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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Monkey Warfare (2007)

* *

Director: Reginald Harkema
Starring: Don McKellar, Tracy Wright, Nadia Litz

It’s generally a bad sign when you’re watching a movie and you look at the clock and think to yourself, “Huh... they’re going to run out of time before something can happen.” Monkey Warfare is a well-acted and occasionally clever film with just one problem – a movie about anti-Capitalist revolutionaries really shouldn’t be so boring.

The story centers on Dan (Don McKellar) and Linda (Tracy Wright), two former revolutionaries who are currently living off the grid, getting by collecting other people’s junk and selling it. After his weed dealer goes missing, Dan meets Susan (Nadia Litz), who hooks him up and with whom he hopes to hook up. Susan insinuates herself into Dan and Linda’s life, borrows some of Dan’s anti-establishment literature, gets him to steal a couple of bikes for her (she has a habit of wrecking them), and then springs a surprise on him: she wants Dan and Linda to join Spokes, a revolutionary group that rides bikes and destroys SUVs. For two people like Dan and Linda, who want nothing more than to lay low, this is the worst possible thing that could have come into their lives.

The style of the film is very postmodern – certain sections resemble an artsy music video more than a film – and the characters of Dan and Linda are very finely developed and wonderfully brought to life by the actors - the fact that I’m giving the film two stars instead of one is due to the performances by McKellar and Wright. Dan and Linda are living in a kind of suspended animation, hiding out due to an incident in their past and living day to day in their insulated little world (when Dan lets Susan into their place, it’s a really big deal). When asked if she and Dan are a couple, Linda states that they just live together, then corrects herself to say that they “exist” together, which does seem like a more accurate way to describe it. Dan and Linda just sort of plod through life and McKellar and Wright deliver performances of the solid, under the radar variety that are really effective and engaging.

Most of the film consists of people just hanging out, which would be fine were it not for the fact that there’s an undercurrent to the scenes which makes it seem as if it’s building up to something and then when the story finally gets there, it just kind of fizzles out. If the revelation about Susan had taken place earlier in the film, or if there had been more to the story afterwards, it would have been better because there would have been more time to explore revolutionary activities/ideals as they relate to the generation gap, which is something that is touched upon briefly right before the film ends.

Monkey Warfare should certainly be given points for originality – it’s definitely unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen – and it has moments of brilliance, but it ultimately failed to hold my attention. When a movie’s runtime is under an hour and a half, there shouldn’t be enough time for your mind to drift, but that’s exactly what happened to me. No doubt there are people who have seen or will see this and think it’s fantastic, but I’m not one of them.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Review: The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (1965)

* * * 1/2

Director: Zbynek Brynych
Starring: Miroslav Machacek

The Fifth Horseman Is Fear is one of the seminal films of the Czech New Wave, a work made under extreme scrutiny during the Communist regime which nonetheless succeeds in being critical of governmental repression of social freedoms. Ostensibly concerning life during Nazi occupation, the film is really reflecting life under the regime contemporaneous to the film’s making.

The story centers on Braun (Miroslav Machacek), a Jewish doctor who has been prohibited by the Nazis from practicing medicine. He now works for the Nazis, cataloguing property that has been confiscated from local Jewish residents – when we follow him home we see his own sparsely decorated apartment which seems to consist solely of a bed, a chair, a hook for his coat and his violin - and refusing to get involved in any resistance activities, insisting that he’s too old. One of his neighbours brings a wounded partisan fighter into the building and coerces Braun into operating on him. The man will need morphine, Braun declares, and goes into the city in to try to find some, a journey which will take him to a brothel, a madhouse and a place known as the Desperation Bar.

There’s a spy in the building who sees Braun with the patient and tips off the authorities. “I was only doing my duty,” he insists when confronted by the other tenants in the building, all of whom have been dragged out of their apartments while the Nazi officials conduct a full search of the premises. Braun is out when the officials arrive and they wait for him. There can only be one outcome to this situation, but Braun turns it into a moment of triumph, having discovered something fundamental about himself through his travels through the city.

Director Zbyneck Brynych shoots the film in a very intimate way, framing and composing the flow of shots to make it seem as if we, the audience, are there, observing Braun from a short distance, occasionally as if we’re spying on him ourselves. Sometimes the characters look directly at us, directing their comments to the camera. Often they engage in soliloquies in which Brynych makes us their confidantes. There’s a certain abruptness to the way that the film is edited – scenes end suddenly and the juxtaposition of scenes can occasionally be choppy, but both of these facets work with the overall mood of the film.

The Fifth Horseman Is Fear is really effective at demonstrating the small, every day ways that a totalitarian regime can suffocate those living under it. Braun’s visits to the brothel, madhouse and bar each demonstrate various degrees of suffering of the local people – the people in the madhouse are, obviously, insane; the patrons of the bar are on their way there (in fact, one of the patrons of the bar is dragged away and taken to the sanatorium); the sex workers are the most despondent of all, wearily carrying on their work as Nazi officers bang down their doors, unwilling to wait their turn. Hopelessness permeates the places that Braun visits, as if it has been socialized into the people; but Braun comes to realize something that saves his spirit: “You can’t change the way people think.” The Nazis can stop him from practicing medicine, they can invade his privacy, but they can’t change him - only he can do that. The film is tragic, to be sure, but in his own quiet way, Braun comes out the winner.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

* * * *

Director: Philip Kaufman
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin

"In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens… the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant."
- Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”

Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a surgeon living in Prague who has subscribed himself to a life of lightness, of accepting that nothing he does matters, that no thought or action has any real meaning. He carries on with various women, one of whom is Sabine (Lena Olin), an artist with whom he shares particular passion. One day he’s sent to a spa to perform an operation and meets Teresa (Juliette Binoche). Teresa follows him back to Prague and begins living with him, suddenly introducing a heaviness to his life by her need to ascribe meaning to everything. He continues to see other women, including Sabine, but eventually marries Teresa. When the tentative cultural and social freedom of Prague Spring comes to an end with the Soviet occupation, Sabine, Tomas and Teresa flee to Switzerland. For Teresa, life in Geneva is unbearable – she lacks the spiritual lightness that allows Tomas and Sabine to float above the troubles of the world – and she returns to Prague. Eventually, Tomas follows her.

Once back in Czechoslovakia, neither can leave again because the Russians confiscate their passports. Tomas, a respected brain surgeon, is unable to practice medicine due to his refusal to sign a declaration retracting an article he had written before the occupation, calling out the corruption of the Communist regime. He becomes a window washer, he continues to womanize – in spite of everything, his philosophy has remained intact. Teresa, on the other hand, continues to be heavy, too affected by all that goes on around her.

I find that the problem with many “historical” films is that the filmmakers are often less interested in their characters than they are in a particular event from history. The result of this is that the protagonist becomes a thinly developed means of exploring an event, which in turn depletes the resonance of that event because to care about it you have to care about and identify with the character through whose eyes you’re seeing it. This film gets it right, emphasizing the characters over the plot and allowing the characters to be slowly and fully developed, rather than just setting them up and tossing them into political turmoil and upheaval. It also helps that the three principles are played by three really great actors, each at the top of their game.

Since Tomas exists so far above everything that’s going on, much of the tumult is expressed through Teresa, who feels everything so deeply. She’s a photographer who goes to great lengths to capture the Soviet invasion only to get some of those photos to Geneva and be told that the invasion is yesterday’s news – it doesn’t matter, which Tomas knows and accepts because he can accept that nothing matters, but which Teresa can’t bear. The great conflict between the two – aside from the obvious monogamy issue – is that he can just allow everything to roll off his back while those same things pierce her to the very core.

There’s a great deal of eroticism in this film – between Tomas and Sabine, Tomas and Teresa, and between Teresa and Sabine – all of it carefully constructed and skilfully carried out. Generally speaking, there’s a lot of sex in movies but so little genuine eroticism that it almost seems strange when seen here. It’s a sexy movie in a way that you don’t often see, in that it explores sex and sexuality in a serious way, weaving it into the philosophical themes of the story, rather than just tossing in a few sex scenes simply for the sake of having some nudity like so many other movies do. It’s one of the many facets of the film that raises it above and beyond many others.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Review: Mama Mia! (2008)

* * *

Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Starring: Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried

Objectively speaking, I know that Mama Mia! isn’t a good movie by any normal measure of what makes a movie good. However, I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t the most fun I’ve had at the movies all year. If I saw it on DVD, I’m sure I’d be more keenly aware of all its flaws, but there’s something about seeing it in a theatre full of people who are really into it that I liken to the experience of seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in that it isn’t really the movie itself, but the experience of seeing it with a whole bunch of other people, that makes it so special.

The action takes place on a small Greek island where Donna (Meryl Streep) has raised her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and runs an inn. Sophie, who has never known the identity of her father, discovers Donna’s diary and learns that there are three possible candidates: Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth). Convinced that she’ll know her father at first sight, she invites all three to her impending wedding, which causes a variety of problems.

I’m sure you won’t be shocked if I tell you that the plot has very little bearing on the film beyond simply connecting the songs. In that regard, it does a serviceable job, though you really have to suspend your disbelief when it takes Donna the entire film to realize that it’s not just a coincidence that these three particular men have all shown up on the eve of Sophie’s wedding. And it’s also kind of unfair to build an entire plot around the question of paternity and then never actually resolve it. Personally, I suggest that if Sophie really wants to know she should just take all three men on Maury, because he does like four paternity shows a week (not that I have ever, during brief periods of unemployment, watched that show).

As far as the music goes, you’re either going to love it or hate it, but since most people already know whether they like Abba or find the music a particular form of torture, I doubt that many people have or will walk into this movie unaware. With that in mind, I have to say that I was a little put off by how aggressive the first half of this movie is - everyone is trying so hard to prove how much fun they’re having that it looks a lot more like work than fun. Meryl Streep is one of my favourite actresses, but it must be said that of the entire cast, she’s the most guilty of this “look how much fun this is” preening. I think it’s fair to say that anyone who walks into this movie is already pretty much sold on it, so the filmmakers and the cast could have pulled back a bit. By the second half everything feels more relaxed and the film hits its stride, but you have to get through that first half first.

I enjoyed Mama Mia! a lot, but I won’t argue with anyone that it’s a cheesy movie because it is. Oh, how it is. I mean, the "Voulez-Vous" number resembles a particularly overblown Duran Duran video from the 80s, but so what? It’s good cheese and it left me with a smile on my face.

Friday, July 25, 2008

LAMB Movie of the Month: The Conversation (1974)

* * * *

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gene Hackman

The Conversation has been on my list of movies to see for a long time so I was really happy that it was selected as the LAMB's Movie of the Month so that I would have some extra incentive to finally getting around to seeing it. In many ways this is a quiet and simple movie – not a lot happens – but it’s deeply layered and leaves a lasting impression. It’s a movie I’ve found myself thinking about a lot since seeing it.

Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, one of the preeminent surveillance experts in the States. He’s been hired to record a conversation between a young couple in a park and toils to get the cleanest recording possible. Harry sees himself simply as a means of conveying information – he has nothing to do with the situation or what may arise out of his recording; he sees himself as existing outside the context of what he is observing. However, despite his protests and assertions about his place in the story, Harry begins to worry about what will happen to the couple once he hands the tapes over. He’s particularly haunted by the young man’s declaration that “he’d kill us if he had the chance.” There’s an event in Harry’s past, alluded to by a colleague, which resulted in the death of a family. Harry feels responsible and attempts to atone for it by preventing something from happening to the young couple.

The Conversation owes a lot to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, which is about a photographer who thinks he might have captured a murder in the background of a photo. His obsession with the photo is similar to Harry’s obsession with the recording, which he listens to over and over again. The context, though, is very different, with Antonioni’s film taking place against the backdrop of the Swinging London scene of the 60s, and Coppola’s film taking place amid Watergate-era American paranoia. Harry, certainly, is paranoid but, as it turns out, not nearly paranoid enough. He attends a conference for members of the surveillance industry and accepts a pen from a colleague which is later used to record a private conversation which causes him some embarrassment (of all people, shouldn’t he have known better than to accept a pen from a surveillance expert?) and later lets his guard down with the wrong person which results in the tapes he wants so desperately to protect being stolen.

As effective as this film is as a thriller, it’s most effective as a character study. Harry is someone who spends his days invading other people’s privacy and developing newer and better ways to do it. As a result, he’s fiercely protective of his own privacy but unsuccessful in his efforts. His apartment is equipped with several locks and an alarm, and yet his landlady is able to get in to leave him a present for his birthday; his attempts to be sneaky with his girlfriend (Teri Garr) are met with her cheerful declaration that she’s on to him; and there’s the aforementioned bug in the pen. Harry is hopeless in a lot of ways and there’s a kind of desperate acquiescence to the way that the film ends with him completely dismantling his life, destroying his apartment, his privacy and, symbolically, his faith.

The Conversation works because it depends on internal rather than external terror. The creepiest thing about it is not the minimal amount of violence that we glimpse through Harry’s imagination, but the psychological effect of realizing how fragile privacy can be. Given the way that the idea of privacy is eroded a little more every day by governmental policies designed to “protect” us, this is a film that seems only to grow in relevance.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Young Triffie (2007)

* 1/2

Director: Mary Walsh
Starring: Fred Ewanuick, Mary Walsh, Remy Girard, Andrea Martin

Young Triffie is a bizarre comedy from director Mary Walsh, adapted from a stage play titled Young Triffie’s Been Made Away With. There are a lot of very funny people in the film, which naturally makes for a number of funny moments, but ultimately this story is a lot more strange than it is funny.

Fred Ewanuick stars as Ranger Hepditch, a rookie who is constantly being tormented by his fellow officers. After a series of sheep mutilations in a neighbouring village, Hepditch is sent to investigate and arrives not having realized that while he was making the journey an even more disturbing event has taken place in the village: the discovery of the corpse of a young girl named Triffie. Learning that his boss (played by Colin Mochrie) is planning to send two more qualified officers to handle the murder inquiry, Hepditch is determined to solve the mystery and prove himself worthy of his badge.

I won’t go much further into the plot because in a lot of ways the plot doesn’t matter, which is just as well since it is so shabbily constructed. This isn’t a comedy of plot, of cause and effect, as much as it is a comedy of character and manners. The plot is more or less just a means of connecting all these eccentric people, from Hepditch, who is clumsy and inept in the most charming way, to Millie Bishop (Mary Walsh), the local postmistress who steams open everyone’s mail (and throws out what she finds objectionable) and knows everything about everyone, to the local doctor (Remy Girard) who is a drunk and his morphine addicted wife (Andrea Martin), who lusts after Hepditch, and so on until you have a town filled with people so odd that they don’t really seem crazy because there’s no barometer for sanity against which to measure them.

While the characters are funny enough in and of themselves, the plot of the film really drags them down. The story begins in a more or less straight forward way (quirky, to be sure, but straight forward) but slowly descends deeper and deeper into the surreal to the point where the local preacher is leading his congregation in sort of chanting, only they’re baaa’ing - and why are they doing this? I have no idea. It just gets really weird and nonsensical by the end when Hepditch finds himself in a room with two dead bodies and one unconscious man he’s nailed (yes, nailed) to a table, and can’t wait for the other two Rangers to show up so that he can go ask out the girl he accidentally saw topless the day before.

Young Triffie is a film that tries very hard to be funny, and in certain respects it is, but it’s ultimately difficult to find a film really funny when its plot involves murder, incest, and pedophilia. The only really good thing I can say about the film is that the performances are for the most part quite charming (Martin goes a little overboard, but she is playing a morphine addict, after all), especially that of Ewanuick, who is carving out quite a niche for himself playing befuddled leading men.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Review: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

* * * *

Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis

“I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re like a cookie full of arsenic.” So says columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) to publicity agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in this hard-edged, deeply cynical film. There’s no one to root for in this movie - not the two pretty on the outside, poison on the inside villains, and not the two one dimensional victims; and yet the film itself remains compelling. Not only do movies like this never get made anymore, but movies like this never got made in the first place. That this exists at all is something of a miracle.

The story begins with Falco already on the outs with Hunsecker after failing to follow through on a promise to break up the relationship between Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and her musician boyfriend, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Hunsecker is the most powerful columnist in New York and to be on his bad side is a fate worse than death for Falco, something which could ruin his already struggling career completely (“You’re dead son,” Hunsecker tells him, “get yourself buried”). Hunsecker is willing to give him a second chance and Falco sets about destroying Steve and his relationship with Susan, bribing a rival columnist to plant an item about Steve being a pothead and communist. When this, too, fails to get the job done, Hunsecker asks Falco to go even further, to do something that even someone as immoral as Falco thinks is wrong.

The greatest strength of the film is its script, which is written in such a terse, no-nonsense kind of way by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. There’s no sugar-coating in this movie, it’s full of both physical and social brutality. The two main characters are finely etched: Hunsecker revels in his power, loves to wield it to harm others and bend them to his will, and has an unhealthy attachment to his sister; Falco is a desperate smooth talker who wants nothing more than to be Hunsecker. There’s a sadomasochistic element to their relationship, something latent (Falco, certainly, would sleep with Hunsecker to get what he wants, but Hunsecker seems more or less asexual... or perhaps just wary of exposing himself to anything that might be used against him later), and everyone seems to know the score. Other characters consistently liken Falco to a dog – the implication being that Falco is Hunsecker’s “bitch” – which upsets Falco even though he’s the first character in the film to make the analogy when he assures his secretary that “every dog has its day.”

Lancaster and Curtis deliver wonderful, no holds barred performances, while Harrison & Milner deliver exactly what the story requires of them, which is very little. Susan and Steve are nothing but pawns in a larger game, star crossed lovers who are consistently victimised by those around them. The only point at which Susan becomes a character of any interest whatsoever is towards the end, when she plays both Hunsecker and Falco and brings about the film’s bitter resolution. Ultimately this isn’t a world for lambs like Susan and Steve, but for lions like Hunsecker, who may have lost a battle but will no doubt continue to win the war beyond the film’s edges.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: Stop-Loss (2008)

* *

Director: Kimberly Peirce
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Stop-Loss is a movie with a lot of potential that falls just short of being good. The characters wander through the story, endlessly repeating the same lines in different variations as if the act of repetition will disguise the fact that the film only skims the very surface of the issues it wants us to believe it is exploring. Kimberley Peirce is a good director, her work on Boys Don’t Cry proves that, but this story is ultimately directionless, ending not with any kind of resolution, but with a metaphorical shrug.

Brandon (Ryan Phillippe), Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are three friends returning to their hometown after a tour of duty in Iraq. Tommy will be going back for another tour, but Brandon and Steve have finished and are getting ready to leave the army and move on with their lives. On what he believes to be his last day of service, Brandon finds out that he’s been stop-lossed and will return to Iraq for another tour. More out of anger than anything else, Brandon flees with the help of Steve’s fiancĂ©e Michelle (Abbie Cornish), first planning to go to Washington to seek the help of a Senator and then planning to go to Canada under an assumed identity.

It must be said that the first thirty or so minutes of this film, which explores the chaos of Iraq and the tension of returning home, are outstanding and say more about the war than all the speeches that take place during the rest of the film. The ambush scene, in which Brandon follows Steve into a residence and makes a split-second decision which will come to haunt him, is easily the most powerful part of the movie but it seems wasted given how briefly this moment is touched on and how quickly the story loses the thread.

There are a lot of problems with the film, but the biggest is with its protagonist. Brandon is the focus of the story and of the three returning friends, he’s the least interesting. Both Steve and Tommy are on the verge of cracking up, drowning their memories in booze and taking out their aggression on the women in their lives. Steve, afraid of trying to live as a civilian again after his experiences overseas, voluntarily re-enlists despite his promises to Michelle. Tommy, who acts out in various ways, is discharged from the army for bad behaviour and kicked out by his wife for much the same reason. In comparison, Brandon seems a little plastic, a little too perfect. The performance by Phillippe doesn’t do much to help; he yells a lot and makes a number of anguished faces but it just seems overwrought and there’s not much depth to the performance. Gordon-Levitt, who does a lot with what little the film provides for him, might have been a better choice to play Brandon.

[As a slight aside to anyone who has seen the film: did anyone else find it distracting, given Kimberly Peirce’s previous film, that the protagonist was named Brandon?]

Stop-Loss wants very badly to be a film that’s about something, but it only glosses over the issues it wants to explore. The situation in which Brandon finds himself is unfair, but simply pointing out that it’s unfair and offering little else by way of commentary is insufficient at this point. An excellent film could have come out of the first third of this one, but Stop-Loss isn’t it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Review: The Dark Knight (2008)

* * * *

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart

Is The Dark Knight the best comic book movie ever made? It’s hard to say, so thoroughly does the follow-up to Batman Begins transcend the boundaries of its genre and become something else entirely. It’s far too cerebral to be labelled simply “a comic book movie” or an “action movie;” it’s a morality play in which the villain is less a means of causing chaos and destruction than he is a way of challenging the hero on moral and intellectual grounds.

The story picks up more or less where Begins left off: Gotham is still under siege by the mafia underworld, but is in the process of being cleaned up by people like Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and A.D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Batman (Christian Bale) is there, too, of course but is a divisive figure within the city as some people seem him as a saviour, others as a dangerous vigilante who ought to be stopped. The mob is on the verge of being shut down but then the Joker (Heath Ledger) enters the picture to throw a wrench into the plan. Gotham is soon plunged into terror and a series of choices are made which cause Bruce Wayne/Batman, as well as Dent and Gordon, to question the moral codes by which they live and conduct their business.

More than anything, the Joker functions as a mirror for Batman. Both are “freaks,” as the Joker happily points out, both scarred by events in their past (the Joker literally, Batman metaphorically), one acting out his trauma by attempting to bring order to the city, the other by attempting to dismantle it completely. The mob is willing to work with the Joker only for as long as they need him, and the authorities are willing to condone Batman’s actions only for as long as they have to – once the city is cleaned up a bit, he’ll go back to the top of the most wanted list. Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin (or, for the morbid amongst us, the two sides of Harvey Two-Face). Dent and Gordon function as mirrors of each other as well, with Dent playing the role of idealist driven off the rails and into performing the very actions he’s meant to stand against, and Gordon playing the role of realist (“I work with what I’ve got,” he says, explaining why cops who have a history of being on the take are still on the force) who is able to maintain his place on the moral high ground through his ability to see the various shades of grey which reside in between black and white.

A lot has already been written about the performance by Ledger, so I’ll simply say that it’s everything you’ve already heard, and focus instead on the film’s other two great performances: those of Eckhart and Oldman. Eckhart is wonderful, perfectly managing Dent’s transformation from hero to villain and becoming the film’s most compelling character. There’s something almost operatic about the arc of this character, who goes from being as good as Batman to as disfigured and twisted as the Joker. As for Oldman, he provides a solid anchor for the film as the character with the least ambiguous moral authority. It's a quiet role but Oldman does more with it than you might expect.

I really only have one criticism of the film, and it’s the same criticism I had of Begins, which is the length. You could easily cut twenty minutes out of this film while still maintaining its power. That begin said, however, the film is powerful; I was more moved by it than I had been expecting. The Dark Knight is definitely more than just your average summer movie fare.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Review: The Painted Veil (2006)

* * * *

Director: John Curran
Starring: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton

It’s unfortunate that a film as well-made as this one was little more than a blip on the radar when it was released in theatres. John Curran’s The Painted Veil has everything going for it: a great cast, a compelling story, and fantastic production values (even the opening credits sequence is breathtaking). This is a technical and artistic triumph, a movie that definitely didn’t deserve to fall through the cracks.

The story takes place in the 1920s and centers on Walter and Kitty Fane (Edward Norton and Naomi Watts), who rush into marriage and find themselves in over their heads in more ways than one. Walter is a doctor who is about to return to his work in Shanghai and falls in love with Kitty at a party. Kitty is a socialite who accepts his proposal in order to escape her mother, who keeps reminding her that the clock is ticking if she wants to avoid becoming an old maid. It is immediately apparent that the marriage will be an unhappy one: Walter and Kitty hardly know each other and have little in common. Walter is caught up in his work and Kitty quickly becomes bored and falls into an affair with Charles Townsend (Liev Schrieber). Walter discovers the affair and threatens Kitty with scandal and divorce unless she accompanies him into the countryside where he will be attending to a cholera epidemic.

Far removed from the comforts of the city, Walter and Kitty continue to grow apart. Aside from his marital troubles, Walter also encounters problems in trying to contain the epidemic. More scientist than doctor, he has little experience dealing the realities of sick people and even less dealing with the clash of cultures as the Chinese Nationalists stir up anti-Western sentiment and make it increasingly difficult for Walter to gain the trust of the locals. Kitty, meanwhile, occupies her time volunteering at an orphanage run by French nuns, and slowly begins to close the gap between herself and her husband.

As Walter, Norton delivers a very understated and restrained performance as a man who would rather suppress everything he feels than show even the slightest emotion. By design it’s a very quiet and undemonstrative role, the kind that seems deceptively simple. As Kitty, Watts has a meatier role, playing as she does a character who wears her emotions on her sleeve and has a greater narrative arc, going from selfish socialite to selfless wife and nurse. Watts is more than up to the challenge and convincingly conveys Kitt's transformation. There are also nice supporting performances by Toby Jones as one of the sole survivors of the original outbreak, and Diana Rigg as the Mother Superior of the orphanage, both of whom become confidantes for Kitty.

The technical aspects of the film are top notch, from the beautiful photography and costumes, to the score by Alexandre Desplat, who is quickly becoming one of my favourite film composers. The direction by John Curran is measured and restrained, letting the story unfold at its own pace rather than forcing it along. The only criticism I have is that the film should have ended with the beautiful shot of the boat carrying Kitty away up the Yangtze river, rather than the brief epilogue which takes place in England. But this is only a minor criticism of what is otherwise a wonderful and engaging film.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Canadian Film Review: The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico (2005)

* * * 1/2

Director: Michael Mabbott
Starring: Matt Murphy

Guy Terrifico is the best musician you’ve never heard of – or so this film would like you to believe. More myth than man, Guy Terrifico is a symbol of the empty trappings of celebrity which this rockumentary (mock-rocumentary?) is eager to explore. Part musical, part comedy, and part tragedy, this is an incredibly engaging and enjoyable film.

Guy Terrifico (Matt Murphy) – who adopts this stage name after receiving the first of many head injuries – experiences a trajectory which differs fundamentally from the narrative lines followed by most rock stars. For one thing, he’s able to live the rock lifestyle before actually becoming a rock star, essentially pushing his musical aspirations and talents into the background before even having the opportunity to express his abilities to an audience. After winning the lottery, Guy buys a hotel and proceeds to turn it into party central, inviting various musical acts to play at his place and party with him, and falling prey to his newfound ability to consume all the drugs he wants without money being an issue. He’s become a star of sorts without effort but finds himself unfulfilled. Eventually he regains his focus and starts creating music again, going through several phases in his style including a brief stint as a gospel singer. The gospel phase, which lasts about a week according to his wife Mary Lou (Natalie Radford), is unsuccessful due in no small part to the fact that Guy’s idea of gospel is a song which includes the line, “I’ve got a 40 oz. of heaven in a bottle behind the bar.” He gains some success, much of which is undone by a drunken appearance on a variety show. His life falls apart, Mary Lou leaves him, he sinks deeper into the destructive elements of his lifestyle and then, miraculously, he gets clean, gets focused and is poised for a comeback. However, his new clean lifestyle doesn’t sit well with the drug dealer he was supporting with his habit, who assassinates him in the middle of a performance... or does he? Somewhere between the stage and the hospital, Guy’s body disappeared and no one knows, or is willing to admit, to knowing anything about it.

The film unfolds in a realist style, mixing not only interviews with actual musicians like Kris Kristofferson but also footage of the 1970s rock-country scene that Guy is meant to have been part of. Not having been alive at the particular time in which most of the film takes place, I can’t really attest to how well it captures the spirit, but I’ve been told by others that it effectively evokes the time and place it wants to depict. The music itself, which is peppered throughout the film, is great, especially the last song that Guy is ever to perform, which conveys his frustrations at the lifestyle he’s trying to leave behind and his desire to move on to better things.

The central performance by Matt Murphy is fantastic and really engaging. He nails the swagger inherent with the role as well as the almost child-like desire to please, to be liked – especially by fellow musicians. Even though he sometimes acts like a jackass, you really do root for Guy to get it together, make it big and be happy. The supporting performances are good, especially that of Lynn Griffin playing a former backup singer and girlfriend of Guy’s, in a showy and very funny role.

This is a really great movie, one that is both entertaining and thoughtful, worth watching as much for the music as for the story. Director Michael Mabbott does an excellent job bringing us into this world and making us care about the central character in this almost perfect film.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Review: P.S. I Love You (2007)

* *

Director: Richard LaGravenese
Starring: Hilary Swank, Gerard Butler, Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow

The problem with P.S. I Love You is obvious before you’ve even seen the movie so long as you’ve watched the trailer. The marketing people – and, to a certain extent, the filmmakers themselves – don’t really know what to do with this story. It was marketed as a romantic comedy when it is in fact neither a romance nor a comedy. There are a few funny moments, yes, but the romance is over by the end of the opening credits. This is in actuality a drama about a woman, on her own for the first time in her life, discovering who she is and how to be on her own, and when the film itself remembers that, it isn't half bad.

The film opens with Holly (Hilary Swank) and Gerry (Gerard Butler) in an argument that feels so scripted and explanatory that you almost don’t have to watch the rest of the movie – it’s pretty much all laid out right here. Following this prologue, the film goes into its opening credits and then segues into the film proper, where Gerry has died of a brain tumour and Holly is left on her own. Shortly after Gerry’s death, Holly celebrates her birthday and learns that before he died, Gerry arranged for her to receive a series of letters and gifts from him spread out across her first year of widowhood.

In the interest of revealing the bad news first and saving the good, I’ll start with the elements which bothered me about the film. First: Holly spends a lot of time complaining about her apartment being too small, describing it as if it’s no bigger than a closet. Here’s the thing: that apartment is huge, especially for two people with careers that haven’t gotten off the ground yet and who are living in New York. Second: Holly takes a trip to Ireland with her friends, Sharon (Gina Gershon) and Denise (Lisa Kudrow) where they encourage her to pursue a singer named Billy (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), neither apparently having noticed the more than passing resemblance that Billy bears to Holly’s recently deceased husband. Third: this is a film of standard two hour length but it feels so much longer. Better pacing would have improved it immeasurably.

Now here’s the good news. When the film actually focuses on Holly’s grief and how she works through it, in the process finally getting to know herself as a person in her own right, it’s fairly compelling. Holly goes through a period of depression, cutting herself off from her friends and family, planning to become a modern-day Miss Havisham. She’s pulled out of this in time for the first of Gerry’s messages and then is occupied performing the various tasks he sets her to in his letters. During one of these tasks, she realizes suddenly that even though she hasn’t moved on, everyone else has started to. Denise is about to get married, Sharon is going to have a baby, and now Holly isn’t the center of attention anymore and she finds this fact not a little disconcerting. Refreshingly, her friends actually call her out on this. The scenes between the friends are the best because they feel the most genuine and natural.

As for the rest, there’s a subplot involving Holly’s budding friendship with Daniel (Harry Connick, Jr.), who works for her mother (Kathy Bates), that’s good in that it runs contrary to convention, but it also seems somewhat superfluous. The central performance by Swank is fine and her chemistry with her various leading men is passable if occasionally a little forced. All things considered, it isn’t really a bad movie, it just isn’t an especially good one.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Review: The Savages (2007)

* * * 1/2

Director: Tamara Jenkins
Starring: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Lately every film that centers on a family seems to center on a quirky family, which is perhaps what makes The Savages so refreshing. Siblings John (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) Savage aren’t adorably eccentric, but compellingly ordinary people dealing with an unpleasant but inevitable fact of life: someday your parents will get old and you will have to take care of them. It can be a difficult film to watch at times, but it’s entirely worth it.

In their own ways both John and Wendy exist in a state of arrested development. John is a theatre professor whose girlfriend is about to be deported to Poland. They’ve been dating for three years but he won’t marry her, arguing that since her job might require her to move across the country anyway, then she might as well be in Poland (Wendy’s succinct response? “You’re an idiot”). Wendy is a temp and unproduced play write carrying on an affair with a married man. Neither has much of a relationship with their father (Philip Bosco), who lives in Arizona with his girlfriend. When the girlfriend dies, it falls on John and Wendy to care for their father, who has started showing signs of dementia.

As siblings will tend to do, John and Wendy spend a lot of time fighting – fighting over who will take care of their father and when, what home to put him in, and Wendy’s belief that John has no confidence in her abilities as a writer. In one of the film’s most emotionally intense scenes, they fight about their father as if he’s not sitting there with them and their father slowly reaches up to turn down his hearing aide and pulls his hood over his head as if to block them out – he might not be “there” all the time, but he is still there.

Hoffman renders a great performance, but when it comes down to it, this is Linney’s movie and her performance is a thing of solid, understated beauty. At 39, Wendy is still waiting for her life to start, to get a break in her career, to have a “real” relationship. She accuses her boyfriend of being in the midst of a mid-life crisis and he scoffs at her calling herself the “younger woman,” insisting that she’s a little old to be laying claim to that moniker. Wendy is projecting, telling him that he’s in crisis because, like her brother, she is having a crisis. There’s a reason why neither of the younger Savages is in a solid relationship and there’s a reason why neither has kids, and it has to do with the much implied trauma inflicted on them by their parents when they were children. At the end of the film, when it seems as though John and Wendy have finally come to terms with the past, their lives finally begin in earnest.

With The Savages writer/director Tamara Jenkins delivers something which is itself savage in its honesty. This is an unflinching story that offers no easy answers and doesn’t try to make the situation look prettier than it is. Like I said, it can be a difficult movie to watch (even the moments of comedy are of the “so mortifying it’s funny” variety), but it’s definitely a movie worth seeing.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Review: Into The Wild (2007)

* * * *

Director: Sean Penn
Starring: Emile Hirsh, Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener

Into The Wild is a thoughtful and thrilling movie about one young man’s desire to simplify his life by returning to nature. On the surface it looks like a fairly straight-forward story, but to see it is to experience something of incredible depth and meaning. Beautiful and tragic, this is an absolutely mesmerizing film.

The story centers on Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsh), who decides after graduating from University that he’s going to pursue a simpler way of life. He cleans out his savings account, giving most of the money away to charity, destroys his I.D.s, and disappears on an odyssey through the United States, dreaming of a great adventure in Alaska where he can finally be on his own and live off the land. He encounters a number of people during his travels, making connections that are both fleeting and lasting. Running parallel to his story is the story related by his sister (Jena Malone), which details the way the family is affected by Christopher’s disavowal of them and his desire to escape.

Director Sean Penn uses a variety of different methods in telling the story. Some scenes are used to call attention to the film itself, employing techniques such as a split screen to push the audience away and out of the story. Other scenes draw the audience right in, the composition of shots so intimate that we seem more like casual observers intruding on the action. There are also scenes which fill in the blanks of the McCandless’ family’s history which are filmed and filtered as if they’re old home movies. The variety of storytelling techniques helps to highlight the duality inherent in the story itself.

We’re obviously meant to feel sympathetic towards Christopher and perhaps even admire him for his desire to get back to basics. He’s disgusted by the materialism and greed that he sees all around him – one section finds him in Los Angeles and he seems absolutely allergic to the pace and temper of the city – and wants simply to get away from it, to be by himself and do things for himself. However, as admirable as his ideals are, the film is also critical of the way he pursues his dream of living on his own and off the land. His family is far from perfect, and his childhood is portrayed as having been downright toxic, but by simply disappearing and making sure that it’s impossible for his family to find him, Christopher does irreparable damage, leaving his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) completely broken. He’s left a void in the family, just as he leaves a void in the lives of the people with whom he briefly comes into contact. On the verge of death, he realizes that he’s left a void in himself, too: “Happiness is only real when shared,” he writes. Furthermore, while the film obviously appreciates Christopher’s enthusiasm to experience life and nature, it is also critical of how unprepared he is when it comes to bringing his dream to fruition. He’s read books and he’s taken notes, but in and of themselves, that’s not enough to prepare him for the realities of living on his own in the wilderness.

The performance by Emile Hirsh is really excellent and completely enthralling. In lesser hands, Christopher might seem self-centered and maybe even foolish, but instead he seems like a decent guy who genuinely cares for the people he crosses paths with but feels that he can’t be tied down by them. You can see why people care for Christopher and why his loss is something felt deeply – there’s just something very special about him and something very special about his story.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Book vs. Film: An American Tragedy vs. A Place In The Sun

The Plot: A lower class young man is taken under the wing of his rich uncle and is given a job at his uncle's factory. He begins a relationship with one of his co-workers but also, and against all odds, gains the affection of a debutante who is a friend of his wealthy relatives. As his relationship with the debutante begins, and his own social standing begins to rise, his girlfriend learns that she's pregnant and threatens to bring scandal upon him unless he marries her. In a panic, he plots to kill her but at the last moment has a change of heart... or so he claims. The girlfriend dies regardless and his failure to cover his tracks leads to his arrest and the exposure of the dark side of social climbing and class politics.

Primary Differences Between Book and Film:
The film tells an abridged version of the book’s story;
The character names are changed: Clyde becomes George, Sondra becomes Angela, and Roberta becomes Alice;
The setting is moved from the 1920s to the 1950s.

For The Book: The film only tells about 2/3rds of the book’s story, skipping over Clyde/George’s impoverished childhood, the circumstances of which help to add dimension to his desire to climb the social ladder. Clyde is a more morally dubious character than George – when he arrives at the home of his relatives it’s after a couple of years on the lam, having fled his hometown after being involved in a hit and run. His relationships with Sondra/Angela and Roberta/Alice are given greater psychological depth in light of his previous bad experiences with women.

For The Film: Let’s start with the obvious – Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. These are two of the most stunningly beautiful actors ever to grace the screen and are so wonderful together that the characters from the book naturally pale in comparison. The relationship itself is also more compelling in the film because it’s a love story, whereas in the book the relationship is really more of a Pygmalion-like scheme on Sondra’s part to prove to Clyde’s cousin that she can make Clyde fit for high society. The love story aspect also helps to maintain the emotional engagement of the audience in the story and gives the film’s ending an added punch, whereas in the book Sondra basically abandons Clyde following his arrest and the story really runs out of steam by the time it gets to the end.

Winner: Film. The book is good and makes for an interesting companion piece to The Great Gatsby, which was also released in 1925 and explores some similar themes; however, the story told by the film is more effective and tightly focused and maintains the narrative tension throughout, whereas the book is great in the build up, but weak in the follow through and only limps to its conclusion.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Breakfast With Scot (2007)

* *

Director: Laurie Lynd
Starring: Thomas Cavanaugh, Noah Bernet, Ben Shenkman

Breakfast With Scot is a film that can perhaps best be described as “cute” – at least in parts. It’s neither very good nor very bad, original only in the fact that its main characters are gay. The lead performance by Thomas Cavanagh is good, displaying more layers than this thin story deserves.

Eric McNally (Cavanagh) is a former Maple Leaf turned sports caster who has been in a relationship with Sam (Ben Shenkman) for four years but is still very much in the closet. When Sam’s brother Billy’s (Colin Cunningham) ex-girlfriend dies of a drug overdose, guardianship of her son, Scot (Noah Bernett), is left to Billy who is currently M.I.A. Until Billy is found and brought back to Toronto, Sam and Eric are charged with looking after the boy. Much to Eric’s horror, Scot is what can best be described as “swishy.” He has a feather boa, he loves musicals, he likes to wear his mother’s makeup, and he’s overtly affectionate, leading Sam to introduce him to a hierarchy of gestures from handshake to kissing, trying to explain to him why it’s perhaps best if he doesn’t kiss his male friends goodbye at school.

The story’s main concern is with Eric’s own internalized homophobia. He’s been in the closet his entire life and to be seen with this flamboyant kid makes him deeply uncomfortable. He has very traditional ideas about what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour and in a roundabout way tries to convince Scot that he ought to start acting like a “boy.” Scot mentions to him that everyone thinks he’s gay and asks Eric how he kept people from thinking that about him. “I didn’t have to do anything; I played hockey,” Eric states, oblivious to the fact that while he was playing his nickname was “Erica” and everyone was aware of his preferences anyway. Scot begins playing hockey himself, which both bonds him to Eric and serves to push them further apart.

Breakfast with Scot is a really routine movie, though I suppose it should get points for centering on a gay couple – albeit one that rarely seems like an actual couple. There’s very little affection between the two, even when they’re alone together, save for a brief peck on the lips at the end. The plot in which they find themselves is unimaginative, limping from plot point to plot point before coming to its inevitable conclusion. You’ve probably seen this movie, under one title or another, at least once before.

For the most part I found the film inoffensively bland, but there is one thing that particularly bothered me: the character of Billy. I don’t know whether it was the choice of director Laurie Lynd or of Colin Cunningham, but Billy is overtly twitchy, fast talking, and unreliable – coded fairly openly as a drug addict. No one in the film comments on this, especially when Billy shows up to claim Scot. The main complaint from Sam and Eric is that Billy is more interested in the insurance money he’ll get as Scot’s guardian and the fact that he’s already engaged to another woman. Personally, I’d be a little more concerned that Billy would take Scot back to Brazil and sell him for coke.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Review: Persepolis (2007)

* * * *

Director: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis is a moving and beautifully rendered biography set against a backdrop of great social, political and cultural upheaval. It’s a narratively intricate film, setting as it does a coming-of-age story against a story of war and revolution, but all the elements are woven together seamlessly in this really one of a kind movie.

Marjane (Chiara Mastroianni) is a young Iranian who comes of age as the Shah is overthrown and experiences first-hand the ensuing war with Iraq and the establishment of a new political and religious order. Given what happens later, life under the Shah is a period of relative social freedom which disintegrates once Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime is installed, a regime that, amongst many other oppressive policies, insists that women cover themselves with veils – though, as the film points out time and again, the men can dress however they want, even in Western fashions. Marjane fights against the new social rules; she comes from a family of political subversives who break the rules in ways both subtle, such as attending secret parties, and more overt, such as the political activities of her uncle, Anouch (Francois Jerosme), who is imprisoned under the Shah, released when he’s overthrown, and then returned to prison and executed by the new regime. Not wanting Marjane to succumb to the same fate as Anouch, her parents arrange for her to go away to Austria, where she’ll stay with friends of the family while attending a French school. Her living arrangements quickly fall through and she spends the next few years bouncing around from place to place and struggling to fit in. She becomes friends with a group of Punks who are really just rich kids whose biggest problems amount to the fact that they “have to” fly to Brazil or some other exotic locale for Christmas with the family. She eventually becomes disillusioned with them and their insistence that life is meaningless; she falls in and out of love twice and is disillusioned in that, too, and decides that it’s time to go home, where once again she struggles to find her place in the world.

The story that Persepolis relates, which is adapted from four graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, is very complex and I’ve really only touched on all that it explores. The story is alternately comedic and tragic, melancholy and joyful as it explores a nation’s incredible upheaval, and Marjane’s continuing love for what her country means to her. This is really an epic story – the sequences which show the Iran-Iraq war are especially well-done – and animation is perhaps the only medium that could have done it justice, blending as it does brutal reality with fantasy and memory. The animation is beautiful, fully complementing the spirit of the tale being related.

It’s amazing to think – and I say this from the perspective of a Westerner who either wasn’t alive or wasn’t old enough to be politically conscious when much of this story takes place – that Iran in the 1970s was a fairly “Westernized” nation, and more amazing to think how quickly and completely the social aspect of the nation changed. In this respect, I think this is a movie that all women should see because it focuses on how tenuous women’s rights can be when the religious far right gains complete control of political and social policies.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Review: Southland Tales (2007)


Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake

Dear Richard Kelly,

Just what the fuck was that?

Southland Tales is an absolute mess of a movie based in part on the Book of Revelation and having to do with terrorist attacks, war in the Middle East, various governmental and non-governmental factions spying on and plotting against each other, oil shortage and the development of an alternate source of fuel which causes a rift in the fourth dimension which in turn causes Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) and Rolland Taverner (Sean William Scott) to develop doubles... and some other stuff. It’s kind of hard to say what, exactly, it’s about because it is so unfocused, so muddled and convoluted that any real thread of a story is buried deep, deep within this pretentious and self-indulgent film.

Throughout the film writer/director Kelly mixes elements of science fiction, musical and what he apparently believes to be satire. These satirical inclinations are most obvious through the prevalence of Saturday Night Live and MadTV alumni in the cast, and through the character of Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star, mistress of Boxer, and collaborator with the Neo-Marxists who are working to use Boxer, the son-in-law of the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, to subvert the government. When not helping to set Boxer up, Krysta is busy turning herself into a product by recording her own album (which includes the single “Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime”) and creating her own talk show and energy drink. A lot of the wink-nudge moments in the film come courtesy of her, but even though I don’t think these elements really work, this isn’t a criticism of Gellar herself who is good here and of all the actors seems to have the best grasp of her character. Ultimately, the problem with the film’s aspiration towards satire is that for satire to be effective, it must be clever and this film is not. The comedy in the film is so easy, so lacking in bite that it misses the satirical mark and lands firmly in the realm of parody. In the tradition of films like Epic Movie and Superhero Movie, this might as well have been called David Lynch Movie.

I’m a big fan of Kelly’s previous film Donnie Darko and a firm believer that there are few things more rewarding than a challenging film, but Southland Tales is inaccessible to the point of being ridiculous and to make matters worse, it’s also kind of pointless. Even as I was beginning to lose myself in the film, I felt that there must be some ideas being expressed regarding governmental control, suspension of basic freedoms and Apocalyptic religious preaching, but the more I thought about the film afterwards, the more suspicious I became about its structure. Words and phrases like “Patriot Act” and “civil liberties” are thrown out frequently to make it seem as if the film is actually about something, but the twisting, turning, overlapping plot is just a means of disguising the fact that the film doesn’t really have anything to say. If Kelly’s point is that the Patriot Act is bad and runs contrary to the tenets of democracy, then my response is: no shit. There’s no there there in Southland Tales; it’s just a mish-mash of quirky characters and peculiar moments that add up to nothing.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Review: Cloverfield (2008)

* * * *

Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, T.J. Miller

Cloverfield is an exceptionally effective film, perfectly crafted to achieve its goals. Filmed from the perspective of a handheld camera, the story unfolds with an urgency and intimacy that can’t fail to draw the viewer in as the characters attempt to flee a monster whose sudden appearance in Manhattan plunges the city into chaos.

The story is relatively straight-forward: Jason (Mike Vogel) and Lily (Jessica Lucas) are throwing a going away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is leaving in the morning to take a job in Japan. The evening is being documented by Hud (T.J. Miller), who spends most of the night trying to get closer to Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). During the party, Rob gets into a fight with Beth (Odette Yustman), with whom he’d slept a few weeks earlier. Beth storms out and shortly afterwards something strange happens and it quickly becomes apparent that the city is under siege. No one knows for sure what’s going on – though Hud is certain that he’s seen something - but everyone knows that they have to get out of the city. Despite the danger, Rob is determined to head into the thick of things and find Beth, who is trapped in her apartment.

For obvious reasons, this is a film that strikes a chord. It plays on the greatest of our fears, that of being caught unaware by something we don’t understand and launched into turmoil. It’s a monster movie but, obviously, it’s also a movie about terrorism that works to evoke the feelings and intensity of 9/11. By telling the story from the perspective of a handheld camera the film removes the distance that exists between the audience and the action, putting us right in the middle where we don’t always know what’s going on and we rarely get a clear glimpse of what we’re supposed to be afraid of. Intercut with the scenes of terror are scenes from weeks before, when Rob and Beth spent the day together at Coney Island. These moments add incredible poignancy to the story as a whole, highlighting the normalcy with which their lives had passed before and how quickly everything has fallen apart. The final words of the film are devastating given what we have just seen happen.

The greatest strength of the film is the way that it frames the action. It opens with a title card stating that the tape was recovered from the area formerly known as Central Park, which serves to set the film up as a document of the type that would likely be uncovered after an actual disaster in these times when everything is recorded for posterity (although how the tape survives at all is something of a mystery). The way that the story is constructed is great – although it does leave the characters somewhat in the lurch, robbing them of the opportunity to be fleshed out and became three-dimensional beings. We care about them to a certain degree but, ultimately, they’re just the faces of panic rather than individuals in their own right. When the film was over, I was hard pressed to think of any really distinctive personality traits which separated Rob from Jason or Beth from Lily. But despite the cardboard nature of the characters, the film itself is easy to engage with and the last third, especially, will leave you stunned.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Review: Far From Heaven (2002)

* * * *

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert, Dennis Quaid

Todd Haynes is a filmmaker I’ve been aware of for a while now but until recently I’d never actually seen any of his films. I’d been meaning to see Far From Heaven for years but for some reason or another never got around to it. Recently seeing I’m Not There inspired me to seek out Haynes’ previous effort and I’m so glad I did, otherwise I’d have really missed out.

Inspired by the Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s, the film stars Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker, a housewife whose life seems picture perfect from the outside. She and her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), appear to be the model couple but even before Cathy discovers that Frank is leading a secret life, she knows that there’s something a little off about their relationship. When she and her girlfriends sit around the kitchen table discussing the frequency of their sex lives, she knows that her marriage is very different from those of other women, women whose husbands aren’t always working late and always too tired. She has no idea what, exactly, is wrong in her marriage until she sees Frank with another man and he confesses to having “a problem.” While he’s seeking therapy, Cathy develops a friendship with Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), which quickly becomes the talk of the town due to the fact of Raymond being black.

The way that the film deals with issues of race is very compelling, especially when combined with its treatment of homosexuality. Both Cathy and Frank are horrified by Frank’s secret life, but his homosexuality is seen as something that he can “recover” from and is further seen as something which can be kept a secret – if people saw Frank and another man together on the street, they wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the two were lovers. Cathy’s relationship with Raymond, however, is something that people can see and Cathy being seen with Raymond is something that people talk about, something which has consequences for Cathy and her family in a social sense. The story may take place in the “progressive North,” but that doesn’t mean that racism isn’t any less socialized into people than it is in any other place.

The film gets a lot of things really right. The color pallet of the costumes, especially, is very evocative of films made in Hollywood in the 1950s with their rich, bright colors. Anyone familiar with 50s melodrama, particularly the films of Douglas Sirk, will recognize many of the themes and tropes of the genre in this film, as well as the more subtle language of coding. For example, while Frank is openly acknowledged by the film as being gay, there’s another character who appears briefly in one scene who is openly coded as being gay through his dress, mannerisms and speech patterns (you’ll know him the second you see him).

In its dealings with issues of race, Far From Heaven made me think of another relatively recent film: Pleasantville. While Pleasantville is heavy with irony, emphasizing the ways that the protagonists and the film itself are aware of and acknowledging the ways that values have changed since the 1950s, Far From Heaven approaches the subject in a way that is entirely sincere, reflecting the values and mores of the 1950s as if it was actually made in 1957, and not just set in 1957. This makes for really effective storytelling because it keeps the film from being preachy or winky and forces one to reflect on the ways that subtle and more overt forms of racism are still socialized into us today.

This is an incredibly thoughtful and well-made movie. The performance rendered by Julianne Moore, playing a woman who seems destined by her time and place to always be somehow unfulfilled, is excellent, perhaps one of the most unsung performances of the last decade. I’m only sorry it took me so long to finally see it.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Review: I'm Not There (2007)

* * * 1/2

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw

This is how it’s done. Rather than forcing a narrative through-line on someone’s life, Todd Haynes’ fractured, jig-saw puzzle of a movie instead breaks the narrative apart and works to distil the essence of its subject, exploring the various personas of the man commonly known as Bob Dylan. Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Ben Wishaw are all on hand, each embodying a different facet of the man and the myth.

The six actors play six different characters (seven, depending on how you gage it): Bale is Jack Rollins, folk protest singer who eventually becomes Father John, the preacher; Ledger is Robbie, an actor who portrays Jack in a film; Franklin is Woody Guthrie, a young musician trying to reconcile those who have influenced him with the time in which he himself is creating; Blanchett is Jude Quinn, a self-consciously quirky star; Gere is Billy the outlaw; and Wishaw is Arthur, who is in the process of being interviewed. These different stories weave in and out of each other, comment on each other and, in some respects, work against each other to highlight the ways that "Bob Dylan" the public figure is ever changing, a series of different personas that have been given the opportunity to take center stage. Not all of these stories are successful - for me, the Billy sections were a little rambling and unfocused and I consistently felt my mind wandering. The film would have worked better, I think, if they’d cut this particular story out entirely.

However, even though I didn’t particularly care for his section of the film, Gere himself is quite good in the role. Billy is the most understated and unaffected of all the central characters, perhaps because he’s the only one who isn’t a direct evocation of Dylan himself but of a figure who inspired him. All of the actors playing facets of Dylan are very good, though Wishaw isn't given the opportunity to show much range in his portrayal. Everyone talks about the performance by Blanchett, and it must be admitted that something magical happens when she appears on screen, perfectly embodying the Dylan of Don’t Look Back, that maddening, self-constructed prophet and eccentric. This section of the film also features Bruce Greenwood as a British reporter who becomes Jude Quinn’s antagonist, seeing through his bullshit and challenging him on it. Greenwood is really great, matching Blanchett blow for blow, and also appears in the Billy sections as Pat Garrett, the man who (supposedly) killed Billy the Kid.

As far as a plot goes, there isn’t really that much to say. It’s an episodic film focusing on bits and pieces of public, private and musical life that are, obviously, reminiscent of or inspired by Dylan’s own life. These moments unfold in different ways, with the Robbie and Jack/John sections being the most straightforwardly told and the Jude, Woody and Billy stories playing out in a more dream-like fashion, surrealist in their construction, while Arthur acts as a connecting figure, a sort of Greek chorus waxing poetic as he’s being interviewed. The music, too, is a way of connecting the stories with the songs not only commenting on what’s going on, but also being used to segue from one story to another.

This is a really inspired film and, like La Vie En Rose, a welcome change of pace from the by the book musical biographies that have come out in the last few years.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Review: Wall-E (2008)

* * * *

Director: Andrew Stanton

Wall-E is a film of incredible ambition and intelligence, executed in a way that is absolutely flawless. With its lovable protagonist, strong message, admirably well-constructed story, and beautiful animation, this is a film that is destined to become an instant classic.

Wall-E takes place 700 years in the future, where mankind has spent the last several centuries waiting for waste disposal robots to make earth inhabitable again. Amid skyscrapers of garbage and the last remnants of civilization, only one of these robots has remained functional and continues to do his work. This, of course, is the titular Wall-E, who spends his days gathering trash and compacting it into little cubes, and also scavenging for items of interest (if, in fact, robots can be “interested” in something). One day something new arrives in Wall-E’s lonely world – a space craft which soon departs but leaves behind Eve, a drone sent to search for signs of organic life. Wall-E is instantly smitten and soon he’s showing Eve his collection, which includes a plant he finds growing inside an old refrigerator. The plant is the key to the story, signalling as it does that earth is once again able to sustain life and that the 700 year cruise (originally slated to last a mere 5 years) can finally come to its conclusion… if, of course, the robots in control of the ship can be overthrown.

I should state at the outset that I’m not someone who gravitates naturally to animated films. This isn’t to say that I have anything against animation, it’s just that as an adult I’ve rarely felt myself compelled to seek out animated movies. Even Pixar’s films, which are decidedly impressive and well-made, rarely draw me into the theatre (of all their films the only ones I’ve seen aside from this are Toy Story, Monster’s Inc. and Finding Nemo). That being said, I was delighted by the breadth and scope of this particular film. This is a story that really has a lot to say about the way we live right now and the direction our society is heading, and it does so in a way that’s pointed and intelligent. Our culture is superficial and disposable – look at the things that surround Wall-E on earth: he rolls over an expanse of garbage and up to an abandoned superstore that stretches as far as the eye can see; he covets items such as sporks (but can’t decide whether to include them in his collection of spoons or his collection of forks) and an old videotape of Hello Dolly! (of all movies why Hello Dolly!? Does anyone ever think of this movie anymore? – I think that’s the point; we’re a culture of fads, of loving something one minute and abandoning it the next in favour of something else).

The film is also critical of mankind’s dependence on machines to make life easier. After generations aboard the cruise liner, people have become enormous, getting around aboard their hover chairs, speaking to each other via screens directly in front of their faces – even when the person to whom they’re speaking is cruising along right beside them. When someone falls out of his hover chair, he lies on the ground, helpless like a turtle on its back, waiting for a robot to come along and put him back where he belongs.

There’s far too much going on in Wall-E for me to mention every thing I enjoyed about it, but I did want to mention just one more thing: the absolutely awesome evocation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which brings the film to a whole other level of genius.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Let's All Hate Toronto (2007)

* * *

Director: Albert Nerenberg, Rob Spence

Let’s All Hate Toronto is a tongue-in-cheek documentary which examines a peculiar Canadian pastime: Toronto bashing. However, what it reveals goes much deeper than the city itself to tell us something about the national community of Canada, something which I believe can be applied to the international community as well. Don’t let the silly tone fool you. This is a movie that really does have something to say.

I’ve probably seen Let’s All Hate Toronto about half a dozen times, mostly because I kept catching it on TV and coming in just after the beginning, thereby missing the explanation as to why “Mr. Toronto” has an eye patch. My final viewing revealed that there is, in fact, no explanation, but the film is enjoyable enough to have made it worth watching so many times anyway.

The film follows the self-appointed Mr. Toronto as he goes on a kind of goodwill tour across Canada to find out why Canadians, by and large, seem to have an inherent dislike for his city and to persuade them to reconsider their positions. The film examines many of the frequent criticisms lobbed at Toronto so that, if you’re a Canadian viewer, you’ll be hard pressed not to find something to relate to. What it basically comes down to, the film argues, is that the dislike Canadians feel for Toronto has a lot to do with the fact that it’s the most “American” city in Canada, and that it’s the “big dog” in terms of Canadian cities. However, commentators in the film point out that any large city in any nation is likely to be resented on some level by people in the smaller neighbouring cities just because it’s the bigger city. I can attest to this as someone from Vancouver Island – go pretty much anywhere on the island and asks someone’s opinion of Vancouver and you’ll find that it’s less than favourable, not for any real reason, just because that’s how it is. Bring up the idea of a bridge connecting Vancouver to the island and you’re more than likely to end up with a tirade about why that idea is total bull even though many people on the island find BC Ferries a frequent source of frustration and anger.

The point is, as a community you want to knock a bigger (and therefore “better”) community down a peg. This is true not only of communities that surround big cities, but of the national community towards a country’s biggest city, and the international community towards the nation seen as being the leader. Look at the criticisms aimed at Toronto, and you’ll see that they’re largely the same as those aimed at the United States in international discourse. Many of the issues examined in the film aren’t really specific to Toronto itself (with the exception of the criticism that the Leafs suck) and actually tend to tell us more about those who are doing the criticising than what is being criticized.

However, for all its focus on the negative – regardless of the light hearted way in which those negatives are related – the film ends on a distinctly positive and uplifting note. Mr. Toronto has been forced to face some hard truths about the city he loves so dearly, but he’s also exposed the generally ridiculous nature of Toronto bashing, and he’s rewarded with hugs from non-Torontonians. Hugs can’t heal all wounds, of course, but it’s a pretty good start as this good-natured, funny and surprisingly touching documentary shows.