Sunday 25 September 2016

CAT PEOPLE (1942) - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Visionary Val Lewton on Criterion Collection!

Stalker (left), Prey (right). Two of the scariest, creepiest
scenes in movie history. And there are more. Plenty more.
Cat People (1942)
Dir. Jacques Tourneur
Prd. Val Lewton
Scr. DeWitt Bodeen
Starring: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Tom Conway, Jack Holt

Review By Greg Klymkiw
"Mоја сестра." ("My Sister.") - greeting from a woman afflicted with the old Serbian curse of turning into a cat when she gets horny to another woman similarly afflicted in Val Lewton's Cat People.
There aren't too many stories as sexy, haunting and downright terrifying as this one. Based on Val Lewton's short story "The Bagheeta", Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) an émigré from Serbia in modern day Manhattan refuses to have sex with the handsomely hunky square-jawed husband she loves (the somewhat presciently monikered "Oliver Reed", played by Kent Smith) because she's terrified she'll turn into a ravenously deadly black panther. When the frustrated hubby turns his amorous attentions to Alice Reed (Jane Randolph), his beautiful co-worker at the engineering firm he's employed by, it's quite possible that claws will sprout and fangs will be bared.

As a genre, the horror movie came of age with the visionary Val Lewton's 1942 RKO shocker Cat People and there is not a single scary picture that followed that doesn't owe it a huge debt of gratitude.

For example, how many times have you watched a horror film and jumped out of your seat, clutching your heart, grasping your breath, (and possibly) unloading a stream of urine and/or a glob (or three) of faecal matter in your drawers when a wham-bam shock-cut batters you senseless? Chances are, in good movies or bad, the jump-scare has knocked you on your tailbone (or preferably your cushy derriere) more times than you'd care to admit to yourself, much less anyone else.

Well, you saw it here first, folks - Cat People invented the jump-scare.

The scene in which it occurs here was so shocking, so stunning and so memorable that for decades afterwards, when film crews were setting up for shots involving a jump-scare, they'd refer to it as setting up for "The Bus". Yes, they were referring to the "bus" in Cat People. There's no need to spoil it for you.

When the bus arrives, you'll know it!

"The Bus" is important for more than introducing the jump-scare (as we now know it) to the world; it's everything that precedes the shock (in both the sequence and the film itself) and everything that follows.

Prior to Cat People, the horror film was primarily rooted in the "past" - historical narrative rumination upon long-ago-far-away worlds of Bürgermeisters, torch-carrying villagers and monsters created via alchemy. Not that there is, or was anything wrong with this, but when the highly regarded writer and story editor Val Lewton was hired by the ailing RKO studios to set-up a horror movie division, he had his work cut out for him. The studio was, at this point, almost bankrupted by the WWII (and post-war) economy, but also by Orson Welles via the disappointing box-office of Citizen Kane and the wild cost-overruns of The Magnificent Ambersons. They wanted horror movies! They needed to be made fast and cheap!

Lewton was the right man for the job. Long associated with madman creative genius David O. Selznick, he learned well from the best in the business, but he also had his own ideas about things. One time Selznick so infuriated Lewton that the young man wrote, uncredited of course, a scene in Gone With The Wind that was so insanely over-the-top that he assumed Selznick would never consider including it in the movie.

Remember Scarlett O'Hara stumbling onto the Main Street of Atlanta, the dirty roads cluttered with the hundreds upon hundreds of wounded soldiers, the camera pulling away from her and craning up to a God's-eye view as a tattered Confederate flag flapped in the wind? Lewton wrote this. Selznick shot it. The scene might be one of the most famous in movie history. Well, when Selznick, in a shockingly magnanimous gesture, recommended Lewton to RKO, movie history was not only made again, but cinematic storytelling took a decidedly welcome turn.

The Ukrainian-born Lewton (his Aunt was Alla Nazimova) was steeped in a tradition of literature and folklore. He also brought a lonely childhood to bear upon his subsequent work which fuelled his imagination.

Lewton believed that what was scary - REALLY scary - was everything in the real and CONTEMPORARY world that "normal" people had to face. Blending this with his love for fairy tales and folklore, Lewton was the first person to bring horror to the "modern" world.

With Cat People, here was a story about a stranger in (to her) a strange new land - a woman from an "old" world in a "new" world, carrying the baggage and sins of her ancestors into an America which valued prosperity and forward-thinking. It's a story about marital strife, sexual frustration, loneliness, suicidal despair, psychoanalysis, the complex relationships between men and women and most of all, the scariest thing of all - the dark.

Yes, darkness. What we can't see is what scares all of us.

Lewton understood this and decided to exploit it for all its worth. Though rival Universal Pictures made a fortune from horror movies, they already had long-standing franchises (Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and Dracula) to keep the bucks rolling in for a modest cost. All RKO had was the King Kong franchise, but they really couldn't be made fast and cheap. The studio's marketing geniuses handed Lewton a whole whack of titles. Yes, titles only. These titles were "proven" potential for box office gold as exhibitors had been polled and gave big collective approval ratings to them.

Lurid promises - A movies that delivers the goods.

So, for his first production, Lewton was handed the title Cat People. Oh, he did not disappoint. Working from Lewton's original short story, screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, director Jacques Tourneur, cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca and editor Mark Robson not only delivered one of the most dazzlingly original horror pictures ever made up to that point (and let's not forget that the likes of James Whale and Tod Browning were no previous slouches in this department), but generated a film that went through the roof at the box office. (Lewton also brilliantly presided over all the studio's lurid marketing materials.)

The horror set-pieces are still unparalleled in terms of their influence upon cinema. Lewton and his team used darkness to their clear advantage - deep shadows and off-screen horror-potential keep us shivering (and practically, they don't cost money). Add to this, though, the astonishing use of sound design. Who will ever forget the creepy water sounds and echoes in the film's empty swimming pool at night sequence? Or how about the two sets of click-clicks of high heels upon the sidewalk pavement in Central Park as a woman senses being stalked?

And then, there's "The Bus".

Goddamn, it's scary. As is the whole movie.


The Cat People is now on Criterion Blu-Ray and (if you must) DVD. The sumptuous package includes a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, a 2005 audio commentary with film historian Gregory Mank and excerpts from an audio interview with Simone Simon, a 2008 feature-length documentary: "Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows", a 1979 interview with Jacques Tourneur, a trailer and an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.

Saturday 24 September 2016

BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Russ Meyer Goes Criterion!!!

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
Dir. Russ Meyer
Scr. Roger Ebert
Starring: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, Edy Williams,
John LaZar, Henry Rowland, David Gurian, Charles Napier, Pam Grier

Review By Greg Klymkiw

"This is my happening and it freaks me out," declares rock impresario Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John LaZar) during his berserker Hollywood party replete with live performances by The Strawberry Alarm Clark, a bevy of boobilicious babes, all manner of fornication and bucket-loads of booze/drug consumption.

Z-Man wasn’t the only one freaking out. When Russ Meyer (Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Motor Psycho, Supervixens, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens, Up!), the king of big-boob cinema extravaganzas, unleashed his first major studio picture Beyond the Valley of the Dolls upon an unsuspecting public, audiences, critics and the film’s major backer, Twentieth Century Fox, were freaked out to the max.

For good reason.

The opening few minutes of Meyer’s Roger Ebert-scripted dive into L.A. sleaze pits proceed to bash us in the face with Z-Man and Martin Bormann (Henry Rowland), Z’s loyal bartender, right-hand man and resident Nazi (nom-de-plumed as "Otto"), whilst the nutty pair malevolently chase scantily clad babes within a seaside mansion estate. In a climactic moment to end all climactic moments, we cut to a Luger sensually stroking the supple lips of a beauteous-sleeping-big-bosomed-babe until the deadly firearm is inserted erect-penis-like into her mouth, the wet maw eagerly – nay, greedily – accepting the cold-steel schwance-of-death as our dozing dame proceeds to suck it dry. Under the circumstances, who wouldn’t? Be freaked out to the max, that is.

(Oh, okay, and suck it dry, too.)

When Meyer and young film critic Ebert were hired by Fox to concoct a vague semi-sequel reboot to Mark Robson’s through-the-roof sex-and-soap-suds adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls, the artistic pursuits of these perfectly matched reprobates flew under the radar of studio executives during the delightful beginnings of the oft-envied, late lamented and much-revered "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" days of American Cinema. The film was so low-budget by studio standards, nobody in the front office paid it much mind, but for Meyer, the budget might as well have been as large as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra.

He did not waste one cent.
The Carrie Nations are united in SIN!!!
Plot wise, things are relatively simple and perfectly in keeping with Susann’s moronically simplistic rags-to-riches-to-rags soap opera. However, the incorrigible lads dole out a cinematic masterpiece of flagrant filth that’s anything but moronic and in its own strangely perverse way is rooted (so to speak) in a queer miasma of morality. If anything the film celebrates perversion to such a deliciously over-the-top degree that the tale cannot help but become a morality play. (That said, the film brilliantly manages to make the morality seem as old-fashioned as it deserves to be – it’s even vaguely derisive.)

So, the film focuses on the buxom Carrie Nations, an all-girl rock band comprised of Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers) and Petronella "Pet" Danforth (Marcia McBroom). At first they’re infused with the down-home, corn-fed morals of the mid-western US of A, but in no time, they’re turfing their regular squeezes for a series of libidinous adventures with a variety of partners. One of the cuckolded beaus (David Gurian) even takes up with a porn starlet (Edy Williams) who drains him to such a degree that he eventually can’t even get it up.

Fun and games, for one and all – especially the audience – but as this epic of sin continues, the freedom of youth increasingly morphs beyond the "summer of love" antics, and the evils of both L.A. and show business in general give way to an unholy Walpurgisnacht that unravels during the film’s deeply dark finale.

The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten proclaimed that the film was "true to life".

Who are we to argue with this?
Well, you don't see something like this everyday.
Ebert and Meyer created a work that’s drenched in lurid colour and the colours of sleaze, slime and scum, and we’re allowed to revel in the kaleidoscopic picture with all the giddy laughs it wrenches from us from beginning to end, along with the trademark Meyer montages of rapid-fire cuts – a chiaroscuro of madness and freakishness at its finest. This is sheer sex-drenched melodrama; as a director, Meyer might as well be Douglas Sirk on crack cocaine.

Besides, what other movie features (again, from the highly quotable Z-Man) one of the greatest lines of dialogue in movie history: ‘You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!’

Black sperm, indeed.

Years ago, I met Ebert as a young lad and proceeded to geek him out with my love for the film. He took me for donuts and we spent an hour together talking about it. His final words to me were thus: "Never, ever feel ashamed to admit how much you love Beyond the Valley of the Dolls."

And if you’re listening up there, Mr Ebert, I am not ashamed.

I’m infused with pride to declare my utter, deep passion.


Beyond the Valley of the Dolls gets the full Criterion Collection treatment on Blu-Ray and (if you must) DVD with a high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, 2003 audio commentary featuring screenwriter Roger Ebert, 2006 audio commentary featuring actors Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Harrison Page, John LaZar, and Erica Gavin, a new interview with filmmaker John Waters, 1988 episode from "The Incredibly Strange Film Show" on director Russ Meyer, a Q&A about the film from 1992 featuring Meyer, Ebert, LaZar, Read and actors David Gurian, Charles Napier, Michael Blodgett, and Edy Williams, a 2005 interview with cast members, five 2006 about the making of the film, featuring the cast and crew, screen tests, trailers, a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Glenn Kenny and excerpts from a 1970 account in the UCLA Daily Bruin of a visit to the film’s set, plus gorgeous new cover art by Jim Rugg.

This review of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls originally appeared at Electric Sheep.

Read my review of Valley of the Dolls HERE.

Friday 23 September 2016

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Soap, Sex, Sin and Susann on CRITERION

In the Valley of the Dolls, there are BABES, BOOZE, BEDS
and CATFIGHTS - Oh, the Catfights! The glorious catfights!

Valley of the Dolls (1967)
Dir. Mark Robson
Scr. Helen Deutsch, Dorothy Kingsley
Starring: Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Susan Hayward,
Paul Burke, Martin, Milner, Toni Scotti, Lee Grant, Alexander Davion

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Oh, glorious melodrama! Glorious, glorious, glorious melodrama! How Do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways! Or rather, forget that! I'd be sitting here counting all goddamn day! Why? Because I love melodrama - a perfectly legitimate storytelling form that too often gets the bad rap of knee-jerk dismissal, like it's a dirty word or something. Screw THAT! In my books, there is only good melodrama and bad melodrama. Sometimes, there's even GREAT melodrama, and Mark Robson's gorgeous film adaptation of the pot boiling Jacqueline Susann bestseller is nothing if not great melodrama.

I will admit, as would any red-blooded lad growing up in the late-60s-early-70s, to reading the book upon which this film was based. What self-respecting suburban mother didn't have a copy of this novel in her library of fine literature? What self-respecting 10-year-old boy wouldn't secret the paperback away to peruse its contents late at night under a blanket with a flashlight? It's a dirty book, eh.

Mark Robson's movie is one lollapalooza of sudsy filth!
Susan Hayward replaced Judy Garland. PERFECT!!!
Susann's book was a compulsive piece of trash that had made-for-the-movies written all over it. Her swill was done proud by screenwriters Helen (National Velvet, I'll Cry Tomorrow) Deutsch, Dorothy (Pal Joey) Kingsley and - I kid you not - Harlan (A Boy and His Dog) Ellison. He's uncredited for a reason. He had his name removed from the credits due to the studio-imposed "happy" (though plenty melancholy) ending.

The whole affair, as it were, was clearly under the watchful gaze of the stylish Canadian-born-raised-educated Robson who not only served up some of the finest Golden Age Cinema in the form of a clutch o' terrific Val Lewton horror items, most notably the super-creepy-super-scary The Seventh Victim, then the great film noir boxing pictures Champion and The Harder They Fall, and eventually delivered first-rate slam-bang commercial entertainments like the mega-soap Peyton Place and the two-fisted Sinatra WWII adventure of Von Ryan's Express. (Years later Robson would give us the pinnacle of disaster movies, Earthquake, which amongst its ridiculously huge all-star cast, featured Lorne Greene as Ava Gardner's father.)

Robson directs Valley of the Dolls with a perverse blend of poppy 60s psychedelia and an old fashioned studio-style stodginess. It works perfectly for this sex and soap saga.

In a nutshell, we follow the lives of three "dolls" (mega-babes) through the "valley" (all the highs and lows of life) of the "dolls" (pills of every mind-altering stripe and colour).

Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) shows up in New York from her sleepy hometown in New England, immediately lands a job as a secretary in a show business agency, has a torrid affair with Lyon Burke (Paul Burke), the agency's chief lawyer and perennial bachelor and eventually succumbs to booze and "dolls" to ease the pain of emptiness.

Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) is about to break out in a supporting role in a big Broadway musical, but is fired by the jealous wrath wreaked by the boozy old star of the show Helen Lawson (a great Susan Hayward in a role Judy Garland was supposed to until she was fired for succumbing to booze and drugs in real life). Neely's agent/boyfriend Mel Anderson (Martin Milner) works his butt off and she becomes a huge nightclub sensation and movie star. Mel's career eventually dissipates in the shadow of Neely and she not only has a torrid open affair with the swings-both-ways Ted Casablanca (Alexander Davion), but succumbs to booze and "dolls" to ease the pain of emptiness.
We didn't see THIS on "The Patty Duke Show".
Jennifer North (the late Sharon Tate, victim of the Manson Clan and Roman Polanski's beloved) has only one talent - her body. She eventually falls in love with nightclub crooner Tony Polar (Tony Scotti) and for the first time in her life, she knows true happiness (in spite of Tony's domineering sister/manager played with bile-spitting aplomb by Lee Grant). Unfortunately, Tony is stricken with Huntington's Disease and poor Jennifer is reduced to "acting" in French "art films" (pornography) to support her beloved. Naturally, she succumbs to booze and "dolls" to ease her deep, deep pain. She turns out to be the purest and least "empty" of the trio.

Oh, how they all suffer.

And oh, how gloriously.


Valley of the Dollars has been released on a sumptuous, extras-laden Criterion Collection Blu-Ray (and, if you must, DVD). The whole package includes a new 2K digital restoration, with 3.0 LCR DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray, a 2006 audio commentary featuring actor Barbara Parkins and journalist Ted Casablanca, new interviews with writer Amy Fine Collins about author Jacqueline Susann and the costumes in the film, footage from "Sparkle Patty Sparkle", a 2009 gala tribute to actor Patty Duke at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, two promotional films from 1967, a 2001 episode on the film from the television program "Hollywood Backstories", screen tests, trailers, a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Glenn Kenny, gorgeous new cover art by Phil Noto and BEST OF ALL, a superb, passionate, informative and deliciously over-the-top video essay by film critic Kim Morgan. Morgan's appreciation is so heartfelt it's deeply moving.

My review of Russ Meyer's insane "sequel" Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is HERE.

Thursday 22 September 2016

LOVING - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2016 - Bland TV-movie approach deflates history

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as interracial Loving couple.
Loving (2016)
Dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Michael Shannon

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga) deserves better than an earnest, plodding, vaguely pretentious made-for-television-styled movie like Loving. Thankfully Nancy Buirski's fine 2011 HBO feature documentary The Loving Story, upon which this dramatic rendering by Jeff Nichols is based, has already delivered the cinematic goods this important story deserves.

Alas, the legal case involving an interracial marriage which challenged the grotesque anti-miscegenation laws of the backward State of Virginia is dramatically rendered here with all the artistic panache of a connect-the-dots colouring book puzzle. The promise writer-director Jeff Nichols displayed in his 2007 Arkansas-cracker family feud drama Shotgun Stories and the extraordinary 2011 survivalism end-of-days psycho-drama Take Shelter has subsequently and sadly dwindled.

Like so many laws of diminishing returns, his output increasingly underwhelms. His Dullsville 2012 contemporary Huckleberry Finn-like Mud and this year's ludicrous science fiction drama Midnight Special maintained his quiet, measured voice, but served up stories unbecoming of his earlier work.

Loving is the worst of the lot. He retains his voice almost to a fault, but does so within the trappings of something that might be more suited to an episode of the Hallmark Hall of Fame.

Marton Czokas as scumbag racist Virginia cop.
Nichols's film introduces us to working-class Caucasian drag-racing aficianado Richard Loving who, with longtime African-American girlfriend Mildred, decides to flout the moronic Virginia law against interracial relations. They visit Washington D.C. to get married in a civil union after they discover she's pregnant with their first child. Upon returning, their home is raided by cracker-barrel cops led by the systemically, virulently racist Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks (Marton Czokas). Rather than face a year in prison, the couple cop a plea and agree to leaving their home in Caroline County, Virginia and promise never to return to the state together.

Life in the big city proves untenable and the couple "illegally" returns home to the rural idyll they've known their entire lives. They're subsequently arrested and the film continues to detail their long legal battle (with the assistance of dogged ACLU lawyers) to have the Virginia law eventually overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States.

There's nothing especially wrong with the film in that it's nicely acted and extremely competent on a craft level, but there's nothing all too right with it either. The "competence" factor is especially egregious and renders a movie that feels like it's been made rather inconsequentially for the small screen rather than the ordinarily high stakes needed for big screen theatrical product. There's nothing wrong with a quiet, subtle approach, but it's employed here to the point where our emotional investment is ultimately more rooted in the basic facts of the case rather than anything imparted dramatically.

Nichols probably thought he was being oh-so clever by focusing upon the "normal" and "mundane" details of the couple's life, but he tries to have his cake and eat it to by framing his approach within an otherwise conventional, by-rote structure.

For one of the most important events in American History to be handled with competence and precious pretence, inadvertently deflates the whole thing. If the movie was dreadful, one could at least say it was shameful. That it's strictly middle of the road is even worse. It's just one big pile of nothing.


Loving was a TIFF 2016 Gala Presentation.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

OLD STONE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2016 - To be good, to be honest . . . to a fault.

Is there any actor alive who looks cooler than
Chen Gang when he's got a cigarette dangling from his lips?

Old Stone (2016)
Dir. Johnny Ma
Starring: Chen Gang

Review by Greg Klymkiw

In China, it is better to let someone die in the street. If you try to help someone, to save the person's life, Chinese law places the responsibility and burden upon you - you become little more than criminalized and in fact, become a victim; a victim, that is, if you let the system screw you over.

In Johnny Ma's extraordinary first feature film Old Stone, Lao Shi (Chen Gang) is a cab driver who accidentally hits a motorcyclist in the street and soon realizes he should not have bothered to stop and most certainly not bothered to help. Because of China's idiotic laws, his life becomes a nightmare: his job is in jeopardy, his finances are drained and his family, by extension, are placed in peril, financially and emotionally.

Even when Chen Gang does not have a smoke
dangling from his lips, he is still the coolest,
no matter what or how he is smoking a cigarette.

Still, it's not just the laws and bureaucracy that contribute to Lao Shi's woes. His need to help escalates to such obsessive degrees that he stands to lose much more than money. One begins to question his mental well-being as he madly, zealously and single-mindedly cares for the accident victim, who lies, deeply comatose in a hospital bed. The over-caring cabbie even begins to investigate the man's life and those who are closest to him.

Lao Shi's sense of responsibility becomes a flaw, a potentially fatal flaw (in more ways than in just the literary sense). Writer-Director Johnny Ma weaves a compulsive tale of a man caught up in a ludicrous bureaucracy which not only mounts, but does so well beyond the usual "through no fault of his own".

The film is framed via flashbacks and flash-forwards which eventually catch up to the central narrative. At first they involve the accident itself, but also several mysterious sequences wherein Lao Shi is following/stalking the motorcycle rider once the "victim" comes out of his coma and is released from hospital.

The movie is engorged with suspense and induces considerable anxiety in the viewer. That it slowly mounts to a chilling series of events which inspires a kind of horror and revulsion in us, not only speaks to the power of the picture, but Johnny Ma as a filmmaker with talent to burn.

One of the things I questioned in terms of the film's structure was the framing device that eventually meets up with the central narrative. I can't actually quarrel with its effectiveness, but at certain points while watching the movie and certainly in retrospect, I kept trying to imagine a movie that stripped this away and presented the whole thing in a straight-up linear fashion. Given the nature of the story and character, my feeling is that "straight-up" might actually have proven to be a lot more "unexpected" than its filmmaker might have imagined (if, in fact, the notion of a more linear approach was even considered, at either the script level or in the cutting room).

This, however, is not a quibble - not even a minor one - it's simply a question; one that only a genuinely intelligent and sophisticated work can inspire.

Even though Chen Gang is not smoking a cigarette
in this shot, we will not hold it against him and proclaim:
Chen Gang is ALWAYS cool!!!

One of the odd feelings the movie instills is sheer frustration - at first with the external forces affecting Lao Shi, but eventually with Lao Shi himself. You keep wanting to slap the guy on the side of the head and yell, "Jesus Christ, dude! Knock it off. Stop caring! Stop allowing yourself to be forcibly face-fucked! Stop obsessing! START being an uncaring prick and move on!"

Of course, if he did any of those things there wouldn't be much of a movie.

What keeps our eyeballs, hearts and minds glued to the screen is the exceptional performance of Chen Gang. He infuses the role with so much humanity, doing so to the point in which we're feeling frustration and anger because he makes us care about Lao Shi so goddamn much. Gang also has charisma to burn. The camera absolutely loves him. I have no idea why this guy isn't a huge star. As far as I can tell, he's only been in one previous feature film (though he's apparently prolific in Chinese TV).

This guy's the real thing. I'd watch him reciting the telephone book.

Plus man-oh-man, he looks so cool smoking cigarettes. This is not an easy thing for anyone to do these days and frankly, any actor who looks as cool as Chen Gang does when he sucks back on cancer sticks, absolutely deserves stardom.


Old Stone is a Zeitgeist Films release playing in the TIFF 2016 Discovery program.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Solid Kurosawa/Sturges Remake

Seven new samurai with six-shooters!!!
The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Dir. Antoine Fuqua
Scr. Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke,
Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo,
Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Akira Kurosawa's epic 1954 Seven Samurai weaves the stirring tale of a group of ronin defending a town of simple folk in 14th Century Japan from hordes of bandits. It is indeed a classic, a masterpiece and quite easily one of the greatest action movies of all time. When John Sturges remade the picture as a western in 1960 with Yul Brynner taking the role originally played by Toshiro Mifune, he didn't quite craft anything in the tour de force department, but he gave us an oater that's as iconic of the old west as it is a rip-snorter.

Antoine Fuqua's 2016 remake might not match the Sturges picture, but it's still a solid, kick-ass western and in its own way gains a bit on the delivery front by peppering us with an almost ludicrous body count, all very efficiently directed by the skillful Training Day helmer.

A bit of Lee-Byung-hun goes a long way.
Denzel Washington takes the sword/reins from Mifune and Brynner, acquitting himself ably as the bounty hunter who recruits a perfect cocktail of miscreants to rescue a small town from an evil land baron (delectably played by he of the perpetual sneer, Peter Sarsgaard). The fine all-star cast includes such robust recognizable talents as Chris Pratt (the smart-ass), Ethan Hawke (the sharpshooter) and Vincent D'Onofrio (the burly munitions expert), adds a nice bit of Asian martial arts/blade play from Lee Byung-hun and some very welcome guns-a-blazing from the babe-o-licious Haley Bennett. (If there's anything more boner-or-wet-crotch-inducing than babes with guns, I have yet to discover what that might be.)

A babe with a gun.
A babe hell-bent on vengeance.
Always win-win.
Speaking of boners and wet crotches, when Haley Bennet says, "I seek righteousness, but I'll take revenge," I cannot imagine anyone in the audience, neither boys nor girls, feeling anything less than glorious gooseflesh. It's to the credit of screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk that some lovely revenge backstories come to the fore to provide added oomph, not just for the comely Bennett, but Washington's character also - he's got himself a humdinger of reason to wreak havoc.

Fuqua and his team definitely go the distance with the humdinger screenplay and serve up several truly spectacular action set pieces, not the least of which feature horses and their riders thundering across the plains of a big old American west.

There's really nothing new under the sun here, but goddamn, it's a lot of fun.


The Magnificent Seven was a Gala Presentation at TIFF 2016 and will be released wide by Paramount Pictures.

Monday 19 September 2016

ARRIVAL - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2016 - Dreary SF designed to make us, ugh, THINK!

Hi there! My name is Amy Adams!
I am ubiquitous. And dour.
Arrival (2016)
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Oh, how poor Amy Adams, the Ubiquitous Amy Adams at that, suffers and suffers and suffers. As if her dour turn as the interminably grim raped-murdered-spurned-whatever failed art gallery owner in the abominable Nocturnal Animals wasn't enough, she now finds herself humourlessly sleepwalking through this dull New-Agey science fiction tripe in which her flashbacks of raising a daughter who eventually dies turn out to be flash forwards to the future, inspired by a whack of aliens who come to Earth on a mysterious peace mission.

And if you can believe that, I'm sure you will believe, like Uncle Jed in The Beverly Hillbillies, that you too can be sold the Brooklyn Bridge.

Arrival is awful, of course and we've seen it before. It was called Interstellar. Or was it called Contact? You know: weepy, humourless science fiction movies dabbling in the world of time, space, wormholes, etc. in order to make us Think (with a capital "T", 'natch) about our place in the universe.

Not that there aren't good, if not great movies that do this: Tarkovsky's Solaris, Chris Marker's La Jetée and Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth spring immediately to mind. What separates these fine pictures from the aforementioned dross, is that none of them provide easy answers, nor are they obviously designed to please - at least not in the most dull, predictable touchy-feely fashion that infects the ubiquitous Amy Adams Made-for-TV-movie (and its ilk) like a virulent cancer.

One day this couple will spawn a doomed daughter.
It's no wonder they're so sad. So too, are we.
What we're saddled with in Arrival involves Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist enlisted by military man Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to communicate with aliens who have landed their spaceships (floating fat dildos) all over the world. The aliens appear to have come in peace, but mankind, being ever-so selfish and stupid, can't get their act together on whether to attack the aliens (thus ensuring world wide destruction) or to just give peace a chance and try to understand their otherworldly visitors. Louise is paired-up with an equally dour (and stiff-jawed) Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist of considerable repute.

The two of them race against time to crack the language of the aliens before all Hell explodes. Not only do we get the aforementioned flashbacks that are really flash forwards of Louise's doomed daughter, but we also realize that she and Ian will become the hubby and wife to said doomed daughter. Add to this mix a ludicrous subplot involving Louise imparting the private dying words of a world leader's wife to him and within no time, the Earth is saved, as are the Aliens. Louise and Ian aren't so lucky. They get to live their lives knowing that they'll give birth to a little girl who is doomed to die a horrible death from an incurable ('natch) disease.

How many vats of lube does it take to insert alien dildos?
The whole thing is not only sickening, but within the first half-hour, we know everything. The movie is that predictably stupid. That it's dull adds insult to injury.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: *½ One-and-a-Half Stars

Arrival was a TIFF 2016 Gala Presentation.

Sunday 18 September 2016

WEREWOLF - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2016 - The Dardenne Brothers in Cape Breton?

Werewolf (2016)
Dir. Ashley McKenzie
Starring: Bhreagh MacNeil, Andrew Gillis

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Films about homeless, drug-addicted, at-risk youth have joined the dime-a-dozen club (especially) in recent years, so it takes the work of a genuine artist to raise this kind of material to stratospheric heights.

Such is the case with director Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf.

That there seem to be no false notes in this portrait of life on the mean streets of New Waterford, Nova Scotia (shot on Cape Breton Island) is nothing short of a miracle.

That the world of methadone clinics, greasy spoons and gravel roads do indeed pulse with the sort of sentience and eye for detail one would expect from a filmmaker who'd achieved master status decades ago would not come as a surprise at all, but that it is a first feature adds to the feeling of being completely T-Boned.

That this sad, sorrowful tale is told with such economy should make poseurs (and anyone who admires said poseurs) like Andrea Arnold (who this year delivered American Honey, the dour, all-over-the-map kitchen sink she calls a movie) be ashamed.

That the film's style offers up a brilliant new approach to visualizing narrative gives me hope that cinema is not dead.

A young woman (Bhreagh MacNeil) seeks to escape a life of homelessness and drug dependency as the young man (Andrew Gillis) who loves her spirals ever downward as she ascends. In many ways, it's an old story, but writer-director McKenzie makes it fresh, vital and important.

Gorgeously, bravely photographed and edited, there are moments when you feel, sometimes quite literally, that the breath is being ripped right out of you. Yes, the strokes dazzle, but they're not overdone, nor are they self-conscious - they are, in fact, rooted in both character and narrative and as such, serve to deliver both emotional wallops and the kind of forward movement most directors can only dream about.

Werewolf is rife with the kind of neo-realist touches one expects, nay - DEMANDS, from the likes of the Brothers Dardenne and McKenzie creates a perfect atmosphere for her talented leads to deliver performances that are gob-smackingly heart-breaking.

Finally though, using Neo-realism as a springboard, McKenzie's wholly original mise-en-scene ultimately rules the day. Placing emphasis on single (and often strange) visual details in every scene is what forces certain mundane realities to eventually take on earth-shattering resonance. This results in something very extraordinary - we see ourselves and those we know in a world most of us can only imagine, and this is a testament to the filmmaker's consummate artistry.


Werewolf is in the TIFF 2016 Discovery program.

Saturday 17 September 2016

BLAIR WITCH - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2016 - Decent sequel to 1999 original

Blair Witch (2016)
Dir. Adam Wingard
Scr. Simon Barrett
Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott,
Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Having directed a couple of solid low budget genre films like You're Next and The Guest, Adam Wingard (with longtime screenwriter partner Simon Barrett) continues in this tradition with this very decent direct sequel to The Blair Witch Project. When I first saw the original found footage film by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez in 1999, all I allowed myself to know about it is that, given the title, it would be some kind of horror film about a witch. I was also aware it had a huge buzz from its Sundance film festival screening and that there was a huge internet campaign behind it. That's it. That's all I knew.

Now, if truth be told, my first helping of The Blair Witch Project blew me away. I loved it. The found footage business, the late 90s penchant everyone had to camcorder their way into moviemaking (as the characters in the film do) and the mounting creepy-crawly tension knocked me on my formerly lardy posterior. I didn't buy that it was "real", but I bought into the conceit as I was quite enamoured with the clever approach and, for me, genuine chills and jolts of terror. I kind of detested the grungy youthful characters, but at least the actors played them well enough that I was gradually drawn into their plight in spite of my curmudgeonly detestation of these rejects from Kurt Cobain fandom.

Not that this sort of thing had never been done before - the brilliant David Holzman's Diary by Jim McBride in 1967 not only creeped me out, but I actually DID believe that what I was seeing was real. When I found out the picture was a "fake" documentary, it was still so layered and intelligent that I've had no problem watching it many times.

However, The Blair Witch Project did little for me on repeat viewings. I quickly filed it away in my movie-soaked-brain-file-folder with the label: "clever-conceit-clever-moviemaking-but-not-much-else-going-for-it". And there the picture stayed.

As such, I had no real investment to like or hate Wingard's sequel, but like it I did.

Utilizing a multi-camera approach, Wingard's picture takes us back to the haunted Maryland woods with a bunch of college kids and a couple of local inbred guides. Searching for the original young lady who disappeared in the first film and a mysterious old house that purportedly houses the witch, our attractive cast goes through the motions of the first forty five minutes of prepping and wandering.

The last forty five minutes is where things get mighty creepy and ramp up to a thoroughly nerve-jangling climax. There's not much in the way of new ground covered here, but good goddamn, when it delivers the thrills and chills, it delivers with a whole lotta kick-ass.

Oh yeah, and the movie has babes in it.

One can't really ask for more.


Blair Witch is a Midnight Madness presentation at TIFF 2016.

Friday 16 September 2016

LA LA LAND - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2016 - a movie musical in search of good music

La La Land (2016)
Dir. Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend,
Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Tom Everett Scott

Review By Greg Klymkiw

"I should have known better with a girl like you
That I would love everything that you do
And I do, hey, hey, hey, and I do...
So I should have realized a lot of things before
If this is love you've got to give me more
" - The Beatles

So you go to see a movie. You're primed to love it.

In spite of every alarm bell going off in your head while you actually watch the picture, you still manage to convince yourself how much you love it.

You should have known better.

You sit there, jaw agape during an opening musical number on a Los Angeles highway traffic jam. There's nothing wrong with the idea, per se, but the song itself is so godawful and the choreography is so stock and clumsy that if the film had been made by another director instead of one you admire, you'd throw in the towel.

You also know that you're going to have to spend the movie staring at one of the most insufferable actors working in Hollywood today, not to mention an actress you admire (in spite of the fact that she reminds you of a carrot-topped Pekingnese).

And still you stay.


Because of the director.

You see, as dreadful as the opening musical number is (not always a good sign when you've come to see a musical), you forgive everything because at least the director is not without panache. Individual shots and camera moves during the sequence are, in and of themselves, first-rate.

So you persevere.

For writer-director Damien Chazelle.

And is it all for nought?

Yes and no.

You leave the movie. There are tears in your eyes, but you do not trust them. It's as if the movie itself has reached out to grind cheap-ass cooking onions into your ocular orbs. You feel like you're soaring, but for some reason you sense it's because someone has shoved a tube up your ass to fill you full of helium.

What do you do with these nagging thoughts?

You see the movie again.

And then, you know.

La La Land is just not very good. Taking its cue from the great Technicolor musicals from days of yore, Chazelle skillfully and stylishly (well, mostly) serves up an old fashioned singing-dancing extravaganza that rests on the narrative coat hanger of boy-meets-girl-boy-gets-girl-boy-loses-girl. The big diff here is that boy does not get girl back. They do, however, reunite in a genuinely show-stopping musical dream sequence and one is thankful for this departure from the norm. It works on a first helping, but when you see the picture again, you realize just how shoe-horned the whole sequence is. In fact, the entire movie feels shoe-horned.

That the movie chooses to utilize and recreate the tropes of great musicals within a contemporary context is just fine. Unfortunately, the contemporary context is Los Angeles, surely one of the most vapid and downright ugly cities in the world. Worse yet, it's set against the backdrop of the contemporary entertainment business - a world that has, for the most part become as indicative of Western Civilization's decline as a world in which Donald Trump has become a serious contender for the highest political office in America.

Granted, old Hollywood often used the entertainment industry as a setting for its musicals, most notably for me the magnificent Busby Berkeley musicals like 42nd Street, but the big difference is that the contemporary context of those movies is from a time when people could actually write great musical scores (unlike the grotesqueries of Justin Hurwitz's annoying melodies here) and when the studios were actually run by moguls who, for the most part, genuinely loved the product they were generating.

La La Land plunges us into a much different world and as such, suffers for it.

I'm happy to doff my hat to the Whiplash director's desire to take what is old and make the beautiful new again, but the detestably jejune world we (and by extension the characters) must live inside is borderline intolerable. At one point in the picture, Ryan Gosling's character is chided by his friend/nemesis Keith (so nicely played by John Legend one wonders if he's ever going to get his own musical to star in). The successful contemporary jazz band leader craps on Gosling's adherence to the greats of yesteryear instead of trying to find a way of taking the form further. He wisely notes that jazz was always about the "future".

But what does Gosling's character eventually do?

He hangs onto the "old" like a dog to a bone.

Then again, La La Land is all about following your dreams.

Because of this, what we have to suffer through is Emma Stone paying her monthly rent as an on-studio juice-bar clerk to support her burgeoning-actress habit who meets-cute with the insufferable Ryan Gosling as a bitter jazz musician who dreams of owning his own nightclub. Of course, they hate each other at first - he spills iced latte all over her shirt as she storms off to an audition and he unceremoniously brushes her off when she attempts to compliment his ivory tinkling - but all it takes for them to make the ultimate google-eyed connection is when she teases him at a vapid Hollywood party at which he's playing keyboards with an 80s tribute band. From here, he supports her dreams, she supports his, and in so doing it is inevitable for both to part ways.


So what are we left with? An interminably long feel-good musical that merely purports to make the old new again. Even this, however, is not all that original. It's been done before and so much better. The great Dennis Potter BBC mini-series Pennies from Heaven and Herbert Ross's astounding feature-length remake (which Pauline Kael acclaimed as "the most emotional movie musical I've ever seen") took what was old and made it new again by presenting the tropes with a contemporary perspective on the period in which the films (and film) were set. Sure, Chazelle is not looking back in quite the same way because he wants to utilize the tropes in terms of the here and now, but how are we to take any of this seriously given how empty the world actually is?

Well, maybe we're not supposed to take it seriously, but how then are we to at least respond seriously to Chazelle's aesthetic?

We don't. We can't. No matter how much we want to.

Thinking back on Pennies from Heaven, one can't help but note what great hoofers Steve Martin and Christopher Walken (yes, Christoper-fucking-Walken) are. Ryan Gosling's woeful galumphing in La La Land is a true abomination. One only need watch a few frames of Walken's striptease and compare it to anything Gosling stumbles through in La La Land to realize what folly it was to cast a leading man in a musical with tin ears for feet.

I almost unfairly chose to equate Gosling's miserable footwork with that of Buddy (Uncle Jed from The Beverly Hillbillies) Ebsen's hoofing in the early part of his career until I had to remind myself that Ebsen could dance Gosling into the oblivion he deserves.

Sorry Buddy. Gosling's shit-stomping can't begin to hold a candle to yours.

As for Chazelle's movie, a few decently-staged musical set pieces, in spite of Gosling's lead-footed incompetence and a mediocre score, just doesn't add up to anything special. I think it might boil down to the vapidity of the setting. One recalls how the great Val Lewton changed the very genre of horror by moving the act of scaring audiences into a world they recognized (The Cat People, The Seventh Victim). In doing the same thing, however, La La Land changes nothing. If anything it makes the old, the truly beautiful, little more than an empty vessel - a bauble of numbing nothingness.


La La Land is a TIFF 2016 Special Presentation.

Thursday 15 September 2016

MOONLIGHT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2016 - A Young Life in Three Movements

Moonlight (2016)
Dir. Barry Jenkins
Ply. Tarell Alvin McCraney
Starring: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes,
Naomie Harris, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland
Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Patrick Decile

Review By Greg Klymkiw

I've seen many coming-of-age pictures, but I've never seen anything like this one.

This, after having seen over 40,000 movies in my life, is a pretty wonderful thing.

Moonlight is an exquisitely unique picture in three “movements”. Starring Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes as Chiron, a young African-American growing up in Miami and eventually moving to Atlanta, we experience his longtime friendship with Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland). Based on "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue", a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, director-screenwriter Barry Jenkins divides the movie into three sections, each bearing the respective title cards: "Little", "Chiron" and "Black".

Intimacy, real intimacy, is what eludes our protagonist Little/Chiron/Black. Though his life flirts with a series of important relationships (most notably a kindly thug and his girlfriend), he remains a sad, distant and solitary figure.

It feels like a life in search of itself.

We share Chiron's journey from childhood (as a sensitive bullied kid living with his crack-addicted mother), adolescence (as a kid discovering his sexuality on the cusp of manhood) to early adulthood (as a man, now a criminal, seeking truths which have so far eluded him). We experience this man's life in a cinematic chamber piece that is as poetically musical as it is evocative in ways that are both culturally specific and universal at the same time.

It's a great picture. You'll leave the cinema convinced you've seen something you've never quite seen before. At the best of times, this is rare. In this day and age, it seems a miracle.


Moonlight is part of the Platform and Next Wave series at TIFF 2016.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

A QUIET PASSION - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2016 - Davies Does Dickinson Delectably

A Quiet Passion (2016)
Dir. Terence Davies
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Emma Bell, Keith Carradine,
Jennifer Ehle, Joanna Bacon, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May

Review By Greg Klymkiw
THERE is a word
Which bears a sword
Can pierce an armed man.
It hurls its barbed syllables,—
At once is mute again,
But where it fell
The saved will tell
On patriotic day,
Some epauletted brother
Gave his breath away.
- Emily Dickinson
We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go -
Rank after Rank, with even feet -
And Uniforms of snow.

There is war in this exquisite dramatic biography of poet Emily Dickinson. There is violence and there are battles. It is all, however, like all of the greatest films by Terence Davies, very, very quiet.

The war waged in A Quiet Passion is one against patriarchal propriety - both societal and religious. Davies presents us with the life of Dickinson from her adolescence (Emma Bell) through adulthood (Cynthia Nixon) and to her sad, painful death at age 55 from Bright's (kidney) Disease. The story is told via the trademarks of Davies - stately, gorgeously-composed tableaux with an accent on measured delivery of dialogue that is rooted exquisitely in the period with which the film is set (in Amherst, Massachusetts from about 1846 to 1866).

There is considerable emphasis placed on Dickinson's relationships with her family and how this inspires and informs her gifts as a poet. Her mother (Joanna Bacon) lives a lonely life and indeed Emily comments, "You always seem so sad." Her mother responds, "My life has passed as if in a dream." And damned if Emily will float gently into the good night. She rages on paper.

Terence Davies has always displayed a special gift for extolling the virtues and servitude of mothers, but he has also been acutely sensitive to portraying patriarchal rule in all its violence and unfairness. Here, Emily's relationship with her father (Keith Carradine) is especially replete with conflict and love. Her father clearly values Emily's individuality, but displays considerable conflict within himself and the demands society places on him. He is on one hand, proud and accepting, yet on the other, prone to anger and frustration over Emily's refusal to be an individual, but to also "play the games" required of a woman.

Terence Davies (Distant Voices Still Lives, The Long Day Closes) is unquestionably the greatest living filmmaker in the UK and amongst the world's best filmmakers - ever. I can think of no better filmmaker to tackle the challenge of biographically portraying this great woman of letters. His indelible use of music has always been unique and all his own. Film after film he delivers the most beautiful, heartbreakingly beautiful montages set to music - always evocative of narrative, character and tone.

Though A Quiet Passion has its fair share of such musical montages, Davies is not one to rest idly on his laurels. Given that his film is about one of the greatest poets of all time, he utilizes his poetic approach to cinema by using what might be the greatest music of all - the music of poetry - Dickinson's, of course.

Though there are far too many of these great sequences to catalogue, there are two which occur back-to-back which are not only great examples of what a magnificent screenplay Davies has wrought, but proof positive of his consummate artistry as a filmmaker. Davies etches a particularly harrowing verbal joust between Emily and her father and in its aftermath, he focuses upon the conflicting feelings of anger and sorrow on her father's face as we get an offscreen reading of Dickinson's Love poem XLIV "THERE is a word Which bears a sword". As if this isn't enough to set one's tears into squirt-overdrive, Davies brilliantly follows up the scene with a montage to place the argument-scene in a historical/thematic context by delivering a series of Civil War images set to Dickinson's "To fight around is very brave".

Prepare to lose it emotionally during these two montages. God knows, I did.

As per usual, Davies inspires his entire cast to render superlative performances. Cynthia Nixon knocks the wind out of you as Dickinson (her off-screen readings of the poetry are deeply moving) and an almost unrecognizable Keith Carradine chills to the bone as Emily's father.

What might be the films's greatest triumph is that one could go into it knowing nothing about Emily Dickinson and emerge with both an edifying cinematic experience and a reason to get to know her. This is indeed triumphant - oh-so delicate and oh-so quiet.


A Quiet Passion is a PNP (Pacific Northwest Pictures) release and plays in the TIFF 2016 Masters series.