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.