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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review: Lifeboat (1944)

* * *

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Hume Cronyn, Mary Anderson, William Bendix, Canada Lee, Henry Hull, Walter Slezak

Alfred Hitchcock is one of cinema's most revered directors and his greatest works are still discussed, debated and dissected by film fans and scholars. But, while films like North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho and Notorious will always come up when considering Hitchcock's craftsmanship and skill as a filmmaker, films like his 1944 feature Lifeboat seldom seem to get a mention. While Lifeboat isn't "top tier" Hitchcock, it is a film which demonstrates how the director's mastery of form could make an engaging film out of a premise which, on paper, would sound uncinematic. Lifeboat is a film which takes place entirely in its eponymous locale, the characters trapped together in the North Atlantic, at the mercy of the elements and their increasing internal conflict. Though it never quite attains the level of tension of Hitchcock's great thrillers, it is a solidly entertaining film - and, as a plus, it contains what is arguably the director's cleverest cameo.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: Alan Partridge (2013)

* * *

Director: Declan Lowney
Starring: Steve Coogan

Steve Coogan is a very funny performer. Why his popularity in his native England hasn't really translated to this side of the Atlantic is one of our great entertainment related mysteries. His Alan Partridge character is one that I had heard of previously, but never seen in action before and having now watched Alan Partridge, I can definitely understand why the character has enjoyed such longevity and made so many appearances in TV and radio series. Alan Partridge is a highly entertaining film which deftly combines dry wit with physical comedy and a fairly incisive satire about celebrity culture. It's also totally accessible to those of us who have no previous experience with the character, though I imagine that there are probably a few references that require previous experience in order to be fully appreciated.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: The Rover (2014)

* * *

Director: David Michod
Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson

The Rover, writer/director David Michod's follow up to his brilliant 2010 debut Animal Kingdom, is a brutal and bleak vision of the future. Set in Australia a decade after a global economic collapse has turned the landscape into a desolate wasteland where life is cheap and violence comes easy, the film isn't science fiction so much as a good old fashioned western about a loner riding the plains in search of the men who wronged him, pushing further and further into the frontier. On a performance level, and often on a technical level, The Rover is a very good movie and I have no doubt that it will find many champions, yet as I finished watching it I was left cold. Individual pieces of the film are brilliant but, taken as a whole, the narrative starts to seem relentlessly prosaic the longer it carries on, which left me feeling split on the result. In the end, I think that The Rover is a decent movie, but one which doesn't really have anything new or different to say.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

21st Century Essentials: In the Mood for Love (2000)

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: Wong Kar-wai
Starring: Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung
Country: Hong Kong

He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.

The mood may be right for love, but the timing never is in Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece. It is always too early, or too late; the moment, when it comes, is fleeting and slips away as soon as it appears, so that what lingers is not a memory, but a dream of what might have been in different circumstances – though, had circumstances been different, the moment might never have come at all. A beautiful and incredibly bittersweet love story, In the Mood for Love is a visually glorious movie that floats effortlessly across the screen even as it takes on increasing emotional weight. As directed by Wong, this film is where style and content meet and create something precious and utterly perfect.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Monsieur Lazhar (2011)

* * * 1/2

Director: Philippe Falardeau
Starring: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nelisse

Since 2003, when Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions took the prize, Canada has had a pretty decent track record when it comes to the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. Invasions is the only Canadian winner to date, but four Canadian films have been nominated in the category since then, compared to the mere two that earned nominations between 1971 (the first year Canada submitted to the category) and 2003. One of those nominees was Philippe Falardeau's Monsieur Lazhar, a quiet and exceedingly gentle movie, particularly compared to the Canadian nominees of the year immediately before (Denis Villeneuve's Greek tragedy Incendies) and immediately after (Kim Nguyen's searing child soldier drama Rebelle/War Witch). On the surface, Monsieur Lazhar's tale of a teacher trying to connect with his students sounds like a familiar story (and the sort of typical, non-challenging fare that AMPAS so often goes for in the foreign language category), but while Falardeau keeps things simple, he nevertheless manages to tell a deeply affecting story about the psychic space where grief resides and the many ways that grief finds to express itself.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Partners in Crime: Anderson & Murray

Celebrating cinema's greatest partnerships

It's almost impossible, at this point, not to think of Bill Murray when thinking of Wes Anderson. Murray has become part of the fabric of Anderson's work, a mainstay who, even when the role is small, always brings something essential to the work. Murray has had a role in every one of Anderson's films since his debut Bottle Rocket, and though Murray's absence isn't the only thing that makes Bottle Rocket feel the least "Wes Andersony" of the auteur's work, it's definitely odd to revisit that film now because it almost feels like it's missing a piece. Anderson has several actors that he's collaborated with many times, but no one seems to encapsulate the Anderson universe in quite the same way as Murray. So often, Anderson's films function to find the sadness is humor and the humor in sadness and as an actor, Murray meets that objective note for note.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review: The Pawnbroker (1964)

* * * *

Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Rod Steiger

For a landmark film from one of the major American directors of the latter half of the 20th century, Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker seems to be woefully underseen and underappreciated. The first American film to deal with the Holocaust and a film credited with providing a chink in the armor that would lead to the dismantling of the Production Code, The Pawnbroker is a historically important film, but it's also an incredibly good one. A character driven film about the enduring trauma of the Holocaust told from the point-of-view of a survivor who has attempted to segregate himself from the rest of the world as a mode of protection against further pain, The Pawnbroker features one of star Rod Steiger's best performances (and earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor). An enthralling and emotionally wrenching film, The Pawnbroker is a film worth seeking out.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday's Top 5... The Family's Back Under One Roof Movies

#5: The Family Stone

In a lot of ways Thomas Bezucha's The Family Stone is a cookie-cutter movie of this type, with character types and situations that are typical for the genre. It's a very familiar movie, but what makes it work is how everything clicks together - particularly the stellar cast which includes Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Luke Wilson, and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997)

* * 1/2

Director: Guy Maddin
Starring: Pascale Bussieres, Shelly Duvall, Alice Krige

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is arguably the most important film in Guy Maddin's filmography, not because it's good, but because the difficulties Maddin encountered in making it, and his ultimate disappointment in the final product, put him on a track to make the series of acclaimed films that followed. Before Twilight, Maddin was flirting with the possibility of a move to Hollywood and entering a "director for hire" phase. After Twilight, which is the least "Maddin-like" of his films yet still nowhere near a mainstream Hollywood movie, he would retreat from feature films for several years and then emerge, creatively recharged, to make such films as Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, Cowards Bend the Knee, The Saddest Music in the World, Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg. The disillusionment Maddin felt with the process of making Twilight can be felt throughout the film, which has some typical Maddin touches of weirdness but also possesses an odd feeling of disconnect between what's occurring onscreen and the man behind the camera. Still, while Twilight of the Ice Nymphs may be the least of Maddin's features, it's not a film wholly lacking in value.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Netflix Recommends... The Italian Job (2003)

* * *

Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Mos Def, Seth Green

This week Netflix apparently thinks I'm super into Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington, putting 3 films starring each (though, curiously, not that one movie that stars both) in my Top Picks. I went with Wahlberg and was rewarded with the 2003 version of The Italian Job, a slick heist movie loosely based on the 1969 Michael Caine movie of the same name. I had never seen this one before, but vaguely recalled the advertising for it which highlighted the chase involving three mini Coopers and a showdown between one of the minis and a helicopter. What I'd forgotten was that Wahlberg, at that phase in his career, was a much lighter onscreen presence, more twinkly-eyed than glowering - though in the twinkly-eye department he's got nothing on Donald Sutherland, who shows up just long enough to look like he's having a blast and provide the film with its inciting incident. The Italian Job may not be the sort of transcendent caper that raises it above its genre, but it's near-perfect as a genre movie and pretty damn entertaining.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel

Late to the party, I have no excuse. The biggest movie of the year (so far; last year's champ, Katniss Everdeen, returns to theaters in November), Guardians of the Galaxy continues Marvel Studios' solid run of films that have not only raked in a fortune but also garnered critical acclaim. I already thought that Warner Bros.' rumored "no jokes" rule for its forthcoming attempt to create a shared DC comics movie universe was kind of dumb, but it seems more so after seeing this film, which relies heavily on humor and succeeds in large part because of it, too. The effects are, of course, as spectacular as expected but it takes more than good special effects to make a good movie, and the fact that the film is too long, too over-stuffed, and ends in pretty much the same way as every Marvel movie since The Avengers (there has to be other ways to end these movies than with a protracted sky battle) is alleviated by how much fun it is. I realize that Warner Bros./DC is probably a little concerned that if they start working humor into their product they might tip back into the high camp of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies, but a few jokes can go a long way.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: White Reindeer (2013)

* * *

Director: Zach Clark
Starring: Anna Margaret Hollyman, Laura-Lemar Goldsborough

White Reindeer is a film which does a lot with a little, and I mean that quite literally. Made for only about $67,000 (half of which was raised through a Kickstarter campaign, while the rest was paid for out of pocket by the film's producers), the film can hardly be said to show its budget as it looks like a reasonably slick little indie. A dark comedy about grief, identity, and Christmas, White Reindeer is a well crafted character film with enough bold touches to transcend genre tropes. Anchored by a strong performance from Anna Margaret Hollyman, White Reindeer is a solid, albeit fairly low stakes, movie well worth seeking out. Although, despite the fact that it hit theaters in December of last year, it's probably a film best not watched at Christmas.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review: The Battle of Algiers (1966)

* * * *

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Starring: Brahim Hadadj, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi

It's hardly hyperbole to say that Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers is one of the most influential movies ever made. It not only echoes in movies about terrorism made after 1966, but has been used in the real world as a sort of training tool, studied by US officials in 2003 as a means of better understanding the situation in Iraq, and by insurgent groups around the world as part of strategy discussions. That it could have value to both sides of any given armed conflict going on at any given time in the world is hardly surprising. Though it ultimately leans far more to the side of the rebels of its story, The Battle of Algiers isn't so partisan a film that it depicts the army as "evil." It depicts atrocities committed by both sides and it depicts both sides, at times, in a sympathetic light; it is, if anything, on the side of the nameless, faceless people caught in the middle, their homes turned into war zones. With is realist, newsreel style filming, The Battle of Algiers is a work which remains highly powerful, and perhaps has only grown in power since its release as wars between two military forces become increasingly less common than wars between military and insurgent forces.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

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: Mike Leigh
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan
Country: United Kingdom

Mike Leigh isn’t necessarily known for comedy – his films tend to be more of the plumbing the depths of everyday, ordinary despair variety – but his 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky is one of the most joyful films to come out in the past decade. I say this despite the fact that one of the film’s secondary characters is a horribly miserable man who finally explodes with rage and violence in the film’s final act. It’s the film’s main character, though, which gives it such a sunny disposition. In one of those career defining performances, Sally Hawkins stars as Poppy, a relentless force of positivity who manages to see the glass as half full at every turn. In the hands of a lesser actress, not to mention a lesser director, Poppy would be an insufferable character, the kind that could sink a film like this before it even got off the ground. Instead she lifts it up, raising it to match her own very high spirits.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Careful (1992)

* * *

Director: Guy Maddin
Starring: Kyle McCulloch, Sarah Neville, Brent Neale, Gosia Zenaida, Paul Cox

Filmmaker Guy Maddin approaches things from outside the box. To get an idea of just how far outside, you need only consider two of his initial casting ideas for a key character in Careful: Martin Scorsese and hockey hall of famer Bobby Hull. Scorsese may not be too out there as a choice given that he has acting credits to his name for small roles/cameos. But Bobby Hull? That's an idea that takes some imagination to come up with. Neither man ended up in the film (Scorsese reportedly had to drop out due to his commitments to Cape Fear), but the idea of either is intriguingly odd. However, as odd as those ideas may be, they could never be quite so odd that they couldn't be made to fit with Careful, Maddin's homage to the German "mountain films" of the 1920s and early 1930s, but with a very Maddin-esque take on a classic form.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: Romance & Cigarettes (2007)

* *

Director: John Turturro
Starring: James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet

Romance & Cigarettes is one of those films that sat on the shelf for years after it was completed, waiting and waiting for release until finally writer/director John Turturro managed to release it himself, distributing it in a limited capacity in 2007. If distributors didn't quite know what to do with this film, that's understandable. It's a strange little concoction with all the marks of a labor of love, and few of the elements that might make it even marginally marketable. If it's not an entirely successful film, there can nevertheless be no doubt that a lot of passion went into it. That comes through in every frame - every crazy, weird frame, which taken all together adds up to a finished film that couldn't be anything less than divisive.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: Jules and Jim (1962)

* * * *

Director: Francois Truffaut
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre

As one of the seminal films of one of the most analysed, written about, and influential film movements of the 20th century, Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim is a film which should, at this point, have a blunted impact on the first time viewer. Yet, though Jules and Jim has been written about countless times and influenced numerous films and filmmakers over the past 52 years, it still has the power to surprise, delight, and move the first time viewer. When a film makes it onto as many "Best Movies" lists as this one has, it can start to seem more like a movie that's "good for you" rather than good to watch, but a truly great film is capable of transcending all that outside noise to leave the viewer feeling engrossed in its story and Jules and Jim is definitely one of those movies.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Netflix Recommends... Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

* * 1/2

Director: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton

This recommendation apparently stems from my interest in Pan's Labyrinth, Hanna and previous Netflix Recommends entry Jack Reacher. I can kinda see a faint connection between Pan's and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters insofar as both are fantasy films, though the former is a masterpiece that transcends genre while the latter is a reasonably entertaining steampunk reimagining of a fairy tale that revels in genre trappings, but I'm not really sure about the connection with the other two, besides the fact that all three films have scenes of action and violence. At any rate, I called Netflix's bluff and watched Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters expecting little but actually kind of liking it in all its ridiculousness. Had I looked into it beforehand and known that it comes from the writer/director of the dumb/awesome Nazi zombie movie Dead Snow, and is produced by Will Farrell and Adam McKay, I might have been more prepared for how generally enjoyable it is (aside: after Farrell's name popped up in the credits, my first thought every time Jeremy Renner showed up on screen was, "That damn Hansel, he's so hot right now!"). Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is ridiculous. But it knows that it's ridiculous and doesn't waste time trying to convince you otherwise, instead just getting to the business at hand and delivering on the promise of its title. Witches do, indeed, get hunted in this film and get killed (along with some other baddies) in grand fashion - though the story's real villain is ultimately diabetes.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Cowards Bend the Knee (2003)

* * * 1/2

Director: Guy Maddin
Starring: Darcy Fehr, Melissa Dionisio, Amy Stewart

Sex. Murder. Hockey. Cowards Bend the Knee, the first entry in Guy Maddin's "Me Trilogy," which includes Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg, is a delightfully twisted little piece of work which is as darkly funny and enjoyable as it is deeply eccentric. A silent film shot in black and white and on Super-8mm film, what Cowards Bend the Knee lacks in budget (the film was made for about $30k during the pre-production period of Maddin's great The Saddest Music in the World), it makes up for in sheer entertaining weirdness, having been originally conceived of as series of short films that would form part of an art installation. However it came into being, the film is one which makes the most of what it has and uses it to deliver something unlike anything you've ever seen before.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: The Warriors (1979)

* * *

Director: Walter Hill
Starring: Michael Beck, James Remar, Deborah Van Valkenburgh

Can yooooou dig it? Some movies are so ridiculous that they reach the level of the sublime. Walter Hill’s The Warriors crosses from the ridiculous to the sublime before it even finishes its opening credits. A film about New York street gangs in which one of the first gangs introduced dresses like mimes, The Warriors is all style without any serious attempt to ground it in realism beyond the fact that it’s set in a real city. While it’s no mystery why the film received such a cold reception from critics at the time of its release, it's also easy to see why it has been embraced as a cult classic in the years since. The Warriors is one of the most purely entertaining films you will ever see.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Review: Calvary (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson

In the opening scene of John Michael McDonagh's Calvary a man enters the confessional and informs the film's protagonist, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), that he's going to murder him the following Sunday. It isn't because James has done anything wrong; on the contrary it's precisely because he's a "good" priest that the man is going to take his life. Killing a bad priest would accomplish nothing, he reasons, but killing a good priest would send a message - besides, the specific priest who abused him is already dead. Calvary then follows James for the next seven days as he has encounters with various people in the village, some of whom may be the man who intends to kill him, all of whom have mortality on their mind, though none are marching towards their ends with as much certainty as James. While films about topics as heated as the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals are, perhaps, destined to be divisive, McDonagh's carefully crafted drama handles the subject with intelligence and sensitivity.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Hollywood Book Club: Clark Gable: Tormented Star

This book is garbage. Even by the astonishingly low standards of trashy celebrity biographies, Clark Gable: Tormented Star stands out as particularly seedy and exceedingly worthless. This isn't a biography. It's a work of fan fiction which imagines that all the stars of yesteryear, but particularly the men, were only ever incidentally heterosexual, padded out with multi-page synopses of several of Clark Gable's films. The best thing I can say about the book is that, even with all that padding, it's a slim volume that runs to only 259 pages in paperback form, so at least it doesn't waste too much of your time. But, rest assured, that even though it won't waste "too much" of your time, it will waste your time, unless you like your books full of errors so brazen that they practically jump off the page and smack you in the face.