La Haine (1995, Mathieu Kassovitz) – Last year, when space invaders-come-to-the-ghetto comedy Attack the Block was released it was a delightful surprise to finally see a sci-fi take on the hood film. Attack the Block achieved such a good balance of so many genres because director/ writer Joe Cornish showed that it’s somehow kind of funny when adrenaline courses through your body because you have a knife held up to your gut. Whether watching the constantly hoodied Moses (John Boyega) and his crew of adolescent goof ball cronies roam through the high browed streets of Kennington, looking for a helpless girl to mug, stomping out aliens like they were rival gang members, or being chased down by drug lords- Attack the Block is the entertaining genre concoction that it is because its chief concern is the portrayal of youth culture. Still, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen young punks wander streets where they don’t belong. Showing at TIFF’s Next Wave Festival, Mathieu Kassovitz’ La Haine is the best example of the where this well crafted medley of hood politics, social issues, and beauty got its start, and is a must see.
In Attack the Block, Moses and his boys navigate maze-like apartment complexes, smoke weed with dopey drug dealers (Nick Frost was perfect here), and talk about FIFA and girls. Partially carried on the back of its young actors’ excellent performances, Attack the Block’s innovative representation of the hood is only replicating a mould that was etched in stone 15 years earlier with the release La Haine. Opening with eerie, grainy black and white footage we hear a young man scream at a line of stiff riot officers: “Murderers, easy for you to gun us down, all we got is rocks!”. Directed by, and briefly starring, Mathieu Kassovitz, La Haine tells the story of 3 young men: Vinz (Vincent Cassel) the Jewish b-boy wannabe fuelled by an intense hatred for the police, Hubert (Hubert Kounde) the Afro-French aspiring boxer and occasional drug dealer, and the Meghrebin tuff guy- clown Said Tagmaoui. After a riot breaks out in their housing project, Kassovitz does his best to show the tense conditions between the police and the youths living in impoverished housing. But when Vinz gets his hands on a riot officer’s lost pistol, Vinz, Hubert, and Said each find themselves struggling to figure out where to draw the line between right and wrong in the angry and chaotic world that surrounds them.
Kassovitz gives us a raw portrayal of the essence of the street: kids gathered on roof tops cooking hot dogs and smoking joints, break dancing in project hall ways, we even see Hubert playfully bounce a syringe between his shoes. However, the ethereal and candid nature of hood life that Kassovitz’ gives us access to is ephemeral, as Said and his friends are harassed by the police more times than I can count- and all before 5:00 (a sharp detail that is a result of Kassovitz’ brilliant ‘real time’ aspect to the film). When DJ Cut Killer turns his enormous speakers to face the project court yard and warms up his turn tables, Kassovizt’s also gets ready to broadcast his message loud and clear. Here we see the Chimera like essence of the hood: the beat and rhythm of the street literally being sweetly broadcasted over the entire neighbourhood, while all of the project’s inhabitants carry out their actions- for better or for worse. As Cut Killer’s “Nique La Police” (Fuck the Police) blares over the entire hood, La Haine situates itself a formidable symphony of the street, effortlessly blending issues of police brutality, the futile nature of hate, and the beauty that strives in even the dirtiest and uncared for corners of our societies.
As a scrawny custy stands in wait for the elevator on his way the weed grow op in Attack the Block, hearing KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Police” (sample material for Cut Killer’s mix in La Haine) blare over his headphones, we’re reminded that the problems youths faced nearly 15 years ago still team the streets of rich upper class neighbourhoods today, whether we’d like to acknowledge the existence of these packs of bandanna clad teens or not. It has been films and stories like La Haine (based on real events from Kassovitz’ life) that are so integral to the expression of youth culture.
The film makes its way to Criterion Collection Blu-ray this week with a vastly improved sound mix and sharp picture quality, but the special features here are carried over from the original two disc set from several years ago, but that doesn’t make it any less of an invaluable addition to any collection. To see it on the big screen as part of the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival this weekend, head on down to the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Saturday, May 12th at 12:30pm. (Brandon Bastaldo)
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Joe Dante, 1990) – Gremlins 2 is what happens when you give Joe Dante complete creative control over a movie. It’s like a Zucker Brothers parody of the original film (which makes sense given that Dante worked with them on Police Squad) crossed with the gentle anarchistic insanity of a Chuck Jones Warner Brothers cartoon (who resurrected Bugs n’ Daffy to introduce the movie and goof on the closing credits). That tongue-in-cheek, self-mocking tone can be found in all of the director’s genre outings from the 70s through the 90s like Piranha, The Howling, Gremlins, and the deeply underrated The ‘burbs, but those were all gigs that Dante took for hire and flavored around the edges. Gremlins 2 was the only time Dante was in charge of a film from start to finish, filling the screen with enough pop culture references and self-conscious gags to make the Simpsons writing room jealous. The wacky results may have killed off the franchise, but over time the film has earned a cult following amongst Dante fanatics who prefer the hellzapoppin sequel to the iconic original (itself a sly mockery of Spielberg suburban fantasy).
The film moves the little bastard monsters from small town Americana to New York City where Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates now work in a massive skyscraper that serves as a TV studio/mall/science laboratory for an eccentric billionaire. Rather quickly, Gizmo shows up and sheds some Mogwai brethren who then transform into (wait for it) gremlins. It’s all very silly and willfully nonsensical. Dante’s longtime B-movie muse Dick Miller returns after clearly dying the first go round simply because he’s too funny to cut, while Christopher Lee pops up as a mad scientist (obviously) whose special potions allow Gremlins to fly, speak, turn into electricity, grow spider legs, adopt ladyparts, etc. Basically, if Dante came up with an amusing scene, he was able cast it with a cult actor, assign Rick Baker make to an incredible puppet, and throw it at the screen without any studio interference. The result is a truly bizarre comedy mocking everything from Leonard Maltin to late night monster movie shows, yuppie capitalism, the idea of sequels, 80s action movies, and the original Gremlins. It’s got to be one of the most subversive blockbusters ever financed by a major studio and it’s a miracle Dante was able to pull it off even if his unfiltered creative juices catered to a smaller crowd than Warner Brothers hoped for. I mean, how could not love a movie that deliberately stops so that it can appear that the gremlins have taken over the projection booth? That’s not cookie cutter franchise stuff, that’s the result of an eccentric filmmaker getting Hollywood to flip the bill for whatever the hell he wanted.
Warner Brother’s Gremlins 2 Blu-ray features a nice transfer that’s a little inconsistent in outdoor scenes, but shines where it counts. Every studio-bound gremlin sequence pops off the screen with Dante’s bright color schemes and Baker’s incredible puppet designs never looking better. It’s a slick movie well worth the HD upgrade, which is a good thing because there’s a big fat donut of new special features on the disc. An amusing audio commentary, a stack of deleted scenes (including the VHS-specific Gremlins take over), and a vintage making-of doc are carried over from the DVD and all are great features, it’s just a bummer that nothing new was produced. Ah well, at least we finally got Gremlins 2 on Blu-ray and didn’t have to suffer through a crappy CGI Gremlins reboot to justify the release. (Phil Brown)
Men in Black (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997) – Back when Men in Black first came in out in 1997, the world was a very different place. Will Smith was still the Fresh Prince, Tommy Lee Jones was considered as humorless onscreen as he is offscreen, and Barry Sonnenfeld was still known as the Coen Brothers’ former cinematographer who had shown some comedy directing promise in Get Shorty and The Adams Family movies. Oh how times have changed. Now that Sonnenfeld has soiled his name as a Wild Wild West trash merchant and Smith considers himself a serious actor determined to make his kids celebrities, it’s all too easy to forget what a pleasant surprise Men In Black was (Tommy Lee’s still the same, constantly battling it out with Harrison Ford for the title of Hollywood’s favorite grumpy old man). Very few movies have managed to pull off the balance between special effects, action, and comedy so well. It’s goofy blockbuster bliss that still holds despite the terrible sequel(s?).
The main reason for Men In Black’s success is the ingenious combination of vintage Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Smith is far better at cracking one-liners and recording tie-in music videos than attempting stoic Oscar bait. Pair him up with a never crankier Tommy Lee Jones and you’ve got a classic buddy cop comedy duo (kind of like 48 Hrs. only with racism replaced by a shit ton of aliens). Sonnefeld directs with a gently surreal comedy touch that he used to be able to execute with ease, gleefully mixing eccentric performances from the likes of Rip Torn, David Cross, and Vincent D’Onofrio (in one of the most physically uncomfortable performances of all time as a giant cockroach crammed into a rotting mansuit) with some of the finest special effects $100 million could by in the 90s, via ILM and Rick Baker. It also doesn’t hurt that Ed Solomon’s script used special effects to serve the narrative and not the other way around. This brand of goofy entertainment seems easy when executed so well, but is actually incredibly difficult to get right. You need only look at MIB II to see how easily things can go wrong.
This shiny new Blu-ray offers fresh packaging to put on shelves in time for the threequel and nothing more. The disc is identical to the one Sony put out in 2008 and the special features date all the way back to 2000, including the camp-tacular music video that only gets more hilarious with age. Fortunately, the transfer is about as good as it gets (Sony did invent the Blu-ray after all) and the special features are all strong, if dated. HD might show off the limits of 90s CGI, but Sonnefeld’s cartoon exaggeration of everything onscreen helps and Baker’s rubber aliens haven’t aged a day. The film remains solid goofball entertainment and a quick spin of the disc will make you a fan again. It’s almost enough to make me excited for the written-in-production MIB III that’s on the way. “Almost” is the key word though, that thing needs to be approached with caution. Still, as far as effects-driven comedy/adventures go, Men in Black belongs on a shortlist with Ghostbusters as genre classic. I don’t say that lightly, well aware of the message board hate that may come my way. (Phil Brown)
About a Boy (2002 Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz) – About a Boy really shouldn’t work. Quite apart from the gag-inducing potential of the premise, it’s an adaptation of a subtle comedy by the distinctly British Nick Hornby executed by the American writing/directing duo Chris and Paul Weisz, the guys who made Jason Biggs fuck a pie. The movie has disaster written all over it and yet, miraculously, it’s an incredibly charming comedy with just enough emotional weight to avoid being frivolous. Even a decade after its release, the movie holds up as a far more mature version of the manchild comedy subgenre that’s gotten increasingly popular in recent years. The Weisz brothers have never been this good again (only High Fidelity does Hornby better) and the movie actually makes a case for Hugh Grant being a decent actor rather than merely a befuddlement specialist.
Grant stars as Will, a perpetually unemployed bachelor living off the royalties for a Christmas song his father wrote decades ago and faking having a 2-year-old to date single mothers who are easily emotionally manipulated. A date with his latest prospect introduces him to the introverted eccentric 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult aka Beast from X-men: First Class) and while dropping him off, Will inadvertently stumbles on the boy’s hippy depressive mother (the always excellent Toni Collette) trying to commit suicide. The bored Marcus starts following Will, discovers he doesn’t have a kid, and blackmails him into a friendship. You can probably guess where things go from there: the child and manchild come of age together.
It all sounds sickly sweet, but works because the presentation isn’t that way at all. Grant is an unapologetic asshole throughout. His heart may grow, but not enough overcome his narcissism and he’s bearable only through Grant’s natural charm. Marcus is an equally unsentimental troubled kid, world-weary, bright, and thankfully never Culkin cute. The Weisz brothers structure the story with duo narrations from the two boys that retain Hornby’s uncensored inner voice and shot their movie in crisply framed, roving scope compositions. The slick, lightly mischievous, and clever film was enough to get the siblings out of the mainstream Hollywood comedy ghetto, but sadly none of the dramatic projects they’ve directed separately since like A Better Life or Being Flynn have been nearly as resonant. Hopefully they’ll stop taking themselves so seriously and embrace this brand of character comedy again, because they’ve clearly got a knack for it even if they are determined to avoid it.
Universal’s Blu-ray is certainly a technical upgrade over the aging DVD, however character based comedies aren’t exactly the best way to test out the limits of your home theater. The special features are ported over entirely from the DVD, offering a quite amusing self-depreciated commentary from the Weisz brothers, a useless EPK doc, a music video, and an English slang dictionary just in case you can’t figure out what “tosser” means on your own (hint: it’s not a compliment). (Phil Brown)
Les Boys II (1998, Louis Saia) – Before Canada reignited their passion for big screen hockey with this year’s smash hit Goon, Quebecois audiences were flocking to a series of films from the late 90s to the early ‘naughts about a rag tag group of everymen from small towns banding together as a hockey club. Low key and more of a character study than the more plot driven first entry (which earned a then unheard of $6 million in North America) and more satisfying than the two films that follow it (and the multi-year television series), this ensemble comedy follows the titular team as they head to France for a tournament following the death of one of their own and the lessons they learn to bring back home with them.
While the filmmaking suggests an early 1980s television movie and the two hour running time doesn’t do the film any huge favours in the padding department, the interplay between these characters feel real and unforced, helped by great performances from a much younger looking Patrick Huard and series stalwart Remy Girard. It’s a decent enough way to kill a Saturday or Sunday afternoon if you’re feeling nostalgic or you want to throw back a couple of brew while watching some hosers play hockey.
The Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack preserves the old time colours and updates the sound mix to 5.1. The special features are pretty scant save for a look at a 1999 promotional tour, a look at the team, and the theatrical trailer, but none of them are subtitled in English, so unless you speak French, you’re pretty much out of luck. (Andrew Parker)
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