Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Milking A Cow Named Intolerance

Milk

In film, as in life, timing is everything. In a year where Barack Obama became the symbol of progressive change worldwide, Gus Van Sant’s latest film, Milk, show that change often comes at a harsh price. It is also a blistering reminder that in the wake of California’s controversial Proposition 8, that we still have a long way to go in regards to social harmony. Taking place over a period of 8 years, Milk shows Harvey Milk’s ascension from Gay Rights Activist to becoming California’s first openly gay public official.

After moving to San Francisco with his partner Scott (James Franco), Harvey is gets his first taste of activism while battling a local merchant’s association. When Harvey starts to notice local hate crimes are going unpunished, he takes to the streets to get his message out. As Milk’s political aspirations grow bigger, so does the strain of his relationship with Scott. Aided by a dedicated campaign team that includes young activists Cleeve (Emile Hirsch) and media savvy Anne (Alison Pill), Harvey starts to make strides in both the gay and straight communities. Yet Harvey soon realizes that political success comes with several drawbacks. Most notably Dan White (Josh Brolin), a fellow city official whose unstable nature will ultimately lead to the demise of both the Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) and Harvey.

Milk is a biopic that delivers on several levels. I knew nothing about Harvey Milk prior to seeing the film, yet I found myself captivated by this groundbreaking section of his life. The first thing that struck me was that Van Sant, after directing several films where he experimented with form and sound, went back to telling a rather straightforward narrative. This allows you to focus more on the performances rather than the style. Which is a good thing in this case because the performances are stellar across the board. Sean Penn is brilliant as Milk; he not only immerses himself in the character but also forces the supporting players to raise the bar as well. James Franco gives a great subtle performance as Scott. Emile Hirsh brings just the right mix of youthful exuberance and political angst to his role. As Dan White, Josh Brolin skillful peels away the layers of his character to show how White reaches the point he does. Regardless of your stance in terms of gay rights, Milk succeeds at providing an interesting glimpse into the life of a man that fought for what he believed in. While Milk is a fantastic film in its own right, it resonates even more when you look at our current social climate and what it took to get us here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Clint's Torino Not Fond of Foreign Drivers

Gran Torino


Every wonder what Mr. Wilson from the Dennis the Menace cartoons would be like in real? Well you need not look any further than Gran Torino. The second film to be released in 2008 from actor director Clint Eastwood, the first being Changeling, is a look at one man’s attempt to overcome prejudice from within in order to save a community. Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a retired Korean War vet trying to live out the rest of his days alone in peace. His wife has recently passed away and both of his sons, and grandchildren, cannot stand him. To make matters worst, Walt has a penchant for spewing crude racist remarks despite living in a predominately ethnic community. The only person who is not turned off by Walt’s fiery tongue is a persistent priest (Christopher Carley) whom Walt cannot seem to shake. When Thao (Bee Vang) is persuaded by a local gang to steal Walt’s prized car, a 1972 Gran Torino, Walt’s solitary existence is changed forever. After spending time with Thao and his sister Sue (Ahney Her), Walt is forced to not only confront the local gang but his own past as well.

Gran Torino’s story is very familiar, yet somehow manages to feel fresh enough to satisfy. This is partly due to the fact that the film functions in a rather heightened reality. The majority of characters in the first half of the film are cookie-cutter stereotypes. Which is fitting as it personifies how Walt views the world around him. It also serves as a platform for Walt’s racist tongue to let loose. The terminology that comes out of Walt’s mouth will either make you cringe, or cause involuntary laughter due to how outlandish they are. It is only when Walt starts to spend time with his Hmong neighbours that Eastwood reduces the stereotypes and starts to show his characters through a more human eye. Some of the best moments in the film arrive when Walt starts to interact with his surrounding neighbours. Sure the bond between going in the all the obvious directions Walt and Thao felt natural despite goes in the all the obvious directions, yet that does not hinder the genuine feel of their relationship. Speaking of relationships, I was actually more intrigued by Walt’s father daughter style relationship with Sue. Partly because Sue was such a confident character, I enjoyed watching her engage in a battle of wits with Walt. I would even argue that Walt’s evolution in the film has more to do with Sue than Walt.

The performances in the film are decent on the whole. There were moments when the actors, including Eastwood himself, fall prey to overplaying a scene. Yet it is easy to forgive those minor moments, especially in regards to first timers Bee Vang and Ahney Her. While Gran Torino is not as strong as some of Clint Eastwood’s previous directorial efforts, he does a good job nonetheless. Eastwood crafts a film that keeps you drawn in and connected to the characters to the very end. Sure the dialogue is fairly scathing at times, racially speaking, it does work well in the context of the film. Unlike, say In Bruges, I never once felt that the dialogue was written for purely shock inducing sake.In the end Gran Torino is a satisfying ride despite driving down an overly familiar road.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Globes Remain Golden In Tough Economic Times

Golden Globe Nominations

1. BEST MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
1. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount Pictures; Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount Pictures
2. FROST/NIXON
Imagine Entertainment, Working Title, Studio Canal; Universal Pictures
3. THE READER
Mirage Enterprises; The Weinstein Company
4. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
An Evamere Entertainment BBC Films Neal Street Production; DreamWorks Pictures in Association with BBC Films and Paramount Vantage
5. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
Fox Searchlight Pictures and Warner Bros.; Fox Searchlight Pictures and Warner Bros.

2. BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
1. ANNE HATHAWAY – RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
2. ANGELINA JOLIE – CHANGELING
3. MERYL STREEP – DOUBT
4. KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS – I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (IL Y A LONGTEMPS QUE JE T’AIME)
5. KATE WINSLET – REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

3. BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
1. LEONARDO DICAPRIO – REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
2. FRANK LANGELLA – FROST/NIXON
3. SEAN PENN – MILK
4. BRAD PITT – THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
5. MICKEY ROURKE – THE WRESTLER

4. BEST MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
1. BURN AFTER READING
Working Title/Releasing Company; Focus Features in association with Studio Canal
2. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
Summit Entertainment, Film4, Ingenious Film Partners, Miramax Films; Miramax Films
3. IN BRUGES
Blueprint Pictures; Focus Features
4. MAMMA MIA!
Relativity Media, Playtone, Littlestar; Universal Pictures
5. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
Mediapro; The Weinstein Company

5.BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
1. REBECCA HALL – VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
2. SALLY HAWKINS – HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
3. FRANCES MCDORMAND – BURN AFTER READING
4. MERYL STREEP – MAMMA MIA!
5. EMMA THOMPSON – LAST CHANCE HARVEY

6. BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
1. JAVIER BARDEM – VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
2. COLIN FARRELL – IN BRUGES
3. JAMES FRANCO – PINEAPPLE EXPRESS
4. BRENDAN GLEESON – IN BRUGES
5. DUSTIN HOFFMAN – LAST CHANCE HARVEY

7. BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
1. BOLT
Walt Disney Pictures; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
2. KUNG FU PANDA
DreamWorks Animation SKG; Paramount Pictures
3. WALL-E
Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

8. BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
1. THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX (GERMANY)
(DER BADDER MEINHOF KOMPLEX)
Constantin Film Produktion GmbH; Summit Entertainment, LLC
2. EVERLASTING MOMENTS (SWEDEN/DENMARK)
(MARIA LARSSONS EVIGA ÖGONBLICK)
Final Cut Productions Aps; IFC Films
3. GOMORRAH (ITALY)
(GOMORRA)
Fandango; IFC Films
4. I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (FRANCE)
(IL Y A LONGTEMPS QUE JE T’AIME)
UGC YM/UGC Images/France 3 Cinema/Integral Film; Sony Pictures Classics
5. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (ISRAEL)
Bridgit Folman Film Gang/Les Films D'Ici/Razor Films/Arte France/ITVS International; Sony Pictures Classics

9. BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MOTION PICTURE
1. AMY ADAMS – DOUBT
2. PENELOPE CRUZ – VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
3. VIOLA DAVIS –DOUBT
4. MARISA TOMEI – THE WRESTLER
5. KATE WINSLET – THE READER

10. BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MOTION PICTURE
1. TOM CRUISE – TROPIC THUNDER
2. ROBERT DOWNEY JR. –TROPIC THUNDER
3. RALPH FIENNES – THE DUCHESS
4. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN – DOUBT
5. HEATH LEDGER – THE DARK KNIGHT

11. BEST DIRECTOR – MOTION PICTURE
1. DANNY BOYLE – SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
2. STEPHEN DALDRY – THE READER
3. DAVID FINCHER – THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
4. RON HOWARD – FROST/NIXON
5. SAM MENDES – REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

12. BEST SCREENPLAY – MOTION PICTURE
1. SIMON BEAUFOY – SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
2. DAVID HARE – THE READER
3. PETER MORGAN – FROST/NIXON
4. ERIC ROTH – THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN
5. JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY – DOUBT

13. BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – MOTION PICTURE
1. ALEXANDRE DESPLAT –THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
2. CLINT EASTWOOD – CHANGELING
3. JAMES NEWTON HOWARD – DEFIANCE
4. A. R. RAHMAN – SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
5. HANS ZIMMER – FROST/NIXON

14. BEST ORIGINAL SONG – MOTION PICTURE
1. “DOWN TO EARTH” — WALL-E
Music by: Peter Gabriel, Thomas Newman
Lyrics by: Peter Gabriel
2. “GRAN TORINO” — GRAN TORINO
Music by: Clint Eastwood, Jamie Cullum, Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens
Lyrics by: Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens
3. “I THOUGHT I LOST YOU” — BOLT
Music & Lyrics by: Miley Cyrus, Jeffrey Steele
4. “ONCE IN A LIFETIME” — CADILLAC RECORDS
Music & Lyrics by: Beyoncé Knowles, Amanda Ghost, Scott McFarnon, Ian Dench, James Dring, Jody Street
5. “THE WRESTLER” — THE WRESTLER
Music & Lyrics by: Bruce Springsteen

Sunday, December 07, 2008

So Long Will I Love This

I’ve Loved You So Long
(Il y a longtemps que je t’aime)


A few weeks back I mentioned that The Visitor, now on video, was one those hidden gems of 2008 that I feared most people would miss. Well lets hope the same thing does not happen to I’ve Loved You So Long. The film is currently in theatres so be sure you do whatever you can to track it down.

Estranged for 15 years, the two Fontaine sisters are reunited when Juliette (Kristen Scott Thomas) temporarily moves in with Lea (Elsa Zylberstein). Having not seen each other since they were young, Juliette must not only get acquainted with her sister but Lea’s husband and two adopted daughters as well. As Lea slowly brings Juliette into her world questions start to arise about Juliette’s past. To give away anymore of the plot would spoil the essence of the film. I will say that this is a profoundly rich tale about tragedy and forgiveness. As the story unfolds you not only understand the choices the characters make, but the ramifications as well.

While there are some minor similarities to the film Rachel Getting Married, it is not apparent until the last few reels. This is due to the fact that I’ve Loved You So Long has its own unique views on family and secrets. I loved that the sister’s relationship was not one of constant bickering and pettiness. Instead the film focuses on each sister’s need to reconnect. Whether it was Lea’s longing to reconcile with Juliette, or Juliette’s reconnection with the world in general, the story never felt forced. Kristen Scott Thomas gives a marvelous performance as Juliette; brilliantly conveying both anger and sadness through the most subtle of nuances. Elsa Zylberstein is also great as Lea; she helps to bring authenticity to the sisters dynamic. The script from writer/director Philippe Claudel is extremely well written. The plot unfolds slowly yet you are constantly enthralled with both story and the characters. Powerful without being trite, I’ve Loved You So Long is a truly engaging film that should not be missed.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Only The Lucky Ones Are This Happy

Happy-Go-Lucky

Happy-Go-Lucky is one of those films that will either entertain and/or drive you mad depending on your view. Directed by Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies), the film focuses on Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a free-spirited elementary school teacher who always sees the glass as half full. After her bike is stolen, Poppy decides to take up driving lessons. Enter Scott (Eddie Marsan), Poppy’s hypersensitive driving instructor. Scott believes in order and structure, which is a direct contrast to Poppy’s extroverted personality. As the two meet every Saturday for lessons, they clash over everything from driving to the world in general. Besides worrying about getting a license Poppy must also deal with two very different sisters, and also find time for love.

While I enjoyed Happy-Go-Lucky there were times when I started to question if the film was actually going anywhere? The film is fairly light on plot, which makes certain scenes feel rather pointless. Mike Leigh spends a lot of time at the beginning having us aimlessly follow Poppy around. It is almost like Leigh is testing the audience’s stamina to see which side we will fall on? Are we patient and optimistic like Poppy? Or are we pessimistic and quick to judge like most of the world? Too be honest, I switched sides at numerous points in the film. The fact that Poppy pretty much stays the same throughout the entire film is inspiring. It would be nice if we could all be that cheerful. Yet there are moments in this film when Poppy blissfully does things that most of us would consider dangerous. The film strives to argue that you cannot truly be happy if live a life consumed with fear and intolerance. While this is true, knowingly putting yourself in harms way is not the best way to show how tolerant you are.

Still, as a comedy, there is a lot to enjoy in the film. Sally Hawkins’ does a great job with what is arguably one of the toughest roles to take on. Sure it is easy to dismiss Poppy as overly joyful, yet it Hawkins’ who must constantly keep Poppy from drifting into the realm of absurd. She manages to keep Poppy a believable character that you cannot help but care for. Not to mention that Sally is a comedic gem; both her physical and verbal timing is spot on. Happy-Go-Lucky is definitely a hit or miss film depending on your tolerance level, yet for the most part I was entertained.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Jame's Solace Is Not Bonding

Quantum of Solace

Literally picking up five minutes after Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace finds our beloved secret agent, James Bond, looking to avenge the death of his love. While interrogating the mysterious Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), Bond quickly learns that something far bigger than he expected is at play. A powerful organization, named Quantum, appears to have been operating in secret for a long time. While following a series of thin leads, Bond stumbles onto Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), an environmentalist who has an unusual interest in acquiring a large patch of desert. Greene also seems interested in permanently breaking up with his girlfriend, Camille (Olga Kurylenko), through rather illegal methods. Bond must not only race to uncover Greene’s real plans; but also figure out how Quantum can operate without being detected by the worlds top intelligence agencies.

There has been a lot of critical backlash towards Quantum of Solace leading up to the film’s release, and not all of it is unwarranted. This film really tries hard to convert many of the fans of the Bourne trilogy who never cared for James Bond. Yet in doing so, it loses a lot of what made the revamping of James Bond in Casino Royale so special. Casino Royale did such a great job of balancing a well structured plot and heart-pumping action. The first half of Quantum of Solace suffers from a case of style over substance. It felt like the film did not officially start until the midway point (i.e. the Tosca segment); then it was over before you could blink. The first half of the film was non-stop action without any real subtext. The open car chase was not as suspenseful as director Marc Foster intended it to be. Mainly because all the quick edits did not allow the audience to really soak in the tension of the scene. After that, it was pretty much action sequence after action sequence. It also did not help that people died before they even utter a single word. Which made the introduction, and evolution, of both Camille and Dominic Greene very stunted.

Yes, this Quantum does feel more like a buffer to the next film, but there was still much to enjoy. The plot driven second half saves the film completely in my opinion. There are still several big actions sequences, but the added context makes them far more exciting than anything in the first half of the film. I loved the fact that Bond finally has an organization (a la SPECTRE) to do battle with again. I thought the whole segment at the opera was the highlight of the film, with the airplane sequence a close second. Also I really liked Kurylenko as a Bond girl, I just wish her storyline was pieced together better. Amalric was good but they needed to give him a menacing henchmen; it was a little hard to believe that Dominic could go hand to hand Bond. Quantum of Solace is very flawed, yet it is not the horrendous train-wreck that some try to make it out to be. While not great a film, it still ranks somewhere in the middle of the lengthy Bond canon.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Rachel's Getting Married And We're All Invited

Rachel Getting Married

Someone once told me that funerals and weddings bring out the worst in families. The latter is especially true in Jonathan Demme’s latest film, “Rachel Getting Married”. Fresh off a lengthy stint in rehab, Kym (Anne Hathaway) returns home for her sister’s, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), wedding. Despite the initial pleasantries, the presence of Kym clearly causes tension amongst the family. Despite her father’s (Bill Irwin) best efforts to maintain the peace, Kym’s unstable nature only helps to fan the flames that have been simmering for a longtime. As the hours get closer to the big event, the emotional scars of the past become more pertinent. Forcing the family, including Kym’s remarried mother (Debra Winger), to confront several important issues left unspoken.

The way that emotional baggage of the past unfolds is what made “Rachel Getting Married” really standout for me. Picture watching someone slowly peeling off a band aid and then picking at the scab underneath until bleeds and you get a sense of what this film is like. There are several wonderfully cringe inducing moments due to the realness, and emotional rawness, of the characters. Examples of this include: Kym’s speech at the rehearsal dinner, the scene at the substance abuser meeting, Kym’s encounter with her mother, the dishwasher competition, etc. In regards to the dishwasher scene, this also reminds me of something else that I loved about the film; the way in which humour and music were used throughout. The humour and music perfectly accentuated the joyful togetherness that comes from wedding related festivities. Yet Demme, like a skilled boxer he leads you left and hits you right, also uses those two devices to distract you just enough to set up some truly heartbreaking moments.

While both Demme and writer Jenny Lumet are to be praised for skillfully keeping “Rachel Getting Married” from becoming another clichéd film about dysfunctional families; the actors also deserve much of the credit as well. Anne Hathaway delivers a wonderful performance as Kym. She is never a character that you completely like, yet you cannot help but care for her. I guess that can also be said about several of the characters in the film, which is a testament to Lumet’s layering. Two of the best understated performances, in my opinion, came from Bill Irwin and Debra Winger. As the patriarch, Paul, Irwin must run through a course of emotions all while trying to keep the rope that is holding his family together from breaking. What I loved about Winger’s character, Abby, is that she says so much with her body language. At first you think that she is just cold and a tad flighty, yet as the film progresses you realize that she is just as damage, if not more, as everyone else. Although “Rachel Getting Married” may not be the feel good film of the year, I definitely think it is worth seeing.


Friday, November 07, 2008

A Race That May Bore You To Death

Death Race

When does a “B-movie” stop being a “B-movie”? When is it just a bad film? What about the ones that are so bad they are good? These questions have crossed my mind a lot in the last few years. Most recently with Paul W.S. Anderson’s latest video game opus…err cult remake, “Death Race”. Based on the Roger Corman produced cult classic, “Death Race 2000”, this version is set in the dystopian future of 2012 were economic crisis has ravaged the world. The only form of entertainment comes from Death Race, a car race where prisoners race around a track and try to blow each other up. The races are so popular that each of the three stages are sold separately on pay per view sites across the web. Apparently in four years the world will forget that they can just download the video game “Mario Kart”…but I digress.

As luck would have it, Jensen (Jason Statham) is framed for murdering his wife and sent to the same prison where Death Race occurs. With the celebrated masked racer, Frankenstein, still recovering from injuries from the last race; Hennessey (Joan Allen), the prison warden and creator of Death Race, is in need of someone to take his place before the next pay per view. Frankenstein is one win away from his fifth victory and, as the rules state, with one more win he earns a get out of jail free pass. Seeing that no one knows what Frankenstein really looks like, and the fact that Jensen happens to be a former racing legend…wait…did I forget to mention that? Well that nugget of knowledge, like pretty much everything else, is divulged in one of the random throwaway scenes near the beginning. Anyways, Jensen is coerced into taking the driving job with the promise of freedom. Yet not only must Jensen inherit Frankenstein’s mask, but his archrival Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) as well. Can Jensen figure out who really killed his wife in time? Will the race prove far more difficult than he expected? Should you skip “Death Race” and just play “Mario Kart” instead? The answers are yes, yes, and yes.

To be fair, you really cannot go into a film called “Death Race” with any real expectations. The movie pretty much delivers on its promise of outlandish deaths and crazy looking cars. Plus, “Death Race” practically begs you to turn your brain off your brain by revealing the entire plot in the trailer…twist and all. Still, you cannot help feeling a little cheated after watching the picture. The major problem with "Death Race" is that it is a big budget production trying to sell itself as a “B-movie.” Yet the movie never really wants to commit to the “B-movie” aesthetics. It really aims to be more of a mindless summer blockbuster. Well at least it got the mindless part right...blockbuster...not so much. What makes a lot of “B-movies” special is the fact that they seem to do so much with so little. Sure the production is poor and the camp value is high; but the movies usually appeal to our most primal urges. This is not to say that big budget fare cannot achieve the same effect. Movies such as “Grindhouse”, “Snakes on a Plane”, ”Cloverfield” (to a certain extent), and several others have proven this. Yet when you have production value as slick as “Death Race;” it is tough to pawn off the movie as something that is supposed to be intentionally bad. Especially when you have scenes clearly designed for the technically savvy video game generation (i.e. driving over weapon power-ups, etc). While is not the worst thing to come out this year, the movie does get boring fast. The action is redundant and the humour is practically non-existent. If anything, the only thing “Death Race” really succeeds at is making you wish you were actually watching the original “Death Race 2000.” At least that movie knew how to let loose and have fun like a true “B-movie.”


Warning: “Red Ban” Trailer (i.e. strong language and violence)

Friday, October 31, 2008

Can You Keep A Secret?

The Secret Life of Bees

Secrets are abound in “The Secret Life of Bees” the film adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel of the same name. It seems everyone in this film has something to hide. Yet the greatest secret of all is how painfully slow the latter half of this film is. Set in the racially charged south of 1964, Lily (Dakota Fanning) lives on a peach farm with her abusive father (Paul Bettany) and caregiver Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). Lily is haunted by a vague, yet disturbing, memory of her dead mother. Yet the more Lily tries to make sense of these visions, the more strenuous Lily’s relationship with her father gets. Lily finally reaches her breaking point when Rosaleen is been violently beating by local bigots, and her father refuses to stand up for the caregiver. With nothing more than an old picture to guide them, Lily and Rosaleen run away to a small South Carolina town that might hold the answers to her mother’s past. Taken in by the honey-making Boatwright sisters (Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo), Lily must unlock the secrets to her past in order to establish her future.

It is the scenes at the Boatwright sisters’ house where “The Secret Life of Bees” is both interesting and equally frustrating. This is manly due to the fact that director Gina Prince-Bythewood tries to cram too much from the book onto the screen. As a result, many of the story threads are never fully flushed out. A good example can be found in the characters of Rosaleen and June (Keys). Rosaleen is pretty much non-existent in the second half of the film. Her change through the course of the film hardly registers at the end. June is reduced to a one-note character, whose anger comes off as petty. Even the spiritual aspect of the film does not have the same emotional impact that it should for this type of film. Gina Prince-Bythewood has proven with “Love and Basketball” that she is a talent director who knows how to flesh out characters. Yet by cramming so much into this film, she not only makes the film feel longer than it is, but she actually stunts the characters development as well. The cast does a decent job with what they are given, the standouts being Fanning, Okonedo, and Latifah. Still had they not tried so hard to remain faithful to the original text, “The Secret Life of Bees” might have actually turned into a great film instead of a barely passable one.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Reason To Visit Your Local Video Store

The Visitor

Every year there are a few great films that seem to go under the radar of many filmgoers. There are various reasons for this: they are not shown in your local multiplexes, they do not have any big name stars, there are no over-the-top effects, etc. Yet when given the chance these small, but special, films have the ability to completely blow you away. ”The Visitor” is one of these films. A small hidden gem that is far more powerful than ninety percent of the films you will see this year.

The film focuses on Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a professor who is so bored with his life that he spends most of his energy just trying to fake his way through a meaningless existence. When Walter is forced to go back to New York for a conference, he is shocked to find a young couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), living in his old apartment. Having lived there for two months, Tarek and Zainab are equally startled as they realize that their friend, Ivan, has fraudulently rented them the place. To make matters worst Tarek and Zainab are both illegally immigrants. Seeing that they have nowhere to go, Walter decides to let the couple stay for a few days until they can find a new place. Unbeknownst to Walter, this small gesture will lead to an experience that will ultimately change his entire outlook on life.

Director Tom McCarthy’s film is a wonderful study on human connection. All the bonds in this film feel honest and real. The thing I loved about “The Visitor” was that the film never quite played out in the way I thought it would. By the end of the film you understand why certain choices were made, but you wish the characters had not been placed in a position to make them. Credit must be given to McCarthy for not using any conventional plot devices to move the story along. He lets the characters and the pacing speak for itself. As Walter, Richard Jenkins gives one of the finest performances I have seen all year. It would be a travesty if Jenkins does not get recognized during next year’s award season. “The Visitor” is now out on DVD, so do yourself a huge favour and go out and rent it ASAP. Even if you think this type of film might not be your “cup of tea”...still rent it! If you go into the film with an open mind, you will be greatly rewarded by the end. In short, “The Visitor” is one of the best films to come out this year.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Horror Is What I Should Have Saw

Now that my post film festival hiatus is complete time to get back to business…

Saw V

Let me start off by saying I walked into “Saw V” without seeing “Saw IV”. Not that it really mattered, having seen the first three films I pretty much knew what to expect….or at least so I thought. Like many in the fairly packed theatre, I was expecting to see people getting tortured in horrific, and outlandishly elaborate, ways. This is a horror film after all. Sadly, first time director David Hackl seems to have forgotten “the horror” aspect in this movie. Instead of the usual “Saw” chills, we get is a lot of expository dialogue that answers questions which hardly anyone was asking. There is so much talking in this movie that I actually started to wonder if sitting through “High School Musical 3” would provide more bang for my horror buck.

The movie follows Agent Strathm (Scott Patterson) as he tries to piece together how Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) was so successful in orchestrating the murders in the previous films. Did Jigsaw have an accomplice that the police were not aware of? As Agent Strathm’s obsession with finding the truth grows, so does his suspicion of those working around him. This includes Agent Hoffman (Costa Mandylor) who, like Strathm, was trapped in Jigsaw’s house of horrors. Yet, unlike Strathm, Agent Hoffman seems to have survived without any significant injuries. Is Hoffman really a suspect? Or is Jigsaw leading Strathm into a greater trap? To top it all off, there is also a sub-plot surrounding a group of people (Julie Benz, Meagan Good, Carlo Rota, etc.) trapped in Jigsaw’s fun house of terror. Why are they there? Will they survive? Chances are good that you probably will not care either way by the mid-point film.

“Saw V” feels like a straight to DVD movie released on the big screen. The whole production feels like it has incurred major budget cuts. Jigsaw’s traps in this movie are far from elaborate, and they overuse the “pipe-bomb” stuff to death. Agent Strathm and Agent Hoffman practically look identical in the first twenty minutes of the movie. A mere bandage is all that is used to tell them apart. While the film touches on the four movies that preceded it, this does nothing to enhance the overall story. While I personally felt that the franchise started to lose steam with “Saw III”, there was still enough gore in that film to satisfy even the most causal horror fan. At the end of the day “Saw V” is nothing more than a film that one big prologue to “Saw 6”. Yet after sitting through the abnormal amount of dialogue in this movie, one wonders if there is any blood left in the veins of this franchise.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

TIFF 08 Recap Part 4

Part 1 (including JCVD, RocknRolla, etc.)
Part 2 (including Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, New York I Love You, etc.)
Part 3 (including Flash of Genius, The Wrestler, etc.)


Slumdog Millionaire

A curious thing happened at the beginning of this screen. While introducing his latest film, Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle tried his hardest to down play the movie. Trying to curb the hype that was brewing after the first screening, Boyle joked that it was simply “a crappy film, made by crappy director, from a crappy script.” Unfortunately, when you create such a crowd-pleasing film there really is no stopping the hype. Winner of the festival’s People’s Choice award, “Slumdog Millionaire” is an uplifting tale about perseverance and love. Jamal (Dev Patel) is one question away from becoming a millionaire on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which is quite an achievement. The problem is Jamal is just a poor boy from the slums with no formal education. How does he know the answers to questions that even lawyers could not answer? Suspecting that he is working with an accomplice, the police arrested Jamal on suspicions of cheating and brutally interrogated him. Yet before the police can figure out the secrets to Jamal’s game show success, they must understand secrets to Jamal’s past.

Having watched the film, I can understand why Boyle attempted to downplay it. Slumdog Millionaire is the type of crowd-pleaser that will probably fall victim to “over-hype” by time it gets released. The film works best when you go in with an open mind. If you walk in expecting to be wowed instantly, you will probably be disappointed (as I slightly was with Little Miss Sunshine a few years back). Still, it is almost impossible not to get caught up in the characters and the vibrant colours in this film. This is one of those films that I just fell in love with. I thought the cast, especially Dev Patel as the older Jamal, did a good job. I like how Boyle intertwined the film with both moments of light humour and darker content. Sure the latter half of the film is a tad predictable; yet, even though you know what is coming, you are still smiling when it happens. I will go into my thoughts on this film more when it comes out. I will just say that I highly recommend this film, but just be sure to go into it with an open mind.




Killing Kasztner

Gaylen Ross’ documentary Killing Kasztner looks at the debate, which still rages to this day, surrounding Dr. Israel Kasztner. During the events of the Holocaust, Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew, made deals with prominent Nazi officials to buy Jewish lives. Kasztner purchased the life of thousands of Jews and transported them safe to Switzerland and other destinations. It was the highest number of Jews saved during the war by a fellow Jew. Yet after the war, people started to question not only Kasztner’s role but his associations as well. As Kasztner worked closely with the Nazi’s, and even spoke in favour of a few who helped him, rumours surfaced deeming him a traitor. Even going as far as saying that he was working in conjunction with the Nazi’s to send Jews to the death camps. The accusations not only did this tarnish Kasztner’s reputation but also proved fatal Kasztner himself.

Was Kasztner a traitor? Or was he a hero? Thought Ross’ documentary clearly takes a side, she does a good job of presenting both sides of the debate. The film is as much about Kasztner the man, as it is about the family he left behind. Ross gets many candid moments with Kasztner’s daughter and his three granddaughters. Yet some of the most shocking testimony comes from the man who ultimately killed Kasztner and a few of the survivors that were saved by Kasztner’s trains. One survivor in particular, who still considers Kasztner a traitor, stubbornly claims that she could have probably saved herself from the death camps provided she had the right tools. It is jaw-dropping testimonials like these that really give “Killing Kasztner” some energy. I found that the first half of the document kind of plods along as it gives history into Dr. Israel Kasztner’s life. Yet the pace picks up in second half as it focuses more on the fallout after the war, and Kasztner’s assassination. While the much anticipated “meeting” between Kasztner’s daughter and her fathers killer is not as thrilling as Ross plays it to be, it does add an interesting aspect to the overall film. Though it starts off rather generic “Killing Kasztner” eventually finds its groove and sheds new light on an important chapter of history.


50 Dead Men Walking

Jim Sturgess finally convinces me that he can carry a film on his own with a great performance in Kari Skogland’s “50 Dead Men Walking.” Strugess plays Martin, a man who goes from being petty Belfast Hustler to a British informant in Ireland during the volatile 1980’s. Recruited by a British Intelligence agent (Ben Kingsely), Martin is forced to inform the British on all the activities of the Irish Republic Army. The higher Martin moves up the Irish Republic Army ranks, the more privileged information he gains access to. Yet the list of people in the IRA that are “in the know” regarding bombings, murder, etc starts to dwindle the higher up the ladder Martin gets. Ultimately making it harder for Martin to both cover up his tracks with the IRA, and maintain his level of production for the British.

While an enjoyable film the one thing that might hinder people’s enjoyment of the film is the dialogue. More specifically, the fact that they will be many moments when you will not have a clue what people are saying? Some of the Belfast accents are so thick, and the characters speak so quickly, that I heard many grumbles at the end of the screening regarding this. Still if you can live with not understanding what people are saying every now and then, there is much to recommend in “50 Dead Men Walking.” Sturgess and Kingsley have good chemistry together. The bond that their characters form feels natural and you understand why certain decisions are made later on. Similar to Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”, though not quite as good, Kari Skogland maintain the right level of tension throughout. Skogland always leaves the audiences with a since that at any moment things could crumble for Martin. “50 Dead Men Walking” does not anything new to the “double agent” genre, yet it is still entertaining enough to keep the audience glued to the very end.


The Brothers Bloom

Rian Johnson follows-up his brilliant debut film “Brick” with a whimsical tale about two con men trying to pull off one last con. At an early age, orphans Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) devised the perfect 13-part con. The secret being that everyone must get what they want. After years playing the romantic lead, Bloom decides he wants out. He is tired of creating hollow physical connections with women and wants to find a more meaningful relationship. Unfortunately for Bloom, Stephen has different plans. With the assistance of their mysterious partner Bang Bang (Rinko Kikurchi), Stephen convinces Bloom to help pull of one final con involving a lonely eccentric heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz). Things start to get complicated for The Brothers Bloom when Bloom starts to develop real feelings for Penelope, and Stephen in counters a nemesis from his past.

Leading up to the festival Peter Howell, film critic of the Toronto Star, called the Brothers Bloom “one of the best movies of the year.” While I am a huge fan of Howell’s reviews, personally I would not rank The Brothers Bloom that high. The film is smart and fun but I think the parts are greater than the sum. Although Rian Johnson does a good job juggling the con and the romance for the most part, the latter half of the film is not as strong as the initial set up. I also felt that Penelope was a little too flighty than she really needed to be. For an eccentric woman who literally has the capability to learn pretty much everything, she has several moments where she comes off unexplainably dim. Also, despite the wonderful vintage clothing, the film seems to take place in a modern day setting. Yet there are times when all the characters react to situations as if they were back in the 1930’s. Still, despite its flaws, the film is very charming and provides many great laughs. All the actors have fun taking their characters to the limit. Especially Ruffalo and Brody, who have great comedic timing. Yet the real star of the film is Rinko Kikurchi who steals every scene she is in. Bang Bang is probably one of the greatest sidekicks to hit the big screen in ages. Despite not having any real lines, Rinko Kikurchi brings so much to the role physically. Based on her facial expressions alone, you could easily picture her in a film with Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin.




Gigantic

Think only celebrities are obsessed with adopting babies from other countries? Well let me introduce you to Brian Weathersby (Paul Dano), a young man who has wanted to adopt a baby from China ever since he was 8 years old. One day while at work at a mattress store, Brian meets Harriet (Zooey Deschanel), a woman picking up a mattress purchased by her wealthy father (John Goodman). Brian and Harriet strike up a friendship that ultimately leads to more. Yet just as things get moving on the romantic front for Brian, things also start to move on the adoption front as well. Not only must Brian re-evaluate his priorities, but he must also deal with Harriet’s deep fears of commitment.

Gigantic ended up being a bit of a puzzler for me. While the film was interesting, I could not help but feel that a something was missing. The film seems to end before it really gets started. A lot of the characters, especially the supporting cast, almost seem quirky for the sake of being quirky. Harriet’s issues seemed rather tacked on. I would have loved if her character were fleshed out a little more. It felt like a portion of the tale was missing. Also, it seems everyone in the film except for Brian was extremely well off financially. Harriet’s father at one point grills Brian about raising a child on a mattress salesman salary. Yet you never really get the since that Brian would be struggling that much. His folks and siblings are very well off, and their tight family dynamic is featured prominently in the film. It is safe to assume they would have no problem lending him a few bucks if he really needed it. I think this is one of those films that I may need to see again to get the full impact, as it stands “Gigantic” left me craving more. I am still trying to decide whether or not that is a good thing.


Cloud 9

“Sex and the City” proved that single women over forty could still have a sex life. Well “Cloud 9” goes one step further by saying that women over sixty can still get “their groove on.” Featuring the most graphic, yet realistic, depiction of sexual intimacy between couples in there sixties and seventies; “Cloud 9” dares to show that human desires do not magically stop as we age. After thirty years of marriage Inge (Ursula Werner), sixty, decides to act on her lust for Karl (Horst Westphal), seventy-three. Eventually Inge falls in love with Karl and decides to come clean about the affair to her family. To Inge’s surprise, her eldest daughter is very supportive and encourages Inge to continue with the affair but not to tell Inge’s husband, Werner (Horst Rehberg). Yet Inge, riddled with guilt, decides to tell Werner anyways. Obvious to everyone except Inge, Werner is both outrage and hurt by the news. Should Inge follow her heart? If so, can she live with the consequences?

While the film is to be commended its frank approach at showing that love knows now age, “Cloud 9” will surely cause different levels of discussion based on your perspective. The major issue I had with the film is similar to the one I had with the film “The Other Man.” If the film were about Werner cheating, both Inge and her daughter would have drastically different responses than they currently have in the film. Despite her age, Inge basically turns into a schoolgirl again when she is with Karl. Which is understandable, yet I find it hard to believe that Inge would be so naïve to think that Werner would be cool with it. When Werner tells her that she is sixty and should know better; Inge replies, “What does my age have to do with it?” Inge’s justifies the affair by stating “I cannot help who I fall in love with, why can’t you just be happy for me?” Again, picture a man saying this…yep I thought so. Inge’s sudden child-like innocence aside, I must give Ursula Werner credit for giving a wonderfully brave performance. Regardless if you agree with her character’s action, Ursula successfully makes you feel for Inge the entire way through. While “Cloud 9” proves that while some people advance years of life, the struggles that we all have with relationships are timeless.


Snow

Set in Bosnia in 1997, “Snow” focuses on the village of Slavno, which is comprised almost entirely of women (the exception being a Priest and an orphan boy). The war has been over for two years; and most of them still do not know if their husbands or children are alive. The film looks at the relationship between Alma and Nadija. Alma knows for sure her husband died during the war; while Nadija and her teenage daughter hold out hope that know news is good news. To make matters worst, a couple of Serbian men show up offering to buy the women’s properties in order to make hotels, a resort, etc. Alma sees the developers as a threat to the village and the memories the village holds, where as Nadija and the other women see it as a chance for a fresh start.

I really had no idea what to expect from “Snow”, as merely picked it as it fit into my schedule when exchanging my ticket for the film “Il Divo.” Yet I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. I liked how director Aida Begic not only provided the audience with good insight into the daily life of these women. How the war impacted them and their children. I also found it interesting how Begic subtly incorporated the spiritual undertones. Although “Snow” is rather sombre viewing for 9am on a Friday morning, it is worth seeing to get a perspective on the Bosnian-Serb conflict from the people it affected the most




What Doesn’t Kill You

Paulie (Ethan Hawke) and Brian (Mark Ruffalo) are childhood friends who grew up in the mean streets of Boston. While running errands for a local gangster, Paulie and Brian decide it is time to branch out on their own. With no real concrete plan of action, the men seem to get caught in a cycle of one petty score after the next. Soon Brian starts to dabble in drug use. This not only puts a strain on Brian’s wife (Amanda Peet), but on Brian’s relationship with Paulie as well. “What Doesn’t Kill You” looks at what happens when people are caught in a downward spiral; and the sacrifices they are forced to make in order to stop the cycle.

I went in expecting this film to be another Boston crime drama ala “The Departed”, and this film could not be further from that. At its core the film is more about addiction than it is about hoods. Brian is not only addicted to drugs, but fast money that a life of crime provides. Written and directed by Brian Goodman, “What Doesn’t Kill You” feels more like a confessional more than anything else. Ruffalo and Hawke give good performances in their roles. At times Paulie and Brian feel like stereotypical characters that you have seen a dozen times before. Yet that is more a flaw of the script than the performances. While Goodman does a decent job for in his directorial debut, the film lacks an original style to set this film apart from others in its genre.


Witch Hunt

Narrated by Sean Penn, “Witch Hunt” is a documentary that looks at how the legal system failed a whole community in Bakersfield California. In 1983, the district attorney (who is still in office today) was determined to get child molesters off the streets by any means necessary. Unfortunately many innocent parents were arrested and convicted as child molesters. Worst of all, their own children were coerced into falsely testifying against them. As the number of wrongful convictions rose, so did the outlandish allegations (i.e. Satanic rituals, etc.). Some parents received up to 480 years in prison. While several appealed the decision, justice took long to come. As some husbands and wives spent 5 to 12 years in the toughest jails. One man, John Stoll, spent 20 years in jail before his appeal was finally heard.

The thing that stuck with me most about “Witch Hunt” was how easily the family dynamic can be destroyed. The parents not only lost their children but their spouses as well. Husbands and wives locked up in separate prisons only could communicate through letters. By time they were finally freed, their lives had past most of them by. They became outsiders in their own families. Many of the children, and the neighborhood kids, featured in the film are still damaged to this day. As they have had to grow up riddled with guilt. Many of them commented on the fact that, now as adults, they could not even bath their own children for fear of what happen to their parents and neighbors might happen to them. What is most infuriating about the whole situation is that the district attorney, the police, and social workers involved all ended up doing quiet well politically as a result of the convictions.




Pontypool

If you walk into “Pontypool” expecting a straightforward zombie movie then you will be disappointed. The film is more like a second cousin to the zombie genre. Similar to 28 Days Later, “Pontypool” is about a virus that spreads throughout a small community, and turns people into zombie like beings. The catch is the virus is not spread through bites, but words. That is right…words. Which is fitting because the entire film takes place in a radio station. Big time radio personality Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is now forced to work in the small town of Pontypool, where the radio station is located in the church basement. He is constantly fighting with his producer, Sydney (Linda Houle), over the way things are down in the big city versus in the small town. One day while on the air, Grant receives word from a roving reporter that a large mob of people is attacking a prominent doctors house. Soon more reports start flooding in about people doing horrific things. As the terror inches closer and closer, Grant and Sydney race to fill the airwaves with updates and save themselves in the process.

Bruce McDonald crafts a solid film out of a very unique premise. “Pontypool” will surely annoy many as it takes a vastly different approach to what you see in most zombie/viral movies. First off the film has a surprising amount of humour in it. The writing in the first half of the film is quiet sharp. Also, by setting the film in the confines of a radio station is a brilliant move. It not only helps to build the tension, but it also forces the audience to create their own images of what is happen outside. At times the film seems to trip over its own logic. This is most evident in the latter part of the film. “Pontypool” is definitely an offbeat film, yet it won me over nonetheless.



Yes Madam, Sir

Directed by Megan Doneman, and narrated by Helen Mirren, “Yes Madam, Sir” takes a look at the extraordinary life of India’s first female police officer, Kiran Bedi. The film focuses on how Bedi rose through the ranks of a corrupt system, encountering hardships every step of the way. Bedi not only reformed on of India’s most hostile prisons, but also changed the way the world thought about prison systems in general. As Bedi started to get media attention around the world, her superiors became even more determined to see her fall. They would constantly re-assign her to positions that they assumed she would flounder; but Bedi continued to prove them wrong. Yet Bedi’s success did come at a price. The film also looks at how Bedi’s family took a backseat to her career centric mentality.

“Yes Madam, Sir” is a fairly traditional documentary that achieves what it sets out to do. Kiran Bedi is a very charismatic woman who the audience is immediately taken with. While her achievements are to be commended, the film does not shy away from the sacrifices. Bedi is so driven with her work and status that everything else in her life, especially family, is viewed in lower terms of priority. One thing I wish Doneman had done a little more was provided more interviews with those who are against Bedi. The film is almost pro Bedi a little too much. The audience gets on Bedi’s side pretty early on, so a good portion of the film feels like it is preaching to the choir. Had the film been a little more evenly split between Bedi supporters and detractors, like say “Killing Kasztner,” it would have made Bedi’s achievements even greater.


Director Megan Doneman and Kiran Bedi held a Q&A session. Oddly enough Bedi is far more interesting to see in real life than on film. She talked about her experience working two years for the United Nations. Pointing out that the U.N. has the same level of bureaucracy as the Indian Police Services. The only difference is that the U.N does everything through committees, which is why nothing ever gets done.


The Sky Crawlers

Japanese anime wiz Marmoru Oshii, who directed the wonderful film “Ghost in the Shell”, delivers his latest visual treat “The Sky Crawlers.” Part “Ender’s Game”, part philosophical commentary; the film focuses on the war between two corporations. Unlike most wars, this battle is solely handle in the sky. As Kildren, kid pilots who never live long enough to grow old, are sent out take down the enemy. One pilot, Yuichi, has just been assigned to a new base as the film opens. Yuichi is highly skilled, yet he only seems to have vague memories of his past. Soon Yuichi meets and falls for Suito, a female commander filled with anger. The more time Yuichi spends with Suito, the more he begins to get a disturbing new awareness of his past and the meaning of his life.

While visually stunning, “The Sky Crawlers” was painful to watch from a story perspective. The film gets bogged down with trying to be way too deep (philosophically speaking). Although the audience can pretty much figure out the secret to Yuichi’s vague memory early on, Oshii drags out every single scene far longer than they really need to be. Incorporating useless filler disguised as meaningful plot devices. If we know the answer is “A”, all the philosophical jargon and repetitive dialogue does not hide the fact that the answer is “A.” The only real saving grace for the film is the animation. Yet had they spent the same amount of time on the script as they did perfecting the animation, “The Sky Crawlers” might have actually been a half decent film.

Friday, September 26, 2008

TIFF 08 Recap Part 3

Part 1 (Featuring JCVD, RocknRolla, etc.)
Part 2 (Featuring Nick and Norah's Infinite Playist, Ashes of Time Redux, etc.)

Flash of Genius

In this David versus Goliath tale, Greg Kinnear plays professor Robert Kearns, inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. Based on real events, the film documents how Kearns was the first person to successfully master the device; beating out many of the major car companies’ top engineers. Kearns brought his invention to the Ford Motor Company with hopes of manufacturing the device himself. Unfortunately Ford had different plans; they stole his data and started massed producing the wipers in their own vehicles. What followed next was an extensive legal battle that ultimately pushed both Kearns and his family to the brink.

If “Flash of Genius” had been done in an edgier style, say like Michael Mann’s “The Insider”, I think you would be hearing a lot of Oscar buzz for Kinnear’s performance. Sadly the film harkens back to the Frank Capra era of cinema, and ends up coming off a little too predictable. The thing I found most fascinating about the film was the relationship between Kearns and his wife (Lauren Graham). The film does a good job showing how Kearns obsession for justice slowly ate away at their once perfect marriage. Another aspects that stood out for me was Robert Kearns’ persistence. It was never really about the money; he merely wanted the public recognition. While his drive is to be commended, ultimately the audience is left to question if the result worth the journey? Flash of Genius” may not bring anything new to the genre, but it is worth checking out mainly for Kinnear’s performance.




The Wrestler

Speaking of great performances, Mickey Rouke does a stellar job as a Randy “The Ram” Robinson a wrestler twenty-five years past his prime. Unable to give up the life, Randy moves from one meaningless wrestling gig to the next just to cover rent. Randy’s personal life is also in shambles, he has not spoken to his daughter (Rachel Evan Wood) in years and his health is not what it use to be. The closes thing Randy has to a friend is a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei); who only views Randy as simply a client. After a wrestling event leaves Randy in the hospital, he is forced to contemplate his celebrated life in the ring versus rebuilding the shatter pieces in his personal life.

While Rouke will receive most of the praise for his work, and deservedly so, credit must also go to director Darren Aronofsky. For once Aronofsky proves that he can tell a straightforward story. There are no fancy editing devices, no major special effects, no major plot twist, etc. “The Wrestler” is just a small simple story rich with well developed characters. Both Marisa Tomei and Rachel Evan Wood give strong performances in their respected supporting. Hopefully Tomei will finally see some better roles comeback her way. She proves in this film, as she did with “In The Bed Room”, that she can handle the meatier roles if given the chance. As a lot of press has already been given to “The Wrestler” since its win at the Venice film festival, I will merely say that it is definitely one the better films to come out this year.




Last Stop 174 (Ultima Parada 174)

Having missed Jose Padilha’s much acclaimed documentary “Bus 174”, about the hostage taking of Brazilian transit bus 174, at the festival a few years back; I was looking forward to at least seeing the dramatized version of that event. Unfortunately the events surrounding that tragic day are only featured in the last twenty minutes of “Last Stop 174.” What we get instead his a tale of young misguided Sandro eventually becomes the infamous 22 year-old hostage taker. The film follows both Sandro and his friend Alessandro as they struggle to survive the harsh streets of Brazil. They commit “drive-by” style robberies on unsuspecting citizens stuck in gridlock traffic, sell drugs, and various other deeds just to get by. There are also several other subplots going on in the film as well. One focuses on Sandro’s relationship with his prostitute girlfriend; another focuses on an outreach group trying to help the homeless kids; and the one involves Alessandro’s birth mother Marisa who, once a former drug addict, is now a born again Christian. Having not seen her son since he was a baby, Marisa mistakes Sandro for Alessandro and tries to bring him into her personal life…to the dismay of Marisa’s preacher husband.

Sadly all these threads feel extraneous, and only bog down the film. I had several problems with this film, the main one being that Sandro’s life is not that interesting. There is no real depth to the character, and frankly he is just not that likeable. You feel no sympathy at all for him. Yes he lost Sandro mother at a young age, but so have many other kids on the streets of Brazil. He descent into crime and drug use is nothing we have not scene before. “City of God” painted a far better picture than this film of the youth in Brazil. Also I did not see the use of having Alessandro, or his mother, in the film at all. By time everything plays out, you realize that they have no real part the direct events leading up to the hostage crisis. I actually found Alessandro to be a far more interesting character; too bad the film could not have focused on just him. Skip “Last Stop 174” and just rent the vastly superior documentary “Bus 174.”




A Film With Me In It


The problem I have with a lot of dark comedies is they go so dark, that the creators forget the humour. Fortunately, “A Film With Me In It” is not one of those films. This is dark comedy the way it should be done. The plot is about an aspiring actor, Mark (Mark Doherty), whose life seems to be getting worse by the day. He cannot get any roles, his live-in girlfriend has started sleeping in a separate room, his brother is a paralyzed, and his landlord refuses to fix his faulty apartment until Mark pays his three-month late rent. On one fateful day three unforeseen, yet hilarious, events occur mere moments from each other. Unsure of what he should do, Mark calls on his best friend Pierce (Dylan Moran) for advice. Yet it seems that despite their best efforts, Mark and Pierce only succeed in making the situation even worse.

While I would love to go into more detail around the plot, “A Film With Me In It” actually works better if you know little going in. Mark Doherty and Dylan Moran give great performances as well-meaning men who simple do not have a clue. The script, which was written by Doherty, perfectly plays to both actors’ comedic strengths. I was surprised by the fact that this film seemed to go under most festivalgoers, and film critics’, radar this year. Especially considering how well it was received at the screening I was in. Again, it is tough to talk about all the things I enjoyed about the film without ruining the best moments. I will just close by saying that I would highly recommend catching “A Film With Me In It” if you are in the mood for some witty dark Irish humour.




The Hurt Locker

War is a drug. That statement is featured in a quote at the beginning of Kathryn Bigelow’s latest testosterone filled movie. Those four simple words may not seem like much at the beginning of the film, but it will all make sense at the end. While the film takes place during the Iraq war, “The Hurt Locker” is not concerned with preaching about the horrors of war. This is film is all about the entertainment, and on that level it succeeds greatly. After losing their squadron captain (Guy Pearce), the Bravo Company must deal with a new leader who has his own unique methods for defusing bombs. James (Jeremy Renner) is what many would consider “a cowboy” in the field; he frequently breaks protocol and recklessly puts his life on the line. This makes his subordinates in Bravo Company, especially Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), very uneasy about working with him. As the bomb-defusing missions get more difficult, the uneasy tension between the men grows even greater.

“The Hurt Locker” is a film that thrives on tension. Bigelow does a fantastic job keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. Whether it is the stellar opening sequence, the shootout in the dessert, the numerous bomb-defusing scenes, or simply the men reaching their boiling point with each other, the film is never dull. Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie have great chemistry together, they bring good depth to their individual roles. Not only do we understand what makes James tick, but also how it affects the decisions he makes later on in the film. The bond that James and Sanborn have always feels authentic, even when they are ready to knock the other person out. I also like the little subplot in the film regarding a solider who fears death. Not only is it a good contrast to James’ character, but it also brings a subtle human aspect to the overall crisis overseas. Easily the most accessible (i.e. purely entertaining) movie surrounding the Iraq war to come out in a while, “The Hurt Locker” delivers the suspense on several levels. Be sure to keep an eye out for some inspired cameos by Ralph Fiennes and David Morse.




A Year Ago in Winter

Yet another festival film about a family torn apart by death, “A Year Ago in Winter” looks at a family whose life may not have been so perfect to begin with. When Alexander dies unexpectedly, he leaves a huge void in his family. A year later his mother, who loved Alexander more than she loved both her husband and her daughter combined, commissions a nearby painter to do a portrait of Alexander and her daughter, Lilli (Karoline Herfurth). Although she is adamantly opposed to the idea, Lilli agrees to meet the painter, Max (Josef Bierbichler), for a few sessions. As Lilli and Max spend more time together an unlikely friendship forms. Lilli soon discovers that Max has his own emotional issues regarding loss. As Max and Lilli help each other work through their individual pain; Lilli’s parents must also come to terms with Alexander’s death and the state of their relationship.

Directed by Caroline Link, who won an Oscar in 2003 for her film “Nowhere in Africa”, “A Year in Winter” did not grab me the way I thought it would. Maybe it was the fact that I had viewed “Genova” a few days earlier, or maybe it was the mood I was in, but I found the film to be rather boring. It is not a bad film per se, it just felt like I had seen this story done better elsewhere. Plus the only character I really found myself caring for was Max. There were times where Lilli was just a tad too annoying. I know that Lilli’s actions are partly due to the grieving, and partly due to how her parents treat her. Still, by time the moment of Lilli’s catharsis arrives I honestly felt nothing for her. I also thought that the Caroline Link could have developed the parents a little more. The parents, especially Lilli’s father, were far too one-dimensional. If Link had cut down on some of Lilli’s scenes and spent more time flushing out the parents, “ A Year Ago in Winter” might have actually been memorable.




Still to come: The Brothers Bloom, Slumdog Millionaire, Killing Kastzner, Gigantic, What Doesn’t Kill You, etc.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

TIFF Recap 2

Part 1 (featuring JCVD and RocknRolla)


Lost Song

Winner of the “Toronto-City Award” for best Canadian feature-length film, ”Lost Song” is a startling glimpse at how postpartum depression can destroy a marriage. Pierre and Marie move out to the countryside after the birth of their still to be named child. Despite Pierre’s mother being in the cottage next door, there is a noticeable level of tension between the couple. As the days go by, the isolation becomes more present for Marie. Her only real source of joy comes when she spends time with Naomi, a young women staying at a cottage nearby. With the tension mounting between Pierre and Marie, life becomes vary unstable for all involved and leads to some tragic consequences.

Not an easy film to watch by any means, “Lost Song” really requires a lot of mental endurance on the part of the audience. The pacing is very slow and there are many lingering shots that are sustained only by the authentic sounds of nature. With very little dialogue throughout the film, the audience is left to fill in a lot of the missing pieces. In fact, the words “postpartum” or “illness” are never even uttered in the film. It also does not help that director Rodrigue Jean drops us right into the middle of things. When the film starts you immediately get the sense that something is not right with Pierre and Marie. It feels like they have been arguing for weeks over something we know nothing about. While I ended up really liking “Lost Song”, I literally had to let everything sink in overnight before I could reach a final decision. It also helped that I got into a very heated debate regarding the issues presented in the film moments after the credits started to role. “Lost Song” is a film that is both compelling and maddening at the same time. While the film rewards patience, it does not make the endurance test any easier for the audience.


Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Michael Cera follows up his work in “Superbad” and “Juno” with this charming teen romantic comedy. After being dumped by his girlfriend, Nick (Cera) accidentally come across Nora (Kat Denning) a strong-minded girl who is also experiencing some relationship lows. Although they get off to a rather rocky start, the two bond over one coming goal…to find Fluffy. Known for their legendary mystery concerts, the band named Fluffy is playing somewhere downtown that same night. Following clues placed throughout the city, Nick and Norah spend one crazy night attempting to find music and possibly love.

Helmed by “Raising Victor Vargas” director Peter Sollett, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” plays like a light-hearted Cameron Crowe film for the younger set. Since Sollett spends so much time focusing on the importance of music, the soundtrack practically becomes a characters in the film. The cast does a decent job at making their characters likeable and the situations somewhat believable. Michael Cera gives pretty much what you expect him to give. While his awkward deadpan-style of delivery is no longer surprising, it still works well for the film. Kat Denning brings some much-needed edge to Norah. Denning portrays Norah in a way that seems really authentic and well rounded, unlike most teen movies where the female characters are one-dimensional stereotypes. Yet the real highlight in the film is actress Ari Graynor, who steals every scene she is in as Norah’s drunken friend Caroline. Not only does Caroline have the funniest moments in the film, but some of the most disgusting as well. Although hardly anything new, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” is decent entry into the already extensive teen romance canon.




Treeless Mountain

Set in Korea, this semi-autobiographical tale from director So Yong Kim is about six year old Jin and her younger sister Bin coming to terms with issues of loss and abandonment. After their financial strapped mother sends the girls to live with their alcoholic aunt, Jin and Bin are forced to fend for themselves. Jin and Bin spend most of their days catching grasshoppers and waiting at the bus stop for their mother to return. As the days go by, and with no sign of their mother, the girls decide to start selling cooked grasshoppers to local kids. They figure that once their piggybank is full of money, their mother will finally comeback for them.

Treeless Mountain is a heart breaking film that stays with you long after the ends. The two leads, both novices, give fantastic performances. I found the film to be an interesting commentary on both the nature of family and the loss of innocence. The only real complaint I had with this film was the pacing. The film is extremely slow moving, which can often result in a few momentary “power naps” in film festival situations. Still, I found the film to be powerful without being too sentimental.


Genova

I will be the first to admit that I do not get the obsession women have with Colin Firth. Needless to say “Genova” was not as high on my list of films to see as it was for my female friends. Yet once I saw that Michael Winterbottom was the director, I decided to put my Firth at TIFF issues (i.e. the horrendous “Trauma” a few years back) aside and give this film shot. In “Genova”, Firth stars as a father who moves to Italy with his two daughters (Willa Holland and Perla Haney-Jardine) five months after his wife (Hope Davis) dies in car accident. Through the help of an old collage friend (Catherine Keener), Joe (Firth) lands a job teaching at a local university and finds a place for the family to stay. Despite being in picturesque Genova, there are still many unspoken wounds that Joe and the girls have regarding the death. Kelly (Holland), who is filled with anger towards Mary, starts to rebel by partying all night with locals. While Mary (Haney-Jardine), who is haunted by guilt-riddled nightmares, starts to question the existence of an afterlife.

Although there were many films about families dealing with lost at the festival this year, “Genova” was one of the best in my opinion. Winterbottom crafts and tale that takes a very realistic look at how families deal with grief. All the characters are at a crossroad, and the way each person handles it feels appropriate for both their age and situation. On the cusp of womanhood, Kelly’s actions and confusion seems very understandable. As Mary, Perla Haney-Jardine brings a level of range and emotion that few actress her age can achieve. Colin Firth is great as a man trying to cope with the past while trying to establish a new feature. I also really liked how Winterbottom handled the strenuous relationship between Firth-Keener-and a female student. Instead of going for a more traditional angle on the relationship, Winterbottm takes a more subtle and meditative approach. “Genova” is a fascinating, and realistic, portrayal of loss and the grieving process involved.


The Other Man

Richard Eyre follows up his brilliant film “Notes on a Scandal”, with this story about love, friendship and adultery. After losing his wife Lisa (Laura Linney) to cancer, Peter (Liam Neelson) discovers that she was having an affair with a man named Ralph (Antonio Banderas). Filled with anger Peter flies to Italy in hopes of tracking down, and killing, this mysterious Ralph. Once in Italy, Peter begins to play game of chess, both a literal and figuratively, with Ralph. While not revealing who he really is, Peter slowly tricks Ralph into opening up about the nature of his steam relationship with Lisa.

While the premise is interesting, “The Other Man” does not have enough gas in it to sustain the whole film. The film ends up being merely average at best. While Neelson, Linney, and Banderas are all very talented and capable actors; they can only do so much with the material they are given. One thing I found interesting about this film was how each character viewed the affair. Peter, the cuckold, immediately wants to seek revenge. Ralph sees his time with Lisa as the greatest love story he has ever encountered. Whereas Lisa merely views it as nothing more than I choice she has the right to make. This view is also echoed in the film Cloud 9, which I also saw at the festival. I guess I find it interesting mainly because this view would be completely different had Peter been the one who cheated. Another issue I had with the films was the fact that it strives to hard to reach an ending that can only be described as neat. It seems like the last half of the film is merely one big set up for the rather substandard finale.


New York, I Love You

Shown as a work in progress, the creators behind the “Paris Je T’aime” repeatedly urged the press not to review the film until the final product was ready. Although that does not impact me, I think I will hold off my full review until the film is released. Mainly because I am not sure what, if anything, will be cut or rearranged from the version I saw. What I will say is that this is the second film in the “love series.” Similar to “Paris Je T’aime”, “New York, I Love” features numerous vignettes on love from 12 directors from around the world. These directors include: Mira Nair, Allen Hughes, Shekhar Kapur, Natalie Portman, Brett Ratner, and Scarlett Johansson just to name a few. The film also features an all star cast with the likes of: Kevin Bacon, Julie Christie, Orlando Bloom, Natalie Portman, Shia LaBeouf, Ethan Hawke, Andy Garcia, Maggie Q, Chris Cooper, Justin Bartha, Bradley Cooper, Hayden Christensen, etc. Personally I found the majority of the shorts hit the mark, there were about five or so that were laugh out loud hilarious. Only a couple of them really fizzled out. Still it will be interesting to see what the final product looks likes. So far the film seems to be on the right track. The creators said that the next two installments in the series will be set in Jerusalem and Singapore.




Ashes of Time Redux

Oddly enough one of the few star struck moments I had at the festival this year was when Wong Kar Wai walked on stage to introduce the new version of his1994 film, “Ashes of Time.” In his introduction Kar Wai stated that there would not have been films like “In The Mood For Love” or “Chungking Express” if it had not been for “Ashes of Time.” He iterated that the film was a difficult shoot, yet it taught him many of the tools he uses now. “Ashes of Time Redux” is Wong Kar Wai one and only martial arts film. Featuring the likes of Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung, and a young Maggie Cheung, the film looks at how the lives of various swordsmen are intertwined. The men must not only take on ruthless bandits, but must also come to terms with the various women in their lives.

Having never seen the original “Ashes of Time”, I cannot speak on the changes the Wong Kar Wai has made. Although the film looks a bit dated the story holds up quiet well. What was interesting about this film was that Kar Wai was more interested in the themes of loving too much and not loving enough; than he was about the actually martial arts. This is not to say that the action sequences are bad, in fact they are very well orchestrated. Having said that, I found the overall pacing of the film to be slower that I thought it should be. Yet this is a minor quibble, which probably had to do more with my festival schedule than the actual film. Fans of Wong Kar Wai’s other films, will find much to enjoy in “Ashes of Time Redux.” Though, I am not sure well the film will be received by those unfamiliar with Kar Wai’s work.




Deadgirl

Easily the most disturbing film I have seen this year, Deadgirl is a creepy coming-of-age tale that is firmly planted in the horror genre. One day while cutting class two social outsiders, Rickie and JT (Shiloh Fernandez and Noah Segan), break into an abandoned mental hospital to drink beer and goof off. When touring the institute the come across the body of a naked dead woman strapped to a gurney in the basement. Although all indications show that now one has been in the building for years, the body is still in good condition. Things get even weirder once they realize that not only is the woman alive, but she also cannot be killed. This evokes two vastly different reactions between the teens; JT wants to keep the woman as their own personal sex slave, where as Rickie wants no part in JT’s plan. As Rickie struggles with both the situation with the dead woman and his crush on a girl at school, JT starts spending a unhealthy amount of time with the dead girl. JT even goes as far as bringing in another fellow outcast to join in on the fun. This leads to a series of events that will both impact and test Rickie and JT’s friendship.

There were several things that bugged me about this film. Despite the coming-of-age tagline, all this film really has to say is that raging hormones drive teenage boys to do dumb things. Not that this much of a revelation. On top of that, all the women in the movie are treated as mere disposable objects. I would have loved to have known what the female audience members thought of this movie. Regardless of whether the “dead girl” is human or not, it is tough to sit back and watch her get repeatedly raped and beaten. What is also disturbing about the movie is the fact that it will probably do quiet well at the box office. Judging by directors Marcel Sermiento and Gadi Harel’s post screening Q&A, it seems that the they had no problems finding financing or securing music from high profile bands for the soundtrack. According to Sarmiento, everyone seemed more than keen to be involved with the project. The only real highlight in the movie comes during a botched kidnapping attempt. While the scene is wrong on so many levels, morally speaking, it is also the funniest moment in the whole movie. I guess my main issue with the film is that it is basically gratuitous for gratuitous sake. You really do not care for any of the characters too much, especially since they all make one bad decision after the next. Once you get past the shocking premise it becomes quite clear that, even by horror standards, Deadgirl has no real substance to it.


More review still to come in the next week or so (including: The Wrestler, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, The Brothers Bloom, etc.)