Friday, 3 July 2015

How Edgar G. Ulmer, the director of DETOUR and THE BLACK CAT made two cool Ukrainian-Language films for a megalomaniacal Ukrainian/Canadian/American impresario-dancer-film producer-thief. "THESHOWMAN AND THE UKRAINIAN CAUSE" is a terrific biographical portrait of Vasile Avramenko by Orest T. Martynowych that sheds new light upon ethnic cinema in North America - Book Review By Greg Klymkiw

The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause (2014)
Folk Dance, Film and the Life of Vasile Avramenko
University of Manitoba Press, 219 pages
By Orest T. Martynowych

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Anyone who knows and loves cinema is a huge fan of the brilliant Edgar G. Ulmer. His most memorable titles include the nasty film noir classic Detour, which he made for the mega-poverty-row studio PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), People on Sunday, the astonishing co-directorial effort with Robert Siodmak (a strangely beautiful experimental docudrama from a Billy Wilder script and Fred Zinneman handling the moving camera duties) and the grimly black comic shocker The Black Cat for Universal Pictures (starring Boris Karloff, uttering some of the most ridiculous Black Mass incantations in movie history: "in vino verities", "in wine is truth" and my personal favourite, "reductio ad absurdum est", "it is shown to be impossible").

Before directing films, Ulmer had an amazing career working in the art departments under the tutelage of such greats as Rouben Mamoulian, F.W. Murnau, Clarence Brown, Fritz Lang, Max Reinhardt, Erich von Stroheim, G.W Pabst and even Sergei Eisenstein on the ill-fated Que Viva Mexico. The list, frankly, goes on and on, plus the influence of these great artists clearly provided so much inspiration for Ulmer.

Unfortunately, Ulmer's promising major studio career began and ended with The Black Cat. Ulmer was forced to reshoot many sequences to tone down the film's utter insanity, but mostly to add a sense of audience-identification with the floridly overwrought characters. This was, perhaps, not his most egregious act since he acquiesced without much protest and handled it prodigiously (still maintaining a wildly nutty sense of expressionism to the piece). Ulmer's aptitude for maintaining his voice whilst attending to the demands of marketplace concerns held him in very good stead throughout his strange and wonderful career.

Ulmer's biggest "crime" was falling in love with the wrong person. Universal topper Carl Laemmle Jr. viciously blacklisted the filmmaker for daring to woo, then win the hand of his script girl who'd once been married to the mad mogul's favourite nephew. As preposterous as this sounds, Ulmer was eventually forced to make a living on low budget items for independent production companies. This is how Hollywood worked (and still does, actually). Ulmer, however, was probably the real winner here. His wife Shirley not only proved to be the love of his life, but she became his valued creative partner for well over forty years.

Immediately after this, Ulmer was hired to direct From Nine to Nine, a British "quota quickie" (many of which were made in Commonwealth Dominions) in Montreal. The budget and arduous working conditions on this film (gloriously restored in the 90s by the brilliant Canadian archivist John J.D. Turner), in addition to horrendously huge medical expenditures upon their return to the USA, forced Ulmer and Shirley into abject poverty.

Little did Ulmer realize that his deliverance from total obscurity and poverty would rest with one of the most forgotten movie producers in movie history, a bonkers Ukrainian emigre by the name of Vasile Avramenko.

* * * * *

"The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause" is the terrific new book by Orest T. Martynowych which combines meticulously researched scholarship with a compulsive prose style. It handily delivers superb non-fiction literature detailing the life and career of a visionary madman devoted to maintaining and promoting Ukrainian culture throughout the world, in spite of its repression under both Communism and the intensely rigid policies of Russification in post-revolutionary Soviet-dominated Ukraine.

Vasile Avramenko, a Ukrainian-born dancer, choreographer, teacher and eventually, film producer, led a mostly itinerant and beleaguered life - saying and doing whatever he had to do in order to raise funds for his occasionally brilliant and most often, cockamamie cultural initiatives. He was a thief - pure and simple, but one gets the impression that his desires were less linked to lining his own pockets, save for when he needed to live and continue his mad work. The bottom line is that he was a scattered, often-megalomaniacal, truly-visionary and irredeemably poor businessman.

He had dreams though, and his loftiest fantasia was to create an industrial and cultural model for Ukrainian-language cinema in Hollywood, one which would generate motion picture product for Ukrainians amongst the diaspora as well as opportunities for Ukrainian artists in North America, on-and-of-screen, to ply their trade.

Alas, he pretty much bolloxed this up, but what he did, was open a door for one of America's greatest directors to ply his trade and become, during the 30s, the true king of "ethnic" cinema in America. Ulmer made two Ukrainian-language features for Avramenko, Natalka Poltavka and Cossacks in Exile, both rich in culture, folklore and as dazzlingly directed as one could want, especially given the cut-rate budgets afforded to the work. Avramenko's belief in Ulmer led to his long career generating cinema aimed at the Jewish diaspora as well as African-America audiences.

Ulmer's work in this field eventually led to his long-term contract with PRC which allowed him a great deal of creative control and opportunities to generate a (mostly) solid body of work, including the aforementioned Detour.

Martynowych's book allows for a fascinating glimpse into the world of financing, producing and marketing ethnic cinema in North America as well as a detailed look at how Avramenko's productions fell under the horrendous spectre of Anti-Semitism when noted Ukrainians including, sadly for me, the musical impresario Olexandr Koshets, whose name has long been affixed to my late, great Uncle Volodomyr Klymkiw's important Ukrainian choir, the O. Koshetz Memorial Choir in Winnipeg.

Koshetz hated Avramenko and led the charge with public criticisms of the films based on his nasty, spurious suggestions that they could not have been purely "Ukrainian", replete with inaccuracies and were instead "little Russian" since the director and many of Avramenko's creative team were Jewish. Even Avramenko and Ulmer's staunchest defender was discredited by Koshetz as being s "Ukrainian-Jew" and Avramenko himself, mostly due to his megalomania, would occasionally downplay Ulmer's contributions.

Still, Ulmer directed the hell out of these pictures and in spite of spotty returns at the box office, they garnered wildly enthusiastic reviews in the mainstream press. Elements do exist out there for these important films and I do hope that specialty companies, either the award winning Milestone Films or Kino-Lorber, will undertake proper new 4K transfers and Blu-Ray releases of these two fine works in Ulmer's canon.

In the meantime, though, we have Martynowych's great book. It offers top-of-the-line materials for Slavic Studies and Film Studies scholars in addition to pretty much anyone interested in one hell of a fascinating tale of a genuinely visionary nutcase like Vasile Avramenko.

The Film Corner Rating: ***** 5-Stars

The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause is available from University of Manitoba Press. In Canada, order directly from this link HERE
. In the United States, order directly from this link HERE
. In the UK, order directly from this link HERE
. Any one of these links will suffice for anyone in the world to order by clicking on any of the aforementioned links. Doing so on these links, assists with the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

LIMELIGHT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Classic Chaplin Melodrama on Criterion Blu-Ray

Limelight (1952)
Dir. Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Claire Bloom,
Nigel Bruce, Sydney Earl Chaplin, Norman Lloyd, Buster Keaton

Review By Greg Klymkiw

It's 1914 and Great Britain will soon enter World War I. The great clown Calvero (Charles Chaplin), once the toast of the entertainment business, is now an unreliable alcoholic whose agent must beg even the most ramshackle music halls to book his client on the bottom-feeding end of the billings and under vague pseudonyms so that no theatre booking agent or the lowliest of audiences will think they're getting an unfunny stumblebum.

One fateful evening, Calvero enters his modest rooming house and though two sheets to the wind, he is still able to make out the overwhelming smell of gas emanating from a first-floor suite, its door locked and the landlady with the pass key nowhere to be found. The pie-eyed codger manages to break the door down in the nick of time to find its beautiful tenant Terry (Claire Bloom) on the verge of death by her own hand, the open gas oven blasting its deadly fumes into the air.

Calvero revives the destitute out-of-work dancer, then discretely summons a doctor from round the corner and moves the addled missy upstairs to his own room to recuperate. When she realizes she's been saved, her sorrow seems even greater. Calvero, however, is full of understanding and seems to know exactly how to gently admonish the young miss and set her straight. When she questions the meaning of life and indeed the very notion that there is any meaning at all, Calvero supplies just the right verbal balm. "What do you want meaning for?" he chides ever-so gently. "Life is a desire, not a meaning. Desire is the theme of all life!"

And so it is.

And so begins one of the greatest movies of all time - written, produced, directed, scored and starring the Little Tramp himself. Deep into the latter stages of middle age and exiled to Switzerland after being refused entry to the United States on spurious grounds by the House of Un-American Activities, Charles Spencer Chaplin (Charlie, to the world) gave us one of his sweetest gifts. Limelight began its life as a novella, however, it read so much like a movie script that it seemed inevitable Chaplin would go ahead and make the picture.

This is also a movie that should have been one of Chaplin's greatest box-office triumphs. Alas, theatre owners in the United States were vigorously lobbied by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover to not exhibit this "propaganda" by the suspected communist. Most acquiesced to the desires of the House of UnAmerican Activities. Though the film played in a mere handful of American theatres, mostly in liberal enclaves, it still managed to gross over a million dollars in the USA. In European territories, Chaplin's film did fine business and grossed in the neighbourhood of eight million dollars.

Its appeal made sense. Chaplin fashioned a work that was as sophisticated and mature as it was simple and sentimental - appealing to both highbrow and general audiences. (That the film was essentially suppressed for two decades in America, the aforementioned numbers in 1952 currency are pretty astounding.)

And it's such a great and compelling story. Chaplin juggles a few threads of plot here, but the main one involves his unconditional support to Terry and how he provides her with the inspiration and drive she needs to make it to the top. As he optimistically tells her, "Think of the power that's in the universe! And that's the same power within you. If you'd only have courage and the will to use it."

Of course, their relationship is more than a trifle complicated. There's deep love that grows between both of them. The father-daughter and teacher-student love makes the most sense given their huge age difference, but Terry (even though she's attracted to a young composer played by Chaplin's real-life son Sydney), feels conflicted about her feelings for Calvero and thinks she loves him the way a potential wife would love her husband. She even proposes marriage to him.

As Calvero keeps plummeting to the bottom, Terry rises to the top - a familiar enough A Star is Born-like trajectory, but Chaplin is wise enough to throw a few wrinkles and surprises in the mix so that we're more often than not, fed a few morsels which twist and turn the narrative handily. One of them involves the great Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes) as a theatrical impresario whose respectful acknowledgement and belief in "the old days" allows for a joyous fork in the road to open up for all concerned.

Initially via Calvero's dreams and reminiscences, the film also allows us to see both the character and Chaplin himself, performing a number of classic comedy routines. Seeing this great master go through his creative paces is infused with considerable two-for-the-price-of-one delights. In particular is one major highlight of comedic genius. Chaplin had always been obsessed with nailing an idea he had for a sketch involving trained fleas and he finally delivers the goods here with considerable gusto.

Eventually, the tale allows Calvero/Chaplin the opportunity for a full-blown vaudeville show before a huge, appreciative audience. This sequence is not only hilarious, but induces the kind of happy gooseflesh one can only get when bearing witness to sheer virtuosity. Astonishingly, we're also treated to a classic comedy routine between Chaplin and Buster Keaton (the only time the two of them ever shared screen-time). To say the entire routine is a joy would be an understatement of the most egregious kind.

The film's exquisite humour induces plenty tears of laughter, but it wouldn't be Chaplin if the picture also didn't wrench our hearts with the kind of emotion that forces us to completely lose it emotionally. Luckily, this happens on several occasions.

As the greatest have always proven, there's nothing sadder than a clown.

And there's nothing sadder and greater than Chaplin as a clown in his twilight years, a character still so vibrant, yet also driven by the kind of self-sacrifice, that he inspires the cycle of life and death to come full circle.

At one point Calvero says, "I believe I'm dying, doctor. Then, I don't know. I've died so many times." It's a beautiful moment that fills us with joy. We know Calvero will never really die, just as Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin through the great gift of cinema, lives forever.


Limelight is available on a gorgeous Criterion Collection Blu-Ray which is overflowing with hours worth of materials which provide added insight as well as sheer entertainment value. Amongst the myriad of interviews, all of them worthwhile, I was especially delighted with those involving the wonderful actress Claire Bloom who offers plenty of greats stories and insights which are far too modest with respect to herself, but also give us a unique window upon Chaplin's genius. This is one of the best Criterion efforts of the year (though it seems one can say this with each new release from this visionary company). The new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray is of the highest quality and in addition to outtakes, trailers, a booklet with a Peter von Bagh essay as well as an actual on-set piece by Henry Gris, there's a lovely video essay by Chaplin biographer David Robinson which places the whole film within Chaplin's personal and artistic process. It's extremely informative and moving. There are new interviews with the aforementioned Claire Bloom as well as Norman Lloyd, a 2002 documentary on Limelight, a delightful audio recording with Chaplin reading excerpts from his novella "Footlights" (wherein the film blossomed out of) and most magnificently, two silent shorts by Chaplin, one of which is an unfinished piece which first introduces the brilliant and funny trained flea act. The case is gorgeously illustrated with a beautiful new cover by Bill Nelson. All in all, a must-own Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

PASSCHENDAELE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Cineplex Entertainment's - ahem - Continuing Commitment to Canadian Cinema: Cheap Cineplex Store Rentals on one of the WORST Canadian movies ever made! (Actually one of the worst movies - EVER!)

Cineplex Entertainment, the "proudly" Canadian movie theatre chain has always displayed a solid commitment to Canadian Cinema by not playing most Canadian Films, by providing no information on the few independent Canadian films they've pathetically played (referring to directors on their app as "Names Not Available"), charging small distributors exorbitant "virtual print fees" to play Canadian films in their theatres and, of course, playing Canadian films by the most acclaimed and beloved auteurs like Paul Gross. Now, in honour of Canada Day, Cineplex Entertainment's Cineplex Store is offering Canadian movies (they especially like) for rent in digital formats at cut-rate prices. Let us review one of these Canadian films which broke box-office records in Cineplex Entertainment cinemas with bought and paid-for grosses thanks to marketing assistance from the Canadian Government's Telefilm Canada.

NOTE: "PASSCHENDAELE" is pronounced as "pashin-dale". In honour of this fine film, herewith is a lovely witticism: A cabbie picked up a drunk lassie and she told him she needed to get to the Beer Vendor, but she didn't have enough money to take the cab there, so she would, in fact, provide him with a blow-job if he'd waive the fees. He happily agreed. As he drove to the Beer Vendor and the lassie worked upon his member prodigiously, the cabbie began to moan aloud. The young lassie looked up at him and said, "Oh, hey buddy, yer passionate." He replied, "Why thank you, indeed I am." She responded in her drunken slurring twixt slurps: "No buddy! Yer pashin it. Yer pashin the fuckin Beer Vendor."

Passchendaele (2008)
dir. Paul Gross
Starring: Paul Gross, Caroline Dhaverna

Review By Greg Klymkiw

How anyone could suggest with a straight face that Passchendaele is any good at all, renders me agog. I originally had no right to even comment on the movie a few years ago when I staggered out after the first miserable hour at its World Premiere in 2008 at the Toronto International Film Festival, but rest assured, I eventually suffered through the entire sewage bath when it opened theatrically to confirm my initial feelings.

The full dosage of Paul Gross's directorial followup to his risible curling (Yes, Curling!) "comedy" Men With Brooms (and preceding his monumentally sickening Western "comedy" Gunless) forced me to nail my feet to the floor. I have the scars to prove it.

This $20,000,000.00 war film (a bit of an oxymoron in this day and age, anyway - even before going in you know you're in for some bargain basement carnage) is one of the most embarrassing, poorly written, miserably directed excuses for something purporting to be a motion picture that I have ever had the utter displeasure to waste precious hours of my life on. The first few minutes of this Dollar-rama Saving Private Ryan had a few visceral shocks to be sure (thanks, no doubt to a decent second unit team), but once the stiff-jawed leading man (Gross, 'natch) settled his sorry shell-shocked ass back on the homefront, I pretty much had to nail my kneecaps to the seat to stay for entirety of this jaw-droppingly wretched picture.

The paper thin characters/caricatures all deliver mind-numbingly awful dialogue as the contrived story plods interminably along its dreary way - treading heavily into the territory of melodrama of the worst sort. Don't get me wrong - I love war pictures and I especially love war pictures that have both melodrama and sentimentality. That said, there is good melodrama and bad melodrama and there is sentimentality that resonates with the emotional heartache that someone like John Ford was able to master with his eyes sewn shut.

Alas, Paul Gross is most certainly not John Ford - Garry Marshall with a severe migraine, perhaps, but not much more than that. Gross directs with the grace of a faulty jackhammer that keeps missing its mark. Perhaps he might have made a good picture if he'd produced and starred in it and let a real writer and director do their respective jobs.

Gross is definitely a good actor and the camera loves him, but in this movie he lopes about like some pretty boy Gary Cooper over-dosed on Maple Syrup, uttering dialogue that not even Ed Wood would have been capable of writing. In fact, let it be said now that as a writer, Ed Wood was pretty much Clifford Odets compared to Gross.

The movie, for all its utter stupidity, reached some kind of nadir when Gross chose to crosscut between graphic descriptions of what shrapnel can do to the human body whilst a loving couple bang each other with youthful abandon. Spielberg did a similar thing in Munich. I applauded Spielberg for the audacity, but couldn't really forgive the stupidity - especially since he had his lead character boinking wifey whilst having flashbacks to violent killings he was not even present to have experienced. I was even convinced nobody could have topped such idiocy, but Paul Gross managed to do it. Alas, bereft of Spielberg's panache, which made Munich barely watchable, Gross has little to offer as a director save for complete incompetence.

If only Gross had been able to rise to the level of M.O.W. competence, I might have been able to avoid putting holes in my feet and kneecaps (in addition to not having the taste of bile in my mouth, which comes up on me even when I think about the picture). Alas, my desires fell upon deaf ears. Between those deaf ears, however, I can only assume plenty of air resides happily and fetidly within.

Happy Fucking Canada Day!


This is a rating The Film Corner delivers to films too bad to garner one-star (*). Said films would normally then receive the "One Pubic Hair" rating, however, not to besmirch the fine pubic hair recipient Sharknado by lumping it in (so to speak) with genuine turds, I was forced to create a critical rating even lower.

The Rating is, quite simply and evocatively:


As pictured, this an actual turd found by myself and Project Grizzly filmmaker Peter Lynch in the illustrious Parkdale parking lot behind Harry's wherein the two of us had just dined with writer Geoff Pevere.

Now, please feel free to acknowledge, as I do, pictures displaying the most appalling ineptitude, exceeding that of even Sharknado. It is a critical rating which will, one hopes, seal the selected work's fate in some manner of infamy.


Saturday, 27 June 2015

DESPICABLE ME - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Oh Christ! There's a prequel? Really? Ugh!

Look, if it's okay with you, since all these movies are the same, I won't bother reviewing MINIONS, just as I didn't bother reviewing DESPICABLE ME 2. The first film, DESPICABLE ME, is the only one I've seen, so let's talk about why it's mind-numbingly mediocre. It'll be for the same reasons the new pictures are also mind-numbingly mediocre. I don't even need to see them to know that. Because, I, uh, like, uh, saw the first one, eh. It's all anyone really needs in these dark days of dead-head movies for dead-head audiences.

Despicable Me (2010)
dir. Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Starring: Steve Carrell, Jason Segal, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews

Review By Greg Klymkiw

There was a sequel two summers ago, a prequel this summer and yet another sequel two summers from now, but you know what? I'm good. The first film in this franchise (a word I hate) was more than enough for this fella. They can doll these things up all they like, but most contemporary animated films are pretty much interchangeable and in spite of inexplicably over-the-top critical orgasms and astounding boxoffice, most of them, like 2010's Despicable Me fall squarely into the been-there-done-that category.

I can understand why most critics raved about the movie. Most of them aren't what I'd bother to call critics anyway; they're hacks (at worst) and/or glorified studio flacks (at best). What I don't get is the ridiculous number of family audiences filling the theatres for mediocre crap like this. Are these families so desperate for entertainment they can see as families, that they'll succumb to any moderately clever ad campaign to fork over their dough for a familiar, over-hyped picture?

Or are they merely that dull, unimaginative and stupid? I'll keep the correct answer to myself. You can do your own math. (As for the aforementioned shills, it's beyond simple math, it's just one big fat zero to the power of infinity.)

As for the very first Despicable Me, it was really little more than a pallid reversal on Brad Bird's (terrific) The Incredibles. Here, the focus is upon a network of super-villains as opposed to the latter's world of superheroes. One of the big differences between the two, though, is that The Incredibles was made by a director who not only has a great sense of humour and storytelling chops, but a real appreciation for epic sweep and a true geek's affinity for the kind of derring-do that his fellow "losers" in the audience are also imbued with. Bird's film displayed originality, genuine wit and thoroughly pulse-pounding action - action that's rooted in the dramatic beats, but also expertly designed in terms of overall geography and pace.

Despicable Me, on the other hand, is full of stale gags and a ho-hum plot. Most of all, the action sequences are frenetic, chaotic and have absolutely no sense of geography and/or dramatic resonance.

The same can be said for Despicable Me 2 and Minions, neither of which I've seen, because I don't have to. I've seen this one, eh.

The plot of Despicable Me, such as it is, deals with Gru (Steve Carrell), the world's Super-Villain #2 and his desire to unseat the young Super-Villain #1, an upstart by the name of Vector (Jason Segal). With the help of three cute-as-a-button orphans, Gru undertakes to become the most evil, heinous villain in the world. This dastardly curmudgeon is, however, transformed into a much kinder individual thanks to the charms of the orphans and his growing (ugh!) love for them.

And then there are the minions. The less said about them, the better.

So! Sound vaguely familiar? I thought as much. It's a variation on virtually every contemporary animated movie, including Despicable Me 2 and Minions, neither of which I've seen, and have no intention of ever seeing. Nor will I bother seeing Despicable Me 3 in 2017. I don't have to. I've already seen them - way back in 2010. It's called Despicable Me.

With that first film, I found the whole affair so familiar that I genuinely can't remember much more about it than the dull plot recounted above. None of the jokes resonated with me at all; they were strictly dullsville. The opening sight gag involving the theft of the pyramids in Egypt seemed decent enough, but big deal. It was screened in its entirety for months as a trailer, just as every joke in any of the "franchise" have been.

Even though Despicable Me and its ilk are family pictures, would it have been so hard to shoehorn some delightfully, nastily, almost malevolent dark humour instead of the safe corn-pone TV-style knee-slappers? It is, after all, a cartoon and that's the sort of humour both adults and kids love (a la the Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons from Warners). In the film's favour, we weren't inundated with endlessly annoying contemporary pop-culture references that are supposed to be funny and which, of course, are going to date all the pathetic animated films that do. (Shrek, anyone? I thought not.)

The look of Despicable Me is not without a few shreds of merit, but many of the gadgets and characters - while serviceable for the film's running time - don't last in the memory banks. The vocal performances - while competent - are bereft of the sort of Cliff Edwards brilliance from classic Disney that knocks you on your butt and stays with you forever.

The frenetic pace of Despicable Me and its ilk actually have the effect of bogging the pictures down. The Incredibles, on the other hand, was about thirty minutes longer than this 2010 "original", yet zipped by so effortlessly, that one didn't want it to end. Despicable Me, on the other hand, inspired little more than endless glances at my iPhone.

Other than being insufferably inoffensive and watchable for its 95-minute running time, those are about the only things in its favour. The same can be said for Despicable Me 2 and Minions, neither of which I've seen, and have no intention of ever seeing, because I've seen Despicable Me. You get the drift.

And now, there's a goddamn prequel!!! After a sequel and before another fucking sequel!

I'm still wondering: Where in the name of Christ were all the movie-going morons (and moron film critics) earlier this summer for Brad Bird's gorgeous Tomorrowland? Waiting to see Minions, no doubt.

Besides, there are always solid movies on the big screen that families would be doing themselves and their kids a favour to see instead of crap like the Despicable Me franchise.

I remember the year I took my (then) 9-year-old daughter to see Despicable Me. Yeah, she watched it, but around the same time that year, she also saw the highly imaginative Vincenzo Natali sci-fi horror picture Splice and made me take her to see it several times on a big screen. It thrilled her, entertained her, stayed with her and most importantly, stimulated the sort of mind-expanding discourse that more kids would benefit from.

So why drag kids to the usual derivative fare? This summer we've seen the aforementioned Tomorrowland tank and even Mad Max: Fury Road might have done better business if parents had some guts and took their precious little buggers to see that one. I don't want to believe that these parents and their progeny are as equally unimaginative as the most unimaginative "family" movies, but as one animated picture after another with a similar pedigree continues to rake in big dollars, I can only assume the worst.

So feel free to use this review of a 5-year-old film to suffice for Minions and pretty much any other stupid contemporary animated film. They're all the same. I suppose if you and your spawn continue to suffer through them, then you are too.

The same, that is.

Despicable Me was released 5 years ago. Its prequel Minions is in wide release. I haven't seen it, nor will I, because I know it will be identical to this one.

Friday, 26 June 2015

THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Unfairly Maligned Peckinpah Part 1

The Osterman Weekend (1983)
Dir. Sam Peckinpah
Starring: Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Burt Lancaster, Dennis Hopper,
Meg Foster, Helen Shaver, Cassie Yates, Craig T. Nelson. Chris Sarandon

Review By Greg Klymkiw

I think the critics who trashed Sam Peckinpah's The Osterman Weekend when it first came out in 1983 were completely out to lunch about one key detail. Even though both Peckinpah and screenwriter Alan Sharp were dissatisfied with the script (based on Robert Ludlum's novel), the common critical complaint was the unintelligibility factor. My response on that front is: HOGWASH! Is the film a mass of confusion and mystery? It sure is, but none of this is detrimental to one's overall enjoyment of the film since it's the very inscrutability of the strange riddles haunting all its characters which keeps us guessing and which, is ultimately so simple, that we want to kick ourselves in the head for not getting "it".

I will admit that my first helping of the film theatrically was fraught with some disappointment at its lack of over-the-top bloodletting, but recent screenings (the DVD edition from ten-years ago and the new Blu-Ray release, both via Anchor Bay) restored my faith in Peckinpah's direction and his take on the material.

And back in the day, what in the Hell was I thinking about? The movie is incredibly violent (much of it submerged in the weird social dynamics of the "friends" who are getting together for weekend frolics) and eventually, all out nail baiting suspense and action during the final third of the picture.

In addition to all of that, there's a substantial creep factor to the whole affair which makes you feel like a vigorous scrub with a fresh, brand new loofah pad to exfoliate yourself of all the vile filth necrotizing upon your flesh.

John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) is a superstar TV journalist whose penetrating interviews are both feared and lauded by politicians and bureaucrats alike. His connections at all levels of government are deep seeded. His best friends from college include a number of successful power brokers all thriving in disparate, but successful fields and each year they have a weekend get-together spurred on by Bernie Osterman (Craig T. Nelson), a TV-news producer and John's closest friend.

This year's "Osterman" weekend is going to be a bit different for all concerned. John has been recruited by Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt), a mysterious CIA field operative. It seems Osterman and John's other pals, plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper), his snarky, coke-snorting wife Virginia (Helen Shaver), sleazily brilliant stock trader Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon) and sexy, loopy wifey Betty (Cassie Yates) are all making scads of extra dough as Soviet spies. Fassett wants to surveil the entire weekend and use John to expose his friends, but to also broker a deal to "turn" them into double agents.

John agrees to this entire mad scheme because he's a genuine patriot, but most of all, he's promised a one-on-one no-holds-barred interview with Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster), a kind of CIA equivalent to the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover.

The weekend, however, goes horribly awry - mostly because John is out of his depth. Coupled with a domestic dispute with his wife Ali (Meg Foster), his overt nervousness and the fact that he and his family are going into this after a harrowing kidnap attempt upon them by Soviet agents. Tanner is convinced all his friends know what he's up to and they in turn are besieged with their own domestic entanglements as well as fearing their old pal is using the weekend to nail them.

Peckinpah beautifully handles the sordid, nasty veneer of bourgeois excess which slowly descends into the kind of bitter acrimonious game-playing which would feel more at home in George and Martha's demented domestic set-up in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf". And let's not forget that everything, every nook and cranny of John's home is outfitted with hidden surveillance cameras as our fey, chain-smoking Fassett voyeuristically observes several banks of monitors, like some mad Peeping Tom.

Tensions amongst the friends mount to extreme proportions and one can feel the potential for an explosion of violence. And when it comes, it's one shocker after another, all filtered through Peckinpah's astonishing feel for the mad ballet of carnage when men and women transform into seething, stalking beasts of prey.

Survival instinct is one thing and Peckinpah amps it up to total Red Alert, but amidst it all is a completely unhinged psychopath who will stop at nothing to extract life from anyone and everyone at all costs.

This is dazzling stuff. Of course, it could have even been far more vile and demented, but once again, poor Peckinpah was assailed by producers who refused to acquiesce to his complete vision, one which took voyeurism and vengeance to borderline extremes of surrealism. In spite of this, what's left is plenty effective.

My most recent screening of the picture on Blu-Ray was like a veil had been joyously lifted from the images and dramatic action. Upon first seeing The Osterman Weekend in 1983, the CIA surveillance methods in the movie seemed like science fiction, but nowadays, what's all on display is, quite miraculously, a chilling mirror image of both the contemporary mainstream media manipulation we're assailed with and the 1984-like invasion of our privacy. I can't help but think that Peckinpah was all-too aware that his film would be released on the eve of the actual year of Our Lord, 1984. The Orwellian undercurrent is perfectly in synch with the film's narrative, Peckinpah's taut, imaginative mise-en-scene and a kind of newfound power the film has attained in light of all that currently plagues us.

The Osterman Weekend was clearly ahead of its time.

As such, "Bloody" Sam got the last laugh on all of us.


The Osterman Weekend is available on Blu-Ray from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada and Anchor Bay/Starz (in the USA). It ports over two key extras from the original DVD release from 10 years ago, a commentary track from by film historians/critics (and Peckinpah aficionados) Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Nick Redman. Best of all is the 80-minute making-of documentary Alpha to Omega. Sadly missing from this release is Peckinpah's cut of the film. Granted, it was a crude telecine transfer of the 35mm work print, but it provided considerable insight into Peckinpah's unexpurgated hopes for the film.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

EDEN - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Tedious look at life of Paris D.J. still oddly compelling.

Eden (2014)
Dir. Mia Hansen-Løve
Scr. Mia Hansen-Løve, Sven Hansen-Løve
Starring: Felix de Givry, Pauline Etienne, Greta Gerwig, Golshifteh Farahani,
Vincent Macaigne, Roman Kolinka, Hugo Conzelmann, Vincent Lacoste, Arnaud Azoulay, Arsinee Khanjian

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Whilst watching all 131 minutes of Eden, at least forty-one of them unnecessary, I kept asking myself if a rambling dramatic immersion into twenty years in the life and career of a D.J. was something I really needed to see. After it was over and done with, I had to grudgingly conclude that yes, it was.

In spite of its longueurs, the picture has so many evocative sequences which capture an indelible sense of time and place and yes, introduced me to a world I'd otherwise have had absolutely no interest in knowing anything about. Yeah, okay. I was glad I stuck with it. It's not a bad picture and I suspect that those who actually care anything about house music might even love it.

In a nutshell, it's the Inside Llewyn Davis of the dance club scene. Though that's a perfectly appropriate encapsulation of Eden, I hope nobody thinks I'm suggesting it's even a public hair as great as the Coen Brothers masterpiece. It's not. It barely registers half of a crab louse in those particular sweepstakes.

What we have is the not-so-inspiring story of Paul (Felix de Givry), a promising young literature student who should really be listening to Arsinee Khanjian who plays his continually disappointed and disapproving Mom. She keeps encouraging the lad to finish his thesis, especially since his academic advisor is so high on him. Alas, Paul is far too high on electronic music as well as the drugs and sex that go along with it, that he pretty much wastes two decades of his life instead of getting an early jump on his writing career. (Though at least he does garner enough life experience to actually write about something, no matter how empty it is.)

Ah, such is the folly of youth. Paul does, however, have one hell of a good time. He has several main squeezes (Pauline Etienne, Greta Gerwig, Golshifteh Farahani) amongst the bountiful pickings of babes in the dance club scene and he certainly creates some cool sounds in the Parisian garage tradition along the way, including a très cool tour of America.

Paul also has the fellowship of his best friends and collaborators: brooding visual artist Cyril (Roman Kolinka), the good-natured D.J. partner Stan (Hugo Conzelmann), the often hilarious Arnaud (Vincent Macaigne), a baby boomer club impresario who also has an obsessive penchant for Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls and, of course, Paul's friendly contemporaries in the scene, Thomas and Guy-Man (Vincent Lacoste, Arnaud Azoulay). The latter duo go on to stage their own music as Daft Punk, the brilliant pair of real-life music-makers who find the kind of world-wide fame which Paul gets brief tastes of, but never truly attains. The Daft Punk characters are also used to great effect in the film's one and only running gag (and a pretty funny one at that).

Eden often has a pleasing spirit of free-wheeling, not unlike some of director Hansen-Løve's French New Wave predecessors, but for every glorious dash through the streets of Paris and New York, every tumble in the sack with a bevy of babes, every snort of coke, as well as a myriad of party/club scenes, there are an equal number of them which feel like over-indulgent wheel-spinning. Clearly some of the elements of realism can be attributed to the screenplay co-written by the director's brother Sven Hansen-Løve, a former two-decades-long D.J. in real life.

Alas, so much of the film straggles about in a kind of self-importance within a musical, social and cultural scene that's notable only because it did (and continues to) inspire a generation of young people within a relatively slight blip on the overall radar of music history. The entire scene finally feels utterly inconsequential and the film makes virtually nothing of the political and historical backdrops which surely had some effect upon driving people into this world of thump-thumping partying.

Maybe ignoring the turbulence of the outside world is the point, but if so, it says a lot about the young people immersed in it and/or the missed opportunities for the film to have genuinely earned its 131-minute running time by scratching below the surface of its pseudo-neo-realist tendencies.

Personally, I've never been able to comprehend the "joys" of any club, bar, party, restaurant or celebratory event which played music so loud that one was forced to shout sweet nothings into people's ears. Some might argue it's all about the "physical" connection, but most of the denizens/fans of this crap are so hopped up on drugs, the only connections they're really making, are with dealers to buy more drugs.

Before you assume I'm some old grump, I can assure you my wayward youth was spent in many a punk, hard rock, heavy metal and jazz club, but between live sets, taped music was dialled down so one could actually converse with one's fellow party-hearty partners in crime. To me, house is like elevator music, only it splits your eardrums.

By the end of Eden and certainly in retrospect, all I kept/keep thinking about are the seemingly endless scenes in the movie of Paul's Mother forking over money into his empty, outstretched palms because he's unable to earn a proper living in his chosen art.

The real moral of the story is thus: Kids, listen to your Mothers, for Christ's Sake!

They're usually right.


Eden begins its theatrical release in Canada at the TIFF Bell LightBox via FilmsWeLike and will widen out across the rest of the country in specialty venues.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

LA DOLCE VITA, THE CONFORMIST, UMBERTO D. - Reviews By Greg Klymkiw - The TIFF Cinematheque presents the "Summer in Italy" series at TIFF Bell Lightbox. These 3 titles are also available on sumptuous Criterion & Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray/DVD Editions.

It's that time of the year again. The Toronto International Film Festival's Cinematheque at the TIFF Bell LightBox in Toronto presents a whole whack o' classics with a pasta theme, programmed by the illustrious James Quandt with the popular "Summer in Italy" series running June 27 to September 5, 2015 and a great new series entitled: "More Than Life Itself: Rediscovering the Films of Vittorio de Sica" running June 26 to September 6, 2015. Here are 3 important titles in both series that are happening in August. MARK YOUR CALENDARS!!! Those who don't live in Toronto and/or can't get to Toronto and/or are agoraphobic can choose the sumptuous Blu-Ray/DVD editions from the Criterion Collection and Kino-Lorber. Buy your advance tickets to these great TIFF Bell Lightbox presentations (they sell out, don'cha know) by clicking HERE.

Saturday Aug. 1, 2015 @ 5:30pm @ TIFF Bell Lightbox and/or Criterion Blu-Ray

La Dolce Vita (1960)
dir. Federico Fellini
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Yvonne Furneaux, Anouk Aimee,
Anita Ekberg, Alain Cuny, Walter Santesso, Nico, Alain Dijon, Lex Barker

Review By Greg Klymkiw

It has been said that in death we all end up alone. If we are alone in life, bereft of love, is existence itself then, not a living death? For me, this is the central theme of La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s great classic of cinema – a film that never ceases to thrill, tantalize and finally, force its audience to look deep into a mirror and search for answers to questions about themselves. This is what makes for great movies that live beyond the ephemeral qualities far too many filmmakers and audiences prefer to settle for - especially in the current Dark Ages of cinema we find ourselves in. It’s the reason why the picture continues to live forever. What makes La Dolce Vita especially great is that Fellini – as he was so often able to achieve – got to have his cake and eat it too. He created art that entertained AND challenged audiences the world over.

Most of all, though, La Dolce Vita is cool – cooler than cool, to be frank.


Thursday Aug. 7, 2015 @ 9:00pm @ TIFF Bell Lightbox
and/or Kino-Lorber/RaroVideo Blu-Ray

The Conformist (1970)
Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda

Review By Greg Klymkiw

You're never going to see a more gorgeous movie about fascism than Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist.

He was only in his late 20s when he made this 1970 adaptation of Alberto Moravia's novel and the picture still crackles with urgency, dread and horror. It's furthermore infused with a winning combination of political/historical smarts, deeply considered intellectual rigour and an eye for heart-aching, stunning and dazzling visual artistry.

Working with ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), there isn't a single composition, lighting scheme or camera move in the entire photoplay that's anything less than gorgeous. The sheer physical beauty in interior decor, architecture and the natural world is an effective and complex juxtaposition within the story of a man driven by pure ambition.


Sunday Aug. 16, 2015 @ 6:00pm @ TIFF Bell Lightbox
and/or on The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

Umberto D. (1952)
dir. Vittorio De Sica
Starring: Carlo Battisti, Maria-Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, Flike

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The old man Umberto (Carlo Battisti) must bid goodbye to the only thing he genuinely loves in the whole wide world, a tiny dog called Flike. He's so poor he must check himself into a hospital to treat a simple case of Tonsillitis. This allows him to get free meals for a few days so he can save enough money to avoid eviction. De Sica takes us on the road of this one man's life - a life that could belong to any one of us. This man's journey is harrowing, to be sure, but we're all the better for taking it with him.


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

PARKS AND RECREATION: Ruinous Optimism - Tea Time w/ Thomas Zachary Toles

Click Above To Get More Info on Thomas
The Ruinous Optimism
of Parks and Recreation

By Thomas Zachary Toles

More TV Trash Talking from
The Film Corner's
Tea Time Columnist

The series finale of Parks and Recreation was as saccharine and excessive as a Sweetums Child Size soda. With astonishing conviction, the episode whipped up embarrassingly perfect futures for each of its recurring characters. Tiny fleeting conflicts were drizzled onto certain epilogues as if a couple squirts of lemon could deepen the flavor of 512 ounces of refined sugar.

When did the once tasteful show let itself go?

It did not start in Season 7. Parks and Recreation has, for years, been such a staunch defender of the goodness of its characters that it refused to let anything truly bad happen to them. This was no doubt an attempt by the show runners to distance the series from their previous hit, The Office. Indeed, early in the run of Parks and Rec, it was oft-described as an Office knock-off.

Hoping to escape this identity crisis, creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur sought an alternate characterization for the show’s central character, Leslie Knope. Between Seasons 1 and 2, Knope transformed from bumbling manager type with delusions of grandeur to one of the most stubbornly ambitious, generous, and hard working characters on television. The joke was no longer on Leslie, but on the whiny, ungrateful people of Pawnee for whom she so tirelessly advocated.

This new approach borrowed significantly from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra’s film centres on the personal sacrifices George Bailey must make for the sake of his average little town. Despite the film’s euphoric ending, these sacrifices weigh heavily on George, pushing him to the brink of suicide. He severely compromises his own needs for the sake of others—the perfect metaphor for devoted public service.

In its first few seasons, Parks and Rec followed Capra’s example by ingeniously making comedy out of Leslie’s wildly under-appreciated labor. Historically, comedy thrives on that particular Chaplinesque brand of optimistic hopelessness and all sitcoms especially benefit from such cyclical premises. For a time, Pawnee’s stubborn mediocrity landed its Parks department reliably back where they started, reaching like George Bailey for detectable impact from the drab valleys of Indiana.

Parks and Rec bravely imbued modest goals in potentially soul-draining circumstances with real value. Not everyone had Leslie’s ambition, of course. Ron’s primary commitment was always to avoid any government action; Tom’s commitment was to himself; April’s to macabre cynicism. There was more to these people than those simple descriptions, and fortunately they were allowed to develop over time under Leslie’s arm-twisting, inexhaustible guidance. Yet all the show’s main characters were most interestingly defined by their confinement in the feeble Parks department, a station that seemed to suit none of them perfectly, including Leslie. The possibility of doing meaningful work in such imperfect conditions was the faint ray of sunshine Leslie tenaciously sought after.

Unfortunately, as time went on, Parks and Rec allowed the clouds of stifled ambition to float away to Eagleton and beyond. Its writers became so attached to Leslie’s tireless optimism that they refused to place any immovable obstacles in the way of its characters’ desires. The exception that proves the rule is the Parks department’s incessant bullying of Jerry, which is too endless and frivolous to sustain any bite.

Eventually, Leslie could do anything, putting inhuman amounts of work into even the least significant projects. With seemingly unlimited resources and energy, compromise was less and less a part of her life. The same came to be true of the rest of the cast, who grew increasingly successful separate from the Parks department and ever more enamored with each other.

Parks and Rec remained only superficially about the importance of teamwork in adversity, overlooking all the underlying struggles that might make such collaboration inspiring. Without real conflict, like so many sitcoms before it, its characters were allowed to transform into Platonic ideals of themselves, losing their human complexity:

Ron should say something manly here.

April should be cynical to hide her sweetness.

Andy shouldn't get it.

As early as Season 4, an uncomfortable shift can be felt in the ethos of Parks and Rec. Convincingly awkward comic figures like Mark Brendanawicz and Dave Sanderson were replaced by absurd caricatures like Chris Traeger and Craig Middlebrooks. Caricatures were always a colourful part of the show’s background (Jean Ralphio often soars during his infrequent appearances) but had no place in its main cast, further undermining whatever shreds of emotional stakes remained. Ethan Alter noted the somewhat surprising absence of former principle Mark from the finale but the city planner’s credible disenchantment simply would not have made sense in the exaggerated world of the series’ later seasons.

By the finale, the caricaturization reached its apotheosis. As Parks and Rec had already abandoned pain and complexity for broad humour and shallow positivity (becoming as vacuous as the hollow self-help literature affectionately mocked in this final episode), it seemed a fait accompli for every major character to find seamless happiness in both their work and personal lives.

Tom’s improbably bestselling book literally boiled each figure down to three generic traits; meagre summaries as empty and hackneyed as the type of book Tom is peddling.
“April: Individualistic, intense, intimidating."

"Ron: Self-reliant, uncompromising, inner-directed."

"Leslie: Leader, tireless, optimistic.”
Optimism—and comedy—separate from struggle, compromise, and disappointment, does not have much impact. By the end of the series, Leslie’s overbearing idealism was the sole lens through which we were forced to view Pawnee, and governmental work more generally.

A once wonderful, weird, feminist delight deteriorated into a gang of cartoon characters embarking on a happiness scavenger hunt. In the series finale, we were assaulted by a future of boundless false satisfaction.

By that point, to put it in the show’s terms:

Parks and Recreation was beating a dead mini-horse.

Monday, 22 June 2015

BARQUERO - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Lee Van Cleef & Warren Oates MAN 2 MAN!!!

Barquero (1970)
Dir. Gordon Douglas
Starring: Lee Van Cleef, Warren Oates, Forrest Tucker, Mariette Hartley

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Who is Gordon Douglas? Good question. Well, he's nobody's idea of an auteur, but the man directed 70+ feature films in a career that began in the Dirty 30s, grinding out comedies for Hal Roach, then as a studio contract director for the likes of RKO, Columbia and Warner Brothers until his retirement in the late 70s.

Did he make any stinkers? Plenty!

He also directed some of the best genre pictures with good, solid, two-fisted panache including San Quentin starring Lawrence Tierney, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye with James Cagney, the sizzling McCarthy era I Was a Communist for the FBI, the truly great 50s science fiction big bug (Gigantic Ants, no less) classic Them, The Fiend Who Walked The West, the utterly insane western remake of the noir classic Kiss of Death, the supremely entertaining Elvis Presley Vs. the Mob musical Follow That Dream, the nutty Rat Pack comedy Robin and the Seven Hoods and one of the dirtiest, grittiest, nastiest crime pictures of the 60s, The Detective starring Frank Sinatra, the terrific Jim Brown Blaxsploitation picture Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (with Ed McMahon - YES! Ed McMahon as a villainous mob boss) and lest we forget, one of the funniest (and most offensive) Bob Hope comedies Call Me Bwana (wherein Bob goes on an African Safari to retrieve a valuable talisman from a "backwards" tribe in the jungle, but not before playing a round of gold with the great Arnold Palmer).

And then there's Douglas's greatest triumph, the all but forgotten western Barquero, a film which did double duty in the homage department, conjuring the disparate styles of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and those of Sergio Leone.

And what a rip-snorting western this is!

The always brilliant Warren Oates chews the scenery magnificently as a psychotic bandit who leads the wholesale slaughter of a western town to steal as many guns, ammo and bank money as humanly possible. His plan is to hijack a barge and destroy it after crossing a mighty river in order to thwart the posse hot on his ass.

Unfortunately, he doesn't reckon on having to square off against the tough-as-nails ferry owner, the mysterious, laconic gunfighter played by none other than Lee Van Cleef ("the Bad" of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). Van Cleef partners with the kill-happy mountain man played by Forrest Tucker (in a hugely entertaining burly bear of a performance) and the two of then single-hsndedly wipe out Oates's entire mini-army of thugs.

The action and gunplay is first-rate and the movie even manages to settle into some casual character development on both sides of the fence due to a decent screenplay by George Schenck and William Marks.

The stunningly gorgeous Mariette Hartley made her motion picture debut in Sam Peckinpah's Ride The High Country in which, as a child-bride-to-be is married to a grizzled cowpoke inbred who plans to share her on their wedding night with his even more repulsive inbred brothers and pappy. Here, some seven years later, she's forced to spend a night of unbridled passion with the manly Van Cleef after she begs him to save her husband's life. "I'll do anything," she weeps. And anything is what she does.

Tucker delivers the performance of his career as a recluse who can only really hack the company of one man, Lee Van Cleef naturally. He always seems to show up when Van Cleef needs him most. Thank God, too (for Van Cleef and us) since he's an expert at quiet, vicious kills. A special bonus is that he's a supremely friendly fellow and bestows considerable kindness upon his victims before torturing and/or dispatching them.

And Warren Oates! What can be said about one of America's greatest actors that hasn't already been said? Oates is completely, utterly and deliciously over-the-top as the psychotic villain who refuses to acquiesce to the mighty river blocking his way to freedom. At one point, his character, increasingly under the influence of mood-altering weed, crazily looks at the deep, roiling currents, pulls his six-shooters and begins madly emptying the chambers into the river. Bravo, Warren! He might be completely overblown here, but there isn't a moment we don't believe him.

A western classic? Yes and no. Its homages seem studio-influenced, but the fact remains that director Gordon Douglas pulls them off with considerable skill and the movie is never less than engaging. It may not be a bonafide classic, but Good God Damn, it comes mighty close and it's certainly one supremely decent ass-kicker of a western.


Barquero is available on a Kino-Lorber BluRay.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

THE ONION FIELD - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 70s Cop Classic Now on Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray

The Onion Field (1979)
Dir. Harold Becker
Starring: James Woods, Franklyn Seales, John Savage, Ronny Cox,
Ted Danson, Christopher Lloyd, David Huffman, Priscilla Pointer, Dianne Hull

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Given recent media exposure to the wholesale murder of unarmed American citizens by trigger-happy policemen, it seems appropriate to take a fresh look at the flip side in Harold Becker's 1979 film adaptation of The Onion Field, a harrowing 1973 true crime book by Joseph Wambaugh, the famed cop-turned-bestselling-novelist who created an important body of work devoted to the danger and drudgery of being a cop.

Though many are under the assumption that Wambaugh's books were little more than literary canonizations of policemen, the fact of the matter is that he tried to create balanced, sympathetic portraits of all his characters and most of all he was never shy about etching warts-and-all portraits of his lawmen. This book was no different, save for one detail. The Onion Field was not fiction and Wambaugh was actually familiar with the police officers he decided to write about. He'd laid eyes upon one of them on numerous occasions before and after the incidents depicted in his eventual book, but most importantly, he experienced first-hand how the said events were implemented into police policy and training.

The movie is now 35+ years old. At that point, it was depicting events that had occurred 15 years prior to its release. Seeing the picture now astonishingly places all police brutality in America over the past half century or so in a fresh context, since the events depicted in both the book and film inspired so many law enforcement agencies' hardline philosophies with respect to police work.

Rooted in the actions of the real-life cops in this story were the following strict policies:

1. Never give up your gun. Only cowards give up their guns.

2. Defend your life and the lives of all officers everywhere by always shooting under threat.

To witness an often first-rate dramatization of what led to the aforementioned inflexibilities, which began (not surprisingly) with the LAPD is a testament to Wambaugh's unyielding faith in the material. Unsatisfied with the severely flawed film adaptation of his first book The New Centurions, he was driven to self-finance this story that was near and dear to his heart. For the most part, his gamble and efforts paid off.

During a seemingly routine spot-check in 1963, LAPD plainclothes officers Karl Hettinger (John Savage) and Ian Campbell (Ted Danson) were kidnapped by Greg Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy "Youngblood" Smith (Franklyn Seales), two armed sociopaths on their way to a liquor store robbery. The officers were driven to an isolated farm near Bakersfield where one cop was shot repeatedly, execution-style, while the other managed to scramble away and tear madly across several miles of an onion field with the criminals in pursuit.

The officer survived and the petty hoodlums (turned cold-blooded cop killers) were captured. However, as the powerful tagline from the film's ads announced, what happened afterwards "was the real crime". The film painstakingly takes us through the initial investigation, the first trial (which results in a guilty verdict and death sentence) and then, like some labyrinthian Kafka-like nightmare, endless appeals and new trials continue - for years. In many instances, the courtroom turns topsy-turvy and endless retrials and mistrials are declared.

The surviving cop, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, is forced to repeat the same horrific testimony to the point in which he loses count of how many times he's had to do so. Grotesquely, the court allows the jury not one, but several recreations of the killing at the exact time and in the precise spot in which the event took place, with, of course, the traumatized officer in tow. Add to this all the nightmares he experiences on a nightly basis, an overwhelming sense of guilt (placed on him by his LAPD superiors) that he was responsible for his partner's death and even being scapegoated by the LAPD to repeat said events at morning roll calls and training session with rookies. He's told this will help other officers to avoid mistakes that could lead to similar events in their own careers.

The cop's grief, deep shame and guilt mount steadily and overwhelmingly - so much so that he turns to alcohol, becomes a kleptomaniac and even physically abuses his own newborn baby before seriously contemplating suicide (and one night, caught by his eldest child as he places a gun in his mouth). Not only does he become a walking textbook case in which policies are changed, but the department offers no psychiatric assistance. Adding insult to injury, he's eventually caught redhanded while shoplifting and forced to resign, leaving him jobless and bereft of any benefits like medical insurance. His wife is forced to take work while he becomes a stay-at-home Dad with plenty of time on his hands to recount the tragic and terrifying events of that one night.

Yes, these actions perpetrated by the system not only bordered on criminality, but it's a perfect example of how institutions like the police department punished their own men instead of supporting them after traumatic incidents like this and how the wheels of justice often became an endless joke which had little to do with real justice, but rather, endless bureaucratic wheel spinning under the guise of providing the best defence for the perpetrators of crime.

Seeing this play out is both gruelling and haunting.

The Onion Field is, for the most part, an extremely fine film, but it's also saddled with a few glaring flaws, many of which are clearly the result of its producer (Wambaugh) having, perhaps, too much power and losing a clear sense of perspective in the pursuit of reality. There is, for example, a dreadful musical score which creeps in with jangling mediocrity during many of the "domestic" sequences and yet, is spare and effective during so much of the rest of the movie. How this inconsistency was allowed by Wambaugh is still a head-scratcher. Though the vast majority of the performances are flawless, there are a handful of smaller roles acted so badly that they stick out like sore thumbs. Harold (Sea of Love) Becker's direction wildly, unpredictably bounces between effective, subtle and chilling whilst alternately slipping into by the numbers TV-style camera jockeying.

One finally forgives these creative inconsistencies and instead admires what's great about the film: a genuine attempt to capture the complexities of the criminals and what led them to lives of criminality, the almost docudrama attention to the details of the initial interrogations, the strange machinations of the trials, the horrific day-to-day lifestyle on death row (including a horrendous suicide attempt by a man slated for a trip to the gas chamber), the unrelenting seediness of the motels, streets and cheap rooming houses the two main sociopaths lived in and most successfully, the film's successful rendering of a sense of family amongst the criminal class - one that's alternately false and deeply felt as real.

The leading performances are, without question, first-rate, but it's James Woods who steals the show with his crazy, scary performance as the most psychopathic of the duo. He chills to the bone in ways he's been able to mimic over the years, but here with a sense of razor sharp reality that has you on the edge of your seat.

There are moments in the film that are so moving that they're not only unforgettable, but are examples of the kind of filmmaking which is now so rare in American film, but was virtually de rigueur during the 70s - little details like when one of the cops, his hands up, slowly touches his partner's fingers when he realizes he's going to die, hoping to have one last touch of life before it all ends, or when one of the cops appears to be crying and his partner points out that it's a physical reaction to the fields of onions and later on, as the surviving cop brutally punches his baby in the back to make it stop crying and then, almost immediately fills up with horror and self-loathing over what he's done. The movie is full of moments like this which force you to catch your breath - again and again - as these heart-wrenching moments of sadness and brutality repeatedly knock the wind out of you.

Two especially powerful moments on opposite ends of the emotional and legal spectrum haunted me long after I first saw the movie first-run and knocked me flat when seeing it again on Blu-Ray are as follows:

1. When the most "sane" of the two criminals is asked if he feels guilty, he responds: "I think that is something that rich white guys dreamed up to keep guys like me down. I honestly don't believe there is such a thing... such a feeling. Guilty? That's just something the Man says in court when your luck runs out."

2. When the District Attorney, after endless trials and appeals decides to leave the law profession altogether upon realizing that the cop who died is long forgotten and that the one who survived is a mere ghost and that all that really remains with any meaning at all is the legal process. He states, with no irony at all that if it was in his power, he'd let the criminals go free. "…I'd just drop all the charges. Let 'em walk. If only I could send some lawyers and judges to the gas chamber."

The Onion Field, maybe now more than ever, is one of the most moving and truthful indictments of the American justice system ever put on film. It's neither dated, nor irrelevant to America today. It allows us to weep for the men on the beat as much as those behind bars and most of all, for the mess this incident inspired which transformed law enforcers into cold-hearted killers.


The Onion Field is currently available on a new Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber with an excellent selection of extras including a fine commentary track by director Harold Becker.