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The Big Kahuna (1999)
A bang-on, unbelievably good script executed by some of the finest actors around
"The Big Kahuna" proved to be one of the finest offerings that I was privy to at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. The expression "saving the best for last" applies strongly to this film. We were fortunate to have a Q&A after the film with Roger Rueff, the screenwriter of this eloquently written piece, John Swanbeck, the director enjoying all that a first timer could hope for from his debut, and the gifted actor Kevin Spacey, who starred in and produced the film.
This marvellous examination of three men of different age groups at a convention in Wichita also features the talents of Danny DeVito who apparently came to the production in the proverbial last minute. This film was shot in a very short sixteen days which comes as a surprise, despite it's one central location, as the dialogue is so strong. The best way to describe it is as almost poetic.
The script was adapted from the play "Hospitality Suite", also written by Rueff, who revealed in the Q&A that the story was based upon his own experiences at a sales convention long ago. But he assured us that his character of the young, impressionable, bible thumping "Bob" was not based on himself. Rueff also noted that with this being his first screenplay, he had worried about the horror stories he heard where scripts are butchered and transformed into things the writer never intended in many Hollywood productions. But in this case, he trusted the director and cast implicitly and was not disappointed in any way.
Kevin Spacey shines in this sneak peak behind the scenes of a sales convention where the future of a company lies squarely on the shoulders of three men in the pursuit of a big client. The president of another company represents the biggest potential account they will ever have. They exchange stories, accounts and personal philosophies and find how different they are from one another based on what they've been through.
The interaction between the three actors is mesmerizing. They take the audience into what feels like a true life account documented verbatim. To say more would spoil the outcome for those who've not yet had a chance to enjoy this film. It is my strong recommendation that all of those who have not, do so at their first available opportunity.
American Movie (1999)
Some filmmakers just don't know how to give up. This is one of them.
Chris Smith presented his fantastic documentary "American Movie" at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival with a group of supporters from behind and in front of the camera. As revealed in an entertaining Q&A after the film, Chris Smith met Mark Borchardt, an independent filmmaker, while both were working on their films in Wisconsin. Mark is best described as a horror film and heavy metal enthusiast who's tenacity is rivalled by none. His hobby has been filmmaking since he was a kid and has made numerous home movies. "Man" is the most commonly heard word at the end of his sentences, and he is rarely at a loss for words.
After speaking with Mark, Chris decided to begin a new project following Mark's progress in trying to get his film finished, and the results are vastly entertaining, often hilarious and of the knee slapping variety. If you miss this film, you're missing something special.
When Mark's plans for his feature length film "Northwestern" fall apart, he sets out to finish "Coven" (pronounced "Coh-vin"), a short, black and white horror film that he'd been working on for some time. He plans to complete it and sell his modest film at the price of $14.95 with a projected goal of 3,000 units to be sold to cover costs and finance his upcoming feature. As we get a glimpse of the film work already completed, we can see this is going to be no small feat. As Chris revealed at the screening, this was expected to take six months time. Two years later, their saga had ended.
In a most entertaining way, we see that Mark's efforts are rarely short on enthusiasm. He is however, usually short on resources, skills, and finances. He struggles at every turn to get his film made, enlisting the assistance of his family and friends in all aspects, from acting to rolling the camera to splicing the film in editing. We watch as Mark separates his thrifty Uncle Bill from $3,000 of his money to finance the film. We laugh as Mark makes thirty attempts at getting the same Uncle to get one line down for ADR. We cringe as he rams an actor's head through a less then pliable kitchen cupboard door. All along the way, we share in the turmoil that Mark's family has gone through and the sacrifices he makes to make his film and the continued efforts in pursuit of the American dream. He just wants to make movies and despite the mountain of debt he has accumulated, he perseveres.
After the film we were treated to a 35mm print of the nightmarish and very raw "Coven" which to date has sold 100 copies. But in his own words, Mark declares, "I'm gonna sell those 3,000, man, that's not arrogance, that's just something I've got to do." Videos and T-shirts were available for sale in the lobby. The scary thing is, I think he's going to do it.
History Is Made at Night (1999)
The cold war is over, and secret agents are out of work
This entertaining poke at the cold war remnants is an interesting little romp that is at times very funny and others very clever and original.
Presented at the Toronto International Film Festival by director Ilkka Jarvilaturi, the film goes from one interesting locale to another as we jump from Hellsinki to New York to St. Petersburg. Bill Pullman and Irene Jacob are secret agents from opposite sides who have romantic entanglements as they try to determine just what they mean to each other while they still have a job to do.
A mysterious and coded porno tape is intercepted in transit and the CIA attempts to decode it while stalling for time. Complications arise in the plot which gives way to some innovative yet ultimately classical comic situations. I don't know whether it's the fault of the film or the theater's sound system but at times it was difficult to follow what was happening due to the heavy accents of the (presumably) Finnish actors. Bill Pullman's comic performance in the underrated "Zero Effect" is a good warm up for this similar but distinctly different character, and he is always a pleasure to watch. Bruno Kirby also provides a solid comic contribution as a disgruntled FBI operative and the stunningly beautiful Irene Jacob graces the screen in a demure yet intriguing role as the KGB agent looking to get ahead in the ranks.
Jarvilaturi was gracious enough to stick around for a Q&A after the film and spoke of mostly the music selections and their role in the film. One audience member pointed out a subtle yet relevant continuity error that they said they were already aware of and intended to fix. This is an indication of how fresh the film was and how the pressures of festival deadlines can affect the film.
To Walk with Lions (1999)
A stunning account of the life of George Adamson, the lion man.
Director Carl Schultz has made an extraordinary film with the help of some vastly talented and brave actors who overcame their fears to work with lions in Africa.
"To Walk With Lions" was featured in the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival and presented by the director, some actors and producers of the film, all of whom should be very proud of a triumphant and majestic film. The landscapes are magnificent and breathtaking, and prove to be an intriguing backdrop to an even more intriguing man who became something of a legend in our time.
Thirty years ago, "Born Free" told the story of the Adamsons from its inception. This film carries on their story it until its tragic end in the late eighties. It mostly concerns the wildlife preserve "Kora", run by George Adamson, played incredibly by the wonderful and distinguished Richard Harris.
The troubles in Africa continue even still as the corrupt Kenyan government and poachers prevail in the slaughter of the African wildlife, threatening extinction without much concern for the consequences. The story is told through the eyes of Tony Fitzjohn, as played by John Michie. Fitzjohn continues the Adamson crusade to preserve wildlife and rehabilitate lions from captivity back into the wild even today.
The film was followed by an interesting Q&A where it was revealed that the majority of scenes with lions were real, which is astonishing considering the close proximity to the actors in many of the sequences.
It would come as no surprise to me if this film was nominated for Oscars. If not, it would only be a testament to the high quality of the other nominees. When your opportunity presents itself, do not pass this one up.
The antidote to all your troubles, "1900" will sweep you away
It is at a time like this I wish I could expand my vocabulary to better articulate the virtues and qualities of such a fine film. I also find I'm bursting to talk about this film that I regrettably saw alone. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but desperately want to share it with everyone.
The talented star of "The Legend of 1900", Tim Roth, presented this film along with Clarence Williams III. His encouragement to the audience was that if anyone was the sort who liked to pick apart at films and critique their lack of realism, they should just leave now. He touted this wonderful vision from the director of Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore, and likened the film to a "dream". He also said that if anyone had seen his own film, "The War Zone", that "1900" was the antidote for it. I was slated to see "The War Zone" the next day, but that was fine by me. I managed by a sheer stroke of luck to get into this Canadian premiere and found it to be absolutely extraordinary and the best film I'd seen so far of the Toronto International Film Festival.
It seems as though mere moments after the initial credits, that the wonderful storytelling and incredible music combined with stunning visuals almost had me moved to tears. While I'll admit that I'd be seeing films all day, no film in my recollection had such an impact so quickly.
The story is one of an abandoned baby who is found on a ocean liner by one of the ship's crew. He is unofficially adopted and named "1900" for the year in which he was born. At a very early age the boy demonstrates an extraordinary gift for piano playing which is only strengthened in his passing years. The boy grows up with no official identity, into a man having never taken a step off of the ship onto dry land in his whole life. The young man, played by Tim Roth is encouraged by his dear friend to leave the boat and pursue a life of fame and fortune as the great pianist he has become. 1900 declines, explaining simply that everything he needs is on the boat.
Well, that should be enough to intrigue you; there's much more of course, but I've no desire to spoil it for anyone. I must encourage everyone to see this film, I can hardly imagine anyone being disappointed. It's for music lovers, dreamers, romantics and film buffs everywhere and my greatest hope is that it will be seen by many, many people, especially those I know and love. And after seeing the film, and hearing Tim Roth's words echoing in my mind, he was absolutely right. It is like a dream, a wonderful dream that I wished would never end. And for a future prediction, I see this film as a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination for 1999.
Barenaked in America (1999)
Fans of Barenaked Ladies will not be disappointed
From the onset, "Barenaked In America" is entertaining and full of verve. Even the opening credits offer the promise of an interesting and fun journey. The documentary was featured in the 1999 Toronto Film Festival for its world premiere with director Jason Priestly presenting along with Steven Page, Ed Robertson and Tyler Stewart of Barenaked Ladies. Priestly has had association with the band for some time and it seems to be a labour of love for him.
The film goes behind the scenes to capture moments from their early history to their most recent tour. Even a native Torontonian fan of the band like myself discovered things I never knew about this dynamic ensemble. With many humourous accounts and opinions from celebrities to the BNL tour bus driver to the band themselves, I feel a second viewing is required to finally make out what I missed due to the boisterous laughter from the delighted audience.
With generous helpings of reflections, interviews, past video moments like "Speakers Corner" and live concert performances, the diversity of this documentary is something of an allegory for the band itself. With a reputation for fantastic live improvisations on stage and proven musical talent, the Barenaked Ladies stand out as true entertainers committed to giving their best and keeping it fresh so that each performance holds something new for the audience.
My favourite moment came from a more serious side of the band with unexpected comical results. For the band's shooting of their video "It's All Been Done", we find the band behind the scenes discussing their discontent after seeing the initial footage. They thought the concept was fine, of shooting the film from a cat's point of view, but felt it was poorly shot and wasn't going to come across well. Talking to their manager, who seems more interested in quelling their sentiments of dissatisfaction then rectifying the matter or championing their concerns, we see them frustrated as an expensive video shoot seems like a waste of money. Ed mentions a terrible shot of little else than a shag carpet for too long a stretch until it finally reaches the band and looks up. "Cats don't walk like that. It's looks terrible." Their manager responds with "How do you know cats don't walk like that?" Ed responds almost angrily, "I have three cats, I know how they walk!" I don't think I laughed as hard as I did at that moment any other time in the film, but it's probably a had to be there moment.
With a subject matter like Barenaked Ladies, I'm sure the editors had their work cut out for them. They undoubtedly had enough material for a three hour film that wouldn't feature a dull moment. As it was, the breakneck pace of the film kept it fresh, entertaining and basically a treat for any fan of the band. Given the band's recent success in the American market, that probably accounts for a good number of people. Given its high quality but perhaps limited audience appeal, I wonder what sort of release this documentary will enjoy. In any case, I feel privileged to be among the few to have seen it, and look forward to an opportunity for a repeat viewing.
All the Rage (1999)
Guns Guns Guns Guns Guns. You know someone's got to die. But will we care?
In a film all about guns, it doesn't take long before some blood is spilled. Part social commentary, part dark comedy, "All The Rage" finds its place just behind making a strong point about gun ownership and their use by the general American public. Making its world premiere at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, this film touches upon issues like irreverence and obsession but doesn't dwell on the morality, inherent danger and potential for misuse.
Being a Canadian, I feel extremely fortunate to live in a country that is not infested with firearms and hope that will never change. The prevalent, ingrained element of guns in American society always exists as a threat to us, the Northern neighbours who live in awe of the lifestyles and death counts. We all fear that one day we may find ourselves in the same boat. If nothing else divides us, I hope at least that this will never change.
The cast features many established, well known and popular actors, some in drastic departures from what we're accustomed to seeing them in, and some not so much. Everyone seems to be putting forth the effort that would make any director proud, but somehow this directorial debut is lacking something.
The setting of the film feels almost like a cartoon comic strip with characters who behave in strange and often irrational ways. I feel this lack of a realistic backdrop takes away from the film's potential to deliver a strong message or generate much of an emotional response from the audience. Few of the film's realistic character portrayals lend enough to give the film's overall sense that of a serious one. Therefore, it's hard to take this film seriously. It wasn't terribly funny either. I hate to say it, but some of the most enjoyable elements of this film for me were the music selections, including a great opening song from Talking Head David Byrne. During the film festival, I tend to be more generous than usual, but I can't say this film won me over.
The Five Senses (1999)
A film about connections
Chosen as the film to start the Perspective Canada series for the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, "The Five Senses" explores numerous lives in turmoil that are also intertwined in many ways.
Shot in Toronto, the story revolves around the disappearance of a little girl and how it affects the lives of those who knew her and those who feel responsible. More predominantly though, I believe it is about the bonds that are forged from one person to another in a variety of relationships and the strains that can test them. From friends old and new, parent to child, employer to employee, client to vendor, lovers past and present. All of these associations undergo a transformation of some kind in this film.
The film is beautifully shot with interesting set-ups but is not edited evenly throughout the feature. Scenes with Molly Parker and Mary Louise Parker are tightly edited and executed nicely, while some other scenes just seem to be drawn out a bit too much, the pace is a slow one, with numerous subplots that attempt to liven the drama.
But for art's sake and support of Canadian filmmaking, I would prefer not to draw negative attention to this film. There are some very moving scenes and excellent performances, but at the same time, I'm not sure I can recommend this one to just anyone.
Joe the King (1999)
What will become of young Joe the King?
Featured at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, the directorial debut from the talented actor Frank Whaley "Joe The King" was introduced by Frank's long-time friend Ethan Hawke and the film's main actor Noah Fleiss. Ethan explained that Frank and he had been the best of friends since their work on "A Midnight Clear" together. Frank couldn't present the film because he was only just getting into Toronto at the airport but happily agreed to a Q&A afterwards.
The film portrays with stunning clarity a bleak period in the life of Joe, a fourteen year old boy from a lower class neighbourhood whose father is an alcoholic and works as a janitor in Joe's school. Joe works in a restaurant after school and in all aspects of his life he's surrounded by people who look down on him, talk down to him and sometimes beat on him. It's very difficult to not feel sorry for someone like Joe, he'll likely break your heart. Many of us may have bad childhoods or perhaps recall them as such, but for most, this film will give you reason to feel lucky and fortunate whatever your situation was.
There's not so much a story as there is a stringing together of vignettes of a hellish childhood that brings an authentic feel to each and every aspect of the film. While the film does move along quite slowly, each performance given is a strong building block to assemble what ultimately seems to be an autobiographical account. The world that Joe lives in is so fully constructed and detailed that it's easy to forget you're watching a film and not a documentary.
What was revealed in the Q&A afterwards, was that Whaley wrote this film as a conglomerate of his brother and his own experiences growing up. A statement he almost reluctantly offers, explaining that the original title of the film was named for the street where he grew up. Out of respect for his mother they chose "Joe The King" which turns out to be a fairly arbitrary title. "I hope you're not telling people it's autobiographical," as he mimics his mother's concerned sentiment, at which point he shares that he hopes she never sees the film as it may prove too painful for her.
While the film is not based on a true story per se, that is not what is most relevant. What Joe goes through on a daily basis is what this story is about, what is likely to stir you, and not the pivotal event in the later part of the film. And as a young Joe looks into the camera at the end of the film, holding there for a moment. The question that haunts the viewer is, "What will become of young Joe The King?" The answer stood before us with a microphone in hand, fielding answers from an intrigued audience. Frank Whaley himself is the affirmation to his own film.
Frank in his usual charming way answered questions with enthusiasm and humour at one point recounting the casting of the film. As an actor for many years he has had the pleasure of working with numerous gifted individuals and many of these faces appear in the film. He had more difficulty with casting the younger element of the film as he explained that he "doesn't know any kids". He couldn't have asked for a better young lead than Noah Fleiss to play so convincingly Joe the King. And while I don't see this film breaking box office records or even flying off the video stands due to its depressing, sombre nature, I do believe it will be very meaningful to some people and for others prove how lucky they really are.
You won't want to let your loved ones out of your sight after this film
There aren't too many scenarios like this one. The original version and the Hollywood remake of this film were both directed by the same man, George Sluizer. As I understand from popular opinion, this is one film that was fine the first time round, and not well received on the second go. I cannot fairly compare them, and I have no more desire to see the remake of "Spoorloos" than I do the remake of "La Femme Nikita", namely "The Point Of No Return".
I saw the original version upon the strong recommendation of a newspaper reviewer proclaiming it one of the most disturbing films they'd ever seen. The photograph of a young couple about to be torn apart in the paper reeled me in.
A pleasant holiday excursion goes horribly wrong when a man's lady friend goes missing at a crowded rest stop. He grasps at straws in desperation as very little can be done because few clues or leads exist. The abduction is arbitrary and nearly flawless.
The film was indeed well done and what struck me the most was the focus on that of the villain. It is a portrayal of a normal, respectable family man who trains himself in meticulous detail for an abduction. His cold, calculating approach is probably the most frightening aspect. His inhumanity is difficult to comprehend.
Many film endings can be shocking and may stick with you forever, and for a lot of people that is certainly the case with this film. That's why I was surprised to learn that the TV commercials for this film gave away the ending. However it didn't ruin the film for me.
The suspense and chilling setting of this film makes it hard to forget. The viewer constantly wondering, "What would I do?" or "How would I cope?". Impossible questions we all hope we'll never find the answer to.
Of course, keep a few handy responses in mind should you watch this with your better half when they ask the inevitable, almost rhetorical question, "What would you do if I went missing and you couldn't find me?"
"I'd surely die, dear."
The Graduate (1967)
Dee da dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee da dee, Doo da doo doo doo doo doo da doo
Here's to you Mrs. Robinson. Was it the song by Simon and Garfunkel made popular by the film, or did the film entrench the song into popular culture? Who's to say either way? It's a matter of opinion, and it's irrelevant really. The fact is, it's a great song and a great movie and the two compliment each other like peanut butter and jelly, ham and swiss or May and December.
This movie is for anyone who's ever wondered what they are going to do with their future, anyone who's been in love with someone their parents didn't approve of, or anyone who's had an affair with one of their parent's friends. Granted, not many will fall in the latter category, but it throws an interesting spin on the film.
The film perfectly encapsulates and portrays the feelings of self-doubt, alienation, disenchantment and unwanted pressures and expectations for a twenty-something just out of college. Dustin Hoffman is the only person we can possibly imagine in the role of Benjamin as his imprint and superb acting makes this film a great one. As reflected on in an interview with Dustin Hoffman on the DVD, "The Graduate at 25", his life changed after this film, propelling him into something of a superstar status as his incredible talent found wide recognition. When I saw "Rushmore" I had a similar feeling about young Jason Schwartzman in the lead role. For him, time will tell. Although "Rushmore" isn't the time tested success that "The Graduate" is, anyone who enjoyed "Rushmore" would likely enjoy "The Graduate" if they haven't already seen it. They are, however, distinctly different films.
This comedy is something of a benchmark in many ways. Not many films of a comedic nature are so socially relevant and of such high quality that they make the A.F.I.'s top ten of all time. The film by many standards is more than just a contemporary comedy. It is quite possibly the best one ever made, given its widespread appeal.
It is well shot with interesting sequences and hilarious segments that hold up against the test of time. It has been a long-time favourite of mine, and I can scarcely imagine growing tired of it.
Mystery Men (1999)
Hooray for the underdog as evil is thwarted by unlikely not-so-superheroes
The "Mystery Men" are a ragtag bunch of semi-super-powered misfits that make unlikely guardians of "Champion City", but it's how hard they try to be crime fighters that counts, and what wins us over.
In this ode to the losers, underdogs and wanna-bes of the world, we find hilarity and ingenuity as spawned from "Dark Horse" comic books. In all fairness, I've never actually read one of the comic books that inspired this film, but I don't think that matters; the story unfolds just like a comic book would. Bright colours and busy backdrops throughout the film make it feel as though cartoon bubbles should be popping out of everyone's mouths.
We are treated to some utter silliness right from the get go, and our "heroes" feel so familiar to us in a way that almost defies understanding. But I think it's because unlike most of the superheroes that we've come to know and revere, these guys make the same kind of boneheaded blunders that we all do on a regular basis. They look and act like knobs and basically crime fighting is their hobby. It makes them seem all the more real despite the ridiculous nature of their powers and/or trademarks.
It's the villains that are truly ridiculous and harder to relate to. From disco loving pimp-like thugs to corporate big-wig down-sizers to fraternity boys, they all serve as amusing adversaries but without too much focus on them as most of the fun comes from learning the history of each of the "Mystery Men" and their dysfunctional roles in society.
There are many very funny moments that are almost completely contextual which means the film gets better and better as it goes along. But I guess you have to be in the right mood for this kind of film and just go with it. I can see how someone might see it as stupid or silly, but I can safely say that they've put a lot of thought and creativity into this venture, and I found myself wishing it was longer even after almost two hours.
Another factor of this film to be commended on is it's intentional downplay of lethal force. For the most part, the violence is physical and the heroes weapons are not instruments of death.
My hope is that Universal will choose to offer supplementary bonus material on the imminent DVD release of this film, as they have with their other excellent "Collector's Editions" that feature great behind the scenes moments and interviews. I'm sure there's plenty of interesting background on a film like this one.
You ever get stuck in an elevator? Multiply that emotion by 1,000
Great. Another shining example of how my inadequacy in mathematics could be the end of me. I used to skip math class. I took the bare minimum requirement expected of me and passed with something less than flying colours. The point is, math is all that separates our "heroes" from certain death in this arena.
"Cube" is an innovative little thriller that can safely dodge accusations of blandness or mediocrity. The premise is simple and the plight of the characters is highly relative despite its surrealistic science fiction setting. Six individuals find themselves trapped in a cube comprised of many rooms linked together, with no readily visible way out, no rations, tools or explanation for being there, with traps set up in some of the rooms. An apparent experiment on how people think and react to certain situations and the transformations they might undergo.
The simplicity of the film and the cube itself are the film's strongest assets and can probably account for it's international success, notably in Japan. It's low budget production costs came under $400,000. But they got a really good bang for their buck with some help from special effects houses that provided their services free of charge. As the director has commented on the audio commentary track of the DVD, one aspect they were going for was a way to have an action flick in one room. They pulled it off quite nicely. Another interesting tidbit brought to light was that each character's name is after a prison.
A curious aspect of this Canadian film was its surprisingly short run in Canadian cinemas. In speaking with one of the film's producers, Mehra Meh, I learned that despite it's award as "Best First Feature" at the Toronto Film Festival of 1997, the film run in Canada came a year later and was just for a few short weeks before it was yanked from theaters and then showcased internationally. When time came for the DVD release, I found another perplexing development. It was only available as an import. A Canadian film only available as an import in Canada? It wasn't until months later that it was released domestically.
In any case, the film is available now and worth checking out if you have interest in the psychological thriller fare. Those who work their days or nights (or both) in a cubicle may wish to pass on this one, as it just might be too close to home.
Meet the Feebles (1989)
The Feebles with have you longing for the wholesome nature of The Muppets
This is one of those rare experiences that you have to see for yourself to fully appreciate what it is about. I had missed my first opportunity to see this, uh, film, when it was running at a second run theater ages ago. One simple production still of a walrus mating with a cat in a garter belt spoke a thousand words. I was curious but unable to go. Some of my friends saw it and found later that words escaped them, replaced by nervous laughter.
Now I know why.
"Meet The Feebles" is now available on video and DVD, and if you ever wondered what it would be like if The Muppets left the old theater and moved into a crack house, well this is your kind of movie. My wife went away for the weekend and so I seized this opportunity to try something I pretty much knew she wouldn't care to see. It starts off reasonably tame but gets raunchier and seedier as each scene progresses. You can probably imagine a fair bit, maybe you've even wondered what it would be like if Miss Piggy and Kermit finally got it on. But even still, almost certainly this film will surprise you in the depths that they go to. I imagine there are loads of teenagers who'd love this. I imagine fans of "Fritz the Cat" should definitely get into this.
I not quite sure what I'm feeling now that I've seen it. It's not regret, I've quelled my curiosity. It's truly not disgust; I'm not easily offended. No, I guess I'm glad my wife is away for the weekend, she would not have liked it and I probably would have sat through something I didn't want to watch in compensation. I'm thinking about the other films I left behind at the video store. I think I should've watched this with someone when I was really drunk. I think that might've helped.
Wild Wild West (1999)
A spectacle of special effects with a grand cast and weak premise
Despite the different setting, it would be difficult for anyone to not compare "Men In Black" to "Wild Wild West" when the star and director are the same. This film just demonstrates that even if you bring all the right people together, with a big budget and the great special effects, if it isn't a good script it isn't a good movie. The premise of this film is probably it's weakest point. Half an hour into the film you might be asking yourself, "Just what the hell is going on anyway?
Now the special effects artisans have not let us down in the creativity department. There's plenty of dazzling sequences that astonish the audience with gadgetry a plenty. But the special effects are almost too special, at least for the time period the film is set in.
As I'm sure many will agree, "Men In Black" was a smash hit and a fine film that mixes equal parts comedy, special effects and science fiction. The outlandish elements of a film with an extraterrestrial background are easily swallowed with perfect suspension of disbelief. But if you tell the audience that it's the old west, then go easy on the 80 foot mechanical tarantulas if you please.
Well, let's just pretend that I fell asleep for the part where it's explained that time travelers from the distant future settled in the old west and brought their advanced technology to the past. That still wouldn't quite do it. Something about the characters aren't all that intriguing either.
Take Salma Hayek's "Rita" for example. I guess she's supposed to be a damsel in distress, but maybe she's more appropriately penned as a damsel inconvenienced. We don't really get a sense of what she's all about until the end of the picture. In one scene she panics and puts herself and our heros in jeopardy. When moments like that come up, it's difficult to comprehend why a character would do such a stupid thing. Let's not blame the character, after all, it's the writer who was in full control. My apologies to the writer if that particularly stupid scene wasn't in the script and rather made up on the fly, but I seriously doubt it.
Will Smith's character "West" is a Government agent/gunslinger who quite matter-of-factly brings up the "painful" death of his family within a thirty second scene which feels too much like a "and this is why he wants to kill the bad guy really really badly, and he'll deserve it too" moment.
Kevin Kline's character "Artemus" is a little more interesting, and of course, Kenneth Brannagh's "Dr. Loveless", being as evil and demented as he can be, but not too threatening. Again, if someone can simply explain how a person could possibly survive after being cut in half a hundred years ago, I'd happily overlook the elaborate steam engine wheelchair.
Given all that, the film had it's moments, it's lines, it's eye candy (and I'm not necessarily always talking about the special effects) but over all quite a disappointment. I'm reluctant to focus on the negative of any film, but Barry should've found a way to incorporate the aliens again. I guess it's not too long before we go back to tried and true and see "Men In Black 2".
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
War is hell, and "Saving Private Ryan" peeks into the gates of Hades
I'd heard a couple of startling things about this film before seeing it. I'd heard that many veterans were having a hard time getting through the film without breaking down. I'd also seen interviews with veterans who'd seen the film and found the film to be incredibly realistic and consequently difficult to watch. Intriguing comments, since we all know there is no shortage of films about war from this century.
There are not many films that I've seen that have actually made me physically react to the action on screen. I'm not speaking of the three-dimensional variety either. What I mean to say is this film had me contorting and cringing at the gripping, horrifying action on screen. Somehow the extreme violence can be justified as the whole world knows that this is an important chapter in human history and a startling, graphic depiction only adds more weight to the seriousness of the subject matter. I'd have to say this is probably one of the most important films of the 20th century because of its frank approach to one of the darkest periods of our time on this earth.
I am always deeply moved and fiercely proud when given cause to consider those that gave their lives to protect our way of life and liberate those that already suffered dislocation, imprisonment and attempted genocide. These soldiers were truly noble and deserve our deepest gratitude. This sentiment is a common one, and will go some lengths to explain why this film has meant so much to so many.
Even with the attention to detail and care taken into how it was shot to accentuate to the fullest degree its realistic approach, it is still hard to imagine what it must have been like to be part of a war. But this film goes a long way to help your mind get around it. It's hard for me to say what kind of impact the cinematography would have on someone watching it on the small screen of a television versus the big screen, but from my perspective, this film really does benefit from a theatrical presentation.
What "Saving Private Ryan" does extremely well, is show the world the harsh reality of war without pulling any punches. The story about a squad of soldiers sent to retrieve the surviving brother of three dead soldiers is told with competency and due reverence from all perspectives of the characters involved. It is an uncommon and intriguing drama, but it serves as an excuse to describe a setting, rather than the other way around. The story manages to move us through all sorts of different landscapes and scenarios, giving us an unforgettable glimpse of a world unknown to most of us, and terrifying to those who are familiar with it from personal experience.
The General (1998)
What quality filmmaking is all about, in "General".
In a small way, I'm almost glad that all films aren't as good as "The General". It's dripping with one of those intangible elements that seems to escape other films. Sheer quality craftsmanship and excellent storytelling.
There's a very rich quality to this film. What we see on screen merely scrapes the surface of a full history that is eluded to but not entirely exposed explicitly, which is what I think works best to keep interests up. Just brilliant film work in every regard makes this story come to life. Crime, ethics, political standpoints and complex relationships.
Martin Cahill, the film's central character, is the anti-hero thief, something of a modern day Robin Hood but much more visceral. I understand that John Boorman was allegedly one of Cahill's break-in victims. From what we see in the film, he remains constant to his own beliefs and principles, even if that means breaking the law at every turn. His schemes and plots to outwit the cops are so simple and effective you can't help but like him. He's very clever despite a lack of education, and he doesn't shift to the world around him as much as it shifts for him. His biggest weakness appears to be cream filled pastries. Even if he's been beaten, he won't allow his adversaries the pleasure of seeing him suffer in any way.
I don't know how faithful the film is to the truth, history or the spirit of Cahill's actions. But one thing I do know is that the superb craftsmanship of this film should propel it on to everyone's must see list, but that's not too likely to be. At least for North American audiences this film has many things going against it. It's in black and white. The Irish accents are thick and difficult to understand at times. It doesn't seem to have the sort of advertising campaign that it deserves. And worst of all, it appears to have unanimous critical acclaim. Often great films aren't hits, they don't strike a chord with the masses, but in my book, that's fine. You can only tell the quality of a great film in comparison to one that's inferior. Personal taste aside, this film is simply done extremely well.
Austin Powers shined far brighter before his Mojo was stolen
Mike Myers created a memorable, hilarious character for the first "Austin Powers" film for a number of reasons. One was a tribute to his late father, a memorabilia of things that his father loved. Secondly, and to be sure I'm presuming here, for the rich, ample supply of great comic material. The idea of a sexually liberated 60s swinger adjusting to the more reserved 90s is quite amusing and what chiefly drew me in.
When I saw "Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery" in theaters, I thought it was fantastic fun. I also found myself having to defend the film as many nay-sayers proclaimed the film moronic and lame. Many of said individuals would also recite memorable dialogue as though it was their favourite film at a later date. I also feel that the opening dance sequence was worth the price of admission alone. Soon enough, most people came round.
The "Austin Powers" DVD is also quite an impressive example of the benefits of the new medium. Whenever I wish to show off the features of a DVD player to the uninitiated, I usually pop in Austin. It has everything from an audio commentary to deleted scenes and much more. And with repeated viewings, I can safely proclaim that yes, the humour is quite base at times, but it is fun, and after frequent showings, most of the scenes still have me laughing.
Suffice it to say, I'm a fan. That is why it was so disappointing to take in the sequel to this fine satire. Going in to a sequel, your expectations are (usually) lowered. I had heard talk of a sequel not long after the first offering had completed it's run, and I'll admit that even then, I was dubious of their chances to recapture the same magic of the first film. In this case, I had been assured by a couple of people that it was good, and the trailer preview looked promising. I couldn't believe how much regurgitation was going on. But more importantly than that, the comic timing was way off. Every so-called punch line felt like a simple warm-up to a bigger punch that never came. An inappropriately long pause after each "joke" only drew more attention to it's ineffectiveness and lack of uniqueness. I hate to say it, but it seems as though the filmmakers weren't sure what made the first one popular, and kind of missed it on this second go.
To be sure, there were enjoyable moments, but it seemed as though everything was off kilter. The story line which interested me enough to see it, involves time traveling back to the 60s to retrieve Austin's stolen "Mojo". But this comic potential opportunity was passed up. It seems they could've come up with a lot more comic material on that angle, but didn't bother to explore it. And as silly as the story was, the pace of the whole film seemed transparently formulaic. Like a shopping list of what was popular in the first film, thrown in to the bag without much consideration for originality or appropriate placement.
I'll admit that part of my experience for the sequel was hampered by a pack of sixteen year old girls who laughed maybe a little too much at the ultra-mildly amusing bits to the point of annoyance. But I can't say they bothered me too much, I was literally tempted to walk out on it, but I suspect Heather Graham's "Felicity Shagwell" stopped me. Quite ironically, Austin's quest to recover his "Mojo" mirrors the effort to recapture the magic of the first installment, and sadly fails. I sincerely hope it won't taint my affinity for the first film next time I watch it.
The Grifters (1990)
A seedy underbelly of life exposed for all to see
Years ago, this was one of the films I was quite pleased with myself for seeing. I didn't know much about it, but decided to take a chance on it, with no regrets. From the opening sequence to the end credits I was mesmerized and in awe of events that communicated an entirely alien philosophy. Based on the novel by Jim Thompson, "The Grifters" tells a tale of a world that lies just under the surface of the one we know of. That is of course, if you count yourself among the squares and suckers who often fall prey to the craftsmen of the grift.
With startling precision, intrigue and depth, the story unfolds chronicling the lives of three distinctly different yet intertwined individuals. Their setting and perspective is entirely foreign to the majority of us. The filmmakers portray the grifters' different methods and environments as skilled scam artists. For unless you've had a personal experience having fallen prey or gotten wise to a grifter's ploy, you'll simply have to accept the reality of it. They are out there, waiting for the suckers to be born.
This particularly dark tale is very stylishly directed and moves along at a good pace. Each turn offers another sneak peek into the games played and the tricks pulled. The prey are often unaware of their own victimization as they go on about their business.
Another aspect the film deals with is trust or the lack thereof. Our protagonists spend most of their time scamming, conning and tricking people so much that their sense of trust and decency breaks down. They alienate themselves from everyone, and ultimately can't even trust each other.
And of course, what drama would be complete without a twisted love triangle in the mix with betrayal and murder to keep it interesting. If this doesn't sound like another day at the office, you might just find the workplace of "The Grifters" intriguing. Seeing it today, I enjoyed it as much as I did years ago, before I opened my eyes for a fresh look at the world.
Welcome to Sarajevo (1997)
A powerful tour through hell on Earth
What "Welcome To Sarajevo" did was open my eyes and help me realize how fortunate I am. Sarajevo was a peaceful, metropolitan city not unlike many cities in North America. But it is no longer. It's almost too easy to clear your mind of the strife going on in other parts of the world. Sometimes we feel guilty for being so fortunate. Sometimes we feel horror at the news reports of inhuman atrocities. And most times we shut out the reality of it as it is rarely affecting us in a personal way.
This gripping tale of war-torn Sarajevo is told through the eyes of British reporters. It will probably shock, jar and depress you, but it will most certainly increase your sense of global awareness, and instill a better appreciation of the liberties that most of us have taken for granted. Images from concentration camps hauntingly mimic those from fifty years ago.
This film is based on an amazing true story of one man's personal involvement and promise to rescue one refugee child and the great lengths to which he must go to deliver her from a war zone.
I caught this film in its limited theatrical run following its inclusion in the 1997 Toronto Film Festival. I exited the theater with my wife in a staggering awe-struck state. No one could fully communicate what it would be like to live in a war zone, but this film gives you a potent taste without pulling any punches.
What this means is that most people will likely find it difficult to recommend this film to friends. It's not an uplifting tale, but it is an extremely important one, and I feel privileged and fortunate for having seen it.
Brassed Off (1996)
Matters of music and of people
You don't have to be a fan of brass bands to enjoy "Brassed Off", but it couldn't hurt. The music is a central focus of the film, but not as a compromise to the story of a town in turmoil. Coal mines being shut down in the name of progress puts many men out of work which naturally also jeopardizes the existence of the colliery band. The music combined with brilliant storytelling (and editing) is merely a platform for some superb acting, particularly from Pete Postlethwaite.
Having lived all my life in a large metropolitan city, I cannot relate first hand to the plight of a small town community. Despite that, I found the story intriguing even though it may seem the outcome is somewhat predictable.
Having just purchased the DVD, I found the brief write-up on the box to be way off the mark. It touts this film as some kind of romantic and hilarious comedy, never once even grazing past the real subject matter of the film. This is another perfect example of the continued miscalculated promotion of a truly well crafted film that "Muriel's Wedding" also fell victim to. I'm not sure what the promoters were thinking, but if you set someone up for a hilarious romantic comedy and what they receive is a thoughtful serious and sometimes depressing film, are they going to be happy just the same? There are graciously some light moments and humourous turns in this otherwise sombre subject matter, but this film doesn't have a happy ending. But it sure does have a moving one. Postlethwaite's performance hits you in an unexpected way and you'd have to have a heart of stone to not be moved by it.
Any success that the film enjoys now that's it's strictly on video, is likely to come from very strong word of mouth. I had been told how good it was and enjoyed it immensely. Now that I've seen it twice, and thus been twice moved, I wait for a reasonable time to pass so that I may watch and enjoy it again as I am bound to do.
Schindler's List (1993)
A fantastic film that I had to see twice
I don't have to tell you that "Schindler's List" is an extraordinary and important film. Unanimous praise and celebration of a multi-award winning cinematic masterpiece should make it abundantly clear what a powerful film it is. To say nothing of Steven Spielberg's remarkable achievement of delivering in the same year the greatest box office hit to date with "Jurassic Park" and then the Academy's best picture and director Oscars. But everyone knows about that already.
I saw this film at a second run cinema in my neighbourhood, which basically sold out each show of "Schindler's List" for the week it was running. When my wife and I entered the theater, there seemed to be only one pair of seats available in the whole place. Only after we sat down did we notice the guy in front of us was proudly brandishing a tall cowboy hat. We figured out quite quickly why our seats were available and thought we ought to explore our options. I very politely leaned forward and asked him if he was going to wear the hat during the show. With a friendly smile, the kind man in his mid-thirties assured us he'd remove it when the picture began. True to his word, he took off the hat when the lights went out.
Rarely have I ever seen a theater audience so transfixed on the images before them. Complete devotion of attention from every patron. Except one. When the "dude" in front of us grew tired of the film, some twenty minutes into it, he attempted making out with his girlfriend who briefly complied but ultimately succeeded in pushing him away. A number of future attempts were met with decreasing levels of success. Clearly the subject matter on screen was far from romantic.
Weeks later, art imitated life on an episode of "Seinfeld" when Jerry's friends and family are outraged at his similar behavior which was a result of having no privacy while his parents stayed with him.
Back to our friend "Howdy Doody", who has failed in his amorous advances during a film about one of the most chilling, harrowing subjects in the history of mankind. When his attention span gave out, and I imagine some five year olds could put him to shame, he rested his head on the back of the seat and stared at the ceiling. He would periodically sigh loudly, a declaration of his utter boredom. Not surprisingly, he drifted away and soon began to snore.
I did nothing of course, and resigned myself to the fact that I'd have to watch the film again. This unfortunate sort of thing is the downside of seeing films in the theater, which I am by and large a huge supporter of in general. You never know what "Buckaroo" you might be sitting behind, but my advice to you is simple. If you ever spot a cowboy hat, relocate.
The plight of the single man. Homo Desperatus
The title of this film suggests to many the promise of many nubile, naked, open-minded, free-spirited nymphs looking for a night of romping sexual liberation.
Sadly, this is not the case. "Swingers" is however a humourous peek into the male thought process in relation to the pursuit of the opposite sex. In essence, it's a real guys film, but the chicks dig it too.
Some of "Swingers" finest moments are simple portrayals of the weakness and desperation of the single man who is trying to get over a break-up with a long-term girlfriend. His friends push and prod him into re-entering the meat-market of L.A. night-life and attempt to boost his waning self confidence, with little to no success.
The making of this magical independent film is the stuff of fairy tales. The dream realization and star making of a number of gifted actors and filmmakers has transpired. Vince Vaughn is charming and convincing as the kind of guy who would take much pleasure from seeing his buddy getting laid and moving on. Jon Favreau is the pained, desperate victim of heartbreak and struggles to feel comfortable in the dating scene. Ron Livingston plays the truly helpful and sympathetic friend who knows what it's like to have loved and lost. All three of these fine lads have moved on to varying degrees of post-"Swingers" success. I honestly can't say how much "Swingers" has done for the now superstar Heather Graham. In this one case, I believe she did more for the film than it did for her. Perhaps she has a different take on that, though. All I mean to say by that is, by the time this film was out, she was well on her way already.
As for "Swingers" success itself, it has done tremendously well for a film financed by numerous maxed-out credit cards of cast and crew, (so the legend goes anyway). It's impossible to tell how many other films have been made in such a fashion and then not rescued or picked up by a distributor. It's kind of disheartening just to think of all the never-was'. But with its undeniable appeal, it's not hard to see what inspired these bold filmmakers to take a chance and "double down".
The Frighteners (1996)
Can't deny this film's strong appeal
Something keeps drawing me back to this film. I truly can't put my finger on it. But it's not really a "guilty" pleasure. I finally caved in and bought the video when after having already rented it twice, found myself wanting to see it again. And no one's more surprised than me. I must've seen it five times by now.
Michael J. Fox teams up again with "Back To The Future" director Robert Zemeckis. Sounds like a winning combination. And it is. But something didn't sit well with the masses. Promoters didn't know how to run with the ad campaign, which I think hurt its performance.
I know the film was a bit of a box office disappointment, but that doesn't mean it's not a good film. It's an original treatment of a black comedy/adventure/horror. OK, so maybe that's its problem. This film suffers from the "too-many-categories" syndrome.
It does have some funny moments, but they're not knee-slappers. It does have some horror elements, but they're not bone-chilling or terrifying. Its most common theme or state is that of mystery chase.
The special effects are top notch and not over emphasized to the point of nausea. They are used throughout the film to enhance the supernatural setting the film is set in. It's another strong example of how computer animation has taken filmmaking to another level where almost anything is possible, to the benefit of an awestruck audience. But who knows, in a decade or so, these may be regarded as crude, low-grade, parlor tricks.
This was a post "Gump", pre "Contact" effort that is the recipient of at least the same care and effort of the other two. A signature of Zemeckis' films of late, where attention to detail seems a high priority. Of course, like any other film in history, there are flaws, but in my opinion they are forgivable. Spoiler guidelines prohibit me from elaborating, but unless you're really critical of films, you will probably miss it. Any film of supernatural subject matter should be given a certain amount of artistic license.
Basically, "Frighteners" is fun to watch, fast paced and has something for everyone, but it must've failed on some level for some people. I've recommended and loaned this film to a number of friends who've enjoyed it. Their responses were not too emphatic, but they enjoyed it nonetheless. I know what you're thinking, and I believe they'd tell me if they didn't like it. At least, I hope so anyway.
I guess all I can say is, if you were thinking about seeing it, or maybe just in the mood for something different, then give it a shot. You could do a lot worse. But don't take my word for it. See for yourself.
She's Gotta Have It (1986)
Where it all began for Spike Lee
So I finally got around to seeing the debut from auteur Spike Lee. I felt as though I knew the film before seeing it after reading an interesting history about it in John Pierson's "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes". If you're a fan of independent cinema, you should check out both the book and film.
Spike's familiar style and approach is evident in this early indication of a talented filmmaker. Whatever shortcomings that revealed themselves were largely unavoidable in such a low budget outing, and usually quickly forgivable.
The film's testimony approach often gave characters some depth and clearly gave the film a more intimate relationship with the audience, but at times hurt the film with some unfortunate bad acting from names you never heard before and probably never will again. Again, not Spike's fault. It does include one of my buddy's favourite pick-up lines, "Baby, I'd drink a whole tub of your bath water." I'm sure most women would appreciate that sentiment as the way to their heart.
Spike's sister and father have small roles which must say something about the man's admirable family pride. Of course, with many of his films, it seems Spike can't resist the allure of the space in front of the camera while controlling all that's behind it. Not many directors divide their energy in such a manner, but some of the most notorious directors of our time do. Whether this divides their focus in a negative aspect or not is difficult to say. But if it's a distraction or handicap, Spike seems to be managing fine
But even now I haven't stated either way if it's a good, recommendable film or not. It's largely in black and white, which is a turn off for non-film lovers. I once overheard some one say of "Schindler's List", "It's a really good film, even though it's black and white." I'm sure with some films the inclusion of colour can enhance the enjoyment of the film, but some things are not meant to be in colour, some things are better without it. Films like this one are only possible in black and white due to budget restraints. Whenever I see the efforts of some colourization nightmare, it makes my stomach turn, but I digress.
What can I say, I am a film lover, and I enjoyed it. If you fall in the same category, you probably will too.