Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Friday, February 29, 2008

As If We Need Another Reason to Hate The Harper Government...

...and as if the Canadian film and television industries didn't already have enough problems what with the fact that Canadians actually have so little access to their own product, now the Conservatives want to decide whether or not certain films and television series can be made at all. Rest assured, though, that the government only wants to stop funding for productions deemed "offensive" or "not in the public's best interest" - because the last thing people in a democratic nation want is the ability to determine for themselves whether or not something offends them. So lets all get down on our knees and thank the Conservatives for stepping up to the plate to protect us from ourselves. Perhaps once they've finished with that, they can get around to trying to protect us from outside forces because, as most Canadians know, if something happens to you outside of Canada's borders, the government will do, oh, just about nothing to help you.

For more information on the Conservatives' latest nefarious plan visit The Globe and Mail. From the article: "The government – and Heritage – are of the view that they should have prerogative to assess whether a particular film, TV production or book meets their public policy criteria... And if it doesn't, they should have the right to decline to invest in it. They don't view this as censorship because they say anyone is free to make the film or show or book, but not with their money.” The opperative words being their money because, of course, it's our money, our tax dollars supposedly going towards something for our benefit.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Academy Award Winners

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men

Best Director: Joel & Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men)

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose)

Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)

Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)

Best Original Screenplay: Diablo Cody (Juno)

Best Adapted Screenplay: Joel & Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men)

Best Film Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum

Best Cinematography: There Will Be Blood

Best Art Direction: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Best Costume Design: Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Best Makeup: La Vie En Rose

Best Original Score: Atonement

Best Original Song: "Falling Slowly" (Once)

Best Visual Effects: The Golden Compass

Best Sound Mixing: The Bourne Ultimatum

Best Sound Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum

Best Foreign Language Film: The Counterfeiters (Austria)

Best Documentary Feature: Taxi To The Dark Side

Best Animated Feature: Ratatouille

Best Animated Short: Peter and the Wolf

Best Documentary Short: Freeheld

Best Live Action Short: Le Mozart des Pickpockets

Oscar Predictions

The big day is upon us, here are my final predictions for tonight's show:

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men

Best Director: Joel & Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men)

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose)
(My head says Christie, but my heart says Cotillard)

Best Supporting Actress: Ruby Dee (American Gangster)

Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)

Best Original Screenplay: Diablo Cody (Juno)

Best Adapted Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)

Best Film Editing: No Country For Old Men

Best Cinematography: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Best Art Direction: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Best Costume Design: Atonement

Best Makeup: La Vie En Rose

Best Original Score: Atonement

Best Original Song: "Falling Slowly" (Once)

Best Visual Effects: Transformers

Best Sound Mixing: The Bourne Ultimatum

Best Sound Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum

Best Foreign Language Film: The Counterfeiters (Austria)

Best Documentary Feature: No End In Sight

Best Animated Feature: Ratatouille

Best Animated Short: Madame Tutli-Putli

Best Documentary Short: Freeheld

Best Live Action Short: Le Mozart des Pickpockets

Friday, February 22, 2008

Canadian Film Review: The Saddest Music in the World (2003)

Director: Guy Maddin
Starring: Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney

Guy Maddin’s surrealist masterpiece The Saddest Music in the World may very well be the best Canadian film ever made. It defies the simple definitions imposed by genre keywords and stylist descriptors and delivers something truly unique. Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney, Maria de Medeiros, David Fox and Ross McMillan appear in the film, but the real star is Maddin himself, whose guiding hand isn’t hidden within the material but comes vehemently to the foreground, shaping and smashing the film’s images before our very eyes.

The film is designed to look as if it’s a lost classic that has been rediscovered and restored, but it’s aesthetic (which evokes both the silent era and the early Golden Age Hollywood era) is mixed with a post-modernist reflexivity. The plot concerns the commodification of genuine emotion and its subsequent mutation as it becomes a product for the masses, and we are consistently made aware of the construction of emotion and the construction of the context in which emotions are presented. We are kept at arm’s length from this film, not meant to really feel for the tragic circumstances of the characters, even those that in any other context would easily elicit our emotions.

The Kent family, who occupy the center of the narrative and consist of Chester (McKinney), Roderick (McMillan) and their father Fyodor (Fox), have experienced real tragedy, but it is presented in an overtly stylized way which prevents genuine identification and feeling from the audience. The family’s matriarch dies when Roderick and Chester are young boys (and, importantly, while the family is playing music together), Roderick’s son dies and his wife disappears, and Chester and Fyodor’s battle for the affections of Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Rossellini) results in an accident which leaves her without legs.

The brothers are set up are polar opposites. Both grow up to become ex-patriots, with Roderick going East and becoming a Czech known the world over as Gravillo the Great, and Chester becoming an American, joining the ranks of the most “Western” of Western peoples. Chester is presented as someone who lacks the ability to connect to emotion – he feels no guilt over Lady Port-Huntley’s accident, feels no sadness for Roderick’s loss of wife and child, seems to feel nothing for his lover, Narcissa (de Medeiros) – but is able to recognize the marketable potential of real emotion. Roderick, on the other hand, is someone who connects only to extreme emotions, so extreme in fact that the world has become too much for him and he wears a veil to protect himself from the light, is driven to distraction by the rumbling of a stomach in the crowded audience, and recoils from even the lightest touch. Fyodor falls somewhere in between the two poles, able to feel real emotion like Roderick, but, like Chester, he is also able to construct a presentation of emotion that is most likely to engender the desired response.

All three come together and compete (each representing their respective nations) in a contest being held by Lady Port-Huntley to find the nation which has the saddest music in the world. However, the real goal of the competition is for Lady Port-Huntley to promote her beer and make people sad enough that all they want to do is drink it (“If you’re sad and like beer, I’m your lady”). The competition is presented as a circus of the grotesque with the participants trying to out-do each other in head-to-head showdowns until one is declared the winner and must then descend a slide into a pool of beer. Meanwhile, two overly upbeat commentators punctuate the competition with play-by-play observations like “No one can beat the Siamese when it comes to dignity, cats or twins.”

It eventually comes down to Chester and Roderick, Chester having risen to the top not by performing, but by constructing a show around the “sadness” and by amalgamating into his own team those who have already been eliminated and those he’s able to intimidate into dropping out. In the final showdown, Lady Port-Huntley herself participates in Chester’s big show, showing off the new set of legs that were made for her by Fyodor – glass legs filled with beer. Now not only is she making pain a commodity, but she has allowed her physical self to become a product as well.

There is a lot going on in this film and it can be difficult at times to feel like you’ve got a firm grasp on it, but Maddin skilfully guides all the elements, deftly merging the comedy, drama and absurdity of the story. The cast is wonderful, especially Rossellini who finds just the right note between madness and ridiculousness. McKinney is occasionally problematic as Chester, seeming to skirt above the material rather than engage with it, but in certain respects that works. Chester is, after all, not really “there,” but a product of the smoke and mirrors showmanship that marks his act. Like the sadness in the competition, his self is not real but a parody of the real.

This is a startlingly original film, both unwieldy and graceful, ugly and beautiful. Once you see it, you won’t be able to get it out of your head, it’s fiercely constructed images echoing back to you. Even if you aren’t sad and don’t like beer, this just might be the movie for you.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Best & Worst of Oscars Past

With the big show getting closer every minute, I thought I'd take a look back at some of my favorite (and least favorite) wins from past Oscars, warming up my capacity for pointless bitching in preparation for the anticipated bitching that I'll be doing on Monday. So, without further ado...

Best Year For Oscars: 1939 - there were ten Best Picture nominees that year (Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Of Mice and Men, Love Affair, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory) and while some have held up better than others over the past decades, any five would make a pretty impressive set of nominees. This year also finds Clark Gable, James Stewart and Laurence Olivier competing for Best Actor; Vivien Leigh, Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Greta Garbo and Irenne Dunne as the Actress nominees; and The Wizard of Oz taking Best Song for "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."

Worst Year For Oscars: 2000. I honestly can't think of a less inspiring Best Picture lineup than Gladiator, Chocolat, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I thought Crouching Tiger was wonderful, I liked Chocolat and Erin Brockovich for what they were (Chocolat is an enjoyable film, Brockovich is a TV movie glorified by the fact that it stars Julia Roberts), I thought Traffic was okay but didn't live up to what it was aspiring to achieve, and I hated Gladiator.

Worst Best Picture Winner: The Broadway Melody (1929). I assume that it's popularity hinged primarily on the fact that sound was still a novelty and that it was the first full-length movie musical, because there's not much else to recommend it. By the standards of any age, this is a hokey, stilted and poorly executed film.

Most Unfairly Maligned Best Picture Winner: How Green Was My Valley (1941). I am in no way suggesting that this film is better than Citizen Kane, because it's not. But Citizen Kane was never going to walk away with Best Picture. It's an outsider movie, while How Green Was My Valley is composed of exactly what the Academy loves to honor and is directed by John Ford, someone the Academy loved to honor. And, besides, How Green is a perfectly good movie. If you ranked the Picture winners from best to worst in order of quality, How Green probably wouldn't be in your top 20, but it wouldn't be in the bottom 20 either. It's a middle of the road winner that doesn't deserve the flack it gets for having beaten out a great movie that, like many great movies, was destined to be an Oscar also-ran.

Best Reason Not To Give "Oops, sorry about last time" Oscars: There are a lot of contenders for this, but I'd have to go with Russell Crowe winning for Gladiator if only because if the Academy had been patient for one year, they could have honored him for A Beautiful Mind. Admitedly, by the time that Oscar year came around, Crowe was already well on the road to being Hollywood's most publicized asshole, but I have to imagine that winning the Oscar sped the process up and that it may have been delayed by a year if he'd been passed over.

Worst Presenter: Julia Roberts presenting Best Actor in 2002, proclaiming "I love my life," before announcing Denzel Washington as winner. I don't have anything against Julia Roberts (in fact, I kind of like her and probably saw everything she made from My Best Friend's Wedding to Ocean's Eleven in the theater, and yes that includes The Mexican and Stepmom), but goddamn not everything has to be about you.

Best Montgage: Tie. I loved last year's montage of Foreign Film winners, and I'd be remiss if I didn't include 2002's montage of New York on film.

Worst Montage: Last year's tribute to writers writing... just what the hell was that, anyway?

Worst Nomination of the 21st Century: Taylor Hackford, Best Director for Ray. Ray is a film that suceeds on the strength of its performances despite the fact that it is an absolute mess of a movie. Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind), Marc Forster (Finding Neverland), Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), Bill Condon (Kinsey) - any one of these directors would have been more deserving of the spot.

Worst Win of the 21st Century: Jennifer Hudson, Best Supporting Actress for Dreamgirls. She's good, I won't deny it, but this is a case where the character won the award and not the actor. Any actor could have been nominated playing this role, it's an "Oscar role" if ever there was one.

Best Oscar Rule: Whatever rule it is that allows past nominee Sally Kirkland to bring her crazy ass to the show every year.

Best Reason To Visit YouTube: Words cannot properly describe the mesmerizing trainwreck that is the Rob Lowe-Snow White number. If you've never seen it, seek it out. You won't regret it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Review: The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club is a surprising movie. At first glance it seems to fit easily with that all-purpose and odiously named sub-genre the “chick flick,” but it has little in common with your average romantic comedy. Instead, this film is more like Woody Allen's relationship movies (albeit not nearly as sharp), in that it's about intelligent people who actually talk – and about actual things - who have believable relationships complicated not by plot devices but by natural conflict, and who read books. What a novel concept.

It begins with two marriages, one of the verge of collapse and the other in the process of collapsing. Daniel (Jimmy Smitts) tells Sylvia (Amy Brenamen) that he's leaving her for another woman after twenty years of marriage. Meanwhile, Prudie (Emily Blunt) has been disappointed by life once more upon discovering that the trip she and husband, Dean (Marc Blucas) were taking to Paris has been unceremoniously cancelled by him so that he can go on a business trip closer to home. Prudie is a high school French teacher who has always dreamed of going to Paris and is devastated by the loss, so much so that she lashes out at a stranger while standing in line to see a film. It is here that she meets Bernadette (Kathy Baker) and they discover a mutual love of Jane Austen. Bernadette invites Prudie to join a book club she's forming in the hope of cheering Sylvia up. Also in the club are Sylvia's daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace), Sylvia's best friend Jocelyn (Mario Bello) and Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a guy Jocelyn met and seeks to set up with Sylvia, a plan which goes awry when she falls for him herself (shades of Emma).

The group meets once a month with each member responsible for one novel. In between meetings, the drama in their lives hightens. Sylvia tries to get over Daniel, who continues to linger on the edge of her life as if he's still got one foot in the marriage. Prudie's marriage continues to fall apart under the weight of their lack of communication, her problems with her mother (Lynn Redgrave), and her flirtation with one of her students (Kevin Zegers). Allegra begins a relationship with a writer (Parisa Fitz-Henley) who, it turns out, is using her for material. Jocelyn and Grigg fall for each other, despite seeming to have nothing in common – he's younger, has never read Jane Austen before (instead of buying the books individually he buys an anthologized version and is surprised to learn that they aren't a series) and is heavily devoted to science fiction. He gives her some of his favorite books, which she doesn't read because she's a book snob (“When you've actually read them,” he tells her, “I'll be interested in your opinion”). Of the six, only Bernadette gets no life outside of the book club, which may or may not be an intentional commentary on the way that older women get short shrift in Austen's novels, which tend to revolve completely around young lovers.

Discussions grow more heated as the lives of the six begin to mirror the lives of Austen's characters – this is especially true of Jocelyn and Grigg. “Mrs. Dashwood prefers a more well-ordered life,” Jocelyn says during a discussion of Sense and Sensibility. “Maybe that's why she's such a minor character,” Grigg replies. This isn't a rushed relationship, but one that comes to a slow boil, which makes it all the more compelling (as Austen herself well knew).

The performances are all very good, especially that of Blunt who has arguably the most emotionally charged role. The direction by Robin Swicord (who also adapted the screenplay) is unintrusive, and I liked the motif of Allegra literally falling - first by skydiving, second by falling from a rock climbing wall - for her girlfriends, whom she meets in hospitals. The only real problem I have with the film is the ending, which seems far too neat. Of course, Austen's novels always ended with everyone nicely paired up, but it rings a little false here. Other than that, though, this is a perfectly enjoyable film, especially if you like Austen.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Canadian Film Review: The Delicate Art of Parking (2003)

Director: Trent Carlson
Starring: Fred Ewanuick, Dov Tiefenbach

The Delicate Art of Parking is a funny and surprisingly touching film about people who take their jobs seriously in the face of ridicule and scorn from others. It’s shot in the mockumentary style favoured by Christopher Guest and, like the films of Guest, often veers to extremes of comedic absurdity. But, also like Guest, writer/director Trent Carlson obviously has a soft spot for his characters which provides them with enough humanity to ground the film firmly in reality.

The story begins with Lonny Goosen (Tiefenbach), a documentary filmmaker whose next subject is meant to be an exposé parking enforcement, inspired mainly by Lonny’s staggering number of parking tickets and his assertion that officials have not right to give people tickets. While shooting footage for the film, Lonny and his crew witness a man attack a parking officer, who will go on to be the hero of the film. This is Grant Parker (Ewanuick), a nebbishy guy who believes that he’s doing a public service, even though he understands that the public dislikes it. When asked about the attack, he informs that it’s happened before about six times. But, he points out, since he’s been on the job for seven years, that averages out to less than one attack per year. Grant is a character wonderful in both conception and execution. He takes his job very seriously, clinging fiercely to its regulations. “Some people just don’t finish their park,” he informs us as he measures the distance between the curb and a car, determining that the car is about an inch or two short of regulation. For both the film, and the film within the film, Grant starts out as a figure of fun. But, slowly as the story progresses, he becomes a character that we take seriously, a character of depth and intelligence who simply loves his job.

In the man on the street interviews, we see that parking officers are pretty much universally hated and that people have no respect for what they do. Many, in fact, express their hatred not of the fact that they got a ticket, but of the parking officials themselves., who are mostly seen as somehow not being human. When one parking officer is said to have been run-down by someone to whom he gave a ticket, the general response is that it’s kind of funny, and a few even offer that the officer had it coming. The officer who was run down, it turns out, is Grant’s mentor, Murray. Following the accident, Lonny finagles his way into Murray’s house (which is, actually, his mother’s house) and we see photos of Murray, whom we can’t help but notice looks like an older version of Grant. Like Grant, Murray is treated at first as a figure of fun. “He didn’t graduate high school,” his mother tells us. “To me, he graduated… he graduated shop.” But, by the end of the film, when we’ve learned more about Murray and the circumstances leading up to his accident – a mystery which Grant and Lonny spend most of the film trying to untangle, resulting in some of the film’s funniest and most touching scenes – he, too, is more human to us.

The film’s message is neatly summed up for us by Grant’s friend, Jerome (Tony Conte), who tells us that you have to respect what someone chooses to do, because that’s their life. We might think it’s funny that Grant takes parking enforcement so seriously, but it obviously means something to him. Lonny, certainly, thinks Grant is the punchline to the joke of life… until Grant turns things around on him. What is it, exactly, about Lonny’s job that makes it so important? What does it provide to the rest of the world? What makes it worthy of respect. Lonny insists that his job is worthwhile – though his cameraman points out that he’s never actually finished a film. Lonny stutters and sputters and ultimately can’t come up with any real reason beyond the fact that being a filmmaker is obviously cooler than being a parking officer. This is the turning point in the film, when it shifts its sardonic eye from Grant to the world at large and asks us why we do what we do, and why we think it’s important.

Ewanuick is very good, finding the right balance in the character so that we can both laugh at him and cheer him on. Some of the funniest moments, however, come courtesy of the supporting cast playing the other parking officials, one of whom, when asked what can be done to improve parking officer-public relations, suggests that tickets be laced with a mild sedative. This is a very funny movie, perfectly paced and well-plotted. And for a film about people doing a job that is naturally and automatically despised, it ends on a remarkably triumphant note.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Awards Watch: WGA & BAFTA winners

With the strike resolved just in time for the writers to give out their own awards, Original Screenplay went to Diablo Cody for Juno and Adapted Screenplay to the Coen brothers for No Country For Old Men.

The British Academy of Film and Television has also announced with Atonement being named Best Picture, Joel and Ethan Coen winning Best Director, Daniel Day-Lewis and Marion Cotillard taking the lead actor trophies and supporting going to Tilda Swinton and Javier Bardem. Diablo Cody adds another award to her shelf, winning for Best Original Screenplay, and Ronald Harwood takes the prize for Adapted Screenplay for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Review: The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

It’s a shame that Warner Bros. released this movie with so little ceremony and let it languish and die before it could find a broader audience. This is a film that is visually and narratively stunning. A mournful elegy on a way of life that has passed and a thoughtful meditation on the nature of celebrity. It features two wonderful central performances – those of Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, and Brad Pitt as Jesse James – and is directed with admirable confidence and skill. It’s a film that will reward you if you care to seek it out.

The story begins with the last train robbery of the James gang, headed by Jesse and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard). Bob Ford wanders into the scene, a brother of Charley (Sam Rockwell), one of the gang’s members. He insinuates himself into Jesse’s life, regarding him with a mixture of hero-worship and desire. Frank doesn’t like Bob and later, when Jesse brings Bob home to stay, you get the feeling that Zee James (Mary-Louise Parker) is unsettled by him as well. Eventually, as the title reveals, Bob will slay Jesse, but that’s not where the movie ends. It goes beyond that to examine what it means that Jesse James has been murdered and examines how a criminal who killed people in cold blood became part of the romantic myth of the American west.

Andrew Dominik, who both wrote and directed the film, lets the story unfold slowly. We know where the story is going, but it takes its time getting there, letting us get to know the members of the James gang and get a feel for their relationships and for the surrounding landscape. The landscape becomes another character, sometimes flat and seeming to crush the characters between earth and sky, and always wide-open. Characters appear as specs on the horizon and ride in to focus in a number of beautiful shots. From a purely visual standpoint, my favourite shot is at the beginning, when train the gang is going to rob comes to an abrupt stop in the darkness and Jesse is bathed in the steam from the engine. Throughout the film, Jesse appears to us as if through a mist – the mist of Bob’s mind and the mist of history. There are scenes of voice-over narration over top of images that are just slightly blurry, as if we are watching re-enactments from a historical documentary. Jesse is always at a distance from us – what we know we learn through the voice-over’s flat, matter-of-fact narration, and Bob’s own perspective as he and Jesse dance closer to their destinies.

The moment of truth is fascinating as Jesse, weary and increasingly unstable emotionally, more or less invites Bob to murder him. He removes his guns and places them slowly on his couch for Bob to see, then walks across the room to clean the dust off a photo. In its reflection he sees Bob and allows himself to be shot. For Bob, too, this is treated as something inevitable. After he shoots Jesse, he collapses on the couch, his act having taken everything out of him. You don’t get the feeling that he wanted to kill Jesse as much as he recognized that he must, just as much as Jesse recognized that he had to let him.

As Bob, Casey Affleck runs a gauntlet of character development. We meet him first as an awkward 19-year-old who idolizes the famous outlaw. He wants to be Jesse James. Failing that, he wants to be with Jesse James, as the latent undertone of numerous scenes suggest. Failing that, he must kill Jesse James. Following the murder, for which he’s never charged due to a deal made with the Governor, Bob capitalizes on his own new-found fame, appearing before packed houses for the staging of re-enactments of the murder with Charley playing Jesse. Eventually, he himself is assassinated and he seems to accept it as easily as Jesse did.

The way the film deals with the assassination and its aftermath comments strongly on the nature of celebrity culture. Jesse’s corpse is displayed for the public, photographed, made in to a sideshow much to Zee’s horror. Bob is reviled for having murdered him even though the public flocks to his show, eagerly to see him recreate the murder for them, and even though Jesse murdered a number of people in cold blood. Bob dreams of visiting the families of those people, whom he imagines would thank him for having killed the outlaw. But the bad things Jesse did cease to matter with his death - he becomes a myth, a figure of romance. People pay to tour the homes where he lived, they buy pictures of his corpse, write songs about him, name their children after him. “You’re gonna break a lot of hearts,” Jesse tells Bob. And he does.