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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Last Gladiators (2011)

* * *

Director: Alex Gibney

The hockey enforcer. Feared, but not necessarily respected as players, considered either a drag on the game or a necessary part of it, depending on who you ask. In The Last Gladiators the ridiculously prolific Alex Gibney looks at the trials and tribulations of the NHL enforcer, both during and post-career, focusing in particular on former Montreal Canadien Chris "Knuckles" Nilan. A movie like The Last Gladiators is one whose appeal is perhaps limited to those who like hockey to begin with, however, if you're a fan of ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series, you'll probably like The Last Gladiators as it has a similar kind of vibe. That said, while the film is pretty entertaining, it doesn't dig particularly deep - but maybe that's just a risk a director takes when he releases a new documentary at a rate of several per year.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: Big Hero 6 (2014)

* * *

Director: Don Hall & Chris Williams
Starring: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit

At the risk of sounding ridiculously easily to please, Big Hero 6 probably could have been nothing more than 90 minutes of its inflatable robot shuffling around and trying to maneuver its large frame in small spaces and I would have been entirely satisfied with it. The film, inspired by the Marvel comic series of the same name, is a lot more ambitious than that, though, and works well as a piece aimed largely at a younger audience but possessing appeal to people of all ages, and works as both a stand alone film and as the first entry in what will likely become a series. I'm not convinced that Big Hero 6 should have won the Oscar over the magnificent How to Train Your Dragon 2 (perhaps the third entry in that series will have better luck than the first two), but it's without question a fun, entertaining, and even sometimes moving film.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Review: The Overnighters (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jesse Moss

No good deed goes unpunished, and the central figure of Jesse Moss' documentary The Overnighters learns that the hard way. His loss, though, is Moss' gain as the director has the kind of good luck similar to that of Lauren Greenfield, the director of the great 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, in terms of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Having set up the cameras to capture one kind of compelling story - in this case the North Dakota oil boom and the related problem of a town unprepared for and unable to meet its sudden and dramatic increase in population - Moss is there and ready when an even more compelling story begins unfolding out that original one. Like The Queen of Versailles, I would argue that The Overnighters is a film that very much captures how things are now in our socio-economically unbalanced and increasingly unsustainable times, and as a result it's a film that inspires frustration, heartbreak, and astonishment in equal measure.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Bad Education (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: Pedro Almodovar
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez
Country: Spain

No one does it quite like Pedro Almodovar. Who else could so successfully make a noirish melodrama about a sexually fluid/opportunistic young man willing to do anything to become a star, including exploit a story of child sexual abuse for his own gain, and do so in a way that depicts the perpetrator of that abuse as, if not “sympathetic,” exactly, then at least as another kind of victim? In Bad Education, a film with a movie within the movie and where the division between life and art is as malleable as the notions of “truth” and “identity,” Almodovar does just that and manages to create a narratively complex, ambitious, daring, and provocative film – but, of course, pretty much all of Almodovar’s films can be described using all of those words.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Canadian Film Review: Mommy (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clement, Antoine Olivier Pilon

Often in film, family dysfunction is presented as "quirkiness," an eccentricity played for laughs and something that is ultimately harmless and, when push comes to shove, makes the family unit stronger. Xavier Dolan's Mommy goes in a different direction, centering on the kind of dysfunction that is painful and exhausting, on a son whose often violent outbursts can't be anticipated let alone controlled, and on a mother who is so overwhelmed and lacking in support that her love for her son may never be enough. Thematically, Mommy is one of Dolan's most mature and sensitive films (I'd say that Laurence Anyways is the only one that truly gives it a run for its money in that regard), though like all the director's films it can be exhilarating and trying in equal measure - sometimes even within the same scene.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ten Years Later... Guess Who (2005)

On this day in 2005

Though never quite as daring as it likes to give itself credit for, Stanley Kramer's 1967 film Guess Who's Coming To Dinner is nevertheless considered a landmark Hollywood movie, one which gently spoon-fed issues of racism and race relations to a white audience at a time when social/political tensions were at a particular high and when other films such as In The Heat of the Night (which was nominated alongside Guess Who's Coming To Dinner for Best Picture and won) offered a more blistering and hard-edged picture of the times. Seen today, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner seems quaint and not a little bit problematic, but you can at least argue that it had a point it was trying to make and it had its heart in the right place even if it expressed that in ways that are sometimes misguided. The point of the 2005 loose remake Guess Who is anyone's guess, given that though its entire premise is to invert the "white woman brings a black man home to meet her parents" story of the first, it remains awfully shy about actually addressing issues of race save for a few jokes tossed in here and there to remind the audience that it is allegedly a remake of that earlier film.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Netflix Recommends... This Means War (2012)

* *

Director: McG
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hardy, Chris Pine

Recommended to me based on my having watched Warrior, which also starred Tom Hardy so at least there's some scrap of reasoning behind it. Because I remembered how poorly This Means War was received when it was released in 2012, my expectations for this movie were extremely low but, much to my surprise, I actually sort of enjoyed it. It's not a good movie by any means - it's ridiculous, all over the place, and parts of it are extremely problematic (more on that later), but it's also weirdly fascinating with respect to its not at all subtle gay subtext. Seriously, This Means War is rivaled only by Top Gun in the "they have to be doing this on purpose" department. It's amazing, and it's pretty much the only reason to see this one, unless you're just curious to see Tom Hardy in his least "Tom Hardy-like" role.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: Ministry of Fear (1944)

* * *

Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds

Fortune tellers, microfilm hidden inside cake, murders at seances, secret Nazi spy rings - filmmakers working during WWII had a lot at their disposal with when it came to putting together their thrillers. Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear features all those elements and more as it tells a classic "wrong man" tale that leans heavily on Lang's experience as one of the premiere Expressionist filmmakers and in the end reaches (without quite grasping) for the sort of sweeping romantic coda that Lang's contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock, would perfect in films like To Catch a Thief and North By Northwest. While not one of Lang's best films (though, in fairness, his best sets the bar pretty high), Ministry of Fear is a serviceable thriller and makes for a highly entertaining watch.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Review: Top Five (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Chris Rock
Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson

It's never just a movie. Whether it's a serious film about the Haitian Revolution, or a silly film about a bear who is also a police officer, it means something, and the fact that it exists and how it is received mean something, too. Coming at a time when issues of diversity in film and television have been a particularly hot topic, Chris Rock's Top Five, which tackles that issue in ways that are both subtle and direct, has the benefit of feeling especially timely. It also, however, has the benefit of being an extremely good movie, one which is funny, sharply written, and of all the films that Rock has made (with the exception of the 2009 documentary Good Hair), this is the only one that comes anywhere near being as trenchant as his stand-up.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Canadian Film Review: Tu Dors Nicole (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Stephane Lafleur
Starring: Julianne Cote, Marc-Andre Grondin, Catherine St-Laurent

At 22 years old, having just finished college, Nicole is enjoying one last summer before running out of excuses to put off the big transition to adulthood. She's been dreaming away her life and needs to wake up - though it takes her some time, and the convergence of multiple small crises, before she realizes it. Taking a tone that is largely tongue-in-cheek and slightly magic realist, Tu Dors Nicole's writer/director Stephane Lafleur weaves an often delightful, somewhat bizarre, but altogether spellbinding comic drama with an absolutely terrific lead performance at its center.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)

* * *

Director: John Madden
Starring: Maggie Smith, Dev Patel, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Richard Gere

I don't think that it's damning The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with faint praise to say that it's exactly the movie you expect it to be. It's light, enjoyably (almost comfortingly) formulaic, and a shared showcase for the considerable talents of several fine actors. It's not trying to be anything more than what it is, and while one might argue that it has no true purpose for existing, you could say the same for at least half the movies released in any given year, few of which manage to be even half as charming. So, while it may not end up on any best lists at the end of the year, The Second Best Marigold Hotel is the sort of gentle, low stakes drama that makes for a nice diversion in this quiet period before Hollywood kicks its summer blockbuster season into gear.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Review: Margaret (2011)

* * * 1/2

Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Anna Paquin

If nothing else, Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is one of the great cinematic curiosities of the last decade. Filmed in 2005 but not released until 2011, subject to multiple lawsuits in the years in between, and not truly completed by Lonergan until the 2012 extended cut DVD release, it died a quick death at the box office (not that it had any other choice: it was only in theaters for four weeks and never in more than 14 theaters at once) but gained something of a second life thanks to being embraced and championed by critics. I can't speak to Lonergan's DVD cut, but Margaret's theatrical cut is a wounded beast of a film, one with grand ambitions, pieces that don't always fit together elegantly, and deep, visible scars from its long production process. It's a film that doesn't always work, but it remains compelling nevertheless.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Searching for Sugar Man (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: Malik Bendjelloul
Country: Sweden/United Kingdom

A man as good as he is talented and equally as enigmatic. An artist exiled to obscurity, said to have perished before learning that, a world away, he had been triumphant, lost to those who had most completely embraced him and then, as if miraculously, resurrected and brought forth to claim the adulation that had always been there waiting for him. It’s a story so incredible that it seems unbelievable (and, according to some critics, is unbelievable), the sort of feel good, triumph from tragedy story that seems like it could only exist in fiction and yet, according to Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary Searching for Sugar Man, exists in reality. A highly entertaining and often moving film, Searching for Sugar Man is one of the best and most purely entertaining films in recent years.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Liam Neeson "Tough Guy" Performances

#5: Bryan Mills, Taken

The Taken series probably isn't anyone's idea of high art, but one of the reasons why the first film engaged such a wide audience in the first place, and then managed to stretch the premise into two more films, is because Neeson manages to avoid "playing down" to the material and instead plays it straight and serious even when things veer way over the top.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Canadian Film Review: The Captive (2014)


Director: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Rosario Dawson, Scott Speedman, Mireille Enos

The general consensus on Atom Egoyan seems to be that he's been in a sharp decline as an artist for the last decade, or so. I haven't really agreed with that, having found things to like about even Where the Truth Lies and Chloe, two of his least loved films, but The Captive may be the film that makes me change my tune. This abduction thriller is not just a mess, it's borderline unwatchable. Built around characters who are wafer thin, performances that never quite jive with each other, and a story which, were it told in linear fashion rather than in Egoyan's signature scrambled narrative style, would be immediately exposed as a tale that wouldn't even qualify for distinction as a good Lifetime movie, it fails in pretty much every respect. Seriously, this thing is baaaaad.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Review: Mr. Turner (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall

The first thing that strikes you about Mr. Turner, the latest from writer/director Mike Leigh, is how painterly it looks. This isn't merely a film which boasts a superficial beauty; it's a film which has a texture that you can almost reach out and touch and images which leave you feeling as if you can see the brush strokes. Leigh's films tend to be best known for the uncompromising precision with which his characters are drawn and brought into relief, but with Mr. Turner he's made a film where the image itself doesn't just blend in as background but announces itself and pushes its way to the foreground, the world of the film depicted in such a vibrant, artful way that it speaks deeply to how the protagonist, painter J.M.W. Turner, sees and renders the world in his own work. Yet, despite all the care and attention paid to getting the look right, Leigh hasn't sacrificed any of that character work that so defines his pictures and in Mr. Turner has created an uncommonly intelligent and elegant biopic that avoids the pitfalls that cripple many examples of the genre by maintaining his focus on the man at the center, getting to know him in all his complexity rather than reduce him to a series of facts.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: Twentieth Century (1934)

* * *

Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: John Barrymore, Carole Lombard

They don't make 'em like they used to. Take the great Howard Hawks, add the incomparable John Barrymore, and for good measure mix in the divine Carole Lombard, and you get Twentieth Century, one of the major works of the screwball comedy era. While not among my personal favorites of the genre, I can't deny that Twentieth Century is a masterfully put together film, one which manages to have Hawks' signature high energy even though the narrative is almost claustrophobically contained, and one which finds a way to allow both the lead actor (in one of his last great roles) and the lead actress (in one of her first great roles) to play the "crazy," scene stealing half of the romantic pairing and make that work. While not really embraced at the time of its release, it has since rightly become recognized as one of the era's finest.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Netflix Recommends... The Interview (2014)


Director: Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg
Starring: Seth Rogan, James Franco

I can't really blame Netflix for this one, as I was genuinely curious about how bad The Interview could be and probably would have seen it at some point eventually anyway (though, as an aside, I continue to be baffled by the fact that Netflix can "recommend" a movie to a user while also predicting that the user will dislike it). Having now seen it, I can say that rarely has a film caused so much fuss without deserving any of it. A comedy devoid of laughs and a political satire lacking in bite, The Interview would already be long forgotten were it not for the fact that for a brief moment it looked like it might spark World War III; instead if will live in infamy, albeit probably less for the international tensions it created than for the leaking of emails about Angelina Jolie.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Review: Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)

* * * *

Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz

The key is that the older woman and the younger one are, in fact, one and the same, just at different ages. So argues the younger woman, at any rate, as she tries to help the older one figure out how to play her character. Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria is a story about two women working at unraveling a story about two women and like 2011's Certified Copy, another recent and excellent film starring Juliette Binoche, this is one in which the lines between "fact" and "fiction" blur often, sometimes even from one sentence to the next within a scene. It's a film that you really need to pay attention to, and perhaps even watch multiple times, in order to get its full effect as it is so rich in meaning. It is also beautifully, artfully made, full of shots and moments which stun you with how aesthetically entrancing they are. Clouds of Sils Maria is a film that can leave you feeling unbalanced from time to time, but it's also one that your mind will keep turning back to long after the fact.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Review: The Hustler (1961)

* * * 1/2

Director: Robert Rossen
Starring: Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason

Though he bristles when another character calls him a "loser," Eddie (or "Fast Eddie") Felson seems allergic to victory. The only reason he ever seems to be winning is so that he can find a way to lose, pushing and pushing and pushing his luck until it finally runs out and all the gains he's made have disappeared. Paul Newman was already a star by the time he starred in The Hustler, but Eddie Felson is, in many ways, the quintessential Paul Newman role - roguish, troubled, slightly hardened, and overall irresistible; no wonder he played it twice (winning an Oscar for the sequel, The Color of Money, 25 years later). Now 54 years old, The Hustler isn't one of those ageless films that still feels as fresh and revolutionary as it did on its first release, but it is nevertheless one that has aged well enough that it still feels dynamic and alive.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Review: Focus (2015)

* * *

Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie

Two thoughts kept coming to me as I watched Focus, the latest film from directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the team behind 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love): One, if Cary Grant made films today, he would probably star in this one because it's a piece which relies heavily on the charisma and charm of its lead actor to carry the day, and because it has a somewhat old school romantic caper in an exotic locale vibe to it; two, Margot Robbie is going to be a star. She's just got "it," whatever that is. As for the film itself, Focus is the sort of thing that Hollywood increasingly seems to be moving away from - mid-budget studio features not based on existing material, not intended to be part of a franchise (or "shared universe"), a star vehicle aimed at adults - but which reminds us of why there ought to remain some room in the marketplace for works like it. Focus isn't reinventing the wheel and it isn't going to end the year as one of cinema's "bests," but its an entertaining picture with its own particular delights, and it's going to be a real shame if movies of this type actually do become extinct.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: Beyond the Lights (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver

For a film which lays out all its major themes in fairly blunt fashion within about the first thirty minutes, Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights unfolds with incredible grace and subtlety. Released late last year and more or less abandoned (it played in theaters for only 12 weeks, playing at over 500 theaters for only 5 of those weeks and at less than 100 for the remainder), this romantic drama is one of 2014's hidden gems. If there were any cinematic justice in the world, between this film and Belle, 2014 would have been the year of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a consistently fantastic actress who deserves more high profile roles. However, if "high profile" ones aren't forthcoming, then at the very least hopefully she can continue working in challenging, well-conceives roles like this one.