester’s dreadfully named Kit Latura. He’s a dishonored ex-chief of Emergency Medical Services turned New York taxi driver: "Yo, Adrian! Are you talkin’ to me?"

As the water level starts rising, the noname supporting cast start to grumble like there’s no tomorrow. Any self respecting hero here would snap around and snarl, "Shaddap!", but unfortunately that never occurs. Instead we’re left with director Rob (Dragonheart) Cohen’s divine miracle: he changes water into whine. What Daylight needs is a little more heroic bravura and a little less gutless sniveling. Furthermore, Stallone lacks the charisma and populist red neck magnetism needed to make us believe he could lead a group of panicked victims out of the crippled tunnel. With his dachshund eyes and his mouth-full-of-marbles delivery, it seems unlike that he could lead even a pack of tourists out of the Museum of Man and Nature.

Characterizations in this genre have always been of the cardboard cutout variety, and Daylight is no exception. The opening character introduction sequences are so patently ridiculous that it mars the rest of the proceedings. It’s as if Cohen loaded up a cannon with the characters' photos and shot it out of the screen, leaving the audience to pick up the pieces. What you end up with is a shard of back history, a shred of personality, and that all-important "How did they get in the tunnel?" If we could care about these people, perhaps the film would have been more enjoyable. Instead, the survivors we’re left with are like shadows -- as far as we’re concerned, they’re already dead; they just don’t know it yet.

To its credit, Daylight is chock full of special effects eye candy, which Cohen handles well. Still, it’s not effects or the gut reaction a film provokes that determines its worth. Sadly though, this seems to be what many audiences consider in their box office decisions -- "Let’s throw acting and plot aside: Does it excite?" (ahem: Jurassic Park). Even on this basic level, Daylight fails. It feels more like a commercial for the new Universal Studios theme park ride than a film, and this in itself may be its biggest flaw.

Con Air (1997)

June 5, 1997

Con Air definitely plops into that vortex known as the big budget action genre. It’s a lumbering, perplexing mess of a movie, without basis in any sort of logic and a narrative that could be summed up as lacking. Summers are filled with these kinds of films; mindless little diversions that usually stink up the place with a cheesy odor, but some, like Die Hard or Aliens, manage to be highly entertaining pieces of fluff. Unfortunately, Con Air may have all the prerequisites for a place in the trashy hall of fame, but falls short of being worthy and instead tumbles in another, more irritating place.

It’s hard to point fingers with a film such as this, where the script, by Scott Rosenberg (whose twisted mind produced Beautiful Girls) is trite and flabby, and the music and direction conspire jointly to conjure up memories of banal TV commercials. It comes as no great surprise that neophyte director Simon West spent more time pre-Con Air overseeing Budwiser ads than actual movies. Every frame is informed with TV’s familiar, kinetic spasm, as if the camera was a shark, and would die if it stopped moving.

Still, if there was anyone to blame, chances are producer Jerry Bruckheimer would get the finger - pointed at him, at any rate. Bruckheimer, who with the late Don Simpson was responsible for such foul-smelling nuggets as Days of Thunder and Bad Boys, seems to be the real creative force behind Con Air. His films are all aesthetically similar - big volume, thunderous explosions, and no soul - and it’s no surprise that his directors cannot be found anywhere in his films. It’s like his films are so big, they swallow up puny directors whole, and regurgitate them as pawns who just fling the camera around.

The casting is where Con Air gets interesting. Nicholas Cage (along with Bruce Willis) seems dead set on becoming the savior of the Hollywood action genre - his appearance in last year’s The Rock, and the forthcoming John Woo film Face/Off is a curious anomaly in the great scheme of action stars. With the dwindling box office take of hugely muscled lunkheads (like Van Damme, or Arnold), Tinseltown producers probably were in a panic as to who would be The Next Guy, and figured Cage would be as good a bet as any. Here, he’s just another puffy boy ("With 3% body fat!", the press kit proclaims), but at least Cage is a somewhat capable actor with a fair bit of charisma.

In fact, the charisma of the cast (which includes such notables as John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi , Ving Rhames, and an unlikely John Cusack) is what saves Con Air from sinking without a trace. No matter how lame the movie may get, it’s still entertaining to see some classy working stiffs like these try to make the best of a poor situation.

Regardless of any acting talent present, Con Air proves incapable of being anything more than a two hour sustained, visual assault. It leaves you reeling and exhausted by the sheer force of its imagery - something that Jerry Bruckheimer would probably be delighted to hear. In this case, though, the exhaustion feels numbing, like you’ve just spent too much time in front of the TV watching a cavalcade of beer ads. With the full might of the Hollywood promotional machine behind it, you can’t turn off Con Air - and that’s a shame.

Bound (1996)

September 6, 1996

The Wachowski (Andy and Larry) brothers’ film debut Bound will, at first glance, invoke comparisons to that other sibling duo, the Coens. Bound, like the Coen’s superlative Blood Simple [1984], both work as a loving homage to film noir, they both features some interesting off-beat characters, and both showcase some serious technical know-how and agile camera work. On the surface, this may seem like enough evidence to point to a crosspollination of influences between the two brother teams. But, where the Coen’s are seemingly obsessed in remaking a genre’s feel and language as their own, the Wachowski’s see genre as merely fertile ground to plant their own seeds of cinematic storytelling.

Starting with a basic noir story convention (that of a femme fatale that provokes some murderous house cleaning) Bound then leaps away (no pun intended) from the genre norm by making the love story into one between two women. Gina Gershon, (last seen lacking any self-respect in the most surreal film of 1995, Showgirls) is Corky, a leather jacket wearing, truck driving woman’s woman, who just got out of jail. While starting her first job renovating an apartment, she meets up with Violet (the squeaky voiced Jennifer Tilly), and before you know it, sparks are a-flyin’ everywhere.

With Violet’s husband Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) bringing his work home with him (he’s in the Mafia, or as they call it, "the Business"), Violet has a case of the matrimony blues, and it’s only a matter of time before she seduces Corky. Up to this point, Bound sputters and staggers, with the narrative heaving along like a dime-store drunk. The flow here is way too loose, and it’ll be interesting to see if the Wachowski’s improve at communicating their narratives more concisely. Luckily, the story quickly shifts to the conflict: Violet wants out of her marriage and the business, and with two million in cash waltzing its way into Caeser’s life, Corky and Violet begin to hatch a convoluted plan.

Part of the enjoyment of these kinds of films is the anticipation of plot twists, so it seems cruel and unnecessary to reveal more of the plot. It’s sufficient to say that there is some well executed violence, a smattering of vocal and visual gags (the use of Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Never Loved a Man [the way I love you]’ is especially clever), and some excellent camera work, abetted by cinematographer Bill Pope. The camera glides down hallways, glances through peepholes, and captures slow motion with a bravado that belies the brother’s inexperience. The Wachowski’s seem to be comfortably in their element here. As a debut, Bound is leagues ahead of most in its content and craft.

While not as assured a beginning as Quentin Tarantino's Reservior Dogs, and with some glaring flaws (which are mostly regulated to the first act), Bound may not bring a total media blitz to the Wachowski’s door. Still, in the overcrowded cinematic world, where innovation is deplored and many a director’s hubris overwhelming, the Wachowski’s presence is reassuring, if only because they try the former and seem to lack the latter. These are a pair to watch out for.

Boogie Nights (1997)

September 10, 1997

After watching filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson’s propulsive saga Boogie Nights, you’re immediately struck by how complex an experience it is. Anderson understands that the best films don’t have static beginnings or endings. He knows that for films to stay with audiences, they have to leave believing that the characters keep moving after the last reel has concluded; like the audience has just been privy to a small portion of lives continually in transit.

Boogie Nights follows lives perpetually in motion. It's filled with people constantly searching for emotional fulfillment from the ones around them, and moving on when the well is found dry. Spanning a period between the late Seventies and early Eighties, Nights follows the highs and lows of a group of pornographers through the eyes of their biggest star, revealing lives torn apart by their desire for emotional love and acceptance.

Young Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is blessed with only one notable attribute - he’s the owner of a 13-inch penis, and he’s willing to use it to attain the fame he craves. Porn producer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) quickly discovers his rather ample talents, and soon Adams finds himself skyrocketing into superstardom under his new name, Dirk Diggler. He, along with his fleshy co-stars Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Horner’s wife Amber (Julianne Moore) hit big when Diggler introduces his concept of a porno James Bond - an idea which soon leads the characters into a life of vacuous debauchery and, inevitably, catastrophe.

The period look here is bang on, right down to the saucer shaped record players, shag carpeting and a soundtrack filled with some of the worst hits ever to grace a movie. All of the period’s swollen, trashy ditties are here, from some late Seventies pulsating disco duds to the lecherous horror of Rick Springfield’s "Jessie’s Girl" and ELO. In fact, the music here is wall-to-wall, assembled like Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Casino, a filmmaker whom Anderson obviously has taken some inspiration from. The tone isn't the same timbre, but there are definite parallels between Boogie Nights and Raging Bull. It’s a portrait of the dull witted bruiser as a manchild.

It all sounds somewhat insipid on paper, but Anderson and his crackerjack cast manage to pull off the incredible: they invest Boogie Nights with an undeniable humanity. When tragedy falls and the characters tumble with it, there’s such a powerful thread of empathy sewn throughout that it’s impossible not to hurt with them. You actually care for these people, and the fact that they’re doing things that would make many cringe makes the empathy that much more powerful. You feel because these people aren’t allowed to.

Here, as in Anderson’s excellent directorial debut Hard Eight the theme is of family lost and found again, though in both cases the parental bonds come from unusual places. In Boogie Nights, Horner and his wife Amber become surrogate parents to their stable of actors, but because of their business, tensions flare and lives are shattered. Oedipus complexes play themselves out through throbbing bodies and broken hearts - a porn nuclear family in meltdown.

Boogie Nights is an epic in the truest sense, bringing back to life a time of wanton decadence, bell bottoms and bad music with heart and a suprising amount of dark wit. When Diggler looks out from the screen with eyes filled with longing, his desperation fills the room with a melancholic weight that’s devastating. Pornography may be an emotionless melange of limbs and groins thrusting away mechanically, but Paul Thomas Anderson reminds us of the humanity that lies beneath the sweat. He turns these pitiful, foolish sex mannequins into apparitions of pure passion.

Air Force One (1997)

July 24, 1997

True to expectation, Air Force One is a sustained exercise in good old American flag-waving, sub-machine gun style, and there isn’t a hope in the world for a few Russian terrorist bad guys when they’re facing the wrath of some Yankee ‘do-or-die’ ideals. Gary Oldman puts on yet another accent on for this outing (does this guy ever accept roles that utilize his real accent?) as the leader of a group of Russian revolutionaries intent on springing their beloved General out of prison. To attain this they infiltrate and hijack the eponymous plane, with only the president of the United States, James Marshall, by his lonesome to uphold the American Way - the second Air Force One of the movie.

There’s something about a movie that portrays the president of the United States as a political Rambo that seems… laughable. At least with the bulk of action films the protagonist is some tough guy (i.e. cop, prisoner, army dude, sports celebrity) stuck in a situation he doesn’t want or expect. Now, we’re expected to watch some graying, grandpa politician stick it to some ne’er-do-well’s with, well, strong words and stiff policies?

Casting the not-so-grandpa Harrison Ford as the big guy Marshall seems like a solid gold guarantee that audiences will swallow a brain boggling concept like this. After all, this isn’t just any old actor - this is Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan rolled into one, with the saintly sensibilities of Yoda slipped in for good measure. After viewing this one, American audiences will be falling out of the theatre, jonesin’ for some fisticuffs and ready to vote Ford himself into the White House.

Ford’s Marshall is a real good guy - a walking, talking Everyman who just wants to love his family, watch the football game and drink a Bud - and it’s this Leave it to Beaver atmosphere in tandem with the violent goings-on that really perplexes. Not only are we supposed to believe that Marshall is an ex-Navy Seal (or Green Beret, or something like that), but that he also has a blemish-free marriage, a loving daughter and some very liberal ideas on American Foreign policies? This isn’t suspension of disbelief, it’s disbelief dei gratia.

Director Wolfgang Petersen is a very capable action director, who created the best U-boat movie ever (Das Boot, recently re-released in its original 206 minute running time), and managed to make a potential stinker like In the Line of Fire rather watchable. Here he carves out a hefty slab of suspense and some sharply directed kinetics, but is overwhelmed by the zealously patriotic script and some horribly rank music by Jerry Goldsmith. Utilizing music as a suspense device is one thing; having your soundtrack sound like the theme for a Democrats’ leadership convention is not only excretable, it's inexcusable.

The irony of having a German director make a pro-American film is rather interesting, and Petersen is really not to blame for the failings of Air Force One. He does overdo the ‘throwing yourself in front of a speeding bullet for your leader’ thing too much (here upgraded by having an F-14 throw itself in front of a missile), but in general does as good as possible with what he’s got. If you can take an incredibly stupid ending ("Get off of my plane!" - give me a break) and the overpowering jingoistic tone of the whole affair, you might be able to stomach it. Then again, perhaps I just don’t get it - after all, I’m Canadian.

In and Out (1997)

May 11, 1997

There’s an emptiness lurking behind the smiles in director Frank Oz’s In and Out, a vacuousness that seems to pull the jokes (of which there are many) into a black hole of triviality. The actors are grinning, all right, but is there any emotions bracing their cheerfulness? Writer Paul Rudnick, who penned the so-so Addams Family Values and the jocular Aids comedy Jeffrey has an acid wit and a few brain cells, but lacks the character-building chops to really pull us in, and thus we’re left with characters flatter than a board and with just as much personality. Unfortunately, the answer to the above question is no, which is a shame. In and Out may be vageuly funny, but it sticks with you as long as Chinese take-out, which is to say, not long at all.

This effort was apparently inspired by Tom Hank’s Oscar acceptance speech for Philadelphia, where he acknowledged an old high school teacher ("And he’s gay!"). Problem was, the teacher in question hadn’t come out yet, but was outed by Hanks in front of a TV audience in the millions. Whoops. In and Out follows a similar story as Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) is popped kicking and screaming out of the closet by hot shot actor Cameron Vale (Matt Dillon, here indistinguishable from a hung-over Brad Pitt). Vale wins the best Actor award for the hilarious movie-in-the-movie called To Serve and Protect, and thanks Howard, ending with the revelation, "And he’s gay!" Whoops.

This announcement sends Brackett’s small town of Greenleaf into a tizzy. Howard is to be married to his long-time girlfriend Emily (Joan Cusack) in a week, and the last thing they need is extra anxiety. After all, Emily lost tons of weight for the wedding, Howard’s parents (the venerable Debbie Reynolds and oatmeal man Wilford Brimley) are koo-koo for nuptials, and Howard himself is ready to cut wedding cake. After the televised outing, though, a media frenzy descends on Greenleaf to interrogate the hapless Howard - after all, if he taught the famous Cameron Vale, he must have a story to tell. Howard starts to doubt his sexuality. Kline and Tom Selleck (as TV reporter Peter Malloy) smooch it up. The audience gasps. Pratfalls occur.

To its credit, In and Out does attempt to not take itself too seriously, which is a good attribute for a comedy to have. Debbie Reynolds is always a joy to watch, and Kline is an adept physical comedian, but an episodic feeling to the gags dogs these strengths. There’s the flimsiest of gossamer stringing the jokes along, and without a strong narrative flow the humor doesn’t stick. All I can remember of the jokes is an old woman yelling, "My husband has three testicles!" - but that’s probably because I’m genital-obsessed.

When In and Out pokes fun at established archetypes (like Hollywood, the Oscars or fashion models), it’s sometimes funny, but the targets are obvious and satirize themselves better and more handily. When the film descends into maudlin sentiments, like the dreadful scene where Cameron Vale and Emily exchange Shakespearean sweet-nothings, it’s all we can do to avoid gagging on the cloying saccharine. Director Frank Oz is the king of the sappy comedy (Housesitter, What about Bob?), and he leaves pockets of cheese lying around everywhere. In and Out? It passes through you just like the title. Whoops.

Lost Highway

A disquieting sense of dislocation, a ghoulish “Mystery Man”, some hyperkinetic highway tarmac, and characters that change names and faces faster than you could say “Killer Bob” only one man could tie these disparate elements together into one brilliant, cohesive whole, and then title it Lost Highway. David Lynch is back to theatres after a five-year absence, and after partaking in his phantasmagorical film noir musings, audiences will never be the same. Hallelujah.

Lost Highway is split up roughly into two narrative movements - in the first, saxophonist Fred Madison (played by Bill Pullman, here making up easily for his disastrous President in Independence Day) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) are the recipients of three increasingly disturbing videotapes. Then, Fred gets creepy with a Mystery Man (Robert Blake), a murder is discovered, and Fred is imprisoned, where a prison guard intones, “This is some spooky shit we got here.” No shit. Suddenly it’s the young auto mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) that’s in Fred’s cell, and with his appearance we’re eased into the movie’s second movement.

Up to this point, Lost Highway is a constant stream of the willy-nillies. Lynch is a consummate manipulator of suspense, and with his disturbing sound design and masterful use of darkness within the frame, even the simple entrance of a character onscreen gives one the creeps. Director of photography Peter Deming deserves an award for his work here - he dishes up some of the most evocative blackness seen since Stanley Cortez enveloped The Night of the Hunter in ebony darkness. Here, shadows rule, and they contain such an overwhelming menace it’s hard to completely relax in their presence.

After Fred’s transformation/sublimation into Pete, the narrative seemingly doubles back on itself and begins anew. Pete does automotive work for the sadistic Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), who comes in one day with Alice (Patricia Arquette, again), a pneumatic blonde moll with a hankering for some Pete-to-cheek action, which Dayton is happy to oblige. Mr. Eddy gets suspicious, the Mystery Man makes a few more creepy appearances, and a plan is hatched to knock off a cheesy pornographer of his riches. Of course, everything goes disastrously wrong, but this is David Lynch, after all, so both movements somehow manage to beautifully weave together for the spine-chilling climax.

Lynch delves deeper into themes here he has worked with before, with very satisfying results. The duality of humanity, the changing face of evil, and the connections between the conscious and subconscious mind are all present here, as they were in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. By wrapping these idioms within a film noir context they burst forth anew with fresh revelations - Lost Highway may be another trip down the road with the ol’ insatiable id, but Lynch makes it a trip you just cannot pass up. Simply put, this is Lynch’s best film since Blue Velvet.

On a sad note, Lost Highway is the last film that veteran Lynch player Jack Nance appears in, after his horrific beating and subsequent death late last year. As Henry Spencer in Eraserhead, Pete Martell in Twin Peaks, and appearances in Blue Velvet, Dune, Wild at Heart and The Cowboy and the Frenchman his contributions are as much a part of David Lynch’s accomplishments as Kyle MacLachlan’s. He will be missed.

Looking for Richard

Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard is quite the suprising directoral debut, given its creator’s affection for gritty, intense characters and demanding melodramas. For years Pacino thrived on losing himself in complex characters; by giving up his personality in exchange for the darker sides of his roles, it gave him the fuel to create living, breathing characters that audiences flocked to see. With this, you’d expect him to start off with a gritty drama, like his colleague Robert De Niro’’s directorial debut A Bronx Tale.

So what is he doing making a documentary about Shakespeare’s Richard III?

The fact that Pacino would gravitate to the Shakespearean canon makes perfect sense. The Shakespearean tragedies are chock full of beefy melodramatic possibilities for Pacino to wrestle with; characters boil over with dramatic grandeur, and the darker nature of many of the Bard’s plays form a veritable playground for Pacino to explore. The documentary aspect of the film, however, comes as a pleasant surprise.

Formed out of a collaboration with director/actor Frederic Kimball, Pacino interviews people on the street, academics and many contemporaries (including Sir John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline and James Earl Jones) to try to piece together a portrait of Richard the Third. It’s also a film within a film, with Pacino also performing key scenes from the famous play with a supporting cast of name actors (including Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Aidan Quinn and Kevin Spacey). There’s also a voice-over providing a ‘play-by-play’ (if you’ll pardon the pun) to try and explain just what the hell’s going on.

Richard III may be Shakespeare’s most difficult play to understand, but the format here of showing then telling allows even the easily confused to understand the goings on. Albeit, there’s a regrettable abundance of Pacino hamming it up for the camera in the on-the-street scenes, where Pacino visits many of the old theatres where Shakespeare first unveiled his creations - but on the whole, the film works. It succeeds admirably in not only opening up Shakespeare’s oeuvre to audiences whose last exposure to the Bard was in high school - it also presents Richard III in a traditional manner that stays true to its origins.

The Shakespeare cinematic canon is long and varied, from Lawrence Olivier’s own 1955 Richard III to Kenneth Branagh’s musings and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. Looking for Richard complements these films by creating an atmosphere of entertaining instruction, one that not only fosters an interest in the Shakespearean world, but one that also elucidates the difficult language and style. If there is any justice, Looking for Richard will soon end up in high schools as required viewing, as it would make the drudgery of learning Shakespeare easier and entertaining.

Live Bait (1997)

August 7, 1997

The life of an independent filmmaker is a strange one. Just ask writer-director Bruce Sweeney. His film debut Live Bait was literally lost, found again, and then to the astonishment of Canadian filmgoers at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, rose from the depths to extricate the Best Canadian film award from the hands of some stiff competition. With a final budget of a minuscule $85,000 and a completion time of nearly five years, Live Bait’s triumph could very well be the Canadian film industry’s Cinderella story of last year. The clamour? It’s well deserved.

Written in stretches from the summer of 1992 through to the spring of ‘93, Live Bait is a semi-autobiographical story following the frustrations of a 23-year-old guy and his attempts to sate his unfulfilled goatishness. Told in a surprisingly subtle fashion, with an outstanding performance by lead actor Tom Scholte as Trevor, Live Bait’s seemingly innocuous premise belies its warm, humanistic tone and adept intelligence. This may be the story of a guy, his libido, and the women that drive him crazy, but Porky’’s it’s not.

Traversing shaky emotional territory with careful, even steps, Live Bait communicates the agony of being lustful, alone and confused without resorting to hamfisted melodrama. Tom Scholte’s face has a dog-eyed yearning that speaks volumes in a simple look. In fact, Sweeney understands the incredible power a glance contains, and uses it sparingly and with great impact. Trevor attracts women easily, but is thwarted by his shyness and his inability to form any sense of connection to them. In his words, he’s “erectionally challenged”, and is left looking woeful and bewildered by his half-baked encounters with the women drawn to him.

It isn’t until Trevor meets Charlotte (Micki Maunsell), a sixtysomething artist with a quick wit and twinkling smile, that Trevor finds what could lead to something. It’s here that Live Bait shines. By portraying their slow courtship with a mature, even balance that emanates honesty and a jocular intelligence, Sweeney proves that he not only understands his characters, but cares what happens to them. This may be the film’s biggest strength: it comes from a true place, free of pretension.

After the film lab lost eight minutes of crucial footage, it seemed as if Bruce Sweeney would never get his film to its final destination on our movie screens. After enduring long, angry phone calls to the lab, Sweeney finally found the missing footage in a box containing the lab’s fake Christmas tree. In the independent filmmaker’s world, it’s business as usual, as crises such as these are commonplace. Thankfully, Live Bait is not commonplace - it’s a charismatic, well thought out film that commands our attention and sates our desire for the magic of good cinematic storytelling. All things told, an excellent debut from a promising new talent.

L.A. Confidential (1998)

May 11, 1998

Everyone’s seen those tacky astrology placemats at their local Chinese restaurant - the ones that divide people into twelve specific animal types, based on that particular person’s birth year. If this centuries-old personality schematic holds any water at all, then L.A. Confidential gumshoe Bud White (Russell Crowe) would definitely fall under the year of the Dog. Like a stray whose hide has seen the bottom of too many boots, White is convinced that people falls into two categories - those that cause pain, and those that require protection. White sees life through the eyes of a dog; he sees in black and white.

Russell Crowe is one of those actors that seem unable to do wrong. Even in a clunker like Virtuosity, Crowe manages to emanate the kind of screen magnetism that most Hollywood actors would kill their agents for. Crowe sucks you in with understatement, with an intensity reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s anti-hero vehicle Bullitt, and his performance in L.A. Confidential is one of the finest Hollywood moments of this year. Crowe sucks Bud White up and spits him out of his eyes, turning an innocuous glance into something heavy with emotion. When he actually speaks in his raspy whisper, it’s like audible exclamation points - the dialogue stings the ears.

The movie was directed by Curtis Hanson, whose handiwork was previously limited to trashy corn like Hand that Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. Here, he seems to be working under the possession of another, more capable director, as Confidential bears no sign of the poppycock that infested his earlier works. Instead, like Crowe, Hanson coaxes the movie along to its climax with a subtle hand, allowing a crack cast to work with co-scriptwriter Brian Helgeland’s dialogue instead of applying his usual hamfistedness to the proceedings.

Based on the James Ellroy potboiler, L.A. Confidential mellows the novel’s labyrinthine plotting and concentrates on White and the driven flatfoot Ed Exley (Guy Pearce). The story follows a complex story of police corruption, murder and betrayal in 1950’s Hollywood; film noir set to swaying palm trees and bleeding oil derricks, complete with a femme fatale doppelganger, Veronica Lake lookalike Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), and tabloid worm Sid “Hush Hush” Hudgens.

Basinger must have absorbed her co-stars talent through some funky thespian osmosis here, as this is easily her least offensive role ever. Her Lynn Bracken just has to ooze sexuality and act as a fulcrum for the plot to swivel around, and she fulfills this purpose with a poise that I never thought her capable of. Of course, surrounded by proven talents like James Cromwell (as Capt. Dudley Smith) and the new king of cussing Kevin Spacey as the swaggering celebrity cop Jack Vincennes, she probably couldn’t help but learn a thing or two.

L.A. Confidential is the best thing to come around major screens here in months, and while it’s nowhere near perfect (the plot pacing is too lumbering up until the half-way point, then blazes to a hurried climax, and the ending is too pat and complete), the performances and an intelligent but emotive script make up for the film’s problems. Don’t believe the hype - L.A. Confidential is no Chinatown, but it still makes for a worthy addition to the guys-with-guns L.A. noir genre. This ain’t no dog.

Jean-Claude Lauzon

Quebecois director Jean-Claude Lauzon once said, “I always need to be in motion. Whether I’m riding my Harley South or flying my airplane North, it’s the only place I don’t feel anxiety.” With his untimely death early last month, it’s fitting that his passing came within the only place he felt happy; the womb-like confides of his plane. Lauzon was a man of extremes, and whether he was burrowing himself deep into a new project, or flying high above his detractors, he never failed to stir up controversy. Of course, for a man who threw away the 1992 Cannes film festival’s Palme d’or just so that he could lewdly rifle festival juror Jamie Lee Curtis, this comes as no surprise.

Born in 1953 on St-Dominique Street in Montreal, Lauzon’s childhood was a rowboat awash in a sea of madness, driven by winds of psychosis. As echoed in his autobiographical masterwork Léolo, Lauzon’s boyhood years were not kind; nearly all of his family - with exception of his mother - were institutionalized at one point or another. Lauzon himself escaped a life of petty street crime only through the intervention of Andre Petrowski, then the head of the NFB’s French film distribution. It is to him that Léolo is dedicated, and rightly so, for Petrowski was the man responsible for guiding Lauzon out of the gutter of his youth and into filmmaking.

The consummation of this guidance was Lauzon’s 1986 feature film debut Un Zoo, La Nuit (Night Zoo), a searing depiction of violent crime, street life, corrupt cops and the loss of the lead character’s father, another point which figured strongly in Lauzon’s personal life. Zoo went on to garner 13 Genie awards and standing ovations at its debut at Cannes, which thrust an unguarded Lauzon in front of a hungry press. He came out punching.

“You can’t imagine what it was like to be suddenly sitting in a press conference with journalists from all over the world,” accounted Lauzon in Saturday Night magazine. “Someone asked me what my sexual orientation was, and I said the first thing that came to my mind. ‘When I have a hard on I’ll fuck anything’, I said, ‘even a telephone pole. I’’d fuck a beaver.’”

His unrestrained public persona created a media frenzy. Here was a Canadian director, with an already controversial film, playing the insolent, self-destructive bad seed. Lauzon’s arrogant histrionics made for great copy, and the press ate it up.

After the furor over Un Zoo, La Nuit died down, Lauzon went on to write the script for Léolo, a film in which he plundered the pained memories of his childhood for inspiration. Following the descent of a young boy, surrounded by madness, into the maelstrom of insanity, Léolo is at once poetic, crude, beautiful and grotesque. Easily one of the best Canadian movies ever, this profoundly tragic film went on to nearly snatch the best film award at 1992’s Genie awards from the eventual winner, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. Lauzon settled instead for three awards in costume design, editing and writing, but the back to back successes of his two films seemed to portent a brilliant career.

Unfortunately, Lauzon was flummoxed by an industry that attempted to guide his talents into Hollywood movie making, and instead squandered his talents directing TV commercials for a steady pay cheque. When offered the chance to direct a Gene Hackman thriller by Norman Jewison, Lauzon scathingly replied, “I don’t want to make a little piece of shit to be able to make a big pile of shit.” It was this unswerving dedication to avoiding a career in filmmaking that left us with only two examples of what may have been Canadian cinema’s greatest underachiever.

“My body on this earth is not very important,” Lauzon once said. “The body of artists is not very important.” Pretentious as this statement may be, Lauzon’s small body of work is all we have left of this contradictory genius, and is itself of great importance. Lauzon may have lived an arrogant, confounding life, but his experiences begot wonders on film. As poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “At night he stands up, the distant call of birds already deep inside him; and feels bold, because he has taken all the galaxies into his face.”

I am Cuba (1997)

June 12, 1997

The story behind Cinematheque’s latest feature I am Cuba is almost as interesting as the film itself. Originally meant to be Cuba’s answer to Eisenstein’s propaganda glory The Battleship Potempkin, and a hands-on cinematic exercise for Cuban film technicians, I am Cuba disappeared after its 1964 release. It wasn’t until last year that this technical masterpiece was rediscovered and re-released by movie mavericks Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, to critics and audience’s delight.

Directed by the Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov (better known for his Cannes award winning film The Cranes are Flying [1957]), and written by Russian poet Yevgeny Yetushenko and Cuban writer Enrique Pineda Barnet, I am Cuba is basically a jingoistic anthem for the Cuban revolution of the 50’s. What elevates the film from the depths of a propaganda hell is the utterly delirious cinematography and camera work. The feeling one gets after watching I am Cuba is a feverish, giddy one; akin to the afterglow experienced after watching cinematic marvels like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil or Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

Featuring some of the most inventive, jaw-dropping shots in cinematic history (long before the invention of the Steadicam), and a virtual horn of plenty of camera tricks, director Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Uruskevsky pull off visual trickery here that is seemingly impossible even now, never mind 30 years ago. One example that occurs early in the film is a long shot that originates on top of a hotel rooftop. Weaving its way through a crowded party, the camera then floats over a balcony, drops three stories and into another party, where it follows a bathing beauty through a crowd, into a pool, and then underwater. With shots like these, one expects that the movements were planned out extensively; here, though, the camera and the actors seem improvised and loose.

Shot using an extra wide angle lens (which lends the film a surrealistic look), the film also showcases some of the most beautiful looking images seen in a long time. Some, like a crazed dance sequence in a crowded club seem reminiscent of movies from the film’s era (this being inspired by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita). One other (of many) that pops up is a scene seemingly lifted from Spartacus (1960), in which Cuban rebels proclaim. “I’m Fidel!”, and in doing so echo the slaves of Spartacus claiming responsibility by yelling, “I’m Spartacus!”.

I am Cuba was made during a period when the Soviet Union and Cuba were basically bedfellows, but in setting the film during the 1950’s uprising of Fidel Castro’s ultra-left against the tyrannical Batista government, the film nearly squeaks of its agitprop pretensions. It’s divided into three neatly separated stories that builds up to the final episode, where a farmer meets Castro. Throughout, a whispered voice (“Mother Cuba”) espouses softly poetics like, “I am Cuba Sometimes it seems to me that the trucks of my palm trees are filled with blood. Sometimes it seems that the murmuring sounds around us are not the ocean, but choked back tears.”

Interestingly enough, the multiple countries that are represented here (Cuba, Russia and their enemy, the US) make their presence known through the film’s language. As Mother Cuba laments her loss, immediately a Russian man’s voice-over (in Russian) almost drowns her out, while the English subtitles repeats again the passage. This schizophrenia of language parallels the forces that conspired to rip apart this film and bury it. As such, we are richer by leaps and bounds for its rediscovery and screening here in Winnipeg.

I am Cuba is not only a cinema treasure that cannot be missed, it is a historical document of an alliance that has long since disappeared. As such, it is not only an important artifact, it is also a reminder of where our world has been.

Hard Core Logo (1997)

July 19, 1997

“Joe, What do you mean by Hard Core?”

“Move, or fuckin’ die.”

- Bruce McDonald to Joe Dick, lead singer of Hard Core Logo

Punk and Disorderly

Punk rock was never supposed to have lived this long. Even as the Exploited’s Wattie gasped his battle-cry, “Punks not dead!” back around 1982, punk’s energy was already leaking from its epicentre into what was the pure pop bliss of new wave. Sure, Husker Dü and Black Flag were still waiting in the wings, but as far as the limelight goes, punk’s life at its purest was just like the songs it spawned: Short, brutal and unapologetic.

So it seems creepy somehow that today, punk’s heaving, staggering corpse is not only still moving, but slam dancing all the way to the bank. After the massive success of bands like Green Day and the Offspring, old veterans like the Buzzcocks, the Circle Jerks and the godfathers of punk, the Sex Pistols have resurfaced, crying out for their piece of the corporate rock pie. It all seems rather sad. So where does Bruce McDonald’s latest punk rock road flick Hard Core Logo fit it?

What’s this shit called love?

On the surface, Hard Core Logo may be about this very thing: ‘been there’ punks and their reunion into the tribulations of the wicked world of rock ‘n’ roll. To Bruce, though, it’s more than just a jaded attempt at mocking the present state of punk rock. As far as he’s concerned, Hard Core Logo couldn’t be further from that. “I’ve always wanted to make a film about a band, but I was more interested in the reunion of these two guys who’ve been apart for years; I don’t think it really mattered that they were punk.”

The two guys Bruce speaks of are Hard Core Logo’s lead characters, Joe Dick (played by Headstones lead singer Hugh Dillon) and Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie). The singer/guitarist and lead guitarist respectively for the (fictional) punk band Hard Core Logo, they reform after years of silence for a benefit concert for their wounded punk mentor (Julian Richings as Bucky Haight) and subsequent tour.

Just like any band, the relationships between the two front men, and between them and their rhythm section (Bernie Coulson as the drummer Pipefitter, and John Piper-Ferguson as bassist John Oxenberger) borders on a strangled love affair. As the old axiom goes, being in a band is like being married; only here, it’s like trying to reconcile an old, bitter divorce after a long period of healing, only to find old wounds reopening that you thought long closed. If this is a love story, it’s Sid & Nancy meets The Odd Couple.

Let’’s Wreck the Party

Shot in a mock documentary style, ala This is Spinal Tap (which appears in a game of ‘name that cool movie’ that the two leads play while touring), Hard Core Logo may be similar in tone to the cult fave, but as Bruce describes, “It’s Spinal Tap’s mean little brother.” In viewing the film, you can’t help but think the performances were improvised, which McDonald says were actually “meticulously planned out. When you’ve got an 18 day shooting schedule, there isn’t really a lot of room for error… [but] the documentary style is really suited to performers. It allowed us a lot of room to play and be impressionistic.”

Based on ex-Hard Rock Miner Michael Turner’s novel of the same name, Hard Core Logo’s script was in the writing stage for nearly a year before production began. Part of this was due to translating the book’s sparse and varied style into a script. The book incorporated poetry, photos, song lyrics and diary entries to tell the band’s story, and as Turner described it, “the book was done pretty much live off the floor, with only a couple of overdubs.” And when Bruce read it, “I was really charmed by it. I felt like it came from a true place.”

They did an incredible job in not only translating the feel of the novel, but in creating characters that breathed an air of authenticity. “Hugh and Callum worked really hard,” said Bruce of his leads. “They both felt somewhat awkward in their roles, ‘cause Hugh was worried about his acting, and Callum about looking posey on stage with his instrumen there was this great cross-fertilization thing happening, with each of the actors teaching each other.”

This exchange of ideas and techniques seems to have paid off in spades. Hugh Dillon gives an intensely magnetic performance as Joe Dick, and Callum Rennie is suitably convincing as the torn Billy Tallent, whose loyalties are divided between Hard Core Logo and his stab at the big time, a band called Jenifur. With such diverse roles as the leads in Sandra Oh’s Double Happiness and John L’Ecuyer’s Curtis’ Charm, Rennie seems poised to receive the mantle as Canada’s latest screen sensation.

Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds

The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie once said, “Canada is a great place for a band to get its road legs.” This statement is proven again and again in Hard Core Logo. “The Canadian road thing has always been more of a meditative trance-like experience. We’re so much used to covering long distances,” said Bruce, “that you can’t help but become more introspective and thoughtful. That’s one of the reasons we used East Indian tabla and sitar-like music. These guys aren’t just ‘rockin’ down the road’. They’re reevaluating their lives. [I feel] the music reinforces this meditative state.”

And as any band that has traveled will tell you, strange stuff happens. Hard Core Logo are no exception, with van mishaps, interpersonal crises, and thieves in the night. While often hilarious, there’s also a sense of melodrama and irony that gives the whole proceedings an aura of realism. Watch Hard Core Logo with a friend that’s in a band, and chances are they’ll agree. This isn’t the glamourous life; it’s slugging it out in the trenches, reaching for the brass ring, and coping with the hardships of the road while trying to stay sane.

Bruce McDonald Filmography

Roadkill (1989)

Bruce’s first feature film, Roadkill follows the misadventures of a concert promoter named Ramona (Valerie Buhagiar) and her search for the missing rock band “the Children of Paradise”. Co-starring Don McKellar, who also wrote the script, RoadkillI contains all the elements of a ‘Bruce McDonald’ road movie: bizarre characters, a band, long stretches of empty highway, and some rockin’ tunes.

Highway 61 (1991)

A dead body, a terminally introverted guy (Don McKellar as Pokey Jones), a flamboyant roadie named Jackie Bangs (Buhagiar again), the devil, and of course, a road trip. One of the many highlights is the appearance of the Dead Kennedy’s Jello Biafra as an evil customs officer, and Art Bergman’s manic appearance as the off-kilter Otto. Most excellent.

Dance Me Outside (1995)

Based on the writings of W.P. Kinsella, Dance Me Outside is undoubtably McDonald’s most classically structured work (blame it on the CBC’s involvement). The tale of life on a reservation and the effect a murder has on it, Dance Me Outside may be his weakest work, but it still rings true - finally, a film that shows aboriginal life in a realistic, non-stereotypical light. Hugh Dillon’s first film appearence, and featuring Winnipeg’s own Adam Beach in an excellent performance.

Gray's Anatomy (1997) / Arthur Lipsett

June 16, 1997

Fans of Spalding Gray can rejoice: he’s finally put out another neurotically witty film chock full of storytelling goodness, as only he can deliver. Puntastically entitled Gray’s Anatomy, this outing (his four filmed performance to date) delves into similar territory as his previous talkies. As before, we get lots of Gray recounting some unusual occurrence in his life; here, though, he’s taken out of the live performance loop and into the studio, with some interesting, if mixed, results.

Featuring some crackerjack direction by pseudo-indie wunderkind Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies & videotape), Gray’s Anatomy reinforces Gray’s arguable position as the ‘king of raconteurs’. He’s in top form here, mixing equal parts neuroses, hilarity and surrealism as he recounts how he tried to avoid the doctor’s scalpel in treating an eye condition known as a ‘mascula pucker’.

For those unfamiliar with Gray or his storytelling might, what he does is simple. He sits behind a desk, and for the entire length of his films, he talks. It’s hard to believe that watching someone blather on for ninety minutes or so would be interesting, but Gray makes it not only possible, but also highly rewarding. His storytelling style meanders like the Red River, splitting off on vaguely related tangents but always finding its way back to the main flow of his tale. He’s an enthralling speaker with a wicked sense of humor, and Gray’s Anatomy constitutes one of his best outings.

Here Gray weaves his saga of a man driven to blink. A mascula pucker (like your retina is “Saran Wrap, bunching”) leaves him nearly blind in one eye, which prompts his new age friends to comment, “Well, what is it you don’t want to see?” After being horrified by the prospects of getting his eye “scraped”, or as another doctor put it, “peeled”, Gray embarks on a journey of cosmically hilarious proportions, where he visits a family of insane nutritionists, participates in an Indian sweat box ritual (in the nude, in the snow), and then travels to the Philippines for some faith healing from the “Elvis Presley of psychic surgery” - all in a panicked attempt to avoid an operation he likens to “The Andalusian Dog - magnified 100 times”.

Filmed in a hypervisual style by Soderbergh, Gray’s Anatomy places Gray in the atypical surroundings of a film studio, which allows for a larger use of lights and set - ironic, considering Gray’s ailment. In his previous films (Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, and an HBO special called Terrors of Pleasure), Gray spoke to an audience. Here, freed from the stage, Soderbergh surrounds Gray with a lot of flash and smoke (literally), with varying success. There’s no denying that Gray’s story is the main attraction here, which the visuals sometimes overshadow.

That aside, there’s also an excellent opener, beautifully photographed in black and white by Elliot Davis (who worked with Soderbergh on The Underneath), which features some other eye tales by various speakers, including a literal talking head, who nearly steals the show from Gray with a hilarious take on the Indian sweat box ceremony.

Whether or not you think Gray is a pretentious screwball or a twisted genius, there’s no denying that he has a unique talent for observation. Though Gray’s Anatomy is Gray’s fourth film (and fourteenth monologue), his storytelling still maintains a fresh vibrancy that is pure entertainment. After Gray gets through with you, your gut will ache from laughing, and your views on health and medicine will never be quite the same.


Playing at the Cinematheque for one night only is The Dark Genius of Arthur Lipsett, a collection of short films by one of the most radical filmmakers ever to work within the Canadian National Film Board. Lipsett was a warped experimenter who took bits of film from the NFB trim bin (fragments cut out of movies, and destined for the garbage) and edited them together into quick bursts of uneasiness, with a soundtrack to match. He was worshipped by other geniuses like Stanley Kubrick (who wanted Lipsett to create the trailer for Dr. Strangelove) and George Lucas, who was so enamored with Lipsett’s creations that he wanted to relocate to Canada and make similar movies. (The title of Lucas’ THX-1138 was apparently inspired by Lipsett’s 21-87 - just imagine what Hollywood would be like if Lucas had become a Canuck!)

But, Lucas didn’t move and instead made Star Wars, Kubrick sulked into hiding in England, and Lipsett (a very sick man) made a few more incredibly disturbing shorts before committing suicide. Thankfully, his contributions to the movies still stands, and you can catch some of his work at the Cinematheque on Friday, June 20th at 7:30.

Female Perversions (1997)

October 21, 1997

Female Perversions opens with a fullisade of images; a trio of bodies entangle in a fleshy tableau; a woman walks a tightrope, her balance uncertain; a rope is pulled by a clay-masked king; the tightrope walker quivers, then falls - and throughout, the sounds of a woman’s breath and gasps are heard on the soundtrack. This montage is completed with a shot of the woman responsible for the breathy accompaniment, who cries out and lifts her head off of a pillow, where the words, “Perversions are never what they seem to be” are stitched. Heady stuff, to be sure.

The woman is Eve, played by acclaimed British actress Tilda Swinton. Swinton is best known to North American audiences for her gender bending role in Sally Potter’s vacantly artful Orlando, but is well known in her homeland for her work with the late Derek Jarman. Here, she portrays a high soaring attorney offered a judgeship, but who soon loses sight of herself and her identity. Eve is a confident, beautiful woman who luxuriates herself in the Eden of her existence, only to be cast out by self doubt, fear, and finally, self awareness; she inadvertedly bites the apple, and in turn finds the seeds of enlightenment.

Eve’s kleptomaniac sister Madelyn (Amy Madigan) is arrested for shoplifting in the small town of Fillmore. When Eve drives down to try and bail her out, she finds that she’s cut off from her powerful connections in the city and soon begins to doubt her professional abilities. This unease spreads throughout Eve’s life, infecting her liaisons with icy lover John (Clancy Brown) and Renee (Karen Sillas), cumulating in a long overdue cathartic release.

Female Perversions was inspired by Louise J. Kaplan’s essay Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary, which was described as, “a feminist, Freudian psychological study of women’s behavior and sexuality.” It’s not the first place most filmmakers would look to find a good story, for sure, but first-time director Susan Streitfeld manages to subvert the academic nature of Kaplan’s writing into something almost worth watching. Streitfeld and playwright/scriptwriter Julie Hebert make some disturbing points on femininity as seen by women and society at large, but end up working their ideas too hard. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, but the overcranked symbolism and heavy handed psychoanalytical tone overwhelms the film’s potential.

Nearly every image in Female Perversions comes loaded. Streitfeld seems intent on creating a textbook of female archetypes played out in a glossy, visually laboured world - she fires all her arrows at her lofty target, and while many land, there’s so many that her original idea becomes overwhelmed. It’s too bad, because what she has to say hasn’t been done well in the past, but by showing all of her metaphorical tricks at once she comes off more pretentious than potent. There’s just too many levels going on here to absorb, and after a while the mind closes off to the film.

John Huston once said, “Never let them see all of your tricks” - advice that Streitfeld and Female Perversions could have used. By showing all of her cards at once, Streitfeld loses a prime chance to make statements that linger.

Face/Off

June 26, 1997

Undoubtedly, Face/Off is the closest film stylistically to his homeland activities that Asian director John Woo has made since joining the Hollywood system. It features some of the symbolic and thematic devices that the Hong Kong emigrant is critically lauded for, and showcases Woo’s superb talent in choreographing exhilarating action sequences. It also is easily his worst American film to date. It sucks even worst than Woo’s Jean-Claude Van Damme atrocity Hard Target - and that’s saying something.

The story is beyond belief, but still offered Woo the potential to work what he does best, which is examining the dynamic between two men diametrically opposed and eternally in conflict. In it, FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) pursues uber-terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), and in a startling example of high concept irony, switches faces. Archer, a whiny unsympathetic asshole who ignores his wife becomes Troy, a psychotic, sex crazed maniac who loves peaches and blowing things up. Conflict ensues.

Implausibility aside, this could have been a good film if Woo had kept his actors under a tight rein, but instead we’re forced to watch John Travolta prove that he is nothing more than a walking mannerism, and Cage once again hamming it up (as he is so capable of doing if not well directed). The actors paint their characters with broad, obvious strokes, no doubt to establish palpable differences between the two to facilitate differentiating each other post-facial switch. Travolta may have been great in Pulp Fiction, but he’s never been a good actor with range - he acts best with his body instead of his brain, which fit nicely in Get Shorty, but here he proves incapable of conveying the nuances of a man tormented without yelling or bawling. If anyone is the weak link here, it’s Travolta.

A friend remarked afterwards that Face/Off “didn’t know what it wanted to be”, which sums up the main plot structure dilemmas succinctly. The narrative jumps from full-tilt actioneer to a succession of stuttering family drama scenes, to over the top operatic melodrama without any sense of flow - which, in the case of the average Tinseltown dudes-with-guns picture would be par for course. Woo’s two earlier Stateside outings Hard Target and Broken Arrow both slotted nicely into that over-mined genre, which pardoned a plethora of sins. Here, Face/Off flails unsuccessfully for a loftier, shinier brass ring, and in doing so, falls even harder on its misshapen face.

It’s a painful film to watch; a mess of half-fulfilled opportunities and glossed over ideas that trail off into nothingness, as if the script had no time to complete its thoughts, and instead jumps from notion to notion without giving a single one time to disseminate. The burden of blame for all of this convoluted nonsense falls directly on the heads of the writers and film editors, who obviously need to go back to Movie University for a tune-up. The film not only overextends itself in the story department, but is also needlessly long and shabbily edited, which ups the frustration to a nearly insufferable level.

Woo is an excellent director who needs to be able to edit and write his own films to really shine. If you compare his HK The Killer or Hard Boiled to his American films it’s blatant that Woo’s style has been compromised in his transplant to Hollywood. What made his films work was the friction between incongruent cultural elements vying for the same space; the solemn Chinese traditions meeting the Yankee gung-ho insensibility. Here, Face/Off comes off as a chintzy rip off of his earlier work, which is the true irony: John Woo was better at aping Hollywood films than actually making them, and now that he’s in Hollywood, all he seems allowed to do is ape himself.

Everyone Says I Love You

January 2, 1997

Everyone Says I Love You. It sounds like a big joke played by some wiseacre pop culture magazine. A Woody Allen musical? With big stars like Alan Alda, Julia Roberts and Goldie Hawn… and they’re really singing? But, there it is, flickering away in a darkened theatre. Go figure.

In Woody’s defense, he’s has always proclaimed his love of old jazz-pop standards and the great MGM musicals, so really, this move isn’t that much of a surprise. Placing a musical format around a low grade Woody Allen comic-romance may have been a big mistake, though.

There’s two main narrative nuggets here - the first is the indecisiveness of Skylar (Drew Barrymore) in her upcoming nuptials to Holden (Robert Norton); the second featuring the sad state of Woody’s love life, and his desire to change that with Vonnie (Julia Roberts). The latter plotline dates back before the days of Allen’s Another Woman. Allen had originally envisioned the idea of a man privy to a woman’s confessions to her therapist - he’d learn everything about her, and then remake himself as her dream man and sweep her off her feet. This old idea is revived here in its entirety, and while it’s an intriguing concept, it soon becomes clear that Allen has played this card once too often.

Pauline Kael once said, “Some stars don’t realize that as they get older… they no longer need to use big, bold strokes; they risk self-caricature when they show their old flash.” Allen could have used this advice: his performance seems to overcompensate for the fact that we’ve been there to death with his neurotic, self-pitying King Leer. And really, Woody - aren’t you too old now to keep chasing those gorgeous young actresses around? Perhaps Allen should permanently change his character’s names to Humbert Humbert.

In any case, the real point of this film is the songs. There’s some great standards - “I’m through with love”, “If I had you”, “Makin’ Whoopee”, but having to listen to these actors trying to sing them is nearly as taxing on the ears as a Michael Bolton concert. Goldie Hawn’s warbling is worth noting, if only because she seems to be the sole singer aware of the concept of pitch. After Julia opens her big mouth, though, nightmares will be had for weeks. Geez louise, a John Woo movie has more melody than this, and is funnier, to boot.

Part of the charm of the classic musicals is the fact that they exist in a fanciful world, where it seems proper for people to burst out in song at the smallest provocation. Here, set in New York 1996, it’s jarring and downright bizarre. There is some silver in this murky cloud (Lukas Haas as a right-wing nut, the Chiquita Banana song, and Carlos DiPalma’s photography), but, to paraphrase an old film joke: There’s great Woody Allen, there’s great musicals, but there’s no great Woody Allen musicals. Everyone Says I Love You is all the proof you require.

The English Patient (1996)

November 14, 1996

Our history is such a hard thing to reconcile. We carry around our own brand of luggage, a lifetime of baggage that we individually try to rid ourselves. And like a chrysalis finally shedding itself of its shell, when we find the means to purge ourselves of the weight of hopeless nostalgia, it’s a beautiful thing. When we are encumbered with the weight of a futile wistful love, though, freedom is a much harder won battle. How do you live with your own history?

The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje’s brilliantly sublime novel, asked just this of its protagonists, and with its gorgeous prose, saturated images, and unforgettable characters, seemed a natural candidate for cinematic revision. Director Anthony Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply) has taken it on himself to bring The English Patient to the big screen, and in doing so has created a credible offspring of Ondaatje’s novel - gorgeous imagery intact (courtesy of cinematographer John Seale).

Inherently a love story, The English Patient follows the intertwined lives and loves of five people; Hana (Juliette Binoche), a beautiful French-Canadian nurse stationed in Tuscany; Count Lazlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), an explorer of the Sahara desert; Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), thief, diplomat, and spy with a mysterious affliction of the hands; Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of an aviator who falls in love with Almasy; and Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh lieutenant with the British army who defuses bombs. Tying them together is a mysterious ‘English patient’, whose identity and history binds the five characters lives together like the strands of a rope.

As a rope, the numerous plotlines and conflicts weave and intertwine through the film. Characters meet, fall in love, separate, and reunite years later, and throughout it all, a copy of The English Patient’s book Herodotus provides the doorway to memory. Minghella has done an admirable job of translating Ondaatje’s convoluted language and story into a cohesive script, and while there are some unfortunate omissions (such as the dilution of Caravaggio from a strong, main character to more of a supporting role), the spirit and themes of the novel remain whole.

“The heart is an organ of fire.”

The English Patient is inherently a lovestory, buttressed by history, and as such it shares more in common with epics like Spartacus and Casablanca than such Harlequin romance tripe like House of the Spirits. It’s a razor’s edge between heartfelt sincerity and schmaltzy cheese that the romantic drama genre walks, and while many fall victim to melodrama, The English Patient manages to communicate some deepset melancholy, melodrama. and anger without overwhelming the audience with cheese.

Still, The English Patient is a four-hanky film - and while the ending will leave even the most apathetic person reaching for a tissue, the characters have been so well developed you can’t help feeling empathy. The movie allows the viewer to give themselves up to the film without guilt - a rare quality for any film in these days of Moonlight and Valentino.

Us romantic softies (for aren’t we all, deep down?), have really taken an ego-bashing at the movies as of late. Cinematically, romance has turned into a degraded parody of itself, with ‘romantic’ characters spouting lines about “planets of shame”, and films lurching towards the inevitability of those three damn words. Kind of makes you feel the fool for being romantic, right? The English Patient is not one of those films; it’s a movie that we can go to and luxuriate in a heartspun opulence without shame.


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