Tuesday, 31 January 2012

MONSTER BRAWL - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Canuck Foresight Delivers Brawl To End All

Monster Brawl (2011)
dir. Jesse T. Cook

Starring: Dave Foley, Art Hindle, Robert Maillet, Jimmy Hart, Herb Dean, Kevin Nash, Lance Henriksen

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Who doesn't love Mexican wrestling movies? You don't? Well, go to hell, then. Santo, Blue Demon and Rodrigo the Hippie, however, are pussies compared to monsters. How about a movie that has wrasslin' monsters? Yes, you read correctly. MONSTERS THAT WRESTLE. What's not to like? Monster Brawl is unquestionably one of the most insane, hilarious, original gore-fests I have seen in ages. It's Canadian - which is no surprise given the wealth of truly insane films that come from this country. It's also no shocker that it's entertaining as all get out since it appears to have avoided dining too deeply at the trough of taxpayer financing.

The plot? Well, there really isn't one. (At least, not much of one.) Does this matter when the movie is full of monsters, babes and head-stomping carnage? My question is rhetorical. Don't bother answering. The movie is not dreary, depressing, dour, desperately arty nor a downer. In fact, the only downer is that it could use more babes, but the babes it's blessed with are delectably babe-o-licious!

Rachelle Wilde, one of Monster Brawl's
delectably babe-o-licious babes,
with yours truly!!!
What we've got here is 90 minutes of a world wrestling championship taking place on unholy ground in a lonely cemetery after the sun goes down. It is being broadcast to the world, but a live audience is not allowed to attend as the dead could rise from their graves at anytime and feed on them. (A great low-budget narrative hook to avoid paying for scads of extras.) We get colour commentary from a blustery sports broadcaster (The Kids in the Hall's Dave Foley) and a former monster wrestler (Art Hindle from scads of great Canuckle flicks like The Brood, Black Christmas and Face Off).

Hindle, by the way, is especially brilliant in the film. Playing a rather dapper Bigfoot who has integrated nicely into contemporary society, he's more or less a typical back country inbred redneck. Hindle chews the scenery, but in a manner that is wholly credible. He might be a Bigfoot monster, but in his heart, he's a mere country cousin to Zeke, Zebulon and the entire kit and kaboodle of your garden variety pioneer family.

The conceit of the movie is ridiculously simple, but winning. The wrestling event - featuring several bouts between a variety of monsters (a werewolf, a mummy, the frankenstein monster and, among others, the delightfully monickered Witch Bitch) unfurls as a live broadcast. Between bouts we get documentary-style introductions to each of the creatures and their recruitment to this astounding battle. What's so inspired about this format is that it's like one of those live pay-for-view events that's broadcast over regular television or appears like opera, theatre and wrestling events that now play on a big screen in mainstream multiplexes. As such, an audience for the movie could have one hell of a great time and cheer on their favourite monsters and/or boo the creatures they detest.

Added to this mixture are appearances from such famed wrestling and fighting game stalwarts like Jimmy "The Mouth Of The South" Hart (flanked by two eye-popping babes who preen and gyrate appropriately and keep looking directly into the camera as Jimmy introduces each monster), Herb Dean (who comes to a most delightful end), Kevin Nash who delivers a genuinely great comic turn as straight-faced rogue military man experimenting with some truly horrendous fighting machines and the jaw-droppingly enormous Robert Maillet (the Über-Immortal berserker in Zack Snyder's 300) who makes a perfect Frankenstein monster. Oh, and the voiceovers are delivered with suitable portent by Lance FUCKING Henriksen!

Is this cool, or what?

On casting alone, this picture deserves kudos. It's the sort of nuttiness one expects from low budget genre movies in terms of how they should be populated with a good variety of familiar faces - pop-culture icons, character actors and comedians.

I have a few minor quibbles with the picture. The wrestling matches themselves appear within a ground-level fighting ring located on a wonderfully designed graveyard that feels like it resides in Ed Wood Land. Alas, too many of the shots of the fight action are composed from outside of the ring so that compositionally, our view is annoyingly obstructed with the ropes of the ring itself. There simply aren't enough shots from inside of the ring. There also aren't enough wide shots that hold on what appears to be some terrific fight choreography.

On the film's budget, I'm aware that some truly spectacular God shots from directly over the ring might have proven beyond the filmmaker's means, but given the fact that this was a relatively controlled low budget shoot within an obvious warehouse studio, it would have been extremely easy to cheat any number of higher angle shots which could have been used to provide a sense of breadth to the fights, but also put emphasis on the fight choreography itself rather than creating almost ALL of the drive of the fights through editing. The number of shots used is impressive, however this fashionable, but to my mind, lazy manner many fight scenes are presented (even in huge budgeted Hollywood movies that should know better) detracts from the dramatic resonance of the fights.

And sure, you might think - "dramatic resonance"? What the fuck is Klymkiw on about? It's a fucking monster wrestling movie, for Christ's sake! Well, the best fights are those in which we have some dramatic stakes in those doing the battles. The Monster Brawl screenplay simply and rather smartly provides any number of story and character beats that allow for this - especially through the introductory segments used for each of the monsters (even the play-by-play colour analysis is blessed with such moments). The bottom line is that a series of entertaining fights between the monsters could have ascended to dizzying heights with a more traditional approach - a few wider overhead shots that held longer on the choreography, far more wide medium shots IN the ring, a judicious use of closeups and through the ropes shots and only during key moments in the fight should the filmmaker have utilized a requisite flurry of cuts. God knows, a "cutty" approach to any scene can work wonders, but these cuts need almost to be planned meticulously as part of the mise-en-scene.

This, of course, is not just something that young filmmakers make the mistake of doing, but you see it all the time in humungously budgeted movies. Yes, I mean YOU, Michael Bay!

Fights are drama. Every blow, every move, every view should be treated as a dramatic beat. Doing so allows for much more successful visceral thrills. Shawn Levy in Real Steel handled this perfectly - even down to seeking inspiration from John Avildsen's exquisite approach to the final boxing match between Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky and Stallone's own directorial touches during the fight with Drago in Rocky IV. This is where director Cook would have been able to improve things. A careful study of great boxing and wrestling matches in films - great films like The Set-Up, Body and Soul, Raging Bull, the Rocky pictures and even Stallone's brilliant, highly underrated Paradise Alley - would have gone a long way in giving Cook an opportunity to storyboard (even in a rudimentary fashion) all his fights with cuts in mind.

What IS exceptional about the fight sequences in Monster Brawl, however, is the superb sound design, mixing and sound cutting which more than makes up for some of the visual deficiencies. (These deficiencies don't, however, extend to the first-rate art direction and astounding makeup and special effects.)

The erratic visual approach to the fights - which, I believe is more a product of the manic editing of the fights than the actual coverage of the action (which seems bounteous: Cook is clearly a talented filmmaker in this respect) - has a wearying effect. The running time is short, but the movie occasionally feels like it's going on far longer than it should. This is precisely because of the lack of wider shots and the director (who also served as editor) not trusting the coverage he already had. Allowing even a variety of the shots far more breathing space would have worked wonders.

All this is to say, however, that I still loved the film and my only frustration is seeing - with the benefit of objective eyes - how a good picture could have been great.


Monster Brawl was the opening night Gala presentation of the 2011 Toronto After Dark Film Festival. It is available on Blu-Ray and DVD via Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada.

Monday, 30 January 2012

EXIT HUMANITY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Visionary 4-site Civil War Zombie Western

Only Canucks from Collingwood would
think to unleash Civil War Zombies
Exit Humanity (2011)
dir. John Geddes

Starring: Mark Gibson, Dee Wallace,
Stephen McHattie, Bill Moseley, narrated by Brian Cox

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Ambition, when it is clear, true and sparked by originality is nothing to be sneezed at - even if the end result falls a bit short of what it needs to succeed. Exit Humanity, a zombie western, is certainly one of the strangest and compelling movies I've seen in sometime. In fact, while it clearly belongs in the horror genre (there are zombies, after all), the picture feels a lot more like it's rooted in a tradition of magic realism and fairy tale. It doesn't quite gel, but in spite of this, it's a solid feature debut for a director whom one hopes will have a long, fruitful career ahead of him. His film begins with an all-out, no-holds-barred brutal battle sequence twixt the opposing blue and gray forces of the American civil war. As the carnage heats up, a third fighting element creeps into the madness - zombies. Even though the war soon ends, a dark cloud appears over the land and during the reconstruction period, a plague spreads across the once-divided, but now tenuously-melded nation.

The living dead, you see, rise to eat the living.

Following one young soldier, Edward Young (Mark Gibson) we embark upon his odyssey of pain, revenge and redemption that follows the deaths of his beloved wife and son. Edward keeps a detailed journal with vivid drawings and the most exquisite calligraphy. The reading of voice over journals is hardly original, but when it works, it works and there's certainly no reason for the insistence of those who should know better to NOT use it cinematically. Within the context of Exit Humanity, the journal proves to be a reasonable way to let us in on Edward's inner life, but to also pepper the picture with a lot of background - both narratively and historically. Edward's words of reflection appear over much of the action and are read by one of the world's great living actors Brian Cox. Even more astoundingly, the drawings often morph into gorgeous animated sequences.

On the plus side, the use of this narrative device helps plunge us into fairy tale territory. (Don't worry, there's plenty of brutal zombie action inflicted by the living dead and, most deliciously, upon them.) It's also, frankly, a brilliant approach to fleshing out the micro-budget of the film and delivering production value that fills out the movie. Amazingly, the picture has excellent production value in the non-animated sequences, so it never appears as if this is a choice tied to basic exigencies of production.

On the down side, there's too much narration and the writing tends to tell us stuff we already know and can see. There's occasionally times when it's totally fine to tell and show at the same time, BUT I do wish this had been more judiciously applied in the final cut.

The movie is quite a revelation in that it signals a new force in Canadian cinema. Foresight Features, the burgeoning Canadian company that produced Exit Humanity and the delightful Monster Brawl is making cool movies with next-to-zero dollars. Foresight is especially unique in that it brilliantly makes use of any number of no-budget techniques. They do so in a way that's tied directly to the narrative and atmosphere. (Note, for example, the exceptionally canny use of rural locations in both Exit Humanity and Monster Brawl.) Foresight is creating wildly original work that also maintains extremely high production value, private financing, tons of sweat equity and no dining at the Telefilm Canada trough.

Too many low budget Canadian films have big ambitions, but the artistic life is sucked out of them by bureaucrats and worse, those pictures almost always feel impoverished - with artistic cuts made to appease "industry standards". I've seen too many talented young filmmakers in Canada destroyed by the need of financing agencies and training institutions demanding an adherence to supposed standards that are, ultimately, nothing more than uninformed check-listing of buzz-words to ensure the survival of said agencies and institutions rather than the filmmakers.

And while many Canadian films are dotting their landscapes with genuine stars, Foresight Features has the imagination and, if you will, foresight, to populate their casts with quirky genre-specific stars. Exit Humanity - in addition to the aforementioned use of Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann's brilliant Manhunter) - features welcome supporting turns from a bevy of cool actors like Dee (E.T., The Howling, Cujo, Critters) Wallace, Bill (The Devil's Rejects, House of 1000 Corpses) Moseley and Canada's greatest actor (tied with Louis Negin for this Klymkiw Accolade) Stephen (Pontypool, the great 70s TV movie James Dean and his memorable star turn as Vreenak the Romulan in Star Trek: Deep Space 9) McHattie.

Exit Humanity is flawed, to be sure, but at least it's not stricken with the typical malaise infusing most Canadian features. It has scope, sweep and, although weirdly muted, high stakes. If anything, the movie is infused with a great deal of love and compassion. The strange blend of romantic yearning, fairy tale, horror and western genres is terrific when it clicks like clockwork. When it is deliberate, it's wonderful, but oft-times it's ponderous. The movie really needs a good 20-or-so minutes shaved from it. This would not, in any way, shape or form take away from the director's clear intention to provide an offbeat journey. It would, in fact, have enhanced it.

Instead of the usual hyped-up urgency that infuses so many contemporary genre films, I applaud the filmmaker's intent to bring us back to a time when scares and creepy-crawly feelings could hold an audience. Director Geddes has crafted a movie in this tradition, but it's mildly frustrating to watch a picture and SEE PRECISELY where the movie could be cut with no detriment to the intent. I psychotically watched the movie three times. Once, just to watch it. Twice, to figure out why it haunted me in spite of its considerable flaws. And finally, a third time to ascertain what could have been done with the footage in its final form. The movie it should be is buried in itself and most notably, in its intent. But as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions - action, finally, speaks louder than words.


Exit Humanity was unleashed at the magnificent Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011 and is being distributed on Blu-Ray and DVD by Anchor Entertainment Bay Canada.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

SUPER 8 - Review By Greg Klymkiw - J.J. Abrams finally displays something resembling competence as a director and as such, this latest film is the cinematic equivalent to the popular butthole salve known as "Anusol".

Super 8 (2011) dir. J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Glynn Turman, Noah Emmerich


Review By Greg Klymkiw

J.J. Abrams has, with his third feature Super 8, finally evolved into a dreadfully dull director with modest competence at jockeying the camera during basic dialogue sequences, but zero talent for anything involving action, suspense or the sort of scope or magic one expects in a feature film.

Seeing his wretched first feature Mission Impossible III, I was, quite simply, appalled. The movie was dull, noisy and jam-packed with one action set piece after another that displayed all the directorial prowess of a career bricklayer who'd inexplicably been hired to direct the back end of a film franchise that in previous helpings boasted such true masters of cinematic grammar as Brian De Palma and John Woo. MI-III was so pathetic that at a certain point, all I could focus my attention on was the question, "Who the hell is J.J. Abrams and why would anyone entrust this picture to such a loser?"

After seeing the film I discovered who he was and why he might have been hired. The guy was a prolific television hack who'd enjoyed enough success in the boob tube world that even I, who more or less stopped watching television in the ‘80s, had at least heard of his series Lost. MI-III gave me no desire to watch Lost or any of the other TV offerings he regurgitated for the greedy open mouths of the Great Unwashed.

I did, however, decide to cut Abrams some slack and see his 2009 Star Trek reboot. Being a huge fan of the original television series (when TV used to be good), Nicholas Meyer's first rate feature Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and not even minding The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, I thought only a gibbering gibbon would be able to mess it up.

While I wouldn't call Abrams's Star Trek a complete disaster - some of his approaches to providing a bit of fun insight into younger versions of Kirk, Spock and the rest of the gang were not without merit - he proved once again that he had absolutely no talent for action, suspense and cinematic grammar beyond the rudimentary. All encounters of the kick-butt variety were cacophonous, sloppily edited and rife with poorly composed and mostly too-close shots.

My expectations for Super 8 were virtually non-existent save for one salient item - Steven Spielberg was producing. So here's the deal: I love Spielberg the director. Always have and always will. As a producer, he's no slouch either and often his hand is played quite heavily in product he doesn't direct himself (the most notable example being Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist).

Unfortunately, Super 8 is pretty lame for the most part. The picture can be tolerated by the discriminating and enjoyed by the indiscriminate.

On the plus side, the acting is almost all fine. The performances by the juvenile leads are perfectly acceptable, but with one exception - Elle Fanning. She goes above and beyond the call of duty and is truly phenomenal as the geek girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The camera not only loves this actress, but she delivers the goods in two ways. As the "love interest" for our makeup-effects-obsessed juvenile lead, she acquits herself very well with the kind of dreamy, romantic, yet mouth-watering innocence - not unlike the great child performances of Hayley Mills in the classic Disney films. Even more astounding is her "acting" in the super-8 horror film that her character plays in. Acting like you're acting is always a tough stretch for any actor, but to deliver this with such expertise as a child actress is frankly astounding.

Most of the adults in the film are ho-hum, but there are a couple of standouts by adults in supporting roles.

Noah Emmerich as the slimy military villain bent on covering up the government's nefarious activities makes good work of his otherwise by-the-numbers role and Glynn Turman as the scientist involved in the said nefarious activities who seeks redemption for his role in the proceedings is terrific.

It's especially great seeing Turman in these supporting roles of late. The former child stage star first blipped on my radar in the terrific and criminally forgotten ‘70s Michael Schultz picture Cooley High. I always thought he'd become a huge star. Instead he toiled as a working actor in the graveyard of television. I hope someone finally takes notice and gives him a major role in a feature film. His memorable supporting performance in Super 8 and the picture's surprisingly decent box office might finally get him upfront and centre where he always belonged.

The plot of Super 8 is pretty straight forward stuff. A group of kids in a bucolic small town setting in the late ‘70s spend their off-time making horror movies on Super 8 FILM (yes, kiddies - FILM - that's what we used to use before tape and/or digital). One night while stealing some after-hours shots at the train station, they witness and capture on film a massive derailment. The train in question is a military train and, of course, its most precious cargo is a monster from outer space. With a creature on the loose, the nasty military decides that they're either going to capture/kill it or contain the whole area. It's up to the plucky kids to discover the truth and come to the rescue.

Okay, so this is all rather familiar, but in genre, familiarity doesn't always have to breed contempt if a filmmaker delivers a terrific roller coaster ride. Alas, J.J. Abrams is at the helm and I'm now convinced he just doesn't have the stuff to more than adequately direct feature films.

Thanks to Spielberg - no doubt - there are fewer annoying close-ups and rapid fire cutting, many of the set pieces are not without visual merit, the period detail is nicely observed (for the most part) and one leaves the theatre about as satisfied as one would be after scarfing down a nice bag of Old Dutch ketchup-flavoured chips. We know the product, it's consistently satisfying and once down the gullet, the feverishly masticated deep fried junk is eventually expelled into whatever receptacle one chooses to relieve their waste matter into.

Abrams is a dullard. He takes the familiar, renders it competently and by the end, all we have is something that keeps us in our seats without generating sore posteriors. Super 8 is the cinematic equivalent to the fine salve for fissures known as Anusol. As familiar as Abrams's movie is, the picture could have been the stuff of something so much greater. But for that, one needed a director who was born to deliver big screen entertainment. Basic craft can be learned, but generating anything beyond that requires the gift of cinematic storytelling be hardwired into the DNA.

Some might argue that television drama is fine stomping grounds for a director and that many of the greats cut their teeth on generating product for the idiot box. True enough. I'd argue that most of those directors, though, worked in European television drama (like Von Trier or Fassbinder) where the standards are often higher and demand a sense of sweep and scope. Or, more notably, the directors worked in the medium of North American television when jockeying the camera, while often the first order of business, wasn't the thing that propelled the filmmakers into bigger than life feature films. What propelled the best directors was the fact that they had "it" to begin with - something that Abrams is clearly without.

Take a look at any of the television work Spielberg himself toiled on before making the leap to feature films. His voice and added frisson in everything from his Rod Serling Night Gallery episodes, a Columbo mystery movie and through to his stunning MOW Duel were more than apparent. John Frankenheimer's live television dramas from the ‘50s are as cinematic as all get out. Just watch his electrifying Playhouse 90 teleplays like The Comedian or Days of Wine and Roses and you see a born filmmaker. Sam Peckinpah's forays into early TV westerns (in particular The Rifleman and his amazing TV movie Noon Wine) are also astounding and crackle with the genius that needed a bigger canvas to truly explode.

Abrams is not such a director. He's a hack - and a barely competent one at that.

The result is Super 8 - a moderately engaging genre picture that always feels like it should be better than it is. Many younger viewers will enjoy it, but try showing them some vintage Spielberg or Joe Dante's Gremlins pictures before dragging them and THEN see how much they like Super 8.

I'm pretty sure that the operative response in that context will be, "It was okay."

Saturday, 28 January 2012

VIVA LAS VEGAS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Elvis + Babes + Stock Car Racing + Great Musical Numbers + Vegas = Grand Entertainment

Viva Las Vegas (1964) dir. George Sidney
Starring: Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Cesare Davona, William Demarest and Jack Carter


Review By Greg Klymkiw

Elvis Presley made 31 movies as an actor, but you need only one hand to count the number of good movies he appeared in. One more hand will allow you to count five movies that are not especially good, but still manage to deliver some solid entertainment value. As for the rest, mangy dogs all. Some of them have a decent number or two, and The King's undeniable charisma, but they're really a sad waste of his considerable gifts as an actor.

A few years ago, I reviewed a DVD box set entitled Lights! Camera! Elvis! that featured eight Elvis pictures adorned in a fancy (I kid you not!) blue suede box. That year featured a glut of Elvis DVDs that were issued to exploit/commemorate the 30th anniversary of The King's fatal slide off his porcelain bathroom throne. Out of eight movies in the collection, one (King Creole) represented his best picture and another (Roustabout) fell into the category of mediocre, but entertaining.

The other pictures stunk out loud.

Part of me was hoping that even the bad titles might offer some nostalgic appeal, a bit of melancholic magic that’d bring me back to those halcyon days when I first saw them as a kid attending Saturday matinees at a neighbourhood cinema. In fact, through the gentle haze of childhood memories, I recalled that many of the pictures were really wonderful. Alas, they simply didn't hold up to adult scrutiny.

All feelings of bygone warm and fuzziness dissipated pretty quickly once I watched them on the blue suede DVD again. Aside from the nifty packaging and the inclusion of King Creole, all the collection provided was an interesting look at how a brilliant young actor was used, abused and wasted – especially in light of the great work he displayed in a handful of pictures.

Happily, the Warners Home Entertainment Blu-ray release of Viva Las Vegas is cause for celebration. If King Creole is The King's best picture and Jailhouse Rock is pretty much tied for that honour, but also his best musical, then Viva Las Vegas which is only a pubic hair or two below Jailhouse Rock, it's probably safe to say all three pictures tie for the accolade of Best Elvis Movies Ever!!!

Viva Las Vegas features Elvis as singing sensation and stock car racer Lucky Jackson who comes to Vegas in search of stardom on both fronts. He meets and falls head over heels in love with the gorgeous and talented Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret) while the charming, but dastardly Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova) provides the conflict as he too vies for stock car superiority and Rusty's affections. Lucky, of course, wins the race, gets the girl and achieve singing stardom. This, by the way, is no spoiler - it's the only way the picture could go.

Elvis is, of course, cooler than cool, but for once he is evenly matched in a picture with an actress/performer who holds her own magnificently with The King. Ann-Margret blows you away with both her beauty and singing talent. Their chemistry is pure electric and with both of them burning every frame of this picture with their virtuosity.

Viva Las Vegas is a musical that's simply too good to miss.

Able direction from George Sidney (Pal Joey, Kiss Me Kate and Annie Get Your Gun), a fun script by Sally Benson (Meet Me in St. Louis), a great song score and a terrific supporting cast that includes two of my favourite old reprobates William Demarest (as Rusty's Dad) and Jack Carter as the talent show emcee, Viva Las Vegas rightfully takes its throne alongside the best of the best.

"Viva Las Vegas" is available Blu-Ray via Warner Home Video with a stunning high definition transfer.

Friday, 27 January 2012

MR. WARMTH: THE DON RICKLES PROJECT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Filmmaker John Landis renders a loving documentary portrait of a true American original!

Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (2007)
dir. John Landis
Starring: Don Rickles, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Robin Williams, Robin Williams, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Harry Dean Stanton, Roseanne Barr, Steve Lawrence, Sidney Poitier, Regis Philbin, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Jay Leno, Ed McMahon, Debbie Reynolds, Ernest Borgnine, Larry King, Roger Corman, Joan Rivers, Jimmy Kimmel, Jack Carter, Carl Reiner, Tom and Dick Smothers, Frankie Avalon


By Greg Klymkiw

Anyone who doesn't find Don Rickles funny has no sense of humour. No, let me rephrase that. Anyone who has never had at least one moment in their life when they soiled themselves from laughing so hard at Don Rickles has no sense of humour. End of story. No argument. Yeah, yeah. Humour is a matter of taste. Tell it to your, Mama, sissy-pants. If Rickles has never inflicted you with joyful incontinence, your taste is shoved so deep up your rectum it's no wonder you're perpetually constipated.

Throughout my childhood, Rickles was a ubiquitous presence. I don't think a day passed when he wasn't popping up on television or in the movies. Every 60s and 70s sitcom worth its salt had a Rickles guest appearance - The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies - the list seems endless. Talk shows, variety shows, awards shows and specials like the famous Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson always featured Rickles prominently. And the movies - Oh, the movies! It felt like Rickles was in all of them (and if he wasn't, he should have been) - serious war dramas like Run Silent Run Deep, not-so-serious war comedies like Kelly's Heroes (where he played "Sgt. Crapgame" opposite Clint Eastwood), Roger Corman's brilliant X - The Man With The X-Ray Eyes and one Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello Beach Party picture after another.

Rickles made me laugh harder than any comedian then or now. He was the wise-cracking, wise-acre master of insults. Nobody was left unscathed - neither celebrity nor audience member. No race, creed or religion (including self-effacingly his own) escaped his witty barbs. He was relentless - infused with charges of mega-wattage. He was fast, furious and unmistakably an original.

He started as a standup comic in the late 30s - often playing dives and strip clubs. After serving in the Navy, he studied acting - his classmates included the likes of Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Jason Robards. His movie career took off in the late 50s and in the early 60s, he took Las Vegas by storm.

He's 85-years-old and he hasn't stopped performing.

His live shows are, of course, the stuff of legend and he successfully managed to keep them from ever being filmed. Happily, for those of us who have never seen him live, he was finally convinced to let the cameras capture his mad genius onstage.

Thank Christ, it was filmmaker (and Rickles fan) John Landis who not only convinced Rickles to expose himself for the feature-length HBO special Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, but directed it as well. Landis has made some of the funniest movies of all time - American Werewolf in London, Coming to America, Trading Places, The Blues Brothers, Three Amigos, National Lampoon's Animal House and The Kentucky Fried Movie. Landis, is first and foremost a filmmaker with a style and voice all his own and he attacks this documentary about America's most beloved caustic wit with both zeal and artistry.

Landis delivers everything a good documentary needs - we get personal anecdotes, the sweep and arc of Rickles' life and most importantly, we get a sense of Rickles on and off stage. We see his kindness, tenderness, love and humanity. This is no warts-and-all portrait. There are no warts. And even if there are, we don't want to see them. In fact, if they exist at all and Landis exposed them, neither he, nor we would believe it.

Rickles is a mensch!

And, of course, a comic genius.

We not only get plenty of phenomenal Rickles concert footage, but gorgeously shot and composed talking heads interview footage as well as skilfully selected and blended archival footage. Rickles isn't only hilarious in the standup routines Landis captures, but in the intimate interviews.

And, of course, we get every star under the sun who has ever worked with and/or admired Rickles to speak about him.

Most amusing of all is how Landis and his subjects all seem obsessed with nailing why Rickles is so special. Brilliantly, the film is ultimately about how none of them hit the nail on the head - that it's Rickles himself who provides the answers. That said, the smorgasbord of stars called upon to extol and examine Rickles, are often funny, entertaining and insightful.

The two best interview subjects are director Martin Scorsese (who comes closest to nailing why Rickles is brilliant) and actor James Caan who reveals that the driving force for his performance as the hotheaded Sonny in The Godfather was by finding his "inner Rickles".

What emerges is a portrait of a comedian who not only entertains, but has inspired more than one generation of comedians, actors, directors and other show business types.

Finally, it's Rickles himself - through his routines and interviews - who reveals what makes him click. Rickles uses insults so ferociously that what finally allows them to be funny (and offensive in all the best ways) is that he's just kidding - not in that disingenuous "Hey, just kidding, folks" fashion, but because he's clearly having so much fun himself.

And the fun is infectious. His audiences feed off this energy and fuel him further with their laughs.

Rickles' barbs are not laced with hatred, but with joy and understanding of human foibles and frailty.

Most of all, though, Landis does prove that the Rickles "Mr. Warmth" monicker is not just an ironic twist on the basis of his humour, but that he's a good person - a loving husband, father and grandfather, a loyal friend and a genuinely fine human being.

And yes, he's warm.

But when Rickles is performing, he's hot!

"Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project" is available on a terrific two-disc DVD from Video Service Corp. (VSC). We get Landis' film on Disc 1 and on Disc 2, we get a tremendous pot-pourri of outtakes including Landis directing Robert DeNiro to say what he wants him to say, James Caan telling a knee-slapping John Wayne story and more Scorsese than you can shake a stick at.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

BELLFLOWER - Losers of the NOW generation captured evocatively in this debut feature that's as eminently watchable as it is drearily indicative of what passes for counter-culture amongst today's aimless youth.

BellFlower (2011)
dir. Evan Glodell
Starring: Evan Glodell, Tyler Dawson, Jessie Wiseman, Rebekah Brandes, Vincent Grashaw


By Greg Klymkiw

Much as I loved George Miller's post-apocalyptic Australian action thriller Mad Max, I couldn't ever imagine becoming so obsessed with it that I'd devote every waking hour in my early adulthood to reconstructing homemade flame throwers and souped up muscle cars. Woodrow and Aiden (Evan Glodell and Tyler Dawson), however, do just that. They leave their Wisconsin home behind, move to California and take up a rewarding career of slacking.

Like all healthy young men from the midwest who developed a mutual obsession from repeated slavish viewings of Mel Gibson kicking Toe-Cutter butt, they become your everyday, run-of-the-mill go-to guys for all the accoutrements one might require in a dystopian future. Alas, they live in the here and now. It's plenty dystopian, though.

First time filmmaker Evan Glodell mounted this finely observed drama on a meagre budget, but makes up for it with all manner of solid writing, superb performances and some really imaginative props (that Glodell himself designed). It's gorgeously shot and chockfull of super-cool tunes.

Some might describe the movie as part of the mumblecore movement, but because I hate that particular delineation and many of the movies within it, I refuse to lump Bellflower in with them. The movie is replete with naturalistic - almost neo-realist touches - and to label it with such an undignified genre-monicker just doesn't feel right. So I won't.

The story follows the slackers with a keen eye for observation and mundane details. Like all good bro-mances, though, things get complicated once members of the opposite sex get involved in their otherwise perfect, self absorbed lives.

It all starts at a cricket-eating contest in a local white trash bar. Yes, cricket-eating. I guess hole-in-the-wall joints in California have never heard of wet T-shirt contests. Woodrow enters the contest and finds himself squaring off with the sexy Milly (Jessie Wiseman). As the two of them shove live crickets into their mouths, it's love at first sight. Aiden takes up with Milly's cute friend Courtney (Rebekah Brandes), but things get romantically complicated when Milly continues an affair with Mike (Vincent Grashaw) behind his back. When he finds them balling together, all hell breaks loose - including Woodrow having an affair with Courtney behind Aiden's back.

These young people are pathetic, but Glodell really has a keen eye and ear for them and though we never quite connect with these wasted lives, we're always fascinated with them. The movie also has a dark, gritty appeal and we always feel a sense of something malevolent roiling deep beneath the surface.

Bellflower is a terrific feature debut and while I'm looking forward to more work from Glodell, I must admit some disappointment that he resorts to a series of arty-farty flash-forwards which tip us off - very early on - as to where the movie is going. What's frustrating is that without them, the movie had the potential to be one of those winning tales where you never quite knew where it was headed. For me, I had to settle for observational details rather than also being carried along by a narrative that otherwise would have been both original (as much of it still is) and surprising (which, alas, it isn't - save for Glodell's otherwise compelling mise-en-scene).

I saw through the picture immediately.

Maybe you won't, so I'll refrain from spoiling it for you.

"Bellflower" is available in a fabulous fully-loaded Blu-Ray and DVD set with the added bonus of super-cool package design. It's available in Canada from the visionary distributor Video Service Corp. (VSC) who are doing a bang-up job representing mega-cool Oscilloscope Pictures.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

THE AMITYVILLE HAUNTING - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Imagine, if you will, a horror film in which nothing happens and has no scares.

The Amityville Haunting (2011) dir. Geoff Meed
Starring: Devin Clark, Douglas Williams, Amy Van Horne, Casey Campbell


By Greg Klymkiw

Though the "found footage" horror movie à la The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity is becoming overused, old-hat and an excuse for any bonehead to pick up a camera and make a movie, this is still a reasonable format to render a rip-snorting scare-fest - if, of course, those behind the camera have even the vaguest idea of what they're doing which, the makers of The Amityville Haunting do not.

I can't say I ever much liked Stuart Rosenberg's original 70s Amityville picture. It was relatively watchable, but erratically directed - veering from plodding to overwrought. What saved it, of course, was its terrific cast of James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Don Stroud and a healthy serving of one of the more delightful hunks of Rod Steiger ham. I liked the 2005 remake even less - fraught as it was with the too fashionable A.D.D.-styled editing and accent on numbing pyrotechnics - and the Amityville sequels between 1979 and 2005 were as rotten as an exhumed corpse on a hot day.

The Amityville Haunting, however, reaches an unimaginable nadir for even this ho-hum franchise. While a "found footage" instalment is a reasonable enough approach to a film dealing with the house that haunted the Lutz family back in '79, the makers of this abomination display no talent for writing, directing or editing. Certainly there are no magnificent set pieces imbued with the thought and proficiency displayed in Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity franchise and it's bereft of Peli's brilliant gift for pacing which creates endless creepy-crawlies and shocks that truly deliver one roundhouse after another.

This 'found footage" septic tank purporting to be a movie is paced with all the constipated delicacy of its incompetent director Geoff Meed endlessly attempting to emit anything resembling a turd. Upon straining his gluteus maximus with Herculean vigour, Meek manages to self-perforate his sphincter du cinéma which results in a few bleeding anal fissures. During the picture's non-event climax, he emits what appear to be a couple of rock-hard étrons de le lapin.

What we get, finally, is a really stupid family moving into the Amityville House - knowing its entire history - while their obnoxious, untalented kid videotapes them moving in and occasionally noticing the requisite weird occurrences. Add to the mix a whole mess of dull surveillance footage and bits of iPhone-captured action and we've got a recipe for boredom. If the makers of the picture had something resembling talent, the mixture of video mediums could have been a decent way to present the story, but they have no idea how to blend it all cohesively and ultimately, there really isn't anything that resembles a story.

The last few minutes deliver a whole lot of pathetically rendered carnage that mostly takes place off-screen with titles over black that read: "Corrupted Video". It's corrupted all right - with not a single moment of competence. In this sense, the movie might be the most pure work of cinema ever made - pure, unadulterated Loser-ville.

That said, the movie has a handful of decent unintentional laughs, but alas, they're too few and far between to place this culot de matières fécales de l'anus d'un lapin in the movie-so-bad-you've-gotta-see-it category. One scene, however, is almost hilarious enough to rent the movie. It involves a visit from a detective who might actually be more stupid than anyone in this or any other movie.

Ah, screw it! There's no real reason to see The Amityville Haunting.

I did, though, so you don't have to.

"The Amityville Haunting" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray via VSC (Video Service Corp.) VSC often releases cool stuff, though, and be on the lookout for my mixed, but positive review of their release of the SYFY undead opus with Ving Rhames "Zombie Apocalypse" in the next issue of The Phantom of the Movies Videoscope.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

THE PHENIX CITY STORY - Uttered with a chilling matter-of-fact timbre and an unmistakable Alabamian accent, a fat, sweaty, cigar-puffing dispatcher in a dank, dirty and humid police station thick with smoke and the overwhelming karma of human rights violations, barks out: "Somebody just threw a dead nigger kid on Patterson's lawn. Go out and have a look." This occurs on the heels of the sickening, unforgettable image of a child's battered, bloodied body as it's flung like a rag doll from a passing vehicle and virtually into our laps. This is one of the great film noir crime pictures of all time. It's just as powerful and vital now as it was in 1955.

The Phenix City Story (1955)
dir. Phil Karlson
Starring: John McIntire, Richard Kiley,
Kathryn Grant, Edward Andrews, Jean Carson, John Larch


By Greg Klymkiw

“Somebody just threw a dead nigger kid on Patterson’s lawn. Go out and have a look.”

Uttered with a chilling matter-of-fact timbre and an unmistakable Alabamian accent, a fat, sweaty, cigar-puffing dispatcher in a dank, dirty and humid police station thick with smoke and the overwhelming karma of human rights violations, barks out the line above. This occurs on the heels of the sickening, unforgettable image of a child's battered, bloodied body as it's flung like a rag doll from a passing vehicle and virtually into our laps via a creepy low-angle pull-back.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most brutal and hard-hitting film noir pictures you’re likely to see in your lifetime..

The movie is The Phenix City Story.

And it’s a great movie!

Not only is The Phenix City Story one of the best crime pictures ever made, but feels like it hasn't dated one bit (save for the period in which it's set). The filmmaking seems as fresh and vital as when it first puked up the grotesque reality of the deep American south upon its release in 1955. That said, a number of its techniques may seem familiar to many, but keep in mind - they began here, folks.

Ace crime director Phil (Kansas City Confidential, Framed, Walking Tall) Karlson, working from a sizzling screenplay by Daniel (Out of the Past) Mainwaring and Crane (Andre De Toth's Crime Wave) Wilbur, delivers a picture that gets so under your skin it demands multiple viewings - each more aesthetically exciting and thought-provoking than the last. Karlson's command of cinematic grammar is so sharp and astute that he's able to frame his work within a structure that breaks quite a few rules by always knowing what the rules are and using them when he needs to and flouting them when he wants to shove our faces ever-deeper into the mire.

Phenix City, Alabama is a real place. Bordering the state of Georgia where the mighty Chattahoochee River (one of the locations used for the movie Deliverance) slices through it, Phenix City in recent years has become known as one of the best places in America to raise a family.

It wasn't always this way.

And frankly, I find it hard to believe it's changed all that much. My few visits and albeit limited exposure to that “Great State” suggest that Alabama is one of the nastiest, weirdest, most dangerous and distressingly prejudice-ridden places I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing.

Historically, Phenix City was the site of one of the last big battles of the Civil War and during the 1940s and 50s, it became known as Sin City, USA. On a per capita basis, there was more crime (much of it violent) in this mini-metropolis, than any other region in America. Corruption ran rampant as did gambling houses, prostitution and murder.

Situated near the military training facility in Fort Benning, Georgia, Phenix City was the go-to location for America's fine military to indulge in all manner of debauchery. The American military has always and continues to be one of the largest consumers of prostitutes world wide. Throughout the 20th century and beyond, Uncle Sam’s protectors, due to their gluttonous appetite for no-strings-attached stress-relief have, in a sense, been primarily responsible for the sexual slavery and exploitation of women the world over. (A prime example is the Eastern European sex-slave-trade that exploded during America's involvement in the post-Milosevic struggles in Croatia and detailed in the feature film The Whistleblower directed by Larysa Kondracki and starring Keira Knightley.)

During the 1950s, Phenix City, thanks mostly to the avid consumption of sexual favours, had the highest rate of venereal disease during WWII and in the post-war period. When off-site furloughs were unavailable, the army allowed truckloads of prostitutes to be brought right into Fort Benning to service the randy recruits. It has oft been rumoured that famed General Patton's death was actually rigged by organized crime since he threatened to clean things up when Fort Benning was under his command.

God Bless America! And the United Nations, of course - as both continue to disgustingly support sex slavery to keep the boys happy in the Middle East.

And, God Bless Phil Karlson - for real! One of America's great movie directors, Karlson chose a blend of docudrama, neo-realism and film noir to tell the story of the late Albert Patterson (brilliantly played in the picture by John McIntire), a lawyer who ran for the State Attorney General position on a major anti-crime-and-corruption ticket and was brutally and brazenly gunned down by the criminal mob running Phenix City.

The story begins with a benign Patterson, trying to live his life quietly. When Albert's son John (Richard Kiley, displaying his almost trademark, and here effective, moral outrage) returns home for a visit and discovers how corrupt things are, he decides to stay and fight the good fight. Albert joins the fight and agrees to run for Senator. Albert's old friend Rhett Tanner (a delectable performance from Edward Andrews - alternately next-door-neighbour friendly and malevolently smarmy), attempts to convince Albert to back down. When he doesn't the violence escalates to such extremes that men who believe in the law are faced with taking the law into their own hands.

Writing in his book "Essential Cinema", one of the few great living film critics Jonathan Rosenbaum addresses not only the potential for vigilantism in the story itself, but the sort of audience reaction garnered by The Phenix City Story:

"Though the movie's politics are liberal, its moral outrage is so intense you may come out of it wanting to join a lynch mob."

One of the more interesting thoughts that Rosenbaum's quote elicits is the different ways in which similar true-life situations were treated in the 50s and 70s - especially by director Phil Karlson himself. With The Phenix City Story Karlson creates the desire to "join a lynch mob", yet does so within a story wherein the central figures never quite get to that point and use "the law" to primarily battle the corruption.

In the 70s, Karlson revisited a similar tale - that of Sheriff Buford Pusser in the huge vigilante boxoffice hit Walking Tall. Not only did audiences all over the world want to join lynch mobs (I remember the trailers and TV ads featuring footage of audiences leaping out of their seats and delivering standing ovations at the end of the film), the story Karlson chose to tell was an out and out pro-vigilante tome where its central figure walked softly, literally carried a big stick and used it with abandon. Walking Tall bears all the hallmarks of Karlson's terse, effective direction and manipulation of audience emotion, but does so by going all out in celebrating the notion of taking the law into one's own hands.

Another interesting observation is just how similar the story elements are in The Phenix City Story and Walking Tall. Both films feature the following:

- A young man returns to his hometown to discover it is a den of iniquity and decides to fight back.

- An inveterate gambler wins fair and square, but upon exposing cheating in the gambling club, is beaten to death. This is almost a replay of Walking Tall's opening with the character of Lutie McVey played by Ed Call.

- The primary location of vice in both films is presided over by a butch bull dyke (played by Jean Carson as "Cassie" and Rosemary Murphy as "Callie" respectively).

- The good guys are secretly aided by a hooker with a heart of gold (played by Kathryn Grant and Brenda Benet respectively).

- The good guys are aided by a Black man (played by James Edwards and Felton Perry respectively).

- The Albert Patterson character is similar to that of Pa Pusser played by Noah Beery Jr. in the latter picture.

Looking at both films it's obvious Karlson ordered Walking Tall's primary scenarist Mort Briskin to use The Phenix City Story as a model.

One also cannot help but notice that Roger Corman must have taken a cue from Karlson's 1955 true-life depiction of crime and racism in the deep South when he adapted Charles Beaumont's book The Intruder in 1962. Corman shot his thriller dealing with racial integration in education on location in the towns hardest hit with the controversy. Karlson, of course, entered the territory first with his film.

Though in fairness, thanks to producer Mark Hellinger with the much earlier Naked City, noir and the crime genres during the post-war period were both highly influenced by the neorealist movement in Italy and led the charge for a whole new era of location shooting in American cinema.

Stylistically bold and downright daring in the myriad of chances it takes, The Phenix City Story begins with a series of interviews with actual citizens of Sin City, USA - major players in the real-life fight against the criminal element, some of whom admit to the camera that they have been the targets of harassment and death threats. These interviews are shot in the very locations in which the events took place - so real that we see people wandering in and out of the background - REAL PEOPLE - briefly looking at the cameras and/or quickly averting their gaze so as not to be caught on film.

In fact, if we didn't know going in that we were soon going to be seeing a dramatic recreation of the events, we might, during this lengthy pre-title interview sequence think the film was going to be a documentary. It's not, of course, but once Karlson begins the story proper, and shoots his tale on the very street where the Sin City crimes took place and goes so far as to have lead actor John McIntire costumed in the very suit that real-life Albert Patterson was murdered in, we're utterly mesmerized by this strange hybrid of docudrama and neo-realism - thus confirming that what we're watching is a movie that's going to be like no other we've seen.

"The Phenix City Story" can be found in Volume 5 of the Warner Home Entertainment box sets The Film Noir Classic Collection.

Monday, 23 January 2012

CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU - With Warner Oland's death, Sidney Toler stepped in. A perfect fit, like most honourable pair of old slippers

Charlie Chan in Honolulu
dir. H. Bruce Humberstone
Starring: Sidney Toler, Phyllis Brooks, Victor Sen Yung, Eddie Collins


Review by Greg Klymkiw

When longtime Charlie Chan star Warner Oland died in 1938, Twentieth Century Fox was faced with a dilemma of considerable magnitude. The Chan series (based on writer Earl Derr Biggers character who, in turn, was loosely based on a real-life detective in Hawaii) was one of Fox’s more profitable franchises and exhibitors and the public were still hungry for more. And now Oland was dead. Though he was Swedish, his swarthy features allowed him to be made-up as an Asian and he made quite a career of playing “yellow-face” roles. After appearing in 16 pictures as Charlie Chan, the most venerable Asian detective, Fox and the world both wondered who would succeed him.

Oland, of course, was not Asian – few leading Asian roles were actually entrusted to Asian actors. Would an Asian actor be cast? While rare, there was already some precedence for utilizing actors like Sessue Hayakawa and Anna Mae Wong in leading roles. After a period of intensive casting (well over thirty actors were tested for the role) it was announced that a new Charlie Chan picture was on the way and that it would star the non-Asian American-born character actor Sidney Toler. While he was not Swedish like Oland, it is said his ethnic background was primarily Scottish – definitely not Asian. Ah well, it’s interesting to make note of this, but kind of ridiculous to place the contemporary values of political correctness and tolerance on such matters.

Charlie Chan in Honolulu is definitely a transitional picture within the series – due mainly to the challenges of maintaining a much-loved character with both a new actor and changing times. It does, however, succeed as one of the more entertaining entries of the series.

Up to this point, the Chan pictures had been set in a series of far-flung locales such as Egypt, London, Paris and Monte Carlo (among others), but this entry takes us to Chan’s home in Honolulu where we’re introduced to an All-American mailbox (emblazoned delightfully with the All-American: “Chas Chan”) in front of an All-American bungalow. Inside, we’re treated to an All-American depiction of a typical Asian-American family as Charlie presides over a dinner table filled with what seems like dozens of his offspring. Here we’re also introduced to the new sidekick of the series, Number Two Son. The terrific young Asian actor Keye Luke portrayed Number One Son, but Luke was so distraught over Oland’s death that he withdrew from the series – hence: Number Two Son (played delightfully by Asian actor Sen Yung).

This family dinner is especially fraught with tension since Charlie’s daughter is in the hospital and about to give birth to his first grandchild. It’s also revealed that Number Two Son wants to be a detective, but Dad scoffs at the very idea. When the entire family takes off to the Honolulu Hospital to be present for the birth of Number One Grandchild, Number Two Son takes a telephone call for Charlie.

Chan is being summoned to preside over a murder case. Number Two Son’s telephone interception is a perfect antidote to his overwhelming desire to be a detective. He decides to take Charlie’s place and soon finds himself on a freighter where a particularly brutal murder has taken place. Number Two Son bungles his way along until Charlie swoops in to save the day. Eventually, Charlie – in classic Chan fashion – assembles every one of the suspects into one room to reveal the killer and with the help of Number Two son, he does so with his usual flair.

All in all, this is relatively straightforward stuff and quite par for the Chan course. This doesn’t mean it’s not supremely enjoyable. It most certainly is. The supporting cast includes two absolutely delicious babes (one “good” and one “bad”), some hilarious comedy relief from Eddie Hogan as a zoo keeper continually on the run from an escaped lion and last, but certainly not least, the inimitable George Zucco as a crazed psychiatrist called Dr. Cardigan who has some weird machine affixed to an actual human brain.

The movie is replete with Chan’s trademark “Confucius Say”–styled sayings and Sidney Toler adds considerable flair to the role of everyone’s favourite Number One Detective. Fans of the series will be more than satisfied with this picture, though I suspect non-Chan-fans will potentially have no idea why this series was one of the most popular detective series in movie history.

Also, those who are humourless politically correct fascists will be idiotically offended by the period ethnocentricity that’s basically gentle and never mean-spirited. One example of this is when Charlie, at the hospital, is accidentally handed the wrong baby – a tiny Black child. Charlie smiles and quips, “Wrong flavour.” It’s a genuinely and sweetly funny moment that has more to do with the racism and/or ethnocentricity and/or just-plain stupidity of the character of the nurse who hands the child to Chan. However, one can easily imagine Birkenstock-wearing-granola-bar-knee-jerkers sharpening their venomous fangs of righteousness over this and several other moments like it.

The Fox Cinema Classics Collection DVD release of "Charlie Chan in Honolulu" is a very handsome package. It is full of terrific background documentaries and a painstaking reconstruction of one of the lost Charlie Chan features using publicity skills and a reading of the shooting script. This movie is part of Volume 4 of the first-rate Charlie Chan Collection that continues to deliver the Chan-goods to all of us Chan-oid geekster psychos who can never get enough of these wonderful old pictures.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH - Richard Matheson is one of the finest writers of the 20th Century. Amongst numerous novels and short stories, he wrote screenplays and teleplays for some if the coolest genre movies including the Corman Poe adaptations, numerous TWILIGHT ZONE episodes and Spielberg's DUEL. Here is the most faithful adaptation of his classic post-apocalyptic thriller "I am Legend"

The Last Man On Earth (1964) dir. Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona
Starring: Vincent Price


By Greg Klymkiw

Let’s get this out of the way – Richard Matheson is one of the great American writers of the 20th century and his impact upon popular culture, literature and the art of writing is, perhaps, as insurmountable and important as the impact of someone like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Raymond Carver. The difference between Matheson and the aforementioned scribes is that he gets very little in the way of egghead (academic) respect (save, no doubt, for the likes of screenwriter extraordinaire George Toles and uber-menschian-pop-culture-guru Will Straw) – probably because his genres of choice were horror, sci-fi and fantasy and much of his writing was at the (supposedly lowly) level of screenplays and teleplays. There are, however, few great living and working filmmakers who do not owe a lot to the ground broken by Matheson. His genres of choice are pulp and it is pulp that often does not get the reverence it truly deserves.

That said, Matheson not only wrote some of the best movies and television (the monumental The Incredible Shrinking Man, classic episodes of the original Rod Serling Twilight Zone series, and a number of the Roger Corman big-screen Poe adaptations – among many others), but his astounding novel “I Am Legend”, first published in 1954, still has the power to chill and provoke. Matheson’s terse prose style captures the voice of his central protagonist so expertly that the horrifying, lonely journey taken by Robert Neville, the last man on an Earth populated by vampires, is simple, yet complex in its exploration of life in an apocalypse – an apocalypse that can be seen as both the end and a new beginning for mankind.

It’s a great book, and has spawned three film versions. The most recent is the execrable Will Smith action vehicle that takes the novel’s title and premise and does little besides providing a handful of visceral shocks. 1971 brought us Boris Sagal’s supremely entertaining and seriously, almost-hilariously dated Chuck Heston vehicle. And then there is The Last Man On Earth – an oddball 1964 film adaptation produced by schlockmeister Robert Lippert and made in Italy with a cast of dubbed-in-English Italians and a very odd, but also very compelling Vincent Price in the title role.

While the picture veers, on a number of fronts, from Matheson’s novel, it manages – more than the other versions – to come the closest to the spirit of this strange, terrifying tale of one man battling post-apocalyptic vampires. Moodily shot in black and white, we watch as Robert Morgan (inexplicably renamed as such in the movie, and played by Price) spends his days bombing around the city in a station wagon, killing vampires and burning their corpses while alternately taking care of mundane errands like shopping (in eerily-empty shops).

As dusk approaches, our hero locks himself in his secured suburban dwelling to calmly sip wine and listen to jazz LPs while roaming hordes of vampires call tauntingly to him from outside, threatening to kill him before he kills more vampires. Luckily, his home is secured with all the anti-vampire accoutrements including clusters of fresh garlic hanging on every possible entrance – the smell of which repels the vampires. (I must admit this particular bit of lore always confused me when it came to Eastern European vampires – you’d think all those bloodsucking Bohunks would be attracted to the aroma of garlic. But, I digress.)

Matheson himself wrote much of the screenplay adaptation for The Last Man On Earth and I suspect this is why the picture feels very close to the tone of the source material. In spite of this, Matheson was not satisfied that his script was rewritten by a number of other writers at the behest of Lippert and his pasta-slurping co-producers and he removed his name and had it replaced with the nom-de-plume of Logan Swanson. Oddly enough, looking back over all the film adaptations of his novel, this is still the best of the lot.

In spite of this, the picture is not perfect. The Italian locations look great, but are weirdly masked in the dialogue to be American instead of European. This is especially disconcerting since the locations contribute so much to the eerie quality of the movie. The standard dubbing into English of actors who are clearly not speaking English was de rigeur in the 60s, but seems a bit wonky in a contemporary context. The flashbacks employed feel shoehorned in rather than wended expertly and seamlessly into the narrative (Sagal’s The Omega Man did this rather well – in spite of the kitsch factor of most everything else in the picture).

These are minor quibbles, however. The Last Man On Earth captures Matheson’s dark, nasty tone and for much of the picture’s running time, it is a truly creepy and scary sci-fi horror thriller. Especially worth regarding is how this version captures the whole notion of how vampires (creatures of legend) become the new mundane humanity and how the mere mortal becomes the legend. It is this very thematic layer that takes Matheson’s “pulp” into the realm of worthy literature and thankfully, this particular picture is respectful of the theme.

The Last Man On Earth is as fine an adaptation of Matheson’s novel that we’re likely to see for some time. Sadly, the Will Smith version will put the kibosh on any future attempts to remake the film. In the meantime, see this version and be sure to read Matheson’s original “I Am Legend” and then you, like I, can dream of a remake in a generation or two that tackles this classic and universal work with EVERYTHING it deserves.

“The Last Man On Earth” is available on many DVD labels as a public domain title, but the best ones are the Legend Films release (that includes an odd, but rather pointlessly colorized version in addition the B/W original) and MGM’s terrific version that is double-billed with “Panic in Year Zero” and appears to be re-mastered from truly pristine elements.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

RAGE - 70s paranoia at its best as Oscar-winning George C. Scott directs himself in this nasty political thriller about a simple Everyman who believes deeply in his country until his country screws him royally and all he has left is seething hatred. Needless to say, he does something to let off a bit of steam. It's the American Way!

RAGE (1972)
dir. George C. Scott
Starring: George C. Scott, Richard Basehart,
Martin Sheen, Barnard Hughes, Nicolas Beauvy, Ed Lauter


By Greg Klymkiw

In the movies, things often begin innocently enough with clouds, but as we all know, those billowing masses of stratospheric cumuli can also deliver iniquity of the most malicious kind. To my way of thinking, pictures from the 1930s, 50s and 70s had some of the more vile cloud droppings. In 1935, Hitler descended through the visible vapour to preside over the Nuremberg rallies in Leni Riefenstahl's masterwork of Nazi propaganda The Triumph of the Will. During the Cold War in 1957, similar meteorological puff balls brought an incurable condition to the character of Scott Carey (Grant Williams) in Jack Arnold's classic sci-fi thriller The Incredible Shrinking Man. Philip Kaufman's stunning 1978 remake of Don Siegel's hysteria-infused 50s chiller Invasion of the Body Snatchers, alien spores bent on replicating themselves in mankind drifted into Earth's atmosphere from space. Through brumous wisps over San Francisco, the podlike spire of corporate homogeneity, the Trans-America building, stood like a seeming and appropriate beacon for a life form bereft of emotion and bent on destruction.

Those are a few of my favourites. The list of clouds that bring nastiness in the movies could, however, go on.

RAGE was made in 1972 - a decade where paranoia ran rampant in both life and the movies and when belief in conspiracy became commonplace - especially in the sort of urban backdrops as portrayed in Kaufman's picture and the numerous political thrillers of the era.

In RAGE, we are far from the bustle of a metropolis. The town and the country are - in most matters - two solitudes and so it is that the opening of actor George C. Scott's feature directorial debut cascades us - not over a city, but through the lush, heaven-like clouds hovering gently over a rural Nevada landscape. We're in sheep country and Scott plays Dan Logan, a rugged herdsman who lives a quiet life with his pre-teen son Chris (Nicolas Beauvy). The two have a mutual respect and admiration for each other and nature. They go about their laconic business on the open rugged plains - the outside world far, far away.

Or so they believe.

With the exception of a military helicopter blasting over them and Lalo Schifrin's odd score - seeming more at home in an episode of The Waltons than the usual throbbing dischords he generated for films like Bullitt and Dirty Harry et al - father and son eventually bed down for the night under the stars. Dan and loyal pooch nestle comfortably within a canvas tent, whilst sonny-boy sleeps outside, keeping the sheep, crickets and stars company.

The next morning, Dan wakes up to find all his sheep splayed about the fields - barely alive. Chris is in the same condition. Dan attempts to wake his son, but to no avail and he bundles the boy into his pickup truck. Taking one last look at the carnage, Dan's POV reveals a sheep twitching in pain, its tongue hanging out and blood pouring from its nostrils. In bold, blazing red, the title treatment appears over the shuddering wooly ungulate. As the word RAGE smashes into our faces, so does the Lalo Schifrin score. We know for sure we're not in Kansas, Dorothy. Nor, for that matter are we in Waltons territory.

As the previous God-shots of the bucolic countryside return, cinematographer Fred (Patton, Billy Jack, Papillon, The Towering Inferno) Koenekamp captures the overhead fury of Dan's truck racing madly across the Nevada countryside. With Schifrin's trademark grating, grinding music pounding away and ace editor Michael (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, Fatal Attraction, Saving Private Ryan) Kahn's expert cutting, we know for sure we're in the region of full-blown 70s paranoia.

What follows was, and still is, everyone's worst nightmare - the death of a child - compounded by feelings of helplessness when the death has been caused by the idiotic, senseless actions of a government that should serve and protect at all costs and then refuses to own up to its actions and illegally colludes with as many agencies as possible to cover up its incompetence, its callous disregard of the innocent and its inherent evil.

In reality, many of the South Western United States have hosted all manner of nefarious activities and it's no surprise when it is revealed to us very quickly in RAGE that the government has been developing a nerve gas to use in battle and that an accident has released a small, but deadly amount of the poison.

Soon, all of Dan's sheep die and so does his son. He has also been exposed, but to a lesser extent.

Lesser, but still lethal.

All of this information is, of course, withheld from him. Governments - any governments - are not there to tell the truth. Their reason for being is to uphold the status-quo, the war machine and the New World Order. The film believes it to such an extent that it is infused with a calm, matter-of-fact acceptance of this notion and is relentless in hammering it home. (I love the moment when a military scientist calmly explains - between bites, chews and swallows of his lunch - the devastating effects of nerve gas upon all living things.)

One of the best aspects of the screenplay by Philip Friedman and Dan Kleinman is the clinical manner in which we are delivered all the information that is kept from Dan, the character Scott plays. For us, there are no surprises. We hear everything and see everything - what the tests were for, how they screwed up, the need to contain the disaster, the insidious manner in which all will be covered up and most horrendously of all - the knowledge that anything that has come into contact with the deadly nerve gas will die and so, in the name of "science", Dan will not be told about his impending demise so he can be poked and prodded by doctors and the military to study the effects of this weapon of warfare, or, if you will, of mass destruction.

We watch these Mephistophelian machinations with horror and frustration. We know what our central character does not - the truth.

And what a great character! Dan Logan is a true everyman of a generation that believed in the status quo. He honoured country, authority and put considerable trust in professionals - like doctors. After all, he is, by his own admission, a simple sheep farmer who loves solitude, nature and his son - especially his son. Since being widowed, he lives for his flesh and blood. He is the epitome of decency and, as the central character, he is our way IN to this story. Knowing everything while he knows nothing puts us in his shoes. Though knowing and not knowing are opposite sides of the fence, the end emotional result is the same: mounting frustration, sorrow and finally, anger.

This is fine writing and even finer direction. George C. Scott creates a mise-en-scene of astounding power. Even when he uses slow motion to accentuate emotion tied to action or an action to deflect while, at the same time foreshadow a dramatic beat, he successfully uses a potentially cliched technique (especially in first-time feature directors) that it works almost every single time. Yes, he does overuse it and the film has a few dollops of clunkiness, but nothing that detracts from the whole.

Scott especially makes fine use of cinematographer Fred Koenekamp. The lighting in virtually every scene is spot-on - everything from the antiseptic fluorescence of the institutional interiors to the deep blacks of night punctuated (often with a moving camera) with flashes of light. Yes, there are definitely elements of film noir used to great effect in this harrowing conspiracy thriller, but the picture is also infused with a heavy sense of Aristotelian tragedy. (This, no doubt, appealed greatly to Scott.)

As an actor, he delivers - under his own esteemed direction - one of his best performances. Any movie called RAGE and starring George C. Scott is a flashing billboard of what to expect. And yes, rage comes - Oh Boy, does it come!

But it's a slow burn.

Scott the director wisely uses Scott the actor so we believe every turn of his character through the myriad of emotions he expresses (or holds back). Scott, of course, looks great with a stylish down home burr-cut and bushy eyebrows - in addition to his grizzled mug. He's also in terrific physical condition. He might be a tad paunchier than the days he slapped his rock-hard belly as General Buck in Dr. Strangelove, but he looks every bit the MAN who works with his hands. And Damn! As comfortable as Scott seems behind the wheel of a pickup truck, he also looks great on a motorcycle - cooler than cool.

Earlier, I made mention of Michael's Kahn's editing. Many of the cuts are seamless and "silent", but on occasion we are slammed with a cut that rips the breath out of us. One of the most stunning edits occurs on a closeup of George C. Scott's face as he looks - almost without emotion - upon the post-autopsy body of his child and then, in the sweetest spot imaginable we get a smash cut to black. The black holds silently until we hear Scott's off-camera sobs and we realize we are in an exterior black as the camera is moving until a square of light reveals Scott moving with psychotic determination in his gait and pain growling from his throat. This is an incredible sequence and a stunning marriage of every major craft discipline achieving a level of convergence that is exactly the sort of cinematic effect that evokes gooseflesh.

As a director, Scott wisely surrounded himself with a terrific cast. It's great seeing Richard Basehart of the long-running sci-fi TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (in addition to some great film noir pictures and very cool eclectic roles in the work of directors like Federico Fellini and John Huston) playing Scott's longtime family doctor - a country general practitioner of the old school who, like Scott's character, places his faith in authority and briefly, in the younger men of science. Martin Sheen, as one of those youthful medicine men, is positively chilling as the career bureaucrat wearing the Hippocratic Oath as if it were the same chain attached to the ghost of greedy old Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol.

The deliciously evil Ed Lauter makes a great appearance as a hospital orderly who'd be more at home as a strong-arm thug to Richard Conte in The Big Combo, while many of the smaller and bit roles feel like they're either played by non-actors or some amazing character actors who are so good they exude the odious whiffs of reality needed to contribute additional colour to the proceedings. In particular, the actresses playing nurses in the hospital laden with conspiracy are such foul cucumbers they give Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest a definite run for her money. Playing military officials, creepy scientists and department of public health officials, the likes of Barnard Hughes, Stephen Young, Paul Stevens, Kenneth Tobey and William Jordan are not only a who's who of 60s/70s character actors, but acquit themselves brilliantly - especially in a horrific boardroom scene where the conspiracy is hatched.

RAGE is one of the best conspiracy thrillers of the 70s and definitely one of the earliest on the scene. Other pictures are better known and revered, but George C. Scott set the stage and the bar very high for all of them. It's a movie that seems to have fallen through the cracks and anyone who enjoys this genre will no doubt enjoy the picture thoroughly. More importantly, though, it's a movie that resonates with our contemporary world and does its job with equal doses of subtlety and sledgehammers. It's perhaps that very dichotomy that makes it an important work in the canon of American cinema of the 70s.

And the rage? Oh yes, there's plenty of that. The carnage Scott inflicts is vicious. Each blow against "The Man" gives us immense pleasure, but the screenplay and by extension, Scott the director, won't give us the Smores in the McFlurry. The film delivers a devastating conclusion, like many of the great 70s classics. The end is on par with the final moments of Dirty Harry, Night Moves and, among many others, The Parallax View.

RAGE gives us the goods we so seldom get in contemporary cinema.

We can win an occasional battle with "The Man", but we'll never win the war.

Sadly, "RAGE" is only available through the Warners Archives label wherein it must be special ordered online. Thankfully, it IS available, but it deserved better than this (as do many of the titles in this particular library).

Friday, 20 January 2012

THE GREY - Liam Neeson is always worth watching, but this man against nature thriller is the worst sort of by-the-numbers moviemaking. It's by the numbers with pretensions to be better than it is. That, frankly, sucks a smegma-encrusted appendage.

The Grey (2012) dir. Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney


Review By Greg Klymkiw

The pitch: Liam Neeson works for an Arctic drilling rig as a sharpshooter who keeps wolves away from the employees. When the winter season sets in big time, most of the employees and residents, board a plane and head to southerly destinations. When the plane crashes smack dab in the middle of a wolf pack's hunting grounds and very near their den, the handful of survivors must battle the elements and the wolves. The coterie of macho wolf-bait is the usual assortment of miscreants - leading to all manner of personality conflicts amidst the very real threat of being devoured and/or freezing to death.

Sounds okay on paper, yes? Well, if the movie had risen beyond the most rudimentary competence, "okay" might well have been the operative word in describing the relative worth of The Grey. Alas, the tagline could just as well be: "A new film from the director of The A-Team, Smokin' Aces and (lest we forget, though we rather would) Narc".

This, I assure you, is not a ringing endorsement.

Carnahan perpetrates one of the biggest crimes against a genre picture like this - he takes certain elements seriously enough that he bogs down the visceral forward thrust with all manner of incompetently written longueurs. The movie opens with dreadful, cut-rate narration delivered by Liam Neeson that spells out what the setting is, how horrible it is to live there and how useless to civilization all its inhabitants are. These voiceovers, as it turns out, are derived from a letter Neeson is writing to his ex-wife that he never plans to send and whom he knows will never take him back.

So, why bother with this dull conceit? Well, it allows a pedestrian talent at best, like co-writer and director Carnahan, to generate material he bone-headedly thinks will lift the material out of the muck it should stay in to be even remotely entertaining. Not only do we get narration, but it eventually morphs into a series of dull, on-the-nose flashbacks with Neeson and his wifey. He stares at her lovingly while she whispers sweet nothings of encouragement - some actual, some imagined. They always occur (surprise-surprise) at moments when Neeson needs them the most.

There's a hint that Neeson's character feels spiritually connected to the wolves, but only a hint, mind you. Lord knows, we wouldn't want to get too cerebral. A missed opportunity in the hands of any other director, but in Carnahan's lumpy mittens, it's just something he'd have screwed up.

There are the usual squabbles twixt the men, but all these serve to do is slow down the action to the pace of a snail - mostly because the endless conversation scenes involving a group of supposedly diverse characters who ultimately have little to distinguish themselves, save for the fact that they are not Liam Neeson's character.

We do get the occasional wolf attacks, but these are directed with all the style and verve of an apprentice butcher raising his sledgehammer tentatively over the skull of a cow before letting it crash down upon the bovine cranium. They're almost always in closeup and utilize the fashionable, but lazy herky jerky shots and Attention Deficit Disorder quick cutting.

Worse yet, we seldom get real wolves, but rather fake ones generated with makeup and animatronic effects. I'm grateful they're not rendered digitally, but that's the best I can say for them. They all look like glorified puppets and in the night exteriors, some of the cheesiest digital effects are employed in order to make the wolves' eyes glow. Ugh.

Didn't Carnahan and his team ever hear of animal trainers?

The British Columbia locations allow for plenty of spectacular scenery, but they, like the rest of the film, are shot with competence and even then, not always even that.

More annoying than anything, it's yet another film with dubious research that presents a stereotypical portrait of wolves. Didn't Farley Mowat's great book and Carroll Ballard's fine film adaptation Never Cry Wolf put all that nonsense to rest a long time ago? (I also happen to live in an area surrounded by wolves, so perhaps I carry a personal bias I can't get over.

Liam Neeson, as per usual, is worth watching, but why go to the trouble of shooting all this dross when it might have been easier to get him to crack open the telephone book and just read the listings to us? The rest of the cast ooze a certain competence, but their characters are thinly sketched so they barely register (save for one nasty, sterotypically contrary fellow).

The absolute nadir of this lame thriller is its seemingly ambiguous ending. This, along with all the idiotic flashbacks and poorly written yap-fests contribute unsuccessfully to Carnahan wishing to rise above his plodding yawn-inducer and convince us that he's a thinking man and that his movie is not just another straight to video thriller that's inexplicably getting a theatrical release.

A thriller can be many things, but to be boring is inexcusable.

I think I'll read some Jack London or watch Carroll Ballard's Never Cry Wolf to cleanse my palate of the foul taste Carnahan put there.

How about you?

"The Grey" is in theatrical release via E-One starting January 27.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

MEEK'S CUTOFF - Terence Malick by way of John Ford with a feminist sensibility yields one of the great westerns of this or any other time.

Meek's Cutoff (2011)
dir. Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood


By Greg Klymkiw

This is the REAL Tree of Life - a strange, poetic, beautiful and almost elegaic journey through the desert flats of the Oregon Trail during the mid 19th century. Meek's Cutoff is a western, but there are few oaters that are anything like it. In terms of subject matter, How The West Was Won immediately comes to mind, but it's raucous and sprawling in ways this film isn't. John Ford's Wagon Master comes close in terms of both subject matter and its lower-keyed qualities for Ford. Maybe the closest film that comes to it is Peter Fonda's criminally ignored and forgotten The Hired Hand - an introspective western with a deliberate pace and a keen eye for detail.

None of them, ultimately, are Meek's Cutoff. It's in a class all by itself.

Wagon trains have always made for great material in westerns, but this is probably the first movie I've ever seen that comes close to giving a sense of just how gruelling and horrendous such journeys must have been. At the same time, it still manages to incorporate a mythic sense of the big skies of America in ways that the aforementioned John Ford, in particular, was able to capture.

Director Kelly Reichardt and her cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt seem to always know just exactly where to place the camera for maximum dramatic (and poetic) impact. Blauvelt has been a camera operator and first (or second) assistant camera person on everything from Geronimo and Speed to Zodiac and A Single Man - a fabulous list of titles that, no doubt, served him in good stead on this picture (and make me salivate at the prospect of seeing more work from him. Reichardt, for her part, is a gifted film artist who is endowed with a keen eye and a whole lot of heart (her Wendy and Lucy is a beautiful film in all respects). As well, the cutting style she employs is simply breathtaking. (Yup, she does double duty here and is, frankly one of the few directors I am happy to call a "filmmaker".)

The tale is as simple as could be. Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is a surly, craggy mountain man with a seemingly greater knack for spinning yarns than he is at guiding his charges through the early days of the Oregon Trail. He's leading three wagons through Hell - but, it's a terrible beauty that surrounds these early pioneers. The sky is as big and beautiful as it is ominous, while the landscape is at once harsh, and yet as pristine and unsullied as one could imagine. Meek is convinced he has a better way to the promised land, but as the journey progresses, the settlers begin to think he's lost. Much of the emotional conflict comes from their growing disenchantment with his guiding prowess, while the obvious physical conflict is between man and nature - crossing rivers, deserts and moving up and down through rugged terrain takes both a physical and psychological toll on all of them.

Meek and the settlers are also worried that they're being stalked by Indians. When they encounter a mysterious aboriginal (Ron Rondeaux) all on his own, they begin to fear even more for their lives. As the journey progresses, however, it's the young, tough-as-nails and level-headed Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) who places much faith in the Indian and suspects he's their only chance at salvation - especially since they've been without a proper supply of water for quite some time. By his actions - praying, chanting and etching markings whenever he can - it becomes quite obvious he's alone; possibly a medicine man on a spirit quest. Not unlike the similar and solitary journeys of such Old and New Testament figures as Moses and Jesus respectively, the Indian IS a genuine figure of salvation. That said, Meek and the men doubt his motives, and not unlike all of the Holy Bible's doubting Thomases and their lack of faith in Moses and Jesus. I don't want to tread to heavily in this territory, but Emily, is surely a Mary Magdalene figure who offers support and ultimately places her trust in the Indian. By saving his life, she might also be saving that of herself and the others.

Reichardt's pacing and overall mise-en-scene is utterly exquisite. She places her camera in a fixed position and, from shot to shot, she tells her story in absolutely stunning tableaux. Not only does this provide a glimpse into the hardships these people encounter, but captures so many delicate details of character, nuance and psychology. This also captures the milieu of what it's like to be in the middle of nowhere - the way sound travels (or doesn't), the manner in which people communicate, work and rest and finally, the land - its power, glory, expanse and yes, danger. When a cut happens, it's not only breathtaking, it moves us ever forward and draws us in even deeper into the world, the characters and narrative.

Reichardt and Blauvelt also make the brave and brilliant decision to shoot the film in the square box aspect ratio (1:1:37) that ruled cinema for over five decades of film history. When the camera is in wide, or even medium shots in this ratio, the simple square captures the drama in ways that widescreen (rectangular) ratios simply cannot. It allows for expanse, but does so in a manner that captures the vertical breadth of what it's like to be out on the plains. It also plays in beautifully with a sense of the Heavens, always hanging well above the figures in the landscape - making the spiritual physical in ways that I've seldom experienced on film (save, perhaps, for the painterly compositions of John Ford's exteriors). When this aspect ratio is in closeup, the power is even more apparent in terms of the details it captures - images that appear etched from both the faces and physical environment the settlers are living in.

Lighting and sound are also handled in an original and powerful manner. Shots at night seem lit only by the candles, lamps or campfire, whilst during the day, it is natural light that floods everything with its natural beauty. (I'm sure bounce boards, various filters and lights WERE used, but if so, in moderation or with such delicacy that they don't overwhelm the natural beauty.) The sound captures (or at least approximates) how it is heard (or not heard) by both the characters and us. Whole conversations are barely audible from certain vantage points - most powerfully when the women are forced to keep a considerable distance from the men as matters are discussed that are not in the purview of womankind. Often, these are matters women SHOULD be apprised of, but within this old world - gender is what determines one's place and Reichardt is unsparing in providing the necessary and real aural point of view.

In terms of performance, there are no false notes though ultimately, the movie belongs to Michelle Williams. If there are any greater contemporary actresses of her generation, I'd like to know who they are. Film after film, she dazzles with her screen presence and versatility. Here, she is ultimately the opposite of their guides surname. Meek, as superbly played by Canadian Bruce Greenwood is all bluster. Williams wears meek subservience as a mask, but in her eyes, you sense intelligence, life and scrutable qualities. And when she asserts herself, it is with a calm, controlled power.

Speaking of said power, I began this assessment of Meek's Cutoff by invoking Terence Malick's mind-numbingly dull, obtuse and wildly overrated The Tree of Life. Reichardt's film is infused with a similar contemplative sense, a determined pace and a spirituality that feels rooted in nature and the land. The difference here, is that it really means something.

Meek's Cutoff also provides a tree of life. Reichardt uses it both symbolically AND as a literal plot element. It is a tree rooted in the land these settlers risk everything to traverse across and it is, finally, a tree that provides hope, growth and lifeblood. Meek's Cutoff is worth a hundred of Malick's film. In fact, it feels like Malick in his prime, but with dollops of John Ford and even, at times, Robert Bresson (especially in terms of an almost expressionistic neo-realism).

It's a great movie. I've seen it several times now. It gets richer with every viewing and between screenings, it refuses to let go. The movie roots itself within your very core - growing and pulsating with life.

"Meek's Cutoff" Was first unveiled in Canada by the Toronto International Film Festival's TIFF Bell LightBox. It is available on Bluray and DVD on the Oscilloscope Home Entertainment label with a raft of superb special features. The movie comes to Canadian viewers by way of the visionary company VSC. It's a movie worth owning - to cherish again and again.