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Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Women Who Kick Ass

#5: Lisbeth Salander (The Millennium Series)

Attitude? Check. Short fuse? Check. Proficiency with whatever weapon happens to be near by? Check. Seriously, don't mess with Lisbeth.

#4: Trinity (The Matrix Series)

That image of her in suspended animation before giving a beat down is now iconic, as is her general badassery. Easily my favourite character in the series.

#3: The Bride (Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2)

She killed and maimed her way through 2 movies so there's really nothing left for her to prove. Best course of action: let her live her quiet life because if you give her a reason to seek vengeance, it ain't gonna be pretty.

#2: Sarah Connor(The Terminator Series)

I don't know if you've ever seen Terminator 2 but that is a friggin gun show. Besides, any woman who can hold her own against robots from the future has my undying respect.

#1: Ripley (The Alien Series)

Six words: "Get away from her you bitch!"

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Cooking with Stella (2010)

* 1/2

Director: Dilip Mehta
Starring: Don McKellar, Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray

Can a movie really be considered a comedy if it leaves you feelings so bad afterwards? Cooking with Stella was marketted as a comedy and it plays out as a comedy but it gets so mean-spirited towards the end that I kind of found myself wishing I'd never watched it in the first place. It's too bad because the film actually does have some good moments but they end up being marred by the ugliness of the film's ending.

The film takes place at the Canadian High Commission in New Dehli and centers on Stella (Seema Biswas), who has been a cook for a revolving door of posted dipolmats for about 30 years. Her current diplomatic employer is Maya (Lisa Ray), who has come with her husband Michael (Don McKellar) and their infant daughter. Both Maya and Michael disrupt Stella's expectations of her relationship to her employers, Maya because she's half-Indian but doesn't identify that way - "I was born in Toronto. I'm Canadian," she tells Stella. In very measured tones Stella replies, "As you wish." - and Michael because he doesn't seem to recognize the boundaries that separate him from the staff. Like Stella, Michael is a chef by trade and he wants to learn how to make authentic Indian dishes. Stella is reluctant but ultimately agrees to teach him.

With Michael busy learning from Stella, a nanny is hired to care for the baby. Tannu (Shriya Saran) has never been employed by diplomats before, which is why she comes so cheap, and she sends her earnings to her father to pay medical expenses for her sick brother. Stella attempts to take Tannu under her wing and get her involved in the black market business she has going (which involves stealing from her employers) but Tannu refuses and threatens to expose Stella unless she stops, too. Undaunted, Stella arranges for her godson Anthony (Vansh Bhardwaj) to charm Tannu and bilk her of her earnings so that she'll have no choice but to join Stella.

Typically in a film what would then happen is that Tannu would discover the connection between Anthony and Stella, realize that she's been played, and try to set things right. Similarly, Stella would come to have a genuine affection for Michael and would come to feel bad about taking advantage of him. Neither of these things happen, which I suppose should earn the film points for defying expectations but the turn that the plot takes undercuts whatever charms it had going for it up to this point. No longer content with the small money from the black market business, Stella, Tannu and Anthony hatch a plot to fake Stella's kidnapping in order to get a ransom. Michael and Maya agree to pony up $20k for her safe return and the Canadian government agrees to hand over $40k in exchange for information leading to the capture of the kidnappers. In light of that, Stella agrees to let Tannu turn her in so that the three conspirators can split $40k instead of 20. Stella is convicted, goes to jail and then, with Michael's intervention, is released early and goes off to enjoy her ill-gotten gains with Tannu and Anthony.

Are we really supposed to see this as a happy ending? I mean, yes, on the one hand Stella and company are oppressed people striking a figurative blow against the man, but on the other hand they're literally scamming two people who have been nothing but nice to them. Michael, in particular, comes to care deeply for Stella as his mentor, so much so that he's willing to forgive the fake kidnapping to help her get out of jail. Why does he deserve to be robbed, deceived, and made a fool of? It's really disheartening and frankly kind of gross.

Anyway, whatever the faults of the film itself, none lies with the actors. Biswas and McKellar are particularly good and Ray makes the most of a role that gives her little to work with. All three deserve to be in a better movie.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Theories on Inception

If you haven't seen the movie yet, don't look under the cut because this is going to be spoiler heavy. If you have seen the movie, please feel free to offer up your own thoughts vis-a-vis what the hell is going on here.

There's plenty of theories out there right now regarding the plot of Inception and just what it all means. My belief is that nothing we see is "real," it's all in Cobb's head. A few reasons why:

* Cobb is the only one who seems to be able to bring his personal projections into other peoples' dreams. Maybe that's because Cobb's psyche is the foundation and every subsequent level of unreality is built on top of it.

* The chase through the market place is shot to make it look like Cobb is running through a maze. The process of designing a dreamscape is described as designing a maze and Ariadne's first task is literally to design a maze that it takes more than one minute to solve.

* One of the consistent questions asked throughout the film is "how did we/you get here?" When Cobb meets Ariadne they seem to enter immediately and seamlessly into a dream - maybe that's because Cobb was already dreaming and the dream he's sharing with Ariadne is actually a dream within that dream.

* The ease with which Saito is able to pull things off. He shows up just in time to rescue Cobb at the market place, he buys an airline in order to ensure the team has a 10 hour flight in which to work on Fisher, he makes a quick phone call as the plane descends and magically Cobb's legal troubles disappear. He's a deus ex machina of a character, too convenient to be true.

* The totems. Ariadne is told that her totem has to be something that's familiar only to her, that no one else can touch. Arthur won't let her hold his because the weight of it is something with which only he can be familiar if it's to be effective, and later Cobb reiterates the importance of this principle when he tries to trick Ariadne into letting him hold the totem she's just created for herself. Now think about Cobb's totem - it wasn't always his. It was Mal's totem and he took it from her. By doing so he destroys her ability to destinguish reality from dream because he's corrupted her anchor. Shouldn't it be corrupted for him too, since someone else was familiar with it?

If it is corrupted then it doesn't matter whether is keeps spinning or whether it falls because it's meaningless as a tool to tell reality from dream. If what the film posits as reality is actually just the first level of Cobb's unconscious, maybe the top stops on that level simply because he believes that it's reality and his subconscious acts accordingly. Similarly, perhaps that's what's going on at the end with his children. He can see their faces now even though the fact that they're wearing the same clothes and sitting in the same positions on the lawn as in his memory suggests that he's still dreaming. Earlier in the film he tells Ariadne that he's been actively trying to "correct" his memories - maybe the film is depicting that process and the true task is actually to plant an idea in his own subconscious that the first level of dreaming is in fact reality so that at least he can have the comfort of believing that he's been reunited with his children.

I'm sure there's more but I think I would probably have to see the movie again to pick up on it. I'm equally sure that there's plenty of evidence to support other theories, so what's yours?

Review: Inception (2010)

* * * *

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe

Thank God for Inception because, other than a couple of smaller movies in limited release, this has been a very uneventful summer for me, movie-wise. Fortunately Inception was worth waiting for, as it's a smart, slick movie that engages the mind as much as the eye.

The story takes place at an unspecified time in the future when technology allows for shared dreaming and shared dreaming allows thieves to break into a person's subconscious to steal information. One such thief is Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is attempting in the film's opening minutes to extract information from a man named Saito (Ken Watanabe). The job is unsuccessful but Saito is so impressed with Cobb's work that he offers him a new opportunity. Maurice Fisher (Pete Postlethwaite), a powerful tycoon, is on his death bed and his son, Robert (Cillian Murphy), is about the inherit his empire. Saito wants Cobb and his team to venture into Robert's unconscious and plant the idea of selling off the pieces of his father's business. Though his partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), insists that it can't be done, Cobb is persuaded to take the job after Saito informs him that he can pull some strings which would allow Cobb to return to the U.S., where he's currently a wanted man.

Cobb puts together a team which includes Arthur, Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger capable of assuming someone else's identity in dreams, and Ariadne (Ellen Page), the architect who will design the dreams. Since inception is more complicated than extraction, the process will involve dreams within dreams within dreams and since each dream level is more unstable than the last, the team also includes Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist who can make a compound that will allow them to submerge themselves deep enough to enter the lower levels. The team goes under but almost immediately things begin to go awry. For one thing, Fischer has been trained to fight attempts at extraction and his subconscious fights back fiercely against the invaders. For another, Cobb is dragging along a lot of baggage in his own subconscious that threatens to derail the entire operation.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Inception is a labyrinth of ideas, the density of which makes this a particularly ambitious film. Using Ariadne - who is new to the process of shared dreaming - as a surrogate for the audience, Nolan methodically sets up the rules of the unconscious state in the film's first half and then plunges us into action in the second half as level upon level upon level of unconsciousness first open out of each other and then collapse in. There is the threat that the characters will go too deep, that they'll submerge themselves so far that they'll be trapped in the unconscious indefinitely or that they'll no longer be able to tell reality from the dream state. Both risks are associated with Cobb who has essentially been to the other side and come back, though the things he left behind constantly threaten to pull him back. The final scene is ambiguous and already scores of theories have been put forth as possible explanations; this is a film that is obviously inspiring a lot of discussion and thought and I think that it's worthy of all of that effort.

The film has been described as "cold" by some critics and while I agree that it's cold, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Stanley Kubrick's films are cold and his coldest - 2001: A Space Odyssey which Nolan references here - is widely considered one of the highest achievements in film history. Besides which, I think coldness is entirely appropriate given the subject. If our unconscious is home to our baser instincts and our consciousness is tempered by our humanity, doesn't it make sense that it would get colder the deep you go? Just a thought.

Other criticisms of the film are, I think, more legitimate. There is a heavy handedness in terms of the naming of characters (aside from Ariadne there's also Mal, French for "bad" and the name of Cobb's destructive projection) and aside from Cobb, none of the characters is really fleshed out (though even that isn't necessarily a criticism, depending on your theory about the film). Still, Inception is an engrossing and often challenging film that makes up for whatever weaknesses it might have through the sheer force of its many strengths. I think it's safe to say that with this film and the rebooted Batman franchise under his belt, Nolan has a blank check to do whatever crazy shit he wants for the next ten years at least.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Unsung Performances: Tilda Swinton, Julia

It takes courage to play a character as thoroughly unlikeable as Julia and it takes skill to make her half-way human. In her performance Tilda Swinton doesn't try to make the audience like her; her unselfconscious portrayal allows Julia to be one of the nastiest pieces of work ever to grace the screen. It isn't, however, simply a matter of letting herself be unlikeable. Swinton is also able to convey a sense of the character's increasingly distressed mental state, of the wheels turning in her head as she has to make quick decisions to keep her scam afloat, and of the tiny shred of humanity still alive at her core. It is a bravura performance that puts to shame many of the more celebrated performances of the last decade of film.

The first thing that must be understood about Julia is that she's an absolute mess. An alcoholic who spends most of her time trolling bars for booze and one night stands, her life is a shambles and she herself is kind of pathetic, though she defiantly, angrily refuses to see herself that way. She attends AA meetings but has no desire or intention of getting sober and she is nastiest to the people who most want to help her. When one day someone comes to her for help, Julia is quick to brush her off but the promise of a big payday perks her interest.

The woman in need is Elena, who promises to pay Julia a large sum of money to help her kidnap her son, whose wealthy grandfather has custody. Though reluctant at first, Julia agrees, but only because she's thought of a way to double cross Elena and get more money. When she realizes that Elena isn't all there and won't be able to give her any money at all, Julia decides to cut her out of the equation and handle things herself. She kidnaps the boy, treating him roughly, scaring the hell out of him, and unsettling him with the sometimes violent mood swings brought on by alcohol (or the lack of it). See, the thing about Julia is that she can't stay sober long enough to pull this thing off skillfully; she gets drunk and behaves stupidly and seems to diminish her chances of success with each horrible decision she makes.

In these early scenes with the kid, Swinton doesn't hold back. She allows Julia to be deliberately, unrepentantly cruel and as viewers we're scared for the boy because there's really no telling what Julia will do. We believe that she's capable of anything. A strange thing happens, though, after Julia has the boy in captivity and after she abandons the sobriety which has pushed her personality right to the edge: she starts to get kind of funny. "So... I guess you're mad at me," she states, totally drunk, at one point after leaving him tied up in the shower all day. Later still she attempts to use the fact that she hasn't actually shot him to persuade him that she's not really a bad person even though she's spent most of their time together training a gun on him. In her own special way, Julia is just as out to lunch as Elena is and though her inability to own her actions brings about the film's few lighter moments, it's also what makes her especially dangerous. If she can never take responsibility for the consequences of her actions, how is she ever supposed to recognize that she's gone too far?

The ability to quickly and believably shift gears with this character is a big part of what makes Swinton's performance so good, but there's more to it than that. At one point Julia finds herself in the position of having lost the boy to another set of kidnappers who think that she is his mother. Swinton is called upon to play this scene in such a way that we the audience can see the wheels turning in her head as she improvises to deal with this new development, while also making it believable that the kidnappers can't see through her facade. It's a very delicate undertaking and she pulls it off beautifully, showing us layer upon layer but making it seem utterly natural.

On the face of it, Julia is an evil character. She is so unfathomably selfish and greedy that even when she's trying to save the kid from the other kidnappers, she's still working an angle, trying to figure out how she can save him without forfeiting the money. At the same time, however, Swinton makes us believe that in her own twisted, ridiculous way she's come to care about someone other than herself. For all the brutality on display in this performance there is also a surprising amount of tenderness and though the film doesn't compromise the character (or itself) with any false sentimentality at the end, it does allow Julia to be more than a two-dimensional villain. Watching the film, you can't help but think that no other actor could have played the role, Swinton's mark on the character is that indelible.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Review: The White Ribbon (2009)

* * * *

Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel

Michael Haneke doesn't like to make things easy. His are films that simmer with tension underneath, that raise more questions than they answer. Certainly that is the case with The White Ribbon, his exploration of the societal dynamics that laid the foundation for the rise of National Socialism. Shot in beautiful black and white, the film has a haunting, deeply unsettling quality that makes it particularly memorable.

The story is related to us many years after the fact by a now elderly tailor who recalls the time when he was a village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) in the years leading up to World War I. The village is governed by the baron (Ulrich Tukur), on whom many families depend for their livelihood, and to a lesser extent by the pastor (Burghart Klaussner), who rules through repression, particularly in his own household. The resentment of the younger people in the village is palpable and there is a sense that things are about to come to a head, that the old order is about to be cast aside and replaced by something harder and even more uncompromising.

Strange things begin to happen, starting with a wire that is strung up between two trees to trip the village's doctor (Rainer Bock). He's badly injured but curiosity about the event dissolves following the death of a peasant woman in an accident, which inspires an act of vengeance by her son, and by the beating of the baron's son. Later another child is badly beaten and the pastor's beloved bird is killed with a pair of scissors. The teacher becomes suspicious of the children, whose behavior (and seeming pack mentality) makes him suspicious. However, by the time he starts asking questions, events on the world stage force a change in focus for everyone.

Haneke builds a very sinister tone through The White Ribbon and doesn't offer up any easy solutions either in terms of the culprits behind the strange happenings or their motivations. The film doesn't point to one single thing as the root of Nazism but to several societal ills that paved the way, including the vestiges of the feudal system, which breeds bad feelings, and the repressive attitudes towards sex. When the pastor suspects that his son might be masturbating, he instills him with a sense of shame and then ties the boy's hands at night; the doctor sexually humiliates his mistress and abuses his daughter. It's all part of the strategy of the older generation of men to ridigly control every facet of life in the village. The feelings of unrest seem to grow with every scene but instead of rebelling against oppression, the younger generation seems to be learning from it and turning it to their own ends. Culturally there is a generation between the children in the film and their parents, but that generation (to which the school teacher, for example, belongs) will be significantly depleted by the war and the children who will inherit the power of society will come of age in a rapidly changing world, one where political, social and economic turmoil will make totalitarianism inevitable in several corners. The ending of the film lacks a concrete resolution but that's because on the grander scale things are only just beginning.

The screenplay, written by Haneke, tells a story that is deliberately obscure. The school teacher doesn’t have all the answers and the story has been pieced together from what he himself witnessed and what he heard from others and all of it, likely, has been coloured by the passage of time. It presents us with a mystery but steadfastly refuses to solve it, which some viewers may understandably find frustrating. If you can get past that, however, you're left with a film that is endlessly fascinating and well-wrought, a film that absolutely deserves to be considered alongside Haneke's masterpiece Cache.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday's Top 5... It's All In Your Head Movies

#5: The Cell

Once upon a time, Jennifer Lopez made interesting choices as an actress. The Cell was one of those choices. Playing a pscyhiatrist who literally ventures into the mind of a serial killer, she renders a solid performance in an inventive fantasy/horror film.

#4: The Matrix

The impact that The Matrix made is undeniable (the less said about the follow-up films the better). Not only does it look really cool but it inspired countless stoned conversations about the plausibility of its premise (so I've heard).

#3: Mulholland Drive

This one is open to interpretation, I suppose. If you don't subscribe to the dream theory of the film, you'll probably object to Mulholland Drive's inclusion. If you do hold to that theory, you've got to admit that David Lynch pulls it off brilliantly.

#2: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

It's all in your head... and you better enjoy it before it's erased forever. Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman's imaginative ode to heartbreak is a beautiful, unforgetable movie.

#1: The Wizard of Oz

A classic that has endured for 70 years and counting. Truly, there is no place like home.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Love That Boy (2003)

* * *

Director: Andrea Dorfman
Starring: Nadia Litz, Nikki Barnett, Adrien Dixon

You can't approach life as an academic exercise. If you're living only to systematically work through a list of things that must be accomplished, you may be missing out on the "living" part of being alive. That's Love That Boy in a nutshell; it's all about the protagonist's realization that maybe she should just relax and let things happen. Of course, once she does that she starts to drift towards legally/socially murky territory but I'll get to that in a minute.

The film centers on Phoebe (Nadia Litz) who is about the graduate from University and has a long list of things she wants to accomplish first. In flashbacks we see that this is pretty much the way she has always conducted her life, setting goals not for the pleasure that accomplishing them might bring her, but merely for the ability to say that she's done it and cross it off her list. She has been dragging her roommate Robin (Nikki Barnett) along for the ride but one day Robin has enough and flees, taking up with a hitchhiker and going for an adventure. Phoebe is hurt but it's easy to see Robin's point. Phoebe is very controlling and Robin treated less as a friend than an appendage; her opinions are dismissed by Phoebe who has no interest in letting Robin's desires get in the way of her own plans.

Before leaving, Robin gives Phoebe a challenge: add have a boyfriend to the list of things to do before graduating. Phoebe does this and works at it the way she works at everything else, in a detached, almost anthropological way. This does not yield the best results and the project seems like a failure until she begins spending time with Frazer (Adrien Dixon), who lives across the street. They fall for each other but there's a problem: he's only 14.

I have an issue in principle with the notion that a relationship like this is supposed to be cute because it's the guy who is younger when, if the roles were reversed and we were talking about a 21-year-old guy and a 14-year-old girl, the film would likely take on much darker undertones. That being said, however, the relationship that develops between the two is very chaste and though Frazier goes to the trouble of buying condoms (a 14-year-old boy can hope, right?), Phoebe doesn't actually get anywhere near having sex with him and the ending suggests that any further developments between them will be put on hold for a couple of years at least. So Phoebe doesn't have to add "become a sex offender" to her list, which is good.

Tonally, the film starts out very stiff but gradually relaxes, which I suppose can be read as a reflection of Phoebe's personal state. She exists in very rigid terms at the beginning of the film but some of her harder edges are softened as the story progresses and by the end she's actually rather likeable. Also likeable is Robin, who discovers too late that the hitchhiker she's set off with is actually way too whiny and high maintenance for her comfort level, turning her fun, spontaneous adventure into an exercise in patience. Also on board in a small role is Ellen Page as a girl playing hard-to-get mind games with Frazier, so if you're a fan of hers it's worth a look.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Great Last Scenes: Manhattan

Year: 1979
Director: Woody Allen
Great Because...: It's one of those "out of the mouths of babes" situations that really puts the rest of the story into perspective. In a movie full of people with very intellectual pursuits, you don't really expect the smartest person to end up being a high school student. Her sincere appraisal of the situation as the movie closes, however, is sweet and perhaps the most truthful thing said in the entire film.

Like most of Woody Allen's films, Manhattan is about relationships - romantic relationships, friendships, the intricacies of social maneuvering and co-existing amongst other people. Basically, there are two couples: Isaac and Tracy, and Yale and Mary. Isaac's relationship with Tracy is problematic because she's only 17 (at one point he marvels about how he's older than her father); Yale's relationship with Mary is problematic because he's married. After breaking things off with Mary, Yale gently steers her and Isaac together, resulting in Isaac breaking things off with Tracy. After Isaac and Mary have gotten together, however, the lingering feelings between Yale and Mary bubble up to the surface again. Yale wants Mary back and Isaac, after losing Mary, longs once again for Tracy.

Isaac, Yale and Mary are all undeniably smart people and yet when it comes to conducting their relationships, it's almost like they're still in high school. When Yale informs Isaac that he wants Mary back, his argument literally boils down to "I saw her first." The three of them spend a lot of time intellectualizing what's going on, but ultimately none of them is particularly mature about it. So Mary goes back to Yale and Isaac, having stewed on it for a while, decides that he wants Tracy back, which brings the film to its final, brilliant scene.

Isaac rushes to Tracy, who he finds preparing to leave to spend six months studying in London. When they were together he encouraged her to go, perhaps because her doing so would make it easier for him to slip out of the relationship. Now that he wants her back he asks her to stay. It's a stunning display of selfishness that really undercuts Isaac's claim that he broke things off with Tracy because she wasn't mature enough. Undercutting it further is Tracy's reply to his request: "What's six months if we still love each other?" and, the film's final line, "You have to have a little faith in people."

There's a lot that Tracy doesn't know (at 17 she is still just a kid) but in this final scene she shows that she is easily the most emotionally mature character in the entire film. She may not know much about life yet, but she at least has the advantage of knowing herself and that gives her the ability to have faith in others. Isaac's expression as the scene closes seems to say a number of things simultaneously: he gets what she's saying, he's surprised by her insight, he's surprised by his inability to manipulate her to his will, and he thinks it's naive to believe in the good intentions of other people. He is himself an unreliable person when it comes to relationships so how could he possibly have faith in someone else?

The best films make you wonder what happened to the characters after the credits. I can't help but wonder what ever became of Isaac and Tracy.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: Winter's Bone (2010)

* * * *

Director: Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence

I am very, very glad that I was able to see this movie on a sunny afternoon in July and not a cold evening in November because otherwise I think I would have walked out of the theater with an unrelenting feeling of sorrow (it would have been like seeing The Road all over again). Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is a bleak film. It is also brilliant. See it if you can.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Ree, a 17-year-old trying desperately to keep her family above water. Her father is a career criminal currently gone AWOL, her mother is an absent presence whom Ree describes as having gone crazy to avoid having to deal with the trouble that follows her father around. She has two younger siblings, a 12-year-old brother and a 6-year-old sister, and poverty threatens to finally overtake the family on a daily basis. When the sheriff arrives and informs Ree that her father put the house up as collateral for his bail and that if he fails to show up for his next court date the family will be turned out, it’s just one more thing in a long line of things weighing down on her. “I’ll find him,” she declares and she sets out to do so with a steely determination.

Ree sets off through the mountain community, calling on a series of people who may have information about her father’s whereabouts, all of whom seem to have at least a thin familial link to her and all of whom, in one way or another, seem to be involved in the drug trade. Meth is the drug of choice, though it doesn’t seem to have made much money for anyone; everyone appears to live an existence as hand-to-mouth as Ree and her family. No one wants to tell her anything and most encourage her to stop digging around for information, including her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), who warns her that she has no idea what she's getting herself into or what unspoken codes of conduct she's breaching. But she can't stop. One way or another, she has to find her father.

Much of the film's success depends on Granik's ability to covey a sense of the community in which Ree is living. These are people who are at once tightly-knit (at one point Ree remarks, "We're all related, aren't we?") but also set apart from each other in isolated, fiercely loyal pockets. They are mistrustful of outsiders such as the sheriff and the bail bondsman, but also of insider-outsiders like Ree, who can speak their language but isn't really one of them. They are capable of generosity (despite the poverty that runs rampant everywhere she goes most of the people Ree visits offer her money or food after refusing to answer her questions) but also of startling, vicious brutality. There is always a danger with stories and characters like this that the film may lapse into folksy primitivism or a fetishization of poverty, but Granik sidesteps that by taking a very direct view. She confronts these characters and the grim landscape in which they live head-on, fostering a very lived-in feel in the setting and plunging us into this world rather than viewing it from the outside. She adopted a similar approach in her previous film Down to the Bone and if anything it works even better here. We're in it but, as viewers, we're also outside of it and we see it through the eyes of Ree who occupies a similar position. She is capable of understanding what's going on but she may never be able see the full and complete picture.

Any discussion of Winter's Bone has to include mention of the performance by Jennifer Lawrence, who announces herself here as an actress to watch out for (and whose next film is, unfortunately, the Mel Gibson-starring The Beaver). In her hands Ree is a character who is strong but not cocky, someone whose existence seems to be an exercise in swallowing ones pride. Without her, the family would be sunk and she knows it so she keeps it together for them as best she can and teaches her younger siblings essential lessons in how to get by. She is an endlessly compelling character and Lawrence's performance feels authentic to the core. I would recommend Winter's Bone on the strength of her performance alone, but luckily everything around it is just as riveting.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009)

* * 1/2

Director: Daniel Alfredson
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist

Man, I wanted so much to like this movie. I loved the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (even more than the book, in fact) and The Girl Who Played with Fire was my favourite of the books, but I just was not feeling this adaptation. It retains the action from the novel but lacks the thematic ambition of both its source and its predecessor film, resulting in a rather generic action thriller.

Noomi Rapace is back as Lisbeth Salander, anti-social computer hacker and trouble magnet. About a year has passed since the events in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Lisbeth has been enjoying her embezzled money on a beach in the Caribbean, having abruptly disappeared without a word to any of the people in her life. When she returns to Sweden and sets about re-establishing some of her former connections she’s met with disdain by some, knowing amusement by others, and fear by her legal guardian Bjurman (Peter Andersson), whom she visits in the middle of the night to warn him against trying to have that tattoo she gave him in the first story removed. This visit sets off a chain reaction which results in three deaths, a manhunt for Lisbeth, and the re-emergence of Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), a dangerous man from her past.

While Lisbeth is evading capture by the police and hunting down Zalachenko to take care of their unfinished business, her friend and former lover Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) tackles the issue of trying to prove that she's innocent of the three murders. One of the victims was Blomkvist’s colleague who was working with his girlfriend (another of the victims) to expose a large scale sex trafficking ring and the high profile men who took advantage of it. Zalachenko’s name pops up again and again in the investigation materials, leading Blomkvist to believe that he’s set Lisbeth up, a belief which is solidified when he uncovers the link between the two as well as Zalachenko’s ties to the Swedish secret police.

If you’ve been in a book store in the last year or so, you’ve no doubt seen Stieg Larsson’s books and their daunting density (though have no fear: their size is partly due to Larsson’s fixation on the minutiae of his characters’ lives which includes descriptions of Lisbeth’s shopping trips to Ikea and her reliance on a Swedish culinary delicacy known as Billy’s Pan Pizza). The plot as it is set out in the novel is dense but that’s because it examines things from multiple angles, following both Lisbeth and Blomkvist, but also following the police investigation from the inside, exploring the network of assorted bad guys, and using all of these threads to continue the examination of institutionalized misogyny that began in the previous story. One of the weaknesses of the film is that it drops most of the stuff involving the police investigation and entirely abandons the part of the plot dealing with how the press twists the story to sensationalistic extremes in order to vilify Lisbeth. The film presents a very streamlined version of the plot, which isn’t a problem in and of itself (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was streamlined as well), but it’s done rather inelegantly here and much of The Girl Who Played with Fire feels like it’s just setting the stage for what will happen in the next film. I won’t fault the film for its abrupt, non-resolution ending since one scene essentially straddles the second and third book, but I do fault it for the perfunctory way that it goes about establishing story elements and characters that will carry over to the next film and for the way that it seems to de-contextualize the violence. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was extremely violent as well (arguably even more brutally so than this one) but it used that violence as part of its exploration of the relationship of women to society, whereas here it feels more like violence for the sake of violence, events that are isolated rather than woven into the larger picture.

That’s what disappointed me about the film, but there were things that I liked about it as well. Rapace turns in another great performance as Lisbeth, particularly in the scene where Lisbeth and Zalachenko finally come face to face. She’s such an emotionally remote character, never registering much in the way of a change in demeanour, but in that scene she just can’t contain her glee at seeing the lingering effects of the injury she inflicted on him. The way that Rapace and Staykov play off of each other is note perfect and illuminates another side of Lisbeth, helping to more fully develop the character. Of course shortly thereafter things go horribly, horribly wrong for her but her singular determination to definitively settle the score with Zalachenko allows her to literally dig herself out of the situation. She’s a force to be reckoned with and, once again, Rapace is totally up to the task of playing her (and looks pretty cool kicking ass, riding motorcycles, and psychologically terrorizing some bad, bad dudes). I just wish that the film had a little bit more depth.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Adaptations I'd Like To See

#5: Life of Pi

Once upon a time Jean-Pierre Jeunet (of Amelie fame) was set to adapt this book, which would have been awesome. Since then Ang Lee's name has been attached (so has the dredded term "3D") and budget issues have set things back. Hopefully some day this project will actually come to fruition.

#4: Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood's tale of man-made apocalypse and its sequel are compelling (and kinda scary) books that could probably make an easy transition to the screen. The only thing about it that gives me pause are those "pigoons," which are super creepy in the books and, I would imagine, would be even creepier in film form.

#3: Not Wanted On The Voyage

Timothy Findley's take on the story of Noah's Ark is different in that it's a political allegory for gay rights specifically and civil rights in general. The role of domineering, hubris-prone Noah has Anthony Hopkins written all over it.

#2: The Price of Salt

I read this novel recently and was startled by how direct it is given its subject matter and the year in which it came out (1952). It's a beautifully rendered story and offers two great roles for women. I'm actually really surprised that it hasn't been adapted into a film already.

#1: Property

Property is about slavery. It's also about women's rights and about the relationship between citizen and nation. Everyone, in some way, is treated as "property." Like The Price of Salt, the story features two great roles for women in the form of Manon and Sarah, her slave. Get on it Hollywood!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Exotica (1994)

* * * 1/2

Director: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Mia Kirshner, Elias Koteas, Don McKellar

Late in Atom Egoyan's Exotica strip club owner Zoe (Arsinee Khanjian) explains to patron Francis (Bruce Greenwood) that Exotica isn't a place where people come to heal. In a film where characters seem acutely, painful self-aware, this comment stands out as almost laughably naive. Of course Exotica is where people come to heal; just look at how many walking wounded come through its doors.

Exotica is the name of a club where Christina (Mia Kirshner) works, doing the same school girl act night after night while the DJ (Elias Koteas) waxes poetic about her "special innocence." One of the patrons captivated by that innocence is Francis, who has a connection to Christina outside the little world of Exotica, and waits for her every night so that he can have a private dance. Seeing her is a compulsion for him, a necessity; something he seems to need rather than enjoy. As we learn later, seeing him is also a necessity for her, something which has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with a shared pain from the past.

This story eventually intersects with that of Thomas (Don McKellar), a pet store owner involved in a lucrative smuggling opperation. Francis is the CRA agent assigned to audit Thomas' records and, after things go very wrong one night at Exotica, he blackmails Thomas into a "you help me, I help you" scheme. Things don't work out exactly as planned, but that's part of what makes Exotica such a strong movie.

The thing that makes Exotica so compelling is that so much of it is predicated on illusion both in terms of the story's content - the performance aspect of Christina's job is an obvious illusion, as is the idea that a patron can have a private dance in a place where someone is always watching the people who are watching - and the way that the story is told. Egoyan sets things up so that we think one thing and then he slowly folds the narrative back to reveal that it's actually something else. For example, an early transition finds us going from watching Francis at Exotica to sitting in a car with a very young Sarah Polley, giving her money and asking if she'll be available again soon. The scene is set up to have very sinister connotations but we later learn that she's his niece and that he pays her to come to his house and pretend to babysit while he's at Exotica. His motivations for doing this are revealed later still.

For the most part the connections between the characters are revealed early - we know how Christina and the DJ first met, how Christina knows Francis, and the tragedy that drives Francis back to Exotica night after night - but that works because unlike a lot of films that involve multiple characters and stories that ultimately converge, the point of this one isn't to reveal how they're all connected. Instead the connections are used to expand our understanding of the characters as individuals and as the film progresses those relationships keep gaining depth. Between its excellent screenplay and a cast that's great across the board (Greenwood, in particular, makes an impression), the film is resonant and endlessly fascinating - one viewing really isn't enough to fully appreciate what it is able to accomplish. The only real criticism that I have is that it feels a bit dated, much more so than many other films to come out the same year. Still, it remains an excellent film and is certainly one of Egoyan's best.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Review: The Matchmaker (1997)

* * *

Director: Mark Joffe
Starring: Janeane Garofalo

In my perfect world Janeane Garofalo would be a go-to actress for romantic comedies and more romantic comedies would be of the type that an actress like Garofalo would star in. Romantic comedies don't have to be these deep, profound things (though, of course, they can be), but it's nice when it seems like someone has put a bit of thought and creative effort into one rather than just connecting a bunch of formulaic dots. This is my roundabout way of saying that I really like The Matchmaker, a Janeane Garofalo starring romantic comedy that manages to be a total genre picture while still seeming fresh and a bit different.

Garofalo stars as Marcy Tizard, a campaign worker for a beleaguered politician (Jay O. Sanders) who decides, in a fit of desperation, to attempt to win the Irish vote by sending Marcy to Ireland to uncover his ancestoral roots. Marcy arrives and enters into your basic fish-out-of-water scenario, where her big city ways come into conflict with the rhythms of the village in which she begins her work. To make matters worse, she's arrived right at the beginning of the annual matchmaking festival and finds herself fending off attempts to be set up and married off.

While staying at a local inn, Marcy begins a love-hate relationship with Sean (David O'Hara), the brother of one of the owners. Their attraction to each other is apparent but they spend most of their time bickering, which does nothing to dissuade Dermot (Milo O'Shea), one of the matchmakers, from continuously putting them into situations where they have to spend time together and may even come to like each other. The plot takes a few more twists from here, but I think you know where it's going.

The bare bones of the plot are nothing new. We know from their first fight that Marcy and Sean will fall for each other, that at the moment when it seems like they'll get together The Romantic Complication will be introduced, but that the film will nevertheless manage to close with a kiss. There's nothing revolutionary about where the film ends up relative to where it starts, but it makes getting there a fun ride. The screenplay is sharp and the repartee is well-delivered by the actors, particularly Garofalo and O'Hara. The film is terrifically quotable (whenever I see a seaplane, I always think of Marcy's reaction upon seeing the plane she transfers to once she gets to Europe: "It's a little baby planelet.") and filled with several memorable exchanges, including my favourite ever movie exchange between a drunk character and a cop:
Marcy (after being arrested for vandalism): "You know what this is? A police station."
Cop (bewildered by her emphasis on the obvious): "Yeah."
Marcy: "Staaaaate! It is a police state!"

Seeing it in writting really doesn't do it justice, though. You have to be able to see the expression on Garofalo's face when she realizes her drunken faux pas and then very adamently corrects it.

I've always found Garofalo to be a winning screen presence, perhaps largely because much of her high profile acting work took place when I was in junior high and high school and I found her to be one of the more easily relatable actors out there (am I revealing too much about myself if I say that I totally relate to Heather from Romy and Michele's High School Reunion? Yeah, probably. Fuck off, Toby). I find her particularly likeable here and surrounded by other likeable characters (plus a character played by Dennis Leary, just to balance things out), it results in a very enjoyable movie. The plot may be predictable, but The Matchmaker is still very much worth a look.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Review: Dangerous Beauty (1998)

* * * 1/2

Director: Marshall Herskovitz
Starring: Catherine McCormack, Rufus Sewell, Oliver Platt

I have long harbored an affection for the under seen, under appreciated Dangerous Beauty. I am well aware of its weaknesses but overall I find the film rather irresistible. I think it comes down to a couple of things: a) I love a lush, well-rendered period piece; b) the curiosity factor that inevitably arises when you think about the fact that star Catherine McCormack's career never really took off (and why not? She's a terrific actress) while supporting player Naomi Watts was just three years away from her game changing performance in Mulholland Drive; and c) and the film's strange but totally workable mix of gratuitous nudity and overt feminism.

Loosely (very) based on a true story, the film is set in 16th century Venice and centers on Veronica Franco (McCormack), a poet and courtesan. In love with Marco (Rufus Sewell), her best friend's (Moira Kelly) brother, but unable to be with him because his social standing is so much higher than her own, Veronica reluctantly enters into the sex trade with the encouragement of her mother (Jacqueline Bisset). Her mother, who was once herself a celebrated courtesan, reasons that it would be better for Veronica to take advantage of the freedom and independence offered to courtesans rather than make an unhappy marriage with a man of her own station, and it doesn't take Veronica long to come around to her mother's way of thinking, especially once she discovers that she can parlay the work into getting her poetry published. It isn't long before she's as famous for her intellect and verses as she is for her sexual prowess.

Though she has many clients, she refuses Marco, who has since made a desired match with Giulia (Naomi Watts), a woman he cannot relate to on any level. Eventually Veronica and Marco embark on an affair and she gives up prostitution in order to live exclusively as his mistress, though she refuses to be economically supported by him. For a time they live together away from Venice, isolated and happy, but it isn't long before the outside world begins to intrude on their idyll. Venice is about to go to war, which means that Marco's services will be called upon. To go to war, Venice will need the support of France's army and in exchange King Henry (Jake Weber) wants the services of Venice's best courtesan, which means that Veronica's services will be called upon as well. To make things worse, while the city's most powerful men are away fighting, the Inquisition comes to town and Marco's cousin (Oliver Platt), whose advances Veronica had once spurned, puts her directly in the tribunal's sights.

The film spends a lot of time analyzing and discussing the impossible position of women in this particular time and place. Women's education consists pretty much entirely of knowing how to be a submissive wife and their value is derived from being able to make a good marriage and bear children to carry on their husbands' legacies. The rules are different, however, for women existing outside of proper society and the thing that finally sways Veronica is the promise of access to the library; "good women" aren't supposed to read because by doing so they might gain unladylike knowledge, but courtesans, aside from the fact that they aren't considered ladylike anyway because of their occupation, are expected to be well read so that they can converse freely with their patrons and fully appreciate the thoughts and opinions of the men in their lives. The courtesans are unencumbered by typical social conventions, though the film harbors no illusions that that ultimately makes their lives easier. "My cage seems bigger," Veronica advises a friend, "but it is still a cage." Veronica's life is just as difficult and her position just as tenuous as other women, the difficulties just take a different shape and existing outside of the rules of society also, of course, means existing outside whatever protections society might offer. Veronica has gained certain privileges but she has gained them in exchange for rights she would have had if she had married and become a legitimate/recognized part of society.

Interestingly, and to the film's credit, it views the rigid rules which define "acceptable" womanhood as disenfranchising to men as well as to women. Giulia may be a proper society woman but it's her lack of intellect as much as her sexual frigidity that drives Marco to the company of courtesans. He literally cannot talk to her because she's been raised to believe that she shouldn't know anything or have an opinion about anything. She's an absent presence and he has married an empty symbol. It's a recipe for dissatisfaction and the film makes a solid argument that equality of the sexes enriches the quality of life for everyone, not just women.

Though it occasionally veers towards the melodramatic, particularly in its final act, Dangerous Beauty is for the most part a well written and well realized film. It finds a nice balance between the witty comedy of the first act, the sweeping romance of the second, and the drama and tragedy of the third. At the centre of it all is a great performance by McCormack, who absolutely should have become a big star on the strength of this film. Underrated hardly seems like a strong enough word for this entire endeavour.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Review: Revanche (2008)

* * * *

Director: Gotz Spielmann
Starring: Johannes Krisch, Ursula Strauss, Andreas Lust, Johannes Thanheiser, Irina Potapenko

I first heard about Revanche when it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film a couple of years ago and have been waiting to see it ever since. The odds, seemingly, were against me since it never came to theaters here and isn't available in any video store near me but after months at the top of my Netflix queue, I finally got to see it. Fortunately, the film was very much worth all that waiting as it proves to be a masterful piece of work.

The film begins with Alex (Johannes Krisch) and Tamara (Irina Potapenko). Both work in a Vienna brothel, he as a bouncer, she as a prostitute, and they carry on a relationship is secret. When the owner of the brothel begins to express a greater than usual interest in Tamara, Alex’s vague desire to get out of the city becomes more urgent and he comes up with a plan to rob a bank and make a new life for himself and Tamara far away from Vienna. For her part, Tamara is resigned to her fate and has a bad feeling about Alex’s plan. Nothing will go wrong, he assures her, because his plan is meticulous and his gun won’t even be loaded. What he doesn’t count on is that a cop will stumble across the getaway and that Tamara will accidentally be killed in the process.

Alex hides out in the country at the home of his grandfather Hausner (Johannes Thanheiser), wracked with grief and intent on getting revenge against the cop. The cop is Robert (Andreas Lust), who also lives in the village and is himself eaten up with guilt over Tamara’s death, leading him to become increasingly withdrawn from his wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss). Susanne is friends with Hausner, checking up on him from time to time and taking him into town for church. When Alex arrives at the home, Susanne goes out of her way to try to engage him despite his coldness until he finally snaps at her, at which point she drops the social niceties and simply requests that he come to her house that evening, as her husband won’t be home. Their encounter is simple and direct and while Susanne worries afterwards that Alex may tell Robert about it, what Alex actually intends to do is kill him.

Though perhaps best described as a thriller, the plot of Revanche doesn’t twist and turn in the way typical of the genre. It’s actually a fairly straightforward plot with a heavy emphasis on developing the characters and their relationships and the five people with whom the story is concerned are distinct and well-developed. Tamara, originally from the Ukraine and (it is suggested) brought into Vienna through sex trafficking, is a character without illusions, numbed to life by drugs and her experiences in the sex trade, though with Alex she has moments of genuine happiness. Alex, though a long way into a life of crime, is a more optimistic character who truly believes in the picture of happiness that he paints for Tamara. When he loses her he becomes consumed by thoughts of revenge, metaphorically expressed through the ever growing pile of wood he chops for his grandfather. Without knowing what has brought Alex to his home, Hausner simply regards him as a hard worker he’s glad to have around as he continues to mourn the loss of his wife and refuses any suggestion of packing it in and moving to a seniors’ home. Robert is a remote character, battling guilt over Tamara’s death as well as both personal and professional humiliation. The professional comes from the fact that he was aiming for the getaway car’s tires, the personal stemming from his inability to conceive a baby with Susanne. If there is a wildcard, it is Susanne, as she clumsily enters into an affair with Alex (drawn to him, perhaps, by convenience rather than desire) while also working to bridge the distance that has developed between herself and Robert. Like Alex she is driven by a singular desire, though in her case it’s to create life rather than take one.

Written and directed by Gotz Spielmann, the film unfolds at a meditative pace that allows it to consistently build tension. Spielmann creates an interesting contrast between the atmosphere and the mise en scene, playing a desolate mood against the lush natural backdrop of the countryside and the forest that surrounds it. It’s amazing how oppressive and closed in all that open space ends up feeling as the film progresses, particularly that trail through the woods to which the camera seems compelled to pan. The little world that Spielmann creates here is wholly engrossing and when the story reaches its end, you can't help but wonder what will become of the characters beyond the film's borders. I can't recommend this movie more highly - hopefully you'll have an easier time getting hold of a copy than I did.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Vampires Who Don't Sparkle

#5: Eli, Let The Right One In

A creepy little girl... or boy, sure, but when you're in trouble she's apparently a pretty good friend to have.

#4: David, The Lost Boys

... David, on the other hand, is not such a good friend to have. Still, it's not so hard to see why Michael would accept his invitation to "join the club."

#3: Miriam, The Hunger

If I have to tell you why, then you haven't seen The Hunger. Dude, go see The Hunger.

#2: Count Orlok, Nosferatu

One of the greatest (and scariest) movie villains ever. Willem Dafoe brilliantly played up Max Schreck's terrifying screen persona in Shadow of the Vampire, but if you haven't already, you've got to see the performance that inspired it.

#1: Dracula, various films

Dracula, the name synonymous with the word "vampire." He has been portrayed by many actors over the course of several decades of film with seemingly no limit to the genres he can be fit into. Gary Oldman remains my personal favourite Dracula, but there are plenty of good one to choose from.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Grown Up Movie Star (2009)

* * *

Director: Adriana Maggs
Starring: Tatiana Maslany, Shawn Doyle

I don't know what it is about Canadian filmmakers, but they seem to excel at coming-of-age stories. Off the top of my head: Flower and Garnet, Lost and Delirious, Punch, New Waterford Girl, C.R.A.Z.Y., It's Not Me I Swear!. And now, Grown Up Movie Star, an alternately funny and touching film about both coming-of-age and coming out.

The film centers on Ruby (Tatiana Maslany), your typical coming-of-age heroine who is too big for her small surroundings and dreams of escaping to greater things. Her mother has taken off for the States to pursue her dreams of movie stardom, leaving Ruby and her sister Rose (Julia Kennedy) to be raised by their father, Ray (Shawn Doyle). Ray is a former NHL player whose career ended in disgrace after being convicted of drug trafficking and now he's sort of aimless and definitely unprepared to deal with the issues that arise as a result of Ruby taking her first steps into adulthood.

Much of the story is concerned with questions about, and explorations of, sexuality. Ruby develops a crush on Will (Mark O'Brien), the new boy in school who seems somewhat glamorous to her because he comes from the States. She has a harmless make out session with her female best friend, and develops an increasingly dangerous intimacy with her father's best friend, Stuart (Jonny Harris), an amateur photographer who agrees to take Ruby's head shots so that she can join her mother in the U.S. and try to make it in movies herself. Though innocent enough at first, the photo sessions quickly take on darker undertones and Ruby finds herself in the midst of a power relationship that she has no idea how to negotiate, which makes its effects all the more painful.

Running alongside Ruby's story of sexual self-discovery is Ray's, which is just as fraught and traumatic. For years Ray has kept the fact that he's gay under wraps, trying to mask it with his marriage and his status as an athlete, though as the film carries on it becomes clear that his sexuality is more or less an open secret, something people know about but don't talk about. Unbeknownst to Ruby and Rose (for a while, at least), their father's affair with the high school's hockey coach (Steve Cochrane) was real reason their mother left and when Ruby finds out it makes her relationship with her father even more strained. Though shocked by the discovery, Ruby's only real problem with it is Ray's steadfast refusal to be honest about it, denying it just as he's denying the inevitability of Ruby becoming a sexual being. The relationship between father and daughter is presented in a complex and intense way. There's the sense that they want to get along and like each other, but are just so deeply at odds with the way they view things that the process of reconciling themselves to each other is made all the more difficult.

Because the story divides itself fairly evenly between Ruby and Ray's journies of self-discovery, the burden of carrying the film ends up being shouldered by both Maslany and Doyle. This is good because while Maslany excels at scenes which lean more towards comedy (the verbal sparring matches between Ruby and her grandfather are a particular treat), she's a bit weaker when it comes to the more dramatic moments, with the exception a crucial scene between Ruby and Stuart in which her vulnerability and uncertainty take things to a level where it's almost unbearable to watch, it feels so intense and real. As for Doyle, he does an excellent job with his profoundly conflicted character, guiding him from denial to a tacit kind of acceptance. The ending of the film could be stronger, but all in all it makes for a very satisfying viewing experience thanks in no small part to the performances.