Saturday, December 20, 2008

Epi-Cast: Episode 1 - "Oscar-bation!"

It's been pretty quiet here for the last little bit here at Pop-Culture Episodes, but for good reason. Now, there is an official film dicussion podcast featuring myself and my esteemed co-host Tom Wytrwal to go along with the witty word-play you all see and love here.
Simply right-click and save on the Podcast title above.
Epi-Cast Episode 1: "Oscar-bation!"
In our bloated behemoth of a podcast debut episode, we fawn over the brilliance of Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, jeer and throw feces at Australia (the movie, not the country), debate the merits of the Wolverine trailer, and hem and haw over random film topics like Role Models, Blood Diamond, Punisher: Warzone, Man on Wire, Shakespeare on film and Empire's ridiculous "Greatest Film Characters of All-Time List". It's a glib, frustrating, and occasionally offensive trip down the dark pathway of film-geek whimsy.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Interview - James Franco for MILK

Every now and again, a great film manages to arrive at the perfect time and place, when the political zeitgeist seems to cry out for a brilliant all-encompassing artistic statement. Acclaimed director Gus Van Sant’s triumphant new film, Milk, is such a movie. Starring Sean Penn, the film chronicles the life and untimely death of Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the first openly gay man elected to American public office. With the recent passing of California’s Proposition 8 -an act which officially restricting same-sex couples from entering into holy matrimony- Milk has suddenly achieved an unexpected level of relevance in our culture, which may help the emotionally stirring, yet hard-to-market film find its way into the hearts and minds of mainstream viewers.

In a conference call with actor James Franco, who plays Harvey Milk’s one-time lover and staunch supporter Scott Smith, the buzz surrounding California’s controversial decision was lurking behind every question. The talented young actor, previously featured in crowd-pleasers such as Pineapple Express and the Spider-Man series, was initially drawn to the film, not so much its issues, but rather as a chance to work with the esteemed director.

Franco, who proudly labels himself “the biggest Gus Van Sant fan”, fondly remembers repetitively watching the auteur’s indie classics My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy. “This was before I was doing any acting”, he recalls, reminiscing that “I just fell in love with his movies”.

After meeting Van Sant through mutual friends, Franco says “I got to know Gus a little bit and then my agents called me and said [that he would be] doing Milk.” Motivated by the opportunity, he “did a little research on Harvey Milk, found out who he was, and found that Gus had been trying to do this movie for 10-15 years.” The director’s passionate dedication to the project, for the actor, promised “an amazing movie”.

In tackling the role of Scott Smith, the actor felt a deep-rooted responsibility to do his role justice. “It’s telling the life of a figure who meant so much to a lot of people, so I felt, and everybody who worked on the movie, felt a big responsibility to get it right”. In researching the role he began by watching Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, as well as poring over Randy Shilt’s non-fiction work The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. Ultimately, however, he found a more obscure source of inspiration in the form of “an old reel of film that had an interview with Scott Smith from thirty years ago that nobody had seen in all that time”. For Franco, this footage “was like a goldmine for seeing what he was like”.

As the film centres mainly on Penn’s Harvey Milk, Franco feels that “the real function of Scott in this movie is to show a real loving relationship”. The actor continues by stressing Scott’s important role as a “political wife”, who was “Harvey Milk’s partner for four years – the longest relationship of Milk’s life”. Similarly, Scott was present for all of the “big moments in [his] life” and ended up being “one of the main people to help carry on the memory of Milk”.

However, his performance aside, he hopes the film will help spread Milk’s message to audiences who yearn to end intolerance within society. Franco says “it’s sad that I didn’t know much about Harvey Milk growing up, and I think a lot of people don’t. They should know about him.” “He was an incredible politician who did some amazing things like helping overturn Proposition 6, which would have kept gay teachers from being able to teach in schools”. And while he admits that such education is unlikely to happen in High Schools anytime soon, he does argue that “it can certainly happen in universities!”

As for California’s Proposition 8, Franco, who voted “No” in an absentee ballot and later accompanied “Gus Van Sant and [Milk writer] Dustin Lance Black to one of the protest marches”, hopes that his film can help “tilt that fight”. However, he notes carefully, “Proposition 8 shows that change doesn’t just roll in and happen miraculously, it takes people to stand up and really make change happen”.

In terms of the Milk’s effect on the actor, he credits his experience in making the movie, along with Harvey Milk’s shining example, for stirring his own inner-activist: “It inspired me to help fight for civil rights for whoever. Obviously Harvey Milk was... a lot of his fight was for gay rights, but I think his example shows that I think you can be inspiring not just for people like you, but civil rights for everyone”. Franco takes a breath and continues: “When one group says “you can’t have the same rights as...”, to me that’s just wrong. I don’t care who the group is!”

Film Review - QUANTUM OF SOLACE: Or Perhaps Better Known as Marc Forster's "Quantum of Follies"...

In 2006, long-time Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson made an uncharacteristically daring move: they decided to rejigger their forty-plus year-old franchise from the ground up. Gone were the invisible cars, jet-packs and alligator-modelled submarines of yesteryear, along with the legions of villains packing steel dentures, decapitating bowlers and feline fetishes. In addition, nubile, starry-eyed babes with come-hither monikers like Pussy Galore, Plenty O’Toole and Jenny Flex found themselves unceremoniously kicked to the curb. Say nothing of Bond himself, who suddenly seemed a lot more serious... and more inclined to knock a baddie’s teeth through the back of his skull than engage in encyclopaedic discourse regarding the merits of vintage cognac.

Amazingly, the gamble paid off, and the resulting film, Casino Royale, was the kick in the ass that the spy series needed, instantly making Grandpa Bond once again relevant, and dare I say sexy, for the young and old alike. In casting rough-edged, no-nonsense Daniel Craig –Britain’s delayed answer to Steve McQueen- and stressing sophisticated story-telling and naturalistic characterization, audiences suddenly became a lot more invested in when James Bond would return again. Too bad that Bond’s 22nd film, the pompously titled Quantum of Solace, ignores Royale’s strengths and seems destined to moderately dampen the paying crowd’s goodwill for the next instalment.

Once again starring magnetic blonde bruiser Craig, Quantum of Solace picks up about, oh, 007 seconds after the end of Royale, with Bond making a mad dash to safety with the disagreeable Mr. White (Jesper Christiansen), a criminal of questionable ranking in a super-secret criminal group called QUANTUM, who possesses valuable information relating to the death of James’ true love. However, after Mr. White proves more eel-like than expected, and makes a violent getaway, Bond, against the orders of boss-figure M (Dame Judi Dench), embarks on a globe-hopping journey to get to the bottom of QUANTUM’s sinister machinations.

His search leads him to Haiti where, through Bond-ian circumstances, he meets up with Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a beautiful mystery woman with secret ties to creepy-eyed environmentalist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). Through a scatter-shot series of chase sequences and labyrinthine plot developments, Bond discovers that Greene is secretly planning to use his monopoly over one of Earth’s most precious resources to upset the government of Bolivia, and help the loathsome General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio) achieve dictatorship. As this is a Bond film, subtlety is out of the question, and 007, aided by Camille and CIA man Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), is soon shooting, stabbing and strangling his way through an endless assortment of low-level goons, on a feverish quest to cut Greene off at the knees... permanently.

Dominic Greene and General Medrano aside, Bond’s greatest adversaries in Quantum of Solace are director Marc Forster and editors Matt Chesse and Richard Pearson, who have taken enjoyable material and crafted it into a cinematic Rorschach test. While the series has never been known for having comprehensible storylines, Bond 22 is an often a slightly exasperating experience. In their quest for a faster, sleeker Bond (Quantum packs the shortest running time in the series’ history), the filmmakers chop out all the necessary character beats and exposition and simply attempt to convey information through endless locale changes and about a dozen disgracefully edited action sequences.

And oh, those action scenes are a big problem... From a head-scratching car chase featuring three nearly identical cars, to the film’s (anti)climax in a absurdly flammable hotel, Forster presents endless mish-mashed montages of blurry one-second edits, convulsive camera-work and a cacophonic soundtrack. Only one set-piece, featuring 007 and a nemesis hanging from ropes attached to construction scaffoldings, manages to overcome the director’s ham-fisted style and rouse some genuine excitement. Strangely, the only time the camera actually holds still during an action sequence is in a lingering close up of a would-be rape victim’s crotch. Really, Mr. Forster!

What prevents the film from toppling into the dregs of mediocrity is its brilliantly committed cast. Craig is fully-charged and commanding, and continues to remind the world why he was the man for the job, and Dench is his perfect foil. As Greene, French actor Amalric works wonders with an underwritten character, while Kurylenko follows Royale’s Eva Green in creating a charismatic, three-dimensional Bond-girl. Also, Giancarlo Giannini, as world-weary former-agent Mathis lends unexpected gravitas to an obviously light-headed film.

If only Forster and company had taken a lesson from Royale helmer Martin Campbell and allowed the action and story to speak through the characters. For sure, Quantum of Solace is a causally engaging, if disappointing, vehicle, but it lacks the light touch which confidently eased along the best of Bond's 21 previous adventures. In moulding Bond into a Bourne-again action hero, they’ve lost the joyous exhilaration and witty humour which has kept 007 vibrant since 1962. Hopefully Quantum’s faults will remind producers once again that Bond-fans generally prefer being stirred to shaken.

2.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Nov. 24th, 2008.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Film Review - ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO: Deep Throated Laughs Aplenty.

Few directors working today have carved out as comfortable a niche as Kevin Smith. Thriving on the profane, obscene and scatological, he’s an auteur with a heart of gold and a mouth full of raw sewage. His dedication to delivering sweet fan-driven valentines of filthy goodness has earned him an obsessively loyal cult following (Full disclosure: I include myself in this cheery lot) who flock like speckled grackles to his riotous speaking engagements/stand-up sessions and gobble up his weekly podcasts and bountiful merchandising ventures. He’s a John Waters for the comic-book slacker generation.

Well, Silent Bob’s back once again, bending the limits of free speech to their breaking point, with Zack and Miri Make a Porno, a mostly successful carnal-carnival of a flick which is 100% guaranteed to draw gales of merry laughter from juveniles of all ages. Whereas Mel Brooks once proudly stated “I do bad taste with intelligence”, Smith delivers his foul funniness with a wink, a nudge and plenty of smiles.

And who better to characterize the prototypical Smith-ian protagonist than Seth Rogen, the Fozzy Bear-ish star of Judd Apatow’s audacious sex comedies Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin? Playing Zack, a chubby, shlubby coffee shop employee with little ambition outside of masturbatory exploration, he’s paired with Elizabeth Banks (Last seen portraying Laura Bush in W.) as Miri, his equally hopeless, yet light-years more attractive, best friend and room-mate. Desperately low on cash, and attending a High School reunion where they’ve become forgotten foot-notes, the duo are inspired by a gay adult film star (Justin Long – in a side-splitting comic turn) to get into the skin picture business.

Bankrolled by Zack’s co-worker, the unhappily married Delaney (Craig Robinson – the film’s drollest secret weapon), the duo quickly form a close-knit family of eager porn-pals. There’s Lester (Jason Mewes), a lisping goofball with one particularly valuable attribute, Bubbles (The legendary Traci Lords), star attraction of bachelor parties across the land, and Stacey (Real-life porn star Katie Morgan), a lovably vivacious - and impossibly pneumatic - stripper. Drafting an amateur camera-jockey (Clerks’ Jeff Anderson), the group set out to craft the ultimate do-it-yourself fornication flick. Complications ensue, however, as Zack and Miri prepare for their own scene, and begin to realize that their simple friendship may not be so simple after all...

Watching Zack and Miri, it’s hard to believe that Smith didn’t come up with this idea sooner. I mean c’mon, the man’s entire filmography has been fanatically fixated on exploring concepts usually best suited to the imagination of a fifteen-year-old thumbing through a well-worn copy of Hustler. It’s a great concept for a risqué adult comedy, and Smith recognizes the premises’ boundless potential and wrings plenty of laughs from it. Uproarious fake-porn antics rule the day (including one money shot you won’t see, um, coming.), but Smith’s talent for pop-culture riddled dialogue is also well served here, where obscure references to properties including Star Wars, Highlander and The Wiz are flawlessly peppered amongst the innumerable naughty words.

It’s pretty obvious that Smith has lovingly staged Zack and Miri as a tribute to his beloved younger years, pulling all-nighters shooting Clerks with his buddies, and Rogen is a superlative Smith stand-in. Crudely endearing, and so quick-witted that you almost need a slow-mo dial to keep up with him, this stoner Canuck delivers his passages of stamina-testing profanity with precision-like aplomb.

Equal, if not better, is Banks, who projects so much warmth into Miri that it’s hard not to join Zack in falling in love with her. There’s one moment after their big scene, where the actress expresses a whole host of feelings through body language, glowing smiles and girlish elation, pushing the film’s emotional envelope into the stratosphere. Mark my words; this woman is destined for Hollywood Jedi status.

While Smith handles his actors with skill, coaxing emotionally and amusingly satisfying performances from nearly the entire cast (Traci Lords proves to be the lone dead spot), he does make some undeniably limp editorial decisions. Zack and Miri’s momentum flags in spots, such as during an awkward opening sequence featuring Gerry Bednob, which shamelessly apes that actor’s eminent 40-Year-Old Virgin appearance, and more specifically throughout a meandering final act which veers perilously close to Maudlin-town. As well, James L. Venable’s dreadful Shaft meets Looney Tunes score should have never made it past the Cassio keyboard demo stage.

However, clumsy choices aside, Kevin Smith once again proves himself cinema’s definitive pervert provocateur; an idiosyncratic talent still capable of crafting smart and witty crowd-pleasers. Zack and Miri doesn’t reach the comedic zenith occupied by Dogma, Chasing Amy or the Clerks films, but still proves to be a potent source of charmingly dirty-minded hilarity certain to delight die-hards and newbies alike. Trust me when I say that this is one Porno worth paying for.

3.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Nov. 10th, 2008.

Film Review - ASHES OF TIME REDUX: Kung Fu Dreamer.

Once in a blue moon, I find myself watching a movie that leaves me at a loss for words. Well, almost anyways. Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time Redux (aka Dung che sai duk redux) falls into that category, a narrative jumble of eye-popping imagery and subtle emotions that persistently challenges the viewer to find any sense of coherent story within it. Honestly, this is a film that would require flow-charts and an assemblage of a dozen esteemed film and literary scholars to properly decode into a comprehensive whole. With that said, though, it's something of a Herculean feat on Wong's part that this trancelike head-trip is still a thoroughly fulfilling and transporting visual journey.

It's actually kind of amazing that Ashes of Time managed to hold together at all. Originally released in Asia in 1994, the film was a critically lauded disappointment, making back but a fraction of its sizable budget. However, as is sporadically the case, the film began to accumulate a supportive fan-base who recognized the art within Wong's fever-dream madness. This support led to multiple edits, official and unofficial, each seeking to properly refine the essence of what the film was trying to say.
Recognizing an opportunity to reach a wider audience, Wong then set out to restore his film for a big screen revival, only to find that his original prints had been all but destroyed by the studio's print lab. After years of scouring black-markets and studio archives for alternate takes, digitally heightening their colour grades and recording a new soundtrack with famed cellist Yo Yo Mah, Wong and his editors are now finally introducing North American audiences to their definitive version of the film, appropriately labelled Ashes of Time Redux.

Loosely based on Louis Cha's novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, Ashes of Time Redux transports us to a lonely desert inn run by the sombre Ouyang Feng (the late Leslie Cheung), a heartbroken assassin who outsources his contracts to other hired guns, er swords. Over the course of the film, which is broken into six parts – with each representing one of the Chinese seasons - we come to know the men and women who enter his solitary life. Some of the more memorable guests are Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung), a skilled and ruthless killer shadowed by his blindly loving wife (Li Bai), Bridgitte Lin as a woman scarred by emotional pain who has created two separate identities in which to strike back at her uncaring world, and the mysterious Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a once-great warrior who yearns to return to his lost love before his sight degenerates completely.

Wong uses these characters in an abstract fashion, like emotional brushstrokes on a canvas, to explore his desired themes regarding the overpowering nature of man's memory over his life, as well as how our pasts can disrupt identity and affect our ability to connect with our fellow man. Ashes of Time Redux is an unabashedly romantic film in the purest sense of the word, lyrical, sensual and haunting, an unflinching glimpse into the human soul.

But the real backbone of the film, and what makes it a rewarding trip, are the stunning images that Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle produce with their lenses. We see a woman, standing in an oasis-like lake, wielding a sword, who, with each slice and thrust, produces momentous bursts of water that surge upwards, reaching out to an expansive blue sky. As well, warm sunlight light filtered through a birdcage casts foreboding shadows across the human characters, stressing their own personal imprisonment. And my own favourite: a meditative shot of a dying warrior gazing calmly heavenward, while blood flows elegantly from a fatal throat wound.

This is a beautiful movie, even in its ugly and indistinctly staged fight scenes, which manages to communicate more with images than through its characters' poetic monologues. It's a martial arts film by way of David Lynchian dream-logic, a fractured memory that aims to draw the viewer into a sensation, as opposed to a story. When the closing credits come up, we aren't left with a feeling of completion, but rather the sense of waking from a particularly surreal reverie.

Ultimately, however, I do realize that Ashes of Time Redux is probably destined to infuriate more attendees than it will inspire. So, this is where my job as a reviewer ends, and your role as a consumer kicks in: if you are an adventurous film-goer, who craves non-linear storytelling and extraordinary images, I heartily recommend tracking this film down. You'll be dazzled, frustrated, intrigued and spellbound by the ambitious tapestry that Wong Kar Wai has woven. Memory may be the root of man's troubles, but Ashes of Time Redux proves that it can also be the source of endless visionary wonders.

3.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Nov. 10th, 2008

Monday, November 03, 2008

Film Review - SAW V: The Game Remains The Same.

Make no bones about it; there's no film sub-genre more critically reviled than the Mad Slasher film. Beginning in the mid-seventies with Tobe Hooper’s revolutionary Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and popularized by John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, movies featuring depraved boogeymen butchers flooded the marketplace like blood from a freshly carved artery. Yet, despite equal amounts of scorn and resentment, critics, like many, many on-screen victims, have failed to snuff out the likes of Jason, Michael Myers, Freddy or Leatherface for good. What’s the old maxim? Ah yes, there’s no rest for the wicked.

Truthfully, I can understand their detestation. The Mad Slasher genre produces cinematic “experiences” that are typically mean-spirited, ham fistedly directed, stuffed with nauseating footage best suited to the surgery channel and acting which bears all the skill of an ITT Tech recruitment ad. Worse yet, their bleak amorality seems designed specifically to inspire pitiless blood-lust within the hearts of jaded youthful audiences.

...And yet time and time again, I’ve found grudging pleasure in watching these junky spectacles send squeamish audience members bolting anxiously for the exits. Blame it on the irreparable mental damage caused by my ten tours of duty at Camp Crystal Lake, but I was even able to find moments of perverse amusement within the gloomy confines of Saw V, the latest ridiculous entry in the now highest-grossing horror series of all time.

After a grisly opening, which features much-needed flashbacks to Saw IV’s complicated finale (Seriously, does anyone recall, or even understand, what occurred in that lousy instalment???), newly minted director David Hackl wastes no time in making with the ghastliness. We see a man, strapped spread eagle on a cold steel slab, with a pendulum blade swinging closer and closer to his exposed torso. The catch is, to stop his own vivisection he must place his hands in a pair of vice-like apparatus’ which will then mash them into oozing paste. To say it doesn’t end well is a given.

Following this initial jolt, Saw V fractures its story into umpteen different directions. Most important, I suppose, is that we are reconnected with grim-faced detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), an apprentice of recently deceased serial killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell – kept alive through a grab-bag of flashbacks), who continues to honour his mentor’s own brand of moral justice through disfiguring torture contraptions. His psychopathic plans, however, are threatened by dogged FBI Agent Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson), who’s desperate to expose the Jigsaw’s last surviving posse member. In the meantime, five new seemingly unconnected victims awaken in a grungy underground chamber where they must contend with a plethora of deadly booby traps, as well as their own ethical shortcomings.

Half of the joy in watching any given Saw film lies in the creativity behind the individual torture devices. (Yes, I realize I have issues) While there’s nothing to match that bizarre contraption in Saw III which drowned its victims in putrid liquefied pig parts, Saw V still manages to achieve a nice number of squirms and grimaces. The aforementioned lethal pendulum is a keeper, as is a mechanism featuring retracting chains and a large decapitating blade. But the real winner is a brutal instrument which requires users to draw ten gallons of human blood by running their hands through a table saw blade. Yeeks.

I have to give the series’ writers credit for producing plots so overly-complicated, that they must have smoke pouring out of their ears by the end of their first drafts. Saw V continues the tradition, featuring a dizzying hotchpotch of ludicrously complicated developments - with mucho shameless foreshadowing for Saw VI - and hair-pulling ret-cons of everything we’ve witnessed thus far. The Saw films have many problems, but listless writing ain’t one of them.

The acting, as expected, is pretty awful with the exception of Tobin Bell, who is still a lot of fun as Jigsaw. With his gravelly voice and beady eyes, he is more compelling than the majority of his Mad Slasher predecessors. Unfortunately, new padawan Mandylor can best be described as greasy. And smug. It’s hard to build up enthusiasm for a dude who looks destined to be interviewed by Chris Hansen on To Catch a Predator. As well, poor Scott Patterson earns many bad laughs, spending the entire movie alone, in empty torture rooms, irritably sputtering lines like “How’d they get you?” and “Did you help Jigsaw get them all???”

Saw V, like most Mad Slasher flicks, is impossible to recommend as anything other than a guilty pleasure. It’s poorly made, shallow, and lacks the narrative logic of the clever original film. Still, as evidenced by the audible shudders throughout my theatre, Saw V is sometimes sharply effective, and will probably draw many ticket-buyers back for part VI. I’m almost sorry to admit that I’ll perhaps be among them. Almost.

2.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Nov. 3rd, 2008.

Film Review - PRIDE AND GLORY: Cop-Bland.

I’m not sure that it is humanly possible to come up with a more bland film title than Pride And Glory. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear it was a soppy made-for-Hallmark World War II drama... Or maybe a Zakk Wylde biopic, which would actually be pretty badass. But unfortunately no, Pride and Glory is, in reality, one half gritty crime saga and one half monotonous working-class family drama. Throw the two in the ol’ movie blender and what do you get? Over two hours of unremarkable, snail-paced clichés that will manage, no matter how hard you fight it, to evaporate from your cerebral cortex within an hour of viewing.

Surprising, considering the involvement of the uber-talented Edward Norton who, Death to Smoochy aside, usually shows impeccable taste in his projects. He plays detective Ray Tierney, an emotionally and physically scarred NYPD officer who, after a disastrous on-the-job event, has buried himself within the safe confines of the missing persons department. But, as we in the peanut gallery have seen innumerable times before, Ray is destined to become embroiled in a “Big Case”, which of course threatens to Bring. Down. The. Entire. Department.

I should mention of course, that Ray is coaxed into taking on the job, which involves a bust-gone-bad that led to the snuffing-out of four fellow officers, by his frequently sloshed father Francis Sr. (Jon Voight – doing a pretty nifty Brooklyn accent), who fears for the reputation of older brother Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich), the department’s chief inspector. While Ray follows leads, interrogating standard ethnic witnesses and suspects, we are speedily informed that it is actually his shifty brother-in-law Jimmy (Colin Farrell) who is behind all the madness. Unfortunately for us in the audience, it takes Ray and the family most of Pride and Glory’s running time to catch up.

Watching Pride and Glory you become acutely aware that director/screenwriter Gavin O’Connor (who previously made the Disney hockey flick Miracle) was obviously far too inspired by episodic TV cop shows ala NYPD Blue and The Shield. There are countless sub-plots, which, after developing, go absolutely nowhere. For example: Francis Jr.’s wife (Jennifer Ehle) suffers from cancer. We are repeatedly shown and informed of this fact, and are even treated to a scene in which she breaks down in tears, practically smashing her tiny fists against the ground in impotent frustration. It’s never discussed or referenced afterwards. Why?

Why, at the halfway point, is a reporter introduced to the story and made to witness the murder of an important character? Will his ensuing expose act as a catalyst for the dismantling of the department’s web of corruption? Nope, after asking for Ray’s input he is dismissed and vanishes inexplicably from the film.

In a televised drama, these threads would likely have been explored, and a broader fictional world would have resulted, but here they're just pointless throw-away details. In fact, I don’t think I’d be wildly off-base in suggesting that O’Connor could have cut about half an hour out of the film (including the dreadful fist-fight climax, please) with no negative effect. The resulting edit would probably be a more enjoyable film, for at least it would be over quicker.

Strangely enough, the actors are all quite fine, if completely unmemorable. I’ve long suspected that Norton is so gifted that he could give a brilliant performance in his sleep. On the basis of Pride and Glory, consider this theory officially verified. In addition, Noah Emmerich, playing the family’s most conflicted member, has the most challenging role and delivers swimmingly, while Jon Voight, an actor infamous for basically playing himself, is really on the ball. Possibly due to the challenge in keeping up with his phenomenally talented co-stars, Voight seems alive in a way I haven’t witnessed since his last memorable turn in, um, Anaconda. In a better film, he would likely have raised at least a glimmer of awards season buzz.

Colin Farrell is downright batty. Seemingly exhausted, bloated and haggard, with his Irish brogue frequently slipping out, one has to wonder if the film was shot right before his recent stint in rehab. Still, he does have the film’s only memorable scene: busting up an immigrant family’s Christmas dinner and attempting to scald their baby’s head with a hot iron. Though, to be fair, that would likely be the most memorable scene in any movie.

But please, if you are truly desperate for a gritty cop thriller filled to the brim with tense racial situations, corruption and profanity, check out the unfairly ignored 2002 Kurt Russell film Dark Blue. It’s an appropriate alternative to Pride and Glory, which is almost staggeringly generic, a film destined for a DVD bargain bin near you very, very soon.

Perhaps a more suitable title would have been Cut and Paste...

2 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Nov. 3rd, 2008.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Film Review - MAX PAYNE: Forget PAYNE, This One Just Hurts!

It must be said that video games fell well off my radar shortly after the inglorious final death rattle of the Nintendo 64. Sure, I’ve had controllers thrust into my hands since, and half-heartedly bumbled my way through the odd round of Grand Theft Auto or HALO, but it’s safe to say that the passion pretty much expired following my active retirement from all things GoldenEye and Perfect Dark. Although for some reason I did manage to play my way through a gritty little slice of hyper-noir called Max Payne, which, interestingly enough, proved absolutely useless in attempting to assess, or even understand, the latest video-game-to-film adaptation, titled (duh!) Max Payne.

Set in an atmospheric New York City, where snowflakes always hang artily in the air, Max Payne weaves the tragic tale of Maxwell Norbert Payne (I made up the middle part), played by Mark Wahlberg, a once-great DEA agent now glumly toiling away in a dead end filing job. Why, you ask? Well, because some time back his wife and baby daughter, who apparently existed in a world of soft focus and delicate slow-motion, were killed by drugged-up madmen in a horrific home-invasion. Despite two of the intruders being handily dealt with on the spot, the identity of the escaped third wrongdoer remains a mystery, though I bet most audience members will solve this brain-teaser well before the improbably dense Monsieur Payne does.

Whilst following leads to crack this tragic quandary, Payne becomes a prime suspect in the murder of a trashy party-girl (Olga Kurylenko, who gets to engage in a seduction scene even more awkward than her one in Hitman). This misfortune brings him into contact with the girl’s sister, named Mona Sax (Mila Kunis), who, according to Wikipedia, is an assassin (but one of the film’s many poorly explained details). After an initial dust-up, the two join forces to investigate the cause of their loved ones’ one-way trip into the land of the living challenged, as well as seek to uncover the mysteries behind those shadowy winged creatures that hover like spectres of death in the night sky.

Now, that is about as much detail as I feel capable of giving you, as Max Payne almost redefines the term “Incomprehensible Action Extravaganza”. I’m not sure whether to blame untested screenwriter Beau Thorne or 20th Century Fox, whose tradition of butchering the life out of their genre-based properties is infamous throughout the entertainment world, for why so little of this film makes sense. The middle section in particular got so ridiculously hazy that I began to doubt my own mental faculties.

Typing this review now, I still have no idea how Payne is able to trace those two brutal murders all the way to the ominous Aesir Pharmaceutical corporation. It’s as if director John Moore and his editors removed all the connective tissue of their plot and only left in the pay-off moments. He’s also merciless with his actors (especially Ludacris and Beau Bridges), who typically show up at random, in disconnected scenes, and then disappear without mention. Kunis’ arbitrary reappearance during the climactic shoot-out is especially perplexing. How did she know where to go?

Also, what in the name of Sam Hill is up with those winged creatures? According to one character they’re called valkyries, famed from Norse mythology as being guardians of warriors. But for the life of me, I have no real idea what their purpose in the film is. Utter curiosity over this point even led me to Internet Movie Database, where a helpful fan named Yasifummah had posted a two-page explanation on their function in the video-game series. To be honest, after two mind-warping paragraphs I had to stop reading for fear of a brain aneurism. If anyone can logically explain their function in this film, you are a smarter individual than I.

Engulfed in the elaborately stylized atmosphere, and hung out to dry by a pathetic script, the actors are all uniformly awful. Wahlberg has two modes of expression: scowling and looking depressed, while Kunis comes close to blowing all the goodwill that Forgetting Sarah Marshall earned her. I was at least amused by Amaury Nolasco, as the evil Lupino, whose entire character seems to be based on staring menacingly down from rooftops (four separate times by my count).

Max Payne isn’t simply a bad movie; it’s an aggressively unpleasant one, battering the audience with fractured, ugly images, concussive sound effects and unspeakable dialogue for 100 minutes, without ever having the courtesy to try to tell a story or entertain anyone. In the film’s dramatic opening Wahlberg tells us in voice-over: “I believe in pain”. Well, count me a convert Mr. Wahlberg, because watching Max Payne made me believe in pain too.

1 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Oct. 20, 2008.

Film Review - W.: Not Worth Electing To The Top Of Your Must-See List.

“Too soon!” has become a popular criticism voiced by irritated on-line film fans (Are there any other kind?). Blame it on bloggers, celebrity sex-tapes or YouTube, but we now live in a culture obsessed with instant gratification, and Hollywood has been oh-so cooperative to meet this level of demand. Hence, we’ve been showered with a cavalcade of ripped-from-the-front-page cinematic excursions, each driven to become the definitive statement on the current political landscape. Some of the resulting movies have even managed to rise above their opportunistic aroma, resulting in modern silver-screen classics (United 93, Fahrenheit 9/11). But by and large, they’ve felt desperate and tired, and audiences have responded by purchasing tickets to less topical fare. Like Wild Hogs.

The latest entry in “Too soon!” cinema comes courtesy of acclaimed inflammatory director Oliver Stone. (Returning to this newly-christened genre after 2006’s unremarkable World Trade Center) His new film, W., is the first, and hopefully last, filmed biography of a U.S. president who has yet to pack his White House bags. Yep, George W. Bush may have spawned a flurry of calamities over his two terms in office, but you sure can’t knock the man for failing to inspire the artistic community.

The film opens with Dubya, (Josh Brolin) wearing a baseball cap, and standing alone in an empty ballpark, his arms raised to an invisible roaring crowd. We are then dropped unexpectedly into a post-9/11 Oval Office roundtable conference, where Bush and his peanut gallery of political confidants and strategists brainstorm possible nicknames for the rising terrorist threat (Axis of Hatred is briefly considered). The film uses this key beginning point to travel on a non-linear path through the soon-to-be former Pres’ life: from drunken frat-boy, to failed oilman and baseball manager, to over-whelmed chief-of-staff circa 2003, struggling with a job he seems completely unqualified for.

And damn it all if Mr. Brolin doesn’t sucker us in right off the bat. He’s disarmingly charismatic, occasionally inarticulate for sure, but plucky and filled with infectious confidence. The actor pulls off a tricky job, burrowing inside the skin of a man who has already developed into a pop-culture joke, a walking caricature who has been lampooned by a generation of comedic talent. Brolin has side-stepped imitation and, through measured amounts of organic vocal and physical mannerisms, captured the spirit of Dubya. The brilliance of the performance lies in the fact that we forget we’re even seeing one, drawn in by that intangible magnetism that the most skilled of politician’s possess.

It’s too bad that Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who penned the director’s 1987 hit Wall Street) couldn’t come up with an interesting tale to match the actor’s show-stopping efforts. W.’s script just sorta meanders around, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes tediously, in search of who-knows-what?! They aren’t particularly interested in Bush’s early days, which are only lightly touched upon in flashback, with the most infamous moments of youthful debauchery all but ignored. This particular decision hurts the film’s later scenes dealing with Bush’s conversion to Christianity and subsequent oath to quit drinking. I didn’t even realize the dude had a problem...

We do witness his first meeting with future-wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks, wasted in a nothing role), but their relationship is quickly scuttled into the background. As well, material featuring current administrative members (Richard Dreyfuss kills as a malevolent Cheney, while Thandie Newton goes SNL-broad with an awesome/awful Condoleezza Rice impression) are highlighted in a number of key moments, but ultimately exist just outside the film’s focal point.

Rather, Stone seems far more interested in Junior’s relationship with stern, determined Bush Senior, played with grumpy dignity by James Cromwell. The elder Bush is sick to death of watching his unmotivated, party-animal bum of a son putter from one failed venture to the next, dragging the family name down with him. Stone douses the film with steaming spoon-fuls of Freudian subtext, hypothesizing Dubya’s entire life and career as being driven by raging daddy issues. Trouble is, that’s about all he has up his sleeve.

The story’s crucial failure to engage us lies in the fact that no one behind the camera seemed compelled to aim for anything insightful or profound. As a biography it’s superficially bland (No mention of his controversial election OR second term in office???), but as a psychological study, W.’s as shallow as Bill O’Reilly is obnoxious. In addition, hinging a major dramatic moment on a dream sequence is always a cheap gimmick, but here it’s amateurish and embarrassing.

The real stumbling block of Stone’s film is its complete lack of perspective. We have no comprehension of Bush’s place in history, so the whole exercise feels hollow and inert. Walking out of the theatre, I didn’t possess any more insight into the real George Jr. that I had strolling in. At the end of the day, W. is too safe, too vague and too... soon.

2.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Oct. 20, 2008.