Friday, 31 December 2010

Franzen’s Freedom: On novels and movies as sources of transformation

I have on at least one other occasion used this blog to comment on a novel, and having just spent a couple of months digesting Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom, I feel the need to do it again, especially as it has renewed my ponderings on the difference between novels and movies and the way they transform us.

Like many offerings of deep value, I did not instantly love Freedom. This is partly because Franzen had already overwhelmed me with his sheer writing brilliance last time around with Corrections (2001). At that point I was so impressed that I had to start writing things while reading it, just so some of his style would intuitively rub off on me. If I ever finished anything I’d know if I succeeded even a little.

So I expected the readable prose that shows you don’t have to be incomprehensible to add layers of depth and the intuitive insight he demonstrates in his characters and relationships. I just took these for granted and braced myself for the middle bits, which I knew from a review would make me frustrated with the main characters – with whom I shared more than just a name (the male protagonist is Walter). Then, right in the middle of the frustrating part of the story, I parked the novel for three weeks while I travelled on a study abroad trip, not wanting to carry a 576 page hardcover around with me.

In the end, I was left with a deep appreciation for the long read. It is, appropriately, too complex to sum up the way I am about to, but by joining the Berglund family through the decades on either side of the dawning of the millennium, you get a chance to ponder the theme echoed in the title. The personal freedoms of recent generations are certainly not a bad thing, but they are a decidedly mixed blessing. Many different freedoms compete with each other, and sometimes the commitments, obligations and compulsions (even those that are or appear unhealthy) are the anchors to meaning and hope.

Movies do not soak you in an eight week experience. In terms of offering personal transformation (and, yes, that is what I’m looking for from a good novel or movie – at least a little), movies are the Saturday seminar compared to a novel which is like a year at a university or college. Transformation takes time and relationship. Experiences need to be reflected on, discussed, re-experienced, remembered – and during this process we need to try on new ways of thinking and feeling to see how they fit.

Yes, movies can do this. I think of The Mission, which tops my personal list of favourites. Several scenes planted themselves deeply into my memory (the penance, the forgiveness, the encounter with the oboe, the divergent responses to the final battle – to name a few). These and other scenes (and the Morricone soundtrack) have made me watch the movie over again several times and use clips in classes. This ongoing interaction can make it a transformative experience.

So here is the question I will end with: Are there too many movies that are not worth this kind of ongoing interaction, or do we simply tend to be too lazy and unintentional, thereby missing the opportunity to allow a good film to transform us? Assuming the answer is some kind of blend, I would like to watch fewer movies if it would help me to have longer interaction with those that are good. I would like to learn more from the humble, reflective confidence of Captain Abu Raed, not forgetting his smile on his hands and knees. I would like to discuss with more people what we learn about our present and future society from The Social Network (is there a danger Facebook will make us as shallow and immature as its origins or is social media just the reflection of a shallow and immature culture? What’s the difference between being truly cool [having integrity and real character] vs. just knowing when to cash in on appearing cool?). Now, if only I can find the right movies without watching too many.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Morning Glory and Others

I like Rachel McAdams. I like Harrison Ford. I like Jeff Goldblum. I liked almost every scene in Morning Glory in which McAdams interacted with Ford or Goldblum and I liked the performance of each of these actors throughout the film. It wasn’t enough.

When Morning Glory focused on relationships, especially the ones mentioned above, I quite enjoyed it. Unfortunately, Morning Glory (directed by Roger Michell) is framed around a plot that was so revolting to me that I could not enjoy the film as a whole. That plot has to do with a morning TV show called Daybreak, which Becky Fuller (McAdams) finds herself producing. What she does to improve the ratings of this show is absolutely disgusting and I struggled unsuccessfully to find a hint of irony or parody. Everything that’s wrong with television, including the way TV handles news stories, is presented without apparent apology in Morning Glory (at least 30 Rock makes TV look as ridiculous as it is). When Daybreak was on the air, I tuned out, as the supposedly growing TV audience should have done. Fuller’s efforts should have been singularly unsuccessful, but...

Aside from TV series on DVD, which I can watch without ads whenever I want to, and the odd sporting event, I have watched almost no TV for many many years. Morning Glory shows one reason why, but the laughs didn’t work for me. Roger (Ebert) somehow gave this film ***+, making me think I should go see it. Not worth the $10 for me, though Kathy enjoyed it more. **+ My mug is facing the wrong way.

Pillars of the Earth

Speaking of TV on DVD, I made the mistake of picking up, and immediately watching, Pillars of the Earth, based on the book by Ken Follett. Having been told that the book is well worth reading and seeing a very fine lineup of actors, and knowing the film concerned the building of a cathedral in the twelfth century, I thought this would be the kind of miniseries Kathy and I would love. I was profoundly disappointed, and I can only hope and suppose that the writer and director were to blame. The miniseries was clumsy, ridiculously graphic in its depiction of violence and completely uninspiring. Compare it to The Tudors, also made with Canadian involvement, which Kathy and I have thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated over the years. The Tudors is an example of what TV is capable of at its best. Pillars shows how badly TV can mess up even a good story with good actors.

Inside Job

This documentary film should be studiously avoided by almost everyone in the western world (especially by Americans), unless you somehow escaped the 2008 financial meltdown unscathed. The avoidance of this film is not because of its quality. This is a superb documentary, written and directed by Charles Ferguson and narrated by Matt Damon. Inside Job brilliantly explains what happened before and during 2008 leading to the financial crisis which cost millions and millions of people (the poorer ones, of course) their jobs and their homes. I’m sure every word is true (e.g. that the men responsible knew what they were doing but saw how they could get rich while countless others suffered) and that these men are still calling the shots for the U.S. government instead of serving time in jail (actually, I do not believe in prisons, but these fellows need to at least be prevented from working in any finance-related job).

So why should you avoid seeing this film? Because it will make you so angry that I fear for your cardiovascular system, that’s why. **** My mug is way up.

Thursday, 18 November 2010


If you like non-stop action and suspense - without violence (impossible, you say!), have I got a film for you! And I’ll even throw in one of my favourite actors: Denzel Washington, whose last film, The Book of Eli, was a fascinating, if far too violent, post-apocalyptic film.

No violence here, like I said. And no sex or bad language either. But also no story and no real character development, so no four stars (not even three and a half). Unstoppable is about a runaway train full of toxic chemicals. That’s it. End of story. I’m not even giving anything away by telling you the whole story, because the train starts running away about five minutes into the film and it just keeps running.

This well-made suspenser, directed by Tony Scott, is certainly distracting (i.e. it probably won’t bore you). So if distracting escapism is what you’re looking for, then don’t miss Unstoppable. But if you need something more than a runaway train to hold your attention, then look elsewhere. ***

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Let me begin by saying how impressed I am by the opportunity to watch all three parts of a trilogy at the cinema in less than six months. That’s the way it should be. And, in this case, all three films were well worth watching, not least because they were so different from each other. Dragon Tattoo was a brilliant drama couched in a thriller about a serial killer. Played with Fire was an action revenge flick. Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is a slow-moving conspiracy thriller. All three films were intelligent, well-written, well-acted and well-directed (the last two by Daniel Alfredson). Even the action flick had the kind of adult European feel that lifts it well above whatever Hollywood is likely to do with it. Nevertheless, the two sequels could not live up to the first film in the trilogy and both left me sighing with disappointment.

Moving away from action and serial killers to a slow-moving conspiracy film would normally be a huge step in the right direction for me. I’m a fan of suspenseful, intelligent slow-moving conspiracy films. And when the film involves people we have already come to care about (Hornet’s Nest focuses more on Mikael Blomqvist, played by Michael Nykvist, and less on Lisbeth Salander, the ‘girl’ of the title), we should definitely be verging on four-star territory. But the story just didn’t work for me. More to the point, the whole last half of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest felt anti-climactic. The conspiracy, and the way it was exposed, left me wanting much more. It simply wasn’t worth the suspense. And the ending in particular left me cold and wondering how this smart 'girl' could possibly be so stupid.

As I said, Hornet’s Nest was still well worth watching. It just could have been a lot better. Like the second film, it gets a very solid ***, verging on ***+. My mug is still up, but the contents are too bland.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Captain Abu Raed

It's been a long time, but I finally watched something that inspired me to write. Captain Abu Raed is one I was watching out for for a long time, and it did not disappoint. The movie centers on an airport janitor who is mistaken for a pilot by some neighbourhood children. At first resisting, he then realises that it's an opportunity to enter the lives of some kids who need a lift. The plot was more original than I'd expected, but that's not what makes this a very good movie. It's the central character. Abu Raed is played perfectly by Nadim Sawalha, and his character is much deeper than one would guess. However, if you're going to find this movie and watch it - which you should - you might want to stop reading here. The next paragraphs will have mild spoilers, but if you're unconvinced, read on.

The problem is that I want to write about what I love about this character, and it's better to be taken by slow surprise. First, the movie resists the temptation of making his character curmudgeonly at the outset. He's a bit private but not rude to the children - so it's not a matter of melting the crusty old man first. Rather his change of heart is quite naturally believable.

Perhaps my favourite scene, though, is when the children "catch" him on his knees scrubbing the floor at the airport. There is no sense at all of shame on his face. In fact, rarely have you seen such a simple, humble character with so much quiet dignity. When faced with confrontive questions, his answers are almost always sideways - a quiet reminder of Jesus' indirect way of responding, especially to loaded questions. Abu Raed refuses to be caught because he is not afraid of the truth - there is no shame in his playing the role of a pilot to inspire the children.

His living space matches his character perfectly. His apartment is simple but aesthetically more attractive than the palatial home of the real airline pilot who later becomes his friend. His rooftop terrace, likewise, gives him a serene and beautiful oversight of Amman, Jordan - clearly a metaphor for the perspective he has gained during his years of peaceful reading and solitude.

We watch as he gets more and more engaged in the life and difficulties of the children, feeling deeply his powerlessness to do more which builds to the movie's climax.

Though there are a few weak spots (perhaps the very last scene is not entirely necessary) - it's a beautiful, rich film - worth a full ****

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 will be one of the highest-grossing films of 2010 as well as one of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year. Based on those laudable achievements, one should probably be thinking of Toy Story 3 as a modern classic. And indeed Toy Story 3 is a very well-made film. The actors supplying the voices are well-cast and perform flawlessly, the dialogue is as witty and intelligent as one could possibly expect from such a film, the technical wizardry is worthy of Pixar’s brilliant history, the film is very funny (Buzz is the highlight), and Toy Story 3 is filled with moments of heartfelt emotion.

So have you detected the direction of my review yet? No, I’m not heading towards four star/favourite films of the year territory. On the contrary, the previous paragraph needs to be followed by a huge BUT and I am tempted to give Toy Story 3 only three stars, though I will probably have to settle for ***+.

For Janelle and me, Toy Story 3 was a huge disappointment. Despite all of the film’s strengths, it had a gigantic hole in the middle which, as far as I have been able to determine, has not been noticed by even one film critic (sigh). Setting aside Disney’s failure, yet again, to consider redeeming the bad guy (despite a background story which would make it very easy to do so), which you’ve heard me talk about enough, the huge hole is called Sunnyside. The horrific Sunnyside storyline is guaranteed to traumatize young children for years (at least Janelle and I would have been traumatized for years if we had seen it before the age of ten). The failure of critics to draw attention to this is, I assume, a sign of how desensitized our society has become to what is considered acceptable children’s entertainment. With so many violent films getting a PG rating, this should come as no surprise, but to assume that children are capable of dealing with the kind of darkness and torture (not to mention the evil-looking baby doll, which feels like something right out of a Child’s Play-like horror film) featured in Toy Story 3 is, to us, an indication that something has gone horribly wrong in the film industry (indeed in the entertainment industry as a whole if you glance at video games these days). Of course, this is not new, even for Disney. Disney’s earliest animated films (like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty) also contained horrific scenes which traumatized young children (I was traumatized by fairy tales for years, with frequent nightmares about witches and wolves), but the new Pixar animation makes scenes feel much more real and the darkness at Sunnyside is so deeply sinister and all the more terrifying because it’s about toys. Why do we think it’s okay to traumatize kids? Is it some rite of passage that kids need to go through to become wise and wonderful human beings? After all, I survived the trauma, didn’t I? I’m not buying it. Fear has become an epidemic in the 21st century and the role of violence in our society is closely related to that fear. Surely we don’t need to exacerbate that fear by making little kids afraid of their teddy bears and baby dolls. And I’m sorry, but it’s just plain naive to think this is not going to be one of the outcomes, for thousands of kids, of watching Toy Story 3.

Why do we think a potentially wonderful film like Toy Story 3 requires a dark action-filled centre to entertain today’s audiences (and today’s kids)? Sunnyside could have been handled in a much gentler and lighter way, making the redemptive ending actually more powerful in the process, and Lotso could so easily have been redeemed, helping children understand that childhood trauma (like that induced by some animated films), even abandonment, does not have to scar one for life. Toy Story 3 could have been a four-star film and I feel compelled to give it ***+ because it’s so well-made, but the suspense left me cold and wanting to give it ***. My mug is up but the stuff inside makes me shudder.

A final comment: We were required to watch Toy Story 3 in 3D. You know my opinions about 3D by now. In this film, as in most films, it did absolutely nothing for me. Janelle asked me whether I thought all animated films (and many live-action films) were going to be in 3D in the future. It’s a horrible thought. My gut tells me this is a passing fad. Very few people I know are big fans of 3D and I think the masses will eventually get tired of it.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Two Excellent Films to Watch For

I watched two great films this week, one of which is sure to make my top five of 2010.

I Am Love

Even by Italian-film standards, I Am Love, directed by Luca Guadagnino, is an unusual film. With what I can only describe as a quirky use of cinematography, symbolism and music, this tale of a bored housewife in a rich Italian family in Milan tries to be something special. Much of it works for me, so I guess it succeeds in being special, but some parts apparently went over my head (this film needs a group discussion afterwards - I got lucky and watched it with a group who saw much, including rather obvious religious symbolism, that I had missed). Of course, this is also true of many of Italy’s classic films of the sixties, which I Am Love reminded me of.

Tilda Swinton stars as the housewife and the film works largely because of her perfect performance. With few words (this is a very quiet film), she conveys a wide range of emotions as her life takes an unexpected turn away from boredom and begins to spin out of control. Some of this is predictable, some not, but it is always fascinating.

While the film focuses on Swinton’s character, I Am Love is about the whole family and we are given a glimpse into a variety of interesting family and business dynamics leading to the rather intense ending. Don’t leave when the credits start to roll - it ain’t over yet. ***+

Winter’s Bone

Wow! Wow!

Need I say more? You must know by now that any review I write which begins with two wows is going to end with four stars and probably a place high up in my top ten films of the year (I think this is my favourite film of 2010, so far).

Winter’s Bone is an amazingly realistic film about life in backwoods Missouri (I do not mean this in a disparaging way but simply descriptive). It’s about a seventeen-year-old girl (played magnificently by Jennifer Lawrence) trying to take care of her two younger siblings (her mother is virtually catatonic and her father is missing) who suddenly finds out that her father has put the house up as part of his bail and now has vanished. If she doesn’t find him, she loses the house, which is about all they have.

This is a very dark, scary and disturbing film. Because it feels so realistic, you get a sense of what’s going on (and has gone on) even when you don’t see it, so the violence you don’t see is even more disturbing than what you do see. Fear plays a major role in this haunting film (almost everyone in the film is afraid) and that fear can’t help but become part of you as you watch the film.

Winter’s Bone takes place in one of those parts of North America that still seem somehow lost in the past. Walter, you and I lived (and you still live) in a part of the world like that, where the only connection many people in rural areas have with the present is a satellite dish.

What makes this film so special is the way the many characters you meet, even for just a few minutes, feel so real that you get a sense of their entire past histories without being told anything about them. This is a testament to the flawless acting (John Hawkes is a standout here) as well as the great direction by Debra Granik.

Because the characters are so real, their actions always feel authentic. One could spend hours analysing each person in the film (why they do what they do and act the way they act), making Winter’s Bone a unique member of the ‘profoundly humanising films’ club (though the humans involved are all hurting). It is also a film with one memorable scene after another. I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t say more, but this is an absolute must-see (though NOT for the faint-hearted). **** My mug is up and full of the finest brew.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Iron Man 2

I finally got around to seeing Iron Man 2 (in the cheap theatres). It wasn’t ALL bad. Iron Man 2 was much lighter than Iron Man, with much less violence toward human beings, and that was entirely positive for me. But Iron Man 2 was also much less intelligent than the first film, with very little of the thought-provoking dialogue which made Iron Man so enjoyable. And while Scarlett Johansson makes for a diverting female “superhero”, she and Samuel L. Jackson can’t make up for the loss of Jeff Bridges (personally, I think the film could have done much much more with SHIELD). Mickey Rourke was okay but also underdeveloped and underutilized. Gwyneth Paltrow either acts badly in Iron Man 2 or is meant to be a character who resembles a bad actor. Either way, I was not impressed with her performance (I wasn’t that impressed with her character in the first film either). The evil villain’s demise provides all the components of the redemptive violence that is usually necessary in superhero films and so I’ll just ignore that with a sigh.

In summary, Iron Man 2 was, for me, a rather light and silly superhero film, mildly diverting but nothing more. Compare that to Nolan’s work and it provides a helpful perspective (and corrective) to my essay on Nolan, whose Batman films are so much better (even if The Dark Knight makes no sense) than the lightweight Iron Man 2. So if I was feeling really generous, I might give Iron Man 2 ***, but deep down I know it deserves only **+. My mug is tipping over.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Another Look at Christopher Nolan: Genius or Master of Contrivance (or both)?

With Inception working its way toward number one on the list of this summer’s blockbusters, Christopher Nolan is, for the moment, the world’s hottest director. As someone who expects great things whenever I see Nolan’s name attached to a film, and have yet to be disappointed, I guess I must also be a fan. But after last week, I have begun to wonder just how good Nolan really is.

Nolan’s fame started ten years ago with Memento. After watching (and loving) Memento, I immediately got hold of Nolan’s previous film, Following, a short film which, in its own way, seemed worthy of a director like Nolan – dark, twisting and engrossing. Then came Nolan’s remake of the Norwegian thriller Insomnia, starring Robin Williams, which was quite good for an American remake, followed by a rather brilliant and hugely popular revisioning of Batman called Batman Begins. The Prestige came shortly thereafter and I also enjoyed it very much, though I have a knack for immediately seeing through disguises and this lessened the surprise factor for me. Nevertheless, it was another worthy Nolan film and certainly fit his dark and twisted mould. Then came The Dark Knight, yet another dark and twisted outing, which got so many great reviews that I felt compelled to like it. And now we have the possibly brilliant Inception, which blew me away on first viewing. All of Nolan’s films got at least ***+ from me and two of them got ****, so for me Nolan is as consistent a filmmaker as they come. His films are intelligent and complex thrillers, a favourite genre of mine (yeah, I know, it probably means I’m rather dark and twisted myself), so I look forward with anticipation to whatever he is doing next.

But then, last week, between viewings of Inception, I decided to watch Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (only the second time I have seen the latter). I wasn’t surprised by how much I still liked Batman Begins (Batman was always my favourite superhero as a child) but I was surprised at how disappointed I was with The Dark Knight. I found many scenes distasteful and inexcusably violent (especially for a PG film) and found the darkness anything but compelling. In the brief reviews I wrote about The Dark Knight, I can recognize an undercurrent of uncertainty about my appreciation for the film, and I complained a lot about the action scenes, but the WOW factor kept me from complaining too much. With my second viewing, however, I can clearly identify what had bothered me the first time (there are hints of this in my earlier reviews), namely that the convoluted plot makes absolutely no sense. I remember commenting on how much I disliked the big underground action scene in the film, but did not clearly state why I disliked it, which is that it is utterly ludicrous. It is based on the most intricate of plans of both Batman and The Joker, plans that rely on endless unpredictable factors and are therefore completely useless. None of those plans had even a 1% chance of succeeding and yet both plans somehow succeeded in their own way (a chance of about a hundred billion to one). And this time I noticed that this ludicrous planning is found throughout The Dark Knight. Because I sensed this subconsciously as I watched, I kept shaking my head in what I thought was confusion. But it wasn’t confusion; it was a feeling that things did not make sense based on a gut reaction to the intricate but impossible level of planning throughout. In film critic jargon, we like to use the word ‘contrived’ to describe a film which strays too far beyond believability. The Dark Knight is, in its own way, the most contrived film I can recall, and yet where are all the reviews which point to this?

Thinking back to Batman Begins, I was able to find many examples of similar contrived plot elements, but they were more subtle and I was able to overlook most of them, at least before re-watching The Dark Knight. Needless to say, when I went to my second viewing of Inception, I was alert for signs of this flaw in Nolan’s Batman films. Did I find these signs? Does a bear ... (you know the rest)? By the very nature of Inception’s dream plot device, it is absolutely teaming with intricate plans, especially in the last half of the film. Because the film is so overwhelming (in this case, so WOW), and because of the fact that we are dealing with dreams, it is much harder to be bothered by these plans, but because I was watching for them, I found them quite distracting. I certainly enjoyed the film less the second time around, despite understanding it better (as opposed to, say, Star Wars, which I watched four times in one day (the first day) and enjoyed as much each time, despite its countless flaws).

One could correctly argue that most films have contrived plots and that the secret is to minimize this and find a way to not draw attention to it. If one is dealing with an inherently unbelievable superhero story, one has to work even harder at making the plot imaginable. The fact that critics have not highlighted the contrived plots in Nolan’s films suggests he has succeeded. But I found the plot of The Dark Knight completely unimaginable (ludicrous, as I said) and have therefore lost interest in the film. And I am now led to wonder whether Nolan’s films will stand the test of time. To do this, they have to offer something deeper than just thrills. At first glance I thought the Batman films did this (e.g. with their treatment of means and ends and the various emotional struggles Bruce Wayne goes through, with the help of his two wise counsellors, Caine and Freeman). But even here I have begun to wonder how much we can learn from these potentially thought-provoking themes. The same is true with Nolan’s others films. Inception forced me to think about dreams and the subconscious but how much did it really offer by way of insight. I have tried to start discussions about Fischer and his father and what we can learn about ourselves and psychotherapy through that central plot element, but it fizzled out fast both times.

I am now going to go back and watch the rest of Nolan’s films again (needless to say, I own all of them) to see if Christopher Nolan’s genius is deeper than knowing how to make the kind of absorbing thriller which will bring in the masses. I’m not giving up hope, and I’m still grateful that he’s making intelligent thrillers, but I’m worried that real substance may be lacking and that Nolan’s genius lies in covering up his ludicrous plots with overwhelming complexity.

Saturday, 17 July 2010


It is rare indeed that I watch a film on opening night. But I knew from the first moments of its trailer that I wanted to see Inception and to see it while I still knew almost nothing about it. I didn’t even know that two of my favorite actresses (Marion Cotillard and Ellen Page) starred in the film. So I decided I should go before people around me started talking about it. Probably a wise move, though it’s not like anything someone said about the film would be that revealing. It’s just that the WOW factor might have been affected (I’m not going to give much of the plot away, but if you want to know as little as possible, stop reading now and go watch the film).

You all know how important the WOW factor is for me. This is a WOW film and it gets **** just for wowing me and for its originality and for being a science fiction film when I was not expecting one (I had heard no mention of science fiction).

Dreams are mysterious things. On the day I watched Inception, I awoke from a long intricate dream only to glance at the clock and realize I had slept no more than seven minutes since the last time I glanced at the clock. Hours later I am watching a film where the concept behind this realization plays a key role.

Often forgotten instantly upon waking, dreams can sometimes haunt you all day long. Or they can make you wonder whether the dream is more real than the so-called real world, especially if they are recurring dreams. And then there are the Jungian dream interpretations. What exactly are our brains up to when they dream? Does our subconscious help us develop and defend ideas which guide our real lives? Does guilt haunt our dreams? How do we let go of memories when they are deeply entrenched in our subconscious and played out in dreams again and again?

Inception plays with these questions in a brilliantly-devised plot which I do not claim to understand. Perhaps a second viewing would help, but the film seems to have a huge number of holes (not flaws, but holes), from the lack of background information on the ‘science’ and on the characters to the unexplainable and largely unexplained things that happen time and again. More than once I wondered whether what I was watching made sense. And sometimes I felt as if important pieces of the film were left on the cutting room floor because the film was so long already. Ah well, I give it four stars anyway.

Then there’s the action. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a film with so much action in it (and some rather violent action at that). I won’t say I enjoyed the action, but I wasn’t bored by it (as I usually am) and that’s a significant achievement. And what about the violence? Do I find movie violence less offensive if it happens in a dream? I suppose I do, though it’s not as if movie violence is ever real, so this requires more thought.

Leonardo DiCaprio comes through again with an excellent performance as the protagonist. Maybe one day I’ll have to become a fan. One rather eerie coincidence is the resemblance between Inception and DiCaprio’s last film, Shutter Island.

Christopher Nolan, who wrote and directed Inception, also came through again, creating an intriguing, baffling and intelligent wow film, as he did before with Memento, which also got four stars.

My review feels like a collection of ramblings about a film that defies description. Maybe I’m still dizzy. Inception is an overwhelming thrill ride that you’ll want to ride again before you leave the amusement park. So I expect it will be a huge hit. Maybe it will convince Hollywood that people are not just looking for brainless action or comedy sequels/remakes, but also looking for something new. **** My mug is held high, even if I’m not sure what’s inside.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Foreign Thriller Night at the Movies

The Girl Who Played with Fire

Having recently seen and loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (reviewed below), I was prepared to wait some time (with anticipation) for the sequel. So I was pleasantly surprised to find the sequel already playing in theatres. Unfortunately, despite the additional pleasant fact that The Girl Who Played with Fire was not about a serial killer, I was unpleasantly disappointed with the second instalment.

All of the technical components of film-making were done well enough (by mostly the same people), but almost all of them, including the acting, were inferior to the first film. Dragon Tattoo had an epic drama feel which is lacking in Played with Fire (not for lack of trying, but the new ‘background story’ for Lisbeth just didn’t work for me). The sequel, with its new crimes to solve, focused more on action, which doesn’t score any points with me. Indeed, I actually found Dragon Tattoo much more suspenseful than the sequel and that does score points with me.

I was drawn deeply into the lives of the protagonists in Dragon Tattoo, but the same characters in Played with Fire drew little such attention from me. Partly this was caused by the amount of time they had together on the screen (i.e. the lack thereof). But partly it was because the story focused much more on the theme of revenge (I don’t like revenge stories) and ended in a very similar way to the first film, thus sacrificing one of the best qualities of the first film - its originality.

Played with Fire was a satisfying thriller, but not much more than that. It gets a solid ***, but that’s a giant step down from the first film. Duncan, you appreciated Dragon Tattoo as much as I did, so I wonder whether you were also as disappointed as I was with the sequel.

The Secret in Their Eyes

There is no question that The Secret in Their Eyes is a better film than Played with Fire, but I did not think it was as good as The White Ribbon, which it beat for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film of 2009.

The strength of The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentinean film written and directed by Juan Jose Campanella, is the character development and the actors who make that character development come alive. Each of the main characters is unique, memorable and well-acted (especially Ricardo Darín as Benjamin, Soledad Villamil as Irene and Guillermo Francella as Sandoval) and that’s what makes this subtle romantic thriller work. The central crime story (rape/homicide) is okay too (i.e. satisfying, like Played with Fire), but that’s really all it is, though the ending to this story strives for something greater and almost gets there.

It’s exciting to see such an excellent film from a country which makes relatively few films (at least few that get distributed up north). The Secret in Their Eyes gets a very solid ***+, though I’m still debating whether it does not in fact deserve ****. In any event, my mug is up.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Please Give

It’s such a relief to see that intelligent European-style slice-of-life dramas are still being made in the U.S.

Please Give is a brilliantly-written and acted film by Nicole Holofcener. It’s the story of two families and one apartment building in New York City and you just know that every minute is authentic. The characters in the film are all vulnerable and flawed and struggling to overcome feelings of guilt (about a wide variety of things), betrayal and loneliness. Because it’s real, the film is sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes painful and sometimes heart-warming. Each of the six central characters is so well-acted and well-developed that you could spend hours afterwards discussing what each one was experiencing and learning in their struggle towards a fuller humanity. Great stuff! If I had time, I would go into detail, but I’m taking a coffee break to write this as it is.

But be warned: If you’re looking for Hollywood glitz, stay far away. You won’t find any of it here. On the other hand, if you appreciate intelligent quiet independent dramas as much as I do, then this is for you. A very solid ***+. With my glowing review, you are right to ask why the film doesn’t rate ****. I can only respond by saying that while I enjoyed watching every minute of it, it didn’t grab me the way a four-star film needs to grab me.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Lest a whole month go by without a review, let me tell you about a great film I saw yesterday.

But first I’ll remind readers that I am no fan of serial killer films (or books). Sure, The Silence of the Lambs was a classic, but in general I find the current preoccupation with serial killers quite disturbing and uninteresting (well, okay, there’s Dexter, but Dexter is something special). Of course, I had no idea that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a serial killer film. Had I known, I might have stayed away and missed seeing one of my favourite films of the year.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, is a Swedish film based on the bestselling book by Stieg Larsson. It stars Michael Nykvist , a great Swedish actor who also starred in As it is in Heaven (coincidentally reviewed just below - who’d have thought we’d have two Swedish films reviewed back to back?). Nykvist plays Mikael Blomqvist, an investigative journalist hired by a wealthy older man to find out who killed his 16-year-old niece (who babysat Blomqvist when he was a young boy) some forty years before. Watching Blomqvist (with some help) use his investigative skills to discover the truth behind the girl’s disappearance makes for a very satisfying suspenseful thriller, thanks to the fact that it’s heavy on intelligence and avoids the excessive use of action (which you just know Hollywood will fail to do with its inevitable remake). But The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is much more than just a thriller and it isn’t even really about Blomqvist. It’s about the girl with the dragon tattoo. Her presence in the film lifts this thriller to another level of storytelling altogether. Combined with the story Blomqvist is investigating, it turns the whole film into an epic drama. Who is this girl? Her name is Lisbeth Salander and she’s a young woman with a horrible past and obvious psychological problems who is also a genius and Sweden’s top computer hacker; a fascinating combination to be sure. Salander, brilliantly played by Noomi Rapace, takes an interest in Blomquist’s investigation and eventually joins him.

I’ve said more than enough about the well-written plot, just one of the film’s exceptional characteristics (along with acting, directing, cinematography and music). But what makes the film special is the time it takes to tell its various stories and bring them to a satisfying conclusion (though we all know there is more coming - it’s the first of a trilogy). This is a very long film, but despite the lack of action (or because of it) I was riveted throughout. I can’t wait for the next instalment, though I hope it’s not about serial killers again.

I should mention that while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has some very disturbing scenes, especially involving violence against women, these scenes are in no way gratuitous and there is actually an attempt to address the idea of redemptive violence, which is always welcome. It’s a dark film and certainly not for everyone, but it just slips into the **** category. My mug is up.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

As it is in Heaven

There was lots I loved about this movie, and I definitely wouldn't have seen it if not for your recommendation, Vic. I had no idea that Swedes are so quirky and passionate (if this depiction is accurate). A lot of the depth of the movie is really only hinted at or inferred in brief glimpses, but in a way that worked - after all it is telling a lot of stories all at once. The power of the combination of relationship, honest expression and music is well-depicted. And the challenge that this power poses to organized religion (when religion foolishly lets itself be opposed to that combination) is also well-depicted, though the repressed pastor gets a little close to cliche (the one scene with his wife being a notable exception).

As a movie, the one weakness I had trouble forgiving was the invisibility of the town's professional services - does no one ever call the police or ambulance in small town Sweden? Would bringing in such services have taken away from the fable-like quality of the movie (perhaps)?

My biggest critique, however, is not with the movie as such but with the worldview it represents. As expressed by Inger, the pastor's wife, it is that "there is no sin" and therefore no need for forgiveness. I am familiar and not unsympathetic to this worldview. Like some therapeutic worldviews it also suggests that those who do great harm are still "doing their best" (as Gabriella says to Conny). Yes, I feel the pull to this idea, especially when you see it portrayed as in this movie. But I believe it is an anemic worldview. It refuses to look into one's own heart enough to see that we make real choices between vulnerable care for others and self-protective violence and apathy. We are not doing our best when we choose the latter. We often know, sooner or later - and with or without churches telling us - that we have screwed up and can't fix it. When that happens, forgiveness heals; permissive, expressive and universal acceptance does not. The latter, as I see it, simply confuses and makes meaningless our experience of suffering or over-simplistically attributes it all to ignorance. The problem is that we often know and are able to do better and still choose to hurt others.

I am pretty confident that there is a way between the self-righteous, repressed and ultimately dishonest worldview this movie sets itself against and the spineless (I mean this 'literally' not pejoratively) worldview that imagines that doing away with sin and forgiveness will liberate us.

But having a disagreement with its position did not stand in the way of liking this passionate and compassionate film. So I give it ***1/2. (I would have given it 4 if they would have ever just called the police.)

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Ghost Writer

Start with a quiet intelligent action-less thriller (you know the kind - one of my favourite genres), add a nice dose of contemporary film noir, spice up the atmosphere with endless rain and dark grey skies, and throw in some political conspiracy that tries to address a modern mystery: Why DID Tony Blair join Bush on that insane ill-advised invasion of Iraq? What do you get? You get the kind of film that could easily become one of my top ten films of the year, especially if it’s made by someone like Roman Polanski, who has made made some of my favourite thrillers (Frantic, Chinatown). Of course, you could mess it up with your choice of actors, none of whom I thought were particularly good (though all were competent). And your story could be as simplistically implausible as many political thrillers and have an ending that doesn’t completely satisfy. But none of those complaints were enough to prevent me from enjoying every minute of The Ghost Writer.

One of the reasons I love film noir is that few stories captivate me more than those involving a man out of his element, caught in the middle of something he does not understand, a man in way over his head who you know is about to discover something that will severely shorten his life expectancy. With its use of the grey weather and grey buildings, The Ghost Writer milks every ounce of suspense out of that background story. And it adds some subtle comic touches to the proceedings, as one would expect from Ewan McGregor, our protagonist. I didn’t think McGregor was brilliant, but he is a perfect choice for the role (like Harrison Ford was in Frantic and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown).

Adding to the intrigue of The Ghost Writer is the obvious link between the former British prime minister in the film and Tony Blair, even suggesting that Blair might have been a war criminal. To me, calling Bush and Blair war criminals is not much more revelatory than Green Zone’s suggesting there never were any WMDs. Nevertheless, Polanski’s willingness to go with a political plot like this (including using the name Hatherton instead of Haliburton) is laudable and lifts the film beyond mere escapist entertainment.

In October, 2002, three months after moving to London, a colleague with connections in the British military told me the UK was mobilizing for war and that it had already passed the point where an invasion could be prevented. After marching with over a million people in February of 2003, I went home to hear Blair tell the television audience how thrilled he was that he lived in a democracy where people were free to demonstrate in this way, but he was going ahead with the invasion anyway (regardless of how many of his people opposed it). His definition of democracy must be different than mine. That was the day I first asked the question: Why, Tony? Why would you endanger your career and the future of your party to do this? The Ghost Writer does not, I assume, pretend to know the real answer. But at least it got me thinking outside the box. Good job!

My mug is way up. ****

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Walter's Top 25(6) of the Decade

I’ll start (like you did, Vic) by clarifying what kind of list this is. It is certainly not a list of the best films. Nor do my criteria match up with Vic’s. These are simply my favourites. It was quite a surprise to me to realise which films I felt needed to be included and which great films simply didn’t feel right. A big factor for me were questions like: Which movies would I love to see again anytime someone wanted to join me? Or which movies would I most enjoy recommending to others? In other words a lot of it had to with personal staying power. A few near the bottom of the list don’t quite have that enjoyability factor, but they had an intellectual impact on me that made me feel a need to include them. I realise some of these choices may be painful to lovers of fine film, but to them I would say, “Go ahead and watch films like Ghost World and A Squid and a Whale if you want to (two films I’ve seen on several lists that I considered among the worst films I ever began watching), but that’s not my idea of a good time.

25. Memento – not a pleasant film but incredibly intriguing.
24. The Shipping News – I don’t understand why this isn’t more popular. A good story about Newfoundland with interesting atmosphere and a great score.
23. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days – also not a pleasant film, but a very unique and well-made glimpse into Eastern European life. I especially appreciated the study of the tired helper.
22. Wall-E – I felt I had to include one of the many great animated pictures made this decade.
21. Paris Je t’aime – A varied mix of film shorts on the theme of love in Paris. Several of them were impacting and memorable. The whole made a great experience.
20. Crash – I understand those who don’t like this and it moved lower in my list than I would have thought, but I think people aren’t being entirely fair to the type of movie that is artificially crafted to create a specific kind of experience. No it’s not realism, but it was very thought-provoking and moving.
19. O Brother Where Art Thou? – I haven’t seen this for too long and almost forgot to include it. Great music and fascinating twist on the Odyssey. Time to see it again.
18. Chocolat – Ditto on the too long since I’ve seen it, but great memories of this film.
17. Bourne trilogy – In spite of the annoying shaky cam, this was plain fun spy excitement from first to last.
16. The Constant Gardener – A great example of how the best kind of spy thriller transitions seamlessly to corporate thriller. Michael Clayton, of course, is another example that just didn’t make my list.
15. Danny Deckchair – A quirky comedy we stumbled across that I’ve enjoyed watching several times and keep recommending to others for an evening of feel-good entertainment with a nice light encouragement to live better.
14. Welcome to the Sticks – A couple annoying silly bits, but otherwise the same goes for this as the last one. Not quite sure why I placed it higher.
13. The Seduction of Dr. Lewis – A Quebecois film with a unique setting that tells a warm tale.
12. Henry Poole Is Here – One more quirky comedy – this one with a sad tone and thought-provoking story.
11. Joyeux Noel – Moving and true(ish) story and the end packs a nice punch.
10. Bella Martha – Original German version of No Reservations. Good food, therapy, drama and quirky comedy – what could be better?
9. The Visitor – A professor named Walter who is a good guy and learns to play the djembe – this would have been enough to make my list. But it’s also a great movie with a great title.
8. Once – Such a unique experience. Just saw it again for about the 4th time and I expected to like it less, but I didn’t. The best kind of low budget realism.
7. The Interpreter – The critics didn’t like it, but it combines an interesting thriller (with one unfortunate implausible bit) with a thought-provoking study of forgiveness and a great score.
7. Stranger than Fiction – (Excuse 2nd number 7 – last minute insert) Another example that silly comedic actors can play some of the best serious roles. As someone relatively enamoured with narrative psychology, I loved the play with the idea of story. Creative and well-acted all around.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – A creative and unique comedy drama. Of the picks I saw near the top of a lot of people, this was the one I most agreed with.
5. The Lives of Others – Drama/thriller about East Germany – it’s good in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start.
4. Lars and the Real Girl – At first I thought I was one of the only ones to have discovered this gem of a movie. It’s a much needed story about how a family and community provide a humanizing context to deal with mental illness. And it’s fun at the same time. Suddenly I seem to see it referred to in a lot of odd places for the same reasons. Good to see it get the recognition it deserves.
3. Amelie – A work of art. Wonderful story about an unforgettable character, brilliantly filmed. Vic, I can only assume that you forgot this one.
2. Phone Booth – I use this a lot for classes and every time I watch it I appreciate it more. That’s certainly a sign of a film with lasting merit. A creative idea as a simple literal thriller, but also filled with deep meanings. Works amazingly as a parable about law/conscience/grace/confession. As you watch the movie and the final confession you feel purged and amazingly reminded that a self-centred jerk might actually have a real human being inside (so there’s hope for us all).
1. Lord of the Rings – Truly amazing that they pulled off the whole trilogy with the kind of grandeur and power one might have hoped for. I actually don’t like it as much as some of my other top ten films but it seems to have too much majesty about it to be placed lower.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Another Great Night at the Movies

Green Zone

“I thought we were all on the same side,” Roy Miller, the soldier, says to Marty, the ‘rogue’ CIA agent. “Don’t be so naive,” comes the reply. A few minutes later, Miller is saying the same line back to the agent. It’s a line that summarizes Green Zone for me, both in positive and negative ways. The film is trying to tell its audience that they shouldn’t be so naive as to believe the U.S. invaded Iraq because of WMDs. Surely that is old news by now and so I would ask why the filmmakers are so naive as to think people still believe it (or am I the one being so naive as to underestimate the naivete of the masses?). But I applaud the effort nevertheless. Better said, I would have applauded the effort if it wasn’t for what the film clearly states WAS the reason for the invasion: to get Saddam. Come on! If you’re going to talk about being naive, don’t play so stupid as to think it was all about Saddam. Regardless of how badly the U.S. did or did not want to get rid of Saddam, the invasion was about oil and military control in the middles east, not about getting Saddam (and certainly not about WMDs). So either the filmmakers are themselves so naive (which I doubt) or they are trying to go as far as they think they can. Their hearts are in the right place, I guess, but if you are going to make a film about being naive, you cannot afford to come across as being naive yourself or as assuming the viewers are that much more naive than you are.

Green Zone is the story of Roy Miller (Matt Damon), a soldier asking too many questions about why the intelligence about WMDs keeps coming up empty. He finds a sympathetic CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson) and they try to uncover the truth (conspiracy?). Damon play that innocent intelligent character again, the one I like so much and which he does so well. Good stuff. Gleeson is an excellent choice as the CIA agent, though he struggles with his American accent. More good stuff. The film features the kind of grainy shaky handheld camera work (director Paul Greengrass likes this stuff) that I usually can’t tolerate, but it actually works in an environment like Baghdad. And the film opens well and hums along nicely for about three-quarters of the way. Then we get the big action scene (it doesn’t help that I am no fan of action scenes), which lasts forever and feels anti-climactic, as does the ending. It’s trying to end like Missing or Under Fire, two of my top ten films, but it just doesn’t feel like the filmmakers have gone anywhere near far enough. Maybe they were scared of turning people off.

Green Zone (the choice of the title is a mystery to me) is not near as good a film as The Hurt Locker, but at least it’s trying to expose the truth behind the lies which led to the invasion of Iraq while also doing its part to humanize the Iraqi people (Freddy was a great character) and exposing the abuse of prisoners, and that’s worth more than Hurt Locker’s efforts at humanization. So Green Zone gets a solid ***+ from me. My mug is up but the stuff inside could have been really tasty if the film hadn’t come across as too naive.

Shutter Island

Shutter Island is almost impossible to describe. It’s more of an experience than a story. The story is about a U.S. Marshall (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigating the impossible escape of an inmate from the world’s most secure prison for the criminally insane in 1954. Or is it?

From the opening scene, the film feels surreal and unreal. Then it moves to feeling off balance and fragmented. Scene after scene feels out of place and conversations sound like something from a 60‘s Hammer horror film. And the music feels way over the top, manipulation for pure manipulation’s sake. You are never sure what is really happening on Shutter Island. That can be a good thing, I suppose. And the film starts strong, creating an ominous and grey atmosphere that really grabs hold of you. But the film’s middle hour, focusing on flashbacks and nightmares, flags more than a little. Half of it did not seem necessary.

And the mandatory surprise ending? No big surprise to me at all (I can’t understand the critics who thought it came out of nowhere), but nevertheless very well done and completely satisfying. In fact, the wonderfully atmospheric opening scenes and the excellent last half hour pushed Shutter Island into the ***+ range. I like old-fashioned psychological thrillers (and what can I say, I’ve always liked the dark and brooding film noir films, and Shutter Island fits in that genre as well). On the whole, Martin Scorsese delivered what I was looking for: a well-made quirky film. Some of the acting felt over-the-top (Ben Kingsley was the acting highlight, with another excellent performance), all of the music felt over-the-top, and even the cinematography (which I loved) felt over-the-top. But I walked out of the film completely zoned out (questioning my sanity?) and did not recover for at least an hour. Few films do that to me anymore, so something obviously worked.

Not as good as Green Zone, but the ending was more satisfying. So Shutter Island also gets ***+. My mug is up again after a very entertaining night at the movies.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

One of the Last Decade's Best Films

One of the most frustrating experiences for a film buff who likes to figure out his top ten films of the year or top 25 films of the decade is when he watches a film on DVD that would have been high on one of those lists but didn’t make it in time (that’s why some of the films in my top 25 of the decade were not in any of my top ten lists).

Today I watched a film that would have been my second favourite film of 2008 and one of my top ten films of the last decade (and one of my top fifty films of all time). I cannot believe I have never heard of this film or seen any other film by its director, who is clearly a man of uncommon genius (on the basis of this film, I would call him one of the greatest filmmakers of our time). When I do my talks on film and theology, I stress that, for me, good films are an art form comparable to the greatest paintings, sculptures, books and classical music. If ever there was a film that could serve as an example of a pure work of art, this is it. Before I tell you the name of the film (those who have seen it may recognize the photo), let me provide the hint that it is an Austrian film nominated for best foreign language film of 2008. I have seen most of the best foreign language nominees of the past decade and, after watching this one, I am ready to state that it is my personal conviction that the real winner of the Academy Awards each year is the winner of the best foreign language film oscar. I would guess that the ten best films made each year in Europe alone are, on average, vastly superior to the ten best films made in Hollywood and far superior to the ten best films made in the U.S. This is just one person’s opinion, of course, but the odds of wasting your time watching any film made in the last thirty years go down about 90% if you limit yourself to films made outside of the U.S. (keeping in mind that the vast majority of my all-time favourite films were made in the U.S.).

Okay, enough with the suspense. What is this brilliant film that has so captured my imagination? What is this film which boasts one of the best cinematographic achievements ever? What is this film which boasts magnificent natural understated acting achievements by all concerned? What is this film which boasts one of the great editing achievements I have seen in a very long time? What is this film which features a magnificent achievement in both writing and directing by a man I have never heard of (though I do own another of his films on DVD and plan to watch it tomorrow)? What is this film which boasts one memorable thought-provoking scene after another and a brilliant use of symbols and images? What is this film of which I can say not one good word about its score, because it has none (the score of A Single Man was a central feature of its impact on me and I generally am no great fan of films that deliberately avoid music, but it worked perfectly in this masterpiece)? Will I ever let you know the name of the film? Yes, I will, but I won’t use a bold font or even capitalize it in case someone tries to jump down quickly to find it (if you are one of those, then you probably also read the back of the DVD case before watching a movie - sigh). The film in question is called revanche, directed by Goetz Spielmann, and no, I will not tell you what it’s about. It’s the kind of humanizing film that makes the word humanizing feel like a cliché (I’ll have to start being more creative in my reviews). It works on an emotional level few films can match even while it avoids both sentimentality and cliché at every turn (and even without a score). This film gets a very easy ****. My mug of Colombia’s finest is held high.

Please note that if you rent (or purchase) the Criterion release of this film (and you must do so soon, if you can handle the sex scenes), you must watch the interview with Spielmann. It is one of the most profound talks on the art of filmmaking and the making of a particular film that I have ever heard; it’s almost as good as the film itself.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Back to the Movies

Crazy Heart

I wanted to catch it before the Academy Awards but better watching it late on the big screen than waiting for the DVD, especially to see the beautiful cinematography (set in the wide open spaces of the American southwest). Jeff Bridges is certainly brilliant as the alcoholic country singer struggling with a late mid-life crisis. He and the other actors (especially Maggie Gyllenhaal) are what make this film such a joy to watch. And Bridges has always been one of my favourite actors (I remember loving him in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot back in the early 70’s and then there was Starman and The Fisher King, etc.). Nevertheless, I still thought Colin Firth’s performance in A Single Man was better and that Firth deserved the Oscar as much as Bridges.

Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that I thought A Single Man was a better film than Crazy Heart. Not that I found any flaws in Crazy Heart. Besides the great acting and cinematography, we have a story that is beautifully, quietly and intelligently told, with minimal sentimentality. We understand Bad Blake intimately, all the more because the story is so simple and elegant while avoiding cliches (especially noticeable in the way the film handles Blake’s relationship with country star Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). For what it is, Crazy Heart is an excellent film. But I am not a fan of country music (although I have always admired the eccentric T Bone Burnett and was glad to see him win an Oscar) and Scott Cooper’s story just never drew me in the way a film I love has to do. So a solid ***+ effort, and my mug is up, but I like a slightly darker roast inside.

The Last Station

Another Academy Award nominee that just arrived in Winnipeg (where it won’t stay long, given the fact that I sat all alone in a theatre that can hold 500), The Last Station tells the story of the last days of one of the most important figures of western thought and literature, Leo Tolstoy, focusing on the relationship between Tolstoy and his wife as seen through the eyes of a young Tolstoyan idealist who comes to work for Tolstoy (and who is experiencing a traumatic relationship of his own).

Like Crazy Heart, The Last Station boasts stellar performances, this time by Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, who both deserved their Oscar nominations, as well as James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti and Kerry Condon (who has a bright future ahead of her). The problem with The Last Station is either the writing or the direction (Michael Hoffman did both). It seems to be striving for an epic quality which it can’t pull off. The result is a film that lacks focus. I enjoyed the Valentin (McAvoy) storyline very much, but it never seems to connect properly with the Tolstoy storyline that consistently overwhelms it.

Maybe I was just wanting more ideas and less drama. Like Creation (Darwin), The Last Station is particularly strong when it deals with ideas but it doesn’t do so nearly enough. It was their ideas which made Darwin and Tolstoy such important historical figures and even a dramatic biography can afford to spend a little more time on those ideas and the controversies surrounding them.

Despite this criticism, I enjoyed The Last Station more than Crazy Heart (undoubtedly because I find Tolstoy far more interesting than Bad Blake). But both films are excellent and are to be commended for their humanization and their compassion. The Last Station gets another solid ***+. My mug is up again, but again the taste of its contents needs more flavour.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Catching Up: Ten Mini-Reviews

Here are my long-promised mini-reviews of ten films I watched since returning to Canada in early November (the ones not yet mentioned on the blog), starting with the worst and going up from there:

The Time Traveler’s Wife

A forgettable romance about a time traveler. I usually enjoy time traveling films, but this one made less sense than most (and that’s saying something). **+


I suppose a case could be made that 2012’s many symbols of division (between God and humanity, rich and poor, men and women and within the family) can be seen as a metaphor for life in the 21st century - all of these divisions will eventually result in the destruction of the world. A different case could be made that 2012 is played for laughs - it’s the ultimate disaster film cliché. Those cases could be made but I’m not going to make them. This story is absolutely ludicrous and the awesome special effects just draw attention to the insanity. It certainly is entirely formulaic as a disaster film, with cardboard characters, ridiculous dialogue and mediocre acting. The only actor who doesn’t embarrass himself/herself in this film is Oliver Platt. Roger, three and a half stars??? Ouch. **+

Coco before Chanel

Audrey Tautou gives another standout performance as ‘Coco’ Chanel. The film is well and beautifully done but the story it tells is just too boring to make this worth repeated viewings. ***

Julie & Julia

As usual, Meryl Streep is superb as Julia Child, and Amy Adams, her sidekick in Doubt, also does well enough. But, once again, this charming enjoyable comedy tells a story that’s just too boring to hold my attention (though I do appreciate old-fashioned comedies, so full marks for effort). ***

The Princess and the Frog

An old-fashioned and somewhat typical Disney animated film with gorgeous animation, an interesting story with a social conscience, and a decent Randy Newman score. I enjoyed it from start to finish but felt it lacked the grand themes and music of former greats like Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid and The Hunchback, etc. ***

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Another animated film, this one completely different from the last, giving us a style and feel unlike anything I have seen before. But that’s what one would expect from director Wes Anderson. I really appreciated the sophisticated intelligent humour, aimed more at adults than children, and the quirky way the story was told. I also thought George Clooney was great as the protagonist. This is a film with much to say about community and humanization (or animalization?). Nevertheless, the style was too distracting for me and kept me from liking it as much as most of the critics. ***+

The Men Who Stare at Goats

Another quirky sophisticated comedy, this time underrated rather than overrated. It’s a wacky satire about the military. Sure it doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s very funny and it has some thought-provoking things to say about war and the military-industrial complex. Great fun! George Clooney and Jeff Bridges are two of the best out there and their performances alone make this film worth ***+.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

This is a wild mess of a film from start to finish. Heath Ledger died during the filming and was replaced by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Impressive casting, and decent acting on all three parts (especially Johnny), but it still seemed weird. And yet? And yet I could not help enjoying every minute of this mess. After all, Terry Gilliam, one of my favourite directors, made it. He excels at making bizarre films unlike any we’ve seen before. There’s a lot to be said for that, and for the courage it takes to stand by one’s vision. Behind Gilliam’s mess are some thought-provoking and highly discussable ideas, especially on the theme of hope, and that’s always a good thing. ***+


John Pilger’s scathing indictment of Invictus notwithstanding, Clint Eastwood has directed another winner with this mostly unsensational look at Nelson Mandela’s attempts to unite his divided country through sports. Eastwood is helped by standout performances by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. One of the most impressive things about the film is the way every person in it comes across sympathetically - a fine achievement in humanization. Pilger claims the film is “an insult to the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa” and has a “subliminal theme [that] is all too familiar: colonialism deserves forgiveness and accommodation, never justice.” I understand where he is coming from, but think he’s a little too cynical (and I wonder what he means by justice), especially when people whose opinions I respect, and who have lived for years in South Africa, tell me they loved Invictus. ***+

The Road

Another end-of-the-world film, but ever so much better than 2012. I read the book by Cormac McCarthy in three days in December 2008 (reading a book in less than a month is something I haven’t done in decades). The film is so true to the book that I felt like I had seen it before. The Road is an incredibly gray, bleak and depressing film, but that’s what it’s supposed to be. The atmosphere created by the cinematography is perfect, just the right level of haunting horror mixed with drab never-ending despair (so not a Valentine’s Day film, in case you’re making plans, though the film does have a lot to say about love). What makes this film work are the perfect, understated and unsentimental performances by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the father and son struggling to survive the desperate days ahead. Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall aren’t bad either, though they have small roles. Just missed my top ten. ***+