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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Review: Locke (2014)

* * *

Director: Steven Knight
Starring: Tom Hardy

Tom Hardy is an incredibly magnetic actor. Very few could do what he does so successfully in Locke, where he remains the only person on screen for all 84 of the film's minutes and renders a performance as subtle as it is powerful. This film about a man whose entire life slowly implodes as he drives from Birmingham to London practically demands overacting just to fill the void where other characters would usually be, but Hardy and director Steven Knight are confident enough to let a low key performance guide the ship. That said, I'm not sure whether the film ever fully transcends its premise in order to feel like a story in its own right as opposed to an exercise in strict minimalism, but it definitely can't be denied that Hardy gives an exceptionally strong performance.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Rebelle (2012)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Kim Nguyen
Starring: Rachel Mwanza, Serge Kanyinda
Country: Canada

Childhood is a precious commodity in Rebelle (also known as War Witch), lasting barely a dozen years for the film’s protagonist before it is demolished completely, thrusting her into a way of life that most adults wouldn’t have the fortitude to survive. Throughout the film she is telling her story to her child, not yet born, as a means of explaining how she has been brought to this point and why she might not be capable of loving him or her once she’s given birth. This may sound depressing but Rebelle, though a hard film in many ways, does not dwell in pathos and instead brims with life even as it surrounds its protagonist with death. This is a story about war, but it’s also a story about love, survival and, amazingly, hope.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday's Top 5... My Most Anticipated Movies of the Fall

#5: Dear White People

I've been looking forward to this comedy since the reviews started coming out of Sundance, so it really can't come out soon enough for me. Whether the film lives up to the promise of its trailer remains to be seen, but even if it only turns out to be half as funny and sharp as the trailer, it'll still have the edge over the vast majority of comedies that have come out so far this year.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Archangel (1990)

* * *

Director: Guy Maddin
Starring: Kyle McCulloch, Kathy Marykuca, Sarah Neville, Ari Cohen

Watching a Guy Maddin movie is like watching a movie from a time and a place that has never existed. Archangel was made in 1990, is set in 1919, emulates the look of films from the silent and early sound era, and seems like it comes from another planet. It is a gloriously bizarre movie in which several characters are either suffering from, or thought to be suffering from, amnesia, a war is being fought for reasons most involved don't understand, and a "cowardly" man is stabbed so that his intestines spill out and then rallies to strangle his attacker to death with them. Archangel, like pretty much all of Maddin's works, is a film that will appeal to a limited audience, but if you like weird little movies that are as creepy as they are darkly funny, then I suggest you look no further than this one.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)

* * *

Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Starring: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon

The Hundred-Foot Journey is pretty much exactly the movie you think it's going to be. It's a gentle, unchallenging, workmanlike film with low stakes but plenty of charm. That's not a criticism, incidentally; the world of cinema needs those types of films just as much as it needs the enormously ambitious productions that flood the marketplace towards the end of the year. In the grand scheme of things, The Hundred-Foot Journey is a very minor work, but it's also a refreshing film in that it does something that very few other movies do by giving voice and agency to characters who are usually relegated to the supporting ranks. The Hundred-Foot Journey isn't going to change the world and it isn't reinventing the wheel, but it's an often delightful trifle that delivers what it promises.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review: The Gold Rush (1925)

* * * *

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Georgia Hale, Mack Swain

I don't know if I would call The Gold Rush Charlie Chaplin's best film (though I am going to argue that it features his best performance), but I think that it might be the film that best exemplifies Chaplin's ability to raise sentimentality to an art form. I'm not ashamed to say that as the film approached its end with The Tramp in a position of triumph and started to hint at how it might all be stripped away from him, I was actually tempted to stop the movie because I couldn't bear the thought of seeing The Tramp lose everything after all that. I should have known better, of course, since Chaplin is an unabashed master at happy endings, but it's a testament to how expertly Chaplin could play on an audience's emotions that he could potentially bring you to that point and make you feel so deeply invested in his silly little character, even if you're a cynical cinephile like me.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: A Knight's Tale (2001)

Director: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Heath Ledger, Paul Bettany
Domestic Gross: $56,569,702

It's a story that is, unfortunately, not very unusual: the right film comes out at the wrong time, leaving it looking like a failure when, on closer inspection, it's really a success. The world was not ready for A Knight's Tale in 2001. If the film were released today, I suspect that it would be more rapturously received, what with Game of Thrones having brought increased popularity to medieval-esque stories and Quentin Tarantino's two forays into "period" pieces done their part to naturalize the mix of contemporary music with historical settings. In 2001, however, a lot of critics seemed to get hung up on the anachronistic use of music (one exception was Roger Ebert, who in his review wrote, "[director Brian] Helgeland has pointed out that an orchestral score would be equally anachronistic, since orchestras hadn't been invented in the 1400s. For that matter, neither had movies."), and as a result the film maybe earned an unfair reputation for "weirdness" that kept it from finding a larger audience. But time has been kind to A Knight's Tale, a film which might be a bit odd but is also a lot of fun, as of course it must be since it makes use of "We Will Rock You," a song which is incapable of being anything but awesome no matter the time period.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Review: Night Moves (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard

Director Kelly Reichardt is not a filmmaker who could ever be accused of making plot-driven films. Her films tend to be driven more by character and mood than by plot, and in that sense her latest, Night Moves, might be said to be the closest thing she's made to a "conventional" film. That said, Night Moves is only conventional relative to Reichardt's previous films and not when measured against just about anything else you can find at the multiplex. In other hands, this story of three environmental activists and their plot to blow up a dam would take the form of a thriller, but Reichardt's style, which favors a meditative tone rather than an urgent one, is probably too much of a slow burner to properly qualify as a "thriller." It's a character film built around a centerpiece sequence of incredible tension that will satisfy some and move too sedately for others, but if you're a viewer who has yet to experience Reichardt's work but want to, Night Moves may prove to be the perfect gateway.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Review: Boyhood (2014)

* * * *

Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater

I remember hearing about Richard Linklater's ambitious plan to film a movie over the course of a decade, allowing the actors to age naturally on screen as the story is being told, shortly before it started filming back in 2002 and thinking that it sounded like an incredibly interesting idea, but wondering how he would get around the gimmick inherent in the premise. The answer, as it turns out, was to make the film as if there is no gimmick at all, allowing each segment to exist within its own time without having those points in time become in any way the focal point. Boyhood is not a series of snapshots about what life was like in 2002 and then 2003 and then 2004, etc.; instead it manages to capture the rhythm of the steady flow of time as we grow and change during its course, ensuring that the story feels whole rather than like a series of pieces put together. Boyhood is a film that not every filmmaker could have pulled off with such grace, and Linklater makes it look and feel effortless. This movie is a masterpiece, plain and simple.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: Speed Racer (2008)

Director: Andy Washowski & Lana Washowski
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Matthew Fox, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon
Domestic Gross: $43,945,766

I don't suffer from ADHD, but I certainly felt like I did while watching Speed Racer, the Wachowski's hyper-kinetic adaptation of the anime/manga series. With its images flooded with color and sparkling things, sequences in which objects move at impossible speeds, a story that is loaded with subplots, and more changes in tone than any one film can gracefully handle, Speed Racer is an utterly exhausting movie to watch and, even though everything in it is moving so fast, it nevertheless manages to feel about a million years long thanks to its overly busy narrative. I think that Bound and The Matrix are two of the best films of the '90s and I think that Cloud Atlas is one of the most underrated films of the last few years, and because of that (and despite those two Matrix sequels) I still believe in the Washowskis and their ability to blend high style with storytelling. Speed Racer is not a success in that respect, but I think it could have been if the siblings had slowed down long enough to turn it into one movie instead of trying to turn it into several all at once. It might never have been a masterpiece, but it would have been better than the candy-coated disaster with a $120 million price tag that it ended up being.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: Frank (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender

"Quirky" can have negative connotations when it comes to describing movies. Around the time that the Sundance Film Festival became ascendant, and independent movies increasingly became "independent" movies, quirkiness became a commodity, a form of cinematic gentrification used to make cookie-cutter stories seem somehow unique. The "quirky Sundance" movie quickly started to seem especially ubiquitous, a fact lampooned perfectly (as so many things have been) by The Simpsons in the episode "Any Given Sundance" when a film is described as “Paul Giamatti… is the world’s greatest super spy… who only exists in the mind of an overweight, agoraphobic jazz musician… played by Martin Lawrence in a fat suit.” In 2014, quirky movies are part of a battered tradition, but there are still movies who come by their quirkiness honestly, as a means of expressing deeper themes rather than as a lazy means of making a it seem more marketable. Lenny Abrahamson's Frank is one of those movies, a film which premiered at Sundance and in which one of its main characters is a man who wears a papier-mache head 24/7 - and that's only where the quirkiness starts.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Before Sunset (2004)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Country: USA

Richard Linklater’s Before series is cinema’s most unlikely franchise, consisting of three small-scale films about one couple who do a lot of talking while wandering through European locales. None of the three films have made much of a dent at the box office (the highest grossing of the trio is Before Midnight, which topped out at just over $8 million), but in the 19 years since Before Sunrise’s release they’ve developed a devoted following thanks to its two characters and their relationship as it evolves from one film to the next. The films echo into and comment on each other, tracing the ways that the two main characters have changed in the nine year intervals between films and how those changes have given new shading to the relationship. Yet while Before Sunset is enriched by how it can be seen as presenting a slightly wearier and battle-worn pairing than the idealistic romantics of Before Sunrise, and by how it sows the seeds for the conflicts which will propel Before Midnight, it (like the other two) is a film that can also stand on its own, which has its unique pleasures and can be enjoyed for what it is in and of itself, rather than merely as one part of a bigger whole. Before Sunset isn’t just the middle chapter in a trilogy; it’s a resonant story about two people who, though touched with regret, believe that they have settled into the lives they are going to lead, and who on being brought back into contact with each other are forced to ask: what if?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Cold Blooded (2012)

* * *

Director: Jason Lapeyre
Starring: Zoie Palmer, Ryan Robbins, William MacDonald

Jason Lapeyre's claustrophobic thriller Cold Blooded is a movie that is not messing around. When the villain here holds a saw to someone, it's no bluff. There will be blood, there will be body parts strewn about, and there will be a lot of cat and mouse in this stripped down but effective genre movie. Though the low budget nature of the production is fairly self-evident, the film makes the most of the resources that it has, including the abandoned hospital that acts as its setting, and leaves the rest to its fine cast. Cold Blooded is a B-movie through and through with no pretensions to more, but it's full of no frills B-movie pleasures, including a willingness to go to the limit and then step over it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: Noah (2014)

* * 1/2

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Ray Winstone

Whatever else you can say about Darren Aronofsky, you can never accuse him of lacking in ambition. Whether he's telling an intimate, small-scale story about addicts hitting rock bottom and then finding new depths to sink to, or a science fiction epic spanning multiple time frames, he thinks big and follows his vision through to the end. Although he didn't seem like the most likely of contemporary directors to make a Biblical epic, after seeing Noah it's now apparent that Aronofsky was, in certain respects, the perfect director to tackle the story of Noah's ark. In other respects the story seems to have gotten away from him, with somewhat generic action/epic elements overwhelming the more unique and compelling elements of the film. My impression of the film was pretty evenly mixed - parts of it I found glorious, other parts I found considerably less so. It is at once a visionary work and a bloated miss.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: Total Recall (2012)

Director: Len Wiseman
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel
Domestic Gross: $58,877,969

Something not being broken has never stopped Hollywood from trying to fix it, the theory being that if audiences loved something once, then they'll love it again once it's been refurbished. The problem with this theory is that it begins from an economic, rather than an artistic, place. Most movies are made in the hope that they'll make money, but when a movie is made solely for the sake of making money, it's noticeable and when that movie is a remake of a film that people really dig, they'll stay away from it. After all, why waste time and money watching a soulless, empty version of a story when you could just watch the still awesome original instead? The 2012 take on Total Recall has no reason for being aside from the hope (faint, as it turned out) that it would make some money. It has nothing to say, nothing new to offer about the story, and it's greatest "innovation" is an indulgent deployment of lens flares. All told, the 2012 Total Recall is nothing more than a waste of $125 million dollars (or upwards of $200 million, according to estimates of the production plus marketing costs).

Monday, August 11, 2014

Hollywood Book Club: Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin's career is (hopefully) far from over, but William Beard's Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin will probably stand the test of time as the definitive study of his work. An incredibly thorough exploration of Maddin's features (with an appendix in which his short films are discussed) both in terms of the process of how the films came together and in terms of the detailed analyses Beard offers on each, this is definitely a book worthy of one of the most interesting and original filmmakers working today. The more familiar you are with Maddin's work going in, the more you're likely to enjoy Into the Past, but even if you're only familiar with a few of Maddin's titles, finding out how he achieves his unique aesthetic is worth the read.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Extreme Weather Movies

#5: The Day After Tomorrow

A silly movie about the increasingly important topic of climate change, but you can't say you don't get your money's worth out of this disaster movie that tosses pretty much every genre beat into its story and has some pretty nifty special effects sequences to boot.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review: A Most Wanted Man (2014)

* * *

Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe

It says nothing good about the collective faith in the motives and tactics of government agencies that the biggest laugh in A Most Wanted Man comes from an agent stating that the goal of an operation is to "make the world a safer place." Not that laughs abound in this chilly political thriller based on the novel of the same name by John le Carre, but it does have a dark wit that breaches the surface every once in a while like a shark's fin. Helmed by Anton Corbijn, director of the stylishly rendered biopic Control and thriller The American, and featuring the final non-Hunger Games performance of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man is a sharp and gripping film, which is all the more impressive for the fact that its depiction of espionage is less of the high action variety and more of the sit, observe, and meticulously collect data variety.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review: The Immigrant (2014)

* * * *

Director: James Gray
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

            - "The New Colossus" - Emma Lazarus

The immigrant story is one of two competing narratives. One is a story of hope and opportunity, the other is a story of hardship, marginalization and, in some cases, exploitation, both framed by another set of competing narratives, one in which immigrants are desired for their contributions to the growth of a nation, and one in which they are villified and characterized as leeching off the strength of a nation that they did not help to build up. James Gray's The Immigrant functions in both modes of the immigrant story, beginning and ending in hope, but bridged by a prolonged period of despair and pain. It is a thematically rich and visually stunning work anchored by great performances from Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner. No wonder its distributor (The Weinstein Company strikes again) has essentially abandoned it in release.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: Hollywood Homicide (2003)

Director: Ron Shelton
Starring: Harrison Ford, Josh Hartnett
Domestic Gross: $30,940,691

Some movies are timeless, possessed of that special quality that allows them to play in any era and still seem vital and alive. Some movies are so rooted in the time and age in which they were made that they start to feel dated, whether after decades or within only a few years of release. Then there are movies like Hollywood Homicide, which doesn't feel "dated" so much as it feels like an impression of the early years of this century as filtered through the perspective of someone not from this planet. I would say that it feels like parody, except that for something to work as parody it needs to first understand what it's mocking. Like the grizzled veteran cop that makes up one half of the story's protagonist team, the film seems to be shrugging and stating apologetically that it just doesn't get this stuff ("this stuff" being hip hop), but judging from its confused tone, thrown together plot, and labored attempts at "comedy," a lack of understanding about hip hop culture was the least of Hollywood Homicide's problems.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Review: The Past (2013)

* * * *

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa

With A Separation and now The Past, writer/director Asghar Farhadi is steadily emerging as one of the greatest contemporary dramatists of domestic chaos. Both are films about marriages that are ending not necessarily out of desire, but out of situational need, and both have plots which turn largely on one incident which gains deeper complexity each time it is returned to and which does not outright destroy the relationships at the story's core so much as cause deep fissures which slowly undermine the foundation of those relationships. The Past is a wholly engrossing film, building itself steadily, sensitively unfolding its secrets, and letting the performances of its principals blossom. Though not as celebrated as A Separation, The Past is a more than worthy follow-up.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Tsotsi (2005)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Gavin Hood
Starring: Presley Chweneyagae
Country: South Africa/United Kingdom

Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi is the story of a bad man who does a bad thing and somehow manages to become a better person in the process. It is not a fairy tale in which a person undergoes a miraculous change that functions to erase the misdeeds of the past, but a story in which a moment of grace and an act of redemption bring meaning to a life which might otherwise have been lost in a sea of poverty, crime and senseless violence. In Tsotsi brutality and gentleness exist side-by-side, and in between those two extremes Hood zeroes in on the humanity of a character who, at first, is so cold and distant that he hardly seems human at all. Though it is unflinching in its depiction of the uglier aspects of its protagonist’s life, Tsotsi ultimately emerges as an uplifting film that finds beauty in unexpected places.