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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Dead Ringers (1988)

* * *

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jeremy Irons

To put it bluntly, Dead Ringers is a creepy movie. It's really creepy if you're a woman and I would imagine that it's pretty creepy if you're a twin. It's a film about twins who have a parasitic relationship, sharing everything and becoming unable to be fully functional human beings on their own. Jeremy Irons plays the twins and in doing so creates one of his most memorable performances (well, two, I suppose).

Dead Ringers centres on twin brothers, Elliot and Beverly Mantle. Both are celebrated gynaecologists and they share the same medical practice, the same apartment and, often, the same women. They are two separate people with two separate personalities – Beverly is the sensitive one who toils in the background while Elliot is the dominant one described at one point as “Dracula” – but they live as if they are one entity, two halves of a whole person. Their already complicated relationship is thrown into chaos when they get involved with Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), an actress with whom Bev falls in love, or at least into deep dependence.

The twins’ relationship becomes strained as Claire usurps Elliot’s place as the most important person in Bev’s life and also shares her drug addiction with him. Soon Bev’s addiction has taken over his life, completely hindering his ability to work and function. At first Elliot tries to wean him off the drugs but, given how psychically entwined they are, it’s only a matter of time before Elliot has picked up the habit as well. The two spiral out of control together and in a drug fuelled haze take action to separate themselves from each other once and for all.

The film is, obviously, deeply psychological, particularly where the character of Beverly is concerned. He is obsessed with women, with the interior makeup of women, and with female gender roles. At one point Claire innocently remarks that Beverly is an unusual name for a man and he freaks out, asking her if she thinks he’s gay or that his mother wanted girls. His use of plural “girls” is interesting because there’s no indication that Elliot shares the same anxieties with him. The way that Elliot relates to women is messed up, certainly, but he doesn’t seem to suffer from feelings of emasculation the way that Bev does. His attraction to Claire stems, at least in part, from his fascination with the anomalies he discovers while examining her. She has a trifurcate cervix, making her a “mutant” – a woman unlike other women, just as he’s a man unlike other men.

In its exploration of the twins’ profession, the film gets surprisingly clinical, although as it nears the end it becomes increasingly fantastical. Aside from being respected practitioners, the twins are also renowned researchers who have developed a number of medical tools. Some of Bev’s latest inventions, however, leave other doctors and nurses bewildered and, indeed, they look more like fetishistic torture devices than professional instruments. These tools are made specifically for “mutants” and one will later be employed on Eliot. Director David Cronenberg, who is also credited as one of the film's writers, allows a lot of room to explore the psychosexual aspects of the story without ever allowing the film to become overwhelmed with theory. The psychology of the story seems to fit in naturally with everything else, making for a film that doesn’t seem overly self-conscious in its subtext. It’s definitely a very interesting film and the dual performances by Irons are masterful, as he creates very distinct characters out of these two men who are superficially indistinguishable. It’s a great set of performances that would be more than enough to recommend the film even without the technical skill displayed by Cronenberg.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Review: Frost/Nixon (2008)

* * *

Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen

Frost/Nixon is a solid, if not particularly exceptional, film from director Ron Howard, who tends to specialize in inoffensive, middle-of-the-road fare. It's only real sin is that it doesn't seem to trust that the interplay between David Frost and Richard Nixon is by far the most interesting aspect of the story. The best moments are between those two characters as they face off and every time the film drifted away from that, I couldn't help thinking, "Get back to the interview!"

The film begins shortly after the resignation of Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) from office, when British TV host David Frost (Michael Sheen) declares his desire to interview him. There are problems bringing this idea to fruition, amongst them that Frost is seen more as an entertainer than a journalist, which makes getting financing for the project problematic. No one wants to shell out millions to watch Nixon swat away at softball questions. Frost's relative inexperience is in his favor, however, where the Nixon camp is concerned and the interview, should it ever come to light, is seen as an opportunity for Nixon to separate his achievements from the scandal that drove him from office and thereby preserve the good parts of his Presidency for historial posterity.

Frost and his team scramble to get the money and the four part interview begins when the financing isn't even half secured - not that they let on about that to Nixon's team. When the two men finally sit down, Nixon takes the early lead, monopolizing the time and turning it to his advantage. Frost seems to be little match for the politician until the crucial final interview, in which they discuss the Watergate scandal. The most interesting thing to me is the film's suggestion that Nixon handed victory to Frost. Before the last interview, the former President makes a late night phone call to Frost in which he explicitly states the similarities between them, making it clear that he sees Frost as a kindred spirit, a man who has spent his life pulling himself up the ranks only to be sneered at by those who have had their positions handed to them by birthright. What the film implies is that Nixon, knowing that no matter what he does, his legacy will always be tainted by Watergate, falls on his sword so that Frost can achieve legitimacy and respect within his own field.

The interview segments are the best part of the film, but to my mind there isn't enough time spent on them. A lot of time is spent on the Frost team's prep work and there are numerous cutaways to "talking head" interviews with members of both the Frost and Nixon sides which, frankly, don't really add anything to the story proper. The talking heads are basically designed to tell us how to react to what we've just seen and that's unnecessary because the content speaks for itself. Besides which, the cutaways tend to interrupt the flow of tension that builds during the actual story.

Langella and Sheen are at their best during the one-on-one portions where both are forced to switch between playing offense and defense. The characterization of Nixon by the film is largely sympathetic, mostly because Langella is able to go beyond the myth of Nixon and get to the human being. Sheen holds his own, though he's at a disadvantage because Frost is the less interesting of the two characters. The rest of the cast is made up of familiar faces, including Sam Rockwell and Oliver Plath as members of Frost's research team, Kevin Bacon as Nixon's Chief of Staff, and Rebecca Hall taking on the thankless task of playing "the girlfriend." The supporting cast doesn't get much chance to make an impact as their characters aren't very deeply developed - they're just spectators, like the rest of us.

While Frost/Nixon isn't a groundbreaking film, it is a competent and handsome looking picture. Watching Langella and Sheen, who after having played these characters both on stage and on film probably know them as well as they know themselves, is a treat and well worth the price of admission.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Review: Hunger (2008)

* * * *

Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam McMahon

Hunger is not for the faint of heart. It spares the viewer nothing in its exploration of the hunger strike entered into by prisoners at Her Majesty's Prison Maze as a form of protest against the inhumane and often barbarous conditions of the prison. Early in the film a new inmate is brought in and refuses to wear a prison uniform. The guards look at him wearily – this is old hat to them now – mark him down as a “non-confirming prisoner,” have him strip and give him the blanket which will be all he’ll have to wear every day. He’s escorted to his cell which is covered wall to wall, floor to ceiling, with his cellmate’s excrement. I guess he wasn’t expecting company.

The story progresses like a relay race, starting with its focus on Raymond Lohan, a guard (Stuart Graham), switching to the prisoners Davey (Brian Milligan) and Gerry (Liam McMahon), and ending finally with Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), the Officer Commanding of the IRA prisoners. The common link between all of them is the toll that the prison conditions take on them. Lohan, for all the passion he displays during moments that can probably best be described as torture, does not relish his job. He seems to spend half his time soaking his wounded hands and the other half worrying that he’ll be assassinated. Of course, he has it easy compared to the prisoners, whose cells crawl with maggots and who are subject to brutal beatings on a regular basis.

The film never reveals the specifics of any of the prisoners’ crimes, which has the effect of isolating them from their actions, allowing us to see them as human beings rather than terrorists. It’s difficult to watch this without thinking of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The men in The Maze have participated in criminal acts, but that of course does not make them fair game to be subjected to criminal acts once they're locked up. That being said, the film isn’t necessarily taking sides and the guards aren't presented as a monolithic evil entity. It begins with Lohan going through the routine of his morning which includes checking his street for snipers and looking under his car for bombs. He and his wife live in fear and rightfully so, as the guards are constant targets of the IRA. It isn’t difficult to understand how it is that these men who spend every moment away from their workplace looking over their shoulders then come to work and take all that fear and convert it to aggression and anger. It’s a cycle of violence that accomplishes nothing but the escalation of violence and with each reprisal, the ante gets upped just a little bit more.

The starkness of the film is inescapable. Save for a brief sequence near the end, there is no musical score, just the sounds of violence and suffering in the prison; and many scenes pass in long, unbroken shots captured by a static camera. One such scene is a long dialogue between Sands and a visiting priest which is absolutely mesmerizing, moving from easy banter and small talk to a debate over Sands’ latest political manoeuvre – a large scale hunger strike – and the political and theological ramifications of what he’s undertaking. The scene is so engrossing that you forget you’re watching a movie and it’s jarring when it switches suddenly to a close up of Sands as he enters into a monologue about the mercy killing of an injured faun when he was a child. He believes in the rightness of what he’s doing, though the film doesn’t really venture into the politics of the situation. Hunger is essentially apolitical, though Margaret Thatcher makes a couple of brief appearances, a disembodied voice played over the prison scenes. It’s an interesting approach and more effective than actually seeing her speaking those words in news footage in that it highlights the chasm that between the political rhetoric and the reality. The government in this film is some distant thing, passing judgment on the prisoners while being indifferent to their suffering. The film is about that suffering, not the politics in which it has its roots.

As the film nears its conclusion, it becomes increasingly difficult to watch. The focus is on Sands wasting away and actor Michael Fassbender was obviously very invested in the role, given the dangerous amount of weight he lost to play it. It's really shocking to see him towards the end, so shocking that it detracts a little bit from the strength of his performance throughout the film because the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about it later is how he looked. Despite that, though, Hunger doesn't feel at all exploitative. It is a powerful, wonderfully crafted, minimalist masterpiece about human suffering.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Best Years of Our Lives: 1939

By and large film historians and cinephiles seem to agree that 1939 is not simply a great year in film but the great year in film. Looking over the roster of films released that year, it’s difficult to argue with that logic:

Gone With The Wind: The highest grossing film of its time, an Oscar juggernaut, and a bona fide classic despite its problematic treatment of race. It hasn’t aged quite as well as some of the other films of that year – it is one of the most poorly paced great films I can think of – but its main characters are timeless. Scarlett O’Hara is one of the greatest female characters in fiction and Vivien Leigh’s portrayal of her one of the best in film history.

The Wizard of Oz: A beloved classic for people of all ages. Its production history is as storied as that of Gone with the Wind - both films are credited as being directed by Victor Flemming, though both had other directors doing early legwork - and it has proved to be as enduring, if not more so.

Ninotchka: Garbo laughs! My personal favourite of all Garbo’s films, it’s a great comedy of manners, clashing cultures, and an interesting look at Hollywood’s treatment of Communism prior to the Red scare that would follow WWII. The only bad thing about this film is that it’s the only good comedy Garbo ever made (the less said about Two-Faced Woman the better), as she proves to have great aptitude for the genre.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington: I’m a bit of a cynic, but even I get a little choked up during the filibuster sequence as the once wide-eyed innocent Jefferson Smith fights for the integrity of the American political system. After 70 years, it hasn’t lost any of its power or charm.

The Women: Okay, so the remake proved to be pretty lame but the original certainly has a pretty loyal fanbase – personally I don’t think it’s all that but it definitely has its moments and it provides a showcase for many of the best actresses of the era.

Stagecoach: John Ford and John Wayne are the classic American western and Stagecoach marks the first of their many collaborations and the first film Ford would make in Monument Valley.

Wuthering Heights: The classic story from Emily Bronte has been made many times but this version starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon is the favourite for many. The twisted love of Heathcliff and Cathy was perfect for this duo, who apparently detested each other off-screen.

The Rules of the Game: Renoir’s film features a large canvass of characters whose lives and problems criss-cross and overlap, and inspired one of the great American directors. In Robert Altman’s own words: “I learned the rules of the game from The Rules of the Game.”

Gunga Din: Granted, the film is probably guilty of a fair bit of exoticization, but how wrong can you possibly go with an adventure story starring the incomparable Cary Grant and based on the word of Rudyard Kipling?

Goodbye Mr. Chips: Robert Donat won the Oscar for his role as a beloved teacher Mr. Chips. The film itself has inspired multiple remakes, proving that there’s just something about this story that makes it worth telling over and over again.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Canadian Film Review: The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

* * * *

Director: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley

It's dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can't forget I am bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me,
And just as I became assured
My lame foot would be speedily cured,
The music stopped and I stood still,
And found myself outside the hill,
Left alone againt my will

- "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" by Robert Browning

Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter is not a film about discovering the cause of a terrible accident, nor is it a revenge drama, a story about a lawyer on a crusade for justice, or even a peek behind the curtain hiding the secrets of a small Canadian community. It isn’t even really about the dead, but a lament for those who survive and are forced to carry on hollowed by the loss. The characters move forward as if dragging weights behind them and yet the film itself is graceful, not intruding on their pain but stepping delicately around it.

Much of the story focuses on Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), a lawyer who comes to the town to recruit the residents in a class action suit against the makers of the school bus that went off the road and through the icy lake. The residents look at him with suspicion, but he’s not a money-grubbing ambulance chaser. He approaches the situation not with greedy excitement, but with resignation and the sadness of his own experiences. He has a daughter who is as good as dead, so lost is she in drug addiction. He knows sorrow and is driven by the need to hold someone accountable – if not for his own family tragedy, than those of others.

Some of the families join his cause, including Risa (Alberta Watson) and Wendell (Maury Chayken), who provide Stevens with a rundown of the other residents in town; the Ottos (Earl Pastko and Arsinee Khanjian), artists described by everyone else as hippies; and the Burnells, whose daughter, Nicole (Sarah Polley), is one of the few survivors of the accident. In scenes which take place prior to the accident, Nicole reads from “The Pied Piper,” unsuspecting of the way in which she will come to identify with the boy left behind. Like him she has a physical reminder of the tragedy, as she’s left paralyzed in the accident, and she must contend with the loneliness of being the only child left in town and the responsibility of, essentially, living for all those children who will be forever frozen in time. She also identifies strongly with the Pied Piper character. When asked why the Piper leads the children away rather than using his powers to force the townspeople to pay him the money they had promised him, she says simply that he does it because he’s angry. Nicole is angry, too, and at a crucial moment tells a lie in order to hurt the person who has made her angry.

There is a lot to this story, much of which gets left unsaid and that silence, that absence of words that ought to be there, makes it all the more powerful. Egoyan doesn’t allow the emphasis to be on the crash; as the story moves back and forth between the time before and the time after the accident, it keeps touching on that fateful trip, watching the bus make its way over the snow covered road with a feeling of the inevitable rather than the ominous. As far as direction goes, there is absolutely no room for improvement – Egoyan’s work is confident and masterful and the images he’s created are haunting.

Ian Holm and Sarah Polley do most of the heavy lifting as far as the actors go, though there’s not a bad performance in the bunch. Polley is an actress that I’ve always liked and here, as elsewhere, she suggests a maturity far beyond her years. Her soulful performance stands out even in a film where everything is top notch.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review: Pineapple Express (2008)

* * *

Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Seth Rogan, James Franco

Duuuuuuude. Pineapple Express is part stoner comedy, part buddy action movie and is better than most entries in either genre. Granted that’s not saying a whole lot, but an accomplishment is an accomplishment. David Gordon Green’s film isn’t going to change your life, but it is thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end.

Seth Rogan stars as Dale Denton, a process server who can’t seem to go five minutes without being at least a little bit buzzed. He’s dating a girl who is still in high school and who is way too mature for him. To be honest, he’s kind of a loser but he has that sarcastic Seth Rogan charm which makes him somewhat endearing. Dale’s dealer is Saul, who is played engagingly by James Franco and falls just under Jeff Lebowski on the scale of awesome stoners. Saul has a new product which he sells to Dale called Pineapple Express, a particularly potent mixture which he is selling exclusively. When Dale later witnesses a murder and drops a roach in the process of his very inept getaway, he and Saul realize that it’s only a matter of time before the dots are connected back to them.

Dale and Saul go on the run, pursued by Matheson and Budlofsky (Craig Robinson & Kevin Corrigan), two thugs, and Carol (Rosie Perez), a cop who is in cahoots with the drug kingpin Ted (Gary Cole). They have various small adventures – including spending a night in the woods, getting into a knockdown, drag out fight with middleman drug dealer Red (Danny McBride, who would steal the show if Rogan and Franco weren’t such strong performers), and going to dinner at Dale’s girlfriend’s house, where her parents are less than impressed by Dale despite the fact that he is trying to save their lives. Eventually Dale and Saul have a fight, precipitated by Saul’s realization that while he considers Dale to be a good friend, Dale doesn’t think of him in the same way; and they go their separate ways only for Saul to end up in the hands Ted and his goons, leaving Dale to to come up with a half-baked scheme to rescue him.

Pineapple Express has a number of winning moments, many of them courtesy of Franco and McBride. The battle royal between Dale, Saul and Red, complete with a “time out,” is particularly entertaining, as is Dale and Saul’s getaway in a police car with Saul getting his leg stuck in the windshield and Carol accidentally shooting a bystander and screaming “Sorry” before taking off again. The film has good rhythm, building nicely from one set-up to the next with pauses in between so that Dale and Saul can, ahem, refuel. The various elements of the story feel well-balanced, making it easier to overlook some of the less logical turnings of the plot (though to be fair, in a movie about stoners I guess you can’t expect sound logic to play a terrifically active role).

Though none of the characters is more fleshed out than they absolutely have to be for the plot to work, Rogan and Franco manage to give the film some emotional depth, especially Franco. Saul is a goofy character, but Franco gives him heart, making us care when he realizes just how little he means to Dale. I can definitely see how he managed to score a Golden Globe nomination for this role, though I would have preferred to see him nominated for his excellent work in Milk. Though I can’t imagine going out of my way to see this film again, it’s a solid, entertaining effort nonetheless.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Review: Talk To Her (2002)

* * * *

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Starring: Javier Camera, Dario Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores

Nothing is ever simple in a Pedro Almodovar film, especially love. In Talk To Her he shows us two men, both lonely, both in love with women they don’t really know, brought together by the tragedies that befall those women. It is a curious story of devotion and obsession, friendship and human connection, told in a way that only Almodovar could tell it.

The two men in question are Marco (Dario Grandinetti) and Benigno (Javier Camera). Marco is a writer involved with Lydia, a female bullfighter (Rosario Flores) and Benigno is a nurse dedicated to the care of Alicia (Leonor Watling), a comatose patient. Their first encounter is at the theatre, where Benigno takes notice of Marco because of his strong reaction to the stage performance. On stage a woman sleepwalks as a man continuously moves chairs out of her path and Marco weeps, perhaps because he himself is powerless to help the woman in his life.

The film flashes back to show how Marco became involved with Lydia, meeting her as she’s on the rebound from another relationship and then ridding her house of a snake. The relationship progresses from there but is doomed to fail because he lacks the ability to communicate with her. He spends a great deal of time talking but little time listening so that he doesn’t realize that she has reconnected with her ex-boyfriend until after she’s injured in the bullring. As Lydia lies in a coma, Marco learns the truth from the other man and is forced to sadly accept that he’s become even more irrelevant than he was already.

By this time he has become friends with Benigno, who attempts to help him connect with Lydia through the barrier presented by her coma. Just talk to her, Benigno suggests, though of course Marco telling Lydia about his thoughts and feelings was never the problem. Benigno communicates with his patient, Alicia, as though she is fully cognisant of everything he says and everything going on around her. He is in love with her and has been since before her accident when he would stand at the window of the apartment he shared with his mother, watching her in the dance studio across the street. His attempts to speak to her drove her away because he approached her in such an awkward way, but once she’s in a coma he can talk freely to her about anything and everything and convinces himself that by doing so they have developed a deep connection. The resolution to this relationship is morally ambiguous as Benigno finds himself compelled to violate the sanctity of her extreme vulnerability, but in doing so rescues her from that very state. What he does is inarguably wrong but good comes out of it which makes it difficult to see Benigno purely as a villain. It helps that he’s played by Camera, who brings an innocence to the role that makes the situation slightly less cut and dried.

The relationships portrayed in Talk To Her – both the “real” ones and the “fictional” ones – are ones where one partner has an extreme dependence on the other. Alicia depends totally on Benigno, Lydia depends on Marco to save her (although, ironically, she only depends on him until she has her accident), the woman in the play depends on the man to remove all obstacles from her path, and there is a film that Benigno sees in which a man shrinks and shrinks until finally disappearing into the woman that he loves so that he can be with her forever. The film within the film is one of the highlights of Talk To Her as Almodovar recreates the look and feel of silent movies – albeit with a very modern sexual explicitness – to tell the story of a man who loses himself completely inside a woman, a story which inspires Benigno’s act of devotion (what he would call “devotion,” at any rate).

The message of Talk To Her, that an equal amount of give and take is necessary for a healthy relationship, comes through loud and clear. As usual, Almodovar displays a remarkable control over his characters and their situation, never allowing the distinct originality of his vision to seem absurd or so divorced from reality that as an audience you can’t connect to it. His are intensely human dramas that cut straight to the heart of the matter and linger long after concluding.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Review: Gomorra (2008)

* * * *

Director: Matteo Garone
Starring: Marco Macor, Ciro Petrone, Gianfelice Imparato, Salvatore Cantalupo, Toni Sevillo, Nicolo Manta

There is no glory in Matteo Garrone’s crime epic Gomorra, save except those glories the characters recall from Hollywood mob movies. This is a film about the bottom rungs of a crime syndicate, men (boys, many of them) who struggle to achieve little more than survival as those around them are gunned down in a war that can perhaps be best compared to WWI – a river of blood shed for one inch of ground. It is a dark and thoroughly unsentimental masterpiece.

The story follows the fortunes of five men and one boy involved in organized crime: Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a middleman whose days are occupied paying out money to the families of incarcerated members of the Camorra crime family; Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor whose skill is essential to the success of a Camorra controlled firm; Roberto (Carmina Paternoster), a young man who has been taken under the wing of Franco (Toni Sevillo), who makes his living illegally dumping waste; Toto (Nicolo Manta), a teenage boy taking his first steps into the underworld; and Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), two young men who are playing at being big league gangsters. During the course of the film, all six will find themselves at a crossroads, forced to make a choice which will determine whether they live or whether they’ll join the ever growing ranks of the dead.

The world Garrone depicts is distinctly unglamorous. Much of the action takes place in the decaying tenement where many mob families live and which seems to be ground zero for the two factions warring for power and control. Don Ciro is a frequent visitor, an unimposing figure who looks more like an accountant than a gangster and becomes increasingly skittish as he realizes just how expendable he really is. One of the people he calls on is Maria, the wife of an imprisoned mobster whose son has broken away with the rebelling faction. Because her son has betrayed the Camorra, Don Ciro is no longer allowed to include her on the payment list and the remaining loyalists are trying to force her out of the tenement. She lives in fear, never leaving her home and allowing few people inside. Toto, who delivers her groceries, is one of the few people she trusts – a fact which puts both of their lives in danger. The tenement is a war zone where people die for little or no reason, where nothing ever seems to be gained by those deaths except a reason for to continue the cycle of violence.

One of the striking features of the film is that for all the seriousness inherent in the many violent deaths which take place, many of the characters seem to consider their lifestyle as an aesthetic choice. The younger characters are all about image, visiting tanning salons, getting manicures, plucking their eyebrows; concerned with how they look, not with the meaning of their actions. Marco and Ciro are obsessed with Scarface and spend their time play acting as Tony Montana. Their immaturity is in stark contrast to the seriousness of their actions – namely, finding and stealing a cache of mob weapons – which makes their fate all the harder to bear. I’m accustomed to seeing people die in horrific ways in movies, particularly crime movies, but there’s something so profoundly disturbing about the way Marco and Ciro scream and cry when the mob catches up with them and gives them a “warning” to stop messing around. These are just kids, in way over their heads, unable to separate reality from fiction, truth from image.

The film is based on a book by Roberto Saviano which depicts the various crimes of the Camorra crime syndicate and the way those crimes are connected to legitimate ventures all around the world. Because the film takes no pains to romanticize mafia life and does nothing to set these gangsters up as figures to be admired, it feels markedly real. Characters don’t live in this film because they’re required to by filmic conventions; they live because they make the right choice at the right moment. Not everyone recognizes their moment and so they fail to escape from the violence which will, later if not sooner, catch up with them as it has with everyone else. The film is brutal not because it is full of blood and death, but because it acknowledges that the deaths are entirely wasteful, the result of petty squabbling, half-baked power grabs, and sometimes sheer idiocy. It is a hard, uncompromising film that leaves no room for sentimentality.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Review: Paradise Now (2005)

* * 1/2

Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Starring: Kais Nashif, Ali Suliman

Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now is an interesting film but not entirely successful once you get beyond the shock value inherent in its premise. I think that if you're going to make a film about suicide bombers, you may as well go all out but this one approaches the subject almost timidly. It always feels like it's holding back and while there are some good moments and one particularly great performance, how can I be bothered to feel much about it one way or another when the film won't push itself to the next level?

Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are two Palestinians who have been friends since childhood and now work together in the same auto garage. Their lives are ordinary and quiet and even when they learn that the extremist group to which they belong has chosen them to carry out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, the way that they get ready to carry out their mission is still rather quiet. They enjoy a final evening with their families, they shave their beards and cut their hair so that they can pass as Israelis, they plot their movements for crossing the border and what to do if they're found out. They go through these motions almost passionlessly, saving their enthusiam for thoughts about what will await them on the other side.

When the time comes for them to make their way into Israel things go awry and the two end up separated. Khaled is able to return to the safety of the group but Said finds himself stranded, left behind first by the car that brought both him and Khaled to the border and then, later, alone in an empty building that was once the group's headquarters. To make matters worse, he has a bomb strapped to his chest that would blow him up if he tried to remove it himself. Said spends much of the film in a kind of Purgatory which allows him to reflect on his mission and his feelings about it, about what he's leaving behind and what may be awaiting him on the other side. Meanwhile, the group has become convinced that Said has betrayed them - ironic since the more time Said spends in this in between place, the more convinced he is of his mission - and Khaled is given a limited period of time to find him so that he can prove that he hasn't changed sides.

Said and Khaled are set up so that they're always occupying different ends of the spectrum. Both believe that the Israeli government has committed crimes against them, their families, their neighbors, etc., but at different times their views about the best way to compat the oppression and occupation are in opposition. At first Khaled is excited about the prospect of gaining glory by striking a blow against the enemy while Said is less certain that it's the right thing to do. As the day progresses their views switch so that Khaled comes to believe that there has to be a better way while Said has become convinced that it is God's will that he die in service to his cause. As Said, Nashif renders a well-constructed and thoughtful performance that is aided in no small part by the fact that he possesses that thing best described as "presence." The medium loves him and your eye can't help but be drawn to him whenever he's on screen.

Ultimately, your view of this film may depend a lot on your political leanings. Personally, I didn't find anything particularly incendiary about the various speeches denouncing Israel's treatment of Palestinians. I think, given the perspective from which the story plays out, these speeches are actually pretty tame, and while it's refreshing to see religious extremists portrayed as something other than screaming lunatics, that's also part of the problem. It's difficult to believe that people as calm and capable of reasoning as Said and Khaled can convince themselves that suicide bombing is anything other than counterproductive to their movement and cowardly. Further, while one may claim to be doing the selfless thing by becoming a martyr for the cause, if the specific motivation for doing it is to gain the riches of heaven then a) it isn't altruistic and b) you're not a martyr, you're greedy and impatient.

All in all, while the film does offer some unique insight into the conflict, I found it a bit too lacking in conviction to really find any meaning in how it ends.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Partition (2007)

* 1/2

Director: Vic Sarin
Starring: Jimi Mistry, Kristin Kreuk, Neve Campbell

God, I don’t even know where to start with this one. It begins promisingly enough as a story about the violent division of Pakistan from India but quickly devolves into a maudlin love story surrounded by religious intolerance and wise but powerless Brits who can only cluck their tongues at what has become of the jewel of the empire. On the plus side, it at least looks really great.

It begins in the days of the raj when Gian (Jimi Mistry) and Avtar (Irrfan Khan) are officers in the army, serving under the command of the young and doomed Andrew Stilwell (Jesse Moss). In the carefree hours before shipping out, the three spend time with Stilwell’s sister Margaret (Neve Campbell) and her friend Walter (John Light), enjoying what's left of the apparently idyllic days of British rule. In the years to come Gian will feel forever bound to Margaret because of what happens to her brother, but that’s really neither here nor there as the story soon splits off in another direction entirely.

Flash forward to 1947 when the British have ceased their occupation but the country is carved up into secular India and Islamic Pakistan. A group of Muslims is making the trek towards the border and is set upon by Sikhs out to slaughter them. In the chaos, Naseem (Kristin Kreuk) is separated from her family and trapped on the wrong side of the border. Gian finds her and hides her in his home, but it isn’t long before the rest of the community discovers her presence and begins demanding her blood. Gian is determined to keep her safe and, eventually, the his neighbors just come to accept her and even celebrate when she and Gian marry and have a son.

Prior to falling in love with her and marrying her, Gian had made efforts to reunite Naseem with her family and sought Margaret’s help in working through the governmental red tape. Now, years later, Margaret has finally been able to make some headway and arrangements are made for Naseem to visit her family and then return to Gian and their son. Things go awry when her brothers learn of her marriage and lock her up so that she can’t leave. Now Gian must find a way into Pakistan to bring her back.

The main problem with the film is the story itself, which aside from being trite is also quite disjointed. The pieces of the narrative don’t fit easily together and the shoehorning of British characters into the story feels forced and unnecessary. Further, as an exploration of the cycle of violence that came out of the partition, the story utterly fails. The Sikhs hate Naseem until they don’t. The silent villain who is constantly lurking near Naseem during the first half conveniently disappears during the second. Naseem’s brothers are so happy when they’re reunited with her that they would rather she hate them than return to her Sikh husband. But why? The characters are at the mercy of the plot, motivated by nothing except what the story needs them to do at this juncture or that. It’s all surface without any real attempt to go deeper and look at the roots of the problem.

There are other problems as well, not least of which is that Campbell and Kreuk seem to be in a contest to determine which of them is more miscast. The only thing that’s really of note in a positive way is the absolutely gorgeous cinematography by Vic Sarin, who also directs and co-wrote the story (I suppose 1 out of 3 isn’t bad). The landscape looks lush and vibrant and the actors are all beautifully photographed. It’s one of the best looking films I’ve seen in a while, it’s just too bad about the rest of it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Unsung Performances: Beryl Reid, The Killing of Sister George

“Not all women are raving bloody lesbians, you know.”
“That is a misfortune I am perfectly aware of!”

This happens to be one of my favourite exchanges in film. It also happens to come from one of my favourite films, which just so happens to feature one of my favourite performances in film. Coming out in 1968 and tackling subject matter that was far (far) from mainstream, I suppose it’s more surprising that it got any awards attention at all (a nomination for Beryl Reid as Best Actress from the Golden Globes) than that it was widely ignored by both the film industry and audiences, who shied away from the massive controversy it provoked. But despite the film's controversial aspects, the power of Beryl Reid's performance can't be denied. In this movie, she is utterly fearless.

To call Reid’s performance in The Killing of Sister George “good” would be one of the greatest understatements you could make. “Real” would be more appropriate, “seamless” even – there isn’t a moment when you can see the space between actor and character. This is a complex, layered and lived-in performance that makes June “Sister George” Buckridge very human rather than the caricature she could easily have become. George is an actress fighting a losing battle against the reality of aging in show business. She’s also a closeted lesbian, a not so closeted alcoholic, and prone to remarkable mood swings. Her sadomasochistic relationship with her much younger girlfriend is absolutely fascinating and the story allows for it to be explored from multiple angles so that rather than seeming abusive, it’s clearly a relationship of give and take in which both have some need that is being fulfilled.

Through the course of the film, Reid switches easily between comedy and drama, making snappy asides, throwing tantrums, and occasionally displaying a raw vulnerability that makes it impossible to hate her regardless of her often hurtful and selfish behaviour. It’s hard to pinpoint Reid’s best scene in the film – the scene where George and Childie get ready to out to a club is wonderfully light, their first scene together in wonderfully tense, George’s first meeting with arch enemy Mercy Croft is a marvellous display of anxieties continuously floating up to the surface, and the final scene is totally devastating – but my favourite is a scene when George tells Childie about how she used to observe her before they’d officially met. Her speech is wistful and just a touch desperate – she knows that Childie is beginning to slip away from her and she wants nothing more than to hold on to what they have because Childie is the only person who has ever really understood her in any meaningful way. In this one scene Reid takes George through a series of emotions from longing to anger to regret to loneliness and never misses a beat, never lets the transitions feel false.

Although I think that both the film and the performance are criminally underrated, I can understand how it is that they ended up so far off the radar. The film was rated X when it was first released due in large part to a sex scene which seems tame by current standards, particularly given the ubiquity of same sex love scenes between women in films today. That scene, along with the sadomasochistic element of the central relationship, as well the fact that some scenes were shot inside an actual lesbian bar (which means, gasp that there are actual lesbians and not just actresses playing lesbians in the movie) pretty much guaranteed that the film wouldn’t be embraced by most audiences. Luckily, it’s also good enough that it was bound to become a cult classic and Reid is the major reason for that success.

I wouldn’t normally advocate this, but given how difficult it can be to track down a copy of this particular film, I’ll point out for those interested that it appears to be available in its entirety via Youtube at the moment. I dare you to watch it and tell me that Reid's performance isn't a great one that managed to slip through the cracks.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review: Zack and Miri Make A Porno (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Kevin Smith
Starring: Seth Rogan, Elizabeth Banks

For all its crudeness, Zack and Miri Make A Porno turns out to be a surprisingly sweet movie. I mean, sure, the set-up allows for a lot of nudity and profanity and a little bit of toilet humour, but in the final analysis it’s very much a film about the changing relationship between two people – one that’s more realistic than most on-screen relationships. To my mind Dogma is Kevin Smith’s best film, but Zack and Miri and Clerks run neck and neck for the runner up position.

Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks star as the eponymous Zack and Miri, two childhood friends who are now roommates with a pile of unpaid bills to their names. The water and power are soon turned off and the threat of eviction looms, forcing them to consider an extreme solution. Inspired by his encounter with a gay porn actor (Justin Long) at their high school reunion, Zack comes up with a plan for them to make their own porno and then use reunion mailing list as the starting point for marketing and distributing it. Miri insists that no one wants to see them having sex to which Zack counters, “Everyone wants to see anyone having sex.” If the internet can be distilled down to one single lesson, I believe that’s what it would be.

They work out a story – a Star Wars parody – and begin recruiting a crew and co-stars, including Bubbles (Traci Lords), Lester (Kevin Smith mainstay Jason Mewes), Stacey (Katie Morgan), Barry (Ricky Mabe), Delaney (Craig Robinson) and Deacon (Jeff Anderson). They also begin to confront what it will mean for their relationship if they have sex, even if it is only for the camera. They’ve known each other forever and have a good, solid friendship which could be ruined if they have sex and things become weird between them. On the other hand, they may have sex and realize that they were meant to be together all along – but they won’t know until they take the leap.

Various mishaps befall the production, forcing the filmmakers to start over from scratch with a completely different story and using the coffee shop where Zack works as their set. Problems also arise between Zack and Miri due not to the prospect of having sex with each other, but the jealousy each begins to feel about the thought of the other having sex with someone else. Rogan and Banks are well-matched here and manage to convey a sense of Zack and Miri’s long history and the complexity of their feelings for each other. Banks, who has popped up time and again over the last couple of years in smaller roles, proves that she has talent and charisma to spare. She’s particularly good in the moment when Miri realizes exactly how she feels about Zack, a moment without dialogue which nevertheless manages to express every single nuance of the revelation.

The trajectory of Kevin Smith’s career has been interesting. His first few films are loosely interconnected – characters in one know characters from another – and tend to feature the same actors over and again. Zack and Miri is self-contained and the regulars are mostly absent, save for Mewes and Anderson (although, I swear Ben Affleck makes an uncredited cameo as the demolition foreman – somebody tell me I’m not crazy) and the feel of it is markedly different from previous Smith films. I can’t decide whether I prefer his scrappier early work or the glossier efforts of late, but I think he’s one of the more consistently smart writer/directors out there right now and Zack and Miri proves that though excrement jokes still come easily to him, he's also maturing a lot as a storyteller.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Review: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

* * * *

Director: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton

... WTF?

Okay, I’ll admit it: Charlie Kaufman kind of broke my brain – and I mean that in the best possible way. Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s directorial debut, is a film rich with ideas, composed of layer upon layer of detail. As with other films penned by Kaufman, the subject of this one is the relationship of the mind to reality. From the first shot – with the protagonist shown reflected in a mirror – Kaufman sets the film up to be a story of the interior and it just keeps burrowing deeper and deeper inside until finally turning it inside out and exposing all the wheels in motion beneath the surface.

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theatre director whose marriage to Adele (Catherine Keener), a painter, is failing. They have a young daughter, whom Adele takes with her to Germany where she becomes a much celebrated artist. Caden stays in New York – Adele’s choice, not his – and wins a MacArthur grant which he uses to fund an elaborate and impossible play which he will spend the next few decades putting together, trying to capture the essence of life in general and his own specifically. It’s a play of such grand scale that it takes a warehouse to stage it (not that it’s ever ready for an audience to see) and where eventually the street on which the warehouse is located is recreated including the warehouse, which probably has a smaller version of the set inside including the warehouse and so on like a Russian doll. One of the oppositions that Kaufman sets up is between the artists Caden and Adele. His work keeps getting bigger and bigger, becoming more and more untenable because there is no detail he can stand to leave out. Adele, on the other hand, creates paintings that keep getting smaller and smaller – so small that they can only be viewed with magnifying glasses.

There are many women in Caden’s life, portrayed by some of the best and most underappreciated actresses in film. Aside from Adele, there’s her best friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who becomes Caden’s arch nemesis, and Hazel (Samantha Morton), Caden’s friend and assistant, although that’s putting it far too simply. She loves him, he comes to love her, but their timing is never quite right and they spend most of their lives finding excuses not to be together. There’s also Claire (Michelle Williams), an actress in Caden’s grand opus who becomes his second wife and eventually leaves him when forced to confront on a daily basis his feelings for Hazel, which the play goes to great lengths to explore; Tammy (Emily Watson), who plays the stage version of Hazel and becomes romantically involved with Caden, Madeline (Hope Davis), Caden's therapist who is more interested in promoting her books than helping him, and finally Millicent/Ellen (Diane Weist), who essentially usurps Caden, taking over for him as he begins to fade out. His relationships with these women, the way that he tries to understand them and himself through them, the way that he tries to organize the details of all these relationships in a way that explains his life, drives him and his work and, of course, the film.

All this is only the tip of the iceberg, but I don’t know that the intricate workings of the plot can actually be described in such a way as to give a complete and accurate picture. Having said that, though, I should confess that I don’t entirely get what it is that I’ve seen. Coming to the end of the movie, I knew that I had just seen something amazing but I also knew that I would have to see it at least once more before I really started to get a handle on it. At this point I’ve only had the opportunity to see it the once, but I’m looking forward to seeing it again and I can think of no better way to measure the greatness of a movie than by the eagerness one feels to revist it.

As Caden, Hoffman renders his most interesting work to date. Aging about 40 years, weaving in and out of various states of consciousness and being, and acting simultaneously as subject and audience, it would be easy for any actor to be lost in this role and this film but Hoffman manages to keep Caden grounded and present throughout. The performance is as complex and layered as the film itself, a beautifully constructed piece of work which has virtually no comparison. I can’t wait to see it again and pick up on some of the nuances that I surely missed the first time around.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Canadian Film Review: White Room (1990)

* *

Director: Patricia Rozema
Starring: Maurice Godin, Kate Nelligan

Whatever faults she may have as a filmmaker, Patricia Rozema is, at the very least, consistently interesting. There are a lot of ideas in her films and they tend to have a magical/lyrical quality that makes them quite beautiful, if not always successful. White Room is a failure but it's a noble failure, one that comes so close but ultimately just misses the mark.

White Room unfolds as a mixture of genres, freely blending elements of fairytale with noir and avante garde stylings. At its centre is Norm (Maurice Godin), a lonely man who still lives with his parents and spends his nights spying on women in their homes. On one such occasion he witnesses the rape and murder of Madelaine X (Margot Kidder), a pop star whom he’ll come to discover wasn’t exactly what she seemed. Norm flees the scene and tries to call the police, but can’t bring himself to admit what he saw happen. His inability to act makes him feel guilty, but his concern over the circumstances of Madelaine X’s death is soon displaced by his curiosity regarding a woman who shows up at the funeral.

Norm follows the woman to a house that seems to be receding back into nature, overgrown as it is with weeds. The woman is Jane (Kate Nelligan), who hires Norm to do some grounds keeping work for her and tries to keep him at arm’s length lest he discover the nature of her connection to Madelaine X, which she feels must be kept secret at all costs. They fall in love and Norm discovers the truth, which is then exposed for the entire world courtesy of Zelda (Sheila McCarthy), a woman who has a thing for Norm and is jealous of the attention he’s been paying to Jane. Jane is devastated, leading to one final tragic act… or not, depending on how you read the film.

Because the film is essentially a post-modern fairytale, Norm is able to undo what’s been done and give himself and Jane a happy ending – but is it earned? There’s a certain level of detachment to the way the story unfolds and it pushes the audience away by constantly reminding us that we’re being told a story, one set in a dreamy version of the modern world that’s so obviously not “real” that it’s difficult to connect to it. The lack of connection, I suppose, is my main problem with the film because I didn’t feel invested enough in the characters to really care what became of Norm or Jane, separately or apart.

The love story, however, is only half the story the film is telling. The other half is concerned with the nature of celebrity and, more specifically, the relationship of celebrity to audience. As a voyeur, Norm stands in for the audience, believing that he’s doing something harmless because all he’s doing is looking. However, that looking is actually a form of consumption that threatens to destroy the real person behind the persona Madelaine X, all for the pleasure of the masses. The question of whether Madelaine is literally or figuratively killed is ambiguous, but what is clear is that the hunger of the audience, who desire to drain a public persona of its humanity, is the real guilty party, rather than the shadowy figure who breaks into her home and is never seen again. This aspect of the film is much more successfully explored.

White Room is the kind of film that has strengths which equal but never really surpass its weaknesses. I admire it for some of the chances it takes, but wouldn't recommend it to the casual viewer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Review: Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

* *

Director: Christine Jeffs
Starring: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt

Watching Sunshine Cleaning I couldn't help but feel like I was seeing a good movie that had been taken to the editing room and hacked away at until it was merely competent. Anything that can be safely filed away under the heading "routine" remains and anything even remotely different or interesting has been cut down to the point of barely qualifying as subplots. It's a shame, too, because the film is carried by two of the more skilled and likeable young actresses working today and this ends up feeling like a waste of their talents and time.

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt star as Rose and Nora, two sisters still struggling to deal with the pain of their mother's suicide when they were children. Rose is a single mother with a young son and has been carrying on an affair with her high school boyfriend, Mac (Steve Zahn), and Nora is generally surly and hard to get along with and lives with their father. The father is played by Alan Arkin and is the kind of character whose heart is always in the right place but who often does more harm than good, the type of role that is in danger of becoming known as "the Alan Arkin role in movies with Sunshine in the title." Rose has been working as a maid and seizes the chance to make better money by moving into a more specialized cleaning service dealing with the aftermath of crime scenes. She talks Nora into joining her in the venture and, thus, the eponymous Sunshine Cleaning is born.

Much of the plot you can probably guess. One sister is responsible and has always carried the burden of taking care of the other, the other is a bit wild, a little shiftless, and kind of resents being "taken care of" even though she continuously shows that she's not particularly responsible. The child is young and precocious. The father is old and precocious. The married boyfriend is never going to leave his wife, who knows about the affair and engages in the tried and truce blame-the-other-woman-but-let- the-husband-off-without-so-much-as-a-scolding dance. The sisters have difficulty working together at first, and then find their groove, and then everything falls apart because the responsible one makes the mistake of relying on the less responsible one. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There are two interesting developments that end up being left, well, underdevelopped. During one of their first jobs, Nora finds photos of the deceased's daughter and rather than throwing them out, decides to track her down and return them to her. When she catches up with Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), Nora can't think of how to explain the situation and instead tries to develop a friendship with her, which Lynn misinterprets as romantic interest and, of course, ends badly. The other plot involves Winston, the owner of the store where Sunshine Cleaning gets its supplies. Played by Clifton Collins Jr., he is far and away the most interesting character in the film and there are suggestions that he and Rose may get involved, but nothing really comes of it. In fact, very little comes of anything in this movie and the ending feels like something thrown together rather than something that comes organically out of the story.

Adams and Blunt do what they can with their characters, but the film allows them very little room for growth. The story feels more like a series of individual moments strung together rather than, you know, a "story" - which can work in some films, but not in this one. The actors work hard to anchor the narrative but it seems like a wasted effort because the film ends up being so aimless, puttering itself out rather than driving towards its conclusion. It ends the way that it does not because it needs to end there but because it needs to end somewhere and there is as good a place as any.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Great Last Scenes: Chinatown

Year: 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Great Because...: It absolutely does not cop out at the end. The movie is brutal from beginning to end, putting its characters through the wringer and not letting up on them for a moment. The only character who gets anything even remotely resembling a happy ending is the villain - and he still ends up with a bullet in him before the credits roll.

After unravelling a complicated real estate scam and the dark family history connected to it, J.J. Gittes is this close to getting the woman he loves safely out of town - only to have all the other players in the game show up to spoil it. First it's the police, who arrest him for interfering with their investigation, and then it's Noah Cross, a man as evil as he is rich, who wants to lay claim to his daughter, Evelyn, and granddaughter (who is also his daughter). Shots are fired, first by Evelyn at Noah and then by the police at a fleeing Evelyn.

Helpless, J.J. watches as it all falls apart. Evelyn lies slumped over in the car, head against the horn so that it wails through the otherwise quiet street. Noah absconds with the granddaughter Evelyn tried so hard to protect, who screams in protest but is dragged away nonetheless. In light of what's just happened, the police set J.J. free but warn him to get while the getting is good. As his associates lead him away, J.J. turns back to look at a scene which reminds him of a moment from his past, one which is never elaborated on but has obviously had a deep impact on him. It's one of J.J.'s associates who gets the last word and one of the best last lines of all time: "Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown."

Monday, April 6, 2009

Review: The Squid and the Whale (2005)

* * * 1/2

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney

If for no other reason, Noah Baumbach should be commended for his refusal to sugarcoat things. He is totally and completely willing to let his characters be assholes and the honesty of his work, the relentless way in which he exposes the pretensions of his characters, almost serves to make them endearing. The Squid and the Whale is about a family dealing with the pain of divorce and is unforgiving and forgiving in equal measure.

The parents are Bernard and Joan, played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney – already the movie is great. They have two sons, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline). Walt strongly identifies with his father and parrots his many opinions. He’s defensive of the fact that Bernard, a novelist, hasn’t been published in quite some time, and dismissive of Joan’s attempt to start her own career as a writer. When Bernard and Joan announce their divorce, Walt places the blame squarely on his mother, whom he believes has ended the marriage because Bernard isn’t wealthy or successful enough. If Walt had the benefit of a different perspective, he would see that it has more to do with the fact that Bernard is almost inconceivably selfish and conceited. When Bernard reveals that Joan had numerous affairs during their marriage, it gives Walt the excuse he needs to make his father’s house his sole residence. Frank, meanwhile, will continue to shuffle between his parents’ houses, at Joan’s house one day and Bernard’s the next.

Walt begins dating a girl in his class who is impressed by his seeming ability for deep thought. He echoes his father’s thoughts on “The Metamorphosis” and she surprises him by reading it so that they can discuss it, hoping perhaps to impress him with her own intellect. It is painfully apparent during the course of their conversation that despite his knowledge of the work’s importance, he has in fact never read it. All he can contribute to the conversation is that the ending is “ambiguous” and that the work itself is “Kafka-esque.” She points out that it would have to be, seeing as it was written by Kafka, and then lets it slide. They make out for a while and then he tells her that she has too many freckles. Walt is lucky because a girl a decade older would tell him to fuck off, but at 16 most girls are too insecure and inexperienced to know better. Eisenberg is perfect as Walt, particularly in those moments when someone calls him out on his behavior. He always looks so shocked that people are able to see through his fa├žade that instead of hating him for his unearned arrogance, you instead feel sorry for him because he’s making his life so much harder than it has to be.

While Walt is coming to the slow realization that neither he nor his father is so great that everyone should bow down before them, Frank is experiencing his own growing pains. While it is apparent that Bernard enjoys Walt’s company (probably because Walt makes for such an eager audience), Bernard’s relationship with Frank is a lot less solid. Frank sees through a lot of Bernard’s posturing and prefers the company of his mother and her new boyfriend, Ivan (William Baldwin), a fellow so dim and happy and eager to please that he’s reminiscent of a golden retriever. Bernard can’t understand what Joan could possibly see in Ivan because he can’t comprehend that a woman would want to be with a man who’s nice to her if she could be with an intellectual who could lecture her on any subject and crush her spirit beneath the weight of his own genius.

None of the characters gets off easy, though Bernard bears the brunt of the film’s criticism. The film presents him as a man who sets himself apart on the strength of his intellect and then desperately grasps at others as they start to turn away from him. He’s a very sad man and Daniels plays him brilliantly from beginning to end. Linney is similarly brilliant (can we start a petition to have her declared a national treasure already?) and though the film is more sympathetic to Joan, she’s not immune from criticism. Neither of these people are particularly fair to their children, to whom they reveal brutal truths whether they’re ready to hear them or not, and they often put their own wants/needs ahead of those of their children. Part of what makes the film so strong is that it doesn’t try to shy away from that or excuse it, it just lets it be. It isn't always pretty, but the film has a stronger ring of truth than most films.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Genie Winners and Other News

The Genie Awards took place last night and Passchendaele was the big winner. The full list of winners is under the cut, but first a small announcement: I've apparently lost my mind and decided that I'm not quite busy enough and, as such, I've started contributing to Culturazzi Cognoscente Club, which has a large database of reviews of films and books amongst other things, some written by my fellow LAMBs Srikanth Srinivasan at The Seventh Art and Shubhajit at Cinemascope. I've already written reviews of Blindness and This Is Spinal Tap and will hopefully add many more to the list so come by and check it out.

2009 Genie Winners

Picture: Passchendaele

Director: Benoit Pilon, The Necessities of Life

Actor: Natar Ungalaaq, The Necessities of Life

Actress: Ellen Burstyn, The Stone Angel

Supporting Actress: Kristin Booth, Young People Fucking

Supporting Actor: Callum Keith Rennie, Normal

Original Screenplay: Bernard Emond, The Necesities of Life

Adapted Screenplay: Marie-Sissi Labreche & Lyne Charlebois, Borderline

Editing: The Necessities of Life

Cinematography: Fugitive Pieces

Art Direction: Passchendaele

Costume Design: Passchendaele

Original Score: The Stone Angel

Original Song: "Dr. Shiva," Amal

Sound: Passchendaele

Sound Editing: Passchendaele

Documentary: Up The Yangtze

Live Action Short: Next Floor

Animated Short: Sleeping Betty