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Wednesday, May 28, 2008
  DVD Review: I'm Not There

Director Todd HaynesBob Dylan film is easily one of the most unique takes on the biopic in recent memory. As you probably know, the “gimmick” is that Haynes, in telling the stories – sometimes real, sometimes exaggerated and sometimes entirely fictional – of Bob Dylan’s life, cast six different actors all to play versions of the music legend. Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody, a young black kid passing through ‘50s America claiming to be Woody Guthrie and acting like he’s still in the Depression; Ben Whishaw is Arthur (as in Rimbaud), a poet being interrogated in some indeterminate historical period; Christian Bale is Jack Rollins, an early-‘60s folk singer known for his protest songs who The remarkable Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, a.k.a. Bob Dylanlater abandons his musical career at the peak of his fame to become a preacher; Heath Ledger is Robbie Clark, an actor (who, in a clever bit of stories intermingling, broke through as a star playing the Christian Bale character in a biopic) whose marriage falls apart as we watch; Cate Blanchett portrays Jude Quinn, the most obvious visual reflection of Dylan, as seen in mid-1960s London; and Richard Gere as Billy (as in the Kid), a former outlaw living in exile in turn of the century America.

Before I go any further, I should probably mention that I’m not a particular fan of Bob Dylan. I respect him immensely for all he’s accomplished, and I’ve never heard a song by him that I haven’t liked. It’s just that fully getting into Dylan always seemed so intimidating due to the sheer volume of material. But for now I’ll just smile to myself when ‘The Man In Me’ (from
The Big Lebowski) comes on my iPod and leave it at that. The reason I mention all of this is that your interest in I’m Not There, like mine, will likely live or die by your interest in and knowledge of Bob Dylan. Which is simultaneously the best and worst thing about the movie.

The reason I put gimmick in quotes earlier is, as much as the central conceit of I’m Not There seems like a stunt, it’s not. Dylan has always been famous partly for his refusal to be pinned down to one particular persona, so casting different actors to portray these different aspects of Dylan is actually quite brilliant, and the performances are great across the board (though I thought Blanchett, Whishaw and Bale in particular really tore it up).

When I said your interest in Dylan will determine your interest in the film, the best example I can think of are the sections where Dylan, in his various guises, interacts with women. Now, I know a bit about Dylan’s biography, most of the big touchstones (beginnings riffing on/ripping off Woody Guthrie, protest songs, going electric, “Judas!” at the
Royal Albert Hall concert, etc.), but really, just the Rock History 101 basics. But all the parts of the movie that involve Dylan and his relationships, which is the thrust of the Heath Ledger segments, left me cold, mostly because I could detect that his wife (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, so gorgeous that Haynes remarks on the extras that meeting her was the first time he’d ever wished he was straight) was somebody I was supposed to know, but I didn’t. As a result I could never shake the feeling in those scenes that I was missing something crucial. Instead, all I got was the sad story of the end of an actor’s marriage to his pretty French wife, paralleled by the end of the Vietnam War. I’m sure this references one of Dylan’s actual more well-known marriages, but the significance was lost on me and Haynes has no interest in filling me in.

The other side of this particular coin, however, is that Dylan fans will absolutely love this movie. It’s dripping with sly (and overt) references to his work, to works about him, and to the general myth of “Bob Dylan.” If you know what the
Newport Folk Festival is, I'm Not There is probably going to flip your shit.

I’m Not There is obviously a very ambitious film, and for the most part it’s successful, especially when considering it was shot on a tiny budget in Montreal (which stands in for Depression-era America, 1960s London, the Wild West,
Greenwich Village and more). And while Haynes does miss a few times – the references to Fellini’s in the Jude segment are either clever or pretentious, depending on your take – I’ve always said I’ll take an ambitious failure Christian Bale as folk singer Jack Rollins (who is really Bob Dylan)over a safe, aggressively mediocre “success” any day. And while I wouldn’t call I’m Not There a failure, it’s far from perfect, but compared to the Hollywood gloss of Walk The Line (which was so afraid of actually diving into the subject of Johnny Cash, probably the only figure to exceed Dylan in terms of both his cultural stature and complexity, that it just gave us a trite story of a guy who did some drugs and was redeemed by the love of his pretty wife), Haynes’ meditation on art and identity stands head and shoulders above it. It’s a movie for actual Bob Dylan fans, and to a lesser extent cinema buffs, but it has no real interest in trying to appeal to a broader, “mainstream” audience by dumbing anything down. Where Walk The Line can’t even be bothered to skirt the edges of the complicated role religion played in Johnny Cash’s life, I’m Not There dives headfirst into Dylan’s Christian period, via the Bale character.

Ever since first hearing about the project, I’m Not There sounded like the recipe for a colossal, indulgent mess of a movie. The good news is, it’s not a colossal mess, but the bad news is it is pretty indulgent, and not just because Haynes got to make a movie about one of his heroes; I'm Not There is largely about artists and their relationship to their art, and it's difficult not to read it as about Haynes more than Dylan.

Overall, as a guy who loves the medium of film, I’m Not There is a pretty amazing piece of work. Haynes bites off a lot – sometimes more than he can properly chew – but his love for Dylan just leaps from the screen and carried me through the more fanboyish aspects of the film that sailed over my head. But if you’re a Dylan fan, Haynes’ trippy journey through the lives of Bob Dylan is one you can’t afford to miss.



The first thing I noticed with the I’m Not There DVD was that, for a film about Bob Dylan, aside from a “Dylanography” (listing his entire recording catalogue as well as the many, many books about his life and his music, which is impressive in and of itself), there’s really almost nothing about Dylan himself in any of the extras on this two-disc set. But once I started to go through the bonus material, I found myself actually more interested in the making of the film than I was in Dylan as a musical/historical figure. And to be fair, there are two fairly well-known documentaries about Dylan already out there in
D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 film Don’t Look Back and Martin Scorcese’s 2005 doc No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. And Haynes says in one of the features that he’s still never actually met Dylan, so it does seem sort of appropriate. The film, after all, is about considerably more than just Bob Dylan, and the production (low budget and under insane amounts of time pressure, apparently) seemed quite interesting, if not necessarily a fun experience for those involved, so there’s lots of interesting material here.

Extras on disc 1 include text pieces introducing the film, often reviews of the film from its theatrical run, which seems a like nod to I’m Not There’s sometimes weird, consciously impenetrable nature. Maybe they felt they needed a preamble for such an "artsy" movie in order for “regular folks” to understand it? I don’t know, but they’re pretty well-written and interesting, and work as cool companion pieces to the film. (Many of the bonus features on the I’m Not There DVD are text pieces, which is a cool – though presumably unintentional – throwback to old DVDs, and a feature that's probably been cast off needlessly in favour of "sexier" multimedia features like games or just more
EPK fluff. There’s lots of fascinating magazine and newspaper articles about the film and Dylan in general here, so again, Dylan heads take note.

Other extras include two theatrical trailers, as well as a bunch of cool, unused trailers based around Dylan’s proto-music video for
‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ (you know, the one where he’s bored-looking in an alley holding cards with lines from the song), including two versions with the entire cast recreating the clip, as well as takes of each of the cast members doing it individually. (For the record, the best at keeping pace with the song was Richard Gere; the worst was probably Marcus Carl Franklin, though Heath Ledger gets bonus points for taking drags from a cigarette before each verse.) For a collection of trailers, it’s surprisingly fun.

There’s also a 20-minute feature on the making of the soundtrack, which will mostly just interest to music geeks, as well as more traditional extras like audition footage, a couple of deleted scenes and some extended takes of the musical performances in the film (which I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention are all fucking amazing).

There’s also a nice
‘Tribute to Heath Ledger,’ a brief montage of footage from the film itself and outtakes, Heath Ledger's Robbie Clark? Also Bob Dylanoverlaid with music. Ledger, who died between the theatrical release of the film and the DVD, does great work in the film and obviously bonded with Haynes, who gets choked up more than once on the commentary during Ledger’s scenes.

The real meat of the extras is ‘A Conversation with Todd Haynes,’ which runs about 40 minutes or so. It’s a combination of an interview done specifically for the DVD and clips of the writer-director talking about the film at various film festivals and junkets, and considering the piecemeal nature of it, it’s really interesting stuff. Haynes is articulate, smart and funny, and speaks passionately about all aspects of a film that was clearly a labour of love. Haynes also provides commentary for the film, one of the most engaging tracks I’ve heard in a while, and it actually made me like the film a lot more in retrospect than I did when I first saw it, which is something not a lot of commentary tracks manage to do.

Rounding out the extras is ‘The Red Carpet Premiere,’ a collection of interview snippets from, well, the red carpet premiere. There’s not much of value here that isn’t covered elsewhere on the DVD, but in it Ledger sums up I’m Not There better in one sentence than I could in this long, rambling review, so I’ll leave it to him: “You leave the movie with no more knowledge of Dylan than when you entered the film.” It’s absolutely true, and in the best way possible.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008
  DVD Review: PTU - Police Tactical Unit
The Movie

Released through
The Weinstein Company’s Dragon Dynasty label, which specializes in Asian cinema, PTU is an urban crime thriller from director Johnnie To, one of the most exciting and prolific directors working in Hong Kong today. He seems to release about a half-dozen films every year (I may be exaggerating), with the standouts being, for me, his recent shoot-‘em-up action flick Exiled and the darkly brilliant gangster thrillers Election and Election 2. PTU was released a few years before those films, in 2003, after being shot piecemeal over a three-year period (and apparently without a finished script).
The story is kind of a riff on
Akira Kurosawa’s classic Stray Dog, about a police officer who loses his gun. Here, a bumbling, vaguely shady cop (the great character actor and Johnnie To regular Lam Suet) loses his piece while chasing down some punks, and it falls to the head of the Police Tactical Unit (Hong Kong cinema icon Simon Yam, another of To’s regular players) to find it before their superiors find out, and the whole film is set over the course of one night.

The result is a dark – and sometimes darkly funny – jaunt through Hong Kong’sIf you know where the gun is, you should probably tell Simon Yam mean streets. Yam and the rest of his unit’s dogged determination to track down the missing gun by any means necessary sets off a gradually escalating cycle of violence that culminates in a Reservoir Dogs-esque standoff, but To ups the ante by involving about a dozen characters instead of four. Virtually from the start, PTU establishes Yam’s unit leader as a cop who’s not just willing to venture into the grey areas of law enforcement, he goes considerably further, slapping suspects around to get answers, and watching calmly as one of his men beats an informant with his boot until he requires CPR to be revived.

To call PTU morally ambiguous would be an understatement; I was a full hour into the film’s 85-minute running time when it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea who I was supposed to be rooting for. The obnoxious, seemingly dull-witted cop who started all this by losing his gun? The PTU leader who’s all too ready to terrorize informants to get information? The ball-busting ice-queen
CID agent following the other two around? None could be described as likeable, but all three are interesting characters. Not that I need to like characters in order to like a film; some of my favourite movies feature misanthropes of various stripes as protagonists, including other Johnnie To movies. But with PTU, as much as it’s engaging to watch the characters do their respective things, I could never quite figure out why I was supposed to care about this cop getting his gun back. It serves as a nice fulcrum for the plot, sure, but I wasn’t able to connect in any real way with any of the characters, which could be accounted for by the lack of a proper screenplay.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything to recommend about PTU; quite the contrary. Johnnie To is a brilliant craftsman, easily head and shoulders above anyone else in Hong Kong right now, visually and stylistically. Like many of To’s gangster movies, there are several sequences in PTU with no dialogue, and he proves that actors’ facial expressions, body language, lighting and shot-framing can do just as much, if not more, than dialogue to convey emotion. There are several long, single-shot takes in which To seems
to be riffing on American masters like Scorcese, Tarantino and P.T. Anderson, but he never rubs his cleverness in the viewer’s face.

The proceedings in PTU can get quite violent at times, and as with many of the great gangster filmmakers, To skilfully juxtaposes flashes of humour to offset the sometimes alarming brutality. The climactic shootout gets pretty bloody, not quite reaching Wild Bunch levels, but the Peckinpah influence is hard to ignore. And it’s followed by a minor twist ending that’ll either be seen as clever or frustrating, depending on one’s view (I went with the former).

Overall, PTU is a solid cops-and-robbers flick, not Johnnie To’s best – I’d recommend the aforementioned “three E” movies, Election, Election 2 and Exiled for top-shelf To – but it’s still one of the most interesting films of its kind I’ve seen since The Departed.

Grade: B

The Extras
Commentary with Hong Kong film expert
Bey Logan, who does commentary on many of the Dragon Dynasty movies. Logan unspools lots of fun facts, though he also has an unfortunate tendency to just explain what’s happening onscreen (breaking Rule No. 1 for audio commentaries). But he definitely knows his stuff, giving insane amounts of biographical information about just about every actor who passes through the frame, as well as trivia about many of the locations. Overall it’s a fun, informative track from a guy who’s forgotten more Lam Suet wonders where it all went so wrongabout HK cinema than most people will ever know, but it may be a little too inside-baseball for more casual viewers.

There are also interviews with actors Simon Yam and
Maggie Siu, as well as director Johnnie To. The Yam interview runs about 20 minutes, the Siu and To interviews about 13 apiece. It’s pretty standard interview fare, and like the commentary track, is probably geared more towards HK cinema fans – I personally enjoyed the Simon Yam interview because I’ve been a fan of his (a Yam fan?) for years, and I dug the Johnnie To segment because I don’t think I’d ever seen so much as a picture of the guy before watching it.

Rounding out the extras is a trailer gallery with ads for other Dragon Dynasty titles.

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A blog about movies, by a guy who probably watches too many.

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