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Saturday, August 31, 2013

21st Century Essentials: A Prophet (2009)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Jacques Audiard
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup
Country: France

A young man goes to prison for a violent crime. He has no family, no friends, no money, no education – he’s the type of person designed to fall through the cracks. When he emerges back into the free world a few years later, it is not as a man reformed, but as a man who has learned how to be a better, and more dangerous, criminal. Jacques Audiard’s gritty and harrowing drama A Prophet is an indictment of both the criminal justice system and of the society that marginalizes the poor and leaves criminal enterprise as the only avenue for escape from poverty. Riveting from beginning to end, it’s the kind of film that you can watch over and over again and have it rise in your estimation each time.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)

* * *

Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Canavale, Alec Baldwin

A Streetcar Named Desire by way of the Bernie Madoff scandal by way of Woody Allen. The story beats are familiar, but nothing can take away from the bravura performance by Cate Blanchett at the film's centre. As a woman already beyond the verge of a mental breakdown, she delivers a fascinating, sometimes terrifying, performance that can easily be considered one of the best Allen has ever captured, and a formidable contender for this year's Best Actress statue. The film around her isn't quite as strong as it could be, but Blanchett's performance is so mesmerizing that it very nearly makes up for the unevenness of the other elements.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: To the Wonder (2013)

* *

Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Olga Kurylenko,Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams

Typical of Terrence Malick's work, To the Wonder is an absolutely beautiful film to look at. Also typical of Malick, it's a narratively elusive piece, set firmly in its characters' interior lives. Atypically, at least for me (Malick is an acquired taste), it's a film that doesn't ever really come together, one that it at once intimate and small in scale, and yet far too broad, a ponderous, shapeless story of failed loves and crises of faith. The visuals alone almost make the film worth watching, but To the Wonder doesn't really leave you with enough to hold onto for its impact to be anything but superficial.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review: Broken Flowers (2005)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Bill Murray

Seldom has a protagonist been so passive in his journey of discovery. He is nudged forward only by the enthusiasm of his neighbor and without that, he might never even have tried to learn the identity of the woman who has sent him a letter revealing that he has a 19 year old son. As the quiet man at the film's centre, Bill Murray delivers one of his best performances, one which is so understated and deadpan that it almost ceases to exist, and yet is nevertheless compelling and engaging. As a film fan, I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that this was my introduction to writer/director Jim Jarmusch, but I'll definitely be seeking out more of his work.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: Fruitvale Station (2013)

* * * *

Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer

I would imagine that it would be difficult not to feel intensely about the events depicted in Fruitvale Station, both because it is based on a true story and because of more recent events which have made headlines, sparked debate, and incited a great deal of anger. Fruitvale Station does not exist in a vacuum, it exists as part of a greater racial and socioeconomic narrative about power and its abuses, and it can be hard to consider the film on its own terms, divorced from that context. It's an "issue movie" but it is also an effective character drama. In certain respects this "day in the life" film is flawed, but as an emotional experience it is near perfect.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review: Spring Breakers (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Harmony Korine
Starring: Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, James Franco, Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine

Full disclosure: I'm actually still undecided about whether Spring Breakers is trash or brilliant. On one hand, the sheer number of naked breasts on display throughout leads me to believe that this is an exploitation film. On the other hand, there's enough evidence that the story is a critique of white privilege and cultural tourism that I find it difficult not to take it seriously. In the end, Spring Breakers may be the rare film that manages to successfully have it both ways, denouncing the very things it wallows in and profits from. If nothing else, Spring Breakers should be credited with the best montage set to a Britney Spears song ever committed to film.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

21st Century Essentials: The Saddest Music in the World (2003)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Guy Maddin
Starring: Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Ross McMillan, David Fox
Country: Canada

Like a lot of great movies, Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World defies simple classification. Designed to look like a lost classic rediscovered and restored, but marked by a distinctly post-modern sensibility, The Saddest Music deftly merges comedy and drama, beauty and absurdity, creating a film that can be as unwieldy as it is graceful, as ugly as it is magnificent. Above all, this startlingly original film is a surrealist masterpiece.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Twenty for Twenty: Fall Preview Part 4

And the final five:

December 18: The Monuments Men

Another year, another George Clooney movie that looks to be an Oscar player. Starring Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Bill Murray, the trailer makes it look like a cross between Ocean's 11 and Saving Private Ryan. In another words, it looks like it can't miss.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Twenty for Twenty: Fall Preview Part 3

November 29: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Idris Elba has been a star waiting to happen for a while now. This movie will, hopefully, secure that status for him. And Best Actor goes to...?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Twenty for Twenty: Fall Preview Part 2

Another day, another five movies to look forward to this fall:

October 18: Twelve Years a Slave

I loved Steve McQueen's Hunger, but was only so-so on his follow up, Shame. Twelve Years a Slave looks to be more like the former than the latter, and may very well be a major player in the upcoming awards season.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Twenty for Twenty: Fall Preview Part 1

There are twenty weekends left in 2013, so now seems like a good time to single out the twenty upcoming films currently slated for release in 2013 that I'm most keen to see (save and except a couple of foreign titles that I know won't be making it to theaters here until 2014, and whatever films fly onto the radar at the Venice and Toronto film festivals). Here are the first five, listed in order of release date:

September 20: Prisoners

I'm a big fan of Denis Villeneuve, whose films Maelstrom, Polytechnique and Incendies are all excellent. This one boasts a top notch cast which includes Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal and by all appearances will make for a taut thriller.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: Dead Man Down (2013)

* *

Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Starring: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Terrence Howard, Dominic Cooper

Dead Man Down begins with an intriguing premise and then proceeds to bury it under layers and layers of plot until you can no longer see it. It has two capable actors in its central roles, who sometimes spark separately and apart, but whose performances are ultimately suffocated by the burdens of the narrative. There's a good movie in here somewhere, somewhere deep, deep down where there is one good plot, instead of several lesser ones struggling to come together. As it is, Dead Man Down is a generic, somewhat forgettable thriller.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Canadian Film Review: Cole (2009)

* * 1/2

Director: Carl Bessai
Starring: Richard de Klerk, Kandyse McClure, Sonja Bennett

You probably know the story. He's the soulful gem of a rough small town, whose artistic aspirations could be smothered by the demands of the family that keeps him tethered in place. He makes a slight, but definite break, and meets a girl who speaks to the artist in him, but comes from another world, one in which he's made to feel uncouth and unwelcome. Worlds collide and something has to give: he can't have the girl, the realization of his artistic ambition, and the family he holds so dear. Cole can't be said to tell a groundbreaking story, but when it is at its sharpest and most focused, it tells a standard story very well.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: 25th Hour

* * * *

Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Edward Norton

For 24 hours Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) will walk around his city, spend time with his friends, with his father, and with the woman he loves, have one last party, and settle an outstanding score. On the 25th hour, he'll turn himself over to begin a seven year sentence for drug dealing. Spike Lee's "day in the life" film, based on the novel of the same name, is a great character drama, but it's also a beautifully elegiac ode to a city which, at the time of the film's production, was still freshly scarred. Eleven years on, 25th Hour remains a vital and moving film, and one of Lee's absolute best.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hollywood Book Club: The Prince, the Showgirl and Me

Colin Clark's account of his time spent on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl is probably best known as one of the two books on which the Michelle Williams starring (and Oscar nominated) My Week with Marilyn is based. It's a set diary kept by Clark as he worked on the film, detailing some of the minor adventures of filmmaking and the minor and major dramas that play out during the course of getting a production off the ground. Interestingly, what isn't covered in the diary is what's covered in the other book that inspired the film, Clark's "My Week with Marilyn," written 40 years after the fact and detailing nine days during which he conveniently didn't keep a diary and allegedly had a (platonic) romance with Marilyn Monroe - because, if you were a 24 year old, heterosexual guy in 1956 who got to have any kind of intimacy with Marilyn Monroe, of course you'd wait 40 years to tell anyone about it.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

21st Century Essentials: L'Enfant (2005)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Starring: Jeremie Renier
Country: Belgium

The driving narrative force of the Dardenne brothers' L’Enfant can be summed up in four words uttered by its protagonist, Bruno (Jeremie Renier): “What did I do?” That he doesn’t know the answer to that question would seem ridiculous were it not for the film’s carefully constructed portrait of innocence in the absence of any kind of morality. Bruno is at once the hero and the villain of this story, a character who does something unfathomably cruel and selfish, but who genuinely has no idea that what he’s done is cruel and selfish. With its direct, simple storytelling and the compelling performance at its centre, L’Enfant is an absolutely enthralling film.