Friday, October 29, 2010

Price Checking Free Speech


Recently on the Puck Daddy Radio Show there was an interesting discussion on whether or not bloggers should put up a $10,000 bond to be allowed to cover professional sports. Globe and Mail writer Bruce Dowbiggin wrote a thought provoking piece regarding the fact that bloggers should face the same level of scrutiny, when it comes to things like slander, that journalist do. Currently bloggers can write whatever they want with very little repercussions, further more they often want to be treated like just regular journalist. What does this have to do with movies? A lot actually.

The movie industry is still trying to figure out how to handle the whole blogger situation. In many ways bloggers are the cockroaches to the industry’s messy house. There is no way to get rid of the bloggers and they seem to be expanding at an alarming rate. Worst of all, Hollywood still cannot figure out how bloggers help their bottom line financially. This past summer the one film that seemed to be on every bloggers tongue was Scott Pilgrim vs the World. The studio released a strong viral marketing campaign that was designed to attract both fans of the book and bloggers. Upon the film’s release it was unanimously well received from both critics and bloggers alike. Yet the film only managed to take the 5th spot in its opening weekend. Opening in 2,818 theatres Scott Pilgrim pulled in a disappointing $10,609,795. Clearly focusing on the bloggers did not payoff in the long run for the studio. Yet this is not the first time Hollywood has tried to appeal to the carnivorous blogging community.


When Snakes on a Plane was in production, bloggers had a field day ripping apart the “leaked” version of the script. Online chatter got so bad that the makers of the film decided to tailor the film more to the bloggers liking by playing up the camp factor. The blogging world was soon a buzz with positive anticipation to the point that mainstream media took noticed. Many where expecting Snakes on a Plane to be the first internet driven blockbuster but it bombed once it hit theatres. While the film opened in the number one spot, it made a mere $13,806,311 despite being in 3,555 theatres. At the end of its theatrical run, Snakes on a Plane barely made back its 33 million dollar production budget.

After all the fuss and discussions, most bloggers opted to wait for the film to hit video. Would the outcome of the film have been different if bloggers had waited for the final product to be released in its original form before passing judgment? Should the studio have the right to sue bloggers for loss of revenue due to the slanderous things that were being written about their film? Especially since there was no basis for the comments as Snakes on a Plane was still in the production stages?


Ever since the rise of websites like Ain’t It Cool News there has been an increased obsession with knowing every little detail about a film before it is even made. Just the mention of a possible casting will shoot the film to the top of some bloggers Oscar nomination discussions. The problem with the need to know culture is that certain bloggers feel that a sense of entitlement seems to come with it. Some bloggers believe it is their duty to break the news on everything from conceptual designs for costumes to script excerpts before the directors has even made his/her final decision. Again should bloggers be accountable for their actions? Should the film industry there be a crackdown on reckless blogging the way they are attempting to crackdown on pirated movies? It would be tough to do but if they really wanted to institute some sort of policing policy they could.

Now before the freedom of speech picket signs are hoisted in the air. Let me say I am not advocating that the film industry should go to these extremes. Yet keep in mind that most film critics and journalist have standards to which they must adhere. As most blogs tend to take a journalistic approach, whether it is general film coverage or criticism, bloggers need to be mindful that they are not immune to repercussions for their words, podcasts, etc. While bloggers tend to be more harm than good for the mainstream film industry, the one area where bloggers can do the most good is when it comes to film festivals. Not necessarily the behemoths like Cannes, TIFF, etc., put the smaller local festivals that play in certain communities. A lot of these independent festivals need bloggers to spread the word about the films and filmmakers. Even in these circumstances, heck especially in these circumstances, bloggers need to be careful not to resort to slander as they never know when it may come back to haunt them at least from a legal standpoint.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Whatever Happened To...?

Haley Joel Osment



“I see dead people” is one of the most used catchphrases in cinema history. The line helped to usher Haley Joel Osment into the realm of stardom. There was a time when every director was itching to work with Osment and then, as suddenly as it hit, everything stopped. Despite doing a lot of voice over work, and a play on Broadway, Osment has been curiously absent from the big screen. I know there was the whole car crash incident that hindered things for a bit, but enough time has passed now. Osment is still at the prime age where quality roles should be abundant. The time is right for Hollywood to take another chance on Haley Joel Osment.

Career Highlights: The Sixth Sense (1999); Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001); Forrest Gump (1994); Secondhand Lions (2003);

Low Points: Pay It Forward (2000); The Country Bears (2002); Bogus (1996);

Last Seen On The Big Screen: Home for Giants (2007)

Where You Will See Him Next?: In the comedies Montana Amazon and Sex Ed. As well as the drama Truth & Treason co-starring Max von Sydow.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Plug: LAMB Acting School 101

As some of you know already, I run the LAMB Acting School 101 series over at The LAMB. Each month we will highlight a different actor/actress whose performances, for better or worse, have left a mark on the cinematic landscape. This month we look at...Jack Nicholson


If you are interested in taking part here is the material we are looking for:
  • Articles on the actor's best performances
  • Articles on the actor's worst performances
  • General thoughts on the actor
  • Reviews of the films the actor has starred in

Once you have the article and/or review posted on your blog, send the link to bigthoughtssmallmind@hotmail.com. As always multiple submissions are encouraged. The deadline for submissions is Wednesday November 24, 2010.


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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dial M for Murder Popular Phone App for Felons

Dial M for Murder

While doing the right thing is important in real life; in regards to the world of cinema, sometimes things would be better if the villain won. This is the case with Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, a film that would have been more satisfying had the scoundrel rode off into the sunset.

Margot (Grace Kelly) has been having an on and off affair with an American writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), while her tennis player husband, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), was away. Now that Tony has given up the tennis life for good, Margot decides to put the put the relationship with mark to rest. The past comes back to haunt her when a love note that Mark wrote during their affair is stolen, and Margot is blackmailed via a series of anonymous letters. Little does Margot know that this is all part of Tony’s plan. After discovering that his wife cheated on him, Tony has devised the perfect murder for his revenge. Tony blackmails Captain Lesgate, a shady character from Tony’s past, to commit the murder. Tony is confident his plan is flawless but he soon learns that there is no such thing as the perfect murder.

Dial M for Murder is a film that works slightly better as a play than a feature. Although it is entertainingly suspenseful, the last act of the film really irked me a bit. I think my minor squabble with the film is directly linked to the characters of Mark and Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams). I found Mark to be rather annoying in the last half of the film. He goes from being the quiet “other man” who has been instructed by Margot not to say anything of their affair to Tony, to the guy who thinks he is in charge of everything. This is evident in the scene where Mark tries to convince Tony to make a false confession to save Margot. Mark essentially demands Tony to sacrifice himself so that Mark and Margot can live happily ever after. Mark’s assertiveness, not to mention his writer’s mindset, comes way too late in the film. His pleas should have come far before the trial even started.


The same must be said for Chief Inspector Hubbard’s sting operation. The whole final act is played out based on Hubbard’s hunch. At no point during the lengthy investigation does the answer occur to him. Yet just as one of the characters in Dial M for Murder is about to reach a critical juncture, he magically orchestrates his elaborate trap.

Despite qualms with the last act, the first two thirds of Dial M for Murder are wonderfully anchored by Ray Milland’s tantalizing performance. The film really jumps alive every time Milland is on screen. One of the best scenes in the film comes when Tony is implementing his plans to blackmail Captain Lesgate. Everything Tony does in that scene from walking with a cane to pointing out an old photo of when Lesgate was known as Alexander Swann, is calculated. It is a pleasure to watch Milland disarm Lesgate by systematically exposing one of his secrets. Ray Milland is so good in the film that I actually wish the ending had worked out in his favour.

Dial M for Murder may not be as strong as other Alfred Hitchcock films, but Ray Milland’s performance is reason enough to watch the film.


Alfred Hitchcock is the subject of this month’s LAMBs in the Director Chair series over at The LAMB website


Monday, October 25, 2010

Movie Marketing Monday

Unknown White Male (aka. Unknown)

Why does it feel like I have already seen this film before?




The Fighter

I am not expecting Raging Bull level of intensity, but the casting has raised my level of interest for this film.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Blue Valentine E-Card A Relationship Killer.

Blue Valentine

Yesterday I talked about the silliness behind Blue Valentine getting hit with an NC-17 rating, which at the time this review was written, was under appeal by The Weinstein Company who hold the distribution rights. So it is only fitting that talk about my views on the film itself. Directed by Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine is an intimate and honest look at what makes couples fall in love and fall apart.

Dean (Ryan Gosling) works his blue-collar job and takes pleasures in the simple things in life, mainly beer and his family. Although rough around the edges, Dean is a romantic at heart. Dean’s wife Cindy (Michelle Williams) is a nurse who is looking to further her career. Cindy is growing tired of Dean’s childlike ways and the distant between them begins to surface. In a last ditch effort to save their marriage Dean and Cindy decide to have a weekend away for just the two of them. Yet the trip hits a major bump in the road when Cindy runs into an old boyfriend, Bobby (Mike Vogel), at the store.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Blue Valentine was my favourite film at TIFF this year. In many ways it felt like I was watching the fictional version of another great film I saw at TIFF, Allen King’s A Married Couple. Some will liken the film to Revolutionary Road, but I think it is more along the lines of François Ozon’s brilliant 5X2 more than anything else. Still, make no mistake Blue Valentine is a film that charts its own path. The reason I allude to 5X2 is because of the way time is manipulated in the film and the secrets which the manipulation reveals.


Blue Valentine continually jumps back and forth between the present and the past. Cianfrance gives equal weight to both the couple’s happier times in the past and their current turbulent state. As the film progresses, key details from past relationships are revealed as well as the ramifications they have on the present. This not only impacts the characters in the film, but how the viewer reacts to them as well. The film, similar to relationships themselves, is never as clear cut as you think it will be.

The key to Blue Valentine’s success is in the astonishing performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Gosling brings so many layers to the role that you wish the film went on for another two hours just so you can delve into Dean’s mind a bit more. The thing that I loved about Gosling’s portrayal is the fact that Dean never goes to the level you expect him to physically. This is most evident in the “infamous NC-17 inducing” scene. Despite the amount of times Dean is prodded, he always keeps his values in check even when he has reached his breaking point. Michelle Williams is equally mesmerizing as Cindy. It is only in the flashbacks that the cracks in Cindy’s character begin to show. At first it appears that she is just fed up with Dean’s immaturity, yet there are much deeper issues at play. The fact that I could not stop wondering where the characters ended up after the film was over is a testament of the wonderful work of both actors.

Blue Valentine does not hit theatres until December 31st and hopefully the NC-17 rating will be re-evaluated by then. This is a film that needs to be seen for both the story and the performances. It may have taken Derek Cianfrance 11 years to get the financing together for Blue Valentine, but it was worth it in the end. It was my favourite film at TIFF; and is one of my favourite films this year.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Debating the Rating


When it comes to filtering what is deemed acceptable in film, how much responsibility should to be placed on the viewer? Now I am not talking about the film buffs who can argue the merits of Spielberg and Kurosawa, I mean the average filmgoer. The person who helps Jackass 3D make 50 million dollars instead of supporting an independent or foreign film being shown in the same theatre. Currently the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is the governing body that determines what rating a film will get. They are the ones who decide that Toy Story receives a G rating while Inglourious Basterds receives an R rating. When it comes to the MPAA, Alan Moore’s famous line “Who watches the Watchmen?” is often quoted. Yet I think the phrase “Who profits from the Watchmen?” is more appropriate.

This question has been on my mind for a few weeks now since I first heard that the MPAA had given the movie Blue Valentine an NC-17 rating. Giving a film an NC-17 rating is essentially the kiss of death for any film. Besides the fact that it restricts anyone under the age of seventeen from accessing the film, it also gives the stigma that the film is as offensive as pornography. After seening Blue Valentine at this year’s TIFF, I was stunned that the film received such a harsh rating. According to Deadline , the film received the rating for a scene “in which the characters played by Gosling and Williams try to save their crumbling marriage by spending a night away in a hotel. They get drunk and their problems intensify when he wants to have sex and she doesn’t, but will to get him off her back. That hurts his pride and the result is an upsetting scene that makes you squirm


Having sat through the infamous scene in question, I can say, without spoiling the film, that there is no violence in the scene and things do not unfold they way you initially think it will. The scene is actually one of my favourite moments in the film for reasons which I will elaborate more on when I post my review. Still, the fact that a film can get such a harsh rating for simply making the viewer squirm raises concern over whose interest are the MPAA really serving?

Now this is by no means a rant for the abolishment of the MPAA, unlike most film lovers I actually believe the MPAA can be a useful organization. I just think that they have lost their way in regards to ratings. Instead of taxing big budget studio films that will be seen in 2000 plus theatres, the MPAA seems to more often than not punish the films that the average filmgoer would not be seeing in the first place. With the exception of Showgirls, which is a teenage boy's wet dream of a movie, how many of the following NC-17 rated films were the average underage person really eager to see: Crash (Cronenberg’s version)? Bad Lieutenant? Requiem for a Dream? Mysterious Skin? Lust, Caution;? Chances are good these films would not have played to a wide audience even if they had received an R rating. So why do these films get the NC-17 rating while other films like Inglourious Basterds, Predators, The Expendables, Splice and the Jackass movies are allowed to play in close to 3000 theatres?


Some may argue that it is an issue of escapist fare versus more realistic themes. How then do you explain Oscar nominated films like Precious? The main character in that film is repeatedly raped, has a television thrown at her, etc. While I really enjoyed Precious, it was just as, if not more, unsettling as Blue Valentine, yet no controversy at all. I wonder if Tyler Perry and Oprah had not produced the film if the ratings would be different. It is time for the MPAA to really look at the big budget studio fair with the same fine toothed comb it looks at the smaller independent films. There should be no reason that you can watch people die on screen in gruesome ways, yet intimate character studies, that would play primarily independent, get penalized so savagely.

Again, I am not calling for the disbanding the MPAA, they are an important organization to have around. Their intentions are valid, it just that their systems for ratings films needs to be updated and clarified. The easiest and most effect solution would be to first do market research on the films that the general public are most likely to see. The research should cover everything from age, types of movies the person regularly watches, the theatres they most often go to etc. Then, based on the overall feedback, the MPAA should adjust their overall standards accordingly. There is no reason small films that skew to a more adult audience, such as Blue Valentine, get slapped with NC-17 ratings while you can go into any multiplex and watch films like Machete, or The Town without even a second thought.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Predators Often Read "Eat, Prey, No Love"

Predators

If you really think about it, predators are the jerks of the alien races. Judging by the history of cinema, most aliens either want to take over the world by force; or are simple friendly creatures hoping to find their way home. Sure there are those aliens who like to stowaway on abandoned space stations, but they keep to themselves unless interrupted. Predators are the jerks of the species because they only care about their own amusement. They have no desire to take over the world, nor do they want to make friends. Similar to the how the wealthy indulge in golf and tennis, predators treat game hunting like it is a leisurely Sunday afternoon. It is just unfortunate for us, that their favourite game to hunt is man.

Royce (Adrien Brody) wakes up to find that he has been dropped in a jungle. At first it is not clear why Royce and the six other individuals (including Alice Braga, Danny Trejo, and Topher Grace) have been selected. Most are trained killers (mercenaries, enforcers, rapist, etc.) and one is a doctor (Grace), yet as they make their way through the jungle it becomes clear that they have bigger problems at hand than merely finding their way home. It becomes clear to Royce that the jungle is actually a big game preserve and they are the prey that is being hunted.

Although there have been four other in the series, Predators actually feels like a true sequel to the 1987 original, Predator, that featured Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unlike the outlandish Predator 2, Predators successfully captures the spirit of the original. It could even be argued that the film stays a little too close to the original at times. There are several nods to the original film throughout the film: Royce emerging covered in mud; the quiet but deadly character, Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), sacrificing himself to ensure the rest have a chance at survival; etc.


The area where Predators pales in comparison to the original is in the script. There is not much of a story in the film. Granted audiences go into Predators looking for action, but it is important to have a bit of substance to make the action sequence more compelling. The lack of a true story is truly evident when you look at the characters in the film. None of them are really all that memorable at all since we know so little about them. For example, Edwin’s (Grace) arc evolves too late in the film. As a result it comes off silly instead of being menacing as it was intended to be. The same could be said for the predator on predator fight scene. Sure the social class system is an interesting tidbit but watching two creatures, who we know little about, fighting to the death does little to enhance the film. That time could have been used to focus more on the main characters we have been following from the beginning.

While the story leaves much to be desired, director Nimród Antal does a good job of still keeping the film entertaining. Antal sets the stage perfectly with his thrilling opening sequence where Royce is free falling into the jungle. From there Predators moves at a very brisk pace. The action scenes are well done and Antal slips in just the right amount of humour. In regards to the humour, Laurence Fishburne does a nice job of providing the laughs in his brief cameo. Fishburne’s character, Noland, brings the right amount of over-the-top craziness needed for a character who has been on the planet for more years than he really should have been.

Despite some short comings with the script, Predators ended up being an entertaining way to kill a few hours. It is may not be a good as the original Predator, but Predators is a worthy sequel to Arnold’s action classic...which is something that cannot be said about Predator 2.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Beautiful Boy More Than Pretty Packaging

Beautiful Boy

Since the events at Columbine there has been plethora of films that have dealt with school shootings. The majority of these films have focused on either the victims or the shooter(s). Rarely do these pictures shed any light on the impact it has on their parents. This is one of the reasons why Shawn Ku’s debut feature, Beautiful Boy, is such a unique film.

Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate’s (Maria Bello) marriage is near the end of its rope. Kate is hopeful that a family vacation is what is needed to get them back on track. Bill, on the other hand, sees the situation as being beyond repair and starts to look into other housing arrangements. Bill and Kate’s relationship takes an unexpected turn when new breaks that there has been a shooting at their son’s school. Hearing that a shooting has occurred at their child’s school is scary enough, but nothing prepares the couple for the news that their eighteen-year-old son, Sam (Kyle Gallner) was not only the shooter; but took his own life when his shooting spree was over.

Beautiful Boy is an emotional look at how loss affects people in different ways. It is even tougher to deal with when it comes as a result of a public event. Bill and Kate where already isolated from each other emotionally and physically. After the shooting, they both found themselves being isolated from the public in general. The media is camped outside their home on a daily basis, and television personalities debate their lack of parenting skills. The general population, who get their information from the press, are quick to vilify them. There is a telling scene in the film where Bill goes to rent a motel room for him and his wife to hideout in and he encounters the owner (Meat Loaf) who is watching the news and verbally expressing his harsh thoughts about the parents...not realizing who Bill is actually standing in front of him. Even Kate’s brother (Alan Tudyk) and sister-in-law (Moon Bloodgood) start to argue over the impact that the couple is having on her own young son.


For a first film, Shawn Ku delivers a surprisingly effective and layered work. Ku is not afraid to take his characters deep into their grief. His script may appear simple on the surface but it offers much food for thought as the film progresses. Shawn Ku also has a wonderful understanding of what is needed to get the most out of his actors. Both Mario Bello and Michael Sheen deliver outstanding performances. While the film is too small to garner the Oscar buzz it rightfully deserves, their work in the film is award worthy nonetheless. Bello masterfully brings out her character’s mix of grief and quest for validation regarding her parenting skills. Sheen brings the right balance of anger and guilt to the role. At first he is the only one who is willing to look at his son’s actions as a crime; yet it is not long before Bill's own inner guilt, for not being there for his son when he was needed most, eventually consumes him.

Although the final act draws out a tad longer than is necessary, it does not take away from the film’s overall impact. Emotionally raw at times, Beautiful Boy does not shy away from the pain that both parents feel. Carried by astonishing performances and skilled direction, Beautiful Boy is one of the better works to come out this year.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Movie Marketing Monday

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine was my favourite film at this year’s TIFF. Look for my review of the film to be posted within the next week or so.




Drive Angry 3D

Nicolas Cage going over-the-top once again...just the way we like him. Hopefully Drive Angry 3D will be much better than both the awful Gone in Sixty Seconds and the horrendous Ghost Rider.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Philadelphia Story Lacks Cheesy Steak Sandwiches

The Philadelphia Story

It is interesting to experience classic films with modern eyes. There are times when you wonder how certain film elements, which would be considered politically incorrect now, even made it to the big screen. Though, you are secretly glad the film was able to express itself in a manner that fit the time it was made. The Philadelphia Story is one of those films. It delivers on both the comedic and romantic front, while also serving as a reminder of how far the battle of the sexes has come…and how little it has changed.

Two years after her marriage to C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) fell apart, socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is ready to remarry. Her pending marriage to businessman George Kittredge (John Howard) is the talk of the town. As the wedding approaches Dexter, in a last ditch attempt to get revenge, convinces the editor of a tabloid magazine that he can sneak a reporter, Macaulay Connor (James Stewart), and his photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), into the exclusive wedding. The unexpected presence of Dexter and his two guest leads to much anarchy. Soon Tracy finds herself questioning who her heart really belongs to? Is her true love current flame George? her past love Dexter? Or is there a potential future with Macaulay.

One thing that modern audiences will notice right away is how The Philadelphia Story takes a rather nonchalant approach to domestic abuse. Dexter has a great moment where, after remarking that that he thought all writers drank excessively and beat their wives, he looks at Tracy and slyly states “at one point I wanted to be a writer.” The line is clearly a direct reference to Dexter’s alcoholic and abusive tendencies when he was married to Tracy. Similar to most of the dialogue in the film, lines like theses are played up for great comedic effect. While humour like this would be deemed insensitive by today’s standards, it was consider harmless humour back in the 1940’s.


The key to enjoying The Philadelphia Story is to simply take the film for the romantic comedy it is and nothing more. In many ways the film feels like another take on Shakespeare’s classic play The Taming of the Shrew. The majority of the men in the picture constantly refer to Tracy as Goddess. Her high standards and unforgiving nature are constantly blamed for many of the male issues in the film. Even Tracy’s father alludes to the fact that his being unfaithful to Tracy’s mother is directly linked to her cold demeanor. The interesting thing is that the being placed on a pedestal is the farthest thing from what Tracy wants. She is simply interested in being love not worshipped.

What keeps the romantic element so engaging is that you are never sure who Tracy will choose until the very end. The Philadelphia Story is able to sustain the multiple romances for so long partly due to the work from the three leads. Katharine Hepburn is the driving force that keeps the story moving. Her character is often required to switch modes from sharp tongue socialite to fragile woman looking for lasting comfort. As Dexter, Cary Grant is hilarious at the loveable rogue who will do just about anything to disrupt the big day. He clearly is remorseful for his past errors but is too proud to let it be known to Tracy. While Hepburn and Grant have fantastic chemistry, the real surprise in the film is James Stewart. Macaulay has all the angles covered but is quickly sized up and disarmed mentally by Tracy. Stewart brings the perfect mix of angst towards the uppers social class and heart to the role of Macaulay.

While one could look into the deep social issues lurking behind The Philadelphia Story, it would only take away from the films true intentions. The Philadelphia Story is nothing more than a fun romantic comedy that shows that love is complicated no matter what era you may be in.


Hepburn2

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Strangers on a Train Agree Long Wait is Murder

Strangers on a Train

The name Alfred Hitchcock is synonymous with films such as The Birds, Psycho, and Vertigo. While Hitchcock will be remembered for those iconic films, it his work on Strangers on a Train that instantly comes to mind for me.

While on the train one day, professional tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Bruno appears to be an avid fan of Guy’s and slowly begins to win his trust, which eventually allows him to pry into Guy’s personal life. Over the course of their discussion, Bruno reveals that he has come up with the perfect crime involving two strangers exchanging murders. Bruno would kill Guy’s wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers), who refuses to give him a divorce, and Guy would kill Bruno’s father. Guy assumes that the conversation is just mindless banter. That is until Bruno shows up at his door with news of Miriam’s death. Bruno pressures Guy to hold up his end of a bargain that he never agreed to. Unable to go to the cops, and fearful ruining his relationship with current girlfriend Anne (Ruth Roman), Guy must find a way to stop the deranged Bruno.

What makes Strangers on a Train standout is the brilliant, and creepy, performance of Robert Walker. From the minute Walker’s Bruno is introduced you feel uneasy. Bruno is a compelling character because he represents that dark facet that can be found in all of us. He even points out in one scene that everyone has a moment of anger in which they wished someone else harm.

The fact that Bruno has the ability to instantly charm whoever he meets makes him even more dangerous. Guy can sense there is something a little off with Bruno when they meet on the train but he never is uncomfortable enough to leave the compartment. Bruno always makes a point to put Guy’s mind at ease. Bruno is such a smooth talker that he not only gets two socialites to reveal how they would commit a murder, but is able to convince one of the ladies, who has never met him before, to participate in a mock strangulation exercise. An exercise that nearly has fatal consequences.


Walker’s stellar performance only enhances the tension that fills Alfred Hitchcock’s film. Many of the chills in Strangers on a Train are a result Hitchcock placing Bruno in the background of many scenes. Whether it is at a Washington landmark or in the crowd observing tennis practice, Bruno is always present intently focused on his subject. This is best exemplified in the build up to the death of Guy’s wife. Miriam assumes that Bruno is merely a handsome man who is interested in her romantically, so she engages in an unspoken form of flirting. Yet Hitchcock clearly shows that Bruno has alternative motives. Using carnival rides, such as the merry-go-round and the tunnel of love boats, Hitchcock is able to set the stage for chase that only Bruno is aware they are a part of. Hitchcock smartly intercuts Miriam’s screams of glee when being tickled by friends, with the larger than life image of Bruno’s shadow on the cave wall in the next boat. Watching the stalker and prey game that Bruno plays with Guy’s wife is riveting.

Strangers on a Train is everything most modern day thrillers hope to be. It has a great premise, strong performances and it manages to maintain the tension after numerous viewings. Alfred Hitchcock has given the cinema world many gems over the course of his career but, for me, Strangers on a Train shines brightest.

*Alfred Hitchcock is the subject for this month’s LAMBs in the Director Chair series over at The LAMB website*


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reel Asian Int.Film Festival Announces Full List of Films


The 2010 Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival will celebrate its 14th year as Canada’s longest-running and largest showcase of contemporary cinema by East Asian and Southeast Asian moviemakers from Canada and around the world. From November 9 to 15, 2010, the festival will present more than 50 films and videos from 12 countries, including Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Canada and the U.S. Reel Asian strives to develop programming that reflects the cultural diversity of Canada and increases public understanding and appreciation of the artistic, social and cultural contributions of those of Asian heritage through film. This year, the festival has been expanded by two days to provide an even larger selection of screenings and events! Highlights include:

GALAS & CENTREPIECE:
• OPENING NIGHT GALA: GALLANTS (directors: Clement Sze-Kit Cheng & Derek Chi-kin Kwok, Hong Kong 2010; Toronto premiere, director in attendance)
• CENTREPIECE PRESENTATION: GOLDEN SLUMBER (director: Nakamura Yoshihiro, Japan 2010; Toronto premiere)
• CLOSING NIGHT GALA: AU REVOIR TAIPEI (director: Arvin Chen, Taiwan/USA 2010; Toronto premiere, director in attendance)

INTERNATIONAL FEATURES: a selection of award-winning and noteworthy films
• Vietnam/France/Germany — BI, DON’T BE AFRAID! by Dang Di Phan, winner of SACD Best Screenplay Award at Cannes International Critic’s Week (2010)
• Japan — DEAR DOCTOR by Nishikawa Miwa, winner of more than 21 awards in Japan, including the Japanese Academy Award for Best Screenplay (2009)
• South Korea/China/France — DOOMAN RIVER by Lu Zhang received a Crystal Bear Special Mention at the Berlin International Film Festival (2010) and the Special Jury Prize at the Paris Cinema International Film Festival (2010)
• South Korea — EIGHTEEN by Jang Kun-jae, winner of the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema (2009)
• Philippines/USA — THE MOUNTAIN THIEF by Gerry Balasta, winner of the Special Jury Prize at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (2010)
• China — OXHIDE II by Liu Jiayin was part of the Quinzaine/Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival (2009) and won the Blue Chameleon Award and White Chameleon Award at the Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival (2009)

CANADIAN PROGRAMMING:
HOME — Reel Asian’s Canadian Spotlight on Desiree Lim
ONE BIG HAPA FAMILY (director: Jeff Chiba Stearns) and MARKER (director: Louise Noguchi)
REDRESS REMIX (director: Lesley Loksi Chan)
• Best of Canadian Shorts Presentation: ON THE FLIP SIDE
TOILET (director: Naoko Ogigami, Japan/Canada, 2010) was shot in Toronto and features a all-Canadian cast
SPECIAL PRESENTATION: SUITE SUITE CHINATOWN — a new commission of works by Chinese Toronto-based directors on the theme of “Chinatown,” with new music and a live performance by the Mary Ward Secondary School Stage Band

SPOTLIGHT PRESENTATION: KOJI YAMAMURA — MASTERY OF THE FORM
Oscar-nominated Koji Yamamura (FRANZ KAFKA’S A COUNTRY DOCTOR), one of the most successful animation filmmakers in Japan today, will be giving a master class as part of the Industry Series, followed by a screening of selected works

GALLERY INSTALLATION: RMB City by Cao Fei (aka China Tracy) at A Space Gallery
The first solo show by internationally-acclaimed Chinese art star Cao Fei, who recently exhibited at the Venice Biennale and completed a new commission for the Guggenheim in New York City.

PITCH COMPETITION
Reel Asian's 5th Annual Pitch Competition—So You Think You Can Pitch?—is back for 2010! A collaboration between Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival and Charles Street Video (CSV), this competition features prizes worth a combined value of more than $31,000. Ten teams of filmmakers will have six minutes to pitch their projects to vie for $1,500 in cash; distribution through Ouat Media; more than $10,000 (emerging category) and $18,000 (professional category) worth of production, post services and artist's fees at CSV.

REEL ASIAN HEADS TO RICHMOND HILL!
As part of our initiative to reach new audiences beyond the downtown core, Reel Asian includes the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts in its official programme and will be presenting Hong Kong blockbuster IP MAN 2 on October 18, and an encore presentation of this year’s closing night film, AU REVOIR TAIPEI, on November 15.


SCHEDULE AT A GLANCE (chronologically by date)
Special presentation | Mon Oct 18, 7:00 pm | Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts IP MAN 2 | Dir. Wilson Yip | Hong Kong 2010 | Toronto Premiere
In 1949 Hong Kong, Wing Chun martial arts master Ip Man struggles to start a new school and finds himself up against corrupt British authorities. Based on the true story of Bruce Lee’s master, and starring Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung.

Opening Night Gala | Tue Nov 9, 7:00 pm | Bloor Cinema GALLANTS | Dir. Clement Sze-Kit Cheng, Derek Chi-kin Kwok | Hong Kong 2010 | Toronto Premiere
In a hilarious homage to action stars of yesteryear, two washed-up masters and an unlikely hero must stand up to a gang of ruthless developers. Presented by Rogers Communications Inc.

Youth Presentation | Wed Nov 10, 11:00 am | NFB Cinema REDRESS REMIX | Dir. Lesley Loksi Chan | Canada 2010
A contemporary look at the controversial 2006 government apology to the Chinese Canadian community for the Head Tax and Exclusion Act of 1923.

Youth Presentation | Wed Nov 10, 1:30 pm | NFB Cinema DAYS OF RAIN | Dir. Andreas Hartmann | Germany/Vietnam 2010 | North American Premiere Thirteen-year old Quynh and his family live in a small village in Vietnam threatened by nearby landmines and relentless flooding. When offered the chance to relocate, they turn to a local fortune-teller to help them with their difficult decision.

Canadian Spotlight | Wed Nov 10, 6:30 pm | Innis Town Hall
HOME | Dir. Desiree Lim | Canada/Japan/Malaysia 2009 | North American Premiere
A documentary-drama project by queer-feminist Canadian Malaysian director Desiree Lim gives voice to the plight of Burmese refugees in Malaysia.

Feature Presentation | Wed Nov 10, 8:30 pm | Innis Town Hall
DOOMAN RIVER | Dir. Zhang Lu | South Korea/France 2010 | Toronto Premiere
Chang-ho and Jeong-Jin live on opposite sides of the Dooman River, which divides China from North Korea. Amid growing tension, the two young boys form an unlikely friendship. Berlin Film Festival Special Mention 2010.

Shorts Presentation | Thu Nov 11, 6:30 pm | Innis Town Hall
ON THE FLIP SIDE: Short films focusing on everything from a ‘playful’ kidnapping to a Fresh Prince dance-off. New work by Paul Wong, Ann Marie Fleming, Howie Shia, Tadaaki Hozumi, Gloria Kim and more …

Feature Presentation | Thu Nov 11, 9:00 pm | Innis Town Hall BI, DON’T BE AFRAID! | Dir. Dang Di Phan | Vietnam/France/Germany 2010 | North American Premiere
Told through the innocent eyes of six-year-old Bi, this family drama takes a frank look at sexual desire and repression in modern-day Vietnam.

Youth Presentation | Fri Nov 12, 1:00 pm | NFB Cinema
DRAWING ON THE ART OF HAND & FOOT: A selection of animation and adventure films that showcases a sensational range of techniques and compelling storytelling.

Gallery Reception | Fri Nov 12, 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm | A Space Gallery RMB CITY | Dir.Cao Fei (aka China Tracy) | China 2007–2009
Cao Fei (a.k.a. China Tracy) is a guide, philosopher and tourist in Second Life virtual utopia RMB City.

Special Presentation | Fri Nov 12, 7:45 pm | The Royal
SUITE SUITE CHINATOWN This commission by Chinese Toronto-based directors on the theme of “Chinatown” includes new music and a live performance by the Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School stage band.

Centrepiece Presentation | Fri Nov 12, 10:00 pm | The Royal GOLDEN SLUMBER | Dir. Nakamura Yoshihiro | Japan 2010 | Toronto Premiere When an unassuming deliveryman finds himself framed for the assassination of the Japanese prime minister, he must count on the kindness of old friends and a wanted killer to evade the authorities, in this wild adventure based on Kotaro Isaka’s novel. Presented by Kim Orr Barristers P.C.

Spotlight Presentation | Sat Nov 13, 12:00 pm | NFB Cinema KOJI YAMAMURA — MASTERY OF THE FORM: One of the most successful auteur animation filmmakers in Japan today, Yamamura will be in Toronto for a master class and curated program by Michael Fukushima and Marco de Blois.

Feature Presentation | Sat Nov 13, 2:15 pm | Innis Town Hall OXHIDE II | Dir. Liu Jiayin | China 2009 | Toronto Premiere A father, mother, and daughter (the filmmaker) make dumplings together in this brilliant feature film in which simple actions become mesmerizing and meaningful.

Feature Presentation | Sat Nov 13, 5:00 pm | Innis Town Hall THE MOUNTAIN THIEF | Dir. Gerry Balasta | Philippines/USA 2009 | Canadian Premiere In the world’s largest dumpsite town, the lives of scavenger Julio and his young son Ingo take a turn for the worse when Julio is accused of murder. Cast from among real residents of the Payatas dumpsite in the Philippines.

Feature Presentation | Sat Nov 13, 7:15 pm | Innis Town Hall TOILET | Dir. Naoko Ogigami | Japan/Canada 2010 | North American Premiere Three siblings — a nerdy engineer, a brilliant pianist, and an air guitarist — struggle to relate to their estranged Japanese grandmother after the death of their mother. Shot in Toronto and featuring a Canadian cast.


Feature Presentation | Sat Nov 13, 10:00 pm | Innis Town Hall
EIGHTEEN | Dir. Jang Kun-Jae | South Korea 2009 | Toronto Premiere In Seoul, two young lovers are forbidden from seeing one another until they have completed their studies. Tae-Hoon, unable to accept this order, is driven to irrational and increasingly desperate action.

Special Event | Sat Nov 13, 10:00 pm | Rivoli
RICE DREAMS: A night of Asian pop-psychedelia. Visualizations by multimedia artist Jeff Garcia, with live music by Vowls.

Feature Presentation | Sun Nov 14, 2:00 pm | Innis Town Hall DEAR DOCTOR | Dir. Nishikawa Miwa | Japan 2009 | Toronto Premiere A young medical school graduate is assigned to a small mountain village and its beloved long-time doctor. When the doctor goes missing, the truth about his past begins to emerge.

Shorts Presentation | Sun Nov 14, 4:45 pm | Innis Town Hall ONE BIG HAPA FAMILY | Dir. Jeff Chiba Stearns | Canada 2010 | World Premiere Some 95% of Japanese Canadians marry interracially, the highest rate of any ethnicity in Canada. Jeff Chiba Stearns embarks on a journey to discover why. Preceded by Marker by Louise Noguchi. Closing Night Gala | Sun Nov 14, 8:00 pm | The Royal

Encore Presentation | Mon Nov 15, 7:00 pm | Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts AU REVOIR TAIPEI | Dir. Arvin Chen | Taiwan 2010 | Canadian Premiere A lovesick boy, a passive-aggressive bookstore clerk, a jaded mob boss and a flamboyant gangster come together in this brilliant adventure-romance caper. Presented by National Bank.

INFORMATION:
SCREENING AND INDUSTRY SERIES VENUES
Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor St. W., at Bathurst
The Royal, 608 College St., at Clinton
Innis Town Hall, 2 Sussex Ave., at St. George
National Film Board (NFB) Cinema, 150 John St., at Richmond
Munk School of Global Affairs, 1 Devonshire Place, at Hoskin

Advance sales: start Oct. 13 for all shows
Online sales through www.reelasian.com — click on Buy Tickets
Walk-up sales through T.O. Tix at Yonge-Dundas Square — Tuesday to Saturday, 12:00 to 6:30 pm
Charge by phone: 1 888 222 6608. Group sales: 416 703 9333

DURING THE FESTIVAL
Future-day tickets: starts Nov. 10 at Innis Town Hall — from noon until 20 minutes into the last screening
Online sales: through www.reelasian.com (powered by Ticketweb) — until 11:55 pm the day before the show — click on Buy Tickets
Walk-up sales: at Innis Town Hall — until the day before the show — cash only
Charge by phone: 1 888 222 6608 — until 11:55 pm the day before the show
Same-day tickets: available one hour before the screening
Walk-up sales at each venue — cash only

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Test Your Box Office Knowledge


Getting pumped for the winter movie season? EZ1 Productions is hosting a FREE movie game where participating must guess which of big budget films will be a box office hits this fall. Once again the game is FREE to play and prizes are available to all players, foreign and domestic. To sign up, or to get more info, just visit the EZ1 Productions website.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Movie Marketing Monday

More TIFF reviews are still coming down the pipe, but for now let us welcome the return of the Movie Marketing Monday feature to this blog.


The Tourist




The Warrior’s Way


Friday, October 08, 2010

Bringing Up Katharine Hepburn, Baby!

Taking a short break from all my TIFF reviews today to give a little extra promotion to LAMB Acting School 101 feature I am running over at The Large Association of Movie Blogs (better known as The LAMB). This month we will be looking at the works of Katharine Hepburn. If you are a blogger who has written, or plans to write, articles, reviews, etc. regarding Hepburn’s work we would love to feature it on The LAMB

Here is a small sample of the type of material we are looking for:
  • Articles on her best performances
  • Articles on her worst performances
  • General thoughts on the actress
  • Reviews of the films she has starred in

Once you have the article and/or review posted on your blog, send the link to bigthoughtssmallmind@hotmail.com. As always multiple submissions are encouraged. The deadline for submissions is Saturday October 23, 2010.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

TIFF10 Review: Vanishing on 7th Street

Vanishing on 7th Street

There is nothing worse in the horror genre than a film that does not invoke a sense of dread. As much as it pains me to say it, Vanishing on 7th Street is one of lackluster films where the only way you will feel a chill down your spine is if the theatre’s air condition system is cranked to max. Vanishing on 7th Street was disappointing because it was high on my list of must see films. I even passed on Danny Boyle’s much hyped 127 Hours and a few other stellar films in the TIFF selection process for Vanishing. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

The premise of the film is by far the most interesting aspect of the film. A city suffers a power outage and by time the back-up generators start the majority of the population has disappeared. All that is left is their clothes, vehicles, cellphones, etc. After 72 hours without power, and the with the menacing darkness quickly expanding, four survivors (Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo, and Jacob Latimore) must figure out a way to elude the darkness and get out of the city.

One of the main reasons I was so eager to see Vanishing on 7th Street was due to the fact that is was directed by Brad Anderson. His work on films such as Session 9, and The Machinist, as well as his contribution to shows like Fringe are proof enough that Anderson knows how to tell an eerie tale well. So what happened to with this film? To be honest, all of my issues with this film stem from Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay.

Vanishing on 7th Street never explains why the darkness occurs or how it can be stopped. Sure there are several nods to a bigger spiritual type of cleansing going on, not the mention the not so subtle reference to Adam and Eve, but nothing is ever stated in concrete terms. Leaving things up to the viewer’s imagination is always better in regards to horror. Unfortunately, the problem is that Vanishing never establishes any real rules for “the darkness” and the film takes liberties with this. One minute “the darkness” is afraid of light, the next it is manipulating it by showing a baby stroller under a street light. A character can survive 72 hours covered in glow sticks yet, later on in the film, “the darkness” can magically drain the power of newly opened glow sticks, batteries, etc. There is never any rhyme or reason to much of the actions of “the darkness”.


This lack of consistency flows into the characters themselves. While I can understand people not thinking straight in the first 48 hours, one would start to wise up just a tad after 72 hours. Characters are constantly making stupid decisions at every corner of the film. For example, Luke (Christensen) and Rosemary (Newton) decide to leave the only well lit building on the entire street to go searching for a working car. Before leaving Rosemary place a bunch of glow sticks around James (Latimore), but none on Paul (Leguizamo)…who is lying wounded on the pool table. It is very telling when the smartest character in the entire film is the one with the least amount of screen time, Briana (Taylor Groothuis).

The repetitive nature of characters making one stupid mistake after the next really hinders any form of character development within the film. It is a shame that Jaswinski never seems to figure out how to evolve his story past the great initial premise. If the story and characters had been stronger Vanishing on 7th Street could have been a decent film. Sadly the film feels like a low-rent sequel to the equally silly movie, Darkness Falls.


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

TIFF10 Review: The Trip

The Trip


There are some films that take pride in having gripping plots, rich character depth, and stirring twists. Then there is Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip; a comedy that wants nothing more than to make the audience laugh as much as possible. What the film lacks in regards to plot and character, it makes up for in spades with its humour.

Playing heightened versions of themselves, The Trip follows Steve Coogan and longtime comedy partner Rob Brydon as they travel through the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, dinning at fancy restaurants and taking in some of the history of the land. Coogan has been commissioned by The Observer newspaper to write food reviews. The week long voyage was suppose to be a romantic outing for Coogan and his girlfriend but things have hit a bumpy patch in their relationship. As a last resort, Steve enlist Rob to come along on the journey. As the men hit the open road, they contemplate their lives while routinely trying to one up each other when it comes impersonating famous people.

The Trip is a six-part, mostly improvised, BBC television series that will be airing later this year. Director Michael Winterbottom edited together the footage into a feature film. As odd as it may sound the whole production will play probably better as a feature than as a mini-series. As a series, the repetitive nature of the humour would get rather stale if viewed over the course of a few days. Compressed into a brisk feature length running time, the gags seem far less tedious.


It is tough to find a comedic duo working today that has as much chemistry as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Whether they are describing the various foods they sample, or arguing who can do the best celebrity impersonations, their wit and timing is impeccable. The audience will not only leave the film with tears in their eyes from laughing so hard, but they will also find themselves debating who did what better just like the actors. For the record, I felt Brydon did the better Michael Caine impression and Coogan nailed the Sean Connery impression.

If there is one drawback to the film, it is that the poignant moments are too few and far between. The contrasting views each men hold in regards to success is rather interesting. Coogan is determined to make it in America as this is what he considers the benchmark for true success in the entertainment world. Brydon on the other hand is content with the level of fame he has amassed in the UK. Unlike Coogan, Brydon views life with his family to be far more rewarding than anything Hollywood has to offer. It is these moments that Winterbottom could have explored more. It would have added more depth to the characters and story. Still, one must remember that The Trip is a comedy first and foremost, and on a comedic level this film is top notch.


Tuesday, October 05, 2010

TIFF10 Review: Super

Super
If you have listened to my guest spot on the Super edition of The Dark of the Matinee’s TIFF podcast, Wicked Little Town, then you already know I am quite fond of James Gunn’s latest film. If you have not had a chance to check out the podcast yet then I highly recommend you give it a spin. The Mad Hatter was lucky enough to score a nice interview with James Gunn after our screening of his dark superhero inspired comedy.

Frank D’Arbo’s (Rainn Wilson) life has consisted of two perfect moments. The first was when he happened to help a cop nab a robber by pointing out which direction the crook ran. While the other moment of note was the day he married Sarah (Liv Tyler). Frank’s perfect world is destroyed when he comes home one day and discovers that is wife has left him to be with a local drug dealer, Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Depressed and seeking guidance Frank gets a sign from the above, in the form of folk Christian superhero The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion). Thus he is inspired to not only right the wrongs of the world but also save Sarah in the process. Disguised as The Crimson Bolt, Frank delivers his own unique brand of vigilante justice to everyone from drug dealers to theatre line cutters. Frank even gets a sidekick, Boltie (Ellen Page), in the process. While successful at the start, Frank soon realizes that the criminal mind in real-life is far more dangerous, and unpredictable, than it is in comic books.

Super often feels like the dark funnier cousin to the film Kick-Ass. Both films look at the challenges ordinary folks endure when trying to become real-life superheroes. While there will surely be debate over which of the two films works better, Super gets my vote. Kick-Ass tries hard not to be your standard superhero tale, but that is exactly what it becomes in the end. Unlike Kick-Ass, there are no jetpacks, outlandish machine guns etc. Super maintains a certain level of realism throughout the film. Sure there are some over-the-top moments, especially the scene where God touches Frank’s brain and inspires wisdom, yet when it comes to the action the film rarely strays from its goal. Super is all about detailing how the average Joe would handle superhero responsibilities in a world where bullets are real and wounds cannot magically heal by turning to the next panel.


For the first part of the film Frank’s main weapon is a simple wrench. When Frank finally upgrades to a gun, Gunn still keeps it all fairly realistic. Even The Crimson Bolt costume looks exactly the way you would expect it to look if it was made by someone with average tailoring skills. The majority of the costume is one sloppy patch job after another.

The fact that The Crimson Bolts outfit looks so put together last minute only enhances the extremely dark humour the film offers. Super wonderfully plays up many of the superhero conventions, including having a secret identity, finding a place to change in public, etc. for big laughs. Yet is should also be noted that Super offers an interesting commentary on the nature of superheroes. Gunn is making a statement that superheroes are nothing more than off-kilter individuals who take pride in beating up others.

This idea is perfectly captured in the character of Boltie. Boltie gets such a thrill out of inflicting punishment on people that she does not even care if the person actually deserves it. Ellen Page is hilarious as Boltie, she steals every scene that she is in while still bring weight to Frank’s plight. Page, Wilson and Bacon are the reason why I think Super will catch on with most viewers. Despite the brutal violence, the lead actors bring much levity to this dark comedy. Bacon is so good in his role, that I wished he was given even more screen time. The fact that the film gets extremely dark in the last half may not sit well with some, yet it is needed when looking at the film as a whole. If you are willing to stay with the film until the end you will be greatly rewarded, Super is a surprisingly smart and extremely funny dark comedy that will have you looking at the superhero genre in a whole new way.

Monday, October 04, 2010

TIFF10 Review: The First Grader

The First Grader


No matter how hard you try to go into a film with an objective mind there are times when you go into a film with preconceived notions of how it will be. The First Grader is the perfect example of this. On the surface it seemed like it was going to be like so many “based on a true story tales”. A film with no real purpose other than to pull at the heart strings and hopefully snag a few awards along the way. Surprisingly though, Justin Chadwick’s latest feature manages to avoid many of the pitfall that usually plague its genre. As a result it connects with the viewers on a far deeper level than one would initially expect. This is why The First Grader ended up being runner–up to only The King’s Speech for the prestigious People’s Choice Award, the highest award that TIFF hands out.


At age 84, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo) has experienced hardships that most could not even imagine. When the Kenyan government announces that they will offer free primary school for the first time, Maruge views it as an opportunity to fulfill his life-long goal of learning to read before he dies. Marugue’s initial attempts to register as a student at the school are met with scorn and ridicule. It is only when a teacher at the school, Jane (Naomie Harris) decides to take a chance on Maruge that he gets one step closer to being a reality. While Jane sees potential in Maruge, others in the community and the school board do not share her view. The idea of a grown man being allowed such close access to young children does not sit well with the greater population. As the debate over Maruge rages, and the international media takes notice, Maruge and Jane are determined to fight for what they believe is right...even if it may cost them their lives.


The First Grader is the type of film that slowly picks away at you before ultimately winning you over. The way some of the scenes are shot are similar to Hotel Rwanda, but that is where the comparison ends. The First Grader carves its own unique path by shining light on a dark era of Kenyan history that few people outside of Africa know much about. Justin Chadwick wisely delves into Maruge’s past via several well placed flashbacks. It is the horrors that Maruge endures, while fighting in the rebellion against the British, which gives The First Grader its substance. Chadwick does not shy away from showing the atrocities that Kenyans suffered at the hands of the British.

Part of the reason these scenes resonate so well is due to the measured performance that Oliver Musila Litondo brings to the role of Maruge. Litondo convincingly shows the quiet rage that fills Maruge as well as his desire to move forward. Naomie Harris finally gets a leading role that showcases her talents. Her work as Jane should hopefully open the door for more leading roles of note in the near future. It should also be noted that the children at Maruge’s school give surprisingly good performances considering that they are all first time actors. Instead of holding an open addition, Chadwick decided to uses all the kids that actually attended school in which the film was shot. Despite the fact that none of them had ever even seen a movie before, let alone television, they held their own against the seasoned actors.

While appearing simple on the surface, The First Grader offers a depth far greater than one would expect upon first glance.

Friday, October 01, 2010

TIFF10 Review: The Illusionist

The Illusionist

Toy Story 3 is heralded by many, myself included, to be the frontrunner for the Best Animated Film award at next year’s Oscar ceremony. The creators behind Toy Story 3 may not want to get their acceptance speeches ready just yet. If there is one film that could pull off the upset, it will be The Illusionist. A humorous and touching film, The Illusionist could potentially steal some of Pixar's thunder come award season.

Helmed by Sylvain Chomet, the director who brought the world Les Triplettes de Belleville back in 2003, and based on an unproduced script by Jacques Tati; The Illusionist centres around a magician, Tatischeff, who goes to great lengths to keep a poor Gaelic girl believing in magic. Tatischeff seems to be the last vestige of a golden era of performers. The world no longer cares about folks who do magic tricks as rock bands, like The Brittoons, are now the focus for young minds. While performing in a small Scottish pub, Tatischeff comes across a young girl who works as a maid in the establishment. Seeing that the girl is in need of new footwear, Tatischeff uses some of the money he receives from the performance and buys her a nice pair of shoes. The girl believes Tatischeff magically pulled the item out of thin air and, as a result, decides to follow Tatischeff assuming his magic will bring her a better life. Not wanting to dampen the girl’s spirits, Tatischeff is forced to take on extra jobs in order to keep the charade going.

Behind Blue Valentine, The Illusionist ended up being my second favourite film at this year’s TIFF. The film is far more moving than you would expect from an animated feature. It nicely reaffirms how powerful a simple act of human kindness can be without being too sentimental. Although Tatischeff becomes a surrogate father to the young girl, his kindness does seem to influence the girl to do the same for others. In one poignant scene the girl makes stew for a few of the other tenants in their apartment, including a suicidal clown. Despite having several characters, like the aforementioned clown, whose lives are downright miserable, The Illusionist is a wonderfully uplifting work.


The Illusionist is as much a tribute to Jacques Tati as it is a look at the power of the human spirit. Tatischeff is not only a representation of Tati but, in one playful scene, actually ends up in at cinema that happens to be showing Tati’s film Mon Oncle. This scene, as well as numerous others, will evoke a smile from even the grumpiest viewer. Plus if the story does not grab you, which it will, the visuals surely will. The animation is beautiful especially the jaw-dropping details in regards to the Scottish landscape. The fact that the majority of the film was hand-drawn speaks volumes. Sylvain Chomet is able to evoke more genuine emotion out of the film, using very little dialogue, than most of the computer rendered 3D animated features that fill most multiplexes today.

I cannot recommend The Illusionist highly enough. I am confident that it will not only join Toy Story 3 in the animation Oscar race; but it shall also join that film on my list of best films of the year as well.