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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Canadian Film Review: This Beautiful City (2007)

* *

Director: Ed Gass-Donnelly
Starring: Kristin Booth, Aaron Poole, Caroline Cave, Noam Jenkins, Stuart Hughes

This Beautiful City is lucky to have the actors it has because there isn't much else to recommend it. Clumsily constructed, the film meanders towards its depressing finale after making little more than a few shallow observations about Toronto and people within it. That I'm giving it two stars instead of one is a testament to the actors, who give the film much more than it deserves.

This Beautiful City takes place in two worlds that coexist uneasily in the same neighborhood. One world involves Carol (Caroline Cave) and Harry (Noam Jenkins), a married middle class couple who do middle class things like have dinner parties. The other world involves Pretty (Kristin Booth) and Johnny (Aaron Poole), who are both junkies. To support her habit Pretty turns to prostitution and carries out her work quite literally under the noses of Carol and Harry, in the alley that their balcony overlooks.

On the night of Harry and Carol's dinner party Carol falls from the balcony, perhaps by accident but perhaps on purpose. She lives but her recovery is painful both in physical and psychological terms, a pain which is no doubt exacerbated by the distance that has developped between herself and Harry. She begins an affair with Peter (Stuart Hughes), the man who found her after her fall and the person to whom she confesses that death might have been preferable to the embarrassment of having people think she had failed in a suicide attempt. Meanwhile, Harry develops a relationship, of sorts, with Pretty, who it just so happens is the daughter that Peter has been searching for.

To be entirely honest, Carol, Harry and Peter aren't particularly interesting characters, though Cave plays Carol with such intense vulnerability that she manages to make her more than a one-note stock character. The movie only really comes alive during scenes involving Pretty and Johnny, whose lives have long since spiralled out of control and who are living very much moment to moment. Booth and Poole play these characters with admirable abandon, never shying away from ugliness but also managing to steer clear of creating caricatures. If you've ever lived in a big city, you've encountered these two characters, though they play out on screen as more than just "types." Pretty and Johnny's relationship is complicated, one defined as much by moments of tenderness as moments of violence, and held together by a deep dependence on drugs. Their story is sad but they seem real and human, whereas the other characters, for the most part, seem to have slid out of a cookie cutter.

In its technical aspects, the film is lacking. It is very badly paced and the story, such as it is, relies too heavily on contrivance. You can see the wheels turning behind the scenes and the film itself isn't interesting enough to make you forgive it this fault. I spent a great deal of time after watching this movie wondering what it was even about, what message it was trying to impart. I suppose the film's message is that one community cannot simply continue trying to ignore the other, hoping that it will be swept away in due course through the process of gentrification. We all live together, and if we continue to pretend otherwise, we'll all be destroyed.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: The Good German (2006)

* *

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Toby Maguire

They don’t make movies the way they used to… and maybe they shouldn’t try. The Good German is designed as a throwback to classic cinema, marketed to draw comparisons to Casablanca, though it has much more in common with The Third Man. It’s an interesting film, but an interesting failure. It looks fantastic and the story in its bare outlines is intriguing, but the film just ultimately doesn’t pull it off.

The setting is Berlin in the days just after the end of World War II when the various Allied interests meet to decide the new boundaries of Europe. Into this comes Jake Geismer (George Clooney), an army journalist set to cover the story, who barely has time to set foot in Berlin before his driver, Tully (Toby Maguire), lifts his wallet. Tully's a shady character who loves the anything goes attitude of post-war Berlin and is deeply involved in the black market. He's also deeply involved with a German woman named Lena (Cate Blanchett), ostensibly as her boyfriend, though occassionally he acts as her pimp. When he learns that Lena’s husband, Emil – whom she insists is dead – is a valuable commodity due to the job he held with the Nazis during the war, he decides to make a deal with the Russians to hand him over, theorizing that he can get himself and Lena to London before they realize that he never had Emil in the first place. The next morning Tully shows up dead in a river with a great deal of cash strapped to his belt.

Geismer is suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Tully’s death, particularly the fact that Tully was his driver and was involved with Lena, who was Geismer’s girlfriend during an earlier stay in Berlin. Lena is close-lipped about everything to Geismer and wants only for him to go away, but he wants to help her and if he does go away, he intends to take her with him. His investigation puts him at odds with his superior officers, who want Tully’s murder to quietly go away so that they can get on with more serious business, and puts Lena in even greater danger. Also in danger is Emil, whom Lena has been hiding. He is the good German of the title and has information that he wants to hand over to the Americans. Lena helps him because he’s her husband, but also because by doing so she hopes to atone for her own actions during the war – a secret which is revealed only in the film’s final scene.

Director Steven Soderbergh achieves the 1940s look by filming in black and white with period lenses on the cameras. Shots are composed in the classic style and filmed entirely on studio back lots rather than on location. Visually, the film more than achieves its goal. The problems arise when you get beyond that surface element because aside from the visual aesthetic, the film doesn't adhere to the sensibilities and restrictions of the 1940s. The dialogue is thoroughly modern and so is the direct treatment of sex and sexuality. You never heard Bogart say “fuck” and what happened behind closed bedroom doors was left to the imagination – not so here. This uneasy mixing of the modern and the classic makes the film seem indecisive, like it kind of wants to be a 40s movie, but at the same time it kind of doesn’t.

Furthermore, while the elements of the plot are intriguing, the characters are ultimately underdevelopped and the actors seem out of place in the setting. Clooney and Maguire, in particular, have acting styles that are very modern and don't really mesh with the style of filming. If The Good German had been made without the gimmick, I don't doubt that they could have made their characters work but as it is, the performances just don't seem authentic and come off as pale imitation. The only exception is Blanchett, who is able to effectively evoke Dietrich and rise above the narrowness of her character. Played by Blanchett, Lena fits the setting and is rewarded by getting the only line that really stands out: “An affair has more rules than a marriage.”

The Good German is a difficult film to dislike because for all its faults, at least it's trying to do something and it's taking chances. I admire it for what it wants to do, but find that it falls far short of its objective.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Great Last Scenes: Charade

Year: 1963
Director: Stanley Donen
Great Because...: Well, for one thing you can't go wrong with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn - two of the most effortlessly charming actors ever to grace the screen. For another, it contains one of my favourite last lines ever. After discovering (finally) Grant's real identity, Hepburn exclaims: "Oh I love you, Adam, Alex, Peter, Brian, whatever your name is! I love you! I hope we have a lot of boys so we can name them all after you!"

Reggie Lampert is in a whole mess of trouble. Her husband has just turned up dead, several nefarious characters are after her for some money her husband supposedly had, and a tall, dark and handsome man who is not what he seems has recently entered her life. At first this man claims to be Peter Joshua, later Alexander Dyle, Adam Canfield, and finally Brian Crookshank (Regina: "Serves me right if that's the one I'm stuck with"). All Regina knows for sure is that there's a Mrs. Joshua/Dyle/Canfield but they're divorced (but then again, maybe there isn't or maybe they aren't).

In the midst of all the turmoil in her life, there's no one that Reggie can really trust or turn to. Certainly she probably shouldn't trust the man with the ever shifting persona and yet she does, even as she's questioning his motives, even as she's questioning whether or not he's responsible for the dead bodies that have started to pile up. As she peels away layer upon layer of his identity, she's vindicated in the trust she has for him - it's the trust she places in someone else that nearly gets her killed.

If there was ever any doubt before, the final scene lays bare the fact that the plot is really secondary to giving two charismatic actors a chance to play off each other. The question of how it is that the bad guy was able to pose so successfully as a good guy is dismissed with a pretty lame explanation (it basically comes down to an embassy building with such lax security that someone could waltz in and take over an office while everyone else is ouut to lunch) and the film quickly moves on to what is really important: getting Grant and Hepburn together. The scene plays out with romance and humor (love the face Grant makes when Hepburn see him sitting behind the desk), giving two delightful characters an ending they absolutely deserve, with the added bonus that the scene is still able to incorporate the "is there a Mrs.?... but we're divorced" running gag into it. It's the perfect ending for an uncommonly charming thriller.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Review: The Informant! (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon

The Informant! tells a story so ludicrous that it has to be true because no one would make up something so absurd. In it an executive at a Fortune 500 company becomes an FBI informant, gathering evidence of a global price fixing scheme, and is rewarded by ending up with a prison sentence 6 years longer than the superiors he exposed. Of course, there is the small fact that while he was helping the FBI, he was also embezzling from the company to the tune about $9 million dollars. Like I said, you’d never believe it if it wasn’t true.

It’s all about corn. Corn makes the economy go round and Mark Whitacre’s (Matt Damon) company, ADM, is in the corn business. When the company starts losing somewhere in the neighbourhood of $7 million a month due to a virus affecting the product, Whitacre is tasked with fixing it, which becomes considerably difficult when he starts receiving phone calls from a Japanese competitor who knows all about the problem and demands $10 million to keep quiet about it. ADM decides to bring the FBI in to investigate this extortion only to abruptly pull the plug when they learn that the agency has tapped Whitacre’s private phone – which he uses to arrange the price fixing scheme – in addition to his business line. What the executives couldn’t have anticipated was that Whitacre would have a crisis of conscience and decide to confess about the price fixing anyway.

For two and a half years Whitacre records conversations and meetings, helping the FBI build a case against the company. When the raid finally goes down, however, the Feds realize that Whitacre may not be the best person to have on their side. He’d tipped a few people off about the raid beforehand, for one thing – important allies, he insists – and then there’s the small matter of some money he’s taken in the form of kickbacks – a figure which starts out as $2.5 million and steadily grows to $9 million... and may actually have been as much as $11.5 million. Suddenly the federal investigation shifts away from ADM and towards Whitacker who is, as his wife points out, much easier to take down than an entire corporation. He’s done a bad thing but should he really be considered the bad guy?

Damon plays Whitacre as a veritable Jeckyll and Hyde, a man who both is and is not what he seems to be. He’s a narcissist who buys completely into his own lies and flounders whenever he’s called out, partly because he’s managed to divorce himself from his own actions. At one point he forges a letter from his psychiatrist to back up his claims that the FBI investigation has deeply damaged his psyche. We watch him cut and paste the letterhead and the doctor’s signature to a letter he’s written himself and yet we believe that he’s shocked at the news that it’s a forgery. Damon is able to sell the idea that Whitacre is so fully invested in his lies that he believes them to be the truth even as he’s constructing them. He should not be a likeable person and yet he kind of is because Damon gives him an affable, everyman kind of quality. Of course it also helps that the film makes him out to be a bit of a buffoon, which has the effect of making him seem relatively harmless.

I think it’s a gamble in the current economic climate to take story of capitalistic greed and turn it into a comedy, but Steven Soderbergh makes it work. Given the general absurdity of Whitacre's situation, I suppose that making this into a straight drama would be somewhat difficult. Certainly this could have been an angry film about how the little guy (relatively speaking) becomes the fall guy while the giant corporation carries on unscathed, but that would have necessitated toning down Whitacre by large degrees. He calls himself 0014 because he's "twice as smart as 007" but this spy story has less in common with James Bond than Austin Powers - an allusion I think Soderbergh is deliberately drawing through his use of 60s style bubble lettering in the titles that indicate time and place. This is ultimately a joyful film and very funny even when it starts to take on increasingly dark undertones. It's a great time at the movies.


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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Fido (2006)

* * *

Director: Andrew Currie
Starring: Carrie-Anne Moss, Billy Connolly, K'Sun Ray, Dylan Baker, Henry Czerny

The key to Fido’s success is that it plays things straight. It believes fully in the world it has created, one in which domesticated zombies perform household tasks and a person's greatest ambition is to save enough money to get a double funeral upon death - one for your head, the other for your body (to avoid becoming a zombie, natch). With a sharp wit and delightful performances from Billy Connolly and Carrie-Anne Moss, Fido makes for an immensely enjoyable film.

Fido seems to take place in the 1950s, though it’s difficult to say exactly since it takes place in an alternate reality where zombies are commonplace. Years earlier, a mock educational video explains, radiation from space caused the dead to rise as zombies, creating chaos across the globe. The solution was to build large fences around towns, effectively turning them into city states with large no-go zones in between where zombies still roam free. In the town of Willard, zombies have been turned into servants thanks to special collars created by scientists at Zomcon, which render the creatures harmless. If the collar is turned off, however, the zombie becomes “wild” again, likely making the person who was once its master into its next victim.

Zombies are of great interest to young Timmy Robinson (K’Sun Ray), a social misfit who wonders whether the dead who didn’t rise are still in their graves, struggling to get out. His questions are dismissed and ignored at school when Zomcon’s security chief (Henry Czerny) comes to speak to the class, further alienating him. Things aren’t much better at home, where he tosses a baseball to himself in the front yard and is admonished by his mother (Moss), who tells him not to play by himself because then neighbours will think that he’s lonely. When she brings home a zombie (Connolly) so that the family will cease to be the only one on the block without one, it becomes Timmy’s companion, whom he names Fido. Fido becomes an increasingly important part of Timmy’s life as well as that of his mother, making for a very odd love triangle that leaves Mr. Robinson (Dylan Baker) increasingly marginalized.

The world of Fido is one preoccupied with death not as a danger, but as a business. In the film, the only thing that prevents a corpse from becoming a zombie is to separate the head from the body and bury them separately. To afford such a burial means scrimping and saving for a lifetime; Mr. Robinson’s proudest achievement is that he’s put away enough money to ensure that he, his wife and their son will all be able to be buried rather than become zombies and when he learns that his wife is pregnant, he looks at her plaintively and declares that he just doesn’t think he can afford another funeral on his salary (and he says this while reading a magazine called “Death,” which is my favourite sight gag from the film). Why should funerals be so expensive if the alternative is more zombies and their inherent dangers? The collar eliminates that danger and turns the zombies into a massive source of free labour. Since the zombies are no longer “people” in a technical sense, they can be used, abused, and discarded without penalty. This is as much a film about corporate greed and corruption as a comedy about zombie movie conventions.

The film has a lot of fun playing 1950s style wholesomeness against an ironic humour. “Now I know you’re not supposed to have a handgun until you’re twelve,” Mr. Robinson tells his son, “but it can come in real handy.” Of course, since the school’s curriculum includes time at the shooting range, it’s not as if Timmy will encounter any zero tolerance policies. The actors play these scenes with a degree of sincerity that helps keep the premise afloat - this wouldn’t work if you felt like the characters knew, on some level, that the story is silly. Of the actors Moss has to do the most heavy lifting and does it with ease, breezing through the film’s most defined character arc and becoming a thoroughly rootable heroine. Her relationship with Fido becomes increasingly complex (and bizarre), but she and Connolly - who makes Fido a surprisingly lively zombie - manage to pull it off and make for a rather charming couple, for lack of a better word. The whole movie, in fact, is charming (despite a bit of gore) and definitely one of the better zombie comedies to come out in the last few years.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Unsung Performances: Joel McCrea (Sullivan's Travels)

Poor Joel McCrea. A solid, dependable actor who never relied on affect and was so seamlessly good that you never caught him "acting." He's the kind of actor who was taken for granted for decades, until finally towards the end of his life he started getting awards in honor of his career achievements, though the AMPAS still missed out on him. In 1941 he played perhaps his best part as movie director John Sullivan in a film which is itself one of the great comedies ever made and also went unrecognized by awarding bodies at the time.

What McCrea does in Sullivan's Travels is deceptively simple. John Sullivan is essentially a nice guy who tries to do good, playing out a riches to rags to riches story - nothing to that, right? On closer analysis, however, the role is actually pretty tricky. Sullivan is a golden boy, a director whose films are hits with seemingly little effort. He produces frivolous little entertainments, but what he wants to do is make a film about the human condition, about suffering and poverty - things about which he knows nothing. He'll learn about those things by dressing like a drifter and walking the mean streets, learning first hand what life is like for people at the bottom of the social pyramid. The idea of a person of privilege telling the world what life is like for the common people rings faintly of pretension, as Sullivan's butler points out, saying, "I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy... The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous." Sullivan has a romantic idea of noble poverty, but McCrea doesn't allow him to seem like a fool or even a profiteer. His interest in the poor is genuine, even if his methods are somewhat suspect.

The film underscores how ludicrous Sullivan's mission is - his ratty clothes come straight out of the studio's costume department and a crew in a motorhome follows him on his journey of discovery - but McCrea's easy charm and sincerity keeps Sullivan from being the butt of the joke. Sullivan is the story's straight man and McCrea graciously allows everyone around him - the movie executives, his servants (Eric Blore and Robert Greig in top form), and Veronica Lake as his love interest - to get most of the best lines, which he dutifully sets them up for. McCrea underplays, mildly bemused through most of the film, letting us know that he recognizes the joke just as well as the rest of us do. His everyman quality comes in handy here, allowing us to easily identify with him.

Eventually circumstances give Sullivan the opportunity to experience real hardship - though by this time he has amnesia and can't appreciate the experience he's gaining for the sake of his art. McCrea moves easily from comedy into drama without allowing Sullivan to become too heavy and then shifts the character back into comedy without ever missing a beat. The lesson he learns - the "there's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that's all some people have?" - is hard earned and deeply felt on his part. His films may be frivolous but they're also important, serving to bring some happiness into lives that might otherwise be devoid of it. The realization couldn't happen to a nicer guy, but as they say nice guys finish last. An adage that Joel McCrea proves all too well.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: High Art (1998)

* * * 1/2

Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Starring: Ally Sheedy, Radha Mitchell, Patricia Clarkson

“I have a love issue and a drug problem. Or maybe I have a love problem and a drug issue. I don’t know.” This line, said by Lucy (Ally Sheedy), the tragic artist, is pretty much the gist of High Art. If Lucy were able to recognize that both are the problem and that they’re so intricately linked, she might be able to save herself. But of course, it's not that kind of movie. This is a study of descent, not salvation, and out of it comes a performance of absolute perfection courtesy of the former Brat Packer.

We meet Lucy through Syd (Radha Mitchell), her downstairs neighbour. Syd ventures upstairs to find the source of a leak and stays after becoming intrigued by the photographs in Lucy’s apartment, which she learns were taken by Lucy. Syd is an assistant editor at a photography magazine called Frame, though she’s treated more like an assistant, and she sees in Lucy’s work an opportunity to be taken more seriously herself. She borrows a book of Lucy’s photos and takes it to work, where her boss is shocked to learn that she knows the Lucy Berliner. Lucy doesn’t show her work anymore and she isn’t interested in accepting an assignment, but allows Syd to talk her into taking a meeting with the Frame editors. She agrees to do a project for them but only on the condition that Syd be her editor.

The attraction between Lucy and Syd is evident in their first scene and becomes physical once they start working together. Indeed, working together seems to be an excuse for taking the opportunity to sleep together. Their relationship is complicated by Lucy’s heroin addiction as well as her relationship with Greta (Patricia Clarkson, fabulous as always), a German actress who shares her addiction and her home. Lucy and Greta’s relationship is defined by a deep co-dependence that is ultimately impossible for Syd to break because although Greta is a mess who exists in a permanent drug haze, it’s Lucy who really needs her. Greta asks for and expects nothing but drugs, which in effect gives Lucy an excuse not to try and not to risk failure again. Syd, on the other hand, has expectations of Lucy which would require her to break her addiction and realize the potential that she showed before she abandoned her career. Her relationship with Greta, and all that that entails, is like a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Though Lucy’s relationship with Syd is the film’s primary focus, it is Lucy’s relationships with Greta and with her mother (Tammy Grimes) that tells us the most about her as a character. Her mother is a European immigrant (her accent sounds German to me but her origins aren’t specifically stated), a Jew who fled after the Nazis came to power but before they started rounding people up. She has seemingly little issue with Lucy’s sexuality, but the fact that Lucy is with Greta – who her mother refers to disparagingly as “the German” – is a major issue. The relationship between Lucy and her mother is fascinating, as is Lucy’s relationship with Greta, which kind of makes it a shame that Lucy spends so much time with Syd. I don’t know whether it’s Mitchell’s performance or simply the way the character has been conceived by director Lisa Cholodenko, but I found this character supremely irritating, particularly in the way that she plays at being innocent even as she’s pushing her way into Lucy’s life. Every time Syd shows up, Greta can barely restrain herself from rolling her eyes - luckily I rolled mine enough for both of us.

The demi-monde crafted by Cholodenko has the look and feel of authenticity. This isn't a film about heroin chic, but about addicts who can barely stay awake long enough to enjoy their high or who sit around playing scrabble (and not very well). They don't seem like characters, but fully realized people with complex histories. Sheedy and Clarkson are able to give a picture of a fully realized relationship in relatively little screen time, a relationship rooted in drugs, guilt and a mutual need for slow self-destruction. There is affection too, but that's complicated by everything else, which is perhaps what makes a relationship with Syd so appealing to Lucy: it's simpler... or, at least, it would be if Lucy could leave the drugs behind with Greta. Sheedy's performance is densely and wonderfully layered, hitting all the right notes as Lucy navigates her various relationships. I can't imagine the film working as well as it does without her and it's a shame that this role, which at the time seemed like a comeback for her, didn't lead to more substantial parts.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Review: Watchmen (2009)

* * *

Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Matthew Goode

It’s probably a bad thing that my most consistent thought while watching Watchmen was “I wonder when something’s going to happen.” That doesn’t make it a bad movie – visually, it’s a stunner (although I think director Zack Snyder needs to give slow motion/fast motion a rest) – but it does keep it from becoming a great movie. By no means generic, it nevertheless fails to transcend the way that The Dark Knight did a year ago, though the two explore similar themes regarding vigilantes and their place in society. The story itself is strong, it’s the telling that doesn’t quite work.

The story takes place in an alternate version of history, where Nixon is still President well into the 1980s, the Vietnam War was an unqualified success for the U.S., and masked heroes are a part of everyday life. Most of these heroes were forced into retirement with the passing a bill outlawing them, though the government has kept two employed – Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) – and another, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), continues in his work, his adopted identity having usurped that which he was born into. When The Comedian is murdered, Rorschach believes that the rest of the former Watchmen may be at risk as well and works to discover who is behind it.

His former colleagues are less inclined to get back into crime fighting. Dr. Manhattan and Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), formerly the hero Ozymandias, are working on a project together that would deliver energy to people the world over for free; Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), formerly Nite Owl II, is out of shape and spends his days reminiscing with the first Nite Owl; and Laurie Jupiter (Malin Ackerman), formerly Silk Spectre II, never really wanted to be a masked avenger in the first place, but was pushed into it by her mother, Sally (Carla Gugino), the first Silk Spectre. The relationships between the characters are elaborated upon a great deal through flashbacks and herein lies part of the problem. While this story structure is ideal for a serialized format, it doesn’t translate easily to film. Watchmen is perhaps a little too faithful to its source material and the result is a film that doesn’t flow particularly well.

There are other problems, the most glaring of which is with the character of Laurie. I know that when the film first came out a lot of people placed the blame squarely on Ackerman, which I don’t think is really fair. Certainly she doesn’t help things but the fact is that Laurie is such a flat, non-entity of a character that even a great actress would have had difficulty breathing life into her. She’s the token girl, designed to wear a costume ridiculously unsuited to her occupation and to cause strife amongst her male colleagues. Ostensibly she should be more than that, since her existence is what convinces Dr. Manhattan that the earth is worth saving, but there’s really very little too her as a character. To be frank, the story doesn’t really take women as heroes very seriously at all*. For all her talk about how she used to be a hero, Sally’s role seems to have been largely symbolic and to consist primarily of posing for pictures. Silhouette gets to be a lesbian and then die (a common occurrence in mainstream fare), and while Laurie proves capable of kicking some ass, she ultimately doesn’t seem very necessary to the Watchmen team. Add in the fact that none of the women are masked while all the men are, which perhaps suggests that secret identities aren’t really important for women because they don’t really matter in terms of the group’s success – the team wouldn’t be noticeably weakened by their absence. The best moment of unintentional comedy comes from a nightmare Dan has where he peels off his face to reveal the Nite Owl cowl and then Laurie peels off her face to reveal… her face with slightly more eye makeup.

All that aside, however, there is more than enough good to make this a film worth seeing. Of the actors, Haley is the standout and a scene where he comes unraveled at the realization that he’s been set-up is one of the best in the entire film. Another best comes from Dr. Manhattan’s exile on Mars, as he contemplates his existence on earth and constructs a structure seemingly made of glass. Crudup’s performance as Manhattan is also very strong, creating a character who is so detached from human beings that he sees their existence as entirely unimpressive, but at the same time has flickers of human emotion which remind him of the person he used to be. The true measure of these two performances is that they're so effective despite the constraints placed on the actors, with Haley spending most of his screen time behind an ever shifting mask and Crudup playing his character through a mass of CGI. The film also boasts one of the very best opening credit sequences I've ever seen, although it did leave me thinking that I would have enjoyed seeing a movie about The Minute Men more than the Watchmen. In the end it's bits and pieces of Watchmen that I liked, rather than the film as a whole.

* I am by no means an expert on comic books or comic book characters but I’m willing to bet that none of the Super Friends ever got picked up from a Justice League meeting by their mom, which happens to Laurie somewhere around the middle of this film.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Polytechnique (2009)

* * * *

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Maxim Gaudette, Karine Vanasse, Sebastien Huberdeau

Mass murder is of course horrific under any circumstances but there is something particularly scarring about school shootings. What does it say about your city or your nation if the people in it aren’t safe to go to school? I was still in high school when the Columbine massacre took place and though I can’t remember that particular day, I can vividly recall the 1st anniversary because a rumour had gone around that some kids were going to use that day to recreate it. Consequently only about two dozen students showed up and walking through the building was like walking through a ghost town, it was so quiet. Polytechnique’s most startling quality is its silence, which seems to envelop everything and gives scenes an intensely nightmarish feeling.

For the most part the film takes place on December 6, 1989 when a gunman (Maxim Gaudette) – unnamed in the film so as not to glorify him – walked into the École Polytechnique de Montreal and gunned down 14 women. His targets were women, specifically those he assumed to be feminists, his suicide letter stating explicitly: “If I commit suicide today... it is not for economic reasons (for I have exhausted my financial means, even refusing jobs) but for political reasons. Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker.” Through a voice-over the film reveals the full text of this note and this is as close as we ever come to understanding the killer. The film does not attempt to explain his actions but instead focuses on the effect of those actions on the people left behind in the aftermath.

The story is seen largely through two sets of eyes. The first is Jean-Francois (Sebastien Huberdeau), an engineering student who is close friends with two of his female classmates. The killer’s first stop on his rampage is their classroom, where he orders the men and the women to opposite sides of the room and then orders the men out. The men leave, none more reluctantly than Jean-Francois, who runs through the building to alert security to call the police. By this time the killer has moved on and shot-up the cafeteria and made his way into another classroom, killing more women and then himself. Jean-Francois behaves bravely, attempting to administer first aid to one of the wounded women while the killer is still roaming the halls and shooting, but he is wracked with guilt over having left the classroom in the first place and it ruins his life.

The other character is Valerie (Karine Vanasse), an engineering student who is severely injured in the attack but not killed. Though the film addresses the political element early through the killer’s note, it makes clear that his attitudes towards women are ultimately only part of a larger problem. Before the killer is even a blip on anyone’s radar, Valerie has an interview for an engineering internship during which the interviewer displays the kind of casual sexism that is still fairly common today, though not necessarily as openly stated. He expresses surprise at the area of engineering she’s chosen, declaring that women usually go in an “easier” direction. When Valerie explains that she’s always wanted to be an aerospace engineer, he clarifies that he meant easier in terms of raising a family and not in terms of intelligence or drive, which actually doesn’t make his comment better. While his attitude is of course nowhere near as harmful as the killer's actions, the fact that this attitude exists at all and that feminism exists, in part, as a response to it gives the killer a foundation for his hate.

Director Denis Villeneuve tells the story in a minimalist, no frills kind of way. When it comes to the killing spree, he uses only what’s known to be true and uses even these facts sparingly. For example, the killer is shown uttering his last words but the scene is muted so that we don’t hear them. The reasoning behind this, I would imagine, is the same as the reasoning behind not publicizing his name, which is to deny him agency. For similar reasons, the film is photographed in black and white to downplay the gore and sidestep the possibility of glorifying the killing spree. These are all the right decisions in this particular case and as horrific as the story is, it is told in a sensitive and powerful way. Polytechnique is a moving film that, despite its subject matter, ultimately ends on a hopeful note. It's a fitting tribute to the 14 slain women and the families they left behind.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Review: Duplicity (2009)

* * *

Director: Tony Gilroy
Starring: Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson

Duplicity is the kind of movie that doesn’t seem to get made very often anymore. A film geared towards adults, more concerned with being intelligent than universally accessible, though it doesn’t forget to be entertaining. This spy vs. spy story starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, both working at the top of their considerable charm, succeeds on a variety of levels, though it does end up becoming slightly weighed down by its own labyrinthine plot.

The players are Claire (Roberts) and Ray (Owen), two former government agents (she with the CIA, he with MI6) now working in the private sector. They work for rival corporations run by Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti), who open the film by getting into a knockdown, drag out fight on an airport tarmac. Garsik’s company is 10 days away from a shareholders meeting and is desperate to find out what new product Tully has been developing, just as Tully is desperate to keep the product under wraps.

The plot of the film is appropriately convoluted, involving double-crosses, triple-crosses and possibly quadruple-crosses – it’s hard to keep track. Claire and Ray are playing such a thorough game that even though they’re on the same side, they can never actually be too certain of that fact. Five years before the actual plot they meet in Dubai at a party at the US embassy. They go back to his hotel room, sleep together, and then she drugs him and steals the documents he was supposed to protect. He’s understandably upset about this but that doesn’t stop him from sleeping with her again when they run into each other in Rome three years later. She suggests to him that they give up their government work and take a chance on making some real money in the corporate world. He agrees, though neither ever seems fully convinced that they’re actually working together.

The story is made up of two timelines. The first is the present day, corporate espionage plot, the second is Claire and Ray’s back story which reveals how they ended up in partnership together and how they settled on what they hope will be their big score. The flashbacks are amusing at first but eventually become tiresome, particularly in the way that they shape our view of Claire and Ray’s relationship. She’s always testing him and he never really does anything to deserve it. The fact that he sticks around is evidence that he has the patience of a saint. That being said, Roberts and Owen have great chemistry and seem like they're having a really good time with these characters and the material.

The film was written and directed by Tony Gilroy, whose previous work (writing and directing Michael Clayton and co-writing the Bourne series and State of Play, just to name a few) wouldn't have suggested such a light hearted affair as this. For the most part he keeps the story moving along at high energy, although it does start to limp a little as it nears the end. It is also occassionally a little too impressed with its own cleverness and the story itself would probably be more engaging if it were slightly less convoluted. However, in the end, this is a perfectly decent movie and well worth a look.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Book vs Film: Tell No One vs. Tell No One

Plot: A widower gets a mysterious message leading him to believe that his wife might actually be alive. As he investigates further he finds himself in the middle of a large-scale plots that finds him accused of murder, on the run, and being pursued by assassins as well as police.

Primary Differences Between Book and Film: Easily the biggest difference between the two is that the book takes place in New York and the film takes place in Paris. Aside from that the film is generally faithful to the book save for a few minor details, although the ending of the film is wildly different from that of the film.

For the Book: The book expands a lot on the characters' relationships and backstories, giving a clearer idea of certain characters' motivations. For example, the protagonist's sister plays a very small and inadvertent part in the plot against him and the motivation for her silence regarding certain secrets is more clearly elaborated in the book.

For the Film: There's a long chase scene in the middle of the story that is much better suited to film that it is to literature. The ending of the film is also a lot stronger than the ending of the book, both in terms of the identity of the killer and the series of events leading up to it, as the book tends to get more over the top the closer it gets to the end.

Winner: Film. The book is highly entertaining in its own right, but the film is far superior. The changes made to the story through the adaptation, the great acting across the board, and the wonderfully staged chase scene give the film the edge over the book.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Review: Simone Barbes ou La Vertu (1980)

* *

Director: Marie-Claude Treilhou
Starring: Ingrid Bourgoin

If I had to describe Simone Barbes ou La Vertu in the simplest possible terms I would say that it’s the kind of film people mean when they disdainfully describe art house movies (particularly European art house) as being about people who talk about nothing and do even less. This is less a narrative film than a character sketch, and while it occasionally shows sparks of life, it ultimately falls limp.

The film is divided into three long scenes, all of them having to do in one way or another with sex, and connected by the character Simone Barbes (Ingrid Bourgoin). The first scene takes place in the porno theatre where she works as an usher and observes her and her co-worker as they bitch about this and that, as co-workers are wont to do. The films being shown in the theatre are never seen, though bits and pieces are heard as patrons come and go from the screening rooms and the film has a lot of fun with one patron’s futile attempts to sneak from one screening room to another. Simone and her co-worker toy with his a bit, allowing him think that he’s going to pull it off only to bust him at the last minute. This particular scene is defined by a lightness that is lacking in the rest of the film. At one point the director of one of the porn films shows up to get a look at the turn-out and comes out of the screening ranting about the way the projectionist is ruining his work, which he sees as art and not just a sexually charged diversion.

When her shift is over Simone leaves the theatre and goes to the bar where her girlfriend works to wait for her. Though ostensibly a lesbian bar, there seems to be an inordinate number of straight men there trying to pick up women – some people just don’t know how to read a room. Of the three scenes this one is the most interesting because there’s so much going on and it isn’t just Simone talking to one other character. There’s a stage show in this scene that's like something out of a Fellini movie, it’s so bizarre and over the top (if you must know: two scantily clad women engage in a choreographed sword fight inspired by gladiators in the Roman Coliseum). Eventually Simone gets to see her girlfriend, who apologetically informs her that her shift is going to last a while longer. Simone sadly shrugs it off because this happens all the time and Bourgoin, who was not an actor by trade but actually was a movie theatre usher when the film was made, does a nice and subtle job of expressing how Simone is both fed up at never coming first in her girlfriend’s life as well as quietly accepting of the way things are and the unlikelihood of things changing.

Simone leaves the bar and wanders the streets for a while, eventually being picked up by a guy who mistakes her for a prostitute. She sets him straight and they drive around for a while and though he continues to hint about sleeping with her, he’s quite timid about it. In the end he simply ends up listening to her as she engages in a long monologue about the state of her life. The scene is well acted but goes on just a bit too long and you end up feeling a bit bad for the guy, who is obviously very lonely, because he really didn’t know what he was in for when he stopped his car.

Though the film is short, running at just under 80 minutes, it does tend to drag because there’s so little forward movement. Simone Barbes is an interesting character and Bourgoin inhabits her with ease, but the film never manages to feel like anything more than a rehearsal for something bigger. Simone Barbes isn’t without its moments but there’s ultimately not enough to it to sustain it as a film.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Highway 61 (1991)

* * *

Director: Bruce McDonald
Starring: Don McKellar, Valerie Buhagiar, Earl Pastko

Take a corpse, a road trip, and the devil, mix in some missing drugs and an opposites attract romance, and you’ll get Bruce McDonald’s Highway 61. A dark comedy full of oddball characters and strange scenes, this is a film that can’t really be compared to any other because it goes so far off the beaten track and is totally doing it’s own thing.

The film begins in a small town near Thunder Bay with naïve and somewhat sheltered barber Pokey Jones (Don McKellar) finding a frozen body in his backyard. Jackie Bangs (Valerie Buhagiar) comes to claim the body, stating that he’s her brother. In reality she wants to use the body to smuggle drugs into the US and she talks Pokey into driving her and the body down Highway 61 to New Orleans. Pokey is excited by the prospect, having never been anywhere or done anything. He’s also intrigued by Jackie, who works as a roadie, and tells her about his own aspirations to be a jazz musician.

During the course of their journey they have several small adventures, the strangest of which involves a visit to some friends of Jackie’s that degenerates into a shooting spree. The how and why of that I’ll leave for you to discover for yourself. Running a close second in terms of strange encounters is their meetings with the Watson family, a father and three daughters who tour around the south in a motor home. Abandoned by Mrs. Watson, Mr. Watson is determined to make his daughters stars – a loosing battle if ever there was one. This encounter also ends with shooting, which would suggest that the problem isn’t other people as much as it is Pokey and Jackie.

Running parallel to their journey is that of Mr. Skin (Earl Pastko), who may or may not be Satan. He’s on their trail because he has a claim of his own on the corpse, namely that the man had sold him his soul before dying. He collects more souls (or, rather, the promise of souls) on the way to New Orleans and his return to his hometown culminates in a bizarre, but entirely fitting, climax.

This is an odd film, but not odd in a “look at me I’m so alternative” kind of way. Rather it is odd in a way that seems natural and without pretence. It is conventional to a point, at least in terms of road movie customs, but it turns everything on its head with its dark, satirical sensibilities. At one point Mr. Skin encounters one of the Watson girls, who informs him of her father’s promise that her mother is coming back, that she and her sisters will be stars, and that she’ll grow up to be beautiful and marry someone famous. “I’m not sure who, exactly.” Mr. Skin replies by stating: “You’re going to be an ugly lady. You’ll probably be fat and work as a cashier and no one is going to want to marry you. You see, parents aren’t allowed to tell the truth about certain things.” He then tells her that if she really wants to become famous, all she has to do is sign her name on a piece of paper he’ll give her. She’s not the first person to sign her soul away for a chance at stardom and she certainly won't be the last.

As far as the acting goes, McKellar and Buhagiar are well cast, playing characters who are strange in their own ways but also more sane and grounded than all the others in the film. McKellar plays Pokey as book smart but woefully lacking in street smarts, so vulnerable to Jackie’s charms that you still want to protect him from her even after you’ve realized that beneath her hard exterior, there’s a softie with a good heart. The show is stolen of course by Pastko in a supremely creepy, and yet also kind of funny, performance. Whether he actually is Satan or just a guy with a bunch of names signed on pieces of paper is always in question and the revelation at the end is ultimately very satisfying. Though this isn’t the kind of movie that will appeal to everyone, it is nevertheless very good and a solid piece of entertainment.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Great Last Scenes: City Lights

Year: 1931
Director: Charles Chaplin
Great Because...: how can you not want the Tramp to have a happy ending? Of all cinema's unlikely heroes, he is perhaps the unlikeliest and yet there he is, finally reaping the reward for his efforts to protect and care for the blind flower girl: her sight restored, she recognizes him as her benefactor and gives him a look of such tenderness that it's almost too much to bear. It is a perfectly acted and directed scene.

The Tramp has spent the film dividing his time between the antics of a drunken millionaire and the blind flower girl, who is on the verge of being evicted from her home along with her grandmother, and mistakenly believes that the Tramp is a millionaire. Putting the real millionaire's alcohol induced generosity to good use, the Tramp puts together the funds the blind girl will need not just for rent, but for an operation as well. However, when the millionaire is sober again, he's convinced that the Tramp has stolen from him and has him arrested.

Months later the Tramp is released from jail and the blind girl, sight restored, is once again selling flowers, this time from her own shop. She remains curious about the man who made her sight and her business possible but when the Tramp shows up outside her shop, she doesn't suspect that it might be him. It isn't until she hands him one of her flowers, touching his hand in the process and recognizing it, that she realizes who he is. His nervous smile and nod followed by her own tearful and uncertain look makes for a sweet and very satisfying ending.

The ending may sound manipulative and it is. Part of the reason why Chaplin's films work so well is that he makes no bones about the fact that's he's actively trying to manipulate you from emotional point A to emotional point B. Because he's so open about it, you don't hold it against him and so the moment doesn't seem too saccharine. Chaplin is of course well known for his physical comedy, but this quiet and very lovely moment between him and Virginia Cherrill is my favourite Chaplin moment.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Review: Zodiac (2007)

* * * *

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr.

Zodiac is David Fincher’s most mature and focused film to date. Mixing elements of police procedural, newspaper story, and thriller together while sidestepping most clichés inherent in those genres, the film is utterly engrossing and effective. I know some dislike the film’s non-resolution, but given the real-life circumstances the ending really can’t be helped and, besides, having an ending that provides more questions than answers fits well with the overall tone of the rest of the film.

The film begins on July 4, 1969 with the murder of Darlene Ferrin and the attempted murder of Mike Mageau. After shooting both multiple times the killer leaves and calls the police to claim credit for this crime and for a double murder six months earlier. A month later he writes letters to various San Francisco newspapers along with coded messages that he claims hold clues to his identity. The cipher is eventually solved – not by any of the government agencies working on it, but by a history teacher and his wife – but the killer’s identity remains a mystery. Meanwhile, more letters arrive, more people are killed, and as the decades pass the case gets colder and colder.

The story is structured in such a way that different characters take the lead at different times. Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is the San Francisco Chronicle’s crime reporter and becomes an expert on the case. He is eventually sent evidence from one of the crime scenes – in the form of a bloody piece of a victim’s shirt – as a thinly-veiled threat and as the case continues to drag on, his life begins to unravel thanks to alcohol and drugs. Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is one of the detectives assigned to the case whose job is made doubly difficult by the fact that the crimes took place in different jurisdictions and the sharing of information is sometimes done grudgingly. He and his partner Bill (Anthony Edwards) follow various leads and even find a likely suspect in the form of Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), but just can’t conclusively prove his guilt. After several years Bill excuses himself from the case, exhausted by it, but Dave keeps on until eventually being suspended from the force after being accused of writing a forged Zodiac letter. The third and final lead is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist for the Chronicle who will eventually write a book about the Zodiac killings.

The way that the film moves Graysmith into the story’s centre is very well done. He hangs on the periphery at the beginning, not particularly welcomed into any investigative aspect because, after all, he’s just a cartoonist. He forms a friendship with Avery, who in one scene admonishes him for “hovering” at Avery’s desk, and through him absorbs all the information that Avery discovers while reporting on the case. When Avery is out of the picture and it begins to look like the police have given up on solving the case, Graysmith decides to put all the evidence together himself in the hopes of illuminating something. Toschi, frustrated by the department’s inability to make a solid case against Allen, decides to quietly help Graysmith by giving him tips and Graysmith eventually comes to the same conclusion as the police that Allen is the Zodiac.

Though the film itself makes a fairly persuasive case against Allen, it isn’t really about discovering the identity of the Zodiac killer. It is more a film about obsession. Graysmith needs to know the identity of the killer, just as the Zodiac needs to flaunt himself to the police and the general public. During the course of his quest Graysmith puts himself directly into danger (one sequence involves him doing something so spectacularly stupid that it has to be seen to be believed) and effectively destroys his marriage in the process, and although he believes that he solves the puzzle in the end, the film itself isn’t so sure. Throughout the film, doubts are cast not only as to the identity of the killer but as to how much the Zodiac is actually responsible for. He claims more victims than the police are willing to give him credit for, some of the letters may be forgeries, a phone call to a local morning show may not be from him at all – in short it’s about the mythology of the killer rather than solidly proving his identity.

Though the film runs at over 2 and a half hours, it is well-paced and constructed in a way that suspense can be maintained throughout. The characters – save for Graysmith’s wife who gets a thankless part in the story and is a waste of Chloe Sevigny’s talent – are well developed and expertly played. Downey provides the film with flair, Ruffalo is solid as the increasingly weary Toschi, and as Graysmith Gyllenhaal is like a Hardy boy in over his head. Of particular note in technical aspect is the cinematography by Harris Savides, which gives the film a very old school look and feel. Zodiac is the whole package, a period film that doesn't simply wear the mask of time and place, but captures the spirit of it in every aspect.