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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Up On My Soapbox

It had been my intention to take the week off from blogging to focus on some other stuff going on in my life, but a friend sent me a link to this news item and I feel compelled to comment on it. I don't particularly like to get political here, seeing as this isn't a blog about politics, but this is the public forum that I have, so this is the one I've got to use.

So here's the deal: Afghanistan is going to have an election in August. The current President, Hamid Karzai, is seeking re-election but is unpopular as his regime has proven to be ineffectual and corrupt. He is, however, the man favored by Western leaders to lead the embattled nation. In an effort to win votes, he's signed into law a bill which erodes the few rights that Afghan women have and which, according to the UN, "legalises rape within marriages and bans wives from stepping outside their homes without their husbands' permission." Now, to anyone with an ounce of decency this sounds archaic and, well, gross, but according to an Afghan MP the law is actually is means of "protecting" women and isn't really that bad:
"The law g[ives] a woman the right to refuse sexual intercourse with her husband if she [is] unwell or [has] another reasonable 'excuse'... [and] a woman would not be obligated to remain in her house if an emergency forced her to leave without permission."
An emergency like... being raped? Oh, no, an emergency other than that.

So far Western leaders' response to this (at least publicly) has been silence. Why? "Because it gets us into territory of being accused of not respecting Afghan culture." What about respecting Afghan women? This isn't a cultural issue. It's an issue of basic human rights. If I recall correctly, human rights was one of the major justifications for going into Afghanistan in the first place. It shouldn't have to be said, but women are humans, too. You can't ignore their right to be treated as such and still claim that you're fulfilling your mandate to spread democracy to the Middle East. Furthermore, it's an insult to the men and women over there fighting - and those who have died - to support a government so eager to sacrifice those rights and freedoms that people fought so hard for.

Anyway, that's my two cents and I sincerely hope that this story gets enough attention that leaders around the world feel compelled to actually, you know, do something before the bill is ratified and the law put on the books. For more information, click here, here, or here.

All quotations come from the Guardian article by Jon Boone

Friday, March 27, 2009

Book vs. Film: The French Lieutenant's Woman vs. The French Lieutant's Woman

Plot: The French Lieutenant's Woman, both in book and film form, is a story about telling a story. The story being told takes place during the Victorian era and centres on a Sarah, a woman with a bad reputation. She's known as "the French Lieutenant's whore" because of a rumored affair she had with a sailor who abandoned her, and now she's a pariah in the community. Charles Smithson becomes fascinated with her, threatening his future with his financee, the daughter of a wealthy tradesman.

Primary Differences Between Book and Film: To put it simply, the book is about writing a book, the film is about making a film based on the book. Although much of the book unfolds unimpeded by authorial asides, John Fowles does break in every once in a while to remind the reader that he's telling a story and remark on the actions of his characters, particularly the growing idiocy of Charles. In the film, some of the action takes place in front of the cameras as part of the film-within-the-film, but some of it takes place behind the scenes as the actors playing Sarah and Charles find their own lives mirroring that of their characters.

For The Book: I'm a bit biased because the book is one of my absolute favourites. Fowles does somethig tricky in that he lulls you into immersing yourself in the story of Sarah and Charles and then yanks you out of it without making the transition seem jarring. The novel is a brilliant example of post-modern style and often disarmingly funny.

For The Film: By adapting it as an "onstage/offstage" story, the film captures the spirit of the book better than a straight adaptation ever could. Aside from being the story of Sarah and Charles' doomed love, The French Lieutenant's Woman is also about actively analyzing at the mores and attitudes of a bygone era, which the film does in its offstage portions. There are also great performances by Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, though Streep stands out more by virtue of the fact that both of her characters (the actress and Sarah) are written to be stronger presences than those portrayed by Irons.

Winner: I like the movie, but I love the book. The film is, however, one of the best page to screen adaptations I've ever seen, even if it starts to lag a little by the end. So, obviously, the winner is the book but it's a pretty tight race.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Amal (2008)

* * * *

Director: Richie Mehta
Starring: Rupinder Nagra

Richie Mehta’s Amal is the story of a good man who wants nothing more than to be a good man. It is also a story of greed and despair, of the way that money has the power not only to insulate us from hardship, but also to isolate us from other human beings. It is beautiful in a simple way and moving not because of what is lost, but because it makes us understand the value of what is ultimately gained.

An old man in rags wanders through the streets of Dehli. We later learn that this is G.K. Jayaram (Naseeruddin Shah), an eccentric millionaire who wants to find proof of goodness in the world before he dies. In his travels he meets Amal (Rupinder Nagra), an auto rickshaw driver who treats him with kindness and respect, even in the face of abuse. The old man throws a tantrum and refuses to pay the full fare, which Amal quietly accepts, perhaps because he believes he’s more fortunate than his passenger and can therefore afford to sacrifice the few rupees the old man is withholding. Shortly after their encounter, the old man dies but not before making a new will which leaves his fortune to Amal. This has the makings of a fairytale, but the plot then twists itself in the O. Henry style.

Jayaram has two sons, one of whom, Vivek (Vik Sahay), owes considerable gambling debts to the local crime lord, known as The Godfather. He is shocked to learn that there is a new will, the contents of which are to remain secret for 30 days – the time allotted for the estate lawyer (Seema Biswas) and the executor to find Amal. If Amal cannot be located to sign papers within 30 days, the previous will goes back into effect and the fortune will be divided between the brothers. The executor of the estate is Suresh (Roshan Seth), Jayaram’s former business partner. Suresh, devastated at having been left out of the will of the man he thought of as a brother, drunkenly reveals the contents of the new will to Vivek, who talks him into making a deal. All Suresh has to do is not find Amal and Vivek will pay him a portion of his inheritance once the old will comes back into effect. This would be an easy enough thing to get away with, given that all Jayaram knew about Amal was his name and the name of his father, making this a needle in a haystack situation, but something compels Suresh to continue looking for Amal even after he accepts Vivek’s deal.

While these upper class machinations are taking place, Amal has his own troubles. There is a woman whom he drives regularly, Pooja Seth (Koel Purie), whose purse is stolen as they’re stuck in traffic. Amal takes chase and the little girl who took the purse is hit by a car and severely injured. She has no family and no money to pay for the costly operation necessary to save her life. Amal feels guilty and tries to raise the money himself, but all he has that is of any value is the auto rickshaw, the pride of his late father. From this point the plot alternates between playing into and against convention, resulting in an ending for which the term “bittersweet” doesn’t seem quite weighty enough.

Much of the story is concerned with the pursuit of money and how it gets spent. Vivek, already deeply in debt, spends most of the 30 day waiting period at gambling tables, losing even more. Pooja is an aggressive business woman who hoards her profits for a dowry, though she later confesses to Amal that she doubts she would ever spend it. For most of the characters, money only inspires the desire for more money, though there are exceptions. The doctor caring for the little girl, for example, offers to waive his fee and the hospital fees, though he can’t waive the cost of medicine and medical supplies; and of course there is Amal, who puts the needs of everyone else before himself. On paper the character of Amal is too good to be true. He’s so noble and so virtuous, but Nagra’s performance really grounds him and makes him believable. He imbues Amal with such quiet dignity, such simple, natural kindness, that he becomes so much more than what the story alone would allow him to be.

I’ve seen this film compared in a number of places to Slumdog Millionaire and though I think that the two have some thematic similarities, they’re ultimately as different as night and day. Amal is much quieter and slower than the glossy, high energy Slumdog, a fact which may draw some people towards it and drive others away. Amal is a film that was on my radar for a while, but that I kept putting off seeing – I wish I’d seen it sooner, because it’s a great movie.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Review: Late Marriage (2001)

* * * 1/2

Director: Dover Koshashvili
Starring: Lior Louie Ashkenazi, Ronit Elkabetz

It occurred to me recently that I am now the age that my mother was when I was born. At 26 she was married, a parent, and had a mortgage and other significant responsibilities, whereas I… am thinking about getting a puppy. I look at the people I know who are my age and my brother’s age and think, “People used to be more grown up by now.” At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with anything, but bear with me because it is (kind of) relevant to the film I want to discuss, Dover Koshashvili’s Late Marriage.

The story centers on Zaza (Lior Louie Ashkenazi) who, at 31, is still regarded by those around him as a child. He’s a university student working at getting his PhD in philosophy and he’s financially supported by his parents, who want desperately to get him married. In the opening scenes he’s brought to the home of a prospective bride and the two families sit together and converse in a rigid and formal way, discussing the qualities of the potential bride and groom as if they were comparing notes on livestock. The girl is 17 and while her uncle is enthusiastic about the prospect of getting her settled with a husband, her mother seems more inclined to give her time before she takes on such adult responsibilities. Their opposing desires ultimately make little difference, as Zaza has no more intention of marrying this girl than any of the other girls and women his parents have had paraded in front of him.

The woman Zaza really wants is Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), a divorcee with a young daughter. Zaza and Judith have been seeing each other for some time, but he knows that his parents would never accept her. His father (Moni Moshonov) already knows about the relationship and pressures Zaza to end it. When his words fail to have an effect, he organizes a posse of family members to bust in on the lovers and force the end of the relationship either by intimidating Judith into breaking it off, or by embarrassing Zaza into doing the same. The group comes into Judith’s home, tosses her things around, rips up photos of her and Zaza, and at one point Zaza's uncle holds a sword to her throat (and all this in front of her daughter). It’s an ugly scene but also a fascinating one, particularly for what it (and the scenes that follow) tells us about Zaza.

All things considered, Zaza had a pretty sweet deal for a while. His parents paid for his apartment and his car and the credit card with which he bought whatever he wanted, including things for Judith and her daughter. He could play house with Judith, coming and going as he pleased and knowing that he could always fall back on the fact that his parents would never approve of their relationship to keep it from becoming any more officially committed. When his family busts in on them, he gives in to their pressure and breaks up with Judith and then leaves with his family only to return later alone, apparently thinking that things can just go back to the way they were before. Judith isn’t having it and sends him away, though he continues to call her and beg her to take him back. When Zaza’s mother (Lili Koshashvili, mother of the film’s director) goes back to Judith’s home to make peace and learns that her son still calls, she begins to soften somewhat. She also begins to respect Judith and later confesses to her husband that if push came to shove, she would accept her as a daughter-in-law. The problem is that Zaza is so afraid of disappointing his parents that he fails to see the cracks in his mother’s defenses and so gives in by finally giving up Judith for good.

And yet, that seems too simple a solution for what we’ve seen happen. The night of the ambush, Zaza sees his family laying in wait outside Judith’s building, his dog having discovered their car on the other side of the parking lot. He jokingly tells Judith to get dressed up because she’s going to meet his parents, and then he just lets the situation explode. Why does he do it? Perhaps because he’s so lacking in maturity that he dreads the prospect of having to be responsible for his own choices. If he took a stand and chose to marry Judith and ended up miserable, it would be his own fault. If, however, he allows his parents to control his options, then whatever unhappiness he has in the future will always be their fault because they forced him to give up the woman he really wanted.

The film is merciless in its portrayal of Zaza and his family, reserving its sympathy for Judith and her daughter and the woman Zaza eventually marries (as well it should). Zaza is a difficult character because he’s one defined by incredible and almost contemptible weakness, but Ashkenazi is able to give him some depth and shading, conveying the self-loathing Zaza feels as a result of his inability to grow in maturity as he grows with age. You might pity him if the film itself ever let him off the hook.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review: Brick (2005)

* * *

Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Film noir is a great genre, but it’s almost impossible to make a “pure” noir in this day and age. The current culture is too ironic, too self-consciously cool for the brutal sincerity in which noir is rooted. Brick is a film that fully embraces its artificiality and plays it for all its worth, making the style as important as the plot. The film is highly entertaining and delightfully well-plotted but that overt self-awareness also makes it less weighty than it might otherwise have been.

The film is set in modern-day southern California, but the dialogue, the attitude, the archetypes, are straight from the classic noir of the 40s. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is, for lack of a better term, the hero, the guy who puts the pieces together and whose tough exterior masks the wounds of lost love. That love is Emily (Emilie de Ravin), an ex-girlfriend who gets caught up in a situation she can’t handle and goes to him for help – but too late. He finds her dead and is haunted by the things she told him, information imparted in a code he doesn’t quite understand. To get to the bottom of things he employs the help of a character known simply as “The Brain” (Matt O’Leary), who seems to be able to insert himself into any loop to get enough information for Brendan to build on.

Along his travels, Brendan encounters a number of characters familiar to the genre: Laura (Nora Zehetner), the femme fatale who might be there to help him but might also be the root of all evil, Tugger (Noah Fleiss), the heavy who's lucky he has a gun because his brain sure wouldn’t see him through, and The Pin (Lukas Haas), the slightly effete source of all the trouble. What Brendan discovers as he interacts with these characters isn’t really the point. Plot has never been the raison d’etre of any noir, though a great deal of effort is put into making grand, twisting narratives. Noir is about atmosphere, about carrying the audience along on mood and dialogue so that they effectively forget about the plot. A successful noir isn’t one that can be followed, but one that can be felt and if you notice a plot hole while you’re watching it, then it’s not doing its job.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, who obviously has great familiarity with and appreciation for the genre, Brick is a successful example of style but not a particularly resonant film. The technique of using old school dialogue in a modern setting creates a distance between the film and the audience that cannot be overcome so that we don’t really care what becomes of the characters because we don’t really believe in them. Their fate is meaningless because their existence is so overtly artificial and nothing that they do, or fail to do, matters because they’re just part of a larger game being played by the film.

The film is well-written and Johnson is fortunate in the players he was able to cast, all of whom seem comfortable enough with the dialogue and style not to get lost in it. The standout, as is so often the case, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor who has spent the better part of the last decade making consistently interesting choices and will hopefully continue to do so. He will also, hopefully, start to get some significant recognition for his considerable talent.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Review: Music and Lyrics (2007)

* * *

Director: Marc Lawrence
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Hugh Grant

I’ve come to the conclusion that modern romantic comedies are only as good as their supporting characters. Films in the genre are, of course, sold on the strength of their leads – in this case Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore – but it’s rare to have leading characters who haven’t walked straight off the assembly line and into manufactured situations well-worn by other films. This is where the supporting characters become important because they can put a small stamp of originality on a film that elevates it from bland to decent. Case in point: Kristen Johnston in Music and Lyrics, who every time she was on-screen inspired me to say to myself, “My god, she is delightful.”

The film begins brilliantly, with a music video by 80s pop group PoP, modeled after Wham! Beware that this song – “Pop Goes My Heart” – will be stuck in your head forever. I saw this movie about a month ago and I still find myself humming it while I’m making dinner. Flash forward 20 or so years when one half of the duo, Colin Thompson (Scott Porter), is a successful solo artist, while the other half, Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant), is just barely keeping his head above obscurity. Alex’s prospects are limited to appearing on a celebrity boxing show and playing at fairgrounds and high school reunions until an opportunity arises for him to write a song for flavor of the month Cora Corman (Haley Bennett). If she were to use his song, it could revitalize his career, but there’s a problem: while he can compose music, he’s never been much good at writing lyrics.

Alex meets Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) when she’s hired to water his plants. This feels somewhat contrived because, honestly, who hires someone to water their plants while they’re home? In a different movie you might believe this, but Alex is such a down-to-earth character that it doesn’t really jive here. Anyway, as Sophie is watering the plants and singing to herself, Alex discovers that she has a knack for stringing words together. After much back and forth, he convinces her to work with him on the song for Cora, much to the delight of Sophie’s sister, Rhonda (Kristen Johnston), who was and remains an enormous fan of PoP. I really can’t even begin to describe how funny Johnston is in this role as a serious businesswoman and married mother of two who devolves into a squealing teenage girl whenever she’s around Alex.

As the leads, Grant and Barrymore are suitably charming and have decent enough chemistry, though the characters are somewhat flat. I much prefer Grant as snaky About A Boy style characters rather than neutered nice guys a la Four Weddings and a Funeral - I think he does better with characters that are allowed to have edges. Barrymore tends to be a little hit and miss for me and in this role in particular I found her to be a little lacking in spark, which may be because the film requires little more of her than to be nice.

The real star of the film, I think, is Adam Schlesinger who provides the original music. The songs he’s written for the film are catchy and evocative of the 80s (except the ones that aren’t supposed to be evocative of the 80s) and are probably the most memorable thing about the movie. Ultimately, while this is a fine enough way to spend an hour and a half (give or take), it’s difficult to really work up any feeling about it one way or another because there’s not really any conflict in the story. It’s a movie about nice people being nice and sometimes clever – there’s not much more to it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Review: Let The Right One In (2008)

* * * *

Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson

I want to preface this review by suggesting that if you haven’t seen Let The Right One In yet, don’t read any further than this paragraph. I think that the less you know about it going in, the more rewarding it is as a whole. All I knew about it beforehand was that it was about a vampire and that it had been much acclaimed around the world. And that’s all you need to know: it’s a great movie and totally captivating from beginning to end.

The central character is Oskar (Kate Hedebrant), a lonely 12 year old boy. His parents are divorced and have little time for him, preferring not to allow his presence to interfere with their social lives. He’s bullied at school and obsessed with violence, dreaming of enacting revenge on the bullies, and collecting clippings out of newspapers having to do with horrendous crimes. His isolation is near total until new neighbors move into the apartment next door.

He meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), a 12 year old girl who isn’t what she seems. She isn’t, strictly speaking, 12 years old, having been stuck at that age for “a very long time.” Nor is she really a girl, though she’s not actually a boy either. The ambiguous nature of Eli’s existence is interesting for the way that it feeds the opposing needs of Oskar, who wants her to be his romantic companion but also wants to have a protector. As a girl, Eli can be his girlfriend (albeit in a platonic and chaste way) and he can take the active role by taking care of her, such as when he lends her some of his mother’s clothes or when he keeps an intruder from killing her as she sleeps. As a boy, Eli can advise Oskar about how to deal with the bullies and come to his rescue if he needs it. The vague state of Eli’s being allows them both to slip in and out of the traditional gender roles of activity and passivity with ease.

The psychosexual aspect of the story is deepened by Eli’s relationship with Hakan (Per Ragnar), who ostensibly poses as her father and kills for her so that she can be fed without having to venture out to claim victims herself. The exact nature of their relationship is never elaborated, though there are some creepy undertones to Hakan’s behavior around Eli and his request that she spend less time with Oskar can, I think, be interpreted as being motivated as much by jealousy as by fear of discovery. How and when they ended up together is never explained, though the more I think about the film the more I wonder if maybe at some point Hakan was just like Oskar and if, beyond the borders of the film, one day Oskar will become like Hakan, a figure who provides for Eli and whose presence offers the cover of normalcy.

The film is based on a novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also adapted the screenplay. It's possible that the book answers some of these questions, though I don't necessarily feel that I'm missing anything in not having those answers - the story is strong even with its little ambiguities. The technical aspects of the film are similarly strong, particularly the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, which so beautifully captures the landscape, and the direction by Tomas Alfredson. It can't be easy to coax such rich performances out of child actors, but he does so with Hedebrant and Leandersson. Leandersson, especially, renders a surprisingly nuanced performance that blends childlike qualities with a heavy maturity. The result is transfixing.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Le Confessional (1995)

* * * *

Director: Robert Lepage
Starring: Lothaire Bluteau

"That's not a suspense story, it's a Greek tragedy!" proclaims Alfred Hitchcock towards the end of Le Confessional. While the character Hitchcock's declaration suggests that the two forms are mutually exclusive, Robert Lepage proves that they're not, managing to create a film that is both a successful suspense/mystery story and a saga of human suffering and torment. Narratively and visually, it's a totally engaging and engrossing film.

The story takes place in Quebec City during two time periods: one half takes place in 1952 when Alfred Hitchcock (Ron Burrage) comes to town to film I Confess and the Lamontagne family struggles to cope with the social stigma of Mrs. Lamontagne’s unwed and pregnant 16-year-old sister, Rachel (Suzanne Clement). The other half takes place some 40 years later, after the death of Mr. Lamontagne brings his son, Pierre (Lothaire Bluteau) back from China. Pierre’s primary concern is in tracking down his adopted brother, Marc (Patrick Goyette), Rachel’s son who was raised by her sister and brother-in-law following her death. Time has not been kind to Marc, a former swimmer now reduced to hustling to make ends meet, spiraling in self-loathing and drug addiction. In an effort to help him, Pierre begins looking into the circumstances of Marc’s birth, hoping to find out once and for all who Marc’s father was, a search which ends less in clarity than in tragedy.

Written and directed by Robert Lepage, the film weaves itself easily between the two time periods and in and out of the film within the film. Portions ofI Confess are filmed inside the church where Rachel worked until the discovery of her pregnancy, and Hitchcock’s plot mirrors Rachel’s story. In Hitchcock’s film, a priest is accused of a crime and unable to reveal the identity of the actual culprit because it was revealed to him inside the confessional. In Le Confessional, a young priest (Normand Daneau) is expelled from the church because everyone assumes that he’s the one who impregnated Rachel, having spent so much time with her when she worked at the church. She confesses to him the actual identity of the father, which of course he can’t reveal. He begs her to clear his name but she can’t because, to her, the truth is much worse than the assumption and leads to her eventual suicide.

Le Confessional, aside from being simply a very good film, is astonishingly good for being a directorial debut. Lepage guides the story with a firm hand, uncoiling the mystery of Marc’s paternity slowly while also giving the characters time and space to develop. He also does some very interesting things visually. There are, quite naturally, a number of shots which echo some of the more famous shots from Hitchcock and manage to be fitting homage rather than cheap theft, but these are only a small part of the technical grace demonstrated within the film. There is a great overhead tracking shot that follows Pierre as he searches for Marc in a bathhouse, making the interior of the building look like a maze. There is a room in the Lamontagne house that Pierre has to keep repainting because the outlines of photos which used to hang there keep bleeding through (the past always coming back to haunt). The symmetry of images and the color red are motifs which show up time and again to good effect. It’s a very thoughtfully crafted film on both the narrative and visual levels.

Lothaire Bluteau is the standout of the cast, an actor who manages to appear simultaneously fragile and strong. This is true not only of his performance here, but also of other performances of his that I’ve seen, particularly in Jesus of Montreal. He’s always very soft-spoken, but he manages to convey a lot with that barely-above-a-whisper voice of his. As the “bad” brother, Patrick Goyette is also very good and makes Marc the inverse of Pierre, a character who looks physically solid, but is mentally and emotionally as fragile as an egg shell. Marc’s fate is inevitable, foreshadowed in the opening scenes, but nevertheless tragic and while he isn’t necessarily a “good” man (as his interactions with his ex-girlfriend and their son demonstrate), you still feel for him.

Upon its release a decade or so ago, Le Confessional was pretty widely celebrated within the Canadian film community, receiving several Genie nominations and walking away with the prize for Art Direction, Director and Picture. It’s a film worth revisiting and has held up pretty well, though some of the music choices date it and, in fact, make it seem older than it is (I’m looking at you Depeche Mode). It should be noted, however, that if your curiosity about the film stems from the inclusion Kristin Scott Thomas in the cast, that her role as Hitchcock’s assistant is actually fairly small and quite disproportionate to her prominence on the DVD cover, which I assume is attributable to the film having been released for home viewing at about the same time that The English Patient was making its theatrical splash.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Review: Gosford Park (2001)

* * * *

Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen

No one makes movies quite the way Robert Altman did. His films don’t spoon feed you the story and they don’t always wait for you to be caught up; sometimes they take off running before the first frame, so that as an audience you walk right into the middle. I know that some find his style maddening and even shallow, touching first on this person and then on that and not really allowing any of them to be substantially fleshed out. Personally, I like his style and the way he brings the whole forest into focus rather than concentrating on one or two individual trees. And so it is with Gosford Park, which uses a wide range of characters to tell us about the English class system and alternates easily between being charming and tragic.

Gosford Park is the name of a great estate in the countryside belonging to Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Guests arrive to spend the weekend hunting and socializing, including William’s sister, Constance (Maggie Smith), always on edge regarding the allowance he has granted her, and an American film producer (Bob Ballaban) and his alleged footman (Ryan Phillipe). Here it becomes difficult to discuss the plot because Altman’s films tend to not have plots, as such. His films are about the ways that people weave in and out of each other’s lives, about how they talk and what they say (or avoid saying); we learn things about these people, but they don’t necessarily do anything.

The house – and, essentially, the story – is divided in two: the upstairs which concerns the rich people at their leisure, and the downstairs occupied by their servants. The servants are, of course, a fixture in the upstairs but it’s a shock when one of the upstairs denizens comes downstairs, as Sylvia does at one point to confirm a special arrangement for dinner. It upsets the balance of things for her to be there because when the staff is downstairs they’re people, but when they’re upstairs they’re just part of the machine that makes the house run, barely acknowledged and certainly not considered in any real way by the people upstairs. In coming downstairs and seeing the staff at ease, it’s almost as if she’s seen them undressed, which is why the staff reacts so strongly later when it is revealed that the allegedly Scottish footman is actually an American actor studying for a role. He hasn’t simply deceived them; he’s violated the sanctity of their private existence. The separation of the classes is the central theme and, in particular, the film works at breaking down the classes within the classes. The servants, for example, dine at their table according to the rank of their employer, and there is a hierarchy amongst the rich which makes some dependant on others to maintain their stature - being a member of a class doesn't necessarily make you equal to another member of the same class. I think that's why Altman's style is so well suited to this story, because it allows for a wide range of different types of interactions.

There are several plot threads, all of which are left in an open-ended fashion, including a murder. For me, the most interesting of the subplots involves Elsie, the head housemaid played marvellously by the always reliable Emily Watson. As the story progresses we learn that Elsie has been carrying on an affair with Sir William. The circumstances of the relationship are fascinating because, on the one hand, Elsie obviously has some affection for Sir William, whom she calls Bill and about whom she speaks in such a way that suggests that there’s more to the relationship than sex. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that she ever had much choice about the relationship. The film is set in 1932, when women didn’t exactly have much in the way of recourse against the advances of an employer – if Elsie had rejected Sir William (whom we learn has a long history taking liberties with his employees), she would have lost her job and her home. Her position is an impossible one but Watson doesn’t let her play out as a victim. She’s a character who has more or less accepted the unfairness of her lot and become determined to make the best of it until she can find her way into a better situation, and Watson plays her with a great deal of grace and nuance.

Aside from Watson, there are several other great performances that get showcased here: Scott Thomas as the icy lady of the manor, Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins as two warring members of the staff, Clive Owen as a staff member who knows he has a secret connection to one person in the house but is unaware of the connection he has to another, Kelly Macdonald as an innocent maid whose role is largely to stand in for the audience within the narrative, and Smith, who pretty much steals the show with a performance which moves easily between being light and breezy to being heavy and desperate. As is typical of Altman’s films, all of these characters get moments to shine but no one is really the lead and the film isn’t carried by any one character. This is a collective effort to paint a very detailed picture of human interaction. It's a great movie and one which I've found reveals something new with each viewing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Great Last Scenes: Paths of Glory

Year: 1957
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Great Because...: It is the only moment of respite in a film that relentlessly shows the ugly side of military bureaucracy and human nature. The scene is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming, renewing the faith in humanity that may have dwindled away during the course of the film.

Col. Dax is at his lowest point, having seen first hand the depths of military corruption and failed in his efforts to bring justice to three soldiers arbitrarily chosen for execution. He wanders over to the tavern, where the "entertainment" that is unfolding seems destined to rob him of whatever good feelings he has left for his fellow man.

Inside, the bar owner brings out a reluctant, frightened and confused German girl and makes her take the stage. The French soliders go wild, catcalling and whistling, determined to humiliate her because in this moment she stands for everything that has been making their lives miserable - the shells, the trenches, the fear, the futility of the whole endeavor. She begins to sing a song and slowly the soldiers calm down. She's singing in German but they recognize the tune and one by one they begin humming along. Suddenly they feel human again and are able to see that the girl, too, far from being "the enemy" is just a human being as well. It's a beautiful moment and Dax, seeing it, decides to let them savour it before collecting them and returning to the horrors of the trench.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Review: Caché (2005)

* * * *

Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Daniel Auteil, Juliette Binoche

I think it’s fairly safe to say that writer/director Michael Haneke is uncomfortable when other people are comfortable. I mean, just look at some of the titles on his CV: Funny Games (the original and the American remake), The Piano Teacher, and this film. These are all films designed to challenge and unsettle the audience, films that take a heavy psychological, and sometimes physical, toll on their characters. Caché is a film that looks at the way that two people are changed by the knowledge that they’re being watched and it is utterly fascinating.

The film opens with a shot of a Paris street. The camera remains stationary as people and cars pass by; there’s nothing extraordinary about this scene until we realize that we, and the two protagonists, are watching a video. For Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche), this is a very bizarre video indeed, having been left on their doorstep without further explanation. Soon another video arrives, this time with a crude drawing. The voyeur makes no attempt to approach them, but that isn’t the point. The very fact that someone is out there watching them - and wants them to know that they’re being watched - completely destabilizes the way that they’ve been going about their lives. Further, they feel increasingly powerless as they learn that there’s absolutely nothing that police can do about it until the voyeur physically attacks them. The fact that he or she is psychologically attacking them makes no difference.

More tapes are sent along with more drawings and Georges begins thinking of an event far back in his past, which leads him to believe that he may know the identity of the voyeur. The recent invasion of his privacy has made Georges fiercely protective of what secrets he believes he has left and the result is that he tries to keep his suspicion from Anne. When Anne later learns that Georges has been actively keeping pieces of the puzzle from her, it introduces a new form of discord into their marriage: distrust of each other. Simply by watching Georges, the voyeur manages to isolate and alienate him from everyone in his life, effectively dismantling that life.

As played by Auteuil, Georges is a man who at once believes that he has done nothing wrong – though he perhaps doesn’t fully believe that – but increasingly behaves as though he’s guilty as sin, as though he’s been caught red handed at something when in fact he has not. It’s a good performance and you at once find yourself sympathising with him for the strange position he finds himself in, but also frustrated with him because he doesn’t do himself any favours with the way he handles the situation. As for Binoche, she’s wonderful but that should be no surprise. I have never seen her give a performance that was merely adequate; she seems absolutely at home in every character she plays. She doesn’t have as much to do as Auteuil, but Anne perhaps has a secret of her own – an idea the film toys with but leaves mired in ambiguity, just one of several unanswered questions.

Haneke creates a very effective story out of a simple premise, using the seemingly innocuous act of looking to produce pure terror. A fair portion of the film is seen through the camera of the voyeur, who somehow manages to remain unseen even when the positioning of the shot would suggest that he ought to be clearly visible to those nearby. The result of this is that we, the audience, feel like voyeurs ourselves and the film itself occasionally seems to be the voyeur, as though it’s watching itself unfold. It unravels itself slowly, almost clinically, as it moves towards its conclusion, which isn’t really a conclusion at all. The final shot is not unlike the first, although the two observe different locations. It seems as though nothing is happening but pay close attention to the left hand side of the screen, where two characters meet and have a conversation (unheard by the audience), which raises far more questions than it answers. The fact that these two characters know each other at all is intriguing and deeply unsettling, which is of course the point. It isn’t just being watched that can disturb your equilibrium, but watching as well.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Review: Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004)

* * * *

Director: Je-gyu Kang
Starring: Dong-Kun Jang, Bin Won

Why is it that every “serious” movie lately has to be told in flashback? Is there something I’m missing about the present tense that makes it inherently less weighty as a means of exploring a narrative? Like Saving Private Ryan before it, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War is bookended by present day scenes which add very little to the actual story. Fortunately, like Spielberg’s film, Tae Guk Gi is a strong enough effort overall that those present day scenes are just a minor annoyance rather than a major flaw.

The flashback begins in 1950 in a South Korean village near the North Korean border where two brothers, Jin-tae Lee (Dong-Kun Jang) and Jin-seok Lee (Bin Won), are shown living a life that seems to be overly romanticized and sentimentalized by the filmmakers. To be honest, the movie almost lost me in the first twenty or so minutes because it’s just so aggressively nostalgic. Jin-seok is a student who is being supported by Jin-tae, who works shining shoes, and their mother who runs a small shop with Jin-tae’s financee, Young-Shin (Eun-ju Lee). The family is also supporting Young-Shin’s three young siblings, which would suggest to me that there’s a pretty heavy burden on the three working members of the family and yet here are Jin-tae and Jin-seok, acting like they don’t have a care in the world and practically skipping down the street holding hands. I’m not arguing that they couldn’t or shouldn’t be happy, but the film doesn’t have to go to such great lengths to make it seem like they’re living in an Edenic paradise in order to convince me that much has been lost because of the war.

Anyway, this happy time is brief as soon the war starts and both brothers are drafted into the army. At this point the film really starts to flex its narrative muscle: the at war portion of the film makes everything that came before, and the little bit that comes after, entirely worth it. Jin-tae is determined to get his brother out of the army, back home and back in school where he belongs. He learns from his commanding officer that there have been cases where soldiers were able to barter for the discharge of a family member by taking on dangerous missions and earning a medal, and so that is what he becomes determined to do.

Jin-tae is a remarkably good soldier with the ability to think quickly on his feet and make snap strategic decisions. He performs many feats of bravery and gains the notice of the upper ranks, leading to a shower of praise which quickly starts to go to his head. As his notoriety within the army increases, he loses sight of what inspired him to take risks in the first place and his focus shifts to bolstering his image as a super soldier. It isn’t enough for him that the army gain ground; he has to be at the head of the pack, leading them to victory. The soldiers around him, who were once friends, become instead a means for him to gain recognition and he risks their lives without thought, leading to many deaths. He also, perhaps inevitably, gets caught up in rah-rah ideology which unleashes a streak of sadism in him as he becomes determined not just to beat the enemy but to slaughter them.

Jin-tae’s take no prisoners – even if they’re surrendering – stance doesn’t sit well with Jin-seok, who is disgusted by the change in his brother. When they come across a group of South Koreans who have been forced to fight for the North by threat of execution – one of whom is a friend from their village – Jin-seok finally stands up to his brother, who wants to execute them despite the fact that they’re unarmed. They become POWs, but that doesn’t stop Jin-tae from continuing to abuse his power, as he forces the POWs to box for the amusement of the troop, telling them that whoever loses won’t get food or will perhaps be shot. Not only does Jin-seok no longer recognize his brother, he now wants nothing to do with him and the relationship continues to deteriorate despite Jin-tae’s assertions that whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it for the family.

A lot of plot is packed into this story – I’ve actually only gone into about 2/3rds of it – but its well-paced and never feels overloaded. The progression of events seems natural and unforced and while a lot of war movie standbys make appearances as plot points, the film doesn’t feel riddled with clichés. I don’t know all that much about the Korean war, nor am I very familiar with the way that it has been portrayed in other films (off the top of my head I can name exactly one other film about this particular war: M*A*S*H* - but surely there must be others?), but I liked that this film didn’t fall into the trap of jingoistic posturing. This isn’t about “evil” North Korea and “good” South Korea – the North Koreans show up simply as a mass of uniforms either charging or retreating and though terms like “communist pig” get tossed around, the North Koreans aren’t really depicted in either a good or bad light. South Korea, on the other hand, is pretty firmly criticized, particularly for the treatment of South Koreans who were forced to cooperate with Northern occupiers. By the end of the film, it’s hard to tell which government is supposed to be “good” and which is supposed to be “bad.” The way that the film disconnects itself from taking sides in order to focus on the psychological effects of warfare is its greatest strength and the element that resonates the most clearly.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Tales From the Gimli Hospital (1988)

* * *

Director: Guy Maddin
Starring: Kyle McCulloch

If you’re familiar with the work of Guy Maddin, you know, more or less, what to expect from the look of Tales From The Gimli Hospital. His aesthetic is in line with silent and early sound films, managing not only to bring that era to mind, but also to imbue his films with its spirit. They always feel like unearthed classics, films thought lost but now somehow found – and yet there’s something about them that also feels distinctly modern. Maddin has become one of my favorite filmmakers and, though I haven’t yet been able to see all of his films, I’ve come to a conclusion: if his name is on it, you can’t go wrong.

Tales From The Gimli Hospital is Maddin’s first feature length film, though at 70 minutes it’s not a particularly long feature. Shot entirely in black and white and featuring little dialogue, the film unfolds in a dreamy fashion (or, perhaps, nightmare given the events of the story). It begins in the Gimli Hospital where two children wait at the bedside of their dying mother. Their grandmother begins to tell them a story which makes you, as a viewer, question the wisdom of leaving her in charge of small children.

The story takes place many years earlier during an outbreak of small pox. In it, Einar the Lonely (Kyle McCulloch), a man who lives in a shack and smokes fish for a living, becomes afflicted and is taken the hospital for treatment, where he develops a friendship with Gunnar (Michael Gottli), a fellow patient. From the beginning this part of the film takes a distinctly surrealist turn, seeming to be the long-lost fraternal twin of an early Bunuel film. The nurses are actually men in drag, who sleep in blankets of dirt. One of the patients is a minstrel who shoots a duck inside the hospital. Instead of anesthesia, the doctor has the nurses put on a puppet show to distract the patient from violent surgeries performed with farm tools. You get the picture – or maybe you don’t; I certainly wouldn’t have believed it until having seen it.

Einar and Gunnar become friends, of a sort, and tell each other stories in the hospital. Gunnar’s is the tragic story of his love for Snjofridur (Angela Heck), whose devotion to him he cannot quite comprehend. Snjorfridur nurses him at the beginning of his illness and then marries him in a delightfully absurd ceremony (because the local priest is afraid of catching smallpox, he stands on the other side of a river during the ceremony and Gunner and Sjofridur have to yell their “I do”s to him) and later contracts smallpox herself and dies. Einar then tells of his own recent experience with death, when he happened upon something strange: a woman buried in ceremonial fashion, her body wrapped up with various trinkets and placed on a platform. Einar is drawn to it and begins peeling away the layers of covering, stealing the trinkets and, in a fit of ecstasy, defiling the body. But wait, Gunnar says. He paused but wasn’t actually finished his story...

Maddin is a filmmaker whose stories tend to shoot off in all sorts of bizarre directions but who nevertheless always seems to be in control of his narratives. That being said, in comparison to his more recent films, the balance between form and content in this one is a little off and the actual story doesn't really start to gel until near the end. What you see here are the roots of what you find in later Maddin films and though its a little bit rough around the edges, it's still an interesting viewing experience and a must see for any Maddin fan.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Unsung Performances: Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums

"Unsung" might not actually be the most appropriate word, given that Gene Hackman's work in The Royal Tenenbaums garnered a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, as well as a Chicago Film Critics Award and National Society of Film Critics Award, but the performance should have received much more attention. I mean, no SAG nomination (not even for ensemble? Damn, that's an oversight), no Oscar nod? Given the performances that were nominated that year, it's difficult to find a way to justify Hackman's exclusion. Russel Crowe in A Beautiful Mind and Tom Wilkinson in In The Bedroom I'll give you, and sight unseen I'm even willing to concede Denzel Washington in Training Day. But Sean Penn going "full on" in I Am Sam or Will Smith doing a glorified impersonation in Ali? I mean... come on. That's just not right.

Hackman’s omission can probably be attributed – at least in part – to the fact that the Academy generally doesn’t have much respect for comedy. To inspire tears is divine, to inspire laughter is crass, or at least that’s the general idea. But there’s more to Hackman’s work as the eponymous Royal Tenenbaum than simply having a way with the words written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. On the face of it, Royal is a sociopath – he’s self-centered, has no sense of responsibility or guilt, no moral compass, and punishment does nothing to change his overall behaviour. In Hackman’s hands Royal is still a sociopath, but he’s not without heart and, by the end of the film, you do believe that he has found a way to connect meaningfully with the people in his life.

The key, I think, is that Hackman makes Royal charmingly charmless. The heart of the story is a con that Royal is trying to pull on his family, but I don’t think you could ever correctly identity him as a “con artist” because he’s so inept at reading people and so entirely lacking in the ability to tell people what they want to hear and win them over to his side. There is a sincerity to the way that he approaches things that is completely detrimental to his purposes because it serves as a constant reminder to his family of why they haven’t had anything to do with him in years… and yet, he doesn’t see that at all. He thinks he’s going to win them over by saying things like, “I’ve missed the hell out of you, my darlings,” or (my personal favourite), “I’m very sorry for your loss. Your mother was a terribly attractive woman;” or by doing things like teaching his grandsons how to shoplift and dodge through moving traffic (for fun, not necessity), and by taking them to dogfights. He has absolutely no conception of how normal human being interact with each other or why his wife and children (save for younger son Richie, who seems prepared to accept him no matter what) would make him do so much work to get back in their lives when he has consistently shown that there is no one he cares for nearly as much as he cares for himself.

Through the course of the film, the character evolves but only somewhat. “I’ve always been considered an asshole for about as long as I can remember. That’s just my style,” he explains, as if he could be a nice guy if he tried, which I don’t think is necessarily true. The point is that he finally gets it and while his “style” might not change, at least he’s started to understand how it can be off-putting to those around him. Earlier, when Eli Cash states that he always wanted to be a Tenenbaum and Royal responds with “Me too,” it conveys two things. First, that there’s a degree of self-loathing running through Royal and a belief that he’s really not good enough to be a member of his family (and this implied belief is about as close as he ever gets to really complimenting any of them). Second – and this is all in the delivery – that there’s nothing he can do, or could ever have done, about it, as if it’s a desirable but impossible dream.

Hackman is a great actor and there is not a single moment of his performance in this film where he is not totally alive in the role. He brings dimension and nuance to a character that could simply be an asshole and nothing more, and looks like he's having the time of his life while doing so.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Review: Tell No One (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Guillaume Canet
Starring: Francois Cluzet, Kristin Scott Thomas, Marie-Josée Croze

My reaction to most of Tell No One can be summed up in pretty much three words: Wait, what? Oh. This is to say, the plot is convoluted. It twists and turns and comes around then goes back again and even at the end, when everything is explained and wrapped up nicely, you can’t help but wonder if something is still missing, if maybe it wrapped up a little too nicely. It’s an effective mystery/thriller and with all that twisting and turning, it’s astonishing that it never goes off the rails.

The film begins in the French countryside where Alex Beck and his wife Margot (Marie-Josee Croze) are enjoying a romantic getaway. One night they go swimming and have a fight. Margot returns to the house and moments later Alex hears her screaming. He goes after her but is knocked out and spends three days in a coma during which Margot's body is found, the victim of a serial killer. Eight years later, long after the investigation and trial of the supposed killer, questions remain, particularly the question of how Alex, who was knocked out while climbing out of the water and fell back into it, dragged himself up onto the dock while comatose.

Two bodies are found buried nearby the country house and the discovery leads to more evidence, more questions, as far as the police are concerned. Alex, too, has questions. He’s been receiving mysterious emails which lead him to believe that Margot is, in fact, alive and the closer he looks into the details of her death, the more convinced he becomes that it was faked as part of an elaborate plot. For obvious reasons, I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot because discovering it in all its intricate – albeit somewhat “soapy” – glory is part of the reward of watching the film. I will say that in the course of unraveling the mystery, there’s a really great chase sequence that, unlike a lot of movie chase sequences, actually seems to take a toll on the protagonist.

The story, based on a novel by Harlan Coben and adapted by Guillaume Canet, is well constructed. It manages to give the audience nuggets of information here and there – some of it false, some of it true – without tipping the whole thing and making the conclusion obvious. It takes time to lay a solid foundation for the mystery to stand on, tossing out bits of information which at first seem to be of little importance but help to illuminate much of what we discover later. For example, pay close attention to the fight that Alex and Margot have at the beginning of the film because it ties directly to a revelation near the end.

The film suffers, somewhat, from having a villain who comes directly from stock but, truthfully, the villain doesn’t play much of a role in the story. It’s more a Hitchcockian wrong man forced to go on the run story and the focus is very much on the protagonist and his efforts to clear his name and discover the truth. He’s aided in this by his sister, Anne (Marina Hands), her wife, Helene (Kristen Scott Thomas), the lawyer they hire to defend him and, eventually, one of the police officers investigating the situation who thinks that, maybe, Alex looks a little too guilty and that that’s the clearest sign of his innocence. All the players are well-cast and I particularly liked Scott Thomas, whose character is Alex’s confidante in addition to being his sister-in-law. The character could easily have been forgettable, given that she spends most of the film simply acting as a sounding board for Alex’s theories, but Scott Thomas lends her a commanding presence that ensures her importance to the story as a whole.

All told, this is a very engaging and robust film. I don’t know that the final shot, which veers a little far into sentimentality, does the film any favors, although I suppose that it fits with the dreamy quality of the opening moments. I’m still convinced that I’m missing something, though that may be because some of the elements which seem like throwaways actually are (if anyone can tell me what purpose is served by Helene’s comment that Anne thinks she’s having an affair, I’d appreciate it because as far as I can tell that never comes up again and is there simply for the sake of detail).

Monday, March 9, 2009

Review: Revolutionary Road (2008)

* * * *

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet

You know what would be really, ahem, revolutionary? A movie about people who live in the suburbs and aren’t dead/dying inside. Surely there must exist some genuinely happy people out there whose manicured lawns aren’t representative of disillusionment and silent despair and whose spouse isn’t also their worst enemy and the destroyer of their dreams – or is that just a quaint, bourgeoisie notion? The first hurdle that Revolutionary Road must meet is the fact that its basic premise has already been explored to death. It’s a good film, but it is heavily burdened by outside forces that make it hard to judge in and of itself.

The Wheelers are special. Everyone says so and they themselves have bought into the hype, though the hard truth is that they are absolutely ordinary. They married and moved to the suburbs and had two children before the age of 30 and though they want more, they will never attain it. Frank’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) problem is that he lacks imagination, which is somewhat ironic given that he works in marketing for Knox Business Machines. He hates his job but doesn’t know how to escape it because he can’t think of anything else he can do. He aspires to nothing except not ending up like his father, who also worked for Knox. He has an affair with one of the secretaries that seems inspired less by passion than expectation: this is simply the sort of thing that men in his position do. He is absolutely and utterly conventional, even in the ways that he rebels against societal mores and values.

April (Kate Winslet) is in certain respects the opposite. She has ideas, she has plans for their escape, but she lacks the ability to follow through on her own. She has been anchored to suburbia by maternity and lack of opportunity. She once aspired to be an actress but lacks the talent and the time to devote herself to studying and making herself better. Because she has no income, no money of her own, she needs Frank in order to start over somewhere else – anywhere else, though she sets her mind to Paris. She has a plan: Frank will quit his job, they’ll sell their house and car and move to Paris, where they’ll live off their savings until April can get a secretarial position at an Embassy while Frank works at finding himself. It doesn’t take much for her to talk Frank around to this proposition, but his agreeing to it and actually doing it are two different things.

Regardless of Frank’s initial enthusiasm, the fact is that the Paris plan could never come to fruition because of his sensitivity regarding his manhood. Nothing sets him off like the accusation that he’s not a man, which is occasionally stated in a direct fashion (first by April at the beginning of the film, later by John Givings, the son of friends of the Wheelers who absolutely lacks a filter and says whatever, whenever) and at other times it is more couched in conversation, as when he explains the plan to other men and they question him about the logistics of it because, after all, what kind of man lets his wife support him? And even if Frank could go through with it, what then? There’s nothing about him which indicates that he’s capable of being anything other than a cog in a big corporate machine. The result, in all likelihood, is that they would be even more miserable in Paris because Frank would feel emasculated by his lack of work and embarrassed by his inability to “create,” and April would feel burdened by the responsibility of supporting him, which would leave her feeling even more weighted down than she does already.

The story and its study of middle class malaise is solid and although the performances are good (particularly that of Michael Shannon, nominated as Best Supporting Actor for playing John Givings) and the direction is sound, making the most of the intense performances of DiCaprio and Winslet, I find myself wishing that it had been made, say, 30 years ago and by different people (which I suppose it would have to be, though the idea of 4-year-old DiCaprio and 3-year-old Winslet tackling this material is somewhat amusing) if only to escape all the baggage that invariably gets brought into it. I mean, Sam Mendes directing a film about suburban disaffection? American Beauty. Kate Winslet playing a distressed housewife? Little Children. An inspection of life behind the conservative veneer of post-WWII, pre-sexual revolution America? Mad Men. You just can’t get away from these things.

That being said, Revolutionary Road is a very good movie and its only real crime is bad timing. I don’t know if it will only need a few years or if it will take decades, but I do believe that at some point, when the trees can be separated out from the forest, this will be a film that stands apart and will be valued for what it achieves. It got lost in the shuffle of 2008 and buried in the zeitgeist, but it’s ripe for being “discovered” in the years to come.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Review: The Machine Girl (2008)

Director: Noboru Iguchi
Starring: Minase Yashiro

So, a little back story on this one: sometime last year my brother found the trailer for this movie online and we both thought that it was a parody or something and then discovered that it was an actual, bona fide movie and became determined to find some way to see it. Having now had the opportunity to see it, I must confess that words aren’t really adequate to properly describe it, but I’m going to do my best to apply a few. I haven’t bothered to assign this a star rating because movies like this one really defy the concept of a star rating, being as it is so shamelessly and awesomely ridiculous.

The plot of Machine Girl... actually, let me back up a bit. There’s something you need to understand about Machine Girl before we even get into the plot. She is pissed off. I mean, really pissed off – like, imagine the most pissed off you’ve ever been and then multiply it by about a million. She’s also lost an arm and had a machine gun fashioned to fit over the stump, leaving her other hand free to wield another weapon. These facts we learn in the prologue but then the film doubles back, showing Machine Girl (aka Ami, played with admirably manic energy by Minase Yashiro) in a simpler time... kind of.

Ami and her brother are orphans, their parents having killed themselves following allegations of murder. The Ami of these early scenes is kind and caring, just as long as you don’t get her angry (you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry). Unbeknownst to her, a group of bullies has singled out her brother and his friend, and eventually torments them to death. When it becomes apparent that the bullies won’t be punished, Ami decides to take matters into her own hands and make them pay. During her quest, she loses her arm and almost dies but is saved by Miki (Asami) and her husband, the parents of the other dead boy. After several bloody battles, Ami and Miki storm the compound of the ringleader of the bullying, a little psycho who, judging by his parents, comes from a long line of psychos.

Machine Girl isn’t for everyone, but it might be for you if any of the following apply:

1. You like every wound to result in a fountain of spurting blood;
2. You’re curious regarding the aesthetic appeal of a bra fashioned out of drills;
3. You’ve ever wondered what it would look like if someone vomited up their intestines;
4. The words “flying guillotine” capture your imagination.

A lot of blood is shed in this film, but the violence is of such a cartooney variety that it’s difficult to take seriously. And lest you think the film is entirely devoid of cinematic value, rest assured that there is a moral to this story, voiced by Machine Girl in the final moments, regarding the importance of standing up for yourself or some such thing. At any rate, if simply standing your ground doesn’t work the film does have many creative suggestions for inflicting bodily harm on your enemies.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Flower and Garnet (2002)

* * * 1/2

Director: Keith Behrman
Starring: Callum Keith Rennie, Jane McGregor, Colin Roberts

Flower and Garnet is one of those rare movies that has the confidence to move at a slow and thoughtful pace, and the content to back up that choice. It presents us with three troubled and damaged characters – a father, his daughter, and his son – and uses its running time simply to observe them, to examine the wounds they share and the wounds they inflict on each other, and watches them as they struggle to put themselves back together. Nothing about this movie feels false or forced. It’s a great achievement.

The son, Garnet, is born into unfortunate circumstances, as complications from the birth end his mother’s life. The loss of his wife is too much for Ed (Callum Keith Rennie), who can’t deal with the baby and leaves him to be cared for by friends until his daughter, Flower, marches over there and claims responsibility for him herself. The film then flashes forward about six years and we see that little has changed. Ed is still distanced from his son and Flower (now played by Jane McGregor) is still the one taking care of him. Garnet (Colin Robberts) is attached to Flower the way that he would be to his mother but, being a teenager, she often runs hot and cold with him, wanting sometimes to have him near and at others to be left alone. Ed has a girlfriend who might step in to take the mother role with Garnet, if only Ed were willing to admit to his kids that they’re dating. He insists that his kids don’t suspect, though she points out that Flower is more than old enough to understand what’s going on, and Garnet later surprises him by asking him a question that makes it clear that he knows that there's more to the relationship than Ed would like to admit.

Garnet’s question, which is equal parts vague and direct and is, specifically, “does what you do when she spends the night hurt?” is prompted by his growing knowledge of Flower’s sexual life and his feeling that he’s losing her to this other and private life which, indeed, he is. Flower becomes pregnant, which has a profound effect on all of the relationships in the family. Ed wants her to have an abortion, which prompts her to move out and in with his now ex-girlfriend. He doesn’t think she’s ready to raise a child, though she quite correctly points out that the burden of raising Garnet has been largely on her and from an earlier scene we know that Ed can’t even be bothered to get Garnet birthday gifts himself. The baby, for Flower, is a means of escape, of forcing Ed to take responsibility for his son. For his part, Garnet feels an incredible sense of loss which he can’t quite put words to, knowing that he’s losing the person who is, arguably, the most important in his life and also scared about what will happen to her when the baby is born. This fear, of course, runs through all three as each is terrified of the idea that Flower will succumb to the same fate as her mother.

The film is really unflinching in its observation of these three people. Ed, prompted by Flower, finally steps up a bit and actually buys Garnet a birthday present himself, horrifying Flower in the process because he buys a BB gun. For the first time, Ed bonds with Garnet as he teaches him how to shoot and Garnet, in his emotional confusion, takes this newfound pride Ed has in him and combines it with the vague sense of helplessness and anger he feels from the rift with Flower to use the BB gun to hurt animals, first killing a bird and then shooting a dog. The performance by young Colin Robberts is really astounding, conveying a great deal simply through facial expressions and body language. I expect that as he grows older, assuming he continues to act, that he’ll be a force to be reckoned with as an actor.

I went into this movie not really knowing much about it beyond the synopsis on the back of the DVD cover, and found myself incredibly moved. It seems like most films about families lately rely heavily on quirk, but the characters in this movie are very real and so are their problems. I strongly recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys quiet little character films.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Review: Frozen River (2008)

* * * *

Director: Courtney Hunt
Starring: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham

The difference between right and wrong is easy to discern when everything is fine, but when economic necessity paves the way for moral relativism, the waters become considerably murkier. So it is with writer/director Courtney Hunt’s debut film, which poses a different version of the old question “would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your family?” It’s an uncompromising look at the kind of poverty rarely explored in film.

We meet Ray (Melissa Leo) when she’s already at the breaking point. Her husband, Troy, is a gambler who has taken off with the money they were going to use to buy a double wide and get themselves and their two boys out of the rusting trailer they’ve been living in. She puts on a brave face, trying to hold it together for her kids and not let on that their father has disappeared, they may not get their home, and that Christmas – just days away – may be a non-event, but her elder son (Charlie McDermott) is aware that it's all gone wrong. He wants to get a job to help pay the bills, but she refuses to let him, insisting that he stay in school. Their relationship is a difficult one and he’s an angry young man. He’s angry about the lack of money and food in the house, angry that his father has abandoned them, angry because he believes that his mother drove his father away, angry because he’s 15 and burdened with too many responsibilities and angry because his mother continually reminds him that he’s not the grown up he’s come to think he is.

Driving by the bingo hall, Ray sees her husband’s car and later learns that it was abandoned at the bus station. Lila (Misty Upham), the woman who took the car, tells her that she knows someone who will give her two grand for the car and talks her into going into Canada across the frozen river running through the Mohawk reservation. All is not how it seems, however, and Ray finds herself smuggling illegal immigrants across the river in the trunk of her car. It’s a dangerous game but the money is good and, as Lila points out to her, she’s white and the local troopers won’t pull her over unless she gives them a reason. The two form an uneasy partnership and, despite their differences, come to realize that they’re more similar than they’d like to admit. Lila is a single mother as well, though her infant son has been taken from her by her mother-in-law, and living a similar hand-to-mouth existence. These are two women in desperate straits and their actions come not from greed or even the need to survive, but out of the need to provide for their children.

There’s a coldness to the film that comes not just from the starkness of the landscape, but also from the dispassionate eye that Hunt trains on her characters. Ray and Lila are flawed people, prone to violence and racism, but the film doesn’t make value judgments against them and instead tries simply to understand them. Ray rails against her husband for his gambling, but isn’t actually very different from him. Like a compulsive gambler who keeps letting it ride hoping for the big payday, Ray keeps going back across the river, courting more danger each time, putting her life and the future of her children at risk. For her part, Lila is ashamed of her poor eyesight and it drives her to turn to smuggling rather than accept a legitimate job on the reservation. She loves her son and wants the best for him and yet she continues to cross the river, risking that she’ll die the same way her husband did and leave the boy an orphan. The way that Hunt lays these characters and their lives bare is very effective and their story unfolds in a simple, but brutal, way.

Melissa Leo was nominated for Best Actress for this film and deservedly so. Hers is a performance completely devoid of vanity, open to the kind of ordinary desperation few stories or actors can be bothered with. There’s no “big scene” here, no big emotional blow-out, no show stopper; there’s just a great, quiet performance that is sustained from moment to moment, making everything seem undeniably and immediately real. Standing side-by-side with Leo, but less celebrated by awards, is Misty Upham, who matches Leo note for note as both her antagonist and, later, her partner. In a story as thoroughly driven by character as this one is, extraordinary performances are required – and this film has that in spades.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review: The Wrestler (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

When it comes to Darren Aronofsky, I’m a bad film buff. I’ve seen parts of Requiem For A Dream, all of which were so depressing that I haven’t been able to fortify myself to the point where I feel like I can sit through the whole thing, Pi is hard to find, and I just haven’t gotten around to seeing The Fountain, and so The Wrestler is my first experience with him as a filmmaker. From what I can tell, this is the most accessible of his films – certainly it’s his most acclaimed and it’s totally deserving of that acclaim.

Mickey Rourke stars as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a wrestler who enjoyed considerable popularity in the 1980s but has seen his fame – and way of life – diminish in the ensuing two decades. He’s still wrestling, playing in small venues for small pay and barely able to make ends meet. At the beginning of the film he returns home to his trailer to find himself locked out for failing to pay the rent and is forced to spend the night in his van. We get the feeling that this isn’t an unusual occurrence for him and this is one of several moments when the film shows him reduced and on the brink of despair, but somehow finding a way to endure. Things begin to look up for him when a promoter begins talking about organizing a rematch between Randy and his old rival The Ayatolla, which promises to restore him to some of his former glory. There are, however, complications.

Over the years, Randy’s commitment to his sport has taken an incredible toll on his body. There are parts of this film that I found very difficult to watch not only because of the violence, but because of the context. The wrestling ring, in which participants make use of barbed wire, a staple gun, and glass, amongst other things, is like a modern day Roman Coliseum and the more blood is shed, the happier and more entertained the audience is. It’s a really ugly commentary on the culture of entertainment and on the demands we put on entertainers in exchange for our attention.

His health problems force Randy to reconsider the rematch and the prospect of giving up wrestling forces him to confront the unpleasant things in his life, particularly his loneliness. He has a daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), with whom he has a difficult relationship stemming from the fact that he’s been absent for most of her life. It’s a fraught and compelling relationship but, somehow, not quite as compelling as the one Randy forms with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper with whom he fancies he could have some kind of romance. She plays multiple roles in his life from shrink (their first scene together is as much a therapy session as it is a lap dance) to friend, but he’s oblivious to the reasons why they’ll never progress beyond the (relatively) platonic.

Regardless of whatever affection they may have for each other, the film makes it clear why a romantic relationship between them would never work. They’re similar in many ways, which the film isn’t shy about pointing out, framing them in the same way on a number of occasions. Both are, at least once, shot from behind, waiting to go through a curtain and take the stage to perform. Both are also shown isolated in a work situation, made vulnerable by the lack of fanfare to their presence. Randy gravitates naturally towards Cassidy because she’s a mirror – someone past prime but still trying to etch out a living. However, there’s an important difference between them that Randy doesn’t see, but that Cassidy probably does. For Cassidy, performance comes out of economic necessity and her stage persona is something she wants to leave behind. She doesn’t want to be Cassidy the stripper, she wants to be Pam, the person. Randy, on the other hand, wants to be the stage persona rather than settle for being Robin, the regular guy. He performs not because it pays the bills – his wrestling is actually detrimental to his economic stability as it leaves him with less time to devote to his day job – but because it allows him to be, even if only for a few minutes, that person that he aspires to be.

Rourke and Tomei play off of each other very well and each delivers a performance marked by subtlety and restraint. I wish the same could be said of Wood, who really ought to have dialled it back just a little bit. Her performance, particularly in her first scene, is just a bit overwrought and it’s difficult not to notice that when she’s sharing the screen with Rourke in scenes shot in such an intimate fashion. It’s not a bad performance, mind you, and the quiet scenes between Randy and Stephanie, when she has declared a kind of truce with him, are very good but in the scenes where emotions are heightened her performance gets very showy.

The Wrestler is shot in a very stripped down way that perfectly complements Randy and his life, which has become so devoid of frills. It’s a well-made film in every way and yet... something about it left me feeling cold. Admittedly, this may be the result of all the hype that’s been surrounding it for months and if I see it again later, I might find myself more emotionally engaged with it. Still, it’s a film that I appreciated a lot on an intellectual level.

Monday, March 2, 2009

It Was An Honor Just To Be Nominated

Big thanks to Wendy at Movie Viewing Girl and R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector for selecting me for the Superior Scribbler and Dardos awards, respectively (also, my apologies to Wendy for taking so long to acknowledge it but I'd been waylaid with a nasty case of the flu).

The Rules:
1. Name five other Superior Scribblers to receive this award.
2. Link to the author and name of the blog that gave you the award.
3. Display the award on your blog with this LINK which explains the award.
4. Click on the award at the bottom of the link and add your name to the bottom of the list.
5. Post the rules.

There are a number of blogs that I follow regularly and greatly admire, but since I can only choose 5: T.S. at Screen Savour, Blake at Bitchin Film Reviews, Ahn Khoi Do at Ahn Khoi Do and Movies, Ibetolis at Film For The Soul , and The Mad Hatter at The Dark of the Matinee.

Choosing just 5 was tough, but I'm fortunate to have a second opportunity to recognize 5 other blogs:

The Dardos Award is given for cultural, literary, and personal values in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing appreciation and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.

The Rules:

1. Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
2. Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgment, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.

I'll be passing this one on to:

Rick at Coosa Creek Cinema, Alex at Film Forager, Kirby at Movie Dearest, The Film Dr. at Film Dr., and Vanessa at The Movie Ness.

Once again, thank you to Wendy and R.D. Finch, both of whom are authors of blogs which I highly recommend.

Review: The Class (2008)

* * * *

Director: Laurent Cantet
Starring: Francois Begaudeau

My feelings about “teacher movies” can pretty much be summed up with this little piece of brilliance (though, in fairness, some of them centre on inspirational men rather than women), as entries in the genre typically offer little in the way of variation. To its credit, The Class is a different kind of film, perhaps because it stars non-actors, including Francois Begaudeau who wrote the source novel which was itself based on his own experiences as a teacher, and perhaps because it limits its scope to the process of teaching. Whatever the reason, Laurent Cantet’s film is a fine achievement.

The film takes place over the course of one school year and focuses on one particular class. Very little of the action takes place outside the classroom and the structure of the story is very loose, unfolding as a series of vignettes. What sets this film apart from many others in the genre is that it spends a lot of time exploring the process and methods of teaching to a room full of teenagers with short attention spans and limited interest. Francois doesn’t make inspirational speeches or do characters to get the kids’ interested; he simply, and sometimes wearily, ploughs forward, hoping to find a way to get them to connect with what he’s teaching. Sometimes he succeeds and sometimes he fails and it’s largely dependent on the combustible emotions of his students, who can like him one day and hate him the next.

Most of the students blend into one another, though a few stand out by virtue of the exorbitant amount of frustration they cause Francois. Early on he has problems with Khoumba, who accuses him of having it out for her. He’s baffled by this accusation and questions her as to what happened over the summer to cause this change in their relationship, which was so easy the year before. He’s met with further hostility, including a letter in which she elaborates on what she sees as a problem of mutual respect their dealings with each other, and afterwards gives her space. By the end of the school year all seems to have been forgotten and they once again relate to each other in an easy way free of dramatic outbursts. The same cannot be said of his relationship with Souleyman, which deteriorates to the breaking point over the course of the year. In a lesser film, Francois would find a way to be Souleyman’s hero by getting involved in his after school life and finding a way to improve it. Here he knows that it’s not his place, that his intervention is not desired and would, in fact, be resented.

Francois isn’t perfect and he makes mistakes in his efforts to deal with his students. His frustration sometimes gets the better of him and he loses his temper, as in one classroom exchange when he uses the word “skanks” to describe the behaviour of two of the students, misunderstanding its connotation and having to have it explained to him by his students, who also lodge a complaint. It’s a moment of reversal which leaves him momentarily floundering, forced to confront his own shortcomings and mistakes.

Cantet shoots the film in an intimate fashion which gives the story a feeling of such authenticity that it occasionally seems more like a documentary than a work of narrative fiction. I know that there are some who are put off by the plot description, thinking that it sounds either derivative or boringly academic – rest assured that the reality of The Class is anything but. This is a lively and engaging film that manages to tap into the shifting rhythms of the classroom and the sometimes fraught relationship between educator and student. I was riveted from beginning to end.