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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: The Proposal (2009)

* * *

Director: Anne Fletcher
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds

The Proposal is pretty much exactly what you would expect from the trailers: a lightweight charmer that hits all the necessary notes for its genre. You've seen this movie before, in one form or another, and it doesn't really make any attempt to break out of the tightly constructed romantic comedy box. That being said, as formula films go, this one is fairly good and its leads are engaging enough to make it worth two hours of your time.

The plot is set-up thusly: Margaret (Sandra Bullock) is the Editor-in-Chief at a New York publishing house who is loathed and feared by everyone in the office. Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) is her long-suffering assistant who dreams of one day becoming an editor himself. When Margaret, who is Canadian, is threatened with deportation she makes a deal with Andrew: marry her so that she can stay in the country and she’ll promote him to editor. In an effort to prove their “love” to the INS agent who sees right through their scam, they go to Sitka to visit Andrew’s family for the weekend and celebrate his grandmother’s 90th birthday.

I am entirely sure that I don’t need to tell you that Margaret and Andrew start off hating each other, that city-girl Margaret is a fish out of water in Sitka, that Andrew’s family embraces Margaret and she comes to like them in turn, and that Margaret and Andrew slowly realize that they’ve fallen in love. This is all, of course, standard, cut-and-paste stuff and The Proposal won’t be accused of breaking any new ground. It does, however, manage to keep things entertaining even though you can easily spot the all too familiar landmarks along the route from “I hate you” to “I love you.” This film doesn’t try to be anything more than it is, it simply focuses on making what it is work – and it mostly does.

Sandra Bullock is, always has been, and I suspect always will be, a very likable actress. Ryan Reynolds, similarly, crafts a screen persona that is easy to enjoy and engage with. The Proposal succeeds largely on their charm and the energy that they are able to give material which might otherwise be limp. They’re surrounded by romantic comedy standards like the wacky granny (Betty White), the ex floating around the periphery (Malin Akerman), and the vaguely creepy dude (Oscar Nunez) who manages to be everywhere. There’s also some family conflict courtesy of Andrew’s father (Craig T. Nelson) which contributes to the obligatory third act crisis leading to happy ending. Some of these supporting characters work and others do not. The ex-girlfriend, for example, serves little purpose and could have easily been lifted out of the story without affecting anything at all. The character is meant to be a threat to the potential relationship between Margaret and Andrew, but the film hardly bothers with her, knowing as well as we do that Margaret and Andrew are endgame and everything else is pretence.

What works in The Proposal works very well, although it never breaks away from some of the more problematic aspects of the romantic comedy genre. Because Margaret strives to be successful, she is also unhappy, alone, and a terror to everyone around her – women who pursue ambitions outside the home do so at the expense of their humanity. Andrew is ambitious, too, but he still gets to be nice and he isn’t the one the film seems determined to punish and humiliate into submission. Romantic comedies are marketed to women but they aren’t really made for women, they’re made to maintain the status quo, which is why characters like Margaret always end up being put in their “place.” It’s annoying, of course, but The Proposal manages to be less offensive in that respect than the average romantic comedy. Anyway, end rant, this is a good movie with a lot of laughs and a lot of charm and worth the price of admission.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: Flight of the Red Balloon (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Hsiao-hsien Hou
Starring: Juliette Binoche

Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon is a gracefully directed film about a Paris family as seen from the perspective of an outsider. Based on Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short film The Red Baloon, this new film glows with nostalgia and sadness as it follows the characters through the ordinary events of their lives and the extraordinary occurances of imagination. It's an absolutely lovely film, though one that's not likely to be to everyone's taste.

It must be stated first and foremost that this film is very slow moving and requires patience. Some will find it maddening because it goes “nowhere” while others will celebrate the film’s attention to ordinary, everyday details. Personally, I fell somewhere in between in that I liked the film’s careful study of the characters and their lives, but also wished at times that it would pick up the pace a bit. I would further venture to say that it would probably be helpful to see The Red Balloon prior to seeing this film. I’ve never seen that film but I did get the feeling that I would have gotten more out of this one if I had.

The film centres on Song (Fang Song), a Chinese student studying film in Paris. She takes a job as a nanny for young Simon (Simon Iteanu), whose mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) is burdened by many obligations due to the long absence of her husband. Slowly but surely, Song takes on an increasingly important role in the family, sharing with Simon a magical make-believe world that includes an ever-present red balloon, and becoming a confidante and friend to Suzanne.

Though the red balloon and Simon’s relationship to it are important aspects of the film as a whole, it is Suzanne and the details of her life – revealed to us gradually and naturally from Song’s perspective – which give weight and substance to the film. Suzanne’s husband has been away in Montreal for some time and may or may not come back. Her daughter, Louise, is currently living in Brussels but is expected to return to Paris shortly – an expectation which will end in disappointment for Suzanne. The tenant downstairs gives Suzanne no end of grief but removing him is problematic due to the agreement that was struck between himself and Suzanne’s husband. Between all these issues and her work obligations, Suzanne has no time for herself and little for Simon. In the final moments of the film Simon and his classmates look at a painting that they describe as being of a child with a red balloon and parents watching from a distance. The description also applies to Simon’s life, of course, as Suzanne’s problems drive her further and further away despite her desire to spend more time with him.

Binoche, an actress who consistently makes it look so easy that you forget just how good she is, carries the darker elements of the film and also incorporates moments of levity into her performance and character. My favourite scenes involve Suzanne’s work doing voice-overs for a puppet show in which Binoche gets so animated and into it that I honestly could have watched that for two hours. Her performance in this film is rich and engaging, moving seamlessly through a host of emotions as Suzanne struggles to keep things together though her candle burns at both ends. This is one of Binoche's better performances and for an actress of her caliber, that's really saying something.

The direction is unintrusive and measured, allowing us to simply observe the situation along with Song. Though the film doesn’t make too much of it, it does touch on East/West dynamics through Song’s relationship with Suzanne, highlighting the ways in which they see the world differently and doing so in a quiet, meditative way. Watching this film reminded me of Hemingway's iceberg theory of storytelling, wherein only the tip is explicitly stated while the body of the story remains subtextual. This method of storytelling requires more work on the part of the audience, but it also gives the story in question a stronger sense of realism. Flight of the Red Ballon is a film that mixes realism with a more magical, dreamlike quality and, to its infinite credit, does so successfully. My only qualm with the film is its pacing, which I found just a little bit frustrating.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review: Last Mistress (2007)

* * * 1/2

Director: Catherine Breillat
Starring: Asia Argento

The Last Mistress is a surprisingly subdued film from writer/director Catherine Breillat. I mean, sure, at one point a woman licks the blood from the wound of her would-be-lover as a form of foreplay, but for Breillat, who has made a career out of redefining the limits of the term “controversial,” that’s actually pretty tame.

The mistress of the title is a Spanish courtesan named Vellini (Asia Argento) who has been involved with Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) for ten years. As is so often the case in stories like this, Ryno is noble by birth and impoverished by circumstance and must, therefore, make a marriage to a woman of both rank and wealth. What is perhaps unusual about the story is that he also happens to be deeply in love with his fiancée, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), and sees the necessity of breaking with Vellini as a blessing rather than a sacrifice.

Ryno’s relationship with Vellini is one defined more by hate than love, by control rather than affection. When she hears of Ryno’s impending marriage, Vellini smiles self-assuredly. She knows that her hold over him can never really be broken and that eventually he will come back to her – all she has to do is wait. Ryno marries Hermangarde and then, to protect himself from the pull of Vellini, moves with her to the seaside where they can live in peace and isolation. Vellini follows and soon Ryno is back under her spell, which destroys everything around him.

Breillat’s films are always informed by an intense and aggressive feminism, exploring the relationship between the sexes and the boundaries of gender. The visual aspect of her films is very important in this respect as her theories are expressed implicitly through the look of the film more than they are explicitly stated by the screenplay. Start with the casting: Argento – an actress whose pairing with Breillat is so inspired that you have to wonder why it never happened before – whose dark, “exotic” looks contrast with the blonde, angelic looks of Mesquida; and Aattou, whose facial features are distinctly androgynous, bordering on feminine. Ryno is drawn to Vellini but he also hates and fears her. What he really hates/fears is not her, however, but the inversion of gender norms inherent in their relationship. Vellini is the active partner who pursues him from Paris to the seaside, who practically devours him after he’s injured in a duel, who dominates him sexually, and often crossdresses. Ryno hates her because he’s submissive to her, feminized by her, and is scared that he likes it.

The centrepiece scene of the film is the wedding of Ryno and Hermangarde. In this scene a long Biblical passage is read which reinforces gender roles and expectations, stating that man is the “head” and made in God’s image, woman is made for the benefit of man, etc. It’s an interesting scene in that it not only clearly expresses the rigid tradition that informs the characters' relationships and means of self-definition, but also serves to define Hermangarde’s place in the story. Hermangarde is the woman Ryno loves but she’s also an afterthought, a character who gets perhaps a dozen lines. Her role is simply to be defined against Vellini, to represent the safety of tradition against the seductive danger of possibility represented by Vellini.

Breillat is a filmmaker with whom I don’t always agree but who always leaves me with something to think about. The Last Mistress is no exception and is perhaps all the more successful for the ways in which Breillat restrains herself. The screenplay is well-written, although the story is somewhat slow in the middle, and it's refreshing to see a costume drama that's about more than just pretty clothes and pretty settings. The result is a thoughtful and engaging film that makes its point without hammering it into your head.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

I'd like to thank God, my agent...

... and, of course, the lovely Lambs who voted for me. Many thanks, whoever you may be. I believe my thoughts can be best expressed by The Kids In The Hall:

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Review: My Life In Ruins (2009)


Director: Donald Petrie
Starring: Nia Vardalos, Richard Dreyfuss

Do you hear that sound? It’s the tired gears of this plot grinding away, begging to be put out of their misery. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film where the plot machinery was so clearly visible and where everyone involved seemed to be proceeding with a “let’s just get this over with” attitude. I wasn’t even expecting that much from this, just light, fluffy summer entertainment but I find it difficult to be entertained by things that never aspire to more than the lowest common denominator. The closest this film gets to wit is having a character named Poopy Kakas, who has a nephew named Doody Kakas. Har.

Many years ago, I was counted amongst those who succumbed to the charms of a minor phenomenon known as My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That film, written by and starring Nia Vardalos, an unlikely leading lady to be sure, was charming and funny even if some of its brush strokes were a bit broad. Whatever it lacked in finesse it made up for in heart, and its success was due in no small part to Vardalos’ very relatable persona. Vardalos is still pretty relatable (albeit considerably leaner than in the previous film), but that presents something of a problem here. Because her screen persona is easy to identify with, you end up feeling bad for her because she’s stuck with this material, which seems to have gone straight from first draft to screen without any buffing and polishing in between.

Vardalos is Georgia, a history professor who has lost her university position and is now making ends meets as a tour guide in Greece. Her tours aren’t fun in that she refuses to go to beaches and insists on getting into the actual history of the area in a very detailed way when all the tourists want to do is head to the gift shop. Because she isn’t a crowd pleaser she gets stuck with the bad bus, the bad driver and the bad group, while her rival gets the good bus, the good driver and the group made up of “polite Canadians.” Having spent all my life around Canadians, I have to tell you that if I were on vacation I think I’d rather spend it with the drunk, unintelligible Australians in Georgia’s Group B.

Group B is comprised of a bunch of stereotypes, characters who have tics rather than personalities. One of these characters, Irv (Richard Dreyfuss), gains some dimension as the film wears on, succeeding by the sheer force of Dreyfuss’ will to overcome the hackneyed machinations of the plot. I don’t think this film ever met a cliché it didn’t fall madly in love with, which would be fine if the filmmakers had any understanding of how to incorporate those elements into a story. Instead they’ve built a chain of clichés with nothing around them that you can invest in. I truly believe that a decent film could have been made from the premise of this one, but the writing here is so indefensibly lazy that there is nothing of substance or value to be found in it.

I really don't know what else I can tell you about this movie. The scenery is nice, but I don't know if My Life In Ruins can actually take credit for that. This is a bad movie, plain and simple. Vardalos will be back in theaters next month with her directorial debut I Hate Valentine's Day - I haven't seen it but I feel fairly safe in saying that if you have to see one Nia Vardalos film this year, see that one.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Review: Up (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Pete Doctor, Bob Peterson
Starring: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer

Unless you happen to live somewhere that mass media cannot reach you, you’re aware by now that Up is the latest weapon in Pixar’s scheme for world domination. If they keep making movies like this, it’ll be no contest. Given the general consensus on Terminator: Salvation maybe the thing to do to save the franchise is to reveal that Skynet is a front for Pixar and have John Connor battle to the death with Wall-E. Anyway… SQUIRREL!

Our hero in Up is a lovably cantankerous widower, Carl Frederickson, voiced by Ed Asner. We first meet Carl in the 1930s, when he’s a boy and idolizes Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), a once revered adventurer who enters into disgraced self-exile in the jungles of South America after being called a fraud. Carl forms a friendship with Ellie, a girl his age who also idolizes Muntz, and they grow up, get married and spend many happy decades together before Ellie grows ill and dies. The sequence showing Carl and Ellie’s life together is brief and wordless and generally quite devastating, the first hint that this film, nominally aimed at children, is going to enter some fairly dark territory. Although, having said that, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised since some of the more scarring moments from my childhood came courtesy of “kids” movies (a few examples: Bambi’s mother, the ostracization of Rudolf, the fox and the hound no longer being allowed to be friends).

Carl clings to the past, trying desperately to preserve his life with Ellie even in her corporeal absence. When developers threaten to take his house and have him placed in a nursing home, Carl rigs his house with balloons and sails away only to discover that young Wilderness Explorer Russell is stuck on his porch, determined to earn his “assisting the elderly” badge so that he can move up the ranks. Together they sail to South America, specifically to Paradise Falls, “the land that time forgot” and also the name of a deliciously campy nighttime soap that used to air here in Canada. That has nothing to do with Up, it just made me giggle, although come to think of it Charles Muntz would probably have been right at home in the Canadian Paradise Falls.

Along their travels Carl and Russell add a bird named Kevin and a dog named Dug to their posse and the rest of the plot I will leave you to discover for yourself. Written by Bob Peterson, a co-writer on Finding Nemo and a co-director here, the story is well-plotted and keeps things simple enough that it can be followed by kids while also being written cleverly enough to keep adults interested. The animation is, of course, outstanding with the vibrancy of the colour pallet being of particular note. I’m predisposed to dislike 3-D because I find the glasses uncomfortable and the form gimmicky, but it’s generally put to good use with this film and doesn't call attention to itself to the extent that it distracts from the film itself.

While I enjoyed the film overall - particularly anything involving Dug, whose obsession with squirrels reminded me of my parents' dog – I wouldn’t call it flawless. As it approached the end I was far too aware of how it was trying to manipulate me and though all films try to manipulate you in some form or another, subtlety goes a long way and it felt at times like Up was daring me not to go “awwww.” Still, it's a very good film that manages to cater to multiple demographics without pandering and the quality of its production is first-rate all the way.

Monday, June 1, 2009


I'm in the process of moving so posting for the next little while is going to be sporadic at best. I expect to be back posting on a more regular basis by the end of the month.