Thursday, March 30, 2006

NORTH COUNTRY -- A Kino Mesabi Mess

"The road to Hell may or may not be paved with good intentions, but it is certainly littered with the battered corpses of a medicore movie or two. NORTH COUNTRY, unfortunately, is just such a film." Dan Jardine,

First the Good News: NORTH COUNTRY possesses an absolutely stellar cast including Charlize Theron, Francis McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean, Michelle Monaghan and Sissy Spacek. Add Richard Jenkins ("Six Feet Under"), whose especially compelling on-screen performance nearly steals the show, and you'll not find this much star talent assembled since the Continental Congress.

More Good News: The underlying story is based on the real-life experiences of Lois Jenson who filed the first class action lawsuit for sexual harassment in American history. Jenson's heroic struggle for respect and equality is the kind of newsy narrative that Hollywood usually does best. In fact, the title probably should have been spelled NORTH CUNTRY given the rude, lewd and crude actions of the union jack-offs who comprise over ninety percent of the strip mine workers along the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota and whose apparent sole purpose is to dominate and denigrate the women who have the temerity to want a job that pays well.

Now for the Bad News: Let's begin by saying that this production could have been the equal to such enduring screen gems as NORMA RAE or ERIN BROCKOVICH; all the filmic ingredients are there for this to occur. However, NORTH COUNTRY is riddled with factual "goofs" (one example -- there are multiple references to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy which took place a full two years afterward) and it is undermined (no pun intended) by some insane wardrobe choices (Theron's FLASHDANCE attire was especially jolting).

But the biggest blame must fall on the horsy head of Ms. Niki Caro -- the "director-in-name-only" and whose photo I have mercifully decided not to post given the trauma induced by the Ann Coulter picture appearing back a few months ago. Unfortunate appearances aside, if one ever wants to experience cinematic narrative dysfunction, then Ms. Caro's syrupy scenes in the courtroom provide an excellent case study. In fact, her directorial gaffes are so numerous and damaging it is a complete mystery why she wasn't replaced; a rhesus monkey would have been more competent and more attractive to have around.

Thanks to Niki Caro all of NORTH COUNTRY is like the Port-A-Potty scene where Michelle Monaghan is trapped in a portable outhouse which is rocked and tipped by her male co-workers. It's a mess, it's a cinematic mess and, to paraphrase The Great Tonto, it's a "Kino Mesabi" mess.

(For the record, the supposed human waste in this scene was composed of Gatorade, Coco Puffs and pumpkin pie filling. I wonder what one would find if we opened Ms. Caro's lunch pail...)

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Georges Arnaud's acclaimed novel LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR has been boldly brought to the screen twice. Both films are among the most tense, visceral viewing experiences ever put on celluloid. Both are damn near masterpieces of the cinematic art. And both personify what I call "sphincter cinema" -- your pucker power will be severly tested as you experience more continuous, uncompromising, high-voltage, searing suspense than you'll find anywhere else on the Blockbuster shelf.

In 1953 Henri-Georges Clouzot directed WAGES OF FEAR, starring Yves Montand, Charles Vanel and Clouzot's wife, Vera, in a gut-wrenching role that forever defines the word pathos. Winner of the Grand Prize Award at Cannes, WAGES OF FEAR is a classic.

Twenty-four years later acclaimed director William Friedkin (THE EXORCIST) makes another French connection by adapting Arnaud's book with equal existential edginess and a similar unforgiving fatalistic philosophy.

What makes these two films so powerful and cinematic is that both directors are master filmmakers who eschew dialogue and commit to propelling their narratives forward through what is "seen," not what is "heard." Character development occurs primarily through action and behavior...and it is presented naked and raw and unrelentingly on the big screen. You and your rosy red will be riveted, I guarantee.

Interestingly enough, Roy Scheider was cast in the lead role only after Friedkin had been rejected by Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson. It is interesting to try and envision how SORCERER would have played out with any one of these bigger names. For my money, Scheider's on-screen performance is the equal to Montand's in his portrayal of the flawed anti-hero. Unfortunately, his presence probably had a negative effect on the film's performance at the box office since he was nowhere near the marquee name as the others.

While WAGES is the better of the two productions overall, the suspension bridge sequence in SORCERER is unparalleled. Costing over $2 million to shoot over a period of three months, this fifteen or so minutes of sheer suspense will leave you emotionally drained and damn near catatonic.

SORCERER also scores big thanks to the effective musical score by Tangerine Dream -- it's the perfect musical accompaniment for this hellish atmospheric nightmare.

Monday, March 20, 2006


Holy cojones!
Balls-to-the-walls trucker trek
White-knuckle tension

Sunday, March 19, 2006


FLIGHTPLAN goes nowhere
It is you who will be bored
If you board this plane

Sunday, March 12, 2006


My favorite musical group is the incomparable Feo Y Loco -- "The World's Most Politically Incorrect Band." Among their many salaciously satirical songs is "Why Do I Need You When I've Got My Hand?" In a similar fashion one can now say to Hollywood's myopic moguls "Why Do I Need You When I've Got My HANDSHAKE?" For fans of independent cinema everywhere, THE GUATEMALAN HANDSHAKE is exactly what movies should be and all too often are not.

I've long been a huge fan of Todd Rohal (you can call me Vornado if you want). His short films comprise an ecclectic body of work that has been honored at film festivals from coast to coast. In this, his brilliant feature film directorial debut, Rohal once again creates a maddening milieu for a host of Felliniesque characters to inhabit. Shot in Pennsylvania, HANDSHAKE is populated with some of the most quirky, heartwarming, poignant characters this side of the Susquehanna. I call this Pocono Pathos for lack of a better description. It is, yet again, a visionary viewpoint unique to this rising star -- a Rohalian world of folksy fun and fastidious fantasy where the Tilt-O-Wheel is probably the only thing seen on the level.

In the tradition of his short films, Rohal continues to push more envelopes than the U. S. Postal Service in incorporating almost every cinematic trick imaginary to further his vision. This is risky business, indeed, but in the hands of a consummate filmmaker like Rohal the gimmicks work and the end result is more surprises than even March Madness can generate. Whatever you do, do not blink or you will surely miss something. HANDSHAKE requires Visine viewing -- one screening is definitely not enough to catch everything being thrown your way. Even the closing credits are fun: "When in Pennsylvania, please take the time to visit Three Mile Island." You gotta love the sentiment.

The production design by Jim McNamee and Sage Rockermann is noteworthy for not only the overall cheery look of the film, but for the many fun little extras they have meticulously embedded in scene after scene. Cinematographer Richie Sherman crisply lenses the whole thing. In fact, all facets of this production deserve kudos especially given the extremely low budget. Producers Marissa Ronca, Jason Orfanon and Nicholas Panagopulos have clearly put every penny on the screen.

As you must surely have gathered by now, THE GUATEMALAN HANDSHAKE is a must-see for anyone who enjoys cinematic creativity and sagacious story telling. If you are tired of the boring, banal "blockbuster" fare fostered on the local Bijou, do yourself a favor and seek out this little gem. Compared to GUAT, the studios don't know squat...

Wednesday, March 1, 2006


In 1929, Alfred Hitchcock directed BLACKMAIL. It was Britain's first talkie and the ads declared:

See And Hear It -- Our Mother Tongue. As It Should Be Spoken.

In BLACKMAIL the heroine of the film kills a rapist with a bread knife and thereafter the audience is drawn into her mental world. We, the audience, hear what she hears -- the word "knife" jumps out in volume every time it is spoken. As she becomes more and more distraught over the murder (justifiable as it may have been), she continues to hear "knife" louder and louder, over and over again. Clearly she is on the road to a mental breakdown: "knife," "Knife," "KNIFE!" It is a brilliant first-time use of sound and only someone as visionary as Alfred Hitchcock would employ such a daring, creative use of the new medium.

Let's now turn the clock ahead to the year 2006. As I watch television I have discovered a similar auditory phenomenon taking place over and over again. This similar auditory phenomenon is anything but brilliant. For the sanity of the reader I caution you to quit reading now -- otherwise you, too, may slowly find yourself plummeting into the depths of despair.

You see, damn near ever other commerical aired on American television uses the word "introducing." See for yourself. It doesn't matter if the ad is for a Volvo or a vulva itch suppressant, you will find yourself hearing "introducing" as often as not.

It's become a game with yours truly and his lovely wife. As soon as the word "introducing" is uttered by the announcer, both of us shout it out to one another. "INTRODUCING!" It's an addiction, a mind-numbing, Pavlovian experience which repeats itself night after night, commercial after commercial, numbing the senses while searing the brain just like the old Chinese Water Torture...

Where's the high dollar creativity that Madison Avenue is supposed to possess? Smug girly guys in Armani suits and manicured nails can't come up with anything better than "intro-fuckin-ducing?" Even the rare slick chicks bumping their heads on the glass Madison Avenue ceiling appear to be as oblivious as their male counterparts.

Hundreds of thousands of words in the English language and these advertisng wiz kids all resort to "introducing." This is pathetic; anyone with cacoethes scribendi should do better, much better.