Seething Guilt on DVD

Just uploaded are reviews for a pair of films addressing guilt, redemption, self-worth, and the struggle to find meaning after a terribly traumatic incident.

Will Smith's latest Acting vehicle is the superficially mysterious Seven Pounds (2008), which has the actor reuniting with Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino and actress Rosario Dawson.
The chemistry between Dawson and Smith is the the film's strongest asset, and they almost manage to sell the film's fractured plot that has am IRS salesmen visiting strangers to see if they're worthy of some special gifts he'd like to bestow. The good news: Seven Pounds is not manipulative crap, so there's less fear in being stuck watching much like What Dreams May Come, or City of Angels.

And while Kristin Scott Thomas got the bulk of the media attention for her French-speaking role in Philippe Claudel's I’ve Loved You For So Long / Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (2008), it's the ensemble cast and Claudel's deft avoidance of cliches and sledgehammer tactics that make the film one of the best dramas in a while.

The story of an ex-con reintegrating into society is old hat, and usually directors and writers like to inject love scenes, crying scenes, shouting scenes, and such, but Claudel goes for understatement - which makes sense, because while most crises can become fiery in private, generally the toughest moments come from affected people internalizing conflicts on an hour to hour basis at work and in public and when surrounded by friends and family, and that's where the film's power lies.

Kristin Scott Thomas is very good, but I think Claudel also latched onto the actress'overall aloofness, and sometimes chilly, snotty demeanor that's been present in prior acting roles. By focusing on her expressionless eyes, weariness and numbness, her eventually growth is more dramatic and affective. It's a really great film, and the only qualms with the DVD release is a lack of a commentary track from first-time director Claudel.


The Quantum of Bourne?

Those who didn't get a chance to see the latest Bond film in theatres will undoubtedly take a peek at The Quantum of Solace on DVD, but it's a got some major stylistic differences from Casino Royale (pretty much the first of a two-part revenge tale that has James Bond going after the culprit responsible for mucking up another attempt at love).

But even on TV, most might notice the editing in Quantum's first half is very oppressive, and mercilessly chews through simple dialogue scenes that need their own distinct tempo. An action scene is a living thing; it has its own pacing and cutting style that creates peaks and valleys, and is balanced by periodic rests before the next big chase.

Variable editing style is what's used in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight, Paul Greengrass' United 93, and even Michael Bay's vapid The Rock, so why does The Quantum of Solace, the shortest Bond film ever at 107 minutes, feel like a retread of The Bourne Supremacy (Bourne II)?

Read on, and remember: I like creative editing.

I like the fast-paced stupidity and over-pitched melodrama of Armageddon, the satirical advert cutting in Slogan, the bizarro structure of Death Laid an Egg, and the espresso-driven montages of Tinto Brass. The reason Quantum is a mess stems from myopic producers and editor(s) who believe audiences won't absorb character and plot if it's not presented in millisecond edits. With that idiotic philosophy at play, Quantum may well be the most divisive film for Bond fans.


Indie Flicks Part III: Cruel but Necessary

Released in Canada by Critical Mass and Anchor Bay/Starz, Cruel but Necessary (2005) is Saul Rubinek's fourth film as director.

One of Canada's best-known and busiest actors in film and TV, Rubinek has directed three other films, including Jerry and Tom (1998), which was expanded by Rick Cleveland (TV's Six Feet Under, Mad Men) from his one-act play.

In both Cruel and Jerry, one sees Rubinek’s commitment to working from a strong script and concept, and getting natural, unadorned performances from his actors – quite paramount for Cruel, which began as a series of monologues penned by actress Wendel Meldrum.

As Rubinek explains in our lengthy conversation, producer (and Rubinek’s wife) Elinor Reid developed Cruel, and Rubinek acted as a story editor for the audience, making sure the script’s themes of obsession and redemption also led to a satisfying conclusion, since the basic story involves an eccentric divorcee who films herself and secretly friends, family, and a poor boyfriend as part of some epic documentation of a single mom trying to find identity and purpose.

The film premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in June of 2005 and took some time to reach DVD in the U.S. (late 2008) and Canada (early 2009), and is worth hunting down because it’s a very clever and frequently funny drama.

Reality TV has softened our resistance to naked, real-time human behaviour, and Cruel benefits from our acceptance of a narrative derived from confessional and hidden camera footage, but Cruel is neither an arty, indulgent, meandering, or unbalanced film; one does have to warm up to a neurotic leading character and her dysfunctional family, but it’s to Meldrum’s credit that flaky Betty Munson remains a believable and sympathetic character.



Just uploaded is a film review of Denis Villeneuve’s powerful drama Polytechnique, chronicling the massacre committed by Marc Lepine in 1989 at Montreal University’s Ecole Polytechnique.

Shot in stunning black & white (God I love that format) in dual French and English versions (the latter is probably what most cities will see outside of Quebec), it’s a grim but effective little docu-drama that uses Lepine’s brutal shooting of students to dramatize rabid misogyny taken to its most loathsome extreme.

Fourteen women were murdered before the nutbar offed himself, and the anniversary of the December 1989 killings are marked each year in Canada to highlight violence against women. Polytechnique is in no way an exploitive production (that belongs to derivative fodder like Karla), and it's worth checking out in theatres in spite of the obvious grim finale we know so well.

Coming next: soundtrack reviews, and a review of Saul Rubinek’s Cruel but Necessary, as well as an interview with the director.


World Wars and Subterfuge

Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie is actually one of many film and TV attempts to dramatize Operation Valkyrie, where Claus von Stauffenberg led a sizeable group of like-minded rebels in a plot to blow up Hitler real good with a briefcase bomb, and 1955 was the year when a pair of German directors separately tackled the assassination plot, and themes of rebellious heroes struggling within the Nazi regime.

Von Stauffenberg was part of a different and older class of soldiers who became increasingly disgusted with the evils of the Nazis, and that conflict is evident in Falk Harnack’s film, Der 20. Juli / The Plot to Assassinate Hitler, which has a youngish-Wolfgang Preiss (The Longest Day) playing von Stauffenberg. The film isn’t currently available as an English subtitled DVD in Region 1 land, so the uploaded review is admittedly derived from a familiarity with the events, and my above-average-basic grasp of German.

What’s interesting about the various dramatizations, docu-dramas and straight documentaries is that they come in clusters; no idea why, unless there’s some kind of anniversary thing, controversial book, or death of a significant participant that has filmmakers rush to their cameras and shoot film.

Released the same year as Harnack’s movie is G.W. Pabst’s Es geschah am 20. Juli / It Happened on July 20th, which had future Longest Day co-director Bernhardt Wicki starring as von Stauffenberg. Things went silent until the early seventies, until the German TV docu-dramas Claus Graf Stauffenberg (1970) and the epic two-parter Operation Walküre (1971) popped up. Then things went quiet again for 24 years, until Jo Baier’s Stauffenberg, as well as rival telefilm Die Stunde der Offiziere were released in 2004.

Baier’s telefilm is actually slated for a Region 1 release April 7th, but the rest seem to exist as either old VHS releases, or as domestic Region 2 DVDs, so it’ll be a while before we can sample alternate portrayals of the characters and event – unless of course the recent German documentary, Die wahre Geschichte (2009), changes all that.

Reviewed as part of a themed ‘war day’ is John Ottman’s score for Valkyrie from Varese Sarabande, and Laura Rossi’s new score for the classic WWI archival film, The Battle of the Somme (1916), the DVD of which is available from the Britain’s National War Museum. Also reviewed is MovieScore Media's downloadable album of Trond Bjerknes’ Max Manus (2008), a recent big budget Norwegian film about one of WWII’s most successful saboteurs. Bjerknes’ score is simply superb, and if the score is a hint of the film’s power, I hope the movie gets picked up for an English language release.

Coming very soon: a detailed blog of how cancelling one's high speed internet account with dumbell corporate champion Bell Canada is like breaking up with a clingy, needy, schizophrenic girlfriend.

A pair of friends recently experienced incredible ineptitude from amateur player Primus, but given Bell Canada is the country's biggest phone company AND they own the blasted delivery lines, they win hands down as a monster bureaucracy incapable of following through with the simple request, "Cancel my internet account."

Four cancellation confirmation numbers so far, and they just reconnected an account switched off days ago, making it impossible to move to an indie provider yet again. For international readers, I really hope you have no idea what it's like to have a big, boneheaded telecommunications giant on your block, because Dumbell Bell has no idea how to handle customers. 20 years with this giant, and they will not shut down an account as requested within their 30 day advance notice period.

Did you know German is rooted in Latin? And did you know the Latin phrase 'beat me with an idiot stick' alo spells B-e-l-l C-a-n-a-d-a in modern English?


Indie Flicks Part II: Viva

Whether it’s screwball comedy, film noir, giallo, or a spaghetti western, it’s extremely hard to replicate the magical elements of the best films within those genres. Sometimes playing a genre for laughs – noir in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) – works (well, kinda) but it’s hard to make that tribute or homage work as well as an original.

Once in a while there’s an exception – Curtis Hanson’s stellar L.A. Confidential (1997) is a really beautiful noir – but going after a specialty genre like seventies sexploitation and erotica is even tougher, because those films rarely had a strong, engaging story and memorable characters to support a feature-length running time.

When Radley Metzger made Therese and Isabelle (1968), or Camille 2000 (1969), they were based on literary works and grounded by strong characters going through desperate stages of their young lives. When he took a poke at Carmen, Baby (1967), the directorial indulgences and his spin on Bizet’s opera were painfully ponderous; the film runs an hour and a half, but feels much longer.

That’s probably why B-level filmmakers knew you had to keep the film moving, and could only spend so much time on dialogue and character bits; the reason sexploitation films – quite a step away from Metzger’s more arty approach – worked is because the pacing was fast, the sleaze was grimier, and any dialogue was provocative or supremely absurd; the filmmakers knew their audience had limited patience between money scenes, and to keep the movies in play, they had to stick with a formula, or invent one that at least followed the rhythmic beats and flashes of tease to ensure most appetites were sated by softcore smut.

Viva (2007), Anna Biller’s take on the two offshoots – sexploitation and Metzger’s artiness – almost works, but she’s also larded the film with her own sense of the absurd, and for the most part she maintains a balance of erotic scenes, a great visual style, and a sense of the ridiculous mostly through sleazy dialogue, porn star hairdos, and a musical number where a jealous sculptor introduces a grotesque plaster ass.

There’s also the much-lauded (and deservedly so) period décor that grabs as many small and large objects, foods, and wardrobe from the seventies and tastefully spreads them through the film. When you see a film like The Burglars / Le Casse (1971) or Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), those films have some of the ugliest furniture, costumes, and hair ever put on film when they were in vogue. Biller seems to have taken a bit of a nod from Metzger’s crafty eye (and maybe Tinto Brass) and applied her own fine sense of colour and composition to give each set very specific design specifications.

(It’s also the ephemeral materials that are frighteningly right. I still have somewhere in a trunk my mom’s hook rugs, crocheted pillows, mountable psychedelic/op-art cloths, and Macrame plant holders with clay and wooden beads. The only thing I couldn’t spot in Viva was Batik, but maybe that was too highbrow and hippy. Hey, this is what happens when you grow up on a street where families did craft sales, Tupperware parties, and BBQs.)

Viva was made for connoisseurs of specific films from specific filmmakers during the sixties and seventies, but rather than ridicule the their work, it kind of celebrates the insanity that makes them so much fun. Novices may find Viva a great big bore, but perhaps Biller’s film might rekindle a deeper interest and examination of a genre that was quite prolific in North America and Europe.

Viva is actually available in an Unrated version from Cult Epics, as well as a Rated version from Anchor Bay, and I’ve done a comparison review between both releases so you know the pros and cons.


Getting Back to Normal

Move to new pad now done, unpacking very not, but here's a cluster of DVD reviews just uploaded.

First up is Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married from Sony Pictures Classics, the deserved/overhyped indie drama where Anne Hathaway looks grungy and nearly ruins a wedding. Sony's DVD is loaded with lots of goodies for this commendable film, but whether viewers will warm to the movie and Hathaway's performance after the Oscar spotlight is up in the air. Best advice: pretend you know nothing about all of that, and the film will work quite well.

Transporter 3, from Maple (Canada)/Lionsgate (U.S.) is another collaboration between sporadic director/Europa Corp bigwig Luc Besson, and Robert Mark Kamen. Much like the Taxi franchise, the quality, maturity, and plots turn to weaker Jello-O in each sequel, and Transporter 3 is no different. You do not put an action star in a car for much of the film's running time, and you don't cast a hair stylist to co-star. Besson's fetish for leggy women with runny, druggy makeup is also present, and director Olivier Megaton really fumbles some excellent action scenes. How? Read the review.

And not long ago I reviewed The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, a Good example of classic indiginous programming from the seventies. Now comes the Bad: The Starlost. Never heard of it? No problem, because the entire weekend was spent dissecting the series which many Canadians remember as being quite awful.

Is it a misunderstood series axed before it had a chance to develop into a special something the original promo materials trumpeted with great pride?

NO ! NO ! NO !

But VCI's complete series release proves two things: for fans, it's worth snapping up in spite of the hefty price tag; and once again a Canadian show is available as an import (although you can't blame the show's original co-producer, CTV, for wanting to distance themselves from the clunker. Then again, CTV also made The Eleventh Hour. And The City. And force Ben Mulroney on the nation, daily).

Coming next: soundtrack reviews, and a comparative DVD review of Anna Biller's unabashed Radley Metzger salute, Viva (2007), released in Canada by Anchor Bay/Starz, and in a longer cut in the U.S. by Cult Epics.


Norwegian Chills

With slasher films once again standard fodder in rental shops, the trick is to find something that transcends the genre, but if it doesn't, then it should at least be fun, if not atmospheric and engaging.

For all the standard elements in Roar Uthaug's Cold Prey / Fritt vilt (2006), it's an above-average slasher with a great location -an abandoned ski lodge in nowhereland - milked for all it's desolation and musty nastiness.

Those expecting pure blood and guts will be disappointed, but fans wanting a more classical tribute without all the torture porn ingredients ought to find Cold Prey very pleasing. As a feature film debut, this 2.35:1 production via Anchor Bay is very impressive, and worth a peek.


His Name Was Jason / Moving Day

His Name Was Jason (2009) is the third horror doc from Achor Bay/Starz, and like Halloween: 25 Years of Terror (2006), Daniel Farrands' doc comes loaded with extras not included in Paramount's old boxed set of the first 8 films.

What's great about these feature-length docs is how each one compliments the other, and there's little repetition, although it's worth checking out the first, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006) beforehand, just because it adds a lot of context to the first Friday the 13th film (and acknowledges Paramount's uncomfortable relationship with the violent but hugely successful series).

Pretty much everything else in this exclusive doc deals with Jason's evolution, and it's good to hear Paramount exec Frank Mancuso, Jr. get some praise for taking a low budget series and opening it broad, and really kick-starting the slasher wave of the early eighties.

Once the computer's been reconnected to the weird wired world, I'll have a review of Cold Prey (2006), an intriguing nod to the slasher genre from Norwegian director Roar Uthaug.


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