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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Canadian Film Review: One Week (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Michael McGowan
Starring: Joshua Jackson

One Week surprised me. I was expecting a standard issue road movie/finding yourself movie thinly disguising a travellogue. To some extent is it just that but it also manages to strike a deeper, more resonant chord. It was the last thing I was expecting, but this film reminded me a lot of the Marc Forster directed/Will Farrell starring Stranger Than Fiction which, to my mind, is a great compliment.

The film opens with Ben Tyler (Joshua Jackson) in his doctor's office, receiving the news that he has stage 4 cancer. He hopefully asks how many stages there are and his doctor grimly advises that there are only four and that the survival rate is small. Still, there is a chance that he could beat it if he begins treatment. Before that happens, however, Ben decides that he wants to do a few things he's always wanted to, just in case he never has another chance. His fiancée, Samantha (Liane Balaban) thinks he's running away and behaving irrationally while he keeps putting off his return home, explaining to her that he's "not ready to be a patient yet."

Ben buys a motorcycle and, taking his cue from a message on a Tim Horton's cup, decides to drive west and see the country. Mostly he stops to see the giant landmarks that account for various towns claims to fame - a giant fire hydrant, a giant hockey stick*, etc. - but, as is natural with this kind of story, he also begins to find himself. As he considers his life from the perspective of not having much more of it left, he begins to realize all the ways that he's compromised and settled. An aspiring writer, he's allowed the rejection of his first novel by publishing houses to crush his ambitions and turned instead to teaching, which he finds unfulfilling at best and boring at worst. In every other aspect of his life he's made safe, reasonable choices that would ensure him a decent life, if not necessarily a happy one.

The best decision that this film makes is to supply Ben with a narrator who joins him on his travels. Whenever the film starts to verge to far into the realm of sentimentality, the narrator is able to pull it back with his wry commentary on the situation. Jackson is great in the lead role, but in many ways the narrator (voiced by Campbell Scott) is the more memorable character because he gets all the best lines. That being said, the film's success depends a great deal on Jackson, who manages to make Ben likeable and relatable even at moments when he might otherwise seem like a selfish jerk. Balaban, best known for her great performance in New Waterford Girl, is a better actress than required by this film, where she's relegated to the thankless "girlfriend role," but she manages nevertheless to breathe life into her character. She and Jackson have a nice, easy chemistry and are perfectly believable as a couple who have been together for a long time and have perhaps mistaken complacency for happiness.

It's a testament to the skill of writer/director Michael McGowan that though many things about this film are cliché and it won't be accused of breaking any new ground, it nevertheless manages to be quite moving. Alternately funny and philosophical, One Week strikes a deep chord without forgetting to keep the audience entertained. As a bonus, it also showcases some of the most beautiful places in Canada, although only those places from Toronto westward, which leaves a significant amout of the country unrepresented.

*small aside: if you're ever planning on visiting the landmarks showcased in this film, be aware that the world's biggest hockey stick is not in Manitoba, as it is in the film, but in Duncan, BC. I know this because I grew up in Duncan and played hockey in that rink.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Review: Pandora's Box (1929)

* * * 1/2

Director: Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Starring: Louise Brooks

Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Pandora’s Box is an epic, atmospheric tale that travels from the theatres of Germany to gambling dens in France and finally to the foggy streets of London, where the heroine falls into the arms of Jack the Ripper. It’s a big story, and perhaps just a touch "soapy," but it's expertly told and wonderfully entertaining.

As the title suggests, the film is about a woman who unwittingly unleashes turmoil on those around her. She is Lulu (played by the divine Louise Brooks), an impulsive and vibrant vaudeville performer and prostitute who, through the course of the film, will: marry her wealthy and much older lover and accidentally kill him at the wedding reception, be convicted of manslaughter, escape her prison sentence and run off with her stepson, almost be sold into sexual slavery… let’s just say that things keep going from bad to worse. When she finally meets Jack the Ripper, it almost seems merciful given the depths of misery and degradation to which she falls.

The film is significant for a number of reasons, not least of which is the “Lulu look” which is echoed in films such as Cabaret and Chicago. It is also credited with being the first film to feature a lesbian character, the Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Like most of the male characters in the film, the Countess falls under Lulu’s spell and then meets her doom. Roberts was apparently uncomfortable with the idea of playing a lesbian and it shows, as she never seems particularly at ease in the role, which is in sharp contrast to Brooks, who owns every moment that she’s on screen. Marlene Dietrich was the second choice to play Lulu and perhaps Pabst should have cast her as the Countess – lord knows she could work a tuxedo.

Although Lulu is condemned throughout the film, mostly by the men around her, she nevertheless seems to be a sympathetic character. There is an innocence to her, a child-like quality that ensures that her actions never seem malicious. She's the kind of character that things just sort of happen to, but the energy and life with which Brooks infuses the character allows her to seem like more than just a mere cypher. Lulu isn't stupid, though for a woman who has spent much of her life as a sex worker, she's awfully naive about the jealousy she inspires in men. On the other hand, perhaps she's just careless and self-centered. It can be hard to tell at times what's behind the mask of flirtatious innocence that Brooks wears for most of the film.

Pandora's Box is a well-crafted, well-paced film, though not without its tiny problems. I've already mentions Roberts' somewhat limp performance and aside from that there's the slight issue that the storyline sometimes goes a little too far over the top (the courtroom scenes, for example). Structurally, there's also a framing device wherein one episode transitions to another with "End of Act X, Beginning of Act Y," which gets a little irritating towards the end. These are, however, very minor flaws and the film is overall very watchable and entertaining.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Unsung Performances: Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive

I think it's a shame that the Academy doesn't recognize comedy more often but how in the hell do you nominate Renée Zellweger for Bridget Jones's Diary and snub Naomi Watts for Mulholland Drive? Maybe the Academy does have a sense of humor, after all. The other nominees that year were Sissy Spacek for In The Bedroom, Nicole Kidman for Moulin Rouge!, Judi Dench for Iris and the eventually winner, Halle Berry for Monsters Ball. It's not a bad group but... come on. Watt's performance was not just the best of that year, but one of the best screen performances ever.

In Mulholland Drive Watts takes on the task of two very different, very demanding roles. For 2/3rds of the film she plays sunny, optimistic Betty Elms, an actress with Nancy Drew-like curiosity. Betty is the epitome of promise. As an actress she has as-yet-untapped depths and is set to be launched into the stratosphere, as an amateur sleuth she's able to put the pieces together with seeming ease, and she gets the girl to boot - if only it weren't for that mysterious blue box, things would be perfect.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Diane Selwyn. An actress who hasn't made it, who has been used and abused by the woman she loves, Diane has been beaten down by life and her bitterness has nearly eaten her from the inside out. While Betty represents the Hollywood dream, Diane is the harsh, brutal reality. As her ex-lover becomes the focus of her anger over her unfulfilled dreams, Diane becomes increasingly unhinged until, in the end, she can no longer outrun her own madness.

The two characters are so distinct and expertly played that it's difficult to accept that both are played by the same actress. As Betty, Watts has a bounce in her step and a sunny, can-do attitude; as Diane she slumps and sulks, though there are brief moments when a little bit of hope is allowed to pass briefly over her face, only to be crushed again in the next moment. This set of performances requires a lot, but Watts doesn't disappoint for even a second and carries the film with these two absolutely engrossing performances.

Now, granted, Watts didn't go entirely unnoticed. She won the Chicago Film Critics award for Best Actress, the National Board of Review's award for Breakthrough Performance and, bizarrely, the Las Vegas and San Diego Film Critcs awards for Supporting Actress; and her career took off in part thanks to the buzz Mulholland Drive generated but, seriously, she was robbed. I've seen this movie many times and I never cease to be impressed with what Watts accomplishes in it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Review: The Hurt Locker (2009)

* * * *

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty

One word review: Amazing.

If you require more words, you'll find them under the cut.

The objective is simple: stay alive from the beginning of the day until the end. Some days will be more eventful than others and not everyone will meet the objective. The film opens on Bravo Company, a month from the end of their current deployment. The EOD team has just lost its team leader and a replacement is sent in the form of Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). The other members of the team – Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) – are jerked out of their comfort zone by James’ style, as they are accustomed to working together collaboratively and James more or less works alone, allowing Sanborn and Eldridge to be little more than an audience for his exploits. His recklessness makes an enemy of Sanborn, though the two do occasionally find common ground.

The film is episodic in form and focuses on just a handful of days in which James, Sanborn and Eldridge work together. There isn’t really an arc to the story itself, but the three characters have individual arcs which carry over the episodes. At home James has a young son and a marriage on the rocks. From the way that he describes his marriage – stating at one point that he thought they were divorced but his wife is still living in the house – it seems that he feels powerless on the domestic front. He doesn’t know what home life will bring, but work is much more cut and dried: he’ll either die or he won’t. He savours not just the fact that he is alive while so close to death, but that he’s in charge of the situation and he knows what he’s doing. His personal relationships are like bombs he has no idea how to disarm.

Sanborn is much the same way; somewhat adrift when it comes to relationships but much more confident when he’s working. The reason why Sanborn and James don’t get along is because James’ unpredictability shakes that usual confidence – in an already stressful situation, working with someone you can’t read makes the situation almost unbearable. However, surviving James puts him in a frame of mind where he feels that he can survive the travails of domesticity. As for Eldridge, he’s a character who is like an exposed nerve. He’s shaken by the death of his former team leader, for which he blames himself, and for a later death in the field. He lacks the confidence of James or Sanborn and wants so badly to do the right thing that he’s often paralyzed into doing nothing. Renner and Mackie have received a lot of attention for their performances – and rightly so – but Geraghty’s performance is deserving of mention as well. It’s difficult not to feel for Eldridge, who is so intensely vulnerable, particularly compared to James and Sanborn. The three central performances are fantastic with each actor bringing something different but essential to the table. Renner, Mackie and Geraghty give performances that stand out from each other while at the same time supporting and complementing each other.

The film would be worthy of recommendation based solely on those performances, but The Hurt Locker can also boast a strong script from Mark Boal and exquisite direction from Kathryn Bigelow. The action is shot with handheld cameras, giving it a realistic, pseudo-documentary feeling. The special effects are superb but, importantly, they aren’t the point of any given scene. Sometimes the bombs go off and there’s an explosion, but what you remember afterwards is the tension before the blast or the diffusion of the bomb and the way that the film slowly builds upon the initial dilemma – the bomb itself – by adding several more to the scene. When the bombs are diffused, it’s usually done right out in the open, in the middle of the street. People stand at windows and on rooftops watching, perhaps out of simple curiosity but perhaps with a malicious objective. It’s up to Sanborn and Eldridge to assess these potential threats and hesitation can be the difference between life and death.

Many films have been made in the last few years about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, few of them any good. The Hurt Locker is constructed less a war movie and more a thriller and part of what makes it work so well is that it removes itself from the political aspect of the war on terror. There are no great speeches about “why we’re here” or “why we shouldn’t be here;” the simple fact is that they are there and they have a job to do. It’s this very simplicity that carries the film and the ordinariness with which life and death are treated which makes it so resonant.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Canadian Film Review: The Necessities of Life (2008)

* * *

Director: Benoit Pilon
Starring: Natar Ungalaaq

The Necessities of Life is a sometimes poignant, sometimes maddeningly sluggish film from director Benoit Pilon. It is not a bad movie – in fact parts of it are very strong – but it is a little less than effective. What saves it is the performances, particularly that of Natar Ungalaaq, who won the Genie as Best Actor for this role and is perhaps best known for playing the title character in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.

The film takes place in 1952, when Tivii (Ungalaaq) contracts tuberculosis and is sent to recover in a sanatorium in Quebec City. The situation is a difficult one for Tivii not simply because of his illness, but because he’s been uprooted from his family and home and sent to a place where no one speaks his language. The social disconnect that this causes, in addition to the stress of not being able to clearly understand what’s wrong with him and how it’s being treated, leads to depression and a wish on Tivii’s part simply to die. Wanting to help, Carole (Eveline Gelinas), one of the nurses, arranges for an Inuit orphan named Kaki (Paul-Andre Brasseur) to be transferred to the hospital so that he and Tivii might recover together and keep each other company.

Kaki’s arrival has an immediate and positive effect on Tivii, who is now not only able to speak to someone in a familiar language, but also able to communicate with the others through Kaki, who also speaks French. Kaki’s ability to assimilate with the rest of the patients is a blessing in terms of communication, but also somewhat problematic as far as Tivii is concerned because the more assimilated Kaki is, the greater the danger that he’ll lose touch with his cultural heritage. As he recovers Tivii decides that he wants to adopt Kaki, which leads to a new set of complications. The adoption request has to be approved by the church and because Tivii is not French, not catholic and, of course, not white, the church is reluctant to hand Kaki over to him. They prefer to see children adopted by “more conventional” families, though as Tivii’s supporters point out, Tivii’s family is “conventional” to Kaki’s experience. This scene and the implicit racism that it exposes is one of the strongest in the film and really gets to the heart of the story. Tivii has, and could provide for Kaki, everything necessary in life - shelter, food, family, and cultural tradition – but because Inuit culture is deemed inferior to the dominant culture, his request isn’t really taken seriously by those with the power to decide.

The cultural divide is the film’s primary concern, both in terms of Tivii’s relationship with Kaki and his relationship with Carole. Carole is a nice person and wants to help Tivii but when he makes a sexual overture – failing to see the racial divide that she sees so clearly – their already tenuous friendship is changed. “You don’t know whites,” Kaki explains after an obligatory “I told you so.” In a world where the prospect of an Inuit family adopting an Inuit child is treated as preposterous, the idea of a relationship between an Inuit man and a white woman is unfathomable.

The Necessities of Life is inarguably a film about something (which may sound like faint praise but how many films are, in the final analysis, about nothing?) and it successfully explores its subject from a variety of angles. The problem is that it is very slow and oddly passionless. Though I came to care about the character, particularly Tivii thanks to Ungulaaq’s performance, the ending left me strangely cold. It’s a good film, but it didn’t make an impact on me the way that I think it could have.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why Isn't This A Movie?: Spanish Fly

Why It Should Be A Movie: It's a pretty damn entertaining book that, in the right hands, would make for a pretty damn entertaining movie. Think The Sting with a dash of Bonnie and Clyde.

Setting: The American southwest during the Great Depression

Premise: Jack is a street smart young man who longs to escape his dusty, poverty striken town. When his affinity for math almost spoils a con being run by a couple of grifters passing through town, the pair decide to invite him to join their crime spree. Together the trio go from town to town running mostly minor cons until a shadowy figure from the past makes a big score a necessity. As things get more dangerous, and the cons get more complicated, Jack can't shake the feeling that he's being set up for a fall.

Virgil Ray: A slick conman of ambiguous sexuality whose easy charm masks the scars of a dark past. Stories of his exploits are legendary but, as Jack comes to realize, for all of them to be true he'd have to have the ability to be in two places at once. Tall tales aside, however, there's no question about his ability to run a con.

Miss Rose: Virgil's longtime girlfriend and partner, who often uses the alias Connie Parker - cousin to Bonnie - while running scams. Though she has a great deal of anxiety about aging and her fading looks (exacerbated by Virgil's insistence on having her pose as Jack's mother for cons), she nevertheless develops a strong sexual pull over Jack - and vice versa.

Jack McGreary: a 19-year-old with a body built for working in the mine, but a brain that makes him destined for bigger and better things. Though he goes along with Virgil and Rose, he never feels entirely at ease with them and plots to stay a step ahead of them just in case.

I'd Cast:
Robert Downey, Jr. as Virgil
Amy Ryan as Rose
Taylor Kitsch as Jack

Who would you cast?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review: High Noon (1952)

* * * 1/2

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly

It’s the kind of thing legends are made of: a single man standing up for justice against the forces of tyranny. If that man were anyone other than Gary Cooper (or, okay, maybe John Wayne), that might make for an unfair fight but as it stands the sides are pretty balanced. It's a great movie from Fred Zinnemann, one of cinema's most incomprehensily underrated directors.

High Noon opens with a wedding and a crisis. Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just married Amy (Grace Kelly), a Quaker for whom he has agreed to give up his job in order to take on a more peaceful occupation as a store owner. At the same time word is getting around that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is expected back in town on the noon train and that his brother and their friends are waiting for him so that they can take revenge on Kane and the rest of the town. Officially speaking, Kane is no longer the town’s Marshal but, because his replacement won’t arrive until the following day, he feels compelled to stay and face Miller and his gang.

Everyone knows that when Miller gets off the train and is reunited with his gang, the situation is going to explode because Miller isn’t one to let go of a grudge and Kane is the man who arrested him, leading to an order of execution that has now been commuted. In order to effectively face down the villains Kane needs to organize a posse but no one in town is willing to stand up with him, including his Deputy Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), who is only willing to do the job in exchange for Kane’s promise to help him get promoted to Marshal.

With growing disgust, Kane watches as the people he thought that he could count on, the people whose comfort and safety he has assured for years, turn their backs on him and tell him to get out of town – not for his own safety, mind you, as he and certainly everyone else knows that if Miller wants him dead, he’ll find him; but because they don’t want to get caught in the middle of the trouble and would rather let Miller run roughshod over the town than stand up to him. With noon swiftly approaching, the townspeople hide themselves away, leaving the streets empty save for Kane.

The first thing that must be noted about this film is the simply marvellous performance by Gary Cooper. The western is a particularly masculine and macho genre and its heroes don’t often get to display the kind of vulnerability that Cooper makes available to Kane here. He’s a strong man and brave, but that doesn’t mean he can’t also be scared and agonized over the way that he has been shunned by the town. There’s never any real doubt about the way the story will resolve itself, but Cooper effectively conveys the possibility that it could turn out otherwise.

The film, which takes place almost in real time, is one of tightly-coiled intensity. It manages to tell a lot of story in a short amount of time without making the narrative feel crowded. There is a subplot involving Harvey and his anxiety over the state of his masculinity, which is intensified by his relationship with Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado). As he exists in Kane’s shadow as a lawman, so he exists in Helen’s life, as she’s Kane’s former mistress. There’s no better way to explain Harvey’s problem than through Helen’s words: “You’re a good looking boy. You’ve got big, broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.”

Well-known for being an allegory about the communist witch hunts, High Noon manages to incorporate its politics into the story without doing so in a heavy handed way. However, while the film is powerful there’s something about the ending that is somehow not quite as satisfying as it should be because Kane’s final act is sort of a “you can’t fire me, I quit” kind of moment. It’s funny to me that while history has taken to including those who “named names” amongst the villains of the HUAC hearings, a film in defence of doing so (On The Waterfront) resonates so much more deeply than a film about standing up to the Red Scare thugs. Don’t get me wrong, High Noon is a great movie, but it lacks some of the punch of Kazan’s masterpiece.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Review: Moon (2009)

* * * *

Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Sam Rockwell

Finally! After months of soggy romantic comedies and soulless CGI extravaganzas that amount to little more than bright colors and loud sounds, comes a truly great and engaging movie. This first feature length film from writer/director Duncan Jones is a smart science fiction story in the tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solyaris that not only does everything right, but does it on a small budget. Run, don’t walk, to the theatre to see this movie and don’t read any farther if you want to go into this completely unspoiled.

The film takes place in the future when 70% of the earth’s energy is supplied courtesy of the moon through Lunar Industries. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) mans the moon base, the only human on-board with no one but the robot GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and the occasional video transmission from earth to keep him company. He’s nearing the end of his three year contract and anxiously awaits his return to earth where he expects to be reunited with his wife, Tess (Dominique McElligott) and their daughter, Eve. Strange things have started happening to Sam – he’s seeing things and convinced that he’s losing his mind, but he keeps reminding himself that he only has two more weeks to go and then it will all be finished.

While out to retrieve helium from one of the harvesting machines, Sam crashes his rover and wakes up back in the base, being cared for by GERTY. He hasn’t been out long, GERTY assures him, but he needs his rest in order to properly recover. Sam can’t shake the feeling that something is very wrong and does some investigating which eventually leads him to... himself, still stuck in the rover. He rescues the other Sam, who refuses to believe that they’re both clones and continues to insist that he’s the original and that he’s going home to Tess and Eve.

Most of the movie involves Rockwell interacting with himself as the dual Sams, creating two distinct characters that are like Goofus and Gallant versions of the same guy. With these two characterizations, Rockwell proves once again that he’s one of the most dependable and charismatic actors working today, easily carrying the movie without ever wearing out his welcome. I would very gladly watch an Odd Couple in space type show that involved the Sams trying to live together without killing each other. Rockwell taps into some dark humour but also gives the Sams an emotional resonance that takes the film to the next level, allowing it to rise above some of the more conventional elements of its plot.

Moon works in large part because it finds the right balance between taking itself seriously and having fun with the genre. GERTY is like a kinder, gentler version of HAL 9000, which adds in no small part to the story’s suspense. Is GERTY really looking out for the Sams like he claims or do his ever shifting emoticons hide darker intentions? There’s something about GERTY’s calm, steady voice that is vaguely sinister and certainly rooted in the collective memory of that earlier robot. There are a lot of things here that are reminiscent of 2001 - although this movie is about a thousand times more accessible than Kubrick’s film - but at no point does this feel like a rip-off. Moon takes familiar themes and ideas and makes them its own.

Though Moon isn’t a film with a big budget or wall-to-wall special effects, it makes the most of what it does have and creates something really special. I think that this is a movie that people will still be talking about and praising years from now, when some of this summer’s more lavishly budgeted movies have been long forgotten. I can’t wait to see this again.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Canadian Film Review: It's Not Me I Swear! (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Phillippe Falardeau
Starring: Antoine L’Écuyer, Catherine Faucher, Gabriel Maillé

Phillippe Falardeau’s It’s Not Me I Swear! is about a ten-year-old boy who is a compulsive liar, a vandal, and a fire starter with a penchant for giving people the finger and attempting suicide. It’s a comedy. That it works as a comedy is somewhat miraculous, as is the fact that the film becomes an effective study of character and family dynamics. It’s an odd film to be sure, but also pretty great.

Our hero is Léon Doré (Antoine L’Écuyer), whom we meet for the first time as he’s attempting to hang himself with the gymnastic rings hanging from a tree in the front yard. He’s saved by his brother, Jérome (Gabriel Maillé) and their mother, Madeleine (Suzanne Clément) and when Philippe (Daniel Briere), the family patriarch, comes home he dismantles the rings – another toy poor Jérome has had to watch be thrown out because his brother is off-kilter.

Léon is not a normal boy. He lies so much that his mother has given up on asking him not to lie and simply advises him to keep his cover stories straight. His parents fight constantly – his father is a straight-laced lawyer who wants simply to appear “normal” (a trait he shares with Jérome), while his mother is more free-spirited and feels stifled by her husband’s need to conform. Eventually Madeleine will have had enough and decides to leave, fleeing to Greece in the hope of realizing her frustrated dreams of becoming an artist. Léon becomes determined to find a way to join his mother in Greece, eventually joining forces with Léa (Catherine Faucher), a neighbourhood girl desperate to reconnect with a family member of her own.

It’s Not Me I Swear is probably best classified as a coming-of-age film, though its protagonist is only 10. What he learns during the course of the film, which takes place during the summer and a few weeks of the fall of 1968, are defining and alter him irrevocably. He begins the summer thinking of Léa as a mild irritation, then takes her on as a partner in crime and slowly comes to feel affection for her. The friendship, however, proves to be problematic for her and she’s eventually forbidden from having anything to do with him because he’s a bad influence. The reversal in their relationship – from him rejecting her to her rejecting him – makes him cynical, as does the outcome of his mother’s “trip” to Greece. He spends most of the summer believing that one day she’ll come back – an idea that Jérome thinks ludicrous – only to realize that it’s a situation of greater permanence after she fails to return following one of his suicide attempts. This realization, along with the revelation that Philippe has had her address all along and denied the boys the opportunity to write to her, causes a shift in the family. Suddenly Léon is prepared to leave his mother behind, while Jérome – who had previously rejected even the memory of her – begins to cling to that maternal connection while pulling away from his father.

The film succeeds on a number of levels, but especially in the realm of casting. Falardeau gets particularly great performances out of all the younger actors, with special mention going to L’Écuyer. Léon is a difficult character, one that could easily be insufferable and one that requires equal amounts of maturity and immaturity. L’Écuyer is able to achieve that balance with an ease that actors of greater experience would envy. Léon is a flawed character but he’s played flawlessly by L’Écuyer.

It’s Not Me I Swear! is a really good movie, alternately funny and touching. It isn’t entirely immune from the clichés of the coming-of-age story, but it certainly gives them some snap and vigour so that you never get that “been there, done that” feeling.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Great Last Scenes: The Purple Rose of Cairo

Year: 1985
Director: Woody Allen
Great Because...: It's emotionally shattering, but it achieves this effect in the most gentle of ways. In a worldless scene Mia Farrow sits down in a theatre and watches an Astaire/Rogers movie, devastated by her most recent loss but slowly carried away by the magic of the film. Will things seem bleak once the lights go up? Sure, but for a little while at least she's allowed to find peace.

Cecilia has a rough life. She's a waitress whose husband either gambles away her paycheck or spends it on other women. She can't leave him because as bad as things are at home, her options if she leaves seem limited to prostitution. Her only escape from the bad things are movies, which she attends almost religiously. One film in particular - The Purple Rose of Cairo - becomes a favourite, her attendance so regular that even Tom Baxter, the film's main character, notices and feels compelled to climb down off the screen to meet her.

Eventually Cecilia is forced to choose between the fantasy represented by Tom and the reality represented by Gil Shepherd, the actor who plays him. Though she's enjoyed her time with Tom and knows that he's the "perfect" man - kind, dependable, faithful - she also knows that he's limited personality-wise, stuck within the narrow borders constructed by the writers of his film. Gil, on the other hand, is a real person just like herself, though at the same time he isn't just like her because he's a movie star. Star struck, Cecilia chooses Gil only to learn the hard way that being a real person means that he's capable of disappointing her.

Cecilia has packed her bags to move to Hollywood with Gil, only to discover that he's left without her, abandoning her to a life of uncertainty and hardship. The Purple Rose of Cairo has just left the theater, replaced with Top Hat. With nowhere else to go Cecilia goes into the theater and as she watches Fred Astaire singing "Cheek to Cheek" to Ginger Rogers, her face transforms into something that is not quite happiness, not quite sadness. It's a beautiful, perfect moment, capturing both the agony and the ecstacy of the audience's relationship to the art of film.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review: Girlfriend Experience (2008)

* 1/2

Director: Illeana Pietrobruno
Starring: David Lewis

Girlfriend Experience isn’t exactly what I thought it would be, mostly because I thought it was The Girlfriend Experience by Steven Soderbergh. My confusion is understandable given the similarities in the titles and the fact that the back of the DVD box said “director: Steven Soderbergh” which was, in fact, a lie. I’m still interested in seeing Soderbergh’s film, but I hope that it isn’t as pretentious and boring as this one.

Girlfriend Experience is shot by handheld camera in a documentary style, intercutting “candid” scenes with staged re-enactments and man on the street interviews. It follows Daniel (David Lewis), a man addicted to paying for sex who describes himself as going through binges and purges, giving up prostitutes for months at a time only to fall back into the pattern with a vengeance later. He has a girlfriend, Maddy (Tara Frederick), who is aware of his issues and tacitly accepting of the fact that, once in a while, he’ll pay another woman to sleep with him until he gets an STD which he passes on to her. She kicks him out of the house and he begins to spiral out of control.

Daniel becomes obsessed with a prostitute named Adrian (Ivy Vine), who offers “the girlfriend experience” as part of her services. She sells companionship in addition to sex and eventually Daniel convinces himself that what they have together is real, that they have feelings for each other and a future together. He’s crushed to discover that he’s wrong when she rejects his offer to keep her in an apartment, though she does eventually start to come around. Once again, however, he finds himself with shattered illusions as Adrian begins to let her guard down, dropping the act in certain ways – replacing her red heels with flip flops, for example – and even going so far as to tell Daniel that she’s loves him, something that he claims he’s wanted to hear from her though he recoils once she says it. He is, after all, still trying to work things out with Maddy.

Girlfriend Experience has an interesting premise but for a lot of reasons the film doesn’t really work. To begin with, it’s very badly paced - for a film that only runs about 77 minutes, it feels long, due in no small part to the fact that the material plays out in such a limp and lifeless way. The strategy of playing “real” scenes against re-enactments also fails, because the candid segments feel just as staged as the re-enactments and about half as honest. The film never, at any point, achieves a believable enough level of reality to forge a connection between the audience and the situation on screen. The biggest problem, however, is that the characters never seem to act out of personal motivation and are instead stuck playing to the tune of the plot’s clunky machinations.

Somewhere in all of this there’s a decent movie trying to get out, but it’s buried too far down. The film needs a tighter script, a clearer focus, and more fire in its performances to make it really worth watching. As it stands Girlfriend Experience is at best forgettable and at worst frustratingly lame.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Review: Wild Strawberries (1957)

* * * *

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Victor Sjostrom, Bibi Anderson, Ingrid Thulin

For a film that is ostensibly concerned with emptiness, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is a deep and enthralling film experience. Unfolding in a dreamy, lyrical fashion, the film follows Isak Borg, a professor of medicine who realizes that his life has been meaningless and tries to create some meaning for it before it’s too late. Chances are that this is a film that you’ll either love or be utterly bored by, but if you’re looking to make your first foray into Bergman’s work, this one is pretty easily accessible.

Dr. Borg, played by Victor Sjostrom, is an old man, a widower with one son who is about to receive an award to celebrate his 50 years of medical practice. Forced to acknowledge that he’s closer to the end than he is to the beginning, he starts to reflect on his life and the reason for the loneliness he feels at his core. His daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) joins him on the drive to the ceremony, during which they discuss his son, Evald (Gunnar Bjornstrand). Marianne insists that Evald is a lot like Isak, which has created problems in the marriage, particularly where the subject of children is concerned. Much is made by others of the fact that Marianne and Evald have been married for some time and have no children and Marianne reveals to Isak that she’s pregnant. It’s the worst possible news for Evald, who wants no children because he doesn’t want them to have to endure the pattern of coldness and meaninglessness that has been established by his family. Marianne is determined that this time she will have a baby, even though it means she may have to choose between it and Evald, a concept which she finds impossible.

Isak and Marianne stop briefly at a house where his family spent summers during his childhood. While there Isak imagines the day of his uncle’s anniversary celebration, when his cousin Sara (Bibi Anderson) gathered wild strawberries for him as a gift. Isak and Sara were secretly engaged - though in fact the engagement was common knowledge thanks to family gossip - but Isak’s brother, Sigfrid (Per Sjostrand), also had designs on her. Though she knows that Isak is the good brother and Sigfrid a scoundrel, Sara is nevertheless attracted to Sigfrid and eventually he is the one she will marry. What is interesting about these memories is that they aren’t really memories at all, given that what unfolds are scenes at which Isak was never present. During the day of the anniversary celebration, Isak was out in the boat with his father and so these scenes are constructions based on second-hand knowledge and hindsight. Later Isak will remember a scene to which he was a witness – his wife’s tryst with another man – but once again the younger version of Isak does not figure into the scene. Even in his own memories, Isak is a distant figure who does not actively participate.

As a director, Bergman is well-known for symbolism, for the almost relentless way in which each shot tries to impart meaning. This film certainly relies on symbolism – particularly in a dream sequence towards the beginning – but I found it less symbolically aggressive than the other Bergman films I’ve seen (The Seventh Seal and Persona), and while it starts off a little slow, it quickly becomes an absorbing meditation on the meaning, or lack thereof, of life. The film aspires to be high-brow art with a capital "A" but it manages to do so with minimal pretensiousness.

While the film is, for the most part, quite dark in its subject matter, it is told with a lightness of touch that is appropriate to its dreamy structure. It also, surprisingly, ends on something of a light note. Isak, having realized that his coldness makes him not only stand out but stand apart from all those around him, tries to forge a connection with his long-suffering housekeeper. He suggests to her that they begin calling each other by their first names, a suggestion which she immediately turns down. What would people think if they suddenly started speaking to each other with such familiarity? Besides which, in their shared routines, the gentle way in which they bicker and depend on one another, they have already gained a level of intimacy that he has never before shared with anyone. Coming from a director best known for exploring existential crises, this is a surprisingly optimistic ending and, in its way, quite sweet. I certainly didn't expect that, but it was definitely a nice surprise.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Ticket to Heaven (1981)

* * * 1/2

Director: Ralph L. Thomas
Starring: Nick Mancuso

Ralph L. Thomas’ Ticket To Heaven is an intimate portrait of the closed and intense inner world of a cult, and the vulnerable young man who gets sucked into it. It is a film that is far from perfect, but it’s simple, no-frills style of storytelling is effective and engaging. Though parts of it feel a little dated now, overall its story is easy to slip into and is powerfully told.

The story begins with David (Nick Mancuso), a young man at a crossroads. He loves his girlfriend but, as his best friend Larry (Saul Rubinek) points out, he’s only really crazy about her when she’s about to leave him due to his infidelities. Lonely and directionless, he decides to visit a friend in California who in turn introduces David to some of his new “friends.” They talk him into joining them in what they insist will be a short trip to a camp in the countryside, where soon their intense religious rhetoric has completely overtaken him. What is most interesting about this film is that David isn’t a weak-minded person who is easily manipulated. He recognizes the cult for what it is – though he’s too polite to call it what it is – but finds himself succumbing to it anyway. Part of this is due to sleep and food deprivation, but part of it is his desperate need for human connection, which he gets in spades from his fellow cult members even as they isolate him from the world outside of their farm.

The first half of the story, give or take, focuses on David falling in with the cult and making a couple of small and ultimately futile attempts to break free. The second half deals with his family’s realization of what he’s gotten himself into and their efforts to break him free. Larry infiltrates the cult – almost getting sucked into it himself in the process – and with help from David’s family and friends, get him away from the group so that he can be “deprogrammed.” The deprogramming scenes are brutal in their own way and in certain respects more brutal than the indoctrination scenes, calling into question whether David will be able to come out the other side in one piece. His journey from individual to brainwashed follower back to individual is not an easy one, in part because the idea of giving up agency, sacrificing all that made him himself but also those things that caused him so much distress, is so appealing to him.

The story is told in simple, effective terms and manages to find the right tone for every scene. Objectively, it’s difficult to understand how a reasonable person could get sucked in by people who seem upbeat and happy to an extreme that verges on being disingenuous. However, the film gets close enough that you can begin to understand how a person could be swept up in the communal fervour in even a short period of time. The intimate construction of the story is crucial to its success, but so is the film’s ability to take a step back from the action. The story does not unfold with a heavy hand, but with a lightness of touch that allows the action to move forward without it seeming that the action is being moved forward by outside forces. It’s a delicate balance that Thomas seems to achieve with ease.

The standout performance in the film comes courtesy of Mancuso, who gets to explore various levels of David’s psyche. In Mancuso’s hands David is a character both strong and fragile at the same time, a man who desperately needs to belong and will do anything, fight anyone – including the part of himself that knows the group is a negative force – to retain that sense of place. It’s a performance rich in nuance and detail and the film is more than worthy of it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Review: Public Enemies (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard

Public Enemies is a slick, high-energy crime movie from Michael Mann, a director who specializes in slick, high-energy crime movies. Though much blood is shed and countless bullets sprayed from one end of the film to the other, it manages to be more than just a shoot-em-up, cops and robbers story. The film plays with the romanticized myth of John Dillinger in particular and bank robbers in general, asking why it is that we continue to find people like him so fascinating and worthy of celebrating.

Johnny Depp stars as Dillinger, bank robber and folk hero. As portrayed by the film, Dillinger is an intelligent man, loyal to his friends, living one minute at a time. Though he has no qualms about killing people, the robberies he plans are designed so that they can be completed without civilian casualties, which is in stark contrast to the robberies carried out by Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), who is characterized as being so trigger happy that bank jobs seem like little more than excuses to shoot people. Obligatory in a film like this is a moment when the dashing criminal informs a civilian to hold on to their cash because “I’m here for the bank’s money” – and Public Enemies doesn’t skip this beat. Though the film tries to be critical of the adulation expended by the public on people like Dillinger it, too, falls under his seductive spell. I would be surprised to learn that someone came out of this film on the side of the law, depicted here as largely incompetent and increasingly brutal.

Between jobs Dillinger gets involved with Billie (Marion Cotillard), a spunky coat check girl who is excited by the danger than surrounds him but worried about what the future may hold. Depp and Cotillard have nice chemistry and create a believable enough relationship, but the fact that a role like Billie in a film like this is thankless is inescapable. The girl’s job is to worry and comfort and encourage and occasionally to cover – she’s an extension of the male hero and exists solely to meet his needs at any given time. The exception to this rule is a character like Bonnie Parker from Bonnie and Clyde, who becomes a driving force in the narrative and plays a very active role in the story. Parts of Public Enemies is reminiscent of Arthur Penn’s crime movie masterpiece, in particular the scene of an ambush of Dillinger, Baby Face and the gang at a motor lodge that turns into a bloody spectacle. The action sequences in Mann’s film are uniformly well-done, moving with high intensity without ever making the audience feel lost in the action. Even though things are happening fast, you always know what’s going on; it isn’t just a lot of flashing lights, colors and sounds.

Running alongside Dillinger’s escapades is the story of Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), an FBI agent on the rise who has been handpicked by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to bring Dillinger to justice. Though Purvis is the good guy, he isn’t presented here as a rootable character and is figured instead as a man so determined to capture Public Enemy Number One that he’s willing to take risks which put his FBI comrades as well as civilians in danger. Bale does well in the role, adding layers to the character to show how conflicted he is over the ways in which he’s achieved his mandate. The character is neither as charismatic as Dillinger nor as flashy as Hoover, whom Crudup seems to have a lot of fun with, but Bale ensures that he never feels superfluous.

The film works in large part because it creates a nice balance between action and story. When the action comes, it comes fast and furious but there are plenty of lulls in which the characters are allowed to be fleshed out and the audience is allowed to catch its breath. I don’t know enough about the real John Dillinger to attest to how accurate the film is, but the screenplay is well-written regardless and is especially strong in the way it makes clear that Dillinger presented a problem not only for law enforcement agencies, but for other criminals as well. Because his crime spree crossed over state lines, it became necessary to create a federal agency to deal with him, an agency that could also deal with organized crime syndicates which stretched from one coast to the other. As seen here, Dillinger is a criminal who needs to be shut down not only for the sake of the law, but also for the sake of other criminals.

The various elements of the story complement each other nicely and create a cohesive narrative. I don’t know that Public Enemies says anything that hundreds of gangster movies haven’t said before, but it’s a solid, entertaining film. The only real complaint that I have is that it seems to peter out a little bit at the end, but for the most part the film excels at building and maintaining tension.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Review: Whatever Works (2009)

* *

Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson

Whatever Works, Woody Allen's latest addition to his oevre, is at best a mildly amusing film and at worst a waste of the assembled talent. The story was originally conceived decades ago and shelved following the death of Zero Mostel, for whom it was written. Having three decades and change to smooth out the creases should have made this a strong effort, but it just never really gets off the ground. This isn't the worst Woody Allen film of the last ten years but as even the most ardent Allen fan would have to admit, that isn't saying a lot.

The obligatory Woody character here is Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), an angrier and more aggressive alter ego than usual, but one who is no less neurotic than the others. Boris is a self-proclaimed genius who was once almost nominated for a Nobel Prize, is divorced from a woman with whom he was "perfect on paper," and hates pretty much everything. His philosophy of life is that one should do whatever works in order to be happy. By the time it comes to the end, the film will have offered up a number of non-traditional and, to greater and lesser degrees, less societally acceptable relationships to demonstrate that principle, which is itself another way of saying "the heart wants what it wants," Allen's famous (infamous?) explanation of his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn.

Boris meets Melodie, a teenage runaway from Mississippi played by Evan Rachel Wood, who nails the spirit of the character but falters when it comes to the accent. Melodie moves in with Boris, platonically at first, and slowly erodes his resolve to not get romatically involved with her. They marry and get into a comfortable routine which is disrupted first by Melodie's mother (Patricia Clarkson) and later by her father (Ed Begley, Jr.), both of whom disapprove of the relationship.

Whatever Works has been called "vintage" Allen by some and though it is reminiscent of Annie Hall in that it consistently breaks the fourth wall, allowing Boris to directly address the audience, that is where the similarities end. The dialogue is crisp but the story itself feels half-baked and so do many of the characters. Melodie and her parents, in particular, are little more than charicatures of right-wing, ultra-religious Southerners and targets this broad should be beneath a writter as intelligent and clever as Allen can be. These characters don't feel real and neither do their relationships and since the story is about relationships, that makes it all seem just a little pointless.

While there is much about this film that doesn't really work, it isn't a total failure. It certainly has moments that are inspired, some great lines scattered here and there, and the combination of Woody Allen and Larry David is great. Hopefully the two will work together again but with stronger material.