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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review: The Messenger (2009)

* * * *

Director: Oren Moverman
Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton

I missed out on The Messenger when it was in theaters and it was definitely my loss. This moving and thoughtful film is easily better than about half of what I saw in theaters last year and I'm kind of amazed that it only managed to snag two Oscar nominations (for Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay). If you haven't seen this one yet, do yourself a favour and rent it.

Ben Foster stars as Will Montgomery, a U.S. army Staff Sergeant recently released from the hospital and assigned to the task of casualty notification during the few months remaining in his period of enlistment. Will is teamed with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a veteran in the notification service who is quick to lay down the rules: keep to the script, don't make physical contact with the next of kin, keep your cool and don't involve yourself emotionally. This last bit is the most important and also the most difficult. Grief takes many forms in The Messenger but all are difficult to bear witness to and it's nearly impossible not to feel emotionally invested in that sense of devastation that follows the announcement of a loved one's death.

At first Will heeds Tony's advice, but when they deliver notice to Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) that her husband has been killed, he finds himself drawn to her. Her reaction is markedly different from those that have come before - she's not "cold," exactly, but she's more held-together than anyone else Will has had to inform. Later he encounters her in a shopping mall, where she does show a bit more emotion after spotting an Army recruiter speaking to a couple of teenagers. He offers her and her son a ride home, he works on her car - already there is something between them, albeit tentatively. Both have lost people they love - for her it's a husband, for him it's the girl he left behind (Jena Malone) - and are trying to fill a void and the film deals with their cautious interactions in a way that feels very honest.

The Messenger is very much a character-driven film and one in which the nuances of personalities and relationships are given plenty of room to flower. Will is still in love with his ex and she may be with him, too, though she intends to marry another man. Things remain frustratingly unfinished between them; he couldn't commit before going overseas and she moved on and there is a sense that they're mourning what their relationship might have been, rather than what it actually was. Olivia is in a similar position, confessing to Will that she and her husband weren't getting along when he left and that, while she misses the man that she married, she wasn't exactly fond of the man he became. It's all a bit messy, but rather than vilify anyone, the film instead acknowledges that sometimes life is complicated in inescapable ways for which there is no fault.

Will's romantic complications are an important part of the story, particularly for what they help reveal about Will, but it is his relationship with Tony that is the real focus. Will and Tony make for an interesting contrast, as Tony appears to be the more "soldierly" of the two as they go out to make notifications, but is also desperately jealous of the fact that Will has experienced a more soldierly narrative. Will is a hero, injured in combat while saving others, while Tony is a Gulf War veteran who never got to have the war experience. He's also an alcoholic struggling to maintain his sobriety, lonely during the long, alcohol-free nights, and in need of a solid connection to another human being. It's easy to see how Harrelson got an Oscar nomination for this performance - it's utterly superb - but it's amazing that the equally excellent Foster didn't get any awards traction. The Messenger is a very strongly acted film which also boasts a great script and great direction. I'm only sorry that I'm just catching up with it now.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Review: Date Night (2010)

* * * 1/2

Director: Shawn Levy
Starring: Steve Carell, Tina Fey

What's not to like about Date Night? It stars two thoroughly likeable actors, features funny supporting turns from Mark Wahlberg, James Franco and Mila Kunis, it has a genuinely funny script, and is helmed by the director of - actually, having just glanced at Shawn Levy's IMDB page, never mind what else he's directed. The point is, Date Night is really good.

Steve Carell and Tina Fey star as Phil and Claire Foster, a nice suburban couple in a bit of a rut. Sure, they make a point of having a date night every week, but the spark has definitely started to fade. After discovering that friends who seemed happy are set to get a divorce, both Claire and Phil realize that they need to make a little more effort in their relationship to avoid the same fate. As part of this effort they get dressed up and head into the city to try a new restaurant, but when getting a table proves to be next to impossible, Phil claims that they're the Tripplehorns, a couple who actually do have a reservation but are nowhere to be seen.

Taking the reservation proves to be a fatal mistake as soon afterwards Phil and Claire are confronted by a couple of goons (Jimmi Simpson and Common), who reveal that the Tripplehorns have been using a stolen flash drive to blackmail Joe Miletto (Ray Liotta). After escaping from Miletto's men, Phil and Claire track down her former client, Grant Holbrooke (Wahlberg), a security expert with an aversion to shirts who helps them locate the real Tripplehorns. I won't spoil the turns the plot takes from there but, needless to say, the Fosters' very eventful night is far from over.

Carell and Fey are obviously very skilled comedic performers but a large part of what makes Date Night so successful is that they can be funny on a small scale. Yes, there are moments when their characters break down into hysterics, but for the most part both Carell and Fey underplay and simply react to all the crazy people who are suddenly all around them. Phil and Claire are so funny because they don't know that they're being funny and the film itself works because they're believable as an ordinary couple in an extraordinary set of circumstances.

Generally speaking, comedies don't have to dig very deep in order to achieve their goals. They just have to succeed at making you laugh, they don't necessarily have to have characters who are believable and relatable - though the best ones, of course, do. I wouldn't rank Date Night amongst the very best comedies ever, but I do think that it's better than average and that in Claire and Phil it portrays a realistically happy but bored modern couple. What happens to them isn't very realistic, but the issues at play between their characters and they way that they relate to each other is. Carell and Fey make for a great team and hopefully they will work together again in the future (with Date Night's domestic gross coming in at just under $100 million, I suspect that they will).

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Films I Want To See This Fall

#5: The American

George Clooney consistently chooses interesting projects, so his presence alone would be enough to peak my interest in this particular film. Add in director Anton Corbijn, whose feature debut Control I loved, and it makes The American a definite must-see for me.

#4: Fair Game

The trailer makes the film seem a bit dry but I have to assume that since Doug Liman is the director the film itself actually has a bit more verve to it. Plus, I'm a big Naomi Watts fan and from what I've heard, her performance here is really terrific.

#3: Blue Valentine

This film sounds depressing as all hell but also really great. Ryan Gosling + Michelle Williams = me in the theater.

#2: Another Year

I've been eagerly awaiting this one since all the glowing notices came out of Cannes. I've yet to see a bad Mike Leigh film so I expect that this one will likely live up to the hype.

#1: Black Swan

Is that trailer creepy or what? I can't wait to find out what that's all about.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Gunless (2010)

* * *

Director: William Phillips
Starring: Paul Gross

For some reason, Canadian cinema doesn't have much in the way of a tradition of Westerns. Maybe it's because the genre was already out of vogue with audiences by the time Canadian cinema really started to come to prominence, but it's too bad since the genre is such fertile ground for storytelling. William Phillips' Gunless doesn't really make the most of the possibilities of a Canadian western, but in its broad, genteel way, it's a fairly amusing and certainly very watchable western comedy.

So, "once upon a time in the North..." an American gunslinger rides into a small Canadian frontier town, bound and bleeding from his last confrontation. He's The Montana Kid (Paul Gross) and there's a bounty on his head which means that he has no time to lose, a fact which doesn't seem to deter the townspeople from delaying him at every turn. The local doctor, while removing a bullet from him, rips up his pants, which means he's got to wait for them to come back from the local seamstress or ride out in the clothes he's borrowed from one of local Chinese workers. The blacksmith, after taking it upon himself to tend to The Kid's horse, makes the mistake of calling him "common," which means that as far as The Kid is concerned, they've got to shoot it out. Unfortunately the blacksmith doesn't have a gun. Fortunately Jane Taylor (Sienna Guillory), a local widow, does have a gun but it's in need of major repair before it can be used in a duel. Oh, and she wants him to help her build a windmill before she'll let him have the gun.

The longer he stays, the more involved he gets in local life and, of course, the more involved he becomes with Jane. But when the bounty hunters who have been chasing him - lead by Ben Cutler (Callum Keith Rennie) - finally catch up, he rides off into the sunset, only to have to turn around again when the locals refuse to bow down to Cutler and his gang and enter into a stand-off with them.

If I had to describe Gunless in one word, I'd go with "sitcom-y." The overall atmosphere of the film and the way that the characters interact with each other is very much like something you might see in a traditional three camera sitcom. From the fish out of water premise to the broad, easy humor to the wacky supporting cast (following the big climactic scene one of the locals runs onto the scene and has a tantrum over the fact that they had the shoot-out before he got there), it definitely feels more akin to a TV show than a film.

However, in spite of this, I quite enjoyed Gunless. It isn't challenging in any way, but it's a compentently made film and Paul Gross always makes for an engaging and enjoyable lead. Plus, Callum Keith Rennie is great in the relatively small role of Cutler - and it is small; most of the film's 86 minute running time is dedicated to town hijinks rather than the inherently more intense story of hunters and hunted - even if the film wastes Graham Greene in an even smaller, one-joke role as a liaison to the local RCMP. Gunless is nothing deep, but it's a nice, light entertainment nevertheless.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Review: Lady Vengeance (2005)

* * *

Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Lee Young Ae

Lady Vengeance is the final chapter in Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy, which began with Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and carried on in Oldboy. If you like films with plenty of blood loss, elaborate plans, and crazy girls who wear leather and go around systematically kicking ass, then this is the movie for you!

Like Oldboy before it, Lady Vengeance hinges on a revenge plot years in the making. Just out of prison after serving 13 years for the murder of a young boy, Lee Gum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) is on a mission to settle the score with Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik), the man who set her up. Forced to confess to the murder after Mr. Baek kidnaps and threatens to kill her infant daughter, Lee Gum-ja spends her sentence plotting to settle the score, making friends, and earning herself a series of favours. Once released, she wastes no time in calling in those favours and also tracks down her daughter, who was adopted by a couple in Australia.

With her daughter in tow, Lee Gum-ja kidnaps Mr. Baek and then makes a horrible discovery: the child she confessed to murdering was only one of several of his victims. With the help of Detective Choi (Nam Il-wu), who headed the investigation that sent her to prison, she tracks down the families of the other children. After showing them tapes Mr. Baek made of each child's final moments, Lee Gum-ja and Detective Choi offer them the choice of turning Mr. Baek in for the authorities to deal with or exacting their own form of justice on him. Since it's a Park Chan-wook film, I think we all know what they choose.

I haven't seen Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (though I guess I'll have to get on that now, in order to complete the trilogy) so I can't attest as to how it fits in stylistically with the other two, but there are definitely some big storytelling differences between Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. Unlike its immediate predecessor, which unfolded more or less chronologically with flashbacks dispersed throughout, Lady Vengeance does a lot of jumping around between various timelines. This makes it a bit of a challenge to find your footing as a viewer, but it's effective in helping to establish the contradictions of Lee Gum-ja as a character. She is at once lauded for her "kind heart" and feared as "the Witch" and as the film's first act proceeds, we really never know where we stand with her or what she might do. As the film continues the characterization becomes more stable, though no less intense; she's still capable of anything, but we understand her a bit better.

As a film in its own right I think that Lady Vengeance is a pretty good movie and Lee Gum-ja herself is a fascinating character and extremely well played by Lee Yeong-ae. Considered alongside Oldboy, however, Lady Vengeance seems like a small step backwards. It is by no means a bad film, it just isn't the spectacular achievement that the previous film was. It is, however, pretty friggin' cool in spite of that.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Review: Trucker (2009)

* * *

Director: James Mottern
Starring: Michelle Monaghan

Trucker may take its story straight out of the big book of well-worn plots, but it manages to become a decent movie nevertheless. I've never thought much of Michelle Monaghan as an actress before, but her performance here definitely changes that. Without her performance, Trucker would probably be an instantly forgettable film, but her presence helps raise it to another level.

Monaghan stars as Diane Ford, a truck driving, hard drinking, hard living tough cookie. Her best friend is Runner (Nathan Fillion), a guy who is obviously interested in her even though he's married, which leads to a series of confrontations between Diane and Runner's brother-in-law, who is such a tough guy that he prefers to confront her about the situation instead of Runner. Diane's life is running along in a blur of work, one-night stands, and drinking until she learns that her ex-husband, Len (Benjamin Bratt), is in the hospital and needs her to look after their son, Peter (Jimmy Bennett), whom she hasn't seen since he was an infant. Diane tries her best to shirk the responsibility but eventually succumbs to the inevitability that, for the time being, she's going to have to take care of someone other than herself.

Things between Diane and Peter are less than peaceful. Peter is resentful for obvious reason and Diane is lacking in maternal instincts, so they spend as much time warring with each other as getting along. Eventually they do start to bond, though in the backs of both their minds is the knowledge that their time together is swiftly coming to an end. However, when Len's health takes a turn for the worse, Diane realizes that she's going to have to make a major overhaul of her life in order to accommodate Peter.

There's no twist in this plot that really can't be predicted. Even the fights between Peter and Diane are pretty predictable, but writer/director Peter Mottern provides the film with a gritty realism that helps it attain at least a small degree of freshness. Mostly, however, it's up to the actors to try to make you feel like this is something you haven't seen a thousand times before. Monaghan and Bennett, on whom this task falls more than anyone else, have a good rapport with each other and the progression of their relationship is believable and, at times, moving. As I said before, Monaghan's performance here is really exceptional. Diane is a difficult character because she's so unashamedly unpleasant most of the time and because she's unrepentant about the fact that she lives her life in a way that is either directly or indirectly considered "unladylike" by the general culture. Her insistence on living the way she wants to live regardless of what others think is easily one of the strongest things about the screenplay.

Problematically, the film abandons that strength in the final act in order to make the idea of Diane-as-mother more palatable because, of course, a woman who exists that contrary to social conventions can't possibly raise a child. This almost total turn-around in the character (which extends right down to the way she dresses) rings a bit false but to Monaghan's credit, she sells the hell out of it. I could have done without the film's climactic near-rape scene, but on the whole I think that Trucker is worth seeing despite its flaws.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Review: I Am Love (2010)

* * * *

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Tilda Swinton

I figured I'd probably have to wait until it was on DVD to get to see I Am Love so it was a happy surprise for me when I saw that it was playing at one of the local theaters. I'm very glad I got to see this lush, beautiful film on the big screen and that Tilda Swinton continues to turn in excellent performances in such diverse, interesting films.

Swinton stars as Emma, Russian-born and now married into an Italian dynasty. As the story opens, the family is about to undergo a great shift: Emma's father-in-law Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) is getting ready to retire from the family business and must chose his successor. Being apparently unfamiliar with King Lear, he decides to divide his kingdom between his son, Tancredi (Pippi Delbono) and grandson, Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti), which results in predictable tensions between them. Edoardo Jr. takes to heart his grandfather's request that they preserve what he has built and keep it in the family, while Tancredi seems content to sell for a tidy profit. From a business perspective Tancredi's actions make sense, but from the perspective of the heart, it seems unthinkable. Edoardo Jr. occupies the unenviable position of trying to maintain things as they have always been while everyone around him sets about making changes which in and of themselves seem minor but taken together are shattering to his sensitive temperament.

The other development that will eventually rock Edoardo Jr.'s sense of place and self is Emma's affair with Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), her son's friend and potential business partner. It is this part of the plot that really drives the story as it involves Emma's reconsideration of herself as a woman and of her place within her husband's family. The film's opening scenes show us a life that is very regimented, where everything is so formalized that it's taken as a matter of course. For example when Emma's daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) gives Edoardo Sr. a gift, he proudly announces to everyone at the party that it's a drawing, as she has given him a drawing every year. When he opens it he is dismayed to discover that it's a photograph. Elisabetta explains that this new medium has usurped her passion for the former and her grandfather admits that it's a nice photograph but that she still owes him a drawing. Tradition, for him, is valued above all else.

Elisabetta's break from tradition, rather than the affair with Antonio, is the thing that really sparks Emma's great revelation about herself, which I think is important. It isn't so much that she's awakened by this new man, but that she recognizes the possibilities that Elisabetta has opened up simply by charting her own course. It's not just her switching her interest from drawing to photography but also the revelation that she's in love with a woman that inspires Emma to take a chance of her own and re-imagine herself according to her own terms. Elisabetta's assertion of self is outwardly marked by cutting her hair, an act which Emma will mirror after she begins her affair with Antonio - both are metaphorically declaring their freedom from what they see as the oppressive force of the family's expectations. Another instance of mirroring occurs later, in scenes between Emma and Antonio and then Emma and Tancredi. In the scene with Antonio, he's shown undressing her from the shoes up. In the scene with Tancredi, he's shown covering her up, first placing her feet in the shoes she's taken off and then draping his jacket over her shoulders. When taken within the context of the story as a whole, the implication of these two scenes couldn't be more clear - Antonio represents freedom, Tancredi represents repression. When she reveals her affair to her husband, he dismissively states, "You don't exist" and it's true. Within her marriage she, as a person, does not exist but has instead been moulded into what he wants her to be. "Emma," she reveals to Antonio, isn't even her name, it's the name her husband chose for her when he brought her back from Russia.

Gracefully directed by Luca Guadagnino, I Am Love is a film that positively sings. It's the kind of film that openly aspires to be art with a capital "A," which I know some people can find off putting, but I think that it is unpretentious in its efforts to achieve its goal. Swinton delivers yet another great, interesting performance to add to her stable and it's amazing to think that the same woman who played the brittle, violent protagonist in last year's Julia could also be the woman appearing as quiet, delicate Emma. The film is probably too low-profile to net much awards attention for her or for itself, but both are certainly deserving.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Reasons to Stay Out of the Water

#5: Piranha 3D

... I'm guessing. The trailer certainly makes it look like the worst spring break/summer vacation ever.

#4: Orca

The killer whale. Need I say more?

#3: Anaconda

Before there were snakes on a plane, there was a snake on a boat. It didn't end well.

#2: Jaws

This one is a given, I think and on top of that, it's genuinely a great film which... you can't say about all the films on this list.

#1: Jaws 2

Now, unquestionably, Jaws is the superior film but have you seen Jaws 2? It's crazy! The shark eats a friggin' helicopter! And after that it still goes around picking off humans! Oh, Jaws - food is no substitute for love.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Leolo (1992)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jean-Claude Lauzon
Starring: Maxime Collin

I'm not entirely sure where to begin with Jean-Claude Lauzon's Leolo. It is a funny, grotesque, skillfully made film that left me feeling deeply unsettled. I don't know that I'll ever be able to get some of its images out of my brain, which I suppose is a measure of just how effective it is. Roger Ebert has named it in his Great Movies list and TIME included it in its list of the 100 greatest films of all time. I think it's a good movie, but I'll probably have to see it a couple more times before I really warm up to it.

The story centers on 12-year-old Leo Lauzon (Maxime Collin), an aspiring writer whose active fantasy life means that absolutely anything is possible within the context of the film. First, he believes that he is not truly a Quebequois Lauzon but an Italian whose real father impregnated his mother by way of a tomato imported from Italy. Because he believes this, he insists that everyone call him Leolo, though no one ever does. He comes from a large family whose members cycle in and out of the local madhouse, and he is in love (or lust) with a neighbor whose relationship with his grandfather inspires in him an ingenious attempt at murder (in fairness, his grandfather did try to kill him first).

Lauzon treats us to many episodes in the life of Leolo, some funny, some horrifying (some funny and then horrifying). The most moving, I think, is the story of Leolo's older brother Fernand (Yves Montmarquette). Bullied as an adolescent, Fernand is inspired to bulk up so that no one will ever push him around again. He becomes a mountain of a man and, for the most part, people seem content to leave him be but when he comes face-to-face with his former tormentor again, he discovers that simply having muscles isn't enough. His humiliation is tragedy on a small scale, but it is tragedy nevertheless and it allows reality to come crashing through Leolo's elaborately constructed fantasy.

A film like Leolo, which is about a child but is not for children, lives and dies by the strength of its lead. In order to attain the profound ambitions of the screenplay, the performance has to be able to reach depths that are beyond the average child actor. Maxime Collin is up to the task and effectively projects that sense that he's much older and wiser than he appears. Even in its lighter moments there is a darkness to the film which would make a precocious performance seem entirely out of place. Under Lauzon's guidance Collin doesn't "play up" in the role but instead plays it in a very straight forward and subtle way.

Leolo is a totally fascinating film filled with images of great beauty as well as absolute horror. Like I said before, objectively I can recognize the brilliance of the film but I don't know that I really "liked" it. I think that I'll definitely have to see it again before I really feel it's impact beyond it's more startling qualities.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review: The Kids Are All Right (2010)

* * * *

Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffallo

The kids are, indeed, all right though the adults are kind of messed up. Lisa Cholodenko's latest film has been much hyped (way hyped), but hopefully its early in the year release will allow it complete the "hype/over-hyped/reconsidered" cycle in time to secure some very well-deserved Oscar nominations. This story of a family and a marriage in crisis is thoughtful, extremely well-acted, and alternates easily between being very funny and very moving.

The kids are Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), two perfectly average suburban teenagers save for the fact that they’re being raised by two mothers. Joni has just graduated from high school and since she’s 18, Laser encourages her to contact the sperm bank their mothers used in order to find out the identity of their donor. Though reluctant, Joni ultimately agrees to do it since it means so much to her brother, and after a somewhat awkward phone call the siblings meet Paul (Mark Ruffalo). When their mothers, Nik (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), find out about the meeting it opens the floodgates for a lot of anxieties, putting pressure on a relationship that’s already at a shaky stage.

When Paul hires Jules to do some landscaping work at his house, things go from bad to worse. With Jules and Paul growing closer (much too close) and him exercising a degree of influence on the kids that she finds troubling, Nik increasingly feels like her family is in jeopardy or, rather, like her place in the family is slipping away. When she discovers that Jules and Paul have been having an affair, the family’s delicate balance is irrevocably changed and all the film's relationships are thrown into a tailspin.

The Kids Are All Right occupies a somewhat odd position pop culture-wise in that it centers on a gay relationship and works to legitimize it in part by highlighting all the ways that gay relationships aren't really so different from straight ones, while at the same time having a plot that hinges on a trope seen in a lot of mainstream films and TV shows and that often serves to reassure male viewers that lesbians aren't threatening because, ultimately, they're just waiting for the right man - a line of thinking which obviously undercuts the idea that a lesbian relationship is legitimate or real. The film thus finds itself in the strange position of being criticized by both the Christian right for being too gay, and by the gay community for being too straight.

In terms of the gay community's response, I do think that the displeasure incited by Jules' affair with Paul is valid given the dearth of positive portrayals of same sex relationships within the mainstream, but I also think this criticism is somewhat misplaced with regards to this particular film. For one thing, the development makes sense in the context of the rest of the story: after two decades together Nik and Jules have grown apart, Jules feels like there’s a power imbalance in the relationship, and she feels like her children are growing up and away from her. Paul reminds her of her kids, he makes her feel useful, and he doesn’t criticize her. Their affair isn’t about a lesbian who discovers that she wants sex with a man, but about a lonely woman reaching out for something familiar and comforting. For another thing, the development really isn’t surprising within the context Cholodenko’s work as a whole. Sexual fluidity and infidelity (and its effects) are consistent themes for her, the only difference is that in High Art and Laurel Canyon women in relationships with men have affairs with women. All Cholodenko has done is flip the script that she typically works with.

Laying all that aside, beneath whatever controversies the film has inspired it is, ultimately, a very good movie. Cholodenko, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stuart Blumberg, gives the characters plenty of room to breathe and allows them to be more than two dimentional drones at the mercy of the plot. There is a richness to the characters, the way they interact with each other, and the way the film approaches them (not to mention the masterful way in which each is played) that makes the film worth multiple viewings. I've really only scratched the surface of what makes The Kids Are All Right worth talking about; there is a lot to this movie and I really don't think I could recommend it more.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review: Salt (2010)

* * *

Director: Phillip Noyce
Starring: Angelina Jolie

Salt is an absolutely preposterous movie but damn if I didn't have a good time watching it. If given a choice between dramatic, serious Angelina Jolie and ass-kicking, defying all logic Angelina Jolie, I'll take the latter every time. If you haven't seen the movie yet and plan to, it's probably best to read no further because this is going to be a bit spoilery.

Jolie stars as Evelyn Salt (or does she?), a CIA agent whom we first encounter as she's being tortured in North Korea. Following this brief prologue, the film flashes forward a couple of years to its story proper, which finds Salt encountering a defecting Russian spy who reveals a plot to assassinate the Russian President when he comes to the U.S. for the Vice-President's funeral. He goes on to reveal that the alias of the secret Russian agent who will pull this off is "Evelyn Salt."

What follows is a series of captures and impossible escapes and a shifting perception of Salt as a character. Have you ever seen that episode of The Simpsons where Moe is on a soap opera and every scene in the script ends with the words "...with sexy results"? I imagine the overview for Salt went something like this:
* Salt is accused of being a double agent and has to escape from CIA headquarters during lock down... with explosive results.
* Salt rushes home to make sure that her husband is safe and then has to escape from there because the CIA is fast on her heels... with explosive results.
* Salt, who really is a double agent, goes through with the plot to assassinates the Russian President... with explosive results.
* Salt allows herself to be captured and then escapes (again) while en route to be questioned... with explosive results.
* Salt reunites with her Russian cronies who murder her husband to test her loyalty. After getting information about the next step in the conspiracy, she takes her revenge... with explosive results.
* Salt gets into the bunker under the White House - don't ask how; it doesn't matter, though it does involve some explosive results - and then, in a twist on the film's own conventions, she prevents some explosive results by stopping the launch of nuclear warheads.
And you know what? I haven't even catalogued all of her daring escapes. It's to director Phillip Noyce's credit that the plot moves forward with such speed and intensity that you never get bored watching this single character play out an endless cycle of one basic premise. Credit is also due to Jolie, who invests a lot more in the character than the plot really requires. Nothing about the plot is really believable (and it becomes increasingly less believable as it goes on) but I completely believed Jolie as Salt in all of Salt's incarnations.

I realize that it probably seems like I'm being very critical of Salt but I actually enjoyed it a lot. The more ridiculous it got, the more endearing I found it. It's not great art by any means, but it is a great entertainment.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Review: The Other Guys (2010)

* * *

Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Will Farrell, Mark Wahlberg

Buddy cop movies have been done to death. Even comedic takes on the buddy cop genre have been done to death, which means that The Other Guys is a lot funnier than it has any right to be. The trailers (which make the film seem more derivative than it actually is) don't really do it justice; this is a return to form for Will Farrell after a series of lackluster outings. Plus: Steve Coogan! Random references to TLC! And Mark Wahlberg in a performance that straddles the line between insane and brilliant!

In New York city two cops are revered above all others: Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson). Since Danson and Highsmith are so busy doing all the cool stuff (car chases, shoot outs, explosions), the lamer aspects of the job like paperwork falls to "the other guys" on the force. Two of those other guys are Allen (Farrell), who is actually quite happy to sit at a desk all day doing paperwork, and Terry (Wahlberg), who is desperate to be where the action is and continuously asserts that he is a peacock and must be allowed to fly.

When Danson and Highsmith die after believing too thoroughly in their own hype, Terry sees the opportunity for himself and Allen to step up and take their place. As luck would have it, Allen's investigation of a minor permits violation puts them on the trail of what turns out to be a massive Ponzi scheme conducted by David Ershon (Steve Coogan). Unfortunately they're told in no uncertain terms to drop their investigation and are eventually forced to go rogue in order complete it and bring the bad guys to justice. The plot for a film like this is really secondary, but it should be noted that this one is actually quite well-constructed.

Do I need to state that this movie is very funny? Probably not, but I will anyway because, like the plot, the comedy is so well crafted that it deserves mention. Farrell and Wahlberg play off each other perfectly, one underplaying to mask his character's deep-seated anxieties, the other a font of rage exploding through scene after scene. Frustrated by his low status on the force, Terry takes his disappointment out on Allen, getting so fed-up at one point that he angrily states that if he were a lion and Allen a tuna he'd go out of his way to kill tuna-Allen and then have sex with Allen's tuna wife. This is an easy laugh but the film then pushes itself beyond that with Allen's response, which includes a fascinating and elaborate tuna revenge plot, and takes the scene to a whole other level of hilarity. Similarly, the running gag of Terry being able to do things like ballet or play the harp is funny, but the revelation that he learned these skills sarcastically in order to show people who actually do do them how "queer" it is makes it hilarious.

Directed by Adam McKay (who also directed the Farrell-starring Anchorman, Talledega Nights and Step Brothers), the film flows easily and, it must be said, for a comedy it is an amazingly competent action movie. Most action sequences now are built on fast cuts that leave you with only the vaguest notion of what you've just seen. Here the action sequences are put together in such a way that you can actually see how they get from Point A to Point B, which is refreshing and very satisfying. So, kudos to McKay for that.

On the whole, I enjoyed The Other Guys a lot, though I don't think it reaches the heights of Anchorman. As a piece of frivolous summer absurdity, however, I couldn't ask for much more than what The Other Guys ultimately delivers.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Aughts 100: #10 - 1

#10: Mulholland Drive (2001)

Country: USA
Director: David Lynch
Starring: Naomi Watts, Lara Elena Harring

David Lynch’s challenging masterpiece is the kind of movie you can watch a hundred times without ever fully unlocking its mysteries. With an absolutely dazzling, star making performance by Naomi Watts at its centre, Mulholland Drive unfolds as a nightmare vision of Hollywood’s dark side full of intrigue, sex and murder. The plot is open to interpretation, though the general consensus seems to be that the first 2/3rds are a dream, the finale reality, played out as a frenzied reflection of the heroine’s increasingly fraught mental state. Whatever the answer, the result is a film that is endlessly entrancing.

#09: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Country: France
Director: Julian Schnabel
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny

The fact that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was able to transition from book to film at all is kind of amazing. This is the story of a man trapped inside his own body, whom a stroke leaves entirely paralyzed save for one eye and his mind. A system of communication is developed which allows him to dictate his memoirs by blinking – and we see this all from his point of view, trapped inside with him. Like a dream unfolding and floating before us, Jean-Dominique recalls moments in his life, particularly those moments with the women he’s loved. It’s a beautiful, poetic and, ultimately, life-affirming film.

#08: The Saddest Music In The World (2003)

Country: Canada
Director: Guy Maddin
Starring: Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney

It can’t be said often enough: Guy Maddin is a crazy genius. Designed to look like a restored classic, The Saddest Music In The World unfolds like a fever dream of odd, fascinating images. There’s Isabella Rossellini with glass legs filled with beer, performers from around the world engaged in a musical battle royale, and black-clad Roderick who carries his late son’s heart in a jar, preserved by his own tears. Switching easily between color and grainy black and white and unrolling on a wave of the bizarre, this is a film that you won’t soon forget.

#07: 4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days (2007)

Country: Romania
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu

Hard – that’s perhaps the best word to sum up this film. There’s certainly nothing easy about it. Set during Ceausescu’s rule of Romania, when abortion was against the law, two women set about arranging a back alley procedure which results in sexual exploitation and near death. The film is an indictment of anti-abortion laws which, contrary to their intentions, do little to actually prevent abortions and instead simply disenfranchise women, particularly those in impoverished circumstances. As the driving force of the narrative, Anamaria Marinca becomes an unlikely hero and delivers a great, criminally unlauded, performance.

#06: Downfall (2004)

Country: Germany
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara

This grim story about life on the losing side is, quite simply, one of the best war films ever made. Caught in the middle as Allied troops close in on every side, the citizens of Berlin watch their society devolve before their very eyes as people savagely turn against each other in lawless brutality. Meanwhile, underground in the bunker, Hitler continues to give orders as though the world is still in his grasp, what remains of his sanity slowly slipping away. As Hitler, Bruno Gantz renders a great performance, but the most resonant moments come from the documentary footage of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s former secretary, which opens and closes the film.

#05: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Country: Taiwan
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Chow-Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a film worth revisiting time and again. Its main attraction is the spectacular martial arts scenes (many of which defy the laws of gravity), but its power lies in its duelling tales of passionate and restrained love. There are many layers to this story, which is so beautifully brought to life in every aspect. This is a positively sumptuous visual experience and the performances by Chow-Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh as the tragic lovers resonate. Ten years later, Ang Lee’s masterpiece has lost absolutely none of its magic and still flies above and beyond the competition.

#04: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Country: USA
Director: Michel Gondry
Starring: Jim Carey, Kate Winslet

A love story and a cautionary tale that tests the theory that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. If you could erase the memory of the person you loved but who broke your heart, would you? Such is the opportunity put to Joel and Clementine, two opposites who first attract and then repel and then, once erased from each other, attract once again. Michel Gondry and Charlie Kauffman supply the visual and narrative tricks, but Jim Carey and Kate Winslet supply the humanity in the ultimate postmodern love story.

#03: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Country: Mexico
Director: Guillermo del Torro

Part fairytale, part war story, Pan’s Labyrinth is a film that blends and transcends the boundaries of genre. Beautifully crafted both in front of and behind the camera, this film understands that a child’s imagination can be the darkest of realms and creates images that will stay with you long after it’s over. The film can be read two ways: either Ofelia imagines another world in order to escape the harsh reality, which makes the ending a legitimate tragedy; or her encounters with the other world are real and the ending is a bittersweet triumph. By either reading, it’s a remarkable film.

#02: City of God (2002)

Country: Brazil
Director: Fernando Meirelles

Vibrant and alive, Fernando Meirelles’ exploration of slum life is one of the most brutally brilliant films of all time. There is not a single inauthentic moment in the entire film, which unfolds as a series of interconnected stories about poverty, gang warfare and drugs. At the centre of these stories – right in the eye of the storm – young Rocket comes of age, finds small moments of joy, and tries to find a way out and into a better life. It’s a bittersweet story – Rocket succeeds, but the cycle of violence and reprisal that is ripping the slums apart will continue indefinitely, claiming yet another generation of young men, not to mention all of the people who will get caught up in the crossfire.

#01: The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)

Country: New Zealand/USA
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellan

Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic story is significant not only for being an incredibly well-realized translation from page to screen, but also for the massive amount of technological innovation that went into it. From top to bottom, this is a brilliant and beautiful piece of work that manages to be equal parts art and commerce, a film series admired as much for its storytelling as its effects and which captured the imagination of filmgoers to the tune of nearly 3 billion dollars. 3 films, one story – the very best that cinema had to offer in the last decade.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Aughts 100: #20 - 11

#20: Far From Heaven (2002)

Country: USA
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert

Some films emulate the style of another era while others capture its spirit. Far From Heaven has the look and feel of a Douglas Sirk film and though it has the luxury of casting a more openly disparaging eye on the prejudices of its setting, it still fits in with the films that inspired it. Tackling issues of racism, feminism, and sexuality, it is a film that deals with big themes, a film about desires that seem impossible due to societal constraints, the performance aspect necessary to being accepted in society, and the ability of some to trascend prejudice (albeit tacitly rather than openly) while other forms of prejudice cannot be overcome. It's a wonderful film built around a moving, pitch perfect performance from Julianne Moore.

#19: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Country: USA
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton

Charlie Kaufman loves a good mind bender. Actually, let me amend that: he loves to take your brain, turn it inside out, show it to you and then rearrange its contents. Synecdoche, New York is arguably his most challenging work to date, centering on theater director Caden Codard whose attempt to capture his life for the stage results in him recreating the whole world around him as well as the process of creating that world, resulting in a play that's like a matryoshka doll. It is a work of staggering ambition that makes multiple viewings necessary, but it is more than worth the effort that Kaufman asks the viewer to put into watching it.

#18: There Will Be Blood (2007)

Country: USA
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis

Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic tale of greed is truly unforgettable, thanks in no small part to the great central performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. As Daniel Plainview, he broods and simmers and then finally unleashes, annihilating those who stand in the way of his singular, selfish vision. The “reward” for his persistence? An isolated existence in a gargantuan mansion that echoes with loneliness and madness. And, yet, for all that there are still brief moments of humanity in Plainview which makes his self-imposed exile from the rest of the world seem tragic rather than fitting. Well done, PTA.

#17: L’Enfant (2005)

Country: Belgium
Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring: Jeremie Rennier

Dispassionate and unblinking, the Dardenne brothers follow their protagonist as he sells his newborn son, gets him back, and then tries to pay off the go-betweens who were going to arrange the black market adoption. There's honestly not much more to the plot than that, but what makes the film fascinating is the character himself and the way the Dardennes approach him. He's so detached, so unable to understand basic human concepts that he's confused by his girlfriend's reaction to his act. He's guilty of horrible things but, at the same time, he's an innocent because he honestly has no concept of his actions being in any way bad. That the Dardennes find a way to make you understand that is just one of the many indications of their greatness.

#16: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Country: USA
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway

A beautiful movie about lost love and the oppression of the individual by societal expectations. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal render great performances as two men in love, one of whom cannot reconcile the relationship with his image of manhood, the other frustrated by the need for secrecy. Though inarguably an important film in terms of the depiction of gays on film, it's not just "a gay story." It's a story about the pain that culture can inflict on an individual through rigid roles and codes of behavior, and the necessity of breaking free. Its message is universal, even if the context is not.

#15: Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Country: Israel
Director: Ari Folman

Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is a film that defies categorization. A beautifully animated documentary about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon built on interviews, reenactions, and fantasy sequences, the film is a surreal exploration of the lasting effects of warfare. The animation, produced with new techniques created specifically for this film, is striking, making for a visually intense and unique experience.

#14: Hunger (2008)

Country: UK/Ireland
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender

McQueen’s film about the IRA hunger strike led by Bobby Sands is a harrowing film and often difficult to watch. McQueen’s strategy consists in large part of long, unbroken shots that test the viewer’s endurance as scenes of incredible brutality play out with unrelenting intensity. In what is perhaps the film’s most famous scene, Sands and a visiting priest have a long conversation about, amongst other things, the utility of the hunger strike, all of it playing out in one unbroken shot that clocks in at about 15 minutes and is brilliantly played by Michael Fassbender and Rory Mullen. Strikingly photographed by Sean Bobbitt, Hunger is a film you won’t soon forget.

#13: The Lives of Others (2006)

Country: Germany
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck

Because the Stasi agent Wiesler is so detached from those around him, the connection he develops with the people under his surveillance is all the more moving. His role as a cog in a distinctly inhuman ideological machine allows him finally to become human, to feel for others and want to protect them. As a protector he both succeeds and fails and falls on his own sword in the process – but at least he can live with himself. The end result is a film that is intense, unnerving and haunting.

#12: The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Country: USA
Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck

Perhaps the most underrated film of the decade, The Assassination of Jesse James... uses the most American of all film genres to examine the nature of celebrity mythmaking. Jesse James is a folk hero and icon... he’s also a murderer and a thief; his death is lamented by the masses... and his corpse turned into a sideshow. Played by Brad Pitt, he’s something of an enigma, a man accustomed to his fame but never quite comfortable with it and never really at ease with those around him. Casey Affleck takes on the Judas role, playing James’ murderer Robert Ford in a fascinating, unsettling performance.

#11: Caché (2005)

Country: France
Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche

Creepy. There’s no more accurate word for Michael Haneke’s drama about a seemingly happy family. Until their privacy is invaded, they don’t know what a fragile thing it is, nor do they realize how little it takes to completely disrupt their life. All it takes is a videotape of the outside of their house – such a simple thing and yet the very simplicity of it is what makes it so effective. The ending, with its defiant lack of resolution, tends to be divisive but it’s also one of the things that makes the film resonate so deeply. It’s the not knowing that makes it so powerful and so worthy of returning to time and time again.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Aughts 100: #30 - 21

#30: My Winnipeg (2008)

Country: Canada
Director: Guy Maddin

My Winnipeg is about your hometown. It doesn't matter whether or not you're from Winnipeg because it isn't about Winnipeg but about the feeling of the place of your origin, about the things that draw you back to it and the things you want desperately to escape, about the ways that everything has changed and the ways that things have remained the same. Maddin's version of Winnipeg is about 5% fact, 95% surreal, crazy fiction and entertaining from beginning to end.

#29: The White Ribbon (2009)

Country: Austra/Germany/France/Italy
Director: Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke's most recent film explores the roots of the totalitarianism that would sweep through Europe in the years following World War I. Set in a small German village beseiged by strange and violent occurances, the film examines various forms of social hierarchy (aristocrats and peasants, parents and children, men and women) and growing tensions in reaction to attempts to oppress or contain the lower orders. Simmering with tension, the film suggests the state of mind which allowed for the rise of totalitarian government and presents a stark portrait of a world on the cusp of a great change.

#28: Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

Country: Mexico
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Maribel Verdu

In other hands, Alfonso Cuaron's story of two teenage boys who embark on a road trip with an older woman would be little more than an adolescent sex fantasy. It is, I suppose, an adolescent sex fantasy on one level but it is also an examination of class, sexuality, and the economic and political situation in Mexico. Julio and Tenoch may be sex obsessed and oblivious to what's going on right under their noses, but the film is not and consistently brings the bigger picture into view through the use of narrative footnotes. Beautifully acted by Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna and Maribel Verdu, Y Tu Mama Tambien is a film that is so much more than its premise.

#27: Silent Light (2007)

Country: Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany
Director: Carlos Reygadas

It can be difficult to make a film that directly engages with questions of morality. If it's too preachy it can be off putting, if it's too subtle its depths might be missed. In Silent Light, set in a Menonite community in Mexico, a married man asks for guidance when he falls in love with a woman who is not his wife. He can't stay away from her, though he knows it's wrong, and he can't renounce his love for her because in spite of that, he knows the love is right. The film offers no easy answers nor does it allow any of its characters to be reduced to villains. It is a complex portrait of two relationships that rings with such truth and authenticity you may forget that you're watching a film entirely.

#26: Man On Wire (2008)

Country: UK
Director: James Marsh

Despite his name, Phillippe Petit is a man who does things on a grand scale. A high wire artist with a penchant for performing in unusual places, in 1974 he took his act to New York with the intention of walking between the towers of the World Trade Centre. Man on Wire explores the steps it took to achieve that dream using archival footage, interviews, and recreations, and unfolding the story according to the conventions of a heist movie. Though the towers will forever be associated with tragedy, a film like this one also reminds us of what they were meant to invoke in the first place: the wonder and possibility of human ambition and achievement.

#25: Let The Right One In (2008)

Country: Sweden
Director: Tomas Alfredson

Growing up is hard, but being stuck in perpetual pre-adolescence would be even harder. Tomas Alfredson's atmospheric foray into the ubiquitous vampire genre centers on two outsiders - one an outsider by nature (being a vampire), the other a social outsider who is a constant target of bullies - who find each other and forge a bond that transcends whatever boundaries ought to exist between them. Thoughtful, intense, and gorgeously photographed, Let The Right One In is much more than just another vampire story.

#24: The Hurt Locker (2009)

Country: USA
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie

Plenty of films have been released in the last couple of years about the war in Iraq, but none has struck as deep and resonant a chord as The Hurt Locker. Rather than viewing war as "right" or "wrong," the film instead views it as a compulsion, as something which provides a purpose in the lives of people who might otherwise be sunk by the mundane. In his breakout role as the leader of an EOD team, Jeremy Renner gives a great performance as a man living on the edge, perfectly willing to come face-to-face with an explosive, but uncertain how to exist in the world post-combat.

#23: Children of Men (2006)

Country: UK/USA
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Clive Owen

The future on film is always bleak but few depictions are bleaker than that imagined in Children of Men - and few are ultimately as hopeful. Set in 2027, the film imagines the impending end for humans as rooted in a global infertility epidemic, though humanity itself has already largely been lost due to mass acts of terrorism and the rise of totalitarianism in the few remaining governments. Hope comes in the form of a pregnant woman but only if the hero can manage to keep her safe, which becomes an increasingly difficult task. This nightmare vision of the future is perfectly executed by director Alfonso Cuaron, making Children of Men one of the most visually notable films of the last ten years.

#22: Persepolis (2007)

Country: France
Director: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud

Adapted from Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis tells of her coming-of-age during the Iranian Revolution. Torn between her love for her homeland and her inability to quietly accept the blatantly anti-woman policies of a government headed by religious fundamentalists, she tries to find a way to live in Iran without compromising herself but ultimately opts for self-exile. Persepolis is a thematically ambitious work that covers a lot of political ground but manages to do so in such a way that it still manages to be entertaining as a film. It's a definite must-see.

#21: Gomorra (2008)

Country: Italy
Director: Matteo Garrone

Gomorra is a film about the mafia and the way that it has infiltrated every industry, but it is also about "the mafia," that mythological image created by films and television shows. In the most haunting of Gomorra's many storylines, two teenagers play at being American movie style gangsters, get in way over their heads, and suffer the most brutal consequences. One of the many things that sets this film apart from other mafia movies is that it focuses on the wannabes and the guys at the lowest echelons of the organization. It can't be accused of glorifying the lifestyle because nothing that happens to any of its characters even remotely resembles "glory;" all there is is death and regret and a brilliant film.