Sorcerer - Trucks of Doom

Somewhere in the jungles of South America, in a squalid tropical slum for migrants who risk their lives working on a dangerous nearby oil rig owned by an American corporation, is where criminal fugitives of the world gather to escape the law.

Highly underrated, Sorcerer (1977) is evocative of such action adventure classics as Apocalypse Now (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). It’s a gripping, relentless and fatalistic film about hard men struggling for survival against machine, nature and each other.

Visually, it’s steeped in grungy sweat dripping, mud encrusted imagery that immerses the viewer in a rough predatory world of desperate outlaws in hiding. Filmed in actual Jungle locations, the raw gritty visual details look completely authentic.

The local watering hole canteen is where some unlikely and unsavory characters cross paths; a hit man from Vera Cuz, a terrorist from Jerusalem, a corrupt business tycoon from Paris, and a mobster from New Jersey. They all have their secret reasons for being there, which are outlined in the first half of the film. They are men from all walks of life who end up in one of the poorest and remote regions on earth.

Now beautifully restored, this harrowing suspenseful adventure set in real locations around the world is a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic French film The Wages of Fear (1953), which was a big hit in Europe in its own time and was based on the novel ‘Le Salaire de la Peur’ by Georges Arnaud. 

This remake by William Friedkin, who also directed The Exorcist (1973), The French Connection (1971) and Killer Joe (2011) is every bit as engaging and has lost none of its nail biting suspense, even improving on the original in many ways. 

The excitement really starts rolling when the call goes out from the oil company for skilled drivers to transport a deadly load of nitroglycerin in modified scrap trucks through 200 miles of treacherous jungle terrain. If they can make it to a blazing oil well fire without blowing themselves up in the process, they will be well rewarded. 

There’s an eerie synthesized soundtrack by Tangerine Dream throughout the action sequences that gives the movie that same cold fatalistic edgy feeling that Blade Runner (1982) had. For me it brought to mind the aesthetic soundscape of movies like Taxi Driver (1976), typical of the era it was made in.

The odds are heavily against the drivers as the volatile payload is contained in 6 deteriorating boxes that are so unstable that the slightest impact could blow a crater the size of a small town. The cobbled together trucks take on a personality of their own as they slog through the dense tropical forest like predatory metal beasts.

One of the last great films to come out of the new independent Hollywood that emerged after the old studio system collapsed, Sorcerer was the victim of bad timing when it first arrived in theaters and was sadly overlooked during the unexpected Sci-fi juggernaut that was the Star Wars (1977) phenomenon, which had opened in theatres just a month before and was still playing to packed houses for years afterward.

This newly digitally re-mastered classic, which will be available on Blu-ray and DVD April 22, 2014, may finally give this unnoticed film the attention it deserves. Don’t miss it.

JP

The Lunchbox

This delightful thought provoking film is sure to satisfy your craving for socially relevant Indian cinema. You won’t find any musical numbers or melodramatic love stories here. Much like the excellent Mumbai’s King (2012), the film makers are showing us a more gritty genuine and un-romanticized side of India.

This charming gentle film follows Saajan (Irrfan Khan), an aloof widower about to retire from his office job, and Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a lonely neglected housewife trying to rekindle her marriage by cooking traditional Indian dishes with spices and love.

Ritesh Batra’s unique first feature film is a quiet sensitive love story set against the backdrop of Mumbai’s dabbawallahs, or lunchbox wallas, as they pick up and deliver hot lunches prepared by the wives of office workers to their husbands working in the city. 

Mumbai’s daily lunchbox delivery system is so complex and reliable that it’s been studied by Oxford scholars and is estimated to be so accurate that dabbawallas make less than one mistake in 6 million deliveries.

Office loner and widower Saajan is a bit of an anti-social scrooge when we first meet him.  When introduced to a new employee and asked to train him to take his place before his retirement, he uses his reputation as a cold uncaring stoic to avoid him. 

The film features a fascinating look at the daily routine of Mumbai’s dabbahwallas while going about their job of gathering lunch pails from various residences and cycling, walking and taking trains across the city to office districts personally delivering each lunch to their respective destinations, returning the empty lunchboxes to their homes in the afternoon.

When Saajan’s lunchbox arrives at his workplace he’s surprised at the sudden improvement in the quality of his food, which he orders from a street side eatery. What he doesn’t realize is that he has been getting Ila’s home prepared meal meant for her husband. 

Irrfan Khan’s subtle stone face expressions have quietly been making a huge impact in Western cinema over the past few years with roles in some of my favorite highly acclaimed films like Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012).

We get to watch as Ila prepares her aromatic home cooked food while seeking sage advice about the ingredients of love from her upstairs neighbor. She communicates her feelings through her recipes and something begins to stir inside Saajan, who starts communicating with this mysterious house wife through notes he leaves in the empty lunch bag. 

Much of the story is communicated through non-verbal facial expressions and body gestures, which gives the feeling of being witness to very private and intimate moments where no dialogue is necessary to see exactly what’s going through their minds. 

As they start to open up to each other about their feelings and frustrations, the notes get longer and Saajan slowly starts to become more compassionate to his new replacement.

The Lunchbox is a meditative study in loneliness in one of the world’s most densely populated cities and shows us that people who crave love and affection will find it when they are willing to open their hearts to it.

JP

Tim's Vermeer

What if the 17th century Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer renowned as one of the greatest artists in the world, was actually a fraud who was perhaps not an artist at all but a very talented tinkerer and manipulator of light?

Tim Jenison has taken this extraordinary idea that’s been kept secret for 350 years, and put his extensive talents as an inventor and technologist, to convincing use in order to prove that hypothesis. 

It’s not exactly a secret among art historians that Vermeer may have used optical tools popular at the time to create these near photographic quality paintings. But Tim Jenison had the tools and the know-how, not to mention the dedication, to set out on an 8 year journey to put this argument to rest and find compelling evidence that Vermeer in fact did use primitive types of devices called a Camera Obscura to aid him in creating his masterpieces.

This documentary is a chronicle of how he went about painstakingly documenting the most compelling case for how Vermeer would have done it by recreating one of his paintings using the exact same techniques and materials that would have been used and were readily available to artists in Holland at that time. 

Tim’s astonishing revelations, while on this obsessive adventure, makes for a fascinating documentary about not only techniques used by 17th century artists but also little known historical and scientific facts and details about painting, how our eye sees light, optics and the art world in general.

Produced and directed by the magician duo Penn and Teller who have a long standing friendship with Tim, I was just as drawn into the mystery as Tim was, as he tries to answer intriguing questions about how this artist worked and the conditions in which he created his masterpieces.

The only real evidence that exists today is the paintings themselves, which are actually documents that reveal the effects of optical materials in very subtle ways. The way that Tim discovers these clues is by actually recreating one of Vermeer’s paintings using those very same optical techniques. But he goes much further than that, also making and mixing the paint and using the same tools and materials that were used at the time that Vermeer painted.

The results are truly astonishing, especially when you realize that Tim is not a painter or an artist. This documentary has to be seen to be believed and you will be amazed. It puts the artist Vermeer and his work in a whole new light and should force the art world and historians to reexamine these paintings.

If it turns out to be true, which seems to be very much the case, Vermeer was practically painting a projected image in front of him through the use of mirrors and lenses making it possible to match light and color exactly. And this, once you know the technique, can be achieved by anyone with enough patience and the inclination. His paintings then become not art but precursors to the photograph.

Whether or not you are convinced by Tim’s intriguing theories, this documentary will open one’s eyes to the stunning creations of two people living hundreds of years apart, who both dedicated their lives to give us the truest vision of the world around them. 

JP

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie might well be the most fun you’ll have at the movies this winter. That was certainly the case with the enthusiastic audience I enjoyed watching it with consisting of as many adults as children.

This is not your parents Lego. This is the new improved think-outside-the-box Lego.  No longer just square bricks that you can build into square buildings, these Legos are for a new generation and the movie goes to fantastic unconventional lengths to show us just how far Lego has evolved.

In the Lego world Emmet is an ordinary construction guy who just wants to fit in and be everyone’s friend. But his eagerness to please is not making him any friends, until a wizard, voiced by Morgan Freeman, tells him that he is the one Master Builder foretold by the prophesy who will save the universe.

Lego can now do anything you can think of but besides the great new advances being made at Lego, the movie is also a wonderful computer animated invention of its own. Its visual style is an eye popping sugar rush of colors and shapes.

Emmet wants to believe that he is special, so he goes on a quest to prove that he is the one who can save the world from the clutches of Lord Business, who is trying to keep the world straight and conventional, where everyone follows strict rules without any strange new wonkiness.

The wacky humor is hilarious with our ordinary generic worker hero, Emmet, in the classic underdog role a la Frodo or Neo from the Matrix. The theme of creativity vs. conformity, instructions and manuals versus imagination, rigidity versus change and freedom are universal and especially relevant today in our constantly changing world. 

There is a mix of many popular franchises from Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings, and a slew of other pop culture characters including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. The star studded voice cast includes Liam Neeson, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, and Johan Hill to name a few.

During Emmet’s heroic journey his mission is to take the mystical ‘Piece of Resistance’, find the all-powerful destructive Lord Business and somehow use it to defeat him.  Along the way he gathers a rag tag group of followers who all want to help him and all have their own unique creative ideas and abilities that will play a role in the final showdown.

The film’s creative spirit and humor is infectious and the breakneck non-stop action keeps the fun and the Lego blocks flying at a dizzying pace. 

Visually and emotionally this is the kind of movie that could have been made by PIXAR in their early days and is reminiscent of the recent animated film Wreck-It Ralph (2012), with its collection of characters from different popular video games past and present and its visually distinct themed lands.

Besides being a long advertisement for Lego, The Lego Movie captures the childhood joy of playing and inventing goofy fun toys that can be transformed into anything the imagination can conjure up and will appeal to the inner child in us all, where everything is awesome.

JP

Captain Phillips

The pirate infested waters off the coast of Somalia have been and continue to be the focus of much media attention with the kidnapping of civilians and hijacking of merchant ships by Somali warlords, who force desperate local gangs of fishermen to board unsuspecting vessels and hold them at gun point until their ransom demands are met.

In 2011 there were 176 confirmed piracy attacks in the region. Captain Phillips is based on the true story of Richard Phillips, an experienced and competent captain of an American cargo ship being pursued by ruthless gun-toting pirates in 2009, desperately intent on seizing the biggest potential payload ever attempted.

Paul Greengrass puts us right in the middle of the crisis as we follow armed coastal fishing villagers out to sea and witness their strategic attempts to hijack vulnerable ships, taking us deep into the mindset of the pirates. 

One of the most visually exciting directors of our time, known for pushing the envelope of authenticity and creating some of the most realistic action films of recent years, Paul Greengrass has kept us in thrall and in the tight grip of his ever probing camera with crisis films like Bloody Sunday (2002), United 93 (2006), Green Zone (2010) and the best of the Bourne films The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). 

After taking control of the ship, the hijackers take the crew hostage and make for the Somali coastline to secure their booty, but when the American navy gets wind of the attack they set a bold plan into action and the race is on to rescue the crew before they can reach their destination.

Two things are for sure, Paul Greengrass can’t make a bad movie and Tom Hanks is one of the most dedicated actors when it comes to authentic details. Together they make an unbeatable team the likes of which we haven’t seen since Tom paired with Ron Howard to make Apollo 13 (1995), or Paul Greengrass paired with Matt Damon in the Bourne series.

As the Navy closes in on the pirates who are making for their home base, the captain offers himself up as hostage in exchange for the lives of his crew members. But the question remains, how can the pirates be successfully eliminated without risking the life of Captain Phillips? The captain and crew however have some tricks up their own sleeves to foil their captors. But they must work together if they are to survive this ordeal.

Tom Hanks is known for keeping it real and giving a sincere true-to-life performance by closely collaborating with the actual people involved with the events of the film. His passion and admiration for the astronauts of Apollo 13 produced one of the most accurate film portrayals of an iconic world renowned event with dialogue and events recreated from actual NASA mission footage.

As educational as it is suspenseful to watch, it’s no surprise that under the direction of these towering talents Captain Phillips succeeds in bringing the full scale of these harrowing events to life with genuine emotional impact. 

Also watch the excellent Danish film A Hijacking (2012) which was also released last year and tells the true story of a pirate hijacking of a Danish cargo ship. 

JP

My Annual review of 2013 film year

2013 turned out to be an exciting year for films in which I saw an unusually high number of exceptional films.

We were treated to highly entertaining, significant films by visionary directors like Marc Forster (World War Z), Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim), Danny Boyle (Trance), Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby), Lee Daniels (The Butler), Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners), Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Alexander Payne (Nebraska) David O. Russell (American Hustle), Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Peter Jackson (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug).

This was also the year of the black history film with many great historical biographical films depicting struggles against racism in America and elsewhere. Movies like The Butler, 42, Fruitvale Station, 12 Years a Slave and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Since the success of Life of Pi (2012) last year we saw a spate of “stranded-at-sea” stories this year with movies like Kon-Tiki, Leviathan, A Hijacking, Captain Phillips, All is Lost, and Maidentrip.

Black and White films made a comeback this year since the triumph of The Artist (2011) with films like Much Ado about Nothing, Blancanieves, Frances Ha and Nebraska.

Foreign films made an exceptionally strong showing in 2013. I was impressed with the amount of quality films on offer from counties like Denmark (The Hunt | A Royal Affair | A Hijacking), Brazil (Brazilian Western | Neighboring Sounds | Gonzaga), South Africa (iNumber Number | Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Spain (Blancanieves), Sweden (Hotel) and France (Blue is the Warmest Color).

Dystopian future visions continue to be popular in a year that saw a number excellent original “end of humanity” films like Oblivion, World War Z, Elysium, Pacific Rim and The World’s End.

Below is a list of my favourite films I saw so far this year categorized by genre and in order of release date.

(Click on the film titles in orange for my full review)

Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Oblivion                                                                        Joseph Kosinski           
World War Z                                                                 Marc Forster
Pacific Rim                                                                   Guillermo del Toro
Elysium                                                                        Neill Blomkamp
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug                              Peter Jackson

Action Adventure/Suspense/Thriller:
Trance                                                                          Danny Boyle                         UK
The Dinner (Het Diner)                                                    Menno Yeyjes                      Netherlands
Brazilian Western (Faroeste Caboclo)                             René Sampaio                      Brazil
iNumber Number                                                           Donovan Marsh                     South Africa
Gravity                                                                         Alfonso Cuarón

Drama:
A Royal Affair                                                               Nikolaj Arcel                         Denmark          
Neighboring Sounds                                                      Kleber Mendonça Filho          Brazil
No                                                                               Pablo Larraín                        Chile/France/US
Kon-Tiki                                                                       Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg   Norway/Denmark
The Great Gatsby                                                         Baz Luhrmann
Blancanieves                                                                Pablo Berger                        Spain/France
Fruitvale Station                                                            Ryan Cooglar   
The Hunt                                                                       Thomas Vinterberg              Denmark
The Butler                                                                     Lee Daniels
Pioneer                                                                         Erik Skjoldbjaerg                 Norway
Prisoners                                                                      Denis Villeneuve           
Wadjda                                                                         Haifaa Al-Mansour               Saudi Arabia
Captain Phillips                                                             Paul Greengrass
12 Years a Slave                                                           Steve McQueen
Blue is the Warmest Color                                             Abdellatif Kechiche               France/Belgium
Gonzaga: De Pai pra Filho                                             Breno Silviera                       Brazil
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom                                    Justin Chadwick                   UK/South Africa

Comedy/Feel Good/Romance:
Hotel                                                                            Lisa Langseth                      Sweden
Don Jon                                                                        Joseph Gordon-Levitt
American Hustle                                                            David O. Russell
The Wolf of Wall Street                                                  Martin Scorsese 

Feature Animation:
Monsters University                                                       Dan Scanlon                             
From Up on Poppy Hill                                                   Goro Miyazaki                         
The Croods                                                                     Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders 

Documentaries:
Call Me Kuchu                                                              Katherine Fairfax Wright        US/Uganda
Muscle Shoals                                                              Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier 

JP

American Hustle

David O. Russell has done it again. The director of Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and The Fighter (2010) has created another wildly outlandish and suspenseful blend of drama and comedy with brilliantly moving ensemble performances.

Set in 1978 and loosely based on the Abscam scandal, American Hustle tells the story of a small time con-man, Irving Rosenfeld, and his female partner, Sydney Prosser, caught between an overzealous FBI agent looking to make a name for himself, and the mob.

If you enjoyed the disco era style, fashion and music recreated lovingly for the star studded porn industry film Boogie Nights (1997), you will love this exuberant period spectacle of 1970s underworld figures addicted to the art of the con.

A sleazy con-artist (Christian Bale) uses his confident manner and charisma, despite a convoluted comb-over, to scam greedy people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by implying that he can give them huge returns or loans on their investment.  

David O. Russell is a big admirer of Tarantino and it shows in this movie with many of his signature editing and camera techniques mixed with suspenseful storytelling and hit songs, but without the blood and violence that Tarantino is so fond of.

Using his dry cleaning business as a front, Irving has succeeded so far in staying under the radar for the most part, by keeping things low key, until he meets a talented stripper with an English accent, Sydney (Amy Adams), who he falls in love with, and together they are able to take their con business to new lucrative levels.

With its colorful procession of 70s style seedy people living desperate decadent lives of crime and with plenty of musical interludes that add to the overall funky disco dance mood, this movie is as much fun as a Bootsy Collins concert.

Eventually the couple’s success attracts the attention of undercover FBI agents with equally ambitious goals of catching corrupt politicians. The head of this team, Richie, decides to press Irving’s skills into service to help catch even bigger fish in exchange for a reduced sentence. 

At first, we the audience are completely unsympathetic and even repulsed by Irving’s unscrupulous pot-bellied character, but as his situation gets more complicated and he becomes entangled with even more ambitious and ruthless characters, we start to appreciate some of his better qualities and by the end we find ourselves actually rooting for him.

The story is told through the disparate characters and focuses intimately on these passionate individuals and their changing relationships as they reinvent themselves. When they all come together in a tense filled gathering of volatile egos, the film has us completely enthralled, even as we are totally bluffed by them.

I was kept thoroughly engaged throughout this operatic film as more characters were thrown into the elaborate sting resulting in unpredictable dizzying high-jinx and an emotional and entertaining ride reminiscent of The Sting (1973). 

JP

From Up On Poppy Hill

From Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli comes a sensitively rendered heartwarming love story directed by Goro Miyazaki, the eldest son of animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki.

Set in the spring of 1963 Japan, the story, co-written by Hayao Miyazaki, is narrated by a school girl, Umi,  on a coming-of-age journey to discover her family’s past while the country prepares for the 1964 Summer Olympics. 

Gone are the fantastical creatures, spirits and fanciful flights of childhood fantasy that have become a hallmark of Miyazaki’s films, replaced here by a straight forward historical biography of two students who meet under serendipitous circumstances and find that they have a surprising connection.

There is a genuine complexity about the characters that is believable and the realistic serious nature of the situations make it feel more like a true-to-life live action drama.

In the aftermath of past wars, construction is everywhere as old buildings are being torn down, making way for the future. One such building is an old rundown school clubhouse being used by teen students who have grown attached to the space and want to save it from being demolished. 

The picturesque, artfully drawn animation is as detailed and lushly realistic as you would expect from a Studio Ghibli film, living up to its world class reputation while we get to see in detail the atmosphere and daily activities of village life in a small Japanese coastal town.

Umi, living with her adopted family in a hillside house overlooking the ocean, still holds out hope that her father, who disappeared during the Korean War, will return one day. Every morning she puts up signal flags for passing boats to see in case he returns. One day Umi discovers that somebody is answering the flags with a cryptic message in the papers. 

Jazzy songs from the 1960s and French bistro music gives the film an added layer of authenticity and a nostalgic melancholy feel typical of Miyazaki’s films.

While the male students are organizing protests to convince the school board that their clubhouse is worth preserving for future generations, Umi finds herself suddenly caught up in the enterprise when she meets one of the passionate young organizers, Shun, and volunteers to help the cause.

Having recently announced his retirement after completing his last project The Wind Rises (2013), Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, being releases soon in cinemas, is similarly a biographical account and a love story that takes place in Japan just before the start of W.W. II. 

As Umi and Shun work together they become close as they get to know each other. But their attraction for each other is complicated when they make a surprising discovery about their families.

Working together, father and son have created a mature heartfelt story that hits all the Miyazaki noted traits. If From Up on Poppy Hill is any indication, Studio Ghibli appears to be in good hands as its legacy is passed on to a new generation.

JP