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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Heaven on Earth (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Deepa Mehta
Starring: Preity Zinta, Vansh Bhardwaj

Deepa Mehta’s social conscience has always played a fairly sizeable role in her films, most of which comment on larger socio-political situations through smaller, personal stories. Heaven on Earth is no different, exploring the issue of domestic violence and tying it to the larger context of immigration and how complicated East-West relations can contribute to an already volatile situation. Mixing realism with fantasy, Mehta tells an engrossing story of despair and hope.

The film centres of Chand (Preity Zinta in an earnest and very open performance), sent from India to Canada to marry Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj), a seemingly shy and gentle man who bears the burden of supporting his family, which includes his parents and his sister, her husband and their two children. Chand’s image of Rocky begins to distort almost immediately after they’re married as he begins to physically abuse her on their honeymoon. Chand is helpless against him, not only because she lacks the physical strength to fight back but because her position within society leaves her entirely isolated. Far from home, without money of her own, in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, living with people who have little sympathy for her and, in fact, contribute a great deal to the escalation of violence by setting Rocky off, there seems to be little hope for her survival.

Rocky arranges for her to work at a factory alongside his sister, her paycheque being directly deposited into his account so that she never has access to it. At the factory she becomes friends with a co-worker, an immigrant from Jamaica who has had her own experiences with abuse. She wants to help Chand, offering her money so that she can walk away from the situation, but Chand is too scared to go off on her own. Chand does, however, latch on to the story her friend tells her about a love potion that will cause a man to fall in love with a woman he treats with hate. Chand decides to try this solution and here the film takes a magic realist turn, weaving elements of mythology into the story.

The film is, obviously, deeply critical of the ease with which women can be stripped of any power they might have, making it easy to trap them in dangerous situations and power dynamics where they are preordained to come out the loser. It is also critical of the way that immigrants, particularly non-white immigrants, are at once incorporated into and kept at a distance from society. As far as Rocky and his family are concerned, Chand’s arrival is a matter of economics: she’s one more person who can contribute to the household expenses and to the expense of bringing Rocky’s brother to Canada. Their treatment of her is unfair, but at the same time it’s understandable how they would come to see another human being in this purely economic way because of their own tenuous place in society. Rocky’s brother-in-law is unable to find work, Chand is forced to work in a factory despite having a degree – all have come to Canada hoping to find an opportunity to better their lives and have been disappointed by the reality that despite their intelligence and skill, they’re starting over from scratch in a place that is traditionally hostile to the upward mobility of foreign-born residents. The characters deal with society’s disdain for them by turning it around on Chand, punishing her for the injustices that have been inflicted on them by others. This isn't simply the story of one disenfranchised woman, but of an entire segment of the population disenfranchised by a casual and accepted form a racism. If you came from, for example, England with a degree, chances are that you wouldn't have to settle for work in a factory at $8 an hour.

Mehta takes the time to carefully explore the issue of domestic violence from a multitude of angles. It isn’t simply a personal issue between Chand and Rocky, it’s also a means for Rocky’s mother to exert power through her son, and it’s something that deeply affects Rocky’s niece and nephew as it defines for them patterns and rigid gender roles that they will find difficult to break. It’s a very thoughtful film in that respect and takes its subject matter very seriously. The only real criticism I have is that the film runs out of steam towards the end, really wasting the momentum it had built up to that point. It is, however, a beautifully constructed film that easily blends realism with fantasy and makes its point loud and clear.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

* * * 1/2

Director: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer

I’d been hearing about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for years but only just got around to seeing it and now can’t wait to see it again. It’s a funny send up of noir films and conventions, a self-referential Hollywood story, and a buddy movie all rolled into one, with plenty of action and a lot of wit. Plus a bit of gratuitous nudity, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Our protagonist and narrator – though he readily admits that he’s not a very good narrator – is Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.), a thief who stumbles into an audition while fleeing the police. He impresses the director and is flown out to Los Angeles for another audition and finds himself drawn to a woman at a party. The woman is Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), a childhood friend who ran away to Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress. Reunited, he lets her think that he’s a private detective which might have been fine but for the fact that Harmony’s sister shows up in town and promptly dies a gruesome death, which Harmony is certain was murder.

Meanwhile, to prepare Harry for his role the director of the film has arranged for him to shadow an actual detective, known to all as “Gay Perry” (Val Kilmer). While they’re out on the ride-along, they find a dead girl who later turns up in Harry’s hotel bathroom. The two murders are, of course, related and part of a tangled plot involving money, family strife, impersonation, and the long-ago adaptation of a pulp novel beloved by Harmony’s mother.

That novel – and the pulp/noir genre in general – plays a major role in the film, acting as a kind of sign post pointing out the plot’s direction. For example, early in the film Harry tells Perry that the novels always involved two murders, seemingly unrelated, that prove to be firmly linked – I imagine that if he’d known then how closely reality would emulate fiction he’d have paid more attention later when talking about how the novels always involved some form a torture before the hero solved the plot. The film really plays with the conventions of the genre, counterbalancing the harder edges of the story – which does get quite dark and violent – with a protagonist who is unlike the anti-heroes normally found in noir. Harry’s a goofy guy, always getting injured, never having the upper hand – he’s not the Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum type. Perry, on the other hand, displays some of the characteristics of the classic archetype with the difference that he’s gay. In making the character gay the story not only adds another layer to the Harry-Perry relationship, it also plays on the sexual undercurrents present in a lot of classic noir stories.

As friends and antagonists, Downey and Kilmer play off of each other brilliantly. I’m half-way tempted to just make a video of a bunch of their exchanges and let it speak for itself, but I doubt I’d be able to limit myself to just a couple of minutes. I don’t generally hope for sequels, but I really wouldn’t mind seeing them as these two characters again and given how much fun they seem to be having, I’d wager that they wouldn’t mind revisiting these characters either. As the love interest Monaghan manages to keep up and even steal a few scenes herself. I’m not overly familiar with her as an actress but she’s much more alive in this role than she has been in other films I’ve seen her in, which may be a testament to the skills of Shane Black and the energy his direction injects into the story. Major kudos to Black in every respect, as his debut is a smart, subversive, and fun film.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Review: To Have and Have Not (1944)

* * * 1/2

Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall

“You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”

Not even Bogart had a clever rejoinder for that one. To Have and Have Not, besides just being downright enjoyable, is an important film for being the debut of one of the big screen's best pairings: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Without that electric pairing the film may well have been a retread of Bogart's earlier and very successful romantic war drama, never rising to the occassion of becoming a film in its own right. Of course, being directed by Howard Hawks couldn't hurt either.

From the opening credits – laid out over a shot a map in a way that’s reminiscent of Bogart’s previous hit – the film seems intent on emulating the Casablanca formula. Take a foreign location, a reluctant hero, a blonde love interest, a tricky political situation, a colorful supporting cast and a club with plenty of music and, well, here's looking at you, kid. The plot of To Have and Have Not is similar in many ways to Casablanca in that it takes place in a Vichy occupied French territory and centres on an American who is intent on having nothing to do with resistance efforts but finds himself drawn into the fight for the sake of a woman. There are some important differences, however, not least of which is that the affections of the love interest are never in question and, perhaps because of that, she's got a lot more spunk.

The protagonist in this one is Harry Morgan, captain of a fishing boat and occasionally known as “Steve,” and the love interest is Slim (Lauren Bacall), a young woman in bad financial straits who sashays into his life after stealing a wallet belonging to one of his clients. They engage in a bit of back and forth before being interrupted by the Free French fighters, who want make a deal to use Harry’s boat. Harry isn’t interested at first, but when his passport and all his cash are confiscated by the corrupt police, he decides that he has no choice but to take the chance. Besides, he wants to give Slim the means of getting back to the States - although she has other ideas.

It goes without saying that the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is off the charts. They play off each other with a great deal of ease, clearly enjoying their interplay as much as we, the audience, do. It’s surprising that this was Bacall’s first screen role (and that she was only 19 when filming) because she brings such self-assurance to the character. Played by Bacall, Slim is a woman of intelligence and resourcefulness, in control of her sexuality at all times, except for a few moments when she’s alone with Harry. There’s a lot of fire in this character which perfectly complements Bogart’s more laid-back style of taking care of business.

The film itself, directed by the great Howard Hawks and loosely adapted from a novella by Ernest Hemmingway, runs at a good pace, never taking itself too seriously but managing, nevertheless, to remain grounded in reality. Through the caper at the story’s centre the film manages some subtle commentary on political/military attitudes amongst Allied forces, most obvious in an exchange between Harry and the Free French fighter he’s hired to ferry on his boat. When a patrol boat happens upon them Harry’s ready to fight while the Free French member is almost immediately prepared to surrender – a fact which Harry wastes no time in mentioning and which can be read as a commentary on an undercurrent of U.S.-French relations during WWII (especially since the film takes place "shortly after the fall of France"). The film doesn’t delve too deeply into this particular aspect of the story, but of course the story itself is really just an excuse for the romantic sparring at which Bogart and Bacall excel.

To Have and Have Not is an immensely enjoyable film to watch, one that’s fast-paced and well-acted and just generally quite charming. It doesn't have the gravitas of Casablanca, nor is it the best of the four Bogart & Bacall outings (that would be The Big Sleep), but it's a well-made lark of a film with many memorable moments. It’s definitely a must-see.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Book vs Film: East of Eden vs. East of Eden

Plot: Two brothers, one “good” and one “bad,” vie for the affections of their father as well as a local girl. While the father will never be able to understand or connect to the bad son, the girl sees another side of him and comes to love him. This betrayal, in addition to the bad brother’s insistence on dredging up the family past, eventually shatters the psyche of the good brother.

Differences Between Book and Film: I saw the film version long before reading the novel so imagine my surprise when I discovered that Elia Kazan’s film is only an adaptation of about the last 100 of the novel’s 700 plus pages. The film is, however, very faithful to those last 100 pages, though it cuts out one of the novel’s best characters – the housekeeper, Lee – who adds an interesting, and perhaps problematically latent, element to the story.

For The Book: First and foremost, the prose by John Steinbeck is beautiful and the story, which follows two generations of brothers in the Trask family and juxtaposes it against the story of the Hamilton family (based on Steinbeck’s own family), is powerful and deeply complex, drawing on the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The major female character of the novel, Kate, the wife of Adam and mother of Aron and Cal, is one of the most terrifying villains in fiction, a character without moral compass and entirely lacking in empathy for anyone. She’s an absolutely fascinating character, though considerably declawed in Kazan’s film.

For The Film: James Dean, James Dean, and James Dean. This was Dean’s film debut, the only film he lived to see released in theatres, and the first of two performances for which he was posthumously Oscar nominated. He simply is Cal, the defiant kid desperate for his father’s approval, jealous of his brother’s status in the family, and often acting as his own worst enemy. The film itself is far from perfect, but Dean’s performance makes it worth a look.

Winner: Book. The film is good and displays some solid work by those in front of and behind the camera, but I really love the book. The Grapes of Wrath may be Steinbeck's masterpiece, but for me East of Eden runs a fairly close second.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Toronto Stories (2008)

* * *

Director: Aaron Woodley, Sook-Yin Lee, David Sutherland, David Weaver
Starring: Sook-Yin Lee, Gil Bellows, K.C. Collins, Joris Jarsky

Toronto Stories is a collection of four short films, loosely connected, that aim at giving us a glimpse into the multicultural heart of Canada’s greatest metropolis. Taken as a whole, it’s an endeavour that is at least half successful. Two of the shorts are quite good, too are of lesser quality, though certainly not bad. All in all, a city as large as Toronto probably requires more than four stories in order to really capture its essence and give you a sense of place.

The four stories that make up the film are “Shoelaces,” a coming-of-age story; “The Brazilian,” a non-love story; “Windows,” a darkly comic crime story; and “Lost Boys,” a story about the very fringes of society. Each film runs about 20 minutes and is helmed by a different director, making for four very distinct segments of tone and style. The segments are connected by a loose framing device involving the search for a young immigrant boy who has gone missing in the city, who plays a major role in “Lost Boys,” a minor role in “Shoelaces,” and makes cursory appearances in “The Brazilian” and “Windows.”

Naturally, given that there are so many hands involved, the quality isn’t really consistent from beginning to end. Of the four segments, the only one that completely worked for me was “Windows,” which follows an afternoon in the life of Alton Morris (K.C. Collins), a window washer who used to be a drug dealer. Doug (Joris Jarsky), an old friend and colleague shows up unexpectedly, having broken out of prison to confront his ex-girlfriend, who has just gotten engaged. When Doug takes his ex hostage, Alton finds himself drawn deeper into the situation as he struggles to diffuse it. I would gladly watch a full-length version of this story, particularly if it featured the same actors. Writer/director David Sutherland finds a nice balance between comedy and drama and manages to convey a pretty clear sense of the characters and their relationships in a short period of time.

I would also watch a full length version of “Lost Boys,” which I think has a lot of potential as a story and is easily the segment that best incorporates the missing boy, who is awkwardly shoehorned into some of the segments in order to create a connecting narrative. This segment follows a drug addicted homeless man who encounters the boy and then searches for him after learning that a more nefarious figure has absconded with him. During the course of his search we get a glimpse into his life before the streets, including the wife he left behind and the son whose tragic death continues to haunt him. The protagonist, played by Gil Bellows, isn’t the kind of character you see very often in films and his situation is compelling enough that I think it could sustain a full-length film.

Less successful are “Shoelaces” and “The Brazilian.” The former, though beautifully photographed and featuring a great animated sequence in the middle, fails to fully get itself off the ground. It tries to be about too much in too short an amount of time and so it fails to really resonate. As for “The Brazilian,” it’s the boldest of the four entries but it also feels kind of like a student film. It has an idea but it’s executed in kind of a clunky, unpolished way.

Toronto Stories is ultimately a collection of four very distinct and interesting films that don't always fit together in a cohesive way. Further, the use of the missing boy as a connecting device felt a little contrived for me since some of the shorts incorporated him so easily and others seemed to have more difficulty. In the final analysis, this is a fair if not spectacular effort on the part of the filmmakers.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Review: Last Chance Harvey

* * *

Director: Joel Hopkins
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson

I like Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman. Aside from being wonderful actors, I think that they’re both pleasant screen presences and I would gladly watch either of them in just about anything. In Last Chance Harvey they play two lonely people who manage to find each other, spend a day walking and talking, connect with each other in a way that we suspect neither has connected in some time. It’s all perfectly nice but... that’s about it. It’s a fine film but when the leads are two performers as dynamic as Thompson and Hoffman can be, you’d think it wouldn’t be so bland.

Hoffman is the eponymous Harvey, a Los Angeles musician who makes a living writing jingles. He doesn’t like his job, finding it a demeaning form of making music, but he’s nevertheless desperate to hold on to it when he learns that it’s in jeopardy. He has to go to London for his daughter’s wedding but he’ll cut the trip short in order to be back in time to make a presentation to a client, informed by his boss that this will be his last chance.

Harvey arrives in London with little fanfare. He gets to the hotel thinking that the entire family will be there, only to discover that his ex-wife has rented a house and invited pretty much everyone other than him to stay there. His daughter welcomes him reluctantly and informs him that she’d like her stepfather to give her away at the wedding. Every bit the outsider, Harvey sadly watches the proceedings from afar and then makes his way to the airport, just barely missing his flight. Shortly thereafter he meets Kate (Thompson), with whom he has more in common than he immediately suspects, and they take a walk. After they’ve gotten to know each other a bit she talks him into going to his daughter’s wedding reception and trying to salvage their relationship.

Hoffman and Thompson have a nice, easy chemistry and their characters are similarly well-matched. Harvey and Kate are both people who have been deeply disappointed by life, who have difficulty connecting with others, and who are prone to crankiness. Both are also frustrated artists, Harvey having failed to fulfill his dream of becoming a jazz pianist and Kate aspiring to be a novelist. When they first get to talking and Harvey half-heartedly confesses to being a composer of jingles Kate asks him in a rather direct way if that’s all, which is interesting since she later tells him that she’d like to make a living writing beach reads. I would think that jingles are to music what beach reads are to literature, but I digress. These are two people who believe that they have failed to live up to their potential - though it might perhaps be more accurate to say that their potential doesn't live up to their dreams - and are scared to take a chance just in case this is as good as it will ever get. They step out on the limb for each other and both Hoffman and Thompson get a chance to show off those superior skills that both possess and in the process render effective and touching performances.

We sense that prior to meeting each other, neither had had much fun in a long time and we’d like them to have fun because they seem like nice enough people. The problem with the film is that it’s more interested in plot contrivances than it is in the relationship and so we don’t get to see all that much of Harvey and Kate interacting with each other. There’s also a strange and truncated subplot involving Kate’s mother, who is convinced that her new neighbour is a murderer, that goes nowhere and only serves as a further distraction from the real story, which is Harvey and Kate together.

Last Chance Harvey is a nice, perfectly harmless film but it fails to achieve more than that. It’s wonderful to see Hoffman and Thompson on screen together but the film doesn't really seem to know what to do with them together and spends a lot of time finding ways to keep them apart. Harvey and Kate are interesting and compelling characters and I would have liked to have gotten to know them a bit better.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Review: Wendy and Lucy (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams

Wendy and Lucy is a film of quiet devastation and effective simplicity. It is the story of a young woman standing at the abyss and the dog that represents the last shred of stability in her life. It is exactly the movie that it needs to be, no more and no less, and its central performance by Michelle Williams is a thing of absolute beauty. It’s the kind of performance that makes you lament that a) there are so few good roles for women and b) whenever good roles for women come around, they all come around at the same time and compete with each other for a limited amount of attention, as was the case in 2008.

Williams is Wendy, a young woman making her way to Alaska for work with nothing but her car, her dog, and about five hundred dollars. As she’s passing through Oregon her car breaks down, putting her already limited funds at risk. She’ll have to have the car towed to a shop to have a couple of parts replaced, which would be worrying enough in and of itself but she’s also out of dog food, can’t afford to put a roof over her head for the time it will take to fix her car, and has no one to turn to. At one point she makes a call to her brother, but once his wife picks up the other line to join the conversation it becomes clear that this is a dead end as far as help is concerned. Wendy is entirely on her own except for Lucy.

Desperate, Wendy goes to a grocery store and shoplifts some dog food. She’s caught on the way out by an overzealous teenage clerk, drunk on his own minimal sense of power, who sanctimoniously declares that if someone can’t afford dog food then they shouldn’t have a dog in the first place. He pressures his manager to enforce their zero tolerance policy and calls the police, who take Wendy away while Lucy remains tied up outside the store. By the time Wendy is released, Lucy is gone and the rest of the film passes with her trying to find her dog and trying to keep it together as things continue to fall apart.

The material of this story would provide a lesser actor with an opportunity to gnash and over-emote from one end of the film to the other, but Williams smartly underplays it. Played by Williams, Wendy is a woman struggling valiantly to retain what is left of her dignity and just make it to the light at the end of the tunnel. She makes mistakes to be sure, but she’s a decent person and that shines out of her. There is a reason why most of the people she encounters are willing to help her in small, unasked for ways and it goes beyond them simply feeling sorry for her. She isn’t pathetic – though in other hands she easily could have been – she’s just a good person who has fallen on extremely hard times and finds herself forced to make one difficult choice after another.

Just as Williams’ performance is understated, so is the direction by Kelly Reichardt, who takes a sit back and watch kind of approach to the action. There isn’t a lot of stylistic interference with the story, no unnecessary padding, no colourful and eccentric supporting characters. The film is confident enough in itself to just be what it is, a portrait of a woman in dire straits, and because it doesn’t dilute its meaning by trying to be about everything, it is effective in capturing the spirit of these uncertain financial times. Though it received little in the way of a marketting push while it was in theaters, it's a film that will stand the test of time and I have no doubt that it will find an audience now that it's on DVD. If you see it in the video store, don't hesitate to rent it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: I've Loved You So Long (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Philippe Claudel
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein

I’ve Loved You So Long comes so very close to being utterly fantastic that the destination is actually within sight as the film uses its final minutes to make a slight detour, offering up an ending that is so much less than the film deserves. Up until the last, say, 15 or so minutes the film is a deep and engaging character study, a story about forgiveness and rebuilding - but man do those closing minutes undercut that.

Kristin Scott Thomas stars as Juliette, just released from prison after 15 years and somewhat reluctantly reunited with her sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein). Though the sisters were close as children they had no contact during Juliette’s incarceration, due primarily to their parent’s insistence on obliterating Juliette from the family memory. Now their father is dead and their mother suffers from dementia and Lea happily takes Juliette in, embracing this opportunity to start over again. Juliette is less open, having become so accustomed to being alone that she at first finds it difficult to be around other people and expected to engage with them. Her isolation is made more complete by the elephant in the room, the crime she committed that necessitated her incarceration and must not be discussed.

During Juliette’s absence Lea has married, adopted two daughters, and made a successful career for herself as a university professor. Her life has been happy, though the severed connection between her and Juliette has always weighed heavily on her. Welcoming Juliette into her home, she walks on eggshells, not wanting to upset the delicate balance that exists between them. Slowly and with help from Lea and her family, as well as her parole officer and Michel (Laurent Grevill), a colleague of Lea’s, Juliette begins to ease back into the world, warming to the company of others and starting to find happiness. We know that she has done something terrible, but we also see how she continues to suffer for it and we believe that she has been rehabilitated, that she deserves a second chance. And then... well, read no farther unless you’re willing to have the ending spoiled.

Juliette was once a doctor and went to prison for murdering her six-year-old son, Pierre. Lea’s attempts to reconcile her love for her sister with her horror at her sister’s actions drive a fair bit of the story, particularly since she herself is now a mother and has Juliette under the same roof as her daughters, one of whom is about the same age as Pierre was when he died. This element of the story is very strong because it’s very realistic; one act, no matter how horrible, cannot erase everything Juliette was to Lea beforehand. It complicates their relationship, it defies Lea’s ability to understand, but it cannot prevent her from continuing to love her sister. What the film does at the end is uncomplicate things considerably by revealing that Juliette’s act was not an act of murder but of mercy as she had discovered that Pierre was suffering from a fatal illness. It’s an unnecessary twist and feels a bit like a cheat.

Thinking about this film afterwards, I was reminded of two others: The Contender and Citizen Ruth. In The Contender Joan Allen stars as a politician who finds herself the subject of a sex scandal and refuses to confirm or deny the allegations against her because a) the events in question occurred 20 years earlier and have nothing to do with anything, and b) because to answer the questions gives them legitimacy. That’s all well and good but then the film has her admit to another character that she’s innocent and it’s as if the film is winking at us and saying, “Don’t worry, she’s not really a slut.” In Citizen Ruth Laura Dern plays a pregnant drug addict who finds herself in a tug-or-war between pro-choice and anti-abortion groups. Though the film obviously leans more to the left than to the right, it nevertheless cops out by having the protagonist miscarry, thus eliminating the “choice” that sparks the premise. These are films that not only lack the courage of their convictions, but also lack faith in their audience. So it is with I’ve Loved You So Long which spends most of its running time arguing that rehabilitation is possible only to pull the rug out from under its premise by revealing that its subject never needed to be rehabilitated in the first place.

Despite problems with the ending, the film is nevertheless very good. Scott Thomas renders a performance of beautiful restraint, playing a character so accustomed to isolation that she seems to be completely locked inside herself. There is a wonderful scene wherein Juliette and Lea go to visit their mother and during which Scott Thomas has the opportunity to display a host of emotions, doing so entirely with her face and through body language. The performance moves easily from hardness to absolute fragility, sometimes suggesting both at the same time. As she slowly begins to let people into her life – and let herself into theirs – we come to care about her and her struggle to fit herself back into the world and because of that we don’t need the film to give her this easy out.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Lammys

As some of you may already know, nominations for the 2nd annual Lammys were announced today. Yours truly is nominated for the "Brainiac Award" - many thanks to whoever put me up for that. A number of great blogs are nominated in the 15 categories though sadly an equal number - including a bunch that I voted for nominations - seem to have missed the cut. Voting runs until May 31st so get over there and cast your ballot.

Canadian Film Review: Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

* * * 1/2

Director: Zacharias Kunuk
Starring: Natar Ungalaaq

Note: This review was first published as part of the Counting Down the Zeroes series over at the fabulous Film For The Soul. Check it out for a very thorough look at the films that defined the last decade in film - and when I say "thorough" I mean that it's a project that seems staggering in its goal and the effort that must go in to bringing it all together so mad props to Ibetolis for taking it on.

“Evil came to us like Death. It just happened and we had to live with it.” If you were to break The Fast Runner down to a single principle it would that one, spoken during the opening moments of the film. In a small Inuit community during an unspecified time long in the past, evil infiltrates, turning people against each other, and they must learn to live side-by-side with it because the harsh conditions necessitate that they stay together. The Fast Runner tells a story that is in certain respects simple and familiar, but the way that it is told by director Zacharias Kunuk is entirely original, a viewing experience unlike any other.

After a brief prologue we come to the story proper which concerns Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), the fast runner of the title. Atanarjuat is involved in a rivalry with Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), the son of the camp’s leader, Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak), and they vie for the affections of Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu). Atuat was promised to Oki in childhood but now she and Atanarjuat are in love and so a compromise is reached, allowing Atanarjuat to fight for the right to marry her himself. Atanarjuat wins the competition – a fight in which he and Oki take turns hitting each other until one drops – but his happiness with Atuat will be short-lived.

During Atuat’s pregnancy, Atanarjuat goes away to hunt caribou and is talked into taking Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), Oki’s sister, along to help him since Atuat’s condition makes it impossible for her to undertake the journey. This will, of course, end badly. Atanarjuat makes Puja his second wife and things become tense within his household. Aside from the obvious issue of jealousy between the wives, there is also the fact that Puja is lazy and leaves all the work to Atuat and Uluriaq (Neeve Irngaut), who is married to Atanarjuat’s brother, Amaqjuaq (Pakak Innuksuk). All five, plus Atanarjuat and Atuat’s young son, live in the same tent, sleeping side-by-side. This will end badly. One morning Uluriaq wakes to find Amaqjuaq and Puja doing more than just sleeping and soon Puja is running back to her family – who are predisposed to disliking Atanarjuat - with a black eye courtesy of her husband. This will also end badly.

The story is based on Inuit legend, though liberties have been taken in order to flesh it, and its characters, out. The ending has also been changed somewhat as writer Paul Apark Angilirq - who died before being able to see his pet project make it to the screen – wanted the story’s message to be one of hope rather than bloodlust and revenge. As shaped by Angilirq and carried out by Kunuk (who is credited as one of the film’s additional writers), it unfolds slowly – too slowly, perhaps, during the first of its nearly three hour running time, though in its last 2/3rds the film seems to really find its rhythm and runs at a faster pace. It takes the time to really establish the sometimes complicated relationships between the characters, making the sense of community that is at the heart of the film really stand out. Though Atanarjuat is the hero of the story, it is the community itself – in all its shifting incarnations – that becomes the protagonist. The evil that occurs is not the injuries caused to one person by another, but the injury to the community caused by infighting, rivalry, and power plays. The evil is in putting individual desires ahead of the needs of the community.

The most talked about part of the film – deservedly so, given that it’s not the kind of thing you see in every movie – is Atanarjuat’s long run across the ice, naked and shoeless. It’s an extraordinary sequence which ends with his feet beat up and bloody, resulting in a long convalescence as he plots his revenge against Oki, who believes that his rival died during his flight. His endurance is astounding, though not unbelievable within the context of the larger story. Nothing about The Fast Runner feels unreal or unnatural; the sense of intimacy that Kunuk engenders draws you right into the action, so close that you almost forget that it’s a fiction film rather than a documentary. Several of the roles are played by non-actors and there is an emphasis throughout the story how the community lives and survives – how they build their homes, get and cook their food, their rituals, etc. – that further adds to the film’s intense sense of realism. It is so entirely different from any other film I’ve ever seen that the only thing I can really think to compare it to is Nanook of the North and that is, at best, a very shallow comparison. The Fast Runner is truly in a league all its own, a beautiful piece of work brought vigorously to life both in front of and behind the camera. It’s an unforgettable film.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Review: The Misfits (1961)

* * *

Director: John Huston
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift

“You’re the saddest girl I’ve ever met.” In this line you can hear the echo of writer Arthur Miller speaking to then-wife Marilyn Monroe, just one of many elements of the film which imitate real-life. The Misfits stars Monroe as an emotionally fragile divorcee who finds love with a cowboy past his glory played by Clark Gable. This isn’t the best movie that either star ever made, but it is significant in that it’s the last film either ever completed (Gable would die ten days after filming wrapped; Monroe a year after the film’s release) and there’s something very appropriate about that, given the melancholy nature of the story and these two characters.

The story takes place in Nevada, where Roslyn (Monroe) has come to live for the requisite period to obtain her divorce. During her stay she meets Guido (Eli Wallach) and his friend Gay (Gable) and sets off with them and her landlady Isabel (Thelma Ritter) to Guido’s house outside the city. Guido hasn’t lived in the house since the death of his wife and offers to let Rosalyn rent it. This is a new beginning for Rosalyn, who also starts a relationship with Gay, finding with him what each has failed to find in relationships with others. Both are fundamentally lonely people, disconnected from the people around them, and they’re happily surprised at the life they’re able to build together, though it’s destined to be short-lived. It isn’t long before Gay starts to feel restless and decides to go off “mustanging” with Guido. Roslyn comes along for the ride and on the way they pick up Perce (Montgomery Clift), a rodeo rider who might be even more emotionally wounded than Rosalyn. They go into the mountains where Rosalyn breaks down upon learning that the purpose of this expedition is to round up the wild horses so that they can be made into dog food.

All three men are, to greater and lesser degrees, in love with Rosalyn. Rosalyn loves Gay, but is drawn to both Perce and Guido, who seem so sensitive and in need of affection. There’s a sense that she wants to save these three men, just as she wants to save the horses they capture. The wild horses – which once numbered in the thousands but have been reduced to a handful – are representative of the men, who are in their own way the last of a dying breed. Gay and Perce both defiantly refuse “wages,” preferring instead to earn their livings the way they always have and without having to answer to any boss. Of course the truth of the matter is that they’re broken down and of little practical use to any employer, just as the horses are of little practical use for anything other than dog food. They are all creatures considered past their sell by dates.

The actors are great across the board, especially Gable, who brings a weary charm to his role, but it’s Monroe who captures your attention and holds it in the palm of her hand from beginning to end. Because of her status as a sex symbol (the sex symbol) Monroe isn’t always given the credit she deserves as an actress but here she renders a great and nuanced performance. She can say volumes with just a look – her breathy voice is a large part of her persona but I think she would still have been a star had she come along during the silent era because she has such an expressive face. I honestly can’t say enough good things about her work here, though you could of course argue that she’s only playing herself, the role tailor-made for her by Arthur Miller. I would argue that playing “yourself” would be the most difficult task for an actor since it would require you to expose your foibles to the world’s scrutiny and I would argue that it would be more difficult still to play the version of yourself created by your husband, forced to confront his criticisms of you in such an intense and public way.

The Misfits can be a difficult film to watch, not only because of the personal circumstances of the actors involved, but also because of the subject matter. The scenes of the group out capturing the mustangs would never make it into a film made today because they’re so unblinkingly cruel to the animals. Watching the horses as they struggle to evade capture is profoundly disturbing, more so than scenes of cruelty towards people because no matter how absorbed you are in a film you know on some level that it’s a scene being played by actors, whereas this just is. It’s a very unpleasant aspect of the film, though I recommend it nevertheless.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Review: The Year My Parents Went On Vacation (2006)

* * *

Director: Cao Hamburger
Starring: Michel Joelsas, Germano Haiut

In approaching Cao Hamburger’s The Year My Parents Went On Vacation I find myself in kind of an odd state of mind. I enjoyed the film and would recommend it but at the same time I found it entirely generic and doubt that, a year from now, anything about it will have stuck with me. There’s nothing about the film that’s bad – there’s just nothing about it that’s at all surprising or that would make it stand out amongst other coming of age stories.

The story takes place in Brazil in 1970 when the World Cup is just around the corner and on everyone’s mind, particularly that of young Mauro (Michel Joelsas). His parents have greater concerns which stem from their political activities, but do what they can to shield their son from knowing this. Feeling the heat they decide to lie low for a bit, leaving their son with his grandfather and reminding him to tell anyone who asks that they’re “on vacation.” They drop the boy off and leave, not realizing that since contacting the grandfather he’s suffered a heart attack and died. Mauro waits patiently outside his grandfather's door until finally Schlomo (Germano Haiut), the next door neighbour, comes home and takes him in.

The two don’t live together easily and Mauro spends as much time in his grandfather’s empty apartment as he does with Schlomo. He makes friends with Hanna (Daniela Piepszyk), a girl about his age who lives in the building and makes money by letting neighbourhood boys into the backroom of her mother’s store, where they can spy on women trying on clothes in the change rooms. The woman they all want to see is Irene (Liliana Castro), who works at a cafe and dates a soccer goalie who rides a motorcycle and becomes, quite naturally, a hero to Mauro. A lot of what happens is pretty much standard for coming of age stories, though most of it is nevertheless quite charming as seen here. The political situation encroaches on the story every once in a while but, since it’s seen through the eyes of a child who doesn’t quite grasp the reality of what’s going on around him, it is never fully or deeply explored. Of greatest concern to the characters in the film is the outcome of the World Cup and the performance of the legendary Pele so that while political subversives are being rounded up in the streets, most people instead have their eyes glued to the match on the television.

On a superficial level, the film is fairly successful. It works hard at capturing the mood of a neighborhood during a time of political uncertainty and cultural triumph, its protagonist stuck squarely in the middle. The actions of the dictatorship are no secret; when the police round people up it isn't in the middle of the night, but in broad daylight. No one talks about it because, of course, talking about it might result in getting shoved into the back of a car and taken to parts unknown. The World Cup, aside from being a moment of national pride, is also a welcome distraction, something that can be looked at and talked about during a time when wilful blindness and silence seems to rule. At the same time, between these two major events, life goes on as usual: Mauro's grandfather has died, the local kids play their games, Irene hops on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle, and Mauro dreams of Irene while ignoring Hanna. There's a good rhythm to the day-to-day stuff, punctuated every so often by a soccer game or the tense political situation.

The problem with the film, as far as I can see, is that it offers a sketch rather than a picture. It skims over the surface of the larger polticial situation, not allowing it to become part of the bigger story because Mauro doesn't quite understand the importance of events around him. That is, of course, a perfectly valid way to tell a story but it also makes it feel as if its lacking - there's no meat on the bones, nothing to really hold on to to ensure that the film attains longevity in your mind. As I said at the beginning, this is a good movie but I doubt that a year from now I'll be able to remember much, if anything, about it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Review: Hard Candy (2005)

* * * 1/2

Director: David Slade
Starring: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson

David Slade’s Hard Candy is an aggressive little gem of a movie that pushes itself – and the audience – to the very edge. It goes places that few films will go and does so with admirable finesse, never allowing its subject matter to overpower the film itself. It is a very carefully constructed and firmly guided film that allows its actors the freedom to explore some of the darkest reaches of human nature. It can, at times, be a difficult film to watch, but it is well worth the effort.

It opens on an online chat between Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a photographer, and Hayley (Ellen Page), a 14-year-old girl, as they make plans to meet in person. They meet over coffee and flirt – he’s confident and says the right things at the right times, she starts off guarded but becomes increasingly bold with him. They go back to his house and dance ever closer to the line. He offers her a drink, which she declines by informing him that she knows better than to accept a drink she didn’t mix herself. She’ll mix the drinks – and prove her point in the process.

When Jeff comes to, he learns of Hayley’s true intentions. She isn’t a naive little girl waiting to be taken advantage of, but rather a kind of vigilante who has been keeping tabs on Jeff and waiting for him to fall into her trap. It isn’t simply that she thinks he’s a pedophile; she also believes that he’s involved in the murder of a teenage girl. What unfolds is a brutal psychological game as Hayley diligently goes through his life, dismantling it and holding a mirror up to it to force him to see it for what it is. Later she reveals her intention to castrate him and encourages him to beg her not to. Jeff’s day only gets worse from here.

Hard Candy runs contrary to the conventions of mainstream storytelling. There are several points where you think that the film has to start pulling back and yet it never does; it just keeps charging forward into darker and darker territory. It runs at a high intensity that builds in a very effective way, starting with the dangerously calm scenes of the initial seduction, to the growing aggression of the later scenes – there is hardly a denouement; it instead ends at the peak. The film – and in particular its actors – ought to be commended for being willing to really go there, but while the plot does get to exactly where it needs to be, there are some problems with the structure of the story. The constant repetition of Jeff almost gaining the upper hand only to get knocked out once again by Hayley becomes a bit tiresome after the third or fourth time that it happens, although the battle between the characters regains some momentum by the end of the film, when there’s a greater sense that it could go either way.

Most of the film consists simply of Wilson and Page, who play off each other well in the various incarnations of their characters. Both begin the film as characters playing characters, later dropping their masks – Jeff slowly, as his carefully constructed persona is stripped away from him and Hayley more quickly, like a band-aid being ripped off. Wilson is fine in his role, particularly towards the end as he watches his entire life unravel before him, but it’s Page who really owns the film. As Hayley she holds nothing back so that you almost end up feeling sorry for Jeff at certain points. It’s another role which shows what an interesting actress she is – unlike any other actress her age that I can think of – and what potential she has to become even better as she continues to grow as an artist. Director David Slade also shows a great deal of promise, his previous work as a director of music videos apparent in the pacing and fast-cutting of the more intense scenes. It’s a high energy film that manages to maintain its momentum right up until the very end and a fascinating study of two unusual characters.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Review: State of Play (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director:Kevin MacDonald
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren

State of Play is a refreshingly smart and adult film from director Kevin MacDonald. Based on the British miniseries of the same name, the Americanized version is a fast paced procedural thriller with a couple of great performances to its credit. Is it an instant classic? No, but it’s a solid, well-made movie and better than the average post-Oscar/pre-summer fare.

It begins with a double murder, when a street kid and a pizza delivery guy in the wrong place at the wrong time are gunned down in cold blood. At first it seems like a run of the mill drug related offense but soon connections start to be made between this crime and the more high profile murder of Sonia Baker, an aide to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Collins’ college roommate was Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), now a reporter with the Washington Globe and the greatest champion of Collins’ innocence. Collins is currently investigating the practices of PointCorp., a private militia that has been making a fortune in Iraq, and for McAffrey the murder and subsequent revelation of the victim’s affair with Collins reeks of a ploy to discredit the investigation.

McAffrey is teamed up with young reporter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), whom he intends to give a crash course in real reporting. McAffrey is part of a dying breed – the print reporter who deals in hard facts – while Frye is representative of the future – an internet writer (dismissed by McAffrey as a blogger – horrors!) who deals primarily in gossip and speculation. They get off to a rough start but are soon working together like a real team under the watchful and increasingly irritated eye on their Editor-in -Chief, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren in a delightfully bitchy performance). Their investigation puts them in the cross-hairs of various nefarious factions and forces McAffrey to confront truths about his friend – and his friend’s wife (Robin Wright) – that he’d rather not acknowledge.

Crowe is an actor whose skill I admire a great deal though few of the films he’s made in the past decade have sparked my interest. He plays McAffrey as a man who obviously loves his job and is dedicated to it at the expense of personal relationships. More than once the Collinses accuse him of using them and their friendship for the sake of furthering his story and he has little to say in his own defence. Crowe renders a performance that is well-rounded in a way that few actors bother with for their non-Oscar bait fare. Mirren is the other standout of the cast and the scenes between the two crackle with energy. The whole film could have just been the two of them discussing the story and it would have made for a highly entertaining viewing experience. McAdams holds her own with both and Affleck is well-cast as the crusading but all too human politician, though it takes some suspension of disbelief to buy that he, Crowe and Wright were all in college together.

Though the film has all the hallmarks of your average thriller – the twisting plot, good guys who end up being bad guys, the killer who is always one step ahead – it’s focus on the mechanics of how the reporters put their exposé together gives it more weight and substance, making it closer in spirit to a film like All The President’s Men than the more forgettable fare that gets tossed out so often. One of the things that makes State of Play so different – and one of the things I really liked about it – is that the characters react to things like people rather than characters. So often in films people get shot at and then shrug it off like it’s nothing; here the characters are allowed to be scared, even the hero.

I’ve never seen the original State of Play but having seen this version, I really want to. I think that a good way to measure an adaptation is by how much it makes you want to seek out the source material, and in that respect this one is extremely successful. I’m sad to see that State of Play isn’t finding more success – particularly in a year that saw Paul Blart: Mall Cop at #1 for like 4 weeks – but hopefully it will find an audience once it comes out on DVD because it definitely deserves to be seen.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Great Last Scenes: Casablanca

Year: 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Great Because...: Legend has it that the ending was up in the air right up until it was filmed. Whether that’s actually true or an exaggeration for the sake of enhancing the film’s behind-the-scenes story, it’s hard to argue against the ending they ultimately settled on. The bittersweet finale is inarguably classic and filled with great lines, most courtesy of Rick’s farewell speech to Ilsa.

After trying his damndest to prove that he won’t stick his neck out for anyone, Rick proves just how selfless he really is. After securing the papers needed for his rival, Victor Laszlo, to escape the Nazis he surprises Ilsa by insisting that she go with her husband, rather than stay behind in Casablanca with Rick as she had intended. The resistance needs Victor and Victor needs Ilsa – it’s the needs of the many over the needs of the few. But, hey, they’ll always have Paris.

It’s not just Rick who winds up playing the nobility card in the end. Captain Renault risks everything to back Rick up, putting himself on the Nazi’s “Most Wanted” list in the process. It is, indeed, the beginning of a beautiful friendship and even though Rick and Ilsa are in love, there’s something so right about seeing her fly off with Laszlo while Rick walks into the mist with Renault.

The ending has been much imitated and parodied but that hasn’t detracted at all from the original product. No matter how many times I see this movie, the ending still gets me.