Monday, 31 October 2011

Drag Me to Hell

Classic horror flicks like Rosemary’s Baby aside, horror films just don’t do it for me, even if they are meant to be campy comedies. But since tomorrow is Halloween, and since I had this critically-acclaimed horror flick in my collection, I decided to give Drag Me To Hell a shot.

The one thing this 2009 film, written and directed by Sam Raimi of Spiderman fame, has going for it is the final scene, which was close to entertaining and certainly provides a satisfying ending. But unless your idea of fun is watching campy horror, in which case you should not miss this one, I can’t recommend Drag Me to Hell. Maybe you have to watch a lot more horror than I do to appreciate this kind of thing. But I simply have no use for the horror genre. Even Shaun of the Dead, filmed almost next door to where we were living in London, was barely tolerable.

Sure, Drag Me to Hell has some grisly humour. But nothing about the silly horror plot makes the slightest sense (our protagonist throws up two liters of blood but sees no reason to visit a doctor), the action scenes are utterly boring to me, and the acting is, well, campy (which I guess is what it is supposed to be). Sorry, it’s just not my idea of a good time. From now on, I’ll try to steer clear of the horror genre, regardless of how good the reviews are. Though maybe it’s time to watch Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow again for Halloween. You can’t go wrong with The Legend of Sleep Hollow (Disney’s version is still the best Halloween entertainment out there, with Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin coming in a close second).

My mug, I’m afraid, is appropriately pointing down for Drag Me to Hell.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Beaver and All Good Things: Two Underrated 2011 Releases

Thanks to generally poor reviews, I missed these two films at the theatre, though my gut told me I might like them more than the average critic. My gut was right, just as my gut is usually right when I instinctively (on occasion) stay away from a film the critics think is great.

The Beaver stars Mel Gibson as Walter Black, a very depressed man who is saved by a beaver hand-puppet. By pretending to speak through the puppet, Walter is able to distance himself from his fears and anxieties. It is a remarkably successful therapy; too successful, as it turns out, leading Walter ever deeper into mental illness rather than out of it. Meanwhile, Walter’s oldest son, Porter, who hates his father (partly because he is so much like him) connects with Nora in high school. Both of them are struggling, alone, with issues they can’t work through.

The critics had me believing that a film about a hand-puppet doesn’t work, but I think they are wrong. Both of these stories worked very well for me (and I was not at all distracted by the story of the son, as some critics were). The acting of Anton Yelchin as Porter and Jennifer Lawrence (who was so fantastic in Winter’s Bone) as Nora was outstanding and that played a major role in how well that part of the film worked. Gibson was also outstanding, often playing two characters (one with a strong Cockney accent) at the same time. Jodie Foster starred, and performed well, as Walter’s wife, Meredith, and also directed The Beaver.

One of the reasons that the beaver hand-puppet worked for me is because I believe we all speak through masks almost all the time. This very morning I let my mask down in public for twenty seconds and spoke from my heart. It will be days (or even weeks) before I forgive myself for dropping my mask. As the beaver says, we are not encouraged to be passionate and say what’s really on our minds. Instead, we put on a mask to speak to all the other masks. I do this even with my closest friends, and frankly it makes me want to scream.

A key theme of The Beaver, made explicit at the end, is that we are not alone (or need never be alone). Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin was definitely alone, but I understand what the writer is trying to say and I couldn’t agree more. We all need someone to talk to, to share our deepest selves with, even if it’s a hand-puppet.

I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of The Beaver. It’s original, it has great cinematography and music, the writing and direction are solid and the acting, like I said, is outstanding. If it hadn’t been for some underdeveloped characters and occasional lack of credibility, I would give The Beaver four stars. As it is, I will give it a solid ***+. My mug is up and its contents may even be good enough to get a top-ten nod.

Note of interest (or not): About thirteen years ago, long before Gibson's troubles, I was doing a getting-to-know-you exercise in which I was asked to name a male and female actor I would like as neigbours (one living on each side of me). I answered with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster because they seemed like such interesting people (as well as great actors). It's good to see them together again (they starred in Maverick in 1994).

All Good Things is yet another Ryan Gosling film. It is a remarkably understated film (I’ve seen a lot of those lately and very much approve) about David Marks (played by Gosling), a man whose overbearing father (played well by Frank Langella) forces him to take on the family business in New York rather than follow his heart. The resulting personality change leads down a dark path involving his wife, Katie (played by Kirsten Dunst).

This low-key suspenser directed by Andrew Jarecki reminded me of Hitchcock from beginning to end, which is high praise. The unusual thing about All Good Things is that it is apparently based on real events and yet takes incredible liberties. Namely, it makes it clear that someone committed a serious crime for which they were never convicted. How the filmmakers can do that, I have no idea, but the result is fascinating to watch.

Gosling is very good and Dunst has one of her best roles. I felt almost like I was watching a classic from the forties and give All Good Things ***+. My mug is up again. At least on this one I had Roger Ebert on my side. He only gave The Beaver **+, which I simply do not understand.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin

am way too busy these days to watch films and write reviews, but I thought I should draw your attention to this four-star gem which will not be released in North America until early December (this is the one I saw in Geneva). I reviewed it for Media Matters at and here is the link: We Need to Talk about Kevin

My mug is up.

Can't get an image to work on this blog for now.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love

In my ongoing mission to find an interesting romantic comedy … Scrap that. How about: In my ongoing mission to watch as many Ryan Gosling films as I can in 2011 (I have managed to watch six so far), I caught Crazy, Stupid, Love at the cheap theatre (where I can still watch a film in a state-of-the-art cinema on Tuesday for $1.75 - Wow - I paid something like $25 to watch a film in Geneva on a Tuesday two weeks ago).

Crazy, Stupid, Love starts strong and ends strong but the first two words of the film’s title sum up the central half of the film, especially the dialogue. Maybe it’s just Steve Carell, who plays the protagonist of the the film. Carell is a very likeable actor and he has done some decent work, but so much of his dialogue (and his character in this film) is not remotely realistic. Sure this is a comedy, but I think it otherwise tries to take itself seriously enough to pretend to have a minimal level of realism. It fails.

The parts of Crazy, Stupid, Love that work do so because of the well-drawn characters and good ensemble cast. Outside of Carell, whose acting was actually fairly good, the acting was not what I would call great but it was solid. Gosling is not at his best here (just compare his performances in Drive or Blue Valentine to see what I mean) but he’s watchable if you can stand to see him topless (men, don’t do it to yourself; women, don’t even think about it). Julianne Moore and Emma Stone are solid. Marisa Tomei has done much better work, as has Kevin Bacon. The only real standout was a young actress by the name of Analeigh Tipton who plays the babysitter.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is, like other films I could mention (you know what I’m talking about), a series of apparently disconnected episodes (with very little flow) about people experiencing challenges in their love-life (or wanna-have love-life). Carell play a man whose wife (Moore) suddenly asks for a divorce because she is sleeping with another man (Bacon). Meanwhile, the son is in love with his babysitter who is in love with his father. And that’s only the beginning. To tell you any more would take away the most interesting parts of the film.

If you are a fan of this genre (and there are obviously many of you), you could do worse than Crazy, Stupid, Love, but I just couldn’t help thinking that if the basic premise and the same characters and actors had been given to a great writer (Dan Fogelman, who did much better with Tangled and Cars, should maybe stay with animated Disney films), this could have been a great romantic comedy instead of just a watchable one. I will give it *** anyway and my mug is up.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011


I have always loved baseball. It’s a graceful, peaceful beautiful sport; at least it was until money took over the game and players started moving from club to club as if they were nothing but trading cards. When I was young, you could pretty well count on your favourite team having mostly the same players year after year, with the rookies making the big difference. Not anymore. I’m surprised clubs maintain any loyalty. And then of course there’s the money, with clubs like the New York Yankees buying the best players because they have the most money and as a result they have won the World Series much more often than any other team.

In Moneyball, Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s in 2001, when they lost in the playoffs after a great season. In 2002, Billy finds his star players have been bought by richer clubs and needs to find a way to put a new team together with less than a third of the budget that the Yankees have. He stumbles across an Economics graduate from Yale (Peter Brand, played very well by Jonah Hill) who thinks cost-effective player-buying is all about using computers to calculate things like “on base percentage”, and Billy decides to give it a shot.

I won’t tell you what happens, though I will say that if the film was about what happens to the A’s in 2002, I would not be inclined to give it the four stars is so clearly deserves. Indeed, a four-star film usually needs to be close to perfect, but Moneyball actually disappointed me in a number of ways: 1) It didn’t do a great job of conveying the year the A’s had in 2002. With a record of 20-26 early in the year, the sports analysts were making it sound like they hadn’t won more than a few games. What happened after, in terms of wins and losses, was never clear. In a sport that’s all about statistics, this is a serious oversight. 2) Moneyball obviously alludes to the role of money in baseball, but doesn’t provide any serious critique or offer any kind of solution. What Beane did in 2002 didn’t alter the way players are passed around like trading cards or address the many ways the game of baseball has been brought down by money and free agency during the past thirty years. Too bad. 3) It was never clear how well the players were doing (see 1). 4) I don’t like the Oakland A’s (though I don’t hate them, like I hate the Yankees).

Because of these and related disappointments, there is no way Moneyball gets more than three stars from me if I thought it was about the A’s and their 2002 season. But I didn’t. I thought it was about Beane and his relationships with his daughter, with Brand, with his colleagues and with his players. The story of Beane is so brilliantly told that I was fully engaged in the film every moment from start to finish. Part of this was the exceptionally intelligent dialogue (no surprise to learn that Aaron Sorkin was one of the writers). Part of this was the wonderful understated performance by Pitt, who deserves an oscar nomination, and the performances of his associates (who include Philip Seymour Hoffman as the A’s’ manager). Part of this was certainly the sure direction of Bennet Miller.

Moneyball is moving, it’s funny and it feels like a classic. It’s certainly a classy piece of entertainment which, like I said, deserves no less than ****. My mug is up for this top-ten contender.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Ides of March

When you have the starring role and George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Marisa Tomei are playing supporting roles beside you, you know you’ve made it as an actor. Obviously Ryan Gosling has made it. This is the fourth Gosling film I have seen in the last few months and I haven’t seen the recent Crazy Stupid Love, so this has been quite the year for the young Canadian actor (I will review his All Good Things, which I watched on the weekend, later this week).

I knew Gosling was in The Idea of March, because his face was on the poster, but that’s exactly all I knew about this film (just the way I like it). So I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the supporting cast, all of whom did very well, as did Gosling. I was also surprised to see the film was written, produced and directed by Clooney. Well done, George.

The Ides of March is a tense political drama taking place over a few days of an Ohio democratic presidential primary. Gosling plays Stephen, the assistant to Paul, the campaign manager (Hoffman). Stephen, while not above playing dirty in typical campaign style, is an idealist who has found a candidate he truly believes in (Mike Morris, played by Clooney). And based on Morris’s speeches about ending dependence on oil and opposing the distribution of government money to the wealthy, among other things, I would believe in him too, especially if his attitude in person supported his political views.

At first Morris is indeed portrayed as a man of integrity, but then we discover that he has committed the one crime no candidate is permitted to commit. (Spoiler alert!) As Stephen says, a presidential candidate can lie, cheat, steal and probably kill, but he can’t mess with an intern. Morris’s indiscretion is just one of the things which cause Stephen to become quickly disillusioned with politics but much worse is about to befall the young man. How he deals with his trials is the main subject of the film and I won’t say more about that. I will say that The Ides of March does a good job of dealing with themes like integrity, trust and loyalty.

When the campaign gets out of control (i.e. falls apart), the film loses a bit on credibility, but I have no trouble believing that these kinds of things happen in politics all the time. On the whole, I found The Ides of March to be a solid, diverting while understated entertainment, worthy of ***+. I think George Clooney (not Mike Morris) would make a good president, but if the theme of this film is any indication, he’s probably too smart to get into the stupid demoralizing absurdity called politics. My mug is up.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Flight Films: Alamanya, Bad Teacher, Julia's Eyes, Nothing to Declare, Pigeons on the Roof, Something Borrowed, The Whistleblower, Wrecked

I watched eight films on my flights to Europe and back, though I will be the first to tell you that watching a film on a tiny little screen with horrible sound (partly because of the background noise) is not really watching a film at all. Reliable evaluation is therefore a challenge at best. Still, I was able to watch some foreign films I may otherwise have missed and it will come as no surprise to hear that in general the foreign films were vastly superior to the North American ones. Unfortunately, on my return flight there were few foreign films to chose from.

I will review these films from worst to best, so most of the English-language films will come first:

Bad Teacher (American, 2011)

Bad film. I kept watching in the hope that it would get better but for me Bad Teacher had no redeeming qualities whatsoever and was a complete waste of my time. *+

Something Borrowed (American, 2011)

This film about a woman in love with her best friend’s fiance (who also happens to be in love with her) starts off with promise but fizzles out after twenty minutes or so and becomes nothing more than an ordinary and silly chick flick (not to say that all chick flicks are ordinary and silly but, well, you know what I mean). I did enjoy watching Ginnifer Goodwin in the lead role. **+

Wrecked (Canadian, 2010)

A one-man film starring Adrien Brody as a man who wakes up in a car-wreck in a forest ravine with no memory of who he is or how he got there. It’s an interesting premise and the flashbacks were intriguingly done, but ultimately this is a snorer with only a few compelling scenes. **+

Julia’s Eyes (Spanish, 2010)

A psychological thriller about a blind woman and the man who keeps her that way. This film has lots of style and has its moments, but it’s derivative, contrived and predictable, so only of interest to those who like this kind of film (sometimes I do, but not precisely this kind). **+

Nothing to Declare (Belgian - French, 2010)

A comedy-drama about racism and the beginning of open border-crossings in Europe. There are too many scenes that don’t work, and the anti-racism message is much too superficial, but there are some hilarious and touching scenes and the actors are a joy to watch. ***

Pigeons on the Roof (German, 2011)

In German, this film is literally titled “The Theory of the Relativity of Love” and it’s a whacky comedy about four couples in a big German city. The acting, especially by the two lead actors, is extraordinary. You have to watch it to see why. This is one of the funniest films I have watched in a long time. ***+

The Whistleblower (American, 2010)

Rachel Weisz stars as a Nebraska police officer who is talked into becoming a peacekeeper in Bosnia after the war. The Whistleblower is not a brilliantly-made film but it’s based on actual events and it deals with vital issues like sex trafficking, UN peacekeeping and, most importantly, the way American business contracts are handed out after wars and disasters (see Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine). In this case, the prime culprit is an American security firm that takes part (with impunity) in the sex trafficking of young woman in Bosnia. This is an horrific film that somehow remains understated while becoming more gripping and frightening with each minute. ***+

Alamanya - Welcome to Germany (German, 2011)

A delightful humanizing comedy-drama about the experience of Turkish immigrants in Germany. This film about descendants of the earliest post-war Turkish immigrants who were invited to help restore Germany in 1950‘s (it includes the experience of those first immigrants) uses humour to question the status of those descendants within Germany today (surely they are now accepted as full members of the German community, you say - yeah, right). This beautifully-made film is the kind of film that has the potential to change the hearts of viewers and make the world a better place. As I’ve said before, we can never have too many films like that. ***+

Exactly half of the films I watched get a mug up - the rest are better avoided altogether.