Monday, 5 October 2015

My Internship in Canada

The second film I saw at the Edmonton International Film Festival (I have already seen eleven films in four days) was a huge leap up from Beeba Boys and will probably make my top ten of the year. It’s also a distinctly Canadian film (this time French-Canadian), made by the Philippe Falardeau, the director of Monsieur Lazhar, my third-favourite film of 2012. In English it’s called My Internship in Canada, not the most inspiring choice of titles.

My Internship in Canada is a political satire (I do love good political satires) about Steve Guibord (played by Patrick Huard), a Canadian member of parliament (MP) from central Quebec who is not aligned to any party and suddenly finds himself with the deciding vote in parliament on whether to send Canadian troops into a Middle-Eastern war (on terror?). Pushing for the war effort is a Canadian prime minister clearly meant to represent Stephen Harper.

Under pressure from both sides, Guibord’s vote is made more difficult by the fact that his wife wants him to vote for while his daughter wants him to vote against as well as the coincidental timing of two new events in his life: the sudden unexpected arrival of Souverain (Irdens Exantus), an intern from Haiti with some fairly strong ideas about government, and a blockade by an Indigenous group (protesting logging on Indigenous land) that results in a further blockade by those driving the logging trucks (to put pressure on Guibord to end the Indigenous blockade). 

Sovereign suggests to Guibord that the vote is an opportunity to see true democracy in action by asking the people of his riding how they would want him to vote. It sounds like a good idea until the various players start trying to influence those votes. It’s all quite hilarious and spot-on (for Canadians), with many brilliant observations on Canada’s flawed political system and its current flawed government.

The acting is very good, the cinematography is great, and while (or because) this is a ‘light’ film, it’s one that should be seen by all Canadians. My Internship in Canada gets ****. My mug is up.

Friday, 2 October 2015

A Based-on-True-Events Peter Sarsgaard Doubleheader: Black Mass and Pawn Sacrifice

Black Mass

Johnny Depp as we’ve never seen him before (and we’ve seen him do some pretty crazy things)! This time Depp plays Irish gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who took over crime in South Boston in the 1970’s with the help of FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), with whom Bulger had grown up. Connelly was supposedly using Bulger to bring down the Italian mafia in Boston, which Connelly succeeded in doing, but Black Mass suggests Connelly’s motives were never very pure.

Scott Cooper’s film is based on a true story and it’s structured in an interview-in-the-future style which often works well. And Depp’s performance as the sinister mobster is outstanding - one of his best in this century. The rest of the cast is also wonderful, including Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s brother Billy (a senator) and Peter Sarsgaard in a small role as someone who couldn’t keep his mouth shut about what Bulger was doing. Even Edgerton impressed me. And the cinematography and score were great. 

Sounds like a good film so far, you say, but apparently acting, cinematography and score are not enough. Black Mass is an ice cold clinical film that tells this horrific story in a way that utterly failed to engage me. I have absolutely no interest in these gangsters, especially Bulger. Of course, as I’ve said here before, I don’t like gangster films. So enough said. Despite enjoying Depp’s gripping performance, I have no interest in seeing Black Mass again. I must therefore give it only **+, even if it objectively deserves more. My mug is down.

Pawn Sacrifice

Pawn Sacrifice tells the true story of chess master Bobby Fischer, beginning with his childhood (he was the youngest grandmaster at age 15), then focusing on his attempt to become the greatest chess player in the world and culminating in his best-of-24 series with Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1972, the most famous chess match in history (after which Fischer dropped off the map).

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer and does a great job conveying a young genius suffering from paranoia and making ever-more-eccentric demands on those who want (need) him to play. The fact that the FBI is shown monitoring his movements and that the American government viewed Fischer’s match with Spassky (Live Schreiber) as a key moment in the Cold War with Russia makes it clear that Fischer had reason to be paranoid. He was the pawn being sacrificed at any cost to show that the U.S. could beat the Russians at anything.  

At Fischer’s side for much of his championship play were Paul Marshall, a lawyer who acted as Fischer’s manager, and William Lombardy, a priest who was a great chess player himself. Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard do an excellent job playing these men who try to both support and encourage Fischer when Fischer’s behaviour grow increasingly erratic. 

Directed By Edward Zwick and written by Steven Knight (who wrote Locke), Pawn Sacrifice is well-structured and tight, capturing the feel of the early 70’s very well. While Fischer’s character is fairly well-developed, I would have liked a deeper analysis of his illness. Other character were not very well-developed and I was disappointed that there wasn’t a greater attempt to tell us more about Fischer’s relationships (especially with his family). The cinematography and score were excellent. 

I found Pawn Sacrifice to be a very entertaining and compelling based-on-true-events film, especially after watching Black Mass. So even if it should have been a deeper film, Pawn Sacrifice gets ***+. My mug is up.

Beeba Boys

I’m in Edmonton for the Edmonton International Film Festival, so lots (and I mean LOTS) of reviews coming up in the next two weeks (including films I saw in Winnipeg during the past week).

The festival started in a disappointing fashion with Beeba Boys, a film by Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, all of whose films I have enjoyed (until now). Mehta’s films include the Earth, Fire and Water series and Heaven on Earth, quiet dark PG-rated dramas about Indian women. They are well-made and have a lot to say. Beeba Boys could not be more different. It’s a Tarantinoesque mix of extreme graphic violence, graphic language, tragic drama and darkly comic moments that Mehta is unable to pull off. During the Q&A with Mehta after the film, every person (maybe ten) who asked questions enthusiastically praised the film, which was very polite of them but either very dishonest or revealing insufficient critical appraisal. Because no film critic out there is going to call Beeba Boys a great film.

Which is not to say that watching it was a waste of time. Beeba Boys was in many ways a fascinating film to watch. It has a distinctly offbeat Canadian flavour (and an offbeat Indian flavour) and is based on years of careful research into Indo-gang violence in Vancouver (the Q&A was the highlight of the evening, as Mehta talked about the background to the film and the life of immigrants in Canada, etc.).

Beeba Boys tells the story of a war between two Sikh gangs in Vancouver. The focus of the film is a gang leader named Jeet (Randeep Hooda), a coldblooded killer who dearly loves his mother and young son and frequently displays a pained expression as he contemplates the insanity of his life and his desire to end the violence. He’s a fairly complex character and the relationship between him and his parents and son is the strongest part of the film. But the film is mostly about the way Jeet’s primary enemy (whose wife is a friend of Jeet’s mother!) plants a mole named Nep (Ali Momen) into Jeet’s gang, with various horrific results. Along the way, Jeet hooks up with Katya, an attractive blonde from Poland (Sarah Allen), in a relationship which is purely superficial and lacks any chemistry. And then there’s the Vancouver police, led by the film’s silliest character (I cringed every time he opened his mouth), which are depicted as pretty useless and incompetent (especially in the film’s climax).

Nevertheless, I did find Beeba Boys oddly compelling. And there were some very entertaining scenes (Paul Gross has a small part, playing a wild character that reminded me of some great characters created by Tarantino). There was also a clear but devastating message about the need for children of immigrants to find a place in this country and gain some respect and notoriety while evidently having little regard for the value of human life (people are killed without a second thought). And this colourful film features some excellent cinematography and an interesting style. But with a couple of exceptions (including Jeet and his mother, who was played by Balinder Johal), the acting was not impressive, there was far too little character development  and the mix of comedy and violent drama didn’t work for me. So it is only with great generosity that award Beeba Boys ***. No mug to be found. 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Another film that Walter liked more than I did was Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I enjoyed watching the TV series when I was young (spy shows were my favourite at the time) and Gareth had enjoyed the film, so I decided to give it a try.

Henry Cavill stars as Napolean Solo, the womanizing ex-criminal super-spy sent by the Americans to stop an international criminal organization from destroying life as we knew it back in the 1960’s. Armie Hammer plays Ilya Kuryakin, the disturbed KGB agent forced to join Solo. Their only lead is Gaby, the daughter of a vanished German scientist. Gaby, played by Alicia Vikander, is working as a mechanic in East Berlin. And away we go!

The film starts well enough, impressing me with its wit, locations, cinematography and score, but it goes steadily downhill, ending with a ridiculous chase scene which disgusted me at every level (cinematography, action, sound, acting, etc.). I am not a Cavill fan and, for me, he failed to be convincing as Solo (Walter disagrees). Hammer was better but I didn’t warm to his character either. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum worked a lot better for me. Vikander was the brightest spot in the cast. 

While there were some fun moments, I was bored for much of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and have no interest in seeing it again. **+. My mug is down.

Friday, 25 September 2015

A Walk in the Woods

This is another film about two men spending some tense and intense time together, but A Walk in the Woods feels very different than The End of the Tour

Robert Redford plays Bill Bryson, the aging travel writer who decided to try walking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. His wife (played by Emma Thompson) thinks that’s a pretty crazy idea, finds a series of trail horror stories on the internet and insists Bill take someone with him. But the only person willing to join Bryson is Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), an old friend he hasn’t seen in decades and who can barely stay on his feet when he gets off the plane.

Bryson knows it will be a challenge but he takes the chance and he and Katz set off on their hiking adventure through the forested mountains of Georgia. It’s a slow start for them (though a great start to the film), made worse by their encounter with Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal), a woman hiking  by herself (for good reason) who tells them everything they are doing wrong and keeps them awake at night with her horrific singing. But the old men trek on, enduring a series of adventures (some very dangerous) while putting a lot of miles behind them.

Their encounters and discussions are rather lightweight, but there are a number of precious moments between Bryson and Katz, like when they are discussing the state of their lives and suddenly get their first view of the mountains before them or when they talk about life while looking up at the stars from a mountain ledge or when Katz talks about his drinking problem (and why he’s been dry for a decade). 

Unfortunately, there are also some awful moments, like when they stop in a small town and Bryson briefly gets to know a motel owner (Mary Steenburgen) while Katz has a romantic encounter with a large woman named Beulah (Susan McPhail). The lowest point in the film is when Beulah’s husband comes looking for Katz. Although he has no idea in which room Katz is hiding, he manages to break down the correct door as Katz escapes out the window. It’s the kind of lazy stupid writing one might expect in the worst Hollywood comedies. The entire scene in the small town felt wrong and should have been edited out. It alone would prevent me from considering giving A Walk in the Woods more than ***. The way women are treated throughout the film deserves condemnation, though clearly the film is meant to be watched from the point of view of the two men, so allowances must be made. 

On the positive side, A Walk in the Woods is a gorgeous film to watch and Redford (who has wanted to make this film for years) and Nolte are well-cast and do a great job (especially Nolte). It’s a lot of fun watching these aging actors work together. So I will give A Walk in the Woods ***. My mug is up, but I prefer a heavier brew inside.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The End of the Tour

So we had a rare opportunity to see a movie together, viewing The End of the Tour while I (Walter) was in Winnipeg. We both thought it was an excellent film (especially me), and we decided to write this review together. (It seemed fitting.)

Vic: The End of the Tour stars Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace, the writer of the novel Infinite Jest, which became a major literary event in 1996, and Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, the Rolling Stone reporter who joined Wallace for the last five days of the Infinite Jest book tour across the U.S. Lipskys interview with Wallace was never published in the magazine, but Lipsky wrote a book about those five days called Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is the basis for the film.

The relationship between the two men starts tentatively (Wallace was a strong introvert) and there was tension throughout their time together, but they do find some connection and their long conversations provide considerable insight into their characters. Its those intelligent conversations that make The End of the Tour such a great film, and yet they were also the source of my biggest disappointment. I had hoped for more dialogue involving Wallaces ideas and less about the day-to-day experiences the two men have together.

Walter: Yes, I get this. There were a few shining moments when Wallace's penetrating insights into some aspect of culture emerge. One of those times was fascinating because you watch Lipsky completely miss the significance of the analysis being offered because he is so focused on his own agenda.  

However, what made up for the lack of focus on Wallace's ideas (for me) was the interplay of the relationship. The potent juxtaposition between the intellectual sparring on the one hand and the reaching out for friendship (sometimes feigned, sometimes genuine?) on the other was unique and fascinating.

Vic: I can agree with that. Certainly the dialogue remained entertaining throughout. It was often quite funny and, even apart from Wallace’s ideas, involved important reflections on the cult of celebrity and the meaning of life (Note: Wallace committed suicide in 2008 after a long struggle with depression and the medication prescribed to fight it).

Im not a huge fan of either Segel or Eisenberg, but they seem perfectly cast for this film and they perform brilliantly, with the help of solid direction from James Ponsoldt. A solid ***+ from me.

Walter: Yes, the acting was amazing - particularly Jason Segel. I've read a critique from one friend of Wallace who was not impressed with the depiction (nor the film as a whole), but frankly that article comes across as much less convincing than the film (he seems to have his own biased agenda). I'd be interested in hearing from a broader swath of those who knew Wallace. Eisenberg's performance (which seems typical for him) is of a less attractive character, but it very much captures the complex mix of admiration, jealousy, vulnerability and an insight of a kind quite different than Wallace's, which seems to mark Lipsky's role in the ongoing conversation. 

In the end, it's the mutual vulnerability that emerges, largely made possible by Wallace's longing for real awareness and authenticity beneath the culture's temptations and superficiality, that made the film for me. Oddly, a powerful moment was the setting of an early conversation: driving in a car down a typical Midwestern commercial strip - framing the intellectual and existential hunger of two bright, young minds (which we tend to convert into abstract thought) against the backdrop of the (gross) reality of franchise-dominated, meaningless commercialism. It's what we're all up against.
(Vic: Couldn’t agree more.)

I found I could connect with each of the characters and feel the pull of the ideas and the truth of the emotions and longings. I found that a deeply satisfying experience and give it ****

Monday, 21 September 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl, written and directed by Marielle Heller, is a very adult indie drama about a fifteen-year-old girl who has an affair with her mother’s boyfriend in 1970’s San Francisco.

Bel Powley plays Minnie, an insecure young artist (graphic novels) looking for love who becomes involved with the 35-year-old Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) and decides to narrate her adventures into her cassette recorder, unwisely hiding her cassettes in a shoe box under her bed, with a note to keep out. Kristen Wiig plays Minnie’s mother, Charlotte, a woman who wants to be a good mother to her two daughters but is too busy partying (with lots of drugs and alcohol) and struggling as a single parent to realize what is happening under her roof (though she has suspicions). 

Monroe is understandably uncomfortable with his sexual relationship with a minor twenty years younger than him (not to mention that she is the daughter of his girlfriend) and tries to break it off. Minnie, who doesn’t think much of herself, begins to question whether Monroe really cares for her and various believable crises ensue.

The acting by Powley (who is perfectly cast), Wiig and Skarsgard is outstanding, the dialogue is funny and smart, the use of drawings/animation provides unique opportunities for intelligent commentary and the cinematography and score are excellent, providing a great 70’ feel. Most extraordinary, however, is the way this nonjudgmental coming-of-age story feels more honest than most and doesn’t create the kind of screaming melodrama that such a story would generate on TV.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl gets a very solid ***+. My mug is up. But be warned: this film is rated 18A in Canada for a reason.