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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Grace


* * *

Director: Paul Solet
Starring: Jordan Ladd, Samantha Ferris, Gabrielle Rose

Ah, the joys of motherhood when your baby is undead and wants to gorge herself on your blood. Such is the situation that Maddy (Jordan Ladd) finds herself in in Paul Solet’s Grace, a film about the horrors of maternity, veganism, and holistic medicine. It’s gory and terrifying to be sure, but when the bloodletting is over, just what was the point of all that?

The film begins with an ordinary picture of horror: dinner with the in-laws. Michael (Steven Park) and Maddy quietly and politely endure the derision of his mother, Vivian (Gabrielle Rose), who dislikes the vegan meal that Maddy has prepared specifically, and dislikes Maddy as a person in general. She clearly thinks Maddy is an idiot and worries for the wellbeing of the child that Maddy is currently carrying, especially when she learns that Maddy plans to give birth with the aid of a midwife rather than go to a hospital. Michael is supportive of Maddy’s decision, but then he also doesn’t know that Patricia (Samantha Ferris), the mid-wife she’s chosen, is also her ex-lover.

The story dispatches with Michael quickly, killing him in a car accident that also kills the baby. Maddy decides to carry it to term anyway, giving birth to a dead baby who miraculously comes back to life. But there’s something very wrong with the baby, named Grace, who attracts scores of flies, never eats, and seems to crave blood. Maddy tries to satiate Grace’s appetite by buying raw meat and draining the blood into a bottle, but it’s Maddy’s blood that Grace wants, and Maddy eventually submits to this torture. Meanwhile, Vivian, who is sexually obsessed with the idea of motherhood, begins making plans to get Grace for herself and enlists Dr. Sohn (Malcolm Stewart) to help her prove that Maddy is unfit.

I have to confess that I don’t entirely know what to make of this film. It seems to be, amongst other things, an indictment of “mommy culture.” Certainly it is critical of Vivian’s “don’t cut the cord” style of parenting and her need to maintain her status as a mother – in a culture that values youth (and the implicit fertility thereof) above all else, to be a woman who can no longer give birth is to be irrelevant – but what about Maddy? Vivian smothers and dominates while Maddy surrenders, allowing herself to be devoured by her child. Both women have embraced their roles as mothers to unhealthy extremes. The first shot of the film is of Maddy and Michael having sex. She seems disengaged from the act but later (and alone) seems rapt at the idea that they might have conceived. She’s similarly ambivalent about her past relationship with Patricia, which suggests that her sexuality – not unlike that of her mother-in-law – is tied exclusively to the concept of motherhood. Maddy and Vivian are women who exist solely to be mothers, which the film sees as dangerous.

As for how it's made, it has a low budget look and the acting is sometimes suspect, but for the most part it's quite solidly made. It's fairly gory but at least there's a purpose to the gore, even if (as I've said) I'm not 100% sure what point the film is trying to make. I'm willing to concede that the murkiness of the film's message might be a failure of mine as a viewer, and I'm more than willing to give the film credit for having a brain behind it rather than being just an assembly line of mindless horrors. I also appreciate that it's free of the kind of aggressive misogyny so often found in horror movies. I can't imagine that I'll watch it again since I'm not big on gore, but I'm glad that I saw it at least once.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Book vs Film: Perfume vs. Perfume



Plot: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man completely lacking in humanity but possessing a heightened sense of smell, wreaks havoc on the world around him as he endeavors to capture the very essence of human beings. Grenouille is basically a vampire who thirsts after scents rather than blood and in attempting to capture various scents to create one perfect, beautiful scent, he leaves a trail of bodies behind him.

Primary Differences Between Book and Film: Plotwise, the differences between the two are minimal and largely the result of the film having to compress the timeline. A small subplot involving Grenouille's experience as a scientific oddity is cut completely and not particularly missed. In terms of characterization, the character of Grenouille is fairly significantly changed. In the book Grenouille is a very conniving character, very calculating and overtly aware of the ways in which he's manipulating people. The film version of Grenouille seems somewhat less aware of how his actions affect those around him and though he's not innocent in a general sense, he seems innocent in the sense that he doesn't seem to understand the full impact of his actions because he doesn't understand what it means to be human.

For The Book: The story is very much an interior one, relying very heavily on the psychological experience derived from the sense of smell. Some of the book's most memorable passages involve breaking down and describing the combination of scents that intoxicate and drive Grenouille, which really can't be translated to film. Further, the book gets deep, deep into Grenouille's head and since he's a character of few spoken words, that means that the film version is going to seem a little shallow in comparison.

For The Film: It sounds impossible, but director Tom Tykwer is able to translate Grenouille's aromatic experiences into a completely visual tableau. This is an expertly adapted film that truly captures the spirit of the source work and runs with it, creating a film that is entirely enthralling. Ben Wishaw stars as Grenouille and renders a surprisingly sympathetic performance, and there are nice supporting performances from Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman.

Winner: Film. I like the book a lot and highly recommend it, but the film absolutely blew me away. For a story about a vile creature committing a series of horrible acts, it's amazing how beautiful the film is. Major kudos to cinematographer Frank Griebe for his wonderful work. The book is good, but the film is a masterpiece.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)


* * * 1/2

Director: Rupert Julian
Starring: Loney Chaney, Mary Philbin

In spite of the fact that films made today are more permissive when it comes to violence and sex, silent horror films have an impact that few films made after can match. The unromanticized monsters of films like Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera are effective figures that seem to have been plucked right out of a nightmare and onto the screen and remain frightening eight decades later. Though it sometimes veers a little too far into melodrama, Rupert Julian's version of Gaston Leroux's novel is intense enough to make you forget every other version of the story.

The story of The Phantom of the Opera, in case you didn’t know, is this: beneath the Paris opera house a disfigured composer, known to all as The Phantom (Lon Chaney), lives and nurses an obsession with the young singer Christine Daae (Mary Philbin). In order to help his beloved achieve fame and success, he forces the opera’s star Carlotta (Mary Fabian) off the stage through a campaign of terror that includes sending the chandelier crashing down onto the audience. With Christine’s status as a star secured, it is time for her to meet her mysterious mentor. After opening a secret passage in her dressing room, she descends with The Phantom deep underground to his lair, realizing with each step what a dangerous error in judgment she’s made. The Phantom is not the romantic hero of her fantasies, but a clearly unhinged man who tells her she must never attempt to remove his mask.

Any guesses as to how long it takes her to unmask him? Believe me, it isn’t long and what she finds isn’t the semi-scarred face of Gerard Butler as in the 2004 musical film version, but a truly horrific visage designed by Chaney, whose motto when choosing characters was, apparently, the more disfigured and grotesque, the better. Seeing his skull-like face, Christine shrinks away from him but there’s no escape: The Phantom has traps set everywhere and no one can navigate them safely but him. This of course won’t stop Christine’s lover Raoul (Norman Kerry) from trying, which leads to the dramatic and exciting finale.

Chaney is commonly known as "the man of a thousand faces," a moniker which does him a slight disservice because it draws all the attention to his makeup. The makeup is, of course, wonderfully grotesque, but his isn't a performance built on makeup alone. His Phantom is a monster, yes, but one who has suffered wounds of his own, who inflicts pain on others because he is himself so intensely vulnerable. In his twisted way he does love Christine and covets her both for her beauty and for what that beauty represents: the key to being adored by others. The Phantom is a gifted composer but because of his face he can never stand before an audience to receive applause. He lives vicariously through Christine and accepts her triumph as a triumph of his own. The Phantom is a fascinating character, a frightening character, but above all, a character to be pitied and Chaney's performance brings all of those elements together in a wonderful, intriguing way.

Aside from Chaney’s performance, I think what makes this version of the story so much more effective than others is the fact that it’s silent. There’s a moody, nightmarish quality to the film that draws you in almost against your will. The production values of later versions are more impressive – the chandelier sequence and the masked ball of the 2004 musical version are certainly stylish and memorable, albeit in a film that is completely soulless – but they are unable to capture the darkly magical quality of this one. Everything just seems so sinister in this version and as the story gathers steam, it becomes outright horrific. From the point when The Phantom is unmasked onward (“Feast your eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!”), the film is absolutely riveting and the final act, as The Phantom is chased through his lair and then the streets of Paris, is pitch perfect. Although the film starts a bit slow, it ends up being a very satisfying viewing experience.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Review: Where The Wild Things Are (2009)


* * *

Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Max Records

Like E.T. before it, Where The Wild Things Are is more a film about children than for them. It is occasionally dark and intense as it attempts to dramatize the protagonist’s feelings about the changing world around him, which he is not quite old enough to really articulate. The world created in the film is beautiful, though it occasionally seems as if director Spike Jonze doesn’t know quite what to do with it and gets so caught up in creating an atmosphere of child-like wonder that he forgets to give the film shape.

The film is adapted from the story of the same name by Maurice Sendak which, at only ten sentences, requires some padding on the part of Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers. It begins and ends with the “real” life of young Max (Max Records), a rowdy kid struggling to deal with the changes taking place all around him. His parents are divorced, his mom (Catherine Keener) has a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), his sister doesn’t have time for him and would rather be with her friends, and his teacher informs his class that one day the sun will die, killing everything else. It’s a heavy time and Max doesn’t understand how or why everything is changing nor does he possess the language to express his feelings about it. He acts out physically, trashing his sister’s room after her friends destroy the igloo he’s made, and he throws a tantrum which culminates in biting his mother when her boyfriend comes over for dinner. Clad in his wolf costume, he runs away from home.

After boarding a boat, he travels across a vast sea to an island, which he finds is inhabited by various monsters, each with distinct looks and personalities. There’s Carol (James Gandolfini), who is essentially the “Max” of the monsters, Judith (Catherine O’Hara), Ira (Forrest Whitaker), Alexander (Paul Dano), Douglas (Chris Cooper), KW (Lauren Ambrose), and the mysterious silent Bull. Max is made King of the wild things and through the course of various episodes with them, learns lessons that will inspire him to return home to his family.

As much as I liked this movie, its weaknesses are pretty glaring. The story is thin and it tends to drag during Max’s time on the island, which is when the film should be at its most exciting. Towards the end I found myself wanting Max to hurry up and get home because I actually found that part of the story more interesting. Visually, Max’s sojourn is breathtaking – the wild things, which are people in costumes created of The Jim Henson Company with some additional special effects, look perfect and the art direction is great (I particularly liked Carol’s miniature island with the tiny wild thing figurines) – but the story just sort of wanders around until Max is ready to go home. It’s fortunate that Records is so perfect as Max – neither obnoxiously precocious nor too knowing and adult-like – because otherwise the film might have fallen apart completely. He finds just the right note between bratty and vulnerable so that we feel for Max even as we bemoan his behavior.

Where The Wild Things Are is a film that has its heart in the right place but perhaps suffers under the weight of expectation. It is an ambitious project and it's no wonder that it took so many years to bring it to the big screen, but the story doesn't really live up to the visuals. I still think it's a film worth seeing, particularly if you grew up with and loved the book, but it's not nearly as resonant as it could have been.

LAMBScore:
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Ryan & Alter Egos (2004)


Ryan: * * * 1/2

Alter Egos: * * *

Director (Ryan): Chris Landreth
Director (Alter Egos): Laurence Green

Two documentaries, one life. Ryan and Alter Egos both recount the story of Ryan Larkin, a respected and influential animator in the '60s and '70s who, by the time of his death in 2007 had lost everything. His story isn't really unusual - the genius artist who falls victim to the perils of fame and success - but these two films provide a fresh take on an old story.

Ryan is an animated documentary about Ryan Larkin, an Oscar nominated animator fallen on hard times due to drug use and alcoholism. The story of the film consists primarily of an interview of Larkin by the film’s director Chris Landreth, as well as brief appearances by Larkin’s former girlfriend Felicity Fanjoy, and Larkin’s former boss Derek Lamb. In just 13 minutes the film is able to effectively chart larkin’s rise to stardom and sharp fall as well as reveal the roots of Landreth’s interest in his plight.

Alter Egos is a live action documentary about the making of Ryan directed by Laurence Green. This film gets slightly more in depth regarding Larkin’s history and his relationship with Landreth and gives a behind the scenes look at the making of Ryan. It uses some of the same interview footage with Fanjoy and Lamb (though of course in Ryan these segments are animated), but uses interview footage of others as well in order to give us a picture of the importance of Larkin’s work in the world of animation.

Seeing the two films together is an interesting experience for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it demonstrates that while short films don’t meditate on a subject as long as feature length films, they don’t necessarily lose narrative power for being so succinct. Ryan is successful at conveying the major points of Larkin’s story, so successful in fact that most of the short’s 13 minutes get played out in Alter Egos. Landreth’s film is only a quarter the length of Green’s, but the longer film basically contains the shorter one within it, which I think shows how effectively Landreth was able to get at what is vital about Larkin’s life.

On the other hand, what Landreth leaves out is quite telling. Both films use the same interview clip of Fanjoy in which she lists the issues which may have made Larkin psychologically predisposed to drug and alcohol addiction: the abusiveness of his father, his homosexuality, and the death of his brother. In Ryan the audio is edited to omit the reference to Larkin’s sexuality, which certainly raises a few questions. It is clear from watching Alter Egos that Larkin’s sexuality and, specifically, his relationship with his mentor Norman McLaren, was an important factor in his identity as an artist. Larkin states in the film that he gave up sex sometime in his thirties but, still, just because you give up something physically doesn’t mean that the issues surrounding it cease to have an effect on you mentally. I wouldn’t want to speculate as to why Landreth left the issue out, but I do find this exclusion interesting.

Visually, Ryan is a stunning film in which the characters’ appearances are expressions of their states of mind. Larkin is shown as a fragmented person who at one point literally flies apart and other characters, including Landreth himself, are shown in various states of physical distress. It's really no wonder that Ryan won an Oscar for Best Animated Short because the look of the film is exquisite. Alter Egos is a more standard issue film, a documentary that dutifully interviews and records events but doesn't break any ground from a stylistic standpoint. It's an interesting film to view alongside Ryan, but Landreth's film - despite the issues I've already mentioned - is the superior work.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rewind Review: Gone, Baby, Gone (2007)



Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Amy Ryan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman

Two years ago today I reviewed Gone, Baby, Gone as my very first post on this blog. Since then I've reviewed approximately 350 other movies, but naturally Ben Affleck's directorial debut has retained a special place in my heart for being the first. To celebrate my second blogging anniversary I thought it would be fun to look back at the movie that started it all and examine how (or, indeed, if) my feelings about it have changed in the last two years.

Gone, Baby, Gone, based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, is a morality play disguised as a crime drama. Its ending hinges on the question of whether the right thing is what is technically right, or whether the right thing can come from something that is technically wrong. It presents a world of moral murkiness and decisions that can seem simultaneously right and wrong. For example, it's wrong of Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) to shoot an unarmed child molester and killer in the back of the head. But, on the other hand, given the horrors the dead man inflicted on others, it feels more like a visit from karma than a perversion of justice. Similarly, it is wrong of the people who took Amanda McCready to take it upon themselves to decide that her mother is unfit and then bypass the law to remove her from her mother's care. But, learning what we do about her mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), through the course of the film... you can see their point. The greatest strength of the film is that it doesn't present a simple, watered down view of right and wrong; it asks difficult questions and then forces the audience to try to answer them.

The atmosphere of the film is established immediately as the camera pans through neighborhood streets and we're sunk into a world so insular that everybody knows everybody else, if not directly than through the chain of relationships. The film's depiction of place feels real and so do the characters in it. When Pulp Fiction came out, Quentin Tarrantino was praised to the heavens for his ear for dialogue, for the way that he crafted the interactions between his characters to get to the heart of their relationships with each other. Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard didn't receive such praise, but listen to the way the characters talk to each other. Listen to the way that Dottie (Jill Quigg) assesses Angie (Michelle Monaghan) upon seeing her for the first time since high school, or to the dialogue between Patrick, Angie and Helene as they drive to where Helene hid the money she ripped off from a drug dealer. These conversations recount a shared history that just bubbles up to the surface of the film and then goes under again, offering a glimpse of the story beyond the frames of the film.

I liked this film a lot when it first came out - though "like" seems an inappropriate word to apply to something this dark - and really only had a couple of issues it. One was the use of flashbacks, which aren't quite as intrusive as I'd remembered. The other was the film's depiction of Angie, which I still find problematic. Gone, Baby, Gone is one in a series of books by Lehane, all of which I've read multiple times. One of the things I like about the books is that Angie is so kick ass, but the film version of the character is a shadow of the original and I find that extremely disappointing. To take a character that compelling and remove all vitality from her so that she's little more than an appendage for the male hero is the adaptation's one glaring weakness.

For her role in this film Ryan received an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress and seeing the performance again reconfirmed for me how deserving a winner she would have been (the award that year went to Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton). It would be easy to say that any actress could have secured a nomination playing this role; the character has a lot of meat to it and it's a strong role before any performer ever gets theirs hands on it. But, nevertheless, Ryan's depiction of Helene amounts to more than simply showing up. She seems to approach the character from the inside out, rendering a lived-in performance that in fact makes the "performance" aspect disappear. She's at ease with this character and unafraid of looking foul and in her truthful, no holds barred portrayal she makes Helene entirely her own.

As I write this, Affleck is at work on The Town, his second feature as director. If what he achieves with Gone, Baby, Gone is any indication, The Town will be a film to watch for. His work here is strong and assured and he has a firm grasp of how to create and maintain tension throughout a story. He's a good director with a great deal of potential - let's just hope the projects he choses as director are closer to Good Will Hunting than Gigli.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Review: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)


* * *

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Ivor Novello

A man who calls himself “The Avenger” has been going around killing blond women. The landlady and her husband wonder… could their mysterious new tenant, who seems to have an unhealthy preoccupation with their golden haired daughter, be the killer? In a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the answer is of course not simple and The Lodger keeps you guessing and second-guessing for most of its duration.

The film opens with the words, “To-Night Golden Curls,” blinking on and off the screen, the full meaning of which is explained at the end of the film as a kind of framing device. The film then moves on to a killing and a fresh wave of panic sweeping through the residents of London. The Avenger strikes again! This time, however, there was a witness, who describes the man as having his face half covered by a scarf. Cut to the home of The Landlady (Marie Ault) and Her Husband (Arthur Chesney), who have just welcomed a new tenant into their home, one who arrived at their door with a scarf covering half his face. If the scarf was all the evidence against him, there wouldn’t be much suspense with regards to the intentions of The Lodger (Ivor Novello, who would reprise the role in the 1932 remake), but his subsequent behavior certainly makes you wonder (as do his marvelously crazy eyes). He’s captivated by his landlords’ daughter, Daisy (June), who has the golden curls so coveted by the killer and he’s intensely private, particularly about the mysterious bag he keeps locked up in a cupboard. And then there are those nights when he sneaks out of the house…

When Daisy falls in love with the Lodger, the film begins to turn somewhat, casting him in a less suspicious and more ambiguous and sympathetic light. Maybe he’s being set up? He isn’t the only man who wants Daisy, as Joe (Malcolm Kenn), the police detective investigating the murders can attest. Early in the film Joe has a throwaway line in which he remarks on the similarities between himself and The Avenger, and what better way to get away with murder than to be the one investigating it? He states at one point his intention to “put a rope around The Avenger’s neck and a ring on Daisy’s finger,” and if the Lodger is the killer, well that’s two birds with one stone, isn’t it? But, then again, the contents of that bag, once opened, offer some damning evidence.

Although the film drags in places, it is for the most part very well-plotted and paced. There is enough ambiguity about the characters and their actions to keep you guessing long into the film and though the ending is considerably more sentimental than you’ll find in later Hitchcock films, it’s still a fairly strong effort. The Lodger is Hitchcock’s third feature length film and though it includes some of the recurrent features of his later work (the obsession with blonds, the theme of the wrong man), it is rudimentary Hitchcock and his style isn’t as pronounced or keenly developed here as it is in later films. If you went into this film not knowing that it was directed by Hitchcock, you might not guess that he was behind it.

As far as the acting goes, Novello renders a performance that just skirts the line, almost going over the top but somehow always pulling back in time. The Lodger is a strange character, sometimes sinister, other times incredibly vulnerable, and the ease with which Novello goes back and forth between the two helps the film in terms of maintaining suspense. He also has good chemistry with June, whose character isn’t particularly well-developed but who nevertheless gives the film a spark of playfulness.

In the end, while The Lodger isn’t great Hitchcock, even lesser Hitchcock is better than a lot of films and it’s interesting to see the roots of a cinematic genius.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Unsung Performances: Joan Allen, Pleasantville




I love Joan Allen. I have no idea what's happened to her career (Death Race???), but I think she's a consistently great actress, adept at both comedy and drama. To prove my point, I present as exhibit A her performance in Pleasantville, in which she runs the gamut of emotions and creates a compelling character out of what could easily have been a mere caricature. Hers was, hands down, one of the best performances of 1998, but AMPAS thought differently and instead nominated: Brenda Blethyn (Little Voice), Kathy Bates (Primary Colors), Judi Dench (Shakespeare In Love), Rachel Griffiths (Hilary and Jackie), and Lynn Redgrave (Gods and Monsters). Dench would go on to win the Oscar and she's the actress I'd swap out for Allen (though I say that having never seen Little Voice and therefore being unfamiliar with Blethyn's performance), but then I've never been a big fan of "make up" Oscars.

Allen's Betty Parker begins the film as a solid caricature of a 1950s TV mom, her character literally a character in an old family sitcom. She's a wholesome presence who would never think a bad thing about anyone, capable of only ever so gently scolding someone for whatever minor misdeed will be the catalyst for that week's important life lesson. She cooks, she cleans, she neither does nor says anything that would allow her to evolve beyond two dimensions.

Slowly, as change begins to sweep across the cozy, innocent town of Pleasantville, so too does a change take place in Betty. As she physically begins to morph from black and white to color, Allen infuses her with more depth - the color spreads through her and she gradually awakens to her humanity, her autonomy, her sense of self. She becomes, essentially, a person with desires and thoughts of her own that complicate the perfect, strictly crafted world of Pleasantville. This leads her to an ending that is ambiguous but not necessarily unhappy.

Allen displays a delicate mixture of emotions as Betty struggles to comprehend and accept what is happening to her. She conveys the confusion and fear of her metamorphosis as well as the excitement about the possibilities these changes may bring, often doing so with little more than a flicker across her face or a slight inflection of her voice. Scene after scene shows her growing more confident with the person that she's becoming and the newfound power that she is asserting.

Of all the characters in the film, Betty's arc is the most profound, touching not only on issues of women's liberation but also on issues of racial inequality. It is primarily through her that the film explores civil rights, the most resonant of its themes, and Allen is more than capable of carrying that burden. Hers is a terrific performance as a character that is absolutely vital to the film's success. No wonder it was so easy to overlook.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Real Time (2008)


* * *

Director: Randall Cole
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Randy Quaid

90 minutes. That’s all the time Andy (Jay Baruchel) has left to make things right before a lifetime of misdeeds catches up to him. It is perhaps a thin premise, but writer/director Randall Cole makes the most of it and manages to create a fairly compelling film out of what is essentially two characters having a series of conversations for an hour and a half. As the film approaches the end, however, you start to sense a bit of panic on Cole’s part: either the film will end honestly but grimly with Andy’s death, or a means of saving Andy will be discovered, leading to an inescapable feeling of falseness.

Andy is a gambler and has been since he was a teenager. He’s in debt to everyone and no one wants to give him another chance – he’s wasted all the sympathy anyone will ever have for him due to his recklessness and because of his attitude. And still, all he can think about is that next big score. The first time we see him he’s pacing up and down the street, trying to decide whether his luck would best be used on scratch tickets or at the track. A car pulls up beside him and the driver tells him to get in. The driver is Reuban (Randy Quaid) and he’s been dealing with Andy for years. This time, however, he hasn’t been sent simply to collect or to rough Andy up; he’s been ordered to take Andy out. Andy tries to talk his way out of it, but even Reuban has had enough. He’s going to kill Andy but, since he doesn’t have to be anywhere until 3 p.m., he decides to give Andy until then to make a few amends and maybe set things right with some of the people he’ll be leaving behind.

For someone with less than two hours to live and who has messed up with a lot of people, Andy has a hard time thinking of what it is he wants to do. His first thought is to visit a hooker he knows of who looks like Rosie Perez, but it turns out that she’s not working that day, so that’s a bust. He then decides to visit his grandmother and uses that as a pretence for an attempt at escape. This results in him hurting his leg a little when he jumps from the second storey of his grandmother’s house and then hurting his leg a lot when he subsequently dares Reuban to shoot him. Reuban is understandably annoyed by Andy’s behavior. This is his last last chance and he’s pissing it away just like he has every other chance he’s been given. He delivers a monologue in which he explains to Andy why it is that he gave him this last chance and why he ultimately feels some guilt for Andy’s current predicament. And then it’s time.

As the film's opening moments unfolded before me, I was prepared to really dislike it. Baruchel’s performance seemed like it was going to be one built on intense affectations and Quaid, for some reason, has an Australian accent. Very quickly, however, the film settled and seemed to find its centre and it became apparent that Baruchel and Quaid had such complete control and understanding of their characters that any trepidations faded away. It helps that the two actors play off of each other extremely well and manage to make the relationship between their characters multi-dimensional. Obviously, on a surface level, Andy and Reuban are antagonists - one wouldn't have to have anything to do with the other if all were well in accounting - but there's a strange sort of affection between them as well. For Andy, whose mother is dead and whose father is a deadbeat, Reuban is one of the only consistent figures in his life. Reuban, for his part, seems to relate to Andy in an almost paternal fashion, exasperated by his screw ups but also trying to knock some sense into him and set him on the right path before it's too late. Which brings us to the film's ending (spoilerish, be warned)...

Will it surprise you to hear that Andy is still alive at the end? Reuban decides to give him another chance and bail him out of his present difficulty, a development which might have worked if it didn't come right on the heels of Reuban's speech about how he wished he hadn't bailed Andy out when he was 13, since letting him suffer the consequences of his bad decisions might have inspired him to change his ways. Now, granted, if the film ended with Reuban killing Andy, it would be kind of depressing because despite his idiocy, you do start to feel for him a bit through the course of the film. However, it also would have felt true whereas the ending as it is just feels like a cop out. That being said, the film is still worth a look. The first few minutes and the last few minutes are less than perfect, but everything that comes in between is so good and so well acted that those missteps are easily to forgive.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Road to Perdition (2002)


* * *

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman

So beautiful and yet so lacking. Road to Perdition is a handsome and stately film, but one that never really seems to come alive. At times it feels reminiscent of The Godfather films, but while Coppola’s masterful saga brought the audience in, Sam Mendes’ film seems determined to keep us out. We’re meant to stand back from this film and admire it, rather than become absorbed in it and live it. I do admire parts of Road to Perdition, but ultimately never felt very invested in it.

To boil it down to its most basic elements, the film is about fathers and sons and isolation. The fathers and sons theme is obvious and often overtly addressed. The theme of isolation is more obliquely alluded to through the film’s mis en scene and one line from Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks). “This isn’t our home anymore,” he informs his son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), “it’s just an empty building.” This line is specifically referring to the murder of Sullivan’s wife and younger son, but it applies to scenes throughout the film, as characters are constantly situated in the middle of a great emptiness. The indoor sets seem vast and cavernous; the outdoor sets seem impossibly spacious. The art direction provides us with an indication of the unspoken things the characters are feeling, but it also underscores the basic problem with the film, which is that it is ultimately quite hollow. There doesn’t seem to be anything at the core of this story; it’s all surface.

The film is seen largely through the eyes of Michael Jr., who spends the first 12 or so years of his life emotionally distanced from his father, but gets to know him over the course of about six weeks in the worst possible circumstances. Curious about what it is, exactly, that his father does for John Rooney (Paul Newman), Michael sneaks into the back of his father’s car to see for himself and witnesses a murder. Rooney’s son, Connor (Daniel Craig), who instigated the act, decides that Michael can’t be trusted not to talk and takes it on himself to eliminate the threat, which results in the deaths of Michael’s mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and younger brother, but not Michael himself. There is a great moment when Michael approaches his house and sees Connor standing in the window and the film switches to Connor’s perspective and we see that he’s only looking at his own reflection. Later we learn that he doesn’t even realize that he’s killed the wrong son.

Mike and Michael go on the run, robbing banks of mob money and bonding in the process. Michael feels that his father always favored his younger brother, but this isn’t so. Mike simply saw a lot of himself in Michael and it worried him. In a similar vein, Mike is like a son to John, who took him in as a boy, gave him a means to support his family, and treats that family as if it were his own. John sees a lot of himself in Mike and has a warmer relationship with him than he does with his biological son, who he sees as a bungler and a disappointment. Connor is essentially an overgrown child who pouts his way through most of the story and is determined to make everyone else pay for his own mistakes. However, when it comes down to it and Mike gets proof that Connor has been stealing from his father, blood proves to be thicker than water. It has all the elements of Greek tragedy, save and except for the happy (well, happy-ish) ending.

Hanks is obviously playing against type here, though as killers go Mike is a fairly nice one; he always looks very sorry about what it is that he has to do. It is not an entirely successful performance; the only times when he seems really at ease in the role is in scenes with Hoechlin as the relationship between father and son begins to thaw. To be fair, I think this is less a problem with Hanks than it is with the fact that characters feel very locked into the turnings of the plot. The only actor who truly gets around this is Newman, whose two final exchanges with Hanks are electrifying.

To be clear, there’s nothing about Road to Perdition that I think is particularly “bad,” exactly, it’s just that it feels very stiff and very formal. It can’t be denied that the film has moments of brilliance and is at times wholly engrossing, but there’s a lot of affectation at play in the way that it’s constructed. If the film never relaxes, how can the audience?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Great Last Scenes: Raiders of the Lost Ark


Year: 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Great Because...: It's just so fitting that after all that - numerous brushes with death, taking down a bunch of Nazis, being forced to endure the presence of snakes - that one of the greatest archeological finds of all time would simply be crated up and placed in a warehouse with countless other crates containing countless other great items. No fanfare, no glory. That's just Indy's luck.

That great find is of course the Ark of the Covenant, which the Nazis desperately want to get their hands on in order to tip the scales of world power firmly in their favour. With help from Indy's rival, Belloq, the Nazis get their hands on the artifact and open it up to find... sand. But wait! It also contains several spirits that Belloq declares beautiful right before they melt his face - and the faces of everyone else looking at them - off. It's gruesome, but it is also completely awesome.

Indy and Marion come out of the event intact after closing their eyes to the event - a shame in that it's a pretty spectacular sight, but good thinking since otherwise they wouldn't have lived to tell about it. The Ark is handed over to the U.S. government and Indy is assured that it will be studied by experts, which we discover a moment later is a lie. The truth is that the Ark has more or less been forgotten already, just one more thing in the government's top secret catalogue.

Because the film is told with tongue firmly in cheek, this ending rings very true. The U.S. government wants the Ark, but they don't actually want to use it for anything or really have anything to do with it, so much as they just don't want the Nazi's to have it. Indy wants to find it not for political reasons but because he's an archeologist and that's what they do (in film, at any rate). He values it for what it is, while the government values it only because it's something that the Nazis want. The ending sort of plays like this: "It's really great that Dr. Jones went out and got that for us but... yeah, we're done with that now. Moving on." And something about that just feels so right. Less right for most people is the Ark's next appearance in the Indy series, but we won't get into that.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Review: Julie & Julia (2009)


* * *

Director: Nora Ephron
Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams

Coming a little late to this particular party, but better late than never. Judging from other people’s reactions to this film, I liked it a little more than most, perhaps because I’ve read the book (half of it, at any rate) and am therefore familiar with how irritating Julie Powell comes across in print. Seriously y’all, the Julie Powell character as played by Amy Adams is a breath of fresh air in comparison. It’s not enough to make the film more than a middling entertainment, but it’s something, right?

Julie and Julia is based on two true stories, only one of which most people would be remotely interested in hearing. In the present day we have Julie Powell (Adams), secretary turned blogger turned published writer, and in the not so distant past we have Julia Child (Meryl Streep, looking like she’s having an absolute blast) in the years before she becomes the famous Julia Child. Julie is in the midst of what I suppose you could call a mid-mid life crisis, approaching 30 and deeply dissatisfied with her professional life. She meets friends (not real friends, really, and we never see any of them again after this one scene) for lunch and finds herself reduced as they ask her about her job with barely concealed pity and then move on to discuss their own important jobs and big promotions. Feeling increasingly left behind, Julie decides to try to make some room for herself in the zeitgeist by starting a blog (“I have thoughts!” she declares as she launches into her plan) which will chart her progress through Julia Child’s cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Meanwhile, in France several decades earlier, Julia finds her calling as a chef after first giving hat making and bridge a try. All she’s really looking for is a hobby to occupy her time while her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci) is at work, but when she secures a place at La Cordon Blue school, she falls in love with her new hobby. Teaming up with Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey), she sets out to write a cook book for American women about French cuisine. The trio (well, mostly Julia and Simone) spend years working on their book, enduring numerous rejections while certain that their creation is a winner. The parallels drawn between Julia’s struggle with her cook book and Julie’s struggle gaining recognition from her blog are numerous, which helps in terms of flow but does grow a bit tiresome as the film approaches its end. The two halves of the story, one rather banal, the other brimming with life, cannot be made equal no matter how many times the film underscores Julie's scenes with a "see, she's just like Julia!" attitude.

Adams is an actress I've liked ever since her scene stealing turn in Drop Dead Gorgeous ("They won't let you perform naked. I asked.") and I think she does a decent job with what she has to work with. The film never seems very interested in developing Julie as a character, which of course begs the questions of why they included the character at all. Why not just make a movie about Julia Child starring Meryl Streep if that's what you really wanted to do? I don't object to Julie as a character, though I never felt invested in her, but I do object to the film's half-hearted treatment of that segment of the story.

As for the Julia half, it's pretty wonderful and it's fairly obvious that this is the half that writer/director Nora Ephron was really passionate about. The scenes between Julia and Paul are sweet, particularly the one in which they learn that Julia's sister (played all too briefly by the always fantastic Jane Lynch) is pregnant. When Julia breaks down in tears, saying, "I'm so happy," you can really get a sense of the variety of emotions she feels at that moment, from sadness and frustration at her own childlessness, jealousy, and of course genuine happiness for her sister. It's a great moment from both Streep and Tucci, whose performances perfectly complement each other throughout the film. In the end, Julie & Julia may be wildly uneven, but the Julia half makes it worth seeing as a whole.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Just Buried (2007)


* * *

Director: Chaz Thorne
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Rose Byrne, Graham Greene

Boy meets Girl. Boy wants Girl. Boy accidentally kills first one man and then another. Girl comes up with the idea to start killing people on purpose – after all, at this point he might as well. Just Buried is not a horror film, though it has some startlingly grotesque moments, but a very black comedy about two people who get into a very bad habit and at a certain point cease to see what they’re doing as criminal and think of it as mere necessity.

The Boy is Oliver Whynacht (pronounced “Why not”) and is played by Jay Baruchel, who usually plays the gangly sidekick in Hollywood movies and the gangly hero in indies. The Girl is Roberta and is played by Rose Byrne, which should tell you just about everything you need to know about how she talks him into killing people on purpose. The two are brought together by the death of Oliver’s father, who was also Roberta’s employer. The senior Whynacht leaves his funeral parlor to Oliver, not because the two were close (they hadn’t seen each other in years), but because from what he can tell Oliver has done nothing with his life. Oliver does not slip easily into his role as boss: on his first day he wanders out of his office to ask the groundskeeper/secretary/accountant Henry (Graham Greene) what, exactly, he should be doing in his capacity as boss.

After a night of drinking, Oliver hits a man walking along the road with his truck. Roberta helps him move the body, tells him where to dump it, and then advises him about what to do with his truck. If Oliver weren’t so panicked, one might expect him to question how Roberta knows so much about getting rid of evidence and consider it with the fact that Roberta was the one who told him he was fine to drive in the first place, reasoning that everyone in town drives drunk. Fortunately for Oliver, Roberta is the town coroner in addition to being the funeral home embalmer, which means that she can record the official cause of the death as accidental. A second man is killed, again by accident, though his death is fortuitous as he was in possession of evidence that would prove the first death was not accidental. It is what happens after this second death that makes Oliver and Roberta decide to start actively killing people.

There are two funeral homes in town. The one that now belongs to Oliver (and, we learn, was once owned by Roberta’s mother), and one that moved into town a few years ago, set up shop near the old folks’ home, and has been ringing in business ever since. When the second corpse is claimed by the other funeral home, Oliver and Roberta decide to do the sensible thing and blow up the other funeral home (and its owner). Now they’re the only game in town and business is booming, though there remain questions about those first two deaths which necessitate more killing. Oh, and did I mention that murder acts as an aphrodisiac for Roberta? So… that worked out, then.

Just Buried isn’t an especially clever film, though it does have its moments and the actors approach the material in the spirit which was intended. It’s ultimately a very silly movie, particularly as it approaches its over the top, verging on soap operatic, finale. Is there any point to this movie? I don’t know. Maybe it was intended to be a parody of other “small town” movies where the fish out of water hero is baffled by his quirky new neighbors, only in this case the hero doesn’t learn to love those quirky neighbors and their quirky ways, but instead systematically kills them. Whatever its intention, the film works better than it probably should and the leads are engaging despite the story’s overall coldness.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Words To Live By: Moonstruck

Great movie speeches speak for themselves:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Review: Whip It (2009)


* * *

Director: Drew Barrymore
Starring: Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore


… Whip it good! Pardon me, that should be Whip It is good. The directorial debut from Drew Barrymoore is a colorful and vastly enjoyable piece of Hollywood candy about a girl, her skates, and her intense desire not to get knocked on her ass. The film may not aspire to much more than entertaining its audience, but it succeeds at doing so with ease and provides a platform for some very funny ladies – Ellen Page, Barrymoore herself, Kristen Wiig, and Maeby Funke! I mean, Alia Shawcat – to show that comedy isn’t just for boys.

In a small Texas town just outside of Austin, misfit teenager Bliss Cavendar (Page) participates in beauty pageants at the insistence of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), waitresses at the Oink Joint, and waits for something good to happen. That good thing comes in the form of a roller derby flyer that inspires her to sneak off to Austin with her best friend Pash (Shawcat), and then to try out for the derby herself. She digs out her old Barbie roller skates (suspend disbelief enough not to ask how it is that her Barbie skates still fit) and makes the cut, earning a place on the Hurl Scouts team captained by Maggie Mayhem (Wiig). The rest of the team is made up on Smashley Simpson (Barrymoore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell) and the Manson Sisters (Eli Bleiler and Kristen Adolfi).

Bliss renames herself Babe Ruthless and proves to be an asset in terms of speed, though she’s lacking when it comes to aggression. The Hurl Scouts are the fifth ranked team in a five team league and have never won a single match until Bliss comes on the scene and as such her skill does not go unnoticed, particularly by Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), the captain of the champion Holy Roller team. Bliss becomes Iron Maven’s mortal enemy and all the usual sports rivalry clich├ęs ensue, wrapping themselves around the film and the characters like a comfortable old sweater. As a director Barrymoore doesn’t break any new ground but I think her talent can be measured by the fact that she guides the film so effortlessly through the hoops of time-worn plot points. Yes, we can see certain developments coming from miles away but the film never feels clunky and it has great energy even though the action scenes could use a bit more finesse.

I’ve seen the word “empowering” applied to this movie from certain corners and to a degree I suppose that that’s true, not because it’s about Women! Kicking! Ass! but because it’s about different kinds of female experience and identity. Bliss decries her mother’s view of the world as a stale remnant of 1950s gender norms, but her mother isn’t really the “villain” of the piece and the value that she places on things like beauty pageants isn’t really seen as wrong so much as just wrong for Bliss. Bliss’ younger sister, meanwhile, seems to love participating in pageants and at no point does their mother resemble one of those crazy, reality TV “pageant mothers;” she gets to be an actual human being with depth – amazing! At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the roller girl ethos which combines a hyper femininity (lots of makeup, revealing clothes, monikers like “Jabba the Slut”) with what is traditionally thought of as a very masculine kind of athleticism. The film doesn’t argue that either vision of womanhood is universally right or wrong, but that one can be right for some women, the other can be right for others, while some women – like Pash - might choose neither. The film is pro-woman not because it rejects traditional ideas but because it encourages and embraces a variety of experiences and ideas about women.

Once again Page demonstrates that she’s an actress to take note of, playing a character that you might not expect to have as much dimension as she does. I’m very curious to see the way that her career shapes itself once she’s able to move from playing teenagers to playing adults. It’s funny that when the film has Bliss lie about her age so that she can play in the derby, she says that she’s 22, which we’re supposed to think is unbelievable when in reality that is Page’s actual age. At any rate, given that she seems equally at ease in films like this and Juno as well as harder edged films like Hard Candy and The Tracy Fragments, I think it's safe to say that we can expect great things from her in the years to come.

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Review: Bright Star (2009)


* * * 1/2

Director: Jane Campion
Starring: Abbie Cornish, Ben Wishaw, Paul Schneider

Period pieces tend to be very somber affairs, full of repressed passions and strict social rules. Jane Campion’s new film Bright Star, though anchored by a thread of restrained eroticism and shaped by the tragic circumstances of the poet John Keats, is a surprisingly joyful movie, matching light for dark at every turn. It is a beautiful looking and beautifully rendered piece that hits all the right notes and features a terrific and engaging lead performance from Abbie Cornish.

Cornish stars as Fanny Brawne, the woman to whom Keats (Ben Wishaw) was loosely engaged at the time of his death. I say “loosely” because it seems apparent to everyone that Keats will not live to marry her and that that is why the engagement has been allowed at all. Underappreciated in his own time, Keats is in no financial position to take a wife, though in a different era Fanny herself could have supported them through her work as a designer and seamstress. Throughout the film she’s shown sewing and embroidering and she delights in revealing to people that she’s made her dresses herself and points out the various stylistic innovations she’s created. The costumes in the film (both Fanny’s and those of the other characters) are indeed exquisite and come courtesy of Janet Patterson who also did the costumes for Campion’s The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady.

Fanny and Keats are introduced through the poet Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), who is a neighbor to the Brawnes’ and a friend to Keats. Fanny and Brown have a contentious relationship defined by a dislike for each other that, were it not for Keats, may have evolved in the manner of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Instead Fanny and Brown fight for Keats’ attention with Fanny winning, though perhaps only by default. Brown’s affection for Keats is not romantic but rather stems from his recognition of Keats’ superior abilities and his desire to see those abilities appreciated by others. Brown’s devotion is less to the man than it is to the man’s gift as an artist and his admission near the end, when he repeats “I failed John Keats!” is wrenching. Schneider is perfect in this role and brings an edge to it that balances the film and keeps it from dipping into sentimentality.

Of course, the driving force of the film is Cornish, who makes Fanny into a lively and clever heroine, but also one plagued by insecurities and doubt. Fanny excels at a certain plane of social interaction – flirting, as Brown condescendingly points out to Keats – but is occasionally at a loss when a situation calls for a different tenor. At one point Keats asks her if she’s in love with Brown. The answer is no but she stands there dumbstruck, unable to engage with him in this way. As the film progresses, however, she gradually matures so that we believe that the girl who started the film thinking poetry a somewhat useless exercise can now recite Keats’ verses with an appropriate amount of gravitas and feeling. She and Wishaw (who, it must be noted, gets to do little more than alternate between looking lovelorn and sickly) have a nice chemistry, though to be honest there’s more fire between Cornish and Schneider. Still, it’s believable enough that losing Keats would inspire her to spend the rest of her days walking the same paths she walked with him as the film gives their relationship enough space to really develop and evolve.

As a filmmaker, Campion is someone I tend to run hot and cold on, finding that sometimes she uses a mallet where a hammer would suffice. With this film, however, she seems to exercise a great deal of restraint, largely letting the images speak for themselves rather than underscoring them with an overbearing narrative commentary to make sure that you get it. One thing I always find praise worthy about her work is the way that they look, and her period pieces in particular tend to be realized with what I would describe as a painter’s aesthetic, rich in color and finely contrasted. This film looks gorgeous and has a haunting quality that deepens its impact. It's a beautiful, wonderful film.


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