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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Canadian Film Review: This Movie Is Broken (2010)

* * *

Director: Bruce McDonald
Starring: Greg Calderone, Georgia Reilly

This may come as a shock, but I see a lot of movies. As such, it's not very often that movies surprise me, at least in terms of plot movements. The last 5 or 10 minutes of This Movie Is Broken really caught me off guard - I totally did not see that coming. Well done, Bruce McDonald.

This Movie Is Broken is made up of two parts. One is an unrequited love story between Bruno (Greg Calderone) and Caroline (Georgina Reilly), the girl of his dreams who, even when she's within reach, still always remains somehow just out of reach. The other part is a concert film of Broken Social Scene, the Toronto band with the massive membership roster that includes Leslie Feist, Kevin Drew, and Metric's Emily Haines and James Shaw, amongst many others.

The film begins with Bruno and Caroline waking up together. He's elated because, as he explains, if he's waking up with her this morning, that means he went to bed with her last night. This happiness, however, is bittersweet because Caroline is only in town for one more day and then will be going off to Paris, so Bruno needs to make the most of what little time he has left with her. Knowing that she's a big Broken Social Scene fan, Bruno tells her he has backstage passes to their concert (a lie, but his buddy has a plan to work around that). Things are going great for a while but, unfortunately, before the concert is over Bruno finds that his ideas about the relationship and hers are very much in conflict.

Written by Don McKellar (McDonald and Drew get "based on an idea by" credits), the film has a nice sense of flow and manages to convey a lot about Bruno and Caroline's relationship in a very succinct way. The direction that they're heading in is pretty effectively foreshadowed in the opening minutes when Bruno is floating so high on cloud nine that he can't really recognize all the subtle ways that Caroline is already starting to hold him at arm's length. He's investing a lot more into this than she is and when he's finally confronted with that fact it leads to a lot of anger and hurt and frustration on both sides. The way that the relationship is set up and unfolds actually reminded me quite a bit of (500) Days of Summer in that both are about guys who want someone so badly that they're blind to the signs that their feelings aren't quite reciprocated or, at least, not to the degree that they'd like.

McDonald has made a number of films that center on musicians so it should come as no surprise that This Movie Is Broken is quite adept at merging the romantic storyline with the concert footage. Interestingly, rather than using the music to punctuate the romantic storyline, the romantic storyline is constructed in such a way that it underscores the music. The scenes between Bruno and Caroline are used to accentuate the mood and theme of any given song and this turns out to be a very clever narrative strategy because, of course, a song can tell a story in a very short amount of time and thus we get a fair bit of progression and insight into the relationship in a fairly brief amount of time just through the music.

Your enjoyment of This Movie Is Broken will likely depend on your familiarity with and enjoyment of Broken Social Scene. Personally, I'm not terrifically familiar with the band itself, but I am a fan of many of its individual members, so I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. The story around the music is solid and, as I said at the top, big surprise at the end. Check it out.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Red Riding: In The Year of Our Lord 1974

* * * 1/2

Director: Julian Jarrold
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Rebecca Hall, Sean Bean

Dang, I was hoping to review all three parts of Red Riding at once, but the other two entries are always checked out at the video store so I guess I'll have to wait to get to them. It is perhaps just as well since 1974 is such an unrelentingly dark film that taking a break before getting to the next one is probably a good idea.

The plot of 1974 is a bit complicated but I'll summarize it as best I can. The story centers on Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), a young Yorkshire reporter who comes to believe that the murders of a series of young girls may be the work of one person. Through the course of his investigation he becomes involved with Paula (Rebecca Garland), the mother of one of the murdered girls, and discovers that corruption runs deep through the local police - so deep that they may have arranged the suspicious death of Eddie's friend Barry (Anthony Flanagan) and may have something similar planned for Eddie if he doesn't back off.

The police are in the pocket of John Dawson (Sean Bean), a local businessman involved in a shady development deal. Not only is Dawson behind the razing of a Roma camp that was occupying the area where he plans to build a mall, but the body of one of the murdered girls turns up on his land. Dawson was also once involved with Paula, who tries to warn Eddie about how powerful he is but, by the time Eddie really begins to appreciate the extent of the danger that he's in, it's far too late. When he storms a party at Dawson's house he's taken into custody by police, who beat and torture him and reveal that in the North, "we do what we want."

Working from a screenplay adapted by Tony Grisoni, director Julian Jarrold crafts a very dark and very heavy film that weighs on you afterwards. At a certain point you come to the terrible realization that there isn't going to be a deus ex machina, that evil will win and good will be snuffed out. It took a couple of days for me to really shake this movie, that's how effective it is. The plot is complicated and it can take a while to really get the various threads sorted out in your head (I would imagine that things become clearer after viewing the other two films) but it's such a well-made film that it's worth the effort.

Garfield's performance plays a large part in creating the sense of resonance that 1974 enjoys. The actor, who is having a very good year with Never Let Me Go and The Social Network, not to mention landing the lead in the Spiderman reboot, first caught my attention with his marvelous performance in Boy A. He brings a great mix of intensity and vulnerability to his role here that makes the impact of his character's journey all the greater. It's wrenching to watch what he goes through during the course of this film, especially when he reaches the point where there is nothing for him but despair and hopelessness. This is a tough film but well worth a look both for the incredibly sinister atmosphere created by Jarrold and for the performances - Garfield's in particular but also those of Bean and Hall.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review: Martian Child (2007)

* * *

Director: Menno Meyjes
Starring: John Cusack

Being normal is highly overrated, though conformity may occasionally make life a little bit easier. Martian Child, adapted from a novel by David Gerrold which is itself based on his own experiences as a single parent, is about defining the line between creativity and conformity, between fantasy and reality. The film is very sentimental and predictable, but it has a lot of charm and is anchored by great performances - though, it must be said, this is a terrible waste of the considerable talents of Anjelica Huston.

John Cusack stars as David, a science fiction writer and recent widower. Before her death, he and his wife had been going through the process of adoption and now there is a child waiting for him. David is reluctant to go through with it - the loss is still raw and he isn't sure he can be a parent on his own - and only becomes more so when he learns that Dennis (Bobby Coleman), the child in question, is a socially withdrawn boy who insists that he's from Mars and spends all day inside a cardboard box. David believes that there's no way he could handle a kid with such intense needs but, at the same time, feels drawn towards him. Through a series of visits David and Dennis begin to form a tentative bond and David comes to believe that he might be able to make it work after all.

Dennis moves in with David and David struggles to close the distance between them. He humors Dennis' belief that he's from Mars and tries to help him negotiate social interactions, though he isn't always successful. Dennis gets expelled from one school due to his compulsion for stealing things and the adoption agency is uncertain as to whether David truly is capable of caring for the boy. There are two big crises in the story. First, when the agency threatens to remove Dennis, an event which is averted when Dennis is able to successfully "pretend" to be normal. Second, when David makes it clear that Dennis' martian act is something that should only be indulged at home and Dennis, feeling rejected once again, decides that it's time to leave Earth behind and go home.

The various turns that the plot takes will come as no surprise to even the most casual film viewer - this tale of unconventional people unfolds in very conventional fashion. However, the film itself is comfortable within the confines of its genre and doesn't try to overreach, rather it simply aims to excel at the kind of story that it is. We know that eventually David will find love with his ever present female friend (Amanda Peet) and we know that when the advanced age of David's dog is referenced, things are going to take a sad turn, but the film really doesn't pretend that it's getting away with anything and pretty openly acknowledges the strings it wants to pull. It isn't a great film by any stretch, but it's a good film of its kind.

What really works well in Martian Child are the performances, Cusack's in particular. David is a man going through a lot, with a lot of wounds waiting to heal over, and Cusack does an excellent job at conveying his struggles both as a man in mourning and as a man trying to forge a new, and very difficult, connection. This is easily one of his best performances, one that hits a lot of different notes and makes them resonate. Coleman's performance is at times a bit too precious for my tastes but I'm not going to rag on the acting abilities of a ten-year-old, so let's move on. Huston appears briefly as David's publisher and Joan Cusack - always a welcome presence - co-stars as David's sister, both making the most of their rather limited roles. Martin Child won't surprise you, but it's one of those easy, undemanding films that can make for a good viewing experience.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: Adam (2009)

* * *

Director: Max Mayer
Starring: Hugh Dancy, Rose Byrne

Hollywood doesn't really have the best track record when it comes to dealing with characters who function differently from others. Robert Downey Jr. probably explained it best in Tropic Thunder. Generally, filmmakers plunge these characters too deeply into sentimentality and turn them into a kind of "noble savage" figure whose simplicity is supposed to show the rest of us how modern times have caused us to lose our connection to what's really important. Max Mayer's Adam doesn't totally break free of that kind of sentimentality, but it comes about as close as any movie I've ever seen.

Adam (Hugh Dancy) is a man living with Asperger's Syndrome, his life unfolding according to a set routine. This routine is interrupted by the death of his father, the loss of his job, and the discovery that he may have to sell his apartment now that his father is gone. Any one of these things would be stressful for anyone to deal with, but it's especially so for Adam who relies on the comfort of familiar things because he doesn't handle change or emotion well. Into his life comes Beth (Rose Byrne), a new neighbor with whom he starts a relationship.

Beth, just coming off a break up, approaches Adam almost as a project. She helps him practice for job interviews and tries to coach him in social interactions and tries to be patient with him about all the little things he does differently. Her mother (Amy Irving) is basically supportive of the relationship, though her father (Peter Gallagher) is not and believes that Beth is sacrificing too much in order to be with Adam. Her father, however, has problems of his own and is on trial, facing a prison sentence for some, let's say, "creative accounting" he did for a client and his relationship with Beth becomes increasingly fraught, driving her even deeper into her relationship with Adam who, for whatever difficulties he presents, is at least very direct and honest about where he's at and what he wants.

Adam is a decent film but far from perfect and the screenplay (by Mayer) is probably the film's weakest point. It takes a lot of shortcuts, presenting Point A and Point B but not really exploring the journey from one to the other. Further, the subplot involving Beth's father's trial is a distraction and at times threatens to overtake the primary story. Less time on that and more time on developing the relationship between Adam and Beth and exploring the nuances of it would have been time well spent.

That being said, what the film does well, it does very well indeed. Mayer is very good at characterizing the isolation of Adam's existence, expressing the way that there is an implicit wall between him and the rest of the world. His struggle to connect with others is moving and Dancy's performance is very strong. There are several "showy" moments for him throughout the film but the performance also has a great deal of subtlety to it that really grounds the story and lends it a feeling of authenticity. Byrne turns in a good performance and she and Dancy have a nice rapport on screen but, like I said, the film would be better if it was more about their characters and a little less about the problems in her family.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Woody Allen Movies

#5: Bullets Over Broadway
Bullets Over Broadway is a curiously underrated film, I've found. And yet it's one of Allen's snappiest and, frankly, funniest films. It would be worth seeing for Dianne Wiest's performance alone but there are also great turns from Jennifer Tilly, Chazz Palminteri and John Cusack.

#4: Hannah and Her Sisters
A terrific drama about three sisters and one of many examples of Allen's ability to consistently craft interesting, complex female characters. It also features one of my favourite moments from any of Allen's films, when Hannah realizes that her husband and her sister, Lee, have been having an affair. It's a terrific and very subtle moment but it has great power.

#3: The Purple Rose of Cairo
I've written about my love for The Purple Rose of Cairo many times so I'm not really sure what else I could possibly say about it other than to simply reiterate that I love it.

#2: Manhattan
Allen's love letter to the city where so many of his films are set is many things - brilliantly acted, perfectly written, beautifully filmed - but first and foremost it's his strongest effort as a visual stylist.

#1: Annie Hall
Perfect from beginning to end, Annie Hall is not just his best film, it's one of the very best films ever made.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Up The Yangtze (2007)

* * * *

Director: Yung Chang

Yung Chang's haunting documentary Up The Yangtze tackles a couple of themes. At the top it's a film about generational divide, about the impossibility of experiencing the world your grandparents or even your parents knew. Beneath that, it's a film about the human cost of progress and industrialization. Late in the film, when a shopkeeper breaks down in tears lamenting how hard it is in China for "common people," you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved. It's one of many powerful images and moments in this truly great film.

The subject of Up The Yangtze is the building of the Three Gorges Dam and is inspired by Chang's desire to see the China his grandfather left behind before it changes forever. Of course, things are already vastly different, and cruise ships sail up the Yangtze to give tourists the opportunity to experience the changing Chinese landscape as well. Part of the film takes place on one of these ships, though the tourists themselves are never more than background. In the foreground are two teenagers from different walks of life learning where they will belong in the shifting social and economic framework of their country.

First we meet Yu Shui, a girl who has just finished middle school and longs to go on to higher education. Her family is poor - they live in a shack on the water's edge - and her father cautiously tells her that she can go to school later, for now the family needs her to be working. The look of supreme dejection on her face suggests that she knows this probably isn't true, that if she starts working now education will forever remain a far away dream, but what can she do? The family can't afford to send her to school anyway and she's sent to work on a cruise ship. Her departure is unhappy and on the ship - where she's renamed "Cindy" for the benefit of tourists - she feels isolated and, perhaps, ashamed of the extreme poverty from which she's come. Eventually she will make friends and become more comfortable in her surroundings and her English will be good enough that a promotion to working in the ship's dining room seems feasible. When she sees her parents again the distance between them is heartbreaking - she looks at them almost as if they're an alien species.

The other teen is a boy named Chen Bo Yu, who comes from a markedly different economic situation than Yu Shui. We meet him as he hangs out with friends, buying them drinks and bragging about the money he'll make on the ship. Later, on the ship, he brags that with tips - which he has become a master at gathering, having learned which kinds of tourists are the best tippers and how to focus his concentration on them - he makes more than both his parents. He's arrogant and convinced that he's got it all figured out. Imagine his surprise when, towards the end of the film, he's informed that his work isn't to the standards of the ship and that he's being let go.

Chen Bo Yu - or "Jerry" to the tourists - is a smaller part of the film than his female counterpart, partly because the situation her family is in is more closely related to what the film wants to explore. Once the dam is completed, the water will rise, and the family will have to be relocated. This happens towards the end of the film and the parents state that while their accommodations are nicer, things will be more difficult because when they lived at the water's edge they could grow their own vegetables whereas now they'll have to go to the market and buy them. The ability to grow their own food is probably the only thing that's kept the family going as long as they have - the father is so thin he looks positively skeletal - so this is no small thing but at least now Yu Shui is bringing home some money, which should help a little. The dynamics of this family, more than anything else, really drives this film, becoming its heart. The daughter resents the incredible responsibility on her shoulders and the sacrifice of her educational dreams; the mother weeps that if they had a choice they would do anything before asking their daughter to support them; the father is quiet and tries to keep the peace and retain some small measure of dignity. Meanwhile, the country marches forward, sweeping them and people like them out of its way.

Chang approaches his subjects in a way that seems easy and relaxed but he's actually exercising very tight control over his narrative and he crafts it splendidly. Up The Yangtze isn't overtly political - though it does quietly highlight some of the corruption involved in the government's relocation of people along the water's edge - finding its interest instead in human drama. The film ends with a series of shots of the place Yu Shui and her family once called home. The water rises and rises, getting closer and closer to the shack, and then finally rises above it, wiping out all traces. It's the kind of sequence that stays with you and it packs a hell of a punch.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Great Last Scenes: Bonnie and Clyde

Year: 1967
Director: Arthur Penn
Great Because...: It really goes for it. I mean, it would be difficult to end it any other way but given the reluctance modern films seem to have to actually showing their protagonists die, credit to Arthur Penn for having the duo go out in a blaze of bloody glory.

So, Bonnie and Clyde were a couple of crazy kids who were young, in love, and killed people. They also robbed banks and were amongst the most wanted criminals of their time, putting them in the company of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd (all of whom, like Bonnie and Clyde, were killed through the course of 1934). Along with Clyde's brother, Buck, Buck's wife Blanche, and C.W. Moss the pair made their way across the South committing crimes and having run-ins with the law. Buck is the first to fall, killed during a shoot out which Bonnie, Clyde and C.W. narrowly escape. The three make their way to C.W.'s father's farm, where Bonnie and Clyde recover from their injuries, but the law is swiftly closing in on them.

Despite his outward friendliness to them, C.W.'s father is none too pleased to be harboring the outlaws. When the opportunity arises, he makes a deal with Texas Ranger Hamer, who has a personal vendetta against the gang, to help trap Bonnie and Clyde in exchange for leniency for C.W.

In a scene of perfectly crafted tension, director Arthur Penn shows us Bonnie and Clyde, relaxed and happy, enjoying a drive back from town. This is the first moment of true contentment they've had for quite a while and since we know, but they do not, that they're driving into their deaths, the whole thing is tinged with an incredible sense of bittersweetness. Knowing that they'll be driving by, C.W.'s father pretends to be having car trouble at the side of the road. Clyde stops the car and gets out to help, at which point C.W.'s father scurries off and the shooting starts. In the second before the bullets start to fly Bonnie and Clyde lock eyes, suggesting that they've made peace with this particular ending and are at least content that they'll die together, and then a moment later it's all over as they're mercilessly riddled with bullets.

The ending is obviously spectacularly brutal but that's perfectly in keeping with the film as a whole, which never shies away from graphic and intense violence. Bonnie and Clyde go out as spectacularly as they lived and though we're perhaps sad because we've had time to grown fond of them - not to mention the sense of moral discomfort which arises from two unarmed people, even if they are wanted criminals, being ruthlessly gunned down - it would still be disappointing if the film ended any other way. Bonnie and Clyde are legends and their deaths are legendary. The film more than lives up to their legend.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Review: Catch-22 (1970)

* * *

Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Alan Arkin

There's always a catch and catch-22, with its cold, ruthless, paradoxical simplicity is the worst catch of all. Only pilots who are crazy will be grounded and absolved of flying more missions, but they have to ask to be grounded. Any pilot who would ask to be excused from flying more missions is clearly not crazy and, therefore, will not be grounded. It's enough to drive a person crazy. Just ask Yossarian (Alan Arkin).

Adapted from Joseph Heller's novel of the same name, Catch-22 is an absurdist war story that is half comedy and half drama. Like the book, the film is told as a series of smaller, connected stories that paint a picture of the impossibility of Yossarian's situation and the ridiculousness of war in general. He's under the command of blustering, status craving Col. Cathcart (Martin Balsam), who keeps raising the number of missions each man is required to fly at exactly the moment when Yossarian comes close to completing the former requirement. He hates flying missions because, when he does, people try to kill him. It's a perfectly reasonable complaint, but no one will listen.

When not figuring out ways to avoid having to fly missions, Yossarian enjoys brief romances with Nurse Duckett (Paula Prentiss) and Luciana (Olimpia Carlisi), and has various adventures with his friends Dobbs (Martin Sheen), Nately (Art Garfunklel), Orr (Bob Balaban), McWatt (Peter Bonerz), Aarfy (Charles Grodin), and mess officer Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), who is perhaps the greatest capitalist who ever lived (and if you're unfamiliar with why, I recommend reading the book because I couldn't even come close to explaining the workings of Minderbinder's massive and lucrative operation). Yossarian has been in crisis ever since witnessing the dying moments of a gunner named Snowden, but things grow even more bleak as his friends die off one by one, leaving him feeling increasingly isolated and desperate. To make matters worse, when he finally gets a chance to go home, there's a catch.

A novel like Catch-22 is difficult to adapt. Its tone and prose are so precise, so perfectly crafted that transporting that to a film adaptation is next to impossible. Director Mike Nichols, working with a screenplay from Buck Henry (who also co-stars as Col. Korn), attempts this massive undertaking but doesn't totally succeed. It's a funny movie to be sure (and serious, when it needs to be), but I found that it ultimately lacked that sense of community that exists in the novel. We don't really get to know any of the characters other than Yossarian - and several from the novel have been excised altogether, including, sadly, Major --- de Coverly, my favourite minor character - and because of that the film's many deaths don't really have the impact that they ought to. Further, the film relies a great deal on the viewer's familiarity with the book, an element which I ultimately don't know that the film could have avoided given how much has to be condensed in order to make the story viable as a feature film.

All that being said, I liked Catch-22 quite a bit. I think Arkin makes a great Yossarian and of the supporting cast I particularly enjoyed the performances by Anthony Perkins as the Chaplain and Bob Newhart as Major Major Major Major. I also liked some of the minor touches that Nichols brought to the film and thought that he guided the abrupt change in tone which happens at about the half-way mark (when Yossarian's companions being dying off) very well. The film version of Catch-22 doesn't reach the heights of its source but it's an enjoyable film and a nice companion to the novel.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Review: The Town (2010)

* * *

Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm

The Ben Affleck career renaissance continues and gathers steam with The Town, his directorial follow-up to Gone, Baby, Gone. Like its predecessor, it is a gritty, Boston-set thriller, though I don't know that it has quite the same emotional impact. Still, it's a competently made and executed genre picture and worth a look.

The film is set in the neighborhood of Charlestown, which we are told is home to a high concentration of bank robbers, and opens with a bank robbery. Doug (Affleck), Jem (Jeremy Renner), Desmond (Owen Burke), and Gloansy (Slaine) - the team behind the heist - proceed with the ruthless efficiency of professionals, though experience has done little to temper Jem's impulsiveness. Jem decides that they'll take the bank's manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), hostage, and though they let her go physically unharmed, they've left a considerable pscyhological imprint. When they learn afterwards that she lives in Charlestown, they agree that they need to make sure she doesn't know anything that could link them to the crime. Not wanting hot-headed Jem to make a bad situation worse, Doug opts to take care of it himself.

Doug "meets" Claire in a laundromat and begins a relationship with her which inspires him to want more out of life. Certainly he doesn't want to end up like his father (Chris Cooper), who will spend the rest of his life in prison. He tells Jem that their next job will be his last but his declaration meets with fierce resistance. For one thing, Jem doesn't want to break up the crew. For another, he doesn't want to let Doug walk out on Krista (Blake Lively), his on-again, off-again girlfriend who is also Jem's sister. Furthermore, their boss, Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite), isn't willing to let him walk away and warns Doug that bad things will happen to people he loves unless he falls back in line. Doug reluctantly agrees to play ball, though he knows that the heat - in the form of FBI agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) - is on and the walls are closing in.

The acting in the film is very strong, as it should be with such a great cast. Doug is the strong silent type and Affleck plays him well, especially against Renner, whose Jem is a bundle of energy looking for a means to violently expend itself; Doug is the calm, Jem is the storm. Though he makes a lot of noise about the trouble Claire could bring them, Jem is the real wild card, the character whose actions threaten to bring hell down on everyone, and Renner pretty much steals the show. Hall, Hamm and Lively all turn in solid performances, though their characters never get to become much more than "types" and Postlethwaite and Cooper make the most of little screentime (Cooper is only in one scene but it's an effective and memorable one).

The direction here is confident and assured, particularly in the action scenes. There's a terrific chase sequence through narrow streets about half-way through the film that makes for a great set-piece, as does the prolonged shoot-out that marks the story's climax. The quieter moments of the film are handled equally well, firmly establishing a sense of place and the rules of the setting. Early on Doug and Claire have a discussion about kids calling her a "tunie," a conversation which nicely addresses the changes that gentrification is bringing to the established order of the neighborhood without beating the audience over the head with the point. The only real criticism that I have of the screenplay is that the ending seems a little too tidy and, perhaps, not fully earned. It isn't enough of a character-driven drama for the ending to comfortably fit with the rest of the film. Still, it's a solid effort and, alongside Gone, Baby, Gone, announces Affleck as a director worth watching.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday's Top 5... High School Movies

#5: Election

Alexander Payne's hard-edged film about a power struggle between a frustrated and disillusioned high school teacher and an overachieving student is my favourite of his films. It's smart and funny and features Reese Witherspoon's very best performance.

#4: Ferris Bueller's Day Off

This was one of my favourite movies when I was a kid. It's been a number of years since I've seen it, but I still have very fond memories of it. Matthew Broderick makes for the perfect protagonist in this saga of a day spent skipping out on school.

#3: Clueless

One of my favourite movies period. I mean, what's not to love? It boasts a great script based on Jane Austen's Emma, charming performances across the board, and a heart admist the popculture based comedy.

#2: The Breakfast Club

Perhaps the ultimate teen movie. It's not the only film which directly engages with the archetypes and social rules that can make up the high school experience, but few others have done it as memorably or had such a lasting impact.

#1: Rebel Without A Cause

Nicholas Ray's anthem to teenage angst practically invented the teenager. Factor in great performances from Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and James Dean in his defining performance, and it's no wonder this one is a classic.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Owning Mahoney (2003)

* * *

Director: Richard Kwietniowski
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Mahowny is a purist. He's not in it for drugs or women or booze. He might not even be in it for the money. Rather, he's all about the thrill of gambling, the higher the stakes, the better. Richard Kwietniowski's Owning Mahowny is a careful study in how a life is built around and then destroyed by this kind of thrill seeking.

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Dan Mahowny, a Toronto bank manager with a gambling problem. Time and again he's told that he has a gambling problem and time and again he corrects someone, insisting that what he has is a "financial problem." He's in so deep that even his bookie (Maury Chaykin) thinks it would be better if he were to abstain for a while, but of course you can't reason with an addict. For Mahowny, placing bets is as necessary to his survival as oxygen.

Thanks to his job, he has access to a lot of money and he uses that access to carry on with his habit, setting up dummy accounts which he can use to bankroll himself. By the time he's caught he's defrauded the bank of just over $10 million and, in the process, won huge sums of money in Atlantic City and Las Vegas and then lost it all through his inability to walk away. He's a figure of some fascination to the men running the casinos, particularly Victor Foss (John Hurt), who adopts Mahowny as a special project and seems almost saddened when Mahowny blows it all. Losing the money, however, isn't the worst of it and soon afterwards he's under arrest and called to account for what he's done.

Hoffman brings a vulnerability to the role that is absolutely essential to the film's success. Mahowny isn't a bad guy - he's short-sighted and selfish, but he isn't malicious and he isn't trying to do anyone any harm. He's quite simply blinded by this compulsion to place bets and keep placing them until he has nothing left to bet. Mahowny is based on real-life Toronto banker Brian Molony, who served 6 years in prison for fraud in the 1980s and claimed that from the age of twelve right up to his arrest, he had never gone more than 72 hours without placing a bet. For him as for his fictionalized counterpart, gambling isn't about joy, it's about need.

For the most part, Owning Mahowny really worked for me. Kwietniowski does a great job dramatizing Mahowny's situation in the quiet terms that define the character. Foss gives Mahowny the chance to indulge in other vices - sending a hooker up to his room, for example - but Mahowny declines them all because all he wants to do is be at the tables. Much of the film is just that, Mahowny standing at a table, the chips either piling up around him or disappearing at an alarming rate. Kwietniowski is able to film these scenes in a way that keeps the tension high and gives the story some momentum. Hoffman delivers a great performance and though I'm a little less keen on Minnie Driver's performance as Mahowny's girlfriend, she holds her own in a largely thankless role.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)

* * * *

Director: Max Ophuls
Starring: Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica

The Earrings of Madame de... has been on my list of movies to see for a very long time and, fortunately, it did not disappoint. Max Opuls's beautiful looking and beautifully crafted film is most certainly worthy of being called a masterpiece - it's the kind of movie people mean when they say that they don't make 'em like they used to.

The film takes place towards the end of the 19th century and concerns the romantic escapades of a trio of aristocrats and the social rituals that both protect them and tear them apart. At the center of the story is Louise, the Comtesse de... (Danielle Darrieux) who is comfortably and amiably married to General Andre de... (Charles Boyer). They have what I suppose could be called an open marriage, with the General remarking at one point that he finds her suitors irritating - though it's never entirely clear whether he believes she's sexually involved with other men or whether he believes it's nothing more than flirting.

The plot is constructed around a pair of earrings which the General gave to his wife as a wedding gift. In the film's opening moments she sells the earrings in order to cover some gambling debts and then lies that she's lost them. The General knows that this is a lie because the jeweller to whom she sold them turned around and sold them back to the General, but he allows her to believe her deception has worked and then gives the earrings to his mistress as a parting gift. The mistress, like the wife, has a gambling problem and eventually looses the earrings and they later fall into the possession of the Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica). The Baron briefly encounters the Countess while travelling and is smitten and then meets her again in Paris, where they embark on an affair. He makes a gift to her of the earrings and she explains their reappearance to her husband by pretending to have found them in a pair of gloves but, of course, the General knows she never lost the earrings in the first place and his realization that she's actually in love with the Baron brings everything to a head.

The story is obviously highly contrived but the film itself is so charming that that's easy to forgive. There is a strong comedic thread running through it surrounding the frequent reappearances of the earrings - the General buys them three times and when they become available for sale a forth time, the jeweller calls upon the General for their "usual business" - but for the most part it's a solid romantic drama. Ophuls expresses the evolution of the Countess' affair with the Baron through a sequence where they dance together at several balls. It's a great sequence because it seems unbroken - they dance and whenever they disappear behind a pillar, they come out in different costumes and their dialogue indicates the passage of time. It's an elegant and efficient way to establish their relationship and move on to the meat of the story, which is the fallout from the affair.

The General isn't so much concerned about the fact of the affair as long as it's discrete but once the earrings reappear, he can't pretend not to know about it. He explains the situation to the Baron, who agrees that the affair must end, but the damage is done: the Countess is in love and can never go back to the way of life she was living before. The Baron and the General are playing by the rules, but the rules can no longer contain the Countess, leading to despair. The film gets increasingly melodramatic as it approaches its conclusion, but it builds up to that point in a way that feels natural and which makes sense. It helps of course that there are such solid actors helping to bring it to that point, and Darrieux in particular shines both in the lighter and more dramatic scenes.

The Earrings of Madame de... is a really great film, beautifully made in both a technical and an artistic sense. It has held up extremely well over the past fifty plus years and remains very engaging and entertaining. I can't wait to watch it again.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: The Last Station (2009)

* * *

Director: Michael Hoffman
Starring: Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer

The Last Station is one of those movies that was on my radar last Oscar season but slipped through the cracks due to the volume of quality films released at about the same time. As much as I love an ornate costume drama, I'm kind of glad I put this one off as long as I did because, while I liked it quite a bit, it didn't blow me away. It's a decent movie but nothing particularly special.

Set in 1910, the final year in the life of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), The Last Station is seen largely through the eyes of Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), Tolstoy's new secretary. Valentin is a passionate Tolstoian, eager to help advance the ideals that Tolstoy represents and which are aggressively pursued by another Tolstoian, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). Valentin's faith is almost immediately shaken by two women: Tolstoy's wife Sofya (Helen Mirren), and fellow Tolstoy follower Masha (Kerry Condon).

One of the principles that Tolstoy advances is celibacy, which Valentin takes to heart until he meets Masha. Since Tolstoy himself hardly adheres to this principle, this laspe is really only a minor flaw in Valentin's vision of the ideal. The bigger problem is that Vladimir and Sofya are at odds with each other over Tolstoy and what will become of his legacy once he dies, and Valentin finds himself leaning more towards Sofya's side. As secretary and, in many ways, confidante to the increasingly lonely and isolated Sofya, he is privy to many of the ins and outs of the Tolstoy marriage. He sees the pain suffered by both Sofya and Tolstoy over the rift in their long and, for the most part, happy marriage and though he understands Vladimir's position - which includes making Tolstoy's works public domain - he finds that his sympathy increasingly lies with Sofya.

The story unrolls easily, starting out with more of a comedic bent and gradually becoming more dramatic as it gets closer to its sad conclusion. That being said, the film doesn't delve quite as deeply as it might have. Tolstoy is a towering historical figure and The Last Station doesn't really live up to his legend. As a study of the woman behind the famous man and her struggles in the face of his fame, however, it's a bit more meaningful. Sofya is considered selfish by Tolstoy's entourage but as a viewer it's easy to feel for her. Her husband, to whom she has devoted her life, for whom she copied the manuscript for War and Peace seven times, has slipped away from her in his final years, seemingly having replaced her with Vladimir, whose photo adorns the wall above his desk. Their power struggle, which is occassionally as much about Valentin's loyalty as about Tolstoy himself, drives the narrative, though the two characters have relatively few scenes together.

The thing that The Last Station really has going for it is the acting. As Sofya, Mirren truly is a commanding presence and though her actions sometimes border on farce, she's such a forceful character that you still take her very seriously. As Tolstoy, Plummer is a match for her at every moment and between them they convey the lifetime that their characters have spent together. The best scenes are the ones between Mirren and Plummer and it's really no wonder that they received Oscar nominations for these performances. I think the film is worth seeing for Mirren and Plummer (and, to a lesser extent, for McAvoy who renders an earnest and thoughtful performance as an idealist confronted with the reality of his ideals), but apart from the actors, there's nothing about the film that makes it anything more than merely adequate.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Unsung Performances: Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory

There are a number of performances from Kirk Douglas that would qualify as "unsung" but the lack of recognition for his work in Paths of Glory (not to mention the lack of recognition for the film in general) is particularly egregious. His performance as the crusading Col. Dax, fighting an unwinnable battle against the military hierarchy, is easily one of the best of his long career.

Set during World War I, Paths of Glory is essentially about class warfare. In it, French officers (who come from society's upper echelons) use the enlisted men as pawns, objects that can easily be sacrificed either to gain glory for the officer or to take the fall for his mistakes. In this world, a man like Col. Dax is decidedly out of place. When approached by his commanding officer Gen. Mireau and informed that he's to lead an attack on "the ant hill," he knows that the success of the mission is next to impossible but he accepts the task because Mireau is determined to make it happen and Dax would be loathe to force his men to follow someone else into what is almost certain death. His sense of justice, however, is offended by Mireau's offhand remark that half the men are likely to die in pursuit of the objective - unlike Mireau, Dax recognizes the men as people rather than numbers.

The mission is an utter failure and, in an attempt to save face for having ordered it, Mireau blames the inherent cowardice of the soldiers and orders that three of them be executed. Recognizing this gross injustice, Dax insists on representing the men at their trial, though the results are a foregone conclusion as far as nearly everyone else is concerned. Douglas is at his most skillful in the trial scene, in which he must play Dax as contained and respectful in the face of his superiors while also making it clear that he knows what is happening is wrong and that it not only upsets him, but disgusts him.

Dax's rage only grows in the scenes following the trial, even though he's able to deliver payback to two of the film's villains. One is a lieutenant whose cowardice brought about the death of one man during a night patrol, and who uses the opportunity to pick a soldier to be executed to cover that earlier incident up by picking the only other person who knows what happened during the patrol. Dax knows what he's done and settles the score as best he can by choosing the lieutenant to take charge of the executions, forcing him to face what he's done. The lieutenant tries to weasel out of it but Dax is firm and the mock-friendliness with which he delivers the order is chilling. The lieutenant is the only person he deals with to whom he can actually met out some form of punishment, and Douglas puts so much bite into the scene that you almost feel bad for him.

Mireau gets his comeuppance with the help of his superior Gen. Broulard, the man who put the idea of taking the ant hill into his head in the first place and who insists to Dax that he's the only person in the situation who is completely innocent. After Mireau shuffles off to receive his own punishment - a punishment that will likely have more consequences in the court of public opinion than anywhere else - Broulard makes the mistake of congratulating Dax, assuming that he has outmaneuvered Mireau in order to get his job. At this point, Dax has reached his limit and Douglas begins to let go of some of the anger that has been bottled up inside the character for so long. The games these people make of human lives disgust him, but as Broulard persists in his failure to see his own fault, Dax comes to an important realization. Being angry at men like Broulard or Mireau is useless because they simply aren't capable of seeing how inhuman their actions are. They are worthy of scorn but more than that, they deserve pity for their lack of humanity.

The final moments of the film are quiet for Dax. He's spent his rage and realized its futility and all he can do now is lead what's left of his men as best he can. Throughout the film - particularly in a scene where Dax marches through the trench - Douglas' silence says more than words ever could, his expression grim but determined. Douglas carries the film ably, creating a strong sense of morality at its centre. It's a must see performance in a must see film.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Actor-Directors

#5: Sean Penn

Penn doesn't direct a ton of films - only 4 in the last 19 years - but every time he does, he puts out work that is heaped with praise. His output as an actor might be a little more hit and miss, but he's still got 2 Best Actor Oscars to his credit.

#4: Clint Eastwood

Eastwood has been stepping behind the camera since 1971, crafting films in a wide variety of genres and often directing himself. With a string of well received films, not to mention 2 Oscars for Best Picture and 2 for Best Director, his name has become synonymous with prestige.

#3: Charlie Chaplin

One of the greatest and most lasting stars ever to grace the screen, not to mention a master craftsman. His films are timeless classics and his character The Tramp is one of the most recognizable in film history.

#2: Buster Keaton

The yin to Chaplin's yang. Keaton was not as successful as Chaplin, but his work is just as enduring. He was, quite simply, a brilliant performer and director.

#1: Orson Welles

Could there be any other? Few actors have ever been able to match the screen presence that Welles had and few artists can match the skill he showed behind the camera. Not all his films are great - he's infamous for having made some films solely for the money that he would then use to fund a pet project - but even his less stellar films have some redeeming quality.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Escape to Canada (2005)

* * *

Director: Albert Nerenberg

Canada. It's a decadent wonderland. You may not know that, it's a pretty well-kept secret, even to those of us who actually live here. Albert Nerenberg's documentary tackles two contentious issues - gay marriage and the war on drugs - and examines the way Canada's treatment of them differs from that of the US. Lighthearted but veering dangerously into an aggressive us-versus-them mentality a little too often, Escape To Canada is an interesting film to watch today in terms of how much and how little has really changed.

Escape To Canada explores a strange period of legal limbo which occurred during the summer of 2003. In one day in a courthouse in Ontario the right of gays and lesbians to marry was recognized and marijuana was decriminalized - decisions which were cause for celebration for many people and cause for alarm for others. Much of the film is concerned with the reaction to these events from the US and Nerenberg makes the argument that this is evidence that after 9/11, Canada and the US, which had been heading in the same direction, suddenly found themselves on diverging paths. I don't know how true that ultimately is - I don't think the two nations have ever been quite as close socially/culturally as is often assumed, I think the differences were maybe just less pronounced before - but obviously Canada's decision not to participate in the war in Iraq made relations undeniably frosty.

The war on terror is somewhat awkwardly folded into the plot here as Nerenberg attempts to make the case that embracing AWOL American soldiers was part of the "new" and freer Canadian society. This part of his argument is the weakest, for a couple somewhat contradictory reasons. For starters, Canada as a place of refuge for Americans wishing to escape armed conflict is hardly new. Secondly, if anything, the Canadian government's reaction to AWOL soldiers is harsher now than it was during, say the Vietnam War, which means we're going backwards instead of forwards in this respect. The film would have been stronger without mixing in this element, to which it doesn't really even devote that much time, comparatively.

As to the two issues really at hand here, it's interesting to look back at the summer of 2003 from the perspective of 2010. Despite strong feelings of opposition seven years ago, gay marriage is pretty much an accepted fact of life in Canada now. I mean, if the Conservatives under Stephen Harper couldn't manage to reinstate the "traditional" definition of marriage in 2006, I think the Civil Marriage Act is here to stay. Marijuana, however, is still a murky issue. A lot of people, including some politicians, support legalization and the Ontario courts have repeatedly ruled against marijuana laws. The film makes a strong argument for legalization and highlights the major stumbling block in that direction: the Canada-US border. Nerenberg closely examines how the US war on drugs has dictated policy on the north side of the border despite more liberal attitudes within the general population that actually, you know, lives in Canada. This is an issue that isn't likely to be resolved anytime soon and probably not until there's a major shift in US policy towards drugs.

Escape To Canada is an ambitious film and it makes a lot of interesting points but coming in at only 80 minutes and splitting its focus between two issues leaves it feeling just a bit light. It doesn't really have enough time to fully explore either issue and it isn't really able to tie them together as one theme in a way that's really satisfactory. It is, however, a very entertaining film and at times, incredibly moving. Also, it reminded me how much I miss that lunatic Jean Chretien. Come back Jean!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Review: The American (2010)

* * * *

Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: George Clooney

Patience. Precision. Craftsmanship. All are words that could describe The American both in terms of form and content. It is a slow movie and quiet, which won't appeal to everyone, but it's beautifully shot and well-acted so hopefully audiences will give it a chance because it definitely deserves to be seen. Anton Corbijn's old school style thriller, based on a novel by Martin Booth, is a perfect way to kick off the fall movie season.

George Clooney stars as Jack, or possibly Edward, an assassin who finds that he himself has become the target. He flees to Rome to discuss the situation with his boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen), and is sent to a small village to wait things out. After a quick look around, Jack opts for a different village and tosses the cell phone Pavel has provided for him - even his allies can't be trusted in a time like this. Jack keeps in touch with Pavel through payphones, which is how he ends up with a new assignment, one which he later decides will be his last.

He meets with a woman named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) and then gets to work on a custom-made gun according to her instructions. Most of his time is spent on the assignment and in dodging people he's certain are out to kill him, but he also has time to make connections with people in the village. One is the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who recognizes Jack as a man with a troubled soul and reaches out to him, one sinner to another. The other is Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute with whom Jack gradually develops a relationship, even though the events of the film's opening moments have taught him how dangerous such connections can be.

We know, due to the benefit of storytelling logic, that either Mathilde or Clara will ultimately betray Jack. It is to the film's credit that it keeps us guessing who it will be as long as it does. There are two scenes that take place in a secluded area by a lake - one with Mathilde, the other with Clara - that are so fraught with tension that all you can do is hold your breath and wait for the boom to drop. The American is a film built on that kind of tension, making you wait for the payoff. An argument could be made, I suppose, that "nothing" happens in this movie, but I would have to respectfully disagree. It's a cerebral and very interior story but there is a narrative progression that is taking place and I found it totally engrossing.

Corbijn, who began his career as a photographer, has a fantastic eye for composing shots and that, in conjunction with the cinematography of Martin Ruhe and the fact that the location itself is stunning, makes this one of the most beautiful looking films I've seen in quite a while. The American is Corbijn's second film, his first being Control, a biopic of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. I was pretty keen on Control, too, so I can't wait to see where Corbijn goes from here. He's a great director in terms of style while at the same time he doesn't let style overwhelm the content of the story.

As for Clooney, his performance here is probably the best I've ever seen from him. Like the film itself, the performance is very quiet and Clooney has to suggest a lot more than he ultimately reveals. I don't know that we ever truly get to "know" Jack, but I found Clooney to be very effective in the role, articulating a great deal through little more than subtle shifts in his expression. I don't know that The American is high profile enough to get Clooney much attention from the awarding groups at the end of the year, but he'd definitely deserve it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book vs Film: Dangerous Liaisons vs Dangerous Liaisons

Plot: Two dissolute aristocrats wreak havoc on the innocents around them, corrupting everything and everyone in their paths. One, Madame de Merteuil, wants to get revenge on a former lover by arranging the seduction of his bride to be; the other, Valmont, simply wants the pleasure of knowing that he can make a virtuous woman break her marital vows. Sex, violence and all manner intrigue ensues.

Primary Differences Between Book and Film: The film really isn't different from the novel in any significant way - when a story is this perfectly crafted, there's little that needs changing. The ending of the film is slightly different from the book, but just as devastating.

For the Book: It's brilliant. Nearly 230 years after its initial publication, it remains a thoroughly engaging and entertaining read, the kind you burn through because you just can't put it down. It is also, given the time in which it was written, surprisingly direct with regards to sex, perhaps even more so than the film.

For the Film: The acting, the acting and... the acting. Yes, even Keanu Reeves - Danceny is a "duh" kind of character even in the book so Reeves' performance really doesn't seem out of place in the film. You also have Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman turning in great performances. Beyond the actors, Stephen Frears' direction is also great and I actually think that the final moments of the film are stronger than the finale of the novel (even if only by a hair).

Winner: Tie. The book is awesome and so is the movie. You can't go wrong with either.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Review: The Ghost Writer (2010)

* * * *

Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams

There is something sinister lurking at the edges of The Ghost Writer. Director Roman Polanksi establishes it immediately and then maintains it for two hours, masterfully demonstrating how much more important mood is than action in a thriller. Factor in a great cast and the story's thinly veiled, but nevertheless intriguing, portrayal of Tony Blair (or should I say "Tony Blair"?) and you've got a film worth making note of.

The ghost writer, unnamed in the film and played by Ewan McGregor, has been hired to re-draft the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) and to do it quickly so that it can be rushed into print. His predecessor has just died under mysterious circumstances (officially called a suicide) and the manuscript he left behind doesn't quite cut it for the publishers. When he arrives at Martha's Vineyard to begin working with Lang, the Ghost reads the manuscript and discovers the problem: it's dry and dull and lacking heart. He begins interviewing Lang in order to get at the man behind the policies but the process is derailed when Lang find himself in the middle of a political firestorm, charged with war crimes for allegedly handing over British citizens to the CIA to be tortured.

Lang flees to Washington for a few photo ops with the U.S. administration while the Ghost cools his heels in Martha's Vinyard, working on the book and also beginning to look into his predecessor's death. He finds evidence, discovered and hidden by the first ghost, which reveals that Lang is lying about how and when he became politically active; he learns that the body of the first ghost shouldn't have washed up where it did on the beach and that a woman who saw flashlights in the area that night fell into a coma after giving a statement to police; he learns of a connection between Lang and a rumored CIA operative. Just what, exactly, has he stumbled into and what secrets are hidden in the original manuscript?

Polanski keeps the audience on our toes by allowing a feeling of menace to permeate every part of the film. From the dark color pallet which relies heavily on greys, to the cold, sleek interior design of the Martha's Vinyard house, and the forbidding aura of everyone who seems to surround Lang, every element of the film just leaves us waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the Ghost to finally (and fatally) fall into the trap which has been set. Even the simple act of a note being passed through a crowd is imbued with a sense of doom. Whatever your feelings about Polanski as a person, it can't be denied that he's a skilled director. This a film guided by someone confident in his ability to craft and tell a story and the result is totally engrossing. From a techinical perspective, I think The Ghost Writer is about as close to perfect as a film can get and that final scene is positively exquisite.

As far as the performances go, there isn't a weak link. Brosnan's Lang is elusive, a man who doesn't want facts to spoil a good story and who, despite his success, is still yearning to be taken seriously as a politician. He is dependent on his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), who acts as his most trusted advisor and yet he jeopardises that relationship through an affair with his assistant (Kim Cattrall) - a secret so open that Ruth has no qualms about angrily alluding to it in front of a room full of people. As Ruth, Williams plays the story's wildcard, the political wife who seems better suited to the job than her husband and whose motivations aren't always clear (at least on first viewing). She's the mystery within the mystery and Williams' performance is fantastic.

McGregor is great, too, though the role, by its very nature, is more muted than those that surround it - the everyman who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances that he doesn't fully comprehend will always be a little less interesting than the rogue's gallery that surrounds and impedes him. Still, McGregor is able to bring both a weariness and a wariness to his performance which helps ground the story and keep it moving forward, and the mixture of helplessness and nonchalance with which he plays a seduction scene is one of the film's lighter and more memorable moments. One of the things that ultimately makes the film so gripping is that the Ghost is so likeable that you really don't want something bad to happen to him and that threat of something bad seems to underscore even the most innocuous scenes. While watching The Ghost Writer, I couldn't help but think to myself, 'This is how you do it.'

*side note: thinking about it afterwards, I found myself nagged by thoughts that there is no way that Olivia Williams is old enough to be playing her character. IMDB confirms that at the time her character is said to have been at Cambridge, Williams hereself was actually about 4. Ah, the magic of movie reality!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Movies I Can't Believe I Haven't Seen Yet

#5: Planet of the Apes (1968)

Sure, I know all about those damned dirty apes, but only second-hand. I've never actually seen Planet of the Apes or any of its sequels/prequels/remakes. Frankly, I'm not sure I'd be able to watch it without thinking of the Troy McClure-starring stage musical version from The Simpsons.

#4: The Usual Suspects (1995)

I know, right? How have I not found the time in the last 15 years to catch up with this one? I'm pretty sure my brother even has it on DVD. No excuse!

#3: Touch of Evil (1958)

I'm a big Orson Wells fan - as actor, as director, as writer, whatever - so I really don't know why I've never managed to see this one. Obviously, this is a situation that must be rectified as soon as possible.

#2: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

There are countless reasons why I should have seen this by now - I love the book, John Ford is one of the most masterful directors of all time, Henry Fonda is in it, the list goes on - and yet... here we are.

#1: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966)

Who hasn't seen The Good, The Bad & The Ugly? Uh, me. Why not? I dunno. Better get on that, I guess.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Suck (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Rob Stefaniuk
Starring: Rob Stefaniuk, Jessica Pare

I've been racking my brain trying to figure out the best way to describe Suck and I think it's thus: It's like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Bram Stoker's Dracula had a baby and allowed it to be raised by Dracula: Dead and Loving It. It's a horror-comedy-musical (not necessarily in that order) with style to spare and cameos from Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, and Henry Rollins, plus Moby playing hilariously against type.

Writer/director Rob Stefaniuk stars as Joey, frontman of the fledgling rock band The Winners, which also includes bassist Jennifer (Jessica Pare), guitarist Tyler (Paul Anthony) and drummer Sam (Mike Lobel). Things are not going well for the group. In fact, things are going so badly that their manager, Jeff (Dave Foley), quits and suggests that they give Japanese hip hop a try (It's going to be huge). To make matters worse, after a show in Montreal Jennifer disappears with a freaky looking guy who turns out to be a vampire named Queeny (Dimitri Coats). When Jennifer finally catches up with the guys in Toronto, it's immediately apparent that something is very different about her, something glam and ethereal that captivates the audience that night. The band starts to develop a following, but only because people are so intrigued by Jennifer.

At first Jennifer tries to keep her vampirism a secret, though that becomes difficult after she devours a convenience store clerk during a rest stop. She enlists the band's roadie Hugo (Chris Ratz) to be her helper, forcing him to dismember the bodies after she's killed someone and promising that one day she'll make him a vampire, too. However, after she kills Beef (Moby), the frontman of another band, her secret is out and Joey makes her promise to stop killing people, insisting that if she's hungry they'll stop and she can feed on a cow or something. He also makes her promise not to turn anyone else in the band. Neither of these promises are kept and soon the entire band is made up of vampires and they're rocketed to stardom. The only problem, aside from the moral complications that seem to plague only Joey, is that there's a vampire hunter on the loose (Malcolm McDowell) and he's pretty determined to rid the world of vampires in order to avenge the death of his girlfriend decades earlier.

Suck is pretty high on camp. It would have to be in order to work. It plays on the Dracula mythology - the vampire hunter is named Van Helsing (Eddie Van Helsing) and Hugo is very much a Renfield figure right down to eating flies - and also on the more general rock star mythology, particularly the trope of the talented musician felled by the excesses of stardom. Vampirism here is so closely likened to drug addiction that when Tyler asks Jennifer to turn him, he argues that she ought to since he always shares whatever he's holding with her. She argues that it's hardly the same, but his reasoning ultimately does convince her to let him share in her new lifestyle. Further, vampirism isn't envisoned as a permanent state of being since Van Helsing insists that once he kills the Vampire Queen, all the other vampires will be released and become human again, thus kicking the habit. Vampirism as drug isn't really a new idea but the film pulls it off well enough that the concept doesn't seem derivative or tired.

I went into this movie not really knowing much about it and not knowing what to expect and I really enjoyed it. It doesn't take itself too seriously in terms of tone and it's very well-made in terms of construction. The only real criticism I have of it is that the ending is a bit abrupt, rushing through the events that will motivate the band to want to give up the glamour and fame in order to be human again. Other than that, though, it's a pretty cool movie that I look forward to watching again.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Great Last Scenes: Aguirre, The Wrath of God

Year: 1972
Director: Werner Herzog
Great Because...: Madness is fascinating, especially when it's on such a grand scale. How much crazier can you get than the lone survivor on a raft in the middle of the Amazon that's being overrun with monkeys, soliloquizing about how he's this close to taking over the world? ...Did I mention the monkeys?

Aguirre, The Wrath of God tells the story of an ill-fated mission to find El Dorado. The journey is an immediate disaster with the Spanish conquistadors attempting to make their way through the dense jungle in heavy armour, dragging canons along with them down narrow mountain paths. Things go from bad to worse as members of the party begin dying, supplies dwindle, and the rafts are carried away when the river rises. As the situation grows increasingly dire, Aguirre, the expedition's second-in-command, gains more and more power.

After wresting control from the expedition's leader, Don Pedro de Ursua, Aguirre rules through oppression and terror as the numbers continue to diminish and the morale of the survivors falls to an all-time low. Finally an attack by Indians kills off the remaining explorers, who are starving and lost in hallucinations. Aguirre is the only survivor and as he paces the raft, trying to drive off the monkeys who are invading it, he states: "I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God!"

Although it's difficult to argue that Aguirre is a character who descends into madness - he's pretty much crazy from beginning to end - the extent of his insanity in this moment is truly captivating. He has so thoroughly lost - he is a single man, standing alone against both the hostility of the natives and the hostility of nature - and yet he believes himself to be on the cusp of victory, he believes that this is only the beginning. As Aguirre stands victorious amidst his imagined empire, director Werner Herzog has the camera circle the raft multiple times, as if unable to comprehend the sight. Around and around it goes, trying to see what Aguirre sees but the vision is elusive and the truth of the situation is all too apparent: nature will win, it will swallow this last conquistador alive and bury him deep within its recesses.

Herzog, no stranger himself to impossible, insane ambitions, is of course largely responsible for guiding the film to this strong, strange end, but Klaus Kinksi, who plays Aguirre, is integral to this success. In his hands Aguirre is a live wire, an intense, brooding presence threatening to explode at any time. His madness isn't showy, it seems entirely natural and realistic and while we don't believe in Aguirre's vision, we believe that he can believe in it. His wrath may ultimately be futile, but if ever anyone was going to conquer the odds and nature itself, it would have to be Aguirre and in these final moments he is mythologized even as his dream is denounced. These final, haunting images from this truly fantastic film are amongst the best ever produced by Herzog - and that is truly saying something.