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Friday, August 29, 2008

Fall Preview

The best time of the year for movies is quickly approaching - but the news isn't all good. Looking over the slate of fall releases I've picked out the five movies I'm most anticipating, the five movies I'm least anticipating, and one movie about which I remain firmly on the fence.

5 Least Anticipated Movies of the Fall

5. Nights In Rodanthe (September 26): Everything about this movie screams “overwrought.” From the kissing during the storm to the horses running free on the beach to Richard Gere’s angry assertion that he’s a good doctor, damnit! and that doesn’t leave much time to be a good husband and father; the trailer looks more like a parody of a movie than an actual movie.

4. Ghost Town (September 19): Was this really the best vehicle they could find for Ricky Gervais? Every time I see this trailer it makes me sad because he should know better than this.

3. W. (October 29): Too soon. Too soon.

2. My Best Friend's Girl (September 19): I don’t think I could dislike Dane Cook more if he ran over my dog, which naturally makes me predisposed to avoiding his films. And I know that Kate Hudson isn’t the biggest actress in the world, but she’s certainly bigger than starring in a movie where her romantic options are Dane Cook and Jason Biggs, isn't she?

1. Beverly Hills Chihuahua (October 3): My brother has a friend who has a Chihuaha and one time she was telling him a story and gesturing emphatically with her hands and she accidentally poked the Chihuahua in the eye and it didn’t even blink. Chihuahas are creepy. A bunch of them singing and dancing? I just... don't even want to think about it any more.

5 Most Anticipated Movies of the Fall

5. Happy-Go-Lucky (October 10): This looks so completely unlike any Mike Leigh movie I've ever seen that I am absolutely intrigued by it and can't wait to see it.

4. Blindness (September 26): After City of God and The Constant Gardener, Fernando Meirelles pretty much has me in the palm of his hand. Add in Julianne Moore and we’re good to go.

3. Doubt (December 12): I’m tempted to say that this will be Oscar number three for Meryl Streep, but if past Oscar seasons have taught me anything, it’s that you just never know. So I’ll just say that this many great actors in one film will definitely be worth a look.

2. The Road (November 26): I don't know that much about the plot other than that the term "post-apocalyptic" factors into it, but the stills from the movie alone are enough to shoot this to the top of my list.

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (December 25): F. Scott Fitzgerald + David Fincher + Brad Pitt + Cate Blanchett + score by Alexandre Desplat = win

On The Fence:

The Women (September 12): I’m not really a huge fan of the original version of The Women - which I realize is sacrilege to some people, but there it is. As far as the original goes, I like the actresses in it and I like parts of it, but on the whole I think the plot depends upon some of the worst stereotypes about women and the ending drives me batty with the whole punish the other woman and forgive the poor defenceless husband who, really, is just as much a victim as his wife thing. Please.

I have reason to believe that the updated version will be different given that it’s being helmed by Diane English, of Murphy Brown fame, but neither the trailer nor the cast inspires that much confidence in me. Although I do give the film points for the economy demonstrated in combining the “sassy black friend” and the “sassy gay friend” into one character.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Canadian Film Review: The Tracy Fragments (2007)

* * * 1/2

Director: Bruce McDonald
Starring: Ellen Page

By virtue of its design, The Tracey Fragments is perhaps destined to be divisive. This is a challenging film; one that’s not easily accessible or easy to pin down. It isn’t until the last ten or so minutes that the story really begins to gel, at least according to any traditional understanding of narrative. In this sense, it’s a film that is perhaps best seen twice. The first viewing can be a difficult experience, but subsequent viewings tend to be much smoother.

The story (as best as I can piece it together): Tracey Berkowitz (Ellen Page) is a 15-year-old outcast and loner, picked on and humiliated at school, and tortured at home by the toxic atmosphere created by her bickering parents. The only person she seems to connect with in any positive way is her brother, Sonny, a little boy who believes that he’s a dog. After showing up at school in a skimpy outfit, her father grounds her, which doesn’t stop her from going out. Loyal dog that he is, Sonny follows her and they play fetch with a tennis ball. During their game she becomes distracted by the appearance of a boy from school that she likes, who figures into her fantasies as a rock star named Billy Zero. After Billy leaves, Tracey realizes that she’s lost Sonny. Her determination to find him leads her on a mad quest through the city and eventually to the home a drug dealer, where things go from bad to worse and she finds herself sitting on a bus wearing nothing but her underwear and a shower curtain.

There is hardly a moment when the film doesn’t call attention to itself as a film. Only rarely does a shot take up the entire screen; most often the screen is split into four shots, or one big shot with several smaller shots layered over it. These fractured shot compositions underscore the fragility of Tracey's psyche, reflecting her inner pain and confusion. It could easily be argued that the film is a little too conscious of itself, that the style is overbearing to the point of being just a bit precious. Like I said, the first viewing can be difficult and it wasn’t until it was almost over that I really started to move past the style and be involved in the story.

As Tracey, Ellen Page delivers a strong performance, one that manages to stand out where a lesser actress would have found herself steamrolled by the style and structure of the story. This is a brave performance and Page doesn't hold anything back whether Tracey is enduring cruel humiliation or momentary joy. While the success of Juno might find her typecast for a while as the endearingly sarcastic teen, she's capable of a great deal more and I hope that she's able to find roles which truly showcase the extent of her talents.

I don't know that I can say that I "enjoyed" The Tracey Fragments as such, but I certainly admire the abilities of director Bruce McDonald. A story like this one can be difficult to pull off not only because it requires a lot of work on the part of the audience, but also because it's very limiting in terms of how much story can be told. All that you see is what is in Tracey's mind and it takes a great deal of control to keep other perspectives from invading in order to fill in the blanks or bridge one vignette to another. That this movie works and is able to maintain a purity of perspective is no minor accomplishment.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Review: Pat and Mike (1952)

* * * 1/2

Director: George Cukor
Starring: Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

I watched Pat and Mike thinking it would be a romantic comedy with a little bit of sports, but found that it is instead a sports movie with a little bit of romance – and quite a good sports movie, too. Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn star in their usual battle of the sexes story, one that rises above a few predictable plot points on the strength of their amazing chemistry.

Pat Pemberton (Hepburn) is engaged to Collier Weld (William Ching), a University colleague with whom she is accustomed to downplaying her natural athletic ability. After a round of golf with a perspective benefactor, Pat snaps and decides to let everyone know just how good she is. She enters a tournament and comes in second place, in the process catching the eye of sports manager/promoter Mike (Tracy). When she boasts to Mike of her prowess in sports other than golf, he tries her out in various arenas and settles on tennis. Things go well until Pat chokes during an important match and she goes back to golf, where she may have to throw the game due to Mike’s mob connections.

The thing I really liked about this movie is that it’s very much about a woman trying to balance her abilities against what she knows the men around her expect and want of her. Collier, certainly, doesn’t want her to be good at sports and every time she chokes – be it at golf or tennis – it’s because she’s looked over at the audience and seen him watching her. His presence reminds her that there’s a cultural expectation that athleticism is a masculine trait and that women, if they want to be attractive to men, should look good rather than be good. Her competitor in the tennis match is an Anna Kornicova-esque player who seems to concentrate more on posing for the photographers than her game, which she wins only after Pat catches sight of Collier and her mind begins playing tricks on her. Every time she takes a shot the net seems to get higher and higher, her opponent’s racket gets bigger, and her own gets smaller.

Mike picks up on the effect that Collier has on Pat and banishes him, which has as much to do with his effect on Pat’s game as it does with the fact that Mike is starting to fall for her. However, despite the fact that Mike appreciates and celebrates Pat’s abilities, they eventually encounter the same problems as Pat has with Collier. When Mike refuses to let Pat throw the game so that his mob connections can make a buck off of her, they decide to teach him a lesson by roughing him up. Pat comes to his rescue by literally grabbing one of the mobsters (Charles Bronson) by the ankles and upending him, succeeding in saving Mike but also in emasculating him. Now she has to find a way to put the balance back in their relationship.

Pat and Mike is a really great movie that defies expectations in a lot of ways. As a romantic comedy, it isn’t about one person always being right and another always being wrong, but about two people who want to be equals and who celebrate the fact that they are. As a sports movie, it isn’t about whether or not Pat wins the big game, but about whether Pat can overcome her greatest competitor – herself.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review: Woman of the Year (1942)

* *

Director: George Stevens
Starring: Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

I should start by stating that I have mixed feelings about this movie. There are parts of it that are so good and other parts that are so frustrating. This is the first film in which Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy starred together and the chemistry between them is immediately apparent. Watching them together is a delight - it’s the story that drags it down. The beginning is great, the ending is fine, but the middle is incredibly problematic.

Sam Craig (Tracy) is a sports writer who finds himself in a war of words with fellow columnist Tess Harding (Hepburn) after she makes some disparaging remarks about sports. When the two finally meet in person, the spark is instant. After a quick courtship they marry, but Tess’ way of life proves incompatible with Sam’s and soon the marriage is suffering under the strain. Just as Tess is named Woman of the Year for her professional achievements, her personal life collapses from underneath her and she must find a way to prove to Sam that what they have is worth saving.

From the beginning, there are signs that the relationship between Sam and Tess is going to be troubled. For one thing, Sam doesn’t really fit in with Tess’ high class friends. For another, Tess is always busy, running around from place to place as a foreign affairs correspondent with barely a moment for Sam. Once they marry, their problems are exacerbated by the fact that Tess’ busy schedule tends to marginalize Sam and, for lack of a better term, turns him into the “wife” in the marriage. Later, and without consulting Sam, Tess adopts a Greek refuge named Chris, mostly in an effort to further inflate her Everywoman image. The way that Tess relates to both Sam and Chris prompts Sam to declare that she’s “no kind of woman” and leave her.

I’m in no way going to argue that Tess isn’t a selfish and inconsiderate character, because she most certainly is (especially during the Chris subplot). However, the film goes out of its way to suggest that these character defects are a symptom of her feminist leanings, and that’s where the film begins to lose me. Tess is intelligent and driven and ambitious. I think these are all admirable traits but the film, obviously, does not – at least as far as women are concerned. Tess’ aunt (Fay Bainter) is a famous and celebrated suffragette but when she finally gets married, she tells Tess that she would have traded it all for a traditional life. Feminism as depicted here is selfish and empty.

In her attempt to win Sam back, Tess tries to get in touch with her womanly “roots” by making him breakfast. This sequence, which I liked in spite of myself, accidentally reveals the real problem with Tess. Only a person who has lived a privileged life survives well into their thirties without having learned how to make themselves a simple cup of coffee and an even simpler piece of toast (hell, I know how to make coffee and I don’t even drink coffee). The problem with Tess isn’t that she`s a feminist; it's that she’s a spoiled brat.

The breakfast sequence won me over a little, but then quickly lost me again. Sam tells Tess that he doesn’t want her to be just “Mrs. Craig,” he just wants there to be room for him in Tess Harding’s life. That’s fine (it’s great, in fact, albeit as another example of how Sam is always right and Tess is always wrong), but the film itself consistently tells us that to be a Tess Harding is a bad thing, something which can only lead to unhappiness. By having Sam tell Tess that he doesn’t want her to change, the film is trying to have it both ways and that just doesn’t work.

Woman of the Year isn’t a bad movie, but it’s a movie that frustrated me enough that I can’t quite bring myself to call it good. It did give me cause to reflect, though, on how Hepburn is often held up as a kind of feminist icon despite the fact that she consistently played strong women who get put in their “place.”

Monday, August 25, 2008

Review: Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (2008)

* * *

Director: Bharat Nalluri
Starring: Frances McDormand, Amy Adams

The success of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day rests largely on the ability of the actors to raise the material above its base level. While the dialogue is clever, the pacing quick, and the film overall quite charming, it is also in many respects a shallow exercise in storytelling. Save for a few key moments, the film is all surface and no depth.

Frances McDormand stars as Miss Pettigrew, a governess who can’t manage to hold a job and doesn’t have a penny to her name. On impulse, she shows up at the home of Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), whom she believes to be in need of a governess, though in actuality she’s seeking a social secretary. Delysia is an actress who spends most of her time inhabiting a dizzy, Marilyn Monroe-esque persona and juggling three romantic attachments: Phil (Tom Payne), a producer, Nick (Mark Strong), her official boyfriend, and Michael (Lee Pace), the man that she actually loves. Over the course of one chaotic day when Delysia’s future will be decided (she’ll either go to New York with Michael, star in Phil’s play, or continue her toxic relationship with Nick), Miss Pettigrew proves to be indispensible, a sort of savant when it comes to managing Delysia's romantic entanglements.

There are a few significant flaws in the film, the most glaring of which is one of the two central conflicts. Delysia’s friend, Edythe (Shirley Henderson), knows the truth about Miss Pettigrew, having seen her standing in line at a soup kitchen, and threatens to reveal this fact to Delysia unless Miss Pettigrew works her relationship magic on Edythe’s on-again, off-again fiancée, Joe (Ciaran Hinds). There’s not really any good reason why Miss Pettigrew should see this as a threat when, for one thing, Delysia knows what it is to put on an act and wouldn’t be likely to fault her for it, and for another is already aware that Miss Pettigrew came to her penniless. This “conflict” is meaningless and, to make matters worse, Edythe, the supposedly savvy social player, just gives her game away without much prompting.

Another problem is that the film doesn’t seem to know that Miss Pettigrew is its most interesting character and constantly drifts away from her, treating her as secondary. The story takes place just before the outbreak of World War II and there is a moment when a party is interrupted by half a dozen bombers flying overhead. As the other guests gape at and cheer on the bombers, Miss Pettigrew turns to Joe and says quietly, “They don’t remember the last war.” More is expressed about the character with this one line – and the way it’s played by McDormand – than is expressed about most of the other characters during the course of the whole film. It’s quiet moments like this one, and a couple of scenes between McDormand and Adams in which they’re allowed to reveal hidden sides of their characters, that elevate the movie from being glossy but meaningless.

I suppose that what it ultimately comes down to is a problem of tone and genre. Despite its comedic leanings, the film doesn't have the confidence to be an out and out screwball comedy, and despite its quieter moments it doesn't have the gravitas to be a serious drama, and so remains hovering between the two. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a very beautiful film to look at, and the performances by McDormand and Adams are great, but the film itself doesn't hold up that well to scrutiny.

Friday, August 22, 2008

LAMB Movie of the Month: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

* * *

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Once again I owe a debt to the LAMB's Movie of the Month for pushing me in a direction I've been meaning to go for a while but somehow never got around to before. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is my first experience with anime - not because I have any aversion to the genre, but more because I don't live in a place that really caters to that particular genre. While I didn't love Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, it's a nice introduction to a genre that I hope to experience more of.

Set in the future, after environmental disaster has ravaged the earth and made large sections of the planet uninhabitable, the film follows the adventures of Nausicaa, Princess of The Valley of the Wind. When the plane of a neighbouring kingdom crashes into the valley, followed shortly thereafter by a full-scale invasion of the war-like Tolmekians, the valley is drawn into a war that threatens to destroy mankind. Only Nausicaa, who has come to understand the delicate balance of the ecosystem, can save her people and all others.

On a purely visual level, the film is absolutely stunning. There are several sequences that are breathtakingly detailed – my favourite comes from the opening minutes, when Nausicaa is searching for materials that can be put to use in the valley, and watches as a shower of spores comes down around her like snow. The creatures that Nausicaa encounters, and the various places she finds herself, are also magnificently rendered, creating a world that is equal parts terrifying and beautiful.

The film is also interesting from a narrative standpoint. The story takes the form of a fable, with an overriding mythology contained at the heart of the central conflict and characters falling into classical archetypes (but also subverting those archetypes by making the hero female). In certain respects, the story is told in simplistic terms: Nausicaa is good and so are her people, the Tolmekians are bad – especially their deformed leader, Kushana – there is one right way, and not much room for shades of gray between black and white. This isn’t meant to be a criticism, as this simple and straight-forward way of relating the story is really effective in terms relaying its meaning. There is a firm message advocating pacifism and environmentalism – the two are definitively linked here, with war being framed as an offshoot of ecological destruction and vice versa – which is conveyed in a very direct way rather than expressed metaphorically or through codes.

The film does have its problems, however. There's a lot of over-narration and a lot of superfluous exposition. Granted, this may not be a problem with the film itself as originally conceived by Hayao Miyazaki, but rather a quality of the version I saw, the 2005 edition with voice-work by Patrick Stewart, Alison Lohman, Shia LeBeouf and Uma Thurman. There is also an issue with pacing. While the film managed to hold my attention for the most part, overall I think it has a problem with building and maintaining momentum. Some scenes go on too long, meander or are digressive. A few cuts would have improved the film, tightening the storytelling and allowing it to run at a clip appropriate to the urgency of the situation unfolding onscreen.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Canadian Film Review: My Winnipeg (2008)

* * * *

Director: Guy Maddin
Starring: Anne Savage

Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg isn’t quite a documentary, nor is it entirely a fiction. It’s more like a magic realist memoir, an evocation of time and place filtered through nostalgia and fantasy and personal mythology. I didn’t come away from it feeling as though I’d learned much about Winnipeg (anything factual, at any rate), but I was thoroughly entertained and, by the end, quite moved by this absurdist and surreal love letter to a city.

The film unfolds in an anecdotal fashion as Maddin relates stories about his family and childhood interspersed with stories both real and imagined about the city of Winnipeg itself. Winnipeg is home to the greatest number of sleepwalkers in the world, we learn, and also, for one winter, the location of a dozen frozen race horses who fled into a lake and remained trapped there until the Spring thaw. These stories and others are related in a way that is both humorous and sad, told from the perspective of someone who at once longs for the past which can never be recreated, but also wants to escape into something new and different. While “fact” and “fiction” are liberally blended to the point where it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two, the resonant and poetic way in which Maddin narrates his stories makes you want to believe that it’s all true, and you find yourself as engrossed by what you know to be fiction as you are by what you know to be fact.

If you’ve ever seen a Guy Maddin film, you’ll be familiar with the aesthetic at play in this one, a design which brings to mind films from the silent era and early sound era, and editing which emphasizes the juxtaposition of images rather than masking that juxtaposition beneath the narrative. In the film Maddin will blend archival footage, animation, home video, still photos, and recreations starring kids whom he acknowledges to be actors playing his siblings and a woman he would have us believe is actually his mother, though in reality she is actress Anne Savage.

The figure of his mother is central to the film’s story, the heart of the heart much as he declares that Winnipeg is the heart of the heart of Canada. She is the all knowing figure who seems to possess the keys to the past, symbolically tying Maddin to his hometown. It is her that he is trying to escape, and it is to her that he finds himself continually drawn back by memory and love and shared experiences. She is the constant in the midst of continual change – for the worse, Maddin believes, particularly in the realm of hockey arenas – as the past is slowly swept away through the city, torn down, demolished, and rebuilt as something new and soulless.

There are a lot of good directors, people who consistently produce solid, well-made films; but there are only a few genuinely great directors, people who redefine the boundaries of cinema and storytelling, whose films are so distinctly their own that no other artist could possibly have made them. I believe that Guy Maddin has earned his place in this latter category. Every time I see one of his movies, I’m just so grateful that someone like him exists and is making movies like this one.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Review: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

* * * 1/2

Director: Karel Reisz
Starring: Albert Finney, Rachel Roberts, Shirley Anne Field

“Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not,” Arthur tells us and, in doing so, tells us just about everything we need to know about him. He’s your typical restless young man, determined not to be pinned down by anything – not a job, not a woman, not his family. The last thing he wants is to end up like the worn-out men he sees around him, whom he thinks are dead from the neck up. In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, director Karel Reisz perfectly evokes not only this character but also his milieu, right down to the minute details, offering a brilliant depiction of character and place.

Albert Finney stars as Arthur, a young factory worker who wants more out of life, though he can’t say what, exactly, is lacking; he’s just generally dissatisfied with his lot. He’s carrying on an affair with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of one of his co-workers, but also strikes up a relationship with Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), a girl he meets in a pub. Life plods along for him – he works, he juggles his romantic entanglements, he carries on a war of sorts with one of his neighbours – and then he learns that Brenda is pregnant and suddenly life seems a lot more serious to this guy who once swore he’d never settle down.

The really great thing about this movie is that the situation isn’t as simple as it might seem. It would be easy to say that Arthur is with Brenda simply because she sleeps with him, whereas Doreen is a “nice” girl who keeps him at arm’s length, but it’s more complicated than that. He obviously has some affection for Brenda that goes beyond the fact that she’ll have sex with him without demanding a commitment – there are moments when I think a good argument could be made that he genuinely likes her more than Doreen. That being said, he has real affection for Doreen, too, with whom he has more in common, although she doesn’t quite understand him the way that Brenda does. In the end – and after several failed attempts to induce a miscarriage – Brenda ends things with Arthur and decides to have the baby with her husband, while Arthur becomes engaged to Doreen. The film ends on a distinctly bittersweet note as Doreen describes the future she has planned for herself and Arthur, a future which sounds exactly like all those things Arthur has been fighting to avoid. His final words in response to all this suggest defiance and surrender in equal measure, and leave little doubt as to whether these two will have a happy, satisfied life together.

The film takes a lot of care in depicting its setting – the working class neighbourhood where Arthur lives seems neither romanticized nor exaggerated to seem worse than it actually is. Arthur lives with his parents in a tiny flat where all the neighbours know his business, but in a general way they’re all content. In the final analysis, it's difficult to begrudge Arthur his various adventures because you know that regardless of how hard he fights against it, he’s going to end up trapped in the same life his parents are living, probably with a disaffected, vaguely angry son of his own one day. In a lot of ways this is a sad movie because it suggests the futility of escape, but the tone created and maintained throughout the story never allows you to feel sorry for the characters. This isn't meant to be a tragedy, but a depiction of utter ordinariness.

In keeping with that theme, the direction by Reisz is very simple and restrained. Nothing is embelished by directorial tricks because nothing needs to be. The story and the characters speak clearly for themselves. The performance by Finney is really engaging and he seems to carry the film on his shoulders with ease. Neither he nor the film itself ever strikes a false note.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Review: Shampoo (1975)

* *

Director: Hal Ashby
Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn

Maybe I’m too young to really “get” Shampoo, or maybe it’s because as a woman I find very little compelling about a man whose life is thrown into chaos because he just can’t keep it in his pants, but I found this movie really lacking. There are some good moments in it, but on the whole I thought it was all surface and no depth.

Warren Beatty stars as George, the premier hairdresser in Los Angeles. He’s in a relationship of sorts with Jill (Goldie Hawn), an actress whose best friend is Jackie (Julie Christie), who used to date George herself. He’s also carrying on an affair with Felicia (Lee Grant), whose husband (Jack Warden) is a power player currently having an affair with the aforementioned Jackie. The story takes place over the course of about a day and a half, beginning the night before the 1968 election and ending after Richard Nixon has been declared the winner. By the time the results are in, George’s love life has effectively blown up in his face after all three of the women in his life end up in the same room together.

As I said before, I don’t find the character of George to be particularly compelling. He wants to open his own shop but can’t get financing for it, and it’s easy to understand why the bank doesn’t think he’s a good risk. Yes, he’s got a lot of clients but he only ever seems to be at work for five minutes at a time before he has to take off chasing after one woman or another, and even when he is at work his romantic entanglements tend to follow him there and disrupt his ability to do his job. He claims that he spends every day listening to women’s problems, but he doesn’t appear to actually hear anything anyone says to him given that Jill has to tell him three times in the space of as many minutes that she might be going to Cairo. He hops from bed to bed, but can’t seem to understand why the women in his life are always pissed off at him. He implies that both Jackie and Jill are whores, but doesn’t think twice about carrying on with Felicia so that she’ll talk her husband into lending him the money to start his business. George is a really weak character, played by Beatty like he’s an unwilling passenger to the whims of his own dick, who sleeps with women less because he wants to and more because they expect him to.

With the exception of Jill, the characters in this movie are difficult to like. We’re supposed to feel sympathy for George but honestly, all he has to do is stop acting like such a dumb ass and his life would be improved tenfold. The only person I felt any sympathy for was Jill, who gets screwed over by pretty much everyone and seems to be the only character capable of feeling anything genuine for anyone else. George says he loves Jackie, but does he really? When Jill finds him and Jackie together, George runs after Jill and then, having lost her, goes back to Jackie. The next morning he proposes to Jackie, but only after he’s been to see Jill, who gives him his walking papers in no uncertain terms.

There are things about the film that almost make it worth watching. The sequence where Jill finds George and Jackie together at a party and he first runs after Jill, then runs back to find Jackie, who has taken off, and runs after her – is well-done, and there’s a sense that the film wants to be about something, about how George’s empty promises to women reflect the empty promises Nixon makes when he’s elected, but ultimately it just doesn’t hold together.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Scarlett Johnansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz

There’s something comforting to me about those familiar white on black titles that begin every Woody Allen film. Seeing them, I know that I’m about to enter a world where the people (most of them, anyway) speak intelligently, have interesting ideas, and prove that you can be the smartest person in the world but still be a complete idiot when it comes to relationships. Sometimes – especially lately – the promise contained in those opening titles is disappointed and sometimes it is not. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is perhaps not destined to become a classic like Annie Hall or Manhattan, but I still walked out of it very happy.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johnasson) are two Americans spending the summer in Barcelona. Vicky, who is engaged, is working on her Master’s thesis about Catalan culture and Christina is more or less just along for the ride. They meet a painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who invites them to spend the weekend with him. Vicky is appalled by his forwardness, but Christina is intrigued and talks her into accepting his offer. After an evening of wine and oysters, Christina falls ill, leaving Vicky and Juan Antonio to their own devices, which results in them spending the night together. Later, after guilt has caused Vicky to retreat back into her studies, Juan Antonio and Christina pick up where they left off. Soon, however, another woman moves into the picture to disrupt the harmony of their relationship – Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s ex-wife.

The story plays out as a series of couplings and uncouplings, simultaneous couplings and unrequited couplings. When he first encounters Vicky and Christina, Juan Antonio explains to them that life is meaningless, love fleeting, that the moment and the moment alone is worth living for. The film itself seems to follow this philosophy, as various characters find themselves dissatisfied in their relationships and flirting with the possibility of beginning new ones, only to find something lacking in these new relationships as well. If there is any one message in the film, I suppose it’s that there’s no such thing as perfect, lasting happiness, and that all things are transitory.

The performances in the film are uniformly good and reminded me of something which I often find myself thinking after seeing a Woody Allen film, which is that of all directors working today, I think he’s the most consistently great at directing women and giving them interesting characters to play. Christina is a dilettante who has adopted the role of the “free spirit” with all its inherent clichés, but ultimately doesn’t really know herself yet, and Johansson plays all these notes to perfection. Maria Elena is a tempestuous artist who perhaps plays up that tempestuousness because she’s an artist and it’s expected of her, and when Cruz enters the fray the polite energy of the film changes completely and new dimensions are given to the story. Vicky is the kind of woman who will (almost) always do exactly what is expected of her because, as she herself admits, she lacks the courage to be more like Christina. As Vicky, Hall was the biggest surprise for me – Cruz has been getting the lion’s share of the attention for the film, but Hall is just as worthy, making her character, who might simply have been the shrill stick in the mud, effortlessly relatable and likeable.

I enjoyed Vicky Cristina Barcelona a great deal, though I concede that it isn’t a masterpiece. There is a narrator who intrudes throughout to tie the details together, which has the effect of making this the cinematic equivalent of a particularly well-written summer beach read. It’s light and breezy, easily consumed and not especially challenging, but the perfect complement to a lazy summer day.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Review: La Strada (1954)

* * * *

Director: Federico Fellini
Starring: Giulietta Massina, Anthony Quinn

The first film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, La Strada is a magical and tragic fable from Federico Fellini. Unfolding as a tale of love, devotion and, ultimately, heartbreak, the film is a thoughtful character study of two people who should probably never have been together in the first place, but come to find that they can’t go on without each other.

The story begins with Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) being sold to Zampano (Anthony Quinn), a travelling performer. Gelsomina is a simple soul, open and kind hearted and curious about the world around her, which she is exploring for the first time. By contrast, Zampano is short tempered and controlling and treats his protégée badly, abandoning her to go off with other women, beating her, berating her, and denying her the pleasure of playing the trumpet. Eventually the two join a circus where they come into contact with Il Matto (Richard Basehart), who charms Gelsomina and gets under Zampano’s skin, resulting eventually in a tragedy. What happens with Il Matto breaks Gelsomina’s gentle spirit, which would be heartbreaking enough in and of itself, but the real tragedy is what happens to Zampano, who doesn’t realize until it’s too late that Gelsomina isn’t just anyone, but someone that he truly needs.

Like many Fellini films this one unfolds in a picaresque style. La Strada, which translates literally as “The Road,” follows Zampano and Gelsomina as they travel from stop to stop with their act, having a series of mini adventures rather than one adventure which encompasses the entire narrative. The result of this is that rather than focusing the audience’s attention on the characters as they relate to the story, the audience is focused on the characters themselves and how they relate to each other, which makes the ending all the more compelling.

As Gelsomina, Giulietta Masina delivers a really open and sincere performance. This is a deceptively simple looking role in that the character is something of a blank slate, a sponge who soaks up the ways and mannerisms of the people she sees around her, yet maintains her innocent, child-like spirit. This is a character who is vulnerable precisely because she doesn’t realize how vulnerable she is, how likely she is to fall victim to the cruelty of the world. When she finally is broken, it’s enough to move even the hard hearted Zampano. As Zampano, Anthony Quinn has a similarly tricky role – both characters seem one-note on the page: the simple girl and the brutish man; however, through the course of the film they’re fleshed out, given depth and humanity through their interactions with each other.

The direction by Fellini is somewhat restrained in comparison to some of his later works – this film isn’t as heavy in symbolism as later works, nor does it mix the realistic and the fantastic in quite the same way – but is solid nonetheless, and the film features a wonderful score by the great Nino Rota, who collaborated with Fellini on a number of films but is perhaps best known for scoring The Godfather. Both the direction and the score go a long way towards supporting the very human drama at the film’s center which makes the story so compelling.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Canadian Film Review: C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Marc-André Grodin, Michel Coté, Danielle Proulx

C.R.A.Z.Y. is a film that I wanted to like a lot more than I actually did. The central performance by Marc-André Grodin is fantastic, and the film itself has moments of greatness, but ultimately Jean-Marc Vallée’s coming-of-age drama is somewhat lacking in focus, making for a film that wants to be more than it actually is.

Grodin plays Zach, the fourth son of Gervais (Michael Coté) and Laurianne (Danielle Proulx), and one who suffers the misfortune of being born on Christmas Eve (a circumstance with which I completely sympathize, having been a Christmas Eve baby myself). Much of the film is concerned with Zach’s emerging homosexuality and the attempts by both himself and his father to come to terms with it. The film is at its best when it explores the relationship between these two characters, both of whom recognize Zach’s burgeoning sexuality and go out of their way to avoid acknowledging it, as if by doing so it will resolve itself and simply go away. One of the film’s most powerful moments comes early, when Gervais walks in on young Zach trying on his mother’s clothes, and his voice-over informs us sadly that in this moment, he unwittingly declared war on his father. In scenes like this one, where the film deals directly and sincerely with this relationship that seems to become more fraught every day, it hits upon a truth that makes it incredibly compelling.

However, this is only part of the story that the film wants to tell, and a great deal of time is focused on Raymond (Pierre-Luc Brillant), one of Zach’s brothers, an addict whose troubles with drugs and the law more or less hold his family hostage until his inevitable death. This section of the film is strong in and of itself, but putting it together with Zach’s story makes for a narrative that can occasionally feel overloaded, like two films that have been smashed together into one.

The four main performances are all fantastic, especially that of Grodin, who delivers a well-rounded and engaging performance as someone who longs for his father’s acceptance even as he’s rejecting everything that his father represents. As Raymond, Brillant delivers a high energy performance, tearing through the family like a tornado. He doesn’t do much that doesn’t cause the family pain, but there are little moments that make you understand why the family continues to give him chance after chance. As the parents, Proulx and Coté are great, with Laurianne acting as the glue trying to hold the fragile family together, and Gervais struggling with the fact that the family hasn’t turned out the way he had planned. That he isn’t presented to us as a villain attests to the strength of the film and the performance. This is a very real character, one who struggles to understand the men that his sons have become and who often reacts in ways that are hurtful, but he isn’t a monster. He’s just a man coming to terms with the fact that he can’t be in control of everything.

There’s a lot that this film gets really right – particularly the little details inherent in being part of a family, perfectly capturing the way that family traditions can be at once absolutely mortifying but also incredibly comforting – but it’s like too much of a good thing. As good as the individual elements of C.R.A.Z.Y. are, it doesn’t blend all of these elements cohesively. When, at the close of the film we realize that the title refers to the five brothers, it feels a little like a cheat - we only ever get to know two of brothers while the other three occupy the very edges of the story, as minor as characters can possibly be. In no way is C.R.A.Z.Y. a bad film, but it is a frustrating film in many ways because every frame reveals how great it could have been if only it were a little more tightly focused.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Review: The Shop on Main Street (1965)

* * * *

Director: Jan Kadar, Elmar Klos
Starring: Jozef Kroner, Ida Kaminska

I’ve been hearing for years about what a great movie The Shop on Main Street is, but even so I wasn’t prepared for how involved I would find myself in this story. By the time it reached its conclusion, I was on the edge of my seat, completely enthralled by what was unfolding before me. This isn’t simply a great movie; it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

Set in a small Czech town during World War II, the film follows the fortunes of Brtko (Jozef Kroner), a carpenter with a shrewish wife and a bullying brother-in-law. Through his brother-in-law, Brtko is given proprietorship of a shop on Main Street owned by Mrs. Lautmann (Ida Kaminska), an elderly Jewish widow. Brtko arrives at the shop prepared to take over, only to find that Mrs. Lautmann doesn’t quite grasp the situation and can’t be made to understand because she can’t see well enough to read the order giving Brtko control of the shop, and is too deaf for Brtko to be able to explain it to her. Through a friend of his who is able to see things as they really are (and will later pay the price for it), Brtko is talked into pretending to run the shop as a way to protect Mrs. Lautmann from a more forceful proprietor. Slowly, a friendship develops between these two very different characters.

For much of the film, the story unfolds in a comedic way, focusing on Brtko attempting and failing to properly communicate with Mrs. Lautmann. Mrs. Lautmann seems to have no conception of what is happening in the town as all the Jewish shops are taken over and the Jewish residents are increasingly marginalized and treated as second-class citizens. She seems, in fact, not even to have any conception that there’s a war going on at all. As the film progresses, Brtko and some of the other residents enter into a kind of agreement to keep Mrs. Lautmann in the dark about what’s going on in both the town and the world so as not to upset her. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lautmann believes that she’s doing Brtko the favour and taking care of him by allowing him to assist her in the shop even though he’s ridiculously inept at even the most simple tasks.

The comedy evaporates, however, by the end of the film, when the local authorities begin rounding up all the Jews to take them away to concentration camps. To Brtko’s relief, he finds out that Mrs. Lautmann’s name has somehow been left off the list, but knows that he must keep her out of sight so that she’ll remain out of mind. On the day of deportations, he must open the shop as usual and pretend that everything is fine so that no one will suspect that he’s hiding her, a fact which could have dire consequences for him if found out. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lautmann remains in the back of the shop, furious with Brtko for opening on the Sabbath, praying with nary a suspicion of what’s going on outside her doors.

The final minutes of the film are so perfect, so brilliant that I can’t really put them into words. I didn’t realize how fully engaged I was, how attached to the characters until these final moments and it’s a testament to the skill of directors Jan Kadar and Elmer Klos, as well as the subtle and graceful performances of Kaminska and Kroner, that this relatively simple story is so very powerful.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Review: Seven Samurai (1954)

* * * *

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Seiji Miyaguchi, Minoru Chiaki, Isao Kimura, Yoshio Inabe, Daisuke Kato

It’s difficult to really step back and consider Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as a film in its own right because the influence that it has had on filmmakers ever since is apparent in nearly every frame and turn of the narrative. This is a definitive film, one that created archetypes and tropes that still show up in films today. There is no denying the importance of this work, but the question remains: is it good because of all the good movies it inspired, or is it good strictly in its own right?

As the title suggests the story centers on seven samurai. These men are brought together by the residents of an impoverished village, who hire them as protection against bandits. If you’ve ever seen a film which involves a gang of misfits banding together for some purpose or other, you’ll recognize the character types of the samurai. There’s Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the level-headed but weary leader; Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) who, for lack of a better term, is “the cool one,” the strong silent type who consistently takes care of business like it’s nothing; Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the loose canon; Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), the funny one; and Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), the rookie. There’s also Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba) and Shichiroju (Daisuke Kato), both of whom more or less occupy the same position as seconds in command/right hand men to Kambei. Together they strategize to find the best way to protect the village, which is wide open to attack at various spots, and train the villagers to defend their home.

This is ostensibly an action/adventure film, but before we get to those sequences Kurosawa spends a lot of time examining the social aspects of the relationship of the samurai to each other and to the villagers whom they are protecting. The samurai are of a different social caste than the villagers - this fact driven home by the subplot involving Katsushiro, who falls in love with the daughter of one of the villagers – and the two groups aren’t supposed to mix. There’s also the fact that the villagers are, at first, afraid of the samurai who arrive to find the village deserted as everyone has gone into hiding for fear of them. It’s Kikuchiyo who brings them out by falsely sounding the village’s alarm and then proceeds to mock them for hiding from the samurai one moment, and then running to them for safety in the next. Kikuchiyo is something of a bridge character in that he isn’t a samurai by blood, but rather the son of a farmer who pretty much muscles his way into the group by refusing to take “no” as an answer.

Of all the characters, Kikuchiyo is easily the most interesting and that has a lot to do with performance by Toshiro Mifune, who at times almost seems as if he’ll be propelled off the screen by the sheer energy of his performance. Kikuchiyo is the flashiest of all the roles in the film because he’s such a show off, but his preening hides self-doubt and a desperate desire for validation. When Katsushiro expresses his admiration for Kyuzo after he single-handedly takes down two bandits and steals their gun, Kikuchiyo has to go out on his own and prove that he, too, can accomplish such a feat. When Kambei responds by scolding him for deserting his post, the wound to Kikuchiyo’s pride is obvious. This is an incredibly compelling character and one who is portrayed magnificently.

Seven Samurai is an excellent film, but I have to be honest about something: I think it’s a lot longer than it absolutely has to be. The set-up is a slow build and the lions share of the action doesn’t come until well into the film’s 3 ½ hour running time. Again, it’s a wonderful film but certain sections can be a bit of a slog to get though.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Review: 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (2007)

* * * *

Director: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu

It’s unfortunate that 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days didn’t make the shortlist for foreign language selections at last year’s Oscars, because it makes an interesting counter-point to Best Picture nominee Juno. While Juno flirts briefly with “procuring a hasty abortion” that she could get with relative ease, the two women in this film go to great lengths to have an abortion performed under questionable circumstances which could land them in jail if found out. Director Cristina Mungiu doesn’t pull any punches in this film, which is absolutely brutal in the way that it unfolds.

Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, in an amazing performance) has agreed to help her roommate Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) get an abortion, an illegal procedure in 1980s Romania and one which will have to be undertaken with great care and secrecy. Although Gabriela is the one having the abortion, it’s Otilia who does all the leg work, getting the money together, getting the hotel room where it will be performed, and meeting the abortionist. Gabriela is so completely passive during this whole situation that you almost wonder whether the abortion itself was even her idea.

The story takes place over the course of about 24 hours, during which time Otilia must deal not only with Gabriela’s situation, but also her own problems, namely the fact that she’s promised her boyfriend, Adi (Alexandru Potocean), that she’ll come over for his mother’s birthday. When she arrives he chastises her for being late and forgetting the flowers, and then she’s given a place at the overcrowded table filled with people she doesn’t know, snobby members of the intelligentsia who makes her keenly aware of her own humble origins. The dinner scene is in some ways even more uncomfortable to watch than the scenes of the abortion being performed.

This movie, told in such an unflinching and almost cold way, reminded me a lot of Vera Drake, which also examines the issue of abortion. Neither film particularly advocates abortion, but both are critical of anti-abortion legislation. Regardless of whether you’re pro or anti-choice, it’s difficult to argue against the point of both these films, which is that anti-abortion laws disenfranchise women, especially those of lesser means. Realistically, if a woman really wants to terminate a pregnancy, she’ll find a way to do it whether it’s legal or not and regardless of the danger. In this film, Gabriela has arranged the services of a man named Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), who is already irritated with her for sending Otilia to meet him instead of coming herself, and for getting a room in the wrong hotel. When it comes out that the women don’t have quite enough to pay him, he tells them that they can make up the balance by having sex with him. Afterwards he gets the procedure started and then leaves before it’s completed, so that the two women have to deal with the actual expulsion, clean-up and disposal on their own. There’s nothing about this situation which makes me think it’s in any way preferable to allowing doctors to legally and safely terminate pregnancies.

Everything in this movie falls on the shoulders of Marinca, as the story seems to be propelled forward by the sheer force of Otilia’s will. Gabriela almost seems like an afterthought – shots are composed so that your gaze is directed to Otilia; in fact, sometimes you have no choice but to look at her. This isn’t meant to take anything away from the performance by Vasiliu, who plays Gabriela as someone determined to go through life believing that if she just ignores something long enough, it will go away on its own; it’s just that the film is so completely dominated by the mesmerizing performance at its centre.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Best Years of Our Lives: 1982

This is the first entry in what I hope to make a semi-regular series where I’ll look at some of the best years for movies and talk about why I think they're so great. After considering the options for a while, I decided to start with 1982, a year which has particular significance for me because it’s the year that I was born and also the year that one of my favourite movies, E.T. was released.

But that's not all 1982 has going for it:

As I said, this is the year of E.T., which would go on to become the highest grossing film of the year and one of the top grossing films of all time. Rounding out the top 3 in terms of box office were Tootsie, a comedy classic, and An Officer and a Gentleman, a romantic classic with an iconic and much parodied ending. As an aside, looking over the year's box office top ten, it's funny to think that the #10 film - Annie - came in at $57 million domestically, a number which would only be considered so-so at best today. To put this in proper perspective, the #10 grossing film of 2007 - 300 - ended up with $210 million domestically.

On the science fiction front, 1982 is the year of The Wrath of Khan, considered by some to be the best of the Star Trek movies, Poltergeist, Blade Runner and Tron which, while not much of success in terms of either box office or critical reception, has become a cult classic and proven to be a highly influential film in its technical and visual aspects.

Although 2005 was lauded as being the year of mainstream GLBTQ representation in Hollywood with Oscar nominations going to Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Transamerica, 1982 saw the release of two landmark mainstream films featuring gay characters: Making Love and Personal Best. Plus, there was also the Julie Andrews starring tranny musical Victor/Victoria.

Other notable films from 1982:
Fast Times At Ridgemont High, a high water mark in the genre of teen comedies and one of the only movies to feature Sean Penn as an entirely likeable character;
Sophie’s Choice, the second film to net Meryl Streep an Oscar;
First Blood, which marks Sylvester Stallone’s first appearance as John Rambo;
Pink Floyd The Wall;
The World According To Garp;
Querelle, the last film of the great Rainer Werner Fassbinder;
Fanny and Alexander;
The Return of Martin Guerre, which was later remade as the dreadful Sommersby, starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster;
My Favorite Year;
and a film that can make all Canadians proud: the Canadian-produced Porky’s, which was the highest grossing Canadian film in Canada until 2006, when it was displaced by Bon Cop, Bad Cop.

Looking at things taking place behind the scenes, 1982 is the year that the THX sound system is developed for theatres, and also the year in which child-labour and safety laws are reformed following an accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie which led to the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors.

So what's your favourite movie from 1982?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Where The Truth Lies (2005)

* * *

Director: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Alison Lohman, Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth

Where The Truth Lies is a seductive and wonderfully constructed mystery from director Atom Egoyan. Starring Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth as a Martin and Lewis-like duo and Alison Lohman as a writer trying to uncover their darkest secret, this is a very engaging and effective film.

The mystery at the center of the film has to do with the death of Miami college student Maureen (Rachel Blanschard), who is discovered in the New Jersey hotel suite of musical comedy duo Vince Collins (Firth) and Lanny Morris (Bacon) in 1957. Shortly after Maureen’s death, which officials deem an accidental overdose, the duo breaks up and their careers go into decline. In 1972, Karen (Lohman) is hired to write a book detailing Vince’s life and career for which Vince will be paid a million dollars on the understanding that Karen will be able to get to the bottom of how Maureen’s body ended up in his room and why he and Lanny broke up. Unbeknownst to Vince, Karen has a prior connection to him. After Maureen’s death – but before the discovery of her body – Vince and Lanny host a telethon for children with polio and one of the polio stricken children who participates in the show is Karen.

Karen is an interesting character, one who seems to openly court danger. After her first meeting with Vince, she meets Lanny on a plane. Since Lanny had previously refused her publisher’s request for an interview, Karen assumes the identity of her friend, Bonnie (Sonja Bennett), in the hope of getting him to confide in her. Inevitably, this lie comes back to haunt her when she finds herself faced with Vince and Lanny at the same time. Both men feel that she’s betrayed them, but Vince agrees to carry on with their project and later talks Karen into taking a couple of blue pills, a decision which will put her in a position to be blackmailed by him the following morning. There are many instances when she seems to be the pawn of an elaborate game, but she consistently puts herself in the position to be manipulated and trapped by the people around her. The question is whether it’s by accident or design.

I won’t go any further into the plot of the film because it’s so carefully crafted and manages the rare feat of not showing its hand too early, giving the audience just enough clues and information throughout the film to make the ending plausible, but also holding enough back to retain the element of surprise. The screenplay is the strongest part of the film and, unfortunately, there are certain respects in which the film itself fails the story. The performances by Bacon and Firth are excellent, and all of the actors should be commended for their willingness to really go there in a series of quite explicit sex scenes, but the central performance by Lohman is really lacking. I’m not familiar enough with Lohman’s oeuvre to offer an opinion on her as an actress in general, but in this film she comes across as extremely wooden and unnatural, which is a major problem for the film since she’s its main focus.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Review: Definitely, Maybe (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Adam Brooks
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz, Elizabeth Banks

It would be easy to say that a considerable part of Definitely, Maybe’s success stems from the fact that I’ve come to expect so little from the romantic comedy genre. However, to say that would be to do a great disservice to this film, which is so utterly charming and engaging. Carefully crafted and wonderfully executed, this is far from your typical romcom.

Will (Ryan Reynolds) is in the process of a divorce, hates his job, and has lost his youthful idealism. The only bright spot in his life is his daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin), who begs him to tell her the story of how he met her mother. Refusing to be swayed by his claim that the story is “complicated,” Maya finally wears Will down and he agrees to tell her the story on one condition: the names of the women in his life will be changed and she has to guess which character in his story is based on her mother.

Will’s story begins in the summer of 1992, when he’s just out of college and is about to spend the summer in New York, campaigning for Bill Clinton. His story will ultimately chart not only his romantic relationships, but also the progress of his political ideals as the scandals surrounding Bill Clinton, whom Will at one time idolized, come to disillusion him completely. The three women who figure into Will’s story are Emily (Elizabeth Banks), his college sweetheart; April (Isla Fischer), a fellow campaign worker with whom he has great chemistry but bad timing; and Summer (Rachel Weisz), a reporter who is an old friend (and slightly more) of Emily’s. I don’t really want to go into the details of these three relationships, because the way that the film allows them to unfold is really wonderful and a large part of the reason why the film works so well.

There are a lot of things that I really loved about this movie – too many to name them all, so I’ll limit myself to just a few. First, there’s the story itself which is so very well constructed. By structuring it the way that it does, the film effectively sidesteps many clichés of its genre – it hits on a few, but also consciously acknowledges them as clichés through Maya’s commentary. It also allows the characters to develop in realistic ways. More often than not, romantic comedy characters are just that – characters who could only exist in a romantic comedy – but here they are people with depth and, refreshingly, intelligence. So often, the plot of a romantic comedy hinges on a kind of obligatory stupidity ascribed to the characters, but these characters are intelligent. They don’t always make the best choices, but they aren’t stupid.

I only really have one criticism of the film, which is that it tips its hand a little early. I mean, if there are three love interests and one them utters the words in the title and also just happens to be the one with the most screentime of the three, then you can kind of guess where it’s going. However, that didn’t detract at all from my absolute enjoyment of this film.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Review: The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)


Director: Justin Chadwick
Starring: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana

Even an awful movie tends to have at least one thing in its favour. With that in mind, I’ll state that Kristen Scott-Thomas is pretty good in a small supporting role. However, I wouldn’t recommend it based solely on that. In fact, there are no circumstances in which I would recommend this train wreck of a movie – not if you’re a fan of any of the three principle actors, not if you’re a fan of costume dramas in general, and especially not if you’re a fan of your own will to live, which this film will quickly sap from you.

I won’t bother much with the plot of the film, because I assume that most people are familiar with the basics of the Anne Boleyn story. Besides which I have so many issues with this film that I don’t really want to waste time rehashing the story, which is so ineptly written but which perfectly complements the one-note characters it inflicts upon the world. As portrayed in this film, Henry VIII et al. don’t even seem like they belong in their setting – Gossip Girl, 1526 would have been a more appropriate title. The characters seem too modern in the ways that they relate to one another, which would be fine if the film allowed them any depth at all. As it is, the three main characters can be summed up thusly: Mary = good, Anne = bad, Henry = horny jackass.

The most frustrating thing about The Other Boleyn Girl is that there’s a compelling story buried beneath this one - I mean, Henry VIII’s relationship with and marriage to Anne Boleyn changed the course of British history, causing the split between England and the Catholic church amongst other things – but the film decides instead to treat the British monarchy like the world’s longest running soap opera and it just becomes ridiculous. Henry’s relationship with Mary also has the potential to be interesting, but the film explores it in the most shallow way. She’s married when they meet so he gives her husband and herself positions at court which will require the husband to be largely absent and give Henry easy access to Mary. She becomes his mistress, has his child, and then is abandoned so that he can take up with Anne. Mary is openly prostituted to Henry by her family so that they can gain his favour, and becomes his mistress not necessarily by consent, but simply after he says to her, “Tonight.” If Mary were shown to mind, in the least little bit, that she’s being treated as chattel , this might be a better movie, but instead she doesn’t really seem to give it more than a cursory thought. Her mother (Scott-Thomas) gets it and comments on it, but neither of the Boleyn daughters really seems to have much perspective on her position as it relates to the King.

Unless you’re in a particularly sadomasochistic mood, do not see this movie. For the sake of your own sanity, don’t see this movie.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Review: Brideshead Revisited (2008)

* * 1/2

Director: Julian Jarrold
Starring: Matthew Goode, Hayley Atwell, Ben Wishaw, Emma Thompson

At best, Brideshead Revisited can be called a competent adaptation of the novel on which it is based. It hits on all the major plot points, touches on the major themes, but is ultimately lacking in vitality. It’s a beautiful looking film, to be sure, but it seems to have no spirit, which is ironic given how much time it devotes to exploring the issue of religion.

The story is related to us through the memories of Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode). When he was a student at Oxford he developed a friendship with Sebastian Flyte (Ben Wishaw), the eccentric son of an aristocratic family. Charles is charmed by Sebastian and they quickly become inseparable. It is fairly obvious that Sebastian is in love with Charles, though Charles’ own feelings are somewhat more ambiguous. During the summer holiday, Charles is invited to spend the summer at Brideshead, the home of Sebastian’s family. There he meets Julia (Hayley Atwell), one of Sebastian’s sisters, and Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), Sebastian’s mother. Later Charles will accompany Sebastian and Julia to Venice, where their father (Michael Gambon) lives in exile with his mistress (Greta Scacchi). During this trip, Charles’ affections shift from Sebastian to Julia, and a rift is created between him and the Flyte family. Years later, he and Julia will meet again, have an affair and plan to run away together, only to find that the same old obstacles – primarily Julia’s Catholic faith - are still standing in their way.

Towards the end of the film, it is stated a couple of times that Charles wants “too much,” and there’s a sense in which the film itself wants too much as well. It acknowledges that Charles’ great love is actually neither Sebastian nor Julia, but Brideshead itself and all that it represents to him. At the same time, though, it attempts to frame Charles’ relationship with Julia as the great love story, so that in essence the film is saying one thing but doing another. And even though it wants the thwarted love between Charles and Julia to be the driving force of the story, it doesn’t actually take much care in developing it. More time is given to Charles’ relationship with Sebastian than his relationship with Julia which is, in many respects, rushed through do to time constraints. It seems as if they’re only actually together for about five minutes before Julia’s Catholic guilt gets the better of her and she calls things off.

For the most part, the story unfolds in a languid manner, but life is breathed into it through the appearances of Michael Gambon as Lord Marchmain, whose screen time is brief, and Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain, who absolutely dominates every scene that she’s in. As the overbearing matriarch of the Flyte family, Thompson renders a terrific performance and manages to buoy the film every time she appears on screen.

As the two principles, Matthew Goode and Hayley Atwell do what they can but, ultimately, Charles is a cipher and Julia apparently has no ability to make her own decisions, which means that neither character is terrifically compelling. Sebastian, who destroys himself with alcohol, is compelling and so is the performance by Ben Wishaw, but by the end he’s been marginalized and pushed aside in favour of the Charles-Julia love story and meditations on the question of faith. All in all, you get your money’s worth on the strength of the performances by Thompson, Gambon and Wishaw, as well as the film’s great production values, but there’s really no good reason not to wait for this to come out on DVD to see it.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Review: Death At A Funeral (2007)

* *

Director: Frank Oz
Starring: Matthew MacFadyen, Rupert Graves, Peter Dinklage

The wacky family comedy is by now a genre in and of itself, with selections ranging from the very good to the horrifically bad. Death At A Funeral falls somewhere in the middle, having elements that are very funny and other elements that just... are. The basic structure isn’t terribly original: the solid older sibling laden down with family responsibility and the irresponsible younger sibling who seems to drift in and out of the family for holidays and special occasions, the cantankerous older relative, and the family secret that is destined to come out regardless of how hard the protagonist tries to keep it under wraps.

Daniel (Matthew MacFayden) is the glue of his family, the dependable son who has taken care of all the arrangements for his father’s funeral, and who has stayed on at the family house even though his wife (Keeley Hawes) wants desperately to get a place of their own. Younger brother Robert (Rupert Graves) is a novelist who lives in New York and who, despite his success, can’t be bothered to chip in and help pay for the funeral, as he had previously promised Daniel. The relationship between the two brothers is central to the story and surrounded by the relationships of various cousins, particularly that of Martha (Daisy Donovan) and her fiancée Simon (Alan Tudyk), whose nervousness about having to spend time with Martha’s father is the catalyst for the film’s best running gag.

The establishing scenes are good and up until about the middle of the story, it’s an enjoyable film. But when it comes to the revelation about Peter (Peter Dinklage) and his relationship to the deceaced, the story takes a turn which really dragged it down for me. It isn’t just the nature of the revelation – characterized here as the worst possible thing that could be revealed about someone – that bothered me, but also the fact that once the revelation is made, the plot unfolds in a very by the book fashion.

While the film itself is mostly funny, there are a lot of things about it that just really bugged me, particularly with regard to the way the characters relate to each other. What wife, for example, would continuously hassle her husband about buying a house on the day of his father’s funeral, when he’s clearly already weighted down with stress not just about the death itself, but about having to deliver the eulogy? And who, regardless of how uncouth, would attempt to make conversation with the widow by telling her a story about someone being horrifically murdered? To me this just reeks of lazy writing, an easy way to create conflict and to get a laugh, respectively.

Death At A Funeral isn’t an awful movie, but it isn’t an especially good one either. It’s average in just about every way, with Tudyk being the only member of the cast who really stands out by virtue of the fact that his character spends almost the entire movie in an altered state of consciousness.