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

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Cinemanovels (2013)

* * *

Director: Terry Miles
Starring: Lauren Lee Smith

Filmmakers put a lot of themselves into their films, and when you watch the entire body of someone's work, certain themes and ideas emerge over and over again as a common through line - but can you really know a person through their films and what they put into them? Terry Miles' Cinemanovels is a film about movies and identity, about a woman whose father is like a giant question mark in her history and who attempts to answer that question by watching all of the movies he wrote and directed. That what she ends up learning is more about herself than her father is, perhaps, inevitable but that makes the route she has to follow to get there no less interesting. Though it made the festivals rounds, including premiering a TIFF, Cinemanovels appears not to have received even a small theatrical release which, while not surprising for a Canadian film, is still unfortunate as it is light and engaging enough that it could have found an audience with a bit of a promotional push.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review: We Are the Best! (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Lukas Moodysson
Starring: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne

In 1998, writer/director Lukas Moodysson broke through with Show Me Love, one of the all-time great films about adolescence. 15 years and 7 features later, he's come out with We Are the Best! which is, perhaps, not one of the all-time great films about adolescence, but is pretty damn great nevertheless. Adapted from the graphic novel Never Say Goodnight, written by Moodysson's wife, Coco Moodysson, We Are the Best! is a sweet, funny, and appropriately melodramatic story of three teenage girls trying to carve out identities for themselves. Employing a light touch that finds the sweet spot between taking the characters seriously and rendering their story in too serious a fashion, Moodysson has created a wonderful and incredibly engaging film about the minor tragedies and massive triumphs of growing up.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford

When many of us think about "grown up" superhero movies dealing with themes that evoke real-world issues, we tend to think first of Christopher Nolan's Batman series, which dealt with many ethical questions and issues which became especially prominent in the post-9/11 decade. With The Winter Soldier, the Captain America series stakes its own claim on being the serious, grown up superhero story by spinning a yarn about national security, the military-industrial complex, and the corruption of institutional power. That it does this so successfully while still managing to tell an entertaining story about superheroes, supervillains, and their allies battling it out in the streets and in the air gives it a pretty strong claim to the title of the Marvel Universe's best film to date.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Netflix Recommends... Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

* * *

Director: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis

This recommendation from Netflix is a bit of a cheat. Usually for this feature I go into a movie relatively blind, usually picking something that I wouldn't otherwise have sought out. This time, and because the pickings were a bit slim, I went with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a film that I've seen bits and pieces of but, for whatever reason, one which I'd never sat down and watched in its entirety before. As a result I’m super late to the planet of the apes party and at the risk of being ridiculously redundant: this reboot is pretty good. Reboots and “origin stories” have so flooded the market place in the last few years (and will continue to do so for years to come) that the very words are enough to make one’s eyes twitch, but a film like this one, which approaches the series’ premise from a different angle instead of just repackaging everything old to make it look new again, actually brings something of value to a series which had previously seemed to have run its course.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Dogtooth (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: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Christos Passalis
Country: Greece

Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth is a political polemic disguised as a grotesque family drama. It is a story about iron-fisted authority, blind adherence to it and rebellion against it, and about how the institution goes about protecting itself from being undermined and destroyed. It is a supremely strange movie, and often uncomfortable to watch as Lanthimos steadily pushes the narrative further and further, engaging with the taboo and the merely bizarre, the tension rising until it seems like the film must explode off the screen. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to claim that this is a film that most people would “like,” but it is most definitely a film that leaves an indelible mark.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Army of One Movies

#5: First Blood

Rambo. It is now a name synonymous not only with combat, but with one man taking on everyone in sight all on his own. There are four Rambo movies to choose from, but First Blood is the best received by a wide margin (87% on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to the next highest - 2008's Rambo - at 37%), even if First Blood: Part II inspired one of my favourite Pauline Kael quotes when she described it as "like a tank sitting in your lap and firing at you."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Canadian Film Review: The Grand Seduction (2014)

* * *

Director: Don McKellar
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch

Films like The Grand Seduction are projects that are engineered to please. They don't take chances, they offer no innovations, but they demonstrate the simple pleasures of the familiar. You know from the beginning just how the film will end, and you know more or less completely how it will get there, so its success or failure hinges on whether it can charm you into thinking that you want to listen to a story that you've already been told. In that respect, Don McKellar's The Grand Seduction is a success even if, in the grand scheme of things, it's a minor work as likely to be remembered after the fact with some affection as it is to fade from memory completely. I'm sure it seems like I'm damning the film with faint praise, but I actually did rather enjoy it. It's a sincere story, told in relaxed fashion, and it knows how to make the most of the innate likeability of its cast and its setting.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ten Years Later... Alfie (2004)

On this day in 2004

Director: Charles Shyer
Starring: Jude Law, Susan Sarandon, Marisa Tomei, Sienna Miller, Nia Long, Omar Epps

2004 was going to be the year of Jude Law. After breaking through in 1999 with his supporting turn in The Talented Mr. Ripley (and earning his first Oscar nomination in the process), Law's appearances in film were fairly sporadic, with him starring in just one film a year (save for 2001, when he had a leading role in Enemy at the Gates and a supporting role in A.I. Artificial Intelligence) until 2004 when, coming off his second Oscar nomination (for Cold Mountain), he would have 6 films in theaters. The films and his roles varied from being part of the ensemble in the would-be prestige film Closer, playing the lead in the would-be special effect game changer Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, providing voice work as the narrator in the would-be franchise starting Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, playing a cameo role in The Aviator, being part of the ensemble in David O. Russsell's least appreciated film I Heart Huckabees, and playing the lead in the deeply unnecessary and ultimately ill-conceived remake of the 1960s classic Alfie. That Law's big year is probably best remembered for a joke Chris Rock made at the Oscars and Sean Penn's snitty, on-air response, probably says it all about the collective success of his various performances in 2004.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Fury (2014)

* * *

Director: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LeBeouf

For much of its running time David Ayer's Fury plays like the best movie Sam Peckinpah never made. A WWII movie about the blood and the mud, rather than ideals and the honor inherent in fighting the last good war, Ayer's film is like a punch to the gut as it builds one scene of brutality atop another. This is a story of unrelenting ugliness where circumstances have made violence, in all its forms, as natural to the characters as breathing, and it unfolds in an unromanticized fashion - at least until the end, when it finally and fully surrenders to war movie cliches and conventions. To be sure, those conventions are present even from the beginning, but it's only at the end when the story seems to find itself at the mercy of those tropes. Still, despite the stock (and arguably weak) ending, Fury is a solid movie, possessed of the visceral intensity of a film like Saving Private Ryan, even if it lacks that kind of grand scale ambition.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: Don't Look Now (1973)

* * * *

Director: Nicholas Roeg
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie

Don't Look Now is one of the most dread-filled movies ever made. A shadow hangs over it from the first to the last, and every scene has a palpable sense that the other shoe is about to drop. A psychological horror thriller about the lingering effects of grief, this adaptation of a short story by Daphne du Maurier is a deeply creepy and deeply effective movie that has influenced filmmakers far and wide since its release in 1973. It's taken me a while to catch up this this film, which is now considered a modern classic, and what struck me about it (aside from the fact of how good it is) is how the elements that made it controversial in 1973 still stand out now. Often it's difficult, so many years later (in this case forty), to see why something would have once caused such heated debate, but the frankness of Nicholas Roeg's film remains somewhat out of the ordinary. Don't Look Now would still be a compelling film even if that frankness had become muted by time, but the fact that it remains so sharp helps give the film a greater sense of timelessness than it would otherwise have.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt

Like a lot of people (judging by the film's tepid box office) I didn't catch Edge of Tomorrow (or Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow as it has been rebranded) when it was in theaters. I missed out by not making time for it because the film - whatever you want to call it; a rose by any other name, and all that - is one of the year's best pure entertainments. A smart science fiction action movie which has confidence enough in the audience not to spoon feed the plot, and instead to trust that the audience will keep up and follow along, Edge of Tomorrow is the sort of popcorn movie that most of us always say we want - but, based on the fact that it grossed less than half of what the last Transformers movie made, it is perhaps not the popcorn movie we deserve. If you haven't caught up with it yet, I highly recommend it. It's a film that is entertaining and intelligent in equal measure.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Netflix Recommends... Warrior (2011)

* * * 1/2

Director: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte

Today's Netflix recommendation comes as a result of three films that I've watched: The Warriors, The Dark Knight Rises, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Warrior really isn't anything like any of those movies, except that it has a similar title to one and shares a star in Tom Hardy with the other two. Once again, Netflix's algorithms baffle me, but on this particular occasion the ill-thought correlation actually made for an excellent recommendation. I had vaguely recalled Warrior as a film that scored Nick Nolte a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination a couple of years ago, but the only other thing I knew about it was that the plot revolved around mixed martial arts. Not being into UFC, I wasn't sure how much Warrior was going to appeal to me, but it's actually a very classic type of Hollywood story and so emotionally engaging that any reservations I had were quickly dispensed with.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: We Own the Night (2007)

* * 1/2

Director: James Gray
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendez, Robert Duvall

Writer/director James Gray's We Own the Night is an utterly gorgeous film to look at and when it works, it both looks and feels like a masterpiece. Unfortunately it doesn't work the whole way through. The first third is solid, near perfect. As the story goes on, though, it starts to lose something, be it focus or purpose or energy - it's hard to articulate exactly what happens, but the film starts to become more muted at precisely the moment when it needs to ratchet things up. It is, throughout, beautiful to look at - Gray, who here collaborates with cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay (who also photographed Gray's 2008 film Two Lovers), is one of the most painterly directors working right now - but looking great can only take a film so far, even if it's also built around a wonderful leading performance.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Further Thoughts on Gone Girl

It's possible that I underrated Gone Girl in my review. After all, it's a week later and I find myself still thinking about the movie, going over bits and pieces of it, trying to tease out its subtleties, thinking about what it all means. For a film that seems, on the surface, like just another lurid thriller (albeit one expertly put together), Gone Girl leaves you with a lot to think about and a lot to debate. So, with that in mind, here's a few more thoughts about the film that I've been turning over in my head since writing my review.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Capturing the Friedmans (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: Andrew Jarecki
Country: United States

Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans is one of the most fascinating and controversial documentaries of the young millennium. The story of a father and son tried and convicted of sexual abuse charges, the film came under fire from victims in the case due to evidence that was skimmed over or left out entirely, and Friedmans certainly can’t make any strong claim to being unbiased given how intensely Jarecki tries to tear apart the case against his subjects. That said, though the film adopts a “did they or didn’t they” legal narrative to give itself structure, it’s really an examination of family dysfunction and how stress can both bring the members of a family together and tear them apart. Even if Capturing the Friedmans does not tell the whole story, the story that it does tell is compelling, captivating, and devastating.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Courtroom Dramas

#5: Judgment at Nuremberg

Judgment at Nuremberg is one of the great "all star cast" films ever made, featuring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Maximilian Schell (who won the Oscar for Best Actor), and Richard Widmark. Taking the Nuremberg trials as its subject, the film examines the nature of passive evil, and in that respect there are few exchanges more devastating than this film's final dialogue between Tracy and Lancaster.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Hard Core Logo (1996)

* * * 1/2

Director: Bruce McDonald
Starring: Hugh Dillon, Callum Keith Rennie

It's a sad truth about the Canadian film industry that, unless you're in Toronto or Quebec, it's incredibly difficult for Canadian viewers to get hold of Canadian films. I don't just mean during their theatrical runs (though it is rare, at least where I live, for a Canadian film to play in any of the local theaters), but on video as well (even before all the video stores started shutting down). In that kind of climate, it's a minor miracle when a Canadian film ends up being as widely seen as Bruce McDonald's Hard Core Logo, which has attained status as a Canadian classic (voted in multiple polls as one of the best Canadian films ever made) and a cult following outside of Canada. It's easy to understand why, too. A mockumentary about the ill-fated reunion of the titular punk band, Hard Core Logo is an incredibly entertaining film and Canadian to its core.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review: Waking Life (2001)

* * * *

Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Wiley Wiggins

He can't always tell whether or not he's dreaming. At times he believes he's woken up, but as he goes about his business he picks up a clue that what he's experiencing isn't real and he's right back where he started, drifting from one philosophical conversation to the next. Richard Linklater's Waking Life is a film about dreams which aims to replicate the feeling of dreaming, submerging the viewer in a realm of deep, existential questions explored in a free flowing style, going "nowhere" but touching on everything. With its incredibly talky screenplay, loose narrative structure, and rotoscoped animation, Waking Life is a film that probably sounds like an acquired taste, the kind of exercise that only a film buff could love, but approached with an open mind, it's a film that I reckon can be embraced by any kind of viewer it's so engaging and utterly engrossing.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review: Gone Girl (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike

Because professional film critics seem to be taking great pains to avoid talking about spoilers in Gone Girl, I'm going to state right off the top that this is going to be a fairly spoilery review. If you've managed to remain unspoiled about this story, then don't read any further - although the fact that I'm not even sure how that's possible is one of the reasons I decided to go full-spoiler. I didn't even read the novel but went into the film aware of the plot twist because the book was so ubiquitous. The other reason I have no hesitation in discussing the plot in some detail is because the twist is, frankly, the least interesting thing about this story. That's not a knock on Gone Girl, which is a first rate thriller that unfolds with the sort of ferocious precision we've all come to expect from David Fincher; it's just an acknowledgment of the fact that there's so much going on here that the inner workings of the plot are really a secondary concern.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Hollywood Book Club: Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939

From the perspective of 2014 it can be sort of hard to imagine a time when people took a "wait and see" attitude to Hitler and the Nazis. Objectively, of course, one understands that such attitudes existed, given that Hitler was in power for 6 years before the commencement of World War II and the policy of appeasement that resulted in, among other things, the Munich Agreement; but because those of us living now have the benefit of hindsight, it's nevertheless difficult to imagine what it would have been like to live through a time when Hitler was treated as just another world leader and the Nazi party as just another political party rather than symbols for the depths of evil. Even more difficult to imagine, given the sheer number of Hollywood films in which the Nazis have appeared as the villains, is a time when filmmakers were reluctant, and even afraid, to alienate Germans by acknowledging the evils of the Nazi party. Thomas Doherty's Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 is a fascinating book about a bizarre period in the history of Hollywood (and the world) and the ways that film can be a powerful medium for what it does and for what, unfortunately, it sometimes does not do.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Review: Neighbors (2014)

* * *

Director: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Seth Rogan, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne

It may seem odd to describe as "ambitious" a film which relies so heavily on humor deriving from bodily fluids and pratfalls, but Nicholas Stoller's bro versus slightly older bro comedy Neighbors is just that. It could, quite easily, have let the premise - frat house moves into family-oriented neighborhood, war ensues - do all the work for it and ended up with a passably entertaining comedy that would have raked in money. Instead, it uses that premise as a springboard for a comedic take on what inter-generational conflict looks like in an era when "adolescence" lasts until about age 35. This isn't to say that Neighbors is mind-blowing in its thematic depth or even especially thoughtful in its examination of growing up, but it gets points for having more on its mind than getting from one outlandish gag to the next.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Performances in David Fincher Movies

#5: Brad Pitt, Fight Club

Brad Pitt has been a movie star for two decades and counting, but if you had to chose just one performance as his "signature" one, it would have to be Fight Club's Tyler Durden. If you drew a venn diagram of Pitt's career as an actor, the grungy charisma of his performance as Durden would be the intersection between his character roles and his movie star roles. Pitt's depiction of Edward Norton's raging, violent, ultra-masculine id is one of the strongest elements of a film which has nary a weakness.