Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Chase Scenes

#5: Tell No One

Dr. Beck's frantic flight from police - who have tagged him for a crime he didn't commit - is one of the most thrilling sequences in the film, particularly his death defying jog across a highway.

#4: Back To The Future

The skate board chase scene was my favourite part of the movie when I was a kid. In fact, it's still pretty much my favourite part.

#3: The Road Warrior

The final showdown in The Road Warrior has got to be one of the best action sequences ever filmed. You've got a tanker truck, makeshift helicopter, and plenty of stuff crashing up real good.

#2: The General

You wouldn't think there'd be much "chase" involved when the vehicles are two trains but Buster Keaton's inventive and highly entertaining film proves otherwise. Just about the entire film consists of the chase and it just keeps getting better and better.

#1: The French Connection

The chase sequence to end all chase sequences. Shot at high intensity with plenty of memorable moments (the most memorable, perhaps, being the close call between Doyle and the woman with the stroller). Kind of a shame that the poster gives away the outcome, though!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Canadian Film Review: waydowntown (2000)

* * 1/2

Director: Gary Burns
Starring: Fabrizio Filippo, Don McKellar, Marya Delver, Gordon Currie, Tobias Godson

waydowntown is one of those films where the premise is a lot more interesting than the execution. Set in Calgary, it follows four coworkers who have made a wager about who can go the longest without setting foot outside. The buildings of the downtown core are connected via glass walkways, allowing them all access to their apartments, work, and various other locales without problem - except, of course, that not going outside is slowly driving them all mental. While the film certainly has its moments, by the end I felt like I was going a bit mental myself.

The four coworkers are Sandra (Marya Delver), Curt (Gordon Currie), Randy (Tobias Godson), and Tom (Fabrizio Filippo), who is essentially our guide through the story. They all work together in the same office, all of them occupying the bottom rung and forced to do a lot of thankless grunt work. Sandra has it particularly bad, having been dispatched to follow the company's founder around when he goes for lunch to ensure that he doesn't get caught stealing things. Sandra is lucky in that a mall is connected to the office building, allowing her to stay in the game, but she becomes increasingly convinced that her boss is really just screwing with her, a fact which a few clever shots seem to verify. Randy, meanwhile, has to find a way to maneuver himself to a building across the street (which has no connecting walkway) without leaving the building, and Curt is suffering from severe sexual frustration and desperate for relief.

Most of the film focuses on Tom who, when not trying to sabotage his colleagues in the wager, also has to contend with Bradley (Don McKellar), a morose cubicle-mate who spends most of the day trying to commit suicide; retrieving the company's birthday gift for its klepto founder, and some dramatic romantic complications. Specifically, he hits on a girl, her boyfriend freaks out, and nothing that Tom does can alleviate the situation, which may actually have more to do with attitude than effort.

When not dealing with these various plot points, Tom ponders the trap that he and everyone around him have fallen into. There's a degree of convenience to the way that the skyway system is built, but always being inside is also kind of suffocating and leaves the world seeming muted and grey. Everyone scurries around like rats in a maze, while Tom looks on with bemusement because everyone else seems oblivious to the deeper truth of which Tom is aware. To be honest, I spent most of the movie wanting to smack the smug off his face. The other characters are a bit more palatable, but none are really fleshed out or allowed to take on dimension. Personally, I would have liked to see more of Bradley - who spends most of the day stapling motivational slogans to his chest and the rest of the day trying in vain to break a window so that he can jump out of it - and the mall security guard, who complains to Randy that he hates people who feel entitled to not have to step out of the way when they're about to walk into someone coming in the opposite direction. He declares that he will no longer accommodate such a thing and will force them to step out of the way by vehemently refusing to step out of the way himself. I don't know why, but I found this whole mini subplot hilarious because that is exactly the kind of little, ultimately inconsequential, matter of etiquette that can drive a person up the wall if they encounter it often enough.

Director Gary Burns does a good job of creating a claustrophobic atmosphere, creating a world inside the cluster of buildings that at times seems wholly without connection to the world outside at all. The few shots we get of the streets outside are almost startling when compared to the scenes set inside because everything seems much brighter and more alive. Burns also does well at establishing and maintaining a consistent tone, carrying the narrative along with dark humor and at an effective pace. The only real problem that I have with the film is that the characters are so thin and to me it's a big enough flaw that I don't really feel that I can recommend the film despite its finer qualities.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Review: The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009)

* *

Director: Grant Heslov
Starring: Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges

Why do I get the feeling that the genesis of this film started with the idea to cast Ewan McGregor and then progressed to a bunch of meta Jedi jokes and then progressed to a story? I really wanted to like The Men Who Stare At Goats and given the caliber of its cast, I had pretty high expectations. Unfortunately, I found it really half baked and shapeless and a waste of the assembled talent.

The film centers on Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who is despondent following the break down of his marriage and goes to the Middle East in an attempt to prove to his wife that he's a man to be taken seriously. While waiting for clearance to go into Iraq he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former member of a special branch of the U.S. military whose mission was to harness paranormal forces in order to help usher world peace. Lyn's legend as one of the most powerful New World Jedis is already well known to Bob, though he remains skeptical of Lyn's actual abilities.

When he learns that Lyn is going into Iraq, Bob talks his way into coming along and soon finds himself in way over his head. He and Lyn essentially stumble from one bad situation to another, getting kidnapped by locals, getting caught in the middle of a firefight between two U.S. security teams (each of whom thinks they're being fired on by insurgents), getting lost in the desert, and so on until they discover what all of the New World Army experimentation has finally come to.

The film starts out fairly strong - lightweight, to be sure, but charming in its eccentricities. Though McGregor's accent is often suspect, I think he nails the general essence of the character and he makes a decent straight man for all the wacky guys who surround him. Of these wacky guys, none is more so than Clooney (though Jeff Bridges, starring as the leader of the New World Army, gives him a run for his money). Generally speaking, when Clooney does a straight up comedy character I find that he goes way too broad and relies too much on a particular set of facial ticks and mannerisms, but since a character like Lyn calls for broadness in the performance, it ends up working well with Clooney's comedic instincts. All in all, whatever problems the film has really aren't rooted in the cast, which also includes Kevin Spacey in a deliciously subdued role as a rogue Jedi gone over to the darkside. The cast is fine; it's the screenplay that really sinks this whole enterprise.

Though it has its moments, The Men Who Stare At Goats plays out like a product from the poor man's Coen brothers. The humor is there - though, to be honest, it really is just the same couple of jokes over and over, which gets tedious - but the structure is not. The movie never really seems to know where it's going or what, exactly, it wants to do once it gets there. It makes a few half hearted attempts to comment on the powder keg of competing interests in Iraq, but it really doesn't have anything to say about the situation that hasn't already been said, and better, by many others over the past few years. I don't think The Men Who Stare At Goats is a truly bad movie, but I do think putting the screenplay through a couple more drafts and tightening things up would have served it well.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Prophet (2009)

* * * *

Director: Jacques Audiard
Starring: Tahar Rahim

Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is the kind of film for which the term “gritty” was invented. Intense and often harrowing, it’s a film that is deeply critical of the criminal justice system and explores this theme without sacrificing the narrative for the sake of the message. It is a finely wrought film that more than lives up to all of the praise it has already received.

The story centres on Malik (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate young man with no ties about to start a five year prison term. He’s been in trouble before but, as his lawyer explains, since he’s now considered adult, the punishment will be more severe than what he experienced before. Once inside, Malik finds himself isolated by the inability of the other prisoners to define him in any one simple term. He’s of Middle Eastern descent, which makes the white prisoners wary of him, and he isn’t Muslim, which makes the sizeable Muslim population mistrustful of him. He’s in a particularly vulnerable position and the perfect target for Cesar (Niels Arestrup), a Corsican mobster, whose ties to the outside make him the most powerful man amongst the prisoners and also allow him a fair degree of leverage against some of the prison staff. He needs to get rid of Ryad (Adel Bencherif), an informant being kept in custody while he waits to testify in court. Cesar can’t afford to get his own, or any of the other Corsicans, hands dirty so he blackmails Malik into agreeing to take out Ryad, giving him the choice between taking a life or losing his own. Malik insists that he’s not a killer and tries to find a way out of it, but his fate is ultimately sealed.

Murdering Ryad is the first of many steps that Malik will take towards becoming a very dangerous and very powerful man. Far from being a deterrent, prison instead makes Malik a more skilled and well-connected criminal, turning him from a kid committing petty, non-violent crimes to a man capable of startling violence and Machiavellian machinations. The rootlessness that once made him a target becomes his greatest asset, allowing him to weave himself in with a variety of factions, creating a network of diverse alliances that make his growing crime syndicate increasingly unstoppable.

Although Malik is characterized in the beginning by a kind of innocence regarding the way things and people work, he becomes increasingly sophisticated in his ability to network. He plays the part of Cesar’s submissive pawn so well that Cesar is blinded to the fact that he's on the verge of going the way of his namesake and about to be usurped by his whipping boy. This section of the story is where Rahim really excels as Malik because he's able to convey to the audience how much Malik has learned while simultaneously being able to mask it from Cesar. He subtly and successfully charts Malik's maturation from frightened and impulsive kid to cool headed adult able to think three moves ahead.

The story is constructed in such a way that it essentially unfolds in chapter form. Although this breaks up the narrative, it also provides it with a nice sense of flow, as there are several different plot strands which must ultimately be woven together. Audiard infuses the film with strong energy and a vibrancy that contrasts nicely with the deeply dark nature of the story and he guides the narrative in directions that are sometimes suprising. I particularly liked the device of having Ryad continue to appear throughout the film as a ghost and an indication of Malik's mental/spiritual state at any given time. His initial hositlity towards the spirit - signifying his knowledge that he's done something that can never be undone and that he'll have to carry around forever - eventually gives way to a kind of comfort; he becomes used to this otherworldly presence just as he becomes used to his growing power. This is just one of the many threads that Audiard pulls together to give us a picture of Malik's psyche and his narrative strategy works very well. Combine that with the strong visual aesthetic that he brings to the table and you end up with a film that just keeps rising in your estimation the more you think about it afterward.

Monday, April 26, 2010

2010 LAMMYs and 10 Movie Facts About Me

As some of you may know, the 2010 LAMMYs are upon us and voting is now underway to determine this year's nominees. I don't want to sway ya or nothin' but if you were to throw a vote my way, I certainly wouldn't object...

On another note, I was tagged by Vanessa and The Floating Red Couch for the latest meme sweeping the film blogging community, so here they are, 10 movie facts about me:

1. I was 15 when Titanic came out and ended up seeing it several times in the theater. The first time because I wanted to, all subsequent times because one of my best friends was convinced that her boyfriend looked like Leonardo DiCaprio and all she wanted to for like a year was go see Titanic.

2. The first movie I can ever remember seeing in the theater is Bambi.

3. I hate 3D. Haaaaaaate it.

4. I am one of the five people on earth who has not seen Avatar.

5. I will watch Naomi Watts in just about anything, even something as lame and insulting to my intelligence as The Ring Two

6. The first film studies class I took at university totally changed my life and the way that I look at and interpret the world. It also pretty much turned me from a movie buff to a movie obsessive.

7. I know that the perfect storm of Pearl Harbor, Bennifer, and Gigli has perhaps forever derailed his career, but I'd like to see Ben Affleck get back to doing more high profile work. I think he's a better actor than he's often given credit for and I'd take him over the ubiquitous Gerard Butler any day of the week.

8. My favourite movie is Casablanca.

9. I didn't like Sideways or Lost In Translation. I realize that that's sacrilege to film fans, but there it is.

10. I have had entire conversations made up of quotes from Anchorman. Once you start, things tend to escalate quickly.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Posters of the 1930s

#5: Gone With The Wind

It's only appropriate that the most epic romance of all time should have a poster that is, itself, pretty epic. I think the poster captures the large scale scope of the narrative, foregrounding the romantic plot against the film's biggest set piece, the burning of Atlanta.

#4: Top Hat

A jaunty, fun poster. It's kind of an obvious interpretation - Fred and Ginger dancing on a top hat to advertise a movie called Top Hat - but I think that's part of its charm.

#3: M

The movie is creepy, the poster art is creepy. The poster makes for an interesting contrast with the film, though, in that it kind of makes Peter Lorre look like the story's victim, rather than the perpetrator. The giant hand that looks like it's about to close over him is particularly unsettling.

#2: Modern Times

A simple, minimalist poster but very evocative. I haven't been fortunate enough to see Modern Times yet, but every time I see this poster it makes me want to. It's a beautifully rendered piece of work.

#1: The Sin of Nora Moran

Love this poster, even though I also find it kind of disquieting. There's not much to it, but the mood it creates makes it one of the most startling and unforgettable posters I've ever seen.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Canadian Film Review: My American Cousin (1985)

* * * 1/2

Director: Sandy Wilson
Starring: Margaret Langrick, John Wildman

Sandy Wilson’s My American Cousin pulls off a difficult feat. It manages to be both believably nostalgic and intensely ironic, sometimes at the exact same moment. Widely embraced when it was released, the film won 6 Genies, including Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress, and was nominated for 5 more awards in addition. It has held up very well and is perhaps one of the Genies' best choices for Best Picture.

The story is seen from the distance of decades, recounted by the now grown up protagonist as she remembers the summer when she was 12 and the sudden appearance of her 17 year old American cousin made things suddenly exciting and glamorous. The protagonist is Sandy (Margaret Langrick), who is anxiously awaiting her entrance into adolescence and romance, and the cousin is Butch (John Wildman), who appears to have modelled himself on James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Sandy immediately develops a crush, though it appears to be less on him than on the things he represents. In his flashy convertible she sees her own freedom and she dreams of taking off with him, escaping from her dull life where nothing ever happens except the same thing that happened yesterday and the day before.

Butch isn’t all he seems. For one thing, the car isn’t his; it belongs to his parents, who intend to get it back. For another, he’s not really as tough as he’d like people to think. When Sandy expresses her desire to run away, he tells her that it’s a bad idea because girls can’t take care of themselves in the big bad world – but what about him? He ran away, sure, but went right to the comfort and safety of his aunt and uncle’s house which, incidentally, is probably not the best place to run to if you don’t want your parents to catch up to you. Sandy continues to hold out hope that Butch can offer some escape for her, even as she becomes increasingly disillusioned about him and aware that maybe she isn't ready for the big bad world after all.

The screenplay, written by Wilson, is very sharp, particularly when it comes to the character of Sandy. She's very smart but also appropriately naive, thinking that she's much wiser and grown up than she is, as is often the case with teenage girls. Her longing for excitement is foregrounded in the film's first minutes, as she writes in her diary "Dear Diary, nothing ever happens." She's in a hurry to get to adulthood, to get out from under her parents' thumb, to live the kind of life she reads about in books. She's a very engaging character, the perfect point of entry for the audience into this story, and she's played very well by Langrick. She perfectly captures the restlessness of the character and in doing so injects the film with a strong, vibrant energy. Both she and Wildman have to play their characters on two levels - as the worldly personas they want to be, and as the kids they actually are - and they work off each other very well, guiding their characters through a relationship that always seems to be shifting, always seems to be open to new possibilities.

In certain respects, My American Cousin is like a lot of other movies of its type, coming of age stories told from the point of view of a now adult protagonist, tinged with fondness and a gentle kind of irony. Ultimately, that actually works in the film's favor because it lends a sense of familiarity to the whole story that allows you to just relax into it and enjoy it. It's a film that finds just the right notes and brings together exactly the right people to make it work. It's definitely deserving of its status as a Canadian classic.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Unsung Performances: Fredric March, Inherit The Wind

The more I see of Fredric March’s work, the more convinced I become that he’s one of the best actors ever to grace the screen. In an era when even the best actors tended to play strict “types,” March played a diverse array of characters across many genres. Watch Inherit The Wind, The Best Years of Our Lives and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde back-to-back-to-back and you’ll find yourself shocked that the same actors appears in all three. He disappears so completely into his characters that you never really know what to expect from him.

In Inherit The Wind he plays one of his best characters and renders one of his best performances, but went unrecognized for his work. The nominees for Best Actor that year were his costar, Spencer Tracy, Trevor Howard in Sons and Lovers, Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer, and the eventual winner, Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry. If it were up to me, I'd move Howard to the Supporting Actor category and make room for March, who should have at least been nominated, even though he did already have two Best Actor Oscars under his belt at that point.

In the film March plays Matthew Harrison Brady, the conservative antagonist to Spencer Tracy’s heroic civil liberties fighter Henry Drummond. Brady represents the close minded forces hindering social progress, the stubborn old order trying to keep the culture anchored in place. There is never any question, from the film’s point of view, that he’s the villain and it would be easy to play him in a black-and-white way, as stubborn, backwards, and stupid. Certainly he is stubborn, but March plays him with enough nuance and humanity that he never seems backwards or stupid, nor does he seem heartless. He becomes instead a tragic figure, a man who has the world in his hands one moment and nothing in the next, and his sad end is one of the more resonant aspects of the film.

Brady starts the film strong, welcomed into town with a parade, already crowned the conquering hero in the battle between God and science. He passionately defends the Creation theory, preaching to the choir and holding court while Drummond dodges slings and arrows. Brady is sure of himself but not arrogant and in the scenes between him and Drummond there is a palpable sense of respect, of two men who disagree with each other’s politics but don’t take it too personally. March and Tracy play off each other incredibly well throughout the film, each equal to every challenge that the other throws up. Watching these two great actors playing these two strong, distinct characters is one of the film’s great pleasures.

Where March truly excels is at the film’s turning point, when Brady begins to unravel and finds himself unceremoniously knocked from his pedestal. In an instant he goes from being revered to being loathed, all because he has the audacity to be human and fallible. For my money there are few scenes that are sadder or more memorable than that in which Brady attempts to sermonize to the people who have already turned against him and they resolutely ignore him. The same people who once hung on his words now refuse to so much acknowledge his presence and his voice grows increasingly desperate as he practically begs to be heard. No character in the film is more vulnerable, more openly frail, than Brady is in this moment and March’s handling of the scene is expert. It is in this scene that we realize that the villain isn’t Brady after all, but knee-jerk reactionaries and fair-weather believers. Brady is not a bad man, even if you do disagree with his ideas and politics; he’s a man, plain and simple, with good traits and bad and March conveys this simply and effectively in a performance of great power.

I really can’t articulate just how much I love this performance. In a lesser film with this character portrayed by a lesser actor, Brady is a character you wouldn’t think twice about. He’d be a monolithic representation of prejudice, a straw opponent against whom the film could take cheap, easy shots to advance its point of view. When an actor gives a character like this dimension and a filmmaker reserves some of his sympathy for him, then cheap shots are impossible. As he does so often, Tracy carries this film on his noble shoulders, but March is key to the story’s ultimate success. The final moments, when Drummond symbolically demonstrates that science and religion ought to be able to coexist peacefully, would ring absolutely false if March couldn’t make Brady a redeemable and understandable character. As good as everything else about the movie is, it simply would not work without March.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)

* * * *

Director: Niels Arden Opley
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist

4 stars hardly seems adequate to sum up how I feel about this movie. This adaptation of the first part of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy is an absolutely spellbinding film and its protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, is one of the most compelling and fascinating characters to come along in quite a while. The film is already set for a totally unnecessary Stateside remake, which I think will prove problematic not only in terms of casting but also content, as the forthright, unflinching way that the film deals with violence is one of its most startling features.

There's a lot of plot to this story, but I'll sum it up as best I can and without giving much away. It opens with a libel verdict against Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) for a story he published in his magazine Millennium. In a few months he will begin serving his prison term and in the interim he's approached by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), who wants to hire him to investigate the disappearance of his niece, Harriet. Henrik believes that Harriet was murdered by a member of the family so that they could secure a greater part of the Vanger fortune and on the surface it appears that his suspicions are on point. Despite the fact that they all hate each other, the family lives together on an island accessible only by a bridge to the mainland. The day of Harriet's disappearance there was an accident on the bridge that would have made it impossible for Harriet to come into contact with anyone outside the family. The case has been cold for 40 years and Mikael settles in to wade through boxes and boxes of evidence that Henrik has collected over the years, determined but nevertheless doubtful about his possibilities of success.

Back in Stockholm a computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) closely monitors Blomkvist's progress and cracks the code that has Blomkvist and the police baffled. She sends her findings to Blomkvist and joins him on the island where they uncover more clues and discover that they aren't just investigating the disappearance of one girl, but a series of murders that have taken place in the towns surrounding the island. The closer they get to the truth, the bigger the targets on their backs become and soon they aren't just going through evidence anymore, but dodging bullets as well.

Directed by Niels Arden Opley The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is sometimes unrelentingly brutal in terms of its violence and definitely not for the faint of heart. That being said, the violence (particularly the sexual violence, of which there is much) is not exploitative. It isn't "torture porn" constructed around a visual aesthetic that foregrounds the forbidden pleasure of looking; it's grim and harrowing and the camera refuses to look away from it, becoming less voyeur than witness. The Swedish title of the film is actually Men Who Hate Women and there's a strong current of misogyny that runs through the story, by which I mean that the film acknowledges and is critical of misogyny, not that it is itself misogynist. On the contrary the film is actually ferociously feminist and it frames both the violence and the mindset that inspires it as unequivocally vile. There is a moment between Lisbeth and Mikael towards the end in which she advises him against reasoning that the killer is also a victim, tacitly acknowledging a hard reality: Mikael is a target because he's too close to the truth; Lisbeth is a target because she's too close to the truth, but could also become a target simply by being a woman in the general proximity of the killer. The film sees misogyny as a disease and its sufferers as having no place in society.

The film isn't perfect in terms of how it unravels its mystery, giving away maybe a little too much a little too soon, but it is still wholly engrossing. A big part of that is due to Lisbeth and the way that she's played by Rapace. There is a flatness to the way that she experiences the people and world around her which suggests Asperger's (the film never directly addresses this but it's my understanding that the books do), but there is also a simmering intensity that can, and occassionally does, explode. The performance always hits just the right notes and the missing beats in the way that Lisbeth interacts with others makes for some hilariously awkward moments between her and Mikael, offering a brief respite from the story's overall darkness. It's a great performance and the film is more than equal to it. The only downside is that now I have to wait for the second and third parts.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Review: Superbad (2007)

* * *

Director: Greg Motolla
Starring: Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse

I missed out on Superbad when it first came out, which didn't seem much of a loss to me at the time, given that I'm not really the demographic it's aiming for. Seeing it recently, I was surprised at how different it actually is from how it was marketted. Yes, it's a foul mouthed story about teenage boys who just want to get laid, but it's also strangely sweet and, of course, very funny.

The heroes of the story are Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) who, not coincidentally, share their names with screenwriters Seth Rogan (who also appears in a supporting role) and Evan Goldberg. High school graduation is looming and both are still virgins - a problem they feel must be solved before they head off to college. Evan has a long standing thing for Becca (Martha MacIsaac), whom Seth hates for reasons explained later in the film, and Seth has his sights set on Jules (Emma Stone), who is throwing a party to which the guys, to their amazement, are invited. They promise to bring plenty of booze, counting on their friend Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to help them out once he gets his fake ID, only to discover that he has bought the least convincing fake ID ever.

While Fogell enjoys an adventure of his own with a couple of cops (Seth Rogan and Bill Hader), Evan and Seth's quest for sex turns into a desperate quest for liquor that will hopeful pave the way for sex. Along the way they reach the crisis point in their friendship as the simmering tension over the fact that they'll be going to different colleges but can't admit that they'll miss each other ('cause, you know, they're dudes) starts to chip away at their bond. It's part of the film's charm that the big declarations towards the end occur between the two guys rather than between them and the girls they like.

Part of the reason why Superbad works as well as it does is that it's smartly written. There's a lot of foul language but it's used in a way that seems natural rather than obnoxious and is very keyed into how the novelty of cursing is still fresh enough for teenagers that it can be used to articulate every point. Eventually the desire to punctuate every sentence with "fuck" or "shit" will wear off, but when you're 17/18 it can seem like the most effective tool of expression. I think what's most important about Superbad's use of language is that it never seems to throw cursing into the dialogue simply for the sake of using it, but actually uses it in a way that tells you something about the character it's coming from. Seth and Evan both use a lot of foul language, but if you really listen to them you can hear the differences in the ways that they use it and see how that helps to construct their individual personas.

To get back to my original point about how I'm not the target demographic for this kind of movie, part of the thing that gave me pause about it was lines like: "You know when you hear girls say, 'Man, I was so shit-faced last night, I shouldn't have fucked that guy'? We could be that mistake!" That's a really troubling attitude and any guy whose goal is to be the guy a girl regrets sleeping with because she was too drunk to think better of it is going to have some difficulty in convincing me that he has admirable qualities in addition to these, uh, rapey qualities. Part of what saves Superbad for me is that it goes in the opposite direction in terms of the characters' actions. Evan has the chance to have sex with a very drunk and aggressive Becca, but ultimately declines. He also asks Seth to stop talking smack about her, which is nice because it's so rare in film to see an example of a guy (especially a teenage guy) who wants to have sex with a girl but can still be respectful about her - usually the girl who is the object of sexual desire and the girl worthy of respect are two different characters.

Superbad may not be the most sophisticated of films, but there's definitely more to it than meets the eye. It's a better film than I had expected and it's certainly one of the better examples from the teen sex comedy genre. It's often crude, but it's also got heart and, importantly, a brain.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday's Top 5... American Remakes of Foreign Films

#5: Cousins
(Remake of "Cousin, Cousine" from France)

For some reason when I was, like, 12 this movie used to be on TV with a great deal of frequency, so I've probably seen it about half a dozen times. I haven't seen it in years, but I have very fond memories of it and I highly recommend it. It's one of the rare examples of a romantic melodrama that isn't absolute treacle.

#4: The Magnificent Seven
(Remake of "Seven Samurai" from Japan)

It's rare, I think, for the original and the remake to both be so beloved and successful. The question of which is better is up for debate (though I suspect that many film of my fellow film bloggers would fall on Kurosawa's side), but I don't think you can argue that Seven hasn't made a name for itself separate and apart from its inspiration.

#3: The Departed
(Remake of "Infernal Affairs" from Hong Kong)

I've never seen Infernal Affairs but after seeing The Departed, I immediately put in on my NetFlix queue. I'm still waiting to see the original, but the remake is a film that I can watch over and over again without ever becoming bored with it.

#2: The Sound of Music
(Remake of "The Trapp Family" from Germany)

Definitely an example of a remake eclipsing the original. Can anyone even think of the Von Trapp family now without thinking of Julie Andrews? The film won a handful of Oscars, including Best Picture, and made a whole lot of money and has become a beloved classic to people the world over.

#1: Some Like It Hot
(Remake of "Fanfares of Love" from Germany)

If you're surprised to learn that Some Like It Hot is a remake, join the club. I had no idea until I started putting this list together. Given how secure Wilder's film is in the cinematic canon, I think it's safe to say that this is one of the most successful remakes of all time.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Childstar (2004)

* * *

Director: Don McKellar
Starring: Don McKellar, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mark Rendall

It's a familiar story. Cute kid becomes big star, enjoys fame, fortune and having people attend to his every whim, lets it go to his head and acts like a bit of a terror. You'd hate him if you didn't know the typical second act of a story like his, where the kid peaks at adolescence and spends the rest of his or her life on the decline, often falls into drug addiction and trouble with the law and becomes such complete tabloid fodder that most people forget why they were famous in the first place. Though it touches on that tragic second act through a supporting character, Childstar is more interested in exploring the tense period of transition between the two acts and while it ends up being a bit lightweight, there's still much to recommend in it.

Don McKellar stars as Rick, a former university professor who has given up his job in order to follow his dream of making movies and finds himself forced to make ends meet by working as a limo driver. One of his clients is Taylor Brandon Burns (Mark Rendall), a 12-year-old superstar of film and television with a healthy ego and a ruthless stage mother, Suzanne (Jennifer Jason Leigh in a great performance). Rick quickly rises through the ranks, first being promoted from simply being the driver to pick Taylor up from the airport to become his permanent driver, and then becoming Taylor's onset tutor after he terrorizes all of the official onset teachers, and then becoming Taylor's legal guardian so that he can work even if his mother is off set. His unimpressed, no nonsense manner is what sets him on the fast track – well, that and the fact that he’s sleeping with Suzanne.

The thing that really sets Rick apart from the other people on the set is that he sees things the way that a normal person would, separate and apart from the bottom line of movie making. He notices, for example, the toll that making the movie has on Taylor, both mentally and physically, and when Taylor runs away to escape the pressure, he’s just about the only person to be concerned for Taylor’s safety rather than for the fate of the film in the event that something has happened to its star. Taylor is at a crucial moment in his career: his brand is at the height of profitability and those who want to make a mint off it need to do it fast because he’s about the enter that difficult stage when children start to become adults, a stage when child actors often find themselves starting to fade into obscurity.

Directed by McKellar, the film finds just the right tone. It acknowledges the more glamorous aspects of stardom – big houses, money to burn, people willing to see to your every whim – but also examines how damaging these things can be both to the person not yet mature enough to handle them and to the people who ought to know better, but allow themselves to become corrupted by it. Suzanne is the most corrupt figure in the film, so enamoured with what Taylor's success can get her that she seems blinded to Taylor as a human being. She's more than happy to take responsibility for spending the money that Taylor brings in, but she has no interest in taking responsibility for caring for Taylor in any constructive way. She's an ugly character, the definite villain of the piece, but Leigh manages to keep her from being a two-dimensional monster of a stage mother. It's to the film's credit that it doesn't go the easy route to redemption with her but allows her to keep her sharp edges to the end, trusting that Leigh can make her seem human despite all evidence to the contrary.

In the lead McKellar does a fine job and it's funny to watch Rick interacting with the movie industry characters because he is so consistently unimpressed with them and they in turn are baffled by him because they're so used to people treating them as if they're impressive. What Rick ultimately reveals is that the others have bark but don't actually have any bite to back it up - except, possibly, Taylor, who manages to give Rick a bit of a run for his money. As Taylor, Rendall accomplishes more than you might initially expect of him, capturing the brattiness that someone of his age and level of fame would likely have, but also the loneliness of his position. He's too young to really relate to adults but he's also far too experienced to have much in common with anyone his own age. He's isolated by fame and will never really be a "normal" person; even if his star fades, people will still recognize him as Taylor Brandon Burns and expect him to spout his famous catch phrases and generally be their clown. As unlikeable as the character often is, it's easy to feel sorry for him because he's at a point in his life and career where things could easily turn disastrous.

Childstar doesn't quite reach the heights of Last Night, McKellar's previous directorial feature, but it's a film that is still well worth a look. The script (by McKellar and Michael Goldbach) is smart, dark and funny and aside from the three performances already discussed, there's also a funny supporting performance from my favourite Kid in the Hall, Dave Foley. There's also a vaguely creepy cameo by Alan Thicke but... I'll leave you to discover that for yourself.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review: Shane (1953)

* * * *

Director: George Stevens
Starring: Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, Brandon DeWilde

Shane is undoubtedly one of the best and most beloved westerns ever made. The story is relatively simply - good guys, bad guys, and a morally ambiguous hero - but what director George Stevens and his cast do with it makes the film truly special. Not all classic films hold up over time, but Shane does.

Alan Ladd stars as Shane, a mysterious drifter whose path crosses with that of the Starretts' - Joe (Van Heflin), Marian (Jean Arthur), and young Joey (Brandon DeWilde) - at exactly the right time. The Starretts' livelihood is under constant threat from Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), a cattle baron who wants to push them, and all the other homesteaders in the valley, off their land so that he can take it over for his own use. Shane decides to stay on with the Staretts as their hired man, though really he's just waiting for the inevitable showdown with Ryker and his crew, who don't think twice about using violence and intimidation to get what they want.

When Joe convinces the other homesteaders to band together to find a way to fight back, Ryker sends for Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), a gun for hire, to add some extra muscle to his force. Shane is familiar with Wilson's reputation and when Ryker sends an invitation to Joe for a peace meeting that's actually an ambush, Shane knocks his friend out in order to take his place and settle things once and for all. When all is said and done, Shane will either be dead or forced to ride alone into the sunset because, as he warns Joey, "There's no living with a killing. There's no going back from one. Right or wrong, it's a brand."

On the surface Shane is a fairly conventional film, assembled with the stock parts of the classic hollywood western. You've got the mysterious gunslinger, the woman he ultimately cannot have, the all powerful villain, the gunfight, the bad guy in the black hat, the good guy in the white. Shane takes these elements and goes deeper, becoming a study of character and society. The most striking thing about it is its exploration of ideas about masculinity, how it defines "real men" and pretenders. Shane, certainly, is a real man, as is Joe and even Wilson. They are men willing to get their hands dirty and fight their battles. On the flip side there's Ryker, a villain who talks a good game but is ultimately impotent when it comes to enforcing his threats. Late in the film he remarks that he'll kill Joe if he has to, to which Wilson sharply replies, "You mean I'll kill him if you have to." Wilson is undoubtedly a villain in this piece, but he's still seen as more honourable than Ryker, who delegates the tough part. In the final showdown Shane is Joe's agent, just as Wilson is Ryker's, but Joe hasn't willingly stepped aside to let Shane enter the standoff and so he's allowed to retain his honour.

The story is seen through Joey's eyes, which is important thematically because he's at an age where he's beginning the define for himself what it means to be a man. The film gives him plenty of examples of types of manhood - Joe's, in which violence is the last resort and reason the first weapon; Shane's, in which violence yields the best results when used with a cool head; that of the neighbor Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.), who is quick to fight but doesn't use his head - and the ending is somewhat ambiguous as to which path he'll follow. By the end of the film he sees that his father is a good, honourable man, but he also sees the glamour that surrounds Shane, even if his actions do force him into exile.

The performances in the film are uniformly good, playing to the tropes of the western genre without feeling stale. The biggest surprise for me is DeWilde, if only because so often in films kids end up being precocious to a fault, but Stevens guides him to a strong performance that balances innocence with a budding knowledge of the ways of the world. So much of the film's success depends on this character and performance and it's pitch perfect. The film itself is pretty close to perfection, too, and it's staying power definitely can't be denied.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Great Last Scenes: Summer Hours

Year: 2009
Director: Olivier Assayas
Great Because...: It really captures the essence of what the film is about and does it in an utterly beautiful and elegant way. The story is about the inevitability of loss, the desire to hold on, and the ultimate need to let go, and all of this is perfectly summed up in a few short, simple words at the end. It's a perfect conclusion.

The summer house has been in the family for generations and is where the now adult children of Helene spent many happy times and where their children have good times of their own whenever their parents can find the time to visit. Helene spends her final years there, knowing that once she's gone the house will likely be sold, though her elder son, Frederic, insists that they'll want to keep it.

True to Helene's prophesy, Frederic finds that he's the only one who wants to keep the house. His sister Adrienne and brother Jeremie, though they cherish their memories of the place, just can't justify the expense of maintaining it since, unlike Frederic, they no longer reside in France and therefore wouldn't have many opportunities to make use of the property. Frederic resigns himself to the sale, just as he and his siblings have resigned themselves to selling many of their mother's possessions - it's what she wanted, after all, for them to be free of the encumbrances of the past.

Before the house is sold, Frederic allows his teenage son and daughter to throw a house party there, a last hoorah for the place before it passes out of the family forever. Down by the lake, the daughter talks to her boyfriend, telling him that she used to pick berries with her grandmother and that one day she was supposed to have come back to pick berries with her own children. "My grandmother is dead. The house is sold," she says sadly. In the distance someone calls for them and they run off to hide, marking a quick shift in tone from intense nostalgia to playfulness. Life goes on.

The final moments of Summer Hours capture something deep and easy to relate to. It's not just the house, but the experiences that took place in it and the people who are no longer alive but whose memories are so tightly linked to it. The scene evokes the very elusiveness of memory itself and the inevitable reluctance about moving away from tradition. It's an ending that resonates not only for its content but for the graceful way in which it is filmed. It's a beautiful scene and strikes the perfect ending note.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Review: The Runaways (2010)

* * *

Director: Flora Sigismondi
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon

When it comes to The Runaways I’m going to have to apply the I-may-not-know-art-but-I-know-what-I-like principle. As with last year’s Whip It! I recognize and acknowledge that it’s a completely conventional, by the numbers genre film with some pretty big flaws, but... I liked it. I liked it a lot, in fact, even though seeing Dakota Fanning make out with people makes me feel very, very old.

Contrary to its title, The Runaways really isn’t about the band in its entirety, but about singer Cherie Currie (Fanning), guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), and, to a lesser extent, manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). The other members of the band factor into the story so little that they don’t even get a “And this happened to...” write up at the end the way those other three do. The story starts out showing Cherie and Joan casually crossing paths with each other in the L.A. club scene and being brought together by Fowley, who spots Cherie and decides that she has the look that he wants for the singer of the band he’s putting together that so far features Joan and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve). She joins the band and shortly thereafter they’re off in search of fame and fortune.

Fame comes relatively easy – Fowley knows how to market the group, relying largely on a jail bait image to promote them – but fortune is harder and while they’re out on the road the band is calling Fowley back in L.A., begging for more money so that they can buy food. It isn’t exactly the height of glamour but their hard work gets them a record deal and a tour in Japan, which ultimately brings on more problems. Fowley’s promotion of Cherie above everyone else causes dissent within the group which is compounded by Cherie’s growing drug problem and her guilt about not being home helping to take care of her dying father. It’s a powder keg situation just waiting for a match.

On the one hand, you could put the plot points of this story together in your sleep; at no point does it ever really try to break the rock and roll movie mould. The story is also kind of shapeless and some sequences look like music videos, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising since director Floria Sigismondi is also a music video director. What saves the film are the performances and the fact that it uses its very standard story to explore themes that are still very relevant. In particular, it is deeply concerned with the way that female entertainers are marketed and accepted in the mainstream. Fowley emphasizes a hyper sexualized image for the group and especially for Cherie, who is too inexperienced and submissive to tell him no even when he’s asking her to do things that make her uncomfortable. One of those things is a racy photo shoot that ends up becoming a major bone of contention with the rest of the group because it puts the spotlight squarely on her and because it solidifies the sexpot product that Fowley is trying to sell. Joan spells it out, stating that The Runaways will never be taken seriously because the image Cherie is helping to promote overshadows the music itself.

The three main performances by Stewart, Fanning and Shannon are all very good. Fanning is a bit stiff in the earliest scenes but quickly seems to relax into the role and handles the heavy material expertly. Shannon, who was one of the most memorable things about Revolutionary Road, turns in another memorable performance as the savvy but still scummy manager who introduces himself to Currie with the words: “I’m Kim Fowley. You’ve heard of me.” It’s a performance that is by turns funny and scarily intense and in certain respects it anchors the film, representing all that the band is up against from the industry and the audience. The real star, though, is Stewart who absolutely nails the Joan Jett swagger and attitude. Having seen very little of her work to date, I've never really formed an opinion of Stewart as a performer but after seeing her in The Runaways I think she has a very raw, very natural talent and I hope that she finds other roles like this one that allow her to showcase that.

The Runaways is far from a perfect movie and one that will certainly frustrate those who want a real exploration of the band and its collective highs and lows, but I still found it to be a very enjoyable film experience. Enjoyable enough to recommend it despite its flaws.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Friday's Top 5... HBICs

#5: Regina George (Mean Girls)

Dude, you do not want to mess with Regina George. Even a bus couldn't take her out! With her Army of Skans at her side, she rules her school with an iron fist and a smile on her face.

#4: Mrs. Robinson (The Graduate)

Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson. It should be all about Ben and Elaine, but she's the one who really owns the movie as evidenced by the fact that the character became a cultural template, the name shorthand for relationships between older women and younger men.

#3: Margo Channing (All About Eve)

Most of Bette Davis' characters could have ended up on this list, but Margo is the most memorable and perhaps the most quotable. She is arguably also the only one on this list who really comes out on top in the end, perhaps because her misdeeds are less grave than those of the others. Still, if she were to say "jump," I wouldn't hesitate if I were you.

#2: The Marquise de Merteuil (Dangerous Liaisons)

Evil to the core, a master manipulator who manages to play everyone even, as it turns out, herself. I'd suggest staying on her good side but she doesn't really have one as friend/rival/enemy Valmont could attest.

#1: Scarlett O'Hara (Gone With The Wind)

Just stay out of Scarlett's way. If a job's gotta get done, she'll take care of it, but she might just smack you down in the process. Still, in a time of crisis, she's the one I'd want to be around because few people take care of business as effectively as the divine Ms. O'Hara.

* That's Head Bitch In Charge, in case you're wondering

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Rock, Paper, Scissors: The Way of the Tosser (2007)

* *

Director: Tim Doiron, April Mullen
Starring: Tim Doiron, April Mullen, Ryan Tilley

You don't expect much from a movie called Rock, Paper, Scissors so it's hard to say that the end result leaves you disappointed. The movie didn't disappoint me as much as it just didn't speak to me, although it's not without its moments. Certainly it makes me curious to see what Tim Doiron and April Mullen do next, as they demonstrate a lot of potential here.

Rock, Paper Scissors: The Way of the Tosser is constructed in the style made popular by the films of Christopher Guest, as a documentary about absurd people doing ridiculous things with utter sincerity. Its subject is Gary Brewer (Tim Doiron), a champion rock, paper, scissors player in training for the world championship. He lives with his girlfriend Holly Brewer (April Mullen) - "no relation... yet" - and Trevor (Ryan Tilley), an amnesiac who plays with dolls and is being haunted by the ghost of Gary's dog, killed in a rock, paper, scissors related car accident which has prompted Gary to take a vow never to throw paper. This, of course, puts him at a distinct disadvantage, as his mentor Finnegan O'Reilly (Mairtin O'Carrigan), points out time and again.

Gary's rival is the obnoxious Baxter Pound (Peter Pasyk) who, in addition to being a preening blowhard, has designs on Holly and tries to "win" her in a rock, paper, scissors throw down with Gary. Most of the story concerns Gary's training for the championship and the aftermath. Very little time is spent on the championship itself, which is surprising in that that's usually the showpiece of stories in the sports genre, but, on the other hand, it's not so surprising given how rivet ting it is to watch two people play rock, paper, scissors.

Rock, Paper, Scissors is told with a very broad kind of humor that occasionally touches on more subtle notes. It reminded me a bit of Mike Judge's 2006 film Idiocracy in that both films tend to go for the easiest possible joke nine times out of ten and then that tenth time they give you something disarmingly clever. It's a pretty goofy movie and so are the performances, but with characters so thinly drawn you don't really need a performance that delves deep. The standout of the cast is Tilley as blank slate Trevor, who gets some of the film's best lines and has marvellous delivery.

This film marks the directorial debut of Doiron and Mullen and it shows. The story is kind of shapeless and meanders for a long time before it really starts to feel focused. Individual pieces of it work but it doesn't quite feel cohesive as a whole. Like I said at the beginning, though, it does demonstrate some potential and it will be interesting to see how the pair's next film, Gravytrain (which Mullen will direct solo from a script by Doiron, according to IMDB), turns out.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book vs. Film: The Tin Drum vs. The Tin Drum

Plot: The Tim Drum is an allegory that takes the form of a bildungsroman and follows the life of Oskar Matzerath. Oskar is born in Danzig in 1925 and the story explores the rise and fall of Nazism through his eyes. An accident as a child stunts Oskar's growth so that even as he gets older, the "child's eye view" is maintained because he's always treated like a kid, and he carries his tim drum - which symbolizes his carefree childhood - with him everywhere, banging on it fiercely.

Primary Differences Between Book and Film: The film is pretty faithful to the half of the book that it explores, but in telling only half of Gunter Grass' novel, it does profoundly change the meaning of the story. In the novel, everything is symbolic: Oskar's official father symbolizes Germany, his probable father symbolizes Poland, his mother symbolizes the Polish Corridor. Oskar's physical deformity symbolizes the social/political deformity that makes the rise of National Socialism possible. The film ends at the end of WWII, when the German citizens who aren't being executed are being expelled from what was once Danzig, and Oskar begins growing again. Taking the symbolism of the story into account, this ending then suggests that the end of the Nazis also marks the end of Nazi mentality. In the book, Oskar does start growing again at the end of WWII but the growth quickly stops again and, thus, the deformity isn't eliminated, it's just taken a different shape. The book then goes on to explore the effect that eliminating the Nazis but not dealing with the circumstances that made the Nazis possible has on the people in Germany.

For The Book: Aside from Grass' fantastic prose, there's part of Oskar's personality that is much easier to take in print than on film. He has the ability to scream so loud that he can break glass and he demonstrates his talent with a fair bit of frequency. Obviously that's much easier to take in the book than it is in the film. Also in the book's favor is the fact that it's just a lot more resonant than the film. By telling only half the story, the film really just scratches the surface of what Grass is able to accomplish.

For The Film: The performances are excellent (even though, I have to admit, that David Bennent, who plays Oskar, kind of creeps me out as the character gets older) and it's visually stunning. Writer/director Volker Schlondorff translates scenes from book to film increadibly well.

Winner: The book is one of my favourites so, I've gotta go with the book. The film is quite good, but for me it just doesn't reach the heights of the source material.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Review: Brothers (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jim Sheridan
Starring: Toby Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal

It has been said that you can never go home again. If this adage is true about simply growing up and becoming an adult, it must be doubly so about going away and returning from war. Brothers tackles this tricky and emotionally fraught subject from two perspectives: the soldier who returns and the family he returns to. It is an often harrowing film with a trio of fine performances that make it more than worth checking out.

The brothers of the title are Sam (Toby Maguire) and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal). Sam is the golden boy, the one who has always done right and is about to leave for a tour in Afghanistan, and Tommy is the perpetual screw up who has just been released from prison. Things are tense between Tommy and the rest of his family - he and his father (Sam Shepard) have always butted heads and the old tension is still very much there; and Sam's wife Grace (Natalie Portman) has never cared for him - but after Sam is reported dead overseas, Tommy steps up to help Grace, whether she likes it or not.

Tommy's not perfect but he tries hard and develops a nice rapport with Sam and Grace's two girls, Isabelle (Bailee Maddison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). As they deal with Sam's death, Tommy and Grace grow closer, perhaps a little too close, and then have to pull back completely when they learn that Sam is not dead after all. Returning home Sam fixates on the tension he picks up on between Tommy and Grace in order to avoid having to deal with his experiences as a prisoner of war, which have left him traumatized. Avoidance, however, only gives his emotions time to build and when he finally reaches the breaking point, it threatens to tear the entire family apart permanently.

The story intercuts between scenes of Sam's experiences as a prisoner and scenes of the family back home trying to carry on in his absence. The juxtaposition is effective for the most part and sets up the shift in relationships that will occur when Sam finally gets back home. Though Tommy steps back - partly because Sam directly questions him about his relationship with Grace - Sam remains an outsider. His children are withdrawn from him, afraid of his moods and longing for the return of their uncle, and Grace, despite her efforts, simply can't understand him. His father, a war veteran himself, could understand him but, like Sam, he's reluctant to talk. Though the film is far less overtly political than its subject matter might suggest, it is an indictment of the macho, no emotions allowed, sensibility that in many ways defines popular ideas about the military and the people in it.

The three leads all deliver good performances that provide the film with a nice, lived in feeling. This is perhaps the most mature performance of Maguire's career so far and he manages to remain focused even when the story begins to veer into the cliched "crazy veteran" area. Portman renders a much quieter performance, playing a woman who is inwardly collapsing from grief but outwardly trying to keep it together for the sake of her children - it's a performance built more on what she doesn't do than what she does do, which can often be tricky. The real standout, however, is Gyllenhaal, who tells half of Tommy's story simply through body language. This is definitely an actors' showcase and it's surprising that outside of Maguire's Golden Globe nomination and Portman's nomination from the Chicago Film Critics, the performances weren't more widely embraced.

If the film has a flaw, it's ultimately to do with its treatment of the relationship between Grace and Tommy. There isn't really much heat between Gyllenhaal and Portman - Sam remarks at one point that they look at each other like two teenagers in love, and while I can see that coming from Tommy's side, I didn't get that from Grace - and the relationship itself is a bit too ambiguous and muted. The film works in spite of this but better chemistry would have gone a long way.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Review: The Sheik (1921) & Son of the Sheik (1926)

The Sheik: * *

Director: George Melford
Starring: Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres, Adolphe Menjou

Son of the Sheik: * *1/2

Director: George Fitzmaurice
Starring: Rudolph Valentino, Vilma Banky

You know, it’s a real shame that films today aren’t as morally sound and wholesome as they used to be. Whatever happened to the days when a star’s status as a romantic lead could be made by starring in a film where his character kidnaps and rapes someone, and that status could be solidified by starring in the sequel where his character kidnaps and rapes someone? Ah, the good old days!

To start with The Sheik, Rudolph Valentino stars as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, a powerful and respected man whose mysterious/exotic aura attracts the attention of English adventuress Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres). Diana is intrigued by the Sheik and his ways, but she’s far less interested in him than in following through with her plan to trek across the desert, an adventure she intends to undertake only in the company of an Arab guide and without the protection of a fellow Brit, which scandalizes the local society. The Sheik has other plans, however, and rides out with a posse to pluck her off course and bring her back to his camp. She warns him that people will be looking for her, but he confidently informs her that by the time anyone knows she’s gone it will be too late.

Though she makes an attempt at escape, Diana ultimately remains at the Sheik’s camp and finds her humiliation deepened by the arrival of the Sheik’s friend, Raoul (Adolphe Menjou). The Frenchman is sympathetic to Diana’s plight and pleads with the Sheik for her freedom, to no avail. His efforts, however, earns him Diana’s friendship which quickly leads to the Sheik becoming jealous. But by this point Diana has fallen in love with the Sheik and taken to lovingly writing his name in the desert sands. Everything would be perfect were it not for the fact that she’s about to be kidnapped from her kidnapper.

The sequel, Son of the Sheik, which finds Valentino reprising his role as the Sheik as well as playing the son of the Sheik, who is also named Ahmed, follows a somewhat similar plotline. Young Ahmed has fallen in love with Yasmin (Vilma Banky), a dancing girl who is essentially being used as bait to lure Ahmed into a trap so that he can be ransomed back to his father. Ahmed becomes convinced that Yasmin knowingly played him and in retaliation he kidnaps and rapes her, though by the story’s end all is well between them. Meanwhile, the Sheik and Lady Diana (played once again by Ayres) also make an appearance in which he expresses his irritation at his impulsive and rebellious son, and she lovingly reminds him that Ahmed is just taking a page out of his father’s playbook.

Obviously there are some very problematic things about these two films. Aside from violence against women, The Sheik also boasts a fair bit of racism stemming from its portrayal of the Sheik. He’s at once depicted as having this wild, untameable sexuality but also as being more “evolved” than his followers because he was educated in France. Further, the hot blooded, highly sexualized and brutal version eventually gives way to a kinder, gentler Sheik at which point we learn that he’s not an Arab at all, but the son of an Englishman and a Spanish woman. To say that the film is an ideological mess is a bit of an understatement.

As far as the skill demonstrated in the films, The Sheik is a bit shapeless and somewhat plodding, Valentino’s performance a bit broad. Son of the Sheik is the superior film, one that is better paced and more focused. It is also much lighter in tone – despite the sadomasochism involved in Ahmed’s brief period of captivity and the rape scene (implied not shown, of course) – with plenty of comic relief in the form of Ahmed’s would be captors, some of whom are surprisingly inept. Valentino’s performance, too, is better in the sequel, more controlled and nuanced in comparison to his first turn as the Sheik. I don’t know that these facts are enough to make Son of the Sheik a truly good film, but it’s certainly one worth seeing to anyone with an interest in film history.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Posters of the 2000s

#5: Inglorious Basterds

With a poster like this, you pretty much know what to expect from the film. Artfully gory, it tells you that this is not a film to be triffled with; it means business.

#4: Burn After Reading

You might have to see the movie to appreciate how deliciously absurd and absolutely appropriate the poster image is. The artwork is simple but it definitely sums up the mood of the film.

#3: Memento

Memento is a puzzle of a movie, which is why I like this poster so much. The picture in a picture in a picture (and so on) really captures the insular nature of the story and the way that it's always looking back at itself as it moves in reverse linear fashion.

#2: The Dark Knight

This is easily one of the most iconic images of the last decade, made all the more so by Heath Ledger's untimely death. It's creepily perfect, even if it does serve to underscore the fact that Batman villains have a tendency to be more interesting than Batman himself.

#1: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Perfume has a few really beautiful posters to its credit, but this one is definitely my favourite. The story is about a man who kills to attain his own version of beauty, so using the image of a woman splitting into rose petals - a romantically violent image - works well.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Chloe (2010)

* * *

Director: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson

Uh... the hell?

From its first moments Atom Egoyan’s Chloe foregrounds the theme of masquerade. In a voice over the title character, played with aplomb by Amanda Seyfried, informs us that she’s capable of becoming anyone, of becoming exactly the person that a given situation requires. In hindsight the end of the film is spelled out in the beginning, but I have to admit that while watching it, it threw me for a loop. I guess there’s a degree to which that’s to the film’s credit, even though I think the ending is ultimately the weakest part of this whole endeavour.

From Chloe the film then moves to Catherine (Julianne Moore), a Toronto gynaecologist experiencing midlife anxieties. When her husband, David (Liam Neeson), misses his flight home and she later finds a photograph that may be innocuous but may also be incriminating on his phone, she becomes convinced that he’s sleeping around. After a brief run-in with Chloe in a restaurant, Catherine pursues her, wanting to hire her to test David’s fidelity. All she wants, she insists, is to know what David would do if approached by Chloe, but when she meets with Chloe later to find out how it went, she decides that the situation needs further testing. And then further testing. And then...

Given the number of articles about the film I’ve read in the last couple of days in which the word “lesbian” is part of the headline, I suppose it’s no secret that Catherine herself becomes sexually involved with Chloe. The scene itself is rather explicit but in no way exploitative; the way that it comes about is natural to the psychosexual themes that Egoyan is exploring. The story is all about Catherine’s feelings of being disconnected from her own sexuality and Chloe – who tells us at the beginning that she’s more symbol than person – represents both her current feelings of being sexually obsolete and her memory of her own once powerful sensuality. Her relationship with Chloe is less about any kind of sexual attraction to Chloe specifically than to the feeling of revitalization she gets from living vicariously through her. The stories that Chloe tells her, which seem to give her a particularly strong charge, serve to illuminate a connection to David that she herself has lost sight of; when she initiates sex with Chloe, she does so by asking for a demonstration of how David touches her. To her this isn't her having sex with Chloe, but her playing the role of David having sex with Catherine, played by Chloe. The film’s treatment of these murky waters is fascinating and makes it worth seeing even if it does (and I honestly can’t emphasize this enough) fly totally off the rails in its final ten or fifteen minutes.

Whatever weaknesses Chloe might have, no blame can be laid on the actors. Moore renders an effectively contained performance as a woman who sees sex in purely clinical terms and only reluctantly (and perhaps never fully) opens herself up to the possibilities of sensuality. She's a very cold character in terms of how she deals with others and quite possibly the most brutal figure in the whole the story (I'm still undecided about how I feel about the final shot: is it a tribute inspired by guilt, or is it a callous expression of triumph?). It's interesting to watch her play this very closed off character opposite Seyfried, whose Chloe is open to the point that her entire personality is dependent on the person with whom she's interacting. Seyfried has a tough job in this movie because the closer the story gets to the end, the more unbelievable her character should become, yet she makes you believe in Chloe. In her first interactions with Catherine, she hints at the things to come but manages to pull back just enough that she's never overplaying her hand and giving everything away. By the end of the film you should probably hate Chloe, but I actually found her to be the most sympathetic character, which I think is a testament to what Seyfried is able to accomplish with the role.

Many of the themes explored in Chloe are familiar from Egoyan's previous films. He's a filmmaker preoccupied with the psychology of sexuality and here focuses on voyeurism and what I suppose you could term sexual surrogacy. Much of what he does with this film is very interesting, though it must be conceded that when it comes to visually expressing the story's themes, he sometimes uses a mallet when a hammer would be sufficient. Nevertheless, what works in Chloe works very well. What doesn't work may leave you a bit baffled and results in a film that is uneven at best, but still one that I would recommend, albeit by a narrow margin.