Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)

* * *

Director: Rebecca Miller
Starring: Robin Wright

Hmm... great performance, so-so movie. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee ultimately strives for much more than it achieves, but it's a decent movie and incredibly well-acted. Certainly, it deserved better than the super quiet release it ended up with.

The film is split into two storylines, one taking place in the present day when Pippa (Robin Wright) moves with her husband (Alan Arkin) to an old age facility, the other comprised of flashbacks to Pippa's childhood and early adult years (where she's played by Blake Lively). In the present day Pippa is content but anxious. She loves her husband, their children are grown and have embarked on lives of their own; her life is stable and content. In flashbacks we see why this stability is so desperately valued. Her mother (Maria Bello is an excellent performance) was addicted to speed and held the family hostage at the whims of her emotions; she ran away as a teenager to live with an aunt (Robin Weigert) and got caught up in fetish photography courtesy of her aunt's girlfriend (Julianne Moore); as a young adult she drifted aimlessly until meeting her future husband who, while much older and already married, nevertheless made her feel valued and like she could accomplish something with her life.

Now it's decades later, her husband is retired, they live in a seniors' centre, and she's taken to sleepwalking. There's something wrong that she just can't put her finger on, perhaps it's just that her husband is nearing the end of his life while she still has decades more to go and the distance between them is only growing. One day their neighbors' son (Keanu Reeves) moves into the complex. He's apparently incapable of lying or sugar-coating things and he and Pippa develop a friendship which she is careful to keep platonic. And then, suddenly, everything just falls apart and the life she has built gives way, leaving her wondering: where do I go and what do I do now?

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee strives for - and occasionally achieves - a certain kind of poignancy. Its protagonist finds, suddenly, that no one needs her anymore and though she has lots of life left to live, there's no solid social narrative for her to follow. If a woman's life is supposed to be (as cultural mythology suggests) a progression towards getting married, having children and raising children and that's it, then where is one supposed to go once all that has been accomplished? A woman's life doesn't cease just because her children have grown up and she has grown older, but our culture nevertheless tends to treat older women as obsolete. This is the position that Pippa finds herself in and the film's primary concern is with her figuring out how to negotiate this odd transitional phase in her life.

Written and directed by Rebecca Miller, the film flows easily and is generally quite clever, even if I do think that it falls a bit short of its ambitions. Miller has assembled a great cast, beginning with Wright who manages to play Pippa in a very low-key way but is able to effectively express the restlessness and anxiety simmering beneath her surface. She and Arkin might seem like an odd match on paper (though not nearly as odd as Lively and Arkin in the flashbacks), but they have a good rapport with each other and make for a pretty believable couple. In a small but crucial supporting role Winona Ryder (who I usually find kind of annoying) provides an awesome bit of comic relief, playing an ultra emotional character opposite Wright's cool Pippa. Ultimately, I recommend the film more on the strength of the performances than anything else, but I do still recommend it.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Review: Green Zone (2010)

* * *

Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon

Since its theatrical release a few months ago, I've heard Green Zone characterized as both anti-American and as pro-American propaganda. Truth be told, while the film's premise is rooted in important questions about U.S. foreign policy, the political takes a backseat to more standard genre preoccupations. Honestly, you might as well just call it "Bourne Goes To Iraq."

Loosely based on the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the film follows Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon), who is tasked with finding WMDs. The situation on the ground is total chaos as Miller and his team show up to investigate a possible WMD site and have to contend not only with insurgents firing at them, but also with people looting the site. There just aren't enough troops to secure the area and when Miller and his team finally get inside, they find nothing. Given that this has happened multiple times before, a frustrated Miller begins questioning the intelligence that they've been given, which gains him no friends in the army, but gets him an ally in the form of Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), the CIA's Baghdad bureau chief.

Together, Brown and Miller work to find the identity of "Magellan," the source who provided the information that served as the justification for invasion. This is no easy feat and they're working against the clock, as a special forces team lead by Major Briggs (Jason Isaacs) is also working to find the source and eliminate him so that he can't reveal the truth about the fabricated information regarding Iraq's WMD program.

Green Zone is a bit of a mixed bag, but for the most part the film works well. The characterization of the political situation as a mess of competing interests and narratives is interesting and, I think, probably more accurate most of us would be comfortable believing. Everyone is on the same "side," yes, but there are warring sides within that side that pretty much ensures that a series of smaller scale power struggles will get in the way of efforts to stabilize the social/political powder keg of post-Saddam Iraq. Everyone wants to be in control of "the story" of Iraq's liberation, regardless of whether or not that story has any real connection to reality. In one of the more telling scenes, Miller attends a meeting to discuss military progress and openly questions the Magellan source, only to be informed by his superior that his job is to find WMDs, not question military intelligence. Given that Miller and his team put their lives on the line every time they go to one of the alleged sites (and, as he points out, have suffered casualties in the process), you would think that the quality of the intelligence sending them there would very much be his concern. The film shows an emphasis at every level on not asking questions but simply moving forward on the assumption that information is true. Again, this is probably a lot more true to life than many of us are comfortable believing.

Though the film obviously has very strong political views, I would be hard pressed to describe it as a political film. By the end Green Zone becomes a fairly routine action thriller which casts Miller as a one man army determined to expose the truth. The action sequences are well done but making them the centrepiece to the story cheapens the aspirations the film seems to have to make a strong political statement. The ending, which is meant to be triumphant even if only in a minor sense, falls flat, in part because though the film is critical of the spread of misinformation through a blind acceptance of it, it's a lot softer on journalists than it could be. Still, for all that, it's a pretty solid genre film, even if it could have been more.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Book vs. Film: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button vs. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Plot: Benjamin Button is born under unusual circumstances. Unlike those around him, he's born elderly and grows backwards until eventually reaching infancy. During the course of his life he fights in a war, falls in love, and has various other adventures.

Primary Differences Between Book and Film: Um... pretty much everything except the basic concept and the protagonist's name. Even the concept is a bit different because in the film Benjamin is born an old man but infant sized and though he's born old in body, he's born new in mind and his intellectual/emotional development occurs in a normal way. In the book, Benjamin is born a full grown old man (incidentally, after this we never hear of his mother again) with the mind of an old man. As his body grows younger, so too does his mind. Further, while the film version is built around a love story, there's no Daisy in the book version. Instead, there's a woman with whom Benjamin falls in love when he's old and she's young, and then gradually falls out of love with as he grows young and she grows old.

For the Book: Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the prose is of course extraordinary. The tone is light, leaning to comedy where the film leans towards drama, and it's a quick, easy read.

For the Film: The film is more ambitious in terms of the journey that it wants to take. The book sort of washes over you as it immerses you in absurdity and then it lets you go, but the film achieves something more profound. It's about the elusive qualities of life and love, and about the inevitability of loss and many of the images and scenes crafted by David Fincher et al. are lasting and beautiful.

Winner: Film. It comes down to a fairly simple storytelling issue: the book tells the story of a man who starts out with knowledge and gradually loses it, devolving as a person. The film tells the story of a man who, while physically growing backwards, nevertheless continues to grow and learn as a person and that makes him a more compelling character. The book is worth a read (particularly the illustrated version), but the film easily tops it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Posters of the 1960s

#5: A Fistful of Dollars

No doubt about it: Clint Eastwood is the man. If that's not enough to sell a movie, I don't know what is.

#4: La Dolce Vita

It's cool, it's sexy, it's Fellini.

#3: Breakfast At Tiffany's

There's a reason that this poster is so popular. It's a classic Audrey Hepburn image and the rest of the poster is uncluttered enough to keep her image from being overwhelmed.

#2: Rosemary's Baby

This poster is sooooo creeeeepy. Even the color scheme is creepy. My hat is off to whomever designed it.

#1: Blow Up

Simple but stunning. It literally shows the protagonist's occupation and also encompasses the hedonistic spirit of his lifestyle.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Defendor (2010)

* * 1/2

Director: Peter Stebbings
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kat Dennings, Elias Koteas

Where do super hero movies have left to go? They've appeared as straight up dramas, as self-referential comedies, as colorful action films, as dark action films, as throwbacks to classic Hollywood, as intense metaphors for a morally/socially fraught time, and campy excuses to mass market toys. Judging by Defendor and Kick Ass (from what I've heard; I haven't actually seen it) the genre has also reached its "revisionist" period, where it strips away the mythology and leaves something more ambiguous behind. Personally, part of me kind of hopes that the next Batman film is a musical, just to keep mixing things up (it's not like Christian Bale has never done one before - Newsies!).

The premise of the film is thus: by day Arthus Poppington (Woody Harrelson) is an ordinary man with an ordinary job. By night he is Defendor, a masked crusader set on avenging the death of his mother at the hands of Captain Industry. What sets Arthur/Defendor apart from your standard hero is that he's functioning at a diminished mental capacity (what, exactly, the issue is is never elaborated). When he dons his Defendor persona, he seems to enter another world, a world of comic book conventions where the hero is able to out smart (rather than necessarily out fight) the bad guys and a quip is always the final word in a situation. Unfortunately for him, the people he's fighting - usually dirty cop Dooney (Elias Koteas) - don't inhabit the same fantasy world and aren't swayed by Defendor's assertion that guns are for cowards.

After a beating at the hands of Dooney's men (and it's always Dooney's men who deliver the beatings because Defendor, kind of hilariously, is always able to take out Dooney through one means or another), Defendor meets Kat (Kat Dennings), a drug addicted prostitute who feeds his illusions about Captain Industry in order to bilk him for money and maybe settle some of her own scores. Eventually Kat starts to feel bad about this, not only because Arther/Defendor gets hurt, but also because she just generally comes to care about him. Unfortunately, by the time she realizes the error of her ways, it may be too late.

I'm really on the fence about Defendor. I think that it actually has quite a bit going for it but that it ultimately never really finds its voice. It wants to be an action movie and a comedy and a drama, and while it does a fine job crafting individual scenes that can fit one or the other of those genres, it's not able to construct a film that blends all three in a workable way. The changes in tone are abrupt and sometimes jarring and I think that the ending in general is kind of a mess. This is Peter Stebbings' first feature film as director, his second as a screenwriter and it shows; he displays a lot of talent in both roles but he doesn't quite have the control of the material that he needs.

As far as the good stuff goes, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Harrelson's performance. He walks a fine line here, making Arthur simple enough to be believable without crossing over into that caricaturish No Man's Lands Robert Downey Jr. warns of in Tropic Thunder. His performance is understated and compelling. Dennings doesn't fare quite as well (I've only seen her in a couple of things but she seems to play variations on the same basic character over and over), but she has some good moments and she and Harrelson have decent chemistry. Nothing about Defendor is really bad, it's just a terribly uneven film where the things that are really good make the weaknesses all the more obvious.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Great Last Scenes: The Last Picture Show

Year: 1971
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Great Because...: It's so sad and so beautiful and so evocative. From Cloris Leachman's great speech to the final pan across the empty streets of Anarene, it's just perfect.

The Last Picture Show plays out like a eulogy for something that's still only in the process of dying. Slowly but surely it is all slipping away and perhaps no one feels that more than Sonny in the film's final scenes. His best friend has gone off to fight in Korea, the girl he loves was just using him for attention and now she's gone, too. The movie theater has just played its last show before closing forever. His friend Billy has died and so too has Sam the Lion, the heart of the town and perhaps the only thing that has kept it going as long as it has.

In the final scene Sonny, with no one left to turn to, returns to Ruth Popper, the older woman with whom he was having an affair and who he unceremoniously cut ties with the moment Jacy Farrow became available. In a moment of incredible unleashing, Ruth drops the facade of politeness and lets out the rage that's been building inside of her for months and her portrayer Cloris Leachman (who very deservedly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) allows her to metaphorically strip herself bare, revealing the extent of her inner turmoil, defenseless as she attacks. And then, with that out of the way, she sits down to comfort Sonny and tell him that it'll be okay and the shot dissolves into a long tracking shot down the seemingly abandoned main street.

I love The Last Picture Show. It's one of those rare films about which I would change absolutely nothing and while several scenes and sequences have particular and lasting power, there's just something about that final scene that I think is especially resonant. Leachman and Timothy Bottoms do everything exactly right, bringing these two wounded people to life. Their silent sadness as they sit together at the kitchen table is the embodiment of the state of the town itself. As the shot fades into the pan down main street, it's like a long sigh, one of the loneliest shots ever committed to film. And it's totally perfect.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review: Oldboy (2003)

* * * *

Director: Chan-wook Park
Starring: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang

Believe it or not, I managed to go 7 years without finding out anything about Oldboy other than its very basic premise and that there is a tooth extraction scene that makes Marathon Man look like a Disney movie. Having now seen it, I've got to say, that was like 80 different kinds of fucked up. But I'm very glad that I was able to go into it cold, not knowing where it was going to end up.

The story centers on Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi), introduced to us drunk and acting like an idiot in a police station. Eventually a friend comes to bail him out, stopping on the way to make a phone call. When he hangs up the phone, he finds that Dae-su has disappeared, leaving no trace behind except for the wings he had bought as a birthday present for his daughter. When Dae-su comes to he finds that he's being held captive. No one will tell him how long he'll be there or even why he's there in the first place and he spends his days alone save for his television. While he's locked up he learns that his wife has been murdered and that he's the prime suspect, meaning that even if he were to get out, he'd end up in another jail. 15 years pass and then, as unceremoniously as he was plucked off the street, he's returned to the outside world - which isn't to say that he's free.

Someone is playing a game with him, guiding him, taunting him. He meets Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), a chef who takes him in and quickly comes to love him. He also meets Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu), the man responsible for what's happened to him. He gives Dae-su a timeline in which to uncover the reason why he's been targetted or else more people he loves will be murdered. Determined to exact his revenge, Dae-su presses on and eventually uncovers a horrible truth that he would have been better off not knowing.

The story is tightly constructed, allowing the narrative tension to keep building as Dae-su peels back layer upon layer of the mystery. It tips its hand, slightly, in terms of the big reveal at the end, but only enough so that it makes sense in conjunction with everything that has come before. Although I think that the very last scene is weak and provides an easy out, for the most part I think the screenplay is very strong. Stronger still is the direction by Chan-wook Park who, in one scene in particular, manages to elevate violence to a level of aesthetic grace. That scene, an extended one-take tracking shot in which Dae-su fights his way down a corridor is so perfect, so expertly crafted that it puts to shame all those fast cutting action sequences favoured by most films today.

Like all successful films from around the world, Oldboy is set for an American remake. I have to assume that it won't be a faithful remake of Park's film (though, in fairness, it may be a faithful adaptation of the manga series) because I just don't see how that could work given the constraints of American film conventions. It's not the content of the story that gives me pause, but the outcome for the hero. In American movies the hero triumphs. Sometimes that triumph is only ambiguous but certainly the hero never ends up prostrate at the feet of his enemy, humiliating himself and begging for mercy. American heroes don't do that and the scene in which Dae-su does just that is the one that holds the most narrative power, perhaps because it so handily subverts the customs and expectations of mainstream action films. Take that away and you remove one of the story's most compelling elements, something that helps raise it above your standard bloody revenge thriller. Oldboy is a lot of things, but it's anything but standard.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Review: Control (2007)

* * * *

Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton

I feel like I've been waiting for a movie like Control for a long time. It's a biopic that not only seems to really "get" its subject - Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, masterfully played by Sam Riley - but also finds the exact right balance between the professional achievements and ambitions that made him famous and the personal life that inspired and, in some ways, derailed him. It is a beautifully rendered and poetic film.

The film spans from 1973 to 1980, beginning with Curtis meeting his future wife Debbie Woodruff (Samantha Morton) and ending with his suicide. It is a film that is as much about a marriage as it is about a band, which is not surprising given that the screenplay is adapted from Woodruff's memoir "Touching From A Distance," and that she acted as co-producer on the production. Curtis is depicted here as both a sensitive, artistic type and as someone oddly detached from the very emotions he expresses in his poetry and music. At times it almost seems as if he understands emotions but doesn't really feel them himself, that for him love is less about what he feels for another person than about what they feel for him. He is a strangely muted presence when he's not on stage, a passive figure who doesn't seem to make decisions so much as surrender to inevitabilities. When he casually says to Debbie, "Let's get married" (and, later, "Let's have a baby"), it seems less like something that he's decided he wants than something that, for the moment, seems to him like the thing to do.

He and Debbie do get married and they do have a baby and he joins the band that will become Joy Division. He throws himself into the work (many of the performance scenes show him dripping with sweat, looking exhausted and exhilarated) and soon discovers that his career ambitions are at odds with his family responsibilities. Out on the road, he drifts into an affair with Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara), a Belgian journalist, and he struggles with epilepsy. The epilepsy, the pressures of fame, and his feelings of being torn between domesticity and freedom - the sense that in every way, he's lost control - all converge one night when he hangs himself from the clothes line in the kitchen.

His final act is interesting when you consider the way that the film frames his relationships with Annik and, particularly, Debbie. Though he enters into his marriage with (presumably) good intentions, by the time he starts to find success he's come to resent Debbie and the middle class milieu to which she's tied him. His relationship with Annik represents freedom, but only in a very tentative sense. She can't actually free him, he has to do that himself by making a decision, but since he's such a passive character he instead ping pongs between the two women, at one point insisting to Debbie that one relationship doesn't have to do with the other. Even when Debbie essentially makes the decision for him, he still feels bound to her and what she represents and trapped between that life and the life represented by Annik. When he commits suicide he not only claims the freedom he had hoped to get from Annik, he also effectively repudiates the way of life represented by Debbie by hanging himself from the clothes line, a symbol of domesticity.

The screenplay creates a nicely layered pscyhological portrait of Curtis, but it would all be for naught without Riley's wonderful performance. He disappears into the role, portraying Curtis as wounded, sometimes frustratingly remote, sometimes casually cruel. The film's best scenes are those between him and Morton, an actress who with each role convinces me that she's one of the best (if not the best) actresses working today. The role of "the wife" can easily be thankless but Morton makes it matter and in scene after scene she acts as the emotional core. I can't remember the last time I saw a scene as raw and resonant as the one in which Debbie confronts Ian about his affair and, frustrated by the fact that he has completely shut down, just loses it on him. Riley and Morton's performances are not only great in their own right, they totally complement each other's.

For those for whom the primary draw for a movie like this is the music, rest assured that it plays as big and as important a role as Curtis' personal relationships. Like his marriage, his music brings becomes a trap through the fame that it brings and in its own way leaves him feeling powerless. I wasn't born yet when Curtis died but as someone who came of age in the '90s, it was hard for me not to think of Kurt Cobain when the film version of Curtis started talking about how he just wanted to make music and not be adored or famous. The music has allowed him to express himself in perhaps the only way that he truly can, but it has also boxed him in and introduced more pressures and responsibilities than he can handle. That pressure, combined with his romantic turmoil and his inability to control his illness, leads to his end.

Filmed in stark (and beautiful) black and white, the film has a look that I think will serve it well in the years to come. There's a sense of timelessness to it, both in terms of the content of the story and the way that the story is presented, that I think will keep it from becoming dated. There's nothing about Control that stands out for me as a weakness; it's pretty much perfect from top to bottom.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Maythew Bonus: Theodore Rex (1995)


Director: Jonathan R. Betuel
Starring: Whoopi Goldberg

When I kicked off this series, I expressed my gratitude that Theodore Rex hadn't been included on the list. And then... oh, and then. And then a friend of my brother's found this "movie" on DVD and bought it for him. And then he made me watch it, which is why I now find myself reviewing this insult to narrative, comedy, extinct creatures, science, and the future. Join me, won’t you?

Theodore Rex stars Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg, Academy Award nominee Armin Mueller-Stahl, and the private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks. Damn right, I’m talking about Richard Roundtree. The story is set sometime in the future when scientists are able to bring dinosaurs back to life (and, somehow, make them human sized and give them the ability to speak) by cloning the DNA from fossils. The engineer behind this is Elizar Kane (Muehller-Stahl), whose plans to create a new Eden secretly also involves ushering in a new ice age, thus killing off humanity. Why does he want to do this? Because he’s a mad scientist. That’s all the reason one needs.

After a dinosaur is found dead in an apparent “dinocide,” the Chief of Police (Roundtree) decides to promote Teddy Rex, a gentle and kind of goofy T-Rex, from his desk job to temporary detective. He becomes the partner of badass cop Coltrane (Goldberg) and though she resents it at first ("He's a dinosaur!" she says over and over again, much as I did while watching this), they eventually find a way to work together to take down the bad guys and save the world. Oh, and also? Coltrane is, possibly, a robot or some kind of human-robot hybrid. Yeah, I don't know. I just know that at the climactic moment she shorts out and it's up to Teddy to finish the job on his own.

Words cannot adequately express just how stupid this movie is. To give you an idea of the level of thought that's gone into it, allow me to share this tidbit: characters who are working undercover? Work with equipment that is neon glow in the dark. That's just... fuck you movie! Also, there is a very brief moment in which I thought we were going to see a dinosaur puppet sex scene. It was scary.

Matt's Thoughts: 92 minutes of pure entertainment. This cinematic masterpiece left many questions unanswered: is Whoopi a robot? does this take place in our future, or our supposed past? why do all covert missions involve glow-in-the-dark, neon technology? Don't get me wrong, this was no Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit but I think it held it's own. Now let's never speak of it again.

... And, with that, I'm taking the next week off. I'll be back on the 21st with new content.

Friday's Top 5... TV Shows Destined To Become Films

#5: Deadwood

Truthfully, I don't really think this is likely but *sigh* a girl can dream, can't she?

#4: Moonlighting

Hey, if Miami Vice and The A-Team can get the big screen treatment, why not Moonlighting? With the right casting and the right mix of action and romance, it would have a wide potential appeal.

#3:The Sopranos

They've got to, right? I mean, it can't just end like that.

#2: Glee

Mark my words: one day this will happen. It will be big, the soundtrack will be huge, and there will once again be a chorus of people saying that the musical is back. Mark my words.

#1: 24

This one actually isn't even theoretical, as Kiefer Sutherland has already stated his intention to develop the show as a film franchise. Will it work without the gimmick? Probably - all you need is some stuff blowing up real good.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Scandalous Me (1998)

* * *

Director: Bruce McDonald
Starring: Michele Lee

I've come to the conclusion that the biopic is the most difficult of all film genres. I've made this lament before but it really is hard to find a genuinely good one, one that gets the facts right, captures the spirit of its subject, and doesn't get buried in gossipy details of the subject's sex life. Scandalous Me, which takes Jacqueline Susann as its subject, is a film that is far from perfect but it succeeds where a lot of other biopics fail.

Michele Lee stars as Susann and serves as narrator, giving the film an intimate, conversational feel. This plays a pretty big part in the film's success just as the tone of Susann's novel Valley of the Dolls - which a character in the film describes as like gossiping with friends over lunch - helped launch it into the stratosphere. Starting at the end, with Susann dying of cancer, the film then flashes back to the experiences that have brought her to this point. The film then zips through her childhood, lingering just long enough to establish her worship of her father, who encourages her to pursue greatness in the arts, and her more difficult relationship with her mother.

The primary focus of the film is on Susann's tenacious rise to the top with the help of her husband, Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though it touches on some of the more salacious details of Susann's life - her infidelities, her bisexuality, and her more than passing acquaintance with those "dolls" that helped make her famous - and the tragic circumstances of her son, Guy, it doesn't let them overwhelm the narrative. It never loses sight of Susann as a personality and its construction and campy tone is built to compliment the character.

The film is particularly strong as it explores Susann's drive to be taken seriously in the literary world. Valley of the Dolls is pretty much immediately dismissed as "trashy" by publishers, critics and other writers and Susann is written off as a writer who doesn't have to be taken seriously in spite of her massive popular success. What the film points out (and manages to do so in a fairly subtle way rather than hitting the viewer over the head with it) is that the people writting her off tend to be male and the people embracing her tend to be female. Could the problem, perhaps, be that since her work is geared to women, men have no point of identification and not recognizing themselves reflected in the work lose interest and reject it? I'm not arguing that Valley of the Dolls is great art but considering the way that so many female writers today find their work dismissed as "chick lit," while works by men for men are simply considered "literature," I think it's safe to say that there's at least a bit of sexism involved. I mean, the basic message is that things that are interesting primarily to men are universal while things that are interesting primarily to women are somehow niche. Susann, however, gets the last laugh, breaking sales records and altering the publishing landscape.

As Susann, Lee gives a solid performance that finds the right balance between the heavier and lighter moments of the story. She portrays Susann as a force of nature, a woman desperate for the love and approval of those closest to her (especially her father), and determined to gain the love and approval of the public. The woman presented to us is flawed (in some ways deeply) but ultimately quite likeable and I think that's a good way to describe the film itself. It certainly has its shortcomings, but in the end it's entertaining enough to make up for them.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Maythew #10: Fanboys (2008)

* * *

Director: Kyle Newman
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Chris Marquette, Don Fogler, Sam Huntington, Kristen Bell

Who says you never learn anything from movies? Until seeing Fanboys I had no idea that there existed such a fierce rivalry between Trekkies and Star Wars fans (... Warsies?). I'm not someone who really understands the kind of obsessive fandom that those two franchises inspire but I found a lot to like in Fanboys. I'm sure there are plenty of little in jokes that I missed since I'm not part of fandom culture, but I still found it very accessible and very funny.

Set in 1998, the story centres on five friends: Linus (Chris Marquette), Eric (Sam Huntington), Windows (Jay Baruchel), Hutch (Don Fogler), and Zoe (Kristen Bell). While Eric has grown apart from the others since high school, the rest remain connected by their love for comic books and Star Wars. When Eric learns that Linus is dying, he realizes that he needs to find a way to reconnect with him before it's too late. He also wants to take the opportunity to make an impossible dream come true by dusting off an old plan they had had as children to break into the Skywalker Ranch. Windows and Hutch are game and the four set off on a road trip in Hutch's rickety van, which he fancies is the automobile equivalent of the Millennium Falcon.

Along the way, the boys have a series of small adventures, including a run-in with Star Trek fans, a drug fantasy involving an Ewok, an arrest, another run in with Star Trek fans, and encounters with William Shatner and hookers (not in the same scene). After being called to bail the boys out of jail, Zoe joins them for the rest of the journey and the five successfully break into Skywalker Ranch, which apparently has the worst security ever. Inside they find the Holy Grail of Geekery, including a copy of the as yet unreleased The Phantom Menace.

The film has a lot of affection for its characters and the world of fandom, which goes a long way. Fanboys are probably an easy target for mockery but the film isn't mean spirited in the way that it ribs the characters and instead celebrates their devotion to the mythology that certain pieces of work inspire. It has heart, in short, and a strange, disarming charm.

Matt's Thoughts: Fanboys is a love letter to Star Wars, and, as much as I glaze over everytime anyone starts talking about Star Wars to me, I think it's just awesome how unabashedly geeky these guys are about what they love. Each of the main characters are fleshed out in such a way that I would get along with them quite well, and I root for them in their pursuit, so I was taken by surprise when the film took that sharp turn from madcap romp around America to heartwarming tale of a friend's last adventure. It wouldn't affect me so much if they didn't make you care for these people, but, by the end of the movie, you really do care, and even though you know it's coming you just don't want it to. I never thought I would see camping out for the release of a new movie as a memorial for a fallen comrade, but it really works this time, and it becomes one of the films I could watch repeatedly and not tire of.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Maythew #9: Stone of Destiny (2008)

* * *

Director: Charles Martin Smith
Starring: Charlie Cox, Kate Mara, Robert Carlyle

Reviewer's dilemma: you see a movie that, while not "bad" really, is kind of bland and fails to make an impression on you. You can't envision yourself recommending it to anyone and yet it's so earnest and harmless that you're reluctant to give it an unfavorable rating. This is the mind space in which I find myself as I try to sum up my feelings on Stone of Destiny. It's a perfectly decent movie and yet for an inspirational story, all it inspired me to wonder is why a film with a premise so deeply rooted in Scottish nationalism cast an American actress to work an accent and play "the girl."

Set in the 1950s, Stone of Destiny centers on Ian Hamilton (Charlie Cox - incidentally, also not Scottish), a bright eyed college student with a dream of restoring the eponymous symbol to its rightful land. Since the stone is currently housed in Westminster Abbey, getting it back is a rather difficult endeavor, though others have tried. Nevertheless, Ian manages to get three others to join him in his plot - Kay (Kate Mara), Gavin (Stephen McCole), and Alan (Ciaron Kelly) - and convinces politician John MacCormick (Robert Carlyle) to provide financial backing.

The four students set off on their plan, intending to take advantage of Christmas time festivities to get to and remove the stone. Their plans unravel in fairly spectacular fashion and the fact that they suceed anyway proves the notion that some stories are so unbelievable that they can't be anything but true since no one would dare make them up. When you think of heist movies, you think of sophisticated plans carried out by expert criminals but apparently in real life all you need is really good luck.

Written and directed by Charles Martin Smith, Stone of Destiny is a bit odd in that it manages to be simultaneously fast paced and low energy. Even the celebrations surrounding the return of the stone seem muted, as if Smith is approaching the material from mere curiosity rather than from any kind of emotional investment (which may very well be true given that he's American). And yet, like I said, it's not a bad movie. It's competently assembled and performed; it just never finds its spark. So, if you're in the mood for a stunningly adequate film, I suppose this gentle caper is as good a pick as any.

Matt's Thoughts: I really, really liked this movie. Granted, there are some pacing issues, and the script isn't the strongest that it could be, but I just thought it was a really fun film. In a world where so many movies are pro-America, it's nice to see a movie so full of pride in a country across the globe. It's the ending, of course, that gets to me: rather than abandoning the stone of destiny in the churchyard knowing that the authorities are on their way, the heroes stand and wait their punishment, having fulfilled their quest to return what rightfully belongs to Scotland; it's their firm belief that theirs was a necessary crime that I find admirable, and I can't help but love every one of these people.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Review: In Bruges (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes

I've never really been a fan of Colin Farrell, but if he made more movies like In Bruges, I could easily become one. People have been recommending this movie to me for two years now and I'm so glad that I finally got around to seeing it. With a great script and great performances all around, In Bruges is the kind of film you can watch again and again.

The story focuses on Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), two hit men who've been sent to Bruges to lay low for an indefinite period of time. For Ray this is just about the worst thing that can happen (just about - the worst worst thing has already happened) and he develops an instant hatred for the city. He's unimpressed by the scenery, he's bored, and he's just generally anxious to get back to Dublin. Ken, on the other hand, makes the best of things and devotes himself to experiencing the city, seeing the sights and trying to get Ray to enjoy it as well. Centuries old buildings don't really do it for Ray, though, and the only thing that sparks his interest is a film being made in town. To quote him directly: "They're filming midgets!"

Soon enough Ray meets a girl who helps him occupy his time while Ken learns the real reason that they've been sent to Bruges by their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes). Harry orders Ken to kill Ray and though Ken has taken a liking to his young protege, he owes a great debt to Harry and is inclined to be loyal. When it comes down to doing the deed, however, he wavers and the film takes a few twists and turns before coming down to a shoot out between Harry and Ray.

Although the characters of In Bruges are really not nice people, it's one of the film's many strengths that you can still feel affection for them. Ray has done some very bad things but he's so tormented by them that he's drowning in his own guilt. Even if he "gets away with it," you know that he'll never really be away from it because for the rest of his life it'll be an albatross around his neck. In his performance Farrell expresses this inner turmoil by infusing Ray with a high energy that sees him constantly moving about, as if he might be able to outrun the past if only he can move fast enough. The times when the character is allowed to slow down, the real weight of his crime seems to press down on his shoulders and you believe that his remorse is genuine. Gleeson matches Farrell note for note and the two make for an excellent odd couple-like team.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh (who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay), In Bruges finds a good balance between drama and comedy. McDonagh has that Tarantino-esque ability to make two characters talking about random things just as compelling as sudden eruptions of violence, making the dialogue just as memorable as the action sequences. It excels as both a dark comedy and a thriller and despite Ray's consistent dislike of the city, it really makes me want to visit Bruges.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Posters of the 1940s

#5: It's A Wonderful Life

Imagine it's 1946 and you see this poster having heard nothing about the film. Wouldn't you think to yourself, "Well, that looks like an uplifting romp!" Now imagine your surprise as the movie begins. Still, a classic is a classic and this poster definitely fits the bill.

#4: Casablanca

One of the few times when the "floating heads" style of poster art really works for me. A beautiful piece of work.

A poster that could easily work for just about any of the Tracy-Hepburn vehicles since many of them hinge on the question of who will get to wear the pants (answer: usually Tracy).

Posters like this one make me long for the days when actual thought and artistry would go into posters rather than just photoshop. It's absolutely gorgeous.

My favourite movie poster ever. Truly, there never was a woman like Gilda.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Canadian Film Review: The Diviners (1993)

* *

Director: Anne Wheeler
Starring: Sonja Smits, Tom Jackson

One of the advantages that books have over films is that it's easier to explore a story that spans decades in book form. People kind of expect books to be long (and tend to read them in bits and pieces rather than straight through in one shot) but prefer films to hover around that standard 2 hour threshold. The Diviners takes place over the course of several decades in the life of its protagonist and in their desire to compress the story to make it film friendly, the makers seem to have squeezed out all the elements that might give it weight.

The film focuses on Morag Gunn (Sonja Smits), a well-known writer who, in the story's present day, is experiencing trouble with her teenage daughter. As the situation with the daughter, who keeps running away, escaltes, Morag finds herself looking back on her life and tracing the line that has brought her to this point. Much of the film is told in flashback, giving us vignettes of Morag's life from her own childhood to that of her daughter. Many of the flashbacks deal with Morag's complicated relationship with her daughter's father, Jules (Tom Jackson), and the ultimate impossibility of their relationship.

Morag and Jules have known each other since they were children. As adults they start an on-again, off-again relationship that only seems to function for short spans of time before they have to be apart again. One reason that they are constantly parting is Jules' occupation - he's a musician who travels around the country to make his living and never stays in one place too long - but the main reason is more insurmountable. Morag is of Scottish descent whie Jules is Metis, and it creates a gulf between them based on Jules' experiences of intense racism. Morag will never fully understand what it's like for him, a sentiment which is later echoed in Morag's arguments with their daughter who, Jules points out, looks a lot more like him than her.

The scenes between Jules and Morag, where the issue of race is always the third character in the scene, are great both because of Jackson and Smits and because there's actual substance to them. Where the film suffers is in its constantly shifting timeline, which jumps around so fast that characters and their relationships hardly have time to develop. It's been streamlined almost into meaninglessness and we don't really get to know the characters well enough for the film to have any kind of emotional anchor. The adaptation would perhaps have been better served as a miniseries.

On a more positive note, I think that despite the problems with the film's construction, the character of Morag emerges as very strong and vital. I've never read the source novel by Margaret Laurence, but seeing the film makes me want to. She's a fascinating character, an iconoclast who challenges the mores and feminine ideals of her time. She's a character I would like to see in a more comprehensive and better focused film.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Maythew #8: Glenngary Glen Ross (1992)

* * * 1/2

Director: James Foley
Starring: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin

If you looked up "Actors' Showcase" in the dictionary, you'd find a still from Glengarry Glen Ross. There are few films that can compete with it in terms of the acting because the entire cast is simply at the top of their game. The writing is similarly stellar and though the direction left me a bit wanting, the film as a whole is wonderful.

The story takes place over the course of a night and a morning in a real estate office where things are desperate. Of the four salesmen, only Ricky (Al Pacino) is really in a good place while Shelley (Jack Lemmon), George (Alan Arkin), and Dave (Ed Harris) are all at the mercy of "the leads," a stack of cards held by office manager Williamson (Kevin Spacey) and doled out to reward good salesmen or punish bad ones. Only Ricky gets the good leads because only Ricky closes. Shelley needs a lead something desperate as he's got hospital bills to pay and the narrative arc that he goes through is amazingly played by Lemmon. He's such a sad, needy character that it's hard not to feel for him (though for a Simpsons watcher it's also kind of hard to look at him and not think of Gil).

While Ricky works on a mark, Dave comes up with a plot to break into the office and steal the good leads and then sell them. He shares his plan with George and then turns around and tries to blackmail George into breaking into the office for him, reasoning that he's the first person the police will look at and George is already an accessory to the crime just by listening to his pitch. Poor George.

The scene that everyone talks about, of course, is Alec Baldwin's brief appearance as the "motivational" speaker sent from downtown and the scene is indeed electrifying. There's a reason that it has taken on a life all its own, but the rest of the film is great too. Watching these actors playing off each other is never anything but a delight and the only real criticism I have of the film is that it never fully loses the stagey feeling that plagues so many stage to screen adaptations. The scenes often feel closed in, which works in some cases but is a bit distracting in others. All in all, however, Glengarry Glen Ross is a great film and one that has held up very well over the years.

Matt's Thoughts: They sure are good at swearing.

I love the fact that they don't let on who the theif is until the end, and you watch George throughout the film worried that he'll be carted off to jail for something that wasn't his own idea. I always wonder, in the end, if Dave is going through the motions of flipping out in an attempt to cover for the crime he thinks George commited, if he's furious because George told him he couldn't go through with it, and now thinks that he did and just trying to cut Dave out of the deal, or if he's just angry because someone else broke in before he and Dave had a chance to.

I always love Kevin Spacey as a villain, and I especially love that he's not really the villain in this movie; he's just a man doing his job. Shelley, on the other hand, is meant to be the sympathetic character, but I just don't really feel it. For most of the movie I do, of course, worry for him, but it's when he tries to pull one over on Williamson and grows evermore smug in his efforts to get Williamson fired, that I just feel very removed from the character. I just don't buy Shelley's pleas for mercy from Williamson after he just tried to do to Williamson what Williamson is forced to do to him, due to Shelley having done so in the first place.

As with many movies, I land on the side of K-Space.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Maythew #7: Session 9 (2001)


Director: Brad Anderson
Starring: David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Josh Lucas

If Session 9 had been the first movie my brother and I watched for Maythew, the series probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground. This is easily one of the worst movies I've ever seen. It's not scary, it's not interesting either in terms of narrative or in terms of its visual aesthetic, it's just dull. Dull, dull, dull.

The plot (if you care and you shouldn't) involves an asbestos cleaning crew that has been hired to work in a long closed mental hospital. The crew includes Gordon (Peter Mullen), Phil (David Caruso), Hank (Josh Lucas), Mike (Stephen Gevedon), and Jeff (Brendan Sexton III). Jeff is new, Phil and Hank are constantly at each other's throats over a woman, and something is obviously wrong with Gordon. As for Mike, he quickly disappears from work to sit down in the basement listening to old tapes of a patient with multiple personalities.

The film tries to emulate the atmosphere of The Shining, making it appear that the building itself is having an effect on the actions and attitudes of the workers. Is the building haunted? Evil? Are former patients still lurking around, waiting to do damage? In truth evil is brought into the building by the workers, specifically Gordon who is in the midst of an intense mental crisis. As his inner turmoil begins to bubble to the surface, the situation for everyone else becomes increasingly desperate - whether they know it or not.

The problems I have with Session 9 as a film are myriad, but I'll try to narrow them down to a few. The narrative is not cohesive, for one thing, and the story feels like horror's greatest themes slapped together. The characters are paper thin and their motivations are never properly defined. Perhaps worst of all, the film simply feels lazy. It relies too heavily on the viewer's emotional response to other films and tropes from the genre without bringing anything new to the table. It feels like a student project, to be honest, and not a particularly good one.

Matt's Thoughts: Session 9...is a cinematic abortion. I have no idea what I thought this movie was, but it most definitely was not this.

The characters gained no development through the film, the storyline was non-existant, and the most interesting character can be found only in the deleted scenes.

Session 9 was a last-minute addition to the Maythew viewing list due to our local video store having an insanely poor selection. There were about 8 other movies that I would have rather seen that had to be cut from the list, and I'm pretty sure I just ended up hitting 'random page' on wikipedia and landing on this.

The most confusing part of the movie is that it has 'generally positive reviews' all over the internet. Session 9 ruined my chances at Maythew 2: Electric Boogaloo. I am, as they say, disappoint.