Friday, 29 April 2011

The Kids are All Right


Coincidences continue as today I am reviewing another film starring Mia Wasikowska, although here she is not playing the protagonist. That honour goes to Annette Bening and Julianne Moore playing a lesbian couple with two teenage children (one of whom is played by Wasikowska). The performances of Bening and Moore are absolutely brilliant and overshadow the rest of the acting and even the story.

Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right is a very different kind of comedy drama (yes, it is another comedy drama). For one thing, it normalizes a “gay” family like no other film I have seen. It’s just a two-kid, two-parent family like countless others where the parents each have their strengths and weaknesses, where they love each other, where they have their differences and where, after twenty years of marriage, it’s time for a midlife crisis. The crisis in this case is precipitated, in part, by the unexpected (for the parents) appearance of the children’s father (sperm donor), played by Mark Ruffalo. While it gets quite serious at times, I do think The Kids are All Right qualifies as a comedy drama in its own way. But because it is a very intelligent film that feels quite real (for the most part), the comedy is of the sad and knowing kind rather than the kind that generates laughter.

The Kids are All Right is so unique and honest and so full of fascinating characters, great dialogue and great performances, that I could not help but enjoy it. But the story did not always work for me – sometimes it was just a bit too much. So I can’t give The Kids are All Right the four stars which many critics gave it. I will give it a very solid ***+ and add a warning that this film is not for everyone.

Since this is a “Christian” website, perhaps you are wondering why I do not offer a theological analysis of the lifestyle promoted in this film. Maybe some day I will do so, but at the moment I am unable to go there. You are free, however, to read what you will into my lack of condemnation of the family life depicted in The Kids are All Right.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Jane Eyre


It was pure coincidence (if you believe in such things) that during the past three days I saw the only two films Cary Fukunaga has directed and saw Sally Hawkins in two films back-to-back. Not that there is any resemblance between Fukunaga’s two films or between Hawkins’ two roles (she has only a small role in Jane Eyre).


Indeed, it is hard to imagine a greater difference between Fukunaga’s two films. From the bright green crowded landscape of 21st-century Mexico we go to the bleak desolate moors of 19th-century England. From a wild and violent adventure yarn we go to an incredibly slow-moving and quiet drama. The only resemblance between the two films is that both are about young quiet women struggling against the odds to move forward in life.


Jane Eyre is a classic gothic novel given an old-fashioned classic gothic filming and I found that refreshing. Beautifully filmed and well-acted, with an emphasis on characters and with what I can only assume was a fair amount of Charlotte Bronte’s original dialogue, there is little in this film that separates it from the classic epic films of old.


Mia Wasikowska as Jane is altogether too accomplished an actress for her age. I knew when I first saw her in the first season of In Treatment that she had a great career ahead of her. Michael Fassbender is quite acceptable as Rochester and the romance between Jane and Rochester almost works (I mean that as a compliment). Judi Dench is her usually brilliant self as Rochester’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax.


If Jane Eyre hadn’t faded a little in the last half hour, I think I would have given Fukunaga his second straight four-star film. Not that I am complaining about the ending or that it’s predictable, because of course the story is very familiar to me (though it has been decades since I read the novel), so there are few surprises. But from the point in the story when a variety of secrets are revealed, I was not as impressed with the way it was filmed as I had been up to that point. So I am going to settle for ***+. If you want to watch a gorgeous old-fashioned gothic romance, don’t miss seeing this on the big screen. My mug is up, toasting a brilliant young filmmaker.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Made in Dagenham


Based on a true story, Nigel Cole’s 2010 film is about the beginning of the struggle for equal pay for women in 1968, a struggle which begins in a Ford factory in Dagenham, UK. Leading the struggle is Rita O’Grady , played wonderfully by the always-brilliant Sally Hawkins. Joining Hawkins is Daniel Mays doing an excellent job as her husband, Eddie, Bob Hoskins perfect as her union friend, Albert, and Rosamond Pike continuing to impress me in a scene-stealing supporting role as her friend, Lisa. Opposing Rita in this struggle is Richard Schiff doing a commendable job as the hard-nosed American Ford representative.


So far we have a fascinating and important true story with an outstanding cast. Add to that the beautiful cinematography (faded and hazy to give us the feel we are in the 1960’s) and we surely have the makings of a classic. Unfortunately, Made in Dagenham doesn’t seem to know what to do with the treasures it has been given and never really takes off.


This is not to say that Made in Dagenham is a dud. It’s still a very good film. It just should have been better. From the way the struggle for equality is initiated by a man (Hoskins) to the anticlimactic closing scene with the Secretary of State (played by Miranda Richardson in a good but uneven performance), Made in Dagenham squanders its opportunities to bring the film to life and engage and inspire its audience, giving us instead a rather deliberate and unimaginative rendering of an exciting social justice milestone.


It’s not hard to sense my disappointment. I wanted Made in Dagenham to grab me, to be great, but it couldn’t do it. I’m still giving it ***+ because just watching the actors and seeing the story was entertaining enough to deserve that. My mug is up but the blend is a bit bland.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Sin Nombre


I found that ‘something special’ I was looking for, in a very different kind of road movie made in 2009. This one is a train trip (on top of the train) across Mexico and it is most certainly not a comedy. Quite the contrary. This is a disturbing and tragic tale of three teenagers caught up in the horrors generated by Mexican gang life.


As in The Lucky Ones, the three leads, Sayra, Casper and Smiley, are in a constant search for connection as they struggle to move forward with their lives. One presumes it is the sense of belonging and community that drew Casper and his young friend, Smiley, to the Mara gang in the first place. But gang life is a community that demands much of its members and some of it is very bad (membership requirements include being beaten and killing a member of a rival gang).


(Warning: slight spoilers in this paragraph) When the gang boss (Mago) accidentally kills Casper’s girlfriend while trying to rape her (sharing is another part of gang membership), Casper snaps. At the first opportunity, when Mago is threatening the life of Sayra, an innocent bystander, Casper kills Mago, knowing full well that his chances of surviving more than a few days are slim to none. Sayra, meanwhile, is trying to make an illegal trip with her father and uncle from Honduras to New Jersey, where the rest of her siblings are waiting. When Casper rescues her from Mago, she befriends him and they journey together. And Smiley? To remain in the gang, he volunteers to hunt Casper down and kill him.


Sin Nombre (‘nameless’), directed by Cary Fukunaga, is a dark, beautiful and utterly captivating film about how these three teenagers wrestle with the terror of what daily life can bring in many parts of Central America. The acting of Paulina Gaitan as the dour but kind Sayra is outstanding and Edgar Flores as Casper does a remarkable job at her side. The cinematography is gorgeous. I expected a lot of handheld ‘realism-inducing’ camera work, but was very pleasantly surprised. And the direction is amazing given that this is Fukunaga’s first film.


Sin Nombre has much to say about the themes of Mexican gang life and illegal immigration. In does so by offering a very humanizing and horrifying portrait of life just south of the “American Dream” in the context of an adventure film. This one gets ****. My mug is up. While the contents may be a little bitter, they are of the finest quality. If you can handle watching such a disturbing film, this one is not to be missed.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Lucky Ones


Having recently seen Neil Burger’s latest film (Limitless) and having thoroughly enjoyed his first film, The Illusionist, I thought I’d check out what else he has done (namely The Lucky Ones, a film he made in 2008, between the other two). That would be a lie. The truth is that I randomly picked a recent DVD that I had not yet seen off my shelf and it just happened to be written and directed by Neil Burger.


Three American soldiers, fresh from Iraq, find themselves on a road trip across the States. They are all suffering from injuries and the trauma created not just by being in Iraq but by being away from their homes for such a long period of time. Each of them is going to face life-changing trials on this unplanned trip across the country (did I mention they have never met before). Tim Robbins plays Fred Cheaver, a man who has served his time and is coming home to a wife he hasn’t seen for two years. But his wife has “moved on” and wants a divorce and his son needs $20,000 immediately to get into Stanford. Rachel McAdams (who was the standout here, showing what she is capable of if given the right role) plays Colee, a young woman with an innocent goodhearted personality whose lover was recently killed in Iraq. She’s on a mission to return her lover’s guitar to his parents, but she will also not be impressed by what she finds when she gets there. And Michael Pena plays T.K., a man who just got some shrapnel in his private parts and can’t perform sexually. He’s worried about how his girlfriend will react to this injury and about going back to Iraq.


Does this sound like a comedy drama to you? Of course not. And not to me either, especially as I randomly picked The Lucky Ones from my ‘drama’ section. But ‘fate’ is playing tricks on me and it was indeed yet another comedy drama, despite the serious situations just described.


As a comedy drama, it actually worked pretty well (i.e. the comedy did not offend me and it all felt relatively genuine). What stood out in The Lucky Ones was the quality of the acting of the three leads and the natural way they reacted to each other and bonded with each other (which in the end is what makes them the 'the lucky ones'). The dialogue and relationships felt completely believable despite some of the typical absurdities of road movies. In one way or another, I connected to all three of these soldiers facing the stress of returning home (however briefly) and that’s far from a given in a comedy road movie. On the other hand, The Lucky Ones remained a lightweight throughout and just didn’t have enough depth to get more than a solid ***. My mug is up, but I’m still waiting for something special.


So, starting tomorrow, I’m going to try to search out those lesser-known gems from the past decade which I have not yet seen and which you may be able to find.


Saturday, 23 April 2011

Soul Kitchen


What’s this, you ask? Yet another comedy drama? Is that all you watch, Vic? All fair questions. My only response is that it’s not deliberate. Call it a strange coincidence, like the coincidence that had me watching, back-to-back, the latest films by the two directors who made two of my favourite films of 2008. Unfortunately, the same thing happened in both cases: I hoped for more than I got.


Fatih Akin’s 2008 film was the wonderful The Edge of Heaven. Soul Kitchen, released in 2010, is a perfectly enjoyable comedy drama (as was Win Win), but, also like Win Win, it’s nothing special (and I’m always hoping for something special).


Soul Kitchen is the story of Zinos, a struggling restaurant owner in Hamburg (the warehouse restaurant, located in an industrial area, is called Soul Kitchen) trying to stay one step ahead of the tax woman. When his romantic partner’s job leads her to China, Zinos tries to figure out how he can leave the restaurant and join her. But three men suddenly enter his life and turn it upside down in a matter of weeks. One of these is his brother, Illias, a thief who can get day passes from prison if he pretends to work at the restaurant. The second is an old friend who is trying too hard to buy the restaurant from Zinos. And the third is a volatile but good chef, recently fired, whom Zinos decides to hire after hurting his back.


Crisis follows crisis and Zinos’ life becomes a roller-coaster of ecstasy and despair. One minute everything is coming together and the restaurant is thriving, the next minute everything is taken away from him.


Like I said, Soul Kitchen, very much a comedy, is a lot of fun to watch, though occasionally it gets just a little too silly for my taste. Adam Bousdoukos (a lifelong friend of Akin’s) does a commendable job as Zinos. Moritz Bleibtreu, as Illias, is even better and it is his character who is the most interesting to watch as he struggles to change his life. Anna Berderke, who plays Lucia, the waitress, also has a fascinating character to play and does very well.


Like Win Win, Soul Kitchen has a good humanizing heart (as I would expect from Akin, and expected from McCarthy) and also gets a very solid ***. My mug is up but it’s waiting for someone to put something tastier inside.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Win Win


Having loved The Visitor, the last film which Tom McCarthy wrote and directed, I was really looking forward to this light drama starring Paul Giamatti (this is the third Giamatti film I’ve reviewed this year). I was even thinking it might be a top ten contender. But while Win Win has a lot going for it, it did not live up to my expectations.


Win Win is the story of a struggling lawyer (Mike, played by Giamatti) who talks a judge into letting him be the guardian of a wealthy client (Leo) by promising to keep Leo in Leo’s own home (instead of putting him in a nursing home). But Mike turns around and tells Leo the judge ordered him into the nursing home. It’s a fairly harmless scam to make some much-needed extra income. And it might have worked if Leo’s grandson, Kyle, hadn’t shown up after running away (halfway across the country) from his mother (who eventually comes looking). Kyle is a first-class high school wrestler and, by some very bizarre coincidence, Mike coaches high school wrestling in his spare time. And away we go.


I have nothing against coincidences as such, but this one was a bit much. And the whole wrestling part of the film just didn’t work for me (maybe because I find wrestling tedious), though I was happy to see that the film (despite its title) wasn’t about ‘winning’ but about people. Not that I would have expected any less from McCarthy, whose previous two films are so humanizing.


The film’s title is really about trying to find a win-win solution to a set of problems involving everyone already mentioned. That part of Win Win did work for me and I particularly appreciated the unsensational way this part of the plot was handled. This is a film about ordinary goodhearted people doing ordinary, goodhearted (and sometimes not so goodhearted) things and that’s rare in American films. The situation wasn’t believable but what the characters did with it was believable. It is an intelligent humanizing screenplay; it just lacks the depth of McCarthy’s previous efforts.


Win Win is helped by some solid acting from Giamatti, Amy Ryan as his wife, and the rest of the adult actors. The younger actors weren’t quite as convincing to me, but did well enough.


There is some humour in the film (probably unavoidable if Giamatti is starring) and most of it works. All in all, Win Win is an enjoyable satisfying comedy drama. It’s just that I had hoped for something special and came away disappointed. A solid ***. My mug is up.


Thursday, 21 April 2011

Whatever Works


Time to review another recent Woody Allen film. It’s the story of a New York City physicist with a 200 IQ (played by Larry David) who marries a stereotypical beautiful dumb blonde from Mississippi (played by Evan Rachel Wood). Realism is not part of what Whatever Works is going for.


For me, the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes are worth the price of admission and guarantee a *** rating. Between the beginning and end there are only occasional moments of brilliance and Whatever Works drifts way off course about halfway through. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Woody Allen at his worst is still superior to what normally passes for comedy drama today.


Boris, the physicist, tells us that people are basically rotten, that life is meaningless and that the universe is black, violent and indifferent. He has tried to kill himself but failed. Melody, the dumb blonde, tries to learn the bleak wisdom of Boris but in the end it is she who teaches Boris that life can be meaningful if you are able to give and receive love. At the end, Boris even talks favourably about something he calls luck, which one could equate with that cold dark universe of his. Critics like to write about how Allen uses his films to convey his view that the universe is cold and indifferent. If that is true, why do I always get the sense that he is trying to talk himself out of such a view.


The writing and acting in Whatever Works are certainly not as strong as they could be, but it has some very funny moments and, as usual with an Allen film, I enjoyed it. *** My mug is up even if whatever’s inside doesn’t work that well.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Peacock


Wow! (Always a good sign, as you know, when I start a review with ‘wow’).


Films don’t scare me very easily. Horror films tend to bore me, amuse me or disgust me but only rarely scare me. And Peacock isn’t a horror film. At least, I didn’t think it was, though I knew absolutely nothing about the film when I started watching it (which is the way I like it). But the first three minutes of Peacock scared the willies out of me (I could not even look at the snack I had brought down to enjoy with my film). And in some ways, it only got worse after that, thanks in part to the fact that I found Peacock completely unpredictable (such a rare treat).


I’m not sure into which genre Peacock even fits. I suppose it’s a psychological thriller, but for the most part it doesn’t behave like a psychological thriller (see below). Some would probably call this a horror film, mainly because it’s so scary and has the feel of a horror film, but Peacock doesn’t satisfy my criteria for that genre either. Which leaves me calling it something like ‘bizarre disturbing drama’.


It doesn’t give much away, since you find out in the first few minutes (though it lessens the impact of those minutes), to tell you this is a film about a guy (John) with a very freaky multiple personality disorder. If that’s not your thing, stay away from Peacock. Somehow John, who was abused by his mother (nothing new there - think Psycho), has been able to keep his problem under control and even turn it to his advantage for an entire year (since his mother’s death). But then a train derailment sends a caboose into his backyard (in Peacock, Nebraska) and everything comes apart. In a normal psychological thriller, this coming apart would result in all kinds of action, violence and scenes designed to shock. In Peacock, director Michael Lander keeps everything relatively calm and subdued, making it all the scarier.


Peacock is worth watching for the performance of Cillian Murphy alone. I have always thought of him as a competent actor but wow, this is a remarkable Oscar-worthy performance. Ellen Page co-stars and is excellent, as usual, as is Susan Sarandon in an important supporting role, and Josh Lucas impressed me as the sheriff of Peacock. Bill Pullman and Keith Carradine round out a fine supporting cast.


The cinematography is unusual. Peacock looks and feels like an old film, something made in the 70s, which I assume is the intent (it was made in 2010). The score is generally good though just a bit too strong at points.


Does the plot of Peacock lack credibility? Sure. Does it matter? Not enough. Because Peacock held my attention better than most films and sucked me completely into its disturbing story. So why the heck did a film this good not even get released in theatres (it went straight to DVD)? Don’t ask me, especially with all the junk out there. But if a low-key humanizing psychological thriller that grabs you and won’t let go is your idea of a good time, this is for you. ***+ My mug is up, but next time I watch a film like this I want someone else in the house with me.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Someone I Loved


Another recent French film which did not get any exposure in North America, Someone I Loved is, as the title suggests, a love story. The love story in this case involves an affair between Pierre, a middle-aged French businessman who has two teenage kids and a wife at home, and Mathilde, a beautiful young interpreter he meets on one of his business trips to Hong Kong. So far, the story does not sound very original and, indeed, the love story, as beautifully filmed and acted as it is, is not very original. If that was all there was to the film, I might have yawned and given it *** for aesthetic appeal (Daniel Auteuil and Marie-Josee Croze are perfectly cast and the cinematography and score are both outstanding).


But the hook in Someone I Loved is that Pierre is telling this love story years later to Chloe, his daughter-in-law, a couple of days after his son left her for another woman. Doesn’t sound like a good idea, you say? Well, one might not think so, but Pierre didn’t plan to do it and the result is not what one might expect.


I loved the father-in-law/daughter-in-law part of the film. Auteuil and Florence Loiret Caille do a marvelous job of conveying the pain and vulnerability in both characters. I only wish writer/director Zabou Breitman had spent at least twice as long on that part of the film and shortened the love story accordingly. As it is, this gorgeous frame for the love story lifts Someone I Loved from *** to a solid ***+. If you are looking for an old-fashioned French romantic drama with a twist, you’ll want to check this one out. My mug is up.


Monday, 18 April 2011

In the Beginning


This is another film you will not have seen at the cinema. Based on a true story, this 2009 French film, written and directed by Xavier Giannoli, stars Francois Cluzet as Paul, a small-time con man who drives into a small French town and within 24 hours inadvertently changes the lives of most its inhabitants, bringing hope to people who had been depressed since a highway project was abandoned two years before.


Calling himself Philippe Miller, Paul pretends to be one of the highway construction company managers, hinting that construction is about to start up again in order to bribe would-be suppliers. When one of them mentions that others would be willing to pay bribes to get the heavily unemployed town out of trouble, Paul cannot resist trying his luck a little longer and suddenly the town is awash with rumours and hope. If it were not true, what happens during the following three months would not seem credible.


In the Beginning is about the inner struggle of a man fighting desperately to let go of who he has become and become someone new, someone he can be proud of for the first time in his life. It is also about townspeople wanting so desperately to believe in hope and in themselves that they blind themselves to the truth at every turn. In both cases people need the opportunity to make something better of their lives and there are things we all can learn about our own ongoing struggles to be all that we are called to be.


Cluzet is perfect as Miller, conveying his thoughts and emotions through his face rather than through words. Supporting roles by Emmanuelle Devos and Soko are also particularly strong. In the Beginning is a well-made drama that is both painful and inspiring to watch. ***+ My mug is up.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Red


“I haven’t killed anyone in years,” says one of the heroes of Red. “That’s sad,” says another in response, and he means it. If you can laugh at this line, which I assume was meant to be funny, then you can probably enjoy watching Red.


Walter, you said this film was not worth writing about. You’re probably right, so I will keep it short. Red pokes fun at the spy business by poking fun at a group of retired spies, led by Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren. That’s a pretty good collection of actors and Mary-Louise Parker and Rebecca Pidgeon round out the impressive cast. Watching them have fun with Red is why I enjoyed the film.


There’s not much else to enjoy. The plot is full of holes, the nonstop gunfire is downright offensive (tolerable only if you assume, once again, that this is deliberately satirizing the spy business), and the ending is pitiful.


Nevertheless, Red was nice to look at and it was fun to watch the actors having fun (I thought Malkovich was better here than in Secretariat and I always enjoy Brian Cox). So I’ll be generous once again and give Red ***. My mug is up but on the verge of tipping.


Saturday, 16 April 2011

Mr. Nobody


“One of the most pretentious movies ever made.”


“This film’s only high point is when it ends.”


“The film is diabolically vapid.”


“A painful exercise in pointlessness.”


“This film is horrifically boring.”


“One of the best films of the year.”


All of these quotes from film critics refer to Mr. Nobody, a film Walter and I watched together at the cinema over a year ago and which I watched again today on DVD. As you can tell from these quotes, it’s one of those love-it or hate-it kind of films. The fact that I was eager to watch it again tells you which camp I’m in.


Mr. Nobody is a gorgeous profound film about how the choices we make every minute can put our life on a different track and send us on an entirely different journey. Other films have done this, but they usually suggest that one or more of those choices lead us on the wrong track. Mr. Nobody tells us that each track has value and meaning and that life needs to be treated like a playground. The films conveys this in words but also in a brilliantly-conceived and innovative story that shows you what the words mean.


Mr. Nobody could be called: “The Many Possible Lives of Nemo Nobody”. Nemo’s parents separate when he is nine years old and force him to choose between them. Nemo apparently has the ability to see the future, so he can look at the countless paths to which this one decision can lead and can even look back on them from the age of 118 in 2092. The result is a fascinating journey through time, dancing back and forth through Nemo’s life from the age of nine to fifteen to 35 to 118. Jared Leto plays the adult Nemo and his performance is magnificent. Why is this young actor (who was also great in Requiem for a Dream) not starring in more films? The child and teenage Nemo are also very well played and indeed the acting of the entire supporting cast of this long film is excellent.


The cinematography and score of Mr. Nobody are likewise outstanding and the special effects are remarkable given that this is an independent film. Mr. Nobody is actually a Canadian-Belgian-French-German co-production, filmed in each of those countries and with an international cast. It was written and directed by the Belgian Jaco van Dormael, who must be a genius. This is his first English-language film.


I won’t say the film is perfect, but if you like thoughtful and beautiful films and don’t require a payoff that makes sense of everything, you should give this film, which has had very little exposure, a look. I have only read a handful of reviews of Mr. Nobody (from which I got the above quotes), but not one of them came close to expressing what I got out of the film. In fact, I’m quite sure I liked it more on second viewing, which is one of my criteria for favourite films. Far from being bored, I was completely absorbed for the entire 157 minutes.


At one point in Mr. Nobody, the nine-year-old Nemo states that everything remains possible as long as you don’t choose. Exactly! As a man who has made it a priority to keep as many options open as possible, I resonate completely with this sentiment. But can you really decide not to choose? I’m giving this rare gem ****. My mug is up - this is my idea of what filmmaking is about.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Incendies


Easily the best film I have seen this year, Incendies is a masterpiece from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. I can see why it won eight Genie awards.


Incendies begins with thirty-year-old twins (Jeanne and Simon) in Montreal being told that their mother’s will requests them to deliver letters to a father they thought was dead and a brother they didn’t know they had. Only upon the delivery of those letters, which represents the fulfillment of a very old promise, will their mother (Nawal) allow her children to bury her properly. Nawal grew up, and gave birth to her children, in the fictitious Middle Eastern country of Fuad, so Jeanne (played wonderfully by Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) immediately travels to Fuad to see what she can learn of the secret life Nawal has kept hidden from them all these years.


What Jeanne and Simon discover in Fuad will certainly not be shared here, but I can tell you it absolutely took my breath away (a rare feat). Actually, there are many surprises along the way, enough to keep you constantly enthralled even while watching a very slow-moving film.


Most of Incendies takes place in the past, telling the story of Nawal Marwan, an exceptional woman struggling for dignity in a world torn apart by religious violence. In this case, the violence is between Christians and Muslims and the story begins with the consequences of Nawal, a Christian, falling in love with a Muslim. Things go downhill from there as Nawal is caught up in the religious violence in various horrific ways. Nawal, played magnificently by Lubna Azabel, will later seek an unusual form of peace but I will say no more about that.


Incendies is a beautiful haunting film. It is intense and horrific but also incredibly restrained and expertly crafted (e.g. the opening scene of the film only makes sense at the end and when I reflected back on that scene while watching the credits, my breath was taken away again). I could complain about the ‘implausible planning syndrome’ at work in one part of this film and at least one very unlikely coincidence, but these things must be forgiven of a film that is a work of art reflecting on Middle Eastern violence in a profound and poetic way. An easy ****. My mug is up and this time its contents are delicious down to the very last drop.


Thursday, 14 April 2011

Limitless


I'm cheating today. Sorry.

I saw Limitless last night and wrote an extensive review for Media Matters (Third Way Cafe). As soon as my review appears online (soon), I will put a link here to that review.


In the meantime, I will say that Limitless starts very well and at the midway mark I was still completely engrossed. But the second half deteriorates quickly and the film ends very badly. Because of the intriguing premise and good first half, I am going to be very generous and give Limitless ***. My mug is up but while those first sips were tasty, the rest got cold way too fast and what's left on the bottom is best left to your imagination.


Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Espion(s)


This is one I’m sure you did not get the chance to see in a cinema. It’s a French spy thriller of the Hitchcock variety written and directed by Nicolas Saada. Given that this is his first film, Saada shows great promise.


Espion(s) may be a French film, but it takes place almost entirely in London, so half of the film is in English. It’s about an intelligent young man (played perfectly by Guillaume Canet) who gets in trouble with the French authorities and is given only one way to avoid prison or worse: work with the French equivalent of the CIA and their British counterparts in MI-5 to uncover a Syrian plot to smuggle explosives into Europe. The thriller plot of Espion(s) feels like a mediocre TV show. Indeed, the BBC show Spooks (known in North America as MI-5) is generally far superior in plot development. So if Espion(s) was just a thriller, it would be a dud.


Fortunately, Espion(s) is much more than a thriller. At its heart, Espion(s) is a romance, a unique romance that is deftly handled by the director and beautifully performed by the two leads (Canet and Geraldine Pailhas). Both of these characters are sad lonely people shuffling through life without purpose. They are not just looking for connection but something more profound. But they are brought together in a way that guarantees deception and betrayal and all that good stuff, so this is a romance that is doomed from the start. The unsensational way this is filmed is very unusual (and Hollywood wouldn’t have a clue where to even start), making Espion(s) a superior drama even as it fails as a thriller.


I should mention that the acting is very good all around, with important supporting roles played by Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife), Alexander Siddig (Deep Space Nine) and veteran British actor Stephen Rea. The London cinematography is also well done.


So Espion(s) is a mixed bag and even the ending is both good and unsatisfying at the same time, depending on whether one is watching a drama or a thriller. Objectively, Espion(s) surely deserves no more than *** but you know how much I like slow-moving European suspensers where the emphasis is on characters and drama, so this is another film that just squeaks over the line to ***+. My mug is up.


Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Jack Goes Boating


Time for another independent comedy drama about two very lonely and socially awkward people finding a connection. Like Cyrus, Jack Goes Boating is very raw and very real and does not, in my opinion, qualify as a comedy. But Jack Goes Boating is not as quirky as Cyrus, it takes place in New York City, which I, unsurprisingly, fell in love with on my first visit last October, and the story worked for me in a way that Cyrus did not, so I enjoyed this film more than Cyrus.


Jack Goes Boating is directed by, and stars, Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the best actors out there. He is obviously also very competent behind the camera. While the role of Jack is not that different from others Hoffman has played (Happiness comes to mind), he is perfect for it. And Amy Ryan is superb as his girlfriend, Connie. The supporting cast is also outstanding (especially John Ortiz as Jack’s best friend, Clyde).


Jack Goes Boating is written by, and based on a play by, Bob Glaudini. It manages not to feel like a play though it explains why some scenes seem long. Maybe it also explains why this film is darker, more intelligent and more adult than Cyrus. The darkness comes from Clyde and his wife, who brought Jack and Connie together. At the same time that Jack and Connie are trying to develop their first serious relationship at the age of forty, Clyde’s marriage is falling apart. All four of the central characters in Jack Goes Boating are flawed and broken, and yet this film is an inspiring and hopeful story about friendship and overcoming all kinds of adversity and insecurities.


The film is also not without flaws, the biggest of which is how little we really get to know of these four characters before the present. And maybe it’s a little dry for an independent comedy drama (after all, I did’t find anything to laugh at). It probably only deserves ***, but I found Jack Goes Boating touching in just the right way and I am going to cross the line by a millimeter or so and give it ***+. My mug is up.


I’m going to try to keep up the daily reviews as long as I can, but I’m running out of films that are less than a year old, so I think I’ll review some of the more recent obscure DVDs that you might want to watch for.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Agora


Man with a big club in his hands, talking to an old man kneeling at his feet: “I am a Christian!” Smack, down comes the club on the old man’s head. “I am a Christian!” Smack! “I am Christian!” Smack!


That about sums up Agora, a film about 4th century Alexandria which few people bothered to see. Since there are few recognizable faces (Rachel Weisz is the major exception) and since the focus is on dialogue, not action, this is somewhat understandable, but if Hollywood had made it, I still think it would have been popular. Agora was written and directed by Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar, who made The Sea Inside, and it has the look and feel of a foreign epic made in the 70s or earlier. I’m not sure how much CGI was used, but the sets and extras looked pretty real to me and felt like something from the days when filmmakers loved making films about the early days of Christianity.


In those days, the protagonists were Christians. In Agora, the protagonist is Hypatia, a pagan philosopher (played by Weisz) surrounded by Christians. She is also constantly surrounded by men. Since female scholars were incredibly rare in those days, it is not surprising that Hypatia lived in a world of men. If only the film had stayed with Hypatia, making this the story of her life, as Amenabar originally intended. I think it would have been a far better (and far cheaper) film. But Amenabar let the setting influence him and allowed the film to get bigger and bigger until it was about the end of one civilization and the beginning of another. To me, that was a mistake and not just because of the recurring theme of religious violence. Like many of the epics of old, the film felt out of control and the acting (again, Weisz was the exception) and writing were not up to what was required to regain that control.


Pagans killing Christians, Christians killing pagans, Jews killing Christians, Christians slaughtering Jews. What fun! I heard the words of Jesus somewhere along the way but saw precious little evidence that the Christians of Alexandria at the end of the 4th century had any real idea of what Jesus was about. “If you believe in Jesus, you will be saved!” shouts one of the Christian leaders who later leads the slaughter against the Jews and tries to kill a Christian protecting Hypatia. When his friend asks him about forgiveness, noting that Jesus had forgiven those who crucified him, his response is: “Jesus is God. Only God can forgive; that is not something we humans are able to do.” The implication is that since we can’t forgive the Jews for killing Jesus, we have the right to kill them (please note that I am certainly not implying that the Jews actually did kill Jesus).


Among the Christian leaders who lived in 4th century Alexandria was Athanasius (later known as “the Father of Orthodoxy”). While he did not appear in the film, I saw the influence of men like Athanasius in the beliefs and attitudes of the Christian leaders who were in the film (in case there is doubt, this is most certainly not a good thing) and it is therefore not surprising that Christians at that time felt they could and should resort to violence to protect their faith. It is also not surprising that they would destroy the greatest library of the ancient world without a moment’s hesitation.


There were two notable exceptions to the violent Christians. One was a bishop by the name of Synesius, who was a friend of Hypatia’s and who went so far as to tell her that because she was such a good person, she was as Christian as he was, so why not let herself be baptized. Certainly closer to Jesus than those around him, but not quite there. Then there was that man who asked about forgiveness, who happened to be a former slave of Hypatia’s. He was another Christian who stood at Hypatia’s side late in the film, when she was accused of being a witch, and he, too, was not far from the Kingdom of God.


As you can see, I found much to think about while watching Agora. And I found the story of Hypatia, a brilliant philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, centuries ahead of her time, utterly fascinating. But the rest was too depressing and not really necessary for the story. Since ‘the rest’ was half of the film, I can only give Agora ***. My mug is up but there are too many contributions to the blend.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Despicable Me


I finally got to see this (it’s gorgeous on blu-ray in 2D). One of your top ten of 2010, eh? What were you thinking? Three little girls trying to melt a villain’s heart? As if. Come on. And what’s with all the bad guys in this film (come to think of it, are there even any good guys in the film?)? And what about how the baddies are treated? The evilest baddy is this giant with a low villainous voice, a real monster, but what happens to him in the end? As far as I could tell: Nothing! What’s that about? He didn’t have to get a bullet in the head, but he could at least have fallen to his death from his office window in The Bank of Evil (formerly known as the Lehman Brothers bank - ouch, what a zinger!). Then there’s his son, Vector (formerly possessing the apparently unfortunate name of Victor - mmm), a rather nerdish and likable villain who steals pyramids for fun. Okay, the filmmakers end up sending him to the moon (so to speak), but he’s dancing at the end of the film and you just know he is brilliant enough to find his way back to earth.


And then of course there’s Gru, the despicable villain at the centre of the piece, with his despicable minions, his despicable mad scientist, his despicable mother and his despicable dog. What happens to all these despicable creatures is beyond the pale, involving those supposedly innocent little girls mentioned earlier, but not one of them comes to any serious harm. Indeed, dare I say most of these villains are redeemed at the end. Don’t the filmmakers know this is playing against the rules? Wake up, guys!! Top ten, indeed.


What’s that? Not Disney, you say? Pity. I mean, what a relief. You can’t even predict the end of the film (well, you can, but at least it’s genuinely moving and thoroughly satisfying). The truth is that Despicable Me, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, has a wonderful if not exactly original story. As long as it is telling that story, the film works very well for me, with Steve Carell leading an excellent voice cast (bizarre accents aside). Where the film loses my attention is when it gets into stupid pain gags (including blasting Gru with enough firepower to blow up an army, which, like Wile E. Coyote, he is somehow able to walk away from). The minions seem to be designed as pain gag victims and they were not my favourite part of the film.


Nevertheless, Despicable Me is a humanizing, funny and altogether enjoyable animated film. Who’d have thought the best scenes would be the quiet ones in the girls’ bedroom at bedtime, but they were, at least for me. Despicable Me would not have made my top ten, but I do give it a solid ***+. Two mugs up on this one.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Cold Souls


What about combining an independent comedy drama with some sci-fi? Cold Souls tries to do that. It’s a 2009 film, written and directed by Sophie Barthes, that most people missed. That’s a pity, because, unlike Cyrus, this indie comedy drama has some truly hilarious moments (mostly in the first half) as well as some intense drama and it just generated a very stimulating discussion at my Friday film night.


Cold Souls stars Paul Giamatti as an actor named Paul Giamatti. One could say it shouldn’t require great acting to play yourself, but he does get to play himself without a soul and with someone else’s soul, so that would make it a little more challenging. In any event, Giamatti was a perfect choice for the role (it felt like it was written with him in mind).


Giamatti is rehearsing a Chekhov play (Uncle Vanya) when he becomes overwhelmed by his identification with his role. A friend refers him to a company that can extract and store his soul for awhile (long enough to finish the play) and the hilarity begins (David Strathairn is great as the company’s doctor/salesman/CEO). At first, Giamatti seems to enjoy his life more without a soul but things go downhill fast (e.g.his acting ability has disappeared along with his soul). Maybe the answer is renting someone else’s soul for awhile.


You get the idea. Much of Cold Souls also concerns the black market soul extraction business in Russia and the Russian woman who works as the “mule” bringing these altitude-sensitive souls into the U.S. Having almost a third of the film filmed in St. Petersburg in winter adds a unique exotic feel to the film which I enjoyed.


But what is Cold Souls really about? One of my film night guests described it as a parody of the bankruptcy of the American Dream. People have so much but it’s never enough. So they turn to drugs or alcohol or soul extraction. But all of these are focused on ‘me’, when the answer lies in turning the focus away from ‘me’ to caring for others. Cold Souls implies that such caring is impossible without a soul (makes sense) and that some souls are more inclined towards this than others. It implies other things as well, like the role of key memories in the make-up of the soul, but I have said far too much already.


Cold Souls has great cinematography, an original plot, and some excellent acting. It does drag at points and it really doesn’t do an adequate job of developing the ‘soul’ part of the plot, but it’s a lot of fun as well as moving and thought-provoking. ***+ My mug is up.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Cyrus


I thought I was returning to the genre of comedy drama, but Cyrus, in my humble opinion, does not qualify. For me, the attempt by Mark and Jay Duplass to label and direct this film as a comedy only detracts from what might have been a much better film if it had been labelled and made as a pure drama. (Walter, since you plan to watch this soon, you can skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know anything about the film)


John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei are perfectly cast as John and Molly, two lonely people who find connection and romance. But Molly has a 21-year-old son named Cyrus (played by Jonah Hill, also well-cast) living with her, a young man who was breastfed for years and then home-schooled (frankly, I resent the naive implications in these references) and has become a little too dependent on his mother. Fireworks are therefore guaranteed.


How all this plays itself out feels very raw and very real, with many awkward moments. Stylistically, Cyrus has the look and feel of a quirky independent film (which it is). This should impress me, but it fails to do so. And the low-key scenes which feel so real regularly have a greater dramatic impact than seems warranted. Because the film didn’t work for me as a comedy, I also found myself bored more than once (and Cyrus is a short film), but obviously some people think Cyrus is hilarious, so it may just be a matter of taste.


On the positive side, the acting was top-notch (Catherine Keener was great in a supporting role) and there were more than a few wonderful scenes in Cyrus (the last fifteen minutes alone made the film worth watching). But on the whole I was disappointed with the writing and the filming of this critically-acclaimed comedy drama. *** My mug is up but its contents are not as tasty as I had hoped.


Thursday, 7 April 2011

Source Code


While we’re talking sci-fi, here is one sci-fi film I would not hesitate to recommend to almost anyone. It’s a sci-fi thriller with just about everything, from moments of intense drama to a romance that does work to action/suspense to an original and intelligent if not quite logical sci-fi plot. And all with only a minimum of violence to keep it from being family friendly (it’s too intense for kids anyway). Source Code was only released here last Friday, so you should still have lots of time to go see it.


Unfortunately, because it is a new release and I am strongly recommending it to all readers, and because of the nature of the film, I cannot in good conscience tell you any more about it. The less you know, the better (avoid all reviews and previews and even reading headlines in the film section of your newspaper - you’ll thank me). This lack of knowledge about the film is all the more important because of the film’s biggest flaw - it’s somewhat predictable, even for a fairly original film. That can be a major problem for me, as regular readers will know, but not if the film, and especially the ending, is otherwise satisfying. Source Code was a very satisfying film.


Source Code was made by Duncan Jones, who made Moon, one of my favourite films of 2009, so I was not surprised that Source Code had both intelligence and heart, as Moon did. Like Moon it also asks questions about what it means to be human. For a thriller, there is much to think about here.


I was particularly impressed by Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in the lead role. I have always admired his acting skills and this could well be his best work yet. The three primary supporting actors (Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) were also very good.


I enjoyed Source Code from the opening scene to the final one and I really want to give it four stars, but I don’t think it was quite good enough to get there. I can forgive most of the predictability but my brain can’t forgive working so hard trying, and ultimately failing, to make sense of the plot. So for now it gets a very solid ***+ (it may be good enough to make my top ten of 2011 and I think it’s the first time I’ve written that). My mug is up and the contents very satisfying.


Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Cargo


Even if you watch a lot of foreign films, you are likely to give me a blank look if I ask you to mention some of your favourite Swiss films. And if I ask you to name even one Swiss sci-fi film, you will not be able to do so unless you mention Cargo, the one and only Swiss sci-fi film ever made.


Under those circumstances, and throwing in a very small budget, we have to cut the Swiss some slack. With low expectations, I therefore found Cargo surprisingly entertaining.


The film takes place (for the most part) in the confines of a space ship called Kassandra, which is taking its cargo to a storage facility near a distant planet four years away. The claustrophobic feel is palpable, especially when it is combined with a constant sense of impending doom (or at least an impending attack on one of the few crew members by an unknown killer).


The protagonist of Cargo is a woman named Laura Portmann (played well by Anna-Katharina Schwabach), a doctor who needs the money this eight-year trip will bring in so that she can join her sister on the idyllic planet Rhea (Earth has become uninhabitable in the 23rd century and those who can’t afford to escape to Rhea are crowded into space stations surrounding the earth).


Most of the journey is slept away in hibernation, but each of the crew is required to take a solitary shift on watch. Towards the end of Laura’s very boring final eight-month shift (outgoing), she discovers that something is amiss. Someone is on board who is not supposed to be, and as for the cargo itself, it is most certainly not what she thought it was.


Cargo is an Alien-like sci-fi film which relies heavily on the claustrophobic suspense to keep the audience engaged. The atmosphere is well-created and so for me it succeeded in this (others won’t enjoy this aspect of this rather slow-moving film). Nevertheless, the film has many flaws, like plot elements borrowed from a number of sci-fi films (it would give too much away to name them), less than stellar acting in a number of cases and a romance that just doesn’t work.


Still, as I said, my standards are lower for low-budget foreign sci-fi films, especially if it's in a foreign language I understand, and there were enough original ideas to keep me thinking, along with that ever-present suspense, so I give Cargo ***+. My mug is up even if the stuff inside is not of the highest quality.


Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Tamara Drewe


So, if I don’t like comedy dramas, why have half of my last eight reviews been about comedy dramas (if you include Tangled) and why do I have yet another comedy drama today? Fair question. Perhaps I’m looking for some really good comedy dramas to recommend to the many friends I have who prefer comedy dramas. If so, I should have known where to start looking - in my other home, the land that has mastered the art of comedy drama: the UK.


Tamara Drewe is a perfect example. Directed by Stephen Frears, this lighthearted drama (it’s not really fair to call it a comedy) is an eccentric yet down-to-earth tale about how life in the small Dorset village of Ewedown is shaken up when a young woman (Tamara Drewe) returns to her childhood home with a new, and much smaller, nose. It’s based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, which in turn was inspired by Far From a Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (who is mentioned regularly in the film).


But is the film really about Tamara, or is it about Beth, who runs a farm which offers a quiet retreat for writers, or Nicholas, her husband, who writes bestselling crime novels and likes to chase younger women, or Andy, the handsome farmhand who grew up in Tamara’s house and who was Tamara’s first love (while she was still known as “Beaky”), or Glen, the American academic staying at Beth’s farm while writing about Hardy, who has a crush on Beth, or, and this is my first choice, Jody, the bored fifteen-year-old girl who (with her friend Casey) likes to throw eggs at passing cars and has a huge crush on Ben, the famous drummer who falls in love with Tamara and moves in with her. Jody, with her desperate meddling, is the one who precipitates most of the action (and the tragedy) in the film.


Life in the English countryside: When Andy, who now wants to reconnect with Tamara, sees that Tamara has hopped into bed with Ben only hours after meeting him, he drives to the nearby pub to hook up in the pantry with Zoe, the barmaid, after which he complains to Zoe about Tamara’s behaviour: “She used to be so human. When did she get so shallow?” Zoe’s response: “Are you really going on about her now? Where are your manners?” Andy: “I’m sorry.” Zoe: “Bide your time.” (smiling) “You big prick.” Ahhh - this is comedy!


Tamara Drewe is not only a delightful, intelligent adult comedy drama, it is also gorgeous to watch and full of exemplary acting. Tamara is played by Gemma Arterton (known to Bond fans as Strawberry Fields in Quantum of Solace), who did such a great job as Alice Creed in the recent British thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed. She is very good here as well, but, as I suggested above, this is an ensemble film and all the acting is very good.


Tamara Drewe would not have made my top ten of 2010, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable and give it a solid ***+. My mug is up once again (keep in mind that, unlike film critics who do this for a living, I try to avoid watching films which are likely to get my mug pointing down). This film is not recommended, however, for those whose idea of a good comedy drama is The Hangover.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Trotsky


The Trotsky tells the story of a brilliant seventeen-year-old named Leon Bronstein who believes he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. For some bizarre reason, he also believes that part of this reincarnation involves reliving Trotsky’s life, so he has a list of nine things he needs to do, things like starting a revolution and marrying an older woman named Alexandra. When he fails to unionize the workers at his father (the fascist)’s company, he turns his attention to unionizing the students at his public high school in Montreal (while wooing an older woman named Alexandra).


I’m a rebel at heart, and in my rebellious younger years, I, too, fought for student rights in high school and college, so I have a great deal of sympathy for our protagonist. But I never believed I was the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky (or anyone else) and that is where The Trotsky loses its way. Of course, that is the central plot element, the hook that makes this Canadian comedy drama unique. Unfortunately, while it might have seemed like a good idea at the time (to writer-director Jacob Tierney), it doesn’t work for me (it obviously works for some, because The Trotsky won a 2011 Genie award for best original screenplay).


If this was a silly slapstick comedy, then maybe I could ride along on this crazy reincarnation train as Leon recreates Trotsky’s life, but it’s not. The alternative seems to be admitting the possibility, at least for a couple of hours, that this kind of reincarnation exists, and I can’t do that. So when a beautiful 27-year-old lawyer named Alexandra actually falls in love with Leon, it’s just not remotely believable. Neither is the way his sister and some of his classmates treat him. Or the way virtually everyone in the film treats him. They all act as if he’s just some misguided genius who naively thinks he can change the world instead of someone who is absolutely convinced he is Leon Trotsky and must relive Trotsky’s life, and who is therefore in serious need of medical attention. Like I said - doesn’t work for me.


Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in The Trotsky, including the fine supporting work by veteran actors Colm Feore, Saul Rubinek, Genevieve Bujold and Michael Murphy. As comedy dramas go, this is better than many I have seen in the past decade or two, and it’s very much a Canadian comedy drama, which is generally a good thing (to me). And its heart is most definitely in the right place. So all you comedy drama fans out there (sorry, I am not one of you) could do a lot worse than picking up this lesser known flick, keeping in mind the language warning. As for me, I give it a solid *** for effort. My mug is up but something inside doesn’t taste quite right.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Secretariat


I do not despise horse racing, though I am certainly not a fan. Back in my younger days, however, I was a sports fanatic and I watched Secretariat win all three races of the Triple Crown live on TV. To this day, I can remember the thrill of watching Secretariat’s almost supernatural victory at Belmont, the one that made him the greatest racehorse that ever lived. I hoped that this film would recapture that magical thrill and that it would deserve the four stars Roger Ebert gave it.


Not that I went in with high expectations. Had I done so, I would have seen it in the cinema. No, I didn’t think it would be my kind of film and was prepared for disappointment. I got it.


Secretariat is a well-made film by Randall Wallace. Everything about it, from the acting to the cinematography to the score to the writing and direction, was adequate. But nothing about it was outstanding, the way Secretariat the horse was outstanding. They tried to make the horse seem special, almost human. But it wasn’t enough. It was all done in too much of a matter-of-fact style. Even the races themselves were filmed in a low-key way rather than in a way that could generate the thrill I felt watching it live. There was a taste of the wonder generated by Secretariat in the filming of the last race, but only a taste.


On the other hand, I appreciated the fact that the film didn’t sensationalize everything the way many films of this story might have done. So maybe there was no way I could have been satisfied. As for Roger, I can’t figure out where his four stars came from if they did not have something to do with his friendship with the writer of the book, because I did not buy his arguments of the film’s greatness.


Secretariat was a good film of a good story. It just wasn’t a winner. Or maybe I’m gradually losing my taste for Disneyesque films. *** My mug is up but once again the stuff inside isn’t strong enough for my taste.