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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: Miracle At St. Anna (2008)

* * 1/2

Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Matteo Sciabordi

Whatever else you can say about Spike Lee, you can’t say that he’s an artist who is shy about expressing his point of view. In Miracle At St. Anna he explores the experiences of black soldiers in World War II, focusing specifically on the incongruity of asking these men to sacrifice their lives for a country which, in so many respects, doesn’t consider itself their country. One half of this movie is absolutely astounding, the other half is abysmal – it’s almost hard to believe that the whole thing comes from just one filmmaker.

It begins in New York in the 1980s with a postal worker shooting a customer. Shortly thereafter the story flashes back to Italy in 1944 when this same man, whom we learn is named Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), is preparing to cross a river to attack the Nazis on the other side. As Hector and the rest of the company - which includes Stamps (Derek Luke), Cummings (Michael Ealy), and Train (Omar Benson Miller) – prepare to cross, the Nazis blast the radio so that they’re forced to listen to Axis Sally, who asks them why they’re so eager to die for a country that treats them like second class citizens – good enough to die but not good enough to vote. Fighting on the river is fierce but the four make it across where they find themselves more or less abandoned because their white superior officer refuses to believe that they were actually able to accomplish the objective.

While the fighting is still going on Train finds Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), a young Italian boy who is injured after the roof of a barn collapses on him. Train insists that they bring Angelo with them as they try to make their way back behind American lines and the five set off together, eventually ending up in a small village where they learn that they’re more or less surrounded by Nazis. In the village they meet a series of characters, amongst them Renata (Valentina Cervi), an Italian woman who will prove to be a source of discord between Stamps and Cummings, Peppi (Pierfrancesco Favino), a partisan known as “The Butterfly,” and Rodolfo (Sergio Albelli), a man who has a sinister connection to Angelo.

If Saving Private Ryan is the benchmark for battle scenes, Miracle At St. Anna more than lives up to that standard. The battle for the river and the fighting which will occur later through the narrow streets of the village are amongst the most visceral and finely focused that I have ever seen. Everything about these scenes is top notch and there are several quieter scenes that are just as powerful. There is a lot of debate amongst the four soldiers about why they’re there, what they’re fighting for, what they expect to get out of it when they go home. Stamps confesses to Hector that he feels more welcome in Italy than he ever has in his own hometown, and there’s a flashback in which the four soldiers are denied service in a Southern diner where no one thinks twice about serving four German POWs. There is a great deal of value in these scenes but it’s easy to lose sight of that when they’re sandwiched between scenes and plot elements that just don’t work.

At nearly 3 hours Miracle At St. Anna is bloated by too much story, too many characters, too many subplots, and too many changes in tone. There are scenes which drift unsuccessfully towards the comedic and feel like they belong in a different movie than the scenes I mentioned above. There are other scenes, specifically those which take place in the film’s present day and serve as bookends for the story proper, which are overwrought and border on maudlin. The end result is a film that seems tangled and messy and ultimately quite frustrating.

Monday, September 29, 2008

LAMB Movie of the Month: Eurotrip (2004)

* * *

Director: Jeff Schaffer
Starring: Scott Mechlowicz, Jacob Pitts, Travis Wester, Michelle Trachtenberg

I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect to like Eurotrip. In fact, I might not even have seen it had I not stumbled across it on TV the other night and thought to myself, “Hey, that’s the LAMB's Movie of the Month, maybe I’ll give it a shot after all.” I remained wary for the first few minutes and then it happened: Matt Damon showed up and suddenly everything was okay.

Scott (Scott Mechlowicz), Cooper (Jacob Pitts), Jamie (Travis Wester) and Jenny (Michelle Trachtenberg) have just graduated from high school and Scott has been unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend. He has a German pen pal named Mieke, which Scott believes to be German for “Mike,” who sends condolences and asks if Scott wants to arrange a meeting. Drunk and thinking that maybe Cooper was right about Mieke being an online sexual predator, Scott tells the “German freak” to leave him alone. In the morning, however, he discovers that Mieke is actually pronounced “Mika” and that she’s the buxom blond girl rather than the tall, gangly guy in the photo sent to Scott. Since Mieke has now blocked him from sending her messages, Scott (with some prompting from Cooper) decides to go to Berlin and track her down.

So that’s the set-up which leads to the following: Scott and Cooper, low on funds, agree to courier something to London as a means of getting to Europe then wander into the wrong bar and end up being adopted by a gang of soccer hooligans. In Paris they run into Jamie and Jenny, who agree to accompany them to Berlin with a few stops (both planned and unplanned) along the way which leads to a lot of drinking, sex, and one very wrong kiss.

There are a few things which ultimately won me over:
1. Scotty doesn’t know
2. Robot fight (“You are not a robot!”)
3. Random Eastern European dog with a human hand in its mouth
4. Xena: Vundersexxx dominatrix
5. Scotty doesn’t know – I realize that I already said that but damn that song was catchy

Eurotrip is a very silly movie but it’s also pretty funny and a lot less offensive than most teen sex comedies. It’s refreshingly equal opportunity in terms of nudity, eagerly showcasing both naked women and naked men, though it should be noted that the women are of the young and nubile variety while the men are of the middle-aged and saggy variety. Progress occurs in small increments. Eurotrip isn’t a great movie but I don’t think it’s aspiring to be either; I think this is exactly the movie that it wants to be so it would be difficult to argue that it isn’t successful.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Few Words About Paul Newman


If memory serves me right, the first Paul Newman movie I ever saw was Slap Shot. I was probably about 10 and my dad had rented it in order to keep my brother and I occupied for a couple of hours, having remembered liking it but apparently having forgotten all the things that might make it a bit objectionable for two kids to watch. In the years since I continued to discover and rediscover Newman in other films and found him to be a consistently solid actor and consistently likeable – even when he was playing characters you shouldn’t like under any circumstances.

If I had to choose my favourite Newman performance, I suppose that I would ultimately pick his portrayal of the title character in Hud. I know from having read interviews that he was uncomfortable with the fact that Hud ascended to a kind of heroic status in pop culture, but I’m not sure that it could have ever been any other way. Newman is so good in this role, brings so much dimension and vitality to it, that even when you hate Hud, you also empathize with him. It’s a testament to Newman’s ability that the character strikes such a resonant chord and that so many of his other characters do the same.

Newman was one in a million. He was just as talented as Marlon Brando or Montgomery Clift and just as cool as James Dean or Steve McQueen, but he lacked their self-destructive tendencies. He didn’t flame out or let off-screen antics overshadow his talent. Instead he gave us five decades of solid work in front of and behind the camera, creating a varied tableau of films and characters that any actor would covet.

Given the frequency with which the media reported on his failing health over the summer, Newman’s passing isn’t particularly surprising, but it does make me particularly sad. I find myself feeling the way that I felt when Katherine Hepburn or Gregory Peck or Marlon Brando died, as if another inch of the curtain was falling on an era when being a movie star meant more than just being a famous actor. Newman had that old school glamour, that old school charisma that can’t be faked or imitated, that just is. They don’t make 'em like this anymore and he leaves behind a void that will never be filled.

Rest in peace, Mr. Newman. You've earned it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Review: Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

* * * *

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power

It doesn’t get much better than this: a well-constructed courtroom drama with a great twist (crafted by Agatha Christie, no less), Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Billy Wilder. I've seen this movie a few times and each time I find myself falling in love with it all over again. It's the mark of a good mystery that even when you know the secret, you can still feel excited watching the revelation play out again.

Charles Laughton stars as Sir Wilfred Robarts, a celebrated barrister recovering from a heart attack and now saddled with a bossy nurse (Elsa Lanchester) who is determined to break him of all his bad habits and make sure that he gets the rest he needs. However no sooner is Wilfred back home than a case comes to him that proves to be irresistible: Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is accused of romancing and then murdering a wealthy older woman – a crime which he insists he didn’t commit. His wife (Marlene Dietrich) backs up his protestations of innocence but does so in a manner which inspires more questions than it answers. It isn’t such a great shock, then, when she turns out to be the prosecution’s surprise witness. What is shocking is what happens next, which I wouldn’t dare reveal.

The joys of this film are myriad and begin with Laughton who brings a sharp intelligence to his crusty character. Whether he’s arguing points of law in the courtroom – which, as a slight aside, occurs with refreshing frequency here; this is easily one of the more realistic courtroom dramas I’ve ever seen – or telling his nurse to “shut up,” he brings a kind of rough charm to the role. If the film consisted entirely of just one long monologue by Laughton, it would still be entirely worth watching, listening to him is that enjoyable.

The other great performance is by Dietrich who appears coolly elegant and wholly detached but is harbouring hidden depths and secrets. Mrs. Vole is a German immigrant, rescued from the post war rubble by Leonard and brought to England for a better life. I’ve long felt that Dietrich is at her best in roles like this one and those she played in Judgment At Nuremberg and A Foreign Affair, where she plays survivors of German post war reconstruction and the filmmakers allow her to hit on subtle notes of xenophobia (part of the reason Wilfred thinks she'd make a bad witness for the defense is her accent and, indeed, the courtroom audience's reaction to her adds credence to that) and misogyny. When she and Leonard meet, she’s performing in a cabaret where the soldiers treat her like she’s up for grabs and later she and Leonard make an agreement to trade coffee for sexual favour – post war reconstruction is never a good time to be a woman, but in none of these roles does Dietrich ever seem desperate. Instead she brings a strength and grace to the roles which make it clear that she’s playing women who will always find a way to survive (one of my favourite movie speeches is her “I kept going” speech from A Foreign Affair).

Laughton earned a well deserved Oscar nomination for his role, while Dietrich was passed over for her great supporting turn (a fact which was, by all accounts, quite devastating to her because she was so convinced that she would be nominated). Both actors absolutely shine, as does Lanchester in her small role. As for Power, he’s never really quite clicked for me in this role, partly because it’s hard to buy him as an Englishman when he makes absolutely no attempt to alter his very American midwest accent. For me, though, Power is the only flaw in an otherwise perfect film.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Days of Darkness (2007)

* * * *

Director: Denys Arcand
Starring: Marc Lebreche, Diane Kruger

It would be easy to call Days of Darkness an American Beauty retread, as Denys Arcand’s film centers on an unhappy suburbanite who is disrespected by his children and married to a woman (a realtor, no less) who has no interest in him sexually or otherwise, and who has a terrifically active fantasy life which threatens to usurp his real life in importance. The comparisons come easily and criticism based on those comparisons are, to an extent, valid. However, to dismiss the film so easily would mean missing the absolute charm of this very intelligent and very funny film.

Jean-Marc (Marc Labreche) is a middle-aged civil servant who hates his job, is unhappily married and ignored by his two daughters, helpless in the face of his mother’s terminal illness, and spends most of his day escaping into fantasies, most of which involve a revolving cast of women in various states of undress. However, his fantasies aren’t solely about scantily clad women who find him irresistible; he also fantasizes about becoming somebody, writing a book or being elected into office – anything different from his actual job. Jean-Marc uses his fantasies just to get through his days, but soon these aren’t enough: His wife (Sylvie Leonard) leaves him to run off with her boss to Toronto, his mother dies, he walks out of his job and crashes his car. It’s time for him to make a change, to start living life outside his head, and set himself on a path towards happiness.

The world in which Jean-Marc lives is like our own but slightly exaggerated, making for situations and problems which can seem both far fetched and frighteningly feasible at the same time. He works for the government, sitting behind a desk as various people come to him seeking help for problems that he has no ability to solve. One man lost his legs when a street lamp fell on him and now the government expects him to pay half the cost of putting up a new one. A woman’s husband is taken away by the police, suspected of being a terrorist simply because he’s Arab. There’s nothing Jean-Marc can do; his best suggestion is that she try to become friends with a celebrity and thereby bring enough publicity to the situation to embarrass the government into letting her husband go. Despite the fact that no one is ever actually helped by the ministry, there’s always a long line-up downstairs, one which often becomes unmovable due to the fact that the employees are constantly being taken away from their work to attend meetings to boost morale or find ways to achieve greater harmony between yin and yang in the office set-up.

There are a lot of really great sequences in the film, but I think my favourite involves Jean-Marc’s attempt at speed dating. After meeting with several women who dismiss him immediately for various reasons including the fact that he’s had a vasectomy, doesn’t work out, and drives a Hyundai, he finally meets a woman who has as rich a fantasy life as his own (two words: medieval festival). However, she turns out to be a little too into her fantasy world, reaffirming for him that a little bit of reality can go a long way.

The central performance by Labreche is engaging and, to various degrees, relatable and there are fine supporting performances by the actresses playing the myriad women in his life, including Diane Kruger, who appears as his go-to fantasy woman. Comparisons to American Beauty are inescapable but, for me, this is the more resonant film. I've always been a little put off by the casual misogyny of Sam Mendes' film, while this one is self-aware enough to be able to diffuse those "iffy" elements by consigning them to the realm of fantasy and making it clear that these fantasies, rather than empowering Jean-Marc, simply act as crutches and hold him back.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Dark Passage (1947)

* *

Director: Delmer Daves
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall

Dark Passage is a strange film when compared with the other Bogart and Bacall films or, indeed, any other Bogart film. This is a film where Bogart plays a protagonist who is heard but not seen for the first half and seen but covered in bandages for much of the second. This is a gimmicky film and one which, to me, didn’t really transcend the gimmick to make the story worth telling all on its own. If I were to rank the four Bogart-Bacall films in order of preference, this one would come in at a distant fourth (though, to be fair, I like the other three so much that this one could have been great and still come in fourth).

The central character is Vincent Parry, who is basically played by the camera with voice-work by Bogart for the first hour or so. We meet him as he’s escaping from prison where he’d been serving time after being convicted for killing his wife. On the road, he meets two motorists: the first is Baker (Clifton Young), who wants to turn him in for the reward and is quickly disposed of with a punch to the face; the second is Irene (Lauren Bacall), who wants to help him. He recognizes her as having attended every day of his trial, even though they don’t know each other, and she explains that she believes in his innocence, having seen her own father railroaded for a similar crime in a similar way.

With his face all over the news, Vincent decides to take the advice of a helpful cabbie, who knows a doctor who would be willing to perform plastic surgery in secret for the right price. The original plan was that Vincent would recover at the home of a friend of his but while he’s going under the knife, his friend is murdered and now he’s the prime suspect in that crime as well. Luckily Irene is still around to lend a helping hand and allows him to convalesce in her apartment, which naturally leads to the two falling in love. As the bodies continue to pile up and the police continue to close in, Vincent’s only hope is to get out of town and make it to Peru where, if all goes according to plan, he and Irene will one day be reunited.

While I appreciate the filmmakers’ attempt to do something different, I found that the lengths to which it goes to not show Vincent fairly distracting and too drawn out. The focus of the film is so completely on the idea of hearing but not seeing Bogart that the story itself is given short shrift. As for the story, it relies perhaps a little too heavily on coincidence, from the fact that Irene just happened to be out near the prison painting when Vincent made his escape, to the fact that Irene just happens be an acquaintance of Madge (Agnes Moorhead), the woman whose testimony played a pivotal role in putting Vincent in prison.

All that aside, it is, as always, a joy to watch Bogart and Bacall play off each other on-screen. They had the kind of crackling, easy, playful chemistry that few other on-screen couples then or now could duplicate. In terms of individual performance, Bacall is luminous and engaging, which might be a result of her directly addressing the camera in many of her initial scenes. As for Bogart, it’s sort of difficult to really gage his performance because he’s at a something of a disadvantage for so long, being just a voice. However, once he actually shows up in the flesh he really owns the character and makes it work.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Review: Laura (1944)

* * * 1/2

Director: Otto Preminger
Starring: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

Laura is one of the most atmospheric films I’ve ever seen. It unfolds like a dream as detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) attempts to solve the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a woman who seems to enchant every man she meets – including Mark himself. It’s a film that works best if you don’t spend too much time thinking about it while you’re watching it (on the final analysis any of the potential murderers would make just as much sense as the next), but just let yourself float along with the story.

It begins with Laura already dead, brutally murdered by having a shotgun unloaded in her face. Mark makes the rounds, questioning the people who knew Laura the best, a club which includes acerbic and erudite Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), socialite Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), and Laura’s fiancée, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). Mark is perhaps overly devoted to the case and it isn’t long before Waldo hits on the real reason why Mark is constantly returning to the scene of the crime – he’s fallen in love with Laura, whom he’s encountered only as a corpse and from the portrait hanging in her apartment.

The idea of images is central to the film, especially the image of Laura herself. Mark is in love with the idea of Laura, and so are Waldo and Shelby. Laura’s relationships with Waldo and Shelby are characterized as a love triangle, but it’s difficult to imagine that either of these characters is really interested in Laura romantically. Shelby is a gold digger who wants Laura’s money – or any woman’s money, as it turns out – and Waldo wants to control Laura, whom he sees as a kind of protégée. Both also, perhaps, want to use Laura as a symbol of their heterosexuality. Both characters are overtly effete – Waldo, especially, who in the first scene more or less attempts to seduce Mark from his bathtub.

Images, and the creation of images, further come into play through Laura’s occupation. She’s in the advertising industry, which is how she comes to meet Waldo, and how Shelby comes to make a living for himself after she offers him a job. All three are involved in selling the idea of products, just as Waldo and Shelby are attempting to use Laura to sell the idea of their heterosexuality, and just as nearly everybody will be called upon to sell the idea of their innocence.

Laura is a really compact film, told at a brisk pace. The plot is as delightfully convoluted as those of most noir stories and the supporting cast of rogues and scoundrels is wonderfully put together. The performance by Webb is especially engaging and fun to watch, sort of like a cross between Addison DeWitt from All About Eve and Joel Cairo from The Maltese Falcon. As the two leads, Tierney and Andrews look great (the film makes great use of Tierney’s stunning facial features in an interrogation scene) playing characters who are, by design, very one-dimensional (this is a movie about images, after all). Andrews, especially, is self-consciously stiff as the straight-laced cop who takes a drink like he’s a Ken doll whose arms don’t unbend. The direction by the great Otto Preminger is simple and unintrusive, allowing the viewer to simply get sucked in to this marvellous, dream-like story.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Review: Elegy (2008)

* * *

Director: Isabel Coixet
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz

Elegy is a meditative and thoroughly adult movie from director Isabel Coixet. Though the subject matter doesn’t necessarily break new ground – older man involved with younger woman or, to be more specific, professor involved with student – the film does give it some interesting twists. Mostly, though, this is an actors’ movie and the performances on display here make it worth a look.

The story is related to us by David (Ben Kingsley), a professor and minor literary celebrity who fears commitment and has spent his adult life jumping from fling to fling, save for a long-term (albeit sporadic) relationship with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a former student. When Consuela (Penelope Cruz) enters his class, it seems to be a matter of course that they will end up in bed together – he’s been here many times, although this particular time it will be different. For one thing, he realizes that Consuela won’t just jump into bed with him, he’ll have to work for it, something which he chalks up to old fashioned/old world mentality stemming from the fact that she’s a Cuban immigrant. This old fashioned quality of hers may be nothing more than a projection on his part given later revelations regarding her sexual history, but then he spends much of their relationship projecting his desires and anxieties onto her to his own detriment.

In the battle between desire and anxiety, anxiety wins with ease. David is aware of himself as an older man, spends much of his time imagining Consuela leaving him for another and younger man and the rest of his time keeping her firmly at arm’s length. His friend, George (Dennis Hopper), himself familiar with liaisons with younger women, encourages him to simply call an end to it since it’s bound to end anyway, but David can’t bring himself to let go. Eventually, though, Consuela decides that she must and her departure marks a turning point in David’s life.

Elegy is a good movie that somehow never propels itself into greatness. The story is, for the most part, solid but there are problems. The first, say, twenty minutes are frontloaded with the kind of explanatory conversations which should be unnecessary between people who have known each other for decades. The thing I’ve always liked about movies by Robert Altman is that he never subjects his characters to the kind of conversations which exist only for the convenience of the audience. David and Carolyn have been involved for decades, she’s aware of the issues which exist between him and his son (Peter Saarsgaard), so why should he feel the need to spell things out to her? This is a minor problem; the big problem is with pacing. The film unfolds at a thoughtful pace which occasionally slows to a drag, especially towards the end which dampens the emotional impact of the film’s conclusion.

Despite these issues, Elegy is overall quite engaging, due primarily to its wealth of great performances. Clarkson, Saarsgaard and Hopper all shine in supporting roles (especially Hopper), and Kingsley is flawless as David, delivering one of his finest performances. It’s Cruz, however, who really owns the movie. At first I had some doubts about her in the role, but she brings a grace and self-confidence to Consuela which is absolutely necessary and which a younger actress might not have been able to supply. Between this film and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cruz is having a banner year and hopefully she will continue to make interesting choices which allow her to show off different facets of her abilities.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Book vs Film: The Fountainhead vs The Fountainhead

The Plot: Both book and film chart the rise of Howard Roark from obscurity and poverty to the heights of fame and adulation. Roark possess a singular and unshakeable vision which is constantly at odds with the ideas of those around him, who attempt to break him and make him compromise and conform. During his struggles he meets Dominique Francon, who believes in his vision but not in his ability to withstand all the obstacles set up against him. Her fears prove to be unfounded, though, as Roark will later make clear to the world that he would rather destroy his own creations than allow his vision to be bent to someone else’s will.

Primary Differences Between Book and Film:
The book is quite long while the film comes in at just under 2 hours, so obviously the story has been condensed considerably;
The character Peter Keating is prominent throughout the novel, his own descent serving as a parallel and contrast to Roark’s rise, but he’s barely a footnote in the film. Similarly, while Ellsworth Toohey is given a few scenes in the film, he’s a much greater presence in the book;
Roark’s early years are glossed over by the film, due I imagine to the fact that at 48, Gary Cooper couldn’t exactly pass as a young man just out of college;

For The Book: I realize that liking Ayn Rand is unpopular but… I like her. There, I said it. I’m willing to concede that she’s not the best writer, but I do think she’s a really great storyteller and I think she’s really great at clearly expressing her ideas (you might not agree with them, but you always know exactly where she stands). She’s often criticized for creating idealized, one-dimensional characters and while I think this is true of some characters, it’s unfair to say it’s true of all of them. In between Rand’s idea of the “very good” person and the “very bad” person, there are those who take some very interesting twists and turns. Gail Wynand, for example, has a fascinating arc in the book and brings about my favourite moment: Toohey’s much deserved comeuppance. Peter Keating is an interesting character as well, going from the golden boy able to coast on his knowledge that other people will help him or let him step over them, to the broken man who has what he wants (success in business) but destroys himself with the knowledge that he didn’t earn it. While the book is primarily concerned with Roark’s rise, it also compellingly charts the victories and defeats of several other people as well.

For The Film: I quite like the performance by Patricia Neal as Dominique, but there’s not a lot about the film that I would actually recommend. It’s strange to me that Rand wrote both the novel and the screenplay, because while the former consistently picks up steam throughout, the later just falls flat. The problem, I guess, is that the story is dependent on Roark to push it forward and while the Roark imagined on the page is able to do that, the Roark brought to the screen by Gary Cooper simply cannot. There’s no conviction in Cooper’s performance, which I guess isn’t surprising when you consider that Cooper admitted to not really understanding the material. For the story to work, Roark has to be able to convince the audience that he believes in the philosophy by which he lives because without that core belief, this is just an exercise in futility.

Winner: Book (by a long shot). I can’t think of a single scene which plays better on the screen than it does in the book.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Emotional Arithmetic (2008)

* * *

Director: Paolo Barzman
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Max von Sydow, Gabriel Byrne, Christopher Plummer, Roy Dupuis

While the message of most books and films centering on the holocaust is “never forget,” I’ve seen two films this year which argue the necessity of forgetting and letting go. The first was Fugitive Pieces, the second is Emotional Arithmetic. While the latter isn’t quite as successful as the former, it does have moments of great power.

Melanie (Susan Sarrandon), Christopher (Gabriel Byrne) and Jakob (Max von Sydow) are three survivors of Drancy, reunited forty years later in Quebec, where Melanie lives with her husband (Christopher Plummer), son (Roy Dupuis) and grandson, Timmy (Dakota Goyo). Melanie and Christopher were only children when they were in the camp and were saved from being transferred to Auschwitz by Jakob, who bribed a guard to take their names off the list and put his own on. After Auschwitz, Jakob ended up in the Gulag, and was later committed to a mental institution where drugs and electro-shock took their toll on both his memory and his ability to write.

While Jakob is forgetting, Melanie and Christopher find themselves stuck in their memories. Christopher seems to have put his entire life on hold until he can be reunited with Melanie, while Melanie drifts in and out of sanity and is obsessed with recording the facts of history’s atrocities. While in Drancy, Jakob had given Melanie a book in which he had started recording the names of all the people who came through the camp, impressing upon her the importance of their bearing witness. Now, forty years later, her husband laments that everything that happens in the world happens to her and the house is full of filing cabinets which contain lists and names.

The scenes which take place at the farm in Quebec – which are rife with all kinds of tension – are intercut with flashback scenes which do little to enhance the drama of the film’s present. For one thing, the flashbacks don't provide much in the way of new information, tending to just re-enact things the characters in the present day have already described happening, and these scenes are filmed in a way that offers no real visual impression of what life was like inside the camp. For another thing, the actors playing young Melanie and Christopher aren’t really up to the burden of the material. I’m not going to harp on this because, after all, the two actors are just children, but the stilted nature of their scenes is especially noticeable when contrasted with the performance by young Goyo, who seems so natural and unaffected as Timmy.

What saves the movie are the scenes which take place in Quebec. Dupuis, Byrne, Plummer and von Sydow are all at the top of their game and Sarandon, in particular, renders an achingly beautiful performance. There is a moment when Melanie presents Jakob with the finished book, which he no longer remembers having given to her, when Sarandon is able to simultaneously convey both the obsessive and disillusioned woman and the hopeful child in constant conflict within Melanie. Scenes like that one, between assured, skilled performers tell us more than the flashbacks ever could.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Review: Fitzcarraldo (1982)

* * *

Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Klaus Kinski

Fitzcarraldo is the perfect companion to Aguire, The Wrath of God, as both involve long journeys down the Amazon in the pursuit of an insane and impossible dream. Fitzcarraldo is a bit of a let-down if viewed right after Aguire, but it isn’t a film without its unique charms. If nothing else, it certainly makes you grateful that there are people out there like Werner Herzog, people who dance on that fine line between genius and madness.

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), known to all as Fitzcarraldo, is a dreamer with a long line of failed projects behind him. His great desire is to open an opera house in the small Peruvian outpost that he calls home and he’ll stop at nothing to achieve it. To finance the project, he borrows money from the local madam (Claudia Cardinale) and buys the right to develop a plot of land which is said to be rich in rubber trees - he’ll sell the rubber and use the profits to finance his dream. There’s just one catch: the plot he’s bought is on the bank of a river that’s impossible to navigate at a certain point. There’s another river, on the other side, that would be smooth sailing were it not for the fact that cannibals are known to frequent it. Looking at a map, Fitzcarraldo sees that there’s a point at which the two rivers almost touch and he comes up with a plan to take a steamship down one river then drag the ship over land to the other river to aid in the development of his land.

Everything about his plan is insane, it’s only saving grace the fact that he believes in it so fervently. The making of the film has a similar quality, as Herzog, in his demand for realism, insisted on actually dragging a steamship over land for the sake of the film. The effort of this undertaking is obvious, but the film itself doesn’t entirely live up to everything that went into making it. There are some wonderful and memorable moments captured here – the scenes of the ship being dragged over land, the ominous appearance of an umbrella floating down the cannibal’s river, the sudden appearance of the cannibals themselves – but overall the film seems a little bit bloated and over-long.

As Fitzcarraldo, Kinski is something of a revelation to me, primarily because my only familiarity with him as an actor prior to seeing this film was in two other Herzog films: Aguire and Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. In those films he plays decidedly nasty characters, but here he plays a man who is quite gentle, aggressive only in his determination to achieve his goal. He has more range than I would previously have given him credit for, due largely to the fact that those nasty characters he played onscreen seemed to be extensions of his, let’s say, eccentric off-screen persona. So, I must admit to having been wrong because he was quite a skilled actor and carries this film firmly on his shoulders.

Although Fitzcarraldo isn’t an entirely successful film, it is one that is entirely worth seeing at least once.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Review: Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

* * * *

Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Klaus Kinski

Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God is kind of like what Apocalypse Now would be like if you took that long river journey with Kurtz instead of Willard. That Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is mad is a matter of course, but he’s only as mad as the task to which he has been assigned. With this tale of a fruitless search for the fabled El Dorado, Herzog creates a haunting and thoroughly engrossing cinematic experience.

The film begins with a great shot of Spanish conquistadors and their slaves winding their way down a mountain and into the Amazon jungle. The insanity of this expedition is immediately apparent: not only are the Spanish conquerors woefully ill-equipped for the climate with their heavy armour, they’ve also brought horses and canons and women in sedan chairs along for the ride. Eventually the expedition stops. To carry on through the jungle any longer would be foolish (though, honestly, I don’t think trying to go back would be very appealing either) so a camp will be made and a smaller group will be sent ahead on rafts down the Amazon to find the city of gold. Ursura (Ruy Guerra) will lead the group with Aguirre as his second in command. Ursura’s wife (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre’s daughter (Cecilia Rivera) join them as they set off on four unenviable rafts that are no match for the mighty river.

After travelling a few miles, the journey is temporarily suspended when one of the rafts gets stuck in an eddy. The men on the other three rafts set up camp on the shore and try to figure out what they can do to help, though Aguirre knows that the men are goners and says as much. One of the film's great sequences shows the doomed men struggling to free their raft, going back and forth as day becomes night, getting absolutely nowhere. In the middle of the night, the men on shore see and hear the guns from the raft firing. In the morning, all the men on the raft are dead. The questions that a sequence like this raises are necessary to one of the film's central conflicts: the struggle between the known terror (Aguirre) and the unknown terror (the Indians in the jungle, never seen, but always there, waiting). Shortly after the loss of the first raft, the other three are carried away when the river rises during the night. Ursura declares that they will march back through the jungle and rejoin the original group. Aguirre, however, wants to build new rafts and stages a mutiny so that the journey can carry on towards its ultimate and inevitable destruction.

Central and essential to the film is Klaus Kinski’s performance as Aguirre. He is clearly dangerous – everyone seems to know it – and yet he possesses a kind of mad charisma that makes people willing to follow him. He has a commanding presence – when he proclaims that he is the wrath of God, you believe it. He walks with a limp and often stands at a slight angle, slanting a little as if to suggest that he’s as bent physically as he is mentally. He’s different than all the rest and it's no surprise when he’s the only one left standing, still planning how he’ll conquer the world in the film’s final, grotesque moments.

The important thing to understand about the film is that as insane as Aguirre is, he’s no more insane than the mission itself. At one point one of the Indian slaves states that he feels sorry for the Spanish because they’re never going to get out of the jungle – going further into the Amazon would be death, going back out of the Amazon would be death. Like the crew of the raft that gets stuck in an eddy, they’re all trapped and destined to die, dragging horses and enormous, rusting canons with them. It’s a foolish undertaking, and perhaps the only thing that’s more foolish is bringing a film crew on location into the Amazon to recreate it, floating on a raft of your own in order to capture it – but that’s exactly what Herzog did, and the realism that is the result of his staggering ambition adds immeasurably to the film’s power.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Review: Hamlet 2 (2008)

* * 1/2

Director: Andrew Flemming
Starring: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Elisabeth Shue

I anticipate having “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” running through my head for, well, a while but at least it’s usurped “Waterloo,” which had been running on a near-nonstop loop through my head since seeing Mama Mia! in July. As for the rest of Hamlet 2, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. Before seeing it I had seen an ad which described it as the next Napoleon Dynamite and thought, “That... is not a compliment,” and now that I’ve seen the movie I think, “That... was actually pretty accurate.”

Steve Coogan stars as Dana Marschz, a failed actor turned high school drama teacher who fancies himself a cross between Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. As a teacher, Marschz isn’t much good, insisting on putting on stage versions of films like Erin Brockovich, which inevitably get terrible reviews from the school’s merciless critic and play no small part in the planned demise of the drama department. In an effort to drum up interest in drama, Marschz writes his own play hoping that it will be a hit and either save his job at the school or act as a launching pad into stardom. That play is the titular Hamlet 2, which involves a time machine, the characters in Hamlet, Jesus, Albert Einstein and... well, you’ve really got to see it to believe it.

The film has a great many flaws. It’s funny, yes, but it’s funny like “random” rather than funny like “clever.” I mean, when someone says that he feels as if he’s just been “raped in the face,” you laugh (if you laugh) because it comes out of nowhere, not because it’s witty. About 3/4ths of the way through, Amy Poehler shows up to play a character who seems to be composed solely of this kind of humour – I mean, if anyone can explain to me what “I’m married to a Jew so I’ve got nothing to lose,” actually means, I’d greatly appreciate it.

There are other characters who present problems. Catherine Keener co-stars as Marschz’s wife, who starts off as hilariously frustrated by her situation – idiot husband, money troubles, inability to conceive – but just gets so unnecessarily mean towards the end that it drags the movie down and brings the laughs to a screeching halt. The students, too, present a problem as some come across as sincere, while others are played as overtly self-aware parody. This mixture is hardly surprising as the film itself seems to switch tone constantly, often veering into the sentimental territory it’s supposed to be mocking. I'm surprised to learn that writer/director Andrew Flemming is also the writer and director of the exquisite 1999 comedy Dick, an infinitely funnier and infinitely better film than this one. That he obviously has experience making smart comedy makes this film all the more disappointing.

Hamlet 2 isn’t entirely without merit. Steve Coogan is great as the attention-starved teacher and I particularly enjoyed the back and forth between him and his pint-sized critic. The scenes of the play itself are fantastic, but I wish there was more of it because I would love to know how the various vignettes that we see are tied together. I would also have liked it if it didn’t take so long to finally get to the play. All in all, this is a fairly funny movie with a lot of fat that could have been trimmed.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Review: Sugar & Spice (2001)

* 1/2

Director: Francine McDougall
Starring: Marley Shelton, Mena Suvari, James Marsden, Marla Sokoloff

Sugar and Spice is an atrociously bad movie… that I just so happen to love. I can’t really explain it; even as I watch it I find myself thinking, “I shouldn’t be enjoying this,” but inevitably I do. I suppose that even the most discerning viewer has his or her weak spot, but it never would have occurred to me that mine would be a cheerleader heist movie.

The story is related to us by Lisa (Marla Sokoloff), perennial wannabe and leader of the B-squad cheerleaders. The A-squad cheerleaders, of whom she is so jealous, consists of Diane (Marley Shelton), Kansas (Mena Suvari), Cleo (Melissa George), Hannah (Rachel Blanschard) and Lucy (Sara Marsh). The A-squaders are tight – so in sync with each other that they all get their periods at the same time – so it only makes sense that when Diane finds herself pregnant by Jack (James Marsden) and short on money after her parents kick her out, the others help come up with a plan to help out.

Since Diane works in a bank, they decide that the most sensible thing to do is rob it. In preparation for the job, all the girls watch heist movies and take notes. While most choose movies like Dog Day Afternoon and Reservoir Dogs (neither of which, it seems to me, would help you plan a successful heist), Hannah, who comes from a deeply religious family and is only allowed to watch G-rated movies, chooses The Apple Dumpling Gang - a fact which does not go over particularly well with her cohorts. Eventually an addition is made to the group in the form of Fern (Alexandra Holden), whose father agrees to give the girls guns at a discount if they agree to put Fern on the A-squad. With Fern’s help, the robbery goes as planned except for one minor detail: Lisa has figured out who was behind it.

There are so many things wrong with the way that this movie is put together, starting with how it is related to us. Lisa is laying the whole thing out to the police – that much makes sense: she hates the A-squad, she wants to see them punished and she wants attention. However, the ending completely negates everything – there’s no reason why she should be telling this to the police of all people, which makes the fact that she’s telling the story at all utterly pointless. There’s also the fact that the characters never become more than two-dimensional. Lisa introduces them to us by giving each a nickname and none of them ever goes beyond the confines of what those names imply.

However… I still love it. I love that Cleo is obsessed with Conan O’Brien and dreams of living with him in an apartment filled with leather. I love Lisa, one of the most enjoyably unpleasant characters I’ve ever encountered in a film, and I love James Marsden, who plays his role with such goofy sincerity that it’s hard not to love him. Granted, none of these things is enough to make the film good, but thinking of them makes me feel a little less guilty about liking it so much.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Going The Distance (2004)

* * *

Director: Mark Griffiths
Starring: Christopher Jacot, Joanne Kelly, Shawn Roberts, Mayko Nguyen, Ryan Belleville

I suppose it doesn't say much about the merits of Going The Distance that I spent most of the movie thinking about other movies and noting the differences between those about teenage boys and those about teenage girls: movies about teenage boys are always about getting laid, while movies about teenage girls are always about attaining and wielding power. If this is the difference between boys and girls, shouldn't women be the majority shareholders of world power? Or do women as a gender just exhaust their capacity for Machiavellian intrigues in adolescence? But, anyway...

Nick (Christopher Jacot) and his friends have just graduated from high school and he’s distraught at the fact that his girlfriend (Katheryn Winnick) is going to spend the summer in Toronto interning at MuchMusic. Fearing that she will fall prey to the dubious charms of her boss (Jason Priestley), he decides to go to Toronto and propose, a bad idea for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that he plans to do it with a $10 ring. His two buddies (Shawn Roberts and Ryan Belleville) decide to come along (mostly so that they can talk him out of it) and the three take off from Tofino, B.C. in a Winebego, picking up two hitchhikers (Joanne Kelly and Mayko Nguyen) along the way and embarking on a series of adventures, many of which come courtesy of Emile (August Schellenberg), a man who has been hired by Nick's parents to prevent him from getting to Toronto.

If you’re Canadian, you probably best know Going The Distance as the MuchMusic movie, the one designed to promote the channel and showcase as many provinces as possible in the process. Given that the reason for making it was so shallow, it stands to follow that you can’t really expect much from it. It’s a genre film (two, really, as it combines the road movie and the teen sex comedy), one that is completely faithful to the elements and expectations of its genre and does nothing to try to transcend it. The characters are stock and so are most of the situations, but since the film doesn’t aspire to anything more, it’s hard to find fault with these facts. It’s not a movie that will surprise you, although I have to admit that I occasionally found it funnier than I was expecting to.

The product placement in the film is fairly blatant, although not quite as overbearing as I had been expecting. Given that the story’s climax takes place at the MMVAs, I was expecting the name to be dropped a lot more than it actually was, though to the film’s credit there are actually very few references to the channel prior to the gang’s arrival on the East coast.

The worst thing I can say about the movie is that, like any advertisement that strives to be relevant to one particular moment in culture, it is really firmly stuck in the year in which it was made and has already become extremely dated. Watching it in 2008 is sort of like watching a time capsule, recognizing things that used to be popular and wondering how in the hell that ever happened (I mean, Swollen Members? I know that they were popular, but I still kind of can’t believe it). This may not be a work of great cinema but, for what it is, it's pretty good.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Review: Mean Girls (2004)

* * * 1/2

Director: Mark Waters
Starring: Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, Lacey Chabert, Tina Fey

I was well out of high school by the time Mean Girls hit theatres, but the fact that so much of it still rang true speaks to how little things actually change even as things are changing. The accessories are different (I sure as hell didn’t have a cell phone when I was in high school), but the games are the same, and are explored here in a way that effectively combines the real and the satirical. So, if you have yet to experience this gem of a movie, I have but one thing to say: Boo, you whore!

Mean Girls was made during that ever so brief period of time between “Lindsay Lohan, child star” and “Lindsay Lohan, tabloid train wreck” and finds her playing Cady, the daughter of two researchers who has spent most of her life being home-schooled and living in Africa. When her mother (Ana Gasteyer, good but underused here) gets a tenured position at a university, the family is uprooted and Cady is thrust into the hazardous world of high school. She quickly becomes friends with outcasts Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese), and then finds herself adopted by the Plastics, the trio of Barbie-esque girls who rule the school. With Janis’ encouragement, Cady becomes a mole, helping plot to destroy the Plastics from the inside out. The only problem is that before she knows it, Cady has become one of them.

I think it’s safe to say that writer/co-star Tina Fey has, at the very least, a passing familiarity with Heathers, as that titular clique echoes pretty soundly in the Plastics. Watching the two films back to back, it seems to me that Mean Girls succeeds where Heathers fails, because the latter focuses so much energy on trying to shock you. While Mean Girls does descend occasionally into the surreal, as when Cady likens her classmates to animals in Africa, there’s an overriding sense of realism to the story as a whole. Horrifying as it may be to think, people like Regina George (Rachel McAdams) do exist and would effortlessly attract lackeys such as Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried).

I would argue that the strongest aspect of this film is its script, which understands teenage psychology well enough to take it seriously even as it is ripping it to shreds and taking careful aim at a few different targets. There’s the obvious target of high school friend/enemy dynamics, the dubious “reclaiming” of words like “bitch” and “whore” by girls who use them as terms of endearment, and a broad lampooning of parents who gladly undermine their authority as parents in order to be their kid’s friend (“I’m not a regular mom. I’m a cool mom!”). The acting is strong, too, particularly from McAdams. There is absolutely no good reason why you should ever feel sorry for Regina (well, okay, maybe when she gets hit by the bus), but personally I always do find myself feeling kind of sorry for her when she’s exiled from the Plastics’ table in the lunchroom. The way that McAdams manages to make that moment work and give it some depth never ceases to amaze me.

While I have a lot of love for this movie, I’ve got to acknowledge that it does have its flaws. The ending is a little preachy, giving a definite sense of a lesson being learned and these scenes don’t really fit seamlessly with the rest of the film. However, even they have their moments (“Do you even go to this school?” “I just have a lot of feelings.”).

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Review: Heathers (1989)

* *

Director: Michael Lehmann
Starring: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Kim Walker, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk

With its many moments of demented brilliance, I can completely understand how Heathers has become a cult classic, though I don’t think it’s nearly as good as its reputation. I’m absolutely willing to acknowledge that my opinion in this regard might be coloured by having heard about this movie for so long before actually seeing it, and thus I went into it with expectations that were too high. I can’t pretend that I wasn’t disappointed, though on the bright side this does mark one of the few occasions where I’ve actually enjoyed Winona Ryder in a film.

The Heathers in question are the three most popular girls at school, all actually named Heather. There’s a fourth member of their clique, Veronica (Winona Ryder), who both is and isn’t one of them. At her core, Veronica hates the Heathers, especially Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), but she also enjoys the popularity that being one of them brings her. She’s aware enough to see through Heather’s bullshit, but can’t seem to keep herself from giving in to her demands no matter how much she hates jumping through the hoops.

One day she meets J.D. (Christian Slater), whose name and demeanour evoke James Dean and every rebel without a cause since. With J.D.’s help and encouragement, Veronica begins acting out her secret desires – namely by murdering Heather Chandler and a few of the other popular kids. The murders are successfully made to look like suicides, which has the effect of making suicide the new cool thing to do amongst the student body. For a while, Veronica is able to feign innocence by telling herself that she thought J.D. was only playing pranks that went too far, but she’s eventually forced to come to terms with her complicity and her attempts to put a stop to the murders turn J.D. against her.

As satire, the movie doesn’t quite work for me for a couple of reasons. First, it isn’t firmly grounded enough in any authentic sense of reality for the satirical elements to stand out against it – the world depicted here isn’t recognizable enough as our own world for the commentary contained in the film to apply to our culture. Second, the film itself isn’t particularly clear about what, exactly, it wants to satirize. Is it the desensitized nature of teenagers and the ways that they can so casually do damage to each other? Is it the generation gap? The idea of the school system itself and the enforced socialization which guarantees that some people will be tormentors and others tormented? When the movie was over, I wasn’t exactly sure what message I was meant to get from it.

Despite the problems that I have with the film, there are a lot of things about it that I enjoyed. Dark as the subject matter is, it allows for some especially sharp dialogue (Kurt: “Hey Ram, doesn't this cafeteria have a no fags allowed rule?" J.D.: “Well, they seem to have an open door policy for assholes, though, don't they?”), and as the protagonist Ryder is effective, alternating between being ahead of the curve in one sense (with the Heathers) and behind it in another (with J.D.), and she manages to remain relatively likeable even when she's facilitating murder.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Review: Clueless (1995)

* * * *

Director: Amy Heckerling
Starring: Alicia Silverstone, Brittany Murphy

I’m just going to come right out and say it: I adore this movie. Not only is it my favourite “teen movie,” but if push came to shove, I’d probably qualify it as my favourite Jane Austen adaptation as well. So definitive was this movie to me and some of my friends when we were teenagers that well near a decade later whenever my old roommate and I would watch Six Feet Under and Jeremy Sisto would come onscreen, one would turn to the other and sing “Rollin’ with my hommies…”

Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is a wealthy Beverly Hills teenager with a penchant for matchmaking. She orchestrates a romance between two teachers, believing that if they’re happily in love, they’ll go easier when it comes to grading; and she makes a project of new student Tai (Brittany Murphy), guiding her away from Travis (Breckin Myer), whom she believes to be a bad match, and towards Elton (Jeremy Sisto), who turns out to be an even worse match. So busy is Cher meddling in the love lives of others that she almost fails to realize the romantic attachment that she has developed for Josh (Paul Rudd).

Not content to simply be about romantic entanglements, the film also a few subplots which flesh out Cher’s character, including her taking Tai under her wing and making her over, and her arranging a charity drive at the school to aid victims of disaster. Both of these plot elements serve to stress Cher’s good nature while also underscoring the fact that she is, essentially, clueless. After all, in making Tai over, Cher turns her into something of a monster (at least for a little while), and when putting together items for the charity drive she thinks it's appropriate to include her skis. Cher may always mean well, but it doesn't always come out well.

For me it’s impossible not to like Cher, which is kind of funny because she’s based on a character that I’ve never particularly liked. As played by Silverstone, there’s an underlying sweetness to her that makes it possible for her to say things like “Dionne and I are friends because we both know what it’s like to have other people be jealous of us,” without it sounding bitchy. The film is very smart in the way that it stresses that Cher isn’t dumb, but just sheltered by her insulated little world where shallowness is considered a virtue and issues like immigration can be solved by simply adopting a “the more the merrier” attitude (as a slight aside: if I didn’t already love the great Wallace Shawn, I would after just watching his facial expressions when Cher makes these kinds of declarations during his debate class). The film also, importantly, gives Cher room to grow as a character, learn from her mistakes and gain perspective on herself and those around her – something which isn’t always afforded to characters in teen comedies (or comedies in general, for that matter).

Clueless differs from the teen movie formula in a few significant ways, beginning with the fact that the “popular girl” isn’t also “ the bitch.” It also, refreshingly, does not, at any point, feature the prom and ends instead in typical Austen fashion with marriage and all the players paired off, and it features parental characters who aren’t completely out of touch. My favourite moments involve Dan Hedaya as Cher’s father, who gets some of the film’s best lines, including “If anything happens to my daughter, I’ve got a .45 and a shovel. I doubt you’ll be missed.”

Simply put, for me this is one of those perfect movies, one that I've probably seen about a million times and could watch about a million more.