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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Crash (1996)

* * * *

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Holly Hunter

Some movies stay with you long after you’ve seen them. Sometimes it’s because they’re that good, sometimes because they’re that bad, sometimes just because they’re kind of odd. David Cronenberg’s Crash is a combination of the first and third reason; it’s a good, weird movie and for a lot of people (myself included), you don’t really know what to make of it at first. You just know that you’ve seen something unlike anything else you’ve ever seen.

Crash is about human connections or, rather, the lack thereof. We meet James Ballard (James Spader), a film producer and his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), who are involved in an open marriage. When they’re together they recount their sexual exploits with others to excite each other, though it ultimately does little to repair the disconnect between them. Truth be told, for as much sex as they have together and with others, neither seems to enjoy the act very much and the scenes are underscored with an almost ruthless desperation. What they want, really, is to feel alive, to feel like there’s a reason for being alive.

James begins to find a reason after being involved in a car crash with Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), with whom he begins an affair that deepens the bond forged by their shared experience in the accident. In an effort to make sense of their feelings about each other and the crash, they attend what I suppose you could call a performance art piece by a man named Vaughn (Elias Koteas) in which the crash that killed James Dean is recreated. Vaughn and his followers fetishize car accidents and their aftermath and soon James is one of them, deliberately getting into car accidents and having sexual experiences with various members of the group, including Vaughn.

To say that the film was controversial when it was first released would be an epic understatement. A lot of films are violent and sexually graphic, but few draw a connection between sex and violence as flagrantly as this one does; Crash doesn’t allow you to see one without the other. However, Cronenberg isn’t using sex and violence in a gratuitous way but rather framing it order to comment on how violence is so often sexualized in popular culture generally and films specifically. Consider the James Dean scene, in which James Ballard first experiences the act of watching a car crash in order to attain sexual excitement. By using James Dean’s crash as their template, the group is not just reenacting a horrible event, but evoking an image of glamour, that idea to “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.” That’s the narrative in which Dean has popularly been framed ever since his death, that the accident was tragic but that he’ll be young and beautiful forever after because of it. Consider as well the actual sex in the movie. Some of it seems shocking because it’s so far outside of what we normally see in cinema, but think about what’s considered normal regarding sex in film. Roger Ebert once said that rape in movies is framed as seduction and often that’s true, either because of the way a film constructs the narrative leading up to the event or because of the way that it implicitly asks us to look at the victim or at the predator. The difference with Crash, I suppose, is that it doesn’t conform to any normalized narrative about sexual violence that lets the audience have its cake and eat it too, but directly and unapologetically asks why violence can be sexual.

If for nothing else, Cronenberg ought to be commended for going all out with this film. I mean, once you’ve set up your thesis that people can be aroused by car crashes, why not show James being turned on by the scars on the back of Gabrielle’s (Rosanna Arquette) thigh, why not show a variety of couplings whether they be heterosexual or homosexual? He’s not shy, I guess is what I’m saying, and goes all the way with it. It helps that he doesn’t rely on sex and violence to carry the film but constructs a strong narrative with distinct characters in order to explore larger questions. I know people who are repulsed by this film and I know people who are fascinated by it and I think that Cronenberg wants to inspire both of those reactions, not just with Crash but with many of his other films as well. He doesn’t just want to explore these themes himself, he wants to provoke discussion elsewhere as well – it’s the sort of thing that separates a director from an artist.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Review: Nine (2009)

* *

Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, Fergie

Oh, Nine, you disappointed me. Maybe it's my own fault because I had such high expectations for so long, but why shouldn't I have had high expectations? The cast is phenomenal, it's based on both a popular play and a classic film, and it's directed by Rob Marshall, whose feature film debut Chicago I loved (seriously, I will defend its win for Best Picture to the death). So what went wrong? Maybe it's a case of too many good things in one place, but make no mistake: something has gone terribly, terribly wrong here.

The film is an adaptation of the stage play that is itself an adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ and follows director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he struggles to pull his next film together. Sets have been built, costumes are being made, screen tests are being performed, interviews about the impending work have been conducted; the only thing missing is a script. Contini is blocked, hindered by the failure of his most recent films and driven to distraction by the women in his life; he just can’t pull himself together long enough to find inspiration and put it down on paper.

Now, about those women: there’s his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard), once a great actress but now just his support system; his mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz); his muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman); his confidante/wardrobe mistress Lilli (Judi Dench); his mother (Sophia Loren); and an American reporter (Kate Hudson) determined to get an exclusive, of sorts, with him. There is also Seraghina (Fergie), the local prostitute of his childhood memories who still sparks his imagination. Now, when I first saw the cast list for this film and read Day-Lewis, Cotillard, Cruz, Dench, Loren, Kidman, Hudson and Fergie, my first thought was something along the lines of, “one of these things is not like the others.” Let it be said, however, that Fergie’s brief time on screen the only time when the film really seems to come alive and her number, “Be Italian,” is the only one with any genuine fire in it (though Cruz gives it the old college try with “A Call From The Vatican”). The film’s biggest problem, ultimately, is that aside from “Be Italian,” none of the musical numbers is particularly memorable. Not a good sign for a musical.

The other problem, one which might not be so glaring if the music itself was stonger, is that the characters don't have much in the way of depth. We get to know Guido pretty well and Cotillard is given enough time to etch out a moderately distinct character (truth be told, the only resonant moments in the film are in the scenes between Day-Lewis and Cotillard), but the others are as thin as paper. In dress and manner Carla is the antithesis of Luisa - that's apparently all we need to know about her in order to understand her relationship with Guido. What is it about Claudia that inspires Guido so? What are we supposed to take away from Guido's flirtation with the sycophantic reporter? Nine depends on the audience to respond to the actors rather than the characters so that you fill in the blanks by saying, "Guido is drawn to Carla because she's Penelope Cruz; Guido is inspired by Claudia because she's Nicole Kidman; Guido flirts with the reporter because she's Kate Hudson; etc." This isn't the fault of the actors; it's because, metaphorically speaking, the film is too busy looking down at its feet and counting the steps to invest itself in the moment and create a genuine foundation for its glossy, beautiful surface. It all looks amazing but it never relaxes enough to become anything more than an assemblage of parts.

Structurally, Nine is quite similar to Chicago, with the musical numbers taking place on a stage in the imagination of the protagonist. This worked marvellously in the earlier film, but here it feels disruptive and a bit clunky. What's the difference? Roxie Hart was a spunky gal with delusions of grandeur; Guido Contini is a brooding genius who can't find happiness despite having everything available to him for the asking. Aside from the fact that Roxie is a more relatable/sympathetic character (everyone, at one point or another, has imagined being a "star" of some sort), there's also the fact that a story about wanting something has more and better energy than a story about having everything and still being unhappy. Chicago was fun and had a lot of bite to it; Nine is gloomy and kind of aimless - to be honest, there were times when I was actually quite bored with it. Like I said, it looks good (the cinematography, in particular, is gorgeous) and there are a few good moments scattered throughout (there would have to be with that much talent in front of and behind the camera), but it's ultimately a failure as a film.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review: Funny People (2009)

* *

Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan

Funny People is quite possibly the most depressing movie I’ve seen all year, and keep in mind that I’ve seen both Precious and The Road. Adam Sandler renders a cranky, if solid, performance in this bloated, over-plotted film about a man confronting his own mortality and forced to wonder just what it was he was living for in the first place.

The film jumps pretty much immediately into the illness plot as George Simmons (Sandler) is told that he has a leukemia-like disease that will likely kill him. Not unlike the actor who plays him, George is a movie star who has made millions playing angry misfits in comedies with broad appeal. He has a cavernous house on a large estate overlooking the ocean, a garage full of cars and other toys, adoring fans, and women who throw themselves at him everywhere he goes. He has it all, but he’s totally alone, having essentially exiled himself from his family, ruined the one relationship that ever meant anything to him, and lost touch with anyone who might sincerely be called a friend. He doesn’t even appear to have any excesses to keep him company – no drink, no drugs, no weird Howard Hughes-like preoccupations. All he has are his films and the ones he seems to watch the most are the home movies from before he was famous.

He goes to a comedy club where he meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogan), an aspiring comic whose work is still a little rough around the edges and who hasn’t yet found an effective stage persona. George hires Ira to be his assistant/writer and the two form a bond over George’s illness which is always somewhat tenuous because George wants things both ways: when he wants a friend, he treats Ira like a friend, but when he doesn’t, he treats Ira like the help. Late in the film he takes his anger out on Ira, forcefully reminding him that he isn’t a friend but an employee. A little while after that he takes his anger out on Ira again, this time berating him for not acting like a friend. By the time the film is over, you completely understand why it is that George was all alone in the first place.

As the illness plot winds up, a romantic plot is introduced in the form of George’s ex-girlfriend, Laura (Leslie Mann), with whom he’s still in love. She’s unhappily married with two children and is brought back into George’s orbit by his brush with mortality. It looks as if she and George might get back together, but it also becomes swiftly apparent that George might not be prepared for the baggage that Laura would bring with her, and that Laura isn’t going to be able to cut the ties that bind quite so easily. This plotline is uneasily shoehorned into the story and seems to exist for the sole purpose of giving Mann, who is writer/director Judd Apatow’s wife, something to do.

Funny People is ambitious in the sense that it wants to accomplish a lot, but Apatow doesn’t really seem to know how to get to where he wants to go. The film wants to be poignant but it’s trying too hard; it drags and detours too much and it fails to recognize that its biggest obstacle is its protagonist. Apatow’s previous films, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, worked in large part because they were stories about average, nice guys whom you ultimately wanted to see succeed (they were also films that were, you know, funny; this one should have been called Funny People Are This Close To Opening a Vein), but George is an asshole. He’s an asshole at the beginning and he remains one until the end and by the end, I didn’t want him to be happy because he does nothing to deserve being happy. Even Ira says that George has learned nothing from his near death experience.

Sandler made his name playing a series of overgrown children and though he's branched out during the decade to take on more serious roles, the spectre of those earlier films continue to haunt his career, making people reluctant to take him seriously as an actor. He is, however, capable of more than he's often given credit for and in many ways his performance in this film is rather fearless. It would be easy (though perhaps a bit lazy) to draw parallels between Sandler and Simmons, to make assumptions about the actor based on this particular character, but Sandler nevertheless lets George be a nasty piece of work and doesn't try to soften the edges. The performance feels honest, even if the movie itself is contrived within an inch of its life.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Review: The Young Victoria (2009)

* * *

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend

It’s strange, when you think about it, that the monarch who reigned the longest over the British Empire is so curiously underrepresented in film. She reigned for nearly 64 years and had direct descendants in so many kingdoms that she was called the grandmother of Europe, but when it comes to films she tends to figure in supporting or cameo roles more often that as the subject. Maybe it’s because Victoria’s image is defined by ideas of sexual repression and filmmakers tend to like their biopics with a bit of sex in them to keep things interesting. The Young Victoria is no different in that regard, focusing largely on Victoria’s relationship with Prince Albert, envisioning them as dewey young things in the first blush of love. The decision makes for a surprisingly delightful but unmistakeably lightweight film.

In her first meeting with Albert (Rupert Friend), Victoria (Emily Blunt) describes herself as feeling like a chess piece being moved across a board. Though the statement is a bit of a cliché, there’s really no better way to describe her position. Her uncle King William IV (Jim Broadbent) has no surviving children (well, legitimate children), making her next in line to the British crown. If he dies before she turns 18, a regent must rule in her place – something desperately desired by her mother (Miranda Richardson) and her advisor Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), who have raised her to be essentially dependent on them so that they can wield power through her. Her uncle on the other side of the family is Leopold I (Thomas Kretschmann), the King of Belgium, who wants to influence her as a means of making his somewhat shaky monarchy more secure. His other pawn in this endeavour is his nephew, Albert, who spends his days being tutored in Victoria’s likes and dislikes in order to make a favourable impression on her when they finally meet. Of course, sheltered as she has been by her mother and Conroy, Victoria sees through his coaching and once he starts being himself they develop a natural and friendly rapport.

Though she likes Albert, Victoria has many other things on her mind. Shortly after her eighteenth birthday the King dies and she gains the crown, making the tug of war over her even fiercer. She stands up to Conroy once and for all, cutting him off at the knees even if she can’t cut him out of her mother’s life, and aligns herself with the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany). Though Melbourne becomes a trusted advisor to her, their friendship is problematic because she’s seen as favouring him too much, arousing the jealousy of his political opponents which in turn gets the public against her, resulting in ugly scenes outside of Buckingham Palace. Her friendship with Melbourne also causes strife in her relationship with Albert, particularly after they’ve married and his own marginalization is magnified by the stock she sets in the other man. Raised in virtual seclusion, Victoria is unaware of how to play the game with finesse and believes that her stubbornness is the greatest weapon in her arsenal. She learns some hard lessons, but also learns that she can rely on Albert as a true partner if only she can meet him half way.

In the lead role Blunt renders a spirited and engaging performance that is matched note for note by Friend as the two move through the grades of Victoria and Albert’s relationship. Their attraction to each other is more or less immediate but the road isn’t smooth for them even after they’ve married. Victoria is out to prove herself and assert her independence and in doing so relegates Albert to the sidelines, making it necessary for her to find a way to balance her role as the Queen with Albert’s need to be more than just “the Queen’s husband.” As a result, some of the fiercest conflicts in the story are between the newlyweds as they try to negotiate their unique position. Much of the credit for the film's success is due to Blunt and Friend, who have great chemistry and bring a surprising amount of humor to their roles even when their characters are at odds. The more I see of Friend's work, the more I like him as an actor, and as far as Blunt goes, this is easily the most mature performance of her career. She excels here as a woman trying to find her own voice and make others hear it.

Written by Julian Fellows (Gosford Park) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.), the film is lively and moves gracefully but, as I said before, it’s lightweight. It touches on some of the social reforms and patronage of the arts that would mark Victoria’s reign, but it’s main concern is the love story and the effect that that relationship had on the other alliances in Victoria’s life. It all looks good – the cinematography, art direction and costume design are all top notch – but it doesn’t run particularly deep and when it came to an end my first thought was “That’s it?” Still, for what it is, it’s quite enjoyable and if you’re like me and most of the movies you’ve seen lately have depressed the hell out of you, this one is a really nice change of pace.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday's Top 5... Fellini Actresses

In honor of the forthcoming release of Nine:

#5: Sandra Milo
(8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits)

She was Guido's mistress in 8 1/2 and reportedly Fellini's mistress in real life... which must have made filming of Juliet of the Spirits rather interesting. The fiery actress was popular with Italian and French filmmakers in the 50s and 60s before entering into semi-retirement in 1968.

#4: Anita Eckberg
(La Dolce Vita, Intervista)

When you think of Fellini, the image of the Trevi Fountain cannot be far behind. She charmed Marcello and audiences alike, helping to create one of the most magical moments in cinema.

#3: Claudia Cardinale
(8 1/2)

One of the most beautiful actresses ever to grace the screen. However, even though this is a list celebrating work in Fellini films, my favourite performance of hers is in a film from another Italian filmmaker: Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West.

#2: Anouk Aimee
(La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2)

They don't make 'em like Anouk Aimee anymore. Hers is a wholly captivating screen presence - when she's there, you can't look anywhere else. She's one of only a handful of actors who have received Oscar nominations for performances in foreign language films (hers was for A Man and a Woman).

#1: Giulietta Masina
(Variety Lights, The White Shiek, La Strada, Il Bidone, The Nights of Cabiria, Juliet of the Spirits, Ginger & Fred)

The one and only. One of the most uniquely talented performers ever to grace the screen, she could do comedy, drama, and everything in between without ever missing a beat.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Inconceivable (2008)


Director: Mary McGuckian
Starring: Colm Feore, Jennifer Tilly

Mary McGuckian’s Inconceivable is a movie with an idea. It gets so caught up in this idea that it kind of forgets to be a movie. To be a movie you need plot and characters or, at the very least, one or the other. You can’t fool me into thinking that there’s a plot that is being moved forward just because you put in a series of fast cuts and fades to white. Nice try though.

Inconceivable takes the test tube baby industry as its subject, pondering just what it means to create a “designer” baby. Patients can choose the hair and eye color of their child, the sex, and even the sexual orientation. In a sense, they’re leaving nothing to chance. In another sense, they’re leaving absolutely everything to chance. Who knows if they’re actually getting what they’ve paid for – and if they don’t, it’s not like babies have a return policy.

All of the patients are conceiving children with the help of Dr. Freeman (Colm Feore). The patients are given ticks, essentially, rather than solid personalities and are frankly so interchangeable that it's a wonder why the story bothers having so many. There’s Frances (Geraldine Chaplin), well past her child-bearing years but in need of having a son to ensure that she and her daughter (Oona Chaplin) get a share of her comatose and dying husband’s estate; Trixie (Sara Stockbridge) who really, really wants a girl; Kay (Kerry Fox) who has a sick child and needs a baby who can act as a donor; Lottie (Andie MacDowell) whose character trait is that she’s really, really horny; Elsa (Donna D’Errico), a newagey lesbian who wants to conceive with her girlfriend; Tutu (Elizabeth McGovern), a high-strung workaholic; and finally Malcolm (Lothaire Bluteau) and Mark (David Alpay), a gay couple having a child via surrogate. That seems like a lot of characters but don’t worry; you won’t actually get to know any of them. There’s also a character played by Jennifer Tilly, whose name completely escapes me and isn’t listed on IMDB.

The success rate with this group of patients is 100%, which goes beyond being unusual and enters into the realm of the impossible. The patients have kept in touch with each other during their pregnancies and exchange photos of their babies which leads Tutu to notice something very odd: all of the babies look exactly the same. She’s heard of another clinic where is was discovered that the doctor running it was actually using his own sperm and that he has subsequently fathered somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 children through his clinic. She wonders, of course, if Dr. Freeman has done the same thing and launches an investigation against him which leads to a result that is surprising to everyone, but most especially Dr. Freeman.

The screenplay, written by McGuckian, is very repetitive. We see the same scene played out between Dr. Freeman and each of his patients – and when I say the same, I mean the exact same words from him with slight variations in terms of the responses of his patients, depending on the character trait they’ve been assigned in lieu of an actual personality. We see multiple versions of the embryo extraction and later implanting scenes, the same thing, over and over for each patient. We see each patient being injected with the drug to promote the sustainability of the embryo. It gets boring very quickly. The film tries to pick up steam towards the end but by then it’s a lost cause; you don’t care and then it gets slapped with a “happy” ending.

The actors do their best to breathe life and vitality into their characters, but they have little to work with. Tilly is the only one who really succeeds, somehow making the film hold still long enough to allow for her character to take on actual dimensions. I do, however, have one nitpick with her character: she’s shelled out tens of thousands of dollars and endured numerous disappointments in her multiple attempts to conceive at Dr. Freeman’s clinic. After the embryo is implanted, what’s the first thing she does? She goes to bar and has a drink and a cigarette. Of course, that makes just about as much sense as anything else in the movie.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Girls on Film: Women and Movies in 2009

Being a woman and a movie fan can sometimes be a very... depressing thing. Film tends to be a very masculine medium that values men as consumers and women as commodities and though ideally films would be made with a mind towards appealing to all kinds of people, most are made specifically to appeal to white men, a group that not coincidentally makes up the majority of the film making communities in North America and Europe. The standard line of thinking is that women just don't go to movies in the same numbers as men, but maybe that's because when Hollywood deigns to make movies "for" women they tend to just recycle the same old plots - plots that weren't really that great the first few hundred times. If you want to see a story about a man, you've got tons of options in tons of genres. If you want to see a story about a woman, you're options are much more limited. In light of that, and in light of the fact there seems to have been an awful lot of movies directed by women this year, I thought it would be interesting to look at the films released in 2009 that were made for women, by women, and/or with women playing the leading role.

The Usual Suspects:

For good or for ill, if you want to see a movie with a female lead the place to start is with romantic comedies and horror movies. Representations of women in these genres aren’t necessarily good, but they do tend to have women in prominent roles. Let’s start with romantic comedies, since that’s the genre most aggressively marketed towards women: Oh my god you guys, things are not good. The year kicked off with Bride Wars, featuring not one but two lead actresses in the form of Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson, best friends torn asunder by dueling weddings. A month later theaters were hit with the one two punch of Confessions of a Shopaholic (easily the winner of the movie with the worst timing award this year) and He’s Just Not That Into You. Confessions bombed but Bride Wars and He’s Just Not That Into You did fairly well, meaning that the two of the most successful films driven by and made for women are ones that support the assumptions that women are ultimately crazy (Bride Wars) and that women’s lives revolve around the men in them (HJNTIY). It’s also interesting to note that unlike Confessions, the other two films are carried by more than one actress (in HJNTIY’s case it’s multiple women and men), meaning that even in films made for women, one actress often isn’t considered enough to sell the product. Which brings me to my next point…

Romantic comedies have female leads but they also tend to feature actors who figure just as prominently into the story. The Proposal has Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, All About Steve has Bullock and Bradley Cooper, New In Town has Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr.,The Ugly Truth has Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, Love Happens has Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart, Duplicity (not technically a romantic comedy though it was marketed that way) has Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. To sell these kinds of films, the thinking seems to be that you either need multiple female co-leads, a male-female combination or, somewhat bizarrely to my mind, one man in the lead with a woman in a prominent but supporting role in a story about a guy who has spent his life treating women like crap. I’m looking at you Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.

The horror genre isn’t that much different, insofar as horror films have a tendency to be ensemble pieces (more characters means more killing). Sorority Row, for example, is driven by multiple female characters, as is Jennifer’s Body. There was also Drag Me To Hell, starring Alison Lohman. Also out this year were The Unborn, Orphan and Grace, films with female leads that revolve in one way or another around the concept of maternity, reinforcing the idea that the only stories you can tell about women are those that involve marriage, weddings, and/or babies... even evil babies/children that want to kill you.

The Big Earners:

So, obviously, the money conversation begins with New Moon. I mean, it's not even a contest. Whatever your feelings about the series, you can't argue that it isn't made for and marketed to women. The problem, of course, is that Hollywood gets it into its head that this is the only kind of movie women want to see at the theatre. It has an audience, obviously, but if the kind of money put into making and pushing the Twilight movies was afforded to other female driven films, those would find an audience as well.

Anyway, the following is a list of the top 10 domestic earners of 2009 that have female leads, with their overall rank in parentheses:

01. The Twilight Saga: New Moon (#5)
02. The Proposal (#11)
03. The Blind Side (#15)
04. Julie & Julia (#29)
05. He’s Just Not That Into You (#30)
06. The Ugly Truth (#32)
07. Hannah Montana The Movie (#34)
08. Obsessed (#42)
09. The Time Traveler’s Wife (#48)
10. Bride Wars (#50)

Only the top 3 earned more than $100 million (so, well done, Sandra Bullock) and by the time you get to number 10, you're looking at a film that earned about $58 million. Of these ten I have only seen two (The Proposal and Julie and Julia) and have absolutely no plans to see the other eight. Is that because I don't want to see women in leading roles? No. It's because I have a strong aversion to films that look like they're going to spend two hours insulting my intelligence.

Other Films:

The slate of other films driven by female characters in 2009 includes: Underworld: Rise of Lychans (Rhona Mitra), Sunshine Cleaning (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt), Easy Virtue (Jessica Biel), My Life In Ruins (Nia Vardalos), Julia (Tilda Swinton), The Girlfriend Experience (Sasha Grey), Cheri (Michelle Pfeiffer), The Stoning of Soraya M. (Shohreh Aghdashloo), Post Grad (Alexis Bledel), White Out (Kate Beckinsale), Trucker (Michelle Monaghan), Women In Trouble (Carla Gugino, Connie Britton, Marley Shelton, Garcelle Beauvais, Emmanuelle Chiriqui), Paper Heart (Charlyn Yi), Whip It! (Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore) Amelia (Hilary Swank), My One and Only (Renee Zellweger), and My Sister’s Keeper (Cameron Diaz). I don’t know whether Madea Goes To Jail ought to be included, since it’s a movie about a woman played by a man, but director/writer/star Tyler Perry also released I Can Do Bad All By Myself starring Taraji P. Henson. With the exception of Perry’s films, which have a very loyal audience that pretty much ensures that they'll make some money no matter how limited the release or how harsh the critics, these are all films that sort of came and went from theaters without making much monetary impact, perhaps because in several cases little seems to have been expended on marketing them.

The female centered films that will end up being considered the most successful, however, won’t be one that really broke the bank, but the ones that brought the most awards friendly attention and prestige. To that end there’s Precious (Gabrouey Sidibe and Mo’Nique), An Education (Carey Mulligan), The Young Victoria (Emily Blunt), Bright Star (Abbie Cornish), Broken Embraces (Penelope Cruz), Coco Before Channel (Audrey Tautou), and The Lovely Bones (Saoirse Ronan). There's also Nine which, though it has a man in the lead, features several very prominent actresses, many of them already Oscar winners.

Behind the Camera:

The number of women directing films this year, particularly high-profile ones, seems higher than usual to me, though this is the first year that I’ve ever actively looked at it. Not surprisingly, most of the films directed by women are also about women: Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron), Post Grad (Vickie Jenson), Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama), Bright Star (Jane Campion), An Education (Lone Scherfig), Coco Before Channel (Anne Fontaine), Whip It! (Drew Barrymore), Motherhood (Katherine Dieckmann), Amelia (Mira Nair), It’s Complicated (Nancy Meyers), and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (Rebecca Miller).

Other films directed by women this year include The Proposal (Anne Fletcher), I Hate Valentine’s Day (Nia Vardalos), 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Dennis), Cold Souls (Sophie Barthes), Cherry Blossoms (Doris Dorrie), The Cake Eaters (Mary Stuart Masterson), Surveillance (Jennifer Lynch), Humpday (Lynn Shelton) and, perhaps most prominently, The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow) which, in its early stages, was supposed to star Charlize Theron, though I have no idea which of the three main roles she would have played.

Like I said, I don’t know whether it’s entirely accurate to say that more women directed films this year than in years past, or whether it just seems that way because so many of those films have been high profile. I certainly feel safe in saying that this is the first year in as long as I can remember that three women had legitimate shots at being nominated for the Best Director Oscar (Bigelow is essentially a lock at this point, Scherfig, Campion are long shots but still in it). Given that in its eight decade history only three women have ever been nominated as Best Director (Campion for The Piano, Sofia Coppola for Lost In Translation, and Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties), I think that’s pretty significant. I also think it’s pretty significant that if Gabrouey Sidibe gets a nomination for Best Actress, she’ll be the first African-American actress nominated in that category since Halle Berry’s allegedly door-opening win in 2002. You may have noticed that of the 60 films I mention, only 5 feature women of color as leads. The situation is pretty dire for women generally, but especially for non-white women.

Anyway, those are just a few things to think about as we close the book on one year and gear up for another. Hopefully the coming year will be a better one for women in film - at the very least, let's hope that the successes of Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep (it remains to be seen how It's Complicated will fare, but I have a feeling it will be a box office winner) wake movie makers up to the fact that women don't cease to exist past the age of 40.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review: Four Christmases (2008)


Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon

Beware of renting a movie when you’ve seen virtually everything on offer because you might end up having to endure a film like Four Christmases. Seriously. If this is all there is, find a book to read, go for a jog, break out a board game – do anything else if it means that you won’t be wasting any time on this dreck. You know how sometimes a movie will try to promote itself by capitalizing on the past Oscar wins of its cast? See the movies that the five Oscar winning cast members were rewarded for instead.

Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) are a happily childless and unmarried couple who revel in each other’s company. They take dancing lessons for fun, enumerating their reasons for not wanting to get married to the other couples in the class (all of whom are engaged), and they play a game where they each create a character and then go separately to a bar where one tries to pick the other up. Every year they come up with a lie to get out of having to spend time with their families at Christmas so that they can go on vacation to some exotic locale. This year it’s Fiji but the airport is fogged in, delaying their flight until the next day. A TV reporter then pops up to ask them how they feel about their holiday plans being delayed, at which point their families know that they’re still in town and available for the festivities.

Both of their parents are divorced, so they have to make four visits. First they go to see Brad’s father Howard (Robert Duvall), who thinks Brad is prissy, particularly in comparison to his two brothers (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw), who are Ultimate Fighters. Next they go to see Kate’s mom (Mary Steenbergen), where they get roped into playing Mary and Joseph in a Nativity play. Then they go to see Brad’s mom (Sissy Spacek), who is currently living with Brad’s ex-best friend, who tries to reassure Brad by stating that he “never had a sexual thought about your mom until I was 30.” Finally they go to see Kate’s dad (Jon Voight) who doesn’t get to do much besides own the place where several of the conflicts are finally resolved.

The idea for this story isn’t bad and you could make a good movie out of it, the problem is with the execution. For one thing, it seems like the writers came up with a few jokes and then tried to construct a film around it, the result being that the dynamics between the characters are always shifting to suit the needs of whatever joke is being set up and the jokes, as a result, feel incredibly forced. Brad and Kate are so in love and they have such a deep connection that they spend all of their time together, and yet they apparently haven’t ever had a real conversation in the 3 years that they’ve been together. They also, apparently, have never met anyone in each other’s families (although it seems, at least, that Kate has met Howard before) despite the fact that all of their family members live within such a short distance that they can drive to all four houses and visit at each within the span of about half a day.

This being a romantic comedy, there will of course come a crisis that will test the relationship. In this film it comes in the form of Kate deciding that maybe she wants kids after all (how she reaches this decision after nearly concussing one baby, being projectile vomited upon by another, and being tormented in a bouncy castle by her 8-year-old niece is beyond me) and Brad reiterating that he doesn’t see children in his future. Given how little they apparently know each other, they probably shouldn’t be having kids any time soon, but three guesses as to how the film ends. Since you probably only need one, want to use the other two to guess how their families find out? Yeah.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Monday, December 14, 2009

Review: The Road (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Every movie I see (and story I read) set in a post-apocalyptic world really just solidifies for me that when the end comes I need to either be dead already or be amongst those who die instantly at the moment of catastrophe, because I really don’t have the skill set or the mental/emotional fortitude to survive the barren and treacherous landscape. I could barely make it through this movie, as good as it is. In fact, it’s probably the best movie that I never, ever want to see again.

Set sometime in the future when disaster has turned the earth into an ashy wasteland, The Road follows a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they travel towards the west coast in the hope of finding a warmer climate. They have a shopping cart full of odds and ends that they’ve picked up on the way and a gun with two bullets left. As the earth is no longer able to sustain plant life, nearly all animals are dead, and most food rations have long since been pillaged, the roads are full of roving gangs who have turned to cannibalism. It’s to the film’s credit that the mood is so immediately and effectively established that even though the Man and the Boy come into contact with one of these gangs early in the film and you know objectively as a viewer that nothing too bad can happen at this point, it still elicits a genuine and intense feeling of tension.

The Man and the Boy will encounter many gruesome sights along the way as human beings become more and more divorced from their humanity. Though the Man tells the Boy that they are the good guys, he is not immune to behaving in ways that the Boy thinks wrong. His initial refusal to share food with an old man (Robert Duvall in a brief but beautiful performance) and his retribution against a man who briefly and unsuccessfully robs them prompts the Boy to declare that his father can’t even tell who is good and who is bad anymore. The turning point for the Man seems to be the moment when he discards his wallet with the picture of his wife (Charlize Theron) and his wedding ring – the only two things other than the Boy that he has to remind him of his former life. Interspersed throughout the film are flashbacks involving the wife, who is unable to cope with what has happened and with what she believes will happen in the future. Eventually she leaves them and, in a haunting shot, disappears into the darkness and snow to die alone. The Man is troubled by the fact that he could not give her a reason to live and with the nagging suspicion that perhaps she was right.

The film is obviously very dark and it deals with some very heavy themes. The central question seems to be whether it is morally right of the Man to keep the Boy alive at all under these circumstances. His wife is dead, the earth is dying, and there are constantly moments when he thinks that he will have to use his last bullet to kill the Boy just to prevent him from being tortured, harvested and eventually killed by one gang or another. More importantly still, he is himself dying, coughing up blood and limping forward more slowly with each step. He tells himself that he is preparing the Boy to take care of himself after he’s gone, but does he really think that the Boy, all alone in a world full of blood thirsty marauders, can really survive? The old man refers to death as a luxury that one shouldn’t ask for in times like this, but couldn’t it also be a mercy?

Mortensen carries the film with a grim determination. Gaunt and haggard looking, he is nevertheless able to bring some degree of warmth to the Man, even at the worst of times. After narrowly escaping a gang of cannibals, the Man returns to collect their discarded belongings, particularly the children’s books that he reads to the Boy at night. He is a father first and foremost and strives to make the situation bareable for his son, putting on a brave face and summoning up all of his strength to carry on. For a brief spell they find a comfortable shelter where they’re able to bathe and cut their hair and feel human again. He smokes a cigarette and drinks a glass of whisky and remarks that the Boy (born after the beginning of the catastrophe) probably thinks he’s from another world. The Boy affectionately agrees and for a moment it is almost as if they are living a normal, happy life. The Boy may be more vulnerable to predators, but it is the Man who suffers the most because he remembers how life used to be before everything collapsed around him.

Director John Hillcoat, working with an adaptation by Joe Penhall, has made a remarkably well-crafted film. He’s very good at maintaining and nurturing the tension throughout the story so that it doesn’t peter out before it gets to the end and he wisely shies away from getting too graphic when it comes to the more horrific elements of the story. It is bleak, but it doesn’t glorify the violence, suggesting it with broad strokes rather than letting us have all the gory details. It doesn’t need those details – it conveys the idea of them more effectively than a direct visual ever could.

As I said at the beginning, as much as I admire The Road’s achievements, I can’t see myself ever watching it again. Some would argue that that’s a failing on the part of the film, but I would say that some works of art leave such an indelible impression that they only need to be experienced once. Certainly I would recommend this one, though I don't know that the winter time is the best time to see it.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday's Top 5... Posters of the 1980s

#5: Amadeus

Dark and operatic, it captures the sinister elements of the film while leaving the more whimsical elements to be discovered. Brilliant.

#4: Moonstruck

Just looking at the poster makes me want to watch the movie again. Seriously, it just makes me smile.

#3: Full Metal Jacket

Simple and cheeky. It manages to hint at both the intensity and the (very) dark humor of this most unusual war movie.

#2: E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial

A most evocative image, recalling Michelangelo's Creation of Adam. Sure, it was made as a marketting tool to appeal to Christian audiences, but it still manages to distill the most important aspect of the film, which is E.T.'s bond with Eliot.

#1: Raiders of the Lost Ark

How much fun is this poster? If you'd never seen the movie, wouldn't just looking at the poster make you want to? Plus, I'm not sure a tagline has ever been more true.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Canadian Film Review: The Rocket (2005)

* * * 1/2

Director: Charles Biname
Starring: Roy Dupuis, Stephen McHattie

“You’re a hockey player. Play hockey,” Canadiens coach Dick Irvin (Stephen McHattie) tells Maurice Richard (Roy Dupuis). However, stuck between the Depression and the onset of the Quiet Revolution, Richard could never just be a hockey player and was intensely aware of the symbolic role that he played within the sport and in Canadian culture itself. The Rocket tells the story of Maurice Richard in such a way that it cannot simply be classified as a sports movie – it’s a movie about a nation maturing alongside a sport, and the man reluctantly standing at the centre of it.

Strangely, for a biopic, The Rocket doesn’t dwell much on Maurice Richard the man. We first meet him at 17, laboring as a machinist during the day and playing hockey by night. His anger at the injustices he witnesses and endures in his job are channeled into his playing, where his speed and ferocity sets him apart from the rest. By 20 he has married his sweetheart Lucie (Julie LeBreton), against the wishes of her father who believes that Maurice will never amount to much and never softens towards the union even after Maurice makes the cut and joins the Montreal Canadiens. Though he shows promise early on, the ease with which he seems to get injured prompts everyone to declare him “a lemon," and he spends most of the following two seasons on the bench, worrying about where he’ll go from there and how he’ll support his growing family.

Fortunately for Richard, Irvin believes in his talent, even as he’s sitting him out. When Richard gets the chance to get back on the ice, he shows his mettle, becoming one of the league’s top scorers and a beloved home town hero. Unfortunately, because he’s Quebecois, he faces a great deal of prejudice within the league where, as in industry, there is a strict English only policy in upper management. There is also a great deal of corruption which shapes how players are ranked in the league and includes the practice of some teams assigning assists to their star players in order to bulk up their total number of points. Richard takes a stand against this, agreeing to write an opinion column for a Montreal paper in which he exposes a lot of the foul practices behind the scenes, but when he takes a swipe at the commissioner of the league he’s forced to shut it down or risk being banned from playing. As the seasons pass, he gets into more trouble with the commissioner which eventually spurs a riot in Montreal and has him seriously considering quitting the game for good.

Dupuis plays Richard with a quiet determination and almost impenetrable stoicism. He’s not driven by the desire for fame or money or the excesses which come with it, but by a simple love for the game. He would like nothing more than to just be able to play hockey, but he’s not willing to keep his head down and continue to let people push him around, knowing that if someone doesn't stand up the unfairness that governs the league will simply be passed on to the next generation of players. He knows that things have to change sooner rather than later and he takes on the burden even though it pains him. In one scene he breaks down following a game, the pressures of everything outside the rink finally starting to get to him. This is a rare (even for Lucie) glimpse behind the wall Richard has erected to protect himself and Dupuis' performance throughout is one of restraint always threatening to buckle.

If the film has a flaw, I suppose it's that it relies on the audience to come into it with a certain amount of knowledge about Anglo-Franco tensions. With only a cursory knowledge of the events and conditions that lead to the Quiet Revolution, you might not feel the full impact of what's happening on screen. When Irvin enters the dressing room late in the film and hesitantly addresses the players in French, it's a big moment, but if you don't fully understand why it's so unusual and important, you're missing a piece of the puzzle that helps to put the story into the larger social context. Still, this is a strong effort, one that divides itself pretty evenly between the sport and the surrounding politics and makes for good viewing whether you're a hockey fan or not.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Review: This Is England (2007)

* * * *

Director: Shane Meadows
Starring: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham

Until a couple of months ago I’d never heard of Shane Meadows’ This Is England and then suddenly I seemed to be hearing about it from everyone and having it recommended to me from all corners. Kind of weird for a movie that came out 2 years ago. And then I went to the video store looking for something else and happened to stumble across this one nonsensically included in the foreign language films section – so, clearly, forces beyond my control were conspiring to get me to see this movie. Luckily the film itself lived up to all the buildup, proving to be an uncommonly intelligent and sensitive movie about teenage angst in a time of political turmoil.

This Is England takes place in 1983 and centres on Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a 12-year-old still reeling from the death of his father in the Falklands War. Isolated and picked on by his peers, Shaun is an emotionally volatile young man when he meets Woody (Joe Gilgun) and his gang. Woody decides that they'll take Shaun under their wing and he joins them as they hang out, smash up abandoned houses, drink, smoke, and generally cause a ruckus. Shaun gets his own version of the group's uniform and gets his head shaved, which freaks his mother (Jo Hartley) out, though she's grateful at least that Shaun has made some friends and is generally happier.

All is going well - Shaun even begins taking shy steps towards a romantic relationship with Smell (Rosamund Hanson), who is also part of the group - until Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison and tries to return to the familiar fold he left behind. He's shocked to discover that the group now includes Milky (Andrew Shim), who is Jamaican, but doesn't let that stop him from wearing his racism on his sleeve. Soon the group is divided, half leaving with Woody and the other half (including Shaun) staying with Combo, who leads with a rhetoric of white supremacy and encourages the others to take part in increasingly violent diversions. Shaun is easily swayed by Combo's words, which often invoke the memory of his father and the need to "reclaim" the country for him, and begins a journey down a very dark path.

There is always a danger with films like this that instead of vilifying a vile point of view, it will end up being glorified. This Is England handily sidesteps that by never immersing itself in white supremacist culture but always looking at it from a distance and introducing plenty of dissenting voices. Most of the people who break off from Woody to follow Combo end up becoming disillusioned and disturbed by the ideas that Combo is pushing, and so return to Woody. Woody is a skinhead, but not a white supremacist; rather, he considers it as an aesthetic expression divorced from politics. He's disgusted by Combo's views on race, particularly in light of his friendship with Milky, and cuts ties with him completely, which essentially means that he's cut ties with Shaun, too, as Shaun and Combo have now become inseparable.

Combo states that he sees himself in Shaun - a scary prospect now that we've come to care about Shaun - but the film makes an effort to let us see Shaun in Combo as well. Like Shaun, Combo is a person in need of an outlet, whose anger is rooted in the desperate need to regain the connection he's lost to someone he loves. For him that person is Lol (Vicky McClure), who is currently dating Woody and who soundly rejects Combo when he tells her how he feels. Shortly thereafter he engages in an act of violence that makes it clear that the only way he can deal with his intense self-hatred is to find a reason to turn it around on someone else. Combo is an easy character to hate, but he's also a character worthy of pity.

Meadows directs the film (which he also wrote) with an expert hand, making good use of the tension that arises from the story and being careful not to glamorize the violence. There are several moments when it seems like the story might explode but then Meadows pulls things back, which makes it all the more intense when the situation finally does explode. He doesn't mind making you wait, and he doesn't always take the story in the direction you think he will. There are a lot of dynamics at play throughout and he moves between them with ease, giving dimension to the characters and shading to their relationships with each other. However, while the success of the film is an effort of an ensemble, it really is all about Shaun, a character that seems to fit Turgoose like a glove. For a young actor who had never acted before, he demonstrates an incredible level of control and an ability to get straight to the heart of the character. It's a great performance in a great film.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Great Last Scenes: Taxi Driver

Year: 1976
Director: Martin Scorsese
Great Because...: It leaves you guessing. Is the final scene, in which Travis Bickle has a last encounter with Betsy in his cab, the dying vision of a man who has gone over the edge or is it meant to be "real," his reward for enacting brutal vigilante justice? Whatever your interpretation, it's still a great scene that makes for a surprisingly gentle denouement to an intense and bloody climax.

Travis is a man who will not take it anymore. No longer content to stand passively by and let New York drown in its own filth and moral decay - not to mention a little emasculated by his failure to connect romantically with Betsy - he takes it upon himself to set things right and finally gain the power that has so long eluded him. He wants to do something that will wake people up and make them know who he is. At first he plans to assassinate Senator Palantine, who is not coincidentally Betsy's boss, but he sticks out so much that he immediately gets himself on the Secret Service's radar and has to flee. If he's going to do something "big," he'll have to do it in a place where his appearance won't immediately court suspicion.

He turns his attention to rescuing Iris, a teenage prostitute whose pimp represents everything Travis hates. With guns blazing Travis storms in, taking no prisoners and leaving a bloody trail in his wake. When all is said and done, he puts his bloody finger to his temple and mimes pulling the trigger, proud, defiant, and possibly dying. The film cuts to sometime later showing that Travis has achieved his goal, not just by ridding the streets of one of the lowlifes that he so abhors but also by being celebrated and thanked for it. He's a hero - even Betsy can't ignore that and now he gets the chance to dismiss her, closing the book on this chapter of his life.

There's no need to state how amazing Robert De Niro is in this movie, right? I will, however, point out that he manages to make Travis scariest when he's seemingly at his most benign. When mohawked, gun toting Travis shows up, you know what you're in for; but when "average Joe" Travis shows up, you don't always know what's going on behind his eyes, how close he is to snapping. He seems calm in that final shot, but maybe he's just gearing himself up for another explosion of violence, telling himself once again that there's no other way, that it's his destiny. Assuming, of course, that the final scene "really" happens. His final words in the film are "So long" and maybe he's not just saying it to Betsy, maybe he's saying it to the whole world as he leaves it. Either way it makes for a pretty extraordinary and memorable ending.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Monday, December 7, 2009

Review: Seraphine (2008)

* * * *

Director: Martin Provost
Starring: Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur

Some people just can’t catch a break. That certainly seems to have been the case with French painter Seraphine Louis, better known as Seraphine de Senlis. However, though Martin Provost’s film examines the many tribulations that she underwent in a life that began in poverty and ended in isolation and madness, it does not sink under the weight of tragedy. Instead it focuses more directly on what she was able to accomplish in spite of the forces working against her and in that way makes her story one of triumph.

Unlike most biopics, Seraphine doesn’t bother to labor through the early childhood years of its subject, opening instead in 1914 when Seraphine (Yolande Moreau) is in her early 50s. Her life is difficult, marked by poverty and hunger, and she barely makes enough money to keep a roof over her head by doing housework for people in the town on Senlis. Her sole comforts in life come from religion and art and, indeed, she sees the two as inextricably linked, viewing her own work as the result of divine inspiration. One day one of her clients demands to see a sample of her work and declares it artistically worthless. Her opinion is not shared, however, by her tenant Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German art collector of some renown. He asks to see more of Seraphine’s work and though at first she’s wary of his praise, believing that perhaps he’s making fun of her, she comes to accept his encouragement. He wants to be her patron, but the outbreak of World War I makes it necessary for him to flee France and he escapes in such a hurry that he’s only able to take one of the paintings he’s bought from her with him.

The story resumes in 1927, when Wilhelm has returned to France, settling in Chantilly along with his sister and his lover. He is convinced that Seraphine is long dead but when he ventures into Senlis to view a local art show, he recognizes her work and sees how she’s grown as an artist in the 13 years since he last saw her. Now in her 60s, she is still housekeeping by day and staying up until all hours of the night painting. Wilhelm becomes her benefactor so that she can finally focus on her painting to the exclusion of all else and his praise fills her head with dreams of the celebrity and wealth that awaits her in the future. She spends money easily and is hit hard by the onset of the Great Depression. People aren’t buying art anymore and Wilhelm can’t afford to bankroll her increasingly extravagant lifestyle.

This sudden change in circumstances, which to Seraphine amounts to having everything she ever wanted only to have it cruelly yanked away, seems to break her mentally. She has always been teetering precariously on that edge between genius and insanity and she finally goes over, rising early one morning, donning a wedding dress, and going through the neighborhood giving away her worldly possessions. She seems to be in a trance and she’s taken to the asylum where she’ll spend the rest of her life and never create another work of art.

The key to the film’s success is Moreau, who plays Seraphine as a woman of simplicity undone by the complications of success. She moves heavily and uneasily through the world, as if the weight of it is on her shoulders, but there is a lightness to her when we watch her paint – it’s an act of freedom and defiance for her. Despite her sad end, she is not a tortured artist; her work comes from a place of pure ecstasy, expressing emotions so intense that she confesses that sometimes the work she’s produced scares her. She paints because she feels that she has to but has no expectation that others will understand or embrace her work, so accustomed is she to society’s rejection. She’s an eccentric who spends much of her time in nature and talks to trees, earning her a reputation as a simpleton, though she understands far more than people give her credit for. Moreau's sensitive, transcendent performance is one of the best I've seen in a long time, the kind that makes you knot up inside because she makes you care so much about this character and you know that the downward spiral is eminent.

Seraphine does what a lot of biopic curiously fail to do: it focuses itself intensely on the thing that made its subject famous rather than on the subject's sex life. There is a brief scene in which Seraphine discusses a man she once loved and lost - a lesser film would have made this the defining thing about her story, the thing that really drove her and the thing that started her long unravelling. Instead Provost reduces the story to an annecdote in the middle of the film and is more interested in simply watching Seraphine as she creates, as she improvises her materials (she makes use of mud and blood when paint is not easily affordable), and as she draws her inspiration. Like Uhde, Provost (and, by extension, the audience) doesn't fully understand Seraphine and her strange ways, but knows nevertheless that he's bearing witness to something extraordinary. This truly is a portrait of an artist and though many of the events are ugly, it is an intensely beautiful film.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday's Top 5... Actors Playing Actors

#5: Kyle McLachlan as Cary Grant (Touch of Pink)

Words can't properly express how much I love McLachlan in this movie. He captures the playful charm of Grant and in doing so helps keep the film light and breezy. Plus, I giggle every time I think about him showing up to the Indian wedding dressed as his character from Gunga Din.

#4: Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn (The Aviator)

I don't really see the physical resemblance between Blanchett and Hepburn, but I think the spirit of Hepburn is captured pretty effectively in this performance.

#3: Robert Downey Jr. as Charles Chaplin (Chaplin)

This is one of my favourite Downey performances and it's hard to believe that he was only 26 when it was made, since he brings so much weight to the role. A great performance as a complicated man beloved by many and intensely hated by others.

#2: Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer (Frances)

In 1983 Lange was nominated for two Oscars: Best Actress for this film, and Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie. She won for the latter, but should have won for the former. Her performance as Frances Farmer is breathtaking.

#1: Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford (Mommie Dearest)

It has been said that this film ruined Dunaway's career, but given Hollywood's track record with women once they reach a certain age, I think the film has become something of a scapegoat. Whatever your feelings about Crawford and the bio that forever sullied her name, it's hard not to be mesmerized by Dunaway's performance.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Normal (2007)

* *

Director: Carl Bassai
Starring: Carrie-Anne Moss, Callum Keith Rennie

Carl Bassai’s Normal is your standard issue multiple storylines, all somehow connected, kind of story. Fortunately what it lacks in originality, it makes up for where the performances are concerned. At its heart, the film is about three families paralyzed by a shared grief and how they escape from this stasis to begin the process of moving on. It is sometimes plodding, sometimes beautiful, a real mixed bag of a film.

We’re first introduced to Catherine (Carrie-Anne Moss), still intensely mourning the loss of her 16-year-old son two years previously. In her grief she has isolated herself from her husband and their younger son (Cameron Bright), who is like a magnet for his mother’s barely repressed anger. The house is like a tomb to the lost member’s memory, his room kept exactly as it was the last time he was in it, with the exception that his clothes have been sealed in plastic in order to preserve his scent.

In another part of the neighborhood, Jordie (Kevin Zegers) has just been released from juvenile detention and returns to the home he shares with his psychiatrist father (Michael Riley) and stepmother, Elise (Camille Sullivan). Jordie has always had an uneasy relationship with Elise, whom he treats with open and aggressive hostility, which we come to learn has less to do with the fact that she’s “replaced” his mother and more to do with the fact that he would like to replace his father. They begin an affair which, unsurprisingly, leads only to more unhappiness and more complications, particularly when he reconnects with a girl he used to go to school with.

The final piece of the story puzzle involves Walt (Callum Keith Rennie), a University professor and failed novelist whose marriage is ending and whose brother, Dennis (Tygh Runyan), hasn’t left his apartment in two years. Dennis is autistic and has been afraid of the outside world ever since being involved in a car accident in which Walt, while drunk, was driving. This is the same accident that killed Catherine’s son, who was a passenger in the car Jordie had stolen and was driving.

The screenplay by Travis McDonald takes a long time to get to where it wants to go. So long, in fact, that you almost lose interest in finding out exactly how everyone is connected. Further, with the plot spread out among so many stories, the characters are fairly thin and we never really get to know them beyond the personal tics that make the narrative move forward. Luckily, the acting is good enough to make up for this shortcoming and there are a couple of quite compelling performances here. Rennie, who won the Genie for Best Supporting Actor for this performance, plays Walt as a man sinking under the weight on his own despair, seemingly powerless to help himself. His marriage to a former student is crumbling and he takes up with a current student (Lauren Lee Smith), whose refusal to adhere to the script that he has in mind causes problems. She's put out when he takes her to visit Dennis, uninterested in being included in that part of his life. Later she informs him that they met once before she was his student, just after he'd been acquitted for his role in the accident. This time it's his turn to be put off as she casually congratulates him on having had a great lawyer. Jail time might actually have been preferable, since it may have given him closure and a sense that he's made his amends. As it is, he just walks through life as if he's already dead, unable to find the sense of peace that is granted to the other characters.

Moss makes a similarly strong impression. Catherine is consumed by her grief, overcompensating for the fact that she wasn't very attentive to her son when he was alive by having him define her life from now on. Her marriage is also falling apart, as her husband's anger at having to bear the burden of moving on all by himself comes closer and closer to the surface. Of course, Catherine has anger, too, and lashes out at him for never having cried over their son. In her mind, she's mourning for both of them and so she takes it to extremes. As she comes to realize how damaging it is to suspend her life this way, she takes things to the extreme again by obliterating all those items she had been cherishing and preserving. To Moss' credit, Catherine never seems "crazy," just deeply in pain and she conveys that in a tightly controlled performance, never afraid to let her character he unlikable.

The performances really make the movie but also make you wish that instead of cramming all three narrative threads into one film, each had been given it's own so that the relationships and family dynamics could be explored more deeply. As it is, the film is somewhat clunky and not particularly resonant, the loose ends tied up too fast and too easily. There's nothing about Normal that really makes it stand out from all the other movies like it.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

* * *

Director: Wallace Worsley
Starring: Lon Chaney

First published in 1831, Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those stories that has really taken on a life of its own in popular culture. It’s one of the more frequently adapted books in film history (though it hasn’t been adapted nearly as often as Hugo’s Les Miserables), perhaps because it’s in the public domain and therefore fair game, but more likely because it’s a rich and compelling story. It’s about outcasts and misfits, injustice and cruelty, with liberal doses of sex and violence mixed in as well. It is not a “nice” story, though you might not know it by this particular adaptation.

Directed by Wallace Worsley and starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, this version of the story sticks to certain plot points while rewriting others in order to give it a happy ending. In this film, as in the book, Quasimodo is a deformed foundling whose only joy in life comes from ringing the bells of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Hated by others because of his appearance, he seldom leaves the sanctuary of the Cathedral, which is presided over by the Archdeacon Claude Frollo (Nigel De Brulier). In the film Claude Frollo is the spirit of kindness while his brother, Jehan (Brandon Hurst) is pure evil – you can tell because the former is dressed all in white and the latter is dressed all in black. Jehan is enamored with the gypsy girl Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) and manipulates Quasimodo into attempting to kidnap her. When the kidnapping goes awry Quasimodo is sentenced to a public lashing and Esmeralda, despite his attempt to abduct her and despite the fact that she is as disgusted by his appearance as everyone else, is the only person to show him any kindness, bringing him water to alleviate his suffering.

Jehan continues to plot to have Esmeralda to himself, but his schemes are complicated by Phoebus de Chateaupers (Norman Kerry), who rescued her from Quasimodo and now wants to marry her. Jehan stabs Phoebus and frames Esmeralda, who is sentenced to death but saved by Quasimodo, who claims sanctuary for her in the Cathedral and proceeds to defend it against the hordes of people trying to break down its doors. The scenes involving the rescue of Esmeralda and the defense of the Cathedral are the best in the movie, brimming with a high level of action and excitement that Worsley handles well. This high point, however, is followed fairly switfly by the film's conclusion, an odd ending that finds Quasimodo dying unceremoniously without Esmeralda even noticing because she only has eyes for Phoebus, who once again shows up just in the nick of time.

One of the strangest things about this adaptation (and, from what I understand, a common change in many adaptations of the story) is that it has been turned into a love story between Esmeralda and Phoebus. In the book Phoebus makes a lot of false promises to Esmeralda in order to get her into bed, fully intending to abandon her and marry Fleur-de-Lis, a wealthy woman of standing. When he recovers from being stabbed and learns that Esmeralda is about to be executed for his “murder,” he does absolutely nothing. Here, however, he’s the film’s hero, even more heroic than Quasimodo, whose deformity apparently prevents him from being really “good.” Quasimodo is characterized here as more animal than human, his devotion to Esmeralda more like that of a dog towards its master. Chaney, indeed, plays Quasimodo as if he was an abused dog (although, given how Quasimodo swings around from the heights of the Cathedral, monkey might be a more apt word), though the performance is powerful nevertheless. Chaney mixes an intense vulnerability together with a simmering anger towards his tormentors that makes his interpretation of Quasimodo particularly memorable.

The other major change to the story concerns the brothers Frollo. In the book, it’s Claude who is the evil catalyst for events, whose lust for Esmeralda leads to destruction, while Jehan is just his lay about younger brother. This gives the book an anti-clerical aspect that the film is lacking and makes for a very different set of dynamics overall. I suppose these changes work in terms of compressing the story, but they also rob it of some of its more potent themes and scenes. Still, helped in large part by Chaney's great performance, this version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is definitely worth seeing and has aged relatively well.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Review: Precious (2009)

* * * *

Director: Lee Daniels
Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey

“Why me?” These are the words that Clareece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) writes in her notebook towards the end of the film, the only words that can even remotely encapsulate her feelings after a fresh tragedy is added to the already towering stack that she has to contend with. Hers is a life full of obstacles and challenges and horror, but she somehow manages to persevere and keep herself from sinking beneath the weight of it. Precious the film has scenes of unfathomable ugliness, but Precious the character is ultimately triumphant.

The story begins with 16-year-old Precious being pulled from class to see the principal, who opens their conversation with the words, “Hello Clareece,” and then proceeds to show that she has about 10 times less warmth than Hannibal Lecter. Precious is pregnant with her second child, both children the result of rape at the hands of her father. Due to her condition she’s going to be expelled, though the school will make arrangements for her to transfer to an alternative school. Despite the fact that she’s been given good grades, including an A- in English, she is illiterate and confesses to her alternative school teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) that all words look the same to her. While Ms. Rain offers her support and encouragement, her mother Mary (Mo’Nique), undermines her at every turn. The only reason she lets Precious go to school at all is because it’s a requirement for receiving welfare.

At home Precious is subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse at Mary’s hands. She often escapes into a fantasy world where she imagines herself a superstar, beloved by all and loved in particular by her “light-skinned boyfriend with good hair.” While the harshness of her reality continuously intrudes on these interludes, the fact that she’s able to engage in this fantasy life at all demonstrates just how strong a person she is. That after all that she has endured she can still dream of better things for herself and imagine that she deserves it despite living with someone who tells her every day that she’s worthless, is nothing short of remarkable. Even more remarkable still is how she comes to realize that she’s doesn’t have to be rich and famous and have that boyfriend in order to be worthy of love and respect, but that she’s already worthy just as she is.

Of all the films to come out this year, Precious is probably the one that has sparked the most intense debate. Much of the criticism arises from the idea that the white male dominated film industry and critics are only willing to enthusiastically embrace films about people of color when the story is driven by suffering. This is a valid argument that can (and has) also been applied to other critically lauded and much rewarded films like Slumdog Millionaire and The Color Purple. Films that feature positive depictions of the lives of people of color are few and far between and tend to go untouched by the Hollywood mainstream, which makes the acclaim for films like Precious seem more glaring. However, I don’t believe that those facts should be allowed to obscure the questions that should really be at issue: is the film well made and does it display enough skill to warrant the amount of discussion that it has provoked? I think that it is and that it does. I don’t believe that the story panders to the lowest common denominator or promotes a stereotypical view of African-Americans. Rather, I think it gives agency to people who are more typically ignored. Of all the things various people do to help Precious, the most important is that they listen to her because it isn’t until she is given the opportunity to voice her experiences that she starts to actively take steps to make her reality good instead of relegating happiness to the world of fantasy. Precious does not represent all African-Americans, but her experiences are reflective of the reality of a lot of people (regardless of race) and to write the film off as nothing more than “tragedy porn” designed to please the white hegemony is to perpetuate the dismissal of an already disenfranchised segment of the population.

All of this is not to say that Precious is a perfect film; there are things about it that are problematic. There is a fairytale element to it that undercuts its rawness (there are a lot of Preciouses in the world, but few receive as much help as this particular Precious does) and its treatment of race is a bit suspect. The people who are good to Precious – Ms. Rain, Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey), Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz) – are people with light complexions. Although I haven’t read Sapphire’s book Push, my understanding is that this is a fairly significant departure, at least where the character of Ms. Rain is concerned. While in and of itself this might not be such a big deal, when you consider it in conjunction with Precious’ deep fixation on the idea that lightness is equal to worthiness or goodness (at one point she looks in a mirror and sees a blonde white girl looking back), it’s certainly enough to give you pause. While Precious is ultimately her own hero, the physical appearance of the people who want to help and save her does reinforce a very negative - and in the case of Precious self-loathing - view of race.

Sidibe, who makes her film debut here, is an amazing find as Precious and she and Mo'Nique render brave performances which hold absolutely nothing back. The role of Mrs. Weiss was originally slated to go to Helen Mirren but is played by Mariah Carey, which might sound like a downgrade but ends up working marvellously. There is a scene at the end between Sidibe, Mo'Nique and Carey which is, without question, one of the best acted scenes I've seen all year. Director Lee Daniels makes some stylistic choices that I found distracting (particularly his use of montage), but when he simply lets the actors act and lets us just watch them, the result is so completely absorbing that you forget you're watching a film. I was somewhat reluctant to see this movie because it looked so heavy, but I'm so glad that I did. While it is indeed very heavy, that's far from the whole story and Precious will surprise you with what it's capable of.

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