Thursday, February 25, 2010

Stealing Art Often a Battle of Wills

The Art of the Steal

Despite its growing popularity over the last ten years, it is still tough to convince people to watch documentaries. Unless they are nominated for Academy Awards, the majority of the population will not go out of their way to find theatres that offer documentary films. Hopefully this will change soon as there are a bunch of great docs that are being released these days. One example of this is The Art of the Steal which opens at the IFC Center in the United States this weekend. While expansion information has not been released yet, chances are good that most will either be able to see it at local independent cinemas, or on DVD, in the coming months.

Dr. Albert Barnes held the largest collection of post-impressionist and early modernist art in the world. Despite the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s best efforts to acquire the pieces, Barnes snubbed the museum and Philadelphia’s downtown elite and housed the collection in suburb of Merion. Barnes wanted the collection to remain an educational tool for serious students of art and not the casual tourist. Before his death in 1951, Barnes made a Will to ensure that the collection stayed out of the hands of the Museum and others who wished to profit from it. While Barnes was able to hold off the dollar hungry vultures when he was alive, things drastically changed once he passed away. The Art of the Steal reveals that even iron clad Wills, such as Barnes’, can start to show cracks if the right amount of pressure is applied.

Don Argott’s documentary was easily one of my favourite films at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The story unfolds like a murder mystery complete with a full list of suspects. Argott details, step by step, how money rules the bottom line of everything. Profit is the catalyst that forced many Philadelphian politicians, and corporations, to team up in order to orchestrate, what Argott views as, the greatest heist in recent year.

The Art of the Steal questions what say do any of us really have in our lives? If something as strong as a person’s last Will and Testament can be violated at all levels, what hope is there for any of us? The most startling aspect of this documentary is how matter-of-fact some people, such as the Governor and the Attorney General, are when discussion how they blackmailed institutions, such as Lincon University, to give up their shares of the Barnes Foundation. The chilling thing about the revelation is the fact that both men act like it was just business as usual.

The stealing of the Barnes collection was as epic as major corporate mergers. Many of the players involved not only hide key information from the public, but also used public money to commit the crime. It is truly fascinating to see how the Barnes’ collection has ended up becoming everything Barnes objected to when he was alive. The Art of the Steal will make you look at art, politics, education, and the law in a whole new light. Keep an eye out for this in your local theatres and/or video stores. It is one of the year’s best films.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lieutenant’s Bad Habits Good for Caged Prisoner

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

In my brief time on this earth, I have seen 43 films starring, featuring, or directed by Nicolas Cage. I am not bragging, in fact, I am ashamed to admit this. The majority of those 43 films have been infuriatingly bad, yet I always find myself going back for one more round of Cage. If this was a marriage, it would surely be an abusive one. After 43 films, and thanks in part to The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, I think I have finally figured him out.

Nicolas Cage, similar to Hollywood stars such as Halle Berry, needs an outstanding director to work with, one who knows how to navigate his rocky terrain in order to find gold. Left in the hands of anyone else, the results can be disastrous beyond belief. When I look back at all of Nicolas Cage’s finest performances, the thing which standouts most about those films is who was behind the lens. If you can overlook Michael Bay’s inclusion on the list, ten of Cage’s top eleven works were directed by the likes of: John Dahl, The Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Mike Figgis, Norman Jewison, Martin Scorsese, Spike Jonze, Ridley Scott, John Woo and Werner Herzog.

Although Werner Herzog has been working for years, I was first introduced to his films through Grizzly Man. I was not too fond of the film, but I absolutely loved Herzog’s film Encounters at the End of the World which he made a few years later. In many ways, the sly, and at times absurd, wit that Herzog displays in Encounters is good preparation for the craziness that he throws at the audience in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Loosely based on the 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant, directed by Abel Ferrara and staring Harvey Keitel, Port of Call New Orleans looks at the year in the life of corrupt detective, Terrence McDounaugh (Nicolas Cage). Pill-popping Terrence is trying to solve a homicide case, but keeps getting distracted by his many vices. When he is not hanging out with his prostitute girlfriend, Frank (Eva Mendes), he spends his days stealing drugs from club goers and avoiding his bookie persistent whom he owes a lot of money. As Terrence spirals out of control, the line between good and evil become increasingly blurred. Soon Terrence finds himself partnering up with drug kingpin Baby Fate (Xzibit), who happens to be the lead suspect in the murder case McDounaugh is investigating.

Although similar in theme to the original Bad Lieutenant, Werner Herzog’s version is different in practically every way. I found that Herzog’s version was much lighter in tone, almost boarding on farce in several occasions. The off-kilter humour, coupled with Nicolas Cage’s wildly creative performance, makes for an oddly entertaining film. Herzog really does a great job of not only bring you into Terrence’s drug hazed world, but making it all seem natural.

While not quite as strong as Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call has its own unique charm that allows it to co-exist nicely with the 1992 film. The film tends to lag in a few parts, but really, it is not that noticeable. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is one wild ride that was far more entertaining than it really should be.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"The Sun’ll Come Out Gomorrah, Bet Your Bottom Dollar..."

Gomorrah (Gomorra)

As much as I enjoy films like The Godfather and Goodfellas, I admit that they have skewed my image of the Mafia. Those films have glamorized the mafia lifestyle to a point where it is easy to forget the average folks who end up suffering the most. Which is why a film like Matteo Garrone’s Golden Globe nominated work, Gomorrah, is so refreshing. It is a startling reminder of how so many innocent, and at times misguided, lives are destroyed by organized crime.

Gomorrah is a film that looks at five individual stories and how they are all intertwined with the Camorra, the ruling Mafia in Naples, Italy. There is the tale of Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a middleman, who distributes money to the families of imprisoned Camorra members. Totò (Nicolo Manta) a 13-year-old grocery delivery boy who wishes to initiated into the gang. Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), two cocky low rent thugs who steal weapons from the Camorra’s secret stash. Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) a haute couture tailor who is offered money to train Chinese garment workers at a rival factory. And finally, Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), a graduate who discovers that the toxic waste management company he works for may not be as upstanding as he initially thought.

The film is based on Roberto Saviano tell all book about the Camorra. Saviano himself was forced to go into hiding after the book was published and, after seeing Gomorrah, I understand why. The Camorra have killed more people than any other organization over the last 30 years. They literally has its hands in every aspect of society. There is nothing that they do not own, and there is not a place where they cannot find you. The fascinating, and equally unsettling, thing about the Camorra is that they essentially are a high powered corporation. Besides dealing in the drug and weapons trade, they own various companies, in numerous industries, that do business with upstanding companies on a daily basis.

This fact is highlighted in the two most compelling stories in Gomorrah, the ones revolving around Pasquale and Roberto. Both men are good natured individuals looking to make an honest name for themselves. Yet they realize, the hard way, just how far the arms of the Camorra reach. Pasquale's arc is by far the saddest of the two, especially when you see how it plays out. The scene in the car with the Chinese, and the bittersweet truck stop moment, stayed with me for a while after the film. Same goes for the scene where Roberto watches the kids driving the trucks filled with toxic waste. While these scenes are not flashy, okay, maybe the car scene, they are shocking and subtly heartbreaking.

Compelling, without being excessively violent, Gomorrah offers much needed realism to an often romanticized gangster genre. Considering how well executed this film is, I am surprised that Gomorrah did not get an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language, especially after receiving nominations at both this year's Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards. Regardless, Gomorrah is a film that should be on your "must see" short list the next time you visit your local DVD store.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dynamite Explodes With Laughter

Black Dynamite

If recent Hollywood "comedies", and I use that term loosely, such as Dance Flick and Disaster Movie has taught us anything; is that making a spoof movie is rather easy. The director already has the template of the film he/she is spoofing, so all that is left to do is add a few comical mishaps and the movie pretty much writes itself. Making an homage to a film, or genre, is something that is much harder to do. Many have tried to make a fitting homage but only a few, Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven for example, are actually successful. Upon first glance it is easy to dismiss Scott Saunder's film, Black Dynamite, as a mere spoof of the blaxploitation genre. Yet as you proceed through the film it quickly becomes apparent that Black Dynamite is not a spoof at all, but a true homage. It is a love letter to all that the blaxploitation genre has to offer.

After his brother is killed while working undercover, Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White), an Ex-Vietnam Vet/Ex-C.I.A. agent, vows to get revenge at all cost. Assisted by local pimps and black panther members, Dynamite declares war on all those who wish to infect his community with drugs. As the battle goes on, Black Dynamite soon realizes that a bigger conspiracy is afoot. One that could only be orchestrated by one truly dastardly villain..."The Man."

The great thing about Black Dynamite is that it appeals to a broad audience on two distinctive levels. On one level it is a fun screwball comedy that will entertain novices of the blaxploitation genre. On the other hand, for more seasoned fans of the genre, like myself, Dynamite has everything you have come to expect from a blaxploitation film...and I mean everything! It is tough to find a single aspect of the genre that is not covered in this film. One of my favourite moments in Pam Grier's Coffy, is when Coffy is walking into a building and the films' background music is detailing everything that has, and is about to, happen. A similar sequence is played out in Black Dynamite to great comedic effect. Dynamite is investigating his dead brother's apartment and the background music is warning that you never know who may still be hiding out in your dead brother's apartment. Sure enough, the bad guys are lurking around the corner and a shootout ensues.

It is obvious that Michael Jai White and Byron Mines, who plays Bullhorn in the film, spent a lot of time and care ensuring that all the unique elements of the blaxploitation genre were included in the film. You can see moments clearly influenced by films such as: Shaft, Coffy, Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Dolemite, Willie Dynamite, etc. Yet White and Mines somehow find a way to give Black Dynamite its own unique feel. Similar to how Mike Myers was able to make Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery completely unique from the In Like Flint films it was paying homage to. Black Dynamite never feels like a carbon copy of other classic characters. You can easily picture Black Dynamite hanging out at a bar with Superfly and getting the same amount of respect as that character would.

The only real knock I have on Black Dynamite is that the final act goes on far longer than it needs to. By time the "island" sequence was over I had reached my fill of the film. Not to mention that the final battle with "The Man" is just downright silly. Especially when you consider who "The Man" actually is, and the "supernatural assist" that Black Dynamite gets while fighting this individual. Still, the fact that I have watched this film twice now, and laughed at all the same parts, shows that I am willing to overlook the absurd final act. While Black Dynamite works well on DVD, I wish that it had actually gotten a full theatrical release. I believe it would have done very well in theatres, not Austin Powers numbers, but decent enough. Oh well, at least on DVD Black Dynamite will be able to gain the cult following it deserves. Dynamite.........Dynamite....

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pitch the LAMB: Kopera

The following is my submission for the Pitch the LAMB feature over at The Large Association of Movie Blogs site (aka. The LAMB). The theme for this month's Pitch the LAMB is Science Fiction and bloggers are encourage to come up with a movie ideas based on the genre.


Agnes Kopera -Kerry Washington
Zigmund Cox - Brad Pitt
Jangois Velope - Johnny Depp
Stephanie Shibato - Tilda Swinton
Rick Urani - Ken Leung
Hilroy Vangaudrid - Josh Brolin
Jimmy Vesteeg - Diego Luna

The year is 2060 and the world is on the verge of its next big technological revolution. Agnes Kopera , 33, is a former drug addict who now works as a psychiatrist helping others overcome their addictions. One afternoon Kopera returns home to find a mysterious unmarked brown envelope mixed in with her bills; and two messages on her VangTube video phone system. The first message is from a telemarketer asking for donations for the Save A Child Organization. Images of homeless and hungry children flashed across the 60 inch screen. The second message is from a man who did not identify himself and spoke in a frantic tone. Kopera knew who person was without even looking up, Jimmy Vesteeg. Jimmy, a notorious celebrity cyber hacker, was an old friend from Agnes' drug hazed days. It had been years since she had seen Vesteeg but she could tell something was wrong. Jimmy looked flustered and was talking at a faster rate than usual. What Kopera could decipher was that Jimmy had found a way to hack into the ironclad Vangaudrid Incorporated security system and came across something disturbing in their database.

Founded by Hilroy Vangaudrid, Vangaudrid Incorporated is credited with changing the global market place in regards to electronic devices. The company's cutting edge "Vang" series of products has altered how people go about their daily lives. It is nearly impossible to find a home, or a person, that does not own at least one Vanguadrid product. Even the world of social networks has been influenced by Vangaudrid. The online network, The VangTrack, sees an average of 3 million users logging on a each day. Labelled a visionary by his peers, Hilroy Vangaudrid plans to unveil his company's latest invention, The VangCart, to the masses in mere days. Little is known about the device but consumer anticipation is already through the roof.

This insatiable curiosity about The VangCart is what led Jimmy to break into the company's network in the first place. Vesteeg did not go into detail about what he found though; Jimmy merely stated that Kopera's life was in grave danger and that the monkey was the key. Agnes Kopera then watched in horror as Jimmy abruptly shot himself. The image of Jimmy's dead body froze on screen for a few seconds before the message automatically timed out.

None of this made sense to Agnes, she was clearly in shock, and her mind struggled to absorb what she had just witnessed. The one thing she knew for sure was that Jimmy never did anything without having a backup plan ready first. Kopera quickly rips open the brown envelope and finds a holographic tattoo at the centre of the white page. The tattoo is of a cartoon monkey with three stars rapidly swirling over the character's head. Underneath the tattoo is a cryptic note from Jimmy stating "Will you bring destruction to mankind? Only if I am successful." Kopera did not understand what the phrase meant but she knew how these type of tattoos worked. Without hesitating Agnes touched the holographic image and felt a slight burning sensation on her right forearm. Within seconds the tattoo had transferred from page to her arm. Jimmy's cryptic note also disappeared and was replaced by three words: "They are coming!"

Kopera's life is soon turned upside down as she finds herself on the run from a sadistic bounty hunter, Jangois Velope, who will stop at nothing to get the information stored within Agnes' tattoo. Hired by Hilroy Vanguadrid himself, Jangois leaves a path of sorrow and pain whereever he goes and takes immense pride in that fact. If Jangois Velope was not enough to deal with, Kopera must also evade two hard-boiled federal agents, Stephanie Shibato and Rick Urani. Shibato and Urani are investigating Jimmy's suicide and his ties to an illegal underground commune known as The Nezzar.

Shibato believes that The Nezzar is a group of anarchist who may have terrorist ties. Fearing for her life, and with options running out, Kopera's only hope might be a mysterious recluse named Zigmund Cox. Zigmund used to work at Vanguadrid Incorporated before vanishing one day without a trace. Rumours of his alleged death have floated around for years, yet so have tales about Cox's association with The Nezzar. As Kopera's journey takes her deeper into the mystery of the monkey tattoo, she will not only learn more about Vangaudrid and The Nezzar, but about herself as well. Kopera will make a discovery about her past, one that she never knew she had, which will have horrific ramifications for both Kopera and the world in general.

Copyright 2010,

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Eli's Book A Satisfying Read

The Book of Eli

As a general rule I try to avoid reading reviews for films I am interested in until after I have seen the film for myself. Once and a while, as was the case with The Hughes Brothers latest film, The Book of Eli, I will scan a few reviews to see what the general consensus is. Unfortunately, The Book of Eli has been scoring very poorly with both critics and bloggers. I am not sure why the reviews are so harsh? Personally, I found The Book of Eli to be far more engaging than most give it credit.

At some point in the future a war is fought and it serves as the catalyst for the apocalypse. The who and how are not important, all you need to know is that a "white light" engulf the world and everything collapses into a anarchic state. Eli (Denzel Washington) is one of the few people on earth who remembers what life was like before the "big flash." He has spent the last 30 years walking west scrounging for food while trying to avoid both hijackers and cannibals along the way. Eli’s travels take him to a town in where a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman) rules with an iron fist. Carnegie owns everything in the town including his blind lover Claudia (Jennifer Beals) and her daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis).

Despite being as wealthy as a person can be in a post-apocalypse world, Carnegie knows that he can be overthrown at any minute. So he desperately searches for the one thing that can secure his reign…the Bible. During the war, all copies of the Bible were burned as a strategic measure to ensure that no one would be inspired to rise up against the new world order. Carnegie knows, that by using the Bible, he will able to come up with the rhetoric he needs to give his people hope. Not hope in God mind you, but hope in the God that Carnegie sees himself as being. Once Carnegie realize that Eli has the last known copy of the Bible in his possession, Carnegie is determined to get his hands on it by any means necessary, even if this means prostituting Solara, to get it.

The Book of Eli is an even mix of action and religious discourse. While the stylized action sequences offer many enjoyable moments, it the film’s approach to religion that keeps the film interesting. The Book of Eli is not a preachy movie, but it does not shy away from the topic either. Although the religious symbolism is not subtle, especially towards the end, it is never hinders the tale. Mainly because a lot of the things mention in the film are relevant today. Mankind's obsession with technology and excess superseeding our faith in a higher being or each other for that matter. If you really think about it, having the Bible as the ultimate source of strength in a devastated world is not far fetch at all. Just look at the coverage of the earthquake in Haiti for example, a lot of the things currently going on in Haiti echo some of the stuff in this film. Yet unwavering religious faith has given many of the Haitian people the strength they need to go on despite the awful circumstances.

One of the questions that the film poses is whether the Bible can be used for evil just as easy as it can beckon for good? Carnegie knows the power of the Bible's words and formulates how to use it for his advantage. The majority of Carnegie’s men, including right-hand man Redridge (Ray Stevenson), constantly question why all the fuss over a mere book. Yet in a land where the majority of the population cannot read or write, knowledge of words is far more valuable a tool than anything else Carnegie can offer. The idea of the Bible as a weapon, let alone an evil one, is an interesting idea to ponder.

I suspect the aspect of the film that will really divide audiences is the twist towards the end. It is not really necessary but, when you look at the film as a whole, you are subtly prepped for it the entire way through. The Hughes Brothers are constantly proving clues in both the quite scenes (such as the mouse eating cat meat) and in the action sequences (being able to smell the hijackers).

Speaking of the action sequences, there are a number of good fight scenes along with one really great shootout sequence. In the shootout scene, The Hughes Brothers have the camera track some of the bullets as they go back and forth between the house and Carnegie’s crew. It is a visual treat to watch, extremely over-the-top, but fun nonetheless. The Book of Eli may not be the best movie to come out this year, but it is better than the reviews it has been receiving so far. The film has enough entertaining, and at time thought provoking, moments to at least warrant a viewing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Can You Dig It?: EZ's Box Office Challenge Spring 2010 Edition!

A new session of one of the most addictive movie games on the net, EZ's Box Office Challenge (Spring 2010 Edition) is about to begin!

Register your FREE studio now for your chance to win cash prizes. The game is simple, create a fictional studio and select which movies (e.g. Shutter Island, etc.) you think will be big hits. The spring Box Office Challenge features the ability to bet on the Best Picture Oscar as well as the addition of the Spring Breaker (Z) and Recycled (R) categories. The Recycled category contains all sequels and remakes, while the Spring Breaker category contains all titles that could make or break your spring studio. You are only allowed three from each category though, which will you choose?

02/12 The Wolfman
02/26 The Crazies
04/02 Clash of the Titans
04/02 Why Did I Get Married Too
04/16 Death at a Funeral
04/23 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
04/30 A Nightmare on Elm Street Spring Breaker
02/12 Valentine's Day
02/19 Shutter Island
03/05 Alice in Wonderland
03/12 Green Zone
03/26 How to Train Your Dragon
04/09 Date Night

Spring Breaker
02/12 Valentine's Day
02/19 Shutter Island
03/05 Alice in Wonderland
03/12 Green Zone
03/26 How to Train Your Dragon
04/09 Date Night

If you can put together the best movie studio lineup this spring you will win the grand prize.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Blind Side of Racism

The Blind Side

The one question that kept running through my head when I was watching The Blind Side was whose story is this film really telling?

The Blind Side is based on the true-life story of Michael Oher's (Quinton Aaron) journey from homeless teen to professional NFL player. Hailing from the Memphis projects, Michael spent a good portion of his time moving from foster home to foster home after the state took him away from his crack addicted mother. It is only when Michael is accepted into a Christian private high school, mainly on the basis that his size may help the school's sports teams, that his life begins to change for the better. Michael he meets Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy (Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw), a wealthy Republican couple who offers him a place to stay. Over time, the relationship between Michael and Tuohys proves mutually beneficial. Michael's grades improve and the chances of getting a college football scholarship become a reality; while the Tuohys, by embracing Michael, realize that they should not take their life for granted.

The Tuohys should be commended for their act of generosity. It is heartwarming to know that there are still people in this world who genuinely go out of their way to help those in need. Unfortunately, the way that the story is portrayed on film is just downright insulting to all parties involved.

The Blind Side should really be about Michael's rise to the top with the assistance of the Tuohy family. Instead the film is about Tuohy family opening their doors to Michael. What is the difference you ask? Well it is all in the details. Let us use another Oscar nominated movie, Precious, as an example. What is the most compelling aspect of that film? Precious' life or the teacher who helps Precious see her potential? Obviously that film would not have had the same impact it did if director Lee Daniel's had approached the story from the teachers point of view. Which is exactly why The Blind Side is so offensive.

In The Blind Side, Michael's story is only told in spurts. We get brief flashbacks to the most traumatic event in Michael's life but it is not truly explained until near the end of the picture. Come to think of if, every aspect of Michael's life prior to meeting the Tuohys is reduced to mere footnotes. Let's see... Mother? A drug addict. Siblings? Out there somewhere. Kid who got accepted at private school along with Michael? Gang member. Etc. Heck, we do not even get Michael's perspective on the Tuohy family themselves. The only thing The Blind Side director, John Lee Hancock, offers up from Michael is a few lines such as "I thought I was already part of the family." Though we hear a lot in the film about what the family thinks of Michael.

This is further evident when you think about the adjustment Michael would have had to make. We are rarely shown what Michael had to endure living in an all white community. We see brief scenes of Michael sitting by himself in study hall, and racist remarks being hurled at the football game, but at no point does Michael comment on any of it, or express how he copes on a daily basis. Instead we must watch Leigh Anne's plight as the members of her country club start to question her actions. Even when the film takes a turn at the end, and Michael's future is in jeopardy, we are still shown the Tuohy's discussing the issue rather than Michael.

Not only is Oher's life story secondary to Leigh Anne Tuohy and her family's but, to add further insult, Michael is portrayed as borderline autistic for the majority of the film. Yes Michael may not have the best reading skills but, as Ms. Boswell (Kim Dickens) points out on numerous occasions, Michael is smarter than everyone thinks he is. Not only is he a writer but he can retain a ton of information that is given to him orally. Yet, despite all of this, we are shown scenes of Michael being mesmerized by balloons in the sky, the Forrest Gump-like scenes where he only stopped running once the whistle was blown, etc. Heck, there is even a scene where Leigh Anne needs to point out the art of buying if Michael has never been in a store before! The kid may be poor, but he is not the simple-minded Neanderthal that the film makes him out to be.

I cannot help but wonder if Michael would have been portrayed the same way if the racial lines were reversed? Would Michael's history be told in brief flashbacks had he been white and taken in by a well-to-do black family? Would the actor still portray Michael as borderline autistic? Would the film even be told from the families point of view? Or would it be an underdog rag-to-riches tale like Eminem's 8 Mile?

I know some, my fiancée included, thought that Tuohy's tale was worthy of being on film. Again, I have nothing against what Leigh Anne Tuohy and her family did. As I mentioned above, I think they did a wonderful thing. I might have been a little easier on the film had both sides of the story been told in an even manner. Yet, as it stands, I found The Blind Side, as a movie, to be both insulting and extremely offensive.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Ajami's Hard Streets Hurt Soul


Now that the Academy Award nominations have been announced there is a lot of debate over whether Avatar or The Hurt Locker will come out on top. Instead of weighing in on that discussion I want to focus on the one nomination that brought me the most joy Tuesday...Ajami’s nomination for Best Foreign Film. The film was released in New York on Wednesday and is expanding to Los Angeles in the coming weeks. Hopefully the Academy Award nomination will help to expand its theatrical run to an even wider release before it hits DVD.

I was fortunate enough to catch Ajami at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. After reviewing my initial selections, I decided I needed to add a few more foreign films into the mix. So I traded in my ticket for Drew Barrymore’s Whip It and took a chance on Ajami. Needless to say it was one of the smartest moves I made in since I started attending the festival back in 2001. The decision almost made up for me passing on tickets to films such as Whale Rider and Brokeback Mountain a few years back…almost. Hey, sometimes it is tough to tell what films will be a good if you simple go by the brief write up in the festival’s program book…but I digress.

Ajami is co-directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, one is of Palestinian decent while the other is an Israeli Jew, and their vastly different backgrounds offer a very unique feel to the film. The conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians have been widely documented on a global scale but rarely do we see what goes on daily in average neighborhoods. Ajami looks at how the lives of seemingly separate individuals are intertwined. There is the story of a family who is doomed to pay for one uncle’s heroic act. Another story looks at an Arab who wants to live in Israel. There is also the tale of a cop who is desperate to find his missing brother. To give any more of the plot away would be a great disservice to the film.

Ajami is a film very much in the same vein as City of God. The majority of the film is set in Jaffa the crime ridden section of Ajami. There are corrupt Jewish police officers, organized gangs, Palestinians working illegally, etc. The fascinating thing about the people living in Jaffa is, despite their profession and/or social class, how deep their faith runs. In fact, one of the most shocking things about the film is how much religion factors into everyone’s daily life. Every action is said to be in Allah’s name. Allah name is often used to justify a lot of the criminal activity in Jaffa. This makes for a fascinating contrast in many of the characters that inhabit the film.

The majority of the cast consist amateur performers from the area where the film is set. The non-professionals do a really good job drawing the audience into their world. The film's non-linear storyline also help to enhance the overall impact of certain characters. Ajami does not make any grand political statements nor does it choose sides. Instead it provides a fascinating, and at times heartbreaking, look at how corruption and violence can ruin communities no matter where in the world you are.

Monday, February 01, 2010

A Little Light The Edge of Darkness Be

Edge of Darkness

A character in Edge of Darkness remarks “it never is what it is. It is what it can be made to look like…” This line sums up the film perfectly. Edge of Darkness is yet another example of faulty studio marketing at its finest. Mel Gibson's return to acting is being sold as an action-packed revenge flick in the same vein as Taken and Payback. In reality, the movie is actually a political thriller that is surprisingly light on the thrills.

Based on the 1985 BBC mini-series of the same name, Edge of Darkness is about Thomas Craven’s (Mel Gibson) quest for justice after his daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), is gunned down before his eyes. Soon Thomas finds himself unravelling a mystery that somehow links back to Jack Bennett (Danny Huston), the head of a nuclear facility contracted by the United States government. Thomas search for the truth is further complicated by the emergence of Darius Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), a man who specializes in ensuring that government secrets stay hidden.

The one major hurdle Edge of Darkness never seems to overcome is how close to the edge will Craven go? Every time you think he has reached his breaking point, the director, Martin Campbell, seems to pullback Craven leash. This gets frustrating after a while as it seems that all the truly interesting moments are being kept from the audience. It is as if Campbell needed to cut out the good stuff to ensure a regular running time. It is only in the last ten minutes of the film when we finally see the rabid dog inside Thomas cut loose. The sad part is that even that severely disappoints. The “action-packed” finale is nothing you have not seen in hundreds of movies before. Come to think of it, the most memorable moment in the entire film is when Gibson" goes to town" on a bookish environmental crusader who clearly has never been in a fight in his life. The mismatch of the two men is so absurd that you cannot help but laugh at the scene.

I know some will argue that the film is not about the action as much as it is about the moral dilemma within Gibson’s character. While I am sure the inner conflict that Craven, and several of the other characters , face is gripping in the six episode mini-series; it just does not work in a two hour film. Proof of this comes when you really look at how Campbell handles Gibson's character in the film. Martin Campbell tries really hard to justify Craven’s actions at the end of the film by making him witness and endure a lot of the evil things up to that point. Yet the question must be asked, is it really necessary to justify Craven's actions at all? A loss of a child is enough to make the average parent snap. Do we really need the shady corporation to do extremely dastardly things as well just so we can cheer for the hero?

Trying to moralize a person's violent action is a theme that runs throughout the picture. Whether it is Danny Huston’s Bennett perversely wondering what pain of losing a child feels like, or Winstone’s Darius philosophizing about his actions on the job, everyone is wrestling with something. Speaking of Ray Winstone, his superb acting talents are grossly wasted in the film. Darius Jedburgh spends the majority of the picture on the sidelines trying to figure out whose team he wants to play for. By time Darius does decide to make a statement it comes far too late and ultimately does not enhance the plot at all.

The only thing the Edge of Darkness did successfully was peak my interest in the original source material. I could see how the subject matter could be invigorating if given the length of a mini-series to flesh everything out properly. Sadly by truncating the series to fit a standard film running time, Edge of Darkness does not have enough depth or thrills to really make the impact that Campbell and Gibson hoped for.