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. ***+

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A Single Man

Colin Firth’s performance as a man who has recently lost his male partner of sixteen years to a tragic accident is extraordinary, finally giving him the role that shows how good he really is. Firth should have been on my list of top ten actors of the decade, but I somehow forgot him, as I forgot his fellow Brit, Clive Owen (maybe that’s what happens when you leave London behind - you try to repress all things British). Firth even replaces George Clooney as best actor of 2009 (though I plan to see Crazy Heart this week and may soon be giving the honour to Jeff Bridges).

Back to A Single Man: This is an amazing film and would easily have made my top ten films of 2009 had I seen it in time (probably my top five). The director, Tom Ford, is a fashion designer and this is his first film. It doesn’t show. The direction, like the acting, is superb. The design of the film is certainly excellent, but not distracting. The cinematography is generally outstanding, as is the score (perhaps my favourite of the year). This is a film that not only takes place in 1962 - it feels like it was filmed in 1962. It is pure art-house, telling a very simple story, which takes place in just over a day, in a quiet intelligent way. Perhaps there could have been a little more insight into Firth’s character, but then maybe it wouldn’t have worked so well as an unsentimental yet moving film.

A Single Man encourages us to think about the people we encounter on any given day, about the way people treat each other, about relationships in general and about the masks we all wear, so there is much food for discussion (what WERE the filmmaker/writer trying to say about the role of “fate”? for example). **** My mug is held high - it’s the kind of film that restores my confidence in filmmaking at a time when most of the box office hits are junk-food.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Vic's Top Actors and Directors of the Decade

Below is my list of top ten male and female actors of the decade (limited to actors making regular films of interest to me in the past ten years, so old favourites like Sean Connery and Harrison Ford are not on the list - they just didn’t make enough of my kind of films this decade). Keep in mind, again, that this is not a list of the ten best actors/actresses but a list of my personal top ten (i.e. knowing these people are in a film automatically sparks my interest). The lists are alphabetical. My favourite in each list is indicated with an asterisk. Following each actor is a scene from my favourite film of the decade in which they appeared (when possible).

Below the two lists of actors is a list of 22 directors whose names I watch for in the 21st century (i.e. these are the directors who, when I see their name attached, automatically make me want to see the film).

Amy Adams - great in every film in which I have seen her (Enchantment, Sunshine Cleaning, Doubt, Charlie Wilson’s War, Junebug, Julie & Julia, etc.).

Marion Cotillard * - one of the best female actors of our time, superb in La Vie en Rose.

Judi Dench - pure class; apparently I was standing right beside her in an airport and didn’t notice.

Scarlett Johansson - Janelle would give me a dark look if I failed to admit she is on my list.

Nicole Kidman - always a pleasure to watch; and she can sing too (Moulin Rouge, Nine).

Kelly Macdonald - underused Scottish actress - great in A Girl in the Cafe and No Country for Old Men. We walked past her in London on my birthday last year but decided not to bother her.

Ellen Page - a brilliant up-and-comer from Canada (Juno has been her best work so far).

Charlize Theron - great actress and one of my all-time favourites.

Naomi Watts - another underused actress, though she’s ranked number one on IMDB Pro today.

Kate Winslet - who doesn’t love Kate?

Nicolas Cage - he may not have a wide range, but he’s capable of great things (Adaptation) and I just love watching him.

George Clooney * - ditto (O Brother, Michael Clayton, Syriana, Up in the Air - enough said).

Russell Crowe - he does have a wide range, and he’s one of the very best.

Matt Damon - he exudes innocent intelligence and I like that.

Johnny Depp - who doesn’t love Johnny? And he can sing, too (Sweeney Todd was a great film)!

Ralph Fiennes - one of the greatest actors of our time, always the best actor in every film he’s in.

Tom Hanks - he’s even fun to watch in the films based on Dan Brown novels.

Philip Seymour Hoffman - the master (should have had a handful of Oscars by now).

Ian McKellen - the old master, who just keeps getting better.

Denzel Washington - a favourite for a very long time, I even enjoyed him in Training Day, The Taking of Pelham 123 and John Q.

Woody Allen - his films have not been as good this decade, but he’s still making them and I keep watching them (his frequent use of Scarlett Johansson doesn’t hurt - I loved Match Point).

Pedro Almodovar - consistently excellent.

Paul Thomas Anderson - after Magnolia, I watch for everything he does.

Darren Aronofsky - one of the best filmmakers of the decade.

Coen Brothers - always quirky and entertaining.

Tim Burton - another maker of quirky films that are almost always worth repeated viewings.

David Cronenberg - he’s had a great decade.

Clint Eastwood - one of the best directors ever.

Terry Gilliam - if Gilliam makes it, I know it will be weird and wonderful.

Paul Haggis - two of my favourite dramas of the decade made by him.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - ditto.

Mike Leigh - my favourite British director has never made a dud.

Richard Linklater - most thought-provoking director out there.

Ken Loach - another great British director telling the story of the common people.

Sam Mendes - after American Beauty, I watch for everything he does.

Jason Reitman - THE up-and-comer.

Carlos Reygadas - you know it’s going to be unique; one of our most daring and innovative directors.

Martin Scorsese - one of the greats and still busy.

Steven Spielberg - ditto.

Quentin Tarantino - I’ve said I’m not a Tarantino fan, but I can’t resist seeing whatever this crazy genius makes.

Tom Tykwer - my favourite German director whose films have always captivated me.

Yimou Zhang - my favourite Asian director.